Shithole. If you cleaned it up some. Ness had been in worse though. He coughed—something cool and thick rose into the back of his mouth and he spat reflexively. A scurrilous wad of mucus tinged with blood landed heavily with a wet unsavory sonance to lie like a stillborn slug. The cough was accompanied by a searing pain in his chest, but the intimation of the mortality bearing down on him left no mark upon him. The viscid love letter from the cancer in his lungs quivered briefly and then was still. It seemed at home there among the refused and casually discarded constituency of debris.
The glass that had covered the bottom the the gas station door—if it had ever existed—had long since gone the way of good intentions. In its place was an ill-fitting board, filthy and so warped it it failed entirely to keep out the dust borne reluctantly on the back of even the most dilatory breeze. A pale dun dust, talc-fine and wholly unsuited to supporting life of any description. It hung in the air unseen and coated everything, desperate to hitch a ride out. Anywhere else.
Ness opened the door and entered. He regarded the building's single human occupant in a half-light of sun that seeped dully through filthy, oily windowpanes and dappled the interior through holes in the wall. Some of them appeared to be bullet holes. The man might have been dead except he didn't have enough dust on him to have been there for very long.
Ness cleared his throat, interrupting the affairs of another lung slug, but failing to provoke its premature launch. “Stiger.” he said.
There was no detectable sequel to the utterance. Ness almost wondered if the man really might be dead after all. But he knew better.
“Hairpin Stiger,” he tried again.
“He's not here.” The bleary voice drifted up from where the mouth likely lay in a head that appeared to have tumbled wearily from the man's shoulders and come to rest on his filthy arm. “So fuck off.”
“I need to talk to you, Stiger...”
“I said he ain't here, mister. Don't work here no more. So fu....”
“You're Stiger.” It was a statement, not a question and it was delivered with such arresting and decisive authority that the man defied entropy and raised his head to regard the stranger through blurry eyes.”
“Your name is Joshua Stiger. You are twenty four years old as of the Wednesday before last. You have two brothers—one dead now—and two sisters who ran away from home before your father finally managed to drink himself to death. Your father murdered your mother and told everyone she ran off with a salesman from up north. You have only four toes on your left food because a snapper bit one off when you were eight. You told your mother it happened while you were sitting on the dock with your feet in the water, but it really happened when you and your brother were tormenting it on the road. They call you “Hairpin” because...”
“Alright,” the man interjected softly. “I reckon I know why they call me Hairpin and I guess you do too. How the fuck you know all that anyway?”
Ness shrugged. “Saw it,” he said simply.
“See-er.” Hairpin nodded slowly. “Shoulda knowed. Momma really didn't run out on us?”
”Only thing she ran out of was luck and time, son. My name's Nesset Gish. Ness will do.”
Hairpin regarded the man for a long, quiet moment. Old, by the look of him. Worn. What was left of his hair was white—mirrored by white stubble on his chin and cheeks. His skin was brown but it was hard to tell how much of that was put there by the sun and how much by his bloodline. Some of it was grime.
Hairpin shrugged. “OK. So you found me—so what do you want?”
“I need you to...”
Just then the door opened and a fat man in a clean suit barged in. “I need gas...”
“You need to wait your turn and mind your fucking manners. Can't you see I'm talking to this here gentleman?”
The fat man managed to look down his nose at Ness, although the old man was a head and shoulders taller at least. “I'm in a hurry...!” he protested.
“Then you'd best let me conclude my business with this here gentleman and stop fucking interrupting!”
Turning to Ness, he said “Let's talk outside.”
Ness followed him out. “You going to leave him in there with the cash?”
“Nothing to steal,” Hairpin said.
“Business been bad?”
“Place is closed. Been no gas in the tanks for nearly two years. Place ain't even mine, I just come in because my place blew down.”
Ness grinned. He hadn't seen that.
“You're a fixer.” It was the same tone of absolute authority he had used before. Hairpin didn't bother to deny it.
“You need fixin'?”
“Not me.” Ness fished for something in his pocket. There were no bites. He toured his other pockets methodically until he found what he sought. He retrieved a yellowing piece of newsprint—a newspaper. “Him.”
Hairpin made no move to take the paper. “Who is he?”
“Name is Hartman. Senator Hartman now—more than that if he lives.”
“An' if he don't?”
Ness leaned against the filthy wall and said nothing for a moment. Then, “What makes you happy, Hairpin? What is there in this life that puts that contented smile on your face and makes you think all the rest of this bullshit might just be worth it?”
It was Hairpin's turn to think. “Fishin',” he said at last. “I like to drive my truck up to the oxbow and drop a line in. Pull a fish or two out and fry 'em up in a pan there under the sky. That makes me happy.”
Ness looked Hairpin in the eye. “If this guy dies now, there won't be no fishing. No fish...no truck...”
Hairpin nodded slowly. “OK. Give...” he held out his hand and Ness filled it with the hope of the world, all folded and wrinkled and yellow. Hairpin looked at it. Hard. Handed it back.
“Fixed,” was all he said. Ness didn't have to ask if he was sure.
“Anything else I can do for you,” Hairpin asked.
“Nah, I'm good. What are you going to do with the guy inside?”
“I am going to teach Porky a valuable lesson is what I'm gonna do. He come out to the middle of fucking nowhere with no gas but a wallet full of money, like he can run a car on money. His kind think that money is magic or something. But it ain't, is it? You can't eat money, and you can't run your car on money, and when he finds out his fucking cellphone don't work out here he is maybe gonna finally understand that money ain't actually really a thing unless there is a meeting of the minds 'n' such. Only real if you believe and I'm feelin' a might skeptical.”
Ness laughed hard at that, and a detonation of pain wracked coughing launched the latest in a long line of increasingly large and bloody pneumocarcinogastopods from his mouth on its hopeful journey. Failing to achieve escape velocity, it plunged moistly to earth with a loud splat.
“Fuck,” Hairpin said. He looked Ness in the eye. “Fuck. How long you got?”
“Three months and eight days from now, at dusk, I will lay my weary bones down to sleep for the last time and I won't wake up again.”
“Doesn't have to be that way,” Hairpin said. “I can fix that. Easy.”
Ness smiled. “I don't think so, Hairpin. But thanks.”