KING EDWARD - GERARD BRENNAN
Where did I leave that cigar?
The thought has no place in this situation. Vinto Feehan is pushing the stubby snout of his .38 revolver into my forehead. Twisting his wrist to grind it into the thin layer of flesh. It hurts just a little more than the wine-before-beer hangover, kicking the shit out of the inside of my skull. My stomach is scraped out from puking, brought on by binge-drinking and stress. I’d been expecting Vinto, you see. That’s why I’d sparked up the cigar in the first place.
I’d been given the King Edward at Vinto’s wedding. All the men got one after the silver-service meal. I’d quit smoking ten years ago, so I’d pocketed the thing. The idea was to pass it on to somebody who’d appreciate it. I was lying to myself. Pretending I’d no intention of smoking it. More than once, I’d sat behind my desk, a large whiskey in one hand and the cigar in the other. And last night I finally stripped it of its clear plastic. Lung cancer becomes less of a worry when you know death at the hands of your best friend is on its way.
The outermost leaves left a sweet taste on my lips. The tobacco was mild. Mild enough for this reformed smoker to draw a couple of puffs into my lungs without choking. Blue smoke filled my little office.
Halfway through, I stubbed it, intending to draw out the luxurious experience as far as possible. Then I swilled down another huge glass of Chilean plonk and fell asleep in my chair.
Until Vinto woke me.
I strain my eyes, look sideways at my desktop. There’s ash on a saucer, but no sign of the unsmoked half of my King Edward.
“Did you see my cigar, Vinto?”
“What?” Vinto shakes his head. “I’ve got a gun to your empty fucking head, Marty. You’re worried about your cigar?”
“I’d like to finish it.”
“You don’t get no last requests, Marty.”
Vinto thumbs back the hammer. I squirm.
“Come on, man,” I say. “For old time’s sake?”
“Old times sake?”
Lights flash. Ungodly pain explodes above my ear. I tumble out of my chair and crack the other side of my head on the desk. The hangover is upstaged. I’d been pistol-whipped. First time. It’s as painful as it looks.
“Vinto, you fucker! What the hell?”
“Old time’s sake, Marty? Is that what you said to Veronica?”
Vinto slavers like a fighting dog. His blood’s up, but at least he’s talking. If I can keep him speaking, arguing even, it might buy me enough time to think of a way out of this.
“She came on to me,” I say. “And you’d hired me to see if she was cheating. I figured I was gathering proof.”
Air blasts from my lungs. Vinto kicks my ribs again and again. Bastard cracks a couple of them. I’m actually crying now.
“Gathering proof?” Another kick. “You fuck.” Another kick. “Bastard fuck.” One more for good luck.
I wheeze and whimper, but at least I’m not dead. There’s a taste like copper in the back of my throat. I fight against the urge to puke.
“Stand up, Marty.”
I roll onto my stomach and draw my knees up. Stabbing pain flares in my chest. I hitch a couple of breaths before I attempt to kneel up. Vinto kicks my ass. A kick George Best would have been proud of. Somehow, I keep my balance. If I live, I’ll have to pick my boxers out of my hole later on. I slowly get to my feet, using my desk for support. Panic saps me of my strength. I can’t catch a proper breath. I turn to face him.
“Come on, Vinto,” I whisper the words, but Vinto hears me loud and clear. “We’re friends, man.”
He cocks his head. His gun hand hangs by his side, the piece pointed to the floor. “If this is how you treat your friends, I’m glad we’re not enemies.”
“What if I apologise?”
He snorts. “Shove your apology up your hole.”
“I think you’ve kicked it shut.”
He looks pleased with himself. “You brought this on yourself, Marty.”
“A kicking, maybe. But a bullet in the head? Come on, man. You’re overreacting a bit.”
“I beg to differ.”
He raises the gun again. I stare into the barrel. My palms are slick with sweat and I can feel my balls shrinking. A dull throb swells in my skull. The old fight-or-flight juice shoots through my system. My legs begin to shake.
“Was she worth it?” he asks.
“Almost,” I say. “I couldn’t talk her into doing it doggy style. She wanted to be in control, you know? Straddled me like a rodeo bull. A pretty decent fuck, but not really Penthouse material.”
His face creases in what must be a head-melting cocktail of emotions. Anger, jealousy, humiliation, arousal. Is arousal an emotion? Jesus, facing death puts some fucked-up thoughts in your head.
Vinto’s hand shakes. Serious DT jazz hands. If he shoots now, there’s a chance he’ll miss. This could be my only chance. But the thought of it stalls me. My head is killing me, I can barely breathe and the hangover is niggling at me again. I’ve never been less up for a scrap.
Then Vinto closes in on me. He’s right in my face, screaming and spitting. I’ve no idea what he’s saying. He probably doesn’t know either. But the message comes through. I’m a complete shit.
He’s right. I shouldn’t have banged Veronica. It was bad form. I should take my medicine.
But I don’t.
I smash my forehead into his face. His nose snaps and sprays us both with blood. He stumbles backwards. I kick his balls. Vinto drops to the deck. I stamp on the hand curled loosely around the gun. Vinto screams as bone crumbles under my shoe. He rolls away from me. I scoop up his abandoned gun and he cradles his ruined hand.
I feel bad, but I imagine a bullet in the face feels worse.
As Vinto sits with his back to the wall, whimpering, I go to my desk and toss letters, envelopes and bills off the tabletop. Then I find it. The last of the King Edward. I keep one eye on Vinto as I spark it up. Now that I’m sober, it doesn’t taste as sweet or mellow as I remember. But it’s better than a poke in the eye.
A few more puffs and I’ve stalled long enough. I approach Vinto, cigar in my left hand, shooter in my right. I’m still deciding how I should play it. I hunker down, just out of arm’s reach, and look him in his eyes. They’re floating. Tears of misery and pain. A good measure of it down to me. Poor bastard. I can kind of understand where he’s coming from.
But he came here to shoot me.
I raise the gun.
“I should blow your face to bits, Vinto.”
He shrugs. “You’re a dirty fighter, man.”
“No such thing outside the ring. You know that.”
“So shoot me.”
And I try to. I squeeze the trigger, slowly, breathing evenly. Then I catch the hammer with my thumb and ease it back home. I’m no killer.
“Let’s call a truce, Vinto.”
Surprise stretches his face. “Think you can trust me?”
“No, but I can hammer out something with my lawyer. Sort of a, ‘In case of death, scoop Vinto Feehan,’ type of thing.”
“Is that a real thing?”
I chuckle. “Who knows?” I pause for a second to collect my thoughts. “But this has gone too far. It ends now.”
Vinto nods. “I’d offer to shake hands,” he raises his mashed right hand, “but you fucked this one up.”
“Hey, man. You went to town on my ribs. I’ve five weeks of pain every time I breathe ahead of me.”
“Give me a puff of that cigar,” Vinto says. “It’ll be symbolic. Like sharing the peace pipe.”
Moving slowly for the sake of my ribs, I go to him and crouch down again. He raises his eyebrows and I put the cigar in his mouth. It’s a touching scene. Right out of a Hollywood tough guy flick. Gripping the King Edward in his teeth, he draws deep. The smoke spills languorously from the side of his mouth and he takes another pull. I wink at him.
“I might have saved your soul, Vinto.”
“How do you figure, Marty?”
“I stopped you becoming a killer.”
“No, you stopped me from killing you.”
“What do you mean?”
He squints at me through a cloud of smoke, grinning. “Ding, dong, the bitch is dead.”
“Which bitch?” I say it without humour.
“The bitch you fucked. Veronica ate a bullet before I came for you.”
I ought to say something. Do something. Anything. I can’t. I’m stuck on pause.
Vinto sneers. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” Then taunting; “Does our truce still stand?”
I blink at him, still trying to comprehend. This shit is huge. I’m sharing a King Edward with a killer.
Then it all kicks off. Vinto spits the cigar at me. It bounces off my cheek. I jerk backwards as sparks burst outwards. Am I burnt? I raise my hand to my cheek. I should have raised the gun. Vinto has a knife. An old school Italian stiletto. Where the fuck did that come from? It whickers through the air. I take it in the face and warm blood flows. He’d gone for my eyes and missed by an inch. Caught my cheekbone.
I scrabble backwards, aim and shoot. I catch him a good one in the right shoulder. But he takes it like a champ. Rolls with it. He lunges from sitting. Tries to spear me with the blade. I’ve no choice. Planting my ass on the floor, I empty the pistol in his face. It’s a closed casket for Vinto.
Blood, brains, cordite, panic, adrenaline. The walls are closing in on me. Through it all, I’m still feeling hungover. I struggle to my feet. Vinto lies faceless. The King Edward burns beside him. I give it some thought then crush it under my shoe. I’m going to quit smoking. Again.
BIO: Gerard Brennan, 29, lives in Northern Ireland, with his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Mya and Jack. He’s working on his third novel while his second languishes in many slushpiles. His first has been put down, sadly. He is also redrafting a screenplay, titled The Point (thanks to NI Screen), finishing off a collection of poetry for children, illustrated by Rachel Law, and plans to tackle another draft of the play co-wrote with his father, Joe Brennan, titled The Sweety Bottle. And he runs a blog dedicated to crime fiction in Northern Ireland, http://www.crimesceneni.blogspot.com/. So pass the coffee.