Contact Tracing

Billy left his apartment for the first time in three weeks because he needed oranges and beer. He wore a mask but no gloves. In his building’s lobby he only touched the front doorknob. The super, Mr. Ramon, insisted that he had wiped that doorknob with alcohol not three minutes before Billy exited his place.

The lobby’s security cameras verified Mr. Ramon’s story.

Next, Billy visited The Dutchman, which sells beer from its front window. The bartender said that he wore a surgical mask and gloves during the entire transaction with Billy, who touched nothing except the six-pack of pilsner, which had sat in the fridge for three days preceding the transaction.

From The Dutchman it is a two-block walk to the grocery store, and impossible to tell who Billy might have encountered on the way. He was a cautious boy, though. He knew what the virus could do to him, with his kidney issues.

There were five people in the grocery store, including the two cashiers. Neither of them remembered Billy touching anything aside from the oranges, or ever removing his mask. One of them said that Billy made a joke about coming back to buy all the store’s bleach, and they laughed.

Ten days later, Billy died alone in a hospital bed.

It was a real mystery until the review of the store’s security footage, which revealed the middle-aged man in the back aisle, unmasked, who made a point of coughing as he looked Billy in the eye. One of those folks who just can’t get used to the need for face coverings at all times while indoors.

The middle-aged man, Eric Turner, had close contact, unmasked, with twenty people over the preceding ten days. One of those people, his neighbor, also had the virus, making him the prime suspect for transmission to Turner. The neighbor probably got it from his son, who delivered pizza for a restaurant.

I’d like to apologize to Mr. Ramon and the bartender and the cashiers. I know I was frightening, and that I hurt you, but I trust those wounds will heal. If Billy was your nephew, and nobody was willing to help you trace the virus or just let you look at some security footage, you would have done the same things.

Although I purchased a new hazmat suit and a chainsaw for Eric Turner, he died in the hospital while I was still tracking him down. I suppose choking on your own fluids is justice enough. You get what you get, I had planned to tell him, and you don’t get upset. All that’s to say, your honor, that I’m fine with whatever sentence you hand down.


The Hard Time

My apartment building is on a very steep slope. It’s a bitch to hike up in the summer time and a bitch to make your way down in the winter. But sometimes at the time when the night is reaching its silent pinnacle, I sit out there and I can see the whole city. Every window. Every light. Activity. I sit out there until every light blinks out of existence and I’m left alone with just the dull glare of the streetlights and the cockroaches that always move as though they got somewhere to be and maybe they do.

I think about Harry often at these times. Harry bleeding out on the kitchen floor. He fell on his own leg, awkward. The way his eyes were at the end. Like empty apartment windows.

Afterwards the pistol felt too heavy in my hand, like it had suddenly gained three pounds even though it should have been two bullets lighter.  

I still wear the Rolex I unclasped from his wrist. It keeps pretty good time. I wear it every day. Mikey got the gold chains from around his neck. He hocked them because he said he didn’t want nothing that ever belonged to no fucking rat.

Mikey said you gotta puncture the lungs otherwise when a body starts to rot it’ll float to the surface. So, we took turns stabbing Harry’s chest. At the time it made me think about when I was in the first grade of high school, I wanted to learn to play the drums, but my folks didn’t have the money for that. They never had money for much of anything. Sometimes I wonder if my life might’ve turned out differently if I had learnt something. Anything.

I washed Harry’s blood from my hands in his kitchen sink. We mopped and bleached the floors. We wrapped Harry in plastic tarps and weighed him down with a set of dusty dumbbells I found in the garage.

We put Harry in the river. That was how you took care of fucking rats, Mikey said. I didn’t say nothing. I just watched Harry sink down into that twilight water. Darkness with the yellow moon all cut up on its surface.

Afterwards, when we were done, we went back to the club. The place was empty when we got there. It was dark there too. Mikey switched on the lights, went behind the bar and took down a bottle of rye from a shelf and poured us a couple of drinks. I said I needed to take a piss. The shitter stank bad and I tried to be quick. The surgical tape that I was using to hold the audio recorder to my inner thigh was itchy as hell and the mic was a pain in the ass. Jerome, the agent who handled me was always bitching and telling me to get a better motherfucking quality of audio for them. Position the mic better so it didn’t sound like I was taping a whore mumbling with my small cock in her mouth. That Jerome, he was a pretty crude piece of shit for a fed.

When I went back into the bar Mikey was drinking slowly from a shot glass and watching the news. Mikey said the Iraqi’s had just invaded Kuwait and I said I didn’t even know where those countries were. I got Mikey talking like I was supposed to. He trusted me because of what I had done to Harry. I asked him when we were going to meet those Canadians about the H and then Mikey talked his way into a prison cell for life.

When I’m watching the city lights die out slow, I think about Harry and I wonder if Mikey ever thinks about him too, the way that I do. He probably does. He’s got nothing but time now but I look at the apartment building the feds have had me hidden away in for the last couple of years and I wonder which one of us is really doing the hard time.


Old Shipmates

It was one of those San Francisco evenings where you couldn’t tell if it was raining or the water droplets were suspended in the fog. I luckily scored an inside seat on a California Street cable car on my way to meet Stan Semko, an old shipmate.

Stan and I had served together during the war on the Frisco based Coast Guard patrol craft Reliance. I hadn’t seen him in years when we reconnected at our old boat’s retirement ceremony a year ago. Stan had always been a bay area boy and had parlayed his waterfront experience into becoming president of a longshoremen’s union rumored to be connected to the mob.  I was a junior investigator with a well-established private detective agency. While we both had had a good time reminiscing, there seemed to be a mutually felt underlying tension that we were, in some fashion, on different sides of the law. We had parted company with the usual, and typically insincere, agreement to keep in touch.  

Over the intervening months, underworld turf wars heated up. Bodies were dropping like overripe apples in an orchard. Stan, and his bodyguard, Frankie Bochek, were ambushed outside a restaurant in the Tenderloin District. Bochek was hit first and died at the scene, his piece still in the holster. Stan was carrying and shot back. The unlucky hit man attempted to flee but was taken out by the cops that had been tailing Stan.

When I heard about the hit, I felt sorry for Stan. I knew he and Bochek went way back, best friends, even before the Coast Guard. I had to keep my distance, but I thought maybe I could find out who had orchestrated the attempted takedown. I had a few stoolies and some contacts with the cops. I made the rounds of the gumshoe shops around town. It took a while, but I came up with a good idea who had hired the hitman.

I called Stan to tell him I had some info for him but not over the phone. We agreed to meet the next night at the bar in the Hotel Fairmont atop Nob Hill. The Fairmont was one of the swankiest hotels in the city, a far cry from the sailor bars we frequented in our Coastie days.

Stan was sitting at a table alone when I arrived. I cased the room as I made my way to him. There were a few guys at the bar, one lug I guessed was Stan’s new bodyguard and a couple of suits at the other end. 

“Hi, Jake,” called out Stan.

I sat and ordered a Jack Daniels.

“What’ve you got for me?” asked Stan.

“To start, your hitman was a petty criminal, named Bennie Gorman. He was known to hire out for whatever, mostly roughing up people, but never murder. But I guess you already know that.”

“I know about him. What else you got?”

“A theory. Your guy Bochek was the intended target of the hit, not you.”

“Who and why would someone want to take out Bochek?” asked Stan with a surprised look on his face.

“Exactly,” I replied. “Let’s do the why first. Suppose Bochek had been getting too cozy with another man’s wife and the husband was a powerful guy.”

“That might do it,” replied Stan with a serious look on his face. “Do you know who the husband is?”

“Yeah, I know. I found the detective you hired to follow your wife; all those hotel visits with Bochek.”

“Doesn’t prove anything.”

“The way I see it. You hired Gorman to stage the phony hit on you to take out Bochek. Gorman was supposed to get away, scared off, when you fired, pretending you were shooting at him. You didn’t know about the cops tailing you.”

“Still no proof.”

“The military Colt 45 found on Gorman was the one you reported fell overboard from the Reliance. I still have the report you signed.”

“I’m sorry, Jake.”

Stan was reaching for his piece when the undercover cop, one of the suits at the bar shoved a revolver in his face. “I’m sorry too,” I said as they led Stan away in handcuffs.


Room Service

I bypass the front desk of the Washington Hilton and head straight for the elevators. When I get to the top floor of the hotel, I walk to the end of the hall and knock on the door marked the Reagan Suite, christened forty years after a bullet nearly ended the Gipper’s life on the street below.

A few minutes go by before I hear movement on the other side. The door opens just a crack, enough for me to see a woman’s mascara-smeared eye peering out at me from the darkness.

“May I?” I ask, knowing Harlow already informed them I was coming.

She hesitates for a moment, then steps back. I enter the suite, locking the door behind me. I can see now she’s a girl in her early twenties, barely holding onto her composure.

“Take me to the congressman,” I say.

Without a word, she leads me through the lavish suite into the main bedroom, where I find the congressman slumped on the sofa, half-dressed and near-catatonic, almost unrecognizable from the polished version I’m used to seeing on TV. He’s one of the reasons I’m here; the other one is lying naked on the bed.

The body belongs to a young man, roughly the same age as the girl, his face waxy, eyes dull. White powder covers the glass table next to him, and his hand is still clutching the Amex card he was using to cut it into lines.

After five years working as a Swamper—that’s what they call hired guns like me—I’m used to scenes like this. It’s the reason Harlow, the congressman’s chief of staff, is paying me to handle his boss’ “situation.” He knows I deliver with a minimum of fuss.

I take a deep breath, and start thinking.

The first thing I need to do is take care of the girl. She looks like she’s about to melt into a puddle at any moment, but I’m used to dealing with her type.

“What’s your name?” I say, gently putting my hands on her shoulders. She tells me reluctantly, and I ask her to get dressed and call a cab. Before she leaves, I hand her a wad of folded bills—the price for her discretion, with the assurance that there will be more if she keeps quiet.

Once she’s gone, the hard part begins. Ignoring the congressman’s muffled sobs, I wrap the body in a plastic shower curtain taken from the master bathroom. There’s ten hours until checkout time, long enough to find a way to transport it outside and into the trunk of my waiting Honda. In the meantime, I flush the drugs down the toilet and start wiping down the floor.

Just as I’m beginning to feel good about my time management, the room phone rings. Immediately, I have a bad feeling: either a guest complained about a suspicious noise from the suite, or the girl was stopped on her way out of the hotel. I figure we have five, maybe ten minutes before there’s a knock on the door. Crunch time.

I’m stuffing the body into one of the closets when I hear a groan behind me. I realize then that the congressman isn’t on the sofa where I left him. Instead, he’s standing on the sill of the open window, his eyes dead, his face a sickly white.

It takes me a moment to register what’s happening. When at last I lunge for him, it’s too late—he’s gone.

Staring down at his body on the sidewalk twelve floors below, I feel the sensation of everything starting to unravel. The phone keeps ringing, and I can hear screams coming from the sidewalk. The cops will be here any minute. Ditto the press.

With my hands clutching the window sill, I take a couple deep breaths. Then I close my eyes and start thinking. For years I’ve gotten people out of bad situations. Now it’s time to get myself out of one.

Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that no Swamper is coming to save me.


Basement Dweller

A clump of dried mud fell from Kyle’s boot as he put his leg on top of the chain-link fence and hoisted himself into the backyard. No one had seen him as far as he could tell, thank fucking God.

The clouds were coming in thick and fast. Ten years he’d spent under that bridge and he swore if he had to endure one more storm there it would kill him.

After weeks of searching he’d found one home with an unlocked basement. It belonged to an elderly woman with a grey perm he’d spotted driving a Lincoln Town Car with a handicap placard. He’d scoped her place for days and the lights in the basement never went on.

He held his breath as he tried the knob. It could have been a fluke the time he tried it. She could have come to her senses and turned the lock, even set a deadbolt. She could have had a son that came over and noticed it was unlocked. Thankfully, neither occurred.

The smell of mold and mothballs engrossed him like a blanket. Despite the remaining daylight penetrating the basement windows, he needed his flashlight to see his way around. The last thing he wanted was to knock something over and alert the woman to his presence.

She must have been married at one point. Either that or she was a real outdoors kind of lady. The place was filled with tents and fishing poles, a deflated raft, even a kayak.

There was a dark spot under the stairs perfect for his sleeping bag. If she came down, it was possible he could hide there, be real quiet, and she might not even notice him.

He drank Wild Turkey and thought about taking off the next morning with one of the tents. When he grew tired, he nestled his head against the cinder block wall and fell asleep with the sound of rain against the window soothing him.

Hours later he woke to a car door slamming. Someone pounded their way up the front steps and hammered the front door. Kyle went to the window. The sight of a cop car on the street made everything hurt.

“I come back to my fucking house to eat my goddam lunch,” a man said above him.

The woman was stuttering. “Well, I see, but, well, I can tell that you’re angry, but I don’t like the thought of my tax dollars going to waste.”

Footsteps came inside, above Kyle’s head. “How am I wasting tax dollars, you nosey old bitch?!”

Kyle rolled his sleeping bag and capped his whiskey. Grabbing a tent would make too much noise.

“You are sitting in that house instead of patrolling, I know it.”

Something crashed to the floor, a lamp maybe. “You know the trouble I have now because you don’t mind your business?!”

Kyle heard the punches and the screams.

“Please. I won’t call again.”

A minute of crazy and the car was gone. Kyle left the basement making as little sound as possible, hopped over the fence just like he had the day before. It would have done him a hell of a lot of good if he had been able to grab a tent, he thought, but no way was it worth the risk.

A month later and it was painful how cold it was under the bridge. Freezing rain reddened and numbed Kyle’s face. He’d start losing fingers if life stayed this way, but he couldn’t risk another night in some old person’s basement. His first try came too close; those sounds from above gave him nightmares still, that old lady taking a beating like that.

Most of the newspapers he rolled into his clothes and his sleeping bag for insulation he didn’t bother to look at, let alone read. It was by some odd twist of fate that his eyes happened upon a curious headline: “Eighty-Year-Old Woman Found Beaten to Death Inside Home.”

That night he kept his face from the wind as much as he could and experienced another nightmare.


Two Sharp Cracks

The train was late, but then it always was. When she got off the train, I was surprised a little, but then I always was too. She walked out of the station with her head held high, with a purpose in her step. How did she do that? How could she do that? What drove her, day after day after day, to get off that train and walk up that hill?

Even though I knew where she was going, I still followed her. This was an easy babysitting job, going on three months now. But it was a strange one too. Follow her to the station and follow her back from the station and watch her all night, like she was some rich man’s mistress, some rich man’s wife. But she was neither. She was married to a lousy county detective, and she took the train into the city for some lady job, a secretary or bookkeeper or some kind of bullshit. The cop husband was a goon and a drunk. A dirty cop through and through.

The seasons had changed and now a chill was in the air. The leaves had turned their colors and were getting ready for the big drop. The smell of wood smoke surrounded the neighborhood. On any other block I would have said it was going to be a nice evening. But not on this one.

Even though this was an easy babysitting job, it was rotten. It paid well, good money, hell, very good money. But now I hated every stinking dime. Every night it tore me up a little more. I wanted it to end. I was told it would, but it hadn’t and I didn’t think it ever would. I knew I would take myself off the case, just like the last guy, McCluskey, the poor bastard, and the guy before that, whoever he was. There was probably a guy before that too for all I knew. Hell, maybe there was a whole string of guys who got sick of this no-good job.

But then, maybe tonight it would happen. Maybe. But who am I fooling? Just myself I guess.

Then she crossed the street like she always did and walked up the three stairs like she always did. She did it without any hesitation at all and walked into that fading blue house two in from the corner, like it was the nicest place on earth. How did she do that? How could she walk back into that house every goddamned evening?

I kept walking and got into my car across the street, also fading blue and sat on my weary ass. And sat, and then I sat some more. I ate the sandwich I packed an old lunch box and drank the coffee I kept in a battered old thermos.

He was late tonight. The lout cop husband had been drinking and a little after ten o’clock he finally got himself drunk and started in on her. First with the yelling and the shoving and the hair-pulling. Then came the slapping and the punching and the kicking. How the hell could she take it night after night after goddamned night?

On this block, the neighbors all closed their blinds and their windows after dinner. They don’t see or hear nothing these people. I can’t blame them.  Who wants to get involved with a drunk cop beating on his wife?

A little after eleven, he finally wore himself out or maybe he passed out, and the street was quiet again.

Ten minutes later it happened. Two sharp cracks. Sounded like a cop .38 to me. His cop .38. I started the car. After a few minutes she came out of the house. A small suitcase in one hand, jacket over the other, and she started back down the street towards the station. She was limping.

I pulled up next to her and flung the passenger door open.

“Get in,” I said. “Your sister Mary hired me to get you out of town.”

She turned suddenly, then gave me a funny look, then smiled, then threw her suitcase into the back seat and got into the car.


Mayonnaise, The Bastard

Year 1

He passed away before she and I met. An inoperable tumor left him cognizant but crippled. Slowly, it metastasized into his soft tissue stripping him of his dignity. An imposing man, before the disease ravaged him, he was bone and sinew at the end. While the final papers were drawn, he included a provision in his will, on her birthday, for the rest of her life, a local florist would provide her flowers; marigolds, her favorite.  

Year 2

She’d purged herself of their mutual possessions, but his aura shone in the reflection of the new appliances. We had grown closer to the point where discussions often turned toward what the future might hold. The flowers arrived as I was making her breakfast. She placed them in a vase on a ledge above the kitchen sink. She’d held it together, but later I heard her dissolve under the strain. While her reaction had become less extreme, the sense of loss still resonated deep within. She was open about her feelings of guilt and longing and wondered if they’d ever go away. 

Year 3

She didn’t outwardly change when the flowers arrived, but I didn’t want to stick around. I came home blackout drunk and incoherent. The following morning I was met with silence, as I nursed a crippling hangover. The remnants of the flowers were escaping from the mouth of the garbage disposal.   

Year 4

I threatened the delivery boy; beat him to death and replace his organs with marigolds as the ancient Egyptians would. An eight iron in my hands, I stood on the lawn and parted the air with swift cuts. The kid froze. He couldn’t reconcile the enormity of what was happening as he stared at some deranged customer who harbored a vendetta. He collapsed to the ground. The police arrived. Sanity rescued me before it could escalate beyond reproach. Cooler heads later prevailed, and my contribution to the kid’s college fund did wonders for allowing everyone to forget. 

Year 5            

Without her knowledge, I sought to have an injunction to overturn “The Marigold Provision” on grounds of cruelty and mental anguish. The judge saw me because of an old family connection and admonished me for wasting his time but finally relented. Shame was not the right word, but it was close. However, the flowers were delivered once again; gold reminiscent of the sun. Later, I was to learn he’d had a private investigator on the payroll, a friend of twenty-odd years. They’d served together, had sworn blood oaths, the whole nine. Days after were spent stewing, spiraling, looking for a target for my rage. What could I do, exhume, and desecrate the body? How do you enact revenge against someone who no longer exists? I found the PI at his office. Overweight, he was popping antacid tablets like Tic-Tacs. In the movies, PI’s always look like Robert Mitchum. He was seasoned enough; didn’t flinch when I produced the gun. He’d done matrimonial work before, adultery. It wasn’t the first time a weapon had been brandished. I was advised to take serious consideration of what I was doing. His calmness only seemed to unnerve me further, and I doubted whether I had the fortitude to see it through. Swinging a golf club at an adolescent was one thing. Go home he said. He picked up the phone, dialed the number, and continued with his day as if I ceased to exist. I put the piece away and sat back down in his chair. I can’t, I told him. Hold on he said into the phone, then put it down as if he was just seeing me for the first time. What? There’s no home to go back to anymore. She left me six months ago. My body began to tremble as the thoughts manifested themselves into emotions. The PI sucked his teeth. Perhaps, he’d offer up some infinite wisdom he’d pooled from years of seeing the worst in people; some philosophical tenets I could hold onto as I began the rest of my life. Nothing, he finally said into the receiver. Some guy messed up. Heh, yeah, man is a bastard.   


A Night for Chicken Pizza

It was 10:30 after a long Saturday and Cassidy and I were hungry, so we bought a chicken wing pizza at Currie Valley Pizza Works – wing sauce, chicken and cheese. Not my preference, but it was Cassidy’s favorite and I wanted him to have something he liked. Then we picked up a six-pack of Rolling Rock and I said “let’s go over by the river.”

We sat on the hood of my Dodge Ram and started eating. It was a cool night, but not cold. The Mississippi flowed past. I was thinking it would be nice to have Angie with us. I assume Cassidy was thinking the same thing.

My best friend. My wife. Thinking about it, my shoulders tightened.

Cassidy was picking bits of chicken off his pizza slice and tossing them into the water. “Do you think fish like chicken,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to relax.

“Okay, then.”  He said, taking a bite of his pizza.

We ate for a moment or two. The pizza felt like it was boiling in my stomach. A Red-Tailed Hawk flew overhead. We both watched it sail past, its wingspan seeming to stretch from sea to shining sea.

“There should be fireworks every night,” Cassidy said, looking at the sky.

“Every night?”

“Sure! Like at the Vet’s Home on the 4th, but every single night. It’d give everything a little more pizzazz.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Fireworks once or twice a year are special. If they were going off every night, they’d be less so.”

He thought about this for a moment. “Okay, then.”

We finished eating and, while Cassidy was busy collecting our trash, I got my Glock out of the glove compartment in the truck. I walked down to the riverbank and looked at the water.

“Not a bad night,” I said.

“No,” Cassidy agreed. “This was fun.” 

Without turning to look at him I said, “I know about you and Angie.”

Cassidy stopped what he was doing. “You… uh…What do you…  What are you talking about?”

“It happened last Thursday, right? That night I had to work late?”

Cassidy walked over and stood next to me. He looked out at the river, too – I assume because he didn’t want to look at me. “I don’t know what…”

“Don’t lie to me.”

His eyes searched the water. Was he looking for a story to tell me? A reason? An excuse? “She didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want it to happen,” he said. “It just happened.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“We were both drunk. It was a stupid lapse in judgement. That’s all it was, just stupid.”

“That’s all it was?”

“That’s all.”

I pretended to think about that for a minute. There was tension between us that felt like the beginning of a storm.

“I’m sorry,” Cassidy said. “I’m sorry it happened.”

I let his apology fill the air for another second. “Okay, then,” I said.

“You’re not mad?”

I answered him by raising the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. At the sound of the gunshot, a couple of mourning doves launched themselves out of a nearby tree. The stench of cordite combined with the muddy smell of the river as Colin fell forward into the water with a gentle splash.

I kicked his body a few times. “Of course I’m fucking mad, you stupid piece of shit!” I shouted at him. “Did you actually fucking think I wouldn’t be fucking mad!” 

When I was done kicking his corpse, I leaned against the truck and let the anger drain out of me. Then I pushed Cassidy’s body out into the water and watched the current carry him away.

I picked up the rest of our trash and got into my truck. I drove around for another hour or so, looking at the street signs I’d seen a million times and the stores and houses I’d seen a million and one. Listening to the classic rock station on the radio. Thinking about my former best friend. Thinking about my wife.

I’d see her next. Maybe there should be fireworks every night. Maybe nothing’s special.


Out Here

Out here where the canal changes into industry, crushed cars stacked up behind rusty walls, out here with the empty warehouses, an upturned carcass of a dead fox, stiff with it legs pointing skywards, out here with silver capsules emptied of nitro littering the floor like corpses of a tiny alien invasion fleet, out here in dank water, supermarket trolleys far from home join a safe cracked open on the bottom of the canal, out here unwanted fools tied to the masts of darker drugs skulk in corners or kneel to turn a trick.

Out here, that’s where it was to be done, and he never knew, as I entered the storage unit at the back of the meat packing factory, never knew that the five thousand he’d lost at poker and owed to my boss had opened up a door to a new future without him in it. 

I slid the knife down from the back of my jacket, judged the distance, the steps needed as he stood, his back to me, clipboard in hand, judged the sound I would make, the silence I would not disturb, the way he would go to sleep forever. Picked the point of impact, my hand ready to grab his mouth from behind, and then he turned and a friend I once knew, who had saved me and had never cashed in, looked back at me with pale blue eyes and I knew I was in at the deep end without a paddle to row back.

His face dropped, the clipboard dropped, there was a smile of recognition, then he looked down at the blade in my hand, and back up to my eyes holding his, a pop of noise from his mouth as he opened his lips and no word came out, chalk face now, drained. There was a gurgle from an overhead pipe, I could see dust mites behind him caught in a tobacco light from a chipped metal window.

A chewed biro, that had stayed wedged behind his ear, slowly careened forwards, like the Titanic gracefully accepting its fate. It fell to join the clipboard on the floor. I hadn’t heard that land, but I heard the pen, a tinkle of sound, brittle plastic. And I plunged the knife in and a hooter sounded for lunch break up in the rafters. He slid to me, held on the knife point, skewered as for a barbecue. I looked away as his eyes grasped for solace.

I wiped my knife on his tie and walked back to the canal, threw it in, stretched my neck, thought about going the races or getting a cold beer, but instead I went home, took off my shoes and trousers, lay on my bed and followed a crack in the ceiling with my eyes until it ended in the light fitting.


Wild Tales

Glenn held the front door of their childhood home open for his sisters.

Dori murmured, “Thanks.”

“Drink?” he asked.

“Martini, dry.”

 “Can I fix you a drink, Celeste?”  For a moment, his younger sister saw their father leaning toward her with a tentative smile. Funerals played tricks with time.

“White wine.” Celeste leaned her head back against couch cushions.

“I saw you glowering at the minister. Did he screw up something up, Celeste?” Dori asked.

”He didn’t know Mom well. It showed.”

Dori accepted the cocktail glass from Glenn. “Do you remember Mom’s wild stories?”

Glenn snorted, “She’d have made a buck or two if she wrote them down. Remember the one about Grandma’s secret dowry?”

Celeste smiled. “You know, I asked Grandma about it once before she died. She said she wished Mom would stop filling our heads with nonsense.”

“When I visited last Tuesday, Mom said, and I quote, the butler didn’t do it. It’s the valet.”

“Wanderings of a muddled mind,” Celeste said. Grateful the wine blunted the sharp edges of the day.

”Nothing’s been updated in here since we left,” Glenn’s said, shaking his head as he looked around.

Dori smiled at her brother. “You’re right, Dad didn’t tolerate change.  Want to start packing about 9 tomorrow?”  Both siblings nodded.

The sisters picked up glasses and plates and brought them to the kitchen. Celeste talked about her son’s football achievements. Her voice choked when she brought up her daughter. “I don’t know what to say to Maddie about her art.”

“Tell her it’s good.”

“Harris wants her to take business courses. They get into verbal battles if I leave them alone. She wants to be an animator.”

“Tell Harris she’ll make 100K a year in animation. AI will soon bury CPAs. 

The sisters retreated to their childhood rooms. Dori’s mind refused to turn off. She came back to that puzzling line. “The butler didn’t do it. It’s the valet.” Then her mom had laughed. Dori forgot how much she loved that sound.

She decided to get a head start on organizing and climbed the stairs to the attic. The space smelled musty, so she cracked open the windows. Then she scanned the room to choose the best place to start.

The three piles she created grew steadily before it hit her. She remembered when mom gave her dad a valet. “You bought that ridiculous chair for me? Return it,” he’d said.

Dori walked past a pile of discarded printer stands, dining room chairs, and a rattan ottoman before spotting one side of a teak hanger. She began to dig. After she lifted a heavy toolbox from the caned seat she pulled the discarded gift into an open space.

Excitement gripped her. She lifted the seat. Discovered nothing. She slid an index finger along the crisscrossed slats that stabilized the chair’s base. One slat felt thicker than the others.

In seconds, she found a three-inch outline in the wood. Depressing the wood did nothing. She turned the chair on its side and located a thin square tracing. She pressed it. Attempted to push it up. Then she nudged it down. The top compartment opened. Dori’s fingers found draw strings and  she drew a blue velvet bag from the niche. She considered waiting for Celeste and Glenn to open her find, but the impulse passed.

Gems spilled into her hand. She turned seven stones in her palm and held each up to the light. Her mom wanted her to find the treasure she convinced herself.  Dori slid a ruby, emerald, sapphire, and a blueish stone into her pants pocket. Then, she returned the three remaining gems to the clever hiding place.

As she reburied the valet, Dori considered which sibling to bring up to the attic in the morning. Glenn. He’d make the butler-valet connection quickest and give himself credit for the discovery. They’d celebrate. Celeste will suggest each of them take a jewel as a keepsake. Dori will insist they have the stones appraised to make a fair division. She’ll lobby for the stunning diamond. Only the diamond will make her gem collection complete.


An Algorithm for Murder

<BEGIN Algorithm>;

<Declare Variables>:

Vamp = <Enter Woman’s Name Here>;

Target = <Enter Man’s Name Here>;

<END Declare Variables>;

<Declare Attributes>:

VampAttributes = female, pretty face, mid-30’s, sexy body, great smile, bleached blond hair, stylish dresser, cunning, expensive tastes, married four times, divorced two times, widowed twice;

TargetAttributes = male, plain face, over 50, middle age build, receding hairline, arrogant, married two times, divorced two times, wealthy, mid-life crisis, expensive sports car;

<END Declare Attributes>;

<Declare Environment>:

Cities in: (Miami Beach, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC.);

Venues in: (cocktail lounges, trendy restaurants, race tracks, casinos, strip clubs);

<END Declare Environment>;

<Pre-Processing>:

do all: (dinner, drinking, dancing, drinking, three-day weekends, drinking, lovemaking, drinking, moving in, drinking, gambling, drinking, increasing life insurance, drinking, gifting expensive bling, drinking, swearing fidelity, drinking, changing life insurance beneficiaries, drinking, gifting expensive car, drinking, changing will, drinking);

<END Pre-Processing>;

<Set Method>:

Method_Array = (glycol poisoning, brake lines cut, cliff edge fall, accidental firearm discharge, lost at sea, arson death, subway platform mishap, lethal injection, basement stairway tumble, carbon monoxide poisoning, staged auto accident);

<END Set Method>;

<Main Program>:

do random(Method_Array(Target));

if result(Method_Array(Target)) EQ “death” then STOP;

end of do;

<END Main Program>;

<Post-Processing>:

Vamp collects life insurance payout;

Vamp receives house and other properties from will;

Vamp lives lavish lifestyle at seaside resort until money runs out;

Vamp goes back to: BEGIN Algorithm;

<END Post-Processing>;

<END Algorithm>;


Mush-Mouth James

Mush-Mouth James is sitting on his stoop drinking a tall boy of Busch Light out of a brown paper bag. It’s humid as hell outside, even worse in his efficiency apartment. Since his window unit gave out in June, being inside is like being stuck in a sweat box. It’s better out on the stoop with a cold beer.

He’s flipping through his little red notebook, taking stock of how much money he owes and who he owes it too. A little over half of his welfare check is going to go to paying back all of the neighbors that kept him afloat this past month.

The first of the month means payback time and James always pays his debts.

He didn’t use to. He used to lie and scam and rob with the best of them. Then he lied to, scammed, and robbed the wrong guy. Got his front teeth knocked out and a new nickname in the process. He learned his lesson.

He finishes the rest of his beer. Feels inside his pocket to make sure his .38 revolver is still there. It’s a long walk to the check cashing place and the stick-up boys have been out in force this summer. He’s not about to get robbed of this month’s money.

He sees his neighbor, Brian, walking by the bodega.

“Yo Brian, you ain’t got five on you, do you? Just need five more to buy a pack of smokes and five more means I owe you an even twenty. I’ll pay you back in a minute.”

The way his tongue smacks against his gums causes every word to splash together. He sounds like what wet ink looks like when it bleeds together. James knows he’s hard to understand. He watches as Brian deciphers his words.

Brian nods. “Yeah, I got you.”

He pulls out a five and hands it to James. James puts it in his pocket and walks into the bodega. He comes out smacking a pack of cigarettes against his palm.

The walk to the check cashing place is a sweaty one. He says hi to everyone he passes. They smile and nod. His neighbors are his family. He puffs at his cigarette, walking up the hill.

Liberty Check Cashing Services is packed. A line of people out the door. James queues up, smokes, and waits.

“Next please,” the cashier finally says.

James steps up and smiles a toothless smile. “How you doing, beautiful?”

She coldly says, “fine,” and counts out his money.

He shoves it in his pocket and starts the trek home, gripping the handle of the gun his pocket.

Two blocks up from the check cashing place he hears the clomping of footsteps behind him. Here we go, he thinks.

“Motherfucker, pay me,” the boy behind him says.

James turns around, squeezing the handle of the gun a little tighter. There’s two of them, both in white t-shirts with bandanas tied around their faces. Looking like old west bandits. The one pointing the gun’s hand is shaking. The other doesn’t look like he’s a day over thirteen. They look more scared than tough.

“Nah man, this is my money. I got debts to pay. You kids best run off now or else you liable to get hurt.”

The mushed-up jumble of words sparks confusion in the stick-up boys’ eyes.

“Motherfucker, what’d you say?”

James sighs. He pulls the revolver out of his pocket and shoots the one with the gun in the foot. His white sneakers explode red and he drops to the ground. He spins and points the gun at the other kid, the young one. The kid pisses his pants and with a cracking voice says, “Please, don’t kill me.”

“Run off,” James says. The kid does just that.

James puts his gun back in his pocket and leaves the stick-up boy scream-crying on the sidewalk.

Back on Main Street, James sits on his stoop, drinking another cold beer. Brian walks by and when he does James stands and slaps a twenty in his palm. He smiles at Brian.

“First of the month, baby.”

Mush-Mouth James always pays his debts.