Kate had something to tell me, but she wouldn’t say it over the phone. I knew it wouldn’t be good news, so I started scheming ways to leave work. Cutting out early would have been doable except for the weather. Aging movie patrons descended upon the cinema like rats at the first sign of a plague as sheets of rain came down, crushing any hopes of an early departure. To make matters worse, Michael, the general manager, conveniently complained of a horrible stomach pain, and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving me to cover the box and the floor by my lonesome.
A guy, in a cap twisted backwards and a backpack slung over his shoulder, stepped to the window.
“What’s playing?” He asked, several front teeth missing.
“The synopsis is taped to the window.”
“Buy a ticket, and find out.”
“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Deer, cow and horse all eat grass, but deer shits pellets, cow shits a patty, and horse shits a clump of grass. Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Exactly. You don’t know shit,” he said, putting a free admittance token through the window before entering the theater.
“That roach coach did a number on me. I’ll be back later to help close,” Michael said, exiting the bathroom and colliding with shoeless Dave The Bum. “Where’s your ticket?”
“Come on, man,” Dave The Bum said. “It’s raining.”
“Buy a ticket or get out,” Michael demanded, leading him outside. “Next time you sneak in, I call the cops.”
When the last ticket was torn, I started the film. I’m a projectionist, but with the advent of the digital projector, a one–armed, one-fingered, one-balled chimpanzee could run a show. There was no more cutting, splicing, and looping film. Starting a movie was now about as complicated as turning on a flat screen television.
After pushing play, I returned to the lobby for closing duties, alone. Wasn’t the first time; wouldn’t be the last. Just meant I had to hustle if I wanted to get home to Kate at a reasonable hour.
Dave The Bum knocked on the box window. Soaking wet, he held his hands in supplication. “Please,” formed on his lips. I should have ignored him, but instead, I unlocked the front door.
“Thanks,” he said in a gravelly, fried voice as I went back to my closing duties. “Your mama raised you right.”
“That way,” I said, pointing to the theater.
“Spare some popcorn?” he asked.
Ignoring his question, I dumped the night’s un-purchased popcorn into the trash, and wiped down the kettle.
I was opening a plastic bag of large soda cups with my box-cutter when several patrons came out of the auditorium complaining about the lack of picture on the screen. The best way to fix a malfunctioning digital projector was to shut it all the way down to the breaker. After killing the power, I let the machine reboot. When everything was a go, I started the film again. Ninety-nine percent of the time a reboot fixed the problem, but this issue fell into the one percentile, and again no picture appeared on the screen. I flipped on the house lights and strolled into the auditorium. At the foot of the little stage at the base of the screen, I turned around and faced the ageing patrons.
A chorus of boos greeted my announcement that the late show was cancelled due to technical difficulties. As I refunded costumers in the lobby, an alarm screeched from the auditorium. Somebody had exited out the side door. Ever since that asshole shot up that Colorado movie theater, emergency exits in cinemas required alarms. After resetting the alarm, I locked the front door when the last grumpy old man received the last refund.
As I continued my closing duties, somebody knocked on the box window. I was about to tell Dave The Bum to fuck off, but when I looked up, it was Missing Teeth pressing his face against the glass.
“Left my backpack in the theater. Let me back in.”
Protocol dictated that after locking the theater’s doors, re-admittance was not allowed. Normally I would have forgone protocol, and opened the door, but this guy was an asshole. Plus, I didn’t have time to dick around, looking for some bullshit. I needed to get home to Kate.
“Can’t help you,” I said.
Missing Teeth banged and kicked on the glass. Taking out my phone, I dialed 911, but didn’t hit send, and put the screen up to the glass, so he could see my intentions. Missing Teeth kicked the door one last time, and disappeared into the rain.
Alone in the theater at night was always creepy. As I walked the aisles to make sure nobody was still in the auditoriums, I got the feeling somebody else was present. People liked to say The Rex was haunted, but I’d never seen a ghost. Didn’t see Missing Teeth’s backpack either.
After finishing my closing duties, I rolled my bicycle out the storage closet, and wheeled it into the lobby just as the night Janitor unlocked the front door.
“Hola,” Ricardo said. “A man outside wants in. I say no. He gets mad. You want him in?”
“You ride your bike home?”
“Careful. It’s Wet. Don’t Slip,” Ricardo said, strapping on a backpack vacuum, and sucking popcorn up off the lobby floor.
The theater’s marque reflected hazy neon colors off rain puddles. I pedaled toward the river path, noticing a car behind me. I moved right, but the automobile didn’t pass. I looked back: no headlights. Hopping the curb, I cut through an apartment complex. Tires screamed around the corner as I reached the next street.
If I made the river, the car couldn’t follow me onto the levy. Cranking pedals through a red light, I narrowly avoided an oncoming pickup truck, bolted through a parking lot, and climbed a short, steep embankment.
An old brown Cadillac without headlights idled in the parking lot below. Reaching into my pocket, I dialed 911 on my phone, but the battery was dead. Above the roaring river, the Cadillac’s engine revved. Tires squealed and the car climbed the embankment. I chucked my bike, and fumbled into the bushes.
A car door slammed, and something whizzed by my head, followed by the cracking boom of a gunshot. The shadow of a figure neared. Normally, I would have chosen flight in this situation, but with a rain-swollen river at my back, and a man with a gun approaching, I opted for fight. During the struggle, the man dropped the gun, and we tumbled into the river’s shallows. Hands tightened around my neck, and held my face underwater. Tiny purple stars twinkled in my vision, and my lungs burned. I reached into my pocket, and blindly thrust my box-cutter at my attacker.
The hands released from my throat, and I raised my head out of the water with a horrible cough. Something gurgled nearby as I scrambled onto the river path. A man in a shiny gray suit smoked a cigarette against the Cadillac. As I approached, he jumped into the car, and drove down the embankment.
“Get your ass on the ground,” Somebody demanded behind me. “Police.”
I lay prone on the ground as hands patted me down.
“Where’s the gun? I heard a shot,” a plain clothed police officer said with a pistol trained at my face.
I told him about the Cadillac, the dark figure with the gun, and the fight that ended with me possibly slashing my assailant. The cop said his name was detective Banks, and that he was nearby, writing a report in an unmarked police car when he heard the gunshot. He holstered his revolver, and told me to stay were I was while he went down to the river to investigate. In a few minutes, he returned.
“Nobody’s down there, but I found a gun.” Detective Banks said, wiping blood from his hand onto his pants. “Let’s head to the station for your statement.”
On the drive, police lights filled The Rex’s courtyard.
“Pull over,” I said.
“Somebody bludgeoned Ricardo to death,” Michael said as Banks and I entered the lobby.
Paramedics wheeled Ricardo out on a stretcher under a white blanket. Banks told me to get back into the car, and we drove passed the police department. After several blocks, Banks parked in a dark alley behind a Cadillac.
“Where’s the backpack?” He asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Make this easy on yourself. Tell me.”
“I would if I could.”
“Fair enough,” Banks said. “Out you go.”
A dome light switched on in the Cadillac as a man in a gray sharkskin suit got out of the car and approached.
“Here’s your partner’s gun,” Banks said. “Kid says he doesn’t have the money. No more fucking messes like that bastard in the theater. Nobody ever finds this body, we clear?”
I sat in the backseat next to Sharkskin as the Cadillac rolled downtown. The driver wore a ball cap twisted backwards. Looking over his shoulder at me, Missing Teeth smiled, revealing a blood-encrusted bandage wrapped around his throat before returning his attention back to the road.
“Where’s it at?” Sharkskin asked.
“Don’t know,” I said, and he jabbed me in the ribs with a screwdriver.
I couldn’t tell if it was Philips or flat head, but it hurt like hell.
“My associate left a backpack filled with cash in your theater,” Sharkskin said, putting the screwdriver blade up my nostril. “I just unscrewed your janitor looking for it, but he didn’t have my money. So that leaves you, night manager. Now I want your complete attention. You have until dawn to return what’s mine. Do we understand each other? Call me when you have it.”
He removed the screwdriver from my nose, and put a burner phone in my hand.
“Don’t try cutting out neither. Remember, the pigs are in our pocket. We know where you live too. We know you’re shacking up with a redhead named Kate. Hate for something to happen to her. You have until sunrise.”
The Cadillac pulled to the curb in front of an Irish Pub. Sharkskin opened the door, and pushed me onto the sidewalk. An old lady asked if I was okay as the Cadillac pulled away. Unable to answer, I walked toward The Rex, holding my damaged ribs, and wiping blood from my nose onto my shirt. It hurt to breath, hurt to step, and it hurt to move, but I kept on. What else could I do? Lie down and die. That was already happening tomorrow.
I unlocked the glass door, walked around the caution tape into the theatre, and turned on the lights. Searching down every row, I checked between and under each seat, hoping to find the backpack. My search yielded nothing. I sat down in the front row.
The small stage under the screen was covered in a thin layer of dust, except for a line of footprints. Not shoe prints, but actual left and right, heal, ball and toe prints. I followed the tracks to the edge of the screen, and pulled back the curtain, revealing old busted seats, and a ratty rug. Backstage functioned as a storage area for stuff we didn’t know what to do with, but there was also something else present: trash. Fast food wrappers and empty liquor bottles scattered across the floor. A tattered blanket and piles of filthy clothes littered the back corner.
Before leaving the theater, I heard a noise. At the top of the stairs next to the projection booth, a sliver of light shown under the manager’s office.
“Hi Ed,” Michael said when I opened the door.
“Still here?” I asked, noticing the gun on the desk.
“Did you know The Rex is for sale? I was trying to borrow the cash to cover the down. The transaction was supposed to take place tonight after the late show. I left early with an upset stomach, figuring I’d return in time to meet with the lenders. I didn’t count on the projector shitting the bed, and you closing early.”
“Is one of these lenders missing teeth, and does the other wear a sharkskin suit?”
“I never got the money,” Michael said, picking up the gun, and pointing it at me. “But they don’t care. They say if I don’t pay them back, I’ll join Ricardo.”
“I’m on that list too,” I said.
“If Ricardo didn’t find the money, that leaves only you. If you’d of just let the guy back in to grab his backpack, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered if I let him back in,” I said. “The backpack was already gone.”
“Who took it?”
“Dave The Bum.”
“If that’s true, I’m already dead,” Michael said, putting the gun back on the table.
On my way out, a gunshot reverberated throughout the theater. Cautiously, I made my way back into the manager’s office. Michael sat in his chair with the gun on his lap. His brains splattered against the ‘Metropolitan’ movie poster on the wall behind him.
Outside, I puked in a planter box before walking to the river path. Homeless encampments peppered the shore.
“What you want?” A haggard and stubbly face asked under the dim glow of a lighter.
“Looking for Dave The Bum?”
“Twenty bucks if you don’t ask questions.”
“Happy Know Dave.”
The homeless man beckoned me to follow before the lighter went out. We crept through tall grass and bushes until we came to another encampment.
“Happy, you here?” The bum asked, and a flashlight illuminated a young man with a red ponytail.
“Mom?” Happy asked.
“Nah, it’s Hustle. Got a dude here want to know where Bummy Dave at.”
“He thinks everybody his dead mom,” Hustle said. “Yeah, Happy. You’re momma need to know where Dave at.”
“He got a room at the Dreamtime Inn.”
The Dreamtime Inn was a tourist hotel in the Flats. Hotels abounded in the ghetto due to their proximity to the boardwalk. I departed from Hustle and twenty dollars, and walked to the 7-Eleven across the street from the Dreamtime Inn.
Through the convenient store’s doors, a flux of prostitutes and junkies came and went. Leaning against a wall in the shadows, I was about to call it quits, head home, and spend what little time I had left with Kate when Dave The Bum crossed the street, holding hands with a corpulent woman. He was still barefoot, and she wore daisy dukes and a midriff. As they entered the 7-Eleven, I made the call.
An hour later, Missing Teeth sat in the front seat of the Cadillac with a clean bandage taped to his neck. I sat in the back with Sharkskin as he impatiently loosened and tightened the screws to the door’s side paneling with his screwdriver.
“What do you say?” Sharkskin asked Missing Teeth. “Should I take this kid apart, and see how full of shit he is?”
Missing Teeth cracked a grin as Dave The Bum staggered from the Dreamtime Inn towards the 7-Eleven.
“There,” I said, and Sharkskin hopped out the car.
“Pardon me, pal. How do I get to the boardwalk?” Sharkskin asked, waving at Dave The Bum.
“Valley’s back that way,” Dave said.
Sharkskin grabbed the bum by the scruff, and flung him into the backseat.
“This really the guy has our scrill?” Sharkskin asked.
“Ain’t got shit,” Dave The Bum said, but his denial was met with a screwdriver to the ribs.
Dave The Bum doubled over, throwing up on the floorboard.
“For the past few nights, Dave The Bum’s been squatting behind the movie screen at The Rex after the late show gets out,” I said. “Last night, he planned to do the same to get out of the rain, but when the picture went out on the projector, he found your backpack full of cash in the seats, and headed out the emergency exit for the comfort of the Dreamtime Inn.”
Sharkskin took Dave’s hotel key from the bum’s pant pocket as Missing Teeth drove us across the street.
“Better have my money, or I unscrew your balls,” Sharkskin said, forcing Dave from the car.
Dave’s room smelled like burnt wire as we entered. Dave’s lady sat naked on the bed, lighting a glass crack pipe. The backpack lay on the floor with hundred dollar bills spilling out the side. She coughed great clouds of foul smelling smoke, and grabbed a handgun from the nightstand. Before Missing Teeth could draw his weapon, he took a bullet to the gut, and dropped like a sack of wet shit. Sharkskin shielded himself with Dave as the woman unloaded the handgun into the bum’s body.
“Got a little smudge here,” Sharkskin said, tossing Dave’s riddled body aside and looking at his lapel.
A dime-sized spot of blood grew into a silver dollar. Sharkskin tried wiping away the stain before collapsing to the ground.
“You want a hit?” The woman asked, grabbing the crack pipe.
“I’m good,” I said, backing away from the carnage.
She took another hit from the crack pipe, and disappeared into the bathroom.
Out on the street, the prostitutes and junkies scuttled to and fro in front of the 7-Eleven. The dawn’s first light reflected off the night’s rain puddles. Doubling my step, I made my way home along the river path.
In the apartment’s courtyard, the Cadillac idled. The driver side door was open, but nobody was behind the wheel. A trail of watery blood led to my apartment. Inside, I found Missing Teeth sitting on my couch in a pool of gore next to Kate.
“Came here to kill her before I bled out,” Missing Teeth said with a weak gurgle.
“Who doesn’t know shit now,” I said to him, and knelt beside Kate, and kissed her cold purple lips. “So dear, what is you want to tell me?”
Bio: Morgan Boyd used to live in Santa Cruz, California. Now he lives somewhere else with his wife, daughter, cat, and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Coffee and Fried Chicken, Tough, Pulp Metal Magazine, Spelk and in print at Switchblade Magazine. He also has stories forthcoming at Yellow Mama and Story and Grit.