Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort has been described as tasting like roadkill soaked in sugar.
++++ “I had a nemesis in high school. Brandon Jacobs. He moved into some popular circles. I could have had connections.”
++++ Tampar is laying on his back on the couch in his socks. He has folded his shirt and is using it as a pillow.
++++ Zane and I are sitting on opposite ends of the table, passing the bottle of Southern Comfort back and forth. It is 4:34 AM. Tampar has not spoken in hours. He is staring at the ceiling. The lights are off; the television is on.
++++ “We’re not in high-school, anymore. We’re not in Kansas, Toto,” I say.
++++ Passing the bottle back and forth, sharing drunken regrets, stories, the pathetic truths of men flowing freely, lubed up and without inhibition, the eternal parade of honesty spread across a remorseful canvas, that strange desolation in a room with other people, sitting there, the profundity of everything you ever did or didn’t do and knowing that it all amounts to nothing, but somehow clinging to hope, clinging to faith and God and sex and the idea that maybe it will mean something for you. Maybe you’re special. The arresting reality that I am a 37-year old man whose greatest adult accomplishment is being trusted with the responsibility of using a rectangular object to order mayonnaise, flour and cling-wrap, sets in. It is a hollow feeling behind my eyes, like my brain deflating.
++++ “Are you unhappy?” Zane asks.
++++ “I think so,” I say.
++++ “Why?”
++++ “I guess it’s because I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything. When you’re a kid you have dreams, aspirations. I thought I’d found my calling, being a grocery clerk; helping people find what they needed. I thought, ‘this is a niche I could fit into’. And what a sad thought.”
++++ I look at Zane. The horse-head looks at me. It is completely non-judgmental.
++++ “Every man has asked himself, ‘how did it come to this?’” Zane says.
++++ “If I had a kid who had downs syndrome I’m not sure I could love him,” I say. “I guess as a horse you wouldn’t understand.”
++++ Every man has asked himself, ‘how did it come to this?’ and realized that it doesn’t matter. Life is a sad procession, an inconsequential freak show, and we’re all the freaks, all the maniacs, all the killers and rapists and men with books and kids and cocks, sliding through tragedy after tragedy and trying to find a another high like the first kiss, like the first fuck – wonderfully blown-out junkies skirting around the rims of the society, angels on the edge of a halo, ringing around until we fall through the center and it all lifts away.
++++ I focus on the television. Wilmer Valderama’s penis is huge.

In the morning I wake up with a sickly sweet taste in my mouth. My head is pounding. It feels like there are shards of glass underneath my skin. Hangover 101. Zane is gone; Tampar is gone.
++++ I take 7 Advil which I liberate from Zane’s pantry. His fridge contains three unopened squeeze-bottles of Heinz ketchup, standing on the left side of the top shelf, and a 1.89L carton of unsweetened vanilla almond milk on the right side of the bottom shelf. Look at the company I keep.
++++ I find a pair of sunglasses sitting on the table near the door. The television is on.
++++ Three blocks away, across from the community center, is a plaza opposite a tennis court and a Chinese take-out across the street. There is a barber, a bicycle shop, a bakery, a coffee shop, a hair salon, a maternity wear store, and a burger joint called, “Wet Beef”.
++++ “I’ll have the ‘Beef monster’.”
++++ I am seated in a booth. While I wait for my food I focus on an obese man seated next to the soda fountain. He is bald; he is wearing a yellow t-shirt, grey shorts, and sandals. He is handling his hamburger with both hands. The way he is eating reminds me of the way a wood chipper operates. No real motion. The wood, or, in this case, beef, is fed directly into a remorseless funnel. In the background, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. is playing.
++++ For all our grandiose, profound sadnesses, there is something especially upsetting about a man inhaling a hamburger, clinging to the hope that maybe this time his heart won’t be able to handle it. The beef that broke the camel’s back.
++++ Burger joints are the American dream. There’s something romantic about pulling into a local and ordering fries, a malt and a hamburger with cheese. Somewhere along the line that romance went sour and we all realized we were just killing ourselves for Americana. It’s impossible to feel good after eating a hamburger. You’re a greasy mess who’s spent six dollars to pack your arteries full of shit. Who knows, maybe the next one will kill you. That’s what we’re all hoping for. That’s the American dream, now.
++++ A group of preteens enters. It occurs to me that I do not know what time it is.
++++ Every bite is a comma in the long list of reasons to hate yourself. Keep chewing, boy.
++++ “How are we doing here?”
++++ The waitress has black hair and fair skin. She doesn’t overdo it on the eye shadow. She doesn’t have to. And here’s me. Burger in hand. A good American.
++++ “Good. I think I’m ready to pay, actually.”
++++ I pause and look at the burger.
++++ “Can I get this wrapped up?”
++++ “Sure,” she says.
++++ Her name-tag reads, “Rachelle”. I have trouble remembering if Rachelle is conventionally spelled with one or two “L’s”.
++++ “How is it working here?” I ask.
++++ “Good,” Rachelle says. She takes my plate. “Busy.”
++++ I watch her leave. I am a 37-year old grocery clerk who cannot finish a hamburger.
++++ You realize, at 37, that you have felt the same way about the world since you were 22; you realize that life is a big, long nothing punctuated by heartbreak, and that we are all eating, shitting, fucking pimples on the face of the earth, doing our parts to contribute to society, clutching the disparate scraps of our lives until the strain is too much. Malaria causes approximately two million deaths annually. Sixty-four percent of adult males shit themselves when they die. When we die our muscles relax. The pressure to maintain the status quo subsides. Shitting yourself when you die is one last, glorious middle finger to the world.
++++ Shit is liberation.

There is an unlocked bicycle outside. It is a purple 1986 model Norco Alpine mountain bike. I get on it and start riding across the street, towards the tennis court down the hill from the community centre. As I reach the other side of the street I feel an overwhelming force against the rear wheel of the bicycle and hear a car’s brakes whine. I am thrown sideways off the bicycle and down the hill. There is symbolism, here, but it escapes me. My mouth slams into something hard, and as I struggle to get up the nausea from my hangover and subsequent ingestion of over a half-dozen Advil causes me to vomit. I put my hand in front of my mouth and the puke feeds through my fingers like chunky salsa. Ground beef and Southern Comfort; last nights drowned regrets and that of the subsequent day. Alcohol, beef, cheese and shame. A smorgasbord of shame. I feel something small and hard in my hand and rub my tongue over my teeth. I am missing one. My right canine.
++++ “Oh, my God. Are you okay?”
++++ I look up and see a middle-aged man dressed in a black windbreaker bent over me. He is balding. He has a moustache. For the white male ageing gracefully constitutes the slow transformation into a walrus. Up the hill I can see his car, a black Range Rover, cars are driving around it.
++++ “I’m fine,” I say, standing.
++++ My left hand is covered in vomit. I stagger up the hill. The man looks at me without comprehension.
++++ Everyone hits rock bottom differently. Rock bottom is subjective. Heroin addicts shitting themselves because their livers have stopped functioning, preteens using dad’s razors to relieve the pain of white suburbia, all the insecure girls who fuck every night because daddy didn’t hug them enough. We are all equal. We all stand on common ground. Profound, self-loathing loneliness. The real fear is that making an attempt to get out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself, and failing, will drain you forever. Self-loathing is knowing what to do and still being too afraid to do it.
++++ I walk back to Zane’s house holding my dislodged tooth underhand in front of me. I put it in a glass of almond milk, place the glass on the living room table, and sit down on the couch. It does not occur to me to put it in water.
++++ The television is on. I stare at it resentfully, if not apathetically.
++++ The lock on the front door clicks open. I turn and see a man standing in the door frame leading from the kitchen to the living room. He is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. His face is sharp, handsome, and angular. He has short brown hair. He is not looking at me. He is watching TV.
++++ “Who the hell are you?” I ask.
++++ “Zane,” Zane says. He does not look at me.
++++ “Give me a minute,” he says after a moment, then disappears.
++++ In under five minutes he enters the living room and sits down next to me on the couch. He is wearing the horse mask, a white button-up shirt, and black dress pants. His hands are clasped. He is bent.
++++ I look at him and say, “Who are you?”
++++ The horse head regards me impassively.
++++ “Hold on,” Zane says. He stands up, leaves the room, and returns holding a bottle of Adderall in the doorframe like some kind of deity, a half-horse patron saint stepping through the heavenly boundary, whose bounty is salvation in pill format, whose impartial judgements are swift, final and unfair and yet no man would question him, this God.
++++ “I fought in the Gulf War.”
++++ “You take Adderall?” I say.
++++ “I’m depressed,” Zane says. He sits down on the couch and systematically inserts two capsules into his mouth, throws his head back, and takes a long drink from the bottle of Southern Comfort.
++++ “Join me,” he says.
++++ I swallow two capsules. We sit in silence.
++++ “Does Adderall treat depression?” I ask.
++++ “I don’t know.”
++++ We regard each other dispassionately. Something profound is communicated. Nothing really matters, so why not get fucked up any way you like?
++++ “Did you kill anyone in the war?”
++++ “Forty seven people,” Zane says.
++++ “How does it feel?”
++++ “What?”
++++ “Killing someone.”
++++ The horse head turns slowly looks at me.
++++ “Remember when you would crush bugs as a kid? It’s like that. The ultimate feeling of control but it’s too easy. You think it’s going to fulfil some primal need, but it doesn’t. It is not satisfying; it fills you with emptiness. You truly appreciate futility.”
++++ Look at the company I keep.
++++ “I would fuck Elaine Bennis,” Zane says.
++++ “What do you think Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ pussy is like?”
++++ “Dry.”
++++ “What’s the worst thing you did in the war?”
++++ “I slit a man’s throat and drank his blood,” Zane says. “I contracted Hepatitis C.”
++++ “I’m sorry.”
++++ “It was worth it.”
++++ “Why?”
++++ “Because it was cool as hell,” he says dispassionately. He loops the double-o in “cool” so it sounds like he is saying, “coo-ooo-ool.”
++++ “You’re high,” I say.
++++ The horse head regards me. For a moment I am sure he is going to cut me open and eat my spleen, specifically.
++++ “Plaid does not appeal to me.”
++++ “Why?”
++++ “It was the death-knell of America’s youth.”
++++ Who am I sitting with? Is this what Ares’ has become? My thoughts are each individual screaming diamonds expressed in perfect concurrence with their formation which are one and the same. Thoughts are fed through an infinite tube comprised of smaller tubes which ferry each one down a crystalline runway into the breast of infinity. I understand I can extend my limbs and simultaneously harness five individual thoughts. Microwaves and the neurological mechanisms of the human brain and sex are all the same wire being syphoned through mechanical, intellectual and physical modes of expression. The profundity of terse, childlike statements settles over me like a sad blanket. I realize that although I now have the ability to dominate all conversations it is my responsibility to make sure one revolves around my conversation partner. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has a shaved cunt.
++++ “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.
++++ Zane and I are both watching the television.
++++ “Do you want me to?”
++++ “No. What does human blood taste like?”
++++ “What cunt should taste like.”
++++ “Who are you?”
++++ “I am the fire inside every man. I am Gods’ breath on a kitten’s fur. I am a crying Armenian baby and its desiccated remains.”
++++ At 3:57 AM I leave the apartment and walk to the mailbox two blocks down the street. I leave Zane in front of the television. He had not spoken in two hours before I left. The last thing he said was, “I am a bent rail of cocaine,” and I am inclined to agree.
++++ “Kate, I think we should be together. Because I am having fundamental thoughts, you slut. I am including in this envelope one of my teeth, which was knocked out yesterday when I was hit by a car. I don’t blame you. I love you. Signed, Owen Taylor.”
++++ Vincent Van Gogh deliberately cut off his own ear and presented it to a prostitute. Sickeningly lovely; a vomit-inducing gesture to warm all our hearts. For once the artist manifesting in life all the truest madnesses of infatuation. In love we are all artists of morbidity.

The Corpse Road

The girl sat alone by the open fire. Large dark patches on her sweater told of High Street waterproofs that hadn’t been up to the job. Jim made his way across the crowded hotel bar to where the girl sat.
++++ “Hello love,” he said. “It’s Sarah isn’t it? I’m Jim. I’m from the mountain rescue. Our lads are out helping to find your friend.”
++++ Seeing the alarm on Sarah’s face, Jim quickly added. “It’s all right. The police asked us to start looking on the fells, before it got too dark.”
++++ Jim scraped a stool across the stone floor and sat down opposite Sarah. Water puddled around him as rain dripped from his jacket.
++++ “I just wanted to double check where you’ve been today. You were at Wasdale Head, right?”
++++ Sarah nodded and Jim dug an Ordnance Survey map out of one of his pockets. He folded it to just show the area that Sarah and her friend would have been in and then laid the map on the table.
++++ “Oh, I’m sorry,” Sarah said. “I’m useless with these things. Julie’s the map reader.”
++++ Sarah took a sip of the Cappuccino that she’d been nursing and grimaced when she found it had gone cold.
++++ “Can I get you another one?” Jim offered.
++++ When Sarah declined with a shake of her head and a small smile, Jim turned his attention back to the map.
++++ “This is Wasdale Head,” he pointed to a cluster of shapes that represented a hotel, farms and a tiny church that made up the settlement. “When you set off to walk back to the hotel which route did you take?”
++++ Sarah ran a hand through her still wet hair and tried to understand what all the lines and symbols stood for. She spun the map round and tried to imagine the direction she had walked in.
++++ A log crackled and spat, sending up a shower of sparks and a plume of smoke. Most disappeared up the chimney but some smoke curled around the lintel above the fire. It rose up the front of the chimney breast, past the nail that had once held a long since removed photograph.
++++ Sarah worked out what route she had taken.
++++ “I went this way.” She drew her finger down the map and along what she had decided was the line of a road. “The lake was on the left, so it must have been this way.”
++++ Jim’s smile broadened. “Ok. And how far had you gone before you lost touch with Julie?”
++++ Sarah looked puzzled before working out Jim’s mistake.
++++ “I was on my own from the start,” she said. “Julie had gone a different way.”
++++ “Oh, right.” Jim hadn’t considered this. “Can you point out which way she went?”
++++ Sarah just shrugged and looked apologetic, then seemed to think of something.
++++ “Would this help?” She reached into the back pocket of her trousers and brought out a crumpled pamphlet. It was from the little church at Wasdale Head. Jim opened the page, though he already knew what was inside. He also knew what Sarah was going to tell him before she spoke. Sarah’s friend had taken the Corpse Road.
++++ “There’s an old photograph in the church,” Sarah was saying. “It shows a pastor and his parishioners. The story goes,” Sarah tapped the pamphlet that Jim was holding, “that the pastor tried to lead everyone to safety during a storm. He got most people out then went back for any stragglers – but was never seen again.”
++++ “And Julie wanted to follow the route that’s described in here?” Jim said, holding the pamphlet up.
++++ Sarah nodded. “She said it was a quicker way back.”
++++ “But you didn’t want to go that way?”
++++ “It looked like a massive storm was building up and the clouds just rolled off the mountains. I was scared.” Sarah looked into the fireplace, embarrassed. “I couldn’t persuade Julie though. She made a joke of it and said we’d be okay because the ghost of the pastor walks the path, helping lost souls find their way. But then I suppose you’ve heard that story before.”
++++ Jim paused before speaking. “There are loads of tales like that up here. I can’t say I’ve heard of that one though.”
++++ Sarah took another sip of the coffee that she’d forgotten had gone cold.
++++ Jim stood. “At least we know which way she went now. And she was wearing a dark blue baseball cap and a light blue parka with a fur lined hood. Is that right?”
++++ “Yes, that’s right,” Sarah replied. “You will find her won’t you?” Her lip began to quiver.
++++ “That’s what we do,” said Jim with a smile.

He quickly turned away without another word; but instead of heading for the exit, Jim made his way across the bar and into a corridor leading to the manager’s office. The manager was already there, waiting. He held out a padded envelope.
++++ “Thought you’d be wanting this,” the manager said.
++++ Jim nodded his thanks and took the envelope. He pulled out a framed photograph. The frame was soot stained from the years it had spent above the fireplace in the bar. The photograph was the original of the one in the church at Wasdale Head. That picture showed Pastor Samuel Roberts and his flock of twelve. The image in Jim’s hands showed the Pastor and his followers; but the last time Jim had looked at this picture there had been five extra people. Now, he counted a sixth. At the back of the crowd was a young woman wearing a dark baseball cap and a light coloured coat, its furry hood draped around her shoulders.
++++ Julie had been right about Pastor Sam helping lost souls on their way. Unfortunately for her, the good Pastor helped souls that were lost to this life find their way to what lay beyond.
++++ Jim slipped the photograph back into the envelope. He handed it back to the manager, then walked out into the growing darkness.

Mike Fitzgibbons and His Morning Paper

For 35 years, Mike Fitzgibbons had never missed a day driving off at 4 a.m. to buy the newspaper at his local convenience store. Snow, sleet, hail or rain couldn’t stop him. There was only one paper being published in St. Louis at the time but Mike was addicted to newspapers. He had spent his early years reading four papers a day in Chicago–two in the morning and two in the evening. He worked for one of them and enjoyed every minute of it. However, an opportunity to earn more money as an editor for a defense contractor required his large family’s relocation to St. Louis. Mike needed more money to feed a wife and seven children.
++++ “Words are words,” Mike said at the time. “Being paid more money to arrange words for someone else seems like the right thing to do.”
++++ Writing and editing were the two things in life Mike could do well enough to draw a salary. It broke his heart to retire many years later at the age of 68 but it seemed like the best thing to do. His doctor had told him he might have early Alzheimer’s disease and that he should prepare for the future since the disease would only grow worse. Mike never told his wife or any of the children about the problem. His wife was the excitable type, and all of the children had grown up and moved away, many of them back to Chicago where all of them had been born. Each of them had acquired a college degree or two and had found a good job. Most of them were married. Mike and his wife now had 12 grandchildren and were looking forward to more.
++++ “You can never have too many heirs,” he told his wife one time. “Whatever we leave, it will give them something to argue about after we’re gone. They won’t forget us.”
++++ After the doctor had mentioned the strong possibility that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Mike decided to have the daily paper delivered to the house instead of driving to the store every morning to buy one. And on most days that seemed like a good decision. But not on the infrequent days when the deliveryman soared by Mike’s house without tossing a paper on the lawn.
++++ The first time it happened Mike called the circulation department and received a credit on his bill. He did the same thing the second time, managing to keep his temper under control. But the third time occurred on the morning after the Super Bowl. For Mike this was the last straw. Three times he told the kind old lady in the circulation department to tell the driver Mike was from Chicago originally and in that fine city errors of this magnitude did not go unanswered. A credit on Mike’s bill, while necessary, would not suffice.
++++ When his wife Dolly got up, he asked her, “How the hell can I check the stats on the game without my newspaper?” She was only half awake. Mike was a very early riser and Dolly, according to Mike, was a “sack hound.”
++++ A kind woman, Dolly had always tried to be helpful throughout the many years of their marriage, so Mike understood why she eventually suggested he drive to the QuikTrip and buy a paper. Then he could read about the game and check the stats, she said.
++++ “That’s not the point, Dolly,” Mike said. “I have a verbal contract with that paper for delivery and they are not keeping their side of the bargain. A credit on my bill is not adequate recompense.” Mike loved the sound of that last sentence as it rolled off his tongue. He always loved the sound of words whether they were floating in the air alone or jailed in a sentence or paragraph.
++++ What made matters worse, Mike told Dolly, is that without his newspaper he would have no way to check on the obituaries of the day. The obituaries were Mike’s favorite part of the paper. Back in his old ethnic neighborhood in Chicago, the obituaries were known as the Irishman’s Racing Form.
++++ Back then, many retired Irish immigrants would spend the day reviewing the obituaries in the city’s four different newspapers. Finding a good obituary primed them for conversation at the local tap after supper. The tap was run by the legendary Rosie McCarthy, a humongous widow who did not suffer any nonsense in her establishment. But she did offer free hard-boiled eggs to customers who ordered at least three foaming steins of Guinness. Eggs were cheap in those days. It was rumored that Rosie had to buy 10 dozen eggs a week just to keep her customers happy.
++++ “Rosie knows how to hard boil an egg, Dolly,” Mike had told his wife many times over the years. And his wife always wondered what secret Rosie could possibly have when it came to boiling eggs.
++++ One reason the obituaries were of such great interest in Mike’s old neighborhood involved the retirees wanting to see if any of their old bosses had finally died. Some of those bosses had been nasty men, so petulant and abrasive they’d have given even a good worker a rash. There was also the possibility that over in Ireland, the Irish Republican Army might finally blow up a bridge with the Queen of England on it. The IRA had been trying to do that for years. Many bridges had been blown to smithereens but not one of them had “Herself” on it.
++++ “The IRA keeps blowing up bridges, Dolly,” Mike would remind his wife. “You would think one of these times they’d get it right. They know what she looks like.”
++++ In addition to reading four newspapers a day as a young man, Mike had had other hobbies during his long and tumultuous life. He had bred rare Australian finches for decades and had won prizes with them at bird shows. However, after his last son had graduated from college and moved away, Mike sold more than 200 finches and 40 cages because he no longer had a son available to clean the cages. Five sons had earned allowances over the years cleaning the cages at least once a week. All of them ended up hating anything with wings. One son had even bought a BB gun and would sit out in the yard all day while Mike was at work. That boy was a pretty good shot. No one knows how many woodpeckers and chickadees he managed to pick off.
++++ After Mike sold his birds, he took the considerable proceeds and plowed all of the money into rare coins. For the next ten years he collected many rare coins but when he retired he figured he may as well sell them because none of his children had any numismatic interest. Not only that, none of them would have known the value of the coins if Mike died. Some of them were very valuable–the 1943 Irish Florin, for example, in Extra Fine condition would have brought more than $15,000 at the right auction. Mike loved that coin and kept it, along with all the others, in a large safe in the basement. Guarding the safe was a large if somewhat addled and ancient bloodhound. Mike had bought the dog from a fellow bird breeder when it was a pup. The bloodhound wasn’t toothless but he may as well have been. He wouldn’t bite anyone no matter how menacing a robber might be.
++++ “I love that dog, Dolly,” Mike would tell his wife every time she suggested that euthanasia might be the best thing. “That dog, Dolly, is as Catholic as we are and Catholics don’t abort or euthanize anything,” Mike said.
++++ When Mike finally sold all of his coins, he had a great deal of money that he viewed as disposable income. Dolly, however, viewed it as an insurance policy in case Mike died first. Mike had a couple of pensions but he had never made Dolly a co-beneficiary. In fact he convinced her to sign waivers so the payout to him would be larger. Dolly didn’t want to do it but signing was easier than reasoning with Mike. His temper seldom surfaced but when it did, things weren’t good for weeks around the house.
++++ “I get mad once in awhile, Dolly, but I always apologize,” Mike would remind her.
++++ Mike finally decided to put the coin money into guns–big guns–although he had never shot a gun in his life. He refused to go hunting because he saw no sense in killing animals when meat was available at the butcher store. The kids used to joke that maybe deer and pheasant were Catholic, too.
++++ Some of the guns Mike bought were the kind you would see in action movies. Mike always liked action movies. The more the gore, the happier Mike was. But he had to go to action movies alone because his wife hated gore but she liked musicals. No musicals for Mike, although he would always dig into his pocket to give her the money for admission, complaining occasionally that the cost of seeing musicals kept going up.
++++ “I don’t want to spend good money to see a bunch of people in costumes and wigs singing songs together when Frank Sinatra, all by himself, sings better than any of them.” Sinatra had a good voice, the kids thought, and it probably didn’t hurt that he was Catholic. One of them once suggested to Mike that it might be nice if they played a recording of Sinatra’s “Moonlight in Vermont” at church. Mike didn’t agree or disagree because he thought some sacrilege might be involved.
++++ Mike remembered his gun collection on the day the deliveryman had failed to throw his newspaper on the lawn. He decided that the next morning he would sit out on his front porch at 3 a.m. with a big mug of coffee and the biggest rifle he owned. When the delivery van drove down his street, he planned to walk out to the curb, rifle in hand, to make sure he got his paper and to advise the driver of the inconvenience his mistake of the previous day had caused.
++++ “There’s no way this guy’s a Catholic,” Mike said to himself. “Three times now he has skipped my house with my paper.”
++++ The next morning things went exactly as planned–at the start. Mike was out on his porch with his rifle and coffee at 3 a.m. when the van came rolling down the street. Mike got up and strolled down the walk toward the van, his rifle resting like a child in his arms. Mike couldn’t have known, however, that the van driver had been robbed several times over the years and that he carried a pistol in case someone decide to rob him again. When he saw Mike coming toward him down the middle of the street carrying a rifle, the driver decided to take no chances. He rolled down the window and put a bullet in Mike’s forehead.
++++ One shot, dead center, was all it took, and Mike, still a big strapping man, fell like a tree.
++++ The next day the story about the death of Mike Fitzgibbons made the front page of his beloved paper and Mike himself was listed in the obituary section. The obit advised that friends of the family could come to the wake at Eagan’s Funeral Home on Friday. It also pointed out that a Solemn High Funeral Mass would be said for Mike on Saturday at St. Aloysius Church, where Mike had been a faithful member and stalwart usher for decades.
++++ Two days after the funeral, a neighbor was shoveling snow for Mike’s widow. He happened to look up and saw the missing newspaper stuck in the branch of one of Mike’s Weeping Willow trees. Mike had an interest in Weeping Willows and had planted a number of them over the years, too many some of the neighbors thought for the size of his property. This was the first time a newspaper had gotten stuck in one of the trees, his wife said. And it would be the last time because she had canceled the subscription to the paper the day Mike died. Like her husband, Dolly was a woman of principle and she thought canceling the paper was the least she could do in his memory. She had never read the damn thing anyway.

Little Billy Bushy-Balls

Why does every modern pub have to be a corporate-owned, pretentious, wank-hole? The décor screams quiet country pub, but outside all I see are shops, cars, adverts and an endless stream of consumers hell-bent on buying the shit out of the latest bit of frivolous, technological titillation. I was in one of those soulless, crap-shacks, a break from the wife and little one on their endless shopping spree, when I bumped into Ian ‘razors’ McMullen.
++++ A decade ago we’d shared a cell in Craiginches. I’d been done on an assault charge and he’d got nicked for giving a Chelsea smile to a skinhead. By all accounts the Nazi bastard got what he deserved but sometimes justice comes at a price.
++++ We were chatting about old friends, mostly dead now, when razors’ eyes went white and I watched as he slowly collapsed to the floor. Behind him was the man I only knew through reputation. It was Big Billy B, holding the remnants of a pint glass and a smile I can only describe as disturbed. I later found out the intention had been to shit Razors out, a message, so he would pay his debts. He was dead before he hit the floor but Big Billy B still loomed over him demanding his money.
++++ Billy’s massive belly stretched his Armani shirt into shapes that would make any designer weep and as he approached me I let out a small laugh. His wiry eyebrows looked like a family of white-legged spiders growing on his brow. He wasn’t pleased, either at me or the now dead Razors, and as he took a step towards me and leaned in, his Santa-esque beard tickled my ear. I knew laughing wouldn’t help, but I wasn’t scared of this psychotic Saint Nick, I dealt with worse than him back in the day.
++++ In a whisper that belied his size he said, ‘Son, you’ve just inherited his debt,’ and pointed to Razors.
++++ I instinctively told him to fuck off but recoiled, not at his words, but the smell of his breath; a kind of minty fresh, putrefied corpse.
++++ I saw his massive fist coming but didn’t have time to react.

***

When I come too, I’m in a portacabin, empty except for the blacked out windows, blood splatters and of course Big Billy B himself.
++++ ‘Awake at last! I’d have expected someone with your reputation to put up more of a fight.’ I just shrug my shoulders. I assumed I would be restrained but I’m free to pick myself up off the floor and as I do so I’m checking for an exit.
++++ ‘So… James Dorian, or should I call you J.D.?’
++++ ‘J.D.’s fine’
++++ ‘Okay J.D., this is the situation. You’re currently in my portacabin and in my debt; apologies for both. My basement is being refurbished and well… Razors is dead… so he’s in no position to pay me back.’ He strokes his beard in an imitation of contemplation.
++++ ‘And why the fuck should I care about his debt?’ The animal in me, sleeping for years, opens a lazy, quizzical eye.
++++ ‘Ah a bit more of that spirit I remember so well!’ he pauses, stares at me and then continues, ‘you should care about his debt cause I’ve decided you’ll have to repay me for his fuck ups. Just so we’re clear. Razors owed me three hundred grand which means you now owe me three hundred grand and I want my money.’ The only way out is the door and Billy’s massive bulk has that covered.
++++ ‘Well Billy…’
++++ ‘Call me Big.’
++++ ‘Well BILLY, as much as I would love to pay off someone else’s debt, especially one for more than a quarter of a million pounds, I’m afraid I’ve got about thirty quid to my name. You can have if you’re stupid enough to take it.’ I feel the animal’s muscles tensing for the first time in decades.
++++ Billy’s face squints from a carefree smile into something my wee one has nightmares about. The joviality of his conversation is replaced with a thick silence. As I anticipate what he’s going to say next, I miss the fact he’s holding a baseball bat at his side and the fat fucker moves like lightening when he’s motivated.

***

I feel reality slowly sliding back into view as I pick myself up for the second time. The side of my head’s pulsing in time with my heartbeat and swelling with every passing second. It’s not the first time I’ve been beaten with a bat but it’s definitely the hardest.
++++ ‘Well I’m glad to see you’re awake again. I thought for a minute I’d done you in… and who’d pay your debt then? I guess your missus could raise some funds, I know some wealthy Arabs that’d buy her… and your little boy… probably for the same purpose.’ The casual tone is back along with a sympathetic smile.
++++ I’ve heard many threats in my life, issued more than a few myself, and I know a genuine one when I hear it. Honestly, I wouldn’t be that bothered if they took Becca, but if he goes anywhere near my kid I will rip his fuckin throat out with my teeth.
++++ ‘Look Big, there’s no need to involve my family. I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement. What about Razors’ family? It’s his fuckin debt, why don’t you sell his wife and kids? ‘
++++ ‘Damn, that’s cold! But then again they didn’t call you “Hyperdorean” for nothing. And I did think about it, but as Razors was my brother-in-law, I didn’t think my sister would be too happy!’
++++ ‘Well I’m warning you now, if you touch my boy, I will fuck you up.’ The thought that this walking advert for obesity would go near my family fully awakens the animal; teeth bared and growling.
++++ ‘No worries, I have no intention of harming your family.’ He chuckles to himself, ’you have something of value and you don’t even know it.’
++++ ‘The fuck you talking about?’
++++ ‘I want your balls,’ he paused enjoying the sound of the words, ‘on my mantelpiece like some fucked up Amazonian antiquities.’
++++ ‘WHAT?’
++++ ‘You know like shrunken heads but it’ll be your shrivelled testicles instead!’
++++ ‘Why the fuck would you do that?’ I’m more curious than scared.
++++ ‘You really don’t know who I am do you? You don’t remember back in ninety-three, the Black Dog?’ I’m not concerned about the past. The future’s the problem as I realise there’s no way out now except through him.
++++ ‘How the fuck would I remember some random pub from twenty years ago?’ I’m trying to stare him down but he isn’t even blinking.
++++ ‘We were both young then but you must remember. I know I do. In fact I think about that day all the time.’ He finally looks away, dreaming of those halcyon days of our youth.
++++ ‘Well are you going to fuckin enlighten me or are you going to get all nostalgic and start blubberin?’
++++ ‘Yes that,’ he shouts at me, ‘that’s the J.D. I remember, the arrogance, the temper, the callousness. That’s the man who humiliated me.’ The window of opportunity for us both leaving here intact is firmly shut.
++++ ‘Look Billy, that was a long time ago, I was a different man back then, a boy really. I grew up, turned my back on the old life.’
++++ ‘Yeah I remember a lot of people were gunning for you, me especially, but I was I no position to take you on. I wasn’t the man I am now.’ He sticks out his chest but his bitch-tits reduce the gesture to a mockery of his eating habits.
++++ ‘Well I’m glad you’re feeling self-righteous but you still haven’t told me what the fuck this is all about.’
++++ ‘This, you little fucker, is about getting what you deserve.’ He stomps towards me, his massive bear-claw hands clenched into tight, white anvils, ‘You really don’t remember do you?’
++++ ‘Sorry Billy, I’ve have no clue what the fuck you’re talking about. ’ His body tenses but instead of a fist, he swings his chubby-muscular leg at me, I almost manage to block it, but my reflexes are not what they were and he boots my balls into my mouth. I crumple and small animal sounds escape my throat.
++++ ‘DO YOU FUCKIN REMEMBER ME NOW?’ His shadow blazes over me. His mood swings are infantile. Deliriously happy one moment, Devil-psycho angry the next, but as I’m writhing on the floor, praying my nuts will be delivered back to my scrotum, I realise who Big Billy B is.
++++ ‘Yeah man… I remember now… You’re Little Billy.’ I drag myself to my feet… again, one hand over my stomach and the other raised in surrender. I take a few deep breaths and just start laughing.
++++ ‘What the fuck you laughing at? He demands, as a fat, heart attack-inducing vein pulses in his forehead.
++++ ‘You know exactly what I’m laughing at. I’d forgotten all about that.’ Through fits of laughter I manage to blurt out, ‘Funniest… fuckin… thing… ever!’
++++ ‘Really?’ Not so much a question but a threat.
++++ ‘Do you think it’s funny to pal up to a guy, have a drink with him, and convince him the barmaid wants to suck his cock? Do you think it’s funny to blindfold him, lead him out the back and convince him the barmaid’s on her knees and waiting? Do you think it’s funny for the guy to get his dick out and enjoy his first experience of oral sex only to hear someone shout “it’s like a tiny snake pokin its head outta the grass”? Do you think it’s funny that when I ripped off the blindfold, not only did I see the whole pub pissing themselves, but I realised that the tongue on my dick wasn’t that of the sexy barmaid but your fuckin dog?’ He pauses for breath and then bellows, ‘DO YOU THINK THAT’S FUCKIN FUNNY?’
++++ I don’t even try to hide my laughter. He breathes heavily several times, his spit and rage showering me, then produces a knife from his back pocket.
++++ ‘Do you think this is going to be fuckin funny? Eh?’ He jabs the knife at me and I chock back the tears and close my throat to stop the sniggering.
++++ ‘What the fuck do you think you’re going to do with that?’ I bark at him.
++++ ‘You owe me three hundred grand and my dignity. I figured a grand for each of your digits, forty grand for your limbs, forty-five for your head and seventy-five for your balls.’
++++ ‘Unfortunately for you I only have nine toes… lost one in a sex accident… don’t ask! Neither me, she or the dog came out of that with any dignity.’ My laughing stops at the disastrous memory.
++++ ‘Don’t worry about it J.D., the money isn’t really the issue. I’m going to take your balls and no one can put a price on that.’
++++ ‘Talking about balls, didn’t they use to call you “Bushy-Balls”?’ And I burst out laughing again. It puts him over the edge. In his Tornado rage, he drops the knife and swings wildly in my direction but with no real power or coordination. The clatter of the knife on the floor sounds the bell to my escape. It’s been eighteen years, four months and two weeks since I last took a life but I feel the old me, the true me, return like he’s never been gone.
++++ I block a few rights and see my chance. I duck and pick up the knife. Lithe and graceful, my cat-like reactions kick in, and I spin to his side and silently slide the knife into his carotid artery but he just keeps swinging, not even aware he’s already dead.

A Thirsty Hombre

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

* * *

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

American Tan

By now, the coppers have the farmhouse surrounded. They shout something through a bullhorn but the last shot took out my hearing and all I pick up is the dull sound of a voice, not words, just the drone of authority beneath the ringing of my busted ears.
+++++My brother, Jimmy, is on the floor beside me. Police marksmen shot him through the face ten minutes ago. He was always a touch crazy. He’d stood in the window with Dad’s old shotgun, firing at them as they came up from the low road. I see his feet from the corner of my eye, Primark trainers wet with blood, toes pointed up at a curtain wandering in the breeze. He was born in this room and now he’s died in it, funny how things turn out. The shot took his lower jaw away and I can see it in the corner, teeth and all, dental fillings dull in the summer light. I’ve seen worse in Afghanland, course I have, but this is Jim. I want that image out of my head. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy and it works for a spell.
+++++Check the chamber of the pistol; one in the spout and after that, I’m done. The room stinks of blood and smoke, fucking hell, my whole life has been blood and smoke, but I never thought I’d bring it here. The picture of Mam and Dad on Jimmy’s bedside cabinet catches the sun and I turn from the glare, push hard against the dusty wall, bleeding where the auld man in the village post office stuck me with a blade. No way out this time, no way at all. Fuck it; I’m having a ciggie first.

Jimmy had the idea about a week back, pestered me with it through loveless days filled with cider and skunk. I was trying to get over her leaving like that, and some other things I will not go into, and Jim had troubles of his own. He mortgaged the farm a year after liver cancer dragged the auld man off, and couldn’t keep up with the payments. Now he was in hock to loan sharks from the Borough an’ all and hadn’t a penny to give ’em. He spent everything he had on drink. They were going to break his legs. ‘Come on, Digger,’ he kept saying, ‘can’t trust anyone else; you ride the bike, that’s all. There’s a couple of grand in it, you can’t go wrong.’ Yeah, Jim, you can’t go wrong.
+++++ We wore tights over our heads as disguise, same type me Mam used to send me to the village shop for when I was a bairn, American tan, she always used to say, get us a pair of American tan. It was a joke. I kept the bike revved up in front of Ruswarp post office; it was a dirt bike. We used it for scrambling round the farm. The sun scorched the village high street, and the tights stuck to the sweat on my lip as the bike turned over, stinking of hot metal and petrol fumes. I saw the steel bridge over the Esk ahead, blue and shimmering in the heat and thought for a moment we might even get away with it. I saw us racing away in that July haze, when I heard the shotgun bark and a woman scream.
+++++ I left the bike, crashed into the cool of the shop and when my eyes adjusted saw an old man on the ground. Blood dark as oil decorated the glass counter screen. ‘What you done?’ I yelled at Jim.
+++++He come at me with a fucking sword or summat.’
+++++The old man was breathing blood and his eyelids flickered like the wings of something trapped. A woman with a bairn stood in the corner. She was crying madly, but the little lad was calm. He looked up at me with black bottomless eyes and I turned away. The whole world was shaded American tan and I knelt down next to the auld fella, out of instinct I suppose, wanting to check where Jim had shot him. He gave out this yell and stuck me in the gut with an old issue bayonet. I felt it like a punch and fell back onto the gritty floor. I’m a soldier, been one half my 34 years, and it was natural as drawing breath to swing the pistol round and put two rounds in his skull. I did it without a thought. I struggled upright, the bayonet handle sticking outta my side. I couldn’t feel it. ‘Come on,’ I pressed Jim’s shoulder. He’s booze thin and I pushed him to the door.
+++++ ‘I never got the money,’ he said.
+++++ ‘Bollocks to the money.’
+++++ He pulled away, stormed to the counter, slipping in the blood on his way. ‘I need that fucking money, Dig, or you know what’s gonna happen.’ His voice was high and strangled with crazy.
+++++The woman wept. Her face was a wet mess of snot and mascara and she pulled the kid towards her as the old man’s blood dribbled over grey lino. My waist was wet around the belt and I saw blood pissing out of me side and felt the pain finally and suddenly. Knew I was hurt bad. Jim came back with a few handfuls of money stuffed into a carrier bag and we were out of there.
+++++ Jim drove us back to the farm. By then I was slipping. I’d had a plan, a decent plan, take us up to the moors, hide in Beulah wood until it blew over. I had a story sorted, we were up there camping, had been a week. There was even a tent set up by the beck, where our Uncle took us rabbiting years ago. Jim wasn’t ever able to think ahead, as I say. He thought we could just go home and nobody’d notice, simple get that he is. I peeled the tights off me face and let ’em go into the wind. American tan, the whole world coloured blood red and American tan.
+++++There are reasons, there are always reasons I suppose. Judy left me on my last tour and I couldn’t go back to Afghan when my leave was up, not after last time. I was going to take the money and vanish, start fresh. All of it gone to hell. I drop my last smoke on the wet carpet and it sizzles in my blood. There is darkness at the edge of my heartbeats, something lifting up to meet me. It all goes to hell always.
+++++The coppers are sneaking closer; I can hear ’em now the singing’s going outta me ears, boots on gravel. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy. It was down in the lower field, an August day a lifetime ago. The field was lying fallow and the sky was a blazing, endless blue above it. The sun was low and we had cold beers and cigarettes and lay listening to the waist high grass move gently in the breeze and I stretched out my hand and she was just a little out of reach, just that little bit out of reach in the long hot August grass. And the world was calm and the sky was empty and everything was measured as a dream and I wish I could hear long grass in the wind once more before I die.

Freedom’s Limit

Henry did the crime all right – and the time. A low rent daytime burglary blundered into violent, horrible murder. In hindsight’s perfection, two lives ended that day. Old Mrs. Winfrey and Henry both were dead as fried chickens, although Henry’s demise would take a few extra years.
+++++ In 1950, Hell and the Pleasant Grove neighborhood in Dallas were synonymous. “Dead broke” was a term as common as “gimme your money or I’ll shoot your ass”. Except Henry had no gun.
+++++His mama was a whore who was never too discreet about plying her trade around Henry from his earliest recollection. But lazy mama couldn’t screw her way out of poverty or even feed Henry from beneath her daily load of drugs, smokes, and booze. Henry could recall going weeks without a single dime. Kid-jobs were scarce. Henry, dumb as a busted back door, nobody would hire him anyway.
+++++ So Henry evolved – germinated – as a thief like most of his peers. He’d broken into a hundred homes in Pleasant Grove – always for poor folks’ valuables which wouldn’t bring a dollar on the street. By sixteen, he’d been arrested five times for juvenile burglary. The Texas penal code is clear. When he reached age seventeen Henry was a fully grown adult. But some things were constant – Mama whored and Henry stole, period.
+++++ Old Mrs. Winfrey walked down to the corner bus stop every Thursday morning and spent the day somewhere. Henry couldn’t have known she always visited her daughter in north Dallas . Henry, in his narrow gauge thinking, didn’t actually see her leave that Thursday. He just assumed – damned bad business in the burglary trade. He slipped the back door lock and was stashing silverware in a pillow case when she walked in. Push came to shove, in spades. Simpleton Henry beat the shrieking old lady’s brains on the kitchen floor with an iron skillet. Witnesses heard the screams and the cops caught Henry a block down, blood-soaked and bathed in sweat. He confessed before they reached the station house.
+++++ A Dallas jury, enraged after examining photos of the bloody gore on Mrs. Winfrey’s kitchen floor, sentenced adult Henry to the electric chair: Old Sparky. Henry languished on death row for twelve years. Texas switched the method of execution to the three needle cocktail, but he was still a dead man.
+++++Then the appellate court, from their seats near the right hand of God, decided Henry was too stupid to execute. “Go figure,” cops said. They commuted his sentence to life, which only meant “life” if he got shanked in the shower.

They moved Henry into the general prison population. An odd sort, not given to social interaction, Henry was allowed out of his cell one half hour daily to sweep out the prison machine shop. He labored there fifteen more years. Henry really never learned to read nor attend prison church services, spending his entire “off” time alone in his six by eight cell. He rarely spoke and among other inmates had not a single friend.
+++++Early on he’d acquired a plastic mayonnaise jar. After he swept the machine shop each day, he began gathering small bits of wire and metal scraps, wedging them into the semi-flexible container. Prison officials examined the jar in his cell. Old harmless Henry, they concluded, was not a threat with his dopey jar of scraps. Perhaps a sort of therapy, they suggested. So they let him keep it.
+++++Then to Henry’s surprise, the prison system told him he was rehabilitated and unceremoniously paroled him. Two thirds of his life in a cage, Henry was dumped back on the street along with his jar of scrap metal bits, new blue jeans, and a ten dollar bill. Mama had long since died of accumulated whore-life ailments. But mama’s elderly sister, Myrtle offered Henry a tiny room in the rear of her Pleasant Grove house.
+++++Henry found the outside world huge beyond comprehension. He spent all day every day in his little room, pacing the few steps back and forth hours on end. In time, Aunt Myrtle urged, then demanded Henry by God seek employment.

In weeks, the issue approached detonation. Each day, despite Aunt Myrtle’s cajoling, Henry found one reason, then another for not venturing out of his room. He was ill or had no work-leads. +++++He’d seek a job the next day he always said and probably actually meant. Then he paced the floor all day.
+++++Early one morning Aunt Myrtle barged into Henry’s small space in a rage. “Look for a job today or out on the street” were the options. In her frenzy, Myrtle slapped Henry, the jostle knocking his jar of scrap off a small bed table. Henry the model prisoner exploded back to Henry the burglar – the stone killer who’d bashed Mrs. Winfrey’s brains all over the kitchen nearly a lifetime before.
+++++In rage born of years of frustration, Henry snatched up the jar and repeated the Mrs. Winfrey routine on Aunt Myrtle’s skull. Breathless and only as remorseful as his dim, sociopath mind would allow, Henry, coated with gore, stood over the body, the murder weapon, still in hand. The violent attack had shattered the plastic into small bits across the floor, but the small remnants of wire and scrap wedged carefully into the container over many years had held their shape perfectly without the confinement of the container. The bits were a steel ball.
+++++Again, screams and noise had alerted neighbors. When the first cops pushed into the room, Henry sat on the floor next to a basically headless Aunt Myrtle, still clutching the blood-soaked, self welded wad of wire. “Put it down, buddy,” the cop ordered, pistol drawn.
+++++But Henry really didn’t hear. He sat, fixated on the wire-ball. “Rehabilitated?” He shouted at his wad of metal. “How does it feel to be free?”

It’s Best To Leave Cootie Alone

“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” is all that Cootie Murphy would ever say when he sat on the last stool at the end of the bar in The Stag & Doe Inn. He wouldn’t say it very often, only when provoked by someone or stirred by thoughts known only to him. Mostly he would simply sit at the bar in silence, staring straight ahead, tapping his fingers now and then, and sipping his Guinness.
+++++Cootie had held the rights to the last stool for more than 50 years, ever since he returned from Korea in 1953 after two years spent in conflict. Some people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, although they didn’t call it that back then. Others thought he was nuts before he went to Korea and had simply come back a little nuttier. Both sides would find their opinions confirmed on nights when the moon was full and Cootie would throw his head back and howl like a wolf. Regular customers were used to it by now and they’d sometimes join in. The bartender would only say, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
+++++The bartender also said that if Cootie ever died, his stool should be buried with him. But the neighborhood mortician, Rory McCarthy, always a customer after a funeral, had said he had never seen a casket that would accommodate both a man Cootie’s size and his stool as well. He agreed, however, that he would see what could be done if Cootie ever required his services, provided the family didn’t drive the body–as they did his mother’s–to O’Brien’s, another mortuary a few blocks down the street.
+++++McCarthy said that he knew of no law against burying Cootie upright—sitting on his stool, Guinness glass glued to his hand. That might be an option worth looking into. But it would require a customized casket of unorthodox configuration best ordered in advance. That would cost a little more, McCarthy said, but what’s money in a time of grief.
+++++There were no signs, however, that Cootie, despite his age, was a candidate for death. In fact, he took no medications. He was simply a strange and contrary fellow with many eccentricities.
+++++For example, it didn’t matter whether you were a regular customer who had known Cootie for decades or a first-time customer. He would respond in the same way. If someone asked him any question—did he have a match for a cigarette or did he know if the Cubs had won–his answer was always the same.
+++++“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!”
+++++Regulars had no idea what he meant or why he said it. And strangers would walk away bewildered.
+++++Sometimes, however, a stranger who had drunk too much himself would take offense at Cootie invoking the vernal equinox. Over the years, several of the strangers had threatened Cootie with a thrashing. Such a threat, of course, was like a call to prayer in Damascus for regular customers who, otherwise bored, would bow their heads and turn on their stools quietly toward the commotion. They knew that as soon as Cootie would hear a threat, he’d get off his stool and put his fists up, John L. Sullivan style, and start shadow-boxing around the stranger, flicking left jabs and then a right cross, all just inches from the stranger’s chin.
+++++With Cootie circling him, the stranger wouldn’t know what to do. After all, Cootie might have been old but he stood 6’5,” weighed at least 300 pounds and he had fists like bear paws. He didn’t look his age and he moved and jabbed pretty well. Anyone could see that despite his years, Cootie looked capable of flattening anyone.
+++++Even more discouraging, when Cootie was flicking jabs, was the spinning of his eyes. His face looked like a slot machine malfunctioning. And as he danced around, his tongue would emerge quickly from the corner of his mouth, much like the penis of a younger man on the first night of his honeymoon.
+++++Cootie’s odd behavior had begun 50 years earlier shortly after his return to Chicago from Korea. He came back bearing medals galore and a Korean wife who made her own kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment consisting of pickled cabbage and a variety of spices. One regular customer once said that nothing in Chicago smelled like Cootie’s kimchi. Not even the stockyards, which back then was still in operation.
+++++Soo Loo Park, a good wife, would prepare the condiment with great care, pack it into clay pots, and bury the pots all over their small back yard. Wherever she buried a pot, she would stick a popsicle stick bearing the date the pot had been buried. How long a pot was allowed to ferment in the ground would determine the piquancy of the final product. Cootie liked his kimchi screaming hot, the cabbage leaves as gnarled as his hands, moist and glistening with red pepper.
+++++Oddly, Cootie liked to share his kimchi. He always brought a jar of it with him to The Stag & Doe to eat along with the hard-boiled eggs and pickled sausages that sat on the bar in big glass barrel jars. Give him a few sausages and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, followed by a fork full of kimchi, and Cootie was a happy man. He’d wash it down with glasses of Guinness from the tap, managing to get the froth all over his considerable mustache.
+++++Everyone was welcome to sample his kimchi. They didn’t even have to ask. Regulars, of course, wouldn’t go near the stuff but strangers occasionally did. On such occasions, the regulars would always have to suppress a laugh. Just a pinch of Cootie’s kimchi would make a Mexican weaned on jalapenos scream for a fire extinguisher.
+++++One slow evening the bartender mentioned that watching Cootie arrange his glass of Guinness, sausages, eggs and kimchi on the bar was almost like watching a defrocked priest preparing to say an aberrant Latin Mass, especially since Cootie always made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace before he ate or drank.
+++++He had been taught these and other spiritual practices by his brother, Paddy, a monk in a monastery located not too many miles away. Paddy was said to be a very holy man but maybe not a scholar.
+++++Nevertheless, he had done well in the monastery, over the years, adding pecans to the tops of fruitcakes the monks would bake and sell by mail. He knew how many pecans a cake required and where to place them. He was the only monk trained for this job. He had no understudy. If Paddy had a sick day, some other monk would just plop the pecans on the cakes without any sense of order.
+++++At communal prayers five times a day Paddy would pray for all the reprobates he had left behind in the old neighborhood. Cootie would give him a monthly update on their latest deeds when he’d visit him at the monastery. He would tell Paddy up front that none of the regulars had shown any improvement since his last visit. But, as Cootie would remind him, a lot of them had passed away and the future for the rest didn’t look too promising.
+++++Each death, of course, would force Paddy to pray even harder because he felt that half the souls in Purgatory had probably come from his old neighborhood. Who knew if there’d be room in that Halfway House in the sky when it was time for Cootie and him to check in?
+++++Cootie’s sister, on the other hand, had been quite different than her brothers. She had been a nun and was said to have been very smart. But she had died, young and unexpectedly, while teaching a third-grade English class in the parish school. She fell backwards one day, like a tree falling, and was looking up to heaven from the floor just as the bell rang. She never moved.
+++++The parish priest arrived in minutes to give her the Last Rites but she was already dead. No one had any doubts, however, that she was already in heaven, explaining to some saint weak in punctuation the difference between the usage of a semi-colon and a colon.
+++++No autopsy was performed. And it seemed as if the whole neighborhood took a shower and put on their best clothes to attend her funeral Mass. Even a few Southern Baptists chose to enter a Catholic Church for the first time to pay their final respects. Some of them were surprised to return home spiritually intact.
+++++Cootie never talked about the years he had spent in Korea, the battles he had survived, the number of enemy he had killed or the event that led to the plate inserted in his head. He never explained either what he had done to earn all those medals.
+++++And Cootie’s lack of braggadocio was appreciated because when he first came home, one of the regulars in the bar, a fellow named Stanley, a veteran of World War II, had announced to all the other customers that unlike Cootie, he had been in the “real war,” the one the United States had won.
+++++Cootie didn’t say a word. But a half hour later, after a little small talk with Stanley, Cootie asked him to get off his stool so they could finally settle a bet made in high school as to which of them was taller. Standing face to face, Cootie indeed appeared to be taller. Then he hit Stanley with an uppercut launched from his knee. It took a bucket of water, a lot of encouragement and three sober men who had just walked in to get Stanley on his feet. Two of his teeth were never found.
+++++After the Stanley incident, none of the regulars ever bothered Cootie again. And the bartender always told new patrons, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
+++++But occasionally a stranger, clearly out of his element, would arrive in a suit and tie or in Bermuda shorts and white bucks. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be long before one regular or another would engage the stranger in conversation and tell him in glowing terms about Cootie’s status as a hero of the Korean War. He had won so many medals, the stranger would be told, that he needed a suitcase to bring them home.
+++++Often the stranger, after a sufficient amount of Guinness, would stroll down to the end of the bar and extend his hand to thank Cootie for his service. Like others before him, the stranger would learn that it was best to leave Cootie alone.
+++++As every regular knew, Cootie had little to say about the war America hadn’t won. But if pressed to comment on the matter, he’d bounce off his stool and shout, “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” Everything else he said with his fists. And it was always a brief conversation.

Uncluttering

Author’s note:

I didn’t write this because I’m a horrible person, I wrote it because I’m not. This is a catharsis. It’s how I shed that film of gutter humanity. What follows is something I’ve seen in real life tweaked enough for me to feel comfortable calling it “fiction.” After I saw all of this, I was deeply bothered. As a human, as a husband, as a father. I was unsettled and ill, like someone else’s vomit was roiling in my stomach. This is how I excised that feeling before it became a cancer.

Sometimes I hate my job. Sometimes I hate people. “Sometimes” is becoming more and more. So I hold my children, tell them I love them, feel their little heart beats, listen to the air go in and out, laugh when they ask the absurd things children ask and I thank my wife for giving me all the gifts in my life that have ever truly mattered. Do the same. I’m not asking please. You do it.

***

She finally sat back from the edge of the tub, leaned against the toilet and caught her breath.
+++++“There,” she said in a huff. “Life is officially uncluttered.”
+++++Her arms burned. All the water on the floor soaked her through. Goosebumps. Her lower back burned from the odd angle of being on her knees leaning over the lip of the tub as long as she had. Pushed a drift of wet hair from her face with a huff. God, I need a cigarette.
+++++If this was what being twenty-three was like, to hell with it.
+++++Her shirt clung to her chest like her babies. She sneered and dug around on the sink counter for a smoke. Found one, carefully dried her hands before handling it. Pruned fingers make it hard to flick a lighter but she got a flame. Dragged deep. That burn coupled with the rawness of her throat—exertion, it’s a bitch—and she savored the pain.
+++++“This is where I’m at in life. This is my life,” she leaned back until her hair fell in sodden clumps along the toilet lip. “Fuck.”
+++++Stared down at her toes. The last thing she spent any real money on. French tips are all she wanted. One foot, twitching with a beaten flip flop on it. The other flip flop down the hall. Lost getting to the bathroom. Her ankle bracelet, a present from her prom date, snapped in half. The beads dotted the floor like confetti.

Her nails needed attention. Kim, her regular nail girl, had called three times to schedule an appointment. Have to call her back. Use the last of her EBT on that since she’d already bought this week’s carton.
+++++She’d taped a picture of David and her on the wall. Forget when she did it; one of those memories that meandered too far away in the fog of her burdened life. Next to that picture, another. Her and James.
+++++The David picture was four years old. She may have been pregnant in it. Cassie was three now, so the math worked. The James picture was nearer to now; maybe ten months ago. She was six months pregnant in that one. James junior was eighteen months.
+++++Cassie. Cassie equaled three years of broken sleep. Insatiable bouts of crying. Cassie was the worst. Sometimes Cassie would cry well into the night no matter how much she screamed at her. “Shut the fuck up already,” echoed up and down the apartment hall. And that bitch downstairs—the one that always eyeballed her when she’d come home late with whatever guy it was that night—would call the cops.
+++++She got tired of answering the door just to rub her hangover temples and lie. Listen to their radios squawk about other calls more important than her being exhausted.
+++++Three years of, “This is my life. Fuck.”
+++++And if David could get off his ass and send any of the child support he’d promised when he packed up and left them … She didn’t even care if he furnished the whole amount, but damn. Do something.
+++++“Bitch, I’m outta here.” His words, back when his little princess was the ripe age of four months. “You’re too fucking crazy with all your post-partum whatever. You gonna throw shit at me? I oughta call the fuckin’ cops! Crazy bitch.”

He never did call the police, and she was quite sure he had planned that speech since the day he signed the birth certificate. He was just looking for the right excuse to give it. She knew David was worthless. Hell, his own mother never spoke to him without using cuss words and screaming. No wonder his parenting skills were subpar. David hadn’t seen Cassie in five months.
+++++“But, if I had my way,” she said at the bar just last night, “I wouldn’t either. I mean, I love her and all, but I get so tired of her neediness. James junior is less clingy.”
+++++James senior was probably out getting high like he always did. “Baby,” he’d say with that high-pitched weed giggle all the pothead faggots on TV laughed with. That retarded hyena cackle. “Baby, I only get high on days that end in Y. Hee heeeeee heeeee … !”
+++++She only fucked him because she was lonely and he had good smoke. Now this. Now James junior. After that pregnancy test she decided to start embracing rubbers. Even on Medicaid the pill was too expensive. Budgeting it in around other necessities—which she defined as cigarettes and a little bit of cheap booze because, let’s face it, Friday night is Friday fuckin’ night—and even the miniscule amount she’d pay in for the pill got too steep. Let the guy absorb the cost and finance the protection.
+++++And what about her? She exhaled a frail ring of smoke up into the bathroom ceiling and started crying right there on the wet tile. Short-shorts, soaked T-shirt and that was about it. All the red marks on her arms. Her eyes swollen from the sobbing before now.
+++++What about her? Her whole life ahead of her and then BOOM. Knocked up by a lowlife. Her own mom just said, “Join the club,” and laughed at how her dad was out of prison for a total of fourteen months scattered across her entire life. Cocksucker was out just long enough to get another felony.
+++++Her friends went to college. Far away. Came home with stories of better parties that what she could get to. Something besides shooter games with well drinks. They started dropping top shelf brands and her stomach turned. Envy. Seething envy. Stories about something besides skunk weed. Imagine a dime bag with no stems or seeds. Holy crow, she wanted to go to college. Fuck the reading and studying. The social life … oh, the social life. Her stomach turned. Envy. Seething envy.
+++++She tried not to be bitter towards Cassie, but some nights it was hard. Cassie was the anchor that sunk it all. James junior got a pass just because he only added to an already existing problem. Him and his Cookie Monster shoes. Learned to walk in them.
+++++Her skin crawled with missed opportunities. Like mites scurrying along on six prickly legs, tearing up her flesh and nibbling here and there, each pinch of their jaws a reminder. A reminder of her forgotten life. She needed to unclutter.

No Johnny in a letterman’s jacket. No sports car. A curfew every night because her own mom refused to be a babysitter. “Get home and bath your own kid for bedtime. Let me tell ya something, Grandma doesn’t equal “new ma,” for Christ’s sakes.”
+++++David packing up, ignoring he made all the promises she’d ever want to hear. Never fulfilling a single one. She should’ve learned when she told him she was pregnant and he whispered, “I’m so excited, baby. I promise you’re gonna feel like a queen.”
+++++Queen? Nope. Does a queen have nothing but one damn flip flop and a smoldering cigarette in her wet hand? Sore muscles? An uncertain future? An obsessive, blinding drive to unclutter her life that really translates to un-fucking her life?
+++++Ash falls and sizzles in her palm. She jerks out of her reverie. All was still now. Finally quiet. She sees the pair of Cookie Monster shoes still sticking out of the tub water at an odd angle. On the other side one of Cassie’s legs crawled up the side, her toes intruding on the soap shelf. Snakes of her hair floating up from the bottom, playing in the luke warm water’s ripples.
+++++Two upside down lollipops. Easing her burden.
+++++She tries to stand, slips in all the spill. It was a hell of a fight down the hall. Lost her damn flip-flop in it getting back here. Yanked her ankle bracelet in half. Cassie nearly got away. She gets her pay-as-you-go cell phone off the counter. Dials 911.
+++++“They’ve drowned,” she says, and while she is numb and hollow and dazed and uncertain, she doesn’t feel any better about her life.

Special

I’ve been told that I’m special – right now, I don’t quite see it.
+++++I’m in a basement of a building filled with dead men. They don’t know it yet, but by the time I’m done everyone here will have had a very bad day indeed.
+++++Why the basement you ask? Well, that’s where the wall is thinnest of course and it was the only place that I had a photograph of that allowed me to visualise the space without any issues – but more about that later. I do this job and I’m set up for life. It did occur to me that the reason why the price on this guy’s head is so high is because he appears to be untouchable.
+++++Steven Kenson used to work as a research analyst for META-4, the government run Agency that watches over everyone that’s classed as a Neo. You’ve heard of the FBI and the CIA? Well, these guys were above and beyond even them. You’ve heard of Black Ops? META-4 makes them look positively white in comparison.
+++++Why does someone want Kenson dead? I don’t know, and I don’t care – all I’m bothered about is the money. Like I said, I do this job and I’m set for life.
+++++The Glock nestles comfortably in the holster on my hip as I pull out and re-order the fuses to the power for the building. Everything goes dark for a minute – good job I’ve got the night vision goggles with me today. I know the back-up generators will kick in after about fifteen minutes, but that’s all the time I’ll need. It creates just enough confusion and uncertainty amongst those in the building to unnerve them – and that’s exactly what I want. Everyone on edge, twitchy, anxious. Makes it all the more easier for me when it comes to picking them off.
+++++I had a life once – a boyfriend, a cat, an apartment. I was training to be a nurse – I wanted to save lives – now all I do is take them. Funny how things can turn out, isn’t it? That was before everything changed. Before Dr Tachyon. He called it the Wild Card process – everyone else knows it as the forerunner to DNAscent; the forced evolution of the human genome. I guess I was one of the lucky ones – they theorised that because I’m a woman I must have pulled an ace from the pack due to my genetic makeup. Fifty percent of people who underwent the process were killed by it.
+++++If you ask me, they were the lucky ones.
+++++Now it’s been refined and “mastered”, the government uses it to create super-soldiers to fight their precious war on terror. I wonder how long it will be before the “bad guys” get their hands on the same technology. I could apply my talents elsewhere and make a fortune if I wanted to.
+++++Not that I would – I might be a killer, you understand, but I’m also a patriot.
+++++When they said that the Raven had caught Tachyon I was so angry – I wanted to be the one who got to him first, not that do-gooder bitch. I wanted to see the look in his eyes as I killed him. I guess I still could – he’s only in Ravenstone Prison after all, but everyone has to move on with their life. Take the hand you’re dealt and roll with it as best as you can.
+++++Like I said, people tell me I’m special. We’ll see.
+++++The door to the basement opens – two figures enter, waving torches around. They’re moaning about the power outage, their forms illuminated clearly by the red emergency light in the far corner of the room even without my goggles. Despite the fact my body is completely covered in this light absorbent suit, I’m still nervous. As they look at the fuse box I make my move – I drive the knife into the base of the skull of the first guy, and then I grab the second guy by the shoulders, forcibly throwing him to the ground on his back. I keep hold of his arm as my foot stomps down onto his throat. I then pull his arm upwards, jerking his body towards me while my foot holds his neck in place. I hear the sound of bone breaking and in the alien green hue of the goggles I watch him twitch spasmodically for a minute before confirming he’s dead. Retracting the knife, I wipe the blood from the blade on the first guy’s jacket before I climb the stairs out of the basement.
+++++I need to move quickly – the two in the basement will be missed soon and the element of surprise will be lost. I should just go straight to the third floor – but I can’t afford to get caught out. Plus as I don’t know what’s up there I could just appear in the middle of a wall or something – then who would look stupid? That’s the problem with teleportation – you need to “know” where you’re going otherwise things just get messy, hence the need for the photograph to get into the basement. I sweep around the first and second floors, finding them empty as I expected. The power disruption has wiped out the elevator – not that I need it, but I use the stairs in case I run into anyone coming down them.
+++++I reach the third floor and carefully open the door from the stairwell. Thank god for well-oiled hinges. As I slowly open the door, I can see a guy at the vending machine. He’s fumbling with change in his hands as he tries to simultaneously balance the torch under his arm and count up the selection of coins he’s extracted from his pocket. I wait – if I move now the sound of the coins hitting the floor could alert people to my presence. I can afford to be patient. Plus the vending machine is practically an antique – it’s an old Hertzberg model, the sort that work off a crank handle mechanism like the ones they have at Coney Island. It would be a crime to damage it after someone has clearly taken their time restoring it. For a minute I’m six years old again with my Dad at the fair, pleading with him for a raspberry Slurpee and a cone of nuts before we get on the Ferris wheel.
+++++Six dimes and three nickels later, he’s lighting up the candy dispenser with his torch. I step forward, approaching him in his blind spot – the silencer on the end of the Glock looks almost ridiculous compared to the size of the subcompact pistol in my grasp. I’ve always liked the Glock 26 and the later 29 versions – it’s perfect for concealment in a purse or a jacket pocket and thus, perfect for my line of work, even if it only holds ten rounds in the magazine. My hands are an average size, yet this almost miniaturised weapon looks wrong almost – like it’s a child’s toy in the hands of a woman.
+++++He’s still trying to decide which can of soda to purchase as the extended barrel edges closer to him. He has no idea what’s about to happen as he reaches out for the over-sized wheel that he needs to twist to finalise his selection – I can feel the anticipation building inside me, my mind is racing – the pressure of my finger on the trigger is increasing slowly, building to a climax. He reaches out, his hand just touching the rim of the wheel now…
+++++Pfhtt!
+++++I place the shot just behind his right ear, upwards into the skull. Somehow I manage to catch the torch before it hits the floor as the red and white decorative logo on the vending machine gets an impromptu paint job of blood and brain matter. That’s a shame – they’ll need to repaint it as you’ll never get that out with just soap and water. Bleach might do it. His body hits the floor with a soft thud – the carpet deadening the sound.
+++++There’s only one door in this hallway – and Kenson must be behind it, along with whoever is left babysitting him. They’ll be expecting their colleague to come back shortly – I don’t disappoint them.
+++++He’s heavy – heavy enough that once I lean his corpse up against the door it starts to open. As he falls through it, pandemonium erupts inside – the beams of torchlight illuminating their fallen colleague.
+++++One of them rushes forward – I put a bullet into his skull before I dance out of the way of a series of gunshots that tear through the flimsy wooden structure. All those years of ballet and gymnastics as a child paid off. I hear the voices – some urging restraint, some hollering for revenge. The remnants of the door are shattered as one, two, three men rush out, sweeping the hall with their torches.
+++++They are the first to go – one shot into each barrel, shattering the bulbs and robbing them of their perceived advantage. The knife is out of my hand and buried in the throat of one man before the others can react – bullets strike their foreheads a moment later. Everything goes quiet – everyone is waiting for the other to make the next move.
+++++There’s a rattling sound, then something rolls into the hallway. Smoke begins to fill the confined space – two shadowy figures dart out, towards the stairs. I take a second to focus, and then fire two quick shots into the back of the trailing figure – he falls to the floor, catching the trailing leg of the second figure.
+++++I can hear him coughing as I approach him. Through my green-filtered eyes I can make out his features – it’s Kenson; and he looks scared.
+++++I kneel down and jab the barrel of the pistol into the underside of his chin – he’s crying now, pleading with me for his life. If only it were that simple.
+++++I slowly pull the pistol away, and then drop it theatrically to the floor next to him. Something in his eyes seems to click – he thinks I’m giving him a chance. He’s wrong of course – but that’s what makes the next bit so delicious. I grab the lapels of his obscenely expensive jacket and I close my eyes.
+++++They say I’m special. I’m not so sure.
+++++The next time I open them I’m four hundred feet above the city streets. My hands are still gripping Kenson’s jacket as his screams fill my ears. I can feel the rush of the wind through my suit, giving me goose bumps across my body. We’re falling at a terminal velocity of thirty-two feet per second – the asphalt beneath us is getting ever closer and closer. I pull him towards me and speak for the first time that evening.
+++++“I hope you can fly.”
+++++Then I close my eyes and let go. When I open them I’m standing on the sidewalk – I see Kenson falling through the air, then watch as he smashes into the tarmac, just behind a yellow taxicab that’s dropped off its last fare of the night. I casually walk over to the impact site, ignoring the shocked people standing on the sidewalk, mouths a jar at what they’ve just witnessed – it’s amazing how much the human body resembles a melon when it’s dropped from a great height.
+++++I pull my mask off and run my hand through my dirty blonde hair. I realise that what I want right now is a long soak in a hot bath. Then I close my eyes and in a heartbeat, I’m back at home.
+++++They tell me I’m special. Maybe they’re right.

Black Ops

The first wall had been easy; grab, lift, climb. Dropping down behind
a sprawling lilac just as simple. The red-eyed Doberman, big and sleek
and sniffing like a super model at a mirror, that was a different
story.
+++++Lungs burning from caged-in breath, I shifted slightly behind the
bush, reached into my jacket pocket. Gentle as a new mother stroking
her baby, I danced my fingers against the pen-thin sliver of plastic,
drew it out with mime-slow movement. The big mutt, ears fine-tuned
beyond anything I’d used out East, took another big gulp of night air,
growled a little from deep in its belly then took a quick, confident
step in my direction.
+++++“Here boy”, I whispered.
+++++The hell-mutt snarled as I stepped out from behind the tree, shot up
its hackles as I held out my hand and dropped to my belly. A second
growl, longer, deeper, ripped the night like a rusted bayonet. The
beast took a couple more tentative steps toward me.
+++++“Good dog,” I whispered, guts flipping at the thought of it barking.
+++++Pulse rate jumping, I lay on the ground, waiting. Head tilted to give
me a view, hands spread slightly by my head, I watched it come closer,
circle me. Its musty, drizzle damp coat stank of wet wool.
+++++“Good dog.”
+++++Wet grass soaked through my t-shirt. The rich smell of sodden earth
clogging my throat, I let the Doberman sniff me over. The big beast’s
nose probed my face, my ears. Its low, threatening voice told me if I
liked breathing, I’d stay nice and still, nice and submissive.
+++++It circled a couple more times, leaning in to nip my hair and back
with ice-pick teeth. Two minutes of prowling, it quit the belly
rumble, huffed at me with same brand of disdain a city banker reserves
for vagrants before stopping at my head and cocking a slender,
powerful leg.
+++++Hot, stinking piss splashed my face and shoulders, sprayed my cropped
skull, dribbled into my eyes, my mouth. Dominance exhibited, the
German bully-boy trotted back to its place on the three-storey town
house’s patio, dumped its arse on a low-sided bed.
+++++I grabbed a handful of waterlogged grass, wiped it across my stinking
face, jammed it into my trousers. Slipping the syringe back into my
jacket, I braced my knees and elbows against the ground,
leopard-crawled toward a bed of dead roses. I could have made a run
for it, could have got to my feet and dashed across the garden. I’m
sure the still-watching dog would have loved that.
+++++Boots sinking in fertilised soil, I stared at the second wall. Higher
than the first, broken glass concreted to its top edge glistened in
the light of a crescent moon. Slipping my jacket off my shoulders, I
draped its leather back over the wicked blades, dragged myself up and
over.
+++++I crossed the second garden in a low, ape-like run. Muscles loose,
breathing controlled, I darted along its shadowed boundary, stopped
short behind a corrugated iron shelter that stank of cigarette smoke.
Fumbling the bandana tied at my neck, I dragged it up over my face.
The acrid stink of dog piss made me want to gag.
+++++Boot steps light, I tabbed over to a heavy wooden door, slipped picks
from a cargo pocket, reached for its corroded handle with a flash of
inspiration. Grinning, I turned the metal knob, slipped inside, pulled
the door shut.
+++++Back pressed against a corridor wall, I scanned the rehab clinic’s
shadowed interior. A cocktail of bleach and vomit filled my lungs with
every breath, penetrating my damp mask. Running through the
blue-prints I’d committed to memory during a week’s recon, I rolled
tension from my neck, hit a right. Adrenaline spiked as a low moan
filtered behind the first door I passed, tightening my muscles to hot
wire. The groaning died in a beat or two.
+++++I followed my internal map up a flight of rickety stair, took another
right into a door-lined corridor, its ceiling dotted red with
emergency lighting. At the third door in, I reached for another
handle, stopped with hand midair when I noticed circular welt of a
Yale lock.
+++++I swallowed surprise in a fraction of a second, Squatted down with
picks in hand. Despite the darkness, my tension wrench found its mark
straight off, followed by a jagged pick. I stroked metallic pins with
my thief’s finger.
+++++Tumblers clicked into place, the wrench turned. I pushed the door and
rose to standing in one smooth movement, stashed the picks in my
trousers and stepped inside. Lavender and sandalwood pierced my
dog-stinking mask, the hum of an electric heater buzzed in my ears.
+++++“So you’ve come.”
+++++The voice, flat and calm, sent a shiver through my spine. He sat on
the bed, silhouetted by silver light leaking through his open window.
+++++“I knew you would. I knew she was too much of a hater to let it go.”
+++++The voice from a dozen movies rolled like honey through my brain as
the shadow raised his hands palm up, the gesture trying to placate me,
to let me know he’d acted outside his control.
+++++“I knew she’d be trouble, it made me want her more. What could I do?”
+++++I slipped a hand into my jacket. My other hand slid around to the
small of my back, gripped rubber. I shifted it back to the front, let
moonlight dance along the k-bar’s razor edge.
+++++“You could have kept your dick in your pants,” I said tossing the
hypodermic needle into his lap.
+++++“There’s enough in there to do the job, you’ll barely notice.”
+++++The patch of blackness picked up the plastic sliver, turned it in his
fingers like he’d never seen one before.
+++++“So you’re going to go through with it? Kill a penitent man?”
+++++“Only if you make another bad decision.”
+++++Dark, silent molasses passed between us for a moment. Movement in his
shoulders told me he was toying with the needle, the idea of dying,
probably weighing up his chances. A sharp jerk of his elbows killed
the silence with a sharp crack.
+++++“I don’t think you’ve got the gu…”
+++++Two steps and a single lunge cut him dead. I twisted the blade as I
pulled it from his sternum, felt not a damned thing as he tumbled
sideways onto his sheets.
+++++“Wrong choice,” I said, wrenching the blade from his chest, wiping it
off and stashing it at the small of my back.
+++++I left the same way I got in, walked through wet streets to my stolen
Cavalier. After changing my clothes, I pulled a pay-go mobile from the
glove box, sent a message to an equally untraceable phone. It read
‘Let it go’. Half hour later, I was back in my flat, sipping whiskey
while the car, phone and blade smouldered merrily in the roughest part
of town.

A Hard-To-Shake Melody

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

“…in your embrace…”

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

A Way Out

They were coming. Every instinct in Jerry screamed “Run!” But he fought the fear down and slowed his pace. By the sound of the footsteps, there were three of them. A shoulder clipped him as they passed and he stumbled for three steps before catching himself on street sign.
+++++“What’s up, my man?” A large face with a toothy grin loomed into his space.
+++++Jerry stood his ground, saying nothing.
+++++Another one bumped by him and he swiveled on his feet to take all of them in. ‘Toothy’ kept smiling, but there was nothing friendly about it. The one that had just bumped by was long, lean, and emanated all the friendliness of a wood chipper. The last one was short and squat, but graceful despite his girth. His face was perhaps the most frightening because it said nothing.
+++++“What’s a man like you doing in our hood?” Toothy asked.
+++++Jerry definitely stuck out with his suit and fine leather shoes; like pearls in shit, but that was on purpose because he wanted everything about his presence to be a beacon.
+++++“You’re not 5-0, are you?” The lanky one asked, then answered his own question, “No, you’re not the po-po.”
+++++“Who the fuck are you?” Toothy asked, but the smile was all gone. “You can’t just come down here in the middle of the night like king shit and expect not to pay a toll.” He moved in on Jerry, his head cocked like a pit bull ready to snap.
+++++Despite not wanting to, Jerry took an involuntary step back. Toothy nodded his head with approval, but Jerry rallied and stepped forward taking back the ground he’d lost.
+++++“You want to fuck with me?” Toothy asked.
+++++The lanky one punched Jerry in the shoulder from behind sending him into Toothy’s waiting fist which drilled into Jerry’s stomach causing all the air in his lungs to go in full retreat. He went to his knees, feeling the grit and grime of the street tear at his pants. Toothy sent out vicious kick to Jerry’s face, breaking his nose.
+++++Jerry went down on all fours, blood dripping onto the sidewalk. He let his breath return, then looked up to them and said, “Fuck you.”
+++++He hadn’t come for a beating. He had come for the whole enchilada and they must have seen something in the set of his face. Both Toothy and the lanky one stepped back misinterpreting the intensity behind Jerry’s face.

Short and Squat didn’t share their fear and kicked Jerry in the side.
+++++Jerry rolled over and coughed for several seconds. He forced himself onto his hands and knees, then spat a mouthful of blood onto Short and Squat’s feet hoping that would get the party started. And it did. Short and Squat didn’t share any of his colleague’s hesitance and kicked Jerry again, a glancing blow off the side of his head. Jerry rolled with it because he didn’t want any chance that they just beat him unconscious and leave him to be taken to the hospital.
+++++No ambulances, he thought. He’d only accept a hearse.
+++++Three days ago, he has sat alone in the dark at the edge of a six story parking garage wanting to jump, but was afraid it’d be interpreted as a suicide. Insurance companies didn’t like suicides and could tangle up the money for years. Accidental death paid double and that’s what his family needed. It was cleaner and less ambiguous. That double indemnity would pay off the house, send the two kids to college, and keep his family from poverty.

Treatment for stage IV liver cancer, on the other hand, would drain their every last penny of their savings. Plus his kid’s would have to see him suffer and waste away. He would have none of that. Better to get it over quickly. He had heard of suicide by cop, so why not suicide by thug?
+++++Jerry stumbled to his feet and decided to finish this thing, reaching inside his jacket like he was going for a gun. Short and Squat beat him to it, pulling an ugly little pistol and putting four slugs in Jerry’s chest, slamming him back against the ground where he became the city’s latest homicide.

Madhouse (A Turner Hahn & Frank Morales Story)

Through the wall of light from the four patrol cars setting in the middle of the street and facing me I saw the nightmarish silhouette of my partner walking toward me. A figure straight out of a B-movie horror flick. A freaking giant. Like a miniaturized Hulk dressed in a massive looking trench coat covering a pair of slacks and a sport coat that were about ten years out of style. Not that he cared, mind you. Frank Morales was one of those iconoclastic oddballs that couldn’t care less about his attire. A big, red headed facsimile of a human who happened to be a damn good homicide detective. And my partner for the last decade or more in the detective division of the South Side Precinct.
+++++Tonight, in the cold, even he decided to wear a trench coat. Usually cold weather didn’t bother him. But for the last week the temp had been hovering around the -10F range. Cold. So cold I would have sworn every time I exhaled a breath of air the water vapor in it instantly froze and turned into snowflakes. So cold the leather of my shoes cracked and snapped every time we stepped out into it. So cold my joints ached. Especially my right knee. Like a sonofabitch.
+++++Cold, brother. Too fracken cold for my old bones.
+++++Me? I’m Turner Hahn. Another homicide detective. Just another cop. As tall as my partner but not nearly as massive. Nor as ugly. But really I’m as odd a duck as Frank is in my own right. Frank looks like a humanoid freight train with short, stringy red hair and a permanent scowl on his face. I look like some dead movie actor from out of the 30’s. When he was alive; not being dead for last eighty some-odd years.
+++++And rich.
+++++Yeah, I’ve got a bank account as large as Fort Knox. I earned it the honest way. I inherited it from a grand father I didn’t know was still living. Money coming out of the blue suddenly after I’d been working as a cop for ten years or more. Go figure.
+++++The movie star looks and the wads of cash in a big bank account weren’t going to help us tonight. We had a dead body leaning up against a corner mailbox down on Erin and 10th streets with a hole in his forehead from a .45 calibre semi-automatic. The stiff was sitting upright, with arms crossed across his chest, his legs stretched out, his chin smack on his sternum, his big blue eyes staring off into infinity. Sitting there like he was taking a little nap before deciding to get up and move on.
+++++But there was a problem. There was no blood. No brick work with bullet holes carved into it. No sign of a scuffle. No empty shell casings. Meaning our dead friend had seen his last days somewhere else and someone had deposited him here.
+++++Turning my attention away from the stiff I watched Frank slump toward me, hands in the pockets of his trench coat, head down and looking definitively pissed.
+++++“You want the good news or the bad news first?”
+++++“Let’s go with the good news,” I said, with half a smirk on my face.
+++++“The good news is with have a print on the gun and it’s in the system. A guy by the name of William Goodrich. Gun’s registered to him. And we have his last known address.”
+++++“That is good news,” I nodded, the grin widening. “Now what’s the bad news?”
+++++“The bad news is William Goodrich has been dead for the last eight years. His last known address is the Fairview Cemetery out on Ridge Road. And just to answer your next question, Sherlock. No, the guy isn’t a zombie and his grave is still intact.”
+++++The grin widened. Through the clouds of steam our breaths were generating and hanging motionlessly over our heads I could see the dour smudge of my friend’s face. Beat officers, over dressed for the cold, were moving around us still looking for any evidence to process. A couple of officers were waving flashlights around directing an ambulance, red/blue lights a whirling, into the crime scene. It was a fracking madhouse here standing in the cold. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. Nor my fingers. And my right knee was killing me.
+++++“Let’s go. The boys can finish up here. The morgue’s picking up the body. There’s no need to be around any longer. Whatta say we got get a cup of java and maybe a bowl of chili or two. While we’re eating we’ll figure out our next move.”
+++++Frank didn’t say a thing but turned on a heel and started walking toward the dark red CTS-V Caddy station wagon . . . yeah, that’s right; a station wagon . . . sitting quietly beside the street curb underneath a blacked out street light. Climbing in the car I quickly kicked over the engine and got the monster humming and grinned.
How many Caddy wagons have you ever sat in that has a six speed manual transmission and 580 horses under the hood? Kicking the tranny into second gear I turned and glanced at Frank.
+++++“A station wagon, for chrissakes. You gotta be kidding me,” he growled, shaking his head and then turning to look at the leather seats and the spacious back end. “Still, betcha this tub can smoke the tires. How fast so far?”
+++++” ‘Bout one eighty five,” I said, shrugging. “But that’s before the cold and snow hit. The dealer said it should do one ninety five easy. We’ll see.”
+++++Okay. So I like fast cars. I collect’em in fact. Got a whole ground floor of a warehouse filled with Muscle Cars from the 60’s and 70’s. But I broke down and bought the Caddy when it came out. A station wagon that could do almost two hundred miles per hours was just too much to pass up.
+++++Forty minutes later we were sitting in a corner both at our favorite all nighter warming our hands wrapped around big cups of coffee in front of us and waiting for Dewey’s unique brand of chili to arrive in oversized bowls. Between the coffee and the chili it was guaranteed you would thaw out in a matter of minutes. Or develop ulcers. Whichever came first.
+++++Eyeing Frank sitting across the table from me in the booth I watched him grunt a few sounds on his cell phone and then shake his head in disgust as he dropped the phone in an inside pocket of his trench coat.
+++++“You won’t believe this. The dead guy? Forensics just ran his prints. He’s in the system as well. Tobias Yates. Used to own a jewelry store up in the Heights. Was suspected to be a fence for most of the cons who worked the jewelry trade. Died eight years ago of a heart attack at home one night while eating supper. The wife buried him in . . .wait for it . . . the same Fairview Cemetery our Richard Goodrich occupied.”
+++++“Really,” I said, lifting an eyebrow quizzically. “Who died first?”
+++++“Goodrich apparently by a week before Yates. Why?”
+++++“How did Goodrich die?”
+++++“Oh. You’ll love this. Caught a bullet in the head. From the gun that was used on Yates.”
+++++“Killed with his own gun? Who killed him?”
+++++For an answer Frank lifted hands, palms up, and shrugged.
+++++“There’s gotta be a connection somewhere in this. Both the trigger man and the victim died roughly at the same time? What do we know about Goodrich? Was he a jewel thief? Did he do business with Yates? You gotta admit, brother. This is getting to be interesting.”
+++++Dewey, the guy who owned the all aluminum camper trailer styled eatery we liked to frequent, slid two big plates toward us. Each one occupied with a large bowl steaming hot chili and general amounts of crackers. Reaching up, sliding the toothpick from between his lips, he used it to point into the parking lot in front of the plate glass window beside us and at the red Caddy wagon.
+++++“Turner, you getting domesticated or something like that? Coaching little league hockey? Maybe delivering hot meals to the elderly? What the hell are you doing driving a station wagon, fer chrissakes!”
+++++The corners on Frank’s lips twitched . . his definition of laughter . . . as he reached for some crackers with his big hands and started crumbling them into a fine powder into his chili. I smirked, glanced at the wagon, then back at Dewey.
+++++“It has lots of horses. Goes faster than a stripped assed ape. And it’s got disk breaks big enough pull the asphalt off a highway in China. So what’s the big deal?”
+++++“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all,” the pot bellied, badly needing a shave owner of the eatery answered, sticking the toothpick in his mouth and mumbling to himself as he walked back to the kitchen. “But who’d a thunk it. A freaking station wagon, for chrissakes!”
+++++With the smirk still on my lips I lifted the spoon up and began digging into the chili. Frank, already about half way through the spicy dish, lifted a bushy eyebrow and glanced at me.
+++++“How the hell do two people die within a week of each eight years ago, go through the system, get planted in the ground, and then get murdered all over again?”
+++++“Somebody’s lying,” I said between spoonfuls of chili. “Obviously neither Goodrich nor Yates died eight years ago. So that means they had reasons to fake their own deaths. And needed help doing it.”
+++++Wind rattled the plate glass window adjacent to our booth. The cold just got colder since the wind was coming off the Little Brown river. Underneath the mercury vapor lights of the parking lot outside even the red Caddy wagon looked like it was shivering in the cold.
+++++“Let’s finish up here and get back to the precinct. Do some digging in the forensics records. We ought to find something.”
+++++We did.
+++++This will come as a surprise, I’m sure; but cop work isn’t glamorous. Ninety percent of the time it’s pure drudgery. You ask questions. Lots of questions. And then you listen. An idea forms in your head. So you ask a lot more questions. And listen some more. Eighty percent of the questions is pure horse manure. They get you nowhere. But procedure says you have to ask them. So you do. It’s the other twenty percent of the questions that go Bingo! on you. Most of those come out of the blue. You have no idea why you asked them. You just do. And the answers sometimes surprise you.
+++++The question that was the ice-breaker for us was asked by Frank while he sat at his desk with a phone stuck into his ear and hanging precariously off one shoulder as he talked to our man down in the evidence room.
+++++“So who claimed Goodrich’s shit after the trial?” I heard him ask as we sat at our desks.
+++++While I was the Yates’ case files from eight years ago I head a voice speaking over the phone partially stuck in Frank’s ear. It sounded bored. But glancing at my partner I could see he was far from that emotional response.
+++++“Oh . . . . really,” he said, one eyebrow going up in surprise. “You sure about that?”
+++++The bored voice spoke again. Frank, listening for a second or two, said ‘thanks’ and hung up and turned to look at me.
+++++“Guess who picked up Goodrich’s stuff.”
+++++“Who?”
+++++“Tobias Yates’ wife. Who happens to be, I might add, the current Richard Goodrich’s ex-wife.”
+++++“So both Yates and Goodrich were married to the same woman at one time,” I repeated as I tried to wrap my limited cognitive powers around it. “And now she is Yates’ widow.”
+++++“Right,” nodded Frank, the corners of his lips twitching. “A regular fracking Days of Our Lives horny-fest if you ask me.”
+++++I nodded, rubbing a hand across the fuss for a mustache underneath my nose, and glanced at the case files lying in front of me.
+++++“Well, I got news for you too, kiddo. I don’t think our Mister Yates died of a heart attack. Reading the autopsy reports kinda sounds like the guy was poisoned. Screw the bad ticker diagnosis. Autopsy report is sloppy. Sloppy and full of holes. So I’m thinking poison. Especially after I read this. Six weeks before Yates died he took out a life insurance policy for twenty million dollars. Two weeks after that he and his lovely wife divorce.”
+++++“Let me guess. Even after the divorce the ex is left on as the primary beneficiary.”
+++++“Bingo!” I said, grinning wickedly.
+++++“So we need to go over and talk to the lovely Mrs. Yates. See if she can shed some enlightenment on this quaint conundrum of horse shit.”
+++++A shot a grin at Frank as I got up. The giant had a way with words, and insults, which always made me smile. Rumbling down the stairs to the ground floor we stepped out into the frigid cold and fired up the Caddy. Thirty minutes later we were pulling up into the circular drive of a mansion. A mansion with no lights on. No streaming ribbons of steam rising up into the cold sky from the many chimney vents in the roof. No signs of life whatsoever. Even the snow was virgin white and without a single human track in it. Nor any tire tracks. As we climbed out of the Caddy underneath the portico in front of the main door both of us were scanning the house, the snow, the wooded grounds surrounding the house and not feeling the least bit comfortable about it.
+++++Definitely something was wrong.
+++++That feeling magnified tenfold when we found the heavy dark mahogany front door of the mansion partially open. Pulling out weapons out from their shoulder holsters we cautiously entered the cold, dark house expecting either trouble or something gruesome. We found gruesome.
+++++A dead man.
+++++Setting on a leather sofa, arms splayed, a small .380 caliber automatic in his right hand. His eyes were open and looking definitely frozen. There was a bullet hole in his right temple. A hole that looked roughly the size of a .380. Around the entry hole was the distinctive burn marks. We found him in a small library in the back of the house. Sunlight now, well past dawn, flooded in through a set of French doors that opened out into the back yard. In the snow starting at the doors were a set of footprints . . . the footprints of a woman . . . relatively fresh and heading straight for a large detached three car garage.
+++++Frank, frowning, pointed to the dead man and glanced at me.
+++++“Betcha that’s Richard Goodrich. The original Richard Goodrich. And he didn’t kill himself. This was murder.”
+++++“How do you know that?” I asked.
+++++“Richard Goodrich was left handed. This guy’s left handed. See . . . he’s got his wristwatch on his right hand. There’s an ink pen in his right shirt pocket. Like a left hander would naturally do when reaching for a pen. So a left hander wouldn’t use his right hand to pull the trigger. Ergo; murder.”
+++++“And the women’s prints outside?”
+++++“Mrs. Yates. She’s running. As you would too if you shot your ex-husband and made it to look like a suicide.”
+++++I nodded in agreement and dug out my cellphone. As I thumbed in the precinct’s number I glanced at Frank.
+++++“Call the airport. Ask’em how many planes are departing in the next hour.”
+++++Frank nodded and reached for his phone.
+++++I knew it was a long shot. But sometimes . . .
+++++We nabbed Betty Tobias, once Betty Goodrich, at the airport. She was a mousey looking woman with brown hair, a flat face, and long red fingernails. She was sitting at a small table in a small bar inside the airport terminal with a beer in front of her and nervously checking her watch. The moment Frank and I walked in, accompanied by a couple of uniform officers, she slumped in her chair like a balloon suddenly losing all its air.
+++++Two hours later we had her in an interrogation room sitting in a hard wooden chair in front of a small wooden table with me sitting opposite of her and Frank looming over her like Dracula ready to pounce. Her cheeks were scarred with black streaks from tears ruining her mascara. She had been quietly weeping for the last two hours. Beside her was her lawyer. A lawyer we knew personally and liked. He looked ashen faced and tight lipped. Signs that told us his client was guilty and was willing to talk.
+++++“Mrs. Yates, run us through this. I admit we’re at a loss as to dotting all the dots and crossing all the T’s. But we have more than enough evidence to prove you killed Richard Goodrich. I’m sure your counselor advised you to open up and cooperate. It certainly will go easier on you. So tell us. How did this all begin? And why did it end like the way it did?”
+++++She glanced at her lower, who nodded silently, before folding hands on the table in front of her and looking at us.
+++++“Eight years ago Richard Goodrich came to my husband with a plan. Back then I was married to Tobias . . . Tobias Yates. Tobias was looking for a way to get out of the business. To get out of fencing stolen jewelry for the mob. He wanted a clean break. He wanted a way to completely disappear. Richard had the plan.”
+++++“Let me guess,” I said. “You take out a twenty million dollar life insurance policy on your current husband. That finances the whole deal. Tobias gets ten million and Richard gets ten million. How am I doing so far?”
+++++She nodded in agreement, lifting a hand up to wipe a stream of teams sliding down one cheek.
+++++“Richard said he knew two patsies who looked vaguely like himself and Tobias. His idea was to kill the two, make it look like it was him and Tobias who had died, collect the insurance money, and disappear. At first Tobias was totally against it. The idea of killing innocent people just to get away with a boat load of cash. But Richard was good. He was smooth. He had this way with words. In the end he convinced Tobias the plan was perfect and they could get away with it.”
+++++“So who does the killing? Richard or Tobias?” Frank grunted from behind the sitting Mrs. Goodrich. “And why did you divorce Tobias and marry Goodrich?”
+++++“Richard killed the two. They really did look like them. As to the divorce . . . well . . . I guess you could say I knew Richard long before I married Tobias. Richard was my first love. I could never say no to the guy. He told me to dump Tobias and marry him. And like the idiot I am I did.”
+++++“Okay. The lookalikes are dead. You divorce your first husband and marry slick talking Goodrich. What happened recently that got the two of them dead?” I asked.
+++++“When the insurance money came Tobias took his cut and left the city. Surprised me when he said he’d divorce me without a fuss. Left town and I didn’t see him until about a week ago. When he came back to town and saw I was now Mrs. Richard Goodrich he went nuts. Threatened to kill Richard with that little gun of his. They fought several times and then Richard, coming to believe Tobias was serious about killing him, decided to play safe and kill Tobias. I . . . I guess that’s the way it went down.”
+++++“So why did you kill your current husband?”
+++++“I didn’t! Richard came back to the house and told me what he’d just done. He was crazy. Out of his head! He knew everything was falling apart. He knew the cops would come in and start investigating everything. Knew they’d finally figure out what had happened eight years earlier. He got depressed. Yesterday I saw him walk back toward the reading room and close the door. The next thing I hear is a shot going off. I ran to the reading room and found Richards slumped on the couch. He was dead. That’s when I panicked! I had to leave. Had to! So I ran. Ran to the airport and . . . and . . . that’s where you found me.”
+++++I glanced at the scowling red headed monster standing behind the woman and her lawyer. Frank’s eyes looked at me and silently he shook his head no. He wasn’t buying it. Neither was I. Looking back at the woman I sat back in the chair, crossed a leg over the other, and smiled.
+++++“Nice try Mrs. Goodrich. But it doesn’t work. It sounds like a great story. And it has a chance to maybe convince a jury you’re the innocent victim in all of this. I’m sure the counselor here is going to do his best to convince the jurors it’s true. But let me tell you how it really went down.
+++++Eight years ago you were the one who came up with the idea of getting out of the business. You were the one who came up with the idea of taking out a twenty million dollar life insurance policy. You knew an old lover who had no problem with morality issues who would do the dirty work. No sane man businessman like Tobias Yates would listen to a total stranger spew out some cockamamie get rich plan of killing two people in an attempt to disappear from the mob. The only way that could happen is if someone he knew, someone he loved and trusted, came up with the idea. That person was you, Mrs. Goodrich.”
+++++“Can you prove that?” the balding little attorney asked in a soft voice.
+++++“She is the one who took out the policy, counselor,” I said, pointing a finger at the woman in front of me. “She is the one who filed for divorce. Strong circumstantial evidence has convicted many a murderer. But we have a bit more evidence to make our case.”
+++++“What evidence?” Mrs. Goodrich asked, color draining from her face.
+++++“We know for a fact you and your ex-husband have been living together for years,” Frank growled from behind her. “We also found a security tape in a bus station showing Richard Goodrich arriving in town about a week ago. So you’re story doesn’t hold water. It was Richard who blew town once he got his cut of the money. But eight years later he’s dead broke . . . and yes, counselor, we can prove that. Richard comes back and begins to put the squeeze on you two. Give him more money or he goes to the cops. You panic. You decide there’s too many loose wires running around potentially threatening you. Quite coldly you decide to clean up the mess. Kill both Tobias and Goodrich. You use Richard’s gun on Tobias and Tobias’ gun on Richard. Nice touch, by the way. I liked that. A kind of poetic justice in a twisted, macabre fashion.”
+++++The woman’s eyes glared at me filled with rage and contempt. But she kept quiet. Her only chance to get clear of this mess was to remain silent and hope her lawyer was good in the courtroom.
+++++He was good. But not quite good enough.

Drop

Kid in the dirty jumper hacked it through the crowded shop. Stock and customers bounced off the tips of his jabbing elbows as he bolted for the door. With the grace and speed of a horny wildebeest, I charged toward the entrance, looking to blocked the thief’s escape.
+++++“Give it up, kid,” I barked, planting my feet shoulder-width and my middle-aged spread firmly in his path, “you ain’t going anywhere.” Dark eyes flashed beneath his skewed, red baseball cap, gave me a look that told me I’d snuck in a play he’d missed in his game plan. Hollow cheeks flushing pink, he switched his face left and right. The little prick’s eyes fixed on Aisha’s swollen, baby-stretched belly. I got my carcass moving as his right hand slipped beneath the mess of stolen sportswear hidden by his filthy, over-sized hoody, felt my jaw flap open as he moved toward the young shop assistant. My balls shrivelled as steel flashed in fluorescent lighting.
+++++“Back off, mother fucker,” he hissed through yellow teeth. Aisha screamed high and shrill as his dirty fingers wrapped themselves in her thick black hair, yanked her head back like he was trying to pull it off. Metal glistened against her slender, brown neck.
+++++“Back off or the bitch gets her baby nice and early.” I tasted vomit as he dragged his blade across Aisha’s gut, pressed the tip gently against the front of her uniform. Tongue poking out the side of his mouth like some sadistic cartoon, he drew the blade over her body, circled her left breast then pressed it back against her throat.
+++++“Son,” I said, praying to fuck he was bluffing, not giving a shit about the adrenal twitch in my legs, “let her go. She’s not done anything to you. Let her go, son.”
+++++The savage little bastard threw his head back, cackled like some demented hyena. His thick white saliva spattered Aisha’s hair. “Son?” He said, meeting my gaze dead-on, increasing the pressure on Aisha’s neck. A thick, red jewel glistened against her skin, ran like some hellish imitation of the tears streaming from her wide, brown eyes.
+++++“Yeah, you can be my old man. He was a useless, fat fuck too.” I gave a sneer like his smart-mouth meant something to me, balled a fist at my side and jerked like I meant to hit him. At the same time, I found Aisha’s glassy stare, tried to tell her without words that everything would be okay. I didn’t quite believe it myself. “This ain’t no time to be a hero, pops,” he sneered, twisting his fingers deeper into the shop girl’s hair, dragging her toward the door.
+++++I took a look around the store, saw some bug-eyed granny gawking from the sidelines. Mitch and Tina, the other assistants, stood huddled together by a rack of running shoes. The heroic contingent of shoppers who’d, thirty seconds ago, scrapped and argued about cut-priced goods, had vanished faster than a fart in a hurricane. I hoped to Christ one of them had the chutzpah to call the cops.
“Yeah,” I said, dropping my stance to as close to neutral as I could manage, “we can pretend this didn’t happen. You done a good job with the hat, the cameras won’t make your face. Just let the girl go. You walk out of here, keep the shirts.”
+++++Face twisted into something evil, he jerked Aisha’s hair like he was controlling a disobedient mutt. More blood trickled over the knife, pooling in the pit of her collar bone. When she whimpered, low and soft like a wounded animal, he shifted the blade against her cheek. “Shut it, slut. And you,” he said, turning to me, keeping his stare level as he back-stepped toward the door, “you know I’m getting out of here. The only thing you don’t know is whether she’s coming with me or not.”
+++++I watched the punk shuffle to the door, watched Aisha’s trembling hands, watched the way her lips turned blue and how her uniformed darkened as her bladder emptied. My heart beat a low, steady rhythm that sucked life from my chest and the strength from my body. “Dale?” Aisha whispered through frozen lips, teeth chattering from the shock I could see chewing on her mind.
+++++I raised a hand, like I could comfort her fifteen feet and a world of insanity away. My fingers dropped to my thigh. A flash of movement caught my attention, ripped my gaze off the terrified girl and toward the thief. The old woman, hard as nails and dumb as a hammer, dragged her heavy purse over her shoulder, let rip with a double-hand swing that arched in slow motion toward the red hat.
+++++“Jesus, no!”
+++++Too late, the roar tore open my throat, echoed through the store like a thunder clap. Through tunnel vision, I watched her bag curve toward the psycho’s skull, watched him half-pirouette out of the way. My guts lurched as her bag slammed into his elbow, jerking his knife hand up and in. Aisha screamed one long, agonised note as the blade punctured her throat, three inches of steel biting deep into her flesh. The pregnant girl hit the floor like a dropped sack.
+++++Purse dangling from her hand, the old woman froze. Mitch and Tina huddled together like terrified kids, seeking comfort in one another’s arms. On the floor, blood pooling from her neck like water from a burst pipe, Aisha twitched and thrashed in seizure. Cold, hard, the kid in the hat turned to me with a grin of pure evil. “Fancy a run?”
+++++Laughing, he darted for the door.
+++++Numb, I slapped at my chest, felt the cold, hard plastic of my radio. I pressed the button, mumbled something to control. I don’t remember their reply.
+++++Moving on autopilot, I grabbed a shirt from a rack, shoved it under Aisha’s head, grabbed another and pressed it to her bloody wound. “Mitch,” I said, my tone calm, dead in my ears.
+++++“Come here a second. Hold this to her neck. Please don’t take the knife out.” Mitch staggered over. I showed him where to apply pressure, checked Aisha was as comfortable as I could make her.
+++++“Tina,” I said, walking toward the exit.
+++++“Would you be a love and call control? Make sure they’ve got an ambulance on the way?”
+++++I think she nodded, may even have said something. I don’t remember. I had other things on my mind.
+++++Biting January winds did nothing to clear my head. Outside, shoppers clung in groups, cursing out the padded figure barging a path through their ranks. A girl, maybe eight, pointed to my hands, pulled on her mother’s arm, screamed. The blonde-haired women, ashen faced, threw me a look, pulled her child protectively behind her. I didn’t give a fuck.
+++++My strides came, jerky at first as I pushed through images in my head. I balled my fists, felt Aisha’s still-warm blood slick on my fingers. Half-watching the murderer barrel through the crowd, half trapped in pictures of the knife penetrating my friend’s neck, I forced my pace into something harder, faster. A single, razor-edged tear traced the line of my cheek, breaking my shocked semi-paralysis, shattering my restraint.
+++++Wolf-mad, I hit a sprint, sent scarf-swaddled shoppers flying. Ignoring the burn of a twenty-a-day habit in my lungs, I tore after the red cap. Howling, I cleared the entrance to Gunwharf Quays retail park, shot onto Park Road. Breaks screeched, a horn wailed. I slammed my bloody fists onto a silver bonnet, slid my body over it, ran into the warren of public housing. A shadow scratched at my left eye. Lips pulled back, teeth aching from the tension in my jaw, I veered toward it, hit the alley-mouth at full speed.
+++++The red hat bobbed in my vision. I roared, threw a lunging punch, put my bodyweight behind it. Old, slow, I missed the younger man by inches, felt a double-barrelled retaliation smash my ribs, heard a hacking laugh that will haunt me ‘til the day I die.
+++++I swung again, missed, willed my feet to follow. Confusion bubbled in my chest as my knees gave. Pain burst in my chin as it struck pissy concrete, ammonia filled my nostrils. I tried to stand, coughed, tasted blood thick and metallic in my mouth. Anger melted to panic. I reached a trembling hand to my burning ribs, found slick wetness and sharp, agonising pain. I tried to move, tried to stand. Icy cold spread through my body, froze my legs in place.
+++++Darkness drew in and I remembered the girl on the floor, her life oozing away like my very own. Realisation crept over me. I wondered if I’d made a difference, if a dead girl and ending my days bleeding out in some urinal of an alley had been worth the minimum wage I’d pulled in for over twenty years.
+++++A hacking laugh and retreating footsteps were my only answer.

Doing Business

I’m rubbing my hands together to keep ’em warm and steering with my
knee when the kid appears, giggling and straddling the yellow line in
the center of the road.
+++++“Shit!” I say. My cig falls from my mouth. “Fuck!”
+++++I wrench the wheel left, fishtail across black ice, clip the curb,
pull the wheel right, get things straightened out just before the
engine sputters and dies. I wipe the burning ash from my pants, take a
breath. Get out to change the tire the curb shredded.
+++++“You forgot to push the clutch,” Dad calls out the window.
+++++“Yeah. I get it. Been driving half my life.”
+++++“How many times do I have to tell you that you shouldn’t smoke,
Ezekiel? And when are you going to fix the heater in this thing? And
you know you’re not supposed to say the eff word. What would your
mother think, God rest her soul?”
+++++I laugh. Can’t help it. I think, this is so fucked up. Think, dad sure
has changed.
+++++“Now make sure your seat belt is fastened tightly and start it back up.”
+++++I crank. She starts. I roll outta there.
+++++Jimmy ain’t gonna be happy if I’m late. Can’t be late. Don’t want
Jimmy pissed off. Not with dad tagging along like this. I push it, 60,
70, 80, flying down the highway. The old Chrysler’ll be fine, long as
I keep it straight, long as she don’t show up again. Always causing
trouble, she is.
+++++“Now now, son,” Dad says. “Don’t think about Matilda like that. And
slow down. The roads are icy and you have a headlight out.”
+++++Sure ‘nuf, Jimmy’s waiting when I get there. I keyhole the trunk, step
back while he checks the merch.
+++++I watch. He scowls, knifes one of the bags, snorts powder from the blade.
+++++“Good stuff Zeke, as always,” he says. He eyes me sideways. “You had
me worried. Not like you to be late.”
+++++I don’t say nothing for a minute, get tired of waiting for the point.
“We cool?” I say.
+++++He pauses, says, “Yeah. We cool.” He hands me a stack of bills, which
I pocket. I light a smoke.
+++++“You’re not going to count that? You should always count it,” Dad
says, fanning smoke away from his face. He gives Jimmy a look,
whispers, “You can’t be too careful, especially with him. You’re too
trusting, Ezekiel.”
+++++I don’t speak. Just watch as Jimmy and his thugs unload the trunk.
Jimmy slams the lid closed, approaches me.
+++++“You all right?”
+++++Puts an arm around my shoulder.
+++++I see dad tense up, get back in the car.
+++++“Wasn’t your fault, you know,” Jimmy says. “Labs explode. Your pa knew
that better than anyone. Man was a fuckin’ demon. Just sucks your
folks and the kid were there when it happened. What was she, seven or
eight?”
+++++“Matilda was six.”
+++++“Just the cost of doing business.”
+++++I get back in the car.
+++++“What did he want?” dad says. “Was he speaking about your mother and
your sister? He has no right to speak of them. No right at all.”
+++++“Course he was, dad,” I say. I’m flailing my arms, don’t even realize
it until the back of my hand hits the rearview. I drop my voice to a
whisper. “He sees the way I been acting lately, all jittery and shit,
since you showed back up. He knows something ain’t right. He was just
trying to calm me down.”
+++++I put it in gear, head toward the driveway. Jimmy motions for me to
stop and roll down the window. His thug tenses.
+++++“Who were you just talkin’ to?” Jimmy says. He has his hand on the gun
tucked under his coat.
+++++“Take it easy, Jimmy,” I say. “I wasn’t talkin’ to a fuckin’ soul. You
know I wouldn’t do that to you.”
+++++He motions his thug over.
+++++“Zeke here’s talking to someone. Find out who. Look for a wire.”
+++++The thug rips the door open, reaches for me. I feel dad move through
me before my world goes black.
+++++I come to, the sunrise skipping off the bug-covered windshield. I’m
half in, half out of the car. My knuckles are sore and covered in
blood.
+++++Body parts litter the snow outside. I see Jimmy’s head splayed on the
end of a fence post. I walk up to it.
+++++“Sorry about that,” I say. I light a smoke, breathe in the cool morning air.
+++++“Just the cost of doing business.”

After Hours

Mikey Burrows had spent the couple of hours since the two dodgy looking bastards had walked into his pub watching the clock. Three nights in a row these two had been in. Arriving just after nine each night and leaving 20 minutes before Mikey called lasties.
+++++But tonight things were different, tonight last orders had been called 10 minutes ago and they hadn’t moved. There were only a few stragglers left. And them. The glasses on their table were all but empty and had been that way for 45 minutes, just enough in the bottom so that they weren’t going to get collected and they’d not have to buy another drink. Either they were tight fuckers or they were keeping a clear head as they had plans after hours, either way Mikey wasn’t happy.
+++++Two nights earlier when these two had walked in for the first time, Mikey hadn’t paid them much attention at first. There was no reason to, this was a holiday town and despite The Anchor being a local’s pub, being off the track of the main tourist areas, the occasional new face wasn’t uncommon. Some holidaymakers liked to explore beyond the traditional bench front shite and find an authentic seaside town pub. However as that first night went on Mikey found his focus pulled towards these men. One in his late forties and looking like an extra from a bad TV gangster movie, all cheap suit and Brylcreem. The second man was so young he barely qualified for the title, he dressed less formally but equally cheaply. Mikey noticed that they’d hardly spoken to each other as they sat at a table in the centre of his pub. They were more interested in watching the room than having a cheeky pint. When they’d left at 10.30, neither man spoke. They just got up and left, it was like they were on a schedule. That night Mikey was extra cautious as he locked up and made sure he had a little extra security under his mattress when he went to bed.
+++++Last night it had been exactly the same routine, turn up, one pint each, nurse it for far too long then leave at 10.30 without a word. Tonight’s change of routine told Mikey to be ready, for what he had no clue. Fuck it, enough was enough, Mikey came out from behind the bar and made his way over to them. If something was going to happen he was going to force their hand, put them on the back foot from the start, let them know that he was on to them.
+++++As he made his approach both men grinned. It wasn’t the ‘Oh shit he’s coming over’ reaction Mikey had been hoping for. No backing out now though.
+++++‘You finished with these lads?’ Mikey had his shovel sized hands around each of the glasses on the table at which the men sat.
+++++‘Yeah they’re done thanks Mikey.’ Said the older of the two men.
+++++OK so they knew his name, and they knew to use ‘Mikey’ not Michael, Mike or Mick, they hadn’t just read it from the license above the door. So whatever it was they were here for it involved him. He let go of the glasses and took a seat at the table.
+++++‘Right you boys are clearly after something so how about you come out with it.’ His confident tone was not matched by the stirring in his bowels. Mikey was a big man and could take care of himself but he wasn’t stupid and knew it was best to be fearful of the unknown quantities.
+++++‘Not yet.’ The older man said looking around the room at the stragglers finishing up their drinks. The younger man hadn’t said a word and had barely moved, in fact that grin was still all over his face. He might have been mute or a statue but he was doing a fine job of putting the shits up Mikey.
+++++Mikey stood up and looked around. ‘Right you lot bugger off, I’ve got things to do here.’ He shouted out. There were a few reluctant groans and dragged feet but within a less than a minute Mikey found he was alone with his unwanted guests.
+++++The older man looked at his young friend and gave him a nod, with that the lad stood up and walked to the pub entrance. He slipped the bolts across and made his way back to the table.
+++++Perhaps Mikey was now wearing his fear on his face because the older man quickly tried to reassure him. ‘Don’t worry Mikey we’re not here to do you a mischief.’ Although the words were meant to reassure, Mikey still found the tone held a threat he couldn’t quite shake from his mind.
+++++‘So what exactly is it you want that can’t be discussed in front of my punters then?’ He was trying to be brave but if truth be known he was loading brick after brick in his stomach.
+++++‘We need a man with your special skill set Mikey.’ The young man still hadn’t spoken.
+++++‘Pulling pints and selling crisps?’ Mikey asked. He knew where this was going but he wasn’t exactly going to lay things on a plate for two blokes he’d never met. They wanted something they could come out and say it, there was no need to speak in riddles no one was bugging a little pub in Dorset.
+++++‘We were thinking more of your other profession, behind the wheel.’
+++++‘I’m in the pub game now, all that’s behind me.’
+++++‘Perhaps two grand will be enough to put it back in front of you?’ Brylcreem said. ‘The pub game isn’t exactly thriving, we read the papers.’
+++++He was right about that it had been a struggle recently, there’d been a couple of times when a can of petrol and a match were looking like they could be his soundest financial investment over the past year. Mikey wasn’t ready to show that hand to these boys yet though and as he was relaxing into the conversation went for ‘You read?’
+++++‘Very good.’ The grin was back on the older chaps face. It still hadn’t left his colleagues.
+++++‘I might be interested, but my fee is four grand.’ Mikey knew if they’d opened with two grand then there was more in the pot. ‘But I’m going to need some details from you boys first, starting with your names and who told you about me.’
+++++‘I’m Jack Francis and this little fucker is Dean Arnold, we can go to four K but that’s it and you can check us out by giving your old friend Rick Thompson a call.’ He’d said their names as if they should mean something to Mikey, they didn’t but Thompson’s did and everything fell into place.
+++++‘When do you need me?’
+++++‘Wednesday night, don’t worry we can go after closing time.’
+++++‘Right this is what’s going to happen, I’m going to give Rick a call and if he says you’re ok I’ll call you and we’ll talk about what you want me to do. But right now I’m going to bed and you’re going wherever you go.’ Mikey felt like he had the trump hand, they needed his help and if they were willing to pay 4K for it they needed it pretty bad.
+++++‘OK just let me give you my number.’ Jack said.
+++++‘Don’t bother, if Rick knows you he’ll have your number right?’
+++++‘Yeah but I can just give it to you now.’
+++++‘I’d rather get it from Rick.’ Mikey was being extra cautious, he always had been when it came to this side of his life. People probably thought he was paranoid, Jack clearly did and even Dean had swapped his grin for a look of confusion, but he’d never been caught and he was going to keep it that way. Rick might confirm that he knew Jack Francis and Dean Arnold but that didn’t mean these two were them. At least if Mikey got the number from Rick it was another check on things.
+++++‘Whatever you want mate.’ Jack said clearly confused. ‘Come on Dean.’
+++++They both stood to leave and Mikey followed them to the door, he slid down the bolts and pushed the door so it swung open.
+++++‘One thing lads.’ Mikey said as Jack and Dean stood in the road outside. ‘What was with the three nights surveillance?’
+++++‘We needed to be sure you were who we were looking for and not just the barman.’ Jack responded.
+++++These boys weren’t too bright. ‘You didn’t think to save yourselves some time and me some worry by asking?’

*

The phone rang twice before it was answered.
+++++‘Hello?’ It was a question filled with suspicion rather than a greeting.
+++++‘That Jack?’ Mikey asked.
+++++‘Mikey?’
+++++‘In one. So I spoke to Rick, you boys check out, so I guess we get to work together. What time do we need to be where we need to be and how long will it take to get there?’
+++++‘Takes about half hour from your place and it doesn’t matter what time we get there it’s a…’
+++++‘That’s enough, I don’t need to know anything but timings.’ Mikey’s paranoia came into play again. He liked to keep the information he had on a job to a minimum for two reasons, his mind was on the road and not the nasty bastards that might be chasing him as he drove away, secondly the less he knew the smaller the chances of someone offing him because he could give them away.
+++++‘As you wish.’ Jack replied.
+++++‘Right do you know the main car park by the beach?’
+++++‘The one on top of the hill?’
+++++‘That’s the one, I’ll see you boys there at midnight tomorrow.’ Mikey killed the line.

*

They were walking around the car park peering into car windows when Mikey arrived at 12.01 am. He pulled up alongside them as they over optimistically looked into the window of a new plate BMW X5.
+++++‘Yeah because that would be the subtle car of choice for a getaway driver.’ Mikey said sarcastically out of the open window of a 19 year old Ford Escort.
+++++‘What the fuck is that thing?’ Jack asked appraising the vehicle with disapproving eyes. Dean looked at the car as if he’d never seen one before and at his age it was possible he hadn’t.
+++++‘Get in.’ Mikey said.
+++++Both men jumped in and Mikey drove.
+++++‘Directions.’ Mikey demanded as he drove.
+++++Jack told Mikey where to go. Mikey stuck to the speed limit on the empty roads. He’d kept his window down to try and get a breeze through the car on a stifling humid night, there was no air conditioning and the blowers seemed to be out of order. He’d tilted the rearview mirror so that he could keep an eye on his passengers. Dean had been carrying a bag when he got in the car and he was now checking the contents.
+++++‘I’m guessing you’ve got guns in that bag there young Dean.’ Mikey said. ‘Make sure they don’t come above the window line whilst we’re on the road ok?’
+++++Dean nodded and Mikey wondered if he’d ever spoken.
+++++‘Seriously Mikey, what the fuck is with this piece of shite car?’ Jack asked.
+++++‘This piece of shite car was easy to steal.’ Mikey responded. Did they honestly expect him to turn up in a brand new Merc having gotten past its multiple security features? ‘How about you just stick to giving the directions.’
+++++‘Not far now, couple of minutes tops.’
+++++Apparently Dean took this piece of information as an instruction to pull a balaclava over his head.
+++++‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing son? Take that fucking thing off.’ Mikey said without taking his eyes off the road. ‘I tell you not to stick a gun above the window line but you think it’s ok to stick that thing over your head on the hottest night of the year. You keep that off until you’re out of the car.’
+++++Dean took the balaclava off and Mikey caught daggers from him in the rearview. His eyes said he wanted to use one of the guns in his bag to stick a hole right through Mikey. A clip with the back of Jack’s hand and a look from the older man was enough to turn Dean’s look from hate to sheepish.
+++++‘Pull up here on the right.’ Jack said outside a detached house.
+++++‘On the right? Fuck off. I’ll turn it around so we’re parked on the left, last thing we need is to plough into oncoming traffic as we drive off.’ +++++Mikey thought that was obvious.
+++++Jack did a quick 360 of the street. ‘What fucking traffic?’
+++++‘How about you boys do your job and I’ll do mine.’ Mikey replied wondering if dealing with these idiots was really worth the money. Within seconds he’d turned the car around and pulled up. Jack and Dean jumped out, each carrying an empty bag and shotguns and pulling on balaclavas. They made their way towards the house and Mikey kept his eyes on the road ready to roll when they came running back out.
+++++Mikey heard gunshots from within the house and his eyes were involuntarily pulled towards their direction. This was when he earned his money. It was all about having the bollocks to stick it out and see if it was his boys that emerged from the house or some nut pissed off at being robbed that was going to start taking pot shots at the getaway driver. He didn’t have to wait long to see Jack and Dean running back across the front garden their empty bags now full and their guns a little lighter.
+++++‘Drop those shooters there.’ Mikey called whilst reaching over and opening the passenger doors front and back. The raiders obliged and jumped in.
+++++‘Go!’ Jack screamed as he sat next to Mikey and Mikey’s foot hit the floor.
+++++‘I fucking did ‘em Jack, I fucking did ‘em!’ Dean’s voice was as childlike as his features and was foreign to Mikey’s ears. The lad was buzzing with excitement at what had just happened and Mikey could see now what Dean’s role had been in the whole thing. He was there to put people down, Jack wasn’t that man. ‘Wooow!’ Dean cried out the excitement still building in him.
+++++‘Keep him quiet.’ Mikey said to Jack, who turned and started talking quietly to his younger counterpart. After a couple of minutes Dean had calmed down, but Mikey’s glances back in the rearview let him know that the lad was still running high with adrenalin.

*

The 30-minute drive back to the car park above the beach was done in less than 20 and went without incident once Dean was hushed. Mikey pulled up the handbrake and it crunched loudly against its mechanisms. The next sound was the back windshield exploding as a bullet tore through it and made a pulp of Dean’s head. Mikey looked at Jack in time to register his shock and see his head explode into the front windshield. He paused for a moment and felt blood and tissue dripping from his face before turning to see Rick Thompson behind the car the barrel of his gun still hot.
+++++‘Don’t forget the bags.’ Thompson shouted to Mikey as the driver climbed out of the car and smiled at his old friend. Mikey through both bags in Thompson’s direction, a 50/50 split of whatever was in them was going to see him come out with more than the four grand he’d negotiated with Jack and Dean.
+++++‘You could have waited for me to get out of the way.’ Mikey called. ‘Look at the state of me!’
+++++‘We needed them in the car, if you’d got out so would they.’ Thompson handed Mikey a can of petrol and Mikey doused the car and flicked in a lit match.
+++++‘So whose money is this?’ Mikey asked as they watched the car to ensure that it caught.
+++++‘Some dealer that thought he could muscle in on my areas.’ Thompson said unzipping one of the bags and bouncing a pack of coke that he’d pull from inside in one hand. ‘There’s got to be 20 grand worth of gear here and the same again in cash.’
+++++‘When are you going to do one of those jobs yourself?’ Mikey asked with a huge grin.
+++++‘You’re a funny fucker aren’t you?’ Thompson responded. ‘Now get me out of here.’
+++++Mikey moved behind Rick Thompson and pushed his wheelchair towards a second getaway car.

Tenderly

On his first night in prison Gary Devlin woke to find his cellmate having sex with him. “Shh, shh,” hushed the man who hadn’t said two words to him since he’d arrived. He was stroking the side of his face as he eased his penis in. Gary closed his eyes tight and clenched his teeth. “Shh.”
+++++But it was nothing Gary hadn’t tasted before. He lay very still: it didn’t hurt so much and was kind of enjoyable the less he moved. He’d found that out a long time before. The man finished and returned to his top bunk. Gentle snoring promptly filled the air.

“What’s your name?” Gary asked him the next morning, peering over the bed railing.
+++++“Mark,” his new lover replied. He was reading and looked at Gary casually.
+++++“Do you have diseases?”
+++++“Not so far as I know.”
+++++“I didn’t mind. Last night, I mean.”
+++++Mark grunted. “Good for you.”
+++++Mark returned to him again that night, but Gary was waiting. He took Mark in his hand and kissed him on the mouth. Mark pushed him away. “What the fuck are you doing?”
+++++“Let me please you. I don’t need to be on my stomach.”
+++++“I don’t need your fucking kisses. You think I’m some kind of fag?”
+++++“I just thought -”
+++++Mark slapped him in the side of the head. “Well don’t fucking think, right? Keep your mouth shut and stay on your fucking stomach.”
+++++Gary did as he was told. Gary had always done as he was told. It made life easier. And it was handy, being a bitch. It meant protection. Mark was a big guy and people didn’t fuck with him. By proxy, Gary found that he was safe too. All he had to do each night was wait, and stay very still until Mark was finished. And after a while, to stop Mark from getting bored with him, he let him start using his mouth. Gary knew how to cater to specific tastes. Knew how to keep his man interested. It wasn’t like he’d never gotten down on his knees in a back alley before, or wasted a few hours on a grotty mattress in some rundown slum. Whatever it took just to get by. The comfort of another didn’t hurt much either. To be close to someone else, to feel their warmth and companionship, and for a short while feel as though someone actually cared for you.

“What are you in for?” Gary asked Mark one day. The two were sat on Gary’s bunk, Mark with his legs across Gary’s lap.
+++++“Assault. Attempted murder.”
+++++“Yeah? How bad did you beat him?”
+++++“She’s in a wheelchair now.”
+++++“Oh. Who was she?”
+++++“Ex-wife.”
+++++“She have it coming?”
+++++“They always do. What’d you do?”
+++++Gary hesitated. He shrugged. “Drugs.”
+++++It wasn’t a total lie: drugs had been involved. Kind of. They would have been if the motherfucker had paid like he said he would. You can’t just walk away from a blowjob with a casual chuckle like that, wave it off like a promise didn’t mean anything. Shit, what did he expect walking away when there was all that junk lying around; he thought Gary wouldn’t grab one of those lead pipes and come after him? More fool him.
+++++Gary moved the legs from his lap and stretched himself out across Mark’s stomach, the side of his face pressed to his chest. He could hear his heart beating. “What are you thinking about?” Gary asked.
+++++“Pussy,” Mark replied.
+++++Mark was a stoic man. He never smiled, never showed any kind of emotion in his face. It was always so very still. He kept his dark hair shaved short, in the style of a man who doesn’t care for style as opposed to one stating any kind of gang affiliation. There was an economy in his words and usually he rarely spoke unless spoken to. Gary sometimes wished, in the moments they were lying together as they were then, that Mark would raise a hand and stroke the side of his face, the way he had done that first night they’d been together.

In his head, while he worked in the kitchen, Gary thought of things he could say to Mark, to let him know how he felt without seeming overly sentimental. He imagined that Mark wouldn’t care for too much emotion. His response would more than likely consist of a grunt.
+++++I can’t believe I had to come all the way to prison just to meet someone like you. That was his favourite, but he never did say it.

“I’m gonna get my hair cut,” Gary said one day. Mark was on his bunk, reading. He raised one eyebrow and moved his eyes in Gary’s direction to show that he was paying attention, but the book remained hovering where it was a few inches from his face to show that once he’d said all he’d have to say then he would promptly return to reading. “Short, I think,” Gary went on. “Like yours.”
+++++“Suit yourself,” Mark said. His eyes returned to the book.
+++++They’d been together a few months when the sex suddenly stopped. There’d been a few nights here and there when, after the lights went off, nothing happened, but it was rare and usually just a one time thing. The next night Mark would step down like he always did and they’d get to it. Gary was never allowed to instigate the act; the look Mark had shot him the one time he’d tried had been murderous.
+++++But this time it stopped completely. Nothing one night, then nothing the next, either. Or the one after. Gary lay there, waiting, sometimes for hours on end, staring up at the underside of Mark’s mattress, freezing up with an expectant gasp whenever there was movement, but it would just be a turn while Mark slept, followed up by a low snore.
+++++“What’s wrong?” Gary asked. “How come we’re not having sex anymore?”
+++++Mark shrugged. He was reading again. All he ever fucking did was read. Prying a conversation from him was like trying to open a tin without any tools.
+++++“Will you talk to me?” Gary prompted, feeling his temper rising at the way he felt mistreated and ignored. “Put that fucking book down and talk to me -” He snatched the book out of Mark’s hands and that murderous look was in those brown eyes again. Mark lashed out, grabbing Gary by the throat and dragging him in close, banging his ribs against the railing.
+++++“I don’t fucking feel like it,” he hissed, eyes aflame, spittle flying from his lips and landing on Gary’s face and in his eyes. He shoved him away and Gary fell. “Now give me my fucking book back.”
+++++There was someone else. Had to be. Gary followed Mark from afar, watched his every action. He didn’t speak to anyone or associate with groups. He went to work in the library, he took the books round. He sat alone when he ate, now that he had banished Gary. Sometimes he went to the chapel and Gary watched the door, but he never stayed in there for very long. Nothing had really changed for him, but still Gary could not shake the feeling that he had found someone else. Someone younger, perhaps? He chastised himself, knowing the haircut had been a mistake.
+++++“You don’t love me, do you?” Gary asked one night, the lights off.
+++++Mark was on his side, his back turned. He rolled over and raised an eyebrow. He snorted. “Love you? When did I ever say I loved you?”

So Gary stopped expecting a visit after the lights went out, but he wasn’t done. He wasn’t going to be jilted so easily. Mark was a heavy sleeper and never felt the bed sheets being tied tightly round his wrists and ankles, pinning him to the bed frame. He didn’t wake up until Gary was forcing the gag into his mouth. He struggled and made muffled cries. Thrashed on the bed but didn’t so much as loosen the binds. Those struggles increased when Gary revealed the razor blade. Those brown eyes popped in that skull just a little wider.
+++++Gary stuck the blade into the flesh, into Mark’s wrists, first the right then the left. He cut a jagged, hesitant line, from the base of the palm to the inside of the elbow. Hesitant, like a real suicide. The blood arced upwards and Gary was careful not to get any on himself.
+++++“Shh,” he hushed, stroking Mark’s head like a mother caring for an ailing child. “Shh…”
+++++Gary watched until those eyes had closed, until that body he knew so intimately had stopped struggling. He undid the binds and the gag, hid them to one side, washed the light spattering of blood from his hands. Then, stepping up to the wall, he gripped the back of his head in both hands and butted so hard the world went spinning, hard enough to drop him to his knees, the tickling feel of blood descending down his nose. He curled up on the floor and went to sleep.

The report stated that Mark had attacked Gary, knocked him unconscious so that no one would be able to prevent him from his suicide. Gary had done his best to look confused through the questioning. “I don’t know why he did it. We hardly spoke, but he never struck me as the type to kill himself. He always seemed, I dunno…hard, if you understand me.”

Gary didn’t have the cell to himself for long. A new boy joined him a couple of days later, some real fresh meat, the kid’s first time. Gary smiled down at him from the top bunk as he entered, cat-calls following him in, all doe-eyed and wet behind the ears.
+++++“Hello,” Gary said, smiling.

Vascular Surgery

There’s a good reason women make the best surgeons, she thought. Quick, deft hands, single-pointed concentration, focus. She thought of the women jet engine mechanics she had met in the Air Force. Not that she had been in the Air Force; but in the course of her duties as a civilian surgeon under contract, she had met them.
+++++Now, reining in her reverie, she was intent on the task at hand. Dratthis light, she thought. She really needed a more direct lightsource, but one has to work with what one has at hand.
+++++Slowly, painstakingly, she drew the outlines with a surgical marker : carotid triangle; carotid vein; carotid artery. This, the artery,was what she wanted.
+++++She steadied the syringe she had readied with an oh-so-fine needle : 27 gauge. 2% lidocaine with epinephrine. Enough analgesia for comfort, and enough epinephrine to ensure a relatively bloodless field. She couldn’t help chuckling : bloodless indeed.
+++++Squinting in the insufficient light, she injected the layers: first the skin, then the loose fascia of the neck. Lastly, the layer surrounding the vessels of the neck, careful to avoid direct injection into the wall of the vessel, which might cause a spasm.
+++++Now it was time to cut. She picked up the number 11 scalpel and steadied her hand. Carefully, carefully she opened the delicate skinof the neck, noting with satisfaction that the epinephrine had doneits job. There was no need for the tiny hemostats she had ready incase of superficial bleeders. The next layer, the loose fascia, pulsated bluish, overlying the great vessels of the neck. These she would blunt dissect with the larger curved hemostats. She injected a bit more of the anesthetic, just to be sure. No need to cause discomfort, which might result in movement.
+++++At last the artery was exposed. She marveled at its pulsations, atthe tiny arteries that nourished the big one, and the miniscule veins that issued from it, carrying its waste into the larger system of veins, to be cleansed by the liver and kidneys downstream.
+++++Holding her breath, she slid the first hemostat jaws open, under theartery. Clamp. The vessel, trapped in the jaws of the clamp, stopped pulsing abruptly. There was no going back now. Now the second hemostat, exactly one and a half centimeters below the first: clamp. She raised the surgical scissors, poised for the definitive cut between the clamps.
+++++Tilting her head to see better in the mirror, she cursed the dim lightin that bathroom again. And then, the definitive cut! In a single motion, she swiftly removed the two clamps and was instantly drenchedin red liquid.
+++++A scream of agony split the night as she sat bolt upright in the bed, heart pounding, drenched in sweat, clutching the sodden bed clothes as she struggled, locked in the arms of the Angel of Death like biblical Jacob.
+++++Frantically clutching her throat, she rushed to the bathroom, the very same bathroom, and strained toward the mirror in the same dim light.
+++++Nothing. Her throat, graceful and bluish white as ever, shone back at her from the reflection
+++++Sucking in a deep gulp of air, letting it out in a sigh that brought the dog running, she splashed water on her face and neck, toweling off the sweat
+++++“It’s OK, buddy,” she whispered to her whining canine companion. “Just another nightmare”. The dog smiled anxiously, wagged his tail tentatively, and licked her calf. She reached down and patted his faithful head.
+++++“Good thing I have you, she murmured. Stripping off her sweat-soaked nightgown, she rinsed off in the shower before throwing on a fresh one.  She sank into the recliner with a book: sleep would not visit again, not tonight.

Copyright 2012 Laura P. Schulman, all rights reserved

The Black

The last one brought a baseball bat; it dropped from his fist as he rounded the alley’s corner. Danny Costigan looked back at him, fists stained with blood that was black in the neon glow. At his feet the lad’s two friends lay moaning and bleeding in the rain-swept gutter. Dance music pumped through the windows of the club and Danny, his shirt torn and eyebrow cut, said, ‘Come on then.’ A hood masked the lad’s face. He paused, then vanished rat-quick into the dark. Danny nodded to himself, then plucked a half smoked cigarette from the ledge of a bricked up window. ‘Not as stupid as youse two,’ he said. One of the men started to crawl away through a dirty puddle. Danny ignored him; they’d been shown how it was in the Jack of Diamond’s Gentlemen’s Club.
+++++Tommo, the other bouncer working, waited by the side-door; he’d ended up in the Borough after some never disclosed trouble that left him with a scar running from the corner of his eye to the edge of his mouth. He laughed. ‘Might have to give that teetotal shite a try; never seen two gadgies go down like that.’
+++++Danny shrugged. ‘Didn’t take much,’ he flicked his cigarette into rain that fell like fire against flashing red neon. ‘Pissed up, weren’t they? Bloody scallies.’ He took the black suit jacket Tommo handed him. His knuckles were tooth-grazed and stinging. ‘Respectable place this.’

There was a girl called Marie on the stage. Red light flooded up from smoked glass sconces in the walls and a haze of cigarette smoke drifted above the heads of two dozen men watching her from small round tables. The girls were doing well, and when they weren’t dancing they circled the tables wearing as little as possible; there were private booths off to one side and a long bar to the other. Danny weaved through a group of men dressed in cheap suits as Marie stripped to a dance track. A cup of tea waited near the telephone. He nodded to Istvan behind the bar, sat down and sipped the drink. He grimaced. ‘Bloody Poundland crap,’ he said, pushing it away.
+++++Tommo stood beside him. ‘So that weren’t the trouble?’
+++++‘I reckon there’s something a little more serious coming.’
+++++‘Karen should tell us.’

Karen ran the Jack o’ Diamond’s for her husband, Terry Mahoney. He’d vanished years before; some said he’d gone to Thailand, some to Northern Cyprus; others said he was under a concrete flyover somewhere; but Karen kept the business going regardless, increasing profits, expanding premises, all for the day Terry came walking back through the door. Danny shrugged and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror opposite, framed by dusty bottles of chivas regal. ‘Istvan, pass us a tissue.’ He moistened it in the tea and dabbed at the dried blood above his eye.
+++++‘You getting slow there, boss?’ The Hungarian asked after watching for a moment.
+++++‘He got lucky.’ Danny glanced back at his reflection: black hair swept back from a dark face; a little more wear and tear than the average man a week away from his big four – oh; otherwise, in good nick. Still alive to see it, he thought, remembering a few of the times when his continued existence had been in doubt. ‘You only need for them to get lucky once, that’s all, and Karen never said owt about trouble,’ he said, turning to Tommo, ‘just that there was something going down and we had to keep bother to a minimum. Keeping a place this respectable takes work.’

They came in at 2 AM, dressed in jeans and bomber jackets, heads shaved, old tattoos faded to a powder blue that was almost beautiful. Three men, one older than the rest by decades, weighed down by gold chains and sovereign rings. The older man was short, not much over five feet; grey stubble covered his scalp and he had a spider’s web tattooed across his throat; Danny recognised him straight away. ‘Bri Steele,’ he said to Tommo. ‘Bloody hell.’
+++++‘Who’s that?’
+++++‘Grangetown lot; used to cut blokes up at Middlesbrough games in the 80’s, did some time and now he’s got his fucking fingers in all sorts: pills, porn, cigarette running; small time stuff, but not the sort you’d bring home to meet your Gran.’ Danny glanced up at Tommo. ‘Let’s keep our heads down.’
+++++Karen Mahoney came through the door leading to the office stairs.
+++++She was dressed, as always, entirely in black. Her greying blonde hair was thick with hairspray and when she kissed Bri’s stubbly cheek she left a trace of red lipstick. ‘Brian, my love,’ Danny heard her say; ‘I wish the auld man was here to see you.’ He missed the reply and the group were quickly led away to the side-room. Bri looked at him over his shoulder and Danny swore he caught the old man smiling. A pair of girls followed, carrying trays of drinks. Danny watched them go, then turned away.
+++++Something turned in the hollow of his heart; something cold and wary and wicked.

A few hours later and the club was emptying; the dancers at that time of the morning weren’t the best, and Danny told them to give it up after a while. They were going home when she came into the club. Danny had put a handful of Sinatra songs on the jukebox and was sitting with his fifth cup of tea, staring into the smoke from a cigarette. His knuckles had scabbed over, but were still sore and he had an ache in his ribs where one of the lads had landed a wild right hook. Tommo was letting the girls out, saying his farewells and kissing the prettiest goodnight. Danny watched with a lazy smile and turned his face away, remembering when he’d have done the same, before something was killed out of him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and caught the smoke-dappled scent of a perfume that hadn’t trapped his heart in years. Then she said his name and he turned, tired suddenly and saw those wide green eyes and thick red hair brushed to the side of a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were smoky with blue mascara and she smiled her crooked old smile and he felt his stomach lurch as though he was on an aeroplane dropping from the air. ‘Faye,’ he said.
+++++‘I thought you’d have more sense than to stay,’ she muttered, sitting at the bar beside him. She wore a blue top that sparkled beneath the lights of the bar. ‘Got a drink for an old friend?’
+++++‘Istvan,’ he said, his mouth dry; ‘gin and tonic.’ He glanced at his eyes in the mirror. ‘And a scotch.’
+++++‘Scotch?’
+++++‘Large as all outdoors, mate.’
+++++The barman raised his eyebrows. ‘Okay, boss.’

Danny lifted his glass; the thumping gold light of the room shone through the liquid. He felt her emerald eyes turn on him as Sinatra sang through the speaker. Danny had walked out of H.M.P Durham a month before, five years after walking in, and hadn’t so much as sniffed a bar-rag in all that time. ‘To old friends,’ he said softly.
+++++‘To the wee small hours,’ she replied, echoing the song.
+++++They drank, and then he said. ‘So what are you doing here?’
+++++‘I’m with Gary,’ she said, looking away, ‘Gary Steele.’
+++++‘I saw the lads,’ Danny emptied the glass and signalled for another. ‘Don’t look bad. You weren’t gonna wait forever.’ He nodded to the large rose tattooed on her shoulder. ‘Looks better than my auld name, anyways.’ She glanced away as he drank. Alcohol buzzed behind his eyes and he rubbed them sore as she started to speak.
+++++‘They’re doing something for Karen; big money.’ She sighed. ‘I thought you’d vanish when you came out.’
+++++‘Where was I going to go?’
+++++‘Anywhere but here; aren’t you frightened?’
+++++‘Not like you.’
+++++‘I don’t worry about nothing; I’ve got Gary watching out for me.’
+++++She said, ‘So, how’s life?’
+++++‘Over a long time back,’ he said, ‘what you’re seeing her are the credits going up after the film’s done with. This is the afterlife, love.’
+++++‘I won’t let you ruin everything.’
+++++‘Won’t you?’ He looked over his shoulder at the empty room. ‘Sometimes I’m sorry it was only the gun they got me for.’
+++++‘He was going to kill us.’
+++++‘Was he?’
+++++‘You don’t believe me?’
+++++‘I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.’
+++++She shook her head. ‘You know what Terry was like,’ She whispered, close to his ear, ‘an ‘ard man, the kind that never lets things go.’
+++++‘Well,’ Danny said, ‘he wasn’t so hard at the end.’
+++++‘And you will be, I suppose?’
+++++‘Only ever get one chance to find out.’
+++++‘You’ve been fighting,’ she said. The drink stood untouched before her. She studied his hands, his clothes, the cut on his face; she ate him with her eyes.
+++++‘It’s what I’m paid to do.’
+++++‘You’re getting on; leave it to lads like Gary. What did they do to you inside?’
+++++‘I’m tired,’ he said quietly, rubbing his eyes again, ‘sick and tired. I should never have let you talk me into it. You flash your eyes and I lay my whole life in front of you. I loved you, sick and long and hard. I still love you, almost as much as I hate you and that’s the bloody god’s honest.’ He raised his glass. ‘Cheers, darlin’.’
+++++She looked at him for a long time. Lights went off in the club, leaving them alone in the glow from the bar. ‘The past is the past,’ she said, ‘let it go.’
+++++‘That’s shit,’ he snapped. ‘The past is never in the past, not here, not with me and you; not ever. We’re going hand in hand to Hell.’ He finished his drink. ‘Count on it.’
+++++He stood and she watched him weave between obscure tables crabbed with litter and half empty glasses as Sinatra finished up on the jukebox and the hall, where she danced when little more than a child, fell into a darkness as complete and as peaceful as death. Then she turned away.

Danny stumbled along the rain wet wall outside. It was the end of November and cold stars glittered between fast moving clouds lit by a full moon. He stopped for a piss at the end of the alley, crossed Gristhorpe road, now dead and still and headed for the footpath leading to the estate. His heart beat against his ribs like something knocking to be let out and the taste of the whisky was sour at the root of his tongue. He was sorry for the drink, regretted letting it strike hard at his sense, but hadn’t she always done that? Knocked away the scaffold holding up his world and dropped him down with the dogs? A phrase shone over his mind….without are dogs and murderers…he didn’t know where he’d heard that. He’d been a hard bloke, yeah, they all were, but he’d never killed a man, not until that summer night, not until she’d goaded and chided and pushed him out of the door with the gun she’d found and paid for. She was good all right. She was very good.
+++++He was in the underpass, bumping into the slick-tiled wall marred by graffiti and the burn marks of cigarettes. The tear in his shirt ripped a little wider; he swore under his breath and tried to examine the savaged cloth in the yellow light. When he looked up again, the men were there, three of them, hoods pulled low over their faces. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Thought you’d have another go?’

They moved towards him, slowly. One carried a claw hammer; another held an axe handle that was stained and dented. He tested the weight of it, slashing it downwards with a vicious, well practised swing. The third man, shorter than the others, idly whistled an old country song. They weren’t in a hurry.
+++++Danny glanced down at his empty hands, swore, then raced back the way he came. The sound of charging feet exploded in the small tunnel and he ran with a speed and agility he thought had deserted him. He rounded the corner, out into the night.

A car squealed to a halt on a black road and Danny pushed his way over its bonnet as the driver swore out of the window. He ran into Pursglove park. The gravel path crunched like breaking ice as he turned on the spot, looking for a place to hide. ‘Idiot,’ he said. His breath was a blue cloud in the starlight. ‘Fucking idiot.’ There was yelling behind him and he ran, blindly, aware of feet closing behind him.
+++++He tripped, and the man carrying the axe handle, who had been a few steps behind, stumbled over Danny’s legs and fell, dropping the weapon. Danny coughed, then grabbed the handle and hoisted it above his head. The man said, ‘No, no, no.’ Danny smashed his jaw with the handle, knocking teeth and blood across frosty stones with the twig snap of broken bone. He hit him again, harder, smashing his nose, splitting it wide as the other two men approached, then raised the handle and pointed it at them. ‘Come on then, you bastards; I’ll fuckin’ murder you. Come on then!’ He screamed the words, dizzy, elated, his blood poisoned by violence. The pulse beat so hard at his throat it was difficult to breathe and he could smell blood pouring across the path at his feet. The men stepped away, hands raised, without a word. Danny walked backwards, little by little, the bloodied axe handle pointing at the men. He reached the iron gates and stepped into the darkness of a car park close to the river.

The breath ripped through his ragged throat and he trembled as he turned and walked to the water.
+++++‘Danny?’ At first he thought he’d imagined her voice, the low purr he’d heard every time he dreamed. He turned and she stood close by, arms crossed, leaning against the bonnet of a car, looking up at the blue stars with idle curiosity. He smiled, his first and expected reaction. The cut over his eye had opened again and he limped towards her. ‘Faye,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to get the fuck away from here, love, it’s not safe.’ He glanced down at the handle, then let it drop to the ground, embarrassed of it suddenly, as though she’d caught him with something shameful. The light of the town coming from the river behind, reflected in her wide green eyes and he felt the cold of the night for the first time; a reptilian crawl across the back of his neck. Her eyes were large and wet and she nodded.
+++++Her hair, red as a snake’s tongue, flickered in the breeze. ‘Look into my eyes, Danny,’ she whispered.
+++++He frowned, leaned forward, wanting to kiss her again, wanting to feel the warm pool of her gaze, the softness of her hair on a pillow and the heat of her in the night. Wanting to know it wasn’t all a lie; that there was such a thing as love and it could last forever; that it was worth killing for, dying for; worth half a decade behind stone walls. That he hadn’t been wrong; that she was the meaning and summation of all that misery and blood.
+++++At first he thought he’d been punched in the back. He gasped, winded and fell to his knees. Then he felt the warmth rush over his skin and when the hit came again he felt it, the knife, and it was too late to scream.
+++++It felt worse than he could ever have imagined and he fell to his side. Blood like liquid steel forced itself up his throat and he looked at her as he fell to the side. Gary Steele stood over him, a butcher’s knife in his fist. ‘That’s for Terry,’ he said, his voice a little too high and scared. Danny gasped. The pain was fading now, everything was fading; his legs kicked in the grit and faded cigarette butts and it felt as though he was sinking in mud. ‘F…’ He said, looking up at her from the bottom of a dark pit. He saw Gary Steele kiss her lips and then she turned and glanced down at him, her pale face crowned by a halo of stars and streetlights. ‘I…I.’ She smiled and he seemed to be falling and falling.
And then the black took 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).

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