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.


Portrait of a Hotel Photographer

Jeannette Fisher told a story when she sang. It wasn’t in the words of the song. It was in the way she tilted her head, stretched her neck, shifted her eyes. She welcomed you with a lift of her arms and dismissed you with a wave of her hand. I knew because I’d been photographing her in the Hawaiian Gardens Club at the Hotel How-Do-You-Do since the war ended. I’d seen the spell she cast over men.

Just before the midnight show, Jeannie glided into the Hawaiian Gardens Club in a red bird of paradise sarong dress with a halter neck. Her black hair was up, an orchid tucked behind her right ear. I watched her work the room. Laughing. Shaking hands. Making small talk. She stopped at a table not far from the stage and gave me the signal, a subtle glance that said she needed me to take a photograph.

From lunch to dinner, my primary job was arranging guests in the lobby for a souvenir photograph. Usually I took the picture in front of the gold-flecked tile mosaic of the swans. People liked the way the long necks came up behind them and appeared to peak over their shoulders. I made a buck commission off of each one of those; the hotel made three. The guests staying there could afford it. Sometimes I even got tips.

After hours, I did a little freelancing under Jeannie’s guidance.

I grabbed my camera and moved to the table where Jeannie laughed with a big wheel up from the city. Jimmy D’Agosta ran a solid business in the concrete industry. He supposedly poured the cement in the hotel’s expansion twenty years before Jeannie started singing there. Jimmy D gushed over her. He sat alone but the ermine wrap hanging on the back of the empty chair next to him said he wouldn’t be for long.

I got maybe a table away, raised my camera, when Jimmy D put up his hand.

“Sorry, pal, no pictures.”

A couple of his associates stood up at the bar. Jimmy D shook his head, waved his hand. The men sat down.

Jeannie slipped her arm around D’Agosta’s shoulders. “Come on, Jimmy, just one picture. For me. Before your wife gets back.” She gave him her precocious smile that wrinkled the bridge of her button nose. 

“My wife ain’t here.”

“Then who’s is this?” Jeannie stroked the ermine wrap.

“Not my wife’s.”

I caught the shift in Jeannie’s eyes. I knew what to do next.

The orchestra played a little introductory vamp. Jeannie stepped up on the stage. The crowd applauded.

Jimmy D’Agosta’s companion returned. He was right—she wasn’t his wife. She was barely old enough to vote.

Jeannie worried the line, held that first note so long time might have shattered in its wake.

Now…love…has found a way…to brighten our darkest day…’

Jeannie walked down to a table of four. Two couples. She leaned between the first pair and I snapped the picture.

My heart beats with yours…Sings our song behind closed doors…

She moved to the second couple. Sitting directly behind their table was the real subject of the picture.

Jimmy D’Agosta and the gal in the white ermine wrap.

Our plan always worked. Catch a mark out on the town without his wife, snap a picture of him and his guest, then sell him the negative but keep a print for future use. Sometimes it paid better than the lobby photo commission.

My flash lit up their faces just as Jimmy D tried to sneak a kiss. In the fading aftermath of the spent bulbs glow, Jimmy D’s men dragged me out the stage door.

Outside, one of the heavies smashed my camera while the other smashed my face. Jimmy D and the girl in the ermine wrap came out. I was pretty sure only one photograph from the night would wind up on the front page of the morning edition of the paper under the headline, ‘Hotel Photographer Found Dead’.

 Jimmy D’Agosta lifted my chin. “I told you no pictures, didn’t I? Maybe next time you’ll listen.”

“Maybe next time I will.” I think we both knew I was lying.


Splatterproof is Not a Challenge

Do you know how many times you need to bounce a man’s skull off a breezeblock wall before you split the epidermis, shatter the brain-pan and draw blood?

Six.

Or seven.

I lost count. Like self-control, numbers have never been my strong point.

I don’t have many marketable skills, but a talent for revenge is top of the fucking list…

 

Five Hours Earlier.

 

Stephen Mackey is a slum lord.

I did a double-take when he walked into the Dirty Lemon, because I had heard that he was dead. Not that it’s particularly hard to fake your own death in this town. If you know the right counterfeiter, you can get a passable death certificate for the price of a carton of cigarettes.

He wanted me to stake out one of his shitty rental properties. Said he had been hit by Mucky Mickey Molloy and his posse of teenage knife-boys six times already this month. They prowl dead-end streets, breaking in to parked cars – robbing power-tools, handbags, whatever the fuck is lying around. 

Accepting a job off a dead man is never going to end well – the only uncertainty is who it ends badly for…

• • •

I hear the familiar smash of brick on glass and roll out of my sleeping bag, scrambling towards the front door. I grab my claw-hammer from the telephone table and fling the door open.

He’s half my age – a skinny streak of piss – shell-suited and shell-shocked.

“Drop the bag, or I’ll break your fucking arms.”

We are under the queasy glow of a streetlight, so I know he can see the scarred forearms under my vest.

“Fuck off, old man.”

He turns and legs it towards a dented grey Vauxhall Cavalier.

I’m in no mood to run, so I hurl the hammer at his skull. It catches him with a grisly crunch and he hits the tarmac teeth-first.

I retrieve the tool and break his right elbow, before clambering onto the back of the car. I lash the hammer at the roof, pockmarking the rusted metalwork. Once, twice, three times.

One of the doors creaks open, but I’m too distracted to care.

I reassess my priorities as soon as the Taser snags in my gut. My fingers tremble as I try to wrench the tiny barbs free.

Then a second Taser blast hits my lower back – right next to my bastard spine.

Then I fall off the fucking car.

• • •

Swallow your pride. Swallow your own blood. Just keep gulping it down. It isn’t pleasant, but it all goes down the same fucking way…

The man with the lump hammer is a cadaverous ex-junkie called Garry Eastlake. I had heard rumours that Mucky Mickey used him for the grim jobs that nobody else was willing to do, but I never expected to find out first-hand. His petulant lips look discoloured, like he has been experimenting with stolen Superdrug lipsticks.

Mickey wheezes as he unfurls the plastic sheeting – his gut hanging over his soiled chinos like a bag of medical waste.

He looks at me sadly – I’m tethered to an old kitchen chair with a length of rope.

“I hope it was worth it, son?”

I grunt. It never is.

The two men step into disposable white coveralls – Mickey struggling to zip the suit up past his stomach.

“Splatterproof, son. I buy them in bulk from a guy at Newton Abbot market.”

I could scream, but it wouldn’t do me any good. I’m deep in the guts of Paignton – some clumsily excavated basement or other.

“Any last requests?”

I shake my head.

“Not that it would do you any fucking good!”

They laugh like drains – their guttural laughter mingling in the gloom.

I topple my chair sideways – hoping it’ll smash, but it remains intact, and all I do is trap my left arm.

Still laughing, they try to haul me off the floor.

I sweep Mucky Mickey’s legs away and he hits the concrete like a sack of shit.

Eastlake wrenches me across the sheeting towards him and his lump hammer.

The rope goes slack as it starts to unfurl, and I feel myself smile for the first time today.

I’m back in the fucking game.


The Errand

Secure the package. Take a road trip. Make the delivery. Get paid. It should have been easy. I’m alone, standing in the rain. The pistol I’m clenching feels like a brick as I struggle to keep my balance. I feel a sharp pain in my side as the gunshot wound oozes through my bandages. My coat is stained red. Not very professional. They should all be here with me, but it’s always been like this. I feel the sting of frustration sweep through my mind as I limp towards the front door of the house. Maybe it’s because I keep living while everyone else is dying. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Deliver the package. Get paid. Start over. It should have been easy. What a fool I’ve become. 

Mickey opens the front door before I get a chance to knock. He motions for me to come in. I can see the smug look on his face as I limp past him, towards the office where the rest of the assholes are waiting for me. I feel Mickey’s hand grab my shoulder. I turn around. 

“You packin’?”

I pull out my pistol I’d stashed before approaching the front door and hand it to him. He stands there, waiting and staring.

“That’s it,” I mutter to him.

He motions for me to raise my arms and gives me a half-assed frisk. I can smell the bourbon on his breath before he finally leads me into the office. Jack is sitting at a table. Benny and Sean are pouring themselves another drink. They’ve obviously been celebrating my return. 

As I walk in and approach the desk, Jack motions for me to stop. 

“Where’s the rest of you?” 

I hesitate. I straighten my coat. Jack notices the bloodstain. 

“I’m all that’s left.” 

“Shame,” he remarks with a smile. “I didn’t expect the other two dipshits to make it, but Stanley was a good one. Guess you should have planned better.” 

I grit my teeth. “It was your plan. You knew exactly how this would turn out.” 

Jack laughs. His yellow teeth beam at me as he chugs his whiskey on the rocks. 

“Guess I didn’t plan enough then, since you’re still here.” 

“I guess so,” I spit out. I grab my side. The pain is mind-numbing, but I try to maintain my composure. Jack stands up. 

“So, you have the package then?” He asks. 

“In the trunk of the car,” I tell him. Jack shakes his head in surprise…or maybe it’s disgust. 

“You’re in a bad way, Tommy-Boy. I think you already know there’s no dough here for you. But I’m a generous man. Leave the car here. Mickey will keep your gun. The nearest hospital is fifty miles away. The police know your face. You’ll never make it. Go find a rock to crawl under. You’ll bleed out before the night is over. For what it’s worth…you did a good job, Tommy. Too good. Not get out or eat another bullet. The Don will be here in an hour. I’ll sell him the package as planned. Your debt is paid. You get to die in peace.”

Blood trickles down my leg and starts to pool at my feet. Jack takes notice and sighs with frustration. I hear a gun cocking under his desk. I nod my head, turn around and limp out of the office, tossing the car keys over my shoulder. Mickey glares at me as I step outside into the rain. The door slams shut behind me. I make my way to the car, open the door and pop the trunk.

Her muffled cries echo into the night as I shamble towards her. I look down at the Don’s daughter. Her wrists are bleeding from the handcuffs and the outline of her closed lips can be seen through the layers of duct tape covering her mouth. She’s sobbing. I laugh to myself as I imagine the look on her father’s face when Jack tries to sell him some more “firepower.” I slam the trunk shut. I start walking. I walk for what seems like an eternity. Deliver the package. It should have been easy. It wasn’t easy.