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Toll Violation

There comes a time when we must pay for our crimes. 

In The Gutter, the cheapest fee can have the biggest consequence.

Toll Violation by Patrick Cooper


Dead of winter and the trunk of the ’88 Chevy was an icebox. The temperature prevented the fat man’s body in the trunk from stinking up the car. Shelley and Kid Cub couldn’t smell a thing except the promise of all that money waiting for them in Jersey City.

“Know what I just thought?” Kid Cub said, picking at the dirt under his nails with a pocketknife.

Shelley sniffed behind the wheel. “What’s that?”

“In winter, know how some people drive around with sandbags in their trunk? Well, we got better than sandbags. With a man that fat, no way we’re skidding out.”

They both laughed.

From the forests of Sussex County to the Cape May boardwalk, Shelley, fifty-two, with a halo of grey hair under his ski cap, had taken care of business up and down the Garden State for two decades. Recently, management’s ambitions had bled out into the greater Philly area, which meant he’d be making interstate runs now. Bigelow, the fat man in the trunk, was his first Pennsie mark.

Kid Cub was dressed all in denim. At twenty-five, he was still in his probationary period. Just a couple more months rolling with Shelley and he could fly solo. “Oh shit,” he said. “Toll.”

“What?” Shelley replied.

“There’s a toll up ahead.”

The tollbooths were crowned with the tall, ominous letters of N-E-W-J-E-R-S-E-Y. Beyond the booths, the sun had started its slow crawl over the horizon as the morning commuters did their dutiful creep.

Shelley slowed the Chevy down behind all the traffic and said, “How much is it? Can you read it?”

Kid Cub leaned forward. “Looks like a buck twenty-five.”

Shelley nodded and looked at the kid. When Cub made no move for his pockets, Shelley said, “Well?”

“Well what?”

“My car, my gas. Least you could do is pay the toll.”

“I paid at the diner last night.”

Shelley stared at Cub with enough intention to let him know he wouldn’t budge.

Kid Cub said, “Fine. Cheap prick.” He fished around in his pockets. “We keep doing these interstate gigs, you’re gonna have to get an EZ Pass.”

“I’ll bring it up with management.” Shelley eased the car up a little more.

“Shit.”

“What?”

“I don’t got it. I gave that waitress all my scratch.”

“You and that goddamn waitress,” Shelley said.

“I thought we had something!”

“She’s a waitress. She has something with every cock walks through the door. Now do you have it?”

Kid Cub tossed his hands up in defeat, “I don’t!”

Shelley mumbled something about the “goddamn waitress” and searched his jeans. All he came up with was some hard candy and the photo of his daughter he kept for luck. He was ready to curse out Cub again for his lavish tipping when he thought of Bigelow. “Check the guy’s pockets.”

“What? Now?” Kid Cub said.

“Go on and check Bigelow’s pockets.”

“Hell no! Morbid bastard. Just tell the lady in the booth we don’t have it. They’ll mail you a ticket.”

Shelley shook his head. “You don’t got the stomach for it? That might be a problem if I was to tell management you got a sissy’s stomach.”

“They’ll mail you a ticket! I’ll pay it, but I’m not rifling around in that slob’s pockets.” Kid Cub bit at his bottom lip for a few seconds. “Fine. All right. Asshole. Pop the goddamn trunk.”

Shelley watched in the rearview as Cub walked around the Chevy and disappeared behind the open trunk. 

Kid Cub was only back there two seconds before he slammed it shut again and dashed back into the car.

“The hell?” Shelley said.

“He’s alive,” Kid Cub said.

“What?”

“Fucking guy’s still alive.”

“What?!” 

“Telling you, he’s alive. Nearly shit myself. He looked me right in the eyes. My eyes, Shelley!” Kid Cub said.

“Shit.”

“I’m never gonna forget that look.” Cub rubbed his palms into his eyes. “Got me all fucked up!”

Shelley looked at Kid Cub. “Give me your knife.”

“What?”

“Your knife. Give it to me.”

“For what?”

“Because I forgot to shave this morning. What the fuck do you think what for? I’m not gonna shoot the guy in fucking rush hour traffic.”

Kid Cub handed Shelley the pocketknife.

Shelley felt its weight – passing it from hand to hand. Then he popped the trunk and exited the car.

Bigelow’s manic eyes looked up at the knife and he tried to scream. The duct tape over his mouth kept it at a deep rumble.

Shelley leaned in with the knife.

Bigelow’s doughy neck erupted.

Hot blood cascaded over Shelley’s face. He swallowed some and gagged, quickly searching the man’s pockets. He came up with two bucks.

“Holy shit,” Kid Cub said as Shelley slid in behind the wheel. “You are soaked.”

“Resilient bastard’s double dead now.”

“Did he have the change?”

“Yeah. Two bucks.” Shelley looked at himself in the rearview mirror. Blood dripped off his hair. He used the sleeve of his down jacket to wipe his face. That’s when he noticed the police cruiser right behind them. “Fuck me.”

“What?” Kid Cub said.

“Cop.”

“Oh shit.”

“Just be easy,” Shelley said.

Shit, shit, shit.”

Shelley held the two bills up to the elderly woman inside the tollbooth.

Kid Cub glanced at the side view mirror.

The woman moved like molasses. After an eternity, she handed Shelley the change.

Shelley eased off the brake and pressed the gas.

The Chevy’s rear tires spun on the blood that had dripped and pooled beneath the trunk. Shelley stepped harder on the gas and the car veered forward, its rear tires spinning. The left side of the car smacked into the tollbooth’s concrete barrier and the Chevy spun out in half a circle with a loud squeal.

They were facing the cop now, who was out of his cruiser, looking down at the blood. His eyes followed the red, smeared tire tracks to the Chevy. He pulled his gun.

Shelley smacked the wheel. “You and that fucking waitress.”


Patrick Cooper lives in Trappe, PA with his wife, dog, and the spirit of a murdered Colonial orphan boy he just can’t seem to shake. His short fiction has appeared in a number of outlets, both print and online. Check out his stuff here: patrickgcooper.com