And Goodwill to All Men

The only light in the dark room came from the red-and-green bulbs on the Christmas tree. Tim stood before the tree, staring out the eyeholes of his ski mask, looking up at the angel mounted above him. The angel had watched over the birth of the savior of mankind. Now, it was regulated to watching over shiny packages stuffed underneath a plastic tree. Tim smiled at the thought.

+++++“Hey, Tim. Nobody home.”

+++++He turned around, saw his partner coming down the stairs.

+++++“No names,” Tim said, “and put your fucking mask back on.”

+++++“Didn’t you hear me? Nobody home.”

+++++“What if they come home? You want them to see your face?”

+++++“I don’t like the way it feels against my skin. All fuzzy and all. It makes me itch.”

+++++“Goddamnit, Larry,” Tim said, “put your mask back on.”

+++++“I thought we weren’t using names?”

+++++Tim sighed and checked his watch as Larry pulled the ski mask down over his face and stepped farther into the living room, admiring the tree.

+++++“They got a lot of ornaments on that thing,” Larry said. “How long do you think it took them to hang all those? I hate hanging ornaments.”

+++++“Yeah. Me too. Look, it’s almost midnight. I don’t know where these people are. Maybe at a friend’s house, grandma’s house, I don’t care. Maybe they’re not coming back tonight, but maybe they are, and if they are, I want to be the fuck out of here before they come in, okay?”

+++++“Okay.”

+++++“So how about you go find the master bedroom and get the jewelry and whatever else looks good, and I’ll stay down here and handle the china cabinet.”

+++++“Okay.”

+++++“Take only what you can fit in the bag,” Tim offered as parting advice as Larry went back upstairs. He made his own way into the dining room. He switched on his flashlight, panned it across the room, noticed the fine furniture, the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t a big home, and the people who owned it weren’t rich, but they certainly weren’t hurting, either.

+++++Tim shined his light on the china cabinet and walked over to it. He opened it up and grabbed all he could and shoved the loot into a gym bag. When the shelves were empty, he closed the cabinet and zipped his bag shut and checked his watch again. They needed to go.

+++++“Hey,” he called upstairs.

+++++Larry came to the top of the stairs, his bag slung over his shoulder. He said down to Tim, “I found a safe.”

+++++“A safe?”

+++++“Yeah. In the closet up here.”

+++++“Why the fuck were you in the closet?”

+++++“I was looking to see if they had anything else around,” Larry said, “maybe some money stashed somewhere, so I looked in the closet and I found a safe in the wall.”

+++++“I don’t know how to crack a safe.”

+++++“Neither do I.”

+++++“So what are we talking about? Let’s get out of here.”

+++++“Can’t we try something? A screwdriver or something like that?”

+++++“I don’t think it works that way. Come on.”

+++++Larry came down the stairs, his fat ass stomping loud with each step. Tim rolled his eyes and tried to ignore it, checked his watch again, gave the Christmas tree another look, all the presents underneath it. They all looked so colorful and pristine, perfect folds, little ribbons wrapped around them, bows on top.

+++++Tim, knowing he shouldn’t but he did anyway, asked, “You figure these people give each other nice things for Christmas?”

+++++“I’d imagine so.”

+++++“How long do you think it’d take us to go through all those presents?”

+++++Larry smiled. He liked the way his partner was thinking.

+++++“I don’t know,” Larry said. “Five minutes, maybe?”

+++++“Let’s see.”

+++++The burglars opened the presents. They tore into the paper, disregarding the careful folding and taping that went into the process of wrapping the packages, the sounds of the paper shredding and crinkling the only sounds in the house. They flung the toys they unwrapped into the corner, caring none whether they broke or not when they hit the floor. When they got to a necklace or a nice watch or some expensive gadget the adults of the household had bought for one another, they shoved them into their bags. By the time they were nearly finished, the floor was littered with wrapping paper.

+++++Headlights beamed through the windows as a car pulled into the driveway.

+++++“Shit,” Tim said and dropped the present in his hands and started looking for a place to hide. “I’ll get the closet by the door. You stay here. Get down behind the couch. We’ll jump them when they come in. Wait for me to make the first move.”

+++++Tim headed for the coat closet. He opened it up and stepped inside and pulled the door toward him, but he didn’t close it all the way. It was cracked ever so slightly so he could peer out and see what was happening, and also so when he jumped out, he could just push the door open and not worry about turning the handle. For further precaution, he reached behind his back and when his hand came forward again he held a knife.

+++++Outside, the car’s engine turned off and car doors opened and closed and footsteps walked toward the house. Keys jangled. The lock clicked open.

+++++“Better get him to bed before he wakes up,” said the man entering the house, carrying a small child in his arms. He was followed by a pretty blonde woman, his wife. “Won’t get him back to sleep if he does.”

+++++“I think he was out the second the minister started speaking,” said the wife, shrugging off her coat, pellets of snow on the shoulders, and thankfully tossing the coat onto the back of a chair instead of hanging it in the closet.

+++++“Can’t blame him. I was falling asleep during the service, too. Same message every year.”

+++++“It’s a Christmas Eve service. What do you expect them to talk about? Noah’s Ark?”

+++++The husband turned the corner from the front hallway into the dining room, from where he could see the Christmas tree and the paper strewn all over the living room floor.

+++++“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Honey, call—”

+++++Tim burst out of the closet, grabbing the wife from behind. His gloved hand pressed firm on her mouth, keeping her quiet, and his knife came up to her throat. The husband took a step toward them before he was suddenly grabbed from behind by Larry, Larry pointing the tip of a knife into the man’s back.

+++++“Now,” Tim said, “let’s get you all in the living room. Sit you down on the couch. Nobody talk and nobody put up a fight.”

+++++They herded them into the couch, the victims going along with their commands. The young boy was still asleep.

+++++The two burglars stood over the family, menacing in their black clothes and masks, still holding their knives.

+++++Tim reached into his bag, his hand coming out with a roll of duct tape.

+++++“Here,” he said, tossing the tape to Larry. “Tape them up.”

+++++The sound of Larry tearing off the tape started waking the child. The boy was young, would probably start screaming when he saw the masked men. Larry put a piece of tape over his mouth first.

+++++“You opened all of our presents,” the husband said as Larry wrapped the tape around his wrists, then moved down to his ankles. “It’s Christmas Eve. Don’t do this.”

+++++Larry pushed a piece of tape on the man’s mouth, shutting him up. He moved to the wife after that, taped her mouth and her wrists. He started to do her ankles, then Tim told him to stop.

+++++Leaning in close to her face, holding his knife close to her face, Tim said, “You got a safe in this house, yeah?”

+++++Her eyes were red with tears. She nodded in response to his question.

“You’re going to take my partner to the safe. We’ve found it. We know where it is, so don’t try anything funny. You’re going to enter the combination for him, then you’re going to step back and let him take whatever’s inside. If you try anything, he will kill you, and I will kill your husband and boy. Understand?”

She nodded again.

“Stand up,” he said. He checked his watch, told Larry to go on up with her. The two of them disappeared up the stairs.

+++++“You sure do have a pretty house here,” Tim said to the husband. The man, obviously, couldn’t respond. He just stared at Tim, then moved his eyes toward his child, who was fully awake now and whimpering through the tape on his mouth.

+++++A crash came from the second floor, sounded like glass breaking, followed by a heavy thud.

+++++“Fuck,” Tim said, walking toward the stairs. “Everything okay up there?”

+++++There was no response. He looked at his victims taped up on the couch, knew they weren’t going anywhere, and, a little reluctantly, he ventured up the stairs.

+++++The hallway was dark. He flipped on his flashlight, held the light in one hand and his knife in the other. He called out again, asking, “Everything okay?”

+++++Nada.

+++++He continued on, came to the end of the hall and an open door leading into the bedroom on his right. He stepped in, and the second he crossed the threshold he felt a sharp pierce into the left side of his chest. He staggered backward into the hall, gasping, swinging his knife in the air at no particular target.

+++++His partner’s knife stuck out of his chest, blood oozing from the wound.

+++++Tim started to pull the knife from his chest, but he was hit with something heavy and fell to his knees, a loud shattering as the china in the bag on his shoulder broke with the fall. His mind stopped thinking rationally, and he thought only of escape. He crawled along the hardwood floor, leaving drops of red as he did so, headed toward the stairs and a way out. Footsteps followed behind him, the mother carrying a baseball bat.

+++++When he reached the top of the stairs, he tried standing, wobbling his way up, and the mother hit him again with the bat, and he fell forward, rolled down the stairs. Larry’s knife was only pushed further into his chest as this happened, jamming deep into a lung. Blood rose in his throat, and he started choking.

+++++He hit the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He could see the lights of the Christmas tree and he took off his ski mask and coughed red. Things turned fuzzy, but he made out the angel sitting on top of the tree. The angel just sat there, emotionless, staring down at Tim, offering no help as the burglar choked on his own blood.

A Christmas Crime Carol

For thieves like Huey and me, Christmastime was comparable to tax season for accountants. We were busier than a one legged man at an ass kicking contest.

+++++We started out years ago with car break-ins, heisting purchases and ruining Christmas for people stupid enough to leave gifts in their cars. Alarms as standard equipment put a crimp in that racket. After that we moved on to shoplifting, grab and go’s with Salvation Army kettles, you name it- if it was a holiday related crime we’ve done it.

+++++The best gift we ever got was a huge boon for our holiday business. It was something called Santa Con. In big cities all around the country, thousands of Frat boys and hipsters donned Santa costumes and went on pub crawls.

+++++A few years back I saw a story on the evening news about the first one to be held in Portland. It hit me like a fat man falling down a chimney. Possibilities danced in my head like sugar plums. I called Huey, gave him the scoop and he reacted like a kid on Christmas Eve. The poor guy couldn’t contain himself.

+++++There were only two days to plan so we decided to just wing it see what tidings the day would bring.

+++++We were dressed like a pair of St. Nick’s that Saturday as were hundreds of others, up and down 21st Street. All the padding served to hide the pistols we both carried. The bars were packed with Santa’s. This would be like taking candy canes from toddlers.

+++++Mu Mu’s was the first to go down, after that the Pope House Bourbon Lounge. We took particular delight in that one as it was a notorious hipster hangout where idiots paid up to twenty bucks for a shot of fancy whiskey. Huey and me might have been the only ones in the joint with fake beards.

+++++We hit three or four more and ended the day taking down the Mbar. I’m telling you, easiest scores ever. Pull our guns, demand money from a barkeep and disappear into a crowd of red and white.

+++++That night we started planning for the next year, and what festive plans they were. We enjoyed a few modest scores while waiting for December to roll back around. Long before Thanksgiving, the Christmas spirit filled me. Hell, I even put up a little tree.

+++++The big day finally came around. We were bank robbers dressed as Santa’s. We hit four banks starting at Burnside, one on the corner of Everett another at Davis and last on Lovejoy. The sacks slung over our shoulders were filled with cash instead of toys. We split enough that one day to get us through the year. Huey and me even did something we had never done before, we left the winter gloom of Portland behind and took a two week beach vacation to Mexico.

+++++This year we hit the jackpot. There’s a Safeway store at 21st and Vaughan. Every Saturday at two o’clock an armored car makes a pickup there. Right next door is a bar so there were plenty of other Santa’s milling around. Yeah, we took down an armored car carrying over a million bucks without a shot being fired. We stashed the money at Huey’s crib and joined the celebrants. We got pretty drunk that day.

+++++The next morning we got bad news. The mayor was pissed. He decided to play Scrooge and put forth a resolution that due to the fact a couple of bad actors had ruined it for everyone, Santa Con should be banned. The City council agreed.

+++++All good things must come to an end. Fortunately for us the armored car heist meant we could retire. If it wasn’t for that score- well, we’d still be plugging away without the benefit of Santa Con and the pickings would have been much slimmer than Santa’s cookie plate on Christmas morning. There is one thing I’ll tell you in the wake of Portland banning the event; there isn’t much I agree with this Trump character about but he got one thing right. Too much government regulation is bad for business.

XXXMAS BOOGALOO

Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank.

+++++I’m on a concrete bed, sleeping off a heavy session. It started with a quiet pint in the Cock & Whistle and ended with a knife-fight in the Dirty Lemon. The other guy had a fucking meat cleaver, so I must have been drunk to try and fight him…

*

+++++A bulbous bastard named Salvatore ‘Sweaty’ Moretti shakes me awake. He’s a permanently nervous safecracker who went down in local folklore after losing his footing in a pool of his own perspiration and cracking his skull on the wrought iron door of the safe he had just robbed. Surgeons tried to repair his ruptured skull meat with a steel plate, but it got infected, and the back of his head swelled up like a fucking cantaloupe.

+++++I assume that the sweaty old shit-bag wants my ratty grey blanket, so I plant a size 11 on his chest and kick him into the rancid cinderblock wall.

+++++He’s too drunk to talk and barely grunts as his steel plate clatters against the crumbling masonry.

+++++A pair of elderly cops called Benson and Hedges lurk on the other side of the rusty cage, leering at me. Hedges stubs out his cigarette on an egg mayonnaise sandwich and drops it on a stainless steel breakfast tray, which Benson kicks under the bars towards me.

+++++“Something to line the stomach, young man?”

+++++I toss it back through the bars at him. It falls apart at Benson’s feet, but he picks it up and eats it anyway, grinning at me through misshapen, egg-smeared teeth.

+++++“Suit your fucking self, darling.”

*

+++++Four hours later.

+++++Check-out time.

+++++I emerge blinking into the wintry lunchtime glare.

+++++Outside the cop-shop, I’m met by a geriatric named Holder. He’s the hotel detective at the Excelsior. He’s wearing a threadbare electric blue suit and shuffles nervously from foot to foot.

+++++“Mr. Rey? One of our esteemed guests would like a few moments of your time.”

+++++I try to walk past him, but he halts me with a liver-spotted hand.

+++++“Do I have a choice?”

+++++He pats the gun-shaped bulge under his armpit and smiles awkwardly.

+++++“Everyone has a choice, Mr. Rey.”

+++++I grunt.

+++++“Get shot in the front, or get shot in the back, right?”

+++++He shrugs and gestures to a tiny hatchback in the far corner of the car park.

+++++Fuck it.

+++++I was heading that way anyway…

*

+++++The tinsel-strewn Excelsior Hotel lobby throbs with gaudy horror. Whoever was in charge of the Christmas decorations went too far, and the garish decor reminds me of an overly made-up Harbourside whore.

+++++The Excelsior is probably the only hotel in Paignton that stays full in the dead of winter. It’s also the only hotel that offers seven channels of complimentary softcore pornography. Go figure.

+++++Holder steers me towards the service elevator.

+++++“This way. Let’s avoid the crowd.”

+++++Some crowd. The cheap plastic Christmas tree next to the reception desk looks more alive than most of the fucking guests.

*

+++++Dominic Dominguez stays at the Excelsior every Christmas. Fuck knows why.

+++++When I step inside his suite, he is balanced precariously on the edge of a sturdy barstool, playing on a fruit machine that is on loan from the Greasy Nugget amusement arcade. Holder told me that the mechanism had been rigged, so it pays out every third game.

+++++Dominguez is a big bastard – fatter than a shithouse spider. His enormous bulk gives him a curiously ageless quality, although I notice that his dark hair is now threaded with grey.

+++++He glances at me briefly and wets his lips on a fluorescent umbrella drink.

+++++“You know what I like most about this town, Mr. Rey?”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“Strong beds and even stronger drinks?”

+++++His expression sours.

+++++“Everyone and everything is for sale. Even you.”

+++++He says something else, but the metallic rumble of falling coins blots out his words.

+++++He offers me a coprophagous grin, and I slump onto the oversized bed, suddenly bone-weary.

*

+++++People say Dominguez accrued his wealth through a lucrative chain of boy-brothels in the Midlands, but really I have no idea.

+++++However he earned his money, he has an awful fucking lot of it. The fat fucker offered me £750 to track down the Sexy Santa costume that Cha Cha Chilkins – ‘Paignton’s premier gender illusionist’ – was wearing when she had a heart attack last Christmas, during the ‘Christmas is a Drag’ seasonal revue at the Palace Avenue Theatre.

+++++Sure, I’ve taken stranger jobs in my time, but I almost changed my mind when Dominguez said that he wanted the outfit for his fucking mother…

*

+++++It’s too cold to trawl my usual haunts, so I head straight to the Greasy Nugget on Torbay Road.

+++++A local cabaret hack called Louie Drambuie told me that a couple of members of Cha Cha’s old chorus line work out of the amusement arcade, offering punters the old Paignton two-step – a side-street suck-and-fuck – in one of the lock-ups round the back.

+++++As I walk in, ‘Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas’ by Gary Glitter is being played over the Tannoy. The volume has been turned up to drown out the coin-op cacophony.

+++++It is so loud that I swear I can hear the sound of stack-heeled youngsters being dragged across linoleum and hauled into an untaxed transit van during the fadeout…

*

+++++The Greasy Nugget is awash with stretched red fabric and sick-stained synthetic beards. People are passing bottles of rot-gut between them – drunken faces congealed with pleasure. I grab an unmarked bottle off a passed-out man in a badly soiled Santa suit and take a glug.

+++++He’s face down next to the cashier’s cage, and people are treading on him as they try to get past. I notice that the backside of his suit is slick with anal mucus, and I really wish I hadn’t stolen his drink.

+++++The black-market booze hits me like a sledgehammer, and I press deeper into the crowd. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m sweating bullets.

+++++I pick my way through the throng and walk the perimeter of the building, where the nooks and crannies are darker than God’s fucking pockets. Paignton sure hides its secrets well. There is a bit of rough trade loitering at the back of the building, but no one who could convincingly perform in a drag act – even in Paignton.

+++++I have almost completed my circuit, when I see the outfit. It has a fur-lined hood and ‘Cha Cha’ written across the back in diamante studs.

+++++I tap the girl on the shoulder, and she turns around sharply. I’m shocked to see deep purple bruising down the left side of her face.

+++++I try to clear my throat, but only succeed in coughing up a phlegmy string of liquor. I spit it on the floor.

+++++“Nice dress.”

+++++She shrugs.

+++++“My boyfriend won it in a card game. On Winner Street. Gave it to me to say sorry.”

+++++She gestures absentmindedly at the hideous bruise, and then her arms drop to her side like those of a drunken rag-doll.

+++++“Early Christmas present…”

+++++She has narrow hips and a flat stomach, and Cha Cha’s voluminous outfit looks baggy on her.

+++++“I’m going to need you to take the dress off, sweetheart.”

+++++She pouts.

+++++“£50.”

+++++I pat my pockets, but Dominguez said cash on delivery, and I let it slide because I knew that the fat motherfucker was good for it.

+++++“£100 if you want to do it yourself with your big strong hands.”

+++++She removes her bubble-gum and presses it against the fruit machine she has been leaning against.

+++++“£150 if you want me to blow you afterward… my boyfriend won’t mind – honest.”

+++++“Who’s your boyfriend?”

+++++“Me.”

+++++I turn around slowly.

+++++The man in front of me smells like a piss-soaked lift. His name is ‘Ten Tonne’ Teddy Tucker. He used to do strong-arm work for the self-styled Foxhole Mafia, but his body has long since failed him, and now he has to travel between pubs and drinking clubs using a fucking mobility scooter.

+++++Straight away I wish he weren’t wearing a Santa suit, as I know I’m going to feel awfully conflicted when I hit him in a minute.

+++++He struggles to clamber out of his scooter and throws a lazy punch in my direction. It travels so slowly I probably have time to pop out for a quick pint before it arrives…

+++++I side-step the blow and hammer a hard right hook into his ear. I’m working up to another shot when he tries to grab me by the throat.

+++++He lets out a weird, sickly little laugh.

+++++“I’m gonna ruin you, cunt.”

+++++He has three fingers missing on his left hand – removed by a former employer after a ‘workplace dispute’ – and I easily wriggle free of his grasp.

+++++I slam a punch into his enormous gut and he doubles over, hot vomit splattering on his rented Santa suit. I bounce his skull off the nearest fruit machine, hard, and he drops to his knees, eyes the colour of tainted milk. I bounce him off the machine a second time, and this time it pays out, coughing up its grubby, coppery loot.

+++++I cram a handful of spilled coins in his mouth and kick his rotten jaw shut. It closes with a sick crunch.

+++++I turn back to the girl, but the dress is already around her ankles, like a puddle of old piss.

+++++“Sorry.”

+++++She shrugs, shivering in her tattered underwear.

+++++“Don’t be. I’m not.”

*

+++++When I arrive back at the Excelsior, an elderly woman I assume to be Dominguez’s mother is reclining on a chaise-longue, wearing nothing except a flimsy, cellophane-like nightgown. She has to be at least 80 and has a heavily-medicated care-in-the-community expression.

+++++“Good evening, Mrs. Dominguez…”

+++++She glances at me, then cackles, toothlessly.

+++++I ball up the outfit and throw it to Dominguez for inspection. Then I wipe my bloody hands on his pastel Camberwick bedspread.

+++++He waddles across the room towards me, wonky grin etched across his fat face, and stuffs the grubby banknotes down the front of my jeans with his podgy fingers – like I’m a fucking carnival stripper. I can feel his hot breath on my cheek as his ragged fingernail snags my pubic hair.

+++++“Merry Christmas, Mr. Rey. Don’t spend it all at once.”

+++++I take a parting look at his mother, and she is still chuckling to herself. At least someone around here has something to laugh about…

THE END

The Pastor’s Mistress

When he heard the door opening, the pastor stopped believing in God.

+++++The pain felt like an entity playing through his veins, pulling each nerve as if they were strings held by the Devil. On his naked body, there was a large layer of dirt and shame. Around the neck, a rusted chain, eating his flesh away.

+++++On the ground, the corpse of his son with the throat cut.

+++++A light came in, illuminating all the dust and cobwebs from the basement, the coupe of rats and cockroaches on the bloody neck of the corpse, but not the pastor. A black woman went downstairs with a chair in one hand and ropes in the other. Her face, once wrinkled by the stress of the past days, now seemed as cleansed as her soul, although she was still wearing the same threadbare lingerie.

+++++‘‘What do you want?’’ the pastor asked, while the prostitute was putting the chair on the floor and the ropes on the chair. ‘‘Just tell me…’’

+++++A heavy punch shut his mouth. He cringed against the wall, being choked by the chain when she pulled him back and kneed in his testicles. Then a thud hit his nape. Before collapsing, he felt a cotton bag lining his head.

+++++The pulsation of a headache woke him up as if it was about to burst his brain.

+++++Although all he could see was darkness, the blindness dawned on him that the bag was still around his head. The wrists, ankles and upper body were on the ropes, tied to the chair. Sounds of high-heeled steps sent shivers down his spine.

+++++Then, the bitten hand removed the bag.

+++++He tried to scream when he noticed her sitting on a stool, but the thirst reduced him to silence. So did the old ball gag in his mouth. As soon as he started trying to break free, she stopped him. His head was tilted back as if he had the edge of a straight razor pressing against his neck, but it was touching a spot below the belt. The weight of his testicles pulling the scrotum against the razor calmed him down.

+++++‘‘I am used to this, you know,’’ said the prostitute. ‘‘Men who treat me like garbage just because I’m a woman. Or ‘cause they don’t respect what I do for a living. Mostly the ones like you, who think they can do anything just because they preach in a church. But you know what I am really pissed off about? Taking shit because of the color of my skin. You had asked me what I wanted before all this turned to shit. I remember I said ‘‘the best fuck of my life’’. But you know what? I just wish I could forget what you and your sick son have done to me. To be able not to remember the suffering I’ve had passed through in a fucking basement all these days.’’

+++++The pastor moaned trying to speak.

+++++‘‘People like you have a voice all the time. Now it is my turn. And you’re going to listen, quietly. Have you seen how the flesh under my skin is red when you cut me? I’m gonna’ show you how we’re not so different.’’

+++++She held him by his hair and put the razor in his right temple, pressing it until the blood dripped. Cut his face slowly, as if following the dashed line of a surgery around his face, as the bastard kept writhing. Then buried her fingers inside the skin and pulled the strips, one by one, leaving deep flesh wounds.

+++++‘‘Don’t cry,’’ she said, throwing chunks of flesh on the ground. ‘‘You said I was asking for it, I thought you were asking me to show you how we could be the same. Look.’’

+++++The reflection in the portable mirror, distorted by tears and blood, showed a cadaverous face, a layer of human flesh torn in the shape of a skull.

+++++She got up and soaked him with a liquid that burnt his flesh. He started struggling to escape and fell sideways on the ground, craving for death when he smelled the gasoline. He tried to crawl, forcing the rest of his face against the cemented floor, but all he did was stain the ground with blood.

+++++She got closer, taking a matchbox from inside the bra. Then put a cigarette between the lips and picked up a match.

+++++‘‘For what I can tell, you hate black people. Said that we’re damned… Honestly, it seems to be due to our history. Have you ever thought of how it is to be a black woman in this hypocritical white liar world? I guess you’d never understand if I had to explain, so let me show you how it is. Just a few seconds with your skin as black as mine will give you an idea of the pain we’ve been suffering over the centuries.’’ She struck the match, lighting the cigarette.

+++++After that, she threw the lit matchstick on him.

+++++All his body started to burn, also melting the plastic gag in his mouth. All the pain of the Devil’s puppet burst out of its throat as screams of a sanctimonious sinner going down on flames.

+++++The neighbors saw the mansion going up in smoke and called emergency. When the firefighters and police officers arrived, they saw a black, half-naked woman sitting with legs crossed on the curb. She looked like a beaten hooker, finishing her cigarette with her back to the fire.

+++++As if she had just had the best fuck of her life.

Civil Unrest

I’m tired of trying to see the good in people. Hell, who even knows what good is anymore? It seems everything is up for debate, definitions no longer defining. I don’t even think about definitions anymore. Everything has changed. I changed along with it, into something I don’t recognize anymore as me. It’s been ten days since that point of no return.

+++++It was another now-normal work day. I slid the Bowie knife into its scabbard and tucked the Smith and Wesson Shield in its holster inside the waistband of my slacks. I grabbed my briefcase in my left hand and Mossberg shotgun in my right and went down to meet my carpool.

+++++“Mr. Big Shot Lawyer going to work, I see,” said Brownie. I didn’t know his real name, but the first time I’d run into him he’d offered to share his brownie with me. I didn’t know what might be in the brownie and politely declined. He’d taken offense to that and shoved me into the gutter. I don’t know how he found out I was a lawyer. Probably asked one of my neighbors. As far as I know, I’m the only gainfully employed person in my building. I nodded to Brownie and kept my distance.

+++++Chuck pulled his blue Chevy up to the curb and I heard the locks pop. I looked around, walked quickly to the car, and opened the door. I heard movement behind me and whirled around to my left, aiming my briefcase about head high in case there was an attacker. There wasn’t.  Just Brownie walking away from the building. He wasn’t even watching me.

+++++I closed the door with a satisfying thunk and slid my briefcase to the floor, shifting the shotgun to my left hand. Chuck activated the door locks.

+++++“Morning, Chuck. Stan. Earnest.” I turned and nodded to the other three men in the car with me.

+++++“Morning, Dave,” said Earnest.

+++++I pointed to the police scanner mounted on the dash. “Anything brewing?”

+++++Chuck replied, “Yeah. Protest march on Elm just turned into a riot. SWAT’s been called. Looks like we’re taking a detour.”

+++++“Who’s protesting today?” I asked.

+++++“They didn’t say. Does it matter?”

+++++Protests on Elm were nothing new. It housed City Hall as well as the District Courthouse, so one group or other with a bone to pick was often out there marching. Since the last election, though, things had gotten progressively less civil, and more and more of those protests were turning violent.

+++++“Can’t take Fowler. It’s still blocked off,” said Stan from the back left seat.

+++++“Can’t take Euclid, either,” said Chuck, “It’s got that pro-choice sit-in going at the Catholic church and the church counter-protesting outside.”

+++++“Damn squatters. Why don’t the cops just chuck them out? Let us have our church building back?” said Earnest.

+++++Chuck replied, “Cops are super busy these days, buddy. As long as those squatters don’t burn anything or start throwing bricks, then they’re fine. Guess you Catholics are going to have to do something yourselves.”

+++++“Is that a crack at my religion, Chuck?”

+++++“Nope. I’m just saying you guys got guns and bats and stuff. You should suit up one night and go in there and start cracking heads. That’d clear those asshats out in a hurry.”

+++++“Can’t. The Pope expressed his desire that we deal with this situation peacefully.”

+++++“So, what? You’re going to keep holding services in the civic center?” Chuck asked.

+++++“Can’t do that anymore. Too many protests. Management kicked us out,” Earnest replied.

+++++“So, what are you guys going to do?” asked Stan.

+++++“Same thing the early Christians did, I guess,” said Earnest, “Hold services in our homes. It’ll be hell for the priest trying to reach as many of his flock as he can, but at least we can gather together as friends and do Bible study and pray.”

+++++“What about other parishes?” Chuck asked.

+++++“Haven’t you been paying attention? We’re under siege all over the city.”

+++++“Other pro-life groups are, too,” Chuck countered, “including the group I’m in.”

+++++“With all due respect, Chuck, your church building isn’t overrun with baby killers right now. So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t equate your situation with mine.”

+++++“That wasn’t what I meant, Earnest. I just meant that maybe you should hold your services in connection with another parish, that’s all.”

+++++“That wouldn’t change the basic problem, though.”

+++++“No,” Chuck continued, “but it would give you all a place to congregate and worship. And we all know what the power of prayer can do.”

+++++I snorted and Chuck cocked an eye at me before negotiating a turn. “What? The atheist has something to say?”

+++++I spoke up. “Now, why do you want to put it like that, Chuck? And you, Earnest. Baby killers? Really?”

+++++“It’s what they are.”

+++++“It’s the phrase, and, I guess, the sentiment. Part of what’s wrong here is we can’t be civil to each other, and language like that doesn’t help.”

+++++“I’ll tell you what. I’ll be civil when they stop killing babies.”

+++++“Yeah. Tell it brother,” Chuck shouted.

+++++I shook my head. Stan spoke from behind me. Stan didn’t say much on our rides. I always thought it was because he was a paralegal and afraid to speak up in front of three attorneys, but I’d never asked him.

+++++“We’re getting close, guys.”

+++++I looked around. Sure enough we were just a block from Elm. Smoke drifted and swirled on the street in front of us. At least I hoped it was smoke. It could have been tear gas, which always made driving more eventful. We entered into the cloud and hoped for the best. The smell of burnt plastic and wood was welcome. No burning, watery eyes, no snotty nose, no coughing.

+++++I clutched the shotgun with my left hand and kept my right hand on the window button, ready for action if needed. A fellow lawyer had been attacked on his way to work a few weeks ago, dragged from his car and beaten to death during an Antifa rally. Since then, we’ve all taken to carpooling. I knew that Earnest had his own shotgun at the ready, and that Stan, behind me, was holding his MP5 in his lap.

+++++Chuck blew through the stop sign and turned left onto Elm.

+++++Ahead of us we could see a mob of people holding signs against a backdrop of smoke and flames.

+++++“Looks like a car fire,” Chuck muttered, spinning the wheel to align us with the underground parking garage of our building.

+++++Once inside the garage, the tension in the car eased up, but not much. It was not uncommon to find protesters in the garage using it as a bathroom facility or hiding from the cops. I stowed my shotgun in my office and got down to work. As a criminal defense firm, we were very busy these days. I wondered how many of the people we’d witnessed burning the car this morning would end up as our clients. I kept the TV in my office tuned to the local news, keeping tabs on the riot and other problem areas around our small city. Stan came into my office carrying a file, glanced at my TV, then turned to face me.

+++++“How’s the riot going?”

+++++“The police don’t seem to be actively breaking it up. My guess is they’re going to wait it out, let the rioters get bored and go home.”

+++++“That’s not what we pay them for.”

+++++“No, it’s not. But as many riots as are breaking out even here in Lakeview I can’t blame them for not wanting to mix it up every time. That’s dangerous work, and they’re only human.”

+++++“My wife can’t even get to her job because of them. So now she loses a day’s pay. We can’t afford that.”

+++++I had nothing to say, so I simply nodded. His wife works in the courthouse. She’s three months pregnant.

+++++“Maybe tomorrow will be better,” Stan said.

+++++“Probably not.”

+++++He took a step to the door, then turned. “Do you see any hope? How do we get out of this mess?”

+++++I patted the Smith and Wesson on my belt. “I don’t know. All I know is that I intend to survive.”

+++++“Is survival enough?”

+++++“No. But for now that’s all we’ve got. When society breaks down, all you can do is survive and hope you’re one of the ones that gets to rebuild it.”

+++++“It all seems so pointless. I used to think people were basically good.”

+++++“I did too. Then all this started. Now I don’t know what to think,” I said.

+++++“Do you really think you could kill someone?”

+++++“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m not sure anyone knows that until the moment arrives.”

+++++“It’s a big deal, killing a person.”

+++++I nodded, wondering where he was going with this.

+++++“I carry that MP5, you know.”

+++++“I do. Nice gun,” I replied.

+++++“Thanks. I’ve only ever shot it once. At the range.”

+++++“Okay.”

+++++“It scares me to think I might have to use it for real.”

+++++I shrugged. “Scares me, too. I mean me, of course. I’m not sure I could do it. Like you, I’ve always tried to find the good in people. Killing someone means I’ve given up on that.”

+++++He furrowed his brow again, nodded, then turned and left. I sighed, a feeling of doom settling over me like a blanket.

+++++The riot never bogged down. I looked up at the TV from time to time and the crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. The police moved in finally, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. I could hear the commotion through my closed office window when it started and watched the action on the screen. Bottles and rocks were thrown, then Molotov cocktails. The police line moved in with batons and shields only to be repulsed by the sheer force of numbers in the mob. The overhead pictures from the circling news helicopter showed more cars being burned, still others overturned.

+++++Chuck trundled his corpulent body into my office and said, “The partners are worried. We’re closing down early. Courts are closed anyway and no clients are willing to come close to this shit. Be ready in five minutes.” Then he was gone.

+++++I didn’t need to be told twice. I closed the file Stan had handed me, tucked it into my briefcase, retrieved my shotgun, and made my way to the garage. I was the last to arrive.

+++++“We’d better hurry,” Chuck said.

+++++We piled into the car and Chuck screeched the tires. Leaving the ramp, I looked to the right and the cordon of police was practically on top of us. Chuck turned left and floored it, the engine revving before the gear changed.

+++++“Jesus, they’re right there! Chuck, get us out of here!” Earnest shouted from the back seat.

+++++“Holy crap! What about the people still in the office?” Stan asked.

+++++“They’re not getting out any time soon, that’s for sure,” Chuck said, turning right onto Euclid.

+++++“Not Euclid, you idiot. Don’t forget about the St. Anthony’s demonstration,” Earnest said.

+++++“Fuck!” Chuck pounded the steering wheel as he braked. A large crowd of demonstrators blocked the road ahead of us.

+++++“Turn around! Turn around!” I shouted.

+++++Chuck executed a high-speed three point turn, but ahead of us we could see the riot on Elm blocking the way we had come. As we watched, some rioters broke off from the crowd and started running up Euclid at us.

+++++“Floor it!” Earnest shouted. “Run the bastards down!”

+++++Instead, Chuck started another three-point turn, but the swiftest of the rioters were already on top of us. Bats cracked the windshield and back window and hands started beating on the doors and windows. Through the crazed windshield I saw the rioters from Elm Street start mixing it up with the demonstrators outside the Catholic church. Signs were used as weapons and soon the two groups were one indistinguishable mass of writhing humanity. But we had bigger issues.

+++++The car was being rocked as rioters pushed back and forth on it. Stan was screaming incoherently in the back seat and I could hear Earnest praying the rosary. Chuck was honking the horn and inching the car forward, but there were bodies everywhere and the car wasn’t moving much.

+++++“Floor it! Floor it! Get us out of here!” I urged.

+++++In response he honked the horn again, but a bat crashed into the windshield, punching a hole in it. The roar of the rioters swelled and the car started rocking harder.

+++++It was a defining moment. One of those moments that tells you who you are and what you believe. A sudden calm overtook me, and I saw what I had to do. I rolled my window down, took a deep breath, and fired my shotgun through the opening. I didn’t think of what I saw before me as a human being. I was beyond that. I was in terror. The calm term, the legal term, is “in fear for my life.”

+++++The shotgun roared and my ears felt like they’d exploded. Something warm and wet landed on my face. I didn’t want to think about that, but I noticed that the flailing arms and pressing crowd around my side of the car receded.

+++++“What the hell, man?” Chuck screamed, grabbing my left arm. I shrugged it free, thinking “six more shots.” I pumped the action and loaded another one, stuck the barrel through the window, and fired toward the front of the car. The rioters scattered, two of them falling to the ground. I pulled the gun in, looked at Chuck, and calmly said, “Floor it.”

+++++To his credit, he did. The car rocked as it rolled over something and the rioters scattered as the car lurched forward. Rocks, or something hard, landed on the car as we surged through the crowd toward Elm Street, but our flight was short lived. The mass of the riot was still in front of us. There was nowhere to go.

+++++“We’re going to have to run for it, boys,” I said, turning around to look in the back seat. Earnest was crying. Stan, sitting directly behind me, was wide eyed. Chuck looked like he was in shock. “Guys! Wake up! We’re in trouble here!” I punched Chuck in the arm, but I’m not sure he noticed.

+++++“I’m with you,” Stan said, his voice steady.

+++++“We gotta go! Now!” I said. “Chuck! Earnest! We gotta go!” I turned and fired out my window again as a hand landed on my arm. My ears were ringing and I could barely hear the roar of the shotgun or the crowd. I unlocked the door and swung it open, stepping out of our metal coffin and facing the surging mass of anger and hatred around me. Behind the line of rioters, an alleyway stretched. It was free of humanity and offered an escape route. I was aware of the door to my right opening, and I looked to see Stan emerging from it, his MP5 flashing as he stood. Another rioter in front of me went down.

+++++I pumped my Mossberg again and again, sending more buckshot downrange. This time I saw the impact on the woman in front of me, dressed all in black with a mask over her face. Her blonde hair swung up as she fell, the ponytail obscenely waving as if she were merely jogging. I had no thoughts to spare for her. I only thought about survival. I ran, racking another shell into the chamber. Two more shots. I needed to break free now.

+++++Dimly, as if through a wall, I heard Stan next to me firing. Rioters fell to my right and the crowd parted in front of me. There was a clear path to the alley now, and I ran like I hadn’t run since I was a kid. I ran as if the ice cream truck was pulling away and I still had a dollar in my hand. I looked over my shoulder and Stan was right behind me. I didn’t see Chuck or Earnest, but the crowd had completely engulfed Chuck’s car. I didn’t look back again.

+++++Stan and I made it without expending any more rounds. We separated at King Avenue, him going left to his house, me going straight. It was two miles back to my home. Two miles with ringing ears and swirling thoughts. It’s impossible to stand in the middle of so much focused hatred, so much boiling anger, and not feel its power rub off on you. And I’d killed people. I’d deliberately pulled the trigger five times and shot at another human being. What, now, was I? A murderer? It was self-defense, though. Anyone would see that, right? But, in the end, I’d still killed people.

+++++It’s been ten days since then. The riots spread all over the downtown area. Seventy people dead, several hundred more injured. Cars burned, buildings torched. My law office was a smoldering wreckage with at least five people unaccounted for. Chuck and Earnest were among the missing, but I knew what had happened to them. And many of us, those with some humanity left, wondered the same thing.

+++++What now? What had we become? Where do we go from here?

+++++I had a more specific thought. What had I become? I’d always tried to find the good in people, but all I could see when I closed my eyes now was a flying blonde ponytail falling to the ground. It doesn’t matter what her intent was, I’d taken her life.

+++++I’m tired of trying to see the good in people. I can no longer see it in myself

I Did It My Way

Fat Frankie Falcone liked to pretend he was connected, that he was a made guy. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Frankly-and no pun intended- it’s hard to believe he got away with the shit he did for so long.

+++++Every once in a while, despite the best efforts of his muscle – two curly headed clowns named Vito and Vinny constantly adorned in track suits and thick gold chains- someone wouldn’t pay. That’s when he would call me. He paid top dollar but Fat Frankie insisted things be done his way. And, as he was fond of saying, Fat Frankie always got his way.

+++++He wanted me to blow up a guy’s house, a guy fifty grand in the hole. Vito and Vinny had broken his arm and a week later cut off two fingers. The guy still came up with nothing.

+++++“Gotta send a message.” Fat Frankie said. The guy lived in a modest home out on Long island. While I was casing it I discovered that not only was he married, he had three kids. I wasn’t going to kill any kids because their old man couldn’t pick winners at Belmont. Didn’t matter how Frankie wanted this handled.

+++++Instead, I followed the guy to his office job the next morning. He got out of his Lexus and I walked up from behind and popped him in the head with a silenced Sig Sauer. Nice and easy, job done. Except I hadn’t done it Fat Frankie’s way, two hours later he had me on the phone, plenty pissed off.

+++++“Goddamit,” he screamed, “You didn’t fucking do it my way. Now I’m gonna send you a message.” It wasn’t the first time he’d talked to me like that. I decided it would be the last. A man can only tolerate so much.

+++++An hour later, Vinnie and Vito kicked in the door to my apartment. The bomb I was supposed to use came in handy. Bye- bye Vinny and Vito. I felt sorry for the guy they bought their gold chains from. His business was going to take a hit.

+++++Then I got Frankie on the phone.

+++++“Listen you fat bastard,” I began.” I don’t know what made you think I was the kind of guy you could talk to the way you do. And I sure as hell don’t know what made you think I would put up with it. Every day for the rest of your miserable life I want you to wake up knowing that you might turn around and see me standing there and that day will become the worst day of your life.”

+++++I hung up before he could respond.

+++++I moved to a new place. Frankie hired a couple of new goons. They looked a lot like Vinnie and Vito. He never went anywhere without them.

+++++For a couple of months I tailed him. He was spooked all right, as nervous as a kid having to meet a girl’s father on the first date. I was making him sweat.

+++++One chilly afternoon his Caddy pulled up in front of Pasquale’s Pizzeria. When Frankie went inside, I pulled my squad car up behind his. Walked up to the driver’s window, shot his two stooges and tossed a throw down on the front seat before walking inside. Frankie didn’t recognize me in uniform. He was concentrating on a large slice of pepperoni.

+++++“Today’s the day you’ve been dreading Frankie.” He looked up, his eyes growing wide with fear. “It’s the day I told you would come.”

+++++“You’re a goddamn cop?”

+++++“Yeah,” I said. “And I’m doing things my way.”

+++++He stood, tried to reach for a gun. I shot him in his massive gut and he sat back down, the unfinished slice still in front of him, grease dripping from his chin.

+++++“You could let me finish my pizza.” I shot him again.

+++++Those were Fat Frankie’s last words. I wasn’t going to let the bastard go out his way. Those days were over.

FOR SALE

The hatch cover; a square of white-painted plywood that gave access to the attic, was normally set snugly into its frame in the ceiling above the hallway landing, but this morning, on her way from the bedroom, Julia saw that it was lifted in one corner and slightly askew, revealing a narrow sliver of blackness; an elongated triangle of dark space.

+++++“You been up into the attic this morning?” she asked over her shoulder, as she poured her husband’s morning coffee.

+++++Miles looked up from his newspaper; a piece of buttered toast paused halfway to his mouth. “No, why on earth would I do that, love… and more to the point, why do you ask?”

+++++“It’s open,” Julia said, placing the coffee mug on the kitchen table, and then seeing Miles’s frown, added, “The ceiling hatch, I mean. It looks as if it’s been opened.”

+++++Miles put down his toast, stood up from the table and wandered over to the foot of the stairs. Leaning on the banister and craning his neck, Miles glanced upwards. “Oh, yeah.” He sounded surprised. “I wonder how that happened.”

+++++Taking a broom from the cupboard under the stairs, he went up to the landing. Miles stretched and, using the broom handle, pushed the hatch cover up slightly; manoeuvring it across a couple of inches to where, with a gentle thud, it dropped back into place in its frame. Coming back downstairs, Miles replaced the broom in the cupboard. “Maybe there was a gust of wind or something… just lifted it a bit,” he remarked to Julia, and went back to his toast and coffee. Neither of them gave it another thought.

+++++That night, while in bed, Miles thought he heard a faint scratching sound coming from above the ceiling in their bedroom; a slight scuffling, as if something small was moving about… maybe rats, he thought. The following morning, the hatch cover was out of place again… not much; just one corner lifted askew and pushed over about three inches to one side. Miles stood with his hands on his hips staring up at it, an annoyed frown on his normally placid features. “Pretty weird,” he said to Julia, as his wife paused next to him on the landing. “There must have been a bit of a wind again last night… I can’t think of anything else that would have moved it.” He did not mention the scuffling noises… Julia would be freaked out completely if she thought a family of rodents was sharing their new home.

+++++“Well, all our windows were closed, so it couldn’t have been a gust of wind blowing up there from down here,” his wife remarked. “Maybe there is a gap in the eaves and the wind outside is causing a bit of a vacuum in the attic. Maybe that’s what lifted the hatch cover… it’s very lightweight and maybe it sort of got sucked out of place.” She gave him a wry grin. “We’ve only lived here a couple of weeks, and we don’t yet know the house that well.”

+++++Miles smiled at his wife. “You know what, clever girl? You might just be right!” And he went downstairs to get the broom.

***

+++++Miles awoke in the middle of the night. Something was not quite right. He was sure he heard a noise from somewhere in the house. He lay there silently, mouth open with the air trapped in his throat, listening carefully. He wiggled his jaw, cracking his eardrums to remove the faint slumbering pressure and just lay there in the darkness next to his sleeping wife. There it was again, the faintest of dragging sounds… like an old desk drawer being pulled slowly open.

+++++Miles slipped out from under the duvet, picked up his old school cricket bat from its place in the corner and padded across the darkened room, where he pressed his left ear gently against the door. Silence. After a few breathless moments, he carefully turned the knob and opened the door. The hall landing was in darkness. No noise or light came from downstairs. Slowly, he stepped out of the bedroom and, so as not to wake Julia, closed the door softly behind him. He flicked on the wall switch. Light flooded the hallway and down the stairs. Miles leaned over the railing and peered into the room below. Nothing; no reactive noise of a burglar escaping the house; no noise from outside; no dustbins being knocked over in flight…and no neighbour’s dogs barking. Total silence.

+++++Cricket bat half-raised, Miles padded quickly downstairs and checked the exterior doors. All were locked, as were the windows. Everything was in place and so, with an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders, he headed back to the foot of the stairs. Julia came out of the bedroom and onto the landing; when Miles glanced up at her, his gaze fell upon the attic hatchway. The cover was skewed well over to one side… almost fully open this time. Julia followed his gaze and clapped a hand to her mouth, stifling a scream, and withdrew quickly back into the bedroom. Miles completed his ascent in two leaps, running along the landing to the bedroom and throwing a quick look at the black rectangle above when he passed beneath it. Back inside the bedroom, he found Julia sitting on the edge of the bed, the duvet wrapped around her shoulders.

+++++“It’s okay, honey. No burglars, everything is fine. It’s just that damned hatch!” He put his arm around her and, coercing her to get back to bed, pulled the duvet over the both of them. “I will check the roof tomorrow; I promise,” he said, kissing her on the nose.

***

+++++Early the following morning, before breakfast—and after another hatch cover manoeuvre with the broom handle—Miles went out into the garden and made a wide circle of the house, peering up at the steeply-angled roof to see if there were any tiles missing or any holes under the eaves that could allow wind or a vacuum to disturb the hatch cover. From down at his lower level, however, he could see nothing that would indicate such a fault.

+++++The house was very old and had stood empty for several years before being sold. Recently renovated and finally decorated by a property developer just a few weeks before Miles and Julia had purchased it at auction, the house still retained all of the original structure—the masonry and wooden beams and so on. It stood alone in an acre of ground that abutted to the rear rolling farmlands that disappeared off to the vast Yorkshire moors rising beyond. They had yet to venture up into the attic… in fact, as first-time home owners, they had very little junk or items for storage, so there had been no need; and besides, Miles had no step ladder. That was something he put right as soon as the village hardware store opened.

+++++Miles also purchased a big chunky flashlight at the store, and so armed, he set the folding aluminium step ladder below the hatch cover and climbed a couple of steps. He extended his fingers, lifted the cover and slid it to one side, then climbed another couple of steps until his head and shoulders were inside the hatchway. Before using the torch, Miles peered around in the darkness of the huge roof space, looking for any tell-tale shafts or pinpricks of daylight that might indicate a hole in the roof or a gap somewhere. There were none. Flicking on the flashlight, Miles made a sweep of the roof space, but the torch beam revealed nothing untoward. He did not, he admitted to himself, even know what it was he was looking for. Could a stray cat, maybe chasing a mouse or a bird, have gotten trapped in the attic and, in desperation to escape, moved the hatch? Could there be a family of rats living up here… are rats capable of moving objects?

+++++He examined the edges of the plywood hatch, somewhat illogically, for claw scratches or the evidence of gnawing teeth marks, but there was nothing to see. Miles’s mind could not settle on any logical answer and he carefully ascended the ladder until he was able to haul himself over the edge of the hatchway and into the attic. Getting to a crouched standing position and balancing on the latticework of narrow and uneven beams, Miles gingerly shuffled forward twenty feet or so, swinging the flashlight around and peering into the shadows, but apart from cobwebs hanging from the rafters there was nothing Miles could see. The only real blind spot in the convoluted roof space was the large brick chimney stack that thrust its bulk up through the living room ceiling on the far side of the attic, but he was reluctant to approach it, fearful of losing his balance and crashing through the hairy insulation matting and plasterboard ceiling—or maybe he was subconsciously wary of leaving the hatchway too far behind.

+++++Satisfied that there was no roof damage or holes that would allow gusts of wind inside, and that there were no rats or stray cats living up there, Miles turned back towards the hatch.

+++++His torch beam swept over a few scattered piles of some lumpy, greyish objects over on the left. Miles stepped gingerly from beam-to-beam, ducking lower and lower as the roof angled down until he could go no further. He bent forward; holding the flashlight at arms’ length, peering at the objects. They looked like animal droppings. He stretched out and plucked the nearest one, holding it up in the torch beam. It definitely was a dropping of some sort; a desiccated piece of dung, as thick as his thumb, about two inches long. Miles crumbled it in his fingers; dry greyish-white crumbs and tiny splinters of bone mixed with matted hair fell down onto the insulation matting. Miles was taken back to something he studied in the biology lab when he was at school… “Not dung, but maybe owl pellets,” he mused aloud. “If I remember rightly, the calcium from the bones of their prey makes them greyish-white.” He dropped the remains and wiped his hand on his jeans. “Or is that hyenas?” he frowned, crabbing his way back to the hatchway and departing the attic.

+++++“Well?” Julia asked, holding out a mug of coffee.

+++++“Nothing… just dust and cobwebs.” Miles brushed his shirt front before taking the mug and sitting at the kitchen table. “There are no holes in the roof, no tiles missing, and no gaps in the eaves… and no wild animals living up there.”

+++++Julia raised her eyebrows. “Wild animals? What on earth do you mean, Miles?’

+++++He smiled. “Only kidding, but the thought had occurred to me that maybe a stray cat had got trapped up there, or some bats or… something like that.”

+++++Julia put one hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow. “Or rats? Is that what you were going to say? Or is there anything else ending in ‘ats’ that might live in an attic?”

+++++Miles gave her a wry grin. “Anyway, there is nothing up there at all. There were some owl pellets, but they must be old, from a time before the house and roof was renovated, I imagine.” He sipped his coffee.

+++++“Owl pellets; what are they?” asked Julia.

+++++“When owls eat their prey – mice, rats, other small mammals or birds – they are not able to digest everything. They regurgitate the undigested bits of hair and bone as pellets.” He explained. “But there is no owl up there now, and I still have no idea how the hatch cover got moved,” he said, picking up the newspaper from the table. “It can only be either the wind or, as you first suggested, a vacuum caused by something. We will have to check the whole house this evening before bed… just to make sure there is not even a fanlight open. I’ll even seal the letter box with duct tape,” he said, pausing to sip his coffee. “And I am going to leave the ladder and the torch up on the landing… so if the hatch is blown open again, at least I can have an immediate look to see what’s going on.”

+++++“Maybe the house is haunted,” Julia said, with one eyebrow raised; with a wry grin on her face. “Maybe we have a resident ghost… woo woohooo!”

+++++“Very funny” said Miles, chuckling. “Now, how about some breakfast before I go to work? I still have time.”

***

+++++Later that day, Julia was doing her housework, running a feather duster over the framed pictures Miles had hung on the walls up the stairs and along the hallway; prints of old paintings, landscapes and family photos, etc. On the landing she paused to straighten a photo of her sister’s wedding day, smiling at the memory, but suddenly stiffened and looked up; sure she had heard a faint noise from above… from the attic. Julia stood there, her ear tilted to the ceiling, a frown of concentration on her brow. Nothing. She shook her head in dismissal and ran the duster over the photo. The attic hatch above her lifted up and thumped shut twice in quick succession; just a few inches, like a mouth opening and closing… or chomping. Julia screamed. The photo fell from its hook; glass smashing when it hit the polished wood floor. She flew down the stairs and ran out of the kitchen door and down the back garden, scared stiff. Resting on the low wall of the fish pond at the end of the garden; Julia put her hands upon her knees and hung down her head, breathing heavily. “Damn!” She swore once she had regained her breath, shaking her head. “What the hell is that?”

+++++After some minutes she plucked up the courage to sneak back into the house. Taking a carving knife from the kitchen draw she crept into the living room and tip-toed across the carpet to the rear wall. Leaning on it with one hand, she peered around the corner and up the stairs. On the hallway landing, the hatch cover was in place.

***

+++++“I don’t give a damn what you do, Miles,” Julia stood with her hands on her hips, confronting her husband when he arrived home from work. “But do something! This is freaking me out!”

+++++“Okay, honey,” Miles raised his hands in surrender, “I promise I will get it sorted… tomorrow I will see if I can locate roofing contractor to come and check it all out… and maybe call in an exterminator.”

+++++“An exterminator?” Julia frowned. “I though you said there was no rats or whatever living up there.”

+++++“Well, I didn’t see any, but it wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

+++++He was also getting freaked out by this attic hatch situation. He was worried that he couldn’t explain it, but he didn’t want to alarm Julia any more than she already was.

***

+++++Julia awoke in the middle of the night. There was a faint noise; a dull thump followed by a faint susurrus. It sounded as if it came from the attic.

+++++“Miles?” she whispered, urgently, turning to one side and reaching out with her hand to wake her husband. But Miles was not there. His side of the bed was empty and cold. A faint strip of light showed under the bedroom door. Julia slipped out of bed, pulled over her head a baggy tee shirt and tiptoed over to the door. She listened for a second before opening it. The landing light was on and the step ladder was in place directly under the attic hatch… which was wide open. “Miles?” she said in a hoarse whisper. No answer. She walked warily over to the foot of the ladder, resting one hand on a step and craning her neck to peer up into the tenebrous space above. “Miles, you up there?” she asked. Again no answer, but she was sure she could hear some faint noises up there. Miles must be in the attic, she thought. Julia placed one foot on the lower step, testing her weight. Then, with hands trembling, she carefully climbed the creaking ladder. As her eyes reached the level of the hatchway, Julia swivelled her head, peering around the roof space. Some twenty feet away, the chunky flashlight sat lens-down between two wooden beams, the torch beam diffusing through the matted roof insulation, giving off a dim yellowy glow.

+++++Stepping up and clambering into the attic, and with arms outstretched for balance, Julia began a timorous journey along the precarious roof beams towards the faint guiding light. As she reached the flashlight and picked it up she became aware of a weird slurping or sucking noise, coming from behind the great chimney stack that stood some distance away.

+++++“Are you there, Miles?” she hissed, and the noise ceased. “What the hell are you doing?” Still there came no answer.

+++++With the flashlight held in front of her at arms’ length, Julia shuffled warily forward through the roof space until she reached the chimney. She wrinkled her nose; there was a smell—at first it was indistinct but then she recognised it—the sickly-sweet, coppery smell of the local butcher’s shop. As she peered cautiously around corner of the massive structure her breath caught in her throat. For a brief moment she stared incredulously at the lifeless body of her husband, Miles – his throat torn open and bloody. Her scream—shrill, piercing and full of terror—filled the attic as a clawed hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, violently jerking her down behind the chimney stack. The flashlight fell from her hand and went out. Her scream diminished quickly to a wet gurgle, but for several moments the memory of it echoed around the attic, until fading away to nothing.

+++++A moment later, way back across the roof space, the hatch cover jerked and scraped slowly across the hole until, with a gentle thud, it dropped back into place, shutting out the ambient light from the hallway below; plunging the roof space once more into total blackness.

+++++In the entire house the only sound to be heard was the tearing of flesh and the crunching of bone coming from up in the attic.

***

+++++The young couple stood in the middle of the front lawn, gazing up at the house. “It has been empty for over a year,” the real estate agent was saying to the potential buyers. “Apparently the previous owners just upped and went away one day; leaving everything behind. It was a mystery, of course, and became the subject of a massive search and long police investigation. As far as I know they never discovered where the couple had gone off to.” He looked up at the house. “Some weeks after the investigation had gone cold, as they say in police jargon; their respective families came to collect all the various belongings and empty the house.” The agent paused and turned to them with a smile, “Anyway, that’s just ancient history,” he said brightly. “Now, would you like a tour of the interior?” The couple nodded enthusiastically, and the followed the agent to the front door.

CHOICES

Had the nosy neighbor not called it in, the whole situation might have gone unreported. The lights had been off in the faded frame house next door for several days. The small girl who lived there with her grandmother had not been waiting at curbside for the school bus. The caller’s concern was not benevolent. He was worried the occupants had been killed by a gas leak and that the whole neighborhood might blow up.

+++++Dispatch sent out Peterson, portly and balding with thirty years in patrol. He’d earned a reputation of being tough enough to eat the silverware. Polski, his rookie partner had only been on the street four months. After no answer to knocks all around, Peterson was looking for a door to kick in when Polski found an unlocked side window. She climbed in and let Peterson in the front door. The interior smelled of wet diapers and overflowing toilets.

+++++Peterson led with flashlight in hand. Polski, slender beneath thick black hair, drew her pistol. Peterson motioned her to put it away.

+++++They followed the slight noise from down the hall. The little girl was perhaps eight, but so frail and emaciated, she appeared transparent. By candlelight, she sat, wrapped in a ragged blanket, reading from a tattered book of prayers. Peterson’s trained eye saw the emaciated old lady in the bed had been dead several days.

+++++“She ain’t been able to talk,” the child said softly. “Can y’all help us to the clinic.”

+++++Polksi, young, and handy with kids, coaxed her out into the hall. She handed the child a freebie candy from the Mexican restaurant on the main drag. The kid devoured it like a hungry dog.

+++++The M.E.’s night agent showed up surprisingly quickly. Tall, morose, with thick glasses, his give a damn factor had faded even further than Peterson’s over the years.

+++++“Deader ‘n hell alright, Peterson…maybe a week or so like you say. So skinny, she ain’t givin’ off that God awful stink they usually do. Nuthin’ in her bowels to discharge at death. Sorta petrified.” He chopped off his horselaugh when he saw Peterson eyeing him. Peterson was nobody to tick off.

+++++He coughed, “I…uh, need to call the morgue wagon.”

+++++Polski stepped in and caught Peterson’s eye. “What about the girl?”

+++++“County General first, then social services steps in.” He looked at her in the dim light. “Kiddo, I don’t like it either, but you can’t take her home with you.”

+++++The M.E., overhearing said, “Hell she’s gonna croak anyway. Pretty far gone from starvation and I suspect she has pneumonia. You two do see the problem here, I hope?”

+++++He gestured beneath the foot of the old lady’s bed where a fat kitten lay sleeping beside a bowl.

+++++“Fed the damned cat and starved themselves to death…stupid riff raff. Or hey, maybe the kid starved the old woman. Y’all could charge her with murder,” he morphed into the idiotic laugh again.

+++++Peterson spoke softly to the man, but the edge in his voice was ominous, “Maybe you oughta wait outside.”

+++++The district sergeant walked in. “Dispatch says you got a hell of a mess here.”

+++++Peterson nodded, mindful his superior didn’t see the tears clouding the iron man’s vision.

+++++The sergeant said, “Ambulance just pulled up out front. Peterson, you ride in the wagon with the kid. Polski, you follow in your squad car. We’ll transfer the kid to juvenile later. “

+++++The emergency team met the ambulance. Tender hands boosted the girl onto a gurney. The intern shined his penlight in her eyes, then probed her chest with his stethoscope.

+++++“Peterson, this kid is dead. If the body wasn’t so warm, I’d swear she’s been gone two days. Another county burial.”

+++++Peterson, eyes cold, turned to Polski. “Call the Sarge and tell him we won’t be transferring her to Juvenile.”

+++++When Polski’s shift ended at midnight, she drove to the tragic scene and entered via flashlight, through the same open window. The kitten was still snoozing beside her bowl.

+++++“Sweetheart, you’re gonna live at my house where’s plenty of food for both of us.” The snoozing creature cuddled into her arms, still asleep.

Darkness of the Night

When afternoon dropped to dusk she prepared for evening. Dressed in black pleather jacket, half top, yoga pants, and heels. Her dirty brown hair tied off with a rubber band. She departed her apartment, melded into the darkness of night. Two bus trips later she arrived at the seedy motel full of transients and met her pimp. He stood in the hallway just outside the door to the room. She stripped down to a thong, her hip bones protruding, stomach distended, blue eyes the only color on her skeletal face, track marks on arms and behind knees. The pimp collected twenty bucks for fifteen minutes as eight men entered the room in just two hours. After the last, the pimp entered the room.

+++++“How is it going Mandy?”

+++++“I’m bored King! “

+++++He reached in his pocket, pulled out a bag of pills, gave her two.

+++++“There you go, that should make you happy.”

+++++King returned to the door and for over three hours collected twenty after twenty as the men came and went. There were migrant workers, old men, down on their luck men, frat boys who didn’t care who was on the other side of the door. The last to enter were four frat boys who King charged one hundred and fifty bucks for a half hour. When they departed, King entered the room. He untied the pillow cases that held her hands to the bed post, picked her up and placed her in the shower. She walked out and dressed. A pizza arrived and the two ate. When finished he tied off her bicep, took out a needle and injected heroin. King placed one hundred and fifty bucks on the night stand as Mandy began to nod.

+++++“Same time tomorrow night Mandy. Don’t be late.”

+++++She curled into a ball on the bed as King left the room.

+++++Early morning light seeped through the blinds. She stirred, eyes blurry, muscles and bones ached. She pocketed the money, left the room and caught her buses home. When she unlocked the door her mother greeted her.

+++++“Honey, you look so tired. That factory job is wearing you down.”

+++++“We need the money Mom. How is Angela?”

+++++“She is ready to go to school.”

+++++The little girl ran down the hallway and hugged her Mom. Mandy went into the bedroom and changed into a sweat suit and sneakers. The two walked to Angela’s school, Mandy kissed her on the cheek.

+++++“I’ll be back at three for you.”

+++++The little girl smiled and walked into the school.

+++++At three Mandy met Angela and walked her home. The two went over Angela’s homework as the grandmother cooked dinner. As dusk fell into night Mandy left for work. King was waiting by the door.

+++++“It’s going to be a busy night. Those frat boys are coming back for some more.”

+++++“They were rough King, before you let them in you’re going to have to give me a shot.”

+++++And so the parade began again, one after another for two hours. Then the frat boys arrived, six of them this time. The tall preppy one asked King if the price was the same as the night before.

+++++“There’s six of you, so no it’s not the same price.”

+++++“How much?”

+++++“Four hundred for half an hour.”

+++++“There’s six of us, a half hour isn’t long enough.”

+++++“Six hundred for an hour.”

+++++The boys were pulling bills out of their wealthy pockets as King smiled. The tall one handed him the cash.

+++++“Anything goes, right?

+++++“Anything you want, it will be just a minute.”

+++++King entered the room and told Mandy the boys had arrived. He told her no hot shot. He gave her three pills. King waited for fifteen minutes and departed the room. The boys entered as King laughed at what losers they were, such easy money he thought, they didn’t even haggle. As the door shut King walked away down the hall and out to his car. After an hour he returned and walked into the room. A fat kid was still on top of Mandy. He pulled him off and told them to leave. One shoved him, he decked him. The others picked the kid up and departed the room.

+++++“So how did you do?”

+++++“It was degrading, more than normal, I hated it.”

+++++“You know what you signed up for.”

+++++“They said they paid you six hundred.”

+++++“Their kids, they talk big, you know the normal rate.”

+++++The after ritual commenced with the shower, dressing, pizza and then the hot shot. King left one hundred and fifty bucks on the nightstand and left the room. He began to rethink using Mandy as she was just a bag of bones now and soon customers would complain and he wasn’t a ten dollar pimp. In the morning Mandy woke, took her bus trip home, and began counting money in her head and what she was paid.

+++++It was her last night of work for the week. She met King at the door and they both entered the room.

+++++“So you have a problem believing me about the cash?

+++++“I just told you what they said.”

+++++King slapped her across the face, she fell onto the floor.

+++++“You’re just a big bag of bones, useless!”

+++++“I’ll be good, anything for you King!”

+++++He tied off her bicep, injected a double dose, left the needle in her arm as she drifted into the abyss.

+++++He wiped down the doorknobs and furniture, even the needle as it dangled from her arm. He took her purse, left the room and went to his new spot where his new bitch would meet him in an hour.

+++++Margaret took to walking Angela to school. Mandy hadn’t been home in a month. There were other times when Mandy took off for half a year only to return. She knew Mandy wasn’t a factory worker, it was just easier for her to make believe. Months turned to years and Mandy never came home and Margaret didn’t want to know. She had a new chance with Angela, this time it would be right. Ten years had passed and the remains of Mandy sat in a box cremated as unclaimed. Soon she would be taken with five hundred others to Laurel Hill Cemetery buried where a thousand others rest under a marker simply engraved, “1500 Citizens Consigned to the Earth – City of Philadelphia 2010.”

When The Shadow Begs to Dance

The Janitor, the weasel. His eyes are sunken in, bloodshot from not sleeping the last two and a half nights, visions of the Muskrat filtering past the occasionally vodka sloshed outer cortex, no doubt. His apartment is likely trashed, brown water stains surrounding leaky, exposed pipe with white and green minerals growing at the seams. Least I hope they are minerals. They could be spores of mold. Christ, I hadn’t thought of that.

+++++The Janitor walks his worn wooden floors and looks out of the cracked window pane to see if there is a black sedan illegally parked in front of the fire hydrant. There never is. There will be, though, he must be thinking to himself. He paces back and forth, wearing down the already worn floorboards and just has to wonder what sort of stain his brain matter will create when it hits that worn, wooden floor.

+++++The Janitor. What a fucking waste of a human being. He is skinny from not eating and drinking just a little too much. He smokes too. Fucking smokers, right? His hair is chopped unevenly above his ears. I think he cuts it himself. He eventually pulls on his green coveralls and looks outside his cracked window pane and sees for the eighteenth time today that there is no black sedan waiting for him. It won’t be a black sedan, I’m afraid, but I don’t think he knows that yet. He then looks around his broken room and maybe thinks about how he has come to this. Maybe thinks about how the Muskrat will get him. He should have slept, but who could sleep with the Muskrat lurking about?

+++++Work is a four floor office building just a little too far on the wrong side of the tracks for them to charge very much rent. The Janitor comes in just as the sun is setting and the fat slobs in cheap ties and white shirts are leaving for the night. I don’t think he knows what they do in the building. He only knows simple things about them, like that they don’t recycle as much as they should. He knows they leave soda and frosting stains on the conference room floor every time someone has a birthday. I think they are a call center for some other company. They might sell some kind of office supply, I’m not entirely sure, and neither is The Janitor.

+++++The Janitor goes around collecting trash cans and emptying their contents into a big translucent plastic bag, the kind that rip if you look at them too hard. He is thinking about the Muskrat, no doubt. Is it Muskrat? Or is it something else? He thinks it’s something close to that, probably. English is not The Janitors’ first or even second language, but he has heard stories in bars, no doubt. He knows enough. I wonder, for a moment, what will happen when he is found.

+++++Shit. The Janitor wakes up. He has fallen asleep somehow. He is wondering how much time has passed. The plain looking clock on the wall tells him it was only a few minutes. He reaches into his pocket and finds an orange little plastic bottle that has a name on it that is not his. He presses down and twists the safety cap and withdraws two pills that will help with his drowsiness.

+++++Two small offices clean, he moves on to the main conference room. Half a leftover cake. It will make a decent meal so he reaches for it, but there is a sound coming from the hall that makes him stop. He turns around and sees something, perhaps a slithering shadow that moves across the doorway just from the corner of his eye. I think he panics for a heartbeat, his eyes becoming wide and dilated in anticipation of an unknown danger. But had there been a danger? Had he seen a shadow pass the door? Had the shadow been a man? Did the man have a razorblade jaw and a rubber face?

+++++No. A trick of the light, he assumes. Down the hall a fluorescent lamp flickers like an insect trapped in a bell jar, sparks of power trying to stay alive though immeasurable torture. He fixes the lamp with one trip to a supply closet, then moves down the hall towards the big offices. The ones at the corners. The ones he is fearing tonight.

+++++The big office flushes fear through his thin cheeks. He is exposed there, with the lights on, he probably feels like he is being watched. Maybe he is. He cannot see out, but all can see in. He is on display. He is being judged and talked about while he empties the trash in this brightly lit fish bowl. This is nonsense. No one cares about The Janitor. If he died tomorrow no one would miss him. He pops another pill and tries to rationalize it, but somewhere in the back of his confused mind is the truth about the pills. He doesn’t need them. He knows he doesn’t need them. But he cannot stop. Sometimes you cannot stop just because something is a truth.

+++++With the big corner office done he retreats into the safety of the dimly lit store room, with its big warehouse windows. There is a cargo elevator that goes down to a loading dock. He looks out of the window and for a moment and I swear he sees something in the shadow, something moving. He keeps rigid attention like he might lose whatever he has seen there if he dares to breathe. He probably thinks it is a cat, but he continues to stare anyhow. He is staring at the depth of the shadow, the hallow space that is filled with nothing. It is strange thing, to look at one spot for so long. You begin to feel it changing in front of your eyes, like it is trying to stare back at you and you are both straining to hold onto the known world, to the thing you have set out to see. Another pill to calm the ill.

+++++I’ve been watching him now far too long. I can’t help it. He fascinates me. His gambling debt needs to be paid, and blood can pay any bill a man owes, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like The Janitor. I wait for him to turn away from the shadow outside the window. I want him to finish his business there. When he turns he only sees me for a moment. But it is enough. My mask, Halloween discount store trash worn inside out, giving it a gruesome, murderous sycophant quality. He sees this only for a moment, a perfect moment only given to cerebral fear. I hold a razor blade, fresh from the package, and make an exact quarter inch deep incision across his throat in one practiced motion.

+++++The Janitor holds his throat closed, fighting the advancing asphyxiation that will consume him. His neck pours blood quickly, then slowly as he collapses to the floor. His brain is receiving less oxygen than it needs to maintain his equilibrium. The lack of blood feeding oxygen to the rest of his body is making his muscles go into shock. In minutes he will die, but his blood will try and clot the wound anyway. I look at my watch.

+++++3.

+++++2.

+++++1.

+++++I reach into my bag for the staple gun and the large diaper gage gaze. I work fast clearing the blood with the gauze. I confirm that my blade didn’t slice into the trachea. I staple six times across the wound. I check his pulse and blood oxygenation with the pulse oximeter I keep in the bag. They are both low. I remove the small O2 bottle from the bag and open the valve to fifteen PSI and connect the rebreather mask around his head. He is passed out, but breathing on his own, the pure oxygen supplied in the bottle increases his oxygenation. I begin to sew up his stapled wound, working quickly. I use a braided, non-absorbing suture so he will have to pull them out later on his own. When I finish he looks like a monster, but it will heal well over time.

+++++He is still passed out when I pull him from the van and take him to his bed, dragging him across his worn, wooden floorboards. I drop him on his stained, sunken mattress. I use his stove to heat the branding iron. It smells acrid when I burn his skin, just over his heart. I burn it backwards so it can be read in the mirror when he wakes up. It will read to him, “One Week” in his native tongue.

+++++He is stirring when I leave, just before sun up. I check his vitals one last time and set a bottle of Amoxicillin on his kitchen counter with instructions for use. My tools were sanitized, but infection has been known to be a problem in the past. When he wakes up he will know how serious it has gotten. He will know that he can never run from this. When he sees that scar on his neck, the burn over his heart, he will find the money to pay. He knows that if he does not, the Muskrat will find him.

+++++The Muskrat, what a dumb name, but it is fun to think what fear it instills in men despite the furry creature it is derived from. The Janitor will tell his drinking companions about me, about the horror of what happened to him and how he got his scar. He will tell them that a faceless man emerged from the shadows like a dancing spirit and sliced into his neck. He will be confused, but he will find the money to pay within a week, or the shadow will come find him once again. It is always better for a man to pay then it is for a man to die, and a living man will tell the horror stories long after a dead man is forgotten. The Janitor will pay. He will pay or the shadow will come to dance with him again, and maybe next time it won’t be so merciful. Maybe it will drag him back into the depths from which it came.

Let the Towns Drift Slowly By

He heard it coming before you did. He was already making his way to the tracks while you were dousing the fire. You picked up your sack and caught up to him. He was camped just outside of the town waiting for the late-night freight to leave when you walked in on him. You shared your last can of beans and some salted pork. He was pleased to have the company and pleased to have the food. When he was spooning his beans, he told you it’s safer in pairs than being alone.

+++++The engine is illuminating the tracks and you hide behind the bushes until it passes. Remember, you’ve got to hop on them before they reach full speed or you’ll could end up under them. He keeps eyeing the boxcars as they go by, looking for one that he thinks he could get open. He sees a good one and he slaps you on the shoulder. He runs forward and leaps onto the car ladder. You are running right alongside of him, keeping up with the car. He is working the locking lever of the door and gets it free. He pushes it open a couple of feet and slides in. By then you are on the car ladder right behind him. Holding tightly to the ladder rung, you place your left foot through the door. It lands solidly on the platform floor and then you step in.

+++++You open the door a little wider to get some moon light inside the freight car. It was half full of wooden crates. He uses a crowbar to pry one open.

+++++He’s disappointed because they only contain machine parts.

+++++You mutter something about watchmen being about. He assures you that they will only check the cars when the train stops and we’ll jump before that.

+++++You lean back against the side of a crate and slide down to sit. There’s not much to do once you’re inside. The sway of the ride and the pulse of the tracks puts your mind into a lull. You look over at him. He is already laying on the floor using his sack as a pillow.

+++++Mile one, mile five, mile twenty; and it comes back to you. As it has before. It’s the reason why you are here.

+++++But Son, I got you a deferment.

+++++You tell him you didn’t want the deferment.

+++++Harvard and Yale accepted you. I’ve pulled strings.

+++++You say you want to enlist. You want to go.

+++++You’re not Army material. They will eat you up.

+++++You say you will fight in Europe or the Pacific. It doesn’t matter where.

+++++You’re weak. It’s not your fault. Your doctors will not allow it.

+++++You tell him you don’t care what he thinks or what they say.

+++++I’m looking out for you. It’s what a father does for his son.

+++++You plead to him that you want to go. You’ve got to go.

+++++It’s not for you. Can’t you understand?

+++++You can’t talk to him.

+++++I will not permit it. The doctors will not permit it.

+++++You can’t reason with him.

+++++They will listen to me. You will not be able to go.

+++++You hear a whistle. Suddenly there is daylight in the boxcar. You spot him in the doorway. A massive body with a large brim hat and a nightstick in his hand. A watchman. Working for the railroad. You know his orders. Get the freight hoppers. No vagabonds. Throw the bums out. And a crack on the head to make sure they get the message. How the hell did he get in the car with the train moving? Did it stop? Did you fall asleep?

+++++He doesn’t see you in the corner by the crates. But he sees him. You want to yell to him to wake up, get on your feet. But it doesn’t come out. The brute in the brim hat moves in on him. His large shoulders blocking the light coming through the door. His frame casts a shadow over the sleeping figure. The club rises high over the brim hat. The arc of his swings coming down on him. Again, and again.

+++++Is this a dream? Are you asleep? Or have you always been awake?

+++++You stand over him. His face is stoved in. Just like the others. Just like your father’s. You drop the crowbar and continue to stare at him. He looks like the others now. He looks like him now.

+++++The train is slowing. You must be coming into a town. You grab your sack and jump off. You will need to stop in town this time. You will need to find a store. You still have money in your shoe. Plenty for a can of beans and some salt pork. Then you’ll work your way around to the west side of the town and find another one. Just look for a low fire in the night. You’ll find one near the tracks. They’re always waiting. Waiting for a late-night freight train.

The Sixth Sister

Saturday. 12:30 am.

Conrad was experiencing a perfect moment.
+++++He sat on his hotel room bed staring at the complete – yes, complete – set of Oneida LaVigne Silverplate XI steak knives – known to collectors as The Six Sisters. They were the holy grail of steak knives, and believed responsible for countless historical crimes and acts of mayhem.
+++++By the late 1800s, the small Oneida Community in upstate New York was known for two things: a manufacturing business that crafted the finest cutlery in America; and having been founded as a utopian society that practiced, among other things, “complex marriages” allowing all members of the society to engage in free sexual relations with any other consensual member of the community. Older men and women regularly indoctrinated youngsters into this way of life and dissenting behavior was promptly chastised.
+++++One scandal arose when Charles Maypool, a young smith hard at work on the LaVigne Silverplate set, urged his love, Henrietta, to flee the enclave and start a family with him in the world outside. When news of this subversion reached the town leaders, Maypool was put in stocks, while Henrietta was quickly “wed” to four of the community elders.
+++++Weeks later, Maypool was released. But instead of resuming his duties, he retrieved his six Silverplate knives, snuck up on the four elders while they slept and slashed their throats, each with a different knife. With the fifth knife, he slew Henrietta. Then – keeping only the sixth knife for himself – he fled deep into the woods of upstate New York, never to be heard from again.
+++++By 1900, the Oneida Community had abandoned its utopian dreams. The five sister knives abandoned by Maypool were individually dispersed and traded from one curio dealer to another. In due time, the knives fell into a role of infamy with some of the century’s most horrific crimes attributed to them. Somehow, the five sisters always found their way back to one another. But the sixth sister was never recovered. Collectors searched endlessly for her. Presidents clamored for her. Ripley wanted her for his personal trove. To complete the set was a treasure hunter’s mecca, but she never turned up.
+++++Conrad Margolies, a dogged but reclusive dealer in antiquities and American crime memorabilia, had finally come to possess all five sister knives as well as their worn chestnut container. When he started getting letters about a possible sixth knife, he was skeptical. But everything the old woman had written to him rang true – its history, its markings – things no one could know without having actually seen and experienced the knives themselves. So, Conrad made a hotel reservation, packed his car, and set out on the arduous 300 mile drive.

Saturday. 10:30 pm. The bar of the Marquis Hotel.

Conrad needed a drink before meeting the woman. Who was she? Did she really have the Sixth Sister? And what would she want for it? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Did she know its history? And had the knife had any effect on her?
+++++He swallowed his bourbon, and was unsurprised to see rival collector McCoy, with that awful pomaded moustache, suddenly sitting next to him.
+++++“This is it, isn’t it, Connie?” said McCoy.
+++++“Wouldn’t know. I’m here for Billy the Kid’s boots.”
+++++“Bullshit,” said McCoy. “Listen, Connie – I know people. We can do this together.”
+++++Conrad threw $20 on the bar and walked away.
+++++“Don’t hold out on me!” yelled McCoy. “I can make you rich!”

11 pm.

Conrad pulled up to the tiny, dilapidated shack. The house stood alone on the empty dirt road, as if carved straight into the bleak, rural landscape. The only luminescence came from the moon and a flickering lamp inside the house. He crossed waist-length weeds and stepped onto the porch. Imagining he heard a raspy voice telling him to enter, he went inside.
+++++The stench of rot and decay overwhelmed him. Newspapers and rusted junk were piled everywhere. The old woman – tiny, hunched over, smoking a cigar – came out of a bedroom, where Conrad could see flies buzzing about. She pointed to a chair by a table and they sat.
+++++Conrad withdrew the chestnut box and placed it before her. She opened it and looked inside, her mouth agape. There they were. The five sisters set snugly in their place holdings.
+++++“It’s true then,” she said.
+++++Conrad nodded.
+++++She withdrew a folded-up cloth and gingerly unraveled it. And then he knew. This was the one. For the first time, ever, he beheld the true Sixth Sister.
+++++“May I?” he asked with deep humility.
+++++She handed it to him with the grace of a tragic soul finally acquainted with her heretofore unknown twin. Conrad cradled the knife, delicately. It seemed to pulsate with life.
+++++“Go on,” she prompted. “See if she fits.”
+++++He lowered it into the chestnut box – into the open compartment that had been waiting more than 100 years. The knife slipped in comfortably.
+++++He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a checkbook.
+++++“No,” she said, closing the box and pressing it towards him. “This is where they belong. Together.”
+++++“But,” he stammered.
+++++“You have to go now,” she said. “They’ll be here soon.”
+++++“Who?”
+++++“The police.”
+++++He had only driven a hundred feet when he heard the gunshot. He looked back, terrified, then quickly sped off.

12:30 am.

And Conrad was back in his hotel room, in his perfect moment with all six sisters laid out before him, the pursuit of his entire adult lifetime finally realized. Exhausted, he fell into a deep, fevered sleep and dreamt of viciously murdering family and friends and soaking in the blood of butchers.
+++++When he awoke, he was sick and sweating, but knew what he had to do.

1 am.
The Elk’s River bridge.

Conrad looked out over the cold, raging waters. He raised the chestnut box high above the handrailing.
+++++“Don’t do it!”
+++++McCoy raced towards him.
+++++“It’s no good!” yelled Conrad.
+++++“I’ll get you whatever you want!”
+++++“Don’t you understand?! They won’t be sold! They won’t belong to anyone! This has to end!”
+++++He dangled the box over the handrailing. McCoy pulled out his gun.
+++++“Give me the box, Conrad.”
+++++Conrad threw it over. Without thinking, McCoy fired. Conrad collapsed, clutching his side. Then bright headlights were shining on both of them.
+++++“Stay where you are!” called the police.
+++++But Conrad was dead.
+++++No one noticed the tramp under the bridge who had awoken to the sounds of the two men arguing, seen the chestnut box fall, and heard the gunshot fired. The tramp quickly waded into the water to retrieve the box, but was disappointed to discover only an old set of highly tarnished steak knives inside. Regardless, he dried them out and sold them to a nearby two-star bistro for $20 and a bowl of clumpy chowder. Soon after, the bistro manager discarded the box and simply mixed the cutlery in with his other tableware.
+++++And so, it was on an unremarkable Tuesday evening when a family of four – father, mother, son, and daughter – came in for a hot meal. And as the father cut into his bloody filet with the Sixth Sister, he felt suddenly that he would enjoy nothing more than to ruthlessly slaughter his wife, son, and daughter.
+++++Perhaps that very evening.

A Bed of Roses

Muriel licked the tip of her thumb and rubbed at a spot on her living room window.

+++++“I’m just looking at that Fiona Mc Bride’s house, Tom; have you seen the state of her curtains? They look as though they haven’t been washed in a month of Sundays.”

+++++She pulled the sleeve of her cardigan down and, hooking it over the heel of her palm, proceeded to polish away the streaks of dried spit.

+++++Fiona came to her front door to take in the milk; quarter past ten and she was still in her dressing gown. Muriel smiled sweetly and gave a little wave.

+++++“Mucky devil,” she muttered to herself.

+++++“Now you know me, Tom,” she called out. “I like to keep myself to myself; don’t normally pry into other folks business, but I can’t help but notice these things; some people just don’t appear to have any standards when it comes to taking pride in their home.” She cupped her hand around her ear and glanced over her shoulder to check if Tom was paying attention.

+++++“Are you listening to me? It wouldn’t do you any harm to buck your ideas up sometimes!” She craned her neck to see what he was up to in the kitchen.

+++++Just then the telephone rang; she hurried into the hall to answer it.

+++++“Hello sweetheart; it’s our Mary, Tom, she’s calling all the way from Australia.” Muriel stretched the cord as far as it would go; it just about reached the kitchen door, allowing her a glimpse of him in the kitchen.

+++++His eyes widened as he glared at her.

+++++“Sorry love,” she whispered into the receiver, “your Dad’s a bit tied up at the minute, but never mind him. How’s the new baby doing, I’ve missed you both since I got back, can’t wait to come over next year. Dad’s sorry that he didn’t come with me now.”

+++++Half hour later she was still nattering on, “I know, I know; I was only saying to your father how nice it would be for us to move over there, I could help with the children while you go back to work.”

+++++She pulled a clean, freshly ironed, handkerchief from her apron pocket and began dusting the telephone table while she chatted.

+++++The sound of a chair scraping her newly scrubbed kitchen floor grated on her, she brought the conversation to an end. “Well bye-bye for now love, it was lovely to hear from you; I’ll tell Dad all your news. He’ll be sorry he couldn’t drag himself away to speak to you.”

+++++As Muriel stormed into the kitchen, she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck bristle.

+++++“What have you been up to now, you stupid little man?” She slapped the back of his head. “Have you been trying to loosen that string again?” She bent down to check the binds on his hands and feet.

+++++Tom’s eyes pleaded with her.

+++++“It’s no good you looking at me like that,” she snapped. “You should have thought about that when you brought that floozy in here while I was off helping our daughter in her time of need.”

+++++Tom tried to move his lips, they were parched and cracked, but the gag was too tight for even the slightest movement.

+++++“Imagine,” Muriel shouted. “Imagine! Taking her into my bed! My bed!” She repeated the exclamation, her voice rising in pitch.

+++++Wagging a finger, she harangued him further.

+++++“You knew I had just changed those sheets; 600 thread Egyptian, cotton! And my new quilt cover, I saved for a year to buy that. Oh how could you, Tom?”

+++++Tom’s eyes closed.

+++++“Well it shouldn’t be long now,” Muriel sighed. “You’ll be joining her in her nice new bed soon.”

+++++She gazed out of the kitchen window to the bottom of the garden. The new patio looked lovely with the central feature of freshly planted roses.

+++++“They say blood and bone meal are good for roses,” she added absently.

+++++Patting the thinning patch on the top of his head, “imagine our poor Mary’s shock when she hears that her Dad has run off with his secretary,” she murmured.

Loser’s Bet

“Those losers are killing you. You know, maybe you should lay off a week.”

+++++“Fuck that,” Landolfi said, his smile as fake as his Rolex. “I’ll get it back next week.”

+++++Sweeney palmed the wad of bills Landolfi laid on the bar, and snorted his contempt as his answer to that.

+++++Landolfi’s smile turned into a crooked zipper; his heart filled with black rage. That tight-fisted bastard Sweeney. He still had his first dollar taped to the bar’s mirror next to a couple Doberman puppies, the tape yellowed with age. Landolfi’s theory that losing teams don’t cover their spots as often as winning teams was not panning out. The Niners weren’t the only ones going 0-for-nine; he was winless, too.

+++++Between the Niners and the Browns, he was cleaned out, everything but the car gone: savings and checking accounts, IRA, house and furniture. He was sleeping in the sole downtown motel with the cracked sign advertising X-rated films with letters missing like absent teeth in a meth-mouth’s head.

+++++Just like my old man, Landolfi thought. His father was a degenerate gambler too who left the family and wound up dead at 47. His 5’ 8” frame had packed on 150 extra pounds from a diet of cheeseburgers from the diner across the street from his efficiency apartment. The tiny room stank of methane and sulfur gas so badly one of the paramedics called in vomited on his shoes as soon as the sulfurous, rotten-egg odor of constant farting had overpowered him at the doorway.

+++++Landolfi signaled Sweeney over with a wiggle of his finger.

+++++Bastard sees out of the back of his head . . .

+++++“Four Roses?”

+++++“Top shelf,” Landolfi replied. “JW Black.”

+++++“I assume you can pay for it,” Sweeney said, his tone halfway to a real question.

+++++“I just handed you six hundred dollars.”

+++++“No,” Sweeney said; “you paid up, and I ain’t extending no more credit. It’s money up front from now on.”

+++++The word was out, thanks to those bar flies at the end of the bar.

+++++Landolfi had been canned from his job and his supervisor scheduled an immediate internal audit; several hundred was missing from accounts receivable, the same amount he’d just paid off his gambling debt with.

+++++The barkeep’s insult produced a red mist clouding Landolfi’s vision, but it evaporated and left behind an inspiration. He must have been thinking about it for weeks, ever since he watched Sweeney in the mirror, crouched over the computerized safe beneath the bar, punching in numbers.

+++++Landolfi’s brain reverse-imaged the sequence in correct order. His genetic inheritances from his father were all bad—tendencies to obesity and addiction, a loathing for work with a taste for the good things of life—except for one: he could read anything upside-down.

+++++Sweeney kept his bookie cash in that safe. Hours spent in this run-down, cement-block joint across from the town’s factories told him that; Sweeney’s lousy joint was the only place in this burgh you could lay down a big bet without involving mafia goons or exorbitant vigorish.

+++++I’ll get my money back tonight, Landolfi mumbled to himself with an eye on Sweeney reading the paper down at the end of the bar–and everything else you got in there, fucker.

+++++Fifteen hours later, Landolfi looked like a squat ninja. He left his motel at three in the morning and made the short drive to Sweeney’s bar.

+++++He parked under the single pole light. Better to let a passing sheriff’s cruiser, he thought, spot it than try to hide it.

+++++Both doors were rigged to alarms, but the storage room behind the building had a single window with a metal screen cover bolted over it. Landolfi had collected big on the Pats win in the Super Bowl and Sweeney gestured for him to follow him into the back to get paid. A couple off-duty state troopers were sitting at the bar. “No point in rubbing their noses in it, right?” He remembered glancing at the filmy light streaming through the white-wash staining on the window.

+++++His crowbar popped the four bolts easily and he tossed the screen aside. Strips of blanket from the motel were wrapped around the business end of his rubber mallet to baffle the sound of glass breaking.

+++++Next came the hard part: Landolfi had to hoist himself up and squeeze his bulk through the opening.

+++++He’d gained weight since the Super Bowl and the struggle to get inside left him with sweat streaming down his face and his shoulder muscles aching. His black windbreaker was shredded, and the lumberjack shirt torn at the sides. Beneath the fabric, his fingers found the crisscrossed welts raised on his skin where he had wiggled to get his fat stomach through.

+++++He used his hands to guide himself to the floor and lay there gasping for air unable to move. When he finally rose to his feet, he staggered a bit and felt dizzy in the blackness, but he was OK.

+++++Using his hands to feel along the paneling, he avoided the stacked cases of beer and liquor lined on both sides of the wall.

+++++Only the two red EXIT signs provided lighting inside the bar—Sweeney too cheap to leave a light burning.

+++++With his penlight in his mouth, Landolfi pressed the sequence of numbers and the safe door opened. He pulled out stacks of banded bills, separated into denominations of twenties, fifties, and hundreds, all secured by rubber bands. Twenty of them, several thousand easily. He stuffed ten each into the pockets of his windbreaker.

+++++The sudden stereo effect of low growls coming from both ends of the bar made him jump to his feet. He flashed his beam down one end of the bar and saw glistening, bared fangs; whirling around, he caught a duplicate image of white pointed teeth bared against pink gums. The dogs, as if on cue, approached, hackles raised, ears flat against their heads. His pen light had dropped from his hand the moment he’d lit up the second dog’s snout and its razor-tipped canines.

+++++Fueled with a burst of adrenalin, Landolfi scrambled atop the bar just as the dogs raced to him, lunging, one raking teeth along his left calf muscle before he pulled himself free. Crazed with fear, he ran blindly down the bar top, alerted to the sound of dog claws hurtling across wooden floor boards.

+++++His limbic brain kicked in to save him, those countless hours on that same bar stool, looking at the same rows of bottles and beer spigots, the same cheap paneling on the walls and the cracks in the cement floor. He instinctively knew how much room he had before he would drop into the slavering mouths of those running dogs.

+++++Landolfi leaped across the void, landed on his feet, and hoped with every fiber of his being he could muster the speed to make it to the window in back.

+++++Made it! O thank you, Jesus!

+++++He careened into the right-side wall, but he was through the passageway, his short fat legs churning as tunnel vision took over. He was aware of nothing else but that smeary, wobbling rectangle of light bouncing in his vision, drawing him like a magnet to safety.

+++++The dogs were so close he did the only thing possible: he aimed his body like a missile for the opening.

+++++Going from an all-out dash to an abrupt halt knocked all the air from his lungs. It took him a second to realize he was stuck in the frame, half his body outside, the other half pinned tight.

+++++The stacks of money had added just enough bulk on either side to prevent his whole body from going through. The full catastrophe of what was happening came roaring into his consciousness like a fist striking him in the face—his body wedged tight, the stabs of white-hot pain in his sides where the metal frames squeezed his midsection in a vise-grip; for the briefest moment, he was aware of the night breeze rustling the fronds of the cattails and the pungent smell of marsh gas.

+++++Landolfi squirmed. Nothing. His lungs screamed for more air. Then a thought: Where are those damned dogs?

+++++As if a diabolical prayer was just being answered, each one clamped its jaws around a leg and began yanking Landolfi backwards, their bunched shoulder muscles rippling their sleek physiques.

+++++Landolfi screamed as his body’s pain sensors exploded the circuits; a single message flowed like touching a live wire to his brain and back down to the nerve endings. The dogs’ teeth punctured his pant legs, his skin and the soft tissue beneath.

+++++Landolfi howled into the open air, a wounded wildebeest on the Serengeti with a pair of hyenas attached to its back legs. Warm blood ran down his legs to his shoes. He tried kicking the dogs off, but the effort took more air from his tortured lungs.

+++++The dogs wouldn’t stop biting as if they had to keep finding fresh meat for a better purchase to pull him back inside. Landolfi’s hands were useless; he couldn’t reach back to get at the money in his pockets to give more leeway to go forward; equally, the dogs were unable to pull him to them; he seesawed a few inches with every jerk.

+++++The growls of the dogs and his own howls of pain were a rhythmic counterpoint that rose and fell. Landolfi focused on a single thought: inch forward, get his body to the tipping point. He didn’t dare think about the damage happening to his legs.

+++++The pain was everywhere and all around him now. The dogs like greedy guests at a buffet went for everything; they bit deep into the meat of his thighs and buttocks in their frenzy. At any minute, his pants shredded to rags, his genitals were exposed. If he were in the ocean being savaged by sharks like this, he’d have gulped sea water and drowned. But there was nothing he could do.

+++++Things were blurring too fast. He couldn’t make out the edges of anything in front of him. He tried talking to the dogs—good doggies, good doggies—but the sound of his voice stirred them to a greater frenzy. The same thing happened when he involuntarily urinated; the dogs didn’t cease their attack for a single moment.

+++++His last decision was to evacuate his bowels. A rush of warm diarrhea gushed from his sphincter, the foul odor even penetrating the night air around him.

+++++Just like my old man . . .

+++++Landolfi was thinking of his father’s death in the motel the moment he died.

+++++Sweeney found him like that when he opened the bar for the first shift of factory workers heading his way from the industrial park. Cain and Abel ran up to him and licked his hands the same as they did every morning. That’s when he realized their muzzles were soaked in blood. He kept a fish bat under the bar and retrieved it before checking the storage room. The backside of a man’s body sticking through the window made no sense to his brain; the dangling form obstructing light from the window made him pause; ribbons of flesh hung from the right femur and pungent smell of blood and feces left no doubt what had happened.

+++++The first paramedic on the scene threw up when he saw Landolfi’s hind quarters. A week after they cut through the brick to free his body— over Sweeney’s loud objections about damage to his building—a sheriff’s deputy who bet on baseball told him Landolfi’s death was officially listed as heart failure owing to suffocation and blood loss as contributing causes.

+++++“He was always picking losers,” Sweeney told him.

+++++“He shoulda drunk lo-cal beer instead,” the deputy said. “He might have made it through.”

+++++“I don’t serve that shit,” Sweeney replied; then, as if a mystery had revealed itself in the skies, he said, “Wonder why the dogs let him get inside the place.”

+++++“Maybe he should have been a cat burglar instead of a gambler.”

+++++They both laughed.

THE END

Blackjack Creek

“Those boys are mean as snakes and shifty as cats.” Ethyl said to the ladies in the beauty shop as she watched three young men ride slowly through town in a lifted-up truck.

+++++“We all know that,” Malvie said, waiting for her turn under the dryer. “Now get away from that window before they see you.”

+++++Ethyl walked back towards the chairs arranged around a wooden coffee table piled high with magazines. She could hear the roar from a truck’s exhaust as it reached the end of Main Street and sped off. She sympathized for whomever they were after. Those boys were the sons of Lucius Doherty, who spent most his life in and out of prison. She shuddered at the thought of what those boys had been through or had been witness to. They were meaner now than their dad had ever been. The rumor was they killed him. Ethyl believed it too. The middle boy was just released from jail himself for rape.

+++++“Mrs. Malvie, I’m ready for you.”

+++++Malvie swatted Ethyl with a magazine as she walked past her to the beautician’s chair. That put the color back in her cheeks.

***

+++++“How was that pussy in prison, Floyd?” The youngest of the three, Gene, asked his brother as they cruised down Main.

+++++“Boys scream just like girls do when you ain’t asking.” Floyd poked Gene in the belly and they both laughed.  They were looking for the girl Floyd got locked up over’s kin. She left town but her brother was around and they planned to make shit right on him.

+++++Edwin scanned the shops. He was the oldest. He didn’t have the luxury of behaving like a child when his brothers did. Being the man of the family, it fell on him to get retaliation for that little bitch testifying. If he didn’t, people would lose fear. Losing fear meant losing respect, and he’d be damned if any of these motherfuckers around here didn’t show them respect. They didn’t find the boy in town, so, Edwin gassed the truck toward the girl’s home.

***

+++++Lowell walked to the mailbox. His momma was upset with him for getting muddy playing in the creek that morning. He was upset with her for not letting him go into town and buy a new book. He loved school, so summers were painful. He’d spend most of his time reading until school started back. He’d be a freshman this year and he was excited about learning French. If he could speak French, he might could finally charm Leslie Crosby into going steady.

+++++Lowell had just reached the end of the driveway when he heard the truck coming up the road. He tried to run but the brothers jumped out and were on him before he could take two steps. He screamed for his mother right before Edwin cold-cocked him and threw him in the bed of the truck. They were out of sight by the time Lowell’s mother stepped out on to the porch, she could’ve sworn she’d heard her sweet boy calling.

+++++They took the kid back to their father’s place and pulled him out of the bed just as he was coming to.

+++++Lowell was crying and pleading while they dragged him to the deep end of the creek that separated the two Doherty family properties. At the edge of the bank, all three of them beat the boy into a ball on the ground. Lowell didn’t want to die. He covered his face and waited for them to wind down. He knew Blackjack creek better than anyone. They finally stopped beating on him long enough to pull out a pack of smokes. They all lit up while they talked about how Lowell was going to meet their father at the bottom of that creek.

+++++Lowell saw his chance so he took it. He jumped up and ran. The brothers dropped their cigarettes and ran after him. He couldn’t have been more than fifty feet in front of them. Lowell saw the trail he was looking for and took it. Right where the trail turned wide and sandy, he bolted into the woods. He dodged and weaved his way through the trees and then dropped back onto the main path. The Doherty boys saw him and ran straight towards him. Suddenly they stopped.

+++++Lowell stopped too.

+++++He turned around and watched all three of those brothers cuss and struggle to free themselves from the quicksand. Lowell smiled. He knew Blackjack Creek better than anyone.

+++++Once nothing showed of the brothers except a little hair that hadn’t been pulled under, Lowell crossed the creek and started home. He couldn’t wait for Leslie Crosby to hear him speak French.

Exit Seraglio

“I don’t work for pimps.”

+++++And I don’t. I hate ponces, one step up from the pond life on the seg-wings.

+++++“Ain’t like that, Charlie,” wheezes Vlad the Inhaler before he takes another hit on his blue plastic asthma pump.

+++++“What it is like then?”

+++++“I’m not looking to get some girl brought back. Well, I want her back – but not like that.”

+++++Mouthful left in my pint time to finish this up.

+++++“Get to the point, Vlad.”

+++++“Look, I drop her to this job, right, wait in the car. Decent hotel and I’m pals with the night manager and guy who works security. Nothing bad should happen, we got a code and shit. Anyway, an hour goes by – I ain’t worried. Another twenty minutes. Nothing from Shells. If the punter wants extra time he has to pay and she lets me know. Another twenty minutes and then I have to go and find her, like. Make sure she’s alright.”

+++++“Protect your investment.”

+++++“Exactly. My mate on the desk says no way is he letting me up to a guest’s room. But then he says the geezer has checked out!” Vlad shakes his head “So I ask if Shells was with him and he says no…”

+++++I fight against it but he’s piqued my interest now.

+++++“And what is it you want me to do?”

+++++“Find her. Make sure she’s alright.”

+++++I wouldn’t risk a fiver on it but I swear it looks like Vlad almost cares. But could be more to do with lost merchandise than human emotion.

+++++“Alright. I’ll look.”

+++++A roll of money crosses the tabletop to me. It looks like pimp money; worn, dirty, tenners.

+++++“Two hundred, Charlie. Same again when she’s back.”

*

+++++I find myself sat in a glorified broom cupboard with a guy in a white polyester shirt and a B.O. problem. He has some tapes for me.

+++++First off, the punter arriving, picture’s grainy but I can pick out general bits about him; late-forties, tall, average build, balding, glasses. He’s wheeling a large case from the lifts to the room like he’s in for a long stay.

+++++“Got the timings down so you ain’t gotta watch the boring bits.”

+++++“Appreciated.”

+++++The timestamp shows three hours have passed. Out of the lift comes our second contestant – Shells; mane of thick hair, long coat, nice little walk in her three-inch-heels that even on bad video I can appreciate. She knocks and goes into the room. The video moves on. The punter comes out the room after twenty minutes. Wheels his case to the lift.

+++++“He order anything to the room?”

+++++“No, but drank the mini-bar dry of Johnny Walker red-label.”

+++++“Cheers.” I tip him a pair of score notes, always good to cultivate new contacts and I know Vlad’s a cheapskate.

*

+++++I get my business partner, Mazza, running down the address and name that the man gave. Got a funny feeling it won’t be that simple. Stare at the pint in front of me and try to think. The girl must’ve been in the case, my only real question is whether she was dead or alive. Dead –she’ll turn up in a left-luggage office or floating in a canal.

+++++But alive, that’s a different kettle-of-fish entirely.

*

+++++Turns out it was as simple as that. Guy had used a skud I.D. to book the room and paid in cash but when he checked out he had to pay for the Johnny Walker. He used a card in a different name. Guess he didn’t think that a pimp could have contacts in the hotel or that we’d be able to track him.

+++++I’m outside a rundown house in Holland Park; gated, covered in ivy, dark-looking place, and stinking of money despite the appearance to the contrary. Gloves on, cap brim shadowing my face, thumb a scarf over my mouth and go over the wall.

+++++The garden’s overgrown and I see a sun dial amongst the weeds. Must be a camera up somewhere as a side-door opens and a guy steps out. Hirsute to the level that if he shaved at nine the five-o’clock shadow would be back by ten.

+++++“Private property.”

+++++“Do I look like I care?”

+++++I watch his hand slip behind his waist and come out holding a wooden cosh. Smile. The hammer drops out my sleeve. He swallows hard then swings high but I duck and go low; rattle his ribs, then clock him in the eye with a straight left. He drops like I’ve cut his strings. Step over him.

+++++Inside it stinks of more incense than a Chinese massage parlour. Walk through the fugue and listen. Moans and groans coming from upstairs. Take the stairs two at a time. Stop on the landing and listen again. Turn a door handle and step inside. The house might be dark but this room is light and plush with hung silks. In the centre of the room there’re mattresses, futons or whatever, and bodies cavorting on them. I’ve not seen this amount of naked flesh since the last time I looked at a news agents top shelf; I count at least half-a-dozen-women plus the man from the hotel. He’s dressed in lilac robes with a gold band around his head. Shells lies in the middle of it all laid out like an offering; glassy-eyed, vacant, hair damp with sweat, naked.

+++++Another nude woman, an angular faced brunette, wraps herself around my legs and moans. Look down at her; her eyes look almost as glassy as Shells. Bang, a fist catches me from my blindside. I throw a backhand into the woman who punched me, enough that she feels it but nothing permanent. Show the rest the hammer and they draw back. The man stands and reaches for a curved knife on a low table.

+++++“I wouldn’t…”

+++++They never listen. He comes at me with the blade held high and obvious. Block his wrist with mine on the downward swipe and then jam the hammer into his jaw, hard. He stumbles away spitting blood and bits of tooth. I stalk after him and the women scream. Throw a blow into his lower back and when he arches away from it. I hit him in the back of the head, not as hard as I could but enough to lay him out. The women swarm to him cooing like a loft full of pigeons and Shells goes to follow. I grab her by the top of her arm and lead her to the door.

+++++“Time to go.”

*

+++++Vlad sits opposite me.

+++++“Well?”

+++++“Well what?” I reply.

+++++“Where is she?”

+++++“Safe.”

+++++He sits back, a bad look creeping up his face but then I’ve stood nose to nose with real bad men and Vlad ain’t one of them.

+++++“Didn’t tell me Shells surname did you…”

+++++“What’s that got to do with the price of shite?”

+++++“Donnelly.”

+++++I leave that hanging. Everyone around here knows the Donnelly’s. They aren’t players as such but there are a lot of them, old Irish docker stock, and they don’t take shit from anyone – especially jumped up little ponces like Vlad.

+++++“Nah, she ain’t one of them Donnelly’s…”

+++++“Why don’t you hang about. When I got her straightened out I dropped her home. Her family were well pleased. Vernon, you know – her dad, he was so pleased he said he wanted to buy me a pint,” check my watch “should be down anytime now…”

+++++Vlad comes out of his chair so quickly he almost leaves his shoes behind.

+++++“Vlad…”

+++++“What?”

+++++“The other two hundred?”

Family First

I held her hand as we walked up the aisle of the church. We stopped at the front some distance from the coffin. The organ’s dirge reverberated in the vaulted sanctuary. I looked back over my shoulder. It was a sunny day. The muted colours from the stained glass windows shimmered across the heads of the congregation like a bed of hot coals. Most of the heads were bowed. Sobbing came from the front pew. There’s no consolation. I know. In the grand scheme of things, parents should outlive their children. It should be some kind of rule. I reached down and lifted my daughter Jessica onto my shoulder. For a moment, I stood in place, then I turned.

+++++Maureen worked at the local QuikMart. She stocked shelves, did the ordering, and supervised the check-outs. She’d been there three years. They told her that if she proved herself over the coming year, she’d be manager. She believed their promises. We both believed them so, to prove herself, she worked longer hours per day and took little time off. She loved her job. Now, all we had to do was wait for the company to come through.

+++++I couldn’t find work. I’d been looking for months but less and less as the weeks progressed, as we got closer to the end of Maureen’s trial year. If the job came through, I wouldn’t have to work again. That meant I got to stay home with Jessica. It was good for me and for Jessica and for Maureen, too. We both loved our jobs. The situation suited us both.

+++++Maureen was always looking outward, looking for the next challenge, hopping up on the next rung of the ladder, broadening her horizons. She had the personality and the smarts to go with it, not to mention her beauty. Men stopped and stared and turned, following her with their eyes. She strolled down the street with the sure-footed confidence of a seasoned runway model. She wasn’t aware of it and she wasn’t self conscious. It was just her way, who she was. She was a self-made entrepreneur. I was proud of her. If anyone deserved her own store, it was Maureen.

+++++I was the guy who liked closed doors, preferably locked. When home, the picket fence was my outer border, the grass I cut and flowers I watered, my territory, the area I policed. That’s not to say I didn’t venture out. Jessica was my charge, my responsibility in my territory, and my responsibility wherever we went together. Going to the park was a daily routine, and on the way back, an ice cream cone, a slice of pizza, a burger at the local fast-food joint. Sometimes we’d stop by the auto repair shop where Carl, one of my buddies from the Marines worked. I tried to make the most of our time together.

+++++I’d been trained as a high-level mechanic in the Marines. My speciality was damage control. I’d been away for three long years serving my country, fighting a war we’d never stop fighting and one it seemed we’d never win. Maureen and I agreed when I returned that I’d done my part. Now, it was her turn. It suited us, doing the jobs we both loved. It was all working out just fine.

+++++Until it wasn’t.

+++++It was mid-afternoon on a weekday. Jessica and I were watching a movie together, her favourite, Charlotte’s Web, when I heard a car pull into the driveway. I got up from the sofa, took two steps to the window, and parted the curtains. It was Maureen’s company car. Just then the door burst open.

+++++“Donnie! Donnie!” She was shouting my name.

+++++“Jessica. Put on your headphones.” I watched her slip on the headphones. I stepped out into the hallway. Maureen was shouting up the stairs.

+++++“Maureen,” I said. At the sound of her name she turned and stomped over to me till she was standing close, in my face like a Parris Island drill instructor. Her eyes were red and wide.

+++++“They’re…” Tense and trembling, she started over.

+++++“They’re. Giving. The job. To the owner’s son.” A tear escaped the corner of her left eye and slid down the side of her cheek.

+++++“What?” I asked. I stepped away from her.

+++++She seemed to rally and brushed the tear from her cheek. “I have to go back for a meeting.

+++++They’re going to tell me how I fit into the scheme of things now. I just had to come home and tell you.”

+++++“After all the hours you’ve put in, all the hard work. What the fuck is going on?”

+++++“Shhh…Jessica will hear you.”

+++++“She’s watching a movie. Got her headphones on.”

+++++“It’s a family run business. Why I liked it. No corporate bullshit. But…family first, they told me.”

+++++Maureen went back to the store. I sat down next to Jessica on the sofa and worked out a plan. I called my buddy, Carl.

+++++Maureen called me an hour later and asked me to pick her up. She had to leave the company car at the store. They were giving it to the son. I got Jessica ready and we drove to the store. They were “giving” Maureen the assistant manager position.

+++++I dropped them off back at the house. I told Maureen I was going for a drink. Instead, I drove to the auto repair shop. Carl had left me the key.

+++++I could hear the priest swinging the chain censer as I turned into our pew behind the family. Maureen scooted over to give us a place to sit. The store owner’s son had been killed in a gruesome car accident, burned beyond recognition. The fire had burned hot and fast due to the several cases of paint thinner he’d had in the boot. The casket was closed.

+++++Maureen got the managerial job, her very own store.

+++++I got Jessica.

+++++Family first.

Retirement Planning

Adam Dobson knew that by this time tomorrow it would be over. He’d either be in San Jose, Costa Rica, or he’d be dead.

+++++Nursing a beer at 3:30 in the afternoon in a dive bar off State Street, he was going over the options available to him.

+++++Waiting for whoever was sent and then dealing with them was the first option; they would probably find him before his flight left tomorrow afternoon. The second option was to not wait to take the scheduled flight out of O’Hare, but to bus to someplace like Cleveland or Pittsburgh tonight and leave from there as soon as flight arrangements could be made. A little sleight of hand might buy him the time he needed.

+++++Chicago was a big city, but the type of people who would be sent after him could find him easily enough. There were a couple of times earlier in the day he felt he was being watched. Over the years his survival skills had been honed and they served him well.

+++++But when he saw her walk in the door, he knew option number two was no longer on the table. It takes one to know one. He knew he was found.

+++++She casually scanned the bar, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Her eyes rested on him for just the briefest moment and then continued to more carefully survey the shadowy nooks and crannies.

+++++Satisfied, she walked up to the bar, put her purse on it, and sat on the stool next to Adam.

+++++“Buy me a beer, Adam?” she asked.

+++++“I’m thinkin’ it should be you buyin’ me a beer,” he replied.

+++++“You’re right, of course. I’m Anna; I thought you should know,” she said.

+++++“Professional courtesy?” asked Adam.

+++++“Something like that.”

+++++“So, tell me, Anna, why do women carry such big purses?” said Adam.

+++++“Well, I don’t know why “women” carry big purses, but I’ve got a glock with a silencer in mine and two extra clips.”

+++++The bartender finished up his conversation with the only other two customers in the place and wandered down to Adam and Anna.

+++++“What can I getcha, Miss?” he asked.

+++++“I’ll have an IPA and give my friend a new one of whatever he’s drinking; the one he has there is probably warm as piss.”

+++++The bartender raised an eyebrow to Adam, and Adam gave him a wink and a nod.

+++++“I told Greenfield two years ago I was gonna be retirin’ to Costa Rica and he should get his mind ready to be good with that,” said Adam.

+++++The bartender set the beers in front of Anna and Adam, took the twenty Anna had put on the bar, and returned with her change. “Happy Hour,” he said.

+++++When Anna and Adam just stared at him, he shrugged and went back to the other customers.

+++++“Greenfield apparently doesn’t think you’re old enough to retire,” said Anna.

+++++“I’ll be forty in December,” said Adam. “That’s old for this business.”

+++++“He probably thinks you’ve still got a few hits left in you; you’re good, you know.”

+++++“Did Greenfield tell ya that you’re the fourth he sent to get me?” asked Adam. “One in New York, one in Atlanta, and one last week in LA. I’m thinking your orders are not to bring me back; he just wants show who’s boss now, right?”

+++++“I did hear through the office grapevine about Eddie and Billy; who was in LA? Hector?”

+++++“Doesn’t make any difference. How come ya didn’t just walk in, shoot me, and leave? Trying to gimme a fightin’ chance?”

+++++“Oh, hell, no. Giving you a chance would be suicidal,” said Anna, taking a drink of her beer. “I just wanted to meet you, share a beer and a couple laughs, and then do you. Now that I think about it, I guess killing you in here would be more civilized than in the alley out back.”

+++++“Don’t suppose I could talk ya into sayin’ ya just missed me, is there? I’ve got over three hundred grand in a bank in San Jose. I could send you a present when I got there.”

+++++“Not a chance,” said Anna. “I figure if I play by the rules, I might live to be your age.”

+++++“And then what?” asked Adam. “Retire? There ain’t any of us that ever make it to Medicare age.”

+++++“You’re probably right about Greenfield being pissed,” said Anna. “He offered me double pay for this job and a whole year off in Paris. Frankly, I didn’t think it was going to be this easy; are you even armed? If you are, it must be a pretty small piece.”

+++++“I’m also a little disappointed in you,” said Adam. “Did you really think I’d give you enough time to get your glock outta your purse? Actually, Wally, the bartender, has my Sig Sauer.”

+++++As he said this, Adam raised his hand to Wally as if to order another beer. Anna grabbed her purse and rolled from her bar stool to the floor, but she wasn’t fast enough. Wally shot her twice in the head and then shot the two other customers.

+++++“Very well done, Wally,” said Adam. “If I hadn’t already pretty much burned my bridges, I’d recommend you to my former employer. I’ll take my piece and you can have this fat envelope. I’ll empty the register and you can tell the cops the story we decided on.”

+++++Adam took the glock and clips from Anna’s purse so they wouldn’t raise worrisome questions. Wally handed Adam the Sig Sauer and Adam shot him in the forehead.

+++++“I really do appreciate what you did for me, Wally, but I don’t leave any loose ends around.”

+++++Adam locked the front door and then arranged all of the bodies so that when discovered it would look like a robbery. He washed the two glasses he had used and wiped the bar to remove any prints. He then went out the back door, disposed of Anna’s artillery in a Chinese restaurant’s dumpster, and hailed a cab back to his hotel.

+++++He climbed the fire escape in the alley to get to his hotel room window, shot Anna’s back-up who had been waiting just inside his door, and then climbed in and packed his bags.

***

+++++Adam flew to San Jose, but from there immediately to Quito, Ecuador, where he had a house and money in the bank. It was enough for a comfortable retirement.

+++++Because of the pesky airline regulations, he had to buy new weapons when he got to Quito. But that wasn’t a problem for someone with Adam Dobson’s experience; he hadn’t made it to retirement by being inept. If Greenfield still hadn’t had enough, he’d be ready when they came.

Silver City

Bobby took the heater out of the trunk of the car. It was a nice looking weapon, worth seven hundred fifty dollars, if it was worth the five hundred he’d originally wanted.

+++++I told Bobby I’d give him two hundred fifty dollars and let him walk away with his life if he gave me that gun.

+++++He laughed, holding the heater up, so it shone in the sunlight. We were miles from anywhere—plenty of room to bury a body out there, or maybe I’d leave him for the buzzards.

+++++“You’re pretty confident, and you’re talking a load of shit, considering I’m the one holding the gun.” Bobby rested the barrel against his shoulder and shifted the toothpick in his mouth.

+++++I studied my reflection on his mirrored sunglasses, which looked expensive. Only an asshole wore mirrored sunglasses, much less expensive ones, I figured, which made Bobby the asshole twice over, or maybe exponentially the asshole. He was tall, at least six feet. I craned my neck to look at him. People tended to underestimate me because I was short.

+++++“My offer stands,” I told Bobby, regarding my clean-shaven features and my round pectoral muscles under the leather vest I was wearing in those silver mirrors over his eyes.

+++++He shook his head, bringing the barrel of the gun down until the muzzle rested against my chest, which was the second stupid thing he’d done that afternoon, after jacking up the price. He’d stolen the weapon, which made my counteroffer seem fair, if not to say generous, the fact I’d threatened his life notwithstanding.

+++++I felt a twitch in my groin when he pointed the gun at me, not unlike the jolt I used to feel when my brother would pin me to the floor of our parents’ basement in Silver City, New Mexico and put his thing in my mouth. Whether my brother raped me, or whether I consented to his advances for 10 years, I couldn’t have said. All I knew was that at the end of that decade, when I was 21, I killed him and our father, too, for the old man had given his tacit blessing to the unholy relationship that had been going on under his roof. Amateur that I was, I did my best to make the crime scene look like a botched robbery. As a perverse touch, I made it look like the perpetrators had burst in on the old man and my brother Pete in flagrante. Looking back, I wasn’t sure I’d fooled anybody, but the cops in Silver City were probably glad to be rid of my father, who’d gotten off on a technicality after beating my mother to death with his prosthetic leg, and who’d been one of the most ruthless meth dealers in that part of Southern New Mexico.

+++++But I was telling you about the afternoon Bobby Jenkins threatened me, putting a gun to my chest in the desert.

+++++I knocked the barrel out of the way, and I drove my knee into his groin, so he fell to his knees, retching.

+++++Even then, he didn’t pull the trigger.

+++++I yanked the heater out of his hands, dragging him behind me while I tossed the gun in my car. I hauled him back to his car, and I pinned him to the trunk while I reached around him and undid his belt, sliding his jeans down his legs.

+++++It was 120 degrees in the sun, and he yelped when I pressed him up against the metal.

+++++“You can have the gun!” he shouted at me, but it wasn’t about that, not anymore.

+++++I cracked the back of his head, and he fell forward, silent, though still conscious.

+++++I split Bobby Jenkins in two and left him crying on the sand, curled up in a fetal position, and drove back to the city with the heater on the seat beside me.

+++++True to my word, I’d left two hundred fifty dollars on the passenger’s seat of his car.

+++++Whether Bobby lived or died was his business, not mine.

STRAWS

In our line of work it’s a good idea to fly under the radar. Unless you’re in the fog. In the Andes.

+++++I don’t know if we clipped another plane’s wing or hit an outcrop—it was too high up for trees. At any rate, we got slammed hard. Somehow Carl kept us out of a spin and banged in a landing on a pass with a dusting of snow and hardly enough grass to support a decent-sized llama.

+++++That didn’t keep us from eating him first, though. He’d gotten us into this mess by deviating from the flight plan without telling us so he could get to his sidepiece faster. Dude might have started out with God as his co-pilot, but it looked like the Almighty had decided to bail out and fly instead with somebody who wasn’t a complete jackass.

+++++Gamy bastard, too. No idea what he’d been living on.

+++++Mostly he tasted like frustration. By this point I should have been blowing through my cut in Miami, knee-deep in Cuban sandwiches and Colombian escorts. We’d planned for a clean run, out and back overnight, so we didn’t pack many provisions. Not when we could fit in more guns.

+++++But now it’s been a couple days since we cracked the last marrow bone. All four of us wanted to hold off on the hard choices because the transponder might still be working and the deal could still get done, and the weather might clear in time for one of us to go and look for help, the kind that wouldn’t ask many questions. Abandoning the cargo wasn’t an option. Things a lot worse than dying could happen if we made our way back empty-handed.

+++++The time had come, though. Somebody had to go next if anybody was going to make it.

+++++“How are we gonna do this?” I asked. We’d all done the thing when there were no questions about who had to go. Jaime—and I didn’t know they made Peruvians that big—suggested a friendly game of Russian roulette.

+++++There was just one problem. For all the iron in the crates, and all the pieces we were strapped with, there wasn’t a single revolver on board.

+++++“How about rock-paper-scissors?” I said.

+++++Ex-Ranger Kenny took a dim view of my proposal. “You are talking about someone making the ultimate sacrifice,” he drawled from some background deep in the heart of Texas. “You can’t make that kind of decision on the basis of a game played by children.”

+++++I agreed with him, but I wanted to get the bad ideas out of the way so somebody else could bring up the one I preferred.

+++++“Anybody have cards or dice?” Albert asked. Some men are Als, short for Albert or Alfred or Alexander, somebody cool you can shoot the shit with at a bar about whatever comes up without it turning into a fight. Then there are Alberts. You see them at the end of the bar nursing a drink alone, or talking up somebody and waiting for an excuse to get offended and come up with a fist or worse.

+++++Albert was definitely an Albert, but he had the skills for our work, wherever he’d picked them up. He went on, and a spot under his left eye started to twitch. “We could pick a card, maybe throw for a high or low number. What do you think?”

+++++There was the opening for him to take something the wrong way.

+++++“If I had any I would have brought them out by now,” Jaime said. “It would have helped pass the time.”

+++++“Same for me,” Kenny said.

+++++“I’ve got nothing,” I said. Neither did the pilot. We’d gone through his things.

+++++“How should we handle this then?” Albert said.

+++++“Well,” Kenny said, “it’s kind of a cliché, but we could draw straws. Any on board?”

+++++I didn’t want to rush into things, but I had to tell the truth.

+++++“There’s an open box of them in the cockpit.” Maybe Carl had been dipping into one of the boss’s other product lines and didn’t like to lose powder on a rolled-up bill. That would explain why there hadn’t been much fat on him. “They’re in the console next to a girlie mag.”

+++++“We need to come up with a process we can agree on up front,” Jaime said. “We can’t have anybody freaking out when it’s decided.”

+++++“Anybody ideas?” Kenny asked.

+++++Albert seemed to be mulling over something but couldn’t find the words yet. It seemed like a good time to speak up again.

+++++“I knew where they were, so I probably shouldn’t be touching them again. Maybe one guy gets them, another guy cuts them and a third guy hands them out.”

+++++Nobody was going to cheer for that kind of suggestion, but they nodded in agreement.

+++++Jaime came back with the straws. I’d left out a detail or two: they were the bendable kind with a clown on the box. Not much more dignified than rock-paper-scissors.

+++++“Sorry,” I said. “I know it doesn’t exactly fit what we’re doing.”

+++++“Nothing would,” Kenny said. “We’ll be getting rid of the bendy parts anyway. Who wants to cut?”

+++++“I can do that,” Albert said, and nobody minded. He could shoot as well as he needed to, but with a knife he was an artist. He kept his blades sharp, and he’d gotten every shred of meat off of Carl. His hand-to-hand work in Ciudad del Este a couple of years back had gotten him a big bonus that nobody begrudged.

+++++He plucked out four straws and took them over to a tray table. He came back with them in a row, the tops even like fenceposts, and turned them over to Kenny.

+++++“Okay, gentlemen,” Kenny said. “We didn’t go through much ceremony before because Carl brought his fate on himself, but this time none of us has this coming. We need to give this occasion the gravity it deserves.”

+++++He took off his hat and drew in a deep breath.

+++++“Let’s just have a moment of silence here. If there’s a God in your life this would be a good time to make your peace in light of what you might do or have done to you.”

+++++He closed his eyes and bowed his head like somebody who had chosen a different line of work, say the kind where people have a reasonable expectation of retirement and plan accordingly. Albert and Jaime followed his lead, and there was a little hand-folding and cross-signing. Out of courtesy I looked down—getting right with whatever might or might not be out there seemed like a reach at the moment—and I just put my hands in my pockets and until the other guys were done.

+++++“It’s been good to work with you, in any case,” Kenny said. “Let’s show our hands.”

+++++We all spread out our palms—it was time to tear off the bandage and get this over with.

+++++Jaime had the longest straw by far—it hadn’t been cut far from the bend. Mine was a distant second.

+++++Albert’s and Kenny’s took a little eyeballing, and we had to lay them side by side, each man keeping a finger on his own to avoid any confusion.

+++++By about three-eighths of an inch, Albert lost.

+++++“Sorry,” Kenny said, and he seemed to mean it.

+++++“You are a hero, man,” Jaime said. “If we get out of this we’ll find a way to take care of your family. They won’t have to hear about the details.”

+++++My turn.

+++++“Dude, I’m sorry it had to turn out this way. You always had our backs, and we’re never going to forget that. I know I sure as hell won’t”

+++++Albert stayed quiet for a few seconds, and you couldn’t blame him.

+++++But he finally gathered his thoughts and straightened up to say his final words.

+++++“God DAMN it!” Albert yelled at the top of his lungs. “That is not the shortest straw.”

+++++“Nobody wanted this, man,” Jaime said. “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”

+++++“No, God damn it. I cut those sons of bitches and one of them was shorter than this. One of you is a God-damn cheat.”

+++++“We won’t let you suffer, Albert,” Kenny said. “That’s the best we can do.”

+++++“Damn right I won’t suffer,” Albert said, and before anybody could answer he’d whipped out one of his high-tech tactical knives and lunged at Kenny.

+++++Even an ex-Ranger can have an off day. Kenny was spurting blood in a couple of places, and the blade was up to the hilt in his liver before Jamie and I could pull Albert off of him. Kenny had some fight left in him, though. He tried to stanch a carotid with one hand as he drew with the other and put a .32 round in Albert’s face. His knees buckled, but we didn’t let him drop until he’d twitched a few times and went slack. That sort of thing can’t be faked.

+++++I tried to stabilize Kenny while Jaime went for the trauma bag, but time wasn’t on his side. His breath rattled, and he flinched from the twinges of pain in his gut. He clenched his jaws and I heard a tooth crack from the pressure.

+++++“Don’t waste too much effort on this,” he said between grunts. “You need to hang onto your supplies.”

+++++He must have meant what he said, because he started to fade faster then, and by the time we could unwrap a bandage he was gone.

+++++Jaime and I didn’t say anything. We just went off to sit in separate places. A bottle of something, anything, might have helped, but the plane was dry.

+++++You can only spend so much thinking before you go crazy with it, so after a while we did what had to be done, but twice the work now and only half as many hands, all weaker now. We couldn’t afford to wait, though, and went through the same steps as with Carl: field dressing, cold storage away from sleeping quarters and out of any scavengers’ reach.

+++++We’d bought ourselves some more time, but we ended the day weaker still. In the middle of the night I could barely get up to go out and take a leak.

+++++The cold air woke me up more than I wanted, and I realized I still had a couple of reminders of what had happened. Nothing good could come of keeping them. I reached into my pockets and pulled out two straws: the one I had shown, and the one that Albert had cut. I tossed both and let the wind take them.

+++++Jaime was benefiting, too, but he didn’t need to be saddled with that knowledge. He was a nice enough guy, and I liked him alright.

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