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A Preference For Shadows
About the Author: Ed Teja is a former Caribbean boat bum, martial artist, freelance writer, and magazine editor. His cross-genre stories have appeared Thrill Ride: The Magazine, Wyldeblood 13, Anotherealm, Mystery Tribune, and the Crimeucopia anthology, CRANK IT UP!

A harsh setting sun cast lengthening shadows through the parking lot, distorting the shapes of things, destroying clarity. Her eyes would adjust, her brain would compensate soon enough, but she was in no rush.

Getting out of Zelda, her old Toyota, Tina reached under her jacket, to the small of her back and felt the reassuring touch of her revolver snug in its holster. Comforted, she locked the door and relished the moment, the sense of stepping into a surreal world. The world of a Las Cruces strip mall.

Not stepping into it, exactly.

You couldn’t step into such an amorphous place. No, she flowed into it, blending with the soft contours of a universe with few hard edges. Her shadows bounced and stretched and twisted over concrete sidewalks and fake adobe walls like a dancer joining in some deranged ballet.

A rather cool southwestern theme park.

Especially cool for Las Cruces, New Mexico, which always struck her as a rather large, sprawling suburb of a city—a place of monochromatic malls and motels and housing, with a historical center where tourists went to find any character of the old West.

Business brought her here … to Las Cruces … to a dreaded mall.

At least the meeting would be in a bar.

And the bar was a surprise.

Stepping in from the glare, momentarily blind in the gloom of a dimly lit room, its predominate lighting a neon sign behind the bar proper, a sign spelled out the name: “Kelly’s.”

With a name like that, you expect some mock Irish pub. This wasn’t even close.

It was better.

Practically perfect.

Cable news flickered mutely on a television set on one side of the room. Silent basketball players earned fortunes on the screen on the other side of the room, but the gentle buzz of scattered conversations and soft jazz filled the air, caressed her ears.

Glancing around the room, automatically assessing threats and joys alike, Chet Baker’s trumpet dug into her soul, churning into it, one languid, powerful blue note at a time.

Note to self: Never use a mellow jazz playlist for mood music when you expect a confrontation. It takes away the edge.

The client had picked the bar. Maybe he didn’t want a confrontation. You never knew.

He’d also picked the booth. A very thorough man, her unknown client.

She spotted the corner booth and headed over, staying aware of movements around her.

Common sense said that if this was a trap of any kind, the perp wouldn’t be sitting there, waiting with his hands calmly folded in front of a tall glass of some drink the way this man was.

Not that there was reason to expect a trap. Just caution. Lots of caution. From experience.

“Billy, isn’t it?” she said, slipping into the booth across from a man who might look pleasant if his expression weren’t so sour. So serious.

Taking life too seriously didn’t work out well, in her experience.

“Tina,” he said.

So much for passwords and recognition codes and all that spy shit.

“So, here I am with bells on, ready to hear about your difficulty.”

“My difficulty?” he asked.

“You called me to arrange this meeting. Normally folks only do that when they have a problem they can’t swallow or deal with, and that won’t go away on its own.”

“I see,” he said. “No, I have a proposition for you.”

“I’m not that kind of professional,” she said, just in case their wires had gotten crossed somewhere.

“You are a killer,” he said, his voice flat.

“I am?”

He reached for something on the seat next to him and she sighed, popping the small .22 caliber automatic out of her wrist holster and leveling at him under the table.

“I have your file,” he said, plopping a thick manila file folder on the table.

A waitress looked at her inquiringly, and she nodded.

“If I have to deal with this much paperwork, I’ll need a drink,” she said. “Double Irish,” she told the woman.

The waitress looked at Billy. Another silent question that he heard clearly.

He scowled and waved his hand over his glass.

This story appears in our JUL 2024 Issue
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