Six thick shots ran through the trunk of the man, and Harlan fell over like he’d stumbled, toppled and spilled his guts all over the linoleum, his mouth leaking his last words—”Johnny, it was Johnny”—before the light went out in his pale blue eyes, not blue anymore, but gray, gray as the metal along the edge of his scuffed revolver. The gun lay unused at the corner of small poker table to the side of the room.
“Boom,” Larpoll mouthed. The plosive bounced lightly from the back wall. The hallway was dark and cavernous, and Larpoll sighed, relieved that there was, inevitably, an end.
The day had been long, and it stank of final exertions. Larpoll had watched the final, desperate actions of four separate men; each one had reached for him at the last moment, each one further from him than the previous one until he might as well have been killing them via remote.
Every bloated, wheezing corpse had fallen across his path like a soft, fetid brick, aging Chinese take-out and the huff of poor circulation choking life’s cool, clean breeze. Larpoll stepped around Harlan and walked further into the guts of the dusty house, empty but for the rustle and skitter of beetles along the cellar floor. And underneath them? Maybe the real prize.
He hadn’t been in the seeking game long; just a few days before, he’d been content to work odd jobs and eke out an existence prize-free. But then the dame was on him, and his mouth was dry and the sweat slithered down his back and he had no other choice.
“She’s gonna turn on me,” he thought, and not without cause; the first thing she’d said to him when they lay beaded and still was “I left Billy by the side of the road,” and while Larpoll was hooked on the adrenaline, he for damn sure wasn’t dumb. She talked about that basement long and descriptive enough for him to build the scene in his mind: he was crouched over a trap door with an ornate latch decorated with the devil’s grin, and he lifted it, and whatever was inside glowed bright, bright enough to illuminate the cellar, the walls hung with memories—diplomas, awards, photos of lighter times—, and then behind him he heard a pistol cock, and “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Stu,” and she looked him hard in the eyes and even though he was convinced there was some love there, the money was hers, and he braced himself for the exit wound.
Instead, she’d taken one right between the eyes and the back of her head disappeared, and so there was only Larpoll, moving inexorably forward, playing out the beats of a story that had no end, each killing preordained and strangely colorless, the grue faded under the dim light of obligation.
But Larpoll had come to the house armed with more than just his sidearm; he’d also brought along hope—the hope that there rested, just out of the reach of the Reaper’s fingers, the salvation of wealth; that ultimately, once he’d bagged her forgotten prize, he’d be free of this mess and be able to move on, to the next town, to the next dame, to the next score—to a proper ending.
The cellar was too dim for him to be certain it was as he’d pictured it, but the walls were not bare—he could tell that much, though whether they were decorated with glory or shame was anyone’s guess. The air was stale, and sound didn’t carry. The further he traveled, the deeper the black became, until he was on his hands and knees, groping at the floorboards, sweeping scores of insects aside with his hands.
At the back of the room, Larpoll saw a single shard of light, and he dragged himself toward it. The latch sparkled, and it lifted much more easily than he’d anticipated. The real struggle had been hers, and with her gone, all that remained was to lift the trap door. A smirk hanged his mouth; he was ready for his prize.
There was no glow, and no promise. It was just another deep, black hole.