Author POV: The Void Kills

The void kills.

Insert ominous piano sounds here.

But really, minus the faux-drama, it does.

In my case, I mean the blank space of the empty page waiting just ahead of every word in every work-in-progress. Every flash fiction, short story, novella, novel. Even now, as I write this, the blankness, ever ravenous, is threatening to consume this entire article in reverse, word-by-word. Disappear them. Eat them. Erase them from existence. If an empty Word file gets deleted does it even make a sound?

See, every little word I send out there into the void could be the last one.

And the void’s a bit of a trash talker, too. Likes to taunt.

It says, “Why bother? Just stop and watch Netflix.”

It says, “Is that the best you can do? They’re really not very good words.”

It says, “Don’t tell me you think this will resonate with anyone — do you know how many words are being written by way more talented people right now?”

The void has an itchy trigger finger, dead-eye aim and a full clip.

And we wage battle every time I sit down to write, except those rare times when I’m on fire, shiny and chrome, a witty, wordy John Wick executing bad guys with speed and style, bam, bam, bam, head shots everywhere. Take that void.

I love when that happens. I celebrate when that happens.

I’m sure it’s the same for most writers. Any artist. Creating something that never existed before ain’ t the hardest thing in the world, by any stretch, but it ain’t the easiest either. Like anything, creating has its pitfalls, its downsides, its challenges.

Certainly, the reward of typing “END” or getting a short story acceptance or holding a book you wrote in your hands makes the void non-existent, a memory. That is, until the next time, of course.

40 Nickels by R. Daniel Lester. Buy Now!

Which brings me to 40 Nickels.

The void almost got this second entry in the Carnegie Fitch Mystery Fiasco series on a few occasions. There were some close calls and it was definitely touch-and-go for a while there, for those months between the initial burst of writing in March 2018, the next bit in June/July and the completion in November/December. Lots of staring into the void, unsure. Lots of creeping doubt. Even more so because a lot of the work was done. It was book #2 so I already had the character and the setting. I had the style, how the story would “feel.” And I knew the plot points, my middle and end. So I knew exactly where I wanted to get to, but all those damn tiny (mis)steps to get there. That damn blank page that can be so inspiring at times, for what it could be, but so scary because what if that’s all the story ever becomes?

Finally, though, the story made it to the end and was all that much better for the journey, for the stops and starts, the winding path.

So here we are, meeting Carnegie Fitch once again, after his misadventures in Dead Clown Blues, with his own void to battle. The void called “The Unknown.” And the unknown scares him. So he continues doing what he thinks he does best, stumbling over and through cases, from advance to advance, from feast to famine and back again.  And all with a sly grin on his face and a smart aleck wisecrack for every occasion.

Dead Clown Blues
Buy Now!

Readers may notice similarities to Dead Clown Blues, certain intentional repeats. I won’t mention them and take away the joy of discovery, if you’re so inclined, but they exist for a reason. Fitch is stuck in a loop but he’s not going to escape until he realizes and changes his tactics. Until he enters the unknown, takes the void head on and sees what’s on the other side.

I always wanted the books in this series to be an ode to detective/P.I. fiction, full of some of the classic tropes that make it a blast to read, but also a bit of a self-referential, “meta” journey for a character trying to be Marlowe, trying to be Spade.  And really not succeeding. Even when he wins, it’s more of a fail upwards than an outright victory.

Most of all, I wanted Dead Clown Blues and 40 Nickels to be good yarns and I battled the void each time to try and achieve that. For what it’s worth. For that moment, even if it’s just a brief blip on a crowded radar screen chock-a-block with all the entertainment at our fingertips these days, when the words I strung together on the page might mean something to a reader.

So if you pick up a copy, or download the ebook, I hope you enjoy it.

And keep an eye out for the final book in the trilogy, Shot to Nothing, in Summer 2021.

Now, where’s that damn void? It’s go time.


From the Ashes

Occasional whimpers, interrupting the rhythmic sway of windshield wipers flinging steady rain, finally ceased as Johnson’s jalopy kicked up gravel settling into the earth.  Mrs. Johnson clutched the urn with a dainty right arm as he shuffled her to the front door by her left.  A bullet to the leg placed by a startled burglar saw to the shuffle in good times and in bad. 

This was the third…the last, too old and tired to start again–the first two buried in the backyard by a younger man’s vigor.  With the recent pet clinic offering cremation, it only made sense.  The high-tech facility quickly put the smaller veterinarians out of business.  Even Johnson was forced into taking his beloved despite a devotion to small businesses.

“I need to lay down, Dear,” Mrs. Johnson said while removing rain boots and heading for the stairs.

“I understand, Faye.  I will be in the study.  Just yell if you need anything.”  Johnson always addressed his wife by first name.  She found it more endearing than a pet name.  The former private office remained on the first floor of the two story, humble home.  He placed the urn on a mantle above a frequently used fireplace and gazed.  The loss had hit him hard as well.  Now an aging man, he accepted not having children long ago.  This was his final baby, resting in a container.  He moved to a desk littered with word puzzles.  After minutes unable to concentrate, he poured a bourbon and procured a file folder from a bottom drawer.  While setting it atop the puzzles, a painting on the wall captured his attention.  At first glance, one would be absorbed in tranquil waters.  It was hung during his law days, a reminder that just beneath the peaceful surface, the unknown lurks. 

Removed as sheriff, Johnson transitioned quite nicely.  Never one to fall victim to boredom, he kept busy with hobbies.  Most of all, he took comfort in the knowledge that he did a damn fine job protecting the quaint town.  Ultimately, his body simply couldn’t take it anymore.  It seemed as if overnight, he turned into a tired old man.  Beneath self-assurance, one reservation did occasionally eat at the back of his mind–cocaine was on the rise during his final year as sheriff.  Just one year later, the town now seemed to be polluted with the narcotic. 

He skimmed through the file comprised of hand-written notes targeting entry points and nearby possible manufacturers, photographs of convicted drug offenders, and jotted down theories.  He exhaled, feeling the guilt of its secrecy.  “Give it up old man,” he said aloud.  It was settled; the file would be transferred to the station first thing in the morning.  Satisfied with the revelation, he closed the cover, pressing a photograph of a low-level gangster known by, Buster.  He looked up at the urn and said, “Come on old friend; let’s go for a walk.” 

After making sure Mrs. Johnson was sound asleep, he walked about a half mile to a little pond, a favorite place to share with his companion.  Endless hours once passed tossing a tennis ball into the shallow water.  Johnson decided this was a proper resting place.  After saying a prayer, he pried open the top.  As he sprinkled, a gust of wind kicked the white remains into his face.  A quick closing of the lid trapped what was left.  He lightly inhaled and licked his lips, feeling the numbness of the high-quality powder against his gums.  He dusted himself and closely examined the urn.  Running his fingers over the engraving of fancy script revealed the name, “B-u-s-t-e-r.”  A chuckle ensued, “Baxter, I apologize for the oversight in my time of distress.” 

The lawman was reborn.  A determined shuffle set in motion to acquire his rightful ashes while silencing a final question.  It needed to be done expeditiously…the missus would soon wake.  

“End”


Consequences

Some people look at the act of killing as something they could never do. Personally, I’ve always found killing to be fairly easy. You really don’t need much except the right tool and the opportunity. And, the willingness to live with the consequences. Consequences can be a bitch.

Most of the killing I’ve done was paid for by your tax dollars and took place while I was wearing desert camo. And, after I’d done eight years of that kind of killing, I did four more years of custom work sanctioned by people who paid me in cash and arranged free transportation to the job site on big green airplanes. 

My history and experience is why people like Eddie Bonnaire keep me on the payroll now. I’m able to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, without leaving a trace of my presence. I’ve developed my skills over the years and I’m proud of them. And, even though I don’t engage on a daily basis, I still like to keep my skills honed. That’s why I never hesitate when Eddie Bonnaire calls me.

I’ve never met Eddie face-to-face, it’s always by phone. The word on Eddie is that he’s an old-school organized crime guy—the kind that isn’t afraid to get a little dirty. He doesn’t overthink the consequences of getting personally involved. He always calls me directly to set something up, instead of having somebody else call. And, when Eddie calls, he always lays out the reasons for the job, like a prosecuting attorney in a capital murder case explaining the facts to the jury. At least he always did until he called about Tina Simmons.

It was the first time Eddie had ever asked me to kill a woman, but I still listened to his request. A target is a target. In the early years of my training I learned a tactic that made it easier to put my own opinions aside about whether or not a target should be eliminated. Once I knew who I was assigned to kill I just thought of them as “Target Alpha” instead of the multi-faceted human being they were.

After telling me that Tina Simmons was my target, instead of ticking off a list of what my assigned target had done wrong, Eddie just gave me her name and address and told me where she worked. Then, he said he wanted the work to be up close and personal.

“I want her to know what’s coming before it happens,” Eddie said. “Make it last long enough that she has plenty of time to understand that she’s dying.”

It wasn’t a big house, but it sat back off the road a bit, built on one of those bigger lots in an older section of the city. I watched it from some distance away and didn’t approach until it was completely dark and I knew it was safe. The backdoor lock was old and the door itself a thin veneer plywood thing that splintered without making too much noise.

At the top of the stairs I could already hear the deep, steady breathing of Target Alpha. I eased into the bedroom and stood over the bed a few seconds before kneeling and clamping a hand over my target’s mouth while pinching both nostrils tightly, cutting off any source of oxygen.

The bucking and kicking only lasted a few seconds before Target Alpha went limp. I removed my hand and turned on the bedside light, waiting for the fluttering eyes to open and focus on me. When they did, I waited until I saw the fear and the certainty of approaching death in them, then pulled my knife and drew it across Target Alpha’s throat. The cut wasn’t deep, but it opened the jugular and Target Alpha’s life drained quickly.

That was when the sound of footsteps running up the stairs told me that Eddie’s security man had returned from his smoke break much sooner than I anticipated. It was my time. Eddie Bonnaire had just faced his consequences, and now it was time for me to face mine.


Deep Woods Dispatched

Dean had been driving late into the afternoon when Billy finally woke up.

“Where are we?”

“Just drove into the park” Dean replied.

They had entered Algonquin Provincial Park a while back, a wide open space carved out of the Ontario wilderness bursting with lakes, rivers and wildlife.

Billy sat up straight and looked out the window. “Oh, good. Was I asleep long?”

They had left Ottawa a few hours back heading west to the Muskokas. The reds, oranges and yellows of the dying leaves blurred by in a brilliant blaze of amber.

The two often went hunting together throughout the season and although they normally stayed close to home, Dean wanted to shake things up and make a weekend out of it. They decided they would make the four hour trek west and rent a cabin for the night.

Billy switched on the radio, moving up and down the dial before settling on an old Metallica song. “We should have done this a long time ago. I needed a weekend away from the ol’ ball and chain.”

Dean nodded, “Yeah, it’s been a long time coming.”


The morning arrived quickly. The pair spent the night in a rustic cabin just off the highway in one of the lesser known campgrounds. The site was mostly empty; a few pickups in the parking lot, but the front desk clerk said it was mainly staff. Seeing as hunting season technically ended in two days, there weren’t many people around.

Last night, they’d made sure to take in only what was necessary leaving the remainder locked up tight in the cab of the truck for efficiency’s sake in the morning. Dean had installed one of those aluminum sliding hard tops hoping it would hold up and prevent theft.

A short drive later, they pulled into a gravel parking lot near a trail opening, the two exited the truck and prepared to enter into the bush.

Dean pulled out his rifle from behind his seat and began putting it together.

Billy went around back and opened the trunk. It was empty.

“Yo Dean,” Billy called out, “Where’s my stuff?”

Dean didn’t answer. He had his back to Billy, his head down.

Billy closed the trunk and walked up behind his friend. “Hey Dean-o, you deaf or what? I said where’s my stuff? I left it with you to pack.”

Dean was assembling his hunting rifle, sliding the scope into place, his head down. The soft clicks and soothing sounds of assembling weaponry never failed to put him at ease.

Dean turned his head to the left and spat on the ground. “It’s back at the house. You don’t need it, anyway.”

“What do you mean I don’t need it. What am I supposed to do this weekend? I didn’t come out to tag along with you like some bitch. I wanted to bag some game.”

Dean brought the rifle up to his shoulder and looked through the scope, testing out its range. “You don’t need it because you’re the game.”

Billy laughed. “Come on, man. Cut the shit.” He jerked his thumb back in the direction of the pick-up. “Is it under the seat or something?”

Dean lowered the gun and turned to face Billy, “I know you and Tammy were fucking behind my back. I know this, Billy, because she told me right before I put a bullet in her head two nights ago.”

The color drained from Billy’s face. “That ain’t funny, Dean. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Shut the fuck up, Billy. Don’t lie to me. It was hard enough to pry it out of her, I don’t need this from you too.”

Billy started to back up.

Dean shook out a cigarette, plugged it between his lips and sparked it to life. He took a long drag before exhaling. “Because I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give you a thirty second head start.”

“You’re making a mistake. It didn’t mean anything. You weren’t supposed to know!”

“One.”

“This is insane!”

“Two.”

Billy turned and ran into the bush pushing his way deep into the forest.

Twenty eight seconds later, Dean followed.


Cosplayers Shouldn’t Kill

“You want me to kill her because she’s going to dress as Daenerys?” Sam felt like a damn fool. He should never have advertised for dirty work on Craigslist. But times were tough. Living in San Francisco wasn’t what it used to be. Even the Comic-Con had moved to Oakland. Nobody could afford the city these days, let alone a down-on-his-luck thug.

His client, who went by the name of Doctor Diva, wore a skimpy Catholic schoolgirl outfit, the button-up shirt tied Daisy Duke-style (not that Diva would know the reference) above her navel. North of that he saw two buttons, with only one in use. Fake boobs, golden and curvy, spilled out at the top. She wore an obvious platinum blonde wig with a red bow on top. Sam figured she was trying to look like an Anime character of some sort, but he had no idea who. His cartoon watching days ended with He-Man.

The dude in him had no complaints about Diva’s sexed-up appearance. The dad in him? Not so thrilled by her fashion choices. Let alone her homicidal instincts. Diva couldn’t have been more than a few years older than his own kid.

“Affirmative’s the biggest bitch,” Diva said. “She’s only in the cosplay business because she couldn’t hack it as an actress. She’s not legit like me.” Her rage stemmed from an overheard conversation, in which another cosplayer named Affirmative Solo shared her plans to dress as the Queen of Dragons for tomorrow night’s fashion show. Diva had the same outfit in mind. Cue the murderous rage.

Sam looked across the quad. People dressed as Pokémon and kinky, half-naked Disney characters populated his line of sight. There was no mistaking the actress turned cosplayer with her flowing black Elvira gown, jet black hair and ample chest. The professional banner over her booth helped. A horde of eager boys waited in line to get her autograph. Diva had no line, Sam noticed.

He did dirty work, sure, but murdering a young woman for being successful wasn’t in his bag of tricks, not that he’d turn down the money. He told Diva he’d put a slug in Solo’s brain when she went to her room for the night, but the two grand had to be wired first.

Sam tossed out his usual warning. “You do it, there’s no turning back. I’m not kidding, little girl.”

Diva fiddled with her phone. Her hands shook like she had palsy and her face turned sheet white, but the little psycho got it done.

“If I change my mind, can I text…”

Sam didn’t let her finish. He knew the transfer was untraceable and immediate. “Nope. I’m a freight train now.”

Diva scampered off, looking ill. Sam loitered around the booths, navigating a sea of foam weaponry and skin-tight costumes. He’d catch Solo alone, get her to leave the Con, but not kill her. Diva would be the only Daenerys, the darling of the fashion show like she wanted, and nobody’d get a coffin. Sam would give half the kill money back and call the matter handled.

Two ambulances howled to a stop when he walked outside. Costumed geeks crowded the sidewalk at the 10th Street exit. Sam went up to a sobbing Ronald McDonald version of Thor and asked what happened.

“Some chick jumped off the damn roof!” The clown god cried.

The herd parted to let in the medics, giving Sam a glimpse of the jumper. Dark blood pooled on the asphalt, outlining the pile of mashed potatoes that used to be Diva. There was no mistaking those golden breasts and that schoolgirl outfit. Her blonde wig lay a few feet away.  Her real hair was brown, like Sam’s own daughter back in the city. The little psycho had a bit of a conscience after all, only her moral compass was for shit. Sam wondered if that was enough to get her into Heaven. Her two grand would keep him in the city for another month, now that he didn’t have to refund a dime, so that might grease the pearly gates for her.


Release: The Honorary Jersey Girl

The Honorary Jersey Girl by Albert Tucher

About the Book

Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues got her client Hank Alves acquitted of a murder in the rainforest of the Big Island, but the victim was a cop’s wife, and a case like this doesn’t end with “not guilty.” When someone takes a shot at her client, and that someone looks like a cop, Agnes knows no one in Hawaii will take on the job of protecting Hank.

Agnes travels to New Jersey to hire ex-prostitute Diana Andrews and her crew of bodyguards, who have a reputation as the toughest in the business. But Diana refuses the job. The Jersey girl has been to the Big Island before, and it almost killed her. Diana’s own people persuade her, but her decision puts her in the crosshairs with Agnes.

The bodyguards are soon earning their payday, but nobody can be protected forever. Keeping Hank alive means finding the real killer, and Diana might know the answer from first career. And what Agnes has to do outside the courtroom will make her an honorary Jersey girl, if it doesn’t kill her first.

Praise

“A lean, mean confluence of complicated women and the seedier side of paradise, The Honorary Jersey Girl is suspenseful and plenty of fun.”

—Kristen Lepionka, Shamus Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series

The Honorary Jersey Girl has the kick-assiest cast of women — badass bodyguards, wily hookers, and a fierce attorney — who power this taut, relentlessly-paced novella that rips through the gritty underworld of Hawaii like a stray bullet, searching for flesh to pierce. This is deeply satisfying noir from a master of the craft.”

Kevin Catalano, author of Where the Sun Shines Out

About the Author

Photo by Mark Krajnak

Albert Tucher is the creator of prostitute Diana Andrews, who has appeared in eighty short stories in such venues as THUGLIT, SHOTGUN HONEY, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010, edited by Lee Child and Otto Penzler. Diana’s first longer case, the novella THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE, was published in 2013. Supporting characters from her world, which includes the Big Island of Hawaii, are featured in THE PLACE OF REFUGE, THE HOLLOW VESSEL, and the forthcoming novella THE HONORARY JERSEY GIRL, all from Shotgun Honey. Albert Tucher recently retired from the Newark Public Library.


Three-Ring Binder

A scrapbook, that’s what Jen keeps calling it.

No, a scrapbook’s for paper doilies pasted on pink and blue stock, with oh-so-pretty red flowers along the edges. This book is but a cheap loose-leaf binder filled with news clippings Scotch-taped to plain paper.

I think this but don’t say it, not to Katie’s sister. She means well. And whenever I dredge up a new article and call her up about it, she makes the half-hour drive and comes right over.

The latest clipping, one I just trimmed with my scissors and taped to paper, shows Jeffers in his prison grays beneath the headline: Jeffers granted early release for good behavior.

In prison? I ask. Aren’t you supposed to be on good behavior?

I slam the binder shut. Then fling it open again. I land on the article that started it all and fall silent. Jen, behind me, lays a hand on my shoulder.

Maybe you should set this aside, she whispers. Look at your albums. Something positive.

Positive? Seeing Katie’s face, rosy from exertion after our hikes and climbs and spirited jaunts, sometimes hurts worse than the cold print in all these articles, even this one, the one the binder’s turned to.

She was waiting at a red light when her car was plowed into from behind by an SUV doing seventy in a thirty. The outcome? Katie with a shattered spine. Jeffers with bumps and bruises, failing the walk-and-turn but still walking.

I thumb past item after item about all the legal hoops until I finally hit the item where the sentence is handed down.

Two years.

Hey, longer than the five months he got years before for swerving into the convenience store he bought his liquor from.

That bit of old news is right here.

And here, next to it, is the interview after those five months vanished to nothing. A reporter asking, why do you keep doing this? And Jeffers answering, doing what? This? Swilling this fine stuff? It keeps me company. Better than you. Now get the **** off my porch.

The stars not mine but the article’s.

Before that, pages of yellowed clippings I dug up from different states. Jeffers moved around. It’s what you can do when you’ve inherited the green. Lead the cops on a high speed chase, do community service, cross the state line. Sideswipe a school van, pour yourself out of the front seat sobbing, do community service, cross the state line.

Pages.

I skip ahead. Jeffers’s lawyer, the best his money can buy, slamming the idea that Jeffers can be blamed for whatever complications occur in a wrecked spine. Nice try on the life stretch. The two years stay.

And then what. Not even two years. Jeffers called his prison guards Sir, and now he’s back on the street.

• • •

Weeks later, Jen shows up. This time she has something for me rather than the other way around. She unfolds the local rag and hands it over. I make sure she sees my eyes move. The body of a man id’ed as Richard Alman Jeffers discovered at the bottom of a ravine. Stabbed through the eye, the eyeball and the sharp instrument nowhere to be found.

Jen leaves the paper with me, touches her hand gently to my cheek. Maybe now we can put the scrapbook behind us, she says.

Yeah, maybe, I say. I stand at the door and watch her get in her car and pull away.

Back inside, I reach for my own copy of the paper. Rip out the article. Take the binder and snap open the rings. Slip in a fresh page. Before taping the article to the sheet, I trim it into a neat rectangle with my scissors, not giving a good goddamn what pretty red remnants cling to the newsprint’s edges.


The Windrows

From the living room window, Edith could see the snowplows. Must be here for the windrows, she thought, happy to finally be rid of the jagged sediment left behind by past plows. The piles of thick snowy detritus were beginning to look like a barricade, mucked up and browned like the kind you see in war films. They had been there for a month now, ever since the city sent their motor graders to clean up and chip away at the snow-packed roads. It was the last time Edith had seen her husband.

Gary had come home late that day. It had taken ages to get home from work, he said, the roads were terrible, the snow piling high, visibility low, he said and said and said. For months now, Gary had been coming home late, and for months, Edith had suspected an affair. That unfamiliar scent on his neck, the subtle smiles at the corner of his mouth when he thought she wasn’t looking, the way he tiptoed everytime he got home like a guilty teenager out past his curfew. The night before the windrows, Edith decided to confront Gary about his little dalliance. She would make Chicken à la King, ply him with his favourite dish. They had been eating for twenty minutes when she asked him.

To be honest, he said, it’s a relief that you know.

She was floored. He hadn’t even had the decency to pretend. To act as if this was an impossibility, that he would never cheat on her, her, her, the diamond of this relationship. But there he was, admitting it with the deepest of breaths, a light entering his eyes that hadn’t been there for months.

The ache in her that had been there all this time, the pain and betrayal, the grief that had seeped into the walls of their home, into her eyes as she watched the snow fall night after night, an empty driveway filling up to remind her that not only would she have to shovel it the next day, but that her husband was simply not there, that he was out somewhere with someone who was not her, laughing the way that he used to laugh with her, maybe even whispering to her under softly snowflaked light—it all expanded, rising up before catching in her throat.

She asked him not to see her again, knowing that he would not agree to it, knowing that his next words would be that he was leaving her, and that Cressida—Cressida? she shuddered—had been asking him to leave her for a month now, and that he would finally have the courage—courage? she barked—to be with the woman he loved.

The blizzard spiralled outside as Gary mouthed the last bits of chicken, turned to Edith, and thanked her. Thanked her. He told her he was going to pack his things, and Edith felt her whole body go cold, knew that whatever happened, this was always as it had to be, that there was no other possible way, that ever since the day she and Gary had married, under a white plastic arbour bought at Wal-Mart, their life together would end like this, in a blizzard in the thick of February. She followed him into their bedroom and closed the door.

The next day, the graders came, stacking sharp clumps of compact snow atop one another, burying anything the night before might have left behind. Edith had hoped she wouldn’t see her husband again after that night. She had wished not to see that horrible cut she had given his perfect face, or the blood that ribboned its way out of him like a party streamer. She did not want the reminder of the shouting, slashing, dragging.

But now, a month later, as the plows ripped the caked snow and dirt from the boulevards, Edith thought perhaps she would like to see her husband once again. Yes, she thought, that might be nice to see him once more. It might even offer some closure. So she waited and watched as the plow groaned on.


Old Bones

Mel glanced nervously at his watch and settled his eyes on the Chalmers Topaz in the Gem Room on the second floor of The Field Museum.

The 2.5-lb., 5,899 caret topaz was almost comically oversized but still incandescent in the light. It refracted that bright multi-colored fire you’d often see in diamonds.

Mel stared vacantly. It was the biggest stone he ever saw.

“To hell with it,” he muttered, driving his fist through the glass, snatching it up.

It went down just as he expected with a loud blaring alarm and flashing lights. He wondered at the last minute if it would be a silent alarm but it was as over-the-top and theatrical as he first assumed.

He made a run for it, jostling past slow, shuffling museum-goers and plowing through two security guards, his days as a high school fullback coming in handy.

As he came upon the stairwell, he was confronted by a phalanx of guards he knew he couldn’t muscle past. He turned and saw his out: the pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling. He vaulted himself over the railing and crashed onto the plaster dinosaur. As he assumed, it was too flimsy to support his weight. The supporting cables snapped.

He rode the pterodactyl about 30 feet down. It broke his fall, but the impact was violent. He staggered back onto his feet. He straight-armed a small guard that rushed at him and saw daylight clear unto the exit.

So many guards had rushed upstairs and he outstripped them all by making a crazy leap downstairs. It might have given him just enough time and enough of an advantage to make it outside.

“Freeze!”

Mel knew even if he made it outside, he could never escape. It was a dumb heist, a smash-and-grab at a major metropolitan museum that was inevitably doomed to failure. You might as well try to rob a police station. But the real score was five of the hot dog carts on the bustling museum campus during a sunny summer day when it was clogged with strollers and tourists eager to fork over cash for an authentic Chicago dog. Ed and his crew as sticking them all up simultaneously while Mel provided a diversion. Mel was only providing a distraction that would send him to prison for a couple years because he was into Ed for 80 large after the Patriots failed to cover the spread in the Super Bowl. He owed Ed big-time and you didn’t owe Ed.

“Freeze!”

Mel knew he’d never get away, not in a million years. But if he could just make it outside those heavy bronze doors, he’d have some small moral victory. He could relish that he pulled one over, nabbed a minor triumph over a system so rigged against him.

“Stop!”

He was almost there, so tantalizingly close to shoving the door open when the first bullet caught him in the shoulder. The hot metal sliced through like a pate knife through a cheese ball, spinning him around. The next two bullets missed, but he dropped the Chalmers Topaz.

It clattered to the floor, skittered off. He worried for a minute it was chipped, damaged. But it wasn’t even what he was really there for anyway.

To hell with it, he thought as he staggered back outside the door. He could feel the cool wind off Lake Michigan. The sun was so bright. Everything was awash in color.

He could taste the faint marine tang of the lake air. He was free, at least for that moment, free.

“Stop!”

He stumbled down the steps as his shoulder bled profusely.

He plowed past a scrum of tourists toward the lakefront, when Ed’s muscle Doyle pulled up on a motorbike.

Mel’s heart swelled. They’d get away. He’d make it home after all.

“No loose ends,” Doyle said.

Mel opened his mouth to respond when Doyle whipped a .45 out of his leather jacket and shot him three times in the chest.

As he lay there splayed on the steps, Mel could catch a glimpse through the windows at the dinosaur bones in the museum lobby.

A thought started to form and then dissipated in that lake breeze.


Killian’s Gun

There’s something you should know about Killian.

Killian’s a guy who can put up with pretty much anything. All of that bullshit ex-con locker room talk doesn’t faze him one bit. For the most part, the man is like a Zen Buddhist monk.

But if you so much as mention his gun.

Let me give you a “for instance.”

For instance, last summer, when Jerry Sullivan’s little brother Pat joined the crew, we threw him a big party at the veterans’ hall on Ellery Street. We were all shitfaced and lined up at the bar for another shot, when Pat makes a comment about Killian’s gun being too small for a guy his size.  I don’t know. Maybe he meant it as a joke or something.

Everyone at the bar shut up all at once. Jerry and me looked at each other. I could tell we were both thinking that maybe we could spare Pat a beating from Killian if we took care of this ourselves, right quick. So, we made a big show of dragging the kid out into the parking lot, and, after giving him a few good ones in the kidneys, we explained to him in no uncertain terms the rule about Killian’s gun.

Never talk about Killian’s gun. No jokes. No questions. No well-intentioned small talk about where he got it and how many rounds it holds. Nothing. Not a single word.

Turns out Killian wasn’t making any allowances that night, not even for a new guy just cliqued up. When we all went back inside, Killian was waiting in the coat room.

“Pat and I need to have a little talk,” he said.

Nobody tried to get in the way. We all knew better. Ten minutes later, Pat left the coatroom minus his two front teeth. Later that night, I heard Jerry thanking Killian for not killing his little brother.

I’m telling you all of this so you don’t make the same mistake Pat did. So you don’t ever let slip a question and end up alone in a coatroom with Killian.

Here’s the truth.

That gun Killian carries is a fake. Looks real, but it’s the same kind they use in the movies. Takes special blanks Killian buys at a magic shop in Roxbury. For obvious reasons, it’s absolutely fucking essential that nobody find out about this. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if the wrong people knew Killian wasn’t really strapped?

But that’s not the only reason why Killian’s so salty on the subject of firearms.

He used to carry a real gun. Used to have a little boy, too. Named Bobby, after Bobby Orr. Four years old. Then, one night, Bobby got a hold of Killian’s gun. Now, Killian doesn’t have a little boy anymore and he doesn’t carry a real gun. Can’t bring himself to put his hands on a loaded piece without sobbing like a day old baby.

So, if you ever do work with the guy, for your own sake, avoid the subject of Killian’s gun.


The Tracker

“Snow’s comin’,” the tracker mumbled to himself.  The eastern ridgeline, set clear in the distance an hour ago, had become blurry.  The gray canopy dropped low enough to touch.  It was mid-April.  The late-season storm would bring a cold rain to the North Carolina valley below, but here just off the Appalachian Trail at four thousand feet, it would be a heavy wet snow.

The tracker hurried his pace.  He was close, but had to make up the remaining ground before the snowfall covered those telltale signs he was looking for.  The occasional heelprint.  Broken twigs.  Crumbled leaves. 

He’d been tracking Henry Windsor for four hours, since dawn.  That numbnut from New York City decided to go off the trail three days’ prior and got himself lost.  It was national news.  Not that a person got lost.  That happens with some regularity.  It was national news because it was Henry Windsor. 

His father, Stewart Windsor, was a hedge fund titan.  Made billions last year shorting silver.  In the process, he wiped out another hedge fund manager on the opposite side of the trade.  The poor sap was so devastated he killed himself, leaving the sap’s son in charge of what was left of the rival fund.  The son proved to be a much better manager than his father.  One of the best.  Stewart thought it was because the experience toughened him up.  Made a man out of him.    

Likewise, Stewart wanted to make a man out of Henry.  Get him in the Wall Street trenches.  So he hired his son as an analyst fresh out of college.  Stewart wanted his son to learn the business from the ground up, and eventually run the hedge fund.  But Henry was a millennial.  He wanted different things out of life, so he quit the fund after a month to walk the trail from Georgia to Maine.  “Going off the grid,” Henry said when explaining his plans.  It was an indulgence available only to the very rich and the hippies.  Everyone else, including the tracker, had bills to pay. 

Before beginning his journey, Henry’s mother made him promise to call home once a day to let her know everything was ok.  He did just that for the first three weeks, walking into various mountain towns to make the daily call.  But on day twenty-two, there was no phone call.  Now it was day twenty-five and still nobody had heard from young Henry.  Time was running out.

The tracker’s phone rang the night before.  It was the captain of industry himself, Stewart Windsor, offering the tracker fifty thousand dollars if he could bring his son home alive.  “Why you callin’ me and not some other fella?” the tracker asked. 

“Because I hear you’re the best in North Carolina.”

“How you know that?”  The tracker was genuinely curious.  He was the best at what he did, but kept a low profile and didn’t know how the hell someone living in New York City would ever know about him.

“On Wall Street, you don’t get to be the best unless you’re the most well-informed.”

The tracker would come to find out just how true that was.    

As the snow began to fall, the tracker was fairly certain he found who he was looking for.  Slumped against the trunk of a fallen tree was a young man, dirty, disheveled and wearing a jacket with a patch on the arm that read “Canada Goose.”  The tracker poked his chest with a stick and the young man came to with a start.

“You Henry?” the tracker asked.

“Yes.  Oh thank god!  You found me!”

“Let me help you up,” the tracker said.

“I’m sure my father is offering a reward for whoever finds me.  You’re going to be richly rewarded.”

“Oh, you right about that.  He payin’ fifty thousand,” the tracker replied as he extended his hand to Henry.  As Henry began to pull himself up, the tracker’s other hand – the one holding a stone – crashed into Henry’s temple, knocking him out cold.  “But the man who says your pa killed his pa,” the tracker continued, “is paying me double to make sure you’re never seen alive again.”  


The Bench Warmers

Bat resting on his shoulder, Stuart maneuvered the rickety Huffy into the gravel parking lot.  The little league season had ended a few days ago.  Still, he wore his full uniform:  red cap, white jersey and pants with red pinstripes, red leggings, even his black cleats.

The late July heat was oppressive.  Stuart was soaked by the time he reached the diamond.  The others had already arrived; he saw three bicycles leaning against the back of the chain link dugout.

He dismounted, added his steed to the mix, and entered the smoky lair, grateful to be out of the sun.

“You made it,” Craig said, proffering a pack of Marlboro Lights he had stolen from his older sister.

Stuart plucked a cigarette and slid it between his lips.

Danny provided the flame with a Bic lighter.  “We were starting to think you chickened out.”

“Not me, man,” Stuart said.  “I ain’t no pussy.”

He took a deep drag and joined the others on the bench.

“Well,” Craig said, “here we are.”

“Just like old times, huh?” Ken said.

“Riding the fucking pine,” Stuart muttered.

Craig produced a black tube of eye glare and started marking his face.

“War paint,” he said.

The others sat tight, rigid and waiting, gripping their bats with white knuckles.

• • •

They pedaled with purpose, working their way through the suburban labyrinth, armed and painted and ready.

Danny said, “He better be home.”

“Don’t worry,” Craig said.  “Schoolteachers are off all summer.  Now that the season’s over, he probably spends his days working on that car.”

“That’s one bad ass Camaro,” Ken said.

“Fuck his Camaro,” Stuart said.  “And fuck him.”

They rounded the final turn and coasted down a hill.  Coach Cooley lived at the bottom of the descent.  They heard a radio playing in the garage.

Then they saw him.

The Camaro’s hood was up.  Their coach was standing in front of a wall filled with tools.  They rolled into his driveway, letting their bikes fall to the pavement in a haphazard heap.

Coach Cooley took one look at them and laughed.  Can of beer in hand, he emerged from the garage.

“I’m afraid Halloween is a few months away, boys.  Or maybe you all can’t get enough baseball.  Is that it?  Well, you’ll just have to wait until next April.  Until then, there’s always football, basketball, soccer.  Well, maybe not soccer.  That’s for commies and—”

They rushed him, taking out his legs first, shattering his kneecaps and shins.  He dropped, writhing and groaning in agony.  His beer rolled across the driveway until Stuart kicked it into the lawn. They formed a circle around him and went to work, pummeling their coach with unchecked savagery, five aluminum bats gleaming in the sun.