Robbers

Robbers

Warning—this excerpt contains profanity and is for mature audiences.

Eddie didn’t intend to shoot the guy. Didn’t mean to rob him either. What happened was—

They were sliding south down Lamar after rib sandwiches and beer at T-Bones Bar-B-Q House. Going no place particular on a lazy day in May. Laid back under a babyblue sky, the sun floating in it like a warm dab of butter. Cruising the street past used car lots flying plastic banners, the whole foods market, record stores, saloons. Moving through bright light and southern summer heat, vehicle exhaust rising acrid off asphalt, the hypnotic afternoon postpotative haze.

Eddie and Ray Bob, jazzing in low gear. Radio on soft, Lyle Lovett.

They rolled on southward through the commercial verge, crossed the Colorado bridge above a shimmering turquoise river. Upstream high greentreed banks flanking the course and a solitary racing shell sculling the windskipped surface, a waterborne centipede. Downstream, bridges over First Street and Congress and the snaggletoothed profile of the glassy city center.

Austin, state capital, university town. Former counterculture magnet and slacker haven now balling the jack on a fulltilt bender. Sucking wind under the onslaught of money, a stripmall gangbang straddling the Balcones Fault. The mellow chilled-out days mere mythic history. Silicon Gulch now, hightech hysteria and the California influx, a city overrun by cyberokies on the rebound two generations after the dustbowl western plunge, returning flush, pockets stuffed with plundered gelt.

Come back to take Austin mainstream. And succeeding. Beyond a few longhaired relics holed up in canyoned university enclaves, the only surviving outlaw instincts careen through a juicy music scene in the rambunctious downtown club district. Rebellious tattooed youth there possessed of mutinous ideas and unencumbered time. Elsewhere, jackleg politicians seeking cool capitol cuties and dot.com commandos stroking bearphobic bull lust. Free market lechery for profit, unleashed.

To this scene come Eddie and Ray Bob, outsiders from the rural frontier, from the unseen and forgotten bumfuck outskirts of the urban media landscape. Rubbernecking the city, seeing what it’s about, not much impressed. Just more folks humping the dollar. Two men alien among distant kindred, young and unemployed and broke, trawling boredom after a late greasy lunch. Scoping the street past fastfood joints and pawnshops in a boosted Eldorado convertible.

When Ray Bob says, Gimmee a smoke, hoss.

Eddie fished the packet from his T-shirt pocket, crushed it, tossed it over the side. Said, I’m out, pull into this 7-Eleven.

Ray Bob wheeled the Caddy ragtop into the empty lot, parked nose up to double glass doors plastered with signs advertising RC Colas by the twelvepack. He shoved the gearshift into park, let the motor idle.

Listen, he said, don’t buy those fuckin straights. Get some filters.

Eddie on the sidewalk put a boot on the bumper, rolled his Zippo lighter across the back of one hand. Man, you know I smoke straights. You want filters gimmee some money.

I’m broke.

Eddie shrugged. All I got’s four dollars, I’m buying straights.

Fuck you.

Yeah? Well up yours sideways, asshole.

In your momma’s mouth.

Already tried it.

I ain’t surprised, Ray Bob said. How was it. His face serious.

Yours was better, said Eddie. No teeth.

Try her pussy next time.

Them talking that way because they were running buddies.

Copper cowbells jangled on the door when Eddie went inside. Kaleidoscopic view: consumer soixante-neuf. Anything you wanted in there, racked up tight to please the eye and move fast. He paused, shaking his head. Then stood at the counter between the lotto ticket stand and a display of Lone Star keychains saying, Gimmee a packa Camel straights.

The clerk, a plump young man with burnished bronze skin and a black mustache, either Indian or Pakistani, laid the pack on the counter and rang it up. Four dollars and one cent, he said.

Eddie glanced at the register readout. I got four dollars here, pardner. Where’s the spare penny bucket?

The man pointed to an empty plastic ash tray. All out.

Hey, no problem, I’ll catcha next time.

The clerk put a hand on the pack of Camels, pulled it back to his side of the counter. Saying, It’s four dollars and one cent.

Eddie looked at him. You gonna hold up this deal over a penny?

The young man adjusted the collar of his red 7-Eleven shirt, gazing somewhere over Eddie’s left shoulder, as though preoccupied. As if he didn’t care. Saying, That is what it costs.

Eddie frowned, not believing it. Flipping the top of the Zippo open and shut in one hand. Snap, snap. Man, you jerkin my chain.

I am jerking nothing.

Hell you ain’t. What kind of fuckin country you come from?

A good country. The clerk meeting his eyes then for a moment before turning to put the pack back on the shelf. He faced the counter again, splayed both dark brown hands flat on the surface. Fingernails ivory as bone. Hair black as creosote, features resolutely braced. Maybe defiant. Very fine country, he said. Where we pay for what we get.

Hot flash. A spasm sideslipped over Eddie’s shoulders, crawled up his neck, hit his jaw. He eyeballed the guy. You giving me the redass, pardner. Listen to me. This is America. Gimmee them cigarettes.

Four dollars and one cent.

I ain’t believing this.

Only the guy didn’t budge. Not one word, just standing there like a chocolate Deputy Dooright. A corner of his mouth lifting slightly, either a smirk or a twitch.

Eddie said, Goddammit to hell.

That’s when he hoisted a leg and reached into his boot. Pulled out a .22 revolver, an old Colt Police Positive with a four-inch barrel, looked like a toy. Pointed it at the guy. Arm straight out, finger on the trigger. Saying, Gimmee them fuckin cigarettes.

Robbery, the man squawked. He stared at the gun, dark eyes blinking, teethed his upper lip, jaw thrust forward. I call the police. Get your license plate.

So Eddie pulled the trigger. A sharp crack, the barrel kicking up. The bullet caught the clerk square in the forehead. His head snapped back, a small black hole in the bronze curvature. He stood there with his hands on the counter a moment, eyes crossed, then slid

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