Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Issue #60 -- February 2020

49,000 WAYS TO DIE

By Tom Leins

The meaty motherfucker with the leprous complexion is taking his Doberman for a shit on the grass when I hit him.

I’m wearing brass knuckles, so I rupture his ear and rip out his hooped earring in the process.

He’s wearing tracksuit bottoms and dress shoes, like an alcoholic on laundry day. He probes the ruined ear warily with calloused fingertips. To his credit he doesn’t whine, just looks up curiously, trying to work out who the fuck I am.

“I’m looking for your uncle.”

He wipes his bloody fingers on his trousers and reaches for the bottle of Lucozade he dropped when I hit him. He takes a swig and belches. Then he grins, revealing rotten, overlapping teeth.

“Fuck off, son.”

I drop my Slazenger kit bag on the dead grass at his feet and remove the nail gun, pointing it at his crotch.

“Let’s try that again shall we, mate? Where can I find Harold King?”

He glares up at me through jaundiced, piss-coloured eyes and spits on the dead grass.

“Try hell.”

Six Hours Earlier

I rinse my throat with a double vodka. Although it’s only eleven a.m., I feel no shame. This time last month my jaw was wired shut and my skin felt dead to the touch. One way or another, I think I’ve earned it.

I’m sitting in a swivel chair still greasy from its previous occupant, staring out of a small window that overlooks the back yard of the North Atlantic Video Lounge. Two Cantonese men are unloading soggy-looking cardboard boxes in preparation for one of Barry Balthazar’s notorious ‘Sunday Suppers’.

Worryingly, it’s only Thursday.

I help myself to another drink. Beer this time. They’ve started selling cut-price alcohol in the cramped basement of the video shop. Six feet under, like the minimart from hell. Unbranded, foreign, out-of-date booze—they keep the bottles and cans locked behind a fucking cage, and you point to the ones you want with a discarded hospital crutch that used to belong to Mr Balthazar. It’s a nice touch.

I inherited the office from a deranged ex-cop known as Wet-Look. Much like him, I’ve become a magnet for unbalanced souls. The doomed and the fragile. Misfits consumed by violence, anger and pain. Hopeless people looking for hope in a town already bled dry of optimism.


“You don’t remember me, do you?”

I shrug.

Her accent is Eastern European, her voice choked with anger.

“Lady, I don’t remember half the shit I’ve done.”

She glares at me. Forty, or thereabouts. Ragged around the edges, but better preserved than me.

“People say you are a maniac. A fantasist. A degenerate. A drunk. I tell them the truth. I tell them you are a good man.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered.”

She removes a chain from her slender neck and wraps it around my wrist.

“Saint Andrzej Bobola. The hunter of souls. He was tortured to death during the Khmelnytsky Uprising. I suspect you need this more than I do, Mr Rey.”

I reach for my beer, spilling it as I shrug. “You’ll get no arguments from me, sweetheart.”

She reaches across the desk and caresses my face.

I flinch, in spite of myself.

“I want to hire you.”

I used to be a sucker for a damsel in distressed denim.

“I’m not taking on new work. The phone’s been ringing off the fucking hook…”

I gesture to the dusty telephone. It dawns on me that I don’t even know my own number.

She frowns, brown eyes burning with hurt.

“Anyway, you’re talking to the wrong man. I can’t even find my fucking bottle opener.”

I retrieve an unlabelled bottle from the carrier bag at my feet and hold it near the edge of the scarred desk. I slam the palm of my hand down on the bottle top, and it skitters across the desk, froth erupting from the mouth of the bottle.

“Mr Rey, I want to hire you to find my murderer.”

I laugh—in spite of myself.

I trail a finger through the spilled beer, then wipe away the puddle with my sleeve.

“I have money, if that is what you are worried about?”

She empties her handbag on the desk. A grubby roll of banknotes fastened with a plastic hairband tumbles out.

I shake my head. Enough talking for one day.

A tiny tear rolls down her face. She visibly deflates and has trouble lifting herself out of the orange plastic visitor’s chair.

I scramble out of my swivel chair and offer her my arm. She waves me aside, and groans as she gets to her feet.

I follow her down the rickety staircase to street-level, intending to lock the door behind her so I can get drunk in peace.

She turns to face me. I half expect her to shout at me, but instead she sounds calm.

“Goodbye, Mr Rey. I will see you in the next life.”

Then she steps backwards into the road—in front of a Poundland eighteen-wheeler—and her dainty body is mangled with a sick crunch.


I stoop down, clumsily fumbling at her throat to check for a pulse, but the thick torrents of blood oozing out of her ears convince me I’m wasting my time. I look down at her and her mouth seems to be curled into a half smile. Then I see the fucking photographs.

A handful of Polaroids have spilled out of the pockets of her denim jacket. I grab them, slipping them into my pocket before anyone notices. Then I melt into the crowd, the throat-ripping screams of the bystanders ringing in my rotten ears.

Only when I have rounded the corner onto Church Street do I withdraw the Polaroids for a proper look.

There are four of them, all featuring her—naked. The last one is the worst. You can’t see her face, but the abrasions and cigarette burns on her torso match the other photos. At the bottom of the image, a leather-gloved hand holds a battered yellow nail gun over her midriff.

I turn the picture over. In marker pen, someone has written ‘KLAUDIA, FEBRUARY 2020’ in block capitals and the name hits me like a knuckleduster.

I knew a girl called Klaudia once. I rescued her from a Hyde Road brothel so that she could experience a different kind of happy ending. Or so I thought.

I guess that never fucking happened.

According to the government, Church Street is the second most deprived street in the whole of Devon. Despite its proximity to my new office, I tend to give it a wide berth. Then again, while I’m out and about I may as well pay a visit to an old friend.

Life hasn’t been kind to Wojtek Jaworski Jr. since his Dad died. Turns out no one wanted to deal with the old man’s worthless, coked-up son. Most of the family’s criminal enterprises withered and died before the rotten old fucker’s body had even gone cold.

The house I’m searching for has a badly scuffed punchbag suspended from a steel bracket on the front wall. It dangles listlessly over the small front garden, swaying like a wet-brain after two litres of Diamond White.

I look at the windows. The panes have been painted over with white emulsion and remind me of the dead, milky eyes of a stomped skull.

I unhook the punchbag from the bracket and launch it at the downstairs window. It’s single-glazed and shatters on impact.

Junior is the first man out of the door. It’s been a while since I have seen him, and the dude is seriously ’roided up.

“Rey? What the fuck do you want?”

Despite his bulk, he looks wary of me. Rattled.

“A quick word.”

He nods and hustles me into the terraced house.

“Step inside. You hanging around outside is bad for fucking business.”

Wojtek necks two fingers of vodka from a stained mug but doesn’t offer me any. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, slowly regaining his composure.

“Do you still run Polish girls, Wojtek?”

“What, no small talk? After all this time?”

“Just answer the fucking question.”

He gestures at the two strung-out looking teenagers sprawled across the collapsed velour couch.

“Where are you from?”

They blink at each other.

In an accent thicker than superglue, the brunette slurs: “Foxhole.”

I roll my eyes and Wojtek grins nastily at me.

“Tell you what, Rey. Arm wrestle me. If you win, ask me anything you want. If I win, you fuck off.”


He beckons to his sidekick, Stanislaw, a leathery older guy with a mismatched hairpiece who used to work for his father, and barks something in Polish. Stanislaw nods.

I know Wojtek’s drug-addled brain is plotting something. I’m mildly curious, so I join him at a dining table. It’s badly scarred with cigarette burns and reminds me of fucking Klaudia.

We assume the position and grip one another’s hands.

“May the best man win.”

“Don’t worry, he fucking will.”

After less than ten seconds I feel the plastic bag from a defunct Polski Sklep yanked over my fucking head from behind. I try to regulate my panicked breathing, but it isn’t working. Fuck it. I grope under the table for the rubberised grip of the pig-knife in my boot and slam the blade sideways into the flesh above Wojtek’s left knee, twisting it sharply. Finally, he lets go of my fucking hand.

The bag loosens around my throat and I lurch up—savagely crunching my head into Stanislaw’s jaw. I tear the plastic bag with the bloody tip of the pig-knife and gulp down ragged breaths of air.

I rip the bag off my head and walk around the table to Wojtek, who holds his hands up.

“We were just fucking with you, Rey! We weren’t going to kill you!”

“You need to work on your fucking banter, mate.”

I slam an elbow into his face and his nose snaps with a dry crack.

Stanislaw touches my elbow. I turn slowly, half expecting a revolver in the ribs, but he’s merely wiping blood off his lips with the back of his wrist.

“What do you want to know?”

I show him a photo—not the one with the nail gun—and he frowns, lines cutting deep grooves into his already craggy face.

“I do not recognise the girl, but I do recognise the handiwork. We banned a man for doing something similar to Wojtek’s teenage cousin last year.”

Banned him? I would have fucking skinned him.

Stanislaw tells me the name, and I help him to nail a rotten piece of hardboard over the ruined window.


Mickey Maramolinas is a local takeaway kingpin—he owns more fast food restaurants than I’ve had hot dinners. His son Michael is a piece of shit.

Ever since his father treated him to a prostitute on his thirteenth birthday, Michael has liked to stub his post-coital cigarette out on the object of his affection. The motherfucker just turned thirty-two—so that’s a lot of fucking cigarettes.

When I track him down, Michael is working behind the counter at a fish and chip shop called The Cod Father.

“What can I get you, pal?”

“Cod and chips, please, Michael. And a can of fucking Fanta.”

“Is that everything?”

“Oh, and a packet of Superkings too. That’s your favourite brand, right? I’ve heard you like the smell they make when they’re extinguished on flesh…”

He recoils. “Fuck. Are you a cop?”

I open my jacket and remove the Polaroids for his inspection. “Do you see a fucking badge, mate?”

He leans against the chrome counter, breathing heavily. “What do you want?”

I don’t say anything, just drag him over the till by his throat and batter him with a couple of brutal right hooks.

I’m about to hit him a third time when I see the meat cleaver.

It’s been polished to a deep gleam and is being brandished by Mickey, a small stocky man with a thick clump of unruly chest hair protruding from behind his white short-sleeved shirt. His stonewashed jeans have been pulled up improbably high and are belted halfway across his torso.

“Let go of my son, Mr Rey, or I’ll hack off your hands and drop them in the deep-fat fryer.”

I back off and raise my hands.

I retrieve the Polaroids from the floor and show the old man.

“Did he do it?”

He grunts. “How old is the photograph?”


“Then my son is not the man you are looking for.”

“You expect me to take your word for that, Maramolinas?”

The old man clears his throat.

“Michael. Stand up. Show Mr Rey your chest.”

He winces and struggles to his feet, nose leaking blood.

“My son is a slow-witted boy.”

Michael sheepishly removes his striped apron and lifts his Cod Father polo shirt. His torso is pockmarked with cigarette burns—fucking hundreds of them. There are so many where his left nipple should be that all that remains is a bloody, pus-filled crater.

“He needed a little encouragement to see the error of his ways.”

Maramolinas beams proudly at me and switches the cleaver from his left hand to his right hand.

“Now jog on, son.”


Clem Phlegm is an ex-punk, who used to sell video nasties and cassette tapes at Torquay Indoor Market, but now runs a second-hand emporium on Winner Street called Hardcore Pawn. It’s mostly legit, but he has been known to stock assorted criminal ephemera and isn’t squeamish about fencing stolen goods.

He used to have a foot-high mohawk, but his head was shaved for an operation and his hair never grew back. Still, once a punk, always a punk—the guy smells like a petrol station toilet.

“I’m looking for a nail gun. Used.”

Clem nods and limps across the shop.

He places the nail gun on the chest freezer that doubles as his desk.

“It’s your lucky day, Joe. Got it in this morning.”

I don’t have to check the photo to know it’s the same fucking item.

In the corner, I spot a wheelie bin full of potential melee weapons—golf clubs, cricket bats, even a baseball bat with nails hammered through it.

I have a rummage, and at the bottom of the bin I find a rusted knuckleduster with the word ‘MEAT’ spelled out across the knuckles in chunky, inch-high letters.

I pay for my purchases and then peel off an extra tenner and slide it across the chest freezer.

“Who sold you the nail gun, Clem?”

He looks momentarily conflicted, then pockets the note.



“Herbie King.”

“Who the fuck is he?”

“Harold King’s nephew. You don’t need me to tell you who Harold fucking King is, do you?”


Harold King, was let out of HMP Dartmoor last month on compassionate grounds. Syphilitic dementia, apparently.

He and his twin brother, Horace, used to run a sadist’s disco in the 1970s—a place where disc jockeys, politicians and other sickos could indulge their queasiest fantasies. They were eventually sent down after beating the shit out of a girl with a cut-down length of scaffolding pole in front of an undercover vice cop.

The way I heard it, the two brothers fell out over a jailhouse wedding. Harold picked one of the screws to be his best man over his own brother and Horace stabbed him in the back on his own wedding day, as his bride adjusted her starchy bedsheet wedding dress.

Legend has it that less than an hour later, Harold slit Horace’s throat with the same toothbrush shiv that Horace had left wedged in his back.

Herbal takes me to an abandoned upholsterer’s warehouse, where his uncle is dossing down. We left the Doberman chained to some railings outside a crack house.

I knock him out before he can let Harold know that he has a visitor and edge into the gloom of the interior.

Spindly fingers of sunlight poke through the gaps in the blinds and dust motes linger in the air.

A pair of tramps have been wrapped together—face-to-face—in a length of chicken-wire fence, and they’re grunting, trying to club one another with their misshapen fists.

With his dead-looking skin and huge dentures, Harold King looks like a cheerful corpse. His pinstriped suit looks like it was made for a fatter man. He gestures to his wheelchair.

“You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t get up. It plays havoc with my abscesses.”

I glare at him, hostility coming off me in waves.

He snorts and scratches his cheek with a yellow, overlong fingernail.

“You’re not the law. You can’t fucking touch me.”

I remove the nail gun from my kit bag and his dead eyes light up.

“You’re here about that slimy tart?”

I say nothing, just place the nail gun against the meatiest part of his withered right thigh and pull the trigger. He lets out a strangulated whine and then I move onto the other leg. The nail bites into his flesh again and this time he screams.

“Is that the best you’ve got? Most days I can’t even feel my fucking legs!”

I step behind him and wheel him towards the door.

He reaches into his breast pocket and slashes at me with an old upholstery knife. I crunch the brass knuckles into the back of his neck until he drops the blade and goes slack.


Outside, dusk has settled over Paignton.

Harold tries to speak, but it comes out as a bloody gurgle. I must have dislodged something when I hit his brainstem.

I cram the Polaroids into his jacket pocket.

“See you in the next life, motherfucker.”

I roll him into the fucking traffic.

Tom Leins is the author of the Paignton Noir mysteries SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET, SPINE FARM, SIN CLINIC, SLUG BAIT and BONEYARD DOGS. His other books include the short story collections MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES, REPETITION KILLS YOU and THE GOOD BOOK: FAIRY TALES FOR HARD MEN. 


  1. I love it. Future Rey seems to have moved on from PI work, but he's meaner than a shithouse rat. Probably all the damn carny vodka!

    1. Thanks John! Meaner than a shithouse rat - great phrase! I don't see Rey mellowing with age somehow...