Silver City

Bobby took the heater out of the trunk of the car. It was a nice looking weapon, worth seven hundred fifty dollars, if it was worth the five hundred he’d originally wanted.

+++++I told Bobby I’d give him two hundred fifty dollars and let him walk away with his life if he gave me that gun.

+++++He laughed, holding the heater up, so it shone in the sunlight. We were miles from anywhere—plenty of room to bury a body out there, or maybe I’d leave him for the buzzards.

+++++“You’re pretty confident, and you’re talking a load of shit, considering I’m the one holding the gun.” Bobby rested the barrel against his shoulder and shifted the toothpick in his mouth.

+++++I studied my reflection on his mirrored sunglasses, which looked expensive. Only an asshole wore mirrored sunglasses, much less expensive ones, I figured, which made Bobby the asshole twice over, or maybe exponentially the asshole. He was tall, at least six feet. I craned my neck to look at him. People tended to underestimate me because I was short.

+++++“My offer stands,” I told Bobby, regarding my clean-shaven features and my round pectoral muscles under the leather vest I was wearing in those silver mirrors over his eyes.

+++++He shook his head, bringing the barrel of the gun down until the muzzle rested against my chest, which was the second stupid thing he’d done that afternoon, after jacking up the price. He’d stolen the weapon, which made my counteroffer seem fair, if not to say generous, the fact I’d threatened his life notwithstanding.

+++++I felt a twitch in my groin when he pointed the gun at me, not unlike the jolt I used to feel when my brother would pin me to the floor of our parents’ basement in Silver City, New Mexico and put his thing in my mouth. Whether my brother raped me, or whether I consented to his advances for 10 years, I couldn’t have said. All I knew was that at the end of that decade, when I was 21, I killed him and our father, too, for the old man had given his tacit blessing to the unholy relationship that had been going on under his roof. Amateur that I was, I did my best to make the crime scene look like a botched robbery. As a perverse touch, I made it look like the perpetrators had burst in on the old man and my brother Pete in flagrante. Looking back, I wasn’t sure I’d fooled anybody, but the cops in Silver City were probably glad to be rid of my father, who’d gotten off on a technicality after beating my mother to death with his prosthetic leg, and who’d been one of the most ruthless meth dealers in that part of Southern New Mexico.

+++++But I was telling you about the afternoon Bobby Jenkins threatened me, putting a gun to my chest in the desert.

+++++I knocked the barrel out of the way, and I drove my knee into his groin, so he fell to his knees, retching.

+++++Even then, he didn’t pull the trigger.

+++++I yanked the heater out of his hands, dragging him behind me while I tossed the gun in my car. I hauled him back to his car, and I pinned him to the trunk while I reached around him and undid his belt, sliding his jeans down his legs.

+++++It was 120 degrees in the sun, and he yelped when I pressed him up against the metal.

+++++“You can have the gun!” he shouted at me, but it wasn’t about that, not anymore.

+++++I cracked the back of his head, and he fell forward, silent, though still conscious.

+++++I split Bobby Jenkins in two and left him crying on the sand, curled up in a fetal position, and drove back to the city with the heater on the seat beside me.

+++++True to my word, I’d left two hundred fifty dollars on the passenger’s seat of his car.

+++++Whether Bobby lived or died was his business, not mine.

STRAWS

In our line of work it’s a good idea to fly under the radar. Unless you’re in the fog. In the Andes.

+++++I don’t know if we clipped another plane’s wing or hit an outcrop—it was too high up for trees. At any rate, we got slammed hard. Somehow Carl kept us out of a spin and banged in a landing on a pass with a dusting of snow and hardly enough grass to support a decent-sized llama.

+++++That didn’t keep us from eating him first, though. He’d gotten us into this mess by deviating from the flight plan without telling us so he could get to his sidepiece faster. Dude might have started out with God as his co-pilot, but it looked like the Almighty had decided to bail out and fly instead with somebody who wasn’t a complete jackass.

+++++Gamy bastard, too. No idea what he’d been living on.

+++++Mostly he tasted like frustration. By this point I should have been blowing through my cut in Miami, knee-deep in Cuban sandwiches and Colombian escorts. We’d planned for a clean run, out and back overnight, so we didn’t pack many provisions. Not when we could fit in more guns.

+++++But now it’s been a couple days since we cracked the last marrow bone. All four of us wanted to hold off on the hard choices because the transponder might still be working and the deal could still get done, and the weather might clear in time for one of us to go and look for help, the kind that wouldn’t ask many questions. Abandoning the cargo wasn’t an option. Things a lot worse than dying could happen if we made our way back empty-handed.

+++++The time had come, though. Somebody had to go next if anybody was going to make it.

+++++“How are we gonna do this?” I asked. We’d all done the thing when there were no questions about who had to go. Jaime—and I didn’t know they made Peruvians that big—suggested a friendly game of Russian roulette.

+++++There was just one problem. For all the iron in the crates, and all the pieces we were strapped with, there wasn’t a single revolver on board.

+++++“How about rock-paper-scissors?” I said.

+++++Ex-Ranger Kenny took a dim view of my proposal. “You are talking about someone making the ultimate sacrifice,” he drawled from some background deep in the heart of Texas. “You can’t make that kind of decision on the basis of a game played by children.”

+++++I agreed with him, but I wanted to get the bad ideas out of the way so somebody else could bring up the one I preferred.

+++++“Anybody have cards or dice?” Albert asked. Some men are Als, short for Albert or Alfred or Alexander, somebody cool you can shoot the shit with at a bar about whatever comes up without it turning into a fight. Then there are Alberts. You see them at the end of the bar nursing a drink alone, or talking up somebody and waiting for an excuse to get offended and come up with a fist or worse.

+++++Albert was definitely an Albert, but he had the skills for our work, wherever he’d picked them up. He went on, and a spot under his left eye started to twitch. “We could pick a card, maybe throw for a high or low number. What do you think?”

+++++There was the opening for him to take something the wrong way.

+++++“If I had any I would have brought them out by now,” Jaime said. “It would have helped pass the time.”

+++++“Same for me,” Kenny said.

+++++“I’ve got nothing,” I said. Neither did the pilot. We’d gone through his things.

+++++“How should we handle this then?” Albert said.

+++++“Well,” Kenny said, “it’s kind of a cliché, but we could draw straws. Any on board?”

+++++I didn’t want to rush into things, but I had to tell the truth.

+++++“There’s an open box of them in the cockpit.” Maybe Carl had been dipping into one of the boss’s other product lines and didn’t like to lose powder on a rolled-up bill. That would explain why there hadn’t been much fat on him. “They’re in the console next to a girlie mag.”

+++++“We need to come up with a process we can agree on up front,” Jaime said. “We can’t have anybody freaking out when it’s decided.”

+++++“Anybody ideas?” Kenny asked.

+++++Albert seemed to be mulling over something but couldn’t find the words yet. It seemed like a good time to speak up again.

+++++“I knew where they were, so I probably shouldn’t be touching them again. Maybe one guy gets them, another guy cuts them and a third guy hands them out.”

+++++Nobody was going to cheer for that kind of suggestion, but they nodded in agreement.

+++++Jaime came back with the straws. I’d left out a detail or two: they were the bendable kind with a clown on the box. Not much more dignified than rock-paper-scissors.

+++++“Sorry,” I said. “I know it doesn’t exactly fit what we’re doing.”

+++++“Nothing would,” Kenny said. “We’ll be getting rid of the bendy parts anyway. Who wants to cut?”

+++++“I can do that,” Albert said, and nobody minded. He could shoot as well as he needed to, but with a knife he was an artist. He kept his blades sharp, and he’d gotten every shred of meat off of Carl. His hand-to-hand work in Ciudad del Este a couple of years back had gotten him a big bonus that nobody begrudged.

+++++He plucked out four straws and took them over to a tray table. He came back with them in a row, the tops even like fenceposts, and turned them over to Kenny.

+++++“Okay, gentlemen,” Kenny said. “We didn’t go through much ceremony before because Carl brought his fate on himself, but this time none of us has this coming. We need to give this occasion the gravity it deserves.”

+++++He took off his hat and drew in a deep breath.

+++++“Let’s just have a moment of silence here. If there’s a God in your life this would be a good time to make your peace in light of what you might do or have done to you.”

+++++He closed his eyes and bowed his head like somebody who had chosen a different line of work, say the kind where people have a reasonable expectation of retirement and plan accordingly. Albert and Jaime followed his lead, and there was a little hand-folding and cross-signing. Out of courtesy I looked down—getting right with whatever might or might not be out there seemed like a reach at the moment—and I just put my hands in my pockets and until the other guys were done.

+++++“It’s been good to work with you, in any case,” Kenny said. “Let’s show our hands.”

+++++We all spread out our palms—it was time to tear off the bandage and get this over with.

+++++Jaime had the longest straw by far—it hadn’t been cut far from the bend. Mine was a distant second.

+++++Albert’s and Kenny’s took a little eyeballing, and we had to lay them side by side, each man keeping a finger on his own to avoid any confusion.

+++++By about three-eighths of an inch, Albert lost.

+++++“Sorry,” Kenny said, and he seemed to mean it.

+++++“You are a hero, man,” Jaime said. “If we get out of this we’ll find a way to take care of your family. They won’t have to hear about the details.”

+++++My turn.

+++++“Dude, I’m sorry it had to turn out this way. You always had our backs, and we’re never going to forget that. I know I sure as hell won’t”

+++++Albert stayed quiet for a few seconds, and you couldn’t blame him.

+++++But he finally gathered his thoughts and straightened up to say his final words.

+++++“God DAMN it!” Albert yelled at the top of his lungs. “That is not the shortest straw.”

+++++“Nobody wanted this, man,” Jaime said. “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”

+++++“No, God damn it. I cut those sons of bitches and one of them was shorter than this. One of you is a God-damn cheat.”

+++++“We won’t let you suffer, Albert,” Kenny said. “That’s the best we can do.”

+++++“Damn right I won’t suffer,” Albert said, and before anybody could answer he’d whipped out one of his high-tech tactical knives and lunged at Kenny.

+++++Even an ex-Ranger can have an off day. Kenny was spurting blood in a couple of places, and the blade was up to the hilt in his liver before Jamie and I could pull Albert off of him. Kenny had some fight left in him, though. He tried to stanch a carotid with one hand as he drew with the other and put a .32 round in Albert’s face. His knees buckled, but we didn’t let him drop until he’d twitched a few times and went slack. That sort of thing can’t be faked.

+++++I tried to stabilize Kenny while Jaime went for the trauma bag, but time wasn’t on his side. His breath rattled, and he flinched from the twinges of pain in his gut. He clenched his jaws and I heard a tooth crack from the pressure.

+++++“Don’t waste too much effort on this,” he said between grunts. “You need to hang onto your supplies.”

+++++He must have meant what he said, because he started to fade faster then, and by the time we could unwrap a bandage he was gone.

+++++Jaime and I didn’t say anything. We just went off to sit in separate places. A bottle of something, anything, might have helped, but the plane was dry.

+++++You can only spend so much thinking before you go crazy with it, so after a while we did what had to be done, but twice the work now and only half as many hands, all weaker now. We couldn’t afford to wait, though, and went through the same steps as with Carl: field dressing, cold storage away from sleeping quarters and out of any scavengers’ reach.

+++++We’d bought ourselves some more time, but we ended the day weaker still. In the middle of the night I could barely get up to go out and take a leak.

+++++The cold air woke me up more than I wanted, and I realized I still had a couple of reminders of what had happened. Nothing good could come of keeping them. I reached into my pockets and pulled out two straws: the one I had shown, and the one that Albert had cut. I tossed both and let the wind take them.

+++++Jaime was benefiting, too, but he didn’t need to be saddled with that knowledge. He was a nice enough guy, and I liked him alright.

Lock Up

James Dwyer walked through the dank corridor of the county jailhouse. Holding cells lined both walls, filled beyond capacity. Prisoners were packed together awaiting either a hearing on bail, or transport to the state penitentiary.

+++++Although Dwyer had been practicing law for nearly two decades, he rarely came into contact with prisoners incarcerated in squalid conditions. He typically met clients in more antiseptic conditions, interview rooms, and phone-exchange rooms with plate glass windows separating the attorney from the prisoner.

+++++A mixture of floor cleaner and urine wafted out of the cells. He wrinkled his nose, anxious to get outside.

+++++“Hey, Jimmy!” Someone called out from a cell on the right.

+++++Dwyer didn’t recognize the gravelly voice. He scanned the holding cell, an indiscernible sea of convicts, merely dejected faces staring back at him. He paused only a moment to peruse them, and started on his way. Leather heels striking the concrete floor made the only sound.

+++++A grimy hand smacked at the bars. “Hey, Jimmy!”

+++++Stopping, he traced the filthy hand to an emaciated mug. Dwyer made eye contact with the jailbird.

+++++“Jimmy!” The convict smiled, exposing decayed and missing teeth.

+++++Another crystal-meth addict looking for a lawyer. Dwyer considered the inmate further. The man’s high forehead seemed familiar.

+++++The convict nodded, grinning. His filthy mouth was god-awful. “I recognized you. Cousin Jimmy…”

+++++“Raymond?” Dwyer finally recognized him.

+++++“Heard that you’ve become a bigshot lawyer. Guys in here talk, and on the outside.”

+++++Dwyer shrugged, not knowing what to say.

+++++“Jimmy, maybe you could represent me? Help me out of a jam.”

+++++Thanking back, Dwyer remembered Raymond growing up. He’d been older than Dwyer and the son of a local police officer. Ray’s dad had a collection of police badges. Later, Dwyer studied criminal justice in college and became a police officer before going to law school. He reconsidered helping Raymond out.

+++++“See… You are thinking about it.” Raymond smiled, betraying a hint of arrogance.

+++++The arrogance registered. Raymond had run around town with the best clothes and fancy haircuts. Believing he could get away with anything, Raymond had gotten in constant trouble and took a liking for drugs.

+++++Dwyer shook his head. “Afraid that I’m not taking on court-appointed cases anymore.”

+++++Raymond shuffled closer, pressing his face into the bars. “Come on Jimmy, we’re family. You owe it to me.”

+++++“Owe it to you?”

+++++“Sure, my dad’s the one who helped get you started.”

+++++“Your father gave me a badge when I was nine years old. He talked about the job.”

+++++Raymond opened his mouth wide, but couldn’t seem to come up with any words. A phlegmy smell floated from his gaping jaws.

+++++And Dwyer just wanted to move on. “I’ve got a family to feed. You’re going to get representation from court-appointed defense counsel.”

+++++Raymond turned bitter. “Aww, Jimmy… The big shot lawyer, can’t even help out his own cousin.”

+++++Dwyer took a deep breath. The foul air snaked into his lungs. County lockup was a miserable place. Raymond pressed his face even harder to the bars, so indentations appeared on his skull. Nobody deserved these conditions.

+++++A hopeful look crossed Raymond’s face. “Now, you’re thinking about it again.”

+++++Somehow, the arrogance registered again. Raymond liked to be in control, and he enjoyed manipulating others. Dwyer remembered a few occasions of Raymond causing mischief and blaming it on him. He’d walk by Dwyer later gloating. An arrogant jeer, like the display behind the bars.

+++++“I’m sorry Ray, you can’t afford me.” Dwyer grinned, and walked away.

+++++“Jimmy!” A pounding on the bars followed. “Jimmy, come back! I’m sorry, I gave you a hard time. But I need some help, here.”

+++++Dwyer kept walking and didn’t look back.

+++++“Jimmy! Come back.” More rattling of the bars. “Screw you Jimmy!”

+++++And then Dwyer reached the end of the corridor. He stood by the metal doors and glanced back at his cousin. Raymond’s emaciated face looking back at him, hopelessly.

+++++The guard buzzed the door, and Dwyer stepped through and quickly made his way toward the exit at the end of the hallway. Stepping outside, he breathed in the fresh air, putting his cousin behind him, leaving Raymond in the past.

Women’s Work

“Is this your wife?” I tried to sound polite. Take an interest. I wondered if she was still around. In truth, my money was already staked on a nasty divorce. I reckoned that Tinder could not be an easy man to live with.

+++++He didn’t answer. A sick feeling cut into me, racing over my arms, leaving trails of goose bumps in its wake.

+++++His expression was almost grotesque; his eyes glazed over, as if lost in another world. He seemed to completely forget that I was standing there. I coughed, cleared my throat. I was paid by the hour and didn’t have time to waste on his self-indulgence.

+++++Roused back to life, he gave me a searching look which turned acidic, the corners of his mouth twitching as if his lips had been scalded, then suddenly his mood switched, “That’s my wife Claire. She moved out west.”

+++++The bitter undertone caught my breath. I was right, and sensed it was a bad idea to indulge my curiosity any further. I dropped it, found the bathroom and put on my flowery coverall.

+++++I have always preferred the owners to leave the house while I’m working, so as they don’t get under my feet. And I was more than a little relieved when I saw him pick up his raincoat. It was old and shabby. I rubbed my arms as a wave of nausea surged, stealing the blood from my face.

+++++Maybe it was just the cheap wine that I drank last night? Or was it something else? An old memory surfaced. When I was little, my mother used to warn me about the strange men in raincoats who loitered in the park.

+++++“The mop and bucket are in the basement,” he said gesturing to a door at the back of the kitchen. He saw me staring at his raincoat and his face hardened into a sneer, giving me a pretty good idea as to his attitude towards me. He saw me as a menial, someone he would get a kick out of ordering around. With no woman at home to bully, he was probably looking for an affordable power trip. Paid help was a convenient option.

+++++“Women’s work,” I muttered to myself as I switched on the basement light. The single bulb casting little more than a few shadows, a yellow-white glare pasted on black.

+++++The mop stood in the furthest corner, next to a camp bed and a battered tin bucket. I didn’t think much of it at the time; we were living in hurricane alley. Most homes had basements stocked with a few essentials, a torch, some blankets and a couple tins of food, just in case a big storm hit.

+++++I grabbed the stinking mop and bucket. I was surprised at the fusty odour as the kitchen floor looked clean. Climbing back up the stairs, I paused halfway as searing pain from a rheumatic hip, grabbed my full attention. The sensation intensified and burned razor sharp through my joint. The fire continued into my throat, a scowl curling my lips. Dammit!

+++++I could kill for a decent retirement plan!

+++++But fantasizing wasn’t helping matters. I realized this as the basement door slammed shut, jolting me out of my daydream. I reached the top of the steps, swaying unsteadily. My palm slid over the brass knob without budging it. I wiped the sweat on my coverall and tried again. This time there was no mistake. The door was locked. I knew that beating on it would do no good. But I did it anyway, pounding until my fist bruised.

+++++It became hard to breathe. Turning, I leaned against the door, staring down into the blackness. Why didn’t I have the sense to wedge it open? How many of those stupid movies had I watched, where someone gets trapped in the basement with a monster or madman?

+++++Tinder – Mister Tinder as he insisted I call him – must have already left the house. So I had no choice but to wait until he returned. I suspected that he might secretly enjoy the opportunity to be mad that I wasted my time idling in the basement. And it would be no surprise if he didn’t pay me for my time. But surely, it was only natural that he would be at a little concerned about my wellbeing…

***

+++++I had sat on the camp bed for hours when he finally returned. The hinges creaked and natural light from the kitchen framed his silhouette in the doorframe. I mounted the steps as fast as I could, expecting him to offer me some small comfort, maybe a concerned expression or a couple of soothing words. My knees grew shaky, as I gathered from his manic eyes that it was me who had been mistaken.

+++++My prediction, that he would enjoy the chance to be mad and not pay me – was also wrong! It wasn’t the lack of anger that scared me, though. It was the dead calm surrounding his eyes, and the smile that spread like a slow tear across his face…

+++++“The door must have slammed with a draft,” I blurted out, making my way up the steps as fast as my swollen hip would allow. I had no intention of spending another second in Tinder’s basement. He just stood there, blocking my way, glaring at me with a creepy smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

+++++“There’s been a misunderstanding,” he said. His eyes widened somewhat, head tilted. “I need a live-in cleaner!” He gestured to the camp bed.

+++++I stood there, stupefied, mouth opening and shutting like a fish in a net. Deftly caught.

+++++To hell with my hip!

+++++Tinder didn’t have a large build, and I reckoned I could knock him down the stairs if I needed to. I made a dash for the door.

+++++But I hadn’t counted upon the hunting rifle, which he stabbed into my cheek.

***

+++++I had no choice but to wait it out. I searched around the basement for something I could use as a weapon. But I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I lay down on the camp bed, feeling exhausted; pain still surging through my hip. It was pointless shouting for help. There were no windows in the basement. And I was sure no-one outside could hear me as his house was up a dirt track. I tried pleading with him to open the door, in case he was listening on the other side. But it stayed firmly shut.

+++++The camp bed was uncomfortable. The springs dug into my back. As I turned towards the wall to alleviate the ache in my spine, my finger slid into a groove. I pulled the bed away from the wall. The word “Claire” had been scraped into the brick work. I choked back a sob, that wasn’t just for me, hoping Claire had made it out west like Tinder had told me. After seeing her name scratched there –

+++++I seriously doubted it.

+++++The dim light, which had been left on, threw eerie shapes on the walls. I searched frantically until I found an uneven patch of dirt and then dug at it with my bare hands. Something shifted.

+++++Poor Claire!

+++++She hadn’t made it out west. Had never made it out of the basement. I felt the bile rise, burning my throat, forcing its way out of my mouth. I shuddered to the ground, retching.

+++++I saw something glint through the shadows. It took me a minute or two to process, but there was no doubt: it was a diamond ring.

+++++The same ring Claire was wearing in the photo that I had picked up in the lounge on that first morning; how long ago was that? With no natural light down here I was losing track of time. It was clear to me that Tinder was not intending to let me go. But who had ever heard of a hostage cleaner? It didn’t make sense. But then he didn’t make sense either.

+++++One thing was certain – If he wanted me to clean, then at some point he would have to let me go upstairs.

***

+++++I had to wait what seemed like an age to get hold of that photo, without him seeing. As it turned out, he was even crazier than I had imagined about the cleaning. There were all of these weird rules about how everything had to be done. He acted like this was some sort of military manoeuvre, kept barking orders and complaining about “breaches in cleaning discipline”.

+++++Punishable by pain.

+++++If I was to load the dishwasher “incorrectly” with the cups and plates in the wrong order, he would slam the door shut. With my hand still inside. If he found a mark on the floor after I had mopped it, he would pour boiling water on it – over my bare feet.

+++++It seemed to amuse him, seeing me trying to hide the pain. I quickly worked out that the more pain I showed, the more pleasure he got from it, so I would try harder to hide my reaction… only for him to step up the “discipline” even more. It was a nightmare, which never eased. Just kept on getting worse.

+++++I managed to get the photo of Claire down to the basement, smuggled under dirty water. When I removed it from the bucket, tears started pouring, the salt stinging my sore skin. The dark water had seeped through the frame, staining her smile. I felt a stab of shame at destroying Claire’s memory, but I could see no other way, and smashed the frame against the side of my bed.

+++++The glass shattered, wide, across the dirt floor. I tried to bend down to pick up the pieces so I wouldn’t stand on them in my bare feet, but my hip gave way and I plunged down, feeling my head smack against the stone wall. I felt a lightening surge of pain as the wall shaved a layer of skin off my face. My body spasmed then gave way. The last thing I remember was grit and blood filling mouth, suffocating me, before I passed out.

+++++When I came round, I had no idea how long I had been sprawled on the ground. I didn’t have the energy to cry. I stretched my limbs, cautiously, checking that nothing was broken, although, with the amount of pain I was in, it was difficult to tell.

+++++During the time I was unconscious, I knew that Tinder had not been down into the basement as nothing had been disturbed. He hated mess, and would have punished me for making it. And there were no new injuries that I could feel. I reached out and grabbed the largest shard of glass I could find and hid it under my bed. Then sat up, trying to scoop the rest as best I could. My feet were still throbbing from the boiling water. The thought of standing on broken glass …

+++++When a fragment pierced the skin under my fingernail, I forgot about my feet. And screamed. It seemed such a small thing to get hysterical over, when I had already suffered so much. But my whole body racked with sobs and I had no choice but to give in.

+++++I had never, up until this point, been violent by nature – had spent my whole life cleaning up other peoples’ mess. But this mess was mine, and I knew that no one was going to rescue me. If I couldn’t find the strength to escape, I was going to die in Tinder’s basement.

***

+++++He stood in the doorway, his wiry frame blackening the light. The rifle resting in his hand.

+++++“I’ve fallen, broken my leg, you need to help me!” I pleaded, in that pathetic tone that he enjoyed so much.

+++++He stared back, warily, as if I was mad and this situation couldn’t be happening. He didn’t believe me. So I turned my head towards him, letting him feast his eyes on my face. He should have reeled away in disgust – any normal person would – but he was fascinated.

+++++I added a wounded groan for effect, and watched his smile deepen and spread like a disease over his face. I flailed down in the dirt, pretending to pass out.

+++++Agonisingly slow, each step brought him closer, and brought me closer to what I knew I must do…

+++++My heart pounded so loud, I could feel it echoing off the walls.

+++++He stopped, leaned over me, rifle at his side. I forced myself up and lunged forward, the shard flashing past my face, stabbing into his neck. I felt blood pulsing over my fingers. Slimy and disgusting. The rifle jerked against my feet. I groaned, but didn’t let go. His hands were clawing at mine, scraping my skin raw. I held on. Pushed harder.

+++++The blood sprayed across the walls, and pooled at his feet. I could hear myself laughing, like an actress in a cheap horror movie. Tinder glared back, his eyes bulging, stricken with panic.

+++++I saw my chance to grab the rifle.

+++++He was weakening now, with rapid blood loss, but as I loosened my grip on the glass to grab the rifle, he pulled the shard out of his neck.

+++++I pointed the rifle at his face and fired.

+++++And I’m not sure what made me madder: finding that it wasn’t loaded or seeing how pathetic he really was.

+++++I waited: maybe a long time. It was difficult to tell. Watching without moving, just to be sure he was dead. It turned into a pathetic sight. The whole time he was bleeding out, he didn’t make any effort to disguise his pain. It was crazy, but this seemed to anger me the most. Where was his discipline now?

+++++My leg wasn’t really broken, as Tinder had suspected. Although it still took me forever to haul my way up the steps. When I finally made it out of the basement, I felt an odd sense of calm. It felt surreal to be upstairs again; my eyes straining against the light.

+++++I wasn’t too concerned about Claire and Tinder’s bodies being found. I figured everyone would believe Tinder had killed his wife and committed suicide. Why else would a man be found dead in his basement, next to his wife’s remains, with a fatal wound in his neck from glass in his fist? I thought about leaving the photo of Claire at the scene, to make it look more poignant. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave her behind.

***

+++++Back at home, there a couple of messages from regular clients on my answerphone. One of them telling me he’d already found someone else, as I was “clearly unreliable and should be ashamed of myself for letting him down.”

+++++“Good luck, you poor bitch!” I shouted to my replacement – whoever she was.

+++++I had officially gone into retirement.

+++++I was done with women’s work.

+++++My retirement stash from the sale of Claire’s ring had been a hell of a lot more than I had expected. The diamonds alone were worth a small fortune. I knew something was up, when the dealer looked a little too excited when I showed him. He pretended that it wasn’t anything special, but I wasn’t fooled. I doubted that Tinder had bought that ring for her; maybe it was a family heirloom.

+++++You may choose to believe that I stole the ring, but after what happened in Tinder’s basement, I feel Claire would have wanted me to have it. And it was thanks to me, indirectly, that her body was buried back in her home town.

+++++Picking up the crumpled photo, I smoothed it out. It didn’t look so bad. I moved the picture of my late husband aside, and placed the photo in the centre of the mantle. As the evening light faded, I lit a fire in the hearth and poured myself a glass of Stone Hill. Not the cheap stuff. I needed something special for my toast.

+++++It’s odd, but as I raised my glass to her photo, I saw Claire’s smile flicker back to life. Maybe I was a little tipsy? Or, perhaps it was my imagination? I swear there was no mistake. That night Claire’s smile blazed through the darkness so bright; it was on fire.

Dyin’ Down The Road

Lifting his foot off the gas the car slowed to a safer speed. He was still driving faster than his brother would have liked but he heard no complaints. The last time he’d been out of the city his brother Tom had been with him.

+++++“Turn right up ahead,” Tom’s voice whispered from the back seat, disconnected and far away.

+++++Rounding the corner Bill glanced in the rearview and looked away. His knuckles cracked as he gripped the wheel and thought about what lies ahead. Rain beat un-rhythmically off the windshield, a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the wipers. It had been raining the last time he was out to the Ansie’s.

+++++That night his world had turned to shit. Tom took two slugs in the back. Bill had one clip his shoulder, superficial no big deal. They had barely escaped, Bill dragging his brother along. Tonight it would be different. The element of surprise was on his side.

+++++“You sure you wanna do this bro?” Tom’s voice crept in his ear.

+++++“I gotta.”

+++++“No… you don’t.”

+++++“Yeah I do. Eye for an eye, know what I mean? Family is all you got in life, without you I got nothing. I gotta make things right, and you can’t talk me out of it.”

+++++The air chilled inside the car.

+++++“You gotta plan little brother?”

+++++“Yeah, I’m gonna knock on the door and shoot the first fucker that opens it and keep shooting till they’re all dead.”

+++++Silence hung in the air as he traced his way along the woods bordering the Anise’s place. He parked and glance at the rear view mirror before getting out, half expecting some words of encouragement. Outside the car he stretched and looked skyward. Bill hated the country. He preferred the yellow moon on every street corner, opposed to the single soulless eye that dipped in the sky outside of the city.

+++++“Back in a few,” he said to the night and walked away.

+++++Minutes passed. The rain slowed to a trickle. Briefly the quiet of the countryside erupted in a storm of gunfire. As quickly as it had started it stopped.

+++++Bill stumbled through the brush, branches scratching his face and tearing his clothes. One hand pressed on the gaping hole in his gut, trying to slow the flow of blood. He climbed into the car and fumbled with the keys.

+++++“You did good little brother. It’s time to go.”

+++++The car jerked and shot forward. Bill drove as blood soaked through his shirt and pants and into the seat. Erratically the car swerved along the winding road. With one hand on the wound trying to staunch the flow, his vision blurred and then doubled. The car drifted and stopped on the roads berm. Taking shallow breaths Bill desperately tried to stop the bleeding.

+++++“I’m dying Tom…please help me,” he said to the empty rearview.

+++++He knew Tom couldn’t help; he’d bled out on the drive home the last time. As the life seeped out of him he felt himself being slid over and his head propped gently against the passenger side window.

+++++“C’mon little brother let me drive for a while. You sit and relax, close your eyes.” Tom’s voice whispered in his ear, clear for the first time.

+++++“I’m getting cold Tom.”

+++++“It’s okay, you’ll be warm soon. Home is just a little further up the road.”

Blood, Sweat and Sawdust

Courage swells and dissipates like the tide. I drop my eyelids and shove hands deep in my pockets. Hides the shakes I get from my brothers.

+++++Horses hooves, pig oinks, tension strung tight as barbed wire. The church-sized barn heaves with associates. Sweat, light beer, and animal dung mingle. Cheers and jeers.

+++++A horse stomps ahead of the McLennans whom it yanks into the pit by rope. Their legs are chained to each other’s, their necks in clamps – one fat rope a lasso on them all.

+++++Seven men, two women. Daylight streams through the barn doors and pings off their naked bodies. I grab a beer from Tracy, whom my old man sells to the lonely or bored. I brush her arm and my eyes fill in for the nod I want to give her. I swig and stare hard at the ceiling, a blank slate to paint clean thoughts across. Jim, my third eldest brother, steps into my space. Budweiser, Old Spice, meat in his teeth.

+++++“You’re gunna’ watch this one. All dad’s friends are here, and other families are looking for weakness. We – all of us – are going to show them strength. Keep your peepers on the action and your mouth shut, runt.”

+++++My eldest brother, Jacob, alarms the horse into jerking the rope. The McLennans stumble and writhe to keep their balance. Someone in the crowd whoops, another laughs. Tracy checks her shoulder my way, flashes her eyes for me to take action. I told her a week ago how my family murdered her father when she was just a kid. Now we’re in cahoots.

+++++Jared, my second oldest brother, elbows my ribs and grins. “Fun, right?”

+++++I push my tongue against the back of my teeth. I must look drunk because he rolls his eyes and moves on after he tells me to “toe the fucking line.”

+++++A chainsaw rips through the chatter and sputters to a standstill. Silence heightens the senses. Cologne mingles with sweat. The horse whinnies and eyes the exit as best it can from behind its blinkers. Jack, my fourth oldest brother, jerks the chainsaw into another momentary growl. He spits, all stoic as it grinds still once more. Dad enters the square space. His benign beam shines the authority he holds over the audience. Ignores the pleas from his captives. One of the women, Meg, cries for mercy. Dad holds conference with Jack as if a little bird sings over his shoulder. They crane their necks for me, but I’ve ducked behind a tall man in a tall hat. They wave Tracy over as they would the family dog. She slides and swivels from unwanted gropes, leans into dad and Jack’s whispers, and heads my way.

+++++Hands grab at the two drinks which remain on her tray, and one man grabs her boob and squeezes with his dirty, greasy hand. Sniggers with the man next to him as if they sat at the back of third grade class.

+++++“Your dad wants you.”

+++++I hear her, but don’t register. I search for life behind her flat eyes. She blinks at the examination and sparks.

+++++“He wants you to take the chainsaw out back and gas it up.”

+++++I grab her hand and squeeze, but she slips away with a fake smile. She thinks me a coward.

+++++I squirm through hot bodies. Someone asks if I got a feel. Pretend I didn’t hear.

+++++Dad plants a beefy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Fill it up and be quick. People here are impatient for the games.”

+++++I watch the McLennans over his shoulder. I see no mercy in dad’s ancient, primeval eyes. This is a humiliation for the McLennans from which there ain’t recovery. They will die today.

+++++Jack, like some sniffer dog, senses the sentiment in me. He leans in and twists my nipple. “You do it, runt. You don’t want to end up like Beth.”

+++++Jack steps back and glares at the sawdust in hope dad never heard it. Doesn’t matter. He just confirmed what I knew already. Dad was about to deflect my thoughts on which ditch my bastard family had buried my sister for her rebellion against what they are, but big Tom McLennan spits and that big gob of green hits the back of dad’s ear and gloops from his lobe like an earring.

+++++Jacob whips at the horse’s feet. It rears and jerks the McLennans into the dust. Drags them a few yards until Jacob reins it in.

+++++“Fill the chainsaw, runt.” Dad thumbs at the barn entrance. I charge out as dad begins his speech about how the McLennans betrayed all the families’ fraternal aims by dealing with the Feds.

+++++Tracy sits outside on a bale of hay, a cigarette in her mouth, a blanket over her shoulders as if she needs to warm the ice within her. The heat blisters the air, the breeze only an aid to burn them all.

+++++“You alright?”

+++++She shrugs her shoulders. Stupid question. What do you think? “Did they kill my mother, too, all those years ago? That why they took me in? Guilt?” She lifts her smoke to offer me a drag.

+++++Shakes her long brown hair at my misconception and pats the fuel cans stacked by the hay. “Funny way of showing guilt, I’m sure.” The devil curves her smile into a scythe.

+++++My tongue curls dry. She’s had it. Desperation has crushed her faculties. I glance back at the barn. Guards by the door, but on the inside, the horror show their distraction. Tracy bites at my hesitation.

+++++“You wanna end like Beth and my parents, eaten by worms before your time?”

+++++“No… course not.” I fidget at my cowardice.

+++++“We rescuing the McLennans?” She shrugs. “I wouldn’t. They’d do the same given the damn chance.”

+++++What I imagined Beth’s eyes to look like now, blank and cold in contrast to their warm living glow, imprints on my mind. I fill the chainsaw and lug a can to the entrance. The horse neighs and some of the crowd jeer the captives. The pigs in their pen to the back whine from agitation. Seems a shame they’d die too soon.

+++++Tracy calls out. “You’ve been promising me action. Let me see your balls.”

+++++I puff through the crowd as if the damn chainsaw weighs a sow. Dad reaches for the tool, a wry grin on his wobbly jowls. He jacks the chainsaw and raises it above his head. Sweat patches the armpits of his shirt. My brothers work the crowd to bolster the courage of some grim-faced viewers. The Jacksons and Steiners amongst them.

+++++They’re all as bad as each other. Nobody looked into Beth’s death. Some of them used Tracy.

+++++Fuck ‘em all. Fuck me for not confronting them with the truth.

+++++The gap in the barn door narrows. Tracy has started early. I should join her. Help ring the barn in gas and turn the building and all of them inside to ash.

+++++Jack manacles my skinny wrist with his beefy hand and “Ah-ahed.”

+++++“Let me go.”

+++++“No, runt. You’re starting this thing off. You slice yourself a McLennan joint.”

+++++“What?”

+++++Dad thrusts the chainsaw at me. Lucky I didn’t lose an arm. Tracy has the barn door shut. This is our chance. The McLennans were all gunna die anyway. Better quick than in a fiery agony. Dad laser-eyes me, tracks every twitch that ripples my face. The fans on the ceiling hardly touch the heat. My hands slip on the tool, so I grab tighter and rip the cord. My brothers huff at my bravado. They don’t reckon I can do it.

+++++I gulp down fear and let my stomach acid deal with it. Turn to the McLennans. Meg McLennan’s lower lip drops in anguish. Brian McLennan stares at me, as if he could will away what he had coming. Old Col McLennan licks his lips. He’s lived his life. He could go now. His nod said just make it quick.

+++++I close my eyes a moment to project happy times to the back of my lids.

+++++Me on ma’s lap on the swing.

+++++A donkey ride on Jack’s back before dad corrupted us all.

+++++Beth reading The BFG to me in what she thought a good English accent.

+++++Tracy holding me tight when I broke down about the things I’d seen.

+++++My broken promises to her. To get her out safe.

+++++I plunge into the McLennans and rip right through big-bearded Mick. He shudders and spits blood. His family swerve and duck as if dolphins attack their shoal. Blood splatters us all. A shout hits the ceiling and the fans circulate calls of “Shame.”

+++++Jim launches at the source, arms in swim-crawl through the crowd. I drop the chainsaw, my hands splay out my side, afraid of the blood which clings to me. Marks me as a typical Graham family member.

+++++More shouts. The yelps race around the walls and kick sound against the structure. Somebody calls “Fire” and the crowd surge. Smoke billows up the walls in waves, many shades of black and gray.

+++++Tracy’s started without me. Locked the barn doors. The back door should have remained open. A log jam blocks that exit.

+++++“We’re locked in.” The man’s voice could scrape paint from a wall.

+++++No.

+++++No we’re not. She would wait for me. Jack grabs the chainsaw and attacks a wall. Fashions a hole big enough to clamber through, though the black smoke veils much of the inside now. Wood cracks and the pigs screech enough to shift bowels. The horse stamps and rears and lands on one of the McLennans, whose cries melt into those of the pigs and everyone else.

+++++Tracy? Why not wait?

+++++Jack drops the chainsaw and gets a leg through. A crack tears the air and Jack slumps back, a hole in his head, the leg on fire and still in the gap. Tracy shimmers outside through the flames, both hands on the gun.

+++++“Tracy.” I shout louder. Again and again until the smoke clasps my lungs and squeezes.

+++++I hit the floor to search for air and scrabble on all fours. Shots fire out as if people could climb through a bullet hole. Bodies pile up. The walls shimmer at the reverse-flow waterfalls of fire. A beam collapses and smashes Jared to the ever-after. The horse lurches at the wall and bounces off. Drags the family with it and tramples men who crawl the floorspace. Jim perishes beneath its hooves.

+++++“Tracy, goddammit. Why’d you not wait?”

+++++My eyes sting, lungs ache, throat burns. Jacob thrashes at the fire which licks up his front until he falls to his knees and slumps into the ground. The fire thrusts in my direction, a sun storm, and catches my pants. It flares up my leg until it grabs me with its full fury and I propel myself at the wall, burst through its weakened fibers, and land out on the charred grass. I scream a flutter of birds away. Crawl into the longer grass and hope dew would put me out. It only flickers the dried stems into candle wicks.

+++++I think I’ve reached the end, but a moment’s solace drenches me. The cool water splashes my sores if only for a second, before the pain sears my flesh again. I see Tracy flicker away from me with a bucket in hand. She flings it aside. Random shots … no … targeted shots punch above the crackle. I open an eye again, the only one I can. Tracy steps, careful, amongst the ruins. Finds a survivor. Dad. Puts him out of his misery with a shot to his temple. Moves on.

+++++Moves on until she stands above me.

+++++I shake and words fail. She drags on her cigarette. “I’m sorry you had to burn, I really am. But you took your damn time and I knew – I just knew – this was my only window of opportunity. If I didn’t take my chance …” Her voice trails off, or my consciousness does – I don’t know.

***

+++++The north is cooler than the needling heat of the south. I hate the snows, but it keeps me comfortable. The cream eases my burns, and I imagine it hisses as it touches my emaciated skin. Tracy rubs it in deep, from calves to neck, and hushes my whimpers at the release it gives me. It’s my second application of the day. It’s noon.

+++++“It’s okay, baby, I got you.” She wipes her hand on the towel and kisses my forehead. She hasn’t kissed me on the lips since the fire.

+++++“You don’t have to look after me like this. I can cope.”

+++++“I know you can, but I want to. You helped me. Big time.”

+++++She kisses me again. When she kisses me again tonight, or maybe tomorrow morning, a musky scent will hang from her skin and taunt me.

+++++She takes the gun, the one she shot dad with, and places it on the pillow. Pats it. “Just in case.”

+++++I watch her leave for the bar she works at. Once her Datsun chokes round the bend and out of sight I study the gun. Just in case. She used to mean in case we got any blowback. Now she just means in case I want to kill myself and put us both out of our misery.

+++++When she does get back, I’ll take her up on that.

It’s Not The Pale Moon

It was early November, evening, cold, but no snow predicted. Ellie sat in her chair by the window and watched a full moon rise in an already darkening sky, its mottled surface scarred by a web of black branches at the top of a tree that grew in the garden. A draft of air nudged the edge of the window, rattling the pane and puffing out the curtain. She pulled her blanket tighter across her legs and closed the top button of her sweater, never taking her eyes off the rising moon.

+++++“Earl,” she called. “Earl, come on over here. Look at this moon. Ain’t it a sight? Come on. Put your arms around me like you used to.”

+++++She could almost feel his arms around her. Almost.

+++++“Remember how you used to hold me? How we watched the moon together. Coming up full and bright like now. Oh, we used to love it. didn’t we?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer. But she thought she could hear him.

+++++“Yes. It’s lovely. Just like we were. Remember? Holding each other, loving each other.”

+++++She smiled at the memory. She stared at the moon.

+++++“Loving our Cathy.”

+++++Then it slipped. Fell from her face. From her eyes.

+++++“You always thought she was a beauty. She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++“She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++The moon retreated behind a cloud.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window.

+++++“I saw you, Earl. I saw you leaning over Cathy’s bed. You didn’t hear me, did you?”

+++++Earl was silent.

+++++“I watched you, Earl. The full moon outlined your dark, huddled shape. A crouched monster. You have nothing to say for yourself?”

+++++Earl remained silent.

+++++“I slammed that phone book so hard up the side of your head. Surprised you, didn’t I? Knocked you clean off that bed. Cathy screamed. You remember?”

+++++He couldn’t answer.

+++++“You hit your head on the corner of the night stand. Right in the temple. I didn’t plan it. But I couldn’t have planned it better. Trust me, Earl. You’re better off. I would have killed you.”

+++++She looked up. Moonlight painted a window shape on the carpet. She moved closer to the light. Looked up at the moon just escaping the tips of the garden tree’s dark branches. No longer a prisoner behind bars. Free now to forge its path through a clear, star-filled sky.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window. She turned. She wheeled her chair through the doorway and down the hall to their room.

+++++She pushed open the door and entered.

+++++Their room offered no view of the moon. She wheeled her chair up next to her bed, locked the wheels, and shifted herself onto the bed’s firm mattress. She lay back on the pillow and lifted her legs up and over so her body was aligned on the bed. Her bathrobe covered her like a thin blanket. She glanced over at the bed beside her.

+++++The constant sucking rhythm of the respirator was like a lullaby. Tubes and needles, a comfort. The monitor displayed a reassuring normal pulse and blood pressure.

+++++The comatose Earl was still holding on, alive and as well as could be expected.

+++++Ellie listened to the breathing machine, watched the green peaks and valleys on the monitor. They made her feel good. Earl couldn’t hurt anyone any more. But just in case.

+++++“I’m watchin’ you, Earl. You bastard. As long as you’re alive, I’m keepin’ you near me, real close.”

AND BEHIND DOOR TWO

The deceased was a balding middle-aged male, lying face up, eyes partially open in the gaze of eternity. Homicide Detective Felix Kowalski knelt over the cadaver carefully, avoiding the pool of crimson on the entry way tile. “Perp knocked on the door, the vic opened it and took two to the heart.” He glanced up at his partner, Detective Sheena Washington.

+++++She nodded. “Vic’s wallet is on a bedroom nightstand, cash and credit cards undisturbed. Driver’s license says he’s Wilson McDowell, 53, a plumber and the homeowner of this address, 5912 Easton Terrace. His wife confirmed that information.”

+++++He glanced around. “Nice house for a plumber.”

+++++“He owns the company.”

+++++“That his wife I hear crying?”

+++++“Yeah… in the kitchen with the E.M.T.’s. She’s a wreck, Kowalski.”

+++++“Was she…?

+++++“Came home, found him dead where he lays, called 9-1-1.”

+++++“Unless she came home, shot ol’ Wilson, then dialed 9-1-1. You remember the case we worked last year?”

+++++“She’s putting on a hell of an act for a shooter. I couldn’t get a coherent comment. Tears are real. I don’t think she…”

+++++“Have techs found a firearm on the premises?”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Have we swabbed her hands… the paraffin test?”

+++++Sheena sighed. “Yes, Kowalski. First thing I did when I arrived. It appears the shooter walked off with the murder weapon.” Slender, 35, and attractive, Sheena was known as a tough customer.

+++++Kowalski went through the dead man’s pockets, inadvertently moving the victim’s right arm. A sparkle of metal in the hand caught his eye. Unfolding the cold fingers, he removed a small silver ring with a green stone on a broken silver chain. The initials, “RMD” were stamped inside the ring.

+++++“Ripped from the shooter’s neck?” Kowalski stood, holding the ring and chain out for Sheena to examine. Tall, angular, his close-cropped hair was flecked with gray.

+++++Sheena dropped the ring and chain into a plastic evidence bag and handed it back.

+++++In thirty minutes of interviewing the distraught wife, Marilyn McDowell, they learned he did in fact, own McDowell Plumbing, attended church regularly, neither drank nor smoked, and had no enemies that she knew of. She said she did not recognize the chain or ring, nor had any idea as to who “RMD” might be.

+++++Kowalski and Sheena talked quietly on the front porch, turning their back into the freezing cold November north wind. Tomorrow they would re-interview Mrs. McDowell to develop a list of his associates then drop by McDowell Plumbing and visit with whomever they found.

+++++Kowalski said, “She didn’t do it.”

+++++“Like I said.”

+++++“Girlfriend… or angry husband?”

+++++“We can look at that, but I don’t think so.”

***

+++++Kowalski dropped off the ring and chain at the county crime lab the following morning, picked up a city car, and he and Sheena drove to McDowell Plumbing. Two clerical employees and five plumbers seemed appropriately stunned at the boss’s death. Mrs. McDowell had phoned them the night before. None provided a solid lead.

+++++“McDowell was a real nerd,” Sheena remarked as they drove away. “You suppose somebody meant to do a home invasion robbery, panicked, and shot him when he came to the door.”

+++++“Possible, but not likely.  Looks too personal.” He looked at his wristwatch. “It’s nearly eleven. Let’s grab a burger.”

+++++Kowalski was working on a grease and cholesterol special while Sheena picked at a salad when the crime lab buzzed Kowalski’s cellular. He listened, then said, “Great. We’ll need to drop by and pick it up.”

+++++Sheena studied him expectantly.

+++++He said through a mouthful of sandwich, “The chain has a trace of blood where it was busted. They raised a mitochondrial DNA sample but found no match in any database they have access to.”

+++++“Bad news.”

+++++“Good news is, the chain had previously been broken and repaired…silver link replaced. How many jewelry shops in this city repair jewelry, a dozen at most?”

+++++She punched her iPhone. “Good guess. Looks like thirteen. We can cover that by quitting time today.”

+++++They had progressed to number ten. The thin, morose jeweler peered at the ring and chain through his glass. “Never saw the ring before, but I recall this chain. Came in maybe two months ago with a busted link here where you can see the replacement.” He dug in a floor-safe and tossed a folder on the glass-topped counter.

+++++Kowalski said, “Sir you’re gonna’ have to…”

+++++The jeweler pulled a yellow, carbon copy of a receipt from the pile, showing Patricia Davis had paid twenty dollars for “chain repair” ten weeks earlier. Sheena copied the address. The jeweler machine-copied the form and handed over his original.

+++++The address shown was on the far side of town from the murder scene. They were greeted at the door of a poorly kept house by a graying lady of at least 80. She appeared to be incapable of standing upright without the aid of an ornate cane she clutched in her left hand.

+++++“Ma’am, were from the metropolitan police homicide unit. We’re looking for Patricia Davis.”

+++++“I’m Patricia Davis,” she replied in a weak voice, heavy with age.

+++++Kowalski produced the ring and chain. The elderly face, ever so slightly, showed recognition… and something else neither cop could quite decipher.”

+++++“Do you recognize these items, ma’am.” Sheena asked, the answer already apparent.

+++++“My granddaughter’s… Rebecca Marie.  She broke the chain and we dropped it off for repair. I picked it up from the shop. My husband bought it for her twentieth birthday. He bought it too small and she wore it around her neck on the chain. Too sentimental, I guess, to alter her granddaddy’s gift.”

+++++Kowalski and Sheen, cop-style, stepped past her into an immaculate living room.

+++++“We’d need to speak to your husband, too, ma’am,” Kowalski said.

+++++The tired eyes teared up. “He uh, died ten days ago.”

+++++“We’re terribly sorry for your loss, Mrs. Davis.” Sheena offered the standard comment. “Could we speak with your granddaughter, please?”

+++++More tears. She died in an accident… not long after we put her chain in for repairs.”

+++++“Accident?” Sheena asked.

+++++The tears exploded. “Our baby fell in front of a city bus. It was grief from that, killed my husband, Herman.”

+++++“Oh my,” the hardened Kowalski said as tenderly as he could. “So sorry. Please sit down, Mrs. Davis.” He helped her into a chair.

+++++“The chain and ring?” Sheena asked. “We need to see…”

+++++“Stolen from her body in the funeral home. What animals would…?”

+++++Kowalski and Sheena hurried to the homicide office and spent several hours milking the computer.

+++++“Kowalski, Rebecca Marie Davis did, in fact, die beneath a city bus. Note here, the responding patrol officer wrote that the scene had indications of suicide.”

+++++“Yeah, and look at this. “Herman Davis didn’t just die. He was a suicide by hanging in his living room. I guess you saw those open beams in the ceiling?”

+++++“Granddaughter died, grandfather killed himself. We’ve seen that before.”

+++++“I don’t think the Davis family has squat to do with this, Sheena. Wilson McDowell has no connection that I see with the tragedy. Besides, the old lady couldn’t possible drive cross town, shoot McDowell, then make it home. Her life expectancy looks to me to be measured in hours.”

+++++“Well, back to square one.” Sheena shut down the computer. The crime lab called and reported no gunshot residue on Mrs. McDowell’s hands, the victim’s wife.

***

+++++At just before midnight, Kowalski was dozing on his sofa in front of the TV when Sheena called.

+++++“Another murder identical to Wilson McDowell a block away from his house. Note the address: 5912 Easton Drive. McDowell was at 5912 Easton Terrace.”

+++++Kowalski arrived at the latest murder scene, worked his way through the glut of emergency vehicles and found Sheena stooped over the body. A smallish man of about thirty, with sandy blond hair, lay face up, eyes fixated in death on a spot above the ceiling, three bullet holes prominent in his chest.

+++++She looked up. “Three in the chest. Looks identical. He opened the door and received some final justice.”

+++++“Justice?”

+++++“Don’t you recognize this creep, Kowalski?”  We arrested him for rape two years ago. The vic was a 16-year-old with Down syndrome and his lawyer got him off. Looks like he ran outta’ luck.”

+++++“Yeah, yeah.  Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson. Good riddance. Any suspects?”

+++++“Nada. The list of people who wanted this loser dead is two blocks long. Maybe just write it off to an act of God?”

+++++“Sheena, the address thing… Easton Terrace and Easton Drive is a damned strange coincidence.”

+++++“Kowalski, I have trouble connecting Wilson McDowell, hardworking plumber to this sorry mope.” She gestured to the floor.

+++++“Sheena, we canvassed hell outta’ McDowell’s neighborhood, but typically, lots of folks aren’t home or just won’t answer the door. My gut says go back and finish McDowell’s street, Easton Terrace, a block over before we spin our wheels sorting out suspects on this guy. Then we start here on Chickie’s Easton Drive.”

+++++They split up, a uniformed officer present with each so residents could look out and confirm it was police knocking on their door.

+++++An elderly man in a nightgown, six doors down from the McDowell house greeted Sheena and her uniformed escort, a classic deer in the headlights expression.

+++++“Sir,” Sheena began. As you must have heard, a neighbor was murdered up the block night before last. My notes show we didn’t manage to get you to answer the door.”

+++++“Whut? Police?” He fiddled with an earpiece. “It’s the middle of the night.”

+++++She repeated her words, raising her voice.

+++++“Well, by God when you can’t hear, you don’t always know somebody’s knockin’. I had got up to pee when you two walked up the sidewalk. Whutcha’ want?”

+++++“Did you see or hear anything unusual two nights ago?”

+++++“Naw… well, this old lady managed to bang loud enough to catch the attention of the Devil himself. Ask me if I knew where “Wilson” lived. Told her I didn’t know no Wilsons.”

+++++Sheena scribbled in her notebook. “She say anything else, sir?”

+++++“Then she ask me if she was on Easton and I said ‘yeah, Easton Terrace’. Couldn’t half hear what the old heifer was saying and she couldn’t hear me. Sent her on her way… couldn’t hardly walk. She hobbled out to the sidewalk on a cane and I went back to bed.”

+++++Sheena found Kowalski down the block. She relayed the conversation with the deaf neighbor.

+++++Kowalski called Records on his iPhone and requested a detailed search for any rape complaints against Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson in the past six months. He listened, jotted notes rapidly by flashlight, and broke the connection.

+++++“Damn, Sheena, a Patricia Davis of the address where we interviewed a lady of the same name this past afternoon tried to file a rape charge against Wilson three months ago. She had no evidence, no rape kit, no witnesses… but get this. Rebecca Marie Davis, the alleged victim was her granddaughter and affected with Down syndrome. You don’t suppose…?”

+++++They exchanged knowing glances. Sheena said, “Maybe a feeble old lady can actually drive across town.”

+++++Kowalski replied thoughtfully. “Twice…and at night?”

***

+++++The Davis house was dark. Kowalski shined his flashlight in a side window. Clearly visible was a frail body hanging from a rope wrapped around a ceiling beam. They called for backup and kicked the door.

+++++The note was in plain view on the same sofa they’d used during their earlier visit. Sheena read it aloud:

+++++“To the nice police officers who called on me yesterday. I knew you’d figure it out and be back. That animal hired my Rebecca Marie to clean his house and then took advantage of her child-like trust. She was two months pregnant and couldn’t deal with the shame when she jumped in front of that bus. I asked that stupid old man where Wilson lived and he didn’t know, although I already had the address. I just couldn’t see very well in the dark and I got on Easton Terrace instead of Easton Drive. I asked the man if he was Wilson and he said yes, then I learned from the newspaper I’d shot Wilson McDowell instead of that awful Chickie Wilson.”

+++++Sheena looked up at Kowalski.

+++++“Is there more?” He asked.

+++++“Rebecca’s chain and ring weren’t stolen at the funeral home. My husband picked them off her poor, sweet neck in that coffin and the whole affair killed him. I’ve worn them since. I drove my husband’s old car to Mr. McDowell’s and when I got home, I saw that my chain and ring were missing. I went back tonight to make sure the right monster got what he had coming because I knew it was over. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could do.”

+++++“Good Grief.” Sheena handed the note to Kowalski. “A coincidence of names and addresses. The media will make her another Lucy Borden.”

+++++Kowalski pointed to the .38 snub-nose laying in open view on a counter. “We have the evidence. Ballistics will match this pistol to both shootings, the rape connection to Chickie Wilson. The defendant is beyond reach. McDowell is a tragedy, but Chickie Wilson needed killing.”

+++++He stepped to a kitchen garbage disposal, ripped the note in small pieces and flushed it down. “The newsies spend a lot of time in the sewer. Let ‘um practice on that.”

Fun Sized

James Savini was not happy. He held the miniature Tootsie Roll in his left hand, his thumb and index finger delicately fixed around the wrapper. His right hand propped up his .38 Special. He twisted and turned the tip of the barrel, pressing it into Sam Overton’s forehead. It would leave a mark. How much of a mark was up to Overton.

“What the fuck,” Jim said, “Is this?” He held the Tootsie Roll cautiously, as if it were a piece of packaged shit. Overton closed his eyes. Warm liquid ran down his leg and onto his flip-flops. The smell of piss followed.

“Tha-Tha,” Mr. Overton stuttered, “That’s a Too-T-oo–Tootsie Roll.”

“I know what the fuck it is, Sam,” Jim growled, “What was it doing in my kid’s pillow case? Where’s the good shit? The king-sized stuff that you always pass out? Little Jimmy’s been cryin’ for an hour.”

“I r-r-r, r-r-rannn out,” Overton sobbed.

Jim cocked the hammer back and pushed the barrel even harder, putting Overton fully into his foyer. Jim dropped the candy, reached behind himself and pulled Overton’s front door shut.

“My bullshit reservoir floweth over, Sam.”

“I-I-I-.”

“Little Jimmy saw kids coming out of your place with the good stuff. What gives? You think my kid is a fattie? A big old porker? Think he needs to stick to wimpy shit?” Jim pulled back the gun and gave Overton’s gut a nice hard kiss. With his knee. Overton, a short, fat, shape-less man, made an oomph sound, curled up, and put his hands up to hide his face. Jim opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He gave Overton another kiss. Right in the kidney. With this shoe.

“Not a word, ya hear?”

Jim opened the door. There were two girls, both dressed like Disney princesses. Probably about 9 or 10, he figured. They held out two pillowcases and pleaded.

“Trick or Treat!”

Jim scanned the porch and found an orange bowl, filled to the top with the rabbit turds that his boy had brought home. He snatched it, dumped half the bowl in each sack, and told the girls to fuck off. As one of them started to cry, Jim slammed the door and fumbled for the porch light, flicking it downward. There would be no more treats tonight. Overton looked up and squealed.

“D-D-Don’t H-H-Hurt me, Mr. Savini.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna hurt ya. You’re gonna hurt ya.” Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic tube.

“This here,” Jim said, “is for giving especially large pills to big and nasty dogs.” He paused and picked up the Tootsie Roll from the floor. “You, Mr. Overton, are going to stick this right up your ass.”

Overton’s hands trembled. Still curled up, he reached for the plastic tube and the Tootsie Roll. Snot dribbled down his lips and hung off of his chin. He wiped it with his forearm, fumbled to hold onto the items, and dropped them. Jim frowned.

“My well of patience runneth empty, Sam.” Jim raised up a foot and brought it down on Sam’s toes. Sam howled, and his eyes bulged.

“S-S-S- Sorry, J-J-J–”

“Mr. Savini,” Jim corrected.

“Sorry. Mr. Savini.”

“Apology accepted. Right after you stick that up your ass.”

Overton reached for the items and, trembling worse than before, shifted the Tootsie Roll into the launch position. He pulled down his athletic shorts, revealing an ass that was half acne and half Albino. Overton closed his eyes and sunk the tube in the sweet spot.

“Deeper, Sam.”

Overton scrunched his face and gave the tube a final shove. His face turned red. He bit his lip and let his head hang.

“That a boy, Sam,” Jim said, patting Overton on the head.

Jim walked into Overton’s living room. In front of him stood the largest freshwater fish tank Jim had ever seen. It seemed to cover the whole wall. Fish swam in slow, lazy circles, in and out of fake plants and a plastic pirate ship. They weren’t going anywhere either. Jim pointed at one, which seemed to glisten more than the others, and smiled.

“Sam Overton. You never told me you had a Platinum Arowana. That’s a hell of a fish. And I know my fish. That’s a rare color, Sam. A fish like that will run a man at least $400,000. Where’d you get the cash for a specimen like that? You’re comfy, Sam, but you ain’t that comfy.”

Sam eyed Jim and said nothing. Talking would only make it worse.

“I suppose you could say that I’m a man who’s been… inconvenienced. But I know how to fix this.”

Jim snatched a lamp from a nearby side table, turned it upside down, and brought the base squarely into the fish tank. The sound of the glass breaking was almost muffled by the whooshing of the water. Dozens of fish flopped this way and that, and then stopped. Their bellies moved up and down.

“That’s better,” Jim said, side stepping an expanding puddle of water. He opened a nearby closet and pulled out a broom and a dustpan. “When you get that thing out of your ass, go scoop up that fish. Have it stuffed.”

Overton sniffled.

“And Sam?” Jim whispered, stooping down to Overton’s head. “You still owe us for that stash of blow that you lost. The boss says you’ve got a week. I think that’s fair. Oh! And one more thing.”

“Y-Y-Y—ess? Mr. Savini?”

“I want a box of Snicker’s bars with your payment. The good stuff. None of that fun-sized shit.”

Double Cross

Peking Tommy was boss of the Hip Sing tong in the sixth ward. He ran mahjong and fan-tan cellars up and down Mott Street, and he had opium joints all over Chinatown. A survivor of many tong wars, he was one of the last of the old time Triad bosses.

+++++But he had a problem.

+++++The rival On Leong tong had established a partnership with Finn O’Neil, a minor ward boss in a city of minor ward bosses, and a former gang member himself. It was a real game changer. Tommy’s second, the upstart Harry Lee, advised a territory share that would please everyone.

+++++It wasn’t what Tommy wanted, but this was the way things were going.

########

+++++Smoke hung heavy in Tommy’s joint on Bayard Street where the acrid opium scent mixed with the sweet smell of joss sticks. In red jars everywhere, candles backlit the smoke. Tommy had his pig tail re-braided and donned his silk red Mandarin hat for the important occasion. But like Finn and his people, the younger Lee wore a bowler and a wool suit with a button vest. The men reclined on small sofas and Tommy made a real ceremony of preparing the pipe. “For special guest,” he said. Finn and Lee passed it around.

+++++When it came back to Tommy, the old tong chief drew shallowly on the pipe and bowed slightly in the direction of Finn. Passing the pipe he said, “Mr. Finn, my Lee tells me you want to open two dens and two gambling cellars in the sixth ward.”

+++++“That’s right,” said Finn. “The On Leong have asked me to negotiate. It’s a way we can end this war.”

+++++“What if I don’t agree?”

+++++“It would be stupid on your part, Tommy. My people would harass your clients and shake down your joints everywhere. Not only that, but your laundries and your restaurants would come under fire. We have the police now, Tommy, not you. Times have changed. The days of protection pay-offs are over. It’s more involved than that, more of a big business nowadays with lots of people involved.”

+++++The pipe came back to Tommy, but he cast it aside in frustration. “But how do I know you and the On Leong won’t try to move me out?”

+++++Finn answered, “Tommy, that’s why I’m here, to talk about a deal, you know? A business contract. You don’t want this war to escalate.”

+++++Tommy thought this over. He looked Finn in the eye, “I have survived many wars, you know that?”

+++++Finn laughed through his nose. “Tommy, you won’t survive another one, not now. But hopefully there won’t be another one, right Harry?”

+++++Harry Lee nodded and looked at Tommy. “Uncle, we should agree to this,” he said.

+++++Tommy shook his head solemnly. “Maybe you are right. Times are changing.” He refilled the pipe and passed it around again, asking questions about details of the power share as the men smoked. Eventually, he asked Finn, “Why did you not partner with us instead of the On Leong tong?”

+++++“Soon Wong is dead,” Finn said. “A lot of people think you had him killed. The new leader of the On Leong is Fung Yow. He’s younger, like Lee here, and he understands the way things are moving nowadays. The future is with people like him and Lee. It’s in business partnerships with politicians. Why do you think I became a ward boss?”

+++++Tommy laughed. “Maybe I make mistake in killing old Soon Wong. But I don’t know if these young ones are ready to run things when I’m gone.” He pointed to Lee. “Young bosses have not seen enough of tong ways. Many tong members are not what they seem to be. There are . . . how do you say . . . “double-crossers,” yes?”

+++++Loose from the smoke, Lee stole a glance at Finn.

########

+++++Before the meeting, Tommy gave Harry Lee a straight edge and told him to place it in the side pocket of his suit. “They trust you. You are one of their ‘young guns.’ But they will check me over, pat me down. When I give you signal. You cut Fung Yow. Then we bargain with Finn. We make a deal between him and us. This way, the On Leong are out.”

########

+++++The joint was cleared out for the meeting. Fung Yow patted down Peking Tommy. “He’s ok,” he said.

+++++Tommy looked alarmed as Finn made to pat down Lee and protested, “That is not needed. Lee is honest man!”

+++++“Just a precaution, Tommy,” answered Finn. The gangster-turned-ward-boss patted down Lee. “He’s clean.”

+++++Tommy knew for sure now.

+++++With great ceremony, he walked over and stood next to young Lee. “Gentlemen,” times are changing,” Tommy said. “This young man is part of the future. I’m honored to have taught him the ways of the tong.” He bowed slightly to Lee.

+++++Lee wondered if it could be any easier. He moved to grab his blade and slit Tommy’s throat, but it wasn’t there when he reached for it. Tommy rose up and slashed it across the young man’s neck. Like a cat, he was on Fung Yow next. Blood covered the floor.

+++++As he wiped the blade on Yow’s cheongsang, he said, “I told you, Mr. Finn, these young bosses are not ready for the ways of the old tong. They do not always see the double cross. It’s good that you decided to become a ward boss, as you say. Perhaps you and I can make a deal now.” He took a step toward Finn. “Or do you still consider yourself a gangster?”

Blood Sport

I had known from the early days that my wife Fiona was not of the “huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ set”; and, although I did not hunt, I was pragmatic enough to know that country sports were part and parcel of life in rural England. However, we had decided long ago to “agree to disagree” about so-called blood sports, and it was not until 2001 when I agreed to be the Editor of the local Hunt Association’s monthly journal, “Hounds &  Hunters”, that I had anything remotely to do with the sport. Fiona had accepted this part-time appointment of mine for sake of community spirit and our status in the town, and had agreed, reluctantly, to accompany me to the annual Hunt Ball, to which she and I were always invited.  However, beyond that acquiescence, the subject was taboo and kept as much as possible out of our conversation.

+++++Therefore, on a balmy evening in July of 2003, when I casually informed Fiona that we had been asked to attend a Hunt Association extraordinary fund-raiser the coming week, I was not really surprised at her reaction.

+++++“The Hunt?” She asked. “Again! Do we really have to go, darling?”

+++++“I say Fi!” I replied; turning from the drinks cabinet to face her. “You know how lavish they make those things; champers, glorious buffet, string quartet, everyone dressed up to the eyeballs… you’ll love it!”

+++++“I don’t know, Harry. They all seem such frightful snobs!”

+++++“That’s just not true, Fiona.” I replied; thinking to myself that not a few folk would probably refer to us likewise. “Many ordinary folk are involved in the hunt these days; not just the snobs and nobs! Come on, when we attended the Hunt Ball last year, you met people from all walks of life!”

+++++“Yes, I agree, darling. But even so, I didn’t really enjoy the company of any of them.”

+++++“Oh Fiona!” I said with a chuckle, “Now who’s being a snob!” I walked over to her, glass of sherry in hand.

+++++“What are they raising funds for?” She asked. “For goodness sake… they don’t exactly have huge overheads!” She reached up and took the glass I offered. Fiona was a slim, elegant woman of forty-nine to whom I had been married for seven years.

+++++“That’s not true.” I returned. “What about all the foxhounds; their kenneling and feeding… not to mention breeding? That must cost a bob or two. Then there are the horses.” I took a sip of my third single malt of the evening, satisfied with my answer.

+++++“The horses are privately owned and stabled, as you well know.” Fiona retorted. “But as far as the care of poor dogs is concerned, the Master of Hounds has always managed in the past. What has changed now? What is this fundraising all about?”

+++++I cleared my throat and sat down in the armchair opposite my wife. The leather cushions squeaked in protest as my slightly overweight frame settled in. “Well, from what I was told by one of the Committee who called by yesterday to drop in some photos for the magazine,” I explained, “they need to set up some sort of protection unit, to defend themselves and the hounds from the HSA… the bloody Hunt Saboteurs Association and the thugs that belong to it.”

+++++“A protection unit? This is all just too silly!” She shook her head in exasperation. “What about all the hunt followers and hangers-on? Can’t they simply find volunteers from among those people?”

+++++“Not of sufficient calibre, apparently. According to Police reports there seems to be some pretty professional help behind the saboteurs these days. These bloody hooligans are getting more efficient, organised and more dangerous every season! And none of them seem to be locals. Some that have been arrested for criminal damage or whatever were found to have come from as far away as London.”

+++++I took another sip of Scotch before continuing. “It seems they are no longer content to simply disrupt the hunt by their presence in numbers; blowing hunting horns to confuse the hounds and trying to rescue the fox or whatever. No, they are actually attacking riders and hunt followers. You know yourself that on one hunt last season three riders were dragged off their steeds and beaten. And so the Hunt Association has voted and elected to recruit and train a proper team to get out there on the ground before and during the actual chase to prevent this harassment. They will call it the ‘Hunt Protection Unit’ or HPU for short.”

+++++Fiona scoffed at this in a short burst of laughter. “And so the funds they wish to raise are to pay the salaries of a small, private army.” She raised her voice. “Is that it? Ye gods!”

+++++“Oh come on Fi!” I exclaimed, surprised that my wife was reacting so vehemently. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that!”

+++++“Well, I would say that!” Fiona exclaimed in answer, as she rose from her armchair and strode towards me. “Don’t forget, darling, I know just what an army looks like!” She reached down and plucked the glass from my hand. “Now, take yourself through to the dining room.” She ordered, with only the faintest of smiles. “Supper is ready!”

+++++It is true… Fiona did know what an army looked like. We had met each other ten years earlier when both serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; she as a surveillance operative in Military Intelligence and I as a full Colonel in the Household Cavalry… although at the time we were both working in anonymous offices in Whitehall. We were immediately attracted to each other and fell, if you will excuse the cliché, madly in love. Shortly after that, we both decided to resign from the services in order to get married and pursue civilian careers. Fiona now ran from an office in the nearby market town of Ashbeck a small but successful company that specialised in surveillance and counter-surveillance electronics and hardware, and I, having in my last few years in the Army studied for and earned a degree in journalism at Open University, was ensconced as the full time Editor-in-Chief and military consultant of “Soldiering Monthly” magazine, based in London, to where I commuted daily by train. Editing the “Hounds & Hunters” was merely a part time ‘hobby’.

+++++I strolled through to the dining room, where supper had been laid. I smiled at my wife, who was pouring wine from a carafe into two glasses. She did not smile back. Fiona was tall, with long blonde hair framing high cheekbones, and with a nose just large enough to prevent her from being beautiful. Considering Fiona was trained in the martial art of Krav Maga, in which she had become expert while seconded to an Israeli Commando Unit for one year, it would take a man braver or more stupid than I to bring this flaw to her attention.

***

+++++“I hope you will give this bash a good write up, Harry!” Boomed Sir Arthur Moreton, the Chairman of the Hunt Association Committee, as he leaned around me to pluck another glass of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter. “We need some good publicity if we are to rally the troops in our favour. Got to stamp out these bloody HSA hooligans!” He shouted, before taking a good slurp of bubbly from the glass and popping a thin sliver of smoked salmon into his mouth.

+++++“Of course, Arthur, you know I will.” I took a sip of my champagne. He long ago had asked me to drop the “Sir” when we were speaking together. “Good turnout here, though.” I continued. “You think you will raise a substantial amount from the members present?”

+++++The Master of the Hunt; another of his salubrious titles, pushed into his mouth a quail egg balanced upon a tiny, mayonnaise-covered wedge of toast. “Mmm; pretty sure we will.” Arthur mumbled, as he chewed the dainty morsel, before wiping an errant crumb from the corner of his full lips and smoothing his handlebar moustache. “But we will drum up some more cash from other sources too!” He roared; drowning out the classical tones of the string quartet playing softly in the corner of the village hall. “Your article will reach a broader membership, and I am meeting the Chief Constable on Friday, so will have a quiet word in his shell-like!”

+++++I felt at that moment instant pity for the Chief copper if Sir Arthur was to have any sort of word in the fellow’s ear with anything like the volume with which he now addressed me.

+++++A former Ambassador at some minor posting in Asia, Sir Arthur Moreton had the distinction of being the local stipendiary Magistrate, as well as a staunch Rotarian and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. One might say he was a pillar of the community, in every sense of the word. If anyone could drum up support, it would be Sir Arthur.

***

+++++“Cheers, Harry,” Sir Arthur boomed, handing me a glass of single malt. It was three weeks after the fundraiser and I was ensconced in a leather armchair in the sitting room of Dunstan Manor. “I asked to see you for two reasons.” He dropped into an armchair opposite. “One; to let you know that the Treasurer, Simon Appleby informed me this very morning that between the fund raiser and your article in the magazine this month we have raised more than ten thousand pounds!” He raised his glass.

+++++I covered my surprise at hearing of such a large amount, leaned forward and clinked my glass against his. “Congratulations, Arthur!” I settled back into my chair, not really knowing why he chose to inform me of this event. After all, I was not a bona-fide member; merely the part-time editor of their journal.

+++++“So, Arthur.” I decided to show some interest. “How do you propose to spend it; I mean, how will you put it to good use?”

+++++“That’s where I need your help once more” He closed one eye and sighted over his glass at me, as if taking aim.

+++++I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”

+++++“That brings me to the second reason for this little chat,” he said. “With all your previous military experience and contacts, do you think you could find a trusty fellow who would be willing, for a small fee of, say, five thousand pounds, to spend a month or so recruiting and training up a team of fifteen or twenty souls to take care of these saboteurs if they cause trouble again?”

+++++“I don’t know, Arthur,” I replied hesitantly. “I am not a mercenary recruiter, for goodness sake!” I added, in a stronger tone.

+++++“No, no! Harry!” He protested. “I don’t want you to get your hands dirty.  No weapons, obviously. Just find someone who could train them in woodland tactics, physical intervention and crowd control, or whatever you Army-types call those sort of things. What say you?”

+++++I took a long swallow of Scotch. “I am not sure. I will need time to think about this, Arthur.” I paused in thought, pondering over his request. “Give me a day or two to mull it over, will you?”

+++++“Fine!” He boomed, standing up. “Let me know your decision day after tomorrow.”

+++++I also stood, drained my glass and placed it on the table. Sir Arthur showed me to the door. I turned to face him. “Sir Arthur,” I said, formally for a change. “If I assist you in this, we must have a clear understanding on two points. And they are not negotiable.”

+++++He nodded. “Go ahead…”

+++++“Point one.” I held up in front of his ruddy face a straight finger, “At no time, before, during or after anything that occurs with this matter must my name be mentioned to anyone – especially my wife, Fiona – as being even remotely involved. Fiona must never know we have even discussed this! Agreed?”

+++++“It’ll be our secret. You have my word!” He replied, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

+++++“And, point two.” I raised a second finger in a Victory salute. “My involvement, if I agree to become involved at all, is to simply source a trainer with suitable experience. After introductions, I hand him or her over to you and the Association and will have nothing further to do with the person, the payment, the methods of training or operation, or anything to do with the so-called ‘HPU’. I want to be one hundred percent clear on this. Agreed?”

+++++“Again, you have my word!” Sir Arthur Moreton thrust out his hand and we shook on it, as gentlemen do.

***

+++++At one time in my Army career, I had the good fortune to work alongside some chaps from the UK Special Forces. When I held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, I was the Commanding Officer of the Blues and Royals; who at that time were posted on ceremonial duty at Horse Guards Parade and Buckingham Palace in London. During this period I naturally met the security team from the Royal Protection Squad. Among these specially trained men and women – a mix of armed Metropolitan Police officers and Special Forces personnel – I got to know Jock, a senior NCO with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). Although from different backgrounds, education and rank, we got on like a house on fire. Sometime later, when I was promoted to full Colonel, I left the Regiment in care of the new CO – it was now stationed as an armoured reconnaissance unit in West Germany – and was posted to Whitehall as a Staff Officer. Jock and a few of his team from Hereford, now working on black ops for MI6, often passed through London when assigned certain tasks, and Jock would sometimes pop into my office for a cup of tea –  or a glass of Scotch.

+++++Even after leaving the Army I kept in touch with Jock, somewhat infrequently, and once or twice when he was visiting town invited him to join me for lunch at my club in Kensington. I was therefore aware that Jock, now 55 years old, had several years ago left 22 SAS, and for some time had been engaged in security contracting or advisory work in Africa and the Middle East. I also knew that he had recently returned to the UK from Oman and had quit freelance soldiering for good. It was his sage intention, so he told me, to make way for the younger, fitter types who were coming out of the Army and looking for work in the private sector. Jock was an obvious choice for trainer of the so-called HPU.

+++++When I managed to get Jock on the phone, after our enthusiastic greetings and small talk, I outlined the task at hand and the reasons for it. I mentioned he would be offered five thousand pounds for one month’s work, told him that he would be supplied with an old Land Rover for transport, and that all his expenses would be covered.

+++++Jock agreed, saying that it would be something interesting for him to do. He was bored, he lamented, with gardening, taking his Labrador for long walks, and having the occasional pint in one of the SAS watering holes in Hereford. Of course, I didn’t believe that was all that occupied his time! We made arrangements that Jock would come down in about one weeks’ time.

+++++I telephoned Sir Arthur and gave him my response and the news. He was delighted, and let me know by the volume of his voice in the receiver how much so. About a week later, somewhat ambiguous advertisements appeared in the local newspapers, on the noticeboards of the local pubs, in the village hall and in the window of the Post Office, inviting candidates to apply for a position as a Security Support Officer with duties in and around the county. Full training would be offered. There was a short list of required criteria; age parameters, minimum height, level of fitness, etc. but no address or company name… just an anonymous phone number; Jock’s mobile.

***

+++++On the day of his arrival, I met Jock at Dunstan Halt; the tiny and quaint railway station set on the outskirts of town. We shook hands firmly and I gave him a quick once over. He hadn’t changed much since last seeing him: still sporting a horseshoe moustache and long sideburns, a Rolex Submariner watch on his left wrist, and dressed in a green bomber jacket, blue jeans and brown leather hiking boots. He hoisted a military Bergen into the rear of my Range Rover and jumped into the front passenger seat. I climbed in the driver’s side and reversed the car out of the station car park. From there, as I ferried him to the Woldview Cottage B&B and after swapping trivial news, I briefed him on some details of how the hunt is organised.

+++++At one point, he asked, “You don’t hunt, though, do you, Sir?” He couldn’t break old ingrained military habits, despite the fact we had known each other for so many years.

+++++“No, and neither does Fiona; she vehemently detests blood sports.  But, because of my involvement as editor of the hunt magazine, I have learned all about it.”

+++++Jock had never met my wife, but of course knew from our long association that I was married.

+++++“Where does it all start from?” Jock asked. “The actual hunt, I mean.”

+++++“Typically, the meet, as the gathering is properly called, usually takes place in the local pub car park,” I said, “or in the communal area behind the village hall; although it can happen on private land, such as at Dunstan Manor, which is known as a lawn meet. This first meet of the season will be at the village pub, appropriately named the ‘Fox and Hounds’… a very common pub name in rural Britain, as I am sure you know, Jock.”

+++++“Been in a few!” Jock laughed, and then added, more seriously, “Any weapons around… guns, I mean?”

+++++“Well, farmers around here are allowed to have shotguns, if licensed… as do a few poachers, no doubt.” I answered. “But I’ve never heard of any turning up at the hunt.”

+++++“I won’t need this then.” Jock lifted one side of his bomber jacket and patted a 9mm Browning automatic pistol stuffed into a shoulder holster. He smiled at the look of shock on my face. “It’s okay, Sir. I am allowed to carry. I’m still on the books at Six… and what with continuing death threats from our ‘friends’ from over the water… you know what I mean.”

+++++I did know what he meant. The Provisional IRA hated the SAS… a hate that stretched far beyond the treacherous handshakes of the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. Still, I was shocked to see Jock so armed. I certainly hoped he would not need to use it.

+++++We arrived at Woldview Cottage B&B where Sir Arthur and the Hunt Treasurer, Simon Appleby had booked a room for Jock and were waiting to meet him. I had warned Jock in advance about Sir Arthur’s brusque and pompous manner, but he had dealt with worse in his military career and was not worried. Introductions quickly over, and leaving the conspirators nursing their drinks in the small living room ‘Resident’s Bar’ of Woldview Cottage I went home; feeling quite guilty about the subterfuge and hiding these events from Fiona.

***

+++++Although I rarely arrived home from London before six-thirty in the weekday evenings, Fiona was invariably there to meet me in the living room with a drink before supper. Of course, there were occasions when she had to work late at her office or to meet with clients and would let me know in advance, but these incidents were few and far between. So I was surprised but not unduly concerned to find her absent when I arrived home one evening, with no message or call to explain her lateness. When she eventually came breezing through the front door at eight-thirty, however, I asked, “Darling! You are very late. Is everything okay?”

+++++“Yes, Harry,” she leaned forward and, slightly breathlessly, pecked me on the cheek. “I had a last minute visit from a new client who wants me to fix him up with CCTV. He kept me talking for ages!”

+++++She threw her jacket over the back of a chair, “Let me fix supper quickly!”

+++++“No Fi. I have made pasta and salad. It is ready to eat as soon you have freshened up!”

+++++“Thanks, darling. I won’t be a mo!” She disappeared upstairs and I could hear the shower running.

+++++Over supper, Fiona explained that the new client had several business properties, one of which housed sensitive information. “He wants a complete audit carried out, with recommendations for cameras, monitors, and biometric access control… the works.” She poured us both a glass of white wine. “That’s great, Fi!” I exclaimed. “A very good contract by the sounds of it.”

+++++“Yes, darling.” Fiona toyed with her pasta, not looking at me. “But, the site is miles away, on the other side of Norwich. And he wants me to personally carry out the audit and be on the ground every day to oversee the installation and whatever.” She glanced up briefly from her food. “I will be working late most evenings for quite some time, I am afraid.”

+++++“That’s fine, Fi.” I encouraged, “I will manage to get supper ready most evenings… if not, we will dine out at the pub!” I poured more wine. We clinked glasses in a toast, and drank to the new contract and to each other’s health.

***

+++++True to her word, Fiona was late home every workday evening for the next six or seven weeks. Most times she arrived looking quiet tired and pale.

+++++“I say, Fi!” I had to remark one Friday evening, seeing her almost crawl into the living room. “You look really worn out. Come on, off with that jacket,” I said, helping her shrug off her green wax cotton Barbour. “These late evenings and long drives home are really taking their toll. Let me get you a brandy.”

+++++I returned quickly from the drinks cabinet and passed her the balloon.

+++++“Thanks, darling!” She said, sinking down into the armchair and putting her feet up on a footstool. “It is rather tiring, I must admit. But will be worth all the effort in the end.” She smiled, somewhat solemnly.

***

+++++Sir Arthur had given me the date for the first hunt of the season, well in time for it to be publicised in the forthcoming journal. The journal went out on time, and all the members – and, of course, the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which had spies everywhere – were, therefore, informed well in advance.

+++++I had purposely kept away from and out of contact with Jock, leaving him and the Hunt Committee to organise and train the whole HPU thing. As far as I was aware, Fiona had no idea what was going on, and, as she arrived home worn out almost every evening, probably did not care. She never even mentioned the subject.

***

+++++The day before the hunt, Sir Arthur informed me that Jock had reported to him that the HPU boys were as ready as they would ever be. He had heard from some informers that the HSA were going to be out in force too, and he wanted me there to cover the event for the journal. I protested, at first, but Arthur insisted, and told me to bring my camera along, as well. “I want full coverage of this, Harry. Photos and a good write-up. There may be some bloody tabloid journos there too, usually are at the first hunt, looking for a bloody sensational scoop; so I want our side of the story to be told straight and true!”

+++++The day of the hunt dawned cold, grey and misty. Steaming breath from both humans and horses plumed and billowed in the chill air of the pub car park, as the landlord and a few helpers passed between the mounted riders handing out the traditional pre-hunt “Stirrup Cup”.

+++++After the bracing drinks, the hunt set off along Lower Dyke Lane, heading for Ten Acres Meadow, and the large area of natural deciduous woodland that bordered it. This would be the covert from where the foxes would be flushed out. Mounted hunt followers, identified by their black tunics, rode along behind the riders dressed in scarlet. The chaotic clip-clop of twenty or so trotting horses echoed in the still morning air. Cars formed a slow-moving tail behind the horses… appearing not unlike a funeral procession.

+++++Mist hung in dank rafts in the hollows of the meadow and lay thick and swirling upon the ground in the woods. I walked briskly across the grass to the edge of the woodland. There, among the trees, I could see shadowy figures moving in the dim light; the HPU. They were all dressed in matching olive drab coveralls and carrying Tonfa PR24 riot batons. I spotted Jock, dressed in a camo smock, moving around giving orders and directions.

+++++Suddenly, I heard yells of derision and the discordant blowing of horns. The saboteurs had arrived; making their noisy way across the meadow from the 52-seater coach parked in the lane on the other side of the fields. Most of them were wearing ski masks for anonymity and were dressed in army-surplus jackets or green parkas with the hoods pulled over their heads. To my dismay I saw that several were carrying sticks or pick-axe handles.

+++++A loud baying and yelping announced the arrival of the foxhounds, as several kennel masters released the dogs from trailers and horse boxes. The horses moved restlessly beneath the riders, snorting and whinnying in the cold air, sensing they would soon be at the gallop.

+++++A loud cry from the approaching saboteurs echoed across the misty field: “Murdering scumbag snobs!” This was taken up by laughter and hoots and yells from the rest of the mob. The saboteurs drew near, weaving their way along the edge of the woodland. Some split off, disappearing among the trees. The HPU took up defensive positions between them and the riders. The hounds had already entered the woods and were trying to scent and put up a fox. The line of saboteurs bristled and shifted with pent up tension, as other were rampaging through the woodland, trying to confuse the hounds and scare the foxes to earth.

+++++“Moreton! You fucking snob asshole!” Someone shouted aggressively; loud above the general din.

+++++Sir Arthur Moreton, hearing his name called, turned in his saddle to face towards the voice.

+++++“Who the bloody hell said that?” He roared.

+++++I watched with horror, as a short, stocky figure carrying a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun ran forward from the rear of the mob, pointing the gun skyward, intending, I presume, to fire a warning shot or give some sort of signal to the rest of them. He tripped on a hidden tree root and fell forward; as he hit the ground, one barrel discharged its shot in a loud and resounding bang, and with a scream of pain Sir Arthur fell from his horse.  At the loud report of the gunshot, Jock’s muscle memory must have kicked in. From the corner of my eye I saw him draw the 9mm pistol from under his jacket and spin around to face the shooter.

+++++At that very same moment, another member of the HSA, anonymous in a black ski mask, leapt forward and with an angry, high-pitched scream wrestled the shotgun away from the fallen shooter’s grasp.

+++++Jock crouched, firing two shots in quick succession. The person now holding the weapon dropped like a stone, and, as he hit the ground, the second shotgun cartridge discharged. I felt as if someone had smashed my shoulder with a sledge hammer! I was spun around in a spray of my own blood, crashing into Arthur’s steed before slumping to the earth next to him and passing out.

***

+++++When I regained consciousness, with considerable pain in my shoulder and a splitting headache, I slowly opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself in a hospital bed; my shoulder heavily bandaged and my arm in a sling. I closed my eyes again, trying to recall what had happened.

+++++“You’re alive then, Sir?” came a familiar voice. I looked up, and there stood my old friend, Jock; standing there awkwardly with a bag of grapes in his hands.

+++++“Hello, Jock. Barely alive, by the aches and pains I am feeling. Jesus! What the fuck happened? How is Sir Arthur?”

+++++“He’ll live too… unfortunately; pompous old bastard.” Jock smiled.

+++++I chuckled, then winced in pain once more. I heard a moan from one side and gingerly turned my head, expecting to see Arthur lying there all bandaged up like me.  Instead, in bed just six feet away from me, lay my wife, Fiona!

+++++“What the hell’s going on here?” I gasped the questions, propping myself up on one good elbow.

+++++“Sir,” Jock drew near. “I am sorry to say that I shot your wife in the legs… twice.”

+++++“What the fuck are you talking about, Jock?” I yelled.

+++++In the bed next to me, Fiona stirred again.

+++++“This’ll be a shock to you, I am afraid.” Jock nodded towards my wife. “It was Fiona who grabbed the shotgun from that idiot.  She told me earlier, before the drugs sent her to sleep, that she wasn’t intending to use it, but was snatching it away from the bloke in anger, because she had ordered that there was to be no guns. You see, Fiona is a leading member and the tactical trainer of the HSA” Jock confirmed. “Has been for quite some time, apparently.”

Hard Luck and Trouble Every Day

When Chaplin’s mom got to the hospital she gave him a slap upside the head saying, “You damn idiot. How many times you gonna be shot?”

+++++Chaplin said, “This is my first time, ma, the last time was just a graze.”

+++++“You know better than this anyway, somethin’ smells bad you get out, or at least keep your eyes open; sum bitch. Stealin’ from drug dealers, Jesus Christ, you’re better than that and you didn’t even get your cut. Hasn’t even been a month since the Stark job, we still got that money and you go off and do this.”

+++++“Okay, okay,” said Chaplin, “Let’s just go.”

+++++They were driving out of the hospital parking lot; Chaplin’s mom at the wheel saying, “After your uncle was nice enough to take you in on that Starks Antiques festival-whatever-the-hell. That was a hell of a pay day; those antiquing people got money. You’re nearly thirty god dammit you can’t be doin’ such stupid shit.”

+++++Chaplin angled his hat on his head and the rings on his fingers saying, “The bastards shot at me four maybe five times before they hit me. Ha, dumb bastards.”

+++++His mom said, “well I hope your gonna’ do something about this.”

+++++“Of course I’m gonna’; those bastards wouldn’t of even done it without me. Hey, you know Jay Street?”

+++++“’course I do.”

+++++“Then go over there four-hundred block. Is the revolver still in the glove, yup, good old snub nose.”

Chaplin had the top buttons of his flannel shirt unbuttoned and only a few buttons of his vest done; leaving room for the revolver under his arm in his vest. His hat sat low on his sunglasses and when his mom started down Jay Street he told her to go slow.

+++++Chaplin said, “Alright stop here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He got out of the car and walked to an off-white house with more weeds than grass in the yard. After knocking on the door a skinny man not wearing a shirt opened the door swearing. He was shut up by Chaplin shooting him once through the heart.

+++++Chaplin stepped over the skinny guy’s body and found another one near identical on the couch. “Hey Lane,” Chaplin said holding the gun on him, “Get the money.”

+++++“What money, Chap?” Lane said.

+++++Chaplin stood there with a deadpan expression and said, “You got five minutes to get the money you owe me. Then you’re dead like him.”

+++++Lane got up from the couch and moved around to the nightstand. He opened a drawer and wheeled around with a beretta nine. Chaplin shot him in the shoulder before he could do anything.

+++++Lane said, “Sum bitch you shot me.”

+++++Chaplin said, “You gonna’ get the money Lane?”

+++++“Son of a Bitch, ah, it hurts like a motherfucker.”

+++++“Stop being a pussy and find the money.”

+++++“Why the fuck you get a cut anyway? It was me and PJ’s idea.”

+++++“Would you have done it without me?” Lane didn’t answer so Chaplin said, “that’s what I thought; now, get the goddamn money.”

+++++Lane started walking into the other room. Chaplin pushed him forward to get him moving saying, “hurry the hell up; my ma’s waitin’ out in the car.”

+++++Lane said, “Dude you brought your mom?”

+++++“I’m losing my goddamn patience. Find the damn money.”

+++++“Just saying I wouldn’t’ve brought my ma.”

+++++“Well,” said Chaplin, “there is a difference. Your Ma is probably in a house around here anyway blowin’ some coke head. My ma carries a .44 Magnum in her purse; now if I don’t see green in two seconds you’re dead.”

+++++“It’s in the bag on the table.”

+++++“Show it to me.”

+++++Lane opened the bag; it was full of loose bills. Chaplin said, “good; I’m gonna’ take it all.”

+++++“What?”

+++++“’Cause you pissed me off and no goddamn idiot should have this much money.”

+++++Lane surprised Chaplin saying, “why do they call you Chaplin, asshole.”

+++++“Because I’m a mother fucking preacher,” Chaplin said before shooting him twice in the chest.

The End

Sundown at the Toxic Shock Syndrome

So, this was how it would all go down? Eric the Red thought with disdain. An army of crazed, soulless flesh starved things that used to be people, battering down his fortified office door, tearing him to shreds, leaving just enough of his chewed carcass to become one of them—whatever they were. He had always expected to die young and violently, but not like this, and certainly not by his own hand. Eric appreciated the bitter Irony. He had been the father of this atrocity. That he should fall victim to it would have been hysterical, if it weren’t him. Now, here he sat at his desk in his windowless basement office. All he had was a syringe of the awful mixture he had set loose on the world, and a choice.

+++++Eric had only lasted this long because of the door. He had it installed in anticipation of needing to protect himself from one of the many drug dealers with whom he had entered into an uneasy partnership over the years. Eric sold their drugs for them in his club. As skillful and efficient as he was at moving narcotics to the addled metal heads who frequented the place, Eric was even better at skimming profit far above his agreed upon percentage. His erstwhile partners were getting wise to the scam. The grumblings had begun. With that in mind, Eric had the four-ply titanium fire-door put in. It was more vault than anything else. He was assured by the contractor the door would withstand all manner of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and any hand-held missiles currently available on the black market. But Eric knew it would be just a matter of time before the horde of berserkers presently outside would finally accomplish what explosives and weaponry could not.

+++++Eric Funschman had been called Eric the Red since he was ten-years-old. His father, Irwin, a criminal with his dirty fingers in all manner of quasi-legitimate small businesses, gave Eric the name. It started to take hold before anyone knew the reason for the appellation.

+++++“Why Eric the Red? It’s not like you guys have Viking blood or anything,” Tovar Beral, Irwin’s retired Mossad agent/bodyguard observed. “You’re Bronx Jews, not a Nordic raiding party. Scary enough if you ask me, I certainly wouldn’t cross you. But, why not something snappy in Hebrew or Yiddish?”

+++++“I call him Eric the Red because he’s always in a foul mood. He is the most unpleasant boy I ever encountered. More is the pity, he’s mine,” Irwin said.

+++++“I still don’t get the red part.”

+++++“Because he’s always on the rag.”

+++++“Oh…that makes sense.”

+++++In fact, Eric was not always on the rag. He had an inability to express himself to others. As such, Eric was awkward around people almost to the point of paralysis. He wanted desperately to interact pleasantly with others. But, his facial expressions and deadpan demeanor would not allow him to communicate his better intentions. Eric had done a lot of work over the years to combat his forbidding appearance, but all his attempts to counter it only exacerbated the problem, and put him further out on the island where he had no desire to be.

+++++A year after his mother passed away, when Eric was ten-years-old, his father brought him to a psychiatrist. He was hoping for a diagnosis that would allow him to have his son declared incompetent, and commit him to an institution—to be rid of him. The psychiatrist, referred by an associate, didn’t understand this was supposed to be a formality. The doctor undertook a pain-staking and rigorous examination. His diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome. When Irwin explained the setup as he understood it, Doctor Amalfitano scoffed at him.

+++++“My diagnosis was based on the medical evidence and symptoms your son evinces. I’m not fudging my findings just so you can dump him in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.”

+++++“But Tony Scaggs told me you would do the right thing,” Irwin argued.

+++++“And I just did it. Tony Scaggs is my uncle. I see people he refers to me as a favor. But he understands I will not tailor my diagnoses. Nor will I prescribe drugs which aren’t medically needed. Many of Tony’s associates come in here with the wrong idea. They get sent away just like you. I can help you with your son. But I’m not taking him off your hands for you.”

+++++“What the fuck is wrong with him then?” Irwin demanded.

+++++“He has a high functioning form of autism. His social awkwardness and inability to modulate his voice to coincide with his facial expressions prevent him from communicating with others very well,” the doctor explained.

+++++“So, he’s a retard?”

+++++“No, quite the opposite. He’s actually brilliant, but until he learns to function socially, he’ll never be able to utilize it.”

+++++“What do we do about it?”

+++++The doctor went on to describe a rigorous plan of counseling, occupational and physical therapy and drugs to combat the anxiety brought on by the awkwardness. Irwin thought it would have been easier to just burn the doctor’s office to the ground, destroying his precious medical records, and finding another shrink willing to play ball, but he was prevented from doing so. Irwin Funschman was the second scariest and deadly gangster in Youngstown Ohio. Tony Scaggs Amalfitano had him beat by a mile. There was no way Irwin was going to start a war with Tony by messing with his nephew. He could sense the little prick doctor knew it too.

+++++The treatment prescribed helped Eric to be able to communicate with others and to begin to use his outsized intellect. His father didn’t like him any better, but as he grew, Irwin started to find uses for the boy. While he was able to communicate with others, he made no progress with respect to putting people at ease. If anything, his therapy and training further alienated them.

+++++To combat Eric’s clumsiness when the training began, he started learning mixed martial arts, and lifting weights. Because autism sufferers tend to fixate on rituals and routines, the training took on an almost religious zeal. The fact he was big already made it all look frightening. He countered his impulse not to make eye contact with others by simply forcing himself to do it. This force of will, coupled with his expressionless mask of a face, and his deadpan demeanor made eye contact look and feel like a glare. He never figured out what to do with his hands when he spoke. So, he would push his chest out and throw his shoulders back. He would leave his hands at his sides, but to keep them there he clenched them into giant balled fists. It appeared to everyone he was one cross word away from killing them. With his massive chest, and shoulders like bowling balls, his aspect was terrifying.

+++++Eric’s low raspy voice, delivered from deep within him didn’t help matters at all. It made everything sound like a demand, rather than the polite request he intended. The monotone words, without inflection or emphasis, on their best day sounded like sarcasm. On every other day, they sounded like the portent of doom.

+++++Given these unintended consequences, it wasn’t long before Irwin dropped to number three on Youngstown’s scary gangster list. Tony Scaggs was still nominally recognized as number one, but that was more out of respect and tradition than reality. No one was betting on Tony if Eric ever decided to challenge him.

+++++His father chose Eric to run his most lucrative but volatile business venture, an erstwhile dance hall and saloon. In short order, Eric informed his father he was taking the club. Irwin was no longer in a position to argue. The Toxic Shock Syndrome was a rave hall and exotic dancing emporium fronting an enormous narcotics distribution operation, which is a polite way of saying it was the amoral epicenter of Ohio. Tucked all the way out on the McGuffey Road, out near the county line, the place was the perfect cover for all manner of criminal behavior. And if you had a sin you’d like to commit, or a form of self-abasement you hadn’t yet tried, The Toxic Shock Syndrome would afford you ample opportunity. The strippers were drug addicted prostitutes. They also sold the drugs for Eric. The transactions all looked legal. Buyers would appear to be paying for lap-dances. They would get a lap-dance, along with their purchase of narcotics being slipped into their pockets.

+++++It seemed like a flawless operation, and it was for a while, but Eric was his father’s son. He had been taught to skim everything since he was young. So, he skimmed. Every parcel of narcotics coming into the club to be sold, would be automatically cut with a third of its weight in lactose powder. Eric did all the cutting and re-bagging. The autistic are creatures of habit.

+++++Once Eric started cutting the drugs, it wasn’t long before it was what he had to do. To keep him functional and in his comfort zone, no matter what else happened, Eric cut the drugs. It was this attention to detail and habit that would ultimately slide the world out of its comfort zone and into a world-wide pandemic.

+++++When the Professor showed up, Eric’s operation was already in full swing. He was making more money than he could ever spend, but he was never averse to making more. Counting money was a comfort to him. So, when the tall, thin, stooped and creepy man made his business proposition, Eric was all ears. The vibe of impending tragedy which was coursing through Eric’s body at that moment was not communicated in his face or body language. No one else knew he was suddenly afraid. Eric suppressed his initial revulsion to the Professor, and listened to his deal.

+++++The Professor really was a professor. He had taught bio-chemistry at Ohio State University for thirty years. He became bored after he retired and started messing with the kind of chemistry the University never would have permitted. He would become known in the organized crime world as a synthetic drug manufacturer. His motivations were much darker than narcotics, though. What he was creating wasn’t a drug at all. It was a nerve agent. He called his creation Cornucopia, and insisted it be marketed as such. What the chemical compound did when injected was to simulate the initial high of a heroin shot, coupled with the adrenaline rush of a methamphetamine hit, encased in the general warm encompassing feeling of euphoria and well-being one gets from that first line of cocaine. Eric immediately recognized the limitless earning potential of this product. A drug with those properties sold itself. His only question was, would its allure guarantee repeat sales?

+++++“Is it addictive?” Eric asked.

+++++“Most certainly….and instantly. One shot of Cornucopia ensures the user will need another shot every single day,” the Professor assured him.

+++++“How do we sell it?”

+++++“Like heroin, it’s a powder. We sell it in gem paper in exact doses. The user cooks it with one milliliter of distilled water. There are no impurities, so we have removed the tedious need to strain it through cotton, like they do with their dirty brown tar heroin. They just load the syringe from their spoons and they are as they say, good to go.”

+++++With the built-in demand to such a product, Eric knew it wouldn’t be long before every junkie west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies would be banging at his door just to get some. And they would be back for more every day thereafter.

+++++“I’m in,” Eric said.

+++++“Yes, of course you are. But before I agree to sell to you, understand this compound cannot be cut or adulterated in any way. The dosage is precise. Any attempt to dilute it will have catastrophic results. Do you understand?”

+++++“Yeah, sure,” Eric intoned, already factoring his inflated profit by one third.

+++++The Professor sensed as much, and was secretly delighted. He had engineered this chemical as a weapon. He was going to sell it to the military, but declined to do so because he knew they wouldn’t have the courage to use it. This was his baby. He wanted it introduced to the world. So, he went back into his lab and engineered the compound with a blocking enzyme to thwart the full, and secretly intended effect. He had heard rumors about Eric’s practice of stepping on his drugs. That’s why the professor sought him out as his distributor. He was counting on it.

+++++The professor had engineered the enzyme to be blunted when simple sugar molecules adhered to it. Eric’s preferred cutting agent for powders was lactose—pure milk sugar. Once the sugar removed the blocking enzyme, Cornucopia did what it was originally intended to. It attacked the brain, which instantly signaled the pituitary gland to put every other gland in the body into overdrive. In an instant, the user felt the effects of enormous quantities of testosterone, adrenaline, growth hormone and insulin coursing through their bloodstreams, with all of the inherent aggression and nervous energy. At the same time, the outer half of the adrenal cortex started pumping enormous quantities of cortisol. This triggered the bodies fight or flight impulse. Except, with this particular nerve agent, there was no longer a flight option. The user became a crazed hormone bingeing dynamo of violence. The aggression stayed in check momentarily until the compound could further attack the brain by depleting the serotonin levels to zero. Once that happened, the ability to reason was gone. The switch had been flipped. What was left was a superhuman turbo-charged killing machine with no other impulse but to destroy or murder.

+++++Then there was the bad news. Once a user of cornucopia either bit, spit, or bled on another person, that person was instantly infected. That’s how a miserable hole in the wall in Ohio became ground zero for the apocalypse that would eradicate the human race.

+++++As Eric the Red Funschman sat at his desk, watching his impregnable door start to give way behind the crush of the berserker horde behind it, he gave some thought to how he would meet his end. He had a syringe of the adulterated cornucopia. He reasoned he could just wait for the door to go down and be consumed by the horde, thus becoming one of them. Or, he thought, he could just inject the drug and join the Armageddon he created. As he jammed the syringe into the side of his neck, and drove home the plunger, he thought, for once I won’t feel awkward around my peers.

427-461 PEARL STREET

My wife is from a town in Canada called Regina. She rhymes it with vagina and doesn’t even bat an eyelash. I joke about it, and she sighs, shakes her head, and calls me immature. Which is rich, considering every time I’m on the phone and I mention One PP she giggles like an eight-year-old.

+++++“You cops, always so worried about your one pee pee,” she’ll say.

+++++One PP is One Police Plaza. It’s the main headquarters of the NYPD down near all the big Manhattan courthouses. The point is—first of all—that my wife is a big hypocrite, but also when something becomes such a routine part of your life, it’s not hilarious or cool or frightening or interesting. It’s just there, and you don’t notice.

+++++There was this man called Jake. A Korean guy who ran the deli near my precinct. It was actually a few blocks farther than two other shops, but it had a real salad bar, and I like vegetables. What can I say—my wife is a dietician from Saskatchewan. Anyway, Jake was always in that store. I worked every kind of shift, every kind of overtime. I’d been in that place at 3 in the morning, at noon, at 8 PM. He was always there. I’d talk to him for a few minutes everytime I came in. He had a picture of his kids. They went to one of the good schools out in Queens. He’d have the Yankees on the radio all summer. Maybe it was a little fake—getting on the cops good side—but I always thought of him as one of the decent people I’m sworn to protect.

+++++Then one day, I went into Jake’s with a guy named Frank who’d transferred from way up in the Bronx a few days back. While I was loading up on baby corn, Frank just sort of stood there like he was thinking real hard. Then he walked out of the deli without buying anything. I paid and went outside. Frank was searching through his phone.

+++++“What’s going on?” I asked.

+++++“The guy behind the counter. Is he new?”

+++++“Jake? He’s been there seven years—at least.”

+++++“You’re kidding me?”

+++++“Why?”

+++++“You don’t get his picture? Every couple of months they send it around. Killed six people with an axe back in Seoul. They said he was probably in the US, possibly in New York.”

+++++“What? Come on.”

+++++But even before he found the picture, I knew he was right. The photo—younger, shorter hair, no glasses—was one I’d seen more times than I’d care to admit. It was a joke around our station—Tae-kyong is on the loose again. And I’d been handing him money just about every day for years. My eyes weren’t open.

+++++Jake (Tae-kyong) made a break for it. I guess Frank was a little too obvious when he first made the guy because there was Jake walking fast across the street down the block—must have gone out the back way. I knew he’d never leave the place unattended, so we went after him. He broke into a run, but the athletic, young axe murderer had become a chunky, middle-aged businessman. We ran him down, and I tackled him in the crosswalk in front of a Papaya King. He got me in the nose with his forehead and was reaching for something in his pocket when Frank came in and helped me pin the bastard down.

+++++The case got tricky, of course. He’d bought the deli with cash no one could account for. We also suspected he might have killed the seller, and we couldn’t identify the kids in his family photos. Then there were extradition laws, some contaminated evidence over in South Korea, and a really strange girlfriend with a ukulele.

+++++So, yes, I had to go down to One PP a few times, and, yes, my wife laughed at me every time I said it. But I never found any of it the least bit funny.

THE SAGUARO TWO STEP

With the sheriff’s flashlight shining in his face, Kevin Maduro tried to appear calm. The headlights from the sheriff’s car lit the ground, his brother Kyle, and their two horses in white light.

+++++“What no good you two up to out here on horseback this time of night?” the sheriff said.

+++++Kevin quickly glanced over at Kyle who was standing on the other side of his horse, Rain. “Just headin’ home sheriff,” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with doin’ that is there?”

+++++“What are you carrying in the saddlebags?” the sheriff said.

+++++Kevin wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Nothin’ but some beers and a few other things we picked up at the store outside Rio Rico,” he said.

+++++“I think I’ll just take a look for myself,” the sheriff said. As he unlatched the saddlebag on Kevin’s horse, Rain whinnied and bucked.

+++++“What’s wrong with that horse?” the sheriff said standing on the tips of his boots and looking over the horses’ saddles at Kyle.

+++++“Nothin’ sheriff. He’s just a bit skittish at night,” Kyle said.

+++++The sheriff rummaged through the saddlebags and looked at the contents. After taking a can of beer from the saddlebag on Rain, he said, “I’m surprised to say it, but you boys are clean. Now get home.” He opened the can and walked to his car and got in and drove away.

+++++Kevin ran around the horses and excitedly grabbed the front of  his brother’s shirt. “What did you do with the pouch with the diamonds?”

+++++“I shoved it down Rain’s throat,” Kyle said with a big toothy grin.

* * *

+++++The javelina squealed as soon as the metal tip of Jack Straw’s arrow pierced its gray, dusty hide, sending it into a brief convulsive dance before it fell over dead. The arrow had reached its heart. Stirring up a small ground level cloud dirt, the eight other javelinas in the herd fled into the dry creek bed and disappeared around a bend.  Jack jabbed the javelina’s belly with the tip of his brown snakeskin cowboy boot, then pulled out the arrow. He wiped the blood from the tip on his jeans and put it back in the quiver. The animal’s stench wafted from its body.  Taking the red bandana from around his neck he looked up at the clear blue sky that seemed almost too small to fit the glaring white sun. Visible waves of heat rose up from the ground. He lifted his tattered gray Stetson and ran the bandana over his sweat soaked black hair and wiped the sweat from his face, then tied the bandana around his nose and mouth. Lifting the animal by the skin on the back of its neck, he hoisted it onto his right shoulder and held it there with his right hand.

+++++Trekking westward in the open desert, the blood from the javelina dripped down his chest and back. It mixed with his sweat and glued his shirt to his skin. The air was so still it was smothering. Flying insects buzzed around the javelina and around Jack’s head. Patches of scrub brush, prickly pear and barrel cactus and large saguaro dotted the barren landscape. On the horizon he could see his deceased father’s old hunting shack baking in the sun. The tin roof reflected the blinding sunlight. He licked his parched lips and tried to ignore his bladder wanting to be emptied.

+++++Within twenty yards of the shack he walked by the rotting carcass of a horse. He stopped at the well and dropped the javelina on the ground and lowered the bandana. After pumping the well a small stream of water flowed out of the tap. He put his mouth to it and sucked in water as his warm piss ran down his leg. When the trickle turned to drips he inserted a finger in each of the nostrils of the javelina and dragged it by its snout past the fire pit and into the shack and laid it on the dirt floor next to a rickety table.

+++++He removed the quiver and hung it and the bow on a large hook by the door and hung his hat on top of them. After sitting on the edge of his cot and removing his boots, he stripped off his clothes and took off the bandana and hung them over a line that extended across the room, from one wall to the other. Naked, he lifted the javelina onto the table. Taking a black handled skinning knife from a leather pouch hanging on a wall, he began to skin and butcher the javelina. As he removed the animal’s  head a slight, hot breeze blew in through the open window and door.

+++++“Jack Straw, I come to tell ya somethin’,” Sam MacBride yelled from atop his horse ten yards from the shack. “The Maduro brothers are looking for ya. They want their horse back and they say they’ll kill you if they don’t get it back. Knowin’ those two they might kill you anyways.”

+++++Jack stabbed the knife into the javelina’s head and went to the doorway. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his sunburnt arms across his chest. “Tell ’em I said they can go straight to hell.”

+++++Sam shifted his gaze from Jack. He didn’t like looking at another naked man. “I can’t tell ’em nothin’ you say, otherwise they’d know I’d been talkin’ to ya. I just thought ya should know. Ya can’t hide out here in the middle of nowhere forever.”

+++++“I just plan to be out here long enough to figure out how to get  back what those Maduros stole from me,” Jack said.

+++++Glancing over at the dead horse, Sam said, “That ain’t Kevin’s horse, by any chance is it?”

+++++“Sure is,” Jack said. “It was acting poorly from the moment I stole it. I came out of the shack a few mornings ago and it was lying just like you see it now, dead as Abraham Lincoln.”

+++++“The Maduros are goin’ ta be pretty pissed when they find out Kevin’s horse died after you stole it,” Sam said.

+++++“They give back what they have of mine and I’ll buy ’em a new horse,” Jack said.

+++++Sam pulled on the reins turning his horse toward the direction he had come from. “Anything ya needin’?” he said over his shoulder.

+++++“Laundry detergent,” Jack said. “Also some toilet paper. And tell Grace I miss her.”

+++++Sam hit the sides of his horse with his boots and took off across the desert.

* * *

+++++At dawn, as pale yellow sunlight spread across the Sonora, Grace Baldwin’s pale pink silk slip clung to her body as she stood at the open front door of her house. She waved a red paper fan in front of her face blowing her blonde curls from her face. In the other hand she held a burning cigarette that she brought to her lips and sucked in the smoke.  A small brown and yellow lizard ran onto the tip of her fuzzy pink slipper. Casually, she kicked it off and watched it scurry away. She exhaled the smoke as she let out an audible exasperated sigh. In the distance a hawk soared over the desert.

+++++Kevin Maduro came up behind her and put his hands on her hips and kissed her on the back of the neck.

+++++With annoyance, she said, “Didn’t you get your money’s worth with Janelle?”

+++++He stepped to her side and buckled his belt. “Sure did, your sister is fine but she ain’t you. I’d make it worth your while if you ever want to give me a go.”

+++++“Nothing you could offer would ever be worth my while,” she said. “If you don’t want the other three girls here you can go somewhere else.”

+++++He stepped out into the dirt and while staring out at the landscape he pushed his white straw cowboy hat back on his head, and said, “For a whore who runs an illegal brothel, you ain’t very friendly. Just imagine what the sheriff would do if he found out what you got goin’ on here?”

+++++“I’ll ask him the next time he’s here,” she said.

+++++His back stiffened and he readjusted his hat. “Ain’t that somethin’?” he said. He went to his pickup truck and opened the door. Before getting in he turned and said, “Jack Straw is a horse thieving dead man.” He got into the truck and drove off, his back wheels spitting out clouds of dirt and rock.

+++++After flicking the cigarette out into the dirt, Grace turned and went into the house, closed the door and walked down the hallway. The walls were painted a bright pink and framed photographs of naked women hung on the walls. There were five doors, two on each side and one at the end, that led to four bedrooms and a bathroom. Only Janelle’s door was open. Grace stopped in the doorway. “Kevin say if he found out where Jack was hiding out?”

+++++Sitting at a vanity dresser in a black lace neglige and brushing her long black hair, she said, “He wasn’t in a talkin’ mood.”

+++++Grace bit into her lower lip. “Jack is certain it was one of the Maduro brothers who stole the diamonds.” She smacked the fan in the palm of her hand. “Stealing their horse as ransom was pretty stupid.”

+++++“It never was the size of Jack’s brain that impressed you anyway,” Janelle said as she watched in the mirror how her lips looked when she puckered them.

+++++Grace let out another long sigh. “Who steals a horse nowadays?” she said. “A horse ain’t worth a shitload of diamonds. It just don’t make good sense.”

+++++Janelle turned on the stool she was sitting on and stretched her long legs and said, “Nothing has made sense since we left Nevada to start off new. We’re back where we started, flat on our backs, only minus the diamonds Jack stole in Reno, and stuck in this hell hole.”

+++++“All we need of hell is a little good luck,” Grace said. “We’ve been dancing with devil long enough. It’s time we get somethin’ in return.”

* * *

+++++The black limousine pulled into the parking lot of Henry’s Groceries and came to a stop at a hitching post. The back door opened and three-foot-five tall Zell Lyman stepped out, the gravel under his white Italian leather shoes making a crunching sound.  He slid his pistol into the waistband in the back of pants, tucked his red silk shirt over the pistol and into his pants, and looked around. The small store was dilapidated and the only building in sight for a quarter of a mile. Its tin sign hung slightly askew above the screen door.

+++++Sam walked out of the store carrying a full brown paper bag. A package of toilet paper stuck out at the top. “Damn, a real live midget,” Sam said with a whistle upon seeing Zell.

+++++Zell walked up to him. “Listen, cow pie, I ain’t no midget. You never heard of political correctness? I’m a little person. You got that?”

+++++“Oh, sure, sorry,” Sam stammered. “But you do look like one of those, whatcha call ’em, in that movie with the flying monkeys.”

+++++“You sayin’ I look like a munchkin?” Zell said threateningly. “’Cause if that’s what you’re sayin’ be prepared to have your kneecaps broken.”

+++++“No, I didn’t mean to say that,” Sam said. “If you don’t mind me askin’, where you from?”

+++++“Reno, Nevada,” Zell said. “What of it? If you wanna make something of it, I’m ready.” He raised his fists and made a few punching gestures into the air.

+++++“It’s fine with me,” Sam said. “Everyone’s gotta come from somewhere.”

+++++“Good,” Zell said. He lowered his fists and pulled a photograph from his shirt pocket and showed it to Sam. “You know this man? I heard he was born and raised around here.”

+++++Sam leaned down and stared at the photograph. “Sure, I know him. That’s Jack Straw. He’s an old friend of mine.”

+++++“Where can I find him?” Zell said. “He’s my friend too. I have something to give him.”

+++++“That car can’t get to where we need to go. We’d need to get my horse and I can take you to him. I was goin’ out that way anyways,” Sam said. “I only got one horse. Do you mind ridin’ two to a saddle?”

+++++“I’ll ride on the horse’s bare ass if it gets me to him,” Zell said.

* * *

+++++The antelope jack rabbit sat up on its hind legs and raised its head and sniffed the air, then crouched down. Jack raised the bow, pulled back the string and aimed the arrow at it. Just as he was about to let the arrow fly, a horse’s whinny startled the rabbit and it quickly leapt off between two large saguaros. With the string on the bow still pulled back and taut, Jack pivoted to the left. Without hesitation he released the arrow. It made a whisper-like whooshing sound until it found its target, Kevin Maduro’s throat. With the arrow sticking out both sides of his neck, Kevin eyes bulged out as he grasped his throat, and fell on the ground at the base of a saguaro. Blood spurted from his neck forming a puddle around his head.

+++++Riding up quickly on his horse, Kyle looked at his brother’s body, then at Jack. “You son of a bitch,” he said as he raised his rifle.

+++++Before Kyle got the rifle butt to his shoulder, Jack pulled another arrow from the quiver and put it in the bow, pulled back the string and released the arrow. It hit Kyle in the middle of the forehead. The force of it knocked Kyle off of his horse and against a saguaro where he stuck onto the spines in a standing position.

* * *

+++++A week later, Grace and Janelle arrived on horseback at Jack’s shack. Sam’s body was lying face up in the dirt. There was a bullet hole in his left eye. The brown paper bag was lying by his side.

+++++Jack’s body was lying shirtless against the horse. A bullet had entered the middle of his chest.

+++++Grace got off her horse and walked over to Jack. Animals had made a snack of parts of his exposed upper body. Insects buzzed around him.

+++++Maggots were crawling in and out of the horse’s sun cooked body. Through the open decayed skin in its neck, the pouch of diamonds could be seen. Grace reached in and pulled out the pouch and held it up for Janelle to see.

Laundered

Mildred sat down on the plastic chair outside the laundromat and lit a cigarette. The warmth of the lighter felt good. It was 20 degrees, and close to midnight. She shivered. Her sweater was thin. Her coat was in a dryer, but the dryer wasn’t spinning. She was short a quarter. She thought she might take a walk and find one, but she’d taken that walk before. She wouldn’t find much. Cigarette boxes. Bottles of Mountain Dew. Maybe a nickel.

+++++She took a drag and snubbed the cigarette into her gas bill. She wished she could taste her cancer stick, but her sinuses were clogged. She sighed and took another drag, but no luck. No taste, and no smell. She wanted menthol. Menthol made her smile.

+++++Mildred crumpled up the invoice. It was their third notice. She got the memo yesterday, when Boyd left the house with gin and chicken wings on his breath, on what she was sure would be another bender. He would probably come home in a few days with an index card detailing how much he owed his bookie, or the phone number of another whore, or if she were lucky, a joint. Boyd probably wouldn’t share it anyway.

+++++“Ma’am, you ok?”

+++++Mildred looked up. Standing in front of her, in a frost free vest, was an old man. He had a thin grey beard and sparkling blue eyes. He sported a trucker cap that said “POW-MIA.” Mildred feigned a smile and shrugged.

+++++“Nowhere to go but down. That’s the only way I ever go.”

+++++“I hear you Ma’am.”

+++++“Yeah?”

+++++“Yeah. My pipes burst this morning. And plumbers? Not a single one answering their phones. This weather. They’re all on duty.”

+++++“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I could help. I don’t even have enough to dry my clothes.”

+++++“Can I help?”

+++++“A quarter would do.”

+++++“Yes ma’am, but on one condition.”

+++++“Shoot.”

+++++“Just hold the door for me. I’ve got quite a few baskets of stinking, sopping garbage bags. Just about all I own. The flooding soaked everything. So, how about that door?”

+++++Mildred looked around for a doorstop or anything that would pass as a wedge. Nothing. She smiled.

+++++“Ok.”

+++++The old man peered inside the Laundromat. A light above a vending machine flickered. A handwritten sign on the machine said, “Out of Order,” followed by a crooked frowny face.

+++++“Quiet around here, huh ma’am?”

+++++“I usually have it to myself. The place is all yours.”

+++++Mildred tucked her hair, long and unwashed, underneath her knit cap and leaned against the door. The old man thanked her and went to his truck. His knees buckled as he strained under the weight of a basket. He continued on, heaving, basket after basket. Mildred smoked another cigarette and thought of what it would be like to put it out in Boyd’s eye, to watch it melt like a piece of chocolate in the sun.

+++++“Ma’am, you still there?”

+++++Mildred broke free from her trance. She was sad her cigarette was not in her husband’s eye.

+++++“Here’s your quarter, ma’am. I’ll be back in a little while. You take care if I don’t see ya.”

+++++Mildred clutched the quarter and went inside. She scanned the room, and froze. The washing machines were silent. The dryers were running. All of them. The old man hadn’t washed his clothes. He just put them straight in the dryers.

+++++That’s when she heard the thumps, like there were tennis balls in each load. Boom-boom boom. Boom-boom. She walked up to one dryer. The window on it had a red smear. Mildred opened the door, and there, mixed in with some old towels and sweat pants, was a detached hand. The bone and gristle sparkled in the fluorescent lighting. The wedding ring on the hand was, unmistakably, Boyd’s. Her stomach churned, and she could feel acid and juices and gobs of food rush up her esophagus and into her throat. Her head felt light. She titled this way, and that, and blackness filled her vision like dripping paint.

+++++Mildred awoke moments later, covered in vomit. The back of her head was swollen, and a smear of blood was on the table behind her. She did not remember fainting. Chunks of ginger ale soaked chicken nuggets soaked through her clothes. The dryers were still spinning, still thumping with Boyd. She pulled out her phone, dialed 911, and before she pressed the “send” button, she stopped. She started to laugh, and soon her laughs turned into a howl. The dryers continued to thump, and somewhere, in one of them, were Boyd’s eyes. She thought, once more, about what it would be like to put out a smoke in them. To listen to it sizzle into those glassy, stupid eyes. Mildred lit another cigarette and took a drag. She could taste the Menthol this time. She blew out a cloud, flicked an ash aside, and starting opening the dryer doors.

+++++One by one.

Eddie Spaghetti

“Scary, cover the hippy cashier,” Screw said in the van, pulling the ski mask down over his face, obscuring the faded blue swastika tattoo on his cheek.  “He so much as farts, you put a bullet in his head.”

+++++“I’ve never fired a gun before,” Scary said, holding the .45 at Screw’s chest.

+++++“Point it at the Phish fan behind the counter when we get inside, not at me,” Screw said, pushing the barrel away.  “Smoky Dave.”

+++++“Yep,” Smoky Dave said, throwing the butt of his cigarette out the van’s window.

+++++“Herd the stoners into a corner.  If somebody starts acting like John Wayne, blast ‘em.  I’ll go first, and cut down that big security guard motherfucker.”

+++++“We wont actually shoot nobody will we?”  Scary asked, pulling the bill of her black ball cap low over her eyes.

+++++“I fuckin’ hope so,” Smoky Dave said behind a hockey mask, sliding two shells into the shotgun.

+++++Screw gave Smoky Dave a confidential look that put Scary ill at ease like they knew something important she didn’t before they exited the van, and approached the pot dispensary.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” Scary said under her breath, and rubbed the aluminum tab torn from a soda can in her pocket.

+++++Screw bounded through the front door, and smashed the massive security guard in the head with the butt of his Glock, wilting the big man like a thirsty plant.

+++++“Everybody face the wall,” Smoky Dave said, kicking open the second door, ripping one into the ceiling, and counting four scarred shitless costumers.

+++++“Hands up,” Scary said, pointing the .45 at the white hippy with dreadlocks behind the counter.

+++++“Be cool lady,” the hippy cashier said, squinting at her.  “Be cool.”

+++++“I said get your hands up,” Scary said.

+++++“I know you,” the hippy said.  “We went to school together.  You were what’s his name’s girl.”

+++++“Shut up,” Scary said.

+++++“You just signed your death warrant,” Screw said, and squeezed the trigger.

+++++The hippy flopped around on the floor as blood gushed from the side of his head.  Panicked sobs and mournful cries erupted from the patrons.  Two middle-eastern men hugged each other, and a young white woman with tattooed sleeves and plugs in her earlobes, crossed herself, and tried to look for heaven in the ceiling.  An older woman in a red power suit and matching pumps stood frozen in a defiant stance.

+++++Scary winced at the dead hippy on the ground.  His name was Ricky Fred.  She remembered ditching P.E. to smoke weed with him in his V.W. bug freshman year.  He felt her up, so she punched him in the balls.  Scary hated him for that, but didn’t wish him dead.  There was only one person she wished death on.

+++++“Quiet down, or I start shooting,” Smoky Dave said to the customers.

+++++“I’m not scared of you,” the woman in red said, coming to life.  “I haven’t survived breast cancer to be killed by some punk at a stickup.”

+++++“Lady, I swear to god if you don’t turn around, and put your face against the wall, I will blow your fuckin’ head off,” Smoky Dave said.

+++++“You will not,” the woman said, clutching her purse.  “I’m leaving, and don’t try to stop me.”

 

*

 

+++++Scary woke in a large city planter box in front of the public library with a raging headache.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” she said, and felt the aluminum tab in her pocket before plodding downtown, and scrounging through public ashtrays to assuage her nicotine addiction.

+++++“Scary,” Smoky Dave said, handing her a cigarette and a matchbook.  “Where you been?”

+++++She lit the smoke, and looked at her reflection in a storefront window.  Her blue hair was pulled back exposing brown roots.  Her face was swollen, sunburnt, and covered in runny scabs.  Smoky Dave wore a crusty black leather jacket, and no shirt underneath.  His long dark hair dangled in front of his face, obscuring his features.

+++++“Nowhere.”

+++++“Got a job for you.”

+++++“I don’t suck dick.”

+++++“It ain’t like that,” Smoky Dave said, and inhaled from a vape pen.  “You know my buddy Screw?”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Skinhead with a swastika tattoo on his face.”

+++++“Maybe”.

+++++“I met him in prison a few years back.  He did a stretch for attempted murder.  He’s been staying with me since he got out.  We’re knocking over a pot dispensary by the highway called Papa Greens.  It’s easy money, but we need a third.”

+++++“Why me?”

+++++“Because I trust you, and because you owe me.”

+++++“I don’t owe you shit.”

+++++Scary used to buy heroin from Smoky Dave.  He wasn’t the nicest of guys.  He’d short her, and beat her when she came up short with his money.  Smoky Dave’s sister died of an overdosed.  It was rumored he was angry because she was stealing from him, so he spiked her hit.  Scary avoided Smoky Dave when she got a better dealer, but he always claimed she still owed him when their paths crossed.

*

+++++Smoky Dave placed the barrel of the shotgun against the older woman’s forehead as Screw smashed open the register, and emptied the cash into a black trash bag.

+++++“Get them sweet nugs too,” Smoky Dave said.

+++++“Fucking stoner,” Screw said, knocking dozens of small black plastic containers filled with various strains of marijuana into the bag.

+++++“Bob Marley blunts tonight,” Smoky Dave said just before the blast.

+++++Smoky Dave dropped his weapon, and crumpled to the floor.  Propped on his elbows in the doorway, the security guard fired again, grazing Scary’s shoulder.  Screw ducked behind the counter, and squeezed multiple rounds into the big man’s face.

+++++“Smoky Dave?  You okay?”  Screw asked, removing his ski mask.  “Shit.  Come on Scary.  Let’s dust these fucks and bounce.”

+++++Scary pointed the .45 at Screw.

+++++“Fuck is wrong with you? Grab the money and let’s dip.  I’ll take care of the witnesses.”

+++++“You used to beat up punkers with a baseball bat,” Scary said.  “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t dream of killing you.”

+++++“You were that kid’s girl,” Screw said in a moment of recognition.  “The last twenty years haven’t been kind to you.”

+++++“Rot in hell,” Scary said, but Screw pulled the trigger first, shooting Scary in the gut, knocking her back against a shelf, and toppling dozens of hash filled containers onto the floor.

*

+++++“I have something for you,” Eddie said, handing Cary the aluminum tab he’d torn from a Coke can.  “A talisman loaded with juju that will protect you from assholes.”

+++++“Why Mister Edward Jordan Green.  I’ll keep it always,” Carry said in a phony southern accent, and squeezed his hand as they entered the Vet’s hall.

+++++Carry and Eddie bounced around the dance floor, bumping people in the mosh pit as their friends’ band sped through three chord riffs.  Near the end of the set, the musicians brought Eddie onto the stage, and started chanting, ‘Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,’ until everybody in the packed hall repeated the words.  Eddie dove off the stage as the band tore into the Eddie Spaghetti song.  After the show, Eddie kissed Carry on the sidewalk.  Car brakes squealed, and punkers scattered as a gang of skinheads hopped out of the back of a pickup truck.

+++++Eddie never saw his assailant swinging the baseball bat at the back of his cranium, but Carry did.  She saw the hate in the man’s eyes, and the swastika tattoo on his cheek.  Eddie went down, and his skull bounced on the concrete like a basketball.  His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he bit his tongue.  No matter how much heroin or meth Scary put into her veins in the coming years, she couldn’t lose the image of Eddie convulsing on the ground.

*

+++++Screw placed the Glock to Scary’s head, and pulled the trigger, but the chamber was empty.  Scary’s shot shattered Screw’s jaw, and he collapsed into a corner, hissing blood.  The hostages squirmed against the wall like sizzling sausage, frying in the fear of death.  Scary felt warmth leaking from her side as she approached the wounded skinhead.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” she said, and replaced the swastika on Screw’s cheek with a bullet hole.

+++++The high-pitched whine of sirens approached as the hostages fled the dispensary’s carnage.  Scary sat on the blood soaked floor, clutching the aluminum tab.  Soon there would be hell to pay, but Scary didn’t care.  She was protected.

Aftermath

“Where’s that woman? Damn her!”

+++++“What woman, daddy?”

+++++“Your mother, you fool.”

+++++“Sorry.”

+++++As they walked, cool wind pushed them towards the big yellow house. The farmer’s daughter tried to hold his hand – but he waved her away. He pointed down at the storm cellar door.

+++++“Get in! Shut it, like your mom showed ya. This’ll be on us fast!”

+++++She ran ahead. The Winnie-the-Poohs on her blue dress danced in the wind. Hugging a stuffed bunny, it’s grey head bounced around over her shoulder, ears flopping. One of its button eyes was missing.

+++++In front of the house, a massive magnolia showered white flowers across the gravel driveway, over his wife’s sky blue Bel Air. She was home.

+++++Rounding towards the front porch, he peered into windows for signs of her. Dimly, they only reflected the sky beyond. Black billowing clouds. A dark tide, rolling in.

+++++Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled the ground. He stomped his feet in response and patted the dust off his overalls before stepping onto the porch. It started to rain – sideways. Tiny bits of hail stung his face and skidded past his boots.

+++++He swung the screen door open. “Sheryl!”

+++++The house reeked sour. She hadn’t taken out the damn garbage. He clenched his jaw and headed upstairs, imagining her drugged out, still asleep.

+++++Heavy-handed wind slapped the house, swaying it some; crackling its wood shell.

+++++Cresting the stairs, he turned into their bedroom. She wasn’t there. The bed wasn’t made. It wasn’t like her. He knew that she’d be scared of him today, but she’d never hide. He vaguely remembered their fight from last night. He turned back to the stairs, scanning his thick, tan hands. No marks on the knuckles.

+++++On the landing, he detected a familiar sound from outside – still distant. Like a diesel freight train.

+++++“Dammit!”

+++++Wind slapped the house, harder this time. He hammer-fisted a family picture on the wall, shattering glass – then took the stairs two at a time.

+++++At the bottom, he pivoted into the dining room and ran past the table holding last night’s empty Cokes and bottles of Jack, which rattled under his steps.

+++++He burst into the kitchen. She wasn’t there. On a hunch, he rushed to the window above the sink. He saw her. Outside, on the patio. She was sitting on a white plastic chair, ducking wind.

+++++“What the Sam hell?”

+++++In the bright floodlight, he saw her bent over, hands clasped on the bottom of the chair, craning her neck to look up at the window. Her face was badly beaten. The other white chairs and table of the patio set were gone. Her hair was blown sideways, like a wind-struck black flag. The house had shielded her from the brunt of the wind. So far.

+++++He slapped the window with his stony hand, striking a lightning bolt across the glass. “Dammit woman!”

+++++She tilted her head, as if she could see him. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut. Her eyelid was blue and inflamed. Beat raw. There was a slit of glassy red where her eye should be. Her jaw looked wrong.

+++++I went too far.

+++++He stiffened, remembering something he had said. Late last night, he had shouted at her to stay there. After the beating. He had pushed her into that very chair, yelling nonsense. Screaming, spit flying, beating his own chest, he remembered pointing towards their daughter’s bedroom window. He remembered somehow threatening her, too. He didn’t know why.

+++++“Sheryl, you know me. You know!” He slapped the window again. “Never!” he screamed past a lump in his throat.

+++++He saw leaves and pieces of potato plants, purple and white flowers, swirl in the air far behind her. He saw what could be shingles and siding from the barn.

+++++He knew what the look on her ravaged face meant. It meant something well beyond hurt and sad. It meant she had lost faith – in him. It meant goodbye.

+++++The wind changed. The freight train was all around now, deafening. Her wet hair flipped up. She sat up: In defiance. Her top lip quivered. Eerily, her chair leaned back. It stayed on its hind legs for only a second before the wind took them both. She flew up and off, spinning into darkness. He was shocked by the speed. Plucked gone, hurled into swirling debris. It was like God Himself had reached down with an invisible hand and flicked her away.

+++++He felt himself crumble away on the inside while everything around him fell apart. The left side of his body was pelted by a thousand bullet-pieces-of-house. Weightlessly, he began to float with the icy rush. Roll with the dark wave. Numbly, he did, relaxing. He slammed into something big: Metal. He felt himself funneled up the cone. Then pushed towards the brighter side. He blinked bleary eyes and saw the magnolia tree below, bent over the Bel Air, stripped of its white flowers. Both of them were being picked up, twisted amidst a cloud of dust and gravel. With a sudden jerk, he was spit out of dark cold into bright sunlight.

+++++He fell from an incredible height. His arms hopelessly swam for stability, pinwheeling against warm air. Below, his potato fields had been ravaged by the wind – scraped raw.

+++++God throws me into my own dirt.

+++++Seconds before impact, he imagined his daughter in the storm cellar, talking to her bunny, thumbing at its missing eye – telling it that “Mommy can save us from the storm.” The storm that I am.

Stepford Meets Milltown

The vases graced the fireplace of their suburban ranch, a home with a knotty-but-nice-style kitchen—the latest and greatest according to McCalls, which was never wrong about anything. The year was 1959. To mark their 16th anniversary, Val had exhumed from storage two vases used in their wedding reception.

+++++“Are those the vases from your wedding? They look beautiful, darling. See you at 5:30!”  Michael Sr. called to his wife Val as he left for the office.

+++++Val preferred to remain uninformed about the precise nature of Michael Sr.’s work. In fact, she’d years ago become immune to his long hours as well as the periodic bloodstains on his shirts; there wasn’t a stain that could outwit her handiwork.

+++++My husband may be a dingleberry with me and the kids, but he will be a clean one.

+++++Val headed to the bathroom and stood before the mirror. A woman in a pencil skirt and saltwater pearls looked back.

+++++The things I’ve done to earn these pearls.

+++++She stared at her blue eyes. She wondered how life’s wellspring of shit hadn’t turned them brown.

+++++Touching up her pageboy hairstyle, she cringed as she remembered her husband’s words. Your wedding?

+++++Val downed two pills.

+++++Peckerhead.

+++++The doctor had prescribed something named after a place called Milltown. Barbara, her royal wench of a neighbor, said such pills were the answer to everything.

+++++The upcoming day promised to deliver its dose of drivel. Val had housework and an errand. The errand was a definite priority, for she had seen a commercial the night before on the Singer Magic Mite, the largest-selling hand cleaner in the world. The ad chirped that if purchased, the Mite’s unmatched convenience would ensure a daily savings of 20 minutes, making it much easier to vacuum the sofa, chairs, and stair carpet. Plus, the cigarette ashes from her husband’s Lucky Strike obsession had spilled all over the living room floor. The jingle from the Lucky Strike ad ran through her head, “What makes a Lucky taste better? It’s TOASTED to taste better.”

+++++I ought to toast that bastard myself. 

+++++There also was a fecal smell emanating from under Michael Junior’s bed.

I am sure the dog took a shit in in there and back-kicked it under the bed. Maybe along with a few dog turds I can even vacuum up my shit stain of a husband.

+++++Loose hair from her teenaged daughter’s obsession with always brushing it was freely floating everywhere.

+++++Christ, I cannot show up anywhere without lint-rolling my clothes to ensure I don’t look like a female Sasquatch.

+++++With those extra minutes saved through the Mite’s might per week, she may even have time to clean under the appliances.

+++++Or I might enjoy one or two Militinis…Who knew a Miltown could replace a martini’s olive so deliciously?

+++++Exiting the bathroom, Val heard a shriek, “Mom! These new hair rollers are totally square. I need to look like Marilyn Monroe, not Shirley Temple. MOM!”

+++++Where’s the vodka?

+++++Spinning around to come to her daughter’s rescue, Val saw a baseball of Junior’s careen into one of the wedding vases. An explosion of colored glass fractured the air.

+++++Holy hell. That’s the second thing he’s broken this week.

+++++Junior eyed his mother, an apology forming on his lips. “Good morning, Junior!” Val said as she picked up another baseball lying nearby. “Don’t worry; that was just a vase from my wedding.”

+++++Taking careful aim, imagining her husband’s face in place of the remaining vase on the mantle, Val threw with the accuracy of MLB pitcher Curt Simmons, a satisfying explosion of glass bringing a brilliant smile to her face.

+++++Self-absorbed whoreson of a husband.

+++++ “Maybe take practice—and the dog—outside for a bit, honey?” Val said, turning and winking at her son.

+++++Confused, but not one to pass up a break, a relieved Junior kissed his mother’s cheek and ran outside. A broken pair of vases was nothing compared to her daughter—or was that a French poodle—now storming toward her.

+++++Two shots of vodka? Forget the shot glass. I’ll just drink straight from the bottle—one less thing to clean.

+++++Twenty minutes later, Val, waving goodbye to her children, saw her neighbor Barbara standing outside.

+++++That woman would shake, rattle, and roll with anyone. Thank God brunettes never made Michael Sr.’s blood run hot.

+++++“The perfect family is not so perfect today?!” Barbara called out to Val.

+++++Iniquitous twat. That woman always knows how to needle me.  

+++++With a smile as false as the teeth in her father’s head, Val answered, “Oh, we are fine. Just a few minor incidents to color the morning. How are you? You poor dear.”

+++++Barbara’s husband Robert had simply disappeared three weeks ago. There were no leads. It was like he was vacuumed up into oblivion by the Magic Mite.

+++++The poor bastard might have preferred oblivion in the Magic Mite over his wife’s acerbic tongue. 

+++++Fingering the faux-pearled necklace resting on her own chest, Barbara answered, “No updates. Detective Anderson stopped by yesterday.” A tear slid down her cheek.

+++++Poor Barbie. She’s stuck with a life without a husband she hated. She must be heartbroken. She loved him like she loved dysentery. 

+++++“I am so sorry, Barbara. Can I do anything to help? I have a few of those magic pills you recommended.”

+++++“Thanks, dear, but I’ve taken out stock in Miltown. If you wouldn’t mind stopping by later this afternoon, though, I could use a friend.”

+++++You lying incorrigible strumpet; I am no friend of yours. You hate me as much as you want my saltwater pearls.

+++++With a reassuring squeeze of Barbara’s shoulders, Val agreed to stop by later, turned, and walked home. She had a lot to do.

+++++One domestic goddess to the rescue—simply add vodka, one Miltown, stir, and drink at your leisure! Guaranteed to remove all twats and peckerheads!

.  .  .

+++++After a flurry of cleaning and a short shopping spree, Val pulled back into her driveway several hours later. Grabbing the Magic Mite to show off, her heels clicking on the concrete, she ran over to Barbara’s.

+++++God, my life is exhausting. I have been the answer to almost every single person’s prayers today. Perhaps I should just put poor Barbie out of her misery. Death by vacuum. If this little hushpuppy could really vacuum up anything, maybe poor Barb would be better off.  

+++++Opening the door with a grand sweep before she even had time to knock, Barbara greeted Val, “I was afraid you wouldn’t make it! I knew you were pinched for time today, dear, so I cooked Chicken à la King for your family. Come in and have one of those Militinis you’ve been crowing about while the chicken finishes up!”

+++++Covetous tart! She made dinner for MY family?!

+++++ “Oh, aren’t you just delicious! Where there is a woman, there is a way!” Seated, Val sipped from her martini glass and changed the subject, bragging, “You won’t believe my luck! I just purchased the last Magic Mite from Wilson’s. I practically stole it right out of Patsy Butler’s hands. She always was slow to the show. Look at its compact form!”

+++++Downing her Militini, Val looked at the glass. The liquid left a grainy taste in her mouth.

+++++Trust Barbie to buy second-rate vodka. Uncultured cow.

+++++Fingering Val’s purchase, Barbara exclaimed, “The Magic Mite! You have everything! Just think of how much time this will save. You’ll have time to curl Betsy’s hair the right way. No more being late to Junior’s baseball games. For once you’ll be able to cook for that handsome husband of yours.”

+++++Blinking twice, Val looked at Barbara. Her heart was racing. Something was wrong with her. She tried to respond, but the words would not form. She scanned the room for an explanation, her eyes darting from the empty calendar on the wall to the kitchen sink and then on to the toaster.

+++++Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Was that bottle of Miltown next to the toaster as empty as it appeared? How much Miltown had she put into this drink?! 

+++++Val tried to stand up to get a closer look at the bottle. Her legs refused to cooperate and her trim ass in its pencil skirt remained glued to the kitchen chair. Awash in panic, she tried to move her arm to the table to push herself up. She sought out Barbara’s aid, hoping the woman had noticed her incapacitated state.

+++++A vicious giggle escaped Barbara’s lips as their eyes met, and Barbara taunted, “Oh, Val, aren’t you just delicious!? Where there’s a woman, there’s a way! You just consumed half the population of Milltown! You always were slow to the show, you poor dear!”

+++++With a rush of adrenaline, Val stumbled to the counter to verify the prescription bottle’s emptiness. Her grasp knocked it to the floor, the sound of the spinning bottle rattling on the linoleum. Val leaned into the counter, her mind calculating various flights but her body incapable of actuating them.

+++++Treacherous tramp.

+++++Unwinding the Magic Mite’s long cord, Barbara slipped behind Val in her impaired state. Caressing Val’s breasts with the cord’s plug, she wrapped the cord twice around Val’s neck. She pulled it tight, jerking Val’s neck back in ecstasy. Finished, she tied the cord off in a neat knot.

+++++Val attempted to claw at the cord, but the Miltown invading her veins left her powerless. She now knew that if the Militini didn’t finish her, the Mite would.

+++++Images of her husband and children flashed before her.

+++++Who would fix Betsy’s hair? Would Junior finally hit a homerun? Who would wash the blood from Michael Sr.’s shirts? At least I know who he’ll be fucking.

+++++Barbara struggled to open the lid on her new freezer. The freezer ad promised it would provide for better living—and it was delivering. The bitch was about to be iced.

+++++The last thing Val saw was Barbara’s husband’s face, now inches from her own, frozen in a perpetual snarl, his lips curling and his eyes bulging in vacant rage.

+++++The poor cuckold’s even uglier in death. No wonder she offed him. 

+++++Barbara slammed the freezer shut and paused, checking her watch. Dinner was ready, and she needed to pack it up. Michael Sr. never had been able to pass up all that she brought to the table.

.  .  .

+++++“Is it done?” Michael Sr. asked as he breezed in the door that evening, brushing a kiss across Barbara’s cheek.

+++++Noting her nod, he continued questioning, “Are those my wife’s pearls? They look beautiful on you, darling! Is that Chicken à la King I smell?”

NAÏVE

Tracy looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She was disgusted. She was a big girl. It had always been that way, ever since she could remember.

+++++The doorbell rang.

+++++Tony Possino was 17, only a year older than Tracy, but seemed much older. They had met at the Pekin mall outside the record store. Tony had just purchased an album and Tracy was sitting by herself on an island with palm trees, listening to the fountain and waiting for her mother to come back from the bathroom. Tony smiled at her. She liked his smile, mainly because it was directed at her. He was a big, Italian looking kid, with a slight mustache. He had big hands and a big nose. He wasn’t good looking but he had a charming appeal. He walked over to her and began talking, which seemed unbelievable to Tracy. He asked her out and before she could think, she said yes.

+++++Two months later he stood ringing her doorbell in the middle of the afternoon.

+++++“Hi,” Tracy said, opening the door and squinting into the autumn sun. Tracy lived in a rural area outside of Glasford, Illinois. From her yard, you couldn’t see another house.

+++++“Hi,” Tony said, stepping in. “Anybody else here?”

+++++“No, my mom’s at work and Mark is at school,” she said.  Mark was her brother, two years older than her, a senior at Glasford High, home of the Tigers.

+++++“Did Mark like that album I lent him?” he asked.

+++++“Yeah,” she said, “he loved it. He really loved it. He said he’d like to see what else you have.”

+++++“I could tell him about some bands.”

+++++“Just tell me,” she said, “and I’ll tell him. It’s nice having something to talk to him about. We never had much in common.”

+++++“Is he still dating that girl from Peoria?”

+++++“Holly. Oh yeah, they’re together all the time. He’s been skipping school and getting mom really upset.”

+++++“We’re skipping school right now,” he said, smiling and pulling her down onto the couch, where he had settled himself.

+++++“I know,” Tracy said. “And if mom finds out she’ll kill me.”

+++++“Nobody’s going to find out,” Tony said, “and if they do I’ll just have my uncle snuff ‘em out.”

+++++“Oh, right,” Tracy said, sarcastically. “I forgot, you have an uncle who’s in the Mafia.”

+++++“You still don’t believe me?” Tony said.

+++++“Well, come on,” Tracy said, “whoever heard of a Mafia in Pekin?”

+++++“They’re very low key,” he said, looking out the sliding glass doors of the living room. There was a big yard with a clothesline at the back. It sagged with laundry. There wasn’t much of a breeze. Every once in a while a shirt sleeve would move a little, like a slow wave by a ghost. Beyond the clothesline were the woods. All the trees were shedding their leaves. It was late September, getting chilly. The trees looked very hungry and naked and huddled together. And at the same time they seemed proud, and stark, and brave, bracing themselves for the winter.

+++++“Hey,” Tracy said, stroking his leg, “If you say your uncle’s in the Mafia, then I believe you.”

+++++“You do?” he said.

+++++She nodded.

+++++“I knew you were different from the minute I met you,” he said.

+++++“What do you mean, different?” she said, defensively.

+++++“I mean different in a good way,” he said, coming closer. “Different in a sexy way.”

+++++“Sexy?”

+++++He leaned forward and began kissing her. She let him, and kissed back, tentatively. Tony began putting his hands all over Tracy’s body. He began grabbed handfuls of fat through her sweater, kneaded it and squeezed it. Then he got under the sweater. He leaned into her and began kissing with more ferocity.

+++++Tracy made a noise of protest. Her hands were down at her sides and she was very stiff and unyielding.

+++++“Stop,” she said, trying to push him away.

+++++“Why,” he muffled, kissing her fat neck.

+++++“Because,” she said, “I can’t, I’ve never…”

+++++“Come on Tracy,” he urged. “We’ve been dating for two months now, I think I’ve waited long enough.”

+++++“Tony, I can’t, I can’t,” she said.

+++++“It’s ok,” he said. He reached into her sweater and ripped her bra. You could hear it snap.

+++++“No,” she said again, starting to cry.

+++++He grinned at her and put his hands to her throat.

+++++“Don’t fight me,” he said. “Be a good girl.” He tightened his grip and she closed her eyes and gasped. He turned her over and pulled her pants down. He pushed her face into the cushions of the couch. Tracy heard the sound of his zipper. His full weight was on her, and he was a big kid, very much bigger than her.

+++++“It’s ok,” he whispered in her ear, pushing her head violently into the couch and pinning her hands behind her back with one hand. She screamed as loud as she could but there was no one around for miles.

*

+++++A rock song was coming from the tape in the boom box, which was thrown on the back seat of Mark’s Dodge Airies K-car. Mark was driving and singing the words to the song. The sun was shining, a beautiful autumn day. His girlfriend Holly sat in the passenger seat smoking a cigarette and laughing at him. When the song was over she reached back and turned the volume down.

+++++“Where’d you get that tape?” Holly asked. “It’s great.”

+++++“My sister’s boyfriend,” Mark said.

+++++“Tracy has a boyfriend?” she said.

+++++“Can you believe it?” he said.

+++++“What’s he like?” she asked. “Some kind of psycho or something?”

+++++“Oh, no,” he said, “he’s a nice guy. The only weird thing is he claims his uncle is in the Mafia.”

+++++“What Mafia?”

+++++“The Pekin Mafia,” he said, laughing.

+++++“Don’t laugh,” she said. “My grandpa used to talk about a Pekin Mafia.”

+++++“Well,” Mark said, “he’s got this Italian name so maybe it’s true. Who the hell cares? I figure the Mafia won’t bother me if I don’t bother it.”

+++++Holly leaned over closer and with a devilish grin put her mouth to his ear. “Speaking of being bothered…” she whispered.

+++++The little K-car groaned with fury down the country road.

+++++Holly had, only seventeen months earlier, indoctrinated Mark into the world ofsex. Now they were in love, or at least they thought they were in love. They said the words. Holly loved to say them. I love you, I love you… It took a while for Mark to say it the first time but after that it was easy.

Holly was always very loud and vocal during sex, especially when they skipped school and went to Mark’s house, because he lived so far out in the country and there was no one around to hear anything, but this afternoon she was particularly demonstrative and encouraging. At one point she was literally screaming. Finally, an hour and half later, they lay back onto Mark’s bed, exhausted.

+++++“My god,” Holly said, wiping her eyes. “I’m crying.” She giggled a little.

+++++Three feet away, on the other side of the wall, Tracy lay curled on her bed, her eyes shut tight and her hands pressed hard to her ears.

*

+++++Clara came home from work at 6 o’clock. She walked in with a grocery sack and put it on the counter. She noticed the refrigerator door was cracked open and she frowned. She closed it and looked around. The place seemed very quiet.“Tracy?” She called. “Mark?” She walked across to the stairs and looked down and then began to walk down. She walked over to Tracy’s door and listened. She thought she heard something move. She knocked.“Tracy?” she said.“You in there?”

+++++“Go away,” Tracy said.

+++++“What? Why?” Clara said, getting alarmed. “What’s wrong?” She tried the door and opened it. Tracy was sitting on her bed. Her eyes were red. She was looking off into space. She was in her bathrobe. “Are you sick, honey?” Clara said, rushing over and sitting down next to her. She reached up to feel Tracy’s forehead for fever. Tracy slapped it away. “What happened?” Clara said, “Come on, you can tell me.”

+++++“It’s nothing,” Tracy said, “It’s just…”

+++++“What, honey?” Clara put her arm slowly around Tracy and pulled her to her. “Something happen at school?”

+++++“I didn’t go to school.”

+++++“Are you sick?”

+++++“Yes,” Tracy said, “I didn’t feel good so I stayed home. I’m sorry, I should have called you.”

+++++“That’s ok,” Clara said, “Is there anything else? Something happen with Tony?”

+++++Tracy shot her a look. “No,” she blurted, “No, that’s not it, it’s just, well, Mark skipped school again today.”

+++++“That little shit,” Clara said, “I warned him, I’m going to send him to his god damned father’s if he doesn’t shape up.” She stopped and looked at Tracy. “How did you know he skipped? Did he come here?”

+++++Tracy nodded and looked down at the bed.
“Did he come here with her?”

+++++Tracy nodded again.

+++++“What did they do?” Clara asked. “As if I have to ask.”

+++++“Oh, mom,” she said, “Don’t be too hard on him, it was all her fault, she was just so loud, it was like he was hurting her, and she wanted him to hurt her.”

+++++“Oh, honey,” Clara said, “And while you were sick and trying to sleep. That little slut, I’m going to call her mother this time. I’m really going to. This can’t go on like this.”

+++++“Just drop it, mom, it’s ok, really.” She tried to smile and Clara smiled back.

+++++“Oh, poor thing,” Clara said, pulling Tracy’s head to her shoulder. They sat there for a minute.

+++++“Is that the way it is, mom?” Tracy asked her.

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“Is that what love is?”

+++++“Some people think so,” she said.

+++++“Do you?”

+++++“God no,” Clara said.

+++++“I thought it was supposed to be nice,” Tracy said.

+++++Tracy was trembling and it was suddenly clear to Clara how frayed her nerves really were. The two looked at each other in shock. Clara pulled her closer and hugged her again. “Oh, honey,” Clara said. “Me too.”

*

+++++Clara pounded on Mark’s bedroom door, which was locked. Mark opened the door. Deep, heavy, dark music played in the background.  One dim light shone from the desk in the corner. There was cigarette smoke in the air.

+++++“Turn that fucking music off,” Clara said, walking in and flipping on a light switch. “I thought I told you not to smoke in here.” She stood for a second looking at him while he blinked his eyes to adjust them to the sudden overhead light. “How dare you bring that little whore of yours to my house, how dare you ” Clara said.

+++++“What? How did you…”

+++++“Tracy was home today,” Clara said, pointing to the wall that separates the bedrooms. “She was right in there the whole time you were doing your little dirty deeds.” She talked like there was some horrible taste in her mouth.

+++++Mark sat down on the bed. “Oh,” he said.  “Sorry.”

+++++“Sorry?” his mother said, “I lived with a man just like you for twenty years and I’m not going to do it again. I’m through, I tell you, I’m through with it ”

+++++“Everything is always dad’s fault, isn’t it mom?”

+++++“You just keep that little slut out of my house ”

+++++“She’s not a slut,” he said, standing up again. “And there’s nothing wrong with sex, it’s perfectly natural.”

+++++“If you keep skipping school you’re not going to graduate and then you’re not going to go to college and then what?”

+++++“I’ll graduate,” he said.

+++++“And don’t get her pregnant, by god don’t get her pregnant, whatever you do.”

+++++“We love each other,” he said.

+++++“You don’t love her,” she said. “You only think you do.”

+++++“What’s the fucking difference?” he said, lighting a cigarette.

+++++“What’s the difference?” Clara said. “There’s a difference.”

+++++“We love each other. Not everybody is as hateful as you are, mom,” he said, with a finality that sapped the strength, temporarily, out of Clara.

+++++She waved angrily at the smoke in the air. “You don’t know anything about life, yet, mister,” she said, slightly out of breath. “It doesn’t get any easier, from here on out it gets a lot harder.”

+++++They looked at each other.

+++++“I’m going to have to call your father,” she said. “I can see I’m not getting through to you.”

+++++“What’s to get through?” he said. “You’ve made your point, just leave me alone.”

+++++“Fine, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. You turn eighteen next month, and on that day I want you out of here, out of my house. I’m calling your father right now.”

+++++“Fine,” he said. “I’ll fucking leave right now.” He darted to the phone and picked it up and dialed a number.

+++++“What are you doing?” Clara said, softening and becoming alarmed.

+++++Someone answered on the other end of the phone. “Troy?” Mark said. “You still need a roommate? Good. I’ll be there in an hour.” He hung up.

+++++Clara’s mouth hung open. “Well,” she said, “You don’t have to go off in the middle of the night…”

+++++“No, that’s it,” he said, going to the closet for a bag. “I’m leaving.”

+++++“I’ll call your father, he’ll have the cops on you so fast it’ll make your…”

+++++“I’m turning eighteen in a month, you just said it yourself.”

+++++Clara looked at him and she wanted to cry. “Can you leave me alone please? I have to call Holly and tell her,” he said.

+++++Clara backed out of the room and saw the door shut in her face.  Then she walked slowly up the stairs.

+++++A few minutes later Tracy walked from her bedroom to Mark’s bedroom door and stood ready to knock. Her raised hand was shaking. In her other hand she held a music tape that Tony had made for Mark. She had promised to give it to him. She stood at the door listening to Mark’s voice talking into the telephone.

+++++“She’s so incredibly naïve,” Mark said. “She’s terrified of the world and she’s probably going to be that way forever. That fat little bitch, I wish I could just get it through her fat head that it’s ok to live a little bit and break a fucking rule once in awhile.”

+++++Tracy lowered her hand and turned away.

+++++“I know, I know,” Mark said into the phone, throwing some clothes into a bag. “Nobody understands us.”

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