Lake Effect

When Earl turned onto the dirt road, the snow was coming down at a good clip and slamming into the windshield. As we got closer to the lake, the winds were picking up. The headlights caught the leafless scrubs struggling to hold onto the hard soil that rooted them.

+++++I wanted to tell Earl to snap on the high beams, but he would have told me to shut up. Earl liked to do the talking, and he didn’t want any lip from someone half his age. Many thought of him as just a melon-headed triggerman. But I knew better. Earl is a survivor and has been in the game since he was a punk kid.

+++++With every rut and bump we went over there was a thump in the back. I knew we had a stiff in the trunk. The only reason anyone like us would go down this road was to dump the trash.

+++++That’s what the Boss told me over the phone. He said Earl was going to pick me up to dump some trash.

+++++I’ve made this run before, but it was always with Mike. Mike is my older brother, and together we’ve made this trash run at least a half of dozen times. Now he’s moved up in the organization. And when you move up in the organization, they don’t send you out on errands to dump a stiff in the lake.

+++++The road was ending, and I could see the wind blowing snow across the choppy waters of the dark lake. I buttoned my overcoat and turned up the collar.

+++++Earl stopped that car near the edge of the bluff and got out. I joined him in the back, and he opened the trunk. The stiff was rolled up in black plastic, and there were chains looped around it. The chains were for weight to ensure it went down to the bottom and stayed there.

+++++Earl grabbed the legs, and I bent down to get the other end.

+++++We got the stiff out of the truck and made our way towards the bluff. Earl parked a little too close to a cluster of bushes. I had to maneuver the stiff between the car and the bushes. It was cold, and the high winds pounded snow into our faces, biting into our eyes.

+++++Ice made our footing dicey, and branches started to scrape my coat. One sprung off me and slapped into Earl. It caused him to lose his grip, and he dropped his end of the stiff. It slid from my hands and fell into the bushes.

+++++Branches tore into the plastic, and the faint moonlight was enough to show a pale, lifeless face with a bullet hole in its forehead.

+++++It was Mike.

+++++Mike. They whacked Mike.

+++++“Sorry kid,” Earl said with a smirk on his face. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

+++++I turned. He had a .45 out, pointed at my chest.

+++++“It’s a one-way trip for you too.”

+++++I felt paralyzed. Shocked. I just looked at him.

+++++“Your brother was pushing it too fast,” he said. “The Boss don’t like overly ambitious ones.”

+++++“What?” I needed to snap out of it.

+++++“The Boss said to dump you here too,” Earl blurted out. “He doesn’t want to be looking over his shoulder waiting for you to revenge what he did to your brother.”

+++++Get thinking. He’s talking too much.

+++++“It’s just the way it is kid.”

+++++I couldn’t wait much longer. The cold wind was coming in hard now, and the snow was blinding. He was just five feet away when I leaped at him and then the gun roared.

+++++The bullet slammed into my left shoulder as I barreled into his gut. The force pushed him back against the car. He was doubled over and gasping. I swung back my right leg and kicked him as hard as I could in the face.

+++++I was lucky, damn lucky. He talked too much. He should have shot me right away.

+++++I grabbed the .45 off the ground and shoved it into Earl’s face. My shoulder was killing me, but the lifeless stare on Mike’s face hurt me more.

+++++“Guess where we’re going?” I spat out through clenched teeth.

+++++He was still groggy. I grabbed him by his coat and shoved him into the driver’s side of the car.

+++++I got in the back and placed the barrel of the .45 hard against his skull.

+++++“Come on Earl get this heap moving,” I ordered. “I need you to get me in to see the Boss.”

+++++“I’ve got a little present to give to him.”

***

+++++I thought the bullet went clean through, but I was wrong. Intense throbs of agony shot down from my shoulder to my fingertips with every bump, and hole Earl hit on that dirt road.

+++++It seemed to take forever to make it to the highway.

+++++Earl leered at me through the rearview mirror.

+++++“You’re not going to make it kid.”

+++++I told him to shut up and raked the barrel of the .45 against the back of his skull.

+++++I knew Earl was the one who put the hole in Mike’s head. The Boss would’ve selected him for the job. I fought back the urge to blow out his brains all over the dashboard. I needed him to get to the Boss. But once I’m inside Earl is going to get it in the liver.

+++++The rush of adrenaline must have been wearing off because I started to feel weak. Blood was dripping down my left arm and pooling on the floor of the backseat. In my right hand, the gun felt weighted. But I kept it resting on top of the driver’s seat and aimed at the back of Earl’s head.

+++++He said something, but I couldn’t make it out. I just wanted him to shut the hell up.

+++++Things became foggy. Then I saw it. I saw it all happening.

+++++Going in the club, taking the back stairs to the Boss’s office, my ticket in was the .45 pressed against Earl’s spine. Once we make it through the office door, I’ll pull the trigger twice and watch Earl crumble to the floor — the rug soaking up his blood pouring out of the holes in his side. Then the Boss will be standing up from behind his desk, and I’ll ram the hot barrel of the .45 into his mouth. And then I’ll stare into his cue-ball-sized eyes as they plead back at me and I’ll pull the trigger for the last time.

+++++I was cold, and my head was down, resting on the back of the front seat. Looking at the floor, it seemed that my left shoe was floating in a sea of blood.

+++++The car stopped, and Earl turned around. He pushed my head back, and I collapsed in the backseat. The .45 felt like an anvil in my hand and I dropped it.

+++++“You had guts kid,” Earl’s voice seemed far away. “Yes, you had.”

+++++Then I could feel the car make a U-turn. I closed my eyes. I knew we were headed back to the lake.

end

Life Number Ten

Harlan stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the window, looking at nothing in particular. Cocking his head from side to side, he pretended to look at something. He’d seen a guy do it like that in the movies. But outside there were only dark pine trees, big ones that reached to the sky. In fact, he was waiting to wash his hands, but the pressure was down and the water just trickled out of the old faucet. He draped his hands over the edge of the sink and cocked his hip in a relaxing fashion. He’d seen a guy do that, too.

+++++“I once had sex with a cantaloupe,” he said. Waiting and looking out the window at nothing made him think hard.

+++++He spoke to his brother, Earl, sitting at the kitchen table behind him. Earl was perusing an old copy of a popular girlie magazine, looking for the Stephen King story featured on the cover. He was a horror story freak. Some of the pages were stuck together. He was trying to unstick them with a 10-inch blade he’d taken off a trucker earlier that night.

+++++“Was it a fruitful experience?” asked Earl. He smiled and sliced the pages apart. Harlan wouldn’t get it.

+++++“I split that baby down the middle. Opened her up. I put my whole face in it. She was wet and warm and juicy. I was spitting out seeds for a week.”

+++++“The thing about any melon: don’t refrigerate. Consume within two days at room temperature. Ask any chef,” Earl answered. He was well-read, reciting from memory. He pried apart two more of the magazine’s pages. He was tired, weary, felt lost, and was glad for the distraction of the magazine.

+++++The trucker had tried to kill Harlan with the knife, so he’d cold-cocked the trucker before he could do any more damage than Harlan had already just done. He should have killed the trucker.

+++++The trucker knew them. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was something not right about killing him after what Harlan had done. Some kind of karma at work. Earl couldn’t put his finger on it at first.

+++++A pocket of air vibrated the faucet. Rusty water flowed in a staccato fashion. Harlan put his hands under the water as it cleared. The dried blood rinsed off easily with the help of a bar of Lava soap. He rubbed his blood-soaked face and sucked some soapy water in his mouth. He sloshed the water around inside his mouth then spit out the pink water. His mama had taught him that keeping your teeth clean was important. You’d need them your whole life, she’d said. The taste of the soap made him think of the farm. The only soap that got cow shit off your hands, his daddy had said. It did wonders with blood too. Earl watched the pink liquid swirl down the drain. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dried his hands on his jeans. He wiped everything on his jeans. They were so streaked with grime and fried grease and blood, and God knew what else, they could have walked on their own. A pungent odour drifted off his body and filled the room.

+++++“What’re we gonna do now, Earl?”

+++++Earl split two more pages and stared at the young snatch in the old magazine. The appeal was ageless. He looked up. Harlan was leaning back against the sink, his head cocked, his eyes vacant. He looked like he was in deep thought, but that wasn’t possible. His arms were folded in front of him like he was a politician deciding on his next platform or more than likely for a politician, figuring which filly from the secretarial pool would accompany him on his next stump. But as he stared at Harlan, Earl realised those were his thoughts, his imaginings. Harlan had no original thoughts. He wasn’t capable of having any original thoughts.

+++++“I guess we’re gonna wait,” Earl answered.

+++++“What for?”

+++++“That trucker’s gonna be comin’ with his boys. They know us, Harlan. No tellin’ what they’re gonna do.”

+++++“They gonna be mad?”

+++++“I ‘spect so. That girl was that trucker’s best whore. You killed his best whore. What do you think?”

+++++“Shit. Didn’t know she was his best. I’m sorry.”

+++++“They’re gonna tear you up, boy.” A tear ran down Harlan’s cheek.

+++++“I’m scared,” Harlan said.

+++++“You should be, brother.”

+++++“We could run,” Harlan offered.

+++++“Where?”

+++++“Don’t know. That’s you. You always know.”

+++++“Not this time. Those guys were our best customers. Now, we have no one and nowhere to go. Because of you.”

+++++“I said sorry.”

+++++Earl watched Harlan as he started to pace around the room. He had one hand thrust in the front pocket of his jeans, and with the other, he touched things as he passed them, like he was taking inventory. He was just looking hard for words he could say. When he couldn’t find any, he plopped down at the table in a chair next to Earl. He felt safe next to his brother.

+++++“I remember the cat,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl wasn’t surprised. Harlan could remember things. He just couldn’t think things through. His memories taught him nothing. They were just things that happened.

+++++“You mean the one you nailed to the side of the barn?”

+++++“I did that? I thought it was you.”

+++++“You nailed up the cat. I took the blame,” Earl said.

+++++“Mama was real pissed off with you. I remember that.” Harlan laughed, slapped his knee. He’d seen a guy do that.

+++++“It was easier to take the blame than try to explain it.”

+++++How could he explain to his mama the deficiencies Harlan possessed? Mothers don’t see those things in their children. Denial is a mother’s privilege and her last hope.

+++++Earl stood up behind his brother.

+++++“Cats have nine lives. You told me,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl reached around the front of Harlan and pulled his head back against him in a caress like a lover might do.

+++++“Really?”

+++++“Yeah. When he died, you told me that was number ten.”

+++++“I guess he reached his limit,” Earl said.

+++++Harlan put his hand on Earl’s. Earl couldn’t let him suffer at the hands of the uncaring, those seeking revenge for their own reckless need. Maybe he’d make it on his own, Earl thought, maybe not.

+++++He pushed the knife slowly, and only a little ways, into the side of Harlan’s neck, just enough to puncture the jugular. Blood pumped out between his fingers.

+++++“It’s getting dark,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl looked out the kitchen window. The morning sky was starting to brighten.

+++++“Don’t worry, little brother, it’ll be light soon.”

Lawyers in The Basement

It had been two weeks since Marcie McGinley’s husband, Ted, had stormed out of their ranch-style house in the suburbs.

+++++Now he wanted to meet with her “before the lawyers got involved” and talk about things “in an amicable way.”

+++++They had been married for twelve years and Marcie was not about to let Ted back in the house. He had picked up his things when she was at work one-day last week and had left his copies of the house keys on the dining room table.

+++++“No, Ted, you can’t come over. We’ll meet in a public place where I’ll feel safe, or we’ll wait and meet with the lawyers.”

+++++“Feel safe!” Ted yelled into the phone. “Why wouldn’t you feel safe meeting with me in our own house? We were married for eleven years —”

+++++“It was twelve years last August, Ted, but then, who’s counting. We’ll meet at that little coffee shop, The Marigold Café, near my office for a late lunch tomorrow, or not at all.”

+++++“Damn it, Marcie! I —”

+++++“Do you hear yourself, Ted? Why would I want to meet with you alone and have you yell at me?”

***

+++++At one o’clock The Marigold Café was seeing the last of the lunch crowd busing their tables and getting ready to head back to work. Marcie got there early to get a table in a corner where few people as possible would be subjected to her and Ted’s business.

+++++“We probably should have met in a goddamn bowling alley,” she mumbled to herself. “That way Ted wouldn’t have to worry about his lack of volume control.”

***

+++++Marcie’s jaw dropped when Ted walked in the door.

+++++“You brought her with you?” she stage-whispered, grabbing her coat and purse. “I’ll see you at the meeting next week, Ted.”

+++++“Her” was Ginny Coleman, Ted’s “new friend.” Marcie had discovered there was nothing all that new about Ginny. Credit card receipts from area motels had shown she and Ted had been having an affair for at least six months.

+++++“Oh, no, no,” said Ginny. “You stay, I’ll go; it’s your meeting.” Turning to Ted, she said, “There was a bar we passed on the way here after parking the car, wasn’t there? It’s probably open; I’ll just go there and wait for you.”

+++++And just like that, she walked out the door.

+++++While Ted stared after Ginny, Marcie set her purse back on the table. “You still want to do this, Ted?”

+++++“Huh? Yeah, sure,” he sighed. “Let’s get it over with.”

+++++“Okay, I’ll keep the house and everything in it, my checking and savings accounts, my IRAs, and my car,” said Marcie. “You can give me five hundred thousand from your savings, and we’re done.”

+++++“What?” said Ted in what he probably thought was a reasonably quiet voice.

+++++“It’s called negotiating, Ted. I open with an offer, and you counter offer. Or would you rather have the lawyers negotiate?”

+++++“That’s negotiating?” said Ted. “You get everything? What do I get?”

+++++“Why, you get your freedom, Ted. Isn’t that what you wanted?” Marcie then nodded toward the door saying, “Oh, and you get Ginny, of course. If you still have her at the time of the divorce, that is.”

+++++“I’m not giving you a dime, Marcie,” Ted said getting up and putting on his coat. “Not a dime, ya hear?”

+++++“See you next week, Ted.”

***

+++++Except for Marcie asking for the seemingly ridiculous sum of five hundred thousand dollars, this would appear to be just another slice-of-life story about two middle class working people ending an unhappy marriage. Marcie could be a real estate agent, and Ted might be a car salesman. Or maybe Marcie sold the cars and Ted sold houses.

+++++But actually, five hundred thousand dollars was not an unrealistic sum where Marcie and Ted were concerned. She had more than that, as did Ted, in tight little stacks of hundred dollar bills in safety deposit boxes in banks in and around Chicago.

+++++Marcie and Ted are both long-time professionals in the murder-for-hire field. If they can keep their emotions under control, they will probably work things out with the lawyers in an “amicable way.”

+++++But if they let their anger rule their decision making, something neither do in their professional lives, one or both of them could wind up dead.

+++++Marcie didn’t need Ted’s money. She just added that to her demands to piss him off.

+++++And Marcie had also just been messing with Ted when she told him she didn’t want to meet with him at their house. Marcie had no fear at all when it came to Ted. Or anybody else.

+++++She didn’t need the house, the car, or the IRAs associated with her “day job.” She planned to relocate to Paris once the divorce was final. There were probably plenty of people in Paris who needed to be killed.

***

+++++“Didn’t bring Ginny along, Ted?” asked Marcie with a smirk. “She home baking cookies?”

+++++“Don’t start, Marcie —”

+++++“Come on, now, folks,” interrupted John Davidson, Marcie’s lawyer. “Let’s work on getting through the division of the assets.”

+++++“I assume you both have a list of assets and an idea as to how you’d like them to be divided,” said Ted’s lawyer, Edward Bannerman. “Thank you for letting us meet in your home, Marcie. Since this is after hours, meeting in one of our offices downtown would have been problematic.”

+++++“I’ve got my stuff,” said Marcie. “You, Ted?”

+++++“Yup, I’m ready.”

+++++Davidson and Bannerman then both backed away from the table and stood up against the door. They each drew pistols and pointed them at Ted and Marcie.

+++++“We have some paperwork that we need to have you sign,” said Davidson. “Your signatures will give us access to your safe deposit boxes.”

+++++“We’ll be taking care of your assets from here on out,” said Bannerman. “The police will be told that the meeting got heated and you both fired weapons, killing each other. Tragic.”

+++++“The two sets of paperwork are on the table as well as pens for each of you,” said Davidson. “No need to read it over; just sign and date at the end. Then trade paperwork and witness each other’s signatures where it’s highlighted.”

+++++Marcia picked up her paperwork. In doing so, the paperwork brushed her pen off the table. Cursing, she reached under the table for it.

+++++When she straightened up she had a Glock .357 Sig in her hand and she shot both Davidson and Bannerman in their foreheads.

+++++It was all done in a few seconds; Marcie was a professional. Davidson and Bannerman were professionals too, but they were professional lawyers.

+++++“You told Bannerman about the safety deposit boxes we have, didn’t you, Ted.”

+++++“We were talking about your demand for five hundred thousand and he asked where you thought I would —”

+++++“And then he told Davidson. Come on, Ted, we gotta get these two into the basement and get the hell outta here.”

+++++“But what about Ginny?” asked Ted.

+++++“Well, she seems a little flakey, but bring her along if you have to; I don’t care. We can make the rounds of the banks tomorrow morning, mail most of the cash to our drop box in Philly, and make arrangements to get to someplace like Croatia for a year or two. We’ll have to pick up some new ID for Ginny; she probably doesn’t have a passport —”

+++++“Marcie, Marcie, stop for a minute. How long have you had that Glock stashed under the dining room table?”

+++++“Twelve years, Ted. It was in its own little holster. And now it’s in my hand and pointed at you.”

+++++“You mean any one of those times we argued at this table —”

+++++“Crossed my mind many a time, Ted. Now help me get these guys downstairs; we’ve got places to go and things to do.”

+++++“You’re a real piece of work, ya know that, Marcie?”

+++++“You remember that, Ted. You just remember that.”

THE END

Debt Relief

Jack Alden delivered meals to the homebound. His charity service was a cover. He volunteered because Reggie Hatch’s elderly parent’s received Meals On Wheels each weekday.

+++++Reggie’s parents lived in a run-down ranch house at the end of a dirt road outside the city limits. Any approaching car could be seen long before it arrived at the house.

+++++Mom and Dad Hatch had done a poor job of raising their only son, Reginald. Reggie drank too much, hustled women and sold cars.

+++++Reggie also gambled. He won and lost thousands. He had long action with the bookies, several allowed him to bet thousands on the cuff.

+++++Reggie was good at peddling cars and worked his ass off to pay his gambling debts. But Reggie had lost that job six months ago. He quit paying his gambling debts. Rumors had him hiding out at his parent’s house.

+++++Jack Alden had been hired to bring Reggie’s right index fingertip to Nate Williams. Williams was a sore bookie who possessed a copy of Reggie’s driver’s license with the fingerprint. Nate also had a stack of Reggie’s bad paper. He wanted the fingertip to certify a point to other potential no-pays; Do not a trifle with Nate Williams.

+++++Jack carried a pair of pruning clippers in his back pocket to remove Reggie’s right index finger. Jack had been delivering meals on this same route for three weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of Reggie at his parent’s house

+++++Reggie’s father, Ezra Hatch was always standing out on the covered porch when Jack Alden drove up the long road with the free lunches. Jack figured the old man wasn’t waiting for a meal. Ezra suffered from dementia. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. Mom Hatch was usually in the house. Jack had time to look in windows for any sign of the couple’s errant son.

+++++The same ritual took place each time Jack arrived. The old man never left the porch. He had a leather collar around his ankle clipped to a rope knotted to a porch pillar.

+++++Old Ezra Hatch watched Jack get out of the car. He always asked the same question, “Does that car have air-conditioning?”

+++++Jack always answered, “Yes.”

+++++Ezra always had the same cat jumping up on him.

+++++Jack always asked, “Is that your cat?”

+++++The old guy always answered, “No, she lives up the road a ways. But she comes down here and spends the day. Then goes home at night.”

+++++“I had a wife like that,” Jack always commented.

+++++The old man always chuckled like he’d never heard it before. He seemed to get it, over and over again.

+++++Jack climbed the steps carrying the food. He didn’t knock on the door, instead he walked around the corner of the porch and peeked in through a side window. Viola! Reggie was sitting at the dinner table. His back was to the front door and he was playing what appeared to be solitaire.

+++++Jack went back to the front door. He slowly turned the knob.

+++++Reggie shouted, “Pa, shut the goddamn door!” while he kept his eyes on the cards laid out before him on the table.

+++++Three steps later, Jack had a gun at the back of Reggie’s skull.

+++++Reggie’s brains splattered onto the cards.

+++++Jack pulled the pruning clippers from his pocket and with one hard squeeze, the specified index finger dropped off Reggie’s hand. Jack dropped it into a baggie.

+++++Mom Hatch came running from the kitchen. When she saw her son’s head resting in a growing pool of blood, she screamed.

+++++Jack had no choice but to shoot the old woman. Ezra was standing at the open door. His mouth was wide open and eyes blinking hard as he backed away.

+++++Jack walked out onto the porch. There was no need to shoot the old man. Ezra’s attention had turned back to petting the cat.

+++++Jack placed the meals in the back seat. As he backed out, the old man shouted, “Does that car have air-conditioning?”

+++++Jack smiled, “Yes. And it gets cold as hell in here.”

The Snow Job

Danny’s hands were shaking, so he set the gun on the counter before digging in his pocket for the phone. “No sense in both of us bleeding tonight, Terry.”

+++++Terry did not answer.

+++++The phone glowed at the touch of Danny’s index finger, and Mike picked up on the third ring. “Danny?” he said.

+++++Danny’s knees felt weak, and he put one hand on the counter to steady himself. “Terry Antonelli’s dead.”

+++++“Didn’t catch that. Hold on.” The din on Mike’s television faded to a murmur. “Sorry about that, Danny. Celtics are home against the Lakers. You watching?”

+++++“The wop’s dead. Antonelli’s kid. I shot him.”

+++++Wop. Danny mouthed the word again. It had been his father’s word, and he felt strange saying it. Terry the Wop dead on the kitchen floor.

+++++“The fuck you do that for?” Mike said.

+++++“He asked for a meeting about the Heights and wouldn’t deal,” Danny lied. “It was him or us. I chose us. You got a problem with that?”

+++++“No problem, Danny. No problem. Just wish you’d told me you were meeting him. Where are you?”

+++++Danny heard Mike scratching the coarse stubble that always covered his cheeks and touched his own face in response. Thirty-three years old and he still didn’t need to shave every day. Soft features like his mother. Too soft for “the life,” his da always said. “I’m at Antonelli’s house. I need you to get out here and help me with this before somebody misses him.”

+++++“Jesus, Danny, how am I supposed to do that? It’s snowing like hell. The TV’s telling everyone to stay off the roads!”

+++++Danny walked to the window and moved the curtain just enough to see outside. The snow had barely started when he drove to Terry’s big white house for the face-to-face. If the drifts outside were anything to go by, Danny had spent too long watching the corpse cool.

+++++“Are you sure he’s dead?” Mike said.

+++++“I shot him in the face. Twice.” Sick heat moved from his gut to his throat. “He needs to disappear tonight.”

+++++“I’m not sure I can even get out of the parking lot,” Mike said. “Let me check with Seamus or your uncle and see how they want to –.”

+++++“No!” Danny’s voice cracked. He forced his shoulders away from his ears and inhaled for a four count. He held the breath for a second and let it out while he counted again. “You listen to me now. Get some of the boys together, and drag your ass out the door. We’ll take him down to Quincy and dig a hole like Da did with Tommy King.”

+++++“I don’t know, Danny. This is big.” Mike breathed heavily for a few seconds. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

+++++Danny stuffed the phone back in his pocket. The snow was thick on the ground, three-quarters up the wheels of the little sports car he had loved so much when he saw it on the showroom floor. Danny swore, wishing he picked something with a nice, deep trunk and four-wheel drive instead of good looks and low emissions.

+++++He let the curtain drop. He was going to get caught. The fucking snow was going to keep him there until spring, and he was going to get caught red-handed with the wop’s rotting corpse. Everything his father built would be knocked down by the judge’s gavel. They’d never had enough on Big Dan Donnelly to make a charge stick, but his boy was going down for his first murder. Danny’s pulse pounded like fists in his ears. He massaged his chest. The doctors said his heart was fine, but Danny didn’t always believe them.

+++++His phone rang.

+++++“It’s going to be a while,” Mike said. “Nothing’s plowed down here. Jimmy says his power’s out, and I can’t get hold of Ryan.”

+++++“How fucking long do you think I have?” Danny’s lungs were full of lead. He cursed again, and the word heaved itself over his teeth like an asthmatic fat man.

+++++“You all right, Danny?”

+++++Danny panted. “I don’t. Fucking. Know.”

+++++“Try to relax, Danny,” Mike said. “Take one of your pills. You’ll be okay.”

+++++Anger loosened Danny’s throat some. “Don’t call me that anymore. You called Da ‘Mr. Donnelly.’ I’m in charge now. You call me ‘Mr. Donnelly.’” He took another four-count breath, “Get here. I’ll have everything ready for you.”

+++++Danny stabbed the button to end the call and put the phone on the counter next to the gun.

+++++He slipped his hand in his pocket and fumbled a tiny white pill out of the mint tin he kept there. He chewed the pill, crushing its slight sweetness between his teeth to make it dissolve faster.

+++++Danny sat at the kitchen table and counted his breaths until he felt the Ativan kicking in. The drug made him sleepy, but, better, it made him feel like he was outside his own body, watching himself like a television show. Who got stressed out over TV?

+++++Danny’s heart slowed, and his breathing returned to normal. He stood up and walked over to the body. “Mind if I use your bathroom, Terry?” Even if he had been alive, the wop would have had a hell of time answering with his face caved in like that.

+++++After he’d flushed the john, Danny rinsed his mouth out with tap water and dried his face on a lavender-scented hand towel. He used the mirror over the sink to check his hair and see if murder had changed him any. Big Dan was creeping into his face, peering out of his eyes and frowning through the creases at the sides of his mouth. Danny tried to imagine his father smiling at him. You shot the hell out of that wop. Shot him dead on his own floor. Big Dan’s brogue came from the old country, not the sing-song lilt of the southern leprechauns but the harder sounds from the north. I was wrong about you, boy. You took care of business like a man. They kill one of us, we kill two of them. Who’s next? Danny thumped the ball of his fist lightly on the mirror glass. “That’s right, Da. I got it under control.”

+++++Danny used the hand towel to wipe down everything he had touched in the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror again. His father was still there. He pressed the hand towel to his face and breathed deeply. Lavender had been his mother’s favorite scent.

+++++Returning to the body, Danny realized he had been lucky, shooting Terry in the kitchen like that. The blood pooled on the tile floor instead of soaking in like it would have done on the living room carpet or the hardwood floor in the hallway. “We need to wrap you up, Terry. Keep all that wop juice from spoiling your nice finishes.”

+++++Danny tried to think like Seamus, his father’s fixer. He needed a tarp. Big house like this, rich guy … Terry had to have a workshop. Some place he went to escape the wife and kids on Sundays. The garage maybe.

+++++He looked out the window. His Porsche was a white lump. Danny hoped Mike would be smart enough to bring a couple of shovels along.

+++++A door off the mudroom led to a short flight of steps and Terry’s garage. Danny pushed the door open into the dark and followed it through. The overhead light flickered. Terry had sprung for motion detectors. The floor was covered in the pebbly tiles advertised in car magazines, the back wall lined with metal cabinets. Terry’s BMW was parked in one bay. Something brawny, classic, and American was parked in another. The third bay, probably home to a minivan or an SUV Terry’s wife used to tote the kids around, was empty.

+++++Danny found the tarp and a box of rags in one of the steel cabinets. He spread the tarp out on the kitchen floor next to Terry’s body and rolled him onto it.

+++++A gun fell out of the back of Terry’s pants and clattered to the tiles.

+++++Danny picked the gun up and grinned at Terry’s shattered face. “You were thinking you’d get me first!” He kicked the bottom of Terry’s shoe. “You didn’t, though, did ya, boyo?”

+++++Danny’s voice sounded so much like his da’s that he was tempted to check the mirror again to see if the transformation was complete. He put Terry’s gun on the counter with his own and used the rags to wipe up the blood. He washed the tiles with bleach and tucked the sodden rags into the tarp with the body.

+++++Danny’s phone rang.

+++++“Ryan got a truck,” Mike said. “We’ll be out there in about twenty minutes. Is that okay, Da … Mr. Donnelly?”

+++++“That’s fine, Mike. Just fine.” Danny put the phone back in his pocket.

+++++Danny climbed the main stairs and used the hand towel to open doors until he found the master bedroom. His father had kept a keychain full of souvenirs won from “the life” … a hood ornament from the first car he had stolen, a St. Christopher’s medal he had taken from the body of the first man he’d killed, wedding rings from men who no longer needed them, a twisted black scrap he claimed was an ear … He had a story for every prize and used to tell them to Danny before sending him up to bed.

+++++Four expensive-looking watches were laid out on a dressing table in front of big mirror. Danny looked at them but did not touch. He opened the door to the walk-in closet and rummaged through Terry’s suits. Black and gray. They reminded him of his father and all the sharply dressed, hard-handed, grim men who had always surrounded him. The kind of man his father had always wanted him to be. The kind of man he had been to Terry.

+++++He wiped the closet door down and held the hand towel up to his face again. The lavender smell was fading. When Danny was fourteen, his father had caught him wearing one of his sister’s bras and rubbing his mother’s scented lotion on his face and neck. Big Dan had beat him nearly senseless, and Danny had been packed away to boarding school soon after that.

+++++Danny turned to the wife’s side of the closet. She was a slender woman, and her dresses, most of them in pale colors, hung gracefully. Danny ran his fingers down one to see if it felt as soft as it looked. Her top drawer was full of panties, sheer and lacy. The lavender smell was stronger here, condensed in the drawer. He picked out a pair of panties in coral pink, nearly see-through.

+++++Danny stepped back into the bedroom and nodded to his father’s face in the mirror. He kicked off his shoes and undid his belt, stepping out of his pants once they hit the ground. He slid out of his boxers and stepped into the panties, pulling them up tight against his cock and balls.

+++++Danny leaned close to the mirror and looked into the eyes he saw there. “Fuck you, Da. Fuck you.”

May the Dust Not Rise

Wish I could tell you it was an accident.

+++++I can’t. Not this time.

+++++Remo had a t-top Pontiac Firebird, an eighties model with a bald eagle painted on the hood. The dented body all brown as tobacco goop in a chicken shit’s lip. Used to drive past my property every morning—I guess around seven in the ay-m. Had himself a janitorial specialist position at the middle school.

+++++Cleaned the toilets down there.

+++++Remo made that Firebird’s engine go, and he liked to whip the squirrelly back end down the road. Looked to me—from the open door of my trailer—like a big brown fish swimming into the sky. And that engine roared like hot oil pouring over you. Got into your head.

+++++But then came the dust. Big damn clouds of dust.

+++++Ain’t no roads like dirt roads.

+++++With the wind coming from the east, the dust blew in my face.

+++++I got me the asthma.

+++++I’m on my way to a few other things that have to do with my Marlboros and those shit-sticks over at the tobacco company. What’s it and Morris. Point is, my natro-pathic remedist says I need good air and quiet.

+++++Here I am sucking dust and plugging my ears with wads of shit tissue.

+++++Triple-ply, dammit.

+++++Given my productivity for conflict restoration, I walked over to his place one afternoon. Figured I’d have us a chat. The Firebird’s engine was still ticking when I passed it on the gravel driveway. Windshield was thick with dust. Caked over like butter in a cold skillet.

+++++Remo had himself a thirty-five footer with a master suite. Tires were flat, but it was a nice rig. I offered more than once to take it off his hands, but Remo didn’t get many raises for scrubbing shit from kiddie toilets. He held onto the thing, made it his forever home.

+++++I stomped right up and pounded the door.

+++++The trailer rattled and creaked as Remo moved inside. He opened the door, took a long sip from a High Life. He said, “You come down here for a eight ball, Morgan?”

+++++I lit a cigarette. “You mind I come in for a minute?” I blew out smoke and curled my lips around the cancer stick.

+++++“Have a beer with me.”

+++++Inside, I sat on the small sofa near the door. Remo handed me a High Life and sat across from me in the trailer’s dining booth.

+++++We sipped our beers and smoked.

+++++“Well, Morgan…What the hell can I do for you?”

+++++“You can stop kicking up dust with that Firebird of yours.”

+++++“That all what this is?”

+++++“It’s that until it’s worse,” I said. “I got the asthma and more coming down the line. Doctor told me so.”

+++++Remo squinted at my cigarette, put his own to his lips and puffed.

+++++“I’m not trying nothing now, but I need that dust to settle.”

+++++“Hmm,” Remo said. He said it again. He puffed some more. “May the dust not rise,” he said and made the sign of the cross with the cigarette between his fingers. Smoke danced all away from him like morning mist. He laughed after that, tried hard to clear his throat for a long few seconds.

+++++“I know you hear me,” I said. “I want the dust to settle.”

+++++It’s too often people don’t do what you say.

+++++What you want.

+++++It’s too often people think they can kick up dust and drive right through it.

+++++That’s what Remo thought: He did it the next morning.

+++++And that night.

+++++But he sure as shit never did it again. Tell you what, I can still hear his screams in the back of my head. And see the flames. That shit-brown Firebird buried in blue-red fire, a bald eagle on the hood growing blacker by the second. Surprised me how fast the trailer went up—at thirty-five foot it was a tinder box.

+++++And then came the roar.

+++++Like hot oil pouring over you.

Simple

It’s six months to the day since I discovered that crime fiction bears no resemblance to the real thing.

+++++This is how crime really works:

+++++B pisses off A.

+++++A kills B.

+++++That’s it.

+++++Simple.

+++++I should know.

+++++I found out the hard way, last summer when my brother Ron visited me.

+++++He and I were very close. My Dad was killed in a car crash when I was a baby, my Mum worked full time to support the family, and Ron became the nearest thing I had to a father.

+++++He protected me from the local yobs. When he realised I couldn’t fight, wasn’t a natural like him, he enrolled me into a boxing club so I could learn how to defend myself. It was tough, but it worked. I desperately wanted to impress my brother, so I got stuck in and learnt how to throw a punch.

+++++Ron didn’t need boxing. He was big, but that wasn’t what made him formidable. He had a primeval sort of power. You just had to point him in the right direction and set him loose.

+++++That summer when he visited, I was at my peak.

+++++I was a solicitor working at one of the magic circle firms in London. Even though I was only three years qualified, my salary put me in the top five percent of earners in the country. Senior people in the firm were referring to me as “partnership material”. My future held out the promise of glittering prizes that were mine for the taking, if only I worked hard and kept my nose clean. Fortune was beckoning me with open arms.

+++++How could my downfall have been so sudden, so swift, and so complete?

+++++Our weekend started innocently enough. We wandered around Brixton on a hot Saturday afternoon, eyeing up the talent, and browsing in record shops. We got chatting to a couple of girls and made a date to see them in the evening. Then we bought some albums, two by Prince Buster, three by the Skatalites. They were the real thing, vinyl that could have been brought over in the 50s on the Empire Windrush. After we paid for them, we set off home to listen to some classic sounds.

+++++Because of the traffic, we’d taken the bus to Brixton.

+++++While we were waiting at the bus stop, a couple of white guys appeared on the other side of the street: black jackets, black boots, blue jeans, short hair. They crossed the road, walking briskly in our direction, then broke into a run. I wondered if that was because there was a bus coming, but when I looked, there wasn’t, which puzzled me.

+++++It should have been obvious why they were charging towards us, but some things are so hard to accept you refuse to believe they can happen. Right up until the point where they’re actually happening, you cling to the belief that everything is normal.

+++++It wasn’t until they took baseball bats out from under their jackets I realised why they were in such a hurry.

+++++They were white, with short hair and attitude; we were black.

+++++Simple.

+++++Why didn’t I work it out sooner?

+++++Probably because I’d never encountered anyone like that in real-life. My only contact with that kind of person had been via the television, where I’d occasionally seen bolshie people holding rallies, protesting against Islam, and waving the cross of St. George.

+++++I believe in standing up for yourself, especially when you’re black. You have to, because you seldom get a fair deal if you don’t. That lesson was drummed into me day after day by Ron while I was growing up. But much as I believed in what he’d taught me, I wasn’t going to stand up and take a beating with a baseball bat when I had only my fists to defend myself.

+++++“Fucking Hell, Ron,” I said. “We’ve got to run!”

+++++He hadn’t noticed the danger.

+++++“Ron, get a fucking move on!” I shouted.

+++++He turned, saw the two guys wielding the bats, and froze for an instant, caught between flight and fight. Flight won, because I grabbed his arm and dragged him.

+++++Stand your ground – that’s what Ron told me when I was a kid. It was almost a religious commandment: Thou Shalt Not Run Away. He would’ve probably taken his chances if I hadn’t been there, putting him under duress.

+++++We fled, dropping our records so we could run faster. One fell from its cardboard sleeve and splintered on the pavement; another rolled like a wheel, overtook us, then headed into the road where it was run over by a passing car.

+++++That hurt – as did taking the coward’s way out.

+++++But what option did we have? No way was I going to be brave and get my skull stoved-in, and nor was Ron – not if I could help it.

+++++Because I was busy watching a record getting crushed beneath the wheel of a Volvo, I wasn’t paying proper attention to the terrain and caught my toe on the edge of a paving slab. My feet left the ground as I launched myself into an involuntary dive. For an awful moment, time stood still while I was suspended horizontally in mid-air. Then I came crashing down, face-first, sticking out my arms to break my fall.

+++++My hands hit the pavement smearing it with blood. I was vaguely aware of skin being shredded. There must have been gravel or broken glass lying around.

+++++On any other day that jolting impact would’ve been painful, but I didn’t feel anything other than fear.

+++++I immediately got to my hands and knees, all too aware that danger was fast approaching. My back tingled with consternation.

+++++Ron helped me to my feet, the footsteps of our pursuers getting ever closer.

+++++So close I heard their laboured breathing.

+++++The imagined arc of a bat-swinging made me put a hand protectively over the back of my head. I pictured the weapon making contact with my cranium, bringing me down like a baby seal in a cull. Ron gave me a pull, the images receded, I got into my stride, and we began to leave our attackers behind.

+++++We didn’t stop running till we’d turned a few corners and they were out of sight. Luckily we’re both fit guys, which is why we were able to outpace them.

+++++While we were busy escaping, I was too stressed to give the situation much thought, but once I got home the injustice of it made my blood boil. I played that scene at the bus stop over and over in my head, imagining what I’d have done to those shits if they hadn’t had baseball bats. It wasn’t a healthy thing to do, and I wanted to think about something else, but I couldn’t help myself. My brain was out of control.

+++++It was as if there was a video in my head stuck in repeat mode. I couldn’t switch it off.

+++++It might have been good to talk about the incident with Ron, get it out of my system, but I knew the subject would just wind him up, so I decided not to mention it.

+++++My brother’s different to me. He won’t let things go. He burns until he’s done something about them.

+++++Somehow, in spite of the agitation we were feeling, we got ready to go out and meet the ladies we’d got to know during the afternoon.

+++++We had an enjoyable night which took my mind off things for a while. One of the girls came back to my place and Ron went to the other girl’s flat.

+++++When Carol – that was her name – had nodded off to sleep, I lay awake, dwelling on things. I hadn’t thought about the attack all evening, and now I couldn’t stop.

+++++I’ve had to deal with bad attitude on and off my entire life, but that was the only time I’ve come up against such venomous racism.

+++++You have to be philosophical about it and pick the fights you can win. That’s my view. The fight at the bus stop was best left alone, so I wasn’t ashamed of running away, just mad about it.

+++++When I got up the next morning I shook with anger as I climbed out of bed. Then I forced myself to calm down, shoving it to the back of my mind.

+++++Don’t get me wrong, I felt no forgiveness for those white lads with their baseball bats. It’s just that I don’t go looking for trouble, if you know what I mean. If I’d have been armed when they’d tried to jump us, I’d have fought back, hard. But I’d no interest in going out and getting revenge.

+++++Ron arrived after Carol had gone. We talked about music, our dates, stuff like that. Neither of us referred to the elephant in the room.

+++++Then Ron got up and started pacing. He became this huge silent brooding presence in my crib. He seemed capable of anything. It terrified me. He’d done that pacing thing when I’d come home, aged sixteen, and told him I’d been beaten up by a gang. He’d paced silently around before going out. Later, when he got back home, he said:

+++++“Everything’s sorted now. It won’t happen again.”

+++++And it didn’t.

+++++Because the people who’d picked on me were in hospital.

+++++“You all right, bro?” I said.

+++++He didn’t answer. Just paced into the kitchen and paced out again.

+++++“I’ve been thinking. I’m going back to that bus stop where those white cunts tried to get us. I reckon they must live round there. If either of them show their faces, I’m gonna make sure they think twice about beating up a black man again.”

+++++“Leave it, Ron,” I said. “They’re not worth it. They’re scum. They’ll get their comeuppance some day.”

+++++“That day has just arrived. Are you in or out?”

+++++“I’m out. I ain’t looking for trouble.”

+++++“Suit yourself,” he said as he left.

+++++I’d been bluffing, hoping my brother would see sense. When it came to it, I couldn’t let him face danger on his own, so I followed him. I had to be there with him, at his side. I just hoped we’d find them unarmed. If we didn’t, Lord knows what could happen to us.

+++++We took the bus from outside my flat to the bus stop where we’d been attacked.

+++++When we got off the bus my every instinct told me I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I had to look after Ron, save him from himself, so there was no escape.

+++++The white trash who’d tried to assault us were nowhere to be seen.

+++++Thank God, I thought. All we have to do is hang round here long enough and Ron’ll see sense, then we can go.

+++++Long enough proved to be a very long time, because Ron insisted on walking round all day in search of them. My stomach churned, my mind churned even more. Fear embraced me tightly, treating me to a lingering kiss.

+++++I was in the middle of a debate with myself about whether I had any courage to speak of when Ron nudged me.

+++++“There,” he hissed. “Right in front of us.”

+++++It was them all right, coming out of a barber’s shop with their heads freshly shaved right down to the scalp.

+++++Both wore t-shirts, which meant they couldn’t be carrying baseball bats. They walked down the street with me and Ron following on their tails.

+++++“Too many witnesses around to do anything here, bro,” Ron whispered. “We’ll bide our time.”

+++++As they cut across a patch of wasteland we closed the gap until we were a yard or so behind them. Only at that point did one of them hear something and turn his head. My heart began beating against my ribs. I felt sick

+++++Ron shouted:

+++++“Oi! Remember me?”

+++++Then we both rushed to attack.

+++++They readied themselves. It was going to be a square-go, no baseball bats this time, two against two in a fair fight.

+++++Fear bore down on me like ten-ton weight on my shoulders. Somehow I shrugged it off and tore into the one I’d chosen for myself. He was big, but size doesn’t win fights. Fighting wins fights, and I’m a trained boxer.

+++++The fear left me – funny how it does that once the action starts – and instinct took over. I was in the zone, fighting on automatic pilot.

+++++I jabbed him a couple of times then decked him with a crisp left hook. He went down as if poleaxed. It was over disappointingly quickly. I’d wanted him to absorb a few good punches before hitting the canvas.

+++++When I turned to see how Ron was getting on, I got the shock of my life.

+++++Unknown to me, he’d brought a knife – my carving knife. He must’ve picked it up when he’d been in the kitchen.

+++++He was carving up his opponent like a Christmas turkey.

+++++I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since seeing him do that. I need therapy, but there’s not much chance of getting it anytime soon.

+++++“Fucking hell, Ron, we gotta go,” I said, grabbing his knife arm.

+++++He wrenched it from me, plunged the blade deep into white bloke’s stomach, and yanked it sideways.

+++++When he pulled it out, the bloke fell to his knees. Only when his victim’s face hit the dirt did Ron allow me to drag him away.

+++++“What did you do that for, man?” I asked.

+++++“Do what?”

+++++“You know what. The knife business. You didn’t need to do that. All we had to do was rough them up a little. You might’ve killed him.”

+++++“So what? What d’yer think they were going to do to us with those fucking baseball bats?”

+++++“That’s not the point. The point is, we could get sent down for this.”

+++++“You worry too much, bro.”

+++++The coppers got onto us in a matter of hours and interviewed us under caution.

+++++My brother was charged with murder and I was charged with murder too, as an accomplice, even though I hadn’t done anything much wrong.

+++++We both got life.

+++++So here I am, looking out of my cell window on Christmas day evening, quietly getting pissed on hooch.

+++++This is real-life, not a crime novel, so there won’t be any miracle reprieve, pardon, parole, or jailbreak.

+++++I’ll see you here next Christmas.

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And so on.

+++++Simple.

THE WITCHING HOUR

They used to call this “The Witching Hour,” three to four in the morning when witches, goblins, and other demons of the night were most likely to be active. I call it “The Terrible Three,” the hour when insomniacs like me are most likely to awaken and spend the rest of the night in a restless pursuit of sleep.

+++++I’ve tried everything to beat this sleeplessness. Sleeping pills, melatonin, warm milk, a fifth of whiskey. But “The Terrible Three” is a persistent little cuss. I lay awake staring into the dark, my sleep shattered by a thousand random thoughts. How secure is my job? If fired, can I find another one? How will I pay the rent? What if there is another war? What about that series of horrible murders the newspapers keep talking?

+++++I’ve read insomnia is usually due to stress during our waking hours. The recommended treatment is to reduce that stress. How the hell do I do that? It’s not as if I’m forcing these stress levels on myself. It comes from my boss and his boss above him. It comes from powers over which we have no control.

+++++Kicking off the covers, I stand up. I’ve found the only thing that helps me get back to sleep is taking a walk. I read about that, too. Get up and walk around a bit. Try not to focus on getting to sleep. It works sometimes, but not all the time.

+++++I pull on my trousers, a shirt, my athletic shoes, and a warm coat. It’s winter and the nights are cold. An old Navy knitted watch cap keeps my balding head warm. As I walk through the kitchen, I pick up a large chef’s knife and slip it into my belt under my coat. It is an odd hour for a walk, and I need something for protection. After all, the newspapers keep warning us about that serial killer.

+++++The night air is chilled. I turn up my coat collar, pull the watch cap lower, and start my usual three-block circuit at a brisk but casual pace.

+++++I live in an apartment building not far from the center of town. The streets are well lit but empty at this hour. Sometimes the quiet is unnerving. But I also find the vacant streets relaxing, soothing. My thoughts slow, and soon they focus only on the sound of my breathing and the swish of my soft-soled shoes.

+++++As I pass a darkened storefront, I glimpse a shadow in the doorway. I pretend not to notice, but speed up my pace, nonetheless. A few steps later, I hear another set of footsteps, glance around, and realized the person I saw in the storefront is now walking behind me. The person is dressed in dark, shabby clothes, and a well-worn jacket with the collar turned up. A dark baseball cap covers his head.

+++++We are alone in the street. Is he following me? Maybe he’s simply out for a sleepless walk like me. I pick up my pace again and turn a corner while he’s still several yards behind. Rushing down the street, I turn into an alley and peek around the corner. My hand slips into my coat and grips the handle of the chef’s knife.

+++++According to the newspapers, the serial killer always strikes in the wee hours of the morning. His . . . what do they call it? Modus operandi. His modus operandi involves killing homeless men, though the police believe he may have killed a couple of muggers, too.

+++++The dark figure reaches the far corner and stops. He looks around the corner, then checks to his left and right. With his hands in his coat pockets, he turns the corner and heads towards me.

+++++I look around the alley. It’s a dead end. Just trash dumpsters and other discarded debris. The perfect place for a mugger or a killer to attack a victim. I pull out the knife and huddle behind a dumpster.

+++++The figure stops at the alley entrance and peers around the corner. He pulls something from his pocket. A knife? A gun? I can’t tell. As he enters the alley, I hunker lower behind the dumpster. He doesn’t see me until it’s too late. I’m on him before he can react. I jab the knife as hard as I can into his chest. I feel it scraping bone, feel the warmth of his blood spilling over my hand. Pulling the knife out, I jab again, and again. I keep stabbing until my strength is spent, then I let go of him. He drops to the ground without a sound.

+++++Slipping the knife back into my belt, I straighten my coat and hurry back to my apartment. I clean the knife carefully and place it back in the wooden cutlery block. Then I remove my clothing, place it in the clothes washer, and turn the washer on. After a hot shower, I climb back into bed.

+++++It was a good walk. I don’t always find someone on these walks. Even when I do, I’m not always successful luring them into a dark, secluded place. If I don’t, the walk does little to help my sleeplessness. But if I do, then I return home calmed and relaxed, and I know I will enjoy a deep and refreshing sleep the rest of the night.

Wrath of the Lamb

Joshua Schafer knew the corridor well. Since the state had re-established capital punishment, he as death row chaplain had ministered to twenty inmates, and there were three more executions slated for later in the year. With luck, he wouldn’t be here for those. He’d done the paperwork for an unpaid leave of absence hours before, and there was no reason to think he’d be denied. He’d read the newspaper that morning and was certain he’d made the right decision. The headline had assaulted him. He knew that when a man of the cloth feels hatred and revenge in his heart, it’s time to step back. And not only step back but reconsider whether he was prepared to go on—with everything.

+++++The corridor looked the same as last time, smelled the same, sounded the same. Light, shadows, echoes, the inelastic ambiance of fear: all the same, except for one thing. The young prison guard kept glancing back at him as they walked down the hallway to unit 05, where an inmate had been transferred to the death house just yesterday. At first, it was only a slight sideways look and Schafer thought nothing of it. But then it happened two, three more times and Schafer touched his clerical collar wondering if something was out of order.

+++++They stopped at 05, and the guard hesitated.

+++++“What is it guard?”

+++++Again the look, this time more of a stare, making Schafer even more uncomfortable.

+++++“I get the feeling there’s something about me that’s bothering you,” said Schafer.

+++++“I’m just amazed, sir,” said the guard, a shadow of embarrassment passing over his face.

+++++Did the kid even shave yet? thought Schafer.

+++++“You look astoundingly like Cullen,” said the guard.

+++++Schafer had seen the photographs, flipped through the file. Yes, he’d noticed a resemblance in the sandy-colored hair, high cheekbones, over-large ears, and a nose that was long and narrow and a bit crooked from a straight-on angle. But it hadn’t concerned him, and what could you tell from a photo anyway?

+++++“Hmm,” said Schafer, as he looked away. “I think we should get on with this.”

+++++“Sorry, but it’s hard to ignore,” the guard said. “You’d think you were the man himself. What’s that word people use? Uncanny? That’s it, uncanny.”

+++++Schafer felt heat rise from his chest and neck. He took a long breath. “Look, I haven’t got a lot of time, and quite frankly it’s been a rough morning for me. Daunting, to tell the truth. I’d like to move this along as quickly as possible.”

+++++“Yessir.”

*

+++++Joe Bob Cullen looked directly at the chaplain as to the two men shook hands. For a moment Schafer had the sensation he was staring into his own slate-blue eyes. They sat facing each other at a metal table inside a small meeting room a few paces from Cullen’s open cell. The room was without a door and separated from the rest of the unit by a cinder block wall painted white. There were three guards, but they couldn’t be seen from where the two men sat. Cullen wore the usual death row inmate’s uniform, a white jumpsuit with DR printed in black on the back.

+++++“I’m sure you’re aware that on the day before an execution the inmate has a chance to meet a chaplain. The new rules allow us ten minutes in a semi-private setting. I’m here to introduce myself, and to say I’ll be there for the procedure unless of course, you would prefer me not to be. We can also have one more visit before the execution tomorrow.”

+++++“Fine by me,” said Cullen. “Whatever the rules and regulations say.” He laughed.

+++++“What?”

+++++“I’m glad I’m dying in a more liberal state where they treat us guys like human beings.”

+++++Schafer nodded and studied the file he’d brought with him. He noted that Cullen was born two days after him, in 1977. He looked up. “I can pray with you as well, offer communion, answer any questions you might have. And I can…”

+++++Schafer stared at Cullen’s face, impassive as granite. Photographs did little justice to the resemblance between the two men. Was it true that somewhere in the world my exact double exists? thought Schafer.

+++++“Cat got your tongue, padre?”

+++++“Er, no, it’s just that…”

+++++“I know what you’re thinking, pastor. By the way, you prefer to be called pastor or are you one of those down-and-dirty, streetwise padres? You prefer Joshua or maybe Mr. Schafer?”

+++++“Mr. Schafer’s fine.”

+++++“Mr. Schafer it is, then.”

+++++Schafer fidgeted with the file in front of him, ran his hand across his sandy colored hair. His knees bounced to an unknown rhythm. He stroked his chin and realized he’d forgotten to shave. He’d left his house in a hurry after reading the morning paper. Had he switched off the toaster?

+++++Cullen watched as he sat leaning against his chair back. His legs were crossed. “People tell me I’m your Doppelgänger,” the prisoner said. “That’s the word, ain’t it? Doppelgänger?”

+++++“Yes it is,” Schafer said, trying for nonchalance. “I must say, I’d never realized how strong the resemblance is until now.”

+++++“Makes you sorta nervous, don’t it? Like it’s one of those there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sorts of things.”

+++++The chaplain shrugged and smiled. “The world is full of chance occurrences, coincidences, marvels. There are so many unpredictable things they’re almost predictable. It’s all part of God’s wondrous, mysterious universe.”

+++++“Like the twist of fate that left me taking the rap for a murder I didn’t commit? The lousy break that allows me to be the fall guy and another bastard goes free?”

+++++“My remit is not to discuss your sentencing but to minister to your spiritual needs.”

+++++Cullen smiled, and Schafer noted that his bottom teeth were so closely packed that one tooth had been pushed forward. He instinctively raised his finger to his mouth to feel a misaligned incisor in the same position.

+++++“I’m thinking you may have some spiritual needs too, padre.”

+++++Schafer frowned. “We all feel the necessity of having a relationship with God. In some it’s sharper than in others, but it’s there for everybody.”

+++++“I read the papers,” said Cullen. “Saw the headline. What was it? Former Accused Murderer Wins Lottery. Yeah, that was it.”

+++++Schafer glared at the prisoner. “That has nothing to do what we are about here, Mr. Cullen. What we are about here is the fact that tomorrow evening at 6 sharp you will receive a lethal injection. My goal is to assist you spiritually in any way I can between now and that moment of truth.”

+++++“Well,” said Cullen as he picked at a fingernail. “I don’t believe much in the truth, frankly, since I told the truth and look where it got me. But I ain’t a dumb man, padre, and I know a little bit about human nature. You know, prison is about the best place I can think of to read up on the world, get your bearings. Some of the boys call it FelonyU. And my education tells me your seeing that headline must have just torn you up.”

+++++“Mr. Cullen, if you have no questions or requests for me, then I’ll say my goodbyes until tomorrow.”

+++++“Now wait a minute,” said Cullen, as Schafer was about to stand. “I read how the man who’d been acquitted of raping and murdering the prison chaplain’s young wife—Magdalena, right?—goes out and lives a fine-and-thank-you-very-much kind of life. And then what happens? Bastard wins the lottery and becomes an overnight millionaire. How’s that for luck, padre? I’m reading that paper and thinking, why, that must be hell for the chaplain. Pure hell. Because the chaplain still thinks the man did it. Still thinks his wife’s former lover is the murderer. Or so says the paper. Were you misquoted?”

+++++Schafer rose. “I think we’re done here.” He stood but didn’t move as he stared at the inmate.

+++++“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world,” said Cullen.

+++++Schafer’s face darkened.

+++++“I know a little bit of the Good Word too, padre. It ain’t only newspapers and pornography I read. I know that when John the Baptist said he was thinking of Christ as the Lamb of God, he was thinking of sacrifice.”

+++++“You’re no sacrificial lamb, if that’s what you’re saying,” said Schafer. “You killed a convenience store owner in cold blood. Just because you wanted what little cash the poor man had. God forgives you, of that you can be certain, but the people have a right to seek justice, and tomorrow they will have it.”

+++++“Well we can disagree on the sacrifice part,” said Cullen. “An innocent man killed for something he didn’t do is a sacrifice, I’d say. I’ve got the job of somehow atoning for the crimes of all the good citizens out there. I’ve never been big on sharing, if you know what I mean, but there it is.”

+++++“I can see the Lord has not yet opened your heart. In the next 24 hours I will pray that he does.”

+++++“Well you go right on and pray, padre. I can’t stop you from doing your job. But I thought I’d remind you that the Book of Revelation also speaks of the wrath of the Lamb. That’s right, the Lamb’s wrath. And it even says, ‘These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.'”

+++++“I will not stand here and allow you to misuse the Lord’s Word.”

+++++“But I bet you’ll allow me to be your wrathful Lamb, won’t you, padre?”

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“I’ll take care of the fucker who did your wife.”

+++++“I have no idea what you’re going on about, Mr. Cullen, and this is highly inappropriate anyway—”

+++++“You and me. Exchange places.”

+++++“This is preposterous.”

+++++“You and me, we look alike. So close I could be you. I know you see it. I know you know.”

+++++“And you’re suggesting I stand in for you, so you can…what? Kill the man who killed my wife? If I had that much hatred in my heart I’d do that myself.”

+++++“But you won’t. I know you won’t. You’re a man of God. You’ll carry around the hatred all your life. You’ll ask for forgiveness, do good works, think you’re helping guys who are ready to get a chemical stew in their veins. But you won’t do anything but get on your knees. Meanwhile the acid of revenge eats away at your insides. Always eating until there’s nothing left. You take my place and you can rest assured you’ll get the one thing you want more than anything else in the world, more than life itself. That man will die. The minute I get out of this shithole, I’ll hunt that man down and kill him. All you need to do is give me the key to outside. They’ll probably catch me for it too, so don’t go thinking I go scot-free. But it will be worth it to have a little more time outside.”

+++++Schafer straightened his shoulders. “You underestimate how God’s grace works in our hearts. How it enables us to move on.”

+++++Cullen harrumphed. “How’s that working for you so far, huh? I know I couldn’t move on from something like that. A pretty little wife, you find out was screwing with this guy, and then he stabs her full of holes—and then lives the life of fucking Riley. No, padre, a man doesn’t move on from something like that. That sits with a man. Claws at him. That kind of injustice makes grace melt like snow in April.”

+++++“You said you weren’t a murderer. You didn’t kill the convenience store owner.”

+++++“I said I didn’t do that murder.”

*

+++++The chaplain heard the door to unit 05 close behind him. His knees were mercury. His heart thumped and he feared the guard could hear it. His mind raced. He was in the courtroom a year ago watching the defendant. He saw how the man smirked when the judge said four fateful words, “acquitted of all charges.” He felt as if some dark soul of revenge and destruction had come to colonize his life. He was in the bedroom where he’d found Magdalena’s naked body, the sheets soaked in red, walls splattered. He imagined her and the man together, in that bed. On the carpeted floor he saw what would be identified as the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, and he’d wished many times since then he could drive it into his heart to stop the burn of hatred.

*

+++++Again he walked the corridor. The guard was an older man and he didn’t study the pastor’s face as the young guard had yesterday. The sounds and smells of death row seemed strangely muted, as if he were in some other place and some other time, or no time at all. His black trousers and black shirt felt snug, as if he’d donned someone else’s clothes. His white collar scratched his neck.

+++++He thought about his duties. Praying with the condemned man, offering to take care of any last-minute things for a spouse, a child. Ensuring the prisoner was able to say his last words at the execution. Standing at the end of the gurney as the procedure went on.

+++++Cullen was already seated at the metal table when the chaplain entered. The prisoner looked up and smiled, a picture of casualness.

+++++“We have five minutes at most,” said Schafer. He stood behind the white cinder block wall and undressed.

+++++“Perfect fit,” said Cullen as he shed his uniform and began dressing in the pastor’s clothing. Schafer slipped on Cullen’s white shirt and trousers. They exchanged shoes.

+++++Cullen handed Schafer a folded piece of paper. “My last words,” said Cullen, smirking. “There ain’t much so you can memorize it quickly.”

+++++Schafer nodded. “All you have to do is stand there by the gurney and let me say my piece, I mean, your piece, and…”

+++++“I seen the documentaries. I know what the padre does when they start feeding the poison.”

+++++They looked at one another, not sure what to do next. A guard strolled past the entrance to the small room. “Couple more minutes, gentlemen,” he said, barely glancing at them.

+++++“You kneel,” said Cullen in a hushed tone.

+++++Schafer went down on his knees and bowed his head as Cullen raised his arms and whispered, “And they said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?”

+++++Schafer opened his eyes and looked at the linoleum floor. He heard the buzz of fluorescent lighting overhead.

+++++Cullen walked out and the chaplain was alone, still kneeling.

FADE AWAY

Vinnie could not believe that the frail figure lying in bed at the Woodrow Nursing facility was that of Frankie Malloy. Or as Vinnie knew him, Frankie the Razor. Frankie had once been the most efficient, and most feared killing machine that the Family had ever had at its disposal.

+++++Now, he lay here, at the grand old age of eighty-four, his once sharp mind and body, were succumbing to the final stages of Alzheimer’s. His life, thoughts, and memories were fading, like leaves in the wind.

+++++All that was visible of Frankie was his head poking above the pristine bed sheets that appeared to be holding him in place. The skin on his skull looked pulled tight, so it was almost translucent. Through parched lips, Vinnie could hear him sucking in oxygen.

+++++Vinnie busied himself, screwing the silencer to the end of his gun. The Family had given the order. Frankie had to be silenced. They feared that as he slipped from existence, he may divulge some information that could somehow implicate them. A risk they were not prepared to take. They wanted Frankie’s secrets burying with him. Quite literally.

+++++It was a mercy killing, that’s how Vinnie justified it. Like putting an old dog out of its misery. Sure he had known of Frankie. Anyone in this line of business knew of his reputation. Especially his weapon of choice, the cut-throat razor. Silent and efficient. That was Frankie’s style. The man was a legend, and it pained Vinnie to see him like this. He was sure he would understand. After all, it was only business.

+++++Vinnie moved closer to the bed, careful to avoid the bag of piss that hung over its edge. The nurse on night duty had explained that it was unlikely Frankie would even know he was there in the room. The Alzheimers was slowly shutting down his body. It was only the body’s survival instincts that were keeping him alive. Eventually, they too would close down. Something the Family was not willing to wait for.

+++++Vinnie looked down into Frankie’s eyes, seeking some sign, some recognition. Nothing, just two lifeless pools that remained fixed to the ceiling above, devoid of life. Vinnie leaned in to whisper in Frankie’s ear, compelled to say something.

+++++“Listen, Frankie, if you’re in their buddy, this is nothing personal. Just business.”

+++++Before Vinnie could bring the gun up, he felt the cold, sharp edge of the razor, pressing into his neck, already beginning to draw blood. He looked down into those two dark pools and prayed. How much of Frankie the Razor was still in there. He was about to find out.

Coffee Jones

Have you ever tried to kick a caffeine habit?

+++++I launch a wingtip-clad foot into the solar plexus of the miserable bastard lying in front of me; the sobbing, weeping pile of human excrement who’s begging – pleading – with me about his miserable life, his miserable spouse, his miserable girlfriend-on-the-side, his miserable children. The shot to the gut temporarily lets all the air out of the windbag, and his pleas are replaced, at least for a brief, glorious moment, with a sucking sound as he tries to re-inflate his lungs and keep from retching his Egg McMuffin on the sidewalk.

+++++I light up a Pall Mall and enjoy the first relative peace and quiet I’ve been able to experience all morning.

+++++I examine the little white cancer stick held between two fingers on my right hand. One vice at a time, I thought to myself. Besides, I tried to go cold turkey with cigarettes before – multiple times before – and I just keep coming back to the damn things, no matter how bad they might be for me, or how many times my doctor tries to warn me off.

+++++Kurt Vonnegut once said – I got a thing for famous quotes – anyway, Vonnegut said of Pall Malls that they were “a classy way to commit suicide.” Given society’s current trend towards demonizing all things tobacco, that’s probably as close as you were ever going to get to a celebrity endorsement in this day and age.

+++++The disappearing orange glow of a neglected smoke and the accumulating gray/white ash, opposite the service end invite me to take another drag, and I do, releasing a steady stream of tinted blue smoke into the atmosphere.

+++++“Please, don’t!” The fucking worm begs for his life, regaining his breath and intruding on my peace of mind. “I have money. I have… I can get money…”

+++++“Fuck you,” I tell him through clenched teeth. I press my toe into the asshole’s hand like I’m stubbing out the cigarette still safely clenched in my fingers, and I twist to make sure he gets the point. He screams.

+++++Maybe I’m just being irritable because I haven’t had my morning cup of Joe.

+++++“Jonesy, what the fuck are you doing?!” shouts Vic as he labors to pull his fat ass from behind the wheel of his prized ’69 Chevelle. He wheezes from the exertion as he toddles over to where we’re standing, next to the trunk of the car. “This man needs his hands. What do you do for a living again, sir?”

+++++“I’m… I’m an accountant,” the jerk-off stammers as if he’s finally found an ally.

+++++Vic mulls it over for a minute, then says, “Well, you can probably still punch those big calculator numbers with a broken finger or two, amIright?” He gives me the nod, and this time, I stomp down with my heel.

+++++“Fuuuck!” screams the accountant, his anguished hollering bouncing around the inside of my skull like a baseball bat bouncing off bone right behind my eyes.

+++++I’m not normally this ornery and vicious. Fact is, you get me on a good day, I’m halfway to a fucking teddy bear. Downright sweet. Cuddly, even. Vic’s usually the big prick of the two of us. But the goddamned caffeine withdrawal was kicking my ass. And I needed to kick something back.

+++++Samuel Johnson – the guy who practically wrote the English dictionary – he said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Right about now, I can see he had a point…

+++++“Alright kid, enough.” Vic shoos me off.

+++++I let up on the hand, but I’m not finished. I kneel down beside the asshole and clock him right in the jaw. Not enough to put him out. Just enough to give me that small flicker of satisfaction you get when you punch an asshole square in the face.

+++++“Enough, I said!” This time, Vic grabs me by the shoulders and yanks me back into a standing position. Everything’s foggy, and I’m a little woozy from the sudden change in elevation. He leads me away to chat in private.

+++++“What the fuck are you doing?” he whispers to me.

+++++“I don’t like this fucking guy.”

+++++“I can see that. Seriously, what the fuck’s gotten into you today?”

+++++“I’m on this stupid natural cleanse bullshit,” I tell him. “A week without any coffee, or, really, any caffeine at all. So far…”

+++++Vic lets out an exasperated huff, and starts to walk away, then turns back fast enough that I almost topple over backward from my shaky, caffeine-starved sense of balance.

+++++“Get it together, Jones.” He wags a fat finger in my face, and I want to tear it off and shove it up his ass. I suppress the urge.

+++++Vic walks up to the accountant, who’s weeping in a ball, propped up on the Chevy’s chrome bumper, next to the vanity license plate that reads PS3-WGN – Vic was convinced that it spelled out “Pussy Wagon,” but no one else ever seemed to share that interpretation. Vic kneels down to talk to the accountant on his level. “Do you know why we’re doing this?”

+++++“Please, please, I don’t…”

+++++Vic grabs him by the collars and hoists him to his feet. He playfully slaps him around a little – not to cause damage, or at the very least, not the kind of damage I wanted to inflict. Just to shut him up.

+++++“I don’t, I don’t…” Vic mocks. “This ain’t about what you don’t. This is about what you won’t. You get me?”

+++++My palms are sweating, and my pulse is throbbing behind my forehead. It’s been three days since the last time I took a decent shit, even though my stomach’s constantly churning.

+++++“What’s your name, buddy?” Vic says, playing equal parts good cop and bad cop.

+++++“M-m-Mike…” stammers the accountant.

+++++“Bullshit!” I yell from about ten feet away. “You don’t think we already know that ain’t your name, ya lying fuck?”

+++++“Jonesy, cool it,” chastises Vic, before turning his attention back to the accountant. “Look, you want to be Mike, you can be Mike for all I care. You can be John, George… fucking Ringo for all I care. I don’t give two shits about your name.”

+++++“Wh-Why are you doing this?”

+++++“Well, my partner over there… he does it because he’s got a bad disposition. Mother didn’t breastfeed him enough as a kid.”

+++++“Fuck you, fat-ass!” I snarl.

+++++“Me, I do it because I’m a people person,” Vic continues, unfazed. “In this line of work, you get to meet so many interesting people… like fucking nosey bookworm accountants who should have kept to their own fucking business!”

+++++“I didn’t… I don’t…”

+++++“There he goes again with the ‘I don’t…’ thing,” Vic says to me as if I’m paying attention. Concentration ain’t exactly my strong suit at the moment. I flick my spent cigarette butt towards the edge of the dock we’re standing on, but it skitters in a shower of sparks just short of the water.

+++++“What you don’t is ir-rel-e-vant,” continues Vic, enunciating each syllable as if it makes him sound sophisticated. “You seen something you shouldn’ta seen, and you know what? That’s fine. Last I checked, there ain’t no law against seeing, ain’t that right, Jonesy?

+++++He gives me a look as if to say “Help me out, kid,” but I just silently glare at the pair of them. He shrugs and turns back to the accountant.

+++++“He’s more of the strong silent type, I guess. Anyway, where was I… yeah, ain’t no law against seeing. But what the fuck do you do?”

+++++“I was… I’m just doing my job…”

+++++“You go looking into old tax returns, and you find some ‘ir-reg-u-lar-i-ties,’” – another 15-point scrabble word from Vic – “and you bring them to our employer, seeking a big fat fucking payday to keep your mouth shut! Now, like I said, ain’t no law against seeing… but that to me? That sounds like extortion. And last I checked, extortion, yeah, there’s a fucking law… right, Jonesy?”

+++++I belch something rancid from deep inside my fouled-up guts, and swallow hard to keep the bile from rising any higher in the back of my throat. I manage not to puke, but it’s touch-and-go for a minute.

+++++“M-m-my daughter, she needs braces…” offers the accountant in the way of weak-ass excuses.

+++++“Your daughter needs braces?” Vic repeats. He balls up a fat fist, and slugs the worm in the stomach, crumpling the bastard and dropping him back down to the ground like a discarded tissue. He pulls out a thick wallet from his back pocket and thumbs through.

+++++“How much is braces? Couple hundred? Couple thousand?” he asks, pulling out high-denomination bills and dropping them carelessly and disdainfully on top of the gasping accountant, one at a time for effect.

+++++Vic grabs him by the back of his neck and lifts him back up to face him. “If you really fucking needed the money, you coulda asked instead of making empty God-damned threats! The amount of money you’re talking about, it’s nothing! My employer spends more to get his shoes shined. This ain’t about you being needy; it’s about you being greedy!”

+++++Vic lets go of the accountant and he collapses back on the ground, crying.

+++++“Gimme back my damn money,” Vic orders.

+++++The worm accountant scrambles to collect all the discarded bills and hand them back to my fat fuck of a partner. The sun peaks out over the top of a warehouse, sending kaleidoscope daggers across my field of vision. I shield my light-sensitive eyes.

+++++Vic takes a deep breath to change gears, and starts pacing around the accountant, like a tiger looking at a meal. “You… well, y’know what? Today is your lucky day, my friend. The god of fat, balding middle-aged accountants is smiling down on you today, amigo.”

+++++“W-why?” snivels the accountant, tears, snot and a little bit of blood covering his fat nobody-face.

+++++“Because you chose to soar a little fucking too close to the sun, Icarus,” – I quietly applaud Vic on remembering basic third-grade Greek mythology – “and you know what happened to him? Wings burned up. Fell to his death. This time around, though, my employer is a forgiving man. He’s a generous man.

+++++“If it were up to me and him,” Vic says, jerking a thumb back in my direction, “we’d let you fall. Frankly, neither one of us likes you very much, if that ain’t plainly fucking apparent. But our boss has a kind fucking heart, and he’s willing to let you walk away from all this, provided you don’t say nothin’ to nobody about what you fucking know. Understand?”

+++++Vic’s phone chirps that cheery factory ringtone that came standard – he never could figure out how to swap it out. He pulls the phone from his left-front pants pocket and looks at the screen.

+++++“Shit, I gotta take this. If you ain’t too busy, you think you can watch over our friend til I come back?”

+++++I don’t say a word, and quietly walk over to where the accountant is weeping on the ground in praise of his second chance at life. Vic excuses himself to the Chevelle. The accountant is practically manic in his gratitude towards us.

+++++“Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” he blubbers over and over again, wiping his snot face on my sleeve. I yank the arm back, almost dropping him flat on his face.

+++++Why does this guy get – no, deserve – a fucking pass?

+++++“…shuddup…” I tell him under my breath.

+++++“OhmyGod, I have to call Marcy, my secretary… she saw you guys grab me out of the parking lot, and she’s probably so worried….”

+++++That would be Marcy, the secretary he’s schtupping on the side… who told us where to pick him up, without so much as a regret in the world. Each word makes me hate him more. My head is pounding.

+++++“Shuddup.” I say, a little more forceful.

+++++“Y’know, I could just lose that tax return, right? Show of good faith to your boss, prove I’m a team player, that kinda thing? Who knows, maybe he’ll offer me a job. Guys like him need accountants they can trust, righ…”

+++++“Shuddup! Shuddup! Shuddup! Shut the fuck up!” I shout, cutting him off. I pull a switchblade from my back pocket, and quick as a cobra pouncing on a rabbit, I flick the blade open and plunge it into his neck up to the handle.

+++++His eyes go wide –begging, pleading, confused – but he’s finally stopped talking. He falls back off the blade and onto the ground, dark red blood gurgling up from the wound and out from his now-silent mouth as the life pours out of him and onto the asphalt of the dock parking lot.

+++++“You’re not going to believe this,” says Vic, emerging from the driver’s seat of the Chevelle. “That was Suzy. My fucking kid needs brac… WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?!”

+++++“I just… I don’t…” I stammer.

+++++“There’s a line we’re not supposed to cross!” hollers Vic. “We’re fucking cops, for Chrissake… maybe shitty cops, but we ain’t supposed to be murderers…”

+++++“It was the caffeine… the light off the warehouse,” I whisper, dazed.

+++++“Fuck this shit,” he throws his hands up in the air. “I ain’t going to jail for you, and I sure as shit ain’t losin’ my pension for you…”

+++++Vic climbs back into the Chevelle and punches the familiar three numbers into the keypad on his cell phone. The fog starts to lift from my brain, and I move alongside the driver’s side door.

+++++“Yeah, I’d like to report an assault… anonymously…” Vic says into the phone.

+++++“Vic, get out of the fucking car,” I say, clicking the hammer back on my service revolver.

+++++“I’ll call you back,” says Vic, hanging up the cell phone. “Easy, Jonesy… we can talk this thing through…”

+++++Vic slams the car door into my arm, taking me by surprise, and is out of the car, his thick hands around my throat much faster than they should have been for a man of his size and age.

+++++I try to pry the big man’s fingers off my throat, but it’s no use. Shadows start creeping in from the edge of my field of view.

+++++My only hope – the .38 I’m still desperately clutching, despite my airway being squeezed by the big lummox in front of me. Vic spots my hand come up with the pistol, and loosens his grip on my throat to paw at the heater. I gasp as we struggle for control of the gun.

+++++The sound of a single gunshot startles the seagulls at the end of the dock.

* * *

+++++“You know, I always said, ‘Shredded lettuce is like the stripper glitter of fast-food condiments…”

+++++“What the fuck are you going on about?”

+++++“Shredded lettuce. It’s like, my girl, she don’t like me eating this shit,” said Pete from the driver’s seat, as he shoves another Taco Bell beef taco down his pie hole, and then starts to talk with a mouthful of food. “So, it’s like, whenever I eat this, I always gotta worry that she’ll find it on me. And you can never get that shredded lettuce shit off… it shows up in the most inconvenient of places.”

+++++“You a fucking comedian now or something?” says Mustache Mike from the passenger’s seat. “Cut out the comedy routine, Seinfeld. We got a job to do. We need to stay professional.”

+++++The two chew in silence for a minute.

+++++“You really think he’s in there?” asks Pete, pushing up the glasses that always seemed to be slipping down his face, and which did nothing to bolster his non-existent reputation as an intellectual.

+++++“You know any other ’69 Chevelles with that stupid fucking license plate?” Mike nods towards Vic’s car.

+++++“I don’t know about this, man,” says Pete. “What if he’s gone full-on mad dog killer? What if we’re walking into a fucking shoot-out at the O.K. Corral?”

+++++“What if I slug you in the fucking jaw, you goddamned pussy. We got orders, and orders is orders…”

+++++The two hired thugs step out of the Impala and walk across the street to the coffee joint.

+++++As they pass through the door, a little bell rings, announcing their entrance. I nod over to them, acknowledging their presence and inviting them over to where I’m sitting in a booth.

+++++“We been looking for you, Jonesy,” says Mike. “Since the fuck-up this morning.”

+++++“I figured,” I say, rubbing the bruises on my neck. “The boss send you?”

+++++“Whadaya think?”

+++++I motion for them to slide into the booth opposite me. “You guys hungry?”

+++++“We just ate,” squawks Pete, to Mustache Mike’s annoyance.

+++++“Taco Bell?” I ask, knowing these two and their habits.

+++++“Yeah. You know, that shredded lettuce, it’s like the stripper glitter…”

+++++Mike elbows his partner in the guts to shut him up.

+++++“Well, I’ll tell ya later, I guess,” Pete says.

+++++“Well, if you guys are interested, this place makes a mean cappuccino,” I tell them. “This ain’t the fanciest joint – not like that Starbucks shit – but it’s probably the best cappuccino around…”

+++++“Nah, thanks,” refuses Mike. “I quit that shit. Couple months back. Better for my nerves.”

+++++“Yeah, I guess it would be,” I concede. I sip from the cup, and lick the foam off my top lip. “You boys ever have a bad fucking morning?”

+++++“Calling what you had a ‘bad fucking morning’ would be a serious understatement,” Pete says.

+++++“Yeah, well… anyone reach out to Suzy yet?” I felt like shit when I thought about what I had to do to Vic. I felt even worse when I thought about his family.

+++++“Yeah, the boss called her,” says Mike. “She and the kid’ll be taken care of.”

“Good. Kid needs braces.”

+++++We sit a few minutes in silence until I break it.

+++++“So where do we go from here, boys?”

+++++“You know the drill,” says Pete. “We gotta take you back to see the boss.”

+++++“Orders is orders,” I say, turning to Mustache Mike. “Got time to finish my coffee?”

+++++“Yeah, kid. Take your time.”

+++++I take another swig of my cappuccino. I know Mike’s already got the safety off, and the gun’s pointed at me from his coat pocket. I ain’t making it to see the boss.

+++++I pull a nail from the Pall Mall pack in my torn shirt pocket and stick it between my lips. “Got a light?”

+++++Pete pulls a dinged-up Zippo from his front pants pocket, his hands trembling a little as he holds it up for me to ignite my cigarette.

+++++“You can’t smoke that in here,” admonishes the barista from behind the counter.

+++++“Relax, doll… I probably ain’t finishing it,” I take a deep drag before turning back to my would-be executioners. “You guys ever hear that quote from Kurt Vonnegut about Pall Malls?”

THE END

The Screaming Side

“They scream at midnight.”

+++++We stood on the north tower catwalk that overlooked the yard. This was my first time pulling the night shift.

+++++“We used to leave on lights to quiet them. That stopped working so, we shined spotlights at them two or three times, and they would stop. But, that stopped working too.”

+++++The screaming sounded horrible. It was more like shrieking the way it echoed out into the yard. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and I stepped closer to my co-worker which brought little comfort. But, little was better than none.

+++++“What do we do now? Does nothing work?” I asked, needing to keep the conversation going. The melancholy he’d fallen into was unnerving, and I feared I may soon begin screaming as well.

+++++“We have new methods. They’re extreme, so we don’t employ them often.” He looked me over, likely seeing fear in my eyes. “You’re safe on the tower.”

+++++I believed this was an attempt to be reassuring. It failed. He pointed to the door set in the stone wall of the main building.

+++++“That’s half-inch steel. It’s the same as the door on this tower. Even if they escaped their cells, they’d have to breach those doors.”

+++++Thinking of our gun storage locker inside the tower brought me a modicum of comfort and helped me regain a bit of confidence.

+++++“What do you mean ‘extreme’?”

+++++“You should know we understand they’re sick, all here because they are insane and can’t control the way they are. We aren’t cruel people.” He spoke slowly, hoping I felt the weight his burden.

+++++“You seem nice enough.”

+++++He shrugged and went inside the tower. I was relieved to go into the light and warmth of the small office and absolutely delighted when he closed the door, muffling the chilling sounds outside. I took a seat while he poured two cups of coffee. He handed one to me and sat in the only other chair.

+++++Taking a sip of his coffee and a deep breath, he told me of other methods used inside to quiet our charges. These included the fire hose, straitjackets, and solitary confinement. At times, tempers flared, and attendants got physical, which only further agitated the inmates.

+++++While he told these stories, it dawned on me; he hadn’t explained ‘extreme’. My stomach turned sour. I was sorry I had asked, as he had yet to get to what worked.

+++++“We take turns working out here, those of us that work nights. If we didn’t get these breaks, we’d end up on the other side of those doors. The screaming side.”

+++++He paused while he stared at his coffee, swirling it. I held my own cup firmly with both hands, seeing what in his face? Fear? Regret? I just wanted to finish out this night and sleep with the nightmares I knew would come in the morning. Yet, I remained silent with a morbid curiosity I couldn’t shake, willing him to tell his secrets.

+++++“One night, they were in full swing. A symphony of wails that would’ve made Lucifer himself, stand up and testify. One of the guards, drug an inmate out of their cell to the middle of the floor. He put him on his knees and pressed a box cutter to his throat. They continued to scream, becoming even louder until he… Let’s just say, that inmate went silent, and so did the rest.” Staring into his coffee, he seemed to watch the events of that night play out in the bottom of that cup.

+++++“Everyone was quiet after that. Silence in the halls and the yard. After one month passed, the screaming started back.” He sipped his coffee. “We tried all the old tricks again and again before we realized what worked. So, we…. repeated the action of that night. It worked. But, only for one month.”

+++++“You don’t do it every month though. They’re screaming tonight.” I cocked my head towards the asylum.

+++++“Tomorrow night, we will make it quiet again.”

+++++“I work tomorrow night. On the inside.”

+++++“Yes, you do. On the screaming side.”

Out Cold

Marlon couldn’t breathe. He grimaced in agony as he clamped his hand to his ribs. His opponent’s fist had slammed home into its target, flipping the pain level from zero to searing.

+++++He was used to fighting through pain, but for him to be this hurt was rare. Most people don’t know how a punch like that can shut down the body; it’s what fighters fear the most. Thousands of rounds of hard sparring builds a certain toughness and grit, but nobody is made of stone. That shot could have put down an elephant, let alone an aging 170 pounder.

+++++Marlon dropped to the ground and turtled up expecting ‘Gypsy’ Jones to dive on top of him, but this wasn’t a Mixed Martial Arts bout; it was bare-knuckle. Jones, the undisputed middleweight king of the bare-knuckle boxing scene, swaggered back to his corner and the smart-shirted referee started the count.

+++++“1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .”

+++++The crowd of five hundred or so roared in approval. “Go on, Jonesy, my son. Stay down, ya’ washed-up cunt.” As if some American homeboy could ever take their champ’s belt away.

+++++It was as if someone jammed a pitchfork into his side. As a veteran of more than fifty fights, ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene had been there before, but each shallow breath was like another stab to the ribs. So much for never showing ‘em your hurt.

+++++The thought of Tracy-Ann and the kids back in Detroit did nothing to ease the pain. It was just another Saturday evening for them, ordering pizza and watching a dumb movie together. Marlon didn’t have anyone in his corner that night. The promotion wouldn’t spring for an extra flight, and he needed the cornerman’s extra $250 anyway.

+++++“4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .”

+++++As Marlon struggled to his knees, he could barely hear the referee over the rabble. It was a sea of fading tattoos, bald heads, and strange accents. They weren’t the kind of guys that would shake your hand after the fight. He could smell their cheap cologne from inside the raised ring. Marlon would be going straight to the airport, or to the hospital — preferably the former. The pain was now an eight. Marlon blew out a sharp breath to reanimate himself. If he got on his bike for the next few minutes, he could get his wits back and would give himself a chance.

+++++He had made comebacks in fights before. His greatest was a last minute ‘triangle choke’ submission of Scott Pickerman in front of a sold-out arena in Vegas. That was back in the big leagues. Once a UFC title challenger, he was now reduced to taking any half-decent pay-day: this one in some English town he’d never heard of. Still, a title would mean another fight, with money to help keep his Detroit gym open. His friends and family asked him to hang ‘em up, but you didn’t turn down the chance to earn $10,000 in one night. Now all he had to do was win.

+++++“7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . .”

+++++Marlon looked at Jones parading along the ropes, already motioning for the belt to be put around his waist. He was a real animal: a shaved head, piggy eyes and cinder block forearms. He looked ugly, he talked ugly, and he fought ugly. During the previous rounds, the referee had ignored the illegal elbows and shots to the back of the head, but Marlon knew that fights on the road were unlikely to be fair contests.

+++++Not today, thought ‘Motown’ as he hauled himself back to his feet. He thumped his chest with his right hand and stuck his mouthpiece out at ‘Gypsy.’

+++++The noise level of the crowd dropped. They shuffled forward in their seats.

+++++Jones, earlier so hungry for action, couldn’t hide his disappointment that he had more work to do that evening.

+++++The referee peered at Marlon, who stepped toward him. “Can you continue?”

+++++“Yes, Sir,” he barked. Marlon looked down and saw the punch had landed right on the scar left by a twenty-year-old stab wound. The pain was dulling.

+++++The referee grabbed Marlon’s wrapped hands and shook them. “Ready?”

+++++“Yes, Sir. I’m good.”

+++++To have any chance, Marlon knew he would have to protect his body better, stick and move, and hope to land a good combination. Bare-knuckle sure was different to cage fighting — different distances, pace, and footwork. Rather than staying in the pocket, fighters leaped in and out of range, throwing fastball shots at each other. After that prolonged attack, Jones would be tired, but he was still dangerous. Marlon knew at 37, his chin wasn’t what it used to be, but he always arrived in good shape. Kickboxing, MMA, bare-knuckle: the rules didn’t matter. He was a fighter, and he had another chance to get back into the ‘W’ column.

+++++“Fight.” The referee clapped his hands together and Jones walked forward to the middle of the ring, his head dipped.

+++++Marlon bounced around the outside of the ring, getting his legs back under him. While Jones rushed in with wild haymakers, Marlon kept his cool and danced left and right, altering his movement. After a few rangefinding attempts, Marlon landed some stinging jabs on Jones. According to the pre-fight prediction, the fight should have long been over. Jones was blowing and came forward at a slower rate. Perhaps he had punched himself out. He definitely hadn’t taken Marlon seriously — running his mouth, missing weight, and showboating to his fans — and now he was breathing heavy, stuck in forward drive like a broken tank. Marlon ducked a desperate overhand right and parried the wrecking ball of a left hook that followed. He was feeling fresher and kept up his output of staccato bursts of punches. With one minute until the end of the round, Jones was slowing.

+++++Now he was recovered, Marlon allowed his mind to wander. Sure, there were easier ways to earn a living — ones that didn’t involve you shaving years off your life and dreading the next set of medical bills — but fighting was simple: your enemy stood right in front of you, and you did your best. Marlon craved attention and fight week always delivered it. Being recognized, being interviewed, and being part of the business made it all worthwhile.

+++++Jones plodded forward and Marlon played the matador, bundling him into the ropes. The crowd, robbed of their expected finish, jeered in frustration. Jones, now stuck in the corner, covered up and tried to put his legs back into gear. Marlon took his time, keeping his man trapped, backing off then jumping in with uneven combinations to upset his defense — right hook, right upper, left to the body, right straight. After fifteen seconds, the referee approached, looking for a reason to intervene.

+++++The shouts of the spectators faded, and Marlon felt a lightness: a sort of elation. It was the same emotion he sensed in the seconds before the end of every one of his fights. This was where he lived — in the ring, or the cage, or anywhere where the crowd was on the outside looking in. This was where he was free to express himself. The last few years had seen his record slide from ‘contender’ to ‘journeyman’, but he was still ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene, and this would one of the good days.

+++++“Keep your punches up, fighter.”

+++++‘Motown’ continued with accurate shots like a vulture picking meat off a carcass. He stepped back and shot in with a thunderous straight right to the sternum. A shock wave of pain shot through Marlon’s hand into his forearm.

+++++Jones clutched at the ropes and fell to the canvas in stages. He rolled on the floor in agony.

+++++“No knockdown. No knockdown.” The referee waved his arms in a low crossing motion. “Low blow.”

+++++Was he kidding? That punch was to the chest. The guy was holding his damned ribs. Marlon hung his head. It didn’t matter what he said. This official was going to do his darndest to keep the belt around Gypsy Jones’ waist.

+++++The referee grabbed Marlon by the wrist and marched him around the ring. “One point deduction. One point.”

+++++A group of thugs in the front row made throat-slitting gestures and threw their plastic cups. “Fuck off back to Niggerland. Cheating spook.”

+++++He didn’t expect a fair fight, but now he had a reason to get this over with. He couldn’t wait to get on the plane home — back to the gym, the kids, even the debt. Normality.

+++++The referee gave Jones the full five minutes to recover from the ‘illegal’ blow, and he came out for the last few seconds of the round refreshed.

+++++Gypsy Jones removed his mouthpiece. “Get the fuck off my turf.”

+++++Marlon awoke to a bright light shining into his right eye. He was lying flat, looking up at two paramedics and the fight official. Fuck. His right hand was broken and his jaw felt like it had been hit with a tire iron. He tried to sit up, but the official holding the flashlight pushed him back down by the chest.

+++++“Unlucky, fella,” said the official. “Fight’s over. He got you.”

+++++A weary Marlon raised his head a little and looked around the sports hall. He caught the same smell of cologne and stale beer and saw the fans moving around in a buzz of activity. Some of them were still chanting. God damn it. Marlon wanted to be sick. Now he faced the hospital forms, the painkillers, and another long layoff. Why did he let himself believe? Just for a few minutes, he had thought about that leather belt around his waist; imagined the calls from the sponsors; signed autographs for the first time in a long time.

+++++The paramedics carried the stretcher out of the ring toward the double door. You had to take your losses and move on, but this loss somehow felt final. Marlon closed his eyes and eased his hands up behind his head. He wasn’t ashamed of his performance, but he was tired of the nauseating losses and ‘I told you so’s’. Why did he continue to put himself through the pain and ridicule? That phone call to Tracy-Ann wasn’t going to be fun.

DO YOU HAVE THE BOTTLE?

Sarah made her way along the wine racks that lined the walls of the cellar, running her fingers across the array of protruding bottles. She would occasionally stop, pressing the base of the bottle firmly, lifting it from its resting place, checking the thickness of the glass. She didn’t care if it was a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, all that mattered to her was the thickness of the bottles base and how it felt when she held it in her hands.

+++++Through the open door above, which led to the kitchen, she heard her boss, Colin, calling. “Come on, Sarah. Grab a bottle and get back up here. A full body red will do.” Even his voice repulsed her.

+++++Selecting a bottle, she made her way back between the racks to the bottom of the steps that led up to the kitchen. As she climbed, she could already feel the temperature in the cellar, automatically adjusting itself.

+++++“Optimum temperature to store wine is between eight and fourteen degrees,” Sarah recalled Colin bragging as she sipped the wine he had offered her on her first visit. The next thing she remembered, was waking up naked in his bed, bruised and sore. That had been a week ago and now the office had sent her around again with more “urgent” paperwork, requiring Colin’s signature.

+++++Sarah stepped into the kitchen where Colin stood waiting, a grotesque grin on his sweaty face.

+++++“Ah, there you are. I thought you’d got lost down there. Now, come on, let me grab a couple of glasses and we can make ourselves more comfortable in the Den.”

+++++As Colin turned to pick up the glasses from the bench, Sarah swung the bottle. It connected with the back of his head with a satisfying, “THUNK”. Colin crashed to the floor, a handful of blue pills falling from his open hand. Blood was already beginning to spread across the back of his silk pyjamas.

+++++Sarah casually brushed fragments of bone and scalp from the bottle, opened it and took a deep drink, safe in the knowledge that this time it didn’t contain Rohypnol. Because this time, Sarah wanted to remember everything. Slowly, she began to remove Colin’s pyjamas.

A BIG APPETITE

Lenny knew the odds of dying in a car wreck within a lifetime were one in 113. Compare that to being killed by lightning, one in 174,426.

+++++Yet that still didn’t prepare him for the sound of the heavy-duty pickup T-boning the black Audi with a terrific CRUNCH at the intersection of Franklin and Highland. It was enough to send shivers through Lenny.

+++++And something else. Hope.

+++++The eerie silence that followed reminded Lenny of that time at Davey’s, the lame hipster joint in Silver Lake. When he’d slammed Trevor Chapman’s face into the pool table over and over until the son of a bitch collapsed with a thud onto the concrete floor. Left streaks of blood and snot all over the shiny wood and green felt. The dead silence immediately afterward prompted Lenny to get the hell out. Although he knew none of those douchebags would come after him. Fucking pussies.

+++++Exact sensation now at Franklin and Highland. As if all the energy was sucked into a vacuum. Thwiiiick! Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.

+++++Then the vacuum whirred to life. Cars pulled to the curb. Others drove slowly around the wreckage, classic rubberneckers.

+++++Lenny pulled over and made his way down the hill. Glass and plastic debris littered the street and sidewalk. From where he stood he could see the female driver of the Audi pitched forward like a mannequin, blonde hair fanned out over the wilted airbag. Her tanned arm now a filthy red.

+++++Sirens in the distance. Lenny turned and trudged back up Highland, sweat pooling underneath his arms.

+++++Odds were that Ella Simms was dead. Lenny hoped that would be enough.

+++++You call that payback, you weak fuck? I am Revenge. I am not Sheer Luck. I am not Coincidence.

+++++Lenny flinched at the beast’s words.

+++++“But she’s dead. That should be enough,” he said as he climbed inside his SUV. He stared at the chaos down the hill. The metal carnage glinting in the sun like wadded-up aluminum foil.

+++++I will not be ignored, motherfucker.

***

+++++The Cape Cod-style monstrosity sat smugly at the top of the circular driveway. Lenny and his SUV sat at the bottom. He eyed the baseball bat lying across the passenger seat. A pistol next to it.

+++++It was time to increase his odds. Lenny was tired of the house winning every time. He knew Revenge, the beast, was tired of it too.

+++++Give me more.

+++++Revenge was a hungry bastard.

+++++That’s where Donald Chapman came in. And why Lenny was camped outside his Cape Cod-style mansion in Brentwood on a lovely Sunday morning.

+++++Because Ella Simms sure as hell didn’t fill Revenge up. Watching her fly across Franklin into a light pole didn’t quite have the same satisfaction as bashing her head in with a baseball bat.

+++++Even when he’d read online the next day that her upper torso was practically severed from her legs, Revenge insisted that was pathetic. Like feeding a starving lion a scrawny mouse.

+++++Did she suffer excruciating pain and terror while wedged in that mangled hunk of metal?

+++++“I don’t know,” Lenny had said, staring dully at the computer screen.

+++++Then we have a big fucking problem.

+++++Lenny wished the beast would leave him alone. Let him and Cecilia heal.

+++++But you invited me to the party. Don’t you remember?

+++++“Yeah, I remember,” Lenny said.

+++++It happened at Davey’s. Back when the beast was just an itty bitty parasite. A virus Lenny couldn’t shake.

+++++He’d only intended to scare the kid. Maybe permanently disfigure Trevor’s pretty boy face. But the asshole ended up dying from a bleeding brain. When he fell on the bar’s concrete floor.

+++++Lenny wasn’t crying any tears when he found out. He wanted to kill the son of a bitch. For assaulting and raping his daughter and only getting a slap on the wrist. Thanks to the Ivy League lawyer bitch, Ella Simms. And the fat judge with the bald head. Sentencing Trevor to a pathetic hundred hours of community service. What the fuck was that?

+++++Cecilia was seeing a therapist but it’d be a long time before she’d be able to have a healthy relationship. At least she was young, only nineteen, Dr. Feinstein reassured Lenny.

+++++That’s weak fuckin’ sauce. Revenge’s words, not Lenny’s. Lenny wanted to believe Dr. Feinstein. Needed to latch on to hope.

+++++But Revenge only grew more powerful. By the time, Lenny was released from California State Prison for murdering Trevor, the parasite inside him had become a roaring monster.

+++++Feed me more fear. More pain.

+++++Lenny tried to tell the beast that Trevor is dead. Time to move on. But he knew it was no use. Trevor’s death was a stroke of luck.

+++++At first, Lenny promised the beast a bullet in the judge’s bulbous head. What a disappointment when Lenny got out of the joint, only to learn the lardass died of a heart attack three months earlier.

+++++Heart disease was the number one killer. Your odds of dying of a heart attack were one in seven. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Especially because the judge was obese. Increased his chance of dying of heart failure by sixty percent.

+++++But tell that to the beast. Revenge didn’t give a fuck about odds and percentages. He wasn’t like Lenny who had obsessed over death statistics since he was a kid. All the beast cared about was getting fed. So it could grow bigger. Stronger.

+++++So next in line had been Ella Simms, Trevor’s high-powered attorney. Lenny wanted to do it right too. Not make a big show of it.

+++++He’d followed Ella’s Audi daily to Simms & Saacke Law Group out in Century City. And to her weekly tryst at the W Hotel. With the dark-haired gentleman. The one who had her screaming, “Oh yes, right there!”

+++++The dark-haired man always left the room first, Ella followed ten minutes later. Lenny planned to knock on the door once he saw the man leave. Near-perfect odds that she’d open it, assume her lover had forgotten something. Or wanted round two. Then Lenny would shove his way in.

+++++Then again, Lenny thought it was near-perfect odds that she’d actually get to the W in one piece. But the beast knew how that went.

+++++What Lenny wanted to know now was how likely a third person would slip through Revenge’s scaly little claws.

+++++Pretty unlikely, yet Lenny wasn’t taking any chances this time. Screw plotting and planning. It was time for balls-out action. Just like at Davey’s.

+++++Donald Chapman—the father of the scumbag rapist—was going to have his brains bashed in in the comfort of his own home. And if his wife and now-only child were there, Lenny would kill them too. That’s what the pistol was for.

+++++Because odds were his wife and kid would be there. Probably all sitting down to a pancake breakfast.

+++++Lenny climbed out of the SUV, shoved the pistol down the back of his jeans, and grabbed the baseball bat. He walked up to the front door and rang the bell.

+++++It’s feeding time. Hallefuckinglujah.

Just Give Me the Gas

He said I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal. I asked for his wife’s pink taco on a tray. Told him I might need extra napkins, too. And something to wash her down with, maybe a tall glass of cherry cola.

+++++Instead, Chuck brought me fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a bottle of milk. His goofy smile told me I was about to eat food seasoned with a combination of tobacco juice and snot. He’s a sadistic tool but I kinda admire his evil, he owns it, doesn’t hide from it. I tear into the crunchy breast, never taking my eyes off his, both of us enjoying the moment. I’m swallowing part of him. He’s staring right through me.

+++++“Tick tock,” he says, moving his hand like a pendulum. “Almost time.”

+++++“Tick tock? You’re a clever one. How long it take you to come up with that, a month?”

+++++“We’ll see if that mouth of yours runs when you’re sucking gas, Ronnie. The killer gets killed, how ironic.”

+++++I’m shocked he threw a word like ironic at me. Before I can sling something back, he walks away, his keys jingling like a deranged funeral march.

+++++I’m here because of a propane tank. A fucking propane tank. A new kid at the factory left an empty one on the back of a forklift, leaving me to haul back a fresh one. I told him if it happens again, I’ll clock his pretty face with a wrench. He called me an old-timer, told me to chill out. It ain’t the end of the world. Then he rolled his eyes and shook his head all dismissive like. Same way my dad did when I asked for lunch money. Same way mom did when I wanted something besides whipped cream for dinner. Same way everybody in that shithole did when I talked about anything. I decided to chill out by busting his skull with that wrench I warned him about. Then the wrench found the foreman’s head, and Henry’s, the cocky tool and die guy who cleared more than any of us and made sure we knew it.  A wrench doesn’t care about dollar signs. Two dead and one who’ll never write his name again before I was tackled by some heroic press operators.

+++++It’s stuck in my head now: tick tock tick tock tick tock. Chuck is a purebred mother fucker. He’s back at my cage, grinning like an addict cashing out at the plasma center.

+++++“The preacher is on his way,” he says.

+++++“Fuck that. Tell him to go wash the warden’s feet or nail himself to a telephone pole.”

+++++His smile is a dull blade. “You’ve had plenty of convicts inside you, wouldn’t hurt to let some God in too. Might soothe your dead soul before the rest of you is dead,” he says, glancing at his watch. “Speaking of, you’re ten minutes away from the gurney. Best get your repenting done, buttercup. Tick tock.”

+++++I couldn’t decide if I wanted to chew his face off or have a beer with him. He’s been a stone-cold dick since day one. All dick all the time. But he’s the realest fucker in here, ain’t even close. Gotta respect a man for being so damn devoted. “No preacher, no more shit from you. Just give me the gas,” I say. “Fill me with poison. I’m not sweating it.”

+++++He finally leads me down the hall of tears. His massive hand is guiding me by the elbow. I stay hard on the outside, but I’m fucking scared. I want to scream but can’t. I want Chuck to slow his roll but I know he won’t.

+++++“Tick tock,” he says a final time. “Tick tock, killer.”

+++++I should’ve talked to that preacher, but I stayed stupid until the end. I can almost see my dad in his beat-up recliner, eyes wild as brush fire, shaking his head all dismissive like.

And Goodwill to All Men

The only light in the dark room came from the red-and-green bulbs on the Christmas tree. Tim stood before the tree, staring out the eyeholes of his ski mask, looking up at the angel mounted above him. The angel had watched over the birth of the savior of mankind. Now, it was regulated to watching over shiny packages stuffed underneath a plastic tree. Tim smiled at the thought.

+++++“Hey, Tim. Nobody home.”

+++++He turned around, saw his partner coming down the stairs.

+++++“No names,” Tim said, “and put your fucking mask back on.”

+++++“Didn’t you hear me? Nobody home.”

+++++“What if they come home? You want them to see your face?”

+++++“I don’t like the way it feels against my skin. All fuzzy and all. It makes me itch.”

+++++“Goddamnit, Larry,” Tim said, “put your mask back on.”

+++++“I thought we weren’t using names?”

+++++Tim sighed and checked his watch as Larry pulled the ski mask down over his face and stepped farther into the living room, admiring the tree.

+++++“They got a lot of ornaments on that thing,” Larry said. “How long do you think it took them to hang all those? I hate hanging ornaments.”

+++++“Yeah. Me too. Look, it’s almost midnight. I don’t know where these people are. Maybe at a friend’s house, grandma’s house, I don’t care. Maybe they’re not coming back tonight, but maybe they are, and if they are, I want to be the fuck out of here before they come in, okay?”

+++++“Okay.”

+++++“So how about you go find the master bedroom and get the jewelry and whatever else looks good, and I’ll stay down here and handle the china cabinet.”

+++++“Okay.”

+++++“Take only what you can fit in the bag,” Tim offered as parting advice as Larry went back upstairs. He made his own way into the dining room. He switched on his flashlight, panned it across the room, noticed the fine furniture, the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t a big home, and the people who owned it weren’t rich, but they certainly weren’t hurting, either.

+++++Tim shined his light on the china cabinet and walked over to it. He opened it up and grabbed all he could and shoved the loot into a gym bag. When the shelves were empty, he closed the cabinet and zipped his bag shut and checked his watch again. They needed to go.

+++++“Hey,” he called upstairs.

+++++Larry came to the top of the stairs, his bag slung over his shoulder. He said down to Tim, “I found a safe.”

+++++“A safe?”

+++++“Yeah. In the closet up here.”

+++++“Why the fuck were you in the closet?”

+++++“I was looking to see if they had anything else around,” Larry said, “maybe some money stashed somewhere, so I looked in the closet and I found a safe in the wall.”

+++++“I don’t know how to crack a safe.”

+++++“Neither do I.”

+++++“So what are we talking about? Let’s get out of here.”

+++++“Can’t we try something? A screwdriver or something like that?”

+++++“I don’t think it works that way. Come on.”

+++++Larry came down the stairs, his fat ass stomping loud with each step. Tim rolled his eyes and tried to ignore it, checked his watch again, gave the Christmas tree another look, all the presents underneath it. They all looked so colorful and pristine, perfect folds, little ribbons wrapped around them, bows on top.

+++++Tim, knowing he shouldn’t but he did anyway, asked, “You figure these people give each other nice things for Christmas?”

+++++“I’d imagine so.”

+++++“How long do you think it’d take us to go through all those presents?”

+++++Larry smiled. He liked the way his partner was thinking.

+++++“I don’t know,” Larry said. “Five minutes, maybe?”

+++++“Let’s see.”

+++++The burglars opened the presents. They tore into the paper, disregarding the careful folding and taping that went into the process of wrapping the packages, the sounds of the paper shredding and crinkling the only sounds in the house. They flung the toys they unwrapped into the corner, caring none whether they broke or not when they hit the floor. When they got to a necklace or a nice watch or some expensive gadget the adults of the household had bought for one another, they shoved them into their bags. By the time they were nearly finished, the floor was littered with wrapping paper.

+++++Headlights beamed through the windows as a car pulled into the driveway.

+++++“Shit,” Tim said and dropped the present in his hands and started looking for a place to hide. “I’ll get the closet by the door. You stay here. Get down behind the couch. We’ll jump them when they come in. Wait for me to make the first move.”

+++++Tim headed for the coat closet. He opened it up and stepped inside and pulled the door toward him, but he didn’t close it all the way. It was cracked ever so slightly so he could peer out and see what was happening, and also so when he jumped out, he could just push the door open and not worry about turning the handle. For further precaution, he reached behind his back and when his hand came forward again he held a knife.

+++++Outside, the car’s engine turned off and car doors opened and closed and footsteps walked toward the house. Keys jangled. The lock clicked open.

+++++“Better get him to bed before he wakes up,” said the man entering the house, carrying a small child in his arms. He was followed by a pretty blonde woman, his wife. “Won’t get him back to sleep if he does.”

+++++“I think he was out the second the minister started speaking,” said the wife, shrugging off her coat, pellets of snow on the shoulders, and thankfully tossing the coat onto the back of a chair instead of hanging it in the closet.

+++++“Can’t blame him. I was falling asleep during the service, too. Same message every year.”

+++++“It’s a Christmas Eve service. What do you expect them to talk about? Noah’s Ark?”

+++++The husband turned the corner from the front hallway into the dining room, from where he could see the Christmas tree and the paper strewn all over the living room floor.

+++++“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Honey, call—”

+++++Tim burst out of the closet, grabbing the wife from behind. His gloved hand pressed firm on her mouth, keeping her quiet, and his knife came up to her throat. The husband took a step toward them before he was suddenly grabbed from behind by Larry, Larry pointing the tip of a knife into the man’s back.

+++++“Now,” Tim said, “let’s get you all in the living room. Sit you down on the couch. Nobody talk and nobody put up a fight.”

+++++They herded them into the couch, the victims going along with their commands. The young boy was still asleep.

+++++The two burglars stood over the family, menacing in their black clothes and masks, still holding their knives.

+++++Tim reached into his bag, his hand coming out with a roll of duct tape.

+++++“Here,” he said, tossing the tape to Larry. “Tape them up.”

+++++The sound of Larry tearing off the tape started waking the child. The boy was young, would probably start screaming when he saw the masked men. Larry put a piece of tape over his mouth first.

+++++“You opened all of our presents,” the husband said as Larry wrapped the tape around his wrists, then moved down to his ankles. “It’s Christmas Eve. Don’t do this.”

+++++Larry pushed a piece of tape on the man’s mouth, shutting him up. He moved to the wife after that, taped her mouth and her wrists. He started to do her ankles, then Tim told him to stop.

+++++Leaning in close to her face, holding his knife close to her face, Tim said, “You got a safe in this house, yeah?”

+++++Her eyes were red with tears. She nodded in response to his question.

“You’re going to take my partner to the safe. We’ve found it. We know where it is, so don’t try anything funny. You’re going to enter the combination for him, then you’re going to step back and let him take whatever’s inside. If you try anything, he will kill you, and I will kill your husband and boy. Understand?”

She nodded again.

“Stand up,” he said. He checked his watch, told Larry to go on up with her. The two of them disappeared up the stairs.

+++++“You sure do have a pretty house here,” Tim said to the husband. The man, obviously, couldn’t respond. He just stared at Tim, then moved his eyes toward his child, who was fully awake now and whimpering through the tape on his mouth.

+++++A crash came from the second floor, sounded like glass breaking, followed by a heavy thud.

+++++“Fuck,” Tim said, walking toward the stairs. “Everything okay up there?”

+++++There was no response. He looked at his victims taped up on the couch, knew they weren’t going anywhere, and, a little reluctantly, he ventured up the stairs.

+++++The hallway was dark. He flipped on his flashlight, held the light in one hand and his knife in the other. He called out again, asking, “Everything okay?”

+++++Nada.

+++++He continued on, came to the end of the hall and an open door leading into the bedroom on his right. He stepped in, and the second he crossed the threshold he felt a sharp pierce into the left side of his chest. He staggered backward into the hall, gasping, swinging his knife in the air at no particular target.

+++++His partner’s knife stuck out of his chest, blood oozing from the wound.

+++++Tim started to pull the knife from his chest, but he was hit with something heavy and fell to his knees, a loud shattering as the china in the bag on his shoulder broke with the fall. His mind stopped thinking rationally, and he thought only of escape. He crawled along the hardwood floor, leaving drops of red as he did so, headed toward the stairs and a way out. Footsteps followed behind him, the mother carrying a baseball bat.

+++++When he reached the top of the stairs, he tried standing, wobbling his way up, and the mother hit him again with the bat, and he fell forward, rolled down the stairs. Larry’s knife was only pushed further into his chest as this happened, jamming deep into a lung. Blood rose in his throat, and he started choking.

+++++He hit the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He could see the lights of the Christmas tree and he took off his ski mask and coughed red. Things turned fuzzy, but he made out the angel sitting on top of the tree. The angel just sat there, emotionless, staring down at Tim, offering no help as the burglar choked on his own blood.

A Christmas Crime Carol

For thieves like Huey and me, Christmastime was comparable to tax season for accountants. We were busier than a one legged man at an ass kicking contest.

+++++We started out years ago with car break-ins, heisting purchases and ruining Christmas for people stupid enough to leave gifts in their cars. Alarms as standard equipment put a crimp in that racket. After that we moved on to shoplifting, grab and go’s with Salvation Army kettles, you name it- if it was a holiday related crime we’ve done it.

+++++The best gift we ever got was a huge boon for our holiday business. It was something called Santa Con. In big cities all around the country, thousands of Frat boys and hipsters donned Santa costumes and went on pub crawls.

+++++A few years back I saw a story on the evening news about the first one to be held in Portland. It hit me like a fat man falling down a chimney. Possibilities danced in my head like sugar plums. I called Huey, gave him the scoop and he reacted like a kid on Christmas Eve. The poor guy couldn’t contain himself.

+++++There were only two days to plan so we decided to just wing it see what tidings the day would bring.

+++++We were dressed like a pair of St. Nick’s that Saturday as were hundreds of others, up and down 21st Street. All the padding served to hide the pistols we both carried. The bars were packed with Santa’s. This would be like taking candy canes from toddlers.

+++++Mu Mu’s was the first to go down, after that the Pope House Bourbon Lounge. We took particular delight in that one as it was a notorious hipster hangout where idiots paid up to twenty bucks for a shot of fancy whiskey. Huey and me might have been the only ones in the joint with fake beards.

+++++We hit three or four more and ended the day taking down the Mbar. I’m telling you, easiest scores ever. Pull our guns, demand money from a barkeep and disappear into a crowd of red and white.

+++++That night we started planning for the next year, and what festive plans they were. We enjoyed a few modest scores while waiting for December to roll back around. Long before Thanksgiving, the Christmas spirit filled me. Hell, I even put up a little tree.

+++++The big day finally came around. We were bank robbers dressed as Santa’s. We hit four banks starting at Burnside, one on the corner of Everett another at Davis and last on Lovejoy. The sacks slung over our shoulders were filled with cash instead of toys. We split enough that one day to get us through the year. Huey and me even did something we had never done before, we left the winter gloom of Portland behind and took a two week beach vacation to Mexico.

+++++This year we hit the jackpot. There’s a Safeway store at 21st and Vaughan. Every Saturday at two o’clock an armored car makes a pickup there. Right next door is a bar so there were plenty of other Santa’s milling around. Yeah, we took down an armored car carrying over a million bucks without a shot being fired. We stashed the money at Huey’s crib and joined the celebrants. We got pretty drunk that day.

+++++The next morning we got bad news. The mayor was pissed. He decided to play Scrooge and put forth a resolution that due to the fact a couple of bad actors had ruined it for everyone, Santa Con should be banned. The City council agreed.

+++++All good things must come to an end. Fortunately for us the armored car heist meant we could retire. If it wasn’t for that score- well, we’d still be plugging away without the benefit of Santa Con and the pickings would have been much slimmer than Santa’s cookie plate on Christmas morning. There is one thing I’ll tell you in the wake of Portland banning the event; there isn’t much I agree with this Trump character about but he got one thing right. Too much government regulation is bad for business.

XXXMAS BOOGALOO

Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank.

+++++I’m on a concrete bed, sleeping off a heavy session. It started with a quiet pint in the Cock & Whistle and ended with a knife-fight in the Dirty Lemon. The other guy had a fucking meat cleaver, so I must have been drunk to try and fight him…

*

+++++A bulbous bastard named Salvatore ‘Sweaty’ Moretti shakes me awake. He’s a permanently nervous safecracker who went down in local folklore after losing his footing in a pool of his own perspiration and cracking his skull on the wrought iron door of the safe he had just robbed. Surgeons tried to repair his ruptured skull meat with a steel plate, but it got infected, and the back of his head swelled up like a fucking cantaloupe.

+++++I assume that the sweaty old shit-bag wants my ratty grey blanket, so I plant a size 11 on his chest and kick him into the rancid cinderblock wall.

+++++He’s too drunk to talk and barely grunts as his steel plate clatters against the crumbling masonry.

+++++A pair of elderly cops called Benson and Hedges lurk on the other side of the rusty cage, leering at me. Hedges stubs out his cigarette on an egg mayonnaise sandwich and drops it on a stainless steel breakfast tray, which Benson kicks under the bars towards me.

+++++“Something to line the stomach, young man?”

+++++I toss it back through the bars at him. It falls apart at Benson’s feet, but he picks it up and eats it anyway, grinning at me through misshapen, egg-smeared teeth.

+++++“Suit your fucking self, darling.”

*

+++++Four hours later.

+++++Check-out time.

+++++I emerge blinking into the wintry lunchtime glare.

+++++Outside the cop-shop, I’m met by a geriatric named Holder. He’s the hotel detective at the Excelsior. He’s wearing a threadbare electric blue suit and shuffles nervously from foot to foot.

+++++“Mr. Rey? One of our esteemed guests would like a few moments of your time.”

+++++I try to walk past him, but he halts me with a liver-spotted hand.

+++++“Do I have a choice?”

+++++He pats the gun-shaped bulge under his armpit and smiles awkwardly.

+++++“Everyone has a choice, Mr. Rey.”

+++++I grunt.

+++++“Get shot in the front, or get shot in the back, right?”

+++++He shrugs and gestures to a tiny hatchback in the far corner of the car park.

+++++Fuck it.

+++++I was heading that way anyway…

*

+++++The tinsel-strewn Excelsior Hotel lobby throbs with gaudy horror. Whoever was in charge of the Christmas decorations went too far, and the garish decor reminds me of an overly made-up Harbourside whore.

+++++The Excelsior is probably the only hotel in Paignton that stays full in the dead of winter. It’s also the only hotel that offers seven channels of complimentary softcore pornography. Go figure.

+++++Holder steers me towards the service elevator.

+++++“This way. Let’s avoid the crowd.”

+++++Some crowd. The cheap plastic Christmas tree next to the reception desk looks more alive than most of the fucking guests.

*

+++++Dominic Dominguez stays at the Excelsior every Christmas. Fuck knows why.

+++++When I step inside his suite, he is balanced precariously on the edge of a sturdy barstool, playing on a fruit machine that is on loan from the Greasy Nugget amusement arcade. Holder told me that the mechanism had been rigged, so it pays out every third game.

+++++Dominguez is a big bastard – fatter than a shithouse spider. His enormous bulk gives him a curiously ageless quality, although I notice that his dark hair is now threaded with grey.

+++++He glances at me briefly and wets his lips on a fluorescent umbrella drink.

+++++“You know what I like most about this town, Mr. Rey?”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“Strong beds and even stronger drinks?”

+++++His expression sours.

+++++“Everyone and everything is for sale. Even you.”

+++++He says something else, but the metallic rumble of falling coins blots out his words.

+++++He offers me a coprophagous grin, and I slump onto the oversized bed, suddenly bone-weary.

*

+++++People say Dominguez accrued his wealth through a lucrative chain of boy-brothels in the Midlands, but really I have no idea.

+++++However he earned his money, he has an awful fucking lot of it. The fat fucker offered me £750 to track down the Sexy Santa costume that Cha Cha Chilkins – ‘Paignton’s premier gender illusionist’ – was wearing when she had a heart attack last Christmas, during the ‘Christmas is a Drag’ seasonal revue at the Palace Avenue Theatre.

+++++Sure, I’ve taken stranger jobs in my time, but I almost changed my mind when Dominguez said that he wanted the outfit for his fucking mother…

*

+++++It’s too cold to trawl my usual haunts, so I head straight to the Greasy Nugget on Torbay Road.

+++++A local cabaret hack called Louie Drambuie told me that a couple of members of Cha Cha’s old chorus line work out of the amusement arcade, offering punters the old Paignton two-step – a side-street suck-and-fuck – in one of the lock-ups round the back.

+++++As I walk in, ‘Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas’ by Gary Glitter is being played over the Tannoy. The volume has been turned up to drown out the coin-op cacophony.

+++++It is so loud that I swear I can hear the sound of stack-heeled youngsters being dragged across linoleum and hauled into an untaxed transit van during the fadeout…

*

+++++The Greasy Nugget is awash with stretched red fabric and sick-stained synthetic beards. People are passing bottles of rot-gut between them – drunken faces congealed with pleasure. I grab an unmarked bottle off a passed-out man in a badly soiled Santa suit and take a glug.

+++++He’s face down next to the cashier’s cage, and people are treading on him as they try to get past. I notice that the backside of his suit is slick with anal mucus, and I really wish I hadn’t stolen his drink.

+++++The black-market booze hits me like a sledgehammer, and I press deeper into the crowd. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m sweating bullets.

+++++I pick my way through the throng and walk the perimeter of the building, where the nooks and crannies are darker than God’s fucking pockets. Paignton sure hides its secrets well. There is a bit of rough trade loitering at the back of the building, but no one who could convincingly perform in a drag act – even in Paignton.

+++++I have almost completed my circuit, when I see the outfit. It has a fur-lined hood and ‘Cha Cha’ written across the back in diamante studs.

+++++I tap the girl on the shoulder, and she turns around sharply. I’m shocked to see deep purple bruising down the left side of her face.

+++++I try to clear my throat, but only succeed in coughing up a phlegmy string of liquor. I spit it on the floor.

+++++“Nice dress.”

+++++She shrugs.

+++++“My boyfriend won it in a card game. On Winner Street. Gave it to me to say sorry.”

+++++She gestures absentmindedly at the hideous bruise, and then her arms drop to her side like those of a drunken rag-doll.

+++++“Early Christmas present…”

+++++She has narrow hips and a flat stomach, and Cha Cha’s voluminous outfit looks baggy on her.

+++++“I’m going to need you to take the dress off, sweetheart.”

+++++She pouts.

+++++“£50.”

+++++I pat my pockets, but Dominguez said cash on delivery, and I let it slide because I knew that the fat motherfucker was good for it.

+++++“£100 if you want to do it yourself with your big strong hands.”

+++++She removes her bubble-gum and presses it against the fruit machine she has been leaning against.

+++++“£150 if you want me to blow you afterward… my boyfriend won’t mind – honest.”

+++++“Who’s your boyfriend?”

+++++“Me.”

+++++I turn around slowly.

+++++The man in front of me smells like a piss-soaked lift. His name is ‘Ten Tonne’ Teddy Tucker. He used to do strong-arm work for the self-styled Foxhole Mafia, but his body has long since failed him, and now he has to travel between pubs and drinking clubs using a fucking mobility scooter.

+++++Straight away I wish he weren’t wearing a Santa suit, as I know I’m going to feel awfully conflicted when I hit him in a minute.

+++++He struggles to clamber out of his scooter and throws a lazy punch in my direction. It travels so slowly I probably have time to pop out for a quick pint before it arrives…

+++++I side-step the blow and hammer a hard right hook into his ear. I’m working up to another shot when he tries to grab me by the throat.

+++++He lets out a weird, sickly little laugh.

+++++“I’m gonna ruin you, cunt.”

+++++He has three fingers missing on his left hand – removed by a former employer after a ‘workplace dispute’ – and I easily wriggle free of his grasp.

+++++I slam a punch into his enormous gut and he doubles over, hot vomit splattering on his rented Santa suit. I bounce his skull off the nearest fruit machine, hard, and he drops to his knees, eyes the colour of tainted milk. I bounce him off the machine a second time, and this time it pays out, coughing up its grubby, coppery loot.

+++++I cram a handful of spilled coins in his mouth and kick his rotten jaw shut. It closes with a sick crunch.

+++++I turn back to the girl, but the dress is already around her ankles, like a puddle of old piss.

+++++“Sorry.”

+++++She shrugs, shivering in her tattered underwear.

+++++“Don’t be. I’m not.”

*

+++++When I arrive back at the Excelsior, an elderly woman I assume to be Dominguez’s mother is reclining on a chaise-longue, wearing nothing except a flimsy, cellophane-like nightgown. She has to be at least 80 and has a heavily-medicated care-in-the-community expression.

+++++“Good evening, Mrs. Dominguez…”

+++++She glances at me, then cackles, toothlessly.

+++++I ball up the outfit and throw it to Dominguez for inspection. Then I wipe my bloody hands on his pastel Camberwick bedspread.

+++++He waddles across the room towards me, wonky grin etched across his fat face, and stuffs the grubby banknotes down the front of my jeans with his podgy fingers – like I’m a fucking carnival stripper. I can feel his hot breath on my cheek as his ragged fingernail snags my pubic hair.

+++++“Merry Christmas, Mr. Rey. Don’t spend it all at once.”

+++++I take a parting look at his mother, and she is still chuckling to herself. At least someone around here has something to laugh about…

THE END

The Pastor’s Mistress

When he heard the door opening, the pastor stopped believing in God.

+++++The pain felt like an entity playing through his veins, pulling each nerve as if they were strings held by the Devil. On his naked body, there was a large layer of dirt and shame. Around the neck, a rusted chain, eating his flesh away.

+++++On the ground, the corpse of his son with the throat cut.

+++++A light came in, illuminating all the dust and cobwebs from the basement, the coupe of rats and cockroaches on the bloody neck of the corpse, but not the pastor. A black woman went downstairs with a chair in one hand and ropes in the other. Her face, once wrinkled by the stress of the past days, now seemed as cleansed as her soul, although she was still wearing the same threadbare lingerie.

+++++‘‘What do you want?’’ the pastor asked, while the prostitute was putting the chair on the floor and the ropes on the chair. ‘‘Just tell me…’’

+++++A heavy punch shut his mouth. He cringed against the wall, being choked by the chain when she pulled him back and kneed in his testicles. Then a thud hit his nape. Before collapsing, he felt a cotton bag lining his head.

+++++The pulsation of a headache woke him up as if it was about to burst his brain.

+++++Although all he could see was darkness, the blindness dawned on him that the bag was still around his head. The wrists, ankles and upper body were on the ropes, tied to the chair. Sounds of high-heeled steps sent shivers down his spine.

+++++Then, the bitten hand removed the bag.

+++++He tried to scream when he noticed her sitting on a stool, but the thirst reduced him to silence. So did the old ball gag in his mouth. As soon as he started trying to break free, she stopped him. His head was tilted back as if he had the edge of a straight razor pressing against his neck, but it was touching a spot below the belt. The weight of his testicles pulling the scrotum against the razor calmed him down.

+++++‘‘I am used to this, you know,’’ said the prostitute. ‘‘Men who treat me like garbage just because I’m a woman. Or ‘cause they don’t respect what I do for a living. Mostly the ones like you, who think they can do anything just because they preach in a church. But you know what I am really pissed off about? Taking shit because of the color of my skin. You had asked me what I wanted before all this turned to shit. I remember I said ‘‘the best fuck of my life’’. But you know what? I just wish I could forget what you and your sick son have done to me. To be able not to remember the suffering I’ve had passed through in a fucking basement all these days.’’

+++++The pastor moaned trying to speak.

+++++‘‘People like you have a voice all the time. Now it is my turn. And you’re going to listen, quietly. Have you seen how the flesh under my skin is red when you cut me? I’m gonna’ show you how we’re not so different.’’

+++++She held him by his hair and put the razor in his right temple, pressing it until the blood dripped. Cut his face slowly, as if following the dashed line of a surgery around his face, as the bastard kept writhing. Then buried her fingers inside the skin and pulled the strips, one by one, leaving deep flesh wounds.

+++++‘‘Don’t cry,’’ she said, throwing chunks of flesh on the ground. ‘‘You said I was asking for it, I thought you were asking me to show you how we could be the same. Look.’’

+++++The reflection in the portable mirror, distorted by tears and blood, showed a cadaverous face, a layer of human flesh torn in the shape of a skull.

+++++She got up and soaked him with a liquid that burnt his flesh. He started struggling to escape and fell sideways on the ground, craving for death when he smelled the gasoline. He tried to crawl, forcing the rest of his face against the cemented floor, but all he did was stain the ground with blood.

+++++She got closer, taking a matchbox from inside the bra. Then put a cigarette between the lips and picked up a match.

+++++‘‘For what I can tell, you hate black people. Said that we’re damned… Honestly, it seems to be due to our history. Have you ever thought of how it is to be a black woman in this hypocritical white liar world? I guess you’d never understand if I had to explain, so let me show you how it is. Just a few seconds with your skin as black as mine will give you an idea of the pain we’ve been suffering over the centuries.’’ She struck the match, lighting the cigarette.

+++++After that, she threw the lit matchstick on him.

+++++All his body started to burn, also melting the plastic gag in his mouth. All the pain of the Devil’s puppet burst out of its throat as screams of a sanctimonious sinner going down on flames.

+++++The neighbors saw the mansion going up in smoke and called emergency. When the firefighters and police officers arrived, they saw a black, half-naked woman sitting with legs crossed on the curb. She looked like a beaten hooker, finishing her cigarette with her back to the fire.

+++++As if she had just had the best fuck of her life.

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