John swaggered across the room, lit a Marlboro, took a long draw then exhaled. He peered across the room at the unconscious woman, slumped across the futon, wondering when she would revive. Just then, the sound of an engine purred to a halt in the driveway. “The rest of the guys,” John said to himself, clenching his jaws as nervous excitement brewed within him. It was too late now to reconsider their plan; they could only speed forward. He dropped his cigarette on the brown carpet and ground it out with the heel of his cowboy boot. What did it matter? The whole house would be up in flames by morning.
Scuffling on the front porch followed by a loud thump caused John to scowl. It wasn’t as if they were in the middle of nowhere. Didn’t his bozo accomplices realize the seriousness of this situation?
A string of muttered curse words accompanied the scrape and squeal of the front door being shoved open. It slammed into the wall, ridden like a surfboard by the scrawny, young man who was, unfortunately, John’s cousin.
“Shut up!” he growled at them.
Shoulders nearly as wide as the doorway, Bubba sauntered into the room, wiping his hands on his Wrangler’s and grinning like a headline comedian. Behind him, Corey was extracting himself from the front door, his panicked features stark in the dim shaft of illumination cast by the porch light.
“Shut the door,” John said, voice still low and steely but not as harsh.
Scurrying like a church mouse, Corey scrambled to comply. Behind the door, a handle-sized hole marred the sheetrock. “Look what you did, Bubba!” Their pyromaniac sounded like a whiny six-year old.
Bubba’s meaty hand slapped Corey between the shoulder blades, sending him nearly sprawling onto the carpet at John’s feet.
“No worries, little guy. This place is toast anyway.” With a faint air of indecision, Bubba looked to where John stood, both hands planted on his hips, smoke rising from beside his right boot. “Right?”
“Right,” John agreed, nodding curtly and dropping his hands to his sides. Gesturing with his hands toward a doorway down the hall, “The stuff’s in there.”
Both of the newcomers started to move in the appointed direction. When Bubba neared the futon shoved against the far wall, his cat-call whistle sounded shrilly.
“What do we have here?” His leering tone dripped lust like the sweat on a teenage boy’s brow. “John boy, you’ve been holding out on me. I thought this was an old lady’s house.”
The suggestive way he said “old” made John’s skin crawl and his stomach sour in distaste. At some point, Bubba’s lewdness was going to cost them and the thought of going to prison because this guy couldn’t keep it in his pants made ire rise from the base of John’s spine.
“She’s like 45. That’s old enough to be your momma, so I’d say what you’re thinking is downright incestuous, Bubba.” John’s tone could’ve frozen hot coffee.
Bubba turned his head and glared at John with ill-concealed animosity. “Did you just say something bad about my momma?” His fists were clenching in preparation.
Noticing the sledgehammer-like fists, John shook his head and said, “Get busy hauling the stuff outta here.”
Bubba’s dark eyes narrowed. “I know my job. I just don’t see that it will take me so long to carry a few boxes out that I can’t have me a little fun, too.”
“Work first,” John said, his hand reaching to the back waistband of his jeans where a 9mm waited, ready to jump to his defense on command.
Bubba’s eyes flicked to John’s hand, now resting on the handle of the pistol. “You sound like my old man,” he sneered and stomped down the hallway, floorboards creaking beneath his booted feet.
The crew knew their assignments. Bubba hauled the boxes of jewelry, electronics, silverware and other easily fenced items outside and loaded them under cover of the canopy on his Ford F350. Gasoline fumes began to permeate the air as Corey fulfilled his responsibility of fueling a fire that would start fast, burn quick and set off an explosion when it reached the natural gas fumes they would start on the way out of the kitchen. No physical evidence would be left to identify them.
John had a bandana tied over the bottom of his face, keeping out the worst of the fumes. He nodded to Corey who had just given him the okay sign from the back porch.
“What’s the hurry?” Bubba snarled from beside him. “I gotta –“
Without even looking at him, John snapped, “Get the truck out of the driveway, Bubba.”
“We got three hours ‘til daybreak.”
“I just gave Corey the okay, so we’ve got about four minutes until the whole country gets woke up by the boom.”
John walked purposefully to the BMW coupe the woman owned. He’d switched the license plates as soon as he’d knocked her out. Enjoying this sweet ride was going to make the guilt of cold-blooded murder fade like a bad dream.
At that moment, Corey came sprinting around the side of the house, throwing open the passenger door on the truck and hopping inside with uncustomary athleticism. Bubba revved the truck’s engine, signaling his displeasure, but he followed John’s midnight blue coupe. Neither car used headlights as they sped down the driveway and turned left onto the county road, sending gravel spewing in all directions.
As the back door slammed, the woman inside crawled off the futon. On hands and knees, she scooted to the nearby table, pulling a linen table scarf from under pictures and a lamp. Glass shattered as they crashed to the floor. Carefully, she reached toward the hole burned in the carpeting near her left kneecap.
Standing, her legs shook, bowing as if made of rubber. Choking and gagging, she pinched her nose with her left thumb and forefinger. Stumbling, she reached the side door; the odor of rotten eggs chased her from the house. Running in an erratic pattern, her feet grazed the edge of her vegetable garden when the house exploded behind her.
Lying facedown in the dew-soaked grass where the concussion of the explosion launched her, she uncurled her fingers. It was still there. Smiling, she rested her weary head against the ground.
Not as smart as you thought, huh, cowboy? she thought.
Wrapped securely in the fine linen heirloom her grandmother painstakingly sewed by hand for her college graduation, the discarded cigarette butt seemed to pulse. His fingerprints would identify the good-looking conman for the police.
In the distance, sirens blared.