Authors: William Rabkin
Not that he looked like he had any intention of turning his back on his customer. He stared across the counter at Gus, his ancient face crumpled into a permanent squint, one hand holding on to the tarnished register, either to keep it from walking out the door or to keep his knees from buckling, and the other just out of sight under the counter, undoubtedly fingering the shotgun hidden down there.
"You want something?" The owner's voice was as cragged as his face.
This was the moment Gus had been dreading. The clues he'd been following had brought him here as surely as the Yellow Brick Road took Dorothy to Oz. But like that lemon-colored highway, this path held dangers at every turn. And so far not one of them had been as benign as the Scarecrow or the Lion. The only person he'd met who acted at all welcoming was a young woman in hot pants and a halter top, who'd offered to party with Gus in an adjacent alley for a mere forty dollars. Gus wouldn't have been tempted to accept her offer even if he hadn't seen the shadowy figure lurking just inside the alley's mouth.
That danger recognized easily, he moved on as quickly as he could, stopping only to pick up a brick and smash the window of a Porsche Cayenne that someone had left at the curb. A note on the driver's seat gave the address of this liquor store, and he ran here as fast as he could.
But now that he faced the withered shopkeeper across the grimy countertop, he wasn't sure what he should do next. His first instinct was, as always, to be as friendly as possible and simply ask for help. But he'd already tried that once in the emergency room. It made him sick to think of what had happened next.
"It's a store, not a damn museum," the owner croaked, the sagging skin of his left arm twitching as his hand clutched the shotgun. "You want to buy something or you want to get out."
Gus scanned the shelves of bottles, trying to make out a label underneath the grime. Nothing looked right to him. He had to bring something back to Morton; that was the only way he could prove he was trustworthy. At least that was how the dead guy who used to own that Cayenne was supposed to prove his worth. Since Morton had never seen either of them, all Gus had to do to win a place in the Organization was show up with the proper token.
It occurred to Gus that he should probably say something. The old guy might have been expecting Cayenne and would know to turn over the right item to him. If only there had been something on the note besides this address.
Maybe it's not what was on the note,
Maybe it's the note itself.
That didn't seem likely. It was just a scrap off a yellow legal pad, nothing on it but this address scrawled diagonally across one side. The back was blank. But as soon as the thought crossed his mind Gus was certain he needed to show the note to the shopkeeper.
"You want to buy something or you want to get out," the old man croaked again, and this time Gus was sure he could see dust rising out of his mouth.
Gus dug in the pockets of his silk suit and pulled out the scrap of paper. He unfolded it carefully, then slid it across the counter to the proprietor.
The old man didn't even glance down at the paper. He stared at Gus. "You want to buy something or you want to get out," he said.
"I'll buy something," Gus said, desperately trying to figure out what it was he needed. He glanced away from the shelves of bottles and studied the other side of the store. There was a rack of tattered magazines, their covers featuring naked women or motorcycles or naked women on motorcycles. A locked case held cans of what Gus could only assume was chewing tobacco, although it had never occurred to him that there could be so many brands of something no one he'd met had ever used. Against the wall were bare shelves littered with a few items that might once have been intended to be eaten--packaged snack cakes, their pink marshmallow and coconut shells turning brown and shriveling with age to reveal the permanently moist chocolate crumb underneath; cardboard tubes reportedly filled with chips made from "at least thirty-two percent real potato"; a cloudy plastic bucket containing soggy sticks of jerked something. There was nothing here that Morton could possibly have wanted to allow into his immaculate penthouse, even as an identification marker.
Gus turned back to the owner, who was still staring directly at him. "You ready to buy something?"
"Sure," Gus said. "Let me have ..." Desperately he scanned the shelves behind the old man. There wasn't a hint of what he was supposed to purchase, just row after row of filthy bottles.
Then he saw something. A glint of light. It came from one of the upper shelves. Gus peered up and saw that there was one bottle that wasn't dirty at all. It looked like it had just been placed there. "I'll have that bottle of Glen Graggenlogan," he said, hoping he was reading the label correctly from this distance.
The old man stared at him for a moment, then gave Gus an almost imperceptible wink. "Think you can handle it, junior?" he said.
Was this some kind of test, or was the old man really trying to warn him away for his own good? Gus couldn't tell. "Is there something I should know?"
The shopkeeper didn't answer, just kept staring. There wasn't going to be any help coming from him. "Just give me the bottle," Gus said.
The old man pulled his hand out from under the counter and turned slowly to a rickety library ladder attached at the top to a railing that ran parallel to the ceiling. Sliding it slowly into position, he managed to lift one leg up to the bottom rung, where he rested as if waiting for the strength to continue.
Gus checked his watch, then checked it again. Time was flying past. Morton wasn't going to wait forever.
"Can I help you with that?" Gus said, if only to keep himself from screaming at the old man to hurry the hell up.
"Don't need no help," the shopkeeper said. "Not from a punk like you."
Was that a deliberate provocation? Once again Gus wished he knew more about the old man's role in his task. If he was in on it, if he was reporting back to Morton, it wouldn't sound good that Gus was willing to take this kind of insult from him. Cayenne wouldn't have. He'd have shaken the rickety ladder until the rungs broke free and the geezer fell to his death. But if he wasn't, if he was just naturally unpleasant, then all that mattered to Gus was getting the bottle and getting out.
"Sure this is the one you want?"
Gus looked up to see that somehow the old man had reached the top of the ladder and grabbed one of the dusty bottles with the hand that wasn't clutching the guide rail.
Gus's first instinct was to thank him, then point out that he was close to the proper bottle. But now he was seized by the suspicion that this was some kind of test, and that he wouldn't pass it with a demonstration of graciousness. "You blind, deaf, or just stupid?" he snarled. "I said the Glen Graggenlogan, not whatever swill you're trying to pawn off on me."
If the shopkeeper was unused to this level of rudeness, he didn't show it. He thrust the dusty bottle back into its place on the shelf, nearly sending the entire row crashing down onto the floor, then extended his arm as far as it would go, his fingers barely brushing the bottle Gus had demanded.
Gus couldn't look. He knew what was going to happen. The old man was going to nudge the bottle again and he was going to knock it off the shelf. The only thing he'd be able to bring Morton would be the broken neck, which was undoubtedly what Morton would give him in return.
A buzz sounded behind him. The door alarm. Gus started to turn. Before he could see who had come in, two shots blasted through the air.
The old man flew off the ladder, smashing into the wall of bottles, then crashed to the floor in a rain of broken glass and cheap scotch.
Gus stared over the counter at the shopkeeper's bloody corpse. "Why did you do that?"
Shawn stepped up to him, thrusting the .44 Magnum into the pocket of his leather duster.
"The question," Shawn said, "is, why didn't you?"
hy didn't I what?" Gus said. "Murder an old man who was trying to help me?"
"Is that what you call it?" Shawn said.
"Murder is what the law calls it," Gus said. "It's what the Bible calls it. It's what everyone in the world calls it."
"I could be wrong about this, but I seem to recall hearing that in different countries they have different words for things," Shawn said as he stepped over to the shelves of snack foods and gave an exploratory squeeze to a package of Twinkies with a pull date from before the turn of the millennium.
Gus couldn't pull his eyes away from the dead man lying on the floor in a pool of blood and whiskey. "Why did you kill him?"
Shawn put down the Twinkies and turned his attention to the freezer chest loaded with ice-cream bars. Or, as he discovered when he tried to take one out, loaded with a single ice-cream bar, as all the smaller units had melted and refrozen into a cube six feet on each side.
"Because it was him or you." Shawn took two running steps, then leaped over the counter, landing in a crouch next to the body, his duster sending waves through the puddle spreading across the floor.
"What was he going to do?" Gus said. "Throw the bottle at me?"
"Worse. He was going to give it to you." Shawn pulled the bottle of Glen Graggenlogan from the shopkeeper's cold, dead hands and looked it over carefully. Then he pulled out the cork and turned it upside down. There was a rattle of metal on glass, and a small olive-colored device fell into Shawn's hand.
"What is that?" Gus said.
"Doesn't matter what it is now. What matters is what it would be if you walked out the door with it," Shawn said.
"And what is that?"
"The ultimate theft-protection device," Shawn said. He jumped back over the counter, opened the door, and tossed the device out onto the street. The thing bounced twice on the asphalt and then exploded into a fireball that took out two cars and the area's last remaining pay phone.
It took a few seconds for Gus' ears to stop ringing. He spent the time staring at the crater in the center of the road and trying to figure out how far his body parts might be separated by now if Shawn hadn't stopped him from taking the bottle.
"I thought that was the thing I was supposed to bring Morton," Gus said finally.
"Apparently you were supposed to think that."
Gus looked around the liquor store in despair. "So what is the object?" he said. "What is it we're supposed to collect here? Because I haven't seen it."
"That's where you're wrong," Shawn said. "You were staring at it all along."
"I wasn't staring at anything all along," Gus said, then realized he wasn't completely right. "Except ..."
Shawn nodded. "Except." He jumped back over the counter and fished around under it in the area the old man had kept his hand, then came up with a machete.
"Morton's people would never allow us into his lobby carrying a weapon like that, let alone into his penthouse," Gus said.
"The machete isn't going anywhere," Shawn said. "Except through a couple of vertebrae."
It took Gus a moment to realize what he was hearing. By that time Shawn had already raised the machete high over his head and was beginning to bring it down toward the old man's body.
"Stop!" Gus shouted.
Shawn froze, the machete poised in midair. "You want to do this?"
"Of course not," Gus said.
"Then what's the problem?" Shawn said. "You can kill a couple of cops when we leave here. Then we'll be even."
"I don't want to kill anybody," Gus said.
"You're no fun," Shawn said.
"I am fun," Gus said. "I am huge amounts of fun. Entire barrels of monkeys spend their lives yearning to be as fun as I am. What isn't fun is shooting unarmed people and cutting off their heads."
Gus reached up and grabbed his own ears. He gave them a hard tug, as if he was trying to pull his head off his shoulders.
"He had a grenade in one hand and a machete under the counter, which strongly suggests he wasn't entirely unarmed," Shawn said.
Despite his best efforts Gus' ears remained stubbornly in place. "What about the little old lady you gunned down in the park?"
"She had that dog," Shawn said.
"A bichon frise," Gus said. "A Muppet would have been more of a threat. That didn't stop you from putting three bullets in her."
"I admit I got a little overeager there," Shawn said. "But I paid the price for that. The cops came down pretty hard on me."
"Until you ran them all over with your Hummer," Gus said.
"Which dented the fender and put the car out of commission," Shawn said. "Why do you think you were able to get here first?"
Gus gave his ears another yank, then grabbed his nose with one fist and twisted fiercely. "I wish I hadn't. I wish we had never started this in the first place."
"But we did," Shawn said. "And now we have to finish."
"I am finished," Gus said. He squeezed his temples between his hands, then twisted his head furiously. The last thing he heard was the crack of his neck snapping.
us blinked against the sudden harsh light, then turned to see the cyclops next to him. It wore Shawn's traditional khakis, along with a plaid shirt open over a white tee, but its head was a solid sphere of white plastic. It stumbled through the empty room, waving its arms in front of it like a small child playing zombie.
Gus grabbed the cyclops by the shoulders, then pulled the globe off its neck. Freed from the helmet, Shawn glared at him.
"You're never supposed to pull someone out of an immersive reality like that," Shawn said. "You could have destroyed my brain."
"The only thing destroying your brain is that stupid game," Gus said.
Shawn stared at him. "Sorry, Dad. I didn't recognize you with all that hair and the new tan," he said finally.
"I am not some grumpy old man trying to unplug the computer because you've been playing
for sixteen hours straight," Gus said. "Although I'm beginning to see his point."