Tag Archives: Crime Fiction

A Burden of Truth

James Robert Whitmore stared up at the clock on the gray stone wall in the tiny room. Eleven-thirty, only thirty minutes left and then they would come to get him. He prayed the priest would get there soon. Whitmore rose up and began to pace from one of the drab stone walls to the other. His stomach started to gurgle, and he wished he hadn’t eaten the meal they had brought for him. A knock on the door caused him to freeze. He glanced again at the clock. It can’t be time. Please let it be the priest. His voice faltered as he called out, “Come in.”

+++++The heavy wooden door swung open, and Father Thomas McCarthy walked in.

+++++Whitmore rushed to meet him, grasping the old man’s hand. He said, “Thank God you’re here, Father. I don’t think I can go through with this.” The priest freed his hand from Whitmore’s death grip. Wrapping his arm around Whitmore’s shoulder, he said “Well, my son, I’m afraid at this point you don’t have much choice. Come now, why don’t we use this time wisely. You asked me to hear your confession, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

+++++The old priest guided Whitmore to a rough wooden bench that sat against one of the bleak walls of the room and helped him sit down. “Now James, I’m ready to listen.”

+++++With wild eyes, Whitmore looked at the priest and said: “It shouldn’t be me, Father. I don’t deserve this.”

+++++“Well lad, the truth is many people feel that you do. We don’t have much time. Why don’t you share your confession with me? Free your soul, James. Now is the time.”

+++++Whitmore had wrapped his arms around himself and was staring at the stone floor. “I’m sorry Father. I haven’t been to confession in over twenty-five years. I don’t even know how to start.”

+++++“All you have to do is tell the truth son. It’s the truth that will set you free.”

+++++Whitmore lifted his gaze up from the floor and said, “The problem with Emily was that she couldn’t keep a secret, and that’s why she had to die.”

+++++A look of shock registered on the priest’s face, but he remained silent.

+++++Whitmore continued: “Besides, the whole damned thing was her fault anyway. If Emily would have just thrown the invitation away like I had done to all the others, she’d still be alive today. But, oh no, she couldn’t leave it alone. She wrote a reply accepting the invitation on my behalf. Can you believe that, Father? The bitch didn’t even tell me what she’d done.” Whitmore looked into the priest’s eyes, expecting to see empathy, but instead, the old man looked like he had just drunk a glass of curdled milk.

+++++He ignored the sour expression on the priest’s face and went on. “I found out what she’d done one night when I was sitting in my study reading the New York Times. I came across this article titled ‘Whitmore to Speak Publicly, the First Time in Twenty Years.’ Of course, I’m stunned by the headline, so I start reading.” ‘James Whitmore, author of the exceptional short story The Winter’s Harvest and several lesser-known works, will be this year’s keynote speaker at Bishop Walsh High School in Rochester NY.’ The article went on, but I didn’t need to read anymore. I knew what happened; my alma mater had sent their favorite son another request to speak at the school. Emily knew I would never accept, no matter how much she badgered me, so she accepted for me.

+++++“Well, I grabbed that paper and marched my ass right out into the kitchen where she was doing dishes, and I introduced the back of my hand to the side of her face. She drops like I hit her with an ax handle. She starts blubbering. ‘I did it for you; I did it for you.’ I’m about to cram that article down her throat when my cell phone rings. I compose myself a little and answer the call. It turns out to be my old agent, who I had not spoken with in years. He tells me he saw that I was going to speak at Bishop Walsh and he says there is renewed interest in the story. He said he was even getting feelers from Hollywood about a remake of the original film. Well, Father, I start to think maybe it’s time to get back out there. Money was getting tight, and I didn’t have a lot going on. I hung up the phone and realized that what Emily had done was a good thing. I went over and tried to apologize to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. Just stormed off and locked herself in the bedroom. I knew it would take some time, but she’d come around. She always did.”

+++++The more Whitmore talked, the more he relaxed. The priest was right; confession is good for the soul. He checked the time again and saw that it was eleven-forty-five. Only fifteen minutes left. The priest saw Whitmore look at the clock, and he tried to interject, but Whitmore stopped him. “I’m sorry, Father, but I only have fifteen minutes left, and I want to finish the confession.”

+++++The priest nodded his head and said, “Go on.”

+++++“Well, the next morning I amble out into the kitchen, and I see that Emily had placed the invitation to speak at Bishop Walsh on the kitchen table. At first, it was an ego rush to see it there. After all these years I was going back, and I was going back because they wanted me. Just like the coaches wanted me when I was their star quarterback.” A smirk came to his face. “Just like all the girls wanted me when they were in the back seat of my car.”

+++++Whitmore stood up from the bench and started to pace the room again. “The problem was she left that goddamn invitation on the table. Sorry about the profanity, Father. I know that’s wrong, especially at a time like this.”

+++++The priest waved his hand to continue. “Well, day after day I see that invitation sitting there, mocking me. That’s when it dawned on me. I don’t know how she found out, but somehow she knows the story that made me famous wasn’t mine. Every morning the smug bitch sits across from me drinking her morning coffee, pretending to read the paper, but I know what she’s doing. She’s trying to break me. She wants me to admit that I took that story from Timmy Wills and then killed him to cover it up. That wasn’t going to happen, though, Father McCarthy, and I’ll tell you why. Unlike Emily, I can keep a secret. Twenty-five years have gone by, Father, and I never breathed a word about what I did to Timmy. Not a word until this very moment.”

+++++He smiled an ingratiating smile and said: “I know you can keep a secret too, but I guess that comes with your line of work, doesn’t it, Father?” The priest’s eyes were wide and locked onto Whitmore. The old man’s face was ashen.

+++++“Anyway, no one should feel sorry for Timmy. The little dweeb was lucky to have me as a friend. God knows he didn’t have anyone else. Seriously, the only thing the kid had going for him was that he could write. I saw the way the whole damned English class would hang on his every word when that five foot nothing twerp stood in front of the class and read one of his stories. Instinctively, I knew that he had something I needed. And I was right. When he read me his story The Winter’s Harvest I knew that was it. I asked him if he had shared the story with anyone else yet, he said no, that I was his best friend, he wanted me to hear it first.

+++++“Well, that was all I needed to hear. I asked Timmy if he wanted to go fishing on my dad’s boat that night. I still can’t believe how excited the moron got when I asked him that. He accepted on the spot, and I knew that I was going to get what I needed. I told him that I would get in trouble if my dad knew I took anyone on the boat so he shouldn’t tell anyone he was meeting me. Just before he left, I told him to bring the story with him because I wanted to hear it again that night. You should have seen the look on his face; you would have thought the prom queen had just asked him on a date.”

+++++The priest’s cell phone buzzed. He said “excuse me” and answered the call. “Yes, I understand. I’ll wait for you here.”

+++++Ending the call the priest looked to Whitmore and said: “They’re on their way.”

+++++The panic that had been in Whitmore’s eyes when the priest first entered the room was gone. He was ready.

+++++Whitmore looked to the priest and said: “I’m almost finished, and I need to get this out before I walk out that door.” Without waiting for a reply from the priest, he continued. “You probably can imagine what happened to Timmy when we got out on that boat, but I still feel I need to say it. We had a few beers as we headed out onto Ontario. I even let Tim drive the boat for a while. When we got about twelve miles out, I killed the motor, and we just sat there and watched the moonlight sparkle on top of the water. For a minute I thought about not doing it, but that’s exactly what a loser like Timmy would do. I came up behind him and cracked his skull with a propeller wrench. He crumpled to the deck. Out cold.

+++++“Then I wrapped an old anchor chain around his legs and tossed him over the side. He came to when he hit the water, and for a moment he floated there at the surface and stared at me. He never said a word; it was as if he knew this was what life had in store for him. The image of that pale white face in the middle of that cold black water was hard to look at, but it didn’t last long. The weight of the anchor chain pulled him under, and he was gone.”

+++++Whitmore analyzed the priest’s face for a reaction. The old man was shaken and pale. “Now you know what became of Timmy Wills. A lot of people thought the little freak ran off and joined the circus or something just to get away from life on his father’s farm, but I knew better… and now you do too.

+++++“Some people would have been dumb and tried to do something with Timmy’s story right away, but not me. I waited two years before I took it to a publisher. The rest, as they say, is history.”

+++++Whitmore heard them coming down the hall, and he looked up to check the clock one last time. Twelve on the dot. Time was up. He turned back to the priest. “Emily put me in this position, and now she’s at the bottom of Ontario with Tim. Now I have to deal with what she got me into. Thank you for listening to my confession, Father. It has made all the difference in the world.”

+++++Just then the door opened, and Monsignor Carl Rickman walked in with three members of his staff. He looked at Whitmore and said, “I hope our prayer room here at the monastery wasn’t too spartan for you, sir.”

+++++James Whitmore smiled, “Not at all. It was just what I needed. I have to tell you; Father McCarthy was a godsend. As you’re well aware, I haven’t spoken in public in over twenty years. I had a terrible bout of stage fright before Father McCarthy arrived, but he helped me get through it. I don’t think I could give today’s commencement speech without the steadying hand the Father provided.”

+++++The monsignor nodded and smiled at the priest, then said “Thomas, perhaps you should sit the commencement out. You don’t look well. The old man raised his eyes up to the monsignor and feebly nodded his agreement.

+++++Whitmore drew in a deep breath, “You know I told Father McCarthy that I didn’t think I deserved this, but through the power of prayer and confession I see now that indeed I am the person that should be speaking to these young people today.”

+++++Clapping his hands together, Whitmore said, “All right then. Let’s go inspire the newest graduates of Bishop Walsh.” Smiling one last time at the old priest, he turned and headed out to greet the adoring assembly.

Flasher

Dark clouds hang over me like a Bank Holiday weekend in Margate, and I’m worse for wear; half-a-gram of chang up my nose, half-a-bottle of Stoli down my throat, a lot of crushed Diet Coke cans in the bin under my desk. Oh, and it’s only half past four in the afternoon. The office phone bleats at me. I stare at it for a good thirty seconds before I answer.

+++++“Constantinou,” I finally manage to say with a thick tongue.

+++++“We have someone in reception for you, Mr. Constantinou.”

+++++Feel like telling them to tell the visitor they would be better off leaving and finding a more reputable detective, or least one who isn’t as wrecked as me, but instead, I tell them to send the client up. Put the lottery wrap back together and slip it into my top drawer, the Stoli goes in the bottom. Wish I could smoke but trying to keep the landlord sweet as I missed the last rent payment. Stand up and pull my blazer on over my T-Shirt—never hurts to try and make a good first impression. I smooth lint that I’m only half-sure is real, from the lapels before sitting back down.

+++++I hear the beep of the lift arriving on our floor. Adjust my collar and wish I could have another quick sniff. But then the client is walking in. I sit back and try to look like I know what I’m doing.

+++++When the client steps in it throws me somewhat in that it doesn’t look like the usual type who walks in. It’s a black girl, about fourteen or fifteen, in her school uniform: bright blue blazer, white blouse, tartan kilt, school tie, black knee socks, and Kickers.

+++++“Help you?” I ask.

+++++“Are you Charlie Bars?”

+++++My eyes narrow. Why does a schoolgirl know my street name? There’s something familiar about her around the eyes and mouth. I nod.

+++++“That’s me. How can I help?”

+++++“I have a case that I would like you to take.”

+++++“A case?”

+++++“Did I stutter?”

+++++“No, it’s just…”

+++++“You don’t get many schoolgirls in?”

+++++I nod.

+++++“I understand. I have a case, and I can pay.”

+++++“Really? Do you know our rates?”

+++++She smiles and it worries me, it’s that kind of smile. She opens her backpack and takes out a wafer of notes wrapped in a bank band. They’re all pink, the fifties—my mercenary eye spots that straight off. She puts the wafer on the desk in front of me.

+++++“Five hundred.”

+++++“Okay, so you’re serious. What’s your name?”

+++++She pauses a moment.

+++++“Carline MacGregor.”

+++++I stare at her for a moment.

+++++“As in…”

+++++She nods.

+++++“My uncle Carlton said this was a favour you owed him.”

+++++I do owe him, but honestly, Carlton MacGregor isn’t the kind of man you can say no to anyway—not if you want your knees to stay bending the right way.

+++++“And the money?”

+++++“I said we’d have to pay you so you’d do good work.”

+++++“What is it exactly you want me to do?” I lean over and take the money. Check it quickly and know the notes are real from the feel. I look up at Carline.

+++++“Well?”

+++++“There’s a flasher.”

+++++“A flasher; as in a bloke in a dirty raincoat showing his bits?”

+++++She nods.

+++++“That’s it, just no raincoat. It’s been going on nearly six months now. Always girls from my school, before and after school.”

+++++“You want me to find him?”

+++++“Yes, and I want you to make him stop.”

+++++I nod.

+++++“You got any more?”

+++++She reaches into her bag and passes me out two manila files.

+++++“The first one is pictures from phones and that, the second statement’s from the girls.”

+++++“Check you, Perry Mason.”

+++++She looks confused.

+++++“He was a lawyer on telly, Raymond Burr. Bit before your time.” Shit, it was before mine but thank god for reruns.

+++++Carline nods.

+++++“I’m going to be a lawyer, it’s part of my plan.”

+++++“Plan?”

+++++“Life plan.”

+++++“Shit, when I was your age all I was worried about was playing football, chasing girls and finding an offie that would sell me cider.”

+++++“And look at you now…”

+++++I look up at her, annoyed but she laughs, and I sniff it up, along with the residue of the last line sitting inside my nose.

+++++“Will you look into it?”

+++++I tuck the five hundred away and nod.

+++++“I will.”

+++++“Maybe lay off that stuff as well, until you have.”

+++++I wipe my nose, but she is already up and heading for the door.

*

+++++I leave the chang and vodka in my desk and head out into the dark of the night, sniff and look back thinking maybe I should bring the wrap but know that I shouldn’t, grab a cab and head south, for home. I leave the files until I’ve paid the cabbie off and head upstairs into the security of my flat.

+++++Drop a CD, Ready to Die, into the stereo and mix myself a tall lemonade and vodka, add a splash of lime cordial. I might be able to leave the sniff alone but the booze… Sit myself down and check the file of photos first. They’re all a pretty blurry bunch, but from a quick flick, they all show the same man—blonde, middle-aged and big. More than half of the pictures show him with his cock out, stiff and blurred in the shots but a bit on the small side by my reckoning; more like a toffee hammer than a sledge. None of the pictures are quite good enough for a perfect ID, but I write up a description of him in my notebook.

+++++I check the dates that Carline has provided for when the flasher has struck and grab a calendar from the kitchen. It soon becomes apparent that he is a man of regular habits; Tuesdays and Thursdays towards the end of the month, mainly mornings but occasional afternoons as well.

*

+++++I find myself feeling too sober, coming down off a coke binge that is making me sweat and wish for my bed in equal measure; cool sheets and a pint of water is all I want. Maybe I can get a drink. That’ll take the edge off, right? Then I remember that it’s half-past eight in the morning and check myself. A couple of school girls look at me and giggle. I sigh and they walk past. From the reports, it was normally on this road that he strikes and it is a Thursday towards the end of the month. I watch a Ford Focus pull up and a big blonde guy get out. Looks like the bloke from the photos. Nice and easy I follow him as he walks away from his car. I snap a shot of his number plates as I follow him. Watch as he gets himself in between an SUV and a transit van. See him fiddling with his zipper. I step into the blindside behind the van. A couple of girls, about fifteen, are walking up towards us. Even from the other side of the van, I hear a zipper going down. Really? This is okay is it, normal Thursday morning—go and whap your cock out on kids. He steps out and thrusts his crotch at the girls, working his member as he does so.

+++++The girls clutch at each other and one of them screams. Fuck this. I step out and walk down the side of the van.

+++++“Oi, dickhead.”

+++++He turns, looking shocked, and I put a straight right into his eye. He stumbles back and then roars like an animal. I stand and look at him. Without zipping up he rushes forward. I step back from his cock and he plants his hands into my chest spilling me onto my arse in the road. I get up as quick as I can but he is up and off around the side of the van. I scramble up and follow but he is halfway back to his car. I sigh and let him go. Not got the legs, or the will this morning. I spark a smoke and text the number plate to Mazza, my business partner, asking for him to get me an address.

*

+++++I sit on the address for a few days and watch the comings and goings. Truth be told, I’m glad to keep busy. More time for thinking and less for sniffing. I wait until he has dropped his kids at playgroup and then I bang on his door. He opens up and stares at me. I raise my hand palm up.

+++++“Just talk.”

+++++“Just talk?”

+++++I nod and he invites me inside. He makes coffee and we sit down at the kitchen table.

+++++“What did you used to do?”

+++++“Sorry?”

+++++“Well, this ain’t exactly your chosen profession, is it? So what did you used to do?”

+++++“I was head of IT systems at one of the big banks over in the Wharf until the crash.”

+++++“And since?”

+++++He stares down into his own lap. I take a swig of the coffee and it isn’t half bad.

+++++“What does your wife do?”

+++++“Headmistress.”

+++++Ah, things start to make sense.

+++++“And what, you’re feeling a bit emasculated? No reason to show your knob to kids, mate.”

+++++“Those little sluts aren’t kids.”

+++++“Oi. You ever seen what happens to one of you lot inside? It ain’t pretty. We can do this nicely or we can do it the rough way.”

+++++“Well? What are you suggesting?”

+++++I toss a card onto the table.

+++++“Her name’s Siobhan. Looks about thirteen, but she isn’t. Does the whole school uniform thing. Go and see her. You can stand in the corner and have a wank in front of her while she wears the uniform—forty quid a pop.”

+++++“And if I don’t?”

+++++“Then I pass your name to some particularly unpleasant people and you’ll be in a shallow grave within a week once they’ve cut your balls off and made you eat them. Look, I’m sick of violence, fucking sick of it, but if you don’t do the right thing, bad shit will come down on you.”

+++++He still won’t look at me but he nods in agreement. I finish my coffee with a smile before heading back to some nice cold sheets.

*

+++++It’s a week before I know anything is wrong because Carline storms into my office; tie askew and cheeks streaked with tears.

+++++“I thought it was sorted?”

+++++“What?”

+++++“What else have I paid you five hundred pounds to do?”

+++++“It is sorted.”

+++++“Yeah? How come he did it again then? Worse.”

+++++“Worse?”

+++++“Yeah, tried to drag one of my friends into his car.”

+++++“I…”

+++++“I don’t want to hear it. Give me his address.”

+++++I retrieve the file and write the address out on a Post-it note.

+++++“What are you going to do?”

+++++“Me?” She replies. “I’m not going to do anything but give that to someone else—someone who can get the job done.”

+++++Shit. And then she’s gone.

*

+++++On my way out, I bell Siobhan and she answers on the third ring.

+++++“Last time I take any clients off you.”

+++++“What happened?”

+++++“He was a nut job that’s what. Fuckin’ mental.”

+++++“Just tell me what happened.”

+++++“He gave it a try, stood in the corner trousers round his ankles but he just couldn’t… well, get there—you get me?”

+++++“Then?”

+++++“He started crying and saying this wasn’t right that he had to do it properly. Stormed out. Banged the doors, Charlie, and I can’t be having that.”

+++++Shit.

+++++“I owe you one, alright?”

+++++“Yeah you owe me two, you bastard.”

+++++Dead the call and wonder why do I care. Let Carlton MacGregor do what he wants, not like I could stop him anyway. Put my phone away, think about heading for a pint but go home instead.

*

+++++When the intercom in my flat buzzes I’m not surprised. A bottle of wine sits on the side unopened.

+++++“Hello.”

+++++“It’s Two Tone.”

+++++“Yeah, yeah come up.”

+++++Shit. Two Tone; one of MacGregor’s watchdogs and one who doesn’t like me much due to a thing I had with his sister more than a decade ago. I open the door and wait. Need to play this by ear. Two Tone takes his time coming up the stairs. When he appears at the top he stares dead at me and then smiles.

+++++“Charlie fuckin’ Bars. Been awhile.”

+++++“It has.”

+++++He nods.

+++++“T said he’d seen you.”

+++++“Yeah, helped me out with something.”

+++++He nods and I let him into the flat. He looks the place over, takes stock of the wine.

+++++“What’s that?”

+++++“A Grenache.”

+++++“Sweet, make us one.”

+++++I head over and uncork the bottle, surprised Two Tone drinks wine.

+++++“You know why I’m here?”

+++++“Reckon so.”

+++++I pass him a wine and then pour myself one.

+++++“Take it easy on that, Charlie.”

+++++“Why’s that?”

+++++“We’ve got a bit of a drive…”

+++++I’m the one who has to do the driving. The whip is a non-descript black Prius. Two Tone sits with his hands in his pockets. When he takes them out I see he is wearing a pair of blue latex gloves. I stare at his fingers as he plays with the radio. He leaves it on a station playing 90’s hip-hop.

+++++“Tune,” I comment as the DJ drops Lost Boyz, Me and My Crazy World.

+++++He nods.

+++++“You know that.”

+++++“How come I ain’t got gloves?”

+++++“Shit, you want some?”

+++++Two Tone reaches into the footwell and pulls out a box of gloves. He holds the wheel while I put a pair on. Once I have them on he passes me a shammy rag to wipe the wheel. It makes me feel better. If he was planning to put two in the back of my head why let me have the gloves? So you don’t think he’ll cap you… Shut up. You armed? Just the cork screw, only thing I had time to pocket. If he even breathes funny stick it in his neck. I nod to myself, the little voice isn’t always wrong.

+++++“You know what your problem is?”

+++++Didn’t realise I had one.

+++++“What?”

+++++“You’ve lost your place.”

+++++“My place?”

+++++“Yeah. See the way I figure it, I’m a Samurai. Loyal, disciplined, a veteran, part of something.”

+++++“And what am I?”

+++++“Man, you’re just a fucking Ronin now. Masterless. Alone. Wandering.”

+++++“Good to know my place.”

+++++Two Tone nods and gestures with his head at a cut-off from the A-road we’re driving down.

+++++“Take the side lane.”

*

+++++At the end of the lane we turn onto a dirt track and I follow it down, past a copse of trees, to a mid-sized barn; the windows are covered by grills and the doors look reinforced. Beyond the barn are a couple of smaller outbuildings. My Spidey sense is tingling double time and when Two Tone pops his seat belt I nearly pull the corkscrew. He smiles at me.

+++++“Come. We got a job to do.”

+++++Two Tone takes out a ring of keys and unlocks the padlocks on the doors then goes to the boot of the car and retrieves a leather gym bag that he passes to me. Guessing there’s more than just his football kit in it from the weight. He gestures for me to lead the way and I step into the darkness that lies beyond.

+++++Hard to see anything in the gloom until Two Tone steps in, closes the doors, and flips a switch. Stark light floods the space and I see everything far too clearly. The place is dirt floored, there’s a couple of camp beds, a table and a pair of chairs—there’s also a grimy bathtub. The flasher, or what’s left of him, is hanging by his hands from an iron rung in one of the roof beams. He’s been tied there with barbed wire that has cut deep into his forearms and wrists. Someone has done a real job on him; his ears and nose are gone, teeth smashed to splinters, nipples burnt to nothing, cigarette burns and shallow knife marks cover his torso, his fingers and toes are twisted at strange angles, and between his legs is a bloody mess.

+++++“Jesus, is he…”

+++++“Fuck. He better be, else mans ain’t done their job properly.”

+++++Two Tone strips off his jacket and then his T-shirt. He kicks off his trainers and comes out of his jeans. He turns and sees me staring.

+++++“Do the same unless you want to hitch a ride back in your pants…”

+++++I follow suit with a sick feeling growing in my stomach. When we’re stood in our pants, Two Tone opens the bag and starts taking things out. I see saws and knives of different shapes and weights.

+++++“It’s easy to fuck this up. We want to go fast and efficient. I tell you what to do and you do it, yeah?”

+++++I nod and he laughs.

+++++“Shit. Charlie fucking Bars looking like he come off the teacups at Chessington or some shit.”

+++++“What are we doing here?”

+++++He shakes his head like I’m simple.

+++++“Cutting a man up so the bits are easier to burn.”

+++++“Fuck…”

+++++“Well, it’s either that or I go back and tell Mr MacGregor how you don’t want to make amends.”

+++++“Just show me what to do.”

*

+++++Turns out, Two Tone had signed himself up for a butchery course through one of the fancy places in Borough Market. While hipsters learnt to spatchcock a pheasant and housewives were taught to stuff sausage skins, Two Tone was learning for other reasons.

+++++Mainly, I just hold the limbs still while he de-joints them and saws them into pieces. Then I bag them up before holding the head in place while he works through the neck and spine. It’s hot bloody work, and I retch a couple of times. He opens up the body cavity and removes the organs, tossing them into a bag I hold open.

+++++“Nearly there,” he mutters as he breaks the sternum and goes to work on the ribs.

+++++I walk over to the desk for a bottle of water. The bottle is halfway to my lips before I see it —a school tie. Carline. I stare at the piece of fabric and start wondering.

+++++“You helping or not?”

+++++It snaps me out of the moment and I head back to the tub.

*

+++++When we are done, we take turns in hosing each other down, looking for any errant gore or blood spatter. Then we carry the bags out to one of the out-buildings and fire up a small furnace. It smells like barbeque and the thought makes me turn away, bile rising fast. Two Tone makes me wait until the bones are cracked and blackened, then lets me loose on them with a sledgehammer. By the end, all that’s left of the flasher is a pile of black dust being grabbed at by the draught from an ill-fitting door.

+++++After we finish, Two Tone cleans his tools. Then we dress and get back into the car. We drive back to London in silence, radio off. Two Tone drops me back at my door.

+++++“Shit, man. You look like you need a holiday or something.”

+++++I feel like that is exactly what I need.

I’VE GOT YOUR BACK

“If you reach for that gun, I’ll shoot you, David. And you damn know I will, don’t you.”

+++++David Logan was on his knees digging in the packed dirt near a gravesite in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey. His Sig Sauer lay just two feet from the hole he’d dug, and that was just about two feet too far for it to be of any use to him.

+++++Sandra Hutchins, the person who had crept up on him, was pointing her .38 Special at David and he indeed had no doubt that she would shoot him.

+++++“Twelve years is a long time to wait, Sandra,” said David. “You have even more patience than I do.”

+++++“It was a long wait; I hid out waitressing at a truck stop on an interstate in Wisconsin for most of those twelve years. You owe me half the money from the job, and another quarter for the pain and suffering I put up with at that fuckin’ truck stop.”

+++++David had been released from prison a year ago and had then waited for a time before retrieving the money from the bank job he and Sandra had pulled off. David had been arrested and sent to prison, but Sandra had slipped under the radar and escaped.

+++++David had buried the money about a foot deep between two graves that appeared to be old enough that they probably no longer had any visitors. He had refused to tell Sandra where he had hidden the loot. Sandra had been shadowing David since his release.

+++++“Pain and suffering?” said David. “Hey, I was in the fuckin’ slammer, ya know. I was an accountant; hard time was no picnic for me.”

+++++“How about you just shut up and keep diggin’ so we can go our separate ways,” said Sandra.

+++++A man holding a large caliber pistol with a silencer stepped out of the shadows.

+++++“You didn’t think I’d risk coming here to pick up all this dough without backup, did ya?” said David. “Eddie, meet Sandra.”

+++++Eddie nodded at Sandra and casually pointed his pistol in her direction.

+++++“Great minds think alike,” said Sandra. “Come on out, Johnny. Johnny, meet David and Eddie.

+++++Johnny also carried a pistol equipped with a silencer.

+++++“Looks like a standoff,” said David.

+++++Johnny looked over at Eddie, their eyes met, and some silent communication passed between them.

+++++There was a “pffft!” as Johnny shot Sandra in the back of the head. David lunged for his Sig but was too late as a “pffft!” from Eddie’s gun caught him in the forehead.

+++++“What say we put all the guns on a little pile over there and finish diggin’ up the money,” said Eddie.

+++++“Works for me,” said Johnny.

Of Brothers and Sisters

There might be lots of things I didn’t know, but I knew enough that anyone with a lick of sense stayed the hell away from Alphonse Bouchon when he was in a foul mood. Less, of course, they were tired of living.

+++++Little Dickie Ferrette didn’t give two shits about the big man’s state of mind. He had hit the number, 442 — same one he had playing every day for years, and he wanted his money. He didn’t care that one of Alphonse’s runners had made off with five thousand dollars, wasn’t his problem. But it was about to be.

+++++Alphonse hung out in a Lower 9th Ward bar on Burgundy Street called Mercedes’ Place. It was nearly empty when Dickie walked in and confronted the big man. The Meters were on the jukebox, and Alphonse sipped a Hennessey and coke. He never put his glass on the bar when Dickie demanded his winnings. Instead, like he did it every day, he pulled a stainless steel .357 revolver from his waist and shot Dickie between the eyes. He finished his drink and walked out of the bar into a steamy Louisiana night.

+++++A wise man would have stayed clear of the whole mess. Dickie had lived his entire life on the edge, and I’d never been much for trouble. But he was my brother, and I wasn’t going to let Alphonse waste him that way.

+++++Two nights later I watched Alphonse usher a woman into his Cadillac. There was a hard rain, and I couldn’t see who she was.

+++++I tailed them through the storm to a dump called The Aloha Motel, located in a rundown section of Metairie. I watched them hustle into a room. The storm seemed to be centered right overhead, thunder and lightning almost constant. It masked the sound of the door being kicked in.

+++++Alphonse’s huge body covered the woman when I walked in. When he rolled off of her, I saw who she was and for a moment thought I might be sick. Ginnie Mae Bouchon, his twin sister. When Alphonse saw me, he looked like he saw a ghost. Dickie was my twin brother.

+++++I didn’t give a second thought to any of it. Didn’t try to figure out what kind of sordid things were going on. I hadn’t planned on killing anyone. Wanted to get what Alphonse owed Dickie and be on my way. Instead, I knew I had to stop what I had seen even though it could never be erased from my memory.

+++++The .12 gauge barked twice — Alphonse first, Ginny second. At least that’s how I had it figured but man, in this day and age, how the hell do you know? The double ought buckshot made a mess out of both of them; it would be easier to live with that than what I had seen moments before.

+++++A money clip in his pants pocket yielded over three thousand dollars. I took that and his car keys. Found another couple of grand in the trunk.

+++++That hurricane sure made a mess out of my hometown. It took my mom and pops, my baby sister too. Dickie and me had never been close, but we’d been tighter since Katrina even though New Orleans hadn’t felt like home for a long while.

+++++I drove to the bus station and bought a ticket to Phoenix. At a little store across the street, I got a pint of gin. An hour later I was on my way west with nasty visions as my only baggage. I was sad about Dickie, but he should have known not to fool with Alphonse when he was in a mood.

+++++I guess Dickie and me had that bond twins sometimes do. Now Alphonse, him and Ginnie Mae’s bond was something else altogether.

+++++Something I would never forget.

Blood On The Tracks

O’Leary’s bar smelled of piss and vomit. I stood in the doorway, tried to revoke the smell from my nostrils.

+++++I used to frequent this joint a few years ago, before Ginger’s death. I drank pretty hard back then. I would wake up at five in the morning, have a few glasses of Hamilton’s bourbon. On the way to work, I’d have a splash of gin. For lunch, I always had a few beers with my partner Kitna. Get home and wind down with a few more beers and catch a game on TV before getting into bed with Ginger. That’s how my day went.

+++++I don’t drink anymore. Not after Ginger died.

+++++Most men, after their wives met their end, started drinking more. At least the ones I know. Not me. It sobered me up good. Real good. Of course the men I usually deal with are turds anyway. The kind of scum you read in the paper they were fried in the electric chair, or given the more humane lethal injection, and you wouldn’t even care they died.

+++++At least I can say I never mourned them. Never really cared for anyone else but Ginger.

+++++Ginger was a good girl until she met me. I know the papers have said other things. I don’t care. I’m not talking about social niceties in western civilization. I’m talking about a lovely, nice person, who almost always helped others, even if they weren’t friends or family. I know that she sold herself on occasion. She had to do what she had to do. That’s how we met. I enjoyed her on occasion as well, but it was always gentle, even when it was rough.

+++++I walked up to the bar, and George looked at me, not recognizing me at first. “Holy shit!” He exclaimed, sat down a shot glass he was rinsing out. “Detective Harris?”

+++++“What’s up George?” I said, sat on a stool. “Place never changes.”

+++++“Yep, Detective,” George laughed. “Still smells like piss and vomit. What can I get you?”

+++++“Nothing, George.” I told him. “I quit drinking.”

+++++George was stunned. “No shit,” his eyes grew big in his disbelief. “Hey, how about a coke, huh? To celebrate your sobriety?”

+++++“Sounds good, George.”

+++++George was a good guy. We had a run in once a year or so ago. I caught him selling alcohol to two minors. I couldn’t prove it, I do think George was trying to get him some from those two college girls. We settled things by him making three payments of five hundred dollars. I didn’t really need the money, I just wanted to make a point to him. Ever since then, George has been a sweetheart.

+++++He brought me that coke, smiling from ear to ear. I took a five out of my coat, handed it to him.

+++++“Nawww….Detective! This one’s on the house.”

+++++I smiled, saluted him. “Thank you, George.”

+++++“Not a problem, Detective. Not a problem at all. How’s the Police business?”

+++++“Dirty,” I told him. “As dirty as it ever was.”

+++++“Working on something?” George was getting curious, too curious. But I wanted to remain friendly. I wanted to tell him about Ginger. I thought better of it. Save it for a bookend conversation right before I leave.

+++++“Several things at once, George.” I said, sipped my Coke. “Always busy. Too busy to tell lies.”

+++++“Ain’t that the truth,” George giggled. “That’s a saying my old man had. He had another saying too. Uh,” he had to think about it, the wrinkles on his dopey face were moving about, arranging and rearranging as his mind went to work. “Yeah, uh…idle hands are the devil’s workshop? Something like that,” George laughed. “Whatever the hell that meant!”

+++++A decrepit old drunk at the end of the bar got George’s attention, called him away from me. Thank God. I was getting irritated by him.

+++++There wasn’t a lot of people in the bar. A few were standard barflies. I remember them from the drunk years. The guy at the end of the bar, nursing a Manhattan, still wearing his hair like Moe Howard. There was Tina over at the out- of date- jukebox, fawning over her newest one night stand. In the corner booth was a guy and a girl huddled close together, enjoying a sandwich, kissing and touching each other under the table once in a while.

+++++I smiled at that. Nothing wrong with young love. That’s what keeps the human race moving on.

+++++I see this guy sitting at a table in the back, dressed in a black sports jacket, checked shirt, green slacks and Nikes. He was wearing a bad toupee, you know, the ones that never fit over the bald spot? Anyways, I get to thinking I know this guy, I’d seen him before. Then it hit me.

+++++“Son of a bitch,” I whispered.

+++++He was Ginger’s killer……I know it……I just….know it…..

+++++I remember hearing he was her last John before the Landlady found her bruised, naked body lying on our living room floor. I was told she was lying there with her neck broken. I was removed from the case, and Kitna took over. He kept me clued in until he thought I was acting too crazy, irrationally headlining the witnesses.

+++++After my first interview with him, this guy bails—leaving town. No one could find him, until now. Here he is, right under my nose, and I have no idea what to do next.

+++++Our eyes locked. I knew what he was thinking. Why is this guy staring at me? He knows something about me that I don’t want others to know.

+++++At first he seemed angry that I was staring. Then he became nervous, nearly knocked over his beer. He fidgeted in his chair, tugging at the sleeves of his sports jacket. He looked away, sighing several times. He took his phone from his trouser pocket, sprinting through a series of texts. He had the most annoying ring tone: the theme to ‘I dream of Jeannie’.

+++++Suddenly, he shot up from his chair, pushed it in with his foot, and began walking out of the bar.

+++++I stood, placed a twenty on the bar.

+++++“Heyyyyy! Detective!” I heard George’s voice from behind, as I exited O’Leary’s. “I told you the Coke was on the house—come back! Hey! Your money is no good here!”

+++++I didn’t stop to acknowledge George. I was busy trying to catch up to the man in the checkered sports jacket.

+++++Even though he had a small limp, the tall, lanky man walked at a pace that a small trotting horse would find unnaturally hard to keep up with.

+++++I followed him down Grover Avenue and into an alley, back on Grover, crossing Pine Meadow where the old city hospital used to be. Now it’s just an empty steel shell with major construction holes on every floor. I kept following him. He had to have known I was behind him. He tried hard to shake me, leading me to Vine and Henry, where all the small shops sat by the pier. We circled around, was Grover again via the intersection across from the primary school and baseball diamond.

+++++I knew where we were going. He was taking me to the train tracks to A: lose me, or B: have some cronies of his jump me, beat me to a pulp and possibly rob me before they defiled my broken body.

+++++I didn’t care. I knew someone was going to get hurt.

+++++He was getting tired, slower. I was getting faster, pushed by pure adrenaline.

+++++He was on his phone, waving his hands frantically. When I got closer to him, I could hear him screaming in the phone.

+++++“Murry! You don’t understand! I can’t shake him! Send some help!” He stopped walking. We were now by a junkyard, but still out on the train tracks. “This guy must know something about the stash! I don’t know if he’s not a cop or…”

+++++My fist smashed into his nose. He screamed, dropped his phone and staggered backwards. Sounded like a wounded animal caught in a trap. Blood splattered his chin jacket lapels. He tried to block another punch, but I was too quick, caught him in his bulging left eye. He fell just as that damned God-awful toupee slipped off his head, revealing a huge scar on top a shiny bald spot. He landed on his back, legs kicking in the air.

+++++I was so fucking mad, all I could see was steam rising from the hot ground, clouding my vision.

+++++“Barry?” I heard a female voice carry on from the phone speaker. “Barry?! Are you alright?!”

+++++I stepped on the phone, crushing it with my heel. The phone went dead. I took a few steps toward the man and started scuttling away backwards, pushing with his hands and ass, making tracks in the dirt and leaves. He got as far as the left train track when I kicked him in the face. His bottom teeth shattered, blood poured out of his mouth. He looked up at me, begging for an answer.

+++++“Why?” He struggled to speak. “Why?”

+++++I didn’t answer him. He didn’t deserve an answer. ‘sides….he knew why and he knew who I was. He was just prolonging the inevitable. Melodrama needs to be mocked.

+++++I kicked him again, the point of my boot landed in his right chin, caving it in. His right eye popped out and hung just above the bridge of his nose, swinging back and forth like a slinky caught on a stairwell peg.

+++++I drove that boot into his forehead a few more times, each time the back of his head smashed into a railroad spike.

+++++I sat down beside the dead man, lit a cigarette. We watched the sun go down together.

****

+++++I found myself back at O’Leary’s again after wandering the streets aimlessly, feeling satisfied.

+++++I sat on a stool and George made a b-line for me. “Detective Harris. Your back,” he said, chipper than he should’ve been.

+++++“Yeah,” I said, beat.

+++++“Get you another Coke?”

+++++“Nah, George,” I inhaled, exhaled briefly. “Get a Tonic and Flatbush whiskey.”

+++++George looked at me incredulously. “You sure?”

+++++“Yeah,” I nodded.

+++++“You just celebrated—“

+++++“Get me the drink I ordered,” I yelled. He was irritating the shit out of me. So was the heat. Ninety-fucking six degrees out there, after the sun went down. Even the stupid elevator music version of The White Stripes ‘seven nation army’ was irritating me. “And change that damned God-awful fucking music, will ya?”

+++++“I’ll get you your Flatbush whiskey and Tonic, Detective. But I can’t do nothing about the music. Corporate rules. Sorry.”

+++++A short, pudgy man in a lime green overcoat sat next to me. “Detective?” He asked. “Is that what he’s been telling people again?” I noticed a patrolman was standing behind him, looking like he had gas pains and his shaky hand sitting on his weapon.

+++++“What the hell are you doing here, Kina?” I rubbed my forehead, closed my eyes.

+++++“Still getting those headaches huh?” He snickered. “Been looking for you my friend.”

+++++George sat the glass in front of me. “Here you go Detective Harris.”

+++++Kitna laughed. “He told you he was Detective Harris and I bet he told that tired old story about his wife being murdered and he was looking for the murderer?”

+++++George brushed his lips with a hand. “He said he was a police detective, but he didn’t mention the other part. Say…who are you? Another cop?”

+++++“No,” Kitna said. “I’m Dr. Kitna. He’s a patient mine from Westside Brookes.”

+++++George gasped. “The mental hospital?”

+++++“Yeah. He ran away from us this morning. We were taking him to the new Hospital for his radiation treatment. Finally tracked him here.”

+++++The Patrolman motioned for me to get up. He removed his handcuffs from his belt.

+++++“That won’t be necessary,” Kitna said. “He’s not violent.”

THE END

Ten Organs You Don’t Want To Lose in A Bar Fight

“You’re asking for a list?”

+++++“Yah. Say you’re in a bar fight, and you’re going to lose an organ or two. Which ones?” We were, of course, sitting in a bar: me, Moose and Olaf. Olaf was always asking hypothetical questions like that, especially when he was drunk.

+++++“Easy-peasy,” said Moose. “I don’t want to lose –“

+++++“And you can’t say any of your reproductive organs.” Olaf waved off Moose’s objections. “That’s too easy.”

+++++“Shit. Those are the only ones I really use.” Moose rose unsteadily and aimed himself at the men’s room.

+++++“We just counting organs, or do glands count, too? ‘cause I think you can lose your thyroid or pituitary glands – you just take the drugs they were producing.”

+++++“Whatever. If you got ‘em, which ones can’t you loose. Lose.” Olaf had been drinking two shots to my one, and I’d had enough to be a bit buzzed. He must’ve been hammered.

+++++“OK. Let’s start with the ones you CAN lose: spleen, gallbladder, and appendix. People have those removed all the time, and they do just fine.”

+++++“This is true. But I can’t see how you’d lose your appendix in a bar fight. Nor gallbladder neither. Spleen, sure: football players have theirs damaged and removed by a bad impact.”

+++++“Yeah, but ‘bar fight’ is pretty nebulous. The guy could have a knife, a broken bottle, even an icepick. You get punctured in the right place, and it’s good-bye, gallbladder.”

+++++“OK. Knives but no guns. Which organs DON’T you want to lose?”

+++++“Well, start with the ones you need to survive: brain, heart, lungs…pancreas. You can lose one kidney, but not both.”

+++++Olaf was counting off with his fingers – but on the hand where he’d lost his pinky. He switched to his other hand. “That’s five. What else don’t you want to lose?”

+++++“Skin!” came a voice from below. “Biggest organ you losers’ve got! Not me, though.”

+++++We both looked over the table. Moose hadn’t made it to the men’s room after all. He was lying on the floor. He had also apparently used another organ: his bladder. Fortunately, the floor was slanted, and the urine puddle drained away from us.

+++++“You don’t want to lose your skin,” agreed Olaf. “But I don’t see how you could lose all your skin in a bar fight.”

+++++“No one even scalps anybody anymore,” I said.

+++++Olaf raised his glass. “To the lost art of scalping!” We clinked glasses and downed our shots. Then I refilled our glasses from the bottle, because, why not?

+++++“If we include glands, you can lose your tonsils and adenoids. I had mine taken out when I was a kid.”

+++++Olaf shook his head. “If someone can reach inside and down your throat to remove your tonsils in a bar fight, they belong on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ not….” He didn’t seem to know how to finish that sentence, but I got the idea.

+++++“He’d need a lil’ baby arm to fit in your mouth ‘n’ reach down your throat,” Moose said from the floor.

+++++I didn’t even want to think about some killer baby reaching inside my mouth.

+++++“Moving on,” I said. “You want to keep up the fight, you need your eyes. And your ears.” Ears were on my mind, since, at the moment, I couldn’t seem to hear out of my left one. “You can live without your nose, but I got mine broke once in a fight, and it hurt so bad I couldn’t even see. Can’t fight with that kind of distraction. Sense of taste, I suppose I could do without that.”

+++++“Nothing tastes right anymore, anyway,” Olaf said. “Not even this scotch.”

+++++I was pretty sure we were drinking bourbon, but I didn’t bother to point that out.

+++++That reminded me. “Stomach! That’s an organ. Don’t want to lose that.”

+++++“To eat with?” Olaf asked. I heard the sirens of the cops arriving.

+++++“To drink with!” We lifted our glasses to toast again. My glass kind of stuck to the table. I realized that the blood from Olaf’s severed pinky had spread across the tabletop. Or maybe it was blood from the stump of my left ear.

+++++“Guess it’s time,” Olaf said. The police were at the door, screaming at us to raise our hands and get on the floor. As if I’d get on the floor, wet with the blood of the guys we’d killed! And Moose’s piss. I noticed that Moose hadn’t said anything for a while – he was probably dead of his wounds, too.

+++++“Go out with a bang?” I asked.

+++++“Only way to go,” said Olaf.

+++++We didn’t even manage to get our guns out before the cops shot us down.

END

One Doe Too Many

Flipping on the windshield wipers to brush away the flurries, he began to drive down the mountain. It was too early to tell if he’d finally found his soulmate. Still, it had given him the usual thrill to see the confusion in her eyes when he said he had to leave and handed her the black velvet box.

+++++“Happy Valentine’s Day, babe,” was all he ever said to any of them before going out the door. That was the hardest part of the game, pretending he didn’t want to watch. He never stopped hoping that when he returned the latest contestant would be wrapped in nothing but diamonds and a smile. That would be the correct answer to the riddle on the gift card: Would you rather wear a carat or be a carat?

+++++It wasn’t his fault that they never got it. He left them the scrapbook with all the clues spelled out for them. He gave them plenty of peace and quiet to concentrate. There was no cell phone reception, no Wi-Fi. There was no landline. All the exterior doors were impossible to unlock. Every window was sealed shut. Even the heating vents were broken up with semicircles of steel so nobody, not even the most agile gymnast, could crawl out, not that a few of them hadn’t tried.

+++++Fortunately, hidden cameras captured their frenzy, so all that energy didn’t go to waste. And as much as he wanted to find his one true love, it was fun to watch the losers. He’d play the videos over and over for the rest of the year until it was February again, time to hunt once more for the perfect girl.

+++++Girls didn’t hitchhike the way they did when he was young, but there were far more runaways on the streets these days. Just about all of them were on drugs that made them as vulnerable as stray kittens. More and more of them were ending up on a mortuary slab with a Jane Doe tag tied around their big toes.

+++++That was one reason why they couldn’t believe their luck when a mature, handsome gentleman with money and power offered them a dream weekend in the snowy countryside. How they gasped when they saw the stunning glass box at the top of the mountain, only an hour from the city but as remote as a house on the moon.

+++++He laughed out loud as the thought came to him that the girls weren’t so much like kittens as bunnies, dumb bunnies. No, better yet, birds, birdbrains that sometimes flung themselves against the glass walls trying to escape. For instance, they never saw anything strange about the name he gave them. Joe Kerr, for God’s sake? Each one rode trustingly up the mountain in his hundred-thousand-dollar black SUV, gawking through the tinted windows like Cinderella in the pumpkin coach. It was pathetic, despicable, really.

+++++But he didn’t despise them. He loved them, each one of them, dumb little tarts, even when they were pounding him with their fists and screaming into his face just like his whore of a mother had done when she was high from scoring off her latest pimp. To him, the girls were all diamonds in the rough. Restoring them to their purity was the least he could do.

***

+++++The flurries were starting to thicken into a blinding squall. Keeping his eyes on the downward spiral of the narrow road, he punched a button on the steering wheel. A glance at the small screen embedded in the dashboard told him all was going as planned. There she was—Brittany, wasn’t that what she was calling herself? Yeah, something like that, or maybe Brianna—was huddled on the white leather sofa with the scrapbook in her lap.

+++++He knew he should keep his eyes on the road, but he couldn’t help it. He had to peek again, just a quick glance as the wipers made one silent pass across the windshield.

+++++She’d already gotten into the scotch. Her blonde head was down, her shapely legs in their skinny jeans drawn up beneath her. She wasn’t wearing the chain. He could see the box, though. It was right there beside her. No girl had ever refrained from opening it and going crazy with greed. But maybe this one was different. Maybe she was the one.

+++++He lifted his eyes from the screen just as she was lifting the glass to her lips. Something, a shadow, was soaring directly over the hood of the SUV.

+++++With a grunt, he braked sharply. Through the tinted glass of the passenger window, he caught a glimpse of heart-shaped hindquarters. His own heart pounded as the doe bounded off among the towering firs. After a few moments, he lifted his foot off the brake and flicked off the screen.

+++++Although he knew he had to keep his eyes focused on the road, mentally he could at least flip through the pages of the scrapbook with his latest contestant. He’d saved the newspaper clippings of obituaries and death notices from his huge list of clients, choosing nobodies whose mortal remains were nothing more than shards and ashes thanks to him. What would she make of the window-washer who died at fifty-eight, not from some extraordinary plunge off a skyscraper but in a hospice bed? Or the waitress, age thirty-four, who died crossing a side street?

+++++There were dozens of them, all within a twenty-five-mile radius of the city, many living within the five boroughs. Of the one hundred and sixty crematories in the state, he owned sixty of them. There’d been plenty of customers to choose from. Would she be the one who finally figured out how they were all linked?

+++++“Not the people, babe, the place. Not the place they lived, not the place they died, but the place they rendered all unto me.” He laughed aloud at the pun—rendered. All the girl had to do was to see that every clipping mentioned one of his crematories. Of course he never gave any of them his real name, but all they had to do was to connect the dots: Dunn at Stony Brook, Dunn at Three Pines, Dunn at Manchester and fifty-seven more with the name Dunn.

+++++Oh, yes, Rob Dunn was a clever one. What better name could he have given himself when he finally got out of the foster care system and landed his first job picking up corpses for a mortuary? That was where he learned how much money there was in death.

***

+++++The flakes were smaller and falling much faster now, beady and brittle as they bounced off the windshield. Ahead on the narrow road swirls of snow swept back and forth. The flow reminded him of a beautiful woman’s hair swinging from side to side in a wild dance.

+++++It always took great discipline for him to leave one of his guests and for a moment he thought of turning and going back up to the house. But then he’d be off schedule, and while he could do anything he pleased, he didn’t want anyone to know he’d been near the crematorium at all.

+++++He had a skeleton staff that kept an eye on the place, a term that never failed to tickle his funny bone. It was the safest place of all his crematories to conduct a bit of private business, allowing him to set the incinerator for the requisite sixteen-hundred degrees before returning to the house.

+++++And if he had to dispose of the latest loser, everything would be ready to begin her transformation from impure dross to the most flawless of diamonds.

+++++Once he reached the bottom of the mountain he’d have to pass through four towns before getting to Dunn at Waldenford. Sometimes he stopped to buy a muffin and a cup of coffee in one of the greasy spoons that clung on because no chain would venture into such depressed territory. But today he wouldn’t stop.

+++++He was sure people knew who he was and what he did for a living, but nobody spoke to him beyond the barest pleasantries. He’d accepted a long time ago that there was an aura about him. It actually amused him that people somehow thought that if they could avoid him they’d avoid death itself.

***

+++++For the next five minutes he kept his eyes on the road and his mind almost a perfect blank, the way he did when he was on the brink of another Valentine’s Day surprise.

+++++Would Brianna or whatever she called herself come through? Or would she join all the other girls in the chain as Number Forty?

+++++How wise he’d been to save the hair of the first twenty girls, carrying on an age-old folk tradition by braiding and twining their locks into works of art. He’d hung these on the walls of his bedroom in the city, vaguely dissatisfied with this arrangement until technology opened up a whole new shining world to him.

+++++A wealthy widow had mentioned a few years back that she was having her husband’s ashes incorporated into diamonds for a bereavement brooch. When he showed polite interest, she’d taken the sleek brochure out of her purse, telling him that this wasn’t a cheap simulated stone but a flawless diamond composed of natural elements.

+++++He’d been amazed to read that these gemstones were even more expensive than mined stones at twenty thousand dollars a carat. He’d taken the hair out of one of the frames, burned it and sent it off with a great deal of skepticism. The result had been staggering. And he was hooked.

+++++The bills of sale for each stone were part of the scrapbook. The yellow slips occupied the back half of the scrapbook, a page for each one. He always pasted a little photo of the girl to the receipt after he strangled her, wrapped her nude body in the chain of diamonds made from the ashes of her predecessors, and arranged her in a chastely classical pose. This “before” photo was added to the “after” photo when she’d been reduced to one pure, shining gem.

+++++How he wished he could share these gorgeous photos with the nameless artisans at the jewelry company overseas who mounted each new stone in a twenty-four-carat bezel and added it to the chain. When they shipped the whole thing back, they always enclosed a beautifully scripted handwritten note with polite wishes for his health expressed in barely recognizable English. Such devotion deserved to be rewarded with proof that their craftsmanship combined with his own sense of esthetics truly created masterpieces.

+++++But that would be mad, and he was no lunatic.

***

+++++He longed with every fiber of his being to tune in on the girl again. As soon as it was safe, he’d indulge in just one peek. When he saw the red blinking light marking the intersection with the two-lane state highway, he flicked on the screen.

+++++As he came to the stop sign, almost invisible beneath a heavy blanket of snow, the SUV picked up speed. He slammed his foot on the brake, but instead of stopping the vehicle veered across the unplowed highway to smashed head-on into an electrical pole.

+++++He hit his head just hard enough to black out for a moment or two. When he came to, he saw stars. As they faded away he could see steam rising from the buckled hood.

+++++Was the car about to explode?

+++++He yanked hard at his seat belt, only making it cinch more tightly about him. The harder he struggled, the worse the squeezing in his chest got. Sweat trickled into his mouth, making him nauseous. When he heard voices and saw two faces trying to peer through the tinted glass of the passenger side window, he went weak with relief.

+++++“Unlock the door,” one of them was saying. “Sir, can you hear me? Police. Unlock the door.”

+++++Fiery pain shot down his arm but somehow his fingers obeyed. “Skidded,” he groaned.

+++++But the officers ignored him, staring at the screen on the dashboard instead.

+++++“You always watch porn when you drive, sir?” one asked.

+++++“In a blizzard?” the other asked.

+++++“Security camera,” he moaned. “Of my house… need to watch…”

+++++The hooded heads turned toward each other before one leaned in again. “You saying that shot’s live?”

+++++He could just make out the girl’s pearly skin glowing beneath at the loops of the diamond chain, naked breasts as beautiful as lilies, thighs like milk and honey.

+++++“She’s…”

+++++His heart clenched like crumpled black velvet edged with flame.

+++++“…the one.”

THE END

Last Night’s Lift

I don’t drive for Uber, but that’s what I tell the poor slugs who climb into my ’79 eight-cylinder beast of a Pontiac Trans Am, looking for a lift to anywhere. They get into my “Rod” thinking they’ve got this: dialed for Uber, arranged the pick-up, then hung around the corner till a driver (me if their luck’s runnin’ low) shows up. Open the door, throw their shit on the seat, climb in and take off. Whisked to whatever destination they’d had in mind, without having to drive to get there. That, they leave to the professional, like me. Only thing is, I’m not really the man. Not like they were expecting anyhow. When I show up, you can bet last night’s track winnings they’ll get where they were going, just maybe not how they’d planned. Prime example: last night’s lift.

+++++I’d spied him, hunched over his cane in the strip-mall parking lot; an ancient Asian; Chinese, maybe Korean. I could never tell, but my old man always could. He’d served enough time shooting em’ down during Korea, and then later, living the ex-pat lifestyle in Shanghai. But to me, their small heads and oversized glasses always blurred the lines.

+++++I was cruising my rod, looking for a pick-up when a squirrel jammed by and slowed my roll. Never one to hurt the little guys, I braked hard and exhaled. Then the passenger door opened.

+++++“UUBBAAARR? UUBBAAARR?” He peered inside, scrutinizing. Looking for crumbs, I think. Asians always did that. Just like my dad, always scouring details, nothing ever good enough. Not one for small talk, the man spit it out again:

“UUBBAAARR??”

+++++His stick tapped the inside of my cab repeatedly as if mining for gold. Clearly, he wanted me to take care of him. Too bad he didn’t know just how much I wanted to.

+++++“Get in,” I said, without getting out.

+++++He hurled a tattered bag in the back, not noticing the new vinyl seats; candy-apple red. Spent a fortune cleaning up the back there after the last job went south. The woman had bled out a lot more than expected after running over her feet. Would have been a clean job too, except she’d managed to lean right when I swerved left, and instead of taking her out altogether, I’d nailed just her shoes. After I’d tossed her in toes first on the way to the dump to shred what was left and the black leather seats never recovered. Hence, the new red vinyl.

+++++“You go hotel, Lickety-Split. Not far, round corner, okay?”

+++++He reached over grabbing the cigarette lighter, not noticing the spiffed up detailed dashboard. When I’d had the back re-done, I let em’ clean up the front too. Cost a ton, but worth it. The lighter sparked in his fingers and slow smoke spirals curled my way.

+++++“Smoking’s not really my thing,” I said. “But hey, light up. It’s your funeral.” In more ways than one.

+++++Dad smoked; a freaking chimney on steroids. Practically killed me off young with it too, giving me pneumonia year after year for the first ten. I spent more time in the hospital oxygen tent than anywhere else. Nearly died three times, and still, he continued to puff.

+++++The man did the same. I rolled down the windows and coughed hard. No dice. The cancer-stick still smoldered, taunting me to stamp it out. My patience reached that high point on the salsa bottle; the one they marked blood red for spicy.

+++++“You pull over, yes? Mr. Lee must pee.” Laughing, he showed off a front canine the size of a grape. “Now, please. You stop.”

+++++“Okay.” I pulled the wheel hard, and the back tires swerved on rain pooling on the pavement. “A little wet never hurt anyone,” I said, pushing his door handle open. “Go on. I’ll wait.”

+++++He walked to the side and found a good spot; lots of tree cover and camouflage. Then the sky opened; a downpour of donut sized drops. Perfect!

+++++He chose a tree and disappeared. I saw the cigarette get flicked into the leaves. And when he re-emerged he reached into his front coat pocket and pulled out another. He ambled back to my ride and got in.

+++++“Better now,” he said. “Mr. Lee all good. You go now hotel, yes?”

+++++“You’re the boss.”

+++++I revved her back up, and the engine roared. Always made me nuts, how great dad took care of the thing. Around me, he smoked like the Marlboro Man but never lit up inside his baby! Since inheriting the thing, I’d kept it tight. But the constant reminder of his disapproving stares made me want to do things. Things I should only think about. The man waved the stick in my face, leaning in close.

+++++“Mr. Lee needs more light” He grabbed the lighter again, giving it his best shot. “I do. You drive.” But it died in his hand. “You have matchbook? This not working.” He shook it up and down, like mixing a shake. I pulled over hard, back tires squealing.

+++++“You want matches; you got em.”

+++++I left her revved and climbed out, locking all the doors behind. Rain soaked the inside of my hoodie as I fingered the extra key in my pocket, opened the trunk and dug through dad’s leftover bucket of junk. Inside, smoking had always been off limits. But on all our road trips he’d stop repeatedly, making me get out and stand with him till he’d finish his pack. Blew smoke rings right at me, laughing while I choked.

+++++I grabbed engine oil and matches and poured it over fast. Flicked the entire matchbook up high and watched light blast fantastic. I backed up quick. The man inside peered through glass and tried to speak.

+++++“YOU NOT UUUUBBBEEERRR…NOT UUUBBEEERRR…”

+++++His lips spoke the truth. But with no one around to hear him, what did it matter.

A Man, a Bottle, and a Gun

I

The blue pleather seats stuck to the back of Mike’s arms as he leaned over the grab the half-full bottle of Fireball on the passenger side floor. The air conditioning in the 2001 La Sabre he had bought off an acquaintance three years ago had gone out, and it was “fucking hot” by his own description.

+++++“Jesus Christ,” he said under his breath right before taking a deep swig of whiskey.

+++++A five-day stubble had developed on Mike’s chin, and it itched like hell. He saw no need to worry personal about hygiene anymore. No job, no family, no women to impress meant no fucks given. He used to care. He used to care a lot. But his failures to meet the expectations of the world, in both his career and his marriage had been such a struggle that he didn’t see the point anymore. Even his boys were about to be taken from him. Soon he would have nothing, that is, except the grudge.

+++++He kept on asking himself if this shit was even true. He had no idea if this guy existed, much less that he was the guy. “Tony Scarfino. He will be at 4027 Cove Lane in Scottsdale, Arizona on Monday, May 18th, 2017 at 10:30 am.” Those were the only words in a lone email that landed in his Mom’s inbox four days ago, almost two years to the day after emphysema had killed her.

+++++Mike must have replied a dozen times to the email but all he ever got back where the annoying “do not reply” email failure messages. That and a short meeting with HR coupled with a much longer meeting in the living room with his wife in front of the kids and he was off on the two day trip from St. Louis. The drive was much easier than he thought, so long as you don’t mind fast food and sleeping in your car.

+++++4027 Cove Lane is the Municipal Court of Riverview Neighbors, a goddamn spitting image of every white suburbanite Americans wet dream. There were rolling green hills with well-manicured streets, fresh cut grass with people outside walking their dogs and even the cliché “white picket fences” every other block. It was the place he always wanted to buy for Beth, but couldn’t.

+++++A bead of sweat dripped into his eyes with a salty sting. Mike rubbed it away with his fingers. His phone said 10:08.

+++++He didn’t know if this was going to be the guy he was looking for, Tony Scarfino. The last known picture of him was taken on the day of his sentencing in Missouri, an 11-year-old killer.

+++++His phone chimed with a text message.

+++++Beth: Where are you? The boys are going to be late for school.

+++++Mike took another swig of whiskey before he replied.

+++++Mike: You’re going to have to take the boys today.

+++++The phone tinged back immediately.

+++++Beth: What? Where are u?

+++++Mike: You know where I’m at.

+++++He sat in silence for a few moments, knowing the reply was coming.

+++++Beth: What? Mike, it’s not him.

+++++Beth: What are you doing?

+++++Mike hit “ignore conversation” on the phone and set it down. Then he reached into the center console and pulled out the sterling new Mark XIX Desert Eagle along with the 7 round clip he had purchased at a Walmart a few hours prior.

+++++The truth was Mike didn’t know what he was going to do if he found the man that had ruined his life. He loaded the clip into place and cocked one round in the chamber.

+++++But he did have a few ideas.

II

+++++10:30 came and went. A steady flow of people began to walk in and out of the courthouse, all going on about their day without a second thought. The fact that the address was a courthouse led some credence to the email’s claim. Scarfino had a rap sheet a mile long at the time of the murder; a fact that Mike had always hoped would catch up with him. He always hoped he would open the newspaper to see a headline that read in big black ink “COLLINS KILLER FOUND DEAD OF HEROIN OVERDOSE” or “MULTIPLE COMPOUND SKULL FRACTURES.”

+++++Sometimes that was the only thought that got Mike through the day; the idea that Scarfino was somewhere, suffering. That and booze. A life of parole officers and halfway houses and cheap two for one beer nights at the rural shithole bowling alley would be the absolute most he could hope for, even if he survived prison.

+++++One time his Mom told him that the best revenge for Joey’s death would be to live a “happy and productive life.” But she stopped talking like that when he and his mother found out he would walk free on his 18th birthday.

+++++Mike picked up his iPhone and began to scroll through his pictures and Joey’s face turned onto the screen. He stared into the eyes of his baby brother, and thoughts of that day raced through his head. The decisions made and lamented. His mother’s face after three days of no sleep during the search.

+++++A voice entered his mind. The words of the District Attorney describing the way Joey was tortured, beaten, and killed sent Mike to scramble for the bottle and promptly wash the thoughts away with few mouthfuls of alcohol. He paged one more time through his pictures, and the next face that came up was the one he was looking for.

+++++That of 11-year-old Anthony Raymond Scarfino. His features were unremarkable. He was your typical looking 90s kid of Italian heritage, jet black hair, olive oil skin tone, and awful, prepubescent mustache. He wore designer Nautica sweatshirts to school, and his parents were both semi-successful traffic law attorneys who played campy daytime TV spots. He had a crooked smile that cut all the way up to his right ear. It was that same crooked smile that he shown Mike and his mother after his sentencing, as he left the courtroom in his orange jumpsuit

+++++Had he been tried as an adult; he most likely wouldn’t have been able to get out until he was an old man. Instead, he was allowed to walk, after a few years of what the court called “exemplary behavior” at which point he changed his name and had his record expunged, per the laws governing juvenile homicide in the state of Missouri. It was as if Joey had never even existed in the eyes of the law.

+++++Mike knew he existed, though, and he intended to make sure no one forgot about him.

+++++The air in the car had become thin and stagnant, so Mike opened the door and stepped out into the morning, the sweat on his brow immediately drying. He tucked the pistol into the back of his jeans.

+++++The gun’s barrel was digging into his tailbone. Just as he adjusted it, people started filing out of the courthouse en mass. Mike froze. He looked back at his car, the 2001 Buick La Sabre that had brought him to where he was standing right now.

+++++He could still turn back. He could still go home. Maybe see his kids again. Maybe get a job working in a sales office for minimum wage and shitty hours. Maybe get a crappy apartment close to work after a few weeks of sleeping on a friend’s sofa. Maybe he can pull something meaningful out of this wretched shit of a life. Maybe.

+++++He took a deep breath as he walked into the building. A large scrum was congregating in the lobby in front of security. Mike could tell by the way they held tape recorders that some were media, looking for a quote the way you word see a reporter ask a question after a baseball game.

+++++When Mike got closer to the crowd, he saw the focal point of the discussion. It was a man with short cropped black hair and a thick, fire hydrant type build. He was speaking softly with mumbling, indiscernible words.

+++++“What’s it like to be out?” was one of the questions lofted his way.

+++++This was him. This was the man who ruined his life. He reached back for the gun when a fat sheriff with gray sideburns stepped right beside him. Mike’s hand quickly retreated to his pocket.

+++++“I’m just glad I’m able to go home.” He replied.

+++++Someone cut through the crowd behind him.

+++++“Excuse me. My client is done answering questions.”

+++++The lawyer’s chin was sharp and chiseled, and he wore a custom suite that probably cost as much as Mike’s car.

+++++“No” he whispered said to himself, paralyzed.

+++++The lawyer grabbed his client by the shoulder and led him toward the courthouse door.

+++++“Is there anything you would like to say to the victim’s family?” someone said.

+++++The lawyer cut in “Obviously, my client feels terrible for the family of the victim, and he hopes that this will lead them toward the true perpetrator.”

+++++Mike wandered with the crowd as they exited the courthouse. His mind was blank and his hands frozen, but the gun was tight on back.

+++++The lawyer turned and gave the crowd a sheepish smile before he ducked into the backseat of a black Chevy SUV. Mike knew that smile. It had haunted him in his dreams. Kept him awake on restless summer nights of his youth and sent him into red rages on the booze-soaked days of his adulthood. It was the subject of countless bloody fantasies of the satisfaction of revenge. For his brother, for his mom, for his wife, and for himself.

+++++The SUV sped away from the media scrum with an unnecessary screeching of the tires. That worked out for Mike because no one noticed the guy sprinting across the parking lot into a beat up 2001 Buick Le Sabre.

III

+++++The next twenty hours went by like twenty minutes. Everything felt like a fuzzy blur in front of him as he played the part of the detective on a stakeout, the likes of which he had seen on TV. The lawyer had been quite busy since leaving the courthouse, bouncing from his client’s home to a power lunch with friends, then eventually back to the office, then home to a beautiful neighborhood called Emerald Palisades. He knew he wasn’t quite Andy Sipowicz, but thought he did pretty damn good for a first-timer.

+++++The morning sun was coming up again as Mike stared at the lawyers perfectly manicured lawn, wondering what he was going to do when the lawyer walked of those wooden double doors to meet the day. What was he going to say? “Hey asshole, why did you steal my brother away from my mom a gas station when he was three? Why did you beat the shit out of him in an abandoned construction site for an hour? Why did you crush his skull with a rock as big as a mailbox?” They were all questions he wanted answers too, but somehow going through all this trouble to just talk seemed hallow. Words weren’t what he came for.

+++++Mike stared down at the gun in his lap, with its silvery finish gleaming beautifully in the dawn morning light. He thought a lot about his Mom and what she would think of what he was doing, and how horrified she would be. She knew the hate he had in his heart, the rage, the guilt. She knew where it was headed and she used to say she wanted nothing of it for her only remaining child.

+++++But she couldn’t see what Mike was seeing right now. It would have been the deepest insult imaginable to him. The life, the money, the success. It was almost too much to withstand. This was the life he stolen from Joey and worse; he attained all this by helping other maniacs get away with harming kids.

+++++A few quick searches via his beat up iPhone gave him a few answers. The trial at the courthouse was the verdict of a murder of a 5-year-old girl in 2014. His lawyer, “Ray Anthony,” a young hotshot defense attorney from Goldblatt and Farmer was the one who spoke to the media. On him, Mike could find virtually nothing except for a few press clippings about the trial. No LinkedIn or Facebook profile, nothing but a blurb about him on the law firm’s website.

+++++“There’s no fucking way the Arizona State Bar knows who this guy is,” Mike thought to himself. “Even if they did, one letter or email to some attention hungry journalist at the area newspaper would put an end to his career. Businesses can be extremely sensitive when it comes to bad PR, especially this shit.”

+++++He exhaled and sank back into his seat. He finally felt tired. The emotion on the end of his thoughts had frayed. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate and the steamy heat of the Buick Le Sabre was beginning to smother him. He plugged his dying iPhone into the cigarette lighter and noticed he had 32 missed voicemail messages and 52 new texts.

+++++The first five messages were nothing but the indiscernible clicks of the other side hanging up.

+++++“Damnit Mike” his soon to be ex-wife said in labored voice right before the phone clicked again.

+++++The seventh voicemail was a man. “Mr. Collins, this is Sergeant Jim McKenna of the St. Louis Police Department. Your wife is extremely concerned for you, sir. Please get back in contact….”

Mike hit the next voicemail. Nothing played initially, only background noise.

+++++“Daddy….” the voice came through the phone as if it had come out in a dream. “Daddy comes home. I want to play wrestling, Daddy.”

+++++The when the voicemail ended, tears welled up in his eyes.

+++++The La Sabre’s engine rumbled to life. At the same time, the marble doors of the suburban home split open and out came a kid wearing a brand new Star Wars backpack, nearly as big as him. After him came the lawyer, still clad in a frumpy gray t-shirt and sweatpants that he had no doubt wore to bed.

+++++Mike watched them both walk to the corner. He looked through the pictures on his phone again, flicking through a few until he got to one of his youngest boy, Bradley.

+++++He put the phone down and fastened the seat belt. Mike cut the wheel hard left to turn the car around. As he did, another kid came walking up the street. The lawyer’s kid ran precociously across the front of Mike’s car.

+++++His dad hollered, “Damnit, Joey, what did I tell you about not looking both ways when you cross the street?”

+++++Something hot shot up Mike’s neck and into his brain, something terrible. It coursed through his veins like a plague, tensed his muscles, and flashed twenty years of torment before his eyes.

+++++The Le Sabre stopped mid U-turn. Mike took his seatbelt off, opened the door, and walked up to the kids.

+++++“Excuse me, son, what’s your name?”

+++++“J…Joey,” the boy said, taken aback.

+++++“Is there something we can help you with, sir?” The lawyer said with the sheepish smile on his face.

+++++“No, Tony.” The smile vanished. “There’s nothing… you can do… to help me.”

+++++The morning air filled with screams, but none of them louder or more terrible than the Desert Eagle’s.

All That Remains

Took me three years to track down John Delaney. Snot dribbled from his nose. But those soulless blue eyes still sparkled with defiance.

+++++I’d jacked him head-long over a battered wooden table—and splayed him spread-eagle. Like a cop shoves a hapless perp against the hood of a car. Yeah, I cuffed his hands, cinched them tight behind his back. But I’d also shackled his ankles to the blood-stained concrete floor. Then looped a noose around his neck: lashing that demented meathead smack against the tabletop so he could only look left.

+++++I hadn’t bothered with a gag. No one could possibly hear him. Besides. I wanted him to talk. I felt my composure slipping … and imagined this derelict house didn’t look much different than the noxious shithole had three ancient years ago. Though the cops proved too damn lazy to discover Delaney’s lair.

+++++Bile clogged my throat as I snagged his matted hair, squatting on my knees so I could easily glare at him—crazed eyes to crazy eyes.

+++++“I want every detail. Now. You will hold back nothing.”

+++++No surprise the asshole spit at me. Despite the lug wrench in my hand. Though he cringed and closed his eyes: expecting the arcing metal to meet and dent his head.

+++++Instead, I dropped the wrench. This rattled both our ears while clattering the concrete instead of his worthy skull.

+++++I reached inside my trench coat; fished out a pack of photos. Then like a stack of preschool flash cards, I held each one before his face … before slowly oh-so-slowly … moving to the next.

+++++“She was sweet, so sweet,” he crooned, blue eyes suddenly glassy: a jagged guttural moan swelling from his chest.

+++++“Tell me something I don’t know, Delaney.”

+++++“I fucked her,” he said, his face now radiant—merry thoughts meandering down his twisted memory lane.

+++++“Fucked her how?”

+++++He giggled. “Every which way. In her mouth. In her ears. In the cunt. Up the ass.

+++++“She called me Daddy the entire time. Every day and night of that blessed week.”

+++++All the filth Delaney spewed matched ghoulishly tit-for-tat with the scorched images in my head—the charred lines cut deep—like they’d long been etched with acid. Though I continued to let him babble till finally he proved spent.

+++++I tucked the photos in my coat. Staggered to the fireplace … and that gray round mound of ash. But the fires Delaney burned couldn’t claim everything. I spied a strip of shattered lathing, barely clinging to the wall frame, and used the splintered wood to gently spread the pile. Shrouded within that dust … three blackened buckles—one from a belt—and two the only remnants of her patent leather shoes. While bits of teeth and bone screamed at me from the ash.

+++++I tugged a bandana from my trench coat. Collected the twisted buckles, as well as the tiny fragments of teeth and shattered bone. Laid them on the cotton cloth. Heaped a handful of ashes on top. Then securely tied the bundle. Acid clawed my innards. Vomit threatened to surge.

+++++I turned and walked away. My boot heels echoing off the steps.

+++++No need to take the fucker’s life. Starvation would duly claim him. And I’d snatched his greatest treasure—

+++++A golden braided knot of my beloved daughter’s hair.

*****

Lake Effect

When Earl turned onto the dirt road, the snow was coming down at a good clip and slamming into the windshield. As we got closer to the lake, the winds were picking up. The headlights caught the leafless scrubs struggling to hold onto the hard soil that rooted them.

+++++I wanted to tell Earl to snap on the high beams, but he would have told me to shut up. Earl liked to do the talking, and he didn’t want any lip from someone half his age. Many thought of him as just a melon-headed triggerman. But I knew better. Earl is a survivor and has been in the game since he was a punk kid.

+++++With every rut and bump we went over there was a thump in the back. I knew we had a stiff in the trunk. The only reason anyone like us would go down this road was to dump the trash.

+++++That’s what the Boss told me over the phone. He said Earl was going to pick me up to dump some trash.

+++++I’ve made this run before, but it was always with Mike. Mike is my older brother, and together we’ve made this trash run at least a half of dozen times. Now he’s moved up in the organization. And when you move up in the organization, they don’t send you out on errands to dump a stiff in the lake.

+++++The road was ending, and I could see the wind blowing snow across the choppy waters of the dark lake. I buttoned my overcoat and turned up the collar.

+++++Earl stopped that car near the edge of the bluff and got out. I joined him in the back, and he opened the trunk. The stiff was rolled up in black plastic, and there were chains looped around it. The chains were for weight to ensure it went down to the bottom and stayed there.

+++++Earl grabbed the legs, and I bent down to get the other end.

+++++We got the stiff out of the truck and made our way towards the bluff. Earl parked a little too close to a cluster of bushes. I had to maneuver the stiff between the car and the bushes. It was cold, and the high winds pounded snow into our faces, biting into our eyes.

+++++Ice made our footing dicey, and branches started to scrape my coat. One sprung off me and slapped into Earl. It caused him to lose his grip, and he dropped his end of the stiff. It slid from my hands and fell into the bushes.

+++++Branches tore into the plastic, and the faint moonlight was enough to show a pale, lifeless face with a bullet hole in its forehead.

+++++It was Mike.

+++++Mike. They whacked Mike.

+++++“Sorry kid,” Earl said with a smirk on his face. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

+++++I turned. He had a .45 out, pointed at my chest.

+++++“It’s a one-way trip for you too.”

+++++I felt paralyzed. Shocked. I just looked at him.

+++++“Your brother was pushing it too fast,” he said. “The Boss don’t like overly ambitious ones.”

+++++“What?” I needed to snap out of it.

+++++“The Boss said to dump you here too,” Earl blurted out. “He doesn’t want to be looking over his shoulder waiting for you to revenge what he did to your brother.”

+++++Get thinking. He’s talking too much.

+++++“It’s just the way it is kid.”

+++++I couldn’t wait much longer. The cold wind was coming in hard now, and the snow was blinding. He was just five feet away when I leaped at him and then the gun roared.

+++++The bullet slammed into my left shoulder as I barreled into his gut. The force pushed him back against the car. He was doubled over and gasping. I swung back my right leg and kicked him as hard as I could in the face.

+++++I was lucky, damn lucky. He talked too much. He should have shot me right away.

+++++I grabbed the .45 off the ground and shoved it into Earl’s face. My shoulder was killing me, but the lifeless stare on Mike’s face hurt me more.

+++++“Guess where we’re going?” I spat out through clenched teeth.

+++++He was still groggy. I grabbed him by his coat and shoved him into the driver’s side of the car.

+++++I got in the back and placed the barrel of the .45 hard against his skull.

+++++“Come on Earl get this heap moving,” I ordered. “I need you to get me in to see the Boss.”

+++++“I’ve got a little present to give to him.”

***

+++++I thought the bullet went clean through, but I was wrong. Intense throbs of agony shot down from my shoulder to my fingertips with every bump, and hole Earl hit on that dirt road.

+++++It seemed to take forever to make it to the highway.

+++++Earl leered at me through the rearview mirror.

+++++“You’re not going to make it kid.”

+++++I told him to shut up and raked the barrel of the .45 against the back of his skull.

+++++I knew Earl was the one who put the hole in Mike’s head. The Boss would’ve selected him for the job. I fought back the urge to blow out his brains all over the dashboard. I needed him to get to the Boss. But once I’m inside Earl is going to get it in the liver.

+++++The rush of adrenaline must have been wearing off because I started to feel weak. Blood was dripping down my left arm and pooling on the floor of the backseat. In my right hand, the gun felt weighted. But I kept it resting on top of the driver’s seat and aimed at the back of Earl’s head.

+++++He said something, but I couldn’t make it out. I just wanted him to shut the hell up.

+++++Things became foggy. Then I saw it. I saw it all happening.

+++++Going in the club, taking the back stairs to the Boss’s office, my ticket in was the .45 pressed against Earl’s spine. Once we make it through the office door, I’ll pull the trigger twice and watch Earl crumble to the floor — the rug soaking up his blood pouring out of the holes in his side. Then the Boss will be standing up from behind his desk, and I’ll ram the hot barrel of the .45 into his mouth. And then I’ll stare into his cue-ball-sized eyes as they plead back at me and I’ll pull the trigger for the last time.

+++++I was cold, and my head was down, resting on the back of the front seat. Looking at the floor, it seemed that my left shoe was floating in a sea of blood.

+++++The car stopped, and Earl turned around. He pushed my head back, and I collapsed in the backseat. The .45 felt like an anvil in my hand and I dropped it.

+++++“You had guts kid,” Earl’s voice seemed far away. “Yes, you had.”

+++++Then I could feel the car make a U-turn. I closed my eyes. I knew we were headed back to the lake.

end

Life Number Ten

Harlan stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the window, looking at nothing in particular. Cocking his head from side to side, he pretended to look at something. He’d seen a guy do it like that in the movies. But outside there were only dark pine trees, big ones that reached to the sky. In fact, he was waiting to wash his hands, but the pressure was down and the water just trickled out of the old faucet. He draped his hands over the edge of the sink and cocked his hip in a relaxing fashion. He’d seen a guy do that, too.

+++++“I once had sex with a cantaloupe,” he said. Waiting and looking out the window at nothing made him think hard.

+++++He spoke to his brother, Earl, sitting at the kitchen table behind him. Earl was perusing an old copy of a popular girlie magazine, looking for the Stephen King story featured on the cover. He was a horror story freak. Some of the pages were stuck together. He was trying to unstick them with a 10-inch blade he’d taken off a trucker earlier that night.

+++++“Was it a fruitful experience?” asked Earl. He smiled and sliced the pages apart. Harlan wouldn’t get it.

+++++“I split that baby down the middle. Opened her up. I put my whole face in it. She was wet and warm and juicy. I was spitting out seeds for a week.”

+++++“The thing about any melon: don’t refrigerate. Consume within two days at room temperature. Ask any chef,” Earl answered. He was well-read, reciting from memory. He pried apart two more of the magazine’s pages. He was tired, weary, felt lost, and was glad for the distraction of the magazine.

+++++The trucker had tried to kill Harlan with the knife, so he’d cold-cocked the trucker before he could do any more damage than Harlan had already just done. He should have killed the trucker.

+++++The trucker knew them. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was something not right about killing him after what Harlan had done. Some kind of karma at work. Earl couldn’t put his finger on it at first.

+++++A pocket of air vibrated the faucet. Rusty water flowed in a staccato fashion. Harlan put his hands under the water as it cleared. The dried blood rinsed off easily with the help of a bar of Lava soap. He rubbed his blood-soaked face and sucked some soapy water in his mouth. He sloshed the water around inside his mouth then spit out the pink water. His mama had taught him that keeping your teeth clean was important. You’d need them your whole life, she’d said. The taste of the soap made him think of the farm. The only soap that got cow shit off your hands, his daddy had said. It did wonders with blood too. Earl watched the pink liquid swirl down the drain. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dried his hands on his jeans. He wiped everything on his jeans. They were so streaked with grime and fried grease and blood, and God knew what else, they could have walked on their own. A pungent odour drifted off his body and filled the room.

+++++“What’re we gonna do now, Earl?”

+++++Earl split two more pages and stared at the young snatch in the old magazine. The appeal was ageless. He looked up. Harlan was leaning back against the sink, his head cocked, his eyes vacant. He looked like he was in deep thought, but that wasn’t possible. His arms were folded in front of him like he was a politician deciding on his next platform or more than likely for a politician, figuring which filly from the secretarial pool would accompany him on his next stump. But as he stared at Harlan, Earl realised those were his thoughts, his imaginings. Harlan had no original thoughts. He wasn’t capable of having any original thoughts.

+++++“I guess we’re gonna wait,” Earl answered.

+++++“What for?”

+++++“That trucker’s gonna be comin’ with his boys. They know us, Harlan. No tellin’ what they’re gonna do.”

+++++“They gonna be mad?”

+++++“I ‘spect so. That girl was that trucker’s best whore. You killed his best whore. What do you think?”

+++++“Shit. Didn’t know she was his best. I’m sorry.”

+++++“They’re gonna tear you up, boy.” A tear ran down Harlan’s cheek.

+++++“I’m scared,” Harlan said.

+++++“You should be, brother.”

+++++“We could run,” Harlan offered.

+++++“Where?”

+++++“Don’t know. That’s you. You always know.”

+++++“Not this time. Those guys were our best customers. Now, we have no one and nowhere to go. Because of you.”

+++++“I said sorry.”

+++++Earl watched Harlan as he started to pace around the room. He had one hand thrust in the front pocket of his jeans, and with the other, he touched things as he passed them, like he was taking inventory. He was just looking hard for words he could say. When he couldn’t find any, he plopped down at the table in a chair next to Earl. He felt safe next to his brother.

+++++“I remember the cat,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl wasn’t surprised. Harlan could remember things. He just couldn’t think things through. His memories taught him nothing. They were just things that happened.

+++++“You mean the one you nailed to the side of the barn?”

+++++“I did that? I thought it was you.”

+++++“You nailed up the cat. I took the blame,” Earl said.

+++++“Mama was real pissed off with you. I remember that.” Harlan laughed, slapped his knee. He’d seen a guy do that.

+++++“It was easier to take the blame than try to explain it.”

+++++How could he explain to his mama the deficiencies Harlan possessed? Mothers don’t see those things in their children. Denial is a mother’s privilege and her last hope.

+++++Earl stood up behind his brother.

+++++“Cats have nine lives. You told me,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl reached around the front of Harlan and pulled his head back against him in a caress like a lover might do.

+++++“Really?”

+++++“Yeah. When he died, you told me that was number ten.”

+++++“I guess he reached his limit,” Earl said.

+++++Harlan put his hand on Earl’s. Earl couldn’t let him suffer at the hands of the uncaring, those seeking revenge for their own reckless need. Maybe he’d make it on his own, Earl thought, maybe not.

+++++He pushed the knife slowly, and only a little ways, into the side of Harlan’s neck, just enough to puncture the jugular. Blood pumped out between his fingers.

+++++“It’s getting dark,” Harlan said.

+++++Earl looked out the kitchen window. The morning sky was starting to brighten.

+++++“Don’t worry, little brother, it’ll be light soon.”

Lawyers in The Basement

It had been two weeks since Marcie McGinley’s husband, Ted, had stormed out of their ranch-style house in the suburbs.

+++++Now he wanted to meet with her “before the lawyers got involved” and talk about things “in an amicable way.”

+++++They had been married for twelve years and Marcie was not about to let Ted back in the house. He had picked up his things when she was at work one-day last week and had left his copies of the house keys on the dining room table.

+++++“No, Ted, you can’t come over. We’ll meet in a public place where I’ll feel safe, or we’ll wait and meet with the lawyers.”

+++++“Feel safe!” Ted yelled into the phone. “Why wouldn’t you feel safe meeting with me in our own house? We were married for eleven years —”

+++++“It was twelve years last August, Ted, but then, who’s counting. We’ll meet at that little coffee shop, The Marigold Café, near my office for a late lunch tomorrow, or not at all.”

+++++“Damn it, Marcie! I —”

+++++“Do you hear yourself, Ted? Why would I want to meet with you alone and have you yell at me?”

***

+++++At one o’clock The Marigold Café was seeing the last of the lunch crowd busing their tables and getting ready to head back to work. Marcie got there early to get a table in a corner where few people as possible would be subjected to her and Ted’s business.

+++++“We probably should have met in a goddamn bowling alley,” she mumbled to herself. “That way Ted wouldn’t have to worry about his lack of volume control.”

***

+++++Marcie’s jaw dropped when Ted walked in the door.

+++++“You brought her with you?” she stage-whispered, grabbing her coat and purse. “I’ll see you at the meeting next week, Ted.”

+++++“Her” was Ginny Coleman, Ted’s “new friend.” Marcie had discovered there was nothing all that new about Ginny. Credit card receipts from area motels had shown she and Ted had been having an affair for at least six months.

+++++“Oh, no, no,” said Ginny. “You stay, I’ll go; it’s your meeting.” Turning to Ted, she said, “There was a bar we passed on the way here after parking the car, wasn’t there? It’s probably open; I’ll just go there and wait for you.”

+++++And just like that, she walked out the door.

+++++While Ted stared after Ginny, Marcie set her purse back on the table. “You still want to do this, Ted?”

+++++“Huh? Yeah, sure,” he sighed. “Let’s get it over with.”

+++++“Okay, I’ll keep the house and everything in it, my checking and savings accounts, my IRAs, and my car,” said Marcie. “You can give me five hundred thousand from your savings, and we’re done.”

+++++“What?” said Ted in what he probably thought was a reasonably quiet voice.

+++++“It’s called negotiating, Ted. I open with an offer, and you counter offer. Or would you rather have the lawyers negotiate?”

+++++“That’s negotiating?” said Ted. “You get everything? What do I get?”

+++++“Why, you get your freedom, Ted. Isn’t that what you wanted?” Marcie then nodded toward the door saying, “Oh, and you get Ginny, of course. If you still have her at the time of the divorce, that is.”

+++++“I’m not giving you a dime, Marcie,” Ted said getting up and putting on his coat. “Not a dime, ya hear?”

+++++“See you next week, Ted.”

***

+++++Except for Marcie asking for the seemingly ridiculous sum of five hundred thousand dollars, this would appear to be just another slice-of-life story about two middle class working people ending an unhappy marriage. Marcie could be a real estate agent, and Ted might be a car salesman. Or maybe Marcie sold the cars and Ted sold houses.

+++++But actually, five hundred thousand dollars was not an unrealistic sum where Marcie and Ted were concerned. She had more than that, as did Ted, in tight little stacks of hundred dollar bills in safety deposit boxes in banks in and around Chicago.

+++++Marcie and Ted are both long-time professionals in the murder-for-hire field. If they can keep their emotions under control, they will probably work things out with the lawyers in an “amicable way.”

+++++But if they let their anger rule their decision making, something neither do in their professional lives, one or both of them could wind up dead.

+++++Marcie didn’t need Ted’s money. She just added that to her demands to piss him off.

+++++And Marcie had also just been messing with Ted when she told him she didn’t want to meet with him at their house. Marcie had no fear at all when it came to Ted. Or anybody else.

+++++She didn’t need the house, the car, or the IRAs associated with her “day job.” She planned to relocate to Paris once the divorce was final. There were probably plenty of people in Paris who needed to be killed.

***

+++++“Didn’t bring Ginny along, Ted?” asked Marcie with a smirk. “She home baking cookies?”

+++++“Don’t start, Marcie —”

+++++“Come on, now, folks,” interrupted John Davidson, Marcie’s lawyer. “Let’s work on getting through the division of the assets.”

+++++“I assume you both have a list of assets and an idea as to how you’d like them to be divided,” said Ted’s lawyer, Edward Bannerman. “Thank you for letting us meet in your home, Marcie. Since this is after hours, meeting in one of our offices downtown would have been problematic.”

+++++“I’ve got my stuff,” said Marcie. “You, Ted?”

+++++“Yup, I’m ready.”

+++++Davidson and Bannerman then both backed away from the table and stood up against the door. They each drew pistols and pointed them at Ted and Marcie.

+++++“We have some paperwork that we need to have you sign,” said Davidson. “Your signatures will give us access to your safe deposit boxes.”

+++++“We’ll be taking care of your assets from here on out,” said Bannerman. “The police will be told that the meeting got heated and you both fired weapons, killing each other. Tragic.”

+++++“The two sets of paperwork are on the table as well as pens for each of you,” said Davidson. “No need to read it over; just sign and date at the end. Then trade paperwork and witness each other’s signatures where it’s highlighted.”

+++++Marcia picked up her paperwork. In doing so, the paperwork brushed her pen off the table. Cursing, she reached under the table for it.

+++++When she straightened up she had a Glock .357 Sig in her hand and she shot both Davidson and Bannerman in their foreheads.

+++++It was all done in a few seconds; Marcie was a professional. Davidson and Bannerman were professionals too, but they were professional lawyers.

+++++“You told Bannerman about the safety deposit boxes we have, didn’t you, Ted.”

+++++“We were talking about your demand for five hundred thousand and he asked where you thought I would —”

+++++“And then he told Davidson. Come on, Ted, we gotta get these two into the basement and get the hell outta here.”

+++++“But what about Ginny?” asked Ted.

+++++“Well, she seems a little flakey, but bring her along if you have to; I don’t care. We can make the rounds of the banks tomorrow morning, mail most of the cash to our drop box in Philly, and make arrangements to get to someplace like Croatia for a year or two. We’ll have to pick up some new ID for Ginny; she probably doesn’t have a passport —”

+++++“Marcie, Marcie, stop for a minute. How long have you had that Glock stashed under the dining room table?”

+++++“Twelve years, Ted. It was in its own little holster. And now it’s in my hand and pointed at you.”

+++++“You mean any one of those times we argued at this table —”

+++++“Crossed my mind many a time, Ted. Now help me get these guys downstairs; we’ve got places to go and things to do.”

+++++“You’re a real piece of work, ya know that, Marcie?”

+++++“You remember that, Ted. You just remember that.”

THE END

Debt Relief

Jack Alden delivered meals to the homebound. His charity service was a cover. He volunteered because Reggie Hatch’s elderly parent’s received Meals On Wheels each weekday.

+++++Reggie’s parents lived in a run-down ranch house at the end of a dirt road outside the city limits. Any approaching car could be seen long before it arrived at the house.

+++++Mom and Dad Hatch had done a poor job of raising their only son, Reginald. Reggie drank too much, hustled women and sold cars.

+++++Reggie also gambled. He won and lost thousands. He had long action with the bookies, several allowed him to bet thousands on the cuff.

+++++Reggie was good at peddling cars and worked his ass off to pay his gambling debts. But Reggie had lost that job six months ago. He quit paying his gambling debts. Rumors had him hiding out at his parent’s house.

+++++Jack Alden had been hired to bring Reggie’s right index fingertip to Nate Williams. Williams was a sore bookie who possessed a copy of Reggie’s driver’s license with the fingerprint. Nate also had a stack of Reggie’s bad paper. He wanted the fingertip to certify a point to other potential no-pays; Do not a trifle with Nate Williams.

+++++Jack carried a pair of pruning clippers in his back pocket to remove Reggie’s right index finger. Jack had been delivering meals on this same route for three weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of Reggie at his parent’s house

+++++Reggie’s father, Ezra Hatch was always standing out on the covered porch when Jack Alden drove up the long road with the free lunches. Jack figured the old man wasn’t waiting for a meal. Ezra suffered from dementia. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. Mom Hatch was usually in the house. Jack had time to look in windows for any sign of the couple’s errant son.

+++++The same ritual took place each time Jack arrived. The old man never left the porch. He had a leather collar around his ankle clipped to a rope knotted to a porch pillar.

+++++Old Ezra Hatch watched Jack get out of the car. He always asked the same question, “Does that car have air-conditioning?”

+++++Jack always answered, “Yes.”

+++++Ezra always had the same cat jumping up on him.

+++++Jack always asked, “Is that your cat?”

+++++The old guy always answered, “No, she lives up the road a ways. But she comes down here and spends the day. Then goes home at night.”

+++++“I had a wife like that,” Jack always commented.

+++++The old man always chuckled like he’d never heard it before. He seemed to get it, over and over again.

+++++Jack climbed the steps carrying the food. He didn’t knock on the door, instead he walked around the corner of the porch and peeked in through a side window. Viola! Reggie was sitting at the dinner table. His back was to the front door and he was playing what appeared to be solitaire.

+++++Jack went back to the front door. He slowly turned the knob.

+++++Reggie shouted, “Pa, shut the goddamn door!” while he kept his eyes on the cards laid out before him on the table.

+++++Three steps later, Jack had a gun at the back of Reggie’s skull.

+++++Reggie’s brains splattered onto the cards.

+++++Jack pulled the pruning clippers from his pocket and with one hard squeeze, the specified index finger dropped off Reggie’s hand. Jack dropped it into a baggie.

+++++Mom Hatch came running from the kitchen. When she saw her son’s head resting in a growing pool of blood, she screamed.

+++++Jack had no choice but to shoot the old woman. Ezra was standing at the open door. His mouth was wide open and eyes blinking hard as he backed away.

+++++Jack walked out onto the porch. There was no need to shoot the old man. Ezra’s attention had turned back to petting the cat.

+++++Jack placed the meals in the back seat. As he backed out, the old man shouted, “Does that car have air-conditioning?”

+++++Jack smiled, “Yes. And it gets cold as hell in here.”

The Snow Job

Danny’s hands were shaking, so he set the gun on the counter before digging in his pocket for the phone. “No sense in both of us bleeding tonight, Terry.”

+++++Terry did not answer.

+++++The phone glowed at the touch of Danny’s index finger, and Mike picked up on the third ring. “Danny?” he said.

+++++Danny’s knees felt weak, and he put one hand on the counter to steady himself. “Terry Antonelli’s dead.”

+++++“Didn’t catch that. Hold on.” The din on Mike’s television faded to a murmur. “Sorry about that, Danny. Celtics are home against the Lakers. You watching?”

+++++“The wop’s dead. Antonelli’s kid. I shot him.”

+++++Wop. Danny mouthed the word again. It had been his father’s word, and he felt strange saying it. Terry the Wop dead on the kitchen floor.

+++++“The fuck you do that for?” Mike said.

+++++“He asked for a meeting about the Heights and wouldn’t deal,” Danny lied. “It was him or us. I chose us. You got a problem with that?”

+++++“No problem, Danny. No problem. Just wish you’d told me you were meeting him. Where are you?”

+++++Danny heard Mike scratching the coarse stubble that always covered his cheeks and touched his own face in response. Thirty-three years old and he still didn’t need to shave every day. Soft features like his mother. Too soft for “the life,” his da always said. “I’m at Antonelli’s house. I need you to get out here and help me with this before somebody misses him.”

+++++“Jesus, Danny, how am I supposed to do that? It’s snowing like hell. The TV’s telling everyone to stay off the roads!”

+++++Danny walked to the window and moved the curtain just enough to see outside. The snow had barely started when he drove to Terry’s big white house for the face-to-face. If the drifts outside were anything to go by, Danny had spent too long watching the corpse cool.

+++++“Are you sure he’s dead?” Mike said.

+++++“I shot him in the face. Twice.” Sick heat moved from his gut to his throat. “He needs to disappear tonight.”

+++++“I’m not sure I can even get out of the parking lot,” Mike said. “Let me check with Seamus or your uncle and see how they want to –.”

+++++“No!” Danny’s voice cracked. He forced his shoulders away from his ears and inhaled for a four count. He held the breath for a second and let it out while he counted again. “You listen to me now. Get some of the boys together, and drag your ass out the door. We’ll take him down to Quincy and dig a hole like Da did with Tommy King.”

+++++“I don’t know, Danny. This is big.” Mike breathed heavily for a few seconds. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

+++++Danny stuffed the phone back in his pocket. The snow was thick on the ground, three-quarters up the wheels of the little sports car he had loved so much when he saw it on the showroom floor. Danny swore, wishing he picked something with a nice, deep trunk and four-wheel drive instead of good looks and low emissions.

+++++He let the curtain drop. He was going to get caught. The fucking snow was going to keep him there until spring, and he was going to get caught red-handed with the wop’s rotting corpse. Everything his father built would be knocked down by the judge’s gavel. They’d never had enough on Big Dan Donnelly to make a charge stick, but his boy was going down for his first murder. Danny’s pulse pounded like fists in his ears. He massaged his chest. The doctors said his heart was fine, but Danny didn’t always believe them.

+++++His phone rang.

+++++“It’s going to be a while,” Mike said. “Nothing’s plowed down here. Jimmy says his power’s out, and I can’t get hold of Ryan.”

+++++“How fucking long do you think I have?” Danny’s lungs were full of lead. He cursed again, and the word heaved itself over his teeth like an asthmatic fat man.

+++++“You all right, Danny?”

+++++Danny panted. “I don’t. Fucking. Know.”

+++++“Try to relax, Danny,” Mike said. “Take one of your pills. You’ll be okay.”

+++++Anger loosened Danny’s throat some. “Don’t call me that anymore. You called Da ‘Mr. Donnelly.’ I’m in charge now. You call me ‘Mr. Donnelly.’” He took another four-count breath, “Get here. I’ll have everything ready for you.”

+++++Danny stabbed the button to end the call and put the phone on the counter next to the gun.

+++++He slipped his hand in his pocket and fumbled a tiny white pill out of the mint tin he kept there. He chewed the pill, crushing its slight sweetness between his teeth to make it dissolve faster.

+++++Danny sat at the kitchen table and counted his breaths until he felt the Ativan kicking in. The drug made him sleepy, but, better, it made him feel like he was outside his own body, watching himself like a television show. Who got stressed out over TV?

+++++Danny’s heart slowed, and his breathing returned to normal. He stood up and walked over to the body. “Mind if I use your bathroom, Terry?” Even if he had been alive, the wop would have had a hell of time answering with his face caved in like that.

+++++After he’d flushed the john, Danny rinsed his mouth out with tap water and dried his face on a lavender-scented hand towel. He used the mirror over the sink to check his hair and see if murder had changed him any. Big Dan was creeping into his face, peering out of his eyes and frowning through the creases at the sides of his mouth. Danny tried to imagine his father smiling at him. You shot the hell out of that wop. Shot him dead on his own floor. Big Dan’s brogue came from the old country, not the sing-song lilt of the southern leprechauns but the harder sounds from the north. I was wrong about you, boy. You took care of business like a man. They kill one of us, we kill two of them. Who’s next? Danny thumped the ball of his fist lightly on the mirror glass. “That’s right, Da. I got it under control.”

+++++Danny used the hand towel to wipe down everything he had touched in the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror again. His father was still there. He pressed the hand towel to his face and breathed deeply. Lavender had been his mother’s favorite scent.

+++++Returning to the body, Danny realized he had been lucky, shooting Terry in the kitchen like that. The blood pooled on the tile floor instead of soaking in like it would have done on the living room carpet or the hardwood floor in the hallway. “We need to wrap you up, Terry. Keep all that wop juice from spoiling your nice finishes.”

+++++Danny tried to think like Seamus, his father’s fixer. He needed a tarp. Big house like this, rich guy … Terry had to have a workshop. Some place he went to escape the wife and kids on Sundays. The garage maybe.

+++++He looked out the window. His Porsche was a white lump. Danny hoped Mike would be smart enough to bring a couple of shovels along.

+++++A door off the mudroom led to a short flight of steps and Terry’s garage. Danny pushed the door open into the dark and followed it through. The overhead light flickered. Terry had sprung for motion detectors. The floor was covered in the pebbly tiles advertised in car magazines, the back wall lined with metal cabinets. Terry’s BMW was parked in one bay. Something brawny, classic, and American was parked in another. The third bay, probably home to a minivan or an SUV Terry’s wife used to tote the kids around, was empty.

+++++Danny found the tarp and a box of rags in one of the steel cabinets. He spread the tarp out on the kitchen floor next to Terry’s body and rolled him onto it.

+++++A gun fell out of the back of Terry’s pants and clattered to the tiles.

+++++Danny picked the gun up and grinned at Terry’s shattered face. “You were thinking you’d get me first!” He kicked the bottom of Terry’s shoe. “You didn’t, though, did ya, boyo?”

+++++Danny’s voice sounded so much like his da’s that he was tempted to check the mirror again to see if the transformation was complete. He put Terry’s gun on the counter with his own and used the rags to wipe up the blood. He washed the tiles with bleach and tucked the sodden rags into the tarp with the body.

+++++Danny’s phone rang.

+++++“Ryan got a truck,” Mike said. “We’ll be out there in about twenty minutes. Is that okay, Da … Mr. Donnelly?”

+++++“That’s fine, Mike. Just fine.” Danny put the phone back in his pocket.

+++++Danny climbed the main stairs and used the hand towel to open doors until he found the master bedroom. His father had kept a keychain full of souvenirs won from “the life” … a hood ornament from the first car he had stolen, a St. Christopher’s medal he had taken from the body of the first man he’d killed, wedding rings from men who no longer needed them, a twisted black scrap he claimed was an ear … He had a story for every prize and used to tell them to Danny before sending him up to bed.

+++++Four expensive-looking watches were laid out on a dressing table in front of big mirror. Danny looked at them but did not touch. He opened the door to the walk-in closet and rummaged through Terry’s suits. Black and gray. They reminded him of his father and all the sharply dressed, hard-handed, grim men who had always surrounded him. The kind of man his father had always wanted him to be. The kind of man he had been to Terry.

+++++He wiped the closet door down and held the hand towel up to his face again. The lavender smell was fading. When Danny was fourteen, his father had caught him wearing one of his sister’s bras and rubbing his mother’s scented lotion on his face and neck. Big Dan had beat him nearly senseless, and Danny had been packed away to boarding school soon after that.

+++++Danny turned to the wife’s side of the closet. She was a slender woman, and her dresses, most of them in pale colors, hung gracefully. Danny ran his fingers down one to see if it felt as soft as it looked. Her top drawer was full of panties, sheer and lacy. The lavender smell was stronger here, condensed in the drawer. He picked out a pair of panties in coral pink, nearly see-through.

+++++Danny stepped back into the bedroom and nodded to his father’s face in the mirror. He kicked off his shoes and undid his belt, stepping out of his pants once they hit the ground. He slid out of his boxers and stepped into the panties, pulling them up tight against his cock and balls.

+++++Danny leaned close to the mirror and looked into the eyes he saw there. “Fuck you, Da. Fuck you.”

May the Dust Not Rise

Wish I could tell you it was an accident.

+++++I can’t. Not this time.

+++++Remo had a t-top Pontiac Firebird, an eighties model with a bald eagle painted on the hood. The dented body all brown as tobacco goop in a chicken shit’s lip. Used to drive past my property every morning—I guess around seven in the ay-m. Had himself a janitorial specialist position at the middle school.

+++++Cleaned the toilets down there.

+++++Remo made that Firebird’s engine go, and he liked to whip the squirrelly back end down the road. Looked to me—from the open door of my trailer—like a big brown fish swimming into the sky. And that engine roared like hot oil pouring over you. Got into your head.

+++++But then came the dust. Big damn clouds of dust.

+++++Ain’t no roads like dirt roads.

+++++With the wind coming from the east, the dust blew in my face.

+++++I got me the asthma.

+++++I’m on my way to a few other things that have to do with my Marlboros and those shit-sticks over at the tobacco company. What’s it and Morris. Point is, my natro-pathic remedist says I need good air and quiet.

+++++Here I am sucking dust and plugging my ears with wads of shit tissue.

+++++Triple-ply, dammit.

+++++Given my productivity for conflict restoration, I walked over to his place one afternoon. Figured I’d have us a chat. The Firebird’s engine was still ticking when I passed it on the gravel driveway. Windshield was thick with dust. Caked over like butter in a cold skillet.

+++++Remo had himself a thirty-five footer with a master suite. Tires were flat, but it was a nice rig. I offered more than once to take it off his hands, but Remo didn’t get many raises for scrubbing shit from kiddie toilets. He held onto the thing, made it his forever home.

+++++I stomped right up and pounded the door.

+++++The trailer rattled and creaked as Remo moved inside. He opened the door, took a long sip from a High Life. He said, “You come down here for a eight ball, Morgan?”

+++++I lit a cigarette. “You mind I come in for a minute?” I blew out smoke and curled my lips around the cancer stick.

+++++“Have a beer with me.”

+++++Inside, I sat on the small sofa near the door. Remo handed me a High Life and sat across from me in the trailer’s dining booth.

+++++We sipped our beers and smoked.

+++++“Well, Morgan…What the hell can I do for you?”

+++++“You can stop kicking up dust with that Firebird of yours.”

+++++“That all what this is?”

+++++“It’s that until it’s worse,” I said. “I got the asthma and more coming down the line. Doctor told me so.”

+++++Remo squinted at my cigarette, put his own to his lips and puffed.

+++++“I’m not trying nothing now, but I need that dust to settle.”

+++++“Hmm,” Remo said. He said it again. He puffed some more. “May the dust not rise,” he said and made the sign of the cross with the cigarette between his fingers. Smoke danced all away from him like morning mist. He laughed after that, tried hard to clear his throat for a long few seconds.

+++++“I know you hear me,” I said. “I want the dust to settle.”

+++++It’s too often people don’t do what you say.

+++++What you want.

+++++It’s too often people think they can kick up dust and drive right through it.

+++++That’s what Remo thought: He did it the next morning.

+++++And that night.

+++++But he sure as shit never did it again. Tell you what, I can still hear his screams in the back of my head. And see the flames. That shit-brown Firebird buried in blue-red fire, a bald eagle on the hood growing blacker by the second. Surprised me how fast the trailer went up—at thirty-five foot it was a tinder box.

+++++And then came the roar.

+++++Like hot oil pouring over you.

Simple

It’s six months to the day since I discovered that crime fiction bears no resemblance to the real thing.

+++++This is how crime really works:

+++++B pisses off A.

+++++A kills B.

+++++That’s it.

+++++Simple.

+++++I should know.

+++++I found out the hard way, last summer when my brother Ron visited me.

+++++He and I were very close. My Dad was killed in a car crash when I was a baby, my Mum worked full time to support the family, and Ron became the nearest thing I had to a father.

+++++He protected me from the local yobs. When he realised I couldn’t fight, wasn’t a natural like him, he enrolled me into a boxing club so I could learn how to defend myself. It was tough, but it worked. I desperately wanted to impress my brother, so I got stuck in and learnt how to throw a punch.

+++++Ron didn’t need boxing. He was big, but that wasn’t what made him formidable. He had a primeval sort of power. You just had to point him in the right direction and set him loose.

+++++That summer when he visited, I was at my peak.

+++++I was a solicitor working at one of the magic circle firms in London. Even though I was only three years qualified, my salary put me in the top five percent of earners in the country. Senior people in the firm were referring to me as “partnership material”. My future held out the promise of glittering prizes that were mine for the taking, if only I worked hard and kept my nose clean. Fortune was beckoning me with open arms.

+++++How could my downfall have been so sudden, so swift, and so complete?

+++++Our weekend started innocently enough. We wandered around Brixton on a hot Saturday afternoon, eyeing up the talent, and browsing in record shops. We got chatting to a couple of girls and made a date to see them in the evening. Then we bought some albums, two by Prince Buster, three by the Skatalites. They were the real thing, vinyl that could have been brought over in the 50s on the Empire Windrush. After we paid for them, we set off home to listen to some classic sounds.

+++++Because of the traffic, we’d taken the bus to Brixton.

+++++While we were waiting at the bus stop, a couple of white guys appeared on the other side of the street: black jackets, black boots, blue jeans, short hair. They crossed the road, walking briskly in our direction, then broke into a run. I wondered if that was because there was a bus coming, but when I looked, there wasn’t, which puzzled me.

+++++It should have been obvious why they were charging towards us, but some things are so hard to accept you refuse to believe they can happen. Right up until the point where they’re actually happening, you cling to the belief that everything is normal.

+++++It wasn’t until they took baseball bats out from under their jackets I realised why they were in such a hurry.

+++++They were white, with short hair and attitude; we were black.

+++++Simple.

+++++Why didn’t I work it out sooner?

+++++Probably because I’d never encountered anyone like that in real-life. My only contact with that kind of person had been via the television, where I’d occasionally seen bolshie people holding rallies, protesting against Islam, and waving the cross of St. George.

+++++I believe in standing up for yourself, especially when you’re black. You have to, because you seldom get a fair deal if you don’t. That lesson was drummed into me day after day by Ron while I was growing up. But much as I believed in what he’d taught me, I wasn’t going to stand up and take a beating with a baseball bat when I had only my fists to defend myself.

+++++“Fucking Hell, Ron,” I said. “We’ve got to run!”

+++++He hadn’t noticed the danger.

+++++“Ron, get a fucking move on!” I shouted.

+++++He turned, saw the two guys wielding the bats, and froze for an instant, caught between flight and fight. Flight won, because I grabbed his arm and dragged him.

+++++Stand your ground – that’s what Ron told me when I was a kid. It was almost a religious commandment: Thou Shalt Not Run Away. He would’ve probably taken his chances if I hadn’t been there, putting him under duress.

+++++We fled, dropping our records so we could run faster. One fell from its cardboard sleeve and splintered on the pavement; another rolled like a wheel, overtook us, then headed into the road where it was run over by a passing car.

+++++That hurt – as did taking the coward’s way out.

+++++But what option did we have? No way was I going to be brave and get my skull stoved-in, and nor was Ron – not if I could help it.

+++++Because I was busy watching a record getting crushed beneath the wheel of a Volvo, I wasn’t paying proper attention to the terrain and caught my toe on the edge of a paving slab. My feet left the ground as I launched myself into an involuntary dive. For an awful moment, time stood still while I was suspended horizontally in mid-air. Then I came crashing down, face-first, sticking out my arms to break my fall.

+++++My hands hit the pavement smearing it with blood. I was vaguely aware of skin being shredded. There must have been gravel or broken glass lying around.

+++++On any other day that jolting impact would’ve been painful, but I didn’t feel anything other than fear.

+++++I immediately got to my hands and knees, all too aware that danger was fast approaching. My back tingled with consternation.

+++++Ron helped me to my feet, the footsteps of our pursuers getting ever closer.

+++++So close I heard their laboured breathing.

+++++The imagined arc of a bat-swinging made me put a hand protectively over the back of my head. I pictured the weapon making contact with my cranium, bringing me down like a baby seal in a cull. Ron gave me a pull, the images receded, I got into my stride, and we began to leave our attackers behind.

+++++We didn’t stop running till we’d turned a few corners and they were out of sight. Luckily we’re both fit guys, which is why we were able to outpace them.

+++++While we were busy escaping, I was too stressed to give the situation much thought, but once I got home the injustice of it made my blood boil. I played that scene at the bus stop over and over in my head, imagining what I’d have done to those shits if they hadn’t had baseball bats. It wasn’t a healthy thing to do, and I wanted to think about something else, but I couldn’t help myself. My brain was out of control.

+++++It was as if there was a video in my head stuck in repeat mode. I couldn’t switch it off.

+++++It might have been good to talk about the incident with Ron, get it out of my system, but I knew the subject would just wind him up, so I decided not to mention it.

+++++My brother’s different to me. He won’t let things go. He burns until he’s done something about them.

+++++Somehow, in spite of the agitation we were feeling, we got ready to go out and meet the ladies we’d got to know during the afternoon.

+++++We had an enjoyable night which took my mind off things for a while. One of the girls came back to my place and Ron went to the other girl’s flat.

+++++When Carol – that was her name – had nodded off to sleep, I lay awake, dwelling on things. I hadn’t thought about the attack all evening, and now I couldn’t stop.

+++++I’ve had to deal with bad attitude on and off my entire life, but that was the only time I’ve come up against such venomous racism.

+++++You have to be philosophical about it and pick the fights you can win. That’s my view. The fight at the bus stop was best left alone, so I wasn’t ashamed of running away, just mad about it.

+++++When I got up the next morning I shook with anger as I climbed out of bed. Then I forced myself to calm down, shoving it to the back of my mind.

+++++Don’t get me wrong, I felt no forgiveness for those white lads with their baseball bats. It’s just that I don’t go looking for trouble, if you know what I mean. If I’d have been armed when they’d tried to jump us, I’d have fought back, hard. But I’d no interest in going out and getting revenge.

+++++Ron arrived after Carol had gone. We talked about music, our dates, stuff like that. Neither of us referred to the elephant in the room.

+++++Then Ron got up and started pacing. He became this huge silent brooding presence in my crib. He seemed capable of anything. It terrified me. He’d done that pacing thing when I’d come home, aged sixteen, and told him I’d been beaten up by a gang. He’d paced silently around before going out. Later, when he got back home, he said:

+++++“Everything’s sorted now. It won’t happen again.”

+++++And it didn’t.

+++++Because the people who’d picked on me were in hospital.

+++++“You all right, bro?” I said.

+++++He didn’t answer. Just paced into the kitchen and paced out again.

+++++“I’ve been thinking. I’m going back to that bus stop where those white cunts tried to get us. I reckon they must live round there. If either of them show their faces, I’m gonna make sure they think twice about beating up a black man again.”

+++++“Leave it, Ron,” I said. “They’re not worth it. They’re scum. They’ll get their comeuppance some day.”

+++++“That day has just arrived. Are you in or out?”

+++++“I’m out. I ain’t looking for trouble.”

+++++“Suit yourself,” he said as he left.

+++++I’d been bluffing, hoping my brother would see sense. When it came to it, I couldn’t let him face danger on his own, so I followed him. I had to be there with him, at his side. I just hoped we’d find them unarmed. If we didn’t, Lord knows what could happen to us.

+++++We took the bus from outside my flat to the bus stop where we’d been attacked.

+++++When we got off the bus my every instinct told me I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I had to look after Ron, save him from himself, so there was no escape.

+++++The white trash who’d tried to assault us were nowhere to be seen.

+++++Thank God, I thought. All we have to do is hang round here long enough and Ron’ll see sense, then we can go.

+++++Long enough proved to be a very long time, because Ron insisted on walking round all day in search of them. My stomach churned, my mind churned even more. Fear embraced me tightly, treating me to a lingering kiss.

+++++I was in the middle of a debate with myself about whether I had any courage to speak of when Ron nudged me.

+++++“There,” he hissed. “Right in front of us.”

+++++It was them all right, coming out of a barber’s shop with their heads freshly shaved right down to the scalp.

+++++Both wore t-shirts, which meant they couldn’t be carrying baseball bats. They walked down the street with me and Ron following on their tails.

+++++“Too many witnesses around to do anything here, bro,” Ron whispered. “We’ll bide our time.”

+++++As they cut across a patch of wasteland we closed the gap until we were a yard or so behind them. Only at that point did one of them hear something and turn his head. My heart began beating against my ribs. I felt sick

+++++Ron shouted:

+++++“Oi! Remember me?”

+++++Then we both rushed to attack.

+++++They readied themselves. It was going to be a square-go, no baseball bats this time, two against two in a fair fight.

+++++Fear bore down on me like ten-ton weight on my shoulders. Somehow I shrugged it off and tore into the one I’d chosen for myself. He was big, but size doesn’t win fights. Fighting wins fights, and I’m a trained boxer.

+++++The fear left me – funny how it does that once the action starts – and instinct took over. I was in the zone, fighting on automatic pilot.

+++++I jabbed him a couple of times then decked him with a crisp left hook. He went down as if poleaxed. It was over disappointingly quickly. I’d wanted him to absorb a few good punches before hitting the canvas.

+++++When I turned to see how Ron was getting on, I got the shock of my life.

+++++Unknown to me, he’d brought a knife – my carving knife. He must’ve picked it up when he’d been in the kitchen.

+++++He was carving up his opponent like a Christmas turkey.

+++++I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since seeing him do that. I need therapy, but there’s not much chance of getting it anytime soon.

+++++“Fucking hell, Ron, we gotta go,” I said, grabbing his knife arm.

+++++He wrenched it from me, plunged the blade deep into white bloke’s stomach, and yanked it sideways.

+++++When he pulled it out, the bloke fell to his knees. Only when his victim’s face hit the dirt did Ron allow me to drag him away.

+++++“What did you do that for, man?” I asked.

+++++“Do what?”

+++++“You know what. The knife business. You didn’t need to do that. All we had to do was rough them up a little. You might’ve killed him.”

+++++“So what? What d’yer think they were going to do to us with those fucking baseball bats?”

+++++“That’s not the point. The point is, we could get sent down for this.”

+++++“You worry too much, bro.”

+++++The coppers got onto us in a matter of hours and interviewed us under caution.

+++++My brother was charged with murder and I was charged with murder too, as an accomplice, even though I hadn’t done anything much wrong.

+++++We both got life.

+++++So here I am, looking out of my cell window on Christmas day evening, quietly getting pissed on hooch.

+++++This is real-life, not a crime novel, so there won’t be any miracle reprieve, pardon, parole, or jailbreak.

+++++I’ll see you here next Christmas.

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And so on.

+++++Simple.

THE WITCHING HOUR

They used to call this “The Witching Hour,” three to four in the morning when witches, goblins, and other demons of the night were most likely to be active. I call it “The Terrible Three,” the hour when insomniacs like me are most likely to awaken and spend the rest of the night in a restless pursuit of sleep.

+++++I’ve tried everything to beat this sleeplessness. Sleeping pills, melatonin, warm milk, a fifth of whiskey. But “The Terrible Three” is a persistent little cuss. I lay awake staring into the dark, my sleep shattered by a thousand random thoughts. How secure is my job? If fired, can I find another one? How will I pay the rent? What if there is another war? What about that series of horrible murders the newspapers keep talking?

+++++I’ve read insomnia is usually due to stress during our waking hours. The recommended treatment is to reduce that stress. How the hell do I do that? It’s not as if I’m forcing these stress levels on myself. It comes from my boss and his boss above him. It comes from powers over which we have no control.

+++++Kicking off the covers, I stand up. I’ve found the only thing that helps me get back to sleep is taking a walk. I read about that, too. Get up and walk around a bit. Try not to focus on getting to sleep. It works sometimes, but not all the time.

+++++I pull on my trousers, a shirt, my athletic shoes, and a warm coat. It’s winter and the nights are cold. An old Navy knitted watch cap keeps my balding head warm. As I walk through the kitchen, I pick up a large chef’s knife and slip it into my belt under my coat. It is an odd hour for a walk, and I need something for protection. After all, the newspapers keep warning us about that serial killer.

+++++The night air is chilled. I turn up my coat collar, pull the watch cap lower, and start my usual three-block circuit at a brisk but casual pace.

+++++I live in an apartment building not far from the center of town. The streets are well lit but empty at this hour. Sometimes the quiet is unnerving. But I also find the vacant streets relaxing, soothing. My thoughts slow, and soon they focus only on the sound of my breathing and the swish of my soft-soled shoes.

+++++As I pass a darkened storefront, I glimpse a shadow in the doorway. I pretend not to notice, but speed up my pace, nonetheless. A few steps later, I hear another set of footsteps, glance around, and realized the person I saw in the storefront is now walking behind me. The person is dressed in dark, shabby clothes, and a well-worn jacket with the collar turned up. A dark baseball cap covers his head.

+++++We are alone in the street. Is he following me? Maybe he’s simply out for a sleepless walk like me. I pick up my pace again and turn a corner while he’s still several yards behind. Rushing down the street, I turn into an alley and peek around the corner. My hand slips into my coat and grips the handle of the chef’s knife.

+++++According to the newspapers, the serial killer always strikes in the wee hours of the morning. His . . . what do they call it? Modus operandi. His modus operandi involves killing homeless men, though the police believe he may have killed a couple of muggers, too.

+++++The dark figure reaches the far corner and stops. He looks around the corner, then checks to his left and right. With his hands in his coat pockets, he turns the corner and heads towards me.

+++++I look around the alley. It’s a dead end. Just trash dumpsters and other discarded debris. The perfect place for a mugger or a killer to attack a victim. I pull out the knife and huddle behind a dumpster.

+++++The figure stops at the alley entrance and peers around the corner. He pulls something from his pocket. A knife? A gun? I can’t tell. As he enters the alley, I hunker lower behind the dumpster. He doesn’t see me until it’s too late. I’m on him before he can react. I jab the knife as hard as I can into his chest. I feel it scraping bone, feel the warmth of his blood spilling over my hand. Pulling the knife out, I jab again, and again. I keep stabbing until my strength is spent, then I let go of him. He drops to the ground without a sound.

+++++Slipping the knife back into my belt, I straighten my coat and hurry back to my apartment. I clean the knife carefully and place it back in the wooden cutlery block. Then I remove my clothing, place it in the clothes washer, and turn the washer on. After a hot shower, I climb back into bed.

+++++It was a good walk. I don’t always find someone on these walks. Even when I do, I’m not always successful luring them into a dark, secluded place. If I don’t, the walk does little to help my sleeplessness. But if I do, then I return home calmed and relaxed, and I know I will enjoy a deep and refreshing sleep the rest of the night.

Wrath of the Lamb

Joshua Schafer knew the corridor well. Since the state had re-established capital punishment, he as death row chaplain had ministered to twenty inmates, and there were three more executions slated for later in the year. With luck, he wouldn’t be here for those. He’d done the paperwork for an unpaid leave of absence hours before, and there was no reason to think he’d be denied. He’d read the newspaper that morning and was certain he’d made the right decision. The headline had assaulted him. He knew that when a man of the cloth feels hatred and revenge in his heart, it’s time to step back. And not only step back but reconsider whether he was prepared to go on—with everything.

+++++The corridor looked the same as last time, smelled the same, sounded the same. Light, shadows, echoes, the inelastic ambiance of fear: all the same, except for one thing. The young prison guard kept glancing back at him as they walked down the hallway to unit 05, where an inmate had been transferred to the death house just yesterday. At first, it was only a slight sideways look and Schafer thought nothing of it. But then it happened two, three more times and Schafer touched his clerical collar wondering if something was out of order.

+++++They stopped at 05, and the guard hesitated.

+++++“What is it guard?”

+++++Again the look, this time more of a stare, making Schafer even more uncomfortable.

+++++“I get the feeling there’s something about me that’s bothering you,” said Schafer.

+++++“I’m just amazed, sir,” said the guard, a shadow of embarrassment passing over his face.

+++++Did the kid even shave yet? thought Schafer.

+++++“You look astoundingly like Cullen,” said the guard.

+++++Schafer had seen the photographs, flipped through the file. Yes, he’d noticed a resemblance in the sandy-colored hair, high cheekbones, over-large ears, and a nose that was long and narrow and a bit crooked from a straight-on angle. But it hadn’t concerned him, and what could you tell from a photo anyway?

+++++“Hmm,” said Schafer, as he looked away. “I think we should get on with this.”

+++++“Sorry, but it’s hard to ignore,” the guard said. “You’d think you were the man himself. What’s that word people use? Uncanny? That’s it, uncanny.”

+++++Schafer felt heat rise from his chest and neck. He took a long breath. “Look, I haven’t got a lot of time, and quite frankly it’s been a rough morning for me. Daunting, to tell the truth. I’d like to move this along as quickly as possible.”

+++++“Yessir.”

*

+++++Joe Bob Cullen looked directly at the chaplain as to the two men shook hands. For a moment Schafer had the sensation he was staring into his own slate-blue eyes. They sat facing each other at a metal table inside a small meeting room a few paces from Cullen’s open cell. The room was without a door and separated from the rest of the unit by a cinder block wall painted white. There were three guards, but they couldn’t be seen from where the two men sat. Cullen wore the usual death row inmate’s uniform, a white jumpsuit with DR printed in black on the back.

+++++“I’m sure you’re aware that on the day before an execution the inmate has a chance to meet a chaplain. The new rules allow us ten minutes in a semi-private setting. I’m here to introduce myself, and to say I’ll be there for the procedure unless of course, you would prefer me not to be. We can also have one more visit before the execution tomorrow.”

+++++“Fine by me,” said Cullen. “Whatever the rules and regulations say.” He laughed.

+++++“What?”

+++++“I’m glad I’m dying in a more liberal state where they treat us guys like human beings.”

+++++Schafer nodded and studied the file he’d brought with him. He noted that Cullen was born two days after him, in 1977. He looked up. “I can pray with you as well, offer communion, answer any questions you might have. And I can…”

+++++Schafer stared at Cullen’s face, impassive as granite. Photographs did little justice to the resemblance between the two men. Was it true that somewhere in the world my exact double exists? thought Schafer.

+++++“Cat got your tongue, padre?”

+++++“Er, no, it’s just that…”

+++++“I know what you’re thinking, pastor. By the way, you prefer to be called pastor or are you one of those down-and-dirty, streetwise padres? You prefer Joshua or maybe Mr. Schafer?”

+++++“Mr. Schafer’s fine.”

+++++“Mr. Schafer it is, then.”

+++++Schafer fidgeted with the file in front of him, ran his hand across his sandy colored hair. His knees bounced to an unknown rhythm. He stroked his chin and realized he’d forgotten to shave. He’d left his house in a hurry after reading the morning paper. Had he switched off the toaster?

+++++Cullen watched as he sat leaning against his chair back. His legs were crossed. “People tell me I’m your Doppelgänger,” the prisoner said. “That’s the word, ain’t it? Doppelgänger?”

+++++“Yes it is,” Schafer said, trying for nonchalance. “I must say, I’d never realized how strong the resemblance is until now.”

+++++“Makes you sorta nervous, don’t it? Like it’s one of those there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sorts of things.”

+++++The chaplain shrugged and smiled. “The world is full of chance occurrences, coincidences, marvels. There are so many unpredictable things they’re almost predictable. It’s all part of God’s wondrous, mysterious universe.”

+++++“Like the twist of fate that left me taking the rap for a murder I didn’t commit? The lousy break that allows me to be the fall guy and another bastard goes free?”

+++++“My remit is not to discuss your sentencing but to minister to your spiritual needs.”

+++++Cullen smiled, and Schafer noted that his bottom teeth were so closely packed that one tooth had been pushed forward. He instinctively raised his finger to his mouth to feel a misaligned incisor in the same position.

+++++“I’m thinking you may have some spiritual needs too, padre.”

+++++Schafer frowned. “We all feel the necessity of having a relationship with God. In some it’s sharper than in others, but it’s there for everybody.”

+++++“I read the papers,” said Cullen. “Saw the headline. What was it? Former Accused Murderer Wins Lottery. Yeah, that was it.”

+++++Schafer glared at the prisoner. “That has nothing to do what we are about here, Mr. Cullen. What we are about here is the fact that tomorrow evening at 6 sharp you will receive a lethal injection. My goal is to assist you spiritually in any way I can between now and that moment of truth.”

+++++“Well,” said Cullen as he picked at a fingernail. “I don’t believe much in the truth, frankly, since I told the truth and look where it got me. But I ain’t a dumb man, padre, and I know a little bit about human nature. You know, prison is about the best place I can think of to read up on the world, get your bearings. Some of the boys call it FelonyU. And my education tells me your seeing that headline must have just torn you up.”

+++++“Mr. Cullen, if you have no questions or requests for me, then I’ll say my goodbyes until tomorrow.”

+++++“Now wait a minute,” said Cullen, as Schafer was about to stand. “I read how the man who’d been acquitted of raping and murdering the prison chaplain’s young wife—Magdalena, right?—goes out and lives a fine-and-thank-you-very-much kind of life. And then what happens? Bastard wins the lottery and becomes an overnight millionaire. How’s that for luck, padre? I’m reading that paper and thinking, why, that must be hell for the chaplain. Pure hell. Because the chaplain still thinks the man did it. Still thinks his wife’s former lover is the murderer. Or so says the paper. Were you misquoted?”

+++++Schafer rose. “I think we’re done here.” He stood but didn’t move as he stared at the inmate.

+++++“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world,” said Cullen.

+++++Schafer’s face darkened.

+++++“I know a little bit of the Good Word too, padre. It ain’t only newspapers and pornography I read. I know that when John the Baptist said he was thinking of Christ as the Lamb of God, he was thinking of sacrifice.”

+++++“You’re no sacrificial lamb, if that’s what you’re saying,” said Schafer. “You killed a convenience store owner in cold blood. Just because you wanted what little cash the poor man had. God forgives you, of that you can be certain, but the people have a right to seek justice, and tomorrow they will have it.”

+++++“Well we can disagree on the sacrifice part,” said Cullen. “An innocent man killed for something he didn’t do is a sacrifice, I’d say. I’ve got the job of somehow atoning for the crimes of all the good citizens out there. I’ve never been big on sharing, if you know what I mean, but there it is.”

+++++“I can see the Lord has not yet opened your heart. In the next 24 hours I will pray that he does.”

+++++“Well you go right on and pray, padre. I can’t stop you from doing your job. But I thought I’d remind you that the Book of Revelation also speaks of the wrath of the Lamb. That’s right, the Lamb’s wrath. And it even says, ‘These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.'”

+++++“I will not stand here and allow you to misuse the Lord’s Word.”

+++++“But I bet you’ll allow me to be your wrathful Lamb, won’t you, padre?”

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“I’ll take care of the fucker who did your wife.”

+++++“I have no idea what you’re going on about, Mr. Cullen, and this is highly inappropriate anyway—”

+++++“You and me. Exchange places.”

+++++“This is preposterous.”

+++++“You and me, we look alike. So close I could be you. I know you see it. I know you know.”

+++++“And you’re suggesting I stand in for you, so you can…what? Kill the man who killed my wife? If I had that much hatred in my heart I’d do that myself.”

+++++“But you won’t. I know you won’t. You’re a man of God. You’ll carry around the hatred all your life. You’ll ask for forgiveness, do good works, think you’re helping guys who are ready to get a chemical stew in their veins. But you won’t do anything but get on your knees. Meanwhile the acid of revenge eats away at your insides. Always eating until there’s nothing left. You take my place and you can rest assured you’ll get the one thing you want more than anything else in the world, more than life itself. That man will die. The minute I get out of this shithole, I’ll hunt that man down and kill him. All you need to do is give me the key to outside. They’ll probably catch me for it too, so don’t go thinking I go scot-free. But it will be worth it to have a little more time outside.”

+++++Schafer straightened his shoulders. “You underestimate how God’s grace works in our hearts. How it enables us to move on.”

+++++Cullen harrumphed. “How’s that working for you so far, huh? I know I couldn’t move on from something like that. A pretty little wife, you find out was screwing with this guy, and then he stabs her full of holes—and then lives the life of fucking Riley. No, padre, a man doesn’t move on from something like that. That sits with a man. Claws at him. That kind of injustice makes grace melt like snow in April.”

+++++“You said you weren’t a murderer. You didn’t kill the convenience store owner.”

+++++“I said I didn’t do that murder.”

*

+++++The chaplain heard the door to unit 05 close behind him. His knees were mercury. His heart thumped and he feared the guard could hear it. His mind raced. He was in the courtroom a year ago watching the defendant. He saw how the man smirked when the judge said four fateful words, “acquitted of all charges.” He felt as if some dark soul of revenge and destruction had come to colonize his life. He was in the bedroom where he’d found Magdalena’s naked body, the sheets soaked in red, walls splattered. He imagined her and the man together, in that bed. On the carpeted floor he saw what would be identified as the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, and he’d wished many times since then he could drive it into his heart to stop the burn of hatred.

*

+++++Again he walked the corridor. The guard was an older man and he didn’t study the pastor’s face as the young guard had yesterday. The sounds and smells of death row seemed strangely muted, as if he were in some other place and some other time, or no time at all. His black trousers and black shirt felt snug, as if he’d donned someone else’s clothes. His white collar scratched his neck.

+++++He thought about his duties. Praying with the condemned man, offering to take care of any last-minute things for a spouse, a child. Ensuring the prisoner was able to say his last words at the execution. Standing at the end of the gurney as the procedure went on.

+++++Cullen was already seated at the metal table when the chaplain entered. The prisoner looked up and smiled, a picture of casualness.

+++++“We have five minutes at most,” said Schafer. He stood behind the white cinder block wall and undressed.

+++++“Perfect fit,” said Cullen as he shed his uniform and began dressing in the pastor’s clothing. Schafer slipped on Cullen’s white shirt and trousers. They exchanged shoes.

+++++Cullen handed Schafer a folded piece of paper. “My last words,” said Cullen, smirking. “There ain’t much so you can memorize it quickly.”

+++++Schafer nodded. “All you have to do is stand there by the gurney and let me say my piece, I mean, your piece, and…”

+++++“I seen the documentaries. I know what the padre does when they start feeding the poison.”

+++++They looked at one another, not sure what to do next. A guard strolled past the entrance to the small room. “Couple more minutes, gentlemen,” he said, barely glancing at them.

+++++“You kneel,” said Cullen in a hushed tone.

+++++Schafer went down on his knees and bowed his head as Cullen raised his arms and whispered, “And they said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?”

+++++Schafer opened his eyes and looked at the linoleum floor. He heard the buzz of fluorescent lighting overhead.

+++++Cullen walked out and the chaplain was alone, still kneeling.

FADE AWAY

Vinnie could not believe that the frail figure lying in bed at the Woodrow Nursing facility was that of Frankie Malloy. Or as Vinnie knew him, Frankie the Razor. Frankie had once been the most efficient, and most feared killing machine that the Family had ever had at its disposal.

+++++Now, he lay here, at the grand old age of eighty-four, his once sharp mind and body, were succumbing to the final stages of Alzheimer’s. His life, thoughts, and memories were fading, like leaves in the wind.

+++++All that was visible of Frankie was his head poking above the pristine bed sheets that appeared to be holding him in place. The skin on his skull looked pulled tight, so it was almost translucent. Through parched lips, Vinnie could hear him sucking in oxygen.

+++++Vinnie busied himself, screwing the silencer to the end of his gun. The Family had given the order. Frankie had to be silenced. They feared that as he slipped from existence, he may divulge some information that could somehow implicate them. A risk they were not prepared to take. They wanted Frankie’s secrets burying with him. Quite literally.

+++++It was a mercy killing, that’s how Vinnie justified it. Like putting an old dog out of its misery. Sure he had known of Frankie. Anyone in this line of business knew of his reputation. Especially his weapon of choice, the cut-throat razor. Silent and efficient. That was Frankie’s style. The man was a legend, and it pained Vinnie to see him like this. He was sure he would understand. After all, it was only business.

+++++Vinnie moved closer to the bed, careful to avoid the bag of piss that hung over its edge. The nurse on night duty had explained that it was unlikely Frankie would even know he was there in the room. The Alzheimers was slowly shutting down his body. It was only the body’s survival instincts that were keeping him alive. Eventually, they too would close down. Something the Family was not willing to wait for.

+++++Vinnie looked down into Frankie’s eyes, seeking some sign, some recognition. Nothing, just two lifeless pools that remained fixed to the ceiling above, devoid of life. Vinnie leaned in to whisper in Frankie’s ear, compelled to say something.

+++++“Listen, Frankie, if you’re in their buddy, this is nothing personal. Just business.”

+++++Before Vinnie could bring the gun up, he felt the cold, sharp edge of the razor, pressing into his neck, already beginning to draw blood. He looked down into those two dark pools and prayed. How much of Frankie the Razor was still in there. He was about to find out.