the killer

Morning, May 18 1980

The killer had driven all night, navigating by the moon and a river next to the highway, past dim rest stops and off-ramp exits that fed the houses of the zodiac. Now he turned the radio dial with a trembling hand, desperate for a station running his story. The story of him in a large grocery store, the way he’d strode heroically from till to till with gun drawn, collecting the cash, then the shootout and escape. He’d left bodies behind, their eyes, the surprise and weird hush.

But now the radio was all about the volcano, a dragon waiting to roar. Nonsensical A.M. band science and evangelism. He slammed his fist on the dashboard.

The coke was running out. He knew it as he snorted more, parked at the side of the road, checking the rear-view again and again. They were after him, absolutely. Sometimes he even saw a car and flashing lights behind him, then he’d shake his head, and it was gone. Too much blow. He hadn’t slept in over forty-eight hours. Why wasn’t it on the radio? He took a hit of vodka, gulping it back. There were only a couple of swallows left. He’d buy more in the next town.

Shifting, he pulled back onto the highway and drove gripping the wheel like a rescue line, his spinning tires further forcing Earth’s rotation.

The town had been abandoned by the time he arrived. Only the café remained open, where a police cruiser was parked. He pulled up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes, checked his wet red eyes in the mirror, then went in.

There is only the lazy way to enter a small town café. Long indifferent strides to the counter. Anything else draws attention. The cop was five stools down form where the killer sat. He ordered coffee.

“Anything else?” said the waitress, pouring. “May be your last chance to get a meal for a while. We’re only open for the cops and emergency crews. We close and bugout when word comes down.”

“Ham sandwich,” the killer said.

The waitress placed the order.

“You must have got along the highway before the barricades went up,” said the weary cop, not looking up from his newspaper and coffee. “Everything’s been evacuated, highway’s closed. All this might be just a lava flow when St Helens goes. I can escort you back down the road after I’ve eaten.” The waitress put a plate of ham and eggs in front of him.

“Pyroclastic flow,” said the killer, reading a headline on a newspaper next to him. More about the volcano, but underneath were bold letters: Mad Dog Murders Three in Grocery Store Heist — his story, at last.

“What was that?” said the cop.

“Pyroclastic flow, not lava. The radio says it’s a common mistake. It’ll be moving at 500 miles an hour when the mountain finally pops.”

“Whatever,” the cop said. “I just don’t wanna be round when it happens.”

The thief killed a security guard and a mother and her child, trapped in the crossfire….

He had watched the child stagger for a moment, before he fell backward against a shelf. A strange thing to recall, he thought. There was sweat forming on his forehead, a bizarre grief stirring, for having killed or for being seen aiming the gun? The text of the story wrapped round a security camera photo, pixilated like a hallucination.

“Here’s your sandwich, mister.” The waitress placed it on the counter. “Refill?” Then, looking at the newspaper, she said, “Ain’t that a hell of a thing, some poor kid and his momma. That creep should be burned alive.”

She turned the paper round and looked at the surveillance photo.

“That’s a pretty clear shot,” she said. “They’ll get him with that, for sure.”

“We’ll get him, alright” said the cop, looking up for the first time. “A guy like that’s too crazy to get away. And maybe he won’t survive arrest.” He looked over at the waitress and the killer. “A lot can go wrong arresting a crazy guy.” He filled his mouth with scrambled eggs.

A familiar shapeless rage filled the killer’s gut. He remembered that he dwelt in a room of swirling planets, they comforted end enlightened. He needed that now. The planets were wiser than any cop at a lunch counter. There was a revolver in the killer’s belt, concealed by his coat. The planets told him to wait for his moment.

He looked over and saw the cop was still looking at him, puzzled now. He was a soft man, the way cops get after too many years of traffic tickets and misdemeanors. He swallowed and licked his lips, looked at his newspaper once more, then back at the killer. When he made his move, he was like a planet in an outer orbit, slow and with days that lasted for months. His hand went for his weapon, but the killer drew his first. And as he aimed and cocked the gun, the ground shook. The Earth rupturing somewhere, a terrestrial super nova, issuing a shockwave that deafened and heaved the café, shattering the plate glass and causing the parking lot heave like an ocean.

The killer remained standing somehow, as the cop fell onto the moving floor. The cop fired, and the bullet hit the killer, but he’d worry about it later. The killer drew a bead and fired as the building shook. He missed. The cop fired again and hit the killer once more.

Somewhere whole forests were felled. Steaming torrents were swelling in valleys, obliterating, creating topography. A plume would be rising over a massive fissure that would swallow moons.

Now as the Earth stilled, blow-back swept over the world, and glass and debris whirled and chewed. Parts of the killer’s face were torn away as he half-stepped away from the counter, dropping the gun, holding hands to his wounds. Were they fatal? Perhaps the bullets had passed through him like particles, benign and invisible. He was weak, suddenly. Weaker than he’d ever been, and the exit was miles away. He tripped the distance quickly. The cop following, remaining quiet. There was no need to shout commands no one would hear.

Outside, ash like snow had begun to fall, and the killer reached out a hand to catch some tiny flakes to observe their geometry. But they were vague opaque things, the shapes of childhood nightmares.

When he lost his footing, he fell onto his back, looking up as the ash fell on him. His blood pooled, and turned to clay. Ashen, he thought. He saw stars in the shapes of goddesses and warriors. In his room windows opened, and dark matter flowed in like water. He’d swim in it and become it, gain mass and gravity, and then be seen finally at peace by curious eyes.


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