Showing posts with label april kelly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label april kelly. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Devil's Plus-One, fiction by April Kelly


Shanika Wells turned up in town seventy-two hours after Big Vic’s murder, presumably to dance on his grave. Thirteen years ago she fled this small-minded, micro burg and no local event in the interim—including her own father’s funeral—had offered lure enough to inspire a return to the scene of her miserable childhood.

Back when he still went by his hated first name, Quintus Viccolander instigated the event that bonded Shanika and me. I was a scrawny six year old that fifth-grader Quintus decided was too effeminate, so he often cornered me and called me vile names, though never within earshot of a teacher. Before the days of #MeToo and being woke, there were still certain things you couldn’t say, even to a little sissy, without getting yourself in trouble.

That particular day I was minding my own business, kicking leaves behind a big oak tree that anchored the far corner of the playground. I didn’t really mind being alone, which worked out great, since most of the other boys were not inclined to play with the wimpy kid picked last for every team in gym class. I heard a crunch of leaves and cringed, knowing instantly who had found me and what I was in for.

“Yo, turd face! ‘Sup?”

Paralyzed by the threat in his voice, I hung my head and stayed mute.

“Answer me when I’m talking to you,” he snarled, before shoving his meaty palm into my sternum and knocking me flat on my back.

“What do you want me to say?” I managed to squeak out.

“Say I’m a little fag baby. Go on, say it!”

Emphasizing the demand, he planted his feet on either side of my thighs, towering over me with an intimidatingly wide stance that would have brought on my tears, had I not seen a tiny, mean-faced Black girl silently creeping up on Quintus from behind. He bent forward to spit his humiliating order into my face again, the move positioning him perfectly for a hard, upward kick to the jewels that dropped him to his knees. I scrambled out of the way before he hit the ground, and the little girl grabbed my hand so we could run to safety together while my tormentor gagged and went fetal.

That was the beginning of the bad blood between Shanika Wells and Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander. He didn’t dare report the incident that left him limping for days, because of the hit his bully rep would have taken when word got out he’d been bested by a first-grade girl. On the down-low, however, he opened a smear campaign that lasted till the day she blew this pop stand.

And now Big Vic reposed in the most ostentatious casket his brother Quentin (a.k.a. Little Vic) could find and Shanika had waltzed back onto the scene.

A tinkling of the antique silver bells on my door signaled the entrance of a customer, as I grappled with a blue-dyed carnation wired to a short, wooden skewer, carefully attempting to position it in the foam base of a wing-spread dove without damaging the petals of the surrounding white roses.

“I’ll be right with you,” I said, sliding the sapphire eye into place.

“No hurry, Zee.”

I whirled around. More than a decade had passed since I’d heard the voice of the only person who ever called me Zee, but it was as sweet and familiar as if we were still kids sneaking our first smoke and trash-talking our math teacher. Backlit by the late afternoon sun streaming through the glass front of my shop, her facial features were obscured, but there was no mistaking those legs and that glorious mane.

During my childhood I witnessed her hair transform from the tight cornrows and stubby pigtails her mama inflicted on her with the hopeless goal of taming the untamable, into a ragged bush of chaos after Mrs. Wells passed when Shanika was twelve. By the time she hit sixteen, however, and mastered the products and techniques to capitalize on her abundant gift, an ethereal ebony cloud perpetually framed her beautiful face, undulating languidly and seductively as she glided down the hallway between classes.

And those legs! They’d been the knobby-kneed, bony limbs of an underfed pony in kindergarten, but by junior year of high school they had morphed into what one young lothario described as a pair of wet dreams beginning on the ground and rising all the way up to heaven.

Since I had been momentarily struck dumb, my visitor oiled the machinery of conversation with a reliable classic.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

The offer was enough to snap me out of the shock at seeing my best friend after so many years.

“Nika,” I blurted out, rounding the counter and flying into her arms.

She had always been the taller half of our team, but with her four-inch heels, we connected clumsily forehead to chin until she threw her head back and laughed.

“Oh, Zee, I have purely missed you, dude. We need to catch up.”

I enthusiastically agreed, but swept my right arm wide to indicate the wreath-shaped forms covering the countertop and awaiting artfully arranged flowers of every size and color.

“I’m swamped on a deadline for a funeral tomorrow, but you can perch your fine caboose on one of those stools and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee from the back. That way I can keep working while you fill me in on everything you’ve been up to.”

Without waiting for a response, I disappeared into the nook behind the flower cooler and selected a crème brûlée brewing pod.

“Who died?” she called out from the front.

“You didn’t hear?” I spun my hand in a tight circle, as if the Keurig could interpret the gesture as a request to speed things up.

“Well, I haven’t kept a subscription to the local rag, so you’ll have to tell me the beneficiary of your floral creations.”

“The very editor of that rag, Big Vic.”

I heard her rich, throaty laugh again, this time underscored with delight.

“Please tell me ol’ Quintus’s death was protracted and painful.”

I rounded the cooler to hand her a steaming, ceramic mug.

“Well, it wasn’t as protracted as many of us would have wished, but it sure as hell must’ve been painful.”

Her face lit up, and justifiably so. Although Big Vic had done a lot of shitty things to a lot of people, he always reserved his worst for Shanika. Among the many awful stunts he had pulled over the years was starting a rumor about her alleged involvement with a fifteen-year-old boy who committed suicide. Randy Holland wrote a note saying he had no reason to live if he couldn’t be with Shanika, then hanged himself in his bedroom. By then, Big Vic had graduated and begun apprenticing for his father at the newspaper, so he enlisted Little Vic—still in our grade—to spread word at school that she had treated the boy cruelly, leading him on, teasing him, and laughing in his face when he declared his love for her.

Was it true? No. Did anyone care? Again, no. The story spread, regardless of the fact that Shanika never even had a conversation with the unfortunate boy. In fact, a few days before he took his life, she found a childishly crafted love note in her locker and handed it to me.

“Who the hell is Randy Holland?” she asked, before taking back the note and tossing it in a trash can, assuming it was someone’s idea of a joke. My guess is the kid was somewhere nearby, watching to see her response. Next thing you know, Randy’s dangling and the mean girl squad of campus influencers, envious of Shanika’s over-the-summer transformation into a breathtaking beauty, gleefully embraced and spread the Viccolander boys’ fake news spin on the tragedy.

Who they should have blamed was Big Vic, for lying, or maybe the shrink who treated the troubled teen for years. Turns out Dr. Feelgood prescribed the wrong anti-psychotic and tipped his young patient right over the edge.

Barely a year later, when a college boy died in a single car crash, speeding away in fury after seventeen-year-old Shanika turned down his unexpected proposal, Big Vic used his newspaper’s gossip column to indict an unnamed high school girl for having caused the deaths of two men. Yes, he left her name out, but he dubbed her “the devil’s plus-one,” and no one doubted the identity of the accused. The mean girls gave life to the lie, and, soon, blasé teens routinely quipped that if you invited Satan to a party, Shanika Wells would be his date. And so she slipped out of town one night with only a backpack full of thrift-shop clothes and the forty bucks I had saved from my pizza delivery job.

Shanika sipped her coffee while I poked flower stems into foam forms and repeated the snippets that had fed the rumor mill for the three days since Big Vic had been found, gruesomely murdered in his office at the Crowder County Gazette. In addition to hearing all the lurid details passed from person to person like a relay race for gossip, I possessed inside info courtesy of the smoking hot deputy I had quietly dated for months.

They found Big Vic duct-taped to his leather executive chair, covered in lumps and contusions consistent with a beating from the baseball bat discarded at the scene. He had been shot through the heart and one knee. Sadistically placed cigarette burns had caused Little Vic to upchuck his Denny’s Grand Slam when he discovered his older brother’s corpse.

“Along with the bat, they found a meth pipe and a hammer on the floor. Sheriff Cook’s working theory is a couple of tweakers wanted into the safe, but Big Vic refused to give up the combination. From the patch of scratches and gouges around the opening mechanism, it seems as though the perps went all medieval on the safe after they gave up whaling on Vic and finished him off.”

Shanika snorted in disgust, before saying “Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.”

That safe had been a topic of speculation several years back when Big Vic installed it at the newspaper office. The Crowder County Gazette had fewer than eight thousand subscribers and barely broke even. So, why did it need such an enormous safe?

Some folks claimed Little Vic deposited the cash from his strip club there every night after closing, but that still would have left multiple cubic feet of empty space. Made people wonder what other unsavory pies the siblings might have stuck their dirty fingers into.

By the time the last foam circle was beribboned, beflowered and crammed into the cooler, it was almost nine, so Shanika and I headed to our favorite burger drive-through from the old days, then carried the paper bags of heart attack roulette back to her room at the Hyatt. The twentyish kid at the desk cast envious eyes on me as I walked toward the elevators accompanied by what must have looked to him like a visiting supermodel. He wasn’t old enough to have firsthand knowledge of Shanika’s sordid reputation.

We laughed, talked, reminisced and made a dent in the mini bar’s stock as I updated her on thirteen years of weddings, divorces, scandals and petty feuds, most of them involving people she once knew. And while I was forthcoming about my own life—both professional and romantic—Shanika deflected every one of my inquiries into her own travels and activities since her disappearing act one month into our senior year, after which post cards and the occasional extremely brief letter from her marked the parameters of our one-way communication. Those precious (to me) tidbits were postmarked from a different city every time, some of them exotic and foreign, so I surmised her life was way more exciting than mine.

Shortly before two in the morning, I made my excuses: early wake-up, ginormous delivery to the funeral home chapel the next day, blah-blah-blah, but as she walked me to the door of her room, I made one last attempt to glean some details about her life. Earlier, when she kicked off her shoes, I clocked their red soles and knew they had cost a small fortune. My curiosity was piqued.

“Nika, you know I would take any secret of yours to my grave, so, please, won’t you tell me the truth about where you’ve been and how you’ve been getting by?”

She leaned against the open door and gazed at me, her glistening brown soul windows unfocused after four miniature bottles of Hennessy. Lightly grazing my cheek with her perfectly manicured nails, she whispered, “Like they say in the movies, sweetheart, you can’t handle the truth.”

My own indulgence in two itty-bitty Tia Marias emboldened me.

“That’s bullshit and you know it. I was always there for you and I always will be.” Getting shut out of her life thirteen years earlier broke my heart, but her refusal to share any of it with me now that she was back piled insult on top of injury.

My reminder that I was her oldest ally and confidante must have gotten through to her, because she suddenly sighed with resignation. We stood close enough that the oaky, fruity aroma of cognac on her breath wafted into my nostrils.

“Zee, what do you think the career options are for a runaway high school drop-out who finds herself in an unfamiliar city with forty dollars and no marketable skills?”

She took a step back and swept her right hand down to draw my attention to her perfectly proportioned body, a stark reminder that, although I was immune to those formidable assets, no straight male over the age of twelve could look upon them without prurient thoughts. An understanding of what she implied caused a clenching in my gut, quickly followed by guilt for having insisted on answers to questions I had no right to ask. Before I could apologize, she barreled ahead.

“I’ll tell you what my choice was. I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.”

“Shanika,” I said, before she could go on. “I would never judge you and I don’t want to hear any more.”

“Maybe you don’t want to hear more, but you need to know the truth about me, if only to decide if you still want to be friends.

Before she could share further details, I turned and ran like the coward I am and have always been.

The day of Big Vic’s funeral, I woke with a hangover and guilt. I owed Shanika an apology for forcing her to admit to an embarrassing truth, but a vanload of floral arrangements needed delivering and I had a service to attend. Deciding I would skip out before the interment and go to the Hyatt to beg forgiveness, I scoured the flower cooler for the best of the leftovers and put together a dramatic bouquet to pair with a groveling mea culpa.

After filling the modest chapel with colorful but insincere condolence displays for a dead bully who was universally loathed, I had thirty minutes to kill before the service started, not enough time to go see Shanika, but time enough to call her. I had not thought to ask for her cell phone number the night before, as I was besotted and brainless in her presence, so I called the Hyatt and asked to be connected to her room. The dozen unanswered rings told me she either wasn’t there or did not want to speak with me.

Seated in the last row, I didn’t notice her at the service, so I followed the cars to the cemetery in case she showed up there. Again I swept my eyes over the attendees without finding her. Bored with a droning list of the deceased’s good qualities the pastor had obviously manufactured out of thin air, I let my eyes roam the acres of headstones, many of them shaded by mature trees with spreading canopies.

A flash of movement caught my eye, a swaying cloud of black hair mostly hidden behind the trunk of a huge elm tree about fifty feet away. Shanika stepped from behind the tree, but I couldn’t be sure she was looking at me until she smiled and blew a kiss in my direction. There was no way I could retreat through the crowd and go to her without drawing disapproving notice, so I anxiously waited for those first dropped long-stem roses (provided, of course, by me) and the sound of the initial shovelful of dirt hitting the gold-festooned mahogany before making my getaway.

Carrying the lavish apology bouquet into the hotel lobby, I asked the desk clerk to ring her room. Instead, he handed me a key and said he had been instructed to send me up when I arrived.

Respectful of the Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the door, I knocked. When no answer came, I had a moment of concern for her safety and quickly unlocked the door to enter a cleared-out room. No clothes in the drawers or compact hanging space. No toiletries in the bathroom. Held down by the clock radio on the nightstand was a ten dollar bill, presumably a tip for the housekeeper who would come in the next day, and a note for me.

Zachary, it was great to catch up. See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.

The only other item on the nightstand was a matchbook from the Wander Inn, a run-down motel a mile outside of town, best known as a trysting place for lovers married to others, and an overnight stop for weary travelers who couldn’t bear another hour of driving, but didn’t want to pay the price of a decent hotel.

Why a matchbook? Shanika doesn’t smoke. I’m hypersensitive to the smell of tobacco, and would have noticed it on her breath or clothes. And what reason did she have to visit the Wander Inn? Perhaps because I had no other mementos of her brief visit, I pocketed the matches along with the note. Once home, I phoned the Wander Inn and asked for her, but was told they had no one registered under that name.

When I didn’t hear from her over the next week, I cursed myself for being an insensitive clod, but remained puzzled about why she had insisted I needed to know the truth about her if I were to remain her friend. And if she wanted me to know the truth, why didn’t she stick around long enough to convey that information? My mind went back to the matchbook I’d found. Could she have chosen a more oblique way to communicate what she felt I should know about her? Perhaps a way that spared her the face-to-face awkwardness of enlightening me about the life of a high-class call girl?

With the sleazy motel’s matchbook as my only lead, I put together a lovely arrangement of peach roses, white peonies and cascading sprigs of Lily-of-the-Valley. If Shanika was staying at the Wander Inn under a different name, the bouquet would be my personal apology; if she wasn’t in residence, a delivery of flowers would justify requesting information from the staff.

Wearing my short-sleeved work shirt with Zach’s Floral Creations embroidered on the breast pocket, I approached the slacker watching TV behind the stained and scratched counter.

He didn’t bother looking up from whatever athletic competition was inspiring the tinny roar of enthusiastic fans, when I said: “Delivery for Ms. Shanika Wells.”

“No one here by that name.”

“Maybe she’s using a different name.”

“Nah. She used her real name when she was here, but she ain’t here anymore.”

Okay, first clue. I asked if I could check the register to see the dates of her stay.

“Knock yourself out,” he said, flailing one hand in the direction of a worn, spiral notepad at the end of the counter, without taking his eyes off the TV screen. “Go! Go! Go, you son of a bitch,” he shouted, his involvement deep enough that I could have easily made off with something valuable, had their been anything of value in the shabby office.

Paging backwards in the notepad, I found Shanika’s name. She had checked in four days prior to Big Vic’s murder, and checked out three days after it. Her departure date coincided with the day she checked into the Hyatt, the day I had assumed she blew into town.

She obviously had enough money to stay at a nicer place than the Wander Inn, so why did she spend a week there before moving over to what passes locally for a luxury hotel? What reason would she have to obfuscate her arrival date?


A sickening suspicion compelled me to parse every word she said to me during her brief stay.

Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.

Had I mentioned the safe was an American Security product? I didn’t think so. And, even if I did, how would she know it was double-walled and weighed one ton? For that matter, was she merely guessing the hammer was a claw, as opposed to a club style or ball peen? Or did she know because she was present at the scene?

I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.

My immediate assumption had gone to the prurient, the obvious. And I thought it was the shame of being a prostitute that caused her to demur when I asked her outright about her life. Now I wondered if it wasn’t shame, but fear, that kept her silent, made her willing to reveal her secret in only the most roundabout way. If I took my suspicions to Sheriff Cook—which, of course, I would never do—could he connect her to the bat, the meth pipe or the gun that killed Big Vic ?

The sloppy crime scene indicated incompetence, the careless leavings of a couple tweaked out meth-heads. But maybe it had been designed to look like something other than what it was: a calculated, ruthless hit. I recalled the cigarette burns, telling myself there was no way Shanika could have deliberately inflicted such torture on another human being, even one as scummy as Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander, who, along with Quentin “Little Vic” Viccolander, had made her life a living hell for more than a decade: called her the N-word; lied about having had sex with her; accused her of not just using, but selling drugs.

Desperately searching for a shred of proof she was a lady of the evening, not a killer for hire doing off-the-books work for her own revenge, I came up empty.

But then, I recalled her note on the night stand at the Hyatt, and suddenly knew without a doubt what she did for a living.

See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.

 April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.

Monday, September 5, 2022

If You Make It Past The Dogs..., fiction by April Kelly

Unequivocal, those ominous words on the metal sign, but, for the benefit of the illiterate—who make up I’d guess a quarter of the population around here—Calvin Hobart had also painted a forced-perspective image of a double-barrel shotgun, its two soulless eyes focused squarely on anyone dumb enough to approach his gate. I admired Calvin’s work. Not so much the stenciled warning about his notorious dogs, but the meticulously rendered Fox Savage twelve-gauge. Who would have guessed an ignorant redneck like him knew anything about perspective in art?

While stealthily circling the property on foot, I noted the rest of the warning signs on the six-foot, chain-link fence were store-bought generics. Only the one on the front gate made clear in customized terms how unwelcome you were, be you lost hiker, Jehovah’s Witness or one of the many folks Calvin had screwed over. I counted myself among that last group.

Now, playing poker drunk is a sure sign of poor judgment, but playing poker drunk with Calvin Hobart at the table is a suicide mission. In my defense, I never would’ve been sitting there at 2 AM with the likes of Dimebag Tillman, Ratcher Bean and that mulleted perv the locals call Skunk, had it not been for Brody’s bachelor party getting out of hand.

Normally the staid and sober type, I would reliably put in my hours at the sawmill so I could pay off that parcel of land fifteen miles north of here where sweet MaryAnn and me wanted to build our house, but I’d known Brody since kindergarten and couldn’t say no to planning his last night as a single guy. That’s what the best man does, right?

The beers came way too fast for a lightweight like me and, long story short, I ended up in a Texas Hold’em game early that Saturday morning, losing all but my shirt to Calvin Hobart. I’ll admit I was Coor’s-hammered, but not so much as to miss seeing him pull a six of clubs out of nowhere to upgrade his two crappy pairs to a kings-over-sixes full house. Problem was, the six he conjured was the exact same hole card I’d tossed before the flop. He cheated, and I intended to get back my money.

Complicating any retrieval effort were two enormous guard dogs. Calvin had never been required to fire his shotgun at an intruder, because nobody yet had made it past Booger and Dammit. While I skulked around the perimeter to scope for weaknesses, the threatening pair sent up such an unholy racket that Calvin finally flipped on the porch light of his dilapidated trailer and stepped out onto the dimpled metal stairs with the Fox Savage in his hands.

I faded into the shadows, while his tick-riddled mongrels charged the fence, snarling, snapping, and swinging heads the size of cement blocks in my direction. Walking the half mile to where I’d hidden my pickup, I wondered how I could ambush Calvin and recover what I’d been cheated out of. First step of any plan would have to be dealing with those dogs.

They’d barely been weaned when their mother made her escape a couple years earlier. Taking advantage of the brief time the gate gaped open for the propane delivery truck to come through, Sheba lunged hard enough to snap her chain, then took off like her tail was on fire. The propane driver pissed his pants when he saw one hundred ten pounds of mange, fangs and muscle bounding his way, but Sheba tore past him and kept on going, dragging a four-foot length of chain behind her. Or, at least, that’s how Calvin told the story at the Eat ‘n’ Go, where he had lunch every weekday.

Life for the two pups she’d abandoned went downhill after that, and their natural reaction was to break mean.

I’d seen Calvin at the co-op, hoisting forty-pound bags of dog food onto his flatbed, the cheapest, no-name stuff they sell. Sawdust on the floor of the mill where I worked probably had more nutrition and better flavor. And Calvin was widely known to beat a dog, which is why Sheba bolted at her first opportunity.

At one time or another, every man in town had muttered over a whiskey about shooting those dogs and breaking into Calvin’s trailer to get back what that S.O.B. had stolen from them or cheated them out of. Well, maybe not Pastor Wilson, although, God knows he had reason to. When he opened the poor box year before last to make his usual Christmas distribution to our less fortunate families, he found the bottom smashed out and all the donated cash gone.

His mind, like the minds of everyone else around here, went directly to Calvin Hobart being the culprit, but Pastor Wilson didn’t dare make an overt accusation or file a complaint with the sheriff, for fear Calvin would bring Booger and Dammit to town and turn them loose in the church.

While others mused about killing the dogs and getting back their part of the money rumored to be stashed in Calvin’s trailer, I took a more analytical approach. After all, Booger and Dammit were not the problem; they were merely the hurdle one had to clear to get to the problem, namely Calvin Hobart. What those dogs needed, I figured, was a friend.

First thing I did was buy a dusty, old boom box from Miss Alice’s Pawn & Guns, then carry it with me when I visited Calvin’s property the second time. Thing probably hadn’t seen action since Falco released “Rock Me Amadeus,” but with four new C batteries, the playback and record functions worked just fine. Leaving my blue F-250 in the same hiding place as before, I hiked the last half mile in the dark, hitting the record button about a hundred feet from Calvin’s gate.

Sure enough, Booger and Dammit rushed the fence as soon as they sensed my approach, crashing their chests against the sturdy, steel mesh and barking like the hounds of Hades Pastor Wilson often claims in his sermons are waiting for sinners in the hereafter.

The trailer’s porch light came on and only seconds later, Calvin Hobart emerged in baggy long johns, cradling that shotgun with more affection than he’d ever shown to man or beast. I already had what I’d come for, so I backed away, slipping into the night as Calvin marched toward the spot where Booger and Dammit loudly dogsplained the issue of a trespasser.

After work on Friday, I drove the fifteen miles up to Icannoa to test the boom box’s remote control and playback volume on my property right outside of town. Using the opportunity to buy twenty pounds of hamburger meat and a large bottle of Old Spice aftershave, I ensured no local cashier or busybody would recall my making such a peculiar purchase.

MaryAnn had a retirement party to go to that Saturday night, and rightly expected her fiancé to accompany her. When I begged off on account of Mr. Chasen gave me D’s all through that miserable year of eighth-grade math, she sympathized with my lack of desire to shake his chalk-dusty hand and wish him well.

While sweet MaryAnn attended the party with her friend, Josie—history teacher and girls’ soccer coach—I made eighty balls of raw hamburger and laid them out on the otherwise bare shelves of my bachelor’s freezer.

My campaign to win over Calvin Hobart’s dogs began a few minutes before midnight on Monday. After taking out four meatballs to thaw, I slapped on a near-lethal dose of Old Spice, wanting to make sure Booger and Dammit could smell me coming.

While I didn’t have the best pitching arm in high school, it was good enough to take us to the regional play-offs my senior year, so I spent a couple minutes warming up my right shoulder before I hopped in my truck and drove to the parking spot a half mile from Hobart’s place.

As I approached on foot with one of MaryAnn’s Tupperware bowls in my hand, Booger and Dammit set up their snarling alarm and hurled themselves against the fence. Figuring I had a good sixty seconds before Calvin got out of bed, grabbed his shotgun and flung open the door, I darted forward, stopping ten feet short of that threatening sign on the gate.

One after another, I lobbed four beef grenades over the fence, shutting up both dogs for the nanoseconds it took them to gobble down their quarter-pounders. By the time the porch light popped on, they were barking again, but I was already a shadow in the darkness fifty yards away.

By the fourth night, the dogs associated the smell of Old Spice with an aerial delivery of something much tastier than the discount kibble Calvin dumped into an old paint can for them every day, so their warning to me came in the form of half-hearted growls too low for him to hear from inside.

After eight nights of making it rain steak tartare, I risked losing a couple fingers by holding a meatball and sticking it through the fence. As fast as it was snatched and gulped down, I handed another one through. The growling had reduced by then to a quiet burring sound.

On my twelfth trip, one of them—hard to tell which in the dark—let me scratch behind his ear after he’d devoured the amuse bouche.

By the fifteenth night, those two were cavorting with anticipation as soon as they got a whiff of my aftershave, and they greeted me with wagging tails and snuffling noises.

I climbed over the fence on my sixteenth visit, handing out meatballs, then sitting on the ground for ten minutes, scratching behind ears and patting giant, blocky heads.

Night eighteen, Booger, Dammit and I strolled all around the property without waking Calvin. When I climbed the fence to leave, both dogs stood up with their front paws on the chain-link, whimpering like they were sad to see me go, so I spent an extra few minutes doling out pets and baby-talk good boys.

I parked my truck much closer to the property on the twentieth night, as I figured Calvin would call the sheriff to report a theft as soon as I walked away with the three hundred dollars he took off me after Brody’s bachelor party. In case Sheriff Parnell came around to ask me questions, I wanted to be home in bed sleeping, ready to deny everything. Of course, there was always the chance Calvin would be too embarrassed to report such a clear betrayal by his dogs. Might give other aggrieved parties ideas about recouping their own losses, although I couldn’t picture Pastor Wilson scaling the fence to take back the poorbox cash at gunpoint.

With the boom box on my right shoulder and the last four meatballs in a plastic bag in my left hand, I approached the gate. Having already picked up the scent that signaled their Grub Hub delivery, Booger and Dammit waited for me, scampering around like puppies and whining for their treats.

I positioned the boom box on the ground, facing the trailer, then tossed the snacks over the gate, where the dogs inhaled them. Prior to scaling the fence, I patted the pockets of my work jeans, making sure I had the remote control in one and my father’s old .38 in another. The pistol wasn’t loaded, as I had no intention of harming any living thing. I only wanted to reclaim what was rightfully mine and make a clean getaway.

The two dogs danced circles around me as I approached the dark trailer, settling on their haunches while I took out the gun and remote, then positioned myself to get the drop on Calvin when he rushed through the door.

With the press of a button, the night filled with recorded barking, snarling, and howling coming from the direction of the gate. Pricking their ears, Booger and Dammit trotted off to investigate their own voices, although they seemed more puzzled than alarmed.

Returning the remote to my pocket and pressing back against the side of the trailer, I waited for the light to click on, tightly gripping the unloaded pistol. The door flew open and Calvin Hobart stepped out in his dirty long johns, a death grip on the twelve-gauge, while he scanned for unwelcome visitors.

About that time the recording ended and the dogs came bounding back. They stopped short of the trailer, panting excitedly and wagging their tails, as Calvin descended the steps. He didn’t realize they were looking behind him, rather than at him, so he lowered his weapon to read them the riot act.

I don’t feed you worthless curs so you can wake me up for every raccoon or possum that waltzes by,” he snarled, loosening his hold on the shotgun so he could land a kick under Dammit’s jaw.

Luckily, that Neanderthal was barefoot, so the blow didn’t do too much damage, but when the force of it sent the dog sprawling with a yelp, I took advantage of the distraction to step from the shadows and roughly shove the barrel of Daddy’s .38 into Calvin’s lower back.

Drop your weapon or say good-bye to your kidneys,” I ordered, trying my best to sound like a badass.

Mean, but not stupid, Calvin put his left hand high in the air while he slowly squatted and placed the shotgun on the ground. His right hand mirrored his left’s surrender, and he stood up again, still facing away from me. Dammit reappeared, although he kept well out of kicking range.

With a weary sigh, Calvin said, “Well, then, I guess you’re fixin’ to rob me.”

I’m just here to take back what you cheated me out of.”

He had sounded so resigned to his fate that I wasn’t prepared for his right elbow to knife backwards and smash into my solar plexus. In a heartbeat, I was on my butt, empty pistol sailing out of my hand. Copperhead fast, Calvin snatched up his own firearm and aimed it at me.

Instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I envisioned the sign on the front gate, except the hand-drawn shotgun in my mind didn’t have two bloodshot eyeballs glaring at me over the side-by-side barrels. Dimly aware of a menacing growl nearby, I prepared to meet my maker as Calvin bid me a fond farewell.

Adios, shithead.”

The blast sent a gout of gravel high into the air not ten inches from my ear, so I rolled under the trailer, knowing the bastard wouldn’t miss twice. When the second shot went wild and ripped through the side of the trailer, I ventured a peek and saw Calvin hit the dirt, frantically punching out at Dammit, whose massive front paws pinned his tormentor to the ground. After a lightning jab caught the dog on its sensitive nose, eliciting a squeal of pain, Booger joined the fray, powerful jaws clamping down around a stringy thigh. Dammit recovered from the snout punch and leapt for Calvin’s throat.

Living up to their vicious reputation, one dog tore open the man’s femoral artery, and the other ripped through his carotid. Calvin went out in twin geysers of his own blood and screaming profanities. Even after the threat had been eliminated, the dogs played a violent round of tug-of-war for another minute, and a detached finger plopped onto the ground right in front of my face.

Deeply rattled, I scrambled out from under the trailer and picked up my father’s .38. Things had gone way beyond what I had intended, and I couldn’t afford to leave any evidence that could incriminate me.

I looked over at the dogs, heart drumming in my chest. Their muzzles dripped gore, and an ear-shaped gobbet clung to Booger’s collar, but they hung out their tongues and watched me like they were waiting for a reward, as two swishing tails painted the gravel red. There was nothing to be done for Calvin, so I made a practical decision to complete my mission before climbing the fence and fleeing the nightmarish scene of canine carnage.

I entered the trailer in search of my three hundred dollars, mindful when I climbed the steps to avoid leaving footprints in the places where liquid Calvin pooled. Once inside, I easily found my money, along with what looked like all the cash that sumbitch had stolen from other folks over a lifetime of cheating, thieving and double-dealing. It was everywhere: stacked on the counters, under the mattress, in the freezer, spilling out of dresser drawers, and crammed into cereal boxes in the pantry. About the time I realized it was way more than Calvin could have squeezed from his long list of victims, I discovered why.

The stained toilet bowl had no water in it, so I checked the tank. Also dry, but filled to the rim with wrapped bricks of what I guessed was heroin. Whoever Calvin had been doing business with, they were far above my weight class and I needed to clear out of there ASAP.

Intending to take only what was due me, I had not brought any kind of satchel or duffel bag, but it seemed a pure shame to abandon all that cash. I pulled two pillowcases out of the reeking hamper by the rusted washing machine, stripped another filthy pair off Calvin’s bed, then commenced to stuff them full. Rubber-banded hundreds, rolled fifties, and a shit-ton of Lucky Charms-flecked twenties strained the seams of my makeshift money bags when I tied them closed with twine I found on the kitchen counter. Staggering under their weight, I made my way to the fence and tossed each bulging sack up and over, anxious to follow them and get the hell out of there.

The dogs had bounded alongside as I covered the distance from trailer to gate, but they lay down to watch me send the bundles airborne. That’s when it hit me: the first thing Sheriff Parnell would do when the mutilated body was found is shoot Booger and Dammit. They’d had motive, means, and opportunity, and would be given the death penalty without benefit of a trial.

Running back to the trailer, dogs cavorting around me, I sidestepped the poorly assembled Calvin puzzle and located a set of keys on a hook just inside the door. As soon as I got the padlock open and swung out that gate, the killers escaped into the night, searching for a better life like their mother Sheba had done when they were still pups.

An open gate would alert the sheriff—or, God forbid, Calvin’s “business” associates—that another person had been on the property, what with dogs not yet having mastered keys and padlocks. For my own safety, I needed Booger and Dammit to take full blame, so I restaged the scene, closing and locking the gate and replacing the keys on their hook.

All I had to do then was establish a plausible way for the dogs to have escaped on their own. A tool-box by the stove provided me with a claw hammer, which I used to pry up the bottom of a two-foot section of the chain-link, high enough for a massive dog to crawl under. Using the claw side of the hammer head, I chunked out a shallow trench from the dirt under the bent fencing, so anyone could conjure a picture of Booger and Dammit digging the hole and forcing out the steel mesh with the strength of their bodies.

Shortly after the news broke that Calvin Hobart had been torn to pieces by his psycho mutts before they took off for parts unknown, mysterious happenings around town fueled rumors of his ghost making reparations. It all started when Pastor Wilson found the new poor box full of hundred dollar bills. Then, Velma Simms, the gray-haired day waitress at the Eat ‘n’ Go, trudged out to her battered old Civic after a long shift and found a stack of fifties on her front seat, more than enough to make up for all the tips that cheapskate had stiffed her for in twenty years of eating lunch there five days a week. As the months passed, everyone Calvin Hobart had cheated or stolen from got their due, so folks speculated St. Peter had taken one look at the old reprobate and told him to get lost and not come back till he’d atoned for his many sins.

A rumor I did not hear, which I’d been expecting, was about the drugs, so I’m guessing one of Sheriff Parnell’s deputies made a fortuitous discovery and is working a little something-something on the side until his supply runs out.

And me? Well, I took a job at the Tractor Supply up Icannoa way, close to the site where sweet MaryAnn’s and my house has been under construction for five months. It’s a cozy little two-bedroom, with only the final interior work left to be done. I’ve already moved in, and once the school year ends, MaryAnn will join me. We have a June wedding planned, then a whole summer together before she starts teaching art to the local seventh-graders.

Last weekend, Brody came up here to discuss his duties as my best man and take a tour of the house and property. He expressed surprise that I could afford the six-foot high, redwood fencing that encloses my full two acres, so I fibbed about those years of work at the sawmill down yonder earning me a deep discount on the lumber. The labor I did myself.

As we headed toward the front door, he noticed the two large doghouses I’d also built, just as Stanley and Feebs woke from their afternoon naps and emerged from comfy bedding to yawn and stretch in the warm sunlight.

Yep, the night of Calvin’s demise, I’d arrived back at my F-250 to find the perps in the bed of the truck, wagging their tails and letting me know I was the new alpha. I did not have the heart to chase them away to be hunted down and shot for doing what the rest of us were too chicken to do.

As the well-groomed, sociable pair ambled over to check out my guest, Brody turned to me in confusion.

Hey, ain’t those Calvin Hobart’s dogs?”

Shhh,” I replied, raising a finger to my lips. “Witness protection.”

April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.

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.”

“Really?  Everybody’s?”

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?”

“I dunno.”

“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.

In her previous iteration as a TV comedy writer, April Kelly contributed to America's dumbing-down on shows from Mork & Mindy to Webster, and Boy Meets World to Becker. She now atones by writing fiction. Her crime stories have appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Mysterical-E, DASH Literary Journal, Mystery Weekly and five times in Shotgun Honey. Her novel Murder: Take Three was a 2014 finalist for a Shamus Award.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Pissing Contest, fiction By April Kelly

The underfilled suit shuffling across the dining room of the two-star French restaurant houses the earthly remains of Fortunato Pensa, once feared and revered from Rimini to Perugia. Every few steps, he halts long enough to allow a shudder to pass through his body, afraid forward momentum and tremor combined might put him on the floor.

 That would necessitate assistance from Irene and a member of the wait staff, so Fortunato’s pride prefers the lesser indignity of brief shambles followed by pauses to shake like a wet poodle over being righted by his mistress and an obsequious servant.

Fortunato met Irene while she was working as a Las Vegas showgirl, back when he still harbored dreams of expanding his criminal holdings into America. He had wanted to leave not just a profitable business, but an empire to his beloved Eufrasio, the only child Maria had borne him.

Although he brought the beautiful Irene home to Italy after reeling her in on a hook baited with diamonds, Fortunato never followed up on the expansion because Frasio (God rest his soul) died only two months later, killed instantly when he started the car of his acquaintance, Gaspare Gallo. The bomb had been intended for Gaspare’s father, Ermano, head of another crime family and a man with whom Fortunato had occasionally done business. The perpetrator was never identified, and profound loss drained away much of the life and all of the dreams of Fortunato Pensa.

Lacking a blood heir, the bereaved father kept his illegal enterprises viable with the aid of hired capos, soldiers, and a series of young men claiming distant familial ties. No cream rose to the top, so in 1993 Fortunato quietly shut down his life’s work and retired to Ravenna, where he and Irene still share a villa on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

The next series of shuffles brings Fortunato to the corridor containing the restrooms, where he pauses to catch his breath, ride out another rippling neural misfire, and consider his lot. Blind without the thick glasses whose heavy, black frames pincer his bald head; deaf without the unsightly plastic transmitters sharing ear canal space with tufts of wiry hair; unable to smell, and thus, unable to taste the food he once enjoyed: the rich, tomato gravy his mother lovingly set on the table every Sunday when he was a boy, its redolence derived from long-simmered pork neck bones, its oleaginous viscosity blanketing the bucatini that filled the yellow ceramic tureen.

Inching and jolting past the door marked “Mesdames,” he realizes his deadened sense of taste makes it easier to endure these dinners at Irene’s favorite French restaurant. He has always detested the fussy, Gallic approach to food, their fragile sauces and Dali-esque garnish, but now, with his inoperative taste buds, Coquilles Saint-Jacques differs from Lasagne al Forno only in texture. The important thing is that the food is yielding enough for chewing by teeth that grin at Fortunato from a bedside glass each night.

At last, reaching the entrance for “Messieurs,” the frail old man must use both hands to push open the heavy door. As he had hoped, the facility is empty. Fortunato chose this evening—December thirtieth—for a celebratory dinner with Irene, rather than tomorrow night, when L’Atelier de Maxime Fouchon will be packed with noisy revelers ushering in not only the new year but a whole new millennium.

In the mirror above the urinal, Fortunato scrutinizes the vestiges of someone born four years into the final century of the ending millennium, a man who has outlived his wife, his son, his relevance, and his welcome.

Hobbling closer to the white porcelain trough, bladder aching, he reaches down a mottled hand to unzip his trousers and withdraw his cazzo. Like everything else about him, it has seen better days. The eager, springing bachetto of his twenties and thirties has become a sad parody of his childhood’s pisellino, but much less efficient. As a toddler trailing after his nonno when the old man foraged for truffles, little Fortunato liked to arc his stream onto the flat limestones that littered the floor of the Umbrian forest. Now he can only dream of streams, pray for spurts, then settle for the trickle that mimics his start-and-stop gait.

This is how it ends, muses Fortunato, settling in to await the weak flow. If you do not die violently in the space between two heartbeats like my Frasio, you succumb to the numbing fog that pitilessly saps away your life, one sense and one organ at a time. He decides a fiery blast is kinder.

Fortunato’s bleak reverie is interrupted by a groan of hinges and the slow opening of the door. A stranger’s presence will impede the process of relaxing enough to coax out the liquid, now painfully stretching his bladder, but Fortunato has no choice. A return to the table with his task incomplete might result in an unwelcome surprise between the Crevettes au Vin Blanc and the lime sorbet intermezzo.

The interloper who claims a spot four feet down from Fortunato is younger, perhaps by as much as a dozen years, but is still very old by the standards of anything short of a Galápagos tortoise. Violating protocol by staring in the mirror too long, he checks Fortunato’s face as if to confirm his identity.

“So,” the stranger croaks, gnarled fingers scrabbling at his zipper. “If it isn’t the great Fortunato Pensa.” His cigarette-ravaged vocal chords convey disdain with clarity.

Fortunato tenses, all hope of relaxing enough to urinate ceasing as he goes on high alert. He carries no weapon, has no loitering muscle within range of a shout, and is long past the days when his bare hands had choked the life out of several men and—in one unfortunate case—a woman. Trying to make a run for it would be both laughable and ignominious, so he stays in place, gun hand holding nothing more than his floppy pisellino. He takes his own turn staring too long in the mirror, examining the last face he will ever see.

The other man’s shiny shirt opens in a deep, unseemly vee, revealing a bulky gold chain nestling in a thicket of white chest hair. A ring with too much nuggety gold and too many diamonds engulfs the pinky finger of the hand that aims his equipment at a partially dissolved urinal cake. He is the quintessential caricature of a mob button man.

“Do I know you?” Fortunato asks, maintaining his stance as casually as possible under the circumstances.

“No, but you should. I’m twice the businessman you ever were.”

Fortunato bristles, wondering did you come here to kill me or insult me? Hitmen are not chatty souls, preferring to express themselves with bullets that leave no lines to read between for hidden meaning. This man carries no gun, but Fortunato knows from experience how little pocket space is taken up by a thirty-inch length of piano wire.

“Angelo Bianchi. Excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but I’m trying to take a leak here.”

Fortunato recognizes the name. A small-time thug, Bianchi used to freelance on the periphery, too stupid to be entrusted with serious responsibility and too much of a loudmouth to employ for covert work. His wiseguy résumé touted only brute force without a hint of finesse, while Fortunato had always possessed a mastery of both, using the former only when the latter would not resolve a problem.

With no alternative, Fortunato goes on the offensive. “Bianchi, you aren’t twice the businessman my oldest suit is.”

 “Say whatever you want to feel better about yourself,” Angelo fires back. “But I was only nineteen years old when I rolled into Lucca and took over Gionelli Vecchio’s olive oil company.”

Fortunato scoffs. “A business that produced what? Fifty barrels in its best year? When I was just eighteen, Mussolini secretly sent me to ransack Corfu and bring him back everything of value before we bombed la merda out of that traitorous speck. And what I kept back for myself, right under Il Duce’s nose, was enough to buy the most profitable vineyard in Tuscany, although the owner, Senore Teruzzi, did require the kind of persuading that leaves one without the use of one’s thumbs.”

Fortunato feels confident he has firmly established his irrefutable position of dominance in both business acumen and barbarity. He hasn’t thought of—much less bragged about—his youthful successes in decades, and the exquisite pleasure of humiliating this insolent upstart offsets the pain of his close-to-rupturing bladder.

“Ancient history, Pensa,” snarls Bianchi clearly chagrined at being bested by a decrepit vecchiccio. “Almost as ancient as that fat puttana sitting at your table out there.”

Fortunato feels the barb sharply. True, Irene is sixty-four now, and her creamy skin and glorious meloni have succumbed to wrinkles and gravity, but she has been as a wife to him these thirty-odd years since Maria passed (God rest her soul) and family is always off-limits, confirming his belief that Bianchi is less assassino than insetto. And a bug must be squashed.

“Irene is a wife to me, Bianchi, and as such is not required to be beautiful.”

 Angelo smirks, interpreting the concession as a win.

“I’ll tell you who was beautiful, however,” Fortunato says before the other man can bask too long in his perceived victory. “Gina Lollobrigida. In 1948, she came to me to beg for an introduction to Howard Hughes, the American film producer with whom I had become acquainted.”

He pauses to let Bianchi’s memory conjure an image of the stunning actress who had lit up Italian movie screens throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

“And let me just say that when she begged me, she did so on her knees.”

Now it is Fortunato who smirks into the mirror, meeting Bianchi’s eyes and reveling in his triumph. Neither man can pee, nor can either walk away without admitting total surrender, so Angelo presses hard to regain the advantage.

“At twenty-five, I shot and killed Bruno Ressona for encroaching on my gambling operation,” the gravelly voice boasts.

Once again, Fortunato has him beat. “At twenty-three, I garroted the mayor of Assisi simply because his cigar was stinking up the taverna I owned there.”

Reduced at this point to sounding like a small boy trying to prove his worth to an older sibling, Bianchi retorts, “Si? Well, I’m the man who finally took down Pierro Tomba, the most ruthless caporegimo south of the Po River!”

As if Fortunato needs schooling on who Tomba was. That monster had killed a half-dozen of his soldiers back in the day, and he is reluctantly impressed a goombah like Angelo had the testicoli to send Tomba to Hell. Still, Fortunato wants to win this competition before Bianchi makes his move. He feels better, stronger than he has in years, treading ground as familiar to him as Irene’s once-tight micino.

“If I remember correctly,” he says, “Tomba was ambushed and shot in the back, a coward’s way of killing. When I took the life of Persavio Lenzi, I looked him in the eyes as I rammed a stiletto into his heart, then broke off the glass hilt to keep as a memento.”

Angelo seethes, unused to challenges, much less defeats, while Fortunato feels like a commanding figure again, after so many years of shrinking into helplessness and obscurity. Even the frustration with his bladder’s inability to empty itself can’t dull the thrill of victory.

Bianchi has one last arrow in his quiver, though, so he lets it fly. “Match this, you impotent corpse!” he blusters. “I, Angelo Bianchi, was the only man brave enough to penetrate the rings of security surrounding the high and mighty Ermano Gallo and to murder him in his own bed!”

At the mention of the name, Fortunato freezes. After a moment, he quietly asks, “It was you who killed Don Gallo?”

Angelo misreads the response, hearing admiration rather than the pre-strike hiss of a cobra. Believing his adversary is awed by the magnitude of the bold act, he continues confidently.

“Five rounds in his ugly face, but only after he begged for his life.”

Anger floods Fortunato’s heart, though his voice remains calm, its phlegmy quaver magically gone.

“And had you previously failed to kill Ermano?”

Sensing he has finally routed the older man, Bianchi does not feel embarrassed by the truth. Indeed, now that his foe is vanquished, Angelo can afford the magnanimous admission that he was not infallible in those good old days.

“You are right, Senore Pensa. I did make one other attempt on Gallo before I succeeded. I wired that ridiculous red Siata he drove with enough dynamite to level a cathedral.”

Fortunato has waited nearly half his lifetime to learn who killed his son, and rage boils in his blood, rolling back the years of decline.

“Unfortunately,” Bianchi says, “Gallo’s useless, drunken boy decided to take his babbo’s fuckmobile for a joyride with one of his idiot friends.”

Fortunato turns, cazzo still in hand. The doctors were wrong; it is not relaxation, but righteous fury that unleashes the flow, and dammed-up urine shoots out in a copious stream.

“You crazy stronzo!” Bianchi shrieks. “What are you doing?” He recoils from the foul spew, backing up against the wall and flailing his arms ineffectually against the strafing.

Fortunato advances, gun hand directing his aim at Frasio’s murderer. He does not see a geyser of piss drenching the white silk shirt of a cringing thug. No, he sees machine gunfire ripping through the wedding gown of a terrified girl as he enters a church where his two biggest business rivals are about to unite their families’ power through the sacrament of holy matrimony. In a sweeping, continuous spray of bullets, the young Fortunato Pensa eliminates thirty-one enemies, securing his position at the top of the Umbrian criminal hierarchy and making his name legend for the next forty years.

It’s a beautiful, dying thought for an old Mafioso (God rest his soul).

In her previous iteration as a TV comedy writer, April Kelly contributed to America's dumbing-down on shows from Mork & Mindy to Webster, and Boy Meets World to Becker. She now atones by writing fiction. Her crime stories have appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Mysterical-E, DASH Literary Journal, Mystery Weekly and five times in Shotgun Honey. Her novel Murder: Take Three was a 2014 finalist for a Shamus Award.