Five Feet into the Grave

She walked into the bar as the fire burned in the night beyond, and for a moment, the flames framed her. The guys drinking in a row in front of me, the usual losers who hang around Salou until the rum takes them, turned as one and fell into a grumbling quiet. They’d lost interest in the burning bar on the far side of the road a while back, and were back to the serious business of drinking.

I’d seen her around over the last few weeks; on the beach, in the nightclubs further down the strip; she was a sapphire girl in a tin-plate town. She walked across, her long yellow hair was mussed and dirty and soot lay in streaks across her face. She clutched a purse tightly to her chest and I saw her dress was torn. I set the glass I was cleaning onto the shelf behind and tried to soften the ice pick pounding of my starving heart.

She sat on one of the steel-legged stools at the bar, between a drunken ex-football star and Joe, with his Bart Simpson yellow eyes and whisky stink. I leaned forward. ‘Welcome to Madria’s,’ I said.

Her blue eyes were sore, as though she’d cried for a long time, but you could say that about anybody in my place at 3 in the morning. ‘Could I have a glass of vodka please,’ she asked with a smoke torn voice, ‘and some ice, perhaps.’

‘Sure thing,’ I said, turning to fix the drink. The fire lit up the whole inside of the joint and the row of faces at the bar looked like an ID parade in Hell. Sirens howled outside on the Salou road and men yelled as they worked a fire hose on the place. Joe flickered into life, ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘Grady’s is on fire.’

‘We know,’ said the football star, ‘it’s been burning for ages.’ He sighed, turned his rum-beaten face to the fire stamped glass. ‘I liked it in there too; it was classy, not like this shithole.’

I caught his eyes and grinned. ‘Whatever you say, man.’

The girl spoke up. ‘Could I have that vodka, please?’

I slid her drink across and she opened the purse. There were banknotes stuffed inside, more money than I’d ever seen. ‘Here,’ she pushed a hundred into my fist, ‘have a drink on me.’

Ordinarily I don’t drink in the bar, but this time, I don’t know, it felt right. ‘OK,’ I said, poured a Teacher’s whisky. ‘Your health,’ I drank it down. ‘Poor old Grady, ‘I said, ‘he’ll cry into his beer tonight.’

‘He won’t,’ she said.

I caught something in the bitter music of her voice. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I guess he won’t.’

She smiled a somewhat broken smile. Then I heard the door slam open and a man’s voice roared, ‘Bitch!’ and there was Grady, 250 pounds of smoke blackened, bleeding Irish fury.

I reached for the cricket bat beneath the bar.

Grady ran towards the girl, and the night screamed behind him as another fire truck pulled up outside.

The lady reached into her purse and pulled a handgun. Joe screamed. The Football player fell off his stool. The gun looked heavy, dead, and black in her tiny fist and she fired, twice. Grady fell, momentum carrying him forward like a charging rhino into the jukebox. The machine rattled into life, Roy Orbison, In Dreams.

The gunshots hung in the smoky air like the final word of God; the girl turned, finished her drink and glanced at me. ‘Sorry about the mess.’ She set down the glass. ‘Thanks for the drink.’

‘Anytime,’ I said, as she stepped over the remains of Grady, pulled open the door and melted into night and flames.

Joe lifted himself from the floor, his saggy yellow hands shook. ‘Hell, I need a drink,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ I said, watching the fire, ‘me too.’


Bone Creek

There ain’t no sun today; hell, there ain’t ever much of a sun, not the way my eyes have rotted out their sockets. I sit my bones out on the porch most days, stare into the cold Colorado wind, and wait on the Lord as I have been forty something years. Some days I head into Rawlins to visit Sarah’s grave and catch sight of Colonel Bill Sutler’s grave too, out the corner of my gaze, untended, grown to brown grass and dirt much as his days grew in the end. I glance over, never for too long, and wonder where his soul ended. Hell, most like, and it won’t be long afore I walk through those gates myself, shake his damn hand and join him in the flames.

I dream of the old days sometimes; whisky and blood and smoke and Shenandoah sung by fires of cow shit and torn up fence; the weight of a cap ‘n ball Colt, a bowie knife, a woman, a prairie full of dead Cheyenne and Sutler. Always Sutler, grinning like a damn fool, face spotted with blood, his cavalry officer’s moustache grown out shaggy across a bone-thin face. ‘Henry,’ I hear him say, ‘Henry hold that goddamn squaw!’ ‘Henry, shoot that whore-son!’ sometimes, softer, in the moments ‘fore I wake, ‘I miss her Henry, it burns at me, I miss her so.’ Then I open my eyes, an old man alone if you’ll except the company of a tick-riddled hound. Henry Collins, Indian fighter, war hero, son of a bitch.

The good folk of the town direct the writer fellow up to my shack as though leading a cow to the slaughterhouse. They’re rightly afraid of the ghost that moved these bones a lifetime back. Soon as Sarah passed into the Lord’s care, they shunned me, turned they backs all of a piece. They’d loved her so, that for all those years they tolerated my company, in church, in the store, the street, doffing hats and ‘Morning sir!’  Now they regard me much as I’d regard a snake. The writer sits with me on the porch. He’s a young fat man who rides one of those Ford rattleboxes you hear about. His hands are soft as wet mud when I shake greetings with him. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘you rode with Bloody Bill, back in the day.’

‘I rode with the Colonel, son, yes.’

He smiles at this. A breeze perfumed by the earth passes through dark trees on the skyline and I remember chasing a war band through this country when they weren’t no fences or law, nothing Christian, only the wind, the blood, the long grass and thunder. When the only thing keeping you from the grave was how far you could forget the world you was protecting.

The writer asks a few more nonsense question about Sutler; what breed of man was he; what did the men think of him; was I with him when he rode south on the Army of Texas, and then he asks, ‘Were you at Bone Creek?’

‘I was.’

‘And was it…how they say?’

I close my eyes. ‘We did what we had to, it was a battle.’ The old lie comes so easily, yet still wounds me so. A battle; old men, women, children, the chief even flying old glory over his lodge to indicate peaceful intent; the summer hunting grounds and the hunters waving and Sutler shooting them down, then going wild with his sabre. Yellow Eye, Lean Bear and Spotted Crow, all killed; men, women and children scalped whether they was dead or no, the men dressing out their horses later with scalps and parts of the women, drunken troopers burning what they could, cutting on the dead. And myself, watching, weak as a goddamned child, not able to do a damn thing as Sutler killed everything he could. Nits breed lice, he yelled; kill ’em all, big and little. And that’s just what the men did.

‘The congressional committee didn’t agree.’

‘Damn them, one and all, they don’t know.’ I start to coughing and take a drink of water that tastes like pennies from a chipped mug by my side. The wind is truly blowing now, and there’s snow beneath its nails.

‘Perhaps we should retreat inside,’ the writer fellow suggests, though he doesn’t know it’s colder within. I have let the place fall apart without Sarah to encourage my taking an interest; I want everything I’ve touched in this filthy world to vanish alongside of me when the devil finally comes.

I light a cigar, my last remaining vice, and nod to the hills and trees, black beneath the falling night. ‘I prefer being out here and alone with the dark, sir, and don’t talk committees with me. No court tried any man that was at Bone Creek.’

‘Wasn’t that due, sir, to the murder of the only testifying witness in a Denver side street?’

‘They were wild times, sir. And men were wild with them.’

‘The rumor was Bloody Bill assassinated the young man.’

I puff on the smoke and laugh. That I should have lived so long is punishment enough. ‘I dream,’ I say finally, ‘old men dream, and as I am last man alive that was at Bone Creek, the burden of that day weighs heavily upon my dreams. Sutler is dead, dead and damned. Whether he killed some cowardly Lieutenant in Denver or no, I’m sure he’s getting his desserts.’

The writer leaves not long after. I expect he wanted something sensational about Bill Sutler; maybe wanted to hear how a Cheyenne war band killed his betrothed while he was away fighting Texans. About how her death pushed him into hate and that hatred took the man he was and left a devil in his place; maybe he wanted to hear about the man in Denver. How I stabbed him with a skinning knife before we rode west.  He would most dearly have loved to hear how I broke the neck of that coward Henry Collins, took his papers, draped his body over a horse and rode with it into Rawlins. How I met with the preacher and his daughter Sarah and said, with the rain and the night beating on me like judgement itself, ‘This here’s Colonel Bill Sutler, fallen from his horse and dead.’  Yes and dead he was, dead and damned. I stub out the cigar and peer into the dark. Something screams in the hills, a coyote or wild dog. I listen for a long time, waiting to hear it scream again.


Crowbait

There was snow in the wind’s teeth. The boy rubbed the stinging cold from his eyes and squinted up at the bare trees tearing at each other in the gale. He moved forward, elbows squelching in the sodden earth, settled at the bluff’s edge, and watched the rider approach from Table Rock to the south.

The rider sang a few lines and then drank from a bottle half wrapped in leather. He was in no hurry, pausing now and again to glance up at snow whirling dark against the failing sun.

A rifle rested beside the boy, catching light from a sky gray as a crow’s beak. A bitter Nebraska chill cut through the torn sheepskin jacket and leather gloves the boy wore. He breathed softly, hoping he would not tremble too much. He gently laid his hat on the long, brown grass that was his cover, and then rested his elbow on the brim to prevent the wind’s snatching it. The fat man on the dappled gray horse dropped the bottle and the boy heard him curse as he swung a leg over the animal and collapsed to the earth with a wet thud, “God damn.” The man’s hat blew from his head and he stumbled to catch it. The sudden action startled the horse and the fat man grabbed at the reins, and then paused to collect himself.

The grass hissed around the boy’s ears and he steadied the rifle on a limb broken from the tree, and flipped up the sights. It was his brother’s Whitworth rifle, the one he’d used as a sharpshooter for Lee’s Army of North Virginia. It had directed dozens of souls down the trail to hell. The boy held his breath, stared hard along the barrel, felt the cold settle inside him, waited for the wind to hold, and then squeezed the trigger.

Scarlet and gray painted the flank of the horse, which bolted back towards Pawnee City. The fat man fell for the last time. A murder of crows shook from the trees lining the bluff and the boy stood, shouldered the rifle and stumbled down the steep bank. The man’s graying black hair was wet against the hail-torn mud. The ball had gone through his eye. The boy panted through the long grass towards the body and when he reached it, he stared at the blood seeping over the dirt. Its heat thawed the fallen snow and he watched the melt run into the steaming black of the man’s life. ‘Elder McLennan,’ he said, in his high, winter-dry, boy’s voice, ‘that’s for what you all done to Dan Cotheran, you jay hawking son of a bitch.’

He spat, retrieved the bottle, and headed south off the trail.

 

Mary Blackler watched her husband run out of the stable towards the cabin he built when he settled this land; she stood, wiped her hands on the front of her apron. Her blonde hair had worked loose as she plucked the chicken whose carcass now lay beside the tin bucket on the porch. ‘Girl,’ he shouted, skittering to a halt on the frozen yard of the farmstead, ‘the horses all been killed, my best team, every one.’  His face was as blanched as the break of day air above him and his hands shook.  She stared over at him, saying nothing. His eyes were wet, and glittered against the morning. ‘Some devil done cut they godarn throats, all of a piece.’ He spat. ‘Damn it, my best team.’ He looked over at her. His long rust-shaded moustache flickered in the breeze and she was stunned to see he was weeping. ‘I apologize for my language, girl.’

She said nothing as she sat back at the stool and ripped a handful of feathers from the bird’s puckered and bleeding skin. Her blue gaze flickered across his. Then she spoke slowly and clearly, her rich voice carrying over the dry, frozen wind,” If you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil.”

Blackler glared at her, his brow knotted, and she saw for the first time that blood dripped from his arms and had stained his rough spun shirt and old army pants. ‘I thought I told you about that kind of talk.’

‘It is the word of the almighty, ain’t no “talk”, husband.’  She pronounced the last word with a heavy irony. ‘Your sins is finding you out, that’s all. All you stole and carried off during that wild time weighs on you like pig iron. Your sins…’

He ran across and silenced her with an open palm slap, leaving a handprint of horse blood across her pale cheek. ‘I warned you to hobble your lip. Now look what you brought me to,’ he turned and looked back to the stable. ‘My sins is my business, and I’ll thank you to remember that.’

 

The boy watched Blackler from a copse of dead trees a few hundred feet towards the sun. He lay flat on his stomach, sheltered by the stones of an old wall, watching through a brass telescope that had also belonged to his brother. He’d waited three years to see Blackler’s ruddy Irish face again, and the old black whirlwind started ripping again at the fabric of his heart. The last time he’d seen that man was at the head of a gang of guerrillas tearing towards the ranch southwards of Kansas; they knew his brother, were jealous of the stock of horse he raised; so they dressed in blue and claimed to be acting against the known rebel, Dan Cotheran. They’d dragged him out, missing foot and all, and hanged him like a common thief from the highest bough of the old Elm; then they took everything else that weren’t rooted down: horse, dollars, food, even his two sisters.

The lead they put in the boy had not killed him as intended, and he waited, shadowed his brother’s old friends who were the only teachers he needed, ended up in raw Abilene, Kansas, where, over a crowded saloon, he saw Elder and Blackler, whooping it up with a pair of whores. He knew then it was time to quit beating the devil round the stump, and pay back his brother’s blood.

 

The boy waited for the sun to clear the line of trees behind him and then fixed the rifle on a broken stone and waited. Blackler, halfway to drunk judging by the way he stumbled out of the cabin, was now dressed in a thick blue jacket and wide hat. He paused to light a clay pipe and shouted back into the house, “Girl, bring my….”

The Whitworth kicked at the boy’s shoulder when he fired. His heart raced, and he tasted tin and at the last moment, he’d flinched. He had not expected that, but Blackler was down just the same.   The boy rested his face in the dirt behind the fallen wall and breathed into the earth as though trying to breathe life into it. Grit had stuck into the sweat lining his brow when again he lifted his expression to the air. Blackler lay still on the hard ground before the stable. The boy felt nothing. It was over too quick. The idea had been to kill the horses, get Blackler worked up, fearful, teach him terror before taking him away from the sunlight forever, but he was impatient, as boys are, and too filled with a rage that had now departed.  He climbed to his feet and started across the pasture, re-loading the rifle as he walked, looking left and right, seeing nothing but Nebraska grassland and wintry trees. Snow was again trying to fall. The boy’s hands trembled.

Blackler lay with his legs crumpled beneath him like a shattered doll; the lead had cleaved his skull, scattering bone and blood across an iced over puddle.

garethsparkGareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, The Dying Goose and Shotgun Honey.

He stood. Wind moaned through the beams of the stable and the long grass. The boy felt nothing. He rested on the rifle and looked down at the ruin of his enemy and when the shot came, it hit like a kick from a crazy horse. He fell forward, and it felt as though an almighty hand had reached inside the boy’s back, took hold of his spine and yanked it through his flesh.     He lay beside Blackler on the earth kicking in the other man’s blood and tasting his own well in his throat. It stained his sandy hair as he twisted towards the shooter.

Mary stood close by the porch, holding an old Hawken rifle at her waist. She breathed fast and her face was wet. Her skirts blew in the rising wind as she stepped slowly towards the boy. ‘You killed me,’ he said, or tried to say at least; the flood of his life’s end caught the words, turned them to mush.

She stood over him, glanced at Blackler, then at the boy, ‘I know you,’ she said, her voice was frail, ‘how is it I know your face?’

The boy reached for her but could not raise his hand far enough from the hard ground. Then there was a tremble at the horizon, as though a fire was rising beyond where he could see, and then he saw nothing.

Mary leaned on the rifle, looked up into the harsh white sun. Then she remembered.


Demon’s Road

The fire came over the prairie as if the anger of a God gone mad and every living thing in the whole world ran before it; Coyotes, deer, antelope, all rushing mad through the night, like Hell’s own children.  Rye Lee dashed back from the well too hastily and tripped. The bucket he held crashed to the ground and the spilled water began to steam in the heat blowing off the flames. He sat in the dirt and gazed ahead, helplessly. The farm buildings stood between two creeks, and the inferno lit the trees on either side as it passed, surrounding them with a barricade of fire. Rye felt the scorching wind steal away his breath and smolder against his eyes, but pushed his way across to his father John Wilson regardless. His heart cracked against his throat as he stumbled through the clamor of farmhands rushing back and forth to the well and weeping neighbors driven off their own land, seeking the protection of the Lee farm.

The wind howled in dark smoke and the claws of flame reaching over the land. ‘Rye!’ c’mon boy’. His father and every other man in their part of the county were beating the dirt with wet tow sacks, fighting, protecting their faces with damp bandanas and outstretched hands half-cooked by the ravenous heat. The earth trembled like a dying thing beneath the hooves of stampeding cattle, a confusion of burning shapes bellowing in pain and terror. John Wilson Lee handed his son a hazel broom to wrestle the backfire alongside the rest.

The men had started burning strips of prairie around the fields before the sun had set in the hope of turning aside the fire. They beat out the inner edge of the flame and the outer edge was set to blaze away towards its wild brother, eat up anything that would burn. Fire was fighting fire. Only the flames had jumped the fireguard, and they were struggling now for their lives.

Cinders from the scorched country fell upon them like dark snow and the yard dogs howled and ran among the feet of men whose skin was black with soot, ash and sweat. Cager McGill wept as he beat at the flames.  Rye stood beside him and watched the big man with something like shock, his face grimed with tears and dirt. The man who had followed the family from Vicksburg, who had faced down a squad of Guerillas on the bridge of that old plantation, wept as he stared into the flames on the far side of the creek.  Rye followed his gaze but saw nothing beside the hurricane of fire, howling in the north wind. ‘Don’t you look, boy,’ he heard Cager cry, then, above that, he heard a scream, something pure and tainted with horror, something he knew in his soul he’d remember always.

The heat was vicious, but finally the fire turned aside, and as the sun’s light started to seep through darkened air, they found the bodies of Augie Clark, his wife and their two-year-old son burnt up to bone and blackened skin, fallen in the dust on the far side of the creek. The woman held the child’s burned body in her arms. John Wilson Lee stood with Cager and they looked down at the human ruin. ‘I heard ’em screamin’, Cager said, ‘saw the fire catch ’em over.’

‘Weren’t nothin a soul could do,’ John Wilson said. His burned arms were sore and flame’s touch had scorched his hair. He was a young man made old by war and hardship and his expression didn’t change, even as he looked into the holes that were Tabitha Clark’s eyes, once blue as cornflower and summer and filled with laughter.  ‘Roy said something about that preacher man.’

‘That son of a bitch,’ Cager spat.

‘Said as how he threatened to burn up the whole county after we rustled him out of town.’

‘So what is it on your mind?’

John Wilson turned, looked at him with steady gray eyes and said, ‘That we got graves to dig.’

 

Rye brought his father’s service Colt out to the yard; the pistol was heavy and he carried it with awkward reverence, on the palms of both hands, like an offering. John Wilson Lee sat with his back to an Elm that grew between the house and Creek and was looking out at dust rising from a land now black as coal as far as the Mountains to the North. The sun was cold against the grime and stubble of his cheek and he drank muddied well water from a dented tin cup. He glanced up into the boy’s brown eyes, saw the ghost of his wife look back at him over the oil stained cloth holding the pistol. Rye handed him the Army revolver, his young face grave. John Wilson removed the cloth, turned the pistol in his hand; light twisted on the dull metal as if the sun mirrored in a dirty pool.  Cager stood close by, rubbing his naked scalp.  Droplets of whisky shone in his thick, grey moustache like river water on a duck’s feathers.  ‘You ’bout ready, Cap’n?’ He asked, squinting at the sun. Ten men stood by their horses in the road, their faces shrouded by hats pulled low, so they hardly seemed like men, but spirits pulled from the night-dark earth set loose to ride hard on vengeance.

‘Y’all the only one ever calls me that still, Cager,’ John Wilson said, ‘can’t be captain to an army don’t exist no more.’ He looked at the gun. ‘I swore on the book to the boy’s mother I wouldn’t ever carry this metal again.’

‘Seems it was the metal always carried you, sir.’

‘Maybe some days, at the Pittsburg landing and many times beside, maybe it did.’

Cager spat. ‘God save us from our memories.’

‘Amen.’ John Wilson stood and nodded forward to the black land. ‘The boys want this put right, Cager; I can’t sit back and do nothin’. Such reckless death, they figure needs answer, you and me, we know different. We know they ain’t any answer.’

 

The preacher Ezekiel Clifford dropped dried pork fat into a skillet above his campfire, waited for it to sputter, then crumbled hard tack into the pan. West Texas was his goal, and there he intended to preach the true word to those that needed it told.  He was bone thin, dressed in a dusty black suit and stovepipe hat. A dark beard that was more like dog fur than a man’s hair, hung across his chest. He sang tunelessly as the breakfast sizzled and spat. His wagon was set to one side of the tree to which he had fastened the horses, on a little rise facing the prairie and the far off mountains that were shining through the dawn’s haze. Smoke from his fire rose straight up into the clear sky, and he reflected happily on his good fortune.

Ezekiel heard the horses before he saw them. He had lain down to rest after his breakfast, and was smoking from a clay pipe when he felt the earth shudder beneath his backbone. He stood and watched the riders approach. Fear squirmed in his gut like a nest of toads. He was a tall man, and he faced the riders straight as they pulled to a halt in clouds of ochre dust caught in the low winter sun. ‘God keep you, friends,’ he began.

Roy Turner, a farmhand of eighteen years, interrupted him. ‘God keep you, you goddamn mudsill; we know what you done.’

John Wilson Lee pulled the bandana down from his mouth and tipped back his hat. He spoke calmly, over the sound of hooves turning on hard stones. ‘You were over in Hunt county, day afore yesterday; swore you’d burn up the place, seeing as I run you out of town for what you done to one of our daughters.’ He shook his head. ‘Now look what you brought me to.’

‘Now, listen, sir…’

Cager jumped down from his horse, marched over and knocked the preacher to the ground with a single meaty punch. ‘Do not “sir” us, blowhard, you was seen! Dragging a bunch of dried grass y’all had set afire through the prairie, fastened by a wire to your buggy there. North wind took care of the rest and now you all got blood on your hands.’

‘Wait, wait…’ the Preacher started, but the other boys were down by then and pinned him to the earth. ‘You can’t do this, it ain’t in the law!’

garethsparkGareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, The Dying Goose and Shotgun Honey.

‘The law,’ John Wilson Lee asked, ‘whose law? Those blue bellies in Washington?’  He stroked his moustache looked around and said, ‘That low branch yonder looks right suitable to hang a crow off of.’

The preacher started to cry. Cager kicked out three of his teeth and the man was in a daze as the boys draped a noose round his neck, and hauled him high into the tree. His tongue thrust out between bleeding gums and he kicked for what seemed a long time before he died. His face was blue as a fly’s back and his eyes streamed blood that gathered like hard tears in the lines of his face.  ‘That’s for the Clark family, may God have mercy on their souls.’ Cager said, with suitable solemnity. The former sergeant in the Mississippi Army turned to John William and asked, ‘We going to bury him?’

‘I reckon we boys have done our work.’

They mounted and headed towards Hunt County, a day’s ride distant. Cager rode beside John William Lee. He nodded to the pistol holstered at the other man’s waist. ‘You done kept your promise,’ he said, quietly, so the others would not hear.

John William stared at Cager with eyes as cold as a winter’s dawn, and his look was so fierce the other man looked away.

They rode in silence and the north wind raised dust on the prairie ahead. It would be a hard ride home.


Regal King Size

Emma stood by the window of the caravan looking over the dry field at the distance. There was a chime as the text sent and she swore, jammed her thumb over the speaker and looked to the open door. Curtis laughed. She flipped her phone shut, slid it into her jeans pocket and breathed out slowly.  The August sky was heavy, endless, and empty; she thought of a broken house a hundred miles and six months behind. The caravan was home now, parked up by an old sycamore on her Uncle Charlie’s land.

Curtis played guitar outside, feet splashing in a child’s paddling pool filled with empty tins of beer and the bloated filters of a pack of Regal King size. He laughed with Charlie and she smelled dope over the perfume of parched earth and cut grass. The stained net curtain moved like a prayer in a breeze warm as bath water. She closed her eyes and listened to the men. ‘That fucking house,’ Charlie said; the words crushed into a whisky-inspired mash. ‘You shouldn’t let ’em get away with that, man; burning your fucking house down.’

‘It was her house,’ Curtis replied. She heard him suck on a Regal. ‘Why should I give a fuck?’

The guitar rang a D minor chord; he could play as if he was born to it; that was why she’d first let him into her days.

‘Did she ever figure it out?’

‘Thick as fuck, isn’t she. You know that, mate. Anyway, they did me a favour; no way could I have done with a fucking child, no way on earth. Best thing ever happened to me, her losing that kid. I should send ’em a bunch of flowers.’ The D minor changed to a C, a chord filled with sunshine. ‘No problems now like. Doctor Naczk says that’s her insides done for kids.’

‘Aren’t you worried ’bout ’em coming back and finishing the job?’

‘Don’t you know?’ Curtis said. ‘Men like me live forever.’

Charlie laughed. ‘You hope, mate, you hope.’

 

Night spread quickly over the flat country and soon there was no sound but that of wheat scraping in the breeze like fingers of bone. Emma looked down at Curtis, sleeping outside. He was barefoot and shirtless and his long greasy hair hung over the back of the deckchair as he snored. She could not see Charlie. Blue and yellow stars filled the sky and she felt the earth’s dying warmth beneath the naked soles of her feet. Then she caught sight of Charlie, way off in the middle of the field, looking back at her. He was in his fifties, with short hair grey as a sour dawn and she’d known him all her life. She walked towards him, her bleached hair ruffled by the light wind. He said, ‘Do it?’

‘It was in his old phone,’ she handed him the number, scrawled on a cigarette packet.

‘You might not want to stick around for this.’

She shook her head. ‘I bought the ticket, I should take the ride.’

The light from an electric torch flashed over the high crop and Charlie lifted a hand and waved. ‘Used to have a dog on this farm, called it Sweep. I don’t know if it was bad company, something in his diet changed or what, but Sweep started one day killing chickens, then he’d kill anything he could get his teeth at.’ The lights were closer and she heard men’s voices. ‘I brought him down here on a length of chain, staked it out, shot him dead with the double-barrel. He was a friend once, I loved that dog, but when he turned I put him down.’ He nodded at the caravan. ‘Young Curtis there, he’d bring you nothing but bad luck your whole life.’

She clutched her belly with both hands and nodded. Two men dressed in leather jackets, their city shoes stumbling on the dirt shone a light in her face. She lifted her hand and pointed down the field. The shorter of the men nodded and walked on. Starlight shone on the blade he held.

Emma closed her eyes, and listened.


Red Spanish Night

Just before he died, Salvador thought of the girl from the club; the way she’d dragged him out to this place with a smile; her red hair caught dark with the night’s weight. He felt the ligature tighten, and then the pops and sparks of light at the borders of his sight played brighter and brighter and he felt something burst in his chest; then he saw the girl again, that red hair and it was the last thing he ever saw.  Danny pushed the Spaniard’s 12 stone of meat forward into the dry concrete bed of the Alforia and looked back up at Faye. He was sweating, out of breath; his face a mask of effort and hard love caught in the burning yellow of the streetlight. ‘So,’ he panted, ‘it’s done.’ He was young, barely out of his teens and his white shirt was stained with blood from a broken nose. The regimental tattoo on his forearm shone through a film of sweat. ‘He won’t touch you again.’

She looked down at the wasted body of her husband, though Danny didn’t know that, nor did he know how this night had been worked out long before. If it hadn’t been him it could have been anyone. He’d told her he’d killed men before, in battle, but she knew that was different to holding them in your arms and stealing the fire from their blood. Her green eyes shone in the half-light, exhilarated by victory. Cars zipped by on the road to Tarragona, hidden by the bank of earth behind them and music came from the back door of the club. ‘No,’ she said, her voice soft as a snake’s belly in the dust, ‘I don’t suppose he will.’