Driving down State Highway 86, Donelli saw a sign, “Speed Limit Enforced by Airplanes.” He started laughing. Only in California. He wondered if they really did that. He pictured a Cessna coming out of the air in front of him, touching down on the pavement with a light bar on its tail.
He eased back to sixty-five and kept it there.
He watched the signs. There weren't many. Lots for sale. Cheap. A billboard said there was an Indian reservation ahead, with a casino, natch. He thought about stopping in when he was done, maybe try a little blackjack. Probably not. He was supposed to be low-profile. Do the job and move on. Another time.
The Salton Sea was off to his left, about a mile down. White sand beach, powder blue water. The sand reached way down from the shore. It looked like low tide. Donelli didn't think there were tides this far inland, but he wasn't sure about that. There was a drought on. Maybe that was it. Had to be.
There was the sign. Salton Sea Beach. It sounded nice. What the guys back in Vegas said was, it used to be. Not now. They kind of grinned when they said it. That was all they told him. He took the turn. Brawley Avenue. It was a straight road with small houses on it. White stucco, one-story. Some nicely kept up, some not. It reminded him a little of Jersey, the kind of beach houses they had back there. It seemed nice enough. He had some time before dark, so he thought he'd check out the beach. It'd be right down at the end of this road. Maybe there'd be some girls in bikinis. Local talent. Place like this, there had to be some.
He passed a house with a trailer in the yard. It looked like the family was living in the trailer. That was odd. He hadn't seen that before. The next block, a couple of the houses looked abandoned. One of them was spray-painted with graffiti. The yards were mostly bare dirt. Then another house with a trailer in the driveway. Another with a moving van. The block after that was worse. One of the houses had been torn down, the pieces left to rot in the dirt. Now all the homes were empty. They looked like they had been for a long time. He was close to the water now. He could see a marina, deserted, like everything else, the pier rotting away. And the water looked wrong. Something floating in it.
He rolled down the window for a better look. Then it hit him. The smell. Dead fish. Lots of them. And rotten eggs. Some other things he couldn't name. Some salt, like a real seashore. Not enough. He thought back to what Arnie had said. “By the time anyone notices the smell, it won't really matter.” They'd all laughed. He hadn't thought much about it at the time.
He thought about it now.
He rolled up the window.
He made a right, then a left. Second house down. There it was. Pinkish stucco with flamingos on the lawn. There was no lawn but there were two plastic birds lying in the sand. Close enough. He was supposed to wait until dark, but he didn't want to be here a minute longer. There was no one around. He pulled into the driveway. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and tied it around his face. He looked like he was in a cowboy movie. He didn't care what he looked like. He just wanted to get it done.
He opened the trunk and pulled the bag with what was left of Lenny Mullens out onto the driveway. What was inside felt soft, like it'd been in the trunk too long. He dragged it up to the front porch. There was the key, right where it should be. He got the door open and the smell from inside hit him. The smell of death. He knew that smell. He managed not to puke. He went in, dragged the bag after him to the door that led to the basement. He opened that and a stronger smell hit him. The same smell, but more of it. The handkerchief wasn't near enough to help. He lifted the bag and pushed it through the opening. It bounced down the stairs and landed with a wet thud. For a second he saw a pile of black bags just like the one he'd thrown down there. Something was moving down there. Insects, crawling around. He heard the chittering of rats. He felt his stomach lurch. Then he got the door closed and puked on the linoleum. He couldn't breathe. Sweat was popping out of his skin. He staggered out onto the porch and fell to his knees.
He made it to the car and got back on the road. He wouldn't be hitting the casino now. All he wanted was a shower to get the stink off him. And something to rinse the puke out of his mouth. But not here. Not anywhere near here. He ran the side streets back to the highway. Then he turned right and floored it, got it up to eighty. He wasn't worried about airplanes now.
Brian Haycock is the author of Dharma Road, a book about Zen Buddhism and cabdriving from Hampton Roads Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Yellow Mama, Amarillo Bay, Pulp Pusher, Swill and other upstanding publications. Unlike the people he writes about, he is law-abiding and reasonably sane. His website is www.brianhaycock.com. Visit anytime.