Tag Archives: crime noir

Blood On The Tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Sounds good, George.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Son of a bitch,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

+++++“Yeah,” I said, beat.

+++++“Get you another Coke?”

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

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

+++++“Yeah,” I nodded.

+++++“You just celebrated—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

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

“You’re asking for a list?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Go out with a bang?” I asked.

+++++“Only way to go,” said Olaf.

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

END

One Doe Too Many

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“She’s…”

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

+++++“…the one.”

THE END

Last Night’s Lift

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

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

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

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

“UUBBAAARR??”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“You’re the boss.”

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

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

+++++“You want matches; you got em.”

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

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

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

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

A Man, a Bottle, and a Gun

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++The phone tinged back immediately.

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

+++++Mike: You know where I’m at.

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

+++++Beth: What? Mike, it’s not him.

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Fucked her how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Lake Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++It was Mike.

+++++Mike. They whacked Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“It’s just the way it is kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end

Life Number Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What’re we gonna do now, Earl?”

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

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

+++++“What for?”

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

+++++“They gonna be mad?”

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

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

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

+++++“I’m scared,” Harlan said.

+++++“You should be, brother.”

+++++“We could run,” Harlan offered.

+++++“Where?”

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

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

+++++“I said sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawyers in The Basement

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Damn it, Marcie! I —”

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“See you next week, Ted.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

+++++“Don’t start, Marcie —”

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

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

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

+++++“Yup, I’m ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

Debt Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Jack always answered, “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Snow Job

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

+++++Terry did not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++His phone rang.

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

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

+++++“You all right, Danny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Danny’s phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Dust Not Rise

Wish I could tell you it was an accident.

+++++I can’t. Not this time.

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

+++++Cleaned the toilets down there.

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

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

+++++Ain’t no roads like dirt roads.

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

+++++I got me the asthma.

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

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

+++++Triple-ply, dammit.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Have a beer with me.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“That all what this is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++What you want.

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

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

+++++And that night.

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

+++++And then came the roar.

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

Simple

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

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

+++++B pisses off A.

+++++A kills B.

+++++That’s it.

+++++Simple.

+++++I should know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Simple.

+++++Why didn’t I work it out sooner?

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

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

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

+++++He hadn’t noticed the danger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++And it didn’t.

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

+++++“You all right, bro?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Ron shouted:

+++++“Oi! Remember me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Do what?”

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

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

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

+++++“You worry too much, bro.”

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

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

+++++We both got life.

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

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

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

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And the one after that.

+++++And so on.

+++++Simple.

THE WITCHING HOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrath of the Lamb

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

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

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

+++++“What is it guard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Yessir.”

*

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

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

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

+++++“What?”

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

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

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

+++++“Cat got your tongue, padre?”

+++++“Er, no, it’s just that…”

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

+++++“Mr. Schafer’s fine.”

+++++“Mr. Schafer it is, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Schafer’s face darkened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What do you mean?”

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

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

+++++“You and me. Exchange places.”

+++++“This is preposterous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++They looked at one another, not sure what to do next. A guard strolled past the entrance to the small room. “Couple more minutes, gentlemen,” he said, barely glancing at them.

+++++“You kneel,” said Cullen in a hushed tone.

+++++Schafer went down on his knees and bowed his head as Cullen raised his arms and whispered, “And they said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?”

+++++Schafer opened his eyes and looked at the linoleum floor. He heard the buzz of fluorescent lighting overhead.

+++++Cullen walked out and the chaplain was alone, still kneeling.

FADE AWAY

Vinnie could not believe that the frail figure lying in bed at the Woodrow Nursing facility was that of Frankie Malloy. Or as Vinnie knew him, Frankie the Razor. Frankie had once been the most efficient, and most feared killing machine that the Family had ever had at its disposal.

+++++Now, he lay here, at the grand old age of eighty-four, his once sharp mind and body, were succumbing to the final stages of Alzheimer’s. His life, thoughts, and memories were fading, like leaves in the wind.

+++++All that was visible of Frankie was his head poking above the pristine bed sheets that appeared to be holding him in place. The skin on his skull looked pulled tight, so it was almost translucent. Through parched lips, Vinnie could hear him sucking in oxygen.

+++++Vinnie busied himself, screwing the silencer to the end of his gun. The Family had given the order. Frankie had to be silenced. They feared that as he slipped from existence, he may divulge some information that could somehow implicate them. A risk they were not prepared to take. They wanted Frankie’s secrets burying with him. Quite literally.

+++++It was a mercy killing, that’s how Vinnie justified it. Like putting an old dog out of its misery. Sure he had known of Frankie. Anyone in this line of business knew of his reputation. Especially his weapon of choice, the cut-throat razor. Silent and efficient. That was Frankie’s style. The man was a legend, and it pained Vinnie to see him like this. He was sure he would understand. After all, it was only business.

+++++Vinnie moved closer to the bed, careful to avoid the bag of piss that hung over its edge. The nurse on night duty had explained that it was unlikely Frankie would even know he was there in the room. The Alzheimers was slowly shutting down his body. It was only the body’s survival instincts that were keeping him alive. Eventually, they too would close down. Something the Family was not willing to wait for.

+++++Vinnie looked down into Frankie’s eyes, seeking some sign, some recognition. Nothing, just two lifeless pools that remained fixed to the ceiling above, devoid of life. Vinnie leaned in to whisper in Frankie’s ear, compelled to say something.

+++++“Listen, Frankie, if you’re in their buddy, this is nothing personal. Just business.”

+++++Before Vinnie could bring the gun up, he felt the cold, sharp edge of the razor, pressing into his neck, already beginning to draw blood. He looked down into those two dark pools and prayed. How much of Frankie the Razor was still in there. He was about to find out.

Coffee Jones

Have you ever tried to kick a caffeine habit?

+++++I launch a wingtip-clad foot into the solar plexus of the miserable bastard lying in front of me; the sobbing, weeping pile of human excrement who’s begging – pleading – with me about his miserable life, his miserable spouse, his miserable girlfriend-on-the-side, his miserable children. The shot to the gut temporarily lets all the air out of the windbag, and his pleas are replaced, at least for a brief, glorious moment, with a sucking sound as he tries to re-inflate his lungs and keep from retching his Egg McMuffin on the sidewalk.

+++++I light up a Pall Mall and enjoy the first relative peace and quiet I’ve been able to experience all morning.

+++++I examine the little white cancer stick held between two fingers on my right hand. One vice at a time, I thought to myself. Besides, I tried to go cold turkey with cigarettes before – multiple times before – and I just keep coming back to the damn things, no matter how bad they might be for me, or how many times my doctor tries to warn me off.

+++++Kurt Vonnegut once said – I got a thing for famous quotes – anyway, Vonnegut said of Pall Malls that they were “a classy way to commit suicide.” Given society’s current trend towards demonizing all things tobacco, that’s probably as close as you were ever going to get to a celebrity endorsement in this day and age.

+++++The disappearing orange glow of a neglected smoke and the accumulating gray/white ash, opposite the service end invite me to take another drag, and I do, releasing a steady stream of tinted blue smoke into the atmosphere.

+++++“Please, don’t!” The fucking worm begs for his life, regaining his breath and intruding on my peace of mind. “I have money. I have… I can get money…”

+++++“Fuck you,” I tell him through clenched teeth. I press my toe into the asshole’s hand like I’m stubbing out the cigarette still safely clenched in my fingers, and I twist to make sure he gets the point. He screams.

+++++Maybe I’m just being irritable because I haven’t had my morning cup of Joe.

+++++“Jonesy, what the fuck are you doing?!” shouts Vic as he labors to pull his fat ass from behind the wheel of his prized ’69 Chevelle. He wheezes from the exertion as he toddles over to where we’re standing, next to the trunk of the car. “This man needs his hands. What do you do for a living again, sir?”

+++++“I’m… I’m an accountant,” the jerk-off stammers as if he’s finally found an ally.

+++++Vic mulls it over for a minute, then says, “Well, you can probably still punch those big calculator numbers with a broken finger or two, amIright?” He gives me the nod, and this time, I stomp down with my heel.

+++++“Fuuuck!” screams the accountant, his anguished hollering bouncing around the inside of my skull like a baseball bat bouncing off bone right behind my eyes.

+++++I’m not normally this ornery and vicious. Fact is, you get me on a good day, I’m halfway to a fucking teddy bear. Downright sweet. Cuddly, even. Vic’s usually the big prick of the two of us. But the goddamned caffeine withdrawal was kicking my ass. And I needed to kick something back.

+++++Samuel Johnson – the guy who practically wrote the English dictionary – he said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Right about now, I can see he had a point…

+++++“Alright kid, enough.” Vic shoos me off.

+++++I let up on the hand, but I’m not finished. I kneel down beside the asshole and clock him right in the jaw. Not enough to put him out. Just enough to give me that small flicker of satisfaction you get when you punch an asshole square in the face.

+++++“Enough, I said!” This time, Vic grabs me by the shoulders and yanks me back into a standing position. Everything’s foggy, and I’m a little woozy from the sudden change in elevation. He leads me away to chat in private.

+++++“What the fuck are you doing?” he whispers to me.

+++++“I don’t like this fucking guy.”

+++++“I can see that. Seriously, what the fuck’s gotten into you today?”

+++++“I’m on this stupid natural cleanse bullshit,” I tell him. “A week without any coffee, or, really, any caffeine at all. So far…”

+++++Vic lets out an exasperated huff, and starts to walk away, then turns back fast enough that I almost topple over backward from my shaky, caffeine-starved sense of balance.

+++++“Get it together, Jones.” He wags a fat finger in my face, and I want to tear it off and shove it up his ass. I suppress the urge.

+++++Vic walks up to the accountant, who’s weeping in a ball, propped up on the Chevy’s chrome bumper, next to the vanity license plate that reads PS3-WGN – Vic was convinced that it spelled out “Pussy Wagon,” but no one else ever seemed to share that interpretation. Vic kneels down to talk to the accountant on his level. “Do you know why we’re doing this?”

+++++“Please, please, I don’t…”

+++++Vic grabs him by the collars and hoists him to his feet. He playfully slaps him around a little – not to cause damage, or at the very least, not the kind of damage I wanted to inflict. Just to shut him up.

+++++“I don’t, I don’t…” Vic mocks. “This ain’t about what you don’t. This is about what you won’t. You get me?”

+++++My palms are sweating, and my pulse is throbbing behind my forehead. It’s been three days since the last time I took a decent shit, even though my stomach’s constantly churning.

+++++“What’s your name, buddy?” Vic says, playing equal parts good cop and bad cop.

+++++“M-m-Mike…” stammers the accountant.

+++++“Bullshit!” I yell from about ten feet away. “You don’t think we already know that ain’t your name, ya lying fuck?”

+++++“Jonesy, cool it,” chastises Vic, before turning his attention back to the accountant. “Look, you want to be Mike, you can be Mike for all I care. You can be John, George… fucking Ringo for all I care. I don’t give two shits about your name.”

+++++“Wh-Why are you doing this?”

+++++“Well, my partner over there… he does it because he’s got a bad disposition. Mother didn’t breastfeed him enough as a kid.”

+++++“Fuck you, fat-ass!” I snarl.

+++++“Me, I do it because I’m a people person,” Vic continues, unfazed. “In this line of work, you get to meet so many interesting people… like fucking nosey bookworm accountants who should have kept to their own fucking business!”

+++++“I didn’t… I don’t…”

+++++“There he goes again with the ‘I don’t…’ thing,” Vic says to me as if I’m paying attention. Concentration ain’t exactly my strong suit at the moment. I flick my spent cigarette butt towards the edge of the dock we’re standing on, but it skitters in a shower of sparks just short of the water.

+++++“What you don’t is ir-rel-e-vant,” continues Vic, enunciating each syllable as if it makes him sound sophisticated. “You seen something you shouldn’ta seen, and you know what? That’s fine. Last I checked, there ain’t no law against seeing, ain’t that right, Jonesy?

+++++He gives me a look as if to say “Help me out, kid,” but I just silently glare at the pair of them. He shrugs and turns back to the accountant.

+++++“He’s more of the strong silent type, I guess. Anyway, where was I… yeah, ain’t no law against seeing. But what the fuck do you do?”

+++++“I was… I’m just doing my job…”

+++++“You go looking into old tax returns, and you find some ‘ir-reg-u-lar-i-ties,’” – another 15-point scrabble word from Vic – “and you bring them to our employer, seeking a big fat fucking payday to keep your mouth shut! Now, like I said, ain’t no law against seeing… but that to me? That sounds like extortion. And last I checked, extortion, yeah, there’s a fucking law… right, Jonesy?”

+++++I belch something rancid from deep inside my fouled-up guts, and swallow hard to keep the bile from rising any higher in the back of my throat. I manage not to puke, but it’s touch-and-go for a minute.

+++++“M-m-my daughter, she needs braces…” offers the accountant in the way of weak-ass excuses.

+++++“Your daughter needs braces?” Vic repeats. He balls up a fat fist, and slugs the worm in the stomach, crumpling the bastard and dropping him back down to the ground like a discarded tissue. He pulls out a thick wallet from his back pocket and thumbs through.

+++++“How much is braces? Couple hundred? Couple thousand?” he asks, pulling out high-denomination bills and dropping them carelessly and disdainfully on top of the gasping accountant, one at a time for effect.

+++++Vic grabs him by the back of his neck and lifts him back up to face him. “If you really fucking needed the money, you coulda asked instead of making empty God-damned threats! The amount of money you’re talking about, it’s nothing! My employer spends more to get his shoes shined. This ain’t about you being needy; it’s about you being greedy!”

+++++Vic lets go of the accountant and he collapses back on the ground, crying.

+++++“Gimme back my damn money,” Vic orders.

+++++The worm accountant scrambles to collect all the discarded bills and hand them back to my fat fuck of a partner. The sun peaks out over the top of a warehouse, sending kaleidoscope daggers across my field of vision. I shield my light-sensitive eyes.

+++++Vic takes a deep breath to change gears, and starts pacing around the accountant, like a tiger looking at a meal. “You… well, y’know what? Today is your lucky day, my friend. The god of fat, balding middle-aged accountants is smiling down on you today, amigo.”

+++++“W-why?” snivels the accountant, tears, snot and a little bit of blood covering his fat nobody-face.

+++++“Because you chose to soar a little fucking too close to the sun, Icarus,” – I quietly applaud Vic on remembering basic third-grade Greek mythology – “and you know what happened to him? Wings burned up. Fell to his death. This time around, though, my employer is a forgiving man. He’s a generous man.

+++++“If it were up to me and him,” Vic says, jerking a thumb back in my direction, “we’d let you fall. Frankly, neither one of us likes you very much, if that ain’t plainly fucking apparent. But our boss has a kind fucking heart, and he’s willing to let you walk away from all this, provided you don’t say nothin’ to nobody about what you fucking know. Understand?”

+++++Vic’s phone chirps that cheery factory ringtone that came standard – he never could figure out how to swap it out. He pulls the phone from his left-front pants pocket and looks at the screen.

+++++“Shit, I gotta take this. If you ain’t too busy, you think you can watch over our friend til I come back?”

+++++I don’t say a word, and quietly walk over to where the accountant is weeping on the ground in praise of his second chance at life. Vic excuses himself to the Chevelle. The accountant is practically manic in his gratitude towards us.

+++++“Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” he blubbers over and over again, wiping his snot face on my sleeve. I yank the arm back, almost dropping him flat on his face.

+++++Why does this guy get – no, deserve – a fucking pass?

+++++“…shuddup…” I tell him under my breath.

+++++“OhmyGod, I have to call Marcy, my secretary… she saw you guys grab me out of the parking lot, and she’s probably so worried….”

+++++That would be Marcy, the secretary he’s schtupping on the side… who told us where to pick him up, without so much as a regret in the world. Each word makes me hate him more. My head is pounding.

+++++“Shuddup.” I say, a little more forceful.

+++++“Y’know, I could just lose that tax return, right? Show of good faith to your boss, prove I’m a team player, that kinda thing? Who knows, maybe he’ll offer me a job. Guys like him need accountants they can trust, righ…”

+++++“Shuddup! Shuddup! Shuddup! Shut the fuck up!” I shout, cutting him off. I pull a switchblade from my back pocket, and quick as a cobra pouncing on a rabbit, I flick the blade open and plunge it into his neck up to the handle.

+++++His eyes go wide –begging, pleading, confused – but he’s finally stopped talking. He falls back off the blade and onto the ground, dark red blood gurgling up from the wound and out from his now-silent mouth as the life pours out of him and onto the asphalt of the dock parking lot.

+++++“You’re not going to believe this,” says Vic, emerging from the driver’s seat of the Chevelle. “That was Suzy. My fucking kid needs brac… WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?!”

+++++“I just… I don’t…” I stammer.

+++++“There’s a line we’re not supposed to cross!” hollers Vic. “We’re fucking cops, for Chrissake… maybe shitty cops, but we ain’t supposed to be murderers…”

+++++“It was the caffeine… the light off the warehouse,” I whisper, dazed.

+++++“Fuck this shit,” he throws his hands up in the air. “I ain’t going to jail for you, and I sure as shit ain’t losin’ my pension for you…”

+++++Vic climbs back into the Chevelle and punches the familiar three numbers into the keypad on his cell phone. The fog starts to lift from my brain, and I move alongside the driver’s side door.

+++++“Yeah, I’d like to report an assault… anonymously…” Vic says into the phone.

+++++“Vic, get out of the fucking car,” I say, clicking the hammer back on my service revolver.

+++++“I’ll call you back,” says Vic, hanging up the cell phone. “Easy, Jonesy… we can talk this thing through…”

+++++Vic slams the car door into my arm, taking me by surprise, and is out of the car, his thick hands around my throat much faster than they should have been for a man of his size and age.

+++++I try to pry the big man’s fingers off my throat, but it’s no use. Shadows start creeping in from the edge of my field of view.

+++++My only hope – the .38 I’m still desperately clutching, despite my airway being squeezed by the big lummox in front of me. Vic spots my hand come up with the pistol, and loosens his grip on my throat to paw at the heater. I gasp as we struggle for control of the gun.

+++++The sound of a single gunshot startles the seagulls at the end of the dock.

* * *

+++++“You know, I always said, ‘Shredded lettuce is like the stripper glitter of fast-food condiments…”

+++++“What the fuck are you going on about?”

+++++“Shredded lettuce. It’s like, my girl, she don’t like me eating this shit,” said Pete from the driver’s seat, as he shoves another Taco Bell beef taco down his pie hole, and then starts to talk with a mouthful of food. “So, it’s like, whenever I eat this, I always gotta worry that she’ll find it on me. And you can never get that shredded lettuce shit off… it shows up in the most inconvenient of places.”

+++++“You a fucking comedian now or something?” says Mustache Mike from the passenger’s seat. “Cut out the comedy routine, Seinfeld. We got a job to do. We need to stay professional.”

+++++The two chew in silence for a minute.

+++++“You really think he’s in there?” asks Pete, pushing up the glasses that always seemed to be slipping down his face, and which did nothing to bolster his non-existent reputation as an intellectual.

+++++“You know any other ’69 Chevelles with that stupid fucking license plate?” Mike nods towards Vic’s car.

+++++“I don’t know about this, man,” says Pete. “What if he’s gone full-on mad dog killer? What if we’re walking into a fucking shoot-out at the O.K. Corral?”

+++++“What if I slug you in the fucking jaw, you goddamned pussy. We got orders, and orders is orders…”

+++++The two hired thugs step out of the Impala and walk across the street to the coffee joint.

+++++As they pass through the door, a little bell rings, announcing their entrance. I nod over to them, acknowledging their presence and inviting them over to where I’m sitting in a booth.

+++++“We been looking for you, Jonesy,” says Mike. “Since the fuck-up this morning.”

+++++“I figured,” I say, rubbing the bruises on my neck. “The boss send you?”

+++++“Whadaya think?”

+++++I motion for them to slide into the booth opposite me. “You guys hungry?”

+++++“We just ate,” squawks Pete, to Mustache Mike’s annoyance.

+++++“Taco Bell?” I ask, knowing these two and their habits.

+++++“Yeah. You know, that shredded lettuce, it’s like the stripper glitter…”

+++++Mike elbows his partner in the guts to shut him up.

+++++“Well, I’ll tell ya later, I guess,” Pete says.

+++++“Well, if you guys are interested, this place makes a mean cappuccino,” I tell them. “This ain’t the fanciest joint – not like that Starbucks shit – but it’s probably the best cappuccino around…”

+++++“Nah, thanks,” refuses Mike. “I quit that shit. Couple months back. Better for my nerves.”

+++++“Yeah, I guess it would be,” I concede. I sip from the cup, and lick the foam off my top lip. “You boys ever have a bad fucking morning?”

+++++“Calling what you had a ‘bad fucking morning’ would be a serious understatement,” Pete says.

+++++“Yeah, well… anyone reach out to Suzy yet?” I felt like shit when I thought about what I had to do to Vic. I felt even worse when I thought about his family.

+++++“Yeah, the boss called her,” says Mike. “She and the kid’ll be taken care of.”

“Good. Kid needs braces.”

+++++We sit a few minutes in silence until I break it.

+++++“So where do we go from here, boys?”

+++++“You know the drill,” says Pete. “We gotta take you back to see the boss.”

+++++“Orders is orders,” I say, turning to Mustache Mike. “Got time to finish my coffee?”

+++++“Yeah, kid. Take your time.”

+++++I take another swig of my cappuccino. I know Mike’s already got the safety off, and the gun’s pointed at me from his coat pocket. I ain’t making it to see the boss.

+++++I pull a nail from the Pall Mall pack in my torn shirt pocket and stick it between my lips. “Got a light?”

+++++Pete pulls a dinged-up Zippo from his front pants pocket, his hands trembling a little as he holds it up for me to ignite my cigarette.

+++++“You can’t smoke that in here,” admonishes the barista from behind the counter.

+++++“Relax, doll… I probably ain’t finishing it,” I take a deep drag before turning back to my would-be executioners. “You guys ever hear that quote from Kurt Vonnegut about Pall Malls?”

THE END

The Screaming Side

“They scream at midnight.”

+++++We stood on the north tower catwalk that overlooked the yard. This was my first time pulling the night shift.

+++++“We used to leave on lights to quiet them. That stopped working so, we shined spotlights at them two or three times, and they would stop. But, that stopped working too.”

+++++The screaming sounded horrible. It was more like shrieking the way it echoed out into the yard. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and I stepped closer to my co-worker which brought little comfort. But, little was better than none.

+++++“What do we do now? Does nothing work?” I asked, needing to keep the conversation going. The melancholy he’d fallen into was unnerving, and I feared I may soon begin screaming as well.

+++++“We have new methods. They’re extreme, so we don’t employ them often.” He looked me over, likely seeing fear in my eyes. “You’re safe on the tower.”

+++++I believed this was an attempt to be reassuring. It failed. He pointed to the door set in the stone wall of the main building.

+++++“That’s half-inch steel. It’s the same as the door on this tower. Even if they escaped their cells, they’d have to breach those doors.”

+++++Thinking of our gun storage locker inside the tower brought me a modicum of comfort and helped me regain a bit of confidence.

+++++“What do you mean ‘extreme’?”

+++++“You should know we understand they’re sick, all here because they are insane and can’t control the way they are. We aren’t cruel people.” He spoke slowly, hoping I felt the weight his burden.

+++++“You seem nice enough.”

+++++He shrugged and went inside the tower. I was relieved to go into the light and warmth of the small office and absolutely delighted when he closed the door, muffling the chilling sounds outside. I took a seat while he poured two cups of coffee. He handed one to me and sat in the only other chair.

+++++Taking a sip of his coffee and a deep breath, he told me of other methods used inside to quiet our charges. These included the fire hose, straitjackets, and solitary confinement. At times, tempers flared, and attendants got physical, which only further agitated the inmates.

+++++While he told these stories, it dawned on me; he hadn’t explained ‘extreme’. My stomach turned sour. I was sorry I had asked, as he had yet to get to what worked.

+++++“We take turns working out here, those of us that work nights. If we didn’t get these breaks, we’d end up on the other side of those doors. The screaming side.”

+++++He paused while he stared at his coffee, swirling it. I held my own cup firmly with both hands, seeing what in his face? Fear? Regret? I just wanted to finish out this night and sleep with the nightmares I knew would come in the morning. Yet, I remained silent with a morbid curiosity I couldn’t shake, willing him to tell his secrets.

+++++“One night, they were in full swing. A symphony of wails that would’ve made Lucifer himself, stand up and testify. One of the guards, drug an inmate out of their cell to the middle of the floor. He put him on his knees and pressed a box cutter to his throat. They continued to scream, becoming even louder until he… Let’s just say, that inmate went silent, and so did the rest.” Staring into his coffee, he seemed to watch the events of that night play out in the bottom of that cup.

+++++“Everyone was quiet after that. Silence in the halls and the yard. After one month passed, the screaming started back.” He sipped his coffee. “We tried all the old tricks again and again before we realized what worked. So, we…. repeated the action of that night. It worked. But, only for one month.”

+++++“You don’t do it every month though. They’re screaming tonight.” I cocked my head towards the asylum.

+++++“Tomorrow night, we will make it quiet again.”

+++++“I work tomorrow night. On the inside.”

+++++“Yes, you do. On the screaming side.”

Out Cold

Marlon couldn’t breathe. He grimaced in agony as he clamped his hand to his ribs. His opponent’s fist had slammed home into its target, flipping the pain level from zero to searing.

+++++He was used to fighting through pain, but for him to be this hurt was rare. Most people don’t know how a punch like that can shut down the body; it’s what fighters fear the most. Thousands of rounds of hard sparring builds a certain toughness and grit, but nobody is made of stone. That shot could have put down an elephant, let alone an aging 170 pounder.

+++++Marlon dropped to the ground and turtled up expecting ‘Gypsy’ Jones to dive on top of him, but this wasn’t a Mixed Martial Arts bout; it was bare-knuckle. Jones, the undisputed middleweight king of the bare-knuckle boxing scene, swaggered back to his corner and the smart-shirted referee started the count.

+++++“1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .”

+++++The crowd of five hundred or so roared in approval. “Go on, Jonesy, my son. Stay down, ya’ washed-up cunt.” As if some American homeboy could ever take their champ’s belt away.

+++++It was as if someone jammed a pitchfork into his side. As a veteran of more than fifty fights, ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene had been there before, but each shallow breath was like another stab to the ribs. So much for never showing ‘em your hurt.

+++++The thought of Tracy-Ann and the kids back in Detroit did nothing to ease the pain. It was just another Saturday evening for them, ordering pizza and watching a dumb movie together. Marlon didn’t have anyone in his corner that night. The promotion wouldn’t spring for an extra flight, and he needed the cornerman’s extra $250 anyway.

+++++“4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .”

+++++As Marlon struggled to his knees, he could barely hear the referee over the rabble. It was a sea of fading tattoos, bald heads, and strange accents. They weren’t the kind of guys that would shake your hand after the fight. He could smell their cheap cologne from inside the raised ring. Marlon would be going straight to the airport, or to the hospital — preferably the former. The pain was now an eight. Marlon blew out a sharp breath to reanimate himself. If he got on his bike for the next few minutes, he could get his wits back and would give himself a chance.

+++++He had made comebacks in fights before. His greatest was a last minute ‘triangle choke’ submission of Scott Pickerman in front of a sold-out arena in Vegas. That was back in the big leagues. Once a UFC title challenger, he was now reduced to taking any half-decent pay-day: this one in some English town he’d never heard of. Still, a title would mean another fight, with money to help keep his Detroit gym open. His friends and family asked him to hang ‘em up, but you didn’t turn down the chance to earn $10,000 in one night. Now all he had to do was win.

+++++“7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . .”

+++++Marlon looked at Jones parading along the ropes, already motioning for the belt to be put around his waist. He was a real animal: a shaved head, piggy eyes and cinder block forearms. He looked ugly, he talked ugly, and he fought ugly. During the previous rounds, the referee had ignored the illegal elbows and shots to the back of the head, but Marlon knew that fights on the road were unlikely to be fair contests.

+++++Not today, thought ‘Motown’ as he hauled himself back to his feet. He thumped his chest with his right hand and stuck his mouthpiece out at ‘Gypsy.’

+++++The noise level of the crowd dropped. They shuffled forward in their seats.

+++++Jones, earlier so hungry for action, couldn’t hide his disappointment that he had more work to do that evening.

+++++The referee peered at Marlon, who stepped toward him. “Can you continue?”

+++++“Yes, Sir,” he barked. Marlon looked down and saw the punch had landed right on the scar left by a twenty-year-old stab wound. The pain was dulling.

+++++The referee grabbed Marlon’s wrapped hands and shook them. “Ready?”

+++++“Yes, Sir. I’m good.”

+++++To have any chance, Marlon knew he would have to protect his body better, stick and move, and hope to land a good combination. Bare-knuckle sure was different to cage fighting — different distances, pace, and footwork. Rather than staying in the pocket, fighters leaped in and out of range, throwing fastball shots at each other. After that prolonged attack, Jones would be tired, but he was still dangerous. Marlon knew at 37, his chin wasn’t what it used to be, but he always arrived in good shape. Kickboxing, MMA, bare-knuckle: the rules didn’t matter. He was a fighter, and he had another chance to get back into the ‘W’ column.

+++++“Fight.” The referee clapped his hands together and Jones walked forward to the middle of the ring, his head dipped.

+++++Marlon bounced around the outside of the ring, getting his legs back under him. While Jones rushed in with wild haymakers, Marlon kept his cool and danced left and right, altering his movement. After a few rangefinding attempts, Marlon landed some stinging jabs on Jones. According to the pre-fight prediction, the fight should have long been over. Jones was blowing and came forward at a slower rate. Perhaps he had punched himself out. He definitely hadn’t taken Marlon seriously — running his mouth, missing weight, and showboating to his fans — and now he was breathing heavy, stuck in forward drive like a broken tank. Marlon ducked a desperate overhand right and parried the wrecking ball of a left hook that followed. He was feeling fresher and kept up his output of staccato bursts of punches. With one minute until the end of the round, Jones was slowing.

+++++Now he was recovered, Marlon allowed his mind to wander. Sure, there were easier ways to earn a living — ones that didn’t involve you shaving years off your life and dreading the next set of medical bills — but fighting was simple: your enemy stood right in front of you, and you did your best. Marlon craved attention and fight week always delivered it. Being recognized, being interviewed, and being part of the business made it all worthwhile.

+++++Jones plodded forward and Marlon played the matador, bundling him into the ropes. The crowd, robbed of their expected finish, jeered in frustration. Jones, now stuck in the corner, covered up and tried to put his legs back into gear. Marlon took his time, keeping his man trapped, backing off then jumping in with uneven combinations to upset his defense — right hook, right upper, left to the body, right straight. After fifteen seconds, the referee approached, looking for a reason to intervene.

+++++The shouts of the spectators faded, and Marlon felt a lightness: a sort of elation. It was the same emotion he sensed in the seconds before the end of every one of his fights. This was where he lived — in the ring, or the cage, or anywhere where the crowd was on the outside looking in. This was where he was free to express himself. The last few years had seen his record slide from ‘contender’ to ‘journeyman’, but he was still ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene, and this would one of the good days.

+++++“Keep your punches up, fighter.”

+++++‘Motown’ continued with accurate shots like a vulture picking meat off a carcass. He stepped back and shot in with a thunderous straight right to the sternum. A shock wave of pain shot through Marlon’s hand into his forearm.

+++++Jones clutched at the ropes and fell to the canvas in stages. He rolled on the floor in agony.

+++++“No knockdown. No knockdown.” The referee waved his arms in a low crossing motion. “Low blow.”

+++++Was he kidding? That punch was to the chest. The guy was holding his damned ribs. Marlon hung his head. It didn’t matter what he said. This official was going to do his darndest to keep the belt around Gypsy Jones’ waist.

+++++The referee grabbed Marlon by the wrist and marched him around the ring. “One point deduction. One point.”

+++++A group of thugs in the front row made throat-slitting gestures and threw their plastic cups. “Fuck off back to Niggerland. Cheating spook.”

+++++He didn’t expect a fair fight, but now he had a reason to get this over with. He couldn’t wait to get on the plane home — back to the gym, the kids, even the debt. Normality.

+++++The referee gave Jones the full five minutes to recover from the ‘illegal’ blow, and he came out for the last few seconds of the round refreshed.

+++++Gypsy Jones removed his mouthpiece. “Get the fuck off my turf.”

+++++Marlon awoke to a bright light shining into his right eye. He was lying flat, looking up at two paramedics and the fight official. Fuck. His right hand was broken and his jaw felt like it had been hit with a tire iron. He tried to sit up, but the official holding the flashlight pushed him back down by the chest.

+++++“Unlucky, fella,” said the official. “Fight’s over. He got you.”

+++++A weary Marlon raised his head a little and looked around the sports hall. He caught the same smell of cologne and stale beer and saw the fans moving around in a buzz of activity. Some of them were still chanting. God damn it. Marlon wanted to be sick. Now he faced the hospital forms, the painkillers, and another long layoff. Why did he let himself believe? Just for a few minutes, he had thought about that leather belt around his waist; imagined the calls from the sponsors; signed autographs for the first time in a long time.

+++++The paramedics carried the stretcher out of the ring toward the double door. You had to take your losses and move on, but this loss somehow felt final. Marlon closed his eyes and eased his hands up behind his head. He wasn’t ashamed of his performance, but he was tired of the nauseating losses and ‘I told you so’s’. Why did he continue to put himself through the pain and ridicule? That phone call to Tracy-Ann wasn’t going to be fun.

DO YOU HAVE THE BOTTLE?

Sarah made her way along the wine racks that lined the walls of the cellar, running her fingers across the array of protruding bottles. She would occasionally stop, pressing the base of the bottle firmly, lifting it from its resting place, checking the thickness of the glass. She didn’t care if it was a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, all that mattered to her was the thickness of the bottles base and how it felt when she held it in her hands.

+++++Through the open door above, which led to the kitchen, she heard her boss, Colin, calling. “Come on, Sarah. Grab a bottle and get back up here. A full body red will do.” Even his voice repulsed her.

+++++Selecting a bottle, she made her way back between the racks to the bottom of the steps that led up to the kitchen. As she climbed, she could already feel the temperature in the cellar, automatically adjusting itself.

+++++“Optimum temperature to store wine is between eight and fourteen degrees,” Sarah recalled Colin bragging as she sipped the wine he had offered her on her first visit. The next thing she remembered, was waking up naked in his bed, bruised and sore. That had been a week ago and now the office had sent her around again with more “urgent” paperwork, requiring Colin’s signature.

+++++Sarah stepped into the kitchen where Colin stood waiting, a grotesque grin on his sweaty face.

+++++“Ah, there you are. I thought you’d got lost down there. Now, come on, let me grab a couple of glasses and we can make ourselves more comfortable in the Den.”

+++++As Colin turned to pick up the glasses from the bench, Sarah swung the bottle. It connected with the back of his head with a satisfying, “THUNK”. Colin crashed to the floor, a handful of blue pills falling from his open hand. Blood was already beginning to spread across the back of his silk pyjamas.

+++++Sarah casually brushed fragments of bone and scalp from the bottle, opened it and took a deep drink, safe in the knowledge that this time it didn’t contain Rohypnol. Because this time, Sarah wanted to remember everything. Slowly, she began to remove Colin’s pyjamas.