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Fair Is Fair
About the Author: Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels BURN ME OUT, THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD, and NERVOSA, as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which are collected in the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. He lives by a big lake in Vermont, with a patient wife and three demanding cats.

I flopped onto my side, rolled back the other way, then kicked off the sheets, swung my legs to the edge of the bed, and sat up. I looked at the clock on the nightstand: two-fourteen in the morning. I was exhausted, but it was no good; I’d never get to sleep at this point. I wished I had a cigarette or a bottle, something to calm the yips, but I quit smoking in my twenties and I killed the last bottle hours ago. It hadn’t helped and neither would lying here tossing and turning.

I switched on the lamp and dressed in the clothes I threw on the floor before I got into bed. I pulled my leather jacket from the closet, then moved to the dresser and plucked the motorcycle keys from the hook they spent ninety-percent of their time on. I was normally a summer weekend rider, but the weather was nice enough for early spring and I thought maybe some wind and some speed would clear my head. Anything that might let me forget the four-thousand-dollar mess I was in was worth a shot.

Ordinarily, four grand up or down wouldn’t be enough to panic me. More than once, I’d lost two or three times that on bad sports bets. I always won it back before long. The problem was that the money wasn’t mine to lose, and Colby Trading Partners, where I was an analyst, was about to undergo an outside audit. In the past, when I “borrowed” from my employers, it was simple enough to juggle things around until I was able to pay the money back. It was never more than a week or so, and the company was small enough that we all wore a lot of hats. My fiddling around with numbers that didn’t directly involve my primary work wasn’t anything unusual.

But this time, I didn’t have a week. I didn’t even have a day, and I didn’t need to look at my watch to count down the hours. The auditors were scheduled to arrive at eleven that very morning. If one of the junior partners hadn’t accidentally let it slip the day before, I would have been blissfully unaware right up until the moment the handcuffs were slapped around my wrists.

But forewarned isn’t always forearmed. Not when you’re out of time, out of cash, and out of options.

Now, I rode along the lake road, trying to enjoy the breeze, but failing miserably. The Scout Bobber underneath me was a hell of a machine, but I was too much inside my own head to appreciate its power and speed. I was so preoccupied, in fact, that I almost didn’t notice the flash of light winking through the trees ahead of me. When it came again, I eased off the throttle and gentled the brake, slowing until I reached the turn onto a secondary road that would take me closer to where I thought I saw the light. Sixty feet down that road, I cut the engine, rolled to a stop, and stared into the dark cluster of trees and brush that separated this road from the main one.

When nothing happened after a few seconds, I was ready to chalk it up to my imagination. Then the light came again and this time, I knew for certain that it was real. This wasn’t the distraction I was looking for, but I was glad for it all the same.

I pulled the bike to the side of the road, shucked my helmet, and dug a flashlight out of the saddlebag. I didn’t turn it on, though, not wanting to alert whoever was out there. Visibility wasn’t good; the moon was only a sliver and the second I stepped off the road, it was like being swallowed up by the earth itself. All I could do was keep heading in the direction of the light and hope I saw it again.

Before long, my feet found what felt like ruts in the dirt. I cupped my hand over the end of the flashlight and risked turning it on, just for a second. In the brief glow, I saw the remains of a path, something vehicles once passed over frequently before the woods began to reclaim it. Before my eyes readjusted to the darkness, I saw the light again, much closer. I realized, too, that I could hear something now: the grunt of a man’s exertion, coupled with a faintly metallic rasp.

I pushed forward as quietly as possible. Abruptly, the brush opened into a clearing. On the far side there was another, wider path that must have been part of the one I found. Sitting at the end of that path was an SUV, its white paint reflecting what moonlight there was, making it seem to glow. Perched on its bumper was a flashlight; its beam outlined the figure of a man, digging in the tough, still half-frozen soil. Next to him, lying on the ground, was what looked like a rolled-up carpet. The man’s body breaking the beam of the light as he worked caused the flashes I saw.

This story appears in our DEC 2021 Issue
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