Lightning splintered on the bleak horizon, beyond the sprawling, rain-soaked runways of Denver International Airport.
Not a swell day to fly, thought Stephen Lindsay, perched on his barstool. He swiveled back nervously to face his double whiskey. Lucky I’m not flying.
Lindsay risked a quick glance at the door to the restaurant’s small bathroom, then turned back around to watch a United Airlines 747 heave itself off the earth. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead, remembering the indelible image of that 1973 disaster in Chicago, the way the plane had twisted into a screaming corkscrew just after liftoff, slamming the metal, fuel-bloated corpse-tube into the concrete runway. A spurt of adrenaline piggybacked the surging rush already singing through his veins.
He looked at his watch. Still early, actually.
The Broncos duffel bag on the barstool next to him held fifty thousand dollars in small, laundered bills. In three minutes it would be traded for a black leather briefcase. He didn’t know what would be inside the black leather briefcase. It wasn’t for him to know, although he had his suspicions. Some suggestive Polaroids lying around Harry’s office, partially uncovered beneath crinkled magazines, had caught his eye.
This is the last time! he told himself. Jesus! I’m too old for this porn shit.
He glanced around at the bathroom again, just in time to see a large man push through the door with a black briefcase. The man didn’t precisely match the description Harry had given him two hours ago. Wasn’t wearing the gray jacket. Lindsay exhaled raggedly.
He stepped off the stool and looked around. No one paid any attention to him here in the dimly lit airport lounge. Even now, post September 11, security at this place could be startlingly relaxed.
Silently rehearsing the words he’d use to inform Harry of his retirement, he ambled toward the blue door. His fingers felt slippery in the grip of the duffel bag’s vinyl handles.
He pushed the door open and went inside.
The man with the briefcase, washing big hands at the sink, turned to stare at him and at the duffel bag. He frowned. “You him?”
“Show me whatcha got.”
Lindsay stared at the man for a moment. Then he bent to peer beneath the stalls. He reached into his breast pocket, drew out his tiny LED flashlight to illuminate the recessed corners. Then he about-faced and engaged the flimsy lock on the door.
Anxious to get this over with, he forced himself to slow down his movements. Don’t want to appear jittery. That’s the worst thing you can do. Even in an easy one like this.
Calmly, he walked to the counter and dropped the bag next to the sink.
The man with the briefcase said, “Now back off and turn around.”
“You done this before or what?”
“Fine, fine, whatever you say,” Lindsay said, stepping away.
He heard the duffel zip open, heard the bundles of paper against the cloth.
“Of course it looks nice. Now I gotta split. I’m hungry. Can I have the case now?”
“What if I don’t want to? I want to get the fuck out of here.”
“Look, or I walk. I’m proud of these things. I’m an artist, you know what I mean?”
Lindsay gritted his teeth and returned to the counter.
The man opened the case.
Lindsay stared into it, at first not comprehending its contents.
The velvet-lined innards of the case held twenty or thirty long-nailed fingers, severed at the root, held in place by custom-sewn velvet straps. The fingers, obviously female, lay knuckle down, the bowl of each painted nail exaggerated somehow and dusted faintly with white powder. Or was that only his imagination filling in details?
He looked away and up into the man’s murky eyes.
“What the fuck is this?” he managed. His bowels were about to let go.
“Whaddaya mean?” the man growled. “They’re perfect and you know it. Preserved better than I’ve ever seen.”
Lindsay gripped the edge of the counter and stared at the dried, stitched ends of the fingers. Some kind of a smile took hold of his mouth.
“A joke,” he said, forcing relief to trickle through him. “These are fake, right?” He reached over to pick one up.
The man slapped his hand.
Lindsay’s laugh ratcheted into silence. “No, c’mon, seriously.”
Someone outside tried the door. It rattled briefly, then fell silent.
“Who are you?” the big man whispered.
“Who are you?”
During the following silence, the large man slipped a Smith & Wesson 4506 quietly from its breast sheath and pointed it at Lindsay’s face. Lindsay wet his pants and farted loudly. The man behind the gun smiled. He was missing three front teeth. Sour breath leaked through the gaps.
“A misunderstanding . . .” Lindsay squeaked.
“Harry’s not into drugs, let alone anything like—like that.”
A quiet knock at the door.
Impossible, Lindsay thought. This is impossible.
“Looks like I’m gettin’ paid twice today,” the man said. “Not to mention the free product.”
Lindsay was shaking uncontrollably.
“What are you talking about?”
But he knew what. He’d seen the other items in the case.
Along the lower half of the case, half a dozen bruised sausage-things lay flattened and heavy beneath their own velvet ribbons. Mushroom-capped and veined, their tips and urethras had been hollowed out. The bevelled end of a gold snort straw poked from each fleshy crown.
Lindsay felt nothing but dull pain looking at them now.
A voice on the other side of the door hissed, “Lindsay, you in there?”
Lindsay turned his head toward the voice and began to cry.
This is the last time! his five-minute-old thought echoed.
The man clamped a beefy hand over Lindsay’s mouth just before he started to scream.