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  • Rolf Semprebon

"Deadlocked", Part 1

At the intersection Axton lights a cigarette and waits for the others. This part of the city has been forgotten for decades; boarded-up buildings, empty lots of overgrown weeds and rusted chain-link fences. The sun at dusk casts an eerie glow on desolate streets, the only other life, several crows on the rim of a caved-in rooftop. Their harsh squawks eat at him, and he needs his nerves. If he had his gun, he’d shoot a few to scare the others away.

If the others don’t get here, I’ll go in alone, he thinks, as he looks down the street that dead-ends at the abandoned movie theater. The remains of a cinema marquee clings to its front, while the doors beneath are covered in graying plywood.

Dillon or Brand or both will show up soon. Dillon is more reliable, though recently family troubles have made him absent from the usual meeting place, the Hellfire Tavern. Brand is easily distracted, thus less reliable, but better in a tough situation, a fighter, brawn to Dillon’s brain.

Down the street, Axton sees a shape hunkered in an overcoat approach quickly. Axton blows out a wisp of smoke and chucks the rest of the cigarette.

The man reaches the intersection, out of breath.

“At least you’re here, Dillon,” Axton says. “You bring your gun?”

Dillon shakes his head.

“Next time, don’t forget. Probably won’t need it. I got a knife. Creed’s got my gun. He needs it more than me right now. You’re back up. And a witness, depending on how things go.”

Dillon nods.

Axton detects hesitancy. Poor Dillon. Only a couple years younger than Axton, and he still acts like a kid. He needs action like this, what could be a life or death, to mold him with its impact. Every culture has this same ritual, a jolt to punch a boy into a man.

Axton pats Dillon on the shoulder. “This will be easy. We’re just here to make sure the crazy bitch don’t pull something stupid. Keep everything safe.” Axton scans down all three streets that don’t dead end. “Do you see him?”

“Brand?” Dillon asks.

“Late again. You ready?”

“Why not wait? Brand will be here soon.”

“We don’t need him. Brand can clean up. Just you and me, buddy.” Axton gives Dillon another pat on the shoulder. “Get Creed out of his dumb-shit mess and he owes us. We own him. “You ready?”

“I guess.”

“Follow me.” Axton heads down the dead end street towards the theater with Dillon beside him. Their shadows dance on the cracked pavement in front of them. Their footsteps echo off the facades of boarded up hulks.

“So what’s the deal?” Dillon asks.

“This crazy woman Creed got deep with. I warned about her and Creed ignored me. I told you boys this. Never let them latch their hooks in. Those claws ripping out your heart to steal everything you own.”

“I mean, what’s our deal in this?” Dillon whines.

“You don’t need details. Stay in the background. Do what I say. Got that?”

Dillon grunts a reply, something about Creed.

“These others, they don’t know priorities. Creed getting fucked over this woman. But you’re smart enough to know, friends are more important. You know priorities.” To think that morning Axton had worried about Dillon, having not seen him in several days. How silly those worries; he can count on Dillon in a pinch, ever has since they were in grade school.

They reach the entrance of the theater, where the plywood has fallen half off to leave a gap large enough to step through.

“Okay. Quiet,” Axton says softly, as he looks beyond the plywood into the lobby.

  “What do you see?” Dillon whispers.

“Nothing yet.” Axton steps inside. Bits of light slip in from the holes where there were once windows. His eyes quickly adjust to the darkness. At one time the roof had caved in. and the floor is covered with debris, much of it pushed to the sides, so that a trail runs towards the pair of opened doors to the theater. The two men step quietly along the trail on the floor. Hope we’re not too late, Axton thinks to himself.

“Don’t think I can do this,” Dillon says, his words almost lost in the whir of the wind through the gaps in the roof.

Axton turns to look at him, sees the nervousness. “Don’t worry. You’re only a backup. Me and Creed can handle it. Grab a weapon.” Axton points to something sticking out of the debris a few feet away. Dillon looks down, and moments later he stoops over and pulls out a two-foot long metal pipe.

“Not that you’ll need it,” Axton whispers. Grasping a weapon will instill confidence in Dillon, Axton thinks. Dillon is smart and hard working, but not tough. When they were younger, he had protected Dillon from schoolyard bullies. Dillon needs to learn what to do when the dicks come out.

Axton steps closer to the doors to the theater.

“No! You back away!”

He freezes at the sound of the woman’s voice. His hand on the hilt of the knife, he slips through the doorway.

#

Dillon walks along the street listening to the crows that fly past in the darkening sky. At dusk they talk among themselves with strident caws, and gather for the night. Are they warning him or trying to bolster his courage, he wonders.

Up ahead he sees a shape standing near the corner, a dot of red from a cigarette being sucked on. He curses to himself that Axton arrived first. In his mind he tells Axton they should not get involved, let Creed handle his own problems, but as he approaches, his determination flies away with the crows. He takes deep breaths as he strides the last half block.

“You bring your gun?” Axton grunts, his face stony.

Dillon shakes his head. “I was thinking…” he starts to say, but Axton interrupts to tell him Creed has Axton’s gun, and Axton is armed only with a knife.

“You ready?” Axton barks.

“Aren’t we waiting for Brand?” Anything to delay entering the theater.

Axton brushes him off, and pats him on the shoulder.

“What’s our deal in this? Why are we..?”

Axton interrupts him, to say something about Creed and the woman.

“What’s our deal in this?” he asks again.

Axton becomes agitated. “You don’t need to know. Just do what I say. Got that?” Another patronizing pat on the shoulder. Good dog. Filling himself with anger, Dillon tries again.

“I don’t see why we should get involved in Creed’s bullshit.”

Axton ignores him. They approach the theater. The weathered marque has the word “LOSE” on it, having lost a C in front and D behind. Soon they are inside the dimly-lit lobby. The air smells of mildew and dust. The wind howls outside above the holes in the roof. Dillon’s chances to dissuade Axton rapidly diminish.

Dillon takes another deep breath, and raises his voice. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

Axton turns to him. “Don’t worry,” Axton says impatiently. “You need to buck up. We just need to handle it.” Axton narrows his eyes as he peers at Dillon in the darkness. “Grab a weapon.”

Dillon looks where Axton points. A piece of plumbing on the floor nearby protrudes from the clutter. I’ll show him I’m not a coward, Dillon thinks, as he grasps the end of the pipe, and wrenches it free. Even with the pipe firmly at hand, Dillon is scared. He’s not ready for what is about to happen, what he wanted to avoid. His efforts to dissuade Axton have failed, and Axton is now at the doorway of the theater. Dillon’s final hope is that she is not there.

“No! Back away!” Her voice jabs ice into his spine. Dillon clutches the pipe tightly and follows Axton into the theater.

#

Axton enters a room larger than the lobby, with a floor that slants downward to a stage. Most of the theater chairs have been unbolted from the floor and pushed into large piles on both sides. An upright piano gathers dust at the corner of the stage. The room is lit by a couple of flame lanterns that hang at each side near the front. A woman stands in front of the stage, her back to Axton. She has a gun aimed at a man on the stage.

The man, Creed, stares back at her, his body bent forward in a crouch, and his hand reaching out for an item on a metal folding chair in front of him. He is frozen in this position, as the woman is frozen with her hands on a gun pointed at him. The item he’s reaching for is Axton’s gun.

Axton turns to see Dillon has followed him. “Just in time,” he whispers. “You stay here.”

Axton pulls out his knife, a four inch blade, and begins to toe quietly towards the woman. She is  unaware that he and Dillon have entered the room.

Slow quiet steps down the sloped floor. All Axton needs to do is get close enough where he can rush her. If she turns to point the gun at him, Creed can grab the other gun off the chair and plug her full of holes. If she shoots Creed, Axton can stab her before she can cock the gun, aim, and fire another shot. It will be to save Creed’s life, and he will have Dillon to back him up on it.

A smile creeps across Creed’s face as he eye-contacts Axton over her shoulder. The woman senses something, and she begins to turn to look behind her, but snaps back to Creed as he lurches his hand an inch closer to the gun on the chair. Axton detects her fear, the gun in her hand quavering as she clutches it.

We’ve got her. She knows she’s in a trap. Only a matter of time to bring her down, and hopefully no one else gets hurt. Then she’ll be sorry she messed with Creed and Axton.

#

In the late morning Axton, joined by Brand and Dillon, met with Creed at the back table of the Hellfire Tavern, mostly empty that time of day. Creed had some deep scratches on his face, from above his left eye to his cheek, as if attacked by a wildcat. A wildcat named Eden Rose.

“She’s cheating on me,” Creed told Axton. “Last few weeks. Sneaking off somewhere. I just know it. If I find that son of a bitch she’s fucking...”

“I told you she was no good,” Axton snapped. “You should’ve listened to me.”

 “We got in a fight this morning. She went bat-shit on me. Don’t know what she’ll do next.”

“You can’t let a woman treat you that way,” Axton said calmly. “What about the guy?”

“The guy?”

“She’s… ahem.. wang-doodling with.”

“Don’t know.” Creed shook his head. “She won’t tell me.”

“We’ll make her tell. Then we teach the good boy a lesson.”

“A lesson he won’t forget,” Brand chuckled. “We’ll run him out of the town.”

“Worse than that,” Axton replied. “He’ll wish he skipped town when we get done with him. And Creed here needs to keep his woman under control.”

“It’s not just that.” Creed pauses to take a drink, his face sweaty though the bar is cool and clammy. “She stole something.”

“What’d she take?” Axton asked.

Creed beckoned Axton in closer. “Some papers.”

“Papers?”

“The ones from the Bimini job.”

“Oh, fuck!” Axton raised his voice. “You were supposed to burn those.”

“I was going to.”

“Those papers will incriminate you, Creed. Now it makes sense. She plans blackmail, and once a blackmailer gets their hooks in, only two ways it ends.” Axton knew since he’d been on the taking end of three blackmails, one still paying off, another committed suicide and the third ended with the man losing career and marriage when he stopped paying and the photos showed up.

But on the other side of the blackmail, there’s one way out without paying money or having the secret divulged. One had to neutralize the blackmailer.

“Know where she is, Creed?” Axton asked.

Creed shook his head. “I might find out. A few different places. She likes theaters.”

“Theaters?”

“Plays. Moving-picture theaters. Where lies are told. I should’ve known what a liar she is.”

“I told you…”

“You don’t have to tell me again, Axton.” Creed stared down at his beer, a miserable look on his face.

“It hurts to see you this way, Creed. When you find out anything, let me know. Listen, take this. You might need it.” Axton pulled his gun out of the holster beneath his arm and handed it to Creed. “At least until we settle this.  You know how to use it?”

“Sure.” Creed examined the gun. “This is one of those new ones. Automatic reload.”

“That’s right.” Axton stood, gestured to Brand and Dillon, and walked out of the bar. As they joined him outside, he turned to them. “You see that. That’s why you never let them get their hooks into you. I hope Creed learns his lesson. What a mess he’s put himself in. This woman…”

#

When Creed arrives at the theater, gun in hand, he finds it empty, no sign of habitation. He assumes the information is wrong, that she has been hiding here. With the chandeliers lit, he glances around and wonders what she would see in a place like this. He spots the old accompaniment piano, pushed to the back of the stage, and remembers when he used to play. Those were happier days, making money pounding out barrel house blues in boozy gin joints. But then he had to get greedy, and fall in with thugs like Axton and his gang. More money. Trying to be a tough guy. And now he has a damn gun on him.

Placing the gun on a chair, he walks up to the piano, flexing his fingers. The piano, a cherry-veneer Chickering, is coated in dust, but when he opens the fallboard, the keys are intact. He hits a couple notes, and nothing. He’s opening the top lid when he hears a noise behind him.

Eden enters the theater. She freezes when she sees him. She pulls out a gun.

“Seriously, Eden. A gun? Do you even know how to use it?”

“You don’t want to find out,” she replies, trying to be tough. He sees through the toughness. She’s terrified. Clutching the pistol with both hands. She won’t shoot him if he’s unarmed. He knows that much about her. It’s a matter of time, talk to her and hopefully get her to drop the gun before the arrival of Axton and his boys or her lover boy.

It shouldn’t have come to this, he thinks, as he stares at her from his vantage point on the stage. He takes a step closer. Some slick-talking charm-boy put crazy ideas in her head, poisoning her against him. When Creed finds out who it is, he’ll hurt the man, and he’s not sure if he’ll kill him, Creed hates the man that much.

She wasn’t supposed to have a revolver. She must have borrowed it from her secret lover, another reason to hate the guy. Creed tries to get her to divulge the name, but she refuses. At least the man didn’t show up with her. A lot of those sweet-talkers, they like to brag about themselves, but when it comes to a showdown, they turn tail. Maybe she’ll see this, and realize her big mistake, dumping Creed for a loser.

“I can change, Eden. I don’t want to lose you. I’ll do what it takes. Please put down the gun.”

She shakes her head. She continues to point the weapon at him. If only she would be more reasonable, he thinks, so he can be reasonable too. But she refuses to budge from her stance. His anger flares up. “Goddamn it, Eden! Don’t be stupid! I don’t want to hurt you. I would never want to hurt you.”

“Then why did you show up armed?” she replies.

Creed steps slowly towards the chair and she steps closer to the stage. At forty feet away, there’s a chance she would miss when she fired the gun, but now at thirteen feet away, that’s far less likely. She has it aimed at his face. Her hand is steady, but he can see in her face she is as afraid as him. 

The gun on the chair is almost within grasp. But does he even want to pick it up? If she dropped the gun, he would kick over the chair, to de-escalate the situation. As he talks to her, trying to distract her and convince her to drop her gun, he slowly worms closer to the other one on the chair. Each time she glances down or away, he inches nearer.

The gun is almost within reach. He watches her face intently, waiting for her attention to flag, for that gap from her determined gaze, so that he can grab the gun. Once he has the gun, can he convince her to put hers down?

He wishes he never brought the gun. It was Axton’s idea, and if he had not brought it, maybe they would not be in this deadlock, with her holding the gun at his head. He shouldn’t have listened to Axton, and in fact Axton is mostly to blame. He should have listened to Eden when she said she didn’t like Axton, instead of brushing her off. Axton got him into this mess as much as anybody. Axton and the mystery lover boy.

She refuses to listen to reason. She spits at him. She refuses to even lower the gun. Axton’s revolver is so close he can almost feel its heft in his hand. He notices movement from the entrance, over her head a shadow at the far end of the theater. He tenses, prepared to either jump for the gun or simply hold up his hands in surrender. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if lover boy has arrived. A second shape joins the first. Lover-boy too afraid to come alone. The first shape moves slowly out of the darkness. It’s Axton, and one of his lackeys.

Creed has a sense of relief. Axton got him into this mess, at least now Axton will help get him out of it. How soon before she realizes men are behind her? That it is over and she has lost. Creed tries to keep a smile off his lips as the men quietly creep down the floor towards her.

#

Axton takes another step closer, knife held out in front of him. Only two more steps before he reaches the sweet spot he’s mentally marked out on the floor, where he can run at her and grab her before she can swing the gun around to him and aim and fire.

Creed, on the stage, is still frozen in place, reaching for the other pistol on the chair, as if he’s an actor in an avant-garde theater piece that’s meant to piss off the audience with its obtuseness.

“Don’t get any closer,” the woman says.

“Put the gun down and no one gets hurt.” Axton eases his foot down, a board in the floor creaks.

“Get away,” she says, with her focus still on Creed. “This is between me and Creed. One more step and I shoot.”

“You kill Creed, you got two witnesses to murder,” Axton replies. “Send you up for life. Maybe even the chair. Put down the gun. Game over. Checkmate.”

Axton is at an angle now where the side of her face is partially visible, the arch of her neck to her pale cheek, the edge of her lip and her eyelash. An attractive woman, the type of woman that can tie a man like Creed into knots. Treacherously attractive.

She darts a fearful look at him. She probably sees the glint of the knife blade from the corner of her eye. Her arm holding the revolver trembles, as her other hand tries to steady the wrist. Creed tightens his body, ready to dive for the other gun on the chair. Not quite yet, though. Every minute will further fray her nerves. Get her nervous and her hand shakes more and Creed’s head becomes a more difficult target, increasing Creed’s odds of survival, even if he loses an ear or part of his face.

“Back the hell away or I shoot him!” she says.

Axton takes another slow small step closer. He’s close enough now he can rush her and slap her to the ground before she gets off a shot. Wait another moment, let the fear build in her, to the point of panic where she will freeze up or drop the gun or try to drill Creed with a fear-shaking aim. Axton is 

confident now that he will get Creed out of this alive, with no one else hurt. No one but her, he thinks with a smirk.

#

Eden Rose has never been so scared as she is now. She has the gun pointed at Creed as she moves down the tilted floor. On the stage he steps away from the piano, his eyes dart to a folding chair near the lip of the stage. She sees the gun on the chair.

“Eden, drop the gun. Let’s talk this over like adults.”

“How can I trust you? Coming here with a gun.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“You came here to kill me, didn’t you?”

“How can you say that, Eden?”

“Why bring a gun if you didn’t come to kill me?”

“I was nervous. I didn’t know if your new boyfriend would show up armed. But he’s not here, is he?”

“That doesn’t change me and you, Creed.”

“We can work this out. I can change. Just tell me the guy’s name and give me back those papers and I will forgive you.”

“Not giving you a name, and there’s nothing to work out. We’re through.”

“Don’t say that. That hurts me, Eden, to hear you say that.”

“Don’t step closer,” she says. He’s a few feet away from the gun on the chair.

“You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would you? I know you wouldn’t. You’re not a murderer.” He smiles nervously.

She scowls at him. He’s right, she can’t pull the trigger if he’s not holding the gun. Much as he disgusts her, she can’t bear the thought of him dead, and even more so, dying in front of her. If he grabs the gun, she reasons, she might be able to pull the trigger. But she’s not sure.

She came to the theater to pick up the incriminating papers she took from him. Wrapped up in a thick leather portfolio hidden at the back of the stage. If not for the papers, she’d have fled the theater as soon as she saw him at the piano. But now it’s too late. To try to flee now, he’d grab the gun and come after her.

She trains the gun on his head, even if it’s less target than his chest, where she suspects he might be wearing a vest. She needs him to walk away from the chair. If she misses, or only wounds him, he’ll grab the other gun and shoot her before she can work the mechanism to spin the next bullet in the chamber.

“You’re upset, Eden. We need to put the weapons down and talk this out.” He starts to lean forward slowly, to reach for the gun on the chair.

“No!” she snaps loudly. “Back away!”

“If you put the gun down I won’t hurt you, Eden. I’ll do anything not to lose you.”

“I don’t believe you,” she says.

She touches her finger to the trigger to see if it’s still there, caressing it as she faces him. He glares back at her. There’s a scuffle of a footstep somewhere behind her. He looks past her, and the look on his face becomes relaxed, as he tries to prevent a smile from creeping across his lips.

She hears another quiet footfall behind her. She starts to turn, but snaps back as Creed lurches closer to the revolver, his hand three inches away. She takes a deep breath, to try to quell the panic which now intensifies.

“Don’t step any closer,” she warns the person behind her.

“Put the gun down or you get hurt,” coos a familiar voice. Her terror increases. He’s already most of the way down towards the stage, she guesses from the sound of his voice. He takes another step, this one loud, no longer worried about surprising her.

“Go away! This is between me and Creed.”

Not that she thinks that will help. Axton Lowe hates her. Axton Lowe is the last person she wants behind her.

“You might as well drop the gun, Eden,” Creed says quietly.

“Go ahead. Shoot Creed,” Axton says, eight feet from her. “You’ll get the chair for murder. The game is over. Checkmate.” His voice is mocking.

She can almost see his shape from the corner of her eye, and he’s holding something, a gun or a knife. A knife, she guesses, or he would have already shot her. His gun must be the one on the chair, since Creed did not own a gun. Creed’s fingers creep closer when he sees her momentarily distracted by Axton.

Her insides go weak. Axton is right. She has no more moves. But she can’t surrender, not with him in the room. That’s what he’d want, for her to shoot Creed and then he’d be on her. If she turns and tries to shoot Axton, Creed will grab the pistol off the chair and shoot her, maybe before she can draw a bead on Axton and pull the trigger.

Tears form in her eyes. That would be worse, blurring her vision, weakening her aim. “Back the hell away or I shoot him!” she yells out, knowing it will do no good, but it feels better to yell than to sob.




About Rolf Semprebon:

For 15 years Rolf Semprebon (he/him) wrote scripts for a monthly radio theater show, The Ubu Hour, on KBOO Community Radio, and has also published music reviews in several publications. The Oregon Writers Colony awarded him honorable mention in their 2019 Fiction First Chapter Contest. Rolf grew up in New Hampshire, graduated from Oberlin College, and lives in Portland Oregon.


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1 Comment


Guest
Apr 27

Bravo! Great suspense building, going back in time incrementally and showing the other points of view. I'm not sure I need Part 2 -- sort of like the lady and the tiger.

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