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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Monday, 02 July 2012 01:46

Last Stop

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The gas station attendant set his paper aside and adjusted himself as he glanced at the clock. At two am, he wasn't expecting much in the way of traffic. His cash register was fifty miles from everything. Most of his business wound up being late night truckers in need of a caffeine fix or stupid tourists misled by their GPS. The truckers were always good for a story or two when they weren't tweaked out, but he could live without the whining couples and screaming kids. He'd sent them all on their way with an absent smile.

There'd be stretches of days where he wouldn't see another soul. That suited him. He'd grown up the youngest of eight on a farm. When he'd turned eighteen he'd taken the first Greyhound out of town and never looked back. His mother always told him God watched over him. Her sanctimonious yapping was half the reason he left.

Instead of being kicked by unruly livestock or chasing pigs, all he had to do was watch a couple of monitors and take people's money. No more bites or bruises, or the shit smell that soaked into everything. Given a choice between the farm and here, he knew where he'd put his money. For all the boredom, there were some perks to the job. The view overlooking the pumps, camera four, had his attention at the moment.

She'd pulled up in a beat-up pickup truck with out of state plates. The truck had seen better days; there was more Bondo and rust than paint.

"What are you running from, little girl?" he asked himself with a smile as she'd struggled with the pump. Her petite frame was hidden by an over-sized biker jacket. He imagined her sitting on a phone book to see over the steering wheel. Every couple of seconds she'd steal a nervous glance towards the door of his station.

He'd seen her type before. Wives, sisters, daughters, all on the run from something, hunched over in ill-fitting clothes, sometimes sporting a fat lip or black eye, their hands shaking as they filled up their getaway cars and trucks, afraid to look over their shoulder. They'd race inside to throw their money at him before disappearing into the night.

Every once in a while though, one would act up and drive off without paying. Usually they gave him the 'I forgot my wallet in the car' line as they looked up at him with wet doe eyes. He'd fallen for it once or twice before wising up.

No one ever came looking for them or asked after them.

That suited him just fine.

The door chimed as she rushed in, breezing past him with her head down. Black sunglasses too big for her face were half-hidden under an unruly veil of lank blond hair. Curling her shoulders forward, she buried her hands deep in the pockets. The worn black coat swallowed her waifish figure; the hem of a sundress peeking out from underneath. Her skinny knees were dirty and bruised. Scuffed black boots echoed in the quiet store as she skulked from aisle to aisle. For almost an hour, she feigned interest in the various parts of the store all the while stealing glances at him over her shoulder. The cameras showed him everything - her tiny hands darting just out of sight before disappearing back into the jacket. He couldn't help but admire her. She was good.

Not too bright though.

A good thief would have been in and out in a blink. Five minutes or less. Anything longer, especially at this hour, and even the dumbest clerk would start to wonder.

He kept his eyes on the monitor as she shuffled up to the counter. Her head disappeared from view for a moment as she knelt down. He could make out the quiet rustling as her fingers danced over the boxes of candy bars. When she popped back up, he could see the veins in her throat pounding. Her pallid skin flushed pink. With shaking hands, she placed a candy bar on the counter.

Placing a hand over hers, his fingertips rested on her wrists. Just enough pressure that if she tried to pull back he'd hold her fast. "Is that all?"

Still trembling, she nodded. Her head bobbed quickly enough that her sunglasses slipped down her nose half an inch, just barely covering her eyes.

Smiling warmly, he leaned close enough to see his reflection in the oversized shades. "Are you sure?" He'd learned at an early age: it didn't matter what you said, it was how you said it. If your tone was right, you could call a pig or lamb every dirty word under the sun and it would lie perfectly still as you cut its throat.

Shifting his weight, he let his foot slide to the button on the floor under the counter. The front door buzzed like an angry hornet as a little red light blinked to life over it. The girl jumped with a yelp and tried to pull back, but he held her fast. Still smiling, he brought his other hand from beneath the counter and cocked the hammer of his .357.

"I reckon you're in a bad way, but I can't tolerate being lied to," he said. "The front door is locked. Now, I'm going to let your hands go. When I do, you're gonna take your jacket off and place it on the counter. If you ain't hiding anything, I'm gonna apologize. If you are, I'm calling the police and you can explain it to them. Okay?"

Tight-lipped and ashen-faced, the girl nodded.

Releasing her hands, he kept the gun carefully aimed and tilted his head to one side as she slid out of the jacket. Her slender arms were milky white and unblemished. He could tell at a glance she'd bruise easily. Her small breasts and bony hips stabbed at the fabric of the dress. She was skinnier than he liked, but she'd do.

His tone was smooth and even, like honey, "The sunglasses too."

The corners of his mouth twitched with disappointment as she pulled the sunglasses from her face with trembling hands. Her high cheekbones were far too sharp and hollow, accentuating the dark circles under her eyes. She was older than he'd thought, early thirties maybe. And then she looked up. Her pale green eyes were the color of worn money and wide with fear. Something about them pulled him in, twisting his stomach as his throat tightened.

Eyes still on her, he rifled through the jacket. Emptying the pockets one by one, coming up empty until he found a hard lump in the inside pocket where most people kept their wallets. Sliding his hand into the jacket, he pulled out a worn box about the size of a pack of cigars. "What's this?"

"Cards," she said. Her voice was small, but echoed in the empty store. Her eyes were already shiny with tears.

"How were you going to pay for the gas?"

"I- I left my wallet in the truck."

"No you didn't." He rapped the cards with his free hand. "You a gambler then?"

"No, Sir," she said. "I read people."

"Read people?" he said with a laugh. "I heard a lot of shit over the years, but that's a new one, Little Girl. How you do that?"

"With cards. I read people with the cards."

Picking up the deck, he shook it. "You one of those new age hippy-wicca gals?"

"No."

He flipped the deck at her. She flinched as it smacked against her sternum and fell into her hands. "Alright, Little Girl. Read me."

With an audible gulp, she nodded and fumbled with the box. "How many?"

"What?"

Her hands fluttered like dying birds as she shuffled the cards. "I need to know how many cards you want."

His smile began to slip, patience wearing thin. "Does it matter?"

"Up to you," she said. "Most people go for three."

"Why's that?"

"Past, present, future."

The clerk nodded, curious as to what her con might be. "Alright then, Little Girl. Three card Monte. Hit me."

Placing three cards face down on the counter, she looked up. Something had shifted subtly. Her green eyes bore into him.

His fingers tightened on the revolver. "Now what?"

"Turn them over," she said. "Start on your left. I'll tell you what they mean."

With a grunt, he slid his fingers over the cards. Flipping one over, he let out a low whistle as he revealed a faded sketch of a nubile young nymph with long blond hair, surrounded by stars, smiling up at him. The lines and details were perfect, reminding him of the old black and white photos his father had hidden in the closet. "Hey there, that's sweet."

"The star," the girl said, gripping the counter with white knuckles. Her mouth hung slightly open as her chest heaved.

He didn't notice. "What's it mean?"

"Innocence. It's in your past. Something lost," she said. "Her number is seventeen."

Chuckling, he turned over the middle card. "They all like that? I think I'm gonna like this."

This time, the card was upside down. He had to turn his head to the side to make sense of it. The image was of a man in gray robes.

"The hermit," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Inverted. The ninth arcana. He represents wisdom, secrets. He's the hero."

"Inverted? What's that mean?"

"Upside down."

"Oh," he said. His palm was damp as he gripped the revolver tighter. "Does it mean anything?"

"No."

Chuckling to himself, he turned over the last card and froze. An angel gazed up at him. Her narrow face was serene, blond hair cascaded in waves past her shoulders with wings spread wide over a field of coffins, a horn between her lips. But it was the eyes that transfixed him: one blue, one green. Almost a year ago, those same eyes had looked up at him with guileless innocence.

It had been too easy. He'd told her that her ID was forged and faked a phone call to the police, she let herself be cuffed and led off like a lamb. Down in the basement, the memory of her luminous skin was framed by the quiet whimpering sobs and clink of the handcuffs. He'd watch her for hours through the CCTV upstairs as she cried alone in the dark. Every time he came down for her, she'd be an endless river of with tears. "I don't want to die."

When no more tears could be drawn from her, his soul was empty and hollow. He sat for hours afterwards as her body grew cool. Hands shaking under the weight of her dead eyes, he'd nearly turned the pistol on himself.

A tremor crept up his legs as his mind replayed the memory of those pale mismatched eyes. Icy blue and sawbuck green.

Too late, he tried to raise the gun.

The cards scattered like leaves as she flung the deck into the air. Her hands disappeared below the edge of counter, out of his sight, to where the candy bars were kept. When they came up, a steel spike gleamed wickedly in the fluorescent light.

The icepick came down squarely on his wrist, sliding through flesh and lodging in the counter top. The shot echoed like thunder in the empty store. Recoil ripped the gun from his sweat-soaked grasp and it clattered out of reach. Fire raced up his arm, ripping a silent scream from his throat. It felt impossibly large, like a railroad spike driven between the bones of his wrist.

Through a haze of red, he stared down the barrel of his own revolver. His knees went weak as he felt something warm trickle down his leg. She was yelling, but the words were lost under the roar of blood in his ears. All he could hear was the sound of the hammer cocking back.




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Last modified on Monday, 02 July 2012 02:00
Grigori Black

Grigori Black is a freelance writer in Europe. His full-time government job involves real estate negotiation and conflict resolution. The stories he writes are pure fiction; any resemblance to people, either living or dead, and actual events is purely coincidental.

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