"I'm going in with you" she said. She was chewing down on the butt of an unlit cigarette, a nervous habit. It crushed between her molars like a wet crayon resisting itself. Her hands were shoved in the pockets of her jacket. Scowling, "It's not that I'm afraid, or that I don't want to make the deal. All I said was that I don't feel comfortable in there. I just needed you to know that. But it's not a big deal, really."
"You've got some nerve coming all the way down here with me just to make me worry about you. We talked about this. We don't have anyone else we can pick up from. We agreed it was worth it. And now you're getting cold feet on me?"
"I never fucking said that!" Cass was already in a bad mood. The fact that Roland was blowing things out of proportion (again) was making things worse. They had shared a lot of special moments that summer but these days they could both feel themselves becoming more and more uptight. "But I mean...now that you mention it, maybe it's not such a bad idea to just go home. I mean, we don't really need to get high tonight right? We can just...watch a movie or just...I don't know."
"Great. Now you don't know what you want. What am I supposed to do with you?" He tossed up his hands like omelettes being flipped. She watched them fall with a thud against the steering wheel. The sound seemed even more incredulous to her than the gesture. She made sure she closed her eyes before she rolled them. But, she also knew that she was grasping at straws by suggesting to go back to his place. She knew what each of them had come to expect from this relationship. That after a long day of work they would sit on Roland's couch and get so high they could barely speak. Aside from the past it was almost all they had. It was necessary that they were here.
And so there they were, parked in Roland's '94 red Pontiac late on a Saturday night outside Pen's house. Pen was the de facto kingpin of coke in Salinas. He was the only road going in or out of town these days. Roland and Cass were taking their time, because while Roland was genuinely concerned with his girlfriend's anxieties he wasn't too eager to go in himself either. "What is it you don't like about him anyway?"
"It's not that I don't like him" she said. "It's that I fucking hate him."
"You've never even met him!"
"So what? I've felt him. I feel how hard it is to score from anyone else. I feel the pressure he puts on people, on all sides. He's polarized the entire town. Either you're one of the people jerking him off under his big umbrella or you're hung out to dry. I hate him. I hate what he represents and I fucking blame him. He's the reason why all the cowards around here have all the money and all the blow. Him and everyone who kisses his ass. And you know he's the reason why Jackie went missing. Nobody talks about it but everybody knows." She turned away. "I don't want to piss him off. But I definitely don't want to be his friend."
"Well we're not here to make friends. We're here for business. And you're right, he does have an umbrella and it's one hell of a big one. He's the only one we can deal with safely. Hey, if you can't beat em, join em."
"Yeah whatever." She threw the cigarette butt in the ashtray and grabbed the mirror from her purse. It was something she would look at and hold very often, especially when she needed comfort or strength. To her it represented and radiated positive energies, protective energies. Her mother gave it to her when she was 8. It was brown and oakened, like someone had carved a knot right out of a tree. It had been with her every day of the last 14 years. She took a look at herself in its reflection for a moment and gave her hair one last behave! before she stepped out of the car and began walking across the lawn.
"He's not in a real good mood tonight." Cass looked up to see a short kid, looked about 19, with short spiky bleached hair sitting on the porch steps. His name was Zack, or Zakkers to the endeared. Roland and Cass don't know his name and they won't learn it tonight. He was Pen's bodyguard or whatever else he needed him to be, and he was therefore untouchable. As short and scrawny as he looked, everybody knew not to pick a fight with him. "He's being all talky" he continued. "Ain't a good sign, when he talks." He shifted to grab a small harmonica from his pocket. "But then again you guys are pretty new, so. It might not be so bad..." He began fidgeting with his harmonica without giving the two another look. "Where do we go?" asked Roland. "Door's unlocked, he's in the basement." Then after a moment, "down the hall, before you hit the kitchen, down the stairs on the right. I don't know which room he's in."
She hung her jacket on the coatrack near the door and followed Roland downstairs. As soon as they hit the landing, they looked through the open door of the first room in the hall see a young man sitting behind a broad, mostly bare wooden desk in a tall leather office chair. He was a clean, slender guy with a goatee, wearing what seemed to be nothing underneath his long green velvet robe. He had an unimpressed look on his face. Seemed downright bored, thought Cass. He gazed at his houseshoes, propped up on the corner of his desk, as if they were the least uninteresting thing in the world. As we walked in he turned his head towards them slowly. Cass looked into his stabbing green eyes for the first time. She immediately decided not to talk to him or look at him unless she absolutely had to.
"This is my girlfriend Cass. I'm Roland." He extended his hand as he approached the desk.
"Come to get some for you and yours, I suppose?" said Pen quietly, almost under his breath. He looked at Roland's hand. "Sit the fuck down man. You know who I am."
Roland seemed a little flustered, but recovered quickly. He turned and dragged a chair towards the desk and took his seat, trembling slightly. "I am, we are, here to do business yeah." Cass took her own seat behind and to the left of Roland, keeping her distance from the desk.
"Ok then. I'm all ears."
"We were thinking about starting with three deliveries a month for two months, 400 bucks flat. If we like it, we'll take another ten months, four movements at 450 per month, 500 bucks for casualties in the hands of a third party."
Pen had been rolling his head around, eyes set towards the corner behind them. "Again and again with these small timers. I don't exactly pull in small quantaties or small intervals here. If I'm gonna move, it has to be worth moving." He spoke with the kind of piercing mental dominance that Cass had expected. "I'm always either backlogged, or my pockets are burning. I'm throwing out bribes like warning shots in Harlem over here just so I can keep the dogs away and keep the pigs straight. And you people are expecting me to give you monthly fucking roomservice? What do you think I am, a goddamned newspaper?"
He finally swung his feet down to the floor and pulled his chair up to the desk. He ran his fingers through his hair. "You casual-asses are killing me, you know that?" Dramatic sigh. "Can't even count on greed anymore. Everyone gone all stingy these days." He was slowly becoming wilder with his speech, almost jumpy. "The world has got this whole emotional fuckin' renaissance thing going on lately, and it's just so lame. Except everybody's still just half-assing it, you know? It's like everyone's trying to get just a little bit warmer, a little bit softer, a little bit weaker. But they still don't have the balls to say what they really want. They don't ever let themselves become so vulnerable that they can tell the truth. The fucking truth! They just sell themselves. And they tell the stories. That's it." He swiveled his chair away, calming down a little. "And nobody tells the stories the way they used to anymore."
Cass was stunned with how little sense he was making. This prick who she nearly admired for being so clever, so slick, was talking like he was fresh out of solitary confinement. She couldn't keep her mouth shut. "Hey snakecharmer - reality check. I don't know if this is how you usually get by, but running your mouth doesn't make you any smarter or any better of a businessman. And like we said, that's what we're here for. Business. So if you don't like what we put on the table then make us a counter offer like you've fucking done this before!"
Pen raised an eyebrow. He turned towards Roland, who was giving Cass a what-the-hell look. "What" started Pen, "The fuck. Did your pillow just say to me?" A deep chill came over the room. Roland shook his head in bewilderment. He croaked out a few syllables before looking at the ground. Cass crossed her legs and looked between the two, nervous but with conviction. Pen continued to stare for a solid minute which felt much longer. He then opened a drawer of his desk. He looked into it, contemplating, and then looked up.
"Alright, whatever" he said. "Four packs at 550 for two months, then five at 500 flat for as long as you want. But first, let's play a game." He paused, and looked Cass dead in the eye. "YOU. Are gonna play a game." He raised a small silver snub-nosed .32 from out of the drawer. It had a sliding revolving chamber and an inscription on the side that read "CLASSIC."
"Woah woah wait a minute" she said, putting her hands up. "If there's a problem here we can leave, it's not like--"
"Oh no, it's just a game, just a game" he said. He grabbed a small pipe cleaner and began scraping the barrel. "Just a game I've been wanting to play for a little while." After he was done cleaning the piece he reached back into the drawer and lifted one small, single bullet. "You do know Pen's not my name right? You know what Pen stands for?" He fingered the bullet into the gun. Spun the barrel like a little carousel, like a top. "Penetration, baby." SNAP. "Penetration."
She turned to face Roland and quickly wished she hadn't. He was a little pale, clearly a little scared. But at the same time he was completely engrossed with Pen, following his every move with a slightly open mouth. He was like a little boy in ancient Rome, watching gladiators slaughter one another for some false glory, some delusion of grandeur. Enamored with the sight of a man in control, a man of power measuring the lifeblood of others the way a chef measures ingredients. She couldn't stand the sight of him. She turned back to Pen.
He turned in his chair and pointed his gun towards her. He looked her in the eyes, leveling the gun to her head slowly. Her mouth went dry. She couldn't feel herself breathing. He spoke slowly and quietly, but in a different way from the slow and the quiet he was speaking with when they had first walked into the room. He spoke with a predatory focus. "If I had the power to grant you your final wish," he cocked the gun. It sounded like a jackrabbit's neck being broken. "would you ask me for a second chance? More time? Something like that?" She was frozen silent. She was afraid of giving any answer, truth or lie, right or wrong, anything.
"Well let me tell you" he continued, "time wouldn't help you. Anyone who tells you time makes things easier doesn't think too much. Time doesn't heal shit. Time doesn't give you anything you didn't already have. Time is a sadist and a fascist, racing with everyone on earth. It'll give you a huge head start, for sure, but when it catches up to you it'll just keep on going without giving you a second though or a second glance. It wins every time." He's a lunatic, she thought. Jesus Christ I'm about to get shot in the head by a fucking lunatic. "So trust me little girl. If you get out of here alive tonight do yourself a favor. Stay useless." Pull. click. Empty.
She coughed out a breath. She sucked in deeply and loudly, choking on all the blood pooling in her mouth from biting her tongue. She closed her eyes, the taste of it overwhelming her. It was salty and warm. Thin, yet wide. It spread out across the bottom of her throat like a spill spreading out from the center of a table to the edges until it covers everything. She felt like grinning. She felt like laughing. She wanted to celebrate, wanted to jeer, to rub it in someone's face. But she couldn't. She just swayed in place nervously, feeling like a bit of an idiot, and doing her best to not look at either Pen or Roland.
"Hmmph" said Pen. "Never thought fate would be so condescending, eh?" He leaned back in his chair, feeling quite pleased with himself. "My turn!" he said suddenly. Before anyone could move or speak, he stuck the gun in his mouth and pointed it up. He widened his eyes and rapidly recited a little mock prayer: "Ow I ray nee dow to thleet, hlay vuh roar nye soul to keet. Ith I die refore I rake, hlay vuh roar ny soul to take. Ah-len." He crossed himself and pulled the trigger. click. Another empty.
He crossed his eyes and gave out a long melodramatic death groan, slinking back into the chair like a deflated balloon. He started laughing. Crazy, she thought. Nothing short of crazy. He sat up again. He glanced at Cass, said nonchalantly "this time I'll point it at your foot."
Suddenly she felt something returning to her. Courage, or temper, or indignance, something. "That's still gonna fucking hurt!" she shouted. "What the hell is the matter with you!"
"With me? What are you so riled up about? I mean, tell me how long it's been since you felt like that. That sense of relief when you dodged the bullet. And now you wanna get upset? Now that we're not playing for your life anymore?"
She stood up. "This is insane. It's insane and it's unsafe and I'm leaving. Roland, you can--" click. Pen was pointing the gun at her right leg. Another empty round. Cass stared hellfire into him for a long, long time.
"What's your real name anyway?" she asked.
He leaned his head to the side like a curious puppy, still pointing the gun. It was as if no one had ever thought to ask the question before. Not in this context anyway. "It's Fabian."
"Fabian?" she said. "Well fuck you Fabian. I'll pay my cut but you deal with Roland from now on for everything." She began to walk out.
"Oh yeah? So what happens when you finally throw away that fucking tool on your belt?" She stopped without turning around. Her fists clenched. She knew he was talking about Roland. It was too true for her to turn and face it. She began walking up the stairs slowly but couldn't help listening as he called out from behind her. "Who else do you think you can come to for blow? Who else is gonna give it to you like me, huh? You'll be be back, little girl!" She quickened her gait the higher she climbed until he was out of earshot. Out of sight, out of mind. She flung the front door open and marched out.
Zack was still on the porch. Her sudden and agitated presence had interrupted the tune he'd been shaping on his harmonica. He turned to her wordlessly with a question on his face. "Oh, fuck you too" she said without breaking her stride towards the Pontiac. Zack seemed disappointed. He shifted his eyes towards the ground nervously, scraped his shoe against the concrete, and shuffled inside. Cass pulled at the passenger side door, locked. She gave a heavy sigh and jumped on the hood.
Roland came out after another 3 or 4 minutes. "He said he's still ok with the 5 for $500 deal. But he said to call back on Tuesday." Cass stared up into the streetlights silently. Roland started running his fingers through his hair. "Boy," he started, "got a little crazy in there, huh?"
"What the fuck were you even doing in there?" she snapped. "You just sat there like a fucking sloth in a zoo! You never thought you might wanna intervene a little? Speak up and give a quick little 'hey would you mind not pointing that FUCKING GUN IN MY GIRLFRIEND'S FACE?!'"
"He had a gun babe" he said pitifully. "What do you want me to say?"
Her thoughts swirled. Everything felt so painful, so emotional, she was streched so thin. She knew Roland only wanted to apologize. She knew he would do so much tonight and in the coming days to try to make it up to her. And she knew it would make her feel better too. But even if it would take some time for her mind to catch up, in that moment her heart understood that she was going to have to leave him sooner or later. "This is exactly the reason why I didn't want to go in there, Roland. It's not even him. It's you." More haunting silence. Just as shocking as the sound of close thunder or low flying aircraft, but sustained to a creeping swell, like the loud gong of a bell played in reverse. She kept staring into the night sky. She couldn't stop thinking about Pen. His madness, but also his control. And those deadly sharp green eyes. Those fucking eyes.
She reached towards her ribs for a cigarette. She found nothing. "Go get my jacket."
"What?" said Roland.
"I left my jacket inside. Go get it."
He looked at her blankly for a moment. She had never really ordered him around like that, not even when she was upset. He turned quietly and walked back into the house. She rolled over to her side turning away from the house and waited. A minute later she felt her jacket tossed onto her. "Alright," said Roland. "Let's get going."
"Shut up" she said. "Give me my purse." Roland handed it to her from the driver's seat, closed the door, and waited. She grabbed the pocket mirror from her purse and clutched it in her hand. She used the other hand to light a cigarette, and she smoked it all the way down.