The barrel of a Colt .45 tastes like a handful of nickels. As a kid, I would shove change in my mouth and suck on it like caramels. I loved the taste of money. Today, I woke in my hotel room to the barrel of a Colt .45 checking my tonsils. I dreamed I was choking on my mom’s change again.
I opened my eyes. On the other end of my steel lollipop was the blank stare of Dominique. I hadn’t seen her since the casino job, and the two days hadn’t treated her well. Her cheeks were hollowed out, her body shaking like a small dog left in the rain. Didn’t look like she’d so much as closed her eyes, let alone slept.
“3,604; 584; 20; 2,” she muttered out a string of numbers like a calculator suddenly granted the gift of speech. “3,604; 584; 20; 2.”
“Do you mind?” I said around the barrel. It came out as Oo oo ine?
“The fuck is my cut, Dennis?” She retracted the barrel, taking care to chip my tooth on the way out. “You have three seconds before I put you back to sleep.”
“Good to see you’re well,” I thumbed my damaged front tooth. “But you might want to re-check your figures.”
“I’m saying the death threats are undermining your leverage. If I say nothing, you’ll get nothing. And if I tell you? Well you’ll have to kill me. And that’s not an outcome that appeals to me.” I sat up, reached for a cigarette off the nightstand, slipped it between cracked lips. “But I have to say, I’m impressed you found me.”
Her barrel jabbed my temple. I glared at it and flicked my Zippo.
She stopped shaking. “That was our job, Dennis, our job.” Her voice hit the pitch of teapots left too long on a stove. “You had no right to leave me there. We were partners.” Tears bit at the crinkles of her eyes. “More than that, right?”
“More?” I inhaled. I glanced at my jacket, an arms-length away on the chair next to the bed. I keep a .38 Special in my inside jacket pocket. I didn’t want to kill her.
“3,604; 584; 20; 2,” she muttered again. Dominique was a collection of patterns and numbers. I imagined her brain as a series of circuit boards. For fun she’d sing Pi to ever increasing decimal places. Terrible with a pistol, but if it involved numbers and angles, she was brilliant. Useful in a number-heavy casino job.
“What’s that about?” I exhaled out the side of my mouth. “The numbers, I mean. It doesn’t sound like the formula.”
“How about you get my money and we’ll talk after. I already checked your room.” She gestured to the disarray of drawers and luggage. My bottle of cough syrup, half-drained on my side table, had done its job a little too well. “Where’d you stash it?” Tears had crystallized on the bed of her iris. If I were closer I’d be able to see my reflection, resting uneasy on an eyelash, waiting for her to blink.
“It’s in the room safe,” I drowned my cigarette in a glass of dead soda water. “Hidden. If you back up for a second, I’ll grab it.”
She laughed. “Or tell me the combination, and I’ll open it.”
I slid my bare legs to the floor. Dominique hesitated, but allowed me that small concession of freedom. She was giving in too easily. The .38 loomed large in my mind’s eye. I really didn’t want to kill her.
“Not everyone memorizes numbers for fun, Dom. I have it written down somewhere. In my pants or jacket pocket, I think.”
“Fine. I’ll grab it for you.”
“And expose your back while you dig through my pockets?” I raised a disapproving brow, indicating that I was on her side in all of this. Looking out for her safety.
“OK, you look, then.” Her voice dropped to the basement of her chest and what came out was fractured and damp. “But first, you answer my question.”
She cleared her throat. “How could you just leave me there? Don’t you… Didn’t you love me? You said-” She took a breath, braced herself behind the pistol. “So that’s it. That’s my question. Now, answer.”
“Don’t take this personal, but no.”
She lifted my jacket and pants hostage above her head.
“I said don’t take it personal. I don’t love anybody. I can’t.”
“What are you talking about?” Her words stained the air. “Love is a chemical reaction, a cocktail of oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin. It’s basic chemistry, ‘can’t’ isn’t part of it.”
I shifted. This was not a truth I normally saw any percentage in revealing. “You know how romantic movies and Euler’s Equation make you cry? That basic chemistry, you mentioned?”
Her pupils were event horizons, my words went in nothing came out.
“Well. Whatever that chemical reaction is? I was born without. I play the odds. I smile. I make money and I recognize talent. Not personal, like I said.”
“But, I thought you were, relaxed and–”
“Relaxed? You think people are this relaxed?” I laughed without a smile, something I try to avoid. “This isn’t the movies, Dom. Normal people don’t smoke cigarettes before their skulls are renovated.”
“Who said I’m going to ‘renovate’ anything?”
“I did the math.”
“So is that why you abandoned me? The math?” Her eyes glazed with anger and tears flecked her cheeks. “I dropped out for you, you know. I had a fucking scholarship and I dropped out because of what you promised me.”
“I can see why that would upset you in hindsight. But it wasn’t personal, it was numbers. I needed someone who knew them as well as I did. That person was you.”
“And the sex was about what, good business?”
She tossed my pants and jacket into my chest.
“Great business.” I offered a half smile.
“I can’t believe I trusted you.”
I shrugged. The coat covered my lap. My fingers dug around the coat until I found the smooth grip of my pistol. The holster was unlatched. I aimed at her heart from beneath the cotton stitching. I really didn’t want to kill her.
“Before I give you the code,” I said, my finger tensed on the trigger. “Tell me about your numbers. Doesn’t seem like the formula we used. Call it curiosity.”
She smiled. She relaxed her shoulders and the barrel fell from my forehead. “3,604 – the money you owe me. 540 – the last digits of your license plate, how I tracked you to this shithole.” She inhaled a shudder of air. “20 – the number of minutes it took for me to realize you left me.”
I nodded. “And, two?”
“And two.” Her smile was gone and she was granite, carved to hold a pistol. “The number of chances I told myself I’d give you.”
I pulled my trigger. A hollow snap, muffled beneath fabric.
She laughed so sudden she coughed. “I found the code under the heel of your shoe last night. The money is in my truck.” She shook her head. “Looks like I did my math right.”
I sighed and pounded out another cigarette. “Me and you?” I said, slipping one between my teeth. “We have chemistry.” I winked. It was a joke. It was all just a joke, anyway.
My mouth filled with the metallic tang of pennies. When I was a kid, I loved the taste of money.
*Stillman is a senior at the University of Washington Tacoma, where he studies writing and global engagement. He is also the former fiction editor of UWT’s Tahoma West literary arts magazine. He has two cats, one wife, and a vintage Royal typewriter that he thought he was going to use for writing one day. They all live together in small brick building on Hilltop where they can be found making Mexican food and drinking beer (the people can, not the cats and typewriter).*