A TWIST OF NOIR - ERIC BEETNER
Keith and Jake were two of the sorriest excuses for criminals you ever saw. Individually they couldn’t find their own asses with a flashlight and a map but together there was something about the yin and yang of the two opposites that held them together and made them a team.
Jake was book smart. Street smart...eh, not so much. Keith had been looking out for him in that regard for years. At least Jake finally shaved off that pretentious beard. Looked like a squirrel curled up on his chin and died. Looked like a fucking college professor, and who the hell wants that?
Keith was no kind of smart at all. He was pure rage. He liked violence, plain and simple. Liked doing it, liked seeing it, like reading about it and seeing movies about it. Had an extensive collection of Japanese snuff porn that he liked to show at parties. There was just no other career choice for a thick ball of who-gives-a-fuck like him.
Right then they were seated on the fake leather couch of our boss, Paul, he of the (probably fake) British accent and my-shit-don’t-stink attitude. Well, he was the man in charge so even if he did stink, Keith and Jake weren’t allowed to smell it.
“So you blokes know what a world of shite you’ve gotten me into, right?” He dropped the British-isms liberally in case you forgot his pedigree even when listening to that ridiculous accent.
“I guess so,” said Keith. He guessed so. Two days earlier, when he was soaked in blood and yelling with animal release, he didn’t guess so. Jake, then as today, was silent.
I chose not to say anything, either. I wasn’t there on the day of the incident but I hadn’t had much to say in three years since the accident. The handsome one, that’s what they call me. It’s a joke and I’m the ass end of it. My face so badly scarred by fire, my voice box ruined. I’d rather go mute than use one of those things that looks like a dildo and makes you sound like a robot.
I sat in my usual spot, behind Paul, a little to the left, observing.
What happened was this: Paul sent Keith and Jake out on a pickup. Get some money that was owed him by two low-level greasers from another outfit and bring it back. Simple as the first grade.
So the two stooges go to see Chad and Callaway, two only slightly smarter goons. They owed money. What else was new? The sun came up today, too. When stuff is that regular and predictable, it just isn’t news worth reporting. Callaway had a mouth and Chad had a way of making even the most basic hello sound like “Fuck your Mother.” It was a bad mix.
So, long story short, the boys don’t have the cash, Keith puts the squeeze on (Jake stays quiet, could be thinking about great philosophers or could be thinking about the razor in his pocket). Callaway says something less than nice, Chad ups the ante and...drum roll please...Keith goes ape shit.
Now explain this to me, this sick bastard carries a gun everywhere -- the diner, the toilet, a visit to Grandma’s house -- but he never uses it. He likes knives, he likes chains, he likes brass knuckles. Oh, boy, does he like brass knuckles.
Ten minutes later, Callaway’s face looks like last night’s lasagna, Jake’s razor has blood on it and he didn’t make a sound and Keith is drenched in gore and howling like he’s screaming for an encore at a Metallica show. Speculation is that he puts a little too much crystal courage up his nose but all I’ve ever seen him do is mainline coffee. It’s enough.
So there Paul sits looking down his nose at them. If only they had half the class and restraint he did. I tease him about the ludicrous way he talks but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the hell out of him. Mostly because he keeps it brief. No conversation with Paul ever lasts long and you feel satisfied, not like those fuckers who go on and on and leave you wondering what the hell happened to the last hour.
Keith shifted on the couch and made some potentially embarrassing noises but we all knew the sounds of that damn couch too well.
“You should switch to tea my friend,” said Paul, noting his inability to stay still.
There was a knock at the door. Paul stood.
“I’ll do my best for you boys but if this goes badly, I’ll sell both of your arses to them for ten quid a piece.”
He left the room. Keith shifted and wouldn’t look at me. Few people did anymore, especially near meal time. I had a tendency to put people off their appetite for a while. Jake took a paperback out of his back pocket and turned to a dog-eared page and started reading. Keith slapped the book out of his hand.
Paul returned speaking in the too-friendly tones of a real estate agent to the two men who trailed in behind him. The competition. There was room enough in our little town for more than one operator, just so long as everyone respected the boundaries.
Jake and Keith had violated those and so Cameron and Kieran were here for a face-to-face.
More accents. British, Irish, whatever they were. It was sounding like a goddamn United Nations meeting in there.
Another figure trailed them into the room. Duke. The hired muscle. Shit. Now this was a guy you didn’t want to piss off.
Ex-military, still very gung-ho for battle. One of those thousand yard stare guys except when he focused in on you. Those eyes bore into you and your sphincter closed up shop and you started to plan your funeral. I’d only been in a room with him once before and I didn’t plan on making a habit of it.
“So,” Cameron said, in whatever fruity accent that was. “These are the two little bastards who capped our men.”
He stood over the couch so that Keith and Jake were crotch level with him. He pushed out his hips almost daring them to look at his cock. Kieran slid next to him and did the same.
“Quite a lot of mess for one late payment,” said the little Irish prick.
Keith doesn’t know restraint. “If those fuckers hadn’t started in with insults, we --”
“Shut it, dog,” Paul said. About a year ago Keith tried to force a nickname on us. “Call me Raw Dog,” he commanded. It was met with laughter. Whenever he was a bad boy, Paul trotted out just the dog part of it to put him in his place. My theory was that Jake had seen Keith put his foot in it so many times he learned that not speaking was the smart play.
“So how can we put this behind us?” offered Paul in a conciliatory tone.
“First thing's first is payment,” Cameron turned away from the couch to begin negotiations. Kieran followed but not before a pelvic thrust at the boys. With their backs to the couch, I was shocked as hell that both those boys didn’t get up and slice them ear to ear but they held firm.
So there began some bargaining, a little back and forth.
What we didn’t know at the time was that across the street in a window on the third floor was one of this town deadlier denizens - Peppermint Patti. Peppermint because she was cool. Lady assassins always get a reputation as being ice queens. For Patti, it was justified.
I knew one, we had a fling -- pre-accident days, of course. Libby. Damn. She was...I mean...the body...the whole package...shit. I’d walk through fire (again) to go another round with her in the sack but a good rule to follow is never date an assassin. My tip to you.
Patti was watching the negotiation through the scope on her rifle. It sat in a tripod to keep it steady and she bit down on another muscle relaxant and chewed it without water. Steady as a rock. Never studied a day at it. Just came natural.
I was out of her sightline so, even if I had known she was there, I was safe.
Paul hit a buzzer and the door opened again as Cormac came into the room. This guy was a piece of work. Not his real name, by the way. What he was hiding from was anybody’s guess and inside the organization, there was a lot of guessing. Reformed serial killer went one theory. Murdered his family and started over went another. Lots of variations on the prison break theory. My favorite was that he was really Grant’s son and he didn’t want that to influence his rise in the organization. (Grant is the top of the ladder, you know.)
Cormac has been doing well, obeying orders, following the rules. Today his job was to carry the money, which he did. A black leather briefcase.
He laid it out on the desk, popped the locks and opened it for inspection. Keith and Jake made more rude couch noises as they strained to see over the lip of the desk and past the two foreigners to find out how much their mistake had cost Paul.
Duke shot them a glare that would make your dick shrivel. Cameron and Kieran exchanged a look that said they were satisfied with the amount.
I hacked up a ball of phlegm to fill the silence. I got looks all around but everyone knew I couldn’t help it. Came with the loss of half a lung. The rest worked overtime to clean out the black tar that coated the inside of my body. Three years later and still coughing up chunks of the fire. At least I was still around to cough anything up. That kid Seth and his buddy, Jack Palms, were still rotting in a ditch, in several different ditches actually, after what they did to me. A story for a different time.
It was then that things got...interesting.
“Looks good,” said Cameron, sounding like Crocodile fucking Dundee.
“Now all we need,” continued Kieran, “is an apology.”
The room went stale. It was Sunday mass and someone had just blurted out “Jesus was a cunt” instead of “And also with you”. It was walking in on your parents fucking. It was asking your girlfriend to take a dump on you and realizing she’s not into it. It was that awkward.
Paul, calm as could be, slowly closed the case. The little green stacks went back to sleep.
“I don’t think so.” That was all he planned to say about it. Meeting adjourned. I gripped my SIG-Sauer under my jacket.
I think I could hear Duke flexing.
“You don’t think so?” repeated Cameron.
Like I said, Paul was done. He said nothing.
“These two little clackers wasted two of my guys and I want a goddamn apology.”
“An apology!” added Kieran.
A red light went off somewhere in Keith’s head. All that sitting still wasn’t good for him. That’s when all hell broke loose.
He rose off the couch, his death yell obscuring the noises, and lifted a fist already gleaming with brass knuckles. He drove straight forward and hit Kieran, who just happened to be in his way. If an elephant had been there, it would have gotten a fistful, too. The shot landed on Kieran’s temple and the bone caved so his skull looked like it had been in a fender bender.
Everything happened at once so I’ll try to tell it straight for you. Paul slapped a hand down on top of the briefcase and was about to slide it back into his arms when Duke slammed his own hand down on top of Paul’s. A knife, big as your sister, came out of nowhere and Duke hacked off Paul’s hand at the wrist.
Cameron was screaming but not doing much else. Kieran was reeling from the knuckle blow.
Jake was up off the couch with his razor drawn. Cormac hit the carpet.
Paul took his stump hand, spewing blood like an uncorked champagne bottle, and pointed it at Cameron’s face and blinded him with a spray of hot blood. That let Jake slip up behind and slice his throat right across the Adam’s apple. Jake pushed his head forward, doubling him up at the waist. A trick he learned from years of slicing throats. Cuts down on the spray. I appreciated that since Cameron was more or less facing me.
The first shot from Patti’s rifle pierced the window and hit Jake in the chest. He fell back onto the couch and I think some of the sounds that time were real because the room suddenly smelled a lot like someone had shit themselves. I knew it wasn’t me but, in fairness to Jake, there were several other likely candidates.
Duke spun just as Keith swung a knuckler at him. It landed but Duke absorbed it like they were a novelty pair of Hello Kitty brass knuckles.
This was a clash of the titans. The two blood-lusted like sharks. They stood face-to-face and met in a weird dual scream like they were trying to kill each other with decibels. On their own, each man had a formidable battle cry but face-to-face they merged in a sort of harmony of death that scared the crap out of me. I can still hear it.
Another bullet ripped in from across the street but hit only a couch cushion.
Cormac scrambled for the door on his belly, right under the screaming match. After a few seconds of volume, Duke pumped his arm forward like a spring-loaded bear trap and his knife (the damn thing had to be eight inches long) sunk deep into Keith’s gut and the tip poked out his back right above his kidney. In his left hand, Keith drew his own knife although it was a damn sight smaller, made for concealment.
When you stab a guy in the neck, though, size doesn’t matter. Duke tried to keep on screaming but the stubby knife blade cut off his warrior yell. Keith still made noise but it was the sound of a man dying.
Neither man was giving in. Both stood, held up by the knife arm of the other, macho to the end, as if the last man to drop would have bragging rights in hell.
Paul was taking his severed hand in stride but he was struggling to get into his desk drawer for his gun. Like I said, I like the guy so I tossed him the SIG-Sauer and he grabbed it mid-flip and blasted two holes in Kieran’s chest. As it was, Kieran was going to have a lifetime of ringing in the ears from the brass knuckle shot but this ended his misery.
Paul stood still admiring his kill shot when another rifle round entered the room and made straight for his forehead. I knew Patti wouldn’t miss twice.
After the hand, I wasn’t sure how much blood Paul had left but whatever there was of it all ended up on the wall behind him.
Duke and Keith slumped to the floor at the same time. A tie.
Cormac was caught for a moment when Keith landed on his ankles as he continued to crawl for the door and that made him jump up like he’d found a spider crawling on him. Seeing another target, Patti fired and Cormac took one in the back. Not a cool way to go. His secret identity was forever a mystery.
I was still out of her sight line. I waited. The room smelled awful. Blood and shit and cordite from the gunshots. More off-putting than my face any day.
Jake still stirred on the couch. He was in the process of dying a painful and slow death but the outcome was inevitable. I saw him realize this and drag his razor across his own throat. At least he died at the hand of the best man in the business.
I waited a full hour until I knew Patti was gone. I grabbed my gun, the money and Paul’s address book.
I brought all three to Grant, who put me directly on his payroll where I wanted to be all along. I guess this town wasn’t big enough for everyone.
Grant is already talking about taking out the other big player in town. Aldo somethingorother. Italian. Hey, any excuse to take those fuckers down a peg or two is okay in my book.
Maybe I’ll pay him a visit, introduce myself. We can have dinner. Those Italians are always eating. We can do it real intimate like. Candle dripping wax on a bottle of Chianti, the whole thing. Maybe a little light from the powder burn flash of my gun, too. Y’know, just to say hi.
BIO: This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Eric Beetner's novel One Too Many Blows To The Head will be released this October. He does not think British, Irish or Australian accents sound ridiculous but does believe in the advice to never date an assassin.
Everybody knows - Leonard Cohen
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