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       Cash Burn, p.1

           Michael Berrier
 
Cash Burn


  Cash Burn

  A Novel

  By

  Michael Berrier

  Copyright © 2011

  All Rights Reserved

  https://michaelberrier.com

  “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered,

  I’ve seen lots of funny men.

  Some will rob you with a six-gun,

  and some with a fountain pen.”

  —Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd”

 

  1

  Sweet black night.

  Clouds shrouded the glaring moon and stars. Nothing spoiled the darkness.

  Flip stole between streetlights, moving from one patch of shadow to the next.

  Here was the apartment building. From the bushes across the street, he watched. The glass of the front security doors glowed in the beam of an overhead lamp. Through them the lobby was lit like a showroom: a sofa, two chairs, a metal grid of mailboxes lining one wall.

  She always put her full return address on the envelopes. She’d moved twice since they sent Flip to Lancaster for his second strike, but he knew this address by heart, down to the number of her apartment. In his cell, surrounded by the clatter and noise of the other convicts, he’d stared at that return address, thought about her. What she’d be doing. What she’d look like.

  Six years. So long to be away from her.

  He had no choice but to move into the light. Its touch exposed him. His body hunched. His bones threatened to plunge through his skin.

  He tried the door. Locked. He squinted at the residents’ directory on the wall. His eyes went to the Rs, but he didn’t see her name.

  Out of the corner of his eye Flip caught motion. Three kids—maybe twenty years old—moved through the lobby toward the door. One of them wore a plastic party hat striped red, white, and blue. Another carried a cellophane bag of what looked like party favors.

  The Fourth of July. Flip had forgotten all about it.

  He angled his face away and entered random numbers into the keypad.

  The trio opened the door and cackled through. The door’s hinge slowed its closing, and Flip caught it on its way back.

  The still air in the lobby carried the stench of ammonia. Twin panels of elevator doors stood on his right. He found the stairs instead.

  He climbed two flights and exited into the hallway. Number 304. He took a minute to breathe deep. Was his heart pounding because of the climb, or was it the excitement of seeing her again after so long?

  Could be she’d have a guy in there with her.

  She’d better not.

  The peephole in the door was a round animal eye staring at his face. He put his palm over it. Rang the doorbell.

  Blood hammered in his temples. He rang again.

  No answer.

  He put his back to the door, insulted. Forget that she didn’t even know he was out. Forget that he hadn’t answered her letters for six months.

  The hallway was empty.

  He turned and palmed the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge. Flip pulled a card out of his wallet and ran it between the door and the jamb above the knob, feeling for the dead bolt. She’d set that as well.

  His foot shifted. He wanted to kick the door in, see the doorframe explode when the dead bolt crushed through it.

  But he didn’t do it. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and returned to the stairs.

  Flip jammed a pebble into the latch in the front door so it wouldn’t lock. Back on the sidewalk, he paced south, hating the streetlights that watched his steps. At the intersection, he turned around.

  On his fifth pass, a man’s voice reached his ears. He saw them coming from the end of the block. The voice joked about something, and the speaker gestured with his hands. He glided along, self-assured, shoulders swaying, big mouth running. It was a walk and a talk that said this street belonged to him.

  Next to Big Mouth came Diane.

  She had a way of moving, erect on her high heels, that commanded attention. With the streetlight at her back, he saw her fine silhouette, the curves of her hips hugged by the skirt she wore and the blouse neat against her ribs. She’d done something to her hair, trimmed it up so in the backlight her head looked like a blossom on top of the stem of her neck.

  Flip stepped into the grass, outside the reach of the lights.

  Big Mouth kept jawing, cocky and unconscious of what was coming. Flip tried to block out the words to keep his impatient feet from running at him.

  Diane stopped. Her head shifted as she peered into the darkness where Flip waited poised with his hands at his sides, every muscle coiled.

  Diane put a hand on Big Mouth’s arm. He shut up. She took one step. “Flip?”

  “Yeah.”

  They were twenty feet apart. Big Mouth said to her, “You okay?”

  She took another step toward Flip, stopped. “Just fine, darlin’.”

  That sealed it. Darlin’. That was what she called Flip. Blood pounced in his veins. His breath shortened. His head jerked on his neck, trying to pop his spine.

  But he held his ground. Waiting. Waiting for the time to strike. He’d learned that kind of patience long before they sent him to Lancaster.

  Big Mouth moved up next to her. “Who is it?”

  She turned her profile to Flip, and he could make out the tilt of her nose and the shape of her lips. Seeing them made his vision blur. For just an instant, he believed he felt them against his, their fullness, their reaching warmth, her breath flowing into his.

  Tension cinched his spine. Still he waited.

  She said something to Big Mouth, and he turned to Flip, straightening a little. Working his courage up.

  Come on.

  Diane gripped the man’s arm, let him think she didn’t want him going to where Flip waited in the darkness. But Flip knew better. He knew what she wanted.

  She let Big Mouth go.

  Flip sized the man up as he approached. Leather jacket unfastened in front, easy to grab. Hair long enough for a fistful.

  And that mouth, still running. Saying something about Diane, using a different name for her, one Flip didn’t know.

  Six years. Six years of bowing down to corrections officers who thought they owned the world. Ten months altogether in ad seg for banging heads.

  Seventy-two months without those lips on his.

  Big Mouth was almost in Flip’s reach. Wait. Almost time. Almost here.

  Flip held out a hand as if he’d shake this guy’s. Big Mouth relaxed just enough.

  Flip stepped in. A left to the head.

  Pain flared through his knuckles. It fueled him. Big Mouth staggered.

  A right to the stomach. His fist seemed to go in forever, enveloped in a soft pillow. Big Mouth doubled onto Flip’s arm. He tried to come up. A fist flailed and grazed Flip’s cheek, no tougher than a kiss. A wink shrugged it off.

  Six years of pent-up fury, anger bottled up all that time. The cork finally popped. Rage poured out. Gallons of it. Oceans of it. Gushing in wailing blows. Again. Again.

  Big Mouth lay in a heap on the sidewalk, moaning. Flip stood over him, feet wide, right hand raised like a club, waiting for any movement. His knuckles flared with the sting of the blows he’d landed on skin and bone. His fist was slick with mixed blood.

  He stepped back and looked at her.

  Diane’s fists were clenched too, pinned in front of her hips. They trembled. Her shoulders and neck rose and fell with quick breaths.

  Flip raised his jaw.

  Her heels clapped on the concrete. She grabbed him by the collar and kissed him so hard he could feel it in his teeth.

  Then she drew away and pulled him toward her building. “Happy Independence Day.”

  2

  She blinked at Jason. Her green eyes signaled,
Go.

  He forced his attention away. The flat black-and-white of Brenda’s résumé was safer. Brenda Tierney, it read. Experience: Human Resources Associate at Business Trust Bank, April 1 to present. Only four months with BTB.

  “Why would you want to leave all the excitement of HR so soon?”

  “This is where the action is. HR’s fine, but the bank doesn’t make money because of the personnel department.”

  He leaned back and laced his fingers together. “You want more than processing pay stubs and benefit apps?”

  “A lot more.” Brenda sat perched on the edge of the seat before his desk, knees crossed, hands folded. Her eyes were emeralds cast in pearl, reflecting the fluorescent lights.

  Jason realized he was twisting his wedding band. He reknit his fingers. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. We control two-thirds of the bank’s assets and over half the deposits. As the home office goes, so goes the bank.”

  She didn’t respond. Her lips were slightly parted.

  He pulled his eyes back to her résumé. Four months with BTB, a year with another bank before that. College at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia. “I see you’re from the East Coast,” he said.

  “Philly. You ever been?”

  Jason shook his head. The neckline of her blouse lay open, revealing a thin gold chain against pale skin. A pendant hung from the chain, inscribed with an initial. He didn’t dare look closely enough to make it out.

  “The winters are a lot colder than LA, I can tell you that.” She gave a fake shiver, a smile.

  He allowed himself a smile back. “Is that what brought you out here? Better weather?”

  “That and Hollywood. I figured I’d get discovered.”

  “Actress?” He pictured her onstage or mugging for a camera. It was easy.

  “Not anymore. I was ready to grow up.”

  “Well, who knows? Those talents might come in handy around here.”

  Her eyes wouldn’t leave his. Jason began to think she would return his stare as long as he could hold it. She had nerve. “You know why this position has opened up?”

  Her shoulders dipped, and she smoothed her skirt. “I know. It’s awful. The funeral’s this weekend, huh?”

  “Two o’clock. Are you going?”

  She nodded. “Sure. Kathy’s my friend. I feel terrible about what happened.”

  Kathy was Jason’s longtime assistant, now out on an indefinite leave of absence. A vision of Kathy’s son, Greg, came to Jason’s mind. Whiskers barely poking out of cheeks that still held some of the softness of baby fat. Way too young to be as hard-hearted as he was the last time Jason tried to talk sense into him. And now, dead.

  Murdered. Piled next to a Dumpster like a sack of trash. Just a day shy of his seventeenth birthday.

  “Kathy always says great things about you,” Brenda said. “She says Jason Dunn’s the best boss she’s ever had. And the most compassionate.” She nodded to the wall filled with plaques awarding Jason for his work with charities. “I don’t know how you find time to support all those causes.”

  Jason blinked, trying to force away the image of Greg. “Well, it’s easy to be a good boss when you have people like I do.” He brought his elbows onto the desk. “We have the best lending teams in LA. And the best admins. The best ops people. I need an assistant who’s really on top of things. Our clients are demanding, and we cannot lose a single one of them. If somebody on this staff can’t hold up their end, I have to let them go.”

  “I get it.”

  “You sure? Because there’s nothing wrong with HR, Brenda. There’s plenty of good people down there.”

  “I’m sure.” The tone was level. She smiled, exposing the underside of her upper lip against her teeth. “I’m up to it, Jason. I promise.”

  Again she held his gaze. It gave him a sense that this girl was tough, ready for a challenge.

  “Okay. I need to have a conversation with Margaret. She’ll say good things, right?”

  “She should. My reviews have gone well. But there’s that policy against transferring before you’ve been at the bank six months. Will that be a problem?”

  “August is close enough to October. We’ll get around the HR rule.”

  He rose and looked down at her uplifted face, the heart shape of it.

  She uncrossed her legs and rose, held out a hand. “Don’t be late for your meeting at Capital Construction. You only have a few minutes.”

  He took her hand and shook it. She’d done some homework on his schedule. “I’ll give you a call when I have the transition worked out with Margaret.”

  She brought her chin around and went for the door. He looked away. The picture of his wife leaned next to his telephone, and he kept his eyes trained on it.

  A knock at the door made Jason look up.

  Billy Reynolds was framed in the doorway. His hair was the color of dried weeds, tousled even this early from wresting analysis out of his head. “Wow, boss.”

  “What?” Jason put on his jacket and stepped outside the office.

  “Nothing.”

  “No, what?”

  Dan Martell strode up. His eyes followed Brenda toward the elevator. He drew back a flap of his jacket to tuck a hand in a pocket, striking one of his mannequin poses. “I heard it, but I didn’t believe it.”

  “Not you, too.”

  Billy snickered. Jason glared at him, and the kid ran a finger underneath his nose as if he were sniffing.

  “We’re going to be late.” Jason turned his back to them.

  Brenda was gone when they reached the elevator. Dan started in as soon as they were inside. “You’re a better man than I am.”

  Jason shook his head. “Aw, get over it, will you?”

  “I don’t know, boss.” Billy’s smile was dying to break free. “How are you going to concentrate on work with her around?”

  The elevator doors opened onto the parking garage. “I’m a happily married man.” The words hitched in Jason’s throat. He led the way to Dan’s car, hoping they hadn’t noticed.

  3

  At the end of another fourteen-hour day, Jason’s grip on the steering wheel was an effort. Even his fingers were tired. Each arm had the tensile strength of a single thread. He swung the car into his driveway.

  The panels of the garage door yawned up, the automatic light revealing the emptiness of a clean, swept concrete floor. Serena’s car was still gone.

  He pulled in on the right out of habit, leaving room for her Mercedes. He clicked his remote to get the garage door closing before twisting the key to silence the engine. Its purr was replaced by the whirring of the garage-door closer, the chunk and rattle of the door hitting the concrete, and then silence.

  The baked air in the garage was a stifling presence. He moved through it ponderously, each step an effort, and came to the door to the house.

  No one greeted him.

  He went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Maybe some stranger had wandered in to stock the place with food. The bare glass shelves reflected light from the single bulb, the glare warped by stains from spilled leftover containers long since removed. On the shelves in the door a bottle of mustard stood like a yellow sentry guarding a jar of olives. Soy sauce. A half-empty carton of organic milk. He swung the door, and it closed with a thud.

  Jason couldn’t remember why Serena had fired their last housekeeper. Something about the dusting, or the bathrooms. But at least the refrigerator used to be full.

  In the cupboard, the only possibilities were a box of Corn Flakes, some powdered pancake mix, and an ancient carton of cookies.

  He took down the Corn Flakes and shook what was left of them into a bowl and went back for the milk. The edges of the carton cracked open, and white crumbs drifted down into the liquid. It reeked.

  He put the carton back in the refrigerator and stared at the dry bowl.

  Fatigue knitted through his joints like a disease.

  He took the bowl to the sink and ea
sed the tap open. Drops of water splashed off the Corn Flakes onto his hand. He carried his cereal to the table and was seated before realizing he’d forgotten a spoon. It took a moment to gather his energy to rise again. By the time he got back to the table, the cereal was a mass of slop.

  He ate it anyway.

  The curtains were closed, a panel against the dead day. The darkness of the summer night outside was still new.

  The taps of his spoon on the dish sounded lonely and harsh in the silence.

  He stared into the bowl, as if by doing so he could refill it. Finally he shoved himself out of the chair. He looked down at the encrusted bowl with the spoon angled out and considered leaving it there. But he took it to the sink. As he rinsed it, the dissatisfaction in his stomach argued against his fatigue. He went to the cupboard and found two stale chocolate-chip cookies left in the carton, and he downed them on his way up the stairs, craving milk.

  In the master bathroom, he put his mouth under the faucet to wash down the cookies, wiped his chin with the back of his hand, and got his tie off on the way to the closet. His fingers worked each shirt button loose with deliberation. The shirt went into the hamper together with his socks, the suit into the bag for the dry cleaner. Still in his underwear, he threw back the bedspread and crashed onto the sheets.

  The cotton, taut and firm, pressed cool against his body. He settled into it like fluid seeking a lowest point. Thoughts about work flitted in his mind but couldn’t find purchase, and they surrendered to the vacancy of oncoming sleep.

  Sometime later, he heard Serena’s voice. Groggy, he mumbled, “What?”

  “I said, hi, handsome.”

  That voice, like silky jazz. It brought a smile. Eyes closed, he heard her move through the room shedding jewelry, jacket, kicking her heels off into the closet, where he knew her shoes lay in heaps, their heel marks like scattered dark moons on the wall. When she emerged from the closet, she would be clothed in her short satin robe. The sink faucet going now. She would be leaned over the sink, legs bent at the knee, her back tipped forward.

  When the water closed off, she would rise to press a towel to her face and dab the water off, coming away with a few strands of auburn-colored hair pasted to her cheek and forehead. A pinch by fingertips to remove the hair, and she would blink away the droplets clinging to her lashes.

 
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