Best Poetry Book - One Author - English
FIRST PLACE How Fire is a Story, Waiting, Melinda Palacio; Tia Chucha Press; USA
Best Novel - Fantasy/Sci-Fi
HONORABLE MENTION The Closet of Discarded Dreams, Rudy Ch. Garcia; Damnation Books LLC; USA
Melinda and Rudy have made La Bloga proud. You should see a list of all 190 winners at this link.
This bit of noir started off as a submission to a proposed Border Noir anthology. The project never finalized but I did finish my story. Crimespree Magazine recently accepted it for Issue 51. And now to the Land of Enchantment ...
When The Air Conditioner Quit
copyright Manuel Ramos - all rights reserved
When the air conditioner quit, Torres shot it. The bullet bounced around the machine's innards like an insane pinball. "I don't have time for this shit," he said.
Juanita rushed into the room. "Jesus! What the hell was that?"
"Damn thing's broke. I put it out of its misery." He laughed the horse laugh that she hated. Sweat already flowed down his back.
The gray dented machine sported an ugly hole in its side. It hung crookedly in the window. A thin spiral of smoke rose from its louvered vents.
"You dumb son-of-a-bitch. Now what're we gonna do? It'll hit a hunnerd again today. You think of that before you pulled the trigger?"
"I tole you it’s broke. Useless. You said it yourself."
"I said it was goin' out. Big difference."
"Well, it went out. It stopped. Nothin' but hot air comin' from it. Stinkin' up the place. You must’a smelled it."
"So you shot it? Are you crazy?"
He grinned at her and scratched the back of his ear with the barrel of the gun. "You don't even have to ask, do you?"
She flipped him the bird then returned to the kitchen. At least her fan moved the cooked air while she cleaned a pot of beans.
Torres tucked the gun in the waistband of his sweat pants and covered it with his T-shirt. He needed a drink. “I’ll kill somebody if I stay here,” he said to the stuffed owl. He rubbed his hands through his hair. “I’m taking the pickup into town,” he shouted. “I’ll be back for supper.” He looked in the direction of the kitchen.
“Good riddance,” Juanita said. “Don’t kill any tractors on your way. Or mailboxes. Damn things might shoot back.” She laughed and shook her head. Torres laughed, too. That's what he liked about Juanita.
She almost added that he should look for a job but the smell from the air conditioner cautioned her and she bit her tongue. He did what he could, she reasoned. What with the recession and all.
He had money for a few drinks. Robbie Claxton, over in Roswell, finally paid him for the briefcase of weed from Albuquerque. Took him long enough. Juanita didn’t know he’d been paid but he’d work it out with her. Tell her, “I’ll put somethin’ away for a new air conditioner, get that dog you want, and then we’ll see what comes up.” The bulge of his wallet pressed against his butt. The fake leather case carried nothing but the money. Five hundred dollars for a day’s worth of work. Not even work. Driving, mostly. Watching for cops, staying cool, under the radar. Picking up and delivering the package. Nothing to it. Life should always be so easy.
He rubbed the American flag tattoo on his right bicep. For a hot minute he thought about making a run to the border. In the old days, with five hundred bucks in his pocket, he would've disappeared for a week. Easy to do in El Paso, Juárez. The things he’d seen, no one believed. Some of it he wanted to forget.
He drove along quiet South Lincoln Avenue until he saw the faded sign that years before blinked “Bar” and then “Café.” These days it stuck on “Bar.” He stopped on the patch of soft asphalt that passed for a parking lot.
The Hi-Way offered nothing more than beer, strong whiskey, air conditioning, and a juke box with country and Tejano music. That was enough for Torres and the four other customers.
“It’s like a ghost town out there,” he said to Cole the bartender. “I didn’t see nobody.”
“Too damn hot," Cole said. "And there's no work. It’s been so dead I’ve been thinkin’ of stayin’ closed until the weekend.”
Torres adjusted to the semi-darkness by squinting. He ordered a shot of whiskey and a beer back. He chugged the shot, sipped the beer. When he caught Cole’s eye he ordered another shot. The second shot lasted longer than the first.
By the time three empty beers sat on the bar he’d forgotten his promise to be home for dinner.
“Hey, Torres. How’s it hangin’?” Claxton’s younger brother slapped him on the back. Torres flinched under the sting of the slap. Dickie smelled like cigarettes and whiskey.
“Hey, Dickie. What you doin’ round here? I thought you was away at school.”
Torres moved his whiskey closer. Dickie was a big kid, like every Claxton. Had that wild red hair they all carried. Quite a coincidence to run into Dickie Claxton. In the Hi-Way, of all places.
“That’s for suckers. I got more important things to do, know what I mean?”
“Yeah, sure. You here with Robbie?”
“Nah. On my own. Just checkin’ out the scene here in beautiful downtown Dexter. These Dexter women are good ole country girls, you know?”
“Yeah. I guess.” Torres didn't see one woman in the bar.
Dickie laughed. Torres tried to laugh but he choked on his beer. He knew about the rape charge and getting tossed from New Mexico State. Everyone knew. The paper made it front page news. No one brought it up, not to Dickie or his brother, that was for sure.
Torres finished his beer. He decided to leave. He opened his wallet to lay money on the bar. Dickie grabbed his wrist.
“Hey, where you goin'? The party’s just started. You need to catch up. I’m way ahead. Let me buy you a drink.”
Torres twisted his arm from Dickie’s grasp. “I gotta go. Juanita’s waitin’. There's some work to do around the house.”
“Your shack, you mean? That place needs a lot of work, bud. What could you possibly do that would fix it?”
“The air conditioner's been actin’ up.”
“You know about air conditioners? I thought you was a roofer. What the hell you know about air conditioners?”
Dickie stepped away from the bar. He stood over Torres, at least six inches. His eyes fixed on the wallet.
Torres shoved the wallet in his back pocket. The movement lifted his shirt and Dickie saw the gun. Dickie shuffled back to the bar.
“But if you gotta go …” Dickie’s voice trailed off.
“Yeah. I gotta go. Maybe next time.”
“Whatever.” He turned to Torres. "Robbie paid you? I was supposed to do that job for him, you know? But Robbie couldn’t wait. Your good luck, eh?”
“Do what I have to. Need the work. Your brother will have more for you. He always does.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Dickie stared down the neck of his beer bottle.
Robbie was okay, a good guy really, but Dickie was over the edge.
Torres walked out of the bar into the blazing sunshine. He swayed from the booze and the heat. The daytime glare blinded him. He stopped to get his bearings. Someone stood behind him. He tried to move out of the way. A fist slammed into his kidney. Torres fell forward on the asphalt. The gun slipped out of his pants.
“The wallet. Or I kick your face in.”
Torres struggled but Dickie’s boot dug into his throat. He pulled the wallet from his pocket. Dickie snatched it. The younger Claxton stepped back, hesitated, then punched Torres on the chin. He walked away, easy and slow.
Torres rubbed his jaw, tasted blood. He picked up the gun, aimed it at Dickie’s back. He flashed on the air conditioner.
A shadow crossed his face. Robbie Claxton blocked the sun. “You ain’t gonna do that, Torres. Give me the gun. I’ll get your money back.”
Torres handed over the gun. Robbie held it like it was a glass of water and he didn't want to spill a drop. He moved quickly after his brother.
Torres sat on his haunches.
The Claxtons disappeared around the corner of the bar. Torres heard shouting, a few grunts. He thought he should do something. The empty street stretched away from the building. A white haze of summer light beat down on him.
He jerked his head when he heard the gunshot. A dog barked across the street. No one came out of the bar.
Torres stood up. He leaned against his pickup, his hands in his pockets, his mind locked down. Robbie stumbled into view. Blood oozed from his chest. His bloody hand held the wallet.
“Take the goddam money and go home.” Claxton fell to his knees. Blood quickly covered his shirt. Tires squealed from behind the building. Torres ran into the bar and hollered for Cole to call 9-1-1.
He ran back outside followed by the bar's customers. He did what he could but Robbie Claxton was dead when the ambulance screeched into the parking lot.
The cops arrived at the same time. They ran around for a few minutes before they settled into a routine. One cop crossed the street and knocked on the door of a house. The cop in charge questioned the men from the bar. He paid special attention to Torres.
“I had a drink," Torres told him. "When I was getting into my truck Robbie come around the building, bleeding.” The cop took notes as Torres talked. “He must’a been in a fight in the back. I didn’t see anyone else. I tried to stop the bleeding but it didn’t do no good. Got blood all over my hands." He showed his hands to the cop.
“You got some on your lip,” the cop said.
Torres rubbed his chin and lips with the back of his hand.
"I knowed this guy since high school,” he said. The cop nodded.
Torres didn’t say anything about Dickie, nor that Dickie drove a red F-150 with chrome wheels. How could he explain five hundred dollars?
The ambulance men loaded the body on a stretcher and covered it with a blanket. A dark red stain flared over the white cloth. The men lifted the stretcher. Torres watched his wallet fall like a wounded bird dropping from the sky. One of the ambulance guys picked it up and handed it to the cop. The cop thumbed through it.
“Don’t know," Torres said. "Didn’t see it before. It was on him, right?”
“Under him. No money or I.D. Looks like he was robbed. I’ll give it to his widow.”
An hour later the cop said Torres could leave. "I hope you get the guy," Torres said.
He couldn't stop thinking about what happened between the Claxton brothers. And his money. He thought so hard and deep that he didn’t see the red truck until he was about a hundred yards from the house.
Then he saw Juanita hunched over in the doorway. She didn’t look right.