Monday, May 6, 2019

The Blind, fiction by Russell Thayer

The waitress studied the man seated at his customary window table. She’d caught him looking at her three or four times since taking his order. There. He looked at her again.

She’d watched the man all week. He’d visited the restaurant seven or eight straight weekdays, always ordering the same item off the lunch menu. He wore the same well-pressed suit and grey hat, which he’d always place on the same hook, as if he were born to do that. Maybe there wasn’t much to figure out. He was always alone. Perhaps he was nobody, like her. As tall as a Swede, and quite good-looking, he resembled poor, dead Leslie Howard with his tidy crown of blonde curls and high forehead. And he’d been generous to her on one occasion.

That incident had taken place the first day he came into the restaurant, and what he’d given the girl was a welcome conversation. He said he thought her English accent made her sound both scholarly and stylish, though she hadn’t been in an English schoolroom since 1940. Hong Kong. That was almost six years ago. She was now eighteen and under the impression that her once proper accent had gone flat after years of being ground into the earth by a horde of coarse-mouthed Yanks inside the prison walls of Santo Tomas. Manila. She knew she wasn’t stylish, didn’t look like much, but it was nice of him to say. The man then asked her what she liked to do with her free time, which made her heart bounce, though she didn’t think he was getting fresh. She explained that she liked to go to the movies on Sundays, her day off, or walk down to the Fillmore neighborhood after work to listen to the Negro Jazz bands go crazy in the night. She admitted that she was a pianist herself, and he nodded with high opinion, suggesting they might go out sometime to do one or two of those things she liked to do. The girl thought she’d like to go to the man’s apartment with him, if he ever asked her, but nothing had come of his apparent teasing, and he’d never talked to her again, other than to make his daily order.

Now he waved an arm over his head as if he were drowning. She hoped there wasn’t anything wrong with the veal. He always ordered the veal. The cook never made a mistake.

She hurried to his table. “Is there a problem?”

He smiled. “I want to talk to you.”

“There’s nothing left to tell.”

“Just listen.” He smiled again, and she listened. “Saturday evening, this Saturday, the 22nd, there’s a Christmas party for the employees of the engineering firm where I work. It’s usually quite an evening.” He looked at her hands, which were clasped in a knot over her pelvis. “I was wondering if you might like to go with me. As my date.”

“Why me?” He was a good ten years older. She knew she was thin, shapeless.

“Look, I’m not much for parties, but the guys have been brow-beating me all week. I’m not seeing anybody right now. I need a date. You seem like a lively girl. Why not?”

She cleared her throat. “What time is the party? Mind you, I work until ten on Saturday.”

The man shrugged. “People should be pretty high by then, but it’ll go half the night. Ten’s fine. Shall I pick you up? Where do you live?”

“I live right here. Upstairs with the owner, but I’m not allowed to let anyone in after we close. I’ll meet you on the sidewalk.”

The man nodded while the girl stood frozen in place. It was the first time after seven months in the city that a man or boy had asked her out on a proper date. The men at the clubs where she drank beer and tossed her head in time to the music didn’t count. They just wanted to take her straight to bed, hungry for a good girl out of her environment, but she wasn’t having any of that. This man wanted to spend an entire evening with her. Was he mad?

“What’s your name?” He smiled again, making a riot in her heart.

“Maggie Bates,” she said, sticking out her hand.

The man gathered her fingers in a gentle grip. “Richard Carlson. May I have the check?”


Richard arrived by taxi the following Saturday, promptly at ten. Maggie waited at the curb, nervous in a borrowed red dress and unpracticed makeup. Mrs. Bragana, the Italian owner of the restaurant, had helped the girl arrange her lifeless copper hair into a surprising pile on the top of her head.

“Don’t you have a purse?” Richard raised an eyebrow as his date climbed into the cab.

“Will I need money?” Maggie had learned to keep anything of value in her pockets, to be fought for if someone ever tried to take it from her. She rarely went out with more than the price of a movie and a Coca Cola. Men paid for her beer and smokes at the Club Alabam or the Texas Playhouse. Strangers didn’t scare her much. Other than a key to the restaurant door safety-pinned to the inside of her brassiere, Richard wouldn’t find anything he could use on her dead body, if that was his plan for the evening.

During the rollercoaster ride over hard, glittering hills, Maggie smoked her last two cigarettes, watching Richard out of the corner of her eye as he prattled on about the passing landmarks.

She interrupted him. “Mrs. Bragana asked me why a handsome man like you doesn’t have a girlfriend or wife to take to the party. I told her to mind her own business.”

Richard smiled, but stopped talking.

The taxi stopped finally in front of a Victorian row house near the marina, one of many similar structures built in steps up a gradually inclining street. Light from the house roared onto the sidewalk along with shrill voices and dance band music from a radio or turntable. A sour sea-breeze urged the couple up the high wooden steps to a covered porch.

Inside the open doorway, a giddy pack of men had ambushed a woman as she stepped into the house, squarely under a sprig of mistletoe. The woman under attack was at least forty, and allowed herself to be kissed in turn as Maggie and Richard waited on the threshold. After being waved inside Maggie stood rigidly in position as one oily-haired stranger after another tried to push his tongue into her mouth. The confrontation made her a little sick in her stomach.

Richard, not taking part in the exhibition, rescued his date when she began to grow a little cross. Maggie gaped at him as he led her down a hallway thick with paintings, leafy plants, and heavy oriental rugs. Was there something wrong? She would have happily let him kiss her.

He stopped to re-pin a loose strand of her hair. “I’m sorry you had to run the gauntlet like that.”

“I’ve had worse.”

“You’re a funny girl.”

“Not really.”

Richard smiled, tugging at her arm. “Let’s find you a cocktail.”


A large man with a patchwork of grafted skin pulled tight across his lower face, neck, and hands fabricated cocktails in the bustling kitchen. Wearing a white cotton apron, he worked at a chopping block island, surrounded by thirsty partiers. An army of varied bottles stood at attention, but the preferred cocktail that evening seemed to be the whiskey sour. Maggie, accustomed to the inexpensive Lucky Lager offered as a lure at the clubs, had never tasted a fancy cocktail. She was too young to order hard drinks for herself, and would never waste her own money on such things. The people around her laughed and swayed as they drank, not a care in the world. The men were all good-looking. It was like being in a movie. The room was full of the smell of lemons, and fresh lemons always made Maggie feel happy and healthy. She readily agreed to a whiskey sour, marveling at the ratio of bourbon to juice. The scarred barman poured a dollop of clear syrup into the mixture before shaking up her special allotment. The first gulp ignited a fire in her stomach. After another swallow, Maggie smacked her lips at the sweet tartness, tossing an approving nod to the manufacturer, suddenly very excited to be with well-to-do people, successful adults with fine jobs and big plans, enjoying life for a bit as a grown-up herself in a lovely city at the edge of a vast, astonishing country.

While licking at the rim of her glass, wondering where the fruit had come from at this time of year, Maggie slipped her arm through Richard’s. She could tell by the gentle pressure that it pleased him.


Cheerful flames danced in the living-room fireplace. Trays of cookies, fruitcake, and caramels winked from satin-covered card-tables. A perfectly tapered tree stood in the corner, covered in glass balls, popcorn strings, and peppermint sticks. Sparkling strands of tinsel hung from the ceiling. Maggie thought of icicles when she looked up, sipping her cocktail, recalling her father’s long-ago promise of a Dickensian winter holiday in England, before the war. She’d never seen snowfall. She’d never been to England. Her father was dead. Shaking her glass, listening to the pretty tinkle of ice, she looked around the room, content to be where she was right then.

Richard introduced Maggie to a number of tipsy men with names like Pratt, Dingle, and Blotto, but she had no intention of remembering anyone. She knew no one would remember her.

A woman staggered into a card-table, clutching the tablecloth, then pulling an array of cookies onto the floor before joining them. People laughed as the woman struggled to get up. One man kept her down by putting his foot on her bottom. The band music was eventually turned off as a tall man with a heavy beard sat down at a piano to lead them through a round of Christmas carols. Maggie, fighting an urge to smash the keyboard cover onto his clumsy fingers, sang along with the others, putting the sour notes out of her mind while she drank.

As night turned to early morning, Maggie left Richard’s side every twenty minutes to return to the crowded kitchen for another cocktail. She waited at the side of the wooden butcher block, men lurching against her, crowding her while they joked with friends. She was the youngest female in the house. Perhaps the most innocent. She’d caught gentlemen up to age sixty staring at her long neck and smooth flesh. The women stared just as hard, gathering in small gangs, whispering, their lipstick vivid on flared lips. Many of the women were drunk, and looked at Maggie as if they already knew something horrible about the girl.

At one point, in front of the fire, a large group began to share war stories. Not all the men had served, but there was much boasting about who had fought where and how bad it had been. Maggie blurted out during a lull in the competition that she’d been a prisoner for three years in Manila. Immediately a woman asked if she’d been raped by Jap soldiers, and the room grew very quiet, very warm. This was often the first question people asked when they heard she’d come out of the war in the Pacific. Maggie was tired of answering it. After a moment, she replied that she’d never been raped, and the focus of the crowd shifted to other topics of conversation, no one interested in all the things that had been done to her.

Richard settled into a pattern of good-natured jousting with his workmates. The men began to complain about a particular engineering project they were embroiled in, overusing terms like groyne, backfill, and screwpile, which soon annoyed the girl. Suddenly bored with men, and tired of the flaunted jewels and powerful perfume rising off of their high-heeled wives or girlfriends, Maggie developed an urgent curiosity about the house, detaching herself from Richard’s arm to float down the long central hallway on her flat soles.

Various rooms grew off this inner trunk. Maggie stopped first in the study, where she’d thrown her jacket upon arrival. In the corner of the small room, a leather couch was buried under a mound of furs and elegant winter dress coats. Enough light came from the hall so Maggie could choose a sable jacket from the pile, pulling it on over her dress. It was silk-lined, and it fit her well. The fur was soft in her fingers, the texture not unlike her own hair. There was no mirror in the room, but she liked the way she thought she looked. She could smell the woman and the animal together around her shoulders, and it made her tingle to feel them both so close to her own skin. A silver-clad cigarette lighter and a half pack of Chesterfields filled one of the inner pockets. Without thinking much, she dropped them both into the side pocket of her dress before tossing the jacket back onto the pile.

The next room down the hall was a bedroom. The door had been closed when she found it. After poking her head inside, she made out the bed in the dim light. She glanced down the hall, then entered the room, shutting the door with a soft click. After settling onto the high bed, spreading her arms to feel the tufted chenille pattern under her palms, she could tell that a woman lived in the house. After looking through the dresser drawers, feeling the thin silk of the woman’s undergarments and stockings, she stood at the window for a bit, watching the clouds and moon interact.

To the side of the bedroom, Maggie found a private bath. The door was open a crack, the space inside faintly illuminated by a small nightlight. Maggie entered and closed the door, turning the lock. She lit a cigarette, cracking the window a few inches. After turning on the light and pushing some of her hair around in front of the mirror, she opened the medicine cabinet. A bottle of aspirin stood on the top shelf. She emptied a dozen tablets into her hand, chewing one bitter pill before dropping the remainder into her pocket. A plain box on the middle shelf drew her attention. She opened it to discover a supply of prophylactics. Two of them followed the aspirin into her pocket. The sound of approaching footsteps gave Maggie a start. Someone rapped on the door. Maggie lifted the heavy lid of the toilet tank and dropped her cigarette into the water.

A woman spoke with muffled annoyance. “This is a private bathroom.”

Maggie used her American voice. “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t see another one.”

“I don’t know how you missed it. It’s right there in the hallway. The door’s open and the light is on.” The woman’s voice faded as she walked away. “If you’re being sick in there, please don’t wipe your mouth on my towels.”


“Where did you find her?”

Maggie’s ears strained toward a group of men clustered on the opposite side of the Christmas tree.

“Who? Oh. We’ve been going out for three months.” It was Richard who answered.

An older fellow spoke next, his hand on Richard’s back as he leaned in to question him. “Did you pluck her from a high school playground?”

“What? What do you mean by that?”

“Good Heavens, man, she’s fifteen, if a day.”

Maggie moved more deeply into the tree.

“Oh, she’s older than that.”

“How old is she, Richard?” another asked. “Has she got any hair on her yet?” A few men chuckled at the joke.

Richard took a long drink. Maggie felt a twinge of pity for him, for his not having asked or even considered such a thing as the age of the girl he was supposed to be dating. She watched the coming lie begin to press down on him, making his eye twitch a little, like a mouse caught behind the kitchen stove by a crowd of mischievous cats.

“Easy, Richard.” A tall fellow patted his back. “No one’s going to call the cops.”

“She’s twenty, Vince.” Richard took another swallow of his cocktail as the men around him snorted with disbelief.

The bearded pianist, introduced at some point simply as Wheeler, lurched unsteadily toward Richard, his finger aiming for the man’s nose but finding his upper lip instead. He chuckled at what he was about to say, then said it. “You claim she’s a girl, but I think she’s built more like a boy, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Maggie reddened at the additional insult. She was eighteen and very aware that her chest had not filled out to much effect. A quarter cup of rice a day would do that to a growing child. She was a girl. She did have breasts. Men had gripped them.

She would show the bastards, Maggie thought as she came around the tree, making a display of discovering Richard. “There’s my man,” she declared with the earthy gusto of Rita Hayworth, putting her arms around Richard’s middle while snuggling into his chest. “I’m beat to my socks, honey. Take me home to your cozy apartment. I want to curl up in that big bed of yours and not crawl out until Spring.”

The uproarious laughter which followed her performance caused her brow to wrinkle. She pulled away from Richard, who looked down at her, a sad smile on his face. The room became a very quiet place, the crowd waiting for his response. Maggie turned, trying to comprehend the rosy faces around her, but much of the space was out of focus. Everyone seemed to be staring at her, the women with their mouths open.

Richard touched her hair. “I live in a house with my mother. Everyone knows that. But thanks for trying.”

The crowd roared again. Trying? Maggie couldn’t understand why that was funny, and nearly stumbled over a chair as she dashed through the swinging kitchen door.

The scarred barman waited for duty at the butcher-block island in the center of the room. He and Maggie were alone for a change, and she felt suddenly safe in the warm kitchen refuge, with its sanitary white tile and red linoleum floor. It was like an abattoir, she thought. With whiskey sours. She laughed out loud at the juxtaposition.

Through a window over the sink, a bit of downtown flickered hopefully in the distance, around the edge of a rising hill. Maggie tried to orient herself toward home, but didn’t know where that was. Her small room waited over that way, somewhere in the lights. She knew that much. Maybe Richard would take her to a hotel before dawn, let her drowse like a baby in a big bed after doing what he needed to do to her. But she knew he wouldn’t. It was over. She had humiliated him somehow and he would never be anything to her.

Maggie noticed a door to the back porch. She looked through the window again. Steps travelled down to a small backyard where a gate led to the street.

Could she find her way back to the restaurant?

“Oh, barman, Sir? May I go out to the porch?” She was ready to run all night.

“Why don’t you stay inside with me, sweetheart? Have another drink. My name’s Eddie.”

Maggie strode to the edge of the island with a brisk nod, soon rapt as the patchwork hands split fruit with a small bone-handled knife. She licked her lips as Eddie ground the lemon halves against the juicer, turning her pale gaze onto the quilt of skin which made up his cheeks, wanting to hold his chin in her hand and whisper that he was lucky to have his eyes.

He returned the keen study as he finished. “You’re awful cute with those little girl freckles. How ‘bout we go back to my place for a private party. I’ll pour some whiskey in your bellybutton. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Maggie felt a rush of heat on her neck. “No, thank you. I have a date. I’m going home with him in case you don’t understand how these situations work.”

“That drip? I bet he don’t know which end of you is which, and what for.”

Eddie handled the shaker in a manner Maggie thought quite suggestive, then poured the contents into a dirty lowball glass. He was drunk, too, or maybe it was she who tipped the tumbler so haphazardly that some of the tepid contents soaked her hand. While Eddie watched her, Maggie sucked the whiskey off her sticky fingers, one by one, staring back at him with cloudy blue eyes.

“You little bitch.”

Maggie drained the glass. Her skin prickled. The room began to fluctuate. Richard had been sweet to her under the tinsel, touching her hair and allowing her to be foolish in front of everyone. He could fill her bellybutton with whiskey in the big bed, in the posh hotel. She would even open her eyes for him.

Eddie watched her, a wicked smile on his lips. Maggie didn’t like it.

“I heard you out there. I bet the Japs done you over.” He held up his fist, his pinky extended. “I bet you like them little monkeys.”

She raised her eyebrows. The men certainly talked about her readily enough. “No Jap ever touched me, Eddie, old boy, except to slap my face for not bowing down in the street. As to being done over, as you like to call it, yes, I was raped for a few hours once, if that makes you happy, but it was by American soldiers, my liberators. After three years in that bloody prison camp, I guess it was my way of thanking them.”

Eddie shrugged. “Don’t blame me, girlie. I done my stretch in Europe.” He winked. “You made out better’n them Jews I saw.”

Maggie bit her lower lip to keep herself from spitting at the man. Yes, she had lived in better conditions than the Jews in their Nazi camps. She’d been told the very thing a thousand times. She was about to explain to ignorant Eddie that being starved slowly to death was not necessarily a better fate than being gassed or shot, when Richard burst through the swinging door, followed by his friend, Vince.

Vince tried to grab Richard’s shoulder. “Look, man, I don’t care what you are.” Bearded Wheeler came next through the door, bellowing like a cow. “This town is getting to be rotten with guys like you, and I’m sick of it. Do you hear me? Sick of it. Why’s the Army gotta discharge all its head cases here in my home town, for Christ’s sake? I’m sick of looking at them on the street. Sick of them looking at me.” Wheeler turned to Maggie. “And you’re no better, young lady. Where’d Dickie pick you up? Down on Pacific Avenue?”

Eddie pushed past Maggie to confront Richard. “I knew it. I knew the minute you walked in here, you gutless three-letter shit-heel.” Weaving on shaky legs, he laughed. “And your whore here thinks she’s gonna earn five bucks later.”

“Please don’t call her that.” Richard’s voice quavered.

“Take it easy, Eddie,” Vince demanded, stepping in front of the angry barman, who was now pointing his finger into Richard’s face.

“We threw a couple you guys off the fantail of our transport one night. Never even heard ‘em hit the water.”

Richard was now very red in the face. “What have I ever done to you?” he asked.

Eddie punched Richard in the teeth, knocking him to the floor.

Maggie picked up the lemon-cutting knife and drove it deep into the thigh of scar-faced Eddie as he brought his other leg back to kick her friend. Blood erupted onto her hand as the barman buckled, screaming as he fell onto his back. Maggie jammed the knife into the butcher block. Grabbing a halved lemon, she squatted over Eddie, squeezing the juice into his eyes.

More men now pushed into the room. They were nearly on top of each other as they stared in disbelief.

“Some party!” one shouted.

“Make a tourniquet!”

“Call for an ambulance!”

Richard sat on the floor, his head in his hands, a cut lip turning purple. Wheeler gaped at the blood dripping from Maggie’s fingers. Standing by the sink now, out of the way, she looked back at him, wanting to explain just how bad a piano player he was. Eddie whimpered like a puppy as his blood grew into a puddle around him. Maggie watched as someone looped a belt around his thigh. Soldiers knew what to do.

Vince helped Richard to his feet. “Get your hired-girl out of here.”


They walked a mile before a taxi stopped. Maggie had tried to reach Richard with apology after they darted out of the kitchen door, pleading with him to forgive her as they stumbled down the shadowy porch steps, dancing in front of him to get his attention as they crossed the tiny yard to the gate, yelping his name repeatedly, explaining that she always made a mess of things, that he was her only friend, that she just wanted to matter to someone.

The only verbal acknowledgement Richard made was to shout at Maggie to keep still, which made her fall to her knees on the sidewalk, shivering, her pile of hair finally falling apart. After lifting the girl to her feet, Richard buttoned his suit jacket around her shoulders, her threadbare coat still on the pile in the front room of a house she could never go back to. He rubbed her arms to warm them.

Richard was just as silent after entering the cab as he had been during their flight. He looked out the window at nothing, chewing his tongue.

Maggie’s head began to pound like one of the big artillery pieces set up in an open space at Santo Tomas, after liberation, exploding in white, aching thoughts. Her stomach roiled in response as the taxi flew over the hills, the streets now empty.

She rolled her forehead through the condensation her agony had spread across the window. “Why did he hit you? Can you at least tell me that?

“He had his reasons.”

Maggie swallowed a thick pool of spit. “Whatever they were, I didn’t want them to be true.” She gulped. “I’m going to be sick now.”

The cab slowed to the curb. Maggie opened the door, tipping her head down to retch into the gutter. Richard laid his handkerchief on her knee after she pulled herself upright, the muscles in her face pulled tight. After a minute of dull meter clicking, the driver pulled away.

Her head now felt like a towel being wrung out. The thin skin of her eyelids could barely contain her swelling eyeballs. They would explode against the windshield. She turned to Richard without opening her eyes. “Take me somewhere. Please. A hotel with a big bed. You can do anything you want to me.” Her stomach swayed. The cab was moving too fast again.

Richard scolded her. “Don’t talk like you’re trash.”

Maggie trembled as the cab lurched to a stop in front of the Bella Rosa. She gripped Richard’s knee, shouting foolishly. “I don’t want to go back to prison!”

“For God’s sake!” Twisting away from Maggie’s hand, Richard removed his wallet from a back pocket. “Look. I’ll say I found you on Pacific Avenue. And that I took you back there when we were finished. That’s all I can do.” He opened the wallet. “This is for being a good sport.”

Maggie grabbed the ten-dollar bill he offered her, crumpling it into a damp ball. Richard then held out his hand, motioning with his upturned fingers as if for her to come closer. Maggie worried for a second that she was going to have to do something repulsive to Richard in the back of the cab. She inched closer, her eyes trying to read the cabbie’s broad back.

“My jacket.”

She touched her chest, stroking the strange fabric. “Oh. Of course.” After fumbling with the buttons, she wriggled herself free and laid the suit jacket onto Richard’s knees. He must have been shivering in his shirt and tie. The brisk air on her neck did not make her feel any more settled in her stomach, and she nearly fell backwards out of the cab when she opened the door. While steadying herself on the sidewalk to say goodbye, the cab grumbled away. As Richard disappeared, a man whistled from a nearby shadow, making Maggie bolt for the familiar door of the restaurant, ripping at the buttons of her dress, tearing the key away from her brassiere. After letting herself into the hushed dining room, she slammed the heavy door behind her, locking herself in.


The police didn’t come for her the next day, or any day after that. Richard never returned to the restaurant for his plate of veal. Maggie occasionally wondered what his associates had done to him, if he’d been cast over the fantail into the sea. Sometimes she felt like that, like flotsam adrift on the rounding swell.

Russell Thayer is a retired printer who has rediscovered writing late in life. His stories have appeared in Bricolage and Pulp Modern. Never planning to tire of crime fiction and movies, he currently lives in Montana with his wife and dog.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Notes and Updates

Some exciting changes coming for Tough, so keep checking in here and on Twitter @Tough_Crime. It's often easier to reach our base that way. Speaking of which, someone must be talking about us somewhere, because submissions have quadrupled over the last few days. We're bogged down but fighting out. Thanks.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Heart Within Me, fiction by Ilan Mochari

Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure, with a heart within me patient of affliction.

 —The Odyssey, Chapter V

“I must find a fifty-year-old man,” Flores said in English to the slender, red-haired tourist. “He’s six feet tall, with brown eyes and straight black hair. He was probably with two or three port workers. Have you seen him?”

“I’ve been in the water all morning,” said the tourist, standing barefoot on wet sand beside his yellow kayak, his eyes fixed on his double-bladed paddle. “Maybe someone in the lodge can help you.”

The lodge employees had not seen the fifty-year-old man either. Nor had the village fishermen, the Russians smoking cigars on the golf course, the taxi drivers back at the airport, the churchgoers in Sonsonate, nor any of the others Flores had quizzed in his quest to find Gilberto Calderon, the union leader. Still, Flores persisted. At the equipment rental shop on the main street, he asked to see the owner: a Floridian named Francisco Nevaras, who’d run the place as far back as Flores could remember.

“He’s busy,” yawned the teenaged clerk. The frayed sleeves of his wetsuit dripped a small puddle on the wooden counter by the register.

Flores grinned. “I only need him for one minute,” he said, loud enough so anyone in the shop could hear. Nevaras emerged from a back room, wearing shorts and sandals. Flores posed his question. “Do you have a photo of this man?” replied Nevaras. Flores shook his head. Nevaras walked away.

The port of Acajutla had seemed like the likeliest place to find Calderon; it was, after all, where the Praest longshoremen worked all day—and it was the longshoremen Calderon hoped to unionize. But it wasn’t just a worker’s wharf: There was a strip of high-end restaurants nearby, where the Texaco executives and Praest magnates and wealthy Russians lunched. Perhaps Calderon feted the port workers with appetizers of lemony ceviche and creamy-broth mariscada.

Yet there’d been no trace of Calderon at the restaurant strip or anywhere else. And now it seemed as if Calderon had avoided the coast altogether—that Acajutla was hardly the hotbed of his labor-relations efforts. It was just a port, as it had always been.

Returning to the highway, Flores sped northeast toward San Salvador. Vetiver hedges lined the road on both sides. Soon the hedges gave way to midsized cypress trees with densely clustered leaves of dark green.


“I will find Calderon and kill him,” Flores had promised Oscar Cardoza, a government employee in the Ministry of Public Security & Justice. The clean-shaven Cardoza wore silk ties and bragged about buying $200 shoes for his wife at the new Nine West on Boulevard del Hipodromo. Flores chuckled. He was amused that Cardoza was accepted as a legitimate white-collar professional. They had fled to Los Angeles together in their teens, escaping the civil war. They had survived their gang initiation beatings on the same night in MacArthur Park, each losing multiple teeth. The next day, both got their official chest tattoos, the calligraphic MS and the stenciled 13.

 “Kill Calderon,” Cardoza said, “and we will get you an easy job in the U.S. In Boston. In a restaurant owned by a friend of ARENA. Nichols is his name. His family has millions in Praest stock. We’ll get you a passport. A visa. A Massachusetts driver license. Everything, Lázaro. We’ll move your family to a big house in Escalon, and pay for them to visit you in Boston twice a year. We won’t tax your remittances either.” Cardoza’s shiny shoes were up on his desk, next to his rotary phone.

“Sounds like a job for Fonsito,” said Flores. Alfonso had been their MS-13 clique leader.

“I’ve seen you kill, Lazito. I know you can do this.”

“I don’t want to leave my family.”

“Believe me, Lázaro, I asked about that. But my bosses are scared to leave a trail. The Teamsters know we want Calderon dead. Everyone knows how much money we’d lose if Praest has to deal with a union. When Calderon dies, people are going to notice. If your whole family vanishes, people will ask questions. If it’s just you—no one will suspect. And that’s because you haven’t held a gun since our Los Angeles days.”

Flores rose. “No, thank you,” he said.

“Sit down, Laz,” said Cardoza.

Flores sat. “I have no choice in this?”

“You could agree now, and we’ll have Idalia and Hector and your parents in Escalon next week,” said Cardoza. “Or you could agree after a few nights behind bars in La Esperanza. I’m sorry it has to be this way. But my career is on the line here.”

Cardoza showed him—but did not let him keep—a few photographs of Calderon. “A limo outside will take you to the airport Alamo rental,” said Cardoza. “There’s a Sentra—red, I think—waiting for you. There’s a Glock in the glove compartment too, just like old times. After you kill Calderon, put the gun in the trunk and return the car to the airport. Nichols has people at the airport, and they’ll alert him when the Sentra rolls in. Then you and Nichols will fly to Boston in his private jet.” Cardoza pushed his phone toward Flores and handed him the receiver. “Call Idalia and explain,” he said. “If she protests, I’m happy to speak to her.”


Flores approached the Metropolitan Cathedral. The hand-painted tiles of its façade were the work of Fernando Llort, a favorite of Idalia’s. Of course, Llort had not literally painted the façade; he’d designed it, and over the course of one year a group of hired hands had executed the mural according to his schemes. At the time of the painting, Flores was working one block away in Plaza Barrios, building the city’s first art museum.

Two young men stood near him. Both wore jeans and tucked-in white t-shirts. One was slender with a wispy mustache. He looked about eighteen. The other looked a few years older. He had a full mustache of dark brown. A small belly sagged over his belt buckle, threatening to untuck the t-shirt. It was as if behind the shirt there was not an actual stomach but a sack of beads.

“Gentlemen,” said Flores, “have you seen a fifty-year-old man, with brown eyes and black hair? He’s six feet tall. He might have been with a few port workers.”

The one with the belly laughed. “It may be that we share a quest,” he said. “A missing union leader, is it? And he has dark features?” He laughed again. “You’re not the only explorer in the sea, my friend. We seek Calderon too.”

“Why do you seek him?” Flores asked.

“For money. Why else?” said the belly.

“I wish you luck in your quest,” said Flores. He walked away from the cathedral.

“Hey, Flores—have you heard of Francisco Nevaras?” shouted the skinny one.

Flores stopped and turned around. “No,” he said.

“He owns the equipment rental shop in Acajutla,” said the belly. “He also owns the golf course—that’s where both of us work. And he’s offered $250,000 for Calderon’s head. He has ARENA connections too—how else do you think he’s run that shop for so long? Flores, we are not greedy men. If an accomplished gunman could help us, we would split Francisco’s generous bounty with him.”

“I can help you, but how can you help me?” asked Flores.

“We know where he is,” said the skinny one. 


According to the belly, Calderon had spent the last three nights in the southeast part of El Salvador, at his mother’s house in Usulután. “Ernesto grew up near there,” added the belly, referring to his younger partner.

“Ah, Ernesto,” said Flores, extending his hand. “I’m old enough to be your father. Did your father fight?”

“He died with the guerillas in Las Lajas,” said Ernesto. “He helped blow up the Cuscatlán. You were in Los Angeles, yes?”

“Yes. That’s how I know Cardoza. I was only 13. And what about you?” asked Flores, turning to the belly.

“Call me Toño,” said the belly. “But with respect, Flores, we should tell these stories another time. The longer we delay, the greater the chances Calderon will leave Usulután for another location.”

Flores nodded. He offered his car keys to Ernesto. “You know the way better than I do,” he said.

“We’ll take our own car,” said Toño. “You can follow.”

“Gentlemen, we’re taking my car, and Ernesto is driving,” said Flores. “Otherwise, you’ll have to find another assassin. That shouldn’t be a problem, if there are many explorers in the sea.”


Daylight was fading by the time they approached the bridge. Ernesto tried clicking on the headlights but he started the windshield wipers instead. Toño laughed. “Now you see, Flores, why neither of us trusts ourselves with a gun.”

From the backseat Flores saw a sign for an inn, the Hospedaje Modelo. “How is the food there?” he asked.

“So-so,” said Ernesto. “Do we have time to stop? We still have sixty kilometers to go.”

“I have to piss,” said Flores. “And some coffee would be nice.”

“We should keep driving,” said Toño. “Even a ten-minute delay could be costly.”

“This won’t take long,” said Flores. “It’s better to stop now. When we reach Usulután, we won’t have the chance.”

There were long rectangular windows at the rear of the empty inn lobby. To the left, the lobby opened to a restaurant with a bar counter. Flores ordered coffee and slid his menu over to Toño, who ordered plantains. The mustachioed bartender, dressed in a plain white t-shirt tucked into black jeans, nodded and walked toward the kitchen.

“How did you find me in San Salvador?” asked Flores, after returning from the bathroom.

“There’s a tracking device under your car,” said Toño. “I installed it while you were at the golf course.”

“Well, my friends, we must remove it,” said Flores.

In the gravel parking lot, they were the only three people. Ernesto kept his hands in his empty pockets. Toño lay on his back beneath the Sentra, probing the underside for the tracking device. “Got it,” he said. He slid out slowly, his backside rasping the ground. He dusted himself with his left hand—his right hand engulfed the small black device. “Give it to me,” said Flores.

“First we need to call Nevaras,” said Toño.

“Sure,” sighed Flores.

Toño spoke loudly into his phone: “Yes, we’re with Flores. We’re halfway there, at the river. Our car? It’s still in the city.”


As they drove over the bridge, Flores tossed the black tracking device out the window of the backseat and into the Lempa River. He was wide awake from the coffee, but he wondered if stopping at the inn had been a mistake. The bartender could describe their faces, as could a few patrons.

The bridge was bright, with arcing lampposts on both sides. At nightfall, the markets would be closed. Families would be dining at home. Idalia. Little Hector. His parents. All four under the impression that he, Lázaro, had to move to Boston for business purposes. Only little Hector unaware that the business was killing a good man who’d crossed an evil government. They would want to know about his new deal with Nevaras. But whether he could trust Nevaras or his two henchmen was another matter.

In the dark, they sped toward Sixth Avenue, where Toño and Ernesto said that Calderon’s mother resided. A park with unoccupied white benches flew by on the right. City hall and a church flew by on the left. Lampposts lit the unmarked road. In the rearview, they saw the church’s plain-white façade and three telephone wires suspended directly over city hall.

They drove past a few groups of young men, huddled together on the corner, walking to the center of town. “They don’t have families yet,” said Flores.

“How do you know?” said Ernesto.

“Because they can cruise the streets at night,” said Flores. “You guys will see when you’re older. There are things you do now that you won’t do anymore.”

They reached Sixth Avenue in five minutes, but finding house No. 19 was difficult, since there were no lampposts on the residential street. Moving slowly through the neighborhood, the vehicle seemed heavier, as if burdened by the true motive of their trespass. Ernesto parked and closed his eyes. Flores shut his eyes too, recalling the photographs of Calderon: six feet tall, brown eyes, black hair. In his Glock there were seventeen nine-millimeter bullets.

The sidewalk was gum-stained and narrow. “It feels good to have pavement beneath my feet, after all that driving,” said Ernesto.

“Let’s whisper from now on,” said Toño.

Flores walked behind them. He wondered, once more, if there would be witnesses to their presence: watchful eyes, leering from lighted windows. For all he knew, another set of ARENA operatives was following him, the same way Toño and Ernesto did.

Maybe Toño, while removing the first tracking device, had covertly planted another one beneath.

Ernesto rang the bell at house No. 19. Toño and Lázaro were standing behind him. A stooped, gray-haired woman opened the door. She wore a blouse of faded yellow with a frayed collar. “Are you here to see Gilberto?” she asked. From behind her came the scent of grilled chicken.

“Yes, thank you,” said Ernesto. “We work at the port, in Acajutla.”

“Berto!” she shouted. She invited them inside.

In the living room, Flores saw Calderon for the first time. It was unmistakably the fifty-year-old dark-featured man in the photos. Wearing khakis and a dress shirt, Calderon stood tall beside his slouched mother, as if to justify every inch of his stated six-foot stature. “Hold on, three of the workers are here,” he said into his cell phone, extending a hand to Ernesto, then Toño, then Lázaro. “Good evening, brothers,” whispered Calderon. He held up one finger, indicating that his phone conversation would soon be finished.

Flores blasted Calderon three times in the head. The mother screamed, and Flores silenced her with two quick shots to the chest. She fell beside Calderon, who was face-down and motionless on the reddening carpet. Flores grabbed Calderon’s phone, which had landed inches from his bleeding head, and sprinted to the door. Ernesto and Toño followed.

When they reached the car, Flores insisted on driving. Ernesto handed him the keys.  Toño thanked God when the car started.

They were quiet on their way back to San Salvador. As they crossed the bridge again, Flores tossed Calderon’s phone into the Lempa.


“So what happens now?” said Flores.

“Don’t worry. Francisco’s word is good,” said Toño.

“But what about the corpses?” said Flores. “What will happen to them?”

“My guess is that their neighbors, hearing the gunfire, will call the police,” said Toño. “If not the neighbors, then maybe it will be a group of port workers stopping by to visit. Calderon clearly was expecting a house call.”

“Did you close the door behind you when you left?” said Flores.

“No,” said Ernesto.

“Well, it’ll probably be okay,” said Flores.

“The only thing I’m really worried about is the person Calderon was on the phone with,” said Toño. “He or she might alert authorities. And we can’t rule out that it was an authority, on the phone with him. Someone like your boy Cardoza, politically covering his bases. So he can later say, ‘I was on the phone with Calderon. We were negotiating in good faith.’”

“Can you call Nevaras, and ask him what do to?” said Flores. “Cardoza is expecting me to bring this car to the airport, so I can meet Nichols and fly to Boston.”
Toño pushed a button on his phone and handed it to Flores. “Toño, is it done?” said Nevaras.

“This is Flores.”

“Is it done?”

“Yes. Can you meet us at the airport and explain everything to Nichols?”

“Sure. I’m on my way. I’ll have the money too. And Lázaro?”


“Thank you. I know this wasn’t easy for many reasons.”


In the brightly lit airport parking lot they sat in the car, waiting for Nevaras and Nichols. Unbidden, the smell of Calderon’s house after the shooting returned to Flores. It was blood and smoke and sulfur, mixed with Mother Calderon’s grilled chicken. He wondered how Idalia would react to the news that he had earned one-third of a $250,000 bounty.

Then he saw the headlights. The car was the same limousine that had brought him to the airport, following his meeting with Cardoza. He got out of the Sentra, gently shutting the door. Toño and Ernesto followed. One of the limo’s tinted rear windows rolled down. The first bullet hit him above the groin. He staggered, dropping to one knee. The echo of gunfire filled the lot. It hammered his eardrums, all the more after the second shot, which hit his groin directly. Blood seeped through his pants. Cardoza stepped out of the limo. Weakly, Flores pulled the Glock from his pocket. Cardoza kicked the weapon away. The Glock skittered across the cement, toward Toño’s crumpled, motionless body. A few yards away, Ernesto lay facedown, bloody and gasping. Flores placed his palm on his crotch and tried staunching the flow of blood.

“You shot us,” he said.

“I didn’t want to,” said Cardoza. “But once Nevaras found out, Nichols panicked.”

Flores fell to his side. Would Cardoza—or Nevaras—or someone still pay for Idalia, Hector, and his parents to move to Escalon? Would his family somehow learn what had happened to him? He felt woozy, dry-mouthed. His crotch was hot, leaky, and then cold in an instant. “Church—chicken—money—Idalia,” he stammered, moments before darkness overtook him.

Ilan Mochari's short stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Hobart, J Journal, Valparaiso Fiction Review, DASH, and elsewhere. His Pushcart-nominated debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite, 2013), earned flattering reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Coming Out In the Wash, fiction by Tia Ja'nae

Ain’t nothing like throwing a crisp pair of dice on Chicago concrete.

Not everybody can have a perfect roll against the bitter winds coming off Lake Michigan, itchy trigger fingers from testosterone fuelled assholes illegally gambling away child support checks, and the occasional set of shaved dice. Good thing a chick like me giving lessons today for all the lames wanting to learn how to do it.

These plump, sweet pieces of acrylic cubes perched in between my fingertips arch their back on my point better than I do on a good piece in the sheets, do you hear me! I think I’ll name them Eddie Kendricks since they are responsible for the bread stacking up on the line becoming my intimate friend.

Eight is the point. Shooting a hundred. Letting it ride down the line.

After two hours of mean rolling on top of ducking the fuzz to get the pot up, I’m finally at the end of the line, which is exactly where I want to be. Time to double up, bring it on home, and send these cats off salty as hell with nothing but lint in their pockets. How I see it, better me than the tax exempt casino sporting their contributions to the kitty.

Catching my second wind now. No need to rush.

Shit talking getting real personal now for the cats running out of the long green, but it ain’t phasing me. Being the only chick out here in the den I’ve heard it all. I’ll be that bitch that’s in over her head taking the rent money. Or the cunt who ain’t got no business in the street with grown ass men copping their utility bill and car note payments. Mostly though, I’m the hoe sending the tricks home broke, baby!

At the end of the day like my granny used to say, you got to pay to play.

I’m smiling like a kid in the candy store when the pit boss gives the green light to place the next round of bets. A couple grand starts spreading out across old piss and rat shit around the field wider than a whore’s legs at a church picnic. Cats out here perpetrating hard, fanning paper like they waiting on the church collection plate knowing damn well it’s the last of their cash before they hit the bricks broke.

Side action got them stretched thin, even if it is doing better than the point. They ain’t slick, though. Every shooter knows that’s where the heavy bread lottery is at right before you lose everything and have to take your number out. I’ll cover the bets just for a little extra padding for what I got coming on the line. Play the field long and strong but side bets pay every time.

Rolled a hard little joe from Kokomo. Letting it all ride. Ten grand strong now.

Cash like that in the air surely will make its way to the fuzz’s nostrils. Can’t stand them bastards stalking our action on the blue light cameras, waiting for a big enough take to shake us down and tax us on our paper. Lookout up the block says the rollers are rotating the perimeter. Time to bring home the bacon.

Last throw of the game. I’m riding it all. One more eight and I’m straight.

It’s so quiet you can hear the roaches taking a leak. My hand parlays in perfect motion, until this bumblefuck betting against the point elbows me in the side, knocking me down. Dice drop out my hand like paperweights, hard against the bottom of the garbage cans. Seven. Crapped out.

All hell breaks loose. Screaming, hollering, pushing, and shoving to stop Elbow and his sidekick from snatch and grabbing our hard-earned paper.

Let the motherfucking cheaters say what they want, but I’m going to shoot this shit again. Hand me the dice, don’t touch nothing on the line, and let’s get on with it I say. If I had of thrown a legitimate seven and crapped out, that’s one thing. Some big corn fed husky, Lenny from Of Mice and Men bastard trying to mow me over looking for George is another.

Everybody seen it too. All the regulars know the deal, and in agreement on a do-over. Elbow and his sidekick got other ideas, running off at the mouth like they are the moral authority on the matter. Both of them got one hell of a nerve copping my dice like they didn’t have to buy them from out my grip first. No ma’am! We do not do that in this alley!

This ain’t my first walk around the park. Cats get in their feelings when chicks like me come down the stretch and school them on what they think is only a man’s game. Comes with the territory. But this ain’t romper room shit out here. Either the transgressor rectifies the situation or the life they save will be their own. Regulars know better. Elbow and his sidekick about to find out the hard way.

Loud talking over the pit boss in a failed attempt to auction off the dice is strike one. Chauvinistic comments on bitches being in their place and beneath them is strike two. Blowing on the dice and inch from my face is the nail in the coffin on strike three. No more compromising; these fools are out the game.

The razor sharp Buck knife resting comfortably cool against my ankle found its way into my hand and carving Elbow up like a Thanksgiving turkey before he knew what to do with it. Talking shit to me without a piece in his hand, yeah okay. Cheating motherfucker will know better next time he gets out of pocket.

The other shooters back up and let me have the killing floor as soon as the sidekick tries to show me what he’s working with. Little fucker got nice hands; the sucker punch he clipped me with from behind ain’t nothing short of nice nastiness. Not dropping me was his flaw though; he underestimated my ability to bounce back and help him clear his throat by cutting his Adam’s apple out as a souvenir.

Snivelling little bitch yelled like a baby getting shots once he felt the cold sharp surface of old faithful slice slivers in his ulna and carve a rough path to his radius bone. It was the least I could do for the shiner he probably left on my face. Oh, well. At least the stray animals will have something to nibble on tonight.

The stench from those two pieces of shit bleeding out and soiling themselves into the bowels of death got all the shooters too uptight and in flight to finish the damn game. Some of them with weaker stomachs are tossing up cookies quicker than the ground can catch them. Punk asses. Talk a good game and bitch up in the clutch.

I can’t believe the minute I suggest we move Elbow and the sidekick to the garbage receptacles and get them out our way that the shooters freak out about murder and haul ass out. Jesus Christ, I ain’t a medical professional certified to make a clinical determination of death or nothing, but as long as the blood is seizing and the bodies are whimpering, they alive right? Am I right?

If the shooters want to act like that, cool; game is done and I’m taking the bread I got coming to me. If they too good to touch blood soaked cold hard cash, that’s their business. I ain’t squeamish in the least. Hope Elbow and his sidekick get a laugh thinking about me going home and doing woman’s work with the Woolite trying to wash their genetic material comes out in the wash.

I swear, we just can’t ever have a nice friendly game without company forgetting their table manners on rotation for the serious players enjoying the hustle. That, or bleeding out all over the money for the forensics team to find after they pay the price to cheat the dice. Back alley games ain’t got no chance of making ESPN Wide World Of Craps with all these non-competitive amateurs on the table.

Wishful thinking tells me to snatch the dice up as a keepsake for my trouble. Those pretty little rubies made me a lot of money today. Be a shame to lose them to the asphalt and grime like that. Problem is, only one of the snake eyes rests in Elbow’s hand; the other one has rolled away to parts unknown.

Jesus Christ, it’s always something, ain’t it?

Elbow better be thankful sirens are blaring in the distance or else I’d cut the son of a bitch up again for breaking up the set before the fuzz get hip! I’m taking the one die though; half a great set is better than having no memento at all.

The crap game is a bitch, but it’ll be all better tomorrow.

Tia Ja’nae is a creative writer and master propagandist. A proud Trekkie, her writing engages, boldly going where few have gone before. Her work has been featured in Shotgun Honey, 365 Worlds, and Flashback Fiction; Her more serious, satirical journalist work has been featured on Humor Outcasts; check out her satire under her pseudonym on, which could be classified by order of your government.