Monday, February 13, 2017

Guppy Must Die short story

The crew would suffice. Selma Eubanks was the lockman, Ed Flynn the muscle, and Harv Gupton the utility infielder, a bland-faced man you’d never remember well enough to pick out of a lineup. He could put on a tie and look like a copier salesman or carry a lunch bucket like a factory worker.

Fer Newmark was the planner. Once a utility infielder himself, he had grown into a planner more by his attention to detail than any particular smarts. Right now, Newmark was worried about the detail of Harv Gupton, whose hand shook--not a lot, but enough to tell a tale.

“Just off the sauce?” he asked Gupton when Selma was in the john powdering her nose.

“A few weeks.”

“Still got the shakes.”

Gupton looked down at his right hand as if it belonged to another man. He tucked the fingers between his leg and the motel bed. “I’ll be good for the job. Honest I will.”

“A few weeks, you say?”

“More than one,” Gupton said.

Newmark figured that to mean three days. Gupton was what you might call a functioning alcoholic, able to stay off for the length it took to plan and execute a job. This job was Tuesday, five days off. Maybe the shakes would go away by then. “Not a drop until after the job,” Newmark said.

“Not a drop. I swear.” Gupton crossed his heart clumsily with his left hand. It shook too.

A knock came at the motel room door. Newmark did not use the peephole. People get shot through peepholes. He cracked open the door with the chain still hooked on. “Flynn,” said a smooth voice over the state road traffic noise.

Newmark let Flynn in. His voice might cultured and his suit this year’s model, but he was good with a gun and his fists. And his eyes, flat steel gray, could intimidate people so that he didn’t often have to resort to a gun. 

“We all here?” he said.

“Yeah. You know Harv Gupton?”

They nodded at each other. Selma came out of the bathroom, the wrinkles of travel smoothed out. A beautiful black woman with an island accent, she never smiled. Newmark suspected it was to undercut her beauty, to keep guys from feeling invited in.

“What do you have?” Flynn said, taking a seat on the dresser, leaving the chair for Selma.

Newmark remained standing. “A bank.”

“A bank.”

“One by a grocery store.”

Flynn narrowed his eyes. “I know you’re smarter than that.”

“The store is about to close. They’ll be moving out the goods. But the bank will stay open while they do. Milk and eggs and shit, that gets sold to the last day. Canned beets, that gets hauled away.”

“Non-perishables,” Selma suggested.

“Right,” Newmark said. “For two days, those go out, and the bank is open.”

“There won’t be many customers, you figure?” Gupton said.

“You guys have cell phones?”

“Burner only,” Flynn said.

“I have a burner smart phone right here. When you Google a store, it shows you customer flow, how many are there at what hours.” He had it called up on his phone already and passed it around. “Figure half or third that many for the last two days.”

Flynn glanced at it and passed it on. “So we move at nine, when the bank opens?”

“Out before nine forty-five, when the last armored car comes to haul off the cash.”

“Also non-perishable,” Selma said.

Gupton giggled.

Newmark laid out the basics of the plan.

“What do I do now?” Selma said.

He looked at her. “Staffing details. How many, where are they?” He turned to Gupton. “We need a cell phone jammer set up outside. Find one.”

Flynn didn’t need to ask his job. He’d take care of the bank clerk and manager. “Can’t be much money,” he said.

“Over a hundred, according to my source. Twenty five per man.”

“What if your source is wrong?”

Newmark thought he wasn’t, and he knew the others would trust his sources. “Then we work cheaper. You still in?”

“Yup,” Flynn said.

Selma nodded.

Gupton said, “Okay, Fer, anything you want.” When Newmark held his gaze, he licked his lips, nervous. “I’m the--whatchacall it--man Friday.”

“Factotum,” Flynn suggested.

“Sure,” Gupton said, confused but agreeable. “I do whatever I’m told.” He said, “Maybe I’ll look like a homeless guy. You see them sometimes, sitting outside the grocery.”

That's match the shakes, at least. The phone had come back to Newmark and now he pulled up the photo collection for this job. It included a blueprint he’d drawn himself. He passed the phone around again.

He watched Flynn flip through the shots. “Rear exit?”

“To the store? It’s in there. Loading dock off a storage room.”

Flynn nodded as he kept flipping, and then he passed the phone to Selma.

Newmark watched Gupton from the corner of his eye. The man was twitching. Not just the shakes, but shifting from butt cheek to cheek, scratching his ribs. DTs? Or something worse? “Hey, Guppy,” Newmark said, knowing the man hated the nickname. “Take a walk with me.”

“Okay, Fer. I just gotta use the can first.”

That set off an alarm, one wired deep into Newmark’s criminal soul. That alarm had kept him from ever going down for a job. One arrest that didn’t stick when he was only twenty-three, but nothing worse in the twelve years since. He intended to keep it that way. “I’ll help,” he said to Gupton.

Both the others froze and glanced up.

“Ha-ha,” said Gupton, without humor.

“Stand up,” Newmark said. “And lift your shirt. Very slowly.”

Flynn came off the dresser, his knees flexed, ready to move.

“What?” Gupton said. “You turning gay on us?” He tried to force a laugh but failed.

“Shirt,” Newmark said, pointing at it and flicking his finger up to demonstrate.

Selma went to the front door, cracked it, and looked out. “Don’t see anything,” she said.

“Shirt,” Newmark repeated, staring at Gupton.

His hands were shaking badly as he lifted the tail of his shirt. When they all saw no sign of a wire, the tension ratcheted down a notch. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Fer,” Gupton said.

“Drop trou,” he said, backing off a step.

Gupton did without comment.

“And kick them to Flynn.” Without taking his eyes off Gupton, standing there in briefs and shirt, he said to Flynn, “Take out the phone, and look for any other device.”

“Yup,” Flynn said. As he emptied the pockets, he lined up everything on the dresser. The crack as he smashed the phone made Gupton jump.

Selma said, “Still nothing out here.”

“Check the bathroom window in back.”

“Done,” she said. As she moved past the dresser, she stopped. “Wait. That.”

“What?” Flynn said.

“The flash drive.” She held it up. It was on a key ring holding a car key, a key to a door, and that. Selma looked at it, flipped something on the side, and nodded. “It’s a recording device. A spy thing. Used them on a job in an engineering office once. This one was on.”

“You do industrial espionage too?” Flynn said.

Selma tensed, glanced at Gupton, but then she looked at Newmark’s face. She understood there was no reason to worry about Gupton any longer or what he might hear about her. “Still want me to check the rear?”

“If you don’t mind,” he said. “Then you can leave. You go now, Flynn.”

“I’m gone,” he said, and then he was as good as his word.

“B-b-b-but Fer,” Gupton said.

“We need to have a talk, you and I,” Newmark said, to keep him calm. Selma came through said, “Clear,” and snatched up her bag and left via the front door.

“Okay, let’s talk,” Gupton said.

But they weren’t going to talk. Those three words were going to be the last Gupton uttered.


I'm a big fan of Donald Westlake, both in his humorous mode and in his Parker/Stark mode. I always wanted to try a hardboiled crime novel a la Parker, but never have until Chuck Wendig's short fiction challenge gave me the title "Guppy Must Die." I failed in keeping it under the 1000 word limit, but I have a hard time keeping anything to that limit. Thanks to Chuck and Jeanette Hubbard for the inspiration, and apologies to Mr. Westlake's ghost. (If I were going to try this seriously, I'd immerse myself in Parker novels for six weeks first to "catch" the voice, which I don't think I caught well here.) Every writer with a functioning mind wants to be able to write as well as Westlake...but no one can. RIP, sir.

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