Outsourcing

Johnny Maggio’s wife was having an affair. But a divorce was out of the question, as the Church frowned on such measures. Instead, Johnny chose to have this lothario rubbed out. The Church also felt rather strongly about murder, but this was a matter of pride.

The Romeo in question was Vinnie “Two Cats” Castiglione, a small-time hood with a gambling problem. Johnny wasn’t inclined to wade through all the dive bars, meth dens, and floating crap games on the West Side to hunt down some third-rater. Johnny gave the job to his lieutenant, Tommy Octaroro, plus fifty grand for Tommy’s trouble.

• • •

Through the wages of sin, Tommy Octaroro had achieved a prosperous life including a seven-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath, McMansion on the North Shore, a forty-eight-foot ketch moored at the yacht club, and a high-rise condo in South Beach. Tommy wasn’t willing to lose all that to eradicate some low-life who crossed the boss. Too many risks: cops, witnesses, a retaliatory lucky shot by Vinnie.

At Sunday family dinner, his sister Julie again whined to Tommy about advancement for her son Donny. The boy was good with numbers, but seemed to lack a certain malevolence necessary to succeed in their world. This was the kid’s lucky day; Tommy promised his nephew twenty-five thou and the opportunity to make his bones.

• • •

Donny Stillwell liked the idea of being a made man and all that came with it: the respect, the money, the ladies. Especially the ladies. But he didn’t want to have to kill someone. In almost all the fights he’d been in, going back to grade school, he came out the loser. And he was deathly afraid of firearms. But he was more terrified of his Uncle Tony, so he accepted the assignment.

But that didn’t mean Donny had to be the one who pulled the trigger. He figured to subcontract the work, enjoying all the benefits of the transaction, while avoiding any danger of physical injury.

He reviewed his list of underworld associates. The Dominicans were too hot-headed. The Nigerians too untrustworthy. In the end, he selected a pair of Moldovan brothers he worked with exporting stolen luxury sedans to Eastern Europe, and offered them ten G’s, to take care of Vinnie.

• • •

The Ceban brothers, Timur and Vadin, undertook the commission because they didn’t wish angering Donny and lose the franchise running misappropriated Mercedes to Romania. But the brothers were smugglers, not killers. Neither owned a gun. To perform the deed, they hired a recently arrived Armenian immigrant. The man had served in his nation’s special forces and was reputed to have assassinated of a rogue Azerbaijani General.

• • •

Sak Arakelian was eager to build a reputation in his newly adopted country and took the Moldovan’s deal. But he was still unfamiliar with America and didn’t want to make a fatal error with his first murder-for-hire. So he posted an ad on Craigslist under “Services Wanted.”

• • •

Inside the local bar, a man approached Arakelian, but did not sit. “You posted the ad?”

“Are you a cop?” Arakelian asked.

“Do I look like a cop?”

The man didn’t look like an American cop, at least the ones Sak had seen on television. His hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed. His teeth weren’t gleaming white. He didn’t wear the latest expensive fashions. “No.”

“How much?” asked the man who didn’t look like a cop.

“Two thousand,” Arakelian said, keeping three for himself.

The man nodded. “Who’s the target?”

“A hoodlum named Vinnie Castiglione. Do you know him?”

The man stiffened and blinked rapidly.

“Is that a problem?” Sak asked.

The man relaxed and shook his head. “I know where to find him.”

“Half now. Half when the job is done.” Arakelian slid an envelope across the table.

The man who didn’t look like a cop took the envelope, stuffed it in his jacket pocket, and departed. 

• • •

In his car the man counted the money, punched the address of an Atlantic City casino into his GPS, and started the engine. From the backseat came a pair of high-pitched meows. He turned and reached with both hands to scratch their ears. 

“Luck’s running our way, Girls. Get ready for a little road trip.”


Fore!

Me and Deke were down in my basement, talkin’. He worked the counter down at my shop, and I’d invited him over after closing.

“When I turned fifty, I told myself I was going to get a new set of golf clubs. Running a plumbing supply business is hard work, and I deserve a little reward now and then, you know? Plus my last set was over twenty years old.” I stood and picked up a sand wedge that was leaning against my chair. Gripped it as if I was about to blast a shot out of a greenside bunker. “Went for the game improvement clubs. Used to hit classic blades when I was a kid, but the technology in these things? Amazing. Sixty gram graphite shafts. Low kick point for higher ball trajectory. Tungsten weighting, thin top line, smooth hosel transition. Cost some serious cheddar, too. Going to have to sell a lot of toilets to pay for them. But they’re worth it.”

Deke looked as if he wanted to say something, but I barreled on. Bad habit of mine. People were always telling me to slow down, but when I talked about golf, I got carried away. “Sprang for the whole custom fitting. Tried different shafts, different club heads. Ten different brands. Hit dozens of balls with the Trackman, got all the computer results across all the important parameters: club speed, ball speed, spin rate, launch angle. They even have something called the smash factor. The higher the smash factor, the better.”

I glanced at Deke. Seemed like he was taking it all in. “You play,” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Great game. Meet some interesting characters, too, that’s for sure. I had a guy in my regular foursome a while back who referred to each of his clubs as a different weapon. His driver was his bazooka. He’d get up on the first tee and declare, ‘Time to launch the ol’ bazooka.’ Then he’d send a screamer down the fairway. His six-iron was his six-shooter, and after a good shot, he’d blow on the club’s grip like he was an Old West gunslinger cooling off the barrel of his revolver. He called his four-iron his rifle ’cause he always hit it straight and long. His wedge was a scalpel, for its pinpoint precision. He called his putter his sword and after he sank a long putt, he’d wave it around and slide it into an imaginary scabbard on his belt with a flourish, just like some old-time golfer used to do.” I got up and demonstrated with the wedge in my hand while Deke followed the entire act with wide eyes. “That guy was a trip, all right.”

I stared at Deke, and he stared back. Awkward silence.

I began again. “Did you know that in golf, players call their own penalties on themselves? That’s one reason it’s such a great game, that sense of honor. I like to think I’m an honorable guy. In fact, I try very hard to do the right thing, and it bothers me—a lot—when other people aren’t as honorable, you know?”

Deke nodded. I think he was trying to say something again, but it was hard to tell with the strip of duct tape across his mouth. I had the feeling he’d get up and leave, too, if only he wasn’t hog-tied to his chair.

“So it really pained me, deeply, when I found out you were skimming some of my profits down at the shop. My margins are slim enough without my employees ripping me off.”

I admired the sand wedge in my hand. Thirty five inches long. Fifty-six degrees of loft. Sixty-four degree lie angle. Three point two millimeter offset. Twelve degrees of bounce on the heavy metal head.

Sharp leading edge.

I took my stance. Found my rhythm with a couple of waggles. Backswing straight, then slightly inside the line. Full turn, pause at the top, followed by a powerful hip turn as I exploded through the hitting area, connecting with my target in a smooth stroke meant to maximize the smash factor.

Deke screamed as his left kneecap shattered.

Fore!


Vic Has Got to Die

Anton fell to his knees in Vic’s front hall, bleeding from four or five wounds. He had lost count during all of the shooting and stabby-stabby and was busy holding his guts in so maybe he could make it out before the police showed up. He looked up at the ostentatious piece of shit front door with deep wood carvings and a brass handle. Vic had crowed how he got it special ordered from the Philippines.

Fuck, Vic, Anton thought. Vic was dead, along with four other guys. Each got what they deserved. They made their choices, forgetting that loyalty is everything.

Anton touched the wall with a bloody hand to steady himself. The other hand on his stomach felt hot from the blood. He frowned, wondering if  it was the other way around, that his hand was growing cold. Didn’t matter really, he was running out of time. With a grunt, he rocked forward and got a foot underneath himself and started to stand.

He gasped for air as the the world dipped out of focus—

—Three weeks ago a coke rattled Vic decided there was a snitch in the group and that just couldn’t stand and since Anton wasn’t there it was easy for Willie, who was now dead in the living room, to finger Anton, Vic agreed and wanted it taken care of but the fools who went after Anton got his girlfriend Cassie and his baby girl instead, Cassie was in the ICU and just might make it, but it still meant that meant Anton had to kill Vic, and boy did it feel good putting two rounds into Vic’s chest after finding him in his bedroom, begging—

Back in the world, Anton licked the sweat from his upper lip and put a foot forward. His body felt heavy, like he was moving through a snow drift, as he wobbled on his feet. A red smear followed his hand as it slid across the wall, underlining the portraits of Vic’s grandparents. Three hard steps and he was out of wall with another six to the front door.

He had never bled like this and wondered if this was what dying was like, a drifting away. If this was the end, it was worth it. Anton leaned forward and let his momentum carry him halfway to the door when he heard it.

A cough. From upstairs.

Anton turned and looked up the stairs. He had killed everyone in the house, he had watched carefully before he came in, he knew who was and wasn’t in here, he was sure, so maybe he imagined the—

Cough, cough. Throaty and bubbly.

Anton’s shoulder’s sagged. Vic. He wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway.

The cops were on their way, someone had to have heard all of the shooting and the screams, what if they got here and Vic’s stupid coughing led them right to him, and they saved his life, then all of this would be for nothing. His baby girl, Cassie. One gone, one maybe dying.

Cough. Followed by a groan.

Sirens in the distance, Anton turned away from the door. Three steps back to the wall, three more to the stairs, twelve to the top, fifteen to the bedroom…

But then, soon, maybe even in the next five minutes Vic could be dead and this coughing was how the bitch was going to go out, real slow like, knowing this was it. Anton smiled at the thought and looked over his shoulder at the door. He should just keep going, get out, climb in his car and get the fuck away because Vic was gonna be dead. He looked down at his bloody hand. So would he if he didn’t get to the hospital soon.

Anton swallowed. His tongue felt fat. The front hall flickered with white and blue light.

And if he was dead, who would sit next to Cassie, look her in the eye and tell her it was done…


Pothole

Now Ramos and I, we’re in the groove. The kid on the stretcher is dead but still screaming, not dead enough yet. The ambulance gallops over every pothole like some kind of bullshit steeplechase. At a corner pause, we hear more gunshots outside and a block away, but barely notice. We’re doing a hundred things at once and exchanging no words. With great partners, it’s almost telepathy. I think of a large-bore IV, then Ramos is there, passing me two fourteens.

He’s brilliant and skilled and just a great guy to spend twelve hours on an ambulance with. We read each other’s minds and his folks own Pollo Tropica over on Bennington, so every shift we eat whole Cornish hens for free and buckets of Spanish rice. Although we’re on different ambulances tonight, right now it’s me and him in the back of my bus while his partner, Angie B, follows behind in their empty rig.

Foley drives. He’s new and sucks at it, but he can find the hospital without directions. I stick two large-bores in the kid’s massive neck, one on each side, and open the fluid wide.

On the right side, across his external jugular: Living My Best Life. Weird-ass life hack bullshit for a kid in his trade, but I don’t have time to dwell. Ramos corrals intestines that squirm and slide like wet snakes. He braces himself between the stretcher and the ambulance cabinets, while I’m pinned at the knees beneath the head of the stretcher near the kid’s face. Despite the fluid, the kid’s pressure is tanking and I know his heart won’t beat all the way to St. Bonhomme’s ED.

Foley wallops a huge pothole while turning to avoid it and the box where we struggle turns into a yard sale of equipment and people. Ramos ends up at the far end of the box, up against the doors and on his back, a flailing turtle unable to get up.

I land face down in thick puddle of carmine fluid tinged with caliginous brown vomit, and right before I lose my own cookies, I see it. Rolling in the blood just under the head of the stretcher. A thick, blood-soaked roll, with a hundred dollar bill on the outside.

Before I can think a moment more about it, I grab the roll and slide it into the side pocket of my uniform pants.

Back on my knees now, I see the kid looking at me. His skin is waxen and greying and he’s stopped throwing up.

“I’m dying,” he says.

Ramos is still on his back, cussing and struggling to get up.

“Come on, man. Almost there.”

The kid points toward my thigh. “Get something nice.”

He’s flatline on the monitor now but staring at me still.

I feel naked and corrupt.

But I keep the money in my pocket.

We lurch into the ambulance bay and the doors fly open and shapeless faces, my colleagues on other ambulances, some nurses, doctors, the whole trauma team it seems, excited to see us: gowned up, masked up, ghoulish and ready for action. The faceless mob reaches in and the stretcher is gone, zombies come for the feast.

I’m supposed to go in, give report, explain all this to the trauma team. But I don’t. The side pocket on my pants is alight, burning with possibilities; me, on the other side of the Styx, with a burden I will now have to bear.

I’ve never taken a dime before tonight.

I know others who have.

I need the cash, though. I’m broke, got a sick kid and an angry wife, both betrayed by the shit paycheck I bring home for all this.

I’m not sure I can do it, walk away with a dead kid’s money.

Then—I am.

Just like that.

Then he’s there. Foley. Standing in the open back doors, staring at me in his new uniform and new boots and new eyes void of nightmares, pitying me, still in the pool of blood and puke but on my knees now.

“I saw what you did,” he says. “What’s the split?”


Getting Your Money’s Worth

The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

The idea was I’d be lawyer for the Visalia Vipers, and the club would have legal representation no matter what. I’d gone to college on the GI bill, came back to Visalia, and successfully represented myself in traffic court. Twice.

The trick for traffic court was getting cases rescheduled the Friday before three-day weekends when cops were either working holiday overtime or out of town. Kept my Honda Fury out of impound and the tickets got dismissed. I bragged about it more than I should, but my uncle listened. A year later I was at the University of San Diego learning about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Being away from my brother and my uncle, I started dating girls who didn’t snort fentanyl. I could cover my tattoos with an oxford shirt buttoned all the way. If I wore a t-shirt to a bar, the stick-and-poke on my forearm became part of a story people told about me:

Smart kid, dusty town, ran with thugs, military, straightened up. Eventually, it was a story I told myself, too.

The upper crust called it “life experience” and “personal history.” The further I got from my brother, my uncle, and the plan to be the club’s lawyer, the more the Visalia Vipers became just that: history.

Being a lawyer, I handled my own name change. In Los Angeles, I hid in plain sight: my TV screen glowing from an apartment, one window out of millions. I traded my bike for a Jeep and joined a book club. Drank beer at places the Vandals would never think to visit.

Some nights, in bed with the windows open, the night air carried occasional gasoline shriek from the highway: an unyielding roar of pipes throttling; releasing; screaming torque from concrete to the heavens. Some nights I ignored the sound: thousands of bikes on the road, like thousands of lawyers in Los Angeles. None of us looking for each other.

Some nights, though, I checked the lock on my door. The pistol in my nightstand.

The first year was tough, but like thundering engines on a highway, my fear of my uncle drowned to a whisper I convinced myself was gone.

The bar down the street from my apartment was my speed: cocktails too simple and proven to attract the hip crowd, but too classy a place for a tougher audience. That night I went in for a drink and found a graceful chin resting on a tanned shoulder. Her eyes were impossibly dark and aimed at me. I bought the drinks.

When we kissed, she pried open the top of my mind, and I fell into the deep chasm of those eyes. But the honeyed pleasure of the kiss was quickly replaced by a sensation of falling, and then of tumbling on a rollercoaster. I would’ve begged it to stop but my mind was gone in those impossibly dark eyes that had swallowed me whole.

I woke in my own bed, some distant pounding against my temples, sunlight warming the sweat on my body.

Beside me, her tan skin on my bedsheets had gone slick red, with more blood than I’d ever seen. I had the presence of mind to realize I was holding my gun.

The pounding between my temples was actually two police officers pounding at my door.

My uncle transferred to the county jail in Monrovia a week after I arrived. He even managed to get a cell next to mine, and by that point I wasn’t even surprised.

His first words to me: “No hard feelings.”

He understood making a clean break and start over. “I just think it’s important to get your money’s worth.”

Jailhouse lawyers are protected men. I write and read, and have a pair of fancy headphones to drown out the chorus of inmates while I work on cases for the Vipers.

Sometimes I think about working on my own case and getting out somehow. But I close my eyes and see the tan skin of her shoulder. The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

They made sure I paid, too.


From Lombard to Lebkuchen (circa 1998)

-What the—? No way. This has got to be a joke. What kind of—what kind of a person would make something like this? Paul? Are you listening to me? Did you hear what I just said?

-Mmm?

-Look at this thing.

-Wow, a gingerbread house. How festive.

-That’s all you’ve got to say?

-Well, I think you know I’ve never been a big fan of gingerbread.

-Don’t you know what that’s supposed to be?  

-A diorama? Gee, do you think those evergreen trees are safe to eat?

-Those trees are dyed marzipan.

-Marzipan?

-Marzipan. Honey and ground almonds. Those birch trees? Rolled wafer cookies dipped in powdered sugar with pretzel stick branches lacquered together by something.

-Oh.

-Look closer.

-Why?

-Just do it.

-Okay, okay. Let’s see. Um, the roof has a pretty fierce pitch.

-Right. And?

-No candy canes?

-It’s a cabin, Paul.

-A gingerbread cabin, a gingerbread house, what’s the big deal? It’s a Christmas party. I’m just trying to rock the open bar and wolf down as many hors d’oeuvres as I can. So somebody built a gingerbread house. Getting crafty isn’t a crime.

-Stand here.

-Suzy…

-Now from this side, do you see that little plastic guy with the mustache, the one trudging through all that shredded coconut snow?

-Yes.

-Ratty green hoodie, disco-era sunglasses, carrying a package…you seriously don’t recognize who that is?

-Holy shit.

Boom.


FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION/PRIVACY ACTS SECTION
MEMORANDUM 64747-330-891H UNCLASSIFIED
SUBJECT: THEODORE JOHN KACZYNSKI; AKA “UNABOMBER”
FILE NUMBER: CS3424DTTF
RE: VICTIMS
PAGE TWELVE (CONT.)

05/25/78: Terry Marker — inconsequential cuts, burns.

05/9/79: John Harris — significant lacerations, 2D burns.

11/15/79: AA Flight 44 (twelve unidentified passengers) — toxic smoke inhalation, mild shock.

06/10/80: Percy Wood — severe tissue trauma and 2D-3D burns over 90% of the body.

05/5/82: Janet Smith — severe 3D burns to hands, shrapnel pattern wounds.

07/2/82: Diogenes Angelakos — severe 3D burns, shrapnel pattern damage to hands, throat, and face.

05/15/85: John Hauser — explosive loss of four digits, severed artery, vision loss L/R.

11/15/85: James V. McConnell — temporary hearing loss.

11/15/85: Nicklaus Suino — extensive shrapnel trauma, 2D and 3D burns.

12/11/85: Hugh Scrutton — DEATH.

02/20/87: Gary Wright — severe nerve damage and acute PTSD trauma, 2D burns.


06/22/93: Charles Epstein dual eardrum ruptures, PTSD trauma, hearing loss, loss of three digits.

06/24/93: David Gelernet — vision loss, burns, acute shrapnel mutilation, right hand post-event amputation.

12/10/94: Thomas J. Mosser — DEATH.

04/24/95: Gilbert Brent Murray — DEATH.


Short Timer

They didn’t bother with a parole hearing when the diagnosis came back terminal. I got escorted from the infirmary, handed my belongings, and showed the door. They didn’t even tell me how much time I had. At least when they shuffled me inside of those walls, I knew when I was checking out.

When someone gets this sickly, they drop the bullshit they’ve hauled around their whole life in hopes of leaving people with a little sadness in their hearts when they go, except my father. His last words were, “I’m going to Hell,” not, ‘Please forgive me for how I treated folks.’ He was a man of conviction who solidified his mythology before closing his eyes involuntarily. And I am my father’s son.

Dad willed me the switchblade he took off a handsy drunk who groped my mother while she was still pregnant with me and still waiting tables. He buffaloed the drunk over the guardrail running along the backside edge of the parking lot of the bar and grill, and gravity killed him somewhere along the sloped retaining wall on his way to the alleyway waiting below. Dad never even felt the cold pinch of stainless steel on his wrists over that one. Self-defense, as they say. 

His house may have gone to the county for owed back taxes, but granddad’s guns came with me. Had I been a parolee that’d been a parole violation, but I’d been freed so I could die without placing any further burden on taxpayers. That’s unofficial state policy.

Lonnie’s Guns & Gold could have passed for a museum of my entire earthly possessions, including the shoulder mount of a cinnamon-colored black bear I bagged the first fall after high school along with a fifty-five-inch muskie I landed about six years back. Dad’s favorite bucktail still hung from its lower lip. How heartless do you have to be to pawn heirlooms and keepsakes? Who the hell would buy some other guy’s trophy mounts? That’s the tradeoff for landing a trophy wife, it seems. I think that the last part was out loud because the pawnbroker came at me with some questions, too.

“Did they let you out early for good behavior?”

“Nope. We know better than that.”

“Didn’t escape, did you? You weren’t on the news,” Lonnie said, pointing to the wall of TVs from behind the bulletproof glass with a universal remote.

“Ass cancer,” I answered before he could find the news channel.

“You’re about as subtle as a ventriloquist with hiccups.”

“Parking lot payphone’s dead,” I said.

“You want to call Miss Cleo? See what your future holds since today seems your lucky day?”

“No, just making conversation.”

“Y’ain’t coming back here to use my phone, so if you’re done fondling my goodies—”

“I hate to come off sounding like an echo, but are you done fondling my goodies?”

“If you have a pawn slip and the cash, I’d be happy to return what is yours. If not, sorry. Call the cops, tell them your stuff was stolen and fenced here. Then they can take it into evidence, and you’ll see it one day. Possibly. Maybe.”

“I’ll need to borrow your phone for that—payphone’s busted to shit.”

“Borrow, no,” Lonnie said and snickered. “The way you’re wanting to borrow and check things out of here, you’d think you walked into the library.” A smart-mouthed tough guy perched behind umpteen layers of laminated glass. “No withdrawals or IOUs here. Try the city credit union. They have a bleeding-heart loan officer who doesn’t know how to say no like a whore late with last week’s rent.”

That said, I shouldered my way passed a rent-a-cop dressed like Special Forces and waited my turn.

“Sir, I’m sorry,” the teller said. “Do you have a different withdrawal slip, or did you forget to fill this one out?”

“My apologies,” I said with an embarrassed smile. “Do you have a pen I can borrow?”

She nodded in the direction of the beaded chain to my left, and I added ALL OF IT to the box that read: requested withdrawal amount

Then I smiled at her and added Rob A. Rhee to the signature line.


Pacific

At some point, Mickey realizes he’s dying. His legs are full of holes. The Kevlar vests made them feel like gods, but the cops shot low. Now he hears one of them, a woman, ask about an ambulance for Mickey. Another cop says, “Fuck that.” They’re all pissed off. He gets it. Him and Chino made a pretty big mess. Mickey himself is pretty sure he hit two people. Aiming at cops, but who knew where bullets went? From where he’s lying by the little Nissan pickup, he can see bullet holes in the white stucco face of a Talbot’s and the sidewalk full of glass shards throwing little rainbows onto the storefronts. He can hear sirens and see EMTs working on people farther up River City Drive.

Someone kicked his rifle away under the Nissan and that meant one of the cops had to drop down and grab for it, swearing about how hot the asphalt is and sticking his hand in fluid from the shot-up radiator. The cop flaps his hand in the air and some of the fluorescent green fluid spatters Mickey’s face. He’s cuffed and all he can do is try to blink it away.

They didn’t think of everything, Mickey and Chino. Didn’t plan on this many cops, that’s for sure. Chino told him St. John’s was like a mall, pretty much. The jewelry store didn’t have a guard. The streets didn’t have names, most of them. Open spaces and palm trees. There was a palm over his head now, laying down a small stripe of shade that he’d get to if he could move.

They were going west with the money. The desert was good for cars, Chino told him. He had a ’70 Buick GSX he’d restored by hand and with the money they were going to make today they’d move to LA and open a place together. Do custom builds, restomods. The cars staying clean and bright, not eaten away in this swampy air. Mickey didn’t know cars but Chino said, it’s okay, Mickey can design their website, keep the books.

The woman asks if the other one is dead. The other one is Chino. The angry cop says for all intensive purposes and weak as he is, Mickey has to laugh. Mickey’s mom was an English teacher, and they’d collect bits like that and tell each other. Even when she saw him in the Alachua County lockup. She made him laugh with “over ten billion SEVERED,” and a headline, “human BRIAN still evolving.” Sweating there in the visiting room, stealing glances at the lockers where her purse was locked up with the little flask she needed for the long drive. Screwdrivers, because they were easy and cheap, she said. ABC Vodka for seventy-five cents, and orange juice. Or orange drink, in emergencies. “Good news for Brian,” he said.

They’d always laugh, even at the ones they’d told each other a million times. “Charbroiled ANUS burgers” and “go slow, accident PORN area.” Even when his father left her with a split lip and an empty checkbook. He paid a kid at school three dollars for a receipt for “PENIS  butter snickers” and she laughed so hard her face started bleeding again.

Chino didn’t like jokes like that, thinking Mickey was making fun of his English. He had been sensitive that way, ready to take offense. They met at Cross City. In East Unit, on a work detail. Jimmy García said there was this girl from TV he thought about and Chino said, man, what show? You got to be pacific, and Mickey laughed a little and that was the wrong thing. But they’d gotten close. Stayed close outside, sweating in the little shack on Phelps. Getting the rifles from Jimmy, the vests. Drawing plans on the back of the back of a MacDonald’s bag.

Now the woman cop touches his cold hand. If he could still talk, he’d explain to Chino about pacific, what else it could mean. An ocean, right, but something else, too. If he could talk to his mother, she’d say, it’s alright. She’d say, don’t ruin the joke.


Old Habits

The engine of Mayfield’s cruiser spooked the foxes. They fled from the jaundiced yellow light of the porch, their lithe bodies bolting into perfect dark. There was no need for blue lights or siren. It wasn’t that type of call.

He made a point of putting on his hat—so as not to give the wrong impression – and stepped out into the cool night. Ed Hatton was crouched out front, scraping leftovers onto his lawn with the back of a fork. Two foxes skirted the edge of the garden, eyeing the scattered meat.

“I don’t know why you’d draw them on yourself like that,” Mayfield said.

“All I got for company.”

“We found your wife’s car, Ed.”

Hatton choked the handle of the fork.

“She wasn’t in it, but there was a letter on the passenger seat.”

Hatton blinked slowly, “You’d better come in.”

Mayfield paused in the doorway, watching the foxes move stealthily towards their meal.

Inside, Hatton searched the cabinets like a stranger in his own kitchen. He had the look of a boxer waking up on the canvas with no idea how he got there, reaching out for something to steady himself. It was the same bewildered look Mayfield himself had worn for months after he found his own wife Charlotte in her car with the needle still hanging limp from her arm, her eyes wide and lifeless, staring at all she had left behind. He had done everything he could to help her off the dope, everything short of strapping her to the bed, but it wasn’t enough.

Hatton abandoned his search for a cup and instead lifted a bottle of Jameson from the counter top and drank from the neck. They took their seats at the kitchen table and Mayfield handed over the letter. Tremors ran through Hatton’s hands as he read.

Not long before she disappeared, Mayfield had arrested Lisa Hatton. Heroin: the shared pain of these two men.

When Hatton was done reading, he tossed the letter on the table. “You read this?” he asked.

“Had to. Like it says, she’s probably gone somewhere to clean up. There’s every chance that when she gets her head straight, she’ll just walk in the front door.”

“How many times have you seen that happen?”

Mayfield failed to answer.

Hatton rose without a word, and took the bottle of whiskey with him down the darkened hallway. Mayfield sat in the silence of the kitchen for ten minutes before he got up and left.

Two months before Charlotte overdosed, she kicked the dope. For days, she locked herself into their bedroom and howled and retched at all angles of the clock. When the worst of it had passed, she paced the front deck, sipping delicately from cup after cup of chamomile tea, “To draw out the rest of the toxins,” she said. And for a while afterwards he had her back, the woman he had married. Light and breezy, with that mischievous smile of hers. He didn’t know she had slipped again until she was beyond saving.

Later, as Mayfield waited by his own kettle, watching steam billow and fade, he ran through all the angles. The forensics report on the car wouldn’t be in until Monday, but he was pretty sure it would come to nothing. Same for the letter.

As he crossed his back garden, thin spatters of rain rippled the surface of the cup he held. The grass shone blue in the moonlight and he thought of the foxes, how at ease they were in darkness, how they adapted to thrive in it. Before unlocking his shed, he took the ski-mask from his jacket pocket and pulled it over his face.

The festering stench of the vomit bucket almost forced him back out the door. Lisa Hatton lay curled around it, drowned in cold sweat and too weak for any more screaming. Her right ankle was bound by a chain to a water pipe. He lay the chamomile tea beside her head.

“Your colour is coming back,” he said.

Her eyes flickered from a fitful, tortured sleep, “I want to go home.”

“It’s okay,” Mayfield said, “you’re nearly through the worst of it.”


It’s for the Best

Promiscuous, that’s what the mayor has become. Power has unzipped his trousers. Libido has planted his love-stalk into too many pots. This morning he told me he’s running for re-election. A third term. Winning will doom him even more than he’s already doomed. I can’t let that happen.

One suicide. Two abortions. Four exploded marriages. That’s what I suspect. Who knows what else? Probably even the mayor doesn’t know. Or care.

Maybe I can’t fix the mayhem his lusty shenanigans have unleashed among the young women in our town, but right now I can certainly fix him a sandwich for lunch.

“Darling?” I say. “Corned beef and pepper jack sound good?”

He looks up from his phone. The blue eyes I once kissed now glitter harsh as fluorescent light. The high cheekbones I once stroked are flushed red as a rash. The full lips that once said he loved me more than God now get licked by a fat wet tongue, betraying that he’s looking on his phone at an X-rated video of his latest sweet young thing, legal, I’m sure, but barely.

“Seedless rye?” he asks.

“Absotively!” I reply. I know all his likes and dislikes. Nobody knows him better than I.

He fired an assistant for serving him a sandwich with seeded rye. Understandable. He’s allergic to caraway seeds, as am I. One of many traits we share.

Sadly, a trait we don’t share is monogamy.

“I’ll have a cold one, too,” he says, “unless you think it’s too early?”

I hand him a Coors Lite. “I’ll join you with a chardonnay,” I say. He rewards me with a dimpled smile. How I once loved those dimples.

I assemble two sandwiches—samwiches, he used to charmingly call them. I layer the meat with sliced tomatoes and iceberg lettuce (the only lettuce he’ll eat). Finally, I spread a thick layer of mayonnaise, but just on one slice of bread. The mayor loves his mayo. I love mayo, too, but today, I can’t put any on my sandwich.

I place our plates on the table. We chat about this and that. We both love rewatching Game of Thrones, and we discuss our favorite episodes. I especially love the skullduggery. He especially loves the brothel and rape scenes, though he’s polite enough not to say that to me of all people.

“Cersei is such a badass,” I say. “But she does love her children, and she always acts in their best interests, regardless the cost. I so admire her for that.”

Cersei is my favorite Game of Thrones character.

 “After lunch,” he suggests, “let’s watch the Walk of Shame episode.” He again dimples his beautiful smile.

The Walk of Shame episode is where Cersei is forced to walk naked through the city. Full frontal nudity. It’s my least favorite Cersei scene. It triggered nightmares, but instead of naked Cersei being jeered and spat upon, in my nightmares, it’s me.

“What do you say?” he asks.

I nod, blink back tears. That won’t happen.

He finishes his sandwich, belches to make me smile. He’s always had the funniest belches. He swallows the last of his beer.

I wait and watch. A frown pinches his beautiful brows. He rubs his stomach. Groans.

“I’ll always love you, my darling,” I murmur.

Dismay puckers his mouth. Then pain and betrayal twist his face into a gargoyle’s mask.

He chokes out one word—“Mama!”— before the poisoned mayonnaise topples him, lifeless, to the floor I stroke his beautiful face. “I’m sorry, my beloved son. It’s for the best.”


The Damned and Don Williams

Joe punched B24 on the juke box like he did years before and still received the warm bass and steel guitar that led into Don Williams “I Believe In You”. The memories flooded in and pushed thoughts away from the bullet in his side.

The few barflies cleared out. Only Tami, behind the bar, remained. “You got nerve coming back.”

“I wanted to hear our song once more.” He walked over and set his duffle bag on the bar, along with his gun. “Also like a bourbon on ice, best you got.”

“Can you afford it?”

Joe unzipped the bag.

Tami looked inside. “That’ll definitely get you Jack Daniels.”

“Keep the change.” Joe shoved it off to her side of the bar.

She grabbed the Jack. “Out for two days and you started trouble.”

“Only with Bercu.” He flipped the .38’s chamber out. “Might want to leave.”

“Maybe I’ll just sit in the corner and watch you die. That’s worth more than the money.”

Joe listened to Don Williams’ weathered baritone sing about how he didn’t believe in the price of gold, the certainty of growing old, and North and South getting along.

“You paid for the whole bottle.” Tami dropped the bottle and glass on the bar. “You can pour it yourself.”

She walked to the front of the bar. Joe slapped the chamber back in, set the pistol down, and listened to what Don did believe in; love, old folks, children, and the lady he was singing to. Joe pictured dancing with his love to it at the wedding that was supposed to be.

Tammi eyed the door. “Bet that psycho niece’ll be with him.”

Joe pointed to his bleeding side. “This was A.J.’s doing.”

“Hate the way she calls me beauty queen.”

“You were Miss Chester County.”

“And it got me all this.”

“Most folks have less.”

“Most folks are lucky enough not to live in Missouri.”

“Did we ever try to get out?”

“She did.” Joe took a sip.

Don Williams contemplated God in the next verse, singing that He’s down below and up above. Joe noticed the possible meaning for the first time. If God was below, maybe there was no Hell. Joe wondered if that’s what it meant.

Then the devil walked in.

Bercu, cadaver thin, receding white hair, always looked like Death coming at you. A.J., the psycho niece, stuck to his side. The homicidal energy ran through her like the hair trigger on the Glock in her hand. “Where’s our money, dipshit?”

Joe poured his Jack. “You think to check the back of my truck?”

Bercu bowed his head. “I thought you not using my name to get out of prison meant something.”

“I knew it would get me close to your money. “ Joe downed his drink.

Tami lit up a Capri.

A.J.’s eyes went to her. “Why you sticking around, Beauty Queen?”

“So no one steals the liquor.”

Bercu’s serpent head raised up. “Let’s go outside, Joe.”

“I’m comfortable here.” Joe set his glass down.

Next to his .38.

Bercu eyed the gun. “You had to steal from me.”

“Didn’t know you’d come out if I just killed A.J.”

A.J. glared daggers. “Screw you.”

Joe looked right into the old man. “You knew what she was to me”

“Not my fault your girl couldn’t handle her high.”

 “We were friends.”

“Can’t have friends in this business.”

“Don’t make it much of a business.”

“Study philosophy in prison?” Bercu reached into his jacket.

“Just coming to the end of things makes you think.”

Don sang how he didn’t believe Superman and Robin Hood were still alive in Hollywood. Joe’s pain got sharper.

He grabbed his pistol. A.J. raised hers.

Tammi yanked up a shotgun. “Hey, bitch.”

The blast blew A.J practically in half.

It distracted Bercu enough for Joe to put two bullets into him. Bercu’s gun hit the floor, followed by him.

Joe dropped to the barstool.

Tammi poured him another with a shaky hand. “Was serious about that ‘Beauty Queen’ shit.”

“Nothing to do with your sister?”

“Never knew what she saw in you.”

Tammi clinked the bottle with his glass. Joe faded out with the steel guitar.


Mariticide

We glittered, perfect teeth, smiles, skin. Talk show host gushed and fawned.  We told them embellished anecdotes of lives never lived, created by marketers we didn’t know.  

A two-day stubble became haute couture by week’s end. A feather in my hair, preceded plagues of plucked feathers.

Eye candy to millions, I induced a million nocturnal emissions. A star quarterback, poetry of movement and grace, he proposed. I accepted.

We married in a private ceremony of Royalty, Hollywood Hucksters and Mega Rich. Headline news in a world of famine and melting ice-caps. I looked great. He looked greater because I was on his arm.

It didn’t take him long to cheat, his ego.

Meaningless, he said. Trophies.

Once I was the only trophy you needed, I said and asked for divorce. 

No. He loved me too much.

He owned lots of things, cars, yachts, summer estates.  I was one of them. Some women may have taken on a surreptitious lover or two, revelled in revenge fucks.  I didn’t.

I shrank in his shadow, paled on his arm, faded, invisible. I no longer glittered. It didn’t matter.  Glitter is tinsel.  It was always tinsel.

I read books, hiked wilds, studied. I took joy in those things, none in him. I yearned for wildernesses, brutal, beautiful and honest.

I learned photography. Became good, better, best, sent proposals for a feature on a sporting star.  Adonis in the wilderness, a commercial venture to sell everything from socks, jocks and head bands.  I’d lined up a glittering young star.

I am cougar. Hear me roar.

Hubby was furious. No nascent spark would cast him in shadow. He came to me with apologies.  He was a better subject, carried more gravitas. It was an opportunity to celebrate his image before age sagged him to custard and walking sticks. 

It was about him, the aging Adonis.

We stayed in accommodation of ice beneath a sky of winter darkness. He posed and strutted, oiled and glittering on icy snow beneath the Northern Lights, his shrinking penis hidden behind a hand. He straddled a Mongolian Pony on icy Steppes dressed in loin cloth.  Naked, he skimmed over coral reefs and sunken World War 2 wrecks in the Solomon Islands.

The last location, a glamping site in a swampy wilderness with catered meals . We spent warm tropical evenings on a screened deck and drank wine. He regaled me with his sporting feats. I feigned interests.  Swooned. Batted my eyelashes. I’d heard them all before but they had changed, embellished, hyperbolised.

I collected scraps from the camp kitchen, tossed them along the bank of the river at the same time every day to entice wildlife before my lens. Watched birds descend from the sky and silent shadows creep towards the bank. Checked for scat and footprints.

His oiled body glistened in the sun. Women and men would swoon over that body.  I found it blunt and contrived. The last photo shoot drew near.  The Light would be perfect. Late afternoon mist rising from the water, red setting sun.

For days, I wined him and dined him and sang to him:

Walk with me Adonis-man, Tarzan-man, to the water’s edge, where the lotus blooms and egrets spread their snowy wings and rise like dreams. Where sequined fish rise and kiss ripples on the water’s glassy finish. Recline upon the grassy bank. Stand in marshy shallows as the red sun sets over still waters. Pose for me.

And he did…

Ancient. Four and half million years of predatory perfection. Yellow eyed, dinosaur toothed death crashed the mirrored serenity of water. So sudden, taken by the legs, his face captured on camera. The shock and horror on that smug mouth. Comical. I trembled with laughter. Water twinkled in evening light like glitter. The motor drive clicked frame after frame, until the water stilled, the croc sank with its prize and the surface turned to glass. Every frame a thing of beauty. Light, shade, colour, composition.  Art. Such a beautiful death.  He knew in his final seconds. Tragic.  His fans mourned.