J. M. Taylor, author of “In For A Penny”, has published more than two dozen short stories in Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat among others. His first novel, Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press, and his second novel, Dark Heat, was published by Genretarium.
Javier punched in to work. Already his legs were aching, and he hadn’t even got on the floor yet. The crash and stench of the racks moving along the line echoed in the small, dank lobby. At his locker, he stepped into the white overalls and pulled on his gloves. He was just lifting his hood when his ballbreaker of a foreman snuck up behind him.
“That’s the fourth time this week you’ve been late, Lopez. This time it’s by three fucking hours. Once more, and you’re through.”
“I told you, my car broke down.”
“Take an Uber, you moron.”
Javier shook his head. “Twice a day? I can’t afford that. I have to walk the ten miles from my apartment.”
“Then get a bike. I don’t give a shit how you do it. Get up earlier in the morning. Whatever it takes, ’cuz I got twenty people who could replace you in a heartbeat.”
“Twice a day? I can’t afford that. I have to walk the ten miles from my apartment.”
Not really, Javier thought, when he was alone again. Especially after COVID, the plant hadn’t been able to get back to full staff. There weren’t ten people, let alone twenty, lining up to stand elbow to elbow in the cold, slicing off chicken parts a thousand times an hour.
On the other hand, he couldn’t afford to lose the job either. If he got home at nine tonight, he’d be lucky, maybe see his daughter as she finished her homework. In the morning, he’d have to be hitting the road before she even got up.
He was cinching up his white plastic booties when the locker room door swung open again. His breath caught, worried it was the foreman. Instead, Marcus Jones, who manned the hose that cleaned chicken guts into the grates beneath the conveyor belts, leaned into his own locker and lit a joint.
“Man, you can’t walk to work every day. You’ll get your ass fired.” He took a hit, held it, and offered the joint to Javier.
“No thanks,” Javier said. “I’ll work it out.”
“I could lend you the cash, get your wheels back on the road.”
Javier shook his head. He knew where that money came from, and couldn’t risk the interest if he got jammed up. He said again, “No thanks.”
Marcus pinched off the end of the spliff and put it in the back of his locker. “You know, guys like us gotta stick together. I’d be real happy to do you a favor. Just say the word.” He lumbered back to the floor.
Javier followed, taking his place in the hellish cold of the factory floor, slicing the left wing off frozen carcasses as they whirled past him in a blur. someone else was in charge of the right wings.
In the end, Javier didn’t make it home in time to see his daughter. That prick of a foreman, Brett, told him last minute he needed to make up the three hours, even though it was against the rules to keep working into the next shift.
It was near midnight when he unlocked the apartment door. He switched on the kitchen light, but nothing happened. Before he shut the hallway door, he saw the puddled wax of a candle on the kitchen table. They shut the electricity again. He hoped he’d wake up in time to start the trek back in the morning to make the start of his shift.
He almost made it, but when he went to pull his timecard, it wasn’t in the accustomed slot. He searched up and down the rack, even on the floor, but it wasn’t there. He even looked in his locker, but that was empty, too. There was nothing else to do. He had to trudge up the steps dripping with rusty ice, to the office looking over the floor. Gwen, the secretary, looked away as he entered. Usually, she greeted him with a smile, but today, it was as if he didn’t exist. He stood in front of her for a full minute before she was forced to acknowledge him.
“Don’t,” she whispered. “Just leave. It’s not worth it.”
“I need the job,” he said. “They cut my ’lectricity.”
“I’ll lend you some money. But don’t bother him.”
The door behind her swung open. “Too late,” Brett sneered. “I was bothered the minute this piece of shit stepped on my floor. You want your belongings, Lopez? You need to pay me back the hours you missed this week.”
“I will, Mr. Brett. Just let me punch in, I’ll do it all today. Please, my house is dark.”
Caught between them, Gwen blushed furiously and pretended to search for something in her bottom drawer. Javier stood, flexing his arthritic fingers, until Brett wavered, then pulled the time card from his shirt pocket. “Every hour,” he said. “Not a minute less.”
That meant no lunch, no bathroom breaks. He pissed himself somewhere around four-thirty that afternoon, but in was contained inside his plastic jumpsuit and booties, and no one would ever smell it on him in that environment. Instead, he sliced wing after wing until it felt as though his own arm would fall off. And then he cut some more.
When he left that night, more than half way through the nightshift, every hour had been made up. His hands were claws, and the frozen piss in his shoes thawed as he walked through the parking lot, bound for the highway shoulder.
A voice in the dark said, “Javier, man, you got to wise up and accept a friend’s assistance.”
He turned to see Marcus sitting behind the wheel of a Jeep no one on the line should have been able to afford. Smoke curled out of the cockpit into the darkness, and the musky scent of weed penetrated the stench of fowl and urine that clung to Javier like a vise.
“I’m starting to think you’re right,” he admitted.
“Take this, fix your car, and get your lights on for God’s sake. And take your wife and kid out for a nice meal.” He palmed a roll of bills into Javier’s defeated hand.
“Thank you,” Javier breathed. He stuffed the roll in his back pocket.
“Yo, we’re buds,” Marcus said. “If a guy can help another out, it’s no big deal. Maybe sometime, you can do something for me.”
That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, Javier thought as he watched the vicious red brake lights of Marcus’s Jeep disappear into the night.
Two weeks later, the bill came due.
Javier was climbing into his car, grateful he didn’t have to do another twenty mile hike. The electricity was working, too, but his daughter needed a new coat, and her doctor said she needed a brace for her scoliosis. He was eying the gas gauge, wondering if he could make it home, when Marcus sauntered over.
“Glad you got your wheels back,” he crooned. “Your feet must be glad for the rest.”
“Thanks again, Marcus.” He put the car in gear, but Marcus was leaning on the door, his hand resting on Javier’s shoulder.
“Listen, I hate to ask, but I’m in a bit of a jam.”
In for a penny… Javier gritted his teeth, but there was nothing to say, but, “How can I help?”
Marcus’s grin lit up the night. “I know you don’t like where I get my money. Truth be told, neither do I. I want out of the game.”
“That’s a good plan, I’m happy for you.”
“Thing is, I’m in debt to my supplier. He’s got me by the balls like old Brett does to you.”
“Marcus, you know I don’t have no money. I can’t even pay you back what you loaned me.”
Marcus waved him off. “I’m not looking for that money back, Javier. That’s between friends. What I’m looking for is just an hour of your time. Let me buy you a drink and I’ll explain.”
He got into the car with Javier, and they drove to a liquor store. Marcus bought a pint of rum and they pulled over in a school parking lot. They passed the bottle back and forth while Marcus laid out the plan.
“See, my supplier moves his stash week to week. Security, right? No one ever knows where it is. But the go-between, the delivery man, he’s my friend, and hates his boss like the rest of us. Feel me?”
“I think so,” Javier said, the rum curdling in his belly.
“He’s gonna tell me where the stash is next week. Almost twenty keys of H. Know what that shit costs?”
Javier shook his head. “No, I can’t do that. I can’t touch no drugs.”
Marcus shook his head. “Wouldn’t ask a straight dude like you to do that. I just need you to do look out. No danger, no involvement. Just hang out a block or so from the stash house, put up a signal if the blues come by, that’s it. I’ll give you ten k free and clear, and you’ll never see me again.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
But when he got home that night, his wife was on the pull out couch, crying. The restaurant where she worked had shut down mid-shift. The IRS seized it from the owner for years of non-payment of taxes. Damn Feds, he thought. We’re just trying to get by.
The next day, amid the clamor of the line, Javier told Marcus, “I’m in.”
“Let me introduce you to my guy,” he answered.
A few days later, they were in the same school lot. Javier and Marcus listened as the supplier’s delivery man sold out his boss.
He was a wiry man with a permanent sneer. Marcus introduced him as Chris, but Javier suspected it wasn’t his real name. It didn’t matter. All he needed to know was what corner to stand on for a few minutes, and he’d be in the clear. Marcus and Chris or whatever his name was would take all the risk.
“He used to move it from one storage unit to another, switching ’em around like a shell game, but that got too risky. Too many cameras, too many fake credit cards. So he started using empty apartments and houses. Anyhow, I got word that next week, it’s at this ruined house over on Third. Usually, three guards go with me to do a re-up, but I know when the switch is gonna happen, and we can get in there an hour later and clean it out.”
“And all I have to do is be a look out?”
“That’s it,” Chris said, his smile a thin white line in the dark.
The job was set for the following Thursday. In the days leading up to it, Javier and Marcus never spoke.
On Tuesday, Chris was waiting by Javier’s car at the end of his shift.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Bring your piece with you. Turns out, there might be a guard at the stash house after all. Kids been breaking into house, setting them on fire.”
Javier’s knees wobbled. “I don’t have a… a piece. Never touched one. I can’t get involved in nothing like that.”
Chris scowled. “Marcus told me you’d be a stand up guy. Can’t you get one? If you don’t, this whole thing goes to shit.”
He shook his head. “I wouldn’t even know how to get one.”
Chris spat, just missing Javier’s shoes. “Fine. I’ll fucking do it myself.”
The next day, when he got in his car, Javier spotted a paper bag sticking out from under the passenger seat. Mouth dry, he pulled it out, knowing from the weight exactly what it was. Just then, Marcus walked by on the way to his own car. He nodded solemnly. There was no turning back.
Thursday morning, he left for work before dawn. He kissed his daughter, who was still in bed, and helped his wife fold up the couch for the day. “I might be late,” he said. “A guy at work needs a favor.”
“Be careful,” she told him. He bit his cheek to keep from telling her the whole story.
The shift on the line seemed to double in length. The knife in his hand never ceased moving, and Brett was on a tear. At one point he shut everything down, and in the sudden silence called out three names. The men stood back from the conveyor belt as if they were on a firing line, and in fact they were. Security escorted them out of the building. “That’s what happens when you call in sick twice in a month,” Brett shouted. Then he turned the belt back on at extra speed to make up for the lost time. At every minute, Javier was sure he’d be next.
Later, in the school lot, Chris said, “You get my present?”
Javier nodded, pulled it out from the back of his jeans, like he’d seen in the movies. His hand shook. He was used to knives, not guns. He shoved it back, hoping it didn’t go off.
“Are you sure you got this?” Chris said. “You don’t look too good. Tell me the plan again.”
Javier said, “We go to the house in separate cars. It’s the second from the corner of Third and Astor. I take up position at the corner of Third and Blaine. You two go inside and down the hall to the back bedroom closet. Inside, there’s a false ceiling, the drugs are in duffle bags. You both carry out ten keys and we all go our separate ways.”
Chris nodded. “Ok. Sounds good. Let’s go.”
Alone in the car, Javier considered turning around more than a few times. But ten grand would cover too much to let it go. It might even get him off the line, into a better job. There was no risk, plenty of reward. Besides, he was in too deep. In for a penny…
The house was one in a row of dilapidated ruins facing empty lots. The whole block looked like a Halloween movie set. The houses were all dark, and what little light shone from the few working streetlights threw crazed shadows through broken-down porches, strips of siding hanging off the walls, and into windows bereft of glass, like the eye sockets of shattered skulls. Fallen, rotted trees lay across driveways and yards overgrown with weeds five feet tall.
Chris and Marcus drove past the stash house and parked in the distant gloom. Javier parked by his corner and stood on the silent sidewalk, his eyes scanning the long empty street. No movement, no sign of life. This section of town had been forgotten by everyone. Marcus’s Jeep was dark, and for a moment, Javier wondered if the whole thing was a gag.
Then he heard the crash of a door getting kicked in, and he knew the heist was on. He tasted the adrenalin on his tongue.
A bank of lights exploded the night into day. Shouts from the roofs of several abandoned houses and in the dark lots across the street told him to drop to the ground. He covered his eyes with his arm, and the shouting continued. Footsteps rushed around him, way more than the three guards Chris had mentioned.
He dropped to his knees with his hands up, squinting into the light.
A duffle landed in front of Javier’s aching knees. “Must be ten kilos of heroin in that bag from the looks of it,” a familiar voice said. He saw Chris, a police jacket flapping in the breeze, approaching him. Marcus drifted along behind him.
“This piece of shit is going down,” Chris said. “He planned this whole thing. Listen.” He tapped the screen of his phone, and Javier’s voice echoed off the cracked windows as he explained the job in the school parking lot just a few minutes before.
“Marcus,” he laughed over his shoulder, “we got this one for twenty years easy. Possession, intent to distribute, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s carrying a weapon without a license. Another one bites the dust. I think that makes three sting arrests this month.”
“I do what I can to keep the streets safe, Captain.”
Javier’s voice cracked as he said, “You’re a cop? You practically forced me to do this. I never woulda done anything if you hadn’t come around. All so you get Employee of the Month?”
Twenty years. Javier trembled as he realized he’d been lured into the whole thing, like a rat in a trap. Maybe he could have avoided it by saying no to Marcus in the first place, but something told him Marcus was always going to get him. In for a penny, he thought.
And the worst thing was, Chris had supplied the gun himself. There was no way out for Javier. Every cop around him would swear to Chris’s story.
What the hell, he thought. He might as well see it through.
He pulled the gun out, just like he’d seen in the movies. He didn’t even know if it was loaded until he put a bullet in Chris, then Marcus. He never heard the shots, or the ones that tore into his back.
“In for a pound,” he thought as the lights went out.
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