At Her Feet He Fell
Let the bank rob the bank. That was the plan. Arbogast had come up with it all, but that only made sense. He was the thinker, the planner. "Einstein" they used to call him back in the neighborhood. You had a problem? You needed a solution? You went to see Arbogast. Not that he wanted to help. Not a chance in hell of that. It was just he was so damn proud of his own thought process. He'd help you out just to show he could. Just to rub your face in your own stupidity. Be a thinker not a stinker. He never got tired of saying that. Whether it was to a kid on the corner or to himself while picking up spent shell casings, it always applied. That's not to say thinking didn't have a downside. Sometimes the facts you turned up weren't so great. And as Valentine's Day approached, Arbogast had been considering two things. One? All the red is to hide the fact that love is really blue. And two? The muse is, was, and always would be a slut.
Janey was what the arsonists like to call 'an accelerant.' She didn't necessarily start the fire, but she sure as shooting made it burn a whole lot brighter, faster and hotter. She was so far from home when Arbogast found her, that she couldn't remember where home was. About the only thing she could remember was she was never going back. Somewhere along the way she had rejected a literal suicide for a philosophical one. She had fooled herself into thinking it was possible to escape. And the Route 66 to follow always seemed to involve a guy. She'd ridden mean guys, tough guys, and plenty that couldn't get out of their own dumb dead-end way guys. At first the trick was knowing when to get off, but she quickly learned that they always let you know way ahead of time. Arbogast was different. Arbogast was a genius. This ride had been longer and truer than all the others combined. Scarier, too. But Janey meant to ride it as long as it didn't kill her. She just hoped she'd know when that was.
Franklin worked diligently at the bank. He sat at a desk in front of a picture of the wife and kids and he worked. From the moment he'd arrived a few months ago, unless he was listening to a customer or a colleague, his head was always down. If there'd been a grindstone on his desk, his nose would've been a bloody red pulp after day one. Work, work, work. To get ahead? Certainly. Although what that meant to Franklin was Franklin's business. And if anyone really watched they'd see that sometimes he was looking past the papers on his desk. Through them even. Like he was sitting at the edge of a well or looking down a mineshaft. Maybe it was a hole to China. But if there were bore holes through the earth, no one else saw them. No, there wasn't much mystery as far as Franklin was concerned. He was just busy working. A dull boy if there ever was one. The only thing even slightly intriguing may have been his penchant, when lost in an occasional reverie, to write the number 3048 in the margin of his daily calendar sheet. To be honest it had gone unnoticed except by Estelle, a member of the night clean-up crew. She assumed it was some pin code and thought it was sloppy of whomever to leave it written down. She was sure it would unlock a million dollar account somewhere, but that number was about as far from Estelle as the snows on Kilimanjaro.
Franklin first set eyes on Janey at the check out stand of the liquor super-mart. He liked the rows of booze. He liked the fact they had twenty different kinds of vodka. He liked the big bottle of whiskey done up like a golden bear reared back on its hind legs. For the tenth time in a month he admired it. It reminded him of something his old man would've brought home. And it was a Thursday. Payday. Kismet. Franklin decided to buy the bear. His old man would've understood.
It was at the register God made his face to smile upon him. Or so it seemed. Janey was ahead of him—three bucks short on a bottle of Chivas. Half a dozen men there would've floated her a loan. Half a dozen more would've floated her something else. As usual, it was all timing. Franklin got out a five, pressed it into the cashier's hand. "I got it." Funny thing was she didn't even say thanks. Still, a clear view of her ass as she headed for the door was easily worth the price of admission. Janey was actually outside before she looked back over her shoulder. You want your three dollars worth, or don't you?
Backlit by mercury vapor, she was wearing a blue leather jacket with some sort of goddamn furry trim. For some reason he would never forget the sight. Until his mortal coil was finally sprung, whether he was in a brain dead coma or ended up a batshit old man pissing in nursing home hallway water bubblers, the image would endure. No rhyme or reason, but the worm was twisting in his belly. It wasn't love, was it? No, it was worse than that. It was desire. The difference was the chasm between the moth and the flame.
They drank in the junior business suite of a downtown hotel. Franklin's three dollar investment was turning into the night of his life. He hadn't noticed that Janey was dumping her shots in a planter by the window. He hadn't noticed that when she'd gone to the bathroom, she'd taken her cellphone with her. He was too busy at his latest attempt to twist off his wedding ring.
The struggle had started in the parking lot. Since the ring had first gone on, he hadn't thought twice about it. It was a hunk of metal, simply there like the fillings in his teeth. But as he opened the car door for her, wearing it felt like being naked. He had twisted and tugged, but it just would not budge. Pointless now, she had to have seen it and obviously did not care. Hell, maybe that's why they were here. As she returned from the bathroom, he finally gave up the struggle.
Janey smiled at him. The kind of smile where your eyes and mouth are in full agreement. It didn't stop all that was ugly in the world from being ugly. But it did open a crack and through that crack something beautiful smuggled itself into the room.
They were lying in bed, the bottom of his foot pressed down on the top of hers. It was better than holding hands any day. Never did two left feet move so gracefully, so deftly, so sure. That's how Arbogast found them. He was standing at the foot of the bed aiming a revolver that must've weighed seven pounds. As Franklin sat up, Janey made the introductions. Arbogast just shrugged. He explained how the situation was existential. The guy with the gun is the guy with the gun after all. But it was the new unimproved smile on Janey's face that made Franklin hate the world. The crack had closed and the entire universe was ugly again.
Janey didn't slip away. If anything, she snuggled even closer to Franklin and listened as Arbogast pontificated. On the surface her body language seemed cruel, a shot taken at both men. The space between your legs would need to be a void to think otherwise. And that's why neither man did. For Janey none of it should have meant a thing. This was just another score, another stop on the journey Arbogast had laid out for her. A great fat ticket to somewhere other than here. But something was twisting in her stomach as well. Not the worm, no, it was something else. She couldn't put her finger on it. If forced to articulate she would have said it was something about the way Franklin had sighed earlier. The shadow of his sigh if she had been feeling clever. It was like some hurt in him had been salved. And there was something soft about the way he had made love to her. Like he was giving her something instead of taking it away. She knew that didn't happen very often. And for just a minute, just before Arbogast had shown up, Janey had forgotten what it was she was up to in the first place. And that didn't happen ever.
All men were hunters. That was a fact she would never be dissuaded from. All of them. But Franklin? Maybe he was the kind who tagged his prey, then let it go again. Maybe he was one of those Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fellows. Didn't matter now though, did it? He'd play his part and if Arbogast didn't decide to kill him, they'd let him go that much the wiser. And Janey's heart hardened a little. And her guard went back up. She was the huntress and Franklin was the one who was going to get tagged.
Arbogast explained things in a careful measured tone. Half so he could enjoy hearing himself talk, half so Franklin would completely understand. Franklin thought he recognized him and Arbogast winked and reminded him where they had met before. He had been in the bank two days earlier to fill out a loan application. He'd seen Franklin's foolish diligence, seen the foolish smiles on the photo faces of Franklin's foolish wife and children. What had he said about them at the time? Something like "hey, they look just like the Mayberrys. That must make you Andy Griffith." But what Arbogast didn't see now was Franklin's finger as it traced the number 3048 over and over in the sheet. A forefinger mantra.
Tomorrow morning, Franklin would find a way to fill a bag with $100,000. Arbogast shut down Franklin's protest. He'd done his homework. He knew tomorrow was the day the money would be there. He also knew that as a manager Franklin could free float and collect the money unnoticed. Franklin would then leave the bank and bring the bag across the street where Arbogast and Janey would receive it. If he didn't, Arbogast would cost Mrs. Franklin at least $100,000 worth of misery.
To fully make his point Arbogast retrieved a voice recorder from the dresser. Somewhere in its circuits would be the sound of that sigh, and the sound of other things as well. Then, aiming the gun with his left hand, he raised a camera with the right and told Franklin to look as natural as the situation would allow. Janey ran her fingers through his hair, opened her mouth in what could only be described as pleasure. It was so natural, Arbogast hesitated before popping off a few shots. Something had settled in his stomach as well. Something dark and nasty and bent. "Get dressed," he had growled. And for just a second he almost pulled the trigger. The only reason he didn't? He couldn't decide which one of them to pull it on.
They left Franklin there. Didn't so much as pistol whip him though Arbogast was fuming while Janey wondered just what the hell all that tracing on the sheet meant. Franklin slowly poured the rest of the Chivas down the sink, then spent a long time staring out the window. He felt as anonymous as the room behind him, as bereft as the city before him. It had just been a fuck, right? And Cupid, no doubt, smokes four packs a day. But something about her had drawn him in. And despite the fact it had utterly slipped away, an odd tug of longing persisted even if all that remained was an unexpected emptiness.
Arbogast liked to go on about things that wouldn't occur to the average criminal. Sometimes he could actually feel his intellect expanding. This week he had been haranguing Janey on contradictory proverbs. If he who hesitates is lost, how can you look before you leap? If you look, you've hesitated and you're lost, but if you don't hesitate, you sure as hell can't look. For two hours one afternoon he wouldn't shut up about it. And now on their descent into the night, he started up again.
He wanted an answer from her. Every time she gave one, he would counter. The arguments growing convoluted and difficult to grasp. In fact, it was his way of beating her. He longed to make her cry, but the well was dry. Arbogast's lording superiority wasn't going to haul up a bucket tonight. The truth was that she was far more likely to bring tears to his eyes than he was to hers. There was something rainy about Janey, something drenching about her. Arbogast admitted and yet dismissed this fact. She wasn't really that way; it was simply how he perceived her. This made no difference of course. Truth was a relative thing, but her effect on him was as true as the Pythagorean Theorem. She tore him up, made him feel raw and useless. That wasn't the way Arbogast liked to feel. But for now he'd have to wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow he would take it out on Franklin.
As Franklin discreetly cleared one cash drawer after the next, his mind settled in on the one and only truth the world had ever revealed to him. We all die and disappear. It was the way the world worked. Its foundations were built on destruction and above all loss. Our lives were simply symptomatic of that reality. Except for love. Love was the cosmic monkey wrench in the world's great grinding gears. Its contradictions upended everything for it could destroy better than Shiva herself while simultaneously serving as proof that you were actually alive. Love was a bitch, a great big glorious bitch. And last night, for a few exalted moments, he had looked straight into her eyes.
But what now? Franklin didn't have a future. He knew that. And his past? Well, he was always in the middle of trying to forget it. All he had was this moment and frankly love was nowhere in sight. It never had been. He had kicked around since day one. His old man had raised him on the road and the blacktop was in his blood. Miles of it whipping by in a diesel-tinged blur. And of the thousands of road signs they had passed, not one had said amore next right. He hadn't seen the old man since day one of 3048. The number of days Franklin had spent in the state penitentiary. A hundred-twenty odd days past eight years. That's how long he'd been down. He swore he'd never go back. And as he returned to his desk with a little over $120,000, he saw the number again—freshly gouged this morning in the wooden flat of the desk.
He dropped the photo of the wife and kids into the trash. The ring? He'd need wire clippers to lose that. Damn if he was not righteously incensed. He'd been planning this job, his own bank job, for months. It was supposed to go down a week from now. On a day when the take would be closer to a half a million. But now it was only money. Money was nothing compared to what he'd blinked on ten short hours ago.
The bastard of it was, Janey felt the same way. As she stood waiting across the street with Arbogast, it was the only thought going through her head. Since she was a girl she'd felt like she was marked. Don't ask it to make sense, but occasionally she'd seen the mark on others as well. They were startling little moments when they happened. And last night she had seen the mark on Franklin and she knew at once that his was as deep as the one she bore herself. They were kindred. Forget opposites attracting, this was a Pisces thing. But a married bank manager with kids? How was it possible? How did the world slip off its axis like that?
And Arbogast? Arbogast who knew everything? Arbogast who made all his fears— except her—into friends? Arbogast was frankly slack-jawed. Because he was staring through the window of the print frame shop at two dozen photo frames they had displayed for sale. Each and every one of them had a picture of the Mayberrys: Franklin's wife and kids. The picture on the working stiff's desk was identical to each and every one of these.
As Franklin approached, Janey looked over at Arbogast. She knew before she saw the seven pound gun in his hand that Arbogast was going to kill him. He was going to send Franklin somewhere quiet and lonely. An obscure nook as it were. All the same, Arbogast smiled, told Franklin to open the bag and show him the cash.
Franklin reached in and gripped the .357 that was sitting on top of over a hundred grand in cash and alongside the golden bear whiskey bottle. He neither hesitated and he certainly was not lost as he fired bang and then bang again through the bag and into Arbogast's chest.
Arby slammed up against a United States post box. People ran, two cabs slammed together, but the only thing Arbogast could see, the last thing he would ever see, was Franklin holding out his hand and Janey taking it. And as the smoke curled up from the holes in his chest, Arbogast finally blinked and staggered forward. The wrecking ball had finally swung his way.
And at her feet he fell.