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About the Author: Short fiction by V.S. Kemanis has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, online at Mystery Tribune and Kings River Life, and in anthologies The Crooked Road Volume 3, The Best Laid Plans, Me Too Short Stories, and Autumn Noir. She has published six standalone legal mysteries in the Dana Hargrove series. Her five collections of short fiction are all award-winning or nominated.

Home about eight, tired and hungry for breakfast. Had a good night for once. First thing I see, my suitcase on the porch. I step around it and push my key into the lock. Doesn’t work. Go ’round back, can’t get in.

I’m not the kind to yell or bang on the door. Won’t curse or make a scene for the neighbors’ entertainment. Around front again, I give the suitcase a shrug and walk away without it. Whatever she stuffed inside won’t do me any good, wherever I’m going. Haven’t got a plan, but sure as hell won’t be anything like L.A. I’m done with this town.

The car is hers, I’m on foot. My first step leads to the next along this low rent block of single-family stuccos, a bygone fifties nuclear family dream. Dusty patches of lawn, diamond wire fences, weeds cracking the sidewalk. Before calling an Uber, my finger hovers over her number. Nope. Won’t do that either. Call and text and call and text. I’m well rid of her, making what I’ve got only better: a fat roll in my zippered security pocket. For once, had a very good night, but she’ll never know. I would’ve given her a chunk of this. And more. The best of me. But she’ll be missing out, and that’s good enough for me.

To hell with Dena. I’ve had it with her. Had it with L.A. I order a car for the airport.

At LAX, I consider the departures board. Hometown Chicago holds nothing for me. California dreaming has come and gone. Time to peel down to something real, lose the tan, the combed-in bleach, the Whitestrips, the phony friendliness. New York is the place. No shrink-wrapped smiles, everyone against you until proven otherwise by deed and promises kept. Threading anonymously through the press of humanity, I’ll do just fine. Money will come to me.

You? In the Big Apple? I hear Dena laugh. They’ll eat you alive. I’m no stranger to New York City. I’ve been there before. Once. A five-day spree, ten years ago. Scored big as I recall but drank it all away. I’m not that stupid anymore.

At LAX, the stars don’t align for me, as the Valley girls would say. Can’t get a nonstop earlier than four o’clock, arriving JFK after midnight, NY time.

I get some breakfast and still have five hours to kill. I’m in the best place to make use of spare time. Nervous travelers, loaded with bags, distracted. They rush to catch planes and fumble for their cash or credit card at Starbucks and Cinnabon. I spot a promising mark, a lady overdressed for flying, aloof and entitled. I bump and insert fingers into an outside pocket of her shoulder bag. Botch it. Her plastic card falls to the floor, and suddenly, she’s all eyes.

“Excuse me, ma’am, I think you dropped this.” My winning Hollywood smile distracts her as I hand over the card. She’s very thankful.

Further down the concourse, I glance at what I managed to keep, the part she didn’t notice. Two twenties. Something, anyway. I feel the sting of Dena’s middle finger and thumb flick against my chest. That’s your trouble, Benny. Your game is off.

But a sleepless night will throw anyone’s game off. I go to the gate, slump down into a seat, and doze until my flight is called.

I’m in row 22, aisle seat. Well after sunset, beverage and food service out of the way, the crew turns off the cabin lights. A dim gray results from a mix of seatback movie screens, a few overhead reading lamps, and a trail of white dots on the floor lighting the aisle. Lulled by the hum of the engine, my eyelids grow heavy.

About ten rows ahead, Dena gets up from her seat and comes for me. Her thick hair is loose and long, her hips sway. Closer now, I see a little satisfied smile on her lips. Tricked me, abandoned me, took up with a locksmith. A sweet scam, that. Imagine what she can get into with a locksmith.

The plane hiccups on a bit of turbulence and she bumps into my shoulder. Takes a step in reverse and lowers her eyes to mine. I blink away the dream. Not-Dena says, “Sorry,” like she doesn’t mean it.

“No problem.”

I turn to watch her backside as she walks toward the rear of the plane. A few rows before the lavatories, she stoops to pick up a black object on the floor next to a sleeping gentleman. Pockets it, keeps walking.

Was that show just for me? She begs to be checked out. I need to stretch my legs anyway.

This story appears in our FEB 2024 Issue
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