Partners

Bill Hughes

The kid cracked his knuckles. I grimaced. He stopped, looking sheepish. I didn't give him Clemente's old line, that nervous habits—especially noisy nervous habits—meant trouble.   Clemente was right, but it didn't matter. 

Overall, the kid wasn’t bad. Reminded me of me when I was starting out.

"Tell me again," I said. 

"I know it," the kid said.

"Humor me."

"The window's in back, ten paces off the driveway. You get the latch. It lets us into the kitchen. I go in first, you follow. No lights. The door to the basement is directly across from the window. I open the door. Three steps down, right turn at the landing, nine more steps down. Don't know contents of basement. Don't matter. There's a door to another room in the far wall. I'll need the cutters. The cash and any merch he’s holding will be in the room. No talking. No bullshit. In and out in five minutes."

I smiled. He had all the right answers and none of the wrong questions. Twenty years in the business, I'd never worked with a partner. Well, except Clemente. He taught me almost everything I know, then sold me out in a pinch. I did twenty-eight months in Lucasville and notched one last lesson: never work with a partner.

We drove to the spot. The block's only streetlamps were dark, burned or shot out. A blanket of clouds hid the moon and stars. At two a.m. getting out of the car was like diving into an inkwell. Bailey’s house was dark, a tighter blot of blackness in the overall gloom. Bailey wasn’t home, of course. Rando had made sure of that. Still, we kept quiet as we strolled up the drive and stepped into the backyard. The window only took a moment, then we were in.  The stillness of the house suffered little from our intrusion. The kid led the way to the basement door and down the stairs. At least he knew how to move quietly. If I were in the market for a partner, I could do worse.

Crossing the basement in the dark was a bit treacherous. Piles of boxes and scattered junk seemed, at first, to have us blocked. Rando had said Bailey had had a wife and kids before domesticity failed him and she split. Either Bailey was a packrat or the Mrs. and the brood had left a good bit behind. It took the kid a few minutes working in the dark, foot by foot, to find the pathway to the far side, but he did it.

When we got there, I popped the soft beam on, keeping it low. The door was a tell—a thick, metal-paneled monstrosity that didn’t really make sense. At least within was quiet. I don’t know what would have happened if the thing had started making a bunch of racket. As it was, the kid didn’t seem to think twice as he held out his hand for the bolt cutters. He snapped the padlock, grasped the knob, and started to pull the door open. I swung the light upward, curiosity getting the better of me, and we shared a rushed glimpse of a face—a strangely ruddy conflation of wolf and gorilla that seemed to morph and shift in the beam of my light as it moved toward us, jaw gaping to display impossibly large, yellow teeth. The kid gave a yelp and a half-step back but ran into me and could retreat no further. He didn’t have time to begin to scream before the thing had him by the throat and was rag-dolling him into its lair. Rando had said it was quick, but still, I was stunned. Not stunned enough, though, to forget to pull the Pneu from my waistband and pop three darts into the beast’s back. Rando had been right about three. Whatever that thing was, it was big.

It didn’t like being shot. It wheeled and came toward me, its yellowed teeth now freshly pinked. I slammed the door and leaned against it. I felt it shudder as the thing flung itself against the other side. Once, twice, three times. The door held, of course—Bailey liked living too much to have left any doubt about that—and the thing moved off. Angry snarls and half-barks ruptured the quiet of the night, but within a minute they had faded as the sedatives went to work.  I texted Rando and then eased the door open. 

The creature was sprawled across the kid’s body, conked out in the middle of devouring him. I tried to take stock of what Bailey had engineered—the massive arms, the taloned fingers, the lean, muscular legs. I wondered for the hundredth time how Rando and his crew thought they could control the thing and what they had planned, but I pushed those thoughts away.  None of that was my problem.

I stepped back out of the room and closed the door. Through the darkness, I could hear Rando and his boys making their way down the basement stairway. They came right on, like a squad of soldiers. The last two had a gurney. Rando nodded to me and brushed the hair out of his eyes. I swung the door open for him to see. He nodded again and motioned his team forward.

My eyes drifted back to the kid: an open red moat from chin to navel, a half-unpacked sack of offal. It was his own fault. I’d never pushed him, not even at the end. A smarter person would have seen the evasions in the yarn I’d spun and backed away. Stupidity has a price, and he would have paid sooner or later, with or without me.

As his team strapped the unconscious creature into the gurney, Rando handed me a grimy envelope. I headed for the stairs without bothering to count it. I know Rando always makes good on our deals, just like he knows I only work on individual contract.

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Once upon a time, Bill Hughes edited a small press magazine called Dread, which later was resurrected as a website, Dred. Over the years, he has published numerous stories in a variety of markets, including Flesh and Blood, The Edge, Page & Spine and Electric Spec. Currently, he is the webmaster at www.dreadimaginings.com