Category Archives: Scott Dingley

The Turnpike

The way it starts, the fragment of memory that forms the shadow of my rebirth, is hurt. I keep coming back to that; call it ground zero. A searing sort of pain, not the fleeting kind, the kind that puts unexpected tears in a grown man’s eyes and makes him smile quickly, embarrassed. Nor the kind that gets his blood up and sends a shock to his heart that he—that I—actually get a kick out of.
+++++No—just a monotonous pain some quarter-million years old; an angry sneer twisting the crimson face that mocks me in the rear-view mirror of my concussed brain. When I hear the slurred words elbow their way through the hurt I see a dim movie show flickering in the shadows of my shaken skull. I’m watching an old Driver’s Ed film I sat through one time in High School, stomach dancing with squeamishness and hee-haw adolescent nerves again: a tragic Midwesterner in a buzz cut and plaid shirt, late 1950s, flip-flopping gently in the front seat of a crushed Edsel; jaw crushed in too, agonal respiration, nervous system on auto. Signal 30. The narrator, a State Highway Patrolman in mirror-lens aviators (I like to think), speaks with authority, each word coming with less echo distortion. Comforting in the absence of anything not slick with blood or oil:
+++++‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’

***

I’m reborn and the pain is all but gone. I’m dressed in a hospital gown and when my fingers reach up to explore the band of tightness around my head they find an eye patch over my right eye and, beneath it, the rough, inflamed tracks of scarring all down my cheek. If I pushed my finger against the soft fabric of the patch, the whole thing would sink inwards into the empty socket. I can’t get used to it. I think only how I must resemble the commandant in an old POW escape movie, and then my remaining eye darts back to the little glass sphere resting on the bedside table, watching me right back—a lonely glass eye with a sad, blue iris. I click my Zippo lighter open and shut in my other hand because the brassy coldness and the solid clicking are reassuring. The Highway Patrolman, who is actually a Doctor (I know he’s a doctor because there’s this stethoscope hanging over the collar of his white coat, see), says ‘You know you can’t smoke in here, Josh?’ and I snap back at him…
+++++‘The sound … Something about it helps me remember.’
+++++I remember. I have my own two eyes, thank God, at the wheel of my lust red soft top roadster on the Campo Road stretch of State Route 94. Lucy is alongside me, wrestling with a road map, wearing red teashade granny glasses and, behind her, luggage is crammed in with my Spanish guitar. My arm is rested on the door frame soaking up the sun and the radio hums gently. Blissful. My blue eyes (which Lucy adores) flick up to the rear-view mirror to study the road behind intensely, and it shimmers there in the glass, wide and sleepy. Lucy grows bored of the unwieldy map and its confusing circuitry of interwoven roads, and she holds it outside the car where the real road zooms past and lets the whole thing disappear, whisked back behind us to take flight then tumble along the empty asphalt. ‘To Hell with it,’ she says with a cute/crazy giggle and instead puts her bare feet up onto the dash and lets the wind catch strands of her hair. We both break into laughter and the speedometer slowly creeps up as if in measure of my contentment. The Doctor speaks again and I’m back in the hospital, half-blind. Not contented.
+++++‘Wake up Josh … You’re alive.’
+++++‘Lucy?’ I ask faintly, as I reach up and feel the rough gauze of the bandages which cover half of my face. A nurse dressed in white, a fleshy out-of-focus blob as she peers at me, steps to my side and gently eases my arm back down, whispering reassuring hush words, and all I can do is groan the word ‘Hurts,’ as the stale air escapes my lungs. I hear the Doctor say, ‘Give him another shot,’ as if he’s underwater. I settle.
+++++You’re alive?

***

The medical light box flickers on and reveals the blue-grey horror of my x-rays: skull, ribcage, leg bone. The Doc sits opposite me and I can tell my incessant clicking on the Zippo lighter bugs him more than ever. He hands me a photograph, black & white, and I struggle to judge the distance with one eye, missing my reach by inches. Adjusting, I seize the photograph and see that it—and the others like it on the little coffee table below—are of the scene of the road accident.
+++++‘They’ve withheld the more graphic ones,’ he says, and it’s almost as if he’s trying to make me snap.
+++++‘Can I see my fiancée?’
+++++‘That won’t be possible.’
+++++‘I don’t remember the … impact. Just … whiteness … a blank—like I short-circuited.’
+++++‘They moved what was left of the car from the pound to a junkyard. Sporty little thing,’ the Doc tells me. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Josh, try to remember that.’
+++++‘I want to see her body,’ I say.
+++++‘No you don’t, Josh.’
+++++I look at the images of twisted metal and black stains on blacktop and I break down, bowing my head and blubbing like a tired kid.

***

I prefer to sit up, awake, do stuff. I get nightmares at night. When I lie in bed I stare up at the ceiling and I hear screeching brakes and tyres, shattering glass, twisting metal; the kind of sounds that cut me up.
+++++I’m pleased when the Doc comes around, closer to getting out. My good eye is fixed to the TV mounted on the wall on which a Coup de Ville has just swerved, speeded up, through a barrier and off a San Fernando hillside. It rolls and explodes, disintegrating. I’m sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and the Doc, oblivious to the clumsy entertainment in the background, is cutting and peeling off my bandages with the kind of scissors that jut up at the ends so he doesn’t stab me in my already tattered face, which I guess is kind of thoughtful of him. ‘Apart from your eye, the physical injuries were minimal. Bruising mostly. The medication kept you under…’
+++++Not content, I ask, ‘Did you really have to take my eye, doc?’
+++++‘The accident did it for us,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll adapt to using just one, adjusting your sense of perspective.’
+++++‘When can I speak to the police?’ I ask him.
+++++I can see the Doc frowning. He ignores me. ‘Any flashbacks yet? Nightmares? Weird déjà vu feelings?’
+++++I think back a little before I say, ‘I sold up and hit the open road with my future wife. We were driving cross country. There was an accident, now she’s dead. I’m just filling in gaps.’
+++++‘Give it time,’ he reassures me.
+++++‘I had a lifetime ahead of me… with her.’
+++++He removes the last of the bandaging and lets it drop to the floor, a tad too disgusted for my liking. He examines my face close-up—what I can only imagine to be the black, empty socket of my squished-by-blunt-trauma right eye.
+++++‘We can give you an artificial eye, the glass kind. Match it right up to your real colouring.
+++++Until then, you might like to wear this…’
+++++I take the black eye patch he’s offered me but I don’t thank him.
+++++I put on my dressing gown and the eye patch too, then I head out to the payphone and call the police. A bandaged, wheelchair-bound patient rolls past me, others ambling zombie-like along the corridor. I quickly get agitated as I try to make a case: ‘Just put me through to a detective. I was involved in a road accident… My wife … my fiancée … was killed three or four weeks ago. I’ve been out cold in a hospital bed. The wiring of my brain is out of whack.’
+++++I plead with them but I get nowhere. Forget it. After I slam the receiver down I take out the bottle of pills the Doc gave me and swallow a few dry.
+++++When I sleep I dream of the road and the sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes water. Lucy is bored and looking through a cheap souvenir slide viewer—the kind shaped like a TV set and which houses miniature picture postcard slides, faded and already thirty years old. The clicking bugs me. She stops and notices a chip in the windscreen caused by a stone kicked up from the road. She touches the fine, blood-vessel crack in the glass.
+++++When I wake the Doc asks me, ‘Ready to try the new eye?’
+++++I stall, nervous and more than a touch queasy at the thought. ‘What if it rolls around backwards and I don’t notice?’
+++++‘Then you’ll scare little kids in the street and you won’t win any beauty pageants.’
+++++Wise ass. ‘I think I’ll need a cigarette first.’
+++++‘Twenty-a-day man, are you Josh?’ he asks me and, strangely, I can’t quite recall. I search for even the most fleeting of memory, but they don’t seem to be there. Not when I’m awake at least.
+++++‘I have nightmares … about Lucy,’ I tell him. ‘In the crash, her head is taken clean off.  Is that true, doc?’
+++++He tilts his own head, firmly attached to his neck, and shrugs giving me a grim feeling that makes me glad I don’t remember more.
+++++I do remember one thing, at least. ‘There was another car that night, tried to overtake but ran us off the road. It wasn’t my fault, Doc.’
+++++‘There was no other vehicle, Josh. This is natural—you’re shifting feelings of guilt to a figment of your imagination, a phantom. Face the reality and heal.’
+++++I shake my head. ‘No.’
+++++‘The police report concluded that the hazardous glare of the low-angle sun had made you swerve off the road. Others have perished there too—it’s known as the Devil’s Elbow, damn dead man’s curve. The police won’t take it further.’
+++++‘But they must…’
+++++‘I mean they won’t charge you, Josh.’
+++++I stare him down as best I can, outrage in my single wide eye. The Doc hands me a small cutting from a newspaper, which I take and read, holding it closer to my face to compensate for the lack of vision. The newspaper print headline reads, “BLINDED BY THE SUN: ROAD TRIP COUPLE IN WRECK, ONE DEAD”
+++++‘Face the reality,’ he whispers.
+++++I read their choice of words again bitterly: Blinded. I gather my thoughts, try to be practical. ‘When’s the funeral, Doc?’
+++++‘You were unconscious.’
+++++‘Why wasn’t it me?’ I wonder out loud.
+++++‘It was her time.’

***

It’s not at all bad, the phony eye. Maybe a chilly stillness to it if you stared too long; a certain deadness, but … Hell, what do you expect.
+++++The reflection of my face stares back at me with two eyes and I tilt my head back and forth, up and down, to test the glass one. I’m on the road to recovery, maybe off-road. Enough to get out of bed though, to pull my own trousers on and zip my jacket over a green hospital scrub top. Too cocky, I remove the eye and look at it in the palm of my hand as if it’s a weird sea urchin I’ve caught in a rock pool. I blink first. I glance momentarily up at the reflection again and when I see the empty blackness of my socket it disturbs the crap out of me and damned if I don’t drop the puppy dog eye on the floor. It rolls across the room and I have to chase it, thankful it’s harder to break than the original.
+++++On the bed, I lay out the things they salvaged from the wreck. Holiday photographs, some burned around the edges. There’s a small old suitcase made of leather with stickers on it, the trendy kind, and Lucy’s John Lennon glasses, their lenses shattered. I cradle the broken glasses in my hand gently and take care not to drop them like I did my stupid eyeball.
+++++I checked myself out of the hospital and I’m heading south, thumbing a ride by the side of the road, flinching every time a truck roars past.
+++++The suitcase feels heavy and impractical and I hope someone picks me up soon. When a guy stops I eyeball him apprehensively, then climb in and sit quietly, staring out of the passenger window and daydreaming while the guy watches the road, equally silent. He takes me only part of the way and the rest I walk. I get lost a few times, take a few wrong turns, but eventually I find the place. It’s a pretty little rural cemetery with rows of graves, patches of colour from floral tributes here and there. I walk slowly through the maze, plot serial numbers counting up as I search for one particular grave—Lucy’s. 145… 146… 147… I stop at 148. Lucy.
+++++Beats me what I do now, I hadn’t planned that. I stare at it for a long moment, a simple wooden marker over a mound of fresh earth. I don’t have any words or thoughts so I light up a cigarette with the brass Zippo, cough violently, then open the suitcase and take out the holiday photographs. Leafing through the snapshots I see Lucy carefree, relaxed, young and beautiful; happy images of her in the sun, clowning around and posing with the guitar. One photograph of Lucy is burned, the emulsion melted and blistered. What a price she paid.
+++++When I look back to the grave I have some words. ‘I didn’t kill you.’
+++++I leave the photograph propped on the grave and hitch-hike away from there; another vehicle, another reticent journey. I almost climb out as I lean through the side window, hair blowing in the breeze, face directed up at the vast pale blue sky. Spots of rain begin to patter on the bodywork of the car and that’s the only reason I don’t jump.
+++++By the time I get to the junkyard the rain is lashing down, wet and warm, hitting the junked vehicles stacked six high in sharp white sheets. It splashes off twisted spare parts, cubed cars, bald tyres and flows down a wall covered with hubcaps. Along a miry aisle I pass twisted metal frames in rust brown and charred black. I see the wrecked sports car on my left, sandwiched between two other write-offs. I see the crushed bodywork, scorch marks and flaked red paintwork, jagged broken headlights, and spider web patterns on the windscreen.
+++++I stare at the wreckage for a long time before stepping in closer to examine the damage. Without thought, my hand runs along the once-smooth fender and I peer in through the letter-boxed driver’s window. I see blood on the windscreen, a single blonde hair glued to it despite the best efforts of the rain.

***

I wave off the driver of my third ride and I’m left alone, the road off the turnpike winding along behind and ahead of me. A flat patch of red and grey fur lies at my feet, old roadkill. The sun is setting and the sky is a candyfloss mix of yellow, orange, pink and deep black, making the toll booths on the horizon appear like blocky teeth in a lower jaw. Beside me, flowers have been left under a rusting road sign and they’ve since died themselves and turned brown. The sign above reads: ‘LAST YEAR: 59 ACCIDENTS, 12 DEATHS.’
+++++The surface of the crooked road carries thick black tyre skid marks cutting across from the middle of the lane and the yellow thermoplastic stripes, off the side of the road and continuing as double tracks of churned-up scrub and earth. I look over my shoulder nervously before following the tracks to the edge of a steep verge and, looking down, I see exactly where we came to rest. I struggle down to the foot of the bank and then look around me.
+++++This is where she died: ground zero, near the turnpike, off the Devil’s Elbow.
+++++I slip the cigarette lighter from my pocket and begin clicking the lid, anxiously. Happy, I suppose, that the Doc isn’t here to bitch about it at least. Wandering around the scrubland below the road, searching the grass with my foot, I see a small patch of red hidden in the grass. Hesitant at first, I crouch and pick it up and see that it is Lucy’s little red TV-shaped slide viewer.
+++++The light is fading and the rain has passed. I stumble farther from the main road, between tall trees, swing the suitcase and throw it into the undergrowth, thinking Screw it. I fall to my knees, get back up and walk a little more, steadying myself against a tree trunk which feels cold and damp. I have to hold my head in pain before taking out the pills the Doc gave me and swallowing several, spilling the rest to the forest floor. The fleshless lips on the impish crimson face peel back into a wicked smile, mocking my torture.
+++++‘That maniac took everything from me; I’ve paid with my future…’ I mumble in despair.
+++++I dream of hypnotic sunlight on the windscreen. Lucy speaks to me, ‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
+++++When I look up at the rear-view mirror, the road behind me is empty, except for a bouncing blur which resembles a jelly fish under water, trailing tendrils of blonde and pink hair: a severed head tumbling across the hot road, splashing scarlet.

***

I wake up half dead as well as half blind, on the forest floor with my back against a tree. My glass eye has been open the whole time, keeping watch. Aching and groggy, I get to my feet. Minutes later I’m hitch-hiking again, not fancying my chances with my clothes and hair in such disarray, but a truck pulls up for me nevertheless. The driver leans across in his cab to look me up and down, then flips down the sun visor on his glasses, saying helpfully, ‘You look like you got hit by a car, buddy.’
+++++We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and I remember that we stopped there before. Lucy got out to stretch her legs and buy a soda from the vending machine, while I pumped the gas. She popped the cap with the machine’s bottle opener, drained it and spun the bottle in the gravel, watching it make four or five revolutions amid a little dust cloud. When the bottle had slowed to a halt and the dust had settled, she saw that the neck was pointing back where we’d come from. A disappointed look appeared on her face and she headed back to me.
+++++The truck pulls into the gas station and we open its two doors simultaneously like elephant ears flapping at troublesome flies. I climb down from one side, the trucker from the other, and just as Lucy had done, I stretch my stiff legs, kicking around at the ground as I wander over to the vending machine. When I look into the glass front I catch a brief, imaginary reflection of her face there, before I turn back to the truck, where the trucker is checking his rig.
+++++Idly I watch a man fill the petrol tank of his car. I forget that my bladder is half-full too. I crouch down beside the front bumper and stroke my fingertips over chips of red paint scraped there after some prang. The owner at the pump looks at me, frowning, until I back away. I find Lucy’s glass bottle, still there in the dirt, pointing just where Lucy had left it. Back.
+++++A kid on a skateboard is in front of me, staring bleary-eyed. I stare right back, then lift my hand to my right eye, fumble with it for a second and hold out the fake to show the boy. He yelps and flees back to his family’s station wagon, terrorised.
+++++‘Keep your eye on the road!’ I call out after him, and when he’s gone I drop the nettled goofball act, stupid and angry, putting the glass eye back, and looking down at the bottle again…
+++++The trucker mounts up and I hear the engine cough to life. Back on the road, I silently take out Lucy’s miniature slide viewer, hold it up to the light and look through it, clicking the lever. My lips twitch into a faint, bitter smile and I lower the viewer and clench it in my fist as I did her glasses.
+++++I remember looking over at her and smiling and I am wearing those round spectacles myself which give everything a vivid red tint. Lucy is bathed in lust red. She holds the viewer up for me to see before returning it to her own eye: a beautiful Mexican sunset over the ocean and a white sand beach. I smile some more. She lights up a cigarette with her brass Zippo lighter before she reaches across and takes the rose-tinted sunglasses from my eyes and puts them on herself. The dying, orange sun shines right into the windscreen, all dazzling bright white and flare.
+++++The trucker holds a packet of cigarettes towards me, offering me one, and I think about it, even taking out the brass lighter. Eventually, I tell him, ‘I don’t smoke. She did.’
+++++He shrugs, thinking maybe I am crazy after all.
+++++In my hand, brought out from my pocket with the lighter, is the Doc’s newspaper cutting. As I read it, I think of his police photographs of mechanised death:
+++++‘Blinded by the Sun: Road Trip Couple in Wreck, One Dead … A police spokesman reported that the tourists’ vehicle left the road, ploughed down a steep bank and settled upside down, where the engine caught fire. The driver, who suffered facial injuries and has been hospitalised, crawled free of the wreckage, while the passenger—thought to be his fiancée—was killed instantly. Police refused to comment on suggestions that she had been found decapitated at the scene.’
+++++I remember oil and blood dripping in the heat haze; Lucy’s blood-matted hair against a metal backdrop. I am a ghoul in a Driver’s Ed film as I lie face down in the scrub, lifting my head slowly as it glistens with blood, my right eye gone. Its oozing, egg-like fluid gazes uselessly into the grass nearby and its unharmed twin sees Lucy’s souvenir slide viewer. My head drops back down and I am unconscious.
+++++I hold the newspaper cutting out of a narrow opening in the passenger window. The paper flutters wildly in the wind, before I release it. The cutting vanishes immediately. The sun is low; the day’s time has come.
+++++The turnpike has taken its toll.

A Thirsty Hombre

Look at him and you’d think of a stone carving in the museum at Mexico City, an Aztec god or something; a throat full of rock dust and clay. Maybe not the faded jeans and the beat-up cowboy boots, but the squat body and the dogged will—solid, undying—and that stare, determined and fixed straight ahead, that’d all be right. Since he was a kid in the streets of Colonia Centro, among the pickpockets, fruit vendors and stray dogs, they’ve called him El Güero on account of his bloodless complexion and reddish hair. El G: hard as petrified bone, but with violence flowing hot through his wire-veins like the blood that’s become his stock and trade. Even the cold clack of his Cuban heels on the polished terminal floor speaks of dead-set ruthlessness, counting down to a coming frenzy…
++++ “What is the purpose of your visit,” they’d asked over the top of the fake US passport.
+++++He thought of blood but he said, “Business.”
+++++Blood is his business.
+++++Thoughts of it occupied his mind at thirty-thousand feet, muscles trembling from the memory of violent acts. He learned it all, the important things like that, not from his father (though his father could have taught him a thing or two probably) but from a capo they called El Verdugo—The Executioner. They’ve all got their names, like comic book villains. What else could a man with a handle like that teach a punk street kid but the act of ruthless, creative murder? He’ll release all that brutal knowledge to run riot, these next few days, as he hunts the killers of the man who could have taught him but instead grew old far away, filed Category A; who died free in a different kind of prison…
+++++ It starts. He doesn’t need the cold blast of unwelcoming British weather that hits his face to remedy the jet lag, though the journey from Benito Juárez Airport was long. He is a statue made animate, colder than the north.
+++++ He is what they call a sicario by trade … a narco executioner. Plain English, he’s a cartel hitman. So, blood and fear are his business, and in Mexico at least it’s a lucrative business to be in right now. But he has a purpose that brings him far from home and, while even more the outsider here, he’s every inch the predator. Already he senses the death throes and the blood that will surely come, as if from many miles away, as a shark would. He breathes it in and enjoys the hollow hunger. Swooping forward through the streets, carried in a black taxi cab, his rage is controlled and simmering patiently.
+++++ His origins are a mystery to most, certainly those who supply him with work, with throats to sever, faces to peel back, fingers to snip, or skulls to crush. Creative stuff, again. He is almost mythical. None would assume, even from the freckled skin and emerald green eyes, that his father was an English fugitive. It’s strange even to him. His mother, Cristina, an Acapulco girl in cat eye sunglasses, looms larger in his past. He has her surname. She too is dead and it’s a fact that he knows more dead people than living. He has memories of his father, the rich Gringo… the Cockney… short-sleeved shirts, horn-rimmed spectacles, shiny shoes; a gangster transplanted from these South London streets, on the lam for robbery and murder, his time running out the day his money did. They wrote about him in the big newspapers, his obituary giving his bastard son more information than anything he’d ever learned in the past. He only knows he resents his father as he would any snitch or a thief (he was both), but that he must also avenge him.
+++++The cab stops for him and departs, leaving him alone under the railway arches and among the wheelie bins and rats, smoking the last of his Boots con filtro cigarettes, a cowboy boot on the empty packet he crushes and discards. He collects the keys to his father’s flat on Elephant Road, behind the chain-link din of the busy train station, from the shipping freight office his father’s old drinking partner runs. He is a small man is Mick, as grey and moody as the skies under which his life has been scattered and he looks and smells like he has not stopped drinking, accompanied or solo.
+++++ “I’m sorry for your loss,” he slurs and, as far as El G can tell, he shows genuine emotion. Not that El G would know. The old man tells him the funeral is in three days, but El G has not travelled five and a half thousand miles to attend a funeral, even that of his own flesh and blood.
+++++ Flesh.
+++++ Blood.
+++++ Senses it—
+++++He asks after the goods he requested on the phone from Mexico City and the old man says, “Tonight, the Dog & Fox around the corner there, anytime from seven onwards.”
+++++ He tells him to ask for someone whose name El G instantly forgets. How many Mexicans dressed like crummy rodeo riders walk into the Dog & Fox on an average evening anyway?
+++++ Can a thirsty hombre even get good tequila round here?
+++++“You have your father’s eyes,” Mick says, and El G blinks, mute and unfeeling.
+++++ He takes a concrete footbridge over New Kent Road and into the neo-brutalist grey boxes of a vast but near-derelict council housing estate. It seems he is invisible to people as he glides past them. The flat is empty, not just of life but of furniture and belongings, only a small pile of junk mail and local newspapers spreads across the threshold. He wonders if they wrote about his father’s murder in those pages. He looks out at the city through dirty net curtains then sleeps on the bare mattress in the small bedroom, not because he’s finally exhausted, only to bring the night closer. A distant car alarm is his lullaby.
+++++ His dreams are based only on what he knows of his father, from those obituaries: Frank Bright, professional crook, robbed an armoured car at Heathrow and fled to Spain. Captured, Frank serves two years in prison before he escapes; takes on a new name, even a new face thanks to plastic surgery.
+++++ Belgium, Canada, Mexico…
+++++Frank hooks up with a mistress, impregnates her … has a son.
+++++ And sons follow their fathers.
+++++When darkness falls over the estate, he’ll visit the pub and the old man’s contact will fix him up with the type of large black sports bag prisoners are given upon release. It will contain the items El G requested, most of them recently knocked off: a cheap digital camcorder with a two-inch LCD screen, a 9mm Browning Hi-Power with a full clip, a compact petrol chainsaw, and a roll of thick duct tape. Everything he needs to wage a one-man Mexican drug war.
+++++He’ll kill them all if he has to, every last one of the gang known as the Original Klick Bang Boyz, but he only needs two heads: what he calls the capo and his favourite foot soldier. The drug lord is named Cromarty, and the young man who pushed the blade into El G’s father’s guts is named Hatch, or B-Shank. The B stands for Busy. The young man is about the same age El G was when he started to kill, barely out of his teens. These days in Mexico, he marvels, they start much younger—boy assassins. That information was in the letter Mick had sent him—sent his dead mother more precisely; the letter which triggered this. To be certain of it all, he had read it over again in the flat before he left, beside the window in the dim orange light.
+++++ Pretty much anyone on this estate will know where to find the men he’s looking for. He settles on a group huddled together, half in the yellow disc of a streetlight’s beam, half in the shadows, kicking at the ground with hoods covering their faces; some are on bicycles, one has a bull terrier on a leash, pure steroid-enhanced muscle. Their predictable heckles and threats begin and El G flashes the 9mm, making them scatter. The big black bag thumps to the ground. The lookout with the weapon—the dog—stands firm and lets the animal tug at the chain on its collar and flash back its slaver-covered fangs. It barks in a rhythm that is only broken when El G puts a single round into its prosternum, destroying it. The lookout stands still, smirk gone, with the dead dog on the end of the taut leash. El G will move up the chain of command, just as the dog’s chain leads up to the low-level criminal’s clammy and trembling hand. The speechless lookout will tell him where to find Hatch, and in turn Hatch will lead him to Cromarty.
+++++ Cut off the snake’s head to kill the body, all that stuff.
+++++The gunshot didn’t get anyone’s attention, but the scattering lookouts will raise the alarm right away, the ones that don’t go home to hide. The estate will go into siege lock-down. Right enough, Hatch has heard about the cowboy by the time El G gets to him. He pulls a knife on El G, not the one he used on the old man, but similar. It’s an uneven match, by about nine millimetres.
+++++ El G roughhouses the foot soldier back down the stairwell and into the lock-up and when the door crashes down he brings the pistol grip of the 9mm down too, hard on his collar. The black shiny duct tape secures his wrists and ankles to the chair and the young man’s dazed fury on waking turns to sobs, great heaving ‘what the fuck?’ howls into the lens of the camcorder with a flood of tears, sweat and mucus. The red recording light blinks at him from the shadows. Eventually a defeated silence washes over Hatch punctuated by just a few little whimpers. It’s always the same, El G thinks, they give up the ghost or they take it like a man. Either way they’re scared/shocked pretty much silent. He strips off his black leather jacket and plaid shirt and he can see Hatch’s blurred eyes dart fearfully across the gang artwork the muscular torso is adorned with: a snake in the beak of an eagle, a Mesoamerican pyramid, a large letter ‘M’. The black ink comes alive and seems to swirl around his body like smoke. El G postures with the 9mm, teasing the information out of his prisoner. ‘Where do I find Cromarty?’ and ‘Why did he have you kill the old man?’
+++++ He talks only when the chainsaw comes out of the bag—El G’s own steroid-pumped terrier—and its spluttering growl drowns out the handler’s questions.
+++++Cromarty drives a big black motor with rims and under-car neon. You can’t miss it. El G leaves the camera on its roof where he knows no one will dare steal it, and goes back to Mick’s to wait for the message to be delivered. Every killing is a message—in this context, a narcomensaje of sorts. The old man is drunk and stares at him admiringly with half-closed, glassy eyes. Every man and woman El G has ever killed watches him that way too.
+++++ “The old days are gone,” says Mick, and he’s right. His father’s killers didn’t know his rep, didn’t know who he was or didn’t care.
+++++ He waits, in the company of the dead, and he imagines Cromarty watching the video and thinks of something Hatch might have said before his head was removed:
+++++ “You get me?”

* * *

On the top level of the tower block the O.K.B. Boyz scurry, arming themselves with machine pistols and converted replicas, bats, cleavers, whatever they can get. They wait for the cowboy and his showdown. He works his way through the gang, turning the estate into a battlefield; eating up their fire like fuel, his eyes glowing molten lava.
+++++Only Cromarty remains, in a furniture-free room just like the old man’s. El G doesn’t need to say anything (“What is the purpose of your visit?”), Cromarty knows who he is. For his part, Cromarty doesn’t bother to explain that the old man’s murder was just a mugging gone bad, or that Hatch, with all his chat of respeck, never knew its meaning. He’s too blazed in any case. The man whose face looks to be carved from pitted stone in the street-light is Death, Cromarty knows it through his trance-like high.
+++++Klick.
+++++Bang.
+++++Business concluded, a flight to catch. El G would grasp there ought to be a part where he puts a wreath on his father’s grave, all that shit, but he won’t. Cromarty will be alone when the police find him. Their sirens wail louder and louder until electric patches of bright blue dapple the concrete outside and turn the fresh blood on the wall into large shifting crystals of amethyst.
+++++The blood part is important.
+++++Sons follow their fathers.

A Hard-To-Shake Melody

Picture the lopsided figure-eight of the English side-by-side shotgun muzzle aimed at the crown of the bowed head, the police-issue handcuffs biting into the guy’s wrists behind his arched back. Listen to the warbled sound of the country double-act begging for five minutes more from the record turntable a few feet from him. Now see the taut and slowly winding length of cord rigged to the hub of the old record player, and how it in turn is fixed to the finely curved trigger of the clamped-down shotgun. That’s Buddy Fitch and his predicament.
+++++Fitch: Average Joe, working stiff, kind of old-fashioned at heart—a ladies’ man, never broke any serious laws; only thing he ever did was fall for the wrong woman. Broke somebody’s law and that somebody turned out to be lawyer Benny Markaris.
+++++Markaris is somebody, alright… If you’ve been around Florida in the last twenty years or if you move in certain kinds of circles, you know the name Benny Markaris. Back when New Orleans capo Ludovico Goldoni got pinched for extortion, it was Benny represented him. Benny never killed anybody, sure, not directly—he’s no triggerman. Benny’s just an attorney in the pocket of the mob, but that makes him somebody for sure.
+++++Some men kill in a roundabout way is all. Bad luck for Fitch is Benny’s also a grade-A nut, a control freak who likes to square his accounts; flamboyant, possessive, jealous, vengeful Benny. The kind of ego that figures, ‘If I can’t have you, no one will.’
+++++Mandolin strings drift into his dream.
+++++We’re already done with the pre-chorus. Fitch is aware of the tightness of the gag in his mouth. His head lolls about as he drifts into consciousness, a waking kind of nightmare accompanied by a familiar melody loaded with baggage. Twin barrels stare him in the face. He shifts in the chair to which he is bound and gets nowhere fast as the crackly post-war bluegrass hits the second verse. He knows that chorus—it’s catchy, what they used to call a real earworm. It’s Mrs Markaris’s favourite, that’s what it is; Bunny, the bored young trophy wife. It’s their song, only before it was their song it was Benny’s and Bunny’s song; it was playing on a jukebox in the dive where she first caught his eye, it was the first damned dance at their garish and loveless wedding, no less. The cord pulls the trigger backwards, straining like a miniature tow rope, just as Fitch’s bound hands strain behind his back, dirt under his fingernails, muscles built from manual work—the way Bunny truly likes it. His burning eyes focus and they pick out a shadowy figure at the back of the wood panelled den, watching…
+++++That’s Benny Markaris.
+++++Fitch watches back as the figure in a polyester suit and fur collared coat inhales the sweet scent of the red roses Fitch cut specially for her and catches the glistening white flash of a toothy grin and a fat diamond wedding ring on a fat finger. The smile and the jewels slip back into darkness and Fitch is alone in the room with just the dizzy, sick feeling of dread and the memories conjured by a hard-to-shake melody. Three minutes from death. Even love helped along by a sentimental pop song doesn’t last forever.
+++++He wonders what it means for her, this game, as he begs for a few minutes more with her, but not out loud. Maybe they’ll end up together, dumped in chopped up pieces in the swamps for the ‘gators; or cemented beneath a back lot, or in cans of dog food. You old romantic, you…
+++++His senses regained, Fitch struggles in vain to get loose. No dice, the chair legs are crudely bolted to the floor. Things don’t always work out like in the fairytales. He wonders too if this is all just a nightmare, and then despite himself he wishes he’d never hooked up with that hot-blooded little Louisville temptress, Mrs Bunny Markaris. Fitch rests, as if to listen to the lyrics, in between his mad bursts of wrestling with the chair. The needle edges closer and closer to the centre of the vinyl, the trigger gives the tiniest fraction. He makes a muffled cry of desperation through the gag in his mouth and feels his own hot breath blow back at him.
+++++Last chorus of the song, one final desperate jolt disturbs the turntable and the needle gets stuck in a groove, playing the same lyric over and over with maddening, nerve-shredding repetition… “letmestayletmestayletmestayletmestay…” Fitch freezes. Sweat beads roll down his forehead stinging the pistol whip wound that cold cocked him—a precarious stay of execution. He continues to pull at the cuffs with new-found determination, splintering the wood frame of the chair, freeing his wrists, but… jolting the needle again to continue the song’s crescendo, Buddy Fitch’s grand outro:

“…in your embrace…”

The string winds one last turn and love—life—has run its course. After the briefest, longest moment of the needle spinning mutely but for a soft static click, Buddy Fitch and his predicament are through. The hopeful, giddy roses run red with harsh reality, a spattered dew of gore.
+++++Buddy Fitch lost his head to another man’s woman and Benny never pulled the trigger—a lawyer might call it suicide in more ways than one. Anyhow, that song that gets into your head so, it belongs to them again…
+++++Benny Markaris and his irresistible young trophy wife, Bunny.