Murph parked two blocks from the hotel and sat watching the street, gauging people’s faces in the fading light. Dusk had turned Post, Texas the color of rust. The occasional cowboy gave his truck a glance, but otherwise, no one paid him any mind. Murph figured he might just be safe.
He swallowed what felt like a rock and popped open his door. The dome light flashed on, illuminating the satchel on the passenger seat. It was dented and dusty, the subject of many close-calls. Murph grinned, thinking the same could be said of himself.
He stuck one foot out the door and ground his boot heel into the pavement. It gritted noisily, reminding him of the realness of the world. As if the buckshot in his shoulder wasn’t enough. He stood unsteadily, his knees cracking as he put weight on them. Four hours behind the wheel had left him feeling like an old man. Murph paused to get his bearings, leaning heavily against the doorframe. Mariachi music drifted on the air, love's sweet lament. A farm truck hauling chicken crates lumbered by, one sunburnt elbow cocked out the window. Murph tipped his head in greeting.
What the hell am I gonna tell Beth?
He shook off the question, stamping dust off his heels. He needed painkillers and sleep. Without taking his eyes off the street, Murph reached in and snagged the case by the handle. With an effort, he lifted it.
Humming nervously, he walked to the hotel, sticking mainly to the shadows. He carried the satchel low to his side, away from street view. He wore his hat brim low across his eyes and his chin tucked into his jacket, as if staving off cold. In truth, the air was mild. Crickets chirped on the courthouse lawn; stars twinkled in the dusk. It had been cold when Murph left the Panhandle that morning, but West Texas temperatures could be fickle.
He ran a number of lies through his head. I’m away on business. This is taking a lot longer than I thought. I’ll be back in a day or two, I swear to God.
Would she buy any of it? Murph grunted softly, picturing his wife’s oval face, small nose and pointed chin. Her air of ethereal mystery captivated him like no other woman. Though generous and hospitable, she was also painfully shy; Murph thought she would be happy talking only to him the rest of her life. This suspicion gave him license to tell her anything he liked.
But the satchel … well, the satchel was a whole other deal. Beth couldn’t know about the satchel. Not now, with hell on his heels. Still, he worried about her. They hadn’t spoken since yesterday morning, and here he’d already lit out for damn near New Mexico. Surely the Hotel Ruby would have a public phone.
He’d found the hotel in the Yellow Pages in Odessa. That had been two hours ago. Now he stood before the edifice, admiring its sweeping porch and gray brick exterior. It looked as solid as a bank vault. Murph lingered beneath a streetlamp, turning his head this way and that, looking for cars. He had no fear of getting hit but was on the lookout for one particular vehicle. He’d considered the possibility his man might have switched rides, but there was no way of knowing for sure. Murph decided he’d have to risk it.
“Risking it” meant stepping off the sidewalk and clop-clopping across the street to the hotel. This he accomplished, heart in throat. He’d already heard shots peel out in one small Texas town; no reason to think they wouldn’t ring out here.
Nothing but the occasional rumble of a passing diesel and the song of the crickets.
He approached the desk, his face twisting into a companionable grin. The girl behind the desk looked up from her crossword, all 12 million of her freckles lighting up at once.
“How-do,” she sang, too cheerfully for 6 p.m. “Can I help you?” Kin uh hep ya?
“Sure can,” he replied, trying not to grimace, “if you got any rooms.”
“We sure do have,” said the girl, showing yellow teeth. He put her somewhere in her late teens; her daddy must be the proprietor. “Twenty-eight, all told. All of them clean as a whistle.”
He put the satchel down between his feet, withholding a groan of pain. His shoulder still hurt like a bear. “Okay,” he said, “let’s get this show on the road.”
The girl paused, studying him with green eyes. “How many you want?” H’minny y’won’t?
“Oh, just one, please.” He reached into his jacket pocket for his billfold. "Tonight, only."
She began filling out the paperwork. “Okay, how about Number 201?”
“That’ll work.” For an instant, he saw stars.
The girl frowned in concern. “You okay, mister?”
“Yeah, yeah. How much?”
She performed some quick mental calculations. “That’ll be thirty dollars, plus tax, brings us to thirty-two even. Paying cash?”
He slid across a $50 bill. “Keep it.”
She seemed to find him amusing. “I can’t do that, mister.”
“Yes, you can, because I ain’t signing the register.”
Her eyes clouded. “What do you mean?”
Murph shook his head, staring past her shoulder. “I ain’t signing in. There’s somebody a’looking for me. Not the poe-leese. I just want a good night’s sleep, I ain’t looking for trouble.”
“Well, I ain’t, either.”
“Okay, lookee here.”
He dug into his wallet for another crisp $50. “That’s just for you. You on all night?”
She nodded slowly. “Til sunup.”
“You sure you ain’t signing in?”
“I’m sure.” He stooped to pick up his satchel.
“Don’t you have any luggage?”
Murph straightened with a grin. “Just what I brought with me. Got a wake-up service?”
“Good. Call me at 6:00 a.m., will you?”
She nodded cautiously, staring at the satchel. “Okay. I really ain’t supposed to do this.”
“What, earn a buck on the side? All I want is the room, I don’t give a damn about your records. I paid you. Okay?”
His eyes hardened, and she nodded obediently. “Alright.”
Murph gave a gruff nod and angled toward the stairs. The polished floorboards creaked underfoot.
He paused, annoyed. “What?”
“Sure you’re alright?”
“Fine,” he nodded. “Oh, by the way, does anything stay open til after dark? I gotta make some purchases.”
She brightened again, glad to be of service, in a world she could comprehend. “Yessir, Ward’s Thriftway will be open for another thirty minutes. They’re right up the block.”
Murph faked a smile. “Sounds good.”
“Need any help with that briefcase? It appears to weigh a ton.”
Murph put his foot on the riser, resting his hand on the curved rail. “It ain’t nothing,” he told her, feeling a warm dampness in his shirt. “Socks and underwear.”
He returned to his room with some OTC painkiller and gulped a couple of pills down with lukewarm tap water. Night had fallen; Post had all but rolled up the sidewalks. Murph sat on one corner of the bed, thinking back on his conversation with Beth.
He’d stood plugging quarters into a pay phone, just a stone’s throw from Ward’s, feeling terribly exposed. Anyone could see him from the parking lot. He would have preferred phoning her from his room, but a sign unhelpfully decreed “local calls only.” Beth was by no means local. Murph figured he’d get her on the phone, say a few words to mollify her, and call again from his next stop. Wherever that might be.
She picked up almost immediately. “Roy?”
“Hi, babe. How’re you?”
A pause. “Where are you, Roy? Are you with another woman?”
“No, babe, I’m up here in Grand Prairie. I’m sorry I couldn’t call earlier.”
“What are you doing way up there?” Their home was a good three hours south of Grand Prairie.
“I told you, hon, I’m chasing down parts for that old pumpjack,” he replied, trying to sound both annoyed and reassuring. “If we can get that well producing, we’ll have our house paid off inside a year. Don’t that sound worth the inconvenience?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, and he knew she was swishing all his old lies through her brain. Weighing him in the scales. “Roy,” she said finally, “you had better not be fucking around. Who’re you up there with?”
“Alan Causey and Claude Speers. You wanna talk to them? I think I can pull Claude out of his six pack long enough.”
“No, I don’t wanna. I can’t believe you’re planning on going back into business with those two.”
He shrugged, feeling her logic close around his throat. “They’re good people, they just made their share of mistakes.”
“Yeah, well, we were one of them.”
“Hon, it’s all gonna work out. You know how much that well produced last time it was running? Claude says a minimum of two hunnerd thousand. How’d you like to be sitting on a third of that?”
“I’d rather just have you home. I seen a strange truck go by earlier. It was driving real slow.”
His stomach lurched. “Probably nothing,” he said, “some ole boy out looking for his wife or something. Call the cops if you want to.”
“And tell them what?”
“Hell, darlin, I don’t know. Look, I got to head on back, we’re fixing to get ourselves a motel room for the night. Okay? I’ll call you tomorrow morning, first thing.”
“I swear to God, Roy, you’d better not be lying to me. You must really think I’m dumb.”
“That ain’t true, Beth Ann. Now go to bed. Turn on the porch light if it makes you feel better.”
He hung up and trudged into the store for his medicine. Now he sat with his water glass in hand, staring at his sock feet, a satchel of money on the chair opposite. The ticking of his watch was the loudest sound. Annoyed, he pulled off his watch and set it on the nightstand. His t-shirt, recently purchased, was stained with blood on the right shoulder. He would have to give some payback before this whole thing ended.
He stretched out on the hard mattress to sleep. The door was twice-locked; he heard no sounds of other guests on the floor. If the Hotel Ruby had a busy season, this wasn’t it. Murph closed his eyes, letting the medication go to work. He dreamt of a dead man in a pickup, his brains scattered across the rear windscreen. The man suddenly thrust a satchel into Murph's arms. “Take this,” the corpse gurgled, “and get the fuck out of here.”
Murph shoved up on his elbows, startled. Seated across from him was a tall man in black, with tousled black hair and a sly, cold grin. He appeared to have been studying Murph in his sleep. The man held a gun on him, a large-caliber revolver that would make a lot of noise when fired. Murph had the presence of mind to notice that in place of boots or shoes, the man wore plastic baggies on his feet. They were misshapen and dusty.
Murph pushed up against the headboard, knowing better than to make any sudden moves. He noticed the satchel in the corner chair.
“Who the hell are you?” His voice came out gravelly and soft, as if he were drowning in mud.
The man, who might have been 30 or 50, shrugged mildly. “Some call me Trice.” His voice barely carried across the room.
“Those who pay me.”
“Who’s paying you to do this?”
“It makes no difference.”
Neither man spoke for some time. Finally, Murph nodded toward the satchel. “There it is,” he grunted. “Take it.”
Trice returned the nod. “Thank you.”
“What else do you want?”
“To leave no witnesses behind.”
Murph cleared his throat. “What’d you do to the girl downstairs? Freckles?”
Trice chuckled softly. “She’s closed. Permanently.”
“You're the one put the buckshot in my shoulder?”
“That would be me.”
“That was then. Won’t happen again, not at this range. Not with this piece.” He waggled the gun in his hand. It was pointed dead-bang at Murph’s chest.
“Hey,” protested Murph, “you can’t blame me for what happened, buddy. I stumbled into this situation.”
“Hell, yeah. I’m a guy out walking his dog. There’s an oil patch on my property, one a them pumpjacks? That’s where they held their little business meeting. It’s way out in the boonies, you can’t get there unless you’re looking for it. Well, I walk Flip out there every evening. That’s how I come up on them. That’s how I ended up with the money.”
Trice nodded, following every word. “Is that so?”
“Damn straight. Anybody else woulda done the same.”
“Anybody else would have stolen a million in cash?”
“I didn’t count it.”
“Yes, you did. You’ve had the money for days now. You counted it.”
“Fuck you, buddy, you got payback coming for plugging me in the arm.”
“You want to punish me for poor aim?”
“For causing me aggravation.”
“And the rightful owners of that case? Your business partners? How much aggravation have you caused them?”
Murph scowled. “What are you talking about?”
Trice sighed softly, as if bearing the weight of the world. “You didn’t stumble across the million dollars. You murdered Speers and Causey after the deal went down, and you took off with the money. Would I be wrong in guessing it was unplanned? That's how it looks. You didn’t even tell your wife. I overheard you on the phone just now. Grand Prairie, Roy? That’s a whopper.”
Murph stared, unblinking.
Trice shifted his legs, the pistol unmoving. “You’ve told more lies than you can remember, so many you can’t keep them straight. Now you are simply lying to yourself. How does Beth handle it? She must think you’ve run off with some whore. Normally, I doubt she'd be wrong. But this time you're in trouble. You didn't think the Big Boss would come looking for you. So stupid, Roy, so transparent. You didn’t count on it coming to this.”
Murph released his pent-up breath. “You do what you have to do,” he said, “but leave my wife out of it.”
“She’s as involved as you are,” said Trice, “just like the girl downstairs. That’s what lying does. It implicates everyone.”
Murph slowly raised his hands, palms up. “Just take the money and go.”
“You promise never to lie again?”
“I do. I, I promise.”
The gun barked once, the blast shockingly loud in the small, tight room. A hole opened up in Murph’s midsection; the bullet punched out his back to slam into the wallpaper behind the bed. Smoke rose from the cavity. Murph sat looking stunned.
Trice nodded. “I believe you,” he said.