Friday, September 27, 2013

"Any place there's truckers, there's truck stops."

Another Friday!  I got in a bit of trouble last week for not really explaining the piece very well - at all, really.  Chock it up to literary aspirations.  I have no such pretension this week.  It's pure, unadulterated, uncompromising, and unashamedly pulp for today's short story.

I got the idea for it on a recent business trip when I received an email with the photograph of my waiting car and instructions for finding it.  I didn't write the story then because there was only a scene in my mind, not a real story.  Then I woke up in the middle of the night and remembered a novel I'd read by Piers Anthony.  "Now there's a good twist." I thought.

Company Man
By Jon Stark
September, 2013; 1193 words

I walked out of the terminal building of Garrett International Airport with my roller bag in tow.  It was a small place - three doors shared a wall in small lounge, each assigned its own gate number - and there was only one rental car company.

But I didn't need a choice.  There was vehicle waiting for me with the equipment I needed, a pre-programmed GPS, and a file folder with targeting information.

The sun was hot in Texas that time of year - you know, one of the 51 weeks that it isn't the middle of January - and a steady wind blew from the west like a hair dryer in my face.  It wasn't a short walk to the fire station where the truck waited for me, but it gave me a chance to settle into this place and make sure nobody was following me.

Not that I expected it.  My assignments were kept very secret.  I wasn't even sure who my control officer was.  I didn't really want to know.

The truck was a black Suburban.  I'd received a picture of it while stuck in Atlanta.  I always got stuck there and I thought perhaps the universe conspired against me.  Now I think that the airline system was so convoluted it wasn't possible to have a smooth even if the company tried to arrange it.

I drove out about 20 miles until I found my acquisition point - a Sonic located at an intersection that the mark was going to drive through.  I'm not supposed to call them marks but old habits die hard.

There was time, so I ordered food while I waited.  Sure enough, at 5:53 pm, the blue minivan of Rick Taylor turned down the road by where I was parked.  I followed.

The road took us into the countryside almost at once and there was no traffic.  I kept my distance but wasn't worried about being spotted.  I was a master of the loose tail - it was something of a speciality for me, part of how I landed this gig.  Besides,  I'd been in the same position before; when you think you've broken free from "the life" you don't look back.

The van turned down a long drive.  I stopped on the road to give them time to get settled.  Rushing now would just make it harder.  He'd be spooked because, no matter how much you swore you'd never look back, when you are in your own driveway you always look back.

That's why I'm here.  I looked back and saw the man sent to retire me.  When I was the mark.  It turned into a job interview and here I am.  That was 1963.  There have been costs.  You should not envy my wealth or prestige - or vocation - but it is far better than the alternative of an eternity roasting in the fiery pit.

The evening was dawning when I left the truck and began my trek to the house.  It was probably a quarter of a mile but in the wasteland of West Texas my view wasn't obstructed in the least and my only company were other slithering reptiles and coyote sneaking off on some errand much like mine.

I didn't knock.  I didn't break anything.  I just walked in.  He was sitting in the dinning room, drinking light brown liquid from a high ball glass with a single ice cube in it.  His wife was with him, her back to me, and she was talking.  It took a moment for her to realize he had stopped listening and was looking over her shoulder.

That's always the tricky part.  When they aren't alone but there's only a single mark.  I mean target.  Sometimes they see me.  Sometimes their mind won't comprehend me and I remain invisible.  Mrs. Taylor (the second one, according to my targeting package) saw me.

"Who are you?" she said.

"It's okay, Honey." said Mr. Taylor.

"It most certainly isn't."  She turned in her chair in an attempt to see us both.  I had frightened her, certainly, but her man wasn't the least bit concerned about seeing me.  I watched his hands.  The glass shook a little, but he wasn't making a move.

From another part of the house I could hear the sound of a children's sitcom.  A burst of real laughter carried into the room over the canned stuff that had been running since I entered the house.

"Your children are safe, Mrs. Taylor." I said.  She stood.  I watched her hands too.  I was in Texas.

"Get out of my house." she said.

He asked, "I suppose I don't have time to say goodbye?"

She looked at me with comprehension overdosed on apprehension.  She moved to stand beside him.  She-wolf.

"It's probably not a good idea." I told him.  "Doesn't make things easier for anyone."

He nodded then finished his drink.  "No need to put it off then."

He stood.  She rushed me then, no weapon but a woman's sudden rage.  She was very strong and angry.  She wasn't like us and her violence was desperate, clumsy.  No match for a company man like me.

I escorted Mr. Taylor to my truck.  Night was full on by then and we walked slowly, watching the stars blinking on.  He was philosophical, resigned but feeling the need to justify himself to me.

"I left that life behind me years ago."  he said.

I nodded.  This was normal behavior.  Most people didn't run from me.  Most people didn't fight it.

"My wife doesn't really know what I did.  I started fresh here."  He continued on with me in silence for a few yards.  "I suppose I should have told her."

"It might have helped."  I said.  "You might have been forgiven then."

He laughed at me.  "Like that ever happens."  But I watched it sink in.  "Does it ever happen?"

"It happens all the time." I said.  "I got waved off at the front door one time.  I had knocked, got the call, but never went in.  You just have to know the right guy."  I rubbed my arm where his wife had grabbed on to me.  "I think she could have made the introduction for you."

He pondered that.  "I should have told her."  A few more steps.  "Will she be okay?"

I thought about what he really meant.  Back in the house she was probably regaining consciousness.  She'd see the overturned chairs, the broken plate, and his body slumped on the table next to a spilled glass.  She would grieve.  But she wouldn't remember my visit.

"She'll be okay.  So will your kids."  I couldn't know that for sure, of course.  I've retired multiple generations of the same family, but he didn't need to know that and there was plenty of time for misery ahead.

We climbed into the truck and as I swung around to head south he asked, "How long is the trip?"

"It's relatively short." I said.  They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but all the deliveries I've made have been on asphalt... and the traffic's a bear.

Note #1: Do you have a story prompt for a future "Friday Fiction" entry?  An idea you think will stump me? - or just something you'd like to know where I might take it?  Post it in the comments sections and you'll get to here me say, "Challenge.  Accepted."

Note #2: The novel is called "On a Pale Horse" and if you enjoy science fiction at all, I recommend it.  The only similarity to this story is the idea that there are "civil servants" working the roads of eternity.

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