Short Story: Rat-King

The ’68 Camaro painted in yellow-jacket colors blasted through a stretch of desert as indistinct and unremarkable as the others behind it. Wind whipped through the interior, kept heat off the leather and vinyl upholstery. Steve Miller’s Swingtown broke into the first “oohs.” Between the three day high, and the hypnotic scenery, Dave Petrov was soaring. The .45 in the passenger seat didn’t hurt.

For the first time, Dave was free. Above all, he was safe. Dry blood still painted the nail beds of his hands, but they were clean now. No-one knew what he’d done. No-one could care if they knew. Not a single soul would cry over the death of the Fifth-Street Rats.

He was roughly five years old when he was recruited as a runner. It was the best job in the world for a naive, poor kid in need of as much food and money as possible. Home was a small town in Illinois, and considerably less “civilized” than most of its neighbors. Winters were cold. The heat was always off. Summers were hot. The nearest lake was fenced, pay to enter. Air conditioning didn’t exist for people like Dave.

Summer was always a mixed blessing. Good, long nights for staying out, scavenging, but something always went wrong. Dave still remembered the summer they’d taken his father– incidentally, the same summer he started running for the Rats. Hot as hell out. The family’d just lost their sole means of income. Eventually, mother found a way to pay the bills– either working for less than she was worth, or “spending long weekends away.” Eventually Dave figured out what that meant, but he could never find the heart to blame with five kids to put dinner on the table for. As soon as he could, he made it four.

The Rats became a surrogate family. An even that some might’ve called predestined. Dave just called it sensible. Capy was the big brotherly, bruiser-type. More walrus than man, and wearing a shirt three-sizes too small for his bulbous gut. Dominic was his foil; the skinny, twin-brother type, too tall and skinny for any clothing to fit properly. Eventually he and Dave became inseparable.

Then there was Ferret, the Rats’ version of the shadiest drug-dealer thief Uncle you’d ever met. He was greasy bastard, always smelled like a skunk. Somehow that led to the nickname Ferret– even years later, Dave didn’t get it. A few others came and went from the neighborhood, but none were out of jail long enough for Dave to know well– except the bastard, Kane.

All of this was his fault. Every time Dave searched for an expletive for him, a thousand more worked to succeed it. He was everything about Humanity that made it unworthy of preservation; stupid, but ruthlessly cunning enough to have been made leader; misogynistic enough to have driven all but the most junked-out hoodrats away. He was a million other things too, murderer, thief, liar, cheat, traitor, anything that might suit him in one moment or could be abandoned the next. All of this, as well as the biggest hypocrite Dave ever met. He complained openly of others’ dishonesty. Dave sincerely doubted a truthful word had ever escaped his lips.

But most of all, Kane was a vile, hate-filled creature of self absorption. In Dave’s word’s, A “royal asshole.” He’d learned that at eight years old, when they first met. The dead-beat thug-wannabe just gotten out after a nickel stretch for petty theft. From the moment he arrived at the Rats’ Nest, he’d begun hassling the “oreo-nigga with the whore-mother.” For years Dominic protected Dave from Kane, but it started at that moment.

Eight-year old Dave was dressed in ratty clothes, with shaggier hair than most from his mixed heritage. It always made him the odd-man out or a target for playful ridicule. The “nigga with white-boy hair,” that was Dave. After a while, he didn’t even mind. He’d learned to take the jabs in stride like the others. He was far from a hothead, and most of the time, it was just the guys joking in their round-robin way.

Kane wasn’t like that. He singled Dave out. In and out of jail for petty crimes, Kane only got worse. When he out for good, it seemed, the two were at the height of rivalry. Now 19, mobile, and with enough money stock-piled to buy half a country, Dave wasn’t putting up with it. Kane had other plans for him. Plans that involved being the fall-guy if things went wrong. It was obvious, after a time, that he’d do whatever possible to ensure Dave got pinched. No doubt, he’d seek out and raid Dave’s cash-stash, steal everything not nailed down, and then have Dave shanked in the joint.

He’d sensed where things were heading– his knuckles whitened atop the steering wheel, further accenting the dried blood beneath his nails.

He should’ve known. Should’ve seen it coming. Things wouldn’t be this way. But he hadn’t, and they were. Dom’s blood was on his hands, and no amount of soap or water would change that. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing Kane had paid for it.

Kane’d had the bright idea to rip off an airport. The luggage handlers were low-level guys susceptible to easy pay-offs. All the Rats needed was a mark, someone likely to be transporting a lot of high-value goods. They needed rich people too cheap to charter their own aircraft. Kane thought he found that in a flight manifest for a company. They’d rented out a 747 to fly a load of execs cross-country from O’Hare, bearing a load full of cargo. They could only imagine the riches they’d take with.

So, the Rats loaded up with guns and made for the airport. One of Kane’s guys let them through. Minutes later, they were rushing onto a plane, grabbing carry-on luggage while Dave, Ferret, and a couple handlers filled the car from the cargo section.

But Kane busted through the plane door with Capy and Dom and found a bunch of suited feds. The manifest had been a cover. Capy went down first. Dom was injured, managed to make back to the car. Kane had escaped with a flesh-wound.

The job had been fucked from the moment Kane was allowed to plan it. But for Dave, “I told you so” was the furthest thing from his mind when the powder keg went of. Dom fell out of the plane, clutching his wounded gut. Kane fled like a coward to the car, hid behind it. Ferret took cover, blasting holes at the feds with a sawed-off 12 gauge. He managed six shells before a fed splattered his brains across the cars side windows.

Dave and the others were burning rubber along tarmac while Dom bled out in the backseat. Kane shouted orders at Dave. Before he could finish, his brains were splattered across the car’s rear-window. With a last good-bye to Dom, he ditched the car in an alley, and started running.

He’d been running since then. His three-day high was wearing thin again, but each time it did, the look in the Rat-King’s eyes as the barrel turned on him reappeared. He was as much terrified as angry then. Mostly, because he understood then how royal an asshole he’d been, and what he’d earned as a result.

Now, he wasn’t anything. Just dead. Like the rest of the Rats, and the gang itself. That was fine by Dave. He re-gripped the steering wheel and soared along the roads, more destined for nowhere than ever before.

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