Friday, December 4, 2020

Issue #70 -- December 2020



That is some serious badass work, right there. Brett Holder stood in the middle of the living room, studying with awe the arched ceiling and the beams made of cross-braced steel. Should withstand some powerful rocking when Ole Shakey comes a-knocking. Maybe up to a seven-point-two magnitude or even a seven-point-three. No rattletrap shack, this.

A series of rounded doorways led to the back area where Brett could just spy a concrete-form swimming pool through sliding doors reinforced with steel—naturally—in the kitchen. Yet another sign of the crapload of moolah spent on quake-proofing. The mayor of San Fran should have it so good.

He nodded to his companion. “Looks like you’ve thought of everything.”

“I don’t know, Brett, I don’t know.” Nelson Sanzo looked around with a frown. “I mean, the architect guaranteed this house would last through anything. Even an apocalypse of zombies. But what if he forgot something crucial?”

“Like what?”

“How the hell should I know since I’ve never been through this before? And that’s the problem, isn’t it?” Sanzo looked at Brett hopefully. “That’s why I want you to take a look around. Since you’re an expert on these things. And since you’ve been through quakes before.”

“I’ve been through a lot, that’s for sure.”

“Well, what do you think? Am I forgetting something? I mean, the architect’s good and all. But it’s not his life that’s at stake, is it?” Sanzo started pacing.

The guy had a point there. But Brett didn’t want to get into any conjectural discussions about people’s ethics and motives. He lived with that every moment of every day in his line of work. “I checked on that architect before I arrived. Has a stellar reputation. Lots of satisfied clients.”

Sanzo started to reply but stopped his pacing and stood as still as the Leaning Tower of Pisa—pretty apt since it looked he might topple at any moment. “Did you feel that? I thought I just felt something. There, right there. Is it a quake?” His eyes grew wide, and he bit his lip so hard, it bled.

“Well, I—”

“God. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.” Sanzo started paced around the room again, hardly listening to his companion. “I keep waiting to feel my first one. Hoping it’ll ease my nerves a little. To know what it’s like, you know?”

Brett waited for a moment to see if he felt anything. Hmm. Maybe if he squinted a bit. “Yeah, I think maybe I did feel a little movement. Not too bad, maybe a two or a two-point-one or so. But it could also be one of those early warning precursor types. You know, the ones that signal far worse bumps are on the way.”

“Early warning? I don’t like the sound of that.” Sanzo sat on the edge of a chair. “Blizzards, hail, flooding—I never had a problem with any of that back in Boston.” His voice ended with a squeak. “You’ve lived here a long time, haven’t you, Brett?”

“’Bout twenty years.”

“Do you ever get used to them? To the earthquakes? Even the baby ones?”

“Like you get used to walking around on a broken leg, maybe.” Brett eyed his new friend skeptically. The guy was jittery, might be unpredictable. “Why’d you move out here, anyway, if you’re so scared of the quakes?”

“My job, for one. I’m heading up the west coast branch of Olympic Macro. But it was mostly my ex-wife, Sarah. Tried to rob me blind during the divorce despite the prenup. All because I cheated on her a few times. Figured I needed to put as much distance from her as possible.”

Brett nodded. He knew a thing or two about exes. And putting distance between people.

Sanzo pointed to at a display case filled with unusual baseball-sized rocks dotted with red crystals. “She got the Beamer and the Jag and tried to get her hands on those but failed. Guess I had the better lawyer, didn’t I?”

Brett peered at the case and strode over to take a closer look. The rocks were even more impressive up close. “You know, glass might not be the best choice to display something like that. Or to display anything, for that matter. Not around here.”

“I made sure it was shatter-proof. Something else the architect did for me. And the Red Beryl gems are mounted so they won’t fall off.”

Even mounted so the bottoms were invisible, the five Red Beryl rocks were exquisite. The huge red crystals emerging out of the rocks resembled Superman’s ice fortress of solitude. Brett remembered hearing about items like those rocks selling for a bunch. Guess some people really liked pretty rocks.

Sanzo added, “My attorney wanted me to put them in a safe deposit box, but criminal-types steal from those boxes all the time. Just read about a case the other day. Some heirs went into a bank to rescue some estate jewelry, and it had all disappeared. My security system is much better.”

“And earthquake-proof?”

“It’s rated up to an eight or so. Don’t want every little bump triggering it.” Nelson’s face paled as his eyes grew wide again. “I know I felt one. There, right then. Didn’t you feel it? You must have felt it.”

Brett hadn’t, but most Californians shook off the teensy ones, didn’t they? He humored his companion. “I felt it.”

Beads of sweat broke out on Nelson’s forehead. “I remember all the news reports about Loma Prieta on TV back in 1989. The way those cars got squished on the double-decker Nimitz Freeway. Upper stories of houses pancaking down onto the lower floors. And the fires, Jesus, the fires.”

Brett nodded. “Now, those big ones like that six-point-nine, those are pretty scary. Even for us old-timers. Kind of like the floor turns to Jell-O, and you’re going to get sucked down into it.”

Sanzo frowned at him. “What?”

Brett chuckled. “My mom’s from the South. She likes to make these gelatin salads with pieces of fruit in them. Well, during Loma Prieta, I had a much greater sympathy for that fruit.”

Sanzo didn’t seem to appreciate his attempt at humor and said with a frown, “They need an early warning system. Why don’t they have one, Brett? We pay the government billions each year, and they can’t even come up with one fucking early warning system.”

“And what would you do then, eh? The quakes are going to happen, one way or the other. Any heads up might only give you less than a minute’s notice.”

“What would I do? I’ll tell you exactly what I’d do. Go to my bomb shelter, of course.”

Brett blinked at him. “Bomb shelter?”

“The main reason I bought this place. Other than the views of the Pacific. It came with a shelter left over from the Cold War. I had it done up as an earthquake bunker.”

“Out back?”

“In the basement.”

“Hmm. Guess that would work.” Brett stroked his chin. “Although, seems like I recall one family getting trapped in their basement during a sixer.”

“But that won’t happen here, the architect assured me. The house was built to stay standing. I’ll be fine. And I’ve got it stacked with about a week’s worth of food and supplies.”

“That’s good, that’s good.” Brett nodded. “Get cellphone service down there?”


Brett waved a hand in the air. “Nah, it wouldn’t matter, anyway. A lot of the towers go offline in disasters.”


“Hard to call for help when that happens.”

“Surely there would be a few towers left that work?”

“The police tell people not to use the system. So that the remaining lines can be used for the emergency response.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Sanzo furrowed his sweaty brow. “And how much do we pay their salaries? Why don’t they get other fucking ways to do their business? So victims like us can use phones, too?”

“They do have some alternatives. But they’re pretty busy rescuing people from those crushed cars and pancaked buildings. They need all the resources they can get.”

This time, Brett didn’t have to humor Sanzo as the ground did a little quaky-dance. Brett said, “Might be another precursor. You know, the kind that sometimes builds up to a bigger one. And then that one builds up to an even bigger one. Then ... pow! Hits you with full force.”

Sanzo groaned. “Why couldn’t Olympic Macro send me to Arizona or Texas instead? Warm weather without the ground trying to kill you.”

“I hear you on that. Thought about moving someplace else, myself. Still might. There’s a lot of drug-running down there in Arizona. Might make things interesting.”

When the ground rumbled again, Sanzo shrieked. It was amazing how much a grown man could sound like a teenage girl when his courage turned to crap.

Brett said, “There’s your early warning system, right there. Those little ones, then the big one. One, two, three, boom!”

Sanzo hurried over to a door in the hallway, and Brett followed out of curiosity. Sanzo opened it and looked down. “Gotta reassure myself the earthquake bunker is still there. Just in case this really is the big one. Or the precursor, like you said.”

Brett could see the door at the bottom of the stairs, but not much else. Wondered how long those emergency cans of hash and beans would stay good. The thought of food made him hungry. “Tell you what—why don’t you go get a beer. Courage in a bottle can help a lot. Bring me one while you’re at it. We’ll toast to our good health and the architect’s genius.”

When Sanzo disappeared, Brett decided to look around the front room a bit more and stretch his legs. The sun angle at this time of day was just right to ping off those high wooden beams and back onto that display case of Red Beryl rocks. Made them look a little like stars. Shiny red stars. Or maybe it was more like those fires after Loma Prieta?

Sanzo returned with two bottles and handed one over. But he didn’t have time to open it when the ground started to shake twice as much as before. “Oh, my god, oh my god.” The man had an expression on his face like an agoraphobic in a stadium full of people, the beer all but forgotten. “The bunker, we should go to the bunker.”

“You head on down. I have to grab something from my car. And then I’ll be right behind you. Just don’t lock me out, ’kay?”

Sanzo scurried away and disappeared down the stairs as the rumbling continued for a few seconds. Brett gave the other man just enough time to get into his basement shelter, then grabbed a dining room chair and headed down the stairs. After wedging the chair under the doorknob nice and tight—you’d think the guy would have gotten an upgraded door, too—Nelson made his way back to the living room.

Spying a pillow with a purple-paisley sham cover, he eased the sham off and then made his way to the display case where he deactivated the alarm, grabbed the Red Beryl rocks, and placed them in the sham case. Made a pretty good sack for loot, it did. Just the right size.

Brett looked at his watch and chuckled to himself. The Southstone Zinc Mine was punctual, for sure. Every first Monday of the month at three, and off went the depth charges like clockwork. Boom, bang, boing. The locals had warned him it felt remarkably like an earthquake, and damn if they weren’t right. Too bad Sanzo hadn’t been there long enough to find that out for himself.

Good thing, too, the architect Sanzo hired developed a pretty loose tongue after a few whiskey sours. It had been all too easy to learn about that “bomb shelter” tidbit.

Brett went to his car and slid into the driver’s seat. They might find his fingerprints later on the chair and doorknob, but it wouldn’t matter because he wasn’t in the system. The invisible man. No fixed address, certainly not in California. Or anywhere, for that matter. Had to stay nimble and mobile in his business, ready to go wherever a new gig warranted it. Depending on the client, of course.

And this particular client, by the name of Sarah Sanzo—as in the ex-Mrs. Nelson Sanzo—had promised him ten percent of the black-market sales of these here Red Beryl rocks. He figured that would net him about fifty grand.

Oh, and he really would call the police at some point. Really. Poor Sanzo might have enough rations for a time, but possibly not enough for weeks or months. Brett might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t a murderer.

All that talk of rations made him hungry again, and Brett had a sudden craving for Jell-O salad. Maybe if he drove straight through with a couple quick shut-eye stops in rest areas, he’d make it to Mississippi by Wednesday. Bentley’s Diner there made a pretty good gelatin salad, heavy on the fruit. Fifty grand was going to buy him an awful lot of gelatin salad.

BV Lawson’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and honored by Derringer, Golden Fedora, and Gemini Magazine Awards, and she was also a contributor to the Anthony Award-winning Blood on the Bayou. BV’s Scott Drayco crime novels have also been named Best Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, chosen as a Featured Library Journal Pick, and been a finalist for Shamus, Silver Falchion, Daphne Award, and Foreword Reviews book awards. BV lives in Virginia with her husband and enjoys flying above the Chesapeake Bay in a little Cessna. Visit her website at No ticket required.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Issue #69 -- November 2020


By Michael Penncavage

Barry opened the panty door and reached for the serving platter perched on the top shelf. It was a bone china with a light blue lattice pattern that had been in the cabinet since Thanksgiving when Beth had last used it. It had been a gift from their wedding shower and was part of a larger set. Over the years, several of the dinner plates had chipped and a few sets of silverware had been accidentally lost to the garbage can, but the serving platter remained pristine, mainly due to its infrequent use.

Barry carefully wrapped the platter in a terry bath towel to keep it secure, then placed it into a shopping bag.

“Where are you going with that?”

Beth was standing in the doorway. Her arms were folded and she didn’t look happy.

“I need it for work.”


“It’s just for tonight.”

“Tonight?” she repeated, her voice softening somewhat. “You didn’t mention…”

“I know. I didn’t want to bring it up.”

“It’s been a while since...”

Barry let out a sigh. “I know.”

“What else are you taking?”

He opened a drawer. “Do we still have the lobster cracker?”

“Lobster cracker? Sure.” She pointed. “Top drawer. It’s probably in the back. Been a while since we had lobster. Are you even allowed to bring that to work?”

“I’m not sure.” Barry fished through the drawer until he found it. He placed it into the bag and looked over at her. “I’ve got to go.”

“You’ll be home late?”

Barry nodded. “Don’t stay up for me.”


The overhead sky was a gun metal grey as he drove. He tried to remember when he had last seen a blue sky. A really blue, cloudless sky. He tried to remember but couldn’t.

There was a steel mill situated on the outskirts of town, the last of its kind. Once there had been a dozen textile mills and a factory that made washing machines alongside the steel plant but they had all shuttered long ago, taking with them countless jobs and leaving nothing behind but crumbled buildings and crumbled lives.

From within the mill two concrete stacks emitted plumes of grey smoke that drifted high into the sky, regardless of the time of day. He often wondered what exactly was coming out of them. It was probably best he didn’t know.

A few minutes later he pulled into the Food Bear parking lot. Only a handful of cars were there. A light, cold drizzle had begun to fall. It wasn’t strong enough for an umbrella but it still misted up his glasses.

The sliding doors parted with a rusty squeal as Barry walked into the supermarket. Closest to the entrance two cashiers were manning registers. Both checkout lanes were empty. One of the cashiers was on their phone.

Muzak played overhead from tinny speakers, sounding louder than intended due to the lack of noise. Barry’s shoes echoed through the cereal and juice aisle until he reached the rear of the store.

Hugh Stephenson was carefully working the ice box that displayed the fish. He looked up as he heard the approaching footsteps. He sported a welcoming grin but it quickly vanished as he saw who is was. Barry did his personal food shopping at the Food Market on the other side of town. He only shopped at Food Bear for work.

Hugh nodded solemnly. “Barry,” he said. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah. It has,” Barry said. “Family been well?”

Hugh nodded. “Peter is in his final year and Jennifer is a freshman.”

“Freshman?” Barry chuckled and shook his head. “Damn. I remember when she running around in her diapers. Where the hell does the time go?”

Hugh looked at Barry with troubled eyes. “So…you’re here to pick something up?”

“That’s right.” He looked past the tilapia, trout, and clams until he saw the lobster tank. A half dozen stared back at him, seemingly resigned to their fate. “Those guys fresh?”

Barry started packing tuna steaks into the ice. “Yeah. They arrived yesterday. Straight from Massachusetts.”

“How much will a three-pounder run me?”

“Forty-five, give or take.”

Barry nodded. “Bag me one up, will you?”

“You want me to steam it or are you taking care of that?”

Barry looked at his watch. It was getting late. “Probably best if you did it here.”

Hugh walked over the tank. “Okay. Give me five minutes.”

“Sure. I’ll stop back.” Barry dug into his pocket and reviewed his shopping list. There wasn’t much and Barry should have been able to commit it all to memory, but he didn’t want to forget anything. Vegetables for a salad. He had plenty but he would need to pick up a bottle of blue cheese dressing. Potatoes. He marked a check next to that. He had more than enough of those also. A chocolate cake. Barry had considered making one from scratch, but the supermarket’s bakery was surprisingly good.

Barry also picked up a loaf of Italian bread. The one with the hard crust and the seeds. It hadn’t been requested but he felt confident it would be well received.


A large white sack was resting atop the seafood counter by the time he returned. Barry looked around but Hugh was nowhere to be seen. Barry wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t expecting Hugh to still be there. The earlier conversation had most likely been enough for Hugh.


Barry drove back in silence. Normally, he would have turned on NPR to pass the time. All Things Considered was playing, but Barry opted instead to listen to the wind whistling through open windows. To be left alone with his thoughts was all that he wanted at the moment.


Twenty minutes later he pulled up to the security gate. Burt Carey stepped out of the guard booth and tipped his hat at him. “Evening, Barry.”

“Evening, Burt. How has everything been today?”

Burt shook his head. “Not good. You can feel the tension in the air. It’s been getting worse with each hour that passes.”

“What time do you get off?”

“Ten o’clock.”

“You’re not going to be here…”

No. No overtime for me tonight. I just want to get home, take a long hot shower, have a beer or two, and go to bed.”

Barry was going to ask if showers really worked for him but didn’t. He already knew the answer.

Burt stepped back into the guard booth and raised the security gate. Barry drove on until he reached his parking spot.

The metal detector loomed just inside the front entrance. Two guards flanked the machine. Sam was to the left and Steve, who Barry played Texas Hold ’Em on alternative Fridays, was to the right. Gray plastic storage containers were neatly stacked next to a conveyor belt. Barry put one of them onto the conveyor and placed his items into it. Into a separate, smaller container, he emptied his pockets.

Sam waved him through the metal detector. Over by the machine’s monitor, Steve studied the X-ray. “Lobster?” he said. “Got enough for two?”

“Afraid not.”

“We still on for next Friday?”

No alarms went off as Barry stepped through the machine. “Eight o’clock sharp.”

“Do you know if everyone else is going to make it?”

“I think so. No cancellations. At least not yet.”

“That’s good. I need a chance to win my money back. Pete was counting cards last week. I’m certain of it. This time I’m going to make sure I don’t get screwed.”

Sam looked at the video monitor as Barry’s items emerged from the other side of the machine. “I need to take a look inside the bag.” He walked over to it and opened it up.

“It’s a cracker for the lobster,” Barry answered before the question was even asked.

“I’m not sure if this can go in.”

“How else can you eat lobster?”

Sam thought about it for a moment. “Fine. You can deal with it at the next checkpoint.”

Barry picked up the bag. “You fellas take it easy tonight.”

“You going to be here until…?” asked Sam.

Barry nodded and began walking away.


A short time later he arrived in the kitchen. The room was quiet. Dinner had been served early and the room had been scrubbed down for the night. The air stank of bleach. Pots and pans hang from ceiling racks while the knives were locked inside thick Plexiglas cases, all carefully cataloged and accounted for as if they were rare butterflies. If any of them ever went missing, it would be a problem.

Barry filled two pots with water and fired up the stove. He removed the lobster from the bag. The aluminum foil was still plenty warm which was good. Reheating the lobster would have made the meat rubbery and bland.

Barry quickly chopped up the broccoli and quartered the potatoes. A few minutes later the water came to a boil in each pot. He placed the broccoli into one and the potatoes into the other.

Barry unwrapped the platter and placed it onto the table.

The water returned to a boil. Barry waited another ten minutes before draining the pots and placing the contents onto the platter. He then removed the lobster from the foil and positioned it in the middle of the platter. The claws were huge and it took some positioning to keep them from hanging off. He wondered if two pounds would have been enough.

Barry glanced at the wall clock. He was right on schedule. From one of the refrigerators, he removed a half stick of butter and placed it next to the bread. He placed the plastic cutlery onto the tray along with the claw cracker. Then, to keep everything from going cold, he wrapped the entire platter in several layers of plastic wrap.

He had just finished when one of the kitchen doors opened. A pair of guards walked inside. He knew them well. Keith Klenhall and Howard Jones. “It’s time. You ready?” asked Howard.

Barry nodded.

Howard looked over at the wrapped platter. “That’s everything?”


“You coming with us?”

“That’s right.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

Barry picked up the platter and began walking toward the door. “I know.” 


It took a while for him to get there. But then, to get anywhere took a while. Locked doors had to be buzzed open. Identification cards needed to be presented. Just before Barry reached his destination, the entire platter had to be placed through another X-ray machine. More questions were asked about the claw cracker. An argument later he was waved through.


The hallway that he walked into was silent. The walls were painted in a dirty blue gray. Each cell that he passed had a cot, a toilet, and a sink bolted into the wall. All the cells were empty. A desk had been set up near the end of the hallway. A guard was sitting behind it. As with most of the guards, Barry recognized him.

Still flanked by Keith and Howard, Barry walked up to the desk and placed the platter down. “How are you doing, Dennis?”

The guard studied the food for a moment. “I’ll need you to remove the wrapping, Barry.”

Barry did so and the smell of lobster quickly permeated the area.

Dennis studied the contents of the platter like he was preparing for an exam. He pointed to the cracker. “That can’t go in.”

“It’s a lobster cracker.”

“Doesn’t matter. It can’t go in.”

“How else is she going to open the damn thing? With her teeth?”

Dennis picked it up and studied it for a moment. “But I want you to take it back with you when you leave.”

“That would mean that I…”

“That’s right.”

Barry stared at the man annoyed. “Fine.”

He picked up the platter and walked over to the cell door. There was a short, loud buzz and the door slid open.

Barry nodded to the occupant. “Hello Denise.”

The woman inside the cell had long blonde hair, tied back tightly with a rubber band. Though she had been confined to the sunless cell for the better part of two years, she had managed to keep her physique. Once, Barry guessed, she could have even been a model. But those days had long passed. Dark rings encircled her eyes from countless nights of restless sleep.

“Lawrence,” she said, closing and putting down the book she had been reading. She didn’t use a bookmark. She wouldn’t be opening it again. She looked down at the lobster and smiled. “That’s quite a monster. I’m impressed.”

He nodded. “It should still be warm.”

“I’m sure it’s fine.” Denise picked up the claw cracker. “I’m surprised they let you in here with this.”

“It wasn’t without an argument.”

“You know if you gave me a metal file and a few days, I could turn this into a shiv.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that.” He gestured at the platter. “I was able to get everything that you wanted.”

“Thank you.” Denise touched the lobster. “It’s still warm.”

“I kept it wrapped.”

She cracked open a claw and forked out some of the meat. As she chewed, she closed her eyes.

“Good?” he asked.

“You have no idea.”

“Lobster not too chewy? It was steamed not too long ago so I didn’t have to reheat it.”

“Not at all. And even if it was, I wouldn’t have cared.” She wiped her hand with a paper towel. “I appreciate the company, but you don’t have to stay.”

Barry opened his mouth to answer, reconsidered, and said, “That’s all right. I want to make sure that everything came out okay.”

She looked at the platter. “That doesn’t look like prison issue.”

“No. It’s from my home.”

She smiled and looked at the platter again. “Wedding present?”

“That’s right. From the registry.”

“It reminds me of the set I used to own.” She looked at it again and smiled. “But that was a long time ago.”


Barry tipped the platter over the kitchen trashcan and watched as empty shells and bread crumbs tumbled in. He washed the platter down and wrapped it back up in the bath towel. He picked up the platter, thought twice, then placed it back down. Barry was off for the next two days. He remembered James, one of the other cooks, mentioning yesterday that they had received in error twenty quarts of blueberries. They had gotten wet, which meant they were going to quickly get moldy.

Barry looked over at the industrial-sized mixer that sat silent in the corner of the room.

It was late.

But he knew that if he went home, he would just end up in front of the television watching reruns.


Barry removed the last of the pies out of the oven and looked at the wall clock. It was twelve fifteen. Midnight had come and gone. If there had been a last-minute clemency, word would have reached him, even here in the kitchen.

It took him another half hour to put the kitchen back to the sterilized way in which he had found it. By the time he was done, the pies had cooled down enough for him to put them in the refrigerator until morning. He didn’t know if anyone in the general population was going to appreciate what he had done. Maybe someone would.

Weariness began to creep in across his shoulders. Barry picked up the platter and placed it into the shopping bag. He looked around the kitchen one last time. Everything seemed to be in order for the morning crew. He switched the lights off, closed the door behind him, and began the long walk back to his car.

Michael Penncavage’s story, “The Cost of Doing Business,” originally appeared in Thuglit, won the Derringer Award for best mystery. One of his stories, “The Converts,” was filmed as a short movie, while another, “The Landlord,” was adapted into a play. Fiction of his can be found in over one hundred magazines and anthologies from seven different countries such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (USA), Here and Now (England), Tenebres (France), Crime Factory (Australia), Reaktor (Estonia), Speculative Mystery (South Africa), and Visionarium (Austria). He has been published by IDW and Ahoy Comics. He has been an Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine as well as the Editor of the horror/suspense anthology, Tales From a Darker State.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Issue #68 -- October 2020


By Bobby Mathews

We were five miles out to sea when Lindley cut the engine and let the boat drift. Occasionally a sea bird would pierce the cobalt sky like an arrow shot toward nowhere, but other than that we were alone with the quiet sound of green waves lapping gently at the boat’s white hull.

“Now we can talk,” he said, “and not worry about curious ears listening in.”

Lindley was around fifty, maybe a couple of years on either side, tan and trim, but other than the hard knots of muscle that bunched in his forearms while he guided the boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, he looked perfectly ordinary. His hair was hair-colored, his eyes a forgettable brown. A couple of inches shorter than six feet. No dimples deepened when he smiled. No scars left an indelible mark for the eye to fall upon. He wore khaki cargo shorts, a white polo, deck shoes, and a long-billed boating cap.

In other words, he looked like ninety percent of the other boat owners at the marina we’d set off from.

That was, I supposed, one reason for his success. Brian Lindley was a nearly forgettable human presence. But if my information was right, Lindley had killed more than sixty people, none of them for love or hate or any other human emotion. Instead, he killed for one reason and one only: the good old American dollar.

The boat rocked us gently back and forth to the rhythm of a lullaby only Mother Earth could hear, causing me to shake my head. I was sitting at a little built-in table on the rear deck (would they still call it a poop deck?) of Lindley’s forty-foot Hatteras Convertible. He dropped into the seat opposite me and waited.

I took my phone out of my purse, and he laughed.

“Won’t work here,” he said. “We’re a bit too far out for signal.”

“I’m just going to record this, if that’s all right.”

He shrugged, but then leaned forward, and in the unrelenting sunlight I saw how stone cold those eyes were. He looked at me as if I weren’t human, as if I were a thing that he could—and would—destroy if he saw fit.

“You’re sure no one will be able to make a voice print?”

“Yes,” I said. “There’s an app that lets me scramble your voice as it records. I’ll have it on for our whole conversation. Listeners will be able to understand your words, but there’s no way to identify your voice.”

“Won’t that sound weird,” he asked, “with your voice digitized, too?”

He was sharp, give him that, and wary as a fox. It had taken me nearly a year of coaxing, wheedling, and begging to get Brian Lindley to talk with me. And then, of course, he wouldn’t talk to me on the phone. It had to be in person. I didn’t mind, though. I thought things would work out better that way, too.

“I’ll cut my part out and re-record my questions, make everything seem just a little more dramatic, a little breathless, you know?”

I recorded thirty seconds of my own voice through the app and played it back for him. I sounded like an old man trapped deep in a well, nothing at all like my normal voice.

He nodded in satisfaction, his eyes narrowed.

“Okay, let’s get to it,” I said, and clicked the app. “This is April Daley with the Just Plain Murder podcast, and our guest today is someone that I’ve been wanting to talk with for a very long time…”

That part would never make broadcast, obviously. But going through the motions made me feel better, made me feel like I was a little bit in control out here alone with a hit man that no one else had ever been able to catch.

I had taken precautions. I’m not an idiot. Two people, my producer and my sound mixer, both knew where I was. Earlier in the week, we’d taken turns using a camera with a telephoto lens to get shots of Lindley aboard his boat. Ava Buchanan, my producer, had gotten what I considered the best one, with Lindley standing at the back of the boat, its name—The Wildflower—written in deep blue cursive on the hull.

If for some reason I didn’t show up at the marina by midnight, Brian Lindley’s photo would be plastered everywhere, and whatever camouflage his perfect ordinariness lent him would be completely blown.

But out here on the boat, alone, just me and him, I felt like a tightrope walker who feels the rope beginning to separate under his feet: you know the rope is going to snap, but you hope you’ve made it safely across before it finally does. If Lindley decided that I was a liability, things could turn bad in a hurry if I didn’t take charge of this interview.

“First question: How did you get started as a hit man? It’s not exactly something you can go to college for, is it?”

Lindley looked away over the calm green water of the Gulf. Somewhere to the North was Panama City Beach and the run-down yacht basin we’d set sail from. Westward was Baton Rouge and New Orleans and Galveston. The boat was blindingly white, and I had to squint through my sunglasses to watch him. For a while, I thought he hadn’t heard me, but he finally shrugged—more to himself than to me, I think—and answered my question.

“I grew up poor, so there was never a real shot at college anyway. But no, there’s no prep course for this kind of work. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s just something I fell into.”

I let the silence spill out between us. It’s a great interview technique, because the person you’re talking with often feels the need to fill the void with something. But Lindley didn’t seem to mind at all. He was perfectly fine talking; not talking didn’t bother him, either. I took a breath.

“How did you start?”

“I pushed a little boy off the roof of the six-story building where we were playing.”

The answer was so straightforward, so naked, that I was taken aback. My impartial journalist mask slipped and fell away.

“You what?”

“This was the kind of kid, he wouldn’t take your lunch money,” Lindley said. “That would be the cliché, wouldn’t it? No, he’d wait until you had your lunch tray in your hands, then he’d walk past you—sneak up on you if he could, so you wouldn’t see it coming—and slap his hand down on the tray, knock it on the floor. It wasn’t…he wasn’t even greedy. He didn’t want the money. He was just mean.”

“What happened?”

“I told him we could see a girl, a high school girl we all knew, changing clothes in her room. The best place to get a good look into her window was from the roof of the building next door. We went in through the fire door, because it was broken, and the kids in the neighborhood played on the roof. At least the boys did. The whole time we’re walking up the stairwell, I’m telling him about the view, if you know what I mean. By the time we were up on the roof, he was raring to go. When he leaned over the edge to get a look at the girl, I gave him a little push. That’s all it took.”

“How old were you?”


Holy shit.

“And how old was he?”

“Same age, I think. We were in the same class. I stayed up on the roof, of course, looking down as he fell, watching him hit the street.”

He shook his head, lost in the memory of it, and I took a look down at my phone to make sure the app was still recording. It was. At the same time, I noticed the service bars on my phone—they were nonexistent, just like Brian said they would be. For a little while, I didn’t say anything, and this time the silence seemed to work.

“I think about that kid from time to time. I did so much wrong there. We were seen together in public, but we were just kids, right? I stayed up on that roof, looking down at the body. People looked up, saw me. I didn’t run. Didn’t try to hide.”

“Were you arrested?”

“No. The cops questioned me, but I didn’t have a whole lot to say. They thought I was in shock; by the time they got to me up on the roof, they thought the kid had fallen. An accident. It—it doesn’t take much, if they’re off-balance anyway. Just a little push.”

“What happened after the cops questioned you?”

“The principal at my school thought it would be good for me to take a few days off from school, and everyone seemed to agree. About a week after the funeral, I came back to class, and the kids who asked me to do it finally paid me.”

“The—wait, the kids in your class hired you?”

He blinked a grin like a caution light—on and off—and said, “Yeah, of course.”

“How much?”

“They pooled their money and came up with twenty-five dollars.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but it was just as well. Now that I’d gotten him started, Lindley opened up like a broken faucet. We talked for nearly four hours—long enough for the sun to sink low in the sky, not quite touching the water, but close enough for the reflected light to reflect and sparkle off the waves. Long enough for my phone battery to run completely down and force me to rely on my memory.

He told me that his rates had gone up significantly, told me about offshore accounts and how he used cutouts in the form of dead drops and legitimate businesspeople as go-betweens to screen himself from scrutiny. He told me he rarely used a gun.

“A gun is traceable, and it’s almost always a mistake to shoot someone,” he said. “If I use one now, I break into a house—never in the city where I’m going to do the hit—and steal one. And when I’m done, the gun is done, too. I take it apart, and then put the parts in different places. In a random garbage bin, in a lake, in a sewer.”

I got the idea that this kind of conversation—essentially shoptalk—was something he craved very badly.

As the interview wound down, Lindley began to act restless. A few times, I touched him, bare slender fingers on the steel cables in his forearms. When I did that, he would be still for a little while. The conversation and the setting were intimate, and I was pretty sure he was going to make a pass at me before we went back. And pretty sure I’d let him.

“We’d probably better head in soon,” he said, finally. We’d been drifting for hours out in the calm sea. He wasn’t quite sure where we were, and I had no idea. Every now and then, we had seen a boat trawl by near the horizon. But no one had come near us.

Lindley disappeared belowdecks, and I followed. I had to use the bathroom—on a boat they call it the head—but I also had another reason: I wanted to get a better look at how the hit man lived. I found that I wasn’t afraid of him, not really. I was mostly fascinated.

I’d waited so long to get to this point, this face-to-face meeting with one of the most secretive, sought-after hit men in the world. I wanted to prolong the experience.

Everything underneath was gleaming teak, from the floor to the walls (they call them bulkheads, April). The salon—that’s kind of a sitting room in miniature—had seating for six or seven people, and there was a built-in dining nook that I saw could be easily converted into a bunk. The cunning little bathroom that Lindley called a head was a tight squeeze for me. Everyone says I’m “tall for a girl” but Lindley and I were the same height, and I wondered if the cramped space aggravated him as much as it did me.

When I was done, I washed my hands and dried them on a clean white towel I was pretty sure Lindley had put out especially for my visit. I opened the door, and there he was, standing—okay, more like looming—in the doorway.

I’m not proud of what happened next, okay? But when I started writing this down, I said I’d tell everything.

We went to bed. Well, I guess we went to bunk. Lindley stepped to me and put his arms around my waist, pulling me to him. I came willingly enough. We kissed, hesitantly at first, and then more firmly as his passion grew.

He was surprisingly gentle. We made it to the bunk, and then my simple A-line dress was above my waist and my underwear was an afterthought. I want to be flowery here and talk about making love and all that stuff that a twenty-six-year-old girl is supposed to believe in. But it was sex, that’s all. I’d known it was going to happen from the moment I stepped on the boat, and even if I wasn’t totally engaged, I was a willing participant. I wanted to have sex with him, to be with someone who had held the power of life or death in his hands.

Afterward, I went back to the head and cleaned myself up as much as I could in that tiny space, and we went up to the deck. There was a difference in him now, a kind of courtesy and ease of manner that I hadn’t expected. Was it just because we’d been to bed—to bunk—together? Men are weird.

The sun was down now, and I could see a sliver of moon in the cloudless night sky. Venus was there, too, big and bright in the black sea sky. Now there were no birds wheeling overhead, and it seemed to me that the waves had changed at some point while we were belowdecks. I could hear the water now, loud and rumbling, like a constant beat of low thunder.

“What will you do now?” I asked. It was my last question.

He thought for a minute, his body seated there comfortably with me, his mind somewhere else completely. I liked seeing the easy way he held himself now, after we had sex. He was more relaxed than he’d been all day.

“Brian Lindley won’t be here anymore,” he said. “This identity was about used up anyway. I held onto it for a little too long. Probably one of the ways you caught onto me.”

And then his demeanor changed, became more serious. Not threatening, exactly. But it was frightening nonetheless.

“That won’t happen again,” he said. “I can’t let it. If an amateur, even a talented one like you”—he paused here to wink at me, to maybe let me know that I’d been talented in more ways than just one—“can find me, then it’s time to burn this identity and move on. After I drop you ashore tonight, I’ll be gone.”

I wasn’t taking notes now.

“How will you do it?”

Here was where I’d find out if I was really going to make it back to shore.

“No,” Lindley said. “I won’t tell you.”

I exhaled. Thank God. If he had told me how he was planning to change identities, I would have likely ended the night down at the bottom of the Gulf. He would have felt that he had to kill me to keep his secrets. So far the lion tamer was still in charge of the lion.

But I knew that could change at any time. I had to keep my guard up.

Lindley rose, and I was startled by the lithe way he moved. I’ll admit it now: I jumped a little in my seat. He saw it and grinned a shark’s grin at me. I could feel my heart hammer in my chest.

“I’m going up to the pulpit to get a bearing,” he said. “We’ll get you back to shore safe and sound. Don’t worry.”

“What do you mean? Does that mean we’re lost?”

His grin this time was far softer, and I liked it better.

“No, but we’ve been drifting for hours. I want to get a bearing, check the charts, and then we’ll head back.”

Right. The charts. I’d seen them on the desk belowdecks.

The Hatteras Convertible has a long, narrow prow that projects out over the water like an insect’s proboscis. It’s called the pulpit. There’s a metal railing along the front, a little less than hip-high on a tall girl like me. I followed Brian Lindley to it, watching him concentrate on the little compass in his hand.

I stepped up on the pulpit with him and immediately regretted it. The wind was stronger up there, and there was nothing but deep green sea under it, and the pulpit swayed and rolled with the motion of the waves. If I stayed out there long, I’d be seasick, and I’d never been seasick a day in my life.

“There,” he said finally, and pointed. “We should be able to hit the—”

He was right. All it took was a little push.

Brian Lindley windmilled his arms and went overboard so fast that he didn’t even get a chance to scream. I saw his head pop up out of the water and then the drifting boat struck him hard. The hollow thud could be heard over the noise of the night ocean.

He went down then, I think. All I know is that I never saw him again.

I went to the bridge of the big boat and turned the engine on. It was an old boat, without an updated GPS system, but that didn’t matter. Lindley had pointed me toward shore. I kept the boat steady—not quite like driving a car, but not too dissimilar, either—and made it back to Panama City Beach.

I didn’t go back to the second-rate marina we’d launched from. Instead, I ran the boat aground at the jetty, the big finger of black rocks at Saint Andrews State Park. The park was closed for the night, so there was no one around to hear the crash as the boat rammed onto the rocks.

I was careful when I went ashore. A broken leg out here would ruin everything. I left my purse with the April Daley ID in it. Left the phone, too. I couldn’t help smiling as I picked my way over the rocks. The past year had been perfect. Starting a podcast with the express purpose of finding Brian Lindley, coaxing him out of hiding, getting him out on that big boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Now my producer and sound engineer would find the boat; they’d find my ID and phone. And they’d think Brian Lindley murdered me. It was sad, in a way. I’d come up with the podcast as a legitimate way to hunt down Brian Lindley, building an audience, working with legitimate people, pushing Just Plain Murder into one of the top ten podcasts in the world—don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

Of course, I couldn’t revel in that success. I was gone, lost at sea. No one would look for April Daley, but they’d try like hell to find Lindley.

Good luck with that.

The car was waiting for me in a gravel lot, right where my cutout said it would be. I found the key buried under the rear driver’s side tire. I got in and drove away.

Brian Lindley was dead. The person who hired me had gotten his revenge, even if it had taken me a year and a half to do it. Now I had to fly to Venezuela and start putting the pieces of a new identity together. But for that amount of cash? It was worth it. So worth it.

Who says you have to hire a hit man?

Bobby Mathews's checkered past includes stints as a journalist, editor, bartender, PR flack, and investigator. He's recently completed a crime novel set in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives with his wife and two sons. When he's not writing, you can catch him on Twitter: @BamaWriter. This is his first story with All Due Respect.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Issue #67 -- September 2020

By Craig Francis Coates

I leave my daughter's urn buckled in the back of my old Buick station wagon when I get to Annie’s apartment. I have to knock a couple times before anyone answers, and when I do it's not her. It's the boyfriend, whose name I can't remember, but who makes a point of saying mine.

“Hello, Shainey Colchek.” He looks me over head to toe with the subtly of an amateur porn actor. “It's a pleasure.”

“Annie home?”

“This week, yeah.” He tilts his head and yells her name. “You can come in, if you want.”

I don't go in this place. He knows that but acts like he doesn't, just like he pretends he doesn't know where Annie's money comes from. He does well by playing dumb. No reason to stop now.

Annie appears from the back, carrying boots in one hand and a coat in the other. She slips all this on without breaking stride, even the boots, because Annie is the kind of person who's learned how to leave in a hurry. It's Christmas day, but all I've got at home are my cats. If Annie or her boyfriend are bothered I chose today, they do a good job not letting on.

“When’ll you be home, babe?”

“Never,” says Annie. She smirks, gives him a kiss. “Never ever.”

He looks to me, feigning surprise. I shrug, and I smile. Maybe she's right.


One thing I learned, when Sara got sick: I hate every person I know.

When Sara got sick, we put up one of those donation sites. I was still married then. We put up a donation site because another thing I learned was that insurance is shit, and just getting her meds and keeping up with dialysis was bleeding us dry. Not in a slow, drop-by-drop kind of way, but in the throat-slit, hung-by-the-ankles kind. We needed money fast.

The site was my husband's idea, but I took to it quick. I did everything you're supposed to do—got online, got on social media, sent emails to everyone I could think of. I put up pictures of Sara, from when she was healthy and could still play outside, and a couple from the hospital when her arm was full of bruises and her eyes had got sunk back deep in her face. And I wrote the best words of my life telling all about her, the kind of kid she was and how sweet, how brave, how funny and smart. I know every parent thinks these things, but with Sara it was true. She was the real deal, the best daughter we could ever have asked for. I knew these things in the deepest corners of my heart, and I guess I thought if I told other people they'd know them too, and that would mean they'd have to act.

And then the money came in.

Five dollars. Ten dollars. God bless you and your family. Twenty dollars. Twenty-five. Praying for you! Be strong! All these people, my friends and my family, chipping in less than what they spent each week at McDonald’s. I tried not to let myself think that way. I tried to be grateful. After a couple weeks, I posted an update to thank everybody who'd given and then kept begging for more. That's how it felt. Like I was standing on a street corner in the rain, holding up my cardboard sign for change. I should have been more grateful. But my daughter was dying. Her kidneys were failing, and not one of those people, those people I loved, gave more than a fifty to help her. That's what I really learned, when the money came in. How much my daughter's life was worth to all them.

After a month, there's not a one of them I wouldn't have killed if I thought it would help. But I couldn't say that, couldn't do anything about anything. All I could do was keep begging. I just kept asking for more, while my heart grew cold and dark.


The White River and its fingers move through Indiana like an outstretched hand. In Indianapolis, where I live, there are parks and pretty places you can go to enjoy it. By looking, anyway—the river itself is full of poison and sewage. But outside Indianapolis, further southwest toward where Annie lives, there are streams from the river not much polluted by people. If you're going to let go of your daughter's ashes, those are good spots to do it, places a person can go for a little privacy.

Sara was just eight years old when she died. Annie's kidney got her that far along. It doesn't sound right, but the truth is kids do better when they get kidneys from adults, and I guess that's how I know my daughter never really had a chance. If what we did didn’t work, nothing could have. What I wouldn’t tell a soul is the relief this contains. Regardless of everything else, I know my daughter got the best odds I could give her. There was nothing else a mother could do.

Annie rides next to me as we drive toward the river. She leans forward in the passenger seat and looks up toward the sky.

“Pretty out. All that bright blue. It don't feel like December.”

“No, it doesn't,” I say. The sun is shining. It's fifty degrees out, but the air feels strange and clammy like we're awash in something we can't see. The heat’s on, but with the sun through the windshield and me in my coat and scarf, it's a bit much.

“Did you bring it?” she asks.


Annie nods. Even though she doesn't smile, I can feel the change in her mood. Something like relief.

“We'll be done after this,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I promise you.”

The car just keeps getting hotter.


It felt like it took a thousand years, but when I got Annie's email we'd raised close to our ten-thousand-dollar goal for Sara. Again I had my husband to thank; it was his idea that got us on the news. He built a lemonade stand for Sara and we put it out along the road in front of the house, with a sign as big as we could make it that read “BUY A GLASS AND SAVE MY LIFE.” We live on a cul-de-sac. I don't guess we had more than two cars stop, both of them neighbors, both who bought a glass for twenty-five cents and said god bless and the lord helps those who help themselves. I was polite as I could be, but it was probably for the best that the knife we cut the lemons with wasn’t still in my hand.

We took pictures of the neighbors, and pictures of the lemonade stand, and when it was done my husband looked up online how to write a press release and sent it to the local TV. They gave us ten minutes, and that got us in a paper, and that got picked up by a bigger one, and the money started coming. Still in fives and tens and twenties, but faster, then, much faster. And then I got the note from Annie.

This might sound crazy, she wrote, but I saw you on the news and I want to help. I don't have much money, but I saw she needs a kidney, and I have two of those. I'll test for a match, if you want to try.

I never thought it would work. I had no idea what the odds might be—if me and my husband weren't a match, what hope was there in a stranger? Maybe that's why I didn't ask my husband what he thought. I wrote back right away.

God bless you, I said. Yes. Let's try.


We reach the spot where I want to put Sara. About a half-mile south is the old farmhouse where her grandparents used to live, and this spot's something known just in my family, I believe. It's got a long rocky bank, and the water stays shallow and slow until twenty feet out, so if your little girl wants to splash around looking for minnows she can. You have to pull your car half into a ditch, since there's no better place to park, but that's all right. There's not much traffic out this way.

Annie lights up a cigarette as soon as we’re out of the Buick, and I walk around back to pop the tailgate door. Sara's urn is at a slight tilt, but it hasn't tipped over, and even if it had, the top is screwed on. I push it back upright before I unbuckle her. It's harder to breathe but I'm not crying yet and I don't think I'm going to. All my grief has sunk to my chest, and that’s not a place that it leaves. Maybe if I could cry, I'd feel a bit better. Maybe I don't want to.

This time of year, all the brush has died back, and you can see through the trees to the river. Annie follows me in, the wind blowing up from the banks so I don't smell her smoke. You'd think the air might feel more damp this near the river, but it doesn’t. It feels cold and crisp and dry as a bone.

The river today is low. It's been dry this December, this season, this year. River-smoothed stones lie with their faces exposed, and it’s an unsteady walk to get close to the water.

“You want me to say anything?” asks Annie. She's got one hand on her back, pushed up under her coat. She might have a knot on her spine, or she might be feeling her scar. “There's a piece of me in there.”

She's right. It's strange knowing there’s something, some piece of Annie, in this urn. It's not a pretty one to look at. The pretty ones, rounded and smooth and made like a vase, were all too expensive. This one's all sharp angles and steel, like a coffee can made with hard edges.

“I don’t,” I say, unscrewing the lid. “And I don't want to say anything either.”


I was giving Sara a bath when Annie called to say she was a match. Sara was old enough to bathe herself, but her meds made her tired, and all I could think about was how it took just an inch of water for a child to drown. The whole time I was on the phone I kept one hand on Sara's shoulder, like if I let her go, she might slip away. When I hung up I realized how hard I'd been holding on by how her skin turned red in the shape of my hand.

Annie wanted to meet at Clyde's, a small bar on the near east side. To celebrate, she said, and to talk. My husband got Sara out of the tub and dried, and I got my keys and my coat and drove out to meet her. I don't remember anything about that drive now, except it was hard to find parking. I ended up leaving the Buick in a McDonald’s parking lot and walking half a block, so nervous I might throw up. I passed a line of kids standing outside the Emerson, waiting for a concert, and I remember thinking, Maybe Sara will come here one day.

Annie was already a couple drinks in when I found her in a cramped booth, two shots of whiskey on the table in front of her. She pushed one toward me as I sat down.

“Cheers,” she said, raising her glass, and I raised mine in return.

“I just found out today,” said Annie. “They'll call you next. They had to make sure I hadn't changed my mind.”

I felt a little dazed, but the heat of the whiskey sharpened me up.

“This is for real? This is really happening?”

She gave me a huge smile and nodded.

“Believe it,” she said. “I've tried this before, for other kids. This is the first time I got a match.”

I should have seen the red flag. But you overlook an awful lot when you're that close to getting what you want.

“So, what happens next? What do we need to do? Is there anything-”

She laughed and waved away the questions.

“There's nothing to do, Shainey. Just say yes when the doctors call. The hard part is over.”

I nodded and stared at my empty glass. Everybody prays for miracles, but nobody tells you what to do when one shows up.

“Hey, so tell me,” said Annie. “Did you get funded?”


“Online? You get all your money for her medicine?”

The fundraiser seemed like a thousand years ago. But yes, I told her, we got the money.

“Okay then,” she said. “You're not going to need it now.”

“No, maybe not,” I said, trying to follow. Was I supposed to give it back? The fives and tens and twenties, was I supposed to return it all?

“That money's for Sara,” said Annie. “So now I’m thinking, this is how it works. If you want the kidney, I want ten thousand dollars. Paid in installments, so the bank don’t take notice.”

What could I say? I wish I could tell you I stopped. That I told my husband, or that I told the police there was this woman trying to sell me an organ. But I saw it all, laid out between us. And there really wasn’t a choice.


The water is cold as ice, and soaks into my jeans as I kneel by the river. But it seems wrong somehow to stay standing up, to tilt the urn like I'm dumping out garbage. I kneel by the edge and the water laps at my knees. I tip the urn gently as I can, and the ashes pour out, as fine as powdered sugar. A long gray trail drifts down the river.

“It's a hard day,” says Annie, from somewhere behind me. “But you'll feel better tonight, when all's said and done. And I'll be out of your hair.”

I don't answer. I'm watching my daughter, as she drifts on the waters.

I hear the strike of a lighter. Annie with another cigarette. Her exhale is heavy.

“You did bring it with you?” she asks me again. “The last three grand? I didn't see nothing in the car.”

“I brought everything,” I say. By now the water has cleared. It's clear as far downstream as I can see.

I rinse out the urn the best that I can, then pull myself up on my feet. Even without Sara in it, the steel is still heavy, and it doesn’t warm in my hands.

“Hard day,” Annie repeats.

I stumble a bit on a stone, and she leans in to help. Leans in close. I swing the urn hard at Annie's face, and feel the steel edge hit bone.

“I don't have your fucking money,” I say, and I hit her again. She falls over backwards, onto the rocks, and I drag her into the shallows. It just takes a few inches. Inches and time, and I've got plenty of that, now that my daughter is gone.

When it's done I rinse the blood off the urn, though I know I'm not going to keep it. I walk back up the bank, then out through the woods, out to where the Buick is parked. It looks strange from this angle, half in a ditch, and when I see the car coming, I know it will stop. I don't hurry. I don't try to run. I just stand by the Buick and I wait.

It's a family inside, a husband and wife, two kids in the back with a dog. On their way to Christmas somewhere, or maybe to church. The wife rolls down her window and gives me a look, concerned to see how I shiver.

“Need a ride somewhere safe?”

“No, ma'am.”

“Need a hand with the car?”

“No, ma'am.” I'm holding the urn, and I know that she sees it, but she's not a rude enough person to ask. “Nice of you to offer.”

“Well.” She looks like she wants to say more, but doesn't know what. What can you do for someone that won't ask? “Are you sure we can’t help?”

“Yes ma’am.” I smile, as nice as I'm able. “I seem to help myself just fine.”

Craig Francis Coates lives and writes in Indiana.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Issue #66 - August 2020

By Steven Berry

I was drinking whiskey from the bottle at two in the afternoon. I was having a bad day, that’s all. I had caught my wife fucking the bloke from across the road.

My phone rang. I thought it’d be Karen calling to somehow explain but it wasn’t, it was Damien Jones. I wasn’t gonna answer and I really wished I hadn’t.

“Chris, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Got us a job. Gonna make us both a few quid,” Damien said.

I took another swig of whiskey and gritted my teeth at the burn in my throat. “What’s that then?”

So far, the whiskey hadn’t done what I’d hoped and blocked out the image of Karen and that bloke on my couch. I drank some more.

“This guy has all this gear, all pucka stuff.” Normally if Damien had found a job I’d quiz him, but I couldn’t be bothered. “The Krays. Proper stuff from the Krays.”

“And you believe him?”

“Yeah, I do.”

I downed another large gulp of whiskey.

“Trust me on this, will ya?”

“Why not,” I said and ended the call.


A few nights later, we were sat outside a maisonette on the other side of Gospel Green Lake.

“Here we go,” Damien said, sitting up, grabbing my arm. “There he is. Kept an eye on him for a few days now,” he said, as we watched our unlucky friend walking down the road and out into the night.

I checked the time on the dashboard clock. 9.46. Damien watched me, awaiting instructions, even though he was apparently in charge of this one.

I got out of the car, went to the boot and grabbed a crowbar and a roll of black bags. “Carry these.” I chucked him the bags.

The maisonette’s door led into a stairway that smelled of cigarettes and floor cleaner. Damien pointed at number eighty-one.

While he kept watch I worked on snapping the lock. It didn’t take me too long and without much noise either.

“Get in here,” I said to Damien, who was still lingering outside. “Hurry up and close the door.” I switched on the hallway light.

He followed me through the first few rooms, checking cupboards and drawers and cabinets. The living room was our meal ticket.

I’ve always been quite observant when working—never been one to dive straight in. The lamp in the corner of the room was bothering me. Tall thing with a green shade. It should’ve been switched off.

Damien emptied a cabinet. He called me over to show me a framed painting of a meadow with a sunset sky. “It’s only signed by Reggie Kray.”

I opened one of the glass doors on the cabinet and picked out a photo of three men, pretty much everyone knew them as Ron and Reg Kray. The other man was known by some people, mostly around Gospel Green, and he was as ruthless as they came.

“That the bloke in the pub? That him? Is this his house?” I held the photo up.

“Dunno, nah, he was a lot older than that.”

The only rational thought I could piece together, we-gotta-get-the-fuck-out.

“Damien, we’ve gotta go.”

Damien shrugged me off and carried on shoving paintings and letters and photographs into the black bag.

“Put it all back, you fucking idiot.” I grabbed the bag off him.

We both heard it.

He was home.

We were fucked.


The living room door opened.

Damien grabbed my arm.

A scrawny man with thick-lens glasses was standing in the doorway with a handgun, grinning, his tea-stained teeth on display. Alan Peters.

This was the last place in the world I wanted to be.

“Alan, please, let me explain.”

He looked at me. His eyes were huge behind his glasses. The gun was still aimed at Damien. “What’d we have here then?” he said.

“We got the wrong house,” I said.

His smile tightened. “You did. On the couch, sit down now.”

Alan closed the door. He looked at the cabinet. “Thieving little bastards. Gifts from Ron and Reggie—and you little pricks think you can come into my home and take the lot.”

We sat down on the couch. I went to say something but he lifted the gun and I shut up. “You’re only sorry now I’ve caught you.”

Alan sat down opposite us. “Gonna play a game.”

“What’d you mean a game?” Damien said.

“Is your friend an idiot?” Alan asked. Believe me, we both were. “Has he never played a game before?” Alan took off his glasses and cleaned them with the sleeve of his shirt.

I looked at Damien and I knew what he was thinking. His eyes were glued to the gun in Alan’s lap. I shook my head.

“Let me explain what’s gonna happen. You, you little snake, I remember you now. I was only drinking with you the other week.” Alan shook his head. “I’ve never harmed anyone who didn’t deserve it.”

That’s not what I knew, but okay.

“Look, mate, is there nothing we can—”

Alan gestured for Damien to be quiet. “I’m not your mate.” Alan’s eyes darkened. “Now listen carefully. We’re going to play a very simple game, you answer correct, you’ll be fine. Get a question wrong and you get hurt.”

Sounded fun.

“So, my lovelies, I think it’s only fitting that we use Ron and Reg as our subjects… the wonderful Kray twins. Snaky can go first. I’ll start easy. Ready, boys?”

He clapped his hands together.

“What was the twins’ older brother called?”

Alan’s eyes didn’t move off Damien. “I’ll give you chance to think,” he said, bobbing his head from side to side. “Tick… Tock… Tick…”

“How am I meant to fuckin’ know?”

Alan stood up. His teeth clenched.

I don’t know,” Damien cried.

Alan belted Damien with the butt of the gun. Damien’s skull cracked. Like hitting a coconut with a hammer.

He fell back into the couch, grabbing his head. Blood trickled through his fingers.

“Wrong answer.” Alan cupped his hand on my shoulder. “Your turn.”

I was expecting something outrageous like what was Ron’s fucking star sign or what was Reg’s mom’s favourite biscuit.

“Who were the Krays’ main rivals?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember the film with the Kray brothers. They were in the scrap metal game. No smack over the head for me.

“Richardsons,” I said and Alan cheered.

“Clever boy.” Alan turned to Damien. “Which brother killed George Cornell?”

Shit, even I wasn’t sure of this.

“You’re not very good at this game, are you?”

Damien shook his head. Tears and blood ran down his cheeks. “Please, I’ll do anything.”

Bang. I felt my bones rattle. I jumped up, my ears ringing from the gunshot. Damien screamed, grabbing the shattered remains of his left kneecap. Frayed jeans and fragments of bone. Now I had something in my head that would clear out the image of my wife fucking that bloke.

Damien collapsed onto the carpet.

Alan’s humour had soured off. He was still aiming the gun at Damien and I believe he would’ve killed him if I hadn’t had piped up.

“Isn’t it my go?” I said.

He looked at me with bulging grey eyes.

“That’s right.” He smirked, wiping spit off his lips. “Remember, they’re going to get harder.”

I nodded, glancing at Damien scrunched up on the carpet. Surely someone had heard the gunshot… perhaps saw the state of the door and used their heads. Maybe someone needed to hear another shot. My skin crawled at the thought. Damien couldn’t take another bullet. I think he was already losing consciousness.

“It’s a tricky one. What was the name of the pub Ron shot Cornell in?” Alan’s eyes brightened.

I almost came out and said it, and only held back because I glanced at Damien on the floor, slumped in a pool of blood.

I stood up, running my hands through my hair, trying to drag this out.

“I’ll give you a bit longer but not too long.”

“It’s on the tip of my tongue.” I held back the urge to say the Blind Beggar.

“It’s literally on the tip of my tongue.” I closed my eyes and the muscles in my neck tightened. This was it. My only hope was someone in the block would hear the gunshots.

“I can’t think of it,” I said through gritted teeth. I grabbed the door handle and squeezed it, preparing myself to be shot. The gunshot rang out, filled my head, blotted out the pain in my shoulder for a moment.

I fell to the floor. Now I felt it. Waves of hot, wet pain.

My eyes blurred but I could still make out Alan standing over Damien.

“Wakey, wakey, Snaky, question time? How old was Ron when he died?”

I crawled to the sofa. No doubt in my mind Alan would still shoot him if he didn’t answer the question.

“How did you meet the twins?” My voice didn’t sound like my own. I had managed to pull myself up. Felt like I was swimming in fog.

Alan looked over at me. He seemed confused. “What?”

“How did you meet them?” In my blurred vision I made out Alan pointing the gun at me. “You’re a long way from London, how’d you meet them?”

He lowered the gun.

“I worked down there in my day and got to know to Ron through people, asked him for advice.”

I took a deep breath. The burning in my shoulder was making it difficult to breath. “Advice about what?”

“I wanted to know how I should tell my old man I was gay. Even when they got put away, I still spoke to them in Broadmoor, Ron mainly.

“I have the letter. I have all the letters.” Off he went to the cabinet. “I kept everything they gave me,” he said, rummaging through one of the bottom drawers.

Damien was still breathing.

Alan returned with a pile of handwritten letters.

“I went to visit him, too.”

“I bet you’ve heard some right stories.”

“I’ll show you some pictures.” Alan hurried to the cabinet; most of his stuff was in the bags on the floor. This stalled him further.

I wiped the sweat off my forehead before it got in my eyes. The handgun was on the armrest. Alan fished through the black bags.

I grabbed the gun.

Alan turned around with his hands full of photographs. He laughed.

“Get the fuck away from me,” I said, finding it difficult to hold the gun steady.

Alan took a couple of steps closer, unfazed by the gun.

“I’ll do it.” I swallowed a lump the size of a golf ball.

“You’re too lovely to shoot me.”

I pulled the trigger. The recoil sent me reeling backwards. Alan crashed into the cabinet and hit the floor, among his scattered photographs.

I was breathing heavy and expected him to get up, like you see in the films. They always get up. Not this time though, and I wasn’t waiting around. I staggered out of the flat. The cool air kissed my burning skin. I lost my balance and fell over on to the pavement.

I looked back at the flat, thinking of Damien.

“YOU FUCKING CUNT,” Alan screamed, charging out of the maisonette block, holding a kitchen knife.

I lifted the gun and fired again, missed. I scrambled to my feet, but he crashed into me, knocking the gun out of my hand. He slashed the back of my neck. I screamed.

Alan climbed on to my chest and lifted the knife. I swung my head back and butted him on the nose. Blood splattered across his glasses. He stumbled off me, holding his face.

I crawled towards the road, searching for the gun. Blue lights flashed across the street, followed by the sweet sweet melody of sirens.

Never thought I’d ever be grateful to see the police.

You spineless little cunt,” Alan screamed. I heard his footsteps trampling towards me, but I had nothing left.

The coppers were shouting for him to get on the ground. Alan kept screaming.

“Stay still, let the paramedics help.” I think it was a copper standing over me; it was hard to see.

“My mate, he shot him… in the flat.”

I looked up and could just make out two coppers dragging Alan towards a police car.

I’ll see you inside, my lovely.”

Steven Berry has published short stories in print and online with various magazines since his early twenties. He is currently working on a novel. He lives with his wife, daughter and son in Birmingham, England.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Issue # 65 -- July 2020


By Jay Butkowski

Ephraim Walker—everyone called him “Ray,” but his momma had a biblical streak to her—stood silent vigil, watching through the fireproof glass of the old cremator door as the cardboard glowed hot orange before disintegrating into ash, emitting a plume of acrid gray smoke into the ether. He leaned on the four-foot steel pole they used to shut the red-hot metal door of the incinerator. Jimmy could swear he saw the solid steel pipe flexing and bowing under Ray’s massive muscled frame.

Jimmy for his part took the opportunity afforded by Ray’s solemnity to rest against a stack of cardboard boxes piled on the mortuary floor. Ray had insisted that each body was “owed their due,” and no matter how many bodies came in, Ray gave each one a moment of silent respect after they pushed them into the fire. Jimmy didn’t care much about silent respect, but he figured he could use a breather from trying to keep pace with the big man.

Jimmy Rossi couldn’t remember a time when Ray Walker wasn’t working for his dad at Rossi’s Funeral Home. It just seemed like he was always there, from time immemorial, like he came with the building—some dark, menacing golem that they had inherited with the janky mortuary tables and the dilapidated hearse and the aging and temperamental cremator when they moved here from upstate.

Despite his near constant presence in his home and in his life, Jimmy knew next to nothing about Ray. He was big. He was quiet—but not in a gentle kind of way. More like a volcano before it blows its top. Ray didn’t suffer fools and slackers, which meant that Ray and Jimmy didn’t get along, because Jimmy was both a fool and a slacker. The fact he was the boss’s kid was probably the only thing that spared Jimmy from a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking.

With the other guys working there, Jimmy could joke around between stiffs, maybe take a swig of something from a brown-bag-clad bottle, maybe at least listen to the radio. When Jimmy was on shift with Ray, he knew it was going to be a long, hard day of loading bodies into the cremator in near silence. At least he didn’t have to do too much of the heavy lifting. Ray was plenty capable of handling the bodies by himself if he had to, so Jimmy just kind of phoned it in on the light end of the body whenever they had to lift the next one up onto the rollers.

Even slacking off, though, Jimmy knew he was going to wind up with a sore back by the end of the day. The sheer number of bodies coming into Rossi’s Funeral Home was staggering—people were dropping like flies because of the ‘rona. Big Jim, the funeral parlor owner, never looked a gift plague in the mouth—money was coming in hand over fist to dispose of the bodies from three nearby medical centers. Big Jim magnanimously dipped into his newly flush coffers to hand out a couple extra flimsy bandanas and some second-hand work gloves to his staff—his own kid included—as his version of distributing life-saving personal protective equipment.

The bodies would arrive from the hospitals in nondescript matching cardboard, a carbon-copy slip taped to the side of the box to identify who was inside. No one came to mourn the dead. No one was allowed.

Ray started to stir from his mourner’s post, meaning break time was about over for Jimmy. As the two men wordlessly bent down to pick up the next cardboard coffin to lift onto the rollers, a tricked-out Honda with a whiny, after-market exhaust and a bass-thumping sound system pulled into the loading bay.

“Hey… You guys do cremations or some shit here?” asked the oblivious driver through a white bandana, barely audible over the thumping beats channeled through his car stereo.

“We doin’ ‘em right now,” said Ray as he stood and stretched his massive frame.

“Jeez, man, someone ate their Wheaties growing up,” marveled the driver as he shut down the car and stepped out. “What’re you, like six-five? Six-six?”

Ray grunted in response.

Undaunted, the man continued. “So, I… like I got this problem, and I’m hoping maybe you guys can help me out?”

“What kind of a problem?” Jimmy asked.

“We ain’t interested,” Ray interjected.

The Honda driver, stepped forward and spoke directly to Jimmy, ignoring Ray. “See, I got this issue that I kinda want to handle quietly, and I figured, you guys are already doin’ the cremations, right? So, what’s one more?”

“I told you we ain’t interested,” growled Ray.

“Who?” asked Jimmy.

The driver looked cautiously at Ray over the top of his sunglasses before turning his attention back to Jimmy. “My cousin’s husband. Asshole gets sick, and he’s watching Fox News, and he hears the president say, ‘Inject bleach.’ And so, what does this asshole do? He injects bleach!

“Anyway, it’s kind of an embarrassing situation for my family, and my cousin’s grieving, and so I says to her that I’ll take care of it. We would just prefer to handle it quietly and just have the whole fucking thing go away, right?” The driver paused to let his sales pitch sink in before he continued. “I can pay…”

He stuck his hand in his pants pocket and produced a wad of large denomination bills. He started counting them off.

“Two hundred each? Three hundred? What’s a fair price? You tell me.”

Jimmy started reaching for the cash when Ray barked an order.

“Put your monkey, cracker-ass hand down! I told you already, we ain’t interested.”

“Money’s not an issue here…” pleaded the driver.

Jimmy looked past the driver and into the back seat of the car. A large, human-shaped figure was wrapped in a stained and bloody white sheet.

“That don’t look like no bleach injection,” said Jimmy, not sure what exactly a bleach injection was supposed to look like.

“I don’t really got time for this shit,” said the driver. “Look, take the cash, take the body, I wasn’t here, okay? We can either do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way, maybe you make a couple bucks.”

“Maybe this ain’t such a good idea…” realized Jimmy.

“Fine. You picked the hard way.” The driver shoved the cash back in his pocket and whipped a handgun out of the back of his pants. He took a couple steps toward Jimmy and held the gun menacingly to the side. “Good idea or not, you’re gonna fucking do this and you’re not gonna say shit to no one, or I’m gonna come back here, and I’m gonna waste both of you fuckers.”

And that’s when Ray’s volcano top blew.

The gunman didn’t realize he was in range of Ray’s steel pole, leaning against the rollers they used to slide the bodies into the cremator furnace. The big man grabbed it and swung down hard on the driver’s hand. A wet snap announced that his trigger finger and several other bones were now useless mush. A brief, painful yelp emitted from behind the white bandana. Ray had swung so hard through the man’s hand that his entire body lurched forward, and in a fluid, almost practiced maneuver, Ray swung the pole back up.

Ray connected with the driver’s face. His head snapped back. His sunglasses went flying. The driver stood, bolt upright for a moment in a confused, zombie-like daze, the very embodiment of the phrase, the lights are on, but nobody’s home. The space between heartbeats felt like an eternity as the man stood there in front of the two mortuary workers, unnaturally still.

Then his body gave up.

Crimson crept in from the edges to eclipse the milky white sclera of the gunman’s eyes as hemorrhages began to burst in his brain. Deep, dark red, almost black, spread quickly across the white cloth covering the man’s face. He coughed once—an involuntary spasm—and sprayed droplets of blood all over Jimmy’s face, before collapsing in a heap on the mortuary floor next to his discarded handgun.

“Jesus Christ, I think you killed him!” croaked Jimmy. He sprung forward and frantically searched for a nonexistent pulse.

Ray let the pole clang to the floor, and stepped forward, placing a heavy hand on the younger man’s shocked shoulder.

“Hadta be done. Besides, you heard him: what’s one more? Or two? Or even three?”

Ray bent forward, and reached into the man’s pocket, pulling out the wad of cash. He slipped the money into his own pants pocket and didn’t offer to share any with the boss’s son.

“Lift the heavy end this time, asshole,” he said gruffly to Jimmy before getting ready to heft the gunman onto the cremator’s squeaky rollers.

They worked the rest of the day loading bodies and cleaning up the mess without a word between them.

Jay Butkowski is a writer of crime fiction and an eater of tacos who lives in central New Jersey. His short fiction has appeared online in Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama and Story and Grit. He’s a co-host of the Asbury Park Noir at the Bar reading series, and serves as Managing Editor at Rock and a Hard Place Magazine a lit-noir journal chronicling bad decisions and desperate people. He has two children who threatened him at knifepoint to be included in this bio, and a loving, supportive girlfriend who’s slightly less violent.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Excerpt from CUTTHROAT by Paul Heatley

Newcastle, 1978. John is sleeping with Mary. Mary is married to Daniel. Both men work for her father, the Top Man. Daniel is his son-in-law, next in line to take over his little empire. John is muscle. The Top Man orchestrates robberies—banks, pay rolls, anything that will bring in some easy money. When Daniel discovers his wife’s illicit liaison, he wants John dead. The Top Man signs off on it.

But John’s a man you only get one shot at. When Daniel happens to botch that one shot, then everyone involved needs to watch their back. Because John will be coming for them, and he won’t stop until he’s taken revenge on every last one involved in leaving him for dead.

Praise for CUTTHROAT:

“Paul Heatley remains a master of savagery, of bloody men and how they live, how they die, how they kill.” —Rob Pierce, author of Tommy Shakes

Praise for Paul Heatley:

“Heatley is becoming a master of American noir in the vein of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain.” —David Nemeth

Here's an excerpt from the latest from All Due Respect Books...

Chapter One

There were no pictures on John Riddell’s walls. No framed photographs of family members on the window sills or the electric fire’s mantelpiece. He didn’t own records. He didn’t have a television. There were no books. The paint on the walls was peeling. There was a patch of damp in the top-left corner of the ceiling opposite the front door.

The only thing close to approaching decoration could be the naked woman lying on the bed, writhing on the crumpled bed sheets, waiting for him to undress.

There were only three rooms. A sitting room/kitchen. Bedroom. Bathroom. The bathroom stank of mould. John didn’t take care of his home. It looked like he was ready to up and leave at a moment’s notice. Likely, he was. Leave the city the same way he arrived.

No one knew much about him, other than his appearance and temperament. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and big-knuckled. He was laid back. He took the piss out of people he knew, and those he didn’t. He was calm. Until he wasn’t. And when he wasn’t, no one wanted to be around him. He left chaos the equivalent of a bomb blast. And though people couldn’t be sure when he’d first arrived in Newcastle and started making a name for himself, they knew he was a Geordie, if only through his accent. No one could claim to have gone to school with him. No one had knocked around with him in their youth. No one knew who his parents or extended family were. There were stories that he’d been in borstal, the explanation as to why he was such a mystery man, but John would neither confirm nor deny anything.

Even the woman on his bed knew little about him beyond his name, appearance, and her attraction for him.

She wasn’t his girlfriend.

Wasn’t his wife, either.

Her name was Mary Irons.

She was someone’s wife. The only item she still wore was her wedding ring.

“You gonna take much longer, then?” she said, propping herself up on her elbows.
John undid the buttons on his shirt, hung it from a hanger on the back of his bedroom door. “Just admiring the view, pet.”

Mary looked him over in turn. His body was mostly muscle, though a little softer in the midsection. A few scars that looked like slashes from a knife on his left shoulder, and another across his right pectoral. She’d asked about them, the first time. His answer had been simple. “Fighting.”

“I don’t have all night,” Mary said.

“We’ve got long enough,” John said. He winked at her, loosened his belt buckle.

“I like it slow.”

“I know exactly how you like it.”

She giggled, spread her legs a little wider as he stepped out of his pants. He hooked them through the hanger with the shirt, then climbed onto the bed with her, into her arms and between her legs.

After, they lay together and shared a cigarette. “I’ve gotta get away in a minute,” John said.

“See? Telt ye there was a rush.” Mary drew on the cigarette, held it up to his lips.

“And I told you we had time. And we did.”

“Who you gotta go see?”

“Your fella. That’s how I knew there wasn’t any rush.”

Mary sat up a little. “Shit, where at?”

“Nowhere near here, divvint worry. I’ll be goin into town.”

She settled down, the back of her head resting on his scarred shoulder. “Got some business goin?”

“Could be. Divvint kna yet, but only time he ever wants to see me is when there’s a job in the works. 

He mentioned anything to you?”

“He never talks about that stuff with me.”

“What about yer dad? He ever mention anything?”

“Nah, nowt.”

“What about when you were a little girl? Did he regale you with stories of his daring daylight robbery exploits?”

“Never saw him when I was a bairn. He was usually locked up.”

“I’m sure you went to visit.”

“Depended where they had him. Sometimes it was just me mam went down, left us with me grandma for a few days. Whenever I did see him he was never talking about what he’d done. It was all, Divvint worry pet, I’ll be out before you know it.” She deepened her voice in an approximation of her father’s. John had to admit it was a good impression. “And I’ll never get caught again, promise. Aye, that’s what he said. Never promised to go on the straight and narrow so there’d be no excuse to lock him up. Promised never to get caught again.”

John chuckled, finished the cigarette and stubbed it out against the wall next to the headboard, dumped the butt on the sill to clear away later.

“I’m getting chilly,” Mary said, rubbing her arms. “It’s always bloody freezing in this flat. I dunno how you stand it.”

“Hard as nails, man.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“That and I’m always out. Busy boy. Only ever here with you, really.”

Mary swung her legs over the side of the bed, gathered up her underwear and dress. “I’m flattered. Our little love nest. Special little place all our own.”

“Glad you approve. Love nest—that’s exactly what I was aiming for.” John went to the door, put back on the clothes he’d recently taken off.

“You ever thought about decorating? Fresh lick of paint?”

John shrugged. “What’s the point?”

“Make it feel like a home, that’s the point.”

“This whole block’s rough as a badger’s arse, man. Nowt homely about it.”

“Not with that attitude.”

“Not with any attitude.”

“Whey, y’kna, it’s not like we’re on the Riviera. But we are on the Tyne. No reason why we can’t improve our own personal surroundings and make it something special.”

“I’ve never been to the Riviera, but I reckon it’s canny different to the Tyne.”

“I’ve never been either, but aye, you’re probably right. And you know the point I’m trying to make.”

Trying to make.”

Mary took a seat on the edge of the bed, pulled on her heels. “So. That’s something new I know about you now.”

John raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“You’ve never been to France.”

“I’ve never been to the Riviera. Never said I hadn’t been to France.”

Have you?”

John said nothing.

“Oh, howay, man! It’s just a place. You can tell us that much.”

John shrugged. “I’ve been all over, me. Can’t keep track of them all.”

Mary shook her head, grinned, got to her feet and went to him. She put her hands on his chest, kissed him. “You’d better get a move on,” she said. “And I’d better get away back home.”

John grunted. “I’ll see you soon.”

“If you’re lucky.”

Mary left the building first. John stood by the window, watched her pass by on the street below. Waited five minutes. He didn’t have to rush. Didn’t mind making them wait.

He headed to the pub on foot, lit a cigarette on the way. Daniel Irons and Malcolm Reay sat in a corner, talking over pints. John took a seat with them, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Didn’t get me a drink, like, lads?”

Daniel looked at him, unimpressed. “Didn’t know when you were gonna feel like fuckin showing up, did we?”

Malcolm cleared his throat. “You all right, John-lad? Where’ve you been?”


Malcolm laughed. Daniel didn’t look impressed.

He’d look less impressed if he’d known John had been shagging his wife.

Of course, he never looked impressed anyway. Had the perpetually severe face of a miserable bastard that never cracked a smile. John reckoned he was a real barrel of laughs at home. No wonder Mary came to see him.

Malcolm was more laid back. A modern kind of guy with long hair, a moustache, flared pants. He took a sip of his beer. Froth stuck to the hair on his top lip. He licked it off.

“We gonna be here long, or what?” John said.

“Long enough for you to get yerself a pint, if that’s what you’re asking,” Daniel said.

“Canny. Then I’ll be right back. Divvint gan anywhere.”

Daniel glared at him, but said nothing.

John went to the bar, waited to be served. The atmosphere was thick and smoky, an asthmatic’s nightmare. John lit another cigarette, ordered his pint. He glanced back at Daniel and Malcolm in the corner. They were talking again. Daniel was probably complaining about him, his attitude, being late. Let him complain. They needed John more than John needed them.

“Crack then, lads?” John said, sitting back down.

Daniel stared at him. “You ready? You sure?”

“Good to go.”

Daniel took a long breath through his nose. “What’re you messin around, for? You think I’d call you here if this wasn’t work related? I’m not lookin to fuckin socialise with ye.”

“I know that, Daniel. I wouldn’t wanna hear from you if it wasn’t work related.”

Daniel bristled. “You think this isn’t serious? You got somethin better to be doin?”

“I’ve always got somethin better to be doin, mate. I’m an in-demand lad. It’s a privilege for you to have me here sittin with you.”

Daniel ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth like there was a bad taste there. “I divvint like you, John.”

John shrugged.

“I divvint like yer attitude. Yer a cocky bastard, that’s all you are. We don’t need you.”

“You waited an awful long time for me to get here if you don’t need me.” John grinned.

Malcolm concentrated on his pint, stayed out of their heated discussion.

“You’re a two-bit heavy, that’s all,” Daniel said. “You’re nowt special. We can find another like you just like that.” He clicked his fingers.

“Aye, well, I’m here now so why don’t we just get on with it, eh? Course, if you’re that bothered, maybe you could have a chat with yer father-in-law, see what he has to say. The Top Man.”

The Top Man. Steven Edwards. Mary’s father.

Daniel gritted his teeth at that. John had done plenty of jobs for Steven down the years, and he’d had no complaints.

John cocked his head. “No?”

Malcolm put his hands down flat on the table, playing peacekeeper. “Why don’t we just get on with it, eh? We’re all here now, let’s just get this thing sorted.”

Daniel and John stared at each other, then Daniel broke his gaze and shifted in his seat. “Aye, all right.”
John sat back, smiled.

Daniel popped his knuckles. John wondered if he was supposed to be intimidated. “It happens in three days,” he said. “Are you paying attention?”

John winked.

Daniel went over the plan. When he’d finished, he looked at them both. “Got that?” Malcolm nodded enthusiastically. John raised his eyebrows.

“Good,” Daniel said. “And I shouldn’t have to say this, but divvint be fuckin late the day of, eh? You reckon you can do that?”

“I’m a professional, Dan.”

“Aye, so you claim.”

“You’ve seen me in action.”

“Aye, and yet I still feel like I’ve gotta keep on at you about doing things the right fuckin way. Funny that, isn’t it?”

“You’re too uptight.”

“The fuckin two of ye are too uptight,” Malcolm said, eyes wide. “Jesus Christ, feels like I’m sitting in the middle of a pissing contest here. Lookit, we’ll get the job done, it’ll gan off without a hitch, it’ll be fine. Everything’ll be fine, all right?”

“You don’t need to persuade me,” John said. “I already know.”

Daniel ground his teeth. Whenever John was round him—and this predated his involvement with Mary—he always seemed to be itching for a fight. John wasn’t sure if that was a trait particular to when he was nearby, or if that was how Daniel went on with everyone. Either way, John would be more than happy to oblige him, if he ever wanted to get down and dirty and throw some fists. Plenty had stepped up before, none of them had walked away intact.

“Well.” Daniel finished his pint. “We’ll just have to find out together, won’t we? But I’ll tell you this now, John—three days’ time, if you’re late, I’m out. You understand? I’ll be walking away. I’m not putting myself at risk over your bullshit. I won’t put myself at risk for anyone.”

“Fair enough,” John said. “Neither would I.”

“Whatever. I’m goin home.” He got to his feet.

“Reckon I’ll stay out for a few more,” John said. He looked round the room. “Might go somewhere with a bit more life to it than this shithole, though.”

Malcolm grinned. John turned to him.

“What about you, Malc? You gotta get home and away to bed like some auld gadgy, or are you up for hitting the Toon?”

“Whey, I’m definitely up for a few more drinks, like,” Malcolm said. “It’s a Tuesday though, I divvint reckon anywhere else is gonna be much livelier than this.”

“We’ll just have to take our chances, then. See what the night brings us.”

Daniel looked between the two of them as they spoke. He was standing, but he hadn’t left the table yet. “Listen, if either of you turn up hungover an’all, it’s off. And I’ll be very pissed. And you can bet yer arse the Top Man will be pissed, too.”

“You think it’ll take us three days to shake a hangover?” John said.

“It worries me that maybe you’ll not stop drinking for three fuckin days.”

John and Malcolm exchanged glances. “We’ll show him,” Malcolm said. “Let’s gan for four!”

“Divvint let his bad influence rub off on you, Malcolm.”

Malcolm laughed. “Trust me, mate, I’ve had me fill of bad influences. There’s not a bad decision I’ve never not made.”

“I know.” Daniel nodded, solemn. “I’ve seen some of your lasses.”

John laughed. He had to hand it to Daniel. That one was funny.

Daniel left. John resisted the urge to tell him to say hello to Mary for him. It wasn’t worth the trouble.

“So,” Malcolm said. “Where we gonna go?”

John downed his pint, started getting to his feet. “Anywhere that isn’t fuckin here.”

Cutthroat is available now from All Due Respect Books. Check it out!