Monday, August 28, 2023

This Is Where I Buried my Wives, fiction by Debra H. Goldstein

 Reprint: Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2015

This is where I buried my wives,” Biff said. He stared beyond the two marked graves down the hill at the orchard and lush pasture that divided the land between a few worn chicken houses and the newly fenced horse ring that abutted the main house.

Present company excepted, I hope.”

I certainly hope so.” He drew Julie closer to him with the arm that wasn’t carrying their picnic basket. “To me, this is the prettiest spot on the farm. I know it may seem morbid, but I come up here when I need to think or bounce an idea off someone. There aren’t a lot of people in these parts and sometimes I just need to talk things out.”

Julie raised her head and kissed his rough cheek. “You won’t have to talk to the dead anymore. You’ve got me now.”

She took the picnic basket from his hand and bent down to smooth out their blanket, positioning it so their backs would be to the graves. She pulled some flowers from the basket and arranged them on the side of the blanket. As Julie set out napkins and utensils, she paused and looked up at the sky. “It feels like there should be a big tree shading this hill.”

There used to be a giant elm back there. Some disease got it right around the time Margie died.” Biff plopped onto the blanket. He accommodated his six-foot frame by extending his booted legs onto the grass. Julie snuggled against him.

Margie brought me up here shortly after we met.” Biff hesitated. “It was her favorite place in the world, so it seemed only right to bury her on the hill. Besides, if it hadn’t been for her leaving me all the land you can see between here and the main house,” he said, pointing, “I’d still be living by those egg houses.”

Julie’s eyes followed his finger to the small parcel on which the chicken houses sat. It was definitely a tiny space compared with the rest of the farmland. She put her hand on his arm. “Was that the land your family owned?”

No, we squatted on that small patch and were tenant farmers to Margie’s grand-parents on the rest of it.” He watched Julie’s face. “Like I told you, Margie was married and lost her husband and daughter well before I came to work for her. She may have been getting on in years, but somehow we clicked. I like to think I made those last few years of her life happy.”

You’re making my life pretty happy.” Julie handed him a sandwich. “Turkey and parsnip.” He mad

e a face, but took the sandwich and bit into it.

I want you to know everything,” Biff said. “You’re going to hear people say some mean things like Margie was old enough to be my mother and …”

Julie hushed him by pressing her hand against his lips. “I won’t listen to them as long as you don’t pay attention if someone talks about me being eighteen years younger than you.”

Heck, I’m proud to have a trophy wife.” Biff grinned and hugged her. “Just so you know, I never asked for this farm. I was as shocked as anyone when I found out Margie left it to me. “He glanced behind him. “I buried her up here because she loved this place.”

It probably also reminds you of how far you’ve come.” Julie noticed that the smile lingered on Biff’s lips, but was no longer in his eyes. She quickly added, “Not to mention how lonely having this big a farm must have been without someone to share it with. I’m so glad you decided to take another chance on FarmDatesR4U.”

Me, too.” He raised his shoulders and turned his head toward the second grave marker. “I almost didn’t. After Annie and I got together, I didn’t think I could ever be happier. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was to find a city slicker willing to give up the big city for life on my farm. When our time together turned out to be so short, I was scared to try again.” He finished his sandwich and sidled closer to Julie.

You don’t ever have to worry,” she said. “I may only have spent a few summers on my grandparents’ farm, but the experience ruined me from ever being a pure city dweller. I can remember riding my granddad’s tractor as he did the planting, feeding slop to the pigs, rocking on the porch at night with granny, and best of all climbing a tree like the elm you told me was here. I’d sit in the crook of that tree, looking out as far as I could see, unaware of how perfect my world was.” She kissed him again. “Thank you for giving me my farm life back.”

Biff leaned back on his hands. “What happened to your grandparents’ farm? Did they sell it?”

Julie turned to rummage in the picnic basket. She pulled out a tin with dessert in it. “Apple pie?” She cut Biff a large slice.

You didn’t answer me,” he said, gobbling down the pie.

Oh, there isn’t much to tell. Like her mother before her, my mom had me when she was sixteen. Dad enlisted to pay their bills. Until she died when I was seven, we lived wherever the Army assigned him. After her death, Dad sent me to spend a few summers with my grandparents, but once he remarried, I went to boarding schools and camps. My grandfather died and somewhere along the way, my grandmother gave away the farm.”

Julie brushed a crumb off Biff’s shirt. “Like I’ve told you, try as I might, I wasn’t meant for the bar scene, concrete sidewalks, and cars and people everywhere. A friend told me about I debated it for a few months, but as a twenty-sixth birthday present to myself I signed up for a two-week trial subscription. Your profile popped up on the thirteenth day.” She waved her hand all around her. “And, as they say, the rest is history.”

Biff tried to kiss her again, but she blocked his efforts by putting both hands on his chest. He sat back. “Biff, one thing we never talked about. Our relationship and marriage happened so quickly. I mean, it was only a matter of months between our first messages, your proposal and my moving out here for good.” She paused before the words rushed out. “Your profile was online for a lot longer time than mine. Were there any other girls you dated?”

A few.”

She swallowed. “Were you serious with any of them? Did you bring any of them to this hill?”

He looked away from her toward a pile of rocks near the bottom of the hill. “You don’t really want to go there.”

I do. I want to know.” She moved away from him.

Biff ran his hand through his hair. “That’s what Annie said. Why can’t we simply be happy as we are?”

Julie pulled her knees close to her and put her arms around them. She tried to wait him out and finally said, “Biff, I need to know.”

Biff again glanced at the pile of rocks and back at Julie. “A few came to the farm, but they weren’t like Annie or you. Oh, they said the right things about being willing to try farm life. And, at first, they admired the wide-open spaces, the crops and animals, and the stream running through our property, but then they started complaining. They refused to help with the chores and couldn’t appreciate the songs of the coyotes. One didn’t like the smell of the egg houses, another refused to throw slop in the pig trough, and a third said planting in the sun wasn’t good for her delicate skin. I realized pretty quickly that none of them would ever be able to earn a place on the top of this hill.”

So, they had to stay at the bottom?”

That’s right. I thought you were going to be different.”

Oh, I am,” Julie said. “I’m not going to end up at the bottom of the hill.”

No, you’re not.” Biff stood and took a step toward her, but stumbled. He sat back down on the blanket and held his head. Julie inched a little further away from him as he attempted to stand again. He tried to focus his gaze on her. “Julie, what’s going on?”

Nothing a farm boy can’t understand. You should have looked at the parsnip a little more closely. We city slickers sometimes confuse parsnip and hemlock. Sorry.”

He reached for her, but missed. “You might want to lie still,” Julie said, as he grabbed his stomach and doubled up from a wave of pain. Turning away from him, Julie took the cut flowers she had left on the blanket and walked up the hill toward the two graves. She placed all but one on Annie’s grave before moving on to Margie’s spot at the top of the hill.

Carefully, Julie knelt and put the remaining single white rose in front of the simple white marker. She ignored the sounds behind her, but spoke loudly enough that her words carried downhill. “I never stopped loving this farm or you, Granny. When Dad took me away, I told you I’d come home one day. I’m sorry I was too late, but I’m making up for it now. You don’t have to worry, I’ve made sure the farm is back in the family.”

Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series. Her novels and short stories have been named Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Claymore, and Silver Falchion finalists and won IPPY, AWC, Silver Falchion, and BWR awards. Debra served on the national boards of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, was president of the Guppy and SEMWA chapters, and was recently re-elected to the national SinC board. Find out more about Debra at 

Monday, August 21, 2023

Nowhere, Going Somewhere Else, fiction by Stephen D. Rogers

I wasn't home but ten minutes when she poured two fingers of whiskey into a chipped mug and slid it across the kitchen table.

            I pushed it back, my fingertips flushed. "My drinking days are over."

            "You're finally out of that cesspool. You can stop pretending."

            "No, Mom, I'm serious. Clean and sober. Four hundred and ninety-two days. It wasn't easy, even inside, but I found the necessary strength."

            She took a pull from the bottle. "Trust me. What we need to do, you're going to want to be blackout drunk."

            Shaking my head, I made sure my gaze never settled on that mug, on the chip that I had made trying to wash dishes on my tiptoes. "I don't want to go back."

            "Then let's not get caught." She winked before taking another pull. "I'll drive."

            I needed to slow this down, give myself time to think, to breath. "How about you make me something to eat first."

            "Don't think this isn't your fault." She scraped her chair. "If you were here when I needed you, we wouldn't be in this mess. Now you got to do what's right."

            My mother stood and crossed to the refrigerator, her housecoat flaring.

            She pulled open the door and just stood there looking inside as though expecting to see something different.

            Either she had eggs or she didn't. I'd never known her to cook anything else.

            Speaking into the abyss, "I talked to your aunt last month."

            Her younger sister. "How is Aunt Ruthie doing?"


            "Didn't you tell me one time that Uncle Walter had some kind of procedure?"

            "Probably just for the anesthesia, a break from having to listen to her." Mom tossed a carton of eggs onto the counter. Continued looking into the refrigerator.

            I could feel the cold air emanating, could smell the rugged aroma of whisky it blew towards me.

            Four hundred and ninety-two days.

            "You haven't asked what it was like for me in prison."

            "You're weren't at home with your mother."

            "It wasn't all bad, actually."

            "Neither is a car wreck." She closed the refrigerator door and pushed the egg carton closer to the stove. "Scrambled or fried?"

            "Fried would be a nice change of pace."

            "Mister Fancy." She moved the pan from a back burner to the front. "I hope it's okay if I don't cook the egg in organic avocado oil. And I can't attest to whether these eggs are free range or not."

            "I'm sure they'll be great, Mom."

            "Who do you think mowed the lawn while you away?"

            Instead of simply pushing the mug, I should have knocked it to the floor, finishing the job I started when I was just a kid. "I don't know who mowed the lawn."

            "You wouldn't, would you?" She turned to flash that smirk of hers. She'd proved her point. She'd won.

            Mom cracked an egg into the pan before snapping on the heat. "You know what's wrong with you? You think it's all about you. All the time. All about you."

            I could lose four hundred and ninety-two days simply by raising that mug to my lips.

            This was the downside of learning patience inside. A younger me would have stormed out as soon as my mother started in. A drunker me might have raised a hand before storming out, allowing her to jeer that I'd become my own father, a father I hardly remembered.

            Mom scoured the pan with the tines of a fork.

            I focused on my hands. "This thing we need to do?"

            "What about it?"

            "Can you share any details?"

            "I thought you wanted to eat first. That's what you said, anyway. Who do you think I'm making this egg for?"

            Always a pleasure, talking with my mother. "I can still listen."

            "You never listened. Maybe if you had, we wouldn't be in this mess."

            "Maybe I learned some things while I had time to reflect."

            She stepped over to the table and pointed at the mug with the fork, yolk dripping. "You gonna let this get stale?"

            "Help yourself."

            Mom raised the mug and emptied it in one go.

            Behind her, smoke filled the room.

            I jumped up, pushed past my mother, and shoved the pan into the sink.

            She laughed. "I guess you weren't so hungry after all."

            I placed my hands on the counter, feeling the scarred Formica bow under my weight. "I guess I wasn't."

            "I'll just get my purse."

            As my mother opened and slammed one cabinet after another, I lifted my head to stare out the kitchen window.

            The woods behind the house went all the way to the county line. It was junk forest, no use as timber, the rot too deep to support any kind of development.

            According to my mother, she owned most of it, or at least she would once my aunt went home to Jesus. Whether my mother had any paperwork to that effect, I had no idea, but I'd never known her to have any kind of official document.

            She was driving today. She was driving drunk. She was driving an unregistered vehicle without a license.

            Insurance? Why should she make rich people richer?

            I turned my back to the forest that might or might not belong to the family. The opened bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table contained about seven shots. Three healthy doubles.

            More than enough to drown four hundred and ninety-two days.

            Mom was cursing now, railing about not being able to locate her purse as if somebody else had hidden it to confound her.

            "I don't think your anger is very helpful."

            She froze. Took two steps at me. "What did you say?"

            Too much. "The negative energy. One of the things they say inside is anger doesn't help."

            Poking my chest to mark each syllable, she said, "I'm not some jailbird. This is your mother you're talking to."

            "I know that."

            She sniffed. "You don't know anything. You and your aunt both, all superior although I can't for the life of me imagine why. You come into my house, and you disrespect me."

            "I just asked—"

            "No, you didn't ask anything. You proclaimed. You said what I was doing was wrong."

            I winced. "Pretend I didn't even open my mouth."

            "Oh, so now you're not man enough to own your own words."

            "I thought there was something we had to get done today."

            "Listen to him, all of a sudden in a rush. First he wants to eat. Then he wants to criticize his mother. But if I want to speak my mind, sorry, but there isn't time."


            "Don't 'Mom' me."

            "What am I supposed to call you, Cheryl?"

            "Don't be fresh. Is this what you're like when you don't drink? Because if it is, I'm pouring you another mug and we're not leaving until you finish it."

            "I told you. My drinking days are over."

            "Don't talk back to your mother."

            I raised my hands. "Whatever. You win. Let's just go and get this over with."

            "I still haven't found my purse."

            "Would you like my assistance?"

            "You just think about where you went wrong here." Mom resumed opening and slamming cupboards.

            "Got it." Crowing as she slung the purse over her shoulder.

            As I followed her out of the kitchen, the aroma of whiskey followed me. It wasn't until we were outside when I realized I wasn't being haunted by the open bottle behind me, but my mother in front of me.

            She yanked open her car door, the squeal masking whatever she said.

            Was it safe to ask her to repeat it? "I didn't get that."

            "Don't just stand there. Maybe when you were locked up you had all the time in the world, but I don't."

            I could just turn around and go back inside. Instead, I walked toward her, dry grass crackling under my feet.

            "So, Mom, when are you planning on telling me what this is all about?"

            She grinded the starter. "How long did you make me wait?"

            "I caught a ride here as soon as I was released."

            "But your time inside. That was me waiting on you. Don't think it wasn't."


            "You should be."

            Five minutes later, I could no longer smell the whiskey, although I could taste it every time I opened my mouth. I could taste it on my tongue, at the back of my throat. The air in the car was saturated enough I could almost swallow my fill.

            I cracked my window.

            "What'd you do that for?"

            "I can't seem to get enough fresh air."

            "Well it's loud."

            "Sorry." Up the window went.

            I had liked the loud since it covered the silence, and silence made my mother nervous, causing her to fill it with complaints.

            Exhaling through my teeth, I studied the array of cigarette burns on the dashboard. Some people looked through photographs, while I had to make do with my father's ability to use anything as an ashtray. That pockmark there? The day we spent a weed-choked lake.

            "Mom, remember that time we drove to the lake? I must have been around three or four."


            "There were leeches on my legs when I came out of the water. I thought I was going to die."

            "I told you I didn't remember."

            For some reason, I felt the need to convince her I luxuriated in the memories of that day, just to counter her refusal to even make an effort. "It's really stuck with me through the years. The three of us didn't have many shared adventures before dad left."

            "Your father wasn't fit for the job. That's all I'm going to say about him."

            Conversation with my mother meant negotiating a maze of dead-end streets, Mom throwing up roadblocks as fast as I could adjust my route. Not unsurprisingly, I often ran out of gas long before I reached any kind of satisfying destination.

            Maybe not often, come to think of it. Maybe always.

            "There are some things you should know."

            Words my mother had never before uttered. "Yes?"

            "What you call this thing we're doing? You should have drunk that whiskey."

            "You mentioned that."

            Mom's sigh rattled in her chest. "About a year ago, I saw a report on the news about the EPA cleaning up a hazardous site. We're just lucky the government is so slow."

            "How does this involve us?"

            "You've got to move the body."

            I turned so quickly the seat-belt friction-burned my neck. "What?"

            She nodded. "We can't get just leave it there. They're digging up the whole area."

            "Whose body?" Had my father killed someone? Was that why he took off?

            "It doesn't matter. We just have to make sure they don't find it."

            Doesn't matter? I tried to recall every morsel my mother had ever doled out, tried to remember names, grievances. There seemed so little to work with. I didn't know anything about his family, his friends, or his job. He was my father, and that was about the extent of my knowledge.

            He was my father, and he abandoned me.

            Abandoned us, actually.

            It was strange how unnatural it felt to think of him as my mother's husband. Mom never referred to him as anything but my father. My aunt instead of her sister. I wondered for a second how she described her relationship to me.

            The one who went away when she needed him most.

            The one who wasn't available when she needed to move a body.

            I rubbed where the seatbelt burned my neck.

            Whomever my father killed, the discovery of a body would stir up a mess, would threaten my mother's beloved privacy, would cause people to talk.

            What was I thinking? If my father had killed someone, that person deserved justice. Their family deserved answers. Maybe after I helped move the body I should make an anonymous tip about its whereabouts.

            Of course the wisdom of that decision depended on whether the murder could traced back to us. How careful had my father been? How careful would my mother be?

            I glanced through the windshield. She was straddling the middle line. Glanced at the speedometer. Twenty over the speed limit. Unlicensed, unregistered, uninsured.

            My mother, who would probably spit on the body to prove her displeasure at being so inconvenienced, didn't exactly exude the principle of taking care.

            I didn't need to decide now. So much depended on the state of the remains, on where she intended to dump them.

            "Mom, can I ask you a question?"

            "That's all you ever do."

            "Do you have any idea how many people I met in prison whose plan was, 'Let's not get caught' and then did?"

            "Don't use my words against me. It's cowardly."

            I wasn't sure how she figured that, but okay. "Moving a body is risky. Maybe more risky than letting it be discovered."

            "It ain't."

            So maybe my father was the obvious prime suspect. Maybe he'd been investigated when whomever he killed went missing. Maybe my father hadn't abandoned me as much as saved us the humiliation of a public trial. Like a toddler would have cared, like losing a father wasn't worse.

            Mom pulled onto an unmarked road.

            That was reassuring at least. That she didn't expect me to dig up a body while a crowd formed to watch what we were doing. With my mother, you could never be sure. One minute nothing she did was anybody's business, and the next minute she was demanding an audience. Didn't matter what she was doing. Could have been the same thing both times.

            She turned onto a dirt road that curved toward the woods.

            Remote and out of sight. We might actually get away with this. Or at least this part of the transfer. She hadn't yet said where we were moving it to.

            Mom slowed as the potholes worsened. Better this than a well-worn path. I hadn't liked the idea of someone being in the area ahead or us, or, worse, coming up from behind.

            Then we were entering the woods, branches scraping the sides of the car, sweeping the roof.

            Potholes now alternated with exposed roots, the car lurching as Mom drove deeper into the darkness.

            I stopped worrying about possible witnesses and started worrying that we might bust an axle and die out here.

            "You've driven this, right?"

            "Just the once."

            I sighed. "And that was many, many years ago."

            She turned to look at me. "How do you know?"

            "If dad went on the run afterwards, I can do the math." I pointed forward. "Can you do me a favor and watch the trees?"

            Mom snorted. "I was driving before you were born."

            "I'd just rather we be able to drive out of here on our own. Especially once we have a body in the trunk. Not an ideal time to call for a tow."

            "My son the expert. Goes into prison a fool, comes out knowing everything."

            "Everybody in there has a story, mostly about what went wrong."

            "And what was the story you told?"

            "I blamed it on a woman."

            Mom threw back her head and laughed.

            As the growth thinned, she pulled off what was now barely a path, crashing through bushes and then braking at water's edge. An abandoned factory, three bricked stories of shattered windows, loomed over a shiny-green pond.

            "Who builds a factory in the middle of nowhere?"

            "According to the EPA, people who manufacture poison."

            I hadn't realized I'd asked the question aloud. But even if you're manufacturing poison, you still need to truck in supplies, truck out product. Employees need access. This place was so remote I'd never even heard rumors.

            The access road and parking lot must have been on the other side of building.

            Mom squeaked open her door. "We don't have all day."

            Sighing, I climbed out of the car and stood there for a moment, taking in the scene. Something clicked, maybe that half-submerged rock. "Whoa. Wait."


            I studied the terrain, overlaid on my memories. "This is that lake I asked you about."

            "What lake?"

            "We came here to swim. The leeches on my legs when I came out of the water. Wait. Did you bring me here scouting for a burial site?"

            "We came here to have fun that day." Her tone oddly flat.

            Sure. So only later, after my father killed someone and they needed to get rid of the body, did they decide to turn the site where I'd experienced the best day of my young life into a crime scene.

            But Mom said she only came here the once. Maybe my father came back here when it was time to dig a grave on his way out of town. So how did she know where he buried the body? Unless she came this far with him before returning home.

            Maybe it would be easier for me to get my head around this if my mother just told me the whole story instead of forcing me to extract it one scrap at a time. Everything a mystery with her.

            She popped the trunk and retrieved a shovel, folded blue tarp, and large black trash bag, tossing them one at a time onto the ground. She slammed the trunk using both hands before picking up her equipment and heading into the woods.

            I listened to the shot echo off the brick building.

            As it seemed pointless to just wait here until she screamed for me to hurry up, I trudged into the woods after her, searching until I found her, wandering aimlessly.

            She nearly spat me at me. "I don't remember, okay?"

            "Where you buried it?"

            My mother motioned with her free hand. "Things grew."

            "They do that."

            "And you were no help, such a distraction."

            "What? I was a distraction? You brought me along while you were burying a body?"

            "I couldn't very well ask your aunt for help." Mom chuckled as she continued searching.

            "Wait. I'm confused." I rubbed my temples. "We came here that day to go swimming, right? We didn't come here to dump a body. We came here to swim. It was just the three of us, trying to have a good time."

            "That's right."

            "But now you're talking as if you two buried the body that very day. Who could my father have killed out here in the middle of nowhere? Some vagrant living in the abandoned factory who came at you with a knife? What?"

            "You were tired. It was a long day, and you were very excited." Was she aggravated at how I'd behaved, or aggravated at having to explain to me now? "As soon as we put you in the car, you were out like a light. Your father took my hand and pulled me into the woods. We had sex up against a tree."

            "Maybe too much information, but okay."

            Mom closed her eyes. "Your father made the mistake of calling out your aunt's name."


            Mom nodded. "He told me they hooked up for the first time when I was eight months pregnant with you." She opened her eyes to glare at me. "All of this, it's your fault."

            I thought then of the leeches.

            For weeks, I was haunted by nightmares, leeches sucking me dry, hollowing me out. As soon as I woke up, shivering, sweaty, I'd stuff a fist in my mouth to keep from disturbing her rest.

            "Whoa. Wait just a minute. Are you telling me you killed my father that day and buried him here?"

            "What was I supposed to, bring the body home?"

            "He didn't abandon me. You told me he abandoned me."

            "No, he betrayed me, which is worse."

            "You lied. Again and again. Every time I ask you about him, about what happened, you lied."

            "Sorry I didn't tell you I killed your father with a rock. I'm sorry I protected you from that."

            "All these years, a part of me thought he would come back. I waited for him."

            "That's on you, believing in fairies."

            Right. She wasn't to blame for any of this. She wasn't to blame for anything at all. "I don't even know how we move on from this."

            "Simple. We find the site. We retrieve the remains. We move them. That's how we stay out of prison."

            I stumbled in circles. "I need time to process this."

            "We don't have time. We have now."

            "You don't even know where we're supposed to dig."

            "Maybe if you helped search instead of whining."

            "Whining? Seriously? You just told me you killed my father."

            I pointed in the general direction of the car. "While I was asleep in the back seat."

            "You don't know what he could be like."

            "No, you made sure of that." I took a deep breath. "Look, one day at a time. There's nothing we can do about what happened in the past. We just need to focus on getting through today. What do you remember about the burial site?"

            "I didn't know I was going to have to remember anything. I didn't exactly make notes. I was rushing in case you woke up."

            So again this was my fault. "Right. Well, you said you had sex up against a tree. The trees right here aren't thick enough for that. I also don't see any rocks. You said you used a rock." I reminded myself that anger didn't help, that thinking about the words I was saying wouldn't help.

            "We were sneaking off into the woods to fool around. Who pays attention?"

            "You buried him."


            "That means you went back to the car for the shovel, and then you were able to find him again. What did you use as guideposts?"

            "I don't understand what you're getting at. You're flustering me with all these questions."

            I rocked back on my heels. "You didn't bury him."

            "By the time I located the car, it was dark, and you were crying. That's how I found the car, eventually. I could hear you crying."

            I banished that image as soon as it arrived. "So we're not out here looking for a grave-site, Mom, we're looking for scattered bones."

            "We need to find and move them."

            I laughed, although it didn't feel that way. "Find them? Animals could have dragged them anywhere. We're talking two decades."

            "The EPA is going to be all over this place. The factory dumped chemicals for years, and it leached into the soil. Core samples half a mile out. Something about underground streams."

            "Were you ever intending on telling me the truth?"

            "Why do you make everything about you?"

            "I'm here, aren't I? I was here then. He's my father. You're my mother. In what way is this not about me?"

            "It's none of your business. Your aunt–"

            I stopped her. "See? 'My aunt.' You keep making this about me."

            "Your aunt was envious because she couldn't get pregnant, and I could."

            So the affair was doubly my fault. Yet this was none of my business. I had no right to ask questions, no right to have feelings. I was here only to dig up a body and move it elsewhere, although now I'd learned that the body was never buried. It was merely abandoned.

            Not "it." My father. I knew that and yet didn't know it, because to know it meant breaking in half, decades of pain spilling out on the ground.

            It. "We're never going to be able to find all those bones."

            My mother slammed the shovel against the ground and stormed off, still carrying the tarp and trash bag.

            My legs no longer capable of bearing the weight, I sunk to my knees, my haunches. I placed my hands on the poisoned earth, the soil made sacred by my father's blood.

            My mother had killed him. What did I do with that?

            I heard her start the car.

            I heard her drive away.

            The tears came as I struggled to my feet, dimming my sight as I headed off into the woods.

            I wasn't home but ten minutes only to learn it was nowhere, and now I was going somewhere else.

Stephen D. Rogers is the author of SHOT TO DEATH and more
than 800 shorter works. His website,,
includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Bad Day in Boat Repo, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

Reprinted from THUGLIT 

Most of the time, clients call me on the phone. This one sent a young punk with a blonde faux-hawk and a white linen suit to the coffee shop where I always take my morning espresso and croissant. The punk framed the meeting as a request, but he let his jacket fall open so I could see the silver pistol dangling from his shoulder holster like a steel tumor. He guided me to a gray Rolls-Royce parked around the corner, where a driver in a baggy uniform grunted when I offered him a smile.

Because I had never ridden in a Rolls before, I refrained from drawing my Hellcat .380 from its ankle holster and excusing myself from the situation. “Where we headed?” I asked, fondling the backseat's plush leather.

“Cable Beach,” the punk said, reaching up to adjust his collar. His sleeve fell away from his wrist, revealing a tattooed skeleton, its bony hands strumming a banjo. He didn't look like the sort of heavy you usually found around these parts.


The ride was swanky, too, except I didn’t enjoy it at all. After two blocks we halted at an intersection, blocked by a jazz funeral clashing its way toward the cemetery. The driver threw the Rolls into reverse, but not before slamming on the horn. I cringed at how the mourners spun on us, startled, as the coffin on their shoulders tilted at a perilous angle. I've always believed that if you anger the spirits, they will capsize your life. That superstitious part of me blames everything that happened later—the fire, the bodies, the thing with the severed head—on that honking.


The mansion looked like a kid's toy on steroids, a jumble of brightly colored blocks balanced on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach. The punk ushered me onto the concrete patio, where a ruddy man in a faded Motörhead t-shirt leaned against the glass railing.

“My name's Clive Stevens,” he said, offering a ring-studded hand to shake. “You smoke?”


“I bet it’s a ‘yes’ for some of Castro's finest.” Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Clive drew a leather cigar case and opened it, revealing a trio of stubby Cohibas. “Thanks for coming all the way down here. I assure you it'll be worth your while.”

I took a cigar. “Yacht?”

“Excuse me?”

“The boat in question. Is it your yacht? You seem like a yacht kind of guy, with the Rolls and all.”

Shaking his head, he drew a silver lighter and sparked it to life. “Cargo vessel,” he said. “I'm part-owner. I need it anchored off the coast here in ten days.”

I bathed the tip of my cigar in blue fire. “And where is it now?”

He lit his stogie. “Cuba, outside Havana. Someone paid the crew to walk away from the boat. Harbormaster’s charging an insane fee to release it.”

“Have your lawyer fly in,” I said. “Find the right official, get law enforcement involved if you have to. You don’t need someone like me for a squeeze-and-release job.”

“I can't do that.”

I glanced through the floor-to-ceiling windows that separated the patio from the interior of the house, noting the framed gold records on the living room wall, the fancy guitar on the stand beside the expensive leather couch. I wanted to ask what he did in the music industry, after he answered my most pressing question: “What’s the cargo?”

“Coffee beans,” he said, looking at the ocean. “Wood for furniture, some other goods.”

I snorted. “Oh, come on. You want my services, what’s the real load? You’re shipping explosives, meth precursor, that's your business, but I need to know if I’m boarding a floating bomb.”

He shrugged. “No explosives, no chemicals. It's not a danger to you. Beyond that, you can't ask.”

That made it drugs. And whatever my personal qualms about freeing controlled substances to travel from point A to B, I had six figures’ worth of debt I needed to erase. “You won't tell, it'll cost you extra. Hazard pay. I'm guessing you tried other repo guys before me?”

“I won't lie, my first call was Dennis Smith in New Orleans. Wasn’t willing to do what it took, if it came to that.”

“You mean violence.”

“He said you’ve broken some heads. I need someone who can do that, should it prove necessary. This cargo is valuable.”

“I never hurt anybody who didn't have it coming.” I heard a foot scrape on the concrete behind me, turned to see the punk holding out a cheap phone. I asked him: “What’re you trying to give me?”

“Pre-paid,” the punk said. “The number in the contacts will reach us. You should head to Cuba now.”

“Hold on, shorty. I haven’t said yes to the gig.”

The punk did that thing with his jacket again, sweeping it back to show off the gun. In retrospect, throwing him over the railing would have saved me a lot of trouble. Instead I decided to play nice. Jamming the burning tip of my cigar into his knuckles made him drop the phone and yelp. Before he could recover enough to do something stupid, I darted a hand into his jacket, snatched his pistol, and tossed it into the ocean.

Clive burst into wheezy laughter. “Man,” he said, clapping like a seal, “I should pay you to be my bodyguard instead.”

“Pick it up,” I told the punk, nudging the phone with my toe.

The punk stood there, trembling with rage.

“You'll have to excuse my associate here,” Clive said, sounding tired. “He’s more used to working the door at concerts than dealing with professionals. Which is why he’s going to stop this bigger-balls shit and give you that phone.”

Bending over, the punk retrieved the phone and handed it to me, his eyes burning. He would have killed me right then, with his bare hands, if I’d afforded him the opportunity. I slipped the device into my pocket and turned to Clive. “I'll think about it,” I said, “and give you a call. By the way, what sort of music you produce?”

He flashed a tight smile. “Mostly pop, for my sins. But I'm ninety-percent retired. Don’t leave me hanging about the boat, okay?”

Neither of them offered to escort me out. As I descended the front steps, the driver stepped to the curb and opened the rear door of the Rolls, but I declined his silent proposal. A walk along the beach would give me time to think about how I could make some money without ending up in a Cuban jail, or buried in a ditch with a bullet in my skull.


Some boat-repo folks prefer stealth. They offer a case of cheap rum to the marina guards, wait until everybody’s sloshed, swim out to the client's boat, and cut the anchor chains. With a little luck, they’re ten miles into international waters before anyone sobers up.

I never liked the idea of playing James Bond in a harbor full of sharks. My favorite repo trick is dressing in a customs-official uniform and arguing my way onto the target vessel. If there are still passengers or guards onboard after castoff, I offer them a choice: hop into the lifeboat for a quick float to land, or stay quiet until we reach our destination. In order to keep disagreements to a minimum, everybody in my crew carries a gun.

After my walk, I met up at my preferred tourist trap with Limonov, my second-in-command for the past ten years. He sat at a picnic bench in the back, fifty empty shot glasses stacked in front of him, two frat-boys snoring loudly on the concrete at his feet. “They challenged me to a drinking contest,” he said, seemingly stone-cold sober, as I took a seat across from him. “Looks like I won a hundred bucks.”

“How many shots did you down?” I asked, astounded at the city of glasses.

“Of vodka? None. I had Shirley pour me water.” He nodded at the nearby waitress. “Those poor bastards on the floor beside you? I think they did perhaps twenty-five each.”

“And during breakfast, no less. I'm impressed,” I said. “I got a potential job for us.”

When I finished spinning my tale, Limonov leaned back, hands folded over his substantial gut. “You think the cargo’s still there?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Less likely by the minute. You know a boat wasn’t stripped down in a week?”

“So it’s a setup. Say we head down there, cut this bad boat loose, there's no cargo onboard? Clive tells his business partners we stole the goods, covers his ass.”

“And whoever Clive’s working with, they won’t care who took the cargo,” I said, after downing a stray shot left untouched. Although I'm no fan of drinking before noon, the alcohol soothed my humming nerves. “I bet they’re not in the business of hearing all sides out, you know? Clive blames us for this, they kill us, but they also kill Clive. And not cleanly, no sir. They’ll make him eat his own nuts like oysters.”

Limonov guffawed. “Thanks for that wonderful mental image.”

I found another stray shot. Down the hatch. Screw it. “Worst part is, Clive is such a tool, he knows that’s exactly what'll happen, but he’s hoping against hope it’ll work out. Like some little kid believing in fairies.”

“So we walk away,” Limonov said. “It happens. They can't all be winners.”

“Hold up now. Are you allergic to cash?”

“Why you always have to get cute like this?”

I chuckled. “Because if the coke or whatever’s still there, Clive will pay us a lot of money to get the boat back. Especially if we reopen negotiations en-route. Even if there’s just an outside chance, I say it’s worth checking into. We’ll just go in quietly.”

“The last time we messed around with a drug shipment, I got a bullet in my shoulder.”

“And how many times did you get laid with that scar? ‘Hey baby, want to see where a nine-millimeter hit me?’ You ought to pay me for that.”

“Whatever.” Leaning over, Limonov pulled a scuffed billfold from the back pocket of the nearest frat boy and extracted five crisp twenties. Placed the wallet back. Stood. “This joint is officially tapped out. Let me buy you lunch at the Lobster Shack, you can tell me about whatever half-assed plan you’re cooking up.”


The flight from the Bahamas to Cuba is a short one. Five hours after phoning Clive and agreeing to free his boat later in the week, Limonov and I stood at the curb of the Malecón, the road that separates the ocean from Havana's crumbling beauty, negotiating with a couple of teenagers for a ride in their cherry-red '59 Chevy.

Another one of our merry crew, Marie, stayed behind in Nassau to watch Clive. An hour after my phone call, the punk in the linen suit left the mansion in the Rolls, headed for the airport. Marie lost him at the security checkpoint, but I had a good idea where he was headed.

There were other reasons to feel anxious. Waiting to board our Cubana flight, I downloaded a trove of Clive-related articles to my phone. The man had made a considerable fortune producing a rock band called the Dead Wakes. There was just one problem: the Dead Wakes released their last album five years ago. Since then, Clive had gone through a divorce, a lengthy stint in rehab, and a couple of arrests for drunk driving. Nothing like a desperate man to make things a little more exciting.

Well, you signed up for this, dude.

Indeed. I was a desperate man, myself.

“How much time you buy us?” Limonov asked. Behind him, one of the teenagers opened the Chevy's hood and leaned in, banging on the engine with his fists until it kicked to life, the tailpipe farting black smoke.

“A lot. I told Clive we wouldn’t get here until tomorrow,” I said, climbing into the backseat with my duffel. The perky flunkies at José Martí Airport scan your bags when you enter the country, just in case you're trying to import American imperialism, which makes it difficult to carry in my favorite tools, not to mention my guns.

Difficult, but not impossible.

The port was a standard-issue Caribbean shipping hub: a maze of gantries and massive cargo vessels, along with a few rusted fishing trawlers. Limonov and I had dressed in our finest suits, with fake business cards in our pockets that announced we were buyers in the market for a boat. The harbormaster, likely the same prick who told Clive that he needed to pay up or have his boat chopped to pieces, met us at the gate.

“Are you the men who called?” he asked in Spanish.

“We are,” said Limonov, in his perfect español. “We have an auction coming up. Some clients looking for cargo vessels.”

“Excellent. We have a good one, just came in.” He pointed down the pier, at a small container ship with no name on its freshly painted hull.

As the harbormaster led us on a tour of the upper deck, I excused myself to hit the lavatory. Aside from the new paint job, the boat's exterior was ill-kept, and the inside was worse—from the rusty bulkheads to the fraying carpets. I found three men in the galley, and wordlessly peeled off some American twenties into their hands before heading below. As I headed down to the engine room, I pulled a lighter from my pocket to brighten my way through the dim, stinking space.

You can paint a vessel as many times as you want, but even the most experienced boatjackers sometimes forget one crucial detail: the serial number on the engine, which matched the one that Clive had recited to me over the phone. With that settled, I climbed to the cargo level, weaving past shrink-wrapped pallets to reach the drums lining the inside hull. On the way I retrieved a pinch-bar, which I used to pry the lid off a random drum, discovering it filled with green, unroasted coffee beans. I sank an arm into the beans and found a bundle the size of a football, mummified in duct-tape.

Nipping the edge of the bundle with my teeth, I poured some white powder onto my finger, rubbed it on my gums. Tasted like baking soda. A second bundle yielded the same thing.

“Good going, Clive,” I said. At least if the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria nailed us during this little caper, I could offer to bake them a cake.

It also meant we needed to leave, right now. I ascended to sunlight, pausing to take off my shoe and bang the heel against a railing until it slid free, revealing a hollow into which I’d tucked a few pieces of steel before our plane left Nassau. Plucking free those bits, I reattached the heel and continued upwards, fumbling with my belt until the oversized buckle popped loose. The buckle folded neatly on a discreet hinge, forming a frame into which I popped the loose metal: hammer, trigger and firing pin.

From my suit pocket I drew my keys, attached to a lucky rabbit's foot. I unscrewed the brass cap from the fur and tipped a .45-caliber bullet into my palm, slipped it into the smooth chamber of my zip gun, and cocked the hammer back. The weapon had barely any accuracy but it looked intimidating, which is what usually counted. As always at moments like this, I crossed myself before heading through the hatch that led to the deck.

Limonov stood aft, nodding vaguely as the harbormaster tried to convince him that a cluster of slowly leaking oil barrels along the starboard side was nothing to worry about. I tapped my lieutenant on the elbow and said: “Baking soda.”

Eyebrows raised, he looked at the zip gun in my hand and nodded. “Can't all be winners.”

We turned and headed for the gangplank, leaving a confused harbormaster in our wake. Thirty minutes to get back to Havana, and we could sit tight for a day or two in El Floridita, sipping daiquiris before flying back to Nassau. I would call Clive and tell him that his seller had screwed him over, and that freeing the boat was officially his problem.

It was a good plan, ruined when the punk in the linen suit came up the gangplank, followed by four Cubans holding very big machetes.


The punk was startled when he saw me. “Why are you here?”

I pointed the zip gun at his chest. No sense in subtlety. “Clive send you?” I asked.

“Clive's dead,” the punk said. “He wasn't cut out for this work.”

“You kill him?”

The punk shrugged. An ocean breeze flared his jacket, revealing a 9mm pistol jammed in his waistband. That meant he had better connections down here than I did, if someone was willing to risk jail to lend him a firearm.

“Sorry you came all this way, kid,” I said, “but the ‘coke’ onboard is a lot of baking soda. Let me guess, this was Clive's first deal?”

The punk nodded, his face tense with worry, and I felt a little sorry for him. When you double-cross and kill your boss, you expect some sort of return. He stepped back, blocking the gangplank while his Cubans spread out, circling us just outside of blade-range. Beside me, Limonov picked up a length of heavy chain that someone had left on the deck and began twirling the end slowly, almost contemplatively. The harbormaster, deciding that cowardice beat valor any day of the week, disappeared below.

“We’re going to leave now,” I said. “Nobody wants to die today.”

He won’t use the gun, I thought, with his people standing so close to us.

I was wrong.

The punk thought he was the second coming of Doc Holliday. I read it too late in his eyes, just as his hand darted for his weapon. I squeezed the trigger of my zip gun, aiming for his center mass, and his shoulder spat red.

Screaming in rage and pain, the punk still managed to yank out his pistol and fire three wild shots in my direction. Two of those bullets holed the starboard drums that Limonov had examined with the harbormaster, and black oil spurted across the deck. That was bad, but not quite as bad as what happened next, when the punk’s third bullet tore out the throat of the Cuban standing to Limonov’s left.

The Cuban fell, gagging blood, his machete sparking off the oily metal at his feet.

The explosion turned the three other Cubans into burning scarecrows. Limonov was luckier. The force of the blast lifted him off his feet and into me, the two of us tumbling clear of the flames. I caught a glimpse of the punk airborne against the blue sky, his legs and arms flailing, his linen suit ablaze as he plunged into the ocean beyond the pier.

“You okay?” I yelled at Limonov, shaking my head in a futile effort to make my ears stop ringing.

Limonov looked pretty far from okay—his eyebrows were singed away, the hair on the left side of his head had been reduced to a pile of ash, and his beautiful suit was a smoking mess. Nonetheless he gave me a hearty thumbs-up before scrambling to his feet, retrieving one of the discarded knives as he checked the Cubans until he found one halfway alive.

“Where was he going after this?” Limonov asked in Spanish, pressing the knife lightly against the man's reddened throat. “Did he have a boat?”

“Airport,” the man wheezed.

“No.” Limonov pressed the knife down a little harder, scoring the flesh. “You expect me to believe he was that stupid?”

Meanwhile I knelt to the other men, checking their pockets for anything useful, finding nothing except some Cuban pesos and a few worthless IDs along with a plastic key-fob that might have belonged to a boat. We needed to leave right now.

With the knife biting into his skin, the burned Cuban reconsidered his options. “Go-fast boat,” he said. “Three kilometers west, the swamp, okay?”

“Crew?” Limonov said.

“Just us and the norteamericano.”

“Okay,” Limonov said, removing the knife. “But if you’re lying, we’ll find out.”

No way could we leave out of José Martí, not with our burned faces and scorched clothing. I waved the key-fob at Limonov and we ran down the gangplank and out of the harbor, finding the two boys standing beside their '59 Chevy, babbling in excitement as they pointed at the greasy black smoke curling toward the sun.

An ambulance and a police car passed us on the main road, neither slowing, and we made it to the swamp in good time. “Burn’s not as sexy as a bullet-hole,” said Limonov in the backseat, picking at the peeling skin on his hands.

“We're alive,” I replied, doing my best to keep my voice from trembling. Sure, I had jammed a few guns in faces over the years, and even beat down a couple folks in the course of repossessing a ship. But never had an operation gone so wrong. I thought again about the jazz funeral, the mourners frozen in shock, and my tingling skin curdled into gooseflesh.


It took three days to work our way back to Nassau, with a stopover in a Miami clinic so a friend could stitch us back together, followed by a visit to my tailor for some new duds. I had almost no money, because the punk had killed Clive before the latter could transfer funds into my account, but Limonov spotted me for the suits. The television in the tailor’s waiting room reported four dead Cubans in a mysterious explosion outside Havana, and I knew in my gut that the punk had survived his Evel Knievel routine over the harbor.

While Limonov headed to a bar to chat up some young lasses and down a few drinks, I stopped by a church for communion, followed by a voodoo storefront, where an old woman tapped my shoulders with a severed rooster claw before sprinkling me with blood. I figured that balanced my karma a little better.

Our feet had barely touched the ground in Nassau when my phone rang. “Are you okay?” Marie asked.

“Feeling a little barbequed,” I said. “Other than that, fine. You find the bodyguard?”

“Not yet, but he's definitely back here.”

“How do you know?”

“Shooting over the hill last night. The Coral Lounge, yeah? Young white guy walks in, his face all messed up, pops a bullet into the back of another man’s skull. Description sounded like your boy.”

“Who was the other man?”

“Cop who told me didn’t know, but said he was Latin. Sorry, that's all I got.”

“Do me a huge favor?” I said. “Watch Clive’s house tonight, from the beach side. I'll be there later.”

After I hung up, Limonov asked: “We going home?”

“Sure, after we make a stop.”

We parked the car in front of a beautiful colonnaded house on Baillou Hill Road, a stone's throw from the pink-walled Government House, and while Limonov smoked on the sidewalk, I knocked on the stately door half-hidden in greenery. The maid who answered guided me through spotless hallways to the rear patio, where I found Emmanuel sipping French-press coffee while perusing a copy of the New York Times Sunday edition.

“What can I do for you?” he asked without looking up.

Emmanuel had paid me four times over the years to retrieve boats with questionable cargo. One of those runs had taken place outside of Port-au-Prince, and I had earned a hefty bonus by fending off a couple of harbor pirates with a Kalashnikov until Limonov could pilot us away from the coast.

“Some guy got shot over the hill last night,” I said. “I was wondering if he was connected with you?”

Emmanuel lowered the paper so I could stare into his glacier-blue eyes. “Why are you wondering?”

“Because I think he was shot by someone who took a shot at me, too.”

Slapping the paper on the table, Emmanuel leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head. “The dead gentleman is an acquaintance of mine, yes. He hailed from Bogotá, where I understand he served as an intermediary for many important people.”

“You know if he did a deal with a guy named Clive? Record producer, lives over on Cable Beach?”

He smiled without an ounce of warmth. “Now you're asking questions you shouldn’t.”

I'll take that as a yes, I thought. “Clive’s bodyguard's the guy who tried to kill me,” I said. “Clive tried to do a deal, got in over his head. But I think you knew that.” Nodding my thanks, I turned and left. Midway to the car, I realized my hands were shaking a little. Never get involved in drugs again, I told myself. No matter how much you need the cash.


Marie patted the cool sand beside her. “Sit down, love,” she said, reaching into her designer handbag. “You ought to take a moment, look at the stars. They’ll make all your problems feel insignificant.”

The beach around us was empty, cold and bright in the moonlight. I remained standing as I craned my head upwards, studying the black mass of Clive’s mansion at the top of the cliff. “Any people, movement?”

“That’s you, all business as usual.” She sighed. “Nothing all night except that irritating noise. Hear it? It keeps fucking repeating.”

In the pause between waves I thought I caught the faintest hint of music, three jangling guitar notes followed by the thump of what might have been drums. “I hear something,” I said.

Marie's hand emerged from the bag with a .38 pistol. “Shall we go in? There's a gate down here, unlocked, and a whole lot of stairs going up.”

“Did you unlock it?”

“No, and I've been here since dusk. Seen nobody.”

“Stay here, cover my rear. If I yell for you, come up.”

“Playing action hero again?”

“If everything went the way I think it did,” I said, “someone else played action hero for us.” Drawing the pistol from my ankle holster, I walked over to the small iron gate in the base of the cliff, eased it open, and started up the wooden stairway cut into the porous rock. As I ascended, I heard that sound again, definitely music: twang-twang-twang…thump. Marie was right—it was irritating, a bad tune that threatened to elbow its way into my head and lodge there like a barnacle.

The stairs ended on the far edge of the patio, around the corner from where I had met Clive the other day. I paused for a moment at the top, listening for movement, but that damn twang-twang-twang…thump made it difficult to hear anything furtive. Screw it, I thought, coming fast around the house's blind angle.

My gun-sights found a giant at the railing, silhouetted against the deeper night, his shaven head faintly haloed by stars.

“Hello,” I said, my voice calm despite the adrenaline flooding my blood, my heart hammering against my ribs.

Plastic rustled as the giant shifted. He wore a one-piece coverall with a zipper up the front. A hazmat suit. “Hello,” he said, his voice soft, melodic.

He seemed unconcerned about my gun.

“Is the kid here?” I asked.

“Yes, but he’s indisposed,” the giant said. It was hard to discern his features in the dark, but I could see the starlight glistening on his bare hands, because they were wet.

I swallowed, wondering if my bullets would stop his planet-like mass, even if I fired the whole clip into his torso. “And who are you?”

“I often do contract work for individuals with a lot to lose, and a lot to spend. You know how that is. We're kindred souls, you and I.”

“If you say so.”

The enormous head dipped low, the face eaten by darkness. “What you’ll see inside might affect you in a deep way. Ordinarily I wouldn’t apologize for that, but I've been in a very self-reflective mood lately,” he said. “I want you to know that I’m not an animal. No matter how bad it seems, everything I did in there was calculated for a specific effect. To send a message as wide as possible. To speak to people who only understand one language.”

Nothing like a friendly chat with a lunatic. “Can I ask you something, no disrespect?”

“Of course.”

“Why the fake coke? Why screw Clive over like that?”

“My client already has his own distribution channels, quite profitable. The hoax was a joke, a friendly way of dissuading an amateur from going where he did not belong. Of course, Clive's employee decided to take matters into his own hands. I apologize, but I really must go.”

With that, the giant turned and disappeared around the front of the house, leaving a smeared trail of footprints. Footprints with no treads, because he wore plastic covers over his size-15 boots.

My forehead prickling with sweat, I reached down and slipped my pistol back into its ankle holster. I could have walked away; I knew in my heart that the punk had died inside the house. But the first rule of my business is you need to double-check on everything, no matter how dangerous or stomach-churning.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped through the open glass door off the patio, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. Through the wide doorway on my left came that awful twang-twang-twang…thump, much louder now, along with a faint blue glow.

I walked that way.

Like all music producers, Clive had an impressive listening rig: a McIntosh turntable on its own mahogany sideboard, with the record platter and front panel lit up like a descending UFO. In its spooky light I could see the sleek tone-arm bumping against a thick, lumpy object placed at the center of a slowly spinning record. With each bump, the massive speakers at either end of the sideboard thumped hard, stretching my already-frayed nerves to the breaking point.

The thing atop the record spun another quarter-revolution, revealing blackened eyes, a squashed nose, lips crusted with dark blood.

The punk's head.

“Like I told your boss,” I said. “I wasn’t the right person for the job.”

As if in response, the record-needle tapped cooling flesh again, the speakers hissing loud with spirits.

Nick Kolakowski is the author of "Love & Bullets," "Absolute Unit," and other works of crime and terror. His shorter fiction has also appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in NYC.