Excerpt for When the Music Stops by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Coffee Break

(Episode 2)

Copyright 2019 Leigh Barker

Published by Leigh Barker at Smashwords

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ISBN: 9780463409701

When the Music Stops

Bitesize Coffee Break Stories

Leigh Barker


On a Downtown Train

Gasoline Alley

Talking Old Soldiers

Leaving on a Jet Plane

A Day in the Life of a Fool

About the Author

On a Downtown Train

Aliyah concentrated on the folded subway map on her lap and matched the name of the station to the sign on the platform. She had to be quick because the station stopped only briefly outside the subway train’s windows before it slid away and brought back the darkness. She’d put a tick against all the stations they’d seen on their journey from the Bronx to Manhattan. Line 2. She moved the map a little and squinted at it and found a name. Yes, that was what it was called.

She glanced up at her mother sitting next to her and got a smile and the hint of a frown.

“Are you squinting again, girl?”

She had no idea if she’d been squinting. It wasn’t possible to think about not squinting and still get the station names ticked off. She couldn’t do both, and she had to tick off the names, or…

“Don’t get pencil on your dress.” Her mother reached over and adjusted the map, opening it up one fold to cover her lap.

Aliyah could’ve done that. She was four, and girls of four are clever, everybody knows that. Her mother had told her just that, many times, so it must be true.

“How many stations to go?”

Aliyah squinted at the map, caught herself and opened her eyes properly. If she squinted, then she’d have to wear glasses. She shuddered.

The last station had been…She tracked her finger over the map. Nine and Six Street. She moved her lips as her finger traced the line and stopped for a moment at each station. “Six. Six to go.” She beamed at her mother and got a smile and a nod. See, clever.

She looked up as another station flickered past the window and stopped. She ticked it off. Easy, just numbers. She had time to watch the people getting on and off the train. Not the rich people they were going to see in…she squinted, forgetting about the risk of glasses. Yes, in Madhatter. The people on the train were funny, frowning and not looking at each other. Her mother said the people in Madhatter had so much money they bought food from poor people so they wouldn’t have to make it themselves. She wondered if they had to wash or if they got someone to wash for them. That would be lovely. Washing was rubbish.

She was about to ask her mother how much money was a lot, when a giant sat opposite and scowled at her. She kept her eyes on the map. Giants are scary people, and you don’t have to be clever to know that.

She ticked off the stations without looking at the giant, even though she really wanted to. A station slid alongside. She knew this word, Park, and traced her finger on the map. There. Her mother took her arm before she could tick it off. She would have to tick it off before the station disappeared or bad things would happen.

She looked at the giant, she couldn’t help it; she was thinking how she would finish her list. She hadn’t meant to look. He stared at her and scowled more. Yes, he was a giant for sure. His fat body seemed to flop over onto the seat next to him. That must be uncomfortable.

Her mother steered her off the train and took her hand firmly as the rush of people flowed past them. Then it was just the two of them watching the people going away. She moved a little closer to her mother’s leg.

“Shall I take that?” her mother said, and took the map and pencil from her.

But she hadn’t finished ticking. She watched open-mouthed as the map disappeared into her big brown shopping bag. If she said hoppy bunnies five times, then the bad things wouldn’t happen. It worked at night when the monsters were under the bed, so it would work now.

Her mother tugged her arm gently and they were moving. She’d lost count. Five was a lot.

She forgot about the list when they came out of the station and onto the street with the rich people. They were there, everywhere. Men in suits like they were going to church, women in men’s suits, fat men wearing white shirts that looked like they would split and let the fat splash out onto the street. And her mother had been right. Everybody seemed to be eating food from boxes and bags or sucking something from big cups with lids on. These were the rich people.

Her mother pulled her closer and they walked along the street, weaving around people who didn’t seem to see them.

She stayed close to her mother and tried to see why the people had stopped moving. They were just standing and staring up at the sky. Perhaps they could see balloons. She liked balloons.

She moved around her mother’s legs and looked up. There was smoke, lots of smoke and big flames coming from the top of two tall buildings that seemed to go right up to the clouds. It was the smoke the rich people were looking at and crying and moaning and shouting.

She tugged her mother’s hand and she bent down closer, but still watched the smoke.

“Why is the building smoking?”

“I don’t know.” Her mother gripped her hand a little harder. Too hard. “That’s the World Trade Center. It’s on fire.”

Fire was bad. That was why the rich people were crying. She watched the smoke and the funny flames, but she needed the bathroom, so it was hard to think about what was happening.

One of the buildings seemed to swell up as if a giant pushed at the walls, then it got shorter like the houses her daddy had built with cards. The people were screaming, and then they ran.

Aliyah concentrated on the folded subway map on her lap and ticked off the stations as they passed. She recognized them, but couldn’t know if the memory was from the journey so many years ago or from the ones she’d taken every year since her sixteenth birthday, the year they’d let her go out unaccompanied.

Of course, she knew now that it had been the worst day in America’s hard history. Three thousand people had died while doing a normal day’s work on a perfectly normal day.

She glanced across the aisle, but there was no giant filling two seats, and she turned to look at the tunnel walls flashing past the window.

Once the core of the towers had been severed, they collapsed under their own weight, dropping down floor by floor until all hundred and ten stories punched onto the ground and kept going, down into the shopping mall and underground station.

The tidal wave of dust blew out in all directions, a filthy grey cloud billowing, rolling and choking everyone it engulfed. Then the concrete and rubble had come.

The people who’d been watching and crying took a moment to process what was happening before they ran. A mass of people came out of the raging storm, a wave of panicking bodies filling the street and the sidewalk and oblivious to anything and anyone in their way.

Aliyah and her mother were in their way. Her mother gripped her hand so tight she thought she would smash it. They tried to run away from the roaring sound filling the air and shaking it like when her daddy had played music through big speakers, but it was so hard with terrified people slamming into them every few steps.

The choking storm of dust and thousand-pound blocks blew down the street, funneled by the tall buildings, tumbling over itself and obliterating everything in its path.

Her mother pulled her towards an open shop door, towards hope of safety, but the door slammed as the shopkeeper tried to shut out the avalanche with a pane of glass.

The cars that had been moving slowly as their drivers watched the world’s most famous buildings spewing fire and smoke were abandoned, their owners joining the desperate race for safety.

Aliyah flinched at a terrible crunching sound and looked back down the street to see cars flattened by piles of debris taller than a man. A man’s arm had flopped out of a car’s side window, and the hand that was resting on the rubble twitched as if beckoning her.

The cloud was racing towards them faster than they could run. She looked back and saw it swallow people, taking them in mid-step. She knew what death was, she’d seen her father die on the steps of their apartment block, right in front of her, but she didn’t understand it, she just knew that when somebody went there, they never came back. Lots of people were never coming back.

Her mother wrenched her arm and she staggered after her. She screamed and shouted for her to stop, but her tiny voice was lost in the roar that filled the world.

Blocks as big as cars crashed all around them, and dust, rubble and people blew past her. Her mother pulled her along faster than her feet could work, so she had to hang on with both hands and try to make her feet catch up.

The boiling grey cloud caught them. The sunlight blinked out and hell took its place.

People were everywhere, pushing each other, jumping over the fallen, stepping on them, their eyes wide but almost lost in the shroud of grey that covered them all.

Her mother was no longer holding her hand. She had gone.

She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. There was nothing now, just noise and pain from a thousand shards cutting and beating her. She staggered, caught her balance, and looked up to see a grey monster as big as a bull charging right at her.

The monster was beyond fear now, lost in a place from which he would never return. His whole mind, his whole being was now just instinct, just to survive. Nothing else mattered. In life he’d been a kind and gentle man with grandchildren no older than Aliyah, but that world was gone. He ran her down without even knowing she was there.

She screamed and scrambled onto her knees, her hand searching for her mother’s. There was no grip crushing her fingers. She was alone, her mother swallowed by the howling storm of pain.

There was nobody now, no adult to show her the way, to take her hand and lead her back to her mother, as there had been many times in the park when excitement had led her away from safety. Just the screams of the dying and the shuddering impact of the towers crashing to earth and spewing a billion tons of pulverized masonry into the streets.

She stood and tried to work out which way they had been going so she could run after her mother, but there was nothing, just a grey swirling fog and its rain of death.

She would wait for it to pass; that was a clever idea. It would pass; rain and snow passed. Then she would see where to go and find her mother. She would wait.

A piece of a steel girder drove itself into the sidewalk close enough for her to reach out and touch it.

She would wait in a doorway, as she did with her mother when they were caught in the rain. But there was no doorway, no buildings, nothing at all. Tears cut black ribbons on her cheeks, and she began to tremble, then to shake so much her legs buckled.

A hand took her and scooped her up. She opened her eyes to see another monster. A ghost in a policeman’s cap the color of…everything. She wriggled and tried to get free, but the monster was too big, too strong. She was caught.

The memories were still tumbling through her mind, and it took several long seconds before Aliyah remembered she was on the train. She looked down at the map folded on her lap.

The grey monster had been a cop covered in dust like everyone and everything. He’d held onto her even though she’d kicked and screamed. He had saved her life, and she would never forgive him.

He’d put her down gently when they reached the sunshine, knelt down and wiped her face with his fingers, and tried to smile, but his eyes were wild and scary, like he’d seen the devil and was still alive to talk about it.

“What’s your name?” His voice was gruff and hoarse from the dust.

She knew her name, of course she did, but she wasn’t allowed to tell it to strangers.

He brushed her shoulders with his hand and dust drifted away. “Where’s your momma?”

Her twenty-one-year-old brain that was remembering knew that was a stupid question, but the four-year-old who heard it didn’t have an answer. She hoped her mother wasn’t with God like her father.

She couldn’t tell him anything, her voice wasn’t working, and all she felt was fear, terrible fear worse than when the monsters made noises in the wardrobe. Her mother was gone, maybe to heaven, and everybody was screaming and crying and bleeding.

They’d come to Madhatter to see the rich people, but these people were very frightening. She wanted to go home.

“Do you know where you live?” The grey policeman turned her gently away from the broken people.

She didn’t know. She’d been learning it, but only for a little while. All she remembered was a nine.

“A tall building,” she said very quietly.

“Good,” the smiling police officer said. “Can you tell me where the tall building is?”

She looked at her shoes. They’d been black and shiny, but now they looked like old sneakers. Her mom would be cross. She looked around urgently and felt the policeman squeeze her shoulder.

“Come on, let’s get you somewhere quiet.” He stood and took her hand.

She pulled away. If she went with this man, how would her mother find her?

“I’m going to tell all the police officers in the area to look out for your momma,” the policeman said. “When they find her, they’ll bring her right to you.”

She let him lead her away and stared at everyone she saw, but her mother wasn’t there. Perhaps she would be waiting at the place the man was taking her. Yes, she would be there.

She hadn’t been there, or anywhere. She’d been lost without trace, as so many good people had been on that day.

For fourteen years, while the sad little girl became a young woman, she stared out of the windows of the foster homes that had kept her until they couldn’t manage her anger and depression any more. The list of homes had filled her dog-eared notebook in which she kept detailed notes on everywhere she lived, went to school, or just visited. She would never forget an address again.

At eighteen they’d put her out on the street, wiped their hands and closed the door, glad to be rid of her. This girl is trouble. It was double underlined in her record. Now she was somebody else’s problem. God help them.

She looked at her reflection in the train window, her haunted eyes staring back at her. So this was her life now. A string of waitressing jobs where she’d work in silence and alone until somebody said or did something that would bring an explosive and violent response. Then onto another job, each one moving further into the long night and away from the day. Where people kept to themselves and left her alone.

September eleven again, and here she was on the downtown train, the same downtown train she and her mother had taken at nine a.m., a lifetime ago. Before her momma had gone to heaven to be with the man who’d died on the stoop, the victim of a shooting, accidental or deliberate. The records she’d seen didn’t say, and nobody was ever caught or even questioned. Her mother would know the truth. Now.

She glanced at the station as it slid into view. Park Place. She remembered this was where they’d got off. Perhaps she just remembered it from last year or the year before or…This time the next stop was where she would get off. To relive the last day of her life. And of her mother’s life.

The train moved off into darkness and stopped again in the harsh light of a brand new station. She walked quickly along the carriage as the doors slid open, and felt the knot tighten in her stomach, as it did every time she took this trip. It was hard, and in some strange way it was becoming harder every year. She should stop, let it lie and find her life, but if she didn’t make this trip at this time each year, then something bad would happen. What that would be, she didn’t know, it just would.

The old woman sitting pressed against the back of the plastic seat didn’t look up as she passed; she continued to stare at something on her lap. Old women did that sort of thing. Nothing.

Aliyah was almost at the door and beginning her walk of pain when she stopped dead still. Her breath had frozen and her heart began to slam in her chest. She told her body to turn, but it refused to move.

“This is my stop,” the old woman said, and pointed at the open door. “It will close.”

Aliyah’s eyes moved to the woman’s hands, to the folded map she held against her chest, and then moved up to her eyes.

She was not old as she’d thought, just a woman whose life had been sucked from her.

Their eyes found each other, and the woman gave a little start and took a tiny step backwards.

“Momma?” Aliyah said almost without sound.

The woman stared at her in fear, shook her head very slowly, moved around her and stepped off the train. And stopped.

The doors closed and the train shuddered, and Aliyah saw the woman turn and look at her through the dirty glass, her mouth forming a single word.


Gasoline Alley

“Well, folks, it looks like we’re looking at the next NASCAR Xfinity Series champion right here. Johnny Joe Rodriguez! This victory puts him through to the Round of 8. So with only four races to go, I’ve got my money on this young man going all the way.”

The crowd roared and applauded their approval of the announcer’s prediction, albeit a bit biased, this being the track that started Johnny’s meteoric career. He was their boy.

Next race was at Kansas Speedway, where Andy Hammond’s prediction would be put to the test. At the end of every round, four drivers would be cut, so those left would be the very best there was. It wasn’t going to be a Sunday drive in the park.

After the race he left the track in the red Ford pickup he liked to let the fans think he drove all the time, and waved and smiled. Hell, what was there not to smile about?

Well, the guy in a red Camry for one. Shit, he’d been all over him on the last lap. Johnny didn’t want to put it into words, but it had been close, real close. Had the guy tapped his tail on a bend, he wouldn’t have been the golden boy for Andy’s big prediction. Saw him afterwards, white suit and helmet with a smoked visor. Darth Vader. Some folks watch too many movies.

He headed north and joined the Ronald Reagan Turnpike towards Miami to meet up with Laredo and watch the sun set over South Beach. Tell him about the dude in the Camry and then forget about it. With the help of a few mojitos.

Traffic wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, it being NASCAR day, and he made it in a little under an hour thirty. Early.

He pulled up behind the hotel, handed the keys to a young kid with a stammer and a smile that was going to split his face, took the keys to his black Shelby GT350, and headed right back out again. Mojitos were calling. It’d been a shit day. That was the other thing. He’d come second, and Christ, he’d had to work at it. Maybe the old magic was fading.

He pulled up outside the Pointe Blank bar and tossed the keys to another kid indistinguishable from the last one. The bar was busy and it took him a minute to see Laredo in a booth way in the back. Quiet was what he needed.

Forget about it, it was just one race. Somebody having a lucky day. Forget about it.

Laredo unfolded his six-foot-six frame out of the bench and waved him over. The man was older than God and had more cracks in his sun-blasted face than Fairfield Lake in the big drought.

Johnny gave the old guy a big grin and stepped up to the table, glad to see he’d got the mojitos in tall chilled glasses. The man walked the walk.

There was a girl. Hell, he was supposed to call them women; shit, he knew that. She was sitting to Laredo’s right, tucked back in the booth, sipping a tall drink through a straw and watching him with eyes that sparkled in the flicker of the table tealights. He felt a little kick but kept cool.

“Hey,” he said, and glanced at Laredo. “You gonna introduce us?”

“Wasn’t plannin’ on it.” He shrugged and his bony shoulder lined his white shirt. It had a bolo tie with a lone star lawman’s badge as a clip. Jesus, why didn’t he just spray Texan on his shirt?

Johnny shook his head and pointed at the tie. “Somebody dare you to wear that?”

Laredo straightened it and sniffed. “You want I should go out naked?”

The girl with the eyes coughed.

Laredo nodded towards her. “This here’s my niece.”

The girl laughed and almost choked on her drink. She brushed her pale blue blouse with a napkin and watched Johnny’s eyes moving with it. “You like what you see?”

Johnny shrugged. “Why not? Seen better, but you’ll do.” He slid into the side of the booth and took one of the half-dozen drinks laid out in a semicircle on the table.

“You get hit a lot?” the girl said, and sipped her drink again.

Johnny shrugged. “Time to time.”

“Johnny’s a NASCAR driver,” Laredo said. “Sometimes things get a mite excited when there’s a tussle.”

“Yeah, I can see how they could.” She continued to watch him over the rim of her glass.

“You like what you see?” he said.

“Why not? Seen better, but you’ll do.”

“Think that’s what our friends in Louisiana would call touché.”

“Shit, Laredo, you don’t got no friends.”

“You from Texas too?” she said, and almost sounded interested.

“No, ma’am, I’m from El Paso.”

They watched each other over their drinks and waited. She didn’t say it.

“Saw you race today,” she said instead.

He shook his head.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Ma’am, I came right on here soon as I parked the car at the raceway.”

“Saw you do that, and waving from the cherry red Ford.” She closed one eye. “You really drive an old Ford pickup?”


She chuckled and he felt the kick again.

“I see you as a muscle-car man.” She thought for a moment. “What is it? Camaro?” She shook her head. “No, you got one of those for your work car. I know. Shelby Mustang.”

Johnny glanced towards the door. “You saw me arrive.”

“Girl was here the whole time,” Laredo said, and sniffed. “Sees right through you. How’s that feel?”

“Like when my ma caught me watching porn.”

If it was supposed to shock her, it fell way short.

“They have porn back when you were a kid?” she said.

He laughed, leaned over the table and put out his hand. “Hi, I’m Johnny Rodriguez. Friends call me Rod.”

“That right?” she said, sipping her drink, glanced at his hand and put her dancing eyes back on him. They were blue, but they had to be with all that blond hair. “Don’t you like Johnny?” There was a note of mischief in her voice.

“Everybody’s called Johnny.”

“Only people named Johnny.”

“You got a name?” he said.

She nodded once.

“That there’s Sydney Townsend,” Laredo said. “Whittaker-Townsend to give her her full handle.”

Johnny watched her for a moment. “One name not enough for you?”

“Says Johnny Joe Rodriguez.”

Laredo lowered his drink, ready to speak, but Johnny raised his hand. “Yeah, I know. Touché.”

“You ain’t just whistling Dixie,” Laredo said.

Johnny glanced at him then back at Sydney. “He’s not that Texan. Shit, nobody’s that Texan.”

She nodded. “Friends call me Sid.” She squinted at him for a moment then nodded. “You can call me Sid.”

“Well, thank you kindly, ma’am.”

Now she laughed. “Nobody is that Texan. Rod. I’ll call you Rod.” It wasn’t a question.

Laredo unwound himself again and stood. “I’m gonna curl up on my bunk and get some sleep. I’ll leave you two young folks to the rest of the evening.”

Johnny glanced at his gold Rolex so Sid could see it. She could. She’d seen gold Rolexes before.

“It’s still light out,” Johnny said, nodding towards the windows and the darkness outside. “You got other plans us kids shouldn’t know about?”

Laredo glanced back at Sid, watching him with smiling eyes, and nudged Johnny with his knee. It could’ve been a hint for him to get out of the booth and make way. Or not.

They watched him go and waved. Johnny slid back into the booth.

“About as subtle as a smack in the face with a horseshoe.”

“He’s a sweet old guy,” Sid said. “I like him.”

“Don’t tell him that; he’ll be strutting sitting down.”

“He thinks he’s clearing the way for us to get it on.”

Johnny smiled. “And are we?”

“Maybe. Don’t know if I like you yet.”

Johnny picked up one of the untouched mojitos. “Let me know when you’ve made your mind up.”

“Are you going to win?”

What sort of question was that?

“The next playoff or the season championship?”

She shrugged and her small breasts pushed against her embroidered blouse. “Pick one.”

“I got fifteen points from leading the regular standings, and I’m in the Eights. I’m just focusing on winning that.”

“Yeah, right.” She gave him a moment to think about it. “That red Camry was all over your ass the last ten laps.”

“Third ain’t second though,” he said, but bristled a little at the memory.

“Not first neither. Twenty-seven’s in the Eights and only a point behind.”

“I can count.”

She let him have that. Poking a sore bear. “So how you going to handle it next time out?”

He put down the mojito untouched. “Just going to go as fast as I can. What he does is up to him. It won’t matter none.”

“You think?”

“Girl, I know.”

“You going to drink that?” She pointed at the last mojito.

“No, don’t think so. You want it?”

“No, just don’t want you passing out before we hit the sheets.”

He smiled. “You decided you like me?”

“Leaning that way. Not there yet.”

Johnny stepped out of the booth and glanced back at the table. “Looks like Laredo stuck us with the check.”

Sid was leaning on Johnny’s pickup when he strode over to the parking lot at the end of the third Round of 8 race. He’d been second in Kansas ahead of twenty-seven and second in Texas, his home state, and that hurt. There was a trend, sure enough.

The trend had carried right on here in Arizona. The guy in the Darth Vader outfit had won. Called himself Swat. Dumb name. But what really got his juices flowing was the guy had won easily, almost cruised home while the rest of the pack were fighting it out in his exhaust fumes. Shit.

He was through to the Championship 4 but only on points. All the promise pissed away being stupid.

He stopped when he saw Sid and tried a smile, but it wouldn’t stick. “Thought you’d drifted on to greener fields after Miami.”

She gave him a second to realize he was being a jerk. Didn’t happen.

“You always such a jerk?”

He got the message. “Hey, let me reel that one back in. How you been? I thought about you some.”

“Thought about you too. Some.” She nodded towards the track. “Saw you screwing around instead of racing.”

A deep frown creased his tanned face. “Meaning?”

“Bell clipped you on lap one-eighty, got by and pissed you off, so you decided to put him into the wall instead of letting it go and winning the race. Twenty-seven went for the flag while you two were dicking around.”

He clenched his jaw as if shutting up whatever was coming out; then his face softened. “You’re not just cute, are you?”

“I do my best.”

“Better make sure I go for the flag next time out.”

“Probably a good thing, it being the championship race where you’re the winner or nowhere.”

“No pressure, then?”

“Only what you make yourself. You’re good enough to do it.”

“Well, I’ve got a fan,” he said, and grinned, his dark eyes crinkling in the bright sunshine.

“I think you’ve got more than one.” She nodded towards the knots of spectators gawping at him.

“You want to get something to eat? Phoenix has got some good chow.”

“Yeah, why not.” She looked the Ford over as if it had sat in cow shit. “I’ll drive.”

“Don’t you like the pickup?”

“No, it’s redneck. I was looking for a banjo on the dash.”

“I get that. You’re not just whistling Dixie.”

“Oh, please don’t start.”

It was November, but in Miami that didn’t really matter, and the NASCAR Xfinity Championship 4 was back at the Homestead Speedway. The last race of the playoffs. One race over two hundred grueling laps. Only one champion. Johnny was going to raise the trophy or die trying. Laredo told him it was just a race and there’d be another next year, but champions don’t retreat and don’t surrender. And Laredo didn’t believe the shit he was peddling anyhow.

There were other racers, but only four playoff contenders. And the guy in the smoked visor, Swat—Jesus, for real? The guy was one of them, driving the red Camry, number twenty-seven. They were the best of the best, racers who’d made it there the hard way, and Johnny had the highest respect for them. As long as they stayed in his rearview.

Twenty-seven was in his rearview, about a foot behind his bumper, but it was no procession. Right out of the gate on Stage 1, thirty-one touched the nearside rear of Sadler’s Chevy and put him into the wall, ending his challenge in a spectacular spray of sparks and crumpled steel.

Johnny took his eyes off the smoke and splintered car in his mirror in time to see an also-ran in a four-wheel slide across the track right in front of him. He twitched the wheel to the right and touched the brake. Subtle, but at two hundred miles an hour, anything dramatic would’ve put him right where Sadler was. The tire smoke engulfed his car and then he was through and in the clear.

He glanced back and saw twenty-seven emerge right where he’d been all along. Part of him was pleased it hadn’t ended in tragedy. The guy got on his nerves pushing him the way he did, but nobody deserved to go out in a wreck. Okay, maybe just a little slide off and out of there, but in a crash, anything could happen, and that anything usually meant pain in a big way. So okay, let him come. Show me what you’ve got.

Twenty-seven jigged right up the slope, and Johnny moved over, not to block him, but just because that was the race line. And it blocked him. He glanced again in his mirror. Twenty-seven was gone. Shit, he knew exactly what had just happened. A stupid rookie mistake. Twenty-seven had floored it and gone left down the slope and was now right alongside and ahead by maybe a foot, but had the line into the next bend.

Stupid. Five laps to go, he could do without fucking up. What was it Sid had said? Yeah, dicking around while Swat went for the flag. Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

He left his foot off the brake on the bend and kept his nerve as his car followed basic physics and desperately tried to spin out to his right. He came out of the bend with no inches between him and twenty-seven’s rear end, twitched left and watched the Camry slipping back past his left side. Go, boy, go! His foot was against the metal and he let his Camaro do what his team had set it up to do, to fly.

Two laps to go. He could almost hear the crowd yelling and screaming his name. Many a great driver had come adrift on less than two laps. Keep your head in the game.

Twenty-seven was coming. He’d left a gap and was now in a run-up. Johnny let the Camaro drift a little to the right up the hill then put the nose at an angle towards the last but one bend and just thought, Fuck it.

The Camaro was breaking out of the line and was about to go its own way, but the tires hung on and the bend unfolded to his left. Then he was out of it and could see the finish line. He didn’t look in the mirror. It was too late to do anything other than floor it and go.

Ryan Anderson, number forty-two, wasn’t in the playoffs; like the rest of the racers, he was there for the points and the end-of-season rankings. He was good, better than good, or he wouldn’t have been there.

He was a lap behind Johnny and right ahead of him. He should move over and was just about to do that when his offside front tire blew out and sent him slewing across the track, off the wall and back down the slope. Filling the track with nowhere to go.

Jonny stood on the brakes, but the brakes hadn’t been invented that would make a difference. He hit.

The Camaro’s left front slammed into forty-two’s front end as it executed its second three-sixty, and they locked together in a sliding pirouette of screaming tires, flying crushed metal and smoke.

Johnny saw the whole thing going down with crystal clarity. His mind was calm and clear and he waited for the moment that would come, the moment that always came. A fraction of a second when he could do something, a chance that would disappear instantly. And there, there it was.

Forty-two’s shattered wheel dug in, and the car broke the embrace by an inch, but that was all he needed. He dinked the wheel right a fraction and was free. And knew right away that he was in big trouble. The steering wheel shook like it was attached to a jackhammer, and the car snapped left and right as if it wanted to throw him off its back.

The line was right there, a hundred yards. Might as well have been a hundred miles. He could feel the rear breaking out at the start of the long spin-out that would be goodnight Gracie.

The world spun past, once, twice and was on to its third. He let the brake be and put his foot on the gas. It straightened up, not all the way but enough to stop the spin.

Twenty yards from the line, the engine cut out, giving up its impossible fight against mangled steel and a cracked block.

He closed his eyes and let the Camaro roll to a halt. No point watching the red Camry sail past and take the flag.

He was still moving. He snapped open his eyes. No way. The engine was deader than a barbecue steak. But the line was there, the flag up and ready to fall. It made no sense. He should’ve been watching cars’ tailpipes. And down. The checkered flag snapped down and around, and the crowd’s stamping almost collapsed the stands.

He let the Camaro roll down the slope and off the track and looked back. To see the Camry, number twenty-seven, wedged in behind, its nose right where it had been when it pushed him over the winning line.

He shouldered the wedged door and climbed out as Swat in his smoked visor stepped out onto the asphalt. He didn’t know whether to hug him or crack his head.

Swat unclipped his helmet and pulled it off. And her blond hair fell across her shoulders and drifted up in the warm breeze.

He dropped his helmet and stared at her, shaking his head.

“Hey, Rod,” Sid said, and winked. “Great day for a drive, eh?”

He started to ask what the hell…changed it to why would you…and settled for, “You’re Swat? You’re Swat?”

She gave him that big lovely smile she kept just for him. “Yeah, that’s my name, right?” No response. “Sydney Whittaker-Townsend.” She shrugged. “Swat. Get it?”

He looked back at what used to be his car, then up at the crowd cheering and waving and shouting his name. And gave her back the grin. “Yeah, I get it.”

Talking Old Soldiers

“Got any smokes?”

Spike stared at the old man sitting in the high-backed wheelchair and at the oxygen tube clipped into his nose, and shook his head slowly. “Nah, but you can have a drag of my Cuban. Probably kill you.”

The old man shrugged. “Get in line.” He pointed a skeletal finger at the small cabinet next to his perfectly made bed. “Got a pack in there.”

Spike sighed. “Then why you ask us if we’ve got some?”

“Saving them.”

“What for?”

“Never know when I’ll get some more. The nurses here are like prison guards.”

“Oh, and you think you might need some when? Next week?” He did the sigh again. “Was I you, I wouldn’t be making plans longer than tomorrow.”

“Oh, cheers. You can be very insensitive, Sarge, you know that?”

Spike pointed at the cabinet and waited for the tall thin man staring at the wall to get his drift and open it up to get the smokes.

“You’re making me an accessory,” the tall man said, but made no attempt to open the cabinet.

“I thought you didn’t speak?” the old man said.

“I don’t.”

“Billy, leave the poor man alone,” Spike said.

Billy nodded towards the glass door leading out onto a brick patio. “Just saying. Half-pint never used to say anything, and now he’s gone all chatty.” He rocked forward and back. “Wheel me out there, will you? I’m fed up of being trapped in here.”

Spike took the chair handles and wheeled it towards the door.

“Hey, whoa!”

Spike stopped and looked down at Billy half turned in his chair.

“You’re supposed to open the bloody door first,” Billy said. “Not push me through the glass.”

“Tell you what,” Spike said, pushing Billy closer to the door. “You lean your scrawny limey ass forward and turn the handle, or is that too hard for you?”

“Think I can manage that. It’s two things at the same time I have trouble with.”

“Yeah, right, thinking and farting.”

“Nah, I can do that alright.”

The door swung open and Spike bumped the wheelchair over the low sill and ignored Billy’s grunt of disapproval.

“You coming, Half-pint?” he said over his shoulder. “Or you going to stand there all day and stare at that picture?”

Half-pint leaned over the bed to get closer to the photo on a narrow shelf above the headboard. “It’s us, back when Billy was…well, young.”

“Give it a miss, mate,” Billy called back. “You’ll just get all blubbery and embarrassing.”

Half-pint followed them outside and looked around the grim courtyard swept by a cold January wind. “When was that taken, then?”

Billy frowned and thought, doing two things at the same time, so proving himself a liar.

“Imjin River. You must remember that, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yes.” Half-pint looked at the grey clouds scudding over the rooftops across the deserted courtyard.

“You know that’s where—”

“Jesus, he’s going to tell it again,” Spike said, and looked to heaven.

“Alright, I might have mentioned it once or twice,” Half-pint said.

“Every goddammed day for the last sixty-five years,” Spike said.

“How would you know?” Billy said, sulking. “You’ve been tucked up in fuckin’ Texas most of it, soaking up the sun and leaving us to get on with the crap. Same bloody thing as you Yanks back then. Arriving when it was all over.”

Spike strolled out into the courtyard and looked around as if seeing it for the first time. And not caring a hoot what the old Brit was saying. Much.

“Too fuckin’ little, too fuckin’ late.”

“You still bleating on about that?”

“Too bloody right I am.” Billy leaned forward in his chair. “Six hundred—”

“Glorious fucking Glosters. Yeah, I know.” Spike turned and strolled back up to the building as if its damp walls might give him some shelter from the icy wind.

“Exactly,” Billy said. “Us three and six hundred Fusiliers stood in the way of ten thousand Chinese intent on kicking you Yanks right out of Seoul.”

Spike nodded slowly. “Yeah, it was something, wasn’t it?”

“Too bloody right. Three days we took everything they could throw at us. While we waited for the Yanks to stroll over and relieve us.”

“Yeah. We turned up.” Spike shrugged.

“Right, but not enough of you to play a hand of gin rummy,” Billy said, and chuckled. “Hell of a fight though, wasn’t it?” He nodded, as if confirming a memory. “Glosters and the Fusiliers held the line for four days.”

“Lot of good boys died tripping up the commies,” Spike said. “Stopped them getting their hands on Seoul. They’d done that, it would’ve been game over.”

“Perhaps that would have been a good thing,” Half-pint said quietly, and looked up when his comments were met with silence. They were staring at him. “Think about it. Had we not stopped them that day in April, they would’ve taken South Korea, and we wouldn’t have had sixty years of a divided country. A country ruled by a mad family hell-bent on destroying the world.”

“He doesn’t say much,” Billy said.

“Right. But when he does, he says plenty,” Spike said. “Thirty-five thousand guys would still be walking around.”

“More than that,” Billy said, raising an eyebrow, “if you took a real count instead of a political one.”

“Then we wouldn’t have met you,” Half-pint said, without a flicker of emotion on his thin, pale face.

Spike frowned at him. “And that would’ve been a bad thing, right?”

Half-pint continued to watch him, his pale blue eyes completely expressionless.

“You Brits are strange,” Spike said, with a slow shake of his head. “You know that?”

“Mostly,” Half-pint said. “Suppose we would’ve missed you and Seoul if we hadn’t hung around on Gloster Hill.” He shrugged, as if that said it all.

“Seoul, though,” Billy said. “I ever tell you about Sunja?”

“No,” Spike said, “not today anyhow.”

“Loveliest thing I’d ever seen, or since.”

“You know she was a hooker,” Spike said, and leaned a hand on Billy’s chair arm as if he needed a little support.

A lot of years had come and gone.

“You keep saying that, but I can tell you she wasn’t no hooker,” Billy said.

Spike decided he didn’t need to say anything; he’d said it before, many times. “What you think? She was a nurse or something?” Decision overruled.

“I was with her day and night for a week. You think I wouldn’t have noticed if she’d been a whore?”

“Can’t see how you’d have noticed. I seem to recall you were pretty much out of it when you came down off the hill,” Spike said.

Billy nodded and glanced at Half-pint. “Wasn’t as many coming down as went up.”

Half-pint looked up at the sky. “Some good men.”

“Same in every war,” Spike said. “It’s the best that go first. The others just keep their heads down.”

“She wasn’t no whore,” Billy said a little sulkily.

Spike smiled a broken smile. “Nah, I guess not. Never took money from you.”

“You know it.”

“Then she wasn’t a whore. Because that’s what they do.”

“I said I’d go back.”

Spike gave him the tired smile again. “Every soldier says that to the woman he meets when he should be dead.”

“Should’ve gone back though. Said I would.”

“You got a good wife though,” Spike said.

“Yeah, the best. Jackie.” Billy let his breath out in a wheeze that blew thin steam into the cold air like a slow-boiling kettle. “Gone now ten years. Miss her every day.”

“Kids are great though. Girls are best.”

“Yes, these two are the best. Come to see me every day no matter what.”

Spike glanced through the open door into the dark bedroom completely devoid of any home comforts. “Yeah, kids are God’s message in the sand. His way of saying we were here.”

“True,” Billy said, “otherwise we’re just a pebble in a pond. A splash and a ripple and then gone.” He shifted sideways as far as the side of his chair would let him and looked up. “You ever wanted kids?” He saw the pain in Spike’s eyes and should’ve stopped, but the words were already spoken. “Stupid question. God’s message in the sand, right?”

Spike closed his eyes, and his fingers clenched on the chair arm. “No man should pass through this life without leaving it a little bit better.”

“I talk too much without listening to my brain,” Billy said.

Spike touched his friend’s shoulder. “Man, we don’t need to watch what we say, right? Right. If it was on the cards for me to have kids, then I’d have them.”

“She didn’t wait for you, so I’d say she’s more to blame than you.” Half-pint shook his head. “God-awful bloody mess. We should have kept the hell out of it.”

“We shouldn’t have been there; we were all too young. Thought we were movie heroes,” Billy said. “Half-pint had a close call, isn’t that right, Half-pint?”

Half-pint looked up slowly from staring at his shoes.

“Best you found out when you did,” Spike said. “Said you were the one, but skedaddled when that bird colonel rolled up in his staff car. She was always going to break your heart.” He nodded. “Better get it over early.”

Half-pint nodded very slowly. “Yeah, but I still miss her.”

“Yeah?” Billy said. “After all this time? I suppose they can do that. Women. Get under your skin kinda thing?”

“You ever see her since?” Spike said.

“Once. Outside a bar in Seoul.”

“And?” Spike said.

Half-pint shrugged. “Walked right by like she didn’t recognize me.”

Spike closed his eyes and nodded. “Few days in that hellhole changes a man. A week and he’s unrecognizable.”

“You ever think of going back?” Billy said.

Half-pint shook his head. “She’d be an old woman. Nah, I couldn’t handle that.”

“She have any kids?” Spike said.

“That’s a scary thought,” Billy said.

“How so?” Spike said.

“I was just thinking if she had kids, in a kinda weird way it would be the kids Half-pint here would have had. If he’d stuck around,” Billy said.

Spike opened his mouth to say how stupid it was, then realized it wasn’t. “We should bust out of this place and go find some fun,” he said, stepping away and turning to face them. “We’re getting all maudlin.”

“Good objective but falls a bit flat on the execution,” Billy said.

Spike watched him.

“Nurse Shirley will be doing her rounds any minute. And anyway how we going to get into town? You drive?”

Spike shook his head. “Nah. Jeep’s okay, but anything else…” He shrugged and looked over at Half-pint, but knew the answer. He seemed to recall he’d had a motorbike back then. Man was a nutcase on that thing. Nobody would’ve believed it.

“We could get a bus,” Billy said, warming to the idea of going down the pub.

“Got any money?” Spike said, then waved his hand. “Course you don’t. You’ve never had any money the whole time I’ve known you.”

“Never needed any,” Billy said, smiling. “Got a Yank friend, and everybody knows Yanks are rich.”

“Not since I teamed up with you three—” He swore under his breath and took a couple of paces into the yard.

“It’s alright, Spikey, we miss him too,” Billy said.

Spike turned back to face them. “Jesus, how long’s it been now?”

“A lifetime,” Billy said, and took a second to find his breath without it shaking. “He was the best of us, you know that?”

“You said it,” Spike said.

“We’re here because he isn’t,” Half-pint said.

“Any one of us would’ve done it,” Spike said.

“But we didn’t, Alistair did,” Billy said. “And I live with it every day. It should’ve been me. It was my stupid fault.”

“It wasn’t nobody’s fault,” Spike said. “War kills people.”

“Not like that,” Billy said, shaking his head at the memory.

“Just like that,” Spike said. “We’re sitting in a bar minding our own business, and that commie grenade landed right in our laps. Scotty just picked it up and took it outside. Saved us all. And a lot of other folks too.”

“I suppose if you’ve got to go…” Billy said.

“Beats the hell out of doing it this way,” Spike said, tapping Billy’s wheelchair.

“I had a good run thanks to Scotty,” Billy said. “A wife a man could be proud of and two girls who broke many a bloke’s heart.”

Spike glanced at the empty room, now in complete darkness as the evening closed in. He almost asked but let it go. “They could say pretty much anything to each other after all these years, but sometimes that doesn’t make it right. “Could use a drink.”

“Escape’s not going to happen,” Billy said. “I’ve got a bottle in the wardrobe.”

Spike moved around in front of the chair. “You was gonna tell us that when?”

“Slipped my mind till just now.”

“Yeah, course it did.” He stepped up to the open door and stopped. “Some things never change, do they?”

Billy smiled a wide smile, his dentures fluorescent in the pale light. “Don’t want to give you no surprises, not at your time of life.”

Spike raised his fists. “Not too old to give you a few lumps.”

“If you won this one, you’d still be three-two down,” Billy said, raising his thin, bony fists.

“You rewriting history again?”

“You two should knock it off before you dislocate something,” Half-pint said.

Spike turned to face him, his fists still up but a smile on his pale face. “You want to go a couple rounds?” He pointed at the yard. “There’ll be a stone there saying here lies Jimmy Beer, quick mouth, slow left.”

Half-pint waved a hand once. “Couple of kids.”

Billy nodded. “Been old, don’t like it.” He looked over at Spike. “You gonna get the bottle?”

Spike glanced over his shoulder into the dark room. “Nah, thirst has passed now.”

“Never thought I’d see the day when Sergeant Spike Billingham would turn down a free drink.”

“You want one, you go fetch it,” Spike said, stepping out of the doorway and waving him on.

Billy thought about it for a moment and then shook his head. “Got to keep a clear head for the morning.”

“How come?” Spike said. “You expecting to have to write up a mission report or something?”

“Nothing like. Jackie’s coming to pick me up. You know she can smell booze a day away.”

Spike and Half-pint exchanged a quick glance.

“Woman’s half bloodhound, you ask me,” Spike said.

“Tell me about it.” Billy patted his hands on the chair arms. “Wheel me back in, will you? All this reminiscing’s worn me out.”

“Okay,” Spike said. “But let’s take a second and watch the last of the day.” He stepped up beside the chair.

Half-pint walked up and stood on the other side. Three friends with a lifetime of love and blood.

Nurse Shirley felt the chill the moment she pushed open Billy’s door, shivered and stepped in quickly. She saw him in his wheelchair out on the patio and tutted.

“Billy, I swear to God you’ll catch your death sitting out there.”

She stepped up behind him and saw his head forward and resting on his chest. She put her hand on his shoulder and stood with him for the minutes it took her to say goodbye, and to tell herself he was at peace now.

All these years caring for people at the end of their journey, and this was the first time tears had found their way to her cheeks.

She wheeled him carefully back inside, the small wheels resisting the sill for a moment. She stopped and looked back at the dark courtyard.

How had he got out there? He couldn’t wheel himself. Visitors? No, Billy hadn’t had a visitor since his girls had married and moved away, all those years ago.

She wheeled the old man to his bed and took the framed picture from the shelf. A faded yellow photo in a gilded frame worn to brass by the years. Young men in uniform, dirty, wild-eyed and grinning at the camera. His friends. He’d told her about them many times, and she felt she knew them. She put her finger on the frame. Half-pint, the quiet one. Scotty, who saved them all once. And the American. What was his name? Spike, because of his hair. And Billy. She touched his image. The only one to come home. Perhaps they were together now and he wasn’t lonely anymore.

She put the photo back on its shelf and touched Billy’s face with the back of her hand. The man who could make everyone laugh.

While inside he was crying.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Joseph Nelson stood in front of the giant picture window that was his office on the fifth floor of Ronald Reagan Center and looked at the evening traffic heading home after another day chasing the dream.

Jesus, is this it? Is this all there is? Get up, go to work, go home, go to bed. And for what?

Money, man. Money.

He had enough money. Can anybody have enough money? Sure, of course. He had plenty. He was one of the leading surgeons in the best hospital. Hell, he was the best surgeon in the city, the state, maybe even the country.

Not short on ego, then. He unconsciously wiped a nose smudge off the window with his thumb. Ego is what makes a man achieve more than his published potential. He could’ve done what the others had done and settled. Exclusive clinic in Beverley Hills, cute nurses, short hours at work and long hours on the golf course. Maybe he should have, but he’d had something to prove, a whole lot of something. Now he was respected, revered even, but nobody knew he had been born in Boyle Heights. Good people mostly, but so far on the wrong side of the tracks it’s over the horizon. He’d got out and kept going.

But, Jesus, is this it?

He turned away from the traffic streaming out of the city before the daily gridlock. The door to his consulting room opened, and a white coat came in stretched around a barrel of a man who should be carrying his own defib kit for when he had his heart attack, and Joseph didn’t need his string of qualifications to know that any minute now Seymour was going to chew the carpet. He should say something, but the man was a senior thoracic surgeon, for God’s sake. He should know better.

“Hey, Seymour,” Joseph said, moving past his desk, which was as clean and empty as the day it had been wheeled in there.

Seymour took a second to catch his breath. “Some of the boys are heading over to the club for a quick one.” He licked his pink swollen lips and took another long breath. “There’s a special on the Mex ribs.”

Of course there was.

“I’m going to give it a miss tonight. I’d be a killjoy anyhow.”

“You doing it again?”

Joseph tried a smile. “Guess so. It just bounces around in there.”

Seymour laughed. “Nothing to get in its way. But seriously, Joe, you’ve got to get over this nonsense.” He glanced at the couch and thought about sitting, but then he’d have to get up. “You thought about talking to somebody?”

“A shrink?” He shrugged. “I’m not nuts.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

“You know what I did today?”

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