Monday, December 20, 2021

Issue #82 -- December 2021

By Jay Butkowski

Smokey wiped down a rocks glass and watched the stranger with curiosity as he parked a silver Lexus SUV and entered the bar. He didn’t look like their usual clientele—madras shirt under a brown corduroy blazer and tucked into a pair of regular fit Dockers. Brown leather loafers with no socks and thick, pomaded hair. Smokey could smell the stink of Drakkar Noir from the other side of the room, even over the dank, earthy richness of some of their best-selling merchandise.

Not the kind of guy Smokey was used to seeing in their establishment, and certainly not in the middle of the afternoon.

Normally, they’d have bikers in and out of here—patched leather dudes, easy riders who’d stop by for a beer and a toke before heading further upstate. Sometimes, they’d have a couple old heads like Smokey himself stop in, decked out in their Birks and knitted ponchos and beaded hair, looking to kill some brain cells and relive the glory days. Occasionally, they’d get a gaggle of college kids who were looking to track down El Dorado and could rarely handle their shit.

This preppy youngster was early for the happy hour blitz and didn’t fit into any of those groups. He looked like a fish out of water to ol’ Smokey: completely out of his element.

“Can I help you, friend?”

“That depends,” said the stranger. “Is this the famous Smokey and Mike’s Roadside Saloon, BBQ Pit, and Head Shop?”

“You with the IRS?”

“No, sir!”


The stranger laughed. “No, I swear, I’m not with the government! Just out here, looking for a legend.”

Smokey stroked his long gray beard and scratched his paunchy belly, weighing the flattery. He didn’t feel particularly legendary.

“Well, if you ain’t five-oh, I guess you’re in the right place.”

“So then, you’re . . .?”

“Smokey D. Bear, at your service.” Smokey wiped a big, bear paw of a hand on his pants leg and extended it over the bartop. The stranger took it and pumped vigorously.

“Oh, wow, this is an honor, sir. David Simpkins. Is your partner, Mike, around too?”

Smokey gestured a thumb over his shoulder. “He’s around back. He’s more grower, and I’m more shower, if you get my meaning. He runs the back-of-the-house operations, and leaves customer service to me.”

“This place is amazing.” Simpkins gawked. “How long have you guys been here?”

“Since Woodstock. Me, Mike, and a couple of pretty young ladies hopped into a VW minibus, and took off from Dayton, Ohio for the best three days and fifty-two years of my life. After the festival, the ladies took a Greyhound back home, and me and Mike, well, we stayed and set up shop here.”

“I’ve heard from people that you guys grow some of the best weed on the planet,” said the preppy.

“That’s all Mike,” said Smokey. “We don’t call him Magic for nuthin’. Guy’s got the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t hurt that we’ve got all of nature’s splendor helping us out, too.”

“Yeah, I could barely find the place.”

“We kind of like it like that,” said Smokey. “Not so many cell towers up in the mountains, and the service is even worse in the valley. Helps keep away the riff-raff.”

“The cops don’t give you guys a hard time?”

“You’re talking about a different kind of smokey now, friend.” The old timer removed his bifocals and wiped off the smudges with the bottom of his tie-dyed Dancing Bears T-shirt. “Yeah, the local authorities and us, we got an understanding here. There was one guy, few years back, who was a bit of a hard ass, bad for business, y’know? But the rest just leave us be. Figure, with the Oxy, and the crank, and all that shit out there these days, they got their hands full and don’t need to be banging down the doors of a couple old potheads.”

“Is it true you guys are thanked in the liner notes of Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits album?”

“Willie’s a pal. Usually stops by when he’s in town.”

“And you guys partied with Wu Tang once too, right?”

“Hey man, they ain’t nuthin’ to fuck with.” Smokey was getting a little bit annoyed at the younger man’s exuberance. “You going to buy something?”

“Maybe, if the price is right. What would you say you and Mike clear in a year of running this fine establishment? Financially speaking,” asked Simpkins, the facade of fanboy excitement slipping away.

“Who exactly did you say you were with?” asked Smokey.


A few moments later, the serene Hudson Valley setting outside Smokey and Mike’s Roadside was disrupted, as the door was flung open with a loud and reverberating thwack, and David Simpkins of ACG CanniBusiness Associates, LLC, was tossed out into the gravel parking lot.

“Get the fuck out of here!” roared Smokey, emerging from the darkened portal.

“You’re making a big mistake!” sniveled Simpkins.

Mike came running from around the other side of the building, tall, gaunt, and grim in a black leather cowboy hat and black tank top. “Smoke, what the fuck is going on?”

“This pencil-dick is trying to buy us out!”

“Slow down,” said Mike.

“You guys are fossils!” shouted Simpkins, a thin line of blood tracking from nostril to lip from when Smokey had decked him in the bar before tossing him into the parking lot. “I don’t even know how you survived this long, but in case you haven’t heard, weed is legal now, assholes, and it’s big business! And you either adapt, or you die.”

“You sunuva . . .” Smokey kicked at the younger man but Mike restrained him.

Simpkins took the opportunity to scramble to his feet and dust himself off. He indignantly spat at the older men, a mix of saliva and nose-blood.

“Thing is, I don’t even have to buy you out, dipshit. I was trying to do this the nice way—the polite way, the respectful way. I figured you had connections, maybe you’re marketable. But then you had to go and hit me. It’s your funeral. I’ll sue your ass, and when I’m done with that, we’ll flood this valley with cheaper, legal weed, put you guys right out of business. You fucked with the wrong hombre, asshole! Shit, maybe I’ll even call it Smokey’s Special, really fuck with your client base.”

Mike was the quieter, cooler head of the two, but even he had a breaking point, and professional pride demanded swift retribution. Quicker than a cobra strike, he pulled a big-ass handgun, tucked neatly into the back waistband of his jeans. He fired a single round straight through the tinted back windows of the parked Lexus, the boom of the gunshot shattering safety glass and sending nearby birds into flight. He swung the gun back around and pointed it at Simpkins, who dropped to his knees and wet himself.

In between sobs, pleas, and prayers, Simpkins gurgled, “I thought . . . you guys were just a couple harmless . . . hippies . . .”

“Nah, man, we’re businessmen,” said Smokey. He savagely kicked Simpkins in the stomach, doubling him over. “And you threatened our bottom line, friend.”

Smokey and Mike each grabbed under an armpit and hoisted the vanquished corporate raider back to his feet. They each took a turn, alternating between hitting the younger man or holding him up to be hit. As they pressed him against the side of the Lexus, a rusted-out police cruiser came rolling up the road.

“Smokey, Mike, what in the H-E-double-L is going on out here,” asked the officer from inside the car.

“Just teaching young Master Simpkins a lesson,” said Smokey, adding, “in business ethics.”

“Well, wouldya keep it down?” asked the officer. “Your G-D neighbors called in a noise complaint over that gunshot.”

“Aye Aye, Captain.” Smokey faux-saluted.

The officer continued down the road, and the beating continued.


David Simpkins sat on his expensive leather sofa, in his luxury Jersey City apartment, holding a bag of frozen peas to his swollen and bruised face. It was dark, and late, and his head was pounding, but however bad he felt, he was sure he looked even worse.

He got up and peered into a mirror by the front entrance. Blood caked under his nose and onto his torn shirt collar. His right eye was an egg; his lip busted and split. He touched thumb and forefinger to a front tooth, and he could swear it felt loose.

“Fucking psychos,” he muttered. “And what was with that fucking useless cop?”

This was his third strike in a month up in Hudson Valley, and though the other old timers hadn’t devolved into violence, none took kindly to his offer either.

“Buncha goddamned hillbillies,” he said to himself.

You can’t fight progress, he thought, even as he winced and clutched his bruised ribs that proved otherwise.


Jay Butkowski is a writer of crime fiction and an eater of tacos who lives in New Jersey. His short stories have appeared in various online and print publications, including Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, All Due Respect, and Vautrin. He is the Managing Editor and one of the co-founders of Rock and a Hard Place Press, an independent publisher of noir chronicling "bad decisions and desperate people" in short and longer format fiction, as well as in the flagship Rock and a Hard Place Magazine. He's also a father of twins, a doting fiancé, and a middling pancake chef.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Issue #81 -- November 2021

by Alec Cizak

Gilbert’s mother sat on the couch with him. She wore her usual baggy, sky blue muumuu and a clear shower cap. They’d been watching Family Feud when the old-fashioned flip model in Gilbert’s pocket chirped like a parakeet. He palmed it and answered. As Seth Short gave him instructions, Gilbert’s mother tapped his elbow, repeated, “Where’d you get that?” She pointed at the cell. Would not let Gilbert focus on the conversation with Seth. He said, “Hold up, boss,” and put his hand over the mic.

“You know I can’t multitask,” he said to his mother.

“I want to know where you got that.”

Gilbert stood and started for the front door. His mother said, “You ain’t working for them rednecks again, are you?”

He stepped onto the stoop outside and slammed the door. That would let her know to mind her own business. “I’m back,” he said into the phone.

“Stink,” said Seth, “how’d you like to drive a car to Chicago for me?”


Seth lived in a two-story shithole near Lublin. What lawn remained hadn’t been mowed in a quarter century. Rot plagued the house’s cedar walls. Termites, Gilbert assumed. Smoke lolled over the edges of a leaning chimney. Seth lumbered like Lurch, from the Addams Family. He hated jokes about his ungodly height. He walked Gilbert around to the side. Slipped him the keys to a maroon Honda Civic. Nothing flashy, nothing to catch the beady eyes of Lake County or Chitown pigs. He punched an address into the car’s GPS and said, “You ask for Diego when you get there. He’ll be expecting you.” He explained how to hide the package in the trunk, underneath the factory-provided spare tire and flimsy jack. “Stink,” he said, “I’m glad you’re with us again.” He waved a finger in his face. “I want New Stink on this job, not Old Stink, you dig?”

Gilbert told him he could count on him. Promised he wouldn’t fuck things up. Seth sent him on his own. A relief. Gilbert’d gotten in good with Seth once more by accompanying Crank Baxter on a hit the previous week. A nasty task. Hadn’t slept well since. Crank had picked him up in a rusted Ford Courier. It coughed and choked as he urged it to seventy miles an hour. They pulled into Haggard after midnight. Parked across from the underground bunker at the water plant. Crank Baxter resembled a World War II tank. Squat, sturdy frame built in the mills in Gary. He stalked the bunker’s green haze hunched over; a cat poised to kill. Shoved his way through clusters of junkies. He grabbed people by their throats, lifted them off the ground, and Darth Vader’d them about a guy named Bobby Arnold. A young woman with honey-brown hair directed them to a concrete lip just above the sewage ducts. Rodents nipped at Bobby Arnold’s toes as he scrunched himself inside the narrow space. Must have figured it an easier fate than dealing with Crank Baxter. Mud stained his jeans and trendy Johnny Cash T-shirt, the one with the Man in Black showing the camera his middle finger.

Crank dragged him through the crowd. The junkies cussed, threatened to kick his ass. “Help me get this piece of shit to the surface,” he said to Gilbert. For a junkie, Bobby Arnold looked healthy. Overweight, but youthful, shiny skin. Probably new to the scene. Gilbert struggled to keep his balance as he pushed Bobby’s feet through the steel-rimmed portal leading to the sane world. Crank hoisted him from above, his monster hands clutching the junkie’s shoulders. As Gilbert climbed the iron rungs to the street, Crank Baxter thwacked Bobby Arnold in the side of his neck. The junkie collapsed. Crank dragged him by his ankle to the truck. “Let’s go, Stink,” he said. Gilbert wished he had the balls to correct the gangsters, tell them nobody needed to call him Stinky anymore. His underarms and unwashed Haynes begged to differ. He helped Crank chuck the junkie onto the bed of the pickup. Two five-gallon gas cannisters and several coils of chains had been secured behind the cab.

As they bounced and slid over a gravel road near Pawpaw Grove, Gilbert asked, “What’s the deal?”

Crank stared at him for a moment. “Bobby’s been busted seven times now and never once been tossed over the wall.”

Gilbert ceased thinking of Bobby Arnold as a junkie. Junkies deserved sympathy. But rats? They required swift execution.

“Going to take him for a ride.” Crank steered the Ford onto a wide, dirt path at Pawpaw Hollow. He brought the truck to a halt among cedars and birch trees. “Let’s get the snitch prepped for his last meal.” He clarified: “Bobby’s going to feast on twigs and pebbles before meeting his maker.”

They secured the rat’s legs with the chains and attached the other ends to a hitch on the tail of the truck. Bobby stirred as they set him on the ground. “Why not just shoot him?” said Gilbert.

“Boy needs to think about his mistakes as he’s dying.” Crank walked back to the cab.

Bobby Arnold opened his eyes. He held his pudgy hands out to Gilbert. Baby hands. “Please, buddy…”

“Stink!” Crank honked the horn twice.

The engine growled. An impatient predator. Crank jammed his left foot onto the brake pedal and fed the engine gas with his right. The hood rattled. Crank released the brake and the truck coughed before taking off.

Not even the chorus of the wind harmonizing with the Ford’s raspy protests drowned the horrid sounds of Bobby Arnold’s shrieks. Fate must have blessed him, snapped his neck, early in the ride. Gilbert glanced at his sideview mirror. The rat’s limp body trampolined off the earth like a fish reeled in across a lake. The image visited him any time he caught a moment’s sleep the following days.

Crank slowed and stopped the truck in a clearing. He pointed at a parked violet Geo. “Our chariot home.” He directed Gilbert to reach under his seat. Said he’d find two sets of work gloves. “This is going to be messy.”

The road repurposed Bobby Arnold into a sopping crimson slab. As they heaved the dead rat onto the bed of the truck, his skeleton collapsed. Multiple bones must have splintered or broken. Crank instructed Gilbert to climb over the fleshy glob and retrieve the cannisters of gasoline. Gilbert handed them to him. “Jump down, now,” said Crank. He picked up one of the containers and splashed the corpse and the truck. He nodded to the other cannister. “Let’s go, Stink. This heap ain’t going to bathe itself.”

Gilbert unscrewed the lid. The container felt heavier as he doused the front end of the truck. He circled the vehicle several times. The air wobbled like a movie flashback, reeked of benzene. Crank threw his cannister onto the bed and told Gilbert to do the same. He produced a Zippo with a copper Grim Reaper etched into the side of it. “Stand back, Stink.” He lit the Reaper and aimed it at the Ford. Sparks jumped until a small fire danced where the Zippo landed. The flames mated with the fuel. A vicious gust preceded a blaze encompassing the truck and the rat.

Crank smacked Gilbert in the chest with the back of his hand. “Let’s go, Stink.” He threw a set of keys at him and walked toward the Geo. “You drive this time, buddy.”


A week later, Gilbert exited the Dan Ryan Express at 35th and crawled through cramped traffic to Union. The GPS directed him to a two-story brick building on the corner. A liquor store occupied the first floor. Men on the sidewalk asked for spare change from anyone entering or leaving the booze shop. Women in painted-on skirts chirped at him, asked if he needed some pussy. One woman, could not have been older than sixteen, offered to suck his dick. He patted his pockets, pretended he had no cash. He found the entryway leading to the apartments. On a keypad with scratched off numbers, he dialed the number Seth gave him. A man on the other end asked what the hell he wanted. “Name’s Gilbert,” he said. “I’m here to see Diego.” The door buzzed and he ascended a set of marble stairs riddled with cracks. At the top of the steps, a man wider than Gilbert, dressed in safari shorts and a wine-red Bermuda shirt, chomped a cigar. His snow-white eyebrows and hair suggested he had a decade on Gilbert.

In a polite tone, he said, “Please raise your arms.” He patted down Gilbert with one hand. A lazy inspection. “It’s cool,” he said. “Seth tells me you’re old school.”

Gilbert pointed to the gray patch of hair arcing over his left ear. “Been around a while, amigo.”

“Sí, ese.” The man appeared neither amused nor impressed. He directed him into a small room with torn furniture and a flat screen television mounted in the window. He rested his cigar across the top of a Coke can. From under a couch suitable for a museum—the ornate, wooden arms and legs carved to resemble the feet and claws of an unidentified animal—the man produced a briefcase with a broken combination lock. He opened it and pointed to a collection of plastic baggies stuffed with pills.

After closing the briefcase, the man stepped aside. “All yours.”

Gilbert did so and left the apartment. He recognized several of the pills—Vikes, Oxy, and Fen, ready to be crushed and snorted or shot into the arms of Lake County’s living dead. He never plugged dope. Considered it a waste. Better to pop a pill, let the body warm to the chemical seasoning. A couple of Vikes, he could haunt a bar and not make a fool of himself in front of women. Then again, he hadn’t gone out in years. He preferred to sit on the couch in his mother’s house and veg to late night television.

He roamed the liquor store. Pulled an RC from a cooler near the emergency exit. As he approached the counter, he noticed a young woman in cut-off shorts. Ass cheeks peeking out the bottom. Pink halter top. No bra. Honey-brown hair. His attention volleyed between her and the clerk as he paid for the soda. He told the clerk to keep the change.

He ignored the men outside asking for money, the hookers ogling him, as though he owed them attention. The young woman in cutoffs trailed him to the rental. He stopped and said, “Excuse me?”

“I know you.” She placed her knuckles on her hips. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few working on the block, washed out her eyes. “Met you in the bunker, in Haggard.”

He ducked into a shadow.

“Last week,” she said, “you barged through looking for that fat ugly snitch, Bobby Arnold.”

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

She waved her hand. “Oh, don’t worry none. Nobody’s going to miss that fucking skinhead.”

“I got to go.” Gilbert started for the driver’s side.

“Back to Haggard?”

Gilbert pressed the button on the keychain to open the door.

“Think I could get a ride?” The young woman tilted her head. “Really,” she said, “I promise I won’t tell no one you clipped the snitch.”

“Who said I did?”

The young woman stepped toward the passenger-side door and fiddled with the handle. “Come on, man,” she said. “I don’t get a ride, I’m going to have to spend the night with a creep. You know how dudes from Chicago are. Total douchebags.”

Gilbert’s lungs deflated. He’d yet to shake the moronic belief that doing favors for women led to sex. Sex he wouldn’t pay for in the most overt, socially unacceptable manner. He imagined the young woman in lingerie, after a shower and a makeover. She’d look good. What had she been doing in the bunker? No blemishes on her arms or legs from plugging dope. Did she pop pills? He could buy some from Seth and ask the young woman to chill with him. “Hop on in.” He clicked the trunk button on the keychain and wedged the briefcase between the spare tire and first aid kit.

As Chicago’s obscene skyscrapers diminished in the rearview, the young woman unloaded biographical details. Whether she told the truth, Gilbert didn’t care. She claimed a redneck shot her ex-boyfriend in the Van & Strack parking lot. Cops wanted to pin it on her. Not enough evidence. She laid low in the bunker to be safe. “Never know when the pigs might decide to take a closer look.” Gilbert asked if the man’s death had been her fault. She changed the subject. “Got a line to Classy Companions.”

“What’s that?”

“Escort service.”


“I won’t be selling my pussy, per se. Just showing it to douchebags while they tug themselves.” She stared out her window. “I know, it’s kind of gross. But I won’t cross that line. I won’t take money to let a man inside me.”

“You shouldn’t,” said Gilbert. “I mean, I’m not judging. I just think…You look like you have more respect for yourself, you know?” His mother would have laughed. She’d put her foot down a year ago, told him to stop bringing hookers to his bedroom.

A purple and gray sky loitered over the dead mills in Gary. The young woman mumbled. Something like, “Yeah, sure.”

Gilbert took the first exit to Haggard. He needed to gas up the rental and grab something sweet for his belly. He pulled into the Shell station overlooking I-65 like a parent at a playground. He asked the young woman if she needed anything. She said no. Very considerate of her. “Sit tight,” he said. He swiped his mother’s credit card at the pump and fed the tank. He greeted a posse of homeless cats he’d gotten to know in recent months. They stood by the door, opening it for customers coming and going, hoping for charity. “Get you on my way out,” he said to them. He perused the snack aisle, his mouth watering at the shelf of Hostess sugar bombs. He nabbed a cherry pie and stood in line. He used his own cash. On his way back to the car, he dropped three quarters in the smudged, free hand of the man holding the door. The guy sneered. “It’s all I got,” said Gilbert.

Guilt from not helping the homeless man buy a four-course meal and whatever poison put him on the street evaporated when he returned to the rental. The woman had taken off. Jesus, he should have known better. Good-looking twenty-something, even if she dwelled in the bunker, what the hell would she want with a rotting fifty-three-year-old? He grinned at himself in the rearview as he settled in the car. Half his teeth, missing. Blackened, chipped, crooked. A hillbilly Red Foxx. “Loser,” he said to himself. He took off and cruised to Seth’s place. The big man sat at a crumbling picnic table out front. Flaking paint suggested the benches had once been canary and the table itself, burnt orange. Probably stolen from the old Haggard public swimming pool. Gilbert parked and meandered to the table, wiping pie crumbs off the corners of his mouth. Seth picked up the barrel of a black revolver he’d disassembled and peered through it. “What’s the word, Stink?”

Gilbert clicked the keychain and popped the trunk. “No issues.” He walked with Seth to the car. Seth arrived a second earlier. His eyes rummaged the trunk.

“Johnnies pulled you over,” he said, “looks like you’d a had nothing to worry about.”

Gilbert’s throat dried. The young woman had robbed him. He’d failed to hide the dope the way Seth instructed. He’d fucked up. Again. He marched around to the driver’s side, bent down to examine several buttons near the emergency brake. “Shit…”

“Where’s my product, Stink?” Impatience colored Seth’s voice.

The young woman had found the button for the trunk, no doubt took a peek, and snatched the briefcase. He inhaled. Closed his eyes. “I guess…there was an issue.”

Seth slammed the trunk and circled the car. “How’s that?”

“I gave a ride…”

Pointing at him with the detached gun barrel, Seth said, “Changed my mind, Stink. Not in the mood to hear the story. Get me my pills or get your affairs in order. I’m tired of giving you second chances.”

Technically, he’d only given him two second chances. Gilbert stuffed himself into the car and started it up without saying anything. Seth approached the driver’s side and tapped the window with the gun barrel. Gilbert rolled it down. The big man leaned in and said, “Got one hour, Stink. Beyond that, I’m sending Crank Baxter your way. You know how that’s going to turn out, don’t you?”


Gilbert’s mother dubbed Seth Short The Overseer. Said he’d have taken delight in whipping returned runaways back in the day. Gilbert considered these things as he climbed down the rusted rungs to the bunker at the water plant. Usual litter of junkies on the narrow lip beside the flowing sewage. They’d slumped against the concrete wall, huddled, on the nod. Shit. Common sense told him he’d retrieve nothing. Perhaps he could offer up the young woman as a sacrifice to Seth.

“Anybody seen…” He’d never thought to ask her name. Or did she tell him and he’d forgotten? Yes, yes. She said it once. Something fancy, something foreign sounding, like she belonged in a Hans Christian Andersen story. A junkie in a striped shirt and torn blue jeans raised his head. He squinted, as though staring into the sun.

“Sup, dawg?”

“I’m looking for a girl,” said Gilbert. “Short shorts, pink halter top, dusty brown hair, possibly blonde, I’m not good with colors.”

“Think you mean Cym.” The junkie used his bulbous forehead to point down the line. “She’s earned a spot with Mitch.”

“Mitch Polk?” said Gilbert.

The junkie said, “Last names are still a thing in the world upstairs?”

Gilbert thanked him and walked into the tunnel. Mitch Polk had been a runner for Seth. Gilbert heard he’d died at some point. Overdosed. Or Seth had him eighty-sixed. Depended on who told the story. The bunker hid a lot of Haggard’s dirt. His eyes adjusted to the dim and he spotted the young woman’s legs, draped over another man in filthy jeans. “Hey,” he said when he reached her.

The young woman took her time facing him.

“What’d you do with it?” he said.

The man she’d wrapped herself around forced his chin higher. “Who are you?”



“Nobody calls me that no more.” He returned his attention to the young woman. “I need the shit you peeled.”

“No idea what you’re talking about.” The young woman flashed her teeth. So white they glowed in the dark. A flirtatious smile. No doubt certain she could tease her way out of trouble.

“Ain’t here to bullshit,” said Gilbert. “I just need that shit back.”

Mitch must have thought Gilbert couldn’t hear him. “He talking about the dope?”

The young woman played dumb.

“Oh, bro,” said Mitch, “that shit’s long gone.” He waved his hand back and forth. “Everybody got some.” He clutched the brick wall to help him get to his feet. “And thank you, if you’re the donor.”

Gilbert’s fingers clasped the junkie’s clammy throat. “You understand Seth Short’s going to turn your ass inside-out, right?”

Mitch laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Dude,” said the young woman, “the shit’s gone. Just deal with it.”

Gilbert released Mitch, let him drop to his knees to catch his breath. To the young woman, he said, “You familiar with karma?”

“That’s superstitious shit for people who can’t handle reality.”

“It’s very real,” said Gilbert.

The young woman shrugged.

The bunker’s emerald glow tapered. Gilbert knew he could pick her up, throttle her, throw her into the river of sewage. Wouldn’t matter. He’d still have to go to Seth empty. Still have to take his lumps. “Okay,” he said to the young woman. “See you on the other side.”

He climbed out of the bunker and drove to the Family Express on Seventh Street. He used his mother’s credit card to buy a bottle of Night Train and sat in the rental downing it. Before putting the Honda into gear and heading toward Seth’s, toward whatever harsh judgment The Overseer had in store for him, he called his mother on the disposable flip phone. “Hey,” he said. “Just wanted to thank you.” She asked what the hell had gotten into him. “You jet through life,” he said to her, “someone right next to you, telling you what you need to hear, and you don’t listen until it’s too late.”

“Well, yeah…” Her sarcasm? Music.

“I got to go, Mom.” He hung up and coasted onto Seventh Street. He fired up the rental’s satellite radio. Found a station playing songs from the nineties. All that grunge crap he couldn’t stand, taking him back to his days as a young man, when he still believed his future lay in Chicago and beyond. When he still believed he would not be buried in the same town he’d been born in.

Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indiana. His recent books include Down on the Street, Breaking Glass, Lake County Incidents, and Cool It Down. He is also the editor of the digest magazine Pulp Modern.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Issue #80 -- October 2021

by Preston Lang  

The Jade Ring was sometimes called the poor man’s Maltese Falcon. But this was ridiculous considering how many plot holes Falcon had, how hokey the score was, and how much tangier Ramona Dade was than cold Mary Astor. CJ spent a lot of time and energy trashing The Maltese Falcon even though she ranked it as the sixth or seventh best movie ever made. But The Jade Ring was two cuts above. Lean, mysterious, and beautiful, not a shot was wasted. Every scene ramped up the tension, and every line of dialogue crackled, spun, and surprised.

CJ had published eleven articles on Jade. The editor of Noir Memories suggested that she write about “a movie people have actually seen or care about.” She dragged his carcass all over social media for months. After that, the only place that would still publish her was a small nonpaying monthly called Gats, Gams, and Knuckles. You could write Bogart five hundred times in crayon—they’d print it.

CJ would follow up on any scrap about Jade. She ran names and key phrases through every database she could find—the title, the stars, the creators. The director was a former cameraman from RKO named Victor Lugo who’d directed a few other films: uninspiring police dramas and a stilted circus picture. On Jade, though, Lugo held the camera straight and let the scenes play. What made it work was the script.

The screenwriter was an old army buddy of Lugo’s named Frank Bauer. This was his only credit. CJ had once entertained the possibility that Bauer was a front for someone else, someone big—Faulkner, Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, Franz Kafka? But that wasn’t it. The style was wholly unique, yet quintessentially noir. CJ wrote article after article about the depth and bite of the banter, the simple beauty of the early morning fog, and the women. All of them—complex, stylized, and acid-tongued, but real and sexy as hell.

When a huge trove of old police reports became available to the public in a searchable database, CJ jumped right on it and got a hit from Daneville, Iowa, 1946. A murder suspect used the old I-was-at-the-movies alibi. Jade had simply been dropped on a number of screens across America one Friday in October of 1946 as the B picture in a package with a musical called Fancy Footin’. No advanced information, no teasers in the trade magazines. The murder occurred the first night the movie had been shown publicly. The cops had the suspect write out the entire synopsis by hand. In 1946, this was a good alibi.

Criminal Report Daneville Police Department

I hereby submit the following report for the day of October 26, 1946: The victim, Al Harris, permanent residence unknown, was found strangled in the Oaktree Hotel on the night previous, October 25.

Suspect Dan Frieze interviewed on October 26. Suspect seen with victim by witnesses in the week before the murder. According Witness #1, suspect and Harris argued in public outside of hotel. On the night of October 25, Witness #2 saw a man believed to be Suspect enter Harris’s hotel room at 7:30 PM and then leave at 9 PM or shortly after. Suspect claims he was at the movies from 7 PM until after 10:30 PM on the night of October 25.

A few pages were missing, and the cop’s handwriting was cramped and hard to decipher, but the description of The Jade Ring was written in legible longhand by the suspect. He did a great job: the opening chase in the rain; Singapore Sam with a dagger in his boot; the delicious twist of the shoeshine boy’s identity; all the double entendre about cave exploration; and the slowdance to frantic boogie-woogie piano. Then just before the conclusion … the murder of Ramona’s sister.

Alone in front of her computer screen, CJ actually gasped. If you’ve seen the movie even once, you know the little sister does not die. She’s got the last line of the movie—Wouldn’t catch me dead in a coat like that. You might think, so what? The suspect made one mistake. But CJ knew what no other living soul knew: in the original screenplay, Ramona’s sister did die, hit by a car in the desert just as the suspect had described. Three years earlier at a used bookstore in LA, CJ had lucked onto an original script. That yellowed stack of paper had been her holy grail. This now felt bigger.

The police had held the suspect overnight, but the next day they checked his alibi. The ticket seller at the theater remembered him. He’d bought one for the seven o’clock show. First he’d passed over a ten-dollar bill then realized he had thirty-five cents change in a back pocket. Jade came on before the feature. There might’ve been a few shorts or a news reel first, but if the suspect saw The Jade Ring that night, he couldn’t have committed the murder.

CJ put on her gray double-breasted and a bias-cut, striped tie and drove west. Seventeen hours, away from her rented room and her minimum-wage job toward the Daneville town archives. There had to be more in the local papers, maybe even police reports that hadn’t been put online. Over the years, CJ had learned that old midwestern towns never threw anything out. It wasn’t always easy to find, but truth sat mute in boxes and folders. Rolling through America, CJ played favorite scenes in her head—Lydia scamming the shipping company with a slick badger game, Ramona leaning over the dying pianist, making him play “My Sweetheart’s Smile.” In no time, she’d arrived.

Daneville was one of those solid Iowa towns of just over thirty thousand that rise up modestly out of the corn centered around a cluster of honest stone buildings. CJ got in just after ten a.m. Town Hall was a short walk down Main Street. On the way, she passed the old movie theater. There was the box office where seven nickels would’ve let her live her dream—Jade on a real big screen. But on a cold Tuesday morning, it advertised a superhero sequel and that one with Hugh Jackman and a talking monkey. CJ combed her hair and straightened her tie in the reflection off the plexiglass.


The archivist was a small woman with a chipped front tooth. The nameplate on her desk read Audrey Tyne. Before CJ spoke a word, the archivist laughed lightly.

“Can I use the archives?”

“What for?”

“I’m a journalist, researching the Albert Harris murder.”

“Never heard of it.”

Her voice was tart and luscious.

“Happened in 1946, right here in Danville,” CJ said. “I know my way around an archive, so I don’t need any help.”

“You don’t need me to hold your hand?”

“Is there a fee?”

“No. Just leave your ID with me. But you can’t smoke, and you can’t eat anything too juicy.”

“What’s too juicy?”

“A pear, a plum, a peach.”

Downstairs boxes were stacked to the ceiling, but it was well-organized, and CJ found the old newspapers right away. She had to fight a few cobwebs on her way to 1946, but the papers didn’t crumble into dust when you touched them, and the print was still clear and easy to read. The Bee and the Journal both ran accounts of the murder almost daily.

The Bee wrote that Daniel Frieze, a salesman, had been brought in for questioning. The next day, he was no longer a suspect. CJ found Frieze’s address in the 1946 phone book. He wasn’t there in 1945 or 1947. From property records, she saw he was a renter. There was no mention of what kind of salesman he was or what business he had in town.

A week in, the police arrested and charged a mechanic named Joe Murphy. The victim’s wallet had been found in a locker at Murphy’s garage where Harris was having repairs done on his car. For a few days, Murphy claimed innocence. Then the papers started to describe the victim as a “suspected red,” a “onetime member of subversive organizations,” and “involved in deviant lifestyles.” Soon after, Murphy confessed to the killing but claimed he was just defending himself from this strange little leftist.

It was getting good—a communist and a mechanic. In addition to being the best film ever made, Jade was also the most trenchant condemnation of capitalism ever put on screen. Some noirs attacked the concept of greed, but Jade indicted the whole rotten system. Without speeches or moralizing, it forced you to see the world in a different way.

Murphy got eighteen months for manslaughter. None of the papers ever mentioned the other suspect again – Frieze, the moviegoer. CJ was feeling giddy as she scanned residential listings near Frieze’s residence where she found Peter Gordon, a two-year-old in the 1940 census. He’d lived across the street from the house Frieze had stayed in. He would’ve been eight when Frieze moved in. To CJ’s surprise, he was still alive—a retired electrician living right where Frieze had left him in 1946.

It was past seven when CJ came up the stairs. The archivist had let her hair loose and set a bottle of rye on the counter.

“What time do you close?” CJ asked.

“Two hours ago.”

“Sorry to keep you.”

“If we stay open late, we all have to take one good pull.”

She poured a generous tumbler for each of them

“Well, if those are the rules,” CJ said.

“I don’t make them, but I enforce them to the letter.”

The bottle had a picture of a sketchy-looking gent in a powdered wig. The price-tag said 6.99, but it was damn good fire.

“Have you ever heard of a movie called The Jade Ring?” CJ asked.

“Solid B picture. Two car chases; one racy spelunking joke that snuck by the censors.”

“You’ve really seen it?"

This girl was too good to be true.

“I looked you up, CJ.” The archivist handed back her driver’s license. “Eleven articles about this Jade Ring. I watched the whole thing while you were underground.”

“It’s great, isn’t it?”

CJ lost her cool for just a second and flashed the big, deranged smile of an obsessive.

“What does it have to do with my archives?”

CJ gave her the whole story, ending with Peter Gordon.

“I know Pete,” the archivist said.

“How well?”

“He botched the order for youth choir tee shirts, so my mom got him kicked out of church.”

“What denomination?”

“Presbyterian. We’ll be fine if we bring him a bottle.”

They hit the liquor store for more rye and brought it over to Pete’s place. The house was on the old side of the street, where all the homes were solid Victorian. On the other side, where Frieze’s place had been, everything was prefabs with a gap before you got a convenience store and gas station.

Pete answered the door in a dress shirt and slacks.

“What do you want?”

“She’s a reporter working on a story,” Audrey said. “And she brought you whisky.”

“I’m looking into the Albert Harris murder,” CJ said.

“You know what her mother did to me?” Pete pointed to Audrey.

“Hey, don’t pin that on me. I hate my mom more than you do. She broke her wrist in June, it was hilarious.”

“Harris murder,” Pete said.

“I was wondering about a man who lived across the street: Dan Frieze.”

“That’s a hell of a tie, young lady,” Pete said to CJ.

It was a gift from a woman who told CJ only lies from day one. She said it had belonged to Cal Lafaro. Bit player in the ’30s and ’40s. In Jade he had a sad one-liner after he lost at dice in the casino scene. The tie did look a lot like his, but she knew it was fake. Still, she relished the naked deception.

“Can we come inside?” Audrey asked.

“Give me the bottle.”

Pete’s living room was filled with childish art and photographs of smiling kids, but he lived alone in the big house.

“They questioned Frieze about the murder,” he said. “Then it turned out the big Irish guy did it. Got in a fight with that communist.”

“You don’t think Frieze was involved at all?”

“The Irish guy confessed, didn’t he? He was out in less than a year. Everyone was good to him, brought him their cars to fix. And I don’t think he paid for another drink until the day he died.”

“What do you remember about Frieze?”

“He had a woman who lived with him. But they weren’t around much. They’d leave for weeks at a time. And, you know, they weren’t married. They were chilling.”


“Like kids today. My granddaughter, my niece, the girl who put in my cable TV. They just find a guy and—chill.” He looked to Audrey. “Do you chill?”

“You know me, Pete: I don’t go below simmer.”

“What was the name of the woman who lived with Frieze?” CJ asked.

“Birgit. Name like a Viking’s mistress. I’ve always remembered her. It was my mom who found out they weren’t married. Goes up to the lady—how are you today Miss Munsey. That Valhalla broad backhanded my mom into the street. We stayed away from her after that.”

Something about the name Birgit landed with CJ—it tied in, but she couldn’t remember how. Pete poured out half a glass for everyone, and Audrey raised her drink to the generous host.

“I can tell my mom to talk to the Rev,” she said. “Maybe bring you back into the fold.”

Pete shook his head.

“What do you get from religion? A few songs on Sunday and everlasting life?”


“Birgit Munsey,” Audrey said at the Steel Toe Diner. “Hell of a name for a lady who goes around smacking good Christian mothers.”

She ate half a blueberry pie while CJ looked up the mystery woman. What she found was gold. Birgit was a minor figure in the American Communist Party starting in the mid-1930s. There she was in pictures with Earl Browder and Paul Robeson—short, neat hair, and a long modest skirt, but her eyes were fierce and her jaw was set for the struggle. She wrote articles in a few of the party organs. They were good: engaging, colloquial, funny. CJ read Audrey a few choice excerpts. Finally, in an eight-hundred-word takedown of American Trotskyites, an intellect was described as “dry as sand on a soda cracker.” Word for word the same phrase Singapore Sam used about the DA.

“Just like in the movie,” Audrey said.

“She wrote the screenplay.”

For one perfect moment life decided to make sense. CJ had sometimes suspected a female hand behind the language, but this was the solution in full—a communist woman, living in sin in Iowa in 1946. Albert Harris was a rat from the past come to blackmail her, so she had him killed. All the pieces fit. CJ kept searching, but the trail dried up after 1946. Then she remembered why the name Birgit felt familiar. In the 1910 census, Hans Bauer of Collander, Wisconsin had two sons: teenagers Frank and Tom, and a toddler step-daughter—from a mother now deceased. Frank, of course, grew up, fought in the first world war, met Victor Lugo, and got one screen credit for a little picture called The Jade Ring. And his baby stepsister?

CJ passed her phone to Audrey.

“Birgit Muntz?”

“From Muntz to Munsey,” CJ said. “A lot of Germans took the kraut out of their surnames back then.”

This revelation was huge and meaty. There were four or five different articles she needed to write immediately: the intersection of art, gender, political philosophy. CJ was getting dizzy, but Audrey started typing and soon found a Birgit Muntz, living in Arch, Wisconsin—two towns over from Collander. But this woman appeared to be in her seventies.

“Too young,” Audrey said.

“It’s her daughter.”

Old Birgit got knocked up by Frieze (or some other clown) then she moved back up to Wisconsin, had the little bundle, and named it after herself.

“But why is she Muntz instead of Munsey?” Audrey asked.

“Her mom changed it back to stay off some radars.”

“And after the war, she figured it was safe to slip the lederhosen back on?”

“I need to go see her.”

CJ downed the last of her coffee and stood.

“Right now?” Audrey said.

“If I start now, I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“Or you could stay with me. Set out in the morning like a civilized human.”

“No, it’s always best to get an old person early in the day,” CJ said. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”

Audrey paid and followed CJ out to her car. It was less than ten minutes to Audrey’s place. When they got there Audrey asked CJ to walk her to the door then fumbled for her keys a bit before fitting the metal into the lock.

“You got a girlfriend?” Audrey asked.


“Don’t like to be tied down?”

“Something like that.”

“You probably got a string of broken hearts longer than that reddit chain you started about the colorized version of The Big Sleep.”

“How about a kiss goodbye?”

A nip on the chin then the mouth, gently. CJ leaned into this soft little woman. Audrey opened the door and started to pull CJ inside. But CJ didn’t cross the threshold.

“Good night,” she said.

“You’re really going to leave me here? Start driving to Wisconsin?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Okay, then.”

Audrey closed the door, and CJ walked back to her car. As she reached for the handle, she took a shot to the side of the head that knocked her off her feet.

“Who the hell are you?”

CJ didn’t answer. She just looked up at a man, big as her car.

“What were you doing with my girlfriend?” he asked.

“Just checking the woman for ticks.”

“You made a big mistake, little man.”

“I’m not a little man. I’m a medium-sized woman.”

Did he really think she was a man? It was dark and she was wearing a suit. He took her by the lapels and lifted her. CJ heard the click clearly in the still night.

“You need to leave, Scott.”

Audrey was clear and confident.

“Do it,” Scott said, shaking CJ out in front of him. “Put one right through your little boyfriend. See if it hits me.”

“You need to let go of her. And you need to leave.”

Scott released his hold and shoved CJ aside. Audrey stood steady with a Colt Commander pointed at the big man.

“Do it,” he said. “If you want to kill me, kill me.”

“I want you to go home.”

They all stood still until Scott turned and walked away.

“You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend,” CJ said.

“I don’t have a boyfriend. I have a problem. Are you okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.”

“Looks like I’m going to Wisconsin with you,” Audrey said, getting into the passenger seat.

As CJ started the car, she saw Scott turn and begin running back toward them.

“Reverse. Then take a left at the first intersection,” Audrey said.

Scott seemed to be gaining on them as they backed away from the house, but once they hit the turn and started driving forward, Scott faded in the rearview.

“You think he’ll burn your place down?”

“He wouldn’t do that. Not if I wasn’t inside.”

Once they made it to the highway, they didn’t pass another car for miles—the open seas belonged to them.

“You have work tomorrow?” CJ asked.

“You know what happens if I don’t show?”

“Mass hysteria?”

“No one’s checked on me in years. I read, watch movies, write snide comments on social media.”

“What kind of movies do you like?”

“A lot of trash that’ll disappoint you if I say it out loud. I did go through a noir phase in high school.”

CJ wasn’t crazy about the term “noir phase” but she liked the low, fluid purr of Audrey’s voice.

“I hung around the food court in a cocktail dress and pillbox hat,” Audrey said. “They called me the Maltese Mall Tease.”

CJ nodded but didn’t say anything.

“Birgit Muntz,” Audrey continued. “That’s a real femme fatale.”

And a genuine commie. Not some watered-down humanist who went to a Woody Guthrie concert one time. She was a woman who could write tough-guy dialogue and political treatise, or have a man killed if he turned traitor.

“So what’s your theory?” Audrey asked.

“Frank Bauer knew Lugo from their days in the army. Lugo starts directing bad B pictures. They meet for a drink one night—any monkey could churn out a movie script. Frank knows his lefty sister can write, so he gets her to bang one out.”

“Okay, sure, but I’m talking about the murder.”

“An old communist pal comes to Daneville and blackmails her. She has Frieze kill Harris for being a weasel. They set up Murphy, but they also make it so he comes out okay.”

“Because Murphy’s just a mechanic—an honest working man?”


“None of that makes any sense,” Audrey said.

“Why not?”

“What’s the blackmail about?”

“She’s a communist. Wouldn’t have gone over well in a town like Daneville.”

“Daneville was just a place to keep the trunk and a few spare frocks. Things get bad, they just find a cheap room in another little town.”

“No, that’s—”

“And you’re trying to tell me that the film she wrote under her brother’s name just happens to give them the right alibi at the right time?”

CJ grew frustrated, then angry, but Audrey was right.

“Okay. No blackmail,” CJ said. “Munsey, Frieze, and Harris knew each other from their commie days. Frieze went over to Harris’s room to talk over the old times.”

“Toss around a few dialectics and sing ‘The Internationale’?”

“So they get a little drunk, Harris says something ugly, Frieze strangles him.”

“No, Frieze went over there to kill Harris. Remember how he’s got an alibi set up, even did a little routine with a sawbuck at the box office so they’d remember him. It was premeditated. Frieze had a reason.”

CJ looked over at Audrey. Was it really so surprising that an archivist would have a head on her shoulders?

“Let’s see what the daughter knows,” CJ said.

They glided into Illinois, past a seventy-foot grain silo and road signs promising salvation and Dr. Pepper.

“You know why I laughed when I first saw you?” Audrey asked.


“Your eyes. They’re intense. Like you’re trying to intimidate a wild animal.”

“And that’s why you laughed?”

“When we go see this old bird, you probably want to get your face under control.”

Of course, this wasn’t the first time CJ had been told that her eyes were fierce and off-putting. They also served as a kind of beacon for a certain type of lost girl.

“Are my eyes okay now?” CJ looked over at Audrey.

“They’re gorgeous.”

CJ looked back at the road.

“We’re ahead of schedule. There’s campgrounds in about twenty miles. We can pull in and get some sleep before going to see the lady.”

“I’m not sleeping in a car,” Audrey said.

“I can’t afford a motel.”

“I can.”

Thirty-eight miles from Arch Wisconsin, they found a Super 8. CJ knew it was a mistake to have brought Audrey, and the next mistake was going to be even bigger. She was about to cede a bit of herself in a cheap room just when she could least afford it. A woman like this always took something from you. When it was just a tee shirt or an out-of-print DVD, you were getting off easy.


Audrey was still in bed at eight the next morning. A fitful sleeper, she tossed and mumbled—can’t hear. But there was time. The best hour to hit an old person was between ten and eleven. Once you were in their house, it was tough for them to tell you to leave; and once you got them talking, they often spilled the whole story from title to credits. If you pressed even more, you could find yourself in the attic sorting through treasure.

CJ got a cup of coffee and the local paper. A high school girl working at Burger King had killed the owner of the franchise. Ten-to-one the boss man had it coming. By the time CJ got back to the room, Audrey was up and ready to go.

Birgit Muntz was a tall woman who went by Bonnie. She greeted them warily, but after a few awkward moments, she invited them in and even set out a few Lorna Doones on the coffee table. The home was clean and sparsely decorated, but there was an unwholesome smell coming from the carpet.

“We believe that your mother created one of the greatest films of all time,” CJ said.

“My Uncle Frank you mean? He was the one in movies.”

“No, your mother, Birgit Munsey. The world should know more about her.”

Bonnie broke a cookie in half but left both the pieces on the tray.

“You’re talking about that little—jade picture?” she asked.

The Jade Ring, yes, ma’am.”

“Yeah. Mom wrote that. You think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made?”

“I believe it with all my soul.”

“It’s no Gone with the Wind.”

CJ took a very deep breath and clutched the armrest tight.

“But she had to use your uncle as a front because she was a communist. Is that right?”

“Who was a communist?”

“In the ’30s, your mother—”

“Oh, she joined the organizations, wrote some—tracts, screeds, whatever you call them. But that’s not who she was.”

“Who was she?”

Bonnie Muntz smiled and shrugged.

“I guess it can’t hurt to tell now,” she said. “And even if it does, she deserves a little pain. She drove my dad away.”

“Who was your dad?”

“The husband of my mom,” she said—snappy answer to a stupid question.

“What was his name?”

“Daniel Frieze.”

“But they weren’t married.”

“Excuse me—yes, they were. Married over there. But when they came back to America, it was better that they had different names.”


“She was spying.”

“For who?”

“The Germans.”


No, this made no sense.

“So she was a Nazi?” Audrey asked.

“And she wasn’t a very good mother, either.” Bonnie shook her head. “She met Dad in Berlin in 1933. She was in Europe, working for a company that sold fancy jackets. He was playing trombone in a dance band. Both of them native-born Americans who thought there was something to this Third Reich. They fell for each other, too. The Nazis thought they might be more useful back in the states. Dad got them to send regular cash.”

“For infiltrating the United States Communist Party?”

“Take the temperature over here.” Bonnie grew more comfortable, even a little slick as she told the story. “Turned out Dad wasn’t much of an actor. Put him in a room with those queer ducks, he’d just get too angry, threaten to throw someone out a window. But Mom could keep it cool. I’ll give her that much.”

“So the woman who wrote The Jade Ring was a fascist,” Audrey said.

This was just a game to her, a funny story told by an entertaining old lady. But Audrey was wrong. Birgit Munsey was a triple agent, working the Nazis for the reds. You couldn’t write like she did while working for the wrong team.

“She mellowed over time,” Bonnie continued. “But, you know, certain politicians, businessmen would get her going. When Rosenstein bought up all the A&Ps. ‘Swell, we get to buy all our bread from that Rosenstein now.’”

The old woman was doing a voice. In structure and cadence it resembled the tart responses Ramona spat out at the slow-witted cop. Bonnie pushed the plate of cookies to the center of the table.

“I’m not saying it’s right,” she said, “but, you have to admit, there’s something there.”

“Something where?”

“When you have a tiny group of people who control so much of the world, the money. Is that right?”

“Did your mother write anything else?” Audrey asked.

“She was always writing—articles, stories. Uncle Frank got her some radio work for a while.”

“Radio work?”

“She’d send pages to one of those men who yells at you on the AM dial. They don’t just make it up as they go along.”

“This is ridiculous,” CJ said. “None of this is true.”

“You’re calling me a liar?"

“I’m calling you—a liar.”

“Get out of my house.”

Bonnie wasn’t afraid of a woman in a double-breasted suit.

“I want to see what she wrote, what she left behind. It’s here—in the house.”

“I’m calling the police.”

Bonnie lifted the receiver of an old landline. CJ took one stride toward her, but Audrey stepped in and ran a hand up her shoulder.

“Come on. Let’s go.”

CJ could easily yank the phone away and tie this hag to a chair. Birgit Munsey deserved to have her memory celebrated. Instead, she’d been betrayed by a daughter gone fash. All the proof was in this house—papers, letters, unfinished novels, essays, screenplays. But Audrey’s touch, still with the power of last night’s intimacy, eased her to the door.

Ten minutes later they were back on the highway.

“This is some story,” Audrey said. “You got Nazis, you got movie people, you got shortbread cookies in Wisconsin.”

Audrey settled into the passenger seat—flip and cruel. She was nothing but a petty, hateful civil servant.

“There’s no Nazis,” CJ said. “Bonnie is a racist old woman being strange. Birgit Munsey was the genuine article.”

“I’ve known a lot of racist old women. None of them make up Nazi parents.”

“Birgit Munsey was a communist, a radical—”

“You’re just going to ignore the parts you don’t like?”

“I’m going to ignore what doesn’t make sense. That’s called logic.”

“If you’re not going to tell it right, I will.”

“What do you mean?”

“Put a noun in front of a verb, pretty soon you have an article.”

CJ stopped the car and pulled onto the shoulder.

“You can’t write about this.”

“Maybe I can dig a little on the German side. I know a few archivists over in Europe, and—”

“No, there is no German side. Get that through your head.”

“Albert Harris found out who they really were. They lured him out to Iowa—”

“Shut up. You’d never even seen The Jade Ring until last night.”

“It doesn’t belong to you just because you’ve cared about it the longest.”

Audrey got out of the car. What was she going to do, walk back to town? CJ followed, slamming the door behind them.

“Anyway, the story isn’t even about the movie,” Audrey said. “It’s about a couple of Nazis who—”

“No, Jade is the whole point.”

“One cheap B movie? Bad production values, so-so dialogue, no real—”

“How would you know what a good movie is?”

Jade was made to kill ninety minutes. It’s not Double Indemnity or Maltese Falcon or—”

“Get the hell out of my face with Falcon. Falcon has so many problems. First of all—”

“I don’t need a lecture. And I don’t need to see Jade two hundred times to know it’s trash."

CJ didn’t remember when she’d grabbed Audrey by the wrists, but when the little archivist tried to pull free, CJ shoved her sideways and her head slammed hard against the side of the car. CJ charged at her as Audrey rolled onto her side, pulled her gun, and fired once.

CJ fell into the dirt. The bullet had ripped clean through her jacket, her shirt. She felt the wetness just under the ribcage. The car started and backed up, passing just inches from her head. Then it turned away and drove off. CJ managed to sit up, then stand and walk along the side of the highway.

She had no car, and the pain flared all along the left side of her body. Her steps became uneven, but there were things that hurt a lot worse than taking a bullet to the gut. In Bonnie Muntz’s home, she’d find everything she needed.

Preston Lang is a Toronto-based writer. He's written dozens of stories and at least three novels.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Issue #79 -- September 2021


By Tom Leins

The elderly woman’s face explodes in a ruptured mess of cartilage and bone as my lumpen forehead makes contact with the bridge of her nose. That’s going to leave a fucking mark.

I wipe her blood out of my eyes and survey the wreckage. There are two men on the ground, bleeding from their broken mouths. Both punters, by the look of it. Cheap suits and rancid aftershave – the stink of which does little to mask their sweaty excitement at being in a suburban brothel on a Friday evening. Somehow, I don’t think their night is turning out quite how they planned.

I spring off the heart-shaped bed and launch myself at the scrawny man in the black silk shirt, my brass knuckles connecting with the oily strands of hair plastered across his discoloured scalp. I wrench the knuckle-duster free of the greasy, bloody tangle and move towards the door. The screaming hookers are giving me a fucking headache.

I sidestep his co-worker – a fat motherfucker with a knuckle-knife – and the blade misses my heart as his fingers crunch into my elbow and the knife rips my jacket. I swivel sharply and force the same elbow into his jawbone. It connects with a satisfying crunch of busted teeth. I sweep his legs for good measure and his chubby head hits the doorframe. One madam and two security guards, Malinquo told me. Job done.

I beckon to the girl, Barbie, and she peels herself off the far wall and tiptoes through the carnage. She was easy to find. The only black girl in the brothel. I rip a satin sheet off the nearest bed and pass it to her, to wrap herself in. Like everything else in the room, it reeks of stale semen and old cigarette smoke.

We’re halfway down the dimly-lit corridor when I feel the gun barrel against the back of my shaven skull.

“Hey motherfucker, kiss the ground.”

I nod and lower myself towards the linoleum. I launch my right boot backwards into the space where one of his knees should be and my heel makes contact with a sick crack. The triggerman lands on me with a grunt, his gun discharging into the corridor wall. I wriggle out from under him and stamp on his wrist, kicking the gun towards the lobby. He’s a big bastard – looks like he could do a lot of damage to a man like me.

Sure enough, he springs to his feet and assumes a boxer’s stance. Younger, taller and healthier than me, he lets rip with a jab-hook-uppercut combo that snaps my head back and leaves me smeared across the corridor wall. He chuckles sourly – presumably anticipating a better fight – and edges closer.

“Fuck this.”

I learned a long time ago not to leave blood, phlegm or semen at a crime scene, but that won’t be possible today.

I spit blood in his eyes and sidestep his right hook. I double him over with a punch to the gut and drive my knee into his face. Once. Twice. Three times.

Barbie is trembling in the lobby, the satin sheet still wrapped around her scrawny body. I retrieve the Glock from the lino for safekeeping and tuck it down the back of my jeans.

“Come on. Let’s go.”

My skull throbs, and I feel my right eye swell up. I push Barbie in front of me and she wobbles on the uneven pavement in her transparent heels, so I grab her elbow to steady her. I raise my hood and keep my eyes directed at the pavement, cautious to avoid any unexpected CCTV entanglements. We walk for at least ten minutes, switching direction every two streets.

We’re on a suburban street I don’t recognise. A small strip of boarded-up retail units with deserted-looking flats above them. I see a bus stop with shattered windows and a concrete bench seat and tell Barbie to sit down. I’ve no idea if she knows what’s going on, because she looks more nervous than she did back in the brothel.

I remove the mobile phone that Malinquo gave me from my shredded jacket. It’s a late ’90s Nokia, the kind drug dealers favour for the battery life. I dial the saved number with a bloody forefinger, leaving crimson fingerprints all over the handset. The machine picks up with a robotic click. I say nothing, like Malinquo told me – just wait twenty seconds and then hang up.

I blink away the rain, feeling woozy.

I try to fight the wave of tiredness and nausea that washes over me. Next to me, Barbie feels angular as she shivers uncontrollably.

I drift in and out of consciousness, unsure how much time has passed, when I’m blinded by full-beam headlights at the end of the road. Malinquo’s driver, I hope, as I’m in no fit state for another ruck.

I feel the tell-tale bulge of his shoulder holster against my ribcage as he heaves me onto the back seat of the hatchback. His face is stubbled and his aftershave reminds me of the ruined men in the brothel.

The last thing I remember is Barbie’s smile. She looks relaxed for the first time since we met.

When I was hired, I was told that she was West African. Trafficked into the country by one of Malinquo’s associates, only to end up in the wrong venue, in the wrong fucking town.

“Unless you have a basic grasp of French, don’t waste energy trying to strike up a conversation,” I was told.

It might be the delirium, but when she greets the driver, it sounds like she has a fucking Bristolian accent.

Blood. Piss. Pain. Chaos. Welcome to my world.

I pass out before we reach the end of the street.


Six hours later

It was an extraction. Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve rescued dozens of girls from dozens of brothels over the last decade, and the jobs pay well with minimal blowback. Occasionally, months or years later, I bump into a familiar face in a pub. Either a working girl, or a punter, or a bouncer, but they always blink first and look away – remembering the havoc I wreaked during our brief acquaintanceship.

Malinquo was a new client, but the job sounded legit, and he offered double my going rate – payment upfront. The money, address and phone were handed to me in the car park of a derelict pub by his driver, a thickset cliché with an unbranded bomber jacket and a freshly shaved head. Again, not particularly unusual. Men with dirty secrets like to obscure their business interests with middle-men and subterfuge, to ensure deniability. Malinquo didn’t seem too different.

Now, I find myself propped against the corrugated iron wall of a barn, staring at the morning rain. The barn is mercifully empty: no animals and no animal shit. Across the concrete courtyard is a dilapidated farmhouse. There’s an unsteady-looking pile of half-rusted appliances in one corner of the yard and a skip full of rubble a few feet from the front door.

On the floor next to me are a bottle of Happy Shopper mineral water and a Mars bar. The seal on the bottle looks like it’s been tampered with. I unscrew the lid and sniff the contents. Despite the lack of smell, I toss it aside. I haul myself off the floor and shake some life into my aching limbs. I check my jeans for the Glock, but it’s been removed, as has the mobile phone. Weirdly, a four-digit code has been written on the back of my left hand with marker pen.

My throat is parched, so I walk across to the far end of the barn, remove the rotten length of hose pipe attached to the stand pipe, twist the handle and drink thirstily from the cold trickle. Then I eat the Mars bar and try to take in my surroundings. Apart from the farmhouse, there’s not another building for miles. As far as my bloodshot eyes can see.

Even if there was, the boggy terrain and lashing rain dissuade me from attempting to flee the scene. I’m assuming I’m somewhere on Dartmoor, or down in Cornwall – places I can navigate my way home from – but I was out cold for long enough to be almost anywhere in the UK. I take another drink from the tap and piss in the corner of the barn. My urine is dark yellow. Dehydrated, but no blood, which is something, at least.

I stare at the farmhouse. I’ve been dumped here for a reason, and whoever – or whatever – is waiting inside for me feels as inevitable as a bullet.

I stare at the building a moment longer, noticing the bricked-up windows, then start to walk across the courtyard.

I’m not a man resigned to my fate. Fuck, no. I look fate in the eye and I don’t fucking blink.


The thick oak door looks ancient, but it has a brand-new, hi-tech lock affixed to it. So new, in fact, I can still see traces of sawdust and wood shavings on the ground in front of the porch. I double check the four digits that the driver wrote on the back of my hand and prod them into the adjacent keypad. The heavy door unlocks with a mechanical click, and I heave it open and step into the small porch.

Less than ten feet away, there’s a metal detector in front of the next door. It’s not a new model – its white casing is grubby with age, and the equipment looks rudimentary, like the kind of kit you’d find in a regional airport. The laminated, handwritten sign sellotaped to the machine says ‘No Weapons Allowed’.

My brass knuckles were removed along with the gun, so I step through the machine, which emits a brief, shrill warning. I step back and remove the pig-knife from my boot, dropping it in the wheelie bin and pass through the metal detector – and the door behind it. Metal sheeting this time, like the kind used to keep vagrants out of abandoned buildings.

I brace myself for punches, kicks, maybe a lump of masonry aimed at my skull, but all I see are three defeated-looking middle-aged men, sat on ratty mattresses against the back wall.

A man with a doughy face and a receding hairline hauls himself off his mattress. Apart from his fleshy features, he looks pretty solid. Tall, with a slight gut. His white shirt is grimy, so he must have been here for some time.

“Welcome to the fucking party, son.”

Then the metal door slides back into place behind me.


He edges closer, but not too close. Even from ten feet away he stinks like an unrefrigerated corpse.

“You got any ciggies, new boy?”

I shake my head.

“Don’t smoke, mate. Smoking can kill you.”

He grunts and paces the perimeter, shaking his head with irritation. I recognise him from somewhere, but I’m not sure where. When you’ve been punched in the face as often as I have, a blast from the past needs to have the velocity of a fucking shotgun blast to snag my attention.

I turn towards my other two companions. The second figure isn’t a man at all, but a woman with a shaved head, a faded army surplus jacket – and a gangrenous looking stump where her left foot should be. Up close, she’s grubby, but pretty, with prominent cheekbones and large, bruise-coloured lips. A thick pink scar traverses her stubbled hairline.

The last man looks up briefly and scowls at me through his unruly black beard. He spits on the ground distastefully, crossing his arms over his chest, without saying a word. He’s swaddled in a thick, garishly-patterned robe that reminds me of the carpets you used to be able to buy on Winner Street in the ’80s and ’90s. He looks Middle Eastern, but it’s hard to tell.

“What the fuck is this place?”

The big man grinds to a halt, seemingly pleased by the question.

“It’s a safe house, son, but not one I’ve ever seen on the books – which pretty much rules out Devon and Cornwall.”

“Hold up, mate. ‘On the books’? Are you a fucking cop?”

He nods. “DS Robert Southern. Bobby to my mates. Seventeen years on the job. Currently suspended on full pay, pending an, erm, inquiry.”

The woman clears her throat. “Our sloppy friend here was caught stealing drugs and guns from the evidence locker at Charles Cross nick on behalf of Mr fucking Malinquo.”

The big man frowns. I step towards him.

“The only thing worse than a cop is a bent fucking cop.”

He stands his ground, juts out his chest, his jaw, breathing heavily through his nose.

I feel my fists clench, then I step back from the brink.

“Hold up: you two know Malinquo too?”

They both nod.

The girl is the first to speak: “Unfortunately, we do.”


Bobby Southern leans against the far wall, trying to spark up a cigarette butt he found on the floor.

“To say I know him is overstating the case, son. He paid me to retrieve certain incriminating items on his behalf and fixed me up with this safe house while he sorted my new passport and papers. That was… what day is it now?”


He puffs gamely on the dog-end and counts using his fingers.

“Eight fucking days ago.”

Fuck me.

“Who has been here the longest? You?”

He nods. “Me first. Then fucking stumpy, then laughing boy, now you.”

I stare at him. He looks shifty.

“First man in, last man out, right? Sounds like maybe you orchestrated it, Southern. Veteran cop. Friends in high places. Time to settle some scores before you check out. What is it? Terminal illness? Something eating away at your bones? Your insides? Getting in God’s good books before you shuffle off this mortal coil, are you?”

He scoffs and turns away. Abruptly, he pivots and slams his right fist into my jaw, knocking me off my feet and leaving me leaking blood.

The girl laughs nastily, and I shuffle backwards on my arse, in case Southern wants a second helping.

“I’ve told you my truth, son. Now you tell me yours. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

I consider what I should tell them. I was an unlicensed private investigator for many years, but the rules of the game were starkly defined, and that line of work never really suited me.

I wipe my bloody lips on my sleeve.

“I do jobs for people. The kind of jobs no one else wants to do.”

He clicks his fingers. “You’re Rey right? Joe Rey?”

I nod and he grins unpleasantly.

“I had to clean up after that little clusterfuck with the Grinley Family down at Marsh Mills.” He whistles through his teeth. “That was a real number you did on those inbred bastards. Of course, we pinned it on the fucking Albanians. Any excuse to roust those dirty fuckers!”

I massage my jaw. It feels like it might be broken.

“Sure. That’s me. Nice to know that my reputation precedes me. Always nice to meet a fucking fan…”

He smiles, big hands on his hips. “Well, I suppose there are worse people to be locked in a fucking safe house with. Right stumpy?”

She flashes him a middle finger. “Fuck off, Sarge.”

She closes her eyes and leans her head back against the stonework. “My name’s Zula Hook, and yeah, I know Malinquo too.”


Zula tells us that she was a professional kickboxer – until she lost her fucking foot.

In her owns words, she was an also-ran – constantly coming up against bigger, quicker, tougher opponents. A disgraced ex-trainer suggested she should use Oradexon to help her bulk up, stay competitive. Within six months, she was injecting the shit between her toes daily. One bad batch from Bangladesh later, the foot went gangrenous, and actually burst during a fight. It was too far gone to save.

She sighs heavily. “A girl I used to knock around with, Geena, wanted to rip off one of the houses she cleaned at. A place in Riverside. Million-pound house. Easy pickings. I was depressed, drinking heavily – and didn’t take much convincing to go in with her on a job. She said she would be the brains, I would be the brawn. I made it back to the car. She got nicked on the premises,” she gestures to Bobby Southern, “by this shit stain and his mates. Geena went down for a five-stretch in Dartmoor, I walked.”

“Or hobbled,” Southern chuckles.

She scowls at him.

“A few months later, I was approached to steal an item from the same property. A solid gold cock ring, if you can believe it. I’m no thief, but I knew enough to disable the alarm and get in and out with a minimum of fuss.”

“A thief stays a thief, unless she ends up in jail or dead,” Southern scoffs.

Zula ignores him.

“I acquired the cock ring and dialled the number on the burner phone. The driver turned up to collect me, as arranged. Before I knew what was happening, there’s a tranq dart in my neck and I woke up here, with the Sarge.”

Bobby Southern smiles contentedly, hands still on his hips, and turns to face the guy with the beard.

“What about you, loud-crowd?”

The bearded man snorts dismissively. “I have never heard of this Malinquo that you speak of.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Even my best friends don’t know my real name. I certainly have no intention of discussing my past with common criminals like you.”

Southern grunts. “Suit yourself, chuckles.”


It’s my turn to pace the room. I feel like a caged rat.

I trawl through my rolodex of pungent memories. How do I know these fucking people? How do they know me?

I stare at the thick scar across Zula’s hairline, making no effort to conceal my curiosity. I recognise her. From the bareknuckle scene. She once beat a gypsy called Franky Elias at one of ‘Mucky’ Mickey Molloy’s ‘Bloody Knuckles’ tournaments in the South Hams.

After the fight, Elias got drunk with his cousins and bounced her head off one of the concrete-filled oil drums that formed the four corners of the ring. She lost so much blood I assumed she had died.

I point to Southern’s knuckles. They look smashed and misshapen.

“Are you a fighter, mate?”

He nods. “I’ve had a few scraps.”


“Once or twice. If the price was right.”

“You ever work one of Mucky Mickey’s tournaments?”

He nods. “Once. Or twice.”

Then the slow clap starts.

“I knew I could count on our private eye friend Mr Rey to unravel this little mystery! Truly, he’s not as dumb as he looks!”

The Middle Eastern inflection is gone, replaced with a smoother, more formal accent. A tone more suited to boardrooms than addressing bastards like me. He lowers his hood. His nails are manicured, his hair a neatly trimmed side-parting.

“You are truly wasted brutalising brothel-keepers, Mr Rey.”

I stare at him in disbelief.

“You? You’re fucking Malinquo?”

Zula struggles to her feet and joins us, standing over him.

“As I have already informed you: not even my best friends know my real name.”

Southern moves closer to Malinquo, his big, veiny fists tensing. He spits on the ground and looms over the seated man. Surreally, Southern starts reading him his rights:

“I am arresting you on suspicion of kidnapping. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

Malinquo – or whatever the motherfucker’s name is – shakes his head and withdraws a gun from the folds of his ugly robe, placing it against Bobby Southern’s rubbery jowls. He pulls the trigger and the bent cop’s face explodes like a melon that’s been dropped off a multi-storey car-park.

“I have nothing in common with you fucking people,” he shouts – to no one in particular.


I back off, careful not to tread in the bloody halo forming around Bobby Southern’s bullet-shattered skull.

“Don’t be shy, Mr Rey. You weren’t backwards in coming forwards on twentieth June last year.”

I scratch my head.

“I’m sorry, mate, I don’t follow.”

Malinquo grimaces. “That afternoon you participated in ‘Bloody Knuckles 15’, an unlicensed boxing tournament organised by the late Michael John Molloy.”

The late Mr Molloy? That’s news to me.

“If you say so, mate.”

“At the end of the fight, Mr Molloy orchestrated what I believe is termed a ‘Battle Royale’ for any interested combatants. He had made more than ten thousand pounds on the betting action that day, and offered a bonus of a thousand-pound fee for the last man – or woman – still standing. Nine of the sixteen fighters were willing to take part.”

Zula looks at me guiltily, but I have no idea why.

“During the next hour each one of you…cretins…inflicted life-changing injuries on my twenty-two-year-old son.”

I stare at the floor.

I was ejected from the rumble by a career criminal named Snaith who almost busted my windpipe with a chokehold and kicked me face-first into the dead grass. Before that, I remember beating on a kid using my fists, elbows, knees. He was solidly-built, gym-toned, clean-cut. He took the hits and he kept on coming.

“My son – my only son – wanted to become a mixed martial arts fighter. Naturally, I paid for the most experienced trainers, the best nutritionists, the finest physicians. In his first professional fight – on the undercard at a badly-promoted event in Plymouth – a rabid-looking Scotsman nicknamed ‘Cerberus’ detached his retina with an elbow to the face. My son was never allowed to fight professionally again, and within a year he was fighting on farmland with savages like you people. My son is now in a permanent vegetative state.”

Malinquo raises his gun. “My revenge has been a long time in coming, Mr Rey, Ms Hook. It has been an elaborate operation, and I could have paid a small-town hitman to do the job just as well, but I wanted to look you all in the eye while you bleed out – just like I did with that rotten specimen, Molloy.”

After the fight, when the kid was lying limp in the mud, I remember that Molloy offered anyone who was interested two hundred fifty pounds if they could throw the unconscious body over his static caravan. The man I now know as Bobby Southern tried twice, before putting his back out. I still remember the sound the meaty body made as it crunched into the aircon unit on the side of the caravan. After that, I walked away.

He points the weapon at my face, his eyes burning with fury. “Oh, fuck.”

At that moment, Zula launches into an improbable roundhouse kick. Her stump judders into Malinquo’s bearded jaw, and one of the rotten pustules on her diseased-looking ankle bursts, coating his beard in scummy-looking blood. The gun drops from his hand.

Malinquo struggles to his feet, a look of pure hate in his eyes. “Revenge will be mine!”

I knock him out with one punch.


I rip apart the mattress with my bare hands and use the rancid fabric to gag Malinquo and bind his wrists and ankles. His eyes flicker open, so I kick his jaw like it’s a football.

Zula sits on the concrete floor, tears in her eyes, blood-streaked pus oozing from her stump.

“You remember the kid?”

She nods.

“Me too.”

She wipes her tears on her sleeve.

“No one forced him to be there that day. He was there of his own free will, and he was bigger than me, and bigger than fucking you.”

“It’s not right…”

“It never is, Zula. It never is.”


I shake my head, unwilling to discuss matters further.

“Hey, you still got your phone?”

She nods and unzips her army jacket, peeling off the white vest beneath. She looks embarrassed as she unfurls the bandages taping her breasts down. The bandage goes slack as it unravels, and the mobile phone falls loose onto the concrete. It’s an old Nokia, just like the one I was given. I pick it up, locate the contacts section and dial the saved number. Same routine as before: I wait for the click, count to twenty, and then hang up.


She nods.

“Let’s go.”


We have to use Malinquo’s thumbprint to open the door to the lobby. I’m glad it’s not a retina scan, as the motherfucker is out cold, eyeballs rolled into the back of his skull.

I upend the wheelie bin. Zula removes her prosthetic from the small, pointless pile of criminal detritus and fixes it to her leg. I slip the pig-knife into my boot. Then we emerge blinking into the rain.

Zula retrieves a half-brick from the skip, adjusts her grip so that her fingers nestle in the groove. I root around until I find a suitable weapon. A length of rebar with an ancient lump of concrete attached. Easily capable of shattering a windscreen. Or a skull.

I glance across at her.

“You up for this?”

She nods and speaks through gritted teeth. “Whatever it takes.”

We wait in silence. Less than an hour later we see headlights as the hatchback bumps down the rutted mud track towards the farmhouse.

Thick raindrops dance in front of the full-beam headlights.

Not for the first time, I look fate in the eye and I don’t fucking blink.

Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Boneyard Dogs, Ten Pints of Blood and Meat Bubbles & Other Stories (all published by Close to the Bone) and Repetition Kills You and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men (both available from All Due Respect). His next book, Sharp Knives & Loud Guns, is coming soon from All Due Respect. For more details, please visit: 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Issue #78 -- August 2021


By Tracy Falenwolfe

“Remember to prick the skin with a needle before you roast it.” Heinrich Metzger gave all his regular customers who ordered a Christmas goose the same advice. What he really wanted to say was, If you don’t already know that, you should have gone with a turkey, but he kept his mouth shut. His Lancaster, Pennsylvania butcher shop had seen a steep decline in business in recent years thanks to the vegans and the animal rights people and those hippies, the pescatarians, so he’d had to take on some side work for his old friend Steven Verba.

The work itself was simple, and he already had the equipment. Heinrich’s cousins Willard and Carl Bauer owned pig farms adjacent to his own spread, which made it even easier. Usually. Today, though, Verba went and changed things up. He asked Heinrich to handle a special delivery, and Heinrich wasn’t thrilled about it. It was three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve and the snow was starting to accumulate. He was open for another hour and there were still four orders to be picked up—one prime rib roast, two dressed turkeys, and another goose.

Three old, wise men were gathered in the corner of the shop. They were Heinrich’s father’s cronies, and after the local Grundsow lodge closed, they started congregating at the shop to buy their Lebanon bologna and speak Pennsylvania Dutch to each other. By law, Heinrich couldn’t offer them a place to sit or the use of his restroom, but the men didn’t care. Their only concern was that their language and traditions didn’t die.

After Heinrich kicked them out for the day, they’d stand in the parking lot retelling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes, and carefully rolling up and eating one slice of smoked meat after the other until they’d worked their way through a whole pound.

The bells over the door jingled and Heinrich looked up. It was old lady Handwerk, come for her prime rib. She wanted some scrapple, and some chow-chow, and some hot bacon dressing too, now that she was here. Fine. Heinrich left her smaller items on the counter and went to the walk-in fridge for her prime rib. As he grabbed the roast he glanced down at Verba’s special delivery on the bottom shelf. Wrapped in butcher paper like all of the other deliveries, it was the same general shape and weight of a goose. It didn’t strike Heinrich earlier, when he’d been in the cooler for the Dietrichs’ turkey, but now that he looked again, the gold Metzger’s sticker and the red and green plaid bow and the compliments of Steven Verba gift tag stood out like a string of flashing lights.

Heinrich’s stomach turned. Verba’s special delivery had no sticker, no ribbon, and no gift card, which meant Heinrich was looking at a regular old goose. His heart started drumming. If Verba’s special package wasn’t here, then where was it?

“Yoo-hoo?” old lady Handwerk stood at the counter and called. “You didn’t give my prime rib to someone else, did you?”

If only he’d have been so lucky. Panicked, Heinrich hustled old lady Handwerk and the former lodge members out the door.

His long-time delivery person had quit last week after a stroke left him unable to drive, and Carl’s son Garrett had been filling in. Heinrich loved his nephew, but the kid was a real waste case. He must have had Verba’s package with him in the delivery van.

Heinrich’s fingers shook as he dialed Garrett’s number. The kid was always on his phone, so surely he would answer, but no. Heinrich texted instead. No response again.

He shed his apron and ran to his truck. The old wise men were still chewing in the parking lot. “Was ist das?” The eldest called out. “What’s wrong, boy? It’s not closing time yet.”

“My nephew’s out making deliveries and he took something he shouldn’t have.” Heinrich pulled on his coat as he spoke. “I have to find him and get it back.”

“We can help,” the old man said. “Whatever you need.”

“Ja,” crony number two chimed in. “We helped your father all the time.”

Heinrich wanted to say no thanks, but the faster he found Garrett, the better. The kid had made the customer deliveries before lunch. Since then he’d been delivering Christmas geese to local charities and soup kitchens. All the legit packages had been wrapped the same way—sealed with a gold Metzger’s sticker, tied with a red and green plaid bow, and outfitted with a gift tag that said compliments of Steven Verba. How could Garrett have grabbed the unadorned package and not have noticed it was different?

Regardless, would Heinrich only be making things worse if he involved his father’s friends in order to get it back?

He hesitated, eyeing the old men while he weighed his options. Not that he had many. Verba would flip if he ever found out what had happened, but he would be ruined if the wrong package was delivered to a charity on his behalf. He was a big deal in the community, and reputation meant everything to him.

Heinrich looked at the list again. He ripped it in half and gave the top to the elder crony. “He might be at one of these places. If you find him, stop him and tell him to call me.”

Elder crony squinted at the list. He shook a cigarette out of a beat up pack of Camels and lit it. “These are all on the east side of the city, right?”


The old guy nodded. “Let’s go, then,” he said to the others. “What are we waiting for? Christmas?”

The cronies were still cackling with laughter as Heinrich jumped into his truck. His head throbbed. He drove through the snow to the soup kitchen on Fourth Street where he pounded on the back door and rang the delivery buzzer. The priest who ran the place told him he’d missed Garrett by a matter of minutes, and that the goose he had delivered would feed many hungry mouths. Phew. He felt like a steer escaping the slaughterhouse.

The snow was picking up as Heinrich sped downtown to the second charity on his half of the list. Again, he had missed his nephew. Again, he was thanked for the goose. Again, he thanked God that Garrett had gotten it right so far.

Jumping back into his truck, he vowed to hire a new delivery person, pronto. Then he said a silent prayer asking the powers that be to let him catch up to Garrett while Verba was still none the wiser. If he’d done the deliveries in order, the kid had only two more left. Hopefully he still had the plain package, because if it ended up in the wrong hands, all hell would break loose.

Heinrich tried calling and texting Garrett again, but got no response. He called Carl, who also didn’t answer. Heinrich left a message outlining Garrett’s screw up, and told Carl that if he heard from his son to tell him to stay exactly where he was and call Heinrich.

Heinrich’s low fuel light lit up on the way to the third charity. It blinked a few times before glaring at him steadily. He coasted into a twenty-four-hour gas station and mini-market, and lo and behold, pulled up right next to his own delivery van. Garrett must have gone inside to use the bathroom or to get himself a snack, because he was nowhere in sight. Heinrich didn’t even care. He considered it a Christmas miracle that his low fuel light had guided him to Garrett like the freakin’ Star of Bethlehem.

Heinrich, praying for another miracle, approached the van, opened the door, and looked in the back. There it was—the plain package. The special delivery. Heinrich felt the contents through the paper, just to make sure. He’d wrapped it himself, but after losing track of it, he wanted to be doubly certain. Yup. A chill ran through him as he dragged his fingers over the paper. About the same shape and weight as a Christmas goose, but definitely not what’s for dinner.

He slogged through the slush to take the package to his own truck. As he filled his gas tank, his phone rang. It was Steven Verba.

“Hello, Steven,” Heinrich said. “What can I do for you?”

“Heinie.” It was the nickname Verba had given him in grade school, as if there’d ever been a chance he’d be called something else. “We have a problem.”

Heinrich swallowed, but knew not to speak.

“Your very eager delivery boy delivered a package to my home today. My home.”

Heinrich knew it still wasn’t his turn to speak.

“Do you know what was in that package?”

Heinrich continued to bite his tongue.

“It was a Christmas goose, from me, meant for the homeless shelter by the river.”

Bomb dropped. Now it was Heinrich’s turn. “I’m sorry, Steven. That was my mistake. Keep the goose, I’ll make sure the shelter gets another one, no charge. I’ll deliver it myself.”

“This is not about the goose, Heinie.”

“I know.” Heinrich swallowed. “I have the other package. I’m delivering it personally, right after I close the shop.” He looked at his watch. “Don’t worry, you can count on me.”

“I’m not sure of that anymore.”

“Look, the kid’s my nephew. He’s a stoner, I know it. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the shop was busy and he must have just grabbed the wrong—” Heinrich realized he was listening to a dial tone. He didn’t want to see Garrett right now, so he took off before the kid came back to the van and went to do what he had to do.

He was sweating bullets by the time he delivered the plain package to Deuce Gelder. The tips of Heinrich’s fingers tingled. He gagged once or twice on his way back to the van. No way to sugar-coat his sideline now. He was in it up to his giblets—no better than Verba, who’d sent the vile package as the result of a temper tantrum.

Verba was obsessed with rivalries. Every few months, he threatened to end their arrangement and take his business to Bob Klein, Heinrich’s biggest competitor. Heinrich should have told him to go ahead and do that. Up until now, the job had been to chop up dead bodies and feed them to the pigs. Today, Heinrich handed a man his son’s head in a plain brown wrapper. All because Gelder’s son had come to work for Verba without mentioning who his father was, which had convinced Verba that the kid was a plant. Some kind of corporate spy.

Heinrich heard Gelder’s agonizing wail as he pulled away from the house. A few miles down the road he had to pull over and vomit in the snow. 

Instead of going back to the shop, he drove to the cemetery behind the old Grundsow lodge and sat in the truck next to his father’s grave. It was dusk, and red and green Christmas lights from the house across the street lit up the blanket of snow around the headstone. Heinrich’s old man would be disappointed in him for sure. He’d been a butcher his whole life and had supported his family without ever having to do what Heinrich was doing. If he were still here, he’d be back at the shop swapping stories with his old lodge buddies. If he’d been hurting for money, he would have taken on a respectable side job, like shoveling manure or something.

Heinrich made up his mind then. After the holiday he’d call Verba and tell him he was out. His cousins would be pissed about the extra money drying up, but that was too bad.

When he finally got back to the shop, the door was open and Bing Crosby was singing about silver bells. It sounded like a dirge.

Carl was behind the counter. Mr. and Mrs. Shoemaker were leaving with their turkey. “They were waiting in the lot when I got here,” Carl said. “Where’d you take off to?”

“Long story.” Heinrich rubbed his eyes. “Is Garrett back?”

“No, I haven’t heard from him. That’s why I came over. I’ve been trying to get in touch with him since you called.” He looked uneasy. Worried for his son.

Heinrich recalled Deuce Gelder’s wail and dry heaved.

“Whoa.” Carl stepped back. “You sick?”

“I’ll be okay.” Heinrich pulled out his own phone and looked at it. “He hasn’t gotten back to me either. Where the hell is he?”

The shop phone rang and Carl jumped on it. “Metzger’s.” He listened for a few minutes. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” Then he shook his head. “Okay, I’ll tell him.”

“Garrett?” Heinrich asked as Carl hung up.

“No. Your dad’s friends. They said to tell you they got a flat tire over on the east side somewhere. They’ve been wandering around looking for a phone to call a tow truck. They’re going to get the tire fixed and head home.”

Heinrich nodded.

Carl glanced into the lot. It was full dark now, and the snow was piling up. “I hope Garrett didn’t have a wreck.”

“I don’t think he had a wreck. I think he got the munchies and doesn’t give a crap about making the deliveries.”

“What’s your problem today?” Carl asked.

Heinrich filled him in on the day’s events, skipping the part where he threw up. “Tonight was the last time. I’m done. I’m sorry. We’ll find another way to make some extra cash.”

“You think it’s going to be that easy?” The blood drained from Carl’s face. “You think Verba will just let us stop?”

“Yeah,” Heinrich said. “He doesn’t really have a choice, does he?”

“Sure he does.” Carl dragged his hands through his hair. He turned a circle. “He can choose to whack us both to keep us from going to the cops.”

“With what?” Heinrich leaned against the counter and hung his head. “There’s no evidence he ever did anything wrong. That was the beauty of the whole operation. No body, no crime.”

“What if Gelder takes the head to the cops?”

“He won’t,” Heinrich said. “Guys like Verba and Gelder settle their own scores.”

“I guess so,” Carl said.

The bell above the door jingled, and Heinrich expected it to be Garrett or one of the customers he was still waiting for. Instead, a courier ran up to the counter with a package. It was wrapped in brown butcher paper and tied with a silver bow. The gift card on top said compliments of Steven Verba and Klein’s butcher shop. It looked to be the shape and weight of a Christmas goose.

Since winning the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award in 2014, Tracy Falenwolfe’s stories have appeared in over a dozen publications including Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, and Crimson Streets. Tracy lives in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley with her husband and sons. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find her at