"One Wallet Too Many"
The indoor public pool was busy on Saturday. The wall of glass by the check-in counter was steamed like a terrarium. Little boys did cannonballs from the sides, and a group of girls knocked a red ball back and forth. Old men exercised, walking laps in the waves.
Mouse Thompson signed in under a false name, carrying a bundle wrapped in a towel, and walked into the men’s changing room. He knew there would be no locks on the lockers; he’d been in there before. Mouse began to search methodically through the metal boxes one by one, listening for the sound of a door opening. By the time he had gone through every locker, he had stashed three wallets in his jacket pocket.
Suddenly the door opened. An overweight older man in a swimsuit walked from the pool into the changing room. He was like an older polar bear, with snow white hair and pale skin. Mouse made the pretense of looking through his towel bundle. The white-haired man reached for a locker. It was one of the three Mouse had taken a wallet from. The thief wasted no time in leaving the changing room, and, shaking hard, walked back out past the check-in counter.
“Forgot my suit,” he said to the attendant.
The teenage girl had her face buried in a fan magazine, and barely looked up.
Mouse got in his beat-up Ford. He looked back through the window of the public pool and saw the bear-like man from the locker room talking to the teenage attendant, who was looking at his car and jotting something down.
The thief backed up fast and hit the road. Even if they call the cops, he thought, they can’t prove I stole the wallets. Nobody saw me. But Mouse felt unsettled. He was a nervous guy, and didn’t like it when things didn’t go as planned.
Mouse drove to his trailer, sighing as he looked around at the overgrown yard filled with used tires and trash. He walked through the door, the torn screen crashing behind him, and saw his wife Emma sitting on the couch eating chips and watching TV. At one time her large breasts could stop traffic. Now she was chubby.
“Turn any tricks today?” he asked.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she replied. “Makes me feel like a common whore.”
“What are ya, then?” asked Mouse.
“I’m a married woman,” Emma said. “Married to you, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Well, the rent’s got to get paid some way. So, did you have any customers today?”
“One,” said Emma. “The money’s in the shoebox.”
“Good,” said Mouse. “It’s not like you have to work very hard. You just lie on your back.”
“Go screw yourself, Mouse,” replied his wife. “How about you? Have any luck today?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Mouse.
He pulled out the three wallets and tossed them onto a rickety kitchen table. Pulling up a chair he opened the first two, cursing at the contents.
“Thirteen fucking dollars,” he exclaimed.
Then Mouse opened the third wallet. He let out a low whistle, and his hands began to shake.
“Emma, come look at this,” he said breathlessly.
He pulled out the cash from the third wallet and laid it on the table, a huge stack of hundreds.
“Holy shit,” said Emma, staring over his shoulder. “We’re rich!”
Mouse pulled out the driver’s license from the wallet flap.
“No, we’re in trouble,” he replied in a shaky voice.
“Carlotta. You remember him from the news a few years back? Something about him slicing up a man in front of his family. Everyone said he got off by buying off the judge. This is mob money. And this is the man who saw me in the changing room. I think he got my license number, too. How could anyone be so stupid to bring this much cash into a public pool?”
“It must have just slipped his mind,” said Emma softly.
“They’re gonna’ find you, Mouse. What are you gonna’ do?”
Mouse paced back and forth on the tiled floor. Then he stood in one place for a long moment.
“I gotta’ go on the run, honey,” said Mouse.
“I’ll take the bus to my cousins in New Orleans.” He slid four of the hundreds in her direction.
“Take this to hold you over. I don’t know when I’ll see ya’ again. But I’ll send for ya’ eventually.”
He slipped the rest of the cash into his own wallet and slid it into his pants pocket.
“Get rid of these three wallets,” he instructed his wife.
“Can’t I go with ya, Mouse?” she asked. “Won’t they come here lookin’ for ya’?”
“Too dangerous for you to come with me, Emma,” replied Mouse.
He picked up a pair of boxer shorts off the floor, sniffed them.
“And if they come here, just tell them that ya’ haven’t seen me.”
The truth was, he didn’t need his wife slowing him down. Emma had a way of getting emotional at the wrong times. He needed to run, and run fast. He moved into a backroom and stuffed clothes into a beat-up suitcase.
Ten minutes later, Mouse kissed Emma hard on the mouth and was out the door. She heard his car roar away. The young woman put her head in her hands and began to sob.
“How could things have come to this?”
Emma didn’t mean only this last bad turn of events.
Emma had grown up in a small town. She had parents with good jobs at the local plant and nice girlfriends. She went to Fourth of July picnics and swam in the nearby lake. The girl had played clarinet in the high school band, and her family had owned a couple of horses. She dated nice boys from blue collar families, not wealthy families, but nice families. Any of those boys would have probably made an excellent choice of a husband.
In her senior year of high school, Mouse moved to town. He was different, good looking in a spooky, dark sort of way. Emma felt sorry for him because he lived only with his father, a raging drunk. Her parents hated Mouse. Emma liked his sense of humor, the sarcastic way he poked fun at people. And he had nerve, never backing down to a fight, even if his opponent was larger. Mouse introduced her to drinking and sex, and she immediately liked both. Soon she had problems with not doing her schoolwork and a falling out with her old friends. Emma didn’t care. She was in love.
When Emma told her parents her plan to drop out of high school and get married, they threatened to disinherit her, which they did. From that day forth they would have nothing to do with their daughter. Mouse and she moved to a small city nearby, and she immediately got pregnant. Before she could have the child, her new husband was arrested for burglary and spent the next two years in prison. Emma’s sister adopted the child. The girl faithfully waited for Mouse’s release, and he wasted no time in returning to a life of crime. Times were tough, and sometimes they didn’t have anything to eat. On the day the eviction noticed arrived, Mouse asked her for a favor.
“Just this once,” he said. “You can pretend he’s a movie star, whatever. It’s easy money, and soon we’ll be back on our feet again.”
But it wasn’t just once, and every time she opened herself, she felt a blackness growing inside her.
Emma heard a knock on the door and panic immediately flooded her. Shaking, she rose from the table to walk into the living room. When she opened the door a hand came through the screen and shoved her backwards. Two large men in gray suits walked into the room.
“Where’s your husband?” one asked.
“I haven’t seen him,” answered Emma.
One of the gangsters walked through the living room into the kitchen, spying the wallets lying on the table. He opened them up one at a time, putting the one that had previously held the large amount of cash into his jacket pocket. Then he walked back to Emma and smashed her in the chin with a large fist. Blood flew from her mouth. The other man punched her in the stomach, and she bent over, and then fell to the floor on her knees.
“I asked you, where is your husband?”
“I don’t know,” cried Emma.
This time one of the men brought his dress shoe crashing up into her nose. She heard it snap, and blood poured forth. He put a gun to the side of her head.
“I’m just going to ask one more time.”
“He went to the bus stop,” Emma blubbered.
“He’s catching a bus to New Orleans to his cousins.”
“If you’re lying, we’ll be back,” said one of the men.
The two gangsters exited the trailer.
Emma curled into a ball on the floor, her tears mixing with her blood.
“How did it come to this?” she asked herself softly.
Meanwhile, Mouse fidgeted against the wall of a convenience store, which also served as the small city’s bus stop. He twitched slightly at every sound, and glanced at his watch over and over. He started thinking about his parents.
Mouse was first raised by his mother. She was a staunch Pentecostal, and tried her best to beat religion and obedience into her wayward son. Mouse was always rebellious, in trouble from his early youth for shoplifting and vandalism. His mother had hit him with almost every item in the house she could lift. One day when he was thirteen and had mouthed off once too often, she cut him with a butcher knife. Mouse pounded her nearly to death with an iron skillet. He spent the next two years in reform school, and then was sent to live with his father. His dad also beat him, but not as much, as the regularly intoxicated man was usually passed out by the time Mouse got home from school.
Mouse kept glancing up and down the street, eyeing the men and women entering and exiting the convenience store. He saw a young woman drinking a soda that reminded him of Emma in high school. Emma… He hoped she was okay. He felt sure she was. My Emma’s tough as stones. Even if they found her, she’d never talk.
He kicked a bottlecap and mumbled, “Where’s the fucking bus?”
A long, dark blue car pulled up and the two men in gray suits stepped out. Mouse felt a sinking in his stomach. He moved to the side and then ran, knocking over an old lady in a fake fur coat who had just exited the convenience store. Mouse ran across a grass divider to a long parking lot, and then down an alley between two buildings. He hadn’t gotten far when one of the men chasing him snatched the collar of his jacket and threw Mouse to the pavement.
“You’ve got something that belongs to our boss,” said one of the men in a gray suit.
“Hand over the cash.”
Mouse paused for a second, weighing his options.
“I haven’t got it.” It was the wrong thing to say.
One of the gangsters flipped out a switchblade and plunged it into Mouse’s chest.
The killer bent to go through Mouse’s pockets.
“He was telling the truth,” he said to his partner.
“No cash on him.”
Back at the convenience store, the old lady in the fake fur coat that Mouse had knocked down, sat in her rusted old car and counted the cash. Then she put her auto in gear and pulled away. The elderly woman couldn’t believe her luck. In forty years of picking pockets, she had never had a score like this.
Todd Hanks lives in the Ozarks and is a schizophrenic individual. He has had work published in the Kansas City Star and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. He has an eBook of Gothic poetry available at Amazon that was published by a small press, entitled Grave Bits.