I head northwest on the Phoenix-Wickenburg Highway. I work to keep cool. Keep my foot light on the gas pedal. Keep my Chrysler Sebring easing through mid-day traffic, just another car rolling innocently out of downtown.
My mouth is so dry it hurts to swallow. I take a last pull from the water bottle in the console and toss the empty onto the backseat.
“Count the money,” I tell Wynter.
He swipes his pointed, manicured fingernails across the screen of his Android. Who the hell is he texting?
I tell him again. He ignores me again.
“Goddamn it, I’m talking to you.” I reach for his phone.
He pulls it away. “Jerry, what’s your problem?”
“My problem? It ain’t my problem. It’s our problem.” I yank the Cobra derringer from my pocket and wave it at him. “We just killed somebody.”
“You killed somebody,” he replies, his voice flat and controlled.
“You were there.” I gesture with the pistol toward the backpack resting against his black patent leather, lace-up boots. “That makes you an accessory. I fry. You fry.”
He snorts. As if.
Thick kohl eyeliner rims his pale green eyes, luminescent even in the shadow of the coupe’s interior. He never wears sunglasses. His slim hands and bald head are so pale they seem to glow against his black clothes. A tall, ruffled collar cups his neck. Underneath his velvet trench coat he wears a corset. Considering the heat, he should be sweltering, but I’ve never seen him sweat and his touch always remains cadaver cold. That’s what you get when your partner in crime is a vampire.
His painted, black lips curve a bit.
I train the little pistol at his chest to let him know I’m not fucking around.
“If you’re going to threaten me with that gun,” he says, “at least make sure it’s loaded.”
Oh yeah. I emptied both of the Cobra’s stubby barrels into Raul, double-tapping his fat gut with the .380 bullets. I shove the derringer back into my pocket.
Raul brought it on himself, the greasy bastard. For starters, the fucker ripped me off before, selling me X that was actually generic aspirin. He was talking shit about me and Brenda, then me and Wynter. Laughing as he called us a couple of jotos, then laughing again when I pulled the Cobra.
“Whatchu gonna do with that popgun?” He sneered. “No tienes los huevos.”
He learned I had plenty of balls when I capped him. He quit laughing and hit the floor, grunting and bleeding.
But Raul running his cabron mouth wasn’t the only reason I shot him. It was about the backpack he left out in the open for Wynter and me to see. We’d gone to the Llantera Superior tire store to score Opana, and the teal blue North Face backpack looked way out of place among the Dunlops and Goodyears. So it was his stupid luck that I put two and two together and came up with...
“How much money?” I ask Wynter.
“Forty-two thousand, eight-hundred fifty dollars.”
Holy shit! I take my eyes off the road only long enough to ask, “When did you count it?”
“I didn’t have to. Raul told me.”
“When?” The scene went down with Wynter and me getting let in through the back door, us doing the deal with Raul, me spotting the backpack, Raul acting like an asshole, me seeing this as an opportunity to drop his ass. Bang. Bang. The bottle of Opana dropping from his hand and clattering to the floor. Me jamming it into my pocket. Me grabbing the backpack, zipping it open to find a stack of Benjamins smiling at their new owner. Wynter and me making tracks to my car. I didn’t remember him talking to Raul.
Wynter says, “When I bent down and touched his head.”
“Oh yeah.” When Raul was bleeding out, Wynter crouched to search him and laid his hand on Raul’s head. He must’ve used his vampire mind trick.
“Did he tell you anything else?”
“Nope.” Wynter is back to swiping his phone.
Okay. No one saw us enter or leave the tire shop. One of the two security cameras covering the alley was busted, and the other sprayed over when someone tagged the wall. This being Saturday afternoon, we have until Monday before anyone finds Raul. We didn’t touch anything or leave footprints so the CSI pendejos will have shit for clues. If it wasn’t for snitches, the Phoenix PD would be batting zero against us homies.
I stare up the avenue, barely paying attention to traffic as I think about the money. Forty-two thousand, eight-hundred fifty dollars. That’s a lot of ficha, enough to change a lot of things. I start making plans.
My phone vibrates. I tell Wynter to hold the wheel while I dig the phone out of my pants pocket. Since it’s a burner, I haven’t bothered to program any numbers. But I recognize Sergio’s and put the phone to my ear. “Yeah?”
“Jerry, when-you-gonna-pay-me-my-goddamn-money-you-motherfucker?” The words shoot out the phone in chola rapid-fire.
I wince. Shit. Tina, my ex. How did she get Sergio’s phone? I wince again. The usual way. Blowjobs.
I take the wheel and say, “I got your money.”
“How much?” she blurts, suspicious.
“All thirty-seven hundred.” I borrowed money from her to pay back what I mooched from Delia, my ex-ex, which in turn was to cover the loan from Xochi, my ex-ex-ex. And I owe my current squeeze, Brenda, my share of our rent, three month’s worth.
“Liar.” Tina spits the word. “You know what your problem is, Jerry?”
I should hang up but I don’t, or she’ll be ringing this number for the rest of the goddamn day. Better to hear her out and get some peace afterwards.
“My rehab therapist says you’re a taker, a motherfucking taker.” She sobs. “And I’m a giver. You took advantage of me. You hear that?” Her voice rises, cutting as broken glass. “You took from me. Money. My love. My respect. My dignity.”
Dignity? I roll my eyes. Her breath probably still reeks of Sergio’s cock. I throw her a bone so she’ll shut the fuck up. “I got your money, okay? You’re going to get it.”
“Tonight?” I look at Wynter in case he’s got other ideas. He shrugs.
“Tonight works,” Tina says. “I’ll be at Sergio’s.”
“See you there.”
When the call ends, it’s like a woodpecker has quit pounding the inside of my skull.
Me, a taker? I smirk. Damn straight and about time in my life. You’re either a taker or a giver, and I’m tired of being a giver, a victim.
What to do with all of the money? Not much if I stay here. Word gets around that I’m squaring debts and I.O.Us, who knows what assholes will come out of the woodwork. And I have to consider Raul might’ve been holding that cash for some other vato loco, who will be gunning for it.
But if I leave? Then go where? Back to Riverside, lay low, and start fresh? Or San Diego? El Paso? Albuquerque? Denver? Seattle? Lots of options.
We pass under the Papago Freeway. The shadows from the twin overpasses flash over us. Dark. Bright. Dark. Bright.
I check the mirrors. Everything looks clear. I turn north on 19th Avenue.
Wynter’s still on his phone.
“I could use some help keeping a lookout.”
“We’re fine,” he replies.
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
A cop car cruises by in the opposite direction. My nerves tighten and my shoulders cramp into knots. I keep my head forward but track the car as it passes in the rearview. I imagine the light bar strobing red and blue, the car whipping around after us. But it doesn’t. I watch it disappear into traffic.
“Told you,” Wynter says, cool as death.
So, you ask, how the hell did I team up with a vampire?
A month ago we met at Ray-ray’s place down in Chandler, when Ray-ray was still dealing scripts before the cops busted him. Among us cholos, Wynter looked like a grain of white rice on a plate of mole. Then, as now, he was decked out in heavy-duty Goth velvet as if he’d looted a Hot Topic. But he had the cash and everyone was creeped out by his freaky albino appearance, so nobody bothered him.
But when he got close, something inside me moved toward him like a compass needle swinging to a magnet. Like we were long-lost hermanos. On the way out I offered him a ride. By the time we made it to his tiny condo near the airport, my brain was vibrating like a tuning fork. I hadn’t even touched the Oxycontin or the Percocet we scored earlier.
As my car idled in the dark parking lot outside his place, he said, “I want to show you something,” and reached for my wrist. His frigid touch added to the weird appeal of his offer.
I watched, fascinated as he took my hand and brought it to his lips. Fangs sprouted from his mouth, but I didn’t pull away. His sharp teeth sank into my wrist, easing through the skin with a small, sharp pain.
Then a chill started from the bite and flowed through me. It was like a blast of the best meth/heroin highball times ten and served ice cold. The sensation didn’t last more than a few seconds and I relaxed against the driver’s seat, the glorious buzz ebbing.
Wynter lapped blood from my wrist. He let go, pressed a frosty hand against my forehead, and said, “Like a blast of the best meth/heroin highball times ten.”
“How can you read my thoughts?”
“One of my tricks.”
After that, I let him hang around, even took him to my place and introduced him to Brenda. He never told us where he was from, and we never asked. Brenda and I shared our stash of scripts in exchange for a delicious fanging. I didn’t advertise to anyone else that he was a vampire; what did I have to gain? But should the secret get loose, I’ll let Mythbusters tackle what Wynter was or wasn’t.
I drive west to Maryvale, where Brenda and I share a one-bedroom rat hole in a Section-8 complex off Indian School Road.
I can’t find any shady parking spots on the street. I text Brenda that we’re right outside. As soon as we crack open the doors of the Chrysler, the cool air vanishes. Under the full glare of the sun, the Arizona heat gets its claws into me. I carry the backpack and walk beside Wynter, still amazed how he doesn’t melt beneath all that black clothing. Sunlight doesn’t affect him.
We head for the outside staircase. The heat blasts off the stucco like we’re in an oven. I can’t wait to leave Phoenix. Could I leave Wynter?
Forty-two thousand, eight-hundred fifty dollars split one way goes a lot further than forty-two thousand, eight-hundred fifty dollars split two ways.
The math cinches it. From now on, I’m flying solo as the king of takers.
The light is so intense that even with sunglasses I blink and trip on the first step. Wynter grabs my arm and with his free hand, keeps my head from banging against the wall. I straighten and thank him. Reaching the second floor, I see my door is ajar.
Brenda’s waiting. She steps back and lets Wynter and me enter. Strands of dishwater-blond hair hang loose around her neck. I remove my sunglasses and lock the door. Brenda’s barefoot, and a muffin top sags between her white tank and cutoff jeans. A recent tattoo shines red and puffy from one shoulder.
Blinds cover the window, and since we’re on the shaded side of the building, not much light peeks through. A coffee table sits between the TV and the sofa. Candles, a BBQ lighter, scissors, an ashtray, and cans of Diet Coke crowd the table. Brenda sits on the sofa and folds her big legs beneath her. I pause to consider her, this dump where we live, my life, and all the cash that has fallen into my lap.
She’s been a good girlfriend and put up with a lot of my bullshit.
I look at Wynter. I’m going to miss the skinny bloodsucker.
Takers find givers. I’ll leave these givers and find new ones.
Brenda asks, “What’s in the bag?”
“Nothing much.” To distract her I pull the bottle of Opana from my pocket and shake it. The pills inside barely rattle, muffled by cotton.
Smiling eagerly, Brenda rises and retrieves a box of syringes from the bedroom. Wynter follows. I sit cross-legged beside the coffee table, the backpack tucked between my knees.
Brenda kneels on the opposite side of the table and places the box between us. “Why don’t you go first?” she offers. Wynter props his skinny ass on one of the sofa armrests.
“Wynter,” I ask, “what about you?”
He shakes his head. He’s like this sometimes, gets all emo and acts like he’s too good to get high.
“What’s on your mind?”
He doesn’t answer, and I have better things to do than pry answers out of him.
Brenda uses the scissors to snip an empty can of Diet Coke apart and fashions the bottom into a cooker. I dump the load of Opana pills into the ashtray.
She lights a candle. I take a syringe, uncap it, and lay it beside the ashtray. Placing one of the Opana in the cooker, I hold it over the flame like a tiny skillet. The pill starts to smoke and sizzle. The sight and sound is more appetizing than frying bacon. Wynter approaches. I’m sure he’s changed his mind about indulging.
The pill splits open and liquefied Opana seeps across the cooker, like a drop of melted sugar. I set the cooker on the table and draw the Opana into the syringe.
Wynter crouches beside me and offers his hand. Giving him the syringe, I tilt my head to one side and expose my neck. Eyes closed, my nerves shrink around the spot where the needle comes to kiss me.
One prolonged sting—the pain is always worth it—and the needle withdraws.
I expect the rush to bloom though my body. Instead, it clangs into my head. My eyes pop open and the room swirls around me. I clutch at the coffee table but my fingers slide free. Losing balance, I fall backwards. The room keeps spinning. An acid taste makes me gag.
This isn’t an opioid high, this is something else. My thoughts are clear but an invisible wall grows between my mind and the world.
Everything is distorted but I can make out Wynter, standing over me, a syringe in each hand. Where did the second syringe come from? What did he give me? Brenda’s on her feet and pawing through the backpack.
I try to shout but my mouth and jaw have turned into rubber, and I can’t form words.
Brenda takes stacks of money from the backpack and throws the backpack against my belly. It’s still heavy with some of the cash. Money in hand, she leaves for the bedroom and returns with a cell phone. She sits on the sofa and makes a call, but her words slur together.
I squirm like an overturned turtle, unable to find the balance and strength to get upright. Time passes. Seconds? Minutes? I can’t tell. The room keeps rocking and turning.
A distant knocking penetrates the puzzle of sensations. Brenda drifts from the sofa toward the door. A moment later she retreats, two cops rushing past her, one white, the other black, both of them big smears of muscle and bad news.
She’s shouting and what she says congeals in the haze. “That’s him! He killed Raul Gonzales at the tire shop!”
I gape at her in disbelief. The cops pounce and flip me over. My arms are drawn back and steel cuffs lock around my wrists. Hands grope my pockets. The derringer is flung on the carpet, followed by my cell phone, my keys, the extra .380 cartridges. The black cop unzips the backpack.
Wynter says, “Jerry stole that money from Raul. I was there.”
My mind boils with rage. That vampire asshole and that bitch Brenda squealed on me. Snitches! Fucking snitches! The words echo and echo to remind me that I’d been double-crossed.
Helpless, I flatten against the carpet. I am beyond fucked when I realize the empty cartridges remain in the Cobra, two clues that will link me to the slugs in Raul.
I’m hauled to my feet, but my legs can’t hold me upright. The cops lean me against a wall, and they get busy squawking into their radios. Wynter steps close and his green eyes burn like flames.
My mind screams Why, you fucking bastard? Why did you snitch on me? but only drool slobbers from my mouth.
Wynter, that goth fang-banger motherfucker, brings his alabaster-white face closer. “From now on, I’m flying solo as the king of takers.”
Shit! When I’d tripped on the stairs, he touched my head.
He read my mind.
Wynter stands back, and Brenda clasps his hand.
They smile like a couple of takers.