Monday, February 18, 2019

Red Rocks, fiction by Morgan Boyd

I rented a little house in midtown. Instead of a lawn, the yard had those shitty red rocks out front, which suited me just fine because the rental fronted as a meth lab, so I didn’t want the hassle of lawn maintenance. My crew worked nights and early mornings concocting crystal in the rental’s bathroom. Ferral was my chemist. He was a timid man, balding with long strips of thin blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Donny and Rachael made runs for me at the various drug stores, buying the required common household supplies. Donny was twenty years old, and from Sacramento. His cheeks were covered in freckles and acne. Rachael was twenty-two and from somewhere in Southern California. At a distance she looked pretty, but upon closer inspection, too much makeup failed to conceal red blotches on her face.

I grabbed my car keys for a McDonald’s run. I kept my crew well fed, and not because I was a nice guy. If somebody wasn’t eating, they were getting high, and that was a no-no. As I left the house, I noticed a toppled gray statue of a cherub holding a birdbath in the front yard. I crunched through the red rocks, and helped the angel back to its feet before unlocking the door of my pickup truck.

Everybody wants the American dream. A big house, a fast car, a blonde wife with big tits and a couple future Olympians for kids, and I’m no different only I’m on the fast track to prosperity. What all these hardworking schlubs, toiling nine to five, don’t comprehend is they’ll never climb that mountain. Hard work is the path to debt and nowhere town, enslavement. The only people reaching the promise land are the ones pulling the rug out from under the suckers. And that’s me, yanking like hell.

Upon returning home from McDonald’s, I noticed a commercial van parked in front of the house. Walking through the red rocks with greasy fast food bags, a bad premonition enveloped me. I envisioned half a dozen feds crammed in the back, tapping my phone line.

A beautiful woman stepped down from the stoop of my rental. She looked fortyish with long silky blonde hair. The pale yellow power suit she wore struggled against her vivacious curves. She smiled as we passed, her high heels clacking along the path, her hips swaying to and fro.

“Who was that?” I asked, coming through the door as Ferral and Rachael swarmed the McDonald’s bags.

“Said her name’s Sally. Sells vacuum cleaners,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “She’s giving us a free demonstration.”

“With the vacuum?” I asked, looking at the rancid floor.

Soda spills and cigarette ash blackened the mauve colored carpet. Dollar store dishes and plates dominated the sink and kitchen counters. Refuse from supplies littered the bedroom. Streamlining prosperity was by no means cleanly. The only immaculate area in the house was Ferral’s bathroom laboratory.

“She’ll be back in twenty minutes to demonstrate the cleaning power of the … what did she call it?” Donny asked, flicking cigarette ash onto the carpet. “The Hydro-Vac.”

“It’s one of those water jobs,” Rachael said.

“I don’t care if it runs on vaporized plutonium,” I said.

“That would be a serious fire hazard,” Ferral interjected, licking his fingers.

“I don’t give a shit,” I said, smashing an unwrapped Egg McMuffin with my fist. “Why didn’t you follow procedural protocol, and tell her thank you, but we aren’t interested?”

“Procedural protocol? You sound like my old manager at Wal-Mart,” Donny said.

“Donny thought she was cute,” Rachael said between slurps of orange juice.

“Look at this disgusting carpet,” Donny said. “Why not have a beautiful mature woman clean it for us?”

“Because she might not really sell vacuums, dumbass,” I said, stuffing a sausage biscuit into my mouth, and washing the dryness down with carton milk.

“No way,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “A babe that smoking. No way she’s a pig.”

“Did you see the van out front?” I asked. “Classic stakeout wagon.”

“You’re paranoid,” Donny said, flicking his cigarette ash on the carpet.

“Eat something,” I said. “Ain't you hungry?”

“Maybe if you hadn’t smashed my dinner,” Donny said unwrapping the flattened Egg McMuffin.

“You better be right about her,” I said.

“Find out in twenty minutes.”

“Getting low on supplies,” Ferral said. “Time for a run.”

“You heard the man,” I said to Donny and Rachael. “Get to work, and be smart about it. Change up the stores you hit. Don’t draw suspicion.”

“What about our meal?” Rachael asked, rubbing her stomach.

“It’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” I said.

“Cold McDonald’s,” Rachael said. “Brutal.”

Donny lingered in the living room while Rachael exited the backdoor, and pedaled away on her bicycle.

“Get going,” I said.

“What about Sally?” Donny asked.

“What about her?”

“I want to see her vacuum the floor.”

“She ain't getting through the front door, Donny,” I said. “I’m sending her ass packing the moment she returns. Now get on your bike, and do your job.”

“But what about the vacuum? I bet it’s heavy, and she’ll have carried it up the porch.”

I lit a cigarette, and stared at the floor. Reluctantly, Donny slung his pack over his shoulder, and slammed the back door. That kid was standing frontline for an ass whooping. One more fuck up like that and he was toast. I’d gone through countless dumb shits in this operation, and Donny was no different. I couldn’t understand why people like him struggled with the simplest of tasks? If he didn’t pull his head out of his rear, I’d kick him to the curb, and find another stooge.

To calm myself, I sat in a cracked and plastic off-white lawn chair, and strummed several songs by The Beatles on my Martin Rosewood Grand while smoking. The guitar was an heirloom handed down from my grandfather. Besides money, it was the only thing I cared about in this world. Twenty minutes passed, and my mind shifted to cashing in my chips. The first thing I’d do is fix my teeth. Chicks dig straight teeth. Thinking about ladies reminded me of the vacuum broad. Maybe she wasn’t a cop. Maybe she was a nymphomaniac. Maybe she went door to door fucking men. Hell, if Donny returned and found me bedding down with the vacuum lady, it’d teach him a lesson far more powerful than any beating.

“Did Sally come back?” Donny asked when he returned from his errand.

“If you ever invite a stranger inside again, or draw attention to us by slamming another door in this house, I will trounce the living piss out of you, and throw your ass to the curb. Got it?”

Donny didn’t like what I was saying, but I wasn’t running a feel-good resort. He stormed into the bedroom, and I returned to the lawn chair, my grandfather’s guitar, and the cigarettes. I was working my way through ‘Black Bird’ when somebody knocked on the front door.

“Who’s that?” Donny asked, reappearing in the living room.

“How the hell should I know?” I said, setting down my guitar, and tucking my gun into my waistband.

I opened the door, expecting a gorgeous blonde, but instead a tall, barrel chested man, wearing boots, blue jeans, a white collared shirt and a cowboy hat, loomed in the doorjamb, holding a massive vacuum. Before I could speak, he stepped passed me into the living room.

“Whooee,” the cowboy said with a whistle. “Damn if this ain’t the dirtiest rug west of the Mississippi. Like its been drowned in motor oil or something. Howdy partner, name’s Carl. I’m sure glad you signed up for our free carpet cleaning demonstration this evening because this floor will test the limits of a vacuum, but I tell you what. When you see the Hydro-Vac’s results, you ain’t gonna be able to refuse my offer, no way, no how. You’ll be so impressed, you’ll buy another one for your mama.”

“We don’t need a demonstration,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to use my gun. “Thank you. Be on your way.”

“Hold on there a minute partner,” Carl said, plugging the chord into the wall socket. “You know I’ll do you square. Won’t take but a few minutes, and I’ll have these badlands looking like the pastures of heaven in no time. They say you can’t polish a turd, but boy, I tell you what.”

“Where’s Sally?” Donny asked as Carl turned on the vacuum.

The Hydro-Vac sounded like a Boing 747 coming in for a landing. A torrent of hot air burst forth from an exhaust valve like jet propulsion, knocking Carl’s cowboy hat off the back of his head. His head was bald and lumpy with bright red patches on his scalp like cracks in a dry riverbed.

Ferral and Rachael came into the living room upon hearing the vacuum’s sonic boom. We gathered around the carpet’s perimeter, watching the cowboy work. Sweat dripped from his brow as he wrangled the mechanical beast. I figured he’d only plow a small patch of the toxic waste, but Carl pushed that cleaner up and down the entire width and length of the living room.

We pitched in, moving lawn chairs, so he wouldn’t miss any spots. The vacuum’s first attempt morphed the carpet from tar black to ash gray, but on the second flyby, the floor regained its original mauve luster. The cowboy arched his back, and stepped on the cleaner’s off switch. The growling motor slowed until silent. Carl wiped the sweat from his forehead, and searched for his cowboy hat. Donny handed it to him.

“Thanks boy,” Carl said, unplugging the vacuum. “What do you think? That was some clean job. I didn’t know the carpet was purple before the Hydro-Vac washed out all that crud, did you? Now it sparkles like new, and it’s all thanks to the magic of this incredible marvel of the modern world.”

“Carpet looks nice,” I admitted.

“Glad to hear it,” Carl said, reaching out to shake my hand, and exposing a massive sweat stain under his armpit. “This machine can be yours for eight easy payments of one hundred dollars, and you’ll never have to go back to living atop a tar pit again. Don’t that sound nice? I know you ain't got no vacuum in here. Take a hold of this beast.”

I didn’t want to touch the vacuum, but the slick-talking cowboy thrust the hose into my grip.

“Now you got the eighth wonder of the world in the palm of your hand.”

“I’m not buying this vacuum,” I said, handing him back the nozzle.

“That’s cold mister,” he said, tipping his hat back. “I bust my butt floating your floor, and you do me like that? How you missing out on this spectacular deal? Tell you what. Act now, I’ll knock fifty bucks off the price, and throw in a Hydro-Handheld for free.”

“I’ll pass,” I said. “Now if you’ll be on your way, I’d appreciate it.”

“Well shiit,” Carl said, looking around the room. “You play guitar?”

“A little.”

“Know any country?”

“Hank Williams,” I said.

“That’s my bread and butter.”

I strummed the chords to ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ and Carl yodeled the lyrics.

“You sing in a band?” I asked when the song ended.

“Nah, just karaoke every chance I get,” Carl said. “You sure you wont buy this here vacuum?”

“Positive,” I said.

“Shiit,” Carl said with a sigh. “Just another no good, worthless, cheap ass, son of a bitch.”

“Pardon?” I asked, reaching for my pistol.

Before I drew, a shotgun appeared in my face.

“Fucking move,” Rachael said. “And I’ll blow off your goddamn head.”

“Nice work, baby girl,” Carl said. “Your mama raised you right.”

“This prick’s your dad?” I asked.

“I’m warning you. Don’t move,” she said. “You’re a real piece of shit. And I’d have no problem offing you.”

Carl slugged me in the gut, knocking me to the floor. It felt damp and smelled scented. He disarmed me, and kicked me in the ribs.

“Do exactly what we say. Be a shame to dirty this freshly cleaned carpet,” Carl said. “Not sure how well the Hydro works on brains.”

Rachael made Donny and Ferral stand in the corner with their hands up, facing the wall.

“Don’t kill me,” Donny said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Then cooperation is imperative,” Carl said.

“Yes, sir,” Donny said, peeing his pants.

The front door opened, and the vacuum saleswoman entered with rope.

“Hi mama,” Rachael said, and helped Carl hogtied me like a calf at the rodeo.

“Hi baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said.

“Parents?” I asked Rachel.

“Yep, and Rachael ain’t my real name, neither,” she said in a southern drawl.

“And you’re not from Southern California.”

“I’m not from California, but I’m from the South.”

“You done good, baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said. “Mama’s real proud.”

“So’s pa,” Carl said. “Be a sweetheart and gather up the goodies.”

Rachael or whatever her name really was ran into the bedroom, and came back with two large clear Ziploc bags filled with crystal meth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “You boys been busy. Now where’s the cash?”

“He knows,” Rachael said, pointing at me.

Carl kicked me in the chest, and smashed me in the face with the butt of my own gun.

“Start talking.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said, dripping blood onto the carpet.

“What if I kill him?” Carl said putting the gun to the back of Donny’s head.

“Please don’t,” Donny pleaded.

“I don’t give a shit about the kid,” I said. “He’s the one let you in.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Carl said, pointing the gun at Ferral. “Where’s the money, or Dr. Weird gets a hole in his noodle.”

“I can find another chemist,” I said.

“Then what about this here guitar?” Carl asked. “Be a shame to break it on your head.”

“There’s an air vent on the floor in the bedroom. Unscrew the grate, and feel around,” I said, and Rachael disappeared into the bedroom.

Several moments passed, and Rachael returned with several large wads of cash.

“That it?” Carl asked, and kicked me in the ribs again.

“Yeah, now put down my guitar.”

“I said it’d be a shame to break your head with it. I didn’t say I’d put it down. Now don’t take it too personal. You got a hell of a clean carpet out the deal, and that’s something you can be proud of.”

“Come on little bro,” Rachael said, and Donny turned around.

“She’s your sister?” I asked.

“The boy’s good ain’t he,” Carl said.

“Thanks pa,” Donny said, shedding his California accent, and kicking me in the ribs. “Who’s ass whooping who, huh?”

“Least I didn’t piss my pants,” I said when the kicking stopped.

“I didn’t neither,” Donny said. “I used a bottle of water to make it look real.”

“Like I said, the boy’s good.”

“How about you Ferral?” I asked. “You related to these assholes?”

“No, but they got a real laboratory. No more working out the toilet for me.”

“Don’t get any wild hairs, and come looking for us,” Carl said as Donny stretched out a long piece of duct tape.

Sally removed the floor attachment to the vacuum. Rachael thrust the nozzle into my mouth, and Donny taped it to my head. Carl picked up my guitar, and put his cowboy boot on the vacuum’s on switch.

“Damn, this sure is a nice picker,” Carl said. “I power up the Hydro-Vac, and your lungs, stomach, intestines and soul become the property of this here vacuum. Last chance to buy this beaut. Got a hell of a suction.”

“Okay,” I said as best I could with a metal hose jammed into my mouth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “Looks to me like we got ourselves another satisfied customer.”

Carl raised his boot to stomp the vacuum’s on switch. I winced at the thought of my organs leaving my body in such a violent manner, but instead Carl stepped back, and strummed my grandfather’s guitar.

“She’s long gone, and I’m lonesome and blue,” he yodeled. “Awful fine picker.”

The cowboy and his family, my guitar, my meth, my money, and my chemist exited the house. Donny slammed the door. For a moment there was silence, but then the grinding sound of boots, walking across red rocks, crushed the skeletal remains of my American dream into an immaculate carpet.


Morgan Boyd used to live in Santa Cruz, California. Now he lives somewhere else with his wife, daughter, cat, and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Tough, Pulp Metal Magazine, Spelk and in print at Switchblade Magazine. He also has stories forthcoming at Yellow Mama and Story and Grit.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

News You Can Use

Hi all--

Just a couple quick notes. Issue 2 2018 contributors, we're making final headway on the print version. The learning curve proved to be a bit steep, and there's going to be a slight drop-off in print quality. Issue 1 was slam-bang amazing and I am still learning the ins and outs of Kindle Direct Publishing and the Creative Suite software I used to design the thing. Have patience, please. This will be followed closely by Issue 3, as it turns out, one issue right after the other in an attempt to catch up.

 In other news, I have hired an editorial intern, my son Rider, who I homeschool, and who will make initial screenings of manuscripts and help me prioritize. Rest assured, when I say I'm working with him, we're talking laptops  open at the same time and conversation happening as he learns the ins and outs of Submittable and editorial work in general in preparation for his future. I am still reading and rejecting or accepting every story that comes in. As submissions increase and he gets more experienced, I expect he'll move into more of an associate editor role, during which time I'll probably take on another associate editor with related experience so we have a committee of folks working on reading submissions so that I can concentrate on editing, which is why I do this, after all.

We have stories and reviews scheduled weekly through mid-June, and the story queue is empty except for two stories we just now got, so feel free to send more for us to read. I feel perpetually behind, but that's a healthy development as the journal gets more submissions and more notoriety. We still aim to respond in fewer than 30 days, so feel free to query us if your story has not been read in that time period. It likely got lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Some statistics for you. I estimate we accept about in 1 in 7 stories, so your chances are good with us. We publish a lot of material. We respond personally, maybe 30% of the time. I wish we could do more of that, but sometimes it's not possible and sometimes it feels as if we're pouring salt into the rejection wound, so we err on the side of saying nothing at all.

We are always looking for reviewers and books, so if you have something you want to pitch to me, please do. I'd like to stay small-press-focused, but the fact is there are only so many small presses and many of them seem unwilling to part with mobi copies--our preferred review format--of their newish books so we end up reviewing the people who've appeared in the journal (as we should) and not much else. So hit me up, especially if you have a reconsideration of a genre favorite or genre neglectee deserving of more attention (aren't we all?). And in the meantime, we'll try to stay on top of the indie scene, keep our ear to the ground and bring you more reviews than ever.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Man Whom Prosperity Harmed, fiction by S. Craig Renfroe Jr.

It was a miracle. God sent His angels down to align the flipped Honda just so that the fence post pierced it in the driver’s side door but punctured through right at my lap, making a kind of safety restraint for the next two flips instead of skewering me as it should have. The days spoilt in Sunday school credited me this. Russell, thrown from the car, must have bounced softly against the angels rescuing me because he bent over to gaze scratch-less at me hanging upside down.

“Well, damn,” I said.

Russell rent the door open, and a shuddering went through me as the fence post slid over my thighs, the tip grazing my belly as it curved out its retreating arc.

“So you ain’t even hurt?” I asked Russell.

“Not my first one of these.”

“I didn’t know car wrecks was one of those things you get better at with practice.”

“Everything gets better with practice.”

I hopped a little with my feet too newly used to the feel of the ground. I thought maybe the old truck over on the road had stopped to help us until I realized it crackled and leaked and remembered that it was the truck I had hit right before we flipped. We’d decided to drive windows down through some of the backwoods counties on the border of North and South Carolina—I might’ve been speeding. The truck’s driver’s side was busted up pretty good. The window had shattered in on the man who struggled with the crushed door and steering wheel that were all up in him.

“Call 911,” the man said. “I’m hurt bad.”

“We did already,” Russell said. I was sure we hadn’t. Russell had a poison in him, so did I, but only the kind I put into myself, where his was there all the time, a poison he produced.

“You came out of nowhere,” the man said.

“We came out of Sumerville,” I said.

“You were flying. You drive like mad sons of bitches. If not, I would’ve had plenty of time to pull out.”

“What is that road?” Russell asked.

“My driveway.”

“Long ass driveway. How much land you got there?”

“Over a hundred acres. I need help, boys.”

“What’s your name?” Russell asked. “So we can tell the police.”

“Melvin. Shit, you boys are on something, aren’t you?”

“A few things,” I said.

“No, nothing, no,” said Russell.

“Goddamn it,” Melvin said. “I’m hurt.” He had stopped trying to get loose.

We all went quiet then out of respect or forgetting our lines. Or maybe I sat down. Or I went back over to the car to pee so it wouldn’t bother Melvin. I do remember that the radio was still on in the car to a talk show and the man kept using the word “irradiation.”

When I got back or I stood up or I started paying attention again, Melvin was saying, “My parents, they died in a wreck.”

“That shit’s ironic,” Russell said.

“Their boy dying that way.” Melvin coughed up wet. “Their boy.”

“He’s talking about himself when he says ‘boy,’ ain’t he?” I said.

“Their only boy?” Russell asked.

“Their only boy,” Melvin confirmed. “Where is that ambulance?”

“It’ll be along directly.”

“I hope I make it. But I miss them.”

“You live over there all alone?”

He nodded a cough.

“Want us to call your other family?”

“Got none. Their only boy. I haven’t made them any grandkids.”

“That’s all for the better,” Russell said. “Jesus told us to leave off with family. You didn’t see him making any more of us. It’s God’s desire that we just stop.”

“Is that a siren?” Melvin asked. There was no siren.

I had the thought that we would leave or should leave, but Russell said we should stick around like Samaritans. And I ain’t proud, but I got a bit bored.

“Why you didn’t have any kid?” I asked him to pass the time.

He stared up as if my voice had come from on high instead of right next to him. “I had it too easy. If that makes sense.” He coughed some then but went on and recovered. “Too easy to do what I wanted to do. So I did that.”

“Know exactly what you mean,” Russell said, though I wouldn’t have called his life easy.

“I should have made them grandkids.”

“Did you have room for them?” Russell asked. “Big house back there? Well off the road?”

“This road don’t get much traffic, does it?” I asked.

Melvin didn’t offer any answers.

“Pretty isolated still,” Russell said.

“Yeah.”

“That’s rare these days.”

“Hell, they got condos in Sumerville now.”

“Boys. I’m hurting.”

Melvin kept talking and begging and questioning and doubting and generally living till Russell pinched his nose and sealed his mouth with the palm of his hand. Melvin struggled some but gave in pretty quickly. At least I think so.

Russell had me help him push the pickup back up the driveway. It was hard too, with one of the tires rubbing against something, no matter how we bent the metal bunched there. Took us most of the day, but we had it well up the drive and away from the road. It felt good to work like that, the pressure in the muscles, the exertion. And where we stopped was a hill from which you could see Melvin’s acres, pastures left to grow and woods bounding the abandoned fields.

We walked all over that land. Explorers. There was a pond brown and near empty that squirmed with the fish that were doomed there. There was a shitload of trees, big ones with bunches of mistletoe and gnarled lumps like cancers on their limbs and trunks. There was a creek dried from the tearless sky. It was there that we found a huge rock that had been worked on, chiseled with compartments and troughs and spouts.

“Who you think done this?” I asked.

“Indians?”

“Yeah. Indians. Or prehistoric people.”

“Prehistoric peoples,” Russell said, but it sounded better when he said it. “That’s what we are.” He took his clothes off, which wasn’t that unusual. He was a surprisingly small man but without shame. “No. We’re posthistoric people. They were the first, and we will be the last.”

I always thought Russell should have been a preacher, but he said it didn’t matter because he didn’t pay tax no ways.

I know you probably want to know what we did with the truck, with the man who had it too easy, with our own car crashed. But all honesty, I can’t recall. It must have resolved itself all alright. Memory’s a real nightmare that way, the things you do and the things you don’t. I have to hold a line sometimes, else I’ll tumble making assumptions about them things I don’t remember based on the things that I do.

Russell just took over Melvin’s land. He squatted in an outbuilding for months. At some point he moved on into the house, and the structure went feral like its inhabitant. The gutters drooped and some of the ends fell to the ground with other end still attached, as if the house were trying to use them to hold itself up. The mail that continued to come, like a meaningless promise, clogged the front hall where Russell discarded it once shucked seeking checks. The electricity went off, and the water followed suit.

I went out there regularly to help. I had watched my uncles build houses, so how hard could it be? Saws and thick red and black pencils and nails held in the mouth like chew and the dusted knees of men who knell. But no matter our intentions, the place grew dilapidated, and its disrepair deepened like the blackening spots on apples.

And inevitably when I’d visit, we would lose days. Russell could talk, and he could talk me into all manner of wickedness, but I can’t claim unwilling. These were the days I was waging a war on myself, my body the battlefield for some stupid skirmish between my vanity and the world that wouldn’t submit. I would ruin myself out spite before they could say I had tried and had not been enough. Russell gave me enough. But eventually, I would fight my way through a line of giants shining in the light of a flaming sword to find myself in a gas station eating Moon Pies one after another letting the wrappers fall on the floor. No one ever made me feel like myself like he did until I met you.

When I tell you this, I am three years sober. I am holding your hand because you have just told me that our baby still baking is a boy. I can’t stop confessing all my happy sins those nights and days when everything, even the pain, especially the pain, caused me a kind of religious joy. I keep confessing long since you have stopped returning the pressure of my grip, the fingers of your other hand pulled tight with the palm covering your bellybutton. Let’s consider the name “Melvin” is all I ask.


S. Craig Renfroe Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At (Main Street Rag Publishing Company). Currently, he is an associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte. Also, his work has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Puerto del Sol, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @SCraigRenfroeJr.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, reviewed by E.F. Sweetman


Bad Boy Boogie
Thomas Pluck
Down & Out Books
352 pages
$18.95/$8.99
Reviewed for TOUGH by E.F. Sweetman

If dark crime thrillers of persecution, personal justice, and payback are your thing, Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie has them all, and more in this wild story of an ex-con’s return to his small hometown. When Jay Desmarteax comes back to Nutley, New Jersey to restart his life after serving 25 years for killing ruthless high school bully, Joey Bello, he finds that his folks have disappeared, his old friends want him gone, and his enemies want him dead.

Nutley is a small town outside of Newark, and is also, in Jay’s words,“a place to grow up, rich or poor. Parks to roam, ponds and streams to fish in, a pizzeria in every neighborhood…but a little too proud, a little unfriendly to outsiders….”

It is a narrow-minded place with close-minded people; full of secrets, and layers of corruption simmering just beneath the calm and ordered surface. The cruel aspect of being an outsider carries a lifetime sentence from which you can never really recover. What is more unjust, his best friends who remained in Nutley, end up with the same small-town mentality. They see Jay as a reminder of a past they want to forget.

The town and its people did not want him when he was a kid, and is not happy to see him back from his stint in Rahway State prison. His taxi home is intercepted by the Chief of Police with this message. “You never belonged here. We’d like to go back to living like you never existed. You’re a stain we scrubbed out of the mattress.”

Although Jay knows he should drive south, start a new life, and pick up the trail of his adoptive parents, Mama Angeline and Papa Andre, the chief’s warning is anything but a deterrent. Jay has served his time, he is back, and he does not care what anyone thinks. “I just want to find my folks, but now I’m curious why everyone wants me gone so bad. Feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know the punch line.”

In the true spirit of crime thrillers, when Jay Desmarteaux finds he is dealing with shady small-town politics, and a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself, he is unable to follow the advice of his old mentor, Okie Kinkaid: “the best revenge [is] living well”.

In returning to Nutley, Jay is rendered cynical by an unending cycle of violence and deceit. The rejection releases Jay’s tremendous grudge against the people and the town who left him to carry the entire blame for a crime he did not commit alone. Instead of retreat, Jay’s fight back begins with returning to his childhood home. Ultimately he is going to find his parents, but he wants answers first.

“Walking through his old house now inhabited by strangers felt like the impossible reality of a dream. The carpets replaced with polished hardwood, paneling torn out for bright pastel paint. Here and there the house he knew shined through...He padded upstairs to the master bedroom. (Papa) Andre had built a platform bed with a sunburst maple headboard, and the new owners either appreciated its massive beauty, or couldn’t be bothered dismantling it. Jay pressed the panel by the headboard. The wood eased in, then popped open to reveal a hideaway. Jay blinked at what lay inside the cubby. Two of the few things Jay had been forbidden to touch. The tomahawk Andre had taken home from Vietnam, and the combat knife with the finger grooves cut in the handle... Jay hefted the Lagana war hatchet’s worn hickory handle with reverence, his reflection warped in the hand-hammered blade, the edge scratched from field sharpening. A worm turned in his stomach, as if he could smell his parents’ fear. They had left everything…. He gripped its smooth wooden handle like he was squeezing Papa Andre’s hand.”


What Jay is really seeking is revenge. An antihero with a rough and jaded attitude, he has been used, terribly abused, abandoned, scapegoated, and cast aside. He was handed a life sentence for murder, and lost 25 years because his friends remained silent at his trial, all for “Joey Bello, a no-good rapist son of a bitch who needed killing.”

Pluck’s smooth writing style cuts to the bone, and he has created in Jay Desmarteaux a larger than life, a saw-toothed, scored-earth, sometimes humorous, sometimes lewd defender of street justice accountability. When a friend tries to talk him of taking revenge with reminding Jay that “you can’t fight those kind of people. It’s like banging your head against the wall. Only feels good when you stop.” Jay’s response is, ‘I got a pretty hard head’… and rapped his knuckles on his skull.”

Bad Boy Boogie deals with dark and disturbing matters, but it carries an equally satisfying amount of justice, because stories of revenge are fulfilling. The impulse to strike back against corruption and cruelty is wired deep-we can’t help but glorify an avenger who answers brutality with Jay’s level of ferocity, especially on issues of child abuse. His retribution is swift and thorough, and feels valid. Pluck’s tough-guy action is balanced with unexpected humor.

“‘They fixin’ to kill me Chrissie?’ The tremble in his eyes said enough. Jay threw his body into a liver punch, follow it by two more. Chris dry-heaved, face bent to the steering wheel. Jay stomped the accelerator and jerked the wheel toward the Benz. Oscar and Paul snapped their heads up as the truck veered their way. Paul waddled like Costello…Oscar did a funny little dance, stuck in place until the truck crumpled the Benz like tinfoil and punched it and him into the waves.”

Jay’s non-linear back story provides glimpses of his childhood that give disturbing insights into what has driven Jay to this high-octane level of retribution.“The taut clothesline ran from his swollen purple ankle to the leg of the sofa. The boy huddled under the sofa’s stained yellow arm. There he didn’t have to look at her. He dug at the knot with the carrot peeler. Crusted with blood. He had to get free before the Gator man came. Water dripped in the sink and tortured his dry throat. There was a warm glass of flat Coke on the other side of the sofa but he couldn’t reach. Not without crawling on top of the Witch.”

Bad Boy Boogie’s title is a tribute to the band AC/DC. “Back in Black”, “Problem Child”, “Live Wire”, “TNT”, and “Highway to Hell” title each section. In a guest post for Pulp Curry, Pluck wrote, “My favorite AC/DC songs work like noir tales.” And like the band’s lyrics, Bad Boy Boogie is on point; humorous, rowdy, loaded with working-class antagonism and pride. Pluck employs the same raw ideology in his story as AC/DC applies to their music.

This is not the last we will see of Jay Desmarteaux. Jay gets around. Pluck calls him “the walking Cajun shitstorm” who has appeared in several short stories, and will return in a follow-up novel where he will search rural Louisiana for his parents.


E.F. Sweetman is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in MicrochondriaFunDead's horror anthology, and Switchblade Magazine, as well as upcoming issues of Broadswords and Blasters, and Econo Clash Review. She reviews noir, crime and thriller novels for both TOUGH and SPINE. Follow her on Twitter @EFSweetman.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Night Shift Noir, fiction by Kimmy Dee

Listen, I didn’t take this gig to be a hero. The training videos were pretty specific about this sort of shit. I think one was even called “Night Shift: Don’t Be a Hero.” Yet here I am, slithering through the curdled grime coating the floor of the dairy cooler clutching a loaded pistol, prepared to pump a bad guy full of lead.

And the gun being pink doesn’t make it any less goddamned heroic.

Trust me, I would have much rather followed the official Super Thrift Discount Mart robbery protocol, C.H.O.A.D.: Calmly and Happily Obey All Demands. No heroes meant no corpses, which meant less paperwork. And less paperwork meant fewer lawsuits, which corporate viewed as a bigger threat than some bullshit petty theft. Cash was safe-dropped every hour, and every inch of the store was covered by surveillance cameras. They weren’t actually recording anything most of the time, but wannabe criminals didn’t need to know that. The bottom line is it’s simply not worth it for either a minimum wage cashier or an amateur-hour outlaw to risk life and limb over the measly contents of the Lane 8 cash drawer.

As the esteemed night shift manager I was fond of doing as little work as possible, and not exchanging gunfire with drug-crazed criminals fit my slacker motif pretty fucking well.

But then I met Faith.

She started on night shift three weeks ago to the day. I walked into the upstairs break room and she was crouched down, rifling through the cabinet where the packets of diarrhea-inducing sludge the STD Mart passed off as complimentary coffee for employees were stashed. Her bleached blonde hair was loosely piled atop her head; a few stray curls tickled her neck. Tight khaki pants clung to an ass that was too perfect for this world, the outline of her thong visible underneath the thin fabric. Her company-issued collared shirt had ridden up a little, revealing a tribal pattern tattoo across the milky flesh of her lower back.

I sat at a table and pretended to play with my phone while I stared. She bounced on the balls of her feet as she sifted through the contents of the cupboard, and as I watched her thighs and bottom rise and fall I realized my own tan slacks were growing uncomfortably tight.

Eventually she gave up her search and slammed the cupboard, and as she stood and turned toward me my breath caught in my throat. Not because of some lame-ass love at first sight crap, although she was certainly pretty; I just tend to choke on my own spit from time to time. Smooth, I know.

“Don’t they keep any decaf in this shithole?” Her lips shone with pink gloss. Otherwise she wore very little makeup. The small splotches of acne scarring her cheeks were the only proof that she was human. Even the frumpy STD Mart uniform couldn’t mask her curves.

“Does it mean anything?” I said between coughs. I was still a little choked up from my recent brush with death via my own saliva.

She stared at me like I’d just asked if I could tend the rabbits.

“The tattoo. On your back.” I forced my eyes back to my phone.

“Yeah, it means I was an idiot when I was sixteen,” she said, plopping her flawless bottom onto the chair across from me.

Over the course of our shared fifteen minute break I learned that Faith was a whopping nineteen years old now, but the intensity raging behind her blue eyes told me that she knew a hell of a lot more about the world than I did, despite my five additional years on the planet. She was new to town and lived with her boyfriend, and she didn’t seem overly thrilled about either.

The next afternoon I stopped and bought a large decaf coffee for Faith on my way into work, and that buck ninety-nine bought me a world of shit that I hadn’t quite bargained for.

***


Love can make you do crazy things.

I pressed my face against the cold door of the milk case and peered out at the store through streaked glass. There was no sign of the masked gunman that had herded us in here a few minutes earlier, and no sign of Faith. The hum of the refrigeration unit and the panicked mumbling of my moronic coworkers made it impossible to hear what was happening in the store.

My heart was pounding; I had to act soon.

I clicked off the safety.

The gun belonged to Faith, and so did I.

A week ago we’d been chilling in the cash office during Faith’s break, which had become our nightly routine--I liked to hide out and pretend to do paperwork, and Faith seemed to prefer flirting with me over spending her half an hour of freedom in the bleach-scented squalor of the STD Mart break room--when the firearm slipped out of her purse.

I squealed and jumped back in my chair when the weapon hit the tile. It wasn’t my most manly moment.

“Relax, Riley. I always keep the safety on.” Faith bent forward to scoop up the gun, her fingers fiddling with the grip longer than necessary, allowing me ample time to compose myself and still sneak a peek down her shirt.

She caught me looking and smiled, then leaned over a little farther.

“Why do you even have that?” I said, my voice cracking. “I mean, I don’t think STD Mart policy…”

“Protection,” she said, shoving the gun back into her bag.

I felt like a creep because I couldn’t tear my mind away from her cleavage, and the small tattoo I’d glimpsed on her left breast--one half of a heart that looped into the infinity symbol. While she mused on the dangers of being a woman in the modern world, I wondered where else she was hiding ink.

“Hey, do you like to shoot?” Her eyes lit up again, and I knew I’d do absolutely anything to make her happy.

She led me through the dimly lit maze of pallets in the stockroom like a seasoned STD Mart pro, stooping down to scoop up some bottles and cans from the damaged goods bin. Once both of our arms were full I followed her through the back door by the deserted docks, where she carefully spaced our scratched and dented loot along the top of a dumpster. Then she dragged me back toward the building and handed me the gun.

I turned it over in my hands, examining it from all angles. I had shot a rifle a couple of times at camp when I was a kid, but I’d never even touched a handgun. It was lighter than I’d expected.

“It kicks a little if you’re not used to it.” Faith reached over to guide my hands on the gun while I adjusted my stance. Her chest brushed against my arm as she showed me how to click off the safety, and the shiver that ran through me had fuck-all to do with the deadly weapon in my hands. “Go ahead, try it.”

I squinted toward the bottles and squeezed the trigger, and if the weight of the weapon and Faith’s warm breath on my neck had caused me to downplay the brutal power of the hot pink pistol, the boom that echoed off the empty semi-trailers was an earsplitting reminder.

I stumbled backward more from the noise than the recoil, and Faith threw her head back in laughter. All the bottles remained intact.

“You shot high. Try again,” Faith said.

We spent our next several breaks out on the docks, shooting at busted up groceries. Faith was a much better shot than me, but I caught on. I was sure the local cops would eventually swoop in and surround the place, but they never did.

And I couldn’t just sit here and hope the lazy fucks would show up now.

I nudged the dairy case’s door open and tried to squirm out stealthily. After belly-flopping against the epoxy floor with the gun over my head like an armed trout for a few moments I finally managed to kick free of my pasteurized prison, and leapt to my feet. Displaced milk cartons rolled across the aisle.

I glanced around quickly, afraid that my thrashing may have drawn the robber’s attention, but all was quiet on the dairy front. Of course it was; the burglar would be focused on breaking into the cash office.

The cash office where Faith was waiting—alone, unsuspecting, and unarmed. Waiting for me.

Earlier this evening, after our lunch break shooting session, Faith had followed me back to the cash office. There was something different about her demeanor. Her eyes, normally fearless, were focused on the floor.

“I want to leave Steve,” she finally blurted. “I took this job so I could save up enough money to get away.”

I lowered myself into the room’s lone janky office chair. Faith normally sat on the countertop that lined one wall, where each shift manager organized cash, coupons, and other assorted supermarket swag, but she remained standing. Her hips swayed slightly as she swung her purse from side to side.

“Are you okay?” I said. I swallowed down the spit that was nefariously threatening my windpipe.

“Never better,” she said.

And then she was on top of me.

She flung her legs over the arms of the chair, somehow not sending both of us crashing to the floor. Before I could register what was happening her lips smashed into mine, our teeth colliding painfully until we both made the necessary adjustments. As we kissed I ran my hands through her hair, which was every bit as soft as I thought it would be, then down her back, finally resting them on the hips that had dominated my fantasies. She straddled me closer, and something dug sharply into my thigh.

Faith’s gun. It was still in my pocket.

She hopped back to her feet, wiping the gooey mixture of our shared saliva from her face onto the back of her hand.

“Is that a gun in your pocket, Riley, or are you just happy to see me?” She grinned and I stood, albeit a little more delicately that she had, and wrapped my arms around her. I never wanted to let go.

“Both,” I said, kissing her again.

She kissed me back deeply for a moment, then pushed away.

“I have to get back to work,” she said. “My manager is a real hard ass.”

She grabbed her purse and reached for the door, then turned back and kissed me again.

“You know,” she pulled the front of her shirt down, running her fingertips across her cleavage. “I have another break at midnight. Let’s continue this then.”

“It’s only a fifteen minute break,” I said.

“Then we’d better make the most of it.” Her hand flitted along the front of my pants.

“What will we do for the other ten minutes?” My voice was barely a squeal.

Faith smiled, tightening her grip as she leaned closer. “Don’t do any of the safe drops tonight. I want to do it on the counter, on top of all the money,” she whispered, giving my earlobe a nibble.

“Do you know how unsanitary that is?” I said. “Studies have shown that cash is practically covered in fecal matter. That’s particles of poop, Faith!”

She kissed my cheek and turned to leave, and I knew I’d happily swim through a sea of raw sewage just to feel her pressed against me again.

“Oh, and Riley?” she had paused in the doorway. “Keep the gun on you until breaktime. The bulge turns me on.”

“Oh I’ll give you a bulge,” I said to the closing door, hating myself immediately for saying something so stupid.

Faith returned to the STD Mart floor, and I followed once I could will my erection to stand down. The next couple of hours were the longest of my life. I made my normal rounds to collect cash, but left it stacked on the counter instead of dropping it into the safe. I was the only one on the shift with a key to the office, and other than maybe wrinkling it up a bit, no harm would come to the supermarket’s precious money. Well, except maybe soiling it with some more bodily fluids, but I was trying really hard not to think about what nastiness was already swimming on those bills.

At five minutes until twelve I was leaning against the customer service counter jotting down cigarette inventory, when Faith brushed up against me. I pretended to be surprised, as if I hadn’t been watching every excruciating minute tick by since her last break.

“Can I have the key?” she said softly. “I want to go in and get ready for you. Give me five minutes, then knock. Okay?”

I handed over the key without saying a word. I could barely breathe, let alone speak.

Faith disappeared into the cash office, and I scribbled down the last few carton counts with my mind running wild.

But then all hell broke loose.

Shouting at the bank of cash registers snapped me back to attention. Standing between the store entrance and the checkout lanes was a large man in a ski mask, wildly swinging a shotgun.

“Everyone listen up! Do what I say, and no one gets hurt!”

I nearly passed out as the blood that had been rushing to an entirely different region of my body suddenly flooded my brain. The cashiers whimpered as they cowered in their stations.

“Who’s in charge here?”

I considered ducking behind the counter, but my scared subordinates pointed me out so quickly I didn’t even have time to crumple.

The robber stomped over to the counter. He was at least six feet tall, clad head to toe in black, with a black backpack over his shoulder.

“Make an announcement. Tell the customers to get the fuck out of the store. Now!” He shoved me in the chest with the shotgun.

I picked up the service counter phone and pressed the intercom button.

“Attention STD Mart shoppers,” my voice cracked. “Umm…”

The thief yanked the phone out of my hands.

“If you don’t want to die tonight, you should get the fuck out of here now!”

The few customers pilfering around at the late hour booked it for the door, most of them taking their shopping baskets with them. One particularly stoned-looking young man grabbed a few extra candy bars on his way out.

Once the last stragglers had vacated, the robber emptied the contents of each cash drawer into his backpack, then led us to the cooler and barricaded us inside. I crouched down to catch my frosty breath, and that’s when the familiar stab in my leg reminded me of the gun.

Faith.

I looked around at the panicked faces of my employees, but she wasn’t among them. Of course she wasn’t; she was in the cash office, probably scared shitless... and possibly even naked.

I had to save her.

After escaping the cooler I stalked back to the front of the store, rounding the corner to the cash registers in time to see the thief emerge from the cash office, his loaded backpack slung over the arm that held the shotgun casually at his side, his other arm around Faith’s shoulder.

At least she was dressed.

She saw me first. She planted her feet and the assailant looked up, his eyes locking on me and the pink handgun.

He threw Faith to the floor and raised the shotgun.

“Shoot him now, Riley!” Faith screamed.

The robber turned toward her as though surprised, and that gave me the split second I needed to pull off the hero thing. I aimed for his thigh, and squeezed the trigger.

I shot high.

His neck exploded with a sickening splash. The shotgun bounced off the floor first, then the backpack, followed finally by the spongy thud of the man himself. A bloody stew quickly swirled and spread underneath him, and his chest convulsed as he tried to slurp air into his desecrated throat.

As the intruder gurgled to his death I did what every good hero would do--dropped to my knees and vomited until there was not a drop of anything left inside of me, and then passed out for a minute.

Eventually sirens wailed outside, and a moment later the police waddled in. One particularly round officer mumbled something into his radio about an ambulance.

I sat up as two paramedics rushed to the body of the bad guy, and although he had stopped struggling several minutes ago, I guess they were still required to try. One slit open his shirt, while the other felt around for a pulse.

On the left side of the criminal’s exposed chest was a crude tattoo--one half of a heart that looped into the infinity symbol.

The other half.

My head swam as I stared at the chaos surrounding me. Blood, guns, police. . . but no sign of the backpack.

And no sign of Faith.

Kimmy Dee lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and can typically be found hiding under a pile of cats. Her essay collection, Pussy Planet and Other Endearing Tales, is available through Amazon. Kimmy's short stories have been published by Pulp Metal Magazine, The Dirty Pool, and in the anthology Crappy Shorts: Deuces Wild. Her work has also been featured on Cracked.com and on HorrorHomework.com.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Desert Justice, fiction by Tom Barlow

Jacqueline Kyser, the attorney, and Carter Reed, the litigant, were cruising down Grandview Avenue in Pittsburgh via Google Earth, prospecting for their next victim. Outside, December snow spat against the window of Jacki's office in downtown Philadelphia, but the pictures of Pittsburgh on the computer screen had been taken during the summer. The contrast made Carter feel even colder, right down to the legs that he left back in Iraq.

"There," Jacki said, pointing the cursor at the Anthracite Steakhouse, in an old strip of brick two-stories hanging on the bank overlooking the Ohio River. She zoomed in. "No ramp, and the sidewalk outside has a bad case of frost heave. Architectural barriers. Should be good for five grand."

"It's your call."

"It's your name on the lawsuit," Jacki said, tapping her finger on the desk. "I want you to be comfortable with it."

Carter thought for a moment. The more drive-by suits they filed, the less comfortable he was with the whole process. Sure, Jacki had put a hundred thousand dollars in his pocket over the last year, the short end of the 40/60 split, but he couldn't help but wonder if he was doing a disservice to other disabled vets, making a mockery of the American with Disabilities Act. He had been an idealist, back when he first donned a uniform, but that had gone hollow since his injury and the discovery that his family and his countrymen didn't give a shit about him anymore. Now he had little to live for except the nuisance suit scam and his girlfriend.

Still, what would Ashley say if the gravy train suddenly came to a stop? She had her heart set on Jamaica this February. "Let's go for it," he said.

Jacki continued panning down the street, seeking other victims. She discounted an antiques shop, a nail boutique, a hair salon, and the Aquarius Coffee House as too poor to sue. To his surprise, she stopped at a strip club on the opposite side of the street, Cooters, a large one-story wood-frame building painted genital pink. "Have you ever been in one of these places?"

"Not since I hooked up with Ashley," Carter said, remembering with embarrassment his last lap dance, before Iraq, when he still had a lap. Before he'd learned how some clubs treated their women.

He was a little uncomfortable talking about sex with Jacki, who, three years after her divorce, gave no signs she had any interest in the subject. Not that he was attracted to her. There was something mannish about her face, perhaps because it was framed with hair that hung straight and limp, something most women would have addressed with a better cut or set. Her oversized glasses, with thick tangerine frames, did nothing to soften her indelicate appearance. She even walked with a heft that most women would find embarrassing.

"I was in one last week for the first time," she said, "on the south side–the Goose and Gander. Intended as verbs, I think." She caught his raised eyebrows. "Bridal shower, and the bride was worried about where the bachelor party was going to end up. Anyway, they were advertising private dances, which took place in a room backstage. At the top of a set of stairs." She rocked back in her office chair. "They seem to do a brisk business, lots of cash passing hands. Why should someone disabled be denied that opportunity just because the owner is too cheap to install a ramp?"

Carter shook his head. "You want to sue them because a cripple can't get his rocks off there?"

"I don't think we'll phrase the suit quite that way. But yes, you have the gist of the filing."

"As long as I don't have to research it firsthand. It's too sleazy for me."

"Gee, aren't you the sensitive guy. No worries, Tom Babbage was an investigator for the law firm I worked for before I went out on my own. He'd be delighted to check it out for us."

"You're going to buy him a lap dance?"

"My accountant is going to freak when he sees that business deduction," she said with a faint smile.

***


Ashley picked him up outside Jacki's office as planned, at 5 p.m. While he could drive the van, equipped with hand controls, it was so much easier for her to escort him. Once he was safely inside, his chair wheels locked to the floor, she took off for their new apartment in downtown Philly, in the 1919 Market building near the Mütter Museum.

"I hope your day was better than mine," she said. "The STD clinic nurse called off and I had to fill in. I've seen enough oozing dicks for a lifetime."

"Funny you should bring that up," he said, and told her about the lawsuit against Cooters they were about to file.

"Just as long as they don't pay you off in sex," she said. "On another subject, I had a chance at lunch to price out our vacation. That all-inclusive resort will cost us around three grand, not including air fare. It's supposedly full access. They even have a cement ramp that goes down through the beach to the ocean. I need your credit card to make the reservations."

He was profoundly sick of dealing with ice and snow already and had yet to buy the woman a Christmas present. And she deserved something nice; beyond the deep affection he felt for her, for a guy with no legs she was a godsend. He pulled out his wallet, grabbed his Visa card and handed it forward to her.

"Thanks, Sweetie," she said.

"Put a bow on the reservations and put it under the tree," he said.

She stuck out her lower lip. "I was hoping for something sparkly."

He didn't respond, aware that she was hinting at an engagement ring. But the current scam couldn't last forever, and he didn't want to end up like his bum of a father, living off the woman he had come to despise simply because he needed her so badly.

***


Jacki called him a week later to tell him she had the paperwork for the lawsuit against Cooters ready for his signature. And a lot more. Tom Babbage had discovered that the owner was a Vic Orlov of Philadelphia, who apparently owned a string of such clubs along U.S. 76 from the Ohio River to the Delaware. His Eros Enterprises corporate office was less than a mile from Jacki's place, adjacent to one of his clubs, Jiggles. She'd dispatched Babbage to check out each club, and he'd reported the same kind of violations in all but one.

"You think this is your chance?" Carter said. Jacki had told him weeks earlier she was looking for a big score. She owed alimony and child support to her ex, and they'd just discovered the kid, Angelina, had a heart condition that required surgery.

"We hit a big corporation, they'll bury us in legal proceedings. This guy's about the right size to be able to come up with the cash to pay the suit without stonewalling us in court."

"He could be mobbed up."

Jacki picked at a broken fingernail. "You're thinking of the old days. Today these guys are businessmen with angel investors and spreadsheets."

Carter often thought Jacki overestimated the appeal of her settlement offers, but they'd never gone to court yet, so he had to trust her on this one.

***


Carter was preparing to leave for the Iraq Vet's group that met at St. Francis Church every Wednesday evening to talk about their experiences in the service, which occasionally triggered the PTSD that ran through the group like a sniper's bullet, when his best friend Ryan Apple phoned. He invited Carter to join him at The Patriot tavern a few blocks away instead, where Ryan hung out virtually every night.

They usually spent part of the night arguing over who would pick up the tab, since Ryan was convinced Carter had saved his life by absorbing the brunt of the blow from an IED wired to a woman in a burka. She had been waiting for them to pass in a street market in Ramadi before she blew herself up. Carter refused to take credit for what had been simply blind luck. He only regretted not taking enough of the shrapnel embedded in the bomb to keep it from blowing off Ryan's scalp and half his face. He hadn't seen his friend without the Phillies ball cap jammed low on his head and his shirt collar turned up since the bandages came off a year earlier.

Ryan had staked out a seat at one of the few low tables so they didn't have to look up and down at one another. "You got a head start on me?" Carter said.

Ryan pointed to the three empties on the table and shrugged.

"You get any work this week?" Carter said. Ryan worked framing houses as a day laborer when his hangover would allow it.

"There's this charity over on the south side teaching immigrants rough-in work," Ryan said between swallows. "Now there's about a million Puerto Ricans waiting outside Home Depot in the morning every day. The contractors won't even make eye contact with an Anglo."

"So what you going to do?" Carter was concerned; he'd talked his friend out of eating his gun once already since they were discharged.

"Mom and Dad said I could move back in with them, but why the fuck would I want to live in Wheeling again? There aren't any jobs within a hundred miles, unless you want to mine coal. Since we got back, I can't handle tight spaces."

"You're good with your hands, man. A guy who can defuse bombs ought to be able to find some kind of sit-down job."

"Remember when they showed us that bomb-unit robot prototype? You got a robot to defuse a bomb, there's no reason you can't get a robot to do your sit-down job. Shit, my last surgeon was a robot. How about you? You still filing lawsuits?"

Carter told him about the suit against Orlov and the strip clubs. It brought a big, albeit lopsided, smile to Ryan's face. "Shit. Maybe you'll end up owning one of the clubs. Wouldn't that be cool?"

"I knew this girl in high school, Penny Manos," Carter said, "got herself a job in a strip club in Baltimore. The last time I ran into her, shortly before I was deployed, she had a dope habit, an STD, two black eyes and a baby she didn't know who the father was. Social Services was trying to take it away from her."

He was reluctant to confess that Penny was his half-sister, now walking the streets of L.A. and out of contact for the past three years. As a teen, he'd stood by as their father tried to beat the rebellion out of her, and he still carried that unpaid debt with him.

***


Luckily Ashley was in the middle of one of her twelve-hour shifts at the hospital a week later when the buzzer from the lobby of his apartment building went off.

"Who's there?" he said.

"I have a message from Vic Orlov," came the reply in the voice of a young woman.

Carter was about to take his afternoon pain meds, and that need momentarily fought with curiosity. The latter won. Carter allowed her to enter the building. While she was on her way up, however, he retrieved his military pistol, a Sig Sauer M18, from the bedside stand.

When she knocked, he chambered a round before cracking the door open a few inches to check her out. The young woman was tall, willowy, with hair the color of rain on a black Cadillac and a face any soldier would be proud to carry in his wallet. She was wearing a sable fur coat that ended at her ankles and a smile that reflected the winter sun.

"Hi," she said. "Are you Carter Reed?"

"That's me," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Actually, it's the other way around," she said and opened her coat. Underneath, she wore not a stitch, and what the coat had concealed was magnificent. "The owner of the clubs you're suing sent me and told me to ask you what I could do for you. Anything you like. Anything. You going to let me in?"

When he first hooked up with Ashley, he'd thought she was about as good a catch as he was likely to find given his condition. She was loyal and not stupid and diligent enough to hold a job, but one thing she wasn't was sensual, not like this woman.

"Orlov sent you? What's the catch?" he said, rolling back to allow her to enter.

She stepped inside, leaned over and ran a nail up the zipper of his slacks. "He wants you to understand that he can be a nice guy, or he can be a not so nice guy. I represent the nice part. Now, why don't you show me where the bedroom is?"

Carter struggled mightily with the knowledge that many, if not most, hookers were in the trade against their will, enslaved by dope or threats of violence, like his half-sister. But there was a hunger in him, too, as though making love to such a stunning woman might fool him into believing, if just for the moment, that he was not half a man.

Her last words when she left an hour later, addressed to him as he lay spent on his bed, was, "Vic said this is your only carrot. Next time it's the stick. You really won't like the stick." She blew him an air kiss as she donned her coat and left.

He watched her from the bedroom window as she exited the building and got into the back seat of a Lincoln waiting at the curb, already cursing himself for his weakness.

***


He and Jacki were due to meet the next morning to review the steps taken and plan those to come. The more Carter knew her, the more he respected her ability to read him, so he didn't even try to pretend the episode with Orlov's messenger hadn't happened. He expected her to dress him down severely, which he probably deserved, but instead she just shook her head, a look of equal parts compassion and disappointment on her face.

"I can't begin to understand what it must be like for you, dealing with your injuries. So I won't criticize. But I do wish you'd keep it in your pants from now on. OK?"

"You're not worried about her threat?" Carter said.

"I'm not happy about it, but we don't really have any choice in the matter now." She dug through the file on the Cooters lawsuit and handed him a business card for a Kayla Evans, investigator with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office.

"Who's this?" he said.

"Interesting visit I had yesterday, at her instigation. It seems that the AG's office is hot to bust Orlov for procuring girls from Central America against their will and forcing them into the sex trade."

"Holy shit. That's awful. But what's that got to do with ADA lawsuits?" He tried to remember the expression on the face of the woman who had visited him. She had not appeared to be conflicted about her actions, but maybe she was just a good actor. Maybe she was just as exploited as the girls hawking blow jobs on the street corner. The shame he had been carrying came out in a blush.

Jacki didn't seem to notice. "They've been watching his cash flow, and he's very careful about covering up his illicit income. But if he has to come up with half a mill, they think he'll have to dip into his under-the-table cash to pay it off, and that's when they'll pounce."

"Still, what's to stop us from dropping the case? I don't like being threatened."

Jacki slumped in her chair. "She was pretty clear with me that my license to practice in Pennsylvania would be painstakingly reviewed if I didn't play along; they don't like attorneys who live on nuisance lawsuits, as a rule. Even if I'm clean, they could damage my reputation just by calling me into question."

"They play hardball in Philly, huh?"

"Look, I know I don't have anything to hang over your head, but I'm begging you stay with me." She bit her lower lip.

The army had drilled into his head the idea of the team, how you didn't abandon your buddy just because the bullets were flying, and some residual part of that training still guided his thinking. He couldn't walk away from Jacki now, not after all she had done for him. "I'm in."

"Good. I'm more eager than ever to press ahead after the stunt Orlov tried with you."

"It wasn't exactly waterboarding," he said.

***


Orlov waited for less than a week to demonstrate his stick. Carter and Ashley had just exited the elevator in the underground garage, intending to head to Vista Peru for dinner, when a tall ski-masked figure dressed in jeans and a leather jacket loitering next to the elevator door intercepted them. He said, "Orlov told you to drop the lawsuits, asshole," as he stepped around Carter, flicking open an expandable baton, and swung viciously at Ashley's left leg. Carter heard the snap as a bone in her lower leg broke. She shrieked and fell to the cement. Furious at his helplessness, Carter attempted to whip his wheelchair around and take the man's legs out from under him, but instead their assailant grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and gave him a shove, sending him careening down the slight grade to the parking area. Carter managed to stop himself and turn just in time to see the man calmly swing again, breaking her other leg.

Carter could only watch, defenseless, as the man jogged out of the garage into the darkness, Ashley's screams in his wake.

By the time the ambulance arrived, he'd had time to gather his wits enough to realize that the cops would be just as likely to investigate him as they would the attacker should he tell them the whole story. To his humiliation he chose instead to claim the attack was unprovoked, inexplicable. When Carter was done giving his statement, the cop poked her cap up so she could look him in the eye and said, "The guy never even asked for your wallet? Look, pal–you decide to can the bullshit and tell us what really happened, maybe we could do something for you. But this?" She held up the written report, tore off the top copy and gave it to him. "Might as well use it to light your Christmas candles."

As he wheeled away from the cop, he caught the eyes of Ashley, seated in the ambulance as they applied air casts to her legs. He could see in her glare that she rightly blamed him.

He followed the ambulance in his van. At the emergency room, he asked to be allowed to accompany Ashley into triage, but to his disappointment she told the nurses to keep him away. By the time she did permit him to join her, she was in long casts on both legs. A wheelchair had already been delivered to her room.

She met him with a scowl as he wheeled into her room. "How you doing?" he said, stopping just out of arm's length. "I'm going to hire a live-in nurse, while you recover."

"Fuck you," Ashley said. "My Dad's on the way. I'm moving home. I know this was your fault, all that shit about the strip clubs. It's bad enough I end up in a wheelchair like you; I'm not about to risk it ends up permanent."

***


On the way back to his apartment he phoned Jacki and clued her in to the attack. "You better watch out. You could be next."

There was a long pause before she responded. "Maybe we should just give it up. I can rebuild my reputation; nothing I've done is exactly illegal."

But the loss of his girlfriend had brought Carter to a new frame of mind. "Bullshit. If Orlov thought he was going to scare me off, he made a bad mistake. In Iraq every person I passed could have been a bomber. So now I'm supposed to be afraid of a guy with a stick? I say we up the lawsuit to two mill."

"If we change anything, the court date gets pushed back. Let's keep it as is and I'll ask Tom Babbage to provide a body guard for a little while."

"I don't need one."

"I meant for me. I know you're the hero type, doesn't need help."

"Well, I could use somebody to gas up my van, but yeah, you're right."

***


The first thing Carter did when he arrived home was grab his pistol, cursing himself for lacking the foresight to arm himself earlier. He was pissed that he had initially bought Jacki's assertion that Orlov wouldn't break the rules of polite society; he'd learned in Baghdad the veneer of civilization was no thicker than a skin graft.

There was a fury inside him that Ashley had helped contain, but he realized now it had simply been smoldering and was now reborn unchecked. It echoed all the way back to the sound of his father's fist to his sister's stomach, to the notion of brainwashed women in burkas wired with explosives. He spent the rest of the evening with a bottle of Jack Daniels lusting for revenge more visceral than a lawsuit.

At 1:00 a.m. he made a phone call to Ryan Apple.

"Yeah?" his friend said. Carter was pretty sure the slur in Ryan's voice was Yuengling, not sleepiness.

"Hey, buddy. You took apart a lot of bombs. You suppose you could build one?"

***


Carter came to his senses the next morning, writing off his request for a bomb as a drunken bit of stupidity. So Ryan surprised the hell out of him when he called back three days later to tell him he'd obtained the necessary materials. Carter hadn't known that there was in fact an active community of ex-soldiers, bomb squad guys, who brought their interest in explosives back with them, and who got together from time to time to blow shit up for the fun of it. He also didn't know that, with relatively little work, Ryan could come up with a chunk of Semtex and a fuse.

Carter jumped at the chance to pay Orlov back, and also possibly help the girls the man had enslaved. He described to Ryan what he needed the package to look like, and within another day, his doorbell rang. There stood a strangely sober Ryan holding a cardboard box.

Carter let him in, offered him a beer. He wondered when Ryan refused it.

Ryan set the box down gingerly on the kitchen counter and said, "This makes us even, OK? You saved my life, now I put mine on the line for you."

"Don't worry," Carter said. "Nobody will ever tie this back to you."

"I trust you, but I do want to know the plan."

When Carter laid it out for him, Ryan said, "How do you plan to get into the office without them knowing you'd been there?"

Carter reached into his pocket and pulled out a keyring with a dozen keys on it that he'd bought on eBay. Unlike regular door keys, these keys were all cut down such that the serrated edge was flat, except for a few small humps. "You ever use a bump key?"

"Don't tell me you know how to pick a lock."

"Not exactly. But with the right bump key, you can open most locks. All you need to do is put it in, pull it back out one click, put some rotational pressure on the key while you smack the end with a hammer. The pins in the lock jump up just long enough to open, and it doesn't leave a mark."

"How the fuck did you learn to do that?"

"YouTube videos. I practiced on the door to my apartment."

At that point, Ryan said, "I'll take you up on that beer. It may be the last one we have together for a long time."

***


Carter was lucky enough to score a parking spot across the street from the offices of Eros Enterprises the next afternoon, which were in a brick one-story building with narrow fixed windows that had been replaced with glass blocks. From there he could watch people come and go. Twice during the afternoon, a portly man in a white shirt with sleeves too short for him exited Jiggles next door with a black bag and carried it to the office of Eros Enterprises. Carter assumed it was the cash take from the club, leading him to believe there was a safe in the office. He had no interest in the money but wondered if he might use it to cover up what he planned to do.

Promptly at 5:00 p.m., three people left the offices: Orlov, the woman who had seduced him, and a tall, broad-shouldered man who he recognized by his build and the way that he moved as the man who broke Ashley's legs. Orlov, last out, locked the door behind him. None of them had appeared to arm a security system. He guessed they didn't want the police called in case of a break-in, fearing what they might find.

Carter returned home and caught a few hours of on-again/off-again sleep before rising at 4:00 a.m. to return to Orlov's office. This time, he could park out front. He exited the van in the quiet of late night and wheeled up to the door, Ryan's package on his lap.

The door was solid wood with a heavy-duty lock. He had to try three bump keys before he found one that fit. Thirty seconds later he was inside.

He had been worried that the layout might not single out Orlov's desk, but to his relief the whole place was open space with one enclosed office at the back, surely belonging to the boss. Carter clamped a flashlight in his teeth as he wheeled the length of the office only to find that the door to Orlov's office was too narrow for his chair. Disgruntled, he lowered himself to the floor, and, shoving the package before him, propelled himself with both hands around the desk until he could, by rolling the desk chair back, access the desk well. He turned on the cell phone attached to the bomb that would serve as a trigger, which he planned to set off from his van once Orlov arrived at the office that morning. He tore off the paper covering the two-sided tape that would attach the bomb to the underside of the desk and pressed it in place. There was a heavy floor safe next to the desk, and he hoped the blast might open it, just to confuse the cops about his motive.

He was halfway back to his wheelchair, however, when he heard a key slide into the front-door lock. Shocked that anyone would be arriving so early in the morning, he turned off his flashlight and slid under the desk. From there he could peer out through a gap in the modesty panel. Two people had entered: Orlov, and the man who assaulted Ashley, who he assumed was the man's bodyguard. Both were holding pistols at the ready. Orlov said, "I don't care if the door was still locked. The silent alarm didn't go off on its own."

It only took Orlov a moment to spot Carter's wheelchair. "What the fuck is that doing here?" He stepped toward the office.

Having dwelt on death for the past two years with a kind of yearning, Carter was not surprised at how blithe he felt as his avenue of escape disappeared. This was his chance to stand for Penny and Ashley and any other women who had suffered on his watch. He slid his cell phone out of his pocket, punched in the number of the phone attached to the bomb, and held his thumb above 'send'.

Orlov entered the office and found Carter waiting, back against the safe. "Good morning," Carter said, facing the barrel of Orlov's pistol.

"Who the fuck are you, dead man?" Orlov said as the bodyguard came into the office to see who Orlov had the drop on.

"That's the guy filing the lawsuits," his bodyguard said.

Orlov smiled. "No shit? This is better than I expected. What the hell do you think you're doing, breaking in here? And in a wheelchair to boot?" He checked with his bodyguard to make sure he understood the humor in the situation. "I shoot you as an intruder now, the cops won't blink an eye."

"My drill sergeant spent most of basic trying to convince us that killing terrorists half a world away was going to make our country better," Carter said. "Turns out, the real enemy is much closer to home."

Orlov's eyes narrowed. "What? You think I'm a bad person? I'm just a businessman, pal, providing what the customers want. The cops can't touch me." He turned to his bodyguard for confirmation.

"One thing I learned in Iraq," Carter said. "Desert justice doesn't depend on a judge or a jury. There's nothing but explosives and suicide bombers willing to die for what they think is right."

Before Orlov could make sense of his words, Carter held up his cell phone and dropped his thumb on 'send'.


Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other works of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Dames and Sin and Plan B Omnibus and periodicals including Pulp Modern, Red Room, Heater, Plots With Guns, Mystery Weekly, Needle, Thuglit, Manslaughter Review, Switchblade and Tough (Yay!). His novel I'll Meet You Yesterday and crime short story collection Odds of Survival are available on Amazon.