TILL DEATH DO US PART
By Justin Swartz
people isn't my idea of a good time, but you have no idea what atrocities
you're truly capable of until you have a reason to commit them...and my reason
was as good as any.
Ace Daniels. It makes me sound like I'm
Indiana Jones or some comic book hero.
My Dad named me Ace after a matinee serial he adored as a kid. I think
it was called Sky Ace or Captain
Ace. I can't remember. I can't
remember much of anything with all
the blood on the floor and this headache that's slicing my head to ribbons.
didn't have to be like this. That’s what
I keep telling myself. If the British
guy in the Yugo hadn’t pulled up to my station, and if I hadn’t gone out to
help him, and if my wife hadn’t shown up for lunch, and if the cops hadn’t come
in with guns blazing, and if the Brit hadn’t turned out to be a criminal, maybe
I wouldn’t be lying on the floor in a pool of blood with a bullet in my chest
and this headache that refuses to go away.
I should back up and start at the beginning.
The trouble is, I'm not sure where everything began...
I run a bus station in Baker,
California. Baker consists of hot sand
and prickly cactus. Our days will burn
you and our nights will freeze you. It
keeps a lot of tourists away, and that's how I like it.
afternoon, I was at the bus station cleaning the latrines, trying to wash the
old hard-water stains out of the toilet bowl.
The station was just small enough that I could run it by myself, and
it's not like anyone's going to take a job in the middle of Dirt Central for
less than minimum wage.
scrubbing away, I heard weary tires crunch against the sand outside the
station. I stepped out of the men's room
and glanced through the front doors and into the parking lot. A lime green Yugo
drifted up, the engine
coughing like a smoker who just needs a healthy dose of Robitussin. I wiped
my hands off with an old rag and
stepped into the scorching sun.
There was a guy,
mid-twenties, about one-sixty, with black hair that was matted to his head from
sweat, standing in front of the Yugo. He
had the hood up and was examining the engine like it was a dead body on a slab
at the morgue.
something, mister?" I asked as I approached. The guy jerked, startled, and whacked
head on the tip of the Yugo's hood. He
bent over and backed away from the car, cussing up a storm. His blues met my
grays and he frowned.
"Do I need
something?" he said in a K-Mart British accent. "You're damn right I need
something. I need a car that
Brit?" I asked, knowing that the question was almost rhetorical.
my accent give it away?" the guy shot back. He glanced at the Yugo's engine. "Do you know anything about these?"
bit," I said. "My wife has one
she refuses to get rid of."
nothing but shit," the Brit said to me.
Then he turned to the Yugo.
"You hear me? You're a piece
good in the snow," I told him.
he replied incredulously. "It
doesn't snow in California!"
what I tell the wife, but does she listen?" I said with a shrug.
The Brit gave me
a harsh chuckle. "I hear you,
mate." He extended his hand to
me. "Roger Bedard."
Daniels," I said, shaking his hand like a man should. Roger returned it with
one of those limp-fish
handshakes. That should have been my
fifty with your name on it if you can get this thing running again," Roger
air-conditioned," I told Roger.
"Get yourself a Coke and a candy bar out of the machines. I'll see what
I can do."
Roger patted me
on the shoulder as he walked past and entered the station. I stared at the Yugo's
engine and wasn't
quite sure if I remembered what I was looking at. I checked the oil, the filter,
anti-freeze, the fan belt—anything that could have made the poor car clunk like
that—and came up empty. Maybe I wasn't
using my head, or maybe this should have been my second clue.
A car horn beeped
in the distance and my wife Clarice's lime green Yugo, nearly identical to
Roger's, skidded to a stop on the sand.
She opened the door, slammed it shut, and stood there, looking at me
like we were still in high school and this was our first date.
Ace," Clarice said. "Something
on your mind?"
I said with a grin. "What're you
doing out here?"
you lunch," she said, holding up a brown paper bag. "Well, lunch for you and
me." She saw Roger's Yugo and her
face lit up. "Is this a desert
mirage, Ace? Do my wandering eyes
I laughed. "Nope.
It's an honest-to-God Yugo, just like yours."
the resemblance. "Well, I'll be a
monkey's uncle," she whispered softly.
"What's wrong with it?"
tell," I told her. "Think you
can lend a hand?"
She handed me our
lunch and came around to the front of the Yugo, rolling up imaginary sleeves
and adjusting an imaginary cap. Clarice
had been part of the drama club in high school and got accepted to a liberal
arts school once she graduated. She
never took one class, and that was probably my fault, because right around that
time we fell in love and moved to California.
I left Clarice
with her new best friend and walked back inside the station. Roger was exiting
the restroom, the last
swirls of a flushed toilet ushering him out.
I wondered if I'd have to scrub the bowl again.
verdict, Ace?" Roger asked.
"Is she dead?"
caught me off-guard. For a moment I
thought he was referring to Clarice.
Then I realized what he was referring to.
taking a look at her now," I told Roger.
"Her Yugo looks just like yours."
shit?" Roger said. "Same color
and everything?" I nodded. "That's
Roger walked over
to the soda machine and fed it a dollar and a quarter. A can of Coke tumbled
out with a
clatter. Roger took a step to the right
and fed the snack machine a single. A Snickers bar took the suicide dive into
the bin. Roger snatched it up and dug in
hungrily, like he hadn't eaten anything for miles. I looked at the lunch Clarice
and felt guilty for not sharing it with him.
many customers up in these parts?" Roger asked between chews.
stay open," I said, sliding behind the glass-enclosed ticket counter and
having a seat on a rickety metal stool.
The leather on the stool was torn and the padding had come out of it
years ago. It was one more thing I
couldn't afford to replace.
the station and wiped sweat from her brow.
She had some grease spots on her hands and one on her sundress.
wires," she reported. "Two of them are burnt to a
crisp." She glanced at Roger.
"I'm afraid you're stuck here with us for a while."
worse places I could be," Roger said, admiring Clarice's figure beneath
the confines of her sundress. That
should have been my third clue.
Clarice laughed a
little. "A Brit in California? What
do you do, star in movies?"
"A little of
this, a little of that," Roger said with a half-shrug.
unemployed," my wife said matter-of-factly.
moment," Roger replied, holding up an index finger, "but I've got a
gig coming up in Vegas that I'm trying to get to."
little out of the way for Vegas, aren't you, Roger?" I asked in a hard
"I may have
made a wrong turn here or there. I'm
hell with maps."
Story of my life," Clarice interjected,
jerking a thumb in my direction.
"This one won't buy a GPS because he thinks he knows
me?" I said. "When we got lost
that time in Twentynine Palms, didn't I get us home?"
drove past that junkyard six times?" Clarice retorted. "Yes, I suppose you did."
don't need a GPS." I nodded to
Roger, and that settled the matter.
know," Roger said as he stood up, "I think I may have left something
in my car. I'll be back in a
bit." He trotted out the door. The
door banged closed behind him.
a strange land," Clarice muttered.
"What's his name?"
Bedard, he says."
drove up here and you decided to help him?"
he'd pay me fifty bucks if I could get his Yugo started again."
Clarice glanced out the front doors at Roger's Yugo. "He's jerking your chain."
there's no wallet in his back pocket."
in his front pocket, Clarice."
"If it was,
then it would bulge. He's not
know," I said with a grin.
back. "Are we going to have that
lunch or what?"
it right now." I reached inside the
bag and removed two ham and cheese sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and
mayonnaise on them. My stomach gurgled
at the sight of the delicious offerings before it.
with a red backpack he was carrying by one strap. There were luggage lockers
along the far wall,
and he opened one, shoved the backpack inside, closed the door, and took the
important in there?" I asked.
Roger said coldly. "My underpants."
Clarice and I
exchanged looks. Roger's mood had gone
from one end of the spectrum to the other.
What had crawled up his ass and died?
The sound of
tires crunching against the sand drifted into the station again. This time,
Clarice went to see who it
was. An alarmed look passed over her
face as she turned to me with wide eyes.
the police," she said quietly.
"What do they want?"
me," Roger said, standing up and reaching to the back of his pants. "And if
you both cooperate, there won't
be any problems." Roger's right
hand returned to the front of his body with a Ruger .22 inside it. Clarice gasped
and backed away from Roger,
but Roger was faster than her, and faster than me, as he snatched Clarice by
the wrist and spun her around so her back was against his front. He shoved the
Ruger's barrel into Clarice's temple
as Clarice screamed my name, and by that time I had come around the side of the
ticket counter with a Beretta Silverhawk in my hands.
one, Ace!" Roger exclaimed.
"That's a really big shotgun!" He laughed.
"The problem is, you can't blow my head off without blowing your
wife's off as well!" Roger pulled
Clarice against him and I nearly shot them both. No, can't risk anything happening
I told myself. Just find out what the
man wants, and if it's in your power, give it to him in exchange for Clarice's
The front doors
opened and two middle-aged detectives dressed in suits entered. I'd never seen
the men before, but one was
clean-shaven and professional, while the other had a goatee and looked like he
slept on his couch. Roger turned to the
two men, and as they drew their Glocks, a shouting match ensued that threatened
to blow the roof off the station. I
didn't catch all the details, but eventually Roger emerged with the right to
like you to meet my two friends--Detective Massey and Detective Steele,"
Roger explained. "They're from the
Palm Springs Police Department. Tell Ace
why you're here, gentlemen."
sorry to have drug you into this investigation," Massey, with the goatee,
said. "We've been looking for our
friend Roger for the better part of a week, and the trail led us to this bus
speed this up a bit, Massey?" Roger asked, impatient. "I'm getting
old just listening to you."
it!" Steele, the clean-shaven one, shouted. "I swear, Bedard, you so much as
and I'll plant one between your—"
enough, partner!" Massey shot at Steele.
"I think we get the picture."
Massey kept his gun trained on Roger but turned his eyes to me. "Roger
was turning state's evidence
against a suspect we had charged with multiple counts of homicide and
with Bedard here," Steele spoke up, "is that in exchange for his
testimony, the district attorney released him on bail." Steele's eyes narrowed
to slits. "And you want to know how he made bail,
“Oh, just come
out and tell him already!" Roger groaned.
"The suspense will kill him faster than I will!"
"When one of
our boys in blue wasn't paying attention, Bedard snuck into evidence and grabbed
a bag of money we were holding for another case!" Steele was practically foaming
at the mouth,
his jaws snapping like those of a vicious pit bull. "Now our evidence is
missing, Bedard is free and clear, and frankly?" Steele cocked his sidearm.
"We've had enough."
you two fuckers gonna do?" Roger asked, jerking Clarice closer to
him. "Shoot me?"
starters," Massey said with ice in his voice.
My head was
spinning from too much information and not enough time to process it. I was
sweating in the air-conditioned
station, my hands clammy, my pits sticky, and my mouth as dry as the desert
outside the windows. If Massey and
Steele were here to kill Roger, then that meant they'd probably kill Clarice
and me too, since you can't leave any witnesses behind with things like
this. The fact that cops aren't supposed
to kill and their job is to uphold the law never entered my mind as Steele,
Roger, and Massey crept around the seats in the station and toward the front
I had to do something,
and I had to do it now. If Roger went
out that door with Clarice, I'd never share another lunch with her. If Massey
and Steele opened fire on Roger,
I'd never see that look Clarice always gave me, the look that was like our
first date. I couldn't let Roger kill
Clarice either, because if he did, then nothing would hold me back from sending
him to Hell.
I brought the
Silverhawk up and propped the stock against my shoulder. I cocked both barrels,
looked down the
sights, and found Roger's forehead. Massey and Steele were still arguing with
Roger, but their voices sounded like they were miles away. Everything shrank
to one great desire—the
desire to protect my wife, to keep her from harm, till death do us part.
My finger stroked
the trigger of the Silverhawk and a 12-gauge shell blew into Roger's face. Clarice
shrieked and hit the floor as Roger
stumbled, his face hanging off of his skull like a slice of lunchmeat, before
he tumbled to the floor as well, blood soaking the tile I had just cleaned that
Massey and Steele lowered their weapons
and turned to look at me. They were
dazed and a tad perplexed.
son of a bitch," Steele said, lifting his Glock toward me. "Now we have to kill
I took a step
back and to the side as Steele fired, his bullet breaking the glass enclosing
the ticket counter and sending shards all over the floor. I lifted my shotgun
and spent the other
barrel on Steele's solar plexus. Steele
reeled back, blood ejecting from his chest like confetti out of a piñata, until
he knocked over some chairs and sank to the floor.
Massey said. "You're not a bad
shot, Ace." He stepped toward
me. I stepped back. "Your name
is Ace, right?" I didn't acknowledge him.
"I'd say you've just about cleaned
everything up here." Massey kept
his Glock at his side as he spoke, his demeanor casual, his gait relaxed. "Roger's
dead, but then again, he
wouldn't have made it back to Palm Springs anyway." Massey took another step
forward. I held my ground. "My
partner's dead, but you see, he was
always a little trigger-happy, and truth be told? I'm glad he's gone. He was holding me back." Massey took another step. We were face-to-face and nose-to-nose
now. "So let's make one thing
clear, Ace—I like you...I like your style...but there is no way you're leaving
this place alive."
Massey lifted his
Glock. I lifted the Silverhawk. I
squeezed the trigger on instinct. Massey did the same. There were two loud barks of gunfire inside
the station, and then, Massey fell to one knee, dropped his Glock, and looked
Clarice lay there
on her stomach with Roger's smoking .22 in her pretty little hands. Massey coughed
up blood as his face drained
of all color.
he blubbered. "Killed by Mrs.
Ace." Then he slid to the floor and
never got back up.
As Clarice stood
up and ran to me, I could feel something burning below my heart that worked its
way up through my chest and into my throat. I vomited, realized it was blood,
and looked down at my shirt. There was a
bloodstain below my left pectoral, and the longer I watched the faster it
spread and the worse the burning became.
I fell into Clarice's arms and I heard her sobs of sorrow for her fallen
husband, don't go Ace, you're all I've got Ace, don't leave me behind, for the
love of God, don't leave me behind...
With my last
speck of strength, I squeezed Clarice's hand like a man should and nodded
toward the luggage lockers. She
understood and went to Roger's body, searching for the key to his locker. She
found it as little fingers of darkness
crept into the edges of my vision. I
couldn't move my head to see what Clarice was doing, so when she appeared above
me again, it would be the last time I would ever see her.
Roger's backpack in her hands. She
unzipped it as the darkness threatened to drag me down. The last thing I saw
was Clarice holding up
stack after stack of plastic-wrapped money.
I wanted to tell
Clarice, people will come for that money.
I won't be here to protect you. No,
honey, you'll do fine on your own. Just
take your little Yugo and drive. Buy a
GPS and go someplace where it snows.
Prove to me why you held on to that lousy car all those years. I'm sorry
we never got to have lunch
today. Today was a real mess, wasn't
it? Oh God, what a mess.
Just remember one
thing, Clarice. I love you...till death
do us part.