2018 Ray Bradbury Challenge #2: A Cold Sort of Business

Wow, weeks pass much quicker than I thought. The good news is that, for fiction, no research or interviews are required, so I can just sit down and write out a story without having to be restrained to what happened in reality. I’ve been trying to write these straight through in one sitting, with only one or two rounds of edits before I post them. That’s really all I have time for, anyways; most of my time is still committed to nonfiction or other work.

This story came from the weather. It snowed at the beach last week, and on one of my drives around town I glimpsed two people who appeared to be having a picnic in the woods down the snowy train tracks that cross Wrightsville Avenue. I wondered who they were, what they were doing there, and thought it might make a neat setting for a story. So here it is:

A COLD SORT OF BUSINESS

by John Wolfe

Parker shivered in his long gray coat as the wind blasted through him. The snow had nearly melted from the storm last week, but a few straggling battalions of white still lay in the shadows under the trees. The train tracks he stood on were so cold that when he stood on the polished parallel steel he could feel the heat of his feet draining from the soles of his boots. He stood on the wood instead.

Why the hell had Grimm wanted to meet here, when there was a perfectly good coffeeshop down the street, with pretty waitresses and generous pours of that hot nectar of the gods? Never again, Parker promised himself, would he let Grimm decide the meeting place. Not that it really mattered, after this one. Grimm was always choosing abandoned warehouses down by the docks, and places like this godforsaken stretch of tracks leaving the town. Typical, Parker thought. Grimm wants to play the part as well as act it. Hollywood had ruined this new generation. Back in the old days, members of the organization had done their business out in the open, in front of God and everybody else. Now, everybody thought they were John Dillinger or something, and wanted to meet in dreary far places like this. Like nothing illegal ever happened in a coffeeshop.

Parker stamped his feet against the cold, crammed his fingers further into his thin pockets, and walked in a circle to try and build up some heat. Nothing worked. He was a cold man. Where the hell was Grimm?

* * *

In the woods, through a pair of binoculars, Grimm watched the figure on the tracks stomping around like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. He thought criminals were supposed to be cool, level-headed, that they weren’t supposed to show that anything affected them at all. Like in the movies. That was a big part of his desire to join the organization in the first place, his hopes that he would learn this unaffectedness and be able to wow women and old high-school classmates with his indomitable chill. Imagine his disappointment when the first man he was assigned to was Parker, a middle-aged, sagging, red-nosed, testy man. Grimm swore that he would be cool enough for both of them. That’s why he had decided they should meet here for the handoff. Criminals were always doing cool shit like this in the movies. Parker had bitched about the docks, and had bitched about the underpass, and when Grimm suggested the train tracks, there had been a long silence on the other end of the phone, followed by a resigned “alright, fine,” which carried, in three syllables, the weighty extent of Parker’s hatred for Grimm, hatred for cold weather, and (due to some childhood trauma which Grimm didn’t dare ask about) his hatred for trains. But he had agreed, and now here they were, for better or worse (better in Grimm’s mind, worse in Parker’s). Grimm raised the binoculars again. Oh, Jesus, he thought. Parker, a hard-nosed bastard with a rap sheet a mile long and wanted by every law enforcement agency in the surrounding three states, had from somewhere in the depths of his tattered gray coat produced a sandwich. He chewed with his mouth open, like a greedy dog. Grimm could see the crumbs fall through the binoculars. Unprofessional, he thought, as he picked up the package and headed towards the figure on the tracks.

* * *

“Did you bring one for me?” Grimm asked, stepping out of the cloak of the woods. It was a very cool opening line, he thought.

“Sorry, Grimm, I plum forgot,” said Parker, spit flying out of his mouth and freezing on the steel of the tracks. “But if we had met in the coffeeshop like I had suggested, instead of this shithole in the middle of nowhere, you could have gotten your own sandwich, and eggs and coffee too.”

“Too many witnesses,” Grimm said.

“Fuck you, Grimm. Get over yourself. No one knows or cares who you are. I’ve been in this game a lot longer than you, and I have no problem doing my business in public. In fact, it’s better that way; the crowd provides cover.”

Grimm caught himself about to launch into a speech about waitresses and security cameras, but thought better of it. “Do you have the money?” He tried to sound level, even- like Eastwood.

“Here,” Parker said, throwing him a thick stack of bills produced from one of his coat’s many pockets. “Count it.”

Grimm did. It was all there.

“Now I believe you have something for me,” said Parker.

Grimm did. He gave it to Parker. It was small, and Grimm had wrapped it in one of the brown paper bags you see hobos trying unsuccessfully to hide their forties in on the street.

Parker took the parcel and unwrapped it. It was a watch, golden but otherwise nondescript, with a silver back. He held it up to his freezing ear. It ticked along, bisecting each second with a monotone click.

“Where did you find it?”

“Nowhere special,” said Grimm.

“Had to be someplace,” said Parker.

“It was on display at his library,” said Grimm. “When they were about to close I put a shirt over the glass case, broke it, reached in and just took it. Then I walked right out the front door.”

Parker turned it over. On the silver back was an engraved legend: “To John, Yours Forever, Love Jackie.”

“So he was really wearing this when he got capped.”

“Seems to match the one in the film.”

“How about that. A piece of history, it belongs to the past.” Parker, uncharacteristically, smiled at him. “Here, Grimm, put it on.”

Grimm, letting his curiosity get the better of him, reached out and put the watch on his left wrist. Forgetting his promise to stay cool, he flashed his best smile. Even though he didn’t like Parker, Grimm still respected the hell out of him, and some small part of Grimm wanted approval, even from a dog like Parker. “Do I look like a Kennedy?” he asked.

Parker pulled out a pistol from his coat and fired two shots. The reports rang off the trees, and caused the birds in the woods to take wing. Grimm crumpled noiselessly and fell off the tracks. Red spilled onto a remaining patch of white snow, and the warmth began to melt it.

“Now you do,” said Parker. He bent down and took the watch back, then reached into his pocket to retrieve the stack of cash. He dropped both items into a snug inner pocket beside his hidden holster, then turned and walked back to his car. He hated to admit it, but Grimm, for all his naivete, had been right. This freezing, lonely place was better than a coffeeshop for this cold sort of business.

 

[Writer’s endnote: I initially wasn’t happy with how this ended- I liked Grimm much better than Parker, and in reality I am a devout pacifist who abhors violence in any form- but I didn’t have time to change it and I figured I had initially written it this way for some reason. Also, I stumbled upon a David Lynch quote this week in the Winter 2018 edition of Eagle’s Call which forgives me, in my mind: “Films reflect our world. Our world is filled with characters that don’t reflect Scouting values. Stories are not all just shiny little pleasant tales. They involve all kinds of different characters – all kinds of different thinking… I always say the artist doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering. You want to be happy in your work, but you can tell stories that have darkness swimming along with light. It’s stories. Have the suffering on the screen or in the books, not in your life.”]

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2 thoughts on “2018 Ray Bradbury Challenge #2: A Cold Sort of Business

    • I wondered how it would end, too… Wasn’t the happiest with the ending, but that’s life- I finished it, anyways. The goal of these, as far as I’m concerned, is to be little exercises to both flex my purely creative muscles and to learn how to tell a complete story in a short form. Also, if I like something, I may be able to expand on it in the future. But mostly I’m just having fun and playing around 🙂

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