Showing posts with label nick kolakowski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nick kolakowski. Show all posts

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Bad Day in Boat Repo, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

Reprinted from THUGLIT 

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

I took a cigar. “Yacht?”

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can't do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean violence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The punk stood there, trembling with rage.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Well, you signed up for this, dude.

Indeed. I was a desperate man, myself.

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

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

Difficult, but not impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“You kill him?”

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Airport,” the man wheezed.

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

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

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

“Crew?” Limonov said.

“Just us and the norteamericano.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

“Who was the other man?”

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

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

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

“Sure, after we make a stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Did you unlock it?”

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

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

“Playing action hero again?”

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

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

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

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

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

He seemed unconcerned about my gun.

“Is the kid here?” I asked.

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

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

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

I walked that way.

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

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

The punk's head.

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

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

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

Monday, June 1, 2020

Scapegoat, Fiction by Nick Kolakowski

I call it my stunt torso: a silicone belly and pecs filled with something gelatinous, pinned to my real body with big velcro tabs. My brother, an actor, bought it used from a stuntman on a movie set. The stuntman told him it would absorb blows from fists or a baseball bat, but anything sharp would slide right through. For tonight’s gig I’ll wear it beneath a loose sweatshirt, to hide the seams, and hope that nobody feels me up.

The client is waiting for me in a white BMW parked down the street from my apartment building. She wears a sleek pinstripe pantsuit, signaling that she has a high-powered job, and her bloodless cheeks are streaked with what’s left of her mascara, signaling a crying jag on the way here. She flicks through a puzzle game on her phone while I count the crisp twenties in the envelope she handed me. “This is too much,” I say, peeling off the extra two hundred.

Without glancing from her game, the client says: “Think of it as covering your deductible. Just in case.”

I want to tell her that my health insurance sucks, that two hundred is maybe a quarter of what I’d need to pay before coverage kicks in. A hard blow to the head, one that puts me in the emergency room with a broken skull, will cost a few thousand out-of-pocket, everything included. A couple punches to the stomach, the kind that scramble organs, might total more. That’s why I use the stunt torso. It’s too bad I can’t wear a football helmet, but that would ruin the performance.

“Doesn’t work that way,” I say, and tuck the excess money into the dashboard cup-holder. “Rule one of this job: Never deviate from the price. Makes it easier for everyone.”

“Well, do you take tips?” The game shrieks a high score.

“No.” I fold the envelope once and stuff it into my rear pocket.

“Okay, suit yourself.” Shutting off her phone, she starts the engine. “My name is Delilah, but everybody calls me Dee.”

“Neal,” I say, which is a lie. “Everybody calls me Neal.”

“Hey, Neal. I know this is just a job to you, but thanks anyway. It means a lot.”

“Sure.” I settle back and work on my breathing as she leadfoots the gas, rocketing us down narrow streets of my crumbling neighborhood. I never ask where the clients live, but we’re heading east, beyond the areas of town where you get real familiar with your living-room carpet pattern on account of diving on it every time bullets whizz through the windows. Based on her all-options sedan, and the expensive cut of her suit, I bet our final destination is the Heights, where everybody is rich enough to pay someone else to shovel their shit.

I don’t know whether it’s nerves or the stunt torso, or some combination of both, but after a mile my forehead is slick with sweat, my underwear chafing my crack. “Can you turn the air conditioning on?” I ask.

Dee twists the dial like her worst enemy’s nipple, and arctic air blasts out the vents. “Good?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “By the way, you’re supposed to fill me in. I don’t need too many details, just enough to play the role.”

“So there’s this guy, Charles. We’re at the same company, but we don’t report to each other or anything. I didn’t mean to, but we hooked up at this work event, and at first I thought it was one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, you know how it goes.”
Dee takes a corner at high speed. “And lo and behold, I sort of fell for the guy. So now we’re in a relationship, which would be fantastic except for, well.”

Dee takes her left hand off the wheel and waggles it so the little diamond on her engagement ring catches the light. Stacked atop the ring is a plain gold wedding band. “Rick—that’s my husband—found out about it,” she says. “We have our thumbprints programmed into each other’s phones, and he snooped in my messages. Maybe I wanted to get caught. My marriage sucks.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I say. “He hasn’t seen a photo of Charles?”

“He hasn’t seen a photo of his face, if you get my meaning. And Charles is, like, the last person on Earth not on Facebook, so Rick can’t find him that way.”

I have also forsworn all social media. Possessing any kind of public profile would make it more difficult to do this job. “Tell me about Rick’s temper,” I say.

Dee puffs air into her cheeks, exhales loudly: “What’s to tell? He’s got a bad one. He’s never hit me, or I would have walked out a long time ago, but he throws shit, yells, all that stuff. One time, we were in this bar, and this guy bumped into him. Just an accident, but he spilled Rick’s beer. Guy offers to buy him a new one, and Rick up and hits him in the chest. Lucky nobody ended up in jail over that.”

“What are his triggers?”

She laughs. “He’s really sensitive about his weight.”

Maybe Rick’s fat, I think. If he’s out of shape, that’s great.

Still giggling, she says: “And you should definitely mention his hair. He’s afraid of losing it.”

“What else?”

“Tell him he’s boring in the sack. Like I said, he’s got a lot of anger issues. It doesn’t take much.”

With gigs like this, it’s all about finding the right balance. You want everyone emotional, but not so emotional that they beat you to death on the sidewalk. On cold nights, my left knee and right elbow twinge and throb, reminding me of what happens when I’ve gotten that rule wrong.

“Good to know,” I tell Dee. The road becomes smoother, the potholes disappearing as we enter the Heights, the enormous houses on either side perfect as wedding cakes, the lawns so manicured I imagine hordes of workers cutting every individual blade of grass with tiny scissors. The sight of those million-dollar homes makes my stomach clench in a hard knot, and I pat the stunt torso for reassurance.

Dee notices my discomfort. “You don’t like it here.”

I grew up a couple blocks away, I almost tell her. This place is in my blood. Like a virus, or something that poisons you slowly. But the clients never need to know anything like that, especially when it’s almost showtime. “It’s fine,” I say, wiping my forehead.

“Look, Rick needs to get really aggressive, you understand?” Dee’s lips tighten. “And I need to film it. His lawyer sees a video like that, it’ll make this whole process a lot smoother.”

“Yeah, you said that in your email.” I sigh. “You also said he doesn’t have a gun.”

“He doesn’t.”

“Just reconfirming.”

“Got it. I’m not lying to you.”

“Okay. And if I see him with a knife, any kind of blade, I run, got that?”

“He’s an angry jackass, but he’s not a killer. Anyway, we’re here.” We pull into the driveway of a two-story McMansion, white with beige trim, and park behind a gold-colored SUV with tinted windows. As we climb out, I glimpse something on the SUV’s trailer hitch that makes me pause: a giant pair of brass balls, realistically rendered down to the veins and textured skin.

Dee follows my gaze and rolls her eyes. “Rick’s idea of a joke. Can you blame me, about the divorce?”

I shut the BMW’s door, adjust my sweatshirt, and crack my neck. I did some preventative yoga before leaving my apartment, and I feel nice and limber, ready for whatever’s coming. The envelope is a comforting presence below my tailbone, and I think about what I’ll spend my payment on, besides painkillers and bandages. I’ll tally up my rent and student loans and fast-food orders and phone bill, and maybe I’ll have a few bucks left over for a decent bottle of whiskey. I run my tongue over my teeth and think: Why bother saving for retirement? I’ll never have enough.

Dee slings her purse, as shiny and white as her car, underneath her arm, her elbow pressing it tight against her body. It has a small exterior pocket, and I spy the edge of her smartphone peeking out the top, its camera a black eye.

We are halfway up the stone path to the front door when it bursts open, framing the infamous Rick in full Suburban Barbarian mode. His faded t-shirt strains against a meat market of oversized pecs and biceps, and his square head reddens to the color of undercooked steak when he sees us. “Well,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “Bitch brought her bitch, I see. This is Charles? This is who you’re leaving me for?”

So much for my dream of Rick being flabby and floppy. The dude looks like he bench-presses rhinos for fun. His blonde hair is thick as a newscaster’s, shaped by professional hands into a camera-ready cowlick, and the sight of it makes me feel a weird sympathy for him, despite his rage and heavy fists: I would fear losing a magnificent mane like that, too.

Dee gifts him a big smile. “Rick, let’s just behave like adults, okay? This is Charles. We just want to talk.”

That’s my cue. I step forward with my hands out, palms up. “I know you’re angry, buddy.” I try out a chuckle. “I’d be angry as hell, too. Don’t blame you a bit. But we can work this out.”

Beads of sweat drip down Rick’s forehead, shiny in the light. It reminds me of something my grandfather, one of the last of the old-school miners, once told me about dynamite: if you left it sitting too long in the case, it would start to sweat like a man, unstable, a jostle away from blowing everything to hell. (Actually, that’s my only memory of him, before the state and my foster parents took me away.)

“Thought you could fuck my wife,” Rick says, marching down the steps toward us. “Thought I wouldn’t find out, huh?”

“Things just happened, man,” I say. “The heart wants what it wants.”

Rick squeezes his fists so tight I can see the tendons straining in his forearms like bridge-cables about to snap. He’s fifteen feet away and closing fast, his sneakers squeaking on the stone path. “Show you what I want, motherfucker.”

I tense my abs and say: “Dunno, man, you’re pretty soft.”

He plants his left foot and swings his right fist at my head, really telegraphing it, and I raise my hands to protect my face, already knowing his next move: a left jab to my stomach. Rick does exactly that, and I feel the blow as a wobbly vibration through the stunt torso, almost knocking me off-balance. If Rick sensed the difference between flesh and silicone, he doesn’t show it: instead, he launches a flurry of punches at my chest, driving me back across the lawn.

The stunt torso blunting the blows means I can take a breath means I can mutter: “It started as one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, but I think it’s love…”

I expect Rick to keep punching, maybe take another swipe at my head. Instead he opts for a sweeping kick that he no doubt saw in some action movie. I try to duck and weave, but he’s a quarter-second too quick. His foot catches me in the side, at the edge of the stunt torso, and drives the air from my lungs. My knees wobble, and I fall, trying to tuck into a ball as I hit the grass.

Through my forearms crossed over my face, I spy Dee take a position at the end of the driveway, the better for a wide-angle shot of her husband delivering a beatdown to a stranger. “Oh God,” she yells. “Oh God, Rick, stop. Please.”

Rick does not listen. In fact, the tempo of his blows speeds up, his feet slamming into the stunt torso, which can only take so much damage before my stomach begins to feel it. I can hear him muttering in time with the blows: “Show you… show you… show you…”

At moments like this, I wonder if dropping out of college was a mistake.

I could have been anything: an engineer, a software designer, a film director.

But maybe I’m helping more people this way.

After what seems like an eternity, the kicks slow, then stop. I lower my forearms. Big mistake. Rick, grinning, slams his heel into the right side of my face, and the world pops white. My mouth salty, a front tooth loose under my tongue. I groan, and Rick bends down until his lips are almost in my ear.

“That’s what you get,” he says, sounding satisfied. Offering Dee a middle finger, he turns and walks back to the house—limping a little. Maybe the thirtieth kick to my stomach sprained his ankle. Who says I can’t give as good as I get? I try to rise and the world tilts and lurches, my chin warm with blood. Dee’s hands on my elbow, helping me upright.

“I can drive you to a clinic,” she says. “Or a hospital.”

I take a deep breath that fills my lungs with napalm, but nothing pops or shifts in my chest. “Take me home,” I whisper, and opening my mouth lights a pack of matches under my tongue. “I’m okay. Just need… a little ice…”

We make it to the BMW. Buckled into the passenger seat, I take care to keep the collar of my shirt pressed against my mouth, to soak up the blood before it can stain the leather upholstery. Every turn out of the Heights sends my stomach slapping against my ribs, sparking fresh agony. I’ll make it, though. I’m a connoisseur of beatdowns; I know the nuances of bruises, the true depths of damage.

“How often you do this?” Dee asks, real concern in her voice.

I shrug. “Not that often,” I say, working the pain in my mouth like a piece of gum. “Couple times a year. Pays good, though.”

She shakes her head. “Such a weird job. How’d you get into it?”

“Life,” I say, and turn my head to the window.

Dee, taking the hint, stays quiet until we pull to the curb where she picked me up. Then she almost ruins everything by plucking the overpayment from the cup-holder and trying to force it into my hand. I swat it away. “No,” I say, opening the door. 

“Wait,” Dee asks.

I pause, one foot on the curb, already fantasizing about the ice packs in my freezer, the half-full bottle of whiskey in my bedroom.

“I know you’ll never meet Charles, but he’s grateful.” Dee brushes her lips against my wounded cheek, sparking a web of fire that crackles down my neck to my collarbone. “You’ve been a huge help. Thank you.”

“No problem,” I mumble, and exit the vehicle. I wish Dee well as I lurch down the sidewalk, pausing to spit a red gob into a tree-box. Although the stunt torso held up reasonably well to Rick’s rage, the dents in the sternum and left side suggest it has maybe two more jilted-husband jobs before I need to ask my brother for a new one.

It takes so long to walk the block to my place, fumble my keys from my pocket, and let myself into my apartment. In the darkness of my kitchen, I touch my cheek where Dee kissed it, flaring that dulling ache back to a full-on firestorm. I touch it again.
And again. And again. 

Damn, it hurts.

It hurts so good.

"Nick Kolakowski is the author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,' 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club' and the upcoming 'Rattlesnake Rodeo' (all from Down & Out Books). His short work has appeared in Tough, Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies."

Monday, February 25, 2019

Nick Kolakowski's Main Bad Guy, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

Main Bad Guy
Nick Kolakowski
Shotgun Honey Presents
reviewed by Tim Hennessy

Bill and Fiona, the con-man and assassin couple at the wild heart of Nick Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy (the frantic third book of his Love & Bullets Hookup series) have their backs against the proverbial cliff. If the Rockway Mob they double-crossed doesn’t kill them, all that stands in the way of financial liberation is eluding everyone trying to capture the heroes and their escape fund.

In the first book of the series, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, Bill puts these events into motion when he runs off with a large sum of the mob’s money, and the Dean, their boss, puts a bounty on his head. The Dean dispatches multiple assassins to track him down, among them, Fiona, jilted by his disappearance and prepared to bring his head back to New York: the box, dry ice, and hacksaw ready. Bill, an expert in manipulating people and computer systems before his involvement with the mob, sticks to mostly small-time insurance scams, info hacks, and a little bookmaking on the side but a chance encounter with an older, suicidal con-man makes him reevaluate his life’s pursuits and act on his one-time fantasy escape plan. What makes him easy for Fiona to locate, other than the tracker placed in his favorite pair of boots, is recalling Bill’s extensive answer to a rhetorical question. She comes to his rescue; then things veer into a finale echoing the Wild Bunch and True Romance complete with a hitman channeling his inner Elvis.

Book two, Slaughterhouse Blues, finds our protagonists licking their wounds south of the border and beginning life in hiding. It doesn’t take long for the Dean to locate them, send two hitmen, and again Bill and Fiona go on the run, this time with one of their betrayers in tow, to help them dig up Nazi gold hidden in an old New York bar. It’s quick fun, that channels The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Installment three, Main Bad Guy, begins with Fiona and Bill en route to the airport, without a moment to catch their breaths, when an unknown attacker blindsides their cab. Kolakowski doesn’t shy away from showing the physical toll life on the lam takes on our heroes.

“Bill’s cheekbones had swollen so much, he feared looking at himself in the mirror. He felt an absurd jealousy for action-movie heroes who could emerge from a pummeling with only a photogenic cut or two on their brow. In real life, skin behaved like ripe fruit when you hit it.”

After tending to their more urgent wounds, Bill and Fiona stumble upon luxury condos in mid-construction and decide to lay low and rest in one of the completed units. This innocuous decision proves fortuitous for the Rockway mob because it turns out they own the building.

The only hitch in the mob’s luck: Fiona and Bill access the penthouse panic room before their mercenary security team can corner them. With nowhere left to run, the Dean and his goons lay siege to their plans of escape, setting the stage for a long-brewing showdown.

Of all the heightened cinematic influences that bleed into Kolakowski’s Love & Bullets trilogy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid regularly come to mind. Desperadoes, fugitives perpetually on the run, and smartasses, Fiona and Bill likewise find themselves surrounded by people who want them dead at every turn while the good life calls to them from a distant land. Fiona and Bill’s relationship is the one element of the book where doubts linger. If love were measured in bruises and blood loss alone, it would be a tale for the ages. Early on it’s hard to see what draws them together. Fiona watches him hustle bar patrons until he tries his smooth charms on her and she offers him a job.

For someone who vouched to mobsters on the behalf of her thief boyfriend, Fiona’s flippant acceptance of Bill's dishonesty, even while predictable, is unclear why they want to go through all these obstacles to get a fresh start together. Maybe, like Fiona’s father Walker, who emerges from tough guy retirement to lend a hand, my skepticism is rooted in my affection for Fiona: she can do better than this doughy sweet talker. It’s difficult to imagine her and Bill in a less externally conflicted life together, without adrenalin and anxiety fueling their every move. At least Butch had a simpatico partner in Sundance, even when pinned down on the narrow face of a cliff with only water below, he was willing to risk the uncertainty of Butch’s escape plan. Even if he couldn’t swim. It’s hard to know if Bill and Fiona are as equipped to deal with the downtime of a straight life. The risks of settling down in a stable relationship together could be what finally kills them.

On the precipice of change, most of us barely notice as we straddle familiarity and the unrealized potential ahead of us. Change is fertile ground for cliché ridden aphorisms. From its opening scene to fiery final confrontation, Main Bad Guy is an inevitable conclusion to a madcap trilogy. As much as Kolakowski owes a debt to his cinematic influences, he crafts a high-action thriller, with a flair for the absurd.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Boise Longpig Hunting Club by Nick Kolakowski reviewed by E.F. Sweetman

Boise Longpig Hunting Club
Nick Kolakowski
Down & Out Books
ISBN-10: 1948235137
ISBN-13: 978-1948235136
320 pages
August 2018

In his May 2017 interview with Writer's Bone, Nick Kolakowski states, “I feel that crime fiction is a real exploration of the human animal. . . you want a peek at the beast that lives within us, crack open a crime novel.”

Kolakowski gets right down to that brutal beast within us in Boise Longpig Hunting Club. This relentless, fast-paced novel expands his sharp and gritty short story that first appeared in Thuglit Issue 21 titled “A Nice Pair of Guns.”

Rough guy and Iraq War Vet Jake Halligan is an Idaho bounty hunter who encounters every breed of low-life on a daily basis. He is a straightforward man with simple desires: work hard and enjoy life in rural southern Idaho, his space apart from the rest of the human race. He likes to spend time fishing after a rough week of rounding up criminal degenerates, bail-jumpers, and wacked-out drug addicts, and he is not averse to ending his day with few beers while he appreciates “the moments of order and justice that life can bring with hard work.”

But Jake’s life is anything but simple. He is a bounty hunter, and disliked by both the bail jumpers he chases, and the local cops. He is working hard on a second attempt at marriage with his ex-wife Janine, a worthy endeavor, but fraught with obstacles. And then there is his little sister Frankie, an illegal arms dealer, and a bad-ass crime queen who likes to solve problems with heavy artillery and explosions.

On a larger scale, Jake witnesses the vanishing and reshaping of the beautiful rugged southern Idaho countryside under an invasion of rich Californian and Texans, “potato kings, microchip executives, fast-food chain owners famous for tits labor laws violations, and other captains of industry, grabbing up the open land.” Giant McMansions and ugly malls with chain stores and Olive Gardens sprout upon formerly rugged, remote countryside. Kolakowski provides a brief but insightful passage of Jake and Janine are reluctantly about to meet their rich new neighbors.

We pulled into the long driveway of a two story McMansion with a commanding view of the river, its windows ablaze with light. These houses had sprung up across southern Idaho in recent years, bought by rich Californians or Texans in the market for a second or third home. They might have enjoyed the state’s low taxes and stunning landscape, but I often wondered what they thought about living next door to folks who barely scraped by?

The action intensifies when a body shows up in Jake’s gun safe. Jake can’t figure out if it is a warning, because the list of people who might want to send him a message is long: street level thugs, meth-heads, Aryan Nation, even local law enforcement. They all carry some level of grudge against him or his family. The mystery of who is behind the killings deepens until Jake, Janine and Frankie finds themselves in a survival death-match reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game.

Kolakowski writes in an unswerving and straightforward style reminiscent of old school crime writers Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain with this fast-paced, dark storyline and sharp dialogue. His dry humor shines in brief descriptions such as “a guy so muscular that. . . he looked like a half pound of rocks squeezed into a condom.” Despite the complex themes that mirror the difficulties prodding America today, Kolakowski is neither preachy nor heavy handed. He skillfully tackles the vast divide between those who have, and those who have-not, then dives deep into what could happen when money is plentiful, and the value of life is nonexistent. The bad guys may not look like bad guys at first “they look like a bunch of fat white men, but trust me when I tell you they can fuck up your shit better than anyone, because they can do it in broad daylight without worrying about any consequences.”

Jake and Frankie Halligan are the antidote to entitlement. Their banter is sharp, quick and funny, particularly during the moments of intense action where Frankie reminds Jake, “Our family, we don’t fold under pressure, we die with our teeth in our last enemy’s throat.” Which is not meant to imply that they are as cold-hearted and ruthless as their enemies. To the contrary, when Jake overhears a conversation by his captors, he responds in a real and gut-wrenching way.

Over the roaring river I caught the words “welfare” and “deadbeat,” followed by “drinking problem.” When he turned and pointed in my direction, and the men around him laughed, I knew he was talking about me. “I got a job,” I muttered. “I’m not a deadbeat.” A small, wounded part of me needed to voice that. Out of all the things that had happened to me over the past day or so—wounded, kidnapped, placed at the center of this sick little game—somehow this hurt the worst. I had done my best to make something of myself in this world, whatever my mistakes.

Boise Longpig Hunting Club combines the best of both crime and thriller. The body count goes high, and the gun count goes even higher. It is filled with chaos, suffering, and memorable characters with awesome names like Zombie Bill, Monkey Man, the Viking, Fred the Nazi Marlboro Man. It is a fast-paced story that gets right to the point and holds the reader captive until its explosive finish.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Viking Funeral, by Nick Kolakowski

When they reached Piosa’s old property it was nine-fifteen and the sun burned down hard from a crystal-sharp winter sky. Their two cars turned onto a dirt track marked by a thick oak with a sun-bleached yellow ribbon garroting its trunk, and they bumped along until they reached a thinning patch of trees with a white doublewide in the middle of it. The trailer roof sprouted satellite dishes like alien mushrooms. From a window dangled a fading black flag with the skull-and-crossbones above the words ‘Sic Semper Deadbeats’ in gothic script.

In the lead car, Miller honked. The trailer door creaked open to reveal a teenager long and pale as a remora. He stood blinking in the sunlight and scratched a pimply shoulder and said, “Right-O.”

The cars stopped. Alex emerged from the rear one, squinting. Before climbing out, Miller yelled through his open window: “We’re here for your brother.”

The kid nodded and disappeared inside the trailer. Through the open door they could hear nervous-quick guitar and a gravelly voice singing about hell and damnation. The song reminding Miller of his childhood in Tennessee, the clapboard walls of those backwoods churches quivering as the Sunday congregation inside burst with the love and fury they kept bottled for the week’s other six days and twenty-three hours. His brother in the pew next to him, mouthing profane variations on the hymns as he made playing cards appear, disappear, appear from his lapels, sleeves, ears, mouth. As if from a distance he heard Alex say, “What’s with the country crap?”

Miller snorted. “That’s not country. That’s Johnny Cash.”

“Cash is country.”

“Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash.” Miller forced a cheerful note into his voice. “Accept no substitutes.” Opening the trunk of his car he set the sloshing gas-cans onto the ground, then opened the emergency kit beside the spare wheel. Stuffed three roadway flares into the back pocket of his jeans.

“Country,” Alex said, leaning forward to spit, and nearly tumbled to the frozen ground. He was still drunk from last night. Miller struggled to find a little pity.

The kid reappeared, holding aloft a cardboard box in the manner of a holy offering. For a delirious moment it seemed like he might yodel forth some Latin. Arms raised, Miller stepped forward to receive the relic, concentrating on holding it perfectly level as he moved away. He feared letting the box shift to one side, and hearing the dusty slither from within.

“Oh man,” Alex moaned. “You put him in that?”

“Sold the urn online,” the kid said. “Paid part of the rent. Not like he’d care.”

“We care.” Miller wondered what sort of human being would buy a used urn. “That’s sort of the point. Alex, grab the gas.”

“The Beast’s around the back,” the kid said. “Don’t take this as an insult? But I’ll be inside. I deal with grief my own way.” He disappeared into the cool dark of the trailer, and Johnny Cash switched to Axl Rose wailing about Chinese Democracy.

Alex hoisted the two gas cans, groaning like it was an epic feat. They circled around the trailer and as their feet crushed the brown grass it shimmered, alive with panicked insects fleeing their advance. The land behind the trailer rose into a low hill dotted with bare elms, and there they found the Mustang.

The car gleamed like a work of art. They had seen it before; Piosa, now residing in the box in Miller’s hands, had photographed every stage of its rebirth from rust-heap to cherry. Piosa, who had taken a sniper’s bullet above the left eye in the Korengal Valley, dead before the rest of them even heard the shot, dead two years ago today.

Miller set the cremains on the ground and stood. A fast wind rose and rattled the trees. Snow’s coming, Miller thought as took one of the cans from Alex’s hand, twisted off the cap and doused the Mustang’s hood. The gas flowed across the metal and rained softly on the grass. Alex took his cue and used the other can to soak the roof and trunk. Miller opened the passenger-side door and splashed the vintage leather and dashboard with the last of his can and went to retrieve the box.

Alex spun and tossed his cans away, reeled back, almost fell. “Not the best idea, drinking before something like this,” Miller told him.

“Don’t blame me,” Alex said. “The only kid on the block whose daddy got him a case of Bud for Christmas.”

“Funny.” Miller slid the box onto the driver’s seat of the Mustang, noting the keys in the ignition. As if waiting for Piosa to clamber inside, loose one of his patented war-whoops and punch the gas. The smell of fuel in the enclosed space wrung tears from his eyes. “Anything to say for the dear departed?”

Alex clasped his hands and bowed his head. “Piosa. Good man, good operator. Went from us too soon. That’s it.”

Miller pulled one of the road flares from his cargo pants and took five steps backward from the open car door. “Fire in the hole.” The flare burst sparkly-red, reminding Miller of the ones they used to let the Chinooks overhead know the landing-zone was hot. He tossed it in.

The seats caught fire. The flames leapt. They danced. They strutted their stuff across the seats. The windows and dashboard dials burst in applause. The paint crackled in laughter. In seconds a plume of greasy smoke billowed out the open door, scrambling for the sky. The box in the driver’s seat blackened and folded in upon itself and its lid curled open and white ash swirled into the hot slipstream and disappeared forever.

Miller and Alex knew the physics of the situation. They retreated twenty yards and hit the dirt and covered their heads in their hands.

With an eardrum-shattering boom the gas tank exploded and a lovingly restored chunk of engine howled into the sky. Heat crisped the hairs on their forearms. After that the Mustang settled into a more peaceful burning.

They stood, Alex saying, “Tell me: Why did Viking funerals ever go out of style?”

From down the hill, the trailer’s screen door banged open. The kid on the lawn yelling words lost in the roar of flames. Then he raised a middle finger high and stomped back inside.

Miller felt his mind slip into war mode. He walked toward the burning Mustang, Alex shouting behind him, the questioning sounds of a dog left alone in an unfamiliar place. Miller stopped behind the car and slammed his heel into the rear bumper as hard as he could. The Mustang began to almost imperceptibly creep forward, and gravity saw its chance. Standing on a thrumming left leg Miller offered the whole scene a proper military salute as the car bounced and jostled its way downhill, trailing a party of flames.

Piosa’s pride and joy collided with the trailer dead center and the impact knocked the windows out of their frames and the satellite dishes from the roof. The fire spied new territory to conquer and leapt shimmering to the cheap white siding. The whole structure was half aflame before the kid ran out squawking and stood in the yard with his fingers clenched in his hair. Alex and Miller watched everything burn with clinicians’ eyes.

“You’re losing it,” Alex told him, almost as an aside. “Really, truly losing it.”

Miller had nothing to say to that. The fire burst from the trailer roof and flapped its orange hands in the sunlight.

“You believe in the concept of blowback?” Alex said. “After everything that happened over there. Ever think someone will come at you for the shit you did?”

Hours later, Miller would blame what happened next on his mind in war-mode, where everything was a threat, and no insult too small for repayment. Quick as a rattler he slammed his right foot into the back of Alex’s left kneecap, sending him to the grass. Before the man could suck in more than half a breath Miller had dropped a knee onto his sternum. “Shut up,” Miller said.

“You’re a total wacko.” Alex wheezed, hissing steam. “It’s being noticed. Not in a friendly way. People ready to do something about it.”

“People got nothing to worry about,” Miller said.

Alex rocketed a sloppy fist at Miller’s head. Miller slap-pushed his arm aside and followed through with two hits to Alex’s jaw and left eye-socket. The violence had been automatic as a sneeze but in its wake Miller felt a little sick. He stared at the bright blood bubbling along the crest of Alex’s eye and thought: This is what I do.

“Like they’ll take your word,” Alex coughed bloody.

“They’ll have to. I’m done with this crap.” Miller eased upright. The cans had tumbled on their sides, leaking pungent gas. Miller retrieved them and followed the swath of scorched grass to the bottom of the hill, where Piosa’s brother knelt at the edge of the burning trailer, warbling into a phone. For an instant Miller considered snatching the device away and tossing it underhand into the fire. Instead he hurled the gas cans into the back of his car and drove away. The pillar of smoke stained his rear-view mirror for two miles before it was lost in hills and distance.