When Norman Pierce reached the Upper East Side well after midnight, the streets were practically deserted, except for the occasional couple that passed by arm in arm, and a few loners in need of some fresh air and a little solitude, despite the bitter winter chill….Red tinsel had been playfully strewn around nearby lampposts, so that they resembled gigantic candy canes, left out in the cold, lest people forget that the Holidays – along with the misery of forced intimacy – were in full swing.
He skulked, concealed by the darkness of a nearby street corner. Snow fell swiftly, silently, transforming the otherwise grimy streets into a pristine wonderland chock-full of child-like wonder. Norman had a real knack for blending in with the shadows so well most people never noticed him until he pounced…Merry Fucking Christmas!
He really should have been home, sound asleep in the roach-infested two-bedroom apartment on Avenue A in the belly of the beast known as Alphabet City he called home, but he was a light sleeper and his parents’ arguing kept him up most nights.
More often than not, Norman would slam his bedroom door shut the second they started shouting at each other; he still heard his father attack his mother with abusive insults through paper-thin, plaster walls. Norman closed his eyes and pictured the tragically comical scene.
“You’ve got a headache. Poor baby. Think I give a fuck?!” His father, shouted. Keith was a tall man with spiky brown hair, piercing bright blue eyes, and sinewy muscles backed his mother, Doreen, a short doughy woman with jet-back hair and dull gray eyes, into a corner. She’d, cover her face the whole time with trembling hands, bracing herself for glancing blows that never came. Norman’s father didn’t have the cojones it took to hit a woman. He preferred to wield words like daggers, knowing his mother would feel their sting long after they were uttered. While a slap across the face only burned for a minute or two before being dismissed.
“Get over here. Let me kiss your head and make it better!” Keith touched her soft cheeks with the back of his hairy hand and kissed her roughly. When he did, Doreen would burst out laughing and tumbled clumsily into his meaty arms, relishing the belligerent attention.
Their bedroom was right next to his, so he couldn’t help hearing the thump his mother’s plump body made as she landed on the sagging bed and his father crashed into her with an even louder thud that made the walls shake. No matter how hard he tried to sleep, their incessant moaning kept him wide awake, so he’d sneak out for a long walk perfect for plotting and scheming while they went at it. Norman knew they wouldn’t miss him, too caught up in each other to care.
During his nightly prowls, Norman headed for the subway that whisked him away to the picturesque, tree-lined Upper East Side – a far cry from the bleak brutality of Alphabet City. He passed several junkies along the way some out cold, others with wide, rheumy eyes and unsteady outstretched hands, desperate for a fix. Norman paid them no mind.
He needed to clear his head; he had a lot on his mind lately – especially, the pathetic excuse his ex-girlfriend gave for dumping him. She told him she was tired of turning little boys into men. Norman wondered why. After all, somebody had to do it. And she was good at it, too. Maybe too good…
Clenched in his fist, the six-inch knife with a polished rosewood handle he crafted in high school metal shop shimmered in the dim light; Norman yearned to put it to good use. He sniffed the air, inhaling a familiar, intoxicating fragrance that made his head swim with memories of happier days. The crotch of his faded Levi’s tightened instantly. Perfume, sweet and soft like lilacs captivated his senses, reminding him of his first and only serious girlfriend, Rosa. Whenever he thought about her the fire in his groin burned with an insatiable fury that only she alone could satisfy.
* * *
Rosa had been with other guys before, that was one of the reasons Norman loved her so much – that, and her stunning, curly red hair, smooth, alabaster skin made tantalizing by a smattering of freckles, and curvy body – almost too beautiful to be real.
She laughed at him when they were together in her bedroom in her parents’ posh Upper East Side co-op on the twentieth floor about to make love. Well, actually, it was the first time he’d tried to put a condom on, even thought he was eighteen, and he had trouble unrolling it with shaky hands. She wound up doing it for him, giggling the entire time. Then she lay down on the king-sized bed, pulled him on top of her and guided him in. His movements were awkward and unsteady. Rosa did most of the work. When they finished, he asked what was so funny with tears welling up in his eyes, Rosa called him an inadequate lover.
Inexperienced was more like it. Big difference.
Rosa broke up with him right then and there without even bothering to apologize or say goodbye. She left Norman with a spent rubber and a limp dick and showed him the door. Dejected, he snatched his rumpled clothes from the plush, beige wall-to-wall carpeting underfoot, slammed the apartment door behind him, rushed down the hallway to the elevator, and blew past the doorman in the cool, gray marble lobby, who nodded and wished him a pleasant evening. Norman dismissed him without a word.
* * *
Rosa rounded the corner, alone for once, on her way home after a date with some rich prick no doubt. Norman pounced from the alley, grabbed her, and pulled her deep into darkness, holding her close so she could feel his enormous erection jutting out like a knife.
“Been a long time, Rosa,” he scowled.
“Norman. What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice quivering. “Go back to the barrio where you belong.”
Rosa turned on her heels; Norman grabbed her before she could bolt. “I was just in the neighborhood, thinking about old times…”
“Let me go,” she screamed and squirmed in his arms briefly before she succumbed to swift retribution.
Norman covered her mouth with a grimy hand. “Keep quiet, bitch! You never did know when to shut up.”
Rosa gasped then quickly grew silent.
He brandished his knife with expert precision and pressed the razor-sharp edge against her delicate, swanlike neck. The warm rosewood handle with a red hue painstakingly hand-crafted, worthy of his beloved Rosa.
Her radiant green eyes shone in yellow din of a sulfur streetlight, pleading.
Norman made the cut, hitting her carotid artery. A brilliant burst of red blossomed as Rosa slid to the ground, wilting with the rest of the trash.
Amy Grech has sold over 100 stories to various anthologies and magazines including: A New York State of Fright, Apex Magazine, Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled, Dead Harvest, Deadman’s Tome Campfire Tales Book Two, Expiration Date, Flashes of Hope, Fright Mare, Hell’s Heart, Hell’s Highway, Hell’s Mall, Needle Magazine, Scare You To Sleep, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, Tales from The Lake Vol. 3, The One That Got Away, Thriller Magazine, and many others. New Pulp Press published her book of noir stories, Rage and Redemption in Alphabet City. She is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers who lives in New York. You can connect with Amy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/amy_grech or visit her website: https://www.crimsonscreams.com.
When the well blew, they lost four good men, and a fifth – guy named Ratchit – had an iron rod pierce his head but was somehow still up walking around.
“It’s fine!” Ratchit shouted because the iron rod had busted up his ear so all he heard was iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii pitched up real high. He limped to the left and hummed between shouts.
The ten men left, led by Colonel Hutter (not really a Colonel, not really a Hutter, neither), dragged the dead men over to their motorcycles and draped them over the seats, their MC jackets proclaiming them 1%ers, Devil Whippers, straight out of Grand Forks. Fifteen former roughnecks who’d ridden hard all over North Dakota setting up exploratory oil wells, now reduced to ten and half. They’d had wells blow before and not lose anyone. They’d had dry wells, a couple of spurters, and one gusher. This one had potential, but then it went and blew and killed Ferret, Dingo, Doctor Strange, and Elisha the Prophet, and done rendered Ratchit plum stupid.
And that wasn’t the worst of their problems.
Colonel Hutter had the men stand around the dead and their bikes to say a few words. Not so much a prayer as a Fuck you. “You goddamn bastards were friends and allies and hard workers, but you fucked up bad.”
The rest: “Amen.”
“Like real bad. And now we’ve got to leave your asses here on your sweet rides so the buzzards and coyotes can have you if the fire don’t get you first.”
They all grabbed their balls and spit on the ground while the flames licked higher and boiled out thick black smoke.
While they all mumbled and dispersed, the Colonel and his second-in-charge, Hot Spoon, checked out the horizon behind them, the big sky of the Dakotas revealing another cloud rising, but this one wispy and thin, growing larger and larger.
“They found us.”
The Colonel nodded. “I thought we had a few more days, but I guess this here explosion got their attention.”
Hot Spoon ran his fingers through his Fu Manchu, bushy and rough with dried insect wings meshed in. “We can make the border, slip on up to Alaska. We’ll have to leave the gear, though. Too bad they’ll ransack it.”
The Colonel grunted. Then again, louder. “I think we’ve got to fight them.”
Hot Spoon stepped in front of Hutter, noses touching. “Sir, need I remind you that we just lost four and a half motherfuckers, and they’ve got at least forty motherfuckers, and the last time we rumbled, you became leader because they totally killed Grand Randy.”
Hutter sighed. He wished Hot Spoon would lay off the buffalo jerky. “We run, they overtake us. We prepare now, maybe we take them by surprise and at least make a dent.”
Hot Spoon curled his lip, ground his teeth, and went to walk away. “Whatever you want, you sick sack of shit.”
Hutter had had enough. He spun on his heel, grabbed Hot Spoon by the collar, and jerked him back, switchblade in his other hand. He slashed a deep gouge from Spoon’s forehead all the way down to his chin. Spoon grabbed Hutter’s wrist before he could do more damage. Gave it a vicious twist, then a strike to his elbow, meant to dislodge the blade. Hutter took it like a stone wall. Headbutted Spoon, who went to jelly on his feet. Before he could solid up again, Hutter roundhoused a boot into the man’s face. Something snapped. Spoon dropped like a stone.
Hutter stood over the body, reached down and turned Spoon’s head so he could look into his eyes. Still blinking. He wasn’t dead, just paralyzed from the neck down. If someone didn’t come along and find him, Spoon would die of thirst. Hutter figured it gave the traitorous son of a whore more than a fair chance.
“Make that five men I lost.”
Spoon blinked manically, tried to squeal. Came out like a snore.
Hutter stood, pointed at Ratchit. “You!”
Ratchit pumped his fist. “Mommy! Pooh Bear made a puddle!”
“You’re my new Lieutenant.” To the rest: “Let’s ride, Whippers!”
The Score couldn’t believe his goddamned luck. Knew as soon as the black cloud mushroomed into the sky that he and his crew of Fire Breathers had caught up to the Devil Whippers faster than expected. Another well blown. A fine bunch of idiots Grand Randy had slapped together to go and fuck up as much as possible chasing oil. The Score wanted a slice of that action. He wanted to bring in his fellas, do it right.
A full battalion, it sounded like, all forty of them on their fine ass Japanese crotchrockets racing across the prairie towards the squid ink billowing from the horizon. The Score loved the sound of all them engines singing like “Thus Spake Zarathurstra” which he’s last heard his older brother playing trumpet in middle school band back when there was such a notion as school and bands. He’d recruited well, going from state to state picking up former NBA players who’d gotten their shot for a season or two before they were let go. Tall black men with tattoos, tall white guys with bad hair, all unprepared for life outside of sports. Easy pickings–Come with me and I’ll teach you kung fu and make you filthy rich oil barons. They were halfway there, with some land they pirated in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and now the Dakotas.
Also along for the ride, like the clan’s spiritual advisor, was Cho Luger, former kung fu actor out of Seoul until he was caught in a sex scandal–he had a weakness for teenage European girls, and it all came to light when he got three of them pregnant on the same night within fifteen minutes of each other. The Fire Breathers treated him like a god on account of one classic flick about a heroin addict in ancient Korea who became a master of “Dying Ape Flailing Style” kung fu when he was all hopped up on smack–thus, Junkie Master 2: Needle of Destiny. The first Junkie Master movie didn’t have the same kick, since the lead actor had been an actual junkie, but, man, the way Cho split heads in the sequel it made you forget there’d ever been an original.
Ready to kick more ass, they were. None of them ever getting a second chance in pro sports or showbiz, not even professional wrestling. So they hooked their wagons to the Fire Breathers and hoped to cash in on “Drill, Baby, Drill!”
Then The Score caught a glimpse of the unexpected. A second cloud rising beside the first. Thinner, lighter, almost like a dust devil. There would be no ambush after all. Those fucking Whippers were headed right for them.
The Score held his fist high and slowed his bike, brought the Fire Breathers to a halt en masse as Cho and the Sergeant-at-Arms eased their bikes on either side of their boss. The Sergeant-at-Arms was an Armenian with a name so complicated that everyone called him 29 – his jersey number from his half-season with the Nuggets. Bounced out when he carried a knife on court and threatened to slice Kobe (RIP) like a New York Strip.
Cho had probably already spied this through his ever present sunglasses, but for some reason of bullshit honor or deference, was unwilling to tell The Score. Assumed, most likely, the leader had already made his choice and didn’t need Cho’s advice unless asked for. Goddamn, Score wanted to shout, This ain’t fucking ancient Asia. Got to let me know these things.
On the other hand, 29 seemed to be a minute behind everyone else on the planet. He pointed at the black smoke in the distance and said, “We’ve having them now.”
The Score looked up at 29. One of the few men he had to crane his neck for. “Good, I appreciate the enthusiasm. But flick your eyes to the left, barely a degree, and look lower on the horizon. Tell me what you see.”
29 squinted. “Dust devil.”
They did. All three of them. Another half a minute before The Score said, “And?”
“It’s still there.”
“You know of many dust devils that persist like that? Especially in North Dakota?”
29 licked his finger and lifted it in the air. “Well, it’s a windy day.”
The Score nodded. “That, my friends, is the enemy approaching. Perhaps we have miscalculated. I was sure they would be so concerned with whatever blew up out there that we could catch them unawares. But it seems they are getting better at the art of deception and have fooled us once. But they will not fool us twice.”
29 let out a ferocious yelp and pulled his Samurai sword free of its sheath. He’d bought it at a mall head shop in Kansas City. The Score was pretty sure it couldn’t cut through warm ice cream. He put his hand on top of 29’s blade, eased it to the ground.
“No, son. Not with swords. We have disciplined our hands to fight, and fight they shall. Let’s do this the way Jackie Chan taught us–by using our natural surroundings.”
Cho sniffed and said, “Hack.”
The Score turned and spread his arms wide, shouted at his men, “If we’ve lost the element of surprise, then at least let us choose the battleground. To glory!”
They remounted and rode on.
The choreography of kung fu is largely a cinematic experience, or for exhibition amongst professionals. The best at it can anticipate the moves of their opponents and counter the strikes, thus making them appear to be mind readers. But the truth is closer to “muscle reading”, the same flinches and contraction as when you play the Slap Hands Game on a third date because you’ve run out of stuff to say and you want an excuse to touch her.
Training yourself to anticipate the twitches, that’s the key.
Don’t worry about pretty kung fu. For example, Israeli Krav Maga is an effective fucking weapon to have in your arsenal, but it ain’t pretty. Like two Ultimate Fighting douchebags if they weren’t on TV and were fighting over some pussy instead of cash. Just overwhelm your opponent when he strikes. Tie him in knots.
Prettiness is an illusion. Fighting is ugly. And ugly is only pretty if you’re fucked in the head, right?
Dying Ape Flailing Style is even more distracting and messy than Krav Maga, and it pretty much only works in slow motion, with special effects, and only when you’re hallucinating. It might have seemed like a real system of fighting to those who developed it, but only in the same way that Klingon is a “real” language.
Said all that to say this: Cho dies first.
Cho lost control of his bike on the way to the tilled-up cornfield where the Fire Breathers would face the Devil Whippers for the final showdown. He hit a pothole and exploded the front tire. He banged his head real good and broke his arm. Blacked out for a few seconds, too. Serious concussion. But when he stood again, he was in ancient Korea. All around him were peasants riding mules. Tall fuckers – and noisy mules – but still in need of his fighting skills. The bikers coming from the opposite side of the field were skeletons from hell, resurrected to punish the weak. Only the Junkie Master could save them.
The first step was to charge them on foot. A suicidal task for anyone else, the Junkie Master had the element of surprise on his side. At the last moment, he would leap into the air, hover over the gang of demons, and rain down pain upon them.
He started across the field – slowly – before The Score or 29 could stop him. They were dismounting their steeds, lining them up on the edge of the field. Shouting at him to hold up. Not like they couldn’t catch him. Dude was in slow motion. What the hell was he thinking? But The Score had learned never to question Cho’s impulses.
A few feet away from the first bike, Cho leapt into the air, got about to handlebar height before the first biker slammed square into him. Knocked the rider off. Both of them were then struck by three, four, five bikes, a mass of twisting, burning chrome. Screams from the bottom of the pile. Cho’s face ended up on a tire that was still spinning, wide open, shearing off the Junkie Master’s nose and lips.
The surviving Whippers recovered, pulled their injured from the throttling pile, and stumbled around like wounded Confederates at Gettysburg.
The Score held his hands together the way he’d seen Cho do right before battle. 29 followed. Spread out behind them were the Fire Breathers, a “V” of extra tall motherfuckers ready for one more beatdown.
There was Hutter leading his pack. But no Hot Spoon? What the hell had happened to Hot Spoon? Maybe Hutter had sussed him out as the Fire Breathers’ inside man. Pretty much the only way The Score had been able to keep up for so long. Spoon had left messages behind at every truck stop, every bar, every whorehouse, every Hardee’s, usually scratched in grease on the bathroom walls. But Spoon was gone and now Hutter’s second in charge was a guy with an iron rod through his skull. Instead of leading his men in formation, many of the Whippers were holding their backs, trying to find a place to sit, or bent over gripping their knees, throwing up.
The Score spoke first. “There is no dishonor in handing over the deeds to the land, my friend. Self-knowledge is more powerful than the fist or even steel, and I would not begrudge you an amiable retreat.”
Hutter hitched an eyebrow. “The fuck you saying?”
“Give me the deeds and you can go.”
“Those deeds are about all I’ve got left. Look at these guys. Any of them seem oil baron material to you?”
He had a point. Most of the remaining Whippers reminded The Score of his drunken uncles at barbecues, talking about how they just got some pills to help keep it up. The Score cringed at the thought of those guys in their sandals and socks sticking it to his aunts, who were all too skinny with hair twenty years out of style.
“We’ve come so far.”
Hutter laughed. “That’s because you won’t leave us alone, punk.”
“But you came to us first this time. You wanted this.”
“Maybe.” It was soft, breathy. Hutter blinked into the sun, taking deep breaths. Could be, The Score thought, he was facing a man out of options. Not so much wanting to die, but knowing not to be so much a fool as to run off to Samarra when death would catch him here or there, didn’t matter.
29 cracked his knuckles. “We ready?”
Hutter held up his fist and shouted, “Whippers! Let’s get this over with.”
Each side formed a wall of bad motherfuckers. The foot soldiers on each side found targets on the opposing line.
Then someone blew a whistle.
The Score did not expect to be shot.
He expected to use his skills in a dazzling exposition of mind over body, larger than life, taking on three men at once with his complicated combos of kicks and punches. Chops to the throat. Holds that would render his opponent useless, gibbering like a baby. Kicks that would cause brain matter to leak from the ears.
But the first Whipper he approached shot him with a .44 magnum.
Surprised, certainly. They’d never used guns before. Always played by the rules. He spun, gasping for air from the sheer shock of the slug damn near taking his shoulder off. Spun to fall into the arms of another Whipper, this one with a tiny old .22 pistol that he used like a staple gun across The Score’s chest–ping ping ping ping ping ping.
The Score was on his knees. Mouth wide open. “Why? What did I miss?”
The one with the .22 shrugged. “We didn’t have Cho Luger.”
Aimed, held his tongue right, and Ping, right in the eye. Could almost follow the bouncing bullet just by watching how the Score’s head weaved.
The gunman was so busy nodding at his handiwork that he missed the Fire Breather behind him, already high in the air bringing a high-top sneakered foot to crush his spine.
And lo, it did.
The Whippers got the upper hand on the Fire Breathers because of the guns. Got the numbers down right about even. But when they ran out of ammo and turned the guns around in their hands to use as a club, the Fire Breathers were back in their element. Guns went flying out of fists. Broken fingers everywhere. Old timers’ last moments, thinking of Waylon tunes while ex-pro ballers kicked the shit out of them.
29 was having a ball. With The Score gone, he’d pulled out his sword and started whooshing around with it, Luke Skywalker-like, scaring the hell out of Whippers. But whenever he landed a few blows, no limbs went flying. No heads tumbling off necks. No bodies sliding half-and-half. Just big, reverberating whacks. Damned sword wasn’t killing anyone. Just bruising them.
Didn’t matter. Pretty soon, he’d found Hutter, spitting out teeth and trying to crawl away with twisted legs. The Head Whipper turned onto his back as 29 lingered above, a foot on each side of the man’s head.
“Well? This is the part where you let me go again? Let me lead you to the next blown well and the next empty cornfield? Again?” Laughing through it like it was a good joke.
29 sneered, aimed his sword for Hutter’s mouth, double-handed it, and drove it down. If it had gone right, the blade would’ve punctured right through to the ground. But this blade was less blade and more yardstick. It shoved Hutter’s tongue to the back of his throat. 29 kept stabbing, feeling flesh give way a little at a time while Hutter gargled the blood spurting from his tongue. He finally choked on it, and 29 pulled the blade away, slung the spit and mucus off, and shouted victory, last man standing.
Except that he wasn’t. There was one more, a Whipper, answering 29’s shout with a louder one.
Looked over his shoulder. So it had come to this. 29 face to face with the guy who had an iron rod through his head.
They circled each other cautiously, stepping over and on top of their fallen brothers. Ever closer. 29 worked his blade in loops and swirls like bad guys from Indiana Jones movies. Smiling all toothy.
Ratchit lifted his hand to his head, grabbed one end of the iron bar, and yanked on it until it started to slide from his head, the sound like gravel pouring. Blood leaked out of the entry hole. Ratchit shook his head, blinked, and lifted that iron bar like a sword.
29 charged. Swung.
Rathcit blocked it with the bar. Strong fucking bar. It held the blade in mid-air. No one was going anywhere unless the other backed off.
29 leapt back first, taking his time, looking for a second swing. Ratchit’s ear was so fucked, and one if his eyes red like it was filled with blood. Maybe that side. Maybe he was deaf and blind on that side.
29 came in with a low swing, arching upward, trying take off Ratchit’s right arm. But Ratchit caught the blade, held it in his armpit, clutched tight to his side. Gave it a pull and the sword came free of 29’s hand like it was made of Jell-o.
Ratchit dropped the iron rod and took the sword. Admired it. Posed with it, doing Conan the Barbarian moves. Nodded. “I like this.”
“It’s yours. Take it. Let me go, and you can have it, I swear.”
Ratchit ran his fingers over the edge of the blade. “Dull as dogshit, though. You didn’t sharpen it?”
29 shook his head. “Never used it before.”
Ratchit dropped the sword, picked up the iron rod, and walked over to 29, inches from his face. At first, 29 thought Ratchit was taller than he looked far off, but then he realized the crazy bastard was standing on the back of a dead Fire Breather.
29 wasn’t going to beg for his life. He remembered what Cho had taught him, about what to do when standing so close to an opponent: Balls. You go for the balls. You grab them in your claw and yank them like they are fresh plums on a tree.
So 29 curled his fingers like an Eagle’s talon and struck the man’s crotch. Only to find nothing there to grab onto. He patted around, thinking maybe they were dangling real low or something. Maybe up tight. Maybe Ratchit was wearing a fucking cup.
Ratchit smiled. “Lost my junk to a shark in the Gulf of Mexico.”
With that, Ratchit punctured the soft part under 29’s chin with the iron rod, right up through the roof of his mouth, into his sinuses, and that was enough. Ratchit then rammed the heel of his hand into 29’s nose, shattered it all sorts of ways, and shoved it right through to his cerebrum. His eyes rolled up and he fell backwards like a mighty oak.
No one else left to kill.
Ratchit pulled the rod from 29’s head, looked it over, and gave it a lick. Then he fit it back into the entry hole, pushed it back into place through his skull, and felt immediate peace, love, and understanding for all animalkind.
He headed off towards the line of Fire Breather motorbikes, picking out the one that was painted to look the fastest, and went looking for some prairie dogs to kill for supper.
Bio: Anthony Neil Smith is the author of the Billy Lafitte series, All the Young Warriors, Slow Bear, and many more. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. He’s a fan of cheap red wine and Mexican food. He has a dog named Herman, who is a very good boy.
Jude Greyson sat at his desk in a cold room. Outside, birds sang as if Spring brought a bountiful feast, and for the time being, the cats in the neighbourhood didn’t exist.
He didn’t hear them. The song. Beauty. Not in the notes or the spaces between them.
Downstairs his friends partied on from the night before. That’s what they called him, a friend. He didn’t hear them either.
The light flickered overhead. Nothing.
A dog barked next door. Silence.
All Jude heard was the zip on a small leather case as he tentatively started to open it. All he felt was numbness. He was a cannonball somehow floating on the waves of life and he knew he was due to fall, sink and rest. Someday soon, maybe it would be today.
His mother hadn’t said a word as she’d helped him pack his bags for college. She’d ironed sheer hell out of everything as she compensated for the weight she knew he carried inside. She saw it in him, the anxiousness. Like he had a crack-filled balloon in his belly about to pop. She’d ironed his clothes so heavily. Trying to purge his worry. Without the emotional tools to do it the way a mother should — she knew nothing else. So pressed, hard. She’d made creases down the front of his jeans as sharp as razor blades. Fuck he hated that. Almost as much as the assumption that his demeanour was nothing more than an adopted artist’s aloof masquerade. Stolen and borrowed from something he’d seen in a book, or the latest band he was into. And that somehow, he was going to come true at college, out of his shell — all crap.
Jude spent a lot of time with his door locked in his shared house at college. When he occasionally ventured out, the others were drawn to his blackheart. It oozed shadows and left invisible bloody footprints as he skulked around the tired old house. What was ridiculed at school, had become a honey-trap at college. An image of something they normally saw onscreen or in music mags. He was the real deal. A walking talking fucked up idol to be built up, and knocked down. They could see it wouldn’t take much. Unlike those they’d read and seen on screen, in bands and in those mags. He was…for real.
He didn’t feel any of that either, their abstract admirations — piss to the wind.
There was no way to see the full extent of his turmoil from the outside. His internal tormentors wore virtual masks, came in many colours and rarely showed an obvious face.
The zip went back on the little black case. As he opened it up, he imagined flying insects buzzing at his head. Carriers of distraction back into life. So, he swatted them away. From the case, rusty shiny blades looked up. He pulled back a shirt sleeve and admired each one of the fresh scars. Pushing. Made them seep.
He turned up the radio, he wasn’t listening to. All white noise drowning out a world; not his. This moment was between him and the blades. His real friends. And Family.
He cut himself, to test if he was still there. To see if he could feel past the numbness. A reality. He cut himself to have control. To be done to, by himself, and only himself. His feelings, born and made fragile by an unsympathetic upbringing, could erupt at any moment with outside influence. Here, he had complete orchestration over his pleasure, pain and when it started and stopped…
He sat back. Tears came. Of pleasure, pain, in the caress of the blade.
‘Jude, we’re having a brew… you want one?’
He wiped the blood away. Put on a plaster and rolled his sleeve down. He was ready to engage again. Although he didn’t know for how long.
Silence. Then a zip. Radio turned down.
‘You knocking one out in there, Jude?’
‘I’ll just be a sec…’
‘Be down in 5.’
* * *
Byron Walters was a public schoolboy prick. The rest of the household thought so as soon as he turned up on their doorstep. He stood there, way too fucking proud in his fake-tan skin. Posed catalogue-regal style, like the shitty neighbourhood didn’t matter, and the student house was his new castle. And, his new housemates peering hesitantly around the door were his new servants. His black designer holdall bag that hung from his hand was worth more than the rent they would all pay each quarter.
They let him in.
In the kitchen, the peeling walls bellowed and the others were glad Jude was locked in his room. They could tell Byron’s brash over-confident and constant banter-shit could send Jude spinning off, either in his head or literally. They’d have to ease them both in together, maybe over a brew. At least Byron wouldn’t be mouthing off as he took a sip of something, surely.
One of them went up to grasp the nettle. To get Jude.
Byron kept laying it on. Really trying to sell himself, all the while misjudging his audience. It was about to go even more off-track, as Jude started to come down the stairs.
The others heard the steps and looked at each other. Byron didn’t notice. He was too busy sucking himself off with stories of girls in each port… How he couldn’t beat them off with a dirty stick — how he was the fucking man. And how all these girls…barely pubescent, were his trophies.
The rest of the housemates felt the fabric of the house and kitchen change. With each of Jude’s steps overhead on the stairs carrying more weight than Byron’s hard-sell macho shit.
Jude slipped easily into the room behind Byron. And leant in the corner out of sight. One of the others nodded, leant over behind Byron and grabbed the kettle, filled it and returned to the base and switched it on.
Jude rolled and lit up.
Byron sniffed the air, looked around and jumped at the new member in the room.
Jude was all in black, as usual, a translucent shadow. Aloof. An invisible reluctant observer, wishing to keep it that way.
‘What the fuck? You a fucking goth or something?’ Byron barked and laughed. Slapping his leg as if riding a horse, ‘thought this was Manchester…all indie kids, baggy trousers and Reni hats n’ shit,’ Byron’s words bounced around the kitchen. The others waited for their reception to take shape. Insult, a dig or friendly intentions were irrelevant. Jude was like thin ice with a bed of nails underneath at the best of times.
Jude breathed in.
He gripped his forearm, enough to feel he could leave the room, at any moment without moving. His recent release was fresh enough that these stranger’s words bounced straight off him. The irony of the pain making his armour thick.
‘I’m going for a piss,’ Jude said to the floor, rolly hanging from his lip. He left, his smoke hanging in the vacuum he left behind.
‘That’s quite an act. Fucking dark arts reaper or something. Watch steam doesn’t come out,’ Byron said as Jude walked up the corridor and back up the stairs.
‘Ain’t no act,’ a voice said by the sink.
‘Bollocks,’ Jude barked. ‘Kid’s been listening to too much Smiths already, that’s all. We’ll get some Boddingtons in him, pills, poppers… Get him out into the big city for fuck sake. That’s just some small-town country repressed fuck up waiting to drink through it, get laid and come out the other side. Hell, he can have one of my birds. Two turning up tomorrow. At different times. It’s a nightmare of a juggling act anyhow…’ Byron’s coffee had kicked in and the others had wished they gave him tea instead. He was off on one, again. The gobshite was churning it out double time. Hyper. Like a dog busting for a piss, hopping on the spot between two lamp posts.
Jude’s footsteps started again on the stairs overhead. Coming back down.
‘Wait… I’ve an idea. It’s a belter — check this out!’ Byron announced to the room. ‘Everyone, hide. NOW! I’ll get behind the door, I’ve got just the thing for the fucking Crow,’ he giggled. No one joined in.
The others looked around, beyond worry. Not confident enough to rein in the ego dominating the room. And a little curious to see what was in store, despite knowing it wouldn’t end well. They knew it was a car crash coming and they were fixed to the back seat anyway.
Byron turned up the radio in the kitchen. Radiohead was playing Creep. ‘Perfect,’ he grinned and knelt down, unzipped the black holdall he’d just arrived with and quickly took something out, and put something under his tracky top before they could see it. Then he stepped behind the door and pulled it in front of himself so he was hidden.
The others all found a spot. Ducking, some in the cellar, others around a corner by the bins. All retreating best they could, out of sight.
From the top of the stairs, Jude heard Radiohead coming from the kitchen but already had Paul Weller in his head, and bits of Oasis, then Joy Division. He might have looked a Goth but his all-black uniform was a mere egoless wardrobe he didn’t have to think about. He was a broken priest of his own religion. His mind whirred on ideas, concepts, existential quandaries of abstract expressionism and broken mirrors. He was a deconstruction of himself. There was no time for public image preening.
By the last step of the stairs, New Order’s Crystal, was playing both in the kitchen and his mind. He floated to the bottom step.
His feet padded down the dark hallway. A thrown beer can had blown the bulb two nights ago and they hadn’t replaced it. The kitchen door was open but he couldn’t hear voices. This was normal over those that whispered in his head and whatever soundtrack he played there too. He heard the Chemical Brothers start and didn’t question whether it was internal or external. This soundtrack meant that rather than about to get worn down by the day, he was in a good place and mood. Ready to crack his own notions over what lay ahead.
He stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
Where had they gone?
The cellar was full of shit, nothing to see down there. And there was nothing much outside…
Longsight wasn’t a place to go sightseeing. Unless you liked boarded up windows, smashed out bus shelters and a community that could chew you up and leave you dead if you stopped still long enough.
They must be hiding.
Maybe they’d been burgled? And the rest were in the cellar tied up.
This area was rough. This city could eat you alive and you wouldn’t even make the second page of the local rag. Only last night a taxi driver had been mugged and killed. Some lads had jumped in, put a gun to his head and noose around his neck. Told him to drive or be shot. Said they’d let him know if he could stop before the rope tied back to a lamppost snapped his neck and his head came off. That was after he’d given them everything and showed them pictures of his wife and kids. His head was found by school kids the next morning and the car crashed into a fence a hundred yards ahead, motor still running as a piss and shit-soaked leg pressed an accelerator to the floor.
Jude grinned. Touched his forearm again — so be it. Muggers or not, he was going in.
Oasis’s Force of Nature played all around as Jude took a step forward. The world slowed. At moments like this, his nervousness went past boiling point. Like when he had to talk to more than one person at a time, interact with an attractive girl…any girl. Or, just a stranger. Jude always swallowed it down and got on with it — and let a well-practiced zen-like power overwhelm him. When he stopped trying and let it win, he knew that would be the end. It was like the calm ebbs and flows moments before going over a waterfall in a small boat. Knowing…
The boat always goes over.
He looked out of the kitchen window to the sun, felt nothing.
The door behind him snapped open crashing against the counter. Nothing, he didn’t jump.
He didn’t feel the gun barrel pressed hard against his temple or the arm gripped tight around his neck, pulling the gun and skull together tight. Nothing. But, he knew they were there.
‘Haha,’ a voice said, spitting over Jude’s face, ‘you’re gonna get it now… Say your last fucking words, CUNT!’
Jude breathed out, his eyes looked down. He didn’t resist the grip on his head and neck, instead embracing the moment, slowly closing his eyes as if going in for a kiss. ‘If you’re gonna do it, do it,’ Jude whispered, intimately.
Bryon started to shake.
He saw the Devil.
The others stepped out. The joke was on Bryon. They’d all been there long enough, the city was in their veins. Now it was in his.
‘Like we said,’ a voice went, ‘he’s for real.’
‘Fuck,’ Byron muttered… Gasping as realised he was out of breath. He felt small, naked.
‘Just pull the trigger, will you, so I don’t have to,’ this time Jude’s words sounding like a lover’s whisper.
Byron jumped away, scolded, as his feigned aggression faded fully away to reveal his extreme fear. He could see Jude welcomed the bullet. Any bullet. All the while seeming somehow bulletproof.
Byron’s arms dropped. The one holding the gun raised slowly back up and he put the piece on the worktop, delicately, like a priest holding out a communion wafer as a tear welled in his once superficial eyes. He’d been christened and embraced by loss of control. Now, he felt true darkness. Living and breathing in this place, and in Jude. This wasn’t an act. Byron’s image-persona was destroyed, ‘Pint?’ his lips quivered, conceding his comfortable life was now over.
‘Yes,’ Jude said, ‘and you’re fucking buying.’
As they put on their coats to leave, Byron put a hand on Jude’s shoulder and told him he’d wished he hadn’t pulled the joke. That he was an idiot. He was sorry. It was just a toy; fired blanks.
As they walked up the road, towards the nearest pub, a rope dangled from a lamppost and trailed to the centre of the road. Up ahead a burnt-out Vauxhall still smoked.
Sitting in a beer garden, by the fifth pint, Jude told Byron not to worry. That yes, he was an idiot. He didn’t need to tell him the rest… He didn’t need to say that he was sorry too, that it hadn’t been a real gun. That he welcomed a live round.
They sat in that beer garden in the pouring rain, getting soaked through, drinking down quicker than the heavens could re-fill the pint glasses. Small victories.
Jude closed his eyes and opened them again. There was no one there. Reopened, and they were back, smoking, drinking. The clouds took a rest and the sun strained for a chance as much it could in Manchester.
Jude looked into his glass. He saw just how much Byron had been shaken. He saw what was in him. He saw blackness. Flushing, embarrassed, he smiled again, bashful. Like receiving an unworthy felt compliment — a lover’s gift. Then, it drained away, and the calm washed over.
He rolled a cigarette and eyed a broken bottle with shards of razor-sharp glass by his feet.
It welcomed him. It spoke to him.
The bottle’s neck formed the perfect handle. The glass shon. In it he saw a crossroads — choices. Each, with a welcome release. All of them red as night, dark as sinkholes, and humming like the finest everlong embrace.
He saw the Devil.
This time, he’d be in control…and it wouldn’t be a joke.
He writes poetry, short stories and novels. His fiction is a semi-autobiographical mix of dirty realism, crime fiction and noir. Ghostly references to a heritage that includes the Vikings, Scotland, Ireland and the North, U.K. flavour the words throughout. Often with a dark humoured edge.
He’s the founder and editor of the Bristol Noir e-zine which specialises in dirty realism, noir and dark fiction.
John lives in Bristol with his wife and daughters, where he has been since the late nineties. He is a professional designer, artist and writer as well as a proud husband, father, brother and son.
John’s first novel, Untethered, the first in the Black Viking Thriller series is out now with Red Dog Press.Transference, the second Black Viking Thriller is due February 2021.
His pulp noir Weston-super-Nightmare is out in March 2021 with Close to the Bone.
His poetry collection, Dead Birds & Sinking Ships (Little Tales of Melancholy Madness) is due August 2021 with Close to the Bone Publishing.
A collection of Bristol Noir stories (Tainted Hearts & Dirty Hellhounds) curated by and including John’s work, is slated for Q1 2021.
Detective Inspector John Smithdown is a good man with some bad things to deal with. It’s 1988 and ecstasy is flooding the streets of Manchester. The Second Summer of Love is here. Tell that to the locals on DI Smithdown’s patch.
Over one weekend, Smithdown is faced with a missing single mum, machete wielding gangs in Oldham, simmering racial tensions across communities and a mutilated body found at the edge of a remote lake with a mythical reputation. People say bad things happen at the Mermaid’s Pool.
They’re dead right.
David Nolan – author of Black Moss – brings you a second helping of Manc Noir. Things just got even darker.
I’ve always written. Like so many others, I had one of those cliché writer childhoods where I wrote and drew my own little books. I also had an intense interest in crime fiction from a young age, as well — when I was nine or ten, my dad gave me an old paperback copy of “Trouble Is My Business,” which kicked off a lifelong addiction to all things noir. But I didn’t start writing crime fiction in a serious way until my late 30s, after veering through everything else — journalism, nonfiction book-writing, copywriting, etc. Plunging into crime fiction, and finding the community that came with it, felt like coming home.
2. Any favorite crime authors?
Among contemporary authors, some of my most hardcore favorites include Steph Cha (whose “Your House Will Pay” was my favorite book last year; it’s an excellent, searing mystery), Sarah Jilek (who just published “Saint Catastrophe,” a wonderfully weird and sexy book about cults, biker gangs, MFAs, and violence), Sean Cosby (whose ” Blacktop Wasteland” is a hell of a masterpiece), and David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s “Winter Counts” (an incredible mystery set on a Native American reservation). All of them are pushing the boundaries of what crime fiction can be, especially as a lens for viewing some of the biggest issues hitting society at the moment.
3. What makes a good crime novel? How do you create suspense?
If you want to build great suspense, you have to delay gratification. All the common tools of suspense — the cliffhanger, etc. — stem from that simple principle. You delay and delay and delay, in a way that leaves the audience wanting more. When I’m reading a crime novel or short story, I know it’s failing when they’re relying too much on spectacle — when they overstuff it with events because they think those will hold the reader’s attention. That doesn’t do anything but wear the reader down. Teasing them along, though… that’s the magic.
“Rattlesnake Rodeo” is the sequel to “Boise Longpig Hunting Club.” I never intended to write a sequel to “Boise,” but the characters kept speaking to me after I finished the book. Plus, if you’ve read “Boise,” you know that it ends with a lot of plot threads still unresolved. With “Rattlesnake Rodeo,” I wanted to raise the stakes by an insane degree, to put the characters in pretty much the worst type of situation you can imagine any noir characters being plunged into.
5.How did you create the Jake Halligan character?
Jake’s history as a bounty hunter and a former soldier comes from a few people in my life who were former bounty hunters and soldiers. I like the idea of a roughneck who cuffs people by day but comes home and reads a ton of books—there’s a dichotomy there that breaks a bunch of clichés.
Many characters in noir and hardboiled fiction are fundamentally immoral, because that’s how you drive the plot—they’re fighting their dark places. With Jake, I wanted to create a character who was fundamentally good but grappling with some broken pieces (many of those the result of his experiences during the Iraq War). Jake’s sister, Frankie, is the opposite—she’d be a complete psychopath except for whatever wiring in her brain allows her to love her friends and family intensely.
6. Tell us about the Love & Bullets series? How were those characters created?
The novellas were originally published via Shotgun Honey, which specializes in noir novellas. Then a large German publisher bought and translated the novellas in one volume for the German and Swiss markets, which meant I needed to rewrite the books slightly, in order to ensure the narrative read smoothly as one giant novel as opposed to three shorter ones. Now Shotgun Honey is going to publish the novellas as a complete book in English, which gave me the opportunity to rewrite yet again—and add to it. It’s a rare gift to be able to rewrite and adjust your book repeatedly as times go on; I’ve used the opportunity to tweak issues, improve the plot, etc. So that’s been fun!
7. In another of your most recent novels “Boise Longpig Hunting Club”, JakeHalligan faces many dangers, in a novel full of action. Does this help to draw the reader in, to keep the reader guessing?
With “Boise Longpig Hunting Club,” I was inspired by “The Most Dangerous Game” and other novels and movies over the past hundred years that have featured people hunting other people for sport. Given the political and cultural polarization in America, I thought it’d be interesting to revamp that story with a lot of contemporary subtext.
At the same time, I also wanted “Boise” to be something of a mystery, because that would keep the reader engaged until it was time for the big hunt to kick off. I was borrowing a little bit from the Lee Child playbook with that one—if you’ve read the Reacher novels, you know that Child is very good at weaving together mystery and action to keep you glued throughout the entire book.
8. What will your next book be about?
I’m actually working on *two* novels right now. One is an Agatha Christie-style locked-room mystery that takes place in a highly unusual time and location; the other is a ticking-clock mystery/action novel that goes in a really odd direction for its final act. I’ve been increasingly interested in what happens when you mix genres together—comedy and horror, mystery and horror, and so on. These two manuscripts are experiments in that vein, and we’ll just have to see how I do.
This story is part of Rider’s early days, before he finds a certain video and tracks down the men who killed his mother and sister. This is also Batista’s first appearance in a Rider story, and as you’ll see, the Detective isn’t as onboard with Bishop’s brand of justice as he’d come to be. Either way: the struggle begins.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
I push the steel harder into the back of Terrance’s shaved head.
“C’mon,” he says. “You and me, Rider, we’ve similar goals.” The scum was right as well as wrong. Where I saw him and his kind as a means to an end, he only wanted atop the pile. “We’re businessmen, you and I. Way I see it, the info I’m givin’ you, I should be gettin’ a free pass.”
“Anne-Marie Shields. Did she get a pass?” Terrance was smart, played dumb, but I already knew. Put a bullet in his crotch to make him understand. I unloaded the remaining five just to let off steam.
“And this piece of shit, this Terrance, he said Toomey and his men are coming in night after next?” Batista continued to look out over Culver, the city he’d sworn to protect. Duty and honor are the things which make up Detective John Batista; what made up most of the men he stood in line with. That he now found himself in my world was something we rarely discussed. It was a given, what I did. And he’d yet to try and turn me in.
In him I see myself, a time when belief had been the norm; that this world did in fact not kick at its dead. Detective Batista and I, we have our demons, sure, each the thing that drives us on. But to be fair, that is where the similarities end. No matter how much he might think otherwise.
Toomey, though…Toomey was the here and now. And Toomey was trouble. Aggressive. Ruthless. Feral. He was high end too, lacking the moral compass most considered a conscience. Word on the street was he kept a portable wood chipper now, and that the man was unafraid to take his time if given the chance.
Bangers wouldn’t use him, slingers either, which left me two choices, both of which I could work with. Russians or Italians. Little more re-con and Bobby Carmine popped into view.
“Head-shit looking to take you out, I see.” Batista runs a hand through his greying hair, goes down about his goatee and finishes with a sigh. Politics notwithstanding, I swear the man’s as textbook as they come.
“What it looks like, yeah.”
“And just what is it you want from me?” I looked to the city’s lights behind him, looked down into the valley which had claimed so many. Culver was not the place I’d been born, but I was certain it’d be the place I’d die.
“I want unobstructed access to the south side when this goes down. I’m not looking for collateral damage. Ensure the night’s patrol is light.”
He looks at me, shakes his head, and then says he’d work on it: Batista-speak for yes.
“You’re going to need ordnance, then.” I told him yes, but that it wouldn’t be coming from him. As ever, he’d already done more than enough.
Outside Carmine’s place I load the launcher as soon as I see Toomey and his crew are given the go through. Ten minutes later and I light the night. Upon entering, I can’t help but think back to men like Toomey. Hell, to men like Carmine himself. Lowlifes who think they deserve; men arrogant enough to believe the streets were theirs; who would rob and kill and extort and have others do the very same thing in their name. I picture Mick the Fish, Danny Dolan, and Marcel Abrum. They were special, each of them, all receiving a little extra piece of my time. To Toomey I would do the same. He of the wood chipper fame deserved no less.
As the Kevlar takes two to the chest I turn, dive, but take one in the side of the leg as I return fire. I hear a click. Another. And then the gun as it’s tossed aside.
“Come if yer comin’ goddammit!” I did. It was Toomey, of course. Why men like him never died like the rest of them I will never know for sure.
Through the debris and flame and smoke I see what he’s become—intestines that stream outwards, flowing in place of his legs. Thick, they wind around brick and plaster like pregnant string. He gurgles, spits up, and as I approach I step on as much of him as I can. In the end I don’t need bullets. I only look him in the eye.
To protect and serve, Batista says. To protect and save, I respond.
I admit the difference is vast.
Beau Johnson lives in Canada with his wife and three boys. He has been published before, usually on the darker side of town. Such fine establishments might include Out of the Gutter Online, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and the Molotov Cocktail. Besides writing, Beau enjoys golfing, pushing off Boats and certain Giant Tigers.
I read the novel so long ago (back in my L. A. days so looooong ago) I could only remember the basics of the story. There were probably more of them in the original script by the legend Leigh Brackett, but Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking always left room for improvisation and Elliott Gould—unlikely to be most director’s ideal choice to play Phillip Marlowe—works well here.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that likewise memory proves unreliable. So much has changed in the mean time, too. I’ve been soaking in noir and neo-noir for so long now it’s altered my view on the genre, mostly to be much more accommodating. I dug out my vintage paperback to read later and sat down on a sunny Saturday afternoon to visit 1973 Los Angeles with Elliot Gould and co and Vilmos Zsigmond’s singular cinematography.
The ginger cat is the one thing everybody remembers. I should write a book about ginger cats in noir. You can’t cheat a cat. Chandler loved cats. The scene feels genuine to any cat lover: having fallen asleep in his clothes, Marlowe is awakened by the moggy landing on his belly. Ouch. He has no choice but to drag himself out at 3am in his 1948 Lincoln convertible to the 24 hour food store. The car is a nice touch, signaling Marlowe a throwback to another time, Chandler’s idea of the P.I. as a kind of knight with a code.
Then there’s the candle dippers next door. The topless women would feel more gratuitous if they didn’t have a totally believable and completely natural hippy languor. Asking Marlowe to pick up boxes of brownie mix and doing elaborate yoga poses on the balcony at night. The iconic High Tower provides an unforgettable location for Marlowe’s home, outdone only by the Malibu Colony. Apparently the Ward’s house was the one Altman was living in at the time.
Nina van Pallandt embodies the concerned wife with just enough difference from the mostly Californian cast to make her thinking seem mysterious but believable. Sterling Hayden is a legend and manages to uphold that without chewing scenery which would be easy to do in the role of the writer who can no longer write, who is drunk and angry with the world, not necessarily in that order. Allegedly inspired by Chandler’s own struggles as his wife was dying. Ward’s death is changed from the novel and pays off much better, especially in how it affects Marlowe, who develops a fondness for the difficult man. The drinking scene with Hayden and Gould was largely improvised and has an authentic feel.
Henry Gibson, best known at the time as a gentle poet on Laugh-In, is super creepy and menacing in a really unsettling way as the dry-out doctor trying to extort money from Wade.
Jim Bouton, better known for baseball and even more so for his tell-all memoir Ball Four about that career, makes his film debut as the pal asking Marlowe for a lift to Mexico with some suspicious injuries including a clawed face.
What feels most 70s about this movie is the cops. Well, not that they’ve changed much in L.A. according to my friends who still live there. That gritty, don’t care about anything attitude and the clothes—those awful seventies clothes that modern films never quite get right—they provide a good target for Marlowe’s dogged resistance. The ink interrogation scene is another improvised scene.
I had to look it up, but yeah, there’s a portrait of Leonard Cohen in the Ward’s house because Altman was a fan. Speaking of fans, I love the gatekeeper at the Colony and his impressions of the stars.
A cool thing: except for ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ that opens and closes the film, all the other music is variations of the theme tune by Johnny Mercer and John Williams—even the dirge played in the scenes in Mexico. It’s a great thematic device that gives the picture aural coherence.
The changed ending is often credited to Altman, but it was part of Brackett’s original script which was shopped around for some years before finally coming together with this unexpected group of talents. It works. The final scene is almost an inverse of The Third Man’s iconic ending, with a harmonica in place of the jaunty zither.
Dave had been trying to get in with the local cartel for years: The Wyler family. The only time he had ever caught their attention was when he ratted on a guy in the organization that his sister was dating. The guy had been ripping them off in coke sales. Dave dropped the dime, and sure enough, nobody ever heard from his sister’s boyfriend again, but it didn’t get him any closer to joining their ranks. See, nobody likes a rat. Not even those who benefit from his squealing .
The Wyler’s had a family tattoo they wore behind their right ear. It was of a Barbary lion, and if you had the tattoo it meant you were in. Dave wanted that tattoo more than anything. He’d even tried to draw it in pen behind his ear a few times, using a mirror, so that he could feel what it was like to be one of the boys, but his renderings always ended up looking like smeared shit.
Dave had a new plan, though. This time he was sure to get himself noticed by the Wyler’s, and he’d finally get some steady employment instead of being some asshole, schmuck assistant manager at a grocery store. He pictured himself pulling out guy’s teeth that wouldn’t talk, or roughing up the kid who came up short on the money. That was what he wanted to be more than anything, a tough guy.
This new plan to get noticed wafted in right under his nose. Some hippy kids rented the house across the street. It wasn’t long before the smell of their grow operation started stinking up the block. One day, when the hippies were out, Dave snuck around back, and had a peek over the fence into the yard. Holy shit, he thought. It’s the goddamn emerald triangle back here. Hundreds of cannabis plants flowered in row after row of tired and cracked black pots.
Dave didn’t know dick about weed. He was going to take off a few boards on the hippies’ fence late at night, steal all of the plants in the back of a U-Haul truck, and stash it at a storage unit until he figured out how to turn a profit on it to impress the Wyler’s. Fortunately, just before he was about to go through with his scheme, he let Howl in on his plan. Howl was an ex-con, gulf war vet, and a bandana wearing heavy stoner.
“What the fuck will you do with a bunch of unharvested bud?” Howl asked.
“To who? Who the fuck is going to buy unharvested bud?” Howl said lighting a joint. “Only thing you’ll do is fuck up the crop.”
“What do you propose then?”
“Let the hippies do all of the work. Let them harvest the bud. Let them dry that shit. Let them trim it. When it’s all done, and ready to toke, that’s when we make our move.”
“How long will that take?”
“Judging by the smell, a few weeks.”
Dave wasn’t thrilled about putting his plan on hold, so he took out his dissatisfaction on the customers at the grocery store, but Howl knew about pot. He knew how to move it, and if Dave could turn a tighty profit on the bud, he’d be on the fast track to getting that Wyler tat.
Howl worked recon for a few weeks. He’d climb onto the roof of Dave’s house, and stare down into the hippies’ yard with a pair of binoculars. Finally, after he’d gathered enough intel to make an educated decision, Howl green-lit the operation.
“For some lazy ass hippies, they sure have been working hard to get that weed ready to roll,” Howl said. They trimmed it outside, and now it’s hanging in the garage, drying.”
Dave rented a U-Haul truck, and he and Howl waited. After a few hours, they saw the hippies pile into their hippy bus, and drive off to do whatever hippy shit hippies do. Dave packed his pistol, and Howl grabbed his lock picking kit. They scurried across the street, and had the front door opened in no time.
Turning a corner into the living room, they came face to ass with a couple of the free loving, free loader type loadies caught in the act of coitus. Dave wouldn’t have minded watching if the lovers were into that kind of thing, but the guy reached over for his piece. Dave got the draw on him, and put a bullet in the hippy’s forehead.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Howl said as the woman began screaming at the sight of her recently deceased lover. “What the fuck?”
“He went for his gun,” Dave said. “It was us or him.”
“Well, now you have to dust her too,” Howl said. “She’s a witness.”
“Seems a shame,” Dave said, raising the gun, and shooting her in the head. “Sorry about that, lady.”
“The only shame is the size of your brain, asshole. I’m not trying to catch a murder wrap.”
“Shit, this place is nice inside,” Dave said. “Look at that big ass flat screen TV, and that spacious leather couch. I thought hippies lived on dirt floors and made beads out of potatoes or some shit.”
“Come on, let’s get that dank loaded into the truck before those other Summer of sixty-niners return.
Dave and Howl opened the door leading into the garage, and a wave of stinky bud odor crashed over them.
“Jackpot,” Dave said. “Serves these beatniks right, stinking up my goddamn neighborhood.”
“Hold on,” Howl said, examining the drying buds, hanging on rows of strings throughout the entire garage. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”
“It’s fucking botrytis.”
“These motherfuckers are some serious amateurs. This stuff aint worth shit.”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“This is what I mean,” Howl said, taking a bud off the string. It had brown patches of death on the outside, but when he ripped the flower apart, the inside was filled with a fine brown dust that floated into the air. “Gray mold. Also known as bud rot. If you don’t catch it early, it spreads like fire through your crop.”
“Can we still sell this shit?” Dave asked.
“These idiots must have been watering the leaves at night or something. Fucking morons.”
“Can we still sell this shit?” Dave asked again.
“It’s all fucked and worthless. You know something?”
“You were right.”
“This house is way too nice for a bunch of dirty ass amateur hippies, who can’t even grow weed.”
“That’s what I was saying. Did you see the size of that TV in the living room? You could park a bus on it.”
“How can these peace lovers, who can’t even grow nugs correctly,” Howl asked as they returned to the dead couple in the living room, “afford all of this really nice shit?”
Howl reached over the dead couple, grabbed a leather-bound suitcase, and opened it. Hundreds of little white bindles dropped to the floor.
“We better haul ass,” Howl said, and quickly gathered up the white packets on the floor, and returned them to the suitcase.
“Hey, Howl?” Dave asked, pointing at a small black security camera on the ceiling. “What the hell is that?”
“Fuck it. We got to go.”
“Hold on,” Dave said, and reached up, and unplugged the device, and put it in his pocket. “We have to cover our tracks.”
“The video footage isn’t stored on the camera, numbnuts.”
“Then where is it stored?” Dave asked, and kicked the dead guy. “I bet he knows. Where’s it at? Or I put another hole in you.”
“Christ, Dave. The poor bastard’s already dead. Let’s bounce the fuck out.”
“Oh, shit,” Dave said, pushing the dead guy’s head to the side with the barrel of his gun. “This aint no moonbeam.”
A Barbary lion was tattooed behind the dead guy’s ear.
“Come on asshole.”
Howl slipped out the front door with the briefcase under his arm. Dave stumbled out of the house behind him. As they stepped off the porch, a long black car pulled into the driveway. The barrel of a long gun stuck out the back window, and the cracking sound of two gunshots pierced the marijuana scented air.
Bio: Morgan Boyd used to live in Santa Cruz, California. Now he lives somewhere else with his wife, daughter, cat, and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Coffee and Fried Chicken, Tough, Pulp Metal Magazine, Spelk and in print at Switchblade Magazine. He also has stories forthcoming at Yellow Mama and Story and Grit.
A while back Carol Borden of the Cultural Gutter hepped me to the 1962 film version of this novel which I absolutely raved over. I finally got around to reading the novel and I’m happy to say it’s great fun, too.
The 2006 Kurodahan Press edition, translated by Ian Hughes, includes The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (1928). There’s an introduction by Mark Schreiber that offers a good overview of the author born Hirai Tar?, his works and his influence, including real life criminals writing sarcastic letters to the police and signing themselves as characters from his novels.
Is there a better tribute to a crime writer?
The Black Lizard is a jewel thief with an almost orgasmic desire for shiny stones. In the opening chapter on Christmas Eve, the criminal mastermind dances in her private club with ecstatic pleasure clad only in her jewels, inflaming the desires of the men who will do anything she says. That’s useful because she’s set her black heart on obtaining the Star of Egypt, a colonial spoil that belongs to the leading jewel merchant in Tokyo.
Her daring plan is to kidnap Iwase’s daughter at the ritzy Kei? Hotel, then force him to give up the jewel to get her back. The queenpin is so arrogant that she writes him anonymous letters warning him what is going to happen and when. Iwase is disturbed and hires renowned detective Akechi Kogor? to safeguard his daughter. Akechi is confident that no one can get past his clever preparations. He even bets the stylish Madame Midorikawa that he will succeed. She pledges all her jewels that he won’t.
Of course Mme Midorikawa is just the Black Lizard in disguise and her clever preparations are even better than his. Disguises are the rule of the game and there are so many. Luck allows Akechi to find the daughter before she’s completely spirited away, but this makes the criminal mastermind even more determined.
Another even more daring plot is hatched and poor Sanae is kidnapped right from the Iwase home. The jeweler regretfully agrees to hand over the Star of Egypt at the top of a tower in a theme park. The place is deserted except for a stylish ‘genteel’ woman who of course reveals her true face. ‘The Black Lizard! She was a monster, a shape-shifter.’ But Akechi has a few tricks up his sleeve, too.
There’s a lot of excitement, more disguises, a moment when the Black Lizard has Akechi in her power and finds herself unexpectedly drawn to a mind that matches her own: ‘Driven by some strange emotion, she had the weird illusion that the man lying stretched out under her seat was not her enemy, but almost a lover.’
But jewels are the most important thing and we’re off to her secret underground lair that has jewels and a whole lot more—a most unusual ‘zoo’ that she plans to add poor Sanae to in a most interesting exhibit.