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I MAY LOOK LIKE ROBERT FROST BUT I FEEL JUST LIKE JESSE JAMES by Steven Nester

A gun in hand is worth two in the….

Finishing that line required getting out in the field. Maybe if I hadn’t tried two people would still be alive. I’m a crime writer. Okay, an unpublished crime writer, but an honest man. If I have a flaw, it’s a lack of criminal experience. I’ve fired plenty of guns, I know every donut shop in town, and my police scanner gets me to murder scenes quicker than homicide, but I’ve never been inside the yellow crime scene tape. I needed to know how it felt to hold a gun to a man’s head as he weighed his life against the money in his pocket. Should be a lay-up shot. Pay the bad guy and live.

Javier, whom I’d just met, was an acquaintance many times removed. He was looking for a good soldier, and when he slapped a loaded 9mm in my hand I thought we were square, like he knew what he was doing. It was his tattoos. I believed them. They weren’t the crude blue ink of jailhouse art; they were professional, a resume that told a story of success on the street and hands-on knowledge of gunplay. The illustrated gunman, I thought. I pulled out my pocket notebook and wrote it down.

He tossed me a ski mask and I pulled it over my face. It stank of junky and bum, but it was atmosphere I was after, so I took a deep breath and embraced it. The pointers Javier gave me on the ride over I recorded as well. We pulled in front of a corner store in a desolate industrial area and he gave me some final advice.

“Put the gun into your waistband and leave it there,” he said. “Touch the trigger and
you’ll blow your balls off.”

Hey, that was a keeper. I jotted it down.

“And leave dear diary in the car,” he said. “We’re on.”

We pulled down our masks. Javier kicked open the door and was all business. The cashier knew what was happening.

“Okay, friend, let’s go, give it up,” Javier said.

I couldn’t resist pointing my gun at the guy’s chest, my finger on the trigger. I felt a slight give. Just a bit more pressure, I thought, and the bullets would fly. It had me thinking what the fuck. You want experience? Do Javier. Take the money and mail it back. One less dirt bag, so who’d care? It scared me and I backed off. Fuck this shit. I wanted out, but it was too late.

I lowered my gun, and the cashier raised a sawn-off shotgun and fired. Javier folded in half and flew across the room. This was not supposed to happen. Asshole was supposed to give us the money and we were supposed to leave. I ripped the mask off and dove behind a rack of junk food. He fired again and dusted every bag of Doritos, showering me in a snowstorm of chips. More notebook material.

“Hey,” I said, “Don’t shoot. I’m just a writer.”

I threw my gun across the floor. That was a mistake.

“Fuck you,” the guy said. He was lining up a shot using the security mirrors. He’d done this before. He fired through the candy bars and I caught chocolate covered birdshot in the belly. Christ, it hurt, but it had a nice ring to it. Wish I had the notebook. This guy was going to notch me into his grip if it was the last thing he did so I scuttled to Javier. He was dead. I took his gun and fired again and again to where I thought the clerk was as I crawled to the door. He fell over the counter and the sawn-off dropped.

I tossed the pistol Javier’s way, staggered onto a passing bus, and sat next to a school kid.

“You bleeding,” he said. “You need help. What’s your name?”

I needed a nom de plume, a nom de guerre, a nom de-get-me-out-of-here.

“Robert Frost.”

“Robert Frost,” he echoed as I held my gut.

“A poet,” I said.

“You don’t look like no poet. You hurt bad, man. All that blood and shit. You an outlaw, bro.”

“It hurts to be an outlaw,” I said, and held the napkin he’d handed me to my belly. The line I couldn’t finish, the gun, the hand, the two of whatever. It was now three, three in the grave as I began to nod off.

Steven Nester is the longtime host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a mystery-fiction author interview podcast that can be heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. In addition, he is a freelance writer whose fact and fiction has appeared in The Rap Sheet, January Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Mystery Scene, Plots with Guns, Down and Out, and Firsts Magazine among many others. He lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

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