We Take Care of Our Own

Chico jumps the curb and races the van over the sidewalk, his knuckles tight on the wheel. He hits the brakes at the front entrance, close enough to trigger the automatic double-doors. Benny, Lozano, and I stream out of the van, a typhoon of ski masks and Hefty bags. It’s 9:00am and the drug store is busier than any of us expected. Lines at both registers.

Lozano climbs the pharmacy counter and wags a janky .38 over the frightened customers. Some have their hands up and some are face-down on the floor like they’ve seen this movie before. The pharmacist stands at his terminal, fingers frozen over the keys. Benny gives him a knee to the thigh and he slowly folds to the floor.

We shake out our Hefty bags and hit the shelves.

Lorazepam.

Alprazolam.

Phenobarbital.

Anything with Oxy or Perco is golden.

Chico honks the horn and Benny cinches the bag.

“Let’s go,” says Lozano. He stuffs the .38 in his sweatshirt. “Get your asses in the van.”

I kneel over the pharmacist. He smells like hot piss. Tears running down both cheeks.

“Don’t hurt me,” he says.

“Where’s the Humalin,” I say. “Or Novolin.”

His hands shake, lips quivering. I give him a hard slap to help him focus. “All the insulin is in the cooler,” he says, “Under the counter.”

I sweep the cooler and dump it all in the bag, jump the counter and head for the door. Some of the customers are starting to get up. They’re recording me with their phones. Live-streaming for their social media cred.

Outside, the van is rolling down the parking lot and the door is sliding shut. I hit the asphalt running and catch up before Chico makes the corner.

It’s a close call.

• • •

I set the insulin on the kitchen table and crack a beer for the old man. He looks terrible. Unwashed hair. Eyes like dark bruises. But he’s happy to see me.

He always is.

“How much did they give me this time, mijo?”

“About fifteen vials,” I say. “They were generous.”

“I told you the VA would come through. This country always keeps its promises. We take care of our own.”

“I bet they remember everything you did, Pops.”

“Well, of course they do. I made sergeant in three years.”

I clean the back of his arm, load the shot.

He grits his teeth and swigs the beer when the pain comes.

• • •

Harbaugh’s Pharmacy. Saturday, 8:35AM.

Another tide of ski masks and Hefty bags.

We jump the counter like a sunrise war party.

Terrified children flee down aisles of endless hair dyes.

Lozano’s gun goes off accidentally. He turns it over suspiciously, as if it has a mind of its own. Nobody’s hurt, but it sends the customers into a wild panic. A mad rush for the door.

Chico honks the horn and everyone cuts their losses.

Everyone but me.

I find the cooler in the back of the pharmacy and swipe the shelves clean. The old man’s empty and the VA clinic has been closed all week. By the time I jump the counter and make it outside, the van’s already squealing onto Front Street, police cruisers howling through the intersection.

I’m five seconds too late.

I cross the parking lot toward River Street, ski mask hugging my sweaty face. I cut between the parked cars and careen through the landscaping. On the other side, there’s a young cop waiting for me. Maybe twenty-one. Glock in the air. He gets too close so I slap the gun from his hand and give him a hard jab to the chin. He goes down so quickly the radio pops off his shoulder. I cross the road and trudge into the San Lorenzo River, swim the shallow currents toward the Beach Flats.

• • •

“How much this time, mijo?”

“The clinic gave us even more today,” I say. I fish around the bag for the vials. I’m soaked through. River water draining from my tennis shoes. “All for free. You must have been one of their best men, Pops.” “No, mijo. But it’s like I told you — we take care of our own.”


Next

He hanged himself with the blue croc skin belt, the one I bought for his birthday. The detective promised it’d be returned to me once the investigation was over, which he assured me as with most suicides, would be soon. Three or four weeks at the most.

Three or four weeks would be just long enough to miss the refund window at the gaudy Midtown men’s shop Albert and his friends single-handedly kept in business, so it was hard to give a shit about it after that. The belt could sit and rot in a plastic evidence bag for all I cared, with Albert’s last breaths forever trapped in its ridges and grooves. 

Albert always claimed gifts from his woman made him uncomfortable, but I think he secretly enjoyed being spoiled. It wasn’t about that for me, though. The ugly belts, tacky silk ties and gold rope chain bracelets I forked over on occasion were my insurance. They were quick reminders that I didn’t need Albert and never would. In turn, Albert never needed to prove his worth and manliness more. 

Red-bottom shoes. Hermès bags. Trips to Rome and Paris where I collected more Michelin stars than there were real ones in the sky. I don’t know if those things were meant to intimidate me or make fall in love with Albert but I’d really never seen a difference between the two. To be in love was to lose all control. He knew that as well as I did.

I first learned it the day I became aware of how calloused my mother’s hands were. When she lost control she got a baby, three jobs and a handful of eviction notices to show for it. I promised myself I wouldn’t end up the same.

Whenever Albert thought he was step ahead of my affections (or fears) I’d leave something like a bottle of Tom Ford for him in the bathroom and the waltz would continue, bigger and better than before. I might’ve even been close to unlocking a condo, who knows. What Albert didn’t know was I that couldn’t actually keep up with the expensive gifts.

If it wasn’t from Chinatown it was returned, exchanged, or sold on Craigslist for cash. Albert had more treasures than he could keep track of and after a week or two with something new and shiny to distract him, he never noticed if something went missing. After a few weeks I didn’t even bother to keep my racket focused on things I bought. The onyx in his uncle’s pinky ring was a lovely little payday.

Sitting alone at the bar, I decided I did not pity Albert. Not even with his body lying cold in a box somewhere. If family heirlooms could be so casually forgotten, it was inevitable that I would be too. We both knew the rules of the game. Time was on his side, as it was for all rich men.

Usually.

I don’t know why Albert killed himself. I wasn’t sure I’d ever allow myself to care. The only thing I mourned was a dance partner who taught me how to stay on my toes. A priceless gift. 

My cellphone rang, vibrating deep and low inside my black leather YSL bag. The slow pulsation shook the entire tiny bar, a speakeasy hidden beneath a dry cleaner in Harlem. I could never remember the name of it, just that it was where Albert and I first met.

“Hello?”

“You coming home for supper?” my mother asked.

“No. I’m meeting a friend. You get that check?”

“Yes,” she said, then paused. “Be safe. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

I hung up and tossed the phone back into my purse. I took a moment to let my fingertips linger across the bag’s smooth, soft surface. I felt sorry for the lamb who had to die for it to be, but she was better off with me than as some old bastard’s pair of scuffed-up loafers.

The bartender asked if I’d like another drink. I shook my head, deciding that Peter should think he got me my first.


Insurance Adjuster

“There are rules to this. They apply to both of us. First, when our transaction is complete, you forget me. Second, payment occurs in full, up front. Third, I am not responsible for any legal fallout. Finally,” I tightened my fists, the leather gloves creaking. “This is gonna hurt.”

We met in the city. The alley was a place where if you left the car running and the lights off, no one disturbed you. There were rules here, too.

It smelled like rancid food, wet rats, and the kind of hopelessness only a dying city could manufacture.

My client swallowed hard enough to be heard over the drone of DJ Hanniballistic on 97.9X.

“They will investigate. They might hire a private dick to snap pictures of you. Are you sure you want to continue?”

He nodded.

“It can’t just look real, I said. It has to be real. You won’t know when it’s coming. You can’t. Once you get out of the hospital—”

His eyes widened, staring ahead. He thought I couldn’t see the fear if our eyes didn’t meet.

“—once you get out of the hospital, file for workers’ comp and then disability. File a personal injury lawsuit. I cannot guarantee any outcome concerning a judgement; however, I will stack the odds in your favor. Do you understand?”

He nodded again. I could smell earthy sweat.

“Risk will be minimized. Is that clear?”

He became a human bobble-head.

“I need voice affirmation.”

“Yes,” he said.

• • •

Mining was thankless work. Machines and people moved around the staging area, making it easy to blend in.

Plumes of black dust billowed from a conveyor that dumped coal from the tunnel. Jumbles of cables led into the gaping maw.

The miners got their morning briefing in a tin trailer before boarding a train that took them into the mine. They wore dark blue coveralls and hardhats with lights. Reflective bands circled their arms, legs, and torsos.

So few of them wore respirators. My guy said his whole family had worked for the company going back to his gramps. They all died in their fifties. He turned forty-nine last week.

Today, my name tag said I was Steve. During the ride into the mine, nobody talked, just coughed.

My client worked on his knees in a narrow space. He ran a machine that mined the coal. I fed him cable to his hand unit, which looked like arcade controls.

It was just us, but he didn’t know I was there.

He moved the machine forward, stretching to watch when the cylindrical grinder met the seam of coal. I leaned forward almost ninety degrees as I crouch-walked. The ground vibrated with the force of the machine’s grinding. I tasted the coal, like metallic, chewed-up aspirin. The work consumed my client’s attention.

I pulled out a can of spray paint. Bright orange. There is no such thing as clean coal. I tossed the can where it could be found.

There is an art to controlled demolitions.

You start with the damage you want to do. A protestor would want to send a message, but not kill anyone. Maybe the explosion was supposed to be at night to damage equipment.

How do I make this look like somebody’s accident?

A few calculations, and I have my power and shape for the charge. Nothing big. The explosive allows gravity do its work.

• • •

Miners sell their health so that the CEO can buy a second yacht. Miners labor beneath the ground, breathing dust and poison, surviving on the pride of hard work and hope in providing a better life for their children. Of course, their children become miners too.

My client’s case made the papers. He lost enough blood that he needed a transfusion. Doctors were confident that he’d regain use of his legs. He won’t be running along a beach ever, but he can sit by one, drink some Mai Tais, and watch his kids in the surf.

Some little suit in an insurance office somewhere does his tallies, looking at a chart to see how the company can minimize their liability. I’m just a balance to the scales. One adjustment at a time.


The Gift

Betty noticed the sandalwood fragrance as soon as she entered the apartment. She’d smelled it before, the woodsy, citrusy scent clinging to her husband’s clothes. Foolishly, he’d done little to conceal he was slumming it on the east side. And even more foolishly, someone had locked the door but left it ajar.

Afternoon light warmed the space, littered with books and records spilling out of their sleeves. Coltrane, Television, The Velvet Underground — the woman had taste. They might’ve been friends. Before Betty married and had kids. Before the woman had her husband.

An easel stood by a glass door leading to a balcony slung over a dirty street. She walked around the painting, hoping it would be amateurish — laughable, the work of a dilettante. But nothing could have prepared her for the image standing there, mocking her. An elegant portrait of her daughters, long-legged and laughing, on the dock at their lake home.

Betty couldn’t imagine how he bribed the girls to keep their mouths shut. But even worse, her children were protecting her, and maybe even loved her, the woman.

A bottle of Johnny Walker and a couple of glass tumblers sat on the coffee table. She poured a drink and took it down, the scotch barely whittling her rage. She paced and caught sight of the bedroom, reached into her purse and felt the smooth curves of the cold metal.

She entered the room and stared at the messy bed, imagining her husband wrestling the sheets, his clothes scattered on the floor. Jealous he’d found an escape, here in this place.

A part of her didn’t blame him. She could never tell anyone her own fantasies of running away. Dropping off the brats at school. Heading to the coast. Checking into an ocean-front hotel, day drinking and sleeping with whomever she pleased. Being someone else, someone free — someone like the woman whose apartment she was in now.

Betty collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling, strangely aroused that she had penetrated his secret space. Her hands clenched the sheets. She drew herself close and began to flush just as the front door clicked. She rolled off the bed and ducked behind the door. Clothes rustled in the front room, and her husband’s voice boomed.

“We need to hurry,” he said.

“Why?”

“She’s acting strange — stranger than usual. Poking around my desk, giving me the evil eye. Listening when I’m on the phone. I think she knows something.”

“Of course she knows something. Wives always know. Your daughters probably spilled the beans for one thing.”

“Nah, I made sure they kept their mouths shut. Besides, they act like they hate her. And vice-versa. Honestly, I can’t understand it. I thought the mother-daughter bond was a sacred thing, but not with her. They seem to adore you, though.”

“Because I don’t tell them what to do.”

He grumbled and walked in front of the painting.

“Wow, this is beautiful. Can’t wait to see it hanging in the house.”

Betty darkened the doorway and glared at her husband. His eyes fell on the gun in her hand. The woman gasped and scurried towards the balcony.

“Betty, darling, what are you doing?”

“Don’t Betty darling me Russell. I’ve been humiliated enough.”

“Honey, listen, you’ve got it all wrong.”

“For once, I’ve got it right.” She trained the piece at his head.

“Betty. Wait a minute. Look.” He turned the easel around. “I commissioned Mary to paint it for you for Valentine’s Day.”

“I’ve already seen it. The only way she could have painted that picture is if she’d been there, at our home, with you.”

Silence roared in the room. Betty scowled at the two huddled by the painting. She fired the gun, blasting the artwork to bits.

“Betty, please,” he begged. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“Don’t worry, Russell. I won’t regret it.”

The gun discharged, and Betty dropped to the floor.


Downashore

Call it “Portrait of a hooker on her wedding day.”

Diana seldom spent much time at the bathroom mirror. Her strong cheekbones, the slightly Asian cast of her eyes, and her dark blonde hair were the tools of her trade. A quick professional check usually satisfied her.

But today she felt a need to study her reflection. The woman in the mirror looked the same as ever. Was that good or bad?

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to be having these thoughts here, but that was the problem with a destination wedding. It involved hotels and motels, her natural habitat for fourteen years of hooking.

“You pick where we’ll go,” she had told Bert. “I’m good anywhere.”

But the retired police chief could surprise her like no other man in her experience.

“Let’s do it in Wildwood.”

Not Cancun? Not Paris?

“You’re a Jersey girl. I’m a Jersey guy.”

“So we go Downashore. Makes sense.”

“We can get married barefoot on the beach.”

She could take off her stiletto heels. Talk about a break with the past.

And so she had spent the night in this delicious Art Deco motel from the 1950s. Alone, which was a first.

“Humor me on this,” Bert had said. “I can’t lay eyes on you you until the ceremony.”

“You’re the expert.”

His first marriage proved it. It had ended only with his wife’s death of cancer.

Someone knocked, and she checked her watch. Mary Alice and Dawn were early. Her friends were still in the business, which made things a little weird when Diana thought about them mingling with Bert’s crowd of current and former cops.

At least they were single, like good bridesmaids.

Diana crossed the room and turned the handle. As the door swished open, she gave a fleeting thought to the spy hole. It was the first time she had ever skipped the elementary security check. Maybe today was the day she became a civilian.

That looks like a gun, she thought.

It should, because it was. And the man behind it looked familiar.

“Gordon,” she said.

“All those lies,” he said.

“Stories, I call them.” 

“‘Just wait, Gordon. Someday I’ll be free. We’ll be together.’ All lies.”

“I was never going to marry a client. Is that really a surprise?”

“But you can marry a cop.”

“What do you want, Gordon?”

“We’re going to take a walk.”

For a moment she considered slamming the door on him, but he could shoot through it.

“Where?”

“To see your cop. You’re going to tell him you can’t go through with it.”

It made no sense, but Gordon wasn’t in reasoning mode. He seldom was, as she recalled.

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Don’t try it. I’m wise to you now.”

“It’s true. Bert’s superstitious.”

It felt like old times, improvising on her feet, or sometimes on her back.

“Find him. Or else.”

He stuck his hand in his windbreaker pocket, but the gun kept pointing at her.

She started walking down the hall.

“Where are you going?”

“You said find him.”

She couldn’t tell him the truth. She was making space for something to happen. What, she didn’t know.

The door to the stairwell opened. Mary Alice emerged, as dark and dramatic as ever. Dawn followed her into the hallway. Diana shook her head slightly at her friends. Mary Alice replied with an even smaller nod.

“Gordon,” said Mary Alice. “What a coincidence.”

She stepped up and drove her fist into his abdomen. Dawn caught on fast. She darted behind Gordon and stomped on his calf with her stiletto heel. He screamed and went down. Mary Alice kicked him in the jaw. He went limp.

Diana stood gaping. The rough stuff usually fell to her. Things were changing all over.

“Thanks,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you’d get the idea.”

“When I see you with a client on your wedding day,” said Mary Alice. “Something is very wrong.”

“Wait, how do you know him?”

“He’s one of my regulars.”

“Mine too,” said Dawn.

“Well Gordon, you cheating bastard.”

“That’s good,” said Mary Alice. “You’re sounding like a wife.”


The Hit

Sam knew he was a sex machine. Not to be boastful, but what man could ignore the come-hither stares, the girly giggles, the furtive nudges and whispers that greeted him every time he stepped into the velvety fug of a Melbourne nightclub? Which was pretty often, by the way. Sam was a party boy, a frequenter of steamy – some would say sleazy – bars. A wolf, a bear and – yes, ladies – a sex machine.

“Buy you a drink?” Not that he needed to ask but a gentleman does. And this babe could slay a man at thirty paces with her sly, sultry smile.

Sugar knew her way around a gin and lime. Even without the straw, the way she sipped her drink was a downright sin.

He was a big boy, this one. But was he up to the job?

“What line of work you in?” she asked, making room for him at the bar. “Wait. Let me guess. Personal trainer.”

He got that a lot. It was the build. He was ripped, solid, bronzed. “Close. I’m in the servicing game.” It was what he always told the ladies. They loved the innuendo. Subtle. But just in case this one didn’t get it, he threw her a wink.

“Ah.” Sugar caught his drift straight off. “Tell me more.” That smile again.

“Sure you want to know?” Sam faltered. This was where things so often came unstuck. Sex machines are not programmed for verbal finesse.

“Try me,” she said, slipping in a neat double entendre as she toyed with her ice.

“Love to.” For once, he was quick off the mark and she laughed.

He might just do. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but more than enough brawn.

Sugar was oh-so-good at starting things – books, meals, marriages. Not so good at finishing them off. Couldn’t seem to tidy up the mess before she walked away. The bloody entrails of her past debacles trailed after her wherever she went and she couldn’t get free, start afresh, shake off the shadow guy who wanted to try again when all she wanted was a nice, clean ending.

Somebody needed to finish things for her. 

“Oh, no!” Sugar gripped her gin and lime and stared wide-eyed across the room. “See that fella in the corner? The one watching us?”

He saw.

“I wish he’d leave me alone.” Sam eased himself off the stool.


Trojan H

I rode the E downtown to the WTC or Freedom Tower or whatever. My junk man worked a legitimate gig nearby. He’d meet me in an hour with the stuff. Till then, the Tower’s needle would shine on as sure as my spiders crawled.

The train slowed at Fourth Street.

Through graffiti scratched windows, I saw a mirage that owned a face that could launch a thousand ships. In she clomped on three inch heels. Gold-rimmed Aviators surveyed the real estate and dropped her body beside mine. We both watched her ghostly reflection in the window across the aisle.

She pouted. Her ghost mimicked it back perfectly.

She tussled her hair into different styles. Then suddenly, as if we’d known each other forever, this Helen of Troy turned to me and smiled with teeth like God’s shoeshine. “Does it look better like this,” moving her hand slightly, “Or this?”

She must’ve seen me watching. Sweat leaked from my temples. My withdrawal distorted back at me in her Ray-Bans. Before I could answer, the E screeched to another halt. We collided slightly. Her warmth against me felt pleasantly inconvenient. I didn’t notice the doors open but Helen’s breath hitched.

A blur of blue wool lurched onto the train. His booze reddened eyes met hers and squeezed to points. This Postman bellowed, “Gooooddaaaaamn!”

Shock froze Helen’s face as this delivery toad hopped towards us, “Hey,” he pursed his lips.

Disgusted, Helen of Troy turned away. He pressed on undeterred, “You know the postman always rings twice…and baby…I’ve got a special package. Big enough they charged freight.”

The Postman reached for her bare knee. Before I realized it–his meaty wrist rested between my cold fingers.

The Postman’s eyes widened, “Let go of my arm!”

I wanted too–I really did, but…

The mail satchel swung. Instinctively I ducked. I heard a loud WHOMP as the bag exploded against Helen’s face, blasting paper shrapnel everywhere. Helen collapsed on impact. Like a real bomb, one second she’s there and then…

Things grew dark. My arms–no strength. With the Postman throttling me, I grabbed for his big red nose. He hollered and punched me in mine. Tiny stars burst all around. He swung again. More fireworks.

The Postman stood. His boot cocked. Murder raged his face.  I braced for impact.

Suddenly, a cacophony of noise as the train braked.

The Postman’s leg goes full Rockette before he folded backwards like a marionette. He never saw it coming. His expression unchanged as he crashed against the hand-pole. He hung there briefly before Newton’s Law slumped him to the floor.

The Postman didn’t move again.

The speaker crackled, “Last*stop*World*Trade*Center.

The doors part and I’m on my feet to find everyone’s made the exits. It’s just me, the Postman and Helen’s sunglasses.

I hustled to the platform. Caught the tail of the lemmings climbing the stairs. I fell right in.

Frantically, I know she’s already gone. I breached to street level. This subway exit shared a sidewalk with a cemetery across from a building shaped like dinosaur bones. I scan around the modern fossil–but find no Helen.

Without her Ray-Ban’s would I even know her?

My nose leaked blood and I dunno if it’s my evil habit or the goddamn Postman.

Under the shadow of the Tower, I found a place to wait–off the main path, a less toured fountain ringed with memorials. It sloped towards a drain below a hollowed, multi-circled globe.

I sat and slipped on Helen’s Aviators. Everything glowed pink behind her lenses, but it didn’t fix nothing.

I wanted something to hurt as bad as me.

A Hindi grandmother’s colorful robe caught my eye–coaxing a toddler from under the fountain. This little guy wore red overalls darkened with wet. Every time she drew close he scampered away. Laughing at the little game they played. Then as if ordained—the Big Apple took a bite out of him.

He squealed in helpless agony. Salt tears streaked his cheeks. He’d knocked his melon hard against the memorial sculpture. The boy couldn’t run fast enough to grandma’s opened arms–it’s all fun and games until–smack.

Above everyone, the Tower’s needle shined on.


Real Amish

“They probably ain’t even real Amish!  I mean, whoever heard of a 30-foot neon fucking billboard advertising an Amish market?”

My cousin Bobby wasn’t a particularly bright guy.  One time, he got chemical burns on his urethra for trying to piss into his ex-girlfriend’s gas tank.  But maybe in this, he had a point.

I took a swig of my lager.

“You really think this could work?”

“If they’re real Amish, it could work,” conceded Bobby.  “You’ve seen how packed the parking lot gets on Sundays.  They don’t like cops; they don’t like violence… it’s gonna be like taking candy from a baby.”

“And if they aren’t really Amish?”

Bobby shrugged and tossed his empty bottle in the ditch.  It shattered in a million glass splinters on the rocks below.

“I dunno.  I guess if they ain’t Amish, then they’re taking in all that cash tax-free, right?  Fucking tax cheats, man.  And then they deserve what’s coming to them…”

Bobby lit up a busted- looking joint that he produced from the back pocket of his jeans.

“Fucking tax cheats, man,” he repeated as he exhaled.

I nodded and took another swig of my beer.

“Go over it again.”

The plan was simple enough.

Smash and grab, following one of those Sunday tourist feeding frenzies.  We come in fast and hard, masks and shotguns.  No need for ammo – guns are only there for show anyway, to convince the Amish we aren’t fucking around.  Bobby’s high school buddy, Trey, works at an auto body shop in the next town over, and can get us a getaway car with swapped-out plates.  In and out and a big-ass payday.

The weekend before the job, we cased the market to get a lay of the land.  Bakery, woodworking stand, a place that sells those pounded metal stars they put on the sides of barns, butcher shop.  Girls in long, plain skirts and hair coverings, guys in long beards and wide hats attended to the needs of fat, loud and balding tourists who frankly could have gone without that second slice of Shoo-Fly Pie.

Maybe it was pre-heist jitters or a bit of paranoia from the spliff I split with Bobby before we went into the market, but I could have sworn the big oaf behind the meat counter was eyeing me up.  Guy was a head and a half taller than anyone else in the market and looked like he was carved out of solid oak – and he was giving me serious stink-eye.  I chalked it up to overactive imagination and didn’t mention anything to Bobby about it.  I didn’t need him thinking I’m chicken shit.

The day of the job, we hung back on the freeway, and watched until the neon billboard went out, signaling that the market was closed for the day.  We pulled down our ski masks and sped into the parking lot.  The door was chained shut with an ancient looking padlock that gave way easy enough with a good shot from the stock of Bobby’s shotgun.

We charged into the market.  Amish shopkeepers were busy closing up for the day – cleaning counters and counting piles upon piles of cash.  I grabbed one of the nearby elders and bloodied his nose to make my point.

“This is a fucking stickup!” I screamed.

CRACK

Bobby dropped to the floor next to me, unconscious.

“What the…”

I spun around, coming face-to-fist with the big guy from behind the meat counter.  Everything went dark.

When I woke up, it was cold and dark.

“Man, I knew they weren’t Amish.  Fucking tax cheats, man…”

Bobby was babbling behind my back.  Our hands were zip-tied behind us.

The freezer door opened.

“Not even fucking Amish…” Bobby muttered.

The old guy with the bloody nose stood, framed in the doorway.

“’Fraid your mistaken, English.  We’re Amish through and through.  But Samuel here – “ he motioned to the big guy from the meat counter “– well, he isn’t Amish.  We hired him to turn on the billboard and do other chores, like take out the trash.

“Samuel, if you please… would you take out the trash?”

Samuel grinned and cracked his knuckles.  This was going to hurt.


The Last Time I Felt Anything

I didn’t know my Daddy very well but that’s not to say I didn’t know plenty about him. None of what I knew was good.

Oftentimes there wasn’t enough to eat. He made damn sure though that he always had enough to drink. He would come home after I was in bed. He would be drunken mean and fight with my mother.

Laughter was never heard in that house. Instead, the sounds I heard were screaming, things breaking, his fists striking flesh and my mother crying softly after he passed out.

We rented a ramshackle farmhouse a few miles outside of Buckeye. When my father worked, he did construction or farm labor. I guess he wasn’t good at either. When he got paid, he drank.  He sure was good at that.

Somehow, he got in trouble with bad men. He started sticking around home more, doing his drinking there. He seemed to grow even meaner. I awoke one night to the sound of the front door being kicked in. There were muffled voices. Curios, I looked down into the kitchen from the top of the stairs. There were two men. One of them behind my father. All I could see was the back of him. I got a good look at the other one, the right side of his face was badly scarred like it had been burned. They both had guns pointed at him.  As I turned away there were gunshots, four of them. I didn’t look back.

There was an attic in the old house full of junk and dust. There was nothing of interest to a nine-year-old boy except for a trunk in the furthest, darkest corner. The trunk was full of old clothes that smelled of must and age. The scent somehow comforted me. I used it as a hiding place when my parents fought.

At the sound of the shots, I crept up the stairs and burrowed deep under the clothing. It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps. They came closer and the lid opened. I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity before the lid dropped. I stayed in the trunk for a long time.

My parents were in the kitchen. They lay face up on the floor with their eyes open. There was a hole in the center of Daddy’s forehead. My mother had three holes in her chest. There was a lot of blood. My father didn’t look mean anymore and my mother just looked sad.

That was the last time I felt anything.

I went through the foster system, never staying long anywhere. It was a constant parade of men who drank too much and women who didn’t care -except for the check the state gave them for taking in kids like me.

I don’t know if it was that environment or genetics. Whatever it was, I turned out more like Daddy then I would have liked. I drank hard and fell in with the wrong crowd. At nineteen I robbed a liquor store in Casa Grande. I was driving on a reservation backroad when they caught me.

They gave me a nickel in the state pen in Florence. That’s where I saw him. Prison had aged him, but he still looked just as hard as he had when he held a gun on my Daddy all those years ago. I was told he was doing life without possibility. He murdered a man and his family in Prescott. When he exited the house, a ten-year-old boy was riding by on his bicycle and identified him.

After about three months I walked beside him on the way to the yard.

“You remember killing a couple in Buckeye some time ago?”  I asked.

He gave me a blank look.

“There was a kid in that house. He was hiding in a trunk in the attic.”

The blank look was replaced by recognition, not fear.

My shiv sank into his liver.

After pulling it out I buried it in the back of his neck.

“I was that kid. You should have looked harder.”

He fell face down, strangling on his own blood.

I walked away. I felt nothing.


The Split

“Eighteen! Thirty-four! ‘Levendy-twelve!” Brucie shouted, following it with his irritating high-pitched giggle. Like he thought trying to mess Doc’s count up was the funniest thing since Chris Rock.

Doc ignored him and kept counting and dividing the bundles of cash. The other three of us glanced at each other and rolled our eyes at Brucie’s actions.

Brucie was a problem, but Doc said we needed five guys for the armored car job, and Tone vouched for Brucie. Said he was good with his fists and a decent shot. But he was also a pain in the ass from the jump. On everybody’s last nerve when we were together and causing us ten kinds of grief when he was acting on his own.

No thanks to Brucie the job was a success and we made it to our rendezvous at the warehouse without any major screw-ups. Now, to let Doc to finish counting and make the split so we could part ways with Brucie.

“Jeez Doc, you count slower than my four-year-old nephew,” Brucie said, pacing back and forth and practicing his quick-draw while gunning down imaginary cops with his chrome-plated revolver. The fact that Brucie hadn’t accidentally blown somebody away before now was miracle, the way he liked to wave his gun around.

Doc paused from the count and shot the rest of us a look that signaled his patience with Brucie was wearing thin. See, the thing Brucie never understood was that Doc was the lead dog on this sled team. Doc was the brains and we all did what he said. He didn’t talk a lot, or get loud, and because he was quiet Brucie treated Doc like he was weak and stupid. He was neither.

“Hey Brucie,” Tone said. “Why don’t you give it a rest? And maybe put that gun down.

Brucie shrugged and sat back down at the table with us.

“Sure, no problem,” he said, putting his gun on the table in front of him.

We watched as Doc continued to count and divide, but Brucie was like a big hyperactive kid. Couldn’t sit still for longer than a few seconds.

“I don’t understand what’s so hard about dividing some cash up five ways,” Brucie whined. “What’s the problem, Doc? Did you never learn to divide by five back in fourth grade? I guess it’s a good thing there aren’t six of us. We’d be here all week!”

That obnoxious giggle again as Doc paused his count and set the bundle of cash down.

“Actually, Brucie,” Doc said. “I’m pretty good at dividing by six. Take that revolver there for example.”

Doc reached over and picked up Brucie’s gun and pointed it at the tin ceiling of the warehouse.

“I know that there are six chambers in the cylinder. And, each one holds a bullet.”

BOOM!

Everybody except Doc flinched as the deafening shot echoed through the empty warehouse and a single pinpoint of light fell on the makeshift counting table.

“There’s one,” Doc said, grinning at Brucie who just sat there with his mouth hanging open.

BOOM!

“Two.”

BOOM!

“Three.”

BOOM!

“Four.” The tabletop was dotted with pinpoints of light.

BOOM!

“Five.”

Doc quickly lowered the revolver and leveled it at at Brucie’s face.

BOOM!

“And six,” Doc said, putting the pistol back down on the table and picking up the stack of cash he had been counting. He smiled and glanced around at the rest of us as the echoing gunshots faded.

“I guess he was right. I do have a problem dividing by five.”


Murder on My Mind

“Charge it,” she said, smacking her gum and smiling at the cashier as she slid the huge bottle of antifreeze toward him. He put down his crime novel. The night in the store had been slow, but the book had just picked up. He was just about to find out whodunit.

She plunked her other things on the counter: A travel magazine and passport photos, just taken.

He took her card and did as he was told. He didn’t ask any questions. He’d seen her before, with that dyed red hair that was still black at the roots. He didn’t think she owned a car, but, he couldn’t be sure. Hell, he didn’t even know if she was buying the antifreeze for herself.

He’d seen people buy some weird shit. Guys buying tampons and pregnancy tests. Women buying diet pills that weren’t working.

“That’s everything?” he asked, wondering if she’d add a pack of cigarettes to the order, like she usually did. Antifreeze, a travel magazine, passport photos, and cigarettes.

“I’ll take one of them packs of Marlboro’s. Lights,” she said, and he thought the way she moved her face he could see underneath her makeup, a bruise under her left eye. But then, her head dipped back down and it was gone.

He wondered if he should ask for some ID. He’d checked it before, knew she was over twenty-one. There was no point. He knew her name. Clara Ann Reynolds. He even knew where she lived, how tall she was, and that she wasn’t an organ donor. He decided against it.

“Getting cold out there,” he said, by way of conversation, but also, he was trying to pry. Maybe her car was acting up. Maybe he could learn something more about her.

She looked up, surprised he was still there. “What?”

“Gettin’ cold. Your car?” He slid the card through the machine. The name on the card didn’t match her real name. He wondered if it was stolen, but he said nothing.

“Oh, I ain’t got a car,” she said, smiling.

He looked at her quizzically.

“The antifreeze? What’s that for then?” He knew he shouldn’t ask. What if she got mad? What if she got so mad she told his manager? But he couldn’t help it.

“It’s for my husband.”

His mind exploded. The bruise, the upcoming travel, the undetectable poison.

“Your, your husband?” he stammered, not knowing where to go from there, not knowing how to get her to elaborate on the now very evident fact that she was planning to kill him.

“You know Ricky?”

He knew Ricky. He wasn’t the tampon- or pregnancy-test buying type. He was the buy-your-own-damn-shit type. He was the make-you-piss-your-pants type. Everyone knew Ricky.

“Yeah, I know him. He needs antifreeze?” It came out as sort of a squeak, and he cursed his voice, wishing he could figure out how to ask her exactly what she had planned. Wishing more, that he’d asked her nothing at all.

“Yeah. He needs it.” The way she said, it, he knew what she was thinking. A hundred grand in life insurance money flashed behind her eyes and into his brain. He knew exactly what she meant. He needed it, all right.

He slid the travel magazine into a plastic bag.

“Going on a trip?” he asked.

“Dunno. Maybe. Depends on if I can help Ricky fix what needs fixin’ or not.”

He knew what she meant. He knew. But he just stood there, pale and dumb. She took the plastic bag, hefted the jug of antifreeze, and slipped out into the night. He went back to his book. Now there were two murders to solve.


El Dulce

“I didn’t call any plumbers,” Louis barked at us through the tiny slit made by the chain lock.   His breath smelled bad and that didn’t do anything for my mood.  My head hurt and the aspirin I took in the van wasn’t even touching it. I sighed and stepped back.   I looked at Green Johnny and he kicked in the door with maniacal glee.  At least one of us was in a good mood. 

The apartment was a mess; a disaster of take-out containers, empty beer cans, and candy wrappers. The garbage crunched under our feet as our noses were assaulted by a spoiled bouquet of chocolate and sweat.   Green Johnny set the tool box down and checked the bedroom and bathroom to make sure we were all alone. 

“God damn, Louis,” I said, “This place smells terrible.  Least you could have done was tidy up a bit, maybe taken a shower. It’s not like you didn’t know we were coming.”

Louis was standing in the center of the room between a table covered with garbage and a small mound of crumpled cans.  His early bravado had disappeared like a deadbeat dad.

“I-I didn’t call f-for a plumber” he stuttered.

I don’t blame the man for being scared.  Greenie and I have been working collections for the Boss for a while and people don’t like seeing us.  I square the Boss’s ledgers with a flair for the Old Testament.  Green Johnny, well, he’s easily suggestible. 

“We’re clear, Priest,” Green Johnny said, flashing me a thumbs up. I looked over at Louis.

“You know we’re not plumbers, but we can’t come up in here dressed like hired killers.  This isn’t Reservoir Dogs.

Louis just stared at me. 

“See, Louis, I’m going to level with you.  That van was really fucking hot and we had to wear these uncomfortable outfits all because you didn’t pay the Boss’s tribute.  30% off the top and you can continue to do…shit, what do you do again?  Greenie and I have a bet. 

“I-I robbed a store.”

“Greenie, I owe you a steak.  I thought our boy Louis here liked to dabble in the ‘ole plug and tug. Now, if you’ll just give us 40% —that’s 30% for the Boss and 10% for our trouble—we’ll let you get back to your shithole existence.”

“I d-didn’t get a-any m-money.”

“I’m sorry, what?” My temples pounded.

“I r-robbed a c-candy s-store.  S’alls I g-got was c-candy.” 

“Priest, did he just say what I think he said?”

“I think he did.  Toss the place.  He’s gotta be lying.”

I knocked a few candy wrappers off of a chair and watched Louis as Green Johnny searched for the cash.  After ten minutes of banging and cursing, he was still empty handed.

I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the rough cotton sleeve of the overalls.   My headache was turning into a migraine.

“Aw, hell.  We’ll just take our cut out of the candy. Louis, where’s the candy?”

He looked around the apartment at all of the candy wrappers, despair clinging to him like body odor.  

“Greenie, you remember your nephew’s birthday party?” I said, rubbing my temples. “How all those kids hit that piñata until its guts bled candy?

Without answering me, Greenie opened the tool box and took out some rope and threw me some zip-ties. Louis tried to run but he slipped on the garbage. We pounced on him and zip-tied his hands behind his back. 

“Just remember, Louis, you did this to yourself,” I said.

Green Johnny held him still while I harnessed him with the rope.  We slung one end of the rope over the crossbeam in his ceiling and tried to pull him up.  The beam shattered into splinters and Louis fell with a thunk.   He looked up at us, his eyes wet and pleading.

“We’re just looking for our 40%, s’not personal,” I said, as Greenie handed me a crowbar from the toolbox.    

We beat him until our arms ached, each whack in cadence with the pounding in my head.

Louis was a shitty piñata; what came out of him didn’t look like candy at all.