Kissing Heaven

He always wondered why the needle toss-out containers stayed half full. Surely there couldn’t be that many heroin addicts in Connecticut.
+++++The toilet seat was cold on him. He might’ve been sitting in an ocean, letting the still water flow around him. Then his feet felt solid floor. He wondered why they had needle bins now instead of ashtrays anywhere. Smoking wasn’t as bad as shooting. Not that he had anything else on him. He’d downed the last half of his goddamn bag. He hadn’t meant to. He just started with a pinch on the fries in the car, kept chasing. Snapped out of it, everything was gone.
+++++There was nothing left to calm him now. He knew it was going to be a bad idea. There was nothing in the water-soaked plastic bag floating in a fake can of V8 in his pocket, the one the girl at the front of the restaurant confiscated on his way in, long before he came here. Some part of him knew she’d figured he was stoned. Her and the waitresses gossiped about him behind walls, somewhere. One of the girls sat with some people, nodded over at him, they all stared, they all laughed. He stayed quiet. He pretended to type on his phone. The girl had sat him at a chair with tall legs that left him floating. There was no ground beneath him. He held onto the table for dear life with one hand, tried not to scream when the waitress came. He ordered mozzarella sticks and cheddar cheese fries and a Coke and ate it and tipped her five bucks and left without a word. The fake-V8 stash can was on a shelf behind the girl’s podium. He grabbed it and walked out, his
heart beating too fast in his chest. He walked down to his car, on the deepest level of the parking garage, ate the rest. He could still hear her talking about him. He had to use the bathroom. He stumbled out of his car and walked stiffly until he found one.
+++++He wondered if she had sliced some from the top. This was good shit. An eighth of his paycheck went into that can. If she had asked him he would’ve given her some. She was cute anyway.
+++++He hadn’t had a girl in a solid month now. He worked too many hours-sixty a week, overnight, with a morning shift in between, bussing tables. The girls he’d known in school went off to college, laughing at the fact that he didn’t have parents who could afford to send him. Advertising was his dream job. He was funny enough for it. It required an education, a college degree. He would have to do it on his own. So he bussed tables. But there was the one girl who hadn’t laughed, who came back into town for Valentine’s Day. He hadn’t seen her in a while. She looked at him when he was scrubbing a ring of syrup from the table in front of hers.
+++++He looked back at her and she was already staring at him. She looked at him and smiled.
+++++That smile, her green eyes and long blonde hair, pierced through his memory and haunted him.
+++++She was in the casino somewhere. He could feel her now, with all of this shit in his system. She was a mumbling. She was a tingle under his skin.
+++++He looked at the shadow of the doorway. Her feet were there. She would open the door and finally whisper why she left him, the skin on her bare feet brushing against his as he looked up at her. Some part of him would realize this is the closest she had ever been.
+++++A blink and she was gone forever. He knew he would never have another woman again. The THC inside him was truth serum. The lies of the world peeled away like an orange. He didn’t care if he looked insane.
+++++Did he look insane? Had someone else been here the entire time? Public intoxication was a crime. He knew it was. Surely someone had called to report the skinny white boy tripping in the men’s bathroom.
+++++Maybe they weren’t there at all.
+++++That was the worst part-the unknown. It might drive him insane. He might already be insane. He couldn’t know. He’d have to wait until he came down. It might be fifteen minutes, an hour, a day. He knew he was too fucked up to go walking back to the car now. At least he could sleep in there. Here, he falls asleep, wakes up, still stoned, no idea what time it is, when this place closes, if they locked him inside.
+++++He tried to think of how long he’d been in here. What time he realized he had to piss before the cold feeling in his legs would turn into urine running down his thigh and stumbled into the bathroom.
+++++Not knowing. That was the worst part.
+++++He was still fucked up. This was a mistake. The cinnamon rolls, the bag, the casino, everything. He had to act now. He had to move. If he sat here the Laziness would take over and he would melt into the porcelain and piss-stained tile floor, a ghost.
+++++He couldn’t feel his feet. He craned his neck down, bricks crashing against the inside of his skull. They’re still there, attached, clean, in the same shoes. The metal bar was three inches from his hand. He stuck one up and grabbed it, the cold sending shocks like he’d just put his hand in a piranha tank. He gripped onto it for dear life and tried to pull himself up. His legs shook under him. He couldn’t feel them either. Not the pulsing sensation when they were going numb, just nothing. There could have been nothing below his waist.
+++++He stood. He held onto the bar for dear life. He still couldn’t feel anything. He slid across the bar, the rest of him followed. Maybe he was floating. Maybe he was already a ghost. Maybe he’d just forgotten, like he’d forgotten about the girl, his dead mother, the father long gone and far away. Nobody understood him.
+++++He had too much to remember.
+++++The marijuana helped him forget.
+++++Maybe if he made it out of there alive, if he wasn’t dead already, he could find somebody who knew it too. Maybe they’d know it enough that he wouldn’t need the stash anymore. They would be a godsend, an angel, really, sent to save him.
+++++Maybe he had to put himself in hell to find his angels.

Work Related Stress

‘He is such a prick, just ignore him.’
+++++Ellie put a reassuring hand on Dani’s shoulder. It wasn’t going to stop her sobbing but Ellie felt like she was doing something – the bare minimum, but something.
+++++‘How can I ignore him, this is my job we’re talking about, if he goes to Sue and tells her he wants to sack me that’s it I’m out.’
+++++‘Sue isn’t going to listen to that jumped up little knob. No one here likes him. She’s more likely to back you than go along with what he wants. Shit, Sue hates him more than the rest of us.’
+++++Dani blew hard into a tissue.
+++++‘Really?’
+++++‘Damn straight,’ Ellie confirm before calling out across the office. ‘Hey Lisa, what’s Sue think of Graham?’
+++++‘What’s that?’ Lisa had been pretending not to listen.
+++++‘Sue, what’s she think of Graham?’
+++++‘Can’t stand the poison little dwarf,’ Lisa called back.
+++++‘See.’
+++++Dani smiled through tears. A snot bubble formed and popped on her face. Ellie removed the comforting hand, she didn’t mind comforting a colleague but she drew the line at snot.
+++++‘He’s had it in for me ever since I started here.’
+++++‘He’s just a little man, with a tiny bit of power. Outside of this office he’s fuck all – a pathetic waste of skin.’
+++++‘Yeah Dani, no one around here would be too sorry if we came in to find he’d been run down by a bus, there’d probably be a party,’ Lisa had wondered over to join in. ‘And, I don’t suppose there’s anyone outside of here that would shed a tear either. He’s a spineless weasel.’
+++++The door marked ‘Graham Morris – Administration Manager’ opened. Lisa shrank off back to her desk, her face reddening with embarrassment at the thought that Graham might have heard her.
+++++‘Dani, can I see you in here, now,’ Graham’s voice was spiked with pompous authority. He left the doorway and went back to his desk in a gesture that underlined his sulky demand.
+++++Dani passed Ellie’s desk on route to Graham’s door. The snot was gone – Ellie grabbed her trembling colleagues arm.
+++++‘Remember, don’t take any of his shit, we’re behind you,’ Ellie said, she underlined her words with a firm look and nod.
+++++Dani looked across the office for Lisa who added her backing to Ellie’s with a raised clenched fist that said, I’m with you sister.
+++++‘Close the door and sit down,’ Graham’s voice could be heard from within his office as Dani reached it.
+++++Dani did as instructed.

*  *  *

‘How long has she been in there?’ Lisa called across to Ellie in a whispered tone.
+++++‘Don’t really know, it’s got to be at least 45 minutes, right?’
+++++‘Yeah, at least – can you hear anything?’
+++++‘Nope not heard anything since the door shut.’
+++++‘That’s a good sign then I guess, no shouting or sobs.’
+++++Ellie shrugged an agreement and returned most of her attention to her screen – she still had half an ear on Graham Morris’ office.
+++++When the office door finally opened Dani stood tall in its place. Ellie and Lisa’s attention was instantly pulled to their colleague. It took them a moment to take in what they were seeing.
+++++‘You’ve got to help me,’ Dani said, she was smeared in blood.
+++++Both women rushed in Dani’s direction. Lisa went to Dani, Ellie ran past her yelling out to Graham.
+++++‘What the fuck did you do to our friend you…’
+++++Ellie’s words stopped and turned to screams. Graham Morris lay dead on his office floor, Ellie wasn’t a medical expert, but the substantial bloody dent in her boss’s skull was all the diagnosis she needed.
+++++‘Oh my fucking God!’ Lisa exclaimed as she looked past Dani into the office. And then the questions flowed. ‘What happened Dani, what did he do to you? Where are you hurt? How did you get the better of him?’
+++++Dani turned and faced the room, she pointed at a blood stained business award that Graham usually kept on his desk. It now lay on the floor next to the body.
+++++‘Where are you hurt?’ Lisa repeated one of her questions.
+++++‘I’m not.’ Dani replied coldly.
+++++‘But he tried to attack you, right? That’s why he’s lying there with a hole in his head, right?’
+++++‘No.’
+++++Ellie turned and looked at Dani, confusion etched her face. Lisa matched her expression.
+++++‘Then what the fuck happened?’ Ellie asked.
+++++‘He started going on about how my continual lateness and my sloppy work was a problem,’ Dani explained vacantly. ‘He said he was going to put in a request to Sue to have me dismissed. He was going on and on, that smug bastard look across his face and I just thought about what you girls said, no one’s going to miss him. I saw that poxy award he’s so proud of sat there on his desk and decided to cave his head in with it.’
+++++Dani’s colleagues were struck dumb with shock.
+++++‘It’s fine,’ Dani continued, as if waving off the end of a relationship that had never got beyond a couple of dinners and a fumble. ‘I’ve got everything worked out. I just need you two to help me.’
+++++‘Help you! Help you how?’ Ellie asked.
+++++Dani walked back though Graham’s office and stood in front of his PC. She shook the mouse, jolting the display out of screensaver mode. Her colleagues stood in the doorway looking on in disbelief.
+++++‘Look,’ Dani said encouraging them come in and see what was on the screen.
+++++Reluctantly both Ellie and Lisa entered the room. They were both acutely aware of the corpse of the man who should have been sat at the desk.
+++++The screen displayed a note, it wasn’t subtle – but then neither was a heavy award to the head.
+++++I can’t go on, the loneliness is too much, no one respects me. I’ve felt this way for too long and have to end it all.
+++++The note ended with the Administration Manager’s name.
+++++When Ellie and Lisa had finished reading the note they
+++++looked to Dani. Dani wore a grin that in any context would have looked deranged.
+++++‘So what, we’re supposed to explain to the police that he’d been depressed for a while and then convince them that he caved his own head in?’ Ellie was letting her anger at the stupidity of Dani’s plan affect her tone.
+++++Lisa put a firm and calming hand on Ellie’s arm to remind her that, yes Dani was clearly nuts, but she was obviously a very scary sort of nuts. She’d killed someone for little more than a threat.
+++++‘Don’t be silly, Ellie. He couldn’t have done that to himself,’ Dani said, as if she believed that fact needed explaining. ‘We’re going to throw him out of the window. Make it look like he jumped.’
+++++Ellie and Lisa stood dumbfounded as Dani looked at them as if what she’d just asked them for help taking an old sofa to the dump.
+++++‘Come on,’ Dani said, the tone seemed to imply, the water’s not that cold, rather than, help me chuck the boss out the window.
+++++‘We’ll have to throw that fucking award out with him too. It’s covered in blood. He was so in love with the bloody thing, it would make sense that he’d have jumped hugging it, right? This carpet’s going to need a bloody good clean too. It’s going to be a bugger to bring up. We can do it though can’t we? There’s got to be some decent cleaning gear around here, right?’
+++++Dani’s questions were rhetorical. She wasn’t really talking to her colleagues at all. She was just filling silence with words.
+++++‘Maybe we should go and look for something to clean with before we do this?’ Lisa said.
+++++She was attempting to find a way out of being in the room. Something that was clear to Ellie.
+++++‘Yes, why don’t Lisa and I go find something to clean? You, wait here and straighten things up a bit.’
+++++Dani was pulling at Graham’s legs inching him across the floor and revealing more of the blood stained carpet.
+++++‘Once he goes out the window we won’t have long to clean things up before the police are here looking around,’ Lisa added.
+++++Dani paused. She appeared to be thinking maybe Lisa had a point. But she shook her head and continued inching Graham along the floor. Deranged determination had taken hold of her. Lisa and Ellie stood frozen to the spot in disbelief.
+++++‘OK nobody move!’
+++++The room was alive with four uniformed bodies. There was more yelling and in a blink Dani was bundled to the ground and restrained by two officers. Another two approached Ellie and Lisa with less urgency but restrained authority. Ellie trembled and fell to her knees. Eyes at waist level to Lisa she saw the phone held behind her colleagues back. The screen displayed an open call to 999.
+++++‘Which one of you ladies called this in?’ One of the officers asked.
+++++Lisa brought the phone from behind here and presented it to the officer asking the questions.
+++++‘We’re going to need to take all of you ladies down the station and clear…’
+++++‘I’m so glad you’re hear,’ Dani started from under the restraint. ‘These two don’t seem to want to help me – even though they encouraged me. I just need someone to help me throw this piece of shit out of the window and make it look like he topped himself.’
+++++The room paused everyone focused on Dani as her mania took full hold. Tears were leaking from her cheeks and she shook wildly where her body was able. She caught the eye of the officer that had been asking the questions and went still.
+++++‘Will you help me?’

Home Again

I’m waiting for Roger. He wants his money. Actually, he wants my money. Marlon left it to me when he died. Somehow, Roger thinks it belongs to him. It doesn’t. Really, it didn’t belong to Marlon either, but I’ll get to that. The important thing is Roger thinks my money is his money. Why?
+++++Roger knows my secret, and he thinks I owe him. I do owe him. That’s why I’m sitting in a darkened apartment on Treasure Island drinking my last vodka. See, Roger has a right to be angry with me. After all, I killed his brother Sam only a month ago.
+++++Sam learned my secret, too. He learned two secrets. First, he learned about the money my friend Marlon hid away. When I said it didn’t belong to Marlon, I wasn’t kidding. Marlon took it from a bank.
+++++At gunpoint.
+++++They never found the cash, and Marlon never went to prison for it. Instead, he ended up in a prison cell in Ohio, which is where I met him. Since then, he became a father to me. Helped me to go straight, gave me a job when I reached San Francisco. His brother Wade became my business partner. The money, however, remained his secret until three days before he died in San Quentin.
+++++Why was Marlon in San Quentin? Well, they never pinned the robbery on him, though no one doubted he did it. They did, however, get him for the murder of his partner, a corrupt Northern California cop who double crossed him. Yeah, forget the money. You kill a cop, even one hated by his brother officers, and the whole of California law enforcement will come down on you sooner or later. They came down on Marlon shortly after I arrived in the Bay Area. So off to San Quentin he went. That’s where he met Sam.
+++++That’s where Sam found out about the money. And me. Only I was no longer me. I changed my name, my look, even my birthday. Sam figured that one out as well. He decided to use that to twist my arm, force me to give up the stash Marlon hid away. I tried to play dumb, but Sam had done his homework. I had done mine. Sam lost his job at San Quentin for blackmailing prisoners. When he came for me, I told him to go to Hell.
+++++So he made the acquaintance of Connie. Who is Connie? Connie was this slim, five-foot-four bar maid, beautiful and so loving. She had a tattoo of her spine up and down her spine. That sounds lame until you learn that the tattoo included a cobra wrapped around that spine. It danced when we made love.
+++++And Sam got to know her. When he realized I would never give him the money, no matter how much evidence he had on me, he took Connie to force my hand. That’s when I gave in. He returned Connie to me when I showed him the money.
+++++He gave me her severed head.
+++++Oh, friends and neighbors, my anger had become righteous. I loved Connie, was about to marry her. I even planned to reveal the truth about my past: my prison time, the invented identity, the real reason I knew Marlon and his brother so well. Connie suspected, maybe even knew, but I wanted to come clean. Sam denied me that chance.
+++++So I killed him and dumped his body in the Bay.
+++++I kept a souvenir, though, a silver Zippo Sam had carried on him. I’m holding it now, looking it shine in the dark. Roger wants it. He wants the money, too.
+++++It did not take long for him to figure out I’d killed Sam. Only Roger has bigger problems. It did not take long for police to find Connie’s body. They’re still looking for the head. I’ll spare you how I dealt with that problem. It did not matter. They found what was left of Connie, and the coroner knew Sam had enjoyed Connie before he killed her. Someone else did, too, and Roger left enough evidence to become a suspect.
+++++So Roger took up Sam’s cause. When he approached me, he said I had everything to lose. He has nothing. He’s right.
+++++And I’m tired. Tired of running. Tired of covering up. I told Roger I would give him Marlon’s stash. I lied. Marlon’s brother has half of it now. Connie’s family will have the other half once FedEx delivers the package I sent them. All that remains is Roger.
+++++He just sent me a text to tell me he’s getting off the Bay Bridge. That was part of the deal. My part was no cops, and I’m true to my word. No cops. No gun.
+++++But I am not unarmed. As soon as he texted me, I reached down between my legs and opened up the valve on the propane tank I bought for this occasion.
+++++There’s a knock at the door.
+++++“Come in,” I say.
As Roger steps into the apartment, I give Sam’s Zippo its final flick.

When The Dealin’s Done

Usually folks don’t believe me when I tell them the odds are in their favour. They rather whine, complain and call me a crook. Maybe they think I own this dump, cause I wear a tie.
+++++It’s the law, though; seventy percent of what goes into the slot machines must come out again. They can’t whirl on and on for weeks without giving the jackpot, either. So let’s say you visit once or twice a week and spend a tenner on the buggers. Then you’ll probably have doubled your wager by the end of the month. Of course, if you’re a gambler, you’re fucked. None of the sorry sods I see here every day, slack-jawed in front of the pokies, hypnotized by the wheezing sounds of the wheels, the soothing colours and the canon of merry jingles will ever make money. And if they accidentally hit it big, they’re too dull to get their ass out of these cosy leather stools and just keep playing, twenty hours, thirty, till the cash is gone.
+++++Daft as a lobotomised jellyfish.
+++++Not that I’m any better than the worst of them. As of now I owe 3k to a seven foot tall and five foot wide Russian who loves to toy with a golden cigar cutter while he watches you cram the credit into your pockets.
+++++What can I say? Horses, man. These fuckers rode me straight into some deep shit.
+++++My balls buzz and I know it’s him before I fiddle the cell out of my trouser. The weekly reminder is now an hourly one and I may have a day left till I’ve got to find new ways to poke my nose. I look at my watch and go into the cash booth to fetch me a cuppa.
+++++When I turn around I look at a gun.
+++++And a knife.
+++++And a plastic bag dangling from an outstretched pinkie.
+++++I won’t tell a guy with a black ski mask over his face how to do his job, but robbing an amusement arcade with a gun and a knife seems a bit excessive.
+++++It’s three in the morning and the only punter is Raoul the Dwarf. Hardly tall enough to headbutt your knee, he has managed to shrink somewhat more and all I can see is a shiny dome of rosy flesh drifting slowly back and forth over the back of his chair. A tiny thumb flips forward to hit the start button of the machine. God beware that he’d have to interrupt his game for a nuisance like an armed robbery.
+++++The masked face nods in the direction of the till.
+++++“Da munny,” he says.
+++++I pick the bag with two fingers, open the box and transfer the notes, the change and the coin rolls. Straight above us, the green light of the security camera is blinking steadily and the guy points his gun at the safe.
+++++“Uppen.”
+++++The safe is massive and old and hardly fits under the worktop. Hamid from the kebab shop sold it to my boss for a snip, back when the Krays nicked their first toy blocks. And since he can’t be arsed to answer the phone and drive five miles down to the den the two or three times a year someone happens to win the jackpot after midnight, I enter six times the zero and look at five-thousand neatly stacked Pounds. I throw the batch upon the rest of the money and hand the bag back.
+++++You’ve ever read or heard the expression “it seemed to happen in slow motion”? That’s bullshit. It’s more like stepping back into a different quantum level where you see everything at once, stretched into an amazingly vast and sprawling moment.
+++++The guy stows the gun away, moves out of the booth backwards and walks towards the exit, when one of the slot machines reels off a firework of exploding colours and an eardrum shattering rock fanfare blasts through the room.
+++++A tiny fist pumps the air and I hear: “Fuck yes, you fucker!”
+++++The whole commotion stops the robber dead in his tracks.
+++++I see the stool spinning around and Raoul, his head a pruney strawberry, jumps out, shouting: “That’s me fucking money, you bloody cunt!”
+++++The robber turns around and trips when Raoul grabs his thighs. Then, and I hardly can believe my eyes here, Raoul bites him the arse.
+++++Both fall down, Raoul bobs up and starts kicking him with his baby Nikes.
+++++When I get nearer, I see the carpet’s colour change from red to russet, and the blotch grows.
+++++I grab the dwarf’s collar, shove him aside and turn the guy around.
+++++The bent handle of the knife sticks out of the chest, way too close to the heart. I yank the mask from his head, brush the sweaty, blond hair out of his eyes. He looks at me, gobsmacked.
+++++“The fuck was that, man?” he says, hoarsely.
+++++I turn around and cry: “Call an ambulance, for God’s sake.”
+++++Raoul drags the bag to his place.
+++++“The fucking ambulance. Now!” I keep stroking Brian’s hair.
+++++“I can’t believe this shit, Ian,” he says. His eyes are losing their focus.
+++++“It’s fine, Brian. Everything’s good. I’ve got it all covered, mate,” I lie.
+++++“We got the whole 6k?”
+++++“Yeah, man. 3000 for the fucking Russian …”
+++++“… and 3000 for Benidorm, beer and boobies,” he says. Then he coughs up blood.
+++++“We’re as good as gone, bro.”
+++++I turn my head, beg into the black eye of the security cam.
+++++“Help me, please,” I taste tears. “My mate’s dying here.”
+++++Raoul rummages through the money.
+++++“Anyone?”
+++++But nobody here hears me anymore now.

Honor Thy Roots

Purple Wooly Buggerfly be damned! How she had ever wound up with a fly fisherman was beyond her, but she suspected it was the tequila. She shook her aching head, a mistake, she quickly discovered and tried to make sense of the last twenty-four hours. Stepping onto the plane for a much needed vacation, sitting next to a fellow on his way to the Yukon, taking advantage of a couple of free drinks and the rest of the trip blurred. She recalled the turbulence, a staccato voice from the cockpit saying they would be making an emergency landing, the extended layover in Winnipeg and a photo of her dancing on a tabletop wearing nothing but a fisherman’s skimpy vest festooned with homemade flies.
+++++“You alive in there?”
+++++“Barely.”
+++++Death must be better than this godawful ringing in her head. His voice didn’t sound so bad, but be darned if she could put a face to the voice. Rod. Yeah, his name was Rod. She’d giggled that one to death on the plane, trying not to laugh, having to excuse herself to finish her stifled guffaws in the washroom. A fisherman named Rod? He was so busy rhyming off the different flies he had tied in his lifetime—globugs, pike flies, dry flies, wet flies, nymph flies, streamer flies, wooly worm flies, flesh flies, bug flies and poppers—that he hadn’t noticed her discomfort as they exchanged names. It was almost as laughable as the lady she had met in the baggage check area, six feet tall and half as wide named Tiny.
+++++Owwwww. Kill me now. Please.
+++++“What’s all the moaning? Can I get you anything, darling?”
+++++Darling? It was worse than she could imagine. She had lost a good part of the last day in her life, and only now was it coming back in bits and pieces. She splashed cold water on her face and peered into mirror. Gloria, oh Gloria. What have you done this time?
+++++Visions of mother rushed in, hands on hips, demanding to know where she had been all night, that there were chores to be done, and who did she think she was, getting above the roots of her raising, hanging around with that mucky muck crowd from the city. She didn’t see them around trying to help run this farm, and maybe she should move out so she could be with them full time. Well, she’d taken Mother up on that one, and left the farm, never to return for a few years. But she came back with a college degree and a solid job in an advertising firm in the city. Mother didn’t complain so much when she handed her fat wads of money to help raise her kid sisters and brothers, but oh how bitter the battle had been before the job.
+++++“Let me in and we’ll check out the damage. You might have had one too many there, darling. You sure drank me and Al under the table.”
+++++ONE too many? She felt like she had consumed the entire blue agave forest in Guadalajara and maybe the whole of Mexico. When the margarita mix had run out, Tequila Sunrises took over, and finally tequila, straight from the bottle, worm and all.
+++++As she patted her face dry, something sparkled in the mirror. A ring? Nope. TWO rings. A whopping diamond and its mate. Oh, God. A wedding ring. She grabbed the towel bar for support. Really, the most out-of-character thing she’d ever done since leaving the farm was a teeny butterfly tattoo on her behind, and to date she’d almost forgotten about that weekend. Come to think of it, tequila was involved then too. But married? Couldn’t be.
+++++“Are you nearly ready, darling? We’ve got another plane to catch.”
+++++“We? Are you kidding me? You and I aren’t even headed to the same place! Aren’t you going to the Yukon?”
+++++“Yep. So are you, sweetie. I couldn’t leave my wife behind. Come on out. I just ordered us some breakfast. Al’s  coming to join us.”
+++++Oh Sweet Jesus, it was true. Why couldn’t she remember that part? She dragged herself to the door and opened it. There he stood in all his splendor. Her new husband. Not bad, easy on the eye, little older than she would have chosen, but trim and fit. And in far better shape this morning than she was.
+++++“How? Where? When did we do this?” She held up her hand.
+++++“Well, that part was easy. My buddy? Al? The one on the plane? So happens he’s a JP. Don’t worry, it’s legal. Here. You signed the papers yourself. I wanted to wait until we had at least landed, but you insisted. We got the rings in the airport. You chose them. Please tell me you’re not sorry. I have never done anything like this in my life, but I would do it over again. I called Mom. She’s getting our room ready. I told her we’d be back in a week, that we were going on a fishing trip  for our honeymoon, just like you insisted when you put my vest on. You are one hot babe when you get going!”
+++++“Wait a cotton-pickin minute here. We’re going back to WHERE to live with Mom?”
+++++“Rankin Inlet. I just took this trip south to pick up supplies for my business, Rod’s Fly-By Fish Flies. I also write for Outdoor Canada, and they sent me on the trip to the Yukon. So me, you and my buddy Al will be leaving soon. Let’s go, get dressed. You can’t wear that vest on the plane. I mean I don’t mind it, but—“
+++++“Shut up, Rod. I don’t even know you. I am not going on any fly fishing trip, and I am going to find a way to undo this wedding. Annulment. Yeah that’s what they do when a marriage hasn’t been consummated. So we’ll get an annulment. Here’s the rings back.”
+++++“Sorry, sweetheart. It’s been consummated”, he said with a wide grin. “In fact you said you hoped we’d made a baby, and  I told mom she was likely going to be a grandma already. You really don’t remember last night? You made me a happy man, darling. And that cute little butterfly—”
+++++Hose Cuervo, I hate you.
+++++“Sorry Rod. I am going in to pop a couple of Tylenol, take a shower and go home. I mean home. All the way home to my mother, so I can let her yell at me and tell me how stupid I am and that there are plenty of young farmers around, and why would I go off and marry some fly fisherman from Rankin Inlet—”
+++++“Too late. I found her number in your wallet. She is ecstatic. Her and the church ladies are already planning a reception for us when we get back from our honeymoon. She’s even got a date lined up for Al. She’s quite the lady, darling. Come here. Give us a kiss, Mrs. Rod Pike.”
+++++Yes, God. Please kill me now. Right now. Start. Immediately…

Shadows & Light – A Ballard Tale

I was not having a good morning, well, neither would you be if you had woken up in a dumpster smelling of last weeks lasagna and fish heads. My head was pounding like a thousand bombs had gone off inside it. I guess that must be from the bullet graze that decorated the top of my head.
+++++They must have thought I was already dead when I toppled off the fire escape into yesterdays leftovers.
+++++What had started as a simple babysitting job had morphed into something more sinister. I had taken a call from my old chief, Captain Sam Bennett, he asked for a meet at a downtown bar off Broome Street in lower Manhattan. I hadn’t heard from him in six years since I left the force with the rank of lieutenant and an arrest record longer than I care to think about. After spending six months wondering how I was going to spend the rest of my life, I decided I missed the cut and thrust of police work so I set up as a PI, a Private Investigator. I had to get out and do something, it was either that or spend the rest of my life on some happy hippy’s consultation couch coughing up all my dark memories and getting in touch with my feelings. That was for schmucks, not for me. And anyway, I had an ex wife and two kids to pay for.
+++++I arrived half an hour early, saw they were still doing food so I ordered a meatball Hero on Rye, and a Jack and splash while I waited. The bus girl arrived with my big Italian submarine sandwich five minutes later, and I tucked in. I was starved, and wanted to be in full control of my faculties rather than thinking about food. Whatever Captain Bennett wanted must be serious to ask for a meet in a bar so far off his patch at the 52nd Precinct in the Bronx.
+++++He arrived bang on time with another man in tow. I vaguely recognised the man who sat before me, he was rail thin with a rats face and a politicians grin.
+++++Bennett introduced him as Walter Vaughn, and he was indeed a politician. He was about speak before a Senate Subcommittee hearing in San Francisco on organised crime in the United States. To improve his political standing, Vaughn planned to present a surprise star witness, Pat Renella, a defector from the Organisation in New York. Renella was a wiseguy, a made man who for reasons known only to him had decided to rat out his bosses in the Larocca family. Word was the family was planning something big, and Renella had all the plans locked away in his tiny mind.
+++++“We want him guarded day and night,” Vaughn said, “His testimony could be extremely important. We want him alive when the Commission meets.”
+++++I should have walked away. Last thing I needed was to lock horns with mafioso. Bennett said it was an easy job. He massaged my ego, telling me he could not trust anyone on the job, he wanted an outsider, and immediately thought of Frank Ballard, the best thief taker he ever had.
+++++I knew he was talking crap. I had been a good cop, but at the same time a thorn in his side. I’d been a cop a long time. Ever since I came home from the killing floor in Southeast Asia. It seemed like the natural thing to do. My first assignment was vice, back in Frisco PD, but I got kicked back into uniform when some dirtbag pimp complained I’d roughed him up during a bust. I moved to New York, joined the force there, where I worked narcotics. The first week on the job I killed a dealer in a gunfight. He was shot in the back. The Review Team cleared me–he’d shot first and I nailed him going for the window.
+++++I got a commendation, but they put me back on the beat. That was okay for a while. The people in the community knew me, we got along. I caught two guys coming out of a bodega, stocking masks over their heads, one had a shotgun. I cut them both down. Turned out one was thirteen years old. How was I supposed to know?
+++++They sent me to the department shrink. Nice guy. Gave me a lot of tests, asked a lot of questions. Never said much.
+++++The shrink’s office was in Manhattan. The locks were a joke. I went back there one night and pulled my file. It made interesting reading. Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder, fundamental lack of empathy, blunted affect, addicted risk–taker.
+++++I’d been a sniper in Nam, so they tried me on the SWAT Team. When I did what they hired me to do, they pulled me off the job. Took away my gun.
+++++Then they gave me a choice. I could take early retirement, go out on disability. Emotionally unsuited to law enforcement, that kind of thing.
+++++So here I was, dumped in a San Francisco dumpster and left for dead because of some rat fink named Pat Renella.
+++++We had driven down in the night, me and my best man, Don Gordon. Holed up in a flop house in Bernal Heights off Cesar Chavez Street. Renella was not very talkative, which pleased me, last thing I wanted to do was shoot the breeze with a slime-ball like him.
+++++We only had to stay hidden for another twenty four hours, then we were to bring him to Senator Vaughn’s office where we would hand him over to SFPD’s finest who would look after him as he was transferred to the Senate hearing.
+++++We had only been there for three hours when I stepped out onto the fire exit to have a smoke, and get some fresh air. The air con was out in our room, and the day was a hot one.
+++++I had just taken my first long drag while half listening to Don ranting at some ball game on the flaky TV. Renell was sat at the Small table playing a game of patience. The door crashed open, and in came two goons, one armed with a pump action, the other a Browning. Don caught the full force of the pump action in the chest as he sprang to his feet.
+++++I went for my .38 Colt Detective Special, which was secured in a Safari-land Model 90 fast draw holster under my left arm pit. I had just got my hand on the weapon when I felt myself falling over the metal railing and pain eating up the top of my head, then the lights went out.
+++++I hauled my stocky frame out of the dumpster, and brushed off bits of paper and crap from my shirt and trousers. My head felt cotton woolly, and a wave of dizziness hit me. I put a hand out to steady myself. I was relieved to find my .38 was still firmly lodged in my holster. I did not fancy any more dumpster diving in search of it. The rancid smell was making me retch.
+++++Once I felt the earth stop moving I stumbled to the drop down ladder, and scrambled up the three flights to our room.
+++++The scene that greeted me was like a crazed Salvadore Dali painting. Blood splatters covered half one of the walls and a pool swelled out surrounding Don’s mangled body. By the look of him they must have shot him a second time. Of Renell, there was no sign.

****

I had to move fast. The goons who took Renell would be connected, made men working for Johnny Larocca. They wouldn’t kill him right away, would want him to suffer a little. So I still had time.
+++++I quickly fixed myself up, fresh clothes, and sorted the wound. Not having the time to wait for the local cops, I called it in from the phone box on the corner. I could deal with the fall out later. I had a couple of people to see first.
+++++Before I was a beat cop in New York, I worked Frisco’s wild and woolly streets, and I still knew most of the skels, the bottom feeders that ran on the edge of the local big crime families. If anyone would know, or could find out who was responsible for the take-down it would be Jimmy the Dog. He was a small time hustler who ran a car repair shop down an alley off Potrero and Army in Bernal Heights.
+++++I retrieved my car, a 68 Ford Mustang GT, from the underground garage across the road from the flophouse. Five minutes later I rolled to a stop outside.
+++++I recognised Jimmy D right away. He hadn’t changed in the seven years since I last saw him. He had the appearance of a greasy meatball in stained blue coveralls. Jimmy was under a Dodge Charger which was up on a hydraulic lift inside the shop. A large Hispanic looking man lounged on a chair by the wall outside.
+++++I peeled my frame out of the car and casually strolled over, just another customer who wanted to be ripped off by Jimmy D’s high prices.
+++++I nodded at the Hispanic man who nodded back. Standing in the doorway, I looked around the shop. Last time I had been here I would not have trusted Jimmy with a Tonka toy never mind an actual full size vehicle, he must have come into some serious money since the last time we did business. The shop was now equipped with state of the art equipment. Shiny tools sat in racks on the walls. The whole place still smelled of oil and grease though.
+++++“Heya, Jimmy,” I called out to his back.
+++++He gave a start, and slowly turned round, a look of recognition spread across his face. He probably remembered our last meeting. Dangling over a parapet five storeys up where I had caught him after a foot chase over the tar beach rooftops of Sunset Park.
+++++“Ballard, long time no see, you look like bat beaten shit.” he said, “You ain’t here to bust my balls are ya?”
+++++“Do they need busting, Jimmy?”
+++++He came out from under the Charger, rubbing his hands on an oily rag.
+++++“Hey, I’m strictly legit now, and anyway, ways I hear it, you’re no longer on the job, can’t bust me for nufink.”
+++++The Hispanic popped his head around the door, “Everything okay boss?” He said from under his Mexican mono-brow.
+++++“Go take a break, Miguel, Frankie here’s an old friend.”
+++++Miguel grunted, and hefted himself up and wandered off.
+++++“I figure this ain’t no social call, waddya want?”
+++++“Someone just tried to clean my clock, took out my partner, and whisked away the palooka I was sitting on, heard any whispers about who could be gunning for the new boys in town?”
+++++Jimmy’s face grew dark.
+++++“You wanna let this one go, Ballard. You was carrying a heavy duty package, word is he ripped off the Sinaloa cowboys and the Larocca brothers back East, he’s hot property.”
+++++I frowned, no one said anything about a Mexican Cartel being involved, or maybe they didn’t know. Maybe Renell was running a scam on everybody. Wouldn’t be the first time some mook had run NYPD like a racehorse. Seemed to me he’d got his fingers burned and saw the only way out was to spill his guts. Here’s hoping I found him before his guts spilled for real.
+++++“I can’t let it go, Jimmy, where would they take him? I figure they’ll keep him breathing for a while yet so all the players can get some payback.”
+++++“They got some warehouses down on the docks near pier 30, I hear its quiet down there at night, now if you’ll ‘scuse me I gotta get back to work.”
+++++“One last thing, what is it Renell knows that he could use as a bargaining chip, do you know?”
+++++Jimmy sighed, looked at me, his eyes narrowed, a frown deepening his already wrinkled face.
+++++“Word is, the dago brothers are gonna join forces with the boys across the border, even I know no good can come of that.”
+++++It was something I suppose, and it was all I had to go on. A warehouse! Mafia boys are so cliched. I thanked Jimmy, and headed back to my car. Jimmy was right, it would not be good news, Mafia and the cartels working together.
+++++I pulled out of the alley near the intersection of Potrero and Army. That was when I clocked the muscled up Dodge Charger with two up front. One thing that got my blood up was hoods who thought they were above the law, and these two fitted that description, I had clocked the open display of firearms. The passenger was tooled up with a pump action. I wondered if these were the two goons who gatecrashed my hotel room.
+++++I swung onto Army, and headed West.
+++++The Mustang was an anonymous drab shark in an ocean of quicker, brighter little fish—all of them darting about, secure in their, fog-light-blazing perkiness—at war with glowering pedestrians, all engaged in a mutual ignorance pact when it came to traffic signals. I feathered the throttle, knowing the Mustangs stump-puller motor could break the fat rear tires loose in a heartbeat.
+++++I felt the power kick in pulling me ahead of the following car. Manoeuvring around several vehicles gave me some breathing space.
+++++After travelling a few blocks, I checked my rear-view. The Charger was three cars back. It swung out in an attempt to pass the car in front but was forced back by a delivery van. At Precita I threw a u-turn, and then peeled right onto York Street. I had a few precious minutes to turn the tables on my followers. Spying an alley, I swung into it. Rolling to a stop just out of sight and waited.
+++++If anything made me antsy, it was having a couple of thugs trying to chase me down, I preferred it the other way round. How they found me I had no idea. Only thing I could think of was a clean up crew had been sent to the hotel, and they clocked me when I was leaving.
+++++I didn’t have long to wait. The Charger nosed past the mouth of the alley. I thought they had spotted me, but they had been too busy checking the alley on the opposite side.
+++++I threw the Mustang into reverse, with my wheels kicking up alley trash I burst out onto York to the honking of horns from disgruntled drivers. I swung the hood around, aiming it at the rear of their vehicle like a spear from hell.
+++++I throttled down and gave them a little bump. I was letting them know I was there.
+++++The hood in the passenger seat spun around, a what the fuck, expression on his face. There was a lot of hand waving and the Charger increased speed as the driver floored it.
+++++The passenger popped his head out and got off a shot with the pump action. I swerved to the left using the angle of their car for cover.
+++++More horns blared.
+++++Vehicles swerved.
+++++Screech of tyres.
+++++I dare not return fire in fear of hitting an innocent. It wasn’t like in the movies, firing a gun while driving at the same time was a hard act to pull off.
+++++I was all concentration now, silent fury was building inside me. My partner was dead, and Renell who was in my care was missing. I was not a happy chappy as the Limeys would say. And the fact I had to deal with these two schmucks before checking out the warehouse was not making my mood any better.
+++++They shot across oncoming traffic, taking the corner onto Kansas Street. Two pedestrians managed to dive out of the way as the Charger crashed through a pile of boxes and rubbish bags.
+++++I was not expecting that move so I overshot, and had to back up. Once I made it onto Kansas I had enough time to see them take a right onto 20th Street, we were heading towards the Potrero Hills district, an area I was unfamiliar with. I had to stop this and soon.
+++++We drove for several blocks. Houses and various businesses shot by in a blur. I would gain on the vehicle, they would take pot shots at me and pull away. Why Frisco’s finest hadn’t descended on us I had no idea.
+++++We turned onto Franklin Street heading East at 70 KPH. The wind whistling by outside. I could see the Coit Tower and Saints Peter and Paul Church silhouetted against the afternoon sky. I put my foot down and slammed into the right wing. The Charger fishtailed but held its course.
+++++We swerved around a Cab, and the passenger fired again. I was too slow, my windshield took the full brunt of the shot. Starred and shattered, I had to kick it out.
+++++I followed the vehicle onto Taylor, we were doing 80 downhill. Taylor is an undulating road, like a snake. We’d hit a rise and take to the air, slamming down with bone crunching intensity. How long my Mustang could take this kind of punishment I had no idea. I had lost three of my hub caps already.
+++++Off in the distance I could hear the rise and fall of sirens approaching fast.
+++++At the bottom of the hill the car swung right onto Filbert heading West. On our right we were passing the Chinatown campus of San Francisco City College. Several students stopped to cheer us on.
+++++A few more blocks and we drove onto the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Traffic was heavy and we were soon weaving in and out of the way of other vehicles.
+++++Near the end of the Parkway I could see traffic blocking the way, some kind of accident was preventing movement. The driver in the other car saw this too. We were approaching a gas station at the corner of Guadalupe and North Hill Drive. The driver saw a gap in the traffic and manoeuvred across the lanes. He was going to try and cut through the forecourt of the gas station. I shadowed his move perfectly. I ignored the horns of indignant drivers and put my foot down as the vehicle reached the edge of the forecourt. I slammed full on into his rear. I was trying to slam him into the side of the building. Instead, the vehicle spun across the forecourt and slammed into the pumps. +++++Gasoline geysered into the air as the pumps were sheered off. From the drivers side something spun into the air.
+++++Sunlight glinted off metal.
+++++A Zippo lighter!
+++++Who the fuck lights a cigarette during a car chase?
+++++I wrenched the wheel wildly, felt the rear end start to slide, then brought it out with a splash of power. The Mustang crashed through the fence bordering the forecourt and scraped alongside the cars backed up alongside. I swung onto North Hill just in time. The gas station went up with a whoosh of ignited fumes. In my rear-view mirror I saw the hoods car engulfed in red and orange flames. They had a burning desire to get away from me, now they were just burned.
+++++I heard more sirens in the distance, time for me to get my Lilly white ass out of there.
+++++I floored it, taking me away from the conflagration as quickly as possible.

****

Night fell on the city, slipping into its alleyways and avenues like a velvet glove. After leaving the gas station I had driven up into the hills, I figured Renell would not be dealt with until dark. I drove back into the city and parked up in an underground garage. A dark blue Camero pulled in four bays down from me, the youth who alighted was dressed in the uniform of a nearby hotel. He would be heading for the start of his night-shift, as my car was now too inconspicuous because of the windshield, his would be perfect. And I might be able to return it before he realises it’s gone.
From the garage I drove to a club at the corner of 20th and Rhode Island. Breeze was owned by an old friend of mine, Briony Kerrigan. Briony had worked vice until she caught a bullet from a pimp effectively invaliding her from the force. The club had belonged to her brother until he was killed in a car accident, Briony took it over and turned what was an ailing club into a growing concern.
+++++I knew I would need some back up when I went to the warehouse, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to watch my back. If I could persuade her.
+++++A huge hairy biker type dude was sat on a stool just inside the front doors, he grunted a greeting, and I asked him where Briony was. He indicated inside the bar with a meaty thumb.
+++++“You’ll find her at the bar, hey you ain’t from the fire marshals office are ya?”
+++++“Why? You in code violation?”
+++++I didn’t wait around for his answer. I pushed my way through a pair of faux bat-wing doors into the dimly lit interior, smelling of liquor and faded dreams. The club was about half full. The crowd a mixture of thirty somethings, and younger trying to look hip. Three girls in cropped shirts and Daisy Dukes worked the bar like a trio of magicians assistants, spinning and whirling in syncopation with the rock beat playing out from the juke in the corner.
+++++I spied Briony at the far end of the bar area. Her fiery red tresses, like her personality, standing out from the crowd. I weaved through the crowd until I was standing behind her.
+++++“Bri, been a long time.”
+++++She whirled, her hazel eyes above her strong nose and high cheekbones flashing in recognition. She was still a beauty alright, with the kind of hips that waved hello as she sashayed across the room.
+++++“Frank, my god, indeed a long time,” she said, and smiled a dimpled, wide-mouthed smile that lit up her face, “What brings you to my corner of hell?”
+++++“Business, Im afraid.”
+++++For a brief moment I caught a glimmer of disappointment in her eyes, then they returned to normal.
+++++“Let’s talk out back, you want a drink?”
+++++“I’ll take a Bud.”
+++++“Ah, I only serve my favourite men here, Jack, Johnny, Jim Beam, spirits only I’m afraid.”
+++++“In that case a Jack and splash will be fine.”
+++++She called out to one of the barmaids, Becca, for a couple of shots of Jack. When they arrived she led me to a small office behind the bar area.
+++++As we sipped our drinks I filled her in on the events leading up to my arrival at her bar.
+++++When I’d finished, she put her drink down on the desk in front of her. Her face all serious.
+++++“I’m in, what ever you need.”
+++++“Just like that?”
+++++I was surprised she did not need anymore persuading.
+++++“When the Laroccas knocked Tito off his perch and took over down here they came knocking on Donny’s door, the car crash was no accident Frank, he was murdered, only there was no proof, but I knew.”
+++++“I’m sorry, Bri.”
+++++“Don’t sweat it, you’re giving me a chance at some payback, if that’s all I can get, it’ll be enough.”
+++++She took out a Marlborough from the open pack on her desk, lit it and blew a cloud up to the ceiling.
+++++“So what cha want me to do?”

****

The area fronting the shore by Pier 30 was all shadows and light. A bit like my life really. I felt like I was living in a twilight world where the rules of normal life did not exist. After leaving the force I thought I would be shut of the crazies, the skels, the lowlife gutter snarks. I would spend my life in the land of easy times, but no, I had to be dragged back into that dark world of insanity and festering evil. That was one of the reasons my wife left me, she said I cared too much about other people, their pain and heartache, than my own family.
+++++Somebody had to.
+++++I could smell the salt water, and heard the slapping of waves. A boats horn echoed on the night air, answered by a couple more. Calling out to each other, adding a melancholy edge to the night.
+++++The click clack of approaching high heels brought me out of my reverie. Walking towards where I hung back in the shadow between two office buildings was Briony. She was dressed in pointy high heels, black stockings and a short sparkly skirt. A cropped white vest top and afro wig completed the lady of the night disguise.
+++++After leaving the club I had headed straight for the shore front and located the warehouse where I believed Renell was being held. Two hoods with slicked back hair and beady eyes were sat on wooden crates out side the door next to the larger roller shutter entrance. Both had bulges under their loose fitting jackets. I found a call box and told Briony where to meet me before returning to my shadow to keep eyes on the place.
+++++Only one other person arrived at the warehouse while I was waiting. By his demeanour he was their boss man. He stayed for five minutes before leaving. I had no idea how many would be inside as the warehouse had no windows. Briony would be my eyes on the inside. Playing a part she was good at, the drunken hooker. She would gain access to the warehouse, and once I entered she would call out the numbers, and then join in whatever fight ensued with her own .38 secreted in her pocketbook. A thin plan I knew but it would save me precious seconds in scoping out the players.
+++++I stayed in the shadows as she stopped by me. She made a show of fiddling with the strap of one of her shoes.
+++++“Two sentry’s by the door, bring them to me,” I whispered.
+++++She popped the gum in her mouth signalling she had heard. Adjusting her skirt she tottered off towards the two men. From my position across from them I could hear every word.
+++++“Hey sister, you lost?”
+++++One of the hoods slipped off his perch, grinned at Briony.
+++++“I’s lookin’ for some fun, hun, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could find some do ya?”
+++++She had deliberately slurred her words, effecting the persona of a horny happy drunk.
+++++“You came to the right place, me and my partner are the kings of fun,” he slung a thumb over his shoulder indicating the other hood who remained sitting on his crate. His expression blank but a hunger rising in his eyes.
+++++“Well fellas I’m all dressed up and no one to blow, lets the three of us slip into that alley across the way…have us a pardy hardy,” her voice dripped with a sultry heat, body writhing in faux desire. I knew she would be cringing inside, but she was a superb actress, she deserved an Oscar for the performance she was giving.
+++++The hoods were convinced. All thoughts of duty vanished as the brain between their legs took a hold. Briony started tottering towards me. The two hoods trailing like hounds in heat.
+++++I slipped back into deeper shadow, drew my .38.
+++++They both had a hold of her as they stepped into the alley. I moved towards them, my gun held at waist level. Before I could speak, Briony was on the move. She was a blur, before I could blink, both men were unconscious on the ground. It had been an impressive display of Kwai Chang Caine shit I had ever seen.
+++++I stared at her, mouth open.
+++++“I met a Chinese cat by the name of Mr Lee in Oakland, taught me some slammin’ tricks, been practising ever since,” she grinned from ear to ear, “Nice to see the shit works for real.”
+++++I laughed, “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
+++++“C’mon, phase two,” she whirled and headed back towards the warehouse.
+++++Without pausing she wobbled over to the warehouse door, back in character again. She pushed it open and disappeared inside. I was to give her to the count of thirty then follow her in.
+++++I ran over, and waited by the door, counting off in my head.
+++++Hitting thirty, I cracked the door and slipped inside.
+++++Inside it was a twilight world. The only illumination was a single light in the centre of the roof. Dust motes floated in the air which smelled of dry wood, and oil. The warehouse was long, and low, filled with crates ten high. A single passage led deeper into the warehouse. I could hear male voices, Briony’s laugh.
+++++I skulked along the passage. Heard Briony say, “A party it is boys, the six of us, ya better give me a swig of that bottle, figure I’m gonna need the stamina.”
+++++More male laughter.
+++++She was telling me there was five of them.
+++++I quickened my pace. Moving towards the sound of the voices.
+++++The passage ended at an open space. I quickly took in Renell tied to a chair, his battered face hung down on this chest. On a small table before him was some kind of recording equipment. Briony was leaning against a table, the men standing in a semi circle before her like they were at some kind of Burlesque show.
+++++I shot the nearest man to me. He flew back, a neat little hole where his nose used to be. Briony came up with her own weapon. The men scattered, drawing their weapons. I caught one in the back as he made his way towards the cover of a passage nearby. Briony shot two of them. The one that was left had more presence of mind. He made for Renell, putting his gun to the mans head, with his other hand he drew a Magnum from the waistband of his pants, moving it from me to Briony.
+++++“Drop your weapons, or I do him!”
+++++I stepped towards them, my pistol out before me.
+++++“Nah, you drop yours and we’ll let you live.”
+++++He laughed, a harsh sound in the dank air of the warehouse.
+++++“Whatcha think I am a fool, you’ll kill me. I’m leaving here, and taking him with me.”
+++++I stepped closer, aiming to distract him. I had a sudden thought.
+++++“What’s the recording equipment for?”
+++++I lowered my weapon.
+++++The man laughed.
+++++“Mr Larocca likes to have recordings of our little, erm, question and answer sessions, he wanted to know everything Pat knew about his business.”
+++++“I had a feeling that was the case.”
+++++My gun came up and I shot Renell twice in the chest. The hood stepped back, shock flowing from his eyes. He was even more shocked when two of Briony’s slugs took out those same eyes.

****

“I don’t get it,” Briony said, “Why’d you shoot, Renell?”
+++++We were back in her office at the bar. The recording equipment sat on the desk n front of us, alongside a suitcase stuffed full of more money than I had ever seen in my life. I had to take it, for safe keeping see, anyone could have walked in and stolen it. I saw it as a profoundly moral act in a kind of moral, biblical, old testament sense: an eye for an eye, and a bag of money thrown in. The fact that the eyes had had a brain and a skull behind it was incidental.
+++++I raised my glass of Jack in a silent cheer to my partner Don before answering.
+++++“Way I saw it, Renell was the one ultimately responsible for Don’s death, and what Vaughn was after was what Renell knew, they recorded it all so we didn’t need the rat, we was in a Mexican stand-off so I took him out of the equation.”
+++++“What did Bennett say when you called him?”
+++++“My ear’s just starting to stop aching, but when I told him we had it all on tape it mollified him some.”
+++++She nodded at the bag of money.
+++++“So, Frank, what you gonna do with all that money?”
+++++“Thought I might take you out to dinner.”
+++++“Thought you’d never ask, you still owe me for that burgher I bought you, I accept, but no Mexican,” she said, “Oh, and no Italian either.”
+++++We both fell about laughing before knocking back our Jacks and heading out into a night full of pleasant neon shadows and light.

Debt

The Doughnut Den was as empty as my wallet. A dozen squad cars parked outside and an armed response unit peering through scopes does that for a business. The ghosts of old coffee and fried pastries hung on the air. Two other guys crowded a white-topped table.
+++++“Listen to me, Yusuf,” I said, hands out and empty.
+++++“You don’t want to do this.”
+++++The young Arab, knuckles turning white around the steak knife’s handle, stared at me with goggle eyes. His narrow lips twisted at the corners. The tremble in his fist made my gut twist.
+++++“This is all I want, Dale.”
+++++Yusuf wrapped his fingers deeper in the white guy’s black curls. He yanked on the fistful of hair, raising his captive’s chin. A rivulet of crimson broke across the blade then tracked its way down acne-scarred flesh.
+++++I bit my lip, threw a look to the white and candy-pink tiles colouring up the floor. My left hand flicked to the bandage on my ribs, pressed away the pain from where the same kid’s knife went in. Phantom warmth of someone else’s blood trickled across my fingers. I remembered how wide and terrified Aisha’s eyes had been while I’d tried to stop the leak in her throat.
+++++“Yusuf.”
+++++The word came out as nothing but a breath, left a hollow in my chest as it fell from my lips. Platitudes, pleas for sense, crawled up my throat. Every single one died before they reached my tongue.
+++++“He killed my baby.”
+++++The Arab’s hand jerked back, pulling the goon’s head with it. Silver lines glistened under Yusuf’s eyes. His tears matched the slow-motion pace of blood spilling from his captive’s throat.
+++++“He killed my wife!”
+++++I took another step forward, angled my body as best I could between the shop’s plate-glass windows and my friend. I searched around my head for something that wouldn’t be construed as meaningless bull shit. I came up short.
+++++“Don’t let him ruin your life, Yusuf.”
+++++Tension slipped from the Arab’s shoulders. His white teeth flashed in a smile that looked almost natural. He shook his head a fraction, resecured his grip on the mook’s scalp.
+++++“He made you watch Aisha die. He let you bleed out in some stinking back alley. Why are you trying to save him, Dale?”
+++++I let my hands drop, let the memories of cold concrete, stale piss and trying to hold my intestines into my gut flood back. I let myself remember holding a young woman’s hand as I pressed sweatshop t-shirts against her throat, let the memory of staring at a dead girl’s baby-swollen belly crawl black and cancerous through my skull.
+++++“If I’d found him first, he’d be dead already,” I said, knuckles cracking as I clenched my fists.
+++++“I’m not letting this piece of shit ruin another life.”
+++++“Thank you Dale,” Yusuf said, the warmth of his smile chilling my insides.
+++++“But only Allah can save me now.”
+++++Yusuf’s blade flashed under fluorescent lights.
+++++I leapt forward, screaming mad nothings as his knife bit the guy’s neck. Steel pierced flesh. Crimson sprayed from a severed artery. Somewhere behind me glass shattered, ripped apart by a police marksman’s 7.62 round. I crashed into Yusuf, momentum knocking us both to the floor.
+++++“Yusuf?”
+++++Struggling to my knees, I screamed his name. I grabbed the collar of his simple white shirt, turned his head so I could see his face.
+++++“Yusuf.”
+++++An angry third eye burned in the centre of his forehead, a single red tear crawling across his brow. Stunned, I rocked back onto my haunches, slipped my hand inside his and hoped his god saw fit to reunite him with his family.

Brody Soldier

John gets out of bed and turns on the computer, listens to the comforting hum. He goes to Facebook, punches in his email and code word. The Facebook page says BRODY SOLDIER. On the upper right of the Facebook page he sees he has 3 messages from the little yellow “3” there and is disappointed about the small number.
+++++He sees that he has 4,999 “friends.” 5,000 is the maximum, and he has been at that maximum for a couple of years now. It makes no sense to him, this maximum number, seems random and stupid, for a popular guy like John could easily have 10 or 20 thousand friends by now if it was allowed. But somehow he has lost a friend over the last few hours. This is depressing, but fixable. To the right of the screen Facebook asks him: “Do you know these people?” There are a few people there. The first one is a woman named Heather Kaye. John clicks on her name, goes to her page and clicks on the box to request her friendship. He writes her a message: “Heather, have been reading and enjoying
your posts, which always brighten my day, would love to be ‘friends’ (ha ha) with you here on Facebook. I am a poet and a lover of life. Have a nice day. Brody.”
+++++He goes to his messages. One is from a woman named Karin Fowler. Karin is in love with him and won’t get the hint that he isn’t interested. She is a fat sow and at least 46 years old, much too old for John, even though he is 44 himself. The message reads: “Brody, where have you been? Didn’t you get my last message about the getting coffee?” Sure, John thinks, like I’d ever have coffee with you. Besides he doesn’t even live in New York. That’s what his Facebook page says, though really he lives in Tucson, Arizona.
His second message is from another woman named Ami Reese: “Brody, read your last poem and it made me weep, you are truly talented, thank you for being you.” Ami isn’t bad looking, nice ass from what her pictures shows.
+++++The third message is from Claire Larson: “Brody, what’s up? Hope you’re well, just wanted to send you a hug.” Who the hell is Claire? John thinks.
+++++His Facebook header is a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and his photo is from some tall dark and handsome model he found on the internet. He had used the same model for his photo albums.
+++++If you click “about” on the page it informs you that he works at “poet, photographer, artist” and that he is married, is male and knows English and Spanglish.
+++++He clicks to the general Facebook feed. Nick Murray-White has posted: “Embrace your fate, love your fate.” Love your hate, John thinks. Then he clicks “like.”
+++++Sammy Girard has posted: “344 new words finished on my novel! Great morning so far. Am going to reward myself with a cup of tea!”
+++++Comments under this read: “Yay, Sammy!” “Way to go Samuel” and “Atta boy!”
+++++Mike exits Facebook and goes to the internet and writes in the search engine box: Poetry journals. A zillion pop up, and he scrolls down until he finds one he’s never looked at before, called, My Old Shoe Review. He looks through the poems, finds one that he likes, copies it. Then he goes to his Facebook page again, and pastes the poem. He changes a couple of words and the title, then clicks “post.” In about 4 seconds he has two “likes”. Likes are fine, but it is the comments that really get his juices flowing. In a minute or two there is a BLOOP from his computer speaker, indicating someone has commented. Below the poem Jackie Fire has written: “Brody, you are amazing, please keep it up, this was one of your best!!”
+++++John doesn’t write a response, instead, as reply he puts a little yellow smiley face and clicks enter. The smiley face pops up in his comments section and then someone puts a “like” under the smiley face. Then someone likes Jackie’s original comment. There is a number “1” underneath it and a “thumbs-up” symbol. Then, there is a number “2” and soon after a number “3.” Then it is like popcorn pushing up the lid of the like-pan.
+++++He leaves the popcorn popping and goes out of the room, down the hall and into the bathroom. He washes his face and brushes his teeth. He is 5 feet 6 inches tall and has a small head with thinning hair and a puffy pale face. He steps to the toilet and takes a piss.
+++++He leaves the bathroom and goes back into his bedroom. He flips on the light switch on the outside of the closet wall and opens the closet door. She is huddled against the farthest wall of the cement lined room. She’s not moving. Shit, he thinks, just what I fucking need today.
+++++When he bought the house he’d lined the closet with concrete block, installed a drain in the middle of the concrete floor. He had inserted iron hooks on the walls and attached to one of them was one end of a pair of handcuffs, the other end dangling. He hadn’t had to use them on her in a long time. He had done all the home improvements himself, with the help of the kind folks at Home Depot, which was only a few miles down the road.
+++++The girl is emaciated and wears a tattered blue dress. She is filthy, her long Mexican hair dark and caked together like dread locks. Her eyes are half open. The only other thing in the room besides her is a bucket filled with urine, the smell of which fills the little cell. John thinks about how her eyes had looked so much more beautiful when he’d brought her home that day 3 years ago.
+++++“Fucking Mexicans come here, take our jobs, take our land, take everything!”
+++++He gives her a kick.
+++++She doesn’t move.
+++++He backs out of the cell, closes the heavy iron closet door, locks it with the deadbolt, shuts off the light. Then he goes out of the bedroom, down the carpeted hall and into the kitchen. He fixes himself eggs benedict, his favorite, whisking the sauce with skill, poaches the eggs perfectly, toasts the muffin, piles it on a white plate with artistry and patience. He spins the plate around and views it from all sides, cleaning up the edges with a white cloth. Then he carries the masterpiece into the living room and sets it on the thick oak table. His digital camera is sitting there, he lifts it and takes a photo of the eggs, then takes the plate and eggs back into the bedroom and sits down at the computer.
+++++Back on Facebook, Heather Kaye still hasn’t accepted his friendship request. “Fucking stuck-up cunt,” he says. His photo of breakfast pops unto his page with the upload, and he makes a little caption: “My humble breakfast.” Almost immediately the likes start coming, and then the comments.
+++++Heather Worthington-Fuller says: “YUMMY!!”
+++++Denise Hamm says: “Oh, my, that looks GOOD!”
+++++Roger Edith-Erickson says: “Eggs Benedict, YAH!”
+++++Samuel Georgian-Stuckerheim says: “Watch that colesterol, Brody!”
+++++John types into the keyboard: “Another day where I’m wondering where I went wrong. My wife, as always, refused me this morning, and last night, just as she’s done for months. I try and I try, but nothing is good enough. Am I ugly? What is wrong with me? I even made her breakfast in bed this morning, as you can see, and she didn’t touch it.”
+++++The likes come so fast it’s as if they’re elbowing each other out of the way to get there, a stampede of likes.
+++++Remi Lovings writes: “Brody, she’s not worth it, but I realize you can’t just let 3 years of marriage go, because you are a good man. Whatever this woman’s problem is, it’s her loss! You are beautiful and don’t ever forget it!”
+++++The clock says 7:35. He turns the computer off sadly and gets ready for work, pulls on his dress pants and his green dress shirt. He picks up the phone and calls a cab because his Celica is in the shop, being worked on by a couple of Mexicans, no doubt. He tells the dispatch to send a driver. “And make sure he speaks English!” Then he checks the lock on the closet door again, grabs his briefcase.
+++++The sun is already hot on the upper middle class neighborhood as he climbs into the cab that pulls into his driveway. He tells the driver the address. He works at an immigration office on the south side of Tucson. His office is not much different than the cell where he had kept the girl for 3 years. He’s not looking forward to the long day, listening to all those fucking Mexicans whining and whining and whining, and all the god damned paperwork. He’s especially not looking forward to the hole he’s going to have to dig in his back yard when he gets home. Well, hell, he thinks, maybe I’ll write a poem about it.

Ella

The light turned yellow. Making it through before the red was wishful thinking. I am not a wishful guy.
+++++I sat at the light and waited. For the cops, the apocalypse, for anything but her. I would not have been surprised if she found me here. Now that I did not want her, she might come to me at any time. I held the wheel in one hand, a bottle in the other. I would go straight ahead when the light changed. The wheel did not need my attention.
+++++I drank. It was bourbon, it was necessary. Not something I usually drank from the bottle, but I did not usually have this much to fear.
+++++The light changed and I wedged the bottle between my thighs, gripped the wheel with both hands, and screamed into the intersection. It was me that screamed, not the car, and even if my windows had been down, the music was up loud, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. This was Oakland, people screamed all the time without being noticed.
+++++I’m short and white and don’t look intimidating, but everyone knows you don’t fuck with a crazy person. Unless you’re another crazy person. That was where Ella came in. It was also why she’d had to go. I don’t know whose call that was.
+++++I wanted to be downtown, I wanted to just wander. I wanted so many sights that I’d never see what I’d left behind. A normal life, but only my version of it.
+++++Downtown Oakland was better than that. It was warm outside, mid-seventies. The homeless or close-to-it were on every corner, at every bus stop, pushing their shopping carts or wearing their blankets. I drove a twenty year old Buick. To them, I was rich. I looked for eyes as I drove past, but no one looked at me. I was driving past, I could not give them anything.
+++++I turned off the radio, drove forward in ugly silence. The next light was green. I drove through it scared. I drove slowly, Ella in my head like a pillow pushed down against my face. I drove even slower. There was a bus stop at the corner up ahead on my right. An old woman sat there. She wore a baseball cap over her bald head and a torn puffy blue coat that she’d zipped all the way. It hung to her thighs. Her ancient uncovered legs were heavily bruised. One of her bare black feet kicked at a tennis shoe a couple of feet away. Her other leg hung lifeless.
+++++I rolled to the red and reached across the passenger seat, turned the hand crank for the window. “Hey!” I yelled. “Want some food?”
+++++Her head cocked, as though trying to acknowledge my existence in her reality, her eyes concave things that had seen too much and chose to see no more.
+++++“Get in!” I said. “I’ll drive you where there’s food.”
+++++She opened her mouth and shut it. No words came. “You are the Devil,” she rasped.
+++++Her voice sounded satanic. I nodded. Yeah, I thought, I am. “I will drive you to food,” I said.
+++++She stood from the bench and took a feeble step toward the car. “You,” she said, still rasping, her head still turned, only now her eyes worked, and they glared through mine like lasers.
+++++Still bent to reach the door, I opened it, let it fall toward her.
+++++She stepped back. “You!”
+++++“I will buy you food,” I said. “I will buy you shoes.”
+++++She stopped where she stood. “You always want me naked!” she yelled.
+++++I sat up straight and my foot hit the gas pedal. The Buick leapt into the intersection, my door still open, the light still red. Cars came at me and swerved. I yelled. Drivers honked their horns at me. I yelled louder, pushed the gas pedal harder, got out of their crazy ways.
+++++I heard skids behind me but I was on the next block, away from everyone who made loud noises at me like they loved me. Away from all of them but Ella. I would never see her again but she would always be with me. She would always love me. I had bought her food and shoes. Like I had bought them for all the Ellas before, and would buy them for Ella again.

Damfino Attends a Party

“Who are we murdering?”
+++++Conversation halted. The circle of friends wheeled from the fire to eye the stranger. She stood tall in high-heel boots slick as oil in sunlight. She sported a midnight trench unbuttoned to reveal a red-knit dress that snugly, and barely, covered her gender. Lengthy tresses of deep scarlet rolled and flowed as if caught in a light breeze.
+++++“That’s if I heard correctly,” the stranger said.
+++++“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Mrs. MacGruder said.
+++++A crisp flick materialized a card between the stranger’s second and third fingers. “You have not.”
+++++Mrs. MacGruder reached for the card like grasping for a razor blade. “Dam—Dam—”
+++++“DAM-FEE-NO.”
+++++Malcolm Lafferty said, “Sounds Italian, eh?”
+++++“Does it? A rich, old name. Been in my family forever.”
+++++“Yes? Very good.”
+++++“You might say for eternity.”
+++++Mrs. MacGruder peered over her glasses.
+++++“Forgive the intrusion, Mrs. MacGruder. As I passed, the sounds of your party entreated me and I let myself in. So many delightful souls in your charming house. Many would die to live in a house such as this.”
+++++Mrs. Sidwich said, “That’s an oxymoron, you have.”
+++++“Then I overheard your tiny group. I never miss a murder.”
+++++“Oh, that.” Mrs. MacGruder leered at Damfino. “Quite nothing.”
+++++“Let us be frank,” Mrs. Sidwich said. “Mr. MacGruder, Dorothy dear’s poor hubby, once again retired early with a migraine.”
+++++“Beastly things,” Mr. Lafferty said.
+++++“As four of his closest friends,” Mrs. Sidwich nodded, “we felt compelled to put the old poke out of his misery.”
+++++“How lucky he is to have all of you,” Damfino said. “You must be the Sidwich’s, Lucille and Philip. And of course the Lafferty’s, Rose and Malcolm.”
+++++Mrs. MacGruder again glanced over the rims of her spectacles. “How did you—?”
+++++“You wish to perform a mercy,” Damfino said.
+++++“Quite. Like having your head in a vice,” Mr. Sidwich said.
+++++“Mulches the brains,” Mr. Lafferty nodded.
+++++“But we must have rules,” Mrs. Lafferty said.
+++++“Ah,” Damfino raised a long finger to her lips.
+++++Mrs. MacGruder offered, “Please, do sit.”
+++++Damfino lowered herself to a cream ottoman.
+++++“You may only use what’s in the bedroom,” Mrs. Lafferty said. “Strictly nothing allowed from outside.”
+++++“Rather cramps one’s style,” Mr. Lafferty said.
+++++“Come off it, Lafferty,” Mr. Sidwich said. “Where’s your spirit?”
+++++“The adventure,” Damfino said. “That excites, doesn’t it?” She petted Mr. Sidwich’s leg like a lap cat.
+++++“I suppose,” Mr. Lafferty said, “that I could prod him to death with a credit card, eh? That could take some time, you know.”
+++++“Don’t be an ass, Malcolm,” Mrs. Lafferty said.
+++++“Well,” Mr. Lafferty said, “I don’t suppose they regrind the carving knives in the bedroom, dear.”
+++++“Hardly,” Mrs. MacGruder said.
+++++“But you have pillows,” Mrs. Sidwich said. “We could suffocate him.”
+++++“You’d have to overpower him,” Mr. Sidwich said. “Angus is long on bulk.”
+++++“Same applies to stringing him up,” Mr. Lafferty said. “Plenty of sheets and whatnot, I take it. Or you could hoist him over the balcony and plunk him on his head—crack! Like a soft-boiled egg. No, I don’t believe Angus would stand for any of that.”
+++++“We could stove in his head with the telly,” Mrs. Sidwich said.
+++++“That’s one good use for the bloody thing,” Mrs. MacGruder said.
+++++“Dorothy, dear,” Mrs. Lafferty said, “does your boudoir display any blunt instruments? A candelabra, perhaps? A statuette?”
+++++“There’s rather a sizable planter on the balcony, Rose, with Angus’s hideous bastard cobas. I suppose two of us might be able to raise it.”
+++++“There you are Dorothy,” Mr. Lafferty said. “Crown him a good one. And if the whacking doesn’t do the trick, we could always bury his head in the dirt.”
+++++“Balls!” said Damfino.
+++++“The devil you say,” Mrs. Sidwich said.
+++++Damfino arched her eyebrows. “Too much effort. There are better ways to raise a sweat.”
+++++“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. MacGruder said.
+++++“I’d like to see for myself,” Damfino said. “If you don’t mind?”
+++++“Splendid,” Mrs. Sidwich said.
+++++Mrs. MacGruder’s mouth popped like a guppy’s. She brought her hands to her bosom. “Well, well—”
+++++Damfino stood and swung round. The friends rose in unison.
+++++Mrs. Sidwich tittered, “Now we’re getting somewhere, Dorothy.”
+++++The five followed Damfino’s long strides from the living room to the great hall. Damfino breezed ahead, up the main staircase to the second floor, out of sight.
+++++Mrs. Sidwich called after her, “Only what you find in the room, love.”
+++++Mrs. Lafferty whispered, “Dorothy, how does she know?”
+++++Mrs. Sidwich called again, “No cheating.”
+++++The friends scurried up the steps and reached the landing as the bedroom door shut fast. They scooted along the thick runner and tried to find a spot to lay an ear. They made a peculiar sight, frozen in place, affixed to the door as if held by some great magnet.
+++++Mr. Lafferty said quietly, “I don’t—”
+++++“Shh,” Mrs. Lafferty elbowed him.
+++++After a minute’s silence, they leaned away from the door.
+++++“I don’t hear a damn thing,” Mr. Sidwich said.
+++++Mrs. Sidwich smiled, “What do you suppose she’s doing?”
+++++“Whatever it is,” Mrs. MacGruder said, “She’s had—”
+++++A muffled explosion erupted from behind the door. The sound expressed sharp crack, a weighted thud. The party shared a stunned moment, then they squeezed through the door, led my Mrs. MacGruder.
+++++The room lay in darkness except for the moonlight filtering through the transparent drapery. The silver rays glistened on two pillow feathers caught in the fiery strands of Damfino’s hair. The soft, white glow outlined her body straddling a still figure below the sheets. In one hand she held a long revolver. Its barrel pointed at a darkened hole in the pillow. Rays from the moon shone through wisps of smoke that rose from the hole like curls of steam. Beneath the pillow, a deep stain spread its way into the mattress.
+++++Mrs. MacGruder staggered back. Her arms flailed out for support. “Ohh,” she moaned, and again, “Ohh.”
+++++“Why so shocked, Mrs. MacGruder?” Damfino said. “Didn’t you know your husband kept a pistol?”

Gas Pedal

The stoplight three houses down from my apartment must be the longest fucking traffic signal in three counties. It never fails to turn red when it sees me. Two cars are stopped ahead of me, both idiots blabbing into their phones. No other lane to pass. The light turns green, but both cars just sit there. Neither driver’s paying attention, both jawing into their mobiles without a care in the world and evidently no place to be.
+++++I pound the horn, demanding both vehicles blow to pieces in a fiery explosion. It doesn’t happen. God, I wish these assholes could hear me cursing them. The first car pulls through the intersection, but the second driver, a tough guy, eyeballs me in his rearview mirror and just sits there, taunting me by blocking the lane. The bass of his speakers is rattling my car. I promise him through the windshield that I will step out of this car and smash out his teeth with the pipe wrench laying on the floorboard if he doesn’t move his vehicle. Finally, it rolls forward. He takes a left. I swerve past and spit on his trunk.
+++++If I don’t make it across town in ten minutes then my whole plan falls apart. So it’d be a good idea for all pedestrians to evacuate the route between me and where I’m going. I am an unstoppable force. I am a laser-guided cruise missile.
+++++That stupid bitch had sent me a text message meant for that cocksucker Gary Davidson. “Meet you in 10 at the Paradise, Sexy!” She was headed to that fleabag hotel over on Highway 11. I’d known what was going on for a while, known deep down in my gut. And now I was going to catch them in the act. When you’re cheating on your husband, you should pay real close attention who you’re sending your dirty notes to.
+++++Some old crone with a giant purse is crossing the street. She’d better run. She does and shouts something as I whiz by her. Old ladies run like chickens.
+++++If I hit the main drag driving the way I am, I’ll have a cop on my tail in no time. So I stay on the surface streets, ignoring the stop signs. The hammer’s to the floor, and this rundown Chevy is really motoring. But it’s a hilly roadway; I lose speed at every dip and bottom-out with a heavy bang. The suspension is screeching, and it feels like I might lose a wheel. But screw the car. It’s only got to make it a few more miles then I won’t need it anymore.
+++++The road broadens into a four-lane. Every driver I weave past blares their horn and flips me off, but they can all go straight to hell. Now back to a two-lane. Some old fart who can barely see over his steering column is clogging my path. He doesn’t deserve to be on the road. I jam my front end next his and stomp the gas. I wedge him over. BOOM, he slams into a parked car or three.
+++++I see the hotel’s cheap plastic sign coming up. Its parking lot is potholed and littered with trash. My wife’s been giving it up in a pay-by-the-hour ass shack like some sort of truck-stop whore.
+++++I pull across the street and idle, looking over the place. I spot her Honda. Holy shit, there’s Gary Davidson getting out of his BMW and walking over to meet my wife. She and Gary embrace in the middle of the lot and greet with a kiss. How sweet.
+++++I’d considered caving in his skull with the wrench, but I’m not married to that idea. I grab my phone and click on the key screen. I type a reply to her errant message—“Be there in just a sec!”—and hit send. Then I buckle up.
+++++Modern technology is a marvel. She gets the text almost instantly, and I’ve already started accelerating. She checks her phone and furrows her brow. Confused, dear?
+++++I murder the gas pedal. Tires squeal on the pavement. She and Gary are now looking at my car and they’re both getting close very fast. I’m laughing like hell. He shoves her out the way. I cream him, and his face shatters on my windshield. The car bucks with the blow, but I keep the gas throttled and head straight for the block wall at the edge of the lot. This will hurt. When we crash I feel like I’m plunged underwater. But that doesn’t last long.
+++++I’m back in the car. Vision’s blurry, but Gary has met his maker. The impact pinched his body between the crumpled hood and the wall, and a gob of pink goo has squirted from his mouth like he was a human tube of toothpaste. I hit the wipers.
+++++I hear precious wifey screaming. I grab the wrench from the floorboard and kick open the crunched car door. When she sees me, I can tell from her expression that she’s struggling with a number of regrets. Sirens are wailing a few blocks away. Here comes the cavalry. But I only need a few more minutes, a little private time up close, to make sure I leave her with a face that no man will ever want to kiss again.

* * *

“You’re nobody.”
+++++Now, I’m in Gary’s Beamer. Nice ride, but it’s hard to focus on that because I’m so worked up over my wife and her big mouth. A total harpie until the bitter end, that one.
+++++I was going to leave her alive but severely disfigured, which struck me as poetic justice. But then she said it.
+++++“You’re nobody,” she told me. “You never amounted to shit! You’re sick, and you’re nobody.”
+++++She always had to get the last word in edgewise. Congratulations, dear.
+++++I showed her I’m not a man of words. I’m a man of action. And I introduced her to the pipe wrench, over and over. I couldn’t stop myself. I did away with her face and smiled like a blue-ribbon winner when a trio of cop cars, lights flashing like fireworks, blazed right past the hotel parking lot and shot down the street. Stupid assholes.
+++++So I hit the road.
+++++I’m nobody? Wrong. I’ll bet a fine bottle of bourbon that my name’s going to be all over the local news within hours. Publicity like that turns a nobody into a somebody in no time. And if you really put the hammer down, if the needle hits the red line and you keep right on going, then you might even make the national news. That’s when you really become somebody.
+++++Let me show you.
+++++At my apartment no cops are in sight. I give myself two minutes tops, grab the shotgun and a box of shells.
+++++Back on the road, I’m cruising down Highway 78. Things are chill. A BMW is a finely tuned piece of machinery, and the ride is smooth like I’m rolling on a boulevard of warm butter. I turn on the radio and learn that Gary Davidson was a fan of soul music. Al Green is singing softly about how he’s still in love with me, which cools me down like a damp towel. With the windows open, the breeze feels nice.
+++++I pass a school bus. Dusky Pines Elementary is stenciled on the side. Must be a field trip. The kids stretch weird faces and laugh at me through the windows. Ahead of the bus is a classic Cadillac convertible with an older couple, both with white hair. The top is down.
+++++The streetlight ahead turns red. I stop at the intersection alongside the convertible. The man driving has a cigarette in his mouth. He takes it out, leans over and kisses his wife on the cheek. She giggles. They both look like golfers, each wearing shades. The school bus pulls up to their bumper. More cars file in behind us.
+++++The 12-gauge is loaded with five shells and already racked. I shift into park and take my foot off the brake. Al Green has a beautiful voice. The old couple is listening to a talk station.
+++++I rest the muzzle on the edge of my driver’s side window. The street light’s green arrow has expired and traffic now crosses the intersection. I lift the stock and aim the barrel at the woman’s beehive hairdo. She turns and sees me, and her mouth becomes an O. I squeeze the trigger. Her whole head turns red. The gun kicks like karate. The old man is a howling baboon, cradling her body. I open the door and step out of the Beamer. I rack the gun and shoot him through the neck.
+++++Horns blare.
+++++Cars bang into each other, trying to speed away.
+++++The bus rumbles into reverse, smashing into the car behind it. I rack the gun and go for its door.
+++++I see the bus driver reach for the control lever. The shotgun blasts apart the glass between us. I have to wedge open the door with the gun stock but manage to force my way through. The screams of children chime through the cab. Some average-joe hero is rushing into the bus, but I toss him the driver’s body like a boxing bag, and the man tumbles back outside. I peg the go-pedal and rip through the gears. The bus rams past the convertible and jumps the curb. We ramble over the median and roar down the road; it’s the expressway or bust. Holy crap, I already her sirens!
+++++A school bus engine can pack upwards of 300 horsepower, and can move a lot faster than you’d think if you don’t give a damn about the cargo aboard.
+++++“Mister, are you going to hurt us?” asks one little girl.
+++++“Probably.”
+++++“Why’d you shoot Mrs. Hinklemeyer?”
+++++“I hated her name.” I keep the gun beside me, right where they can see it.
+++++“Why are you doin’ this to us?” asks a gap-toothed chubby kid.
+++++“Because y’all are a bunch of nobodies,” I tell them. “And so am I. But I’ve got a plan to change all that.”
+++++That’s when I hear it—the sweet sound of beating mechanical wings. The thrum of helicopter blades is rising in the distance. The eye in the sky is on its way, ‘cause baby I’ve hit the big time, now.
+++++“What kind of plan?” asks the tiny princess in the seat behind me. I meet her eyes in the rearview mirror.
+++++“A plan to make us all famous,” I tell her. “See, I’ve had a really bad day, but I plan to wrap it up on a high note. Today we all started out as nobodies, me and you both, darling. But by tomorrow, each and every one of you kids will be celebrated all over TV. Everybody’ll know who you are. And everybody’s going to know my name, too.”
+++++I’ve got nothing against these kids, but I’ve got an omelet to make.
+++++Most other cars on the interstate are falling away to give passage to the battalion of police cruisers and SUVs that are closing in fast. I hear the chopper right above me, slicing the air to shingles, and there’s a broadcast news van chasing up the rear.
+++++I come upon a tiny red Kia and make a hard right on top of it. Like a pinball paddle the bus sends it hurtling, and the cop cruisers scatter to avoid collision. I careen onto the off-ramp, a fairly steep uphill climb to an overpass bridge. I’m stabbing the gas and grinding the gears to keep the clunky yellow box up to speed. The children are crying, but we’re almost at the top.
+++++Damn the brakes; we fly through the intersection. I decide there’s no off-ramp in our future and jerk the wheel slightly to the left. We’re headed for the sweet spot between the bridge and the embankment.
+++++The cops are trying to communicate through some sort of public address system. They’re calling to me. They announce my name on a loudspeaker. Great balls of fire! They know my name! We leave the road, and the bus is one loud, long scream, launching into the air, casting a great black shadow over the cars passing on the lanes below.
+++++Maybe I was a lousy husband. Maybe I never became a big-shot in life. But I know at this one spectacular moment that I’ve finally achieved something significant. Something a lot of people won’t soon forget.
+++++Like it or not, I’ve become somebody.

Billy the Kid & Watching the Sun Die

Billy the Kid

Twenty years driving through the devil grin moonlight, made me aware of the magic of darkness. I swerved to avoid a turquoise raccoon ambling across the road. Listening to Bob Dylan’s The Ballad of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Zimmie honking hard on his harp. Mexican guitars and tambourines filled the air. Thoughts of my cat, Paloma that had recently died made my bifocals misty with tears. I lit a roach of Columbo and a seed popped and burnt my nuts causing me to crash into a tree. I woke up in jail. I’d been there before. I recalled a story about John Dillinger and his side kick, Homer Van Meter. Homer had taught himself how to rope flies with thread, while inside. I started unraveling my shirt, much to the amazement of my cell mate.

Watching the Sun Die

The lemon yellow sun dribbled daylight juice onto the elephant colored rails. Taking out my last cigar, I watched the sun die. Reaching into my pocket I felt two quarters squirming, my guts were growling like a wolf man eating a vampire. I entered the hobo camp smelling food beckoning my quivering taste buds. I saw men with brown bags, holding strong fortified vino. Laying my money and stogie next to the campfire, a man dished me up a plate. Saluting him and smiling my thanks, I knew I’d have to find work, but for now one thing was certain, someone sure could cook. After meeting up with my Pueblo amigo, Puma and building a fireplace in Espanola, New Mexico, I felt restless. I suggested a trip to New Orleans. Puma had never seen the Mississippi and I wanted to consult with a voodoo woman, I’d heard about.
+++++Walking down Bourbon Street, listening to Dixieland jazz and blues, once in awhile we would start dancing. Musicians and tourists gawked and grinned. Puma borrowed a guitar and I sang some songs in Spanish and recited a few poems. An old man jumped off his porch and played congas, flute, and harmonica. Several coins and bills were deposited into the gent’s sombrero. He fed us hot gumbo and crawdads and we drank chicory coffee laced with hooch. The house of the voodoo woman was in an alley near the river. Puma recognized most of the herbs hanging from her ceiling beams. There were jars of chicken and goat feet and eyeballs of all sizes and pungent repugnant odors. I asked for a cure for baldness, she mixed several ingredients and took it behind a curtain for a minute. When she returned, she instructed me to stir it well before drinking. Once you return home, she said use your own warmed urine. Puma was trying to keep a straight face.
+++++When we got back to the mountains, I decided I wasn’t cooking any piss and I damn sure wasn’t drinking it. Puma and I drank the datura tea, near the Painted Desert. Flocks of ravens perched on azure rocks pecking slowly at purple lizards. Stag horn cholla, agave stars, and barrel cacti leaned west toward the sun and Pacific. A turtle dove nestled in the paloverde. Puma pointed at a red rattler swallowing a kangaroo mouse. Clouds exploded in crimson, green, yellow, orange, intaglio; surrealistic bleeding hallucinations. Overpowered and frightened, we drank mezcal until oblivion accepted us.
+++++The next day we boarded a freight train south for Oaxaca and the pyramids. Near the zocalo in Mexico City, I went to buy blue agave tequila. An old woman called to me, I reached for a few pesos. As I put the coins in her hand, she held onto mine and rubbed it with red powder. Her voice took on an unearthly quality. I felt dizzy and my legs were watery. The day became dark; the sun was swallowed by evil thunderheads.
+++++She spoke in what sounded like German. “You will live a few more years, and then die like a dog.” She wanted more money, I staggered away, feeling a terrible need to be scratched behind my ears.

Tuesday

“You been drinking?”
+++++She hit me with those big baby blues, looked away quick. I guess she hoped I hadn’t noticed the redness around her eyes, the liquid tension etched at the corner of her stare.
+++++“A little,” she said, aiming the comment more at her dull, brown carpet than me.
+++++“You okay?” I asked.
+++++She sniffed hard. A breath of chill air rattled through her sinuses, shook a load of liquid mucus.
+++++“Sure. Sure I am,” she lied.
+++++Lines of mercury danced above her mascara-bare lashes. Her right shoulder twitched, maybe like she wanted to wipe away the saline tell. Her cheeks reddened a little. She kept her hands clasped behind her back. I hadn’t noticed they were out of sight.
+++++“You want a beer? Some coffee? I think I have some of that Brazilian stuff you like.”
+++++Her face cracked a smile about as genuine as her purple cow-print onsie. Her unpainted lips twitched and tightened as the question stretched out unanswered. Something on the mahogany coffee table caught her attention. Her shoulders curled under the weight of observation.
+++++“Sorry,” I said, taking my turn with a plastic grin.
+++++“Coffee ‘d be great.”
+++++Lines deepened across her forehead and around the baby blues that found my grey. Her mouth twitched at the corner as advantage in our little game of bull shit changed again.
+++++“Cool,” she said.
+++++She flicked her head as she turned, fanning her hair in a golden arc. The conjurer’s trick failed as she used her body to block my view of whatever she held. I reached out, laid a hand on her shoulder. I gripped hard enough to make her wince.
+++++“Jenny?”
+++++A gentle shrug shifted my grasp. I let my hand drop to my side as her body shrank in on itself. A second inhalation, still chock full of emotion and snot, slithered through her darkened lounge. Her back to me, she raised her right hand.
+++++My throat went dry at the length of pink, nylon washing line dangling from her fist. Its noose-twisted end swung like a pendulum counting out her time.
+++++“Jen?”
+++++Numb from the chest out, I took another step forward. I wrapped an arm around her waist and my free hand around hers. Our fingers merged into a single fist. Her shoulders shuddered against my chest.
+++++“I don’t see you so much any more.”
+++++“Sshh…” I cooed, nuzzling my cheek against hers. Jen’s hot tears lubricated the patchy, three-day growth on my face.
+++++“Come on.”
+++++I ran my hand up her side, traced the underside of her arm until our hands joined. Silent, I led her through her darkened house, felt her Siamese brush past us on the stairs. Guided by memories that couldn’t puncture the igneous tumour in my ribs, I led her to the double bed we’d shared so many times before.
+++++Fully-clothed, we slipped onto the mattress, snuggled together on a purple duvet that had spent most of our encounters stained and crumpled on the bedroom floor. She pulled her body tight against mine. I wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her tight. The beat of her heart rippled through my body, couldn’t reawaken the dead slab of meat in my chest.
+++++“Tell me,” I whispered, brushing my lips against the warm flesh an inch below her ear.
+++++She wriggled enough to get some space, loosening my hold. A minute passed, silent but for Caspar the cat mewling somewhere in the blackness. I tried again with the kiss on her neck. She angled away so I got a mouthful of hair.
+++++“It’s not like I’m suicidal…”
+++++I let her words hang, tried to stop reflexively re-tightening my grip on her soft tummy. My granite block cracked from the strain of keeping my eyes dry.
+++++“I mean sure, I had the rope. I wasn’t going to use it. I wasn’t going to tie it to the bannister or anything. I just wandered what it would be like, how it would feel cutting into my throat. Would I panic as my eyes bulged and my lungs burned? Could I go through with it?”
+++++Her words danced black with menace in the still, cold air. I closed my eyes against the taunt, pulled her close to my body. Relief seared tension from my muscles as she pushed herself against me, wrapping her fingers in mine.
+++++“But you’re back now. I don’t need to find out.”

*

The clock on her night stand read 04:00 when I slid my arm from beneath her sleeping body. In the wan light, I took a final look at her pretty face. My first genuine smile in longer than I could remember twitched across my lips at her soft, rasping snore. A trickle of saliva glistened from the corner of a mouth I was desperate to kiss.
+++++I eased myself from her bed, careful not to make the springs squeak. I took the noose instead of granting my last request. With practiced footfalls, I crept downstairs, avoiding loose boards I’d memorised long ago.
+++++I paused at the front door, remembered the times we’d slouched on her sofa, laughed at shitty TV and made love in every inch of her property. I stepped into the wind and rain before ghosts of arguments and harsh words snapped in my mind.
+++++Nylon cord tight in my hand, I strolled slowly through empty streets. Icy rain diluted the salt streaks in my beard. My teeth chattered. High, black railing speared the night sky, protecting the cemetary from the outside world. I struggled with frozen fingers to make a knot, slipped Jenny’s last gift over my head.
+++++Maybe she’d never forgive me for leaving, but she’d hate me too much to follow.

Just This

I sit here, perched above the world, watching your moon cut a path
across the darkened ocean. A wall of rock, jagged and mysterious in
the dark, falls away from me, us, to meet the sandy beach where we sat
earlier today. You fed me a mango then, off the tip of your knife. I
watched you peel and slice and nick yourself leaving drops of blood on
the hot, sandy beach. The cool ocean licked at our heels as we sunned
ourselves in the orange glow of an afternoon. We were happy lying
side-by-side on cheap towels, not even the sight of your bleeding
finger could touch us. We had daylight then, our ally. But when the
horizon pulled the sun from our view it became impossible to linger,
to ignore the passing of time. So up the rugged path, over ancient
gnarled roots, we climbed and left the dwindling noise of the
laughing, drinking crowd behind us. Trading voices for silence, save
the sound of our breathing and the crickets, the night became still
and foreign in its quiet. I stumbled in the dark and you caught me in
your arms.
+++++Time came along and flipped our world, put us in the sky, and now the
sun looks up at us while we sit here next to the stars gazing into the
darkness.
+++++Under the moonlight, this bamboo balcony reaches far enough out into
the night so that we are suspended, encircled by air, and floating in
this stringed hammock, perfect for two – a night ship holding us in
its curve. Bats clip in and out of the palm tree fronds. They chase an
evening meal with radar tuned so precisely on a fly, a tiny,
imperceptible fly. The boats are out balancing on top of the water
with their flashlights beamed downwards into the dark sea, their
artificial lights enticing baby squid up from watery dreams and
trapping them in the dry, breathy world of fishermen. Everything is as
it is every night, as it has been for weeks past. Rows of half bamboo
strapped together with twine hold the sky above us, sheltering us, and
in the distance stars flicker down to meet the water’s edge lighting
up the horizon.
+++++Between us, our limbs are a mix of brown and pale, a directionless map
with no beginning or ending; an undulating circle of difference and
sameness, of choices and promises and things unspoken. The cool,
tropical night air leaves us drowsy.
+++++I rest back, and you light my cigarette. The smell of you, of tobacco,
and soap overpower my breath. ‘My friend’ you say, about to start a
thought, and I laugh. You call everyone your friend. And then you
laugh too, taking the cigarette from me.
+++++Holding your hand up in the light I trace the milky half moons at the
base of your nails and the brown creases of your knuckles, they are
soft, like you. I will miss your hands. I had noticed the scar that
first day when you held out a coffee for me to take: a sharp line
running down the length of your index finger, all healed and rigid.
Perhaps you cut it while peeling a mango – for someone. I trace it
with my index finger. Bump.
+++++Then you go dark, it hurts and you want to fight with me, to make it
easier for you. You try accusations and petty name calling. But your
rough words are drowned out by the gentle pulling of waves on the
beach, of stars in the sky, and the soft distance between us. You lose
momentum. You don’t really have the heart for it. Tomorrow you can be
angry with me. Tomorrow you will have all day, and more, to be angry
with me.
+++++But tonight, now, while you are distracted and struggling to hold your
anger, I steal all this from you. I gather it from the corners of our
limited world, and wrap it up in a dancing globe in my mind’s eye. I
do this so deftly that you don’t even notice its leaving – this moment
you thought was yours too. I steal it so that I can secret it away and
later take it out and bounce it around, so it will still be fresh, and
new, and mine. I will carry this moment, and one day it will carry me,
and you will still be here, cutting yourself and bleeding on mangoes.

How to Kill the Kid at the Counter

Listen instead
Listen instead

If you want money quick and easy rob a joint.
+++++If you want to rob a joint quick and easy try a diner. Try it between two and four in the morning. Make sure it’s open 24-hours. The bars close at one. Everyone’s drunk and hungry, don’t wanna go home. They stay out to eat and chill, sober up. They sit for an hour. They pay and leave. The staff’s bare. Nobody wants to work the shift. They’re fighting sleep. They’re dead men walking. In back two cooks who take turns sleeping and a dishwasher who speaks no English. No busser on weekdays. In front one waitress diddling on her phone and forced to clean her own tables. She’ll do her shit far from the register-top up the syrups on the table, keep the coffee pots brewing, count her tips.
+++++The kid behind the register’s young. Small for his age, no muscle on his body. He’s a pretty boy, clearly-good shirt, clean black slacks. A hard worker. He might be eighteen or nineteen but looks fifteen. He’s braindead. They all are. He keeps the register locked, even if he’s right behind it, so no one can jack it. He stands behind the long granite counter, eyes half closed, waiting for a customer.
+++++The windows perpendicular to him are glass, wall high, the ceiling one giant skylight to let in the dark night. They bounce lights off of them like a prism. Pull up and flash your highbeams. Keep them on. Park close. The lights travel far in the long night. They’ll blind him, daze him. Grab your gun, keep your car running, keep the gun hidden in your jacket, a smile on your face.
+++++No matter where the joint is act quick. Bring that gun. Get him behind the register. Get the waitress to panic and run away to call. Keep the cooks behind the walls. Get the manager to lock himself in the office. If he’s even there.
+++++Hope he isn’t. Hope the kid isn’t pissing his pants.
+++++Try to keep the gun level. Try to remember everything you’ve heard. Try to keep yourself calm. Try to pretend you’ve still got this.
+++++Pretend you’ve still got a chance when something hits you and you black out, cold.
+++++Wake up in a hospital, cuffed to a gurney. Stay there two days tops. Go to jail for a long time.
+++++The kid didn’t just work the shift because he can stay up late. Just because he isn’t big doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to kick your ass.
+++++Sorry I forgot to tell you.

Through the Walls

Carl got the job because he needed money. He kept it to look at girls naked.
+++++Being a janitor had its perks. The hotel was high-class, he worked good hours. It paid rent for a studio apartment and alimony and child support for his retard son.
+++++It was enough to get by. Then the movie stars came-ridiculously good-looking people who walked his hallways, freshly vacuumed just for them. They ignored him. No look, no smile, no “hi”. Nothing. Good asses to stare at, fake tits, painted faces, guards to shove him aside and threaten him when he said he had to clean next door.
+++++Maybe they were paranoid.
+++++Maybe they thought he was trying to sneak a peek. Maybe they thought he was putting cameras in there when he dragged his cart in there with him, one plastic wheel squeaking, the spray bottles sloshing and the rags swinging. The door would auto-lock behind him. They thought he was just some balding white-trash psycho in a bandana who limped and whistled Johnny Cash. Weird but harmless.
+++++Behind that door Carl could see through walls.
+++++The stars came. The websites followed. They’d showed him where to put the cameras-the waterproof ones in the showerhead for the top-down look, the thin long one (“the Snake,” he’d started calling it. They liked that.) in the drain so the invisible men could look up to them like goddesses.
+++++He didn’t step into adjoining rooms to put the cameras in. Carl did it to clean. The cameras were already there. Later he’d grab the feed from the transmitter in the floor air duct, lurking in a layer of dust and around a bend. It was wireless, two inches wide and a three millimeters thin, silent, the antenna wrapped around the matchbox-sized box powerful enough to handle thirty cameras on three AAA batteries. The little fucker was tough. It could survive anything. It gave him everything-peace of mind, a future, hope. All he had to do was unplug a USB, put it in his pocket, jam another one in the slot and slip out the door. No one suspected anything.
+++++Last Tuesday it came time to change the batteries/grab the raw footage again. There were no celebrities that day. But rituals can’t harm you. The managers weren’t in on it. He was the only one who got checks for “tips” every Wednesday. He was looking forward to it.
+++++The room with the transmitter had been rented out then. No one had told him it was taken. They usually did. Carl pulled the cart with the bad wheel as always, the USB and batteries turning over in his clammy palm. He was whistling “Ring of Fire”. He shoved them in his pocket, limped up to the door and knocked.
+++++Water running in the bathroom, muffled- the shower. No camera in there. Not on this floor.
+++++It still didn’t feel right. The batteries scraped against each other. He knocked.
+++++“Housekeeping,” he said for the millionth time.
+++++The water stopped. A door shut, frantic.
+++++“Sure, yeah,” a young woman called.
+++++“Come in,” the voice said, “But not in the bathroom.”
+++++“Alright, thanks.”
+++++He opened the door with his key and stepped in. Carl dragged the cart behind him, kept whistling “Ring of Fire.”
+++++There were two beds in here, perpendicular to him, the bathroom door on his left. Clothes slithered to the floor, a couple yards away, through a thin wall. Music started-metal, screamo, whatever they called it these days. It rattled the window in front of him. It clouded his mind, strangled his eardrums.
+++++Good sound cover. One bed was spotless-lacy bras and flat skirts and formal frilly shirts laid on precisely. The other was a mess, sheets on the floor. He’d get it after.
+++++He stooped over the grate.
+++++Carl was a smart guy. But he didn’t know everything.
+++++He didn’t know that the girl in the shower knew about that transmitter, that a Russian model found herself on the website last week and called her uncle.
+++++He didn’t know that the door had opened or that she was behind him with a cold, professional look in her eyes again.
+++++He didn’t know that shotguns could be silenced too.

Christmas Apocalypse

It was approaching Christmas and a period of the year that Jack always
detested; even as a child he had hated the event, even receiving the
presents his parents bought him. At school all the other kids would
laugh at what he had got as they paraded about in all the latest
fashionable labels. Having worked in retail for the last five years
had not helped him get over his hatred; if anything it heightened his
disgust at the whole charade for a festival. He occasionally thought
that maybe it was the shop in which he worked; a supermarket of the
convenience kind but even their worst customers had to shop in other
places as well therefore all places had potential for contamination.
+++++Jack’s morning shift at the check-out had passed with little of
interest happening and it felt like just any other day. That was at
least until he got home and turned on his TV to one of the rolling
news channels. The news was odd; on the screen were the streets of
Brighton, the town where Jack lived, and news that a weird spectacle
was unfolding in shops across the whole town.
+++++A reporter, stood next to a bemused looking security guard, told of it
all beginning in a low-price fashion retailer. Apparently, she
announced, it all began when two people went for the same dress and
there was only one left. Fighting started and then suddenly blood…
It was then the frenzy began. People became swept up in their
consumerist binges and all hell broke loose. Security guards tried to
contain the situation the reporter announced before turning the
microphone to the guard next to her.
+++++“I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve worked in some places before now
where things have got out of control but never like this…”
+++++“So what exactly happened?”
+++++“Well, I was just about to pull these two women apart who were arguing
about a dress when suddenly one of them, well… her eyes changed and
then all hell broke loose. I can’t explain it, it was like something
had possessed her, almost like a horror movie, but… well, real…”
+++++“And…”
+++++“Well, at that point I just decided to get out of the situation. It
seemed my safety was in immediate danger.”
+++++“Well, thanks for that,” the reporter finished before handing back to
the studio.
+++++The news anchor announced that these scenes were happening all over
the country but no one yet knew what was happening with these people.
+++++Jack sat back in his sofa and rolled a joint. The news continued and
every so often a new reporter would bring horrific footage from
another location.
+++++The hours passed and the pictures were becoming more and more graphic
and horrific. In Newcastle there were pictures of topless men
storming off-licences to get supplies of local ale. The proprietor, a
diminutive Asian man in his late fifties, could not believe what had
happened and his tears were repeated by a succession of shop-owners
across the country. The mobs would maraud around their towns,
attacking shops in a consumerist binge of nightmare proportions.
+++++Jack knew that Monday morning meant his weekend was over and he would
have to return to work but now it was with a new fear.
+++++‘What if my shop gets targeted?’ Jack had thought to himself almost
constantly since that first news broadcast, probably echoing the
thoughts of millions of retail workers all over the country. As he
had an hour before he had to head out in to the battlefield Jack
turned on his TV for any latest news.
+++++“Here, in Brighton,” the reporter was saying, “the situation is
perhaps at its most dire. Over the weekend we have seen hundreds of
shops in the town centre over-run by these consumerist zombies. So,
how has this affected your shop?”
+++++“Well, we got hit Saturday afternoon. All of our booze went in about
an hour. Some people even threw money at me as they ran out my shop
carrying stock. I saw some odd things; a large skinhead grabbing all
my bottles of Martini and running… I’ve essentially lost everything.
I have no stock left and my distributor refuses to come and deliver
due to the situation. I heard about a delivery van being attacked
last night; one of the big shops never got their stock as it was
stolen before it even got through the front door.”
+++++“There you are, here in Brighton, it is complete chaos. There are
creatures running around attacking shops everywhere.” Jack’s picture
began to shake and suddenly all you could hear were voices.
+++++“Buy… buy… get… consume… possess…”
+++++It was clear that the camera had become the latest item stolen and
that the mantra for the zombies had been established. Jack looked out
his living room window on to the seafront and all seemed calm. He
decided he should go out, even if he didn’t make it to work, in order
to see what was actually happening. He decided to smoke another joint
before heading out. If his memory of those Romero movies was correct
zombies were usually pretty lackadaisical and he would have more
chance of not looking completely out of place if he was stoned.
Finishing the joint he stepped outside his flat and began the descent
to street level. Outside all seemed well so Jack decided to walk in
to the centre of town along the seafront knowing this would only take
his past a couple of gay bars and a cafe. There wasn’t much for the
consumerists to get in a frenzy around here but who knew what was
happening on the next street up, St James’s Street, the main
thoroughfare through the Kemp Town area and the place that was full of
shops. Jack thought of a couple of people he knew who ran shops there
and decided to go investigate. Turning right on to the side-street
connecting the two main roads Jack could see immediately, at the top
of the street, a couple of creatures fighting over a barbeque kit. It
was clear that they had got in the warehouse of another branch of
Jack’s shop; no other place would have summer stock in at this time of
year. The shop itself was empty of stock yet despite this people were
still walking around as if things were normal desperate for new things
to buy, anything would do…
+++++St James’s Street was awash with these creatures, out of their mind
with delirium and desperate to find new stuff to get any which way
they could. The law had lost, it was all-out consumerism now and
anything was up for grabs. Jack began walking down the street towards
the centre of town and no doubt the most chaotic area. Even before
the outbreak Western Road and the shopping centre occasionally reached
levels of delirium akin to the zombie apocalypse that was now
unfolding all over the country. Shops in every part of the country
were being stripped clean and the government simply didn’t know what
to do whilst the police remained confused as to what to do with those
who tried to buy their goods. It was a very weird situation and it
became immediately apparent that no government department had a plan
for what to do and were a long way from coming to any conclusions.
Social networking sites were full of activity; stores telling their
customers that everything was going to be OK whilst colleagues in
retail messaged each other. The general consensus amongst Jack’s
colleagues was that they were not going in; some had even been whipped
up in to the consumerist delirium.
+++++Jack knew that something needed to be done but he had no idea how to
stop these people behaving the way they were and he was only one man.
It would need an army to stop this wave of delirium taking everyone
under its control.
+++++St James’s Street saw a few business-owners holding off the creatures
with barricades in front of their premises. The owners generally had
back-up in the shape of any friends who cared to help out but it was
going to be a struggle to keep them at their door for long.
Eventually the shops would be lost but for now humanity clung on
knowing its time was running short. Jack soon noticed that all the
supermarkets were empty of stock and staff and knew his place would be
exactly the same. North Street, the main road that lead on from St
James’s, was full of big chains mainly and looked like it had been
decimated, a victim of war. Despite this people still walked the
streets, in and out of the deserted shops, desperate for something to
consume. There was nothing left and all delivery firms had cancelled
all work for the foreseeable future, very soon there would be nothing
left.
+++++When the government minister without portfolio realised this panic
gripped him; it would be the ultimate disaster and he had no idea of
how to deal with it. It was his job to come up with a plan though and
in desperate times he came up with a desperate plan. That night, on
TV and online, he asked for assistance.
+++++“We need your help. Any ideas about how we can deal with these
creatures would be greatly appreciated,” he droned trying to make it
not sound like the end of the world was just around the corner.
+++++Jack returned to his flat after walking through the Lanes and seeing
the utter devastation the town had experienced in the short few days
since the epidemic began. He brewed some tea, rolled a joint and
decided to watch a classic zombie film, Dawn of the Dead. It was
half-way through the picture when it suddenly occurred to Jack that
maybe the creatures outside could be dealt with in the same way as
Romero had dealt with his on film. Immediately Jack pulled his phone
from his pocket and connected to the web and went to a micro-blogging
site where he asked a short question.
+++++‘If it works for Romero it could work for us. Shot the bastards in the head.’
+++++Why no one had suggested this plan of action before Jack was unsure
but if it worked that was all that he cared. With the film ending
+++++Jack turned over to a news channel where an important update was due
to be announced.
+++++“We have a plan and it works, now what we need from you all is to go
home and remain there whilst we deal with this situation,” the
minister without portfolio said.
+++++Questions came pouring in from the floor of the media centre but it
was suggested they all go home, it wasn’t going to safe on the streets
for the next couple of days, and take shelter. Jack had always hated
being told what to do and his general untrusting approach to
politicians meant he had to go out and see what was happening.
+++++This time though he would head straight in to the centre of town,
straight to the failing heart of the consumerist society. Western
Road was awash with police in riot-gear, preparing for the influx of
troops who it was believed would cleanse the streets of these
creatures. They were barricading the creatures in to the shops they
were in the process of trashing without the supervision of staff or
security guards. Jack noticed the police were concentrating their
efforts on the big stores, the chains. Many of the small outlets were
being over-run whilst staff tried to save their merchandise as owners,
out on the street, were pleading to un-hearing police for help.
+++++Jack continued his walk around the epicentre of the delirium by
walking up to the train station. The shops here had been trashed and
robbed a couple of days earlier and there was nothing left, nothing
but broken lives and broken glass. From here Jack entered the North
Laine, a labyrinth of interesting shops and pubs, and was disturbed to
see it was similar. Whilst some shops had so far survived it was only
due to even more vigorous securing of their defences than on St
James’s Street. Some shops though had been trashed by their own staff
that was swept up in the consumerist delirium. Bizarrely three of
Jack’s favourite shops had remained untouched by the horror and for
that he was grateful. Continuing his walk through the tight little
alleys and streets Jack came again to North Street. He had still to
walk past his work, he had so far just assumed it had gone in the
original battle, but felt this was as good a time as any. After this
he planned on walking back to his flat and barricading himself in; he
hoped it wouldn’t be for long. Turning left at the 99p store he knew
what was coming; about six doors down was where he worked. The
security gate had been broken down and the shop appeared empty of both
stock and staff. Strewn over the floor were boxes of broken
merchandise, clearly the last of a line that two people simply must
have had at that moment when the delirium kicked in. Jack was unsure
of how to feel; his job may be over as his shop had been destroyed but
at least this year no one would be talking about Christmas.
+++++Moments later Jack looked up the street and saw the army moving in,
seconds later he was hit. A bullet straight to his gut, it stung and
hurt like mad, and Jack knew he should have stayed in. Drifting out
of consciousness all he could hear were the wheels of the tanks
rolling in and the firing of gun-shots.

A Short Stay

Hank had been hustling all day and had barely scraped together enough for a couple of tall boys or a short dog of cheap wine. He might get drunker off the wine but after spending all day baking on the concrete under an August Tucson sun he was leaning toward a couple of cold beers.
+++++He had been in town just under two weeks and was not fond of the place. The heat, bare brown mountains and palm trees made him think too much about Afghanistan and he sure as hell didn’t need any reminders.
+++++Holding a cardboard sign with his head down and as often happened, he started thinking about those boys in the jeep that passed his unit on a dirt road in the desert. A minute later they were blown to shit. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get that image out of his head.
+++++When a horn sounded, he looked up to see a forty-ish blonde in a Mercedes with the top down waving a ten at him. Jumping up, he grabbed it, noticing lots of diamonds and a strong stink of gin. He figured she’d spent the afternoon at the country club putting away cocktails with a bunch of other bored rich broads.
+++++Mumbling hasty thanks, he hurried across Sixth Street into the air conditioned comfort of Wildcat Liquors. His mind swam with choices. While eying various pints of bourbon he again caught the aroma of gin. This time it was mixed with expensive perfume. Turning, he found the blonde standing behind him smiling.
+++++“I don’t feel like going home and listening to my asshole husband talk about his day on the golf course. I’d rather drink”. There was just the slightest slur to her speech. “Pick out something good.”
+++++Hank grabbed a fifth of Jack, a twelve pack of beer to go into a small Styrofoam cooler along with a bag of ice. She paid.
+++++As they pulled out of the lot, the sun was starting to ease behind the mountains to the west, taking a small bit of heat with it. She followed the sun to the edge of the city turning, onto a dirt road on the banks of the dry Santa Cruz River. The spot was pleasant, shaded by mesquite and Palo Verde trees.
+++++They drank, passing the bottle back and forth while sipping beers and talked, her about her husband, whom she hated and him about his life since Afghanistan, which he was not real fond of. By dark they were drunk. He leaned over and kissed her. When he grabbed a breast, she pulled away and slapped him then began to scream. Instinct and training kicked in. Grabbing her by the neck, he twisted until he heard a snap. Just like that she was dead.
+++++There was nearly three hundred dollars in her purse. He left the credit cards alone. After removing her wedding ring, a diamond necklace, earrings and a jewel studded bracelet, he rolled her body down the dark slope toward the dry river bed.
+++++After driving back to town, he parked a few blocks from the bus station, found a place to buy a pint of bourbon and then went to an all night diner where he drank coffee and in the pre- dawn hours ate bacon and eggs. When the five- thirty Greyhound left for Santa Fe he was on it, thinking anywhere was better than Tucson.

The Bully, the Psychopath, Libby and Lorraine

Fred was a bully who always bothered Lenny on the way to school. Fred was four years older than Lenny. One day Lenny told him that when he grew up he would kill him. Fred laughed and probably didn’t expect to see Lenny that night, twenty years later, when Lenny waited for him in the alley next to his garage.
+++++As usual, Fred got home around midnight from his work on the second shift. He lived in a different neighborhood by then but Lenny kept track of him because he knew it was simply a matter of when for Fred.
+++++When Fred got out of his car, Lenny said,
+++++“Hey Fred, remember little Lenny, the kid from grammar school.”
+++++Fred said he didn’t remember Lenny and that’s when Lenny swung the machete his grandfather had brought home from the Pacific after World War II. Then he stood there and admired his work, smiled and watched Fred’s head roll a few feet like a bowling ball.
+++++In the morning a milkman found the head and the body and the story was in the papers for weeks as people wanted to know who did it but Lenny couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t understand that it was simply a matter of a bully paying the price for what he had done years earlier to Lenny.
+++++The only person Lenny ever told about the murder was a girl he had spent a lot of money on, Libby. It was their first date even though they had known each other for years. He didn’t even get a kiss good night and that bothered him but he didn’t say anything.
+++++Libby really didn’t think Lenny was telling the truth about killing some guy with a machete. He was always exaggerating about one thing or another and Libby thought this was just another one of his tall tales. He was probably just trying to act like a big shot.
+++++Lenny knew that Libby had never enjoyed good health, living as she did with a congenital heart disease. But he was afraid that she might some day call the cops and tell them about Fred getting it with the machete. The cops keep good records about stuff like that.
+++++Still concerned that Libby might tell the cops, Lenny asked her out for a second date and when she went to the powder room, he put a dose of strychnine in her coffee. When Libby complained about feeling sick, he took her right home and didn’t even try this time to get a kiss good night.
+++++Libby’s mother found her dead in bed the following morning. The family was very upset but it was not an unexpected event what with Libby’s history of poor health. The family buried her without much ceremony after the doctor signed the death certificate. The cause of death was listed as heart disease.
+++++It was a year before Lenny dated anyone else. Then he met Lorraine, a waitress at a bowling alley. He liked her and asked her out and she said yes. After dinner and a movie and a few drinks at Lorraine’s apartment, Lenny told her all about Fred and the machete and then about Libby and the strychnine. He loved the look in Lorraine’s eyes as he rolled the stories out. Finally Lenny finished his fourth martini, leaned over and whispered to Lorraine,
+++++“And now the question is, what should we do about you.”

The Motel

Charlie Green pulled into the motel parking lot, cut the engine to his
Crown Vic and waited for his wife’s lover to arrive. He leaned back in
his seat and pulled out a half eaten double cheeseburger from a
wrinkled bag and ate. The trailblazer that his wife drove sat in the
parking lot beneath room 6B just a few spaces down and across from
where he waited. Ten minutes later a Ford F-150 pulled into the motel
and parked in the space next to the trailblazer. A man with shaggy
dark hair, white cut-off sleeve shirt and denim jeans got out and
walked up to room 6B on the second level.
+++++Charlie waited five more minutes, enjoying a cigarette. He finished
and flicked the butt out of the open window. Wiping the crumbs of his
lunch from his black t-shirt he got out of the car and headed for 6B.
He walked up the metal steps to the second level and pulled out a
fresh pack of Camels he bought on the way to the motel. He threw the
plastic wrap on the ground and packed them against the palm of his
hand. Ten times, every time. He had OCD about it. He had OCD about a
lot of things. He pulled out a cancer stick, lit it and rapped his
knuckles against the door. A woman wearing a tight wife beater, jeans
and a shocked expression opened the door.
+++++“Charlie,” she said.
+++++“Hello, Mandy.”
+++++“What are you doing here?”
+++++“You going to let me in?”
+++++She turned without a word and let the door creak all the way open.
Charlie entered the room, cigarette dangling from his lips. The man
from the F-150 lay on the single bed, shirtless, drinking a beer.
Charlie recognized him from an office Christmas party picture of
Mandy’s. He had been dressed in an elf costume with his arm draped
around her and another girl. An I’m-fucking-your-wife smile spread
across his bearded face.
+++++“Who the hell is this?” the man said getting to his feet.
+++++“This is my husband. Charlie,” said Mandy.
+++++Charlie took a drag from his cigarette. The ember glowed only half as
bright as the fire of anger in his eyes. Flicking ash he exhaled a
plume of smoke in the other man’s face.
+++++“What the fuck is he doing here?” he said standing eye to eye with
Charlie. Reaching behind his back Charlie pulled his 9mm and slapped
the guy across the bridge of his nose with the barrel. The man grabbed
his face as blood squirted between his fingers.
+++++“Ah, fuck.” The man cupped his nose with his hands and fell to his knees.
+++++“Shut up. I need to talk to my wife,” Charlie said.
+++++“Charlie,” said Mandy. “What are you doing?”
+++++The Other Man lay on the floor groaning and spitting blood. “You broke
my fugging nose, asshole.”
+++++Trying to maintain his cool Charlie grabbed him by the hair and shoved
the Beretta into his mouth. “Shut the fuck up. I will fuck you in the
face with this. Do you understand me, you smug piece of shit?”
+++++The Other Man mumbled something inaudible, possibly yes, and then
Charlie shoved him onto the bed.
+++++“You’re crazy, Charlie. Just go home,” Mandy said and retreated into
the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
+++++“Not without you,” Charlie shouted through the door. “We have some
things to talk about.”
+++++She opened the door and stuck her head through the crack, tears
bubbling in her eyes. “It’s too late to talk. Just leave me alone.”
+++++He replaced the gun and slid his fingers over his buzz cut head.
Confusion, anger and heartbreak writhed over and under in his gut like
a school of hungry koi. He put out his cigarette, quickly fired up
another and looked around the room. The Other Man was gone. Must have
had enough of the married life for one day.
+++++“Mandy, please come out so we can talk like adults here.”
+++++“Just go home. What are you even doing here? Spying on me?”
+++++He didn’t respond because the answer was obvious. Charlie paced the
room instead, smoking and listening to his wife’s sobs coming from the
bathroom.
+++++Minutes later, Mandy opened the door and came out like a groundhog
scared of its shadow. Her eyes were red from crying. “I don’t know
what happened to us. Ever since she died you haven’t been the same.”
She looked up into his eyes. “She was my daughter too, Charlie.”
+++++Charlie didn’t say anything. He hung his head and inhaled smoke. He
didn’t want to think about the accident. It had to be more than that.
Sure, he had been a little withdrawn lately. As a private investigator
he had a lot of people to check on and follow up with. Mandy was a
nurse, working long hours. Amy had been gone a year. He took another
drag and let the smoke leak between his lips. It swirled around his
head like little phantoms.
+++++“So, that’s why you’re fucking a co-worker, because Amy is gone? What
kind of shit is that?”
+++++“No, I’m not.” Mandy ran her fingers through her long hair and
groaned. “I’m not sleeping with him.”
+++++Charlie stepped toward her, causing her to take a step back. An inch
from her face he said, “Then what was this? He’s sitting in a motel
room with you, his shirt off and his dick trying to break out of his
pants.”
+++++“Okay. I admit I planned to sleep with him today. But we never have before.”
+++++“You’ve never slept with the guy before?”
+++++“Never,” she said.
+++++The rage cooled a few degrees and he stepped away from her to try and
think. She sat down on the edge of the bed. She said, “Since she’s
been gone you’ve been so distant. You’ve been working extra hours,
coming home so late. I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.” Tears
streamed down her face and dripped from the edge of her jaw. “I was
lonely.”
+++++Charlie stamped out his cigarette in an ashtray on the dresser. “I
didn’t leave that gate open. It wasn’t my fault.”
+++++“I know, Charlie. It was an accident. It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Mandy
said. Her voice caught in her throat. “She just fell in.”
+++++He leaned against the dresser and lowered his head, fighting back
tears. “We should have built a fence around that pool.”
+++++“She’s not the only one I lost that day, you know.” Mandy lightly
touched his face.
+++++She burst into tears again and Charlie wrapped his arms around her.
The pain of their loss bringing them close as the memory of their lost
daughter hovered over them, a dark fog of misery and regret.
+++++They embraced each other at the edge of the bed in silence. Minutes
passed as they slowly regained their composure.
+++++“I’m sorry.” Mandy said.
+++++Charlie remained quiet in his cloud of despair.
+++++Mandy said, “I shouldn’t have done this.”
+++++“No, you shouldn’t have.” He stood up. “But, you’re right. We have
grown apart. Things haven’t been very good between us.”
+++++Mandy lay back onto the bed with a loud sigh. “Let’s just go home and
forget this ever happened. We can work on some things. Get close
again.”
+++++Charlie wondered how he could ever forget that his wife was trying to
have an affair with a man she worked with every day. Before he could
speak the devil appeared.
+++++Now wearing a shirt and a bandage across his nose The Other Man walked
through the open door and said, “That’s him. That’s the fucker that
broke my nose.”
+++++Another man the size of a Volkswagen Beetle squeezed into the room
behind him. Charlie noticed they both had guns stuffed into their
waistbands. Without a word The Volkswagen lumbered toward Charlie.
Charlie reached for his gun, but before he could aim it the big man
snatched it from his grip and tossed it across the room. He hit the
guy with a right, then a left in the face, but the guy just laughed.
+++++Kicking his steel toe boot into the big man’s knee Charlie brought him
down like a fallen oak. As he fell Charlie slammed an elbow to the
man’s temple, then wrapped an arm around his throat and put him in a
choke hold.
+++++The Other Man, still standing in the doorway, pulled his .45 and
pointed it at Charlie. “You motherfucker,” he said and pulled the
trigger.
+++++The bullet sounded like a wasp buzzing past his ear. Charlie pushed
the unconscious man to the ground and stepped over him to face the
shooter. He lunged at the man and grabbed his wrist holding the gun,
slamming his other hand into the guys elbow. The gun went off again
before it fell from his grasp. Charlie rammed his elbow into the guy’s
chin. The Other Man hit the ground but didn’t go unconscious. He
kicked at Charlie’s leg knocking him to the ground.
+++++Charlie leapt onto the man with the agility of a panther. He pummeled
his knuckles into the guy’s teeth and broken nose. The man tried to
fight off the blows, but only grunted in pain as his face was bashed
to bloody pulp. Charlie kept hitting him and hitting him until finally
he stopped moving. He groaned in agony and spit a mouthful of blood
onto the floor. Charlie stood up, grabbed the .45 and turned to check
on Mandy.
+++++He immediately saw the blood splatter sliding down the wall. Mandy
splayed across the bed. There was a weeping hole in her throat. She
tried to speak but only a wet gurgle escaped. The bed soaked up her
blood. She looked at Charlie with fear in her wide eyes, trying to
breathe.
+++++“Baby”, he whispered. “Baby, no.”
+++++Charlie sat on the motel bed cradling his wife in his arms and wept as
she stopped struggling for her last breath.

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