SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE

On April 26, 2007, Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story for "The Home Front," originally published in the anthology Death Do Us Part.

Enjoy.


THE HOME FRONT
by Charles Ardai

I pulled up to the pump, stubbed my Victory cigarette out in the ashtray, and waited for the kid in the overalls to come over. He was wiping grease around on a gear shaft with a cloth that had seen better days. Looking at him, you couldn’t say what had gotten him out of the service. Flat feet, maybe. But he was about twenty years old, big as an ape, and I couldn’t see any reason why he wasn’t using those big arms of his to bayonet Nazis instead of to pump gas.

I pressed the horn. "Hey! Max Baer!"

The kid looked up, half a grin on his face. He put the gear shaft down on a shelf and came over.

I showed him an A coupon. "Give me my four gallons, kid. I’ve got money."

The kid wiped, wiped, wiped his hands, but the rag only made them greasier. "Ration’s been reduced," he said. "An A gets you two gallons now."

"You think I don’t know that?" I held the coupon out the window. "Give me four. I’ve got enough to pay for it."

"Have you got another one of those?"

"No."

"Then you don’t get four gallons." The kid looped the rag under his belt and shrugged. What can I do? the shrug said. Don’t blame me, blame Hitler.

"I’ll pay double," I said.

"You could pay triple, I don’t have the gas."

"So what’s in the tanks? Sand?"

"Air. And two gallons of gas if you want them."

"I want four."

"Two is as much—"

"That I heard already." I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket and held it out to the kid. "I’ll pay a dollar a gallon."

The kid’s eyes got wide and round as dinner plates. "That’s a lot of money."

"Yeah. It’s a lot of money."

"I’ve got some that I’ve...wait here." The kid ran off behind the garage.

He came back carrying two metal gas cans, one in each hand. He uncapped the nozzle on one and upended it into the car’s tank. When it was empty, he started the second can.

I put the bill back in my wallet.

"Four gallons." The kid came back around to the window. "That’ll be four dollars, mister." He said it as though this was a legitimate transaction.

I unfolded my wallet and held it up, showing the kid a badge that said "Office of Price Administration" in small letters. He didn’t have time to read the words, but he knew what the badge meant.

"Hold on," he said. "You asked me—"

"And you agreed."

"Please—my family—"

"Should’ve thought of that sooner," I said. "Get in."

#

I got to keep the gas. Everyone else in the country had to wait in gas lines for just enough gas to get to the next line. I may not have had three meals every day but, by God, I could drive where I wanted.

It was a job – a war job like everybody else’s, more respectable than some, less than others. When the OPA had held the recruitment meeting in their office in Times Square, more ratty guys than you’d think existed showed up to get on the gravy train. Mr. Bowles himself walked down the line, threw the bums out, and took the rest of us out of our civilian togs and made us agents of the Federal government.

Then he explained the special arrangement: Ours wasn’t a factory job and they couldn’t pay us a factory’s man’s wages. But to even things up, they’d let us keep part of what we scored. With gasoline, we could keep all of it as long as it was less than five gallons.

The guy standing next to me when he told us this, a sweaty, bald-headed grifter named Tom Doyle, leaned over when Bowles wasn’t looking and whispered in my ear, "What you do is, you always ask for four." Doyle was probably the worst, but every one of them was always figuring an angle.

You’d think there wouldn’t be work for guys like us, shutting down the black market operator by operator, not with the war on and posters up on every block telling you that each black market bite you ate or mile you drove was taken off a soldier’s plate or out of his plane’s fuel tank. But the fact of the matter was that there was plenty of work, enough for the OPA to deputize three thousand starving PIs around the country to do it. You couldn’t turn around without catching someone selling something under the table: meat, shoes, nylons, cheddar cheese, you name it. And most of the time these were the same people who were growing Victory gardens on their fire escapes for Uncle Sam.

On the other side were mugs like Doyle, collecting a paycheck from the government to sniff out profiteers and getting cash under the table from the profiteers to look the other way. The worst of it, depending on how you looked at it, was that Doyle would take the dirty money week after week and then, when he needed to show he was doing his job, would turn them in anyway.

I wasn’t lily white myself, driving around on illegal gas, eating illegal steak whenever I could corner some. The difference between the profiteers on one hand and the PIs on the other was that they were cheating their country and we were serving ours. It may not seem like much, but it was the reason that I was driving while the boy next to me was in handcuffs, and not the other way around.

His name was Matt Kelly. He looked it, too, Irish coming out of his ears. He had hair like carrot shavings and a big Irish jaw and when he spoke you could butter your bread with his R’s. He told me his life story as I drove him in, how he’d come over with his mother in thirty-eight and worked for an uncle in the garage, how he’d saved out the gas he’d given me for his own personal use and would never have sold it on the black market if I hadn’t made the offer so sweet.

"You’re digging your grave deeper, Kelly," I said. "All you’re telling me is that you wouldn’t have sold it to me if I hadn’t offered to pay through the nose."

"You’re twisting it around, mister. I’m telling you, I wouldn’t have sold it at all, but you kept asking for it—"

"You didn’t have to say yes," I told him. "I didn’t hold a gun on you. All I held on you was a lousy fiver and you jumped at it."

"You know how bad things are. I could have fed my ma and her brother for a month with that money."

"You mean you would have used it to buy on the black market, too," I said. "Oh, you’re a pip."

"Have a heart, mister."

"I should have a heart?" I floored the brake right there in the middle of the highway, let his gas burn away as we idled. "You’re not dying at the front, you’re not blowing up in an airplane, you’re not putting your life on the line. You’re a big boy, you could be out there fighting, but you’re not. You’re sitting at home, listening to it on the radio. And while they’re dying for your freedom, you’re worried whether you can get some roast beef for your dinner. And I should have a heart."

I started forward again, floored the gas, steered the car into a turn. I was really steaming now. "And another thing—"

But the other thing never came out.

I went into the curve at forty miles an hour and ran head on into a car coming the other way in the wrong lane. The front of my car crumpled and Kelly, who couldn’t use his hands because of the cuffs, went smashing through the windshield and onto the hood of the other car. I threw my arms up in front of my face and caught the steering wheel in my chest. But at least I lived.

Kelly was shredded, bloody, screaming. He had gone through the windshield face first. The driver of the other car, a white-haired man with glasses, had a broken neck, if you went by the mismatched angle of his head and his body. He had fallen against his horn and the damn thing was blaring like an air raid siren.

I had some cracked ribs. I could feel them grate in my chest as I dislodged myself from under the wheel. I shouldered my door open and fell onto the side of the road.

Did the explosion start from the other car or from mine? I don’t know. In an instant, the frozen scene of the two wrecked cars and the two bodies erupted into flame. Kelly died somewhere in the middle of that first explosion. I know because he stopped screaming. The horn stopped, too, as the other man’s corpse shifted in his car.

I lay flat on the side of the road and let the wave of heat from the blast pass over me. Then I sat up and watched my goddamn four gallons go up in smoke.

#

It was the war and I was a Federal agent. The cops didn’t want any part of me and the feds had bigger items on their docket than the death of a blackmarketeer who had tried to wrestle control of the car away from me, which was the way I told the story.

They had a nearsighted stateside doctor tape my chest up, which he did so badly it ached every time I tried to lie down. And then, with so little fanfare I didn’t know what was happening until it was over, they gave me a week’s pay and my papers and told me to disappear. They didn’t say it just like that, but it was what they meant. My name and picture had made the papers, so I was useless to them.

But disappear to where? I was too old to enlist, I had no car, the government didn’t want to know me, and my private practice, such as it ever had been, had had fourteen months in which to dry up.

I sat in my office waiting for the phone to ring, but it didn’t. So I had a lot of time to sit by myself while my ribs healed, listening to the floor creak in the hall outside when people visited the eye doctor one flight up from me. I thought about Matt Kelly – I thought about him plenty. I remembered having a hard time cinching the cuffs on him, his wrists had been so big and meaty. I remembered the look he’d had when he’d spoken of his ma and uncle. He’d been trying to provide for his family. He’d broken the law, but nowhere was it written that you had to die for hoarding two cans of gasoline.

I hadn’t seen Kelly’s face when he died, but in my dreams I saw it and it was the face of a boy burning up in the worst pain you can imagine. And I remembered how sanctimonious I had been, how cocky, how red-white-and-blue. You’re not dying at the front, I’d told him, and I’d been right. He hadn’t died at the front, for his country. He’d died at home, for nothing.

When the end of the month came, my bank account was dry, my refrigerator had nothing in it but a few bottles of beer, and if I didn’t mind when the phone company turned off my service it was only because I couldn’t remember the last time the phone had rung. I woke up each morning afraid to shave after I caught myself, once, fingering the edge of my razor a little too thoughtfully.

My beard grew in. My lease ran out. The day my cash finally dropped into the single digits, I took a long shower, toweled off, packed my things into a traveling bag, and started walking. I wasn’t coming back, so I took everything I had with me, even the wet towel.

I walked down Broadway, forty blocks or more, walked clear out of the city, walked on the shoulders of roads and through patches of forest, walked until I was too tired to walk any more. Then I sat in the shade of a tree, took my shoes off, massaged my insoles until the ache dulled, shouldered my bag, and started walking again.

I had five dollars and change in my pocket, a wristwatch I could pawn if I had to, a hand-tooled leather belt I could sell if I got desperate enough. I had tired feet and a chest that had never healed properly and no idea where I was going. I passed houses and roadside taverns, I was passed by cars. I almost thumbed a ride once but embarrassment took hold and I lowered my hand before any driver saw it.

When the sun passed overhead and started blinding me from the right, I started thinking about where I would spend the night. It was warm, so sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad – unless I ended up in the stir for vagrancy. I passed a restaurant that had a sign advertising rooms, but I didn’t want to spend the little money I had renting one of them. I passed a house with an open window, and through it I saw a family sitting down to dinner. I thought about stopping, ringing the bell, asking them to take me in for the night, but I couldn’t do it.

Then I came to a gas station that was shutting down for the night. A woman was wrestling with the garage door. It kept sticking and she kept pulling at it, inching it toward the ground. I was walking slowly and in the time it took me to get to her she wasn’t able to get it more than halfway down. Her denim shirt was stained under the arms and across one forearm where she kept wiping the sweat from her forehead. Her hair was tied behind her and her hands were red from the effort.

The house attached to the garage looked bigger than one person needed for herself alone and the thought crossed my mind that there might be room there for me. But this wasn’t the reason I stopped, not really. I just couldn’t stand to see her fight with that door any more.

I walked onto the lot, slid my bag to the ground, approached the garage. The woman stepped back. I took a firm grip and put my weight into it, forcing the door down. It clattered the last two feet and hit bottom with a bang. I held my chest and took deep breaths. It hurt like hell, like my ribs were still broken.

"You okay?" she said.

I nodded. "Just an old injury. Comes back to hurt me now and then."

"I appreciate your help. You saw the sign, I suppose."

"The sign?"

She pointed to a square of cardboard wedged on top of one of the pumps, hand lettered to say "Man wanted to help in garage. Food, lodging."

"No, I didn’t see that," I said.

"In that case I’m doubly grateful." She bent over to close the padlock on the door.

I lifted my bag, waited for her to straighten up. "Listen—"

"Yes?"

"I hadn’t seen that sign, that’s the truth," I said, "but I had thought about asking if I could stay here for the night." I felt her eyes on me. I looked down at my feet. "Now that I have seen it...well, you probably want a younger man to do the work and that’s fine. But I’d be grateful if you’d give me the job till someone better comes along. Even if it’s only for a day, that’s a day’s more food and lodging than I have reason to expect now."

She watched me for a second or two more, then wiped her hands on her apron, untied the strings in back, and lifted it over her head. She held it out to me. "Why would I want a younger man? You dealt with that door just fine. Fold this up and come with me. You can wash up before supper." I took the apron from her and she kept her hand extended.

"I’m Moira Kelly," she said.

Her words hung in the air between us. It took a moment. I looked at her, looked at her hand, looked at the pumps and the house behind them, looked at her red hair and her tired eyes and I suddenly realized where I was. Where I had walked. Who I had helped. I started to cry then. She thought it was from gratitude; this made it worse.

Now that I looked for it, I could see him in her features, in her prominent jaw and in the tight curls of her hair. Even in her size: she was half a foot taller than me and broad shouldered. Thoughts collided in my head. Of course she needs help, now that he’s dead. And: How could I not have known where I was? How could I not have remembered?

"Come along," she said, "Mister...?"

I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. Not after offering my help, not when she needed help and I could give it. But I couldn’t speak either. I shook my head. I forced out the first name that came to mind. It came out in a hoarse whisper. "Doyle. Tom Doyle."

"Okay, Mr. Doyle. You come in, wash your hands, and put some food in you. Right through here, up the stairs, on your left. I’ll be up after you."

#

I splashed water on my face, scrubbed my hands free of road dust, combed my hair, straightened my beard. I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to compare what I saw with the pictures that had run in the papers two months before. The beard made a difference, but how much? My hair was longer and had a little more gray in it, I thought. But it was still me under there.

Still, she and I had never seen each other and a picture in the paper is just a picture in the paper. She didn’t know who I was.

I took my bag back out into the hall and waited for her. My hands were shaking a little. I stuck them in my pockets, played with the change I found there.

Moira came up the stairs and pointed me toward a room at the end of the hall. I went in ahead of her. The room had a bed in it, covered with a gray blanket, and a dresser with a radio and a photograph on it. The picture showed Matt Kelly at about eighteen years old, maybe two years younger than when I had killed him. She saw me looking at the photo and took it off the dresser.

"That’s my son. This used to be his room."

The silence between us was unbearable. I had to say something. "What happened?"

"He died in an accident. Few months back, a man picked him up for selling more gas than he should have, drove him into an accident."

"I’m sorry," I said.

"Don’t be, you didn’t do it." She slid the photo into the side pocket of her dress. "His name was Matthew, Mr. Doyle. You’ll see some of his things around. I’ll get them out of your way tomorrow. You can use the radio if you like. Anything else of his gets in your way—"

"No, it’s fine."

"Well, if it does, you just move it out of your way and I’ll take it downstairs tomorrow. Give me ten minutes to get supper ready and you can join us in the kitchen." She paused. "There’s my brother living here, too. It’s he that owns the station, though he’s not able to work it any more. I think I’ve told you everything now. Have I?"

"I think so."

"No I haven’t, there’s the work." She shook her head. "We’ll talk about that tomorrow, if it’s all right with you."

"It’s fine, thank you."

We looked at each other. She’d taken the tie out and her hair hung down over her shoulders, a rusty red streaked with gray. She had to be forty or more, and a life like hers usually makes you look your age, but she didn’t. She had a handsome face, though I didn’t especially like having to look up to see it, and a nice figure. Her palms were calloused and her forehead creased but the effect on her was not a bad one. She was a strong woman who looked like she had been through a lot, but the point was that she looked like she had been through it. It hadn’t beaten her.

"I hope I don’t have to tell you this," she said, "but while you’re working for me you’re not going to drink and there’ll be no violence between you and anybody around or you can take your bag back on the road."

"No, you don’t have to tell me that," I said. "I don’t drink more than the average man. I’ll even stop that if you want. And I don’t remember the last time I was in a fight."

"How did you get your injury, then?"

"Accident," I said, without thinking. Again I spat out the first lie that filled my mouth. "A ladder collapsed under me while I was working on a roof. Caught a toolbox in my chest."

"I hope you’ll be more careful here."

"I will," I said. "I won’t make the same mistake twice."

Before I followed her downstairs, I changed my shirt and stowed the rest of my clothing in the top dresser drawer. The drawer was empty except for a pullover cardigan and two pairs of socks. She had told me to move them out of the way, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. They had every right to be here. I was the one who didn’t.

The kitchen was plain, a square room with a stove and an icebox along one wall and a bare wooden table in the middle. A man sat at the head of the table in a wheelchair, his hands curled tightly around its arms. He had deep-set eyes that darted left and right constantly and a throaty baritone that sounded like an engine turning over. "You’re Mr. Doyle," he said. "You’ll be helping Moira out."

"Yes."

"Have you done this kind of work before?"

"No."

"What kind of work you done, then?"

"I don’t know," I said. "You name it."

"No, you name it."

"Drove a delivery truck with my father out in California."

"Recently?"

"No. Years ago."

"So what have you been doing recently?"

Working for the government. Catching black marketeers. Killing your nephew. "I had a job with a..." I took a drink from the glass of water Moira had put out in front of me. I wasn’t used to inventing so many lies in one day. "With a printer. We did print jobs for shops."

"How did you lose it?"

"Lose it?"

"The job," he said. "You don’t have the job any more."

"The shop went out of business. The man who owned it closed it down."

He nodded, either satisfied or just tired of the conversation. Maybe he assumed that there was something in my past that I wasn’t telling him. He would have been right – how right, he couldn’t have guessed.

Moira came in, stirred the stewpot on the range and turned off the gas under it. She carried it to the table and put it down on a trivet. She ladled out bowls of the stew, placed them in front of us with thick slices of bread. Finally, she sat down herself. "You two have met by now? Tom Doyle, Byron Wilson...Byron, Tom."

I reached across the table to shake his hand but he just kept spooning the stew into his mouth.

"Byron," Moira said.

"No need to introduce us," Byron said. "We’ve been talking. I feel I know Mr. Doyle very well."

His eyes bored into me then and I suddenly felt uncomfortable.

I looked away, blew on a spoonful of stew, sipped it. It was a thick, salty Irish broth of carrots and potatoes with fibers of beef and bits of onion. It landed in my grateful stomach like lotion on a burn. "This is very good."

"You see, Byron, a person can say nice things about my cooking."

"You know I like your stew," he said.

"I know it, but not because you say it."

"I’m your brother. I don’t have to say it."

"You’re not eating?" I said.

She had a bowl in front of her but it was empty. "I will. I just wanted to rest for a moment."

I stood up, uncovered the pot, dug the ladle out. "So rest." I filled her bowl.

They were both watching me. I sat down.

"Thank you, Mr. Doyle."

"No one calls me ‘Mr. Doyle,’ " I said. It was the truth, God knows. "Call me Tom."

"Tom," Byron said, "you planning to stay here for long?"

I hesitated before answering. "Can’t say, honestly. I didn’t plan to come here at all. I’ll stay as long as you want me to and no longer." I turned to Moira. "When you want me to go, say so and I’ll go."

Byron leaned forward in his chair. "I will, Tom. That I will."

#

I sat in the tub and let the water stream down over my head, hot enough to be almost painful. The drain was open and the water was running out as fast as it was running in. It was wasteful to use their hot water this way but I needed it. The rhythm beating against my skull, my shoulders, the warm pool draining away at my feet. From the next room I could hear the radio, whispering its melodies like it was a hundred miles away.

The world had gone crazy – not just my world, which was bad enough, but the whole world, three years into a war that looked no closer to ending today than it had when it began. The songs on the radio were mostly war songs and the news bulletins, war updates. By now we’d all forgotten what life was like without a war. I know I had.

Once upon a time, I had been a private investigator, licensed by the State of New York, scratching out a living tracing bail jumpers and cheating husbands. Then the war had come and my chance to be a part of it had come, too: the OPA, with its gleaming white office, its scientifically planned price ceilings, and its Crackerjack-prize booklets of ration coupons. I sold myself on the idea that this was my way of fighting the war. All it really was was my way of making a living. I had lived off of it for more than a year. Then the world had caved in.

If I’d never joined the OPA, what would have become of me? I didn’t know. But I knew this: I wouldn’t have had to suffer every time I shut a garage door. If the war hadn’t come, or hadn’t lasted this long, I wouldn’t have been soaking now in a dead man’s tub, or sleeping in his bed, or eating his dinner, or wearing another man’s name. But it had and I was, and no amount of water would wash that away.

I stood up in the tub, shut the faucets off, collected my clothing from the floor. There were towels on the rack that I could have wrapped around me but I didn’t feel right walking out like that. So I took one of the robes that were hanging behind the door. It had been his robe, I assumed, judging by how big it was on me. I almost put it back, but there was no use fighting it at this point: I’d be doing his job soon enough, so I might as well wear his robe.

I padded down the hall to the bedroom. Moira was there, collecting Matt’s things in a basket. The radio was playing one of those songs you couldn’t get away from, "Sentimental Journey," and there were tears in her eyes. When she saw me, she smiled, almost laughed. I looked down at myself to see why.

"You’re wearing my robe," she said.

"I’m sorry."

"It’s okay, I don’t mind." She reached out to turn off the radio but I caught her hand.

"No, leave it. It’s nice."

"Okay."

"You didn’t have to take his things away. Not on my account."

"I’d have had to eventually. Might as well be now."

"What was he like?" I heard myself say it. I don’t know where the words came from.

She bent at the knees and slid slowly to the floor, her back against the dresser. "What was he like? He was good to me, he was bright, he was handsome. He looked like his father, God rest his soul. He was headstrong sometimes, he could be stubborn. He was my son. I’ll never have another."

I sat next to her, took the basket out of her hands, put it down on the floor.

"He was just fourteen when we came here. All he knew was that he was coming with his mother to a new country and he came and he never had one complaint. I did – heaven knows I did. He never did. He just took everything in stride."

"How did his father die?" I said.

"There was a fire in the garage. It was the same fire that took Byron’s legs." She turned to me. "Steven came over before we did, to earn the money to bring us out. He worked here, with my brother. It happened while Matthew and I were on the boat coming over. Steven and Byron were getting the place ready for us and a fire started in the garage. The whole place nearly came down. Byron was caught when a piece of the wall fell in. The firemen could barely get him out."

"That’s terrible," I said.

"It is. And then Matthew—" Her voice caught.

"It’s all right."

"Matthew fixed it up again."

"It’s okay."

"He finished just before he—"

I put my arm around her shoulders, pulled her head to my chest, let her weep into her robe. The radio hissed, a silence between songs. I stroked Moira’s hair gently, said "I’m sorry" again and again. I meant it; maybe she could hear that, or maybe she just heard the pain in my voice. She looked up and when I kissed her forehead she pulled my face down to her lips.

#

We lay under the robe in his bed. She slept. I stayed awake, holding her shoulder, listening to "Deep Purple" on the radio. A floor beneath us, I could hear the wheels of Byron’s chair turning as he rolled around his room. I wondered if he needed any help getting into the bed. I wondered if he had heard us. I wondered what I was doing with Moira Kelly in my arms. I didn’t think I would, but eventually I fell asleep.

She was gone when I woke up. I dressed in the same clothes I’d worn the day before. I buttoned my shirt at the window, looking out at the gas pumps and the fenced-in meadow across the way. A car pulled in and I saw Moira go out to meet it. After the day I’d put in yesterday, it was no surprise that I’d overslept. Still, I owed Moira a day’s work and had already slept through the first few hours of it. I hurried downstairs.

Byron was sitting at the kitchen table, just as I had left him the night before. He was thumbing through a newspaper, taking sips from a mug of tea. He looked at me but didn’t say anything as I passed through into the glare of a cloudless morning.

I walked up behind Moira while she was taking money from the customer. She turned to face me when the car drove off.

"Good morning," I said.

"Morning." She walked into the garage. I noticed that she had gotten the garage door open by herself.

"Where do I start?"

She pointed to a rack of tools and a disassembled automobile engine lying on a bench. "You can start by putting that back together."

"You fixed it already?"

"Byron did." She crouched next to the bench. "That much he can still do."

I carried a handful of wrenches to the bench, dropped them on the ground and settled into a squat. "I think I can handle this."

"Good."

She watched while I put the thing back together, making plenty of mistakes along the way. She pointed them out as I made them, walking away twice to take care of customers, correcting my work when she came back. When I finished, she showed me a couple of auto carcasses she kept for spare parts, a tool cabinet in the corner of the garage, the row of gas cans lined up behind the garage in the shadow of an eave.

Around noon, I took over from Moira at the pump while she went inside. A few people drove in, not too many. I kept the cash in my shirt pocket, put the coupons in a cigar box in the garage. No one asked me to give him more than his fair share of gas. It was a good thing. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had.

Moira called me in to eat just after one. Before I went in I looked back at the house, at the window I had dressed in and the one below it. Byron was sitting in the ground floor window staring back at me.

We ate quickly, reheated stew and chicory coffee. After wolfing down his food, Byron rolled himself outside. Through the kitchen window I saw him heading toward the garage.

"He’s got some things to finish," Moira explained.

"What things?"

"Making sure you put that engine together properly, for one."

"He doesn’t trust you to keep an eye on me?"

"No man trusts his little sister with another man."

There were things I wanted to say, things I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t say any of them. "When did Byron come to this country?" I asked instead.

"Nineteen twenty-nine."

"Hell of a year to come to the United States."

"Hell of a year in Ireland. Hell of a year anywhere."

"I guess."

"Have you ever been out of the country?"

I closed my eyes. A couple of washed-out memories surfaced, like photographs left out too long in the sun. "My father took me into Mexico once." The scene I remembered best had a woman in it. She spoke Spanish to my father, which he seemed to understand. My mother had died the same year and I remembered wanting to hit my father for the way he was looking at this woman. That’s what I remembered of Mexico, that and how hot it was.

"You should see Ireland," Moira said. "Not now, of course. When the war ends."

"If the war ends."

She stood up and walked past me to the door, stopping to kiss me on the forehead first. "What is it that turned you into a cynic?"

I wanted to say, A woman whose son I killed just kissed me. That’s what turned me into a cynic. "You just never know what’s going to happen next in life," I said, and followed her out into the lot.

#

One night a week later, I left Byron and Moira sitting at the table, dinner dishes crowding the sink. I told them that I was tired, that I wanted to take a bath, that I needed to rest, all of which was true. But I didn’t go upstairs. I walked past the stairs and into Byron’s room.

The room was identical to Matt’s, down to the gray blanket on the bed, except that there was no radio on the dresser. Instead there was a stack of newspapers, copies of Life magazine, issues of Time and Look. A few newspapers were scattered on the floor. I thumbed through the pile, not really looking for anything, just looking. Then I went to the window and looked out through the blinds.

The land was dark, the grass of the meadow blue-black in the night. Some light shone from the half moon and the two gas pumps stood out, looming shadows in the dark. Cars drove past in silence. I knelt by the window and tried to imagine a car driving into the lot. I pictured my car; I pictured what it would have looked like from this window when I stopped at the pumps that morning. I had had the windows open and I’d sat in the driver’s seat for a good ten minutes before I’d driven off with Matt Kelly next to me. If Byron had been sitting at this window then, he would have had plenty of time to see me. The window would have given him a perfect view.

Behind me, I heard a wheel squeak.

Byron cleared his throat. "Saying your prayers?"

I turned around. Byron pushed himself toward me, rolling over the papers on the floor. The light in the room was turned off. He was not a big man, but neither am I. In the dark, with me on my knees, he loomed over me, a black shape with no features, no face, just a dark mass with a dark voice.

"I was just looking out."

"That you were. But looking out for what, Mr. Doyle?"

He rolled closer, catching me between his chair and the wall. "Should I call you that? You said you prefer Tom, but since neither is your name I don’t know what to say."

I said nothing. We both could hear Moira washing up in the kitchen.

After too long, he spoke again. "Moira doesn’t know."

"Why not?"

"I haven’t told her."

"I don’t understand."

"I wasn’t sure at first," Byron said. "I had to get a good look at you. And even after I did I couldn’t believe you would come back here."

"It was an accident—"

"Maybe."

"I never meant to come back."

"You didn’t mean to kill my nephew either. You do a lot of things you don’t mean to."

"Why haven’t you told Moira?"

"You idiot," Byron hissed. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you think she picks up men from the road every day? Do you think she makes a habit of taking strangers to her bed? Say yes and I’ll deck you."

"No, I’m sure she doesn’t."

"Mr. Harper, is it? Other than me, Mr. Harper, you’re the first person she’s so much as talked to in weeks."

"Why me?"

"I don’t know why you. But I didn’t see her cry once today. That’s another first."

"It’s been months—"

"Did you ever lose a son, Mr. Harper?"

"I’ve never had a son."

"A wife?"

I shook my head.

"Well, think about it, then. Look at me. How do you think you would feel if one day your brother got drunk and started a fire that killed your husband?"

"You—"

"And then, years later, when you thought you’d put your life in order again, what would it do to you if you lost your son in another stupid, terrible accident?"

"I had no idea."

"Now you do."

My eyes were getting used to the dark and I could make out his face now. It had been better when I couldn’t.

"I don’t know why you ended up here again, but you did. She’s not going to lose you, too." He rolled closer. "But if you ever hurt her, I will tell her who you are and give her a gun to kill you in your sleep."

"I won’t hurt her."

"I believe you don’t mean to," Byron said. "Just make sure it works out that way."

He rolled backwards and out the door. I got to my feet.

"Thank you."

"Don’t thank me. Take your bath, Mr. Doyle, and go to her. Every man deserves a second chance. Even me. Even you."

#

That night we slept in her bed and woke together just before dawn. "Byron told me about the fire," I said.

"What about it?"

"That it was his fault."

"It was. And he paid for it."

"You’re not angry at him?"

"The man lost his legs. What more am I going to take from him?"

"That’s very forgiving."

Moira raised herself on one elbow. "I don’t forgive him, Tom. I’ll never forgive him. But he’s my brother and a cripple and I can’t hate him for what happened."

"Other people would."

"Maybe they would. I don’t."

What about me? I thought. Would you hate me, if you knew what I had done? I got out of bed and dressed quickly. I felt her eyes on my back.

"You understand about Byron, don’t you?"

"Yes," I said.

"You resent him, though."

"No," I said. "He’s been nothing but kind to me."

"That’s not true."

"Kinder than I deserve."

"No."

"Believe me," I said. "Kinder than I deserve."

#

The summer didn’t last. The days were long, and then suddenly it was getting dark early again; the breeze was warm, and then one day it chilled you when it caught you in short sleeves out by the pumps. Paris was free again. Our troops crossed the Siegfried Line. For the first time in memory, the reports coming over the radio brought hope – everyone felt it. But the war went on, and the days grew colder, and we all held tight to one another when we saw the newsreel footage of snow falling in Malmedy and the Ardennes.

Bing Crosby was on the radio, singing another one of those songs you couldn’t get away from, "White Christmas," though it wasn’t quite time for it yet, not for a week still. Moira was inside, fixing lunch while I wiped oil from a broken twist of metal I’d pulled out of a car I was fixing. I heard tires on the gravel outside, then the blare of a horn. "I’ll be right there," I called out. The horn didn’t let up, so I carried the bracket out of the garage with me, laid it down on top of one of the pumps.

The guy in the car let up when he saw me, pulled off his gloves and rolled down the window. He leaned out and held out an A coupon. His breath fogged in the air.

"Hey, mac, be a pal and let me have—" his voice slowed down "—four gallons." He peered out at me. "Holy God, Rory Harper, is that you?"

I stared at him. My own name sounded unfamiliar to me, so much so that I didn’t even respond when he said it. I had no idea who he was.

"Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me...? Oh, wait, it’s this, isn’t it?" He took hold of his hair, lifted it off, and dropped it in a matted heap on the seat next to him. "I wear the rug in this weather, keeps me warm," he said. "But maybe you never saw me with it."

I knew who he was then.

"Tom Doyle," he said. "You remember?"

I spoke in an undertone. It was all I could manage. "You’ve confused me with someone else. My name’s—" I suddenly realized I couldn’t finish the sentence.

He grinned. "You don’t know your name?"

"Byron Kelly," I said. "Of course I know my name."

"You’re Byron Kelly like I’m Edward G. Robinson. A beard don’t make you someone else. Come on Harper, what’s the score? You in some kind of trouble?"

"My name is Byron—"

"You gone off your nut, Harper, or you just putting this on?"

I swallowed what I was about to say. Through the kitchen window I could hear Moira inside, taking a kettle off the stove. I looked in Byron’s window, but he wasn’t there. He was probably already in the kitchen. At any moment Moira would come out to call me in.

Doyle followed the path of my eyes and when I looked back at him, the grin had returned, splitting his fat face in two. "I follow. They don’t know who you are. You on the run? No, don’t tell me. I won’t spoil anything for you."

I didn’t say anything. My palms were wet.

"But be a sport and give a pal some gas." I reached out for the coupon, but he pocketed it. "No one has to know."

"I can’t."

"I won’t report you, if that’s what you’re worried about."

"They’ll know."

"So what? A few gallons of gas are missing. They’ll know much more than that if I don’t keep my mouth shut."

"Please," I said

He raised his voice. "Please what, Harper?"

We stared at each other for a second. "Nothing."

"That’s right. So start pumping. Might as well fill it up."

I turned to face the pump. I could hardly breathe. A tank of gas was nothing. But the kind of man Doyle was, once he had you on the hook, he played you for all you were worth.

He’d come back. He wouldn’t let up. I could give him the gas, buy him off for today, and then run tonight, pack my bag and never come back – but I didn’t want to run. Not now. I couldn’t let him ruin everything.

I took the iron bracket off the pump.

"Tom," I said softly.

He leaned further out of his window. "What?"

I turned and swung, bringing the bar down across his face, snapping my arm back and striking again, and then again. I couldn’t stop. His face crumpled under the blows.

I lifted his head from the windowsill, shoved it back inside, pushed at his shoulder until he tipped toward the passenger seat. I reached inside for the latch and swung the door open, got my hands under him and rolled him out from under the wheel. He groaned then, his ruined face pressed against the passenger-side window.

My heart was racing, my hands shaking. Moira was still in the kitchen. Another minute, maybe two – it was all I needed.

There was blood in the gravel, but only a little, most of it was on the door. I kicked the stones over to cover it. Then I threw the bracket in the back seat and climbed in under the wheel, slamming the door shut. He was still alive, but for how much longer? I would drive him into the woods, find a place to hide him, find a ravine to push the car into—

The front door opened then. Moira stepped through it, a dishtowel in one hand. She looked over at the car, took a step forward. "Tom?"

I turned the key in the ignition, heard the engine hungrily turning over, but it didn’t catch. I wanted to race away before she could take another step, but the car wouldn’t go and she kept coming. I opened the door, put one leg out, reached an arm out toward her across the top of the car. "Don’t come any closer! Moira, please, stay back!"

But she didn’t. "What’s going on, Tom?" Now she had seen Doyle’s face in the window, crushed and bloody against the glass, and she ran to the door. "What happened to him? Tom, he’s hurt!"

"Go back inside, Moira, please—"

She threw the door open, and Doyle fell forward into her arms, his face smearing her apron. "Tom, we’ve got to help this man."

Doyle groaned again, turned his head slightly. He spoke then, in a ragged whisper. "I’m Tom Doyle," he said. "Son of a bitch is Rory Harper." And he died in her arms.

She watched me climb the rest of the way out of the car, come around to her side, take the weight of Doyle’s body from her hands. She watched me sink to my knees, watched me clasp her bloody hands between mine. She watched it all, but she didn’t see any of it. She stared through me and past me. She looked defeated then – for the first time, I looked in her eyes and saw nothing. No rage, no fury, no life.

#

I sat in the gravel until the police came. I made it easy for them to get the cuffs on me, holding my wrists together at the small of my back. They asked me what had happened and I told them: I told them who the dead man was, I told them I had killed him. I didn’t tell them why.

Byron watched from his window as they put me into the back seat of the car. I turned away. I couldn’t look at him.

They drove, and in a few minutes we reached the spot where the accident had happened. I looked out the window as we passed it. You couldn’t see the blood anymore, but the asphalt was still scorched in a few spots.

When I looked up, a car was coming toward us in the other lane. I thought: If only that car had stayed in its proper lane then, how much could have been avoided.

They hadn’t locked the door, perhaps because I was such a docile prisoner. I wedged my knee under the latch and forced it up. The door swung open. I launched myself out of the car.

The other driver swerved to miss me but there wasn’t enough room.

If only, I thought.

Copyright 2006 by Charles Ardai. All rights reserved.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy the work of Hard Case Crime author Richard Aleas, including his latest novel, Songs of Innocence.