Authors: Richard Kadrey
a short story
he rain that had pissed down all afternoon turned cold when the sun set, and it kept getting colder all night.
The boy waited on a corner among the nearly deserted warehouses. He waved at a passing eighteen-wheeler and it slowed to a halt, pulling over at the corner. The cab was taller than the boy expected. He had to climb up a couple of chrome steps to get inside. The drizzle made the metal slick and he slipped and almost fell, but the truck was warm and dry when he made it inside. The boy shivered and wrapped his arms around his old navy peacoat, trying to get warm, careful to keep his hand away from the pocket where he’d hidden the knife. For now, it was nice just to be out of the rain.
“What’s your name, son?” asked the driver.
“Like the angel,” said the driver as they pulled away.
“I guess. Supposed to be for an old relative. He was a general in the Civil War.”
“I never heard of him.”
“He didn’t last long. I don’t think he was much good.”
The driver scanned the road ahead. Turned left, prowling the wet potholed streets. Water rolled down the gutters, miniature rapids.
The boy looked at the driver. He was wearing a heavy plaid hunting jacket. It made it hard to tell how big the guy was. His face was thin and covered with a couple of days’ worth of gray stubble. His lank hair was pulled into a ponytail and held back with a grimy red Peterbilt baseball cap. A plastic eyeball tacked to the truck’s dashboard swung back and forth like a pendulum ticking out the time.
“What do you do, Gabriel?”
“Mostly travel these days. I move around a lot.”
The driver nodded.
“Some people are farmers and some are nomads. I’m a nomad. The Akkadians and Sumerians, they were nomads. They settled down, built up the first civilizations. The Mongols and Huns were nomads. They came along later and kicked those civilizations down.” The driver laughed. “It’s a good life for the right kind of people. Are you the right people, Gabriel?”
“I sure as hell am tonight. Anything that’ll get me out of the rain,” he said, hugging himself tighter, feeling the reassuring press of the knife against his leg.
The driver grinned.
“Don’t sell yourself short, son. I have a feeling you’re more than that.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’ve been around for a while. You can’t help but learn to read people.”
“What’s your name?” asked Gabriel.
The driver hunched his shoulders and peered out the windshield, straining to read street signs through the rain-streaked glass.
“Damn it. I know you’re around here somewheres.”
Gabriel didn’t talk while the driver hunted for the destination. As he grew warmer, Gabriel relaxed.
The driver asked, “You know, I just realized I’m so wrapped up in these streets I never asked where you’re headed.”
“Far as you can take me, sir. Anywhere that’s drier than here.”
“Good answer. I could use a little company. I’m heading out of town tonight, but I’ve got part of a load left and work to do. Hope you don’t mind a few stops along the way.”
“And if you get bored or what you see looks interesting, jump on in. But no pressure. Good work is its own reward, but you being the right kind of people probably already know that.”
“I suppose. Yeah.” He didn’t know what else to say. What was with the “right kind of people” thing? Had he let something slip? Did the old man know what he was there for? This time he let his hand brush the hilt of the knife, the one thing he still had from home.
“Grab me a pop out of that cooler by your feet, will you?” said the driver.
Gabriel leaned down to where a red-and-white plastic picnic cooler rested on the floor. It was the kind where the lid swiveled back on a hinge and the top opened like a trapdoor. When he popped open the top a plastic-wrapped .45 automatic fell out onto the floor.
“I was wondering where that’d got to. Thanks, son.”
Keeping one hand on the wheel, the driver bent over, grabbed the gun, pulled the plastic off with his teeth and stuffed the gun into his jacket pocket.
A second later he looked to his left and said, “Thank you, Jesus and all the little baby Jesuses in Jesustown.” He turned the wheel hard, swinging the big truck around and backing it against the loading dock of an old brick warehouse. It was too dark and wet for Gabriel to read the name of the place.
The driver climbed down from the cab the moment the truck stopped moving and disappeared around the side. Gabriel listened to the sound of the trailer door opening and boxes sliding out. The driver appeared by his window a moment later, pushing a dolly loaded with boxes and gesturing for Gabriel to follow him in.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you.”
He didn’t want to get out of the truck and back into the rain, but Gabriel climbed out and followed the driver. After a few steps the old man stopped.
“Grab this for me, will you?” he said nodding to the dolly piled with boxes. “I got to find the damn paperwork.”
Gabriel tipped the dolly back, letting the load settle onto his body. It was surprisingly heavy. The old man was stronger than he looked. He’d have to remember that.
As they reached the door, the driver gave a loud “Aha!” and pulled a pink packing slip from his right rear pocket. He held the warehouse door open for Gabriel and followed him in.
A balding man with a beer gut and ballpoint pen behind his ear was counting boxes on a loading pallet and ticking off boxes on a piece of paper on a clipboard.
The driver called out, “What’s the good word, Sonny?”
The balding man looked up and his face broke into an easy smile.
“How are you doing, ramblin’ man? Haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
Gabriel watched them shake hands and talk bullshit. Annoyed, he stood the dolly upright, tired of holding the weight.
“Who’s the sprog?” asked Sonny, glancing at the boy.
The driver held out his hand in Gabriel’s direction.
“This is Gabriel. He’s helping me out tonight.”
Sonny held out his hand and Gabriel shook it.
“Any friend of this road hog is welcome around here.” He turned back to the driver. “What’ve you got for me tonight, good sir?”
The driver handed Sonny the paper he’d fished from his back pocket. Sonny attached it to his clipboard, glanced at the dolly and nodded. He pointed to an open area near the pallet he’d been counting earlier.
“You can drop those right over there, son.”
I’m not a goddamn pack mule, thought Gabriel, but he kept quiet, not wanting to end up back in the rain. He leaned the dolly back, rolled it to where Sonny had indicated and began unloading boxes. It was late in the week, Gabriel knew. Friday night or maybe even Saturday. There was only a skeleton crew working. Just five other men spread out through the warehouse. As he unloaded the boxes, he listened to Sonny and the driver talking in low voices, laughing occasionally. He wondered if they were laughing at him. They wouldn’t be laughing if he pulled the knife. He could have it out in less than a second if he wanted. He’d had plenty of practice and knew all the places you could pigstick a man without hitting bone.
He walked back to where Sonny was examining the paperwork. The bald man nodded to him.
“This feller’s been telling me you might go out on the road with him. Looking for somewhere sunnier. I don’t blame you. Me, I like the cold, but everyone’s got to find their place in the world.”
“Amen to that,” said the driver.
Sonny ticked off a couple of boxes on the delivery slip, signed at the bottom and tore off a carbon. The driver folded it up and slid it into the same pocket from which he’d pulled the original.
He started to turn away, but stopped.
“I forgot the other thing, Sonny.”
“What was that?”
The driver pulled the gun from his pocket so fast that Gabriel didn’t know what was happening until he heard it go off. Sonny dropped the clipboard and fell to his knees, clutching his beer belly. He stayed kneeling and swaying until the driver lowered the .45 and shot him in the back of the head. Sonny went down hard. For a second, Gabriel couldn’t breathe. He wanted to look up at the driver, but it felt like his eyes were stuck on Sonny’s body by a powerful magnetic force. He didn’t move until he heard the driver’s voice.
“Hey. You just going to stand there? This is a work night. Come on.”
The rest of the crew had scattered all over the warehouse at the sound of the first shot. It didn’t seem to faze the driver. Gabriel watched in a kind of cold awe as he calmly walked the warehouse aisles shooting each man in turn. Like he knows exactly where they are, he thought.
The driver went into the enclosed dispatcher’s office and Gabriel followed him. The driver had the gun pointed at something behind a battered wooden desk piled high with pink, yellow and green forms. When Gabriel got closer he saw the fifth warehouse worker in a fetal position on the floor. The man was in gray overalls and worn work boots. He shook like a child lost in a blizzard. When Gabriel was close enough to lean over the desk, the driver handed him the pistol.
“I saved this one for you. It’s why you’re here, ain’t it? Why you got in my truck.”
The driver kept the gun outstretched toward Gabriel. The boy stared at it, feeling his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. He breathed and stared. He knew he was staring for a long time. It felt like years. The knife against his leg had gone cold, like it was strange and no longer a part of him. No, this wasn’t exactly what he’d gotten into the truck for, but like before, he didn’t want to end up back in the rain.
Gabriel reached out and took the gun. Pointed it at the man on the floor and pulled the trigger. He flinched at the deafening explosion. Gabriel looked at the driver, who had both hands clamped over his ears.
“Small rooms,” the driver said and laughed. “Ain’t they a bitch?”
The man on the floor moaned. They both looked at him.
“I think you missed, champ. Give her another go.”
The man on the floor whimpered loudly.
“Shut up!” the driver shouted. “Can’t you see the boy’s trying to concentrate?”
Gabriel didn’t hesitate this time. Bringing the gun up fast into firing position, he pulled the trigger. The man on the floor twitched, but there wasn’t any blood. He’d missed again.
The driver came over and patted him on the shoulder.
“Don’t feel bad. You’re cold and tired. You’ll get the next one.”
The driver took the pistol and went to the warehouseman and kicked the sole of one of his shoes. He began to sing.
“When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”
The man lowered his hands a little and looked up. The driver shot him through the right eye.
“We’re done here, I think. You didn’t spot anyone I missed, did you?”
Gabriel looked up from the body. It took him a second to register the driver’s question. He shook his head.
“No. He’s the last.”
“Let’s do like that singer with the funny nose said and ease on down the road.”
He took Gabriel’s arm and led him out of the office, pausing only to steal a silver cigarette lighter off the dispatcher’s desk. As they passed Sonny’s body on the way out, the driver grabbed the dolly and took the signed delivery form off of the clipboard. He wadded it up and put it in the breast pocket of his shirt. Outside, he loaded the dolly back into the trailer while Gabriel got back into the truck cab.
A second later the driver climbed in and pulled the door shut. He reached behind Gabriel’s seat and pulled out a green plastic trash bag. Slipping off his hunting jacket, he unbuttoned his shirt. Gabriel looked at him, at the man’s calm, efficient movement. He took off the blood-splattered shirt, rolled it and the delivery form up and stuffed them into the plastic bag before tying the top and stuffing it back behind his own seat. Gabriel marveled at how the man had managed to shoot five men at close range without getting any blood on his coat. It must be his favorite, thought Gabriel, and he doesn’t want to have to bag it.