S.O.L.

Doesn’t matter if it costs fifty cents or fifty bucks, Gordie realized.  One cigar can foul the air for a hundred feet in all directions.  That’s how he knew Purcell lay in wait around the corner up ahead.  Gordie’s grace period had expired.

And the pisser was, he’d had Purcell’s money that very morning.  All of it.  A hot streak and four jacks at an all-night Texas hold’em game in a motel room out on the sleaze end of route forty had provided enough cash that he wouldn’t have to test the length of Purcell’s legendary reach.

Gordon Beale had intended to pay and be quit of that psycho bloodsucker, hand to God.  But then he’d stopped at Sweeney’s for a beer and overheard those old dudes talking.  Mornings were Gordie’s favorite time in any bar.  No crowd, no jukebox, no smoke polluting the air.  After squinting through clouds of second-hand all night, his eyeballs needed the detox.  In the silence of the near-empty pub, the two men’s voices carried down the length of polished bar top to Gordie.

“Trust me, Rowdy’s Mr. Singh ain’t gonna win.”

“How you figure?  That booger’s running at almost even money.”

Gordie signaled the keep to beer him, using the brief time before the bored mick set down a bottle to move one stool closer to the chatty duo.

“For the price of a twenty, one of the paddock boys spilled that Mr. Singh’s been off his feed a week.”  He tapped the racing form spread open on the bar, as if to emphasize what the stats did not show.  “The owner’s keeping it on the DL.  Told the vet to shoot him up with whatever’ll get him through the race, even if he comes in dead last.”

“Makes no sense to run your meal ticket if he’s sick.”

Unless you’re betting against him under the table, keeping the odds long on another horse.”

Gordie drank his hops-based breakfast and listened attentively as the one in the gray felt porkpie explained why the second-favorite wouldn’t win either.  Seemed Moon Dancer’s jockey was balancing his account with some OTB gorilla by swearing not to come in ahead of show position.  The jockey’s kneecaps were on the line, and Gordie thought been there, seconded by hell, I’m there now.

“So, Moon Dancer slips back to show and, even off his feed and pumped full of antibiotics, bloodline guarantees the place slot to Rowdy’s Mr. Singh.”

His compadre threw him a skeptical look through cartoon-big eyeglasses.

“You saying Chatterbox goes from predicted third to a win?”

“You’d think so, but the invisible betting’s going on a nag that was supposed to stumble in just out of the money.  Nobody’s saying why, but that much smart and quiet doesn’t get wagered on a maybe.”

Gordie had stopped eavesdropping once he caught the sure winner’s name, turning his thoughts to how broke he’d be after giving Purcell the poker winnings to cover what he’d lost on football.  Maybe God was showing him a way to clear the slate and still have some walking around cash.

The cigar stench jerked him out of his reverie, assaulting his nostrils as he trudged toward the corner, cursing his own stupidity for believing those old touts had been preaching the Holy Gospel.  Purcell’s settle-up had been shat on by a horse named Carmody’s Commander.

Literally.

On the far turn, the three-year-old roan had hitched stride long enough to drop a load onto the track, ceding a length to Moon Dancer and never making up the distance, while Chatterbox blew in first, a neck ahead of Rowdy’s Mr. Singh.

Gordie had played it smart, conservative for once in his no-luck life.  Resisting the urge to go all in for the win, he had chosen the smaller pay-out of a show bet to be on the safe side, knowing he couldn’t afford to lose.  Not this time.

Rounding the corner with a horse-shit story ready on his glib tongue, praying self-deprecating humor could buy yet another week’s reprieve, Gordie was hit in the face by the acrid stink of Purcell’s fat stogie.

Oh, and two slugs from a silenced .38.


Flying Shrapnel, Flying Squirrels

The Polatouche boys were twisted, evil scumbags, especially youngest brother Rocco.  I know because we were best friends till seventh grade, after which he stopped participating in Newark’s scam to educate its youth.

When a truant officer phoned Mr. Polatouche requesting a home conference, Tony bounced Rocco’s head off the fridge, strongly suggesting he handle his own shit.  On conference day, Big Tone chugged boilermakers at Dorfman’s, while Sal, Gianni and Remo held the functionary and 13-year-old Rocco tire-ironed his first kneecap.

Relieved to be rid of the fourth and final brother, the school requested no more conferences.

 

A year behind me in the system was another Polatouche: Sabrina, whom Rocco charged me with protecting at school.

“I ain’t gonna be around to kick the dick off anybody looks at Sabby cross-eyed, so you have to step up.”

At five-four and 118 pounds, I couldn’t have kicked the dick off a Yorkie, but I knew better than to say no.

The gig was easy.  Shy Sabrina’s toxic surname cooled even the horniest suitor’s interest, so she went from gangly dork to raven-haired beauty, still unkissed at seventeen.

During those years, I worked toward a scholarship while the Polatouche brothers beefed-up their thug reps, meaning Rocco and I naturally drifted apart.  He still trusted me, though, so I was the one he tapped to take Sabrina to prom.

“She’s bitching 24/7: Rocky, you’re scaring off any guy who might want to ask me out.  Well, fuckin’ duh.”

Despite wanting to shield her from nasty boys, he caved because prom was such a big deal to her.  Rocco covered the tux, corsage and limo, but warned me what would happen if I did anything more than dance and fetch punch.  It involved my learning what my own balls taste like, and he wasn’t kidding.

Prom night Sabby and I fell in love, our formal, 18-inches-apart hold melting into a clinch that had us draped all over each other by the final slow dance.  Through my freshman year at college we kept our secret, amping the heat with frequent trysts and passionate emails.

 

Then, last week, I proposed to Sabrina, hoping the honorable nature of my intentions would discourage her siblings from making me floss with nutsack hair.  She suggested we not tell them.

“Let’s kill them instead, Joshy.  All four of those psycho fucks.”

How could I deny my sweet fiancée?  Especially after she revealed that, as kids, the boys had routinely used her as a punching bag.  Practice, no doubt, for the day they’d slip a stolen diamond on the finger of some bimbo dumb enough to say yes to the mess, and then knock the crap out of her for the next forty years.

Sabby tearfully told Rocco I’d taken her virginity and dumped her, triggering a predictable Polatouche revenge offensive.  He called, all buddy-buddy chill, asking me to meet him the following day at the warehouse where he and his bros stashed drugs, hot merchandise and the occasional severed finger.  With Sabrina demanding retribution, he never suspected her of helping me trap him.

Rocco said he’d come solo, but we watched from across the canal as Gianni, Sal and Remo joined him, all four unaware of my early morning visit to plant the explosives cheerfully provided by a nine-fingered rival.

Entering through the rear door as instructed, I saw Rocco standing alone.

“Hey, Rocky,” I chirped.  “Whussup?”

“You back-stabbing little shit.  Thought you could fuck my sister and get away with it?”

 

He pulled his gun, but I wasn’t afraid.  Even back in school, Rocco always toyed with his victim first.

I didn’t give him the chance.

“Isn’t that just like a Polatouche, bringing a gun to a bomb fight,” I said, lifting my hand so he could see my thumb on the dead-man’s switch.

“Ambush!” he shouted.  His brothers materialized and the four scampered like squirrels for the front door, which Sabrina had already locked from the other side.

Darting out the back, I released the switch and ran like hell, debris and Polatouche parts exploding upward, then arcing over into descent.  For some reason I found myself humming that disco classic “It’s Raining Men.”


Wave Good-bye

My unease came not from the funeral itself, but from the fact that the service was clothing optional.  Sweltering under the noonday sun in my suit and tie among naked or might-as-well-be-naked mourners on the private Malibu beach, I resisted the urge to chug the one-liter bottle of chilled water I held unobtrusively at my side.

At a nod from a Bible-toting pastor in a paisley thong (how many beers will it take to expunge that image from my mind?) the band launched into a dirge, conjuring the solemn procession that crested a nearby dune and crossed the blazing sand.

Glug’s widow Suki sashayed in the lead, wearing black flip-flops and a tankini that exposed pink crescents of aureola on either side of two straps the width of fettuccine noodles.  Tamping down WILF-y thoughts, I hoped the beach bunny had used sunscreen.  It would be criminal for a ripe peach like Suki to hit thirty looking like a California raisin.

Behind her, six pallbearers shouldered a neon-green surfboard with the urn of Glug’s cremains on top and trailing in their wake, the rest of the Wave Masters formed a bronzed honor guard.  All nineteen surviving members wore black banana hammocks and sported identical tattoos: a replica of Glug’s signature green board encircled by the words Ride Heaven’s Waves Forever.

Designed by Suki, who had also created the psychedelic images on the group’s surfboards, the tattoo had been inked by a Santa Monica needle boutique offering a group discount.

The M.E. had viewed Glug’s smashed skull as the probable result of a violently flipped board during an attempt at an aerial, and ruled his death accidental, but three niggly details prevented my buying his interpretation.  In an interview years earlier, veteran wave-rider Glug Beeman had cautioned neophytes against surfing solo.  Jellyfish stings, shark interactions or cramps could turn fatal in the absence of a buddy, he warned.  And yet, his corpse and his board had washed up all by their lonesome on this very beach, the tide erasing any footprints left by a surf partner.

Glug’s life insurance had recently been upped to one million by wifey, who bought the coverage through a different company from the one that had issued the couple’s mutual $100,000 policies.  Suki was maybe five-two and, realistically, could not have wielded the board which had brained her hubby and retained traces of his blood along one fiberglassed edge.  Smelled like an accomplice, possibly a lover, and if Glug always surfed with a buddy, the killer was among the nineteen remaining Wave Masters, despite each having denied being with him that day.

Positioning myself for a glance at each man’s right shoulder, I counted nineteen tattoos as the processional approached a cleared circle of sand.  Problem was, when I interviewed the stoner who had inked the surfers, he confirmed receiving the artwork from Suki and prepayment for the tats.  All eighteen of them.

The killer wouldn’t want a permanent reminder of Glug spoiling his enjoyment of the insurance money and smokin’ Suki, so one of the tattoos was bogus, probably painted on by the artistic widow herself.

She spooned the urn’s contents into snack-size Ziplocs, handing one to each Wave Master.  As the men strode toward the rows of surfboards standing at attention in the sand, intent on paddling out to scatter Glug on the waves, Suki uttered a heartrending wail.  A sun-bleached Greek god called Stingray tossed his bag like a Hacky Sack to the guy next to him and hustled to her side.  As she went convincingly limp, Stingray swept her into a protective embrace, signaling the others to go ahead while he consoled their fallen brother’s beloved.

That’s when I rolled into action, unscrewing the cap of my water bottle as I rushed the murderous lovers.  With his eyes closed and his fingertips grazing those crescents of pink, Stingray never saw me coming, and by the time he reacted to the icy arc of Aqua Fina, neon green streaked his upper arm and I had already pulled out the cuffs.


Thoroughly Murdered Millie

The girl had been shot, stabbed, poisoned and garroted, so the M.E. was not so much searching for cause of death as placing the wealth of possibilities in chronological order.

My initial canvassing at the exclusive women’s college where Millicent LeVoisant’s body had been found in the bed of her private dorm room turned up persons of interest by the dozen, a preponderance of them falling somewhere along the Kayleigh/Kylie/Kelsey/Chelsea spectrum, and I needed to note some differentiating feature of each to keep them straight in my mind.