Indie Author Answers #59: The Conflict Curve

Gotta be quick about this one… we have a lot of ground to cover today. So let’s get it started. Covering ground, that is.

 

9: Brian

 

Brian drove up Highway 36 towards Boulder after the service, his tie loosened, the top button of his shirt unbuttoned. His sport coat hung over the headrest of the passenger seat of his Honda. No music played on his stereo, as he instead opted for silence during his drive. He ran his finger up and down the length of his tie, feeling its silky-smoothness. Brian removed his phone from his pocket, opened his list of contacts, and then scrolled through them, alternately glancing between the road and his phone as he did so. When he reached the contact for Robson, Heather, he hesitated.

He pressed the delete key, then again to confirm. He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat.

When he reached Boulder, he did not feel like going home. He had an urge to drink or get high to neutralize his emotions. But after spending a week as a drunken shut-in in his apartment, he wanted to find a better way. Instead of opting for a drink, or a smoke, he decided to listen to the grumble in his stomach and get his favorite sandwich from Half Fast Subs on the Hill. He stopped at a drugstore and bought a package of nicotine gum before heading to the deli.

He waited in line in his slacks, dress shirt, and loosened tie, and ordered his sandwich to-go. When he exited Half Fast, a couple police officers were standing on the other side of the street. Out of habit, Brian gave them a wide berth while walking back towards his car.

“Brian?”

The sound originated from the direction of the cops, and sure enough, Brian recognized one of them. The familiar voice came from Brent Gartner, the RA in Brian’s dorm when he had been a freshman. Brent had been kind to Brian while he navigated the new experience of college. He helped Brian get to class, told him which of the campus cafeterias and fraternity parties to avoid, among other things.

Except Brent never showed me how to make a weed pipe out of an apple.

Brian walked towards Brent, taking in his old friend’s new look. Brian found it hard to believe that he was seeing the same guy because the formerly chubby man now looked fit, with an aura of confidence about him and a rigidly upright posture. “Brent Gartner, is that you?”

“Yessir. Long time no see. You’re all dressed up, though. Just getting off work?”

“Oh, I just had a thing down in Denver,” Brian said. “Seems like I run into somebody I know every other day now. But look at you, all in uniform and everything.”

Brent showered Brian with the mile-wide long-lost-friend smile, but Brian had trouble reciprocating. Not a good day to smile. “Damn straight,” Brent said. “All I ever wanted to be was a cop, and now here I am.”

“So here you are. I’m glad to see you’re still kicking around Boulder, too.”

“Hard to leave this town, once you’ve fallen in love with it.”

“No doubt. Whatever that guy said about seeing the Flatirons and not being able to leave…”

“Chief Niwot’s curse.” Brent said.

“Yeah, that’s it, and I think it worked. I’m probably stuck here for life, too.”

“There’s worse places to be,” Brent said. “After the academy, I spent some time down in New Orleans. Everybody thinks of it as this party place, as just some place they go for fun for a little while, and then they go back to their normal lives. But the crime down there is outrageous. All the murders, rapes, and car thefts, just to name a few. It’s an incredibly dangerous city.”

“Is that right?” Brian said.

“Oh absolutely. Not anything like Colorado. We’re pretty lucky to live in such a normal place. Especially Boulder, where that kind of stuff almost never happens.”

Brian and Brent exchanged phone numbers and made some vague plans about getting coffee, about which Brian assumed Brent was just being polite. Given the hobbies of Brian and the people around him, befriending a cop would not be the smartest of ideas.

 

10: Alex

 

After revealing what he knew about Brian and Megan, Wiles gave Alex leave to go home and shower. He arrived to find the apartment empty, a relief to Alex because he could not bear anyone seeing him in this state. His hands quivered, not just from the lack of sleep or the days-long methamphetamine binge, but also from his growing sense of dread. More punishment from Wiles might be coming.

After his shower, he checked his phone, and a text from Wiles invited Alex to have coffee at Buchanan’s. He loathed coffee and the entire coffee-drinking subculture, but could not refuse Wiles, so he texted him that he would join him soon.

At the coffee shop, Alex ordered some sugary espresso drink just because of its colorful name. After joining Wiles at their table, Alex tried not to stare at the bruises on the knuckles of Wiles’ right hand. Alex knew better than to ask how that had happened.

He and Wiles sat at a table facing the street, and Alex people-watched as Wiles told Alex a story about a guy he knew in Utah, the meaning of which escaped Alex. Alex became increasingly uneasy, because, at the end of each story beat, Wiles paused and scrutinized Alex to see if he had absorbed the information. Alex did his best to make eye contact and appear pensive.

Alex watched two young men, dressed in white shirts and black ties and carrying Bibles, as they walked up the Hill. He decided to change the subject. “I was reading about the Bilderberg Group the other day. You know the mayor of Denver is a member, right?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The Illuminati. The Masons. The guys who actually run everything. It all ties back to the Bilderberg Group. They’re the ones who set the oil prices, the ones running the World Bank, NATO, the UN… all that shit.”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

Wiles sounded uninterested, but Alex carried on. “It has everything to do everything. The New World Order? They’re going to destroy the middle class and make us all their servants. Ten years from now, everyone will know who they are and what their plan is. I don’t understand why everyone isn’t talking about it. This is real shit.”

Wiles leaned in to Alex and in a measured voice, said, “you need to settle the fuck down. Nobody going to make us servants. All your conspiracy theory bullshit is making you crazy in the head.”

Had it been anyone else, Alex might have launched into his prepared speech about all the alleged “conspiracy theorists” throughout history that had been proven right. But with he and Wiles sharing such unsteady ground today, Alex thought it best to keep his mouth shut.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alex spotted a familiar mop of red hair and excused himself from the table. He approached the redhead and he glided along the wall next to her.

“Hey, Jessica,” he said to the girl from his party in January.

“Jennifer,” she said while showing him a courteous smile. “Alex, right?”

“Yep, that’s me. I didn’t hear back from you after that night. I thought we were going to…” he trailed off, letting her fill in the blank.

Jennifer the Redhead studied him, her eyes focusing on his face and lack of hair. “You look different,” she said. Since that night, Alex had dropped about fifteen pounds, had added some dark circles under his eyes, and now opted for the full-on shaved-head look.

Alex pressed on with the suave routine. “Oh, right, yep, I got my eyebrows plucked. No excuse for not looking your best, what with the state of the world today.” Jennifer said nothing. An uncomfortable bit of dead air followed, so Alex decided to cut his losses. “Alright, then, well, I guess I’ll see you around,” he said. She persisted with the polite smile but said nothing further.

What in the hell? Three months ago this chick was dying to let me into her panties, drinking up pot milkshakes in my kitchen.

Alex returned to Wiles, who stared, transfixed, out the window. “Nice tits,” he said, without looking at Alex. Wiles tapped on the glass, and when Alex focused his eyes and comprehended the scene across the street, he did a double-take. Brian, dressed like a corporate chimpanzee in a shirt and tie, was talking to a police officer, right where anyone could see them.

A goddamned police officer.

“What in the fuck is going on? Why is Brian talking to a cop?”

Wiles sucked on his teeth and then drained the last bit of his coffee. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it’s time for us to get out of here.”

 

***

 

That night Alex and Wiles drove north of Boulder to a farm to play Alex’s Paintballing Cows game. The rules of the game: Alex shoots cows and they both laugh about it. Never seemed to get old. Wiles parked his Jeep near the property fence and they both sat on the still-warm hood. Alex readied his marker as Wiles rolled a joint.

Wiles pointed at a cow. “That one,” he said, and Alex found it in the sights, and then squeezed the trigger. A direct hit, the cow jumped, a loud moo and the humans laughed. Alex took a cigarette from his pack and lit the wrong end. Cursing, he again made the same mistake with another. “Son of a bitch,” he said as he threw his pack on the ground. He rested his head on the barrel of his marker, warm from the recent shots. His jaw hurt after hours of grinding his teeth. He wished his body would slow down so he could feel tired, but he had an abundance of mental energy. Thoughts bounced like racquetballs against the court of his brain.

“Your roommate sent me this today.” Wiles said, handing his phone to Alex.

Alex read it then gave the phone back. “Do you think that has something to do with seeing that cop?” he said.

“Maybe. He sent me the text before that. I don’t know yet what the thing with the cop was. I’ve been way too lenient with Connelly, and I can see that now. It’s now going to happen anymore.”

Alex struggled to frame the series of events into perspective. A multitude of racquetballs, bouncing too quickly to catch them all. Brian slept with Wiles’ sister-in-law, he quit selling weed, and then he met a cop on the Hill? What does it all mean? Is he going to sell us out?

“I can’t believe the balls of this guy: he’s going to disrespect me like that, and then just bounce out?” Wiles said. Alex took aim at another cow and pulled the trigger. The shots missed but startled the creature enough that it trotted away. Moo. A few more cows scurried away with it. “Like he’d just drop off my radar,” Wiles continued, “with no harm done?”

The more Alex thought about it, the more everything now pointed to Brian doing something with the cops. Alex had been out of town for almost a week, and he had no idea what Brian did during that time.

Maybe the cops picked him up for DUI or something, and had to give up Wiles as part of a deal. If that’s the case, then I would be implicated. Would Wiles protect me, or would he roll over on me too?

“Something has to be done,” Alex said. Unsure what exactly, but he believed that whatever Brian was planning needed to stop. Brian needed to be stopped.

Wiles hopped off the hood of the car and proceeded to wipe some grime from the headlights of the Jeep with his sleeve. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “I need you with me on this; I need you to trust me. This might get kinda messy.”

Wiles’ comment barely registered with Alex, because he had become embroiled in a staring contest with the most dastardly cow he had ever laid eyes upon. Black eyes. Patchy brown fur. The mangy creature’s persistent look dared him to shoot. Across the blackness of the night, their four eyes met somewhere in the middle and Alex became of a singular intention.

Alex honed his focus and readied himself for mayhem.

Pull the trigger, human. You’ll never hit me.

“Whatever. Hang on; let me tag this one cocksmoker who keeps staring at me.” Alex said, raising the marker, and lining up the putrid beast in his sights.

Wiles slapped the hood of the car, breaking Alex’s concentration. “Damnit, Britton, stop. Look at me, right now.”

Wiles’ tone shocked Alex back into the real world. Only a few hours ago, this man’s fingers had been laced around Alex’s neck, squeezing the life out of him.

“Are you in?”

“Yeah, dude, I told you. Whatever.” Alex said as lip service, because all he cared about was this menacing cow, staring him down like a fighter in the opposite corner of the ring. The cow moved its head back and forth. The eyes radiated piercing blackness and jets of steamy breath escaped the beast’s nose into the cold night air.

Fuck you, human.

Alex raised his paint gun, and spit several shots towards the cow. Some missed right, but one tagged the cow dead-center in the eye. The beast squealed and then fell over. Alex raised the paintball marker to the sky, triumphant. “Who’s staring now, eh?”

“Aww, goddamnit, not in the head. You probably killed it, you tweaked-out bastard.” Wiles glared at him, pulling Alex back into the real world. The last thing in the world he wanted right now was to piss off Derek Wiles.

 

 

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