Department of First Stories

Palmetto Springs

by Jeremy Herbert

Bernie whipped his tail across the sink, scattered the little shampoos like bowling pins, and made Sherm wonder if he should’ve gone with a smaller alligator. Would’ve been easier to haul from his truck to the hotel room. Easier to cram into the shower. A helluva lot lighter, for one thing.

Bernie’s fat snout bumped open the bathroom door and he hissed.

“Quit whinin’ before I give you something to whine about,” said Sherm with an exhausted wheeze. It was an empty threat, and Bernie knew as much. Another bump, another hiss. His ridge-backed tail smacked Sherm’s ribs. He grunted at what felt like butter knives jabbing his side.

No, Bernie was the perfect size for the plan, Sherm thought, through the pain. Any smaller and he’d only nibble. Any bigger and Sherm’s back would’ve given out. Bernie was the perfect size for portability, and the perfect size for murder.

“C’mon, you big bastard,” Sherm spat. Bernie’s deceptively tiny arms slapped against the doorframe. Sherm pushed. Bernie didn’t need to push back; those tiny arms were nothing but muscle. “All right, that’s it.”

Sherm took two steps back and charged. The bathroom door bounced off Bernie’s snout. He hissed like a gas leak. Sherm didn’t stop until they hit the shower curtain and almost fell straight into the stained plastic tub. Bernie saw a chance and took it before Sherm had any say in the matter.

The alligator lunged out of Sherm’s embrace fast enough to leave tracks. Sherm gritted his teeth until the tail caught up with the rest of Bernie and bashed him in the jaw. He crumpled against the bathroom door like a puppet cut from its strings, his weight slamming it shut. Sherm slumped to the cracked tile floor before regaining any relevant motor functions. He opened his eyes for what felt like the first time and stared at the lone fluorescent light overhead, waiting for divine instruction, until his vision sobered up and dimmed it until the dead mosquitoes crept back in around the edges. Then the sound came back. The bad-engine rattle of a pissed-off alligator.

“Oh!” Sherm said. “Oh!” Bernie flailed and fought at the shower curtain until one of his marble eyes peeked over the lip of the tub and into Sherm’s weaker parts. He scrambled to his feet, slipping on the tiles, until he reached the handle and flung the door open.

The last thing Sherm saw as he shut the door was Bernie’s tail slapping the yellowed soap dish carved out of the wall. He could still hear the plastic struggle as he turned to the sink and took stock of himself.

Sherman “Sherm” Fisk’s arms looked like the angry aftermath of a tic-tac-toe tournament nobody won. He shook his head, but didn’t bother testing for pain; after twenty years working whichever alligator farm was too new to Central Florida to know any better, everything below the neck was mostly scar tissue. Sherm stood as straight as his wiry frame allowed and looked at the mirror, looked himself in the eye. What remained above the neck was starting to look an awful lot like scar tissue, too. Sherm rubbed at a pink patch where Bernie had landed his uppercut and gave up just as fast. “Dumb bastard,” he said, looking at his reflection. “Dumb bastard.”

The rooms at The Palm Springs Hotel were only differentiated by disrepair. Most rooms on the ground floor had only jagged screw holes to prove there were ever door locks. Sherm’s was no exception, and even the door to the neighboring room had the guts hammered out of its handle. Only a few TVs were actually stolen because there’s little aftermarket value for a 1990 Zenith, but the survivors had scars unique to each of them. A missing volume-down button here, a stoved-in screen there. The pool was a swamp. The mattresses smelled like strip clubs. The mini-fridges didn’t even plug into anything. The hotel was too far down the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway to be of much use to tourists making a pilgrimage for a cartoon mouse. But a room at The Palm Springs ran $30 a night and the owner only took cash.

For burnouts, rejects, and the morally dubious like Sherm, it might as well be the Ritz. The hotel earned a nickname among such seedy types, perhaps because of them—Palmetto Springs. Sherm rolled his neck until it protested and walked to the window overlooking the empty side of the hotel. A thick, muddy brown palmetto bug scurried from the broken air conditioner as Sherm rounded the bed. He stopped long enough to watch it disappear under the flowery comforter and shook his head. Only in Florida would they try to make the cockroaches sound tropical too.

Sherm’s view was par for the course. The open flatbed of his rust-adorned pickup extended almost to the smudged glass. Beyond it was a strip of loose gravel just wide enough to count as a road and unkempt marsh on the other side. Wildlife he could only imagine slithered between knotty roots and bubbled under dark water. Home sweet home, Sherm thought.

He stepped out long enough for the heavy heat to calm him down and dry him out. Mr. Juan Carmel would be arriving in a half-hour, or so he promised, and that was more than enough time to visit the vending machine. Sherm shut his flatbed and locked it, then pulled a ratty denim shirt out of the passenger seat. Sweat glued it to him as soon as he pulled it on, but the sleeves fell over his fresh scratches and that was all he needed it to do.

The parking lot for the rest of the hotel sat on its longer side and only had a handful of cars to prove the place wasn’t abandoned. Sherm took special note of each of them, but none struck him as familiar. Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was nerves, but Sherm didn’t much care to think about the other temporary residents of Palmetto Springs. His mind wandered back to the plan. Back to how he was going to kill Mr. Juan Carmel.

Or Mr. John Carmel, Sherm reminded himself. He was only Juan Carmel to everyone he wanted to impress. Said Floridians trusted a Juan more than a John. Sherm didn’t know if that was racist or not, but he sure knew it was chickenshit. Hell, Sherm didn’t know too many pale, redheaded Juans. But John said it was an “image thing.” Sherm asked if hiring a gator-farm handler to scare business away from a gift shop on prime real estate with a few carefully placed animals was an “image thing.” He couldn’t remember what John said back, but it didn’t matter. Sherm smiled as he leaned against the lonely vending machine beside the front office of Palmetto Springs.

It was an old boxy kind of machine, with a Pepsi logo peeling off the front glass. Sherm bent to check if anyone forgot to take theirs and came up empty-handed. Between him and the machine, he had to admit that was funny, trying to play it cheap over pocket change. Once John Carmel, Orlando timeshare magnate, made his entrance and Sherm provided his exit, the alligator-handler-that-could would be a very rich man.

A few pounds on the bank of buttons and a 7UP banged out the bottom. It wasn’t what he’d ordered. He didn’t care. Sherm downed half the can in one tip. It helped that it was about as flat as the Keys. Maybe he’d move there, Sherm thought. But he shook that away.

“Plan before profit,” he said to the dead parking lot. “Plan before profit.”

Mr. John Carmel would walk in with his Don Johnson suit and Krylon tan and smile like he wasn’t stuck between a rock and five hundred thousand dollars. How did we end up here? he would ask with a laugh and a smile.

Sherm grinned like a gator in the sun. We ended up here because you flinched, my friend. He swirled the dregs around the can and paused to watch the road along the front of the hotel. A few cars passed, mostly rentals, mostly tourists. A billboard stood between two untended palms and provided a sun-bleached ad for a gun range. Sherm laughed and finished his drink—who comes to the vacation capital of the world to work on their aim?

He closed the door to his room behind him and fell back onto the bed. A stale cocktail of cleaning solution and cheap perfume slithered out from under the sheet, but Sherm didn’t care. He lost himself in the stucco canyons on the ceiling. Lost himself in just how he ended up in Palmetto Springs.

It was Scooby-Doo bullshit. Was from the minute Carmel hired him. Leave some gators in the underbrush around The World’s Largest Gift Shop and scare off business until the Arab has to sell the place. It was one of eight World’s Largest Gift Shops in the Greater Orlando area, but the only one in the way of Carmel’s next resort. Sherm didn’t know why he even agreed when it was that easy. Well, that’s a lie—money—but it didn’t make much sense—a lot of money—because tourists leave disappointed if they don’t see an alligator—a whole lot of money. But then the Arab—it was an F name—had to take a shotgun to one of the scaly bastards and get himself arrested.

Bernie pulled the shower rod down and derailed Sherm’s train of thought long enough for him to sit up. The alligator in the bathroom was restless. It was mad. It was hungry. Sherm lay back down.

Of course, the Arab getting arrested was the best thing that could’ve happened to Sherm and John Carmel. Hard to keep a store running when the owner’s in prison. Sherm heard an engine die outside and stared at the door until the only sound was the calming white noise of cicadas, mosquitoes, and other tropical pests. Still, Sherm got up and checked the room-temperature mini-fridge to make sure his brand new Dirty Harry hand cannon hadn’t grown legs. Someone at the ranch stole his last pistol within the week and he wasn’t about to let anybody, even himself, sneak off with this one. Satisfied Bernie hadn’t eaten the gun in his absence, Sherm slapped water on his face.

Neither of them expected the wily old son of a bitch to post bail and come knocking on their doors. But the wily old son of a bitch also didn’t expect Carmel to grow a pair and ask Sherm nicely to feed Mr. F-name Arab to the biggest alligator on the ranch.

Sherm pulled at his eyes until his sight blurred sideways. Well, Carmel didn’t specifically mention feeding anyone to anything; he just told Sherm to improvise. Sherm was good at improvising. He smiled at his reflection and his reflection smiled back. That’s why Sherm decided he could blackmail the upstanding Mr. Juan Carmel. He figured five hundred thousand was enough to make him take notice but not enough to make him think it was a bluff. And that’s why John Carmel would have no reason to suspect he’d die in the belly of Bernie the alligator in Room 122 of the Palm Springs Hotel.

I taped the evidence to the inside of the toilet tank, Mr. Car-mel. Out of my hands. Out of yours. You don’t even have to give me the money first. Just go on in there and take a peek. Easy does it, see? Sherm definitely heard a car door slam that time. He took a precautionary stride to the mini-fridge and ducked like he was just sliding some fresh, flat 7UPs in for his business partner and pal. The prickly grip bit into his palm. His finger laid a tense bridge across the trigger guard.

 

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Copyright © 2018. Palmetto Springs by Jeremy Herbert