This story is by Robert Koehler and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ray Quinones slumped in his seat, and laughed. “You’re joking.”
His boss Miller observed him across the table. “What makes you say that?”
Ray looked sideways through the window at their booth in Tapps Coffee Shop near LAX. He scanned the lot, a silver Nissan Altima, his brother Rollie yelling from his rear seat at Pink sitting behind the wheel.
“You’re telling me to kill Rollie,” Ray said.
“Nope,” Miller said. “Get the wax out of your ears. I’m saying you got a choice.”
“Either I kill Rollie or you kill Rollie.” Then you kill me, Ray thought. “That’s a choice?”
Miller shifted the fork on his plate of sausage and eggs over easy. He smiled. “Sure. One thing. Or the other.”
“Suicide’s no choice.”
“Sure it is. People do it all the time, deciding to kill themselves. Decisions come from choices. I’ll stop living. I’ll keep living. I choose option one.” Miller paused. “You decide to do it, or not do it. And if you don’t do it, then we do it. Why’s that suicide?”
“You’re joking,” Ray said. Miller held his expression in place, like he was playing poker. But he just gave it away. “Who’s ‘we’? You just said ‘we do it.’”
“We, me, whatever,” Miller said. “Your choice.”
“We’re talking past each other. I told you Rollie didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. You know it was.”
“Do I? Was I there? Were you?”
“I believe him.”
“Stop.” Miller leaned in, took a beat. “Look. Rollie and Moog have the guns. They’re all set to run ‘em down to Mexicali. They got their ride. Then, boom, black-and-whites pull up, sirens going. How’d they get wind of it? Rollie takes one look, and he bolts? You believe him? Then you’re telling me one thing, Ray.”
“You’re as much of a coward as Rollie.”
Ray paused. “This is your idea of a negotiation?”
Miller spread his hands on the table, his fingers fanning out. “It’s a meet, Ray. I told you. Breakfast. Here. Things to discuss. Ain’t no ‘Hey, got some negotiating in mind.’ It’s about the what-to-do-about-Rollie agenda. What to do, Ray? Two ways to go. Simple as that. Don’t overthink this.”
“I think I like a third way. Rollie lives. I live.”
Ray gazed through the window. Rollie’s lips were flapping, trying to convince Pink not to do anything rash, Pink who killed a guy for Miller last month. Look at Rollie, knows he made one wrong move, after loyalty to the crew for four years. But it was a bad move, lots of blowback. Moog in the slam, see him now, young enough to feel the cops’ heat, pressing him to rat, maybe he’s doing it now. Look at it from Miller’s angle. He’s assuming Moog is melting. Miller didn’t get where he got without assuming the worst in human nature, only way to keep everyone in line. Rollie got out of line. Here we are. Miller figuring the heat’s coming at him. Fast.
“You’re right,” Miller said. “About a third way. Just not that way.”
“We kill you both.” Miller paused. “So, you got lots of choices.”
“Bullshit,” Ray said. “You’re killing me in either case.” Miller was silent. “How’s that help you?”
“Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourself and Rollie. And you’re wrong. You kill Rollie, you’re free. Trust me.”
“Say I kill Rollie. Or, say you kill us both. Whatever. Doesn’t get you out of your other problem.”
“Moog. Ratting. You’re betting on it.” Miller’s face stayed fixed. “Pretty good bet. Then shit starts rolling downhill, right at you. You need this wrapped fast. I’m delaying you. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Ray scanned above the customers in the booths. He spotted a gold-and-white clock with big hands on a wall below the arched ceiling. It read 8:22. Rollie ran away from Moog just after 4 a.m., barely escaping the squad cars. Four hours. Enough meltdown time for young Moog.
“Actually,” Ray said, “you’re late.”
“So are you. You think they’ll roll up here and nab me and not you? So, pedal to the metal.”
Ray studied his finished plate of scramble. Breathed in, breathed out. Maybe he had this wrong. Maybe Moog’s holding it together. Kid hadn’t gone through this before, no record. Maybe that’s because he’s smart, knows how to avoid arrest. Before this morning. Maybe four hours is a good sign. Miller, once he’s ratted out, was easy to grab. Miller always came here for breakfast. So did a lot of cops. But look around here. Not an LAPD badge in sight. If Moog melted, LAPD’s all over this place by now. Look at Miller, sticking to his poker face. But he gave it away again. He’s feeling the pressure of the clock. Assuming the worst in human nature.
“Good breakfast,” Ray said, sliding out of the booth. “Gotta take a leak.” He walked down the aisle. Miller’s back was to the exit. He walked past the cash register, checked Miller. Miller’s back was still to the exit.
Ray pushed the front glass door, crossed the lot to the Altima. He reached the passenger side, tapped the window and saw Pink, his huge windbreaker draping the back of his driver’s seat. A click. Ray opened the door and got in. Shut the door. He swiveled to Rollie in the back. Rollie in mid-sentence, blabbing to Pink, his hands held in zip-ties behind his back. Thick beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“Rollie,” Ray said. “Shut up.”
“They’re gonna kill us Ray. I’m—“
“Rollie, shut up.”
“I’m really sorry Ray. I let you down.”
Ray didn’t want to raise his voice, but he had to. “Rollie.” Rollie shut up.
Ray turned to Pink, his sweat staining his shirt. “You’re not gonna kill Rollie, are you Pink?”
Pink looked at Ray with puzzled eyes. “Where’s Miller?”
“Inside. What’s your job, Pink?”
“Driving. Other shit.”
“Okay. So, drive.”
“Can’t. Miller said to stay right here.”
“Miller changed his mind. Told me you can drive us.”
“Gotta hear it from him.”
“Don’t trust me?”
“Nope. Miller’s orders. Simple as that.”
Ray grabbed the Sig Sauer P320, wedged barrel down in the cup holder between them. He pointed it at Pink. “Miller told you to use this, just in case?”
Pink turned reddish purple, across his face and neck and arms. The look of anger, not fear. The guy had another job here, this morning. Backup, in case things went bad for Miller.
Ray shoved the barrel into Pink’s ribs. “Now. Roll. Slow.”
Pink touched the brake with his left foot, pressed the ignition button, shifted into drive.
Ray shoved the barrel deeper. “Slow.”
The Altima rolled from the parking spot.
“Go straight, then around to the other end of the building,” Ray said.
The Altima rolled by the side of the building, away from the cars. A Dumpster appeared on the left.
Ray shoved the barrel deeper. “Slow.” Pink obeyed. The Dumpster was directly opposite the driver’s door. “Stop. Put it in park.”
Pink said, “What—?”
Ray shoved the barrel deeper. “Park.”
Pink shifted into the letter P on the indicator.
“Open your door. All the way.” Pink hesitated. Ray shoved the barrel deeper. “Now.”
The driver’s door opened.
Ray yanked up the hand brake. Pink reacted, swiveling his massive head. Ray slammed the Sig Sauer on Pink’s temple. His head slumped. Ray’s hands clamped on Pink’s ears and pounded his face against the steering wheel. His eyes rolled back.
Ray shifted sideways in his seat, pressed his back against the passenger door, and pushed his feet and legs into the left side of Pink’s unconscious body. The bulbous mass shifted as Ray applied his full leg strength. One inch at a time. The vinyl upholstery squeaked as the body moved off the seat into the opening. One arm, then one leg, then the full torso. The body rolled out of the car and slapped on the pavement next to the Dumpster.
Ray climbed into the driver’s seat, grabbed the windbreaker and draped it over the body. He released the hand brake, shifted into drive and rolled to a driveway exit away from the building, opposite the window view in Miller’s booth. He accelerated onto a side street off La Cienega Blvd.
Rollie’s eyes locked on Ray in his rear-view. His mouth was frozen open. Then it started moving. “Where we going?”
“Away from here, brother. No choice. Whatever we had here, it’s over. Forever.”
Rollie wriggled in his seat.
“I’ll get those off you. First, we gotta book, get some distance. We’ll be okay. Yeah?”
Rollie nodded. “Thanks.” Then Rollie said, “Only one thing’s forever, Ray. Familia.”
Ray checked the rear-view. His brother’s eyes were moist, looking sideways at the window with a view of the rest of the world.
Copyright © 2022 by Robert Koehler