Tag Archives: crime noir

Five Toes

“This little piggy went to the market.”

+++++The room is dark, lit only by one of those desk lights with the green hood-over top. I can hear some giggling coming from behind me. Sounds like Jamie, that snake fucking bastard. The hiss of phlegm in his lungs gives him away.

“This little piggy went home.”

+++++I can’t make out who’s in front of me—the blindfold drooped down on my cheeks, blood and sweat in my busted eye make it all too blurry.

+++++I can’t recognize the voice of this piss-fuck taunting me with the rhyme either. Must be someone from Jamie’s other crew, that snake fucking bastard. I knew I couldn’t trust him. Doing a job like that though, you need certain skills, skills you can’t find popping in on a few watering holes and dropping in a few leader lines. You can’t leave a printout on a coin laundry cork board with little tear-offs of your number. With a job like that, you have to trust someone like Jamie, just should have got myself an extra set of eyes to make that trust a little easier.

+++++“This little piggy had roast beef.”

+++++I swear to God if I get out of here alive, this asshole, the one in front of me, he’s going to get the worst of it. I might can’t see his face, but that list and roll of the words out of his mouth, like he’s chewing on a lot of bread, that’ll be easy enough to track down.

+++++There’s not a number of zeros going to be big enough to hide either one of these twisted fucks after this.

+++++Three million bucks. One for me. One for Jamie. One for Bobby for setting it up. No way Jamie would go after Bobby, so here we are. Bet he’s not even going to split my cut halfway with the fat prick on my toes. Bet he only told him it was half that.

+++++The pain is gut-wrenching.

+++++I can hear Jamie hissing behind me still. Can’t say I blame him too much. If I’d’ve had half the sense, he’d be the one tied to this chair right now barely conscious from a beating, biting his tongue on where his cut was hidden. Doubt he would keep his mouth shut long as I have though. That little worm. That slug would pop the moment the first grains of salt touched his slimy skin. He’d fold in on himself the first finger I broke. He damn sure wouldn’t have let me break all 10. And this guy in front of me, oh I wouldn’t care how fast he spewed it, I would go the full mile for him. He could tell me the moment I tied the knot. He could tell me the moment he saw my face in the crowd, eyes locked on him from across the room. He’d know why I was there, and he could tell me everything, but it wouldn’t do him any good.

+++++Half a million might keep him quiet for a while—if he’s any sort of a man. I wouldn’t be after the money then, just after his appendages. All 20 of them. Talk or not, they’d be mine.

+++++The mistake they made was only breaking my fingers, should have taken them too.

+++++Those will heal. Those will work again. Soon enough I’ll be able to make a fist. Soon enough I’ll be able to tie a knot. Soon enough I’ll be able to hold gardening shears and show them both the same hospitality I’ve been shown today. Soon enough I’ll be on the mend and they’ll be on the break.

+++++“This little piggy cried wee wee wee all the way home.”

+++++Here’s a hypothetical for you: how many toes would you have to lose before you gave up where you hid a million bucks? Think about it for a second. Would you give in before the first one? The second? It’s a million bucks, a lot of money. The third? It doesn’t get easier with each one either. Five?

+++++Yeah, five is where I stopped too.

+++++There’s not a bullet in my head though, which means soon I’ll be on the mend. Soon, there will be twenty little piggies that I have for mine.

+++++Twenty little piggies and two million bucks.

All the Blood It Wants

Cece would have to drive or Graham would start knocking her around, so she just went to the quiet place. Like sitting on the dock at her dad’s lake house, nothing but the sparkly water to hypnotize her. She didn’t have to do a goddam thing. Whatever happened was somebody else’s doing. She could drive like that. Just do whatever Graham said. Turn here, slow down, turn off your lights, pull over.

+++++“Leave the engine running,” Graham said. “Be ready to high-tail out of here.”

+++++Cece paid no attention to what Graham and Steve were doing. If they got caught, it was on them. She wouldn’t remember a thing. She did register, vaguely, that the street was too dark for town. No orderly line of lights marching down the street, but a scattering of dim, bluish spotlights on broken glass, old tires, battered trash cans. Lock the doors, kids.

+++++“Here he comes.” She stared straight ahead, foot on the brake, hands tight on the wheel. Graham’s window rolled down. “What you got for the head tonight, my man?” Graham and his phony ghetto slang. Sometimes him and his football buddies talked that way all day long. Most of them stopped around black people, but not Graham–he was right in their faces with it. Funny for a guy always on about sending them all back to Africa. Maybe that was it. Maybe then he’d own talking cool.

+++++“You just hand it all over to Stevie.” Steve, in the back seat, had his window down and his pistol pointed at the guy.

+++++A tap beside Cece’s head and she jumped, her quiet place cracked apart. She turned to see the barrel of another pistol at her window. Another at the back window. The car suddenly surrounded. Somehow she managed not to scream.

+++++“You ain’t pull that shit again.” The dark face leaning in at Graham’s window was hard as steel, his voice deep and steady.

+++++Graham’s face twisted into a smile. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.” No ghetto voice this time.

+++++“You don’t think we know that car? We been tracking you five blocks.”

+++++“I told you,” Steve hissed from the back seat.

“Shut up, Steven.” Graham’s dangerous voice.

+++++“What you think, Bullet?” It was the boy outside Cece’s window. She couldn’t see his face, just the gun barrel against his Crimson Tide sweatshirt. “How ’bout they leave the bitch and we call it square?” Now Cece’s throat sealed up, no air coming in.

+++++“Steve,” Graham said, “Shoot him.”

+++++Steve made a guttural sound in his throat, the only sound in an agonizing stretch of silence. Then the guys outside the car exploded with hooting laughter.

+++++“Steve, shoot him!” Bullet had Graham’s voice dead on. The others banged on the car, doubling over with laughter.

+++++“Steve, you hand over that piece,” Bullet said, “and Tex, whatever you carrying. And every goddamn penny y’all got.”

+++++Cece, hands shaking, managed to get one breath while Graham threw them his cash and pawed through her purse for more. Then another breath. She remembered the engine was still running.

+++++“Go, go!” Graham hissed.

+++++“Cleat, get the keys,” Bullet said.

+++++Cleat had her door open and keys in his hand before she could move. Steve took the moment to grab for his pistol–like all his moves, stupid. They pulled him half out of the window and cracked the top of his head with the handgun he had never fired, opened the door and hauled him forward. His foot caught on something under the seat.

+++++“What the fuck?” Bullet said, stepping over Steve to pull the thing out, grasping the handle and pulling the sword out of its wooden sheath, the blade glowing blue in the weak flicker of the streetlight. “Tex got a toy.”

+++++Graham thrust his arms through the window, clawing the air as Bullet pulled the sword just out of his reach. “Get your filthy black hands off that!” he growled, as enraged as Cece had ever seen him. “That’s my great-great-grandaddy’s sword! General Hood gave it to him–”

+++++Cece couldn’t believe it; he was giving the speech. Outnumbered, out-gunned, half out of the car window with his arms pinned. She could have recited it along with him. –for breaking the Federal line at the Seven Days Battles at Richmond. It was rare, manufactured by Kraft and Goldsmith of Columbia, S.C.– The gang drowned him out laughing before he got to Richmond, but he said the whole thing, anyway. He couldn’t help himself.

+++++Bullet nodded and another boy slammed a three-foot piece of rebar on the back of Graham’s head, making a sound that was familiar to Cece–a quiet swish followed by a whap. Except her dad used a broom handle. The rebar’s swish was higher-pitched and ended in a crunch.

+++++They pulled Graham and Cece out of the car, sat her against a light pole and propped him, sagging like a rag doll but still struggling, against the passenger tire. Bullet drew the sword out slowly and stood at attention, pointing it straight ahead of him. Charge. He knelt beside the son of the Confederacy while they held his arms against the car. Cleat popped a beer and shook it over Graham’s head. His eyes fluttered and he inhaled, choking and gasping. Bullet showed him the sword, then slowly brought the edge to his throat while Cleat turned his head to face Steve. Bullet nodded and they shot Steve twice in the head.

+++++“I recognize you,” Bullet said. “Your granddaddy lynched my granddaddy.”

+++++“Great-great-granddaddy,” Graham said.

+++++Bullet pushed the blade against his Adam’s apple and looked at Cece. “We’re gonna do him last, so he can watch what happens to you.”

+++++No one made a sound. Cece looked straight at Bullet, then grasped the bottom hem of her cashmere sweater and pulled it over her head. She tossed it aside and sat there in her bra. Her skin translucent in the vapor light, pale as marble, with patches of deep blue edged with yellow. She got to her knees and turned around so they could see the welts on her back, the angry reds black in the blue glow.

+++++They wouldn’t be able to tell Graham’s work from her dad’s. It didn’t matter.

+++++She turned around to face the silent, motionless boys. Arms relaxed at her sides, she looked at Bullet again. “Do me last,” she said. “so I can watch him die.”

+++++Bullet looked. They all did. Then he nodded slightly and drew the blade across Graham’s neck, artery to artery, precise as a surgeon. The blade was razor-sharp. That was another part of the speech Cece knew well. How Graham had bribed his uncle to sharpen the antique sword in his metal shop, defying the purist collectors. “I’m not destroying heritage,” Graham had said. “I’m getting ready for war.”

+++++The struggle lasted seconds, and they let his body slump into the spreading pool of blood. Bullet leaned over and wiped the blade clean on Graham’s letterman jacket. The boys dragged the bodies off the street, back into the neighborhood dark.

+++++“That’s all the blood it wants for now,” he said, turning the blade around in the blue light, easing the tip under Cece’s sweater and flicking it over to her. He sheathed the sword and walked casually after the others.

+++++Cece sat staring at constellations of shattered glass flickering blue under the street light, like muted morning sun on wavelets pushing toward shore. She wondered where Cleat was with her keys. She knew cleats from the lake house, safeguards against drifting away. Graham used cleats for traction, biting into the ground to launch him at his enemies. She wondered if he and Cleat had ever faced off on the field.

+++++She shrugged on her sweater and wobbled to her feet. She had some walking to do. Any direction led out.

END

The End of the Road

All I was trying to do was to keep the peace. That’s all I was ever trying to do.

+++++Jumpy rolled up on me at The Buck Stop, the seedy bar I escaped to when I needed to get away from myself. A tap on my shoulder, and there he was. We didn’t bro hug, fist bump or shake hands. Just eyeballed each other for a while, both of us waiting for the other to start the conversation. Was I surprised? It had been a long time, but deep inside I accepted the fact that the past never really leaves you, no matter how hard you try to leave it.

+++++“I told you I’d find you one day,” Jumpy said. Cocky, he wore a self-satisfied smirk, like he had pulled the inside cards for a straight flush.

+++++“I thought you were doing a dime,” I said. “Early release?”

+++++“You didn’t hear?”

+++++I hadn’t. How could I? I had severed all connections to that part of my life.

+++++“Won my appeal. Came out that my public defender was banging the prosecutor’s wife, so the judge overturned. DA’s office dropped it like a hot rock. Guess I’m blessed with the good fortune only those who don’t deserve it get.”

+++++“Lucky for you, I guess. Here’s the thing…prison was a long time ago. Part of my life I keep in the rear-view mirror. No offense, but it’s best for both of us if you move on, pretend you don’t know me. We never met. Not here. Not ever.”

+++++Jumpy looked down at his feet and wagged his head back and forth, slowly like he was trying to clear his thoughts. “Nah, it don’t work like that. I owe you. I don’t leave debts unpaid. You’re the one who was always talking about principles. Always said, ‘a man’s principles are the only thing he has left after he’s lost everything else.’ You did me right in Statesville. So I gotta do you right now.”

+++++His face hadn’t changed much over the years. Maybe a little more wrinkled, but the same mask of crazy agitation. You could almost hear the gears spinning away behind his dark, beady eyes. The scar that wandered from his left eye to the top of his lip had deepened, making a home in the wrinkles on his face. His smile amped up the distortion, the right side dragging the left side along, like a dog on a leash.

+++++“I don’t need any help. Besides, your kind of help never made my life any better,” I said.

+++++“Don’t be ungrateful, man. I got something cooking that I’m gonna offer you. It’s a sweet deal and you don’t want to say no.”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Not so fast. It’s fuck-up proof.”

+++++“I got a solid situation here. A job. A place to live. I get by. More important, though, it may be fuck-up proof, but you’re not.”

+++++“Slow down, bro. No need to get personal.”

+++++“Jumpy, personal is all we got.”

+++++Jumpy leaned in, hanging over my shoulder. So close I could smell the tobacco and beer on his breath. They say that smells bring back the strongest memories, and underneath the alcohol and nicotine, I got a whiff of the Jumpy who had been my cellmate in Statesville. It was a sharp-sweet odor, a mixture of anger, fear, and sweat. It brought me right back to prison. Ten years had passed, but the smell – well, that never left.

+++++I had done six of my seven for bank fraud when my old cellmate, Junior, got a humanitarian release thanks to a pancreatic tumor which left him with about three months to live.

+++++I got on with Junior and was sorry to see him go. He was a veteran of the mob and listening to him talk helped me to understand that a man is more than the crimes he commits. That was important for me. I got a step ahead of myself, working for the bank, figuring out the vulnerabilities in the loan process. Junior helped me accept that being smart doesn’t mean you don’t do stupid things, and doing stupid things doesn’t make you a stupid person.

+++++Jumpy got assigned the day Junior left. I figured him to be about 35, but it was hard to tell because his skin was weathered barn siding from too much tobacco or alcohol, or both. He had a shaved head, although I could tell from the speckled pattern of grey stubble riding a rim around his dome that he was balding, and the shaved head was a vain attempt at image control. I checked his file, in the warden’s office where I worked doing secretarial stuff. Ten years for armed robbery with extenuating circumstances. It had his picture on the front and his name typed on the flap along the side. Oliver O’Connell, it said, which is probably why he preferred Jumpy.

+++++Jumpy was wrapped tightly. ADD to the nth degree, like he had some kind of internal itch. Always wagging hit foot, tapping his fingers, and when sitting got to be too much, he’d hoist himself up on the bars and slide across from one side to the other, swinging from cell to cell. When the doors to the cell groaned open he’d bolt out and pace the tier. All day long, back and forth, back and forth, pacing, like one of those big cats at the zoo. Sometimes, when he was pacing, he’d talk to himself, mumbling some inaudible bullshit. Annoying as hell.

+++++That night at The Buck Stop, Jumpy was pressuring. “You know how the farmers got to pay the illegals in cash? Like once a week? Where do you think they get all that cash?”

+++++“ATM?”

+++++Jumpy snorted a laugh. “You’re messing, right? Brinks truck. Makes the deliveries up and down the Central Valley every Friday, dropping off the green to pay the wetbacks. Out in the fucking boonies. That truck is a sitting duck. I got a solid crew. You remember Mahogany Slim?”

+++++Mahogany Slim was an armed robbery pro we both knew from Statesville. He was also a sadistic snake. Even if I had an inkling to get involved with Jumpy’s scheme, which I definitely didn’t, Slim was a show stopper.

+++++“Dayton Bennie is coming up from San Diego. This bitch is golden. Easy as robbing the charity box in church.” Jumpy stood back and gloated, self-appreciation dripping off of his grin.

+++++“Why you need me?” I asked.

+++++“Don’t need. It’s an offer. Payback. Like I said, I owe you.” Jumpy’s eyes skittered around the dingy bar. Someone put some money in the jukebox and George Jones started singing If Drinking Don’t Kill Me. The smell of stale beer percolated in the still air.

+++++“Don’t let this pass you by. Opportunities like this don’t come every day.”

+++++“Not interested,” I replied.

+++++“It’s a gift, man.”

+++++“I lived within a fart’s cloud of you for months, and I know you. There’s a thousand ways to fuck up a sure thing, even if you’re a genius. And Jumpy, you ain’t no fucking genius.”

+++++Jumpy looked confused. “Tell me, how many Brinks have you hit?”

+++++Jumpy hunched his shoulders.

+++++“Right. Zilch. Nada. Zero. You don’t know shit about Brinks trucks. You’re going to get yourself killed, Jumpy. Maybe not this time. But eventually. It’s only a matter of time.”

+++++“That ain’t for you to worry about. Besides, you’re going to die too. Might think you won’t. But know you will. Someday. So why not enjoy the ride before lights out? You prefer to die lonely, cold, in some bed with some shit eating you from the inside?”

+++++“A man can’t always know how it’s going to end, but that’s no reason to put his hand in the fire to make sure it’s hot.”

+++++As new cellmates, it took a while to get the boundaries set – which shelves belonged to whom and who got to use the shitter first thing in the morning. I didn’t like him touching the books on my shelf and told him so. As for the shitter, it was kind of an ad hoc thing.

+++++“You get the top bunk. I’m on the bottom one. See these books, you don’t fuck with them. I keep them in a particular order, so don’t mess. I keep my shit close. You do the same.” A couple of days later I caught Jumpy flipping the pages of my copy of Of Human Bondage. “Hands off,” I snapped, swiping the book out of Jumpy’s bony hands. “Chill, dude,” he replied. “Maybe something in here will help me with the stretch I’m serving.”

+++++“Fuck, Jumpy. It’s not about prison. And even if it was, you can barely read.” Once Jumpy and I got our limits set, the clock started moving, slowly, but moving nevertheless.

+++++I liked to read in the evenings, before lights went out, but I couldn’t get through a paragraph without Jumpy bouncing from his cot, jumping up on the bars, or asking me stupid questions, or yipping and yapping as if the neurons in his brain were in a constant state of agitation. At night, I’d hear him tossing and turning. Then he’d start jerking off. Every night, like it was a pacifier for him. I tried to ignore him.

+++++Being on the home stretch of my time, I was playing it heads down, and I could see Jumpy was dangerous. He had the knack of pissing the whole tier off. One hot night, Big Eddie, the lead dog on our tier, had enough. He snatched Jumpy mid-stride. Gripped him by the neck, lifting him six inches off the ground, Jumpy’s legs twitching like a puppet whose master had Parkinson’s.

+++++“Look, motherfucker, I’ve tried and tried, lord how I’ve tried, to ignore your bullshit. Hopping around like a rabbit on meth. The fucking mumbling, the barking. Times up. I’m trying to concentrate on my dominoes here, with Fat Willy, and, I don’t care what the fuck you’re up to, it stops right now, right here. Feel me?” Jumpy’s eyes bulged.

+++++Big Eddie dragged Jumpy down to our cell, his legs still spinning, spittle running down his chin, his arms windmilling in search of a hold on Eddie’s arms. “Professor,” Eddie called out. “Come educate this ignorant motherfucker about manners.”

+++++Big Eddie deposited Jumpy like a sack of dirty laundry in front of our cell. “Easy, Eddie,” I said, avoiding direct eye contact. You didn’t want to look Eddie straight on when he was in a state.

+++++“Fool can’t help it. I’ll talk to him,” I said, even though I wouldn’t have felt a flick of sorrow if he had snuffed Jumpy right there and then. He had it coming, as far as I was concerned.

+++++“You better,” Eddie said, his eyes squinting with anger. “Cause if he don’t, I’m gonna pitch his sorry ass over the railing. See how he do trying to swing from the bars when he’s flying to the floor.”

+++++Eddie dropped Jumpy and wiped his hands on his pants. Free from Eddie’s grip, Jumpy sucked in a huge breath and skittered backward, crab walking away from Big Eddie until he was out of reach. Safe from Eddie’s reach, he jumped to his feet and raised the middle fingers of both hands thrusting them upwards like sewing machine arms at Big Eddie, yelling, “Hey Eddie. You like birds? How about these two?” Big Eddie lurched after Jumpy, but Fat Willy held him back. Jumpy slipped over the guardrail, scrambling to the safety of the guard station.

+++++Jumpy was doing a minimum of ten for armed robbery with extenuating, which he never completely told me about, but had something to do with forcing the store owner and his co-workers to undress and do sick sex stuff with each other while he watched. He was a twisted fuck, no ordinary con, and I knew it. I just didn’t know what to do about it, other than keeping myself away from him, which, in a six by eleven cell is not easy.

+++++“You need to get with the program here, Jumpy,” I warned. “This shit you’re doing, flipping around, yelling and stuff, it’s pissing everybody off. It ain’t gonna make you popular, and being unpopular here ain’t like you don’t have a date to the prom. Big Eddie is not to be trifled with.

+++++“Fuck Big Eddie. He don’t scare me. What’s he gonna do? Kill me?”

+++++“Might. Eddie’s a bona fide lifer. Got nothing to lose.”

+++++“So he kills me.” Jumpy shrugged.

+++++Which only confirmed my belief that Jumpy was a lost cause. Jumpy and I shared a cell, but not much more. Funny how you can be so close to someone, hear every breath they take, smell their shit, and still keep your distance. I’m not cold by nature, but prison changes a man.

+++++Release day finally arrived. I packed my box, said goodbye and told him I never wanted to see him again. He laughed. “You ain’t gonna get off that easily. I owe you. If I get out alive, I’m gonna look you up and pay you back. We’re partners, bro. You looked out for me.”

+++++“Don’t even think about it,” I told him. “I wasn’t protecting you. I was protecting me.” I meant it, especially the part about never wanting to see him again. I was fixed on getting right with myself and my life.

+++++My sister’s boyfriend ran a little welding shop in Fresno, so I made it out West and settled there. I lived with them for a while, until I had enough of a stake to get my own place, nothing fancy, one room with a torn curtain over the window, a kitchenette, furnished with thrift shop discards, in an apartment complex filled with Mexicans and farm workers, three families to an apartment, parking lot filled with beaters. But it was mine, and I worked the job, learned to weld, picked up scrap, swept the shop floor, whatever needed doing. My sister’s boyfriend seemed to like having me around. I was one of the few steadies, guys he could rely on showing up not stinking of alcohol or weed. We got on.

+++++Weekends, without work, were tough. I didn’t have a car, so I was stuck. Sometimes I’d take the bus to the local bookstore, where I browsed, picking up books on psychology or politics, looking at them the way a divorced man looks at his ex-wife when he sees her out on a date with her new boyfriend. The bookstore had big stuffed leather chairs in a lounge where you could read. I liked hanging out there. Some of the other browsers, mostly women, would settle there too. I’d look at them and imagine what it would be like to be in a relationship with one of them. I never talked to them, just snuck looks from time to time. You’d think coming out of prison a man would crave connection. It’s just the opposite, though. Prison twists you so you really don’t know how to relate to people who haven’t been locked up.

+++++I liked predictability. That’s another thing that happens to you in the joint. You get used to keeping a schedule and don’t like it when things get out of whack. Prison teaches you to appreciate routine. Because in prison, when things don’t go as planned, they never work out for the better. Prison surprises are never good ones.

+++++That night at The Buck Stop was the last time I saw Jumpy. A couple of weeks after bumping into him, I walked into work and found the boss reading the newspaper. He tapped the front page, running his finger across a grainy picture.

+++++“What’s that?” I asked.

+++++“Three damn fools tried to rob a Brinks truck out in the valley. Killed one of the guards to start with. Two guys got away clean with the money. The other stayed behind to shoot it out, some Bonnie and Clyde, western shit. He was holding the other guard hostage. Cops took him down. Turned him into swiss cheese after he blew away the Brink’s guard. Cold.”

+++++“No shit,” I replied, my heart beating a little faster.

+++++“Says here he could have bolted with his buddies. Instead, just stayed by the truck holding a gun to the guard’s head ’til the cops showed up. Like he was waiting for them, begging for it. It was a stand-off til he pulled the trigger on the other guard. What makes someone like that do what they do?”

+++++“Some people just built that way, I guess.”

+++++I shuffled off to my locker, hung up my jacket and slid on my welding gloves.

Horizontal Vertical

+++++A low swung smile on her heart-shaped face. Half naked- topless in bordello -red panties. Her left leg slung at a ninety-degree angle across a black scrunched cocktail dress. Her right leg straddling the arm of an easy- fit budget sofa upholstered in an aggressive shade of convict orange. On the floor beside her, an open tub of vaginal jelly three fingers of blow and a dinky gold plated cocaine spoon. It was noon. The sun vomiting diluted rays of insipid light into the room. A slit of dust on the coffee table and a shit- strewn kitty litter box sat by the back wall . It stunk of broken promises . Kiki Loveheart aka Mizz WhipKink aka Maddie Summers aka Sweet Cheeks 69. Gig artiste and professional freelancer. Eking out a piecemeal existence:

+++++Daytime nurse-afternoon phone sex operator night time glamour escort and weekend stripper. Forced to juggle four jobs just to live in a cramped foul- smelling roach-ridden walk up. She stared ruefully at her purple jazz-berry mirrored Jimmy Choo’s. She felt like a Penthouse pin-up in those heels. They elongated her calf muscles popped her pelvis and kinked her hips. Strutting the sidewalk never felt so good. Kiki blinked- yawned and slowly got up . Barefoot. Tiptoeing to the refrigerator she took out a cold bottle of sparkling San Pellegrino and rolled it against her forehead.

+++++‘Ahh.’

+++++‘Keeeeeki?’ A goopy taffy- laced little voice. It could have belonged to a third grader or a whiny half-bagged grandma, but it belonged to Michael Wiesel. A squiffy- eyed Buddha -faced eight-toed high- talking sex perv. Serial fraudster bourgeois rapist and TV Judge. Presiding over his own prime-time TV show. Pitting litigants in person against one another. Miserable little suburban dramas. Scripted for mass consumption. Of course, it was a ratings winner, and Wiesel wore his success like an electric lit billboard. His patterned argyle socks vintage Rolex silk-satin tux and two-ply cotton designer shirt screamed smug money. But his aging blond- comb-over pomaded across his jutting forehead-swollen bucket-gut and peeling- pink-skin humbled him on occasion especially at funerals country clubs and IRS meetings.

+++++‘Keeeeeki. C’meer. I want chou to freshen up. Put on a dress or somethin’ pretty. You look like a syphilitic ghetto slut. Clean yaw self up. Dirty bitch.’ His accent pure New Yawk. Purple gums on show. He threw a couple of C-notes on the floor flashing his platinum-circled pinkie. Loose-lipped pig mouth slapping her butt with another slew of insults: ‘You need a tan – lose a few pounds – I like your hair straight – classy chicks wear perfume – get bigger tits.’ Twenty-eight years old and still listening to fruitless fuck balls who reminded her that she was just a split second vignette in THE BIG PICTURE. She switched her gaze between a moldy slice of Kraft deli-deluxe and Wiesel’s spreading bald spot. Swirling her tongue around her index finger. Winking.

+++++‘ Got a better idea.’

+++++‘Yeah ?’

+++++‘Hmmmm. Why don’t I text Nahhhtashhha? And we mix it up .’ Natasha: Twentyish. Nouveau redhead. Faux Russian accent big bazookas – shapely ass – creamy lips. Sweeter than Nutella and Kiki’s bestie. The pair of them responsible for a rash of tricks that would make even the hardest hustler blush.

+++++‘ Whaddaya have in mind?’

+++++‘Wait and see.’

+++++‘Do it .’

+++++‘Okayyyyy . Make yourself more comfortable. Take off your pants.’ Kiki grabbed her phone from the dresser. Natasha would be there in a few minutes. Wiesel caught between the bastard of time and his own carnal greed. Pacing the floor like a one-eyed tiger.

+++++‘Hurry up.’

+++++‘She won’t be long. Relax. Sit down. C’mon.’ She patted the seat with a fiendish glint in her eye. Then slid on thigh -scraper black velvet boots- and a black leather string bikini. Wiesel’s creeper peepers on her downy v shape mound peeping through the slit of her gusset.

+++++Bitching to herself:

+++++‘Ground zero of the Walmart sex trade. Puny limp dick with big dick complex. Today I’m jumping off that pyramid.’

+++++‘Whaddaya say. Speak up?’

+++++‘I said you know you make me so hot for it.’

+++++The creases on Wiesel’s face lined with dust and type 2 diabetic sweat. Everything Kiki did to make things better slam -jammed into nothing and now here she was star of her own dime -store crime story. Her mind somersaulting at freeway speed : Cancer -table sex- a black swan- yogi -tea homilies- dead- sister cancer be- yourself shaman- mantras -truck stop suicides -cancer blue- rubber covered- asses booby- trapped commitment -rib eye steak pus-filled promises -Je Je Spa Happy Ending Massage Kung Fu nuns Himalayas autoerotic strangulation.

+++++Squatting on a throne of debt . Kiki was tired of sleazo tricksters. Tired of renting herself out to small-souled roly poly hardballs. Tired of one bowl -easy mac frozen dinners- three minute hustles with teenage dopers and cheapo plastic heartbreak. Her brain backed up with years of toxic yesterdays .Ever since her only sister had succumbed to cancer. She felt trapped in a psycho blizzard. She wanted out. Wiesel. He was the catalyst. Sprawled there. On her green linoleum five dollar arm chair. Balancing papers on his balloon shaped stomach. Tapping his foot to an invisible beat. Kiki stiffened. The double thump of her heart jumping three seconds. She had a driving primal urge to glass him in the neck. Playing every move slowly in the dungeon of her mind. Psych out!

+++++It wasn’t the most original way to kill someone but it was definitely doable. It made her body tingle. She knew that Wiesel kept at least 10 grand in his grab bag.  A pre-packed emergency kit stocked with doomsday end of the world shit. Wiesel carried it everywhere he went. Bragging to anyone who’d listen that he was ready for Armageddon. It was the perfect get away bag. Ideal for two huzzies on the lam. Kiki’s murder plan simmering. Something gross and a little immoral was about to happen.

+++++‘Ding dong ding ding dong.’

+++++‘That’ll be Natasha.’ Kiki buzzed her up. Wiesel moistening his mouth. Moving to the bed. Panting his fairy tale sex romp through pepto bismol coughs. Natasha bouncing into view. ‘Well hellllloooo! How ya doing ?’ Rude cute in a stylized red plaid mini. Cropped shirt- white gartered knee highs a striped tie with pigtailed hair and cheap mary jane shoes. She slow-kissed Kiki, cupping her face in her hands. Wiesel unbuttoning his shirt. Revealing an expanse of silver and brown gorilla chest hair and a thatch of wispy fuzz springing from the nape of his neck. He stank of onions and tuxedoed fraud .

+++++‘You know what I love about your type?’ tracking the curves of Kiki’s thighs. Natasha pulled away grinning.

+++++‘Our type?’

+++++‘Yeah pussy princesses.’ Kiki’s eyes narrowing.

+++++‘What?’ Ignoring the sarcastic inflection in her voice. Sucking his teeth.

+++++‘You understand that sex is just a business. I don’t have to think too hard. I fuck you. Pay you. You’re: MINE.’

+++++His mildew eyes clinging to her ass. She had to dig her nails in her palms to stop herself from puking in his lap. In a bitter sweet tone part Marilyn Monroe part Morticia Adams she whispered:

+++++‘Let’s try something new.’

+++++A dangerous smile hanging on her lips. Together they cuffed Wiesel to the bed. Kiki placing a blindfold on his eyes.

+++++‘C’mon -let’s get on with it.’ He growled.

+++++Kiki and Natasha shared a knowing wink. Natasha banging her hips in Wiesel’s face. Toying with him while Kiki got busy.

+++++‘You think you know our type? Think again!’

+++++‘Aaaaaaaargh!’

+++++Gagging him with a pair of sheer stockings. Deaf to his protestations. The gentle curve of her mouth promising more pain. Natasha binding his ankles with uber kinky bondage tape and leather restraints. Kiki steaming:

+++++‘It’s you and your type. You’re the limp dick asshole who’s got your greedy cheating hands all over the city. Everybody knows you’re as crooked as hell. We’re the only ones hurtin.’ Kiki marched into the kitchenette. Smashed the San Pellegrino bottle against the wall and stomped back to the bedroom. Ignoring the little yelps and spittle dribbling down Wiesel’s chin. He was thrashing around like a bottom-trawled fish gasping for air. Kiki gripped the base of the bottle. Jabbing it into his neck. Slicing open his throat. Hitting both carotid arteries and his jugular. Blood rhymes splattering the sheets. A symphony of choking strawberries. Warm. Red mulch.

+++++They racked up the balance of the coke Kiki armed with the grab bag. ‘C’mon let’s get outta here.’

+++++A few moments of thin silence. Kiki’s voice strangely alien, eaten by the shadows in the room :

+++++‘Ghetto sluts like me. Always end up vertical not horizontal.’

A Burden of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flasher

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Help you?” I ask.

+++++“Are you Charlie Bars?”

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

+++++“That’s me. How can I help?”

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

+++++“A case?”

+++++“Did I stutter?”

+++++“No, it’s just…”

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

+++++I nod.

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

+++++“Really? Do you know our rates?”

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

+++++“Five hundred.”

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

+++++She pauses a moment.

+++++“Carline MacGregor.”

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

+++++“As in…”

+++++She nods.

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

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

+++++“And the money?”

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

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

+++++“Well?”

+++++“There’s a flasher.”

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

+++++She nods.

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

+++++“You want me to find him?”

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

+++++I nod.

+++++“You got any more?”

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

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

+++++“Check you, Perry Mason.”

+++++She looks confused.

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

+++++Carline nods.

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

+++++“Plan?”

+++++“Life plan.”

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

+++++“And look at you now…”

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

+++++“Will you look into it?”

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

+++++“I will.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

+++++“Oi, dickhead.”

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

*

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

+++++“Just talk.”

+++++“Just talk?”

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

+++++“What did you used to do?”

+++++“Sorry?”

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

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

+++++“And since?”

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

+++++“What does your wife do?”

+++++“Headmistress.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“Well? What are you suggesting?”

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

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

+++++“And if I don’t?”

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

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

*

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

+++++“I thought it was sorted?”

+++++“What?”

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

+++++“It is sorted.”

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

+++++“Worse?”

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

+++++“I…”

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

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

+++++“What are you going to do?”

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

+++++Shit. And then she’s gone.

*

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

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

+++++“What happened?”

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

+++++“Just tell me what happened.”

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

+++++“Then?”

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

+++++Shit.

+++++“I owe you one, alright?”

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

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

*

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

+++++“Hello.”

+++++“It’s Two Tone.”

+++++“Yeah, yeah come up.”

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

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

+++++“It has.”

+++++He nods.

+++++“T said he’d seen you.”

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

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

+++++“What’s that?”

+++++“A Grenache.”

+++++“Sweet, make us one.”

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

+++++“You know why I’m here?”

+++++“Reckon so.”

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

+++++“Take it easy on that, Charlie.”

+++++“Why’s that?”

+++++“We’ve got a bit of a drive…”

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

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

+++++He nods.

+++++“You know that.”

+++++“How come I ain’t got gloves?”

+++++“Shit, you want some?”

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

+++++“You know what your problem is?”

+++++Didn’t realise I had one.

+++++“What?”

+++++“You’ve lost your place.”

+++++“My place?”

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

+++++“And what am I?”

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

+++++“Good to know my place.”

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

+++++“Take the side lane.”

*

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

+++++“Come. We got a job to do.”

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

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

+++++“Jesus, is he…”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++I nod and he laughs.

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

+++++“What are we doing here?”

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

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

+++++“Fuck…”

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

+++++“Just show me what to do.”

*

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

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

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

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

+++++“You helping or not?”

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

*

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

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

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

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

I’VE GOT YOUR BACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Works for me,” said Johnny.

Of Brothers and Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Something I would never forget.

Blood On The Tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Sounds good, George.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Son of a bitch,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

+++++“Yeah,” I said, beat.

+++++“Get you another Coke?”

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

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

+++++“Yeah,” I nodded.

+++++“You just celebrated—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

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

“You’re asking for a list?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Go out with a bang?” I asked.

+++++“Only way to go,” said Olaf.

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

END

One Doe Too Many

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“She’s…”

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

+++++“…the one.”

THE END

Last Night’s Lift

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

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

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

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

“UUBBAAARR??”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“You’re the boss.”

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

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

+++++“You want matches; you got em.”

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

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

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

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

A Man, a Bottle, and a Gun

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++The phone tinged back immediately.

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

+++++Mike: You know where I’m at.

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

+++++Beth: What? Mike, it’s not him.

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Fucked her how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Lake Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++It was Mike.

+++++Mike. They whacked Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“It’s just the way it is kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end

Life Number Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What’re we gonna do now, Earl?”

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

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

+++++“What for?”

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

+++++“They gonna be mad?”

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

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

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

+++++“I’m scared,” Harlan said.

+++++“You should be, brother.”

+++++“We could run,” Harlan offered.

+++++“Where?”

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

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

+++++“I said sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawyers in The Basement

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Damn it, Marcie! I —”

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“See you next week, Ted.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

+++++“Don’t start, Marcie —”

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

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

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

+++++“Yup, I’m ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

Debt Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Jack always answered, “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Snow Job

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

+++++Terry did not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++His phone rang.

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

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

+++++“You all right, Danny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Danny’s phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Dust Not Rise

Wish I could tell you it was an accident.

+++++I can’t. Not this time.

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

+++++Cleaned the toilets down there.

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

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

+++++Ain’t no roads like dirt roads.

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

+++++I got me the asthma.

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

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

+++++Triple-ply, dammit.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Have a beer with me.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“That all what this is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++What you want.

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

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

+++++And that night.

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

+++++And then came the roar.

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