This story is by Darrell Eugene McGuire and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In December of 1965 two men confronted each other in the parking lot behind a warehouse in northwest Phoenix. The smaller man wore denim work clothes; his business card described him as:
‘Caleb Thorne, Odd Jobber, Licensed General Contractor. Every job is different.’
The other wore a business suit of Italian silk; his business card read:
‘Box Falway, Investment Advisor.’
Caleb’s right hand hung straight down at his side loosely clutching a Colt .45 pistol.
Jared looked on, as was his customary position in these instances. It was all he could do.
Falway held his head awry and said, “So, what, then? Are you going to shoot me?”
Caleb raised the Colt and shot Falway through the heart.
When what was left of Falway had slammed down onto the asphalt in the parking lot, Jared nodded in approval. “Whoa! Good shot! I’d put it right at thirty feet, easy. Man, that .45 does the job. As I have so often mentioned, you were a natural right from the beginning.”
“I’m not a natural.” Caleb bent down, collected the single spent brass shell, and dropped it into the pocket of his denim jacket.
He went over to his old ’54 Buick and pulled the plastic plugs out of his ears, dropped them into the glove box, and tossed the cartridge shell onto the floor. He pushed the Colt and the spare magazine from his jeans pocket down under the driver’s seat. The car was streaked with soil following the rains of the previous week. Phoenix in the winter was the most pleasant location on the planet, but it was hard to keep one’s car clean, especially in his line of work. Not that the old car would look much better clean than dirty. Not that he had ever washed it.
Jared said, “You follow the same routine every time. You were born to this profession.”
“I was not born to it, and this is not my profession. I’m a handyman and construction worker. That’s what I do for a living.”
“Hey,” Jared snorted, “you pulled in more cash from this one job than for a couple of years as an odd jobber. What is it? Ten thousand dollars to put a bullet through Box Falway’s heart? Face it, man, you’re a pro. Lyndon Johnson should send you to Vietnam.”
“That is not going to happen. Leave me alone. I have to install a drainage pipe in Vic Hansen’s back yard.”
Caleb cranked up the Buick and pulled slowly out of the parking lot. He looked both ways to ensure there was no passerby or witness, then drove out onto Indian School Road and pointed the nose of the old heap toward the east side of Phoenix. He would stop at the post office along the way and pick up the parcel that contained the cash payment for this job. He expected Falway’s stepdaughter to be pleased with the justice dealt out for her mother’s murder, and Caleb would be well paid.
Jared mused, “You’d better drop by your apartment and pick up some fresh clothes, then dump the stuff you’re wearing.”
Caleb grunted. “I’ll do that, and put these into the public trash bin down behind the post office.”
“So, what was that, number fourteen now?” Jared began to add them up on his fingers, then lost his count along the way. “Let’s see. After the first one, there was the crooked councilman in Tucson; that guy had used his office as a tool to steal land from private gas station owners. The accountant who was a blackmailer in Denver. The abusive cop in Wichita who raped women and put them in fear of their lives; he was a real charmer. I don’t remember the names of the others, off-hand. Last before this was James Pike, the union boss in Saint Louis; he was a rotten apple to the core. His brother Elton is still looking to find out who killed Jimmy boy on that Christmas Eve two years ago. You might want to keep thinking about Elton. Oh, and I remember the first kill. Do you remember the first one, Caleb?”
“All justified kills. Remember that.”
“Justified, yeah. Justified in whose mind, Caleb?”
“Justified in my mind. Justified by me.”
Jared nodded. “Justified to you, and I’d guess to me. And that first kill. Who was that, again?”
First kill. Sure, Caleb remembered. It was all about Anna Leigh. his mind ran back into the past as he drove toward the apartment where he would shed the smoky garments.
His thoughts went back to Anna Leigh Philbin. The love of his life. A life gone too soon from this world. A life whose end had cried out for revenge against the one who had ended it. He remembered that New Year’s Eve, nine years ago. He had picked up Anna Leigh at her parents’ house in Phoenix. She greeted him at the door. She wore one of those crinoline-lined puffy skirts that girls wore back then, with a white blouse and a big black bow tie, buckled shoes. Caleb felt his spirits light up as he saw what a lovely young woman she had become since they first met in Seventh Grade. She was, indeed, a class act. Her face had a way of seeming to burst into laughter without uttering a sound, a soundless act that sent his heart a-flutter. This was the night Caleb would ask her to marry him, right before she headed off in a couple of weeks to pre-med school in Tucson. He escorted her into the rented Cadillac, where he’d parked it in front of her house, and said, “I don’t know if you can fit in the car in that outfit,” and she laughed.
It was only a short drive to the club where they would celebrate the coming of the year that would be the beginning toward their forever after. With only a mile to go, Caleb slowed at the intersection at East Thomas Road and 16th Street, and the traffic signal turned green. He proceeded on through the intersection. The driver of the pickup truck approaching from Caleb’s right later said he was sure he would make the light before it turned red for him. The driver had miscalculated. He was simply driving too fast to stop. It happens all the time.
The driver was Jared Coleman. Jared had been drinking, started his celebrating a little too early. He had an open bottle of beer on the seat beside him when he ran the red light. Both vehicles were totaled. Caleb and Jared suffered minor injuries and walked away from the scene. Anna Leigh was forever lost to the world. The cop ticketed Jared, and a magistrate turned him loose on his own recognizance, pending a trial for manslaughter.
Walter Philbin was Anna Leigh’s father. Walter was offended that Jared was still alive. Following the services at Saint Mary’s cathedral, he followed Caleb out to his car and handed him a small laundry bag. Inside was a .38 caliber revolver, a box of cartridges, and a thousand dollars in cash. He said, “Be my angel of vengeance, Cal. Please.”
Caleb was Walter’s angel of vengeance. He found Jared in Reba’s Tavern, followed him to the parking lot and shot him point blank. Jared died instantly.
There later came all the others. All justified kills.
Jared persisted. “Again, Caleb. Was that first one really a justified kill?”
“I’ve had thoughts about it. Could go the other way. There were emotions involved. What do you think?”
“Hell, I didn’t want to kill anyone. Least of all, Anna Leigh. You remember, I’d met you and her once at that picnic out at Papago Park. She smiled, and was right civil to me. I remember once watching an old silent movie on television; the leading lady was very young, had a small, oval-shaped face, and was everything you would think of as pure innocence. That was what I saw in Anna Leigh’s face. How could I want to kill someone as sweet and good as Anna Leigh?”
“But you did. Your negligence and to-hell-with-everybody-else attitude and your disregard for the safety of others killed her. Should you be reminded of that?”
Jared was silent.
Finally, Caleb thought, finally, something that will shut him up.
After a while, Jared spoke again. “Yeah, I should be reminded. And I am reminded. By you, and by Anna Leigh. Again and again. I can’t get her out of my mind. It’s like she haunts my every thought. She’s always with me, talking to me, reminding me. Always … reminding me.”
Caleb pulled into the parking lot of the hardware store. He’d have to buy some digging tools and drainage hardware.
She haunts his every thought. Huh. No kidding.
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