Tim fled from his afternoon nightmares to answer the insistent clamoring of the telephone. He tucked the receiver between the sweat-soaked pillow and his ear.
“Yeah?” he mumbled.
Godliness with contentment is great gain / those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare / into foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in perdition.
It was a chanted chorus, men’s voices, maybe something from the Bible. Tim wasn’t sure. He couldn’t remember the last time he had attended Mass.
He levered his long legs from the bed, scanning the hotel room as he stood. An envelope rested on the threadbare carpet within a rectangle of wan sunshine, one corner still tucked beneath the door.
His name was printed on its smooth, white linen face and it held a single folded sheet of matching paper. The message was from Joey.
Call me. We can still make this right.
Tim Murphy and Joey Como met in third grade at Saint Joan of Arc. Even then Joey was a little wise guy, drawn to petty crimes and grand gestures, good at passing blame to others.
Almost every day during those years at Saint Joan, Tim would occupy a straight-back chair in the principal’s office, waiting for another session with the paddle. Joey never got sent to the office, not even one time, never sat on that hard wooden seat. And he accepted that as his due.
“The penguins won’t ever touch me, Murph,” Joey said. “Not as long as I got you to take the fall for me.”
High school came and went; thirty rolled into sight. Joey was a made man, but Tim remained Joey’s fall guy. Then one Friday night, Tim drew a heart flush against three jacks and won control of a two-bit bookie operation Joey financed.
To everyone’s surprise, Tim was good at it. The book grew under his stewardship and he soon found that he could even skim a few extra bucks his way without Joey ever noticing.
For ten years, Tim took away a nice chunk of unnoticed change and after a time he began to think of it as his due for all the crap Joey had shoveled onto him since third grade.
Then things went south.
Two grand not bet on a winning horse guaranteed to lose. Five grand on an insurmountable point spread that the Giants managed to scramble over. The bad luck rolled on until Tim was behind fifty thousand dollars and all of it mob money. There was no way to cover it, no way to keep everyone from figuring out what he had been doing.
People were asking questions, so Tim ran.
For nine days, he had stayed in one cheap hotel room after another, never sleeping on the same lumpy mattress more than once, never moving in a straight line. Hell, he didn’t even know where he was.
But Joey found him.
Tim was still considering the note when the telephone rang again. He snatched it up before it had a second chance.
The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil / for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness.
He remembered then. They were canticles, chanted Bible verse, and he was certain all the voices were the same. A single reading from one man layered onto a recording, over and over. Just the sort of gimmicked stunt Joey loved to pull.
Minutes later, when Tim stumbled from the room, zipping his jacket, another envelope waited on the hall floor. Another note.
Call now. Or else.
Tim crumpled the note and bounced it into the room, not bothering to close the door. He reached into his duffle and drew out an automatic pistol, scanning the hall as he did so. As if on cue, the door to a nearby service closet popped open and a skinny dude stepped into the hall, tricked out in the gear of a telephone repairman.
The beanpole spotted Tim and reached to his tool pouch. Tim closed the distance in three long strides, mouth set in a straight line, firing the pistol as he moved. Two slugs caught the would-be repairman in the chest and he collapsed in a clatter of tools.
Tim kicked at the pouch. A cellular telephone tumbled free of the tools.
He kicked again. No gun.
Tim spun on his heel and hustled toward the elevator. Its doors shushed open before he covered half the length of the hall and three figures stepped out. They were dressed in flowing black with starched white guimpe and wimples.
It had to be another of Joey’s games. His idea of a joke, his or else. Maybe the repairman worked for Joey, maybe not. It didn’t matter. The nuns were on the payroll and they were here to mete out punishment. Tim had had enough of that.
The pistol spit flames in the dim hallway and the nuns fell away before him, black and white habits soaked through with red. The hall reeked of cordite and the coppered scent of blood. Tim kicked through the bodies, looking without success for weapons, and slid past the elevator doors just as they hissed shut.
As he reached for the ground-floor button, the emergency telephone rang. He snatched up the handset.
“This one’s from the Old Testament, Murph, and it’s short.” It was Joey. He sounded tired. “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Tim stabbed at the buttons. They were dead.
“All these years, I let you skim,” Joey said. “Looked the other way because I figured I owed you something.”
The lights died, too.
“And this is how you pay me back. You put me on the spot when you ran, Murph. If you don’t take the fall now, I will.”
Something exploded above the ceiling and the elevator lurched. Out of the darkness, Joey murmured two last words.
K.C. Ball is a retired newspaper reporter and media relations coordinator. She lives in Seattle. In addition to Every Day Fiction, her flash fiction has appeared in various online and print publications, including Flash Fiction Online, Boston Literary Magazine and Murky Depths. Her flash fiction, “Hair of the Dog”, was included in The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and her short fiction, Coward’s Steel, won third place in the 1st Quarter 2009 Writers of the Future competition. K.C. blogs about writing at A Moving Line.
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Camilla d’Errico: A character designer and artist who dances on the tightrope between pop surrealist art and manga inspired graphics. Explore her paintings, characters and comics: Tanpopo, BURN and Helmetgirls.