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Prologue: The Doomed Courier

 

Despite having had a comprehensive—nigh exhaustive—list of ways he was likely to end up dead kept handy and updated in his head, the way he actually did die, wasn’t a possibility that’d made it to the forefront of his brooding mind, let alone to his long-list of likelihoods.

 

Not because he’d expected to never die, or never to even have a gun to his head, no. In his chosen livelihood, that of specialties courier, he’d not only come to expect such eventualities, but had stared his own violent near-death in the face a handful of times, already. And each subsequent rescue or escape from that vexingly common work-hazard had been more unbelievable and providential—amusing than the last.

 

But, never let it be said that his gift for gab, the Blarney passed down from his mutt-father’s side of the family, hadn’t wound up serving him well, indeed. He’d talked himself out of death far more frequently than the several times he’d been caught/waylaid by aggressive, trigger-happy enemies and competition.

 

The reason that the final moment, the end had been such a surprise—shocking beyond even the feelings of betrayal and confusion and rage that he’d felt—had been because of whose finger was on the trigger.

 

When he’d woken up, already struggling sluggishly and twitching like a frog on a hot skillet, he’d instantly begun tugging on his tightly-bound wrists, while trying to make sense of the voices he’d heard talking and laughing. Tried to make sense of the unmistakable sound of digging.

 

He hadn’t had to try hard or long.

 

Because even though he’d been disoriented—and thinking through a head that felt like it’d already been plugged with lead—he’d understood the significance of sand being shoveled. Of what it had meant when combined with his bonfire-bright/dreamlike-dark, flickering surroundings, framed by the smear of the Milky Way above and gritty-coarse sand below.

 

In light of being trussed up and helpless in an anonymous bit of desert . . . he’d understood the digging-sounds instantly. He still hadn’t understood the middle of his story—none of which was anything but chaotic and rather pointless—nor even the beginning, with its banal and almost laughable tragedies.

 

Nope, he’d understood the end. Not the where-fors and whys of it, but that those didn’t even matter. They never had. What had mattered and was, in its own way, all the explanation he’d ever need—and certainly all that he’d ever get—was that betrayal, even impersonal betrayal, was simply the air in which humanity moved and existed. Like a parasite or weed, humanity proliferated on the misery and death of its brethren.

 

This had been the archetype he’d chosen to embody and the truth in which he’d chosen to wallow. The end he’d tacitly chosen to accept as valid and inevitable by his very lifestyle and actions. Of course, it had been. From an early age, betrayal had been all he’d been able to rely on. His only example of consistency and reliability. It had always been as evident a constant as gravity, betrayal.

 

Even death at one hundred and two, in one’s bed, surrounded by loving great-grandchildren, was a betrayal. The conspiring of one’s own fallible flesh against the spirit animating it.

 

But this betrayal, this end, hadn’t been anything so passive. It’d been pointed. Planned. And he, of all people, should’ve expected nothing less. For a job this big to have fallen in his lap so damned easily. . . .

 

This whole thing had smacked of conspiracy from the get-go, had he been smart enough to see it. And even if he’d got told the ins and outs of it—those where-fors and whys—before he got plugged and planted, he’d still be just putrefying meat in a shallow grave shortly thereafter.

 

Each chuff-chuck of gritty sand and chop at hardy, stubborn scrub-vegetation had seemed to be coughing his name. Calling to him like the least seductive siren ever.

 

Finally, the digging and sundry sounds of exertion had stopped.

 

“Got what you were after,” a man’s voice had said, suddenly louder than the siren-digging. Coming from the direction of that orange flicker-flare. The voice’d been rough and negligent. Almost laughing, as if the speaker had just done something easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy, and was already bored and thinking of other fun things to do. “So, pay up.”

 

A different voice had sounded, then, in a soft, wry-dry chuckle. “You’re cryin’ in the rain, pally,” this familiar, Vegas-posh drawl had said, causing him to stop struggling to free himself, and start struggling to roll over and face the engineer of his end.

 

“Well, well . . . guess who’s wakin’ up, ovah heah,” a third voice had said, snide, nasally-sounding, and stereotypically back-east. Like New Jersey, or some other East Coast shit-hole north of Delaware but south of Massachusetts.

 

“Time to cash-out,” that second voice had said, still gentle but also amused, as if all his prisoner’s last-ditch struggling and fighting for his life had been some sort of mildly entertaining improv.

 

And he’d known. He’d fucking known, even as he’d finally managed to flop onto his back. Even as he’d fought to blink his blurred and doubled vision clear.

 

Conspiracy, he’d told himself bitterly, as he’d eyed the boxy, black-and-white checked jacket and approaching zoot-suit baggy trousers. That bitter voice had gone on grimly, sounding exactly like his old man’s had after he’d finally sobered up and found religion: gravelly, disappointed, and more grunt than grammar. Lies and betrayals, boy. That’s all ya get, mixin’ with the unrighteous and walkin’ the devil’s road. Ya live in that life and ya gonna die in that life. ‘Course y’are. D’ja expect any different? Really?

 

Naw, Pop, not really, he’d told that rough-sad voice. He’d smirked, hard and angry, around his spitty-dusty gag as he’d glared up at a passingly familiar, blandly handsome face. It was like seeing a television star from yester-year in person, almost. Only minus the wistful nostalgia and plus his certain demise. Guess I just reckoned I’d have more time to find my way back out of all this. Figured I’d have time to find a way to make some kinda amends for the awful shit I’ve done and had a hand in. Might be I’m wrong, though. . . .

 

Francis “Benny” Sinatra—no relation to the crooner, as Benny’d always been the first to say, upon meeting everyone, even the man he’d been about plant like a geranium—had smirked down at him, pulled-together and slick, charming and smooth. An empty-pale, blue gaze that could’ve belonged to Ol’ Blue Eyes, had watched him struggle and growl and glare with detached pity.

 

Then Benny’d snorted silently and flicked away his half-smoked cig. It’d somersaulted into the night—just a tiny torch of barely-visible white and the baleful-orange flare of the cherry-end—disappearing in seconds, into its own grave of sand and scrub.

 

“Will you just get it over with, man?” the first voice had said from Benny’s right, sounding impatient, all of a sudden. The speaker had been tall and prison-bruiser tough-looking, all boxy, muscular build and desert-dusty, dark skin. But for the desert-dust, he’d looked like a casting extra from Warriors.

 

Standing on Benny’s other side, looking like he’d just stepped out of a Sid Vicious bio-pic, had been some skinny, pierced and punk d-bag with an orange-tipped faux-hawk. Probably the Jersey-Boy.

 

Even in the midst of his own worst nightmare come horribly true, he’d found it in him to snort a laugh and roll his eyes as if to say: Really, man? C’moooon. It’d earned him Jersey-Boy’s petulant glare, as well as the other man gripping a big, wooden bat like he’d been aiming to use it.

 

“Maybe cons kill people without lookin’ ‘em in the face,” Benny’d said with that lofty sort of dryness, as the light from the nearby bonfire or whatever flickered all up and down his right side. It’d made his masklike, anodyne-attractive face seem to shift and writhe as if dissolving to reveal whatever hideous and commonplace truth lay underneath. “But I ain’t a fink. Dig?”

 

Did this asshole just say “fink” and “dig”? For reals? he’d wondered with another incredulous, snorting laugh, his eyes closing tight briefly. My biggest regret is that I’m gonna die at this Rat Pack wannabe’s manicured hands. And . . . and maybe that I won’t get to see Cade one last time . . . maybe tell him I’m sorry about . . . everything. . . .

 

And even though Cade’d probably already guessed that—had likely sussed out what was blowing in the weeds long before his dense, egotistical, and self-centered on-again/off-again had—guessing and knowing were two beasts with a world of difference between them.

 

Too little, too late to blow anyone any damn good, he’d castigated himself grimly. Story of my goddamn life. Or it was.

 

And that story’d been about to come to a sudden but not unforeseen end. Even Pop’d seen the end coming, from nearly a decade past. Before his wayward, ne’er-do-well son had run off to Vegas with a gleam in his eye and visions of filthy lucre dancing in his greedy heart. . . .

 

Huffing and focusing once more Benny’s pale-flickering face, he’d growled harder and louder. Rocked a bit, trying to sit up or something—anything—so as not to go to his shallow, sandy grave like a rube or a coward. Not that it mattered. Whatever he had been or had tried to be, he’d be going into the ground. There hadn’t been any getting around that. The only consolation had been that, since this was professional, not personal, at least he wasn’t likely to be going in still alive.

 

There were always worse things than death. And depending on the who playing Grim Reaper, sometimes that worse thing was the dying, itself.

 

His death was all about expedience, not example. And that was the only stroke of goddamned luck he’d had while on this disastrous run to Vegas.

 

“Ya made your last delivery, kid,” Benny had informed him, so soft and apologetic, his regret had been almost believable. And then, after reaching into his pocket, the infamous lieutenant of House Industries (and of Robert House’s less publicly known and far less kosher Vegas Syndicate) had pulled out a poker chip. Then he’d flipped it in the air like a coin, before catching it and disappearing it into thin air, with what resulted in a strange moment of undiluted wonder for his captive audience.

 

Benny’s goons, however, had seemed less than impressed. The Jersey-Boy’d even rolled his squinty, ratty little eyes.

 

Blinking—and letting his pointless struggles taper to a stop—this time, he hadn’t even bothered to laugh. If there’d been significance to the poker chip and magic trick, some analogy or affect, he’d never find out what it was. All his finding out-days had been over the moment he’d accepted this Vegas-run.

 

“Sorry ya got caught up in this scene,” Benny had said a bit belatedly, sighing as he’d pulled a huge revolver out of his jacket, from the same place he’d retrieved the damned poker chip. The thing had been a fucking hand-cannon, like something Al Capone might have slept with under his pillow. But Benny’d nonetheless handled it easily, gracefully, flicking off the safety as casually as he’d done everything else. His smile had been almost self-deprecating. “From where you’re sittin’, this must seem like an eighteen-karat run of bad luck.”

 

Sorry, Pop. Sorry Cade. Sorry . . . Mom. . . .

 

His final regrets, such as they’d been, had felt more like undeserved comfort. As if, despite having realized it too late, he had been truly sorry and penitent. Repentant. Not just that he hadn’t made better choices—though, yeah, that, too . . . like, a lot—but that he hadn’t been better.

 

A better son to Paddy Delgado, who had, himself, been a shitty parent until the loss of his long-suffering wife had rearranged his drunken, abusive paradigm.

 

A better fuck-buddy/friend-with-bennies/lover/not-quite-boyfriend/whatever to Cade Gannon, the only guy who’d ever meant anything in his cesspool of an existence since running off from home nine years ago.

 

A better person, of the sort who would maybe get mourned should he disappear completely. Or at least have a Missing Persons Report filed in his absence, for all the good it would’ve done.

 

A better man.

 

As it’d stood, however . . . even if his Pop had still been alive, he’d surely written his foolish, headstrong only child off as dead, and grieved for him years ago. And Arcade would probably, after a couple months, assume his flaky, commitment-phobe booty-caller had gotten itchy feet—or indeed had fallen prey to some sort of well-deserved and well-earned foul-play—and do whatever was cathartic then move on.

 

It wasn’t as if a gorgeous, smart med-student who could suck dick like a pro and bluff the ass off anyone at Texas Hold ‘Em would exactly have trouble—in Vegas—catching and keeping a far better replacement for what he’d been settling for.

 

Even in the face of his death, it had been this that’d rankled and burned and ached. Not that his place in the world would be soon filled and himself soon forgotten. It’d been that he’d never had a place. Had never been memorable except when he’d taken pains to remind others of his existence.

 

He’d be dying in moments, but the truth was . . . he’d never really existed to begin with, it’d seemed.

 

And with that realization, it had been over for him. Just . . . finished. All of it. Done, in a moment of simple, but intense clarity. Not just his recent life, but all that’d come before and surely any remembrances of him that would have come after. Because it was likely that there would be no such remembrances. He’d not been the sort of person anyone had ever willingly recalled at all, let alone with fondness or affection. Death would be unlikely to change that fact. And might, in fact, simply cement it.

 

That was, he’d accepted rather serenely, probably for the best, all told. He’d never done anyone, even himself, a damned bit of good in twenty-six years on this planet. It’d be best that all the nothing he’d been and the nothing he’d stood for, would be scrapped completely and quietly.

 

Well, he’d thought with calm gallows’ humor, still eyeing that damned hand-cannon of a blunderbuss. Prolly not quietly. Talk about the shot heard ‘round the world. . . .

 

Then, he’d let his eyes drift up to the empty, but satisfied blue ones of Francis-goddamn-Sinatra-no-fucking-relation. He’d held that pitying, but merciless gaze for eternal moments because that’d been the closest he’d ever get to last words. So, he’d tried to make that final stare-down count. Even though he’d known that it didn’t and wouldn’t. That nothing had or ever would.

 

You are a fink, Benny . . . dig? The original rat-fink motherfucker, he’d seethed coldly, but with wide, dark eyes that’d been hot and throbbing. As if he’d become a mind-reader, Benny’d smiled with both mild regret and lazy sardonicism.

 

“Sorry, kid, but the truth is,” he’d said, his brow unfurrowed as he’d leveled his parodically large revolver with that same ease and grace. With a steady, precise arm. His voice had been solemn and almost confessional as he’d put the slightest of pressures on the trigger, and cocked the hammer back. “Truth is . . . the game was rigged from the start.”

 

No shit, Sherlock, he’d replied via a slow, contemptuous blink. Then, nonetheless smirking around his gag, he’d still continued to hold that stare-down as, at the last second, Benny’s baby-blues had shifted slightly, off into the night. But just enough to be a satisfying final victory for a man who’d never won anything, anyway. Never really existed.

 

Then, reality had frozen on an infinite note of explosive sound. Even as it had been consumed by the white-orange bloom of flame.

 

There’d been fire in the air. In his eyes. In his head.

 

And, oh, but it’d burned so bright—the unfurling of agony in his skull . . . then the death and eternity that had followed closely on its heels—that even though he, himself, had ceased to be, the heat-suffering-dissolution of dying refused to.

 

This is, he would have surely understood—had he still been, let alone been in any shape to make such distinctions—my Hell: an endless, tortuous, escalating spiral, downward and inward without end, yet never failing to grow exponentially worse with every passing moment. And I have earned each and every moment.

 

Hell. It was nothing less than that. And it was to go on—and on and on, and on and on—in a way that Patrick Michael Delgado, Jr., had not, and never again would.

 

TBC