Monday, January 11, 2021

A Long NIght, fiction by John Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Late night,” Joe observed. 

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

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

“Everybody’s getting that age, Bill.” 

Another wet bout of laughter turned to coughing. 

“What am I dealing with?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“-you work for-”

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

“So what?”

Joe followed Ernie into the dark. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“What’s his deal anyway?”

“Talking shit about our man helping you out?”

“Yeah, old guy’s weird.”

“Jesus, leave it, Kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

“You hear it too?”

“What’s that?”

“Silver Star.”

“And the purple one?”

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

“Some kind of G.I. Joe-”

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

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

Joe leaned in the basement doorway. “Off.” 

“What?” The Kid said again, dumbly.

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

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

“What happened?” 

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

Joe shrugged. “Curious, maybe.”

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

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

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

Joe nodded.

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

“Who was she?”

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

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

Bill sighed, weak breath rattling in his broken lungs.

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

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

“Who was she?”

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

Silence suffocated the whole room.

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

“Where’s it stop, Bill?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ever serve, Bill?”

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

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

Ernie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe sat atop a grave opposite his old associate.

Bill repeated, “Why?” 

Joe shrugged.

“Psycho. Dead as that whore.”

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

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

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

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

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

Spasms racked Bill’s body. “Mistake.” 

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

“Sorry,” he managed.

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

Joe sighed. “Sorry.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Myth of the Centaur, fiction by E.A. Aymar

Tom Davidson locked the door to his home office and headed upstairs to join his family for dinner. His wife Ruth and their two daughters were sitting at the dining room table. Three men he’d never seen stood behind them, wearing masks.

One of the men held a gun. That man wore a horsehead mask.

The other two held long knives. They were disguised as American presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Everyone in the room turned toward Tom.

The man in the horse mask pointed with his gun to the empty chair at the head of the table.

“Sit down,” he said. “And tell us where your safe is.”

But Tom was rooted to the floor, fear gnawing him like he was a crumbling statue.

“Is that my mask?” Tom managed to ask, and then he remembered he’d actually left his own horsehead mask on the floor in the office, moments earlier. His wife, Ruth, gave Tom a confused look.

“What do you mean,” one of the men asked, “your mask?”

Tom couldn’t remember the exact moment that the copious amount of online pornography he watched began to bore him, but he could absolutely remember the moment it excited him again – it was when he started watching while wearing a rubber horsehead mask. Something about locking the door to his basement office, slipping the mask on, and adjusting it so he could peer through the nostrils gave him an exciting rush, like the sensation of a first teenaged kiss, or suddenly leaping into the air and realizing he could fly.

The mask itself had been a surprise, forgotten by some neighbor at their house after a Halloween party and discarded to his office. Tom had ignored it until one day, out of boredom, he put it on and saw himself in the mirror. And what he saw moved him.

Gone was the slumped, pudgy body of a fifty-year-old most people would correctly assume worked in insurance. Tom looked at himself and saw a mythical beast staring back. The horsehead, with its wild eyes and open mouth, looked to be in mid-gallop, perhaps rearing on hind legs. Tom had slowly unbuttoned his shirt, slid it off. Undid his pants and let them drop to the floor. His hands felt like he was holding lightning.

After that experience, it was as if pornography and the mask possessed Tom. He thought about both obsessively at work, missed family meals, took days off to spend online. Once, he shared his interest with Ruth. They gamely sat next to each other, naked in his office while he brought up a video, wondering if he should pull out the mask from the closet. But a minute into the video, Ruth asked, “Is that really what you like?” And despite the smile on her face, Tom sensed her strain.

After that, he stopped involving his wife.

Two years later, Tom couldn’t remember what that video had been, but he knew it was certainly tamer than what he watched now. His obsession had refused to rest, and what he watched had turned darker, disturbing, occasionally distressing.

But he couldn’t stop looking.

“Dad,” his daughter Katelyn said, a knife at her throat. “Please.”

Tom came back to the present, hurried to the empty chair at the head of the table.

“Where’s your safe?” Reagan asked.

“It’s in the office,” Tom said.

The office, he remembered, that he wanted to return to after dinner. The office he planned to stay in until the girls went out and Ruth went to bed. The office where he wanted to slip his sweaty mask back on.

And the office where he hadn’t turned off the pornographic images on his computer.

“There’s not much in the safe,” Tom said, truthfully, trying to steer the men in a different direction. “We don’t have a lot of money.”

“We’ll take whatever you have,” Clinton said.

“What did you mean,” the man with the gun and horse mask put in, “about this being your mask?”

“Yeah?” That from his wife.

“I really don’t want to get into this now,” Tom said, worried. “Can you guys just please leave? You can have everything in my wallet. I’ll even drive you to an ATM.”

“Nah,” one of the men said. “We want the safe.”

Tom cast desperately about. “What about my wife’s wedding ring? Would you take that? It’s the most expensive thing we own. You wouldn’t even need to go to the safe.”

“Tom!” Ruth exclaimed.

“You can have mine too,” Tom said, twisting off his ring. “But hers is worth more. Mine’s just a fake gold band.”

He’d lost the real band years ago.

“Fake?” Ruth asked.

“Listen to him,” one of the men said. “Trying to distract us.”

“The mask is something you wear?” Clinton asked, and he pressed the knife against Katelyn’s throat. “Why?”

She squeezed her eyes closed.

“I wear it when I watch porn.” Tom’s voice was small. “I like how I look in the mirror.”

“Ew,” his daughter Monica said. Monica was his older daughter, and she was breezing through her teenage years with a confidence Tom had never understood but admired. “Dad, gross.”

“You got, like, a horse thing?” Reagan asked. “Like, you jack off to the movie Seabiscuit or some shit?”

“No,” Tom said, helplessly. “It’s not that.”

“I mean,” horse mask said, “I want to hear more about this, Seabiscuit.”

“I don’t,” Katelyn put in, even with the knife shining against her throat, and she also added a, “Ew.”

She’s such a bitch, Tom automatically thought, and the thought deeply shamed him. His own daughter, her life at risk, knife at her neck, and he’d thought of her as a bitch. Yes, Katelyn had issues with authority and, yes, she often was a bitch and, yes, with her shitty grades and constant trouble she was no Monica, but what kind of father would think that at a time like this?

The man with the knife against Katelyn’s throat moved it away.

Tom was relieved that he was relieved.

“You wear a mask like this when you’re strangling your cyclops?” the man with the horse mask and gun asked. “What are you even watching?”

“Please,” Tom said. “I really don’t want to talk about this. Can’t you just take our stuff?”

“Hey Seabiscuit,” the man replied, “tell us everything, or we’ll kill all of you.”

At that, the world inside Tom dropped. He started to speak but couldn’t. At his pause, horse mask laughed loudly. “Really?” he shouted. “You won’t say anything, even with…”

He laughed so hard he bent over, hands on his knees.

And faster than Tom realized she could move, Ruth turned and grabbed his gun. The man cursed. They struggled.

The gun went off, a deafening sound, like a shout from a god.

The man slumped to the floor, the wall behind him red.

Tom could see the damage to his head, his mask and head like the right half had been smashed by a hammer, one rubber horse eye dangling down.

Ruth pointed the gun at the men with the knives, fear and anger on her face like war paint.

“Monica,” Ruth said to their older daughter, her voice shaky but determined. “Call 9-1-1.”

Ruth wouldn’t look at Tom.

Years later, Monica would, without a sense of irony, go into veterinary medicine and end up running a successful, quiet practice. Both Tom and Ruth were proud of her and kept in touch with Monica after their divorce, Ruth more frequently than Tom.

Katelyn didn’t have as successful a path. She couldn’t shake off the home invasion like her sister had. The trauma from the knife against her throat, and the sight of the dead man sprawled against the wall, haunted her. Panic and anxiety had always overwhelmed her, but the emotions grew stronger as Katelyn grew older, the twin emotions like two hands dragging her to hell. And she was desperate for an escape.

Two years after her divorce from Tom, Ruth remarried a police officer. Not one of the police officers that came by that night, but a neighbor in her apartment building after she left Tom. This police officer was also divorced. They never discussed their pasts.

They didn’t talk much about their present, either. When Katelyn died from a drug overdose, Ruth grieved with Monica, not her husband. With her new husband, Ruth kept her suffering private. And she was proud of herself that she did.

As for Tom, he ended up living in a small apartment in a different town. He never remarried or even dated much. The night Katelyn overdosed, Tom was online in a corner of his apartment, wearing the horsehead mask and nothing else in front of a web camera, asking people what they wanted him to do.

Desperately giving them whatever they desired while the phone rang.

Anthony Award-nominated E.A. Aymar’s most recent thriller, The Unrepentant, was published in 2019. His next thriller, They’re Gone,was published in November under his pseudonym E.A. Barres.

He has a monthly column in the Washington Independent Review of Books and is an active member of Crime Writers of Color, ITW, MWA, and SinC. He also runs the D.C. Noir at the Bar series and has hosted and spoken at a variety of crime fiction, writing, and publishing events nationwide.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Everlasting High, fiction by Neva Bryan

Carla Kilgore’s red hair and black eyes reminded Lauren of abandoned coal mines, rusty iron, and depleted coal seams. With that thought, she pulled her phone from her pocket and reviewed the pictures she had taken earlier that day. Pictures of death.

A succession of digital photos framed the murder, stretched it out longer than it had lasted in reality. Kilgore, Lauren’s neighbor, had closed her eyes when she started stabbing her boyfriend, but they were wide and wild by the time she finished.

Lauren was glad Carla hadn’t turned her crazy eyes on her at that moment. The teenager had come out from her hiding place and snapped the photos with her phone. By the time Carla’s fury had burned itself out, Lauren was back in her Chevelle. Her car was camouflaged by kudzu hanging over poplar trees. It was her favorite place to smoke a joint, and that’s what she had been doing before it all went down. 

I never seen nobody die before.

Lauren nodded, then jerked upright when she heard Carla’s truck leave the scene. 

The girl climbed out of her car and followed faint tire tracks across the abandoned land’s pockmarked surface, mindful of copperheads and yellow jacket nests. The trail led her to the edge of a high wall, manmade vertical rock face nearly 100 feet tall. Peering over the rim, she saw the man’s body at the base of it. 


Pulling a Percocet from the pocket of her jeans, Lauren dry swallowed it. She crouched, wrapped her arms around her calves, and rested her chin on her knees. Waiting for her high, she stared at her surroundings.

Abandoned before the enactment of reclamation laws, this strip job was a nasty scar, an abrasion that had never healed. Black gashes striped the tall walls. Boulders, ejected from earthy beds, stood alone like rejected lovers. Locust trees, blackberry vines, ragweed, ironweed, and Joe Pye weed crowded each other, but it was the kudzu that truly throttled the landscape. It groped the mountains with eager abandon, making Lauren wonder how soon it would cover the man’s body.

She shrugged and leaned into the warm bliss that traveled her veins and spread outward through her entire being. She rubbed her nose, which had started to itch. Squinting up at the yellow sack of light suspended in the sky, the girl smiled. After a few minutes, she stood and stumped through the weeds on heavy legs. She took her time finding a path to the bottom where the body lay.

The man reminded Lauren of someone deep in a daydream, his eyes staring at nothing…forever. Blood streaked his skin, and muscle was exposed on his hands and arms. His shirt was covered in gore, almost in shreds from the multiple knife wounds. 

A butterfly had settled in his sandy hair, its powdery wings forming a pale barrette. The teenager frowned and flicked the insect with her finger. It fluttered up and then resettled on the man’s knee. Lauren smacked it, flinching at the thwack her hand made against the dead flesh. 

In death, the man’s bowels had loosened. Wrinkling her nose, Lauren lifted her phone and photographed him. She took the pictures fast, then retreated to her car. 

Lauren lit a joint with trembling fingers and smoked it while pondering her next step. She decided to go home and sleep on it.

* * *


Lauren’s quilt landed in a heap on the floor after her father jerked it from the bed. “It’s nearly two o’clock in the afternoon! Get up, dammit!”

Lauren covered her head with a pillow and tried to roll away, but the man’s fingers gripped her shoulder and pulled her into the floor on top of the quilt.

“Alright, already! I’m up!” She stretched and ruffled her hair into a cockscomb. Blinking up at her father, she worked her jaw in a closed-mouth yawn.

The man leaned close to his daughter and poked her in the chest. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“You know damn good and well what! Your mother’s watch . . . the one her grandmother gave her.”

“I don’t have it, Dad.” Lauren started to stand, but her father pushed her back down to the floor and crouched on her chest.

“Listen here, you little twat. It’s bad enough you have to steal money out of my wallet and your mom’s purse. It’s bad enough that you’ve sold everything in the house that ain’t nailed down, but you know how much that watch meant to her! If you’ve sold it for your damn drugs, I’ll kick your ass from one end of this house to the other!”

Lauren didn’t answer – couldn’t answer – until her father rose. The girl coughed and scooted away from the man. She retrieved her jeans from the corner of the bedroom and slid into them. Punching her fist into her pocket, she pulled out the watch and tossed it on the bed. Her father snatched it and started toward his daughter. When Lauren flinched, the man turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

Reaching under the bed, the girl felt for the loose floorboard that covered her secret stash. She retrieved a shoebox from it and pulled out her phone. She swiped at the phone’s screen, convinced that she had dreamed the events of the previous day. 

It wasn’t a dream.

She scratched her arm as she stared at the photos of the dead man. Lauren wondered how long it took the human body to rot. She wiped her nose on her arm, then rooted through the shoebox until she found the last of her coke. She snorted a line and began to formulate her plan.

* * *

Lauren sat on the porch steps of Carla Kilgore’s house. She leaned back, rested her elbows on the porch, and examined her neighbor’s yard. Barren patches revealed sandstone in several spots in the close-cropped grass. A harsh winter had thrust old railroad ties – makeshift landscape timbers – from the ground, and they remained askew. Spindly flowers spilled out of their beds. Lauren remembered the day Carla had planted them.

Carla had worn tight denim shorts and a striped tank top. Her right bra strap had fallen below her sleeve countless times while she worked. Each time it did, she had shoved it back up with a weary sigh. 

Lauren had been fascinated by the repetition of this wardrobe adjustment. Standing beneath a pine tree in her yard, she had willed the strap to drop. Each time it did, she had been pleased to no end. The last time it had fallen, the woman had raked up the strap in agitation and left a smear of dirt on her shoulder.

Lauren shuddered with pleasure at the thought of that dark smudge on white skin. Then she remembered that Carla was a murderer. She was still pondering that fact when the woman pulled into her driveway. 

Wonder where she ditched her truck.

Carla turned off the ignition but didn’t get out of her car right away. From behind the windshield, she stared at the girl. Lauren could see that her neighbor was trying to work out in her head why she was here since they weren’t in the habit of visiting each other. Finally, the woman exited the car. Her limp, the result of a coal truck colliding with her old Jeep years ago, was more pronounced than usual.

Lauren wiped her palms on her shorts. “Hey, Carla.”

The woman nodded but didn’t lift her eyes to meet the girl’s face. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, I need some help with a project I’m working on.” Lauren stood and scratched her nose.

Kilgore cocked her head, wary as a stray dog. “What kind of project?”

The girl grinned. “Photography.” She jabbed her thumb at the house. “Can I come in?”

* * *

Lauren worked her way through the maze of junk piled high in the old building her father used for storage. “Friggin packrats,” the girl muttered as she shoved aside a box of water-stained Reader’s Digest magazines. She slid between two metal school desks and stepped over garbage bags of scrap fabric her mother had saved for quilts. 

Warped wooden crutches leaned against a wringer washing machine. Hundreds of mason jars lined homemade shelves; some lay on their sides, stuffed with shredded newspaper and mouse droppings. Lauren’s father had stacked old lawnmowers on top of each other until they reached the ceiling. Looks like bad modern art.

She found a tarpaulin-covered mass near the back of the building. Jerking the tarp with the flair of a magician, Lauren exposed an old trunk. After opening the container, she discovered it was empty. Perfect, she thought. She pulled a crumpled brown lunch bag from her pocket. She glanced around. Reassured that she was alone, she stuck her fist into the bag and retrieved several prescription bottles she had demanded from Carla.

Carla’s hands had trembled so severely that Lauren thought the woman would never get the medicine chest cleaned out. The medications, some prescribed to Carla and some to her boyfriend, had stood in neat rows on the shelves. Light brown containers capped with thick white lids that gleamed in the fluorescent light. 

Lauren ran her fingertips across the smooth labels until her own hands began to shake. Some of the prescriptions were current, but others were outdated; they had never bothered to throw away the old meds. 

Lauren’s eyes had popped at the contents. Flexeril. Vicodin. Lortab. Valium. Prozac. Doxepin. Ativan. Ambien. And, behind all the others, two that made her heart swell: Percocet and OxyContin. She had hit the mother lode.

She dropped the bottles into the trunk. From her other pocket, she retrieved a thick wad of creased fifty dollar bills—seven hundred dollars in all. Carla had protested that it was all the money she had in the house. 

The girl peeled off three fifties and stuck them back into her pocket. She tossed the rest of the money into the container and shut the lid. She threw the tarp across the trunk and made her way back through the building. Outside, she blinked in the shimmering heat. 

Summer’s turning out to be pretty good after all, she thought. The sugar tree’s in bloom.

* * *

Throughout the next few days, Lauren sneaked out to the storage building to check on the trunk. She was paranoid that her parents would go on a cleaning binge and discover her treasure. During this time, Carla kept her shades drawn and didn’t leave her house. The girl wondered when she would make another run to the drugstore. 

That leg’s gotta be hurting. But Carla’s car remained in the driveway.

One morning Lauren rose to find that Carla had finally left her house. I guess she couldn’t stand it any longer. 

Wonder what she’s told her doctor? 

The girl’s mouth watered in anticipation. She wanted to go to Carla’s house and wait for her, but her father caught her wandering through the yard. He browbeat Lauren into cleaning out the basement. 

At least it’s not the storage building, she thought with relief. But I need to move my stuff before she gets any ideas.

She broke away from the basement work after lunch. Seeing Carla’s car in the driveway, Lauren considered a visit. She decided to check on her stash first. She stepped into the building and wrinkled her nose. 

A chipmunk must have crawled into a jar and died. It smelled so bad she wondered if an entire family of chipmunks had died. 

The heat makes it worse, I guess. 

Traveling her usual path, she rounded a corner and ran into Carla Kilgore. “What the hell--”

The woman shoved Lauren against the wall and placed a pistol against her right nostril. “Thought you was bein’ so clever hiding your booty in here, didn’t you? You’re not very bright, bitch. I can see why your daddy’s disappointed in you.”

Lauren started to speak, but Carla mashed her nose with the gun. The girl shrank against the wall, knocking a jar off a shelf. It broke, scattering shattered glass and dried corn across their feet.

“Be quiet, you little shit,” Carla hissed.

She grabbed Lauren’s arm and shoved her through the building. The rotten smell got worse as they got closer to the back. When they reached the site of the trunk, the girl saw that the tarp had been thrown to the side. She turned to the woman and lifted her hands in supplication. 

“Hey, if you want your junk back, go ahead and take it. I was just messing with you.”

“Shut up! You know, I’ve never seen you strike a lick at a minute’s hard work. You are worthless.” Kilgore motioned with her gun. “Lift the lid.”

Lauren reached down and pulled open the trunk. The smell of decay engulfed her, making her eyes water, but not enough to blur the sight of Carla’s boyfriend stuffed into the container. 

Maggots, beetles, and wasps covered his skin, which was now green and blue and blistered. Gagging, Lauren tried to stumble past the woman, but Carla shoved her against the trunk. The back of her knees hit it, causing the lid to slam shut. Putrid air billowed out around them. Lauren bent at the waist and vomited.

Coughing, Carla backed away from the teenager. 

“Lift that lid again. Do it!”

Lauren turned her head as she opened the trunk. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat. “Look--”

“Shut up!” Carla stared at the contents of the trunk, her eyes black pinpricks. “He thought he could screw around on me, then beat on me. You see what happened to him, don’t you? Now it’s your turn. Get in.”

The girl’s eyes widened. She felt the blood drain from her face. She shook her head. “You’re frigging kidding me, right?”

Carla cocked the gun. “I’m serious as a heart attack, dipshit.”

Lauren worked her jaw. What if I just mule up and refuse to do what she says?

She remembered how she had trembled that first day, at the medicine cabinet. She looked at the gun. The barrel was steady in her face. No trembling now. 

Crazy as a bess bug, Lauren thought.

Without taking her eyes off the gun, the teenager lifted one leg and stepped into the trunk. It felt as if she had stepped into a vat of hot sour cream. That thought made her stomach roll, and she expelled a stream of vomit that splattered Carla’s hiking boots. 

Cursing, she reached out and punched Lauren on the ear. The girl fell into the muck that was Carla’s boyfriend. Thrashing around to gain a grip, she looked up in time to see her slam the lid. Lauren screamed and kicked the lid, but it held tight. 

Jesus, she’s locked me in here!

In the wet darkness, she screamed again. And again. She only stopped after something soft dropped into her mouth. Crying, Lauren spit out the thing, willing herself not to vomit again. 

She won’t leave me here, she thought. She’s just trying to teach me a lesson. Well, I done learned it. I got it!

“I’ll straighten up!” she screamed. “Please, Carla! You can’t leave me in here!” 

She paused to see if she would say something. No one responded. Lauren pounded against the lid with her fists. 

“You dirty bitch!”

Suddenly, the girl stopped her resistance. Instead, she concentrated on a thought that had entered her head. She had the answer. Carla was trying to teach her a lesson. 

All I have to do is wait her out.

The woman would be back, and the joke would be on her. 

Lauren giggled and shoved her hand into her pocket, ignoring the fluids oozing across her skin. She pulled a pill bottle up close to her chest and worked on the cap. Her hands shook, and something slick coated the bottle, but eventually, she got it open. Weeping now, she emptied the contents of the bottle into her mouth.

Some of the pills caught in her throat, and she had to keep swallowing to get them down.

Nothing like a Perc to take the edge off. 

Neva Bryan has published nearly 60 short stories and poems in literary journals, anthologies, and online magazines. Her work has appeared in publications such as Weirdbook, Shotgun Honey, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Minding Nature. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Chatham University. Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their three dogs.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Leadbetter's Last Letter, fiction by Lincoln Jaques

Jono Leadbetter and Shane ‘Warmonger’ Stevenson were two crooks who had just finished a big job. It was Christmas Eve. They were having a glass of mulled wine poured from a flask that Jono’s wife, Sue, had packed for them in a hold-all. Inside the hold-all was also a Christmas cracker. Wrapped in gold paper, decorated with a red ribbon. Expensive looking, like the kind you find in Harrod’s. 

‘You want to do the honours?’ Jono said, picking it out. He held it up in the thin light from the low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse they hid in while the air cleared.

Warmonger smirked. ‘Your missus is gonna make you soft in the nugget, one of these days.’ But he grabbed the tapered end, and for a moment, they eyed each other like the frontmen from two opposing tug o’ war teams before they each yanked at the cracker. 

The cracker exploded, and a rolled-up sheet of paper dropped out. At first Warmonger thought it was one of those crappy jokes they always put in crackers. He picked it up and unrolled it. Read the writing. His smile left his face and he looked at Jono, a hint of fear and uncertainty entering his eyes.

‘What’s up, Warmonger?’ Jono said, sculling the remainder of his mulled wine.

‘I’m not sure you should see this,’ Warmonger replied. His voice cracked a little, which startled Jono. Jono thought Warmonger was about to cry.

‘Give that here!’ Jono snatched it out of Warmonger’s shaking hands. He glanced over the scrawl, Warmonger knowing all too well Jono couldn’t decipher the strange lettering. Jono had never attended much school. He dropped out at 14 and went to work at the Ford Motor Company with his father, sweeping floors, working his way up to screwing bolts into engine mounts. 

That’s before he decked the foreman. Before his first stint in Strangeways.

‘Read it to me,’ he snapped at Warmonger.

Now Warmonger was a tough nut. His name says it all. But Warmonger suddenly felt sick. For what was written there was something he really didn’t want to share with Jono. For Jono was the tougher opponent. Jono was his mentor. His best mate all these years. Warmonger was also Jono’s best man at his wedding. 

‘Nah, listen, Jono,’ Warmonger stalled for time. ‘It’s a crap joke. Nothing to even get your laughing gear excited about.’

Jono looked at Warmonger. Jono didn’t so much as crack a smile. 

‘You screwing with me, Warmonger? You know I can’t read, and now you comin’ all high and mighty? What you fucking take me for? There’s a shit load of words on that page. They never put long gags like that in them Christmas crackers. Read it.’

Warmonger swallowed hard. He had to think fast. But Warmonger’s problem was that he wasn’t a thinker. Thinking wasn’t something he was expected to do, much. He was a trigger man, a back up to Jono, a getaway driver. 

‘Well?’ Jono said, getting angrier by the minute. ‘Go on then. Tell me what’s in it. I can tell by your face it ain’t a fairy tale.’

Warmonger unrolled the paper. It was a letter. Not a good letter, either. It wasn’t full of goodwill to any man, especially not to Warmonger and especially not to Jono. The poor bastard, Warmonger thought at that moment. The poor, poor bastard, finding out like this. But that sympathy didn’t last for long, for then he thought of himself, and what would happen if he read out the contents of that letter. He wouldn’t get out of here alive, he was sure of it. Jono had a temper on him, one that even Warmonger couldn’t beat. Warmonger cursed God under his breath. Started cursing his own existence. Started cursing, more quietly, in fact silently so Jono wouldn’t hear, Sue, Jono’s wife. Did she want him to die? Did she want to ruin everything? Then he thought back to several nights before, when he’d left Sue at the pub. They’d all got rather drunk, and Jono had let it out about doing over the jewellery store on Christmas Eve, when the cash float was floating so much it became a river of the Queen’s Head, those fad wads of sterling, those bristling bundles of pound notes sitting in the safe in the back, ready to go to the bank the day after boxing day. Sue got angry. She pulled Warmonger aside and said that if he wanted to be with her, then he needed to get out of the game. But Sue didn’t understand. Noone, not even Warmonger, once they crossed him, walked away from Jono. She said he promised her he wasn’t going to do the jewellery shop job and if he did then she’d tell Jono about them. But Warmonger brushed her off; he guessed, wrongly it seems, that she was bluffing, that she would never do anything so stupid.

But here they were. Jono and Warmonger; a hold-all bulging with notes; a Christmas cracker laying in tatters on the floor; a Dear John(o) letter clutched in his hands. 

‘It’s easy for you,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Being able to read those scraggly lines. I mean, how the hell is anyone supposed to decipher that shit? Nah, gimme the football on Sundays and me fags and Magners, and I’m happy.’ He picked up the hold-all and hugged it as if he hugged Sue. Warmonger felt a wave of relief, thinking he’d gotten away with it.

‘But still,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Be a pal, and read me the joke. I need cheering up.’ 

‘Why don’t we have some more of that wine?’ Warmonger said.

‘Fine. You pour.’

Jono and Warmonger sat down on some crates. Warmonger poured the wine into the cap and a plastic cup. ‘Cheers, pal!’ Jono said, and he chinked Jono’s cup with his. When they had taken a mouthful, Jono became serious again.

‘You know why we’re here, Warmonger?’

‘For the money.’

Jono nodded. ‘That, and a lot more. I’m here because I stood for 14 hours a day, double shifts, screwing bolts into engine mounts. Like my old man did. Like his did before him, except he worked at the foundry. I suppose we had a better life, and he always reminded me of that, every bloody day. But I never saw it like that. I wanted more. I wanted one of those new Fords we rolled off the lines. Remember, right at the end, they’d roll those brand spanking new machines off the rails and send it out to the world. To some lucky bastard who lived in a nice two up two down conversion somewhere. I always imagined being someone like that. A wife, couple of kids, packing them up on a Sunday and heading down to Dymchurch, getting the kids some ice-creams, a cool pint for myself with a good froth, then driving back again through the B roads, taking in all the scenery.’

They were silent for a while before Warmonger said, ‘Why you never have kids, Jono?’

‘Ah, never happened. Something wrong with the pipes. Or Sue’s pipes.’

‘What, you never had it checked out?’

‘Nah, all them fancy doctors prodding your gear. No way. Give me some dignity.’

A siren wailed in the distance. The two men stiffened. Jono cocked his head. The siren veered away into the night. 

‘You think we’re safe?’ Warmonger said.

‘We’re never safe, lad. Ever.’ Then, after a pause: ‘You gonna read me that letter?’

‘What makes you think it’s a letter?’

‘It’s from Sue, innit?’


‘It’s from Sue. Don’t lie. You’re gonna read me that letter, then one of us is walking out of here with the bag. Just one of us, mind you.’

Warmonger didn’t often experience the sensation, but now he felt a cold worm crawl through his stomach. He thought for a moment he would throw up. He felt suddenly afraid to die, and he had to stop himself from bursting into a nervous laugh.

Jono grabbed the sawed-off shotgun they’d used to rob the jewellery shop. Now Warmonger realised why Jono insisted they only bring the one gun and he carry it and do the holding up while Warmonger filled the bag. They hadn’t needed to use it, yet. It was still loaded. 

Now Jono pointed the gun at him. 

‘I told you, son. Read the letter.’

‘You don’t want to know what’s in the letter.’

‘I won’t know until you read it to me, will I? Besides, maybe it’s nothing. Then we can go and have a pint. But if it’s something…’

‘What if it’s something?’

‘If it’s something I’m not gonna like, then we have a problem. Still, either way, I want you to read that letter aloud to me.’

‘Christ, Jono.’

‘And no using the Lord’s name in vain. My mother hated that.’

‘You’re going to push this?’

‘Right to the edge. And over.’

Warmonger, who’d been leaning slightly, shuffled his feet and straightened up on the crate. ‘Let me ask you one question, Jono, and then I’ll read the letter.’

‘Fire away.’ Jono laughed then. ‘Probably not the best phrase to use, eh?’

‘Put the gun down first.’

‘I ain’t putting the gun down.’

‘Alright then. Alright.’ Warmonger had started to sweat. Every now and again, his heart threw itself into a spasm. But he kept his head.

‘You and Sue.’

‘Oh you mentioning Sue again? You seem to be talking about her a lot, tonight.’

‘You and Sue. I mean, are you happy?’

‘Christ!’ Jono spat out, ignoring his own profanity law. ‘This gonna turn into a shrink session or sommin? What the fuck do you care?’

‘You’re a mate.’

‘Oh, now he’s bringing in the we’re best mates bullshit. You should’ve thought of that before.’

‘Before what? You don’t know what I’m getting at?’

‘I know what you’re getting at, boy.’

Warmonger’s eyes narrowed. His own temper was surfacing, like the incoming tide filling a deep rock pool. ‘You never called me boy before. We always respected each other.’

‘Coz that’s what you are. Just a boy, a kid, a snot-nosed little arsehole. Now you cut the crap and read me the letter. Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest and rip out that fake heart of yours.’ 

Warmonger raised his arms up, like a cowboy in an old western. Jono looked at the damp patches under his arms. He felt satisfied that he’d cornered Warmonger and got him scared. He had him where he wanted him. He did love the lad once, like his own son, like the son he never got from Sue. But he trusted him too much, put his faith in something despite all his gut feelings that he should never put his faith in God or another person. He remembered, now, how his mother slapped him across the head each time he cussed as if each blow was a fresh nail driven into the palms of Christ. Sue, also, was a little religious. But look where that got her.

‘I’m going to have a cigarette,’ Jono said. ‘You want a cigarette?’ Warmonger nodded. ‘And put your arms down, you look like a stupid prick.’

Jono lay the shotgun across his lap. He took out a pack of Player’s, took two cigarettes out of the box, put both between his lips, struck a match and drew the flame across both, passed one over to Warmonger. All the time, his eyes never left Warmonger’s. Each sucked in a good lungful of tobacco, blew it out in the space between them. The thick smoke lingered. It seemed comforting, calming, and the nicotine put them in a better mood.

That only lasted a moment. Jono lifted the gun and pointed it back at Warmonger.

‘For the last time, Warmonger, read me the letter.’

Warmonger let out a sigh, put his cigarette between his teeth, picked up the now crumpled letter. The paper shook slightly in his hands. He was almost resigned to his fate, now. He cared no longer what Jono thought or did. He always knew things would end something like this, although he imagined a more glorious outtake, a shootout with the coppers like those jokers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Wild Bunch. He’d grown up on a diet of westerns, and it was the only time he remembered spending with his old man. Sunday afternoon westerns. Now he was Billy The Kid and Jono was Pat Garrett. Jono had led him straight into a trap.

He started reading. ‘Dear Jonathan.’

‘Ah, she always likes to use my full name,’ Jono said. ‘The only one that does, these days. Go on.’

‘We’ve been together a long time.’

‘Don’t I know it, son, don’t I bloody know it!’

‘We’ve had some good years together.’

‘Indeed we have. Indeed.’

‘But lately‑ ‘

‘Stop it there.’


‘Stop reading. There’s no point.’

‘You don’t want me to read the letter after all?’

‘Nope. Because I’ve read it.’

Warmonger sat staring at Jono. Jono sat back a little, as if he was in a recliner. He took another pull on his fag. To Warmonger, he suddenly looked way beyond his years. He didn’t look at Warmonger any longer but stared up at the ceiling.

‘I’m going to tell you a funny little story. About a year ago, I’m shopping down at the Co-Op. The one at the end of the High Street, owned by that lovely Middle Eastern couple. The one I put the word out on that if anyone tries to so much as think about doing them over, I’ll break both their legs. While I was at the counter, I stared at the notice board. Of course, I couldn’t read any of the notices, but I asked the man at the counter if there was anything of interest. I made an excuse that I’d left my glasses at home. Sometimes I do that, just to pass the time, to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. He told me of some geezers plying for work, some window washers, lawnmower rounds, that kind of carry on. But then he told me about a notice posted by a woman who was teaching the Queen’s to new immigrants. So I figure, if she teaches them to speak English, she can teach me to read it. So he gives me the number, and I memorise it – I became good at that in my life, you have to when you don’t have much schooling behind you – and so I rings her up, and she says come down and see me and let’s talk. So I goes to see her, and she lives in one of those housing estates south of the river, in a tower block, on the fourteenth floor, and the lift was out of order and the climb nearly did me in, I had to stop for a fag half-way, and when I reach her flat she opens the door, I get a shock. She ain’t even English but turns out she’s from the Sudan and has three kids and her hubby is looking for work and they need to pay the rent and buy food. Now when she sees me, she’s a little unsure. I’m a brute, these tats don’t help me and the scars on my face tell her all sorts of stories about me before I’ve even opened me gob. But she’s gracious enough to invite me in, and we get talking and she says she can teach me to read in no time, she says something about language and words being in all of us and we just have to unlock it and let it all out.

‘So I tell her about Sue and that it’s our silver wedding anniversary in a year and I want to write and read her some new vows. And she starts showing me the alphabet, what all those letters mean, and putting them in some sort of order, and then pinning that order onto objects, things. She’s patient. Her husband goes out and hunts for work each day. She looks after the kids, gets a few students, not many, and I go twice a week. I tell Sue I’m at the pub, that’s easy. Meanwhile, Akifa – that’s her name, Akifa, and I add it took me a while to get my head around it – patiently taught an old crim like me to read. Something no one else has ever been able to do or tried much. 

‘Anyway, Akifa helps me put together my vow renewals, and I’m ready to go home and surprise Sue with tickets to Majorca where I’ll propose to her all over again. I come home, and she’s at the kitchen table, writing something. She ain’t that pleased to see me. I sense something’s wrong. I see her tuck the letter away and I don’t say anything. I keep the peace. But I don’t forget the letter, either, and later when she’s having a bath I take the letter out from her mother’s bureau, and I read the letter. It takes me a while to get through it, and I don’t get all the words, but I get the gist.’

Jono paused, and he ran his hand along the gun like a fascinated kid who runs their finger down a wet window. 

‘I don’t blame Sue, really. I was never a good husband to her. No kids, three stretches in The Big House, never owned our own place. All those jobs, and look at us. Flat bleeding broke. So I had an idea. For once, I’m going to do some good. I want to leave a legacy for someone. Was going to be Sue, but buggar that now for a game of soldiers. So I set up the jewellery number. Dragged you into it, of course. But the money’s not going to you, and not Sue, and not me either. It’s going to Akifa. It’s going to put a deposit on a house for them and maybe buy them a little run-around. Nothing much, let’s admit it we didn’t get a great haul.’

Warmonger flinched as if to grab something. Jono fingered at the trigger.

‘You dirty bastard,’ Warmonger spat out. ‘You strung me along. You knew about me and Sue. That’s the lowest a man can go with a mate.’

‘Don’t worry, Warmonger. You went lower. To the bottom of the stinking Thames. Maybe that’s where you belong.’ Jono stood up then, grabbed the hold-all, backed away a little. ‘It’s time for me to leave.’

But Warmonger was in a sea of red mist. He lunged at Jono. Jono was expecting this, and he swung the shotgun around and thumped Warmonger in the cheek with the butt. An almighty crack sounded out into the empty warehouse, and Warmonger kissed the concrete. 

‘Stay down!’ Jono shouted. ‘Stay down! I don’t want to kill you, but I will!’ and he was shouting so loud the steel walls seemed to vibrate as if a lorry with a blown exhaust had driven by. He pointed the gun at Warmonger; Warmonger clutched his bloodied cheek, and he felt as if everything had broken inside his head.

Jono ran to the door. Suddenly the area filled with light. A torch blazed in through a skylight in the ceiling. A thunder rolled out across the warehouse.  A helicopter hovered above them. Red and blue and white lights flashed in through the windows. Someone shouted something through a tannoy, but Jono wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Akifa, how she first taught him C-A-T and all those three-lettered words, and between teaching him how she told him that her brother and father had been taken from their village one night and she had never seen them again. And he thought how sad, how terribly sad that was, and that he’d never heard anything sadder in his entire life. Then he remembered how all those many small words she taught him grew into longer words and made sense, and he could write them out and finally how he wrote the new vows for Sue and how Sue betrayed him. And Warmonger. Now he was desperate to get the bag of money to Akifa and her kids and her husband, who couldn’t find work but who always offered him a meal when he came for lessons. 

He looked back to see if Warmonger was still there, but Warmonger had gone. He was alone as he’d always been alone. He dropped the hold-all and he dropped the gun. He looked up into the light and thought how very lovely the light was, and wondered if this was the sort of light they always talked about. He willed himself into the light and wished more than anything the light would lift him up. He turned his body upwards, stretched out his arms to see how far he could reach. 

Lincoln Jaques holds a Master of Creative Writing, where his exegesis centred on the noir fiction of Jean Patrick Manchette, Ted Lewis, David Goodis and James N. Cain. His poetry and fiction has appeared in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and the US, most recently in Noir Nation 10 (forthcoming), Mother Mary Comes to Me: A Pop Culture Poetry Anthology, The Blue Nib, Mayhem, Shot Glass Journal, and Flash Frontiers. He lives in Auckland.