Protection

I blot my red lipstick on a tissue then bundle the rest of my make up on the sloping shelf in the bathroom cabinet. I don’t have a proper weapon. Bloody wanker, Jade’s father, went and hid the only gun we had. And he won’t fucking tell me where he’s stashed it cos I can’t be the one to sort out Ivan the nonse. Says all Jade’s got now is her mum and I can’t be doing no murder and getting myself locked up an’ all, not while he’s inside. “Jade’ll end up in care. You know what happens in care to young girls, Trish,” he said on my last visit to the Scrubs. Yeah, I do know, all too well, Tommy, and that’s why I know what needs to be done.
+++++Since it happened, Tommy’s been saying how that cunt needs to be taught a lesson. Said he should’ve known what family he was targeting. Should’ve done his research, the sick fuck, he said. Well, that’s all well and good ain’t it, Tommy, but what you gonna do about it from your prison cell? And where’s your fucking firm? Plastic gangsters, the lot of them. They ain’t been round to see me and Jade once. They ain’t even given us no helping hand. We’re back on the breadline, proper skint. But it ain’t their dough I want. I just want them to sort out that cunt. “All in good time, Trisha. It’ll happen, but we gotta give it time,” they say. “It’ll be too obvious where the hit’s come from if we make our move now.” That’s what they said the day my Tommy went down. And since that afternoon at the Old Bailey, I’ve not heard from one of them once, not even a bleeding phone call.
+++++No, I can’t rely on them, not for nothing. I could rely on Tommy. He’ll see it through but that’s when he gets out. That man says he’ll do something and he’ll do it. Said when we was thirteen in the school playground he’d marry me. And he fucking did, three years later. Said we’d have a house and a garden and a little girl. He came through on all of it. Okay, so he didn’t make his money in the most legal of ways, but he made it. He made a good life for us. Mind you, the last few years have been shit. He’s been in and out of nick, getting caught for most of what he does. He was a top burglar back in the day, but since he went on the charlie, he kept fucking up. And he’s shoved all our savings up his hairy nostrils. That’s why we’re skint now. Might have to sell the house if nothing happens soon.
+++++In North West London it’s all la-di-da. If I look smart, I’ll blend in. So I put on my suit, the black one I wear to court. Think this is the first outing it’s had that ain’t to a court. I’ve got the briefcase, that’ll help too. Of course, Ivan won’t know it’s loaded with a length of rope and a couple of bricks. As long as he lets me in, it’ll be fine. Once I’m in, I reckon it’ll all come natural. In fact, I don’t reckon, I know it will.
+++++From our terraced house in Bow, I drive to Hampstead where the rich cunt lives. I can’t park our old red Cortina on his road so I leave it in the car park on the Heath. It’s free to park there. I know about it cos me and Tommy and Jade have come to the fair here a good few times. Sad though, for the next seven years, it’ll be just me and my Jade.
+++++My poor Jade, she told her teacher before she told us. That’s why the old bill got involved. If she’d have come to me and her dad first, he could’ve taken care of it. Tommy weren’t in prison then, not when we found out. I lug the heavy briefcase up the hill then turn off on Well Road. Houses up here are grand as fuck. Four bleeding stories high. People like him think cos they’ve got money, they’ll get away with anything. Might buy a better brief than we could afford. It fucking did. That’s why the cunt got off. But Ivan’s money won’t buy him jack shit today.
+++++The nonse answers the doorbell quick when I ring. Fucking hell. My heart is thumping. I am ready for you, you cunt. “Mr Ivan Mannering,” I say in my poshest voice. “I’m here on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. There’s been a recent spate of burglaries in this street and the surrounding area. The Met have commissioned my firm, Stay Safe, to ensure residents are taking every necessary precaution and their security systems are fit for purpose.” I give him a business card out my purse. Handy that, as these are the cards Tommy uses and this is the spiel he gives to get into houses. Little do the people know he’s gonna be robbing them in a few days. Little does this nonse know what I’m about to do to him.
+++++Seven years Tommy wanted me to wait. Seven fucking years. Seven more days would have been too long. The cunt needs his comeuppance. He ushers me into the hall. Bloody hell, what a high ceiling. Would be nice to see him hanging here. That’s a pretty picture but it ain’t what’s gonna happen. He shows me into a huge room with massive beige, velvet sofas.
+++++“Can I get you a drink?” he says.
+++++“Cuppa tea would be nice, thanks.”
+++++He turns to leave the room, and as he does, I swing my arm back full and come down on his balding head with the briefcase. He’s out. His head’s bleeding on the wooden floor. Thank fuck I’ve got my leather gloves on. Don’t wanna get his blood on me. I bind his hands with the rope then his feet. I drag his long, fat body into the kitchen and turn on the oven.
+++++While I’m waiting for the oven to heat up, I take a nosey round the house. Takes me bloody ages, but when I’m done, I’ve got two of his suitcases full of ornaments that look like antiques. I’ve also got a couple of watches, and what must be his wife’s jewellery box filled with gold necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. That was a wicked find, but the biggest touch was what I found in a drawer in the nonse’s study – a good few grand in cash. I’ll need to count it proper when I get home. Least that’ll keep me and Jade in our house a bit longer.
+++++I check the time on the digital clock on the oven. It’s only one. Glad I made an early start this morning. Was good getting out just after the school run. I’ve still got four hours before I pick up Jade from the school gates. She’s late out on a Thursday now cos that’s the day she has her counselling.
+++++The tricky part is if he wakes up, so I gag him with a tea towel in his cake-hole. Think I’ll do the feet first as they’re nearest the oven. I open the oven door and drag his body a bit closer. I lift up his legs from the knee, and shove his feet in the heat. He’s wriggling about all over the shop. Bloody nonse. I stamp hard on his balls. On top of his muffled screaming through the tea towel, his bright red face is wet with tears.
+++++Cry you cunt, cry.
+++++His feet look like gammon steak. Time to turn him round. He’s wriggling too much. I can’t move him, so I pick up my briefcase with the bricks in and batter his head. When I stop, he looks dead. I wanted to cook his face and his hands, especially his hands. I check the pulse on his wrist. He’s still alive. I swing his body round and get his head and his hands in the oven.
+++++On the street, I realise the two suitcases will be heavy to carry back to my car. I take the bricks out the briefcase to lighten my load and leave them on the grass verge outside the nonse’s house. My job is done, and done well too. Those wankers, Tommy’s so-called mates, telling me I couldn’t sort the cunt out myself. Just cos they’re always boasting about their crimes, think cos I don’t make no claims I ain’t done nothing. Tommy knew though. Tommy knew what happened to me when I was in care. And he knew what I did to the nonse what done it. If there ain’t a hell, least I’ve given both those sick cunts the burning they deserved before I killed them.

 

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Shaka’s Fall

Stoker Towers loomed above the city like monstrous aeries of some mythical bird. Only five years since construction had finished, and the last tenant had moved in two weeks ago. Shaka-D, and his Posse, the Camden Bloods rolled in a week later.
+++++He now had six dealers on the estate, bringing him a cool six thousand a week, if you add it to what he made at the Gables nightclub on the edge of the Estate. Yes life was good, he thought as he deposited the latest cash drop off in the hidden safe in his brand new Merc.
+++++He looked at the bling covering his fingers and felt a small degree of satisfaction at the tinkle the gold chains round his neck made when he moved. He was definitely living the dream; he had the cars, the money, the women and most of all respect. Garnered through fear, he knew, but respect was respect, however it was gained.
+++++He lit up a blunt, took a toke before passing it to Little-G, his long-time friend and number two.
+++++“Aye man, we cleaning up in dis town.” He shook his long dreads and stretched his muscular frame.
+++++“Seen brah, we own dis town!” Both their accents were tinged with the Jamaican of their ancestors even though both had grown up in London and the closest they had been to Jamaica was watching Cool Runnings.
+++++Shaka looked out his window, at two oldies shuffling past; the old geezer looked at him and spat on the pavement. He was out of the car and striding across to them before G realised what was happening.
+++++He moved in front to bar their way. They looked at him and he smiled as he saw the fear in their eyes.
+++++“Whatcha mean, dissing me; dead man walking,” Shaka pushed the old man and he fell to the ground.
+++++“Leave him alone, we have done nothing to you,” the old lady said. Shaka turned to her and snatched her handbag from her bony fingers.
+++++“These are my streets Grandma, and you man litter em up with his diseased lugie, so you got to pay the toll.”
+++++He took her purse from her bag. She helped her man stand up. The soulless windows of the tower blocks gazed at the lethal interaction.
+++++“He’s coming for you Shaka, then you’ll be sorry,” the man coughed.
+++++Shaka shoved his face into the old man’s, smelling peppermint and a hint of whiskey on his breath.
+++++“What you are chatting about old men, some rival posse got Knives for me?”
+++++“Shut up ken,” the old woman shot him a warning look.
+++++Shaka grabbed the front of Ken’s Jacket.
+++++“Tell me now, Ken, who gunning for Shaka, tell me, I let you keep your coin, you don’t, I take your soul,” He whispered the last three words. The old woman was crying now but Shaka ignored her.
+++++“I am saying no more, you’re days here are over!”
+++++Shaka growled and whipped out his gun, bringing it down on the side of the old man’s head, once, twice. He dropped him to the ground, drew back his foot and launched a kick which nearly took Ken’s head off his shoulders.
+++++The old lady screamed. Shaka spat on his lifeless, bleeding body.
+++++“Camden Bloods own these streets and now I own you!”
+++++G pulled at his sleeve.
+++++“C’mon man, we got to get out of here.”
+++++On the other side of the estate Bookie Jones completed his tenth sale of the night. He added the twenty quid to the five hundred he had already made. Shaka would be pleased with him, normally he only made around a ton here. Must be some kind of party going down. Well he didn’t care, with his cut of tonight’s take he would buy his baby momma something shiny.
+++++He called over to Youngblood, so called because he was the youngest of their posse at fourteen; Bookie had forgotten what his real name was. He had been keeping an eagle eye at the far end of the garages for five-oh. Now it was time to move and meet Shaka at the Supersaver shop to hand over his take. Normally Little-G did the collections, not tonight, for some reason the big boss man had tagged along. All good as far as he was concerned, Shaka be seeing what a top seller he was.
+++++He watched as Youngblood came towards him, and chuckled as he tried to imitate the pimp stride of his elders. Bookie looked at his watch then back to Youngblood, who was no longer walking towards him. He frowned.
+++++“Youngblood, where you at?” He called. Silence, except for the sound of traffic from the nearby High Street.
+++++He walked along the garages, cursing his homie; this was no time for fucking around. Shaka would blow if he was late. He reached the point where he last saw Youngblood, adjacent the alley which led towards the Sikh temple on Grasmere Drive. He peered into the darkness; there was no sign of him.
+++++Fuck ‘im, Bookie thought, he didn’t have time for this shit. He headed towards the end of the garages when a sound made him stop. It sounded like a cross between a cat meowing and a dark chuckle. Wisps of what looked like smoke, curled out of the alley between the garages. He felt a shiver inside. He turned to run and ran slap bang into a black clad figure. Bookie bounced back and fell on the floor.
+++++“Whoa, goin’ on blood, you blind innit?”
+++++He looked up as the doors of hell opened before him.
+++++Little-G pulled into the kerb outside Supersavers. The lights from the shop created a small oasis in the darkness, all the street lights here had been smashed, and the council long since gave up replacing them because the Bloods would smash the replacements. No mention was made of the incident on the other side of the estate.
+++++Shaka looked at his watch and shook his head.
+++++“Bookie late,” he hated bad time keeping and his paranoia made him think his soldiers were up to no good.
+++++“Give the blood time, Bookies a good soldier, he be here.” G ran a spade like hand over his shaven bullet head; this was going to be a bad night. He loved Shaka like a brother; they had been friends since childhood. He knew all his moods and like something alive he could feel the air of danger flowing from him.
+++++“Who you think coffin dodger Ken mean when he say someone is coming,” Shaka said as he turned to look at G.
+++++“Could be any number of Posses, D, the Hackney Forty Niners been heard dissing us, remember other night at the club, those mugs were Forty Niners.”
+++++Shaka slowly nodded his head.
+++++“Yeah we showed them fools for shu, skin one up Brah, then we take a ride over to collect from T-Bone.”
+++++He rolled down his window and spat outside.
+++++“We deal with Booboo Bookie later.”
+++++G rolled a toke and passed it to Shaka then putting the Merc into gear, he pulled away from the kerb. They headed back into the estate, both noticing how quiet it had gone. Normally a few youths would be hanging out.
+++++They headed for T-Bones spot, behind block three by the bins. Pulling up just shy of the bins, they found no one in sight.
+++++“Wha’ fuck up with these fools tonight,” Shaka spat.
+++++G pointed to the far end of the line of big steel drum bins. Shaka followed his finger to see a pair of feet sticking out. Shaka jumped out of the car followed by G, who pulled out his Glock.
+++++Slowly they approached. The sound of wind whistled through the balconies above them. No other sound could be heard, except their breathing.
+++++Shaka hung back, his weapon in his hand now, G moved forward to the end of the bins. He stopped and looked down.
+++++“Bookie dead?”
+++++G looked over at him.
+++++“Then some, come, check ‘im.”
+++++Shaka walked over to G and looked down. T-Bone was sprawled on his back, arms out to his side like a starfish. His right hand lay under the bin. His skin was grey and the look on his face spoke of the fear in his last moments. A large dark stain covered his abdomen and groin area.
+++++“What you think happen?”
+++++“Nothing good Shaka, that’s for sure,” G’s voice had slipped out of his Jamaican and into the London of his birth.
+++++They both looked all around but could see no signs of life.
+++++“Forty Niners are gonna pay for this!” Shaka growled.
+++++“You think they did for Bookie too?”
+++++Shaka looked up at the flats surrounding them.
+++++“If you want a fuckin’ war, you got a fuckin’ war, I own you all,” Shaka screamed up at the silent lightless flats. It hit him then, he had not noticed before. Not one single flat had a light on.
+++++“Something not right here, D.”
+++++“Niners, trying’ to fuck with us is all.”
+++++Light suddenly bathed them from behind. D turned and shielded his eyes. Some fucker had turned the Mercs headlights on full beam. He aimed his weapon, gangster style at the Car.
+++++“You want some of dis,” D emptied the clip at the car, the sound bouncing off the tower blocks. Luck more than a good aim, popped the lights out and once more they were bathed in darkness.
+++++G ran over to the car and checked inside, it was empty. A little flame of fear ignited within him. The whole estate was strange tonight, now T-Bone was dead and Bookie was missing.
+++++“Shaka, brah, I think we better get out of here.”
+++++“Don’t be a butoo, you let one dead body spook you, c’mon we check yard clean.” D slammed another clip home and headed towards the centre of the estate. G locked up the car and headed after him.
+++++“Feel no way, dready, Shaka-D gonna hunt down dis fish and stomp him den all be Irie in the grounds.”
+++++G wished he had the same confidence as his brother from another mother, strange juju was about tonight, and you could almost taste it in the air. The central area was a series of walkways and circular areas of greenery with benches to sit and take in the view. Here too there was no sign of life or any lights from any of the flats. Normally you could hear the traffic from the nearby High Street but now all you could hear was wind whistling round the tower blocks. Shaka-D jumped onto one of the benches.
+++++“Shaka-D be here, come ketch-up with me, I will beat you like a maga-dog, COME!”
+++++A whispering sound came from all around them. G felt his skin prickle.
+++++Behind them, they heard a low growl. Turning, they saw two black furred dogs at the end of the path they were on. A grey mist swirled behind them between the tower blocks. Through this a figure appeared. Out of the mist walked the old man’s wife. She stopped behind the dogs.
+++++“What you want old lady?”
+++++She said nothing, just smiled. The dogs made a low growling sound, baring their teeth. She patted their heads and told them to sit.
+++++G and D looked at each other, both thinking the same; the woman was crazy.
+++++D raised his weapon and pointed it at her.
+++++“Leave old woman or you will taste Shaka-D’s righteous anger.”
+++++“Oh I am not going anywhere,” she said, “Your days here are over Mr Shaka-D, you should not have killed Ken. . . He has . . . Friends.”
+++++Shaka-D threw back his head and laughed, a crazy look coming to his eyes. G had seen this look before and knew the old lady was in serious trouble.
+++++“You should have stayed out a Shaka-D’s business, now you gonna join your bloodclaut husband.”
+++++He shot the two dogs who slumped to the ground with a yelp. The gun slowly rose to point at the old lady, D, head on one side, smiled crazily.
+++++The sound of the wind picked up, a can rolling across the nearby concrete made G jump. He turned as a leather clad fist slammed into the side of his head. He was knocked to the ground: stunned.
+++++Shaka-D turned at the sound of the commotion behind him; he felt a strong hand knock the gun from his hand and a blur of movement as he joined G on the ground, his head throbbing from the blow. He looked towards the woman and his eyes grew wide with shock, the dogs, once again stood in front of her.
+++++“Meet one of Ken’s friends, he was a clairvoyant, and the dead loved him.”
+++++Shaka-D looked up at the black clad figure towering above him.
+++++“Call me Jack, boss, all the ladies of the night do. . . But seeing as we are going to get to know each other very well; you can call me. . . The Ripper!”
+++++Silver flashed as his blades went to work. The screams turned to a wet gurgling, followed by silence. The old lady and the dogs walked away, she had a small smile on her face.

Rundown Dog

The man from Govan caught Spick Monroe’s jaw with a left, sent him crashing to the hard mud of the pit dug out in the barn floor; then he was on him, laying punches down on his face with brute percussive force. Spick felt his lip burst and tasted the hot sting of blood pour backwards down his throat. There were boos and screams from the men watching, leaning on the scaffolding pole rail; a dark parade of faces twisted in the burning sodium light like an ID parade in Hell. Spick blocked with his elbows, found the strength from somewhere and swiped out with his good leg. Caught the Jock just right on the knee and watched his pale face melt out into confusion and pain. Then Spick was up. His tattooed chest was further patterned by flowing blood and grey dirt. All was screaming noise and lights bursting like camera flashes close to his eyes, but his fists worked independently, a jab with the right, a lifetime’s hurt behind it, another, then a clear left circling through sweat-moist air, connecting with a snap of bone and spit to the other’s jaw. The man turned quick as though someone had called his name from behind and went to the earth like a rundown dog; the ginger stubble across his head was tainted with dust and blood and Spick heard the deep, soul-trembling snores that always signalled to him when a man was down for good.
+++++He walked to the poured concrete steps leading up to the barn as the Jock’s corner man ran past him, glancing up at Spick with hate the latter could almost taste. Things were being thrown into the pit: loose change, empty tins of lager and cider, fag-ends. Spick ignored the few trying to talk with him and made his way to the home-made bar where the farmer’s daughter stood, staring as he approached and pointed to a bottle of Bud on the table behind her. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe through a chewed up nose. The beer stung his lip as he drank and he dabbed at it with a black bandanna as he heard the noise of the fighting Staffys starting next in the pit. There was a time he’d have had a bet on the dogs, but that was a luxury he could no longer afford. He finished the beer in a few mouthfuls and made his way across to Jack Gallon, the man behind the fights. He squatted at the back of the room with his minder, a fat, grey man dressed always in a tight blue shirt and tie stained by curry sauce. Spick reached down for his holdall beside the table and pulled out a white T that caught the complexion of blood as he drew it down across his face.
+++++‘Nearly had you there, Spick,’ Jack said, counting out a pile of twenties. ‘Here you go, son, a monkey extra for the win, as promised.’ Spick took the money and shoved it in the watch-pocket of his jeans. ‘Maybe you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for this game, mate; that Scotch git was gonna murder you then, I couldn’t hardly watch.’ He laughed and Spick turned away from the coffee stained grin and said. ‘Maybe.’
+++++‘In any case, this is gonna be the last one for a bit. The Detective Inspector over there told me that boy ‘as got himself killed last month. Kicked up a bit of a stink.’
+++++Spick remembered the boy – a 20 year old from Grangetown, who thought he was the hardest bastard ever walked the earth until shown otherwise. He’d claimed experience he had no right to, something the man he fought should have seen straight off and called halt; instead he’d beaten the lad to death. Jack’s boys had dumped him in a play park outside Redcar.
+++++Spick nodded. ‘If owt else comes up,’ he started to say.
+++++‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll be first to hear.’
+++++The night was deep and black and the frost-snap of November worked across his skin like a cool cloth as Spick walked over to the bike. His ribs didn’t sit right and creaked with pain as he moved. His lip was swollen double and his black hair hung loose over his forehead, heavy with sweat turning to spiders of ice as the night worked its hard charm. Maybe he was too old; at 35 he was almost ten years older than the ones set against him, but he had something they didn’t, something to fight for. The dark hills of the moorland surrounding the farm stretched away into blackness without the least spark of light far as he could see. He heard the shouts of men in the barn behind, turned to see golden light seep between the boards of the building, heard the snarls and yap of a dying dog and wished there was another way, but not these days, not in these times; with the steel works shut and the car factory closed for good; it hadn’t taken much to push him back into Gallon’s arms; quick money, and all you had to give for it was everything.
+++++They got him just as he reached the bike. He faced the pair of them as a soft rain began to drift across the light; the corner man and a lad with shoulders like Tractor tyres. He pointed at Spick and said, ‘That was fuckin’ cheating, pal. Our kid had you; he’d won that fight fair.’
+++++‘So what?’ Spick lifted the bike helmet from the seat and turned back.
+++++‘So we want that win money; he had you cold, pal.’
+++++The man Spick recognised as the corner man had a knife balled up in his fist. He lifted it level with his venomous eyes and said, ‘Kicking like a dirty bastard in a fair fight.’
+++++‘So have it out with Gallon.’
+++++‘Already have; he sees it our way; reckons your past it now; wants us to give you the message not to bother him no more. That was the point of tonight. We go back, me and him.’
+++++‘Suppose your boy was meant to finish me off in there was he? Didn’t do too well.’
+++++‘I’ll make up for it,’ the corner man said. His voice was a cold whisper beneath the rain.
+++++‘Try it,’ Spick said. The man lunged forward with the thin-bladed knife at the same time as the other did with a crowbar, lifting the octagonal metal too far behind his head, preparing a swing Spick wouldn’t come back from. Spick jammed the bike-helmet into the corner man’s face, splitting the cartilage of his nose, heard the knife drop on the earth, and then sidestepped. The bar swung by his head, tearing the air. Spick stumbled, moving too quickly, and went to his knees. The youth lifted the bar above his head. Spick found the knife close to his hands, gripped the rain-wet handle and punched it upwards through the gristle of the man’s breastbone. The bar fell from his hands with a fierce music. His long, grubby face was a perfect mask of surprise as he looked down at the blade sticking out from his chest. Spick pushed him to the side as the corner man looked over, holding his face with both hands and sitting on his arse in the rain. ‘What the fuck have you done?’ His voice was muffled and far off.
+++++Spick stared down at the body; his hands shook with the black rush of blood and he was breathing hard. There was a roar of victory from the barn and he saw the side door open and Gallon’s minder stepped out with a cigarette. Spick threw himself onto the bike and looked down at the blood running thick over gravel like a spring beck over stone. He tried to say something, but panic and adrenaline trapped the words on his tongue, and he spun the wheels on dirt as men ran across then sped like a dart into the country’s heaving darkness.
+++++His flat was on a council estate in a village 30 miles distant. Spick ran up the steps, onto the walkway and waited a moment outside the open window of the living room. He heard his daughter’s wheelchair turn on the laminated wood of the floor; she was laughing at the TV. Spick hated leaving her alone at 12 years old, but their family had reduced by accident and disease to just the two of them. She was all he cared for, and he watched her through the window and felt a tear hot as blood cut through the grime of his face as the cars pulled up in the street below and the doors slammed and boots clamoured on the stairway behind him.

BIO:

Gareth Spark lives in Whitby, is 33, and writes rural noir based on things he’s seen, done or heard about over the last decade or so. He’s new to short stories, but has previously published a collection of verse “Rain in a dry land” (Mudfog, 2008).

Age, Serenity and Mick-Fucking-Jagger

Listen instead
Listen instead

It’s true, years pass—you lose a step or three.
Colors in the mirror turn from gold to gray.
Places where you used to go never seem to stay,
empty spaces laying where they used to be.

Yet you’re not quite so aged as the oldest tree—
passing perfume’s scent still makes your senses drown
nothing’s quite so lava hot as a low-cut gown,
except the throaty moan of passion breaking free.

Jagger’s prancing on the stage—sweaty, hot and open.
After show he claps his hands outside the exit door
Soon careless breasts and female flesh cover him entire.
He knows he’s just another check on some goupies score.
And you say you wouldn’t want that life. Liar. Liar. Liar.

Blood Magic

“One sound begets night, Rabbit.”
+++++A flat, wet edge slid up Clerk’s windpipe. An immense, rubbery force squashed him to the stones of a support column. The palm over his mouth was pulling his head back under dark hollows between low roof beams. At the opposite side of the column, below Clerk’s tied wrists, a tapping had begun. Mossy coils swept his shoulders as the bulk shifted to set the knife off in darkness. The hand edged from his mouth. Fingers prodded the cotton deep between his teeth.
+++++“I can almost hear Mother crying . . . ‘Baby! Where’s my baby?’ Listen to that ditch of a womb. Your darling star’s winking his last winks.”
+++++The cloth binding was yanked like reins, jerking Clerk’s lips into a forced smile, and he felt the ends working at the base of his skull, winding, knotting, while breath poured thick and slow beside his ear.
+++++“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Tis hard, this ill handling.’ You expect pity from me. Ought I to pity you? Have you been so moved at the chicken in your stew bowl?”
+++++The pressing hulk released Clerk and the heavy breath drifted away. Feet scuffed and idled about the room while Clerk trembled on the column as if someone were shaking him, and then a gust rushed around his body, cooling wet paths along his leg, and the door slammed. Beyond the stone pillar locked within his embrace, a square of gold paper flexed, and light slanted over the top of a tall cabinet. Across the face, crude wolves chased girls through flowers. On top, a stone owl with yellow-painted eyes glared at the form twisting silently in a patch of light like a mouse in a trap. The door banged again, and an avalanche of wood tumbled. Clerk heard repeated explosions of crumpling paper.
+++++“See, I think you’re of two minds. The horrible, wee brat’s mind—which has not one desire more interesting than dropping sugar in mother’s tea. Then there’s Second Mind. The one that knows Mother for a vexing shrub. Could have interpreted those fine, precious rushes in your veins. But then again there’s First Mind, grinding Second Mind in the dust. My advice is—you’ve nothing to lose by it—let Second Mind up for a frolic.”
Clerk could hear wood beginning to pop and feel his back warming. Behind him, garments rustled and slid. Liquid splattered and deepened in a hollow, and a yeast smell swept about his nostrils. On the skin between his shoulder blades, fingertips lit, and Clerk jerked on the column. Close to his ear, a bubbling slurp ended in a gulp.
+++++“Gently. …”
+++++The fingers, soft as a wing’s end, drifted up and down his spine.
+++++“Are you angry with me? Rabbit, you’re not being fair. Am I supposed to believe that you didn’t choose to be here? You created this, all of this, with your magic. It has formed exactly as we wished it.”
+++++The beard crept up his neck and vowels slid out one by one.
+++++“You have wanted something. Awake at night, you lie there wanting it, agitated, shivering for it—am I wrong? Half in a dream, you called out. And I answered you. And you have followed my voice to this altar. Now, unwittingly willing it, you offer yourself to me.
+++++The palm drew up Clerk’s jaw.
+++++“When first I saw you, I could feel it, that chestnut of a heart knocking, wanting to become a part of me! I opened my arms, and across the fields you came. In your little suit, your breastful of ruffled lace. A virgin to the king, bearing his own, golden, blood-chalice in little hands.”
+++++The beard sank over his face. He felt a greasy organ sliding across his cheek and over his nose. The beard lifted. Upon his skin, a cooling residue gave off an odor: wine, earth of graves, and swollen mice.
+++++“Let go your fright, Rabbit. To be sure, it’s not what Mother had in mind for you. But this, this is ours, not Mother’s. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste it.”
+++++The wooly mass sank forward again and then came up with a jerk. Someone was thumping the door.
+++++“What are you doing in there, you great boar?”
+++++“Who is it!?”
+++++“You know abundantly!”
+++++“Go away!”
+++++“What you got up in there? A tender suckling pig? Open the door!”
+++++Like an immense toad, the hulk sprang from Clerk and plunged about the room.
+++++“Let me alone. I’m poorly off now!”
+++++“You’ll be worse if you don’t open this!”
+++++“Be off!”
+++++“This one I’m in on! Open it! Open it!”
+++++The pounding continued, sharper: a rock striking wood. Clerk saw an arm in darkness shoving its way into a shirt sleeve.
+++++“One minute!”
+++++“You open up this singular instant or I’ll be spreading word!”
+++++The fingers were pinning straining fabric.
+++++“Selfish, selfish man!” continued the voice. “Don’t you ruin him!”
+++++Breath came across Clerk’s cheek.
+++++“Not one squeak. Not a twitch of your wee whiskers.”
+++++A cool gust washed over Clerk’s back. He heard Fat Man say, ‘Petey, Love, pleasant surprise as always,’ the door banged, and the voice dimmed.
+++++Clerk tried his hands against the binding. As he tugged this way and that on the column, his head veered over the wires of a cage larger than a man. In a bowl upon its surface floated two fingers. A woozy film passed between Clerk and the bowl. He slipped down the pillar. Streams of blood went forking down his arm.
+++++Outside the room, one voice had started into a tirade, incomprehensible, furious, and then both voices climbed together as if two mad apes had been stuffed into a crate.
+++++Clerk ground his teeth on the cloth gag. He turned his eyes from his arm. Through cage wires, he could see a curve of bowl and the base of a clay wine jar. At the far edge of the cage, out of reach, lay the knife.
+++++Clerk straightened on the pillar. He reached with his foot and kicked and scraped the cage in a circle. The jar tumbled off, spilling wine across the dirt floor, and the knife jerked gradually closer. He rocked his way around the column. Facing the cage, he stretched his arms, caught the mesh, and pulled it near. He groped until his hand came down upon the knife handle. He fumbled, trying to turn the blade edge-upwards, but dropped it down the side of the cage.
+++++“I’ll kill you; I’ll kill you; I’ll kill you!” one of the men was bawling.
+++++Clerk’s chest shuddered wildly, and air quaked in his nostrils. Tears were sluicing into his eyes, blinding him. In the blur, a slice of firelight shone on the floor. He squatted. His bound hands patted the earth until his fingers struck metal. He drew the knife close and rolled it, blade facing upward, point against column. Steadying the hilt with a finger, he pressed and sawed. The knife fell to the side, and he set it up and bore down again. He felt the edge cut into his palm, and then something broke. He snatched at his wrists, yanked, and his arms flew apart.
+++++Clerk fell backward against furniture, into a rain of teacups and trinkets. He scrambled up, started toward the window and then halted like a frightened deer, a strip of cloth dangling at one wrist. He leapt to the door, drew the bolt, dashed back to the column, and snatched what remained of his blouse from his sliced and ruined suit on the back of a stool. He fumbled, trying to keep the bloody sleeves in his fingers and to make a knot at his waist as the door began to rattle in its frame.
+++++Clerk let the garment go and seized the knife from the floor. He hooked a wooden stool with his wounded hand and lugged it to the tall cabinet. As the door began to thud, he climbed onto the stool, placed the knife on the cabinet ledge, lifted the stone owl above his head, and hurled it through the paper window. He placed his toes over the cabinet’s iron hasp, his elbows on the rim of the cabinet, and heaved himself up. As he wriggled to the top, he heard a cracking and then a pounding. A hand caught his ankle and yanked. Clerk grasped the knife handle and jabbed down. A blast of anguish let loose in the room, and Clerk shoved himself through the window, into the light.
+++++Clerk’s shoulder bashed earth and then he was rolling, scrambling from the dust. He glanced up and down rooms torn open and structures spilling jumbles of block and beams. A roaring came from inside: murderous, disbelieving.
+++++Pushing his injured hand to his chest, Clerk started up the alley. Broken paving stones and mortar gouging the soles of his feet, he fled past concrete fists and heads thrusting from coifs of rubble and along lines of burned trees with strips of inner bark coiling in wind. He crossed streams of spilling debris and alleys choked with masses of tough, winter brush that tore lines down his flanks, and the shouts behind faded. As he rushed up a smooth lane, he tore off the gag and gouged cotton from his mouth. Above the sound of his feet slapping stone rose his own cry, piercing as the call of a bird. As he ran and climbed in the ruin, blood splashed down his front, dribbled and smeared, and dropped like red coins.
+++++Between pillars broken like snapped-off bones, Clerk limped from worm-eaten, stacked hulls toward a golden, open space: the abandoned square. Under a gulf of blue chariots and strung froth, weeds bent and shuddered in a channel of light. An icy wind struck his chest. He stumbled waist-deep in weeds, trying to bind off the flow of blood from his hand with the length of cloth at his wrist. At a sound like moaning cattle, he stopped and stared across weeds, up building faces. In one high window, an amber nugget burned. In a lower opening, a hanging cloth gave off a blue glow. The brown, softening ring of walls held faint, tumbling echoes, a battered, plaintive stampede of the fleeing and dying. One harsh, repeating, bark gradually came clear. Clerk whirled. At the foot of a broken pillar, two figures were sliding along, bending to the earth.
+++++Clerk dashed away across the square, seed pods pelting his groin and thighs. At the opposite side, he stopped at a tree fallen against a stone wall, roots pulling up clods of red earth and limbs twisting above a swath of sharp, glass edges.
+++++He looked back.
+++++Under the broken clouds stood a man, the folds of his white robe lapping weeds. Behind him a wider figure bobbed, stick flashing, arm clutching his shoulder. The robed figure stretched a hand toward Clerk. A cold wind hissed over his feet. His legs quaked. He felt a pain, like a nail through the center of his forehead. He closed his eyes but could still see a hairy mouth forming malevolent shapes. He opened his eyes. They were close now. Clerk could make out bared teeth in the fat man’s beard.
+++++Clerk grabbed a branch. He pulled his way along, bleeding, stepping and slipping up the smooth trunk. Past the top of the wall, he let go. Between wrenched corpses of ancient war machines, he sprang to his feet and started up a dirt bluff. Through blowing dust and refuse, he crawled to the hilltop, where he slipped along the tight mesh of a metal fence until he found the wire caving out. He dropped to his elbows and wriggled through.
+++++Clerk stuffed his fist under his arm. Bleeding and naked, he loped between tilting crosses and headstones leaning like slabs in a stream, and a valley of lights bloomed and widened below him.
+++++The carnival grounds came near: dark, floating carts, the hoop of the thrill-wheel with its constellation of fists unmoving in red sky. In the gloom, restless lions were muttering, and tigers in their cages groaned like gored giants dying in caves. Without pausing to rest, Clerk ran between angels broken-winged and crestfallen and under branches spreading bare and wiry in deepening night.

Turn Me Loose

Lonnie is making me nervous, the way he keeps playing with the Glock, popping the clip out, slamming it back into the butt then pulling back the slide so a live round enters the chamber. We’re going to have to keep an eye on him tonight; he’s all cranked up, twitching like a Geiger counter on a Nevada test range.
+++++Damn, I wish Clay would call before Lonnie sticks his nose in that mirror again. Or before that fucking gun goes off. He’s really making me nervous. Him and that gun. Mostly, Clay can keep him in line. That’s because Clay is the oldest. Lonnie is the middle one. I’m the youngest, he usually just tells me to shut the fuck up.
+++++The bar is on Taraval Street, out in the foggiest reaches of the Sunset District in San Francisco, not far from where we grew up. It’s called The Four Deuce’s, the kind of place where old time neighborhood guys still hang out. Friday nights they do a good business Clay says. He’s supposed to call sometime after one when the place thins out and right before last call. The plan is that I’ll drop Lonnie, take a spin around the block and they’ll be out in front when I come back around. I’ve never been inside on a job. I always drive. Takes a special talent, Clay says.
+++++I walk to the front window and look out. It’s just after midnight and the streets are pretty quiet. Fog swirls in the street lights and far away, from the direction of the bay, I hear the lonesome sound of a foghorn. It’s July but you would never know it here. Every day is just a grey, cold repeat of the day before.
+++++Just before eleven I leave Clay a block from the bar then double check the route out of there. It’s pretty simple. Once Lonnie and Clay come out, we’ll make a right on 25th then a left on Ulloa. When we get to 19th, left again. That’s a busy enough street that we should blend in. After a couple of miles, go right on Judah until we get home. Home to this crappy dump of an apartment on 7th Avenue. Ten minutes, tops.
+++++Clay says one or two more good scores and we’re going to move. Maybe get out of the city all together. He wants to live in Sonoma or Mendocino, somewhere we can have a little land, grow a little weed. A place we can just chill. Maybe a place Lonnie will lay off the crank. He’s really been getting out of control lately. Couple of weeks ago, we hit some yuppie restaurant on Chestnut Street over in the Marina. Pretty good haul Clay said. But he was really mad at Lonnie when they got in the car and I started to drive away. Clay told him he was fucking up. Lonnie said something back and Clay reached over the seat and slapped him. He’d never done that before. I watched Lonnie in the rear view. For a second, I thought he might shoot Clay. Instead he just lit a cigarette and glared at the back of his head.
+++++Lonnie puts the gun down long enough to snort another line. Lay off that shit, I tell him. You’re gonna piss Clay off again. He flips me off, keeps playing with the gun.
+++++I think I jump a little when the phone rings. Lonnie does another bump and shoves the gun in his waist. I’m starting to get a bad feeling.
+++++Lonnie doesn’t talk as we head west. The only sound other than the radio is the wipers swishing through the mist on the windshield. We pass a black and white heading out Judah. Other than that, we only see two or three other cars until we hit 19th.
+++++ I drop Lonnie off in front of the bar. There is one car parked in front, two more across the street. I start around the block hating the fog, imagining what it would be like to live where you could see the stars. Maybe we could have chickens at that place Clay talks about. Maybe a garden.
+++++Things aren’t right when I turn back onto Taraval. They aren’t out yet and in the distance I hear a siren. Another minute later I hear gunshots inside the bar. Pop, pop, pop. I know its Lonnie and that fucking Glock.
+++++He starts to come out the door, stopping to empty what’s left of the clip into the interior of the bar. As he starts toward the car, I see blood on his shoulder and a crazed look in his eyes. I don’t see Clay and I know that I never will.
+++++I pull away leaving Lonnie reaching for the door handle. I hear him scream something. I also hear shots coming from the bar as I head east on Taraval. Glancing in the mirror, I see Lonnie lying in the street.
+++++Parking around the corner from the apartment, I grab some clothes and take the money from the place where Clay hides it in the kitchen. There is over sixty thousand dollars there. I take the keys for Clay’s baby, a ’55 Chevy wagon. I guess it’s mine now.
+++++Before long, I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Forty five miles north, somewhere around Petaluma, the fog is gone and the night sky is full of starlight. I roll down the window. The warm, country air smells of summer. I turn on the radio, Merle Haggard is singing “Big city turn me loose and set me free.”
+++++ I start thinking about what I might grow in a garden. And wondering just how much work raising chickens is. I wish Clay was here. He would know. I had always hoped it would be just me and Clay. Now it’s just me. Maybe I’ll get a cow. And some rabbits. Big city turn me loose. And set me free.

The Banyan Tree

Retreating inside his hoodie, Ricky sprinted into the midnight squall across the empty preserve lot to the car parked beneath the big tree. He pounded on the window. The large man behind the wheel looked over lazily, taking another slow drag on his cigarette, making Ricky wait in the pouring rain a moment longer before finally unlocking the door.
+++++ “Fuck, Wade,” Ricky said climbing in front, “I’m drenched now.”
+++++Wade cuffed the back of Ricky’s head, knocking him forward. “It’s Miami. What you want me to do about it?”
+++++Ricky rubbed the back of his skull, mumbling incoherent, soft consonants.
+++++Reaching under his seat, Wade retrieved a brown paper bag and held it out. Ricky tried to grab it but Wade pulled his hand back.
+++++ “Not so fast,” Wade said. “You know why I’m bailing you out with this?”
+++++ “Because I promised to pay you back twice as much?”
+++++ “It’s not a loan,” said Wade. “I’m giving it to you.”
+++++ “I don’t need any favors because I’m Big Rick’s kid.”
+++++ “Wrong. That’s exactly what you do need. Your father did right by me—and a lot of other people around here. He deserves better than a drug addict son who’s about to land his ass in Metro if he doesn’t fly straight.” Wade pinched his smoke and took a hard pull.
+++++“Got an extra cigarette?”
+++++ “No. It’s a bad habit. You got enough of those.” Wade shoved the bag hard into Ricky’s gut like he was handing off a football.
+++++Ricky doubled over.
+++++ “You’ve forgotten how to take a handoff.”
+++++Ricky righted himself and narrowed his eyes. He started to open the bag but Wade jabbed a hand and cinched it shut.
+++++ “Don’t worry. It’s all there.” Wade gestured out the windshield at the big tree they were parked beneath. “You know what kind that is?”
+++++Ricky studied the tree, which looked like it had five trunks, limbs all knotted, gnarled and intertwined, roots anchored in the earth like arthritic alien leg bones. He shrugged.
+++++ “Maybe you shouldn’t have dropped out of school,” Wade said. “It’s called a banyan tree. Banyan trees don’t grow from the ground like other trees. They start high in the nest of a palm when a bird shits a seed into a frond. When the banyan starts to sprout, it chokes the palm to death as it slithers its own roots down into the soil.” Wade stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray. “See, you can focus on one or the other. The violent birth, or the resiliency to rise above origins.” He turned to Ricky. “Me? I see a survivor. You dig what I’m saying?”
+++++Ricky giggled.
+++++ “What’s so goddamn funny?”
+++++ “Nothing, man. Just, you know, Wade Wojcik. The Miami City Muscle. Getting all sentimental about a tree.”
+++++ “You get older, kid, you start seeing things differently.” Wade grabbed Ricky by the shoulder. “I was with your father the night you were born, and I seen how proud he was when you started playing ball, before you started fucking your life up with this wannabe gangster shit.”
+++++ “Well, he ain’t around anymore, is he?”
+++++ “Listen, you little shit. Your father could’ve gone to the cops, could’ve bought himself a little witness protection farm in Kansas, but he didn’t. You know why? Because he’s a stand-up guy who didn’t make excuses. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. No matter how screwed up your beginnings, you stake your claim, you dig in and don’t let nobody take nothing from you.” Wade leaned over, eyes earnest. “All any father wants is for his son to have a better life than him. It’s why I’m giving you this money. You pay back your debt. You make this right, however you have to. Then you get your ass back to school, back on the team—”
+++++A loud knock on the driver’s side glass stopped Wade’s speech. He turned. Out in the rain, a kid Ricky’s age stood blank-faced, hands at his side.
+++++ “What the—”
+++++Ricky pulled the gun from his waistband, firing two shots into Wade’s gut. Wade looked down dumbly, trying to stuff the holes leaking bloody intestine. He stared at Ricky and opened his mouth but only bright red frothed out. Ricky pulled the trigger again, and Wade slumped against the steering wheel, a dead man’s gaze fixed on the gun.
+++++Ricky slid over and unlocked the door, and the kid outside jumped in back.
+++++ “Holy fuck!” the kid said, gleefully. “That was some cold-ass shit!”
+++++ “What took you so long?” Ricky snapped.
+++++ “Lot of big trees in this park.” The kid leaned forward, tentatively peering over the seat. “Is he…?”
+++++ “What the fuck you think? Yeah, he’s fucking dead.”
+++++Ricky tried to look tough. “You got the pipe?”
+++++The kid in back fumbled through his pockets, passing pipe and lighter over the console.
+++++Ricky tossed him the paper bag full of money. “Stick that in your pocket.”
+++++ “I thought you were only capping him if he didn’t loan you the green?”
+++++ “Wasn’t a loan. Said he was giving it to me.”
+++++ “I don’t understand,” the kid said. “Why’d you shoot him then?”
+++++Ricky dropped a rock in the bowl, sparked the glass. He inhaled deeply, blowing out a thick cloud. “Because while you were beating your meat, I was stuck listening to a goddamn history lesson on trees.” The smoke hit, and Ricky felt right.
+++++ “Trees? What about ’em?”
+++++Ricky stared through the rain at the ugly banyan tree. He didn’t see anything special. There were a million overgrown weeds just like it in these swamps.
+++++ “Who the fuck knows.” he said. “But I’m on to better things. I popped a cap in Wade Wojcik. When word gets out, I won’t just be Big Rick’s son anymore.
+++++“They’ll know I’m a player in this game for life.”

The Clean Up

Looking down at the broken man cowering on the pavement, Bernard felt nothing. He had never felt sympathetic towards any of his victims, most of them had brought it on themselves, but now he was not even experiencing that rush of adrenaline he used to thrive on. He had become a joyless creature of habit.
+++++The victim had pissed himself and the stench of urine had now overpowered the alcohol that had been seeping from his pores. This along with the pleading and the tears almost made Bernard want to keep him alive. Surely killing such a pitiful excuse for a man would be doing him a favour. Bernard thought, do I really want to snatch this runt from his miserable existence? Then he remembered the insult and the anger stirred inside him again. Bernard swung his left leg back and forward to connect hard with the injured man’s midsection. His victim coughed hard and blood leapt from his mouth. The man was trying to speak, but a combination of pain and the flooding of his mouth meant he could not muster the words.
+++++Bernard bent down close to his victim’s head and grabbed a handful of hair to pull his head towards his own. The man’s face strained against the pain that ran throughout his battered body.
+++++‘You trying to talk, you pathetic little fuck?’ Bernard asked.
+++++The words still would not come and fresh tears merged with the blood on the man’s face. The menace in Bernard’s eyes had resigned the man to his inevitable fate. He knew he would die tonight.
+++++Bernard let go of the clump of hair and his victim dropped to the ground, ‘What makes you think I’m interested in anything you have to say? Last time you opened your mouth to me you thought you were the big man, didn’t you?’
+++++Bernard didn’t wait for an answer, aiming another kick this time connecting with the rib cage. Crack.
+++++‘Not the big man now though, are you? You should see yourself, crying like the bitch you are. All mouth when you bumped me in the bar and spilt my pint, no apology, just a load of bravado.’ Bernard laughed. ‘And just think all this could have been avoided if you had just said sorry, but you had to act the big man, didn’t you? Well, where is that big man now that he’s not in the crowded pub?’
+++++The victim’s eyes were glazing over, the sobbing stopped and his head started to turn away. Bernard reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a deck of smokes, placed one in his mouth, lit it, took one long pull and then bent down stubbing it out on the face of the other man. It had the desired effect of bringing him back round with a yelp.
+++++‘I’m sorry. Was I boring you?’ Bernard continued in a menacing tone that varied in pitch to match his mood, ‘See. I had to listen to your bullshit earlier today. What was it you called me? A clumsy twat? Yet you don’t find it necessary to extend me the courtesy of listening when I’m talking to you. And let’s be honest, it was you that invited this conversation, was it not? If I’m not mistaken your exact words were, if you’ve got a problem, we can take this outside. Am I correct?’
+++++The victim nodded in agreement.
+++++‘Well here we are outside lad. You’re a big lad. In fact you’ve a good 3 stone on me, don’t you chubs? I thought I was going to lose my foot in that gut of yours when I kicked you earlier.’ Bernard smiled and laughed at his own joke, he even felt a little annoyed that his victim was not laughing along.
+++++Bernard unleashed a series of kicks to the man’s head, the first one had taken the life from the body, the kicks that followed served no purpose at all.
++

***

Darren was stood at the end of the alley. He had been nursing a can of 7Up whilst he kept watch. He was there to guide people away from walking down the alley if they tried. But it was late and quiet and he had been under employed. Bernard made his way towards him, breathing heavily, shoulders heaving deeply, his face a blotchy red.
+++++‘All done?’ Darren enquired matter of factly. It was an attempt to hide his nerves. He was never sure with Bernard, whether the attack would spill over to him as it sometimes did if Bernard hadn’t extracted maximum satisfaction from handing out a beating. These days it seemed to take more to satisfy Bernard’s lust for violence than it used to and Darren often copped a slap just for being the only person available.
+++++To Darren’s relief, Bernard seemed to calm quickly and nodded. ‘Get Yuri on the phone, tell him to get down here to help us clean up.’
+++++Bernard and Darren worked as enforcers for a crime family led by a couple of old timers that had made a name for themselves back in the late 1960s: Terry Weir and Alan Castle. Tonight’s violence had not been in anyway related to that organisation. Bernard and Darren had simply been enjoying a pint together on a night off, neither of them would really list the other as a friend, but in their line of work they didn’t find themselves with queues of willing drinking partners. Darren had noticed that recently Bernard had been unable to make the distinction between work and life and whenever they’d got together for a beer, something had happened to set him off. Darren had let Weir and Castle know and they’d asked him to keep an eye on the situation, they certainly couldn’t afford to have a loose cannon bringing unwanted attention to the organisation. None of the previous incidents had ever gone this far though, a man was dead just for spilling a pint and not knowing when to keep his mouth shut.
+++++Darren pulled out his phone and put in the call to Yuri. Yuri was also employed within the Weir and Castle crime family. For the most part he was employed as a driver, which also meant he had to get involved in the odd clean up where things went further than usual. Darren explained to Yuri what had happened. Bernard had been walking back from the bar with a pint for Darren and himself and some bloke had bumped him. Bernard had insisted on an apology but the bloke that had bumped him basically told him to go fuck himself. Bernard walked away but it had simmered with him for most of the evening and after closing time Bernard caught the bloke taking a piss in an alley so decided that he wasn’t going to let him off so lightly. Darren’s tone inferred that he thought Bernard had overstepped the mark, thankfully Bernard was pacing up and down the alley and not really paying attention to what was being said, he was clearly distracted by something. For most people in these circumstances, being distracted would be understandable, but Darren knew that Bernard didn’t let a little thing like brutal murder distract him for long. Darren gave Yuri the name of the street before cutting off the call.
+++++‘Everything okay, Bern?’
+++++‘Look at this.’ Bernard was pointing towards the ground. ‘Tubby fuck has fucked up me trainees and me jeans. That shit is not coming out. Fuck! Two-hundred quid’s worth of threads and shoes and I’m going to have to have them burnt with that pile of lard now.’
+++++Now Darren understood, what else could it have been, but money. He decided to put some distance between himself and Bernard. The rage might have died momentarily but the sight of the ruined clothing was more than enough to send Bernard back into a storm of anger.
+++++Darren’s mobile vibrated in his pocket. It was on silent. He pulled the phone out, the display read: ‘unknown number’. This was not unusual in his line of work. Darren looked at Bernard who still appeared completely preoccupied with the state of his trainers and jeans. He hit the answer button and raised the phone to his ear.
+++++‘Hello?’ It was more a question than a greeting.

***

Bernard paced with agitation whilst looking between his shoes and his victim in the alley. He thought about tearing back into the alley and seeing if he could take the lardy bastards head clean off with a kick. But no, his top was clean, no point in risking fucking that up too. He forced himself to stop looking in the direction of the dead man.
+++++He fixed his gaze on Darren. Good old dependable Dazza. Always there to watch his back, help clean up his mess, take a slapping when he was angry. No. Bernard didn’t know what he’d do without Dazza.
+++++In the late night darkness, the glow from Darren’s mobile illuminated the side of his face that was turned away from Bernard. Who’s that little prick on the phone to? Bernard thought. He moved closer and tried to listen to the conversation but Darren wasn’t speaking. The soft twat was nodding into a phone.
+++++‘They can’t see you nodding, you wanker,’ Bernard taunted.
+++++Darren looked in Bernard’s direction flashing him an insincere grin and rolling his eyes. A gesture that implied he realised his own stupidity.
+++++‘Who the fuck you talking with?’ Bernard questioned aggressively.
+++++‘OK I’ll call you later.’ Bernard heard Darren say before he watched him disconnect the call and stick the phone in the pocket of his suit trousers. Why did he insist on wearing that suit everywhere? Bernard thought.
+++++‘Sorry about that Bern mate, it was Claire, she don’t know how to get the TV to switch over to DVD. Silly cow,’ Darren said nervously as if trying to cover up who he had really spoken with.
+++++‘You sound a little nervous Dazza lad. You aren’t lying to Big Bern, are you?’ Bernard had stepped in close to Darren now and stood over him, he had four inches and nearly two stone on Darren.
+++++‘Of course I’m nervous Bern. You’ve just fucked up two-hundred quid’s worth of clobber and I’m the only living thing within 100 metres of you.’
+++++‘Don’t be a prick lad. It’s not your fault, is it?’
+++++‘No, Bern.’
+++++Bernard pulled his smokes and lighter from his pocket, took one for himself and offered one to Darren. He lit both smokes and grabbed Darren around the shoulders in a gesture aimed at reassuring him but from a man of his temperament and bulk only ever came across as threatening.
+++++The two men stood silently smoking for a few moments. Waiting for Yuri to arrive. Darren was the first to break the silence, ‘I reckon we should get ourselves into the alley a bit further while we wait for Yuri. We’re a little to conspicuous stood here.’
+++++‘It’s fucking dead down here Dazza mate, all these shops are closed and that shit stinks.’ Bernard commented with a nod towards the corpse in the alley.
+++++‘I know it’s dead on the street, Bern, but who knows who’s looking out of their window from one of those places over there.’ Darren waved in the direction of a high-rise tower block that could be seen from the edge of the alley. ‘All it takes is for one do-gooder from that tower block to call the filth with a report of two men acting suspiciously outside the local shops and we’re going to end up chatting with the Old Bill in front of a stinking body with you all covered in blood.’
+++++Bernard gave Darren a look that said there was no need for the reminder about the bloodied clothing, but then surprised Darren.
+++++‘You got a point, we’ll wait for Yuri further in.’

***

Half way between the entrance to the alley and the bloody corpse, Bernard felt a sharp deep pain pass through the back of his neck and pierce his windpipe. Darren had punched a six-inch knife blade into the larger mans body. Bernard was unable to turn his head but turned his whole hulking frame clumsily in the direction of his betrayer. By the time he had turned around, Darren had taken half a dozen long paces backwards towards the mouth of the alley. At no point had he dared to turn his back on Bernard.
+++++‘Sorry Bern, that wasn’t Claire on the phone, it was Terry Weir. He told me I had to do you, you’ve become a liability with that temper of yours, you’re going to get us all in trouble,’ Darren said sounding almost genuinely troubled by what he’d been asked to do.
+++++Bernard lifted both arms in Darren’s direction and opened his mouth as if to speak. Both actions intensified the pain streaming through Bernard’s body. He lost control of his feet and landed heavily on his knees, the right one broke as he fell before he stumbled forward and smashed his face on the concrete.
+++++Darren waited a few moments and shuffled forward a couple of steps. Only the handle of the knife was visible in Bernard’s neck, the full length of the blade had disappeared inside. The dismal light in the alley made it difficult for Darren to see whether there was still any rise and fall from Bernard’s breathing. He stood still and took out his mobile phone. He scrolled through the phone book until he reached Terry Weir. He double tapped the name and the screen changed, Calling Terry Weir. The phone connected; there was no voice on the other end. This was standard whenever calling Weir; as far as Weir was concerned, you called him, you obviously have something to say, say it.
+++++‘It’s done,’ Darren said, still staring at the figure of Bernard broken into the ground in front of him, now that he had not moved for a while and was almost certain he was dead.
+++++‘Good lad,’ replied Weir, as if Darren had just scored a hat trick in the final of the local seniors cup, ‘I was fucked right off, chasing around cleaning up his mess every fucking week. He overstepped the line so many times. I should have ordered this a lot sooner. But once Yuri called me up, all indignant, whining about having to go out to clear up fucking Bernard’s shit again finally the camels back was broken.’
+++++‘What now Mr. Weir?’
+++++‘Wait for Yuri to turn up and when he does I want him done too.’
+++++Darren paused for a moment, waiting for a crack of laughter and confirmation that Weir was joking. That was absolutely his sense of humour. But the confirmation did not come. So Darren thought he should confirm for himself. ‘So, when Yuri gets here, you want me to kill him?’
+++++‘You got shit in your ears, lad? That’s what I said, isn’t it?’ Terry snapped. Darren’s questioning had clearly angered him. ‘For fuck’s sake, do you lot ever just fucking listen? Yuri bitched so much about having to come and clean up Bernard’s mess, you know, doing his fucking job. Telling me I need to do something about Bernard’s behaviour. Giving me fucking instructions. No fuck it, that little Russian prick has got too familiar so you do him.’
+++++‘Okay, Mr. Weir, no problem,’ Darren knew it was unwise to ask another question with the beast clearly stirred, he was more than aware that it would not take much for someone to arrive and take care of him too once Yuri had been dispatched. He risked a question anyway. ‘What should I do with the bodies?’
+++++There was a pause on the other end of the line. Darren listened for a sharp intake of breath, a signal that Weir was about to explode, but none came. Instead the pause appeared to be one of contemplation.

***

‘Fuck them leave them where they lay. Maybe the message will get out, there’s too much indiscipline in this organisation.’ Weir disconnected the call.
+++++Darren approached Bernard’s corpse and gave it a few gentle kicks, followed by two hard ones, just to be sure. He was dead. Darren grabbed both of Bernard’s size 12 feet and with all his effort laboured to drag the 17 stone lump deeper into the alley and hide him behind an industrial wheelie bin. Next, Darren stood with his feet on either side of Bernard’s neck and struggled to reclaim his knife, the movement of the fall and being dragged along the alley had clearly lodged the knife in places that the initial thrust had not.
+++++The mouth of the alley flickered with light as a car approached. Darren wiped his blade clean on Bernard’s clothing and stared in the direction of the light. An engine hummed low and finally the vehicle came into view. The light turned red and then brightened with white as the car was put in reverse and backed into the alley. Darren clasped the knife tightly at his side, slightly behind his right leg. The driver side door opened and Darren watched as the slight figure of Yuri stepped from the vehicle and started moving towards him arms open.
+++++‘Where’s that prick Bernard?’ came Yuri’s heavily accented voice.
+++++Darren’s knife hand twitched as he sized up the Russians neck. Suddenly Yuri’s forehead exploded and he collapsed to the ground as the gun shot echoed through the night air. The passenger side door stood open, Terry Weir was stood at the back of the car, his gun hand still aimed at the point through which he had shot Yuri. It was aimed directly at Darren’s chest.
+++++‘Why couldn’t you boys just do your jobs, keep your noses clean and your mouths shut when given instruction, always with the questions.’ Weir said.
+++++He pulled the trigger.
+++++Moments later the alley was left in darkness as the car pulled away at speed.

Just Waiting


He was just waiting, standing in the park, staring up at the window he knew so well and waiting–for what?  A light, her face, a sign from the heavens? Everybody’s waiting for something: chips and pie, pie in the sky, a windfall from their uncle dying, a lottery win, fame and fortune and oh, honey, if you just put your head out the window and saw me standing here, he thought, you would know I’m the one.
+++++But she never looked even though he stood here too many nights and someone was bound to report him as a perv or potential kiddie fiddler, but her presence drew him here like a junkie to his fix. He just needed a sign.
+++++“Well, what have we got here?”
+++++He spun around. Of all the people you’d not want to meet in the dark in the park or with a fox or in your socks at the top of the list had to be Graham and Dave Crewe. Only nobody called them that, just called them “those motherfuckers” because there wasn’t much more you could say about them that didn’t capture it all. There was bad and there was mad and then there was the Crewes.
+++++Dangerous.
+++++“Looks like we caught a peeping Tom,” Dave said, as Graham nodded sagely.
+++++“We don’t like peeping, Tom.” Dave clapped a large hand down on his shoulder and he felt his body shake from the weight of it.
+++++He considered what he might say that wouldn’t arouse a fit of random violence, but found himself tongue-tied. Before he could make a decision, Dave threw his head back and laughed like a hyena.
+++++“Only jokin’!” He thrust his big face right up close. “Or am I?” Then leaned back for a further explosion of mirth. “Truth is, we’re lucky we ran into you, lad. Isn’t that right Graham?”
+++++Graham grunted, staring off into space.
+++++“We need a third man, Tom,” Dave said confidentially. “Your lucky night.”
+++++The-man-who-would-be-Tom did not feel especially lucky. He attempted to conceal his alarm at the turn of events. “What for?”
+++++“We have a little work to do and a third pair of eyes would come in handy just now.” Dave grinned like a crocodile. “Do I speak the truth, Graham?”
+++++Graham snorted and then spat onto the pavement. It probably meant he agreed.
+++++“Come along then, Thomas. We’ve got work to do.” And he found himself hustled along between the two giant brothers. Dave kept up a steady stream of random opinions on the papers, the state of the country, the many failings of Wayne Rooney and the price of lager these days. Graham spat occasionally.
+++++Before long they arrived at a small grocers, shuttered for the night, snug as a bug in a rug. An old-style chalkboard still bore the prices of yesterday’s produce neatly written in rounded letters. “Keep an eye on the street,” Dave warned, his huge paw gripping Tom’s shoulder again. “We don’t want no surprises, right?” A warning pinch threatened to dislocate his arm from its socket.
+++++“Right,” he said, feeling his heart leap into his throat.
+++++He stood on the pavement and watched as the brothers went to work. Graham pulled out a bolt cutter from inside his jacket and it bit through the puny lock. They rolled up the gate and Dave elbowed the glass pane above the handle and reached in to unlock the door. “Old school,” he chortled with obvious pleasure. “Not many of these left anymore.”
+++++The brothers went in and at once sounds of mayhem ensued. Panic made him twitch on the quiet street, too afraid to run off, but nervous about sticking around. He winced at the sound of metal smashing glass. Were they just busting up the joint or did they have looting in mind also? Odd, attacking a grocer’s.
+++++A light drew his eye up. A face appeared at a window and for a moment he almost wanted to imagine it was his girl, but of course it wasn’t. An old woman looked down at him in the dark. He put a finger to his lips, cautioning her to silence.
+++++She threw up the sash. “What’s going on?”
+++++He threw up his hands and tried to signal quiet, alternatively pointing to the interior of the store, feeling like an idiot. She stared at him a moment, then lowered the window without another word.
+++++An even greater panic seized him. Should he tell the Crewes? Likely she called emergency services and the polis were on their way. Maybe he could wait until he heard the sirens, then warn them and run off with good excuse.
+++++The door next to the grocer’s opened and out came the old woman with a shotgun in her arms. He gasped. “Don’t go in there!” he hissed. “It’s the Crewes.”
+++++The woman stared at him a moment. Her deeply lined face looked grim but her grip on the gun held steady. She walked to the door where the sounds of anarchy continued. He held his breath.
+++++Unsurprisingly, Dave spoke first. “Out of the way, gran. We were hired to do a job and we’re–”
+++++The explosion of the shotgun echoed loudly in the quiet streets. If the cops weren’t on their way already they would be now.
+++++“You shot my brother!” Graham shrieked. His voice seemed awfully high for his huge body and Tom found himself distracted by the thought, so that’s why he don’t speak much. A second explosion and there was no more from the Crewes. He wondered if he should look inside but found himself frozen on the pavement.
+++++She stepped out of the door. For a moment he wondered if she would gun him down. In the distance a siren began to wail. He goggled at her, but the woman seemed suddenly tired.
+++++“The boys in blue on their way now?” she asked him.
+++++“I think so,” he stuttered. He saw an overturned crate in the doorway and ducked in to get it. Setting it down on the pavement he gestured for her to take a seat, which she did with a satisfied grunt.
+++++She looked at him with frank curiosity. “You need a bigger pair, son.”
+++++He could feel his face flush and felt grateful for the night’s veil.
+++++She pulled the blue housecoat closer around her and balanced the shotgun across her lap. He stood awkwardly at her side. “I should have never left the farm,” she said almost to herself. “People just don’t have any manners here.”
+++++“Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly. The sound of the siren grew louder.

Gutshot

The first bullet went through, but the second one is still in there. I can feel it up under my ribs, like a petulant five year old slamming a door and screaming, “I won’t come out!”
+++++I don’t know if they thought I was already dead or if they knew I would be soon enough, but the Russell brothers took off and those tail lights have faded away. It’s just me now. Help is not on the way.
+++++I could drive somewhere, but that fireball over there? That’s my car painting the two a.m. night sky a burnt orange. Shoot me, fine, but what the hell did my car ever do to you?
+++++I would have thought there would be people on the street, even this late. In the city, it seems like there’s always someone around. This neighborhood, though, those gunshots would have sent everyone ducking for cover and pulling the curtains tight, maybe throwing that extra deadbolt. Somehow I’ve got to make it from flat on my back, twin leaks in my gut and no way to stop the bleeding, and get my ass to a hospital. Closest one is, shit, at least twenty blocks away.
+++++Best get moving.
+++++This might have to be an on-all-fours kind of journey. One hand on my stomach, less to staunch the blood flow than to keep my guts in, and one hand on the dirty sidewalk. Fucking place is a minefield. Chewed gum, bits of green glass, smears of old dog shit. Fuck m– hey, a quarter.
+++++I try to stand, end up walking a half dozen paces like an extra in Dawn Of The Dead. Not a featured extra neither. One of the really messed up background players, like with one leg missing or a length of pipe still sticking out of their spine.+++++
I drop down to all fours again, grateful for the cold stability of the city sidewalk. Both hands down now, one planting deep red handprints in a trail up 34th.
+++++A car drives by. Didn’t hear it until too late. I doubt anyone would have seen me down here with the piss and McDonalds wrappers anyhow.
+++++Cold out. Maybe it’s just the slab of pavement draining my body heat through my knees and palms. Somehow I’ve made it to the end of the block. I can still see the fireball behind me. I think for a second of crawling back there if only for the warmth. Eventually a fire truck would show up, right? Eventually can be a long time.
+++++I pull myself up on a lamp post. My bloody hand slips on a flyer for a lost cat, only one of the phone number tabs torn off. I look up at the street signs, try to get my bearings. I spot a cab a block away moving my way. Score.
+++++I lean out, keeping my blood hand on the lamp post otherwise I’d be face down in the gutter. I lift my hand to wave down the taxi. My palm is nearly black from only a half block of crawling. This city is fucking disgusting.
+++++The cab slows and I think I’ve found Jesus. I lean out from the lamp post, an insane asylum grin plastered my face. The cab driver sees me.
+++++“No drunks,” he says and hits the gas.
+++++“Wait! I’m not fucking dr–” I tip forward into the street. I can still smell his exhaust as my face hits the cement. For a split second, the two holes in my gut take a backseat to the pain in my mouth.
+++++I flip myself over and spit two teeth out. They teeter near a storm drain and I wonder if I should go fetch them and try to plug the holes in my abdomen. Nah, they’re front teeth, not molars. Too small for the caliber of gun Ricky Russell used on me.
+++++If I make it to a hospital they’re gonna want to know why I got shot. That’s a long damn story and I’m not keen to tell it. Let them figure it out. I’ll fake being too out of it to speak, which isn’t really faking at this point.
+++++I manage to get myself back to the sanctuary of the sidewalk before a delivery truck runs my ass over or something. Time to cross the street.
+++++I stand up again, latched onto the lamp post. When the little red hand turns to a green walking man I let go. What I do across the intersection can’t be called walking. More like tripping for twenty yards. Or falling down a flight of stairs, when there’s no stairs there.
+++++I hit the curb on the far side and pitch forward again. A tooth on the top row that felt a little wobbly after I kissed the gutter, pops loose now and I nearly swallow it. I spit the tooth out and a gob of bloody saliva comes with it. Wish I could lose this bullet in my gut as easily as I lose teeth.
+++++I’m flat on my belly. My feet have gone ice cold and a little numb, so have my hands. The only part of me that’s warm is my belly pressed flat on the sidewalk and soaking in a warm bath of my own blood.
+++++I do a pushup with my hands and notice a rubber stamp imprint of my midsection rendered in O positive.
+++++How many more blocks to go? Fuck me.
+++++I hear a door open. Oh, thank Christ.
+++++Off to my right, coming up the steps from a basement apartment, is an older Chinese lady with a toy poodle at the end of leash. She’s wearing a housecoat and holding an as-yet empty plastic bag in her hand. Gotta love dog owners – any time, day or night.
+++++I reach out my bloody hand to her and mutter something like, “Please, help me.” I doubt it came out that clear.
+++++She jumps back and puts a hand up to her collar, tightening up the housecoat as if I might want to jump up to two feet, ignore the two bullets that paid me a visit tonight, and get my rape on. The nerve on that old bitch.
+++++After she says something appropriately shocked in her native tongue, she takes a closer look. I’m obviously a victim here. The details of how I got shot aren’t relevant to her, only that I need help. And fucking soon.
+++++I try to explain through the stone barrier of our uncommon language. I use words I think everyone should know like hospital, ambulance, and don’t let me die in the street. She creeps ever closer to me, the dog tugging at the end of the leash wanting like hell to get to me and see what the fuck is going on. I wish she had half the urgency of that ugly fucking mutt.
+++++She takes a cell phone out of her housecoat pocket. That’s gotta be a good sign. She raises someone and starts speaking rapid-fire and angry sounding Chinese to whoever is on the other end of the line. While she speaks I can do nothing but lay crumpled on the sidewalk and continue to lose blood. She scans her street up and down, I assume looking for my shooter. She’s shit out of luck on that score.
+++++Lucky for her. The Russell brothers wouldn’t blink at putting a bullet between the eyes of a nosy Chinese lady and her scrawny-ass dog.
+++++Speaking of the dog, the little fucker is licking my wound. I’m trying to alert her to the fact that her mutt is tasting me like I’m what’s for dinner, but she is fully engrossed in her conversation. I wish I could understand a goddamn word she was saying so I would know if she was trying to help me or just discussing the latest episode of Housewives of Fuckville or whatever.
+++++The damn dog is lapping it up. I have the strength to push him away a few times, but not the will to compete against a wiry hound with a recently discovered taste for human blood. Every time I push, he keeps coming back at me, his muzzle growing darker red each time I give him a shove and see his face come away from my abdomen.
+++++Finally she hangs up, looks down and sees the dog, gives the leash a tug, and then talks to me in Chinese. She seems like she’s giving instructions of some sort. I hope she gave directions to the ambulance in fucking English, and I tell her as much.
+++++As soon as I swear at her, I regret it. She didn’t do this to me. The Russell brothers did, and really, didn’t I do it to myself?
+++++She bends down and starts to try to drag me off the sidewalk toward her place. Hopefully to wait until the ambulance arrives.
+++++It’s an awkward affair. I’m too weak to be much help at all. She’s got my feet, dragging me along at a snail’s pace, while the dog is bouncing around, covered in my blood, and looking to get another taste.
+++++She keeps chastising the dog in Chinese, but the dog seems to understand her about as well as I do. Or he just doesn’t give a fuck.
+++++I don’t know why, but I start talking. I tell her everything. The fact she can’t understand me helps a bit. It feels good to get it off my chest at least. I tell her about the doomed-from-the-start business venture I entered into with the Russell brothers. How I should have known it would all go south. How I tried to hide the facts when it did. And how I came to be under a bridge with both brothers and me without a gun.
+++++In the distance I hear a siren.
+++++We’ve reached the top of her steps and she’s barking at me in Chinese again. I’m sure she wants my help to get down the steps. “Just leave me here,” I say. “Why make the ambulance guys bring me out of your basement apartment when they can just grab me off the sidewalk?” The words all come out in a slur. Even if she spoke English she might not have gotten any of that.
+++++Then she’s falling. I guess I didn’t do enough to help. The lady has pitched over backward and is heading down the steps head first. Her dog is lifted off the ground by the leash and it goes sailing over me, the bloody muzzle looking down at me with a very confused expression.
+++++I hear a sickening slap and then I’m sliding. I was close enough to the edge, I guess, and I slip down the stone steps like it’s winter time in New England and I’m trying out my trusty sled.
+++++I slide in next to the old lady, my head tapping her door. She’s got a shocked look on her face, but it’s frozen there. The smell of the blood leaking from her is different than mine. Hers is more fresh.
+++++I’m almost nose to nose with her and it takes me a second to notice her shoulders are pointed the other way. Why is it someone like her, who was just trying to help, gets killed in an instant while I have to suffer in agony for god knows how long?
+++++I hear whimpering. The little dog crawls out from behind the lady. It looks dazed, but catches sight of me and is energized.
+++++The sirens are almost on us now and the dog scrambles over his owner and noses into my gut wound again. I try to move my arms to shoo the damn thing away, but I’m either pinned at a funny angle or my arms don’t work any more. Hard to tell.
+++++I try to give it a, “Hey! Go away!” but nothing more than a squeak comes out. A leaky bike tire hiss and nothing you could call actual words.
+++++The siren comes and goes, zipping past and never slowing down. Great.
+++++I hear voices above. Residents poking around. Someone says something about a fire. So it was a fire truck. I have no idea if the old woman even called an ambulance or not.
+++++I try to yell for help, but the air is almost all the way out of this tire.
+++++Goddamn dog won’t let up. There’s no where for me to look. I’ve got this dead woman inches from my face or the view of my guts being eaten out by a crazed poodle. Which is worse?
+++++When I first slid down here, the lady was freshly dead, or maybe not even yet. Now she’s settling into the idea. The skin on her face is starting to slacken, her tongue swells out of her mouth and hangs there.
+++++Ow, fuck! The dog has taken to biting and little nips, not satisfied with only licking anymore. Damn, will he ever be the same? How to you adopt out a dog with a taste for human flesh?
+++++Oh well, not gonna be my problem. I have a feeling all my problems are over really fucking soon.

Burn Away

It was two in the morning.

The streets were empty. Reflecting pools of light from the street lamps after a short summer rain. We–my partner and I–were in the Rousch 427 Mustang, the windows down, the 435 horses rumbling in a barely restrained symphony under the hood. Coming out of the stereo speakers were the strange, hypnotic vibes of a song called Handel on your Face by a two-singer male group called Bodyrockers.

I got a handle on your face./It’s in a stone-cold place./Why don’t you move it over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.

 

The perfect theme song for murder.

It starts out with the classic notes of Handel’s Sarabanda and then turns into a melodic guilt-trip of lust, desire, and psychotic nightmares. Frank and me were in route to pick up our prime suspect. A crazy sonofabitch with a rap sheet about as long as I-70 from Denver to Kansas City. Assault. Robbery. Extortion. Attempted murder–just about everything a career criminal needed to make himself know to homicide detectives like us.

Now it was murder. Nothing attempted. Murder finalized. The body lay on the concrete pavement of his driveway with two 9 mm holes in his back and blood inching its way down the pavement toward the gutters. Inside the million dollar home the man’s wife was in hysterics. When we left the paramedics were giving her an injection to calm her nerves and make her sleep. She was sixty-eight years old with a heart condition. As we were leaving one of the paramedics looked at us, frowned, and shook his head.

In her condition it would be a miracle if she lived through the night. So our prime suspect wasn’t going to be charged with one murder. Two counts would be slapped on him if the woman died during the night.

Our suspect was named Raymond Russell. He’d just been released from a Federal prison a month earlier and was making himself at home down in the wharf district in a bar called Slim’s. His brother owned the place and Raymond was working there as a bartender/ bouncer. But rumor was he was doing other things on the side. Like fencing stolen goods. Muscling into the local drug business. Stealing cars.

Nice guy.

Turning on Vincent street, I worked the gearshift up through third to fourth and drove. Raymond was our suspect because the dead man’s daughter, a lovely little dark-eyed beauty about twenty-two or twenty-three by the name of Nancy told us her father and Raymond had had a series of bitter confrontations. Confrontations down in the wharf district not too far from where Raymond worked. Apparently Raymond wanted a piece of the old man’s business. Threatened the old man several times if he didn’t give in. Said his daughter might find herself in a terrible accident.

Like I said—Raymond was a nice guy.

I pulled the growling Mustang up to the curb about a half block away from the bar and cut the engine. In the darkness, Vine street is always black since no one in the street department feel’s safe enough to come down here and repair the busted street lights, the two of us sat back in the bucket seats and waited. Waited for the bar to close up and for Raymond to step out. In the darkness the black forms of warehouses and forgotten businesses lined both sides of the street like forgotten sentries. Only the soft colored neon lights of Slim’s broke the darkness.

An hour went by before the lights to the bar went out. As soon as they did Frank and I slid out of the Mustang and started walking silently down the street toward Raymond’s car. Frank–about as wide as a Mountain Gorilla on steroids and, with his stringy carrot top hair, about as ugly–reached inside his sport jacket and pulled out his 9 mm Glock. I pulled out the Kimber .45 caliber I preferred, cocked the hammer back with a thumb, and then reached for my leather case which held the gold detective badge inside.

He didn’t see us until we were about ten feet from him. But when he did, he dropped the money bag he had in one hand as he turned and stepped back.

“Who the hell are you guys?”

“Cops, Russell. Want to ask you some questions,” I said.

“Questions? About what? I haven’t done anything.”

“About a murder, Russell. A guy by the name Charles Connery,” Frank’s growl rumbled in the night.

“Charles Con . . . . why that crazy bitch! Listen, I’m not taking the fall for this. Whatever went down I wasn’t involved. There’s no way I’m going back to prison. No way!”

“Russell . . . Russell! Don’t do anything stupid,” I yelled.

Russell did something stupid. In the darkness we say the con reach with his left hand behind his back and pull out something dark and bulky looking. He lifted the left hand the bulky object up toward us in one swift motion. And that’s when we fired. My .45 and Frank’s 9 mm lit up the night at the same time. The blasts of the two pieces ripping the night apart with bright flames and a thundering roar.

Raymond Russell lay in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. Both of his shoulders were ripped to pieces from the slugs smacking into them. He was alive. He would live. Barely. But as we stood over him, and has Frank kicked the Colt .45 away from Raymond’s left hand, we stared down at the bleeding con and neither one of us were happy.

“Did you see that? See how he reached for his gun?”

“Yes,” I nodded, gripping the Kimber in my hand firmly. “His left hand. Drew with his left hand.”

“He’s right handed,” Frank said, nodding and using the Glock to point to Russell’s right hand. “Look at that.”

Raymond Russell’s right arm, from his elbow down to the tip of his fingers, was encased in a hard plaster cast. A fresh one. Pulling out a small flashlight I waved it around over the cast and noted how white it was.

“What did he mean about a crazy bitch?” I asked, frowning, eyeing the groaning man.

“Yeah,” Frank nodded, flipping open his cell phone and lifting it to his ear and speed dialing dispatch. “Sounds to me like he knows the Connerys. But maybe not the old man.”

“Knows Nancy Connery,” I said. “Sounds to me he knows her quite well.”

Frank spoke rapidly and calmly in the phone. Almost instantly we heard off in the distance sirens heading in our direction. Flipping the phone closed he dropped it back in his coat pocket and looked at me.

“Guess we should see just how crazy a bitch Nancy Connery is. If she is.”

Four hours later we knew exactly how crazy the daughter was. Driving over to the mansion just as the sun was beginning to light up the eastern sky we didn’t say a word. During the night Mrs. Connery died from a massive heart attack. The only Connery living now was the daughter. And she just inherited fifty million dollars. But last month–last month–Nancy Connery was thrown out of the family residence when word got back to her parents she had been seeing a slime ball by the name of Raymond Russell. Partying all night long. Getting drunk. Cavorting down at Slim’s like some cheap harlot. Words Charles Connery used to describe his daughter. He told her he was going to throw her, not only out of his house , but out of his will as well. If she wanted to run around with a lowlife like that, then run around with him without any money and see how long he stays with you.

Nancy Connery had a history of being in and out of mental institutions all her life. Self destructive the lass was. Hurt herself . . . and when she was in the mood, hurt others as well. Mostly her parents.

The night she was thrown out of her house she moved in with Raymond Russell. That lasted all of one week. Suddenly, the night before Charles Connery gets two slugs in the middle of his back, Nancy Connery moves back into the family mansion. The slugs came, interestingly enough, from the gun Raymond drew on us earlier in the night.

We climbed out of the Mustang and walked up to the front door of the house, the two of us noticing a light on in the living room as we stepped up to the double front doors. Reaching up I pressed the button for the doorbell and stepped back. Nancy Connors opened the door almost immediately.

“Detectives is . . . is he dead?”

“Whose dead, Miss Connors?” Frank asked.

“Why . . . .Raymond Russell. He is dead, isn’t he? He said he’d never go back to prison again. Said he’d kill himself first. So . . . so he must be dead. Right?”

“He’s alive, Miss Connors. Very much alive and telling his side of the story,” I said. “We need to take you downtown.”

She looked up us, her face a portrait of childish innocence, but her eyes . . . her large brown eyes . . . burning funeral pyres of insanity.

“I want a lawyer,” she whispered softly.

We nodded, each of us taking an arm and escorting her out of the house. As we walked to the patrol car that had followed us back to the house I could hear the lyrics from the song rattling along in my head.

I got a handle on your face./Its in a stone-cold place./ Why don’t you come over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.

 

Drinkin’ on the job

Willie handed Carl a wet movie ticket as they walked into the theater lobby.  Both men were drenched from head to foot.
+++++“Fuck!  I can’t believe this weather,” Carl said.
+++++“I know.  We’re gonna freeze our asses off if in the a.c.  You want popcorn?”
+++++“Does it go well with vodka?”  Carl patted the bottle that was tucked in his coat pocket.
+++++“It ain’t even noon yet, you fucking lush,” said Willie.
+++++“You know you’ll have some.”
+++++“Not until after the show.  It ruins my concentration.  I’m getting popcorn.”
+++++Carl followed Willie to the concession stand.
+++++“I don’t think you’ll have to concentrate real hard on a Larry the Cable Guy flick.  Could you get me an orange soda for the mixer?”
+++++“I look like a bank today?”
+++++“Come on Willie…I’ll pay you back.”
+++++“I’m just bustin’ your balls.  You can pay for the next movie.”
+++++Willie bought a giant tub of popcorn and two drinks.  He handed one of the cups to his friend and they walked past the unmanned ticket box to find their movie in the multi-plex.
+++++The lights were already down when they found it.
+++++“Shit, I can’t see a thing,” Carl said.
+++++“We’re sitting in the back,” said Willie.
+++++Carl usually made a b-line to the front row like a little kid, which bugged the hell out of Willie.  He hated having to practically lay flat in the hard, broke down seats and crane his neck back to take in the picture.
+++++“Come on,” Carl whined.  “At least go to the middle.”
+++++“Nah, we’re in the back today.  I paid…my choice.”
+++++Carl conceded.  Their eyes had adjusted enough to find a seat without tripping in the aisle, so the two men sat down.
+++++On the screen a preview was playing for a horror movie featuring an axe wielding lunatic in an Easter bunny costume.
+++++“Cool,” Carl said.  “Hey, I don’t think there’s anyone else in here.”  He took the bottle out of his pocket and was getting ready to twist the lid off when Willie stopped him by covering his hand.
+++++“Wait till you’re sure.  There’s a time and a place, ya know?”
+++++“Aw come on!  Are you still pissed off about that last job?  I told you I’d never get that lit again.  How many times I gotta say I’m sorry?”
+++++A vision flashed in Willie’s head.  He was in the back room of the closed jewelry store, filling a sack with as many trinkets as he could get his hands on.  The back door had pried open without a problem and Carl was sitting watch in the car out front.
+++++They had a tip that the alarm system of the ancient building had stopped functioning long ago and was only there for show.  But if Carl spotted any trouble outside he was supposed to call Willie’s cell.
+++++When the old man with the shotgun stuck his key in the front door, Carl didn’t see because he was passed out drunk behind the wheel.
+++++As soon as Willie heard the lock being worked he went to the back door.  He was surprised when the old man’s son came in swinging a Louisville slugger.
+++++By sheer luck he just missed having his skull split open and ran to the front of the store in time to look down the barrel of the old man’s shotgun.
+++++Willie flung the sack of jewelry as hard as he could and knocked the shotgun out of the old man’s hands.  The gun went off when it hit the floor and the old man and his son both hit the deck.
+++++Willie jumped over the fallen store owner and went out the door.  He saw Carl slumped over the wheel and cursed.  By the time he pushed his partner over and got behind the wheel, Babe Ruth was hitting homers through the windshield.
+++++Carl stirred out of his stupor when glass rained in on them and Willie burned an inch of rubber off the wheels tearing away from the curb…
+++++“Until I forget how much money we lost and how close we came to getting killed because you passed out behind the wheel of the lookout car,” Willie said.
+++++“Jesus!  I thought that shit was in the past.  What did you ask me to go to the show for…you’re still so pissed?”
+++++Carl sighed and dropped his head.
+++++“All right…I’m sorry I brought it up again.  I’m just having a little trouble lining something else up for us right now, and Jimmy is pissed as hell that he didn’t get a piece of that jewelry store.”
+++++The previews were over and a commercial reminded movie patrons to silence their cell phones.
+++++“It’s getting ready to start.  Why don’t you go ahead and find us a seat in the middle?  I gotta go take a piss,” said Willie.
+++++Carl popped up in his seat with a big grin.
+++++“Oh…okay.  You’d better hurry though, it’s gonna start.”
+++++“Sit in the middle.  Not the middle of the front.  It hurts my head.”
+++++“In the middle…I promise,” Carl said.
+++++“Here, take my cup and the popcorn with you.  I’ll be back in a minute.”
+++++The two men got up and Carl quickly moved to the third row from the front like Willie knew he would.  As soon as he sat down he took the bottle out and spun the top off.  His head tipped back and he emptied half of the vodka down his throat, also like Willie knew he would.  His once reliable sidekick was on a steady downward spiral.
+++++Willie shook his head as he quietly pushed open the door and stepped out of the theater.  There was still nobody attending the ticket box in the hallway where they tore your ticket and directed you to the film you paid for.
+++++He passed the ticket box unnoticed and went into the men’s room, which was empty, and left him alone with his own thoughts as he entered a stall.
+++++Willie was called to a sit down after the jewelry store blunder.  Carl wasn’t invited to attend.
+++++Jimmy was there, of course, since he was the head of the crew.  And all of the other low level wiseguys from the neighborhood that worked under Jimmy.  Willie was decidedly in the hot seat, but it was better than not being invited to the meeting at all.  If that were the case, he would have been in the same position as his partner.
+++++“That kid’s a friggin’ nitwit,” Jimmy said.  “He gets worse every day with the booze or drugs or whatever the hell he’s doing.”
+++++“I know that he drinks too much.  I’ve tried to talk to him,” Willie said.
+++++“The time for talk is over.  He’s cost us too much already.  Christ Willie, he almost cost you your life,” Teddy the Shark said.
+++++“Carl’s had a lot of problems.  His wife left him right after his pop died.  Then his brother got pinched for that coke thing.  He just needs some help and…”  Willie was working it up…trying to plead his old friend’s case as if he were his lawyer and the room full of wiseguys were a jury.  But in that room the judge made all of the final decisions, and Jimmy was the judge.
+++++“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said, “but the kid’s got to go.”
+++++“But…”
+++++“I ain’t asking you, Will.  It’s already decided.  I just thought that since you known him so long…I’d give you the opportunity to take care of this yourself.  Otherwise…it’ll be taken care of for you.”
+++++Willie looked around the room.  He was surrounded by the somber stares of killers.  Sure, in one sense they were all friends…even called each other family.  But if any one of them became a problem, or came in the way of the other earning a buck, none of them would hesitate sticking a knife in the other’s back.
+++++“Don’t worry Jimmy.  I’ll take care of it,” Willie said without having any idea how he could kill someone that he loved like a brother.
+++++He waited for what seemed like an eternity before he heard the sound of the bathroom door open.  Footsteps clicked across the tiled floor and a zipper unzipped.
+++++Willie flushed the toilet behind him and opened the stall door.  He walked to the sink and looked in the mirror, not at his own reflection, but of that of the old man who stood in front of the urinal trying to coax his prostate into cooperating with him.
+++++Willie turned the water on and kept his eyes on the old man.  He thought about something that his dad had taught him when he was just a kid.
+++++Men are easy targets in public bathrooms.  They avoid making eye contact with each other because they don’t want the other guy to think that they’re looking at their goods.
+++++The old man at the urinal kept his head down, concentrating on the job at hand.
+++++Willie left the water running and quietly crept up behind him.  When he was close enough, he slammed the palm of his hand into the back of the old man’s head.
+++++There was a loud wet thud as the old man’s skull connected with the hard tile wall.  He crumpled to the floor with blood streaming down his face.  A low moan came out of the victim and his head rolled from side to side.
+++++Willie stooped over his prey and grabbed hold of him by the lapels of his coat.  He jerked him upwards and slammed his head back down on the tile floor again and again until the old man was dead and his prostate finally fulfilled his last wish on earth.
+++++Willie purposely stepped into the pool of blood that was forming under the old man’s head and bent over again to search his pockets.  The reward was a wallet and a nice pocket knife.
+++++He tucked the goods in his own pockets and shut the water off at the sink before exiting the bathroom and trotting back down the empty hall to the theater that Carl was in.
+++++He opened the door just enough to slip in and stood in the back until his eyes re-adjusted.
+++++Carl was still alone in the theater and was passed out in his seat.  The tub of popcorn was tipped over on the floor next to the empty vodka bottle.
+++++Carl didn’t stir when Willie squatted down and removed his shoes.  Willie took off his own blood stained shoes and put them on Carl’s feet.  He carefully maneuvered around his unconscious friend to avoid stepping in the bloody footprints he had left on the floor.  There he sat down and put Carl’s shoes on his own feet.
+++++His friend would go away for a while on a murder charge and Willie would be free of his burden.  He didn’t mind killing really; the old guy in the bathroom was a testament to that.  But Carl was his friend.  They grew up together.
+++++Carl would be safe in the can, and Jimmy couldn’t really blame Willie for not getting the chance to whack the guy before he went into a drunken rage and killed some citizen.  It would work out for everyone all around.
+++++When he finished tying the laces, Willie took the old man’s wallet out of his pocket, took most of the cash out of it, and stuffed the wallet into a pocket in Carl’s coat.
+++++But just as he pulled his hand out, Carl snapped to and grabbed his hand.
+++++“Hey!  Willie…was the hell you doing?”  He slurred.
+++++“Let go, Carl!”
+++++But Carl didn’t let go.  He grabbed Willie’s other arm and jerked him forward.
+++++Willie struggled to break away, but his friend held on tight.
+++++“I’m sorry, Willie…so sorry.  I betrayed everyone in my life…My wife…my brother…even you…I’m…so sorry.”
+++++“Damnit Carl, let go!”  Willie jerked backwards and Carl finally let go.  But he stumbled out of his seat and his shirt came undone.
+++++Willie saw something glisten in the flickering light of the projected movie.  It was something that didn’t look right.
+++++He stepped over Carl and ripped his shirt open more.  The thing that glistened was a wire that had been taped under Carl’s shirt.
+++++“They made me do it, Willie.  That’s why I haven’t been able to stay sober.  They been listening to everything.  Oh God, what’d I do?”  Drunken Carl started weeping like a baby.
+++++Willie ran for the nearest fire exit.  An alarm went off when he pushed the door open.  It didn’t matter though; the cops were already waiting outside for him.

 

Vigil

The room looked sterile, smelled sterile. It had that piney sent of disinfectant. The light strained through the window, stale and yellow as the old man’s skin. John looked at his grandfather and felt nothing; he barely knew the man—what was left of the man.
+++++John’s grandfather lay with his head back and his mouth open, feeding tubes snaked up each nostril. There were wires and more tubes fitted to an obsolete looking piece of medical machinery that beeped softly every few seconds. There was an awful wheeze coming from his mouth, an awful dry oval that housed his stained teeth and a swollen tongue thickly coated with white. It was the sound of, what John knew to be, a dying man.
+++++John hadn’t seen his grandfather face to face in three years. He’d been off biding his time at some boarding school his mother had stuck him in. Out of sight, out of mind. John didn’t even recognize him when he first entered the hospital room. He thought the frail, withered shell in front of him bore no resemblance to the man that he’d known to be the strong patriarch of his family, the hero of his mother’s stories.
+++++John spied an uncomfortable looking chair in the corner near the window and decided that, if he could sit quietly, the hour his mother had designated for him to bond with the old man would tick by painlessly. He sat down. The chair creaked loudly and the old man stirred.
+++++At first there was just a raspy groan and John hoped he was still asleep, lost in some lusty memory from yesteryear.  But then he heard the old man’s voice.
+++++“Who’s there?” the old man said, barely audible.
+++++“It’s me grandpa, Johnny.”
+++++“Giovanni? Is that you?”
+++++“Yeah, it’s me.”
+++++“Come here, boy. Let me see you.”
+++++As Johnny got up the chair squeaked again. He stood between the window and the bed, casting a shadow over the old man like death itself.
+++++“Christ, Giovanni, I can’t see you. Come closer.”
+++++He leaned over the old man and let his grandfather’s eyes adjust to the light.
+++++“Sit down, boy,” he said, patting a brown-spotted hand on the hospital blanket beside him. “Sit down and let me talk with you.”
+++++John sat down and got a closer look at the old man. A Sunday dinner never went by without some kind of talk about Grampa Joe. No matter what his family was doing, how well, how poorly, no subject was ever passed without some comment on what grandpa Joe might think. A new job, a move from the city, a marriage or divorce, the first thought in all their minds was, What was Grampa Joe going to say?
+++++“Gio, you look good. What are you now, twenty-four, twenty-five?”
+++++“Nineteen,” said John.
+++++“Nineteen? What an age. What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again.”
+++++“It’s overrated,” said John.
+++++“Bullshit. I didn’t know shit when I was nineteen. Thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know shit.”
+++++“Mom would agree with you,” said John.
+++++“Your mother? You kiddin’? She still doesn’t know shit.”
+++++John smiled but the old man just stared straight ahead, his eyes watery and opaque.
+++++“Kid, lemme ask you something.”
+++++John waited a moment; when nothing came he said, “What, Grampa?”
+++++“You got any money?”
+++++John didn’t know how to answer. Money in his pocket? In life, savings? Was the old man asking for a loan?
+++++“No, Grampa, not really.”
+++++“Never use your own money kid.  Investment-wise, doesn’t matter if it’s legit or not, don’t use your own dough.”
+++++John didn’t really know where this was going.
+++++“I made myself a lot of scratch, kid. You know how? Using other people’s dough. I still got buckets, too. Buckets. You know what else? Those vultures in the waiting room out there? They ain’t gonna get it. None of it. You’ll see. Fuck ‘em. That’s a promise.”
+++++This made John smile too.  He’d never heard his grandfather talk this way. He thought of his mother out there with her cousins, two Aunts, and other assorted fringe family members, all hunkered down in a somber vigil. Each and every one of them with dollar signs in their eyes.
+++++“Okay, Grampa.” John smiled, but the old man didn’t. He’d looked angry, mean. John wondered if maybe some of the rumors he’d heard were true.
+++++“And another thing, Gio …” The old man paused to catch his breath, there was a quiet gurgling sound in the feeder tubes. “Don’t ever let nothin’ walk past.”
+++++John was confused. He looked at his grandfather and their eyes met.
+++++“I’m talking about broads, kid. If you can lay it, then lay it down. No point in looking back on lost opportunities with just your dick in your hand. I passed on too many. Forget what kinda trouble it coulda caused, I shoulda tasted them all.”
+++++The door to the room opened and a young Asian nurse walked into the room. She smiled.
+++++“How are we doing, Mr. Carbone? It’s time for your medicine.”
+++++The old man ignored the nurse and reached out and grabbed John’s wrist. “See, Gio, this is what I’m talking about.”
+++++The nurse produced a syringe and stuck it into the I.V. leading to the old man’s right arm. She was smiling, beautiful, and very professional. Her gleaming white grin practiced and well used. It’d probably extended more lives than the chemotherapy she administered.
+++++“This may make you a little drowsy, Mr. Carbone. Is your visitor staying much longer?”
+++++“As long as he goddamn wants, sweetheart. This is my grandson, Giovanni. He’s gonna be a welterweight champ someday. Say hello, Gio.”
+++++John nodded to the young nurse, sure he was blushing. He’d never been inside of a boxing ring in his life.
+++++The nurse ignored John and playfully shook her head at the old man. Instead of checking the data on the machine in the corner, she took Grampa Joe by the wrist to check his heart rate and then pressed her fingers lightly on his forehead. Grampa Joe seemed to like the personal touch.
+++++“Okay, Mr. Carbone, you need to get some rest. You two should wrap it up. Twenty more minutes, then I’ll come back to check on you.” Without another word she left the room, taking all that sexual energy with her.
+++++“What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again,” said the old man while he stared at the pale green door she’d exited through. A silence filled the void.
+++++“How are you feeling, Grampa?”
+++++“Fuck how I’m feeling. You kiddin’ me? I’m dying, kid. I feel like shit.”
+++++John didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t his fault the old man was sick.
+++++“I’m sorry, kid. I’m just pissed that it’s gonna end.” There was more gurgling through the tubes. The old man’s head fell back onto the pillow. Whatever the nurse had given him was taking effect. “Ooh, that tingles,” he said and shut his eyes for a moment.
+++++“Gio,” he said with his eyes still closed, “promise me. Don’t ever be ashamed. No regrets. That’s the key, no regrets.”
+++++“Okay, Grampa,” said John. He looked at the old man for a minute, then said, “You ever have regrets, Grampa?”
+++++The old man’s eyes opened just a crack. “Like the song says, kid. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
+++++John played along. “Too few too mention?”
+++++“A few, kid, a few.” He seemed to drift off again. John thought it was a good time to sneak out of the room. Just as he began to get up off the bed the old man reached out and once again grabbed his wrist.
+++++“The Mexicans, I don’t feel too good about that. You know we used to run this town, kid. You couldn’t snort a line of blow without me gettin’ a nickel. Those were the days.”
+++++“Grampa?”
+++++“But the shit fucked up our boys, couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. Turned them into women.”
+++++John didn’t say anything.
+++++The old man was still talking with his eyes closed.
+++++“So we switched to smack. Nobody was fucking with smack. Easier to keep the guys in line. But then, it too, got so heavy. A lotta heat, believe me. So we let those fucking Mexicans in. Dumb, dumb. Now look where we are. They’re the ones earning.”
+++++John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Most of his life he was afraid of his family finding out that he smoked a joint, and, now, here was Grampa Joe confessing to being a drug dealer.  His mother never told him any of this shit. No one did. His aunts and cousins had to have known. Restaurateur, my ass.
+++++“Maybe you should get some rest, Grampa.”
+++++The old man ignored the boy.
+++++“Fucking Joey Tang, fuck him. He deserved everything he got. Bobby Ciro, too. Fuck them. I’ll see ‘em in hell.”
+++++John was getting more and more uncomfortable. The beeping from the machine picked up its tempo. The old man opened his eyes.
+++++“Did you know I used to be a mortician? Had a parlor on 7th Ave. Yeah, didn’t know that, did you? Cremated motherfuckers, put their ashes out with the trash. Nobody ever knew. Beautiful. We’d charge friends. Disposal service. Made a lot of dough that way.”
+++++John was starting to flash on all those TV shows he’d watched where knowledge alone could make you an accessory to the crime. Why was Grampa Joe telling him all this?
+++++“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, kid, but it was another time. No DNA, no big brother. There was a lot more room to wiggle, you know what I mean?”
+++++John definitely did not know what he meant.
+++++“After Blakey’s RICO thing, I got wise, started stacking my cash, thinking I could get out. But you gotta keep a hand in, understand, otherwise the sharks keep circling.”
+++++The old man stopped to cough.
+++++“But, you know, it’s a temperament. You can’t hide from what you are. You know what I mean, right, kid?”
+++++John shook his head.
+++++“Fuck the good-times. Those were the good-times, damn it.”
+++++The old man started to laugh. It quickly degenerated into another coughing fit.
+++++John grabbed a glass of water from the stand beside the bed and offered it to the old man. The old man shook his head.
+++++“Sometimes you can’t let go,” he said to the boy. “You are what you are.”
+++++“Why are you telling me this, Grampa?”
+++++The old man started to sing with a voice that sounded like a car that wouldn’t start.
+++++Regrets, I’ve had a few …
+++++John felt like he was being teased.
+++++“Grampa, really, why are you telling me this?”
+++++“Your father, Gio. I thought he was no good. I thought he wasn’t good enough for your mom. Honestly, I thought he was a piece of shit from the get-go, but I was wrong. It was your mother that wasn’t worth a damn. I never should have done what I done.”
+++++“What, Grampa? What did you do?”
+++++“I did the poor bastard. I had him taken out at the parking lot outside that furniture joint where he worked. Two friends of mine grabbed him and beat him till he wasn’t never coming back. Then we took him to 7th Ave and sent him on his way.”
+++++“Grampa,” John repeated, his eyes starting to tear up. “Why are you telling me this?”
+++++“I was wrong about him. He was only trying to do right by your mother and you. I just couldn’t let go of my own … my own shit. I thought she deserved better—she didn’t deserve shit.”
+++++John sat silent, stupefied. He was hurt. It felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. Everything he knew about his life had been turned upside down. The old man let go of John’s wrist and the young man stood up to face his grandfather.
+++++“Why? How? How could you do something like that?”
+++++His grandfather had drifted off again, swept away in the arms of Morpheus.
+++++“Grampa? Grampa?” said John.
+++++The old man opened his eyes, looking irritated that the boy was still there.
+++++“Smarten up, boy, don’t ask questions that you don’t wanna hear the answer to.”
+++++Grampa Joe’s head fell backward onto his pillow and he was out like a light.

California Dying

Take a long, deep breath. You’ll be all right. You’re not dying. Aren’t you the one who got his eyesight back at the age of 68 by drinking reconstituted lemon juice? If you were really dying wouldn’t your whole life be passing before your eyes? You know where you are- California.
+++++Your niece, Jean, the one who took you away from your home in Syracuse and brought you out to this smoggy, crowded, shaky earthquake-of-a-place, is shouting at you from the phone receiver which is dangling, hanging and banging, on the floor boards.
+++++“Uncle Red. Uncle Red, can you hear me? I can hear you. What’s wrong?” Jean’s voice is usually soft and gentle- probably what got you out here in the first place. Her words call out to you, but you don’t answer. No words come out of your mouth, just the short, gasping, gurgling sounds made by air, sputum, and bits of chewed-up, left-over broiled chicken thigh you inhaled while sneezing a moment ago.
+++++This niece- you can’t stop thinking about her- your brother’s daughter, Jean. Named after Jean Harlow, the movie star, she was, but, even though she bleaches her hair blonde, she sure didn’t end up looking like her, did she? Hey, who knows what Jean Harlow would have ended up looking like if she hadn’t died so young. They all die young, those blondies.
+++++But now, this shouting woman, this present Jean, the woman who took you from your home in Syracuse where you’d lived for over 30 years and brought you out to California, this Jean should just leave you alone. Always pestering, always calling on her lunch hour to make sure you’re all right. Trying to save your soul, the whole crazy family. That’s what she’s doing. Thinks she has all the answers. Women’s stuff. Even Ollie, who never uttered a word of faith the whole time you were married, had asked someone to pray with her when she was dying.
+++++“I’ve forgotten how,” Ollie was wailing. Remember? By golly, when you decide to die you aren’t going to need anybody’s help. The niece should have figured out you don’t want your soul saved. And you don’t want to be around her and her husband and their orderly lives. You told her you were baptized as a baby in Milwaukee in the German Lutheran church, just like her very own father, but that wasn’t enough for her. Oh, no. Oh, no.
+++++Jean and her husband want you to come along with them to Hawaii when they retire. They’re even urging you to go along with them on their little jaunts every weekend to here and there. You have your own places you want to go. You were doing just fine after Ollie died and then one day Jean ups and comes to Syracuse.

* * *

“We found him in the snowbank, right over there, under that streetlight, by the corner there.” Mrs. Steele, the lady you rented the downstairs to was saying this to Jean. She’s the one who prayed with Ollie. The old bag had her beak stuck up to your dining room window and was pointing her finger through your curtains down to the edge of your property as if she owned it. Jean, who you had not seen since she was five years old, had flown in from Los Angeles the night before and stood right behind the old windbag- you could see them right there, right through the open bedroom door.
+++++What’s the fuss? What’s the fuss? There was nothing wrong with you. A healthy man of 70, no damage done. All the doctor said was to drink lots of liquids and stay in bed for a few days. Lying there in Ollie’s old room, the closest to the bathroom, listening to their gabfest- did they think you were deaf?- you realized it was the busybody renter, Mrs. Steele, who had called Jean and made her come all that way.
+++++“After Ollie died,” Mrs. Steele was saying, “he musta decided to go back to his old ways from before he was married.” Her voice came at you out of her tree of a nose like a buzz saw, straight at you. “It started in the summer. Ollie, she died in the spring, right before Easter, but, of course, you know all that.” She didn’t take a breath. “By summer, he was getting all spruced up. After-shave lotion. I could smell it in the hallway long after he was gone. Up the street he’d go, head down, pumpin’ those arms, just as the street lights was comin’ on. You know, he believes in exercise. He’s in good shape for an old man. ‘Get a sweat-on every day,’ he’s always tellin’ people. ‘Work. Work. Work.’ That’s the man’s salvation. He’d head straight to the bar, stay until the middle of the night, come home weavin’ drunk, smashin’ against the walls. It’s just too cold, too much snow here some winters for a man to be actin’ like that.” Finally, she interrupted herself. “How old is he anyway?”
+++++“Seventy,” you heard Jean say. “He’ll be seventy-one in October. You know, I never met Ollie. We just corresponded.” That was true. Jean and Ollie had exchanged Christmas cards with letters folded in them for years, and, if you remember correctly, Jean had seemed a mite too excited when she first located you.
+++++“Looky here,” Ollie had said, shaking Jean’s letter in his face, “this niece of yours says she’s never going to lose you again.” Whoopee. Lost and found.
+++++After her conversation with the biddy from downstairs, Jean had come into the bedroom. She sat down on the chenille bedspread you were lying under with just your skivvies on, for Pete’s sake.
+++++“You ought to sell this big, old house and everything in it,” Jean said, rubbing her hand over the nubbies. “Come on out to California and live with us.”
+++++You thought about it for the two days you stayed in bed. California. You were there once, in 1935, during the Great Depression, when Jean was a cunning little five-year old. And there in Syracuse, in the middle of winter, the memory of those sunny skies and warm breezes made her suggestion seem like the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you know, the renter bought the house, furnishings and all, including the big Mr. Peanut cookie jar Ollie loved so much. Hell, with Ollie gone, it was only half a house anyway.

* * *

“Are you having difficulty breathing, Uncle Red?” It’s Jean again on that blasted telephone. Why does she have to talk so loud? “Lift up your arms.” She’s barking. “It will help you breathe.” The sound is coming out of that black circle with all the little holes in it. Again, “Lift up your arms.”
+++++Boy, oh, boy, you can remember when there weren’t any phones in any houses you lived in. Your father had that job once stringing telephone lines all over the country. He was gone a lot. Wrote home about all the different foods he was eating. “Grease,” your mother said when he died.
+++++What’s this Jean is telling you to do? Lift up your arms? Ha! You know what she’s really up to. Soon as she gets you to California, you’re barely off the plane and she’s taking you to church with her. Oh, they lift up their arms there, all right. Shouting. Waving their arms around. You can see right through this woman, this old Jean Harlot with her gray roots growing in at the temples every four weeks. She’s transparent all right, clear as a bell. Trying to force you to buy what she’s selling, she is. You were crazy to come out here. Go ahead. Chuckle to yourself. You sound like a balloon caught in a vacuum cleaner.

* * *

You would have sold vacuum cleaners, but you couldn’t find work and got tired of standing on street corners handing out broadsides urging voters to elect Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for President. Your big brother, Jean’s father, who had given up on the movement, wrote that he found steady work building sets for the movies, even sent you the money to get to California, wanted you to move out there, could get you work, he said.
+++++You enjoyed the visit, saw things you’d never seen- tall palm trees, trees with real lemons and oranges growing on them. But you came east again. Anyway, your brother died the next year, hit by a flat on a Charlie Chaplin movie set. Twenty-nine years old. Wife. Little Jean. And the one in the oven who got himself killed in the Korean War.
+++++You finally found work as a ship’s cook on the St. Lawrence River. Years, years, years you spent on the water. Years of steady work. Good, hard labor. Real heart-pumping, pore-opening, sweet, sweat-pouring work.
+++++You and Ollie met at the German Social Club, the year the Seaway Project started, 1954. You were forty-five, she was thirty. Told you she’d been married before, said she’d had two little boys, but you never saw them, only in some faded, old bent-up photograph she took out of a box every so often. And cried. Always told people she started working at eight years of age, hired by a wealthy family in Chicago to be a playmate for their children because of her refined looks.
+++++And she was a good-looking gal- for an old buck like you. She was kind of loony but she made you laugh. She had it good with you, too, never had to work another day in her life after she married you. You’d come home and she’d lift up her apron and skirt for you. Pronto. “You sure can wiggle it around,” she’d say. You were married for twenty-three years, and for twenty-three years she’d pat her belly after you finished and call the tumor growing inside her your baby. Then it finally killed her. Pronto.

* * *

“Uncle Red, you’ve got to do something.” Jean again, Jean again, Jean again. Her voice is so shrill now, isn’t it? Urgent. Demanding. “You’ve got to do something.”
+++++Do something? Do something? You’ve done and done and done. You’re the one who believes in doing. You’re Mr. Do. Doesn’t she care how hard you worked? It was hard standing up all those years. It’s hard work now. Sitting. Breathing. Can’t do it anymore. Who does she think she is? All that furniture, a whole household full in Syracuse. Just sold it. Gave it away. Patsy, the pastor’s wife, came over from Vermont and took a little rocker, a rabbit’s ears rocker Ollie called it, said it was worth some money. So, they took what they thought would look good in their houses. And you watched. Fool. Damned renter. Have a good time looking after Mr. Peanut now.

* * *

On that train trip in ’35, all the way out to California, your full head of red hair drew comments. When you got off the Santa Fe at the train station in Pasadena your big brother was there to meet you. You hadn’t seen each other in over five years and before you even started slapping each other on the back, you both laughed out loud because your hair, which was the identical flaming color, was cut alike too, short on the sides, kinky locks, long and combed back slick on the top. You could have been twins that day on the platform, only you were taller. Isn’t that the way it always is? The younger brother is the taller one.
+++++It was springtime when you arrived, the Saturday before Easter. While you and your brother were waiting for the Red Car, you noticed a fat woman and a skinny little boy selling pastel-died baby ducklings from a big wooden box on the street corner. You bought a little turquoise one for your niece. Then, before you knew it, the three of you- you, your brother and little Jean, were standing on the sidewalk in front on your brother’s little stucco house in Sierra Madre. Your brother handed Jean a salt shaker. You bent over the child.
+++++“Baby girl,” you whispered to her, “go catch that pretty duck I gave you. Sprinkle some salt on his tail and he’ll let you catch him. Then he’ll curl up in your arms and go to sleep.”
+++++The sun was almost directly overhead. The little girl’s shadow was short and angled. The air, so dry and clean in your nostrils, made you feel hope for the first time in a long time. You watched Jean’s chubby little legs encased in white leggings, feet in polished high tops, her body covered by a starched white smock- cuter than Shirley Temple could ever be- run down the street and chase that duck every which-a-way. How that turquoise duck did run! How you and your brother did laugh. Your mouths were positively filled with laughter that day. Didn’t little Jean look like your baby sister, the one who died in the flu epidemic of 1917? Boy, oh, boy, did you tease her, too.
+++++But, little Jean, at the corner by then, must have heard your laughter because she stopped and turned around. She looked straight at you. Her eyes, clean and as blue as the California sky overhead, shot you through and through. She knows, you thought, she knows. She knows you lied to her, that it is all a big joke on her. Now she is just like you- she doesn’t believe in anything. A breeze kicked up behind the two of you, you and your big brother. Your matching hair corkscrewed into the air. Flashing halos. The little girl in the distance started running back down the concrete path, right for both of you. She lifted her arm and pointed her finger.
+++++“Fire, fire…” she called, “Two daddies’ heads on fire.”

* * *

“Uncle Red, can you hear me? Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” It’s grown-up Jean’s voice again. Still trying to save you from the flames. “If you can hear me, just hang on. I’m calling for help now. Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus. Lord Jesus.”
+++++But you are a duck now. A red duck. A platinum-haired woman- no roots growing in- is in a form-fitting white satin gown. How strange- she’s the same shape as Mr. Peanut. She’s chasing you. She has a salt shaker in her hand.
+++++Come on. Slow down. Let her catch you.
+++++Curl up in her arms.
+++++Go to sleep.

Target Practice


Jimmy Kiley held the blade of the knife between his thumb and index finger. He raised the handle slowly to his forehead lining it up with the target, then dropped the knife down, pulled it back past his ear and launched it forward.  It span several times then clattered into the board and bounced back, falling harmlessly to the floor.
+++++‘For fuck’s sake!’  It looked a hell of a lot easier to do on the television than it was proving in practice.
+++++The side door to the warehouse was pushed open and a man shoved through.  The left knee of his jeans was ripped, his face bloody and bruised.
+++++‘Macca,’ Kiley exclaimed loudly.  ‘Glad you could join us.’
+++++‘What’s this about, Jimmy?’ Macca said, shuffling forward, cautiously eyeing the circular structure off to one side.
+++++A second man entered the cold, dimly lit space.  He placed a gun at Macca’s back and prodded him forward.
+++++‘You know what it’s about, Macca,’ Kiley said, closing the gap between them.  ‘You’ve been a naughty boy.’
+++++‘I swear, Jimmy, I haven’t done anything.’
+++++‘Now you know that’s not true.  What did we agree about showing people my movies?’
+++++‘I haven’t shown anyone your movies.’
+++++‘Reggie!’ Kiley shouted, his voice echoing round the large, empty space.
+++++A man pushed himself off the warehouse wall and staggered forwards.  In his right hand he held a video camera.
+++++‘Oh fuck,’ Macca muttered.
+++++‘Oh fuck, is right.’
+++++Kiley grabbed Macca’s elbow and guided him to the circular board, the rogue knife lying on the floor at its base.  ‘Don’t even think about it, Macca.  Just step up into the stirrups and put your hands through the loops.’
+++++‘What the fuck is this?’
+++++‘A spinning knife board.  I’m going to have a little knife throwing practice.  You’re my assistant for the afternoon.’
+++++‘I don’t think so.’
+++++‘I’m not giving you a choice.  Now step up into the stirrups.’
+++++The second man clattered Macca on the side of the head with the handgun.
+++++‘Fuck!’
+++++‘Step up, Macca,’ Kiley ordered.
+++++Once in place and tied securely, Kiley ordered Reggie over to them and took the video camera from his shaking hand.
+++++‘You never got to see the last movie we shot did you, Macca?  Big Johnny Croft running for his life.  You probably could have charged an entrance fee if you’d decided to share that one around.’
+++++‘It was only Reggie.’ Macca said.  ‘He’s part of the gang for fuck’s sake.’
+++++‘But not the inner circle.  Well, not until now.’
+++++Kiley turned the small in-built screen so that Macca could see it.
+++++A massive, muscular man in a tight-fitting t-shirt and jeans was running across a field towards the camera.  Behind him, at the far end of the field, the doors to a white van opened and four large dogs bounded out.  They quickly spotted the man and set off in pursuit, barking excitedly.
+++++Croft ran for ten more metres, then turned to face the dogs.  A former professional boxer he was going to try fight over flight.  He caught the first dog to arrive with a hard right as it leapt towards him, sending it sprawling off to one side.  The second dog landed before he had time to adjust to its attack.  It was quickly joined by the two others.
+++++Croft fell to his knees under their weight, his arms swinging savage punches to thick skulls, sharp teeth and muscle-packed bodies.
+++++‘The burger fat smeared round his neck was an inspired idea,’ Kiley said.
+++++Macca didn’t reply, his eyes glued to the screen.
+++++‘You have to give him his dues, the fucker fought to the bitter end.  Two of those dogs had to be put down afterwards.’
+++++They watched the screen for a couple more minutes.
+++++‘One of my better ones,’ Kiley said.  ‘I hope you’re going to be as big a star as he was.’
+++++He passed the camera back to Reggie.  ‘You’d better go and get that set up.’
+++++He watched the new cameraman scurry away, then reached down and picked up the knife, turning it in it hands.  ‘Don’t worry, Macca, these are nice and sharp.’
+++++‘Please, Jimmy.  It won’t happen again.’
+++++‘I know it won’t, Macca.  I know.’
+++++‘Jimmy.’
+++++‘I thought you’d like this set-up, my friend; appreciate its creativity.  It has a certain … I don’t know, theatrical quality to it.’
+++++Macca tipped his head back, seemingly gathering his thoughts.  After ten seconds or so he dropped his chin and spat in Kiley’s face.
+++++‘Some friend,’ he said, his eyes blazing defiantly.
+++++Kiley wiped the saliva away calmly, holding Macca’s gaze.
+++++‘We had our moments, Macca, but you betrayed my trust.  You knew what that would mean. And you know me, I always like to mix business and pleasure.’  He tapped the blade of the knife against the hardboard.  ‘Time for the grand finale, don’t you think?’
+++++‘Fuck you!’
+++++Kiley pulled a wry grin, placed the blade in his back pocket, grabbed hold of the board and gave it a hard tug.  As the wheel gently started to spin he gave it another hefty heave, then turned on his heels, walking back to his mark, where a row of nine knives were lined up on a small table.
+++++‘Try and smile for the camera like the assistants on the TV do, will you,’ he ordered.  ‘You look like a right sour bastard.’
+++++‘You’ll feature in one of your own movies someday, Jimmy.’
+++++‘I doubt that Macca.  I’ll always be the director, never the star.’
+++++Kiley reached the white chalk line and turned.  Macca was rotating at a steady pace.
+++++He glanced over at his new cameraman. ‘You breathe a word of this to anyone and this will seem positively humane in comparison to what I’ll do to you, do you understand?’
+++++Reggie nodded his pale face, unable to find his voice. His stomach was writhing, his guts threatening to fill his underpants.  He’d never expected to be part of Kiley’s inner circle and he’d be quite happy to return to minion status.
+++++‘Zoom in on him,’ Kiley directed.  ‘I want to be able to see his face when I watch this back.  And when I manage to hit the bastard, I want you to imagine that it’s you who’s tied to that board.’

Saving his Marriage

Tony sat at a corner table, his fingers laced around a glass of water and watched the man traverse the room. He wore a grey suit, blue tie and brown shoes; and except for the limp, the man looked like a basketball player. He sat in the chair to Tony’s right, the one facing the door.
+++++“How long you been sober?” the man asked.
+++++“What makes you think I’m an alcoholic?”
+++++“Who else would sit in a bar with a glass of water?”
+++++Tony spun the glass in his hand. Stared at the water. “Three months, twenty-six days.”
+++++The man saw Molly crossing the room and waved her off.
+++++Tony raised his glass and smiled. “I’ll have another.”
+++++“You like her,” the man said.
+++++“She’s my daughter.” Tony spun the glass some more.
+++++The two men sat in silence while Molly deposited a full glass on the table and took the empty. She smiled at Tony. She didn’t smile at the man.
+++++“I got stuff to do,” the man said. “You want to hire me, or what?”
+++++“My wife is cheating on me.” Tony’s tone was as flat as a club soda that’d sat out all day.
+++++“And you want me to find the guy. I charge one fifty a day, plus expenses.”
+++++Tony lowered his hands into his lap while the man watched Molly slide a quarter in the jukebox. After a few groans from the relic, Hank Williams’ voice filled the dusty air.
+++++“Not exactly,” Tony said. “I know who it is. A friend saw them coming out of the Super 8 in Smythville.”
+++++“How long has she been cheating on you?”
+++++“Four months and thirteen days that I know of.”
+++++“So why am I here?” the man asked.
+++++“You ain’t figured it out yet?” Tony shook his head. “Man, you’re stupider than concrete.”
+++++“She’s your wife.” The man looked toward the door. “I didn’t know.”
+++++“Now you do,” Tony said.
+++++Before the man could make a move, a gun burped under the table and a bullet enter the man’s gut. He raised a bloodied hand as a second bullet joined the first. His hand dropped like it was weighed down. His shoulders slumped, and his torso bent to one side.
+++++Tony walked to the front of the room and placed the gun and a Benjamin on the bar. The bartender put the bill in his shirt pocket and the gun under the counter.
+++++“I’ll see everything gets taken care of, kid.”
+++++“Thanks, Uncle Frank. See you around.”
+++++Tony nodded three times to Molly and left the bar to go home to his wife.

Victoria’s Even Bigger Secret

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

Cold Beer

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

The Gun By His Bed

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

Making a point

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

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

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

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