Con Game

Cons walk slower than citizens. In the prison yard, the chow line, you name it. Slow.

The reason is simple: there’s no reason to hurry when there’s no place to go.

I was one of those cons. Still am. For however much time I have left after I shiv Paco Perez.

• • •

My brother Ethan was the baby of the family, literally. Born ten years after the next-youngest Madigan boy, Ethan was blessed with more brains than the rest of us idiots combined.

Ambition, too. From the day the kid started school it was obvious he would become Somebody Important. An influential politician, a business tycoon or maybe an activist. He was born to change the world.

While the rest of us were smoking dope and ripping purses out of old ladies’ hands, and then graduating to knocking over liquor stores and stealing cars, Ethan kept his nose clean and worked hard in school. He got grades that made the rest of us look stupid.

Not that that was a particularly high bar to clear.

Even as he got older, somehow he stayed out of trouble. With negative role models as far as the eye could see, the teenaged Ethan was even more of a straight arrow than he’d been when he was little, if that was possible.

Me and his other brothers harassed him for it mercilessly, but we made sure nobody else in the neighborhood so much as looked at the kid cross-eyed. We were so fucking proud. Against all odds, one of the Madigan boys was going to make good.

And then Ethan discovered heroin.

We all knew something was wrong; of course we did. And with any regular kid we would immediately have suspected drugs.

But Ethan Madigan was no regular kid. Not one of us even considered the possibility he’d begun sticking needles filled with poison into his arm. The notion was ludicrous.

For the longest time, none of us suspected it could be that.

• • •

I was serving a five-to-ten stretch for armed robbery when Ethan died. He was found on a streetcorner in Lawrence with enough fentanyl in his system to take down a small elephant, and even in a family of reprobates and small-time criminals, no one saw that kind of end coming.

To say we were blind to Ethan’s addiction would be an understatement.

I wasn’t allowed to attend my little brother’s funeral.

• • •

Paco got send up not long afterward, busted for running a gang specializing in opioids and prostitution. The Devil Dogs, they called themselves.

I learned within days of Ethan’s death that it was a Devil Dog who’d sold my brother the fentanyl that killed him. It wasn’t Paco, of course. Paco was much too important to be involved in something as minor as a street deal.

But Paco was the man behind the curtain.

The brains of the Devil Dog operation.

And he was being sent to Cedar Junction.

• • •

I know my brother suffered from a chemical imbalance in his brain.

I know Paco Perez was not responsible for that imbalance. He didn’t orchestrate it, didn’t force Ethan to inject synthetic poison into his veins. I’m sure Paco wouldn’t have known Ethan Madigan from a hole in the wall.

But Paco Perez is still going to die.

• • •

It cost much more than I ever thought myself capable of paying to acquire the blade.

Not money.

Not cigarettes.

Sexual activity; that was the price. But I didn’t care. It was a business transaction, nothing more. And now I have the weapon I need.

Tomorrow is the day.

In the yard.

Paco will never see me coming.

There’s no need to get fancy or worry about witnesses. Once I take Paco down my life will be over anyway. The Dogs will be able to get to me anytime they want.

But I don’t care. At least this way my life will have meant something. If I were to get out it would only be a matter of time before I ended up right back here, anyway.

Taking Paco down won’t bring Ethan back.

I know that.

I’m going to do it anyway.


Release: Kraj the Enforcer: Stories

About the Book

Meet Kraj—pronounced krai—a low-level errand boy and hitman masquerading as a bouncer for Tricky Ricky Gutierrez, nefarious owner of the Twist, a club in upstate Elmira NY. A place that has both a LGBTQIA night and a cowboy country night, this cockeyed corner bar in northern Appalachia supports Ricky’s illegal schemes, and serves as a rural balm for Croatian-war refugee Kraj.

Kraj plies his trade over a short span, moving from petty theft to strong-arming tips from people at the door, breaking up redneck fights, protecting the club’s nubile female staff and collecting gambling debts owed Tricky Ricky. Kraj eventually gets sucked further and further into Ricky’s underworld plans, where he wants to be seen as a man on the come-up, but he has problems moving up in Ricky’s organization will never solve. His sister Ana, missing since the Croatian War for Independence, never strays far from his mind.

Kraj, together with his sometime girlfriend Cami, newly become manager of a franchisee McDonald’s, and his manager Mikael. negotiates his way through underground fight clubs, prostitution rings, drug deals, petty thievery, and of course, murder. Tricky Ricky gives Kraj a great deal of rope and autonomy to operate.

Will he hang himself with it or swing?

Praise

“Kraj is a human wrecking ball, hiding a tactical mindset, along with his sense of humor. Barnes’ Croat knockaroud guy is masterfully subtle, yet amplified by the colorful characters around him.”

— Scotch Rutherford, Switchblade Magazine

“Rusty Barnes leads us on a pulpy underworld adventure populated by toughs, scumbags, henchmen, double-crossers, pimps, and con men of the first water with his latest collection The Kraj Stories. Opening the book is stepping into the cage and each turn of the page is a quick jab to the face. You’ll close the book and find yourself with a bloody nose, a crushed larynx, and, if you’re really lucky, that you’ve been set on fire.”

— Eryk Pruitt, author What We Reckon

About the Author

Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely, with stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Toe Six.


Release: Chasing China White

Chasing China White by Allan Leverone

About the Book

Derek Weaver’s a junkie.

He’s also homeless and jobless and into his dealer for way more cash than he can hope to repay. So when he’s given an ultimatum by the regional heroin supplier—commit a home invasion and steal enough jewelry to cover that man’s debt or take a one-way trip into the Atlantic on a lobster boat—he makes the only possible choice.

But things go sideways and Derek soon finds himself a multiple murderer on the run from both law enforcement and the mob. Trapped in a diner, using his own brother as a hostage to prevent police from storming the building, Derek begins to realize the only way out of a hopeless situation may come from facing down ancient demons he’s long ignored.

Praise

Chasing China White starts with a simple premise—a desperate junkie agrees to do a favor for his dealer—but with each page, Allan Leverone raises the stakes and turns the screws until you’re left holding your breath at the edge of your seat. This noir tale is impossible to set aside until you follow its spiral all the way down.”

Hilary Davidson, Anthony Award–winning author of One Small Sacrifice

“As dark as the bottom of a well, this story clips along from one calamity to another. The real suspense here is whether Derek will see redemption, but Leverone makes us question if anyone really does. This is a strong dose that gets your heart pumping and will make you sweat, but like an addict, you won’t want to quit.”

Eric Beetner, author of All the Way Down

“As poignant as it is bleak and violent, Allan Leverone’s Chasing China White is a powerful, expertly-written slice of gritty, bare-bones crime fiction, and just like the addiction it explores, once it has you in its grip, all you want is more. Highly recommended.”

Greg F. Gifune, author of Dangerous Boys

“Allan Leverone has a new one out— Chasing China White —a novel with a thrilling plot, evocative setting, deep characterization—suspenseful—you can’t put it down–this book has it all.”

Les Edgerton, author of Adrenaline Junkie, The Bitch, The Rapist and others

About the Author

Allan Leverone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty novels, four novellas and countless short stories. A former winner of the prestigious Derringer Award for excellence in short mystery fiction, he lives in Londonderry, New Hampshire with his wife of thirty-five years, three grown children and three beautiful grandchildren. He loves to hear from readers; connect on Facebook, Twitter @AllanLeverone, and at AllanLeverone.com.


Blonde to Black

I never wanted to hurt anybody.

Never wanted to kill anybody, either.

But as the Stones reminded us a long time ago, you can’t always get what you want.

* * *

The girl was tall and blonde, and she rocked her miniskirt the way Michael Jackson once rocked that white glove. I eyed her when she walked into the bar and I couldn’t imagine how that damned skirt could get any shorter.

It took awhile to drag my eyes away from her because she looked so much like my sister it was eerie. When I finally could, my first instinct was to check the front door. There was no way in hell a chick as gorgeous as her could possibly be coming into a place like this alone.

But no one was with her.

She strolled wide-eyed through the place and headed for the pool tables in back, exuding sex and innocence in equal measure. Everyone in the place watched her as she passed.

This wasn’t the kind of joint where suburban couples went to sip umbrella drinks and unwind after CrossFit. It was an old-fashioned tavern, populated mostly by blue-collar men and women serious about achieving and maintaining altered states of consciousness. That was exactly why I had chosen the place to celebrate the first night of freedom following my release, and exactly why I was so surprised to see the blonde there. She couldn’t have been more out of place if she’d tried.

From my vantage point I could see her perfectly. I could see also that the entire bar was tracking her every move. When she bent over the pool table it was as if her ass was a magnet and their eyeballs were made of steel.

Hooker, I thought. She had to be. She was in here drumming up business.

But that small-town innocence gave lie to the notion or her as a pro. I couldn’t shake the thought that she reminded me exactly of my sister, who’d been sweetness and light.

Until the night she was kidnapped and murdered at seventeen.

Anyway, it was only a matter of time before things got ugly with a girl like the blonde in a place like this. It almost seemed preordained.

By the time I’d downed my next drink three guys in work boots and oil-stained t-shirts were harassing her, getting into her personal space, leering and making comments I couldn’t hear but didn’t need to.

When one of them began rubbing her ass, leaning into the girl and trapping her between himself and the pool table, I’d had enough. I slammed my glass down with a thud and stalked across the room.

“Leave her alone,” I said.

“Or what?”

“Or somebody’s going to the hospital.”

That was when I saw the blade. The blonde squirmed away at the same time the dude who’d been fondling her ass reached into his pocket and pulled out the weapon. His hand flashed and the knife glittered in the muted light and I did the only thing I could.

I lifted the pool cue the girl had dropped onto the table and swung it at his head. Cliché? Maybe, but I connected solidly and the knife clattered to the floor as the cue-stick snapped in half. The harasser dropped instantly in a shower of blood and skull-bone fragments.

By the time I looked up the blonde had vanished.

* * *

I appeared before a judge the next morning but the fix was in. Somehow the prosecutor got the entire goddamn bar to back his version of events:

That there was no knife.

The dude hadn’t harassed anyone.

And no blonde had ever entered the bar.

Not one single soul the cops interviewed would even admit to having seen the sexy blonde in the short miniskirt. They laid it all on me. Their story was that I’d sat in the corner drinking all night, spouting nonsense about kidnappings and dead sisters and making someone pay.

The hearing was short and sweet and definitive.

Now I’m back in the psych ward after one day on the streets.

My sister’s killer still walks free.

And I don’t know if I’ll ever get out again.


Falling Away

I’d never expected to see her again.

But six long months after she left me without so much as a goodbye I walked into my apartment after a night of drinking—a typical night, in other words—and there she was. It was like she’d never left. She sat in her customary spot at the end of the couch, feet curled under her like a cat, wispy cigarette smoke forming a fallen angel’s dirty halo over her head, open bottle of Jameson’s on the end table.

And she looked even more beautiful than she had the last time I saw her.


The Needle and the Spoon

I was busy breaking some guy’s knuckles the night my brother died.

You see, when people gamble, sometimes they end up owing more money than they can pay.

To the wrong people.

I work for those people, so needless to say I work odd hours.

Anyway, the night Danny overdosed on heroin and alcohol was just another night at the office for me. Some dope had been so convinced the Yankees were gong to win the World Series that he had gotten over-enthusiastic with his wagers, and I was dispatched to show him the error of his ways.

By the time Danny’s girlfriend called me, hysterical and babbling about needles and a bottle of JD, my brother was gone.

***

He was a good kid.

That’s hard to believe, right? A good kid? He was a fucking heroin addict.

But he wasn’t always a heroin addict, just like I wasn’t always a legbreaker for Boston’s second-largest sports book. When he was young, Danny was the smartest kid in the room, no matter how many people you stuffed inside the goddamn room. He was a whiz at science and math. He loved playing the guitar and watching documentaries.

A good kid.

Somewhere along the line he got lost, and by the time I tumbled to what was wrong, it was way too late. The needle and the spoon, and all that.

***

I visited Danny’s drug counselor the day after they lowered my brother’s body into the ground. He seemed a decent enough guy, all things considered, for a shrink. He told me the odds were always against Danny, that once someone gets addicted to heroin, they’re always addicted, that even a reformed addict is just one bad decision away from disaster.

None of it was stuff I didn’t know, but it was still hard to listen to. I asked him how he dealt with addiction every day, trying to pick up the pieces of so many shattered lives and glue them back together, and he gave me a rueful smile. “You have to accept that you can only be so effective. Ultimately, the decision to use or not is always up to the addict. What can you do?”

I smiled and nodded and said nothing.

I knew what I could do.

***

Despite my blindness and stupidity in recognizing Danny’s issues until it was too late, I had done the best I could for my brother. I had always known somewhere inside that it might come to this, so a couple of times I had tailed Danny to the beaten-down strip mall outside Boston where he bought his heroin.

I had never interfered – taking an active addict’s drugs away from him is pointless; he’ll just go get more – but I had filed all of the information away. In case I ever needed it.

Now I needed it.

I borrowed Danny’s car. His girlfriend didn’t care. She said I could keep it, that it held too damn many bad memories, anyway.

I wore an old windbreaker. Pulled a baseball cap low on my forehead. Counted on darkness and family resemblance to do the rest. It wasn’t like I’d be hanging out with the dealer for long.

When I drove into the lot, I pulled to the far corner, as I had seen Danny do. Then I sat there.

And sat there.

Eventually an abandoned-looking SUV parked halfway across the lot started and eased slowly next to Danny’s car.

I rolled down the window. So did the driver. It was the same guy I’d seen Danny buy from.

The minute his window had whirred down, I raised the Sig Sauer P229 I was holding down by my leg and put one slug between his eyes. Then I opened my door, climbed out, leaned into the SUV, and maneuvered around the dead driver to shoot the dealer’s bodyguard – armed and dangerous and utterly unprepared – in the head as well.

Then I drove away.

***

You might say that what I did doesn’t matter, that another dealer will be set up and operating in that location within days.

You would be right.

But I don’t care. It matters to me.


‘Twas the Knife Before Christmas

Christmas Eve.

The snow had been falling lightly all day, and the Hancock Building shimmered in the distance through the milky gauze. It was a postcard scene, but in my neighborhood, good tidings were hard to find. Grimy cabs bounced through rutted streets, splashing mud and filthy snow on the skeleton crew of hookers looking to spread their unique brand of Christmas cheer to drive-by suburban johns. For a price, of course.

I struggled up Union Street, trying unsuccessfully to stay dry on the way to my sister’s apartment. It was only 5:30, kind of early to knock off work, I know. But what the hell, Christmas only comes once a year, right? Besides, even the slimeballs I deal with as a debt collector for Boston’s second-biggest underground sports book snuggle up with family on this night.

Some of them, anyway.

The stairs creaked and groaned in my sister’s century-old building as I climbed. I imagined myself falling right through and moved faster, as if that might make a difference. The moment Mary pulled the door open, I knew something was wrong.

Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery and she clutched a crumpled-up tissue in one hand. Her six year old boy—my nephew Joey—slumped on the couch, eyes glued to an old Christmas movie on TV. I glanced over her shoulder at the fake tree in the corner. A couple of wrapped boxes sat beneath it, appearing lonely and forlorn.

The gift I was looking for was gone.

So was her worthless boyfriend Bobby.

***

My little sister’s never had a lick of sense when it comes to guys. She’s ambitious. Pretty. Dumb as a stump about picking men. “Where’s the train set?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

Her lower lip quivered. “Bobby’s selling it.”

“What?”

“He’s gonna replace it with a toy car or something. He says Joey won’t know the difference, and he can use the money for quality glass.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s meeting the buyer at Flanagan’s.”

***

Flanagan’s had been in the neighborhood for decades, and was located just a block from my sister’s apartment. I navigated the slushy sidewalk, thinking about Christmas, and about family, and about what kind of meth-addicted loser could be so desperate for a high he would sell a six year-old’s present on Craigslist on Christmas Eve.

The present I had bought for that six year old.

I told myself not to overreact. Told myself the bruises on Mary’s face could have been caused by running into a door like she claimed. Told myself she might have grown clumsy, that all the other times she had been injured might be unrelated to Bobby’s instability. Told myself Bobby was an addict and couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.

Decided I didn’t care.

***

Despite the dim lighting, I spotted Bobby the moment I walked through the door. He sat at a small table with another fat-assed loser, the wrapped present between them. By the time I dropped into the seat next to Bobby the box had disappeared. For a tweaker, the asshole could be surprisingly smooth.

“Merry Christmas,” I said coldly, enjoying Bobby’s startled reaction. To the other guy, I said, “Beat it.”

“Wait a second,” he sputtered. “What about—”

“The train’s off the market,” I said, sliding my combat knife out of its sheath and displaying it under the table. The guy was out the door in seconds. I guessed he hadn’t moved that fast in years.

To Bobby I said, “It wasn’t easy picking a Christmas present for Mary. Thanks for making up my mind.”

His eyes bounced from my knife to my face. “Wh-what do you mean? What did you decide to give her?” he asked.

“A future. Let’s go for a walk, Bobby, whaddaya say?”

***

I rarely take an entire day off. Maybe half a dozen times a year. But this Christmas Day I just couldn’t get motivated to work; I was having too much fun watching Joey play with his train set. Mary was upbeat and happy. She reminded me of the little girl I remember from when we were kids.

The best part? She never once asked about Bobby.


Lessons Learned

The kid eased into my Jaguar in half a heartbeat, all smug self-assurance and low-riding jeans. And a snub-nosed .38, which he jammed under my chin. “Drive,” he said, and it seemed like the best option, so I did.

The light turned green and the traffic moved sluggishly along Storrow Drive. I checked the rear view. Maybe the soccer mom behind me had seen the kid and was even now calling 911. Guess again. Her cell was pressed to her ear, but she was laughing and snapping her gum and I knew a bomb could have gone off at the light and she would simply have driven right around it and on to the gym or the spa or wherever.

It seemed apparent there would be no miracle rescue.

I concentrated on the road ahead and kept the kid in my peripheral vision. Maybe I could lift my forearm up under his gun hand and shove it back, cold-cocking him with a left at the same time.

But almost as if he could sense my thoughts, the kid slid away, putting his back to the passenger door, gun now trained on my chest, out of range of my fists. Bad development. Thing about a snub-nose, it’s basically useless outside of about a dozen feet; any farther than that and most people couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Of course, my Jag is a lot less than a dozen feet wide and the kid looked ready to blow my ass to hell if I didn’t do exactly as he said, which, at the moment, consisted of following a series of turns tossed out almost casually, turns that I knew were designed to take us to I-93 and out of the city.

Toward the suburbs. Where even around a city the size of Boston, there are plenty of places to take care of business without any pesky witnesses.

“You don’t have to do this,” I told him.

“Shut up,” he said.

“You haven’t hurt anybody yet; you could get out right here and no one ever has to know.”

“Shut up.”

So I did what anyone would do. I shut up. Soon we were crossing the Zakim Bridge toward New Hampshire. I knew we would never get that far. The kid was headed someplace secluded, someplace he had already picked out, where he could take the wheel of the Jag and dump me.

I knew all this. The only question was whether he would pull the trigger before he did it. The funny thing was the kid didn’t even look old enough to drive, although a teenager willing to stick a .38 up someone’s ass probably wasn’t too concerned about the DMV’s licensing regulations.

We got to the Stoneham exit in about ten minutes, making excellent time. Traffic was light. Lucky me.

A few more minutes and we turned onto a crumbling stretch of pavement in a densely forested area. And we were alone.

And he said, “Get out.”

And I said, “Forget it.” I’ve owned that Jag for years and I wasn’t losing it to some snot-nosed punk.

And he said, “Get out now!”

I ducked my head to the right and unloaded a roundhouse left, and knew immediately I had fucked up. The kid was lightning-quick. He pulled the trigger. That was that.

***

“So, what did we learn today, Robbie?” The Crown burned pleasantly as I took a deep swallow. I gazed at my son.

He shrugged. “Nothin’ new.”

I nodded. “Damn straight. You were perfect. Give the sap a chance to surrender his stuff, but if he makes a move, you take him down. You’re training’s officially over.” I smiled. “It’s time you join the old man in the family business. Tomorrow you start for real. Don’t forget to load the gun from now on.”

I passed the bottle to Rob to celebrate. Sure, you could argue this was no life for a teenager, but I didn’t earn that Jag by sitting on my ass. Besides, working’ll keep him away from those damned video games the kids love to play.

Have you ever seen those things? They’re too goddamned violent, that’s what I think.


Lessons Learned

The kid eased into my Jaguar in half a heartbeat, all smug self-assurance and low-riding jeans. And a snub-nosed .38, which he jammed under my chin. “Drive,” he said, and it seemed like the best option, so I did.

The light turned green and the traffic moved sluggishly along Storrow Drive. I checked the rear view. Maybe the soccer mom behind me had seen the kid and was even now calling 911. Guess again. Her cell was pressed to her ear, but she was laughing and snapping her gum and I knew a bomb could have gone off at the light and she would simply have driven right around it and on to the gym or the spa or wherever.

It seemed apparent there would be no miracle rescue.

I concentrated on the road ahead and kept the kid in my peripheral vision. Maybe I could lift my forearm up under his gun hand and shove it back, cold-cocking him with a left at the same time.

But almost as if he could sense my thoughts, the kid slid away, putting his back to the passenger door, gun now trained on my chest, out of range of my fists. Bad development. Thing about a snub-nose, it’s basically useless outside of about a dozen feet; any farther than that and most people couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Of course, my Jag is a lot less than a dozen feet wide and the kid looked ready to blow my ass to hell if I didn’t do exactly as he said, which, at the moment, consisted of following a series of turns tossed out almost casually, turns that I knew were designed to take us to I-93 and out of the city.

Toward the suburbs. Where even around a city the size of Boston, there are plenty of places to take care of business without any pesky witnesses.

“You don’t have to do this,” I told him.

“Shut up,” he said.

“You haven’t hurt anybody yet; you could get out right here and no one ever has to know.”

“Shut up.”

So I did what anyone would do. I shut up. Soon we were crossing the Zakim Bridge toward New Hampshire. I knew we would never get that far. The kid was headed someplace secluded, someplace he had already picked out, where he could take the wheel of the Jag and dump me.

I knew all this. The only question was whether he would pull the trigger before he did it. The funny thing was the kid didn’t even look old enough to drive, although a teenager willing to stick a .38 up someone’s ass probably wasn’t too concerned about the DMV’s licensing regulations.

We got to the Stoneham exit in about ten minutes, making excellent time. Traffic was light. Lucky me.

A few more minutes and we turned onto a crumbling stretch of pavement in a densely forested area. And we were alone.

And he said, “Get out.”

And I said, “Forget it.” I’ve owned that Jag for years and I wasn’t losing it to some snot-nosed punk.

And he said, “Get out now!”

I ducked my head to the right and unloaded a roundhouse left, and knew immediately I had fucked up. The kid was lightning-quick. He pulled the trigger. That was that.

***

“So, what did we learn today, Robbie?” The Crown burned pleasantly as I took a deep swallow. I gazed at my son.

He shrugged. “Nothin’ new.”

I nodded. “Damn straight. You were perfect. Give the sap a chance to surrender his stuff, but if he makes a move, you take him down. You’re training’s officially over.” I smiled. “It’s time you join the old man in the family business. Tomorrow you start for real. Don’t forget to load the gun from now on.”

I passed the bottle to Rob to celebrate. Sure, you could argue this was no life for a teenager, but I didn’t earn that Jag by sitting on my ass. Besides, working’ll keep him away from those damned video games the kids love to play.

Have you ever seen those things? They’re too goddamned violent, that’s what I think.