DECISION by Michael Bracken

After Tony Black stumbled into the flophouse room where he’d stashed the peroxide blonde, he fished the last cigarette from the crumpled pack he’d been carrying around all day, straightened it, and trapped one end between his swollen lips. He lit it with his father’s silver Zippo–the only thing the old man left behind when he abandoned Tony’s mother–and inhaled deeply. After a moment he let the smoke out and turned his attention to the woman on the bed.

“Was it worth it?” Stella asked. “Was it worth getting your face busted up like that?”

Tony didn’t answer because he didn’t know the answer. He took another long drag on the cigarette. “What do we got to drink?”

“We got nothin’, Tony,” she said. “I poured out the last of the rye when you said you was goin’ straight.”

“I shouldn’t’ve said nothin’,” he said. “I said a lot’f things I shouldn’t’ve said.”

“You said you loved me. Is that one of the things you shouldn’t’ve said?”

“I wouldn’t’ave done what I done if I didn’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t’a tried to talk to Big Mike. We just would’a left town.”

“You bein’ square with me, Tony?”

“Yeah, baby, I am.”

The blonde rose from the bed and smoothed her skirt down to her knees. “Let me get somethin’ to wash off the blood.”

Tony took another long draw from the cigarette and held it until Stella returned with a damp washcloth. She pushed off his battered fedora and wiped at his bruised and bloody face. “I can’t believe you done it for me.”

“I done it for both of us, baby. You know I did.”

Tony coughed, and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

The blonde’s eyes widened. “It ain’t just your face, is it, Tony?”

He took another long draw of his cigarette as she pushed open his trench coat and saw the blood-soaked shirt beneath.

“Gut shot,” he said.

“We need to get you to a sawbones mighty quick.”

“There ain’t time.”

“Don’t say that, Tony,” the blonde said. “There’s got to be time. I ain’t done lovin’ you.”

“You will be soon.”

“Don’t say that, Tony. Don’t say that at all.”

She tried to kiss him, but Tony turned his face away.

“I never should’ve tried to take you away from Big Mike. Ain’t nobody can reason with him. I never should’ve told you I loved you. I never should’ve–” He took his last drag from the cigarette and dropped the butt on the hardwood floor. “They followed me, Stella. They followed me here.”

Tony pulled a .38 from his coat pocket. The grip was slick with his blood, but he pressed it into her hand.

“There’s only one bullet left, baby, so you gotta choose,” Tony said. He coughed up blood, sank onto the bed, and closed his eyes. “Come with me or go back to Big Mike.”

Tony exhaled his last breath as the door burst open and Stella raised the .38.

Michael Bracken, recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement, is author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, and forthcoming in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.

Copyright © 2018 Michael Bracken. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.