The interior of the old Chevy Impala smelled like an open grave. Puffs of red dust rose from the upholstery and showered from the ceiling with every hole or hump in the pavement. Karl sprawled across the cracked, vinyl back seat. It wasn’t for comfort, but to keep his feet out of the rotten floorboard; it was so eaten with rust that he feared he might break through.
“You awake back there?” called Randall, the driver, looking over his shoulder and grinning crookedly. Karl said nothing. He particularly disliked stupid questions.
Tommy, Randall’s brother, twisted around in the passenger seat to look at him. “Almost there,” he said cheerfully.
Karl sighed. If they’re such idiots, he couldn’t help thinking, what does that make me? Another pothole, another bounce, another cloud of dust.
They were on their way to seal a deal.
The Rayburn boys had approached him the night before in a bar and pool hall called The Rack, down across the Louisiana line. It was a Golden Opportunity, and they were dying to let him in on it. They led him to the darkest booth in the farthest corner of the room. They spoke in hushed tones while repeatedly bobbing up to make sure no one overheard. They couldn’t have looked more suspicious if they’d tried.
“It’s this old lady named Parsons. Lives down on the lake. Kind of halfway knows our momma.” Randall started the story. He was over forty, still long-haired in exactly the same way he had been in high school except that his hairline had crept half-way back on his head. He had a scruffy beard. His eyes were disturbingly red.
“Got one of them little rat dogs,” Tommy threw in. He was younger than his brother and looked like a buzz-cut version of him. The pair were like before-and-after pictures on a barber shop wall. They both hunched forward, speaking in low voices though there was no one nearby.
“Just wanted us to fix her driveway, supposably,” Randall half-whispered.
“That gravel pile down at the highway department?” said Tommy. “They don’t even lock the gate!” Tommy was apparently in charge of the irrelevant parts of the story.
“So we haul the gravel down there and stuff,” Randall went on. “In the trunk of the car,” Tommy interjected. “Yeah. Shut up! So we’re working on it, and the old lady keeps hanging around. Keeps talking to us. Acting halfway funny, kind of. Keeps saying we’re good boys to help an old woman out and what not. Then she asks us can we keep a secret.”
Tommy gave a particularly conspicuous search around the room for eavesdroppers at the word “secret.” Karl waited, slowly turning his beer bottle around on the table in front of him.
“I say, sure, we keep secrets. What secret? She says she’s looking for somebody to help her out with something. Seems like she’s crossways with a neighbor of hers. Old fart named Hughes.”
“Hughes,” said Tommy, nodding.
“This fella’s giving her lots of trouble. Done her out of some land or something. Done her real dirty, she says, and do we know anybody who might help her out with something like that. So I say—”
“She wants us to kill him,” said Tommy.
Randall scowled. Tommy had given away the punch line. Then—you can’t be too careful—they both ratcheted around and scanned the entire room yet again. There was only one guy over at the bar and two guys playing pool. Stared at, they all stared back. The brothers hunched lower.
“Yeah,” said Randall finally. “She kept hemming and hawing about what she meant by ‘help her out,’ like she didn’t want to come out and say it. This fella is so mean, and done her out of so much money, been at her for years since her husband died, and her a poor old woman and on and on. But she finally got it out in so many words. If somebody would make this fella, you know, disappear, she’d pay ’em good money to do it.”
“Twenty-five hundred dollars,” said Tommy.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars,” said Randall.
Karl just looked at them. Randall swallowed and went on. “We didn’t say yay or nay. It was all real cagey, you know. ‘I sure would appreciate it if you know somebody who could help me,’ and us saying, ‘Well, maybe we know somebody and maybe we don’t,’ and like that.”
“Cagey,” said Tommy.
“Yeah. We just left it at that. At like, well, we’ll think about it and let you know.”