The Midnight Witch Goes West
fiction by David Busboom
I’m listening to the Beatles in Camden, New Jersey in 1969. I have a small record player. It’s The Beatles’ Second Album. I live alone, and tonight I’m slowly drinking a bottle of port and smoking a cheap cigar. It’s a small, clean room. As they say, there’s a knock on the door. Two big, dumb, peasant-looking men, tanned and very fit.
“Yeah.” I answer with a flirtatious smile, but let them hear the edge in my voice.
They show me a badge: FBI. Good enough to fool casual witnesses, but I already know who they are and why they’re here: to remind me of the 15 thousand dollars I dropped last week on the Colts, in my second particularly poor run of luck. It’s still a small thing to them, but in their line of work they can’t afford to let small things go. It won’t just be a shiner this time.
“Come with us. Better put on a coat. You’ll be gone awhile.”
One of them shuts off the Beatles, and I grab my sunflower purse before walking down the apartment steps with them into the cold night air. Heads are out the windows as if everybody knows. One kid flashes a peace sign. My closest neighbor whistles.
They’re bringing me to my blood-red Plymouth GTX in the lot. It’s a new car, and I’m pleased with it—hourglass body mounted over a 7.2 liter V8 engine that runs smoothly at 97 miles an hour. It’s a hardtop, of course. I loathe driving fast in an open car—unless I’m racing—and I’ve rolled enough cars to have a healthy respect for solid protection overhead. This one was never produced prior to last year, and cost me $1,400 cash.
The things you can get when you’re a successful artist.
I am really an artist, but when I was 15 years old, I liked the idea of being a writer in the Beat scene. My old man went to jail, turned out to be the guy who did two for two. Famous for stretching a two-month Disturbing rap to two years by not standing for any shit. Proud of his rep in the slum, back on the streets he vowed to change his violent ways—no more red meat, red wine, or white wifebeaters. You could almost say he found religion. Rock music and sports are the closest I’ll ever come to experiencing that myself. At the end of a concert, I raise my hands and hold a lit match or lighter with the rest; I put an awful lot of faith in rock ’n’ roll, and not much else.
My dear, damnable mother grew up reading Black Mask and Dime Detective, and even submitted a couple of stories to the latter in ’35 under a male pseudonym, but had given up by the time I came along in December ’46. After that she maintained that women should only be writers of poetry—and probably not the Joanne Kyger or Elise Cowen kind. She was wrong. Couple years ago I found the issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from the month of my birth, with the corpse in the bathtub on the cover and Cornell Woolrich’s “Angel Face” inside. I remember listening to that story with Mom on Suspense when I was three, one of my earliest memories; Claire Trevor played the good-hearted stripper trying to save her brother from a murder conviction. I keep the magazine with me, as a reminder of my own darkness.
At the car, the men explain in low voices what I already know: they’re taking the car to cover part of what I still owe—they’ll take the rest out of my hide and then leave me in an unmarked grave. But they seem almost bashful, one blushing, the other wringing his huge tattooed hands together like mastiffs in a pit. Must be new at this. Maybe their first time, at least doing it to a lady. I feel like I’m in a B noir movie, one of those forgettable 58-minute quickies from Columbia. But I’m no Rita Hayworth.
They ask for the keys, and don’t even stop me from reaching into my purse—of course the idiots are surprised when I come out with my little Beretta instead. They didn’t expect anything worse than a knee to the groin, and that’s why they both came. They don’t even appear to be packing.
I get in on the driver’s side and start the engine, listening with satisfaction to the bass growl from the exhaust. The windows are gilded with frost. I reach to flick on the lights and the windshield wipers, and hope the boys’ embarrassment will last long enough for me to get out of there. I wonder if honking at them might be pushing it.
Then my windshield shatters in front of me.
I gasp and drop low as I can; somebody screams. Another shot—pain in my right shoulder. I release the brake and put the car in reverse. Still hunched over, I roar backward, sit up, and put a hole in the tattooed man’s face as he aims for a third shot. Just under his left eye.
Told you I’m an artist.
I spin the wheel around and tear off into the night, leaving the blushing guy to collect his buddy and deal with the neighbors. Air blows through the gaping hole in my windshield, and I swear to myself.
I’m already accustomed to attempts on my life. There have been four in the past two years. None came close to succeeding, though I have a slight limp as a result of the second. In a strange way, I don’t mind the assassination attempts—they’re part of the game, one of the risks in my line of work. But I hate to see my new car damaged. It’ll take weeks to get a new windshield fitted properly.
I glance down to my right and see the entry and exit holes, high and close together, in the shoulder of my jacket—just a minor graze, then. No need to look for a discreet doctor in Philly, though I can add upholstery repair to my list of car woes. Could be much worse, of course; if I hadn’t been a leftie, I’d probably be dead.
That’ll teach me not to gamble after a job. Or at least to scram quick after losing.
I’ve got a few hundred dollars to cover gas and food until I hit the Midwest, at least. Maybe I’ll lay low there for a while, check on the folks. I’ll have to get a new record player, too.
I turn up the radio and catch the tail end of something crunchy by a brand-new English band called Led Zeppelin. As I make it to the highway, crossing the Delaware, it starts to snow.
David Busboom is a lifelong Illinois resident with a BA in English and a day job at the Poultry Science Association. Since 2010, his stories and essays have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. His first book is Nightbird (Unnerving, 2018), a horror novella about a young man’s obsession.
This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.