An ancient radio was scratching out a Sousa march when Fern Smith unlocked the door of the seedy hotel room and found Donald posing in front of the cracked mirror with an AK-47 held at a military angle across his chest and a bandana knotted around his mostly bald head. His long, thin neck merged into plump jowls, making his head an uncertain rectangle, with the wispy remains of his hair trailing around three sides. A hang-dog expression adorned the fourth side. His puny shoulders were jaunty and self-satisfaction gleamed from close-set eyes as he regarded the speckled image in the substandard mirror. Donald was neither tall nor short--though he could appear either, depending on where he belted his pants across his beer belly--so his attempt at Rambo fell sadly short of the mark.
Fern pushed the door closed with her shoulder and dumped the sacks she carried onto the lumpy surface of the less-than-double bed. When she snapped off the radio, her voice broke flatly into the sudden silence. "I still think we should have bought the Uzi."
Donald froze like a deer in headlights, then spun to face her. He grabbed the bandana and stuffed it in his back pocket, then produced a wide, hopeful smile as he peered up at her, exposing the gap where his plates didn't meet his gums.
Fern was a tall woman, narrow everywhere but the hips, with stooped shoulders and long arms that made her look like a caricatured bird of prey. Her muddy gray hair, as wispy as Donald's, was drawn up in an off-center bun. Her narrow mouth, having long ago given in to the force of gravity, sagged on either side of her pointed chin.
"I'm sure what Teddy said had nothing to do with the price." Fern's expression gave no quarter. "If you hadn't let Artie lay out the hit--"
Donald tenderly deposited the AK-47 on the dresser top, retrieved the bandana from his pocket and rubbed his fingerprints off the AK's. "His tab, his call."
Fern's sigh was silent, but it ruffled the back of what was left of Donald's hair as she reached around him to pick up the photograph of the target. She studied the face. There was something about her eyes, something deep in the mysterious green slits barely visible beneath drooping lids, that made Fern nervous. She tossed the picture down beside the gun.
"His way overdue tab, don't you mean?"
With a triumphant look, Donald pointed at something behind her. She turned and examined the beat up shoebox sitting on the table, its mailing label directing it to Reggie Seymour at a New Orleans address. With some reluctance she lifted the lid and found neat rows of envelopes also addressed to this Reggie. Inside one envelope was...
"A dollar bill?" She picked up the box, checked out other envelopes and found each contained a single dollar bill. "This is his down payment? A shoebox full of ones?"
Donald shifted his feet. "Ones or twenties, what does it matter as long as it's real?"
"No way there's half here--"
"He's good for it," Donald cut in, adding, "He's lucked into the perfect scam this time, Fernie. You should see him. Dressed to the nines, even has a Rolex watch. Said he'd cut us in on it. We pull this off and we can go to Disneyland in Japan if we want to! And that's just for starters."
"I thought marriage was his scam?" Fern tossed down the box with a snort of disgust. She'd never been able to see what all those women saw in Artie. "If he's willing to cut us in, there's more at stake than his new wife finding out about his other wives."
She wasn't surprised when Donald's gaze slid away from hers, though he tried to cover it by using his bandana to rub the stock of the AK-47.
"He's just had a spot of bad luck, that's all. He needs to move something before the wedding, but won't be able to if she comes--I don't know. It's complicated."
"With Artie it always is." Fern frowned. "Let's just forget the cut and take our fee--"
Donald twitched. Only once, but it told the rest of the story.
"He doesn't have it, does he?"
"He will. If we do the job." She raised a skeptical brow. He tried to trump her raise with a whine. "He's good for it," but his voice lacked the conviction. They'd both known Arthur Maxwell for too long. Of course, only an idiot stiffed a bopper. The fact that Artie was the biggest idiot she'd ever known, she tried to suppress.
A stray bit of sun found its way through a spot on the dirty window and fell across the polished AK-47. Fern gave another soundless sigh. A pity Donald had fallen so hard for it. There was no persuading him to take the cute little Uzi once he'd made up his mind. He was the hit man, so he got to choose the gun. It was even possible he knew what he was doing. It hadn't been that long since their retirement. She watched him hitch his pants up over his sagging belly, then swagger to the bruised cooler stashed in the corner of the room, his knee joints popping with each step.
"And when we're doing time--" she began.
"We done time before." He extracted a cold one, popped the top and took a noisy swig. At least he hadn't used his teeth. With their financial hopes riding on an AK-47, they couldn't afford to replace his plates.
Fern crossed her arms. "Not in this state."
He had to think about that for a moment as he ran down the list of places where they had done time. "Do you good to make new friends."
He sank into a sagging armchair and gave her a hopeful look.
"We got enough trouble with your old friends."
Donald scowled. "Don't start on Artie again--"
"I ain't stopped--" She shook her head. "You shoulda popped him the first time he poked his face in the door."
Why did Donald put up with him? What was the deal with men and their crib mates? Just because they pissed in the same pot, they had to be friends for life? Only bright spot, Artie didn't pop up that often because he was usually in stir making new friends. She'd feel more comfortable about the whole hit if she could just figure out why Artie wanted the Seymour woman out of the way so bad that he was willing to pay them to do it--if he paid them.
"I don't like it. Too much that can go wrong."
"It's not what I'd choose," Donald admitted. "But there's logic to it. Really," he insisted when she arched her brows again. "Drive-by isn't what I'd choose myself. But then, I've always liked the high ground." He took another noisy drink before adding, "I've had time to think and it's not as bad as it seems. First place, there's your element of surprise. Look how good the St. Valentine's Day massacre worked." He directed a triumphant look at Fern. "Taking someone out with a bang is a fine, old tradition."
He had to be joking, but a cursory examination proved her wrong.
"Come on, Fern. We can do this. You drive the car. I'll point the gun. It's what we do--"
"It's what we did--"
"When it's over, we're rolling in scratch."
She was familiar with the look in his eyes. A mixture of calculated entreaty and seedy charm, mixed with greed. She was too old to stop giving in to him--or to stop trusting his well-honed survival instinct. She sighed, trailing her finger the length of the AK-47. It was cool and smooth--like she used to be.
Hadn't she always done everything she could to avoid the dreary anonymity of her parents' lives? Their walk-up apartment in Dayton wasn't a mirror of her parents' suburban hell in Jersey, but there were similarities when she let herself see them. Bingo at McDonald's instead of bridge at the country club. The occasional bus tour with other down-and-out senior citizens instead of summers at the seaside. Her parents had never lived wild or gone somewhere exotic. They had always been content with the mainland U.S.
"Enough to go to Disneyland."