Tag Archives: fiction

FADE AWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee Jones

Have you ever tried to kick a caffeine habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I don’t like this fucking guy.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Please, please, I don’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Wh-Why are you doing this?”

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

+++++“Fuck you, fat-ass!” I snarl.

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

+++++“I didn’t… I don’t…”

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

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

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

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

+++++“I was… I’m just doing my job…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I just… I don’t…” I stammer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Whadaya think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Kid needs braces.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“Yeah, kid. Take your time.”

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

The Screaming Side

“They scream at midnight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What do you mean ‘extreme’?”

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

+++++“You seem nice enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out Cold

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

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

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

+++++“1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .”

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

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

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

+++++“4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .”

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

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

+++++“7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Yes, Sir. I’m good.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++The shouts of the spectators faded, and Marlon felt a lightness: a sort of elation. It was the same emotion he sensed in the seconds before the end of every one of his fights. This was where he lived — in the ring, or the cage, or anywhere where the crowd was on the outside looking in. This was where he was free to express himself. The last few years had seen his record slide from ‘contender’ to ‘journeyman’, but he was still ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene, and this would one of the good days.

+++++“Keep your punches up, fighter.”

+++++‘Motown’ continued with accurate shots like a vulture picking meat off a carcass. He stepped back and shot in with a thunderous straight right to the sternum. A shock wave of pain shot through Marlon’s hand into his forearm.

+++++Jones clutched at the ropes and fell to the canvas in stages. He rolled on the floor in agony.

+++++“No knockdown. No knockdown.” The referee waved his arms in a low crossing motion. “Low blow.”

+++++Was he kidding? That punch was to the chest. The guy was holding his damned ribs. Marlon hung his head. It didn’t matter what he said. This official was going to do his darndest to keep the belt around Gypsy Jones’ waist.

+++++The referee grabbed Marlon by the wrist and marched him around the ring. “One point deduction. One point.”

+++++A group of thugs in the front row made throat-slitting gestures and threw their plastic cups. “Fuck off back to Niggerland. Cheating spook.”

+++++He didn’t expect a fair fight, but now he had a reason to get this over with. He couldn’t wait to get on the plane home — back to the gym, the kids, even the debt. Normality.

+++++The referee gave Jones the full five minutes to recover from the ‘illegal’ blow, and he came out for the last few seconds of the round refreshed.

+++++Gypsy Jones removed his mouthpiece. “Get the fuck off my turf.”

+++++Marlon awoke to a bright light shining into his right eye. He was lying flat, looking up at two paramedics and the fight official. Fuck. His right hand was broken and his jaw felt like it had been hit with a tire iron. He tried to sit up, but the official holding the flashlight pushed him back down by the chest.

+++++“Unlucky, fella,” said the official. “Fight’s over. He got you.”

+++++A weary Marlon raised his head a little and looked around the sports hall. He caught the same smell of cologne and stale beer and saw the fans moving around in a buzz of activity. Some of them were still chanting. God damn it. Marlon wanted to be sick. Now he faced the hospital forms, the painkillers, and another long layoff. Why did he let himself believe? Just for a few minutes, he had thought about that leather belt around his waist; imagined the calls from the sponsors; signed autographs for the first time in a long time.

+++++The paramedics carried the stretcher out of the ring toward the double door. You had to take your losses and move on, but this loss somehow felt final. Marlon closed his eyes and eased his hands up behind his head. He wasn’t ashamed of his performance, but he was tired of the nauseating losses and ‘I told you so’s’. Why did he continue to put himself through the pain and ridicule? That phone call to Tracy-Ann wasn’t going to be fun.

DO YOU HAVE THE BOTTLE?

Sarah made her way along the wine racks that lined the walls of the cellar, running her fingers across the array of protruding bottles. She would occasionally stop, pressing the base of the bottle firmly, lifting it from its resting place, checking the thickness of the glass. She didn’t care if it was a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, all that mattered to her was the thickness of the bottles base and how it felt when she held it in her hands.

+++++Through the open door above, which led to the kitchen, she heard her boss, Colin, calling. “Come on, Sarah. Grab a bottle and get back up here. A full body red will do.” Even his voice repulsed her.

+++++Selecting a bottle, she made her way back between the racks to the bottom of the steps that led up to the kitchen. As she climbed, she could already feel the temperature in the cellar, automatically adjusting itself.

+++++“Optimum temperature to store wine is between eight and fourteen degrees,” Sarah recalled Colin bragging as she sipped the wine he had offered her on her first visit. The next thing she remembered, was waking up naked in his bed, bruised and sore. That had been a week ago and now the office had sent her around again with more “urgent” paperwork, requiring Colin’s signature.

+++++Sarah stepped into the kitchen where Colin stood waiting, a grotesque grin on his sweaty face.

+++++“Ah, there you are. I thought you’d got lost down there. Now, come on, let me grab a couple of glasses and we can make ourselves more comfortable in the Den.”

+++++As Colin turned to pick up the glasses from the bench, Sarah swung the bottle. It connected with the back of his head with a satisfying, “THUNK”. Colin crashed to the floor, a handful of blue pills falling from his open hand. Blood was already beginning to spread across the back of his silk pyjamas.

+++++Sarah casually brushed fragments of bone and scalp from the bottle, opened it and took a deep drink, safe in the knowledge that this time it didn’t contain Rohypnol. Because this time, Sarah wanted to remember everything. Slowly, she began to remove Colin’s pyjamas.

A BIG APPETITE

Lenny knew the odds of dying in a car wreck within a lifetime were one in 113. Compare that to being killed by lightning, one in 174,426.

+++++Yet that still didn’t prepare him for the sound of the heavy-duty pickup T-boning the black Audi with a terrific CRUNCH at the intersection of Franklin and Highland. It was enough to send shivers through Lenny.

+++++And something else. Hope.

+++++The eerie silence that followed reminded Lenny of that time at Davey’s, the lame hipster joint in Silver Lake. When he’d slammed Trevor Chapman’s face into the pool table over and over until the son of a bitch collapsed with a thud onto the concrete floor. Left streaks of blood and snot all over the shiny wood and green felt. The dead silence immediately afterward prompted Lenny to get the hell out. Although he knew none of those douchebags would come after him. Fucking pussies.

+++++Exact sensation now at Franklin and Highland. As if all the energy was sucked into a vacuum. Thwiiiick! Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.

+++++Then the vacuum whirred to life. Cars pulled to the curb. Others drove slowly around the wreckage, classic rubberneckers.

+++++Lenny pulled over and made his way down the hill. Glass and plastic debris littered the street and sidewalk. From where he stood he could see the female driver of the Audi pitched forward like a mannequin, blonde hair fanned out over the wilted airbag. Her tanned arm now a filthy red.

+++++Sirens in the distance. Lenny turned and trudged back up Highland, sweat pooling underneath his arms.

+++++Odds were that Ella Simms was dead. Lenny hoped that would be enough.

+++++You call that payback, you weak fuck? I am Revenge. I am not Sheer Luck. I am not Coincidence.

+++++Lenny flinched at the beast’s words.

+++++“But she’s dead. That should be enough,” he said as he climbed inside his SUV. He stared at the chaos down the hill. The metal carnage glinting in the sun like wadded-up aluminum foil.

+++++I will not be ignored, motherfucker.

***

+++++The Cape Cod-style monstrosity sat smugly at the top of the circular driveway. Lenny and his SUV sat at the bottom. He eyed the baseball bat lying across the passenger seat. A pistol next to it.

+++++It was time to increase his odds. Lenny was tired of the house winning every time. He knew Revenge, the beast, was tired of it too.

+++++Give me more.

+++++Revenge was a hungry bastard.

+++++That’s where Donald Chapman came in. And why Lenny was camped outside his Cape Cod-style mansion in Brentwood on a lovely Sunday morning.

+++++Because Ella Simms sure as hell didn’t fill Revenge up. Watching her fly across Franklin into a light pole didn’t quite have the same satisfaction as bashing her head in with a baseball bat.

+++++Even when he’d read online the next day that her upper torso was practically severed from her legs, Revenge insisted that was pathetic. Like feeding a starving lion a scrawny mouse.

+++++Did she suffer excruciating pain and terror while wedged in that mangled hunk of metal?

+++++“I don’t know,” Lenny had said, staring dully at the computer screen.

+++++Then we have a big fucking problem.

+++++Lenny wished the beast would leave him alone. Let him and Cecilia heal.

+++++But you invited me to the party. Don’t you remember?

+++++“Yeah, I remember,” Lenny said.

+++++It happened at Davey’s. Back when the beast was just an itty bitty parasite. A virus Lenny couldn’t shake.

+++++He’d only intended to scare the kid. Maybe permanently disfigure Trevor’s pretty boy face. But the asshole ended up dying from a bleeding brain. When he fell on the bar’s concrete floor.

+++++Lenny wasn’t crying any tears when he found out. He wanted to kill the son of a bitch. For assaulting and raping his daughter and only getting a slap on the wrist. Thanks to the Ivy League lawyer bitch, Ella Simms. And the fat judge with the bald head. Sentencing Trevor to a pathetic hundred hours of community service. What the fuck was that?

+++++Cecilia was seeing a therapist but it’d be a long time before she’d be able to have a healthy relationship. At least she was young, only nineteen, Dr. Feinstein reassured Lenny.

+++++That’s weak fuckin’ sauce. Revenge’s words, not Lenny’s. Lenny wanted to believe Dr. Feinstein. Needed to latch on to hope.

+++++But Revenge only grew more powerful. By the time, Lenny was released from California State Prison for murdering Trevor, the parasite inside him had become a roaring monster.

+++++Feed me more fear. More pain.

+++++Lenny tried to tell the beast that Trevor is dead. Time to move on. But he knew it was no use. Trevor’s death was a stroke of luck.

+++++At first, Lenny promised the beast a bullet in the judge’s bulbous head. What a disappointment when Lenny got out of the joint, only to learn the lardass died of a heart attack three months earlier.

+++++Heart disease was the number one killer. Your odds of dying of a heart attack were one in seven. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Especially because the judge was obese. Increased his chance of dying of heart failure by sixty percent.

+++++But tell that to the beast. Revenge didn’t give a fuck about odds and percentages. He wasn’t like Lenny who had obsessed over death statistics since he was a kid. All the beast cared about was getting fed. So it could grow bigger. Stronger.

+++++So next in line had been Ella Simms, Trevor’s high-powered attorney. Lenny wanted to do it right too. Not make a big show of it.

+++++He’d followed Ella’s Audi daily to Simms & Saacke Law Group out in Century City. And to her weekly tryst at the W Hotel. With the dark-haired gentleman. The one who had her screaming, “Oh yes, right there!”

+++++The dark-haired man always left the room first, Ella followed ten minutes later. Lenny planned to knock on the door once he saw the man leave. Near-perfect odds that she’d open it, assume her lover had forgotten something. Or wanted round two. Then Lenny would shove his way in.

+++++Then again, Lenny thought it was near-perfect odds that she’d actually get to the W in one piece. But the beast knew how that went.

+++++What Lenny wanted to know now was how likely a third person would slip through Revenge’s scaly little claws.

+++++Pretty unlikely, yet Lenny wasn’t taking any chances this time. Screw plotting and planning. It was time for balls-out action. Just like at Davey’s.

+++++Donald Chapman—the father of the scumbag rapist—was going to have his brains bashed in in the comfort of his own home. And if his wife and now-only child were there, Lenny would kill them too. That’s what the pistol was for.

+++++Because odds were his wife and kid would be there. Probably all sitting down to a pancake breakfast.

+++++Lenny climbed out of the SUV, shoved the pistol down the back of his jeans, and grabbed the baseball bat. He walked up to the front door and rang the bell.

+++++It’s feeding time. Hallefuckinglujah.

Just Give Me the Gas

He said I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal. I asked for his wife’s pink taco on a tray. Told him I might need extra napkins, too. And something to wash her down with, maybe a tall glass of cherry cola.

+++++Instead, Chuck brought me fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a bottle of milk. His goofy smile told me I was about to eat food seasoned with a combination of tobacco juice and snot. He’s a sadistic tool but I kinda admire his evil, he owns it, doesn’t hide from it. I tear into the crunchy breast, never taking my eyes off his, both of us enjoying the moment. I’m swallowing part of him. He’s staring right through me.

+++++“Tick tock,” he says, moving his hand like a pendulum. “Almost time.”

+++++“Tick tock? You’re a clever one. How long it take you to come up with that, a month?”

+++++“We’ll see if that mouth of yours runs when you’re sucking gas, Ronnie. The killer gets killed, how ironic.”

+++++I’m shocked he threw a word like ironic at me. Before I can sling something back, he walks away, his keys jingling like a deranged funeral march.

+++++I’m here because of a propane tank. A fucking propane tank. A new kid at the factory left an empty one on the back of a forklift, leaving me to haul back a fresh one. I told him if it happens again, I’ll clock his pretty face with a wrench. He called me an old-timer, told me to chill out. It ain’t the end of the world. Then he rolled his eyes and shook his head all dismissive like. Same way my dad did when I asked for lunch money. Same way mom did when I wanted something besides whipped cream for dinner. Same way everybody in that shithole did when I talked about anything. I decided to chill out by busting his skull with that wrench I warned him about. Then the wrench found the foreman’s head, and Henry’s, the cocky tool and die guy who cleared more than any of us and made sure we knew it.  A wrench doesn’t care about dollar signs. Two dead and one who’ll never write his name again before I was tackled by some heroic press operators.

+++++It’s stuck in my head now: tick tock tick tock tick tock. Chuck is a purebred mother fucker. He’s back at my cage, grinning like an addict cashing out at the plasma center.

+++++“The preacher is on his way,” he says.

+++++“Fuck that. Tell him to go wash the warden’s feet or nail himself to a telephone pole.”

+++++His smile is a dull blade. “You’ve had plenty of convicts inside you, wouldn’t hurt to let some God in too. Might soothe your dead soul before the rest of you is dead,” he says, glancing at his watch. “Speaking of, you’re ten minutes away from the gurney. Best get your repenting done, buttercup. Tick tock.”

+++++I couldn’t decide if I wanted to chew his face off or have a beer with him. He’s been a stone-cold dick since day one. All dick all the time. But he’s the realest fucker in here, ain’t even close. Gotta respect a man for being so damn devoted. “No preacher, no more shit from you. Just give me the gas,” I say. “Fill me with poison. I’m not sweating it.”

+++++He finally leads me down the hall of tears. His massive hand is guiding me by the elbow. I stay hard on the outside, but I’m fucking scared. I want to scream but can’t. I want Chuck to slow his roll but I know he won’t.

+++++“Tick tock,” he says a final time. “Tick tock, killer.”

+++++I should’ve talked to that preacher, but I stayed stupid until the end. I can almost see my dad in his beat-up recliner, eyes wild as brush fire, shaking his head all dismissive like.

And Goodwill to All Men

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

+++++“Hey, Tim. Nobody home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Okay.”

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

+++++“Okay.”

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

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

+++++“Hey,” he called upstairs.

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

+++++“A safe?”

+++++“Yeah. In the closet up here.”

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

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

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

+++++“Neither do I.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I’d imagine so.”

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

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

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

+++++“Let’s see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Nada.

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Crime Carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XXXMAS BOOGALOO

Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

+++++Four hours later.

+++++Check-out time.

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

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

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

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

+++++“Do I have a choice?”

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

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

+++++I grunt.

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

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

+++++Fuck it.

+++++I was heading that way anyway…

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

+++++I shrug.

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

+++++His expression sours.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Nice dress.”

+++++She shrugs.

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

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

+++++“Early Christmas present…”

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

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

+++++She pouts.

+++++“£50.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“Who’s your boyfriend?”

+++++“Me.”

+++++I turn around slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I’m gonna ruin you, cunt.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“Sorry.”

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

+++++“Don’t be. I’m not.”

*

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

+++++“Good evening, Mrs. Dominguez…”

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

The Pastor’s Mistress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Unrest

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Morning, Dave,” said Earnest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“It’s what they are.”

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

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

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

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

+++++“We’re getting close, guys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“How’s the riot going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Probably not.”

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

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

+++++“Is survival enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I carry that MP5, you know.”

+++++“I do. Nice gun,” I replied.

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

+++++“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“We’d better hurry,” Chuck said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Did It My Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“You’re a goddamn cop?”

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

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

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

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

FOR SALE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

CHOICES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness of the Night

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

+++++“How is it going Mandy?”

+++++“I’m bored King! “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“She is ready to go to school.”

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

+++++“I’ll be back at three for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“How much?”

+++++“Four hundred for half an hour.”

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

+++++“Six hundred for an hour.”

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

+++++“Anything goes, right?

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

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

+++++“So how did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When The Shadow Begs to Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++3.

+++++2.

+++++1.

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

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

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

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

Let the Towns Drift Slowly By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++You can’t talk to him.

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

+++++You can’t reason with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sixth Sister

Saturday. 12:30 am.

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

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

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

11 pm.

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

12:30 am.

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

1 am.
The Elk’s River bridge.

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

A Bed of Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tom’s eyes pleaded with her.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tom’s eyes closed.

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

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

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

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