Keith Bender hated the desert. He had always despised it: a hot and dry wasteland where people withered to brittle husks before reaching perdition. Bender awoke slouched on the caked Nevada soil with his hands bound, only miles from the massive fencing surrounding Yucca Mountain Nuclear Test Site. The crag of land he rested upon wasn’t far from the California border, though from the bleak topography it could have been the moon. The rucked face of Skull Mountain loomed to the east; the hollow sockets of its eyes impacted by meteors or dug out from long-abandoned silver mines. In the harsh desert light, the Amargosa Valley stretched toward the horizon like a bombed-out battlefield–inhabited only by invisible predators. Save one.
“How do you stand this heat?” Bender said to the man holding a gun. “And it’s only morning.” Late September temperatures often rose to the century mark at their elevation.
“Just dry heat,” his captor replied. “I get used to the headaches.”
Bender’s wrists and ankles were tied together while he slept by the hired killer in the tan Stetson squatting atop a rock outcropping nearby. Luke Skitters. A six-foot, reed-thin man with hooded eyes and pale skin. Perhaps an albino.
“Is the radiation level dangerous this close?” Bender squinted into the middle distance.
The armed man exhaled through his nostrils. “Just relax. It don’t matter. You’ll be dead within the hour, Bender.” No emotion showed in Skitters’ pink-eyed stare. Craning his neck, the waxen assassin gazed through a pair of binoculars toward the test site. Skitters’ face, further whitened by the heavy-duty sunscreen he’d slathered over it, resembled a greasy, plaster mask. Somehow, this fragile-skinned creature had, beyond all logic, learned to actually thrive in the unforgiving terrain.
“What about my friends down in the tunnel?”
“When the mine collapses, they’ll suffocate. There’s worse ways to die, and I seen most.” Skitters kept chain-smoking his Camels. “You worried about the woman?”
Bender hid his emotions behind a poker face.
“I’ve been following you since it began.” Skitters spit at a small lizard sunning on a rock. “I know everything.” He laughed.
Bender imagined being a private eye for years. And when a blonde with a startled face pressed five hundred-dollar bills into his pants pocket at a party in San Francisco, and then let her hand linger where it counted, all his dreams came true in one swollen instant. But the intrigue surrounding her had dried up with the moisture in the desert. A desert that now looked to be his graveyard.
Skitters meant business. Bender’s future could be counted in minutes, maybe to a single hour. But why did Jenny have to die too? He flashed to age fourteen, his first intense makeout session where Angela had given him the keys to her kingdom, let his hands roam with impunity. Nothing had been as simple with any woman since that day. In his mind he saw hips, breasts, lips–lust intertwining with death. The images faded.
“Wake up, Mister Detective. You don’t want to miss it.”
Bender opened his eyes to the blinding desert light and felt sweat oozing from his scalp, trickling from his armpits, pooling in his crotch. “Wait, Skitters. What if I hired you to terminate your boss?” Bender asked. “The one who paid your contract on me.”
“If you had that kind of money, I would,” Skitters replied. “But you’d never know if I got her, because you go first. One job at a time, in the order they’re received. That’s my business model.”
“Great.” Bender’s head lolled about. “So what are we waiting for?”
“A big sound is coming. The kind you’ll feel in your bones.”
“And why should I care?”
“Because it’s the last sound you’re ever going to know.” Skitters turned toward Bender and laughed, his yellow teeth shining like corn between thin blanched lips. “Hear that? It’s starting.”
Bender felt a rumbling underground that rose up into a painful vibration in his chest, exerting pressure on his rib-cage. The earth rippled and churned around them, the landscape heaving then blurring as if in a mirage. He heard a sound like a huge tree straining in the wind.
“What happens now?” Bender shouted.
“The long fadeout…”
End of Intro.
For more Talley writing and art, go to http://www.maxdevoetalley.com
Stay tuned!! Nicholas Deitch’s Flash Fictions and musings on his process, Nov. 9th.