Third Prize

Third Prize Story Winner
2022 Short Story Competition 

DECISIONS OF FATE
By Jamie Russell

Fat guy was drenched in sweat. Shoulder-length, lank grey curls soaked back to the roots, bald on top. Greaseball style. Droplets escaped down pock-marked cheeks to a chunky gold chain, partly consumed by the folds of his neck. Cheap brown shirt, patchwork damp, strained hard against his girth and the lighter fluid soaked cloth stuffed in his mouth wasn’t helping with the perspiration.

His eyes, an intense mix of fear and anger, swagger long gone yet the fire still burned hot. Tear the place apart if he could move but the wrist binds were strong, unlike the thread his life hung by in that chair.

Other guy was fireworks. Skinny, sharp lines, adrenalin overload, chaotic. Hang-dog jeans, scruffy shoes, broken lace. Weak. Reeking of desperation. All new to him. An amateur and, like all amateurs, his response to fear had been panic. 

Me? I’m in this clammy, stinking storeroom as well. Stale & windowless. Stench of damp and neglect a miserable irony against the shelves of cleaning products. Kneeling in the corner, head bowed, exactly as directed. Collateral. Bargaining chip. Only thing stopping twenty armed officers from bringing this to a swift conclusion.

Calm though. I’m good in a crisis. Detached. Too detached? “Disconnected” was the shrinks term. 

None of this involves me. Wrong time, wrong place… doesn’t matter, here now.  It’s tense but I’m just a bit-part player. An extra. Set-dressing.  The others are the box office and I’m treated appropriately. Safely ignored.

A lot less noise now. Shouting’s stopped. The threats reduced as the dial moved from robbery to hostage situation. Fat guy held out long enough for the sirens to arrive, another outburst at that but a different atmosphere now. Force and anger replaced by strain and fear. Blue lights no longer flashed but their presence was choking Fireworks in that stuffy little room.

Agitation had poured out in threats and violence at the beginning, default of the stupid. Fat guy on the receiving end, but I took an early shot or two as well. Stopped short of unhinged and I was glad about that – not so it saved the fat guy, just happy the pistol wasn’t getting swung around anymore.

Fireworks was a pacer. Needed to move to think, but thinking wasn’t helping. Drawstring bag of diamonds on the scruffy bench by the fat guy’s knee no longer the problem. No way out and no plan B.  No plan A.

Me? I’m phone guy. Negotiators’ voice on the inside. Take their message, pass it on, mute, discuss, distill, unmute, reply. Easy. Clockwork. Perfect for the role of amenable nobody. Be compliant. Play the part. No hurry. Trust is a commodity.

Plus… diamonds.

Stay small.

Fireworks tries to claw solutions from his temple but nothing comes.  Surrender not an option but no alternatives. Tension catches his breath. Gun protects the status quo but that’s short-term. It’s all short-term.

The pacing eventually slows. Doubt seeps through cracks in the adrenaline and the thick air begins to loosen its grip. Less twitching. A good sign. A safe sign for those in range. Still no outcome but at least the fever fades.

Patience outside. No unnecessary actions. Reduce collateral damage. They have time and time is control.

Slower again. Silent moments now, punctured by blocked thinking & expletives. It’s cutting room floor stuff for a while. Filler material, no plot development. No story, just time.

Minute by minute by minute the room leaks pressure, leaving a void where the intensity had been.  Breathing slows, fear recedes. Even the fat guy takes a break from straining against his bindings. We’re in neutral. Life on hold. Someone hit the pause button.

Eventually, Fireworks leans against the wall and wilts to a crouch. Knees bent up. Fetal. Secure. Elbows comforting knees, hands clasped, head bowed, staring at the floor, searching for answers. Gun hangs from an index finger through the trigger guard, barrel pointed upwards, it rocks slightly, back and forward in time with his thoughts.

I shift, he startles. “Cramp”. He nods and I unfurl to a stand and make a show of shaking out tired limbs. Return to squat, this time balanced on toes. Neck cricks; shoulders rotate, I reach slowly forward to stretch out my back. A routine. A flow. Slow and even. Monotone. His gaze returns to the floor.

Stillness.

A single beat of nothing. No movement, no sound, no breath. Nothing. A reset, everything at zero.

A single beat. 

.

The spark of muscle tension electrifies the room. Flight responses trigger. Fat guy and Fireworks hit with adrenaline but an instant can be too long for reactions. I lunge forward, I’m on him, my hand firm on the grip, rotate, level the barrel, push forward, angle up, under the chin, squeeze to release.  The suicide shot.

Insane noise, jolting head, brain art walls.

Stunned silence. Processing. A golden moment shattered by another rush of energy. Instant alert. Shouts, boots, movement. The outside is alive.

Control shifts.

I look straight at the fat guy, that low-life mess of odour and arrogance. His eyes, at first full of shock, give way to relief and maybe a little gratitude – much too quickly for my liking. That glimmer of safety, victory even… I hate the conceit. Not so fast fatty, not so fast.

The phone rings. Rings out. Once more.  Prepare. Breathe fast, panic voice. Pretence. I answer “… he, he.. he shot the fat guy, he shot the fat guy”. Shaky. Textbook. “..yeah, yeah, dead, def…definitely dead…”. Phone on mute…count to ten. Feigned discussion. Return to call. “He’s thinking.…he needs time to think. He wants you to call back in 5 minutes”.  End.

I was looking in fat guys’ puffy, relieved eyes the whole time I spoke, impressed with how quickly the message got through. Eye register ticked over from confusion to shock to anger to fear in a fraction and I enjoyed watching the fight building once more against the ties on his wrists.

5 minutes.

Drawstring bag of diamonds.

I grab a bottle of water. Fatty watches the first few go down in slack-jawed shock, the story unfolding in front of him. The rag an effective silencer but words are written clearly in his expression. 

One by one, down they go.  Easy enough. 3 minutes, job done. Retrieval would be a messy business but I’ve done worse for less. A lot less.

I pick the gun up off the floor and take a step towards the slug in the chair. Hatred stares back at me. Fear, anger, and resignation in there too, and yet, I still see a glimmer of hope, the fateful human condition of hope.  When logic meets dead ends, the brain resorts to hope. We are alive until we are not, maybe there is hope? There isn’t.

I take his chins in my hand, lift slightly and look straight into those terrified, disbelieving eyes. Lean in close. The intensity of this single moment engulfs me.  It’s slow motion. His breath, the life within him, warm against my neck. Fast, but shallow. Hyperventilating. All-encompassing. Fate shakes deep within him and I feel high. The whole world is happening in this room. Total focus. Life and death. It’s immediate. Everything in this moment. We’re plugged in as one, a single point in the matrix. A whole, no parts. 

Fate is decided at the sharp end of life and I breathe it in deeply. It fills me. Vitality coursing through me at that moment. Unique. Porcelain precious. All of life, all at once, all in this single point in time. A new road. A new life purchased, an old life pays.

Slow, heavy breaths. I ease back, our eyes lock and I line the barrel up to his forehead. I know the next shot triggers my rescue. I’ll use the gap to clean the gun then back to Fireworks hand for the prints.  It’s a detail. Doubt they’ll care, but it’s a detail.

Last look. “Carpe Diem big guy”. I shrug at those words, explanation, not comfort.