Crime changes people.
Nobody understands that better than the guy bleeding out from his gut in the passenger seat of my ’74 Plymouth.
He used to be a guy named Cliff who thought a bank robbery would give him the cash to keep the loan shark’s goons from breaking his legs. Now, he’s a dead man who just hasn’t figured it out yet.
Me, I’m the same piece of shit I’ve always been.
Two strikes already. Hauling ass to get away from number three.
Bloody handprints streak the windows. Cliff punches at the dashboard, spits something wet and dark every time he yells. Hundred-dollar bills clot together in sticky red lumps; a few strays cling to the headrest and paper the windshield.
So much blood, I can taste it.
The bank disappears behind us, fifty thousand dollars lighter than it was this morning.
“Jesus, Ray,” Cliff says. “This is some bullshit! This was supposed to be no problem!”
I take the corner at Wilshire and Fairfax so wide that my back tire clips the sidewalk. Sunlight cuts my vision. It’s that particular shade of gold that’s native to late-afternoon Los Angeles, like the light is rising up out of the ocean itself. An ancient sun god, hungry to swallow the city whole.
Wilshire runs west to Santa Monica, then it’s a quick shot to the 405 where maybe we can blend in with that slow-moving parking lot. But even if we dodge the cops, I think Cliff’s seen his last nightfall.
“Hotshot with a gun, thinks he’s a hero,” I say. “You can’t plan for crazy like that. Most times, you bust in loud enough, the assholes fall in line.”
“He shot me.”
No question about that.
Cliff presses against his stomach with both hands, trying to keep everything in place.
“Guy had a .45 revolver,” I say. “Who the hell packs something like that under his suit coat?”
He doesn’t say anything, so I chance a quick look at him to see if he’s still breathing. His eyes have gone completely white, and I whisper a prayer that it’s just a trick of the light.
Otherwise, I have a big problem.
“Hey, that guy won’t be shooting anyone else,” I say. “You listening to me? I put one in his back.”
Cliff grabs my forearm as I gun the car through a yellow light, nearly causes me to steer into oncoming traffic.
“Hey, only one of us needs to stay alive to spend this money,” I say, “But don’t you dare leave me holding the bag here.” Gallows humor, but Cliff’s not listening.
“I don’t want to die.” When Cliff speaks, I can see the blue return to his eyeballs for a second. Then that wet, milky sheen pours across them again. I don’t have time right now to consider how bad this is.
“You won’t die,” I say. “I know a guy lives in the valley that can sew you up. Real discreet.”
“This was a bad idea,” he says.
“No, it was a good idea that went bad.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is, we made it out of there with the money.”
Red and blues flare up behind us. We’re rolling way too fast through the rich part of town and I should have known better, but Cliff is gnashing his teeth and his body’s starting to shake and I know I’m screwed.
I hit the gas for real and the world tightens around us in blur of overpriced boutiques and razor straight rows of palm trees. I crank the wheel and the Plymouth shudders onto a side street. A second cop car settles in behind us.
“This isn’t the way to the Valley,” Cliff says.
“Change of plans.”
I try to get lost in the tight little neighborhoods of million-dollar bungalows and stucco apartment buildings, all the while wishing I’d let the phone keep ringing when Cliff called to invite me into this bullshit robbery.
I don’t feel too bad for him. You don’t come to a guy like me for help if you’re playing things safe.
I hadn’t even talked to the guy in five years, and I barely knew him then. Just did time on the same construction crew, hanging sheetrock in an office building.
Cliff never did anything worse than lose too much on the ponies running at Santa Anita and sell a little weed. Then all of a sudden, he’s desperate and wants to be a bank robber.
Going along with it makes me stupid as he is.
Cliff starts to hiss through his teeth. The car resonates with a buzzing sound that begins at the same frequency as the sirens chasing us, then separates into an uncomfortable vibration that lodges in my back teeth.
Cliff’s been hiding something. I wonder if he even knows it himself.
“You’re a brick, aren’t you?” I say.
“I’m dying here. Just keep driving.”
“I asked a question.”
“I’m not a brick,” he says. “Happy?”
But I know he’s not telling the truth. The milky eyes, the shakes. Maybe I could pass those off as a dying man’s body winding down. But the buzz clinches it.
Symptoms don’t lie.
“You need to come clean with me or we can cut to the end of your death scene right now.”
My Glock is tucked in the front of my jeans and he knows it.
The whiteness hardens over his eyes, leaving what looks like a thin sheet of ice where his expression used to be. The guttural sound of his dying grows quiet and his shaking dissolves.
Cliff’s face is glass, his body stone still.
The lurker is in charge now.
“This has become quite the adventure.” Cliff’s mouth is the only part of him that moves. He watches me with dead eyes.
“Why do this?”
“What do you mean, Ray?”
“Rob the bank.”
“It sounded like fun. Now it’s boring.”
It’s a matter of time before the police box us in, and the only reason we’re here is because some alien virus driving Cliff’s body decided that living on the edge would make a cool story to trade with some other lurker trash.
I turn down an ally, hoping some sort of escape route will open up at the other end.
The lurker is motionless. Just the slow swirl behind those milky eyes and the creep of blood from the wound that will eventually kill its host. Cliff’s body is totally bricked; nothing remains but the alien now.
“Dumb asshole,” I say. “You burned down your own house.”
The lurker stares at me, impossible to read.
After a beat. “I’m moving to a new neighborhood.”
His words jolt me. I think he’s talking about moving into me, but then I remember the lurkers aren’t airborne. He’s just trying to make me squirm.
I should have spent some more time around Cliff before jumping into this mess. Lurkers can hold the symptoms at bay for a while, but eventually their nature always rises to the surface.
You can’t trust anyone these days.
Red and blues clog the alleyway ahead and I know we’re cooked.
The Plymouth’s brakes bite down. We skid and the rear bumper connects with a dumpster. The steering wheel jerks from my hands as the car’s tires try to grip and correct. I have a second to consider that dying in a car wreck might be the best outcome I can hope for, then a second dumpster brings the car to a sudden stop, and for better or worse, I’m still alive.
The lurker reaches out, hand dripping blood, and grabs the Glock from my waistband. He’s fast. He’s got it before I can take a breath.
“See you around, Ray,” he says.
The lurker climbs out of the stalled car and starts shooting at the cops.
I scramble for the floorboard, wedge myself down tight below the line of fire, suddenly very much wanting to live.
The cops gun down what’s left of Cliff in a hurry.
I huddle there, hands on my head, practically swimming in the dead man’s blood, and I’m thinking about lurkers and how they operate.
Microscopic alien hive mind. Moving like an incurable virus. Lives deep down in a person’s blood.
Yeah, crime changes you.
And there’s no going back from this.