Is there honor among thieves?
Or will vultures dine on this feast of friends?
Or will vultures dine on this feast of friends?
A Valley Called Death by Daniel Mkiwa
The sweat on the side of his face rubbed slick on the hot leather of the car's seat. But it was the pounding in his head like a hundred hangovers that Gordon "Sticks" DeLuca noticed first.
He grimaced and massaged his temples as he sat up.
Disoriented in the backseat of his car, he had no recollection of how he’d gotten there.
The brightness of the day forced his eyes half-closed. The heat was persistent and oppressive.
It had to be over a hundred degrees. He opened his eyes to see the sand and chaparral outside the open windows of his car. The desert. He was sitting in the backseat of his own car in the middle of the desert.
Thirsty and confused, he turned to look out the other side of the car. That's where he made out a figure seated not twenty-five feet away.
"Ray?" He squinted.
It was indeed Ray Machiodi. His trusted number two, and his closest friend for over forty years, sitting on a beach chair wearing a white guayabera shirt, sunglasses, and yellow straw Panama Hat.
Ray sat still and watched him as he opened the car door and slowly stepped out on to the sand.
"Good morning, Gordon." Ray said, plaintively. He had used his full first name, 'Gordon', rather than 'Gordy' or 'Boss' or even his nickname, 'Sticks'. That meant he was serious. Whatever this was, it was a serious situation.
"Professor." Gordon looked down at the rectangular, four-foot-deep hole that had been recently dug, just in front of Ray's feet.
A hole in the desert.
He saw Ray's hand wrapped around his .45 semi-automatic pistol. But he wasn’t pointing it, he was just holding it as it rested in his lap.
"Sorry I had to slip you a mickey there, boss." Ray said, "Your head must be hurting. There's some aspirin and a few bottles of water there in the cooler." He nodded toward the opposite side of the hole at a white Styrofoam cooler next to another beach chair.
"Have a seat, Boss, we need to talk." Ray said.
Gordon sniffed. “Looks like you're the boss now."
"It's not like that."
"Oh yeah?" Gordon said, getting angry. "What's it like then? Is it like my best friend drugged me and brought me out to a hole in the desert in my own car? Is that what it's like?"
"Just sit. Have a drink of water." He pointed the muzzle of the gun at the empty chair.
Gordon huffed and sat down in the chair. He tore the lid off the cooler, revealing several clear plastic bottles of water, a bottle of aspirin, and three Snickers bars floating in cold water.
He opened a wet bottle of water and drank deeply as rivulets rolled down the sides of his cheeks.
Gordon and Ray sat facing each other, a four-foot-deep valley between them.
"Sorry if the ice melted. You were out for two and a half hours longer than I expected," Ray said. "I was starting to worry."
Gordon glared at him and said nothing. He could feel his heart pounding as the adrenaline began to surge.
"You hungry? I got you a few candy bars." Ray said.
Snickers was Gordon's favorite. A last meal perhaps? The 'Professor' had thought of everything, as usual.
"Fuck you and your candy bars, Ray."
Ray looked away.
"I can't believe you agreed to this," Gordon said, disgusted. "Who gave the order, Ray? Who did you make a deal with? Just tell me who gave you the order."
Ray looked at him as he took off his sunglasses. His face was red and his eyes were sad. "Nobody gave me an order, Gordon. I brought you here on my own."
Gordon was stunned. It was inconceivable that his friend would do this to him. He sat silently as the realization of the situation set in.
Ray looked away and took a big sigh. "Can you believe they named this place 'Death Valley'?" He forced a chuckle. "I mean how melodramatic can you get?"
Gordon tried to calm himself as he began thinking through his options, courses of action.
"Only in Southern California would they be this ...this … theatrical," Ray said. "Ever think about that? In L.A. there's a mountain called 'Olympus', an island called 'Avalon' and a valley called 'Death'."
Gordon quickly realized that he had few, if any, options, and no immediate courses of action.
"I mean, what Hollywood priss is naming these things?" Ray said. "It's not like back home, where you have a park in the center of the city, so you call it 'Central Park'."
Gordon knew his friend was stalling. He could see that Ray did not really want to do this and he was dragging his feet. Ray would always put things off if he really did not want to do them. He was incredibly intelligent and thoughtful, which was how he got the nickname 'Professor'. He made a great number two. But he would hesitate, when he needed to act and that's why he would never make a good boss. If Ray had done this right, Gordon would already be in the ground instead of sitting here having this conversation.
That was the opening: his only hope would be to talk Ray out of it.
"Yeah," Gordon said, "or, you got a bridge that goes to Brooklyn? You name it the fucking 'Brooklyn Bridge'."
Ray laughed. "Exactly."
"Me and you," Gordon said, "We been in L.A. longer than we lived back in New York. But we never really fit in out here, did we?"
"Yeah," Ray said, "you and I have always been a couple of East Coast guys."
"But we always had each other," Gordon said.
The desert buzzed with the sound of thousands of insects.
"We always had each other," Gordon repeated. "Hey remember when we first came out here and we met those girls in Silverlake?"
Ray smiled and nodded. "Sandra and Julie. They wanted to be actresses."
"And we went to El Cholo for margaritas. Remember that?" Ray said, smiling.
"Yeah, El Cholo." Gordon sighed. "Boy, I could really go for one of those margaritas right now."
Ray looked away.
There was a long silent pause as the dry heat beat down upon them.
"Look, you don't have to do this, Ray," Gordon said. "We been friends a long time, you are like a brother to me. I love you like a brother, especially since Marty died, may he rest in peace."
Ray looked at him.
"We can work this out," Gordon said. Whatever your beef is, I know we can work it out."
"This is about Marty.”
"What do you mean?"
"Marty was set up," Ray said, "You know it. I know it."
"So he was your brother and he was set up," Ray said, "He was set up by one of us."
"What do you mean, Ray?"
"You know what I mean," Ray shouted. "Somebody in our crew had to set him up. It had to be one of us."
"So what are you saying, Ray?" Gordon yelled "You think it was me? You think I had my own brother wiped out? Why the fuck would I do that? He was my brother!"
"No." Ray closed his eyes and shook his head. "No I don't think it was you."
“Then what the fuck are we doing out here?"
"It's because you think it was me."
"You think I set Marty up to get hit."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"You suspect me," Ray said, "I know you do."
"Oh, that’s bullshit, Ray. I never suspected you."
"I know you suspect me because I know it had to be one of us, and you haven't talked to me about it. So I know you're thinking it must be me."
"I haven't talked to anyone about it, Ray! He was my brother! Did you ever think that I would need time to grieve? Did that thought ever occur to you?"
"I know you better than that," Ray said.
Gordon stood up "So you just thought you would take matters into your own hands and hit me before I hit you? That's just complete bullshit. Complete bullshit! After everything we've been through together?"
"I know you either think it was me, or at least you haven’t ruled me out.
"Ray, if I told you that I didn't think it was you—"
"I wouldn't believe you," Ray interrupted. "It would just be a matter of time and opportunity and you would either have one of the guys do me, or you would do it yourself."
"Yeah?" Gordon shouted. "Well fuck you, Ray. Fuck. You. You want to do this? Then fucking do it. I'm sick of listening to your bullshit."
"I didn't come out here to kill you, Boss."
"I came to figure out who set Marty up. I know it wasn’t me and I know it wasn’t you."
Gordon squinted at him.
"So it had to be Al, Carl, Ralphie Green, or the kid, Carlos. It had to be one of those four."
"Okay." Gordon said "So why are we in the fucking desert?"
"Because you haven't ruled me out. From your perspective it was one of the five of us."
"Ray, I don’t think it was you."
"That's exactly what you would say if you thought it was me."
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"But it is also what you would say if you didn't think it was me."
Gordon shook his head.
"And that’s the dilemma. I can't live like that, always wondering what you really thought, and if and when my time was up. I just can't live like that.
"So ... what?"
"And you are like a brother to me, too. You are the only family I got, and there is just no way I can kill you."
Gordon looked down at the freshly dug grave.
"So now is where we find out if you think I might have done it or you don't.”
Ray stood up took a step to the edge of the open grave. He squatted down, and lowered himself into the hole.
Gordon was shocked silent.
Ray stood in the four-foot hole and looked up at his friend. He reached into his pocket and placed the car keys on the edge of the grave.
"If you think I did it, then now's your chance." Ray grasped the pistol by the barrel and extended it up to Gordon.
Gordon bent to take the gun.
Ray, standing in the hole, turned around and took off his hat.
Gordon was speechless as he stood there with his pistol in his hand and stared hard at the back of Ray's balding head.
He stood, confused and speechless.
The faded blue and orange stripes of the beach chair caught his eye. Gordon recognized Ray’s beach chairs. They were the same chairs that he, Marty and Ray would sit on at the lake when they went fishing.
Sometimes they would take the boat out, other times they would just sit on the dock with those cheap blue and orange striped chairs.
Whenever they fished, the three of them would spend hours together without saying a word. It was a comforting silence; unlike the silence he faced now, amid the desperate heat and relentless buzzing insects of Death Valley.
Because despite the years, and memories, and everything that went with them, the truth was that he really hadn’t ruled Ray out.
Gordon always acted when he needed to act, but he didn’t want to think about the possibility that his closest friend had been responsible for his brother’s death.
But the Professor was absolutely correct: it had to be one of the five of them. And if Ray didn’t have the motive, he certainly had the opportunity.
The pistol weighed heavy in his hand. He could tell it was loaded, and he knew a round was chambered. He knew Ray wouldn’t go through all of this trouble to hand him an unloaded gun like some kind of test.
No, this was definitely real.
He felt the steel of the trigger with the tip of his index finger. It was metallic and cool, despite the desert heat.
He closed his eyes and tried hard to imagine Ray being the one who set Marty up.
Sweat covered his exposed forehead and ran in droplets down the side of his face.
If it was Ray, he decided, he might as well put the gun to his own head.
Ray didn't turn around to face him.
Gordon reached forward and put a hand on Ray's shoulder. He thought about his brother Marty and felt a lump in his throat as if he wanted to cry.
"Ray... c'mon get out of there. Let's go get some margaritas."