Monday, March 26, 2018

Working Overtime, fiction by Matt Phillips

Know thyself.

That’s how Mantra’s daddy used to put it.

Know thyself, motherfucker.

His daddy, all seven feet two of him, humping ass down the baby food aisle at Kmart, looking for blueberry-banana puree to mix with his 25oz of Rolling Rock. Mantra couldn’t help thinking about the man, wondering what in the fuck happened to him. What he said in his head was, you can wonder all you want—it ain’t going to give you no answers, motherfucker. Then he thought about the phrase, no answers. No, he told himself, say it like this: Know answers.

Know answers, motherfucker.

That’s as far as he went with it because he got a hunger for nicotine and lit a cigarette, sat smoking in the driver’s seat of a broke-ass Jeep Cherokee he lifted at the outlet mall near Beaumont. One-eighty-thou on the motherfucker; the in-line six growled like a Slurpee machine the whole way back to Palm Springs. So bad that Mantra said fuck it. Started blasting Top 40 hits out of a local radio station, power one hundred and something.

He leaned back in the seat and squinted at the bungalow.

It was dark already—six in the evening—and there was one light on in the living room. Every now and then, Mantra caught a shadow passing through or partly blocking out the light. Sheila, maybe. Or the Dude.

That fucking piece-of-shit Dude.

Little downtown Palm Springs bungalow. This fucking dude. Mantra couldn’t believe Sheila fucked the man. He puffed out smoke and watched the street. Wide lanes with those rounded curbs, palm trees and eucalyptus swaying high above them. The Jeep’s driver’s side window was lowered slightly and Mantra could smell the flowering oleanders and a hedge of roses in the bungalow’s front yard.

All right, Dude. Nice place you got.

Little Palm Springs joint, huh?

A fuck pad, huh?

Mantra finished the cigarette, flicked it out the window. He lit another and kept watching. A shadow appeared in the window, shrank back into the bungalow’s mysterious throat. You like that bungalow dick, Sheila. Man, Mantra thought, I never figured you for bungalow dick. Never figured you for wanting to fuck a dude who took tennis lessons and played polo.

Never would have figured.

He was halfway through his second cigarette, watching for more shadows in the bungalow, when his cell phone rang. He picked it up without looking at the caller ID, blew smoke into the mouthpiece. “This is Mantra. What up?”

“Yo, Detective Mantra. This is Louie over in—”

“Louie Ants, that you?”

“Shit, yeah. Course it is, buddy.”

“I thought you had a retirement coming up?”

“I do,” Louie said. “Shit. I did. I’m doing some part time consulting for the County Sheriff’s Department.”

“No shit,” Mantra said. And then he thought: Know shit.

Know shit, motherfucker.

“Reason I’m calling: We got a body out in the hills. A gangbanger.”

“Another one bites the dust, huh?” Mantra watched as the bungalow’s light dimmed and a smaller light emerged in the window. Goddamn candle. Now they were lighting candles. “I known a few gangbangers in my time. Let’s have it.”

Louie gave Mantra the rundown: About five-seven, one-forty. Two tear drops tattooed under the left eye. A bulldog on the right shoulder. Your run-of-the-mill Mother Theresa shit across the abdomen. Some Jesus tats, too.

Mantra asked what kind of shoes. Why’s that matter? It just does, Louie. Nike. Okay, what kind of Nike? What do I mean, what kind? Oh, the crime scene techs say Air Force Ones. Is that important? Maybe. Yeah, maybe.

Louie said, “I’m just trying to get an ID on the motherfucker. You know how it is when they don’t got a wallet or an RIP tat, right?”

“I know how it is,” Mantra said. He watched the candle flicker in the window. How motherfucking romantic. This fucking Dude and Sheila.

“Any of this tug on your balls?”

Mantra said, “You got an eye color for me? What about hair style? They wear the same hair style, usually. Even when they get older.”

Louie cleared his throat. “Thing is, he got the top of his head shot off. Only thing I can make out clear is the two tear drops.”

“Well,” Mantra said, “it must have hurt if he was crying.”

That got a laugh and Louie said, “Yeah. It hurt so bad he died.”

Mantra didn’t laugh. He watched the candle flicker. “None of this is giving me a picture,” he said. “I can’t say I ever had the pleasure of meeting your dead man. Not that I can remember, at least.”

“You don’t know him, huh?”

“Nope. I don’t know him.”

They hung up and Mantra watched the window and the candle flickering inside it. Too bad, he thought. I didn’t know the man. And I couldn’t help the man. He flicked his cigarette out the window. Know thyself, he thought.

Know thyself, motherfucker.


Two days earlier Mantra met Sheila at a donut shop on Slauson, sat chewing a jelly donut while she poured powdered creamer into her Starbucks cup. They sat at a wobbly table and Mantra said, “Not even gonna buy a Bear Claw, huh? You come in here with your upper-middle-class coffee and use the man’s creamer. Can’t see it in your heart to kick some dough his way?”

Sheila sighed and looked sideways at the glass display with all the rows of donuts and pastries. “This fucker has enough dough, if you ask me.”

No fighting Sheila, Mantra decided.

He slurped red jam through his lips and asked her why the fuck she was taking him away from his perfect LA day chatting up suspected murderers and letting widows cry on his cold shoulder.

“Because I can, that’s why,” she said. “You’re my brother-in-law, right?”

“Only by marriage.” Mantra smiled, dabbed at his front teeth with a big purple tongue. “You know, I got a real job, Sheila. I can’t be taking time to eat donuts and talk about getting our nails done.”

“Like Randle doesn’t have a real job?”

“My brother—older brother, mind you—teaches second grade.”


“The man sits around doing basic arithmetic and taking attendance.”

Sheila sipped her coffee and shook her head. “You’re such a prick, Mantra. Just because you’re a cop, you think you’re so fucking important.”

“I got a gun and a badge.”

“And a pencil-slim dick to match.”

Mantra exhaled through his nose, got serious. It wasn’t like Sheila to talk that way, especially not with her husband’s little brother. He wiped his sticky fingers with a napkin. “What’s wrong, Sheila?”


“Sheila, what’s wrong?”

“I called you because. . .”

It sat there on her face. In her eyes. Something deep and unspoken and too dangerous to put into the hot air of a Slauson Avenue donut shop.

Mantra saw a few lies cross her mind, saw them emerge in the wrinkles at her mostly smooth temples, in the sharp points that formed the outside of her eyes, in the slightest twinge of an upper lip. You get so good—as a cop—that you can see a lie before it crosses a person’s lips. But Sheila didn’t lie. Mantra had to give her that. She didn’t lie to him. Instead, she trailed off and sat there scratching the top of one hand with a manicured fingernail—a blood-red fingernail. Mantra put a hand on top of hers and said, “If something’s wrong, Sheila—if something’s wrong, I’m here to help. We’re family.”

“Yeah. I mean, no—nothing’s wrong. I just. . ."


“I have to go. I-I forgot about something. I’m sorry, Mantra. Thanks for meeting me, okay? I just. . .I have to go.” And she did.

He watched her through the donut shop’s window as she hustled across the parking lot, climbed into her leased BMW. Black as night and sleek as an insect. She pulled onto Slauson and headed east.

Something’s wrong all right, Mantra thought. Wrong as fuck.

He started tailing her that evening.


And now, here ye sit, he thought. Watching your brother’s wife suck off some country club Dude with a Maserati and a Palm Springs bungalow.

Mantra started the Jeep and cruised past the bungalow, squinted at the flickering candle in the front window. He didn’t know what to do. His brother was at a teacher’s retreat in Ojai. Should he call and let Randle know his wife was fucking somebody else? Or just drive back to LA and let it ride? Was this any business of his? Mantra turned the Jeep onto Palm Canyon, the town’s main drag, and headed south through trinket shops and quaint Italian restaurants. After a few blocks, he parked on the street. He locked the Jeep and walked into a Tiki Bar—the sweat rolling off his face dried with the cool air conditioning inside the place.

The decor was pure Polynesian, warrior masks and palm fronds. The bar was already full this early in the evening; Mantra found a spot on the patio overlooking the street. It was hot on the patio—despite the hoses spraying cool mist—and he ordered a piña colada. The drink arrived and Mantra sipped it while he thought about his brother.

His only brother.

Yeah, they were close. Did everything together as kids. Mantra played quarterback in high school and he set a few records throwing to Randle, the all-city receiver. They went off to separate colleges—Mantra at LA City and Randle in the Midwest.

Randle became a teacher.

Mantra became a cop.

Know thyself, motherfucker.

Sheila and Randle got married fast. Too fast for Mantra’s comfort. But he saw the man happy—really happy, that is—for the first time since their dad got put away. Sent upstate to the joint. All seven feet two inches of him.

And Randle and Mantra never saw the man again.

Last Mantra checked, their dad was a ghost.

Let out of prison in 2010 and nowhere to be found.

For what? For killing their momma. Well, for getting her killed.

Drunk driving down—wouldn’t you know it?—Slauson Avenue on a Thursday night. You can bet the phrase is real: Cars do wrap themselves around telephone poles. Or people wrap cars around telephone poles.

And that was the heart of it—Sheila looked like momma. Talked like her. Hell, sometimes you looked at Sheila and thought: That must be momma’s reincarnation. But it wasn’t weird that Randle fell in love with Sheila.

She was different, too.

Had a little hustle in her.

Some kind of hot fire.

And it looked like she was burning Randle. No-goddamn-way. No way in hell. No-goddam-way. Nobody burns my brother. I’m a LA city homicide cop and nobody—no-fucking-body—burns my brother. Mantra took the final sip of his piña colada.

He had a bungalow to visit.


Another cigarette.

Mantra puffed and watched. The candle in the bungalow’s window was out, but another light was on deep inside the place. In another window. The bedroom, probably. He puffed and puffed. Sat there seething and thinking and breathing. At about nine that night, he got another call.

“This Mantra. What up?”

“Mantra? It’s me.”


“Yeah, man.”

“I thought you were up in Ojai?”

“I am,” Randle said. “Got about three more inclusivity modules to attend.”

“Watch you ma-call-it?”

Randle chuckled and said, “Man, if anybody needs sensitivity training, it’s you. I bet you drive around looking for people to shoot.”

“Somebody’s got to do it.”

“Right,” Randle said. “Hey, bro: You mind driving over to my place and checking on Sheila? She was supposed to go out for dinner with a friend, but she should be back by now. I can’t get a hold of her.”

Mantra stared bullets at the lighted window.

“It’s just, you know, I want to make sure she’s okay.”

“Yeah, I know.”


“You want to make sure she’s okay,” Mantra said. But he thought: She sure as shit ain’t okay. And you won’t be either, Randle.

“You can try to call, but she’s not answering.”

“I hear you,” Mantra said. “I’ll head over there now. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“Yeah, me too.” Randle clicked his teeth. “It’s just, you know. . .”

“Yeah, I know. Let me call you back.”

“Cool. Thanks, bro.”

Mantra pushed the end call button. As he did, the bungalow’s living room light flashed on. He saw two shadows cross through the light and then it went out again. The bungalow’s front door opened and two silhouettes moved into view on the stone walkway. Mantra watched Sheila and the Dude move down the driveway past the gleaming Maserati and stand waiting on the curb. The Dude looked Mantra’s way, punched a button on his phone. Sheila stood there in a white gown; the gown clung to her figure like stretch fabric. God, he thought, she does look a bit like momma. What Mantra wondered:

What are they doing?

And then he saw headlights flash in the Jeep’s rearview mirror.

Ride share. Here Sheila was with her Palm Springs Dude and they were going out for a night on the town. Maybe get a little drunk and cruise back to the bungalow, have a nice Palm Springs fuck. And with Randle pulling his pud up in Ojai.

God, Mantra thought. Damn.

He acted without thinking—he felt a surge of anger run through him and he twisted the Jeep’s ignition key, slammed his foot against the gas pedal. The vehicle shot forward, crossed through the gaze of headlights behind him. He saw the Dude’s face squirm into a frown and—for an instant—he saw Sheila’s eyes glaze in fear. He ran them down and knew they were both dead. Their bodies made thumping sounds—thump-thump-thump like a boxer hitting a bag—against the bumper and along the undercarriage. He stopped the Jeep and the tires squealed. The car behind him stopped too and Mantra sat there bathed in the headlights and his own uncontrollable rage. Nobody but nobody fucks with my brother, he told himself. Nobody but no-fucking-body.

He slammed the throttle again and steered the Jeep onto the main drag. He sped toward the freeway and, when he was headed west on Interstate 10 toward Los Angeles, he picked up his phone and called his brother.

“She okay?” Randle asked. He had a wheeze in his voice. Like he’d been running. Or like he’d been worried as hell. “You find out if she’s okay?” “Yeah,” Mantra said. “She’s all right. Trust me, brother. She’s just fine.”

Monday, March 19, 2018

Kennick, fiction by Nelson Stanley

"They picked on the wrong fucking Gyppo this time," roars the man my little cousin Nattie is to marry. I think about pointing out that, technically, he's Pavee, so some might argue he's not in the strictest sense of the word a Gyppo, but seeing as I've just got him out of bed and his eyes are rolling in two different directions and he's waving a shooter about his head, now is probably not the time. Despite the soft drizzle, sweat's sloughing off him like an ice cube melting in hot weather: I can still see white powder crusted around his nostrils. His gut hangs heavy and hairy over his belt, cinched to a degree he's not required since puberty.

"You might want to put on a shirt?"

"I'll put on no fucking shirt," and he pushes me out the way of the trailer door, goes wobbling across to where his Merc's parked in front of the lock-up.

Auntie Fiance is trying to shepherd the children inside a trailer but it's not every day you see a shirtless man screaming his head off and waving what looks like Judge Dredd's gun about as he fails to operate his own car's door. At least, not first thing on a Saturday morning.

"Francie mate," I babble, backing away, "We've got a dentist's driveway to tarmac, the machinery's been butchered-"

"I shall be doing the fucking butchering!" He falls down on his arse in the mud.

"Well, yeah, but we've got a Bomag with all its hydraulics smashed, we've got a-"

"I shall rip that fucking Duchie cunt's head clean off," he bellows, scrabbling to his feet, "and I shall piss in the hole for luck."

"You might not need a shooter, if you're just gonna rip his head off, Francie mate," I say, getting ready to fling myself behind the thin aluminium of the trailer door, for all the good that'll do me. "I mean, accidents happen-"

"I'll fucking accident you, you fucking Kennick cunt," he screams, wheeling away from the seemingly impregnable door of his AMG. He waves the piece at me, or at least, in my general direction. "Come over here. I need a fucking driver, and you'll do as well as anyone else."

I struggle with the mental equivalent of a slipping clutch.

"I- I don't think I'd be insured, Francie," I manage. "German car interiors always make me feel sick, too. It's the smell of the upholstery-"

"Get in the car, hedge-mumping cunt." The awful hole in the end of that ridiculous gun swings toward me again. The Merc starts with a purr. I fiddle helplessly with the complicated foot-operated parking brake. "Get me to Duchie's, Kennick. And don't crash me fucking motor on the way, or I swear to Jesus, Mary and Joseph I'll spray your fucking brains all over this here car."


I'd only gone down for my little cousin Emma-Louise's christening. In the church, Emma-Louise shit herself when raised up to the font. Nattie clung to my arm, burying her face in my shirt to stymie her laughter. We both agreed later that the clergyman had done well to make it to the end of the invocation. We all repaired to a pub to start the serious business of getting hideously drunk. While old men lined up to karaoke the standards of long-dead crooners, Aunt Kathy took me to one side.

"Kind of hoping you'd've got in there," she said.

"Eh? What? Me? With who?"

"Our Nattie." She regarded me seriously, as if over the top of a pair of glasses. She doesn't wear glasses.

"Nattie? B-but... She's me cousin!"

Aunt Kathy looked suitably horrified. After all, almost all of my relatives married someone they had a genetic relationship with: keep it in the family, like, or at least the tribe. My mother and father were, I think, second cousins. If that.

I grimaced, looked away around the room. Old men, supping pints. Small children dressed in posh but outdated Sunday best.

"Anything'd be better than the dinlo she's gone and got engaged to," said Aunt Kathy, sipping her gimlet and adjusting her hat.

"Who's that then, Auntie?"

She tilted her head and indicated the swollen bulk of Francie, swaying behind the mic, belting out "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" like half of Foster and Allen, if Foster or Allen weighed twenty stone and looked like they were smuggling breezeblocks strapped to their arms.

"Fat steroid boy on the mic?"

"He's a murderer," she muttered darkly.

"Say what?"

"Well. Accessory to. Held 'em down then buried the corpse, didn't he?"

"Jesus." I blinked. "Whatever happened to choring the wheels off of a vardo?" I asked. "When did we start playing proper gangsta?"

She shook her head sadly, took another pull on her gimlet.

"It's a wicked world, my sweet little chavvo."


We drive. I think I do well, in the circumstances: I only stall the stupid overpowered car twice, and Francie doesn't blow my head off.

"I really love your fucking cousin," he says, when we slow down to negotiate a cattle-grid somewhere, fat low-profiles clump-thunking over the grate. I keep my head fixed front but my eyes slide sideways toward him. "I mean, I really love fucking her, too. But I also love the girl. She will make me a fine wife."

I pull up to the deserted little industrial estate, park outside Duchie's unit, which is on the end of the row of three, the one with the least number of smashed windows, conspicuously graffiti-free.

With his free hand he reaches across and pulls the electronic starter out of the dash, stuffs it into his trousers.

"You wait here, get me?"

Relief passes through me in a wave of warmth, a tingling dream of ecstasy strobing up from my toes to the crown of my head.

"Here? Right-o Francie, no problemo like—"

"This is an AMT Automag, Kennick. I got five shots. That gives me two spare. Don't do anything that'll lead me to wasting one of them on you, eh?"

I nod.

"Good." Out the corner of my eye I can see his gut heaving; the sweat pours off his chest and mats the wild hair in the deep valley of his pectorals. He gives my head a friendly push with the gun, then climbs unsteadily out of the car.

I watch him wobble across the buckling, weed-strewn car park. The breath goes out of me in a long stream. I cannot imagine how this day can get any worse.

A tapping, on the tinted window to my right.

One of Duchie’s little helpers, Baz or Chris—I can't tell them apart—is leaning on the roof. He scrapes the barrel of the shooter he's been tapping the window with across my field of vision, makes motions I interpret to mean "Get out of the car." Outside, I shiver in the drizzle. His gun, I note with interest, is rather less compensatory than the one Francie was waving around, but is doubtless still big enough to ruin my life.

Ruin it some more, I mean.

Out of sight, around the corner of the lock-up, I hear Francie scream.


I ended up staying after the christening. Within a week I was out on the crew with Barry and Tommy and Vanni. Up at four, pile into a Transit van held together by rust and filler, drive to the arse-end of nowhere. Then ten, twelve hours laying asphalt.

"I'd let you on the mini-roller or the layer," said Barry, wiping a thick black smear across his sweating forehead, "But from the way you handle that rake I'd fear for me fucking life and for that of every other man on this site."

Then down the pub to drown whatever brain cells remained. It'd be digs in some flophouse if we were away on a job and when we worked closer to Francie's lock-up—upon which thirty or forty caravans were arrayed—Barry gave me the twins' old trailer to crash in. I'd collapse into sleep, hands shaking and numb from incipient nerve damage, burned all over and tired further down in my bones than I'd ever known possible. But it was good, it was good: family who I'd hurt and turned away from had opened their arms and welcomed me back, out of nothing more than the goodness of their hearts and my willingness to bend my neck over a shovel.

Tommy joked that Francie didn't like to get his hands dirty. He hawked a few cars on the side without bothering the taxman about it, via discreet adverts in the local paper. Every time he snaffled one up—part exchanges off dealer’s forecourts, mostly—he’d send the motors out to Duchie's, and they came back waxed and buffed, primped and shining. Upon their return, each one went straight into Francie's lock-up, a task he was fanatical about seeing to himself. And every morning, no matter how he reeled, bleary-eyed, from the previous night's excesses, he'd have the van started and warmed up before we'd swallowed our paint-thick tea and bacon butties, and he'd hump the toolboxes out from the lock-up and stash them carefully in the back. Always sniffing, red-faced, wild-eyed, even in the driest weather.

"You watch the Kennick doesn't chore those toolboxes, Tommy," he'd chide us. Tommy would grin and nod and mug, but he made sure, I noted, to keep the keys to the padlock chained to him at all times, and when someone needed something he'd walk over himself to dole out the tools.

We were contracted for a month's work in Cardiff, on a big crew laying a new call-centre car park: Vanni shadow-boxing and boasting of the time when, as a boy, Uncle Cyril and Uncle Jack had taken him to see Howard Winstone lose to Vicente Saldivar for the undisputed world's title; up to Doncaster to do a private job on a man's farm, where Tommy regaled me with tales of the days when Uncle Charlie and Uncle Durri would attend the races just after the war and Charlie once got into an argument with a man over a 10-1 shot and got a straight razor across his hip for his troubles.

I grew muscles I hadn't seen since I'd boxed and my "th"s all turned back into "F"s; I shaved more often and ate a lot of Joey Grey. I'd sit with the women, at a discreet, respectable difference from the men, and share a joke while the boys grumbled into their pints. Nattie would laugh with her head thrown back like a sword-swallower and chore roll-ups off me when she thought Aunt Kathy wasn't looking and I tried not to stare down her low-cut tops and stepped away when she moved close against me to whisper something conspiratorial that she didn't want the boys to hear, which was twenty times a day.


We'd got up that drizzly Saturday morning and found someone had broken into Francie's lock-up during the night. We'd all been out on the piss even harder the night before, celebrating getting the cash-in-hand work to tarmac a local dentist's driveway, a huge thing more autobahn than access route. He was going away for the weekend and wanted to return to find all the potholes turned into an asphalt billiard table.

I struggled out of bed to find Vanni, Tommy and Barry arrayed around the open door of the lock-up, wearing expressions you'd expect at a funeral. Someone had got in during the night. They'd jimmied the door, smashed the locks off the toolboxes, scattered tools all around the rough concrete floor; picks and shovels shattered, the mini-roller still on its trailer, sitting in a pool of hydraulic fluid, flaccid hoses hanging down like dead snakes. I set to helping Barry clean up: lots of stuff had been broken but weirdly nothing had been nicked.

"Gadjé bastards," said Barry, over and over, tears in his eyes. It wasn't just what it'd cost to fix the hoses, it meant we were down a roller, and that meant a day sorting another. "They'd burn us if they could get away with it!"

A crowd of relatives, near-relatives and assorted hangers-on had formed. No-one had seen anything, but everyone had an opinion that the next time some Gadjés from the local estate came calling, there'd be Hell to pay. Others counselled that we should move on—that, as ever, we had outstayed our welcome locally and should relocate.

"I can see the point in choring things," said Vanni, with what I thought a surprisingly philosophical tone, "but just smashing stuff up? Where's the sense in that?"

Tommy looked uncomfortable.

"Uh... I'm gonna go tell Francie that someone's knocked the shit out of his lock-up." He paused, big blue eyes fixed on me. "Actually, I'll go phone the man about his driveway, tell him we might be taking more time to finish than I thought. Why don't you go give Francie the good news, cuz? Cheer him up."


I'm sat next to Francie. My front teeth have been knocked through my bottom lip, but apart from that I'm okay. I'm sitting on an old metal oil can, attached by a tow-chain you could moor a battlecruiser with to the Irish Traveller equivalent of Mechagodzilla and over in the corner Baz (or is it Chris?) is doing something to a big crowbar with what I assume to be an oxy-propane cutting torch. It fills the air with sparks and the reek of burning grease and hot metal and ozone, but I think it's just for show.

"Holy Mary mother of fuck, Duchie, there's no need for that shite," says Francie, who evidently doesn't believe that it's just for show. "I can tell you to the very ounce where your stuff’s been going, like. If you was to have a word with my man Tommy-"

"Tommy?" I snap, "What's our Tommy got to do with this?"

"Shut up, Kennick," says Francie, squinting at me through purple swellings that render his eyes even more piggy-ish than usual.

"You sell out Tommy I'll fucking kill you myself," I snarl, spitting out blood. "Pavee piece of shit."

"Now now, boys. Inter-Gyppo racism is a terrible thing to behold." Duchie, a leathery Gadjé with something about him that reminds me of an ageing roadie for a heavy metal band, runs a hand through his greying mullet and grins a nasty gappy grin at me. "It's tearing apart your community. You'd think the oppressed could learn to all get along together, eh?"

"Traveller." I snap. "Inter-Traveller."

"Is it now? I don't know what you'd have to say about that, being a fucking Kennick of all things," mutters Francie, nearly lost in the spit and roar of the cutting torch.

One of Duchie's boys—whichever one isn't playing blacksmith over in the corner—lamps me around the back of the head. Francie has calmed down, but through the swellings and the drying blood glowers at Duchie with all the hate in the world.

"Got anything else to say, Francie?"

Francie holds his peace and flexes his shoulders, his huge meaty arms clanking the chain tight behind him, an action that drags me painfully to one side.

"That this morning wasn't nothing but a warning shot across your bows, Francie. You don't fuck about with me, I told you that." He shakes his head, a passable impression of a man gripped by a terrible and soul-deep sadness. "I know your lot's all in it together."

I start to say something and Baz or Chris steps around the front to punch me, having got bored of hitting me in the back.

"We're going to get all you boys in, eventually. One at a time. And we're going to sit each of you here and Chris over there-" the mush in the corner shuts off the cutting torch and turns around, the crowbar glowing before him in the gloom of the lock-up, smoke from his heavy welding gauntlets curling up into the air— "Is going to do to each of them what I'm about to get him to do to you, which is to ram this crowbar so far down your throat you'll be shitting sparks out your ringpiece like your arse was a fucking dragon."

From the look on Francie's face, I can only assume that Duchie is not the sort of fella who'd joke about this sort of thing.

"Then we'll get your little blonde piece in," continues Duchie, "And see what she's got to say about my missing fucking cocaine."

At the mention of Nattie I can't help it, a switch is flicked within me and I try and rise. Baz smashes me across the side of my face with the butt of his handgun.

I've been in a few decent street fights (and have run away from some really, really awesome ones). I've come off the back of a motorbike doing sixty round a bend and skidded for two hundred yards into a ditch, shredding my shoulder and busting my arm in two separate places. I've even had my heart broken a few times. Nothing I've ever done to myself or had done to me by an uncaring world has ever hurt quite so much as getting smashed in the face by that gun. I'm not sure if it's the heaviness of the thing, the oily hardness of it, or merely that it's just a terrible death-dealing device that should never be brought near a human being. It hurts like fuck and I proceed to squeal and yammer in a most unbecoming way as the entire left-hand side of my face fills with blood.

Through the explosion going off behind my eyes and my brain pinging about the otherwise empty expanse of my skull, I see Duchie kind of put his forehead in his hand and massage his brow, like a man with a nasty headache coming on; I see Baz throw back his head to laugh, hands on hips and beergut wobbling below his stained Polo shirt; I see Chris pause and join in, smoke still pouring from his welding gauntlets. I see Francie slip his chains and rise from his oil can beside me with blood streaming from his wrists like a suicide who's just decided ending it all is a bad idea, after all.

No-one is more surprised, I think, than Baz when Francie cops hold of his shooter and wrenches it free and proceeds to use it to batter seven shades of shit out of him. The look of horror on Duchie's face is a wonder to behold.

Chris, to be fair, is made of sterner stuff, and swings the crowbar around with both hands, legs braced, like he's felling a tree. The glowing end of it comes around and when it hits Francie it does indeed make a bit of a mess of the man's shoulder. Despite the horrific sizzling noise and the smell—hideous, like when you drop your lit fag on the upholstery of a car crossed with the worst barbecue fuck-up ever, exploding proteins and boiling fat and skin—he seems to remember that the thing he's been using as a club can be employed in a more efficient manner, and he shoots Chris right through the forehead.

I've never heard a gun go off before. No-one ever told me that they were so shockingly, world-endingly loud. I'm suddenly thankful for all the damage I've already done to my hearing at bad hardcore concerts. Chris goes over backwards with half his head gone to bloody ruin.

Duchie pulls out Francie's gun from somewhere. I cannot possibly imagine where he's had it stashed. I'm impressed he can heft it without keeling slowly forward under the weight. Francie appears to weigh up his chances; then he smashes Baz in the mooey one last time with the gun then lets it drop to the floor.

Duchie says something I don't catch, what with the tinnitus and all, and he thumbs something on the gun I presume must be the safety. Then it strikes me that the chains that previously held me are slack after Francie managed to wriggle out of them and almost without conscious volition I lurch forward—chain and oil can and all—through the intervening space and hit Duchie as hard as I can on the side of the jaw. We go down in a tangle and behind the cold hard bite of the adrenaline something inside me is cowering, waiting for the explosion of light and pain that's going to end the one attempt in my entire miserable existence to play the hero, waiting for the bullet that'll rip through muscle and blood and bone and the fat links of the chain are oily and cold and slip in my hands as I bring them down again and again and again on Duchie's head and as my hearing comes back I think "Who's making that fucking high-pitched shrieking noise?" and I realise that it's me and by then Duchie's head is just so much blood and matted hair and with a shudder like coming inside someone I love I finish and look up, nausea roiling against the earth-shattering world-ending pain in my head.

Francie is picking at the huge eschar—like a bad 90's tribal tattoo that's gone terribly wrong—on his shoulder, but he glances down and nods at me.

"That's not a bad job, for a Kennick," he says, conversationally, and I look at the blood on my hands and the bloody chain around me and my hands close on something else amongst the warmth of Duchie's corpse and I bring Francie's enormous handgun up, slowly, so slowly, it weighs a metric fuck-tonne, I've never felt anything so heavy but I bring it up steady and when I pull the trigger and shoot Francie right in the fucking face, he doesn't look a bit surprised.


You've got to put your back into digging, much like you've got to put your back into life. Feel the heft against your muscles. Feel the strain on your spine. Feel the sweat sting your eyes, the bitumen sear in your mucus membranes. The roar of the roller is the background static that clouds out your life, makes you lose sight of what you want, both for yourself and the people you care about. Tonight, it is joined by the rattle and gravelly churn of a cement mixer, one Tommy borrowed off a mush who owed him a favour over a horse or a girl, I can't remember which.

Laying a driveway properly is best approached as a craft: a technical problem to be solved by the materials available. It is not usual to dig down an extra six feet and fill the resulting trench in with cement before packing over the top of it with hard-core and then layering on the asphalt; men like Barry or Vanni or Tommy would, in the general run of things, call you a fucking dinlo for even considering such a thing, making such hard work out of a task that can be accomplished with much less effort.

This is not the general run of things. In this particular case it was needed, at least in Barry and Tommy's opinion, and I'd trust the pair of them with my life. In fact, I am trusting them with my life, and Vanni too, working the shovel beside me as we dig. I don't think the dentist is going to be disappointed with the workmanship of his new driveway which—when we've finished, sometime in the early hours of tomorrow morning—will be as smooth and black as the surface of an ebony lake, as an onyx horizon. Like a familial bond, it'll be solid and it'll go down deep, deeper than it strictly needs to. It will last that man—should he take care of it—a lifetime, and more besides.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Detour, by Tom Andes

As the plane circled New Orleans, Kachenko looked at his watch. They’d left Dallas an hour and twenty minutes late. He sipped the last of his bloody mary mix, rattling the cubes in the plastic cup.

He saw Jonas at baggage claim. At least he felt reasonably certain it was Jonas; years had passed since he’d seen the other man, and then Kachenko had encountered Jonas in a professional setting, also. Kachenko’s garment bag depending from one shoulder, the small attaché case with his personal effects dangling at his side, he brushed past a person who strongly resembled Jonas, at any rate, and who broke a grin and raised his white hat as he passed Kachenko and hurried outside. Waiting for the shuttle to the rental car center, Kachenko saw Jonas—or the man he took to be Jonas—at the cab stand a few hundred yards down the curb. With a hissing of air brakes, the shuttle arrived; at almost exactly the same instant, the white hat disappeared inside a yellow cab, and the race was on.

On the shuttle, Kachenko opened his flip phone. His contacts were empty. He dialed the number from memory.

“Yes?” the voice answered, with a touch of the familiar impatience.

“He’s here.” Kachenko’s voice betrayed only a trace of an accent.

“Who’s there?”

“Jonas,” Kachenko said.

“Are you sure of it?” the voice asked him, after a silence.

Kachenko considered the question. Was he certain? He thought of the white hat, the broad grin, the clear expression of recognition…“Yes,” he said.

“Very well,” the voice said, and the person on the other end of the phone sighed. “You know what this means, and you know what you have to do.”

Kachenko closed the phone. He held it in his fist for the duration of the ride, watching the lights on the runway in the distance as the shuttle trundled along the access road.

The kid behind the Hertz desk told him he’d been upgraded, free of charge, and led Kachenko across the lot to a gray Suburban. Kachenko tossed his garment bag in back; he set the attaché case on the passenger’s seat. He found the pistol attached to the underside of the dashboard with packing tape, just as his instructions had promised it would be, along with a silencer and two extra magazines, and he screwed the silencer onto the pistol and checked to be sure the pistol was loaded before he started the vehicle. Opening his notebook, he punched the second of the two sets of coordinates he’d written down before he left Los Angeles into the GPS; he’d already determined he would have no time to go to his hotel.

On the highway, halfway between Kenner, the suburb where the airport was located, and the city itself, there’d been an accident. All five lanes on the interstate had backed up, and red brake lights irradiated the night, filling the windshield with a spectral glow. Gripping the wheel, Kachenko scanned the backs of the cars in front of him until he thought he saw that familiar white hat through the rear window of a yellow cab several car lengths ahead of him in one of the passing lanes, though he couldn’t be certain, as the cab’s window was filthy.

Traffic progressed at something less than a crawl. Like the spine of some antediluvian creature raising itself from the primordial muck, the highway stretched ahead of him, eastbound traffic retarded to a trickle while oncoming traffic streamed past, headlights glaring in the darkness. Kachenko consulted his GPS. Alongside the highway, the flashing red and yellow lights on the rescue vehicles played across the surface of a canal.

At the next exit, Kachenko signaled, and he nosed across two lanes and turned onto Veteran’s Boulevard. Driving through the suburbs, he observed the speed limit. Box stores, plaza malls, and family restaurant chains flanked the dual carriageway; cross streets disappeared into darkness. Traversing another canal, he entered New Orleans: on his right was the Office of Motor Vehicles, a gray monstrosity of a building rising like a tombstone into the night.

Here, his GPS seemed to have abandoned him. He found himself navigating a subdivision, crooked paving blocks jutting from the roadway. The SUV bounced over the seams between the blocks; twice, the Suburban bottomed out, its brakes grating as they locked.

“Son of a bitch.” Kachenko smacked the wheel.

He’d come to a dead end. On the other side of a cyclone fence, a railroad trestle drew a faint charcoal line through the darkness; behind him, the residential homes with their pristine lawns and carefully tended hedges seemed to have been dropped into that devastated landscape from some other part of the world, perhaps from someplace where disaster didn’t seem quite so imminent. Kachenko threw the truck into reverse, and he nearly backed into a garbage can as the Suburban bounced in and out of a massive pothole, or maybe it was a sinkhole, Christ, Kachenko wondering he hadn’t snapped an axle.

As he turned, his headlights swept a DETOUR sign with an arrow pointing to the left.

Kachenko signaled—one had to retain some sense of order in the midst of so much chaos, after all—and he piloted the SUV onto an empty boulevard named for some dead French king (one of the Louies, he would remember later). After he’d gone three blocks, he understood this detour would be interminable: though he scanned the near distance for another orange sign that would point him back to the path he’d been on, setting him on the way to downtown New Orleans, he knew he would never find it.

He pulled to the curb, and he punched the same set of coordinates into the GPS. Orange barrels marked the periphery of the construction zone; he had to drive the wrong way down a one-way street to escape the subdivision. Recalibrating, the GPS repeated in a bland voice that nevertheless seemed to excoriate him for having failed to obey its directive. Signaling, he turned, and he drove toward the center of the city at exactly five miles per hour over the speed limit; under the streetlights, he glanced at the gun on the seat beside him.

He parked several blocks down the street from the hotel and convention center on Poydras, which was clogged with yellow cabs. Stuffing the gun in his trousers, he adjusted his suit coat to cover it, and he locked the Suburban, which chirped, flashing its lights. The Wyndham rose from Poydras in a pillar of light. Approaching on foot, Kachenko thought he saw that familiar white hat enter the hotel between the marble columns, though he couldn't be certain.

Inside, the concierge, a bald-headed man of about fifty, asked if he could take Kachenko’s bags.

“I don’t have any bags,” Kachenko said, his eyes scanning the crowd over the other man’s shoulder for that white hat, trying to glimpse the banquet hall through the massive doorway at the other end of the lobby.

“Perhaps I can help you in some other way, sir?” The concierge leaned closer, trying to catch Kachenko’s eye, barring his passage. “You are staying at this hotel, I presume?”

Kachenko fixed on the man’s small black eyes. A hooked nose protruded from the concierge’s face like a beak; he’d already reached the age where his ears and his nose had begun to outgrow the rest of his face. Though he stood several inches taller than Kachenko, they had roughly the same build.

“Yes, please,” Kachenko said, wringing his hands. “I only meant I needed your help. Come this way, please…”

Stooped, bent—in spite of himself, intrigued—the concierge followed. In the hallway outside the men’s room, with the other man close on his heels, Kachenko stopped, turned, and drove his elbow into the concierge’s windpipe. The concierge’s larynx cracked; staggering, he grabbed his neck, his face purpling as he drew a wheezing breath. Before he could fall to the floor, Kachenko caught the concierge around the waist, and Kachenko dragged the concierge into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

In the handicapped stall, Kachenko snapped the other man’s neck, and he propped the concierge up on the seat, removing his suit coat and his shirt. Where the clothing had fit the concierge loosely, hanging from his frame, it fit Kachenko snugly. Yet it fit, Kachenko thought, shooting his wrists through the sleeves. Beneath his undershirt, the concierge’s white skin looked like a turkey buzzard’s, and Kachenko thought of his own childhood, that distant village: he experienced a patchwork recollection of children with tear-stained faces (had he been one of them?) kicking a soccer ball in the dirt and making way for the military vehicles rolling through. He didn’t know where he’d come from, didn’t know whether the memories were his or something he’d invented after seeing the evening news. Regardless, the years between then and now seemed a blank.

The concierge gave a last tremor of life, and his foot shot out, catching Kachenko’s shin. Out of reflex, Kachenko punched the dead man in the face. He stared at the other man as though he’d come back to life; then, kneeling in front of the toilet, he began to remove the concierge’s trousers.

“That son of a bitch isn’t getting my money,” he said. “He’s not getting there first.”

The words echoed in the empty bathroom.

His nose curled. The concierge had already voided his bowels.

He left the concierge on the toilet seat with a copy of the Baton Rouge Advocate he’d found on the tile in front of the baby changing station unfolded on his lap. He looked at himself in the mirror, squeezing a blackhead and splashing some water on his face before he left the room. Dressed in the top half of the concierge’s uniform, Kachenko crossed the lobby at a brisk pace, whistling to himself as he walked. Chandeliers glittered beneath the ribbed vault of the ceiling. The room seemed to hold the voices of everyone in it, echoing, with an air of hushed expectation, like a concert hall before the symphony starts. In the dining room, Kachenko stood next to a tray of bread puddings, scanning the rows of pillars along the perimeter of the room for that white hat.

The candidate occupied a position of honor at the center of the room. Six foot one, hair graying at the temples, scion of some local political dynasty, he projected the kind of benevolent grandfatherly charm that might have appealed to a populist reformer at either end of the political spectrum, though whether he was running for president, councilman, alderman, city coroner, or for the school board, much less what his politics were, Kachenko didn’t know; he only knew that in order to get paid, he had to finish the job, and he had to do it before Jonas did it. The white hat appeared on the other side of a pillar at the end of the banquet hall; then it disappeared again.

His hand on the butt of the pistol, which he’d stuffed in the pocket of his trousers, Kachenko crossed the room, weaving between a pair of waiters who followed him with their eyes. At the far end of the dining room, that white hat appeared between the pillars—and there, closer at hand, he thought he saw that same white hat on the other side of the room, and he didn’t know how Jonas had moved so quickly. Blinking sweat from his eyes, teeth gritted, as he approached the candidate’s table, he withdrew the pistol from his pocket, and he fired three shots at point-blank range into the candidate’s heart. Muffled by the silencer, the pistol’s reports sounded like a set of flapping wings. Kachenko knocked over the headwaiter, upsetting a dessert cart, scattering silverware across the floor. The candidate had risen halfway from his chair, as though he meant to shake Kachenko’s hand; he pitched over backwards, blood spreading across the white ruffles of his shirt beneath the tuxedo jacket, blue eyes glazing as they rolled upward in his skull, as though he were gazing at the bandstand.

Silence fell over the room. Kachenko kept walking. He dropped the pistol in a tureen of crab and corn bisque on a buffet cart and proceeded at a calm but steadily accelerating pace toward the doors.

As he pushed the doors open, a woman—the candidate’s wife—shrieked.

Kachenko emerged into a long hall decorated with Chinese lanterns. At the end of the hall, a doorway opened onto the street. As Kachenko walked the length of the hall, he brushed past a man in a white linen suit wearing a hat similar or perhaps identical to the hat Kachenko had seen Jonas wearing in the airport; he saw several other similarly attired men lurking along the periphery of the hall, but none of their faces cracked open in recognition; none of them seemed to notice him.

He stripped off the concierge’s jacket as he descended the marble steps in front of the hotel and stuffed it in a garbage can by the curb.

Wearing his undershirt, he crossed the street, digging in his pockets for the keys to the Suburban. In the distance, a siren shrilled. Kachenko kept walking, and he didn’t look back; he didn’t want to know what was happening behind him.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Switchblade III, a review by Rusty Barnes

Switchblade Issue III boasts a number of contributors familiar to anyone who follows the small press crime scene, writers like Eric Beetner, Morgan Boyd and Preston Lang. As well, there are a number of writers I know mostly from their Twitter feeds and the occasional scuttlebutt. I realize it's still early on in Switchblade's career, but it's safe to say they've become prominent in a short time. All told, editor Scotch Rutherford has put together a well-done and entertaining issue here.

Some highlights include the aforementioned Preston Lang, who gives us "Press it Down," a story about a former musician turned mayhem artist, a granny who turns out to be skilled in the use of a golf club. I've found his stories always deserve more love than they receive: he's well-published, but merits further recognition, and kudos to Rutherford for recognizing that and giving him a spot in multiple issues.

In "Burning Snow," Morgan Boyd writes about how even a simple job like shoveling snow can become a criminal web of intrigue and violence. Told by our narrator Max, who's got a secret or two himself, the story ranges across the snowy landscape, artfully and simply revealed, to an unforgettable description of a fat man in flagrante delicto. The ending is a punch in the gut that  tells us what some of us could still stand to learn: some people never have the luck.

Eric Beetner's piece, "Family Secrets," about a child who witnesses a gruesome crime and is forced into a criminal act himself, is something I've found typical of Beetner, in novel or short story mode. His work is well-paced and  deftly written, always in service to the narrative, not flashy. It's solid prose exemplified by lines like "I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my Dad would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever come to be shot."

Other stories are largely successful but not necessarily my bag.  I recognize the effort each of the writers here, though, and I appreciate too the effort it takes to put out a quality journal several times a year. It's an often Herculean effort sustained only by the love you get from writers and occasionally from readers, and certainly not in monetary rewards. The kinks in the production process notwithstanding, I expect Switchblade to have a long successful career highlighting the best the small press crime scene has to offer for as long as Rutherford can keep the magic going on the back end.

The stories are out there waiting, and I see the job of small press crime journals like Switchblade, Pulp Modern and Tough to bring them to the forefront and provide an alternative--however the individual journals define that-- to the larger venue/larger payday every writer generally shoots for. Our job is to get large in vision, but stay small in practice, to highlight writers before they reach mainstream success, and to bring attention to those mainstream writers who still need the boost. Their success is our success. Every Switchblade issue, every Pulp Modern issue, every story, every time we get our names out there in the small press crime scene, is a success for all of us.