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“Flipping the Bird” by Writers with No Name

Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records

***

Flipping the Bird

by Writers with No Name

“So,” Cliff picks up a molded vinyl Chickadee from a long row of metal shelving and flips it in the air. “What’s with the fucking birds?”

Howard slumps in his metal chair. “My wife made them. It’s why I called the meeting.”

“Jesus, Howard, you want me to buy some birds, all you got to do is fucking ask. Why you got to bring me here off-hours?”

Cliff swings his head to take in the long rows of neatly tagged and bagged evidence. Darryl picks up one of the decorative songbirds and turns it over, scanning it in silence. Like ebon origami, the bird is a delicately folded and stretched vinyl record, softened in boiling water. The label – Charlie Parker with String – is somehow still intact.

“You remember the drug bust back in April?” Howard asks.

“Do I? They confiscated a whole house. Took us two weeks to file all the evidence.”

Howard nods, eyes never leaving the floor, “Yeah, well, it included two thousand albums by some guy named Charlie Parker. There were some duplicates, but I swear they must have recorded every breath this guy took. I had to file and record all two thousand. I tell the wife about it and she looks up this Parker character. He’s got this nickname ‘Bird’, so she gets this idea to make his albums into birds.”

Cliff plucks the bird from Darryl’s hand and squints at it. “So you heisted some albums out of Property and Evidence and your wife turned them into birds. What’s the problem?”

“She started selling them on eBay.”

“Yeah?” Cliff’s eyebrows perk up. “She sell any of them?”

“All of them.”

“And?”

“Today the court subpoenaed the records. The order came in at seven o’clock when I was on second shift. They want them tomorrow. Nine a.m. sharp.”

“So go buy some albums and smuggle them back in storage, change the entries. All the precinct’s receiving clerks are right here,” he says, shooting a glance at Darryl. “Who’s gonna know?”

“We can’t do that. That would be falsifying evidence,” Darryl protests.

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl,” Cliff says.

“It’s subverting justice.”

Cliff moves in front of Howard, blocking Darryl from view. “Look, Howie – go buy some albums and put them back in Property and Evidence.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Come on, how much can a few albums cost?” Cliff stops for a second, his eyes turning upward in thought, then he looks at Howard closely. “How many albums did she sell?”

Howard slumps further. “I told you. All of them.”

Cliff’s voice becomes a hushed whisper. “She sold two thousand albums?”

“She’s really talented,” Howard says miserably.

“What about the profit?”

“We donated it to the Audubon Society.”

Cliff whistles. “You’re fucked,” he says.

“Stealing evidence was your idea, Cliff,” Darryl says, poking his head back into the conversation.

“When I let you guys in on this, I told you—only take stuff that won’t get subpoenaed.”

“I didn’t think they’d subpoena a dead guy,” Howard says.

“You’re missing the point, Cliff,” Darryl says. “When they find out, they’ll send Internal Affairs, and Internal Affairs will fry us all.”

Cliff paces the floor, turning when he reaches the shelves of neatly labeled guns, knives, and drug paraphernalia. “This is not a problem. We all ante up and buy some albums, how much can they cost?”

“Nine thousand dollars,” Howard says.

“Jesus, nine thousand,” Cliff says. “Well, we can do that. What’s the problem?”

“All the banks are closed,” Darryl says, nudging Cliff. “They don’t open until after the evidence is due.”

“So grab some cash from the shelves. We’re evidence clerks, for crying out loud.”

“It’s ten o’clock, the cash is all locked up,” Howard says.

“And grabbing things is how we got here in the first place,” Darryl says, crossing his arms.

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl. What about credit cards? How much you got on your credit cards, Howard?”

“I’ve got about fifteen hundred. How about you?”

“Maxed out,” Cliff admits.

“Like usual,” Darryl says.

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl. How about you?”

“Credit cards are for corporate slaves. I refuse to own any.”

“Okay, okay, we’re not done.” Cliff paces the room again. “So all we got to do is rob–”

Howard looks up, alarmed. “We’re not robbing a bank.”

“They’re closed, anyway,” Darryl says.

Cliff looks offended. “Guys, I’d never ask you to rob a bank.” He pushes his hands down in a calming motion. “All we got to do is knock off a record store.”

“That’s not what we signed up for,” Darryl says.

“Things have changed, we’re all facing jail time.”

“Well, I won’t be responsible for destroying a local business,” Darryl says. “Think global, buy local.”

The big man’s eyes narrow at Darryl who crosses his arms. Cliff turns to Howard. “Well, we could rob them tonight, then tomorrow at lunchtime, we drop off a box with eight thousand dollars cash.”

“Nine thousand,” Darryl corrects.

Cliff waves his hand, “Nine thousand then. Hell, Howard here will even throw in a tip. That good enough?”

Darryl ponders, then nods. “I always wanted to subvert justice.”

“Okay, we’re decided. You case the joint, Howie,” Cliff says.

“What?” Howard says.

“You pick the record store to rob.”

“My, aren’t we’re moving up in the world,” Darryl says. “We go from hocking evidence to robbing record stores. What’s tomorrow, foodcart hold ups? We should give ourselves a name. How about the Justice Fighters?”

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl.”

#

“Stylus. Grooves.” Cliff pronounces the words carefully. “What the hell does that even mean?”

“I don’t know,” Howard says. “It’s a record store. That’s all that matters.”

“It looks like a house.”

Cliff is right: the place is a house, converted into a store at some point. The walls are white paneling and there’s even a porch underneath the unlit Stylus Grooves sign. Howard picked it not because he’d been here before. He just looked for a shop somewhere out of the way and off the main streets. Fortunately, East Portland has no shortage of tiny record stores.

“It’s a needle,” Darryl says. “A needle on a record player. That’s a stylus. A stylus rides on the grooves of a record.”

“Holy crap,” Cliff sings. “MC Darryl here can break a beat while I bust a window.”

“Maybe I’ll just run you over when you get out, Cliff,” Darryl says. “It’s the same amount of jail time, and more satisfying.”

Howard gets out of the back of the Darryl’s Oldsmobile while his partners bicker. The night is dead quiet and a big half moon has no qualms about being the only source of light on the narrow street lined with squat bungalows built in the ’40s. He paces around what was once a front yard, now a small lot covered in gravel, and does what he hopes is a halfway decent job of casing the joint. He doesn’t know what casing means, exactly, so he looks at the walls, the ground, the door, the windows, and hopes that counts for something.

The white pillar at the front of the porch has the number 1849 on it. That’s the only detail he can scrape from the outside. Through the large front window, he can see a blinking red light in the back corner of the room inside.

“Darryl’s gonna wait in the car,” Cliff says, standing beside him. “I told him to keep a lookout. He’s the weak link in the chain, Howie, it’s up to you and me.”

“I think there’s a motion detector inside,” Howard says. “Would a place like this bother with a security system?”

“Only one way to find out. Come on, Howie.” Cliff slaps him on the back and jogs up the stairs to the porch. He drops a small black bag and dives into it, retrieving a circular object the size of his hand.

“What is that?” Howard asks, coming up the porch cautiously.

“Glass cutter,” Cliff beams. “I nicked it from Evidence.”

“Do you even know how it works?”

“Sure.”

After a few agonizing minutes, it becomes clear that Cliff doesn’t know how to use the glass cutter. Howard thinks about asking for a try at it, but before he can, the other man turns it sideways and punches it through one of the nine glass panes in the door.

“Hey, it worked.” He reaches past the shards and unlocks the deadbolt, then swings the door open.

The inside of the shop swallows up the moonlight like Howard wishes he was swallowing whiskey. The angry red light in the corner seems to blink faster, but his partner pays no heed and strolls into the black. Howard takes a deep breath and follows.

“Oh yeah, paydirt,” Cliff says. “Look at all this vinyl.”

Howard looks at what can only be described as a houseful of records. It looks more like his grandfather’s attic than an actual store, every wall lined with plastic milk crates stacked one on top of another until they’re just above his head. For a fraction of a second he catches himself wondering how many birds Sandra could make with all these albums.

A blast of sonic fury shatters the air around him, crinkling his skull like a beer can. He feels himself pulled to one knee, covering his head with both hands and praying for the silence and darkness to return.

There’s a tug at his arm. Cliff stands over him, his mouth moving but no voice coming out. Howard watches the big man’s lips.

Alarm.

He follows the arm, the hand, the finger, pointing at a keypad next to the door. He shakes his head. The alarm is the loudest thing he’s ever heard, a piercing, shrieking scream that penetrates his mind and bangs around like a ricocheting bullet. But it’s just sound. Just sound.

His hands find their way to the keypad. His brain is occupied, fighting back the sound that wants to drown him in an ocean of red light, but his hands are on the keys. One. Eight. Four. Nine.

Silence. It’s so goddamn quiet he wonders if the alarm is off or if he’s completely lost his hearing.

“Nice work,” Cliff whispers, grinning wide. “How did you figure out the code?”

Howard has to stop and think about where the number came from. “It’s the address.”

“Fucking genius,” Cliff says. “Now let’s get us some records. What’s the guy we’re looking for? Charlie Bird?”

“Charlie Parker, you idiot.”

“Ain’t no Charlie Parker here,” Cliff says, tossing albums over his shoulder. “Just techno shit.”

“Just grab everything,” Howard says, echoes of the alarm still reverberating in his skull. “We’ll fix the log entries when we get back to the station.”

After they get the first two crates into the back of the car, Howard walks around to the driver’s side.

“What. Was. That.” Darryl’s hands twist around the wheel like he’s trying to strangle the life from a rattlesnake.

“Alarm,” Howard says. “But I disabled it. We’re all good. Okay, Darryl? We’re good.”

Darryl’s moon-white eyes turn in their sockets. “You disabled it?”

“You think we’re amateurs?” Howard can hear himself hissing through his own fear, his voice wavering from the adrenaline in his bloodstream. He yanks the door open. “Come on. Help us load up.”

Back inside the store, the three men carefully pull crates down from the walls, partly afraid of setting off the alarm again, partly afraid of whole stacks coming down on top of them. The phone rings. They freeze.

Darryl is the first to move after the fourth ring. He creeps toward the counter where the cash register is.

“Darryl,” Cliff spits in a harsh whisper. The big man is as still as a statue. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Darryl turns and puts a finger to his lips. He answers the phone after another three rings.

“Stylus Grooves,” he says. “We’re not open right now.”

Howard creeps forward, wanting to hear who’s on the other line. He can hear a voice, but it’s tinny and distant.

“Yes, that’s correct,” Darryl says. “I’m Joseph Cameron. I just came back to the shop to get some records.” His voice cracks on the last word and he coughs and clears his throat. “Just doing some late night taxes. I forgot about the alarm.”

There’s another short pause before Darryl says thanks and hangs up the phone.

“Was that the security company?” Howard asks.

“Yeah,” Darryl says. “They said to have a safe night.”

“Jesus, shit,” Cliff says, grinning like a lunatic. “Nice work, Darryl, you’ve got potential.”

“Just hurry up. I’m going back to wait in the car.”

Darryl slips out the door and Cliff looks at Howard. “Got to hand it to him, Darryl is one brave pussy.”

The Olds fills up within a matter of minutes and even the energetic Cliff is slowing down and clutching at the small of his back by the time they get the last crates into the back of the car.

“It’s not enough,” Howard says.

“How many do you need?” Darryl says through clenched teeth. He paces in short bursts alongside the car, his eyes looking up and down the street. “We need to get the hell out of here.”

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl,” Cliff says. “How many more, Howie?”

Howard turns numbers over in his mind but they no longer add up to anything. “Five or six more crates.”

“Well, Howie, in case you haven’t noticed,” Darryl hisses, pausing his pacing to get close to Howard’s face and gesture at the wagon. “The car is full.”

“Shutthefuckup, Darryl,” Cliff says. “I brought rope. We get six more crates and put them on top and tie them down.”

#

 Howard looks at Darryl’s Oldsmobile as he places the last dusty crate of vinyl on the wagon’s perfect chrome roof rack. The car sags on its springs, the rear tires practically touching the top of the wheel wells. Darryl frowns like someone who farted only to find out it was more than gas.

“Christ,” Darryl says, looking at the sagging car. “This is a ’88 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. My dad left me this car. It’s a classic.”

“It’s a station wagon for chrissakes,” Cliff hisses. “Just get in and start the damn thing, will ya?”

Darryl hikes his shoulders up like a tense child. “Okay, okay.” He gets in and slams the huge door closed. Howard winces at the sound, looking over his shoulder. The Olds fires up with a roar. The 455 cubic inch V-8 engine sounds as though it’s ready to bounce out through the hood.

Howard starts wrapping the white nylon rope through the gaps in the plastic crates on the roof.

“What are you doing, Howie?” Cliff asks. “ We’re done here. Let’s go.”

Howard continues winding the rope in through a rear window. “Yeah, I know. But we can’t lose any of these.”

“We got more than enough.” Cliff grabs Howard’s arm. “Get in. Now.” He opens he back door and shoves Howard in. Cliff jumps in the passenger seat. “Alright, Darryl. Punch it!”

Darryl eases into the street. The big car feels like rubber raft full of water, bloated and ponderous.

Jesus, Darryl, I said punch it. I mean fucking punch it! We ain’t going to fucking Disneyland.” Cliff pounds his fist on the top of the dashboard. Darryl hits the gas for real this time and the engine pushes them all back in their seats. The car careens away and Howard hears the rear tires whine as the rubber hits the top of the wheel wells with every dip in the pavement. Cliff whoops with joy on every bounce.

Howard scrabbles outside the window to grab the loose end of the rope and pull it in. He struggles to tie the crates against the roof as the car tosses him back and forth across the vinyl seats. Finally he’s able to lash the two lines together and tighten the knot. He falls back into the seat, with sigh.

Cliff spins in his seat back to Howard. “We did it,” he says and bursts out in a laugh. An enormous grin spreads across his face, showing his cigarette-tinted teeth. “Pretty good for a bunch of clerks, hunh?” He slaps Darryl on the shoulder, then flinches at the bared teeth flashing back.

Darryl is moving fast on the deserted Southeast Portland roads. They take another sharp turn, and Howard imagines the boxes on the roof launching themselves into someone’s front yard. He yanks down on the rope to tighten it.

“You didn’t tell me this street has speed bumps,” Darryl says.

“Keep going. We’ve got to get downtown,” Cliff says.

The wagon hits the first speed table, a crash reverberates through the frame with the sound of scraping metal.

“I’m sorry, Dad!” Darryl yells.

“Keep on it. We’re almost to Burnside.” Cliff’s head is swiveling. Howard can’t remember ever seeing him so excited.

They finally lurch onto Burnside Street, boxes threatening again to fly from the top of the car. Now it’s a straight shot over the river and into the heart of the city. We’re going to make it, Howard thinks. We can do this.

He looks back to see if there’s anyone behind them. He only spots a single car far down the road, but he can just make out the square silhouette on its roof as it passes under a street light.

“The cops,” Howard says.

“No shit, Howie. We’re the cops, right?” Cliff says and continues to watch the road. “King Kong aint got nothin’ on us!”

“No, man, real cops. Behind us.”

“No way,” Darryl says, his terror plain to Howard in the rearview mirror. “Are you sure?”

Howard looks back again over the heaps of old music. It’s way back there, but it’s definitely the police. He can just make out the ram bumper wrapping the front of the white car like a muzzle on an open-mouthed shark.

“It’s them,” Howard says. “We’re screwed.”

“Okay, Big D, let’s see what this car can really do,” Cliff says through a gaping smile.

The Custom Cruiser responds to Darryl’s foot. Snapping into a lower gear, the engine calls out like a NASCAR champion. They catch air over the last hill down to the river, hurtling toward the Burnside Bridge. They are all weightless. The overloaded wagon’s shocks are given a reprieve until they once again smash to a landing. The roof grunts as the crates crash down.

A lone crate tumbles off the rear. Howard watches it in slow motion as the plastic hits the pavement and explodes, spewing dozens of albums. A single record has flown free of its sleeve and rolls down the road on its own adventure.

The police car is back beyond the rise and out of sight. Howard sits forward enough to check the speedometer and regrets it. The orange needle mocks the 100 mark.

Darryl squeezes the wheel of the barreling Olds and screams, “The bridge is going up!”

The lights flash at the side of the bridge. The roadway rises before them.

“Stop,” Howard yells.

“Don’t stop,” Cliff yells.

“The bridge is going up!”

“We can make it!”

“No, Cliff!” Howard is wide-eyed.

“We can make it, go faster!”

The front tires of the Oldsmobile hit the angled roadway with a force that feels like its frame will crack in two. Howard’s hands grip the seat like talons. All of them are howling as the car rockets over the opening.

Howard watches the homeless lining the sidewalks on the far side of the bridge roll over in their stained sleeping bags to witness a station wagon leaping the open drawbridge. The big-block engine wails over the Willamette River, suspends, falls, plummets. The front tires catch the pavement on the far side. A shower of sparks twenty feet high erupt from the rear of the car as it lands and continues to spout from under the vehicle and its ruined suspension as the Olds blasts downtown like a satellite reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

#

 Cliff picks up another record album, enters it on the green glowing terminal and laughs. “I want to be there when they open those boxes, expecting Charlie Parker and getting all this techno shit, and it all matches the records. It’s like you said, Darryl – we’re subverting justice.”

Darryl types furiously at his terminal. “You destroyed my car,” he says.

“Will you guys just shut up and enter this stuff? Howard’s throat is dry with anxiety. He looks up at the wall clock, the second hand storms around the clock, raining precious minutes of freedom. Three minutes to go and one hundred albums left, they’re never going to make it.

#

 “Three, two, one.” Cliff says, as the second hand hits nine o’clock. The bell rings, Howard jumps. Cliff laughs. “Right on time.”

“We’re not done,” Howard says, blinking sweat from his eyes.

Cliff picks up the phone. “What? Hey, I’m off duty, you need to talk to Howard.” He holds the phone at arms length. “Hey, Howard,” he yells. “They come for the records.” He whistles silently for a moment and pulls the phone to his ear. “Hold your horses, Howard’s taking a crap, it could be a while, he had a bad bagel…I don’t know, maybe it was the jalapeno cream cheese, why you so interested? He’s back there moaning, ‘it burns, it burns’. What do I know?

“Yeah, sure, the judge is going to throw slap him with contempt of court for taking a crap. The Union will love that.” He smiles and waves lazily at Howard and Darryl to hurry up. “Okay, hold your horses, I think I hear him coming now,” he says as Howard enters the last album.

Howard gives a thumbs up. Cliff lifts the phone to his ear again. “Yeah, he’s loading it all now, how many guys you got there? Don’t know how you’re going to cart that all yourself.” He pauses. “What?” He laughs. “You’re kidding…. Yeah, he’s on his way.” He hangs up turns to Howard, his face serious. “You fucked up big time.”

Howard’s heart claws at his throat. “What?”

“They’re here for the records on the John and Katherine Byrd divorce case.” He starts to laugh, “You idiot, they want the Byrd records, not Bird’s records.” He breaks into guffaws until he sees his friend’s stony faces. “What’s the matter?”

“Didn’t we just hock their stuff last week?” Howard asks.

“We’re fucked.” Darryl says.

© 2012 Jason LaPier, Wes Boyd, and Brian Reid

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