The Sunday crowd of Hilltown dissipated into the shadowy lanes, as the sun got higher. The side lanes were crowded with small food outlets serving everything from Thai curries to cheap pizzas. The large umbrella above four chairs and small circular table provided enough respite from the heat, and ice topped beverages acted as the constant companion of parched lips. With a chime signaling the opening of the restaurant door, a waiter approached a table with a formidable man in beach shirt and khaki shorts reading the menu with one eye closed.
“What would you like to have, Sir”, asked the waiter in white and black.
“One iced cola”, came a voice that strained itself to reach the waiter.
“One iced cola?”
“That’s right buddy.”
“Anything else, sir?”
He did not look at the waiter; instead his eyes were searching for something in the crowd. The waiter stood observing his patron for a moment, in anticipation of a glance or nod, but retreated into the restaurant once it was obvious that a thread entangled in the crowd has engrossed the man sitting on the table.
The waiter returned in a minute with a large glass and placed it on the table when it experienced a mini quake.
“Hey Barry, how have you been? I saw that you were looking for me a little while back” entered Jim with a thump on the table and slid onto one of the chairs as the waiter wiped the spill.
“Jim? How did you know I was here?” said Barry in a hushed tone, which was lost in the hush of the air, and only by innuendo could Jim understand the message.
“You know me Barry, I am always there for friends. You see, when an old friend goes around asking people about a shipment dump, I can’t just wait and let him waste his precious time, can I?” He tossed a couple of keys attached to a key ring with a metal cylinder with initials JC inscribed on it. His ebullient demeanor did not surprise Barry, as he knew it was only a cloak behind which the real Jim operates.
Barry looked around, slowly turning his head but moving his eyeballs in a fast sweeping manner. Meanwhile, Jim called the waiter waving his hand.
“Hello mate, what do people eat for breakfast in this part of the world? You guys serve any of those fancy stuff they serve in Miami?” Jim finally looked at the waiter and saw him flummoxed by the flood of foreign accent. “Never mind, I’ll have what he is having”, he nodded his head in Barry’s direction looking straight at him with a smile.
“How long has it been old friend? You seem to have them muscles all pumped up. Still running your way out of misery, huh?”
Barry could sense the odd tone in what he heard, as if he saw a black pigeon flying in the middle of a white flock.
“I am in and out of things”, said Barry in his heavy tone that rarely needed to raise its decibels.
Barry’s face was that of a saint, with his round eyes emitting a kind of peaceful radiation, and his jaws looked like they were ready to crush a bone or two. His head was interspersed with hair combed to a side all the way. There were no wrinkles yet, but his brows seemed to be always in a state of agitation, as if to contrast his eyes. He looked straight at Jim, into his eyes, in search for a clue.
“What are you doing here?” said Barry, clasping both his hands on the glass of cola.
Jim knew that look in Barry, and his grinning face instantly turned serious.
“Why do we do such things Barry? The work we do pays us less than a janitor for fucks sake. ‘In and out’ you say, but men like us are never into anything Barry, you know that. No family, no kids, no relations. We are just the whips held by the ones powerful enough to lash them. Men like us are just happy hearing it crack, thinking that’s our sound of glory.”
“Look, I am not here to listen you rumble. If you do have anything substantial to say then say it now before I finish this drink,kapish?
“Ah, always the impatient one”, the grin returned on his face. “Barry, I am your friend here, and this ‘situation’ that we find ourselves here is such that we need to be absolutely clear about it. Do you trust me?”
Barry’s face was stone carved, giving up no indication of what he was thinking. He still stared with his big round eyes, and gave his assent blinking his eyes once in a way that he knew Jim would understand.
“That’s my boy! There ain’t one person whom I would trust more than you, you know that Barry. Come now. This place is a disaster. There is a decent bar around that curb where we shall drink to this friendship. Oh, and I have built a kind of cozy relation with the lady bartender there, heheheh, if you get my stride”, Jim laughed with a lecherous grin spreading his thin lips to his right cheek.
“Look Jim, if you know why I am here, then you also know that I can’t waste time drinking in a hole with you”, Barry was trying to control his frustration while maintaining a flat tone.
“Always the serious Barry.” He pointed his fingers at Barry and tried to reconcile him by bringing a serious determinism in his visage. Barry continued looking straight at him, his eyebrows being the only outlet of his restlessness.
“OK. Let’s talk business then. Your employer was my employer a couple of months back. It was a simple pick-up from a Sudanese dealer. Contents of it were not privy to me, but the pay was good so I took it, with a bunch of no-gooders. It was smooth; I took the package, dropped it in the trunk of my truck, got rid of the vermins, and was off my way for delivery. All good till then. But suddenly something struck me Barry, the kind that is always present right before your eyes but you don’t seem to see it, until the moment comes when its shape emerges and you cannot get it out of your sight anymore. Do you understand Barry?”
Nothing came from Barry.
“It’s like a bug inside your head Barry, once you become aware of it, it starts gnawing at you, small bites, and you try to ignore it. ‘After all’, you say to yourself, ‘it was always there so why worry now, let it be’, you start to think that you had it all figured out before and so there is nothing to worry out.” He poked his right forehead several times to make his point. “Just let it be. There, that is the mistake Barry! You simply can’t. You have to let it in, have a nice tour of your whole mind, and when it is finished, you realize that it was you who was taking the tour, not the bug. So, you see, that I happened to become aware of this when I was driving to deliver the package.”
“It was you?”
“Yes Barry, my friend, it was me.”
“What the hell were you thinking you stupid son of a bitch. For two months?” Barry’s hands moved from the glass to his right thigh, where his 9mm Glock was strapped behind his false pocket.
“Don’t be like that Barry, you and I go a long way back. Common now, you don’t have to be so shut to the possibilities.”
“What are you talking about?”
Jim’s eyes showed a sign of triumph when he heard the question, as if that was what he wanted Barry to think about.
“There was I, driving the package for our employer, on the freeway, and I stopped the truck on a siding lane, opened the trunk and stared at the package at length. After some time I was breathless, just by staring at it.” He was shaking his head vigorously. “I began to think what if my actions were not in the scheme of things, banishing me from the plan this universe has for us, what if I was not supposed to be where I am, looking at things I was not intended to, and doing things which would have no place in the annals of history. What if I was not supposed to deliver the package?”
“Enough of your bullshit Jim. Now you listen to me”, Barry moved his chair forward, cocked his head slightly, contorted his eyes and spoke in a low voice which carried the weight of his responsibility. “In the next two minutes either you tell me where that package is, or I will show you what all I have learnt during the time you were banging hippies and drinking snake piss.”
Jim shook his head in disappointment. “Barry, I came to you to work with you man, not fight with you. That package, you don’t want to have it man, trust me. Its evil.”
“Ok, that’s enough. Now listen to me carefully. I am going to reach out my back pocket and pull out my wallet. When I am done paying, you will stand-up and walk towards your truck, as normally as possible. No sudden moves. Once you reach it, unlock it and place your bare hands over it. Understand?”
Jim nodded. Once they reached his truck, Barry opened the other door and sat on the seat beside the driver’s, then indicating him to enter.
“Now we are going to go on a drive Jim, and you will do exactly as I say, no more buffoonery, Ok? Then, may be everything would be fine at the end of it. But if you don’t, I can promise you that only one of us will be having beer tonight, and that is going to be me.”
Jim looked straight, calmly, as if reminding himself something. His face was slender, with a slight growth of beard glistening brown in the sunlight. He wore a black sports cap covering half his forehead, with his hair jutting out from beneath the cap backwards. He had a pointy nose and small penetrating eyes, which presently squinted as he tried to keep his calm. There was no anger in them, only a little indiscipline. He inserted the keys and turned it for ignition, as he felt the cold surface of the 9mm pistol on his belly.
“Barry, you know this is unnecessary.”
“One more word and I will break your jaw with the hilt. Get us to the freeway.”
After about thirty minutes of driving, they were rolling on the deserted freeway with the sun overhead.
“Okay, pull-up on the side here”, said Barry pressing the gun a little harder. It was a small patch of land jutting out of the freeway, overlooking a small cliff, with bushes of cactus spread over the entire region below going down at-least a hundred feet.
“Get out of the car with your hands up in the air, and walk to towards the cliff, slowly, and leave the keys.”
Jim did just that.
“Okay, far enough,” Barry stood pointing the gun at him, “I want you to give me the location that of that package Jim, and if my man at the other side of this phone can confirm it, then I will ask my employer about you. I will vouch for you, I promise, but I can’t guarantee anything. He would want to know if you had opened it or not. Be honest, will you, because that is the only chance you have to save yourself.”
“HAHAHA…”, he bent on his knees and started laughing as Barry watched him, perplexed. “You know what Barry, the bug was right”, and he continued laughing whole-heartedly.
“What! You idiot, you got something funny to say now don’t you. Don’t you forget who I am, and how well I know you.”
“No Barry, I haven’t forgotten anything. In-fact, I remember just fine how it was in our first mission together, and the next dozen after that, when we wrecked terror on unsuspecting strangers, all those years, have you ever thought how we had even survived. And why? No, right? I didn’t too. Until that day when I was looking inside the trunk of this very truck. I have been thinking why then, why there. Now I know why. Why I stopped my truck right here on this very spot, why I sat beside it for the whole day, why I decided that what the package had could not reach my employer, and why I had to bury it right where you are standing now. Hahahaha…….”, he couldn’t stop laughing.
“Stop bullshitting me Jim, I’ll shoot your knee if you don’t stop laughing and tell me what I asked.”
Jim stopped laughing, but he couldn’t stop his eyes from smiling.
“I already told you Barry, you are standing right on it.”
“Why should I be even listening to you, Jim? Better I shoot you and let you rot in this wilderness.”
“Well Barry, you can do whatever you like, and you are right, you don’t have to listen to me, just look down and see the mark.”
“I placed an X there while burying, under the rock”, he smiled calmly, unperturbed.
“Don’t take me for a fool Jim, I know your tricks, I will shoot you, you know that.”
“There is one piece of information you don’t have Barry. Do you know what is the content of the package? No. I do, and therefore, I know that once you pull the trigger, we both won’t need any casket for our burial. See this thing in my hand, it is not a key chain, it is the detonator of the bomb you are standing on now.” He showed the black key chain that he snapped from the keys while getting out of the car.
The sun was at its peak, as if looking over both of them in suspension. Barry knew that Jim couldn’t be speaking the truth, not the whole of it at-least.
“What will it be, Barry? Let us both walk out of this in one piece and I will let you have that devilish thing beneath you, but let me tell you this, it will be my absolution and any blood spilt by it will be on you.”
Barry stood still, evaluating his options, just as he was taught to do in every situation. If he let Jim go, he may leak the information of which his employer would be certainly wary about. But there was also a chance that he was telling the truth, in which case he might get hold of him later and ‘take care’ of everything.
“I know what you are thinking Barry. Believe me, if it was only me then I would have been happy to blow that thing and end it once and for all. But now it is both of us, and I don’t want to harm you Barry, I really don’t.”
Barry’s hands were wet with sweat, and he found it difficult to keep his fingers on the trigger without pulling it. His indecision was apparent as he shifted his feet from one spot to another, all the while keeping his eyes on Jim.
“OK. You can go, but remember, if I find anything that does not fit in your story, I will come and get you. I will hunt you and you know that.”
Jim bowed to accept the conditions, quietly smiling at Barry and walked towards the truck. Once he entered, he started it.
“Hey Barry”, he shouted, “do you know what the bug said?”
Barry still pointed the gun at him.
“It said, ‘fear is not the anomaly my friend, you are’.”
He laughed as he pressed the accelerator and threw the cheap black key-chain with his initials engraved on it at Barry.
Ravi is a guest author with LSD and can be read here.