Check out this excerpt of Christopher Meeks’ thriller Blood Drama and if you like it (I know you will!) come back tomorrow for a guest post by Meeks and a chance to win an e-book.
“Coffee?” Ian said in the discomfort of Professor Cromley’s office. The place looked like a small book depository with a view and a Mr. Coffee machine.
“Ian… Ian… Look, Ian. I’m—”
“I just thought we were meeting with—”
“Without me? I don’t understand.”
“Coffee?” said the gray-bushy-haired man, pouring himself a cup. “Maybe some coffee would put you at ease.”
“But the committee—”
“So I’ll get to the point. We don’t think you’ve shown enough progress in your dissertation.”
“Two hundred pages?”
“You’re taking the wrong approach on Mamet.”
“It’s still a work in progress.”
“People are like gloves,” Cromley said. “And sometimes they don’t fit. It’s not just the dissertation. It’s your whole performance in the program.”
Ian felt a rage building, but that wouldn’t help. A better approach was needed. He calmed himself as best as he could, flattening the new blue silk tie he’d bought for the occasion against his blazer. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “Maybe we’ve miscommunicated in the last few meetings. You’d given me certain dates, and I’ve kept to those dates.”
“We debated long and hard, Ian,” said the professor, sitting. The man looked toward Ian but not at Ian, as if delivering sad news to a war vet’s spouse. “Your research isn’t breaking new ground, and the recent problem with the class you taught—”
“I can’t help low enrollment.”
“I’m talking about your blow-up with that student—”
“Her rant against men—”
The rest of the meeting felt like a slow-motion crash. He was out of the program, as easy as lights out at the end of a play. He stared out Cromley’s window at the wide view of campus, at modern buildings tucked into the green landscape, at trees still lush in October, their leaves blowing like moving fingers. The view was as if from Mt. Olympus. Was Cromley a god?
As Ian Nash drove his twelve-year-old Corolla the fifty miles north on Interstate 5 from the University of California Irvine campus back to his South Pasadena rental, he kept replaying the conversation. He was a glove? He didn’t fit the program? If it don’t fit, you must acquit, he thought. Ian had paid the tuition and taught. He attended the classes. Just because one undergraduate student was out of line was no reason to be thrown out of the program.
“Don’t think of it as failing,” Cromley had said. “Think of it as an opportunity to do something else.”
That was outright snide. What would he do now for money? What would he do now for his life?
He was so consumed with these thoughts, he missed the Marmion Way turnoff on the Pasadena Freeway, which, if you weren’t looking for it, came up so fast around a bend, you’d zoom by it as he did. Ian exited at Orange Grove, and, again so caught up in his thoughts, he drove without paying attention. He would need a job. What would he do for work without his degree? And what was to be learned here? After all, as David Mamet wrote in his book, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, “We have our ability to learn a lesson, which is our survival mechanism.” The lesson was he needed money to live.
On Fair Oaks Boulevard in South Pasadena, moments after he decided he could use a coffee now, Ian noticed the logo of Carrie’s Coffee on the Landwest Bank Building. He wondered would Professor Cromley call that a “deus ex machina,” a coincidental ending? An ending to what? His morning? No, sometimes coincidences happened.
The gold-painted brick building stood out from its neighbor, the pharmacy. Carrie’s Coffee paid well, he remembered one of his students saying in a directing seminar he’d taught. The small franchise had a health program and offered flexible hours. Amber, his former undergraduate student, made manager in no time at a Carrie’s and loved the place. Perfect. He turned into the open lot. Ian would apply to Carrie’s. He wasn’t the kind of guy to mope around. He wouldn’t let Cromley get the best of him.
Inside, Ian was surprised to see that Carrie’s was part of the grand marble-floored bank lobby. Potted plants, mahogany wainscoting on the walls, and the same wood was used for the open teller area and the Carrie’s counter. It gave the place a friendly feel. Tables and chairs were for the coffee drinkers, and comfortable leather seats were placed near the inset fireplace with burning gas logs. This would be a great place to work.
Ten minutes later, a Carrie’s application before him, Ian sipped his coffee and shook his lucky Cross pen hard in a swift metronome motion to force all the blue to hit the tip. The pen hadn’t been lucky for him with Cromley. Ian made incessant circles on the back of the application. He knocked the pen against his wrist and made circles again. The pen came back to life.
He glanced around. Bank business was brisk. A long line stretched all the way back to Carrie’s tables. It was a Friday, after all. People were cashing paychecks or getting money for the weekend. There were more people working than he expected.
Ian returned his attention to his application and filled out most of it. “Salary desired” said one of the last spaces. As an undergraduate lecturer, he’d been making over forty dollars an hour, but he couldn’t get that here. What was minimum wage these days? He didn’t know. Was fifteen dollars an hour too much to ask for? He wrote it in, scratched it out and wrote in sixteen. Maybe it should be less, and he scratched out the whole space. Now it was too sloppy. He folded the application in half and put it in his blazer. He’d ask for another. He laid down the pen, took a sip of coffee, and looked around again. It was a great place to watch people as they came from all directions.
Ian spotted a woman with a white scarf come from the hallway and restrooms to the left of the teller area. She sashayed toward him like a model, wearing tight jeans and a killer push-up halter-top in green, and, despite her sunglasses, Ian knew their eyes connected because she smiled. He smiled. Definite connection. She then fiddled in her purse, standing at the end of the banking line near him. Today was working out after all. Another possibility: she could be Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. She was gorgeous, had that sense of intelligence, and might be looking for kindness from strangers. Maybe she would be the one, his one, the one who’d make the last relationship fiasco with Pierra just a stumble on his path—not to mention the vitriol from his female student, the one who’d gotten him fired. How could he get her attention again? He cleared his throat. Nothing. Then he sneezed really hard. She and a few others in the line turned around. “Gesundheit,” she said. Their eyes connected again.
“Thanks,” he replied. She returned to her purse and pulled out a gun. She shouted, “This is a holdup. Everyone lie on the floor. Shut your eyes!”
The tellers and everyone dropped. So did the people at Carrie’s. So did Ian. Only the music playing in the background, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” kept going. Stewart said, “Oh, Maggie.”
Ian’s blood pounded so loudly in his ears, and his breath came with such difficulty, that he thought he might pass out. He shouldn’t have come here. Coincidence again? He could hear Cromley quoting Mamet from Ian’s dissertation: “It is difficult, finally, not to see our lives as a play with ourselves as hero.” He didn’t feel heroic in the least. Was this determinism at work? If he hadn’t missed his exit, he would have been home and would have missed this. We are what we do.
Ian could hear footsteps near him, one set, then another. Accomplices? Ian didn’t see any of the action because his cheek lay against the marble floor and his eyes were closed. Best to do what they wanted. He could hear movement in the teller area, then sounds of bank drawers opening.
Ian opened one eye. People lay around him like fallen mannequins, unmoving. The hold-up woman’s legs were like denim saplings. She wore tight boots with sharp heels.
A shot rang out, then another, and Ian squeezed both eyes so hard he’d hope it’d keep all bullets away. A man screamed in agony.
“Why’d you do that?” shouted the woman.
“He had a gun,” her male accomplice yelled back.
Ian looked. Who got shot?
“Help… me,” groaned a male voice.
Ian lifted his head. The woman pressed hard on the guard’s shoulder to stop blood, which covered his shirt and her hand. She looked upset about it, ripping the guard’s shirt to make a tourniquet. Two men were behind the tellers’ counter bagging money. One of them, a tall burly guy with perspired underarms, had a ski mask on, but the other, a thinner man, had no mask, only a thin mustache, sunglasses, and a baseball cap. No one else moved.
Ian quickly lay back down, but he was breathing faster. If he died, would anyone know to call his parents in Winnipeg? Would they care if he died? Did anything in his wallet say Winnipeg?
At least he was in his good blazer and pants. His mother had told him as a kid to always wear clean underwear in case he was found dead that day. Today might be the day, and he had not only clean underwear, but also a new silk tie from Macy’s, one he bought for the committee. Maybe he shouldn’t have worn good clothes and clean underwear. Maybe the grim reaper would stay away if he’d worn yesterday’s boxers and a dolphin T-shirt from Tijuana.
“Zetta,” shouted the gunman. “Leave him be. We gotta go.”
He said her name? That wasn’t bright, thought Ian.
“Keep bagging,” Zetta said back. In a softer voice she added, “You shouldn’t have done this.” Ian again looked up. He had to see. There was blood on the marble. Zetta, however, was twisting a tourniquet on the guard’s upper arm. The guard was totally immobile, breathing hard, and his eyes stared toward the ceiling. The man looked to be in shock, perhaps even close to death.
A siren broke the silence. No—there were sirens, plural.
“It’s past two minutes,” said the man with the mustache in a high voice and sweaty face.
“To the car,” said the woman, jumping up, and the two men bounded over the counter.
“A hostage,” said the burly guy. “Which one?” Ian kept low, thinking to himself, please no, please no.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“How about one of the tellers?”
“The woman by your feet?”
“No,” said Zetta.
Not me, not me, not me, thought Ian.
The woman said, “Him!” and Ian’s heart leapt, hoping it was someone else, but he was prodded.
“You!” said the ski-masked man who yanked Ian up. “Go!” The man shoved what had to be a gun into Ian’s neck. Ian stumbled forward, his mind whirling, wondering if he’d live out the hour.
“Hurry,” said the man.
Two people lying on the floor, a young man in blue jeans and a white T-shirt near the front door and a young woman, perhaps his girlfriend, in a yellow short dress, sprang up panicked as if this were their only chance. Stupid! Ian thought, and the gun behind Ian exploded twice more. The young woman fell with just a thud, her head now showing brains, and the young man shouted, his white T-shirt starting to turn red on the side. Shit, shit, they’re dead, I’m dead thought Ian.