Land of the free

‘Where’s my suit?’ Johnny asked Rhonda.

‘I don’t know — wherever you left it last, I guess.’

That would be right. He went to get it for himself.

‘Why you want your suit?’ Rhonda asked, following him into the closet.

‘You wanted milk.’

‘Get it delivered.’

‘Can’t — no free delivery. Twenty dollar minimum.’

‘Get some Dunkums then or something.’

‘Shit, we got no credit for that.’

‘So go in the car.’

‘Can’t. Nearly out of gas.’

‘Well, you’re going to the gas station anyways.’

‘I told you, we got no credit. I have to save the gas til payday, when I can buy some more.’

‘Shit!’ Rhonda lost it for a while.

‘Shut the fuck up!’ Johnny yelled. ‘I told ya we was way over budget. We got to unsubscribe a few services or else we won’t make the rent.’

‘You can get off Foxsports, I aint unsubscribing nothing. Don’t go out.’

‘You said you wanted milk.’ He pulled his suit out of the rack and pulled it over his head.

‘They can drink Cola.’ Rhonda said.

‘They can’t have Cola on their Cheerios, that’s nasty.’

‘You’re going out, like, walking?’

‘Sure, why not?’ he said. ‘Where’s the damn strap on this thing?’

‘Here. Don’t go out, Johnny, I didn’t mean you have to go out.’

‘It’s not a problem. People used to walk out all the time.’

‘What people? When?’

‘It’s fine, don’t fuss. I’m gonna be all suited up, ready as anything,’ he said, hearing himself sounding brave. He picked up his helmet and moved to the gun locker. ‘I reckon I’ll take the ninety-one-hunnerd and the 38 auto.’

‘Well, take the smig as well, why don’t you? You never know what might happen.’

‘What’s gonna happen? I don’t need that. I’ll take it if you like.’

‘Take it. You got ammo?’

‘Course I got ammo. Three clips for the 91, two clips for the 38. Just one for the smig.’

‘That aint much.’

‘Honey, if I fire all that off and they’re still coming for me, I reckon I’m done for.’

‘That aint funny.’

‘Well, leave it.’

‘You got your taser?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where’s your knife? You’ll never reach it in there.’ Rhonda unclipped Johnny’s knife  and shifted it from his belt to a strap on the front of his suit. ‘I’ll get you a backpack for the milk.’

Once he was geared up, Johnny looked like a barrel on stilts.

‘Keep an eye on the monitor til I get clear of the entry way,’ he said. ‘Kids! Say bye! Daddy’s going out!’

They didn’t answer him; they were plugged in and playing.

‘Kids! Say goodbye to Daddy.’ Rhonda yelled.

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll be back in an hour.’

Johnny went to the front door and checked the monitor. ‘It’s all clear. Like I said, keep an eye on the entry way and buzz me if it changes. Back soon, honey.’

Rhonda gave Johnny a kiss, then turned to watch the monitor with her phone in her hand. Johnny suppressed the alarm, unbarred the door, opened it and squeezed out into the hall.

‘Lock up after me,’ he called. Rhonda left the monitor long enough to bar the door and switch the alarm back on. She checked the screens again and was relieved to see they were still empty of people, except for Johnny. She watched him call the lift, go down to the ground floor, pass through the lobby, punch the security code, go through the safety lock. The entry way was still clear of people. She thought of texting him a heart, but thought the ding from his phone might spook him. He might think she had seen a threat. So she just watched him on the monitor. He stood a long time at the end of the entry way, scoping the vicinity. Then suddenly he was gone.

Rhonda went back to the living room. She couldn’t settle. She went to the gun locker and got out her favourite 9mm SA, checked the magazine, then slipped it behind her into the waistband of her tights. She liked to feel it there in the small of her back, the cold hard hand of lethal reassurance.   

Meanwhile, Johnny was crossing the astroturf outside his apartment building, heading for the pedestrian way on the opposite side of the street. He kept his rifle (the 9100) pointing down and his other weapons concealed. He walked fast, with his head up, and behind his shades his eyes were going left-right left-right, looking for people.

There was no-one except the people in cars who roared by every few moments. Johnny felt exposed approaching the roadside, but because he represented no threat to an armoured car, he knew it was most likely that they would just go straight past. Unless he encountered a bad guy, a real bad guy. He scanned every vehicle carefully, looking for open windows. If there was a gun turret, he looked to see if it was tracking him.

What he really needed was an RPG launcher. There was a nifty little add-on for the 9100 that he hankered after, but the shells cost a bomb. No way he could afford it. It would give him security to have an RPG rig. Then, if a car like that one there decided to take a shot at him, he could drop and roll, he could flip out his launcher and, bam, he could hit them with a rocket, wham, right in the guts.

He made it to the pedestrian shelter on his side of the street, then to the half-way shelter, then to the pedestrian way on the far side. After that he could walk beside the armoured glass, and there was less to worry about. It was only a few blocks to the E Z Gas.

The apartments on this side were older, closer to the street. The ground floor windows were mostly shuttered with steel. He knew he was under surveillance every step of the way. It mostly made him feel safer. The only question was: how do you show people you are just going shopping? It sure was suspicious going for a walk — he could understand people thinking he was up to no good. He was wearing the flag, of course, but anyone could, anyone would wear the flag. Even the bad guys liked to wave the flag. You couldn’t really tell nowadays. Nearly every window had a flag on it, but that didn’t stop Johnny scanning them for threats.

‘What’re you looking at?’ The voice came from the window ahead of him. Somebody threw back the shutter and poked a rifle through a narrow opening in the window. Damn! He had the drop on Johnny, who restrained the urge to raise his weapon.

‘Nothing, sir! Just looking out for trouble, sir,’ Johnny called.

‘You looking for trouble?’

‘No sir, good morning to you. I’m just heading out to buy some milk from the E Z Gas. Just keeping my eyes peeled. You know you can’t be too careful.’

The window pushed open a little more so that Johnny could see the guy behind the gun. A guy with a big head, a big arm. The guy smiled at him. It might have been a friendly smile, or it might have been a smile of pure evil. He had Johnny in his sights. He would have been within his rights to shoot Johnny down. He would say he saw an armed man making a threatening approach to his private property — an open and shut case of self-defence.

But the guy didn’t shoot. He put up his rifle. ‘Go on, then, you have a good day.’

‘I sure will, and you too!’ Johnny said. He felt a burst of pure joy at this friendly encounter with a neighbour. He bustled on, approaching the next apartment building with less anxiety.

This building was even older, a crumbly two-up-two-down, with a couple of spindly trees and flower beds erupting from the astroturf in front. Johnny was amazed to see someone sitting out there on a flaky wooden bench. It was an old woman, wearing a dress and a pullover, apparently enjoying the patch of sunlight coming down between the buildings.

‘Good morning,’ she greeted him with a smile.

‘Good morning!’ he agreed, slowing down a little. But she made him nervous.

‘I aint got a gun,’ she pointed out.

‘I see that. You got a guard or something?’ He looked, but couldn’t see anyone.

‘No!’ She laughed. ‘I set out here everyday when the sun’s shining, and nobody does nothing. I got the place to myself mostly.’

‘Well, that’s nice,’ he said, but he was thinking she was crazy.

‘I aint crazy. I aint scared is all.’

‘Well, that’s crazy.’

She shook her head, just a little, and asked him where he was going. When he said he was getting milk, she asked him if he had kids, and when he said yes, she asked how many and how old and whether they liked school. For a while he talked to her, because he could see she meant no harm, but it made him more and more nervous.

‘You don’t need to look around like that, no-one’s gonna hurt you,’ she said.

‘You ought not to be out here without protection,’ he said.

‘I should be. You should be. We all should be.’

‘You have a nice day,’ he said, and he moved on. He kind of expected her to call out after him, and it made the back of his neck feel weird, but she didn’t.

He went on, block after block, without encountering any more pedestrians, until he came to the gas station. A woman filling her Fortezza panicked a little to see him approaching on foot, but he held his rifle overhead and waited for her to calm down. She paid at the pump and jumped back into her car. A man came out of the store, saw him and backed up into the safe exit. Johnny decided to move on in. He came to the entrance and fronted the cameras. Through the glass, he could see the other guy zip out the exit and into his vehicle. Nobody was taking any chances.

The bell went and he was admitted to the store. Three customers ahead of him. They all turned to check him out. A black woman decided he was nothing to worry about, and put her sidearm back in her bag. An old guy with no hair did the same. The third customer was a young latina who didn’t trust him, but she had a baby on her back, so he wasn’t scared of her. She was carrying a dinky machine pistol over her shoulder, and hell, if he’d wanted to shoot  her, he could have drilled her nine times over before she got off a shot — as if anyone would do that in a secure retail, where the staff were behind glass with a hotline to the cops, the doors were on autolock, and cameras recorded everything.

Johnny went to the dairy cabinet and found milk. On a whim he picked up a chocolate bar, but then he remembered his financial position and put it down again.

The latina chick watched him in the mirrors all the time they were queued up. He caught her eye, but she just stared like an animal, or like someone looking at an animal. The thought of smiling at her died in the face of her stare. She was buying vape and jelly donuts. She kept an eye on him the whole time, until she was in the exit lock. He was interested to see which car was hers. It was the big badass Jeep Commander. No way she paid for that herself. Envious, he turned to face the counter.

‘Please place your goods in the tray. Any gas today sir?’

‘No, I walked in,’ Johnny said heavily, because it was obvious that he had walked in, the damn counter jockey had been watching him all the way. Johnny was embarrassed to be acting so oddly, coming on foot to buy a quart of milk. He tried a smile, but it came out more of a grimace, and the retail attendant pretended not to look at him while Johnny tapped his card.

At first the reader didn’t work, and the attendant was for moving him on, and Johnny had to beg him for a chance to try again. This was enough to fluster Johnny so that he rushed out the exit as soon as it opened, with the milk still in his hands. That was dumb as! He went to back up but the exit had locked against him.

‘Hey!’ he yelled, although the attendant goggling at him like a fish in a bowl couldn’t hear a thing. As Johnny banged on the doors, he could see movement behind him reflected in the glass. The 9100 was over his shoulder and hell, he was completely unready to defend himself. He sensed someone coming up on him and he shifted the milk to his left hand so he could get a hold of his 38.

‘Whoa there, buddy, don’t draw on me,’ someone said, as Johnny whirled around. It was a warning voice, from a big guy wearing a simple vest over his oily clothes. He had a moustache and a blue tattoo on his hairy forearm, and he was pulling a big old Colt 45 up from his hip.

‘Don’t draw on me!’ Johnny yelled. It came out kind of squeaky, and Johnny raised his 38 to show he meant it.

‘Don’t you!’ the big guy barked. His eyes were dark and unreadable to Johnny. He could have been laughing or maybe he was angry or just cold and calculating. Johnny tried sliding sideways, but the barrel of the 45 followed him. Johnny flicked the safety on his 38, and he saw a flash of fear in those dark eyes.

There was no time to think, so both men fired. Johnny fired low, hitting his assailant in the left groin. The bullet severed the femoral artery — a fatal injury, but not immediately disabling. Johnny was struck in the chest. His suit stopped the bullet, but it was like being hit with a sledgehammer, and Johnny’s heart skipped a few beats. His hands jerked up in the air, and he fired off the rest of his clip without knowing what was happening. The bullets sprayed the forecourt of the gas station without hitting anyone. Meanwhile, the man with the 45 kept plugging away. He was scared, very scared, charged with the visceral awareness of his imminent death, and he knew that he had to keep shooting until the gunman went down. As Johnny tipped back, the sixth round went in under his chin and blew out the back of his head.

© 2022 Craig Bingham

Read something similar:

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Read something different:

Mr Llampe [had three black hairs that grew like leeches on the broad tip of his nose]
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