Tag Archives: Crime Fiction

A Bed of Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tom’s eyes pleaded with her.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tom’s eyes closed.

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

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

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

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

Loser’s Bet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Four Roses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++They both laughed.

THE END

Blackjack Creek

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Lowell stopped too.

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

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

Exit Seraglio

“I don’t work for pimps.”

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

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

+++++“What it is like then?”

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

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

+++++“Get to the point, Vlad.”

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

+++++“Protect your investment.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Alright. I’ll look.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

+++++“Appreciated.”

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

+++++“He order anything to the room?”

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

+++++“Private property.”

+++++“Do I look like I care?”

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

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

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

+++++“I wouldn’t…”

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

+++++“Time to go.”

*

+++++Vlad sits opposite me.

+++++“Well?”

+++++“Well what?” I reply.

+++++“Where is she?”

+++++“Safe.”

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

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

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

+++++“Donnelly.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“Vlad…”

+++++“What?”

+++++“The other two hundred?”

Family First

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Until it wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Shhh…Jessica will hear you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++I got Jessica.

+++++Family first.

Retirement Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Something like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Silver City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STRAWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Same for me,” Kenny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Anybody ideas?” Kenny asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++My turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lock Up

James Dwyer walked through the dank corridor of the county jailhouse. Holding cells lined both walls, filled beyond capacity. Prisoners were packed together awaiting either a hearing on bail, or transport to the state penitentiary.

+++++Although Dwyer had been practicing law for nearly two decades, he rarely came into contact with prisoners incarcerated in squalid conditions. He typically met clients in more antiseptic conditions, interview rooms, and phone-exchange rooms with plate glass windows separating the attorney from the prisoner.

+++++A mixture of floor cleaner and urine wafted out of the cells. He wrinkled his nose, anxious to get outside.

+++++“Hey, Jimmy!” Someone called out from a cell on the right.

+++++Dwyer didn’t recognize the gravelly voice. He scanned the holding cell, an indiscernible sea of convicts, merely dejected faces staring back at him. He paused only a moment to peruse them, and started on his way. Leather heels striking the concrete floor made the only sound.

+++++A grimy hand smacked at the bars. “Hey, Jimmy!”

+++++Stopping, he traced the filthy hand to an emaciated mug. Dwyer made eye contact with the jailbird.

+++++“Jimmy!” The convict smiled, exposing decayed and missing teeth.

+++++Another crystal-meth addict looking for a lawyer. Dwyer considered the inmate further. The man’s high forehead seemed familiar.

+++++The convict nodded, grinning. His filthy mouth was god-awful. “I recognized you. Cousin Jimmy…”

+++++“Raymond?” Dwyer finally recognized him.

+++++“Heard that you’ve become a bigshot lawyer. Guys in here talk, and on the outside.”

+++++Dwyer shrugged, not knowing what to say.

+++++“Jimmy, maybe you could represent me? Help me out of a jam.”

+++++Thanking back, Dwyer remembered Raymond growing up. He’d been older than Dwyer and the son of a local police officer. Ray’s dad had a collection of police badges. Later, Dwyer studied criminal justice in college and became a police officer before going to law school. He reconsidered helping Raymond out.

+++++“See… You are thinking about it.” Raymond smiled, betraying a hint of arrogance.

+++++The arrogance registered. Raymond had run around town with the best clothes and fancy haircuts. Believing he could get away with anything, Raymond had gotten in constant trouble and took a liking for drugs.

+++++Dwyer shook his head. “Afraid that I’m not taking on court-appointed cases anymore.”

+++++Raymond shuffled closer, pressing his face into the bars. “Come on Jimmy, we’re family. You owe it to me.”

+++++“Owe it to you?”

+++++“Sure, my dad’s the one who helped get you started.”

+++++“Your father gave me a badge when I was nine years old. He talked about the job.”

+++++Raymond opened his mouth wide, but couldn’t seem to come up with any words. A phlegmy smell floated from his gaping jaws.

+++++And Dwyer just wanted to move on. “I’ve got a family to feed. You’re going to get representation from court-appointed defense counsel.”

+++++Raymond turned bitter. “Aww, Jimmy… The big shot lawyer, can’t even help out his own cousin.”

+++++Dwyer took a deep breath. The foul air snaked into his lungs. County lockup was a miserable place. Raymond pressed his face even harder to the bars, so indentations appeared on his skull. Nobody deserved these conditions.

+++++A hopeful look crossed Raymond’s face. “Now, you’re thinking about it again.”

+++++Somehow, the arrogance registered again. Raymond liked to be in control, and he enjoyed manipulating others. Dwyer remembered a few occasions of Raymond causing mischief and blaming it on him. He’d walk by Dwyer later gloating. An arrogant jeer, like the display behind the bars.

+++++“I’m sorry Ray, you can’t afford me.” Dwyer grinned, and walked away.

+++++“Jimmy!” A pounding on the bars followed. “Jimmy, come back! I’m sorry, I gave you a hard time. But I need some help, here.”

+++++Dwyer kept walking and didn’t look back.

+++++“Jimmy! Come back.” More rattling of the bars. “Screw you Jimmy!”

+++++And then Dwyer reached the end of the corridor. He stood by the metal doors and glanced back at his cousin. Raymond’s emaciated face looking back at him, hopelessly.

+++++The guard buzzed the door, and Dwyer stepped through and quickly made his way toward the exit at the end of the hallway. Stepping outside, he breathed in the fresh air, putting his cousin behind him, leaving Raymond in the past.

Women’s Work

“Is this your wife?” I tried to sound polite. Take an interest. I wondered if she was still around. In truth, my money was already staked on a nasty divorce. I reckoned that Tinder could not be an easy man to live with.

+++++He didn’t answer. A sick feeling cut into me, racing over my arms, leaving trails of goose bumps in its wake.

+++++His expression was almost grotesque; his eyes glazed over, as if lost in another world. He seemed to completely forget that I was standing there. I coughed, cleared my throat. I was paid by the hour and didn’t have time to waste on his self-indulgence.

+++++Roused back to life, he gave me a searching look which turned acidic, the corners of his mouth twitching as if his lips had been scalded, then suddenly his mood switched, “That’s my wife Claire. She moved out west.”

+++++The bitter undertone caught my breath. I was right, and sensed it was a bad idea to indulge my curiosity any further. I dropped it, found the bathroom and put on my flowery coverall.

+++++I have always preferred the owners to leave the house while I’m working, so as they don’t get under my feet. And I was more than a little relieved when I saw him pick up his raincoat. It was old and shabby. I rubbed my arms as a wave of nausea surged, stealing the blood from my face.

+++++Maybe it was just the cheap wine that I drank last night? Or was it something else? An old memory surfaced. When I was little, my mother used to warn me about the strange men in raincoats who loitered in the park.

+++++“The mop and bucket are in the basement,” he said gesturing to a door at the back of the kitchen. He saw me staring at his raincoat and his face hardened into a sneer, giving me a pretty good idea as to his attitude towards me. He saw me as a menial, someone he would get a kick out of ordering around. With no woman at home to bully, he was probably looking for an affordable power trip. Paid help was a convenient option.

+++++“Women’s work,” I muttered to myself as I switched on the basement light. The single bulb casting little more than a few shadows, a yellow-white glare pasted on black.

+++++The mop stood in the furthest corner, next to a camp bed and a battered tin bucket. I didn’t think much of it at the time; we were living in hurricane alley. Most homes had basements stocked with a few essentials, a torch, some blankets and a couple tins of food, just in case a big storm hit.

+++++I grabbed the stinking mop and bucket. I was surprised at the fusty odour as the kitchen floor looked clean. Climbing back up the stairs, I paused halfway as searing pain from a rheumatic hip, grabbed my full attention. The sensation intensified and burned razor sharp through my joint. The fire continued into my throat, a scowl curling my lips. Dammit!

+++++I could kill for a decent retirement plan!

+++++But fantasizing wasn’t helping matters. I realized this as the basement door slammed shut, jolting me out of my daydream. I reached the top of the steps, swaying unsteadily. My palm slid over the brass knob without budging it. I wiped the sweat on my coverall and tried again. This time there was no mistake. The door was locked. I knew that beating on it would do no good. But I did it anyway, pounding until my fist bruised.

+++++It became hard to breathe. Turning, I leaned against the door, staring down into the blackness. Why didn’t I have the sense to wedge it open? How many of those stupid movies had I watched, where someone gets trapped in the basement with a monster or madman?

+++++Tinder – Mister Tinder as he insisted I call him – must have already left the house. So I had no choice but to wait until he returned. I suspected that he might secretly enjoy the opportunity to be mad that I wasted my time idling in the basement. And it would be no surprise if he didn’t pay me for my time. But surely, it was only natural that he would be at a little concerned about my wellbeing…

***

+++++I had sat on the camp bed for hours when he finally returned. The hinges creaked and natural light from the kitchen framed his silhouette in the doorframe. I mounted the steps as fast as I could, expecting him to offer me some small comfort, maybe a concerned expression or a couple of soothing words. My knees grew shaky, as I gathered from his manic eyes that it was me who had been mistaken.

+++++My prediction, that he would enjoy the chance to be mad and not pay me – was also wrong! It wasn’t the lack of anger that scared me, though. It was the dead calm surrounding his eyes, and the smile that spread like a slow tear across his face…

+++++“The door must have slammed with a draft,” I blurted out, making my way up the steps as fast as my swollen hip would allow. I had no intention of spending another second in Tinder’s basement. He just stood there, blocking my way, glaring at me with a creepy smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

+++++“There’s been a misunderstanding,” he said. His eyes widened somewhat, head tilted. “I need a live-in cleaner!” He gestured to the camp bed.

+++++I stood there, stupefied, mouth opening and shutting like a fish in a net. Deftly caught.

+++++To hell with my hip!

+++++Tinder didn’t have a large build, and I reckoned I could knock him down the stairs if I needed to. I made a dash for the door.

+++++But I hadn’t counted upon the hunting rifle, which he stabbed into my cheek.

***

+++++I had no choice but to wait it out. I searched around the basement for something I could use as a weapon. But I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I lay down on the camp bed, feeling exhausted; pain still surging through my hip. It was pointless shouting for help. There were no windows in the basement. And I was sure no-one outside could hear me as his house was up a dirt track. I tried pleading with him to open the door, in case he was listening on the other side. But it stayed firmly shut.

+++++The camp bed was uncomfortable. The springs dug into my back. As I turned towards the wall to alleviate the ache in my spine, my finger slid into a groove. I pulled the bed away from the wall. The word “Claire” had been scraped into the brick work. I choked back a sob, that wasn’t just for me, hoping Claire had made it out west like Tinder had told me. After seeing her name scratched there –

+++++I seriously doubted it.

+++++The dim light, which had been left on, threw eerie shapes on the walls. I searched frantically until I found an uneven patch of dirt and then dug at it with my bare hands. Something shifted.

+++++Poor Claire!

+++++She hadn’t made it out west. Had never made it out of the basement. I felt the bile rise, burning my throat, forcing its way out of my mouth. I shuddered to the ground, retching.

+++++I saw something glint through the shadows. It took me a minute or two to process, but there was no doubt: it was a diamond ring.

+++++The same ring Claire was wearing in the photo that I had picked up in the lounge on that first morning; how long ago was that? With no natural light down here I was losing track of time. It was clear to me that Tinder was not intending to let me go. But who had ever heard of a hostage cleaner? It didn’t make sense. But then he didn’t make sense either.

+++++One thing was certain – If he wanted me to clean, then at some point he would have to let me go upstairs.

***

+++++I had to wait what seemed like an age to get hold of that photo, without him seeing. As it turned out, he was even crazier than I had imagined about the cleaning. There were all of these weird rules about how everything had to be done. He acted like this was some sort of military manoeuvre, kept barking orders and complaining about “breaches in cleaning discipline”.

+++++Punishable by pain.

+++++If I was to load the dishwasher “incorrectly” with the cups and plates in the wrong order, he would slam the door shut. With my hand still inside. If he found a mark on the floor after I had mopped it, he would pour boiling water on it – over my bare feet.

+++++It seemed to amuse him, seeing me trying to hide the pain. I quickly worked out that the more pain I showed, the more pleasure he got from it, so I would try harder to hide my reaction… only for him to step up the “discipline” even more. It was a nightmare, which never eased. Just kept on getting worse.

+++++I managed to get the photo of Claire down to the basement, smuggled under dirty water. When I removed it from the bucket, tears started pouring, the salt stinging my sore skin. The dark water had seeped through the frame, staining her smile. I felt a stab of shame at destroying Claire’s memory, but I could see no other way, and smashed the frame against the side of my bed.

+++++The glass shattered, wide, across the dirt floor. I tried to bend down to pick up the pieces so I wouldn’t stand on them in my bare feet, but my hip gave way and I plunged down, feeling my head smack against the stone wall. I felt a lightening surge of pain as the wall shaved a layer of skin off my face. My body spasmed then gave way. The last thing I remember was grit and blood filling mouth, suffocating me, before I passed out.

+++++When I came round, I had no idea how long I had been sprawled on the ground. I didn’t have the energy to cry. I stretched my limbs, cautiously, checking that nothing was broken, although, with the amount of pain I was in, it was difficult to tell.

+++++During the time I was unconscious, I knew that Tinder had not been down into the basement as nothing had been disturbed. He hated mess, and would have punished me for making it. And there were no new injuries that I could feel. I reached out and grabbed the largest shard of glass I could find and hid it under my bed. Then sat up, trying to scoop the rest as best I could. My feet were still throbbing from the boiling water. The thought of standing on broken glass …

+++++When a fragment pierced the skin under my fingernail, I forgot about my feet. And screamed. It seemed such a small thing to get hysterical over, when I had already suffered so much. But my whole body racked with sobs and I had no choice but to give in.

+++++I had never, up until this point, been violent by nature – had spent my whole life cleaning up other peoples’ mess. But this mess was mine, and I knew that no one was going to rescue me. If I couldn’t find the strength to escape, I was going to die in Tinder’s basement.

***

+++++He stood in the doorway, his wiry frame blackening the light. The rifle resting in his hand.

+++++“I’ve fallen, broken my leg, you need to help me!” I pleaded, in that pathetic tone that he enjoyed so much.

+++++He stared back, warily, as if I was mad and this situation couldn’t be happening. He didn’t believe me. So I turned my head towards him, letting him feast his eyes on my face. He should have reeled away in disgust – any normal person would – but he was fascinated.

+++++I added a wounded groan for effect, and watched his smile deepen and spread like a disease over his face. I flailed down in the dirt, pretending to pass out.

+++++Agonisingly slow, each step brought him closer, and brought me closer to what I knew I must do…

+++++My heart pounded so loud, I could feel it echoing off the walls.

+++++He stopped, leaned over me, rifle at his side. I forced myself up and lunged forward, the shard flashing past my face, stabbing into his neck. I felt blood pulsing over my fingers. Slimy and disgusting. The rifle jerked against my feet. I groaned, but didn’t let go. His hands were clawing at mine, scraping my skin raw. I held on. Pushed harder.

+++++The blood sprayed across the walls, and pooled at his feet. I could hear myself laughing, like an actress in a cheap horror movie. Tinder glared back, his eyes bulging, stricken with panic.

+++++I saw my chance to grab the rifle.

+++++He was weakening now, with rapid blood loss, but as I loosened my grip on the glass to grab the rifle, he pulled the shard out of his neck.

+++++I pointed the rifle at his face and fired.

+++++And I’m not sure what made me madder: finding that it wasn’t loaded or seeing how pathetic he really was.

+++++I waited: maybe a long time. It was difficult to tell. Watching without moving, just to be sure he was dead. It turned into a pathetic sight. The whole time he was bleeding out, he didn’t make any effort to disguise his pain. It was crazy, but this seemed to anger me the most. Where was his discipline now?

+++++My leg wasn’t really broken, as Tinder had suspected. Although it still took me forever to haul my way up the steps. When I finally made it out of the basement, I felt an odd sense of calm. It felt surreal to be upstairs again; my eyes straining against the light.

+++++I wasn’t too concerned about Claire and Tinder’s bodies being found. I figured everyone would believe Tinder had killed his wife and committed suicide. Why else would a man be found dead in his basement, next to his wife’s remains, with a fatal wound in his neck from glass in his fist? I thought about leaving the photo of Claire at the scene, to make it look more poignant. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave her behind.

***

+++++Back at home, there a couple of messages from regular clients on my answerphone. One of them telling me he’d already found someone else, as I was “clearly unreliable and should be ashamed of myself for letting him down.”

+++++“Good luck, you poor bitch!” I shouted to my replacement – whoever she was.

+++++I had officially gone into retirement.

+++++I was done with women’s work.

+++++My retirement stash from the sale of Claire’s ring had been a hell of a lot more than I had expected. The diamonds alone were worth a small fortune. I knew something was up, when the dealer looked a little too excited when I showed him. He pretended that it wasn’t anything special, but I wasn’t fooled. I doubted that Tinder had bought that ring for her; maybe it was a family heirloom.

+++++You may choose to believe that I stole the ring, but after what happened in Tinder’s basement, I feel Claire would have wanted me to have it. And it was thanks to me, indirectly, that her body was buried back in her home town.

+++++Picking up the crumpled photo, I smoothed it out. It didn’t look so bad. I moved the picture of my late husband aside, and placed the photo in the centre of the mantle. As the evening light faded, I lit a fire in the hearth and poured myself a glass of Stone Hill. Not the cheap stuff. I needed something special for my toast.

+++++It’s odd, but as I raised my glass to her photo, I saw Claire’s smile flicker back to life. Maybe I was a little tipsy? Or, perhaps it was my imagination? I swear there was no mistake. That night Claire’s smile blazed through the darkness so bright; it was on fire.

Dyin’ Down The Road

Lifting his foot off the gas the car slowed to a safer speed. He was still driving faster than his brother would have liked but he heard no complaints. The last time he’d been out of the city his brother Tom had been with him.

+++++“Turn right up ahead,” Tom’s voice whispered from the back seat, disconnected and far away.

+++++Rounding the corner Bill glanced in the rearview and looked away. His knuckles cracked as he gripped the wheel and thought about what lies ahead. Rain beat un-rhythmically off the windshield, a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the wipers. It had been raining the last time he was out to the Ansie’s.

+++++That night his world had turned to shit. Tom took two slugs in the back. Bill had one clip his shoulder, superficial no big deal. They had barely escaped, Bill dragging his brother along. Tonight it would be different. The element of surprise was on his side.

+++++“You sure you wanna do this bro?” Tom’s voice crept in his ear.

+++++“I gotta.”

+++++“No… you don’t.”

+++++“Yeah I do. Eye for an eye, know what I mean? Family is all you got in life, without you I got nothing. I gotta make things right, and you can’t talk me out of it.”

+++++The air chilled inside the car.

+++++“You gotta plan little brother?”

+++++“Yeah, I’m gonna knock on the door and shoot the first fucker that opens it and keep shooting till they’re all dead.”

+++++Silence hung in the air as he traced his way along the woods bordering the Anise’s place. He parked and glance at the rear view mirror before getting out, half expecting some words of encouragement. Outside the car he stretched and looked skyward. Bill hated the country. He preferred the yellow moon on every street corner, opposed to the single soulless eye that dipped in the sky outside of the city.

+++++“Back in a few,” he said to the night and walked away.

+++++Minutes passed. The rain slowed to a trickle. Briefly the quiet of the countryside erupted in a storm of gunfire. As quickly as it had started it stopped.

+++++Bill stumbled through the brush, branches scratching his face and tearing his clothes. One hand pressed on the gaping hole in his gut, trying to slow the flow of blood. He climbed into the car and fumbled with the keys.

+++++“You did good little brother. It’s time to go.”

+++++The car jerked and shot forward. Bill drove as blood soaked through his shirt and pants and into the seat. Erratically the car swerved along the winding road. With one hand on the wound trying to staunch the flow, his vision blurred and then doubled. The car drifted and stopped on the roads berm. Taking shallow breaths Bill desperately tried to stop the bleeding.

+++++“I’m dying Tom…please help me,” he said to the empty rearview.

+++++He knew Tom couldn’t help; he’d bled out on the drive home the last time. As the life seeped out of him he felt himself being slid over and his head propped gently against the passenger side window.

+++++“C’mon little brother let me drive for a while. You sit and relax, close your eyes.” Tom’s voice whispered in his ear, clear for the first time.

+++++“I’m getting cold Tom.”

+++++“It’s okay, you’ll be warm soon. Home is just a little further up the road.”

Blood, Sweat and Sawdust

Courage swells and dissipates like the tide. I drop my eyelids and shove hands deep in my pockets. Hides the shakes I get from my brothers.

+++++Horses hooves, pig oinks, tension strung tight as barbed wire. The church-sized barn heaves with associates. Sweat, light beer, and animal dung mingle. Cheers and jeers.

+++++A horse stomps ahead of the McLennans whom it yanks into the pit by rope. Their legs are chained to each other’s, their necks in clamps – one fat rope a lasso on them all.

+++++Seven men, two women. Daylight streams through the barn doors and pings off their naked bodies. I grab a beer from Tracy, whom my old man sells to the lonely or bored. I brush her arm and my eyes fill in for the nod I want to give her. I swig and stare hard at the ceiling, a blank slate to paint clean thoughts across. Jim, my third eldest brother, steps into my space. Budweiser, Old Spice, meat in his teeth.

+++++“You’re gunna’ watch this one. All dad’s friends are here, and other families are looking for weakness. We – all of us – are going to show them strength. Keep your peepers on the action and your mouth shut, runt.”

+++++My eldest brother, Jacob, alarms the horse into jerking the rope. The McLennans stumble and writhe to keep their balance. Someone in the crowd whoops, another laughs. Tracy checks her shoulder my way, flashes her eyes for me to take action. I told her a week ago how my family murdered her father when she was just a kid. Now we’re in cahoots.

+++++Jared, my second oldest brother, elbows my ribs and grins. “Fun, right?”

+++++I push my tongue against the back of my teeth. I must look drunk because he rolls his eyes and moves on after he tells me to “toe the fucking line.”

+++++A chainsaw rips through the chatter and sputters to a standstill. Silence heightens the senses. Cologne mingles with sweat. The horse whinnies and eyes the exit as best it can from behind its blinkers. Jack, my fourth oldest brother, jerks the chainsaw into another momentary growl. He spits, all stoic as it grinds still once more. Dad enters the square space. His benign beam shines the authority he holds over the audience. Ignores the pleas from his captives. One of the women, Meg, cries for mercy. Dad holds conference with Jack as if a little bird sings over his shoulder. They crane their necks for me, but I’ve ducked behind a tall man in a tall hat. They wave Tracy over as they would the family dog. She slides and swivels from unwanted gropes, leans into dad and Jack’s whispers, and heads my way.

+++++Hands grab at the two drinks which remain on her tray, and one man grabs her boob and squeezes with his dirty, greasy hand. Sniggers with the man next to him as if they sat at the back of third grade class.

+++++“Your dad wants you.”

+++++I hear her, but don’t register. I search for life behind her flat eyes. She blinks at the examination and sparks.

+++++“He wants you to take the chainsaw out back and gas it up.”

+++++I grab her hand and squeeze, but she slips away with a fake smile. She thinks me a coward.

+++++I squirm through hot bodies. Someone asks if I got a feel. Pretend I didn’t hear.

+++++Dad plants a beefy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Fill it up and be quick. People here are impatient for the games.”

+++++I watch the McLennans over his shoulder. I see no mercy in dad’s ancient, primeval eyes. This is a humiliation for the McLennans from which there ain’t recovery. They will die today.

+++++Jack, like some sniffer dog, senses the sentiment in me. He leans in and twists my nipple. “You do it, runt. You don’t want to end up like Beth.”

+++++Jack steps back and glares at the sawdust in hope dad never heard it. Doesn’t matter. He just confirmed what I knew already. Dad was about to deflect my thoughts on which ditch my bastard family had buried my sister for her rebellion against what they are, but big Tom McLennan spits and that big gob of green hits the back of dad’s ear and gloops from his lobe like an earring.

+++++Jacob whips at the horse’s feet. It rears and jerks the McLennans into the dust. Drags them a few yards until Jacob reins it in.

+++++“Fill the chainsaw, runt.” Dad thumbs at the barn entrance. I charge out as dad begins his speech about how the McLennans betrayed all the families’ fraternal aims by dealing with the Feds.

+++++Tracy sits outside on a bale of hay, a cigarette in her mouth, a blanket over her shoulders as if she needs to warm the ice within her. The heat blisters the air, the breeze only an aid to burn them all.

+++++“You alright?”

+++++She shrugs her shoulders. Stupid question. What do you think? “Did they kill my mother, too, all those years ago? That why they took me in? Guilt?” She lifts her smoke to offer me a drag.

+++++Shakes her long brown hair at my misconception and pats the fuel cans stacked by the hay. “Funny way of showing guilt, I’m sure.” The devil curves her smile into a scythe.

+++++My tongue curls dry. She’s had it. Desperation has crushed her faculties. I glance back at the barn. Guards by the door, but on the inside, the horror show their distraction. Tracy bites at my hesitation.

+++++“You wanna end like Beth and my parents, eaten by worms before your time?”

+++++“No… course not.” I fidget at my cowardice.

+++++“We rescuing the McLennans?” She shrugs. “I wouldn’t. They’d do the same given the damn chance.”

+++++What I imagined Beth’s eyes to look like now, blank and cold in contrast to their warm living glow, imprints on my mind. I fill the chainsaw and lug a can to the entrance. The horse neighs and some of the crowd jeer the captives. The pigs in their pen to the back whine from agitation. Seems a shame they’d die too soon.

+++++Tracy calls out. “You’ve been promising me action. Let me see your balls.”

+++++I puff through the crowd as if the damn chainsaw weighs a sow. Dad reaches for the tool, a wry grin on his wobbly jowls. He jacks the chainsaw and raises it above his head. Sweat patches the armpits of his shirt. My brothers work the crowd to bolster the courage of some grim-faced viewers. The Jacksons and Steiners amongst them.

+++++They’re all as bad as each other. Nobody looked into Beth’s death. Some of them used Tracy.

+++++Fuck ‘em all. Fuck me for not confronting them with the truth.

+++++The gap in the barn door narrows. Tracy has started early. I should join her. Help ring the barn in gas and turn the building and all of them inside to ash.

+++++Jack manacles my skinny wrist with his beefy hand and “Ah-ahed.”

+++++“Let me go.”

+++++“No, runt. You’re starting this thing off. You slice yourself a McLennan joint.”

+++++“What?”

+++++Dad thrusts the chainsaw at me. Lucky I didn’t lose an arm. Tracy has the barn door shut. This is our chance. The McLennans were all gunna die anyway. Better quick than in a fiery agony. Dad laser-eyes me, tracks every twitch that ripples my face. The fans on the ceiling hardly touch the heat. My hands slip on the tool, so I grab tighter and rip the cord. My brothers huff at my bravado. They don’t reckon I can do it.

+++++I gulp down fear and let my stomach acid deal with it. Turn to the McLennans. Meg McLennan’s lower lip drops in anguish. Brian McLennan stares at me, as if he could will away what he had coming. Old Col McLennan licks his lips. He’s lived his life. He could go now. His nod said just make it quick.

+++++I close my eyes a moment to project happy times to the back of my lids.

+++++Me on ma’s lap on the swing.

+++++A donkey ride on Jack’s back before dad corrupted us all.

+++++Beth reading The BFG to me in what she thought a good English accent.

+++++Tracy holding me tight when I broke down about the things I’d seen.

+++++My broken promises to her. To get her out safe.

+++++I plunge into the McLennans and rip right through big-bearded Mick. He shudders and spits blood. His family swerve and duck as if dolphins attack their shoal. Blood splatters us all. A shout hits the ceiling and the fans circulate calls of “Shame.”

+++++Jim launches at the source, arms in swim-crawl through the crowd. I drop the chainsaw, my hands splay out my side, afraid of the blood which clings to me. Marks me as a typical Graham family member.

+++++More shouts. The yelps race around the walls and kick sound against the structure. Somebody calls “Fire” and the crowd surge. Smoke billows up the walls in waves, many shades of black and gray.

+++++Tracy’s started without me. Locked the barn doors. The back door should have remained open. A log jam blocks that exit.

+++++“We’re locked in.” The man’s voice could scrape paint from a wall.

+++++No.

+++++No we’re not. She would wait for me. Jack grabs the chainsaw and attacks a wall. Fashions a hole big enough to clamber through, though the black smoke veils much of the inside now. Wood cracks and the pigs screech enough to shift bowels. The horse stamps and rears and lands on one of the McLennans, whose cries melt into those of the pigs and everyone else.

+++++Tracy? Why not wait?

+++++Jack drops the chainsaw and gets a leg through. A crack tears the air and Jack slumps back, a hole in his head, the leg on fire and still in the gap. Tracy shimmers outside through the flames, both hands on the gun.

+++++“Tracy.” I shout louder. Again and again until the smoke clasps my lungs and squeezes.

+++++I hit the floor to search for air and scrabble on all fours. Shots fire out as if people could climb through a bullet hole. Bodies pile up. The walls shimmer at the reverse-flow waterfalls of fire. A beam collapses and smashes Jared to the ever-after. The horse lurches at the wall and bounces off. Drags the family with it and tramples men who crawl the floorspace. Jim perishes beneath its hooves.

+++++“Tracy, goddammit. Why’d you not wait?”

+++++My eyes sting, lungs ache, throat burns. Jacob thrashes at the fire which licks up his front until he falls to his knees and slumps into the ground. The fire thrusts in my direction, a sun storm, and catches my pants. It flares up my leg until it grabs me with its full fury and I propel myself at the wall, burst through its weakened fibers, and land out on the charred grass. I scream a flutter of birds away. Crawl into the longer grass and hope dew would put me out. It only flickers the dried stems into candle wicks.

+++++I think I’ve reached the end, but a moment’s solace drenches me. The cool water splashes my sores if only for a second, before the pain sears my flesh again. I see Tracy flicker away from me with a bucket in hand. She flings it aside. Random shots … no … targeted shots punch above the crackle. I open an eye again, the only one I can. Tracy steps, careful, amongst the ruins. Finds a survivor. Dad. Puts him out of his misery with a shot to his temple. Moves on.

+++++Moves on until she stands above me.

+++++I shake and words fail. She drags on her cigarette. “I’m sorry you had to burn, I really am. But you took your damn time and I knew – I just knew – this was my only window of opportunity. If I didn’t take my chance …” Her voice trails off, or my consciousness does – I don’t know.

***

+++++The north is cooler than the needling heat of the south. I hate the snows, but it keeps me comfortable. The cream eases my burns, and I imagine it hisses as it touches my emaciated skin. Tracy rubs it in deep, from calves to neck, and hushes my whimpers at the release it gives me. It’s my second application of the day. It’s noon.

+++++“It’s okay, baby, I got you.” She wipes her hand on the towel and kisses my forehead. She hasn’t kissed me on the lips since the fire.

+++++“You don’t have to look after me like this. I can cope.”

+++++“I know you can, but I want to. You helped me. Big time.”

+++++She kisses me again. When she kisses me again tonight, or maybe tomorrow morning, a musky scent will hang from her skin and taunt me.

+++++She takes the gun, the one she shot dad with, and places it on the pillow. Pats it. “Just in case.”

+++++I watch her leave for the bar she works at. Once her Datsun chokes round the bend and out of sight I study the gun. Just in case. She used to mean in case we got any blowback. Now she just means in case I want to kill myself and put us both out of our misery.

+++++When she does get back, I’ll take her up on that.

It’s Not The Pale Moon

It was early November, evening, cold, but no snow predicted. Ellie sat in her chair by the window and watched a full moon rise in an already darkening sky, its mottled surface scarred by a web of black branches at the top of a tree that grew in the garden. A draft of air nudged the edge of the window, rattling the pane and puffing out the curtain. She pulled her blanket tighter across her legs and closed the top button of her sweater, never taking her eyes off the rising moon.

+++++“Earl,” she called. “Earl, come on over here. Look at this moon. Ain’t it a sight? Come on. Put your arms around me like you used to.”

+++++She could almost feel his arms around her. Almost.

+++++“Remember how you used to hold me? How we watched the moon together. Coming up full and bright like now. Oh, we used to love it. didn’t we?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer. But she thought she could hear him.

+++++“Yes. It’s lovely. Just like we were. Remember? Holding each other, loving each other.”

+++++She smiled at the memory. She stared at the moon.

+++++“Loving our Cathy.”

+++++Then it slipped. Fell from her face. From her eyes.

+++++“You always thought she was a beauty. She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++“She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++The moon retreated behind a cloud.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window.

+++++“I saw you, Earl. I saw you leaning over Cathy’s bed. You didn’t hear me, did you?”

+++++Earl was silent.

+++++“I watched you, Earl. The full moon outlined your dark, huddled shape. A crouched monster. You have nothing to say for yourself?”

+++++Earl remained silent.

+++++“I slammed that phone book so hard up the side of your head. Surprised you, didn’t I? Knocked you clean off that bed. Cathy screamed. You remember?”

+++++He couldn’t answer.

+++++“You hit your head on the corner of the night stand. Right in the temple. I didn’t plan it. But I couldn’t have planned it better. Trust me, Earl. You’re better off. I would have killed you.”

+++++She looked up. Moonlight painted a window shape on the carpet. She moved closer to the light. Looked up at the moon just escaping the tips of the garden tree’s dark branches. No longer a prisoner behind bars. Free now to forge its path through a clear, star-filled sky.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window. She turned. She wheeled her chair through the doorway and down the hall to their room.

+++++She pushed open the door and entered.

+++++Their room offered no view of the moon. She wheeled her chair up next to her bed, locked the wheels, and shifted herself onto the bed’s firm mattress. She lay back on the pillow and lifted her legs up and over so her body was aligned on the bed. Her bathrobe covered her like a thin blanket. She glanced over at the bed beside her.

+++++The constant sucking rhythm of the respirator was like a lullaby. Tubes and needles, a comfort. The monitor displayed a reassuring normal pulse and blood pressure.

+++++The comatose Earl was still holding on, alive and as well as could be expected.

+++++Ellie listened to the breathing machine, watched the green peaks and valleys on the monitor. They made her feel good. Earl couldn’t hurt anyone any more. But just in case.

+++++“I’m watchin’ you, Earl. You bastard. As long as you’re alive, I’m keepin’ you near me, real close.”

AND BEHIND DOOR TWO

The deceased was a balding middle-aged male, lying face up, eyes partially open in the gaze of eternity. Homicide Detective Felix Kowalski knelt over the cadaver carefully, avoiding the pool of crimson on the entry way tile. “Perp knocked on the door, the vic opened it and took two to the heart.” He glanced up at his partner, Detective Sheena Washington.

+++++She nodded. “Vic’s wallet is on a bedroom nightstand, cash and credit cards undisturbed. Driver’s license says he’s Wilson McDowell, 53, a plumber and the homeowner of this address, 5912 Easton Terrace. His wife confirmed that information.”

+++++He glanced around. “Nice house for a plumber.”

+++++“He owns the company.”

+++++“That his wife I hear crying?”

+++++“Yeah… in the kitchen with the E.M.T.’s. She’s a wreck, Kowalski.”

+++++“Was she…?

+++++“Came home, found him dead where he lays, called 9-1-1.”

+++++“Unless she came home, shot ol’ Wilson, then dialed 9-1-1. You remember the case we worked last year?”

+++++“She’s putting on a hell of an act for a shooter. I couldn’t get a coherent comment. Tears are real. I don’t think she…”

+++++“Have techs found a firearm on the premises?”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Have we swabbed her hands… the paraffin test?”

+++++Sheena sighed. “Yes, Kowalski. First thing I did when I arrived. It appears the shooter walked off with the murder weapon.” Slender, 35, and attractive, Sheena was known as a tough customer.

+++++Kowalski went through the dead man’s pockets, inadvertently moving the victim’s right arm. A sparkle of metal in the hand caught his eye. Unfolding the cold fingers, he removed a small silver ring with a green stone on a broken silver chain. The initials, “RMD” were stamped inside the ring.

+++++“Ripped from the shooter’s neck?” Kowalski stood, holding the ring and chain out for Sheena to examine. Tall, angular, his close-cropped hair was flecked with gray.

+++++Sheena dropped the ring and chain into a plastic evidence bag and handed it back.

+++++In thirty minutes of interviewing the distraught wife, Marilyn McDowell, they learned he did in fact, own McDowell Plumbing, attended church regularly, neither drank nor smoked, and had no enemies that she knew of. She said she did not recognize the chain or ring, nor had any idea as to who “RMD” might be.

+++++Kowalski and Sheena talked quietly on the front porch, turning their back into the freezing cold November north wind. Tomorrow they would re-interview Mrs. McDowell to develop a list of his associates then drop by McDowell Plumbing and visit with whomever they found.

+++++Kowalski said, “She didn’t do it.”

+++++“Like I said.”

+++++“Girlfriend… or angry husband?”

+++++“We can look at that, but I don’t think so.”

***

+++++Kowalski dropped off the ring and chain at the county crime lab the following morning, picked up a city car, and he and Sheena drove to McDowell Plumbing. Two clerical employees and five plumbers seemed appropriately stunned at the boss’s death. Mrs. McDowell had phoned them the night before. None provided a solid lead.

+++++“McDowell was a real nerd,” Sheena remarked as they drove away. “You suppose somebody meant to do a home invasion robbery, panicked, and shot him when he came to the door.”

+++++“Possible, but not likely.  Looks too personal.” He looked at his wristwatch. “It’s nearly eleven. Let’s grab a burger.”

+++++Kowalski was working on a grease and cholesterol special while Sheena picked at a salad when the crime lab buzzed Kowalski’s cellular. He listened, then said, “Great. We’ll need to drop by and pick it up.”

+++++Sheena studied him expectantly.

+++++He said through a mouthful of sandwich, “The chain has a trace of blood where it was busted. They raised a mitochondrial DNA sample but found no match in any database they have access to.”

+++++“Bad news.”

+++++“Good news is, the chain had previously been broken and repaired…silver link replaced. How many jewelry shops in this city repair jewelry, a dozen at most?”

+++++She punched her iPhone. “Good guess. Looks like thirteen. We can cover that by quitting time today.”

+++++They had progressed to number ten. The thin, morose jeweler peered at the ring and chain through his glass. “Never saw the ring before, but I recall this chain. Came in maybe two months ago with a busted link here where you can see the replacement.” He dug in a floor-safe and tossed a folder on the glass-topped counter.

+++++Kowalski said, “Sir you’re gonna’ have to…”

+++++The jeweler pulled a yellow, carbon copy of a receipt from the pile, showing Patricia Davis had paid twenty dollars for “chain repair” ten weeks earlier. Sheena copied the address. The jeweler machine-copied the form and handed over his original.

+++++The address shown was on the far side of town from the murder scene. They were greeted at the door of a poorly kept house by a graying lady of at least 80. She appeared to be incapable of standing upright without the aid of an ornate cane she clutched in her left hand.

+++++“Ma’am, were from the metropolitan police homicide unit. We’re looking for Patricia Davis.”

+++++“I’m Patricia Davis,” she replied in a weak voice, heavy with age.

+++++Kowalski produced the ring and chain. The elderly face, ever so slightly, showed recognition… and something else neither cop could quite decipher.”

+++++“Do you recognize these items, ma’am.” Sheena asked, the answer already apparent.

+++++“My granddaughter’s… Rebecca Marie.  She broke the chain and we dropped it off for repair. I picked it up from the shop. My husband bought it for her twentieth birthday. He bought it too small and she wore it around her neck on the chain. Too sentimental, I guess, to alter her granddaddy’s gift.”

+++++Kowalski and Sheen, cop-style, stepped past her into an immaculate living room.

+++++“We’d need to speak to your husband, too, ma’am,” Kowalski said.

+++++The tired eyes teared up. “He uh, died ten days ago.”

+++++“We’re terribly sorry for your loss, Mrs. Davis.” Sheena offered the standard comment. “Could we speak with your granddaughter, please?”

+++++More tears. She died in an accident… not long after we put her chain in for repairs.”

+++++“Accident?” Sheena asked.

+++++The tears exploded. “Our baby fell in front of a city bus. It was grief from that, killed my husband, Herman.”

+++++“Oh my,” the hardened Kowalski said as tenderly as he could. “So sorry. Please sit down, Mrs. Davis.” He helped her into a chair.

+++++“The chain and ring?” Sheena asked. “We need to see…”

+++++“Stolen from her body in the funeral home. What animals would…?”

+++++Kowalski and Sheena hurried to the homicide office and spent several hours milking the computer.

+++++“Kowalski, Rebecca Marie Davis did, in fact, die beneath a city bus. Note here, the responding patrol officer wrote that the scene had indications of suicide.”

+++++“Yeah, and look at this. “Herman Davis didn’t just die. He was a suicide by hanging in his living room. I guess you saw those open beams in the ceiling?”

+++++“Granddaughter died, grandfather killed himself. We’ve seen that before.”

+++++“I don’t think the Davis family has squat to do with this, Sheena. Wilson McDowell has no connection that I see with the tragedy. Besides, the old lady couldn’t possible drive cross town, shoot McDowell, then make it home. Her life expectancy looks to me to be measured in hours.”

+++++“Well, back to square one.” Sheena shut down the computer. The crime lab called and reported no gunshot residue on Mrs. McDowell’s hands, the victim’s wife.

***

+++++At just before midnight, Kowalski was dozing on his sofa in front of the TV when Sheena called.

+++++“Another murder identical to Wilson McDowell a block away from his house. Note the address: 5912 Easton Drive. McDowell was at 5912 Easton Terrace.”

+++++Kowalski arrived at the latest murder scene, worked his way through the glut of emergency vehicles and found Sheena stooped over the body. A smallish man of about thirty, with sandy blond hair, lay face up, eyes fixated in death on a spot above the ceiling, three bullet holes prominent in his chest.

+++++She looked up. “Three in the chest. Looks identical. He opened the door and received some final justice.”

+++++“Justice?”

+++++“Don’t you recognize this creep, Kowalski?”  We arrested him for rape two years ago. The vic was a 16-year-old with Down syndrome and his lawyer got him off. Looks like he ran outta’ luck.”

+++++“Yeah, yeah.  Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson. Good riddance. Any suspects?”

+++++“Nada. The list of people who wanted this loser dead is two blocks long. Maybe just write it off to an act of God?”

+++++“Sheena, the address thing… Easton Terrace and Easton Drive is a damned strange coincidence.”

+++++“Kowalski, I have trouble connecting Wilson McDowell, hardworking plumber to this sorry mope.” She gestured to the floor.

+++++“Sheena, we canvassed hell outta’ McDowell’s neighborhood, but typically, lots of folks aren’t home or just won’t answer the door. My gut says go back and finish McDowell’s street, Easton Terrace, a block over before we spin our wheels sorting out suspects on this guy. Then we start here on Chickie’s Easton Drive.”

+++++They split up, a uniformed officer present with each so residents could look out and confirm it was police knocking on their door.

+++++An elderly man in a nightgown, six doors down from the McDowell house greeted Sheena and her uniformed escort, a classic deer in the headlights expression.

+++++“Sir,” Sheena began. As you must have heard, a neighbor was murdered up the block night before last. My notes show we didn’t manage to get you to answer the door.”

+++++“Whut? Police?” He fiddled with an earpiece. “It’s the middle of the night.”

+++++She repeated her words, raising her voice.

+++++“Well, by God when you can’t hear, you don’t always know somebody’s knockin’. I had got up to pee when you two walked up the sidewalk. Whutcha’ want?”

+++++“Did you see or hear anything unusual two nights ago?”

+++++“Naw… well, this old lady managed to bang loud enough to catch the attention of the Devil himself. Ask me if I knew where “Wilson” lived. Told her I didn’t know no Wilsons.”

+++++Sheena scribbled in her notebook. “She say anything else, sir?”

+++++“Then she ask me if she was on Easton and I said ‘yeah, Easton Terrace’. Couldn’t half hear what the old heifer was saying and she couldn’t hear me. Sent her on her way… couldn’t hardly walk. She hobbled out to the sidewalk on a cane and I went back to bed.”

+++++Sheena found Kowalski down the block. She relayed the conversation with the deaf neighbor.

+++++Kowalski called Records on his iPhone and requested a detailed search for any rape complaints against Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson in the past six months. He listened, jotted notes rapidly by flashlight, and broke the connection.

+++++“Damn, Sheena, a Patricia Davis of the address where we interviewed a lady of the same name this past afternoon tried to file a rape charge against Wilson three months ago. She had no evidence, no rape kit, no witnesses… but get this. Rebecca Marie Davis, the alleged victim was her granddaughter and affected with Down syndrome. You don’t suppose…?”

+++++They exchanged knowing glances. Sheena said, “Maybe a feeble old lady can actually drive across town.”

+++++Kowalski replied thoughtfully. “Twice…and at night?”

***

+++++The Davis house was dark. Kowalski shined his flashlight in a side window. Clearly visible was a frail body hanging from a rope wrapped around a ceiling beam. They called for backup and kicked the door.

+++++The note was in plain view on the same sofa they’d used during their earlier visit. Sheena read it aloud:

+++++“To the nice police officers who called on me yesterday. I knew you’d figure it out and be back. That animal hired my Rebecca Marie to clean his house and then took advantage of her child-like trust. She was two months pregnant and couldn’t deal with the shame when she jumped in front of that bus. I asked that stupid old man where Wilson lived and he didn’t know, although I already had the address. I just couldn’t see very well in the dark and I got on Easton Terrace instead of Easton Drive. I asked the man if he was Wilson and he said yes, then I learned from the newspaper I’d shot Wilson McDowell instead of that awful Chickie Wilson.”

+++++Sheena looked up at Kowalski.

+++++“Is there more?” He asked.

+++++“Rebecca’s chain and ring weren’t stolen at the funeral home. My husband picked them off her poor, sweet neck in that coffin and the whole affair killed him. I’ve worn them since. I drove my husband’s old car to Mr. McDowell’s and when I got home, I saw that my chain and ring were missing. I went back tonight to make sure the right monster got what he had coming because I knew it was over. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could do.”

+++++“Good Grief.” Sheena handed the note to Kowalski. “A coincidence of names and addresses. The media will make her another Lucy Borden.”

+++++Kowalski pointed to the .38 snub-nose laying in open view on a counter. “We have the evidence. Ballistics will match this pistol to both shootings, the rape connection to Chickie Wilson. The defendant is beyond reach. McDowell is a tragedy, but Chickie Wilson needed killing.”

+++++He stepped to a kitchen garbage disposal, ripped the note in small pieces and flushed it down. “The newsies spend a lot of time in the sewer. Let ‘um practice on that.”

Fun Sized

James Savini was not happy. He held the miniature Tootsie Roll in his left hand, his thumb and index finger delicately fixed around the wrapper. His right hand propped up his .38 Special. He twisted and turned the tip of the barrel, pressing it into Sam Overton’s forehead. It would leave a mark. How much of a mark was up to Overton.

“What the fuck,” Jim said, “Is this?” He held the Tootsie Roll cautiously, as if it were a piece of packaged shit. Overton closed his eyes. Warm liquid ran down his leg and onto his flip-flops. The smell of piss followed.

“Tha-Tha,” Mr. Overton stuttered, “That’s a Too-T-oo–Tootsie Roll.”

“I know what the fuck it is, Sam,” Jim growled, “What was it doing in my kid’s pillow case? Where’s the good shit? The king-sized stuff that you always pass out? Little Jimmy’s been cryin’ for an hour.”

“I r-r-r, r-r-rannn out,” Overton sobbed.

Jim cocked the hammer back and pushed the barrel even harder, putting Overton fully into his foyer. Jim dropped the candy, reached behind himself and pulled Overton’s front door shut.

“My bullshit reservoir floweth over, Sam.”

“I-I-I-.”

“Little Jimmy saw kids coming out of your place with the good stuff. What gives? You think my kid is a fattie? A big old porker? Think he needs to stick to wimpy shit?” Jim pulled back the gun and gave Overton’s gut a nice hard kiss. With his knee. Overton, a short, fat, shape-less man, made an oomph sound, curled up, and put his hands up to hide his face. Jim opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He gave Overton another kiss. Right in the kidney. With this shoe.

“Not a word, ya hear?”

Jim opened the door. There were two girls, both dressed like Disney princesses. Probably about 9 or 10, he figured. They held out two pillowcases and pleaded.

“Trick or Treat!”

Jim scanned the porch and found an orange bowl, filled to the top with the rabbit turds that his boy had brought home. He snatched it, dumped half the bowl in each sack, and told the girls to fuck off. As one of them started to cry, Jim slammed the door and fumbled for the porch light, flicking it downward. There would be no more treats tonight. Overton looked up and squealed.

“D-D-Don’t H-H-Hurt me, Mr. Savini.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna hurt ya. You’re gonna hurt ya.” Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic tube.

“This here,” Jim said, “is for giving especially large pills to big and nasty dogs.” He paused and picked up the Tootsie Roll from the floor. “You, Mr. Overton, are going to stick this right up your ass.”

Overton’s hands trembled. Still curled up, he reached for the plastic tube and the Tootsie Roll. Snot dribbled down his lips and hung off of his chin. He wiped it with his forearm, fumbled to hold onto the items, and dropped them. Jim frowned.

“My well of patience runneth empty, Sam.” Jim raised up a foot and brought it down on Sam’s toes. Sam howled, and his eyes bulged.

“S-S-S- Sorry, J-J-J–”

“Mr. Savini,” Jim corrected.

“Sorry. Mr. Savini.”

“Apology accepted. Right after you stick that up your ass.”

Overton reached for the items and, trembling worse than before, shifted the Tootsie Roll into the launch position. He pulled down his athletic shorts, revealing an ass that was half acne and half Albino. Overton closed his eyes and sunk the tube in the sweet spot.

“Deeper, Sam.”

Overton scrunched his face and gave the tube a final shove. His face turned red. He bit his lip and let his head hang.

“That a boy, Sam,” Jim said, patting Overton on the head.

Jim walked into Overton’s living room. In front of him stood the largest freshwater fish tank Jim had ever seen. It seemed to cover the whole wall. Fish swam in slow, lazy circles, in and out of fake plants and a plastic pirate ship. They weren’t going anywhere either. Jim pointed at one, which seemed to glisten more than the others, and smiled.

“Sam Overton. You never told me you had a Platinum Arowana. That’s a hell of a fish. And I know my fish. That’s a rare color, Sam. A fish like that will run a man at least $400,000. Where’d you get the cash for a specimen like that? You’re comfy, Sam, but you ain’t that comfy.”

Sam eyed Jim and said nothing. Talking would only make it worse.

“I suppose you could say that I’m a man who’s been… inconvenienced. But I know how to fix this.”

Jim snatched a lamp from a nearby side table, turned it upside down, and brought the base squarely into the fish tank. The sound of the glass breaking was almost muffled by the whooshing of the water. Dozens of fish flopped this way and that, and then stopped. Their bellies moved up and down.

“That’s better,” Jim said, side stepping an expanding puddle of water. He opened a nearby closet and pulled out a broom and a dustpan. “When you get that thing out of your ass, go scoop up that fish. Have it stuffed.”

Overton sniffled.

“And Sam?” Jim whispered, stooping down to Overton’s head. “You still owe us for that stash of blow that you lost. The boss says you’ve got a week. I think that’s fair. Oh! And one more thing.”

“Y-Y-Y—ess? Mr. Savini?”

“I want a box of Snicker’s bars with your payment. The good stuff. None of that fun-sized shit.”

Double Cross

Peking Tommy was boss of the Hip Sing tong in the sixth ward. He ran mahjong and fan-tan cellars up and down Mott Street, and he had opium joints all over Chinatown. A survivor of many tong wars, he was one of the last of the old time Triad bosses.

+++++But he had a problem.

+++++The rival On Leong tong had established a partnership with Finn O’Neil, a minor ward boss in a city of minor ward bosses, and a former gang member himself. It was a real game changer. Tommy’s second, the upstart Harry Lee, advised a territory share that would please everyone.

+++++It wasn’t what Tommy wanted, but this was the way things were going.

########

+++++Smoke hung heavy in Tommy’s joint on Bayard Street where the acrid opium scent mixed with the sweet smell of joss sticks. In red jars everywhere, candles backlit the smoke. Tommy had his pig tail re-braided and donned his silk red Mandarin hat for the important occasion. But like Finn and his people, the younger Lee wore a bowler and a wool suit with a button vest. The men reclined on small sofas and Tommy made a real ceremony of preparing the pipe. “For special guest,” he said. Finn and Lee passed it around.

+++++When it came back to Tommy, the old tong chief drew shallowly on the pipe and bowed slightly in the direction of Finn. Passing the pipe he said, “Mr. Finn, my Lee tells me you want to open two dens and two gambling cellars in the sixth ward.”

+++++“That’s right,” said Finn. “The On Leong have asked me to negotiate. It’s a way we can end this war.”

+++++“What if I don’t agree?”

+++++“It would be stupid on your part, Tommy. My people would harass your clients and shake down your joints everywhere. Not only that, but your laundries and your restaurants would come under fire. We have the police now, Tommy, not you. Times have changed. The days of protection pay-offs are over. It’s more involved than that, more of a big business nowadays with lots of people involved.”

+++++The pipe came back to Tommy, but he cast it aside in frustration. “But how do I know you and the On Leong won’t try to move me out?”

+++++Finn answered, “Tommy, that’s why I’m here, to talk about a deal, you know? A business contract. You don’t want this war to escalate.”

+++++Tommy thought this over. He looked Finn in the eye, “I have survived many wars, you know that?”

+++++Finn laughed through his nose. “Tommy, you won’t survive another one, not now. But hopefully there won’t be another one, right Harry?”

+++++Harry Lee nodded and looked at Tommy. “Uncle, we should agree to this,” he said.

+++++Tommy shook his head solemnly. “Maybe you are right. Times are changing.” He refilled the pipe and passed it around again, asking questions about details of the power share as the men smoked. Eventually, he asked Finn, “Why did you not partner with us instead of the On Leong tong?”

+++++“Soon Wong is dead,” Finn said. “A lot of people think you had him killed. The new leader of the On Leong is Fung Yow. He’s younger, like Lee here, and he understands the way things are moving nowadays. The future is with people like him and Lee. It’s in business partnerships with politicians. Why do you think I became a ward boss?”

+++++Tommy laughed. “Maybe I make mistake in killing old Soon Wong. But I don’t know if these young ones are ready to run things when I’m gone.” He pointed to Lee. “Young bosses have not seen enough of tong ways. Many tong members are not what they seem to be. There are . . . how do you say . . . “double-crossers,” yes?”

+++++Loose from the smoke, Lee stole a glance at Finn.

########

+++++Before the meeting, Tommy gave Harry Lee a straight edge and told him to place it in the side pocket of his suit. “They trust you. You are one of their ‘young guns.’ But they will check me over, pat me down. When I give you signal. You cut Fung Yow. Then we bargain with Finn. We make a deal between him and us. This way, the On Leong are out.”

########

+++++The joint was cleared out for the meeting. Fung Yow patted down Peking Tommy. “He’s ok,” he said.

+++++Tommy looked alarmed as Finn made to pat down Lee and protested, “That is not needed. Lee is honest man!”

+++++“Just a precaution, Tommy,” answered Finn. The gangster-turned-ward-boss patted down Lee. “He’s clean.”

+++++Tommy knew for sure now.

+++++With great ceremony, he walked over and stood next to young Lee. “Gentlemen,” times are changing,” Tommy said. “This young man is part of the future. I’m honored to have taught him the ways of the tong.” He bowed slightly to Lee.

+++++Lee wondered if it could be any easier. He moved to grab his blade and slit Tommy’s throat, but it wasn’t there when he reached for it. Tommy rose up and slashed it across the young man’s neck. Like a cat, he was on Fung Yow next. Blood covered the floor.

+++++As he wiped the blade on Yow’s cheongsang, he said, “I told you, Mr. Finn, these young bosses are not ready for the ways of the old tong. They do not always see the double cross. It’s good that you decided to become a ward boss, as you say. Perhaps you and I can make a deal now.” He took a step toward Finn. “Or do you still consider yourself a gangster?”

Blood Sport

I had known from the early days that my wife Fiona was not of the “huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ set”; and, although I did not hunt, I was pragmatic enough to know that country sports were part and parcel of life in rural England. However, we had decided long ago to “agree to disagree” about so-called blood sports, and it was not until 2001 when I agreed to be the Editor of the local Hunt Association’s monthly journal, “Hounds &  Hunters”, that I had anything remotely to do with the sport. Fiona had accepted this part-time appointment of mine for sake of community spirit and our status in the town, and had agreed, reluctantly, to accompany me to the annual Hunt Ball, to which she and I were always invited.  However, beyond that acquiescence, the subject was taboo and kept as much as possible out of our conversation.

+++++Therefore, on a balmy evening in July of 2003, when I casually informed Fiona that we had been asked to attend a Hunt Association extraordinary fund-raiser the coming week, I was not really surprised at her reaction.

+++++“The Hunt?” She asked. “Again! Do we really have to go, darling?”

+++++“I say Fi!” I replied; turning from the drinks cabinet to face her. “You know how lavish they make those things; champers, glorious buffet, string quartet, everyone dressed up to the eyeballs… you’ll love it!”

+++++“I don’t know, Harry. They all seem such frightful snobs!”

+++++“That’s just not true, Fiona.” I replied; thinking to myself that not a few folk would probably refer to us likewise. “Many ordinary folk are involved in the hunt these days; not just the snobs and nobs! Come on, when we attended the Hunt Ball last year, you met people from all walks of life!”

+++++“Yes, I agree, darling. But even so, I didn’t really enjoy the company of any of them.”

+++++“Oh Fiona!” I said with a chuckle, “Now who’s being a snob!” I walked over to her, glass of sherry in hand.

+++++“What are they raising funds for?” She asked. “For goodness sake… they don’t exactly have huge overheads!” She reached up and took the glass I offered. Fiona was a slim, elegant woman of forty-nine to whom I had been married for seven years.

+++++“That’s not true.” I returned. “What about all the foxhounds; their kenneling and feeding… not to mention breeding? That must cost a bob or two. Then there are the horses.” I took a sip of my third single malt of the evening, satisfied with my answer.

+++++“The horses are privately owned and stabled, as you well know.” Fiona retorted. “But as far as the care of poor dogs is concerned, the Master of Hounds has always managed in the past. What has changed now? What is this fundraising all about?”

+++++I cleared my throat and sat down in the armchair opposite my wife. The leather cushions squeaked in protest as my slightly overweight frame settled in. “Well, from what I was told by one of the Committee who called by yesterday to drop in some photos for the magazine,” I explained, “they need to set up some sort of protection unit, to defend themselves and the hounds from the HSA… the bloody Hunt Saboteurs Association and the thugs that belong to it.”

+++++“A protection unit? This is all just too silly!” She shook her head in exasperation. “What about all the hunt followers and hangers-on? Can’t they simply find volunteers from among those people?”

+++++“Not of sufficient calibre, apparently. According to Police reports there seems to be some pretty professional help behind the saboteurs these days. These bloody hooligans are getting more efficient, organised and more dangerous every season! And none of them seem to be locals. Some that have been arrested for criminal damage or whatever were found to have come from as far away as London.”

+++++I took another sip of Scotch before continuing. “It seems they are no longer content to simply disrupt the hunt by their presence in numbers; blowing hunting horns to confuse the hounds and trying to rescue the fox or whatever. No, they are actually attacking riders and hunt followers. You know yourself that on one hunt last season three riders were dragged off their steeds and beaten. And so the Hunt Association has voted and elected to recruit and train a proper team to get out there on the ground before and during the actual chase to prevent this harassment. They will call it the ‘Hunt Protection Unit’ or HPU for short.”

+++++Fiona scoffed at this in a short burst of laughter. “And so the funds they wish to raise are to pay the salaries of a small, private army.” She raised her voice. “Is that it? Ye gods!”

+++++“Oh come on Fi!” I exclaimed, surprised that my wife was reacting so vehemently. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that!”

+++++“Well, I would say that!” Fiona exclaimed in answer, as she rose from her armchair and strode towards me. “Don’t forget, darling, I know just what an army looks like!” She reached down and plucked the glass from my hand. “Now, take yourself through to the dining room.” She ordered, with only the faintest of smiles. “Supper is ready!”

+++++It is true… Fiona did know what an army looked like. We had met each other ten years earlier when both serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; she as a surveillance operative in Military Intelligence and I as a full Colonel in the Household Cavalry… although at the time we were both working in anonymous offices in Whitehall. We were immediately attracted to each other and fell, if you will excuse the cliché, madly in love. Shortly after that, we both decided to resign from the services in order to get married and pursue civilian careers. Fiona now ran from an office in the nearby market town of Ashbeck a small but successful company that specialised in surveillance and counter-surveillance electronics and hardware, and I, having in my last few years in the Army studied for and earned a degree in journalism at Open University, was ensconced as the full time Editor-in-Chief and military consultant of “Soldiering Monthly” magazine, based in London, to where I commuted daily by train. Editing the “Hounds & Hunters” was merely a part time ‘hobby’.

+++++I strolled through to the dining room, where supper had been laid. I smiled at my wife, who was pouring wine from a carafe into two glasses. She did not smile back. Fiona was tall, with long blonde hair framing high cheekbones, and with a nose just large enough to prevent her from being beautiful. Considering Fiona was trained in the martial art of Krav Maga, in which she had become expert while seconded to an Israeli Commando Unit for one year, it would take a man braver or more stupid than I to bring this flaw to her attention.

***

+++++“I hope you will give this bash a good write up, Harry!” Boomed Sir Arthur Moreton, the Chairman of the Hunt Association Committee, as he leaned around me to pluck another glass of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter. “We need some good publicity if we are to rally the troops in our favour. Got to stamp out these bloody HSA hooligans!” He shouted, before taking a good slurp of bubbly from the glass and popping a thin sliver of smoked salmon into his mouth.

+++++“Of course, Arthur, you know I will.” I took a sip of my champagne. He long ago had asked me to drop the “Sir” when we were speaking together. “Good turnout here, though.” I continued. “You think you will raise a substantial amount from the members present?”

+++++The Master of the Hunt; another of his salubrious titles, pushed into his mouth a quail egg balanced upon a tiny, mayonnaise-covered wedge of toast. “Mmm; pretty sure we will.” Arthur mumbled, as he chewed the dainty morsel, before wiping an errant crumb from the corner of his full lips and smoothing his handlebar moustache. “But we will drum up some more cash from other sources too!” He roared; drowning out the classical tones of the string quartet playing softly in the corner of the village hall. “Your article will reach a broader membership, and I am meeting the Chief Constable on Friday, so will have a quiet word in his shell-like!”

+++++I felt at that moment instant pity for the Chief copper if Sir Arthur was to have any sort of word in the fellow’s ear with anything like the volume with which he now addressed me.

+++++A former Ambassador at some minor posting in Asia, Sir Arthur Moreton had the distinction of being the local stipendiary Magistrate, as well as a staunch Rotarian and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. One might say he was a pillar of the community, in every sense of the word. If anyone could drum up support, it would be Sir Arthur.

***

+++++“Cheers, Harry,” Sir Arthur boomed, handing me a glass of single malt. It was three weeks after the fundraiser and I was ensconced in a leather armchair in the sitting room of Dunstan Manor. “I asked to see you for two reasons.” He dropped into an armchair opposite. “One; to let you know that the Treasurer, Simon Appleby informed me this very morning that between the fund raiser and your article in the magazine this month we have raised more than ten thousand pounds!” He raised his glass.

+++++I covered my surprise at hearing of such a large amount, leaned forward and clinked my glass against his. “Congratulations, Arthur!” I settled back into my chair, not really knowing why he chose to inform me of this event. After all, I was not a bona-fide member; merely the part-time editor of their journal.

+++++“So, Arthur.” I decided to show some interest. “How do you propose to spend it; I mean, how will you put it to good use?”

+++++“That’s where I need your help once more” He closed one eye and sighted over his glass at me, as if taking aim.

+++++I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”

+++++“That brings me to the second reason for this little chat,” he said. “With all your previous military experience and contacts, do you think you could find a trusty fellow who would be willing, for a small fee of, say, five thousand pounds, to spend a month or so recruiting and training up a team of fifteen or twenty souls to take care of these saboteurs if they cause trouble again?”

+++++“I don’t know, Arthur,” I replied hesitantly. “I am not a mercenary recruiter, for goodness sake!” I added, in a stronger tone.

+++++“No, no! Harry!” He protested. “I don’t want you to get your hands dirty.  No weapons, obviously. Just find someone who could train them in woodland tactics, physical intervention and crowd control, or whatever you Army-types call those sort of things. What say you?”

+++++I took a long swallow of Scotch. “I am not sure. I will need time to think about this, Arthur.” I paused in thought, pondering over his request. “Give me a day or two to mull it over, will you?”

+++++“Fine!” He boomed, standing up. “Let me know your decision day after tomorrow.”

+++++I also stood, drained my glass and placed it on the table. Sir Arthur showed me to the door. I turned to face him. “Sir Arthur,” I said, formally for a change. “If I assist you in this, we must have a clear understanding on two points. And they are not negotiable.”

+++++He nodded. “Go ahead…”

+++++“Point one.” I held up in front of his ruddy face a straight finger, “At no time, before, during or after anything that occurs with this matter must my name be mentioned to anyone – especially my wife, Fiona – as being even remotely involved. Fiona must never know we have even discussed this! Agreed?”

+++++“It’ll be our secret. You have my word!” He replied, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

+++++“And, point two.” I raised a second finger in a Victory salute. “My involvement, if I agree to become involved at all, is to simply source a trainer with suitable experience. After introductions, I hand him or her over to you and the Association and will have nothing further to do with the person, the payment, the methods of training or operation, or anything to do with the so-called ‘HPU’. I want to be one hundred percent clear on this. Agreed?”

+++++“Again, you have my word!” Sir Arthur Moreton thrust out his hand and we shook on it, as gentlemen do.

***

+++++At one time in my Army career, I had the good fortune to work alongside some chaps from the UK Special Forces. When I held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, I was the Commanding Officer of the Blues and Royals; who at that time were posted on ceremonial duty at Horse Guards Parade and Buckingham Palace in London. During this period I naturally met the security team from the Royal Protection Squad. Among these specially trained men and women – a mix of armed Metropolitan Police officers and Special Forces personnel – I got to know Jock, a senior NCO with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). Although from different backgrounds, education and rank, we got on like a house on fire. Sometime later, when I was promoted to full Colonel, I left the Regiment in care of the new CO – it was now stationed as an armoured reconnaissance unit in West Germany – and was posted to Whitehall as a Staff Officer. Jock and a few of his team from Hereford, now working on black ops for MI6, often passed through London when assigned certain tasks, and Jock would sometimes pop into my office for a cup of tea –  or a glass of Scotch.

+++++Even after leaving the Army I kept in touch with Jock, somewhat infrequently, and once or twice when he was visiting town invited him to join me for lunch at my club in Kensington. I was therefore aware that Jock, now 55 years old, had several years ago left 22 SAS, and for some time had been engaged in security contracting or advisory work in Africa and the Middle East. I also knew that he had recently returned to the UK from Oman and had quit freelance soldiering for good. It was his sage intention, so he told me, to make way for the younger, fitter types who were coming out of the Army and looking for work in the private sector. Jock was an obvious choice for trainer of the so-called HPU.

+++++When I managed to get Jock on the phone, after our enthusiastic greetings and small talk, I outlined the task at hand and the reasons for it. I mentioned he would be offered five thousand pounds for one month’s work, told him that he would be supplied with an old Land Rover for transport, and that all his expenses would be covered.

+++++Jock agreed, saying that it would be something interesting for him to do. He was bored, he lamented, with gardening, taking his Labrador for long walks, and having the occasional pint in one of the SAS watering holes in Hereford. Of course, I didn’t believe that was all that occupied his time! We made arrangements that Jock would come down in about one weeks’ time.

+++++I telephoned Sir Arthur and gave him my response and the news. He was delighted, and let me know by the volume of his voice in the receiver how much so. About a week later, somewhat ambiguous advertisements appeared in the local newspapers, on the noticeboards of the local pubs, in the village hall and in the window of the Post Office, inviting candidates to apply for a position as a Security Support Officer with duties in and around the county. Full training would be offered. There was a short list of required criteria; age parameters, minimum height, level of fitness, etc. but no address or company name… just an anonymous phone number; Jock’s mobile.

***

+++++On the day of his arrival, I met Jock at Dunstan Halt; the tiny and quaint railway station set on the outskirts of town. We shook hands firmly and I gave him a quick once over. He hadn’t changed much since last seeing him: still sporting a horseshoe moustache and long sideburns, a Rolex Submariner watch on his left wrist, and dressed in a green bomber jacket, blue jeans and brown leather hiking boots. He hoisted a military Bergen into the rear of my Range Rover and jumped into the front passenger seat. I climbed in the driver’s side and reversed the car out of the station car park. From there, as I ferried him to the Woldview Cottage B&B and after swapping trivial news, I briefed him on some details of how the hunt is organised.

+++++At one point, he asked, “You don’t hunt, though, do you, Sir?” He couldn’t break old ingrained military habits, despite the fact we had known each other for so many years.

+++++“No, and neither does Fiona; she vehemently detests blood sports.  But, because of my involvement as editor of the hunt magazine, I have learned all about it.”

+++++Jock had never met my wife, but of course knew from our long association that I was married.

+++++“Where does it all start from?” Jock asked. “The actual hunt, I mean.”

+++++“Typically, the meet, as the gathering is properly called, usually takes place in the local pub car park,” I said, “or in the communal area behind the village hall; although it can happen on private land, such as at Dunstan Manor, which is known as a lawn meet. This first meet of the season will be at the village pub, appropriately named the ‘Fox and Hounds’… a very common pub name in rural Britain, as I am sure you know, Jock.”

+++++“Been in a few!” Jock laughed, and then added, more seriously, “Any weapons around… guns, I mean?”

+++++“Well, farmers around here are allowed to have shotguns, if licensed… as do a few poachers, no doubt.” I answered. “But I’ve never heard of any turning up at the hunt.”

+++++“I won’t need this then.” Jock lifted one side of his bomber jacket and patted a 9mm Browning automatic pistol stuffed into a shoulder holster. He smiled at the look of shock on my face. “It’s okay, Sir. I am allowed to carry. I’m still on the books at Six… and what with continuing death threats from our ‘friends’ from over the water… you know what I mean.”

+++++I did know what he meant. The Provisional IRA hated the SAS… a hate that stretched far beyond the treacherous handshakes of the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. Still, I was shocked to see Jock so armed. I certainly hoped he would not need to use it.

+++++We arrived at Woldview Cottage B&B where Sir Arthur and the Hunt Treasurer, Simon Appleby had booked a room for Jock and were waiting to meet him. I had warned Jock in advance about Sir Arthur’s brusque and pompous manner, but he had dealt with worse in his military career and was not worried. Introductions quickly over, and leaving the conspirators nursing their drinks in the small living room ‘Resident’s Bar’ of Woldview Cottage I went home; feeling quite guilty about the subterfuge and hiding these events from Fiona.

***

+++++Although I rarely arrived home from London before six-thirty in the weekday evenings, Fiona was invariably there to meet me in the living room with a drink before supper. Of course, there were occasions when she had to work late at her office or to meet with clients and would let me know in advance, but these incidents were few and far between. So I was surprised but not unduly concerned to find her absent when I arrived home one evening, with no message or call to explain her lateness. When she eventually came breezing through the front door at eight-thirty, however, I asked, “Darling! You are very late. Is everything okay?”

+++++“Yes, Harry,” she leaned forward and, slightly breathlessly, pecked me on the cheek. “I had a last minute visit from a new client who wants me to fix him up with CCTV. He kept me talking for ages!”

+++++She threw her jacket over the back of a chair, “Let me fix supper quickly!”

+++++“No Fi. I have made pasta and salad. It is ready to eat as soon you have freshened up!”

+++++“Thanks, darling. I won’t be a mo!” She disappeared upstairs and I could hear the shower running.

+++++Over supper, Fiona explained that the new client had several business properties, one of which housed sensitive information. “He wants a complete audit carried out, with recommendations for cameras, monitors, and biometric access control… the works.” She poured us both a glass of white wine. “That’s great, Fi!” I exclaimed. “A very good contract by the sounds of it.”

+++++“Yes, darling.” Fiona toyed with her pasta, not looking at me. “But, the site is miles away, on the other side of Norwich. And he wants me to personally carry out the audit and be on the ground every day to oversee the installation and whatever.” She glanced up briefly from her food. “I will be working late most evenings for quite some time, I am afraid.”

+++++“That’s fine, Fi.” I encouraged, “I will manage to get supper ready most evenings… if not, we will dine out at the pub!” I poured more wine. We clinked glasses in a toast, and drank to the new contract and to each other’s health.

***

+++++True to her word, Fiona was late home every workday evening for the next six or seven weeks. Most times she arrived looking quiet tired and pale.

+++++“I say, Fi!” I had to remark one Friday evening, seeing her almost crawl into the living room. “You look really worn out. Come on, off with that jacket,” I said, helping her shrug off her green wax cotton Barbour. “These late evenings and long drives home are really taking their toll. Let me get you a brandy.”

+++++I returned quickly from the drinks cabinet and passed her the balloon.

+++++“Thanks, darling!” She said, sinking down into the armchair and putting her feet up on a footstool. “It is rather tiring, I must admit. But will be worth all the effort in the end.” She smiled, somewhat solemnly.

***

+++++Sir Arthur had given me the date for the first hunt of the season, well in time for it to be publicised in the forthcoming journal. The journal went out on time, and all the members – and, of course, the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which had spies everywhere – were, therefore, informed well in advance.

+++++I had purposely kept away from and out of contact with Jock, leaving him and the Hunt Committee to organise and train the whole HPU thing. As far as I was aware, Fiona had no idea what was going on, and, as she arrived home worn out almost every evening, probably did not care. She never even mentioned the subject.

***

+++++The day before the hunt, Sir Arthur informed me that Jock had reported to him that the HPU boys were as ready as they would ever be. He had heard from some informers that the HSA were going to be out in force too, and he wanted me there to cover the event for the journal. I protested, at first, but Arthur insisted, and told me to bring my camera along, as well. “I want full coverage of this, Harry. Photos and a good write-up. There may be some bloody tabloid journos there too, usually are at the first hunt, looking for a bloody sensational scoop; so I want our side of the story to be told straight and true!”

+++++The day of the hunt dawned cold, grey and misty. Steaming breath from both humans and horses plumed and billowed in the chill air of the pub car park, as the landlord and a few helpers passed between the mounted riders handing out the traditional pre-hunt “Stirrup Cup”.

+++++After the bracing drinks, the hunt set off along Lower Dyke Lane, heading for Ten Acres Meadow, and the large area of natural deciduous woodland that bordered it. This would be the covert from where the foxes would be flushed out. Mounted hunt followers, identified by their black tunics, rode along behind the riders dressed in scarlet. The chaotic clip-clop of twenty or so trotting horses echoed in the still morning air. Cars formed a slow-moving tail behind the horses… appearing not unlike a funeral procession.

+++++Mist hung in dank rafts in the hollows of the meadow and lay thick and swirling upon the ground in the woods. I walked briskly across the grass to the edge of the woodland. There, among the trees, I could see shadowy figures moving in the dim light; the HPU. They were all dressed in matching olive drab coveralls and carrying Tonfa PR24 riot batons. I spotted Jock, dressed in a camo smock, moving around giving orders and directions.

+++++Suddenly, I heard yells of derision and the discordant blowing of horns. The saboteurs had arrived; making their noisy way across the meadow from the 52-seater coach parked in the lane on the other side of the fields. Most of them were wearing ski masks for anonymity and were dressed in army-surplus jackets or green parkas with the hoods pulled over their heads. To my dismay I saw that several were carrying sticks or pick-axe handles.

+++++A loud baying and yelping announced the arrival of the foxhounds, as several kennel masters released the dogs from trailers and horse boxes. The horses moved restlessly beneath the riders, snorting and whinnying in the cold air, sensing they would soon be at the gallop.

+++++A loud cry from the approaching saboteurs echoed across the misty field: “Murdering scumbag snobs!” This was taken up by laughter and hoots and yells from the rest of the mob. The saboteurs drew near, weaving their way along the edge of the woodland. Some split off, disappearing among the trees. The HPU took up defensive positions between them and the riders. The hounds had already entered the woods and were trying to scent and put up a fox. The line of saboteurs bristled and shifted with pent up tension, as other were rampaging through the woodland, trying to confuse the hounds and scare the foxes to earth.

+++++“Moreton! You fucking snob asshole!” Someone shouted aggressively; loud above the general din.

+++++Sir Arthur Moreton, hearing his name called, turned in his saddle to face towards the voice.

+++++“Who the bloody hell said that?” He roared.

+++++I watched with horror, as a short, stocky figure carrying a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun ran forward from the rear of the mob, pointing the gun skyward, intending, I presume, to fire a warning shot or give some sort of signal to the rest of them. He tripped on a hidden tree root and fell forward; as he hit the ground, one barrel discharged its shot in a loud and resounding bang, and with a scream of pain Sir Arthur fell from his horse.  At the loud report of the gunshot, Jock’s muscle memory must have kicked in. From the corner of my eye I saw him draw the 9mm pistol from under his jacket and spin around to face the shooter.

+++++At that very same moment, another member of the HSA, anonymous in a black ski mask, leapt forward and with an angry, high-pitched scream wrestled the shotgun away from the fallen shooter’s grasp.

+++++Jock crouched, firing two shots in quick succession. The person now holding the weapon dropped like a stone, and, as he hit the ground, the second shotgun cartridge discharged. I felt as if someone had smashed my shoulder with a sledge hammer! I was spun around in a spray of my own blood, crashing into Arthur’s steed before slumping to the earth next to him and passing out.

***

+++++When I regained consciousness, with considerable pain in my shoulder and a splitting headache, I slowly opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself in a hospital bed; my shoulder heavily bandaged and my arm in a sling. I closed my eyes again, trying to recall what had happened.

+++++“You’re alive then, Sir?” came a familiar voice. I looked up, and there stood my old friend, Jock; standing there awkwardly with a bag of grapes in his hands.

+++++“Hello, Jock. Barely alive, by the aches and pains I am feeling. Jesus! What the fuck happened? How is Sir Arthur?”

+++++“He’ll live too… unfortunately; pompous old bastard.” Jock smiled.

+++++I chuckled, then winced in pain once more. I heard a moan from one side and gingerly turned my head, expecting to see Arthur lying there all bandaged up like me.  Instead, in bed just six feet away from me, lay my wife, Fiona!

+++++“What the hell’s going on here?” I gasped the questions, propping myself up on one good elbow.

+++++“Sir,” Jock drew near. “I am sorry to say that I shot your wife in the legs… twice.”

+++++“What the fuck are you talking about, Jock?” I yelled.

+++++In the bed next to me, Fiona stirred again.

+++++“This’ll be a shock to you, I am afraid.” Jock nodded towards my wife. “It was Fiona who grabbed the shotgun from that idiot.  She told me earlier, before the drugs sent her to sleep, that she wasn’t intending to use it, but was snatching it away from the bloke in anger, because she had ordered that there was to be no guns. You see, Fiona is a leading member and the tactical trainer of the HSA” Jock confirmed. “Has been for quite some time, apparently.”

Hard Luck and Trouble Every Day

When Chaplin’s mom got to the hospital she gave him a slap upside the head saying, “You damn idiot. How many times you gonna be shot?”

+++++Chaplin said, “This is my first time, ma, the last time was just a graze.”

+++++“You know better than this anyway, somethin’ smells bad you get out, or at least keep your eyes open; sum bitch. Stealin’ from drug dealers, Jesus Christ, you’re better than that and you didn’t even get your cut. Hasn’t even been a month since the Stark job, we still got that money and you go off and do this.”

+++++“Okay, okay,” said Chaplin, “Let’s just go.”

+++++They were driving out of the hospital parking lot; Chaplin’s mom at the wheel saying, “After your uncle was nice enough to take you in on that Starks Antiques festival-whatever-the-hell. That was a hell of a pay day; those antiquing people got money. You’re nearly thirty god dammit you can’t be doin’ such stupid shit.”

+++++Chaplin angled his hat on his head and the rings on his fingers saying, “The bastards shot at me four maybe five times before they hit me. Ha, dumb bastards.”

+++++His mom said, “well I hope your gonna’ do something about this.”

+++++“Of course I’m gonna’; those bastards wouldn’t of even done it without me. Hey, you know Jay Street?”

+++++“’course I do.”

+++++“Then go over there four-hundred block. Is the revolver still in the glove, yup, good old snub nose.”

Chaplin had the top buttons of his flannel shirt unbuttoned and only a few buttons of his vest done; leaving room for the revolver under his arm in his vest. His hat sat low on his sunglasses and when his mom started down Jay Street he told her to go slow.

+++++Chaplin said, “Alright stop here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He got out of the car and walked to an off-white house with more weeds than grass in the yard. After knocking on the door a skinny man not wearing a shirt opened the door swearing. He was shut up by Chaplin shooting him once through the heart.

+++++Chaplin stepped over the skinny guy’s body and found another one near identical on the couch. “Hey Lane,” Chaplin said holding the gun on him, “Get the money.”

+++++“What money, Chap?” Lane said.

+++++Chaplin stood there with a deadpan expression and said, “You got five minutes to get the money you owe me. Then you’re dead like him.”

+++++Lane got up from the couch and moved around to the nightstand. He opened a drawer and wheeled around with a beretta nine. Chaplin shot him in the shoulder before he could do anything.

+++++Lane said, “Sum bitch you shot me.”

+++++Chaplin said, “You gonna’ get the money Lane?”

+++++“Son of a Bitch, ah, it hurts like a motherfucker.”

+++++“Stop being a pussy and find the money.”

+++++“Why the fuck you get a cut anyway? It was me and PJ’s idea.”

+++++“Would you have done it without me?” Lane didn’t answer so Chaplin said, “that’s what I thought; now, get the goddamn money.”

+++++Lane started walking into the other room. Chaplin pushed him forward to get him moving saying, “hurry the hell up; my ma’s waitin’ out in the car.”

+++++Lane said, “Dude you brought your mom?”

+++++“I’m losing my goddamn patience. Find the damn money.”

+++++“Just saying I wouldn’t’ve brought my ma.”

+++++“Well,” said Chaplin, “there is a difference. Your Ma is probably in a house around here anyway blowin’ some coke head. My ma carries a .44 Magnum in her purse; now if I don’t see green in two seconds you’re dead.”

+++++“It’s in the bag on the table.”

+++++“Show it to me.”

+++++Lane opened the bag; it was full of loose bills. Chaplin said, “good; I’m gonna’ take it all.”

+++++“What?”

+++++“’Cause you pissed me off and no goddamn idiot should have this much money.”

+++++Lane surprised Chaplin saying, “why do they call you Chaplin, asshole.”

+++++“Because I’m a mother fucking preacher,” Chaplin said before shooting him twice in the chest.

The End

Sundown at the Toxic Shock Syndrome

So, this was how it would all go down? Eric the Red thought with disdain. An army of crazed, soulless flesh starved things that used to be people, battering down his fortified office door, tearing him to shreds, leaving just enough of his chewed carcass to become one of them—whatever they were. He had always expected to die young and violently, but not like this, and certainly not by his own hand. Eric appreciated the bitter Irony. He had been the father of this atrocity. That he should fall victim to it would have been hysterical, if it weren’t him. Now, here he sat at his desk in his windowless basement office. All he had was a syringe of the awful mixture he had set loose on the world, and a choice.

+++++Eric had only lasted this long because of the door. He had it installed in anticipation of needing to protect himself from one of the many drug dealers with whom he had entered into an uneasy partnership over the years. Eric sold their drugs for them in his club. As skillful and efficient as he was at moving narcotics to the addled metal heads who frequented the place, Eric was even better at skimming profit far above his agreed upon percentage. His erstwhile partners were getting wise to the scam. The grumblings had begun. With that in mind, Eric had the four-ply titanium fire-door put in. It was more vault than anything else. He was assured by the contractor the door would withstand all manner of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and any hand-held missiles currently available on the black market. But Eric knew it would be just a matter of time before the horde of berserkers presently outside would finally accomplish what explosives and weaponry could not.

+++++Eric Funschman had been called Eric the Red since he was ten-years-old. His father, Irwin, a criminal with his dirty fingers in all manner of quasi-legitimate small businesses, gave Eric the name. It started to take hold before anyone knew the reason for the appellation.

+++++“Why Eric the Red? It’s not like you guys have Viking blood or anything,” Tovar Beral, Irwin’s retired Mossad agent/bodyguard observed. “You’re Bronx Jews, not a Nordic raiding party. Scary enough if you ask me, I certainly wouldn’t cross you. But, why not something snappy in Hebrew or Yiddish?”

+++++“I call him Eric the Red because he’s always in a foul mood. He is the most unpleasant boy I ever encountered. More is the pity, he’s mine,” Irwin said.

+++++“I still don’t get the red part.”

+++++“Because he’s always on the rag.”

+++++“Oh…that makes sense.”

+++++In fact, Eric was not always on the rag. He had an inability to express himself to others. As such, Eric was awkward around people almost to the point of paralysis. He wanted desperately to interact pleasantly with others. But, his facial expressions and deadpan demeanor would not allow him to communicate his better intentions. Eric had done a lot of work over the years to combat his forbidding appearance, but all his attempts to counter it only exacerbated the problem, and put him further out on the island where he had no desire to be.

+++++A year after his mother passed away, when Eric was ten-years-old, his father brought him to a psychiatrist. He was hoping for a diagnosis that would allow him to have his son declared incompetent, and commit him to an institution—to be rid of him. The psychiatrist, referred by an associate, didn’t understand this was supposed to be a formality. The doctor undertook a pain-staking and rigorous examination. His diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome. When Irwin explained the setup as he understood it, Doctor Amalfitano scoffed at him.

+++++“My diagnosis was based on the medical evidence and symptoms your son evinces. I’m not fudging my findings just so you can dump him in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.”

+++++“But Tony Scaggs told me you would do the right thing,” Irwin argued.

+++++“And I just did it. Tony Scaggs is my uncle. I see people he refers to me as a favor. But he understands I will not tailor my diagnoses. Nor will I prescribe drugs which aren’t medically needed. Many of Tony’s associates come in here with the wrong idea. They get sent away just like you. I can help you with your son. But I’m not taking him off your hands for you.”

+++++“What the fuck is wrong with him then?” Irwin demanded.

+++++“He has a high functioning form of autism. His social awkwardness and inability to modulate his voice to coincide with his facial expressions prevent him from communicating with others very well,” the doctor explained.

+++++“So, he’s a retard?”

+++++“No, quite the opposite. He’s actually brilliant, but until he learns to function socially, he’ll never be able to utilize it.”

+++++“What do we do about it?”

+++++The doctor went on to describe a rigorous plan of counseling, occupational and physical therapy and drugs to combat the anxiety brought on by the awkwardness. Irwin thought it would have been easier to just burn the doctor’s office to the ground, destroying his precious medical records, and finding another shrink willing to play ball, but he was prevented from doing so. Irwin Funschman was the second scariest and deadly gangster in Youngstown Ohio. Tony Scaggs Amalfitano had him beat by a mile. There was no way Irwin was going to start a war with Tony by messing with his nephew. He could sense the little prick doctor knew it too.

+++++The treatment prescribed helped Eric to be able to communicate with others and to begin to use his outsized intellect. His father didn’t like him any better, but as he grew, Irwin started to find uses for the boy. While he was able to communicate with others, he made no progress with respect to putting people at ease. If anything, his therapy and training further alienated them.

+++++To combat Eric’s clumsiness when the training began, he started learning mixed martial arts, and lifting weights. Because autism sufferers tend to fixate on rituals and routines, the training took on an almost religious zeal. The fact he was big already made it all look frightening. He countered his impulse not to make eye contact with others by simply forcing himself to do it. This force of will, coupled with his expressionless mask of a face, and his deadpan demeanor made eye contact look and feel like a glare. He never figured out what to do with his hands when he spoke. So, he would push his chest out and throw his shoulders back. He would leave his hands at his sides, but to keep them there he clenched them into giant balled fists. It appeared to everyone he was one cross word away from killing them. With his massive chest, and shoulders like bowling balls, his aspect was terrifying.

+++++Eric’s low raspy voice, delivered from deep within him didn’t help matters at all. It made everything sound like a demand, rather than the polite request he intended. The monotone words, without inflection or emphasis, on their best day sounded like sarcasm. On every other day, they sounded like the portent of doom.

+++++Given these unintended consequences, it wasn’t long before Irwin dropped to number three on Youngstown’s scary gangster list. Tony Scaggs was still nominally recognized as number one, but that was more out of respect and tradition than reality. No one was betting on Tony if Eric ever decided to challenge him.

+++++His father chose Eric to run his most lucrative but volatile business venture, an erstwhile dance hall and saloon. In short order, Eric informed his father he was taking the club. Irwin was no longer in a position to argue. The Toxic Shock Syndrome was a rave hall and exotic dancing emporium fronting an enormous narcotics distribution operation, which is a polite way of saying it was the amoral epicenter of Ohio. Tucked all the way out on the McGuffey Road, out near the county line, the place was the perfect cover for all manner of criminal behavior. And if you had a sin you’d like to commit, or a form of self-abasement you hadn’t yet tried, The Toxic Shock Syndrome would afford you ample opportunity. The strippers were drug addicted prostitutes. They also sold the drugs for Eric. The transactions all looked legal. Buyers would appear to be paying for lap-dances. They would get a lap-dance, along with their purchase of narcotics being slipped into their pockets.

+++++It seemed like a flawless operation, and it was for a while, but Eric was his father’s son. He had been taught to skim everything since he was young. So, he skimmed. Every parcel of narcotics coming into the club to be sold, would be automatically cut with a third of its weight in lactose powder. Eric did all the cutting and re-bagging. The autistic are creatures of habit.

+++++Once Eric started cutting the drugs, it wasn’t long before it was what he had to do. To keep him functional and in his comfort zone, no matter what else happened, Eric cut the drugs. It was this attention to detail and habit that would ultimately slide the world out of its comfort zone and into a world-wide pandemic.

+++++When the Professor showed up, Eric’s operation was already in full swing. He was making more money than he could ever spend, but he was never averse to making more. Counting money was a comfort to him. So, when the tall, thin, stooped and creepy man made his business proposition, Eric was all ears. The vibe of impending tragedy which was coursing through Eric’s body at that moment was not communicated in his face or body language. No one else knew he was suddenly afraid. Eric suppressed his initial revulsion to the Professor, and listened to his deal.

+++++The Professor really was a professor. He had taught bio-chemistry at Ohio State University for thirty years. He became bored after he retired and started messing with the kind of chemistry the University never would have permitted. He would become known in the organized crime world as a synthetic drug manufacturer. His motivations were much darker than narcotics, though. What he was creating wasn’t a drug at all. It was a nerve agent. He called his creation Cornucopia, and insisted it be marketed as such. What the chemical compound did when injected was to simulate the initial high of a heroin shot, coupled with the adrenaline rush of a methamphetamine hit, encased in the general warm encompassing feeling of euphoria and well-being one gets from that first line of cocaine. Eric immediately recognized the limitless earning potential of this product. A drug with those properties sold itself. His only question was, would its allure guarantee repeat sales?

+++++“Is it addictive?” Eric asked.

+++++“Most certainly….and instantly. One shot of Cornucopia ensures the user will need another shot every single day,” the Professor assured him.

+++++“How do we sell it?”

+++++“Like heroin, it’s a powder. We sell it in gem paper in exact doses. The user cooks it with one milliliter of distilled water. There are no impurities, so we have removed the tedious need to strain it through cotton, like they do with their dirty brown tar heroin. They just load the syringe from their spoons and they are as they say, good to go.”

+++++With the built-in demand to such a product, Eric knew it wouldn’t be long before every junkie west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies would be banging at his door just to get some. And they would be back for more every day thereafter.

+++++“I’m in,” Eric said.

+++++“Yes, of course you are. But before I agree to sell to you, understand this compound cannot be cut or adulterated in any way. The dosage is precise. Any attempt to dilute it will have catastrophic results. Do you understand?”

+++++“Yeah, sure,” Eric intoned, already factoring his inflated profit by one third.

+++++The Professor sensed as much, and was secretly delighted. He had engineered this chemical as a weapon. He was going to sell it to the military, but declined to do so because he knew they wouldn’t have the courage to use it. This was his baby. He wanted it introduced to the world. So, he went back into his lab and engineered the compound with a blocking enzyme to thwart the full, and secretly intended effect. He had heard rumors about Eric’s practice of stepping on his drugs. That’s why the professor sought him out as his distributor. He was counting on it.

+++++The professor had engineered the enzyme to be blunted when simple sugar molecules adhered to it. Eric’s preferred cutting agent for powders was lactose—pure milk sugar. Once the sugar removed the blocking enzyme, Cornucopia did what it was originally intended to. It attacked the brain, which instantly signaled the pituitary gland to put every other gland in the body into overdrive. In an instant, the user felt the effects of enormous quantities of testosterone, adrenaline, growth hormone and insulin coursing through their bloodstreams, with all of the inherent aggression and nervous energy. At the same time, the outer half of the adrenal cortex started pumping enormous quantities of cortisol. This triggered the bodies fight or flight impulse. Except, with this particular nerve agent, there was no longer a flight option. The user became a crazed hormone bingeing dynamo of violence. The aggression stayed in check momentarily until the compound could further attack the brain by depleting the serotonin levels to zero. Once that happened, the ability to reason was gone. The switch had been flipped. What was left was a superhuman turbo-charged killing machine with no other impulse but to destroy or murder.

+++++Then there was the bad news. Once a user of cornucopia either bit, spit, or bled on another person, that person was instantly infected. That’s how a miserable hole in the wall in Ohio became ground zero for the apocalypse that would eradicate the human race.

+++++As Eric the Red Funschman sat at his desk, watching his impregnable door start to give way behind the crush of the berserker horde behind it, he gave some thought to how he would meet his end. He had a syringe of the adulterated cornucopia. He reasoned he could just wait for the door to go down and be consumed by the horde, thus becoming one of them. Or, he thought, he could just inject the drug and join the Armageddon he created. As he jammed the syringe into the side of his neck, and drove home the plunger, he thought, for once I won’t feel awkward around my peers.

427-461 PEARL STREET

My wife is from a town in Canada called Regina. She rhymes it with vagina and doesn’t even bat an eyelash. I joke about it, and she sighs, shakes her head, and calls me immature. Which is rich, considering every time I’m on the phone and I mention One PP she giggles like an eight-year-old.

+++++“You cops, always so worried about your one pee pee,” she’ll say.

+++++One PP is One Police Plaza. It’s the main headquarters of the NYPD down near all the big Manhattan courthouses. The point is—first of all—that my wife is a big hypocrite, but also when something becomes such a routine part of your life, it’s not hilarious or cool or frightening or interesting. It’s just there, and you don’t notice.

+++++There was this man called Jake. A Korean guy who ran the deli near my precinct. It was actually a few blocks farther than two other shops, but it had a real salad bar, and I like vegetables. What can I say—my wife is a dietician from Saskatchewan. Anyway, Jake was always in that store. I worked every kind of shift, every kind of overtime. I’d been in that place at 3 in the morning, at noon, at 8 PM. He was always there. I’d talk to him for a few minutes everytime I came in. He had a picture of his kids. They went to one of the good schools out in Queens. He’d have the Yankees on the radio all summer. Maybe it was a little fake—getting on the cops good side—but I always thought of him as one of the decent people I’m sworn to protect.

+++++Then one day, I went into Jake’s with a guy named Frank who’d transferred from way up in the Bronx a few days back. While I was loading up on baby corn, Frank just sort of stood there like he was thinking real hard. Then he walked out of the deli without buying anything. I paid and went outside. Frank was searching through his phone.

+++++“What’s going on?” I asked.

+++++“The guy behind the counter. Is he new?”

+++++“Jake? He’s been there seven years—at least.”

+++++“You’re kidding me?”

+++++“Why?”

+++++“You don’t get his picture? Every couple of months they send it around. Killed six people with an axe back in Seoul. They said he was probably in the US, possibly in New York.”

+++++“What? Come on.”

+++++But even before he found the picture, I knew he was right. The photo—younger, shorter hair, no glasses—was one I’d seen more times than I’d care to admit. It was a joke around our station—Tae-kyong is on the loose again. And I’d been handing him money just about every day for years. My eyes weren’t open.

+++++Jake (Tae-kyong) made a break for it. I guess Frank was a little too obvious when he first made the guy because there was Jake walking fast across the street down the block—must have gone out the back way. I knew he’d never leave the place unattended, so we went after him. He broke into a run, but the athletic, young axe murderer had become a chunky, middle-aged businessman. We ran him down, and I tackled him in the crosswalk in front of a Papaya King. He got me in the nose with his forehead and was reaching for something in his pocket when Frank came in and helped me pin the bastard down.

+++++The case got tricky, of course. He’d bought the deli with cash no one could account for. We also suspected he might have killed the seller, and we couldn’t identify the kids in his family photos. Then there were extradition laws, some contaminated evidence over in South Korea, and a really strange girlfriend with a ukulele.

+++++So, yes, I had to go down to One PP a few times, and, yes, my wife laughed at me every time I said it. But I never found any of it the least bit funny.