Two Stiffs in Search of a Grave by Steven Nester

“What is the saying,” said Rodt in his thick accent, “The grave is half full?”

“Wrong,” said Smartt.

Rodt sounded ignorant and unclean, as if he had a mouthful of pickled herring. Everything that came out of it stank, thought Smartt. It didn’t matter what the guy said, it all sounded like he was a dipshit tourist who threw a fuck in every once in a while, thinking it made him belong. It was the first word foreigners learned. The impression Rodt made confirmed Smartt’s belief that there was no Listerine in Holland, and when he spoke, people ducked.    

“The glass,” said Smartt, “The glass is half full.”

It bothered him that Rodt tried to fit in and never got it right. He wore a Baltimore Colts jersey and listened to doo-wop. He ate the pig knuckles and pickled eggs at dive bars. Nobody ate that shit, and the Colts had left town long ago.

Rodt tossed a shovelful onto the soft mound and stomped on it. He did that pretty good, Smartt thought. Rodt sank to his ankles and stepped out, shaking the dirt from his sneakers.

“Okay, the glass. But the grave. I dance on it. Here lays Eddie Swort and the money returns to our pockets, yes?”

Rodt jammed the shovel into the turned dirt like an old hand in a potter’s field and took a step back to admire what he’d done. Maybe, thought Jimmy Smartt, there was some reason to celebrate. He and Rodt had caught Swort with their money. Smartt put him down as quick as a bullet. Rodt watched and took notes.

“Burying the dead. One of the oldest chores,” said Rodt.

“Second only to killing somebody,” said Smartt.

Rodt laughed.

“Without one there cannot be the other,” he said.

Smartt had no use for Rodt’s simple Olde World wisdom and his plain Dutch face. Rodt could blend in anywhere. You could’ve stuck it in any number of Rembrandts and nobody’d see him. A double cross, a murder, a graveside service, the Louvre, you name it, anywhere he showed up he’d invisible, but not to Smartt.  

“You’re an optimist,” said Rodt.

“I’m not,” said Smartt.

 “Sure,” said Rodt. “Sunny sky. No rain. Money back in our pockets.”

“The glass is half empty, said Smartt, “Cloudy skies and rain. Like Amsterdam. There’s only eighteen grand in my pocket.”

Stealing, that was an old one too. Rodt paused as if going over the math but Smartt knew it wasn’t numbers he was thinking of. Rodt gripped the wooden handle of the shovel.

“The glass is half empty for you because you always need more. Too much coke and whores, Jimmy. Put the money where no one can find it. Not even you.”

Rodt laughed at his joke.

“Thought I had,” said Smartt.  “But somebody got to it.”

“Him,” said Rodt, stabbing the shovel into the grave.

 “You sure?” said Smartt. “He took three grand from me. Then somebody grabbed another two.”

“Three grand? From me he took five. From you he took five as well. I counted it myself. You get careless. You need a wife. One that can count.”

Smartt saw the lie.

“I got a wife,” said Smartt. “And I can count.”

  Rodt released the shovel. It leaned to Smartt and he grabbed the handle and drove it into the grave. He set it in deep with his foot.

“Then go home and talk to her,” said Rodt. “Maybe she took it.”

Smartt turned the earth and set the shovel again.

“Think positive like me,” said Rodt. “Remember, the grave is half full. I mean the glass.”

He quieted at once with a trembling repose that seemed ready to make him come apart.

“I have a question,” said Smartt. “If the grave’s half full, who’s going to fill the rest of it?”

Rodt reached for the pocket where he kept a pistol. Smartt swung the shovel for the fences and connected with Rodt’s head.

“I am a pessimist,” said Smartt. The dirt was loose and dug up easily. “This grave is half empty.”

Terminal Velocity by Steven Nester

Richard “Ditch” Brodie checked the lock screws on the four karabiners that secured the tandem jumper to his harness as the Twin Otter screamed to 10,000 feet, the altitude where skydivers fell from the plane to laugh at death for as long as they dared. The four lock screws were not properly fastened. The plane leveled off and when the pilot choked it to a stall, Ditch gave the client thumbs up and they rolled from the cargo door into the emptiness of the world that spread beneath them. The FAA would not approve.

“Whoa,” Marty said through the helmet-mounted walkie-talkies. “This is better than sex!”

Richard “Ditch” Brodie checked the lock screws on the four karabiners that secured the tandem jumper to his harness as the Twin Otter screamed to 10,000 feet, the altitude where skydivers fell from the plane to laugh at death for as long as they dared. The four lock screws were not properly fastened. The plane leveled off and when the pilot choked it to a stall, Ditch gave the client thumbs up and they rolled from the cargo door into the emptiness of the world that spread beneath them. The FAA would not approve.

“Whoa,” Marty said through the helmet-mounted walkie-talkies. “This is better than sex!”

“That’s not saying much for my wife,” Ditch said.

He unclipped Marty from the harness and with just a touch they separated. What’s that saying, Ditch thought, between a rock and a high place, or like a rock from a high place, where eagles dare angels fear to tread—whatever it was Marty dropped like a hunk of concrete. Way down there, in a couple of minutes, Ditch would have some explaining to do.

“What the fuck—!”

“I’m giving you the biggest screwing you’ve ever had,” said Ditch.

Marty flailed to grab something. He writhed and humped the air; flapped his arms to fly. Ditch grinned like a skeleton and maneuvered to the front of him, keeping from reach. They were on the clock, a minute tops, and Ditch righted Marty with pokes and jabs to get him flying on an even keel.

“Still better than fucking?”

Marty hyperventilated into the microphone, louder than the howl of moving through the air. His crotch got wet; then it got dry. Everything happened faster at 132 miles an hour.

“This’ll be a quick conversation,” Ditch said.

Marty whimpered. Ditch thought he could see tears filling the goggles.

“The blonde you’ve been fucking,” Ditch said. “The one with the yellow ‘vette.”

Marty swatted at the flapping wrist of Ditch’s jump suit but it only set him tumbling like a log in an invisible avalanche.

“The blonde—yeah—so what—“

“She’s my wife.”

“I didn’t know, no, really, I didn’t,” Marty said.

“She is.”

“This is murder,” said Marty.

“Not yet,” said Ditch.

“Let me make it right,” said Marty

“You will.”

Ditch glanced at the altimeter on his wrist.

“Better hurry.”

“I have money.”

Ditch laughed. But he was getting nervous. This guy was taking forever to die.

“Enough to buy your life?”

“Yes!”

“In your wallet.”

“Are you crazy?”

“First one down is a rotten egg, Marty.”

Ditch dipped a shoulder and veered down and away. Marty tried to swim towards him. It looked like the doggie paddle.

“Wait wait wait wait wait!”

“Try the backstroke, Marty. That way you can’t see the ground coming.”

Marty sobbed and screamed.

“You’ll never get away with this!”

“I’ll get away with it. You got 2000 feet to come up with a plan. Twenty seconds. Hurry.”

“I promise—I promise—I promise to give you a hundred grand—cash—don’t do this!”
“Not good enough. But I can give you something. See the parking lot down there?”

“Yeah!”

“She’s pulling in right about now. Aim for the yellow ‘vette and she’ll be yours forever. See ya.”

“No!”

There was a gurgle in Ditch’s earphones and the breathing stopped. Ditch glided to Marty and reattached the karabiners and set the lock screws for the benefit of the ground crew and the police and the FAA. He pulled the ripcord and they floated to earth, the angel of death and his very special guest

I Was a Teenage Mansonologist by Steven Nester

Sexy Sadie what have you done?

I’m belly deep in the shag on a creepy crawl in search of talent in a north Dallas McMansion when there’s trouble. My head bumps into what I think is a chair leg but it’s the cold steel of a double barreled shotgun. I think: What would Charlie Manson do? I keep cool and raise to my knees, hands in the air.

Dad puts the barrel under my chin and lifts my head to get a good look at me. It’s a total Dodge City daddy got the drop on the bad guy cowboy moment. This being Texas, I’m lucky to be alive. It gets better. A light snaps on and there they are, two girls in pajamas and robes standing on the stairs, like they’re posing for the Christmas morning portrait. Dad keeps his eyes on me and speaks.

“Darlene call 911.”

“He looks scared, Daddy.”

You’re daddy’s little girl, ain’t cha? She looks my age, about seventeen, tough but needy, a desperate cheerleader with searching eyes who doesn’t believe any meaningful rah exists in pom-poms and barbecue. But if she says pull the trigger for home and country he will. She’d make a great addition to my team. The next one looks like the brains of the two, a hard sell with a scrutinizing smirk that says thumbs down. One thing I got from Charlie is that you have to be a fast judge of character. And that pony tails are deadlier than guns.

“He’d better be scared. Call 911 now, Darlene.”

There’s the crack. I studied Chuck a long time: his tactics, and how he recruited street meat from Sunset Boulevard. There was a philosophy behind it. It was all about empowerment. When you’re a plain Jane somewhere near Oklahoma and the guys don’t dig you and there’s nothing to look forward to on Saturday night except wrestling a steer at the local 4H Club murder must seem like a good Plan B. We all need to talk. I hear Charlie whisper into my ear from his prison cell. He suggests that when you’ve been caught breaking and entering and the man of the house has a gun, some courtesy is in order.

“Excuse me sir but I think I’m in the wrong house.”

He laughs.

“You sure are, shithead.”

Darlene still hasn’t moved.

“Get the phone,” he says.

I drive the wedge in.

“Better do as your daddy says, Darlene.”

She stares at me, amazed that I talk. Dad kicks me in the face and I’m bleeding. Darlene runs down the steps and moves between the gun and me. She kneels and wipes my nose with the belt of her terry robe. I’m definitely in the right house. Then the sister pulls a cell from her pocket and tosses it to dad. Darlene intercepts.

“No, daddy,” she says.” Let him go.”

Dad slaps her and takes the phone. She falls to the floor and gets fetal, her body shaking with silent sobs. I hear a metallic click behind dad. Is it a hammer being cocked or a door being opened, I can’t tell.

It’s the wife. She’s wrapped in a quilt like she’s been sleeping on a couch. There’s a revolver in her hand and she holds it at arm’s length. I wait for a bullet but it never comes. She points it at dad and shoots. She grabs the shotgun before he hits the floor, then tosses the revolver at me and I catch it. There was only one bullet in it. She thought of everything, and quickly, too.

“Darlene,” she says, “Take the gun from the man and give it to me.”

Darlene listens to the Queen Bee. Momma holds the gun by the barrel and loads five rounds into it.

“Now, call the police.”

Take the queen and the workers will follow. Did Charlie say something like that?

I need to talk. I don’t think even Charlie could talk as fast as I have to.

Hey, Sexy Sadie, don’t make a fool of me now.

Even Bad Luck is Still Luck by Steven Nester

I stick out my thumb by a strip mall ghost town west of Platte and out wait for bad luck to happen. Five minutes later it does. I’m riding in a beaten down Galaxie 500 with bald tires, heavy enough not to get blown off the Nebraska plains, with a cornpone operator sitting next to me, steering with one hand, the other tapping the window in time with the radio. His mullet is overgrown and his stubble is catching up to his Fu Manchu. In the backseat his 200 pound girlfriend lays wrapped in a Sponge Bob blanket, pretending to sleep.

First thing he asks me was if I had money for gas. I do. I’m headed west to Scottsbluff, far enough away for me to figure out what to do with them; far enough for them to know I have plenty of money for gas. We pull into traffic and drive for hours.

In the rearview mirror her hand slowly moves out of the blanket just as the signs for Crescent Lake Wildlife Area begin to whip past. He starts talking louder and faster, like he’s got something to say but not a thought in his head of what it is. It’s code talk for her.

We’re in the sand hills, the middle of nowhere, just what I was hoping; but shame on me they beat me to the ambush. Seventies guy hits the brakes and my head slaps against the windshield. The girl erupts from her blanket and sticks a gun barrel in my right ear. I almost smile. One false move and her boyfriend gets it too, but nobody notices. We drift onto the exit ramp and I’m hoping there’s a shovel in the trunk they plan to bury me with.

“We going camping?” I say. The fat girl laughs. He tells her to shut up. This is going to be easier than I thought.

They’re in a hurry. We pull onto the first gravel road that comes up and duck behind a hill. I couldn’t have found a better spot myself. There’s no civilization in sight. He turns the car off and the ticking engine blends in with the crickets. And there is a shovel in the trunk. I step onto the grass and the ground is soft, easy digging. It’s his turn to use the gun and he holds it to my head while the girl pats me down. She reaches into my hip pocket and pulls out my wallet. Hundred dollars right there. She points to my zipper.

“Anything else there besides a dick?”

“Just my nuts. Want to count them?”

That passes for sweet talk. She smiles like 200 pounds of hamburger happy for even the company of a dog so long as it pays attention to her before tearing in. Mullet man winds up and smacks my cheekbone with the butt of the revolver; then answers my prayers and punches her in the belly.

“You with him, now?” he says.

He opens the trunk and throws the shovel at me. His girlfriend lays clutching her gut and gasping. She gets to all fours, her stringy hair hanging in the dirt. I stand and use the shovel as a crutch. He kicks it out from under me and I fall against the car. My head hits a tire and I lay there, eyes closed, waiting for him to fuck up some more. He can’t help himself.

He picks her up and hands her the pistol. He changes plans and tosses the shovel back into the trunk.

“We got to go,” he says. “Shoot him.”

She steps towards me then turns the gun to him and fires. Her ex-boyfriend drops into a heap of dirty clothes. The girl gives me back my wallet. I take the gun from her and we hop into the car and take off. What dumb luck, the girl likes me. Dumb for her. I snap my seatbelt on and test the brakes real good as we come to a stop sign. My ear still hurts from when she jammed the gun barrel into it. Scottsbluff is coming up soon and I know just what to do with her.