Back East by Chandler Morrison

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

Ryland didn’t generally mind air travel, but returning to Pennsylvania filled him with such sour dread that the only recourse was to take two Valium and remain inebriated for the duration of the flight. He was on his second drink by the time the plane lifted off the runway. Sinking into his first-class seat, his earphones in to discourage the passenger beside him from attempting to engage him in trite conversation, he stared with heavy-lidded eyes out the window and watched Los Angeles shrink beneath him.

Walking toward baggage claim some five hours later in a congenially drunken haze—the only way he knew how to handle the Philadelphia airport—he found he had enough lucidity to be struck by how unpleasant everyone looked. They were tired, sallow, overweight. Their faces bore menacing scowls. People jostled into one another, cursing under their breath or barking into cell phones. Ryland spotted only three girls who were remotely fuckable, and they clearly weren’t locals.

He texted Lyssi as he waited at the baggage carousel, telling her he’d landed safely. She responded almost immediately with a nude photo—feet stockinged in thigh-highs, one hand between her legs and the other cupping her breast—captioned with, miss u and a string of heart emojis. Too drunk to be aroused, he replied with several kissing face emojis and put his phone back in his pocket. He looked up and watched his Louis Vuitton suitcase move toward him on the trundling black track.

The Uber ride to the Cold Spring Falls Marriott—the only decent hotel in Ryland’s quaint-but-irritatingly-rustic hometown—lasted over an hour, made longer than normal by the heavy rain sweeping across the freeway as the driver’s Lexus slowly made its way north. Ryland took another Valium about fifteen minutes into the drive, and soon the silver-gray water streaking up the windshield became pleasurably hypnotic, and even the jagged branches of lightning spiderwebbed across the dark afternoon sky seemed soothingly apocalyptic.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle when the Lexus dropped him off in front of the Marriott. As he got out of the car, he instantly became unnerved by the oppressive quiet. Nature’s whispering breath was the only audible sound—the soft patter of scattered raindrops, the rustle of wind in the trees. Without the steady, mechanical thrum of urban civilization to which Ryland’s body had become accustomed, he felt disoriented and weightless, untethered from gravity.

Mandy, the girl at the front desk, had been there for what Ryland thought was too long a time. She’d been standing in the same place the first time he’d stayed at the hotel five years ago, a little over one year after he’d moved to LA. Twenty-five and built like a cheerleader, spray-tanned and fake-lashed and emanating bright-eyed cheer and sprightly sexuality, she had come to Ryland’s room four consecutive nights after her shift and fucked him with memorable vigor and expertise. Now, at thirty, she was unrecognizable. Pale and bloated, her bleary, blotchy face unmade-up and her once-sleek auburn hair gone frizzy and unkempt, there was nothing left of the girl whose expired pleasures Ryland had long ago known so intimately. He noticed a cheap wedding ring on her finger that seemed to explain it all. There were probably children, at least two. A beer-guzzling husband who beat her. A ramshackle house somewhere rural, away from uppity, suburban Cold Spring Falls’ high property taxes.

As he checked in, his gaze met her sunken, washed-out eyes only briefly enough to see the despair there, the hopeless tragedy of the dead-end life which had befallen her. He looked away, thinking, This is what happens to all of them. They get stuck here in these small towns and it warps them into haggard beasts. He thought of his ex, Penelope, rapidly dying in her dilapidated apartment as the heroin and meth ate away at her brain, her body. He decided she’d been doomed either way. There was some consolation in that.

After leaving his suitcase and sport coat in his room and swallowing two Xanax, he went down to the dim, empty bar and sat nursing a scotch with his earphones in, thinking of his dead brother. He thought he’d feel guiltier about the calls he’d ignored and forgotten to return, but his conscience seemed satisfied with the justification that he’d “been busy.” It had been several years since he’d seen him in person; their paths had happened to cross in Vegas one summer, and Ryland had tagged along as Bruno bopped from brothel to strip club to brothel. Ryland, who disliked both brothels and strip clubs, had gotten progressively drunker as the night carried on, and he had vague memories of doing a lot of coke in what now seemed like an unusually high number of chromium bathrooms. He remembered Bruno strutting up the neon-bathed boulevards, surprisingly dexterous in his gait for someone of such considerable height and girth. He’d kept bellowing “TITTY CITY” at the sky, his tremendous arms spread wide. Ryland had skulked behind him, chain smoking cigarettes and trying not to appear associated with him.

“Money and minge,” Bruno used to say to him, grinning leeringly from his wide, bearded face. “That’s all that fucking matters.” He’d sip his beer, he’d hit his cigarette, and he’d say, “Minge, man, I said it. I know you youngsters like the cue-ball pussies these days, but fuck all that. I don’t want no bald beaver swallowing up my cock. I don’t want to go down on some shaved snatch, some tweezed twat. No.” He’d bang his fist on the table then. “Bruno Boy needs a nice, pillowy muff bush. I want to be coughing up cunty pubeballs for days.”

Ryland wondered how many people would truly miss his brother.

He finished his drink and paid the bartender, tipping too much, and then he went back up to his room and had a bottle of Cristal sent up. The waiter who brought it was a spooky-looking fellow with too-white skin and black eyes and fingers that were too long. For half of a fear-frozen moment, Ryland was certain he’d seen him somewhere before, that his presence here was both ominous and impossible, but he was drunk enough to conveniently lose the thread of what he reasoned was a false memory. He tipped the creepy waiter before shutting the door in his face and retreating to the bed, where he proceeded to drink himself into a cloudy sleep.
 

* * *


 The warm rain was light but persistent the next morning at the cemetery. Black umbrellas canopied the sparse mourners like rotting mushroom caps. Ryland stood hung over and stricken with headache, away from anyone, huddled beneath his own umbrella. The tapping of raindrops atop the canvas above his head was deafening, and the Valium/Vicodin/vodka cocktail was doing little to help. He tried to focus on the priest’s solemn sermon, tried to locate something in the words that would stir some semblance of emotion within him, but the address was garbled into something foreign and unintelligible by the rain’s bedeviling torment.

His parents stood close to the grave, crowded together. Their stern faces were more suggestive of anger and disappointment than of sorrow. Neither of them had said a word to him since his arrival. He couldn’t decide if he was hurt or relieved.

When the priest had finished his spiel, Bruno’s coffin was slowly and efficiently lowered into its grave plot. For a brief moment, Ryland felt a curious sensation of frantic helplessness as he watched his brother disappear into the earth. He imagined Bruno grinning next to him, his big hands in the pockets of his pinstriped pants. “One last hole, little bro,” the ghost said with a greasy chortle.

Bruno’s widow, Christiane, appeared before Ryland as the mourners began to scatter back to their vehicles. Christiane was a small, mousy woman who had been pretty a long time ago but now bore signs of weathering in her face and frailty in her figure. She was only, Ryland thought, somewhere in her early forties, but her marriage to Bruno had aged her considerably. “Hello, Ryland,” she said. Ryland’s nephews—Michael, fifteen, and Daniel, eleven—stood dutifully on either side of her in ill-fitting suits.

“Christiane,” Ryland said, shifting awkwardly, peering out from beneath his umbrella at the treacherous gray sky. “My, um…deepest condolences.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling tightly. “You lost someone, too, you know.”

Ryland couldn’t disguise the confused expression on his face as his intoxicant-addled brain spun uselessly, trying to recall to whom she might be referring. It took him several painful moments to realize they were talking about the same person. “Um, right,” he said, coughing into his fist. “I know he and I weren’t that close but, ah, I…you know, I…loved him.”

Christiane regarded him with an amused pity before telling her sons, “Boys, go catch Grandma and Grandpa and ask if you can ride with them to the restaurant. I want to talk with your uncle.” Ryland tensed up as his nephews wordlessly turned and jogged through the rain to catch up with their grandparents, who were nearly at the parking lot. Christiane leveled her eyes at Ryland and said, “You were planning on coming to lunch, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I remember my mom mentioning something about that.” He had not planned on attending. He wanted only to go back to his hotel and crawl into bed with a bottle of gin.

“I noticed you didn’t drive here. Come on, I’ll save you the Uber fare.” Ryland would have gladly paid exorbitant sums of money to avoid whatever conversation he was about to endure, but his head hurt too badly for him to come up with a plausible excuse. He grudgingly followed Christiane to the parking lot. She’d driven Bruno’s white Maserati Quattroporte, explaining, “I thought he would have liked that—he loved this damned car more than anything. I think, though, I’m going to sell it. It’s just so gauche. Michael will be disappointed—he gets his learner’s permit soon—but no teenage boy needs a car like this.”

Ryland gave a perfunctory grunt of agreement as they got into the car. Christiane pressed the ignition button with a brittle-looking finger. The stereo stayed silent. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Ryland said, “You, um…you wanted to talk to me about something?”

With a short, terse nod, Christiane said, “Bruno talked about you quite a bit these last few months. He said he’d been trying to call you.”

Ryland gripped the sides of the leather seat and looked out the window. “Right,” he said. “Yeah, I know. I’ve just been…busy.” In a gesture of bitter capitulation, he added, “It’s not an excuse.”

“I’m not admonishing you, Ryland. That’s not what this is.”

“What is it, then?” There was more brusqueness in his voice than he’d intended. It had been, he realized, more than thirty-six hours since his last dose of cocaine, and he could feel the razor-cut agitation sawing into his jangled nerves.

Slowing to a halt before a stoplight at an empty intersection, her fingers fidgeting atop the steering wheel, Christiane said, “The last year or so with Bruno was…well, it was better. He didn’t whore around as much. He drank less, went out with his work pals more infrequently. He hardly ever hit me anymore. Even the pot—and you know how he loved pot—even that tapered somewhat. He was more present. Did more with the boys, lost some weight, stopped working on weekends. It was a good year for us. Almost like it was in the beginning.”

“That’s, ah, really great. I’m…glad to hear it.”

The light turned green. Water jetted sideways as the car cruised forward. “Ryland,” Christiane said solemnly. “Listen to me. It was like he knew he was running out of time. There was a night, maybe eight months ago, when he took me to dinner downtown. It was such a surprise. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken me out. And when we got back that night, I caught him crying. Not weeping, of course, you know he’d never do that. But he had these great big tears in his eyes, and he was trembling, and he said, ‘I wasted it all, Christy. I thought it was what I wanted, but it was all a waste.’”

Ryland felt a fetid disdain for his brother then, irked near to the point of sickness at the cliché he’d apparently become. The happy hedonist turned penitent paragon in the face of his impending twilight. It was all so typical. He’d never particularly liked his brother, but in that moment, picturing him quietly crying over his “wasted” life, he liked him less than ever. For all Bruno’s faults, his crassness and his tactless vulgarity, Ryland had at least admired the unapologetic manner in which he conducted his sordid affairs.

“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” Ryland told Christiana, a beleaguered exhaustion settling into his bones, constricting around his joints.

“I think you do.”

“No, really. I mean, what even is this? Some kind of intervention? Am I supposed to burst into tears and tell you you’re right, I need to change my ways, that whatever light you think your husband saw in his last few months has now come for me and swept me into its benevolent arms? Let me tell you something. Bruno didn’t change. He didn’t experience some grand epiphany. He was just a middle-aged man with a bad heart and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels through the goddamn roof, and he started to get skittish the more he felt his mortality. There’s nothing special about it. It happens to guys like him all the time.”

“You’re taking this all wrong,” Christiane said quietly, pulling into the parking lot of a little Italian restaurant called Luca Lorenzo’s that Bruno had particularly liked. She parked the car near the back of the lot, turned off the ignition. She didn’t look at Ryland. “I’m not attacking you. This isn’t about judgment. I’m only telling you what he wanted to say himself.”

“Which is what, exactly?”

“Take it easy. Enjoy life. Find things that give you real pleasure, not synthetic substitutes. You’re right, he was feeling his mortality. It has a way of creeping up on you. I think Bruno was starting to realize the things that are important to have around you when it does.”

“I don’t think Bruno was starting to realize anything. And I’ll tell you something else—he never worked on weekends.” This last jab was an unnecessary cruelty which still felt coldly justified.

Christiane’s mouth drew into a thin line. “All I’m saying is you’re still young, Ryland. You still have chances left. Bruno didn’t start to wake up until he’d blown every chance he ever got.”

“I am awake.”

“No,” Christiane said. Her smile bore no amusement, no warmth. “You’re stoned. There’s a rather distinct difference.” Not waiting for an answer, she got out of the car and stood in the light rain, waiting for him to follow. Bitterly, he did, and the two of them walked briskly across the slick parking lot and into the restaurant.

Inside, sitting at the table with his family, Ryland was immediately put off by the small-town simplicity of the restaurant’s interior—the drab, generic wallpaper, the awful carpeting, the poor lighting. Menus printed on cheap cardstock and shoddily laminated, their edges trimmed unevenly as if scissor-cut by children. Faint Muzak drifted from tinny speakers. The staff were slouched and slovenly, the chairs ancient and creaky and uncomfortable. It was the kind of place Bruno loved; he favored places where he could flaunt his wealth, where everyone was force-fed the bitter awareness he came from a higher cloth. This was one of the most distinct differences between the two of them—ever since Ryland had started making real money, he liked to be in places where he was surrounded by people of his ilk, where he could comfortably blend in among the upper tiers of the social strata. Intermingling among the lower classes only grossed him out.

“Ryland,” said his mother, phrasing his name like a bland observation. “We didn’t think you’d come.”

“Yeah, well,” Ryland muttered, and then said nothing else. He ordered a Belvedere on the rocks. The waiter only blinked and asked him what that was, so Ryland sighed and rubbed his temples and asked for a glass of Chianti, instead. “Actually,” he amended, “just bring the whole bottle.”

“It’s awfully early,” his father said—quite hypocritically, Ryland thought, given the man’s own relationship with alcohol.

Ryland mumbled something about still being on California time, realizing too late that this didn’t make any sense because it was still morning on the West Coast, but no one challenged him. His mother protested when he declined to order food, fussing that he was “too thin, much too thin.” He silenced her with an upheld hand and an expression of exhausted impatience.

He tried to pace his consumption of the wine as the meal progressed, but he’d drunk the entire bottle before anyone else had finished eating. The weak alcohol was all that allowed him to tolerate their idle chatter and the maddening scrape of utensils across plates, and even then, only barely. No one said much to him—Christiane had already made her case, his parents had given up on him long ago, and his nephews knew from past experiences that he was incapable of patiently indulging the antics of children the way other adults could. Ryland’s alienation at the table afforded him the opportunity to observe things he might have otherwise ignored, like how drastically his parents had aged since he’d last seen them. The deeply set lines in his father’s face, the receding gums, the burst capillaries crowded around his nose…his mother’s ballooning weight, her thinning hair, the cloudiness of her eyes.

It came as something of a shock, seeing them so old—his father, particularly. He could see, faintly, his own resemblance in his father’s features, could see himself reflected back through the lens of advancing time, but he could not reconcile the notion that the image of the man on the other side of the table was what waited in store for his own life. Old age was not something Ryland had ever been able to envision for himself. He saw nothing particularly fatalistic or tragic about this blind spot in whatever foresight he thought he had for his future; it simply was not something he considered a possibility. Something else would happen, be it a medical panacea for aging or some blighting scourge that eradicated mankind—whichever polar extreme came first.

When lunch had concluded—Ryland had attempted to at least pay for his wine, but his father had dismissed him with a summary wave of his hand without looking at him—the family stood outside under the dripping awning, hugging and saying their goodbyes. Ryland stood slightly away from the rest of them, not engaging, feeling like an outsider and oddly comforted by this; he didn’t want to be one of them, had never wanted to be one of them. 

Christiane offered to drive him back to his hotel, but he politely declined. He wanted to get away from all of them as soon as possible. He’d expected her to say something stereotypical in parting, something along the lines of “Think about what I said,” or “Try and be good to yourself,” but she didn’t. She and her sons walked across the parking lot to the Maserati and none of them looked back.

Before taking their own leave, Ryland’s parents offered stilted words of farewell to their sole remaining son—his father limply shook his hand, and his mother hugged him briefly, but there was no warmth there, no sincerity. He was as dead to them as Bruno was. Maybe more so.

On the way to the hotel, he had the Uber driver stop at a liquor store, where he bought a fifth of Tanqueray. He tore the seal and took a long swig as he walked through the rain back to the Uber, where he continued to drink in the backseat, tipping the driver egregiously to avoid any impact on his passenger rating. He blacked out somewhere between the hotel elevator and his room, regaining consciousness the next morning on the plane, already airborne, wearing the wrinkled suit from the day prior and receiving wary, side-eyed glances from the passenger beside him. All he could do was order another drink from the frumpy stewardess and wait for the plane to deposit him back into his life on the other side of the country.

Chandler Morrison is the author of Along the Path of Torment, Until the Sun, Dead Inside, Hate to Feel, Just to See Hell, and the upcoming Human-Shaped Fiends. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.

Devil’s Morning by M.M. Harrold

Short Stories

Detroit Police Department 

Internal Affairs

October 29, 2003 

 

I’d done the things I was accused of over the years.  All of them.  Except what I was accused of this one time.  This time, I had played it straight.  Hell, I even gave that woman a break.

The Internal Affairs detectives had me sitting in a room just like one you’d see on TV.  The table in the middle of the room.  The metal chairs.  An exposed light bulb with a wire cup serving as a fixture.  I gripped a cup of weak black coffee in a Styrofoam cup.  My knuckles were busted from fighting and I had permanent callouses that had formed from all the blisters from the fires.   I was in uniform.  My shirt and pants were starched but my leather boots and gun belt were scuffed.  I was no rookie.  I was grandfathered in before they banned the tattoos.  I had a full sleeve, and my shoulders and chest were covered.  There was even an electric piranha swimming up my neck from my collar.  I’d gotten a few since they banned them on exposed areas, but the brass wouldn’t know the difference.  They didn’t know shit.  Even the ones that had come up through the ranks seemed to forget what it was like on the street.  A white shirt or a suit seemed to suck the experience out of guys who had probably done the same shit I had.  Maybe worse.   But I did what I did for instant gratification.  Those assholes played the long game; they collected dirt and then climbed the ranks on the rungs of secrets they knew.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of questionable shit to let a woman out of a traffic ticket or, on a few occasions, a shoplifting charge.  Even took the stuff from the store and said it was “evidence” and then let her keep it.  A couple of times I’ve returned after locking up a husband or boyfriend—or even girlfriend—to “comfort” a vulnerable woman after a domestic. I’ve stolen drugs from the evidence room. Used them and planted them.  I’d hit people I was pretty sure were guilty with a leather sap to get a confession.  Three years earlier I shot and killed an unarmed suspect but quickly dropped a Smith and Wesson K-Frame I kept in my cruiser hidden behind the tire jack next to his right hand.  I played the odds.  Most people were right-handed.  He was.   A “South Florida throwdown” the cops called a dropped gun, not that I was near South Florida.  Detroit was about as far away as you could get from South Florida.

So, the two detectives were in suits.  Cheap suits but suits, nonetheless.  I hated these rats.  I had no idea how you made it through the academy and hit the streets with your brothers and sisters only to go after cops instead of the perps.  They asked their questions; it was easy to keep my story straight because it was one of the exceedingly rare times I was telling the truth.  

“Officer, you don’t want a lawyer or union rep?” the more senior detective said.

“Don’t need one” I said.  And I didn’t because I hadn’t done anything.  This time.   The woman was saying I pulled her over and made “sexual advances,” I wasn’t worried.  They told me the timeframe she was alleging, and I knew I’d been halfway across town getting gas at the city pumps and knew the CCTV cameras would clear me on this one.  I’d pulled her over hours before she said I did.  Ironically, I gave her a break.  If I’d called in the stop on the radio and issued a citation my alibi would be even stronger.  She was stepping out on her husband, was late and was blaming it on me.  Saying I’d kept her pulled over for an hour when it was less than five minutes.  No good deed.  

After the pumps I’d been off my beat getting dinner at a taco joint the DEA had told us to steer clear of.  I didn’t.   This whole thing sounded like bullshit.   I had no idea if this was just to sit me down so they could ask me real questions.  What did these guys know?  Did they know what I really did for the Motor City?

Did these pricks know how I saved this crumbling city?  By setting fires.  Fire by fire.   They didn’t; and I wasn’t about to tell them.  Rats.

I knew what they didn’t know.  

One way to save a neighborhood is to set fires.  It’s all about aggressive zoning.  

An unexpected flash thunderstorm had left the streets slick, the potholes filled to the brim.  I drove my marked Ford Taurus down a one-way street littered with trash.  I pushed the ray of the strobe light against the projects lighting up clusters of people huddled in doorways and at the edges of the narrow hallways.  The windshield wipers slapped, paused, and slapped again in a steady rhythm.  Throngs of people scattered as I turned the corner.   They always did.  It was a one-way street going east with a parallel street one street over going west.  It created a type of drive thru for crack.  Pay on one side, around the corner pick up the dope.  Dope and money never together.  There was a short street running perpendicular from a main road to the eastbound street, with a bodega at the intersection.  There was a payphone.  Anytime there was a payphone on my beat I disabled it during midnight watch when nobody was around.  Usually, I’d cut the cable with bolt cutters; sometimes I’d put gum or super glue in the coin slot.

This bodega even sold a crack kit.  Seriously.  Paper bag with a pipe, brillo.  Just add crack.   It was time to burn it down.  Literally.   I was thinking about it when my sergeant raised me on the radio and asked to meet.  We pulled our cruisers alongside each other with the driver’s doors facing each other so we could talk.

            “Hey sarge,” I said feigning interest in what he had to say.  He had five fewer years on the force than I did.  Shitty cop, good test taker.  Intelligent but stupid.  Bad at chasing perps.  Good at shining shoes and kissing ass.

            “Uh, huh” I kept saying not sure what I was agreeing to.  It sounded like it was a complaint from one of the female officers on my shift.  Something I said, I guess.  About a stripper maybe.  I wasn’t sure.  I couldn’t remember.  I didn’t care.  Wasn’t the first time; wouldn’t be the last.  But it was being handled in-house so I knew it wouldn’t amount to shit.

He seemed to be waiting for me to say something.  I just stayed silent.  I like annoying this prick.  

            “Krebs?”

            “Yeah, Sarge it’s me, what’s up?” I asked.

            “Yeah what?” the sergeant said… “will you sign it or not.”  He was talking about a discipline form he had shown me earlier, right after roll call.

            “What’s the rip on it?” I asked, sure he had just told me, but I wasn’t really listening.

            He had.

            “I just told you Krebs, three days.  Unpaid.”

            I went silent again.  I would agree but this guy and his three stripes were going to have to wait another minute or so.

            “Krebs!

            “Yeah, I’ll sign it,” I said.  

            “Fine,” the sergeant said, “this week, Wednesday through Friday.”

            This was a punishment?  Halloween night and the nights before and after were a nightmare in Detroit.  The night before, Devils Night, and Halloween the Detroit Fire Department answered over 100 calls for service. 

I would add a few to that.  Having the nights off would make it easier to go on a spree, but it would erase my alibi.   Being on duty is a hell of a good alibi when the embers started to glow.  It was one I’d used many times in the past.   You knew how to work the radio and you could be anywhere in the city.  Or not be anywhere.

            I had a van.  I bought it at a sheriff’s auction in some small town in rural Michigan.  It was only the four lights on the roof away from being the A-Team van.  Black with the red stripe.  Bar across the rear top, even had the red rims.  It was a little conspicuous for its intended use; ironically, my marked police interceptor was less conspicuous in the projects, but it would have to do. 

Even off-duty I heard the dispatcher talking in my head.  On-duty it was all 911 calls, who needed help, who was getting slapped around, who wanted who out of the house since the monthly check had run out.  On and on.   Off duty, it was still my dispatcher’s voice.  I heard it.   All the time.  She was telling me which houses to burn.  

            I wore black cargo pants and a black sweatshirt.   Black boots.  I had a shoulder holster with a Sig 9mm under my left arm.   

            I was going to torch a crack house.  

To the ground.  

It made me a good cop.  A great cop.

I ignored the fact that they rarely hurt anyone and that they were casualties of the endless drug war, a cure clearly worse than the disease.  Mental health.  Not crime.  If anyone was acting like a warrior, it was me; I was the only combatant.  

I hoped the houses were empty.  

Hoped.  

The idea wasn’t mine.  The brainstorm came from a legend with the LAPD when crack first hit the streets in the early 1980’s.  He set fires for years, him and two other guys from his precinct would throw a flash bang in, disperse the dope fiends, and leave a slow burning Molotov cocktail with a long wick in their wake.

The Legend and his crew never got caught.  Only cops knew about it.  Word spread.

            I did the same.  Ten times before tonight.  Two before midnight on Devil’s Night.  

            My plan was to torch a thirteenth house, then the bodega on my beat and call it a night.   Thirteen was not my lucky number.  

Halloween Morning.  2 a.m.

            Devil’s Night had been over for two hours when I stepped into the abandoned one-story dilapidated house on one of Detroit’s most lethal streets.

            “Where did the dog come from” I thought as it barked and lunged at me.  I thought about shooting it, but I didn’t normally shoot dogs.  I had a conscience.  Through a gap in the moldy, clapboard wall I saw two uniforms approaching the structure.   I had no idea how they found me.  

            Even though I have a conscience, survival instinct kicked in.  I threw the Molotov cocktail at the dog and then shot it between the eyes.  The crack of the round leaving the barrel with a flash ricochet against the silence.  The dog slumped.  The uniforms drew their weapons.  What I had going for me was their training.  They didn’t rush the house.  They crouched for a second out of instinct and looked for cover. Then, they approached.  Tactically. 

            I moved quickly to the rear door of the house walking over what had become a mud floor interspersed with crack pipes and garbage as the wood had rotted and been absorbed by the grainy black soil.  As I began to move, my breathing accelerated, causing the smell of urine and shit that pierced my nose to become more intense.

            I ran out the rear door and cut through the backyards of the neighboring houses.  Fortunately, most of the fences I had to scale were sagging and the laundry on the lines partially blocked the sightline of the cops who were now chasing me.   Still, they stayed on me.

            “Stop! Police! Stop! Police!” they both yelled.

            I didn’t.  I just hoped they didn’t shoot me in the back.

            I made my way to a corner and then a short cluster of trees that allowed me to double back towards the van.  They had lost me in the shadows.  As I knew, chasing armed perps was no picnic.  Every corner they rounded they had to stop, peek, and then proceed without rounding the corner into the barrel of a gun.  

            I ran to my van, opened the unlocked rear door, made my way to the driver’s seat and cranked the engine.  The cops were running behind me, down the middle of the deserted street.

            I pulled away.  In the rearview mirror I saw one of the cops, the younger one, with his hand across his body gripping the mic near his shoulder.  Talking.  Calling in backup.  I drove with my left and lit a Molotov cocktail sitting on the passenger seat with a lighter in my right.  The slow burn of the wick began its deliberate path to the bottle.  I took my hand off the wheel and lowered the driver’s window.  I drove with my right, reached across with my left hand, and grabbed the cocktail.  I pulled it across my body.  My plan was to hurl it back towards the officers running down the street. Maybe hoist it into a parked car.  All I needed was a distraction.  A second to dip onto a side street and disappear.  The running cops knew they didn’t have to catch me, just keep me in sight.  The radio would catch me.

            I never got the chance.  A ghetto bird appeared above me, and the floodlight sprayed light upon my van.  I could hear the rotors cut against the cold Michigan air.  It blinded me for a second.  I jerked the wheel without thinking, in a moment of panic.  

            I dropped the cocktail.  It pitched over my left shoulder and landed behind my chair.   Out of reach.  I estimated the wick only had about twenty more seconds. If it was still lit, but there was no reason to believe it wasn’t.  It was all I would need.

            The bodega was a hard left turn one hundred fifty feet ahead.  I opened the door and got ready to bail.  I steered towards the store—my ultimate target—my service to the Motor City—my swan song.  I was going to bail and let the van roll.  I figured I still had ten seconds to get out while still steering long enough to save the neighborhood.

            I was just about to plow in through the front door.   There was nobody around.  The store closed at midnight.  I heard sirens wailing; the helicopter hovered.  The running cops hadn’t caught up yet.  I’d have time to bail and snake through the narrow alleys of the projects to escape.  The van was registered to me, so my cop life in Detroit was over.  But I could start a new one.  One on the run.  I could still protect and serve.  One fire at a time.  And fire is eternal, like I would be.  A legend.

            I was wrong, by ten seconds.  

            The van exploded.


M.M. Harrold is a frequent crime and trial TV pundit, former law professor and former cop.  He lives outside Washington, DC.

Since You love her so much by Robert Ragan

Short Stories

This fucking dope head, Ronald Wiley, was a real piece of work. He was doing good buying enough coke and ice from me to support his habits and make a little extra money on the side.

I didn’t mind letting the kid hold something and then pay me later because he was good for it. But then Ronald decided he wanted to play homewrecker and start talking to a married woman who lived across town in some fancy housing development.

I’ve been around, seen, and heard a lot. I even fell for some broads myself. But Ronald Wiley wasn’t in love with the woman; he was obsessed with her to the point of insanity.

Everywhere he went, he talked about getting a handgun. I could have sold him one, but there was no way I would be linked to Wiley killing anyone.

Me and my best buddy Plug-Water both told him she was playing mind games and probably wouldn’t ever meet him.

Plug had a blunt hanging between his lips as he cut playing cards on the table in front of him. He looked up at Ronald and exhaled. He told Wiley he was crazy. Man, this woman is way out of your league. You better leave her alone before her husband kills you.

Ronald looked like those words scraped the skin off of his soul. He looked at me and said, “That’s if I don’t get him first.”

Cutting the nonsense, I said, “Wiley, you don’t have it in you to hurt anyone. So you best listen to Plug-Water and leave her alone before you get your heartbroken, or you get killed or something.”

When he walked out and got in his car, I told Plug that I’d seen Wiley with a few attractive women over the last few years. For him to have lost his mind, this married woman had to be something mighty special. It made me want a piece of her myself. I wouldn’t become obsessed or fall in love with her; I’d just fuck her like she wished her husband would. Then I’d send her right back to him.

Plug smiled and asked if I wanted him to do some investigating. “No,” I told him, “I had other business for him to take care of.”

Some stick-up artist was hanging around one of our labs. I knew he was plotting on the people I had working there. So I told Plug-Water to make it really bloody. That’s all I ever had to say. Plug didn’t have many screws left, but he was the most loyal friend I had.

Anyway, our buddy Ronald managed to get lucky. This woman, who I found was named Haley Snow, actually agreed to meet this addict piece of dirt. Man, Plug was right; she was out of his league. A sexy brunette real estate agent who wore skirts, pantyhose, and high heels. So, what the fuck did Wiley say to make her come and visit the slums? I don’t know, but I even smiled.

Mrs. Haley Snow had no idea what she was getting herself into. But it was none of my business; I was happy for the kid, but then in the midst of his intense joy, he fronted a good amount of ice and powder from me. I gave him plenty of time to pay me back.

Two months to be exact. Believe me, I was more than understanding. First of all, don’t add your drug connections on Facebook if you don’t plan on paying your debts.

I saw this little addict fuck post about jewelry he bought her, fancy restaurants he took her to. I’ll hand it to him; he went out of the way to make her happy and show her a good time.

Plug-Water said it best, though; Haley was used to living an extravagant lifestyle, so Wiley wasn’t doing anything her husband hadn’t done a million times before.

Come to find out, he was about to lose everything he owned out spending money to impress a woman who had her own money. She didn’t need anything from him.

I sent Plug out to have a talk with him and ask politely when he planned on paying me back. Plug-Water drove all over Harnett County, looked for him in Dunn, Erwin, and Lillington, but couldn’t find him. Someone said he might be staying out in Sanford with a cousin, but we couldn’t find him there either.

By then, I was pissed the fuck off. Wiley wouldn’t answer my phone calls or reply to Messenger. Plus, he deactivated his Facebook after Haley refused to leave her husband.

Fucking idiot could have been in a mental hospital after hacking himself up and sharing the bloody pics on Facebook. A guy like this you couldn’t scare.

He definitely wasn’t the same Ronald Wiley I met three years ago. He did ok with the ladies but let Haley Snow fuck his head up big time. He should have expected what happened. Haley snuck away and spent time with him, but it was nothing worth leaving her husband and ruining the cozy life she had. Poor Wiley, anyway, I was about ready to have Plug-Water put him out of his misery. One bullet through his temple, and it wouldn’t matter if she wouldn’t leave her husband for him.

Wait, fuck that! We can’t kill him but damned if he won’t, at least shed a little blood. Leave him alive, let his flesh and bones ache right along with his soft heart.

Anyway, he kept trying to get away from us. So I got this bright idea on how to bring him out of hiding. Haley’s office was in Durham, and it wasn’t hard to find at all.

Plug drove smooth as we played Nas and D-Block. Somewhere along the way, he turned down the music, lit a blunt he’d rolled while driving, and asked me if we were going to tag-team Haley. Laughing, I said, “No, I don’t mean her any harm. I just want her to get in touch with Wiley.”

Plug-Water exhaled smoke through his nostrils. It traveled through his neatly trimmed beard. “I thought you were trying to fuck this chick, man,” he said, “You don’t care if I hit it do you?”

“If she’ll give it up to you,” I said. “Go for it.”

“I’m cooler and better looking than Ronald Wiley, so I think she will,” Plug said.

He was my right-hand man, but Plug-Water wasn’t as cool with the ladies as Wiley. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him.

We pulled up outside Haley’s office just in time as she was on her way to her car. Damn, she was one fine little thing in a pink blouse and black skirt that showed off her long nylon-covered legs.

Plug said, “Goddamn, she’s one bad fucking hottie.”

I called her over to the car. She was reluctant but eventually walked over. The sound of her heels clicking the pavement was arousing.

“Can I help you?” she asked me.

I was trying to handle business, and Mr. Todd Kyle, aka Plug-Water, was nearly drooling when he interrupted me and said, “Damn baby, you one bad motherfucker.”

She was visibly repulsed and about to walk away. “Hold on. I was just wondering if you could get in touch with Ronald Wiley?” I said.

She turned around and looked especially disgusted then. “No, there’s no way I’m ever speaking to him again; he’s fucking crazy!”

“I’m not asking you to hook back up with him. Just tell him Nelson Riley said he better have that money soon.”

“No,” she said. “I’m trying to save my marriage. I’m not contacting Ronald again.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still didn’t want to hurt Haley. But she didn’t give me any choice but to get out and force her into the backseat at gunpoint. She was terrified, even after I told her she was safe and no one was going to hurt her.

Haley cried all the way back to Lillington. She just would not believe that we weren’t going to kill her.

Plug said, “Baby girl, you sound like you want to die or something. Trust me, I’ve got you, but you have to let me get some of that good loving first.”

I asked, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not normally this much of a creep.”

Riding beside Haley in the backseat, I said, “You have this way of getting men all out of character, don’t you?”

She said, “Ronald was depressed on social media. So I reached out and told him we could talk. I never knew he would become an obsessed lunatic. I shouldn’t have talked to him anymore after he threatened to break my nose, but he just had this tortured romantic thing going on that I loved.”

We were back at my place in West Hills when she finally made the phone call. Of course, I’d made her lunch and a rather strong mixed drink. I told her when she got Wiley on the phone to sound as terrified as she did when I forced her into the car earlier.

“Tell him that some guy name Plug-Water keeps touching your legs; plus, he threatened to rape you at gunpoint.”

Haley pulled the act off perfectly. Wiley even asked to speak to me. I said, “Well, it’s nice to hear from you. We all thought you might be dead.”

Bold, he said. “I’ll kill you and Plug if you hurt Haley!”

Just to fuck with him, I said, “Well, come on and kill us then,” before ending the call.

I told Plug-Water that Wiley would show up with a gun and to be prepared. Pulling out his huge 45, he said, “I’m ready to drop his ass.”

Haley had no more use for Wiley, but she still asked us not to kill him. He needed help, and it would be wrong to hurt him in any way.

Plug said, “What’s wrong is him owing Nelson money and running around spending every dime he had on you.”

Squinting her brown eyes, Haley said, “I never asked him for anything. In fact, I offered to send him money, but he wouldn’t accept it.”

Ten minutes later, we all heard a car door slam outside. Plug went to the door, and Wiley tried to push him aside and walk in. The two ended up locking up. Each had one hand on Plug’s 45. Haley screamed as I stood back in case the gun went off.

Eventually, Wiley overpowered Plug. I was about to move in and help him, but he regained his composure and ripped his gun away from Ronald, who went to reach for his own piece.

Wasting no time, Plug pulled the trigger. I couldn’t see the bullet leave the barrel, but we all saw the blood splatter on Wiley’s white t-shirt once it hit him in the chest. That’s all it took.

I had to tell Haley to shut the fuck up. Gunshots were nothing around West Hills. But a woman screaming afterward wasn’t good.

Plug was a little shook. “Damn!” he said. “I’m lucky the motherfucker didn’t get me!”

He walked over to check Wiley’s coat for a pistol, but all he found was a knife. We were both surprised, expecting him to be carrying a gun.

I said, “You’re ok, man. Now do something with his body while I drive Haley back to her office.”

The look in his eyes was sinister. He said, “You know what? Fuck that! I killed him, you do something with the body, and I’ll drive Haley back.”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t work like that. If you want, we’ll both go.”

Plug ignored me and started in on Haley. “What’s up, baby? You gonna let me have some of that sweet little thing or what?”

With fresh tears in her eyes, she was hysterical. Leave me the fuck alone, you creep!”

Plug-Water moved closer to her, and I told him to back the fuck up and leave her alone. He couldn’t believe it when he turned around and saw my 45 pointed right at him.

“What the fuck, Nelson!” he said. “You’d really shoot me over this bitch?”

“Damn right, I will! I told you I didn’t mean her any harm. Now, you asked if she wanted to fuck, and she said no, so leave her alone.”

Plug shook his head and said one day he would get me back for pulling my gun on him.

Haley and I went and got in my car. During the ride back, she said, “I can’t believe he killed Ronald.”

I said, “You said yourself he was fucking crazy, and plus, he didn’t give Plug much of a choice.”

It didn’t matter because she still cried, and as soon as we got to Durham, I noticed the cops were everywhere. When we turned down the street her office was located on, I saw the police were parked outside and saw officers step out of the building.

I couldn’t drop her off there. So, I held the gun to her side and told her to be quiet as I drove right past it.

I said, “I’ll drop you off somewhere else safe and sound, just not here.”

Robert Ragan, from Lillington NC, has been nominated for both The Pushcart Prize and  Best Of The Net. You can find his work at Vext magazine, Synchronized Chaos, Punk Noir Magazine, Yellow Mama Webzine, Close To The Bone, and Switchblade Magazine. He also has two story collections Mannequin Legs And Other Tales and It’s Only Art. Both published by Alien Buddha Press.

The Basement by Clea Simon

Short Stories

The basement. That’s where it all happened. Where we came together. Before the gigs. Before the airplay. Before we hit the road.

You’d have laughed. I know I did. We were such a bunch of misfits, dragged down into that dank hellhole by one crazy idea. Dragged back here by … Well, fuck it. I mean, at first, it sounded like fun.

“We’re gonna be a band. The best band in the world.” That was Rot – Rob, still, in those days. Tuesday afternoon, some vocational class in our old school. Mandatory if you wanted to collect but a waste of time for anything else, and Kurt had been drumming on the desktop with his pencils, making the stiffs glare. I remembered him from around and had gone over, scattering the nobodies with a look and squeezing into that little kid desk to sit beside him. Rob had found us there when he came in, late as usual, dragging Karma over, both of them still bleary-eyed from the night before. “Kid here’s got the beat. And you’ve got a bass, right?”

Band? We didn’t even have a place to play. But it wasn’t like any of us had anything else going on, so when Kurt suggested his basement, we all said what the hell. Karma had a car – a cast-off from her ex – and she moved us all over that night, maybe the next. With the snow that winter, the corner was slow. My amp was too heavy to lug around much anyway, and Kurt’s drums were already in the building, up three flights but still. There was a lock on the front door that mostly worked, and the far side looked dry enough. Rob plugged in the first day and shorted something out. Old pipes, a leak, but the other plug worked. And so it began.

Band. What a joke. Only Karma had that voice. You know – the one that stops you cold? In those days, though, she was so shy she couldn’t sing in front of us. We’d all heard her, nights when she was high. That’s why she was there. We’d all seen her, out on the street, too, and figured she’d be game for anything. But singing? Guess we all have a weak spot. Guess I should know.

Her’s almost broke us. Ending us before it began, half a night dragging our shit around town for nothing. Tromping through the ice and the muck. It was Rot who figured it out. Told her to stand in the janitor’s closet, door open for light.  He’d been poking around, looking for something to sell.  Figured she’d want to get out of there, so full of junk – construction shit, repair shit – there was barely room to stand, even after we ripped the pipes out. Took a while though. She made herself comfortable, lounging on those old sacks of Quikrete like a queen. But we could hear her, even then.

We all had our part. Rot got a real guitar. Copper paid good. Me on my bass, the deep thrum-thrum that kept us steady. God knows, Kurt didn’t. A wild man on the set, he was all power and speed. Unreliable as hell, though, especially when he was high. Tempo going like his heartbeat – faster, faster, fast. Didn’t matter. He was a big guy. Loud, and we needed that. We each had a part to play.

Good times, bashing away, and with Kurt going nuts we kept cranking it up. My old amp heating up so hard the walls were steaming, and Rob windmilling like mad. We were onto something – an energy if not a tune – the beat so loud we couldn’t hear anything else. Didn’t hear the angry dude until he was right in front of us, hands on his hips and a face like he was going to fire us all.

“What the fuck? Didn’t you hear me?” The cold coming in behind him.


“No, man.” Kurt must have known him from the building. He sounded sort of sorry. “We were just practicing.”

“This isn’t a practice space.” He scowled like that was supposed to mean something. “Some of us need to sleep.”

“Sorry.” Kurt put his sticks down and the guy stormed off.

Just in time. My fists still bunched as Karma came out, giggling, eyes wide in the light. “Whoa, what an asshole.” She took in our faces. Mine. “Don’t worry guys. I had my knife.”

Girl talk. We weren’t worried, but we did stick to daytime after that. Most afternoons, when we didn’t have to clock in. Time passed, and we were getting pretty good.

“Hey, man, cut the artsy shit.” I spoke without thinking. Rot – Rob – playing rock star. “You’re ruining the thrust.”

“Thrust is what it’s about.” He lunged with his Strat, but Kurt was with me by then.

“No, he’s right,” he said. “Keep it stripped down. Basic. Real.”

A shrug. I’d won. “We going again?” Karma, calling from the closet.

Kurt grinned. “One-two-three-four!” Another day, another practice. All of us just looking for something to do.

“So, I talked to someone. Jimmy – from the Five Spot?” Karma made everything a question, so I nodded. I’d become the leader by then. I guess the bass always is. Setting the tempo. Keeping everyone in line without even throwing a punch.

“We’re ready.” I looked around. Kurt was Kurt. He didn’t respond, but Rob was into it. “Shit, yeah! Let’s do it!”

Two weeks later, we loaded our gear into Karma’s car. Two sets at the Five Spot. Then a party at the Locals’ loft, and someone had a van that we could use. By July, we were gigging all over. Rob had become Rot, and Kurt had shaved his head.

“It makes me look mean.”

Not that mean. “Play that song again.” Some bratty kid had pushed his way up. “The one that goes pow-pow-pow!”

July, and we had fans. People who showed up at our gigs without knowing us beforehand. I laid down the rules. Buy us beer and you could make a request. That worked out well for the clubs too.  Plus, it made me laugh. All our songs were the same, pretty much. Didn’t matter. They didn’t notice, and we all got off on playing. The power, the energy. Rob posing out front, and Kurt bashing away. Besides, Karma’s singing gave us an edge. Set us off from the other thrash bands. I knew it, even if she didn’t, and I wasn’t surprised when the kid from Banger Records started pestering us to go into the studio.

“You paying?” Wiping my bass down. The club was a sweatbox, and I was soaked.

“Not our deal.” Suburban kid, playing at punk. His teeth were too good. “We split the costs. I handle distribution, airplay.”

“We’re getting airplay.” Some college DJ had taped a show. Kurt had wanted to kill him, until that zine writer had shown up. She was cute, and she liked them big. The exposure didn’t hurt either.

“Not like I could get you.” The kid, head tilted to one side like he could play me. “Four track, proper mics. You’d sound huge.”

“Huge, huh?” It was going to cost. I knew that. My unemployment was running out, and the record store wasn’t having me back. Not after the fight, the blood sprayed up high on the wall. Didn’t matter, none of us had money to spare. I saw how Rob was hopping about, pupils like pinballs. Happy, high. But I’d also seen how Karma’s eyes had lit up as the kid talked. She wanted this, so, yeah, I did too.

We called a band meeting, next day in the basement. What got me was how into it even Kurt was. I guess he liked banging away. Maybe it was the girls.

At any rate, I laid out the plan. Every gig, half whatever we got paid would go into the pot. We were playing for the door, most places, so I knew there were workarounds. Rob let his dealer pad the list, and Kurt’s bar tab cut into our take. But it was a plan we could all live with, especially once they agreed I’d keep the money. Keep it safe.

Two nights later, we had a deal. October, we’d go into the studio – some place over in the South End. The kid would front the money for the time, but we had to get our share in before we started. And by the way? We needed songs.

“You’ve got something. I know that.” Those good teeth bared in a smile. “But, come on, two songs? Two that don’t sound exactly like each other? How hard can that be?”

“Fuck you.” Bait and switch. I should have seen it coming. Itched to shove those white teeth into red. The band, though, they’d heard him too.

“We can do that.” Rob, on the rise, pulling me aside. Kurt nodding along. “Come on, man. Let’s get to it. I bet we can write ten songs in a week.”

We started practicing in earnest then. Coming together for more than to bash and laugh. Kurt got discipline, somewhere in there. His rhythm became rock solid. His attitude changed too.

“Stop, stop.” Standing. Sticks pointed at me. “Back at the bridge, you keep fucking it up.”

Any other time, that would have been it. Kurt wasn’t that big. But I held back. It felt good, that summer. Like we were heading somewhere. Had a goal. Practice every day, no excuses. Got to the point I didn’t notice the smell. By then, I’d stopped skimming off our earnings, even when I was short.

Karma had moved into my place, which helped. Still bringing in some money and I didn’t ask. A girl has to eat, right? More to the point, she’d gotten over her shyness. Tough as she was, everyone loved her. And that voice.

She still liked the closet though. “You guys, I can’t hear myself.” She’d shake her head, taking the mike with her, the cord like a rat’s tail over the gritty floor.

She was in there when the guy came down again, the asshole from upstairs. We’d forgotten about him. Forgotten about the daytime rule. Weekends, whatever. We had a mission, and who was he to us?

Angry, that’s what. “What the fuck?” Staring at us like we each had two heads. “I thought I told you jerks to get lost ages ago.”


“Hey, I pay rent here too.” Kurt. I didn’t think he did, but I wasn’t going to interrupt. “Basement’s public.”

“You wanna tell the landlord that?” Leaning forward, like he knew something we didn’t. “You wanna tell the cops?” Kurt starting to stand, when Karma came out.

“Cool it, everybody.” She knew Kurt. Knew me. Stepping forward with that swagger that said so much. “I’m sure we can figure something out, Daddio. Right?”

The asshole looked at her. We all did. Sweaty from the closet, from the summer heat. Her tank top sticking to her like paint. The water dripping from the wall the only sound. My girl. My band. We’d all worked so damned hard. He reached out, a leer spreading across his face. Karma, and I saw red.

Later she told me what she’d meant, wanting to keep me sweet. We were gigging, she said. We could afford a practice space. Use the Five Spot, even, as long as we kept on with Tuesday nights. Dip into the kitty, if we had to. That was all. It was too late by then, of course. We were halfway to Texas before we knew it, calling every college station that had aired our tape. Playing hard and fast and moving on.

“Think we can go back sometime?” Karma and me, sitting on a levee. Cold-enough beer and concrete down into black water. “Say we’ve been on tour?”

“We’ll come back heroes.” I threw my can, waited for the splash.

They caught up to us outside Vicksburg, the heat like a hand pressing down.

“Was I speeding, officer?” Karma, big-eyed, beside me. Rob, or maybe it was Kurt, snoring in the back.

“This isn’t about your driving, son.” The cop looked sad, which threw me. “Why don’t you step out and we’ll have a talk.”

I haven’t seen Karma since then. Rob either, though he calmed down once Kurt was on the ground. A big guy goes down hard. But it doesn’t matter what any of them say. I’ve told you what happened. What I know.

I guess Rob was wrong about the Quikrete. Maybe the mix, the closet just too big. That leak didn’t help things. Even with the mold, a stench you couldn’t ignore.

All I know is, I don’t wanna go down to the basement. Not again, not now. We had some good times, though. Damn.


Clea Simon is a former music critic turned mystery novelist. The Boston scene that she used to cover serves as the setting for her 2017 mystery “World Enough” (Severn House), which was named a Massachusetts Book Awards Must-Read, and also for her upcoming “Hold Me Down” (Polis, Oct. 5, 2021). She also have a bunch of books out featuring cats. 

I didn’t ask by Judge Santiagio Burdon

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

When I was a teenager I worked  for my Uncle Floyd  in the summer stocking and maintaining amusements  in Grocery Stores, Pool Halls but mostly Bars. Cigarette, Candy and Chip Vending Machines, along with Juke Boxes, Pool Tables, Pinball Machines and Tampax, Kotex also Condom dispensers. He even had the penny gumball machines anything that could turn a buck. I sometimes was given the job of slapping on the new Big Brothers Big Sisters or Kiwanis Club donation stickers on the gumball machines. I’m pretty sure they never saw a penny. I can’t be certain because I knew better so I didn’t ask.

Floyd was actually my 2nd uncle. He is my father’s uncle, my grandmother’s brother on the Italian Capelli side of the family. He had three children Anthony pronounced “Ant-knee” and Alonso “Lon-zoe” their sister Angelina “Ange”. All their names started  with an “A” because their  grandfather’s name was Angelo. It was some dago show of respect bullshit. I  thought the reason was because they were all “assholes”. 

People were always so hard on me as a kid, not bellyaching just saying. I was small for my age and older family members especially cousins on the Italian side called me ‘short-load’  My older brother filled me in on the derogatory meaning.   

I usually rode with Ant-knee in the new truck delivering smaller amusements, restocking vending machines, maintenancing and collecting the change from  every machine in service.  You wouldn’t think a bag full of quarters could be so heavy but the weight made hauling them a task.  Ant -knee when emptying the machines would have me follow him with a red tool box containing only a screwdriver, pliers and  crescent wrench with a piece of foam rubber on the bottom. When  collecting change from a machine he’d ask for a tool. I’d open the tool box and hand him a tool in exchange he’d deposit a bag of quarters skimmed from each machine. When we  finished the red box  would be packed full. He would sit at the table with the manager or owner and they’d  count the change together putting the coins into paper rolls.

“Santi take the empty  bags and tool box to the truck and bring back my ledger  in the center storage compartment and don’t forget to lock the doors. You got it?”  Barking orders at me like he was my ole man. Others witnessed the kind of treatment  I  was subjected to and assumed it was acceptable behavior to treat me in the same degrading  manner as my old man.

The split for the owner  was 15% of the take in some cases 20% if the machine required electricity like juke boxes pinball machines. Some bars  are money makers netting three hundred, four hundred dollars a week. The bar owner would get 15% of the net except for the cigarette machine, usually 10% because the cost of  the cigarettes.   However my uncle had that covered as well. Cigarettes were smuggled from Missouri , Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee because the tax on cigarettes in those states was much less than  Illinois. Ant-knee never discussed his skimming activity and me being half Italian was aware of the rule. So I didn’t ask.

There were territories assigned to every business operating in the Downtown Chicago area and they were strictly enforced. I couldn’t tell you by whom because I didn’t  ask.

Capelli Amusements territory was considered one of the most profitable and referred to as the Cherry Grounds.  North of  Grand…West of Racine\Clark …South of Montrose….East of Kedzie. An extremely large area although Wrigley Field, Hotels and the Loop were off limits. We couldn’t even drive through other areas in a company vehicle; it was considered a violation  and resulted in punishment.  I don’t  know what the punishment entailed because I didn’t  ask.

I disliked install deliveries  because of the lifting and moving involved.  And when pool tables were included in the delivery my enthusiasm and work ethic was close to nonexistent.  It wasn’t due to me being lazy,  I  was always given a task to perform that was nearly impossible to complete by myself.  They’d  watch me struggle with a pool table or pinball machine on a Dolly  pushing and pulling without success. Standing there laughing making comments in mispronounced Italian and in an  English dialect from a Jimmy Cagney Gangster film.

There was another guy working for my Uncle, a teenage kid older than me they called Magilla after a gorilla cartoon character. He was a tall muscular  quiet type with a scary  kind of smile. If he was working and noticed my planned dilemma he’d help me out much to my cousins dismay. He was  enormous  with superhero strength.  Smoked, drank beer and when he did speak he  was articulate voicing complaints  about my cousin’s sadistic behavior and racist attitudes.  He was a Holden Caulfield  type character protecting those unable to defend  themselves. A Catcher in the Streets whose unsolicited assistance I  appreciated  without ever having to ask. For some odd reason the cousins and others never made him the subject of jokes or ridicule. I never knew why because I didn’t  ask.

It was a Saturday in late June and we had a work order to supply a new bar owner with the full assortment of Capelli Amusements with Uncle Floyd accompanying  us to the location. It was a rare event when the “Capo” came along on a mission.  You could bet there was some major situation requiring his immediate and masterful attention.  I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t ask.

We were wrestling with the juke box pushing it through the front door when the yelling started.

“Get your shit outta my bar. Ya understand fucking   whop bastards?”

The bar owner eloquently stated his objection to joining the many satisfied customers of Capelli’s Amusements. 

“I’m not gonna let youz tell me how to run my business! Now turn around and get your dago ass  outta my bar.”

Uncle Floyd reacted in the exact opposite manner than I would have expected. He leaned over the bar and whispered something to the owner then shook his hand. He calmly asked us to take what we unloaded and put it back on the truck. The bar owner’s small dog barked non stop nipping at Floyd’s ankles as he left. He didn’t say a word on the ride back to the warehouse. I have no idea what he whispered to the owner because I didn’t ask.

Back at the warehouse we finished unloading the trucks and Uncle Floyd gave us the rest of the afternoon off with pay. Magilla asked me if I wanted to go to Wrigley and catch the Cubbies in action against the Cardinals. 

“I’d really like to go but I can’t afford it. I’m broke until we get paid next week.” I answered in a disappointed tone.

“Didn’t ask if you had any money. I asked if you wanted to go to a Baseball game. So whatta ya say there short stuff?”

“Let’s giddy up I’m in!”.,

We had to transfer three times on the bus to get to Wrigley Field. You don’t have to be a  sports fanatic even a baseball fan to feel the electricity, the fever and the awe attending a Big League Ball Game. The air tastes of Hot Dogs, Popcorn and Peanuts (never a big fan of Cracker Jack).

On the bus journey to Wrigley Mecca  I  found out my new friend’s name because I asked. We exited the bus with me following Frankie as he passed the ticket windows, the park entry gates then into a tunnel manned by two  monstrous security guards that waved us through with smiling faces.

“Hey man this is awesome, who are you Frankie some kind of Celebrity?”

He gives me the all too familiar Italian don’t ask stare.

“Never mind. ‘ I squeaked

We stopped at some large red doors guarded by a couple of  Chicago Cops not saying a word to Frank and I. One of the cops got on his Walkie-Talkie telling someone to come over. When he finished he said to Frankie;

“He’s on his way Little Tuna.”

Little Tuna? Why the hell would the cop call him a fish? That’s not cool .

“Hey officer his name is Frank. He’s my buddy and you shouldn’t be calling him names.” I speak up in  defense of my friend?

“What do we have here Mike?” The cop says  to his partner.

“A Mini Guinea. Little Grease Ball with a big mouth.”

“It’s okay Santi. He’s just a grumpy ole cop that doesn’t like my father. Maybe I should tell my father the “Big Tuna” you don’t like him. What do ya think there Officer Joyce?” Frankie mentions looking at the cops name tag.

“Come on kid I was only razzin ya! Just a joke, I didn’t mean anything by it. What’d say, buddies?” Officer Joyce nervously replies.  Frank never said a word back to the cop; he just gave him a stare.

We waited for a couple minutes, then  a guy in a Cubs  uniform appears and walks straight up to Frank. He gives him a light slap on the back then speaks.

“Hey Frank good to see ya back. See ya brought a buddy. So section eighteenth  behind Home Plate or twelve behind the Dugout?”

 “Where ya wanna sit Santi? Behind home plate or Cubs Dugout?” Frankie asks me.

“The Dugout for sure! Are you kidding me?” I scream with excitement 

“Ok then boys tell the Andy Frain Usher to put youz in Section twelve Seats six and seven. And Frank no orderin beer ya hear me. I caught hell last time.”

“I won’t, Mr. Amalfitano. Thanks for the seats. Ya didn’t see my old man or Sammy Giancona around did ya?”

“No sir  you’re  on your own. Have a good time. Go Cubs!” Mr. Amalfitano  says 

“Go Cubs” I yelled back, unable to hide my excitement. 

The Usher leads us to our seats and I’m doing everything I can to not act like a kid. I wanted to jump, scream and slap Frank on the back . I’m close to pissing my pants from the excitement. 

“Frank this is great! Thanks for inviting me. You’re a real buddy to bring me with ya. Did I say   thanks? Thanks” I’m talking fast without  punctuation Chicago style.

“You’re welcome Santi. Want a Coke or something? “

I check my pocket and find two dollars with maybe sixty  seventy  cents .

“Don’t worry about it, I got it. You don’t have to pay. What about a hot dog too? You like mustard  and relish?” Frank asks.

I shake my head yes .

“Be right back.”

The players are so close I can tell who they are without seeing their  numbers.  Beckert , Kessinger, Santo , Hundley taking infield practice. I can’t believe this is happening. There’s Billy Williams, seeing him sends me into    idol fever. Suddenly  I’m unable to breathe, my body starts to shake and my vision momentarily becomes blurred.  A bat someone had set on top of the dugout rolls off and lands at my feet. 

“Hey kid hand me back that bat . Will ya please?” Someone asks from below in the dugout. 

I can’t move my mouth is so dry I can’t speak. 

“Hello? Please champ give me the bat.” The player asks again 

I find the strength to free myself from my paralysis and pick up the bat and hand it to “MR. ERNIE BANKS.”

“Thanks. You ok there buddy?” He asks

“Uh huh”  Is all I can say.

Uh huh damn it. Uh huh! That was Ernie Banks! Ernie Banks! And I act like a dope. What a complete jerk I made of myself in front of one of my idols.

I sit back down and an old guy smelling like cheap Whisky and cigars slaps me lightly on my back.

“You know who that was son? That was Ernie Banks.  He plays for the Cubs.” Says Old Crow breath. 

Why is it that people  ask you a question then without giving you the chance to respond they answer it for you? And on top of it tell stuff you already know.

“Hey kid.”

“My name is Santiago not kid.” I inform cigar odor guy.

“Ok San Diego.” He answered 

“You’re not funny Mister .Why do you want to piss me off?”

Then one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen up  close sits down right next to me.

“Barbi this here is San Francisco.  This is Barbi”

Whisky breath jokes with the her.

“You’re very pretty . Your father thinks he’s funny calling me by the wrong name. I’m Santiago, nice to meet you Barbi.”I shake her hand introducing myself politely. They both begin to laugh with Old Crow reaching over to shake my hand.

“This beautiful lady is my wife Santiago not my daughter. You’re not the first to make that mistake.”

Frank shows up loaded with drinks and food. 

“Hello Mr. Hefner hey Barbi . Santi give me a hand will ya.”

I stand grabbing the two large drinks and Frank walks past me sitting to my left leaving me next to beautiful  Barbi.

“Frank how have you been? Haven’t seen you in awhile. What have you been up to?” Hefner asks

“How’s your father doing?’

There he goes again asking question after question before Frank can get a chance to answer. 

Frank takes a large bite of his hot dog . I’m wondering if it’s  because he’s hungry or it’s to   avoid having to answer with a mouth full. 

“Your friend Santiago.  Did I get 

the name right?”

Hef looks at me smiling like a kid who just answered a question correctly in school. 

“Yes sir I’m very proud of you.” I fire back.

“Santiago made friends with Ernie Banks earlier .”

“Frank gives me a punch in the arm then takes another bite of his Red Hot . He gives Hefner a thumbs up.

“Are you working Frank?  I told you I’d give you a job at the Playboy Club but you never called me back.  That was a month ago.”

“I know Mr. Hefner but my mother didn’t like the idea. I called the Club and left a message. “Frank answers.

Then like a kick in the ass it hits me. (I know you most likely put it together a short while ago).  I’m not slow in the mind, I was so caught up in the Ernie  Banks meeting I wasn’t paying attention. And  I was distracted by the beautiful Barbi.

Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton; I’ve seen her naked in Playboy and watched her on Hee Haw.  Frank had an opportunity to work at the Playboy Club? Could I be any more retarded?  Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton and Ernie Banks all in the same day!

Play ball the Umpire hollers.

Frank wolfs down three Red Hots, a bag of chips and a super sized Coke.

“Santi, I’m going to get a Corn Dog. Do you want something else?”

I’ve still got another hot dog, chips, bag of peanuts and half a coke left.

“I’m good Frank thanks.”

“Hef or Barbi can I get you anything?”

“If you wouldn’t mind I could go for an ice cream bar or popsicle .”Barbi tells him

Hef (that’s right I said Hef my new friend ) pulls out a twenty dollar bill and tells Frank to keep the change. Why didn’t I think of going for a Corn Dog?

The fifth inning ends and the Cubs come off the field to bat. They haven’t done  well with only three hits.

Hef gets up and walks over to the side of the dugout. He turns then calls me to come over motioning with his hand. Hef steps back and Ernie is standing there motioning for me to come over. I walk up and this time there’s no tongue tied kid.

“Mr. Banks, I just want to tell you that you are my favorite player .”

“I’m  happy to hear that young man. Here I’ve got something for you. It’s a baseball signed by most of the players. I appreciate your help earlier.” Banks says handing me the ball.

“I’m overwhelmed Mr. Banks thank you so much.  I will keep it forever.”

“You’re welcome but you should thank Mr. Hefner as well. He’s the one that suggested the baseball. ” 

“Mr. Banks..

“Call me Ernie!”

“Ernie can you please just get a base hit. That’s all.”

“Give it my best effort. “He says disappearing into the Dugout. 

I thanked Hugh Hefner, my new friend and talked with Barbi most of the time. When I mentioned College after  I finished High School Hugh pushed the University of Illinois on me. Told him I’d definitely attend if he helped pay my tuition.  He laughed it off and took immediate interest in the game.

Frank had been gone an inordinate amount of time. Seventh inning stretch and Hugh and Barbi get up to leave. 

“Santiago you’re a pretty smart kid. Keep up that attitude of yours. Here take my card it has my personal number. Give me a holler if you ever need anything.  Let me know if you get into U of  Illinois .”

“Thanks Mr. Hefner I’ll do that. Thanks again for everything.”

Barbi grabs my chin and gives me a kiss right on the lips.

“Bye Santiago you be good.”

“Uh huh.” Really  Santi just uh huh?

Frank returns and hands Barbi her ice cream as they leave. It’s obvious he’s high I  can smell the beer and marijuana on him.  He doesn’t say anything about where he  was. And of course I didn’t ask.

“Hey Frank I should be headed home. My old man will be pissed off if I come home late. So I’m gonna catch the bus and I’ll see you at work on Monday.    Thanks again man I had a great time.”

“Relax you aren’t going anywhere. I called home and the driver is coming to pick us up. I’ll give you a ride right to your front door.  And if there’s a problem with your old man Giovanni will talk with him. Got it buddy?”

“I don’t wanna be a problem, I can take the bus. I’ll be ok. You’ve been more than generous with me today. Buying me food and getting me this great seat. I’m not sure I know what I did to deserve all this?”

“Ya wanna know why? Why? Never before has anyone ever stuck up for me. Nobody.

My old man has  never offered to defend me or my brother. After you talked to the Cop like that, told him to lay off  and you being just a little guy, it told me a lot about who you are. Thank you Santiago. Now relax he’ll be here in about fifteen minutes. “

We listened to the Cubs lose the game on the radio in the Lincoln Continental driving to my house. Giovanni was a huge guy with a wonderful sense of humor who talked surprisingly very similar to my father. Unable to pronounce the “TH” sound making three sound like tree etc.

Frank and he spoke some Italian for a while which I am not very proficient at speaking. I understand more than I speak knowing Spanish and three years of French I’ve taken in High School. They are all somewhat similar being the “Romantic Languages” especially Spanish and Italian. My grandparents from Italy didn’t want us children to learn Italian the reason being the United States was the new world Italy was the old world. Plus they remember when  bigotry and racism toward Italians was commonplace . They lived in an intolerant society back in the 1900’s when they first came over.

Frank admired my autographed baseball and I offered it to him as  a thank you gift. He didn’t take me up on my offer explaining that he already had a couple. 

We arrived at the detention center and I said my farewells to Frank and Giovanni. 

“See ya at work on Monday Frankie. Thanks again man. You’re the best.”

“Hey Santi now that I’ve got your number I’ll give ya a call tomorrow to see if you’re doing anything.  Alright? “

“You bet Frank ciao.”

The old man was missing in action and my mother was on the phone with some relative  I  figured because she was speaking Spanish. She motioned for me to come over then she sniffed me up and down then made me give her a kiss on the cheek.

I didn’t discuss my day because it would’ve  just open up a  go round with me fielding 

questions that would somehow end with having me done something wrong. 

The remainder of the weekend slipped by quickly with the old man never showing up. I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t ask or care. 

Frank didn’t call on Sunday  and I was ok with it.

Monday morning I made it to the warehouse early with just Floyd and Ant-knee inside. My uncle told me to wash the truck and  clean out the bed because we had an installation today. Shit, great way to start off the week.

The rest of the crew showed up just as I was finishing with my job. Frank seemed to be feeling well wishing me a good  morning and immediately began  carrying the items I had unloaded from the truck bed into the warehouse. 

It took us close to two hours to load all the machines and pool tables onto the truck in between Lon- so and Ant-knee screwing around with a new pinball machine. 

I rode with Floyd and Ant-knee sitting in between with Floyd driving. I can count  on both hands how many words were spoken during the ride. 

We pulled up to the same bar that we were thrown out of on Saturday by the irate owner. I didn’t say a word and started pulling machines off  the back with my cousin. Once inside the owners attitude had done a complete 180. I was rolling  the jukebox past the back end of the bar and confronted the owner.  He told me where he wanted it and  where the electric outlet was located. 

His right arm was in a cast, his eyes both black and blue and he walked with a crutch tucked under his left arm. Looked like he had been hit by a bus. We finished rather quickly with the now soft spoken bar owner thanking us. When Floyd walked over to him for his signature on the contract I heard him say…

“It’s gonna be hard to sign with my goddamn right arm broken. And tell me why they had to kill my dog?”

“Terrible thing that happened to you. Hope they don’t have to come back for any reason.” Floyd answers.

There is nothing amusing in the word amusements.

Capelli Amusements.

I had a suspicion  who  suggested the bar owner  change his earlier decision concerning having Floyd’s machines in his bar. Although I’ll never be sure because… I didn’t ask!

THE WEREWOLF DETECTIVE HOWLS AGAIN!

K A Laity, Paul D. Brazill, Short Stories

Back in 2012 I wrote a story for the late lamented Dark Valentine Magazine. It was a noir/ horror crossover yarn called Drunk On The Moon, and it featured a werewolf private eye called Roman Dalton. The story proved to be quite popular and I wrote a few more Roman Dalton yarns. There were even a couple of anthologies where a wide range of authors wrote Roman Dalton yarns. Oh, and he’s been translated into Slovenian and Polish.

Anyway, I recently decided to collect as many of the yarns as possible in one place. There are stories from me, K A Laity, Carrie ClevengerGraham Wynd, Matt Hilton, Vincent Zandri, Allan Leverone and more! (Artwork by Marcin Drzewiecki – Ilustrator)

When a full moon fills the night sky, Private Investigator Roman Dalton becomes a werewolf and prowls The City’s neon and blood soaked streets. Vivid and violent noir horror stories based on characters created by Paul D. Brazill

Netflix ought to swoop in and bag those stories for a new series.’

‘It’s noir. It’s supernatural. It’s sleazy as hell.’

“A crackling fun read that puts werewolves in a Sin City/hardboiled world.”

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Brilliant and Dark

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Noir Fun with a Werewolf Detective

5.0 out of 5 stars.  A Howling Good Read!

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Both gruesome and awesome

Why not sink your teeth in, if you fancy?

ALL THINGS SERVE THE BEAM BY BEAU JOHNSON

Beau Johnson, Down and Out Books., Flash Fiction, Short Stories

ALL THINGS SERVE THE BEAM

BY BEAU JOHNSON

I’ve found it.  It was right where it should have been too, just a little more than halfway down the steps that led to the pantry of Al’s Diner.  In the book it’s a type of doorway used to try and stop Oswald from taking out JFK.  

This will not be the case with me. 

There are two reasons for this.  One is that things are different than how the Author explained: no set time limit which might reset when any given character attempts to change the past.  The walls are thin here, yes, but it’s not time travel we’re talking about.  Not in the least.

            The second thing is this: there are other worlds than these.

            For truth, I think I have found the gateway to stories; to where each of them originates.  It is the story, not he who tells it.  Pretty sure I’ve heard him say this many times throughout the years.  I never believed it though, not fully.  Not until now.  How could I not?  I mean, I have met the girl now, the first one I ever heard told to plug it up.  I was an extra, sure, there in the background amongst the crowd at the prom.  Fortunate for me I made it out before the pig’s blood fell and the doors began to shut.  It was tougher than I imagined too, and heartbreaking, and only because I now stood within what once I only read.  

I hope I am making myself clear.  The world I believe depends upon it. 

Discovering all this caused certain scenarios to enter my mind, numero uno being this: could I now affect things?  Bold, I know, but the situation itself was beyond anything I ever thought possible.  I think the Author knew this too, or knows, and might have been subconsciously leaving breadcrumbs for someone like me to find.  He needs help is what I think this means.  All told, I’d set my watch and warrant on it.

            Me saying things like that, this is what has gotten me through.  I’m talking all of it too, every story.  Not just the thing behind the clown or what Ben Mears found in the ‘Lot.  It comes to what things always come to: The Tower.  From one book to the next it seems to be in there or just around, glowing like a buried stone.  Excavated or not, it sings like Susannah and forces me to aim with my heart and not with my hand.

            Do you see how I have not forgotten the face of my father?

            I had to investigate though, and I had to be sure.  Onwards I went, from world to world.  From dog to dome to plague; all of it like some mutated Deja vu which tugged at my core.  It means Mordred is in fact a-hungry and Harold Lauder will always jump.  I meet Paul Sheldon, Dinky Earnshaw, and poor Nick Andros before he figures things out.  They speak to me.  Spoke to me.  But none of them for long.  A line or two here, a description of who I think is me there.  It’s as this occurs that I realize the magnitude of what I’m to do.

            And that Mother Abigail would be proud.

            I had to test it though, had to be sure.  At first it didn’t work, not all the times I travelled and tried to save Gage from that semi.  The last time however, the last time something new transpired as I attempted to prove what I believe is possible.  The Author brought the child back.  He did so from the grave, yes, but my mother always said a victory was a victory no matter its size.  It also meant I was ready; that I had come into my own.

But I would not go in as Patrick Danville, not as a device placed books before an ending had yet come.  No, I would be new.  I would be fresh.   Becoming everything he required to find his way home.

            The man in black would flee across the desert, and horn or no horn, I and the gunslinger would follow.

First Snow by Marko Antic

Flash Fiction, Marko Antić, Short Stories

FIRST SNOW

The beginning is November. November 3rd, actually. Already? We are both warmly dressed, and yet I took that ridiculously larger blanket again, as if we were going on a September picnic. You know, one of those especially magical trips of ours, with sandwiches, chocolate, wine, and Indian chopsticks whose fumes supposedly repel mosquitoes.

I hug you and kiss you, hug you until they “crunch”, sniff your wavy hair that spills over the black coat you got for your birthday and wear it for years, until it gets its place of honor in the closet dedicated to the Holy Things of Youth.

It’s dusk. We walk towards the forest. I can feel the smog. Yes, the first sign of winter.

“It is a grove where a dog with different eyes lives. Remember, we petted him back then. It’s magical. ”

“I remember. Anyway, is the Mp3 player still kidding you? I brought it to you

walkman. ”

“Great, I found my sister’s dictaphone too. I also have some audio cassettes and batteries. Hehe, my special compilations… ”

We play the tape, open a bottle of rum, stick cheek to cheek, share headphones and sips of rum. Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd, Haustor, Azra, Leonard Cohen…

The first snowflakes soon fluttered towards your curls. We found shelter under a small pine tree. Then I took a blanket, we spread it out and improvised a standing tent for two.

A tent of love, good music, curly hair, the first November snow and eternal kisses. A tent that I will remember forever.

Marko Antić was born on October 11th 1980 in Paraćin, Serbia. He is an underground poet and writer.  His work is published in the fanzine “Green Horse” and Serbian and regional poetry and short stories anthologies. Formal education: Bachelor of Law

The Deadlands by Tom Leins

All Due Respect, Brit Grit, Close To The Bone, Flash Fiction, Indie, Short Stories, Tom Leins

THE DEADLANDS

By Tom Leins

The burn is horrendous and I struggle to look him in his good eye.

His only eye.

His face hasn’t healed, and he smells charred – like he has crawled out of the belly of hell itself.

Virgil is a tall man in a rust-brown suit. The severed nub of his thumb protrudes from the soiled looking plaster-cast on his right arm. He scratches his ruined face. 

“Will you be able to get her back?”

I nod, and he wheezes with relief. He removes a creased photograph from his wallet.

The girl has hair the colour of melted caramel. She flashes the camera a tight smile, which never quite reaches her eyes. Her collarbone seems to be tattooed. I pick up the photo and squint. It looks like a flatlining heartbeat, with the words ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ tattooed underneath.

“Can I keep it?”

He grunts.

“I don’t need the photo back, Mr Rey. Just my daughter.”

***

I survey the hellscape in front of me. The horizon is a jagged blur of burned-out, skeletal-looking houses and abandoned office blocks.

The Underworld looms large in the middle: a labyrinthine subterranean nightclub presided over by an elderly tycoon named Harry Hades. It’s only a year old – built on the site a notorious crime scene. Ten boys were found in the vacant lot – their bodies entirely drained of blood. People said that the Bone Daddy did it, but I don’t believe in ghosts.

‘The Underworld’ is spelled out in lurid, neon lights. Underneath, in smaller lights, are the words ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.

I step past the expressionless, gargoyle-esque doormen and into the vestibule – my boots crunching on a bloody mixture of maggots, lice and dried pus. The grinding bass is so low it makes my guts churn.

There are nine doors, evenly spaced out. A word has been carved onto each door: Limbo. Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Wrath. Heresy. Violence. Fraud. Treachery. The Nine Circles of Hell.

I pause next to Lust. The door opens a crack and sultry laughter oozes through the gap.

I turn abruptly as Gluttony swings open. The room disgorges a tide of putrid slush into the lobby.

I choose Violence. One way or another, I always choose Violence.

***

The door opens with an infernal creak. A wave of evil, reeking heat takes my breath away. It’s as hot as hell and twice as ugly. The men drinking themselves into damnation are the worst of the worst. Child murderers. Spree killers. Degenerates. The violently unhinged. Sickness comes off them in waves. They rub shoulders, careful not to look one another in the eye – or spill each other’s pints. Their names are tattooed on their foreheads, their crimes inked on their knuckles.

My armpits feel rancid with sweat. Perspiration stings my bloodshot eyeballs. As I pass through the crowd, hushed voices rasp like flame. Yellow eyes glare at me from the gloom.  Pale, naked girls drift around the room, drinks trays in hand. I grab a drink to try and alleviate the blast-furnace heat, but it tastes hellish, so I spit the fiery liquid back in the glass and place it on the next tray that passes my way.

At the back of the room, Harry Hades slouches in an obscene gold-plated wheelchair. A girl – Beatrice – performs a private dance for him. There’s a choke-chain wrapped around her throat – fastened to his wheelchair. Her movements are weary, her feet are calloused. She has been condemned to perform a relentless slow grind by a bored sadist.

***

Harry Hades is old. Not frail, but old enough to have lost his fear of death. He jerks the chain and the girl falls at his feet. He removes his tinted sunglasses. His eyes look dead.

“How can I help you, young man?”

His dentures are so big that he can’t close his mouth when he grins at me.

I hold the photograph up for his inspection.

He shrugs.

“If you think she was here, she probably was.”

“I’m going to need her back.”

Another shrug.

“I care little about what happens outside The Underworld, young man. I have everything I need down here. But no one steals a soul from my realm.”

I don’t have the energy to talk to this rotten old motherfucker – especially in this heat – so I throw a brutal right hook at his elderly face – crumpling his bone-structure like a scrapyard hatchback.

Streaky blood leaks from his broken mouth. He spits a mouthful at my feet and speaks in a nasal whine.

“How about I let my hell-hound off his leash?”

It’s an idle threat, and I let it hang in the air – like the stale smoke from his high-tar cigarettes.

“Do your worst, Hades.”

“Cerberus.”

Crouched behind the wheelchair, attached to a second choke-chain, is a lean, tattooed guy with a flick-knife sneer and a mangled ear. Hades yanks his leash. He scampers across the floor on his hands and knees, before springing to his feet.

I forget his real name, but he’s a Scottish ex-bareknuckle fighter who was banned for life after killing two men in the cage. His torso is layered in clumsy prison ink: skulls, daggers, obscenities. In the middle of his chest is a brand-new tattoo of a three-headed dog with a serpent for a tail. It’s so new, the tattoo is still wrapped in clingfilm.

Hades unclips the chain, and I see the man’s muscles bunch and harden.

I don’t give him the time to make a move – I grab his leash and wrench his pale face towards my fist. Once. Twice. Three times. On the floor, he whimpers like a kicked hell-hound.

Hades attempts to scramble away from me, but his slip-on shoes look skittish – like hooves on a blood-slick abattoir floor – and his withered legs give way immediately. His forehead hits the concrete and blood as thick as mould oozes from his ruptured skull.

I place Beatrice on the vacant wheelchair and move towards the exit.

Cretinous faces leer at me, but no one makes a move to stop me.

I retrieve a complementary matchbook from the table next to the exit, strike a match and drop it in the pocket of one of the nylon bomber jackets hanging on the coat-rack.

Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose.

I doubt these rotten bastards will even notice.

The End

Bio: Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Boneyard DogsTen Pints of BloodMeat Bubbles & Other Stories (all published by Close to the Bone) and Repetition Kills You and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men (both available from All Due Respect). For more details, please visit:

https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/

Todor Flew by Damjan Pejović

Damjan Pejović, Flash Fiction, International Noir, Marija Stanojević, Poetry, Short Stories

TODOR FLEW

    Black patent shoes covered in mud looked shabby as well as, moreover, whole appearance of the clerk Todor. That very night as always… After he took them off and left them in a narrow vestibule, in woollen socks he went to the shed table in the dining room, while farina porridge was steaming on its top. Skinny sonny boy named Toma already slurped it big time.

  • Me flying!…. Me? – scatterbrained, he told his wife Milena, who was spreading jam on thin slices of bread in a little kitchen.
  • What did he say, why in hell? – his wife Milena asked him, just to say something in return.
  • Why! Why! You ask why?! – Todor was amazed, while the difference between his higher and lower blood pressure begun to perish. – At first, he didn’t say a thing, but he said that after I withheld my support for reformation of five-year acquisition plan in the cooperative.

    Blood pressures met each other halfway. While they exchanged impulses, Todor was levitating a bit tilted, even upside down over the table, touching a light bulb of 45 candles with his socks.   

  • Not in a hell! Me flying, well not in a hell! – shouted Todor.

    Wife Milena dropped a jar of jam, that smashed on tiles. She shouted in panic: – Ouch, ouch!… ho-ho… – pulling her messy, grayish hair and running around in circle.

    Skinny Toma bewilderedly smiled.

    A clerk Todor started swimming in frog style and flew out the window, lured by evening air filled with bluish vapors. When blood pressures again parted, he was already about fifty meters away from the building… so claim those who run into his smashed corpse.

                                                                                                        Timisoara

                                                                                         December 12th,, 1999

Translated by

Marija Stanojević

BIOGRAPHY

Born 01.05.1977 in Belgrade.

Founder of literary nonprofit organization “Dimitrije Tirol” 1995 godine, for young Serbian writers from Romania, Timisoara. Main and responsible editor, editor for prose in literary zine “Zeleni konj” (Green Horse), which is been published every 3 months, now we have published 32th issue.

Publish in Romania:

  • Poems in anthology “Ni nuli ne bih ćutnju oprostio” with other writers from “Dimitrije Tirol” which was published in year 1999;
  • Stories and poems in anthology “Zeleni konj 6 godina – izbor priča i pesama“, in year 2019 where were also editor for stories.
  • Short stories and poems in Timisoara newspapers on Serbian: “Naša reč”, “Književni život”.

Publish in Serbia:

  • Story’s in anthology “Najkraće priče 2005”, publisher Alma;
  • Story’s in anthology “357”, publisher “Književne vertikale”
  • Publishing short stories and poems in following newspapers: “Književna reč”, “Zeleni konj”, ”Književne vertikale” and on internet portals (“Balkanski književni glasnik”, “Rastko”, “Poeziranje”…).

Publish in Europe:

  • Poem in artistic magazine ”Nekazano” from Montenegro;
  • Graphic story in magazine ”Gold Dust” from United Kingdom;
  • Short story in magazine ”Between These Shores Literary & Arts Annual”. Annual

Founder of artistic center in Belgrade named “Zemoon” in year 2017, where was responsible for literature.

Founder of nonprofit organization ”Zeleni konj” in Belgrade in year 2019, which is publishing literary zine, books, organize literary events and international exhibitions of various arts

As was for many year in scrap metals business have become passionate collector of figures and sculptures which are sorted from metal scrap.  

Living in two countries, Serbia and Romania, am divided between Belgrade and Timisoara.