Problem Resolved

“So where is he now?”
++++ The dark eyed man with the thinning jet black hair and high cheekbones standing beside the smaller man silently tilted his head toward something in front of him.
++++ They stood on the corner of Cleveland and Summers Street. The busiest street in the city’s bustling city business district. High noon underneath a cloudless blue sky. People . . . thousands of them . . . scurrying back and forth across the hot sidewalk in a maniacal effort to get from one financial crisis to another.
++++ In front of them the traffic was at a standstill. It didn’t matter what the traffic light said. A sea of bumper to bumper frustrated monsters sat motionless in a stalled river of metal, glass, and plastic thanks to the construction site across the street. A gigantic crane on massive metal tracks was slowly working its way into position. Towering over the traffic was a short steel cable with a massive black iron ball the size of a pickup truck swinging dangerously back and forth as the crane slowly inched its way onto the construction site.
++++ But directly across the street from where they stood was the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust. Black glass and chrome steel rising twelve floors straight up over downtown traffic. Modern. Efficient. An international bank without the least whiff of corporate ethics attached to it.
++++ “He’s in there? With the briefcase? Do you know what this means? If he has the CIA software and leaves the country every agent in the Middle East will be dead in a week!”
++++ For a response the man with the thinning black hair turned his head and stared at the Godzilla-like behemoth inching its way onto the construction site across the clogged intersection from him. It was a huge crane. The towering boom rose at least sixty feet in the air above the street and meandering pedestrians. The iron ball dangling from the end of the cable weighed at least forty tons of hardened steel and cement. Forty tons of steel and cement which went through just about everything it wished to smash.
++++ Forty tons.
++++ The little man, dressed in a rumpled suit, with a large bald spot glistening in the sunlight, gripping a briefcase, frowned, glanced across the street at the bank again and then at the man standing beside him.
++++ “Smitty, dammit! We can’t let this bastard leave the country! That’s why we hired you. Technically the man hasn’t done anything against the law. Having that list of names in his possession isn’t illegal. If it was I could alert the FBI and let them handle it. But revealing the list to anyone would be, for my agency, a serious breach of security. A breach of security that could be quite embarrassing to my boss. We have got to stop him!”
++++ The taller man with the jet black eyes kept his eyes on the yellow and black painted Kraken of a crane and smiled thinly.
++++ “Peterson, has anyone ever told you you worry too much?”
++++ The voice was more of a loud whisper. A harsh grating of something across a cheese grater. Startling to hear. Unnerving to experience.
++++ “Every day,” Peterson answered, his mouth twisting into a more severe frown. “Mostly from my wife. And from my children. And from my boss. But most of all from my shrink. So what? And what the hell are we going to do about stopping this guy from leaving the country?”
++++ “Watch,” Smitty said quietly as he turned his attention back to the bank across the street.
++++ Around them a thousand people were moving, jostling each other, cutting each other off as they hurried like army ants. Bored people. Frustrated people. Thousands of people who lived boring lives in a boring world filled with boring mendacity. None realizing their boredom was about to be dramatically altered.
++++ Across the street a tall man with red hair came out of the black glass doors of the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust walking fast and looking straight ahead. Dressed in a light green sport coat, a light blue shirt, with dark blue slacks, he gripped a heavy looking attaché case in one hand, which interestingly enough, was handcuffed to his wrist. Hurrying past a dense pack of humanity, irritated that he had to alter his path to get past them, he stepped up to a white Jaguar sedan, unlocked the driver’s side door, and quickly slipped in.
++++ Both Smitty and Peterson saw the man lean forward to start the sedan’s engine and then twist around in the seat and stare at the traffic. Both saw the man slam a hand irritably on the wood rim of the steering wheel in frustration. In this traffic he wasn’t going anywhere soon. No one was.
++++ “Peterson, say goodbye to our friend,” the dark eyed man said softly in a pleased whisper.
++++ “What . . . . ?”
++++ When it hit it seemed as if the city’s streets and sidewalks rolled in some kind of concrete Tsunami! And indeed it had!
++++ Forty tons of hardened steel and cement dropped out of the heavens like the Hammer of Thor and smashed into the white Jaguar’s roof with an ear splitting thud ripping steel, shattering glass, and pulverizing pavement!
++++ People staggered and tripped over others from the wrecking ball smashing into the Jag and flattening it like a tortilla chip. Gigantic cracks in the sidewalk and street radiated out from the black behemoth lying on the crushed white sedan. A cloud of cement dust flew into the air as hundreds of park cars suddenly erupted into the clattering cacophony of theft alarms going off. At a corner of the bank building a fire hydrant exploded and a towering geyser of water shot up into the air as street corner lamp posts vibrated violently before suddenly pitching over and crashing into the hoods cars stalled in the city traffic beside them.
++++ There was no white Jaguar sedan anymore. What once had been a finely built British sedan now was nothing more than a piece of crushed metal no more than a foot thick oddly discolored with a thin film of bright red blood.
++++ Smitty, gripping Peterson’s right arm in an effort to keeping him upright, let go of the man after the initial blow. Turning, he faced the balding little man and smiled.
++++ “You no longer need to worry. Everything came out for the best. But it’s time to go. The police will be here soon and neither of us want to be around when they do. You know the routine. I’ll expect payment by the end of the week. And Peterson, just a friendly suggestion. Smile once in a while. It’ll do wonders for your personality.”
++++ Peterson, still blinking eyes in disbelief at what he had just witnessed, looked at the white cement dust coating his suit coat and started swiping it off with his hand before turning to say something.
++++ But Smitty was gone. Vaporized into nothingness.
++++ “Sonofabitch!” he growled, returning to swiping the dust off his coat again, “I hate it when he does that. Hate it!”

The Sound of the Silent Man

Jim woke up to the sound of the silent man cracking walnuts open next to his head.
++++The gray haired man with sunken eyes did not pause in his activity or acknowledge in any way that he knew Jim was awake. He just stared at the bound teenage boy intently as he continued to squeeze the handles of the heavy brass nutcracker until the shell exploded and shards sprayed the side of Jim’s face.
++++Jim mumbled against the tape that covered his mouth, not knowing if the man could decipher or even hear his words.
++++“Help me. Untie me.”
++++Sounded like,
++++“Hum muh. Uh hum muh.”
++++Either way, the words went unacknowledged.
++++The silent man didn’t eat the nuts, but piled them on the table next to Jim’s blinking alarm clock.
++++Jim tried biting, then screaming through the tape. Then the man suddenly quit cracking the walnuts.
++++He looked disgusted as he dropped the heavy nutcracker on the table with a clunk. Nuts and bits of shell spilled on the floor.
++++The silent man dropped to one knee next to the bed. He stared intently into Jim’s eyes.
++++The boy didn’t feel like he was being looked at by another human being. He felt like he was being sized up by something that was about to devour him.
++++The next sound Jim heard was the tearing of duct tape. His right arm was free, but he couldn’t feel it. The appendage was numb from being bound for so long.
++++Jim thought it had been a little more than a day since he had been grabbed from the park during his morning jog. But he couldn’t be certain because he had no idea how long he had been unconscious.
++++Before that, it had been like any other weekday morning. He was up before the sun to get in his first five miles before school. It was his favorite time of day; when he could be alone with his own thoughts, planning out his bright future.
++++Jim was already looking past the almost guaranteed win of the upcoming track meet against Morrison West High. He was determined to break some records at the state championship this year. It would look great on his college applications.
++++Then the image of thin legs in shape hugging spandex running shorts came to mind. There were so many hot freshmen girls on the team this year. They were easy lays for the star senior runner who had his face in the local newspaper almost every week during competition.
++++Before his thoughts could segue into the planning of his next sexual conquest, everything went black.
++++The silent man took Jim’s arm and started kneading it with his steely fingers. A prickling sensation rose to the surface of his flesh as the blood began to recirculate.
++++Was this the same person who had grabbed him from behind before everything went black? Why would somebody do that? What was the crazy old bastard going to do to him?
++++The silent man grasped Jim’s wrist then and leaned into him so close that his nose lightly touched the boy’s cheek. He sniffed like a curious dog.
++++Then he ripped the piece of tape from Jim’s mouth. The boy yelped, but he stifled a scream out of fear of angering the man further.
++++The silent man opened his mouth wide then, and pressed his lips against the boy’s neck. It looked so much like a parody of an old vampire film that Jim would have laughed if he had been watching it happen to somebody else.
++++Then he felt the silent man’s teeth press into the flesh on each side of his windpipe.
++++The boy stopped breathing.
++++He believed the lunatic was going to tear his throat out with his teeth. It was a messy way to kill someone for sure, but probably a painfully effective way as well.
++++Jim screamed.
++++The silent man gasped and jerked away. His teeth gnashed together as he slapped the piece of tape back down over Jim’s mouth. He breathed heavily through flaring nostrils.
++++Jim trembled. He cried against the tape. There was a long knife on the table with the walnuts. He would grab it and use it as soon as he got the chance.
++++The man saw Jim looking at the knife. His eyes bulged. He shot a hand to the table and knocked the knife on the floor as he picked up the brass nutcracker that was lying next to it.
++++The silent man pulled the hand that he had freed and massaged back to life. His strong fingers pressed painfully into the hollows of the boy’s wrist joint. Jim tried to pull his arm away, but the man was too strong.
++++He singled out the boy’s index finger then, and wrapped the jaws of the nutcracker around the middle knuckle.
++++Jim screamed against the tape and furiously shook his head as the silent man tightened the serrated vice around bone and cartilage.
++++Hot tears streamed down the boy’s face. He frantically tried to think of what he might have possibly done to this deranged stranger to make him want to do these horrible things to him.
++++Had he cut him off in traffic? Budged in front of him in a line at the grocery store? Had he taken his granddaughter’s virginity?
++++“Why? Whahahahy?” Jim blubbered against the tape.
++++The silent man hitched his elbow up in the air and clenched himself, as if he were about to put every bit of strength he had into squeezing the nutcracker together.
++++He kept the grip as he leaned in close to the boy again and put his lips to the boy’s ear.
++++“Because I can,” the silent man whispered.

Cicada Song

It’s exhausting living two lives. You start getting sloppy with your work.
++++Driving along Interstate 70 in the summer of ’74, with Merle Haggard’s
“Mama Tried” blaring on the radio, I was crooning along with the
country outlaw. Every now and then a big, juicy cicada exploded on the
windshield like a pus-filled zit. They came up out of the ground by
the millions, these gigantic orange-eyed flies from hell, to torture
everyone in the mid-Atlantic region with their awful buzz saw mating
calls. A molted shell clung to the side mirror, and I kept expecting
the wind to rip it away, but it stayed stuck there, hollow and
++++I’d been driving east from Wheeling into Pennsylvania for about an
hour, and I was low on gas. I knew a truck stop off the next exit
where I could pick up a lot lizard. So that’s what I did.
++++I pulled up in my satin black F-100, kicking up a cloud of dust.
There was a little restaurant I’d eaten at a few times, where the cook
seasoned the eggs with his cigarette ashes. Next to that was a seedy
motel, where the hookers turned their tricks, but there was a neon
light on in the window that said NO VACANCY.
++++The garage bell rang as my tires rolled over the air hose, and the
attendant came out and started shooting the shit with me, asking me
where was I headed and how did I like all these damn cicadas
splattering all over my grill. He was a skinny old-timer, working a
wad of tobacco in his cheek, with tan leathery skin that sagged on his
brittle bones. It looked like you could reach under his reeking,
sweaty flannel shirt, grab a fistful, and just rip the skin off his
++++Gas was up to .35 cents, but I told him to fill it up anyhow. “I still
have a long way to go before I get where I’m going,” I explained,
hoping we could skip the small talk. He took the hint and started
pumping the gas.
++++But he was one of those people who couldn’t stop talking. “Ain’t never
seen nothing like that,” he said.
++++I had my left arm sticking out the window, resting on the side of the
door. There was a bad bite mark on my left hand that was still raw. I
turned my head around as far as I could towards him, thinking maybe he
was talking about the teeth marks on my hand. “Like what?”
++++He nodded towards the motel. “A woman dressed like that… It’s a damn
++++I turned to follow his gaze across the lot. Just coming out of the
motel, lighting up a cigarette, was a leggy blonde in a black fringe
blouse, cut-off jean shorts, and brown cowboy boots. She looked like a
biker babe with her leather headband. Behind her, beyond the motel, I
could see the waves of heat coming up off the interstate and the
boiling twilight sun sinking behind the trees like it was going to
scorch the earth and send us all to hell.
++++“Ain’t a decent woman left in this town.” He shook his head and spat a
copious mouthful of tobacco juice that splattered when it hit the
pavement. “If you ask me, they’re just looking for trouble, dressed
like that.”
++++“You know who the biggest womanizer in history was?” I asked, turning
back towards him again.
++++He sort of scowled at me. “No…”
++++“King Solomon.”
++++“Is that right?”
++++“Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. It’s all in the Bible.”
++++He whistled in astonishment, finished pumping and approached the cab.
++++“You some sort of preacher?”
++++“Nah.” I smiled. I turned back to admire the girl in cowboy boots.
++++“Just like the Bible stories a lot.”
++++Just as I was paying him, a news update about the Monongahela River
Killer came on the radio. Everyone in the tri-state area was talking
about the murders. The fear had reached a fever pitch, and it was
getting hard to find a hooker, because none of the girls wanted to get
in a car with anyone they didn’t already know.
++++“Hey, turn that up,” the attendant said.
++++The voice on the radio said, “The girl was attacked in Smithton and
taken to Mon City hospital. Authorities say she escaped when she bit
her attacker’s hand as he attempted to strangle her from behind…”
++++The attendant worked the wad of tobacco in his cheek, pinched his brow
and glanced at the wound on my hand. I brought the hand into the cab
as soon as I saw him looking at it and used my other hand to get the
money out of my wallet. I held out a ten dollar bill with my right
hand. “Hey, thanks, bud.” He didn’t seem to hear me at first, like he
was in a trance. So I said louder. “I still got a long way to go.”
++++He finally came back. “Oh…” He started to get my change, handed it
to me. “Where you headed to, partner?”
++++Now I knew he was suspicious. But he was scared too. “You know,
there’s a place in Judges,” I said disregarding his question, “where a
Levite cuts up his concubine into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and
sends her body parts to all the tribes of Israel… What do you make
of a story like that?”
++++The attendant eased back. “I’d say the Lord works in mysterious ways, partner.”
++++I turned the key in the ignition. “Amen.”
++++I’d done this so many times. I was starting to think I’d never get
caught. It was like I was being deliberately reckless, always taking
bigger and bolder risks with less and less discretion. You even start
to want to get caught, because you want people to know it was you. And
yet, you don’t really want to get caught, because then you’d have to
stop, and the urge can get so strong, so overpowering. It was like
there was a ringing in my ears—a sound like the buzzing of
cicadas—that was driving me insane and the only way I knew how to get
it to stop was to pick up another girl. So I swung around to the motel
and stopped with the passenger door in front of her.
++++In the rear view mirror, I glimpsed at the attendant going into the
station. I even thought I saw him make the sign of the cross. Who
knows? Maybe I reawakened his faith in God. Then I leaned across the
seat and smiled at the girl. She took a drag on her cigarette,
narrowing her blue eyes to sharp slits. “I’m looking for a date,” I
said. No beating around the bush.
++++“You a cop?” she asked routinely.
++++“A cop?” I guffawed. “Baby, I’m an outlaw,” I bragged.
++++She cracked a smile at my joke, and I knew I had her. But she was a
little uncertain about getting in the truck with me, what with the
murders that were all over the news. I wanted to speed things along,
just in case the attendant called the cops after all. So I told her I
had some grass we could smoke. Early on I learned that they could
never resist the drugs. She was mulling it over when one of those
cicadas flew into her hair, and she flipped out and jumped into the
truck. I got a real kick out of that.
++++As we pulled out of the parking lot, I pushed the cigarette lighter
into its socket. “I haven’t done this a lot,” she said.
++++But she was lying. Maybe if she was seventeen or eighteen I would have
believed her, but she was in her twenties and looked like she was
hooked on junk. Girls like that are like guys like me: we both lie for
a living.
++++“Me neither,” I said.
++++“You sound nervous.”
++++I was trying to keep my left hand out of sight. “Guess I’m a little nervous.”
++++She tugged at her jean shorts. I could tell she was scared. You know
they say a dog can smell fear? I’ve always thought I could too.
++++“You’re not him, are you?” she asked.
++++“Not who?”
++++“The Monongahela River Killer…”
++++I smiled as we drove under the highway overpass. “Isn’t that the sort
of thing you should be asking before you get in the truck?”
++++“I’m serious, man. Don’t fuck with me.”
++++“Come on…” I looked at myself in the cracked rear view mirror. My
face was so pitted with acne scars that I looked like a burn victim.
++++“Do I look like a killer?”
++++Just then the cigarette lighter popped out of the socket, and she just
about jumped out of her skin. “Fuck!” she said. Then she laughed, a
little embarrassed, shook her head and looked out the window. It was
just getting dark out.
++++“Open the glove box,” I said.
++++“There’s a joint in there.”
++++“I don’t know, man, I’ll get paranoid.”
++++“No, it’ll mellow you out,” I said.
++++She opened the glove compartment. “Holy shit,” she said. “There’s a
gun in here!”
++++“Can’t be too careful,” I said.
++++She took it out and looked at it, a little .38 snubnose. Her hand
bobbed a little, testing the weight, as if she couldn’t believe it was
real. I think I got off on letting them think they were in control
leading up to it. It made me laugh inside. “Careful,” I said. “That’s
++++Gently, she put the gun back, fished around a bit, then found the
joint. She lit it with the glowing-hot cigarette lighter. Then she
took a big hit, held it in, and coughed. A haze of smoke began to
gather in the cab. She offered the joint to me and I reached over to
take it.
++++“Jesus, man, what happened to your hand?”
++++With one hand on the wheel, I took a puff, the cherry lighting up, my
eyes narrowing. After I exhaled, passing the joint back, I said, “I
got bit by a dog… a real mean bitch.”
++++The headlights of an oncoming car lit up the cab of the truck and
shadows swept across our faces. Then it was dark again. “Turn up here
on Spring Road,” she said, pointing at a rickety old one-lane bridge
crossing the river.
++++We drove about a half mile up the narrow dirt road until we reached a
pull-off spot where there was a sign that said NO DUMPING. It was the
kind of place kids came to drink beer and make out.
++++When I turned off the engine, it got quiet, and then all you could
hear were the cicadas buzzing all around us in the trees.
++++“I can’t stand that sound,” she said.
++++“What sounds bad to us is the sound of love to them.”
++++“I don’t care man. Turn on the radio or something. I can’t stand to
listen to that.”
++++I humored her and turned on the radio. We sat in the urine-colored
glow of the dashboard lights. But there was no music on the country
western station I liked to listen to. Instead, it was another update
about the Monongahela River Killer.
++++“Oh, God, man, I don’t want to hear this. I’d rather listen to the locusts.”
++++“They’re cicadas.”
++++“Whatever. Let’s just get this over with so we can get the hell out of here.”
++++She reached over to unbuckle my belt, but I grabbed her wrist and held
it. “What’s going on? I thought you wanted to get off,” she said.
++++“Wait. Listen…”
++++Reception was poor out in the woods, but you could just make out what
the voice was saying as the signal faded in and out: “Police now
think… more than thirty unsolved homicides in the tri-state area…”
++++“Why do you think he does it?” I asked. I was genuinely curious what
she thought.
++++“Kill women?”
++++“Kill prostitutes…”
++++“I guess we’re easy targets.”
++++“There are all kinds of easy targets out there though.”
++++“Why do you think he does it?”
++++“I don’t know.” I shook my head slowly. “But my hands are like the
hands of God when they’re wrapped around the neck of a sister of
++++She froze. I could smell the fear coming back again. I heard nothing
but cicadas in an endless frenzy of fucking and dying.
++++Suddenly, her hand sprang out towards the glove compartment, but I
didn’t even try to stop her. She fumbled for a second with the latch
before she got it open, and then her arm flung up, and she had the
barrel pointed right at my forehead.
++++“This is what God wants.”
++++“I’ll fucking do it,” she said. “I swear.”
++++“I know you will, Little Sister.”
++++She tightened her face, preparing for the blood splatter, and then she
pulled the trigger.
++++“I lied,” I said, grabbing her by the wrist, “about it being loaded.”
++++She looked at the fresh bite marks on my hand, the hand that was
locked on to her wrist, and she dropped the gun. Her mouth hung open
but nothing came out, no screaming, no pleading. All you could hear
were the cicadas in the trees.
++++As I caught her by the neck, felt the carotid artery thumping under
the skin, I thought about that old-timer back at the truck stop, how I
could see that he knew who I was, what I was going to do, and yet I
also knew that he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it. He wasn’t
going to lift a finger to help a whore. Then I thought about the
Levite and his concubine in Judges. How he just steps over her after
she’s been gang raped within an inch of her life. That’s cold-blooded
by anyone’s standards. And here was this gas station attendant, and he
wasn’t any better than that Levite in the Bible.
++++Sometimes it felt like they didn’t even want to catch me, and that
deep down they understood that I was doing their Christian society a
service. I lowered my voice and muttered to myself, “Hell, I’m going
to have to turn myself in one of these days.”
++++All I heard were cicadas as I watched the light of life drain from her eyes.
++++And then suddenly the whole cab of the pickup truck flooded with
light. At first I thought I was having a spiritual awakening, like
Saul on the road to Damascus, or one of those people who almost die
and see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a moment, I truly
thought I was about to hear the voice of God.
++++But instead it was a shotgun blast that left my ears ringing. The
glass of the rear window rained down on us. I rose up, releasing my
grip on her neck. She inhaled. I heard the shotgun pump again.
Another pickup had pulled in behind us, blocking my truck in. There
was a figure standing in front of the headlights. I immediately
recognized him, even though all I saw was a slightly stooped shape in
silhouette against the blinding headlights. He must’ve followed us. Or
he knew where she took her johns.
++++“Get on out of there,” he commanded.
++++I came out of the truck with my hands up, feeling like a newly molted
cicada emerging from its shell, naked and vulnerable.
++++“Get down on your damn knees,” he told me.
++++I did as he told me, and it felt like the ground was burning. The
old-timer leaned and spat a mouthful of tobacco. The girl got out of
the truck, shaken and confused, raking the shards of glass out of her
blonde hair with her fingers.
++++For the second time, I was looking into the barrel of a gun. Only this
time I knew it was loaded. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t
just kill you right here,” he asked.
++++I didn’t have an original thought left in my head anymore. All I could
do was calmly quote Matthew 5:21: “You have heard that it was said to
those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be
liable to judgment.’”
++++“Oh, I’m gonna judge you all right,” he said.
++++And I heard the voice of God.



Robert Lee Bailey is the author of Monongahela Blood, a historical thriller. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Big Adios and The Flash Fiction Offensive. Read more of his work at

A Guy Walks Into a Bar

Lemme buy you a drink. God knows I need another one. And then I’ll tell you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
++++A guy walks into a bar. Looks around, sees just one customer, a drunk sleeping in a back booth. So the guy pulls a gun, screams at the bartender, “Gimme the fuckin’ money.” Bartender plays cool, pauses a beat, opens the cash register.
++++But then two more customers mosey in. Both off-duty cops. This distracts the robber, and the bartender grabs a gun from under the bar.
++++Now the robber gets the shakes, launches into a hot sweat. A big glob trickles down his nose. He yells, “Eat shit sideways,” and everybody starts shooting, except the drunk in the back booth, who’s snoring like a goddamn buzz saw.
++++The robber’s lookout man, a little prick with a pig-eye squint, finally stumbles in, and he starts shooting too. Soon enough, everybody’s dead. Except the drunk in the back booth, who’s still laid out. He rouses, and eyeballs what happened. You got stiffs on the floor, blood on the walls, and gun smoke in the air.
++++So he rolls out of the back booth, staggers to the open cash register, and takes the money. He sneaks down the street, walks into a different bar. He buys a drink, slips into a booth, and falls asleep. Then he wakes up, buys a couple more drinks, and tells one helluva story.
++++Ever hear it before? Well, it happened. And I know. Because I was the drunk pretending to be asleep in the back booth.

Darkness or Light

There’s no way to say for sure that I would have killed Bobby Ray Lomax if I wasn’t drunk; maybe alcohol provided me with the courage I needed to shoot him. As far as a motive? I’ll get to that in a little while. But I did it and I have no regrets so there it is.
++++When I saw Lucinda in the hospital, she was still alive, barely clinging to the last thread of life, about to let go and fall into the final abyss. She looked nothing like the beautiful girl she had once been. Her face was destroyed almost beyond recognition. I leaned over the bed and softly kissed the side of her head.
++++“I’ll take care of this,” I told her. “Ain’t no way he‘ll get away with it. And Baby, I’m so sorry I didn’t fix it sooner. “
++++There were tears running down my cheeks as I put my hand on top of hers. Just a brief moment later she was gone. It wasn’t long before I was on a stool at McAdoo’s Tavern pounding double shots of Early Times.
++++It was just me now. I had been the oldest. All of them but me had run away from the nightmare we had grown up in. Meth got Carla. Jimmy was killed in Afghanistan and Lucinda got Bobby Ray. I’m not sure there is a difference between nightmares and broken dreams. I am sure my brother and sisters dreamt of some better life, at least of something that approached normal. But all they got was their own kind of hell.
++++Daddy was a mean man. I’m guessing that if I worked underground in semi-darkness breathing black dust I might be mean too. Bu t there was no excuse for the things he did. He’d come home from a day in the mine – after stopping at McAdoo’s- and start in on Mama. He’d beat on her and then start on us. By the time I turned fourteen, I started to stand up to him. Mama was all soft and good. The only thing I ever got from Daddy was a belt, the back of a hand or fists when I started fighting back.
++++One night he had Mama on the floor, left arm pressed against her throat, punching her face with his right hand. We all screamed for him to stop. He looked up, his face red with rage and said;
++++“Every one of y’all is gettin’ a whippin’ next.”
++++I took the poker from alongside the fire place. I think at first I only meant to hit him once. Just to get him to leave Mama alone. But then I couldn’t stop. I stood over him and swung like I was chopping wood and kept up until there was a hole in his head and I could no longer hear the coal dust rattle in his lungs.
++++The state sent me away until I was twenty one. Mama died while I was gone. When I got home, Carla was so far gone there was no saving her. Jimmy was overseas and Lucinda was living with Bobby Ray. She was just seventeen. It seems that by trying to protect us all, I let everyone down. I couldn’t help but think if I hadn’t got sent off I might have at least made it different for my sisters. As far as Jimmy, well you tell me what’s a worse hell- war or a coal mine?
++++I remember the night I heard Lucinda’s tires on the gravel in front of the house. I met her outside. There was blood around her nose and mouth and when we got inside, I could see that her eyes were black.
++++Bobby Ray was a miner and a mean man too. When I got to his single wide, I pounded on the door. He opened it wearing clothes black from the mine, a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his hand.
++++“What the hell do you want here Donald?” He said.
++++“You ever hit her again and I will kill you, “was my reply.
++++He laughed a mean, cruel laugh then threw the beer can in my face. His punches knocked me to the ground. He added a kick to my ribs.
++++“You ever come ‘round here again and I’ll kill you. Just remember that.”
++++Then, he laughed at me again.


After leaving McAdoo’s, I stopped at home to get Daddy’s old Colt. I t was in a shoebox in the closet wrapped in oil cloth. I checked to see that it was loaded then headed for Bobby Ray’s trailer. It was snowing lightly as I headed out Combs Flat Road. I remember thinking that the whiteness of the snow was the first clean, pure thing I had seen in a very long time.
++++I pulled my truck right up to the front step of his trailer with the high beams on. He opened the door before I could even get out.
++++He was drunk too. I guess he couldn’t see with the light in his eyes.
++++“Who the hell’s there?” he slurred.
++++“She’s dead you bastard. Now I’m goin’ to kill you, just like I promised.”
++++Then, I shot him. This time I didn’t give him a chance to laugh.
++++So there it is preacher. My confession and no I ain’t asking any God for forgiveness. Like I said no regrets, they can slip that needle in me now.
++++There’s either going to be darkness or light. If it’s light, I’ll see Mama and them again and it might be like a dream come true. And if it’s dark, all I’ll see is Daddy and Bobby Ray.
++++And I’m prepared to kill them both all over again.

Dangerous Curves

It was one of those things you say in the heat of the moment that, if you’re lucky, you get chance to regret. She looked at me with what I’d normally call bedroom eyes, sultry and dark with black lining and thick lashes. Realistically she was the type of woman you took home for one night and spent the rest of your life dreaming about; not the type you took home to present to your mother. Not that this had anything to do with me, mind you. I wasn’t going to be taking her home for the night and I was most certainly never going to introduce her to my mother, god rest her soul.
++++ She gracefully rose from the chair when I entered the office, unfurling long limbs in all her dark glory. Her hair tumbled down to her shoulders, dark chocolate coloured tresses framing her face perfectly. She curled those full lips in an ironic smile and the expression fit her. She extended her hand to me and I shook it – her grip was surprisingly firm.
++++ As I sat down I could feel my shirt sticking to the back of my neck. The chair was comfortable and provided her with a slightly elevated position in relation to me, no doubt to ensure that she held a position of superiority during our discussion. She was definitely not to be underestimated under the circumstances.
++++ “Don’t forget to breath Mr Waltham,” her voice was smooth and a tad deeper than I expected, yet it was almost intoxicating. “I don’t want you passing out on me in my office.” She was right – I’d been holding my breath, partly out of anticipation but mostly due to nerves.
++++ “Thanks…I…” I struggled for the words. She smiled at me and gestured towards the clear jug of water on her desk.
++++ “Would you like a drink Mr Waltham?” she asked. I nodded; taking advantage of the opportunity it presented me. She poured me a glass of water and I took a deep drink from it. “Then just take a deep breath – I can appreciate that this is an uncomfortable situation for you and I don’t want you to feel any more nervous than necessary.” Her smile was disarmingly comforting in a strange manner. “However, before we begin I’m curious to know how you found out about me?”
++++ “Do you know a guy by the name of Kirk Rasmussen?” My question was met with a nod. “Well, his brother Joey and I go way back. Joey’s gambling habits had gotten him into trouble with some Russian’s lately and I helped him out. I got talking to Kirk over a couple of beers the night I paid them off and things just went from there.” Her facial expression told me all I needed to know. If I knew the Rasmussen’s to that degree then I knew the sort of circle of friends they kept – clearly that spoke volumes to her.
++++ “So Joey’s been getting himself into trouble again then?” She mused, running her index finger across the edge of her desk. “I’m not surprised – for all Kirk’s attempts to keep him on the straight and narrow it never lasts for long. So to business Mr Waltham; just what is it that you think I can help you with?”
++++ “I…” I was starting to feel like a fool. I closed my eyes and tried again. “I…I want you to do away with my business partner.” I opened my eyes. She was looking at me with a gleam in her eyes, like a cat when it toys with the mouse.
++++ “Do away with? Who on earth uses that phrase?” She mocked. “Say it again Mr Waltham,” her tone was firm. “Only this time with your eyes open.” I looked into them, those steely-grey orbs that were locked with mine. They seemed to draw the words out of me, coaxing them from my lips.
++++ “I want you to kill my business partner, Trent Edwards.” I said, trying to match her tone and demeanour with my own. She tilted her head slightly and the edge of her lips curled upward.
++++ “I’m impressed,” she answered. “Normally it takes someone four to five attempts to get to that stage.” She looked down at a notepad on her desk. “Okay, what’s he been doing? Embezzling funds? Selling corporate secrets? Planning to kick you off the board?”
++++ “No,” I growled. “He’s screwing my wife.” She looked up at me and nodded. I looked down at the floor for a moment, recalling the moment I saw my wife in our bed with him – the slightly younger, slightly fitter business partner. Didn’t she vow to forsake all others, to be with me in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer? She liked the richer part – the company had been set up using several bank loans and a modest amount of venture capital we’d been able to secure and she’d enjoyed the perks that had come with that, yet she’d also taken advantage of the time I’d spent building up the company from scratch. They both had – Trent always dealt with the PR side of things better than I did and in turn I managed the product development. While he was away attending business lunches with prospective investors I was building the system from the ground up.
++++ “Interesting.” She didn’t seem surprised. “Would you like me to take care of your wife too? A double costs extra, and as you already know, I’m not cheap.” I could feel the anger boiling up inside me.
++++ “No, I love my wife,” I shot back, not fearing the consequences of this reaction to her question. “However, she loves him now. You have no idea how much that realisation hurts – it feels like someone has reached into my chest and crushed my heart with their bare hands. I couldn’t live without her, so I figure it’s going to tear her apart knowing she can’t be with him.” It slipped out, my anger and my hatred at the situation; her betrayal and my own stupidity for allowing myself to feel like this, for allowing someone else to have this control over me. I looked at her – her face was alive as she carefully placed the pen down on the pad.
++++ “How deliciously evil,” the words dripped from her mouth – her voice was having a disturbing effect on me. I shuffled in my seat, hoping she hadn’t noticed. She held my gaze for a few precious seconds before she was all-business again. “So, how would you like it done?”
++++ “I…I don’t know,” I stuttered again. “I thought something that looked like natural causes.” She shook her head.
++++ “Natural is difficult,” she answered as she leaned back in her chair. “That usually involves some exotic poison and in this day and age with the advances in forensic science you can never be too sure.” She twirled the pen between her fingers. “Suicide?”
++++ “No, no one would buy that.” I answered – my mind swirling at the ease of my response. “He’s too…vibrant.”
++++ “Let me guess, young, rich and handsome? Pretty girls dotted around the place, all at his beck and call, even if they are with someone else?” the air of disdain was clear in her voice.
++++ “Something like that.” I answered. She gave me a wicked grin.
++++ “I might be doing the world a favour then,” she said. “No one likes someone who has it all and still isn’t satisfied.” I realised that I could get to like this woman – from a safe distance of course. She looked at the notepad. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
++++ “Well…if…if possible it needs to be done before the end of the month.” I said, involuntarily wringing my hands. “The company is going public on the 30th…”
++++ “…And his death will affect your share price?” She presumed. I shook my head.
++++ “No – his death will produce a minor fluctuation in the share price, nothing more than four to six percentage points for a couple of days at most,” I said. “There’s a clause in the company constitution that if one or the other of us dies before the company moves out of joint ownership then others sole holdings in the company pass to them rather than to the collective ownership of the board once the floatation has happened.” I took another drink of water. “The bastard might have taken my wife, but I want his part of the company.” She nodded once more.
++++ “I understand that your company is doing a series of press junkets across Europe in the run up to a software launch at the end of this quarter,” I struggled to contain my surprise. She had done her homework. “Might I suggest that Mr Edwards is the victim of a random act of violence, an unfortunately fatal robbery maybe, in his hotel room one night?”
++++ “That…that’s brilliant.” I answered. “And…and none of this can be traced back to me?”
++++ “Mr Waltham, I’m a professional,” She said as she stood up. “If this gets traced back to you then I’m at risk of exposing myself.” I stood up a moment later. She extended her hand to me again. “Once we go down this route, there’s no turning back, you understand that? No refunds, no cancelling the contract. Are you sure you want me to do this?”
++++ “Yes, yes,” I answered emphatically. “I want you to do this.”
++++ “That’s all I needed to hear.” She said.
++++ “I’ve paid the first half of the money as directed,” I said as she walked me to the plain and unassuming door of her office. “When do you…?”
++++ “I will be in touch once the work is completed.” She replied. “Then we will make further arrangements Mr Waltham.”
++++ “Thank you.” It felt strange to use those words in connection with the conversation we had just completed. “Thanks for your time…?”
++++ ”Miss Vincent,” She answered. “However, under the circumstances, you can call me Cassandra.” She patted me on the back as I left the office. “Don’t worry Mr Waltham; the deed is as good as done.”



It was the waiting that she had always disliked. As she sat in the comfortable hotel suite and looked down at the time on her mobile phone, Cassandra found herself drumming her fingers against the arm of the chair she occupied. The set up was one she’d used before countless times – something that was tried and trusted in her opinion and had yet to let her down. Finally her patience began to wear thin, prompting her to get up from the chair. Taking a moment to brush off several flecks of fluff from the left leg of her trouser suit, she approached the overnight bag she had placed on the bed upon first arriving in the room just over an hour ago.
++++ Opening it, she carefully unpacked the evening dress and hung it up in the wardrobe. As far as anyone was aware she was attending a function at the hotel for representatives of the International Monetary Fund at the five-star hotel and the faux invitation made it clear that evening wear was mandatory. After admiring the deep red creation on the hanger for a moment Cassandra returned to the bag, removing a small black box. Prying the security catch free, her hand reached into the container and pulled out the sleek, deadly form of a TALO P345. Cassandra took a moment to admire the pistol, one of only 500 ever produced – a gift to her from her mentor over a decade ago. The moment of indulgence engulfed her as Cassandra allowed her fingers to glide across the barrel. The grip was adorned with a small 24 carat gold embellishment in the shape of a phoenix, producing a brief smile on Cassandra’s lips. The mythological bird had been something of a private joke between the pair of them.
++++ The buzzing tone of her Blackberry message service drew Cassandra’s attention away from the pistol. Looking at it, she could see that she’d received a text message. On our way up it read. Cassandra shook her mind free of her memories and focused on what was about to happen. She picked up the suppressor from the box and began to meticulously attach it to the compact barrel of the side-arm, carefully lining it up the screw threads before slowly twisting it into place.
++++ Cassandra glanced down at the phone again. It was nearly ten past. She smiled as she put the pistol down on the bed and pulled out a pair of black leather gloves from the bag. Pulling them on her mind registered that she had nearly finished her preparations for the evening’s activities – and that her target had less than twenty minutes to live.


Trent Edwards couldn’t believe his luck.
++++ Despite his healthy reputation when it came to securing the company of attractive women, rarely did he find himself confronted with one quite so forward. When the young woman introduced herself to him as Alessia, who was the living embodiment of the stereotypical blonde bombshell, in the bar just over thirty minutes ago, he was initially dismissive of her advances. Trent viewed himself as a hunter; he was always the one who liked to do the chasing. Upon meeting someone who – on the surface of it all – seemed to be equally as enticed by the prospect of the thrill of the hunt, he gradually found himself captivated by her.
++++ Encouraged by her advances, he eagerly lapped them up as they made their way up to Alessia’s suite. Once inside she pounced on him – it was clear that in this situation he was the lamb and she was the slaughter – and a myriad of fantasy scenarios filled Trent’s mind.
++++ Almost exactly twenty minutes later, Cassandra exited her own room and moved swiftly to the door of the suite next to hers, inserting the duplicate room key card into the door and carefully opening it. Dressed in a long coat that covered her slate grey business suit, Cassandra was the very vision of confidence and professional detachment as she followed the moans to the bedroom. She pushed the door open and saw Alessia on top of Trent. Cassandra smiled and looked at the two of them going at it. Of course, Alessia was a professional, someone that Cassandra had hired for just this one job. Cassandra could tell she was faking it. Normally she would have thought it amusing, but right now Cassandra was in the mood for killing.
++++ Cassandra walked to the foot of the bed grabbed Alessia by her long blonde hair and snatched her sharply backwards. She screamed crashed to the floor, barely registering what was happening as Cassandra dropped down to a knee and banged Alessia’s head into the mock wooden panelling hard twice. Trent – clearly panicked – tried to roll off the bed, landing awkwardly on the carpet. Cassandra moved quickly, stepping around the bed and driving a strong kick to the side of his head. His muscular arms and gym-sculpted body fell to the floor. Trent managed to push himself up to his knees and held out his hands, pleading with her.
++++ “Please, look, I didn’t know…” Cassandra wasn’t in the mood for a discussion – she knew that Trent’s pleading would only get more desperate from this point onward.
++++ “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.” She said swiftly drew the pistol from the inside of her coat and took aim. Trent looked down, and then back up at Cassandra’s beautiful face, being met by the steely cold glare in her eyes.
++++ “No! No! Don’t ki…!”
++++ Pfft! Pfft!
++++ Cassandra frowned and pulled the trigger twice, both bullets striking Trent in his designer chest. The body slumped forward. Her aim adjusted accordingly before a third shot to the back of his head echoed around the room. Turning to leave, Cassandra stepped over Alessia’s naked body. She looked down at her, noting the areas on her body that had gone under the surgeon’s knife. Cassandra stood over her for a second before making a decision.
++++ Pfft!
++++ The single shot to Alessia’s head was enough to finish the job. Cassandra took a few minutes to scoop up various items from the room – a laptop, iPhone, wallet – before knocking over the bedside table and smashing the ornate lamp to make sure that the scene would look like a simple case of a botched robbery. She had already identified a dumpster in a less salubrious area of the city where she could ditch the items later that evening. Taking a final look around the scene to ensure she had achieved the desired effect, Cassandra left the hotel suite without looking back. After all, she still had to get dressed for a party to attend.



It’s easy to turn a blind eye to things when you’re sleepwalking through your life. All I had to do was maintain the façade for another few weeks and it would be over. The news came through at about 5 am on the 25th. The phone rang and I answered it. Speaking through bleary eyes to the manager of the promotional tour the details became clear. While in the Serbian leg of the tour, Trent and his female companion for the evening had been the victims of a tragic accident – a simple case of a burglar breaking into the wrong suite at the wrong time.
++++ There were no witnesses to the crime and the local police had struggled to make any progress in the investigation – which I had expected. No one suspected me of any involvement in his death, after all why should they? I was the best part of fifteen hundred miles away ironing out bugs in our new office suite that we’d discovered during the final phase of our beta testing. Naturally everyone in the company was upset and rallied around me as the de-facto figurehead of the organisation. The public launch of the company happened in a blaze of publicity as a result of Trent’s death – the memorial service was particularly touching. The share offering was heavily over-subscribed; I could have sold three times the stock we had and still not met the demand.
++++ Liz took his death badly – her behaviour became increasingly erratic. Mood swings, increased alcohol consumption and prolonged periods of isolation within the house. I tried as best as I could to help her through this, however it was only prolonging the inevitable.


The benefit was a high profile affair. The donations the company made were always good for the community, and since the death of Trent our public profile had soared. After the public speaking had finished the group moved to the more informal aspect of the night – drink and dancing. I watched as people began to pair up as the alcohol flowed and inhibitions waned.
++++ “What a surprise to see you here Mr Waltham.” The voice stunned me for a moment then I turned my head to see her standing there in a full length, dark green evening dress. “Or would you prefer it if I called you James under the circumstances?”
++++ “Cassandra,” I said as I stood up and politely shook her hand. “What a surprise.”
++++ “A pleasant one I do hope,” her demeanour seemed warmer than before. “I see your company has flourished somewhat since our last meeting.”
++++ “You might say that,” I answered, eyeing her suspiciously. “How did you know about this thing?”
++++ “Oh, I have my sources,” Cassandra replied. “You look good in that suit.” Her complement caught me off-guard somewhat.
++++ “Thank you. Would…would you care to dance?”


I didn’t care who saw us, within a few weeks the divorce would be finalised and it wouldn’t matter. A myriad of questions flew around my mind as I held her close to me.
++++ “I understand that your divorce isn’t going well.” Cassandra whispered into my ear. I pulled back slightly – there was that same wicked grin on her face that I had seen once before.
++++ “Is there anything you don’t know?”
++++ “I find it pays to stay abreast of current events.” She answered as she rested her head on my shoulder. The song was slow and our movements matched it. “I also believe you owe me some money.”
++++ “I was wondering when you’d get around to mentioning that.” I answered. “How and when?”
++++ “After your divorce is finalised,” she said. “Although, it would be a shame if your soon-to-be-ex wife had an accident, all alone in that large house, drinking heavily…” I looked at Cassandra. Those stormy grey eyes looked into mine. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement, although I think we should continue this discussion in private…don’t you?”


I don’t know why I followed her up to her room – it could have been any one of a number of things; guilty conscience; innate desire to put myself in danger; simple animal magnetism. Whatever it was, I was finding myself being drawn to Cassandra like a moth to a flame. The room itself was one of the hotel’s more exclusive suites – opulent and reeking of old-world decadence. Once we were inside, I felt a strange sense of calm, possibly a sense of resignation to my fate – that I was literally putting my life into her hands.
++++ “Would you like a drink?” Her question drew me out of the dream-like state I had entered into. Suddenly everything felt real again.
++++ “Yes…” I murmured as I moved into the main room. Cassandra was pouring two drinks, her back towards me. “Yes please.”
++++ “You’re so well-mannered James,” Cassandra said as she turned around, the light in the room projecting forwards around her. “And you’re so trusting too. I mean, for all you know I could have done anything to the drinks while you weren’t watching.” I could tell that both glasses appeared to contain some sort of whiskey or similar looking derivative.
++++ “Well, as I still owe you a considerable amount of money,” I replied, suddenly feeling emboldened in her presence. “I figure you’ll want to keep me around for a while yet.” She gave me that faint smile, the slightest curl of her lips, as she approached me. As she handed me the drink her fingers brushed against mine. The sensation was electric. She lingered close to me for a moment before stepping back, leaning back against the small sofa as she continued to hold my gaze.
++++ “Ah yes, the remainder of my fee…” She mused as she knocked back her drink in one quick motion. The glass was discarded casually as she licked her lips again, savouring the taste once more. “I meant what I said you know.” My eyebrows must have twitched slightly, giving away my momentary confusion. “Regarding your wife and her current…predicament.” She took a slow step towards me, her hands reaching behind her back. “Lots of people find themselves behind the wheel of a car when they are inebriated – their senses are dulled and they just don’t react in time to something small, something innocuous.”
++++ I could hear the sound of a zipper being undone as she moved towards me, the shoulders of her dress suddenly became loose with each passing step. I took a swig from the glass – my taste buds registering the fact that it was bourbon. “She might take one too many tablets to help her sleep, resulting in a fatal overdose when combined with the level of alcohol in her blood stream – that’s always a personal favourite of mine,” Cassandra was less than ten feet from me now as the dress fell away from her body. I swallowed hard – the alcohol burned my throat.
++++ Her figure was encased in a smooth black body; her legs were sheathed in thigh-high hold up stockings; the heels of her shoes seemed to provide a punctuation point to everything she said to me as she moved up close to me, holding herself against my body. I desperately wanted to reach out and touch her, to take her in all her glory there and then against the back of that sofa, yet the fear of overstepping my mark held me in check.
++++ “She could take a nasty fall in that house of yours, tumble down those stairs and break her neck when drunk,” Cassandra was whispering now, her hands moving across the shirt that covered my chest. “Of course, the fall itself won’t actually break her neck – I’ll do that before hand. I’ll wrap my arms around her head and slowly twist it around. Did you know it only takes just over ten pounds of pressure to dislocate cervical vertebrae? I’ll even let you watch if you like, I don’t know if you’re partial to a little girl on girl action…”
++++ I couldn’t hold myself back any longer, grabbing her and kissing her passionately. I don’t know how long I kissed her for but I never felt so intoxicated by a woman before in my life.
++++ “Why James,” she whispered as she momentarily broke the kiss. “I think we just sealed the deal…”


Théâtre Mogador

The stage of the recently refurbished theatre was lit up by a complex series of stage lighting arrays that dangled from the ceiling of the grand old building. All the eyes of those in attendance were focused on the solitary female figure taking centre-stage, standing in front of the microphone and holding an ornate golden statue. Tears were running down her cheeks as she held the statue up and spoke.
++++ “All my life I have dreamed of this moment, standing here and accepting a Molière award…” She said in her soft, lilting voice in-between taking huge gulps of air to try and recover from the shock of wining. The young blonde woman was looking around at the full auditorium, basking in the applause. “I just want to take this opportunity…”
++++ In the dark recess of one of the small private boxes two men sat and watched the awards show. As they watched the young woman complete her speech, the older of the two leaned towards his younger companion somewhat. The sound of the applause in the auditorium easily drowned out his words to all but the most perceptive ears.
++++ “I’m glad you could make it.” His American accent was a stark contrast to the French-speaking voices around them. “We were concerned that you wouldn’t show.”
++++ “Well considering what it is that you want doing I could hardly pass up the opportunity to talk to you could I?” The younger man replied; his voice held a clearly British accent. The older man nodded before handing him an envelope. “Have you approached anyone else regarding this…endeavour?”
++++ “No – we evaluated all the suitable candidates and decided to contact you first.” The older man paused for a moment. “Those are the details that we’ve managed to glean from our source.” He said. “I trust you’ll be able to make the necessary arrangements to complete the contract?”
++++ “Relax Mr Henderson – I’m a professional.” His British counterpart tried to assure him, his tone coming across as condescending.
++++ “Well, Mr Alexander, I’m sure you can appreciate that my associates and I are somewhat nervous about this, after all it’s not every day that…” The American began to bite back at him, only to find his barbed comment sternly cut off in mid sentence.
++++ “I said relax!” The British man hissed, his face twisting into a scowl. A moment passed between the pair of them and then his demeanour suddenly changed – his facial expression now a placid mask of calm. “I’m just as invested in this little enterprise as your group is – after all it’s not often that someone in my line of work gets the opportunity to make history like this.” He sat back in his chair. As he did so, the American got up.
++++ “I have an early flight to catch so I will be in touch with you as soon as I get more information.” He said as he left. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
++++ “Oh, I will do Mr Henderson.” The British man said as he looked at the envelope in his hand. “I will do.”

Loathe Thy Neighbour

Something is off with mum. She hasn’t said anything but when something is bothering her she ain’t good at hiding it – not that she would. I try to visit with her two or three times a week but last week I had a bit of business up north and so I missed a couple of visits. I don’t like to leave it so long between visits, but in my line of work you don’t let people down – or the visits to mum might stop for good.
++++ She’s twitching in her chair and hasn’t touched the tea she made for us both – mum’s old school, still serves it in the pot and insists that the man pours. I enjoy the ritual as much as she does, but as I poured today she barely looked at me. She’s not said more than half a dozen words since I’ve been here.
++++ ‘I’d have rather been down here mum,’ I say, ‘don’t get me wrong, the boys in the north are good as gold but it’s grey, wet and cold up there.’
++++ ‘What… what are you talking about?’ Mum responds.
++++ She doesn’t really seem to be in the room – I’ve really pissed her off. I try to be a good son, drop in as much as I’m able but as soon as I miss a couple of visits she lays on the guilt. It’s always been the same. My useless fucking brother fucks off to Spain to live and whenever he’s home she’s fawning over him and declaring him a great son because, ‘he never forgets to visit his ol’ mum whenever he’s home.’ And yet I have to go away for a few days and I get treated like I took a shit in her cornflakes.
++++ ‘I had to go up north mum. I had work up there. I’m sorry I couldn’t visit.’
++++ ‘Ah, don’t worry about that.’
++++ She waves a dismissive hand at me and I realise that there is something real bothering her. And, it must be serious as apparently my trip hadn’t registered. Before I can ask what’s up she’s talking.
++++ ‘You remember little Kirsty Richards? Maureen and Dave’s girl – skinny little thing, not much to look at.’
++++ I don’t need the extra details but mum always likes to give it, I remember Kirsty just fine. She was a couple of years behind me at school and lived across the green on the estate.
++++ ‘Yeah, I remember.’
++++ ‘She got mugged a couple of nights back, right here on the estate. She’s in hospital, Maureen said it’s touch and go whether she’ll pull through. They’ve had a terrible year that family, Maureen’s mother died over Christmas and Dave himself only went eight months back, god rest his soul.’
++++ ‘What happened?’
++++ ‘Cancer.’
++++ ‘I know how Dave died mum,’ I’d been given an update on his illness every time I’d visited mum whilst he was ill, I even went to the funeral but mum’s mind isn’t in great shape these days and it wonders off all over the place, ‘I was asking what happened to Kirsty?’
++++ ‘Well she’s been doing that door-to-door catalogue selling. It’s a load of old crap, but I always try and have something off her – you know to help her out. She’s had no luck that girl, she bought a place with her fella a couple of doors down from Maureen and Dave’s, but he buggered off and left her with a kid to bring up. She couldn’t keep the mortgage up on the house so moved back in with Maureen and Dave, which has actually been a bit of a blessing to Maureen since Dave’s passing – it’s good to have a bit of company around.’
++++ I felt defeated by the insinuation in the last comment, even in someone else’s painful story mum could find a way to make it about her. I knew all about Kirsty’s situation, mum had told me about it a few times before. I decided to push mum to the point of her story.
++++ ‘So, she was mugged for the money she’d collected from the catalogue sells?’
++++ ‘Yes, thirty-seven poxy bloody quid,’ mum spat the words, ‘this estate isn’t what it used to be. It’s not safe to walk the streets anymore.’
++++ I couldn’t disagree with her there. I’ve been trying to get mum to move out for years, I’ve even offered to buy her a place near me, Sue and the kids, but she won’t leave – she says the estate is her home – our home. I can see her point, it was the first and only place she made a home for her family in and a lot of the families that we grew up with have remained so she’s got a lot of friends nearby. She says she’d feel like she was leaving dad behind if she went, feel like she was betraying his memory if she sold the house he’d worked so hard to buy from the council.
++++ But, for each positive about the estate there are at least two negatives these days. It’s not the same place that I grew up in. Every time one of the old stalwarts moves out or dies off their house seems to attract far less desirable families than the ones that went before. Don’t get me wrong, it was always a tough estate, some seriously nasty bastards grew up here – myself included. But, it was a tough estate with morals – one of which was you don’t shit on your own doorstep. The posh houses across the flyover were fair game, but if anything happened to anyone from the estate the people rallied together – we looked after our own. Crimes against the estate from within were rare to non-existent, on the odd occasion that someone did step out of line they didn’t last long before they were forced to find somewhere else to live. There was a sense of community, the kids played together, the dads drank together and the mums gossiped together. The houses were nothing special, but everyone took exceptional pride in them.
++++ Now when I visit mum I come past unkempt lawns, wrecked cars and strewn rubbish. The kids still seem to play together, but they do so at night in hoods with knives and guns.
++++ I’ve let the silence sit in the air for too long as I contemplate what once was and what has now become. Mum sums up many of my own thoughts with a few painfully real words of her own.
++++ ‘This never would have happened when your dad was alive. He wouldn’t have let it.’
++++ There’s a red moistness to her eyes that I’ve seen only once or twice before. A strong, proud woman, mum never really even cried at dad’s funeral – although I heard her sobbing alone in her room that night. I stood from my chair and moved towards her to provide comfort. It was an awkward moment – we had never been a family that hugs. Most of the time if I’d tried to hug her, she’d have pushed me away, there was no lack of love – we just didn’t feel the need to show it. Today she doesn’t push and as I hold her I feel her shoulders slowly rise and fall and her tears moisten my shirt.


‘Hey, Johnny Boy Winter. What’s up blud?’
++++ One of the kids that now inhabit the estate I once called home has recognised me as I stand at the door saying goodbye to Mum. He’s part of a group of three kids, all late teens and dressed in clothes so loose they look like they’re suffering from a wasting disease. My line of work comes with many hazards, one of them being that every scumbag looking to gain a reputation in front of his crew wants to be seen talking to me.
++++ I nod an acknowledgement in the direction of the group and hear some sort of celebratory sounds coming from them – I’ve made their day.
++++ ‘They’re the ones that mugged Kirsty Richards,’ Mum said eyeing the group with disgust as she spoke in hushed tones, ‘The one that called out to you, he’s the ring leader, evil little bastard.’
++++ ‘I figured – why are they still on the streets?’
++++ ‘I’m told the parents provided them all with alibis for the night of the mugging, bastards. If that had have been you and Daniel I’d have had the police take you away, give you a bloody good hiding, lock you up and then have your old man give you another one when you got out.’
++++ I have little doubt. We’d had whippings for far less – most of them deserved.
++++ I kiss Mum on the cheek, she flinches away and gives me a tap on my cheek and follows it with a look that asks what I think I’m doing. She’s in public now – the vulnerable woman that needed a hug in the living room is well hidden. I tell her to make sure she locks the door. As it shuts I wait for the sounds of the bolts sliding and keys turning before making my way back to my car.
++++ ‘Laters Johnny Boy,’ the same youth shouts.
++++ Yeah… Laters, I think as I walk away.


My car is warm but I take no comfort in it as I think about the Richards family, my mum and the old estate. I had driven out of the estate so that the muggers had seen me go, they waved and called out as I left – but now I am back. I’d turned the headlights of as I’d pulled into the estate and parked up on the road at the boundary edge. I am looking across the estate at the muggers, parked far enough away that they haven’t spotted my return. It’s taking all of my energy not to pop the trunk, take out the gun I’d used for the bit of business up north, walk over and put a hole in each one of these arseholes, but that would be stupid. The reason I have the deal with the lads up north is if any murders need doing it’s harder to connect the doer to the crime, I do theirs up there, they do mine down here – I can’t fuck that up by firing the gun I used up there just because I’m pissed off down here. That would fuck everything up – dots would start to be connected.
++++ After a long wait I see the group disband and head towards their houses. I keep my eyes on the one that mum identified as the ringleader. He heads towards one of the least presentable houses on the estate and lets himself in. My car engine purrs as I start it and role the car slowly and quietly towards the house. I’ve arrived outside as the lad has just gone inside and shut the door behind him. I jump from my car and run at the door. It falls inwards as my weight impacts with it and the young mugger is now lying unconscious under the door and my not inconsiderable weight. I give him a couple of punches to ensure he stays out and feel his cheekbone implode as the second blow strikes – that ought to do it.
++++ There’s a call from upstairs, ‘Tommy, what the fuck is all that fucking noise, we’re trying to fucking sleep up here,’ a man’s voice with less urgency or panic in it than you might expect after such a commotion in the middle of the night. I guess drugs have been indulged in, not just tonight but every night for quite some time.
++++ I drag Tommy up the stairs by an arm. He doesn’t come around – I’ve hit him hard.
++++ ‘What the fuck Tommy? Keep it fucking down,’ it’s the same voice that called out moments before.
++++ I drag Tommy towards the room that the voice has come from and stand in the doorway. I reach inside the room and hit the light switch – I used to live in one of these houses I know the layout.
++++ ‘Who…who the fuck are you?!’
++++ Finally some panic in the tone as the man I assume to be Tommy’s dad – but who knows these days – bolts upright and tries to back himself through the headboard and into the house next door. His wife is half a second behind him but she mimics his every move perfectly, adding a scream for good measure.
++++ ‘My name’s John Winter,’ I say, ‘and I’m a friend of Kirsty Richards.’
++++ They don’t flinch at my name, but I see them both shudder at the mention of Kirsty in a sign that I see as an admission of guilt.
++++ A look to the side of the bed confirms all I need to know about Tommy’s upbringing. The drug paraphernalia on both parent’s bedside tables paints a picture of a lad that never had a chance in life. I don’t want to, but I feel sorry for him.
++++ ‘Don’t fucking move,’ I said and walked towards the bed.
++++ Both parents look at me with terror in their heavily glazed eyes. They are younger than a first impression gives, but their grey broken skin and lifeless greasy hair is doing them no favours. I punch Tommy’s father hard and he goes straight out cold. Tommy’s mother yelps as she anticipates what’s coming next and I don’t disappoint her, putting her lights out next. I pick up a cigarette lighter from the bedside table and put flame to the duvet. The cheap synthetic material takes in seconds and the bed is ablaze.
++++ I look at Tommy still unconscious on the floor in the doorway to the bedroom. I feel sorry for the lad, but he is what he is – nothing is going to change that now. I step over him and leave him to burn with the monsters that created him.

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.
+++++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.


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.


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…
+++++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
+++++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
+++++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.

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