Sanctuary! by J.M. Taylor

Tara and Chris had rented the Amvets Hall for the wedding. The room’s sliding partition was closed for the event. On the other side of the accordion wall, a group of senior women were holding their weekly knitting club meeting.

That left enough room for about fifty chairs in rows, then half a dozen tables on the edge of the postage stamp dance floor. Even that was more than they needed, since Chris had no one making the trip. Pat, the bartender, was setting up the last of the folding seats while Tara and Chris hung garlands along the walls. The high school kid they hired as a DJ was carting in his speakers. When they finished, Chris went to get the flowers from the car to decorate the small stage where they would stand for the ceremony.

As he crossed the small lot, he noticed a black SUV parked across the street, the engine running. He couldn’t see who sat inside, but whoever it was couldn’t have been too comfortable. The sun was beating straight down on the windshield. Probably a guest arriving too early.

He got the flowers, juggling the two pots until he had them nestled in his arms and a clear view. He imagined as he walked that the white sprays of blossoms looked like his angel wings. If only.

Back inside, he maneuvered down the aisle and placed the flowers on either corner of the stage. Pat manned his post behind the bar. There was an opening to a room beyond, the private side where only actual Amvets drank. Pat would work both sides as needed.

“Guests should start arriving soon,” Tara said. “I wish my parents were coming.”

“Let’s visit them for a honeymoon,” he said. “I’d like to meet them.”

She shook her head. “I swore I’d never go back there.”

Chris nodded. She hadn’t told him much, except her parents had moved down to Florida, sticking her with the house they refused to sell, even though they’d never set foot in it again. Free lodging kept her in a town she hated. At first, she’d visited fairly often, but then just stopped. She hadn’t seen them in two years. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get started on the rest of our lives.”

“Can’t wait,” Chris said, straightening up. He considered asking her about the SUV, then dismissed it. How would she know if it was someone they were expecting? What would it matter?

The DJ finished setting up his equipment, and now he started the tunes. Tara had told him to play mostly old stuff, since they both liked Petty and J. Geils. He warmed the place up with “Sanctuary,” one of her favorites.

An hour out, Tara’s matron of honor, a cow named Ashley, arrived. The two of them disappeared into the children’s play room to change into her wedding clothes. Ashley had never trusted Chris, and once had even tried to fuck him as a way of getting him away from Tara. She was an ok lay, but Tara believed him when he said he’d been at the rink watching a high school hockey game. Chris hit up Pat for a shot of Jack. “Nervous?” the tender asked.

“What about?” he said, knocking back the shot and nodding at the bottle for a refill. “Love is all, right?” He drank the second shot more slowly, considering the black SUV idling a few yards away. He wondered if maybe he was expecting someone after all.

He hadn’t been in town very long, just long enough to meet Tara at a roadhouse along the highway. He was at the end of a very long drive to get away from everywhere, and she was looking for a way to go anywhere. When Chris sidled up next to her at the bar, she was dressed for fun in heels and short skirt, and a gaze that looked beyond all the familiar faces around her. He wasn’t anything special, except that they’d never met and he still had the stink of incarceration hanging off his sallow skin. Made for each other.

After a couple of Black Russians, they each decided the other was all right, and he swept her off her feet into his boarding house bed. That was two months ago, the longest stretch he’d voluntarily been in one place as far back as he could remember. He even got himself a legit job, stocking shelves at a hardware store. He liked that the place was quiet, only ever seeing some old timer who needed a squirrel trap or a toilet flange. Chris would snake his way along the creaking wooden floor, find a dusty package and bring it up front. Boring. Stagnant. Safe.

Chris never thought he’d marry, but he figured this little town lost in the woods between New York and Boston would be safe enough. No one here knew him, and anyhow he’d had a different name back then. He’d been residing at a medium-security prison when he walked away during a forest-fire work detail. A running crown fire dropped a blazing branch between him and his partner, and he took the opportunity to duck through some rocks and make his way to safety, shedding his orange jumpsuit and swimming across a small river.

Marrying Tara would give him the cover he needed to start a new life as Chris Foster, family man. A couple of years to get a credit history, a resume, and then when he couldn’t stand her any more, he’d have what he needed to move on, an average member of society.

He was contemplating a third shot when Ashley came out of the play room to wait for the celebrant. She scowled at him, which made his decision. “Hit me again, Pat,” he said, ignoring Ashley’s withering glance. By the time she forced herself to talk to him, the Jack was making him generous.

“What are you drinking?” he asked her. She seemed to be leaning back, but it was just to keep the weight from pulling her forward.

“Like you care.” She looked at Pat. “Gimme a Sea Breeze.”

Chris put a ten on the bar as Pat delivered the drink. It was mostly juice, but what the hell.

“How’ve you been keeping yourself?” he asked. “Where are the kids? With their father today?”

“I let him take them for the weekend.” In the meantime, they both watched the first guests wander in, a bright-eyed middle aged couple who looked just too damn happy. They put a wrapped gift on the table near the door, then wandered aimlessly behind the last row of seats. The man looked like he wanted to join Chris at the bar, but the woman was pointing him towards the guest book with the giant feather quill pen.

“Good plan. Maybe you’ll meet someone at the wedding. You could bring him home without worrying they’d hear.”

She flushed and her mouth set into a hard line. She looked at her phone for the time. “Let’s forget that, and just get this shit over with, ok?” she muttered.

“Why don’t you go check on Tara?” he said. “Take her this.” He plucked a carnation from a centerpiece on the nearest table. “Tell her she’s my sweetheart.”

Ashley snatched the flower from him and marched towards the children’s playroom. Just then, the celebrant came in, a woman with a sensible haircut, carrying her graduation robe on a hanger. Ashley steered towards her in a wide arc, like a battleship turning. When she passed over the envelope, it reminded Chris of that one bad buy he’d been put away for, just over a year ago. The only time he’d been caught dealing after a series of petty crime busts.

But now the DJ was playing Tupac, as if that counted as old music. It sliced through Chris’s ear drums. Feeling the Jack, he waved off Pat’s offer for another, and escaped to the lobby before the end of the first track.

The back SUV had inched closer. It was still on the street, but now it was right against the parking lot wall. The driver was definitely keeping an eye on the place, and ducked back when Chris opened the door for some fresh air. He chewed the inside of his cheek. They weren’t going on a honeymoon, so it was no chauffeur. If it was someone out to apprehend a fugitive, Chris had just showed his face up close and clean shaven.

Nothing he could do about it, so he went inside. The DJ blasted “American Girl,” the signal to get started. Chris walked up the aisle to the waiting officiant. He shook her hand and she said something about a special day. He smiled, hoping it was the right response. Between the music and thoughts of who might be waiting outside, it was hard to tell.

When the song ended, Ashley appeared at the large doorway. She held a bouquet of red roses in front of her like a shield. The light shining through the glass door softened her edges and hid her face, and Chris could almost forget her bovine attitude. At a nod from the woman in the robe, she began her procession past the tables and down the aisle. Phones appeared in the air, recording and flashing her progress.

When Ashley had crossed half the room, Tara appeared to oohs and ahhs from the guests. Chris even had a moment of real happiness and excitement. She looked beautiful, and he imagined them as an old couple. Oddly, in his vision, he owned the hardware store, and she was knitting behind the counter while he sold squirrel traps and toilet flanges.

Before Tara had taken a single step into the hall, the door behind her burst open, and an Aryan giant in commando fatigues took the length of the lobby in a single step. The guy was huge, with Viking ink up one arm and down the other. Chris clamped his eyes shut, hoping he’d survive the take down. The celebrant said something about the sweetness of Jesus’ love. He felt the bite of the zip ties on his wrists.

Except he didn’t. Ashley screamed, and Chris opened his eyes in time to see Tara throwing her bouquet at the rushing bull of a hunter. It didn’t faze him a bit and he launched himself full out and tackled her. Ashley joined the pile, and her weight did push the giant to one side, but he gripped Tara as she thrashed beneath him anyhow. The guests were paralyzed, but Chris leapt from the stage and pelted towards the scrum, uncertain what his goal was. Someone’s fist landed on Ashley’s chin, and she slumped to one side, knocking down an old lady in the process.

The attacker was scrabbling at Tara’s arms, zip ties clenched in one fist. Chris grabbed his wrist and lifted him slightly, enough that Tara was able to shout, “Sanctuary! I’m in a church, and I claim sanctuary!”

Everyone fell still, so the only sound was Ashley whimpering from somewhere under a chair. The bounty hunter still straddled Tara, but his arm relaxed enough that Chris let it go.

“What’s going on?” he asked lamely.

“This here is a fugitive from the State of Florida,” the panting commando said. “Your bride here’s wanted for insurance fraud, auto theft, and drug smuggling.”

“Sanctuary,” she muttered. Her eyes pleaded with the officiant, who now stood over them, ridiculous in her robe.

“This true?” Chris asked her.

She nodded. “How else could I support my parents?”

“You heard her,” Chris said. “Sanctuary. We’re getting married.”

The giant pointed an accusing finger at the woman in the robe. “You a priest?”

She shook her head and squeaked, “Justice of the peace.” She added something about being a notary, too, if he needed anything stamped.

Pat ventured down the aisle. “And this ain’t a church, just a rental hall.”

“Tough luck, lady” the hunter said, putting the ties on Tara’s wrists. He stood her upright, then glowered at Chris. “You should thank me. Imagine trying to live a quiet life with her always looking over her shoulder.”

“Imagine,” Chris said. He watched Tara being led out to the truck, flanked by a line of elderly knitters.

When they were gone, Chris stepped over Ashley’s trunk-like legs and pushed through the crowd toward the bar. He hoped Pat would comp him another shot.

*

Bio : J. M. Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. As Taylor and under his real name, he has appeared in Crime FactoryMorpheus Tales, Crime SyndicateOut of the GutterThuglit, and Tough, among others. His novel, Night of the Furies, published by New Pulp Press, was listed by Spinetingler as one of the best crime novels of 2013.

Night of the Furies Facebook Page / TWITTER

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