The following story is taken from the CD “Oscar’s Hijack,” produced by Blackstone Audio with Barrett Whitener narrating (and full sound effects.) With a positive review from Audiofile, the CD is a hybrid we produced from the idea I had of connecting three mystery stories with a fourth about a truckload of Academy awards being hijacked en route to Hollywood. One of the two main characters is also named Oscar. Engineer was Jeff Davis. One More for the Road is the shortest of the three stories.
It was one of those hot summer nights. Near a lonely stretch of highway, as Tom stood motionless behind the cash register at Lenox Liquors, he thought about opening a bottle of bourbon for a few swigs of the old stuff to keep awake, but no–he needed this job. His aging mother was dying. Doctors had called it “multiple myeloma.” The plasma cells in her bone marrow had turned against her. As her only dependable son, Tom had to hold two jobs just to pay that part of the bill her insurance didn’t cover.
At 10:15 a black Eldorado turned into the parking lot for the third time that night, its headlights sweeping past Tom’s eyes. He looked up to see the driver wheel this time in a quick semi-circle, then back directly in front of the door. Next, both doors opened and two young men emerged.
One with a gun.
Tom felt a rush of blood surge into his temples. He froze for a moment, and then slid down behind the counter, visualizing the bullet that might shortly enter his head. That single hot lump of lead which would burrow through all the intricately connected neurons of his brain, funneling away all his memories forever, now waited in the gun carried by the swarthy one. And he imagined again how the hammer would cock back until–
Sudden blackness. Yes.
A medic had once told him that a bullet in the brain would be less painful, because it meant instant death, not a long painful slide into oblivion. He liked that better. But what if he were hit in the stomach? Then, he realized, it wouldn’t end quite so easily, would it. . .
The front door started to open, now. Behind the register, Tom focused on the third shelf below the cash register, seeing the handle of an automatic pistol in a shoe box at the back. The initials on it were “L.L.” for his boss, Larry Lenox.
“All rightie, then,” one of the punks said as their shoes clicked onto the store’s tile floor. Tom lifted his arm up and over the register. “Watch it! He’s gotta gun!”
Hoping to scare them off, Tom squeezed the trigger, and a big bottle of Rhine Wine burst and showered across some stacked six packs of Michelob. A returning shot caught the register, shattering the plastic corner away. Then more shots thundered, pierced the back wall.
The man with the gun muttered a curse. Instead of leaving, they were trapped now–cowering in the aisles and afraid to exit the same way they came in. To give them added incentive, Tom fired wildly again, catching two bottles of gin on a header, displayed like bottles on a fence post. Then a new fear replaced his other one. For an instant the heavy alcohol scent in the room reminded him of the smell of napalm. . . what if the room caught fire?
When he could hear again, there was nothing to hear. Had they gone, as he hoped? He lifted his head to look. Once–quickly–then again.
A sudden explosion from the side. Tom yelped in pain, glancing down at the flesh wound like a bayonet slash along his middle.
“Drop it, man!”
The swarthy driver of the Eldorado appeared around a pyramid of silver Coors cases, beckoning his accomplice. Tom dropped the automatic, and the kid loped forward and kicked it away. The automatic skittered back into the dark stockroom as a .38 was shoved into Tom’s ribs.
“Easy,” Tom implored, lifting his shirt despite the sharp stab of pain. “It hurts, see.”
“Well, don’t ya cry on us now,” said the driver with a laugh as the other kid got the money from the register. “Yer just nicked. Come inta the back, let’s see what we can do ‘bout the bleeding.” Behind the driver the second punk stood grinning. He had a fat, white, rounded face scarred by acne.
They turned on the stockroom light. After a moment of terror, Tom forced himself to say, “What’s your . . . name?”
“Name?” The punk looked puzzled. As if he didn’t know what name meant.
“Mine’s. . . Tom Russell. Been working here four months, ever since my mother went into the hospital.”
The driver put one hand to his mouth and whispered something to his accomplice. Following orders, that one left the room, closing the door behind him. In the interim, Tom got a towel and dabbed at his wound.
“Yer one big bruiser, ain’t ya?” the driver noted. “Get many customers this late?”
Tom shook his head as the gunman’s eyes scanned the stockroom floor. “Not until Friday.”
“Tell me,” the driver said. “Why’d ya open up on us? Think we’d kill ya?”
Tom nodded. “Figured you’d think I saw your license plate. Hard to miss it the way you backed up to the door. I. . . didn’t see it, though. What’d you plan to do–carry out some beer besides?”
This time the driver laughed, albeit nervously. “Yeah, ta celebrate. Third place we hit ta-day.” He snickered. “One fer the road, eh?”
They were silent as a sound like crunching across glass was audible through the closed stockroom door.
“Tell me about your childhood,” said Tom, suddenly.
“Your childhood. What was it like? Was it rough?”
The driver stared at him, blankly. Then his ugly face wrinkled, his eyes narrowing above the tiny diamond nose stud. But still he said nothing.
“Because mine was rough,” Tom went on. “My dad died when I was eight, and when I turned fourteen I went to work in a laundry at a dollar an hour. Had to quit school to help my mother. We all lived in a duplex and rode the bus everywhere, then. Never had many friends until I got drafted. This one guy–I call him Harry–used to be my best friend. We got to be marksmen out on the range. Harry, he was like me. And that was the only really good time I remember, too–me and Harry, out on the range. You know?” Tom paused, staring down at the floor. The sound of a truck passing could be heard as a tear slid down his cheek, surprising even him. “But I bet you got lots of friends still around, and even a girl friend too.”
“Yeah,” said the driver, flexing his fingers around the revolver. “Big deal.”
“It would be, if you had my memories.”
“That right? How old are ya?”
“Lot older than you.”
“An’ ya still a mommas boy?” The driver laughed. “You–yer jus’ a fool, what you are.”
Tom smiled smoothly like they do at the Taco Bell drive-through window, because he remembered his first months in the Army, so long ago. There were hecklers then, too. Saying things he’d preferred they didn’t. Things that made him do more pushups than he was asked, so he could stand up and fight back. Things about his mother that reminded him of his younger brother sticking him with her while he went off to become a fat cat lawyer in California. It had made him spend his free time out on the range until he was really good at something, so they couldn’t talk behind his back.
“What’s taking your friend so long?” Tom asked, changing the subject. “I don’t hear him out there.”
“Hey, he’s jus’ lookin fer somethin,” the driver replied.
“Never you mind what. Okay?”
But it wasn’t okay. Something was wrong, Tom sensed. Many had tried to fool him about things. Like the insurance representative who’d convinced him to drop partial coverage on his mother’s policy because the rates were so high, and they ‘probably won’t need it anyway.’ And especially Barry, his black sheep brother, who’d stuck him here.
So what could the driver’s accomplice be looking for?
Let’s see, he thought. . .(CONTINUED>)