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Till Death Do Us Part-Fiction by Justin Swartz
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Out of My Skin-Poem by Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal
The Terrible Shadows-Poem by Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal
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The Old Routine of Dreaming and Blasting-Poem by Bradford Middleton
F**K It, Let's Listen to the Ramones-Poem by Bradford Middleton
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Wandering Woman-Poem by Ayaz Daryl Nielsen
Winter's Twilight Sky-Poem by Ayaz Daryl Nielsen
You, I, Together-Poem by Ayaz Daryl Nielsen
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He Paid For-Poem by Judith Partin-Nielsen
Winter Woman-Poem by Judith Partin-Nielsen
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Angel of Manslaughter
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No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

84_ym_tilldeathdouspart1_lthomas.jpg
Art by Londyyn Thomas © 2021

TILL DEATH DO US PART

 

By Justin Swartz

 

 

Killing 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.

          The name's Ace, 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.

It 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.

          Maybe 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. 

          One humid Friday 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.  

          As I was 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.

          "You need something, mister?" I asked as I approached.  The guy jerked, startled, and whacked his 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 works!"

          "You're a Brit?" I asked, knowing that the question was almost rhetorical.

          "What, did my accent give it away?" the guy shot back.  He glanced at the Yugo's engine.  "Do you know anything about these?"

          "A good bit," I said.  "My wife has one she refuses to get rid of."

          "They're nothing but shit," the Brit said to me.  Then he turned to the Yugo.  "You hear me?  You're a piece of shit!"

          "They're good in the snow," I told him.

          "Snow?!" he replied incredulously.  "It doesn't snow in California!"

          "Hey, that's 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."

          "Ace 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 first clue. 

          "There's a fifty with your name on it if you can get this thing running again," Roger explained. 

          "Go inside—it's 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, the 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.

          "Hey, Ace," Clarice said.  "Something on your mind?"

          "You," I said with a grin.  "What're you doing out here?"

          "I brought 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 deceive me?"

          I laughed.  "Nope.  It's an honest-to-God Yugo, just like yours."

          Clarice noticed the resemblance.  "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," she whispered softly.  "What's wrong with it?"

          "Can't 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.

          "What's the verdict, Ace?" Roger asked.  "Is she dead?"

          His question caught me off-guard.  For a moment I thought he was referring to Clarice.  Then I realized what he was referring to.

          "My wife's taking a look at her now," I told Roger.  "Her Yugo looks just like yours."

          "No shit?" Roger said.  "Same color and everything?"  I nodded.  "That's unreal."

          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 had prepared and felt guilty for not sharing it with him.

          "You get many customers up in these parts?" Roger asked between chews.

          "Enough to 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.

          Clarice entered the station and wiped sweat from her brow.  She had some grease spots on her hands and one on her sundress. 

“Sparkplug 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."

          "There are 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.

          "You're unemployed," my wife said matter-of-factly.

          "For the 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."

          "You're a little out of the way for Vegas, aren't you, Roger?" I asked in a hard tone.

          "I may have made a wrong turn here or there.  I'm hell with maps."

          "Get a GPS."

          "Can't afford one."

          "Huh!  Story of my life," Clarice interjected, jerking a thumb in my direction.  "This one won't buy a GPS because he thinks he knows everything."

          "Excuse me?" I said.  "When we got lost that time in Twentynine Palms, didn't I get us home?"

          "After you drove past that junkyard six times?" Clarice retorted.  "Yes, I suppose you did."

          "Then we don't need a GPS."  I nodded to Roger, and that settled the matter.

          "You 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.

          "Stranger in a strange land," Clarice muttered.  "What's his name?"

          "Roger Bedard, he says."

          "Really?"

          "Really."

          "He just drove up here and you decided to help him?"

          "He said he'd pay me fifty bucks if I could get his Yugo started again."

          "Seriously?" Clarice glanced out the front doors at Roger's Yugo.  "He's jerking your chain."

          "How so?"

          "Because there's no wallet in his back pocket."

          "Maybe it's in his front pocket, Clarice."

          "If it was, then it would bulge.  He's not bulging."

          "Good to know," I said with a grin. 

          Clarice smiled back.  "Are we going to have that lunch or what?"

          "Let's have 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. 

          Roger returned 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 key. 

          "Something important in there?" I asked.

          "Yeah," 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.

          "Ace, it's the police," she said quietly.  "What do they want?"

          "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.

          "Oh, nice 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 to Clarice, 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 life. 

          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 speak.

          "Ace, I'd 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."

          "Sir, we're 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 station."

          "Could you speed this up a bit, Massey?" Roger asked, impatient. "I'm getting old just listening to you."

          "Can it!" Steele, the clean-shaven one, shouted.  "I swear, Bedard, you so much as flinch and I'll plant one between your—"

          "That's 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 conspiracy." 

          "The problem 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, sir?"

          “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."

          "What are you two fuckers gonna do?" Roger asked, jerking Clarice closer to him.  "Shoot me?"

          "For 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 doors.

          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 morning.

Massey and Steele lowered their weapons and turned to look at me.  They were dazed and a tad perplexed. 

          "You dumb son of a bitch," Steele said, lifting his Glock toward me.  "Now we have to kill you too."

          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. 

          "Wow," 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 behind him. 

          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.

          "Shit," 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. 

          Clarice had 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.

 

END


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Art by Londyyn Thomas © 2021

Justin Swartz grew up near Pittsburgh, and now resides in south central Pennsylvania. He has been published in Gary Lovisi's Hardboiled and in the e-zines Yellow Mama & Dead Guns Press. You can read more of Justin's work here: lastgunsmoking.blogspot.com.

Londyyn Thomas resolutely eschews any mythologizing of an artist and so avoids discussing personal life and relations.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications © 2021