By Sun & Lightning

By Don Winslow Illustration by Goni Montes

Share

The lights crackle and flicker before they come on.

She helps him to the bed and gently lays him down.

“Baby,” he says, “I’m hurting.”

“I know, baby,” she says.

Shannon breaks the ampoule of morphine, pulls the drug into the syringe and finds a vein in Danny’s arm. A former nurse, she’s good with a needle and injects him smoothly.

The morphine will ease the pain. It won’t stop the bleeding.

Danny won’t bleed out.

He’ll bleed in.

“Baby,” Danny groans.

His pain is hers. It stabs at her. Hurts her heart.

“It’s okay, baby,” she says. “It will take a minute for the morphine to kick in.”

She strokes his hair. His face is pale and sweaty.

Danny hollers and grabs his stomach. Shannon pulls his hands away. “Don’t do that, baby.”

Don’t touch the wound and don’t yell.

Motel walls are thin and there was a TV in the office. The six o’clock news will be on soon and if there’s a story about a bank robbery the woman behind the desk might get ideas and make a call.

Shannon pulled off the road first chance she got, Danny crumpled up in the passenger seat groaning and holding his stomach. One of those motels with the separate cabins, like in the 1950s, she guesses. Maybe it was the 1930s. She pulled the car into the driveway behind a big tree.

He could have died while she checked in.

Got a room, got a key—an old-fashioned real key, not one of those plastic cards—checked to see no one was looking and then got him out of the car. Propped him up against the wall as she got the key in the lock and the door open, then laid him down as gently as she could on the bed.

Mustard yellow spread.

Cheap.

Ugly.

Bloodstains on it, now they’ll have to throw it away.

“Gotta get a clean car,” he says through clenched teeth.

Then the morphine hits him like a sucker punch in a biker bar. His fists unclench, his head falls back, his eyes focus on a place that only he can see, a place that’s near and somehow far away.

She looks at his stomach.

No exit wound—bullet still in there, already starting to infect. Low-caliber, low-velocity piece of shit. Goes in, doesn’t go through. If he doesn’t have a fever now he will soon. She takes tweezers from her bag, splashes alcohol, then picks shreds of his shirt out of the wound.

She remembers the shirt. That time in Arizona, up in the mountains, that town with the weird name what was it—Sho-Lo. They drove around it seemed like forever to find a place for dinner and when they did there was this great guitar player who could play everything and Danny gave him a $100 bill and asked him to do Sinatra tunes and they danced. The only ones on the floor, everyone watching them and she knew how good they looked, him with his black hair and flashing white teeth, her with her long legs in the black heels and her red hair swirling and when they danced slow and close she could feel him pressed against her and he told her all the things he was going to do to her when he got her back to the room and he did he did all those things and the next day they hit the bank in Payson and that night she bought him that shirt in Scottsdale, one of those soft summer desert nights, a flowered Hawaiian that she said made him look like Montgomery Clift in that old movie she couldn’t remember the name of and he told her it was From Here to Eternity.

Now she dumps sulfa in the wound and then gets a compression bandage on it.

There’s nothing she can do about the internal hemorrhaging. He needs a hospital, surgery, and even then it could go wrong. A bullet in the stomach—the bleeding, the infection, the sepsis. He could make it through the initial trauma and still die, days or even weeks later, and then he dies bad, he dies ugly. Beautiful Danny dies ugly under the sickly yellow light of a hospital room.

But there isn’t going to be any hospital anyway.

Not on this side of the border.

Walk into an e-room with a bullet wound and that’s it. They’re reading Danny his rights as they’re rolling him into the OR.

You too, Shannon thinks, because this isn’t hard to put together. They’re already looking for a man and a woman, the man with a bullet in his gut, the woman pretty with long legs and long blonde hair, and that reminds her to take off the wig, not that it will slow the cops down more than a few seconds. You take him to the hospital here it’s a death sentence for the both of you—life without parole, the same thing—because there’s a dead guard on the sidewalk outside the bank.

She has to get Danny to the other side. Across the border. A Mexican hospital, a Mexican doctor, sounds sketchy but the truth is that the Tijuana doctors are great and God knows they see enough gunshot trauma.

They’ve crossed the border hot before, but never bloody. First time they did Danny said it was like The Getaway and she asked him which one, the new one or the old one, and he said, “The old one, baby, the only one, the one with Steve McQueen.” Danny loves Steve McQueen, could watch Bullitt all day and all night, come on, that chase scene, of course Danny could.

So she has to get Danny to Mexico but Shannon’s not even sure she can get him back in a car. Getting him out was hard enough. She’s a tall girl but not a big girl, and she had to jerk and pull. Agony for him. She finally got him under his shoulder and dragged him into the room, but she’s not sure she can carry him back out.

Or that he’d even survive it.

She opens the curtains a sliver and risks a look out into the parking lot. Even though the window looks out to the east and not the west the sky is crimson. One break is that it’s winter and it gets dark early. The motel’s neon sign comes on—pink against the crimson.

There are only four other cars in the lot—a Camry, a CR-V, a Lexus and a Bimmer—and she wonders who they are. Tourists on a budget, or travelers who just like the funky places, or married lovers squeezing in a dirty hour before they go home to their spouses. It’s going to be hard, she thinks, to explain how the car got stolen from the Surf Inn.

She’ll boost one of them but she wants to wait until it’s darker.

Shannon goes into the bathroom and shuts the door behind her. One fluorescent light on the ceiling. A shower with a plastic curtain, toilet, wall heater, the porcelain on the sink is chipped. She scrubs Danny’s blood off her hands, watches it swirl diluted down the drain. Then she digs her cell phone out of her jeans pocket and hits Mendoza’s number.

They can trust Carlos, worked with him for years.

He answers on the first ring.

Shannon says, “He got hit—”

“I saw the news. I already have a doctor.” Mendoza’s voice is calm, steady, soothing, a relief.

“I can’t get him there,” she says. “Not by myself.”

Even if I can get him in the car and down to the border, she thinks, I can’t get him across. But Mendoza’s people can. They’ll know which line to get into, which agent is on the arm. “Can you come get us? Send someone?”

“That’s not our deal,” Mendoza says.

Their deal is he protects them on the other side. Them getting there is not his problem, and he’s not going to risk one of his people sending him into the shit to pull them out. One thing to hump dirty money over the border, or even narcos on the run from a grand jury gone bad.

A whole other thing to run bank robbers who are fresh hot and bloody, one of them with evidence in his belly.

She gets it.

They go back, but business is business.

“It could be the deal,” Shannon says. “I’ll sweeten your taste.”

Because business is business. In the silence she hears him thinking about it.

“How sweet?” Mendoza asks.

“Thirty? That’s a 10-point bump.” Ten more points on money we earned. We took the risk, we took the bullet, and I’ll give up a third to get Danny across the border to a hospital.

“I don’t know,” Mendoza says.

What don’t you know, you greedy prick? “Okay, how’s this deal? How’s the deal where we take our business somewhere else in the future?”

He doesn’t answer and Shannon knows he’s debating whether there’s going to be a future, so she pulls up the past. “How much money have we made you over the years, ’Los?”

An appeal to loyalty, she thinks, in this business. And it gets the answer she expects.

Silence.

If money won’t do it and loyalty won’t do it, she has to find something else.

“You get us across,” Shannon says. “I’ll come across.”

“What are you saying?”

“You want a dictionary?” she asks. “Come on, ’Los, I see the way you look at me when Danny turns his back.”

You’re in her business you know your assets. It’s not a matter of ego or conceit, it’s a matter of inventory, knowing what you have on the shelf. You give money away, it’s gone, you give points—gone. You give what you have between your legs it’s still there in the morning. A little of yourself is gone, but she knows there’s a lot of her, she’s more than that, and she’ll do it for Danny.

The air over the phone gets heavy. She knows he is thinking about it, imagining it, fighting a battle between his brain and his dick. If it’s a fight between his brain and his dick, get the towel ready to throw and spare his brain a beating. If it’s between his dick and his wallet, though, then you got a fight.

Sweet Danny never has that issue.

Dick, every time. The needle on that compass always points true north.

Sex, sun, laughter and life.

She’s the more practical one, worries about budgets and expenses.

“Life pays for itself, darlin’,” Danny would say. “Sun comes up every day without charge.”

“I can get you across,” Carlos says now.

Fuck you, ’Los. Danny’s old friend, his amigo, sits there out by the pool in Ensenada drinking tequila, telling jokes, while he checks out my legs under the table. Big, heavy sensuous blue eyes, mane of silver hair over his big wide forehead. Turquoise jewelry, vain as a diva, always with a woman, most of them whores.

I should put one right between the blue and the silver, you think I’d dump Danny for the likes of you.

“Both of us, ’Los,” she says, “or it’s no deal.”

“Plus the 30, though, right?”

The man keeps his wallet in his front pants pocket, right by his dick.

“Yeah,” she says. “One night, I’ll do anything you want. Only you never tell Danny.”

Because that would kill him.

Worse than the bullet.

She’d say she did it because she loves him and he’d believe her and that would make it worse, not better. They could never look at each other again and that would kill her.

“I’ll get back to you,” Carlos says.

“Hurry.”

She clicks off and goes back into the bedroom.

Danny’s staring at a painting on the wall. A bad painting of a couple of horses in a field behind a white fence.

“I called Mendoza,” Shannon says. “He’s sending someone.”

“Let me just rest for a few minutes,” Danny says, “then I’m good to go.”

That’s Danny. Always the optimist, always sunny-side up, even his eggs. Tomorrow is always going to be better, you’ll see, baby. We’re going to be just fine.

That time after the job in El Centro. Sitting there with a bag of hot glass in the cab of an old pickup truck, lost as lambs on some desert back road and then the engine overheated. Out there where the sun can kill you if the cops or the coyotes—the human kind—don’t get you first and Danny hopped out of the cab and flipped open the trunk and he was whistling—whistling—out there in the sun as he fiddled and fooled around and then he slammed the hood shut, climbed back in and said, “Good to go, now which way is old Mexico?” and he looked at the sun like he was Magellan or something and then he pointed the truck and sure enough about an hour later they were at the border and Mendoza was waiting for them and Danny said, “I told you it would be all right.”

“You rest,” she says.

He gives her that brave smile. “We’re a team, baby.”

We’re a team, she thinks. Best gun-and-wheel team there is because the trust is there. It’s like Danny says, “No one wants to come out of that bank and see an empty sidewalk, have to hoof it or call a cab. You want to come out of that bank, open the door and roll.”

He goes out again now. Unconscious.

Thank God.

But pale, so pale.

Shannon sits down on the bed next to him and turns on the television. There’s the usual crap on—some judge dispensing small-claims justice, a family fighting in front of a TV shrink, all fake, all phony. Say what you will about life with Danny, it’s never fake or phony. Whatever it is, it’s real. The local news. Bank in Carlsbad robbed. Police are looking for—

She changes the channel. Cheap motel, no premium cable, no HBO or Showtime.

Why doesn’t Carlos call? She punches in his number. Busy. Okay, okay, maybe he’s working it, making his calls, setting things up.

That time down in Cabo where they went until things cooled off. The sun never stopped shining, beat down on her skin warming it she wore a big hat to keep it off her face because she doesn’t want her skin to be leather when she’s 40 and she’d lay out on the chaise reading magazines but mostly looking at the pictures wondering how she’d look in this dress or that one. And that one day Danny got up and went inside and stretched out on the couch to watch TV, he was so cute he was pouting and she went inside and asked, “What’s up?” and he said she looked so hot out there in that black bikini and the hat he just really wanted her and she said, “You can have me anytime you want, just ask,” and he did and also asked her to leave the hat on, like that song, and she did. Two weeks later it was all straightened out and they came back and drove all the way to Colorado and stayed in that cabin outside Steamboat that she loved.

Shannon opens the bag and counts the money.

Two hundred and thirty K, give or take. Not enough to retire, but even with Mendoza’s cut enough to get away for a while. Let Danny recover. Maybe that place in Cabo, maybe Cozumel. Somewhere sunny and warm.

If they can get there.

She hits Mendoza’s number again.

Still busy.

Danny groans in his sleep.

She only has one more ampoule and decides she’d better save it because he’s going to need it on the move.

It was supposed to be an easy bank. An old man of a bank, fat and sleepy. And it was. But out in the street some security guard on his lunch break had to be a hero. Wasn’t even the bank’s guard but some guy from the mall down the street. She saw him first and then saw Danny see him and she told Danny, don’t. Don’t. But he pulled his gun and now he has a bullet in his stomach, there’s a dead guard on the sidewalk and the charge is felony murder whether you robbed the bank or you just drove.

Felony murder.

The needle or life without possibility.

She didn’t sign up for either.

Those days up north, in Little River. Just him and her, in the cottage overlooking the ocean, with the big fireplace. Stretched out on the rug, her long red hair a carpet of its own, him coming on her like one of the waves below the cliff, washing over her, she loved to feel his arms when they lock like that, holding her in place, her place, in his arms.

His woman.

His baby.

After they made love they were hungry. She threw on a black sweater and jeans and they walked up the hill to the hotel. Sat at the bar and ate nachos as they looked out the window at the ocean and joked with the bartender who had to be in her early 70s easy and had been behind that bar for 30 years, and when they walked back Danny said he’d never been in the same place for 30 days unless you counted jail and she said it didn’t count because it wasn’t by choice and anyway she liked this life on the road, it never got boring, it was like that song, Baby we were born to run.

“Did Carlos call?” he asks now.

It’s too bad he’s conscious, she thinks.

“Not yet. He will.”

Shannon turns her back to him, takes out her cell phone and holds it by her waist, goes to “settings” and then to “sound.” Slides the volume up so it rings, then quickly says, “Carlos?”

Danny smiles.

“Okay, okay, five minutes,” she says. Turns back to Danny and says, “Someone’s here in five.”

He tries to sit up.

Can’t.

“Wait, baby,” she says. “When they get here, we’ll help you, okay?”

“Okay.”

He’s so weak.

The night they met Danny came to her e-room with a dislocated little finger pointed toward Reno. He hit on her right away, like every other drunk in Fallon. But Danny wasn’t drunk, he just started out with the whole “What’s a beautiful creature like you” thing and when she answered, “Patching up assholes like you,” he whooped with laughter. “You can wait a couple of hours to see a doctor,” she said, “or you can just let me pop it back in and give you a pill.” “Will it put me to sleep?” “Maybe.” “But you’ll tuck me in, right?” Usually that would get a guy a big needle in the ass but she knew she was going to do him that night and she counted “one,” “two” and popped the joint back in before she counted “three” and he said, “That was slick.” “You haven’t seen slick, slick.” “Well, I’d like to.” Later, in that dark studio apartment she kept in those days, she propped herself up on her elbow, smiled at him and said, “Well, we know you can do that. But can you drive?”

Oh hell yes he could drive.

He was a car thief, for Christ’s sake.

Could drive anything, anywhere, anytime. Been boosting rides since before he had a driver’s license, shit, he stole his first Big Wheel and made it all the way to downtown Deming before they caught him. Baby, I can drive anything with a gas pedal and if you want to throw in four tires and a steering wheel, well, that’s just a bonus.

Danny, her best and her last driver.

Shannon grew up on a Nebraska farm that had more debt than hope and as a little girl she used to walk through the barn singing to the cows “California Here I Come” and she eventually got the nurse’s degree she thought was her ticket out, but she only made it as far as Nevada, where her beat-up Chevy gave up the ghost.

Needed money but she’d seen her daddy borrow money only to give the whole damn farm back to the bank and she saw him cry, so she decided taking money was better than asking for it and a lot less paperwork to boot and revenge on all those guys, some of them bankers, who told her that with her looks she could make all the money she wanted in Nevada. Turns out she could, only not that way, and she never lacked for a volunteer willing to get behind the wheel for a cut, but none of them was Danny.

After that night in Fallon she took off with him and never looked back at the nursing gig that she kept anyway as a beard, or the apartment she hated with the furniture she never liked, she just took off with Danny and they drove all over the West and she loved the road like she loved Danny, they were one and the same, they rode all over the West wherever they wanted to go. They just rode and she never had to worry about walking out of the bank onto an empty street because, “Baby, I’m not just Mr. Right, I’m Mr. Right There.”

But this time—Danny, did you have to?

The bank in Carlsbad was easy, the bank was a breeze. She showed them her .44 and they fell all over themselves loading her up with cash. Sexy woman, sexy gun, she didn’t know which scared them more. Just in, just out, just like she’d done a dozen times before. She walked out and Danny was right there, but then this security guard walked up and Danny did what she told him never to do—he got out of the car.

The driver stays in the car, she told him a thousand times.

The driver stays in the car.

Behind the wheel, not the gun.

The gun is my business and I know my business.

He was protecting me, I guess, she thinks, but he shouldn’t have. The truth is that she would have shot and not gotten shot, but he got out of the car and pulled the gun and then there were two shots and she got behind the wheel and shoved him over and now here they are.

She gets up and goes to the window. Slips the curtain back, looks out and picks the 2008 Camry. The cops won’t break too much sweat tracking a used Camry and no one puts LoJack in one.

Danny made sure she knew how to boost a car.

“In case I’m not around,” he said.

Oh Danny. Oh baby.

There was that picnic on Crystal Lake that time. Danny was so sweet, he bought chicken and champagne and they sat on a blanket in front of the car with the lake in front of them and no one else there and he wiped her mouth with a napkin and said, “I wish you’d sing for me the way you sang for those cows,” because she’d told him that story. She never told anyone else that story and she sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy” and when she was done he got on one knee and took a little box out of his jacket pocket and she asked, “Baby, what did you do?” and he proposed. “Would you make me the happiest man in the world?” and she said, “Yes. Yes, Danny,” and he put that ring on her finger and they made love right there with the mountain reflecting in the lake.

The phone rings.

Carlos.

Thank God.

“Where are you?” he asks.

“Surf Inn. Leucadia.”

“What room?”

She hears it in his voice and knows it’s true.

Just as she should have known his wallet would win.

Mendoza’s gone the other way with it.

Doesn’t see a future with us so he’s cashing out. Squeezing out that last peso, blood from a stone. Going to make his money on the reward side. Bank the reward and deposit some goodwill with the cops at the same time. Never a bad thing, your cop account being in the black.

“What room are you in?” Carlos repeats. A little too urgent, pressing, like he’s afraid she’s getting hinky.

“One-oh-five.”

“Okay, hang tight. They’re on the way.”

I’ll bet they are, Shannon thinks.

“No,” she says. “I think the desk clerk made us. Danny can walk. I’m going to get him in the car and go a couple of blocks south. There’s a taco shop on the corner. We’ll be in that lot.”

She clicks off.

Looks at Danny.

They got married in Vegas. A cliché, but Danny made it fun and romantic. Danny made everything fun and romantic. He joked with the minister and the two professional witnesses and when the ceremony was over he said they had to go to the Flamingo for their honeymoon because that’s where the old-school guys went, all those old mobsters with the great suits and the hats, and they could pretend they were Bugsy and Virginia. And that’s what they did, they talked like they did in those old movies and he sat on the bed as she stood in the doorway and showed him lots of leg and he whistled and said, “Some tomato I married,” and that made her laugh. Danny always made her laugh.

Shannon sits down on the bed beside him.

Knows she’s out of time.

They’re out of time.

She asks herself the question and hates the answer. The answer is she’s out of options.

Can’t stay with him, can’t take him…can’t leave him.

He’ll suffer.

And he’ll talk. He won’t want to, he won’t mean to, but he’ll be stoned on the drugs and he’ll talk and that’s the death penalty or life without parole, and she didn’t sign up for that and he’ll understand.

Danny knows who she is.

That time driving through the South Dakota badlands at night they pulled over, cranked the radio up and left the door open and danced in the faint moonlight. Danced in the moonlight, their bodies flowing silver, their sweat shining silver they danced and then they got back in the car and stayed in Wall that night. And in the morning they drove back that same way and saw they’d been on the knife edge of a 600-foot straight drop and didn’t even know it, one wrong step and they’d have fallen to their deaths and Danny said that was them—dancing on the edge of death and that was sure them and that was life too. You’re gonna live life, you have to dance on the edge of death.

“Baby?” she says.

“Yeah?”

Sweat is popping out of his face.

His blue eyes wide and feverish.

His skin hot as she strokes his cheek.

“Baby, you remember our favorite day?” she asks as she slips the pistol from her waistband.

They were driving out of San Diego all the way to Utah because they needed to put some serious distance between them and that bank downtown. All the way up on the back roads through the spare Mojave white as bone and then they gassed up in Primm and blew right past Vegas, didn’t even stop to try their luck because they figured they’d had enough luck for one day and didn’t want to push it and they drove past Mesquite and then nicked that little corner of Arizona and then into Utah past St. George climbing up from the desert into the cedar country from white to red to green and it was one of those long summer days, so it was still just before dusk when they came up outside Cedar City. They were looking for a hotel, they were tired from the long drive and ready to stop and have some dinner, stop and get a bed and make love and it was still a little sunny, gentle sunshine on the slopes of the hills and then suddenly there were lightning flashes.

Lightning on a sunny day.

Light behind light.

As a little girl she loved the lightning, loved the storms that rolled over the plains like symphonies of drums. She would go out on the porch to watch the silver flashes against the black sky and feel the electricity tingle on her skin like the possibility of freedom and danger and another life. But she never ever saw lightning on a sunny day until that day with Danny. Danny always said that every day has its reward, you just had to be there with eyes open to see it, and this was their reward that day and then it got better because they looked up to see these horses come running over the top of a hill, two horses—one white and one chestnut—came over the hill backlit by sun and lightning and it was so beautiful so beautiful so beautiful that she cried the way she sometimes did when she was with him and he was inside her, two horses one white and one chestnut came over the hill backlit by sun and lightning, and that was their reward for that day. That was their favorite day and always would be.

“Sure I remember, baby,” Danny says, his voice weak but his voice happy. “That was that day with….”

Two horses, one white and one chestnut.

Shannon raises the pistol, tears spilling from her green eyes.

Came over the hill.

He starts to nod out again and she puts the barrel to the back of his head and can’t tell if he feels it or doesn’t.

If he does he doesn’t move or turn around.

Two horses came over the hill and danced on the edge of death.

She pulls the trigger.

A sharp crack and a muzzle flash.

Shannon jams the pistol back into her waistband, grabs the bag of money, shuts off the lights and goes out the door.

She boosts the car the way Danny taught her and pulls out on the PCH, past cop cars wailing, lights flashing, coming the other way, passing her. Ten minutes later she’s on the 5, busting south for the border, down to Mexico to kill Carlos Mendoza.

Because business is business and she can’t afford to let people think they can fuck her.

She’ll find another driver but she’ll never find another Danny, and she knows that and she knows the road will be just a lonely dance in the dark.

Two horses came over the hill and danced on the edge of death, lit by sun and lightning.


Share

Playboy Social