Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Good Life, fiction by Richie Narvaez

 Reimagining Ernest Hemingway’s Indian Camp


Chibenashi was out of breath from running with the dogs. The dogs followed Chibenashi all the way from the camp, but when he found Larry, they turned and ran back. 

Larry sat on the soft loam at the edge of the pines by the lake. There was an empty bottle between his legs. The young man stared out at the lake. It was a cold night and much colder by the water. Larry had a poor fire going and half a dead fish near it on the sand. The fire was threatening to go out. This disappointed Chibenashi. He had taught Larry better than that.

“Larry!” Chibenashi said. “Ayashe is in a bad way.”

“I can hear her from here.”

“We have to get the doctor. She’ll die if not,” Chibenashi said, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed Larry under the arm and pulled him up. The young man was soft as a boned fish and stank of anti-fogmatics. Chibenashi pulled him up and walked him toward their rowboat, beached a few yards away.

“Move your feet,” Chibenashi said.

“Will Boonoo George be there?” Larry said. 

“What does it matter? We need his brother, not George.”

“I don’t like Boonoo George. Peezhickee don’t like him either.”

Chibenashi was going to say it didn’t matter if Ayashe’s husband Peezhickee liked George, that Ayashe’s husband was more full of anti-fogmatics than Larry was, but instead Chibenashi said, “Peezhickee’s in a bad way, too, on account of his foot. It don’t look good. Maybe the doctor can look at him, too.”

“Boonoo George is a leech.”

“You ought not to say that.”

“I won’t sit near him in the rowboat if he comes. You sit near him.”

“The rowboat is not that big, Larry.”

“I don’t want to sit near him, is all. If I do, I will jump overboard, and you can row those white men to Ayashe by yourself.”

“Fine. I’ll sit near him. Now help me.”

They pushed and pulled the rowboat into the water. Larry sat in the front of the boat while Chibenashi took the oars.

“I’m not sitting near Boonoo George is all I’m saying,” Larry said across the rowboat.

“Fine.” Chibenashi said. The rowing made him sweat, and the sweat drying on his skin in the cold air made him shiver. But he didn’t mind it. It woke him up and kept him awake.

The doctor and his family camped every summer on the other side of the lake from the Ojibwe camp. They usually didn’t bother anybody, and it was good to have a doctor close by. Their medicine was different than Ojibwe medicine, and Chibenashi had to admit it worked sometimes when the Ojibwe’s could not.

The rowing was going hard, and Chibenashi looked over and saw that Larry had fallen asleep.

“Larry! Wake up.”

Larry sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. 

“How can you sleep when your sister is in danger?” Chibenashi said. 

“If she dies, it’s her own fault.”

“You ought not to say that, Larry. You know better. I know you know better.”

They pulled their rowboat up the shore, near the doctor’s rowboat. The doctor’s rowboat looked brand new.

“That sure is a pretty boat,” Larry said. “I could use a pretty boat like that one.”

“You already have a boat.”

Chibenashi walked up the beach and toward the doctor’s camp.

As they approached, the doctor and his brother stood up from around their fire, looking as if they were ready for a fight. White men always looked if they were ready for a fight.

Their camp smelled of burned fish and liquor and cigars and piss and lilac soap. Chibenashi bowed to the doctor and told him why they were there, and the doctor turned to go back to the tent.

George teetered on his feet. He had a short face, with a hawk nose and a dirty bald head. He had a bottle in his hand. More anti-fogmatics. 

Some nights men just have to drink. Chibenashi would save his drinking for later, after Ayashe’s baby was born and she was safe. No one liked being in the camp, no one liked peeling the trees, making them naked to the sun and the wind and the insects, leaving them to rot. But it was the only work left. But that was the reason the men at the camp drank. One of the reasons, anyway.

The doctor came out of the tent, and a thin little boy stumbled out after him. The boy was just putting on a coat and stood like a newborn colt. The doctor was a younger version of George. He was a smart one. His eyes looked bright but not focused. His beard was very neat.

The boy was an even younger version of both men, not old enough to shave.  He stood behind the father, holding his hand, and stared at Chibenashi and Larry as if they gave him the heebie-jeebies, as if he thought they were going to scalp him.

Larry said, “Why are they bringing the boy? He looks like he’s going to loose himself.”

“I don’t know,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s just go.”

“We’ll have to take two boats now, so I can row the pretty one.”

“Sure, Larry.”

“As long as I won’t have to take Boonoo George.”

“George can speak Ojibwe, Larry. He can understand you.”

“I don’t care.”

The scared boy and the doctor started walking toward the new rowboat, so Larry ran over to it ahead of them. Chibenashi headed toward their own rowboat.

The doctor and the boy stopped. The doctor was saying something to the boy, who looked as if he were about to cry. When they moved again, they changed directions and headed toward Chibenashi.

“Oh no,” Larry said. 

George waddled up to the white man’s rowboat and dropped in.

“No! No! No!”

“Shut up, Larry,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s get a move on.”

On the lake, Larry rowed smoothly, the way Chibenashi had taught him. Larry was still young and full of fire. Chibenashi rowed as best as he could, but he didn’t have the strength. He had peeled bark all day, then stacked it, and then helped load more to go to the tannery. He was exhausted and had eaten only a spoonful of rice for dinner.

They had known Ayashe was in trouble for days. Nokomis told them what she was doing was not helping the baby to be born. So they decided someone had to go get the white doctor, and Chibenashi said he would go.

In the boat, Chibenashi got a better look at the doctor’s boy. He had red cheeks and long eyelashes. His head swiveled and his big eyes seem to be trying to see the entire world. The boy crushed himself against his father, who held the thin boy against his chest, with one arm over him, as if he was trying to shield him. From the cold? From the animals of the night? From the entire world maybe. With his father’s big arm around him, the boy didn’t look any less frightened.

On the other side of the lake, the doctor and his boy got out of the boat. Chibenashi pulled the boat onto the shore.

They were in a hurry, but George had stopped on the sand and was puffing on a cigar. He took cigars from his pants pocket and handed them out.

“Have a gall stone,” George said in Ojibwe. “Have a gall stone.”

Larry looked at Chibenashi. “What is he doing with the cigars?”

“Shut up and take one. Don’t insult him.”

“I want to insult him,” Larry said. 

“A free cigar is a free cigar. If you don’t want it, give it to me.”

Chibenashi took the cigar from George and in English said, “Thank you, Mr. George. Thank you.”

“Armpit,” George answered in Ojibwe.

“You said he speaks Ojibwe,” Larry said.

“I thought so,” Chibenashi said.

Larry snatched a cigar and smoked it on the long walk through the logging road back to the camp. Chibenashi kept his cigar in his shirt. The logging road was wider than it used to be because many of the trees were gone. One day you would be able to see straight from the lake to the camp.

“Why do you hate George so much?” Chibenashi asked Larry. 

“He cheated me at cards. More than once.”

“More than once? Then it is your fault you kept playing cards with him. You should know better.”

“And he likes our women. He will not even look at a white woman.”

“That’s because they won’t look at him,” Chibenashi said, trying to be cheerful.

“He likes our women a lot. And he goes with them, even when they don’t want to go. Especially when they don’t want to go.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

Chibenashi looked back to where the doctor was leading his boy by the hand. George was farther behind, pissing on a tree he was leaning on and getting his feet wet.

“You shouldn’t gamble, boy,” Chibenashi said. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“You’re no good at it. It’s what did your father in.”

“That’s not what killed my father.”

Chibenashi put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Leave it be.”

Larry shook the hand off. “You’re always taking shit, bowing and scraping to them. You’re shit to them, you know. Less than shit.”

Chibenashi’s eyes welled. “Leave it be, you stupid drunk.”

Nearby Ayashe screamed. The dogs exploded into the forest and straight toward Chibenashi. They yipped and ran around him. “Git from here,” he told them. “Git.” But the dogs went on, wagging their tails fiercely.

Nokomis stood outside Ayashe’s shanty with a lantern. She yelled at them for taking so long.

Larry stopped and said he was going back into the woods. “I’m not sticking around for the rest.”

“That’s your sister in there.” Chibenashi tugged at his arm.

“I can hear how she’s doing all the way from the other end of the camp.”

“Come on. Let’s go in. The doctor may need our help.”

“No.”

“Larry.”

“No.”

“Listen. I’ll buy you a drink. Stick around and I’ll buy you a drink afterward.”

“In town?”

“In town. Where else? I don’t get drunk alone in the woods like a fool. We’ll find a place you haven’t been thrown out of.”

“You’ve been thrown out of a few yourself.”

“Not in a long time, boy. Let’s go to Ernie’s then.”

“Not Ernie’s.”

“Fine. We’ll go to Gilby’s, although they don’t like us there as much.”

Chibenashi shooed the dogs away and entered the cramped shanty. Inside, it smelled of smoke and the sour smell of peeled hemlock. There was the way a room smells when a woman is giving birth, of blood and sweat and shit and something sweet and musty. But there was something else there, too, something foul and sick.

Chibenashi looked up and saw Peezhickee in the upper bunk. He had a pipe in his mouth and his head lolled back and forth against the wall. Maybe the doctor should look at him first. Peezhickee had been in much pain since he hurt his foot, and, since his wife starting giving birth, he had spent two days drinking.

Things had been bad for them for a long time. Peezhickee and Ayashe had been together since before they were teenagers. Chibenashi had once been sweet on Ayashe, too, when she was a girl and Chibenashi almost a man. She had eyes like glittering river stones, and she loved to sing although she sang like a hungover bird. She knew that and enjoyed herself anyway. She knew Chibenashi was sweet on her, but Peezhickee was the one she picked, the one she stuck with, which was only right. Peezhickee and Ayashe held hands when they were only kids. As they grew up, when one or the other was missing, which was a lot of the time, everyone knew they were together and knew what they were doing and knew they were out necking by the back of the camp.

When they got married it was a good thing. But then a year or so ago, Peezhickee had started talking about moving out of the camp, about going to California maybe. He thought they could live a better life, a good life out there. But Ayashe’s family lived in the camp and she wanted to stay near her family. So the couple started arguing, and Peezhickee started drinking more, even during work. Then just three days ago Peezhickee had an accident peeling bark and chopped into his own foot. He hadn’t kept his mind on the work. You could see there was no way that foot was going to heal. You could smell it.

Another Ojibwe, Oshkaabewis, stood in the shanty, ready to help. Chibenashi went to stand next to him, pulling Larry to stand next to him.

On the bunk Ayashe screamed, loud enough to hurt the ears. 

On the top bunk, Peezhickee’s face was in pain, too, like he was giving birth himself. 

Nokomis remained in the shanty. The doctor ordered her to heat some water and after she got it he shooed her into a corner. 

Ayashe kept screaming and the doctor put himself between Ayashe’s legs. He told Chibenashi and Oshkaabewis to hold onto her ankles. He told George and Larry to hold down her arms. As George came close, Ayashe bit him. But still he held her down. There were five men squeezed onto the small bunk holding her tiny body down. 

The white doctor put his hand inside her. The look on his face told Chibenashi that something was wrong. The doctor took a jack-knife from the hot water and cut into Ayashe, tearing her belly open. 

Chibenashi turned to look at the boy standing there alone, away from his father’s arms. His eyes were as big as the sky, and it looked like he really was going to loose himself.

There was lots of blood on the bed and the doctor reached for the baby inside the wound and yanked it out and cut its connection with its mother. 

Chibenashi saw the baby’s face and saw that it was another half-breed. Nine others had been born in the camp. He stared at the baby for a long time, and he looked at Ayashe, whose glittering river stone eyes were closed. Larry touched him on the shoulder and pointed toward the door where Boonoo George stood. “Him,” he said.

“You can’t know that for sure,” Chibenashi said in a small voice.

“Does it matter?”

The white doctor sewed up Ayashe with catgut. She was covered in sweat and her skin was hot as fire, but she was alive.

“Nokomis will take care of the rest,” Chibenashi said. He stood up to congratulate Peezhickee, but he saw that Peezhickee had used a razor to open his own throat. He had done it so quietly and quickly they hadn’t noticed.

Larry said, “I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him at all.”

Boonoo George was stumbling out the door.

“I am going after him,” Larry said. “I want my money.”

“Leave him be, boy.”

The white doctor was whispering to his son, and the son’s face was covered in snot and tears. The white doctor led the boy out of the shanty. He left behind his jack-knife. 

“I want my money,” Larry said. He bent down and took the white doctor’s knife.

“Come on, boy,” Chibenashi said. “It’s almost morning. We got to get to work soon. Let’s just go.”

“Come with me,” Larry said. “I want my money.” And he stumbled out the door, past the doctor and the boy, and after Boonoo George. 

Chibenashi looked at Oshkaabewis, who stood and said nothing. Then Chibenashi took the cigar from his pocket and put it on the bunk next to Peezhickee. He took the razor from Peezhickee’s still warm, wet hand and he followed Larry out the door.


Richie Narvaez is author of four books. His most recent novel is the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and his latest book is the anthology Noiryorican.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Twitch, fiction by Brandon Barrows

There was almost eleven-thousand dollars on the low-slung table in front of me. The neatly-banded blocks were all relatively small bills, none larger than a twenty, and were lined up straight and piled into little towers, organized by denomination. It looked like a city skyline in miniature. It was the most money I’d seen in a long time. It was mine—mine and the kid’s, rightfully—but I didn’t dare spend a dollar of it. It was too hot. But that wasn’t my fault. Not a bit.

I looked across the motel room at the kid, Dennis. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He talked to himself in a constant low drone. 

I realized I couldn’t remember his last name, just that it was different from his sister, Mattie’s. They had different dads, I remembered that much. None of it meant anything now, though. The only things that mattered were the blood splattered across the kid’s t-shirt, slowly turning brown as it dried, and what would happen next. I should never have let him have a gun. Mattie warned me that he was a little twitchy, but it didn’t make sense to go into the place with only one of us armed and he swore to me that he could handle it. Believing him was my first mistake.

My second mistake was letting the girl drive the car. She held up fine the two other times she drove for me, but that was with my old partner, Jake, and nothing ever went wrong with Jake Barsi around. God, I missed that big, stupid bastard. He was dumb as a post, but his nerves were rock-solid and he took directions well. Who could have guessed that he would end up in prison for not paying child support? All those years and I didn’t even know he had kids.

That left me in the lurch, though. Mattie wasn’t really a partner so much as a fill-in, and the kind of job I could do alone wasn’t worth even trying to pull off. Too much risk for too little pay-out. When Mattie suggested her brother as a new third, I said no way. She told me to just meet the kid, give him a chance. He was an amateur, with no more experience than nickel-and-dime stuff. Literally–he busted open vending machines, Mattie told me, going on about how clever he was. A little twitchy, a little weird maybe, but clever and eager to learn.

Nothing about what she said seemed clever to me. I read once that crime, when you broke it down year by year, was the lowest-paid “profession” on the planet. Risking two to three years for maybe a few dozen bucks stolen from a vending machine didn’t seem smart to me. That’s why I went for the big stuff, and before now, I never had much trouble. 

Maybe Jake was my good luck charm. Aside from a couple early jobs, he was my only partner and without him, I was seriously considering finding another line of work. But Mattie liked the excitement of being with an outlaw, pretending  as if  we were Bonnie and Clyde. She wouldn’t like the idea of my getting out of the racket. We’d also been balling long enough for me to know that she wouldn’t give up until I at least agreed to meet her brother, so I caved.

The kid was maybe twenty-three. He was small and wiry, with short, sandy hair and cheeks that looked like they never needed shaving. But he spoke well enough, and he had more or less the right answers to the questions I asked him. After a couple hours, I told him it was nice meeting him and that I’d let him know. When Mattie and I left, she wanted an answer. I told her I’d think about it and maybe we could try something if the right opportunity came along.

A few weeks later, it did. A buddy of mine told me about a check-cashing place, way on the other side of the state, where a friend of a friend used to work. This acquaintance got the can, doesn’t matter for what, and wanted a little revenge. He sold everything he knew about the place—its routine, its security, and so forth—to my buddy’s friend, who was willing to pass it along in exchange for a percentage. 

My buddy offered me the same deal and when I heard the details, I figured it sounded safe enough. Two employees, one manager-cashier and one guard, came in for pre-opening around seven in the morning, and then another cashier came in at eight to open the place. It stayed open until seven at night, Monday through Saturday, two cashiers and a guard on at any given time. On Friday mornings, they had an extra cashier because a lot of people got paid that day. They were flush with cash for the same reason. That came in Thursday afternoons.

The security sounded solid, but unexceptional. All electronic locks, the PIN for which would be changed whenever an employee left. Except there were manager’s master codes for both the doors and the safe which were never changed, cuz the guy worked there for years and thought nobody knew about them. At least three people knew them now and at least one of us was going to make use of that knowledge.

I told Mattie about it, giving her enough detail to let her know what was going on and that, if I thought Dennis was up for the challenge after talking to him again, I’d give him his chance. She was pretty pleased and I was happy with the way she proved it to me. They may only have been half-siblings, but she wanted good things for her little brother–better than robbing vending machines, anyway. 

So I agreed to bring the kid in, figuring this was probably the safest way I’d find to test him out. With the manager’s codes and only three people in the place, I almost figured Mattie and I could do it alone, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving an empty car running out back of the place. That would only draw attention. That, and Mattie never used a gun; she preferred to drive. She told me Dennis used to go plinking with his dad, so he knew the basics of firearms, at least. Since he really only needed to point a gun at a couple of people and make sure they stood still, it should be fine. Anybody could handle that much, she argued. I caved again.

The next Thursday afternoon, I got Mattie and her brother into the motel room I rented a day earlier. I outlined everything to them, all the details. The girl was excited, and Dennis pretended to be. It got into his nerves before I even finished talking. Mattie could tell it was bothering me, the way the kid was acting, but she took me aside, reminded me it was too late to back out and promised Dennis would be okay. “It’s just nerves. It’s his first time.”

“Sure,” I told her. “And what happens if he blows it all up in our faces?”

“He won’t.” She leaned up and kissed the side of my neck, the way she knew I liked. “Love me?”

I didn’t think I did, but I liked her well enough, and now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Sure.”

“Then trust me, Paul. I know my brother. He’ll be fine.” She kissed me again, on the lips this time. She broke away and said, “And when it’s all over, when we’ve got the money, I’ll really show you how much I appreciate you giving him this chance, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to imagine it, but succeeding only in thinking about how everything could go wrong.

As bad as my imagination was, the reality was worse.

We waited until just after seven before barging into the back door of Cash Express. It opened into a counting room where a withered-looking little woman in a yellow and red polo-shirt with the chain’s logo embroidered on the sleeve was seated at a cramped desk, sneaking a smoke. The safe, a waist-high job bolted to the floor, was to her right. She turned left as we entered and her eyes went wide, stretching the folds of skin around them. But she didn’t say a word, just let the cigarette fall to the floor and raised her hands over her head. We were both old pros.

“Who else is in here?” I asked.

“Just Sunil, the other cashier, and Hank, the evening guard.”

“Get them in here.” I gestured with the .38 revolver in my fist.

The old woman went to the door and called out, “Sunil? Hank? Come back here a sec, will you?”

Behind me, I could feel the energy pouring off of Dennis. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He had his own gun, a .380 automatic Mattie got for him somewhere, clasped close to his chest. His knit ski-mask was identical to the black one I wore, except his was red and it was already showing darker spots on his forehead where the sweat was soaking through. I could practically hear his knees knocking together.

The old woman turned back to the room, nodded at me and stepped off to one side, pausing only to grind the cigarette into the floor before again raising her hands over her head. A moment later, a handsome, dark-skinned guy a little older than Dennis appeared in the doorway. His eyes met mine and went as wide as the old woman’s had, but he never got a chance to do anything else. A bam sounded right by my ear and then a bright-red spot appeared among the lively colors of the handsome kid’s shirt, dead-center on the heart. He fell to the floor without making a sound, collapsing face-first onto the linoleum. A pool of blood began to spread beneath him. 

The old woman screamed and made for the door, colliding with a middle-aged guy wearing a grey uniform coming from the other side. I turned to see Dennis holding the gun at arm’s length, his eyes huge and staring through the holes in his mask.

“You stupid fuck!” I spat as I made for the front of the room, leaping over the dead kid, avoiding the pooling blood. I slammed the door shut, wedged the desk-chair under the handle, and then turned to the safe in the corner.

My fingers were clumsy with nerves, anger, and adrenaline, but on the third try the manager’s code for the safe worked just as well as the one for the door had. I started shoveling banded bills into the plastic grocery bags I brought for that purpose. Every instinct told me to run, to cut my losses, but I’d be damned if I left empty-handed.

I threw another look at Dennis and saw the kid had pulled his mask off and was on his knees, leaning down over the guy he shot. The gun was on the floor nearby and he was trying to turn the other kid over. “What the hell are doing? Grab a bag!” 

Dennis shook his head. “He might still. . . I didn’t mean it! Maybe we can help him!”

“Too damned late! We got maybe thirty seconds before that guard thinks of the back door!”

I turned back to the safe. Two bags full of cash. I had two more, but decided not to press my luck. It’d be a miracle if we got out of here and another if we didn’t get picked up right off the bat. I should have listened to my gut and ignored Mattie’s arguments about her brother.

“Pick up that mask and gun,” I said, shoving a last packet of bills into the pocket of my jeans as I stood. The kid was motionless, just staring down at what he’d done.

“Get your god-damned shit together!” I shouted, leveling a kick at the kid’s ribs. It connected and seemed to jolt him back to himself. He looked at me, tears in his eyes, then snatched the mask and gun up, found his feet, and stumbled to the backdoor. 

That was when the shit really hit the fan. The alley was empty, except for a couple of dumpsters and the kind of crap that accumulates in alleys everywhere. No car. No Mattie. My heart jumped in my chest, the same way it did when Dennis fired the gun. My hand went to the burner in my back pocket, but that was no good. Even if Mattie answered, the cops would be there before a call could connect.

We were fucked, but there was no time to dwell on it – not unless I wanted nothing but time to think, sitting in a cell somewhere. I wasn’t going to let that happen, not if there was any way to avoid it.

“Run!” I told the kid, shifting the bags to my left hand and setting out at the kind of fast lope I learned as a cross-country runner in high-school. It was a long time since my school years, but I was still in reasonably good shape, and there wasn’t any other option. I could hear sirens not too far off.

Keeping to alleys as much as we could, somehow we found our way to the cross-street that connected with the highway where the motel was. We saw other people on foot and every once in a while, a passing police cruiser, but fortunately it was dark enough that nobody noticed Dennis’s shirt. 

It took maybe half an hour to reach the highway and two hours more, walking far off the edge of the road, to make it back to the motel. Every few minutes, I tried calling Mattie’s cellphone, but there was no answer. Along the way, I ditched the masks and Dennis’s gun in a foul-smelling slough a couple of miles from the motel. There was no reason for anyone to go in there and I hoped the smell would keep the stuff from being discovered any time soon. 

Dennis chattered the entire way, mouth moving a mile a minute, alternately making apologies to the kid he killed and worrying about the cops coming after him. Sometimes, it sounded like he thought they already had him and he was trying to explain what happened, as if that would do any good. More than once, I told him to shut the fuck up, but it was like he couldn’t even hear me. After a while, when we were out along the highway, I punched him squarely in the jaw out of sheer frustration, knocking him to the ground, but even that only quieted him down for a couple of minutes.

I was angry enough to shoot him, but I’d never killed anyone before and now wasn’t the time to start. Another body wouldn’t do anyone any good. More than ten years in this business, and I’d never had a job go so badly wrong. At least I knew what Dennis’s problem was–he was “a little twitchy.” That didn’t explain his sister leaving us high and dry. I’d give her a chance to explain, but who knew? I might still kill someone that night.

The moment we got into the motel room, I dropped the bags on the scarred coffee table and tried calling Mattie again. It began to ring–from the bathroom. She used it before we left and must have taken the phone out of her purse for some reason then forgotten it. That was just great. 

I spent over an hour stewing, counting the money, and listening to Dennis ramble--to himself, to a handsome dead kid, to imaginary cops. Mattie had my car and I had no way to contact her. Dennis had no change of clothes—my shirts would all be suspiciously big on him—and his face might well be on camera at the check-cashing place, so we couldn’t go far from the room. There wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope Mattie came back. 

After a while I started to calm down a little. Soothed by the sight and feel of all that money, my thoughts came together better. Things went just about as bad as they possibly could, but despite everything else, as long as Mattie didn’t get picked up and she came back before too long, I wanted to believe that we might still be okay. 

That stopped me. With what already happened, Mattie being picked up was a possibility I hadn’t even thought about before. When did she leave, exactly? When Dennis fired that shot? Or did something else spook her first? In all the confusion that was happening inside Cash Express, I had no clue what might have been happening outside. Maybe she knew something I didn’t. 

I was getting worried all over again and about something I had absolutely no control over. I stood up and began pacing the room, trying to think of something, some way forward, some path out of this fucking maze I was trapped in. My eyes fell on the piles of cash and I wanted to spit. All that money and it couldn’t do me any good–not until I was far, far away from this place.

I walked back and forth, trying to squeeze an idea out of my brain. I was drawing a blank. I grabbed up my jacket from the back of the chair by the door and said, “I’m going out.”

Dennis hadn’t really shut up in hours, no matter what I said or did to him. It was like he was in his own world. Now, finally, somehow I got through to him. “What?” His voice was small and lost-sounding.

“I’m going out.” I slipped my arms into the jacket.

“Where?”

There was a convenience store across the highway from the motel. There was really no place else to go and it was as good a destination as any. “Across the street. Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?”

Dennis shook his head, his eyes falling again to the table, to the money and my gun. I put it down the moment we got back to the room and I intended for it to stay there until we checked out. Unless you’re actively on a job, carrying a gun is stupid. In a lot of places, that’s inside time right there, even if the cops never connect you to anything else. So the gun stayed here, along with the cash and Dennis. I wasn’t too worried about that, anyway. I figured what happened tonight would turn him off guns, maybe permanently. 

Dennis tore his eyes from the table and looked up at me. His lips started moving again, but now, no sound came out. I went over to stand in front of him, but he wasn’t really seeing me anymore.

I said, “Maybe I can get you a shirt over there, too. You should get out of those clothes and take a shower.

The kid’s voice started getting louder, saying he was sorry over and over again.

“Hey,” I said. “Look at me.”

There was no answer except the chanted “sorrys”.

“Hey!” I clapped my hands right in his face.

Dennis jumped back so hard he half-turned over the chair he was in, setting it thumping back against the wall. If there were neighbors, they’d love that.

“Listen to me, you little fuck.”

Dennis finally looked at me again. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were still moving, but I knew he saw me.

“Don’t go anywhere, okay? And don’t open the door for anybody.”

“I can’t go to prison,” he half-whispered. He grabbed my arm and said, “You can’t let them take me. I didn’t mean it.” The tears were running down his cheeks now.

I sighed and pried his fingers from me. Part of me wanted to grab the bags and start walking up the highway just to get away from him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, not really sure if it was meant for his benefit or mine. I went out without waiting for him to respond. 

Across the highway, the lights from the convenience store were like an island of light in an ocean of darkness. I went inside and saw a dark-skinned guy, Indian or Pakistani maybe, behind a plexiglass-protected counter. I flashed on the kid Dennis killed and a little pang went through me. Nobody ever got hurt on any of my jobs before. This wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t really help. It wouldn’t fly with the cops if we got picked up, either. Either Mattie had to come back or I needed to find another way out of town.

“Evening,” the guy at the counter said. I nodded, grabbed a basket, and went around the store, gathering up snacks and drinks. I wanted a beer in the worst way, but I needed a clear head. 

Up by the register, there was a corner stuffed full of hats and t-shirts and hoodies, all with the logos of local sports teams. I picked up a shirt with a pair of stylized red socks on them and winced. The price-tag said forty-five bucks. Sometimes, the legal ways to rob someone seem more dishonest than just doing it with a gun. Gritting my teeth, I paid and got the hell out.

Outside, I stood for a moment under the night sky, wondering what was going to happen next. At the very edge of the parking lot, headlights flashed. I turned and after a few seconds, it happened again. All my senses went on high alert, but I forced myself to relax. Cops wouldn’t flash their lights at me, not headlights, anyway, and nobody knew I was here except Dennis. Was it possible the kid did something useful and found us a car?

I walked towards the car, just out of range of the sun-bright lights that splashed the tarmac around the gas-pumps. I recognized it as my own and when I was within ten feet, the window rolled down and Mattie’s voice said, “Paul! Paul!”

I kept my pace casual, pretending to be unsurprised, and angled towards the passenger side. I opened the door, slid into the car, grabbed her arm, and squeezed as hard as I could. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Mattie flinched. “I got scared. I heard the gunshot and just sort of took off. I went back, after, but there were cops all over the place. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then kind of ended up here. Are you okay? Where’s Dennis?”

I let my grip loosen. “At the motel and no, I’m not o-fucking-kay. Things were going fine until your dipshit brother randomly started shooting.”

“Oh shit. . . ” she whispered.

“He killed a kid.” 

My hand fell away from Mattie’s arm, but then her hand found mine in the semi-darkness. She squeezed gently and said, “I’m sorry. I really am. But I never been so close to a gunshot before and all this crap started popping into my head and I got scared. That never happened to me before. Everything worked so smooth the other times.”

“That’s because Jake was with us.” 

We were both silent a moment, then Mattie asked, “You got the money?”

“I got some money.” 

I shook off her grasp, but her hand was persistent and found my thigh. “Dennis is okay?” she asked.

“I guess. . .” He was definitely not okay, but there wasn’t a thing either of us could do to help. 

“Cops didn’t see you, obviously.”

“Not me, no. I got no idea who might have seen your brother. The little fucker took his mask off and actually tried to help the kid he shot. His face is probably on video.” I turned to her. “You swore to me he’d be okay.”

Mattie’s hand roamed across my lap. “I was wrong. . . I’m sorry. I really thought he’d get over the nerves. But it’s all gonna be fine, right? Nobody knows us around here and we got the money. We just gotta get out of the area.”

I moved her hand away from my crotch. “Let’s go. We’ll talk about it later.”

“We got a little time, don’t we?”

I turned and in the light that reached the car, I saw she was giving me a puppy-dog look, the kind she always used when she wanted to make extra nice.

“Paul. . . I told you I’d show you how much I appreciate you giving my brother a chance, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but—”

“And I wanna show you how sorry I am. I was so scared something was gonna happen to you. We got a little time, don’t we?” she asked again.

Again, I ignored my instincts, and admitted we did. Mattie’s hand was in my lap again, fiddling with my zipper now, and a moment later, her head followed.

When we were done, we switched seats. I started the engine and drove across to the motel. I parked the car in front of the room. The lights were out inside. Maybe Dennis finally went to bed. It would do him some good, if so. I could use some sleep myself, for that matter. 

I said to Mattie, “I wanna get out of here, but we better stay ‘til check out in the morning. Look bad if we just disappear.”

“Sure, if you say so, Paul.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. Despite myself, I tried to forgive her for screwing me and her brother over by disappearing. I wasn’t the type to forgive easily, but I did a lot of thinking while Mattie was hard at work proving how sorry she was. I decided that, aside from the handsome, dark-skinned kid’s death, the plan wasn’t really that changed. I felt bad about that kid, but I didn’t pull the trigger and getting caught wouldn’t bring him back to life. Maybe there was a way to give Dennis up without getting myself arrested, but Mattie would never forgive me and she knew too much about me and my life to risk pissing her off and then cutting her loose. There was no way I was ever working with her brother again, but that was a discussion for another day.

“Before we go in, just a word of warning. . .  your brother’s not okay. He’s kind of messed up over what happened. He’s been rambling about how sorry he is and shit like that.” 

Worry flashed across Mattie’s face, but she just nodded. We both got out of the car. Mattie grabbed the bag from the convenience store without my even asking. She really was eager to be forgiven.

I looked up at the sky again. I had a good chunk of money, I had the car and my girl back, and nobody saw my face. Things would work out okay as long as we kept a leash on Dennis.

At the door of the room, I turned to the girl and said, “Shooting that clerk really screwed with his head. Just give him the kid gloves, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. 

I put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. The key fit fine, but it was like something was holding it in place, keeping the cylinder from turning. “Son of a bitch. What now?”

“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.

“The god-damned key.”

I jiggled the key and it shifted a little. I thought I heard something move inside the room, but I wasn’t sure. Something like hurried footsteps. Mattie looked at me; she heard it, too. “Dennis?” she called softly. 

There was no answer, though, and the sound wasn’t repeated, so I twisted the key again. Finally, it gave with a small, metallic sound and the lock turned. Mattie flashed a sheepish grin. “Some night, huh?”

I opened the door, and gestured for Mattie to go ahead of me. The room was dark when I opened the door, but it was immediately lit up by an explosion of light and sound. Mattie screamed and fell backwards, the bag flying from her hand and blood spewing from her neck. Before I had a chance to understand what I was seeing, a giant fist punched me high on the side of the head and I joined her on the concrete curtain of the parking lot. 

“I won’t go!” Dennis screamed, his voice just barely audible over the sound of repeated gunshots. “You can’t take me! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault! I won’t go!”

I fell on my side, Mattie directly in front of me. As my vision went dim, she stopped thrashing and lay still. 

The sound of a hammer clicking on empty chambers and Dennis screaming began to fade out, like I was moving away from him, down a long padded hallway that absorbed all sound. 

I tried to push myself up, but my arms and legs ignored me as ice began to spread through my body. Every instinct I’d been ignoring for days was screaming at me again, mocking me now. A little voice in my head sneered, “Just a little twitchy.”

Then everything was black and quiet and none of it mattered anymore.

Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels BURN ME OUT, THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD, and NERVOSA, as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Find him on Twitter.com @BrandonBarrows and at www.brandonbarrowscomics.com


Monday, February 8, 2021

Beneath The Black Water, fiction by John Rector

Deputy Carson wiped the humidity from the inside of the windshield and squinted through the glass. The distant shapes were still a blur, so he rolled the window down and stuck his head out into the thick night air.

Swamp gas, he told himself, just swamp gas. 

He wanted to believe it was true, but he knew it wasn’t. The lights were not swamp gas, they were fires; a single file line of torches moving just beyond the trees, snaking deeper into the heart of the swamp.

The old man had been telling the truth. 

“Oh, Christ.” 

Carson glanced over at the shotgun in the passenger seat and thought about his next move. He didn’t want to go into the swamp. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the swamp, especially at night, but there was a code between lawmen, both past and present, and he’d given his word. 

But it couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t.

Carson never asked the old man what he did back when the marchers came through Mississippi, back when he’d worn his own deputy’s badge. He didn’t want to know because it didn’t matter. Those days were a long time gone, a different world than the one he’d been born into. If the old man was to answer for his actions, then so be it, but he would answer in the next life, not this one. 

That was the promise he’d made.

Carson looked over at the shotgun once again, and this time he picked it up and held it close. It was heavy, and the weight of it in his hands helped him find his legs. 

Slowly, he opened the door and stepped out into the dark.

***

The old man didn’t recognize all of them, but he remembered a few.

At least, he thought he did.

It’d been so many years.

He studied their faces as they walked, trying to place them. Most were unfamiliar, but others slipped into his memory like wisps of smoke, barely touching his mind before dissolving back into the dimness of the past. 

But he did remember the kid in front of him.

In truth, he’d never been able to forget him. 

He remembered the way the kid had smiled and laughed and sang all of those songs, over and over, so confident in his belief that the world was a fundamentally decent place. 

Of course, all that changed after Sheriff Tyler knocked one of his eyes loose with a ball-peen hammer, leaving it dangling against his black cheek like an overripe cherry. 

He remembered Sheriff Tyler laughing, and he remembered his own youthful laughter. The sound seemed to go on and on in his memory, like maybe it had back then, too. At least until Sheriff Tyler called for the wire cutters.

Then the screaming started.

But that was over fifty years ago. It couldn’t be the same kid, even if he had lived, which he hadn’t, he’d be old himself by now. 

It just wasn’t possible.

“Where are you taking me?”

The people around him kept moving, silent, weaving through the trees, their torches burning bright and blue.

The old man thought about Carson, wondering if he’d seen the torches. There were so many of them. He had to have seen them. Unless. . . 

Unless Carson forgot his promise.

He pushed the thought away. Carson wouldn’t forget. He was practically a son to him, and he wouldn’t back out, not after he’d finally made him believe.

And he had made him believe.

The old man remembered the look on Carson’s face after he told him the marchers had come back, that he’d seen them standing outside his window at night, staggered across the fog draped lawn, perfectly still, fading in and out with the moonlight.

It took a while, but eventually Carson believed him; he was sure of it.

So where was he?

The old man looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the road. There were no lights and no sounds other than the night bugs and the smooth crunch of his footsteps on dead plants. 

Carson was out there somewhere. 

He had to be.

They stopped in a clearing beside a mirror of calm black water and stood in a half circle, the torches burning a clean blue light, the old man in the middle. He knew this clearing, and now he understood why they’d brought him here. This was where it had ended for so many. Dead or alive, it didn’t matter. 

They all ended up in the water.

The old man looked out at the empty stillness of the swamp and remembered. 

Oh, sweet Christ.

For one terrifying moment, the old man thought he might break. He felt tears burn behind his eyes, and he blinked them back hard. Every part of him wanted to turn and run the opposite way, but he couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. 

Instead, he looked at the kid in front of him and smiled.    

“You ain’t gonna make me scream, boy. I promise you that.”

The kid didn’t say anything.

“Hear me, you God damned nigger. I ain’t gonna scream.”

The kid’s face showed nothing, and he didn’t look away.

The old man was about to say it again when he heard something large, impossibly large, slide through the water behind him. When he looked back, he felt his bladder release.

“I ain’t gonna scream,” he said, again, but this time his voice was soft, no louder than an evening prayer. “Jesus, Carson, where the hell are you?”

The old man felt several hands on his shoulders, grabbing his shirt, tearing the fabric away. He saw a quick flash of metal in the blue moonlight and felt a cold pain slice along his side, just below his ribs. He gasped as the blood flooded wet and warm down his side.

The hands pushed him toward the water.

The old man tried to fight, but his legs folded under him, and he dropped to the wet ground. The dirt beneath him felt slick and cold and rotted. 

Once again, something whispered through the water, and the old man moaned. He knew what was out there. They’d been there for as long as time, always waiting, always hungry. 

The hands lifted him, pushed him forward, into the water. 

The old man went under, and the shock of the cold sucked the breath from his lungs. He fought for air, and when he finally broke the surface, he shouted at the gray line of faces along the shore.

“I ain’t gonna scream. You won’t get that from me. You hear me?”

He didn’t know if they heard him or not, but in the end, it didn’t matter. In the end, there was only the water and the darkness and the timeless movement of things below. 

And in the end, he did scream.

***

The torches disappeared from view as soon as Deputy Carson entered the swamp. He followed his flashlight, weaving between cypress trees. Somewhere up ahead, he heard the old man’s voice, quiet at first, then shouting. 

Carson moved faster.

He saw the clearing beyond the trees. There was movement out there, and he lifted the shotgun. The old man stood on the edge of the water, alone, with his arms held out to either side. He yelled to him, but the old man didn’t turn. Instead, he stepped into the swamp.

Carson couldn’t believe it. 

The old man had lived out here his entire life. He knew better than to go into the swamp at night. It wasn’t safe. 

Night was when they fed. 

Carson pushed himself forward, moving toward the clearing. Every muscle in his body tight, ready to snap. As he got closer to the water, he fought the urge to turn away, desperate to not see what he knew was coming. 

When he reached the clearing, the old man spun back toward the shore and yelled, “I ain’t gonna scream. You won’t get that from me, you hear me?”

“For God’s sake,” Carson yelled. “Get the hell out of there!”

But it was too late. 

The water boiled up around the old man, and he went under. Several seconds passed, and then he surfaced one more time, made a noise that sounded to Carson like laughter, and then he was gone.

Carson crossed the clearing. By the time he reached the edge, the water was calm again. He shone his flashlight over the stumps of cypress trees breaking through the black surface like rotted teeth.

Countless small yellow eyes shone back.

Go in.

The voice shocked him, whispering from inside his head. Carson spun around, convinced that the words had come from somewhere behind him. He scanned the clearing with the flashlight, and for a moment he thought he saw…

Go in.

Something, ancient and dark, slid silently below the surface of the water. It was close, too close, and Carson jerked away from the edge, tripping and landing hard on the ground. He saw a shadow break the still surface, its yellow eyes seeing only him before slowly slipping back beneath the black water. 

Carson felt a scream build deep in his throat, and he fought to keep it there as he scrambled to his feet. Before he could turn and run, he saw them all. Dozens of pale gray faces scattered among the trees, watching him. 

He lifted the gun, squinting against the darkness. 

Shadows, he told himself. Only shadows.

Behind him, the sound of footsteps. He turned, swinging the gun from side to side, but there was no one. 

“Who’s there? Come out.”

Nothing

Then a single voice, sharp and insistent, sang into his mind. 

We’ll wait.

Carson turned, searching for the source of the sound, hearing only his breathing, heavy and labored. He said, “Who the hell are you?”

This time the answer came in a chorus of voices. 

We are old, they said, and we are patient.

And then there were images, terrible images, forming behind his eyes. 

All we have is time. 

Carson squeezed his eyes shut, but the images kept coming, more and more vivid, climbing over each other, worming together in his mind. 

Because out here, under the water. . .

Carson heard himself scream as the chorus continued.

There is nothing but time.

***

Carson didn’t remember getting back to the truck and leaving the swamp. He didn’t remember the drive home or going inside and taking the bottle of Jim Beam from the cupboard above the refrigerator. He didn’t remember his wife asking where he’d been, and he didn’t remember going outside to the porch, leaning the shotgun against the railing, and watching the darkness along the eastern horizon, praying for the morning sun.

But he remembered the swamp, and he remembered the old man’s laughter. Except, it hadn’t been laughter. It couldn’t have been laughter.  

No, the old man had screamed.

Screaming made sense.

Carson took the cap off the bottle of Jim Beam and drank until his throat burned, then he set the bottle on the ground at his feet and picked up the shotgun, bracing the barrel under his chin, reaching for the trigger. 

Yes, screaming made sense.

In the end, screaming was the only thing that made sense.


John Rector is the bestselling author of THE GROVE, THE COLD KISS, ALREADY GONE, OUT OF THE BLACK, RUTHLESS, THE RIDGE, and BROKEN. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and won several awards including the International Thriller Award for his novella LOST THINGS.

He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

https://www.amazon.com/John-Rector/e/B002GO3J9W



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.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Thirty Miles South of Laramie, fiction by MIchael Penncavage

It was after the sixth pig had come down with the fever that my father made his decision. He was a hard, weathered man whose creased face clearly showed the road his life had taken him. His skin was dark and leathery, his hair sandy and thinning, and his beard grey, curly, and unkempt. A scar from his wrist to his elbow was a reminder of a horse that refused to be broken. He was a man of few words. When he did speak my sister and I listened as if the town preacher was lecturing directly at us.

It was cold that night. Though the days were still long, they were slowly winding down a bit earlier with each passing day. At nights the early autumn air began to creep through the gaps in the doors and windows, reminding us of the long winter nights that were still to come.

Betty lit the fireplace and prepared the stew while outside in the waning light my father and I secured the animals in their pens and stables for the night. We had spent most of the day repairing the wire fencing that protected the goats. Coyotes were smart animals and lately had begun to make attempts at breaching the pens. 

During the day, father had spoken to me less than usual. I could sense something was weighing on him, but it wasn’t until we were seated at the kitchen table that he decided to talk about it.

“I’m taking Henry McMasters up his an offer for work. Going to run some cattle up north near them Tetons. If the weather holds, I should be back in two months time.” He turned to me. “I want you to take good care of your sister and keep them hogs that might have the fever separated from the rest.”

I nodded, saying nothing. Two months made me concerned, but I knew better than to question his decisions.

“The money I’m gonna get from McMasters will help offset what we’re going to lose from those sick animals.” He folded his hands and placed them on the table. “You’re the head of the house until I come back, Owen. You gonna make me proud?”

It really wasn’t a question. He was expecting a nod from me and nothing else. 

And a nod was what he got.

***

Two days later, at first light, he was gone. I watched as he rode off. The rising sun illuminated him with its morning rays until he disappeared over the horizon and was gone.

He had taken one of the Winchesters off the wall rack. The other he left for me in case a coyote had outsmarted the wire and tried to mix it up in the hen house or if any of the pigs that had gotten the fever took a turn for the worse and needed to be put down. Over a meal, a neighbor had once commented to my father about how dumb swine were, but I thought they were the smartest animals we had on the farm. They were quick learners, especially the young ones. But some of them grew mean. And a mean pig that was touched with the fever was an unpredictable animal. The Winchester could kill a man, but a poorly placed shot against a hog would only serve to make it angry. Both rifles were prone to jamming, and for that reason, he left me his Colt as well.

***

Three days after he left, Betty came down with the fever.

At first, I thought she had caught a cold. With the changing seasons, it wasn’t unexpected. But by the second day, her fever spiked in a way that made me realize she had something much worse.

Laramie, the closest town with a doctor, was thirty miles away. We owned horses that were young and hardy and could make the trip even if hitched to a wagon. I considered riding out to my closest neighbor, Wally Thurston for help, but I didn’t see how that was going to help Betty. She needed a doctor, not kind words.

I spent the afternoon getting the horses and wagon ready. By the time evening came around, Betty was in real bad shape, shivering so much that I had to place most of the quilts and blankets we owned over her. The roads between here and Laramie were full of holes, coyotes, and worse, so I decided to keep Betty as comfortable as possible until dawn.

***

The sun had just set when a heavy knock sounded on the front door. For a moment, I thought my father had returned but quickly realized otherwise. There would be no reason to announce himself at his own house.

I picked up the Colt and walked over to the door. It had been a long time since someone had visited in the evening. To do so meant that they would be staying the night. 

I cracked open the door, keeping the pistol out of sight.

A short, stocky man stood on the porch. Even in the twilight, I could make out his toothy grin. His bushy eyebrows met above the bridge of his nose.

“Good evening, good evening, young man,” he said. “My name is Nestor Tilleray. Can I speak to your father?”

“He’s out,” I replied and immediately regretted my answer.

“So late? So late?” he replied. “I’m surprised he’s able to get any work done.”

I was wondering why he was talking funny when the darkness behind him took shape. A second, incredibly large man was standing there. My father was a big man, but this person made him look like a child.

“He’s at my neighbor’s home. They’re fixing a broken wagon wheel.”

“I see. I see.” Said Nester. “And your mother?”

“She’s with him.”

The man nodded. “Very good. Very good. Can you relay a message for your father?”

I nodded and Nester handed me a business card along with some papers. “I am in the business of buying land. These documents are a proposal of what I am willing to offer for yours.”

“I can save you a return trip, mister. My pa is in no mood to sell.”

“Understood, understood. But I want him to hear me out regardless. Many find my offer too good to refuse.” The man smiled, stepped off the porch, and was swallowed up by the darkness. “I’ll stop back tomorrow.”

***

Sleep came slow that night as I considered what to do. Betty needed to see a doctor. Once I overheard my father tell a story about men like Nester. They were thieves who tried to trick people into selling their land. Sometimes they even forced people off their property with threats of violence, making them sign over their deed for only a piece of what it was actually worth.

***

I sat down next to Betty. She was still covered in every quilt and blanket that our mother had ever sewn, but she was still shivering. In the crimson glow of the fireplace, she looked pale. She opened her eyes slightly. “Was that pa that you were speaking to? Is he back?”

“No. I was just talking to myself.”

Betty closed her eyes as she smiled. “That’s okay. I do that sometimes.” She began to cough, and I leaned her up to take a sip of water. She drank a little. It didn’t seem to help any.

***

The morning brought overcast skies. Thunderheads loomed in the distance, threatening to make the journey to Laramie even more difficult.

I went outside to saddle the horses for the trip.

“I’ve been watching your house since the sun first cracked over the horizon.” Said a voice from the side of the barn. Nester stepped into view. “And your skinny little ass is the only one I’ve seen milling about. No sign of your papa or mama.”

“They stayed the night with the neighbors.”

“And which one is that?”

“The Thurstons.”

“Is that right? Is that right? Older couple. Man’s got the worst cough I’ve ever heard. Woman’s hair is so grey that it could light up the night sky.” Nester began walking towards me. “They sold to me two weeks ago.” His eyes narrowed. “Now, you ain’t trying to make me out to be a fool, are you?”

I dropped the horse satchel and ran back to the house. Nester called out to me as I hurried through the front door. “You’re just delaying the inevitable, son.”

The heavy front door shut reassuringly. All of the windows had been bolted in advance of me leaving. I felt confident that Nester wasn’t going to get inside. At least not without difficulty. He was locked out.

And I was locked in.

***

Morning turned to afternoon, and Betty continued to grow worse. Time was running out before should she would be too weak to make the journey.

Voices sounded from outside. Through a crack in the window, I saw Nester approach the house. The big man was with him, and in the daylight he looked even larger than he did at night. An ax was slung over his shoulder.

“You’re giving me no choice, son. No choice. Don’t make me have Wallace chop your door into firewood. He might not stop with just that.

“What do you want?” I yelled back.

“I’ll give you two minutes to collect your belongings and git off the premises.”

“That doesn’t give me much time to take anything.”

“You’ll be taking your lives with you. Consider yourselves blessed.”

I didn’t reply as he nodded to Wallace. “I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way. I passed by some pretty pastures on my way here. Plenty of places to bury a body down deep.”

“Coyotes around here will dig up anything no matter how deep it’s buried.”

“That’s good to know. Good to know. I appreciate you saving me all of that work,” said Nestor as Wallace walked up onto the porch and readied the ax.

“All right, mister,” I said. “I’m coming out. But I need you to back up from the house a little so that can leave without having to worry about that ax.”

“Of course. Of course. Like I said, kid, you got two minutes.” 

I unbolted the door and opened it slightly. Wallace was about ten feet away from me. Close, but far enough.

I brought the Winchester into view and fired. It struck the man in the chest but it didn’t send him to the ground. He might have been dead but didn’t realize it. I decided not to take any chances and angled the weapon up and discharged the second round. An instant later, the man’s head exploded into a red cloud of bone and blood. I then aimed it at Nestor and fired.

The rifle jammed.

A scowl covered Nester’s face that became darker than the clouds that were forming overhead. From the scabbard on his belt, he removed a long hunting knife. “You shouldn’t have wasted that second shot on Wallace. He took a step forward, but that was as far as he got. I grabbed the Colt from a nearby window ledge and aimed at the man. 

Nester’s eyes grew wide with fear. “Now hold on, kid…”

Like I had done with Wallace, I emptied the gun into the man. All the bullets found a mark. The man was dead before the last bullet struck.

I closed and bolted the door shut. I reloaded the Colt and looked through the slats for anyone else. But after a few minutes had passed, I didn’t see anyone.

I went to check on Betty. She looked pale. I felt her forehead. It was red hot. The carriage ride to Laramie was going to be difficult for her, but it was the only choice.

She looked at me weakly as I approached. “I heard some noises. Is everything all right?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Are we leaving?”

“Very soon. I just need to do a few final things. But it shouldn’t take long.”

***

The men’s clothing went into the fire pit. It all burned quickly. Anything that didn’t I buried.   I considered placing the bodies into the pit as well, but with the approaching storm, I wasn’t sure if the flames would stay lit long enough. 

I used the horses to move the bodies. It took longer than I had hoped, but I was finally able to get both men into the pigpen that had the animals with the fever One of the pigs tried to make a run at me, but I managed to close the gate just in time. 

Depending on how quickly Betty healed, I guessed that the trip to Laramie and back would take about two weeks time.

The pigs would be done well before then.


Michael Penncavage’s story, The Cost of Doing Business, originally appearing in Thuglit, won the Derringer Award for best mystery. One of his stories, The Converts, was filmed as a short movie, while another, The Landlord, was adapted into a play.

Fiction of his can be found in over 100 magazines and anthologies from 7 different countries such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (USA), Here and Now (England), Tenebres (France) Crime Factory (Australia), Reaktor (Estonia), Speculative Mystery (South Africa), and Visionarium (Austria). He has been published by IDW and Ahoy Comics.


Monday, January 11, 2021

A Long NIght, fiction by John Wolf

Working nights made the job easier. Folks in town appreciated it too. Joe Gosser had a business to run. People understood that, but even 10 miles away they could spy the oily smoke of his crematorium. If the wind was right, they could smell it. Death was hard enough for most without the reminder. 

Joe sat on the stoop and smoked. The car was late, but he didn’t mind the break. A hard week waited inside. If Bill’s call was right, tonight would only get harder. Joe’s gut rumbled, but the thought of food made him grimace. The fridge was packed with good salami and cheese along with some dinner rolls. Two wakes in a week made for a lot of leftovers. The Prescott boy and Salary’s oldest son, both gone with a flash of gunfire in some valley most couldn’t pronounce. Joe and the mothers and fathers got used to it fighting Germany the second time. Others got used to it with Korea. This one was different. No one had an appetite.

He shook out a fresh Chesterfield and blew smoke rings. Anyone else might have enjoyed the night sky, but that part of Joe died nearly 25 years ago in a farm town in France. In exchange he picked up smoking. It made time to think.

If the car were late, it was possible they’d been stopped. It would mean trouble if some country cop, an outsider, snooped around. More work on top of work. This side business never bothered his father, and Joe tried to feel the same. The first time bagmen brought his father a problem, the remains resembled ground beef. Not much skill needed to burn that. Only those late-night phone calls never sounded like this. Bill never sounded good, but there was something else in his voice tonight.

“One stiff, top of the list, need-to-know only.” 

Old-timers in town swore the solid walls of Gosser Funeral Home could withstand a cannon blast. If that were true, Bill might have called again from another payphone without Joe ever hearing. Just as he got up to go inside for the phone, yellow lights crept over the horizon. Joe watched them come. The Studebaker rolled into the drive, gravel whispering beneath its wheels. Joe’s stomach growled again.

Bill hopped out of the passenger seat quickly as his bum leg and hefty gut allowed. He gave a salutary wave instead of speaking. Joe’s pulse quickened at the Old Man’s son in the backseat. He looked so much like the boss. Joe last saw the Kid on a trip to Chicago for a face-to-face with the Old Man. While the Old Man gave sincere regrets for Joe’s father and promised business would continue, the Kid sat on the office floor in diapers and played with blocks. Joe got a fat envelope, a single pat on the shoulder for his loss, and was sent on his way. He hadn’t seen the Old Man or the Kid since. 

“Hey,” Bill wheezed, shuffling forward to shake Joe’s hand. Joe took it despite the bagman’s clammy grip. It felt like handling raw meat, but Bill had come to his father’s funeral. Joe supposed that made a difference. It was more than the Old Man had done. 

“Late night,” Joe observed. 

Bill gave his best laugh and only produced a wet burble.

“Yeah, a long one too.” His beady eyes jittered like grease on a hot skillet. “Old Man said we ought to bring the Kid down. Getting to be that age.”

“Everybody’s getting that age, Bill.” 

Another wet bout of laughter turned to coughing. 

“What am I dealing with?” 

“Yeah, uh, just one tonight. Probably around, I don’t know...” He looked at the Kid, “120 and some change?” The Kid shrugged. Bill turned back to Joe and nodded. 

“Give me about two hours?” Father’s funeral or not, Joe never minded lying to Bill. Joe guessed the man lost a lot of poker games.

“What’s the holdup? Got a line waiting for you?” 

“Something like that, yeah.” Joe silently calculated how long he needed to reduce the body to ash. “Had two ceremonies today. Already burning.”

“Oh boy, that stinks.” Bill’s sentiment sounded thin as his breath. He turned back to the car and shouted, “Get your ass in gear, Kid. Ernie! Lend a goddamned hand!”

The Kid took his time getting out of the car. Ernie stepped out of the driver’s seat without a sound. In his long black coat, black driver’s cap, and black gloves he seemed more wraith than flesh. Joe went to help him. Bill placed a sweaty hand on his shoulder. Joe wanted to snap it at the wrist. 

“It’s okay. They can handle it. Kid’s gotta get his hands dirty eventually.” 

Joe remembered the first time. Eight years old, Bill not even one of the Old Man’s bagmen then. The men who brought the first body were all probably dead now. Dead like Joe’s father, who took the corpse with no argument and burned it to ash in the basement. The ashes went in a barrel, and the barrel went out to the graves, mixed with so much fertilizer. Bill was right: all the kids eventually got their hands dirty. 

“Jesus Kee-Rist, Kid. Thank God your Old Man ain’t here to see this.” Bill hobbled closer to the car. The Kid could barely hold onto the crumpled, wrapped plastic. The round end slammed against the rear door. 

“Watch it!” Bill cried and cleared his throat before a coughing fit could take hold.

The Kid smirked. “Afraid I’m gonna hurt her?”

Bill’s jittering gaze fell back on Joe for a moment. The Kid’s class ring, a golden, gaudy thing inset with a sparkling blue stone, winked on his finger. The Old Man never struck Joe as the flashy gangster. The ring was bold, a new era.

Ernie took the body from the Kid and swung it over one shoulder. Joe opened the cellar entrance and led the way. Bill and the Kid spoke freely all the while. Maybe they weren’t used to the quiet countryside, maybe they thought Joe’s hearing was going along with his vision, or maybe they just saw a tired, overfed, and complacent old man. 

“-never should’ve gotten this far, you little bastard.”

“-you work for-”

“-work for the Old Man, Kid. You got a lot coming. Now get this mess-”

“So what?”

Joe followed Ernie into the dark. 

Two empty gurneys waited in the corner. The Retort stood silent, empty, and cold. If Ernie saw or cared, he gave no sign. Joe guessed he lied to Bill a few times too. He brought a third gurney forward without a word. They worked the body onto it, and long strands of bleached hair dangled from the torn tarp. Joe froze. At that, Ernie smiled, raised a long finger to his lips, and headed upstairs.

The front door creaked as the visitors made themselves at home. Joe reminded himself the front door needed oil; he’d let it slip for a little too long. On top of that, the screen was almost falling off. The staples holding it in were nearly old as him. He’d been halfway done replacing it when Bill called. Now, it would have to wait. 

Lists. Joe’s whole life could be stretched out as one long list. Everybody started with the same to-do list: Born and Die. Only sometimes their final rest came with a gunpowder sendoff and one-way trip to the furnace. Sometimes a body got mourned. Sometimes people drank and made speeches. Sometimes they were just meat. An ache grew in his throat. Joe choked it down and got working. 

As the Retort heated up, Joe looked over at his desk. A Silver Star shone behind its glass frame. Next to it, a photo of his unit. He doubted the young men in the picture would recognize him now. Joe spared only a glance to the scuffed and battered footlocker. He went to the desk, thinking he really ought to clean up all the clutter. Dead flowers, dried to nothing, littered the surface beside faded cardstock. He tried not to read the words as he filed them away, but he couldn’t ignore them any better than he could ignore the long, blonde hair falling from the body bag. Or the weight, “120 pounds.” Someone’s sister. Someone’s daughter.

His hands, rough and worn like his father’s, wavered over the lone photograph of a younger Joe at the lakeshore. A grinning, drooling toddler bounced on his knee. Carol stood behind them, fine and pretty in her floral dress, laughing at her two boys. Soot smudged their faces now, forever staining the memory. 

Joe rubbed his fingers, but the ash stayed put. Suddenly the darkness wore into the grooves of his hands and burnt like hot wax. Some pumice soap ought to have done the job, but the burning remained. The Retort rang, ready for its third meal of the day — the fourth for the week. The chime brought Joe back to Earth. He needed this done. That thing in the plastic, it was just another item on his list.

A gust of wind blew through the cellar door and shook the plastic completely free. He sighed. Sleeplessness and bad vision were certainly Gosser family crosses to bear, but so was being bullheaded. 

Joe stared into the girl’s face. Only face was a stretch, and he reflexively ran an estimate how long it would take to make her presentable. Only this girl’s family would never get the bill. Her service would just have four attendees: her gravedigger and her executioners upstairs. The skin shone porcelain-white but shattered partway up her face. Half the left eye was gone; some of her tangled, greasy hair was scraped away in a shallow divot. Joe bet if he looked close enough, he could make out the imprint from the Kid’s class ring. Her right arm flopped from the bag like a dead fish, bits of broken elbow grinding in the joint. Track marks wound up the inner side. 

Whistling mortars and the screams of the dying had never left Joe, and they always grew worse at night. But now, they were replaced with something else, something like the steady, shrill cry from a boiling kettle. Muffled laughter came from upstairs.

He laid the girl’s arm back beside her, closed the remaining eye. No prayers came. Joe believed the funeral director had no say in the preacher’s business. Then came heat as he pushed the girl into the flames. Joe never watched them burn. His father did. He always sat on a worn barstool, fiddling with his glasses, as the Retort consumed its next meal. The stool remained nearby, coated in dust. Joe passed it without a second’s thought. He went and opened the footlocker. 

***

“What’s his deal anyway?”

“Talking shit about our man helping you out?”

“Yeah, old guy’s weird.”

“Jesus, leave it, Kid.”

“Come on, the guy hangs around dead people all day.”

“It’s his family business, something you ought to take notes on, you uppity, little shit.”

“Yeah, family business. You got to listen to me-”

“The hell I do. We could’ve just given your dad a call. We’re doing you a favor. If you even make it someday, you’re better off remembering- The hell was that?”

Joe stopped halfway up the stairs. His foot wavered above the next rise. He reconsidered and took the left side up to the door.

“What’s that?”

“You hear it too?”

“What’s that?”

“Silver Star.”

“And the purple one?”

“Jesus Kee-Rist. The purple one is a Purple Heart, moron.”

“Some kind of G.I. Joe-”

“Ain’t mine.” The Kid shrieked in surprise before he knew better. Bill started from his spot on the couch. Ernie just went back to looking out the window. 

“What?” The Kid sat on a side table and strained to be casual.

Joe leaned in the basement doorway. “Off.” 

“What?” The Kid said again, dumbly.

“Sorry, Joe.” Bill rolled forward, “Kid’s got mud in his ears. Get off the man’s furniture!” Joe remained in the doorway, his right side obscured. 

Bill leaned back and took a bite of sandwich, mustard dribbling out the sides and onto the carpet. In between smacks, he asked, “So uh, you take care of it? It’s taken care of, right?”

“What happened?” 

Bill titlted his head. “That question for us, Joe?”

Joe shrugged. “Curious, maybe.”

Bill nodded, but the Kid spoke up first. “My dad says you aren’t the questions type of guy. What gives?” This time, Bill refused to rein the Kid in or yank on his invisible leash. His eyes went dead as Joe’s. 

“Purple Heart and Silver Star ain’t mine. My medal’s downstairs.” The Kid nearly gave himself whiplash glancing between the mantle and the man in the doorway. “My boy, David’s. He’s dead.” Flat and plain as a paper plate. 

Bill set the sandwich down, his eyes going wide. “David’s dead?”

Joe nodded.

Bill wiped a sudden sheen of sweat off his face. “Jesus, Joe. I’m sorry. Truly.”

“Who was she?”

Bill shook his head, “You looked inside? That’s not good, Joe. Old Man was always real clear about that.”

“Kid ripped the tarp, Bill.” Joe locked eyes with the Kid. The oily smirk was like a stain. “Who was she?”

Bill sighed, weak breath rattling in his broken lungs.

“Old Man said we ought to bring the Kid and make the rounds, you know, get his head in the game for once.” The Kid stood up straight as possible, his smirk now a full-blown grin. The only one who seemed indifferent to this new bump in the road was Ernie. The driver stood still and dead-faced as a cigar store Indian. 

Bill resumed eating, “We were at the Mills, and things got a little nuttier than usual. Things got said. Kid got a little too carried away, but I mean, come on, Joe. Kid’s got spirit, you know? Anyway, there was a little…mix-up with the girl, and things got out of hand.”

“Who was she?”

“Hey!” The Kid burst forward, smile gone, “None of your business! You deaf? You talk like a busted record!” 

Silence suffocated the whole room.

“Joe,” Bill started and sighed, “Joe, I’m sorry about your boy. We hadn’t heard. Never should’ve brought this to you.”

“Where’s it stop, Bill?”

“What?”

“The killing. My boy, I told him what we do here. For you. For the Old Man. For your family. Figured it was time he get his hands dirty.” The Kid sat back down on the end table. Bill said nothing this time. Joe went on:

“He asked if Carol had known. I couldn’t tell him. So you know what my boy did? Stormed right out and went to Vietnam. So, Bill, when’s this stop?”

Bill shrugged, “We all got orders from the Old Man, you know? Nothing stops this.” 

Joe wasn’t sure if he imagined it, or if maybe the other killers failed to hear: a final click as the door swung shut.

Joe asked, “You going to serve, son?” 

“Nah, man, I ain’t doing shit.” The Kid crossed his arms. “Got a deferment. My feet hurt.”

“You ever serve, Bill?”

“No, I mean, you know that. Polio kept me out-”

“So just Ernie then?” The driver acknowledged the funeral director with a steel gaze. “Korea, right? Unsan?” 

Ernie nodded.

Joe brought up the 1911 and shot him in the face. The quiet world shattered. Ernie fell back through a red cloud. Then came the inevitable Joe counted on. The other two men’s wide eyes were the same as Joe had seen in countless foxholes and blasted buildings. Eyes that couldn’t comprehend the violence erupting around them. In Joe’s experience, it only lasted a second. He took the second.

Bill pulled the revolver from his coat pocket pretty quick. Joe’s second bullet smacked into the wall as the big man dove for cover. The third took his target in the shoulder as he fell. Bill screamed but kept crawling for the kitchen. The Kid came off the table and wrestled Joe to the floor. He was small but strong. Joe probed for an eye. The Kid bit down and ground Joe’s thumb like a tough steak. He tried bucking the Kid off him, eyes rolling back.

The staple gun lay beneath the couch. Joe squirmed one knee beneath the Kid and drove it hard into his stomach. Air rushed out of the Kid in a sharp gulp. Joe pulled free before his thumb was bit clean through, took up the staple gun, and squeezed it against the Kid’s ear and temple.

The wind knocked out of the Kid came back in a strangled squeak. Joe bolted up and met Bill standing by the front stairs, revolver raised. He shouted something; Joe guessed it wasn’t surrendering. He leaped behind the nearest wall, but not before a bullet caught him in the calf. Adrenaline surged, and he returned fire. Bill hunkered down by the door, firing wildly like his revolver would never run dry.

The Kid still struggled and screamed between the firefight raging around him. Joe wanted to pop him just to shut him up. Bill clicked onto an empty chamber. Joe breathed, turned the corner, and fired twice before retaking cover again. The wood banister by Bill’s head exploded into splinters. The hallway filled with more screams. 

The old thrill of it all rushed back through Joe, stuck to his ribs like a good meal. His heart beat faster. There was sweat on his brow but nowhere near his palms. He smoothly ejected the first magazine and loaded his second, racking the slide without thinking. He took aim. The Kid could go first. 

Ernie slammed into Joe from behind and hurled him towards the basement door. They cleared it without even touching the first few steps and crashed down hard. Joe struck the side of his head on the wall, stars blazing across his eyes. Something cracked in his hand and the 1911 disappeared behind the stairs. Then Ernie was on him, hands around Joe’s throat.

Half the man’s scalp peeled away, one eye gone entirely red and bulging with hideous pressure. Joe saw a lot of bodies, on and off the battlefield, but never anything like this. Blood and spit flew from Ernie’s feral face as he tightened his grip on Joe’s neck. 

Ernie howls and screams belonged to a madman. “Kill you! Kill you! Killyoukillyou!” 

Each time Ernie tightened his hands, the basement grew darker and wider. Joe floated away from the pain into the void. Then the Retort rang out, finished with the girl’s body. Weak flames danced through the dark. Joe looked up into Ernie’s ruined face. Something glinted in the firelight, something metal behind the dangling flesh that used to be Ernie’s ear. Joe shot up, found Ernie’s weak point, and yanked. The loose scalp ripped away from Ernie’s skull. 

Joe struggled to his feet, gasping for breath, head ringing like a fire alarm. Ernie forgot all about him and knelt, trying to hold the rest of his skull together. Joe slammed the driver face-first into Retort’s side. There came the crackle and spit of frying meat as Ernie fused with the searing metal. Joe tore back the driver’s head and wrenched it to the side. A gristly pop, and there was silence again. Joe blinked, clearing stars from his eyes. The 1911 was lost, but luckily he found his glasses in one piece. The footlocker still stood open. He took the Garand and charged back upstairs. 

Two pools of blood sat in the hallway. A set of footprints led from each. Joe paused, listened. No sirens on the horizon. It seemed the old-timers in town were right about the house after all. Good, old-fashioned masonry could silence anything.

Joe followed one set of bloody footprints into the kitchen. The Kid jumped out from behind the table, something flashing in his hand. The knife whirled through the air and clunked uselessly into the wall. Fear blanched the Kid’s face as he stared down the Garand’s barrel and those flinty eyes behind it. 

Bill fired from the front door. This time he aimed better and grazed off a chunk of Joe’s left shoulder. Joe’s glasses fell away as he went down. Bill took the spooked Kid by his collar and hauled him outside. Ernie wasn’t going to be joining them, that was clear, and now was time to beat a hasty retreat. Joe respected that. It’s what he would have done. 

He picked up his glasses and winced. One lens gone, the other cracked. It would have to do. The screen door clung to one hinge now; Joe added it to his to-do list and drew a bead on the roaring Studebaker. He fired twice into the windshield before giving two more at the engine block. Bill and the Kid scrambled out from the car, using the erupting steam as cover. The Kid sprinted down the road, and Bill went for the plots outback. Now it was every man for himself. 

The Kid wove and ducked as he sprinted towards town. Joe bet he picked up the idea watching too many war movies. At least the Kid’s feet weren’t giving him much trouble now. Joe’s shoulder burned, his leg felt cold, each heartbeat warned him of his probably fractured skull, and he was near-sighted. He aimed through the broken glasses, breathed, fired, and planted one bullet square into the Kid’s back. He dropped into the dirt and lay still. Joe came off the porch and went around the house.

The graveyard made for better cover. Bill scuttled from one tombstone to another. It was a smart idea, but his wheezing didn’t help. It might have just been Bill’s ill health, but Joe thought he might’ve clipped a lung. He walked, rifle at half-ready, and trailed Bill to the Vauntwood plot near the property’s far right corner. It was a good spot. The Vauntwoods picked it for the shade in the summertime. Bill bled over one of their graves and watched Joe come for him. 

Bill struggled for breath and finally choked out, “Why?”

Joe sat atop a grave opposite his old associate.

Bill repeated, “Why?” 

Joe shrugged.

“Psycho. Dead as that whore.”

“Guess so.” Joe cradled the Garand in an easy rest across his leg. The injury to his calf felt far away now. “Can I use your belt?”

“Fuck yourself,” Bill burbled but handed over his belt anyway. Joe nodded thanks and tied off his wound. 

“What was her name?” A middle finger for his answer. Joe prodded Bill’s wound with the barrel. 

“Jesus! I don’t know.” Bill shook his head, wheezed. “You know the Mills. The girls don’t got names there. Just dollar signs.”

Joe took in the starry sky. “People tell me David died fighting for something right. But he didn’t. He went because of me. Because of you. To get away from this. Maybe he thought it could change him the way it did me. But I think I was always like this. Me and dad both.” A mosquito buzzed in Joe’s ear. He let it bite. “Why’d she die? Tell the Kid his prick didn’t work?” 

Spasms racked Bill’s body. “Mistake.” 

“Yeah.” Joe looked at the ground, “Guess so.” Bill lurched forward. Joe caught him by the other shoulder; let him down easy. Bill hauled himself up with one hand on the Garand’s barrel so he could look Joe in the eyes. 

“Sorry,” he managed.

Joe’s finger left the trigger and rested against the guard. He counted, waited for the death rattle. Bill let go and crumpled to the ground, leaving a bloody smear on the Vauntwood tombstone. 

Joe sighed. “Sorry.”

***

The girl’s ashes went in a small, green box like Prescott and Salary. Ernie, Bill, and the Kid waited on a plastic tarp beside the fertilizer spreader. Joe calculated, set a goal for nine, and got to work. He brewed coffee and set about repairing the house. The Studebaker went into the garage. He filled buckets with Lysol and hot water, scrubbed the hallways and walls. The hinge and broken screen were an easy fix. By then, Ernie and the Kid were gone. Bill got his own turn.

While they burned, Joe made himself a sandwich, brewed more coffee. Plaster did for the bullet holes. He couldn’t do much for the paint or the ruined banister. Halfway through this chore, he discovered the Silver Star and Purple Heart on the floor. Joe picked through the broken glass and put the medals in his breast pocket. 

By quarter past nine, the three men were spread with the fertilizer among the graves. The gears of the spreader jammed over the Snyder plot. Joe pulled a misshapen metal lump from between the plastic blades. The words “Class of ‘66” glinted in the morning sun. He pitched it towards the trees, the golden band winking one last time before dropping from sight.

The girl’s green box waited on the porch. Joe sat beside it and afforded himself a few moments of rest. The sun stayed cool in the early morning. But there was still too much to do. He walked to the Gosser plot, box in hands. He stopped at David’s marker. 

“I don’t think,” Joe sighed to the green box, “I don’t think they’d mind.” The remains scattered on the wind and were gone. Joe shook the box a few more times to be sure. The box sat evenly between David’s marker and Carol’s tombstone. Fit just about perfectly.  

Joe limped back to the house. The kitchen floor shone, the hallway was absent of blood. The Retort cooled in the dark, its work done. Joe wasn’t sure if it would ever fire up again. He checked the wound on his leg. If he still served in the Army, it would have earned him a Purple Heart like his son. Only David took a mortar along with the rest of his squad. Joe’s bullet went through and through. Worst outcome: he wouldn’t be doing wind sprints any day soon.

He took a seat on the couch where Bill sat hours ago before their night took a real nosedive. The medals burned in Joe’s pocket like another wound while the kitchen clock counted down the time. The burning traveled from his pocket outward to the rest of him. 

Joe went to the hearse. Chicago would be a bit of a drive, but his fighting spirit felt up to it. In a way, Joe knew it was the only outcome. He had always cleaned the guns out of habit, but a habit for what? The Garand sat across the backseat with four extra clips, a blanket thrown across it. The 1911 went on the passenger seat; Bill’s revolver was tucked within easy reach in the glove compartment. The road beckoned. 

Somewhere beyond the trees and sunshine awaited the Old Man, no doubt wondering where his driver, right-hand man, and son ran off to. Joe could give him the full story. He pinned David’s medals on the visor. They looked good there, swaying with the movement of the car —Chicago in an hour. 


John Wolf is a librarian lurking in the Pacific Northwest. When he’s not shelving books or processing holds, he likes making things up and putting them on paper. A graduate of Washington State University – Vancouver, John has been writing and publishing for 10 years. His work has appeared in the Coffin Blossoms anthology, The Wicked Library, Electric Spec, Bards & Sages Quarterly, and others. He subsists on a strict diet of coffee, bad movies, and good podcasts. You can follow his Twitter @JohnTheEngMajor.