Monday, May 31, 2021
To Die For, fiction by Larry Thacker
Monday, May 17, 2021
The Big Time, fiction by B.L. Conradis
The sky is dark by the time we arrive at the Star Lite Inn. I pull into one of the empty spaces under the neon sign, cut the engine, and check my phone. It’s a little after 8 p.m. Right on schedule.
“You sure this is it?” Richie asks in the passenger seat, his eyes scanning the empty lot.
I reach for my pack of Camels. “It’s the Star Lite, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but...there’s no one here.”
“Relax.” I light up a smoke. Inhale. “It’s still early.”
The kid shrugs and goes back to fiddling with the video camera in his lap. I gaze up at the sign, electric blue stars flickering in the night. For the Star Lite, anytime before 10 p.m. is early. Catering to a clientele of mostly adulterers and drug addicts, the motel’s busiest hours come when the rest of the city is asleep. But most people would avoid a place like this no matter what time of day it was.
Taking another drag on the cigarette, I shut my eyes and think about how life’s going to change for me in the next 24 hours.
Eyes still closed, I answer: “Yeah?”
“What’s the craziest thing you ever saw in this job?”
I peer at Richie with one eye. He’s twenty-something, fresh out of college, the younger brother of the attractive publicist I’ve been sleeping with since May. Overweight and unkempt, he looks like someone with no future beyond a nondescript desk job behind a cubicle. The only reason I even brought him along is that I need an extra pair of hands to film.
“The craziest?” I smirk. “Let’s see...”
For the next twenty minutes, I share the highlights of my career: sex scandals, murders, drug busts, you name it. The fruits of 12 years’ labor in the business—ten at various tabloids in Washington and New York, and the last two on my own, hustling as a freelancer in the nation’s capital. In that span of time I’ve been barred from more press conferences than I can count and made enemies on both sides of the aisle. Mention the name Frank Sully to some of the most powerful people in D.C., and you’ll be greeted by a torrent of profanities too vulgar to repeat.
But they know my name. And in this business, that’s what counts.
“The important thing,” I conclude, “is to not let your feelings get in the way. The only thing that matters is the story. Get it?”
“But you don’t ever, you know, make stuff up. Right?”
Only if I have to, Richie.
“Of course not.”
He nods his head in reassurance, and I glance back at my phone. I don’t want him to catch on, but I’m starting to grow anxious myself. Amber told me to be ready by quarter past eight; it’s already half past.
So I feel relief when, a short while later, a pair of headlights cuts through the darkness up ahead. I lean forward, hands gripping the wheel, and watch as a black Mercedes pulls up next to the front office of the motel.
The kid turns to me.
After a moment, a man steps out of the driver’s side. I need to squint to get a good look at him, but even in his casual attire, with his prematurely grey mane covered by a baseball cap, I recognize him. In fact, I’d know that face a mile away.
“That’s our boy,” I say.
Richie nods, his fingers wrapped around the video camera. I watch Garrison—handsome as a movie star, clutching a bottle of champagne in one hand—climb the outdoor staircase to the second floor of the motel. A smile crosses my face. I’ve finally got him: beloved governor, golden boy of American politics, the man I’ve been trying to take down for two years and counting. Pat Motherfucking Garrison.
A few minutes later, he appears on the second floor landing. Strides past door after door before stopping in front of the one at the very end. I know that’s the door to Room 18. I know Amber is waiting behind it, fresh from her shower, wearing her favorite negligee. I know there will be candles on the dresser and cocaine waiting for Garrison next to the bed. All the things he’d expect. All part of the trap I’ve set for him.
Sure enough, the door opens and Amber’s standing there. She embraces Garrison as he enters the room and shuts the door behind him; unbeknownst to him, she’ll leave it unlocked. Within seconds, the light flicks on in the curtained window—the first signal. Quickly, I reach into the backseat and pull my Nikon out from its case.
“What now?” Richie asks.
“Now,” I say, removing the lens cap, “we break some news.”
I exit the car and flick my cigarette on the pavement. Hurry across the dark parking lot toward the motel, the kid following close behind with his video camera in one hand. When we’re on the second floor, a few doors down from Garrison’s room, I pull him aside next to a vending machine.
He gives me a puzzled look. “Frank, what’re we doing? You haven’t told me the plan.”
With an exasperated sigh, I explain everything: How I hired an out-of-work actress to get close to Garrison. How I got her to convince him to meet her at the Star Lite for a bit of fun. How everyone knows Garrison cheats on his wife like it’s a sport, so I knew it wouldn’t be difficult. How she’ll text me when she’s ready, and then we’ll barge in on them when he happens to be in the most compromising position imaginable.
“Get it, kid? That’s what the cameras are for. We’re gonna catch the son of a bitch red-handed.”
I’m grinning ear to ear as I tell him all this. Garrison, a likely future White House contender, is about to get caught on film with a woman who’s not his wife and drugs on his bedside table. Every newspaper in the country will pay a fortune for these photos. And with Richie’s video to sweeten the deal, I’ll have every network in the world crawling to me as well.
The thought of it all is enough to make me giddy. After two years slumming it as a freelancer, I’ve finally scored the story of my career. My ticket to the big time.
Richie’s eyes shift from me to the motel room door, and back again. “This was all a setup? Isn’t that, I dunno, wrong?”
“What do you want from me?” I say. “You told me you were interested in being a journalist. Well, here you go.”
“It just seems a little...unethical.”
“So now you’re a fucking expert? Listen, you’re lucky I brought you here in the first place. Now shut up and do what you’re told.”
I check my phone; still no word from Amber. Frustrated, I reach in my pocket for a smoke, then remember I left them in the car. Just then, I hear a voice from behind me.
“What’s going on out here?”
I look over my shoulder, and see an old woman’s creased face peering out at me from the darkness of one of the motel rooms.
“Oh—nothing, ma’am. We’re just getting something from the vending machine, that’s all.”
“You guests here?”
She hunches forward. “What room?”
“Your room number. What is it?”
Narrowing my eyes, I say: “What’s it to you?”
“My son owns this motel, that’s what.”
“Room 3,” I respond quickly.
“We don’t permit loiterers at the Star Lite. I’ll call the cops if I need to.”
Grunting, I turn my back on her. “Whatever you say, lady.”
She snorts and slams the door. Richie turns to me, distraught.
“What do we do?”
“Nothing,” I whisper. “Forget it. She won’t do anything.”
I check my phone again. Nada. I glance around, feeling the pressure of the moment start to weigh on me. It shouldn’t be taking this long. She should have him in bed by now, and be giving us the green light.
Finally, I shoot her a text: We’re outside. What’s going on in there??
Richie looks like he’s about to get sick from nerves. I tell him to pull himself together. Nodding meekly, he turns his video camera on. I look back over at Room 18. Check my phone again.
What the hell is she doing?
“I think there’s a problem.”
Slowly, I face Richie. He’s looking down at his camera, grimacing. “I think the memory card’s full.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No,” he says, holding the camera toward me. “Look.”
I smack his hand away and grab a fistful of his shirt. Yank his face close to mine. Tell him to go back to the car and find another memory card and not to come back until he’s got it.
“Hurry,” I say through clenched teeth.
Richie stumbles backward, turns, scurries down the stairs like a frightened dog. Seething, I rub my temples with a thumb and forefinger. It’s taking all my willpower not to lose my composure right then and there. I can’t let this opportunity fall through. I can’t fuck this up.
Because there’s something else I didn’t tell the kid. Tonight’s not just about landing a big story.
It’s about payback.
Two years ago, I lost my job at a top tabloid because Pat Garrison didn’t like a story I wrote about him. He pressured my editor to fire me, and since then it’s been a struggle just to be taken seriously, let alone find work. But all that’s going to change. After tonight, no one in the business will ignore me ever again.
Thinking about all of this makes me lose track of time. I snap back to the present, wondering where Richie is. I look around for him, muttering to myself.
Then I hear a noise from inside Room 18. A woman’s scream, followed by a loud thud.
I stand there for a moment, wondering what to do. Consider calling Amber, then decide to hell with it, I’m going in. With or without the kid.
Camera ready, I burst into the room.
And freeze in my tracks.
Amber is standing there, her manicured hands covering her mouth, her long black hair a mess, her ripped satin negligee hanging loosely from one strap.
At her feet, Pat Garrison lies on his back on the carpeted floor, the wound in his head blossoming red. There’s blood where his skull smashed against the corner of the end table and blood seeping into his Calvin Klein boxers.
I take the scene in, stunned. She turns to me, a mix of terror and rage on her face. “He got all violent with me, Frank. I thought—I thought he was gonna kill me. I pushed him and he fell and hit his head. He went freakin’ ballistic on me, I swear.”
“Why do you think? He saw your text message, moron.”
A moment goes by, and I drop the camera. Put my hands behind my head. Start pacing around the room.
“What are we going to do?” Amber says. “I...I think he’s dead.”
I glare at her. “What do you mean ‘we’? This is on you.”
“You killed him. Not me.”
“I...I didn’t…” She starts sobbing. “Oh Jesus, they’re gonna take my son away...”
“...I can’t go to jail…”
I’m still trying to think when I hear commotion outside. Moving to the window, I see a cop car in the parking lot. Next to it, two officers are talking to a man gesturing in my direction. Watching them, I feel my stomach drop.
“You gotta be kidding,” I say, my back toward Amber. “The cops are here.”
The two officers make their way toward the staircase. The old lady is on the second floor landing, pointing them in the direction of Room 18.
I’m still staring out the window, trying to comprehend what’s happening, when a blow to the back of my head sends me crashing to my knees. I’m fully conscious just long enough to look up and see Amber, cheeks blotched with runny mascara, standing over me holding the champagne bottle by its neck.
The next several minutes are a blur. My vision keeps going in and out of focus, and my skull feels like it’s being pulverized by a jackhammer from the inside.
At some point, I look up and see the two officers standing over me. In the corner of the room, Amber is cowering in the fetal position, pointing her finger at me accusingly, saying something about how I got in a fight with Garrison, then killed him.
She’s a pretty good actress, it turns out.
Soon, I’m being escorted out to the squad car, my hands cuffed behind me. More police have arrived, and the old lady and her son are whispering to each other on the sidewalk. I’m within earshot of one of the cops as he leans over to his partner and says, “I know that guy. That’s Frank Sully, the journalist.”
That’s when I realize how bad this all looks. A disgruntled reporter tries to set up a politician, things get heated, said politician winds up dead.
It’s a story made for the tabloids.
Just as we reach the car, I notice Richie standing among the onlookers. I call out his name. Turn to one of the cops and say, “Officer, that kid over there knows me…” In that moment, Richie steps forward. At first, I think he’s going to intervene, tell the police this is all a crazy mistake. But then his eyes meet mine, and I catch the slightest hint of a mocking smile on his face. I soon realize why.
The little punk is recording all of this on his camera.
I’m about to lunge for him when the cop forces me into the squad car. Within minutes, we’re pulling away from the motel in the direction of downtown. The driver turns to his partner and makes a crack about how news people will do anything for the story. Then he glances at my reflection in the mirror.
“Looks like he’s getting what he came for—his name on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”
They laugh, but I barely hear them. I’m too busy thinking about how my life’s going to change once Richie’s footage hits the airwaves.
Staring out the window, letting my new reality sink in, I smile bitterly. At least I was right about one thing.
After tonight, no one will ever again ignore the name Frank Sully.
Monday, May 10, 2021
Junk in the Trunk, fiction by April Kelly
Larry’s a pain in the ass. Always has been, but the first time I really registered how annoying he could be was late one afternoon in 1989, while I lay sprawled on the couch doing eighth-grade homework and listening to him badger our dad.
“But you have to,” Larry whined.
“I’m a grown-up. I don’t have to do anything.”
Dad said it good-naturedly, bouncing his eyebrows at his younger son and taking a pull from his beer, but Larry had been haranguing him for ten minutes and I could see my father just wanted to drink his Bud and watch the evening news. Not surprisingly, that subtle vibe flew right over Larry’s head.
“Everybody else’s father is doing it.”
Uh-oh. Dad’s tone alerted me that he had pivoted away from indulgent suffering of my brother’s nagging, but Larry remained clueless. I’d experienced the ominous change-up often enough to know my father was poised to dismantle the kid’s specious argument and end the discussion with a period that could instantly morph into an exclamation point if little bro persisted.
At issue was some kind of bullshit career day Larry’s teacher had thought up, where fathers were invited—not, as my brother claimed, required—to come in and talk about what they did for a living.
No way could my father tell a bunch of first-graders what he got paid to do. I knew that because once, when I was just a little kid, I took a peek into the trunk of his car.
A confluence of misunderstandings on my part led to the gruesome discovery. First, I had never been specifically told I shouldn’t press the shiny button that popped the lid of the trunk. And, only the day before, my mother had warned me I would lose my allowance if I didn’t clean up “all that junk in your room.”
Junk? That was good stuff. Atari games, Stretch Armstrong, my Nerf ball and a couple video tapes about the astronaut program I hoped to join one day.
So, when I heard my father tell Mom he had some junk he needed to get rid of, my mind went to toys and comic books, not a plastic-wrapped corpse.
While he went to get his wallet and keys, I raced out to the garage and pressed the release button on the big Caddy’s rear end.
Barely tall enough to see over the rim, coming eye to dead eye with a stranger, I froze. Slowly, the trunk lid closed, my father’s hand firmly pressing down to engage the latch with a solid click.
“Mikey, go watch your cartoons.”
He said it softly, but with a chilling look that sent me scurrying to my room.
The imagination of a six-year-old boy can conjure a monster under his bed and a boogeyman in his closet, but, as he matures, he realizes the childishness of those beliefs and casts them aside. My belief that I had seen a body in the family car eventually faded from memory, as the dead guy was pink-slipped along with the monster and the boogeyman.
My father and I never spoke about the incident, so there was nothing to validate or sustain the picture of a man trussed-up inside a plastic sheet, blood within and duct tape without. That is, until the day my brother’s increasingly nasal cajoling and my father’s implacable resistance dragged that corpse up out of the bog of forgotten—or suppressed—memory. Recall vomited the dead guy’s smashed face and fixed stare into my brain, as Dad shut Larry down.
“How long is fourth period?” he asked.
“An hour? Let’s say an hour. And how many kids are in your class?”
“Gotta be twenty, twenty-five. We’ll round it down to twenty. Now, how long did you say you wanted me to speak?”
Finally sensing the thinness of the ice on which he skated, Larry mumbled, “I didn’t say, Miss Randall did. Ten minutes.”
“Okay, then, let’s figure it out. Every dad is speaking, according to you, so ten minutes times twenty fathers is two hundred minutes. Hey, I’m no math whiz, but that’s more content than a one-hour class can accommodate.”
Larry slunk away from a battle he wasn’t equipped to fight, but as Tom Brokaw’s theme music started, a new respect for my father grew in me, and it must have shown on my face.
“What’s with the shit-eating grin?”
I shrugged and backed off, same as Larry, but remained privately impressed that my old man was maybe some kind of mob enforcer, the romance and excitement of which had been jacked-up by the two Godfather movies. The following Father’s Day, just to rattle his cage, I bought him a six-roll pack of duct tape.
“What an odd thing to give your dad,” my mother said when he unwrapped what he had expected to be cheap aftershave or his umpteenth polyester tie.
I locked eyes with him as I answered her, feeling very much like a big man. “Well, you know how you say he’s always fixing things. I figured duct tape might come in handy.”
Making sure he knew I knew was a stupid thing to do, but typical of the teenager I was. If it hadn’t been for the corpse in the trunk and my suspicion that my father was a badass hitman, I would have found some other excuse to issue a passive/aggressive challenge. Isn’t that what young wolves have been doing to the alpha since the dawn of time?
Looking back, I regret indulging my biological imperative, that desire to unsettle him with the knowledge I had, but at the time it smelled like leverage I could use to my advantage in future negotiations for things like a set of wheels or more spending money.
Dad vanished when I was fifteen, so I never got the opportunity to capitalize on our shared secret. His most recent Cadillac turned up forty miles away, wrecked and burned-out, but his body was never found. My mother, in an effort to protect her boys from the truth—which she must have known all along—finally whispered the words “witness protection” by way of explanation. She swore Larry and me to silence, our own familial omertà.
All that was long ago. Mom lives in Phoenix now, happily married to a retired optometrist, a decent, if nebishy, guy who never carved-up anything bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey.
Larry’s still annoying, only now he gets paid for it because he’s a big deal tax attorney. But it was me who put him through law school, so Lawrence, as he prefers to be called these days, is careful not to act too superior about my blue-collar status.
With Mom departing to marry her internet squeeze and Larry hitting the law books, it fell on me to clear out our garage before the house went on the market back then, so I naturally acquired my father’s eclectic collection of saws, drills, hammers and industrial-sized rolls of plastic—the tools, presumably, with which he “fixed” things.
Mom and Larry know my custom cabinetry business is thriving, but only I know it doesn’t thrive well enough to send that check to Arizona every month or pay off the rest of my kid brother’s student loans.
And me? I’m doing okay. I thought my wife Tina was the love of my life until Sue-Sue was born three years ago. That little girl has me wrapped around her pinky like nobody’s business, but I guess it’s still normal for a man to favor his son. Jimmy’s a hell-on-wheels five year old, curious about the world and everything in it. He’s why I keep the trunk of my car locked at all times, even if it isn’t full of junk I need to dispose of for someone.
Not long ago I built a miniature cabinet out of white birch, even bought tiny hinges and knobs from an online dollhouse supply place, so if Jimmy asks me to speak at his first-grade career day, I’ll proudly show them what a man can do with his own hands and the right set of tools.