[This is a series of short stories. I don't know how far I'm going to take it. So I'm warning you before you start, don't think of this like a novel and get to the end and be like URK WHERE IS THE REST because it ain't like that. It's more like... Pez. Like you could eat a mountain of them, but that doesn't mean when you click the dispenser and no Pez come out your Pez experience is incomplete. It just means you're out of Pez.]
They call him Shoe because they can't pronounce his real name. He looks tall even though he isn't, and he's kind of thin and bendy like a stalk of grass. He has floppy hair and wears floppy sweaters. Most of the guys think he's smart because he wears glasses. Now, I'm no PhD, but I know better than to make that kind of assumption.
Me, I think he's smart because he's always the last guy standing.
"I want him dead, do you hear me? Dead!"
The boss is ranting because the Green Flash foiled tonight's delivery. I usually tune out boss-rants, but I just plain can't hear most of this one. My ears are glonging.
"-- have to say for yourself, eh? I can't help but notice -- (glong glong glong) -- didn't even try to fight him!"
"Someone had to report to you." Shoe sounds as unflappable as always. Flapping is not a Shoe thing to do.
Some glonging later, Shoe nudges me, and I notice the boss is looking expectantly at me. Must've demanded why I'm not tied up back to back with six other guys on the roof instead of standing in front of him. "I think he must've hit me on the head," I mutter.
Of course that doesn't go over so great. Bosses. They demand excuses and then yell at you for making them. "When I tell you to guard a warehouse, I expect you to guard the freaking warehouse!"
"I was guarding. Then... I was wandering in the street. I think I have a concussurghlhk."
Shoe turns me neatly away from him as I hurl.
"Argh! You're useless!" And now the boss is aiming a gun at me.
I experience one incredibly stretched-out second of knowing I'm going to die, characterized by utter disappointment at the unfairness of it all, with emphasis on the fact that I'm going to be shot while puking, and the last sound I hear will be glong glong glong.
Then Shoe steps in front of me so the gun's pointing at him instead. "Easy, Boss. You're short-staffed as it is. I'll clean this up."
The glonging finally fades away. In the resulting quiet I hear, with amazing clarity, the soft compound click of a semiauto being uncocked. "You're going to clean up the mess."
"You're going to get my shipment back and take care of the Green Freak."
A long pause. "Yes sir."
"All by yourself."
"No sir. I'll need a van, five men, body armor and automatic weapons for six, and ten thousand dollars in small bills. If things line up right I can do it on Tuesday, but it might take as much as a week."
Now it's the boss's turn for a long pause. "What's your name?"
"They call me Shoe."
"That's a terrible villain name."
"And that sounds like an accident in a restaurant kitchen."
"Yes, sir, very witty. An armored truck would be best, but I can make do with a regular van as long as I have the rest of what I need. I may as well take this kid too. Let him make it up to you." He hands me a clean handkerchief.
Mopping my mouth, I look up to find the boss studying me like I'm something he found floating in dirty dish water. "Do whatever you want with him. Sabre, get... Shoe... the rest of what he needs." He glares at Shoe. "Don't fail me."
Shoe bows like a Japanese businessman. The boss turns on his heel and stalks away. His smarmy lieutenant, who calls himself Sabre with an R-E not an E-R, sneers up into Shoe's personal space, and they start negotiating Shoe's demands like the boss didn't just okay the expenditure three seconds ago.
It occurs to me that Sabre doesn't want Shoe to succeed. Shoe is a little too competent. Of course, if Shoe fails, the boss will never get back the millions of dollars in merchandise that got confiscated tonight, and the Green Flash will probably show up here pretty soon and then the whole gig is up, but Sabre doesn't care. If he can't be Number Two, nobody can.
Shoe finally accepts his ten grand in non-consecutive twenties. He tells Sabre to have the rest of the guys meet us out back of the Magnolia with the truck and the weapons tomorrow night to begin Phase One. Sabre insists on being part of the team, and Shoe makes no objection.
"Just tell me," Sabre says at last, "why I should let you walk out of here with that money."
"Because I need certain specialized equipment, and those who sell it do not take credit cards. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do. Come on, Pukey." He grabs me by the collar and marches me out.
In the elevator, on the way down, I open my mouth to ask what he's planning. He rides over the beginning of my sentence with: "Why do they always work from the top floors of skyscrapers? Why is it never a pleasant country villa?"
I take the hint. We go the rest of the way in silence.
In the parking ramp, I point out my car as we go past it. Shoe gives it a glance, and his lip lifts. "You drive a Chevy Nova," he comments. He makes it sound like he's saying, You have herpes.
"Yeah? And what do you drive?"
He stops. He pats the hood.
He smiles like Satan.
"I must be more concussioned than I thought. I am hallucinating that this is a '68 GTO. That can't be right."
"It isn't." He unlocks it. "It's a '69." He shoves the bag of money into my arms. "Get in."
The next thing I know, he's shaking my shoulder, and we're parked in an alley behind a brick apartment building. I'm still hugging the money. I blink at him. "Whazzis?"
"This is my home. The building, not the car, so you may wish to exit." There's a glint behind his deadpan. I wonder if he's making fun of who he's talking to every time he gets all BBC on us, or if it's just me.
The five flights of stairs to his place take about all the remaining fight out of me. I collapse on his couch. "Nice place," I rasp. It is, I guess, what I can see of it. Clean, anyway. Not too yuppie. Comfy non-matching furniture, sky-blue rug, actual paintings on the wall. Black and white cityscapes that look like they were painted with a butter knife.
While I was looking at the pictures, he must've wandered off; he suddenly reappears and plunks a plastic bag into my hand. It's cold and wet. "Ice your head," he commands.
"Ice. Your fucking head."
My eyes pop wide. I think that's the first time I've ever heard Shoe swear. I sit up and press the bag to the back of my skull.
He takes the money bag. He folds down crosslegged on the rug to start laying out bricks of twenties on the coffee table. "Given that the plan was entirely mine," he says, "and given that I saved you from certain perforation, I feel sure you'll agree twenty percent is more than generous."
"Uh... yeah, man. Okay. What's going on?"
He pushes my share across the table and shovels the rest into the bag. "I heard the distinctive sound of iceberg versus Titanic tonight, and we know who wins that one."
He narrows his eyes at me, then slowly begins to grin.
"What?" I demand.
"Your name's Rocket, isn't it?"
The change of subject throws me. "Huh? Yeah. I'm Rocket like you're Shoe."
"What's your real name?"
He raises an eyebrow. "And... how exactly do you get Rocket from that?"
"By means of my brother used to call me Bottle Rocket cuz I was little and loud. So when I did dance battles I went by B-Rocket. Like... B-Boy, Bottle Rocket? Yeah, anyway, it's just a thing. You can call me Lewis if you want."
"What on earth is a dance battle?"
"It's like... you know." I drop the ice bag and show him a little popping.
"Put that ice back on your goddamn head, Lewis, or I will take the money back."
I put the ice back in a hurry. "Jeez. Get emotional why don't you."
"Sorry." He sighs. He scoots over to sit with his back against the couch, kind of next to my legs, so he's leaning his head back to look up at me. "I picked you months ago, and I'd be really irritated if you went and had an embolism on me."
"Picked me for what?"
"My partner in crime. I need somebody to watch my back, and so do you. Our future bosses certainly won't."
Future bosses. That filters slowly down through my brain, picking up understanding as it goes, until it drops into my stomach like a rock. My mouth falls open at that point. I point from the money to him to me, make little walky-legs with my fingers, aim my thumb in a random direction -- vamanos?
"Yeah." He smiles. "You're the only hench out of that whole bunch I'd trust not to fuck it up."
"That's what we are. Henchmen. Minions. Expendable hordes. It's up to us not to get expended." He folds his arms behind his head and gets a little more comfortable. "This boss was the dumbest I've ever worked for, and that's saying something. I'm surprised he lasted this long. Can you believe he just let me walk out of there with a bag of cash?"
"There is no plan, is there. When Sabre and those guys show up with the van tomorrow night..."
"Bristling with illegal weaponry, coming out of a known brothel, to get into an undoubtedly stolen van and then sit there with the engine running while they argue about how they're going to take out the Green Flash... yeah. We're not gonna be there."
"Where will we be? Tiajuana? Shoe, I like this town. I grew up in this town."
"Be cool, Lewis. Once Hero McHeropants finishes bouncing Sabre's head off the van, he'll no doubt head straight for the boss, which I suspect will distract the man from any expectations he may have for our performance. If he does remember, all we have to say is we were on our way there when we saw the cops converging. It'll be years before he's in any position to ask, anyway. We'll be working for someone else by then."
"Does it matter?"
I feel a wry grin spreading over my face, and Shoe's face mirrors it upside-down. It crosses my mind to say he should've asked for more money, since the boss was so gullible about it, but... no. More would've aroused suspicion. This isn't running money, this is just severance pay. Recompense for all the times we've been knocked down, tied up, thrown out windows, blah-de-blah-de.
He offers me his hand. "Partners? There's no shortage of villains in this town, and they don't even try to remember our names. We'll go through them like a bullet through butter."
I consider his offer carefully. On the upside, he drives a seriously awesome car, he's even smarter than he looks, and he has a really cute smile. On the downside... eh, fuck the downside.
I shake his hand. "You're on."