A man can live a lifetime in three months. He can fall so deep into a pit that the world becomes nothing but the sound of air rushing by. He can find a bottle of Jack and remember nothing for days afterward. He can hunt down a murderer, shaking up everyone from kids to prostitutes until a name gets dropped.
He can lose a wife he'd loved to a distraction and a friend that's damn near a brother. He can lose himself in a blind hunt for a demon disguised as a man.
A man can live a lifetime in three months. But he can't always come back.
* * *
The sun's baking the concrete when Ben finally leaves the station. The narcotics detective he'd come to see, an eagle-eyed Hispanic woman that he'd never met before, escorts him out personally and shakes his hand one more time. Her handshake is brisk and no-nonsense; the shake of a woman who's already proven herself in this male-dominated environment.
“Thanks again, Ben,” her voice has the roll of the Texan south, a little jarring with her looks. “Stay close, we might need you again.”
“Yeah, I know the drill.” The words are a little more bitter than he'd intended them to be. To distract himself, he plucks his sunglasses from where they hang on his collar and slips them on his nose, tinting the world in gray. “G'luck, Detective Ramirez.”
“We'll get him,” she promises and though he doesn't look back at her, his steps are a little lighter down the stairs than they'd been some two or three hours ago when Vince had dropped him off. Maybe he hasn't stopped believing in the system as much as he thought he did. Or maybe its Ramirez, with her lazy voice that belies a mind like a steel trap and a heart that beats solely to take down the bad guys.
Then again, he thinks as he hits the sidewalk and catches sight of Vince parked at a meter across the street, maybe it has nothing to do with the police or justice and everything to do with balancing. He lost Amanda and for a while there, he'd lost Vince too. But he's taken the steps to remedy the first. Won't bring her back and his heart still clenches tight when he thinks about that. Out of habit, he rubs his bare ring finger.
The day after her funeral, he'd taken his wedding ring off and sealed it away, unable to look at it for fear that he'd shatter that much faster. His finger is oddly weightless, like he'd pulled off more than a ten-carat gold ring. His last link to Amanda, besides his memories and a queen-sized bed he hasn't looked at, slept on or acknowledged in any way. He doesn't have that anchor anymore and even though he's considered putting it back on , he knows it won't be the same.
But its almost tolerable because the second part of that balance act is now flicking a cigarette butt out the window of an aged black El Camino and wearing mirrored aviators. Ben keeps his gaze on the sunglasses until he's faced with dual images of himself, both walking to the same point. He swings around the front of the car, checks the meter out of habit and then slides into the car. His ass sinks into worn, loved leather and he breathes.
“You got a quarter?” he says by way of greeting while pulling on his seatbelt.
“Probably.” Vince lights up anew, noses his glasses down to look at Ben better. “But we're leaving.” His glance is questioning where his voice is not. Even through the haze of smoke, sharp green eyes rake over Ben as if looking for visible scars.
Those eyes have been on him since this morning when he woke on Vince's couch with the faint taste of gun metal on his tongue and a tight, hot knot in his stomach.
It'd been a weird night to say the least. He slumps back in his seat, his knees crammed against the dashboard and open as wide as the car will allow.
“You're the driver, V.” His slacks bite into his thighs, protesting the way he's spread. An urge to keep his legs spread till the seams bust plays through his head. He meets Vince's mirrored gaze. “So drive.”
Vince blows out a thin line of smoke and rubs at his fresh haircut. It was really more of a trim, bringing thick brown hair, shot through with bits of gray, into order. “Drive,” Vince repeats and his mouth pulls to the side. Another drag is followed by a shrug.
The cigarette finds a home in the corner of Vince's mouth as he guns the engine. A quick, almost random glance out the window shows Ben the meter, edging back to the little engraved zero before Vine pulls into solid mid-day traffic and the meter blends in with all the others until he doesn't know which one is which anymore.
* * *
They hit the freeway closer to two and traffic's starting to lock up with the going home crowd. The windows are down, letting in air that still carries the hint of rain but its quickly being chased away by the ruthless, if fickle, California sun. Already, the city looks dried out by the reappearance of an unforgiving sun. By five, whatever traces of rain still in the air, if not gone earlier, will have been sucked away clean by humidity.
In fits and spurts, they leave city limits. The graffiti-speckled walls, overcompensating trees, and the shiny glisten of civilization give way to dried out farmland. Green flashes here and there – fields and shrubbery- and between one blink to the next, the cement barrier gives out to a mile-wide ditch that's just rough enough at the edges to be nature's creation. The four lanes break into groups of two, separated by the ditch. One set coming, one going.
Watching the cloudless blue sky through the window, with billboards popping up intermittently, Ben considers saying something. For all he knows, after last night's insanity, Vince is about to lob him off to some quack in the middle of nowhere. He can see it now; some plain-looking brick house with a neat little sign that'll say something like "House for the Mentally Stressed". The doctor'll look a little like Albert Einstein with a sneer-like smile. He'll call Ben his newest “guest” and Vince will stand in the doorway, smelling like cigarettes and home, promising to come back for him.
Gonna be here just a bit, kid. Get your head on straight again.
Ben's mouth twists as his stomach lurches, in both real and imagined pain. He'd go insane, he decides. He'd go absolutely fucking batshit if left somewhere like that to supposedly heal. He was almost there – to batshit level – yesterday, he knows it.
He's very aware that he's still teetering on the edge, pulled back only a fraction by Vince's determination to kill him first.
Vince doesn't lie. Not because he can't; everyone can. Not because he's bad at it either. Ben has a hard time thinking the guy's bad at anything. No, Vince doesn't lie because he doesn't see the point.
What's me telling someone they're not an asshole gonna do?
Ben remembers smiling, the clink of pool stick to pool ball behind him. What's telling them they are gonna change?
Nothing. So why bother in the first place?
Vince looks over, eyebrow cocked. With the aviators on, he looks just on the edge of badass. Or maybe that was the jeans and bomber jacket. Ben blinks back, hearing his own laugh still echo in his ears. It takes a second to realize he's not just hearing it back then but now. “I was thinking.”
The eyebrow climbs a little higher and Ben decides to elaborate. “About how you don't like to lie.”
“Ah.” He's not smoking now, one hand rests on the wheel. The other rests, calm and easy, on the gearshift. Vince is so damn comfortable in his own skin that Ben almost can't stand to look at him. Not when he's still a mess on the inside. Hell, on the outside too. “Not about not liking it. S'bout not seeing the point.”
“Yeah.” Ben leans back, staring out his window again. “I know.”
It's another mile of green-speckled brown and three separate billboards about a gecko and car insurance before Ben breaks the silence again. “V. Tell me you wouldn't...”
“Lie to you?” The hand on the gearshift shifts to radio and finds almost nothing but country. Radio goes right back off. “Defeats the purpose of what I just said.”
Which made actually asking easier. “Don't know where any crazy houses are then, d'ya?” It was just a thought, a half-delusional daydream but his heart drops down to one beat per second in waiting.
Vince taps the gearshift. “You think you need one?”
“I...” Ben's voice trails off. Until the last two or three minutes, the thought's never touched his mind. Why would it? Until Amanda's murder, he'd been a pretty sane guy. And after, he'd just gone into a dark place that he isn't quite sure he'll ever leave.
His voice drops against his will. “I still want to gut the sonuvabitch.”
The hand on the wheel rolls to the right, the car moving into the other lane with a restrained purr. They pass an RV towing a candy-apple red Jeep and slip back into their lane, just in time to avoid a U-haul attached to an ancient, cranky-looking Chevy. It takes all of three seconds then Vince's attention swings back on him, banked behind the mirrored shades but still somehow piercing.
“I'd dump you in a crazy house if you didn't.”
* * *
The only thing that sent Ben into that station was waking up with Vince's gun between his eyes. He remembers it, can still feel the pressure of the muzzle. He can almost taste it, cold black metal, the impersonal specter of death. He's seen probably thousands of guns and knives. The more frightening weapons were the everyday ones. Shoelace strangulation, a beating with Grandma's chunky golden candlesticks, a frying pan to the back of the head. The list went on.
Even still, nothing beat the icy inevitability of violence constrained in a gun. In his memories, he sees a grim-eyed Vince, hair mussed from sleeping, yesterday's jeans wrinkled.
You still wanna die? Gun cocking, the sound sharp and real. Because I'll pull the trigger and go right back to bed.
In the end, Ben knows it wasn't the desire to avoid death that made him give the negative. It was knowing the hell on earth Vince would suffer for pulling the trigger. He's been through that pain, knows the gut-wrenching pull of agony's fish hooks. He knows all about the way loss tears away little chunks of flesh and soul until inside and outside mesh in gory glory.
He can't do that to Vince. He can't bring that kind of suffering to another person he gives a shit about. But knowing and doing are two separate things. It's killing him worse than ever because he knows the dealer's face, knows where he lives and every inch of Ben's body, every cell and nerve, strain to extract an eye for an eye.
Bullet Chaser is the stand alone sequel to another short I wrote, long ago, called Russian Roulette. Well, almost stand alone. Maybe, one day, I'll put it up here too. But I love Bullet more for some reason. I've always wanted to finish it. And yet...and yet.
So I figured I'd put it up on HitRECord. Just to see if perhaps another soul, with a mind like mine or even better, not at all alike, can do something with it. Perhaps concoct a new first story that entwines with Bullet in a whole new way.
I suppose that would make it a collaboration but since I didn't really have any idea of what I wanted to see...free for all!
Created: Dec 23, 2010Scarlet Document Media