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

Monday, March 2, 2020

The BIg Ticket, fiction by Stefen Styrsky

Later, driving away in his brother’s vintage `72 Lincoln, Frank thought maybe he was wrong. He tried catching his face in the door mirror to make sure the bandage across his nose hadn’t blown away, but he couldn’t get the angle right.

He asked Martin how he looked.

“Like someone punched you in the nose,” Martin said and pushed in the cigarette lighter.

“I mean the swelling,” Frank said. “Is it worse?”

“About the same.”

The lighter popped up, ready. Martin pulled it out and rolled the handle in his fingers.

“I need a cigarette,” he said.

“Don’t start,” Frank said.


Frank hadn’t seen Dean up close for at least ten years, but there was no mistaking his brother on TV, on News Channel 4, a bad dream suddenly real. He swallowed hard the coffee he’d meant only to sip and felt it scald his throat, the pain made worse by the contrary impulses to get it down or bellow in agony.

Like all security footage, the shot was at an angle from above, God’s-eye view of the clerk and the register. Grainy black-and-white, faces muddy. The guy in the video resembled any millions of guys out there. A bald, middle-aged white guy, face a wad of dough with raisin eyes. Windbreaker that did nothing to hide his gut.

But Frank knew. Knew it the way you hear a person say, “Hey” on the phone, and catch right away who they are, the mood they’re in, whether they’re sad or angry, sick or hungover.

The guy comes into frame, takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and compares whatever’s on the slip to the winning Powerball numbers posted next to the cigarette case. He gestures to the clerk. He thrusts the ticket at the man, points at it. When the clerk reaches for the paper, the guy jerks it against his chest. Then both his hands go up into the air.


That was how he always celebrated the winning shot whenever they played one-on-one in the driveway. Raised hands like a ref signaling touchdown. The pumping fists with a shout of “Loser!” came a second later. And then the side-to-side bobbing of the head. That’s what nailed it for Frank. The tick-tock of the guy’s skull in the video was unmistakable. His brother had won the Powerball.

“Martin.” Frank sat forward on the recliner. “You’ve got to see this.”

By the time Martin came in from the kitchen, the segment had ended and a commercial was on. Because a single winning ticket – one that nobody had claimed yet – had been sold in the area and the footage was from a convenience store a county over it ran again, the newscasters speculating maybe this guy was the winner.

“That’s Dean,” Frank said.

“Your brother?”

“My brother has won three-hundred-million dollars.”

Frank pushed himself out of the recliner. The move shot a fiery spike through his left knee but he ignored it, reminding himself not to stand so fast. Facing Martin, he said, “Some of that money is mine.”

Martin peered at him as he took a drag on his e-cigarette. The tip burned like a real one. “Guy always had a talent for luck,” Martin said.

Frank limped towards the bedroom. The plastic runner laid over the carpet stuck to the soles of his feet. Cheaper than replacing the worn shag. The strip was like a conveyer belt, ushering him forward.

“Assholes prosper,” he yelled over his shoulder as he dug through the mason jar on the bureau where they kept the car keys, also filled with greened pennies and Martin’s AA chips. In his rush, Frank knocked the jar over and watched Martin’s bronze six-month chip clatter down into the floor register.

“Shit,” Frank said. “Your chip fell into the heater.”

He put on his shoes while thinking of various negotiating tactics. There was always the tire iron in the car.

Martin was at his shoulder. “You don’t even know where he lives.”

“Oh, hell, of course I do.” With a foot he swept the mess of coins underneath the bureau. “I just hated him too much to ever go see him.”

“Slow down,” Martin said.

“I’ve been living in his shadow since we were kids.”

His knee buckled and he braced himself in the doorframe. Back when he boxed, Frank loved the morning after a fight, when his face felt like a wet sponge and it hurt to smile, even blink.  There was nothing like a little pain to let you know you were alive. A little pain you knew would go away. But his knee was damaged beyond a little pain. A doctor said it was permanent. And was he glad he was alive? All he could say was a share of the jackpot would help that book balance.

“My bum knee is his fault,” Frank kept on after recovering. “He put us on the outs with Angeline.”

“Don’t do something stupid.”

Frank shrugged him off. As if he needed a warning, as if he didn’t know how stupid his whole crappy life was already.

The car engine hacked through a couple turns before it jumped to life. Frank gave the gas a gentle press, allowing the engine to limber up before he put it in gear. Just as he was about to take a slug from his flask, Martin came down the driveway, stirring the insides of his shoulder pack as he trotted to the car.

“This is between me and Dean,” Frank said.

“I have a meeting in twenty minutes. How else am I getting there?”

“I’m not picking you up after,” Frank said, working the stick. “I might be a while.”

Martin got in.  “Jeanne will give me a ride home.”

They bounced onto the street.

“I know I had it,” Martin muttered, still pawing through his bag. “Have you seen my

“What chip?”

“The six-months one.”


“I thought I heard you mention it.”

“Must’ve been something else,” Frank said.

Martin looked him full on. “I heard you.”

“I didn’t say anything. Why would I care about your chip?”

“That’s right, it’s just a goddamn chip.” Martin dumped the bag into his lap. Keys jangled, an Altoids tin, pens, comb.

“I just had it,” Martin said. He flicked through loose change, tissue, single chalky mints speckled with lint and dirt. He searched the pockets, turned the bag over again and gave it a solid shake. Out plopped a Smirnoff vodka mini.

“I guess that chip doesn’t matter anyway,” Frank said.

“It’s old. Something I’d forgotten about. Look, it’s not even open.”  Martin dropped the glove box and moved to store the bottle.

Frank snatched it from him and tossed it out the window. “Are you crazy?” One hand on the wheel, still watching the road, he leaned down as far as he could and groped beneath his seat.

“What?” Martin said.

“Looking for the rest.” The only thing he felt was his own flask.

“There isn’t any.”

“I don’t want you hurt,” Frank said. “You’re miserable on booze.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“Doing just that.”

“Dick,” Martin said. He clicked on his e-cigarette and drew at it while staring out of the window.


Frank swung the car into the lot of the shopping plaza and backed into a space near the road, eager to drop Martin off and be on this way. His anger had slipped a few notches, replaced with more urgent thoughts of a bathroom. He’d used the can before they’d left, but already he had to pee. Morning coffee always ran through him that way.

Martin looked up from his phone. “I’ll be damned. He’s still using that alias?”

“No reason not to. He was the wonderkid. The money maker. Angeline loved him.”

His knee really hurt when he got out. Martin watched as he made a few limping circles around the car, hoping that would loosen it up. He caught his reflection in a side window and quickly turned away. Something about how the light bounced off the glass so that all his bumps and cracks sprung into high relief. Pouches beneath the eyes. Two lines that carved along both sides of his mouth; he looked like a ventriloquist dummy. He was punching towards fifty, but still.

“You going to be okay?” Martin asked.

“After I take a whiz in the alley. Now come on. I’ll call you when I know something.”

An orange Mustang roared into the lot and skidded nose-to-nose with the Taurus.

Frank couldn’t make out who was behind the tinted windows, who might be gunning for him. About a dozen people came to mind. He glanced around the parking lot, the Dollar Store, Subway, Costume Canyon. It was the kind of place cops came through now and then. He hoped that would keep the upcoming shenanigans to a minimum.
Two men stepped out. The blond driver looked like someone Frank knew, only a lot younger. The passenger was so tall his waist was nearly even with the rooftop. And not just tall, but big. Shoulders the size of bowling balls, fingers as thick as baby arms.

“Been a while,” the giant said.

“Georgie,” Frank said. “What gives?”

“You know.”

Frank heard Martin slip out of the car, quick, not letting the door catch when it closed. “Know what?” Frank asked, stepping towards Georgie, talking more. “How’s Angeline doing?”

Up came a hand that could’ve high-fived a stop sign. “Far enough, Frank.”

Now the driver spoke. “Give us the ticket and this will work out for everyone.”

Where did Frank know him? He was really good looking. The loose way he carried himself, the tight shirt, and the half-smirk on his face showed he knew it too.

“Is your dad Ed Grayson?”

The dude closed his door. “Fuck the chitchat. We want that ticket.”

Ed Grayson had certainly been politer. Frank sensed Martin sliding along the hood of their car, stepping slowly while Frank kept everyone talking.

“He was a good man, Ed Grayson,” Frank said. “Treated me right.”

“I’m not going to ask again.”

If the kid wasn’t carrying, something was wrong with the world. Frank knew the gun was bound to come out and then he and Martin would be in the back of the Mustang going somewhere they definitely didn’t want to go. If Angeline was involved that might mean their last car ride anywhere.

He looked at Georgie. “Talk to me.”

Georgie’s hand came down heavy on the car roof.

“Not so hard,” Grayson said.

Georgie’s throat bobbed. “We saw you on tv.”

His feet stopped moving. “What?”

“Not a smart thing, getting caught on tv,” Georgie said.

“Lucky for us you’re out from under your rock,” the other guy said.

“That was my brother,” Frank said.

“Wait, wait,” Martin said. “How’d you know we’d be here?”

A voice behind them. “Somebody in group recognized you. Word travels.”

Frank spun around.

Dean. Smiling his asshole grin that hadn’t dimmed one watt, hands on hips, logo on his t-shirt Stop Plate Tectonics. Frank’s eyes whipped up and down. His brother looked good, well-rested. Trim. The paunch he’d seen in the video was gone. And he was wearing sandals as if he was on some sort of beach vacation.

Then the shock wore off and Frank’s anger dialed all the way up. He made a fist and lowered his chin.

“Peace, brother,” Dean said, hands empty, palms open.

“The ticket,” Grayson said

Frank pulled his attention back around. He had to focus. Things were moving too fast. Georgie and Grayson were the problem. Dean could wait.

“I don’t have the ticket,” Frank said, holding the man’s gaze.

Grayson said, “Don’t screw with us.” The anger in his voice meant the gun was coming out. Frank sprang at Georgie. Georgie caught him with a stiff-arm in the chest. The other hand chopped Frank on the clavicle. He fell across the hood and swallowed a scream as pain lanced his knee.

There was a meaty smack and when Frank looked up Grayson was leaning against the car, a hand to his cheek and blood trickling through fingers from where Martin had landed his forehead. Martin stood a couple feet back, contemplating a long-barreled, chrome-plated .357 in his hand almost as if he wasn’t sure what it was.

Frank did a pushup and stood. He shook out his leg.

“You said there’d be no trouble,” Georgie said, talking over Frank at Dean.

“Keys,” Frank said.

With the gun, Martin waved Grayson aside and reached for the steering column.
But the deep rumble-purr of the idling V-8 gave Frank an idea. “No. We’re taking the car.”

“Nope,” Grayson said.

The magnum’s hammer clicked. Grayson ducked his head and moved around to Georgie.

“How about we trade?” Dean said. “Don’t want to leave these poor guys stranded.”

Frank got behind the wheel of the Mustang, turned off the radio, and backed out so Martin had a clear way to the passenger door. He waved at Grayson and Georgie standing long-faced and angry. Grayson’s eyes radiated thoughts of murder.

Dean called out. “What about your brother?”

Frank flipped him the bird. He’d tipped off Georgie and Grayson about where Martin
would be. He deserved whatever they paid out.

“He has the ticket,” Martin said.

“Get in,” Frank said.

He punched the gas and felt the yank of speed. The rear of the Mustang popped over the curb and snapped a small tree in half. He kept in reverse. At the street he stomped the brakes, skidding into a half turn that put them facing the right way and then slapped the engine into drive. It’d been forever since he’d driven a car that did what you told it to and it was so good.

Martin tossed the gun into the first storm drain they passed. Frank wished he’d remembered to grab his booze.


His brother’s Chevy gave a nice chug when you applied the gas.

Martin opened the glove compartment and turned towards Frank, smiling. He held up a pack of unopened Camels.

“Jackpot,” Martin said. His smiled turned into a wince.

He lit one, cupping the electric lighter, pulling hard to beat the wind slapping around
their heads.

Frank watched him. He watched Martin lean back and sigh and let out smoke.

“What?” Martin coughed and wiped his lips. “In the grand scheme, it hardly matters.”

Frank took out a flask from the leg pocket of his shorts. He unscrewed the cap with thumb and finger; a move perfected over years while drinking on the road.

“That’ll make the bleeding worse,” Martin said.

“As you said, it hardly matters.”


Frank pushed the gas to make the light crossing Georgia Avenue. His stomach fluttered as the car rose on its shocks going over that hump at the center of every intersection, the sudden lightness that only comes with speed. It was embarrassing the way it sent nice, cozy ripples down into his balls. My god, I’m pathetic, he thought, glancing over at Martin and realizing it had been a while. Just as embarrassed thinking about it with Dean hunched in the back smirking at him in the rearview.

They turned into a residential neighborhood. He had no idea where they were going, or where they were.

“Do I really look that bad?” Frank asked. “The guy in that video was one ugly mother.”

 “Security footage,” Martin said. “No one looks good.”

“Yeah, but everyone thinks it was me, not Dean.” He spoke to Dean through the mirror. “I was always the better-looking brother.”

Martin massaged Frank’s bad knee. “It’s why I married you.”

“You guys are married?” Dean asked. “Congratulations.”

“Figure of speech,” Martin said. “Frank here isn’t the romantic type.”

Frank glanced down at himself: the lip of fat frowning over his belt, legs a bit thick. “I watch too much tv. Maybe I should go for walks after dinner.”

“We’ll go together,” Martin said.

“That’d be nice.” He didn’t want to think about the bags under his eyes or that one time he’d laid a hand mirror on the bathroom counter and glimpsed his downturned face, the sagging jowls, his chin looking ready to slop away, his face not a face but a rumpled bedsheet.

“Speaking of,” Dean said from the back. “I’m starving. Let’s hit the drive-thru. Then you can get me to my car.”

Frank pulled into a McDonald’s, and catching Martin’s disapproving look, said, “I’m getting a salad.”

Martin yelled across Frank for a cheeseburger and fries. Dean said he’d have the same thing. He passed Frank a twenty.

“You could at least support me in my decision,” Frank said.

“I am,” Martin said. “It’s good you’ve decided to eat better.”

“With that calorie bomb you ordered? How would you feel if I still drank?”

Dean uttered a quiet “Not good, Frank,” and then shrank out of sight.

Martin settled his hands on the dashboard and stared at the car in front of them. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Not like you are.”

“Try losing some weight,” Martin said.

Frank was good with pain. He could take it. But the comment left him weakened and empty. His shoulders dropped and he slumped forward and clung to the wheel.

Now it was Dean’s turn. “Boys, no lover’s quarrel in front of the brother.”

“I was only asking for support,” Frank said.

“And I support you,” Martin said. “I can do that with a cheeseburger.”

Frank paid and squealed off without thanking the young woman at window. The meaty, salty smell of the burgers and fries made his mouth water. It also made him mumble angry inanities, none of which roused Martin to the bait.

Dean directed him to a park where there was a picnic shack. Afternoon on a weekday and no one was there. “I stashed my car nearby. Wait for me.” He walked off, eating the burger as he went.

Frank watched Martin flatten the burger’s paper wrapper, dump the fries on it, and squeeze ketchup over them.

“Fry?” Martin offered.

Frank gave him a nasty look and stabbed a wad of oily lettuce into his mouth, large enough the juices slipped out between his lips while he chewed.

Martin shrugged and bit the fry in half.

Frank sighed through his nose. He looked at Martin, jaw happily rolling. He studied
the age-broadened face, the wrinkles around his eyes, the ladder of lines ascending his forehead. Frank didn’t think any of it was ugly. As a map of their shared history, he found it familiar, tough, and handsome. Underneath he could still see the young guy he first met when they were skip-tracers.

He swallowed and took Martin’s hand. “He’s toying with us. We should take off.”

“I thought you wanted some of that money.”

“Can I confess something?”

Martin was quiet so Frank continued. “I’ve been drinking in secret. I couldn’t give it up but I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t committed to you.”

“I know,” Martin said. “You’re good at acting sober but I could tell.”

“It’s that I feel really bad about it. You deserve better.”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress. Living with me hasn’t been easy.”

“When we get home, I’ll pour out everything,” Frank said. I’ll go to meetings. Not yours, other ones.”

“You’re not an alcoholic, Frank.”

“But a break can’t hurt. I think it might help with my moods.”

A car drove past and then turned around. It was the Taurus.

“Get in the car,” Frank said. Martin jammed the burger in his mouth and balled the
paper around the fries. Frank left his salad.

The other car was behind the Mustang before they reached it. Georgie hopped out, pointing a .38. The pistol was a squirt gun in his hand. The bullets were big enough though.

“A LoJack,” Frank said, really only talking to himself.

“Dumbass,” Grayson said. A square of white gauze was taped below his left eye and he glared daggers at Frank.

“Let’s start again.” Georgie resettled his grip on the gun. “We want the ticket.”

“I don’t have it. Dean won the lottery.”

That made Georgie waver, the pistol coming down before he thought better and put it up again. He handed the gun to Grayson and then closed the distance. He caught Frank in the jaw with a meaty palm. Frank saw a black starburst and stumbled into the grass. Georgie’s fingers rifled through his pockets, turning out keys, phone, wallet. He picked out driver’s license, Metro card, money, and let them fall to the ground.

Holding his jaw, Frank said, “I don’t have it.” His mouth had trouble working. Martin came over and helped him stand. Georgie gave him a look that threatened another slap.

“He doesn’t have it,” Martin said. “Do you think we’d be fooling around like this if we’d hit the jackpot?”

“It’s Dean you want.” Frank was angry, but also annoyed he had to keep repeating himself.

Georgie knuckled Frank in the mouth and put him down again.

A car engine growled, tires screeched and when Frank looked up he saw his brother Dean in his convertible Lincoln cross-T with the Taurus and the Mustang.

Dean stood on the bench seat, a shotgun pointed at Georgie and Grayson.

“Frank. Martin. Get your asses in the car,” Dean said.

Frank rose to his knees, and then climbed Martin the rest of the way upright. His tongue was sloshy with blood. He cupped his mouth and felt blood drool down his wrist. He stiff-legged it over to the Lincoln, hopped butt first over the rear door and fell onto the back seat.

Dean kept the gun trained. “Drive,” he told Martin.


From the back of Dean’s bald head Frank saw a crease of skin broaden into a smile and he thought it the most logical thing that at any moment it would call him a loser.  He must’ve gotten hit pretty hard.

He turned his hand over, afraid of what he’d see. Smeared red, blood also tendrilled down his wrist and forearm. He felt more blood drying sticky on his face in the speeding wind.

“I knew you’d show up,” Frank said.

Dean looked at him. The sun shone on his smooth and buffed scalp. His eyes were alert and moving across Frank, taking in details and making judgements.

“You were fat,” Frank said. “How’d you lose weight so fast.?”


“Makes sense. You didn’t want to be recognized.”

Martin cut in. “Frank, he wanted to be recognized as you.”

The car turned and Frank sank against the door. He righted himself. Dean’s expression was blank. But Frank knew him, they were brothers after all. Where Dean might fool a poker table, the tell glowed as brightly as the sun on his burnished dome.

“You wanted them to come for me.”

“The sea might look calm,” Dean said. “I had to chum the water and watch what sharks surfaced.”

“Where am I driving?” Martin asked.

Dean turned on his phone and let the GPS lady talk to Martin.

“Why?” Frank said.

“You’re the only person who looks like me,” Dean said. “I’d have much preferred a resemblance to Tom Cruise.”


They went north on the Beltway and then west to a house lost out past Rockville. Yellow stucco, set back from the road. Trees blocked the view on the other three sides. Hidden, but no so well it looked conspicuous.

Empty beer cans dotted the lawn and a car door leaned against the front porch. Martin followed the dirt stripes of tire tracks to the detached garage.

The front was set up to make the place look like a dump. Dean led them around the back where there was a pool, blue and edged in smooth marble. Slate steps followed the rise to the patio with a built-in grill and a hot tub.

Frank kneeled over the pool and splashed his face and hands clean of blood. The water felt good and he lay down on a deck chair catching a nice shade.

“Come inside,” Dean said.

Frank closed his eyes. Nope. The pool and hot tub were enough. He wasn’t letting Dean show him how well he’d done, a house full of new furniture and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and he bet, a full bar with installed beer taps, and a mini-fridge underneath. Probably a big screen LCD tv in the bedroom, floor safe, panic room. Nope, he wasn’t letting Dean rub it in or grinding his teeth while Martin cooed fawning compliments.

“Bring me a beer when you come back,” Frank said.

“Can’t, brother. I’m sober.”

“Not you too,” Frank said.

“You’re such an asshole,” Martin said.

Frank put his arms behind his head. “What? I meant that I didn’t know he had a problem.”

“No. What you meant was, ‘Shit, another person I can’t let me see get soused.’ You’re so selfish. All you think about is how my sobriety affects your drinking.”

Frank poked an eye open. The pair hovered over him the way the nuns did in grade school. Heads trembling on goose necks, all serious faces and forced concern. He laughed and shook his head and went back to darkness.

Martin talked again. “Have a drink Frank. We’ll manage just fine. You okay with that, Dean?”

“Yep,” Dean said. “Drink up, Frank.”

“I know you have a flask,” Martin said.

What was worse? The smug tone in Martin’s voice or the fact he was taking Dean’s side? After the things he’d done for Martin during those years when his drinking had put him in the hospital over and over. The weeks and months Martin couldn’t work because he was either too drunk or too crazy with the DTs.  God, he hated the way Martin’s problems ran his life, had been running his life for forever. And now he was siding with his asshole of a brother. What happened to love? Where was loyalty?

He sat up. He took out a flask and made a show of slowly unscrewing the cap. He tilted it to his lips, didn’t swallow but held the bourbon on his tongue and let the fumes burn his nose before taking it down with a wide-mouthed “ahhh.”

A leaf spiraled into the pool. It floated on the still surface, not a ripple.

Martin hauled on his e-cigarette. The smoke evaporated after it rolled over his head. Real smoke would have hung longer in the air.

“These days I’m doing the vape,” Dean said.

“Still hooked on the glowing tip,” Martin said, tilting the e-cigarette in scissored fingers. “I tried the vape but ended up smoking anyway.”

“Come on,” Dean slapped Martin on the shoulder. “Let’s leave Frank to his nap. There’s juice and sparkling water in the fridge.”

Frank watched them walk toward the house, the two so close their shoulders bumped. Martin said something he couldn’t hear and Dean laughed and did that rocking motion with his head. Frank was on his feet and hopping after them like a man in three-legged race.

“That’s enough,” he said, rounding on them. “I’m tired of you making fun of me.”

“What did I do?” Dean asked.

“I’m talking to Martin. After everything. Blackouts and hospitals and me working so you could take the time off to dry out.”

“Some other time, Frank,” Martin said and tried to push past him.

Frank pushed him backwards. The downward slope at his back, he sat heavily, his e-cigarette jumping out of his hand and disappearing into the grass.

Dean came at him and Frank felt his boxer’s reflexes – almost as if they’d been waiting for an excuse -- snap in gear. He faked left and landed a right hook to Dean’s gut, heard him grunt and then slapped Dean’s bald head the way Georgie had slapped him earlier. He followed Dean as he rolled down the slope and hoped his brother stood up so he could hit him again.

“Frank,” Martin said.

He turned and Martin punched him in the nose. The tag watered his eyes. Frank jabbed right and again sat Martin on his ass.

Dean stood and pulled out a .38 snub-nose. “Brother, you’re such a loser,” he said. Frank grabbed his wrist and punched with the other hand. Dean’s head jerked backed once, twice -- the gun went off but Frank didn’t feel anything -- third punch teeth cut Frank’s knuckles. A second shot tore into his side. He punched Dean again and let go.

Dean fell to his knees and dropped the gun. Panting, exhausted, Frank sank to his haunches. The pistol lay between them. They stared at each other. Frank picked up the .38. He pointed it at Dean and shot him in the chest. Dean lay back like a man going to sleep.

“I win,” Frank said.

While they were looking for towels to stop Frank’s bleeding, they found the lottery ticket right there on the kitchen counter.


“Mind taking the wheel a second?” Frank asked.

Martin held the car steady while Frank adjusted the roll of paper towels pressed to his side, a sloppy red mass soaked through to the cardboard tube. At least he’d only taken one. But that first bullet hadn’t gone wild. It bounced off Martin’s hip and lodged below his bottom rib. Luckily he wasn’t bleeding as much as Frank.

Frank dug out the other flask he carried and had a swig. “Give me a cigarette,” he said.

Martin lit one and stuck it between Frank’s lips. Frank handed him the flask. Martin drained it and tossed it into the back seat.

Shut tight in the unused and perfectly clean ashtray was the ticket. It bore a bloody thumbprint but the numbers remained clear.

Frank leaned onto the steering wheel. He was having trouble staying awake. “How much farther?”

Martin drew on his cigarette. He went to answer and instead coughed. Blood speckled the windshield.

“Not too far,” he said.

The hospital. It wasn’t far.

Stefen Styrsky's criminally minded fiction has also appeared in Switchblade Magazine, Orca, and The Offing. His essays on film noir sometimes appear on the website Vague Visages. He lives in Washington, DC.

Monday, February 3, 2020

King of the Blue Rose, fiction by William R. Soldan

Elvis McCullers aimed his stick and struck the cue, scattering balls across the felt. It was a Wednesday night at The Blue Rose, slow, the half dozen cars and trucks in the gravel lot belonging to Ray the bartender and a small group of men and women posted up at the hightops along the back wall. The men all dressed in work wear, the women in high heels, jeans, and low-cut tops. Cigarette smoke hazed the low neon glow and gathered in a swirling cloud above the pool table.

One of the men crossed the room and stacked his quarters on the rail. “We got next game,” he said.

Elvis was playing alone, just shooting around, but took his time. Pool had never been his game, but he enjoyed the meditative quality of it. It placed him in the present moment, with nothing else on his mind except the balls in front of him. And tonight he was on his way to starting over, wanted to forget what was behind him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. He was still a little hung up about his old man.

As he worked his way around the table, the men grew irritated waiting for him to finish. They’d already been talking loudly, but increased their volume even more, competing with the jukebox, which currently played some indistinct pop-country garbage one of the women had put on.

“Hey, Slick,” he said, “how’s about you wrap it up, huh?”

Elvis was bent over, lining up a shot. He didn’t move but raised his eyes to the man. A single curl of Elvis’s greased back hair hung like an apostrophe down his forehead, and he blew it from his eyes with a puff of his lower lip. He didn’t respond to the man.

Elvis hadn’t come to the tavern with the mind to socialize. He’d come to make a delivery to Ray, who was now at the far end of the long bar wiping out an ashtray with a wet rag.

Ray dealt pills and the occasional teener of crank between schlepping drinks. Though the place was dead tonight, Fridays and Saturdays drew every kind of degenerate one could imagine from around the county to see the live bands that played out back when the weather was nice, and crowded the bar like a feed lot when it wasn’t. Ray was their solitary supplier at The Blue Rose, but he got his goods from Elvis, who’d not long ago expanded his inventory. The supply of meth had begun to exceed the demand in his little pocket of Ohio. Everyone seemed to be on pain pills now, and Elvis could accommodate. Oxy. Vicodin. Fentanyl patches. Morphine lollipops. It all sold like water to a man dying of thirst. Elvis was a businessman and prided himself in his entrepreneurial initiative. He knew only fools were rigid and tried to control the market. A wise man remained flexible, bent whichever way the market moved.

He’d had a damn good thing going with a doctor across the state line in West Virginia, who ran a pill mill outside of Wheeling. The man was a back specialist, and he had some rather hefty debts he wouldn’t disclose when he and Elvis had set up their first deal. He only said he needed a lot of money fast. And again, Elvis could accommodate. But after only a few lucrative months working with the man, he and a dozen other doctors on either side of the Ohio River had gone down in a DEA sting and now resided in the federal pen in Morgantown. This left Elvis in the lurch, between the proverbial rock and the wall.

The way it was now, wholesale acquisition of pharmaceuticals had become near impossible. When suburban white kids started dying, the government put the kibosh on willy-nilly dispensing of pretty much anything stronger than Tylenol. And certain doctors got hot. The best Elvis could hope for now would be buying scripts from folks who hadn’t yet been cut off by their physicians or their insurance companies. And that felt a little too much like moving backward. No, he figured it was time to take his stash of cash—in the neighborhood of a hundred grand after tonight’s last delivery—and hit the road. He’d always planned to go places, and though he’d never given much thought to where, he knew the time had come.

He really had nothing keeping him in Shale Run anymore. His mama had spent the better part of the last decade strapped to a bed up in Locust Grove with what was left of her mind blowing around her skull like autumn leaves. His baby brother, Seth, had ended an eight day meth bender by eating a bullet. That had only left his old man, all rods and pins from the waist down after a mine collapsed on him. Now he spent his days idling away in front of the television and berating Elvis at every turn, even though Henry McCullers relied on his son for the dope that kept him comfortable. Nothing and no one else remained. So Elvis had decided only a few hours ago to start a new chapter—no, a new story altogether.

By now, the fire department would have found his father melted to the La-Z-Boy in what had been the living room. He’d been a lifelong smoker. The only time he didn’t have a coffin nail clamped between his wrinkled lips was when he was sucking off the oxygen tank beside his chair. It was only a matter of time before the poor old bastard burned the place to the ground, they’d say. But despite the ill will he’d harbored for his father most of his life, now that it was done, Elvis felt a nagging remorse that was hard to reconcile.

He’d parted with the last hundred Oxys he had to his name, with no more on the horizon, and tossed the bag of cash Ray had handed over into the trunk of his Caddy before returning to the bar to down a few drinks and shoot around for a while. He still didn’t know where to go from here, so he had nothing but time. But the whiskey hadn’t had the desired effect. Instead of brightening his outlook, it had left Elvis stuck in a brooding mood, reflecting on things he’d rather leave behind.

“Hey, I’m talking to you, Slick,” the man said.

Elvis sunk the 8 ball and stood up straight. He stared at the man.

“It’s all yours, partner,” he said, tossing the pool cue onto the mottled green.

The four men, gathered around the table to play doubles while the women remained where they were. One of them, a redhead with tight, high-waisted jeans and a sleeveless blouse, kept sending glances and grins in his direction as Elvis stood with his elbows on the bar. The men horsed around and grab-assed one another like high school kids, though Elvis suspected they were in their thirties like he was.

Ray shook his head and poured Elvis another shot of whiskey. “They been coming in a few times a week,” he said. Ever since the fracking started, seems like these dipshits been showing up by the busload. They’re working the fields over in Cedarville. Buncha loudmouths, but their money spends the same as the rest, so . . .” Ray shrugged.

Elvis went over to the internet juke and put on a trio of gospel tunes. He loved himself some gospel. He began singing along with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the redhead who’d been eyeing him off and on fixed her gaze and tilted her head, as if she were trying to decipher something. The other women snickered and whispered behind their hands.

“What the good goddamn is this shit?” one of the men said, looking around and then over at Ray, who just shrugged again and went back to wiping down the bar. The man turned toward Elvis, who was still singing along.

Elvis walked past him and back over to the bar. Already the gospel had done what the liquor had not, and he grinned at the redhead, staring right past the man, who just looked at Elvis with a disgusted expression.

“What are we in fucking Sunday school all the sudden?” the man said. He snapped his fingers in Elvis’s face to get his attention, but Ray spoke up.

“When it’s done, you can play whatever the hell you like, buddy, so calm yourself down.”

The man grunted and went back to the game. The four of them grumbled and glared at Elvis between shots.

When “Peace in the Valley” came on next, the man started up again. “Are you fucking serious?” he said. “Huh-uh, no goddamn way, not gonna happen. This shit is killing my fucking buzz.” He stomped over to the juke box with a hand thrust into his pocket. He came out with a handful of change, and plunked in some quarters. These types of jukes had a feature that allowed you to skip songs for a price, and Elvis knew that was what this man was aiming to do.

“My songs ain’t over, partner,” Elvis said without turning away from the bar.

The man acted as if he hadn’t heard and punched in some numbers. The gospel was cut short and replaced by the opening bars of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.”

“Now that’s more fucking like it,” the man said, doing a little shuffling dance back toward the pool table. They all laughed and began woo-hooing as they high-fived.

“Elvis,” Ray said, “don’t go making a mess of the place, all right?” He poured Elvis another shooter. “Here, this one’s on the house.”

But Elvis no longer had the taste for whiskey.

He approached the men. “I said the song weren’t over.”

The man snickered, his patchy beard clinging to his face like a fungus. “What you plan to do about it, Slick?”

“Name’s Elvis.”

The man slapped his thigh and laughed. “Of course it is. Nice hair, by the way.” He turned toward his friends and gained approval for the slight with more laughs. The only one who wasn’t laughing was the redhead, who looked a little irritated but interested in what might happen.

Elvis returned to the jukebox and put in four more quarters.

“You better think twice there, Hound Dog,” the man said.

Elvis cut off the music with the same gospel tune that had been on before the man had hijacked it. He started singing along. “There will be / peace in the valley . . .

“You believe this asshole?” the guy said, turning to his buddies again. When he turned back, Elvis brought the pool cue he’d plucked from the wall rack beside the juke down across the man’s face, opening his cheek like a soft potato.

The man dropped to one knee, and Elvis whirled the toe of his cowboy boot in a roundhouse that caved in the man’s temple as it snapped his head to the side and laid him flat on the wooden planks of the floor.

The redhead just watched while the other three women gasped. Two of the other three men closed in on him from either side, and Elvis helicoptered the pool cue, missing one man as he ducked but catching the other across the jaw. The man stumbled back as his buddy came in low. Elvis grabbed the back of the man’s head and brought his face down into his knee with a dull crunch. The man he’d caught with the cue held a hand over his bleeding mouth. Now he and the last man moved in.

The gospel music came through the bar’s sound system like a choir of angels, and Elvis pulled the gold-plated Walther PPK with mother of pearl inlays from the small of his back. One man stopped short while his buddy was almost on Elvis, who aimed and took out the man’s left knee in a spray of blood and bone.

Now three of the women were screaming. The man who’d been shot let loose a high-pitched string of motherfuckers toward Elvis. The redhead looked surprised but cocked a half smile. Ray just shook his head with a hand over his eyes. The last man stood there with his hands raised looking unsure.

Elvis gestured the man to his knees and stuck the barrel of the pistol between his teeth. He began to sing again while the man emptied his bladder and tears cascaded down his cheeks.

When the song ended, Elvis removed the gun from the man’s mouth, slapped him across the face with it, and went to the bar. While he downed the shot Ray had poured him, the man scrambled to his feet and fled the bar, leaving the women and his buddies behind. A moment later, a truck engine roared to life and there was the sound of rubber biting gravel as he tore out of the parking lot.

Three of the women remained crouched and crying over the men’s bodies, one of them fumbling with her cell phone. It fell from her shaking hands before she could dial the police and skittered across the floor. Elvis eyed her and she made no move to retrieve it.

The redhead walked over. “Buy a lady a drink?” she said.

He grinned and nodded to Ray, who looked frustrated but resigned. He poured them each a shot. They clinked the glasses together and tossed them back.

“What’s say you and me take a drive?” he said.

She smiled and hooked her arm through his. The other three women stared in disbelief through teary red eyes.

Elvis laid two twenties on the bar. “Nice knowing you, Ray,” he said. “You take care now.”

Outside, Elvis opened the door of his restored, pink ’55 Fleetwood and helped her into the passenger seat. On his way around the car, he spotted a set of fuzzy white dice slung over a pickup truck’s rearview mirror. He reached through the open window and took them, then climbed behind the wheel of his Caddy and draped the dice over his own rearview.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Bobbie Anne,” she said.

“You sure it ain’t Priscilla? ‘Cause you sure look like a Priscilla.”

She only smiled.

He turned the key and the V8 awoke with a growl. He rolled to the edge of the lot to where it met the asphalt of Highway 52.

“Where we driving to?”

Elvis adjusted the radio dial. Another gospel song, “Lead Me, Guide Me,” filled the air and washed over them.

“Wherever we want in the whole wide world, darlin’.”

He winked at her, and the tires spit gravel as he cut the wheel onto the road, no past behind them, just dust.

William R. Soldan is the author of the story collection In Just the Right Light and the collection Houses Burning and Other Ruins,forthcoming from Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books in September 2020. He's got some degrees and a few nominations but knows that doesn't impress anyone. His work has appeared in Thuglit, EconoClash Review, Switchblade Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Tough, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and others. You can find him at

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pulling, fiction by R.D. Sullivan

It was a day where Cal could smell the heat coming before the sun even rose, the promise of temperatures high enough to kill a person just a scent now on the pre-dawn breeze. Never one to sleep late to begin with, the first whiff had driven him from bed early enough that he had to light a lamp to dress by. Sheep out in the west lands needed moving closer to the home place, harried as they had been by some unknown predator. From the smell of the air, they were like as not to drop dead on the trail if he dallied.

Besides, he stood a chance of making it out early enough to catch sight of whatever had been picking off the lambs and blowing it straight to hell.

He drank yesterday’s coffee and chewed a strip of dried beef. The dark felt right for fresh, hot coffee and porridge, taken on the front porch to watch the sun rise, but with the air the way it was, he figured he could settle for less today. Even his big palomino stallion Branson thought it was too early, and he wondered if the horse would have found it a coffee and porch sort of hour as well. As it was the beast nickered softly and shook off whatever passes for sleep in a horse, one long shiver from snout to tail.

He fed the horse well before saddling it. Branson would be doing all the hard work after all and it’d be cruel to ask it from a beast with an empty stomach.

Washington would have to fend for himself. There weren’t much to spare and that dog would eat anything, so he didn’t figure he owed it more than a soup bone now and again.

Together the trio rode into the hills just as sunlight broke over the valley and drove what little existed of the cool morning breeze into its grave. All around them swelled the kind of loud silence that he loved. The pleasure of it wasn’t lost on him, despite the first beads of sweat down his spine. Above Branson’s breathing, above the clip of hooves on the buried rocks, the crisp snap of pine needles and twigs underfoot and the creak of saddle leather, lay the rest of the world. The birds chattered in the trees and the air seemed to rustle as the deer fled between the towering, pockmarked sandstone pillars which filled the hills.

Washington trotted ahead and Cal paid him no mind, up until the dog stopped suddenly and growled. Branson hesitated, and Cal felt as though all his blood drained into his boots.

It was likely nothing--the dog growled at the damn trees anytime they dared move--but he pulled the rifle free anyway. He slid from Branson’s back,stepping quietly onto the soft, dry dirt. The dog continued to growl as the man made his way in a big arch around the trees that blocked his view, hoping to spot whatever had Washington on edge before it caught scent of him.

The dog stepped forward, growls falling away to occasional chesty rumbles, twitchy black nose pushed as far forward as possible to safely sniff whatever it was.

A pair of well-worn and dusty leather boots came into view about the time Washington’s body relaxed, comfortable enough with whomever to step towards them.

“Morning, friend,” Cal called. He kept the rifle up and pointed to the side, ready to bring to bear if this stranger meant him harm, but the boots didn’t move. Then they did, one toe wiggling back and forth erratically as Washington began rolling in the person’s lap, neck pressed against the legs as he wiggled back and forth.

“Well, hell.”

Washington looked up at his voice, full of the pleasure dogs experience from meaty bones and rotten smells. His dog, who hated other people enough that the man had taken to locking him in the stables on the rare occasion he had company, was happily rolling in this person’s lap.

“Git,” he said to the dog, who ignored him for the glorious bounty of scent he’d found, until Cal added more gravel and meanness to his voice. “Washington, git!” Head hung, the dog slunk away, staying well out of striking range, and put his nose to finding something else to roll in.

He didn’t know if it would have been better or worse to find a stranger out here, but it wasn’t a stranger he’d found, it was a neighbor. This was Teddy Williams, a cattle rancher and sometimes late-night card companion that Cal had found the bottom of a bottle with more than once.

“Well, hell,” he said again, crouched in front of the body. The flannel shirt had long ago dried stiff, the brown of old blood like a bib down its front. It hadn’t all been spilled here, for trails of it ran from the two holes—one through Teddy’s neck, one through his cheekbone—down and under his head. He bore a halo of pine needles, sticks and blood-muddied dirt.

The body was in too good of shape to have been dragged a long ways, but Teddy hadn’t been shot here. Somebody had pulled him to this rock and propped him up, which seemed as odd a thing to do as murdering somebody in the first place.

The right side of the body had been gone at by something, likely the same thing that had been helping itself to his lambs. Unbidden, the thought came that this body, this murdered man, like as not had kept a few of his sheep alive, giving the predator something else to fill its belly with at night, and he shooed the notion away as quick as it’d come. It was unkind and cruel, even for the note of truth it rang.

The sun threatened to simmer him in his own clothes and he wished he could smell the sweetness of the grasses and slow creek around the home place, instead of the body’s putrefaction. To the west, farther in the hills, were his sheep, badly in need of better grazing and better protection. Town was a good few hours ride south then back again with Sheriff Gardner, a ride that would leave both him and Branson close to heat stroke.

And to the north a solid forty-five minutes lived this man’s wife, forevermore the Widow Williams.

With a foot in the stirrup he whistled for Washington, and the three turned north.


Annie Williams didn’t answer the door of she and Teddy’s house when Cal knocked, and the garden was likewise empty and quiet. He could have been hustling his sheep towards the lowlands and the time lost was lamentable if he couldn’t find her. He felt he’d at least done the right thing in coming to tell her first. Tomorrow he’d fetch the sheriff from town and together they’d stop by again.

The dark thought occurred to him that it was possible Annie had yet to be discovered amongst the sandstone too, body gone at by scavengers after falling victim to whatever hell Teddy had called down upon them both. It wouldn’t do to dwell on such a thing. Dead or alive, it wasn’t his concern until it was.

He had Branson half-pulled around to climb into the saddle when he heard a cow lowing in distress, and a woman’s sweet, soothing voice. He hadn’t thought to check the barn but when he moved around the house there she was, standing behind a fat black heifer trapped in the chute. Her auburn hair was sweat-matted to her face and she wore Teddy’s leather apron over her pale blue skirt, the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up and her round face red with exertion.

Cal quickly tossed Branson’s reins over the top rail and climbed in to help. He took one end of the rope from Annie’s hands and together they pulled, the coarse fibers biting into their palms. Two tiny hooves appeared from inside the cow, held taut by the pull of the rope.

“On three,” Annie said, and counted. Cal pointedly kept his eyes on the calf, instead of on the mottled green and purple bruise that painted her cheek and the two black eyes that winced as she wound the rope against a likewise bruised wrist.

They used the chute posts for leverage and yanked together, rewarded with the slime-covered calf head, all the way up to the ears. It slowly slid out until it snagged again.

“We’re to the hips,” he said.

Sweat dripped from her face as she nodded. “Again on three.” With a sucking sound the calf fell to the straw below the cow. Both he and Annie dropped with it, her pulling the sac from its head while he shook its legs, prompting the blood to flow and the lungs to take over. When it started pulling air they moved it to the corral on more fresh straw, tossed some hay in next to it, and let the cow free of the chute.

“Late for calving,” he said as they watched the heifer nuzzle and lick her new calf in between bites of alfalfa.

“Anderson’s bull got into my heifers. I’ve got a whole dozen ready to drop now.”

“That big brahma he’s got? Cream-colored with the black nose?”

“That’s the one.”

“Maybe you’ll get your own nice bull out of the lot, then.”

“That’s the hope. If they’re going to calve in July I might as well get something useful from it. Breakfast?”

“I’ve got sheep to move. I just came by to talk with you about Teddy.”

Her jaw flexed at the name, making the bruises on her face ripple. “It’s too hot to move sheep and I owe you for the help. You can put your horse in the next paddock, or in the barn. I’ll get washed up and get to frying.”

She didn’t make eye contact as she said it, just watched the heifer a moment, and swung towards the house.

Cal started unsaddling Branson but guilt made him pause and drop his forehead against the pommel. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Annie roughed up, but that didn’t change the fact that there was a murdered man up in the hills. To sit at her table and bring up such a dark matter over a shared meal seemed beyond the pale. But she wasn’t wrong—it was too hot to move the sheep by now and with her already disappeared into the house, he’d missed his chance to protest.

So he finished loosening the saddle. After throwing it over the fence and turning Branson out, he washed blood from his arms and hands as best he could, though his shirt had to be what it was. She had bacon going inside and fresh coffee heating. Or old coffee. Didn’t matter much to him if it was just reheated, hot would be nice.

“There hasn’t been time to make bread, with the calving.”

“All right.”

“Go out to the coop and grab some eggs, would you?”

He came back with eight and she threw all but two on the griddle just as the bacon came off.

“Something still pestering your sheep?” she asked when they finally sat down.

“Lost two lambs just last week.”

“We ought to organize a party to hunt down whatever’s out there. It won’t stop with your lambs.”

“We ought to,” he agreed. “About Teddy…” he started, but she cut him off before he could say more.

“You moving them out through the old Kendell place, by the sandstone?” she asked.

He noticed she didn’t look up when she asked. He also noticed how tenderly she chewed with her bruised jaw, and the dark lines encircling both wrists. When he didn’t answer she glanced up, caught him looking, and looked back just as hard with both black-and-green-rimmed eyes.

Cal was starting to get the impression she knew exactly why he was there, though he himself was starting to have doubts.

If it had been him, the law would have considered it self-defense. The sheriff would see it differently when it came to a wife.

Cal made a decision.

“Ayup,” he said. “Though I might bring them down through Reynold’s canyon now. More water. If this heat holds, they’ll need it on the way.”

She held his eye another moment and he could see her thinking on what he’d just said, what he’d really said, hiding behind the words he’d used. Satisfied, she went back to her breakfast.

She came out drying dishwater from her hands on a towel as he threw the saddle back on Branson, Washington busy licking at the birthing mess in the chute.

“Big calf,” he said. “No wonder you had to pull it.”

“Came from a big bull. Might be more like that.”

He nodded and slipped the bit between Branson’s teeth. “Once my sheep are settled by the creek I’ll come stay in the barn, if you think you might have to pull more.”

“I’d be awful indebted.” She opened the gate as he mounted and walked the horse out. “What…” She took a moment, swallowing as she refastened the gate. “What was it you wanted to see Teddy about?”

“Oh not much. Got a bit of woodwork I need done but it’s more for pastime than necessity. I reckon it’ll wait.”

She nodded, one hand patting Branson’s neck.

“You mind if I cut through your south lands? I can’t move them ewes but I should at least get an eye on the flock, see how they’re faring.”

“Of course,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you for calving then.”

“I guess you will.”


After a time Cal stopped yelling at Washington and let the dog have its fun. The way he leapt and bit and barked at the body of Teddy Williams made Cal sick to think about, so he decided not to think about it. Occasionally the dog would stop and roll in whatever scent Teddy left in the dirt and rocks and though Washington didn’t know it yet, he was getting thrown into the creek later, which was as close to washing the beast as the man could stomach, considering.

Branson was sweaty long before the rope around the body’s feet had been tied to the saddle horn but he didn’t hesitate or slow, just leaned into the hill and pulled steadily onward. The man walked in front, loose hold on the reins, not looking back. It reminded him of pulling the calf, that rope tied around its feet as well, pulling a life into this world by force much the same as this one had been forced out of it by two well-placed bullets.

At the top of the ridge he looped Branson’s reins over a low pine branch and aimed enough of a boot at Washington that the dog took off without needing to be struck, happier to find a new stink to roll in than to tempt the anger of its master. Once the rope was off Teddy’s legs, he pulled him the rest of the way to the rim and rolled him off the side. He wished he could have missed hearing the body strike first the cliff face, then the rock-strewn forest floor below, but he couldn’t change the fact that he did.

Branson shied from him and he knew then he didn’t smell much better than Washington did, and that he’d be in the creek along with the dog and a bar of hard soap. Despite the messy business of the day he looked forward to the bath, given how his shirt had soaked through and the brim of his hat long since stopped absorbing sweat. He’d like as not coax the horse into the water as well to get the foam and sweat from its hide.

Then a full dinner, for all three of them. Tomorrow they’d start early again, get the sheep settled, and settle in themselves for a hot July of calving at the Widow Williams’ place.

R.D. Sullivan is a writer of fiction, comedy and letters to the editor. She lives in Northern California with her family and two solidly mediocre dogs, where she runs a subcontracting business. Her work has been featured at Fireside Fiction Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Killing Malmon and the Murder-A-Go-Go’s anthology. She is also proud and ashamed of her novella, Hotties and Bazingas and the Murder Cult Murders. You can track her down on twitter @RDSullyWrites or over at

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Vin Scully Eyes, fiction by Nolan Knight

If the Torrance Costco would’ve just had the right damn pickles, Montrose Laughlin III wouldn’t have had to stifle his day, driving mother’s beloved Jag twenty minutes outside his comfort zone to visit the Long Beach Costco. Although, it wasn’t as if he had any real plans—like most days. The inconvenience was what irked. Surely, the Torrance store’s employees had taken notice every time he trudged inside (first day of every month) to re-stock his cabinets for another thirty days. And he always bought multiple four-packs of monster hot and sour dills—couldn’t live without them—and now, today of all days, they hadn’t the foresight to replenish their goddamn load. For certain, the world was playing a fine cruel joke.

The San Diego Freeway was crammed, inching along, bumper to bumper—no longer functional in its design for modern vehicles. Mother’s Jaguar hadn’t been on any freeway in over two decades, a garaged beauty fit for coastal cruises or a night on the town. She’d be inflamed at the thought of her only son cruising her “baby” into the bowels of Los Angeles on such a laughable task. But she couldn’t react one bit, not from the mantel she was perched back home—her gold urn, cold and unamused as her lifelong gaze. The Jag’s engine revved in-place. Monte huffed in defeat, searching the radio for any sign of sports talk, it being mid-season when baseball trades shook the world.

He arrived at the Costco thirty minutes later than it should’ve taken, exiting the car and charging a bay of carts. By the clothes on his mousy frame, one never would’ve pegged him as an heir to a real estate fortune. When mother passed, he gave up on appearances, one thing she had an iron-grip throughout his youth. Private school uniforms. Apparel for every season in matching hues. The last time he’d purchased sneakers was in 1997: Air Jordans (black/red/white), an entire crate, size nine. Same with baggy denim and loud T-shirts. Mass quantities of comfort that he didn’t care looked dated nowadays.

Mother’s ghost just grabbed her chest.

For a Tuesday afternoon, the store seemed tranquil. Layout looked to be nearly identical to Torrance, so he headed through stacks of processed foods, towards giant canisters and condiment buckets. Eight pallets ahead, on the left, sat the pickled goods. The sight of that pink pig on every jar nearly sparked flatulence. He loaded up the cart, buying triple his usual, just in case Torrance couldn’t get their shit together. After free samples of sausage and a long line at the register, he was back on the road for home.


With the 405 still a mess, Monty navigated streets, hoping to open the Jag’s engine down Willow till it morphed into Sepulveda. Hadn’t been outside the South Bay in so long, almost forgot what the real world looked like. Everything was in decline: roads, buildings. The violet pedals on jacarandas even appeared to be weeping. He revved to a stop at Long Beach Boulevard; the looks on other drivers’ faces had him wishing he’d raised the convertible’s roof. A hearty voice called to him from the center median. He craned to see a large black gentleman holding a sign with a picture of a teen flashing his gold teeth. The poster blared, FUNERAL DONATIONS 4 ’LIL MEEZY.

“Anythin’ will help us, sir. My son. Firstborn—only twenty-three an’ taken back to God’s glory.” The man pointed across to the far median. “Two young girls ova dere his keeds. Four an’ nine.”

Monty scanned the intersection, watching other poster clad family members walk up and down car lanes, pleading for compassion, scooping an occasional dollar. The light flashed green. Monty returned to the man, meeting his crystal gaze. “Sorry. No cash.”

Before, “God bless,” could leave the poor man’s lips, Monty’s engine charged west.


Lamont Craig II decided he’d had enough for today, soon as that pricey foreign roadster left him penniless, flying down Willow—its driver a disheveled, shell of a man. He guzzled a large Gatorade from out a cooler in the rear of his “work truck”— a ’92 Suburban with magnets across its body that read:

You’ve been Had by The Rest. Now try The Best!

His wife, Eloise, was fanning off his granddaughters with a newspaper beside him, misting water above their beaded braids. Their faces were painful to take in, two pairs of his dead son’s eyes beaming back. He handed the bottle to his remaining son (Trey, eighteen), busy counting donations they’d gathered before the heat beat them down. “What it do?”

“Made like two hunny.”

Lamont reflected, adding the total for the past two days in his mind: $520. A drop in the bucket—the urn for what they needed to send his boy to heaven right. There was no savings to dip, no retirement plan to plunder. This was all a bad dream, aftershocks in play for the rest of his days.

How could his boy be gone in a whisper?

Eloise loaded the girls into the car, its insides finally cool enough to buckle them. The men climbed inside. As Lamont drove home, the blank looks off every person he approached in that intersection churned the brain. Nevermind what they thought: another dead thug on the ghetto streets. To them his boy was probably just some hood that deserved what he got. But he didn’t. No one earned the right to be on the wrong side of a bullet—no matter who they were. And Lamont Craig III—Meezy to the homies—was his son. His blood…taken out like a rabid dog for wearing the wrong color shoes. He sparked a Marlboro 100 to vanquish them all, those dumb stares, ghosts out his lungs into a blistering sun.


Eloise and the girls gently wept in the backseat; Trey handed over fresh Kleenex as the Suburban pulled into the driveway of their weathered abode. Couldn’t remember the lawn ever being green or window bars not rusted. His brother would often joke about the place, calling it The Kennel, often met by father’s sneer; Pop’s knees had been obliterated by years spent crawling floors, wiring nicer homes in better neighborhoods so his family could eek out this life. One thing was certain: There was no way he’d be another stooge on his knees when he grew up. Life was one big hustle, either the moon or the gutter, and Trey wasn’t going to gamble on something better—he would achieve it—become a professional in this world. He’d already killed the SATs and been accepted to two private colleges. Wasn’t like he was in line for any grants or scholarships though. The plan was to hit Long Beach Community for his undergrad; hopefully by then, he could save enough working for Pops and take out a loan to help make that dream a reality. But there was one major caveat: He wouldn’t be taking over the family business, like his brother was supposed to—and that wouldn’t be tolerated by Pops. Shit, just going to community college got met with a chuckle by the old man. With this sudden death in the family, that dream would have to be a secret from now on.

The room he shared with Junior had cracks in the walls covered by pictures of Gang Starr and Tribe. (He never called him Meezy. He was Junior since day one—no matter what the streets claimed.) Band posters were all that Momma would allow, never tolerating big titties or butt cracks inside her home. He opened the closet, staring at Junior’s blue wardrobe, taking out a puffy Dodgers jacket and sniffing it, burying emotion deep inside. He slid it on in front of the mirrored door. His hands dug into the pockets, right one hit something cold, hard. Instantly, he knew what it was, slowly pulling out the revolver, noticing it was loaded.

The fuck, Junior?

When did it all go south?

He opened a high drawer, one used for socks and undies, burying the Smith & Wesson deep inside. He wondered how much it’d fetch on the street. Could buy a haul of textbooks. Knew exactly who to approach: Kermit. Tomorrow they were going down to the funeral home too—same one Kermit’s dad owned. He’d probably be there, working. Kermit ran with a questionable crew, like most boys out here. Surely, he’d know someone that needed a piece—hell, maybe even himself. Trey took another glance in the mirror before tearing off the jacket and kicking it into the closet.


A brisk, salty breeze welcomed Monty back to Manhattan Beach, ocean a snoring beast in the distance. To think his great grandfather had the foresight to purchase large swaths of acreage up this coast many years ago; Monty still held title to several homes and businesses throughout the community. Would’ve had more if mother hadn’t began selling off parcels to eager socialites and celebrities throughout the ’70’s. Didn’t really matter though—not like he had any children or other family to pass the fortune. If he ever got short of money, he’d just sell a home for five to ten million and go on with his humdrum ways. There were no worries in store for Monty, so when the issue of a potential new neighbor moving in next door became a possibility, it tilted his barge.

ESPN radio had no reports of any Dodger players being traded yet. Monty felt a short relief wash over as the Jag climbed up his narrow driveway, then descended into a subterranean garage. The home was originally built as a two-story, back when his father still controlled the acreage between it and the coast. Upon his passing, after mother’s selling spree to uphold her gilded existence, the home was demolished and re-built to accommodate four-stories, cementing a panoramic view above all who’d built downhill. Monty rarely even visited the first two stories, now converted into storage, filled with mother’s artifacts from her global escapades and priceless paintings sheathed in plastic. He rode the elevator up, arms heavy with pickle jars. Approaching the kitchen, a sound of the television brought concern. In the living room sat his best and only friend, his neighbor—a relief pitcher for the “Boys in Blue” named Robbie Slate.

“Elle’s having another one of her Real Housewife parties. Had to bail, man. You don’t mind, right?”

Monty tossed him a beer can from out the fridge.

Robbie caught it with his right arm—the left shackled in an intricate brace from a recent labral tear repair.

“My place is your place—why I gave you that emergency key. You didn’t have a problem with the new security system, right? Same code.”

“Nah, it was cool. What’d you do to it?”

Upgraded the surveillance—smaller cameras. Guess I just got bored with the old one. They’re coming out next week to set-up the exterior."

You don’t have outdoor cameras?”

I do, but the monitor’s busted. Wear and tear.”

Robbie popped the can with his teeth and sniffed its contents. “This a new South Bay brew or what?”

“Nah, they’ve been ’round a few years. Harbortown Ales. Specialize in Belgians but this is their unfiltered Citra DIPA. Drink it.”

Robbie swilled. “Tastes like oranges…grapefruit even.”

“People are going ape shit for it—camping out along Western.”

“Fuckin’ delicious. You buying in?”

“I’ve made it known that I’m willing to invest. They’re all young though. Kids. The brew master ain’t out his twenties. See what happens, but yeah…I want in.” He cracked his own can. “Heard you haven’t been placed on the chopping block yet.”

“Who told you that?”

“Radio. If you get traded, wanna sell your house back to me?”

“Fuck no. We’ll rent in whatever shit city they send me.”

If you get traded.”


“Think it’ll happen?”

“Fuck if I know. My numbers were solid, before…” He raised his broken wing.

“What the doc say?”

“I’m on ice for at least ten months—best case scenario. Anyway, if I don’t hear from my agent by midnight tomorrow, I’m good for another season.”

He plopped on the couch, admiring a yacht in the bay.

Lemme ask you something, Monty.”


Beer, you serious? Why don’t you put money in real estate—I mean, it’s in your blood, bro?”

Golden Road just sold to Budweiser for nearly a billion. How’s beer not lucrative these days? I own enough property as it is."

I’m talking new developments. Have you been in downtown lately?”

He laughed. “No."

Elle and I were at this charity function the other night—”

What charity?”

Some foundation for the blind—or maybe it was prostate cancer. Shit, I’m at so many of these things, I lose track.”

Monty reflected on the last time he ever did anything nice for anyone other than himself. Charity? He should try it one of these days.

What was I saying?”


Yeah, so, we’re at this dinner at the Ritz—I’m gazing out the windows, taking in the view. Fuckin’ cranes galore, man. Every corner has something new going up—and I mean up—high in the sky. Most of the designs are bat-shit too. Everyone’s got a boner for Frank Gehry, right? So, then it hits me. The Future.”

Future smacked you in the face?”

Kinda. Marvels are being built, man. Mini metropolises. Giant works of art! Live/Work/Play. Condo owners never have to venture out their building’s grounds. That’s when it hits me—this is the future of Los Angeles. Build some giant campus—a contained city within the City, make it shaped like something weird—a legion of colliding locomotives or some shit. Next door, a developer builds another, even more outlandish—the view out every unit window framing another 3-D Dali built across the way. That’s the future. Build ’em high and keep folks dumb—drunk on steel. I’ve already got my accountant reaching out to developers, ones moving into South Central. Never been done before in the history of L.A. The future is now, and if you don’t buy in, you’re gonna miss out, man.”

Monty snickered into his beer.

That funny to you? Think I’m crazy, right? I’m not.”

No, I feel you. It’s just—”

Just what?”

My father used to always say the future depended on investing in children—their livelihood…education.”

Whose children? You an’ I don’t have any dogs in that race.”

I know but kids own the future—can’t argue with that—even ones that brew beer.” By the twist on Robbie’s face, the concept was lost, so Monty refrained. “Forget it. That’s a good idea though—yours. I’m sure you’ll make a killing."

Damn right.”

“’Nother beer?”

Please. Hey, you should come with Elle and me to the next event. She thinks you look generous. Always says you got them Vin Scully eyes. Very kind.”

Monty headed for the kitchen, smiling. “Don’t know about that, but Elle’s an angel for thinking.” The word charity flashed like neon in his brain.

Why hadn’t he entertained it earlier?

He knew the answer, it reflected back at him, eye to eye in the sleek refrigerator door. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer. Come here, check this out.”

Robbie rose from the couch and joined Monty before a ceramic nude bust of a female torso, hanging at the hallway entrance. “That’s cool, man. Erotica. New?"

Yeah. See anything weird about it?”

Robbie analyzed the bust. “Nah.”

Monty switched off the hall lights. Inside the ivory nipples were pinpoint red dots.

No way. New security cameras?”

Monty nodded. “These spy minis are all over. Pretty cool, right?”

Shit, yeah. Maybe the home security market is where to invest?”

Possibly…or else we just keep on living our dang lives.

Monty smiled as Robbie mimed slurping an areola.


Next morning, the Jag pulled into an industrial corridor just north of Old Town Torrance. The Strand Brewing Co. was located inside a large warehouse where craft beer was brewed and bottled on a daily basis. Monty retrieved two amber growlers from out his trunk and walked inside to have them filled. The tasting room staff didn’t know him very well, but they knew of him—word through the beer community about some stiff with deep pockets, hoping to pay to play in their business. He sipped a pint of pale while his bottles were filled, sitting at a picnic bench, scrolling through his cell to see Robbie’s trade status. Looked like his neighbor was safe for now, their conversation yesterday keeping Monty awake for part of the night. He should do something positive with his inheritance. An act that would cost little to him but change someone’s life for the better. Fuck real estate, that empty void often displaced those truly in need. A random monetary donation would be like tossing a stone into a lake, watching the ripples, knowing that he made the impact. He’d start off small, maybe pay for someone’s groceries or write a check to a soup kitchen or. . .

What would Vin do?

The beerback called his name; he approached for both growlers. The moment his fingers touched that icy brew, it hit him like a crisp jab.

Yesterday: that family with the funeral!

A grin climbed his face as he rushed to the Jag and peeled out the lot.


The intersection mirrored the day before, family members at every median in the ninety-degree heat. Monty spotted the father at the southerly light; he hooked a right down Long Beach and cut a quick U, heading back to Willow. The father looked in his direction, but upon seeing him, turned and headed back to a foldout chair set-up with an umbrella. Monty honked to get the man’s attention. Soon as he craned, Monty waved him over.


Lamont leaned Meezy’s poster to his chair and approached the foreign roadster, thinking, Fuck this white fool want? Grin on the dudes’ face was waxy—kind he’d seen in a hundred horror movies. Before he could open his mouth, the man spoke.

“I’d like to have a word with you.”

“’Bout what?”

“This whole production you got here.”

Production?” Lamont sneered. “Get the hell on witchoo.”

“I mean no disrespect—that came out wrong.”

“Ya think?”

“I wanna help. Can we talk somewhere?”

Lamont scanned the intersection; Trey was giving him a look, wondering what was going on. He waved him over. The light turned green. “Meet me in the parking lot—over there,” he pointed, “beside that Suburban.”


Trey’s face remained blank, wondering who this white man was in the vintage Air Jordans, along with his agenda. By the frozen look on Pop’s face, figured the old man held the same thought.

Monty stood silent for a beat, wondering if they’d misheard him. “Said I’d like to cover the costs…for the funeral—all of ’em.”

Lamont: “May I ask why? I mean yesterday you—”

“That’s just it. Yesterday got me thinking. Seeing your family out here, that picture of your son—couldn’t recall the last time I ever helped anyone beside myself. Look Laah…what was it again?”

“Lamont. This here is my son, Trey.”

“Lamont. Trey. Nice to meet you. I know this may sound bizarre, and I understand your tentative reaction, but hear me out. My name is Monty Laughlin. I’m a lifelong Angeleno from Manhattan Beach who is capable of erasing the financial burden of your tragedy. That’s all there is to it. There are no hidden fees with this offer or monetary gain seen on my behalf—only the satisfaction of knowing that I did something positive today—helping ’Lil Meezy get a proper burial. Now…all you gotta do is say yes, and we can get started.”

“I’ll need to speak with my wife first.”

“Sure thing. I’ll wait.” He watched as Lamont walked to the rear of the Suburban, tractor beamed by his spouse’s hungry eyes.

Trey stayed put. “You serious about all this, Monty?”

“Cross my heart. Can I ask what happened to your brother?”

“Got shot outside a strip club—Fantasy Castle—over in Signal Hill.”

Jesus. I saw that in the Times. They catch the bastard responsible?”

“Nope. Never do. Say, what you do for a living?”

“I’m in between things at the moment. Guess you could call me a…Beer Man.”

“Beer? What, like Bud Ice or something?”

“Craft beer—West Coast IPAs mostly. I’m trying to invest in local breweries.” The kid looked at him as if he were speaking French.

Lamont returned with his wife and grandkids.

Monty said, “Well?”

The woman let go of the children’s hands and walked up to him, a glimmer in both eyes. For some reason, Monty had the feeling she was about to slap him. Before he could flinch, the woman wrapped both arms around his ribs and began to sob.


They insisted Monty come to their home for lunch; after all, they needed to discuss moving forward with his help. Trey asked to ride along with him in the Jag, helping guide the way. Monty couldn’t believe this turn of events, a simple decision having him feeling completely alive.

“You’re going to have to park this car in our driveway. Believe me. You don’t want it out on the street.”

Monty surveyed the neighborhood, his jovial feeling subsiding with every awkward glance by young men draped in blue, loitering on corners or smoking on front porches. The sight of their home struck him oddly, its deferred state. To Monty, the place was condemnable. He parked where Trey recommended, not having the gumption to tell the boy that this car meant as much to him as finding a heads-up penny.

He humored his way through a lunch of leftover soul food, the dish both warm and comforting. A Black Jesus cast judgement upon him, crucified to a far wall. A matching Last Supper hung near the dining table. He grubbed as the couple let on. Lamont and Eloise had already picked out a funeral home they would use, a friends’ business. Still up for discussion was the proper urn for their child’s ashes. Lamont slid him a brochure with some modest looking urns, nothing close to the grandeur of mother’s golden vessel.

Monty slid back the brochure. “Why don’t we head on down there and see what else they have. I want everyone to be satisfied.”

Lamont smiled at Eloise, taking off her apron. “Well, they were expecting us to swing by today.

Monty wiped off with a napkin. “Great. What’s the address?”

“I’ll roll with you. Lemme just grab my phone and meet you out front.” He sprinted into the bedroom, opening the closet and retrieving the pistol from Junior’s jacket.


The crematorium was located amongst a stretch of dilapidated commercial and industrial buildings, the last functioning business on the whole damn block. Monty counted liquor stores and USMC billboards the whole way there. Once he parked the car in the lot, Trey began to giggle.

“What is it?”

“Nothin’. Just your getup is all? You realize what kinda shoes you’re wearing, right?”

“Jordans, man—come on. I love these shoes. Now you’re gonna goof on me?”

“Goof? Nah. Them kicks be worth a lot a cash, dog. Jordan eights. Saw a pair online go for over five 

“No shit?”


“Well, then I guess I made a smart investment, huh? What size you wear?”

Trey perked. “Twelve.”

“These are size nine. Bummer.”

Trey squinted, contemplating a biblical gesture. “Were you just about to give me the shoes off your 

Monty killed the engine. “What? No. Just asked ’cause I have about twenty pair in their original 
boxes, back home. Bought them in bulk in ’97. Would’ve given you a pair, if they fit. Bummer, right?”

“Damn straight.”

They exited, Suburban pulling into a slot beside them. Trey watched the interaction between Monty and his parents; the man was some kind of genie, one they never summoned.


Monty chummed it up with the head of the mortuary, a skeletal black fellow named Isaiah. They exchanged pleasantries, ones appropriate for such a setting. Upon closer inspection of the grounds, the funeral home didn’t look to be financially solvent: ceiling water damage, torn carpeting—not even a secretary to answer the bereaved. Place didn’t do custom urns either, like mother’s. Lamont and Eloise were stuck surveying a shelf of copper urns till Monty pointed at some featuring higher end precious metals. Isaiah jumped in to describe each of their fine attributes. There being only two variants meant this place hardly sold them. A young man came in from the back room. Monty watched as Trey slapped hands with the kid—a deep scar on his chin like one found on a flawed pumpkin. The boys headed outside. Focusing back on the task at hand, it was easy to see which urn Eloise wanted for her son—she just wouldn’t say it, caressing cold silver like a newborn. Monty tapped Isaiah’s shoulder: “We’ll take it. I’d like to cut a check for the total sum as well, including cremation, et cetera. Do you accept checks?”

The man’s eyes turned devilish, his broken smile could’ve split the world.


The boys took cover behind a tall dumpster at the rear of the building. As Kermit perused the weapon, Trey kept his eye on the parking lot in case his parents and Monty came strolling out. Kermit snapped the cylinder, sniping down the barrel as if he’d ever shot one of these before. Maybe he’d had; Trey didn’t care to ask, only thing on his mind being book money.

“So, what you think?”

The scar on Kermit’s chin frowned. “Got bullets?”

Trey dug out the original six from his pocket. “Jus’ a starter kit. They sell ’em at Big Five.”

“I know that.” Kermit handled the ammo. “How much you say again?”

“Got wax in them ears, nigga? Four hunny.” Trey had done his research online and knew the gun was, at best, a two Benjamin steal. Now he sat back to see if Kermit had done his own homework, banking the kid hadn’t when it came to high school. “Hey, you guys toss body parts in here?” His knuckle knocked the dumpster.

“What? No.” Kermit flinched at Trey, jutting his arms out like a zombie. “Quit playin’.”

Trey smirked.

Listen, this piece ain’t for me, okay? It’s for my boy—”

“Don’t tell me his name! I don’t wanna know nothin’ ’bout ’nothin.”

“Well, he ain’t gonna pay you four hunny—I can tell ya that.”

“So what then?”




Trey stuck out his hand. Kermit shook it, removing a wad of twenties from out a hip pocket slouched beside his kneecap. He counted the bills. “Who dat white fool witchoo?”

“Jus’ some dude. He’s paying for Junior’s funeral.”



“Fool’s Richie Rich then?”

I dunno. Enough bread to bury the dead.”

His Jordans are tight as fuck.” Kermit handed over the cash.

Trey shoved it into his jeans. “Dude’s got a bunch at his house, he said.”

“For real?”

“O.G.’s, brand new—from ninety-seven. Not sure if I believe him though—” Trey heard the Suburban roar to life on the other side of the building. “Shit. Gotta roll.”

“Nice doin’ binness, cuz.”

“First and last time, son. First an’ last.” Trey sprinted through the parking lot, hollering for everyone to wait up.

Kermit’s father could be heard, yelling for him outside the funeral home. He quickly opened the dumpster, slid the Smith & Wesson inside a sweaty McDonald’s bag and stashed it before rushing back.


Isaiah was in his office, massaging the knot of his paisley tie back to its pristine form when his son rushed through the door.

What is it, dad?”

“Where were you?”

“Took out some garbage.”

His stern look pierced the boy. “Need your help with deposits again.”

“You know I can make them on your phone these days? I told you that, right?”

Boy, you don’t tell me shit. Why do I need to use a phone when I have you?”

Before Kermit could answer, the man brought up a fist. He winced.

Such a weak, weak boy. Take after your bitch mother. But you already knew that—can feel the weakness coursing your veins, can’t you?” He approached his desk and handed over Monty’s check. “Take this to the bank now. The sum is too great to have lying around. They close soon."

Kermit’s eyes bulged at the amount, just under eighteen thousand. Images conjured of a procession for ’Lil Meezy featuring a glittering hearse with twenty-four-inch spinning rims—or maybe Snoop playing the wake…. His eyes fell on the check’s signature. He scoped the top corner for the dude’s details: Montrose Laughlin III, 210 16th Street, Manhattan Beach—” A palm struck the back of his head. “Fuh!”

Isaiah paused before a second blow. “Run along, boy.”

Kermit pocketed the check and sped for his bicycle.


No shit! You just…what—got a feather in your ass and decided to fly, huh?” Robbie reclined on Monty’s couch, sipping White Sand IPA straight from a growler Monty had filled. “Paid for just the urn or the whole shebang?”

Monty leered out the windows, sunlight dancing about the tide. He licked froth from his upper lip, beer tasting better than any he’d ever had. Could feel mother’s disdain from the mantle, bellyaching his deed. “I ponied up for the whole tamale. Even tossed them a grand to handle the reception—food, booze, whatnot. They want me to go, but…I dunno.”

“That’s great, man. You should go. When Elle and I attend to these charity events, we don’t ever get to see how much the donated funds accomplish firsthand—just read about it on a printout the following year—at the next event. You marched into ground zero and came out a hero. Better man, I can say that.”

“Wanna come with? It’d blow their minds—a real Dodger in their midst.”

Robbie paused to gulp. “When is it?”

Tomorrow night."

I’ll see if I can move some stuff around."

Prolly busy sitting on my other sofa, I suppose.”

What can I say? I’m a man of leisure these days. Plus, I hate the public seeing me in a sling like this—some fucking gimp.”

No one respects a gimp."

So, tell me more about this family, man? The Craigs.”

Good people. Hard working. Father is an electrician—son, Trey, works for him.”

Hey, you should get them to finish wiring the outdoor security cameras. Might hook you up with a deal.”

Monty thought about it, not caring about expense. He did enjoy talking with the man and his son. Could be another chance to get to know them, outside of their family tragedy. After all, they were the first real folks he’d encountered in some time. “I should do that,” escaped his lips, even though he knew deep down he probably wouldn’t. After all, he’d just stepped out of his cocoon for a day, wasn’t quite ready to welcome others inside just yet.


Kermit leaned his bicycle against a picnic table in Veteran’s park, placing the McDonald’s bag beside him as he sat atop warm wood. His stomach growled, having no time to grab a quick bite. A Rally’s burger sounded nice. They told him to be here now but, obviously, the gun buyers weren’t present. He hated having to deal with such thugs, but one had to do what they could to survive in these parts. His cousin, Young Mel, ran with this crew and vouched for Kermit. When Trey phoned with his proposition, Kermit dialed Mel soon as he clicked off the call. His stomach roared. As he doubled over, he locked onto his left hand, scribbled across the back of it in blue ink was the name and address on that check. Montrose Laughlin III. An Idea had struck him as he waited inside the Wells Fargo, completing father’s errand. Maybe he could squeeze a few more bucks out of Mel’s boys with it. Sell them the pistol, along with some information—the whereabouts of a rich fool giving away his wealth.

A dense mass of four bodies entered at the park’s rear. As the blob came closer, its color set Kermit at ease, a legion of blue, puffing blunts, acting belligerent. He waved them over, as if he wasn’t sticking out like a wart on a nose.

Mel came up close before smacking him upside the head. “The fuck you thinking, Kerm, carrying that piece in a goddam baggy. Hide the pistol on your person, fool. Don’t be slippin’."

The other boys laughed, chiming in with their own taunts until Mel shushed them with the back of his palm. Kermit wanted to hand over the gun and run away that second, not being cut out for this type of thing. But then he’d be out all the money he’d saved working the past three months. And what the hell would he do with a gun? It’d be all for nothing. He humored the crew, acting as if he were just like them, swiping a hit from a blunt while one of the older boys inspected the merchandise. He’d have to act the part to get paid; couldn’t let these jerks know how soft he actually was. An attack of coughs overcame him soon as he exhaled the plume. More laughter ensued. Someone called him a little bitch.

So much for saving face.


The older guy named Smoke purchased the pistol for three hundred, biting Kermit’s profit to negative twenty-five dollars. He lied and said he turned a dollar. For three hundred, the crew wanted to buy more, if he had any. Kermit poo-pooed the notion, claiming (like Trey had told him) that this was a one-time deal. He then proceeded to disclose his other item for sale.

Hey, lookie here…”

He’d anticipated some interest when he told the crew about this rich dude in the South Bay, but their exuberant reactions took him by surprise, the boys all high as fuck, jonesing for a lick. When he said they could have the dude’s address for another hundred, everyone roared in laughter. He pretended like he was playing too, nearly on his bicycle to head for a cheeseburger.

Mel pushed Kermit off the bike and forced him to come along, clawing the back of his neck, shoving him in the direction of a parked sedan. “You talk a big game, Kerm. Now take us to where this moneybags lives.”

Without hesitation, Kermit surrendered the scribbles on his left hand.


The sun dipped its final brilliance through the living room windows as Monty and Robbie watched an Angels’ game snoozer, tearing into the team’s coach for not believing in sabermetrics, oblivious to the perfect L.A. sunset. A tirade out Robbie came to an unexpected halt.

Knocks at the door.

Monty glanced down at his phone before remembering the security monitor on the entrance wasn’t hooked-up; it had fed through his cell with a view of guests. Usually it was either Robbie or UPS. He placed his pint down and went to a wall mount to buzz the person up. If it was UPS, they always left the parcel behind a front post. Could be a neighbor signed for the package. Monty craned to Robbie, now busy inspecting the nipples on the hallway bust; looked as if the growler was mixing perfectly with his pain meds. The elevator shaft began to whine. Robbie accompanied Monty in seeing who was here.

The doors began to part.

Elle Slate walked in wearing a soft red sun dress, slightly buzzed enough to come over barefooted.

“Another cocktail party, Elle?”

She gave Monty a friendly embrace. “Got the gals headed over in a few.”

Robbie: “What’s up, babe?”

The audio is messed up, a button got hit—haven’t a clue.”

Monty: “Real Housewives again?”

Bachelorette in Paradise.”

Monty’s eyebrows became enlightened.

Robbie pointed to the second growler on the counter. “I’m coming back, so don’t kill that.”

Monty opened the refrigerator for some pickles as the couple headed to the elevator.


Mel’s Monte Carlo made it to Manhattan Beach just as the sun was gulped by the Pacific. He parked the sedan a few blocks from their target, having circled the block three times to scope the setting. Smoke loaded the pistol with six bullets from out Kermit’s pocket. The crew got out, eyeing a sidewalk lined with manicured roses, cement clean enough to slurp spilled ice cream. They lit Newports in unison to brace nerves. Kermit pretended to smoke one, never inhaling, a trick he’d learned in middle school to avoid getting bullied. The five boys sat at a lone bus bench, trying not to turn heads. They tranced on the open ocean, its normal dark blue bleeding oranges and pinks. Was as if they’d only seen this type of thing in drug store picture frames or a textbook from long ago. They waited for darkness to seep up the hill, bringing them back into their comfort zone. The moon sparked howls from backyard dogs. Mel punched Kermit’s arm, signaling him to lead the way.


Monty had a clean buzz off his growler, closing one eye to focus on landing another pickle, spearing it with a knife. There were only a few left in this jar, all scurrying from his blade with each thrust as if they were alive, fish in a barrel, all smarter than him. He reclined on the sofa, exhausted from concentrating, belly full of red pepper, vinegar and dill. He checked the wall clock; there was no way he’d be able to stay awake if Robbie came back. These craft beers wore heavy on the brain. He’d had a full day too—one he was glad to have had, but would most likely relive only once a year. Next time he’d do something nice on Christmas. He clicked off the television, steadying himself on seafaring legs. Approaching the counter, he emptied his pockets into a crystal candy dish, one mother used for her beloved butterscotch. The checkbook sat prominent before a bowl of apples, stoic almost, as if it’d known what it accomplished today. Monty opened it to a carbon copy of the check, grin climbing his drunken face.

A stone tossed in a lake.

Ripples…all because of him.

He turned to mother’s urn, raised his fist and exploded the middle finger. This is what I think about what you think, mother. He returned to the check, contemplating removing it from the pack to frame or laminate, maybe put above his toilet: a daily reminder of how great he could be…you know, when he felt like it. On second glance of the copy, a slight panic took hold.

The billing address.

He’d forgotten to buy new checks once moving into mother’s old house—this house. After years of extensive remodeling, he’d finally shifted all his things from next door, barely two years ago. Robbie became a Dodger around then, his people making an offer on the “Bastard Home” (mother’s words) that he couldn’t refuse. How could he say no to a Big Leaguer…a potential celebrity friend? Oh, how embarrassing it would be if that check were to bounce. Did things like billing address even matter these days? He’d call the bank first thing tomorrow. No need to worry the Craigs about it—not during this horrible time in their lives. Everything would be fine. He’d make sure of it. And order new checks. For next time.


What. A. Doll. He did that?” Elle sipped Shiraz at the breakfast nook, watching Robbie eye the stereo system as if it were from Mars.

“Paid for everything. Cremation, urn. See, that’s rewarding. No banquet. No autographs or selfies. Straight to the source.” He punched the a remote to zero response.

“It’s them Vin Scully eyes, I tell ya. What a kind-hearted man.”

“Don’t remember what you pressed here, huh?”

“I didn’t touch anything. Think Priscilla might’ve used it as a chew toy.”

Robbie sent a dirty look at Elle’s Yorkie, snoozing on the couch. “When’s everyone supposed to be here again?”

“Soon. Like ten minutes.”

“Fuck.” He adjusted his sling, techno stress killing his buzz. A strange button at the top corner of the remote caught his eye. Auto Vol? He punched it and sound came blaring out the speakers. As he scrambled to save the subwoofer, Elle approached and draped an arm around him, planting a wet kiss, careful not to disturb his shoulder. Her breath was sour, pungent as bile. She began to undo his belt. 

“We have ten minutes...”

He slid his good hand up into her sun dress, caressing the fold of her ass.

She went in for another hard kiss, but the doorbell stifled the moment.

Robbie cursed, re-doing his belt. Elle went to freshen up for her guests. The second Robbie cracked 
the doors’ frame, he was met by a revolver pointed at his nose.


The computer screen lit-up Trey’s face in purple hues, his eyes scanning pages and pages of textbook sales, titles dancing in the glint of his eyeballs. Pops was asleep on his recliner; Mom busy putting the girls to bed. He scrolled a new page, eyeing a piece of paper with his undergrad curriculum requirements, then back at book titles. It was all happening, the future coming at him in spectral bursts. And all he had to do, so far, was numb his conscience. He sold a gun, so what? Who cared what others did with their own wretched lives? Not like he was pulling the trigger. He added another text to his online cart and thought, I’d do plenty worse to this world just to be done with the neighborhood forever.


Smoke held the gun steady as Young Mel had Kermit and the others use duct tape to bind the couple together on the floor. Hoods helped conceal all their faces. Kermit immediately knew something was wrong, too frightened to mention that he’d never seen this man (or woman) in the funeral home earlier. Didn’t matter now. The act was in progress.

He was a full-blown criminal.

A safe in the bedroom had been opened by the husband; a quick smash to the face with Smoke’s pistol helped speed the process. Dude’s nose was gushing for days. Mascara exploded about the wife’s eyes, her sobbing turned to gentle weeps. There weren’t any Air Jordans like Kermit had promised; however, the guy had an unhealthy amount of Dodger gear. The three stacks out the safe softened that blow, just over thirty grand. Their shit dog began to yap at the door. Mel turned to see four older women, faces pumped to the max with Botox, all fisted with wine or champagne. The sight of Smoke’s weapon sparked banshee screams, the ladies trembling in horror.

A bottle crashed to the ground.

Smoke jumped, accidentally firing a round.

Kermit ate the bullet, directly in the chest.

The boys scurried out a side door and sprinted up the block.

Kermit collapsed to the tile floor, eye to eye with the yapping dog, warm blood pooling beneath him until a coldness came over, one he’d only feel for the first time. Such a weak, weak boy.

Monty stirred from his drunken slumber, a pop followed by screams in the night disturbing sweet dreams. He got up to close the sliding glass door, gazing out at adjacent homes, not seeing anything alarming. A car must’ve backfired, sparking someone’s night terrors. He climbed back into bed, feeling sorry for whoever was that frightened this time of night. He thought about his deed again and smiled, closing his eyes, licking his teeth. He’d place mother’s urn in a closet or drawer tomorrow. No need to have her so prominent within his house. A truly great day, today. The ocean purred him back to dreamland, an angel’s sleep for the angel he was.

Nolan Knight is a fourth generation Angeleno. His short fiction has appeared in various journals including Akashic Books, Thuglit, Needle, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel THE NEON LIGHTS ARE VEINS was released by 280 Steps Press. "Vin Scully Eyes" is featured in his short story collection BENEATH THE BLACK PALMS, represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates. Find out more at / Insta: @Nolan_Knight_