Editor’s Note: A bonus mid-week story to celebrate the leap year. Leap in to FFJ’s new website and explore the stash on display. Also Save 15% on any order of FFJ Anthology, present & past issues, using the code “LASSO” valid till 4th March 2012.
Synopsis: Art and the Artist move independently and the spectator is caught amidst the chaos.
About the Author: Jeff Poole’s stories have been published in print, and e-zines. This tale originally appeared in Downstate Story, a midwestern magazine which publishes midwestern writers. The editor liked the story, but asked if Jeff had ANY midwestern connection. He told her that he had a sister in Omaha; guess that was enough.
In this crime thriller, a regular fun shoot turns into vindictive rage and vengeance. Will our protagonist survive this artistic assault.
* * * * * * * * * *
I’m lying in a pit, inside a mine. I’m surrounded by bats and darkness with a dead guy lying on top of me. I can only see part of my surroundings, the part at the end of a thin beam of light from my pocket flashlight. I can’t see the bats but this is a mine in the southwestern U.S. so I know they’re here. I don’t know exactly where here is, except that it’s a mine somewhere outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
These old, abandoned mines don’t even have square entrances anymore. The openings are just two or three foot wide holes on the side of a hill, usually next to some old wooden buildings. The entryways offer no clue as to what’s inside: large, seemingly endless tunnels and stairways held together with old, rotting wood. I was stuck in a mine I knew nothing about with a pocket light, and a dead guy. I was in this mess because I’d pissed Morty Andrews off. I didn’t steal his money or mess around with his wife. I’d told him what I thought of him and he didn’t like it.
Morty was the worst kind of sensitive artist. If you’ve ever spent time in an artists’ town like Santa Fe you know exactly what I mean. He was the kind of man who’s very sensitive in regards to what’s said to him, but not what comes out of his own mouth. He held everyone else to a higher standard than himself. He could be excused for his transgressions because of his talent. It was just the price the world paid for his brilliance. Morty didn’t take criticism very well.
Morty had money. Not from his art, at least initially. He’d had it when he came to Santa Fe. No one knew where he came from, just that his family hadn’t been in Santa Fe the requisite four hundred years to qualify as local. I first met him at an art opening, in a gallery he owned. The first thing I noticed about Morty was his Santa Fe chic. He had his black hair slicked back, small, dark framed glasses, black jeans, a white shirt with a bolo tie, and he was wearing a black cowboy hat. He stood about five feet eight, and he had a uni-brow. If Morty’s face hadn’t been so fat it would have made him look sinister. As it was, he just looked like he had a giant caterpillar on his brow. His eyes were the only things menacing about him. They were golden brown, arrogant, intelligent and mean. He stared at everyone with a look of amused superiority. He reminded me of a smart pig.
I guess I took an instant disliking to the guy.
After being officially introduced I did my best to avoid him the rest of the evening. That first night Morty didn’t waste too much of his valuable time on me. He took a gander at my blue jeans, lanky frame and once white tennis shoes and wrote me off as a local gallery crasher, which I was. I wasn’t there to film his opening. I was just there for the free wine and cheese, and to meet pretty girls.
Eventually my line of work would throw Morty and I together. I make a living filming or photographing other people and their special moments. Need a guy with any kind of camera, Harry Carter is your man. I take moving pictures and edit those pictures into quaint vignettes. I make promotional videos for a lot of the artists in town when they have a major art opening. It can be a good living but sometimes it can be hard. Art openings are very stressful for artists. A lot of these artists have serious attitudes and a stressed artist with attitude is not a fun individual. If I feel that an artist has talent, the attitude is a lot easier to take and maybe I won’t overcharge them. Some artists have talent, and sometimes he’s just a guy who knows someone with money.
Morty was an artist who had money to begin with. Now the odds are probably just as good that a Rockefeller could be as good an artist as someone born poor, I won’t pretend to know. The difference is, someone with money can buy or influence a lot of people, and give himself a lot of exposure at high dollar functions. Garner appreciation through the green, so to speak.
Morty Andrews painted southwestern landscapes. I thought his paintings were decent enough, but I wasn’t overly impressed, certainly not as impressed as he was with himself. Morty’s paintings sold, but hell, these carved, wooden coyotes people make around here sell, but they still suck. Morty didn’t need the money, but he did need the praise. We all like to be appreciated for being good at something, but some people need it more than others. Morty Andrews really needed everyone to understand how important and talented he was.
I’d had contact with Morty after the night at the gallery but I avoided long conversations with him. As I’ve said I didn’t like him, but that wasn’t the reason I tried to stay away from him. I’d seen how vindictive he was. Morty Andrews didn’t forget slights. He didn’t write anything off, he wrote it down. Santa Fe was filled with people who’d had bad luck after crossing Morty’s line of acceptable behavior. Sometimes it could have been bad luck. I suspect money and favoritism or a few choice words in special ears might have helped some of the bad luck along. Morty had money and connections; with the law, local politicians and connections with people who did bad things. I didn’t want to get on his bad side. I didn’t need the aggravation.
Despite my best efforts I had done some work for Morty. Hell, why not? He paid well. Morty knew I didn’t like him but he liked my work.
He was under the illusion I had respect for his abilities and I never tried to alter that perception. I never bad-mouthed his work to anyone, he was a paying client and I owed him that. I paid close attention to what I said about Morty or any of my clients. I am a man in control of what I say. Even when I drink too much, I watch my mouth. Except for a few rare occasions, which have invariably come back to chew my ass like a rabid dog.
Two things happened which set events in motion that would lead me to the bottom of a mine shaft. I landed a job in Denver working for a local T.V. station, which meant I’d be leaving town, and my last gig before departing would be filming Morty trying his hand at performance art.
The “pieces” had been like most performance art: embarrassing, unpleasant or accidently funny, especially Morty’s “Waves Lapping at the Shores of Indifference” drama. It was all very difficult to watch, except for one performance. A woman named Fiona Felders had a very moving piece about domestic violence. Everyone, including yours truly was impressed, everyone except Morty. Morty couldn’t stand being upstaged by some woman who worked days as a clerk in the store where he bought his bolo ties, one of the few places downtown that hadn’t been turned into an art gallery. Morty pulled some strings with the owner of the store, and she lost her job.
I was pissed. So was everyone else. Morty didn’t care. He didn’t have to worry about those of us who lived here. People from out of state bought the art Morty sold.
A week later Santa Fe had its annual short video festival. Since I was leaving Santa Fe in a few weeks, and wouldn’t have any more dealings with Morty, I took an edited version of his “performance” from the previous week to the festival. I’d had quite a few beers before I went, so I was in rare form. The projectionist claimed to have no idea how the tape had gotten in the VCR. He didn’t even know where it had come from. It was the funniest thing at the festival.
Morty had sat at the front of the room looking evil, as I had announced, “This tape will become a part of Santa Fe lore! Twenty years from now, when people are stumbling across your paintings at local garage sales Morty, maybe they’ll come across copies of your attempts at artistic expression on the stage as well!”
I won’t go into some of the other things I said, but I spent a few days waiting for the beginnings of a lawsuit. Morty wasn’t going to let me off that easily. He had been humiliated and he wanted real blood.
A week later I drove to the outskirts of town to shoot some nature video, which is where the two thugs Morty hired found me. I had noticed their car behind me as I drove out of town but I hadn’t really paid much attention. They were pretty quiet. One minute I was looking through the view finder of my camera, and the next I’m waking up in the back of a four-by-four, wearing a blindfold, with my hands tied behind my back.
I couldn’t see anything but I could hear traffic passing by as I tried to work the ropes loose. The cars became less frequent. Then a few minutes later I heard the familiar sound of driving on a dirt road. We came to a stop and when they opened the back I faked unconsciousness. I heard two voices. Suddenly I was covered in cold water and spluttering.
“Wake up!” A voice said.
“He is.” replied another voice.
Voice number one said, “Morty wanted us to make sure you were conscious when we did our thing to you video boy.”
Adrenaline roared through me. If you’ve ever hit your brakes and nothing happened, you know what I mean, right up from the feet, through the yawning pit of my stomach to the tip of my scared-shitless nose.
Voice number two said. “Yep. I saw ya tense up there partner. You should be tense. If you knew what we were going to do, you’d be crapping in your pants.”
Strong hands grabbed my coiled and panicked body and dragged me out. A fist hit me in the gut. I never saw it coming because of the blindfold. I’m in good condition, and I was pretty hopped up on adrenalin, so it hurt but it didn’t knock the wind out of me. The fist to my mouth, however, split my lip and broke my bridgework. Then someone smacked me in the eye knocking the blindfold down.
“You’re in good shape dude.” Voice number two said, “That just means we’ll have to beat on you a little longer.”
They hadn’t tied my feet, so I tried to stand up. I could see voice number two, a wiry short little guy, and he kicked my feet out from under me. I would have landed on my knees but he made sure I landed on my back instead. While I was lying on the ground wiry guy grabbed the blindfold which was now hanging around my neck, and dragged me around. I gagged and they snickered but I’d kept working on the ropes binding my hands. It had been late afternoon when I’d driven out to the countryside, and now it was dark. I looked up at the clear night sky and the endless stars and tried to think clearly. I could hear but not see voice number one until he came around in front of me and kicked me in the cujones.
As I squirmed around on the ground in pain, voice number one, a big guy with bad teeth and a nose ring moved into my range of vision. I thought, “What a stupid thing to have in your nose if you’re someone who gets in a lot of fights,” of course I didn’t voice the thought.
I was lying on my back gasping. The smaller man started dragging me by the scarf around my neck again. I was on my back dragging my hands and it helped to pull the bindings off. I held on to the ropes so neither would realize my hands weren’t tied any longer. The big guy told the little guy to go get a stick; they were going to poke me with it he said. The little guy dropped me in the dirt. When he moved away, I jumped up and ran like hell.
I could hear one of them cussing, and I chanced a look back. I saw the little dude coming on strong and the larger man laying down holding his leg. He’d tripped on something and was in serious pain. The wiry guy didn’t seem to know it. I stopped when he got close and drove my foot into his knee. He went down and I stomped on his neck in fear and rage. He wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Then a bullet hit the tree I was standing next to. What a drag, the larger fellow had a gun. I was off and running again. As I came out of some brush I saw buildings in the partial moonlight. I ran for them but as I got close I realized they were empty. Of course, these yahoos wouldn’t take me where there were people.
I ran by a sign on an old building that said Golden. I knew where I was now; an old abandoned mining town outside of Albuquerque. I’d shot some footage here before, but I’d never entered any of the old mines, only an idiot would do that. I headed for a shaft. It was all I could think of at the moment. I saw a mine entrance and crawled through. I pulled my penlight out of my pocket and turned it on. The entrance opened up into a large room with a tunnel running to the right. I only had a few moments to make a decision, so I ran down the tunnel. I heard someone coming to the tunnel entrance as I came up to another opening on the left side of the tunnel I was in. I turned into it, stopped moving and clicked off my penlight. It was like someone had spray painted my eyeballs black. There’s no way to describe the darkness of a mine if you’ve never been in one. You’ll find no darker place on earth, except maybe the grave.
If they didn’t have flashlights they couldn’t come in here. I decided I’d make my way on hands and knees in the dark. It was a dangerous move but I didn’t see any alternative. I put my penlight in my pocket and started crawling.
A few feet later I realized I was on wood. I heard it creak for a moment and then I dropped into darkness. I remember hitting my head, being dazed and thinking about how much noise I must have been making as I crashed through old wood. Then I hit the ground, and the darkness enfolded my consciousness as well.
When I woke up I felt something lying on me. I didn’t move. How long had I been here and where were those guys? After I’d gathered my wits I touched whatever was on top of my stomach. It was someone else’s leg. I moved it aside and pulled out my penlight. I aimed it in the general direction of where I thought the rest of the body was and briefly flashed the light. No sense in notifying anyone as to my location. In the brief flicker I saw that it was the big guy. He was dead
Taking inventory I was reasonably certain nothing was broken. How far had I dropped and where was the gun the guy lying next to me had been shooting at me? Where was the wiry dude?
I consoled myself that I was infinitely better off now than I had been a short time ago. Instead of being a tied up, blindfolded piñata, I was a dirty, dusty blind man with no real idea where I was.
Which is where we started.
These old mines are filled with a powdery dust. I felt like I’d been dipped in dirt, and dirt is all I could smell. My mouth was so dry that my tongue felt like a wooden ladle clacking around in my mouth.
I thought about my options. If I turned on my light for any length of time, maybe the other guy was up there somewhere with a gun, and he’d shoot me. Or I could crawl around in the dark until I perished of thirst or fell into another shaft?
I said the hell with it, pulled my penlight out and surveyed my immediate surroundings.
I was at the bottom of a shaft about fifteen feet deep. There was another tunnel branching off to my left and a drop off a few feet to my right. I shone my light down it, and I couldn’t see the bottom. A few feet had separated me from life and death.
I double-checked to see if the big guy was dead. I wanted to find his gun, and to get his wallet. I wanted to know who he was, and if I got out of here, so would the cops.
Why had the fall killed him and not me? I could only assume he’d struck his head harder or simply landed badly. I couldn’t find the gun. It must have gone over the edge. Pulling his wallet from his pocket I opened it and shown the light on his driver’s license. His name was Jimmy Dalton. He didn’t have his nose ring in the picture on his license, and was wearing a grateful dead T-shirt. I thought deadheads were mellow. Ol’ Jimmy must have been a closet Kiss fan.
I turned the light off and listened for sounds. Hearing nothing I decided it was time to move. I couldn’t climb back up the shaft so I had to go down the tunnel next to me. I got up slowly, I wanted to be sure my legs wouldn’t fold, turned the penlight on, and shuffled slowly forward. I had walked for less than a minute when I came to a bend and saw light ahead of me.
I was feeling lucky. I could literally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The moon hadn’t been full so I wondered why the light was so intense and as I neared the entrance I realized it was daytime.
As I approached the opening, I turned off my penlight and moved as quietly as I could. I approached the light with a weird combination of dread and elation, and peered at the landscape without sticking my head out of the entryway. No one was in sight. I could see low bushes, abandoned buildings, and what I thought was the entrance I had used last night. It was off to my left about fifty feet. No one was in sight and no cars either. The little guy must have been well enough off to drive. And to go get Morty? A small bird landed by the opening and chirped. I didn’t know what kind of bird it was, it was a black thing with white markings, but at that moment I couldn’t remember ever having seen a prettier bird. We looked at each other for a few moments.
A rock landed next to it and it fluttered off.
“Go away bird.”
It was the little guy’s voice.
If I hadn’t taken time to contemplate that bird, I’d have been history.
He must have moved the truck, and then hidden next to the entrance. He wasn’t out in plain site or close to the entrance or the bird wouldn’t have landed there. He would have positioned himself so that he could watch both entrances. Could I peek out and see where he was? That would be too risky. I had to sit and think about what to do. I couldn’t panic; I had to keep my head I told myself. Christ! Thirty seconds ago I’d been elated and ready to begin my weary trek to the highway. Now I was sitting in the dusty darkness with another desperate situation to deal with.
Then I heard the rocks sliding and I realized he was coming down to the entrance, probably to shine a light down the tunnel and see if I was in here. I’d have one chance. I couldn’t see anything near the opening to pick up and hit him with so I just coiled up to spring at him as he looked in.
He came to the opening and started to shine a light into it. I launched through it right before the beam of light hit me. I hadn’t planned it but my head drove right into his face. I was bigger, desperate, and had the jump on him. I hit him until he stopped moving. With last night’s bruises and today’s ass kicking he looked pretty bad, but I didn’t bother to check if he was dead. I found his keys, took his gun and started stumbling around looking for his car.
I found it behind a bunch of piled up lumber. A yellow four-by-four, an ugly freakin’ truck. Maybe I was just biased against the owners. I was happy to see my digital camera on the front seat. It seemed like a long time ago that I had been out trying to shoot nature footage.
I climbed into the cab and asked myself what the hell was I going to do? I started looking around for anything to eat or drink, and found a canteen and a cell phone. So now I could call someone. I started taking huge gulps out of the canteen. It made my mouth hurt. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw myself for the first time since this started.
Dirty, sweaty blonde hair matted and plastered to my head. I had a black eye and my mouth was a mess. Swollen lips and when I grimaced at the sight of myself, the gap where my bridge had been made me look even worse.
Then the cell phone rang.
I thought about it until the third ring, and then I picked it up. It was Morty. He said hello a few times and I listened without speaking.
“Dalton?” He said. “Answer me. Did you find Carter? Yo? Dalton? Dalton, can you hear me? Listen; if you find Carter don’t do anything. Wait till I get there!”
I could tell by the sounds in the background that he was driving. What was I going to do when he got here?
“Goddammit Dalton! I’ll be there in a few minutes. Connection must be screwed.” Then he hung up.
He was taking a chance showing up here. You’d have thought he’d be more careful but he was an arrogant guy. He probably figured he had enough money and connections to get away with anything. He probably did.
I checked the gun to see if it was loaded, it was. I could still see the little guy up on the hill. He was in the same place I’d left him. I was sitting in a dead man’s truck, maybe two. Was he dead? Should I walk up the hill and put bullet in him to make sure? Do I move him out of sight and wait for Morty? Maybe I just get the hell out of here. I’d been incredibly lucky. Then again, most of the luck I’d been having had to do with me keeping my head, and not quitting.
Even if Morty found a way out of this with his money, he’d know I might have something on him that could come back to haunt him. The next time he’d send someone good, and I’d be toast. What could I do about it? I wasn’t a killer. I could take my chances with the law getting Morty. That was the smart play. For most of us that’s our only play. Maybe being rich wouldn’t help Morty. Maybe the political ties, shady connections and large infusions of cash wouldn’t make a difference?
I went up to where the little guy was lying, asking myself while I slowly walked up the hill what I was going to do if he was still breathing. He was dead. So maybe I was a killer. I moved his body into the mine entrance where Morty wouldn’t see him when he drove up, and then parked the truck near a dilapidated building. I figured Morty would pull up next to the truck and I’d come out from behind the building. After that, I had no idea what I’d do.
As I leaned against the old wood building, I realized how tired and sore I was. Everything was starting to throb. I watched the road through a split between two old boards. I stood behind the building, holding the gun in one hand, and drinking the rest of the water in the canteen with the other.
After about half an hour I saw a Mercedes come around a bend in the road. As it neared the dirt turnoff to where I was, it slowed and turned. I could see Morty in the driver’s seat. He did just what I wanted, and drove right up to the ugly yellow truck. He didn’t see me until he got out. He looked at the gun then he looked up at me.
“You look like shit.” He said.
“Yeah, taking a pounding will do that to a guy. You on the other hand, came out of the womb looking like a rat’s ass.”
He looked at the gun again, and crossed his arms before leaning back against his car, “Where’s Dalton and Fisk?”
“Fisk was the other guy’s name? I hope you guys weren’t close. You’re not going to be seeing either of them again.”
“No great loss. They were cheap hoods, low bidder and all that. In retrospect, I should have known better. I’m glad you got away.”
“Uh huh. I’ll bet you are.”
I had to hand it to him. He was calm. Maybe he thought I didn’t have the guts to shoot him. Maybe he was right.
“That’s why I’m here.” Morty said as he stepped away from his car. “I didn’t think you had it in you. Being able to act so ruthless and all. I was on my way out here to save your ass. Looks like you did fine without me.”
“I’ll be even finer permanently… without you.” I told him. “I’ll admit it’ll be a little hard to shoot you in cold blood, but I think I can manage it. You sent two guys out to kill me because I made fun of you? What the fuck is that?”
“It’s what I do. I don’t apologize for it. I’ve had to be ruthless to survive. It’s become second nature for me.”
“I don’t want your apologies. Goodbye Mort.”
He didn’t even flinch. I had been steeling myself for this. It was shit or get off the pot.
“Can I show you something first?”
I was wary and impressed. Morty might be a first class asshole, but he wasn’t a coward.
“It’s not a trick.” He said. “What I want to show you is on the front seat.”
I motioned him away from his car, “Get on your knees and put your hands on your head.”
Morty knelt on the ground, the distaste at getting his pants dirty showing on his face, and put his hands behind his head.
I opened the car door and saw a small gray suitcase on the seat. Keeping my eyes on him, I pulled it out of the car, and set it down in front of Morty. The suitcase had a simple latch. I flicked the latch, and then opened it towards Morty, just in case. It contained the tape I’d made of his performance.
“Some friends of mine saw it.” Morty said. “They thought it was some seriously funny shit. A lot of people are calling it brilliant. With my connections, I can turn this into something. You’re a natural at editing comedy for effect. I’ll also give you a lump sum for the small inconvenience you’ve had to suffer through. I’ll pay you one hundred thousand dollars to keep your mouth shut”
He was silent for a moment as what he’d said sank in, “And you and I work together. We’ll both make a lot of money. It’ll also help me to sell my paintings.”
We faced each other in the afternoon heat; the wind came up and blew his cowboy hat off. He didn’t seem to notice. Morty knelt in the dirt looking up at me, saying nothing, cocky and certain I wouldn’t turn him down. He was betting his life on it. This guy had tried to have me killed and I hated his guts. He was asking me to forget all the crap he’d put me through for a few lousy bucks. Ok, for thousands of lousy bucks. I have to admit, it was a tempting offer. I stood there, with the gun in my hand, wondering what to do.
It’s been a year and a half since my little episode in the mine. I live in Denver now, but I work in Santa Fe half the time. I do freelance work in Colorado and make periodic trips to Santa Fe to work for Morty. It’s a very profitable and fulfilling arrangement for us both. I shoot and edit film, and make Morty look ridiculous. It’s a labor of love.
During one of my monthly trips to Santa Fe I started up a relationship with Fiona Felders, the performance artist that Morty screwed over. She’s become quite popular and successful in her own right. Fiona can’t stand Morty. She wonders how I could work for an asshole like that. I tell her what the hell. He pays well.
**** THE END ****
Copyright Jeff Poole 2012
Image Courtesy: Ebenezer