Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday and the eighty-fifth piece in this series. This week’s is an 833-worder by poet, critic, short story author, novelist and interviewee John Brantingham. This story will be podcasted in episode 29 (with three other stories) on Sunday 14th July.
Silence Was His Answer
It had been a long time since Robert Mann had been on an interview, and this was the first he’d been on where he’d taken a gun, but he had the .45 in his jacket pocket. It was a cold morning on the north side of what Robert assumed was Mt. Baldy, anyway, one of those mountains that looked out of the Mojave, the freeway leading out towards Las Vegas.
He crunched up the path where the men had pointed, the men with their own pistols stuffed into their waistbands. They were meant to intimidate Robert, he supposed.
It was a good half-mile up the trail and around a long outcropping of the mountain before Robert came upon Calvin Carson. He stood over a kid who had dug his own grave and then was beaten badly enough that he lay in the fetal position at Carson’s feet. It was gruesome, horrible, and fairly clichéd too. Robert grimaced at the cliché.
Carson nodded. “Glad you made it here. I was worried. You’re twenty minutes late.”
“Sorry about that,” Robert said. “I had to stop to take care of some things.”
At his voice, the kid on the ground looked up and squinted at Robert. He shook his head a little to clear it.
“So, this is the job interview,” Carson said. “I can always tell someone’s quality by the way he takes out a guy.”
“What did this kid do?”
Calvin Carson shrugged. “Gambling debts.”
Robert frowned. “That doesn’t make sense to me. A guy owes you money, you let him live, so he can pay you back.”
Carson took two steps away and looked over the long desert, adopting a philosophical pose. “He’s paid out as much as he’s going to. Gave us the college scholarship. Stole from family until they’ve cut him free. I don’t think a college dropout is going to get a good job, and he failed the job interview that you’re about to take. Didn’t kill the guy.” Carson sighed deeply. “He’s better dead than alive now.”
By the time Carson turned around, Robert had his gun pointed at him.
A smug smile flashed across Carson’s face. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Now, it’s time for your interview. You have one chance. I want you to forgive his debt. He’s more than covered it and the interest.”
“Are you out of your mind? I know you’re good, Thompson. You’re not that good.”
“My name’s not Thompson. I just look a little like him.”
“What, you took him out?”
Mann didn’t respond. He let silence be his answer.
“Well, if you’re good enough to take out Thompson, you’re smart enough to know you’ll never get away with it. My men will hear the gunshots and come for you.”
“No,” Mann shook his head. “They’ll never hear them.”
“You can be sure?”
“Well, you didn’t hear the shots when I took them out, did you?”
Calvin Carson stared at Mann. “Okay, so what, you’re with a competitor? Who are you?”
Mann nodded his head at the kid. “I’m his history professor. Was before he had to drop out. I do other things on the side.”
Carson now stared at the kid, processing what Mann had just said.
“What’s your answer?” Mann asked.
But Carson didn’t have to answer. Robert could see the answer forming in his eyes. He could see the lies and manipulations. He could see the kind of thinking that went into the life that Carson had lived, pushing its way into some kind of statement that was meant to trick Mann, meant to control the situation.
So Mann allowed silence to be Carson’s answer. He raised his .45 to the man’s chest and fired the entire clip. Why save bullets after all?
There was a moment of pure quiet, the kind of quiet that’s filled with wind through scrub bushes and birds talking to each other, the kind of quiet that could refresh a person on normal days. Maybe not on a day like this but usually. Then the silence was broken by the kid letting out a long breath he’d been holding.
“Professor Mann?” he asked.
He helped the kid up. “Can you walk?”
“I can walk out of here.”
“Can you keep secrets?”
The kid looked him in the eyes. “I can keep this secret.”
“That’s good,” Mann said without smiling. “Because I can get to people.” He glanced at the body on the ground to make his point.
The kid had no response to that one. What was there to say after all? They started to walk back, and Mann thought about the kid. He prayed the kid didn’t talk. Taking out mob guys, assassins, henchmen, the scum of the world. That was easy. He knew he’d never be able to take out some poor gambling addict who’d never really done anything truly terrible, not just to protect himself.
There were just some lines he’d never be able to cross.
I asked John what prompted this piece and he said…
It’s inspired by my new novel, Mann of War, and features the main character of that novel.
Well, I loved it, especially when Mann explains who he was. Thank you, John.
John Brantingham is the author of East of Los Angeles, and his work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s daily show Writer’s Almanac. He has had hundreds of stories and poems published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fence. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press. He is a full-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine.
His latest suspense novel is Mann of War, available at Oak Tree Press. You can check out the trailer for his book and many more of his humorous vlogs at johnbrantingham.blogspot.com.
John lives happily in the city of Walnut with his wife, Annie and their canine companion, Archie.
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