The Moth’s large eyes were glazed in by thick glasses. His goatee, mustache, large sideburns and receding hairline conspired to fuzz out around his head in a halo of fine hair. The Moth’s color code ran to gray: gray skin, gray hair, gray teeth. He did indeed resemble a pine moth dressed habitually in a grey unraveling sweater and a tweed sports coat leaking its own unravelling.
The appearance of his L.A. pawnshop counted for more than he – immaculate, obsessively clean. The plate glass to the front had been shined to transparency, the steel bars carefully painted a tasteful brass. The place reeked of Febreeze. He had laid new unstained carpet only last month, and the fluorescents above rained down a warm light that made skin look beautiful. Except his skin, of course.
On Monday, the sleigh bells on the door handle of the pawnshop rang like someone had hocked Christmas. The Moth glanced up to catch the Widow Lenora as she slipped her head around the edge of the door, to check if there was anyone who knew her in the pawnshop. He had a thing for the Widow. His deep and abiding thirst had become the central torment of his life. When she swayed into his shop, past the jangling bell, he stared at her with such lingering hunger he felt physically sick. She visited the pawnshop on Mondays, because by Monday the money had dried up. The check didn’t come for another two days. He lived for Monday.
She glided to the counter and he held his breath. She tipped her oval face up, framed in black hair with a jarring streak of white – the streak that made the neighborhood call her “Lily Munster.” Her eyes, large and rimmed in red, blinked woefully up at him. Those eyes were like jewels to the Moth. Opening her purse she lay a tissue on the counter, unwrapped it and revealed a silver bracelet with some semiprecious stones.
He stared at her bracelet and drank in her cheap perfume. Why him, of all the pawns?
The Moth’s shop wasn’t one of those glittering pawns that resemble big box stores and cluster on four lane streets near super-liquor stores and hospitals. Those pawns had sprung up during the recession of 2001 and the global financial collapse of 2008, with a business model based on harvesting the body parts of the newly poor. In this case, body parts meant suburban junk like lawn tractors.
His pawn was based on hundreds of years of tradition of the always-poor. From St. Petersburg to Constantinople to London to Tijuana, for centuries, the always-poor had pawned the same items many times each year and then redeemed them when a bit of money came in. Here in East L.A. the women, most of them sad and exhausted by childbirth or by husband, dragged in small cherished possessions and let him store them for a month or two, for a margin that ranged from thirty to eighty percent. He also took in flat screen TVs, guns, aluminum wheels and tools. He thought the family men should also have to bleed.
Of course, owning a shop like his, stuck up a nothing-street in a nothing-strip-center didn’t turn out so great for revenue. It didn’t even make the rent. He had made pawn his sideline.
He considered himself a purveyor of criminal implements, information and arcane paraphernalia. He sold slim-jims, lock picks, bump keys, alarm bypasses, license plates, various forms of bugs, autonomous surveillance cameras and firearms without serial numbers. He sold social security numbers, driver licenses, and even voting registrations. He could supply uniforms from security companies and factory manuals for safes. He could sell you the insurance registries for certain neighborhoods, the policies that listed special rider items – items like jewels, coin collections, art work and wine. He even had a contact who, for a hundred thou, could get your fingerprints disappeared out of the FBI Fingerprint ID System. But he never ever fenced. Selling stolen property had a lot more risk than selling I.D.
He called his shop Pucheco’s, mostly to sow misinformation and because he didn’t want people knowing he was Scots-Jewish by background. Which they all did.
When he looked back on it, the first week of August didn’t turn out so good.
The Moth blinked at Lenora. He could feel his eyebrows brushing on the top frame of his glasses. She would never redeem the bracelet and it would only bring him fifty bucks. “Two hundred,” he said. Even to him, his voice was a raspy croak.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you!” Only she said it in her native language, “Gracias, muchas gracias!” She batted her eyes, peeked up at him sideways through those long black lashes.
He knew she was manipulating him. His heart fell to pieces anyway.
She reached forward and touched his hand. “Could I trade you the money for that gun over there?” She pointed into the glass case, where a snubnosed 32 lay, priced at two fifty. “I need it for Ricky. He gets out next Wednesday and he comes back to us, to me and the children. He has many, many friends. But some do not like him.”
“And Ricky is?”
She wasn’t a widow at all. His chest caved in from the pain in its core, his shoulders hunched over. He could hear his breath hiss out. “You’re married?”
“Then why are you called the Widow Lenora?”
“Because Ricky, he’s away so much in the talego.”
She was married to a con. And she had been milking him for months. It was nearly unbearable. But then he heard himself say, “Can you fill out the paper work? For the Feds’ background check?”
“Oh, no no!”
He opened the case and reached out the revolver, wrapped it in a paper towel and handed it to her. She placed it deep within her capacious bag, along with his sorrow.
On Tuesday, Jimmy Maston’s twenty-something year-old son came in, and not to hock a guitar for weed money either. Jimmie Maston owned enough of the neighborhood, both legally and feloniously, to be the de facto mayor. His kid, known as Butch, sidled in the door, opening it enough to materialize through the crack. He edged around the shop, fingered the pawn and stared at the price tags the Moth had strung on each piece. Finally he worked around to the cash register where he mumbled something to the Moth.
The Moth asked, “What?”
“I wuz wondering, maybe you had some guns for sale.”
“You walked right by the case there. Three revolvers, a deer rifle and a crossbow. That’s all I have.”
“I meant . . . special guns. Semi-autos for instance.”
“Aren’t you Jimmy Maston’s kid?”
“Does your dad know you’re in here?”
Butch’s face screwed up in a scowl. “Sure. He sent me.”
The Moth locked his eyes on Butch, bored into him. “Then you wouldn’t mind if I called him?”
The kid gave him the most steely eyed glare he could. “Sure, go ahead. I hope you piss him off.” He ruined the effect when his voice cracked like breaking glass on the last word.
The Moth flared his bushy eyebrows. “Look, Mr. Maston. What’s this all about?”
“Well, some guys, see . . .”
The Moth waited.
“These guys cheated me out of my pink slip in a card game, took my car. I got to get it back. I can’t let somethin’ like that happen, not in my own neighborhood. And I can’t ask my Dad. So I need a gun that will scare the fuck out of them.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“A 9. Big and shiny. Lots of rounds.”
The Moth was patient. He knew how to wait.
“Come on, man. Just this once. I’ll owe you. The Mastons always pay back favors.”
The Moth knew that wouldn’t turn out true, but he didn’t mind the lie. It was all part of business. “I’ll rent you a gun, one that can be used for intimidation. Step back to the door. Check out the street.”
“Why? You think someone tailed me here?”
“Just do what I tell you.”
Butch, slope-shouldered, stumped over to the door. “There ain’t nothing out there.”
“Lock the door and keep your back to me.” The Moth dropped to his knees onto his rubber mat, twitched back one of the mat’s black rectangles and jerked open a hatch. Thrusting into the cavity with his other hand, he grabbed a long object wrapped in cloth. Rising like a rocket going up, he set it on the counter. “Okay, you can come back.”
Butch, with a face full of doubt, shuffled back to the counter. The Moth unwrapped his treasure and exposed a sawed-off shotgun with a folding stock and an ten-inch barrel. The Moth clunked a half box of shells beside it. “Here’s my suggestion. The shotgun was worth a thousand even before it was modified. I rent it to you for four hundred. You go have a discussion with your associates and collect your car and title, then bring the shotgun back to me. I suggest you obtain an additional four hundred from them for your own trouble. If something goes wrong, just squeeze and pump. You don’t have to be any good with a gun if you have this weapon – and you leave minimum forensic evidence.”
Butch’s eyes glowed like saucers under the fluorescents. His hand reached up, stroked the plastic stock. “Deal.” He dug down into his pockets and paid with a mixed collection of hundreds, twenties, and fives – greasy wadded-up bills.
The next night, sitting in the apartment back of the pawnshop, the Moth listened to a police scanner and he heard the call. A homicide and a fire – shots had been fired at a house over on Colter and someone had torched the place. He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think he would see his shotgun again. He should have asked for a deposit.
Bright and early the next day, he called a contact who worked in the morgue. Butch hadn’t known what he was doing. Pity about the gun.
Thursday and the door banged full back. A huge angry black man pounded his way to the counter. Reaching across, he seized the Moth by the lapels and dragged him forward over the glass. Spraying spittle, he barked down into the Moth’s face. At this range, the Moth catalogued a cratered face, a scar that ran down out of one eye, yellowed teeth like an old piano keyboard. This was Freddie “The Rent” Poulter, up way too close and personal.
“Goddamn you, you gray little shit. Where’s my money?”
The Moth dropped his jaw as far as it could go, opened his eyes to their limits. He knew the reaction Freddie wanted. “Here! Got it here!” He fumbled in his shirt pocket, handed over the four hundred he had charged Butch.
“You puking mini-turd. That’s this week’s insurance. You don’t want your shithole burned down, you cough up next week’s too. I got immediate expenses.”
“Okay, I understand your problem,” said the Moth. “Can I swap you something in trade? How about a stereo? A TV? Maybe a gun?”
Freddie grinned down into his face, a glob of manic saliva gathered in the corner of his mouth. “You have a Smith and Wesson? Maybe a clean new Beretta?”
The Moth swallowed hard. He shouldn’t make it too easy. “I have a used Ruger 45. In good shape. Stainless.” The Moth brought it out from under the counter, laid it up on the glass. “Retails for six hundred. Clip’s full.”
Freddie’s grin forced the Moth to flinch. Freddie’s mouth cracked open and showed all his teeth like gravestone slabs. “Deal.”
The Moth hated the word “deal.” The whole neighborhood used it and it didn’t mean a thing.
Freddie shoved the gun into his waistband. “I’ll see you in two weeks, midget man.” He punched the Moth in the shoulder, hard, and stomped out whistling.
The Moth leaned on the counter, both hands on the glass. A tremor ran through his entire frame. He smoothed his lapels. His eyes darted around the room and he sucked in a deep breath. He fished a cheap mobile out of his front pants pocket and pressed the appropriate buttons. “Hey, Detective Chelsea. . . . Yeah, it’s me. I got a tip for you. Fred Poulter is walking around with a handgun used in the Walgreen’s pharmacy job last month. . . . Of course I mean Freddy the Rent. . . . Yeah, I know the clerk died. So you’ll have your guys pick him up? Soon?”
On Friday, Detective Chelsea Granovich called to say they hadn’t made charges stick on Freddie “the Rent” Poulter,” due to the fact that his mother and sister gave him an alibi and he fingered a sick, half-dead junkie for the gun. On Saturday, Jimmy Maston called. His voice was quiet, well modulated. He said, “I understand you gave my son Butch a shotgun. One that got him killed. I think we need to talk.”
Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his fifth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumberyard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery. Now he’s on the masthead of the Prague Revue, and has a novel coming this summer, Jupiter and Gilgamesh, a Novel of Sumeria and Texas – with Southern Yellow Pine Publishing.
A new writer, he has received an honorable mention in the E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest, and been a finalist in the Glimmer Train 2008 Fiction Open and the SouthWest Writers Annual Contest. He’s been published at Blue Lake Review, Bookends Review, Circa, Copperfield, Eunoia, Faircloth, Fear of Monkeys, Foliate Oak, Infinite Press, ken*again, The Life As An [insert label here], Piker’s Press, the Prague Revue, Rusty Nail, Stepping Stones, Synchronized Chaos, a Thousand and One Stories, Thrice Fiction, Whistling Fire, and Wilderness House Literary Review – and soon at Glint.
Scott cuts all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor and writes grant applications for the community. He is the Treasurer of Shuter Library of Angel Fire, a private 501.C3, and desperately needs your money to keep the doors open.
You can reach him on Facebook here, or visit his website www.scottarcherjones.com.
–Art by Simona Capriana