Victoria’s Even Bigger Secret

Sometimes my cleavage gets in the way. I know I know. Sing me a sob story, but it’s true. I can’t always tell if my fly is undone, or if there’s toilet paper stuck to my shoe, and it takes a wish and a prayer to find a suitable seat on the train where you’re not rubbing against someone in an inappropriate manner. My boyfriend said, “The aftershocks rattled his brain” when we made love, and then I’d pass out cold, and he’d light an incense stick and let it burn between them cause he said the room smelled like flap sweat. I have hot ash scars on my chest to prove it. One of these days, I’m going to stick firecrackers in his ass-cheeks and light him up while he’s sleeping in the cheap motel room he always takes me to. No one will notice with all the gunshots ricocheting off the cars in the parking lot. He’s not really mean, my boyfriend, once you get to know him. He has a hearsay history of violence: spring rage chaos and polka dot blotter extremes. He’s a backdoor gangsta now, all cat claws and camp, dealing a marked deck to the strip-club counselors, waiting out their fortunes in the mirrored velvet. He said he was built to bounce heads on concrete. I believed him, even if no one else did.
+++++Once a month, he’d go through the motions: “Convict,” his parole officer would call him, to which “hard knocks,” he’d reply, and then, later, he’d curse my double Ds for knocking over his beer. If I had a ladder, I might climb it and hang myself by the nipples from the electrical wires adjacent to my fourth floor patio, hoping they and all the flabby skin attached to them would just rip right off. He said my tits were to blame for the fights and the bruises. Said I was just a tramp with a park side view and a short commute when all he had was a brick wall and an alley. All I know about views is that the paint’s chipping on the ceiling, and the palm trees behind the couch are fake, like those boxed potatoes he loves so much that would crust up in his beard for a week. It made his face rough, but he’d just yell over my chest and tell me to “shut up, hang on, and ride it out.”
+++++In the evenings, after he was through with me, I’d take a bath, but could never reach my legs to shave them, so I’d lie there, watching my breasts flap and swish around in the steamy water and wonder how much it would hurt if I just sliced them off.

Cold Beer

Last night Marlene walked into the cantina.  Of course it wasn’t her, couldn’t of been, but looked a lot like her: blonde ponytail, crooked half smile.
+++++Hard for Jack, seeing her at Pedro’s.  A dive on the beach, sitting on stilts, thatched roof, colored bead curtains, a shorted-out neon sign that only managed the P and o’.
+++++Jack sat in a wobbly chair near the front door; hollow cheeked, veined complexion, slack blue eyes, hit-and-run blonde beard.  He and Enrique had been crowding the table with beer bottles and butts.  What they did most nights, if they weren’t out fishing.
+++++When Jack arrived in Cabo, he planned to stay no more than a month.  He hung on and eventually cobbled together a shack  at the edge of the barrio with rusted sheet metal, some tarred planks from the pier and plastic sheeting.  Enrique showed him where to find the stuff and helped lug it up the hill.  The shack kept the rain out. Good.  And the heat in.  Bad. That was two years ago.  He could go back if he wanted.  Hard to get started though.  He got up at noon.  Down to the cantina for a drink and a bite, another drink.  Well, certainly couldn’t leave at three.  Heat.  But then you didn’t want to start after six, especially since the next town was a couple of hundred miles away and only desert in between.
+++++Her image never changed.  Marlene.  It was because of her son they’d met, a bright towhead, short and wiry.  Jack taught fifth grade at Highland Elementary in Visalia.  Thomas didn’t mix much with the other kids, picked on a lot.  He watched over the boy in the school yard.  Didn’t stop every tussle, just the ones where Thomas faced off with more than one kid.  Got to learn how to get tough, but you don’t need to be maimed in the process.
+++++Thomas lived with his mother, but hadn’t met her; no father around.  She didn’t have time for the parent-teacher conferences: classes during the day, work at night.  They’d handled it on the phone.  Few formalities; only: How’s Thomas doing?  What does he need to do to bring up his English grades?  Okay, I’ll see it gets done.
+++++Last day of school Thomas brought in a note from his mother.  She wanted to show appreciation for taking care of her son.  Didn’t want to do it sooner, while her son was his student, but now.  Could he come over for dinner Sunday?  There’d be the three of them.
+++++He put on slacks and a sports coat and drove out to a housing development just north of town.  Sort of raw feel to it, sawn ends of lumber everywhere, newly set concrete and roof nails still shiny.  Lawns coming in.
+++++Thomas and his mother were at the door waiting for him.  He’d met her before, at the Spice 1 Club, the kittenish one called Nikki.  He’d gone there for a bachelor party for one of his ski buddies.  This evening she wore a buttoned-up print blouse, tan chino skirt, ballet slippers, blonde hair pulled back and a shy smile.
+++++“Pleased to meet you Ms Brown.  I’ve enjoyed having Thomas as a student.”
+++++“Call me Marlene.  He says without you he’d probably be three inches shorter.”
+++++“Reckon everybody needs a bit of taking care of some time in their life.”
+++++They went through the house which had been furnished by the same people Jack used, Ikea, but his was raw and jangly, too-bright reds and blues; hers was matched browns and comfortable.  In the back, a small patio, a postage stamp lawn and beds of multi color pansies closed in by a pine pole fence.  Heat waves rising from the grill.  Jack tossed a Frisbee with Thomas while she cooked.  Steaks, baked potatoes and salad, strawberries and ice cream for desert.
+++++She kept the conversation on him.  Where he’d grown up: Santa Rosa, where he went to college: University of Nevada, Reno, how he ended up in Visalia: best job offer he’d gotten.  He’d majored in math in college.  Teaching paid off his student loans until he figured out something else.
+++++“I like the people here, low key, friendly,” he said.  “And there’s Bear Mountain and Tahoe for skiing.”
+++++“Skiing!  I love to ski,” Thomas cut in.
+++++“You’ve been once,” his mother reminded him, “and fell down ten times.”
+++++“Yeah, but I still like it.  Maybe next year I can get lessons.”
+++++Jack thought about offering to take him.  He liked the kid, Marlene was easy to be with and he wished he’d had some chances as a kid.  He was four when his folks broke up, resented the hell out of both of them for leaving him, raised by an aunt, in and out of trouble.  Timing didn’t seem right to say anything to Thomas.
+++++He asked Marlene about herself but all he got was that she’d moved from the L.A. area a couple of years ago.  Visalia was a good place for kids and gave her the chance to study nursing at College of the Sequoias.
+++++Thomas started yawning and his mother sent him off to bed.  She wrapped him in her arms and embarrassed him with a big sloppy kiss.  When he came over to Jack, he didn’t know what to do and they ended up in a hug that was more angles than curves.
+++++Next day he went for a hike in nearby Sequoia Park.  Morning was foggy, no one around.  He passed through the oak stands, trudging uphill along Ladybug Trail, mist hanging in the upper branches, Spanish moss grazing his face, Marlene’s lips on his cheek as they’d said good-by.
+++++He got lost in his thoughts and what he knew about her.  Until a week later.  Ran into her at the hardware store.  In cut-offs, dirty sneakers and grease smudges on her face.
+++++“Damn sink backed up and the landlord is out of town.”
+++++“Can I help?”
+++++Back at her place Jack crawled under the sink to check the drain.
+++++“Hey, move over.  I want to see what you’re doing.  You might not be around the next time something goes.”
+++++A whiff of perfume invaded the small space as she wedged herself in beside him.  He showed her the coupling nuts to loosen, then scooted out.
+++++Two minutes later.  “Okay, new one’s on; come back in for a check.”
+++++Jack squeezed in beside her, closer maybe than necessary, “Hey fellow, you’re in my space.”
+++++He made the pretext of a thorough inspection, tightening up the nuts, testing the pipe.
+++++They squirmed back out, stood up, looked at one another.  He reached for her, but she turned, went to the refrigerator, pulled out a couple of beers and led him out to the patio.
+++++“Thomas is going to be sorry he missed you.  He’s off with the scout troop camping in the Sierras.”
+++++They sat sipping their beer listening to the whirr of lawnmowers and the buzz of hedge clippers from the neighbors’ yards.
+++++“Nice being here.”
+++++Jack stared at the fence, thinking about her. His last relationship had ended a year ago; it took all of two months to go from inferno to ash.
+++++“Good to have the company.”
+++++Marlene lay back on the chaise, legs stretched out, eyes closed, but he noticed every now and again she glanced over and her face wrinkled up.
+++++“Hey, what’s the matter?”
+++++“Nothing.”  She turned away.
+++++“You usually frown while you’re drinking beer?”
+++++She faced him, tears on her cheeks.
+++++“I’d hoped to tell you before you found out.”
+++++“Tell me what?”
+++++“You were in the front row in a yellow Hawaiian shirt about a year ago.”
+++++Jack tried to appear clueless.  Her eyes wouldn’t let him.
+++++“Yeah, I saw you dance.”
+++++“That’s not the kind of person I am.”  She straightened up in the chair.  “But the money lets us live here.  Thomas thinks I work night shift at the hospital.”
+++++He moved over and put his arm around her.
+++++She’d been sixteen.  Classic tale of the cheerleader and captain of the football team who split with his scholarship to Ohio State when she was three months pregnant.
+++++“The easiest thing would have been an abortion.  But I could feel him growing inside me. When his heart beat the first time I knew he was mine, mine to take care of.”
+++++“I wasn’t assuming anything, okay?  The person I know is a good mom with some dirt on her face.”
+++++Her parents threw her out of the house.  Stayed with a friend who’d just had a baby.  Waitresses, lookers, good tips, surviving.  Then her friend found a topless place in Orange, Marlene followed, real money.
+++++“My friend got into drugs, Thomas was about to go into kindergarten, so I moved up here to raise him.”
+++++Jack’s miracle started that afternoon.  That’s how he thought about time with Marlene.  A rough start though.  A couple of weeks after they fixed the sink, a party at one of his buddies’ houses.  People spread all over the small ranch house and into the yard, beer floating in ice tubs, ribs in the Weber, guacamole dip and taco chips on every table.  End of the night, one of the guys who’d been at the Spice 1 Club with Jack recognized Marlene.  Beer-fueled Pete shouted out, “Folks, this here is Nikki, star of the Spice 1 up in Fresno.  Lady knows how to get a party going. Why don’t you do that dance for us and show us those fine titties of yours.”
+++++Marlene blushed and turned away.  Pete’s date clapped her hand over his mouth, only to have it ripped away.
+++++“Shut up Pete,” Jack said.
+++++“Why?  I want some action.”
+++++Jack stepped into his face and cold cocked him.  Pete’s head bounced off the floor.
+++++Jack pulled Marlene outside.  “Sorry, that won’t happen again.  Not as long as you’re with me.”
+++++“Honey, thank you for defending my honor, but this isn’t going to work, you and me, if you beat up on every guy who makes a smart remark.  I can handle it.  Promise.”
+++++Jack sputtered.
+++++“Take me home; I bet Pete calls in the morning.”
+++++They married at the end of August and he moved into her place.  She quit the Club and went to school full time.  Two years later, a degree and ER nurse at Tulare.  Jack decided fifth grade was the sweet spot in education.  “The kids do what you tell them and want to learn something besides.”  Went on to get a masters in curriculum and instruction at UofP.
+++++Ski trips, hiking and horseback riding punctuated the next seven years; the three of them.  The only fights were about Thomas: He needs to be studying moreGive the kid a break, it’s Lakers/Celtics tonight.
+++++The night Thomas graduated from high school, honors and a scholarship to Claremont,  they picked him up from his graduation party and drove down to Vegas for their own celebration.  Next night Jack won big.  They packed up and headed north.  Talked about what they’d do with the cash: forty-five thou.  Jack and Thomas ran through a list of boats, ski gear and electronics they would buy.  Marlene let them spin.
+++++“Enough of that you guys.  What about a trip to Africa, climb Kilimanjaro.  You claim the Sierras are too tame.  Nineteen thousand feet satisfy you?
+++++“For starters.”
+++++“After Kilimanjaro we’ll chase gazelle across the Serengeti on horseback.”
+++++Jack leaned over and kissed her left cheek.  Thomas popped up from the back seat and kissed her right one.
+++++Highway 99, ten miles south of Visalia, Marlene and Thomas dozed; Jack hummed Over the Rainbow and chewed gum to stay awake.  A broadening glow of light lined the crest of the mountains to the east.  The road was in the dark.  Other side of the road, coming toward him, he saw a truck swerve.  Shards of divider-concrete crashed against his windshield, the wide eyes and toothless gasp of the driver, the chrome grille, the flood lights inside the car and Marlene’s scream.
+++++Jack sputtered awake, toppled on his chair and rubbed his eyes.  Enrique was there next to him.  “You still want this beer?”
+++++Jesus.  From such happiness, deep bone, deep gut happiness to nothing.  God, please let me forget, goddamnit let me forget.  Bring on the OxyContin, bring on every beer Enrique can find.  I can’t go back.  I had a miracle.  I’ve wrung Visalia dry. 

The Gun By His Bed

Richard awoke in darkness. He panicked as one does in the middle of the night. Who was he? Where was he?
+++++He pieced together the facts of his existence. First off, he was in bed. That he was sure of. Janet and his son were at her parents’ house for the weekend.
+++++He breathed again. All this was good.
+++++A sound – downstairs or outside.
+++++This was unusual. They lived on a cul-de-sac quieter than a cemetery. But no cause for fear. Probably just a raccoon digging through the trash or a car door slamming.
+++++Still…
+++++More sounds, quieter sounds. Could be any number of things. Maybe mice scratching the walls. Or his overactive imagination.
+++++Still…
+++++Maybe he left the door unlocked. He wanted to remember the satisfying moment when the deadbolt thunked into place and sealed his world off from the one outside. But that moment eluded him.
+++++He wouldn’t have thought twice about it if they had just installed the home alarm system he wanted. But Janet had to interrogate every expense.
+++++Richard removed the warm comforter. Picked up his glasses off the nightstand and opened a drawer. The gun felt cold and strange in his hands. He put on a pair of slippers. Crept across the hardwood floor and down the carpeted hallway. Stopped at the top of the stairs. Listened.
+++++Yes! There it was. The noises of another human. A nocturnal creature moving objects around in the dark. He exhaled for a long time. Filled his lungs with air.
+++++He moved down the stairs slower than anything he had done before, breath trapped in his lungs. He made no sound at all. Just needed to make it to the light switch at the bottom.
+++++Slivers of moonlight illuminated the family room. A shadow bounced back and forth. Maybe the thief was looking for jewelry or credit cards.
+++++Richard couldn’t help but think how proud Janet would be of him. Of course, she would be furious when she found out he bought a gun without her knowledge. But if he stopped a burglar, how could she argue with –
+++++Light filled the room. Richard’s eyes adjusted and he realized the burglar had turned on a lamp.
+++++He didn’t look at all like he was supposed to. This burglar would be as comfortable hopping on the train to Midtown as robbing a house.
+++++“Thought I heard you coming down the stairs,” the intruder said. “Nice pajamas.”
+++++Richard suddenly remembered to lift the gun. “Hold it right there!”
+++++“Now why’d you have to bring that thing?”
+++++“Shut up!”
+++++“Or what?”
+++++Richard’s stupid glasses had slid down his nose. He pushed them back up. “Or – or I’ll shoot!”
+++++The burglar leaned against the back of the sofa. “You want to get blood all over this nice couch and these lovely hardwood floors?” He picked up a framed photo of the family in front of the Grand Canyon. “I don’t think she’d be too happy about that.”
+++++“Well then, I’ll call the police.”
+++++“With what? Do you even know where your phone is?”
+++++“It’s…”
+++++“No, you’re not going to do that either. Here’s what’s going to happen. What’s your name?”
+++++“What?”
+++++“What’s your name?”
+++++“I’m not telling you that!”
+++++“Just your first name. Why does it matter?”
+++++He sighed. “It’s Richard.”
+++++“Ok, Richard. I’m going to approach you, take the gun, and unload it. Then I’m going to give it back to you. All right?”
+++++Richard tried to control his shaking his hands. “No, no! Not all right. Listen –”
+++++The burglar slid over and extracted the gun from Richard’s grip. Racked the slide and a bullet popped out. The magazine clattered to the floor. He handed the weapon back to Richard as he said he would.
+++++“There we go. Much better.” He put a hand on Richard’s shoulder and gestured to a rolling chair in front of a desk. “Now, you take a seat right over here. Would you like some ice water? Maybe a cup of tea to calm your nerves?”
+++++Richard noticed his underarms were damp. His blood pressure kept ticking up. Still, he couldn’t admit anymore weakness than he already had. “No, no.”
+++++“You’re ok then?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++The burglar crouched and looked him in the eye. “Good. Now I’m trying to avoid some very dangerous people. I need a car. I see that your keys are on this desk, so I’m going to take yours. You have two options. You can call the police right after I leave, and maybe they’ll track me down. If they do, I’ll make sure to trash your car. But if you wait to call the police until noon tomorrow, I’ll leave it at a rest stop, good as new with a full tank of gas. The police will probably find it soon thereafter. So, what’s your choice?”
+++++Richard didn’t want to make this decision. He stared at a moisture stain in the ceiling. Wondered where that came from and how he could solve it.
+++++“Either way, I’m taking it.” He grabbed the keys off the table and smiled. “I hope you make the smart decision.”
+++++The burglar left. Richard took off his glasses, put his head in his hands. He went to the kitchen, picked up the cordless phone.
+++++He listened to the dial tone for a while. Eventually he pressed the off button and made himself a cup of tea. Added cream and sugar and watched cable news for a half hour before going back to bed.
+++++He could still get five hours of sleep before he had to go to work. But how was he going to get there without his car?

Making a point

They crept noiselessly across the tarmac as they approached the van from its nearside blind spot. The father led the way issuing pre arranged hand signals to his son. They’d rehearsed the line they would have to take to remain unseen until both knew exactly where to tread.
+++++Cigarette smoke drifted from an open window until a slight breeze dispersed the cancerous effluent. Conversation about yesterdays match escaped the confines of the van as the two men inside championed their respective favourites.
+++++‘Fuck off, will ya. He was offside.’
+++++‘Then why didn’t the linesman flag him?’
+++++‘It’s always the same with your lot. They get all the breaks. Wouldn’t have been given if we’d been playing anyone else. But Man-Fucking-Ure always get the big decisions, especially at Old Trafford.’
+++++‘We got the three points though.’
+++++The two men were close friends who argued about football with good humour despite their divided loyalties. It was the only way they could keep their sanity when cooped up for hours at a time.
+++++‘Did you hear something then?’
+++++‘No. What was it?’
+++++‘Probably nothing. I think I’ll check it out though.’
+++++‘What’s to check out? It’s broad daylight and we’re not exactly hidden. Sit down and don’t open the door, it’s cold enough with the bloody window open.’
+++++Outside, the father had reached the back of the van and was frantically signalling his son to hurry up.
+++++When the teen reached the security of the back of the van he quietly laid down the canvas bag he was carrying and quietly unzipped it.
+++++The father reached into the bag and removed two plastic five litre petrol cans. One he screwed the filler nozzle onto while he simply unscrewed the top on the other. Petrol fumes filled the air.
+++++Working quickly, the son removed the remaining petrol can and after unscrewing the top, laid it on it’s side underneath the van.
+++++The father used his fingers to count to three and when he reached three the son laid a trail of petrol away from the van using the nozzled can. As the son was doing this the father whipped open the vans back door and launched the open petrol can inside taking just enough time to make sure the two men were splashed with the flammable liquid.
+++++Slamming the door shut he raced across to his son and grabbed the proffered matchbox. A quick strike ignited a match which in turn lit the entire box.
+++++Dropping the flaming matchbox onto the sons petrol trail caused a river of flames to run to the van just as the back door opened.
+++++As the first man stumbled out swearing the flames reached the van and ignited the petrol cans underneath the van causing a fireball to erupt which in turn detonated the one inside via the still open rear door.

Both of the men who were in the van suffered horrific burns and died before reaching hospital.

At a press conference held later that day, the Chief Constable vowed to apprehend the person or persons responsible for setting alight the Police Camera Van, and causing the deaths of two good, honest family men with every means available to him.

Too Bad (A Smitty Story)

 

 

She was a beautiful woman.
+++++Stunningly beautiful.
In the crosshairs of the 10-40×50 rifle scope her jet black hair waved like some erotic siren in the morning breeze.  She stood, facing two men, in a black dress that revealed long, sculptured legs.  And white heels.  The heels lifted her and sculptured the legs even more.
+++++Red lips.
+++++Lips, even from this distance and through the scope, glistened with a kind of sensual invitation. Around a shockingly narrow waist she wore a white leather belt.  White on black—with just a touch of bright red—completed the picture.  In the scope she looked like fantasy.  Something unattainable.  A vision any man would lust for.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Lifting a hand up he adjusted the scope to compensate for the slight cross wind blowing from his right to left.  A little over 900 yards.  So far away the bullet would arrive before the crack of the gunshot.  Removing his hand from the scope he gently clasped the plastic grip of the .408 caliber sniper’s rifle and settled himself in comfortably.  Gently, like a lover caressing his latest conquest, the right index finger extended and barely touched the wide trigger.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Too bad someone had to die today.  Too bad she got herself involved with the wrong people.  Too bad there was no other way to bring this dirty little mess to any other conclusion.  Too bad.
+++++Through the scope he watched her.  Saw her laughing at someone’s joke.  Saw the casual, relaxed way she moved among the two men.  Saw the heavy briefcase she gripped casually in her right hand.
+++++Too bad.
+++++He had to compensate for the slow roll of the large fishing boat he was using as a shooting platform 900 yards out in the bay.  But the waves gently rocking the expensive craft were constant and could be anticipated.  This far out on the blue waters of the bay he was far removed from the normal boaters coming into or exiting the cove where the wharf she stood, jutted out into the water.
+++++Softly the tip of his index finger on the trigger began to apply a little pressure.  The ugly machine in his hands . . . custom designed and built by a friend . . . was accurate out to 1,300 yards.  Just the blue steel of a bull barrel, a finely machined firing bolt, a built-in shooting bipod, the plastic shoulder pad with its built-in shock absorbing system.  And the big scope.
+++++When the gun in his arms belched fire and thunder he hardly felt a thing.  Not waiting to see if his bullet hit the target he slipped off the top of the fishing boat’s cabin and stepped into the cabin and started the boat’s powerful Chrysler engines.  Slowly turning the wheel to one side he got the boat moving.  Not too fast to draw attention.  Not too slow.
+++++Behind him, far away, he thought he heard the wail of sirens.
+++++Too bad.   Just too bad . . .
+++++” . . . it has to be done, Smitty.  She has to be the leak.  She’s the only one who knows where all the skeletons are hidden.  No one else does.  Take her out and we seal the leak.  We seal the leak and we stay out of prison.  Simple as that.”
+++++Simple as that.

Standing at the desk, in an office large enough to be some abdicated dictator’s throne room, he stood holding the color 8×10 photo of a beautiful raven haired woman dressed in a very skimpy bikini at the prow of a very expensive yacht.  Hair blowing in the wind.  A hand up to a cheek in an effort to move a sliver of raven hair from his eyes.  Beautiful.  Long limbed.  Stunningly attractive legs.  A figure that would make a eunuch grown in regret.
+++++Dropping the picture onto the desk, eyes as black as the soul of the living dead looked up at the man sitting in the high backed leather chair on the other side.  He was holding a very expensive cigar to his lips.  Lips that were molded into an irritating little smirk.  Dressed in a three piece Egyptian cotton suit, he looked like a very successful corporate lawyer.  Which in fact the was.   The lawyer part.  But one who worked for a crime boss by the name of Jesus Galanti.
+++++“Galanti wants this done?”
+++++The man with the black eyes spoke in a soft whisper.  But a whisper that could send chills down a spine.   Or even make a criminal confess to the cops voluntarily the moment he heard the dark eyed man’s name was interested in him.
+++++“He wants the leak plugged, Smitty.  A grand jury is breathing down his neck and the Feds have two task forces assigned to try and bring him down.  Someone is leaking information to the Feds. Information only two or three people in the organization would know.  She’s Galanti’s accountant.  She’s got her finger in every money stream our employer is involved in.  It has to be her.”
+++++Howard Hensley was not a corporate lawyer.  He was a well known criminal lawyer who had a reputation of taking on the more photogenic, therefore the most newsworthy, cases.  Everyone knew he liked defending the really big mob bosses in cases that might involve a six o’clock news sound bite.
+++++“When?” Smitty asked quietly, looking down at the photo of the woman again.
+++++“As soon as you can,”  Hensley grinned, pushing himself forward and reaching for an envelope on his well manicured desk.  “Here’s some money for expenses.  But don’t take too long.  The grand jury convenes bright and early this coming Monday.  If she’s their star witness and she isn’t around to testify the Feds will have nothing on Galanti.  So it’s imperative she’s removed from the scene no later than Sunday night.”
+++++Smitty took the heavy envelope and slid it into an inside pocket of his dark gray sport coat.  Eyeing the lawyer for a moment he nodded then slipped the photo off the desk and pocketed it as well.
+++++“The problem will be resolved by Sunday night.  Tell Galanti he can sleep soundly tonight.”
+++++Hensley painted that irritating smirk on his gray lips and nodded before reaching for the fat Cuban cigar. For his part the dark eyed hit man said nothing but turned and walked out of the large office.  Taking the elevator down to the ground floor he slipped the photo of the woman out and gazed at her intently.
+++++Beautiful.
+++++Too bad.

Two hours later he was knocking on the door of a large condo.  Dressed in the coveralls of an electrician and gripping a large metal took box in one hand he waited for the woman’s maid to open it.  But when the door opened it wasn’t the Hispanic maid.  Eyes dropping down Smitty looked into the smiling face of a seven year old, raven haired little boy.
+++++“Hi!” the boy said, smiling wide, green eyes bright as he looked up at the dark eyed man.  “You’ve come to fix the lights?”
+++++“Madre de dios!  Robbie, Robbie!  You shouldn’t do that!  Open the door to strangers like that!” the short, squat woman of indeterminate age cackled like an angry hen as she hurried to the boy, stepped in front of him and bodily moved him to stand directly behind her.  “Pardon, senor.  But the boy has no fear of strangers whatsoever.  None!  He drives his mother to tears and gives me high blood pressure every time he does this!  But, how can I help you?”
+++++Smitty, with blue contact lenses hiding his eyes and a body suit on underneath the overalls to give the appearance of a man fifty pounds heavier and definitely out of shape, smiled and shrugged.
+++++“Got two boys of my own, lady.  They drive me crazy as well.  But I hope they never change.  The super called and said you were having trouble with the electricity?”
+++++“Trouble?” the maid said, her face melting into a simple puzzle. “The only trouble we’re having is the switch in the kitchen.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
+++++“That might be the problem,” the disguised man said, nodding firmly.  “The super said you were having a problem with something and asked me to stop by and check it out.  Doing this on my lunch hour, lady.  Helping a friend out.  Can I come in and check it out?”
+++++“Sure!” the boy chirped, head sticking from and grinning as he looked up at Smitty. “Can I watch you fix it?  Please?”
+++++“Well,” the maid hesitated, looking indecisive, but then shrugging and shaking her head in confusion.  “I should call the senorita first.  But if you can fix the kitchen light she will be very pleased.  So come in, come in!  Let us close the door before someone else comes!”
+++++Smitty, disguised, smiled and half turned to briefly glance at the condo’s security camera high on the wall of the hallway.  He wanted to make sure whoever was watching. . . if anyone was watching . . . got a clear look at his altered face and physique.
+++++If the Feds were tapping into the security cameras he wanted them to chase ghosts.  If someone else was watching . . .
+++++He didn’t know about the faulty kitchen light switch.  But he believed in serendipity.  Walking straight to the kitchen, the dark haired boy following on his heels, he sat the took box down on a kitchen counter top and opened it.
+++++Forty-five minutes.  That’s all it took.  Forty-five minutes to electronically sweep the apartment.  Forty-five minutes to discover the place was heavily bugged.  Electronic bugs in the kitchen, the living room, the master bedroom.  High tech wireless bugs the Feds favored.  Smiling, the boy at his side talking his head off and watching everything he did, Smitty didn’t touch the bugs.  But he did plant a couple of his own.  Sent the boy back to the kitchen to get him a glass of water each time he sat one.  One in the woman’s bedroom.  One in the little office just off her bedroom.
+++++He even found the problem with the kitchen light switch.  One of the wires was hanging by a strand or two of bare copper wire.  With the quick efficiency of a man who knew what he was doing he cut the damaged piece off, peeled the plastic covering off another section of the wiring, and rewired the switch.
+++++Both the boy and the maid cheered and clapped when he flipped the switch on and the light came on bright and clear.  Saying his goodbyes he walked to the door and left.  The boy with the green eyes and raven black hair following him out of the condo and all the way down the carpeted hall to the elevator.  Constantly talking.
+++++When the elevator doors closed and the boy said goodbye, Smitty stared at himself in the polished chrome steel of the elevator walls.  On the face he couldn’t recognize himself was a quiet, almost forlorn mask.  There had once been a time he had a wife.  Once, a long time ago, they talked about having kids.  But the wife was gone.  And there was no thought about kids.   Until now.
+++++Three blocks away from the woman’s condo he handed the uniform and electric repairman’s truck back to an acquaintance he knew and climbed into his black Caddy CTS-V.  Driving away, watching in the rear view mirror the real electrician staring down at the five brand new one hundred dollar bills in his right hand in surprise, he smiled and turned at a corner and disappeared from view.  Glancing at the Rolex on his wrist, he thought he’d make the next stop in time.  But he had to hurry.
+++++There too he found the office heavily bugged with the Feds wireless technology.  This time he momentarily forced the security cameras of Smith & Dane’s Accounting office to experience a momentary glitch.  Enough of a glitch for him to slip through a ground floor window and enter the woman’s private office unobserved.  It took just three minutes to find the bugs and to install his own.
+++++One other place he had to go before his surveillance routine was completed.  It took even less time than it took installing the bugs in the woman’s office.  Driving away from the wharf he reached to his right and inserted the ear plug into his left ear and then on the little black box setting in the passenger’s seat he selected a number on a small dial.
+++++And began listening.
+++++It didn’t take him long.  Thanks to the pleasant but lengthy conversation with the woman’s son he had an idea where to look.  All it took was forty eight hours.  And then he took the shot . . .
+++++. . . three hours after his target went down.
+++++Standing in front of the door of the woman’s condo with a large bouquet of red roses cradled in one arm.  The moment his finger removed from the doorbell she opened the door and looked straight into his eyes.
+++++Raven black hair.  Green olive colored eyes.  Now red rimmed from her two hours of grieving.
+++++“Yes?” she said, tissue in one hand and her voice shaky.
+++++“Mommy, who is it?”
+++++The boy’s voice.  Still bright and fearless.  Still so constantly curious.  A smile played across his thin lips.  To be that way again.  Constantly curious.  Bright.  Fearless.  Instead he was . . .. What?
+++++“Mrs. Dane, a friend of ours asked me to drop by and bring you these.”
+++++For a moment the woman’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch in a sharp pang of fear.  Glancing at the roses and then up into the plain, ordinary face of the man standing in the doorway dressed in a sport coat and slacks, she made herself relax and stepped out into the hall.
+++++Smitty handed the roses to her and glanced past her at the boy.  His hand reached inside the left pocket of his sport coat.  Fingers wrapped around a small black box as his thumb pushed in a small button in the middle of the device.
+++++No one noticed it except those who were eavesdropping.  Suddenly their microphones erupted in a screeching noise so loud people wearing ear phones and listening in had to throw them off violently in an effort to save their eardrums.  The condo building’s security cameras became a sea of white fuzz so thick nothing could be discerned clearly.
+++++The electronic counter-measures would last only a couple of minutes.  Enough time for him to get his message across to the beautiful woman.
+++++“Mrs. Dane, my name is Smitty.  I am a professional hitman.  Two days ago Howard Hensley paid me a lot of money to kill you.  He wanted to convince his boss and your employer, Jesus Galanti, that you were the one who was leaking information to the FBI.  By killing you he thought all suspicions would be thrown off of him.”
+++++Color drained from her face.  Tears filled beautiful olive green eyes and began streaking down her cheeks.  But she turned silently, pushed her son back into living room of the condo, and closed the door firmly before turning to look at the man standing in the hall with her.
+++++“You killed Howard?”
+++++“We do not have time for questions and answers, Mrs. Dane.  Not if you and your son want to live. As I see, right now you have two very serious problems.  The FBI has your condo and your office bugged.  They’re trying to wrap you up into their little web of deceit just like they did with Hensley.  Problem number two is Galanti.  He’s furious his number two man was gunned down.  He thinks another mob boss ordered the hit.  I think I can eventually convince Galanti it was your boyfriend who was the leak.  But it will take time.  Right now it is imperative you and your son leave town.”
+++++One of Smitty’s hands came up.  Between index finger and thumb was a plain white 3×5 lined card.  On it was a name followed by the number five.  Reflexively the beautiful woman took the card from his hand and glanced down at it.
+++++“That’s the name of a wharf across town.  The slip number is on it.  Be there in one hour, Mrs. Dane.  The two of you.  I can get you out of town to a place that is safe for you and your son.  You can stay there until all this blows over.  But you must decide now.  I can do no more.”
+++++Glancing up to the security camera Smitty turned and walked away.  Leaving the beautiful woman standing in the silence of the condo’s hall . . .
+++++. . . Howard Hensley shouldn’t have given him the photo of the woman in the skimpy bikini standing on the prow of a beautiful yacht.  His yacht.  He shouldn’t have dismissed his lieutenant’s pleas not to use a cell phone . . . even if it was a cheap over the counter throwaway . . . and talk to the Feds while on the boat.  For all his flash and show time photogenic showmanship he wasn’t a very smart man.  It didn’t take long for the dark eyed man to figure it out.  The Feds had come calling on Howard Hensley. They had a noose around his neck but didn’t want to corral him just yet.  They wanted to play him and hope they could eventually hang Jesus Galanti.

The bullet hit Hensley in the back of the head.  Mrs. Dane and the other man she was with were twenty yards away when Hensley went down.  And as he had predicted, the bullet hit the target before the faint crack of a rifle going off somewhere came to their ears.
+++++No one thought about looking out into the bay at the large fishing boat slowly trawling the waters a mile away, half a dozen big ocean-going fishing poles rising up expectantly hoping for a big catch.

Reno

My eyes hurt; it feels like they’re boiling in their sockets. All around me the rattle of coins is incessant and overwhelming. Reels that spin and clunk hammer their own brand of pain into my head. Everything washes out in a swirling fog of noise and neon. Somewhere from a million miles away – or maybe right beside me – a claxon blares followed by a crash of quarters and a wild shout.
+++++“Oh yeah baby, that’s what I’m talking about!” People move towards the sounds.
+++++I have to fight my way upstream, drowning in a tide of bat-faced housewives clutching blue plastic cups and a convention of salesmen with sweat stained collars. They’re all craning to see which of their number has slain the beast and sated a need less desperate than mine.
+++++I burst through the back of the crowd and gulp in the refrigerated air, it tastes like I imagine pine needles might after a rainstorm, both sweet and sharp. The cool air passes in and through me; I drink it down and manage to hold some inside. That feels a little better, things become solid again.
+++++I start towards the cashier’s cage, choosing the one closest to the unmarked door hiding stairs to the parking garage. I join the shortest line, there’s only one woman in front of me. She’s arguing over the value of a giveaway Keno credit. Okay I can wait. I stare at my feet and watch the fog churning and climbing my legs, blue neon is flickering down amongst it like a static charge. I glance up and the woman is gone, the girl in the booth looks at me, pleasant and inquisitive from behind the grill.
+++++“Good evening Sir how can I help you?”
+++++I can’t speak; the words I have rehearsed in my mind for days won’t come to my lips.
+++++“Sir, are you ok? You don’t look so good.”
+++++I try to smile but know it appears on my face as a grimace. The girl looks anxious now, fingering the button on her intercom.
+++++“Sorry, I ate some bad shrimp.” I manage to blurt.
+++++She relaxes, the pleasant expression rests comfortably on her face again.
+++++I reach into my jacket, my hand lingers for a moment on my wallet, a voice tells me that there is still time, nothing is in play yet. I ignore it, my fingers move past the wallet and close around the grip of a nickel plated nine. I look to the floor again, this time seeing only the dust on my shoes and the dubious patterned depths of the carpet.
+++++“Excuse me, sir?”
+++++The gun slides free; it seems impossibly bright in the refracted light of gaudy chandeliers and pulsing video poker.
+++++“I want everything in the draw. No alarms and no heroics.”
+++++For a moment palpable fear dances naked between us, then vanishes as she screams.
+++++The nickel plate sparkles in my hand and I feel the trigger under my finger. I tighten my grip and it moves just a fraction, barely noticeable but I notice and so does the girl. How much more before the pistol bucks, cordite fills the air and dull metal punches a hole through life.
+++++“Drop the fuckin’ gun, asshole.”
+++++Security arrives breathless to stand behind me with arms braced and a Pernach clasped tightly between sweaty palms.
+++++“I said put it down, now!”
+++++One life or two, maybe even three, just another game of chance in a room full of them. The biggest gamble made not on the turn of a card, or the spin of a wheel but the pressure of a finger. There’s no time to study the pain only to make the play, to hit or hold, the odds are stacked but they always were.
+++++I feel the pressure and hear the sharp crack. The fog clouds back in on me, this time it’s chased through with a spray of red. I’m out of breath and tasting copper. My legs leave and the carpet rushes up to meet me. No cards  left to play I’m down to the felt. The house wins.

All I Need Is A Day

Chief O’Malley and Detective Sorelli stood in the dark, stale booth behind the one-way mirror. The booth still smelled like cigarettes from back in the days when you could smoke in it. The interrogation room was wired, the tape recorder on ‘pause.’ Jimmy sat back and took his earphone off, letting out a breath of Taco Bell.
+++++“We only got a day with him to talk,” the Chief grunted through the hoarse voice of the guy that put ALL of that smell in the air. “He’s been here long enough. He won’t lawyer up, but if we start asking the wrong questions, he might. We gotta’ get him to talk. He could bring down Richie Rich.”
+++++Richie Rich was engaged in everything, his fingers in many pies – hell, the whole damn bakery, from jacking freighters to fake IDs to the global sex trade. He got the nickname for the way he flaunted his ill-gotten gains; mansions, yachts, sports-cars; he even had diamond collars on his five Rottweilers.
+++++“What’s he lookin’ at now?” Sorelli said.
+++++“Just on what we have him on, at most, a year.” The Chief said.
+++++“OK, I can do it off that.”
+++++“Where the hell were you yesterday?” asked the Chief.
+++++“You could say I was sealin’ the deal…”
+++++“Is that why you got a shiner?” Sorelli touched his sore eye.
+++++“Nah, I was fucking the cleaning lady and I slipped on the floor wax.”
+++++“Smart-ass.” Chief chuckled. “Go in there. Seal the deal…”
+++++Sorelli hopped out of the booth and walked into the interrogation room, his game face on, cold as a rock in Antarctica. Joey Sips’ sat in the hard steel chair, his cuffed hands covered in tattoos, long goatee and bald-head rolling back and forth on his head. Sorelli’d uncuff him, but Joey’d lunge. Sorelli’d shoot, and no one would get Richie Rich.
+++++“Joe…” He said, just standing there with his hands in his pockets. “You know what we really want…”
+++++“Ya’ ain’t gettin nothin’ from me, pig” Joey leaned back, as best he could, and smiled.
+++++“We have enough to put you away for a year…”
+++++“Shit, and that’s all you got to threaten me with, bitch!?” Joey said laughing. “I did three years in Attica, motherfucker… I’ll do a year in the county standin’ on my head!”
+++++“If you want to…” Sorelli said, still calm. “You were a real bully in Attica, weren’t you…”
+++++“I got by…”
+++++Sorelli laughed. “You tortured the fuck outta that kid, Ian… what’s his name… Ian Braun?”
+++++Joey took a deep breath. “Little punk. Hell yeah I did!” He was proud of himself.
+++++“I just went down to Attica yesterday, know a couple guards there, ya’ know?” Sorelli said, “And I was reading your prison file. All the times you put that kid in the infirmary. Word was that you fucked him… and fucked his woman when you got out… that true?”
+++++“I ain’t fuck[ed] him… and that other thing wasn’t on my file!”
+++++“Oh, no… Ian told me that.” Sorelli commented, never losing his calm.
+++++“Fuck that punk.”
+++++“On that thought, hold on…” Sorelli left the room, back into the booth. He could see Joey twitchin’ with his fingers like an audience member waiting for the punch-line. The Chief leaned over as Sorelli pulled an 8 x 10 from his laptop case.
+++++“You better be going somewhere with this…” Chief said.
+++++“That’s where I was yesterday.” Sorelli replied. “And I am.” He walked out of the booth and back into the interrogation room. He flapped the photo before tossing it on the table.
+++++“Five years can change a man…” Sorelli said. “After you did that to him… and his old lady, Ian felt like he needed protection. So he joined up with the Aryan Brotherhood. That was five years ago. They made him hit the weights, push-ups, sit-ups, taught him how to fight…”
+++++“He didn’t even want to be seen talking to me on the field. I had to get him in administration after he ordered a riot… In Sing Sing.”
+++++“Thought he was in Attica…” Joey said.
+++++“We’ll he runs the AB for the whole New York prison system now.” Sorelli said. “He turned out to be a good leader, good recruiter. And he wanted you to know why he flipped you the finger in this picture…”
+++++Joey was rattled now. “Why?”
+++++“‘Cause that’s what he’s gonna’ have someone do to you every day you wind up in his prisons.”
+++++Sorelli let it sink in. Joey stared at the photo. Ian was a muscle-bound, tattoo’d ball of rage and hatred, and he had Joey to thank for it. He’d killed three people in Attica, and Lord knows how many deaths led a line of blood back to his kites and code words on the yard.
+++++“But I’m going to the county…” Joey said blankly.
+++++“Well… maybe.” Sorelli said.
+++++“Maybe!?”
+++++“One year is a county bid,” Sorelli said, “But if we tell the ADA we want him to recommend one year and one day, well, you know where you do that time…”
+++++“Excuse me… I’ll be right back.” Once again Sorelli went into the booth. The Chief’s jaw was as slack as Joey’s. Joey was gonna’ spill as soon as Sorelli walked back in there; they all knew it, even Jimmy.
+++++“Sonofabitch!” He said, slapping Sorelli on the shoulder.
+++++“Chief, can you call ADA Rockwell?” Sorelli asked. “He’ll be prosecuting. Ask him for some help with a sentencing recommendation before I go in… We can let Joey stew for an hour…”
+++++“What do I ask him to add?”
+++++Sorelli smirked.
+++++“All I need is a day.”

Monster

The red sky that morning should have been my warning, but I chose to ignore it. I had a job to do and I had to get there before the snow came.
+++++I drove from my house and onto the country lane, my speed picking up as I changed through the gears. Then it came, like a blanket falling from the sky. Huge white flakes hit the windscreen, the wipers doing nothing to shift them.
+++++I tried to slow the car but the brakes wouldn’t work. Surely the snow couldn’t stop them working. I pressed them again and they kicked in, sending the car into a skid. There was a loud bang and the car shuddered. Don’t panic, I thought, it was just a small deer or something.
+++++It was then that the weird thing happened. The car was motionless. Suddenly the roof started creaking; the noise of metal being crushed filled the cars interior. The side windows exploded outwards and within seconds I was being covered in freezing cold snow. The snow filled the car. I tried to push it away from my face but it was getting into my mouth, up my nose. With each panicked breath I took the snow entered my throat. Is it actually possible to drown in snow? I asked myself.
+++++I began to panic as the snow kept packing into the car. I was freezing, literally. I couldn’t move my arms anymore and the snow was freezing my throat. It happened quickly. I suddenly couldn’t breath and blacked out.

* * *

I woke up in a brightly lit room. I wasn’t in a bed, as you would expect, but sat upright in a chair. I looked around the room, looking for a door or a window, but there was nothing. It was only when I concentrated that I noticed that the whole room was moving, even the floor, almost cloudlike.
+++++“Where am I?” I asked out loud.
+++++“Where do you want to be?” asked a deep, booming voice.
+++++“Who’s that?” I asked looking round.
+++++“Your maker.”
+++++“My maker? What are you talking about? Where are you and where is this?”
+++++“I’m everywhere and you are in the decision room. This is where you meet your fate. You are to go through the door. There you will live for eternity.”
+++++The cloudy movement in front of me slowly parted to reveal a door. I got up and walked over to it, grabbing the handle. I hesitated a moment, looking back to see if there was anyone else in the room. I slowly turned the handle and in a flash the door was ripped from its hinges. The room was filled with flames. Hideous looking creatures flew through the flames, screaming and laughing. I tried to take a step back but couldn’t.
+++++“There’s no going back. This is your destination. This is your payback,” the voice boomed.
+++++I was suddenly grabbed by the throat and dragged into the flames. Pain seared through every nerve in my body as my clothing, and then my skin was scorched from my body. I screamed out in sheer agony but it was cut short as the flames burnt my throat. I was meant to see this happening to me as my eyes were somehow protected from the flames. I looked down at my hands and watched as the skin bubbled and burst, the same on my arms and stomach and legs. I could feel my face melting away and lifted my skeletal hands to touch it. I was looking like a monster, the monster I actually was.

* * *

3 Days Later.

“Holy shit! Boss, boss, you’d better come and look at this.”
+++++Detective Derek Morris walked to the back of the wreckage and looked into the boot. Four black bin bags were all open for him to look into. The body parts were frozen. The head of a young blonde woman stared up from one bag. In another there was an arm and a leg, the same in another and then her torso in another. The little toe and little finger were missing from both hands and feet. The same as the other nine bodies that had been found over the past fourteen months
+++++Morris walked back to the driver’s side and looked in at the smashed remains of the driver. He was frozen. The car had been under heavy snow from the worst snowfall the country had ever seen. It had been noticed by a snowplough driver and reported to the police. A rescue vehicle had towed the car from where it had hit a huge oak tree.
+++++“Maybe there is a God after all,” Morris said, “We couldn’t catch you but nature done our job for us. You met your maker.”

The Hater’s Club

At the ice cream store, a kid is staring at me with chocolate melt running down his lips and chin, mouth hanging open like a grotesque trapdoor. His eyes are huge, bark-brown olives. Worst of all, he hasn’t blinked once.
+++++I study my napkin for a solid two minutes. Looking up, I see the kid’s expression hasn’t changed a bit.
+++++His head is over-sized, a boulder atop his spindly neck and arms. I imagine taking a baseball bat and swinging, hearing his cranium crack.
+++++I read the sign that lists flavors and prices. I look at my fingers and notice there’s gray gunk under most of the nails.
+++++When I turn back around, I see that ice cream’s pooled around the kid’s neck, but he’s still ogling me the same way.
+++++I think; Okay, let’s do this.
+++++I stare back. I do it until my pupils dry out and sting.
+++++He still hasn’t blinked.
+++++I sneer.
+++++I wiggle my eyes.
+++++I go cross-eyed till I’m dizzy.
+++++I stick out my tongue
+++++I flip him off.
+++++He just stares.
+++++It’s starting to get monumentally creepy.
+++++His mom must be constipated, because she’s been in the can a while.
+++++The Asian guy behind the counter helps in the sherbet section.
+++++I need someone to see this – the bizarre kid who won’t stop staring.
+++++Oh, wait. What?
+++++I’ve been so distracted by the gawking going on that I haven’t realized until now that he resembles a guy from high school named Oliver Pratt.
+++++Oliver and I were in the same Hater’s Club: he hated me and I loathed him. That wouldn’t have mattered, but one day while I was in the restroom, Oliver and his buddies jumped me, then stole my pants and underwear.
+++++After that, I bought a voodoo doll that resembled him, with its twiggy cloth limbs and a puffy, hacky sack pouch for a head. I stuck a hundred needles through that ragdoll, concentrating, imagining I possessed supernatural intuition, a sixth sense that could make the pins real, puncturing Oliver’s pupils, neck, testicles.
+++++Two days later, Oliver was horsing around on a department store escalator, fell off, and plunged through a cosmetic counter made of glass. He bled to death before they’d even removed all of the shards.
+++++Looking hard at the kid now, avoiding his goggle eyes but taking in the other features, I see how he’s an identical version of Oliver Pratt.
+++++This guy is Oliver.
+++++I know it.
+++++I’ve got good intuition. It’s what caused all this in the first place.
+++++When the boy’s mom finally comes out, she says, “Oh, Ollie! Look at the mess you’ve made.”

***

Each night and every morning, I wake with pinprick sensations against my skin. I know they’re needles ready to be turned into broken blades of glass.
+++++I stop sleeping. I hardly eat. I see Oliver’s likeness everywhere.
+++++Something tells me he’s going to get his revenge, and soon.
+++++I know these things.

Sleep Tight

I hear the guy next door snoring through my wall every night. Tonight it drives me out of my apartment. His wife, leaning on the flimsy metal railing of their balcony unit, a cigarette tucked between her slender fingers, tells me he has apnea and she can’t get her husband to wear the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, mask at night. She’s out because her husband won’t wear a rubber cup over his nose. I’m out for the same reason, having a beer.
+++++She blows a pillow of smoke the wind pushes back over her pretty face. I think about how thirty years of smoking is going to soften those beautiful features into a mask of crags and wrinkles. Right now, she is nothing but cute in an extra long tee-shirt and bed hair she has to keep pulling back from her face.
+++++“He says it ruins our love life,” she says. She laughs. “Believe me, it was ruined before that.”
+++++I smile, pull a drink off the bottle. “How long you been married?”
+++++“Year. You got another one of those?”
+++++I pull one out of the cooler next to me, stand up to hand it over. Her fingers brush my hand. It isn’t an accident.
+++++“Thanks,” she says. “Maybe if I drink enough I’ll pass out and won’t hear him.”
+++++“Doesn’t work,” I say. She laughs. We clink the necks of our bottles against one another. When she drinks, she turns her head and shows me how her lips fit over the opening. She watches me watch her.
+++++“I’m Shelly,” she says. She holds her hand out over her balcony. I shake it.
+++++“Brian.”
+++++“Hello, Brian.”
+++++“Hello, Shelly.”
+++++We drink a bit more in the cool evening. The stars are out. A fat opossum from the field behind our units waddles down to the manmade pond and drinks from it. Shelly grimaces.
+++++“I wouldn’t drink that water,” she says.
+++++“I see guys catching and releasing from it all the time.”
+++++“All those chemicals.” She shudders.
+++++From inside her apartment I hear a panicked gulping, cry. It’s followed by a sudden storm of gagging coughs. It ends with a whistle. Shelly turns and slides the door to her patio closed.
+++++“Your husband okay?” I ask.
+++++“He does it all the time. He’s been told he stops breathing something like a hundred or so times a night. It’s why he has the mask. It pushes air into his nose to remind him to breath. But he won’t use it.”
+++++“Could he die without it?”
+++++She finishes her beer. “That was good. You think I could bum another?”
+++++“You caught my last one.”
+++++Shelly studies me. She smiles. “Hold on.” She slides open her door. “We’ve got some. I’m coming around.”
+++++“No, that’s okay,” I say.
+++++“I insist. Tom isn’t supposed to drink anymore. Alcohol and apnea apparently don’t mix.” She shoos her hand at me. I finish my beer and go inside. I don’t really want to go inside. The walls of the apartment are too antiseptic for me. I feel like I’m in a vacuum when I’m inside.
+++++I unlock my door and it opens. Shelly stands there with a six of Sam. Summer Wheat. I’m good with that. She holds it up and removes one. I take the six, putting it in my fridge, and take one for myself. We once again clink the necks of our bottles.
+++++“You single?” she asks looking around my place.
+++++“Can’t you tell?”
+++++I have NASCAR posters in plastic frames. There’s a cushy plaid couch heavy in red. I’ve got a couple of uncomfortable green chairs that I always feel like I’m slouching in when I sit in them. Everything faces the flat screen on the wall I don’t share with Shelly’s place.
+++++Shelly smiles around the bottle as she drinks. She walks past me and sits down on the couch. In the center of the couch. It leaves me four options: one of the two chairs, or either side of her. I sit next to her. We make very small talk. It’s difficult to keep a conversation going because I can clearly see she’s not wearing anything under the long tee-shirt.
+++++“So is Tom really that loud?” she asks.
+++++“You should know.”
+++++“I mean when you try to sleep. Our bedrooms share a wall, too. Like this one.” She raps her knuckles on the plaster. I put my hand on hers. “Relax, we won’t wake him. Nothing wakes him. I mean, sometimes I’m laying in bed wide awake because he’s snoring or your over here screwing someone and I’m caught in between.”
+++++I spit up a little beer. She laughs. “Here.” She lifts up on the hem of her tee-shirt and now I know how naked she is she is under it. She wipes the beer dribble from my chin. Our eyes meet and then we’re embracing. We fall back onto the couch and start kissing, exploring with hands.
+++++“I hear you,” she says. “I hear you over his snoring. I hear how happy those women feel and it makes me realize how miserable I am. It makes me think how I want to feel like them again, feel wild and out of control. It makes me want to be in that bed with you.”
+++++We can hear her husband snoring even as we make love in my bedroom.
+++++Shelly is a screamer. Straddling me, she seems to direct her ecstasy at the bedroom wall. She shudders and explodes and falls down on top of me. We lie there, breathing heavily. It slows. The room grows quiet. The world grows quiet.
+++++Even from the other side of the bedroom wall it is quiet.
+++++Shelly rolls her eyes up at the wall behind us.
+++++“Shouldn’t you go check on him?” I ask.
+++++Shelly rolls onto her stomach. She reaches out to the wall and gently touches it. The blankets slide down off her naked back.
+++++“Sleep tight,” she whispers.

The Fountain

I heard the rich tone of your voice before I noticed you. Nothing had changed, you looked the same. I watched you for five minutes before you turned and saw me. A smile lighting up your face as you strolled over to where I sat. Six months earlier I walked in on you fucking my best friend. You won everyone over with your smile.
+++++I arranged to meet you later by the fountain in the Gardens. You said it would be freezing and I asked where your sense of adventure was and that I would find a way to keep you warm. You were like a fish on a hook.
+++++I climbed over the wall and walked towards the fountain, thankful for the full moon. I sat listening to the ping, ping of the water as it hit the iron base. I had watched a gardener one day cleaning the fountain out, surprised at how deep it was. He had placed a collection of toys feared lost forever around the edge.
+++++I heard you shout as you came towards me, a feeble attempt to make me jump. I kissed you and handed you the brandy. I pushed you down and we sat on the wall around the fountains edge, me on your lap. Your hands were cold on my skin.
+++++You become less and less lucid as the Brandy hit its mark, helped on by the sleeping pills crushed into it. Your head falls heavy onto my chest. The bottle is empty as it drops to the floor.
All it took was one gently push and you fall in. It was easy to hold your head under the water. Your body tried to fight but it was no good. The drugs were too strong. I thought of the lucky coins thrown in for a wish and the lost toys on the bottom. Then your body went limp and I let go.
+++++I went out the way I came, taking the empty bottle with me and throwing it in a litter bin.

Surviving

Listen instead
Listen instead

It’s always hard, the winter.
The wind stiffens my
fingers and I can’t
reach the three keys above
octave that I need
to make the chord.
It’s winter all
the time now.
Seems like it’s
always night too.
But that’s not
the important thing.
The important thing is
I can’t make the chord.
Can’t make that chord.
I’ve been trying for a long time.
Damn house has fallen down.
Porch collapsed
Windows out.
Doors hanging open.
Cold wind rips through
the living room.
I’d really like to play that chord
before the piano falls all down too.
It’s mostly gone now anyhow.
It sits slaunchwise left because
termites ate through the legs.
Mice got to the strings
a few years back.
And there’s snow on the keys.
Just as well, I guess,
just as well that
I couldn’t hear the
chord if I played it.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you’d smile.
Wherever you are.
Wherever you go
when you’re dead.
Maybe you’d smile.
I’ll keep trying for that.
For that smile.
But it’s winter and spring
is a long way from here.

Innocent (A Smitty Story)

He saw her slide out of the front seat of her Toyota Corona and close the door before opening the left rear door.  A beauty in subdued mustard yellow.  Long brown hair.  Sculptured, athletic legs.  A long, lithe, athletic body.
+++++He almost smiled.
+++++No wonder Little Gabe fell in love.  Even from across the parking lot of the small apartment complex he could see both the beauty, and the country girl innocence, glowing like some neon light from her.  Two things that would draw Little Gabe to her like flickering candles drawing moths to the dancing flames.
+++++Tossing a long strand of hair over her shoulders she bent down and pulled out two large briefcases from out of the car’s back seat.  Setting the briefcases on the trunk lid she turned, threw more hair over her shoulder again, and closed the car door.  Aiming the clicker at the front she locked the car and then dropped the keys in her purse, threw the strap of the purse over a shoulder, and then reached for the briefcases.
+++++Her name was Erica Norton.  Teacher.  Taught fourth grade in Howard E. Johnston’s Elementary School over on Pine Street.  She was approaching thirty.  Never married.  Didn’t drink.  Never smoked. Lived alone, except for a cat named Alex, here in this apartment complex. Regularly attended church on Sundays and Wednesday nights.  A quiet mouse who lived a quiet unexciting, yet supposedly safe, existence.
+++++Until she met Little Gabe.
+++++Admittedly a beautiful quiet mouse.  But someone who had no idea how close to Death’s final whisper she currently skirted in the darkness.
+++++In the hot, humid night he stood partially hidden by a well manicured fir tree.  From his unseen vantage point he watched Erica step onto the sidewalk leading to the front door of the apartment complex.  A breeze was stirring, blowing strands gently away from her.  An image straight out of a beauty magazine photo shoot.  As she walked up the sidewalk the cloth of her dark yellow dress swished, revealing a lot of legs.  She held her head high as she walked.  Tall, statuesque.  Beautiful.
+++++In the darkness he slipped a hand into one pocket of his tailored slacks and wrapped hands around the cold steel of a switch-blade.  Sliding the folded knife out he remained motionless as Erica walked past him, the cicadas chirping loudly as if they were happy to see her.  In her wake the subtle aroma of expensive perfume filled his nostrils.  Dark black eyes watched her as she approached the entrance to the apartment complex and disappeared through the door oblivious to the drama that was about to take place.
+++++Click!  Using a thumb to press the button the switch-blade in his hands snapped open angrily. Expectantly.  Hungrily.   But the dark-eyed man didn’t move.  Blending into the night like some mythical harbinger of death  he remained motionless his eyes turning to look again at the dimly lit apartment complex parking lot.  He didn’t have to wait long.
+++++No sooner had the door of the apartment complex closed behind her when two doors of a black Ford Escape popped open and two very large men got out.  In the dim illumination of the tall light poles that rose like metallic Redwoods out of the parking lot asphalt he recognized them.  Two major hitters working for Jimmy McDougall.  A mean, vicious hood who didn’t take kindly to anyone within his organization stealing from him.  Especially to the tune of 500 G’s.
+++++Little Gabe should have know better.  Should have known taking money from the boss–money that would be instantly missed–would have disastrous and instant results.  Gabe found out the hard way. Four slugs in the chest after hours of being tortured was the justice metered out by Jimmy McDougall.
+++++The problem was Little Gabe didn’t talk.  Didn’t reveal where the five hundred thousand was hidden.  That omission really pissed Jimmy off.  So the order went out.  Grab the girl and bring her to a safe spot where no one would find her.  Maybe she knew where the money was.
+++++Gabe had been a tough little kid.  When he found him in a pool of his own blood strapped tightly into a chair in the middle of an empty warehouse it was too late to save the little guy.  But the kid was alive enough to recognize the dark-eyed figure standing in front of him.  One eye–the a other battered, pulpy, unable to open–looked up into the face of the dark-eyed man as a grin spread across his blood caked lips.
+++++“You gotta save her, Smitty.  You gotta save her!  She knows nothing about my little stash! Nothing!  But they’re gonna come after.  They’re gonna do things to her.  They’ll kill her, Smitty.  They’ll kill her.  You’ve got to save her!”
+++++For a few second the compact, hard, coldly handsome killer stared down at a kid who once wanted to be a friend.  A warm hearted, loud kid who loved to dance and play in a band.  But a foolish kid.  A stupid kid.  Stupid enough to get himself killed.  Still . . .
+++++“All right, Gabe.  Where does she live?”
+++++So here he was.  A dark shadow of waiting death eyeing two men walking toward the apartment complex with orders from their boss to find the money.  Do whatever it took to find the money.  But just find it.  And get rid of any trouble makers.
+++++The two large menacing silhouettes, walking shoulder to shoulder, moved past him on the side walk and stopped in front of the apartment complex entrance.  That’s when he moved.  Making not the slightest sound, the one known as Smitty came out of the shadows and stepped up behind the two.
+++++“Evening,” he hissed softly almost in the ears of both men at once.
+++++Their reactions were instinctual and violent.  Both jumped visibly in the darkness and whirled to face who ever it was who had just given such a fright.  Both were reaching inside their suit coats for guns hanging loosely in shoulder holsters.  Neither moved fast enough.  From out of the night the bright steel of a switch-blades slashed left and right with blinding speed.  Both men grunted in startled pain–someone moaned–and then both fell to their knees with heads bent down and copious amounts of blood . . . their blood . . . flowing like dark waterfalls onto the sidewalk in front of the apartment entrance.
+++++“That’s for what you did to Little Gabe, boys,” the savage hiss of a whisper came to them from out of the night.  “But be thankful I didn’t finish the job.  Both of you miserable miscreants will live.  This time.  Live to go back to your boss and give him a message.  Do you hear me?”
+++++One of the killers lifted a blood soaked, half mutilated face up and nodded.  He tried to focus his eyes onto the black shadow standing in front of him.  Hovering over him like Death itself.  But his eyes couldn’t focus.  Too much blood seeping down from his forehead stung his eyes and made them water uncontrollably.
+++++“Tell him I’ve found his money.  He’ll have it back within an hour.  All of it.  And when he gets his money it’s over.  Done with.  Finished.  No one touches the woman.  Ever.  Understand?”
+++++Both men nodded in the night.  Both came to their feet.  Their clothes were soaked in their blood. Both stood up wobbly.  Both began stumbling down the sidewalk toward the parking lot.  Smitty stepped to one side, folded the bloody steel edge of his switch-blade closed with both gloved hands, and watched the two best men of Jimmy McDougall move past him.  As dark-black eyes watched the killers stagger down the sidewalk leaving a bloody wake behind him his eyes narrowed and a grim expression spread across his face.  He should have killed them both.  Both had worked over Little Gabe for hours trying to make him talk.  Both loved that kind of work.  If there was any justice in the world both should be dead.
+++++But not now.  Not here.  Not tonight.
+++++Eyes turned to look at the apartment complex entrance.  And then eyes black as the night itself played across the front of the apartment building’s exterior.  There was a security camera aimed at the entrance in the hallway on the other side of the door.  He didn’t want to be seen tonight.  Not ‘officially’ seen.

***

She came out of the hot shower reaching for an oversized towel waiting across the small bathroom sink.  The small bathroom was a steaming sauna.  The walls, the shower curtain, the small mirror above the sink dripped condensing water from the hot clouds of steam swirling around the bathroom.  Drying herself off she eventually wrapped the large towel around her svelte frame and reached for a second, smaller towel.  Throwing her luxuriant brown hair in a pile above her head she quickly wrapped the smaller towel her head and reached for the knob of the bathroom door.
+++++Opening the door she came out of the bathroom,  steam following her in a long vaporous trail in the process.  Walking barefoot across the thick carpet of her bedroom she moved with the ease of a graceful feline across an African veldt to her queen sized bed.  The towel wrapped around her firm body slipped to the floor as she bend down to pulled the covers of the bed back–a hand sliding underneath a pillow curiously.
+++++When she turned around to face Smitty–revealing her beauty the ugly snout of a .38 caliber snub nosed Smith &Wesson was in her right hand and the hard look of a woman who knew how to handle the weapon on her lovely face.
+++++“Good evening, Erica.”
+++++The dark-eyed man sat in a chair pushed up against a wall directly opposite from the bed.  A leg crossed over the other, hands resting comfortable on a thigh, Smitty sat in the chair calmly, the suggestion of a sneer barely creasing his thin lips, and eyed the beauty openly with admiration.  She really was a beautiful, beautiful woman.
+++++“Who are you?  And what do you want?”
+++++“The name’s Smitty.   I’ve come to collect the little gift Gabe handed over to you the other day. And if I’m lucky—if you’re lucky—I might be able to save your life.”
+++++“What?” she snapped, the ugly nose of the .38 unwavering as it aimed toward Smitty’s chest. “What are you talking about?”
+++++“You know what I am talking about, Erica.  You knew something like this might happen.  Gabe’s dead.  And Jimmy McDougall wants his money back.”
+++++“I don’t have any money.  Gabe didn’t give me any money.  And I certainly don’t know anyone by the name of Jimmy McDougall!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips widened slightly as dark eyes played across Erica Norton brazenly. Brazenly enough to make the gun in her hand drop for a second and a crimson flush sweep across bare flesh as she quickly bent down and reached for the towel lying on the carpet to cover herself with.  He didn’t move.  Just sat in the chair and watched as the woman wrapped the towel around herself tightly and then lifted the gun back up and aim it at him.
+++++“He didn’t give you cash, Erica.  Not five hundred thousand in cash.  But something smaller. Much smaller.  Something that surprised me when I found it.”
+++++Beautiful eyes darted to one side–toward a large painting hanging on a wall to her left–worry and fear making her face turn even harder.
+++++“You found it?  The book of rare stamps?  How?  How did you know we converted the money into stamps?  He talked, didn’t he!  He talked!  I told him not to say a word!  No one would ever figure it out!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips didn’t change.  But somehow it became harder.  Colder.  Even cruel.
+++++“That was it, Erica.  That’s what tipped me off you weren’t the innocent little school teacher. Innocent no more.  Gabe wasn’t smart enough to come up with the idea to rip off Jimmy McDougall. Wasn’t smart enough to know how to convert cash into a fortune of rare stamps.  But you were, little girl. You were. You took the money and bought the stamps.  You told Gabe no one would ever suspect him and then sent him off to his death.  The only question left to be answered is this.  Did you love him, Erica? Did you have any feeling for him at all?”
+++++“That money was going to buy us a new life!  A new life far, far away from this place!  He didn’t want to work for his boss any more.  He wanted to leave the mob.  But he was about as  poor a little bastard as I ever met.  I told him we couldn’t run away without some money.  Lots of money.  He promised me he could get money.  Lots of it!  Now hand the book over to me.  Hand it over or I swear to God I’ll shoot you where you sit!”
+++++The hard eyes of a killer stared unblinking at the beautiful woman for a long time.  And then, moving slowly, he came out of his chair and reached into his suit coat and withdrew a small but thick leather bound book.  With a flick of the wrist the book sailed across the bedroom and landed on the edge of the bed beside her.
+++++“Your choice, Erica.  I either walk out of here and take the book with me and hand it to McDougall.  Or I walk out of here and leave it with you.  One offers you a chance to live a long and prosperous life.  The other guarantees you will be dead inside a week.  Which is it going to be?”
+++++“I can take care of my self, you bastard!” she hissed, lifting the gun and rapidly pulling the trigger of the snub nose revolver three times.
+++++Click! Click! Click!  Three times the hammer of the Smith & Wesson loudly smacked onto empty chambers.  Stunned, color draining from her face, she staggered back in disbelief and stared at the useless weapon in her hand.
+++++Smitty walked in silence over to the bed and scooped the small leather bound book up in one hand and slid it into an inside coat pocket.  Turning he moved across the room toward a set of sliding glass doors that led out onto a small balcony.  Sliding one of the doors open he kept a hand on the door as he turned and looked at her.
+++++“Jimmy McDougall ordered his boys to kill Gabe last night.  But in truth you’re his murderer, Erica.  His love for you killed him.  Yet even as he was dying he wanted me to save you.  Too bad, isn’t it?  Too bad he loved you so much.  Too bad he made me make a promise to him.  Too bad you’re probably going to kill some other patsy sooner or later.  Too bad justice has to be so blind.”
+++++Erica Norton screamed.  And screamed.  And screamed.  Screamed until she couldn’t scream no more.  But only an open glass balcony door and a dark, dark night heard her.

Bob North’s Football Boots

“I’ve got you a pair of boots,” said his father upon his return home from work that Tuesday evening. His selection for the team had come as a total surprise as he was much younger than the other boys and his ability wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. His father realised he was probably there more for his eagerness than anything else. He brought them home the next day. They were stiff black plastic with two blue stripes down either side and each one had eleven moulded studs. Size ones. They’d been dug out of the back of Bob North’s gas cupboard where they’d been forgotten about and they had that tart waxy smell, the same smell as his Grandad’s workshop and the PE store at school and other places that were starved of fresh air and daylight.

Weekends back then consisted of the Sports Report, John Helm and trips to a tiny little programme shop run by a short fat friend of his father’s called Bill. This one would be different. He was the smallest boy in the changing room on that Saturday morning. He looked round at the others with their broad shoulders and shin pads and he was absolutely terrified. His blue and yellow jersey was too big for him and it made him itch. He wore it outside of his shorts because he had ideas above his station, living in his own little dream world until the teacher who coached the team told him to tuck it in. As they ran out from the changing room everyone’s studs click-clacked on the tarmac that led to the pitch, and it was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. It was October, and the autumn air was dense and still, the sort of atmosphere that has been consigned to the archives of memory and doesn’t exist anymore. The grass still had the morning dew on it because it was still morning and he stood on the right wing, noticing how the sound of the ball being struck didn’t reach his ears until a couple of seconds after it left his team mates boot, so thick was the air, and so enormous seemed the field. They lost five-three. He had played a weak back pass which had lead to their fourth goal but other than that he had been quite pleased with his performance. He felt good as he made the short walk home, swinging his boot bag by his side and bending down every few yards to pick up a useful sized horse chestnut.

He spent the afternoon reading his copy of Shoot magazine, and drawing a picture of Peter Beardsley on a piece of printer paper. After eighteen months he’d made the right-wing position his own, with his younger brother coming in to play behind him at right full-back. His father bought him some new boots for his tenth birthday, leather ones with screw-in studs, and the old ones that he’d made his debut in once again were thrown to the back of a gas cupboard to be starved of fresh air and daylight. And forgotten about.

“Wuv Me, Tender”

Thanks to the wise words of Barry Manilow, Jesse became a singer. He knew he could make the young girls cry if they’d give him half a chance.
+++++“One for the money.” He stroked his left porkchop. “Two for the show.” Los Americanos Cantina wouldn’t wait all night, not even for The King.
+++++The karaoke regulars, their heads in their fishbowl margaritas, slobbered Lisping Elvis, Lisping Elvis as Jesse swaggered past the cash register. His speech impediment was more cwust for crust than thithy for sissy, but too late for splitting hairs—he’d been stamped. His Tuesday Elvis tribute was a killer, especially when he donned his white bell-bottom jumpsuit and burns.
+++++He handed the MC his song selections and mounted his booth far from the young, star-alike cliques. As Angie Ledbetter—his only serious competition—took the stage, he glanced up from his extra spicy guacamole and ordered more salsa picante. “Set my soul afiwer, Pedwo!” Heat helped him hit the high notes.
+++++Jesse air-clapped for Angie when she was done, stirred three packets of Splenda in his tea and thought how quiet the cantina would be if the kiddies here had their tongues cut out. He used to drink his tea with sugar, but at 43 he was bulging toward Fat Elvis. And he only had the one jumpsuit.
+++++“Give it up for Elvis!” The MC slid in a CD.
+++++Jesse Jailhouse-rocked past a table of Teenage Wynonna Judds. “Thank ya, thank ya vewy much.”
+++++He was winding up his arms to strike his famous boogie pose as the door to the cantina cling-a-linged. She hadn’t been at karaoke in weeks, but here she was: Tender, his little red-haired filly. This called for a song change ASAP.
+++++The MC reprogrammed the machine. Jesse kneed into his ballad pose. He locked eyes on Tender for the eight-bar intro.
+++++“Wuv me, Tender,” he sang. “Wuv me Twue.”
+++++Jesse knew the song was a droning downer. He rarely performed it, but if any song could make this young girl cry it was this one. He adored her, glowing in raging profile, arguing with the waiter, acting as if she wasn’t going crazy for his royal hips. He closed his eyes so he could sing to only her—and slit her generation’s throat. When he opened them, Tender’s booth was Tenderless. The song was over. Polite applause crackled over laughter and yapping.
+++++After three Garth Brookses and a thin Trisha, Tender took the stage. A tender Tanya Tucker. The high notes were thin, but the package was all there. The applause didn’t stop until Tender plopped down in her booth and lit a Lucky.
+++++“Pwetty wittle package,” Jesse mouthed as he passed her booth.
+++++The lights came up and the MC announced the night’s winner: “Angie Ledbetter for her rendition of ‘You Lie’!”
+++++He couldn’t win every night. It was his own fault. He’d thrown the contest by singing that slow song for Tender. He fastened his cape and headed to the parking lot in a flood of tequila-drunken youth. A pro, he never drank on karaoke nights. He loved his El Camino too much for that.
+++++“Lisping Elvis?” A little hand brushed his shoulder sequins. “My car won’t start.”
+++++He swivelled into the longing eyes of his filly, Tender. “It’s Kismet.”
+++++“Actually it’s my daddy’s Dodge. But whatever. Can you take me home?” She got into Jesse’s car without waiting for an answer.
+++++“Santa Cwaus is coming down your chimney tonight.”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++They drove. For miles. In an unpleasant silence. Tender was heady with cherry candy and smoke. She lived in Music City—twenty-five cherry-smoky miles to Nashville. “Awh you wonesome tonight?” Jesse asked and tickled his Dashboard Elvis. And giggled. And. Giggled.

I Saw What I Saw

It was a shortcut that I would regret for the rest of my life.  Don’t get me wrong, the scenery was beautiful.  A rolling landscape, secluded country houses and wildlife in abundance.  But, the beauty soon faded into insignificance when a sheep, covered in blood, ran out in front of me, causing me to swerve my car off the single track road and crash into a dry-stone wall.
+++++I’d approached a wooded area and was doing about fifty when I saw the sheep but managed to break and reduce my speed before the impact.  My airbag had activated and saved me from any serious damage.  After a moment or two, and a couple of prayers of thanks for still being alive, I pushed open my door, unfastened my seat belt and got out of my car.  I closed the door and lent heavily against the car, taking in painful, deep breaths.  I scanned the area for the sheep that I had seen, but it was nowhere in sight.
+++++I definitely saw what I saw.
+++++I eased myself away from the car and assessed the damage to the front of it.  It was going nowhere.  There was steam hissing from the radiator and there was a steady drip of black oil from underneath.  I fished my mobile phone from my pocket.  There was no signal.  Great!
+++++A sudden shriek startled me.  It came from the direction the sheep had run from.
+++++Another one, louder this time and closer, followed by another.
+++++What the fuck is that?
+++++My thoughts were answered when a dozen or more sheep ran from over the small grassy mound and across the road, exactly where the sheep that had caused my crash had come from.  Each and every one of them was smeared with dark, crimson blood.
+++++There was another blood-curdling shriek.  I looked round and decided the only way I could go was in the same direction as the sheep, into the woodlands.  If I went down the road I would be too exposed to whatever was out there.
+++++I started to run, clambering up the embankment where the sheep had gone.  The pains in my chest from the seat belt began to ease as I took in large breaths.  Suddenly, above me, there was a cracking of tree limbs and then, just feet in front of me, the lower half of a human body landed with a thud.
+++++Holy…shit!
+++++I carried on running, glancing down at the naked limbs, noticing that they were female.
+++++What the fuck is going on?
+++++Another shriek followed by a muffled scream.  I ran harder, the ground undulating beneath my feet.  The sheep had spread out but were heading in the same direction.
+++++Ahead, I saw a stream.  I noticed a small bridge off to my left and made a run for it.  I jumped down into the stream, just as another body part landed on a patch of heather at the side of the stream.  I splashed through the water and got to the bridge, scrambling underneath it.  I was struggling to control my breathing; my whole body felt like it was shaking.
+++++Another shriek.
+++++I turned under the bridge, keeping close to the stone wall as I peeked out in the direction of the noise.  I had imagined seeing some kind of bizarre bird like creature, but there was nothing.  Then out of the woods came a naked man.  His whole body was covered in blood and in one of his hands there was a human arm.  His head twitched from side to side, unnatural in its movements.
+++++Oh fuck.
+++++I looked out again, in time to see his mouth open and an ear splitting shriek ripped through the air.  I covered my ears, the sound almost painful.
+++++Got to move, got to move.
+++++The man walked to the edge on the stream, the bloodied arm still in his hand.  I slowly walked the eight feet or so under the bridge and crawled up the heather laden bank.  I inched up to the top of the stonework and looked back to where the man was stood.  To my amazement there were now two of them.  I don’t just mean two men; I mean there were two of them.  There was two of the same fucking bloke.  In unison their mouths opened and they let out an ear splitting shriek.
+++++What the fuck is happening?
+++++Fuck it!  I scrambled to my feet and ran.  I had no idea where I was going but I ran.  I ran harder than I had ever run in my entire life.  I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the two men were walking in my direction.  There was no urgency to their movements, which I felt wasn’t quite right.  It was only when I looked back in the direction that I was running that I realised why.  A few hundred yards ahead, to my left, a man was running across a field.  He was being chased by two naked men.  Within seconds they were on top of him and his limbs were ripped from his body.  His screams of pain and terror were instantly drowned out by the shrieks let out by his captors.
+++++This just can’t be happening.
+++++I turned to my right, jumped into the stream, ran through it and staggered up the other side.  I got my footing again and ran.  I ran for what seemed an eternity and never looked back.

* * * * *

I’ve now been hiding in this elevated position, behind a moss covered rock for what seems like an eternity.  The shrieks are still echoing on the evening air.  They still seem to be coming from the area below me.  I’m safe for now, but for how long?  I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of here.  It feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Everywhere I look there are fields and woodlands and hills and in the distance, mountains.  God’s country.  Heaven on earth.  Not on this day though.  Heaven can’t be like this.  Maybe I’ll know soon enough.
+++++What was that?  Oh, dear God. Please…no.  Our, Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy n….

Overnighter

When John Canvey came to me and said he needed a job doing, I was expecting the usual kind of thing.
+++++I am what they call a ‘man with a van,’ and I rent myself out, quite reasonably I think, to shift stuff from place to place.
+++++It can be anything; furniture to garden rubbish. I even got myself mixed up in the dumping of some toxic waste once. Anything goes really.
+++++Monday, John calls up and asks me to get over to his at my earliest convenience. He’s a bit posh is John and has a tendency to think that the rest of the world is thick, especially me. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know what’s going on around me.
+++++Me and him go back a long way and he has helped me out in the past, the not so distant past in fact, and we would always have each others backs if the worst ever came to the worst, which I seriously doubt it ever will since Mr. Canvey is far to clever for that.
+++++I get myself over there, and, as I say, I am expecting the usual so the sight of four suitcases stacked outside the front door doesn’t cause me any concern, one way or the other..
+++++“Sorry to call you over at such short notice, Sid, but this is a bit of a rush job and I knew I would be able to rely on you. This is going to be an overnighter I’m afraid and will take you out of town. Obviously I will cover your expenses.”
+++++He looked agitated to me, no idea why, and I’m not complaining. A night away is more than welcome. May even get a couple of beers and a game of cards in.
+++++We load the cases into the back of my transit.  John hands me a wad of cash and delivery details on a yellow post it note.
+++++“Listen here Sid.. I would be most appreciative if you kept the details of this delivery to yourself.. It’s some private stuff and I would rather not have to discuss it with Marilyn. You know what women are like… won’t ever let anything go.”
+++++I had to smile when he said that. We were on the same wavelength and it was funny to not see the magnificent Marilyn on the doorstep overseeing everything as she usually was.
+++++She was a looker. No doubt about that.. Hair ironed out as straight as ram rods and bleached to within an inch of it’s life. She liked her scarlet lipstick as well, that one. Bit too common for me.
+++++Touching my finger to the side of my nose I nodded as I looked down to check the details. Storage depot. Fine. No problem with that. Know the town well.
+++++“Can you be sure and unload before you park up and find a room for the night, don’t keep these cases on board until morning, will you?”
+++++Assuring him I wouldn’t, I climbed up in to the front of the van and raised a hand in salute as I pulled away. I would most likely be doing as he asked but he was never going to know if I didn’t, was he?
+++++I called up the missus, knowing she wasn’t home and after leaving a message, turned the phone off. Conscientious driver me, and I didn’t want any distractions. The message would have pissed Rita right off, unaccommodating bitch that she was. Liked the money she did, but was never prepared to be put out for it.
+++++As I left the slip road and joined the motorway I had a little chuckle to myself about the wad of cash and the post it note. Always one for effect old John, and who in the hell he thought could hear him I have no idea. But he knew what he was at, having been at it a long time. I opened the window and let the note be sucked away.
+++++No need for a map or Sat Nav, knowing this journey as I did, and after a couple of hours the need to piss arose so I pulled in to a service station and decided to get something to eat whilst I was at it.
+++++May as well make the most of the freedom. Be a lot going on when I got back and I needed to be ready for it. John may be superior to me socially but when it came to being in control, I beat him hands down.
+++++Three hours later, as the night is starting to close in, I arrive at the deserted assortment of lock-ups. Old John would be happy to know that I have delivered the cargo and it wouldn’t be hanging around in the van overnight.
+++++I back up to the same door as I did last month, get out the van and open it up. There is just enough light to see the suitcases from my last journey here.
+++++Unloading John’s designer luggage two at a time, I set Marilyn on the rack alongside Rita and tell them both to sleep well before I go off in search of a pint.

Heads or Tails

“Heads or tails, boy?” he asked.
+++++I could barely hear his voice. It was like something between a whisper and a croak, like the snapping of twigs in the undergrowth, the fracturing of bones.
+++++I looked up at him from where I sat on the floor. Just the same way as I had sat in assembly at school that morning. Except now I was sitting on dirt and dead leaves in the forest. And my hands and feet were tied together with wire. In assembly I had been told off for talking. Now I was too scared even to breathe.
+++++“Well, what’s it gonna be? Heads or tails?”
+++++The man shuffled over and knelt in front of me.
+++++His eyes were too big for his face. There was a pale sort of yellow colour where there should have been white. And black where there should have been brown, blue or green. He had lines around his mouth that seemed to be there to hold it up like those ropes that hold up tents. A smell came from within him that made me want to vomit. He only had a few teeth and his lips were as dirty as the ground beneath me.
+++++I could see blue sky through the tops of the trees and I could hear a plane somewhere far off. And here I was, thirteen years old, tied to a tree. An hour ago I had got home from school, changed into my normal clothes and taken my two dogs for a walk. I did it every day, well every school day anyway. They were Spaniels. Rescue dogs. I got them as a present for my birthday a few weeks back. I named one ‘King’ and one ‘Charles.’ I thought it was original but I don’t think anybody else did.
+++++“I will ask you one more time, boy. What will it be? Will it be heads? Or will it be tails?”
+++++He leaned towards me and grinned horribly before standing up and moving over to where King and Charles were tethered to a metal peg that he had banged into the ground. They had long given up barking and yelping. King seemed to be asleep or maybe just sulking. Charles was looking at me the whole time. I could see him shivering. It was getting colder, but not cold enough for a dog to feel it.
+++++“There, there little dog. Not long now.”
+++++Charles writhed on his leash and tried to back away as the man put out his big, grimy hand.
+++++“Heads,” I said at last.
+++++“What’s that, boy?”
+++++“Heads,” I repeated, looking at the dead leaves by my feet.
+++++“A fine choice.”
+++++Charles writhed some more and began to yelp as if he alone knew what was coming next. Even King managed to clamber slowly up to a standing position.
+++++The man reached into the inside of his coat pocket.
+++++I assumed he was looking for a coin.
+++++I assumed wrong.
+++++The blade of the knife looked so clean in his disgusting hand. The sun was drawn to it and it made it glisten like silver. I was appalled at its beauty.
+++++And I could do nothing as the man bent down over King and straddled him, one knee on the ground either side. I didn’t hear the knife go through King’s neck and I couldn’t hear the plane anymore. But I did here a pitiful thud as my little dog’s head dropped onto the forest floor. And in one motion he swung his arm and the blade carved Charles’ head from his quivering body.
+++++“I’d have gone for tails myself,” said the man as he wiped his knife against his soiled trousers. “But them’s the choices we make in life, boy. Them’s the choices.”
+++++And then he was gone.

The Mourning After

You wake up with dried blood adhering your head to the pillow. The vomit on the bed attacked your nose and your mouth opens as your stomach tried to evict something that is no longer there. A dampness around your groin doesn’t bode well for laundry day.
+++++Carefully you peel the pillow off your head and open your eyes. The floor spins clockwise while the ceiling is going the opposite way.
+++++You can’t remember anything about last night. Or at least nothing after necking absinthe in Shooters. The last time you were that drunk you woke up in a fountain located in the middle of a roundabout.
+++++Feeling your head you find no external injury. The inside is aflame with dehydration which causes spots to appear before your bloodshot eyes, but the outside is unscathed. So where is all the blood from?
+++++Then you see the pair of red stilettos lying tangled up in a white thong. Suddenly you recall the girl from last night, she was tall redheaded and she was wearing the sexiest red dress you’d ever seen. It had shown a hint of cleavage and a slit had kept giving you a flash of stocking top whenever she’d crossed her legs.
+++++You’d chatted and flirted with her. She’d laughed at your jokes, listened to your stories and left her hand on your arm long enough to show her intentions.
Her name was Siobhan or Sinead or something like that. It was Irish and started with an S. That much you could remember.

A lecherous smile crossed your face as you remembered the walk back to your flat. She’d dragged you into an alley and dropped to her knees to give you a taster of what was to come.
+++++You guessed she must be in the bathroom cleaning blood, puke and piss off herself. You’d never live this one down when the lads found out.
+++++So where had the blood come from? A hand rubbed across your face made your nose throb and you felt dried blood caked across your top lip. Thank God for that you thought. You hadn’t wanted it to be her blood.
+++++Getting out of bed you padded across to the window shivering. Had the bloody heating gone again? Drawing back the curtains you could see the smashed window.
+++++‘What the fuck happened last night?’ you asked the empty room.
+++++A glance out of the window showed a police car parked three stories below and two cops walking towards a body in a red dress.

Running downstairs in your boxers with no heed for decency, you sprinted out of the building reaching the body at the same time as the police.
+++++Her dress had ridden up around her waist exposing her crotch. One look at the cock between her legs made you remember everything.

Friday Night Fun

You don’t know why you didn’t get a taxi. You normally do. Something about saving money. But saving for what? It doesn’t seem worth it now.
+++++He’s standing there, staring at the bus timetable. You think his four brain cells are trying to work out what it means, when the next bus is due. You can’t stare though, that’s what he wants. That’s what he’s known for. Eyes down on the pavement. Your shoes are scuffed. Good night out, that’s what they’ll say. Did you get lucky in some alleyway? No, you didn’t. You got unlucky in a bus stop.
+++++He’s shaking his head at the timetable now. Probably can’t fathom it. From the corner of your eye you see his muscles tense. He’s only wearing a t-shirt. It’s freezing. Everyone else has a coat on, but he doesn’t look cold. Apart from his face, but that’s a different kind of cold. The worse kind.
+++++You sense he’s looking at you now, studying your face. You feel your cheeks burning. You want to look back at him but you don’t. You want to look at the bruise above his eye, the knife scar on his cheek, but you can’t. You want to smile. I’m just like you, you want to say. Waiting for the bus, that’s all I’m doing. But you know he wants more. You know he’s bored. You know how he entertains himself when he’s bored.
+++++There’s someone else sat next to you. About your age. He’s wearing a coat too. He could be one of your mates. But you’ve never met him. You can smell fear leaking from him. You can see him shift nervously in his seat. You don’t know him, you never met him. You wouldn’t ever want to harm him, but you want it to be him. If there’s got to be a victim, you want it be him.
+++++“What you staring at?” he says. You keep your eyes down. You notice the laces on your left shoe are crooked. They don’t match the right one. No symmetry.
+++++“Oi. I said what are you staring at?”
+++++The bottom of your trousers are frayed were they meet your shoes. You think you’ll buy some new ones next week. The man next to you is looking at his feet now. You think he’s looking at his own laces.
+++++He walks over towards you. Your heart misses a beat. He carries on past you. You can see his shoes. He stops in front of the other man.
+++++“I said, what are you staring at?”
+++++You sense look up. He looks at him, looks at the psycho. You tense your own muscles, you know what’s coming next. The punches start flying. You can hear them connect with his face next to yours. You feel a liquid hit your cheek. You know it’s blood. You’re still looking at the floor. There’s a piece of chewing gum trodden into the pavement. You wonder how long it’s been there and whose mouth it came from.
+++++The punches are still flying. He’s shouting no and please help but you still look at the gum. Blood’s trickled on top of the gum, right next to your shoe. You want to move away. But you don’t. What you really want to do is help, but you can’t. You’re frozen. You want to help him, to stop this, but you can’t.
+++++A flash catches your eye. You daren’t look, but you know what it is. A knife. He stabs him. You can hear the lunges penetrate the skin. You can see more blood dripping to the floor next to your shoes. Next to your clean but scuffed shoes.
+++++It stops.
+++++The knife clatters to the floor. He starts running. You want to turn and help the man but you can’t, not yet. You wait a few more seconds then turn. His head’s covered in fresh bruises and blood. Red’s gushing from a hole in his chest. Every breath pushes more blood out. You apologise. He tries to speak but he’s too weak. You’re convinced he’s trying to say don’t worry. You know he’d have down the same for you, he’d have done nothing too. That’s what you tell yourself as you stand up and walk away.

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