Thursday, September 9, 2021

Issue #79 -- September 2021

THE SAFE HOUSE

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?”

“Saturday.”

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.”

“Bareknuckle?”

“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.”

“But…”

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.

“Ready?”

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: https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/ 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Issue #78 -- August 2021

THE CHRISTMAS GOOSE

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?”

“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 www.tracyfalenwolfe.com

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Issue #77 -- July 2021

PAINKILLER

By Wilson Koewing


Jason Walker opens his eyes. A heart monitor beeps. Tubes run from his wrists, nose, and mouth. Harsh light assaults his eyes. A doctor blurs into view.

“Mr. Walker, you’ve been through quite an ordeal. Your carotid artery was severed by a bullet. That bullet is still inside your head, pushing against the artery, holding it together. Remarkably, it’s the only thing keeping you alive.”

“Where are my daughters?”

“I don’t know,” the doctor says. “There’s a detective here.”

The doctor leaves. The detective approaches.

“I’m Detective Drake.”

“My daughters?”

“We don’t know yet,” Drake says. “Mr. Walker, do you have any idea who might have done this? Do you have any enemies?”

“Enemies?” Jason says. “No, I’m an architect.”

“What about your wife?”

“My wife’s dead.”

“I know that,” Drake says. “I’m sorry. Did she have any enemies?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did your wife do?”

“She ran a nonprofit that advocated for affordable housing.”

“I’m sorry to be blunt, Mr. Walker,” Drake says, “but someone shows up at your front door, shoots your wife, then shoots you, and you know nothing?”

“It’s all blank.”

“If you remember anything give me a call.”

Drake hands Jason his card and leaves.

As the door closes, Jason sees Drake approach a man he recognizes as one of the gunmen. Seeing his face, the events of the night flood back.

***

Jason chases his young daughters, Lilly and Paige, around the living room. Paige holds a Barbie. His wife, Alice, stands by the kitchen island drinking wine, preoccupied with her phone.

“Honey, how long ago did you order the pizza?” she asks.

“Should be here any minute!”

Jason labors into the kitchen holding the wriggling girls.

“Everything okay?” Jason asks.

“The other bidder on the lot is trying to bully us out of the deal.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” Jason says. “It will work out.”

“I don’t know,” she says. “These people are relentless.”

The doorbell rings.

“I’ll get it,” Alice says, heading toward the front door.

The girls cheer the pizza’s arrival.

A shotgun blast rings out. Jason turns toward the sound. Paige’s Barbie falls to the ground. Alice’s wineglass shatters.

Jason pushes the girls behind the bar and sprints to the foyer.

A masked gunman runs into him. They struggle.

Jason is able to pull off the gunman’s mask before the butt of a shotgun knocks him out.

When Jason comes to, Paige and Lilly are tied up and being forced to watch. A combat boot is to his throat. The gunman points a pistol and fires a bullet into Jason’s brain.

***

Jason disconnects the tubes and gets dressed. His head is covered with a thick bandage.

He peeks out of his hospital room. He waits for the elevator. He approaches a nurse’s station on a different floor.

“Can you help me?” Jason says. “I’ve forgotten the doctor’s instructions.”

“Of course,” a nurse says. “What’s your name?”

“Jason Walker.”

The nurse accesses his file.

“I understand why you forgot,” she says. “You should be in bed, Mr. Walker.”

“I have to get out of here.”

“One moment,” she says entering a room behind the nurse’s station.

Jason waits nervously.

The nurse returns with a bottle of painkillers.

“Take these as needed for pain,” the nurse says. “You need water and rest, Mr. Walker. You’re in a delicate state. Any head trauma and you could die instantly.”

She scans Jason’s file, growing more concerned.

Jason is gone.

He staggers away from the hospital and pops a painkiller. He stumbles into a gas station and grabs a water. He approaches the cashier.

“Three bucks.”

Jason searches his pocket for his wallet, but it isn’t there. He looks up at the cashier with crazed eyes then falls, knocking over a display.

The cashier rushes around the counter and helps him up.

“Just take the water, man.”

***

Police tape covers the door of Jason’s home. He kicks at it, but it won’t budge, so he crashes through with his shoulder. The house is trashed. He grabs his wallet from his drafting table then hears the beep of an incoming text. He looks around, confused. He finds his wife’s phone on the bookshelf, just out of sight.

He’s forgotten her passcode but can see a message from an unnamed number on the notifications screen: We’re getting that lot one way or another, Mrs. Walker.

Before he leaves, Jason rips a family portrait from the wall, breaks the glass, grabs the photo, and puts it in his pocket.

***

Jason stands at an ATM. A wheel spins on the screen as his request processes. The machine spits out bills that Jason stuffs in his pocket.

Jason stalks the city streets. Seedy bars, strip malls. Detroit remains in sharp decline. Undesirables litter sidewalks and alleys.

He approaches a twenty-four seven pawn shop glowing dull in the distance.

A bell dings as he enters. Fluorescent lighting. The city squeezes in from the outside.

A clerk stands behind a glass case of knives and handguns.

“I need a gun,” Jason says.

“Will any gun do?” the clerk snickers.

“That one.” Jason points at a snub nosed .38.

The clerk produces forms and places the .38 on the case.

“Fill these out,” the clerk says. “Obviously there’s a waiting period.”

Jason grabs the .38.

“That’s not going to work.”

“This isn’t that kind of place.”

“Don’t you have anything for someone who…doesn’t want to fill out paperwork?”

Jason places cash on the counter.

“Sir, I can’t help you. Now get the fuck out before I bash you one.”

“Listen, shit bird,” Jason says. “You see this bandage?”

“Yeah.”

“Doorbell rang, wife answered, shotgun blast,” Jason says. “Before I knew it, there’s a bullet in my brain.”

Jason grabs the clerk by the collar and pulls him close. “And it’s still in there.”

The clerk pushes Jason back.

“Sad story, friend.”

“I’m leaving with a gun, one way or another.”

Jason pushes the .38 to the clerk’s forehead.

The clerk cocks a shotgun and points it at Jason’s stomach.

“Mine’s loaded,” the clerk says.

Jason pulls the trigger. The clerk flinches but doesn’t fire the shotgun. Jason drops the gun on the counter. His gaze is drawn to a jet-black motorcycle helmet on a shelf.

“How much for that helmet?”

***

Jason walks across the parking lot carrying the helmet.

“Hey, you,” the clerk stands in the doorway holding out a card, “Call this number, mention the clerk.”

Jason calls the number.

“Yeah?”

“The clerk said to call.”

“Fifteen, Old Park Way. Come alone.”

***

A cab driver’s eyes dart between the road and Jason.

“Fifteen, Old Park Way?” the cab driver asks suspiciously.

Jason glares at him.

“Prick,” the cab driver says under his breath.

Jason watches the passing streets. Cold concrete. Dark figures in shadows. Decrepit buildings. Barrel fires.

The cab drops Jason outside of a run-down warehouse. The giant brick void melds into the night. Broken windows reflect dim moonlight. Downed power lines dangle over puddles.

Jason moves through shadows. Water drips from pipes. He ascends stairs, navigates a dark hallway, and enters a makeshift living area in the middle of a large open space. A mangy mutt lies before a wood burning stove.

A hulking man places various pistols on a table. They look like toys in his hands.

The mutt growls.

“He doesn’t like you,” the hulking man says.

“I need a pistol.”

“You get right to the point.”

He hands Jason a .38 snub nose.

“Deadly at close range, accurate enough from mid,” he says. “Won’t jam on you and you get off five shots pretty quick.”

Jason awkwardly holds the gun.

“Accountant?”

“Architect.”

Jason spins the chamber.

The hulking man hands Jason a box of bullets. He loads several backwards.

“Might want to turn those around.”

Jason loads the bullets properly, then flicks his wrist and the chamber locks.

“How much?”

“Your money is no good here.”

Jason stares at the gun in his hand.

“The other cot is yours if you need a place to stay,” the hulking man says before disappearing into the shadows.

Illuminated by the fire from the wood-burning stove, Jason climbs in the cot. He pulls out the family portrait and gives himself over to sleep.

***

Jason arrives at his wife’s nonprofit office and peers through the door. Not a soul. Her death must have afforded everyone a vacation. He covers his hand with the sleeve of his jacket and punches the glass. The door shatters.

Jason enters the office and sees Alice Walker on a placard. Family photos. Overtaken, he sweeps everything from the desk onto the ground with his arm.

Gathering himself, he notices a newspaper clipping taped to the computer monitor.

Jason reads the article: Local real estate magnate Dalton Westlake to bring designer fashions and high-end boutiques to central city as small businesses/proposed affordable housing projects fall by the wayside.

***

Glass bottles are lined up deep in the bowels of the abandoned warehouse. Jason readies to fire. The hulking man watches, polishing a gun. Jason fires off a round. Hits nothing.

“Reload, what are you waiting for?” the hulking man says.

Jason reloads. Fires off another round and again hits nothing.

“Pull, don’t squeeze.”

Jason reloads, fires, and misses.

“Again.”

Jason reloads, fires off two shots, hits nothing, drops the gun to his side.

“Aim at each bottle then close your eyes,” the hulking man says.

Jason begrudgingly aims at each bottle then closes his eyes.

“On the count of three, shoot the bottles,” he says. “One, two, three.”

The hulking man fires in unison with Jason, the bottles explode one by one.

Jason opens his eyes, amazed.

“You’re ready.”

***

Jason eats noodles from a pot listening to the rhythmic scraping of a brush against steel. Fire crackles in the stove. The hulking man cleans a gun.

“Dalton Westlake is a powerful man,” he says.

“A powerful man with answers,” Jason says.

“How can you be so sure?”

“It’s all I’ve got.”

“I had a wife once, too,”

“Let me guess,” Jason says, “she didn’t think this was a suitable place to raise a family?”

“Murdered,” he says. “Couldn’t get me, so they took what was most important to me.”

“What did you do?”

“I killed my pain away.”

***

Jason stares up at a skyscraper.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, he watches security guards usher visitors through metal detectors.

He wanders around the building until he finds an alley to hide his gun in.

Past security, he finds Westlake Real Estate Group on the building map. The elevator climbs to the fortieth floor. The floor is plush. An intricate fountain. A lone receptionist behind a desk.

“Dalton Westlake,” Jason says.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I don’t.”

“No one sees Mr. Westlake without an appointment.”

“I’m curious about his current projects,” Jason says. “I’m a fan of the mall job.”

“Oh, are you an investor?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Westlake provides a portfolio for potential investors,” she says. “It chronicles current projects and future plans.”

“I’d love to see his plans for the future.”

The receptionist produces a folder.

“What happened?” she says, referring to Jason’s bandage.

“I was shot in the head.”

Jason smiles at the shocked secretary and leaves.

***

Jason steps out of the elevator into the lobby. A man brushes past. Jason catches a glimpse.

It’s the masked gunman.

Jason follows him outside into the streets. He stops at a newspaper stand. Jason sprints down the alley to retrieve his gun.

Emerging back into the street, there’s no sign of the gunman. Jason turns a corner and spots him climbing into a black Chrysler.

Jason hails a cab.

The Chrysler turns down an alley. Jason watches the gunman enter a shop and return with two briefcases.

The cab follows the Chrysler through traffic. Eventually it stops at a gentleman’s club.

Jason follows the gunman inside.

“Wait here,” he tells the driver.

Inside, lights flash, illuminating dark figures. Music blares. Women dance and offer lap dances.

Jason notices the gunman slink behind a curtain.

A woman approaches Jason. “What’s your name?”

He ignores her.

“Well fuck you.”

Jason sits at a table. A cocktail waitress approaches.

“What can I get you?”

“I’m fine.”

“There’s a one drink minimum.”

“I’ll have a water.”

“There’s a one alcohol drink minimum.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jason says.

Jason watches her whisper to a bouncer and point in his direction.

She returns with a rocks glass.

“What is it?”

“J&B,” she says. “Looks like you could use it.”

Jason takes a long sip. His vision blurs. He pops a painkiller. The music pulses. The dancers. The faces of the men. Money floating in the air. Strobe lights. It all blends together, making Jason woozy.

He snaps out of it, noticing the gunman scurrying out.

Back in the cab. Rush hour. Jason watches passing cars. People heading home from work. Families. Everyone in a hurry.

The Chrysler slices through slow traffic just ahead.

“Don’t lose him.”

***

The cab pulls up to a construction site on the outskirts of the city. Two cronies with shotguns stand guard in front of a trailer. The Chrysler is parked outside. In the distance, the sun sets behind skyscrapers.

Jason observes from behind piles of construction materials, his head protected by the motorcycle helmet. He moves closer, taking cover behind a bulldozer before maneuvering to the side of the trailer, only a few yards from the cronies. He points his gun and steps into the open.

“Drop your guns.”

“Who the fuck are you supposed to be?” one crony says.

Jason’s finger slips on the trigger and blood splatters the trailer’s wall and the helmet’s visor.

Jason is shocked by what he’s done.

He wipes at the visor, but it smears. He fires the gun wildly and misses. The crony tackles Jason to the ground. Grabs a steel pipe and swings it as Jason fires up. The crony staggers and falls, the empty space he leaves revealing the Westlake Real Estate Group skyscraper in the distance.

Jason rolls under the trailer and struggles to take off the helmet. The trailer door swings open and the gunman steps out. He picks up one of the shotguns.

“Come out,” the man says. “Fight like a man, not a rat.”

Jason scampers from under the trailer and takes out his legs. The shotgun slides away. In the melee, Jason drops his gun.

Jason jumps on the gunman and chokes him. The gunman knocks Jason off, landing a punch to the head. Jason stands wobbly. There’s a moment of recognition from the masked gunman before he hurls a brick at Jason’s head.

Jason ducks out of the way.

“You,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you die?”

The gunman dives for the shotgun. Jason tackles him. They struggle. The gunman gets free. He freezes hearing Jason’s gun click. He’s within reach of the shotgun.

“Why’d you do it?” Jason says.

“It’s my job.”

“Killing my wife?”

“No, scaring her was my job,” he says. “Killing her was my pleasure.”

Jason kicks the gunman under the chin and sends him rolling onto his back, but closer to the shotgun.

“You chose the wrong job.”

“Fuck you,” the gunman says, slowly reaching for the shotgun.

“Who sent you to my house?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “You’ll never get to him.”

“Say the name.”

“Go to hell.”

Jason shoots a bullet into his thigh just as his hand reaches the shotgun. He screams out in pain.

“Say the name.”

“You’re going to die, you stupid bastard.”

“Not before you.”

Jason shoots him in the chest then stands over him, barely breathing, struggling to speak.

“Say it,” Jason says.

“Dalton...Westlake...”

Jason deposits one more bullet in his brain, then searches him for a phone. He uses the guy’s fingerprint to unlock it. Searches the contacts. He pops a handful of painkillers and starts walking. The phone rings in his ear.

A voice answers, “What is it?”

“Not what,” Jason says. “Who?”

“Who the fuck is this?”

“The guy you should have finished off when you had the chance.”

Jason hangs up and walks toward the black shadows and the steel trees of the concrete jungle. Hunting Dalton Westlake.



Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work is forthcoming at Hobart, Wigleaf, Oxmag and Gargoyle.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Issue #76 -- June 2021

WHEREVER HE'S GOING    

By Daniel Vlasaty


“Yo, Dildo, what the fuck?” Frankie says and swats his arm out.

“Wh—huh? What?” Dildo says. He sits up in his seat, wipes at the drool hanging in the corner of his mouth, rubs at his eyes.

Frankie looks at him.

“What?” Dildo says again.

“What do you mean what? I said: what the fuck?”

Dildo sits up even more in his seat, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Wh—”

“Don’t fucking say what again, man. Don’t you fucking say it.”

“I don—”

“You were talking about whatever the fuck you were talking about and then you stopped talking. Fucking fell asleep over there. Right in the middle of whatever.”

“I did? How long was I—”

“How long were you, what? Asleep?” Frankie says. He shrugs his big body, which is something in his tiny ass Honda. “Like ten fucking seconds, man. You were talking about whatever and then”—he snaps his fingers—“like I fucking said, you were just asleep. Like it’s that thing. You know that one thing, right?” He’s snapping his fingers more now, like that’s going to help him remember shit. “Oh fuck, what’s it called?”

Dildo shakes his head. Because Dildo don’t know what the fuck Frankie’s talking about.

“You know—” Frankie’s still saying, still going on with whatever this is. “That one fucking thing.”

But Dildo barely even knows where he is right now.

Frankie snaps again. “The fucking thing where you could like fall asleep at any second. You know like you could be right in the middle of eating dinner, or driving your car, or shit, I don’t know, like right in the middle of fucking your girl. In the middle of whatever you’re doing and then BAM, you pass the fuck out. Kind of like you just were.”

Dildo’s looking around, barely listening to whatever Frankie’s talking about. Trying to piece shit back together in his brain. Everything’s cloudy and he can’t remember where they are or what they’re going to do.

He closes his eyes, squeezes them as tight as he can. Thinking maybe, hopefully, if he squeezes them tight enough his brain might start working again.

Frankie reaches out and snaps, this time right in Dildo’s face. “You know the fucking thing I’m talking about, right?”

“Wh—” Dildo starts to say, but stops and waves Frankie’s hand away, says, “Fuck, yeah, dude. I think I fucking know what you’re talking about. Just…I don’t know what it’s...Just hold…My head’s all—”

But Frankie ignores him, fucking with him now. He snaps again. Not too close to Dildo this time, but still close enough that it’s obvious he’s trying to be a dick about it. “You know what I’m fucking talking about. I know you do. So, what’s it called, though?”

“Fuck, I don’t know—”

“Come on, Dildo, you fucking know.”

And again, with the snapping. All around in Dildo’s space.

“Why are you coming at me like—” Dildo says. “Why don’t you know what it’s called? Why is it—”

“I’m trying to think here, too, man. But I know you know.”

He snaps, barely touches the tip of Dildo’s nose. “What’s it called?” he says. “Come on, motherfucker, I know you know.”

Snap.

“Fuck!” Dildo says. He takes a wild haymaker swing at Frankie—not an easy thing in Frankie’s stupid and tiny car. Frankie easily blocks it and he’s smiling now.

Dildo comes at him again, another wild, terrible punch. “It’s called necrophilia or something,” he says. “You asshole.”

And Frankie stops. He’s looking at Dildo and Dildo’s breathing all hard. Throwing those two punches took it out of him. He’s a mess—sweating and shaking, can’t catch his breath.

“Narcolepsy,” Frankie says. And he’s starting to laugh a bit now.

“What?”

“Narcolepsy,” he says again. Laughing harder. “You said it’s called necrophilia, but that’s where you like jerk off over dead chicks or whatever.” He punches his fist against the steering wheel, the whole car shudders. “What I’m talking about, where you just fall asleep like that”—and he snaps again—“that’s called narcolepsy.”

And now Frankie’s rolling with it. He’s full-on laughing, busting up. Way down from deep in his gut. His whole body shaking with it.

“Necrophilia,” he says, slowing down, kind of chuckling now. “You sick motherfucker, what the fuck—”

And Dildo comes at him again with another swing. This one open-handed. He’s swats against Frankie’s shoulder without doing much else.

Frankie’s laughing again. “What would your mother think? You sick, sad boy.”

Dildo swings again. “You asshole. Fuck you. You had me all fucked up with your snapping and my head’s all…I…I don’t fucking—”

Frankie holds his hands up, he snaps again and says: “Hold up.” He points out through the windshield. “There he is.”

“There who is?”

“There—who the fuck do you think it is?” Frankie says. “What do you think we’re doing here, my man? You fucking—”

Dildo looks around again and he remembers.

“Fuck you,” he says as Frankie shifts around in his seat, reaches over, starts the car.

***

They’re quiet as they follow the Escalade through Rogers Park, heading north. Frankie’s keeping them back a bit and it’s easy enough to follow a giant shining black SUV through the early afternoon traffic, all the tiny hybrid fucking whatever cars that are taking over the neighborhood.

Frankie turns to Dildo. “You’re acting all fucked up here and I need to make sure you’re going to be okay to do this thing with me.”

Dildo’s rubbing at his eyes again, shifting in his seat. Frankie’s not an idiot. Frankie can see what this is, what’s going on with Dildo.

“Yeah,” Dildo says. “Yeah, whatever. Can’t we do it like right here?”

“What? You got somewhere else you need to be right now, got something else you’d rather be doing?”

Fucking with him, really going with it.

“I’m just saying,” Dildo says. “We’re here right now, we could get it done now and then that’s it, we’re done. Don’t got to be doing this following around thing all fucking day.”

Frankie shakes his head.

“What?”

“Fuck you, what. You fucking asshole,” he says. “You think I’m fucking stupid. You think I can’t tell.”

“Can’t tell what, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“You, man.” Frankie watches as the Escalade turns onto Clark and Frankie pulls up to the corner too, slows down to give the Escalade some space. Got to be a little extra careful when you’re driving a bright red fucking car, little sporty car with a stupid loud ass tin can exhaust and all that, trying to be inconspicuous.

Frankie continues: “You’re sitting here all fucking day falling asleep. You can’t sit still. You’re sweating even though there’s ice on the windows. You’re whining about every little thing like a fucking bitch.” Frankie shakes his head. “You motherfucker. I know what you’re doing.”

“I’m—”

“You’re using again, I know you are. I got fucking eyes and I’ve known you long enough to know.”

“I’m not, I’m—”

Up ahead the Escalade slows down and turns into a narrow alley, barely wide enough for the big ass SUV to fit through and Frankie pulls over half a block away.

“Shut the fuck up for a second,” he says, then he stares out through the windshield at the opening to the alley.

Dildo shifts in his seat. He wipes at the sweat running free down his forehead. His skin feels sticky. He either wants to be sick or die or just fix up real quick to get himself right.

He just wants a taste. One little taste of what he’s got chilling in his pocket, waiting for him when he’s done here with Frankie. One taste and everything can be easy and cool again.

“Look,” he says. “Can I—”

“I said shut the fuck up a second.” And he’s still staring out the windshield.

Dildo looks over at the opening to the alley too. “Shouldn’t you like, I don’t know—are we going to lose him just sitting here?”

He points at the alley.

“No way out through there,” Frankie says.

The alley leads to a small parking lot behind the dark little building.

“He not going anywhere for a while anyway,” Frankie says. He leans his seat back a bit, tries to get comfortable as best he can in the tiny space.

“How do you know?”

Frankie scratches at the stubble on his face. He closes his eyes, says: “Every Friday, right around this time, say three o’clock or so, this motherfucker drives his Escalade over to this little building, he parks around back, goes inside, and then he pays the lady in there to suck his dick and put a few fingers up his ass while she’s down there doing her thing.”

“Well—what?” Dildo says. He wasn’t expected that. “I mean, how do you know all that?”

“What do you mean how do I know all that? It’s my fucking job to know all that. Supposed to be your fucking job to know all that too,” he says. “Plus, I mean everyone fucking knows that, right? You really going to sit there and tell me you didn’t know that?”

“I mean…I don—”

“That’s the problem, though, right? That you don’t know. And you don’t know because you’re a fucking retard, is why.”

Dildo doesn’t say anything to this. He keeps looking out the window.

“You think people don’t see you out here fucking around like this. You think people don’t know. You’re using again and there’s going to come a time when you fuck something up, or do something stupid—like you always do when you’re using—and then the next thing you know, one day it’s going to be someone else sitting out here in a car while you go inside some place to do whatever. Get your dick sucked, shoot some dope, take a fucking shit. Whatever. They’ll be sitting right out here, watching you walk in so that they can meet you with a gun to your face when you come walking back out again.”

Dildo takes a deep breath. Doesn’t know what to say, so what he does say is: “I mean…it’s not—”

Frankie looks at Dildo, says: “You ain’t got to say shit. I know. We’ve known each other our whole lives and that’s all I’m saying. You know?”

And they’re quiet again for a few minutes. Because there’s nothing else to say. Frankie’s said his piece and Dildo’s just Dildo. He’ll either hear the thing or he won’t. They don’t call him Dildo for nothing.

After a while Dildo says: “So what the fuck are we doing now?”

Frankie shrugs. “We’re just waiting, I guess.”

“But like why don’t we go in there and do him now?”

“Fuck, man. Let the guy get his nut off before we do him like that.”

“Fuck that. Let him finish? For what?”

“We’re getting paid to make him dead. That don’t mean we got to be dicks about it.”

And Frankie’s serious. Figures they’re going to kill the fucking guy anyway. Why not let him finish doing his thing in there first? Let him get whatever he can get before they send him wherever he’s going.

After about twenty minutes Frankie nods at Dildo and they both get out of the car. They walk around through the little alley to the back of the building and lean against the Escalade while they wait.

Dildo sparks up a cig now that he’s outside and away from Frankie’s bullshit no smoking in the Honda rule. He closes his eyes while he takes that first drag and when he’s finally breathing out again he says: “Look man, I know I been fucking up but I’m really go—”

The building’s back door opens and Frankie tells Dildo, “Shut the fuck up.”

The guy steps out, but he’s still looking back over his shoulder, talking to someone inside.

Frankie pulls the gun out of his pants and steps up to meet the guy at the door, points the piece so it’s right between his eyes when he finally turns to face the alley.

“I hope it was a good one,” Frankie says.

“Wh—what?” the guy says. He’s staring straight at the gun and it’s got him shook. Coming out of a building like that, after doing what he was just doing in there, not expecting there to be a gun waiting for him.

“I hope it was a good one,” Frankie says again. “The blowjob and all them fingers up your ass, I was just saying that I hope it was a good one.”

And then Frankie pulls the trigger and shoots the guy right in the forehead.

“Fuck, man,” Dildo says after a few seconds.

Frankie’s still looking at the guy. Like he thinks he might not be fully dead yet. Ready for him to spring back up.

“What?” Frankie finally says, turning back toward Dildo.

“I mean…that whole thing was…I don’t know.”

“Fucking badass, is what you mean.”

“What?”

“The saying, all that, how I did him,” Frankie says. “I been practicing that line for like the last twenty minutes.”

Dildo shrugs.

“It was badass though,” Frankie says.

“I am going to get clean again,” Dildo says. Kind of out of nowhere. “I know I need to.”

“Fuck you,” Frankie says. “Like I ain’t heard that before.”

“But I am—”

“Fuck you,” Frankie says again. He points at the guy’s body lying there in the alley. Tells Dildo: “Grab his fucking wallet while we’re just standing here because fuck him too.”

He shrugs and starts walking back toward the Honda. Dildo grabs the guy’s wallet, cell phone, lighter, cigs, watch, whatever else he can get his hands on, and Frankie calls over his shoulder: “I can give you a minute if you need to, you know, necrophilia all over him or whatever.”


Daniel Vlasaty is the author of The Church of TV as God, Amphetamine Psychosis, Only Bones, A New and Different Kind of Pain, and Stay Ugly. He lives outside of Chicago with his wife and daughter. 




Sunday, May 9, 2021

Issue #75 -- May 2021

SQUID LORD
By K. A. Laity

It was him, all right. Somehow he had known it all along. He could blame it on that bloody corner shop. That’s where she met him—the celebrity chef. Or what passed for a ‘celebrity’ in this squalid little seaside town. Calamari King, my arse.

Squid Lord: that was more like it.

The first day she had run into him there, buying the daily wotsits. She always had some reason to go—mostly to see what was going on, get the local gossip, buy the lottery tickets Dan told her not to waste her money on—but that day had been memorable, mostly for how much she irritated him going on about it. Dan liked to think of himself as a tolerant man, but Harley really got up his nose that day.

‘Only guess who I met. He only lives round the corner. Can you believe it? And him such a success. Our neighbourhood. And he says he might have a job for me.’ He hated the way her face glowed with excitement over him. Not like she’d had that glow for himself for some time. Nothing but nags for him. Not his fault he’d been out of work these past few months. That manager had it coming, the whiny little streak of piss.

‘What job?’ he had finally muttered after she went on and on about his stylish look, those grey turnup trousers and his mane of white hair. Mane! She actually called it that like he was a lion or something. Just another sheep shagger in this broken-down ex-mill town, even if he did have aspirations to make a name for himself. Good luck with that. Local celebrity don’t travel down the road much.

‘A hostess!’ Harley giggled and he should have guessed it then.

‘What’s that? Serving cake and coffee?’ He snorted.

‘No, silly. Greeting people at the door, walking them to their tables when it’s not busy or handing the menus to the waitstaff if you are. I’d be the face of the restaurant.’ She preened, actually preened. Harley did have a nice face but right then he wanted nothing more than to push a grapefruit into it and make her pucker up.

‘Face of the restaurant? And what about the arse?’

‘Fuck you, it’s work.’ Harley lost her grin. ‘One of us has got to and it looks like you’ve given up on that front.’

Naturally enough that resulted in another barney that went on and on until it was too late, and he was on the couch yet again because the world made him mad and there was nobody but her to take it out on. He couldn’t afford to go out on the lash with the lads anymore and complain with them.

So he laid off on the matter, hoping to get back into Harley’s good graces and into the marital bed. She wasn’t a woman who could do without for long, so he had hopes that her cold mood would thaw. He needed that second chance to prove he could be supportive.

Dan complimented her on that first night as hostess. She did look smashing. He thought she’d wear a uniform like when she was working at Peg Leg Reg’s café, but Harley dressed like she was going out with those mad gals she’d known since forever who scared him a bit, who careered through the town like a permanent hen party every fortnight or so, their faces made up like fashion dolls.

‘You look fab, Harl.’ Dan gave her a peck on the cheek, hoping the peace offering would be accepted. She was nervous enough to take little notice of it, checking her brows in the little mirror she kept in her handbag and rooting around for the just right shade of lipstick for the downplayed lighting.

‘I’m so nervous. The face of the restaurant! It’s a huge responsibility.’ She looked solemn as a nun taking vows—oh, the irony.

‘You’ll do great,’ Dan had reassured her, giving her a little smack on the bottom as she headed out to catch the bus.

And here he was six weeks later hoping to surprise her at the end of the shift and instead staring through the window of the Squid Lord’s office as he watched the celebrity chef knead his wife’s arse like it was bread. Their tongues were wrapped together like tentacles. Harley was pulling her skirt up. The chef pressed her down on the desktop and then reached up to tear down her knickers. Dan could feel his face hot with fury but damn if there wasn’t something arousing about it too, which only made him more furious.

The damn Squid Lord getting what he wasn’t? And making a meal of it, too: damn, but Harley had nice tits. He could almost taste them. But that fucking chef! Literally, in this case. Look at them! Christ, that couldn’t be comfortable, could it?

At last Dan tore himself away—fuming, horny and resentful. He thought of confronting her when she got home that night, but she looked so damn happy that he was confused and sort of ashamed. Why hadn’t she been that happy for him? Harley pecked him on the cheek and jumped in the shower, saying she had to get the food smell off her. Squid, no doubt. It was the signature dish after all. He wanted to ask her how the squid tasted tonight, but the rage rendered him mute.

Dan lay awake beside her—at least she had warmed up enough to allow him back in the bed—angry, aroused, resentful. He thought of trying to get her interested but her snores suggested he had missed the window of opportunity. At last he got up and went to the bathroom and took care of himself as he had done for many months now.

He couldn’t stop picturing her with the Squid Lord.

Dan sat on the edge of the tub after washing up. He wanted to kill the man—with his mane of white hair and all. Squid Lord: would he bleed ink? He’d have to make it look like an accident, so he wouldn’t end up in the clink himself. Harley would be sorry then. She’d want him back. They’d have a second chance.

But how to do it?

It was late. He didn’t have a lot of ideas. Maybe he needed to sleep on it. In the morning he might feel different anyway. The feelings you had at a sleepless three a.m. didn’t always last in the harsh light of the morning. A grey day though, and he might well think hard on it.

Dan woke up late, feeling hungover though he’d not even had so much as a pint the night before. Harley was away. She often went ‘shopping’ during the day. Now he wondered if she was really at the stores or if she was shagging the Squid Lord somewhere. His anger was pure and cold now. He’d seen enough crime shows to know he had to be careful, but revenge was necessary now. It would make him feel whole again. Harley would respond to that, he was sure.

Dan prepared to be all shifty and quiet like a detective. The truth was most people didn’t give a toss about the world around them and that went double for the Squid Lord. It was a doddle finding his house among the trim buildings on the other side of the dual carriageway. They were a nicer set than the lot they lived in, though not as much nicer as he would have expected for a celebrity like him. Maybe he was salting his money away to keep a whole string of dollies. If he was cheating with Harley, chances were he was cheating with others.

That was how Dan spotted the wife. Of course the Squid Lord was married. His wife didn’t seem to work. She was always about the house with one of those little rat dogs scampering around her feet. He could just peek into their back garden from the bus shelter across the way. Well, he had to stand on the bench to get that peek. Dan didn’t think it drew too much attention though; people seemed to expect daft behaviour in this town.

He was trying to think of some excuse for ringing her doorbell so he could size her up when she popped out to walk the little yapper. Dan casually strolled along like he had nowhere better to be. The wife looked nice in that reality star kind of way, which is to say too much makeup and bizarre-coloured clothes that were probably something fashionable. The little dog had a diamante collar and lead. They made the picture of prosperity.

Dan rehearsed some conversational starters in case the opportunity arose to start something with her. He’d pump her for information like those detectives do if she ever got off her mobile. God, he’d hate to have been on the other end of that conversation. He couldn’t quite hear her, but there was no mistaking the body language of a woman who was angry.

Then he got a break. Well, the dog made a break for it, lunging away from her toward some bright wrapper that wafted by on the pavement. Dan pelted after it and grabbed the lead just before the little bugger would have run into traffic and ended up a pancake under a cab’s wheels.

‘Hey there, little guy, er gal,’ Dan said, reeling the wiggly little creature in. The fat pug was wheezing with the small effort it had made. Horrible little thing but at least it didn’t try to bite. He turned to the dog’s mistress to see her scowling. ‘Caught the little darling just in time.’

‘Thanks,’ she said without any warmth, taking the dog from him and dropping it back on the ground. Her face had the pinched look of someone in a permanent bad mood. Maybe her husband was the reason. ‘Honestly it might be better for all if she had been squashed.’

‘Oh, it can’t be as bad as that, can it?’ Dan said with as much sympathy as he could muster.

‘It’s worse than that,’ she muttered, a dark look across her brow. Her nails were lacquered blood red, as if she were ready to rip someone’s heart out.

‘Fancy a cuppa? You look like you could use a good sit down and a chat.’ He wanted the chance to pump her for information, why not let her think he was attracted. With that dog snorting in her arms it was more of a challenge, but he saw her face move a little away from stormy weather toward the sunny side of the street.

‘You one of those swinger dudes?’ She arched one eyebrow at him and gave him the once over. Dan always wondered how women did that. He could only ever raise both eyebrows and look surprised. That one eyebrow trick made any statement sound dubious.

‘Oh, you think I’m trying to pick you up? I suppose beautiful women have to face that a lot.’ When in doubt, flatter flatter flatter. It was a rule Dan stuck to with some success over the years.

She gave a short bark of laughter then stuck out blood-red tipped claws. ‘I’m BZ.’

Dan took her hand and wondered if he’d misheard. ‘BZ or you saying you’re busy? I’m Dan in any case.’ Belatedly he wondered if he ought to have given a false name. This criminal business didn’t come natural to him.

‘It’s a nickname. Since childhood. Even I don’t remember where it came from.’ Now that was a smile—a genuine one. She looked miles better with it on, even with the snorting dog. ‘Oh, why not. Shall we go to Smith’s?’

They sat in the dingy little café Dan came to know most of her life. It came pouring out of her like a fallen film star to talking to the gutter press. She covered the lot—all about her life in the Midlands and how she hated the north and this town and most of all that she wouldn’t mind someone killing the Squid Lord, who was called Benjy, daft name for an adult.

At least that was Dan’s impression of the situation and he approved of her malice. He also fancied there was a good chance of getting a leg over after she invited him back to the house, so he kept up a stream of compliments and sympathetic sounds. BZ broke out the wine and he knew he was in like Flynn. They adjourned to the bedroom—her bedroom, it turned out. That’s how far south things had gone with them. Dan marveled at the luxury of it. This chef must be loaded.

It wasn’t his best effort, to be truthful. For one thing BZ wasn’t all that exciting. She looked well enough a goer but in bed she wasn’t a patch on Harley, who was even better when she was angry. A little enthusiasm would have helped a lot. Dan had to admit that ol’ Benjy definitely took a step up with his wife. Nevertheless, if it helped seal the deal, it was worth the effort. And having a real woman instead of his own hand was a welcome change even if she did make him wrap it up. ‘Safety first,’ she had slurred at him, opening the nightstand drawer to show off a wide variety of condoms in rainbow colours and a few sexual aids as the magazines called them.

The thought did cross his mind to wonder if he ought to be using them with Harley once he got back in her good graces. Can’t be too careful. Working with squid probably wasn’t all that hygienic and he had seen no sign of protection when they were doing it on the desk that night. Sadly, remembering his window-cleaner lookeeloo had put him over the edge at last when the unhelpful BZ just kind of lay there. He’d never had to resort to fantasizing when he was actually with a woman.

It was a sad state of things he had come to. Murder was the only way back.

In the end it wasn’t difficult to convince her. When he casually suggested that life would be better without the Squid Lord around, BZ said, ‘We could make it look like an accident.’ Apparently she was an even bigger fan of crime tales. She had it all worked out, see? Just waiting to find a willing accomplice. It turned out she knew all about Harley—and where the chef parked his squid these days.

BZ still took care of the banking for the restaurant so Benjy couldn’t hide any cash from her. She also kept the insurance full on and up to date. Not only was the Squid Lord swimming in it—everything he had was fully insured. So all they needed was one of his late night rendezvous, a cosh to the head, the gas ‘leaking’ and a fire lit. Boom, problem over, riches to share. As long as the blow to his noggin didn’t break anything, there was no way the forensics could sniff out a deliberate act. In tedious detail, BZ regaled him with the plot of some novel that hinged on just such a scheme. He would Google it later just to be sure: totally legit.

There might not be enough of him left to forensic anyway.

They picked Friday night. Harley had a habit of working really late on Fridays so he deducted that was their ‘special’ night. Of course he had to do the GBH himself. BZ, as the primary beneficiary as the insurance forms termed it, had to be above suspicion and elsewhere with an air-tight alibi for the whole thing to work.

Dan had a bad night or two thinking about the plan—half nervous to just get to it and a little guilty at ending a life. Then he stared at her back and thought about how the Squid Lord had robbed him of his wife’s attention and favours. Her face turned away from him every night now. And it wasn’t like he was killing him. He was only knocking him on the head. The rest was science. It wasn’t his fault if the Squid Lord was blown up by a chemical reaction.

The night of the crime arrived. Harley went off to work as usual with a smile on her face, while Dan sat flipping channels aimlessly, watching the clock. Would she drop a few tears for the Squid Lord? Miss his tentacles? Probably just a distraction for her, a momentary crush. She was always going on about his intelligence and what was it? His ‘business acumen’—what a laugh. She couldn’t even explain what that was to Dan, just got all snarky, then blamed him for being dim.

We’ll see who has more business acumen, Dan thought with satisfaction as he put on his all-black crime clothes. To avoid any kind of witnesses, he had decided to walk down to the pier. It wasn’t that bad of a distance and the night was relatively balmy for early spring. And the city sloped toward the water’s edge so it was a doddle. He’d catch a cab on the way back maybe, over by the central station.

The walk did him good. He was feeling rather chipper by the time he got to the restaurant. Even the sight of his wife riding the Squid Lord couldn’t dampen his mood too much. Just you wait, mate—we’ll see who gets screwed now. When Harley came out the back door and clacked away on her heels, Dan came out from behind the bins and slipped in the back door. BZ had been right: he didn’t lock up behind her as he planned to be exiting soon himself.

He just didn’t know how he’d be leaving this time.

Dan took the heavy Mag Lite torch out of the inside pocket of his donkey jacket, ready for action. He could hear the Squid Lord humming away, happy as a clam. He wouldn’t be humming for long. Peeking around the end of the corridor, he could see the chef shoving some papers into a filing cabinet. As he rolled the drawer shut, Dan ran into the room and thumped him on the melon and down he went. Just like clockwork.

It wasn’t so easy to drag him back out to the kitchen, though. For one thing, he was solid as bricks. The Squid Lord was a lot taller than he remembered, too. Dan lamented giving up the weekend football league a few years ago. He’d been in better shape back then. So far from fit now that he had to stop twice while dragging the man across the tiles. A sad state to be in for sure, but it was better than being dead, he had to admit. He could buy a home gym to get back in shape soon.

Dan propped the chef up against the industrial-size refrigerator and turned his attention to the stove. Criminy, it had a lot of knobs and whatnot. It took a minute to sort out how to work things. He lit one burner and started turning the knobs of the others to get them pouring out the gas into the room. Then he screamed.

A hand gripped his ankle. Dan shook it off and wheeled around.

‘Wasssgoinon?’ The Squid Lord sounded drunk. He had fallen on his side and was groping about as if he had become blind from the blow. Dan considered whether to hit him again or if that might mess up the forensics if he did it too hard. The chef shook his head like he was just waking up and then lunged at Dan, who backed away quickly. Too quickly—he bumped into the stove. And then he could smell hair burning.

His jacket was on fire!

Dan shuffled the jacket off, dropping his keys, wallet and a handful of change on the tile floor. He tried to shake the fire off, and when that didn’t work, threw it to the ground and stomped on it until the smoldering stopped. The dazed chef was trying to get to his feet, so Dan took a chance and cracked his skull again, hoping it wasn’t actually literally so. The man crumpled to the tiles again, hopefully this time to stay.

His hands were shaking as Dan gathered up his belongings—fuck the change, he wouldn’t need it—stuffed them back in his jacket and headed for the door. He had no idea how long it would take until the place exploded, so he wanted to be sure to be watching it from outside.

His heart was hammering like an alarm bell when he got to the back door. He grabbed the knob and twisted it, then collided with the door. He stared at the handle, twisted it more carefully, then with growing panic turned it this way and that. His heart was in his mouth as he slammed his whole body against the door. Then he stopped.

Out the tiny grimy window he saw Harley and BZ. His own wife held up a key and it twinkled in the moonlight as she swung it back and forth on a chain. The two women had their arms around each other’s shoulders. BZ clutched that little rat dog under one arm. They were both grinning like this was the funniest joke ever.

Dan screamed every rotten word he knew at them as they turned and walked away. Then he stopped. Maybe there was still time to turn off the gas.


 
K. A. Laity is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity Flame, Lush Situation, A Cut-Throat Business, Love is a Grift, The Mangrove Legacy, Satan’s Sorority, White Rabbit, and many more. She has edited Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival, Drag Noir, and My Wandering Uterus, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Issue #74 -- April 2021

GOOD OLD DAYS
By Rob Pierce

“Hey, Reno.”

It was Casey. “Yeah?”

“You hear?”

“I hear what?”

“You don’t pay no attention to the news?”

“What the fuck happened, Casey?”

“They dredged up the car.”

I lit a cigarette, sat up in bed. It wasn’t early, just for me. “What car?”

“The Lincoln Town Car.”

“Meet me at Benny’s. An hour?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Benny’s was a beer and breakfast joint, breakfast all day, 24 hours. They catered to an interesting crowd. Bunch of guys you might see in the joint, if you were unlucky.

I ordered coffee, bacon and eggs, waited for Casey. The waitress didn’t have a name tag for some reason.

“What’s your name, honey?”

“Shelly.” She said it blank faced, like I was hitting on her. Believe me, I wasn’t. She was pretty, blonde, and thin, the last thing I wanted.

I nodded and she walked away.

The job with the Town Car went back a bunch of years. My plate was almost empty when Casey walked in and sat across from me. We were at a table, far from the counter. The counter was for guys with less private things to discuss.

“So,” I said, “the Lincoln.”

“Yeah.”

“They find any blood?”

“It’s more than a decade, it washed away. Along with the upholstery.”

“And they didn’t find the body.”

Shelly came by, refilled my coffee and poured one for Casey, asked if there’d be anything else. Casey shook his head.

“Maybe later,” I said. “I’ll letcha know.”

Didn’t want her dropping by mid-story.

“The body,” I said.

“Fuck no. We dumped that a mile away. Fish food by now.”

“The good old days.” We both laughed.

But the day we dumped that car in the river was especially good. We stole it that morning, robbed the bank that afternoon, and an hour after the robbery, pulled up to the riverbank. We left the car in drive and pushed. Me and Casey pushed; not such a good afternoon for Harvey. He was part of our crew and it was his blood on the backseat, a lot of it. The bastards shot him. He bled fast, faster than we could get him to any docs we knew.

Harder work than it would have been with him, pushing the car in. But it did increase our shares from a third each to a half, so we were happy about that part. I mean, he was gone, that was just bad luck, could have been either of us. So when we went out later, we started by raising a glass to lost friends. A couple of others in the bar heard our toast and raised their glasses. A lotta guys out there with friends shot to death.

Truth, though, Harvey was more a partner than a friend, same as Casey, but ideally he’d have been there with us and we’d have skipped the toast. We’d fit all the money into my travel bag, which sat on the floor beneath me, my feet resting on it. After a few rounds we got a cab back to the crash pad and split the money, then two more cabs to our separate apartments. That all went smooth, including getting back sober enough for an even split.

It was a hefty chunk of cash and took a while to count, a reasonable trade-off. We made it back to our places, lived on that money a while. No one looks for marked bills when you’re in a restaurant in another state. Or a whorehouse.

“So,” I said to Casey, “you ain’t worried, are ya? You saw the news. How long ago they say the job was?”

“They didn’t talk about the job. They just said the car was stolen fourteen years ago.”

“And we pulled the job the same day.”

“Yeah.”

I’d finished my breakfast and when we finished our coffees, I flagged down Shelly. She brought the coffee and started to refill but I shook my head and she stopped.

“What kinda beers you got, Shell?”

She recited the list and we each ordered one.

“So,” I said when she’d stepped away, “you antsy?”

“I guess.”

“About what?”

“I dunno.”

Shelly brought our beers.

“Thanks, hon,” I said, and she skirted away.

“Man, you got her on edge.”

“Kids these days. So fucking sensitive.”

He nodded. He agreed with me, but he was getting sensitive too.

“What the fuck is it, Casey?”

“It’s about the car.”

“What’s about the car?”

“We should go back, make sure it’s clean.”

“Jesus Christ.” I drank. “How long a fucking bath it gotta take? You wanna see it wrinkled?”

“Nah, man. It’s just…”

I swear, every word felt designed to piss me off. “Just what?”

“Just…” and he whispered the rest, too soft for me to hear.

“Okay. We ain’t gonna talk. We got the beers, let’s drink. You gotta whisper, we go somewhere and talk.”

Asshole had me worried. Like I said, we weren’t friends. We drank and paid. I said good night to Shelley. I was amused, she wasn’t. Like I said, fucking kids.

Anyway, in the parking lot he could talk above a whisper.

“That car,” he said. “Harvey died there. Our accomplice in a armed robbery. That makes us, murder one.”

“Fuck, Casey. It’s a long time.”

“Ain’t no statue of whaddayacallits on murder, Reno.”

“Okay. Chill. Lemme think through this. I’ll figure the best way to deal with it.”

The best way would be if I had a piece on me, I’d take this stupid shit into the woods and blow his head off. But I wasn’t packing, I was out for breakfast with a former partner. A guy who’d lost all his nerve. Only one way for this to end.

“Give it a day,” I said. “I call ya tomorrow.”

After I grab a pistol and figure how to get rid of the body, asshole. Never shoulda split that money with him. Coulda raised that toast alone, him dead in the river too. Woulda been harder to push the car in that way, but I’d have managed. Just needed fourteen years notice that Casey was gonna lose it.

Home, I grabbed a .38, checked the cartridge, one in the chamber too. Put it in tomorrow’s jacket, hung it over a chair. I grabbed a fifth, half full, didn’t bother with a glass. I wouldn’t sleep tonight. Casey used to be a good guy. I drank, drank some more. I got so drunk I proved myself wrong. I passed out.

***

I woke up. I didn’t look forward to it. My head throbbed. Aspirin on the bedside table, I popped a few. Looked at my watch. Just past noon. Shit, I wanted to sleep in. I sat up in bed, kicked aside the empty bottle that lay on its side on the floor. I needed coffee. God, I needed coffee.

I staggered to the kitchen, grateful for the furniture I could cling to on the way, the walls I leaned on. Regret in advance, I guess. Casey should not have gone crazy, should have got to stay alive. I didn’t know if it was choices. Brains sometimes go. I’d seen it in my mom, dementia, but she was old by the time she started mixing me up with Dad. Thank God she didn’t like him, I’d had no desire to tell Mom I couldn’t fuck her. Like I had no desire to kill this stupid piece of shit. Damn you, Casey.

I braced myself against the counter as I made the coffee. Felt like I should be able to just chew on the granules. Maybe if they were beans, but then I’d have to have a grinder and keep it clean and fuck that, this was bad enough. Didn’t have to deal with the sound of grinding beans, just waited for the water to boil, then poured.

I put on more water as soon as I’d poured a cup, knew I’d need two. I’d put this off another day but that wouldn’t help, I’d get twice as drunk tonight.

I drank the coffee, then the second cup, took a shower, threw on a shirt and jeans and boots, grabbed the jacket from the chair and walked out the door. Called Casey from the hall, set up a meet. Decided against the woods. Along the riverbank would do. Would do justice.

I stood there, chewing on a cigarette, lit it when I heard him approach.

“Case.”

“Hey, Reno. We going?”

“To the car? I don’t know, man. That still what you want to do?”

“We got to, man.”

“That’s how they involve us. Cops have that car now. We gotta go where they stash evidence. Their yard. Cops guard that.”

He nodded. “So, you was up all night figuring how to get past the guard?”

“Ain’t like that, Case.”

“You tell me, Reno. What’s it like?”

I couldn’t answer, not in words. I looked down, frowned, put a hand in my coat pocket and looked up, held it on him.

“Shit, Reno, no.”

“You’re gonna crack, Case. You crack, we both die.”

I shot him in the gut. I knew a gut shot hurt like hell and wouldn’t kill him right away, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him in the head.

“Fuck, Reno. Fuck.”

“Sorry it came to this, Case. Only way.”

“I hoped the only way would be us going to the car.”

“That was impossible, Case.”

He was grimacing. I was tempted to shoot him in the head and put him out of his misery.

“I already talked, Reno. Whatcha call a cooperative witness.” Took him forever to say that much.

“Talked? To who?”

“FBI,” he said, his eyes closing.

I heard people running toward us. “Shit.”

I shot Casey in the head, raised the .38 to my temple, and fired.



Rob Pierce wrote the novels Blood By Choice, Tommy Shakes, Uncle Dust, and With the
Right Enemies, the novella Vern in the Heat, and the short story collection The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet. All books are available at allduerespect.com, as well as via the usual slumlords. He lives and will probably die in Oakland, California.