~ one ~
As the Grim Sisters gathered around the wrought iron table on their front porch, the approaching storm rumbled and roared and raged to the north. For those eccentric mystics, the voice of that stacked thunderhead was low and muttering, chanting its violent secrets from the narrowing of the long desert valley. At that moment, Mac and I were directly beneath that furious tempest, finishing our bloody work, having to shout at each other to be heard over the shattering air that surrounded us, yet miles to our south the sisters spoke quietly as they conjured their spectral window into a dark future. Though such a distance separated those three and we two, forces of destiny began to draw us tight together like a spider's web captures errant flies - our fates becoming linked with the sisters and their magic. A sticky web of fate would become inexorable for all of us in time, and not knowing this, Mac and I would follow that storm south toward them, flying toward our destiny.
The air of the summer calm was being gently tattered in the trailer park, stillness scampering to hide from the approaching fury as the storm walked down the valley on twisted legs of fork lightening - relentlessly drawing near. The sisters would have less than a half hour before being chased inside their trailer by the coming deluge and the small flights of warm air already threatened to rip the cards from the table and send them fluttering into the night if they dared linger long. Gusts already stirred the painted tin signs squeaking on the chains above their heads;
'Tarot, Palm, & Bones'
one said, and beneath that;
'Fortunes, Fate, & Future'
"They join in storm and they part in storm." Gabriella said, laying out the Knight of Swords with the Tower above it, the major arcana clicking on the table as she laid it down. Selena set one of her bones on each card to keep them nested on the table.
"He be Mac." Gabriella said as her sisters' eyes fixed attentively on the lay of Tarot.
Gabriella turned the next card and crossed the Knight with the Queen of Swords and narrowed her eyes. The cards were rarely this evocative and she could feel the deck tingling in her hand — or was it the building ozone that was carrying the electricity down the valley ahead of its source?
"And she be Bethany." whispered Selena in reverence, setting another bone on the Queen with a hand adorned with green enamelled fingernails, "They almost kin. Like brother and sister."
"Or pimp and whore." chuckled Amaris, the dark one.
"No, not whore. Whore's earn their way." said Selena, and was pleased with the twisted grins from both her sisters.
"And not pimp." observed Gabriella, turning the tone back to the serious business of her mysteries, "Lust builds in his proud loins, yet not a covetousness for sex or money. He seeks glory and a mate for his lonesome soul."
"Best find the mate before he loses the soul." Amaris said, always the darkest of the three.
Gabrielle lay the Page of Pentacles reversed beside the crossed pair at the foot of the Queen, "There is greed in her, and pride, laziness, and impatience."
"The cards they do say so, sister." agreed Selena setting a fourth bone.
The Grim Sisters had taken notice of Mac and of Bethany, though how they knew the two would converge that night I have no enlightenment to offer. There was a time when I lay no stock in anything I could not see with my own two eyes, but I have witnessed things since that have made me question everything I once knew. This world is a dark and enigmatic place and the expanse beyond its veil scares me to death.
Gabriella turned the next card and her eyes widened as it revealed itself.
"There has been bloodshed tonight." she said and laid it within the growing structure, "Glory fair and murder foul."
Two miles from the Grim Sisters squatted the 'Laird of McCullough', a wooden island in a small sea of gravel where patrons anchored their pick-up trucks and old dusty sedans helter-skelter. Sputtering its red and blue neon light across the parking lot, the Laird was Duncan's honky-tonk and his pride as it was his father's before him; an unruly drinking hole and meeting place for his crew, and for its patrons; a reservoir of fistfights and a birthing ground for divorce.
The bar was named after his father who had bought it in 1972 and rechristened it with the family name. There never had been a Laird McCullough in history; the McCulloughs were a small family that owned no land but held sworn fealty to a greater Clan in Galloway who did. In ancient times they fulfilled their role as protectors of the Pictish Priests in the lowlands of Scotland, north across the cold sea from the Isle of Man. They were known for their loyal ways and savagery in battle.
As the Grim Sisters turned their cards and Mac and I raced homeward through the storm, Duncan's mood was foul and his anger raged a fair bit more than usual. He'd received a confused and frantic call on his burner that the deal had gone bad for us; that one of us was wounded and one of us was dead, his body left behind in the desert.
It was supposed to be a simple exchange — from us cash, from the Rebel Mob two kilos of crystal meth. We'd done it so many times before but that night it had changed. That night everything changed.
When the three men from our crew had arrived — Tom, Tinker, and Rubin — they met the usual three bikers awaiting them on the dark desert road that was hidden from the highway by the rolling, heat fissured clay hills. None of the bikers wore their kuttes nor colours as was usual and all three sported pistols tucked in their waistbands as was usual as well. Tom and Tinker had got out and stood by Tinker's old sedan on the rutted road as Rubin walked halfway to the bikers with the small gym bag stuffed with cash for the buy.
A loose tappet in the sedan's engine ticked behind him marking time as the deep throated Harleys grumbled and coughed behind the bikers. But Rubin grew suspicious because the oft repeated dance had changed from usual to unusual. None of the three bikers had moved.
The protocol was for both sides to bring three members, two to stand sentry and one to come forward to the middle ground and make the exchange. Rubin realized too late that it was a set-up as he felt the cold caress of Lady Death's icy fingers tickling his scrotum and sliding up his spine as he stood alone in the no-man's-land between the two sides.
He was lit up as bright as an actor on a stage by the headlights of the sedan and the Harleys, and before he could retreat; before he could turn; before he could even shout; he saw the sudden brilliant blossoms flash in the darkness on the west side of the road just before he heard the dull roars of the shotguns. Rubin felt and heard the spatter of deer shot hit him hard in the left hip and his left hand that suddenly went numb and could no longer hold the looped handle of the gym bag full of Duncan's cash. He dropped it as he scrambled away from the shooters and made for the shadows that lay heavy outside the beams of the headlights.
Tom and Tinker already had their pistols out and were returning fire blindly into the blackness where the shotgun blasts had flared, their panic not allowing the full function of their brains to grasp that the shooters would have moved, knowing the muzzle flashes of their guns had given away their positions. They were circling like hyenas in the darkness, seeking another chance to kill, running and firing at the sedan. The three bikers on the road had pulled their pistols and were adding their own chaos to the ambush.
The gunfight raged on the desert road with one visible biker being wounded in the groin and Tom catching a bullet just above the bridge of his nose that dropped him like a marionette with all its strings cut at once. He fell hard, his legs crossing by happenstance into a lazy-man's Lotus pose and his head hanging down as though he suddenly had to meditate on his own unexpected death. Neither of the two invisible bikers had been hit. Not yet.
Rubin made it to the passenger door and threw himself in, screaming at Tinker to "Drive! Drive! Drive!" and Tinker got himself behind the steering wheel and without even closing his door had thrown the sedan into reverse and punched the accelerator, the rear tires digging twin trenches in the clay and sand as it reversed wildly away from the bikers.
"Where the fuck is Mac?" Duncan was roaring as he strode behind the long bar of the Laird. Chunk was trying to dig his phone out of his hip pocket because it was buzzing with an incoming call as he did his best to propel his bulk along in Duncan's wake.
"I don't know, he's ..." Chunk tried to answer.
"And where the hell is Banks?" Duncan shouted as he lifted the bar top gate and slammed it down so hard it toppled a customer's glass of beer.
"I've been trying both of them, Dad." Malcolm said, his phone hot in his hand and his left ear reddened by its overuse, "They're probably together. They always are."
Malcolm and Chunk followed Duncan into the private crew room, fishbowled in the centre of the honky-tonk, wrapped with double glazed windows so we could keep an eye on the bar and speak without being heard over the Wurlitzer with the cracked glass across from the bar. Chunk was on his phone and Malcolm pulled the door closed and sealed them within as Duncan kicked a chair across the room.
"Goddamn it!" Duncan loosed his rage, "And where's my forty-thousand dollars?"
Then Duncan noticed Chunk who was talking on his phone and holding a finger up toward Duncan. 'Wait' the finger indicated, but Duncan had never been the breed of man who tolerated waiting.
"Who the fuck are you talking to?" Duncan shouted at him, and Chunk used that finger to plug his right ear and turned away from our boss.
"Fuck!" Duncan shouted again and kicked another chair that spun and toppled and clattered the length of the room.
"We'll get the Vet in to meet you, but stop by the Laird on your way, Duncan wants a debrief." Chunk told his phone and ended the call, then turned to Malcolm; "Call the Vet and tell him to get his ass down to his office. We've got a wounded man incoming."
As Malcolm made that call, Chunk approached Duncan the same way a nervous man approaches a growling dog.
"That was Tinker again, he was able to talk this time." Chunk said, "Tom's dead and Rubin's been shot. They'll be here any minute."
"Finally some intel!" Duncan roared and stormed out of the room, almost ripping the screws holding the hinges to the doorframe as he pulled the door open savagely. With Chunk and Malcolm following, Duncan strode through the bar, the heels of his boots thudding heavy as he made for the back door.
"You got troubles, Dunc?" asked Freddy — one of our regulars — as hurricane Duncan drove past his table and slammed the emergency exit bar hard, sending the steel door through its full arc to slap against the back of the building.
"Shut the fuck up, Freddy." Duncan said in cold anger, "You'll live longer." then Duncan's boots were crunching across the crushed gravel of the back parking lot just as Tinker bounced his sedan across the curb and skidded to a stop in a spray of gravel. Tinker was fast grinding the car into park and getting out to rush around to the passenger side, but Rubin beat him to it and opened the door on his own.
"Fucking hell!" Rubin hissed in pain as he got his right leg out of the car and had to pull on his left thigh to make that leg follow it.
Duncan was rattled when he saw the shiny, blood soaked left side of Rubin's black jeans. Losing some of his anger, he knelt down and supported Rubin's legs by holding each knee.
"Stay in the car. Stay in the car." Duncan said, his voice gone gentle and caring for his wounded man, "Malcolm's got the Vet heading in to his office. He'll get you fixed up."
"ETA is fifteen minutes." Malcolm reported, folding his phone and slipping it into his back pocket.
"What happened, Rubin?" Duncan asked, and Rubin saw the compassion in Duncan's face. Duncan was prone to violent outbursts escaping the containment of his easily shattered temper, but he did care about his crew like they were his own boys.
"It was a set-up, Duncan." Rubin reported as he clutched his bloody left hip with his bloody left hand, "They had a couple assholes off the road where we couldn't see them. They opened up with shotguns and that's what hit me."
Rubin looked deep into Duncan's slate blue eyes, "I dropped the cash, Dunc. I'm sorry, they got my hand too." he said as he lifted his trembling hand and showed him the dark punctures of four pellets.
Rubin looked deep into Duncan's slate blue eyes, "I dropped the cash, Dunc. I'm sorry, they got my hand too." he Duncan looked up at Tinker, "And where were you?" his eyes darkening.
"Standing tall by Tom like I was supposed to." Tinker said, "Then everyone was shooting and Tom caught one in the head and dropped. One of the bikers looked like he caught one in the gut. Then Rubin was yelling for me to drive, so I did like I was told."
"I was afraid they were going to chase us down on their bikes." Rubin said, the memory of that fear choking his voice, "I swear, Duncan, I thought we were dead men."
"That's when I called the first time." Tinker explained, "I was sure we were going to die."
"They didn't try to follow?" Duncan asked.
"They didn't get a chance." Rubin said, "That's when Mac and Banks showed up."
The two shotgun toting bikers were coming up out of the desert to join the three at the Harleys when Mac aimed the Charger at them. We'd come down the narrow dirt road at full speed with the Charger's lights dark, using the headlights of the Harleys to guide us. I was leaning out the open window on the passenger side, my back pressed against the edge of the back window glass and my left boot braced against the dashboard. I had a shotgun of my own — a DDI AK style 12 gauge semi-automatic with a cut down barrel and the stock removed. I had chambered one shell and had two five round mags taped end to end so I could unleash eleven shots of double-ought buckshot before I had to pull the Walther P99 from my waistband. Turned out I never needed the pistol.
I snapped off three shots and took down one of the bikers who was swinging his leg over the saddle of his Harley and caught one of the assholes from the desert in the head just before Mac slammed the Charger into the Harleys and knocked them all catty-wampus across the road, knocking down the remaining three bikers. The impact jolted me out through the window but I rolled with it and got my feet under me and started blasting away with the shotgun. Mac jumped from the driver's side with his black satin Taurus .357 revolver that he fancied in his hand, and shot one of the fallen bikers in the head as he was struggling to get a toppled Harley off his leg, then gut shot the other asshole as he stood up with his shotgun.
It was over quick as a gallop, except for the cleanup.
Mac always drove like he was in a race for his life and was at his calmest and coolest when he was barely in control of his Charger. But I was tense and braced as we flew down the highway through the thunderstorm, listening to the shush of the tires alternate between pushing the rain water out of the way and hydroplaning through the long puddles that always formed during the massive thunder storms we get all summer in the desert. I did it out of desperate instinct, knowing rationally there wasn't any point in it because if Mac had lost control and we skidded and flipped, no amount of bracing would have saved either of us from becoming a highway cop's sweat-dream for the next week.
I was relieved when Mac slowed and pulled into the industrial strip mall to stop and idle out front of Duncan's Automotive while I ran inside through the pounding rain to put our spoils in the second safe hidden under the shop stairs. The safe behind the counter out front was mostly for show with the daily float and books for the legit part of Duncan's business. The hidden safe was where we kept the real moneymaking swag that the cops would love to find but never would.
I was Duncan's banker and I cooked the books and made the dirty money into clean money and I'm sure I had given a lot of cops ulcers and sleepless nights because I'm that fucking good at my job; plus I was one of only two people who knew the combination to both safes and all of that is why they call me 'Banks'.
I delayed as long as I could, trying to let my nerves settle before sliding the panel back into place to hide the safe then locking up. Despite the pouring rain, I purposefully walked slow back to the Charger to give Mac more time to flush the adrenaline from his system.
"All tucked away in their snug little beds?" Mac asked me as I slid in and closed the heavy door of the Charger.
"Yeah." I said, "And let's drive slow and sane."
"Jeezus, Banks." Mac laughed, "You want to live forever?"
"Well, a little longer anyway." I said, "It's a foul night."
"Nah, it's been a fair night, my lad." Mac said as he pulled back onto the highway at a normal pace despite his hot blood, "We won."
"Except for Tom." I reminded him of the man we'd lost.
"Yeah." Mac said, a bit less enthusiastic, "Except for Tom."
We'd spent time cleaning up the ambush site, so by the time we got to the Laird of McCullough, Rubin and Tinker were back from the Vet's and Rubin had traded his bloody jeans for a pair of baggy grey sweat pants and was drinking a tumbler of Teacher's Highland Cream as he sat with the rest of the crew in our glass room. When Mac and I walked in, Duncan rose from his chair with a smile on his face and his arms opened wide.
"Mac! Banks! Our heroes return from the wars to the bosom of the Clan!" he bellowed and hugged us both, slapping our backs so hard it took our breath away.
"Sit! Sit!" he commanded and waved at our main girl Betts through the window and made a circular motion to tell her to bring a round of drinks for Mac and I and recharge everyone else. Betts was the only one of our waitresses who was permitted to serve us inside the room, but we were still careful that she didn't hear too much, so we waited until she had delivered our drinks and closed the door behind her before we filled in the blanks missing from what Duncan already knew of the night from Tinker and Rubin.
Mac and I told the him about cleaning up the site of the ambush, how we dumped the bikers' bodies down into a deep arroyo and pushed the Harleys in on top of them. Then how we dug a grave for Tom upslope and buried him deep in the clay so he wouldn't share a resting place with the bastards who killed him.
"That was good of you." Duncan said, "He was worthy of that at least."
And we drank to his memory with calls of 'Slàinte!' which was ironic because Tom no longer enjoyed the benefits of health.
"Did you get the cash back?" Rubin asked, still feeling the sting of dropping it after being shot.
"Of course, my brother." Mac said, "Banks locked it away at the shop."
"Along with a bonus." I added, then paused for as much suspense as Duncan could tolerate, "The fuckwits brought the meth with them too."
"No!" Duncan exclaimed, surprised and delighted, "A sweet turn of foul betrayal into fair fortune."
"Yeah." I agreed, "Mac and I figure that they brought it in case they'd spotted more of us than Tom, Tinker, and Rubin and had to call off the ambush and actually do the deal."
"Two kilos?" Duncan asked.
"Three." I said, "It's all in the safe.
"I wonder why three." Duncan pondered.
"My guess is they had another buyer to visit after they killed us all." I said, "So someone is going to be disappointed."
"As long as it ain't us." Malcolm said and we toasted again.
"I was never so happy to see that Charger and those bikes scattered." Rubin said, "Tinker and I owe you our lives, boys."
Mac and I lifted a glass toward them both.
"And Duncan." Mac said, "You owe me a front clip for my car."
"I'll order it up in the morning." Duncan said, waving at Betts for another round. Telling tales of murder and mayhem was thirsty work.
We had two more drinks and called it a night. It was a weeknight, and Rubin was still in pain with his leg stiffening up on him, plus I had to get home to Flea because Jaimie, the girl I had watch him for me, was in high school and had to be home before the hours got small.
As we gathered ourselves up and said our goodbyes walking out into the bar proper, we saw through the front windows that the storm had passed and was working its way further down the valley toward Mexico. We stepped outside the big doors with the checkerboard glass panes and breathed the thick moist air left behind by the deep summer storm. It was while we were confirming the time to gather at Duncan's Automotive the next day that Mac looked back and saw Bethany for the first time and Bethany saw him for the first time, separated by the grimy glass of the doors.
"Who's the new girl?" Mac said, watching Bethany clear a table into her plastic bin.
"That's Bethany. Beth for short." Duncan said, "She's my cousin Duffy's kid down from up north. I told him I'd give her a job at the Laird to keep her out of trouble. She had to leave town after a dust-up put another girl in the hospital, so she got sent to me until it's settled."
I watched as Bethany noticed Mac watching her and her face lit up with a closed lip smile. By the look on Mac's face, he was taken with her and I had to admit she was beautiful, with shoulder length auburn hair, skin pale and smooth with a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose and under her grey/green eyes.
Duncan laughed, "Stay away from that one Mac, she's trouble."
But it was too late. The Grim Sisters and the arcana of Gabriella's cards had it right; they met in storm and their fates had collided. I had a vague premonition in that moment that we were now all being drawn into a future that was uncertain and filled with spinning shadows and Mac and Bethany were at the centre of that chaotic whirlwind.
Copyright © 2020 Aaron D McClelland
Summerland, British Columbia