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Always Something Better

The devil you do know is always better than the devil you dont know.

Of course, in the Gutter, there aint that many angels, either.

Always Something Better by Nikki Palomino



Always something better than that which is.

I wiped my hands of the hot steaming dishwater, glanced at the clock always a beat off from accuracy.

“He’s waiting, Stella.”

As if he needed to remind me, the fat paternal nephew of the diner owner. He found my blue eyes, long blonde hair, good looks wasted. I found his red-cheeked baby face and curly hair misplaced.

“I can help if you’d let me.”

I looked up at him. “You’re funny as hell, Dax.”

“You’ve got brains.”

“You’ve got the red-head at the Dairy Queen.”

Dax laughed, his yellow chipped teeth crammed together in a ledge.

The heat of the kitchen congealed around me. Sweat ran down under my arms and the back of my legs.

“You know I’m right.”

“Twenty to life, Dax.”

“This is practically a one-truck town. Time the sheriff sobers up, you’ll be in Mexico.”

“Good living takes planning, hard work and imagination.”

“Mere pittance. Stella, a lifetime of perfecting childhood tactics to get sympathy and avoid responsibility—”

“How much fuckin’ money?”

“His mother, my aunt, married well. She pitied me receiving the brunt of Mom’s bitterness. I was privy to my aunt’s secrets.”

“How much?”

“Shush.” Dax rushed toward the back of the kitchen, glanced at him leaning against the streetlamp before slamming the door shut.

How could I verbalize the words spinning like planets inside my mind? I breathed in everything Dax had said over the past month. I pulled off my dirty apron, ran my hand through stringy hair, stealing the red rouge color for my cheeks from the last swell of steam.

*

“How much longer, Stella?” We worked in the diner kitchen, our routine unchanged, veins congested from the standing.

“Dax, I’m no whore.”

“Not talking sex.”

Dax grew more tired with each narrowing day. I liked the idea.

“Stella, what now?”

I looked outside at the light grey mist dimming the empty evening. Dax’s beady eyes followed.

“Where is he?”

“Not feeling well. Home in bed.”

“He’s supposed to be dead.”

“You agreed.”

Dax grabbed the butcher knife. Held at eye-level. “Quick and simple. You’re not Hitchcock.”

You agreed.”

Dax spoke in an audible whisper. His uncle hadn’t left the office. Paydays kept him late. Dax could barely contain his impatience. To a man like Dax, murder worked like a quickie. A woman’s ammunition was chiefly psychic and aesthetic. When I left with hardly enough to cover rent, I brought a container of chicken soup. Dax diminished behind the block of cheese, a child broken of his tactics that had all but abated without sympathy.

*

I warmed the soup for Dax’s cousin. I had no particular plans when I blew through this town. There were many things I could have done, and much I didn’t. Good looks caused men to lose sight. I should have been delighted.

He startled me.

“Dax, what are you doing here?”

“Dead yet?”

“Still clinging to life. Doc thinks it’s viral.”

Dax slammed down a gun on the wood table.

“I’m not waiting another minute. I know the safe combo. Auntie never trusted banks. She did trust me though.”

“Can’t explain away a gunshot so easily.”

“You’ll be in Mexico by then.”

“Just smother him with a pillow.”

Dax grinned as he regarded the idea.

“How do you know poison, Stella?”

“I don’t. Just found rat poison in the garage. I add a little more each day to his food before I serve him.”

“Heartless.”

“Gun’s bad news.”

Dax turned on his heels, grabbed the .38. “Gun’s dead news.”

He left the kitchen and headed up the winding stairs to his cousin’s room. I cringed when I heard the shot but just kept stirring the soup on the stove. When he returned, Dax laid the gun on the table and wrestled with what to do next. He sat at the table, buried his face in his hands. I’d say he wanted to cry but held his tears in a vise grip.

“Finally over, Stella.”

“You sure?” He nodded. “How much is my take since I had to sleep with him?”

“Your cut hasn’t changed.”

I ladled some soup into the porcelain bowl, set it in front of him.

“All my family’s gone except that good-for-nothing uncle.”

“Eat. Murder whets the appetite.”

Dax trembled but gripped the bowl as he swallowed the soup. He glanced at me. “You add poison to the bowl, right, not the pot?”

I laughed hollowly.

“Dax, I don’t know the combo to the safe.”

“You need me then.”

“I need cash.”

But Dax couldn’t retort. His cherub face paled, hands flying to his neck. His dry cough lasted but a few minutes before his head pitched forward.

I didn’t need to check his pulse; knew dead. I did need a gun, which I quickly swiped from the wood table and deposited into my purse.

Like a musical beat, the kitchen door blew back, and suddenly Dax’s cousin leaned against the frame. He’d been right about stuffing his bed just so. Dax had taken to the firing range, pumping shots into the target with startling energy; the perfect birthday gift from his favorite aunt’s son. Tall and firm, Dax’s cousin tapped the large envelope against the palm of his hand before I snatched it. He’d impressed me with his eye for detail and his understanding of human nature.

“Where you headed Stella?”

“I don’t know for sure, maybe Mexico.”

“You can stay with me. Grown fond of you.”

“Wanderlust, Sweetie.”

“If you ever decide to come back—you know.”

But I had already headed out into the wet night, cutting my ties to this one-truck town. It’s never good making a deal with a devil unless you have the nerve to skip. 

Nikki Palomino is the author of the Dazed series (the Story of a Grunge Rocker). Her writing has been featured in the LA Examiner, Houston Chronicle, and more. Named Best Genre Short Story Writer of 2003 by Writer’s Digest, Palomino is also a rock journalist for Punk Globe Magazine and the host of Nikki Palomino’s DAZED on irockradio103.com