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May 13, 2024

Mausoleum in the Mojave

By Lamont A. Turner

Tony Roselli yanked the tie from around his neck and let it flutter to the ground behind him. He staggered forward a few steps and tried to rub the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve, but the fabric wouldn't soak up another drop. He went back to the tie, used it to mop his face, and then wadded it up into a ball and stuffed it in his pocket.

"You always were a snappy dresser, Tony," said a voice that came from nowhere and everywhere. "I guess that silk shirt ain't doing you much good now though."

"Shut up!" Tony croaked, spinning around and punching at the air. "Leave me alone!"

"You know I can't do that Tony," responded the voice. "We got unfinished business."

Tony turned and started back the way he had come, but stopped suddenly as the shadow of a noose appeared on the on the ground before him. Looking up, he saw a gallows off in the distance, shimmering in the waves of heat.

"Not that way, pal!" The voice warned. "Remember the cops are after you? Come this way, Tony! This way!"

A man, silhouetted against the setting sun, waved him on. Tony couldn't see his face, but knew who he was, and he knew he was right. The police were waiting for him back in Vegas. He had to keep going. He walked, following the man until the sun was gone and he couldn't walk anymore. Sitting with his back against a Joshua tree, he glanced up at the starry sky and shuddered.

On most nights you couldn't see the stars in the city, and when they did show, they never looked like this. Tony hated the desert sky with its multitude of stars, each one suggesting countless worlds and infinite possibilities. It made him feel small like when he was a low level thug, knocking over booze trucks and shaking down newsboys for men who tossed him pennies and never knew his name. Not anymore. Now he was a big shot. Now he was the one whose table the hungry young men gathered around, grateful for whatever crumbs he let fall off his plate. Now everybody knew Tony Roselli.

He drifted back to New York. In his dreams he and Ben were kids again, waiting around the corner for a man with a sack of bills. He knew the grocer would be heading to the bank with the week's deposit. His sappy kid brother, who swept floors and stocked shelves for the man, had let it slip that the register was emptied on Fridays. Now he huddled with Benny, his sweaty palms wrapped around a ball bat. Benny had a chain. As the man stepped past the edge of the building Tony thumped the bat on the ground at his feet, blocking his way. He reached for the sack the man carried in his left hand, but the man's right hand came up out of his pocket with a gun. Tony froze. He was still trying to make sense of it all when Ben jumped between him and the gun. He saw the chain snake out and heard a crack. Ben stumbled back, clutching his arm, but Tony was focused on the gun which had landed at his feet next to the chain. The man was shouting now. Clutching his hand where Ben's chain had creased the flesh, he too had his eyes on the pistol.

"Come on! Let's make tracks!" Ben shouted, kicking the gun down the gutter, out of everyone's reach. "We don't need any more trouble."

They found their way to an abandoned lot where they were finally able to catch their breath and check out the gash in Ben's arm. It was just a nick, but Ben's shirt was ruined.

"Scoot!" Ben ordered. "Go home and keep your mouth shut. No matter what, don't let on to anyone you were with me today."

"What are you going to do?" Tony asked, spellbound by the blood soaked sleeve of his friend's shirt.

"I'm not gonna be able to hide this from my old man," Ben stated glumly. "If they connect me to that guy there might be trouble. Just remember you weren't there. They'll lean on me to get a name, but I'll keep mum. Now get!"

Tony awoke with the sun in his face. He squinted at his watch, shielding it from the glare with his other hand, but it told him nothing. It had stopped. How much time had he lost? The sun was almost directly overhead, so it had to be approaching noon. He got to his feet and searched in vain for his tracks, trying to determine where he had come from and in which direction he needed to go. In the desert there were no signs, just miles and miles of brown dirt dotted with the occasional patch of green. Until the sun started to drop, pointing the way west, he had nothing to go on. He covered his mouth with a blistered arm as a cough burned up through his chest and throat. It wouldn't matter what direction he followed if he didn't get to some water.

He thought back to when he and Ben were scouting locations for the hotel. Hadn't that old kook they'd hired to survey said something about water underground? But where? He went back to the base of the tree and started clawing at the ground. The clay-like earth by the roots felt moist, but it was too hard for his fingers. He took the revolver from his pocket and used it to attack the dirt.

"Why do you still have that, Tony?" asked the voice. "The cops catch you with that you're fried."

"Shut up!" Tony snapped, not bothering to look up.

"You got bullets? What good is it going to do you?"

"I got one," Tony responded, still digging. "That's all I need."

"You're wasting valuable time," the voice told him. "Even if you find water, you'll have to wait at least an hour for enough of it to seep into that hole. Can you wait that long, Tony?" This time the voice came from a specific direction, just over Tony's shoulder.

Tony jumped up and pointed the gun at the source of the voice. Off in the horizon a man in a three piece suit was waving him on.

"This way," said the voice, coming from nowhere again. "You've got to keep moving!"

"Why should I trust you?" Tony sneered.

"Have I ever steered you wrong?" the voice responded.

"That was before," said Tony, lowering the gun. He could no longer bear to look at the figure in the distance.

"Before you killed me?" the voice asked. "You know I've never been one to hold a grudge. Besides, that was just business, right?"

A breeze blew in from nowhere, stirring up a cloud of dust that sparkled in the sunlight before drifting back down to mingle with the dirt. The sparkles reminded Tony of diamonds, and diamonds reminded him of Beth.

He had fallen for her the moment he saw her. With eyes as dark as opals and a voice that made music of every sentence, she was unlike any woman he had ever met. At first he tried to ignore his growing infatuation because she was married to Ben, but then something happened that had never happened before; a woman chose him over his friend. He thought back to the night when he had consoled her after she had called a number scrawled on a matchbook found in Ben's pocket and talked to a woman who knew about that scar on Ben's thigh. Tony had tried to cover for his friend, but Beth had become more insistent, moving closer to him as her accusations against her husband grew in furor. By the time she reached him and their lips locked she had worked herself up into a frenzy. Exhausted, he had crept out of the apartment Beth shared with Ben just as the coming dawn washed the last vestiges of night from the gutters, determined to spend every remaining night of his life in Beth's arms.

When he looked up again, the man was gone. He was alone in the desert. He shoved his revolver back into his pocket, spit into the hole he had made, and surveyed the barren expanse. There was an outcropping of rock a good way off to his left. He set out for it seeking a respite from the relentless onslaught from above. The sun was directly overhead now, but he hoped by the time he reached the rocks it would be lower, and there would be shadows to hide in.

The wedges of stone rose from the sand in two gray towers. Though the tallest extended up only about eight feet, for a second they seemed larger, shooting up into the sky to blot out the sun. In that second Tony saw the tenement he had lived in as a child, and even imagined he could smell the smoke from his old man's cigar and the stale urine in the gutters. Familiar faces stared accusingly at him through the dirty window panes. A young man looked up at him from the stoop of the building next to his and scowled. It was Jimmy Rossi. He held up something between his index finger and thumb and pointed to the hole in his forehead. The people in the building raised the windows and mimicked Jimmy, thrusting their hands out at Tony. He recognized them, all of them, and knew each hand held a bullet from one of his guns.

He shook the vision out of his head and continued on toward the rocks. They could keep the bullets. He was going to beat them all. They'd see. The cops, the desert and all the damned spooks haunting it, even Benny, would see. By this time tomorrow he would be in LA, eating a steak and sipping scotch while waiting for Beth to fly in and join him. She might be there already, waiting press her soft lips against his.

Tony collapsed to his hands and knees at the base of the stone towers.

"Get up! Got to keep going!" he told himself as he jammed his fingers between the grooves in the stones and pulled himself up. Panting, he leaned against the rocks stared down at his hands. The dirt on his palms was wet! He ran a finger along a seam between two stones just above his head, finding moisture. Where was it coming from? He had to get higher up to find out.

Squeezing himself between the stone pillars, he put his feet against one and his back against the other and inched his way up. The jagged rocks tore through his shirt and cut into his back, but he barely noticed. Something above was shimmering. It was a trickle of water. Reaching the top, he pulled himself up so he could grip the edge. There was water, more than he had hoped for, collected in the pitted stone! He dipped his hand in, scooping the green film off the surface. The water was warm and smelled bad, and stung as he splashed it on his blistered face, but he wouldn't have traded it for a bank vault full of gold.

"Don't drink that, Tony. You'll regret it." warned the voice, but Tony wasn't listening. He scooped it up in his palm and brought it to his lips. It burned as it went down, sat in his stomach for less than a second, and then came back up. He lost his grip and fell, hitting his head on the way down.

"I told you that was a bad idea," said the voice, mocking him.

Tony licked the blood off his parched lips, and ran his hand over his forehead. It came back red.

"I wouldn't worry about your head too much," the voice told him. "You have bigger problems. You're stuck, pal."

Tony tried to move his legs and realized the voice was right. They were wedged between the rocks.

"You always wanted to be a big shot. Now you'll get the chance. See that cloud of dust out there? That's the search party. You're going to make the front page. Tony Roselli, the sap who got fried for a dame!"

"No!" Tony shouted. "You can't win! I killed you!"

"You never were much of a planner. Getting spotted after you plugged me, and then stealing a car with no gas? That was sloppy, Tony. I would have plotted it out better."

"You always thought you were better than me! Well guess what? Beth chose me! Me! For once I took something from you!"

The voice laughed.

"She played you for a sucker. I never cheated on her. It was just a line she fed you. You were never anything more to her than a puppet. You murdered the only guy who stuck by you, and now you're going to pay for it."

Tony stared at the growing cloud of dust and sneered. He wasn't beat yet. He still had one bullet. He dug the revolver out of his pocket, tapped the dirt out of the barrel, and put it under his chin.

"Going to stay here with us?" the voice asked.

Tony looked up to see Ben walking out of the haze. He stopped at the edge of the outcropping, flicked a speck off of the wide lapel of his jacket, and then walked up to peer into the crevasse.

"You got a lot of friends here," Ben said, grinning. He stepped back and waved an arm at the shadows rising up from the dust. Jimmy Rossi stepped forward to stand beside Ben. Glen Doolan peered over Jimmy's shoulder, grinning at Tony while pointing to the slit in his throat. A young girl pushed her way forward and held out a large red ball.

"We're all here," Ben told him, putting his hand on the girl's shoulder. "All of your friends have been waiting for you."

"That's not fair," Tony whispered. "The kid was an accident."

"Sure," Ben said. "You were in a rush and you didn't see her going after the ball. I get it. Why were you in such a hurry?" He folded one arm across his chest and tapped on his cheek with the fingers of his other hand while pretending to mull it over. Suddenly his eyes widened. He snapped his fingers and turned to wave someone over. "I remember now! You had just botched a holdup!"

A man with a knife sticking out of his chest came up and Ben clapped him on the back.

"You made two new friends that night," said Ben, grinning.

"What the hell do you want from me?" Tony screamed. His throat burned as he coughed up the words.

"A witness," Ben said, the grin disappearing from his face. "See, I killed these people. I knew you were a mad dog, but you were my dog and I covered for you. When you fell I picked you up, and every stupid dangerous stunt you pulled got swept under the rug. If not for me you would have been pinched and locked away the first time you got out of line. You got no brains, no guts, no anything." He looked down at the girl with the ball. "I made all of this possible. I should have cut you loose a long time ago. I just want to say I'm sorry for it."

Tony saw a tear run down Ben's cheek as the girl smiled up at him and then vanished. The rest of hung their heads and wandered off, fading away as they retreated across the sand. Jimmy was the last to go. He gave Ben a pat on the shoulder and then was gone.

"What now?" Tony asked.

"That's it pal," Ben said. "That's how this spook stuff works. I had unfinished business. I just finished it."

Tony laughed. He laughed until he cried, the salty tears stinging the blisters on his cheeks.

"So it was all about you again!" he sputtered. "They couldn't even be bothered to settle a score with me. It was just about you, always you."

"Sorry," said Ben, turning to walk away.

Tony couldn't feel his legs. He tugged at them with his hands, but the stones wouldn't give them up.

"Wait! Benny, how do I get out of this? What do I do?" Tony shouted. "Tell me what to do!"

Ben turned and shook his head.

"You're on your own this time, Tony," he said sadly. "But at least you still have that bullet."

With that, Ben vanished, leaving Tony alone for the first time in his life.

Article © Lamont A. Turner. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-11-01
Image(s) are public domain.
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