Marcus Weller rubbed moisturizer into his chiseled face. He looked in the mirror and blew his bleach blond reflection a kiss. Adonis himself would be jealous. His recent facial and half day at the spa had rejuvenated perfection.
He turned to his neatly made bed, where a freshly pressed suit lay folded for work on Monday. First, though, he had to do Yoga and cook dinner. He’d taped this fantastic show from the Food Channel, with a recipe he was just dying to try.
He picked up the newspaper. The headline read: “Payday Forger steals $22K.”
He’d have to have his tellers watch out for this guy and his phony checks. Marcus Weller had never been taken by a forger, and he wasn’t about to start now.
As the bank opened on Monday, Marcus gave himself a final once over at the drive thru window that ended with his shoes. Blast it, there was an imperfection in the shine. He fetched shoe polish from his brief case and briskly polished the offending blemish. “Out unpolished spot!”
A feminine hand touched his shoulder. Marcus stood and turned around. “Amber!” He shoved the shoe polish tin back into his brief case and placed his right hand in his pocket. Can’t let that engagement ring fall out. “Darling, you startled me.”
“Marcus,” said Amber. “He’s here.”
Marcus took a check she held out to him. A Bartley Brothers payroll check. It looked legit, all right. He whispered in Amber’s ear. “Which window?”
Marcus glanced at window three. The man standing there didn’t look muscular, not like you’d expect from a guy working at a furniture store. His shirt and his pants didn’t go together at all; Green and purple clashed, particularly when the green shirt had orange stripes. That much didn’t necessarily make him the Payday Forger, but the man could at least be arrested by the fashion police.
Marcus picked up the phone and began to dial the number for Bartley Brothers. As he waited on hold, he kept an eye on the suspected forger. Man had probably gone years since his last manicure. How could people live this way?
“Personnel office, this is Dreyer.”
“Yeah, this is Marcus Weller at 8th Street Bank. do you have a Dave Droller there?”
“Droller, how do you spell that?”
The customer said, “Hey, I don’t have all day, miss. I’ll have my $3,000 and be on my way.”
The personnel clerk responded. “No Droller here.”
Marcus turned to Amber and mouthed, “Stall him.”
The customer said, “Miss, I need my money.”
“We’re just verifying funds on the check. Have you thought about opening a checking account of your own?”
“I don’t want a checking account, I want my freakin’ money.”
“Sir, it’s a big paycheck. Most people don’t ask for that much in cash. We don’t usually keep that much on hand.”
Droller reached into his coat and pulled out a gun. “Okay, let me put it this way. Hey, pretty boy back there. You have two minutes to get me $3,000 in unmarked five dollar bills. No dye packs in the bag. I’m gonna check. I ain’t no fool.”
Marcus swallowed and raced back to the safe. He snatched up every stack of fives he could find and tossed them in a bag. He brought the bag out and, from several feet back, threw it at the robber.
Droller caught it with one hand. And unfortunately had brought a gun he could maneuver one-handed. “Always come with a back up plan, I always say.”
Two police officers entered the building. “Freeze, mister! Drop the gun! Now!”
Droller trained the gun on Amber’s heart. “One more step and she gets it.”
The lead officer said, “You don’t want to do this.”
“Who says I don’t? A lot of people get to experience things I haven’t, but how many people actually get to commit murder? Pull the trigger, watch them die. Coppers, I do want to do this, but if I can get out of here, maybe I won’t.”
The police officers took a step back. The forger pointed his gun at Amber. “Climb over the counter, lady. You’re my ticket out of here.”
“Hey, you hable the Ingles?” asked the forger. “This ain’t like an invitation to your great uncle’s fifth wedding. It’s mandatory.”
Amber climbed over the counter and the criminal placed the arm holding the loot around her. “Now, we’re going to walk out of here, nice and calm.”
Marcus trembled? What was he supposed to do? He raised a fist. “Stop that!”
The criminal laughed. “Oh, pretty boy, who you kidding?” He pulled the gun away from Amber and fired two shots at Marcus. One of the officers got off two shots. It may have hit, Marcus didn’t know.
Marcus was hit like a train wreck and the world disappeared.
Three years later
Marcus Weller walked down the streets of Cleveland, his right big toe feeling cold concrete through the hole in his shoe and a thick, grisly dirt brown beard wrapping his face like a scarf. He lifted a bottle of cheap wine to his mouth and took a swig. He sat down in a corner, near a dingy brick building and drank. Once again the world disappeared.
When it reappeared, he was being kicked in the stomach. He stared up at six punks.
“Let’s waste the wino,” said one.
Another took a baseball bat to Marcus’ stomach. “Yeah, ain’t nobody gonna miss ‘im. This gonna impress Drecka fo’ sho’.”
Another slammed his foot down on Marcus’ pockmarked face. “Impress, nothin’. But if we gotta kill somebody to get in, I guess he’ll do. Even this guy was somebody once.”
Marcus didn’t care. Might as well be dead. Couldn’t save Amber. He was nothing.
Into the alley walked an old man dressed like an umpire with chest guard and mask. He readied a riffle on the wannabe gangstas. “Hey, punks, what’s your business?”
One swallowed. “Ain’t nothin’.”
“Looks like somethin’ to me. You tryin’ to get into Drecka’s gang and gonna kill the wino, eh? Tell you what, punks. I’m gonna count to ten. Those still in the alley other than me and the drunk will be open season. Those who are out will have a strike on ‘em. Willie you better clean up, ‘cause you won’t like it when the Umpire calls strike three.” He made a gesture with his thumb. “You’re out.”
“He ain’t worth killin,’” pronounced one of the gangers, before splitting.
“That’s fine,” said the Umpire. “Wouldn’t want you to wet your pants back here. All right. Now, time to count.”
By the time the Umpire reached five, Marcus and the Umpire were alone.
The Umpire grabbed Marcus by the arm and pulled him up. “Follow me. Alcohol won’t keep you warm out here tonight.”
The Umpire led him inside an old abandoned house on 38th street. After a few cups of coffee at a cracked orange fiberglass table, the umpire said, “So, why’d you decide to throw your life away?”
“Quite blunt about it, ain’t you?”
“And why shouldn’t I be?”
Marcus told about the robbery. “It turns out, when I went down, one shot hit the robber and one hit Amber. They lived through that, but he led her to the get away car. The police followed until he found a way to distract them, so they’d have to stop following.”
“What would stop cops from following a guy with a hostage.”
Marcus grimaced. “Throwing the hostage out of the car when you’re going 70 miles an hour. They might as well not have bothered. She died on impact. That scum got away.”
“And what about you?”
“Oh, I started drinking. Not Roy Rogers or the usual stuff. I got into hard scotch and tequila. I showed up late for work, got warnings. Showed up drunk for work, got fired. Got another job, lost that. Lost my apartment, lost my clothes. Still got Jack Daniels.”
“So you just gonna wander around until you drink yourself to death?”
“I guess if you didn’t really love her.”
Marcus pushed away from the table and stood. “How dare you. Come on, I’ll fight you.”
“You can’t even stand up straight. No, you need something more to keep you alive. You know what does it for me: hatred. Hatred of all the scum that walks this street and harms the innocent. I make sure they stop-permanently.”
“You’re a vigilante.”
“It’s a livin’. Actually, some bounty hunting on the side pays the rent. I bring in my bounties alive. Usually, anyway.”
Marcus fell back into his chair. “What’s in it for me?”
Umpire shrugged. “Revenge. Amounting to something. Before, you were a pretty boy bank teller, now you’re a drunk. You’re a dime a dozen, Marcus. Men like me are gold. You fight with me, you learn from me, and you’ll bring him in, and a lot more like him.”
Dressed in all black, Marcus drew a fresh automatic from a leather overcoat chuck full of them and ran past the body of his mentor, lying sprawled in the alley. There’d be tears, but later. He knew what Umpire would have wanted. Vengeance: vengeance on the scum that had destroyed Umpire years after destroying Amber.
A bullet zinged out of the alley. The rat was frantic. He had to know he was cornered. Marcus waited for the sweetest sound he’d ever heard: click
Marcus stepped into the alley, gun drawn. He stared at the man who’d ruined his life, killed his love, and his mentor.
The murdering scum threw himself prostate on the ground. “Please don’t kill me.”
Yeah, like any mercy had come to Amber or to him. “You stepped into my bank with a pay check five years ago, wanted it cashed. I didn’t do it then, because you were a fraud. But, I got good news.” Marcus trained his gun on the murdering scum. “Today is your payday.”
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