Illustration to accompany "The Dying Desert Moon" Copyright (c) 2017 by L.A. Spooner

The Dying Desert Moon

Story by Dale W. Glaser

Illustration by L.A. Spooner


Beau Shearing set the silver dollar spinning on the surface of the bar.  The distinctive whir of the grooved edge tracing tiny circles on the shellac was as easy to hear as the tinny voice of Fred Astaire singing “Nice Work If You Can Get It” on the radio in Izzy’s office, floating through the open door.  Otherwise, the bar was relatively silent, situated mostly underground and thus insulated from the constant thrum of the city above, the growls of engines and the dull roar of factories.  Roy leaned back against the old stacked crates that formed the makeshift shelves behind the bar, beefy arms folded across his chest, bar towel draped over his wrist, chin tucked down and eyes closed.  Old Man Murph sat in his usual roost in the corner, staring off into space between sips of his whiskey, closing his eyes whenever he raised the glass to his lips.

When Beau had first come to Los Angeles, the Volstead Act had been in effect for over a decade, and as far as anyone knew it would remain the law of the land forever.  Izzy’s had been a speakeasy then, its secret guarded none-too-closely by a coterie of patrons who came every evening, filling the seats and packing the floor and lining the bar.  The press of bodies and spirit of rebellion had made the perfect hiding place for a runaway colored boy looking to blend in and disappear.  Eight years later, Prohibition seemed like a bad dream everyone had either forgotten or silently agreed to never speak of again.  Izzy’s was a legitimate place of business, with a liquor license pinned to the wall and a listing in the phone book, and no more than four or five patrons on a good night.  When hooch was illegal, Izzy’s was the place to be.  Now that it was no longer contraband, Beau had the place to himself more often than not.  If that didn’t say everything you needed to know about human nature, Beau didn’t know what did.

The dollar came to rest with the eagle facing up, and Beau spun it again with a flick of his fingers.  He stared at its blurred orbit even as he heard the front door swing open and shut, and footsteps clicking toward him.  A voice beside and slightly behind him asked, “What are you drinking?”

“That’s between me and him,” Beau said, indicating Roy.

The newcomer gave a nervous little laugh as he climbed onto the stool next to Beau.  He was a few inches shorter than Beau, with wispy brown hair and stubble on his cheeks from not shaving in a few days.  The dark circles under his eyes indicated he hadn’t slept in a few days, either.  “All right, all right.  Barkeep?  A gimlet for me, and another one of whatever he’s having for my friend here.”

“I’m not your friend,” Beau said, “unless I don’t remember meeting you, or any other time I’ve ever seen you.”

“We haven’t met,” the man shook his head, “but I know you.  You’re Beau Shearing; please don’t tell me you’re not.”

“Maybe I am,” Beau said.  “Who wants to know?”

“Dietz, Carl Dietz,” the man said.

“You want that drink, Beau?” Roy asked.

Beau nodded halfheartedly as if it would be more trouble to refuse than to accept.  “So now we know each other’s names, and you’re buying me a drink, but it takes more than that to make a friend,” Beau said.

“It’d be nice to have a friend right now,” Dietz said.  “But what I really need is a favor.  A favor I’m willing to pay for.  I need to get out of town, and I understand you’re …”

Beau held his hand up, silencing Dietz.  “I’m nobody,” he said.

“Fine, fine, you’re nobody,” Dietz agreed.  He laughed nervously.  “I used to be a nobody.  No family, no money, nothing.  You ever lived on the street?”

Beau shrugged noncommittally.

“If you had, you’d know.  You get so hungry you feel like you’re gonna die, and then you do one of two things.  You do whatever it takes to stay standing, or you lie down and give up.  I did what I had to do.  I stole stuff, mostly food; just enough to keep from starving, stuff nobody’d really miss.  Hardly anybody ever caught me, ‘cause I’m little, and I’m fast.  Sometimes they didn’t even try.  One time a shopkeeper yelled at a cop standing right there to chase me down, and the cop just laughed at him.  Said I couldn’t have carried off that much; was the shop keep calling the police over mice stealing crumbs, too?”

“So why you talking to me instead of running right now?” Beau asked.  “Seems to me somebody so fast, so little, he can’t be caught wouldn’t have a problem getting out of town on his own.”

“I said hardly anybody ever caught me.  Sometimes they did,” Dietz said.  “I caught a couple beatings.  Then one day I got … not caught, but followed.  Not by the man I had stolen from, but by another man who saw it happen.  His name was Tito Gallardo.  You know the name?  Sure you do.  He tracked me down, informed me that the shop I had just swiped from was owned by a close personal friend of his.”

“Which means they were paying Gallardo protection money,” Beau said.

“Yep.  So whatever I had taken, it was as if I had stolen it from Tito Gallardo himself.  He asked me if I had ever stolen from that shop before, but he already knew the answer.  He asked me if I knew how much I owed him, but he knew I didn’t.  And then he gave me a choice: I could work for him, to pay off my debt, or I could settle up some other way.  So I took the job.”

“He made you a runner for the numbers game,” Beau said.

“That’s right, how’d you know?”

“It’s what they do with kids.”

“I was pretty good at it, better than the other boys, and pretty soon Gallardo was paying me cash, said I had cleared the debt.  It worked out pretty well.”

“It usually does.  For a while.”

Dietz nodded glumly.  “Gallardo wouldn’t let me place bets in his game, but there’s other action in town, and I found it.  It got bad, but then it got better again once I started to figure how to skim my own cut off the collections.  I got square with the other games, and I only played with what I was getting paid, but I kept skimming.  Saving up for a rainy day.”

“You knew some day you’d get caught.  But instead of stopping, you kept stealing so that you’d be ready when it all went south.”

“I know it sounds crazy.  I couldn’t help myself.”

“So how much did you set back?”

“Four thousand.”

Beau whistled appreciatively.  “That’s not nothing.”

“You want to hear the real funny part, though?” Dietz asked.  “Gallardo found out, I don’t know how, I don’t know from who, but what I do know is somehow he thinks I took him for six thousand.  So even if I came clean and tried to give him back all the money, he’d think I was holding out on him.”

“That’s a bad bit of luck for you,” Beau said.  “But on the upside, you do have four grand to leave town with.”

“But that’s the problem,” Dietz insisted.  “If I leave town, you think Gallardo is going to just let me leave, not come after me and his missing six thousand dollars?  You know he’ll find me, won’t let anyone rest until he does.”

“How do I know this?” Beau asked.

“Because you’re the person who helps people disappear.  You make it so people get out of town and then get somewhere else where they can’t be found.  I don’t know how you do it, nobody knows how you do it, but I know you can,” Dietz said.

“You really believe that?” Beau asked.

“I’m willing to pay two thousand to find out if it’s true,” Dietz said.

Beau set his glass down on the bar.  “Half your rainy day money?”

“I’d rather get by on half than spend it all on my own funeral,” Dietz shrugged.  “Two thousand’s not nothing, either.”

Beau considered his options.  Saying no was always one of them.  He didn’t always help everyone who crossed his path with a sob story.  Some he genuinely felt sorry for.  Usually, those were people who had gotten caught up in the great black gold rush, come west to make their fortunes only to find themselves indentured servants living on oil baron land and paid in oil baron scrip.  Beau had no trouble refusing the ones who seemed to deserve what they had gotten, and Carl Dietz fell into that category.  But then again, not everyone trying to skip out on their just desserts offered him two thousand for a ride.  The money could go a long way, do a lot of good.

Beau nodded, mostly to himself, drained his drink, then said, “You’re going to walk out of here and head straight back to wherever you call home.  You’re going to decide what you absolutely need to bring with you, and you’re going to base that decision on what can fit in your pockets.  You are not going to pack a bag.  You are not going to talk to anyone else, about anything for any reason, for the rest of the day.  And you are going to bring the money to the garage on the corner of Baker and Sixteenth, tonight, at midnight.  If you can do all that, maybe your luck will turn around.”

Dietz bit his lip and took a shaky breath.  When he spoke it sounded as though tears stood in his eyes.  “Thank you …”

Beau waved him away.


— ♦♦♦ —


Carl Dietz walked down Baker with a quick step.  He checked his wristwatch; saw both golden hands closing on the XII atop the dial.  He looked up and down Fifteenth before hurrying across and made his way to the far end of the block.  As far as he could see, the entire area was deserted.

A large steel door set into the brick face of the building on the corner rattled and rolled up its tracks.  From the darkness within emerged a modified Lincoln Zephyr V12 coupe, long and sleek and black as sin.  No silver chrome, no clear glass, only shadows upon shadows. The car moved so silently that it was like watching a fish skimming along the bottom of a pool, and Dietz was convinced that the engine was not running and the car was rolling out thanks to a nudge and the pull of gravity.  The coupe stopped as its rear bumper cleared the entrance.  Beau Shearing stepped out of the driver’s side, wearing a heavy leather jacket, walked back and closed the garage door.  He returned to where Dietz was standing and asked, “You bring the money?”

Dietz nodded, then belatedly fumbled an envelope out of his inner coat pocket.  He handed it to Beau, who flicked the bills within like a deck of cards.

“Get in,” Beau jerked his head toward the car.  Dietz crossed in front of the coupe’s black grille and let himself into the passenger’s side while Beau resumed his position behind the steering wheel.  As Dietz settled himself on the front seat, he felt a gentle yet insistent vibration through his legs and realized the engine was running after all, purring like a tiger under a thick blanket.  Beau pulled onto Baker, and even as he accelerated the sound of the engine never rose above a deeply muted hum.

“This car is …” Dietz found himself at a loss for words.

“She’s special,” Beau nodded.  “Rebuilt engine, very customized.  Body work, too.  Masks the noises under the hood and keeps the driver and passengers safe.  Safer, anyhow.”

“So this is how you get people out of town without being seen,” Dietz said.  “Smoked windows, silent motor, just slip away in the dead of night, eh?”

“That’s part of the trick,” Beau agreed.

“What’s the other part?” Dietz asked.

“You’ll have to wait and see.”


— ♦♦♦ —


“You still on the lam, Shearing?” Dietz asked.

Beau said nothing, one hand dangling casually over the top of the steering wheel.  The Zephyr was outside the city limits, cruising down the highway that snaked through the arid expanse of the Mojave.  Far from the smokestacks crowned with flames, the city arteries clogged with vehicles, and the oil pipelines crawling toward the city like colossal steel millipedes, the night air of the desert was dark and still and lifeless, the moon hanging in the sky like a forgotten lamp left behind in a neglected tomb.

Dietz gave his nervous laugh yet again.  “I figure you started out that way.  That’s why you know so much about how people can disappear.  That’s why you make yourself available to help people do it.  You remember how they feel, and what they need.  Maybe because even now, you’re still running, and you know the feeling well.”

“Don’t much care about how you feel or what you need,” Beau said.  “But your money’s good, and I won’t take it for nothing.”

“But I’m not the only person you’ve helped, am I?” Dietz asked.  Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “Of course not.  You’ve helped plenty of people before.  You’ve made this run so many times you could probably do it in your sleep.”

Beau stared through the windshield at the dancing motes of dust suspended in the headlights’ twin lances.

“I just want to know what it’s going to be like,” Dietz said quietly.  “You know so much about going on the lam, and staying that way, you tell me what I’m in for.”

“You’re better off not thinking about it,” Beau said.

Dietz laughed joylessly.  “How can I not think about it?  We’re driving through the middle of nowhere in the dead of night, I have no idea where we’re going, you’re not much for conversation, what else am I supposed to be thinking about?”

“I meant about staying on the lam,” Beau said.  “You want to walk through the door I open for you, into a new life, you’re better off thinking of that as your real life, your only life.  If you think you’re on the run, you’ll show it, and people will notice.  So you have to think you’re done with running, you are where you want to be.  You have to make that true.”

“How?” Dietz asked.

“Never quite figured that out myself,” Beau said.  Dietz slumped a bit against his seat, deflated.  Beau went on, “For now, you want to know where we’re going?  A cattle ranch, about half an hour more from here.  Owned by a man name of Osterlee.  I’ll give him some money, and you and I will part ways.  Osterlee will take you a bit further down the road, hand you and a little money off to a trucker, maybe, or a farmer.  Eventually, you’ll be with someone who doesn’t know where you came from, and I won’t know where you’ve ended up.  Most likely you won’t know either, but like I said, you better be ready to tell yourself that wherever you ended up is home.”

“So that’s the trick,” Dietz mused.

“That’s it,” Beau nodded.  “Not much to it.”

“No, not much,” Dietz agreed.  “But I did promise Gallardo I would try to find out what I could before I killed you.”

The words barely had time to register in Beau’s mind alongside the subtle change in his passenger’s physical bearing before Dietz reached over, grabbed the steering wheel, and yanked it sharply to the right.  Beau’s foot jumped from the gas to the brake as he tried to wrestle control back from Dietz, but the coupe had barely slowed when its front tires crossed from the asphalt to the rock-strewn sand.  The combination of weight and speed gave the coupe more than enough momentum to crash through dry shrubs and a stand of cacti before the front bumper crumpled against a large boulder.  The engine stalled out after a few seizing sputters.

Beau threw himself out the driver door, hearing the mechanical snarl of small two-stroke starting up.  Beau crawled away as quickly as he could, ignoring the scourging of his knees and the palms of his hands.  The coupe had drifted down an embankment before crashing, leaving Beau to scramble uphill to return to the road.  His outstretched hand was within a few inches of the jagged edge of the asphalt when burning pain exploded across his right shoulder, stopping him in place.

Reflexively Beau tried to roll onto his back to smother the fire, but the searing heat continued to blaze against his flesh.  Beau returned to his side and began to wriggle out of his jacket, even as the effort brought forth fresh waves of agony, fireworks splattering color across his field of vision as if someone were flicking acid in his eyes.  Finally, he got clear of the jacket and pushed himself to his knees, spying Dietz as he approached.

Dietz moved completely differently now that the charade was over.  Gone was the timid hunch of his shoulders, the hurried mincing of his steps.  Dietz appeared utterly untroubled, head held high and left arm swinging loosely as he strode toward the embankment.  In his right hand, Dietz gripped something like a pistol, a device like the body of a small chainsaw with a nozzle in place of the blade and a small tank bolted to the top, smoke wafting from the underside.  A vicious smile parted Dietz’s lips; reminding Beau of the delight certain young boys took in ripping the wings off flies.

Beau hauled himself to his feet, an effort that left him lightheaded.  He turned unsteadily and wobbled along the slope of the embankment for a few steps.  Between the angle of the ground, the loose surface of pebbles and sand, and the throbbing pain in his scalded shoulder, a few steps were all he could manage before he pitched forward into the dust.  He felt as if he were pinned to the ground by the screaming bolts radiating outward from the burn.

Dietz’s heel came down on the small of his back.  “You’re a tough bastard, I’ll give you that,” Dietz said, making it sound more like a taunt than admiration.  “Not to mention lucky.  My brand new toy here?  Called a napalm gun.  If I’d hit you dead on, instead of just winging you, you’d have gone up like a torch.  I’m not altogether used to shooting it, much less at a moving target in the dark.  So hold still.”  Beau saw the shadow lowering from the corner of his eye, blotting out the moon, as Dietz bent and placed the nozzle against Beau’s temple.  Beau could smell the chemical tang of industrial salts and exhaust.

Despite the pain, Beau shifted from his belly to his hip and threw his elbow into Dietz’s knee.  Dietz barked in equal parts pain and surprise as his foot slid off Beau’s back.  Beau had hoped to cripple his opponent by breaking his knee, but his strength was too depleted, the blow to Dietz’s joint, barely a sting.  Nonetheless, Beau took advantage of the moment to scramble away from the assassin.  Half crawling, half sliding, Beau made his way to the bottom of the embankment and forced himself upright to face Dietz.

Dietz sauntered down the embankment, predatory eyes fixed on his prey.  He walked to within arm’s reach of Beau, who fought to remain standing in one spot.  Nonetheless, Beau lunged with both hands for the napalm gun.  Dietz jerked the weapon out of reach and shoved Beau with his free hand, sending him staggering backward.  “Stand still, I said,” Dietz sneered.  “Neither one of us wants to be out here all night.”  He fired the napalm gun at Beau again.

Beau rolled away, the glob of fiery gel rushing through the spot he had previously occupied and striking the ground some yards away, where it continued to burn furiously.  Dietz snarled with annoyance and stalked toward Beau, napalm gun held at the end of his rigid arm.  “This is what you get when –”

Beau charged, and before Dietz could finish the thought, his mouth snapped shut as Beau’s fist rammed his jaw.  Beau put all the force of his legs and arm into the blow, and lost his balance in the process, listing wildly in the follow-through.  Dietz sprawled to the desert floor, spitting curses and blood, the napalm gun skittering away across the hardpan.

Beau ran in the only direction he could hope to find help, toward the Zephyr.  The coupe, an onyx silhouette against the indigo sky, seemed impossibly far off, like a mountain a thousand miles away.  Beau doggedly set one foot in front of the other, even as the wound in his back wept and pulsed with pain.  He thought he heard the scrape and scrabble of Dietz rising again, but it was impossible to be sure over the clamor of his own footsteps and ragged breathing.

There was no mistaking the sound of Dietz’s primal scream as retrieved the droning napalm gun.  A split-second before Dietz could set fire to his head; Beau threw himself to the ground.  The nearness of the projectile heat scorched him even as he dove, the impact of hitting the ground adding a new note of pain to the symphony of agony being played across his body.  Beau clenched his teeth and crawled forward like a lizard, belly in the dirt, forcing himself under the Zephyr.

Beau lined up his body beneath the coupe’s frame, head toward the V12 engine and feet pointed at the rear bumper.  He tensed, waiting for Gallardo’s killer to shimmy under the car after him, hoping that in the cramped space he might be able to wrest the napalm gun away from Dietz.  He looked out at Dietz’s approaching shoes, which remained flat-footed on the desert floor.

Dietz laughed.  “Now you’re just making it too easy.”  His feet moved, walking around the rear of the car.  “Live by the black chariot, die by the black chariot, is that it?  Fine by me.  Barbecue or roadkill, I’ll finish the job.”  By then Dietz had reached the driver’s side door and climbed in.  He slammed it shut and hit the ignition.

Beau already knew the Zephyr wouldn’t start for Dietz.  The engine was a precision machine that had been damaged too badly when the coupe smashed into the boulder, cylinder block cracked and oil pump ruptured, spilling black fluid across the sand.  The front axle had bent in the impact, coming close to snapping in two close to the wheel on the passenger side, which tilted inward.  Beau stared at the pinched metal and squirmed against the hardpan, wriggling his arm until his hand could reach his waistband and unbutton his suspenders.  He moved quickly, ignoring the pain of his knife wounds, the scrape of the undercarriage, the taste of dead dry dirt in his nose and mouth.  Above him, he heard Dietz pound the steering wheel in frustration as the engine remained useless despite the continued attempts to restart it.  Beau undid the suspender buttons at the small of his back and tied the bracers together around the shaft of the bent axle.

The Zephyr’s door flung open and Dietz’s left heel struck the ground.  Beau scuttled toward the edge of the undercarriage and grasped Dietz’s ankle as his right foot was coming down.  With a hard yank, Beau toppled the killer, who cried out in furious indignation.  Beau maintained his grip and pulled Dietz under the car while backing himself out the far side.  Dietz howled, clawing wildly, trying to twist into a position to fire at Beau but prevented by the vise of the ground below and the undercarriage above.  Beau was most of the way out, with Dietz entirely beneath the coupe, when Beau released Dietz and heaved to his feet.  A moment later, Dietz’s head pushed out from beneath the black body of the Zephyr, neck craning to find Beau, rage contorting his features.  The nozzle of the napalm gun emerged beside him.

Beau held the end of his suspenders in his hand and pulled with all his might.  The coupe’s abused front axle snapped.  The front passenger tire slumped askew and the entire passenger side of the Zephyr fell half a foot.  Dietz gave a strangled cry of terror as the weight of the car bore down on the back of his neck.

Beau dropped his hands to his knees and bent over, catching his breath.  For a few moments, he stared at Dietz, who spat a steady stream of curses and threats as he struggled to escape the trap, to no avail.  Beau closed his eyes.

Dietz’s screams became wordless, anger displaced by sheer terror.  Beau opened his eyes to see a dark puddle spreading around Dietz’s skull, two separate sources of fluid pooling together.  From one side, the fuel of the napalm gun was leaking from cracks in the housing; from the other, blood oozed from Dietz’s face as the acids ate away at his flesh.  Dietz howled in excruciating torment until his voice was nothing but a scraping rattle, then finally fell silent.

Beau straightened up and wiped his hands on his trousers.  He went to the trunk of the Zephyr, to retrieve a canteen of water kept there for emergencies.  Slinging the strap over his shoulder, he trudged up the embankment and walked along the level asphalt.  It would take hours and hours to reach Osterlee’s ranch on foot, by which time the moon and sun would have changed places in the desert sky, but he hoped to make it before the day became unbearably hot.  He also hoped Osterlee would let him clean up, loan him some spare clothes, and find him a ride back to Los Angeles.  Recovering the Zephyr would come later; and repairing her, if such were possible, later still.  At least he had the bait money from Dietz, which meant the entire excursion would come out to a wash.

All the same, Beau smiled as he considered how interesting his life was about to become.  He was already so notorious, so much of a threat to the underworld’s way of doing business, that Gallardo had put a hit out on him.  Soon enough, word would get around Los Angeles that the attempted hit had failed; and that Beau was still on the streets, along with his black Zephyr.  Yes, he would definitely have to find a way to salvage or recreate the old midnight rider.  A car with mystique like that didn’t come along every day.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Thumbnail Illustration to accompany "Rabies Fist" Copyright (c) 2017 by Karolína Wellartová

Rabies Fist.  By Dustin He, Art by Carol Welart

Left broken, defeated, and presumed dead; his enemies left his body in the Xiang Men wilderness.  Found by a wizened hermit master, his road to recovery and vengeance begins.   But the time he has left to exact his revenge is short.  Although he survived, his enemy’s art was deadly- it had not only broken his body but has also robbed his culture from him.  He would slowly lose himself and eventually die.  Nonetheless, he becomes determined to learn the Guillotine Fist.  Li Sao knows that to perform it will cost him his life, but it will be worth it, and he understands that in a sense he is dead already.

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