It was a half past noon when the stranger walked into Big Dave’s Whiskey Bar. The jukebox was playing “Tighten Up” by The Black Keys. It sat next to a cigarette machine where Joe Camel was looking his usual cool self, sporting dark aviator sunglasses and a leather bomber jacket. The stranger retrieved a soft pack of Camels and smacked them against the palm of his hand as he made his way to the bar. He grabbed a stool opposite the front door. The stranger wasn’t expecting to see anyone he knew, it was just out of habit. And although he was almost officially retired, in his line of work, it served best to monitor who was coming and who was going.
The bartender, a short chubby man with sunburned skin looked up from his crossword puzzle.
“What’ll it be?”
The stranger rubbed his whiskers with a well-manicured hand and nodded at the single tap.
“Would you like a beer?” asked the bartender. He moved his mouth carefully as if he said it before in a foreign language.
The bartender removed a frosty pilsner from below the bar, rolled it around in his hand, and angled the glass as it filled with the golden liquid. He placed a plastic ashtray and a bowl of stale popcorn in front of the stranger.
“Name’s Bert. Need a light?” said the bartender.
The stranger shook his head. He removed a zippo lighter from the breast pocket of his flannel jacket, ran the flint against his jeans, and lit a non-filtered cigarette. Blue smoke poured out of the stranger’s nostrils as he took a sip of beer.
“Hot one in Oklahoma today, huh?” Bert said, trying to make small talk.
“Indeed it is,” said the stranger.
After tending bar for thirty years, Bert quickly caught on that the stranger wanted to be left alone. He went back to his crossword, trying to think of a six letter word that began with ‘H’ and ended with ‘N’. The clue was ‘ICER’.
The stranger removed a piece of leathery paper from his other flannelled pocket and unfolded the neat creases. There was an address centered across the middle in Courier New font:
1402 Samjon Road
This would be his last waltz, as they say, before he retired to a remote part of Kansas where he planned to live out his golden years of retirement reading Louis L’Amour paperbacks and fishing for crappie in unpolluted streams. It reminded him of a lyric in a song by Cross Canadian Ragweed (the other CCR), the simple life ain’t that hard, and buddy, he was looking forward to bask in it immediately.
The stranger’s name was Vincent. His friends called him Vince. Well, they would, if he had any. His contact had put the name William Cantrell on his passport, driver’s license, and social security card. All were fakes of course, damn good ones, but fakes just the same. He liked the name William Cantrell, it sounded like a rock star, but what’s really in a name anyway?
Vince gulped down the rest of his beer and tucked the address back into his pocket. He had killed enough time. The road to Owasso was waiting.
“Another beer?” said Bert.
“Just passin’ through friend,” Vince said. He laid a ten spot down on the bar. “Take ‘er easy.”
Vince’s last mission was more of a favor than it was a job. He had well over a million in savings, which was plenty to live off for the remainder of his days. His contact had been good to him over the years and was very understanding when Vince told her that is was time to call it quits.
She said “Sure, no problem, but there’s this thing I need you need to do, consider it a favor to me, for a friend. It pays well too, one hundred thousand, not that you need it or anything.” And because she was so loyal to Vince, after all, he’d never been caught, AND because he considered himself a nice guy, he said yes. The job seemed easy enough: a simple B and E, crack a safe (which he had done hundreds of times), and steal some blueprints. Vince didn’t ask a lot of questions, he thought it best to keep business as business. The more he knew, the more personal a job became. However, some minor detail always seemed to surface.
There was a bidding war to build a new shopping mall in Tulsa. Weston Inc. had one hell of a proposal, but without the blueprints, there would be no proposal, hence eliminating his contacts friend’s biggest competitor. An eight figure contract, all in the name of money. And money, to Vince, was never personal, unless it was his of course.
Based on the information Vince was given, the Westons were attending a banquet that night in Tulsa, which was just twenty miles outside of Owasso where they lived. They were being presented some prestigious award for their charity contributions. The event was from eight p.m. to ten p.m., which gave him plenty of time to dis-alarm the home, pick the lock, crack the safe, and take the blueprints.
Vince turned onto Samjon Road just after seven o’clock that evening. He parked his Crown Vic behind a long row of cars on the side of the road. It blended in well with the BMWs and Lexus’. He noticed colorful balloons were tied to a mailbox. They bounced off of each other in the hot, humid wind, as if fighting for a dominant position. Probably a graduation party, Vince thought. He reached into the glove compartment and removed his Glock 42, a single-stack pistol that fit comfortably in his hand (perfect for the neighborly heroic type). He placed it in the cargo pocket of his black pants, next to his Gerber blade, you know, for close range.
About thirty yards away from the house was a small barn. Vince set up shop behind two stacks of hay and scanned the property with binoculars: a large fishing pond was in the backyard, behind a small pasture. In the pasture were bow targets, a small dirt bike ramp, and a chicken coop. A large wooden deck made of reclaimed wood was attached to the rear of the two-story cobblestone Weston home. The gothic-style iron railing would make easy access to the back door, up and over.
“Not bad for building his company from the ground up,” Vince thought. “Son of a bitch probably built the house too. Custom made.”
Removing his binoculars, Vince turned his attention to the sound of pop singing. He watched as two teenagers, one male, the other female, get inside of a white SUV. They were wearing ear buds and messing with their cell phones, of course. Behind them came Mr. and Mrs. Weston. He was tall, she was short, an attractive family. The SUV pulled out of the circular driveway. The vanity plate caught Vince’s attention: STEFON. Who names their vehicle? It didn’t matter. Names weren’t that important to him anyway.
Vince slowly made his way around a five person fishing boat. He sprinted towards the rear deck of the house and just as assumed, he leaped right over the iron railing, up and over. This made for a confident break-in since the nearest neighbor was one hundred yards away and the sun was beginning to set.
Much to Vince’s surprise, the door was unlocked. He crouched low when he entered the kitchen and side-stepped his way to the alarm panel. It wasn’t on. This was going to be easier than he thought.
The wall safe was supposedly hidden behind a large map of America, according to his contact. How she got a hold of such detailed information he would never know. Everyone in life has a role. He played his and she played hers.
Vince passed through the utility room furnished with high efficiency appliances. Not much to it but a bunch of polo shirts with the initials W.C. embroidered over the chest, an ironing board, and a can of starch.
The next door led to an open salon area that connected the master bedroom and bathroom. A barber’s chair sat in front of a large mirror. An assortment of hair products and supplies cluttered the sink below it. An easel was placed in the corner of the salon. A well painted feline covered the canvas.
To his right, Vince saw it. A large map of the Great U.S. of A. was neatly tacked in all four corners to the wall. Smaller tacks were placed in random parts across the country: Maine, Alaska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There were many others, but one state that wasn’t tacked was his destination: Kansas. Vince touched it with his finger and became lost with the thought of finally retiring.
“I’ll be there by morning.”
Vince carefully removed the tack on the top left corner of the map, then the one below it, revealing the wall safe. He recognized the brand: Iron Box.
A sudden hiss, followed by what sounded to Vince like a mild roar, came bellowing behind him. A hot, sharp pain arose from behind his neck. He reached behind his shoulder and grabbed a handful of fluffy fur. Vince yanked and pulled at the hairy mass. Claws dug deeper into his back.
Reaching back with his other arm, Vince got a good grip of what was attacking him; the cat from the picture. Its eyes were dilated, almost unrecognizable from the painting. Attack mode. Blood was now streaming down his back and onto the floor.
“Goddamned hell cat!”
The cat swiped his right claw across Vince’s face, exposing the flesh that his cheek once protected. A loud moan filled the room as he threw the cat in the corner. It landed on all fours (don’t they always?) and skittered underneath the bed.
A half bath was in between the master bedroom and kitchen. Vince went inside to inspect the damage. Three perfect red lines were engraved in his face, like a prisoner serving time on his third day. He opened the medicine cabinet and found a bottle of peroxide. Vince splashed the side of his face with the clear liquid. He clenched his teeth and pounded his fist against the sink as the peroxide foamed and fizzed over his wound, sounding like a popular rice cereal. Snap, crackle, pop! Man did it sting.
While his face was having a foam party, Vince rinsed the blood out of the sink. He would have to clean up the blood spill inside the bedroom too. But for now, he just wanted to get the damn safe cracked.
Out of the bedroom, Vince peeked into the kitchen. The hell cat was drinking from a water dish. The name ‘Francois’ was engraved on the side of it in all capital letters.
“Francois, the cat from hell. I’m Vincent. Pleased to meet your acquaintance. Do you always greet guests with such kindness?”
Francois took a break from the dish, sent a meow and an affectionate purr Vince’s way, and returned to his water.
“Yeah? Well fuck you too.”
Vince walked the few steps it took to get back to the bedroom. Never mind the cat. He was anxious and ready to finish the job.
The blood that had once splattered the floor was gone and the map was tacked back up against the wall. He panned his head to the right towards Francois, who was now rubbing his body in an arrogant way against the island in the kitchen.
“Did you do this?”
If it weren’t for his promise to his contact, Vince would’ve gotten the hell out of there right then. Besides, she knew he was headed to Kansas. Why did he break down and finally sleep with her? No more business together, that’s why. It slipped out during a post-sex cigarette. If he bailed, he was sure she would send someone to off him. Besides, he couldn’t properly relax if he needed to have one eye open in the back of his head every time a branch snapped or the wind blew. He’d take his chances with Puss N’ Boots.
Vince scratched his head, still pondering how the blood was gone and how the map got tacked back to the wall. Just crack the safe and go man. Go, go, go!
A low growl rumbled in the doorway. Vince slowly turned around. A chocolate lab stood in front of him on three paws. A red, white, and blue bandana decorated his neck above the collar where two letters, BO, were dangling from a nametag.
“How’d you lose the leg? You tangle with Francois too?” Vince flamboyantly rolled the “swah” sound off his tongue.
A Chihuahua scampered under Bo. Tap, tap, tap went its claws against the hardwood floor. Vince knelt down to read his name tag: Oliver. Bo didn’t like the sudden movement from the unwelcome guest. He snarled at him, exposing sharp incisors.
“So this must be roll call. We have Francois, the cat from hell, Bo, the three-legged turd, and Oliver, the bastard runt of an animal. Any other critters running around here? I’ve got enough ammo for six. No? Good. Then it’s two for the each of you!”
Vince removed the Glock from the pocket of his cargo pants and pointed it at Bo.
“I’ll save the cat for last. Probably shoot his legs off first, and then skin him alive while his heart beats a slow death.”
Just as Vince put his index finger on the trigger, a grayish furry head shot out from underneath the bed like a hungry-hungry hippo and clasped its fierce jaws around Vince’s calf. The merle collie’s jaw jerked back and forth with deadly precision. His name was Kai, according to the name tag that jingled along with the fierce movement of his head.
Oliver sprinted forward, latching himself with his mouth between Vince’s legs, sending sharp tiny teeth into the man’s scrotum. He could feel his balls pop and squirm. Vince screeched like an adolescent child having his toy taken away. Physically, that’s what was happening. A single shot fired from the pistol as Vince fell backward. The bullet tore through Bo’s excited tail. The pistol fell out of Vince’s hand from the impact of the fall and slid on the smooth floor towards the salon.
Kai clamped down on the wrist of Vince’s left arm. Vince reached for Oliver with his free hand, but was denied when Bo bit down on the opposite arm. Oliver scampered up to Vince’s face, now pale, and dropped a small organ that looked like a chicken liver on his chin. Vince passed out.
Francois took the pistol by his mouth and followed Bo, who was dragging Vince’s body by the shoulder, through the kitchen. Bo released his grip and whimpered. Oliver hopped on Bo’s back, untied the patriotic bandana with his teeth, and laid it over Bo’s injured tail. Kai took the adjacent corner in his mouth and together they tied it around the wound. Bo sent an affectionate lick across Oliver’s face, then across Kai’s, and continued dragging Vince’s mangled body towards the door. Kai lifted his front paws around the knob, turned it clockwise, and nudged it open the rest of the way with his head.
Dusk had arrived by the time Vince opened his eyes. He could feel the soft grass moving against the back of his neck as the sun sank below the tree line behind the pond. So this was it, the last hurrah. There would be no memoir, no adventures in the lush forests of Kansas. More importantly, no Louis L’Amour.
A rope, connected to four cinder blocks, was tied around Vince’s torso. Just before Kai rolled Vince’s body off the pier and into the pond, Bo angled his body and released a steady stream of urine all over Vince’s face. It saturated his thinning white hair. A little got into his eyes and mouth, which made Oliver happy.
The Glock went first, and then Vince. There wasn’t much of a struggle; a little splashing, followed by ascending bubbles. His eyes were open as he sank to the bottom of the pond. The blurry faces of Kai, Bo, Oliver, and Francois would be the last thing he would see before the turtles got to him. So this is retirement. This would be home. And like Dorothy said, there’s no place like it.