Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Skinner" by Joseph Winter

In the early evening in the middle of July, Eric Brewer pulled into the Dunkin Donuts parking lot on his Suzuki dirt bike. He had just finished working a 10-hour day on a roofing crew, hauling tar up ladders and pounding nails in 90 degree heat. He parked the bike along the side of the building and took off his helmet. He rotated first one arm in its socket, then the other, trying to work out the stiffness in his muscles. Then he pulled a bandana out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his eyes. A few of the teenagers loitering in the parking lot regarded him with neutral expressions. Eric recognized their faces and knew most of their names. He stuffed the rag back in his pocket and walked over to where Scott Harris lay sunning himself on the hood of his Cutlass Supreme.

Since it had replaced the ARCO station five years ago, the Dunkin Donuts at the intersection of High Street and Route 138 was a popular summer hang out spot with the local teenage crowd. Beginning in the late afternoon, they would congregate in the parking lot, smoke cigarettes and type text messages on their cell phones. Come 7 p.m., there were usually a dozen or more milling around, waiting for something to happen. Scott Harris, 30 years old, was the group’s senior most member and its chief supplier of pot. On a strictly limited basis, he also dealt small quantities of coke and the occasional OxyContin. But Scott’s primary business was buying and selling clams wholesale, which was very lucrative in the summer months when the tourists arrived. Eric hated digging clams, but every year he renewed his license, and on days when the price per pound was high enough, he’d go out to the mud flats and dig a few bushels. But only once did he ever sell his clams to Scott, and this because his usual buyer was getting married that day and his only other option was in jail on a DUI.

Sipping iced coffee and leaning back against the windshield of his Oldsmobile, Scott Harris saw Eric pull in on his Suzuki and said something to Brian Sullivan, called Sully, who leaned against the driver side door smoking a cigarette. Sully was 22, the same age as Eric. He often served as the middle man on Scott’s pot deals and certain other ventures. What he got in return for his services was unclear.
As Eric approached the Oldsmobile, Sully roused himself and stepped to the front of the car. Behind him, Scott closed his eyes and went back to resting his head on the windshield.


Eric Brewer is eating tuna fish sandwiches and Doritos over his friend Brian Sullivan’s house. Eric is tall, over 5 feet, which is tall for his age, says his father, who is very tall, but the gift comes at a cost. Eric is uncoordinated, awkward, and is afraid when the older pitchers throw the ball at the plate where he stands holding the bat barely off his shoulder, frozen with a fear he knows even then is misplaced. But he can’t do anything about it. Standing there the only thing in the world is the ball. He dare not swing the bat. But Sully, he is not scared. He misses more than he hits, but he is not afraid of the ball or the older boys who throw it. He is a good four inches shorter than Eric, at least, but he moves his body like he owns it, whereas Eric feels like his body belongs to someone else, that it was given to him by mistake and someday its rightful owner will come calling for it.


“You need something?” Sully said, but before Eric could answer two boys nearby started roughhousing, knocking the cigarettes out of each other’s mouths and throwing headlocks. Sully watched them as they laughed and grappled and drifted closer to Scott’s car.

“Hey faggots,” he said, his voice level but authoritative . “Suck each other off somewhere else.”

“Sorry Sully,” one said, his head wrenched sideways against the other’s chest.
Sully turned back to Eric. He gestured impatiently with his hands and shoulders. “Well? What do you want?”

“A quarter ounce,” Eric said. “Plus three Oxies, 40 milligrams -- or two 80 milligrams, if you got them. That’s something you can do, right?”

Sully glanced over at Scott. “What do you think?”

Scott didn’t seem to be paying attention. He brought the straw of his iced coffee to his mouth. Thin droplets of condensation ran down the side of the plastic cup.
“Looks like you’re enjoying that,” Eric said.

Scott smiled. He sat up on the hood of his Oldsmobile, stretched out both his arms and yawned. “Shit,” he said, and laughed. “I’m getting too comfortable here.” He swung his legs over the side and arched his back.

“A quarter ounce plus three Oxies,” he repeated to himself. “40 milligrams -- or 80, if I got them.” He looked down at his shoes and stroked his chin, taking time to weigh various factors and degrees of feasibility. Finally he nodded his head and slid down off the car.

“Yeah, alright. Meet Sully behind the bleachers at Memorial Field in one hour. Hundred seventy-five bucks.”

“One seventy-five?” Eric said. “How’s that?”

“That’s the price is how,” Sully said, quick off the mark.

Scott put a calming hand on Sully’s shoulder.

“Those pills aren’t as easy to get a hold of as they used to be,” he said. Then he moved in closer. “But I’ll tell you what -- bring me a couple bushels this weekend and I’ll see what we can do in trade.”

“I’m not clamming this weekend,” Eric said. “I’m roofing.”

“Roofing, huh? Well, you better be careful up there boyo. Don’t go popping Oxies with your ass in the wind.” Scott brought his index finger up over his head and dropped it straight towards the ground while making a high pitched whistling sound. “Break your fucking neck, you could!”

Eric ran his tongue across the back of his teeth and said nothing. Scott threw his iced coffee in the trash and walked towards the door of the Dunkin Donuts.

“Where you going?” Sully called after him.

“To take a shit,” Scott yelled back.


Scott Harris lives in a house down the street from Brian Sullivan. Scott is tall, too, almost as tall as Eric’s father, but Scott is sixteen years old and goes to high school and in high school kids get acne and grow to the size of adults. Sometimes on weekend afternoons, Brian’s parents and Scott’s parents get together, drink beer, and play cards for hours. Sometimes Brian goes with them and plays Nintendo in Scott’s room. Brian says Scott’s awesome at Mortal Combat.
Eric goes with Brian and his parents to Scott’s house. The adults sit around the kitchen table with their cans of Coors Light and play a card game that somehow involves moving little metal pegs around a perforated wooden board. Scott gets Eric and Brian a couple fudgsicles and asks them if they like fireworks. “I got M-80s.” he says confidentially. He takes them down into the cellar and the boys stand sucking their fudgsicles while Scott kneels down in front of a refrigerator, snaps off the metal kick guard, and slides out the drain pan, in the middle of which is a plastic pencil box. Scoot grabs a loose rag and dries it off. Then he snaps open the latches and reaches into the box. He turns to Eric and Brian and opens his hand, revealing three thumb-sized, red paper tubes with short green fuses. The two boys come closer and admire the M-80s. “You like this stuff, huh?” Scott says. “Well, check this out.” He reaches back into the box pulls out a rolled cellophane bag containing what Eric, at 8 years old, already knows two or three words for. “What is that?” Brian asks. “What the hell do you think it is?” Scott says.

Later in his bedroom Scott leans his head out the window and exhales a cloud of smoke from the joint he’s holding. “What’d you guys think of my hiding spot?,” he says “That’s where I hide all my shit. I saw this TV show where this dude, an ex-burglar or something, said you should never hide your jewelry and money in obvious places, like in your bedroom or anywhere too close to where you live. He talked about this cool trick called Diversion. That’s where you hide stuff in places where people don’t normally think to hide shit, like underneath a kitchen sink.” Scott takes another long drag from the joint. Holding in the smoke, he passes it to Sully, who takes it hesitantly between his thumb and index finger. Sully brings the joint to his mouth and takes a series of quick puffs and blows out the smoke. “No, no” Scott says. “Take a deep hit and hold it.” Sully tries to do as he’s told. He squints his eyes and sucks hard on the joint. The burning ember at the end crackles and glows bright orange. Then Sully’s eyes pop open, his face goes red, and he explodes in a fit of throat-searing coughs, almost dropping the joint. Scott laughs. “You’ll get the hang of it. Now pass it to your friend.”


Eric sat on the top row of the bleachers standing along the third base line of Memorial Field. He saw himself standing at home plate dressed in the red little league uniform, the stretch polyester jersey barely reaching down to his waist. He saw himself gripping the aluminum bat, staring past the pitcher, never watching the ball, even as it sails past him, lands in the catcher’s mitt, and the umpire calls strike one, strike two, strike three. The pitcher’s mound seemed a hundred feet away back then. Now Eric saw that it couldn’t be much more than forty feet.

Twenty minutes later, Sully drove up in his Chevy S-10. He got out of the truck and slammed the door. Eric heard the gravel crunch beneath his boots but he didn’t turn around. He heard Sully’s voice.

“What are you asleep?”

“Not anymore,” Eric said. He stepped down off the bleachers and faced Sully, who was gazing out at the field.

“Man, “ Sully said. “I remember playing here when I was a kid. It seemed a lot bigger then.”

“Funny. I was thinking the same thing.”

“Oh yeah? You think now you could manage to actually swing the fucking bat? You were such a chicken shit at the plate.”

Eric breathed hard through his nose. “You got my shit?”

Sully laughed. “Take it easy, slugger. I’m just messing with you. Hold on a second.”
Sully reached into his jeans and pulled out a sandwich bag half full of pot. Then he fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out a miniature ziplock bag holding three white tablets. Eric saw right away they were the wrong color and the wrong shape. Sully extended both bags to Eric, one in each hand. Just then Eric caught a slight whiff of some odor. Shellfish, his mind registered, almost unconsciously. Clams. The smell came from Sully, from the bags he was holding. Eric took the pot but he left Sully holding the pills.

“What the hell are those?” he said, pointing.

“Yeah. Sorry bro,” Sully said. “It’s a no go on those oxies. But these will take care of you. They’re practically the same.”

“What are they, I asked you.”

“Vikes,” Sully said. “Vicodin.”

Eric groaned. “Ahh, fuck.”

“You don’t want them? No problem.” Sully made like he was about to put the baggie back in his shirt pocket.

“No,” Eric said. “Give them to me.” He reached for the twenties he had folded up in his own shirt pocket. “How much?”

“Same price,” Sully said, grinning. “Twenty-five a pop.”

“For Vicodin? Are you serious?”

“I’m serious,” Sully said, dropping the grin.

“I’ll give you forty,” Eric said. He counted out seven twenties and held them out. “One forty for the lot. The weed and the pills.”

Sully looked skeptically down at the money in Eric’s hand.

“I don’t know, man. I’ll have to run it by Scott.”

“Then run it by him.”

Sully pulled a cell phone out of the same pocket that had held the bag of weed. He punched in a number, held it to his ear, and waited for an answer on the other end.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s that? Can’t hear you . . .” He stuck a finger in his other ear. “Huh? Yeah. Now I can hear you. Right. . . . I did. I’m there now . . . Listen, Eric ain’t happy.” Sully shot Eric a disappointed look. “Yeah. He says he’ll go one forty, one forty for everything. . . . Huh? I know it. I told him. . . . Yeah? OK.” Sully turned his back and walked a few steps away. He lowered his voice, but Eric could still hear what he said. “I’ve done it enough times. I know where to put it. I’ll go over there right after I’m done here . . . .Where are you going to be? . . . .I’ll let myself in. . . . Oh, yeah? How much you want me to bring? . . . . What time? . . . .” Sully laughed, listened, then laughed again. “Those fucking bitches! . . . Alright, man. See you then.”

Sully flipped his phone shut and slipped it back in his pocket.

“Scott says he can go one sixty.”

Eric stared transfixed at the outline of the cell phone in Sully’s jeans and tightened his grip on the twenty dollar bills in his hand. Sully stood waiting for an answer. Then he looked down at his pants, trying to see whatever it was Eric kept staring at.

“What the matter with you?” he said, taking an uncertain half step back. “What’re you staring at?”

Eric released his grip on his money, raised his eyes and smiled.

“Nothing,” he said. “Sorry. I was just spacing out for a second.”

“Well knock it off, “ Sully said. “Don’t be looking at me like some kind of faggot.”

Eric added another twenty and to the money already in his hand.

“One sixty,” he said, handing Sully the cash. Sully counted the money and then handed Eric the mini ziplock with the three white tablets.

Eric turned the baggie over in his fingers. “What you got going on tonight?” he asked, feigning nonchalance.

“What do you care?” Sully said.

“No reason. Forget it.”

“I’m heading over to the pub for some drinks. After that, who knows?”

Eric nodded as if this information confirmed something. Then he walked over to the chain link fence surrounding the ball field and pointed to home plate.

“You had a pretty good swing. I remember. Knocked a few out, didn’t you?”

Although he wasn’t looking at Sully, Eric sensed his compliment was accepted.

“Yeah,“ Sully said. “I did. Hit eight home runs my last year. Led the league.”

“You weren’t much good at Mortal Combat, though.”

Now Eric sensed something else. He waited, keeping watch on home plate.

“What did you say?” Sully asked, although the way he said it, it didn’t sound like a question.

Eric turned and looked him in the eye. “Mortal Combat. You know. The video game? At Scott’s house when we were kids? Don’t tell me you don’t remember.” Eric laughed and looked up, as if somewhere above the pitcher’s mound the memory was being reenacted. “You never could beat him, could you?”

“Shut up, Eric,” Sully said.

“Maybe, Brian. Maybe I’ll shut up.”

“Shut your mouth!” Sully shouted. He wheeled around and marched back to his truck.
Eric took the bandana out of his back pocket and wiped away the sweat that was starting to bead on his forehead. Sully climbed into his truck and slammed the door. He backed out, threw it in drive, and gunned it, his rear wheels throwing up sprays of dirt and gravel.

Eric cupped his hands to his mouth. “You never beat him, Brian!” Sully tore through the parking lot and disappeared down the street.

Eric dropped his hands and watched the dust cloud kicked up from the S-10 drift across the parking lot.


“Come on,” Scott says. “I want to show you guys something.” Scott leads them quietly into his parent’s bedroom and over to a bureau standing in a corner. He pulls open the top drawer, reaches underneath a pile of men’s underwear and pulls out a stack of Polaroids. He waves Sully and Eric to come over. “Check these out,” he says and holds the Polaroids out in front of him like they’re a winning hand of cards. Most of the photos show Scott’s mom either holding a cock in her hand or in her mouth. One picture is an overhead shot of a cock penetrating a woman from behind, her ass nearly filling the frame. “Pretty crazy, huh?” Scott says.


Eric drove his Suzuki through the woods along the bike trail that skirted the edge of Pinehill Road. The night was cloudless, and with the full moon overhead he barely needed the beam of his headlight to see the trail. When he reached the turnout he braked and shut off the engine. He pushed his bike into some bushes, and took a Maglite and a can of mace from his backpack. Then he headed off through the trees, shining the light in front of him.

After about 500 yards, he clicked off the light and stopped, listening and peering into the darkness. He knew he was close even though he could not see any lights or hear anything other than the night calls of crickets and bullfrogs. He advanced a few more steps and saw a faint yellow light shining through the branches.

Scott lived on a secluded acre of land in a dilapidated, single storey cabin with a detached garage. His property was enclosed by a six foot high chain link fence and guarded by his 75-pound pit bull mix, Buzzer, which he kept outdoors tied to a nylon rope. Scott ran his wholesale clam operation out of the garage -- weighing, rinsing, and buying the clams that he bought from local diggers and in turn sold to fish markets and restaurants.

Eric crept closer to the perimeter fence. The porch light above the door illuminated the front of the cabin, but everything else was silhouetted in bluish-grey moonlight. The driveway was empty and nothing stirred inside the cabin. Rows of rusting lobster traps were stacked against the side of the garage. There was no sign of Buzzer. Eric checked his digital wrist watch and did nothing for the next ten minutes but breathe and wait and watch. He did not move. Somewhere the crickets and bullfrogs continued their nocturnal mating calls, but Eric did not hear them. When his wrist watch displayed the time he waited for, Eric closed his eyes and breathed the night air deep into his lungs. He did this three times. On the third exhale he opened his eyes and walked over to the fence.

Dozing in a shallow dirt hole behind the lobster traps, Buzzer snapped awake and tore across the yard in a barking frenzy to confront the intruder. Ten feet from the fence he played out the length of rope and was yanked violently backwards off his feet. But in a flash he was back up, growling and straining against his leash.

Eric waited to see if Buzzer had alerted anyone in the cabin, but he did not wait long.

“Hey there, Buzzie,” he said.

He grasped the top of the fence and pulled himself up, swinging one leg up and over. Outraged by this provocation, Buzzer wheeled up on his hind legs and barked even more furiously. Eric straddled the fence. Looking down at the snarling dog, he felt a fear instinct flutter through his body, trying to freeze his limbs. He focused again on his breathing and waited for his body to relax. Then he lifted his other leg over the fence and dropped to the ground. He stood up and took out the bottle of mace.

He bent over and aimed the nozzle three feet from Buzzer’s rage-filled face.

“Quiet down Buzz,” Eric said, and shot two mace streams into each one of Buzzer’s eyes.

The effect was both immediate and satisfying. Buzzer dropped and rolled on the ground, pawing at the chemical fire burning his eyes, his barks given way to yowls of pain.

Eric circled wide around the stricken dog. Once clear, he hurried past the lobster traps and over to the garage.

The wooden double doors were chained together and padlocked, but their hinges were exposed on the outside and weakened with rust. Eric took a screwdriver and hammer out of his pack and knocked the pins out of the hinges on the first door. The last hinge on the bottom, though, put up a fight. The pin would not budge. “Fuck this,” Eric growled. He wedged the claw end of the hammer beneath the screws that fastened the hinge to the garage and pulled up on the handle with both hands. The screws screamed as they were extracted from the wood, but they finally gave way and the door swung free.

The first thing Eric saw when he entered the garage was the refrigerated truck Scott used to deliver clams. He walked around the truck and scanned the rest of the garage. Lined up along the side of the opposite wall were the pieces of equipment Scott relied on to conduct his clamming business: the beam-type platform scale he used to weigh the clams he bought from diggers, the tank he sometimes used to rinse the sand out of clams he sold to the higher end restaurants (at an extra 20 cents a pound), and standing upright between these two items, a large capacity refrigerator. Eric recognized it as the same refrigerator that fifteen years earlier had stood in the cellar of Scott’s parent’s house. “You cheap prick,” he muttered, and training the beam of the Maglite, he saw fresh spill marks and boot prints on the dirty concrete floor directly in front of the refrigerator.

Eric got down on one knee, holding the Maglite in his mouth. He ripped the kick guard off the bottom of the fridge, and slid out the drain pan. Laying in two neatly stacked rows were ziplock freezer bags. Brownish water from the refrigerator’s drain pipe formed a shallow puddle at the bottom of the pan. But the bags all appeared to be carefully sealed and water proofed. The only issue was maybe the smell. Like his father before him, Scott used the refrigerator exclusively to store clams, and over the years the odor of shellfish had permeated the internal workings of the appliance and became concentrated in a bilge-like runoff that collected in the bottom of the unit’s drain pan.

Eric upended the pan and dumped the freezer bags on the floor by his feet. There were a total of six bags. Four bags were full with what Eric knew right away was weed, maybe a pound or more in each bag. The other two bags were double-wrapped and their contents varied in size and weight. Eric could not see through the plastic and tell what they contained. He grabbed a towel hanging over the side of the tank and wiped the clam-smelling moisture off each bag and then stuffed them inside his backpack, along with his hammer and screwdriver. He slung the pack over his shoulders, and holding the Maglite in one hand and the mace in the other, he retraced his steps around the truck. He stopped just the inside the garage doors and looked out into the yard. One end of Buzzer’s leash was tied to the trunk of a tree and from there it ran across the yard and disappeared behind the stack of lobster traps. Eric called, whistled, and waited. He whistled and waited some more. There was no response. Buzzer had retreated to his dirt hole where he lay quivering in a ball, pink mucus dripping from his stinging eyes. The man that had thrown the fire in his face could go where ever he wanted.


Sitting side by side on pillows in front of the TV, Scott holds the Nintendo controller in his left hand and slips his right hand into Brian Sullivan’s shorts. Brian keeps both his hands on his controller. But even with this advantage, Scott is still beating him. His Liu Chang back flips over Brian’s Sub-Zero and nails him with a round house kick to the head. Scott looks over his shoulder at Eric. “You play winner,” he says.


Eric stood in his studio apartment with the six freezer bags spread out on the table in front of him. Earlier he had opened one of the four bags containing the weed and realized they probably contained closer to two pounds each. The fifth bag contained over $11,000 in cash, mostly in twenty dollar bills, plus two bottles of pills, 27 Vicodins in one, 15 OxyContins in the other. The sixth bag contained three computer CDs in plastic jewel cases and four M-80s. When Eric saw the miniature explosives he clenched his jaw and muttered a curse under his breath.

Each CD was labeled in black Sharpie with a first name and last initial: Steve P., Josh S., Mike S. Eric turned the CDs over in his hand, frowning at the correspondences the names suggested in his mind. The polycarbonate surface of the disks refracted the overhead light into prismatic waves of color. Eric selected the Steve P. CD and went over to his computer, an old Dell he picked up second hand three years ago. He rarely used it anymore since he stopped paying for an internet connection, but sometimes he still used it to play Flight Simulator, sometimes Quake.
In the photos stored on the CD, Eric recognized the face of Steve Pulawski, one of the teenage losers that hung out in front of Dunkin Donuts. Steve was naked in each photo. In some he was masturbating, either by himself or with Brian Sullivan. In others he was sucking the cock of the person holding the camera.


Eric is tall for his age but not as tall as Scott. Eric tries to control the movements of Johnny Cage but the controller feels heavy and unwieldy in his hands. He can’t block kicks and he can’t time his punches. Scott’s Liu Chang locks him up in an iron grip and flips him on his back. Liu Chang leaps high into the air and comes down fist first into Johnny Cage’s chest. Johnny’s heath meter blinks red: Warning, Warning, Warning. But Eric can’t do anything about it.


Eric drove to the pub on his Suzuki and parked it between the Cutlass Supreme and the S-10. Inside crowds of people stood around the bar holding pints of beer and eating onion rings, laughing, shouting. The late innings of a baseball game was broadcast on the TV above the bar. Eric took off his helmet and jumped on to the hood of the Oldsmobile. He stood facing the window, but no one inside the pub noticed him. Not yet. He took an M-80 and a lighter out of his pocket and lit the fuse. The gunpowder coating the cotton twine sparkled in his hand. Eric threw the firecracker at the door of the pub where it exploded in a deafening report. He smiled at the faces and reached for another M-80.

BIOGRAPHY: Joseph Winter is a writer and editor born and raised in Massachusetts and currently living in Orange County, CA with his wife, daughters, cat, and tarantula. He has work that will be appearing in forthcoming editions of Word Riot, Thuglit and Bartleby Snopes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"The GI Gas Can" by Tom Sheehan

Jake Gibson, PI extraordinaire and a man of diverse talents, was two houses away, in the attic, in free space without a hit on his budget because it was the house of an old teacher of his, had the volume set at mid-range to the pipe he had set into the other house more than 17 months earlier. Perhaps all that dirty work on his part, the ultimate in sneaking, was going to pay off in spades. The words were coming in clear as a Sony mike. He’d sure use them for motivation.

For more than those 17 months, he had been snaking his way along in life with Chas and Jimbo. He owed them as others, he was sure, owed them. Either Chas Dykens or Jimbo Lavery, or both, had hit his secretary Bonnie Duval, the most hidden woman he had ever known, and the clear love of his life, or the one most missed for sure. They had dropped her off her balcony with two silenced rounds. The “Why” was never announced, never came off in ink, nobody uptown or downtown saying a word, which they had often done to jerk his chain, no masked call on his phone saying reparation had been accomplished. But he knew Chas and Jimbo had gone extra-curricular. Working outside the bounds. That kind of stuff usually didn’t pay, not in the end. They’d be payback he knew.

Her body, over the rail in free fall, hit the cement walk the way old ironworkers say the stop is sudden, conclusive and sudden. And bloody awful. The police had recovered a single expended casing, with no fingerprints, in a nearby apartment of a guy who had won a trip to Disneyworld. Gibson had been chasing “that fix” too, but so many loose ends made it like a live wire in a puddled street. Nothing had been nailed down in that direction. Not a whisper. Not a phony tip, the way tipsters try to keep all four lanes open.

Gibson, almost giddy at times, fed himself with images that leaped up from all his past observations of the pair, from close range as well as under a Palomar-strong telescope. He knew them like characters in the final act of a play as it came to an end, the curtain ready to drop, the resolution about to happen, hope or demise on the threshold. Or an old black and white movie where he could recite the dialogue like he was reading text. Dick Powell without a song. Humphrey at his best cowing other hard characters. Chester Morris as Boston Blackie clearly tailing a suspect in the darkness.

Chas Dykens, in the cellar of the house where they kept their guns, had complained generally about the new hit they were to get paid for. In most things he was dumb as mud, Jimbo Lavery was thinking, but he never missed what he shot at … turkeys, wild bores, deer, all up-country or, down here in the city, a contract hit silhouetted behind a shade, shadowy in a window, sitting on a lonely bench in the park feeding the stupid pigeons.

“Blow it out your ass, Chas,” Lavery said, “it ain’t counting here. Complain all you want, but a job’s a job. You knew that when you signed on. We don’t do it no other way, ‘cepting something different like The Man says.”

He patted the .38 Special sitting in the shoulder holster as if it was a toy. “But we got to get more inventive here. That’s what The Man keeps saying. He says too many fingerprints come off of guns, shell casings, et cet like they say down home. So, we gotta think about a new way of knocking this guy for the count. 1-2-3 you’re gonzo, baby. It’s just a job we’re doing, and nothing personal. If only all those dead suckers know, it’s just a job.”

Dykens, brothel-groping a Uzi, thumb working like it was on a lifted, stove-pipe nipple, getting nervous and excited all at the same time while sitting in a hard-back chair, said, “You talk like it’s Murder Inc. It’s just an everyday hit on a damned asshole what’s screwing things up for the whole city. No big deal in that, just like you figure it. We could pump him once or twice, lead or juice. Let him bleed or get hooked on the juice. Make his whole friggin’ crowd sweat out their ass.” Then, thinking it all out a little more, looking for something hard, real, said, “What’s his name? You ain’t told me yet.”

“Chas, you got to be the dumbest shit I ever knew. No names. Never say a name no matter what. No matter where you are. I don’t care if you’re thinking to yourself, if you could, don’t say no names. People are always listening to what’s being said. Don’t let one word, or one hit’s name, hang you or get the friggin’ chair for you. It ain’t worth it.” The pause he let hang out spelled it all: “I don’t get to even see The Man myself, not really face to face. I talk to him through a screen, a dark mesh screen, him on the other side.”

“It sounds like a damn confessional. You gotta say, ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned?’”

“Don’t be no shithead on me, though it’s like that, almost. He don’t trust nobody, way I look at it. And he came after me. I didn’t go after him,” and the balance came out like a song, “and then there was you.”Dykens laughed and then said, “Can we say the place? Hell, we’re in the dark almost down here. Nobody knows nuts about this place.”

“Chas, you don’t listen none. No names. No nouns. No nothing, but we got a job. A new payday’s coming.”

“Good,” Dykens said, “I might need a new suit.”

“What the hell do you want a new suit for? I’ve never seen you in a suit.”

Dykens snickered loudly, like the mike was down his throat, nuzzling his diaphragm. “I was thinking,” he said with some joyous deliberation, “I’d maybe go to the hit’s funeral.”

Gibson could see Jimbo Lavery leap into the air. “Don’ be a shithead, Chas. I swear, you’ll be the death of me yet. Clues will kill us too. You got to keep remembering that. No clues. No clues ever. No free-for- the-taking profiles like on them TV movies.”

Gibson measured the ensuing silence, Dykens admonished, Lavery deep in thought. He could see the pair of them. “I ought to write plays,” he said to himself as the silence continued and he saw his characters in a mindful study, their moves in a kind of slow motion gait but center stage every minute. It was Dykens who broke the silence. “Know what I was just thinking about, Jimbo? This gas crunch. I saw a Jeep go by the other day and with two GI gas cans strapped on the rear end like we had in the army, the 5 gallon kind, but these were chained and locked, the guy ascared they’re going to be swiped or siphoned off. Had friggin’ chains right over the top of them, gas near $5.00 a gallon’ll do that.

There was more silence, then Dykens said, “What if we pour gas all over the outside of the place at night, soak down the doorways, set it off from a car or from down the street, like a flipped butt or a cigar, and just keep riding or walking. That place’d burn like a Roman friggin’ candle, chances it’s so old and dusty. Pop goes the weasel and it’d be gone up in smoke and neighbors a mile away would find their gutters jammed with leaves all on fire. It’d be friggin’ electric.”

His pause was also deliberate, like added punctuation. “Just like this place. A guy wants us, soaks it, we ain’t got a friggin’ chance. Poof goes Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Jimbo Lavery, suddenly awake at the other end of the pipe, said, “That’s inventive, I got to say, Chas. No guns with no prints and no old bullet casings. I’ll ask The Man what he thinks.”

“Can I go with you?”

“Nobody talks to The Man but me, the same way as always, like a one-way street almost.”

Gibson, more than four years work floating in his mind, knowing he had never successfully tailed Jimbo Lavery, who was as alert as any perp he had ever tailed, knew he had to stay put again, at the end of the pipe, in an old teacher’s house, the space for free for a few old-time favors if he could stomach it any more, her age really catching up with his appetite. He checked the fridge, the small stock of crackers, chips, Doritos, his tongue at remembering. Oh, the memories. For a bare instance he tasted Bonnie, remembered a favorite pose, saw her waiting in that pose, then watched her quickly disappear.

He’d stay to the end. He’d stay for Bonnie and justice, one way or the other. All the perps in the world couldn’t match up to her.

Lavery, he knew, would leave the other house and space himself out in two or more hours of sly movement until his scheduled meeting with The Man.

That irony swelled in him like a pan of yeast-ridden dough in an old pan.

He’d let Jimbo go his way and sit by while he waited for Chas Dykens to shoot off his mouth. Now and then, over the long haul, old Dykens would oblige him. “Dumb as mud,” Lavery had said, and he was right smack on the nail head.

Gibson saw both hitters in a variety of poses, like they were shining up to a photographer. Dykens was always ready with a shit-eating grin like he’d just beat his bookie out of a grand or two and all he owed on his tab. Lavery, on the other hand, played it like an old Hollywood bit player, a character actor, a support man like Paul Fix, Noah Beery Jr., doing just enough to get through the scene, do his professional bit, take his pay, and bow out until the next scene came along. Quick images rushed him, like Jim Brown coming off-tackle on the old slant play, and he saw Walter Brennan and Walter Huston and Roscoe Karns in black and white glory. Lavery and Dykens were different, and that was to his advantage. With Bonnie sitting in the wings waiting for payback.

His sixth sense set him up; he could feel it coming. Dykens had been in absolute silence for well over an hour after Lavery had left, except for a cough or two, one sneeze, and then, finally, a click. A solid give-away click; Dykens had picked up the phone, dialed a number, heard the reverse clicking away, paused, heard a female voice, sweet, delicious, dripping, like it was a house full of her sisters, say, “Is that you, sweetbread? Where you been? You on another stake-out? Don’t the ‘partment ever give you a break?”

“Hon, you wear the badge, you take the breaks. It’s in the blood.”

“I know what’s in your blood, sweetbread, and where it likes to spend its time. When do I see you? I’m getting there in an awful hurry every night now, all on my own.”
“We have a big one now, watching a big bookie what ain’t a big bookie, if you get my drift. But he’s got the numbers right, way I see it.”

“Sweetbread, you’re always full up with mystery, but you ain’t answered me yet… when do I see you?”

“I can tell from my partner that we’re closing in on the big one. Might take me a week, maybe less, but the payday is big and I’m promising a week at Disney or wherever wings can take us. You free to travel, I’d bet?”

“What you up to, sweetbread, so full of mystery and staying away from me. That’s not fair. How long you gonna be away?”

Turkey Fulture, at The Man’s orders, sat on a rickety chair on a nearby rooftop, an old Ought 3 GI issue sniper rifle, with silencer, in his hands. He looked the assassin type. Thin composite of anger and pure hatred. His childhood on full display. His eyes shining like embers in the thinning daylight. Waiting like he was in a hunter’s blind. (Huh! Fucking dumb deer deserved it every time out; stupid is as stupid does.) Commission money was at hand. A piece-of-cake job. A couple of rounds point blank (like he could miss anything!!), drop the clean weapon, scatter his way out of there, no trace on the lip of anything. Done and gone. He had done it close to 50 times. The real count would come to him, the exact count, when he was paid off, when he arrived at the cabin in Maine, got his boots, hit the stream, let life carry him away for a solid week of nothing but chasing brookies and bigger stuff.

He fired at the gas can one of the guys was carrying and it blew up, the three new assassination candidates gone in a searing flash and some unhealthy screams. The fire ran around the whole building like it was an arrow out of a hot quiver, a hot spot if there ever was one. The flames shot up the sides of the building. A woman screamed down the street. A child answered. Someone yelled, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
“That clears the ticket for The Man,” Turkey said, his voice soft and clear as he moved back to the door to the stairs. He’d be out of there in the matter of a minute, down three flights of darkness, into an alley of darkness, into the subway system, swing around the horn a few times, disappear for a few weeks in Maine going after those tiny brook trout smothered in cornmeal and butter. And a beer for breakfast! He could taste the beer for breakfast. He’d make that happen every day he was deep in the woods.

The shot from the rooftop doorway hit Turkey directly in the forehead and splattered his brains like pigeon shit. The Ought 3 fell away from Turkey’s gloved hands. The Man said Lavery or Dykens had last handled it, only the day before. “Let the cops screw with that one,” Turkey had muttered to no one in particular at that time.
The final shooter, who had shot Turkey from about eight feet away, taking him out of the loop, was only three steps down the stairs when the bomb under his feet went off.
Across the street, in another apartment, The Man marked events, heard gunfire, saw the explosion, counted all the witnesses having gone down the drain.

He went back to the pipe, disconnected the wires, packed it all away in a trash bag, dumped it, in the dark, in a dumpster way up-town, then lit it up, “A bonfire for Bonnie,” he muttered, walking away and looking back once, liking fire since he was a kid, using it.

BIO: Tom Sheehan’s books are Epic Cures, 2004, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, November 2008, from Press 53 of NC; A Collection of Friends, 2004, and From the Quickening, March 2009, from Pocol Press of VA; a proposal for a collection of cowboy stories, Where the Cowboys Ride Forever, is in the hands of a western publisher. Epic Cures received an IPPY Award and A Collection of Friends was nominated for the Aldren Award. His work is currently in or coming in Ocean Magazine, Perigee, Rope and Wire Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Green Silk Journal, Halfway down the Stairs, Ad Hoc Monadnock, Hawk & Whippoorwill, Eden Waters Press, Milspeak Memo, Ensorcelled, Canopic Jar, SFWP, Eskimo Pie, Lyrical Ballads, Lock Raven Review, Indite Circle, Northville Review, Pine Tree Mysteries, etc., and in books coming from Press 53, Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform, and Milspeak Anthology. He has 10 Pushcart nominations, a Noted Story of 2007 nomination, the Georges Simenon Award for fiction, and will be included in the Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Something For Nothing" by Brian J. Smith

I WAS PUTTING IT TO A SKINNY LITTLE REDHEAD IN THE BEDROOM OF A nice hotel room when Pink Floyd burst from my cell phone, singing about money. I ignored them, hoping whoever it was would call back later and went back to work on the redhead. Three minutes later, she screamed like a rabbit in pain, released her legs from around my waist and fell beside me on the bed. Our bodies speckled in bright beads of sweat, we laid there for sometime, her head on my chest, my fingers gliding gently across her olive bronze skin.

As I hoped, Pink Floyd made an encore performance on my cell phone. We climbed out of bed. I threw my legs over the side, picked it up from the bedside table and answered it. She must’ve just rolled over and went back to sleep because the room was so quiet it was as if she never really existed.

“Yeah.” I whispered.

“I’m looking for a professional.” The voice on the other end was Russian, no doubt about that.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for someone to---.”

I terminated the call and kept the phone loosely in my hand. The redhead rolled over and stroked the middle of my back with her tender fingertips. The bed shifted and I turned around to see what she was doing. When the phone rang again, she was walking over to the chair in the far right corner of the room, shrugging into my favorite white shirt without bothering with the buttons. I swung my legs back over the side of the bed like I’d done before and flipped the phone open again.

Looking at the long strip of skin exposed by the open shirt, at the sides of her plump breasts, at the tuft of pubic hair between her legs, I said into the phone: “Hello.”

“What the hell was that all about?”


“You hung up on me.”

“I know.”

“Well, then why did you do it?”

“Because you never talk about what you want on the phone. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Are you telling me---.”

“Unless you want the cops to catch this on their cee bees then you’ll do what I say or you’ll find someone else to do the job better than me. If you can even find someone else better than me in the first place which you can’t so are we cool or is this gonna get hotter than a furnace?”

It’s not always wise to treat a client like that. They’re liable to hang up on you and leave you holding your dick in the dark. I don’t really consider myself a hit man, although I am. I like the term “professional” a little better; it sounds way cooler than “hit man” or “killer”. This way here, when the cops intercept my call they won’t know my real occupation.

With a deep sigh, the Russian said: “Okay. What do you suggest?”

“We meet someplace where there’s not much attention and plenty of privacy.”

“Where would you like to meet?”

“In the bar down by the lobby. You sit at one table with your back turned and I’ll sit at the one behind you. You do not turn around in your seat to face me. You stay right where you’re at. If you need to hand me something, then you hand it to me from behind your back or you can slide across the table to me.”

“How will I know it’s you?”

“I’ll be wearing blue jeans, an Ohio State Buckeyes tee shirt and hat. The hat will be pulled down to cover my face, which you don’t need to see. All you need to see is my hat. When you know where I’m sitting you come over to the table behind me and sit down. We’ll talk from there.”

“But how do you know the cops won’t be listening on their how you say it,” The Russian’s smugness toward his words. “bee-cee.”

“It’s cee bee and no asshole.” I said and hung up.

Rude people get on my nerves. They think they’re so fucking better than us that they have to talk to us regular people like that. Think the world should roll out a red carpet for them every time they do something right for someone; think the world owes them a debt they could never settle. What do they know? Their blood is just as cold and red as mine---if not colder.

The redhead--whose name I had yet to know--rolled over and sat with her legs around my waist again, her flat board of a stomach pressed against my back. Having gone one round with her already, I could sleep until next week. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek; her lips tasted of cherries and her perfume reminded me of the ocean I longed to see but only dreamed of. Putting the phone on the bed, I picked her up like the groom carrying the bride through the threshold of their honeymoon suite and carried her into the bathroom. We had round two in the shower. I left her curled up in bed, knees halfway to her chest, hands pressed together and tucked snugly under her right jaw.

Looking at her now, I felt bad about not being able to promise her the life she deserved. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I do believe that beautiful women should always have the finer things in life. And at no cost to them. Nothing would be different for her; she would never fully experience life for what it truly is and the world for what it truly holds. I was just a guy she screwed and I was no different than the next guy and the next one after that.

Like every other girl I’d encountered in my twenty-four years on this planet, I got dressed for my meeting and closed the door on my way out.

* * *

AFTER a long talk with the obese drug representative about how quick the world was going to hell in a hand basket because of high gas prices, I stepped out of the elevator and made it to the lobby in five minutes. The Madison was twenty stories of tinted glass with a set of revolving doors that gleamed like the edges of sun kissed gold. With its rich knotty pine walls, gleaming marble green floors and a narrow stretch of maroon carpet laid between the front doors and the spacious gray front desk, it reminded me of something I’d seen on Access Hollywood as one of the best hot spot for all the vacationing celebrities. Just yesterday, the front desk clerk decided to inform me that ‘the’ Paris Hilton had once stayed here. I took his information kindly, pretending that I actually gave a shit about something like that and went up to my room.

Since the left side of the lobby was crammed with long hallways and boring conference rooms, I walked to the right, toward the stretch of gift shops, tie-in restaurants and a small bar. I’m not one for alcohol but when I’ve had a bad day I want as much as I can get my hands on. Most of the places I go, there are as much bars on the block as there are churches in Mississippi but this place is nothing close to Miami, Louisiana or Los Angeles. None of the places I’ve been to are better than the ones I visit next. I’m not there as long as I’d like to be so I can’t really say which one is my favorite.

My occupation diverts my enjoyment and I despise that. But it’s not like a fast food worker who slaves all day in the hot sun to endeavor the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. They come back to work and go through the rituals just like everyone else. But where they serve foods high in cholesterol, I serve death with a high caliber weapon. Or whatever I can get my hands on; anything.

I’m a hit man, not by choice, but by fate. I once worked for some people in Langley and it went sour. I got tired of the cover ups, got tired of the red tape and got out as quickly as I could. They try to call me every once in a while, try to get me back in but I give them the runaround each and every time. I get a laugh at how many times they try to get hold of me, knowing that the Deputy Director is probably sitting at his desk, face redder than a beet as he slams the phone down in anger.

By the time I got to the bar, my watch said three minutes till seven. Through the tinted transparency of the first four windows, the moon burned faintly inside a thick, coffee black sky. Squeezed between a glass and brick gift shop, the tavern had rich tinted windows and a baggy green awning above the front door, the word TAVERN stenciled across the front of it. Two neon beer signs gave a rainbow finish to the marble floor outside; the left one was a blue Budweiser sign and the other said that they were open.

I stepped through the door and followed a narrow strip of dark green carpet straight into a large dining area. Its paper white walls were speckled with framed photos from years unnoticeable until now; the soft blue-carpet was dotted with lacquered brown tables with matching chairs; snippets of conversation rose and fell like gossip in a high school cafeteria. Small bowl lamps glared down from large ovals etched into the rough white ceiling. At the north wall, facing the front window was a boomerang shaped bar the color of mahogany with six stools and a tall shelf behind it. Varies of liquor bottles were on display behind a massive mirror like baseball cards at an antique shop, their lustrous brown liquid gleaming brightly.

There were three tables set against the wall leading toward a pair of oak brown doors that I guessed led into the kitchen. I sat at one of them, but I was facing the front of the tavern. I slipped the front of my hat down farther on my forehead and folded my hands neatly together on the tabletop. The whole tavern had been silent, save for a Benny Goodman classic spewing from the jukebox in the far left corner. It was my favorite one: “Waitin’ For Katie”.

A sexy and seductive voice asked: “Can I get you anything, sweet heart?”

“A tall glass of milk.”

“Is that it?”

I raised my head and peered up at her from under my hat. With a voice like a female disc jockey, I had to see whom it belonged to. She stood five foot five and probably weighed about one ninety, one ninety-two. She had long canary yellow hair that drowned the tops of her shoulders, big jade-green eyes and freckled brown skin. Her hourglass figure fit snugly inside the black slacks and white blouse.

“That’s all.” I said and gave her my best Paul Newman smile from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

“What’s wrong with milk?” I asked. “It’s good for the bones.”

Sighing, she rolled her eyes at me as if I were a waste of time and padded away. I lowered my head back down onto the table like a child who’d been told no and waited. Three rapid minutes later, a tall glass of milk was set down in front of me. And I didn’t even get a “thank you”, let alone a “have a nice day”. Bitch.

I slid the glass of milk toward me and took a giant swig so cold that it sent a chill through my gums. Three rounds of sex can make you hungry and thirsty, but I was always thirsty so the hungry part wouldn’t come in until later. Besides, I’m not your average cold-blooded killer; I don’t devour entire entrées that weigh more than a bear. If I had a choice between a cheeseburger with fries and three pieces of chicken with a large Diet Coke, I’d choose the chicken, minus the skin.

The glass was halfway empty when the front door opened and light poured in, only to disappear when the door was shut. A squat man with short dark hair wearing a white suit stood before the entrance into the dining area as I’d done a few minutes ago. Two hefty, young gentlemen in black leather jackets and expensive clothing flanked him on both sides. They looked as if they could pick up a car and throw it two blocks down. Maybe I’m over exaggerating, but their arms were huge.

I lowered my head back down to the table so as to show them my hat and continued to drink my water. Their footsteps were pin-drop quiet and their shadows slipped stealthily pass my table like storm clouds in a once blue sky. I waited for them to pass me before I raised my head again. The wooden partition between the tables along the wall would make the perfect conversation piece. All the intricate little shapes etched out across it would easily hide the darkest of faces, including mine.

“Is this good enough for you?” asked the Russian whom I spoke with on the phone.

“It’s perfect by the way.” I said. “And while you’re at it you can dispense with the rudeness.”

“I’m not being rude,” he stopped long enough to bask in his sarcastic glory. “I’m being courteous.”

“Yeah, right.” I replied, crossing my left ankle over my right knee. “And George Bush is the greatest president alive. But I guess politics is not why we’re here now is it. You need me for something so let’s get to it.”

“I need you to kill my ex-wife.”

In all my years in this business, this one was a repeat offender. There’s always some guy who needs his ex-wife, wife, girlfriend or secretary killed. It’s the same thing every time. There’s always a woman involved, never a dog or anything. What happened to marriage counseling?

Not that I support the destruction of innocent animals, I refuse to kill animals although I master the perfect techniques to subdue them without hurting a hair on their fragile bodies.

“Trying to get out of paying child support,” I whispered. “or what?”

“I don’t even have kids. She couldn’t have them and I didn’t want them. But that’s not why I want her killed.”

“Then why?”

“You know Jason Hill?”

“The soccer star Jason Hill?”

A small chorus of chuckles erupted from their table. I could just see them now, the two brawny bodyguards laughing through their thick red mouths. The Russian’s face crinkling with hysterical laughter.

Once the laughing ceased, the Russian said: “No. The other--.”

“Why him. Why her.”

“My ex-wife is currently wooing Mister Hill in this very hotel room, right now as we speak. She’s coming after me for two years unpaid alimony.”

“Why is she coming after you for money when Jason Hill will have plenty of it to go around?”

“What’d you say?”

“Guess it’s my turn to laugh, huh?” I said, pressing my hand against my chest. “Looks like I know something you don’t.”

When I didn’t get a wink from them, I said: “Yesterday, he signed a two hundred million dollar contract with another soccer team. Why does she need it---.”

“Because she’s greedy. Mina was very greedy when it came to financial matters. I could never control her about her obsessive shopping. Constantly buying this and that and this and that. I tried to get her to stop---.”

My turn to intercept: “There’s nothing wrong in making your woman happy. But when you cut her off, she left you. Am I right?”

“Never a dull moment with you is there, Mister.” He stopped as if he were trying to figure something out and said: “You never told me your---.”

“It’s Patrick. And that’s all you need to know.”

Something whirled over the top of the partition, flew over my head and landed on the table next to my glass of water. If it hadn’t been an envelope, I might’ve pulled out my gun but I picked it up and peeked inside of it. I thumbed through the thin stack of bills and plucked the picture leaning against the last hundred-dollar bill. Tucking the envelope into my front pants pocket, I held the picture between thumb and forefinger and surveyed it like a vulture overlooking a sun-drenched desert.

She really was beautiful; bubble-gum pop star beautiful.

Too bad she was going to die. Too bad it was going to be by my hands.

Her long russet brown hair, tight cheekbones, thin pink lips, heart shaped face and vivid brown eyes gave her the image of a former Spice Girl. As the picture told me, her toothpick frame made her look as if anorexia was a girl’s best friend. She looked plastic. Way plastic for my tastes. The last thing I need is a gold digger for a girlfriend. That and irritable bowel syndrome.

After I recounted the money, I said: “You’re about forty thousand short.”

“Ten thousand now and you get the rest when she’s dead. Deal?” He sounded like a car salesman who tried to sell you something you’d never drive if you were dead.

“I guess.” I said, tucking the picture into my back pants pocket and the envelope in my front pocket.

“When will you do it?”

"You’ll know when I--.”

“How will you do it?”

“A magician never gives away his secrets.”

“So true.”

Leaving a tip on the table, I said through the holes in the partition: “Don’t follow me out. Leave ten minutes after I do, got it? Suspicion never leaves a cop’s sight. Let alone anyone else’s.”

“Don’t you need to know the room number?”

“No.” I said, getting up from the table. “I can get that myself.”

When I was halfway to the front door, I knew they were watching me. Strangest thing was, unlike all the other times, it started to bother me.

* * *

WHEN I got back up to my room, I took my cell phone from my pocket and leaned back against the headboard. At least she made the damn bed. Most of the women I fuck and forget leave the bed in a twisted mess. She even left me her cell phone number and a mint on one of my pillows. I ate the mint, tossed her number in the trashcan and used my cell phone to call the front desk.

Three rings later, a cheery voice came on the other end: “Thank you for calling The Madison. My name is Claire, how may I help you?”

I opened my mouth, but my voice froze. I’d never frozen like this before. Never. This is the moment where I put on one of my many impressions in order to fool her. When she repeated the last part about how she could help me, I shut my mouth, harrumphed into the phone and switched on the old Southern charm.

“Yes, my name is Nathaniel Bouregard and I’d like to speak to Jason Hill.”

“I’m sorry, sir. But we at The Madison prohibit all outside calls to our popular guests unless you’re a member of their family.”

“Well, I’ll be a snake in a bird’s nest.”

“Is there a message I can deliver to him?”

“I just wanted to thank him for everything he’d done at the Boys and Girls camp over here in Strausbaugh, Ohio. He’s been such a big influence on those boys that I couldn’t help but send him something.”

“You can always send him something up from room service.”

“Are you sure? I mean I don’t want you getting into--.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Claire gave a small giggle. “We let our guests’ families do it all the time.”

“Well, that’d be mighty fine idea.” I couldn’t believe she was actually falling for this and I pulled my mouth away from the phone so that I could laugh and rejoined her. “Is there anything you suggest, darlin’?”

“We have a lovely crab cakes combo. Comes with broccoli spinach dip, an order of baked asparagus sticks. And a lovely desert called Peanut Butter Explosion. It’s a scoop of white ice cream sandwiched between two giant chocolate peanut butter wafers with a light sprinkle of crushed peanut butter cups on top.”

Rubbing my stomach, I said: “Mmmm. That sounds mighty good right now. But just hearing it come from you makes my stomach grow another nine inches. I like dessert, but it don’t like me.” I stopped rambling like an idiot. “That would be fine, ma’am. Send that up to his room, if you would please.”

Computer keys rattled in the background. Rhythmic breathing attempted to muffle it with no luck.

“Okay, sir. Your total is forty two five nine.” She said. “Is that cash or debit?”

“Could you hold on there while I get my credit card?”

“Take your time, sir.”

I set my cell phone on the bed and went through my suitcase, looking for the right card for just this occasion. I found it tucked in with a pair of socks and raced back to the cell phone.

After I gave her the number, she said in her eerily happy voice: “ Everything seems to be in order, Mister Bouregard. We’ll send this up to his room as quickly as we can.”

“Thank you, miss.” I said and grunted as if I were hitching up my jeans. “Have a nice day.”

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“Could you tell me what room he’s staying in?” I pleaded. “I mean for the kids’ sake. They’ve been meaning to come see him and I’d like to tell--.”

“Room Two Forty Nine.” She whispered. “Don’t tell anyone I told you, okay.”

“It’ll just be our little secret.”

“Okay.” She said, not whispering. “Have a nice day and thank you for calling The Madison.”

I killed the call and dropped the cell phone on the bed beside me. I shrugged out of my street clothes and into a pitch-black suit with a matching tie and a pair of bat’s wing black shoes. I dropped my cell phone into my left pocket and took the elevator down to the lobby. Once there, I took a seat on the couch at the far left corner. There was a glass-topped table with black rubber framing placed in front of me and a mess of month-old magazine scattered across the top.

I chose a People magazine with last year’s Sexiest Man Alive on the cover and pretended to read it. I perched my left ankle on my right knee and set the magazine on my lap. I kept one eye on a lovely picture of the beautiful Keira Knightley that would make a preacher forget his vows--when does she not do that--kept the other eye on the elevators. Small clusters of travelers, drug representatives, middle aged tourists, college students in the midst of winter break pushed through the revolving doors of The Madison. A young couple carried an unpleasant child to the elevators, his plump pale legs kicking and screaming and purposely going dead weight so as to have made matters for his parents even worse, angry for being dragged to a place it didn’t want to go.

The kid wasn’t an obstruction, but a reminder. It reminded me why I didn’t--and never would--have kids.

People magazine still sprawled across my lap, I turned and stared out the window, at the city glowing beside me. Traffic crawled at a slow pace, as headlights and taillights flickered and died, flickered and died. According to the flow of people crossing the street, it was five o’clock and everyone had been let out of their cages, only to be led straight into another one. The sun dipped behind the horizon, behind the wall of buildings and casinos, painting the sky with a fiery orange light. Scantily clad women between the ages of eighteen and twenty trotted past the window, smirking and whispering behind closed mouths, their incoherent whispers telling me what their sexually polluted minds had in store for me while some just smiled and went on walking.

I don’t consider myself the hottest thing this side of the world, but it’s always reassuring to know someone still cares. I’m twenty six and I weigh two hundred and thirty two pounds, all of it pure muscle. My ex-girlfriend once told me that I looked like a young Peter Fonda, but then her mother told me--after I had sex with her--Hugh Beaumont from the show Leave It To Beaver. My hair is slick and black, without one little niche of gray and combed to the crest of my forehead like Cary Grant’s. My doe brown eyes, filled with wonder and mystery, were the magnets that lured the women.

From the reflection in the window, a pale apparition glided behind me. I turned and saw the waiter guiding the cart toward the pair of elevators. I set the magazine down, got up from the couch and followed him into the elevator. He stepped in before me, I asked him what floor and pushed the button. He placed the cart between us and watched the doors clamp themselves shut.

Rule number one. Leave your emotions and your remorse at the door.

The elevator shifted and glided its way up. The kid beside the food cart looked too young to be pulling minimum wage at a three-star hotel (at least in my book it was a three star hotel no matter how many others they had in the rest of the country). He could’ve been my little brother, save for the acne splattered across his cheeks and forehead. On the cart between us was a trio of sparkling silver domes. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was underneath them. I crossed my left hand over my right and placed them both across my lap. I held back a breath, let it go and uttered a small reply of panic.

“Oh shit. I lost my contact.” I knelt down toward the floor, cupping my left hand over my supposedly lens-less eye. “Could you please help me find it?”

With most hotels, all the elevators come equipped with security cameras. Thanks to the petite redhead I had in my hotel room, the hotel never installed them. Which was exactly what I was looking for. Exactly what I needed. Especially for this particular job.

As the young waiter knelt to the floor, searching for my imaginary contact lens with frantic hands, I slipped the vial of poison out of my inside jacket pocket, twisted off the cap, raised one of the domes--it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this stuff--and poured the poison into the entrée. Once I knew I had enough, I set the dome down, slipped the vial back into my pocket and pretended to pick something up from the floor.

“Here it is.” I said, standing back up from floor and pressing my finger against my eye. “Damn things are always shooting out of my eye.” I turned back to the busboy. “Thank you for helping, though.”

“No problem, sir. It happens all the time.”

Three minutes of silence passed by when the elevator gave a violent shudder and the doors parted. The young busboy wished me a nice day and pushed the cart off the elevator. He waved at me as the elevator doors clapped to a close. I hit the button and headed back to my room. Any other circumstances would’ve permitted me to wish that young man the same nice day he had granted me, but there was one thing you always know in this business.

Never give praise to the suckers.

* * *

THE first thing I did when I got back to the room was use my cell phone to book a midnight flight back home. It was two hours till and I had plenty of time to goof around. I shrugged off my suit and jumped in the shower, suffice to the fact that I’d already taken one two hours ago. Strong jets of hot water pounded the pain from the backs of my shoulders and neck and slid down my spine; thick blankets of wispy white steam rose up from the tub and warmed my skin like the vapors of a roaring campfire.

When I got out, I wrapped a towel around my waist and was walking toward my luggage when my cell phone rang. This time, Justin Timberlake echoed through the room, talking about his sexy back. I sat on the edge of the bed, took it off the bedside table and answered it on the fourth ring.


“Is this, Mister Patrick.”

“Depends upon whose asking.” I sighed, thinking who the hell would be stupid enough to give my name over a cell phone.

“You know who this is.” The woman on the other line had a smooth Russian voice that was quick-to-the-point. “Don’t play dumb with me.”

Sighing, I said: “Hello ma’am. Or should I say, the future Misses Jason Hill.”

“Did everything go as planned?”

“Right down to the tee. Your husband was as gullible as you said he was.” I shook my head. “He got rude with me on the phone and I got rude with him right back. Even though you told me not to.”

“Ivan always was an asshole.”

“And a rude one at that.”

Silence went by before she said: “I hope my asking you to do this for free wasn’t an obtrusion.”

“No ma’am.” I said, staring out the window to admire the shimmering landscape that cities always have at night. “Not everybody gets paid for doing something. Just do me a favor, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Be there when I need you. We scratched your--.”

“And you want me to scratch your in return.”


“Consider it done.” She said, her voice now a mere whisper. “Anything you need in the future, just let me know.”


She cut me off again with: “No, thank you. With your help, Ivan’s entire two hundred and forty million dollar estate will revert over to me. There’s no need for you to thank me. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I said and killed the call.

I got up from the bed to go to my luggage when I heard the sound of hurried footsteps by the door. I sighed, clueless as to when the world was going to let me get dressed, and looked through the peephole. Head and eyes darting this way and that, the guy outside my door was taller than me but twenty pounds stronger, too. His blunt nose, thick lips, blue eyes and beige skin were the usual traits of a Russian bodyguard so this was definitely one of Ivan’s boys. Paying me a little visit for poisoning their boss.

I crept over to my luggage, pulled something from it and carried it back to the door with me. I reached over with my free hand, slid the chain free and leaned back behind the door. The door gave a whine as it open, slicing the carpet with a silver of warm golden light. A hand came through first, bulky and brown; the fingers clutched to the grip of a silenced Tec-9 pistol. After the hand had come through, the rest of him followed.

Was he really expecting me to open the door and let him shoot me?

Please. I know dogs who weren’t that stupid and they’re full bred.

Eyes pointed toward the bathroom, gun clenched tightly in his hand, the bodyguard approached the foot of the bed before I reacted. I crept up behind him on quiet, spider-quick legs, wrapped both ends of the wire around the palms of my hands, reached over the top of his head and wrapped the wire around his neck. I pulled as strong as I could, forcing the knuckles on both my hands to come together, pinching the man’s jugular vain, cutting off the air supply to his brain. I kicked his legs out from underneath him and eased him to the floor; he gurgled like a bucket under water and kicked for what seemed like three minutes before he gave up the fight he was never going to win in the first place. His fingers went limp, the gun clattered onto the floor and out of sight; the stench of expended bowels wafted through the room like fog after a bad rainstorm.

I released the wire from his neck, threw it on the bed and carried him into the bathroom. There, I put him inside the bath tub, filled it halfway to the top and shut the door behind me. Before leaving, I dropped the DO NOT DISTURB sign around the doorknob. I don’t know when they’ll find him, but I’ll be long gone and so will my assumed name.

I took the elevators back down to the lobby and trotted to the front desk. The pasty faced brunette was an enticing replacement to the pimple faced prick who checked me in yesterday. When she took my key, she bared the smile of an angel and passed me a slip of paper. Walking away, I opened the note and saw her name and cell number scrawled across the front of it. She winked at me and greased her top lip with her tongue.

Tucking the note into my front pocket, I returned the wink, pushed through the revolving doors and into the cold, dark city.

BIO: Brian J. Smith has been published in The Forbidden Zone Magazine and his story “A Day With Daddy” can be downloaded on I-Tunes. He lives in Chauncey, Ohio where he is at work on a horror novel.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Byline" by J.F. Juzwik

Ralph noticed the room was chilly, and sparsely furnished. He supposed that it was probably intentional on the part of the decorator since no one actually spent very much time in here while they were waiting. The waiting – now, that was the worst part. Listening to the ticking of the clock, wondering what it will feel like when the chemicals start coursing through your veins, wondering what it’s like when you cross over to the other side… In anticipation of the commencement of that final journey, Ralph leaned back against the splintered slats of the wooden chair that had been provided for him, gazed indifferently at the colorless walls, and his thoughts began to drift back to where it all began.

* * * *

Ralph Debumarsey picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and took a long, deep drag. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and blew the smoke out of his mouth in quick, short puffs. He could feel the sun’s warmth on his face as it shone brightly through the window directly in front of his desk. He had opened the curtains all the way, as he always did when he was writing his column. His column? There’s a laugh. No such thing as ‘his column’ here in Swaying Falls. The columns were written, the advertisements were strategically placed, and the local news was ready to roll. Anonymity seemed to be the catchword in this burg, Ralph thought, God forbid the folks knew the reporter’s name. Like his having a byline would violate national security… And, what was with calling this outpost of the damned ‘Swaying Falls’? First and foremost, no falls of any size or shape were visible for hundreds of miles. As far as the swaying crap was concerned, trying to figure that out made Ralph’s head hurt.

Feeling the sun on his face while he was typing helped him to fantasize that he was somewhere else, anywhere else, preparing the final draft of the hottest story his newspaper had ever run. Next to him was a FAX machine that he would use to send it on to his editor, who was waiting on his end, planning to run it down to the presses to make the midnight deadline. His story would headline the morning edition and the calls and telegrams would start pouring in as soon as the paper hit the streets. He would be congratulated for getting the scoop no one else could or had, and his colleagues would regard him with awe at the tremendous personal risks he had taken to get the story in the first place. Just another day in the life of a newsman, he would respond to them all, just another normal day, and he would smile that haunting smile of his, get into his Jag, and head out to his next assignment. Maybe a nuclear missile site in Beirut? Perhaps a revolutionary camp in Central America? Or what about right here in downtown Swaying Falls covering a bank robber who was wearing a bomb and holding a pregnant teller hostage in a second story suite of the Main Street Hotel? Yeah. Uh-huh. Right. Ralph began to laugh out loud, and then caught himself. Crazy people laugh to themselves out loud, he thought, and I’m not quite there yet; the day was still young though.

He looked at the paper in his typewriter, and wasn’t terribly surprised to see it was still blank. The ‘hot’ story he had to crank out in time to meet his editor’s (the owner of the town’s only general store, Chester Mankowsky) deadline (whenever Chester decided to close the store and go home for dinner) so as to appear in the first edition (the only edition, that became available whenever Chester finished running off a couple hundred copies on his two hundred year old printing press) was difficult to put into words. After all, it wasn’t every day that Spengler’s Feed Store began to carry a brand of feed previously available only in the state of New York. What a coup for Jeremy Spengler and frankly, for Swaying Falls. That will put us on the map, Ralph thought. Hopefully, anyway, since we aren’t on any maps at present. He had to laugh again at that. Well, at least he could still laugh. He figured if the day ever came when he couldn’t find any humor in how ridiculous this town and even himself were, he’d probably end up in the loony bin. Not that that would be such a drastic change…

Ralph decided to heat up another cup of instant on his hot plate. Mrs. Franovsky technically didn’t allow hot plates in her rooming house, but she had never said anything to Ralph about it. He was sure Mrs. Franovsky kinda had the hots for him. Kinda. Maybe? No. Not really. Truth was, Ralph kept peculiar hours mostly, and his esteemed landlady wasn’t too crazy about climbing all those stairs to reach Ralph’s loft to say much of anything to him. Loft? There was another laugh. Ralph’s digs were what had once been a large attic used for storage. The ceiling was level almost all the way around, but in one of the corners, there was a low spot where Ralph had to duck down to get to his small bookcase. He wasn’t sure why it had been built that way since the roof did slant in from the outside in that spot and made the house look lopsided, but, since beggars couldn’t be choosers, he simply adjusted. After all, it was a clean, quiet place to live and he was able to pretty much keep to himself. Not that Swaying Falls was exactly a real estate developer’s dream.

Most of the folks lived in small pre-fab homes scattered in and around town, or in the town’s one apartment complex. Right. Apartment complex? It was one building with eight units in it. While they were cozy, two-bedroom apartments, they were inhabited primarily by twenty-something’s in transition. Their transition being having graduated from high school and not really having any plans to attend community college or begin a career in the family business in town, whatever that may be. They wanted to get out from under mom and pop and have their own place so they could come and go at all hours. They would drive the two plus hours to the city to find work where they could make a decent salary, then come back to Swaying Falls and pay next to nothing in rent and living expenses. This was done, not for any noble reason like saving to buy a home and settle there and begin to give back to their community. Oh no. True, they did save what money they didn’t spend on liquor and partying, but that was so they could afford what they considered to be a real apartment in the city. Once they could afford to move, they did just that, at record-breaking speed frankly, and neither looked nor came back. This town was dying, Ralph knew that. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot anybody could do about it.

* * * *

He had had his chance a lifetime ago. He had been young, had saved his money and had left Swaying Falls for the big city life and his dream of a career as a newspaper reporter. He possessed good instincts and a flare for the dramatic. He knew he would have to start at the bottom and work his way up, but all he needed was the chance to prove himself to an editor and he would be on his way. When he first arrived, he had picked up a newspaper and checked out the classifieds for a room to rent. He was surprised to find how many there were; most of which were in the most expensive section of the city. Since he had his own car and didn’t have to be concerned with public transportation, he decided he would seek a place to stay in one of the gated communities that skirted the downtown area. Every room that he checked out though was inside the glitzy home of a widow or a divorcee, who was looking for just a little bit more than a paying border. Never really having pictured himself as a ‘boy-toy’, Ralph had felt extremely uncomfortable during each application process. Whether he was employed or had a steady paycheck always seemed irrelevant. He could feel their hungry eyes groping every inch of him as he tried to present himself as a decent, hardworking, moral human being. He envisioned being defiled by these Harpies in the dead of night and then locked in his room, never to be seen or heard from again. Or, at least annoyed when they tried to show him the film of their first, and only, failed screen test from 20 years ago while he was trying to do his laundry.

Ralph thought life had beaten these ladies up pretty badly. After meeting the seventh or eighth one (he’d lost count), their faces, with the drawn-on eyebrows, lopsided fake eyelashes, surgically-implanted cheekbones and chins, and lips that had received about four too many injections that week, became a blur. It was as if they were all the same woman who just beamed herself from kitchen to kitchen throughout the subdivision just waiting for him to arrive. After a couple of days of this, he just knew he couldn’t swallow any more vanilla-flavored coffee and scones, or look at any more polyester jumpsuits with open-toed spiked heels and toenails painted with blood-red polish and dotted with glitter. Maybe this was not the way to go, he decided; time to look for a ’Y’.

He found a clean, quiet room at the back of the second floor. It didn’t take him long to realize that while this was a starting point for him, he’d better make sure it stayed just that. This was not somewhere he needed to remain for long. The other residents were all ex-wannabe something or others, and Ralph believed they were destined to remain that way, but not him; he was different. He was going to set the print world on fire with his dynamic reporting style and controversial commentaries. All he needed was an ‘in’. He would take any position that was available in the newsroom – anything at all, even errand boy to the big shots. Wouldn’t take them long to see what he had to offer. Wouldn’t take long at all…

Eight months later, Ralph was still in his quiet room at the back of the second floor at the “Y”. He had become quite close, in fact, with some of the ex-wannabe something or others. Most of them weren’t all that bad, really. When Ralph’s savings dried up because he couldn’t seem to get on at any of the local papers, a couple of them hooked him up with a position at the burger joint on the corner. It only paid minimum wage, but it wasn’t like Ralph had to spend any of his meager paycheck on gas to get to work. A couple of minutes’ worth of walking and he was there. On his off days, he stayed in his room and slept mostly. What was the point of staying up, after all. No newspaper, periodical, magazine or flyer shop in the city would hire him. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t get a job as a reporter. He couldn’t even get a job mopping floors in any of the media buildings.

Ralph didn’t understand where he had gone wrong. He had personally walked into the office of every editor of every publication in the city. No one had tried to stop him as he made his way through the maze of secretaries and reporters, and as he got closer to the editors’ offices, the excitement in the air was palpable. He could hear the tick, tick, tick of the typewriters, phones constantly ringing on every desk, men and women literally running with articles in their hands trying to meet deadline. He could picture himself as one of them, a pencil behind one ear, a smoke behind the other, sipping on his twelfth cup of stale coffee, his editor putting everything on hold waiting for his brilliant headline copy… By the time he arrived at each editor’s door, his head was swimming. This was the life he was born to live – this was his destiny. Unfortunately, no one had let any of the editors in on that little tidbit of information.

Every ‘interview’ was a carbon copy of the previous one. Ralph would knock on the door and a voice would tell him to ‘come on in’. Friendly, but professionally detached. The voice of someone who controlled the dissemination of daily city-, state-, and world-wide occurrences. Ralph had never met or spoken with an editor, but he just knew they were the heart and soul of the newsroom. They decided who covered what and when, and how much of it actually hit the streets. So much responsibility – so much power. Ralph wasn’t sure if he should sit down or remain standing once he entered, but decided to take his cue from the man he came to see. Once he did enter however, it didn’t quite turn out the way he had anticipated.

In every newsroom, in every editor’s office, he encountered a basically well-groomed, but extremely psychotic individual, sitting behind a desk covered with several stacks of papers at least 15 inches high each. When Ralph would walk in, the man would glance up with a look of utter confusion on his face, and say ‘what’. Interestingly enough, it was not spoken as a question, but more on the order of a brutal declarative. Once Ralph regained his composure, his response was always the same. He would state, quietly and respectfully, that he was a fledgling reporter looking for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. He would begin to explain how that had been his dream since he was a youth, and, it was at that point, that Ralph would receive the universal sign of dismissal – the sweep of the raised hand in his direction – and the man behind the desk would retreat back into one of his stacks of papers. Ralph figured it was a bad time; too close to deadline perhaps, so he alternated days and times and kept trying, but to no avail. After months of what he perceived as beating his head against a wall, Ralph decided it was time to go home, and crawl inside the black hole that was Swaying Falls.

Maybe he could speak to Chester Mankowsky about taking him on as a reporter, and about possibly spicing up the town’s paper. While it would be difficult to come up with anything newsworthy there, it would be a beginning – a launching pad of sorts. Perhaps the timing just wasn’t right – planets not aligned right, or some such other thing, Ralph wasn’t certain. But, one thing he knew for sure. He had given it his best shot and since nothing was clicking for him, he’d just go back home and bide his time. He’d save his money, and head for the city lights again. Only this time, he’d probably skip the “Y”, with all its resident losers. There was no way he was going to be the backdoor boy-toy of some divorcee either. Maybe he’d just save up a bit more and he’d get his own apartment or maybe buy a condo. Give it a few months, maybe a year, Ralph thought, and I’ll get on with a paper. I’ll be a bit older, have more experience under my belt, yeah. I’ll just bide my time…

* * * *
Twenty years worth of biding his time later, there he sat. Shortly after Ralph’s homecoming, Chester did take him on, but was adamant about having him forego the byline thing. His was a newspaper of, by, and for the town, and it somehow just didn’t seem moral to try to take credit for sharing important information with one’s family and friends. Ralph knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Chester was completely crazy, but, since beggars can’t be choosers, he decided against an altercation. Nothing would be accomplished; he was certain of that, and no sense making an enemy out of his only employment opportunity in the tri-state area.

And so, he still sat, staring at a blank piece of paper in his typewriter, still trying to figure out how to spark up the feed story. Lord knows it was a hot topic thereabouts and once word got around that was the headline, the papers would be off Chester’s shelves like hotcakes. Ralph decided to wait until he had a second strong cup of coffee. Maybe that would get the juices flowing and he could dig up some shred of enthusiasm for this story. He seriously doubted that, but anything was worth a try. This article did have to be written, and it did have to be written today. Best to finish it and run it over to Chester’s. That way, he could stop thinking about it and head over to that new place that opened just outside of town.

He had heard it was a pretty decent place to eat; of course, anything was a step up from Molly’s Diner. Molly MacDill was a decent enough dame, and Ralph didn’t really have anything against her, but that diner of hers was something right out of a bad movie. Ralph ate there, like most of the townsfolk, but that was because it was the town’s only eatery. Ralph however, preferred to get most of his meals from Molly’s on a to-go basis. The place was usually packed with the I-can’t-wait-to-leave-this-dump twenty-somethings chattering on and on about their hopes and dreams and plans – yes, plans. They actually had plans, and Ralph hated them. He hated each and every one of them with their plans to leave Swaying Falls, get high-paying jobs in the city, buy townhouses and condos, live the good life, live a real life…

Ralph finished his second cup of instant, lit another smoke, sat down at the typewriter and began. No sense in agonizing over it anymore, he thought, just write it. Nobody’s going to read it anyway since Jeremy Spengler already bragged to everyone within earshot of his store’s doorway about carrying the big city brand of feed. He pulled the paper out of the typewriter, folded it and shoved it in his pants pocket and headed over to Chester’s. Drop the article off and head on out to have dinner, he thought, shaking his head in disgust; this was going to be yet another magical night.

Ralph took Main Street going north toward Tippettville. He kept checking both sides of the road looking for the new joint. He couldn’t recall the name, but since it would be the only other place to eat in that part of the county, he was sure he’d recognize it. Tippettville was the closest town to Swaying Falls, but all they had was a soda fountain in their drug store. You could get a burger and some chips and maybe a root beer float, but chances were slim to none of getting a complete meal. Lights appeared in the distance on his left as he crossed the bridge over Wildon’s Creek and as he got closer, Ralph could see the place. The sign was on the roof of the building and flashed the name in alternating red, green, and yellow lights, some of which had already burned out. My, my, my, he started to laugh, another high class joint to be sure. The name, when all the lights came on together, appeared to be Soldano’s. Ralph wasn’t sure what the significance of having the different colored lights was, but there were a lot of cars in the lot, and as far as he was concerned, that was recommendation enough.

The place was pleasant enough, and Ralph recognized several couples from Swaying Falls. He figured the others had to be from Tippettville, since no one in their right mind would drive 50 plus miles from surrounding towns or from the city to come and eat here in Nowheresville, USA. It was classier than Molly’s though; they had a hostess here who seated you. Ralph hadn’t been in a restaurant that had a hostess in years. Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be all bad after all. He was shown to his table, which was in the back of the dining room and next to a table at which a young man sat, alone. Ralph noticed the young man was looking around and jotting things down in a notebook, sipping his iced tea, taking a bite of his meatloaf, a quick drag off his cig, and then jotting again. Ralph had never seen him before and wondered what he was up to.

“Excuse me”, Ralph tapped the young man on the shoulder. “Could I ask you something?”

The young man replied, “Sure, something you need?”

“Oh, no”, Ralph continued, “I was just wondering. I don’t mean to be nosey, but I noticed you looking around and writing things down and I was just wondering if you were one of those, like, food critics or health department people, or something like that?”

The young man smiled broadly.

“Oh, I wish I were something that important. No, actually, I’m a reporter.”

Oh great, Ralph thought, a freakin’ twelve year old Clark Kent.

“A reporter? For what publication?”

The young man looked down and shook his head.

“Well, none to speak of at the moment. You see, I have always wanted to be a reporter for a newspaper or a magazine, and I haven’t had much luck getting on with the city papers, so I thought maybe if I tried some small town papers, they might give me a chance to prove myself. I don’t know what kind of stuff goes on in this area, so I thought I’d start with the restaurants and write up a sample column rating them. The problem is, this is the only restaurant around for quite a ways, except for the small diner over in Swaying Falls. Are you familiar with Swaying Falls?”

Ralph felt stomach acid creeping up into his throat. Boy, am I ever familiar with Swaying Falls.

“Yes”, Ralph said quietly, “I live there, and you’re never going to believe this, but I’m the reporter for the local paper there.”

Ralph could see the change come over the young man’s face. He was impressed alright – sitting up straighter and eager to hear more. Oh so eager.

“Wow, a reporter? A real reporter? This is fantastic. Oh, what am I thinking? My name’s Basil. Basil Hamner.”

He extended his hand and Ralph did the same.

“Ralph Debumarsey here. I report all the news in Swaying Falls. I’ve got kind of an exclusive territory there. You should come by sometime and I’ll show you an issue. Right now, it’s just local stuff, but I’ve got plans to go county-wide and then cover state events. I’ve just got some details to work out.”

Ralph hoped Basil wouldn’t ask too many questions about his plans to go ‘global’ with the Swaying Falls newsletter.

“Wow”, Basil had turned his chair to face Ralph’s table. “I would love to come by sometime. I know it’s in the early stages, but I’d still like to see your operation, your office, you know. Do you think it would be possible for me to accompany you on your rounds some time or when you go out on a call? I wouldn’t get in the way, I promise. It’s just that I’ve never met a real reporter before and I know I could learn so much from you if you wouldn’t mind me tagging along. Not all the time, mind you, I wouldn’t want to bother you, but just sometime? Do you think that would be at all possible, sir?”

‘Sir’. This young man called him ‘sir’. No one had called Ralph ‘sir’ in…, well, no one had ever called Ralph ‘sir’. It felt really good in an odd sort of way. He wondered what the young man would call him if he accompanied Ralph on his ‘rounds’ to the grocer to pick up that week’s specials, to the motel to pick up that week’s continental breakfast menu, to the elementary school to pick up that week’s dessert offerings… Not only that, Ralph couldn’t wait to have Basil tag along with him to his ‘office’ while he wrote his columns. He wondered if the young man would knock himself out on the lower ceiling while climbing over Ralph’s bed so he could sit next to him at his desk. My God, Ralph thought, what the hell am I going to do now?

“Gee, Basil, why don’t you let me have your number and I’ll give you a call and we’ll set something up, okay? Right now, uh, temporarily, I’m working out of a small boarding house attic. That’s a laugh, huh? Anyway, it’s cozy and gives me a place to hang my hat and write undisturbed. When I get a hot lead, I’ll call you and we can meet. It wouldn’t take you long to catch up with me. So, if you’re able to pick up and go on a second’s notice, because that’s how the newspaper game operates, we’ll play it by ear. What do you say?”

Ralph hoped this pain-in-the-ass-eager-beaver would accept him at his word.

“That would be fantastic”, Basil was beside himself with excitement.

He wrote his mobile number on a napkin and handed it to Ralph. Basil dropped some bills on the table and put on his jacket.

“I’ve got to get going, got some calls to make, but you call me any time, day or night, and I’ll be there in a flash. Thanks so much, Ralph. Uh, is it okay if I call you Ralph?”

‘There in a flash’, Ralph thought. Kid must be pissing himself with excitement by now.

“Absolutely”, Ralph said, “wouldn’t have it any other way. You take care, and I’ll be in touch. ‘kay?”

Ralph would swear the kid was glowing as he exited the restaurant – yeah, glowing. Ah, the fervor of the young. He remembered the passion of his youth - one with which he used to view life in general, but now? Well, maybe I can find something to interest this kid, he smiled to himself, something a little more exciting than Spengler’s New York City feed. But where?

Ralph finished his meal, which wasn’t half bad actually, took part of the tip the junior copy boy had left and added it to his own, and left a fiver on top of his bill and made his way outside. He decided this was going to be an all-nighter, trying to figure out some way to keep this Basil character believing he was a real newspaper reporter, and not what he really was: a broken down, old, never-used-to-be, nobody. But, first things first. Ralph realized he had to seriously pee, and no way was he going back inside just to use their bathroom. People knew when you did that, just went in places to use the toilet, and they’d talk about it after you left. He decided to head around to the back of the building and just relieve himself in nature’s own backyard. No one would see him back there, so what harm could it do?

The man came out of nowhere, stumbling, and mumbling something about God and white sand beaches. Ralph was just finishing zipping up his pants when the man shoved him up against the wall. The man smelled like he vacationed in the sewer, and Ralph was terrified he’d faint, and then the man would touch him or worse while he was out. That picture was too much for Ralph to accept without a fight, and he pulled himself up firmly on his feet, grabbed this creature that crawled out of the swamp, and pushed him away with all the strength he could dredge up. A terrible cracking noise filled the air and seemed to echo throughout the valley. Ralph looked down and braced himself, expecting to have to dodge a fist, but the man didn’t move. A pool of blood was beginning to form around his head and shoulders. Even in the dim light, Ralph could see the man’s partially open eyes were fixed in a vacant stare.

“Oh my God”, Ralph gasped, “hey? Are you okay? You pushed me and I couldn’t let you get away with… I thought you were going to… Hey! Answer me!”

Ralph began to nudge the man with his foot, but still the man remained still. Damn, Ralph shuddered, I’ve killed him. He saw part of the large rock the man’s head had hit when he fell and noticed the pool of blood was getting bigger. I’d better not get any of this on me, he thought, I’ve got to get out of here, got to think. Ralph looked around and not seeing anyone, went back, sat in his car and lit a butt from his ashtray. Got to call the Sheriff and just explain, Ralph was telling himself, I mean, it was just an accident. The guy’s probably a nobody, clothes all messed up, hasn’t had a bath in God-knows-when, hanging out by the dumpster in back of a restaurant… Wait a minute! Wait just a freakin’ minute! Why should I set myself up for a lot of grief here, he thought, going to the Sheriff’s office, telling the same story a hundred times, and what am I going to get for all this? Absolutely nothing but a headache and a sleepless night, and tomorrow morning, nobody’s going to remember any of this. But, now, if I went inside the restaurant and hollered for somebody to call the Sheriff because I had just witnessed a, shall we say, murder out back, but can’t identify the killer, well, things might turn out a bit different then. Sure, I’d have to still go to the Sheriff’s office and tell the same story a hundred times, but tomorrow morning, everybody would know about it because I’d go home and write about it for the paper. Oh, yeah, Chester, then you’d sell your weight in papers with that story on the front page, and I would have to put my name on that one so everyone would know it happened to me.

Making sure no one was around, Ralph went back to where the man lay, still bleeding. He looked down and spoke quietly.

“Look, you shouldn’t have come at me like that, but what’s done is done. I can’t afford to screw up what little of a life I have over a stupid accident. Besides, we’ll find out your name and you’ll become kind of immortal when I identify you in my column. Can you even hear me, or are you all the way dead?”

Ralph continued to look down at the man for a moment longer, and tried to figure out how he was going to handle this. He grabbed his own shirt and pulled so as to tear one of his sleeves. This happened, he would say, when he struggled with the assailant. He smudged his face with some dirt, messed up his hair and tore one of his jacket pockets. Yes, indeedy, this will work, he thought, this will work just fine. He started to yell and stomp and pound on the wall at the back of the building, then ran around the corner and in the main entrance, breathing heavily, and flung himself on the candy counter at the front. Everyone in the place was looking at him now. Here we go. Lights, camera…

This was the way it should have been all along, everyone crowding around him, patting him on the back, asking him if he was alright, trying to counsel him after his traumatic ordeal. Ralph was in his element now. He had taken the hands of the cashier in his and, holding back a tear, asked her to call the Sheriff because there was an unfortunate soul out back who had been murdered, yes, he did say murdered, right in front of his very own eyes. She had gone all pale and looked about to keel over, but had managed to hold herself together long enough to pick up the phone and call the Tippettville Sheriff’s Office.

Ralph had never met anyone from Tippettville, with the exception of his newly acquired admirer, Basil, and this lawman of theirs was a real piece of work. He arrived around ten or fifteen minutes after the cashier had called him, and Ralph had been directed to a chair and was sipping a warm glass of some kind of bitter purple wine the manager had given him. As soon as he entered, everyone pointed to Ralph, their hands trembling, all remembering the life and death struggle the two men had just engaged in; the one sipping wine inside who had obviously triumphed over the attacker and the other one lying behind the building who obviously had not.

“I’m Sheriff Dan Posner, from over Tippettville. Someone called in something about an assault?”

He looked over at Ralph, who was holding up his hand.

“Sir, I asked them to call you since we’re closer to your town. There’s a man out in back of this building, dead, I believe, who was murdered by this man I fought with, but he pushed me down and then ran away.”

Ralph believed that was a good start; not too hysterically told, fairly sequential, and vague enough not to trip him up later. The Sheriff motioned for him to remain seated and went out back to investigate. He returned and used his cell phone to call for the town doctor and the funeral home’s hearse to come and pick up the body. He walked over to Ralph, who finished the glass of odd-tasting wine with a shudder.

“Listen, fella, I know you’ve been through a lot this evening, but I’m going to need you to accompany me to the office and give me a statement. Maybe you remember more than you think you do, and maybe you could give us a description of the guy who did that out there. Then again, maybe not, but sometimes there are small details that people think don’t mean anything and they can end up being very helpful. Do you need to see a doctor first? Are you able to drive over, or would you like to leave your car here for the time being and ride over with me?”

Ralph knew he had died and gone to heaven. It’s about time I was treated like I was somebody, he thought, it’s about freakin’ time.

“No, sir”, he tried very hard not to laugh, “I’m able to drive and I don’t believe I’ve been injured. Not like that poor man outside. I don’t know what provoked that confrontation out there, but it’s all just so tragic. Certainly, I’ll follow you over and provide whatever assistance I can.”

Ralph took great pleasure in all the pats on the back he received on the way out, and especially enjoyed the winks he received from a couple of the women. He couldn’t wait to get all this over with and get back to his room so he could write it all up and get the article, his article, over to Chester, so a special edition of the paper could be run. This time, it would be a special edition because it wouldn’t have an anonymously written copy. This time, Ralph’s name would be all over it.

When he arrived home, he immediately got the hot plate going since this was most definitely an occasion for a hot cup of instant. His time in the Sheriff’s office, providing his statement, had been brief, which surprised him. Ralph had thought he would be given the third degree, as it were, but to his delight, the officer didn’t ask him too many questions. It was more a matter of ‘do you take cream and sugar in your coffee, here’s a legal pad and a pen, just write down what happened and sign and date it, and you’re free to go’.

Ralph was stunned. True, he hadn’t murdered anybody; well, killed maybe, but not on purpose, but still, somebody ended up dead. He wondered why that didn’t seem to be too big of a deal. Possibly, the man was homeless and didn’t have any family or friends as Ralph had originally thought, but one would think that wouldn’t matter to law enforcement. After all, a killed person was still a killed person, regardless of their station in life, right? Evidently not here in Tippettville. Odd behavior on the part of a policeman to be sure, but certainly beneficial to Ralph. He had been able to get out of there lickety-split, and would have plenty of time to write his column and get it to Chester so he could get the edition printed by breakfast-time. Residents of Swaying Falls began their meandering right after they had their morning coffee and oat flakes and Chester’s was where the congregating commenced. Everyone would see the paper and Ralph’s column and then they would know – then they would all know.

Ralph wondered if he should call the kid and let him in the big scoop. Yes, but after the paper hit the street, definitely after. He’d tell Basil he’d been traumatized and needed to rest, but of course, the second he’d arrived home, he knew he had to get the column in the hopper. That’s what a reporter does, he’d say, get it down regardless of what you’ve been through. That would impress the hell out of the little boot-licker, but it would also keep him out of Ralph’s hair.

Ralph plumped the pillows on his daybed, put his hands behind his head, laid down and took a deep breath. He closed the curtains by his desk, but the sun was still shining brightly through, although he didn’t care. He was exhausted and it felt great. Sitting at his typewriter to write this column – his column – had been the easiest thing he had ever done. The words flowed smoothly and when it was completed, he didn’t even bother to go over it to make any edits. He could feel the power of it as he held it in his hands. This was what he had been waiting for these past twenty some odd years; this was the beginning, and there was no way Ralph was going to let this slip away from him. No freakin’ way.

* * * *

Swaying Falls is alive and prospering now solely because of me, Ralph laughed out loud, and didn’t care who heard him this time. Coming home to his new digs at the downtown hotel was just another reminder of all he had done for the sorry-ass residents of this fly-speck on the way to oblivion. Those in transition weren’t transitioning anymore. They were putting down roots, and expanding the family businesses. Funny how murder draws them all in, he thought; one would think murder in, and around, a town would drive folks away. Well, ‘one’ would be oh so wrong.

It occurred to Ralph that, after the third or fourth one, this whole process was getting easier and less stressful. The latest was what, number six? Let’s see, he thought, first there was the disgusting creep behind Soldano’s, which technically was an accident. If only he could have known the phenomenal effect his passing had on Ralph’s career. As it turned out, the weirdo had been homeless, and no friends or relatives could be located. Those who had been in the restaurant the night it happened had all contributed so he could have a decent burial with a headstone. Ralph, naturally, had been the most generous donor.

Then, there was the old broad in the support shoes, toting the canvas grocery bag, who needed help climbing the stairs in the rundown tenement in which she lived. Ralph had helped her climb the stairs alright; almost made it to the top too, before she tripped over that heavy canvas bag she’d been dragging. Too bad, and messy too. Nasty way to die.

The jogger in the park had been next. He had been hydrating himself from a full flask he carried. Ralph had guessed Crown Royal when it had fallen and spilled on the grass. The approach had gone smoothly with Ralph joining him for a friendly late afternoon jog on the deserted trail. They had shook hands, laughed a bit and the man had even offered Ralph a sip right before he stepped into a hole and fell and hit his head on that water fountain – hard. You could never be too careful; holes in the ground sometimes just appeared out of nowhere.

The hooker and her john turned out to be Ralph’s daily double. They had been getting to know each other behind the sales office of the used car lot on the edge of town. Ralph knew that spot was utilized at that time of night for happy hour, and took a chance. He parked his car at the business next door and crept around and sure enough, there they were, getting ‘happy’. Their focus was not exactly on the world around them, and it had been no problem for Ralph to come up behind the girl and hit her over the head with the pipe he had found leaning up against one of the sheds. When she fell, the man just stood there and looked at Ralph; didn’t make a move or say a thing. Crazy how some people react in a crisis, Ralph thought. When Ralph swung the pipe at his head, and connected, the man didn’t make a sound then either. He just fell over, quietly. Easy peasy; two for one.

Yes, tonight, number six it was - the dried up old man on his way to the drug store to pick up his asthma inhaler. Old people shouldn’t be out alone at this hour, Ralph thought. Why, something bad could happen to them, couldn’t it? Well, something bad did happen to this one – that’s for sure. Beaten to death with his own cane right there on the sidewalk ten feet from his front door. Darn shame. What’s this world coming to…

What the hell, who’s counting anyway. He already had his book deal signed, sealed and delivered, and he was confirmed on three cable crime documentaries. He was thinking this might be a good time to start scaling back, what with that bottom feeder dogging him all the time. Good ole boy, Sheriff Dan, had mentioned it in passing that he found it suspect that Ralph was always the first on the scene of all those deaths he was reporting on. Ralph had responded, also in passing, that it all came down to a reporter’s instinct, but the flatfoot had appeared less than convinced. Measures would definitely need to be taken.

It had been kind of a kick in the beginning, making those calls to the station, alternating between claiming to be a witness and claiming to be the killer, and leaving tantalizing clues at all the scenes that, of course, led absolutely nowhere. Ralph wouldn’t see Danny Boy for a couple of days, and then, out of the blue, there he’d be: On the street in front of the hotel, a couple of tables over while Ralph was having lunch at Molly’s, sitting in his car staring at Ralph coming out of the grocery… This rummy had hit on Ralph’s last nerve two bodies ago. Time’s come to leave his life as a reporter behind, Ralph thought, and cross over and assume his role of international correspondent. Interviews, film cameos, and possibly a movie of the week; shouldn’t keep them waiting. Ralph knew it just didn’t get any better than this.

The kid was coming along nicely too, following him around like a lapdog hoping to be thrown a scrap. Contacting Basil following each murder and allowing him to type the articles while Ralph dictated had been a brilliant move. It allowed the little suck-up to feel involved without having any real input or being able to steal any of Ralph’s thunder.

* * * *
The arrest, indictment and trial did all occur with unanticipated precision. He had been charged with six counts of first degree murder. That the death of the perv behind Soldano’s had been added as Murder One truly surprised Ralph. That one, at most, should have been ruled as accidental. At arraignment, he had entered a plea of not guilty, as expected, having been advised by the best the Public Defender’s pool had to offer.

Interestingly enough, bond had been requested and granted; not the norm for a capital case. Of course, this was Tippettville – not the norm by any means. The case was being prosecuted there since the deaths all occurred in, or near, their jurisdiction. The jury, however, was hand-picked from Ralph’s main stomping ground of Swaying Falls, and quite the vindictive bunch they turned out to be. As he watched and listened to them during the selection process, the air was thick with bias, but the judge was deaf, blind, and most assuredly, dumb as hell. There were no jury instructions about not discussing the case until deliberation, and the street corners and shop doorways were constantly abuzz with detailed descriptions of evidence presented and testimony obtained.

From the perspective of these two towns, this was the trial of the century. From Ralph’s point of view, this was the century’s biggest practical joke. Seeing as how a man’s life was hanging in the balance so to speak, that did seem to detract somewhat from the humor of it all though.

The exhibits and photographs filled the pint-size courtroom vestibule, while most of the spectators stood along the walls and crouched in the aisles between the rows of benches. People brought boxed lunches and coolers filled with soda pop and ice cream bars. Ralph wondered if they were permitted to witness the execution whether they’d bring hot dogs and their toddlers’ bouncy seats along.

The testimony now, that was brutal. People he’d known all his life as quiet, unassuming small-town mopes, suddenly became hateful, accusatory vipers. Ralph had to admit though, it did surprise him that they obviously took great relish in the fact that their words could send a fellow human being to his death. Talk about not being able to judge books by their covers…

When the verdict was read, everyone in the courtroom cheered, including the judge and all the members of the jury. While Ralph deemed this totally inappropriate, he did find it humorous, in a grotesque sort of way. It was, of course, guilty on all counts, and the sentence was indeed pronounced to be death. No real shock there either, he thought, bloodthirsty bastards, all.

* * * *
So, here we are in the now, he thought, in this limbo, this portal between life and the everlasting. The sedative’s already been administered and soon, his eyes would close for the last time, but no sweet dreams would invade his slumber this night. He remembered the struggle and all the heartache, all to win what prize? A deadly cocktail administered in the State’s death chamber? Did this end justify those means?

Oh, hell, yeah, Ralph thought, hell freakin’ yeah. He did briefly feel a weak tug at his heart for young Basil whose life would be coming to a supposedly painless conclusion soon, but hey: It wasn’t as if he didn’t really know how the game was played. Come on, everybody did. Didn’t they?

It had been laughably easy to set the chump up to take the fall, considering his irritating way of fawning over his self-appointed mentor. The fool had developed tunnel vision from the second Ralph had taken him under his wing. Leaving his butts everywhere, ripe for the taking, only to be strategically placed at the crime scenes… What’s the matter, newsboy, never heard of a new thing called DNA? You pick up a bag and a flask to move them so you can sit on the only chair made available to you, and they show up later on or near a murder victim… Oops, kid, you got to keep up with the times – they do fingerprints these days. Ralph had never visited his protégé on Death Row, and his presence had never been requested. Odd how the boy seemed to passively resign himself to his fate. He had wanted to learn from the best, and he had to know that he did learn from the best. And, at approximately seven minutes after midnight, the kid was about to learn the most important lesson of all.

When all was said and done, it was all about getting the byline; yes, the byline. That was all that really mattered.

* * * *

BIO: J. F. has had a crime fiction ebook published by DiskUsPublishing and a horror short story included in the collection Deathgrip: The Legacy. She is currently working on her second crime fiction novel and several flash fiction pieces.