The guy lived in an airplane hangar, for chrissakes. Why not just wear a sign that says, “Please make more fat jokes.” Then again, it’s not like there are a whole lotta places to live in King City. And when you deals in this many comics—thousands and thousands on pallets like the one that had been shipped to Mr. Bob Romano—hell, you may as well just move in yourself. The room for Gorofsky’s considerable bulk was probably just a perk. Not that the guy was feeling to perky, duct-taped to his computer chair and pistol-whipped.
Ah, well. The cost of doing business.
Mr. Bob Romano had bought a pallet off the guy, curious to see if it would yield anything. A lotta dealers dealt in bulk like this: a hundred, two hundred bucks would buy you a thousand comics, selected at random. A giant grab bag, if you will. A lotta junk, but usually some fairly high-yield books to make it worth your while.
But this smart-ass Gorofsky. First he sends the thousand books, but seven hundred of them are copies of Marvel Super Heroes Special, Winter ’91. Barely worth the paper they’re printed on.
“The fuck is this?” Romano said on the phone.
“Well,” Gorofsky said with a giggle barely suppressed, “it is the first appearance of Squirrel Girl. And it’s by Steve Ditko. You do know who that is, don’t you?”
Gorofsky mighta gotten off light with the whole stunt, the disrespectful tone, and even that grave insult to Mr. Bob Romano’s intelligence. But then he had the nerve to hang up on Mr. Bob Romano. Hanging up on Mr. Bob Romano was like smoking—it might make you look cool, but it could send you to the hospital. Or an early grave.
“Found anything good yet?” Hughes said.
Bronson came over with an armload of books and half-shrugged. “Good, but not great. Some first printings of Wonder Woman #219, Captain America #25—”
“That the one where he dies?”
“Well, those’ll be worth something,” Hughes said, “Right?”
“Yeah, well, they’re not giving them away, that’s true,” Bronson said, “but, man, with all this stuff in here? It’d take all night to go through ‘em, and even if we found a thousand more of books like these, a couple more years and they’ll be worth as much as Superman #75.”
“Not worth the trouble, really.”
“Fuck,” Hughes said.
Bronson set the books down carefully. “But I’ve been thinking...”
“Hey, fatbody!” Bronson said.
Gorofsky looked up and peered at them through the blood dried over his eyes. He said something that was muffled by the duct tape over his mouth. Bronson came over and wiped some of the blood off Gorofsky’s face.
“Hey, man,” Bronson said, “This is some okay stuff you got in here, but really, most of it is junk. Right? So why don’t you just save us some trouble and tell us where your stash is, your personal collection.”
Even behind the duct tape, there was no mistaking his words: “Fuck you!” But he also couldn’t help glancing to his right. Hughes saw it too.
“The file cabinet,” they both said.
The bottom drawer was locked. “Shit,” Bronson said.
Hughes pulled out his .38. “Gimme just one second...”
“Whoa, wait, are you nuts! I’m no Bob Overstreet, but a bullet hole will really bring any book down a couple grades, man, I can tell you that.” Bronson checked all the other drawers in the cabinet and found a tiny key taped to the bottom of the top one.
Inside, there was a few high-grade Silver and Golden Age books, but nothing particularly spectacular. And then...
“Holy shit,” Bronson said.
“Is that what I think it is?” Hughes said.
Amazing Fantasy #15. The very first appearance of the amazing Spider-Man. Story by Stan Lee. Art by Steve Ditko.
“Holy shit,” Bronson said, “I mean, it’s not really high grade, but—but, still...I mean. Holy shit.”
Gorofsky struggled in his chair. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
Hughes went over and knelt in front of him. “Don’t take it so hard, big fella,” he said, “It’s just the cost of doing business.”
I light up another cigarette and look in the mirror on my side of the car.
Waiting for Keith.
Keith, the wannabe, the hanger-on. He might have a lot of backers, a lot of
people that think he’s got the chops for this job. Unlike his backers, I’ve
actually been on a job with Keith. He’s got a high opinion of himself and his
skills. He’s hit or miss.
He ought to come with a warning label that reads, “Sometimes, you get what
you paid for. Other times, you pay for what you get.”
Finally, after a half-hour, he comes walking around the corner of the
building, his arm around a girl that looks like she’s barely out of high
Keith opens the passenger door and folds the seat forward. The girl climbs
through, into the back seat.
“What the fuck is this?” I say, tossing my cigarette onto the street.
“This is Michelle,” Keith says. “Say hello, Michelle.”
Michelle says hello.
“You know what the fuck I mean,” I say, as Keith drops his ass in the
Keith just smiles through his goatee. “Just put it in gear and let’s get
this over with, brother.”
I really hate it when assholes like Keith tell me what to do. Makes me feel
like whipping out my piece and putting another hole in his fucking head. The
brother is a cherry on the top of this pile of shit.
I slide the gear shift into drive, pull out into traffic and drive away
from Keith’s apartment complex.
This is precisely the reason that you don’t bring an outsider along with
you on a job:
The hit is a jewelry store. As soon as we pull into the lot, Michelle wants
to come in and look around, thinking Keith’s bringing her here so that he can
put a ring on her finger or get her something equally nice.
So when he tells her to stay in the car, she gets pissed off and throws a
fit, drawing a bunch of attention our way. As if there isn’t going to be enough
once we place the ski masks over our heads. This just adds to it.
I want to scrap the entire thing.
“Let’s just get back into the car and get the fuck out of here,” I
“Relax, brother,” Keith says. This is the second time he’s called me
brother within thirty minutes. I want to punch him, break his fucking nose or
something. Get my point across as violently as I can. But I don’t do it because
if I do, I’m walking into the jewelry store myself. I might even have the
asshole shoot me in the back and then I’m really fucked.
“Then calm her the fuck down,” I say.
Keith turns around and tells Michelle that he wants it to be a surprise
what he gets her.
Yeah, I think, if we fuck it up, congratulations, honey. I got you three to
five as an accessory.
And here I am again, waiting for Keith.
Part two of why you should never bring an outsider along on a job rears its
ugly head when we make it to the car.
Michelle sees us and screams like she’s the one that’s been shot.
My right leg is dragging behind me and I’m barely keeping Keith upright.
He’s turning a different shade of pale.
“Get out of the back seat,” I say to Michelle, my gun still in my hand,
waving back and forth. “Now!”
The hero guard comes barreling out into the lot, finds me and Keith and the
screaming girl. He probably thinks we’re car-jacking her.
He fires another couple of shots at Keith and me and scores again, this
time hitting me in the back. I fall onto the hood and then slide down next to
the front tire. My gun goes sliding off the hood in the other direction and
skitters away across the pavement.
I look over to my right, my head moving like a snail.
I look at Keith and realize that he’s going to make it and I’m not.
Michael stared at the figure face down in the entryway of his house. His eyes moved from the body to the broken lamp he’d used to cold-cock the guy.
He tried to remember the last thirty-seconds, but it was a black hole.
He could still recall the brief conversation through the door, the stranger knocking after midnight and pretending to have car trouble. Even before he opened the door, Michael thought it strange that someone would wander so far off the highway to make it to his front porch. The pleasure and peril of living far away from town: seclusion.
Michael remembered seeing the gun, the man commanding him to step back, stay quiet. The memory ran out a second before the moment he smashed the man over the head with a marble-based lamp.
Michael set the gun down on the small table by the door where he normally tossed his keys. The man on the floor continued to breathe and the pool of blood around his head continued to grow.
It was no life threatening blow. Michael knew the stranger would come around soon.
“Michael?” Amy called from upstairs.
“Stay there.” He could hear the whining nighttime cries of Dylan, his two year-old and that was sure to wake Kaitie, his four year-old. “Amy, listen,” he said. “Call the police. Tell them someone tried to break in.”
“Oh my God.” Michael heard her footsteps reach the top of the stairs. She gasped. “Michael!”
“It’s okay. Just call them. See how fast they can make it out here.”
“No, he’s not dead. Now, go.”
Amy padded away to make the call.
Michael thought about how it might be better if the stranger was dead. The intruder would wake up any second, angry. He was obviously capable of violence whereas Michael had just drawn his first blood on another human. Applied Physics professors don’t have a reputation for bloodletting.
His eyes drifted to the gun. If the man stood up and attacked, could Michael use deadly force? The lamp had been beyond what he thought himself capable of already so he didn’t know the answer himself.
Dylan’s cries intensified. The man on the floor stirred. Michael heard Amy’s feet move quickly down the hall to Dylan’s room and the crying soon stopped.
The old farm house was easily twenty minutes from town. If the police were anywhere but sitting right by the phone it could be as much as a half hour before help arrived.
A decision would have to be made before then.
Michael stepped around the body to close the front door. The invader had dropped a small bag, now blocking the threshold. Michael kicked it aside to make room for the door to swing shut. Inside the pack, metal clanked together. Curious, Michael opened the worn black gym satchel.
Duct tape, wire, a hammer, a hunting knife. These were not the supplies of a stick-up, a simple, “Give me all your money and jewelry” home invasion. This man was prepared to stay.
Michael thought of the children. He felt sick to his stomach. Bikes, a sand box, a rope swing all decorated the front yard. Advertising that young kids lived here. The house was far enough away from everything, a man could stay for weeks without anyone noticing. Fall semester at the University didn’t start for another month.
A chill ran through Michael. The stranger on the floor groaned.
“Amy? Did you talk to the police?”
Her feet padded urgently down the hall. He turned to her. She cradled Dylan in her arms, his head lolling slack, asleep. She whispered. “They said they’d send someone.”
He whispered back. “How long?”
“They didn’t say.”
There was movement from the carpet in the entryway. “Go back to the room. Get Kaitie. Lock the door.”
There was panic in Amy’s whisper now. “Michael –”
Michael turned back to the stranger, Amy’s feet shuffled away above him.
The man rolled, brought a hand to his head and felt the blood, opened his eyes.
TINA THE DWARF PROSTITUTE – A LOVE STORY - IAN AYRIS
I am in love with Tina the Dwarf Prostitute. She is not here. The circus is
in town. Her public awaits.
'Oy! Fuckface! Where's my bleedin cuppa?'
I tear my gaze away from the kitchen window. Away from the world. Tony.
Flatmate. Arsehole. Rich city boy arsehole. Whilst I am 'between jobs', and
Tina's income is, so to speak, 'sporadic', we rely on Tony to keep us. And he
does. But as I have alluded, the man is an utter moron. He has been off work for
two weeks now, lazing about.
So, with Tina 'otherwise engaged' today, it is just him and I.
'Come on, cunt! Hurry up!'
I stir Tony's tea, trying not to think of Tina and the Strongman. Tina and
the Fire Eater. Tina and the Clown. We are not an item, Tina and I, merely
friends. Yet, of late, I have begun to think of her in different ways. Ways that
I retreat to the lounge to break my train of thought, and give Tony his
tea. His eyes are glued to the television screen. He holds out his hand to take
the tea without even so much as a 'Thank you'. I glance at what it is he is so
engrossed in, and quickly look away.
Daytime television. Voyeuristic mediocrity in a box presented by parasitic
slimeballs in shiny suits, preying on the scum of this earth. For Tony here,
something to aspire to. To learn from. To laugh at.
'Look at these fuckers,' he says, sipping his tea. 'She's been shaggin his
uncle, and the old man's been havin it off with her mum. Fantastic!'
I'm thinking of my Tina.
The adverts come on.
'We got any biscuits?' Tony says, as if I'm the only one in this God
forsaken place that knows.
I shake my head, and I can't help sighing. Not for the lack of
'What's up with you?' Tony says. 'Cos that midget's gone out?'
Muscles tighten all over my body.
'What you see in her anyway? Is it her little teeny hands, is it? Them
little feet? The way she waddles like a fuckin duck?'
The ice comes in my veins.
'Quack quack,' Tony says, waddling around the lounge on his knees, speaking
in a squeaky voice. 'Quack, quack. My name's Tina, and I'm a dwarf
I close my eyes, let the darkness fill me.
'Tell you what, though,' Tony says, getting to his feet, 'in all
seriousness. She's just the right height, ain't she. I mean, you know, eh? Eh?'
He's winking now. Winking at me. Casting aspersions.
And that does it.
I've had two weeks of this. Every day. Every minute of every day. When
you're in love, it's written all over your face. There is no need to feel shame.
And it's time I stopped.
I jump out of the armchair and brush past Tony, into the kitchen. I can
hear him laughing. Laughin at me. At me and my Tina. Wailing like the buffoon he
I grab the bread knife from the cutlery drawer and I'm back in the lounge
flailing it in his face.
Tony is screaming. Blood is spurting. The adverts have finished.
There is a knock at the door. I ignore it and continue cutting Tony to
shreds on the beige patterned carpet to the accompanying inanity of daytime
It's too early for Tina. She still has the matinee show to contend with.
Queues of freaks and oddities craving her specialist services.
This won't do. I'll have to get it. After all, it is rude to leave someone
waiting. I open the door, aware I am soaked in Tony's blood, the bread knife
dripping in my hand.
And there stands a clown, rubber nose and painted smile. Everything inside
All that remains are visions of Tina and the Strongman. Tina and the Fire
Eater. Tina and this Clown.
I focus on the painted smile. The painted smile that never moves. Fake.
Plastic. Unjust. Shameful.
'You think this is fucking funny?' I scream. 'Do you?'
And I lunge at him hard, blinded by my own tears.
BIO: Ian Ayris is the author of Abide With Me, which you can check out here.
They've put a cuddly new face on the art of the interview.
They call it PEACE.
(Plan and Prepare; Engage and Explain; Account; Closure; Evaluation).
No, really, it’s called PEACE. A fuzzy acronym. A smooth shape some psychiatrist hammered out on the anvil of his concept. Adopted by governing bodies desperate for results in an electorate that’s turned its back on them.
Neck ties are loosened in anticipation of relatable plain clothes, like they’ll shed the skin of their suits, be seen as regular blokes. Guys you’d see in the supermarket, the pub, down the beach.
Not buttoned-down authority figures swinging a phone book.
They're teaching them to act, to feign empathy, to perform. Granted, there is always an element of the performance in the interview – you have to dial it up to instill terror – but there was always honesty in my performance, truth, fact, authenticity.
See, I went by WAR.
(Wrest Control; Aggression Increased Incrementally; Rough Justice IS Justice)
And this is why I am no longer in that line of work. Strictly speaking.
Interview rooms aren't particularly impressive, but they serve a purpose – they remove the individual from familiar surroundings and encase him/her in a territory that is essentially yours.
You know it. You control it. In controlling the space, you control the occupant.
This is a principle I have kept. The world is now my interview room.
If he is an urbanite, we go to the bush. The smell of damp earth from a pre-dug grave, weird night creatures skittering above and around, a torch-beam in the face. These things are my tools.
If he is from the country, we go to some abandoned urban wasteland. Ghosts of bygone industry visible in broken windows, forgotten equipment gone Gothic with rust and neglect, the spray paint of illegible tag-scrawl. These things are my tools.
I ask the tough questions on behalf of those who need answers, but who lack the constitution to actually do the asking themselves. The answers determine the outcome. The bush grave, the river dump, and, yes, sometimes even freedom – these conclusions form a crossroads.
And I give the directions.
So I ask and I ask and I ask.
There is never any doubt. None. There is nothing but certainty.
For a time.
Then, inevitably I suppose, there is doubt. Was it a particular look in their eyes? A convincing denial? No idea.
All I know is uncertainty.
Once there is uncertainty, there are different questions to be asked. They are:
Have I always been right?
Are there shallow bush graves and weighted bin bags in the Murray filled with innocents?
Are there guilty I've freed?
More importantly perhaps:
Have you had a breakdown?
Are you insane?
I can't answer these questions.
I slice myself. I drink a bottle of bourbon, take two fingers from my right hand.
I can't coerce myself to tell me what I need to know. Perhaps I black out before I can speak.
I call my mother, cry into the phone. She tells me I was always a good boy, asks me where I am.
I can't coerce her into telling me what I need to know. Perhaps I hang up before she can speak.
The mirror shows a man with a lot to hide. It is not a comforting sight. It is the face of the guilty wearing the expression of the damned.
I visit some parents I know. They are terrified. Worse than that, my uncertainty shatters their peace.
They say to me:
You did the best you could for my child.
But in their eyes, I see my doubt has infected them. I have re-broken them.
I take the list of others I planned to visit and tear it up.
My .38 Special Smith & Wesson Model 10.
Loaded with hollow points. Clean as. Good to go.
Look at it. It's an answer.
But it's not the answer I need.
I take a call. I go to work.
I can't answer questions, but I can ask them.
I just have to make sure, that's all.
I just have to make sure.
Please, let me be sure.
BIO: This one’s for Christopher Grant. You’re a class act, mate. Thanks, as always, to Jimmy Callaway, who is like a missing slice of my writer-brain.
BEER RUN: A Nick Constantine short story - PHIL BELOIN, JR.
The rundown market had bars hanging over the windows, glitzy ads for beer and smokes plastered the outside. Looked like my kind of place. I parked curbside, crossed the dark street and went in. The register was on my left, the towel head clerk stood by the cigarette displays and lotto accoutrements, of which there were plenty, the state exploiting addicts just like drug dealers and casino operators.
I heard giggling down an aisle— checked it. Never can be too careful in the ghetto. Two punks in do-rags were perusing a centerfold by the magazine racks. They were the only other costumers.
I went to where the fridges hummed, the kids hooting at the nudies. I scanned the beer choice, found kingers—what a treat—and grabbed those lovely tall cans, a chill caressing my fingers and twinkling the back of my head like a beer buzz.
It happened as I was strolling to the register.
“Give me all the fucking money in the register, man!”
“Come on! Give us the money!”
A do-rag had a gun on the towel head. The other do-rag was unarmed, but his mouth was firing threats. In this fucked up neighborhood, there was no way the towel head didn’t have a bazooka under the counter. If he let it go, he would splatter them do-rags and get me, too.
I came up behind the punks, the clerk shaking his head, no, no, no, while his hands slipped down his sides. The unarmed one was asking if the towel head understood American and if he didn’t, how could he get a job like this? It seemed like a pretty good question.
Using my .45’s barrel, I tickled the do-rag of the pistol toting fella.
“You boys better get outta here,” I said.
Three sets of eyes met mine.
“Sheet,” the one without the gun said. “This ain’t your bizness, dude.”
“Yeah, take off,” the other one said.
“Well, guess what?” I said. “I haven’t gotten my carton of smokes.”
“Get this man some cigarettes,” the gunless punk said to the clerk.
I noticed his cohort’s knees were quivering.
Towel head was still moving his hands downward.
I cocked the trigger, the little adrenaline forces doing the double quick through me. “Leave the gun on the counter before I send your brain over to the wall.”
The quaking worked its way up to the do-rag’s gun arm. He was young—sixteen, seventeen years old tops.
“Hey, you,” I said to the clerk. “Stop moving your hands! I got this.”
His hands froze but then his mouth took over, blabbering at the do-rags to listen to me, the gunless one saying he knew the towel head spoke American.
The kid lowered the pistol to the counter and headed for the door, his buddy pushing him outside. When I turned back, the barrel of the towel head’s rifle was an inch from my face.
“You no get the money,” he said.
“How ‘bout that carton of smokes?”
“You put gun away first.”
I placed the beer on the counter and holstered the .45.
“Okay, you my friend,” the clerk said.
He scooped up the do-rag’s pistol and returned the shotgun to its hiding spot.
“No sell beer now,” he said. "After eight o’clock.”
“It the law.”
“I just saved your ass.”
“I get big trouble sell beer after eight o’clock.”
“You get big dead if it wasn’t for me.”
“Tell you what, my friend,” he said. “You give me twenty for six-pack. I look other way when you go.”
“Didn’t black male just leave?”
“No, you don’t understand what I’m...”
“This is what I say to you now; you want beer, twenty-five dollar.”
“You said twenty before.”
“I said twenty when we not argue.”
“You’re a god-damn disgrace.”
“You want chilly beer, no? I here to make money—not for health.” He punched some buttons on the register.
“Okay, my friend. Sixty-seven and six cents for cigarettes.”
I gave him ninety-two bucks.
He moved to put the beer in a paper bag. “Have nice night, my friend.”
“Turn your head. I’m leaving now.”
“No turn head on you ever.”
This is a short excerpt from Phil’s novel, The Big Bad. Check out the entire book out on Amazon.
The dark turned everything cold again. She’s shivering in the Plymouth, shaking through shirt layers and the puffer coat she stole from her brother before he left for Afghanistan. The heater rages like a sermon, blowing a brimstone stink that coaxes something wet and hellish up from her tummy. She gags and grips the cracked dash.
She nods, hopes the grimace looks like a smile.
It doesn’t it. “I can turn it off.”
“Better’n cold,” she says. “Gives me headache.”
“Nothing to take.”
She shrugs. The nothing stays down, but now she’s hot.
“If we had just the thirty five.”
She slams the vents closed. “Your aunt shouldn’t have to go back.”
“I know.” He picks at his face. “She’s took it for years.”
“Fuck the co-pay.” She kills the heater.
The Plymouth shakes as the engine quiets. “Yeah, fuck it.”
“What you want to do?” She asks, hoping he’ll say something that’ll make it better. Something he’s known all along, but hasn’t said because he’s been waiting for her.
“There’s nothing to do.”
“Gas stations open.” She points through the fogging windshield.
His face begins to bleed. “It’s always open,” he tells her, still picking.
“Let’s go in,” she says. “I need to get out of here.”
He doesn’t answer. He just keeps scratching and watching everything fade. The sound of his fingers scrapping dry skin, the jagged nail worrying the spot on his face, the slow trickle, it’s all so loud—
“I gotta go.”
He grabs her arm. “Stay in the car.”
All of her twists. “Why? I want to go in. Don’t feel good. I’m fucking cold—hot. I don’t feel good. My head hurts and I want a fucking candy bar. I want a Kit-Kat.”
“You don’t got any money.” He’s still staring even though the gas station is gone.
“Enough for a Kit-Kat.”
“No,” he says, letting her go.
Puffy-lipped and big-eyed, she pouts in the seat hoping it’ll work this time, hoping for the apology she’s been waiting on someone to give her since she was little. It never came before and doesn’t now.
He reaches under the seat. Cans roll. MacDonald wrappers crinkle.
“What’re you doing?”
In the darkening, she doesn’t know what he’s holding until he says, “Getting money.”
He taps the .38 against the door. “Why not?”
“They know us. Lizzie works here. We’re friends. We’ve got math together. She tells everybody everything. The only thing she keeps shut worse than her mouth is her legs.”
“What do we do? Huh? What? I need it…you need…just to get through.”
She watches him chew a flap of skin in the corner of his mouth. “You’ve got that interview.”
“I can’t go like this. I can’t,” he says and she touches his wrist. He looks at her from under long lashes she wishes were hers, his blue eyes vacant enough that she fills the emptiness.
“Just give me a minute, k?”
She turns, wanting to look out the window, but can’t. Her eyes start to tear and she reaches a thin finger to the glass. Her pink nails stab twice and arc once until the window smiles.
A shiny F350 rumbles into the space next to them. Through the smile she sees a tall man step boots first from the cab. “He’ll give us thirty five dollars,” she says to the smiley face. “He likes me.”
“How much does he like you,” he asks.
“A lot—he was nice. He used to work with my dad.”
“He like you enough for fifty?”
She smiles back at the window. “If I—do that thing.”
“Yeah, he’d like that.” She hears the gun slide back under the seat. “And it’s just a thing.”
The smile is slowly disappearing. “Right, it’s just a thing,” she says before it vanishes.
“That’s right and it’s not like our thing.”
“No,” he tells her, starting the car.
She opens the door. “I’ll call you.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
She climbs out and waits by the truck as he pulls away. She waves as he rounds the pumps, but he doesn’t see. Neither does the smile.
Daring looked in the mirror and ran his fingers through his bangs. They’d fallen forward and tickled when they brushed his forehead. He couldn't have been more uncomfortable.
"What's with the penguin suit?" That's what his grandfather would’ve asked.
Daring hated tuxedos. Too binding, too restrictive, but sometimes required. Besides, if everything went well, the payday would more than make up for this bit of discomfort.
He looked himself over in the mirror. He grabbed the bottom of his jacket and snapped it smooth and straight, gave himself a quick wink, and reentered the party.
There was the typical chatter. He could make out very little of what was being said around him.
“You clean up good." It was Paisley. She was coming through the earpiece in his right ear.
“Where are you?"
"Bar. Down the stairs and to your right," she said.
Daring whistled. "Hubba hubba. Never would have recognized you, beautiful."
"We’re here for a bracelet, right?" Daring asked.
"Yeah. Rubies and diamonds. It’s gorgeous."
"I could do this in my sleep,” he said. “This’ll be like candy ..."
"...from a baby," Paisley finished.
Daring lifted his first wallet at 12. First watch at 13. Broke into his first car at 15. Paroled for the first time at 20.
He was a natural. The guy who taught him wasn’t. They called him Johnny Thumbs. He had thick fingers that moved slowly. He knew how to slip his hand inside a coat pocket and snag a wallet, or shake someone’s hand and unhook a watch. Knew how, just couldn’t do it.
Johnny Thumbs reasoned that if he couldn’t do it he’d teach a bunch of street kids how. He’d work out a fence and take a cut of whatever was boosted.
Now here’s Daring, twenty years later, still taking things that didn’t belong to him.
The new Mrs. Jonathan McAster would be 24 for another three hours. Tall, red-headed and grossly thin, she was all personality. All of these folks – only the crispiest of the upper crust -- were here to wish her a happy twenty-fifth.She’d been married barely five months but the position of trophy wife fit her like an old hat.
“Samuel. Esther. Wonderful to see you,” Elizabeth said to the Crowes. “Jonathan and I are so glad you could make it.” She kissed both of Esther’s cheeks and patted Samuel’s belly.
“We couldn’t not come,” Esther said. “Happy birthday, darling.”
Elizabeth smiled and nodded. The two couples continued to talk and Daring watched the conversation from the top of the stairs. This was going to be the hardest part. Getting the bracelet was easy. Knowing when and how to approach was what always gave him fits.
“Catch her as she’s leaving a group,” Paisley advised. “Don’t let her see you coming. Just grab her hand. You going to be OK?”
“Like candy,” Daring said.
The McAster/Crowe conversation started to lull and Daring carefully made his way down the steps. Rented shoes were always trouble on freshly shampooed carpet.
“Well, I should probably go say a few more hellos,” Elizabeth said. “Wonderful to see you again.”
She turned from the Crowes and nearly walked over Daring. He reached and grabbed her right hand with both of his.
“Mrs. McAster,” he said, “I just wanted to wish you the happiest of birthdays.”
“Aren’t you kind?” She had no idea who he was, but she didn’t know most of the people at the party. Her marriage to Jacob was a bit of a scandal. The McAsters decided to keep a low profile for the first couple of months of their marriage.
They were just starting to make their way back out into the social scene.
“I hope this year will be as happy for you as I know the last five months have been.”
She blushed and tipped her head to the side. She didn’t feel Dirk’s index finger running the length of her wrist.
“You’re too kind,” she said. “Now, if you will excuse me?”
Daring put his hand in his pocket and let the bracelet fall to the bottom. The night was a success.
BIO: Jarrett Rush lives with his wife, Gina, near Dallas. He blogs at JarrettWrites.
Corinne was certain. Beside her, frowning as he jiggled the key in the lock, Phil didn't look so sure.
"I don't know. Maybe I forgot to lock it."
The door swung inward, and they stepped into the motel room.
A grim set to her mouth, a raised eyebrow, a single nod.
"Hmph," Corinne said.
Phil snapped his own gaping mouth shut.
He shut the door, as they took in the scene.
On the mussed up bed were two naked dolls: one male, one female, arranged in 69 position.
Scrawled on the wall above in red was "69/2".
Corinne wrinkled her nose.
"Is that blood?"
Phil shook his head.
"Interior latex. Burnt umber. It's Mendes."
Corinne stared at him, wide-eyed and skeptical.
Phil shrugged, and said,"Used to be a decorator."
"Who? You, or-- " She threw up her hands. "I don't wanna know."
"Mendes," nodded Phil. "Some kinda warning. Bastard's cryptic as hell.
Thinks it makes him look smart."
He began pacing, agitated.
Corinne pointed at the little dolly tableau on the bed.
"What's this supposed to mean?"
A wry smile twitched across Phil's mouth.
"You fuck with us, take our money? And we'll screw you upside down, inside out, and sideways, for eternity. Like that."
"Trouble is, though, we don't have their money."
She glared at Phil.
"'Cause you went and lost it all."
"I did not--"
"Gambling, in New Jersey. God, that is so cliche."
"--lose the money."
Phil smirked. All of last night at the tables, Corinne pawing at his
shoulder, both of them getting progressively more wasted, as $3 million of the outfit's money seemed to just disappear.
"Owen Deeds, at the casino? Friend of mine. Used to work for the Santoro organization. The Houdini of Accounting."
"Houdini was a--" Corinne shook her head. "Never mind."
Phil's smirk, now a full out, shit-eating grin.
"Point is, that money is sitting out there, right now, waiting for us.
Should be in the Caymans, by now."
"So. What?" Corinne looked doubtful. "You were being smart?"
"Hmph. That's... rare."
Phil smiled. Got a look at the mess in the room again, and sobered quickly.
"We should get outta here."
Bright daylight streamed in as Phil opened the door. His jaw dropped, for a second time.
Half the cops in the continental United States were ringed outside the motel room, weapons drawn and pointed at the unhappy couple. The other half were probably out back, blocking off the exits.
Corinne nodded. And raised her hands. Vee-rrry slowly.
"What he said."
A trio of Crime Scene Investigators descended on the room. Patrolmen in the doorway, covering, as other uniforms slapped the cuffs on Phil and Corinne.
One of the CSI officers peeled back the rumpled bedsheets.
On the floor was a pool of dark red. At its center, two human ears: one male, one female. Arranged top to bottom and facing, in a Yin-Yang, 69 position.
"Burnt umber." Corinne's tone was scathing.
The CSI Lieutenant barked orders at the patrolmen.
"Outside. And watch them."
From a bluff overlooking the motel, a man was also watching, through high-powered binoculars, as the two youngsters were cuffed and bundled into the backs of separate cruisers.
A trim man in his forties, wearing surgical gloves and a smug expression.
More than a whiff of government agent, about him.
He lowered the binoculars, and stepped into the cab of an anonymous van.
From the glove compartment he took out a clipboard, wrapped in cellophane. Peeling back the plastic, to reveal a sheet with numbers on it. He put a check mark beside the second: 69/2.
Long list. 69/1, all the way to 69/96. And balance.
He'd have time. To finish. Probably.
His old buddies at the Bureau would waste days or weeks doing background checks. Chasing false leads on the poor slobs they'd arrested at the first venue, and now this one.
Time enough for him to do the next job. And the next.
Things were going really rather well.
BIO: Desmond (Des) Nnochiri spent his early years traveling with his parents, and was educated in England, the USA, and the Republic of Ireland (Eire). He writes freelance now, in both fiction and non-fiction genres. He has contributed stories to A Twist of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and Powder Burn Flash. He blogs, at Des Nnochiri's Write to Speak (http://desnnochiri.wordpress.com)
“So, when you at court for that burglary then?” asked Shanks, sucking on a spliff. He passed it to his flatmate, Drifter, the dingy room like a mini-rave, Eminem’s Slim Shady booming.
“Some time in January, innit. I’ve got the charge sheet somewhere.” Clutching an X-box control, Drifter motioned to look for the said sheet, but couldn’t be arsed and reclined on the tatty sofa.
Most of the items in the flat were ‘borrowed’ – the X-box, flat screen telly, matching DS’s, and even the cigs and cans of Stella littering the coffee table, the latter picked up from a skip.
Shanks crushed an empty can and tossed it over his shoulder. “Candice... bring us two more Stellas in, would-yer, babe?” He heard faint sirens in the distance, but couldn’t be sure if it was on Grand Theft Auto or not. Maybe it was, as he’d just reversed over a cop.
Paranoia kicking in, for the first time in three hours, Shanks’ arse left the sofa and he headed for the window, peeping through a gap in smoke-reeking curtains to gaze down from the high-rise at the dotted city lights of Manchester.
The vividness of blue police lights jolted him to his senses. Six black shadows emerged from the white rectangular van, and snaked toward the communal entrance below, panic and uncertainty flooding him.
“Shit, it’s Five-O!”
Drifter glanced up, his version of startled. “Cool it, man. They could be ‘ere for anyone in the block.”
“You sure it’s not for you, Drift?”
“Look, man. I’ve done a few little jobs recently, but the only one those fuckers got me for was the one am in court for, so my slate’s clean. Chill.”
Shanks’ mind was all over the place, skimming the haziness for his recent ‘escapades’. He recalled potting a lad in Checkers two weeks ago, nicking an old Escort when he couldn’t get a cab home – not that he’d have paid anyway. Plus, he’d stabbed that student, but that was over two years ago, so surely...? Then there was the daily coke dealing. He could do with a line now.
Candice entered from the kitchen carrying two more cans of Stella, fag in mouth, Babylons to die for. “There you go, your bloody Highness.”
Shanks snatched the cans, gave one to Drifter.
“What’s up with yer?”
“Cops are sniffing downstairs.”
Candice looked round at all the knocked-off gear. “Well, they aint got this address have they? You’ve only been ‘ere a month.”
“No. Yer right. I need to calm the fuck down.”
Footsteps on the landing, all three froze, pivoted.
Bang, bang, bang on the door.
“Police, open up or we’ll put the door in!”
Drifter stood up, Shanks and Candice eyeing him.
He put his palms out. “What? I needed a bail address. Otherwise they’d have kept me in over Chrimbo, innit.”
“Yer should’ve give yer mum’s, yer prick!”
“RIGHT! WE’RE FORCING ENTRY!”
“Well, I’m not going down for Chrimbo either.” Shanks headed for the mini-balcony.
Candice headed for the door, opened it.
A cop holding a steel wham-ram burst through, just managing to keep his balance. He was followed by five more uniformed officers and a smooth-looking, sharp-suited detective.
Before you could say, “Gotcha!” Drifter was face down, cuffed to rear.
The detective held up a warrant, peering down at Candice’s Babylons.
She covered them defensively.
“What... yer... locking me... up for...?” yelled Drifter with a face full of carpet.
“Sus’ burglary times three, sonny boy!” replied a uniform.
“Detective Proverbs, darling. And who might you be?”
“Candice Jefferyson. What’s it to you?” she spat.
Proverbs turned away, discreetly speaking into his radio, receiving comms via an earpiece.
Three minutes later, the flat had been ransacked and Drifter sat sulkily on the sofa.
“So, why’s that wannabe-gangster boyfriend of yours skulking on the balcony? Guilty conscience?” Proverbs smirked, shook his head. “We’ve not even come for him. Seems you lot are in it so deep that you’re losing track.”
“Huh?” Candice looked perplexed.
“Candice Jefferyson, I’m arresting you on suspicion of robbery. You do not have to say anything...”
Everyone froze, as a diminishing scream emanated from the balcony.
BIO: Col Bury is the crime editor of award winning webzine, Thrillers, Killer 'n' Chillers, and he's currently writing a crime novel series under the guidance of New York agent, Nat Sobel. Col's ever-growing selection of short stories can be found around the blogosphere and in many anthologies, including, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 9 (& 10). He has an eBook out called, MANCHESTER 6.
Col lives in Manchester, UK with his wife and two children, loves 8-ball pool, and is an avid fan of Manchester City FC.
“They’ll kill him, Smitty. They’ll kill my son. He won’t tell’em where the money is. He can’t tell ’em. He knows nothing about it. I stole the money. And I can’t give it back to ’em. I used every dime of it to pay the medical bills we racked up while he was in the hospital. Funny, isn’t it? I steal money from the mob to pay off my son’s medical bills. And my son dies anyway. Funny. Really funny.”
That was two hours ago. The confessions of a small-time hood, who actually loved his family. Loved his only son. The world is cruel, son. Nothing fair about living if you’re piss poor and there’s no one around to help pull the strings. You’re just another chump in an ocean of chumps. A fool in a graveyard of fools.
The kid was ten years old. A thin, sickly kid with the smile of an angel.
His only sin was his father was a small-time cog in a big city mob. A small time hood with not much brains.
“Where they hiding him?” he asked, eyes as black as stellar black holes boring into the face of the grieving father.
“Over on Vermont in that empty gas station there on the corner.”
Smitty nodded, slipped dark shades over his eyes, and left the grieving father standing in the middle of his apartment. The drive across town in a light falling rain was almost surreal. Neon lights from a thousand different signs reflected off the wet streets in vivid splashes of brilliant color.
A half block away from the corner of Vermont and Rose he pulled over and turned the engine off and sat in the dark for a moment.
Swift. Harsh. Ruthless. That’s how you succeeded in this line of business, Smitty thought to himself. Show no mercy. Offer no excuses. Walk in—do the job—leave and don’t look back. Never look back. In the darkness of the car a thin snarl of an unseen grin bent his lips back. Reaching inside his coat he pulled out a Remington .22 caliber semi-automatic. From a different coat pocket he withdrew a bulky-looking fluted silencer and screwed it onto the end of the four-inch barrel. And then he opened the door and rolled out of the car in one fluid, cat-like motion.
He had a knack. A talent. A natural gift. He moved like a feral animal from one shadow to the next in the brief walk it took from his car to the empty gas station and not once did a sliver of light reveal his presence.
Gripping the bulky weapon casually in his gloved right hand he moved up to the back door of the gas station and lifted his left hand and rapped twice on the door.
The door opened just a sliver—a bright lance of light flooding into the dark night. And into the sliver of yellow light the shoulders and head of a semi-tamed gorilla drifted. He didn’t hesitate. Lifting the weapon up in one smooth motion he put a slug directly into the man’s right eye and then stepped back and used a foot to kick the door wide open.
Inside were three other gorillas. All three were scrambling to their feet and reaching for their weapons when Smitty stepped in and pulled the trigger three more times. Puft! Puft! Puft!
Two dead. One almost dead. Walking over to the one living Smitty kicked the man in the face to get the man’s attention and stared down into the man’s pain-wracked face.
“Tell your boss he’s an idiot. Kidnapping a kid of one of his most loyal soldiers and thinking he’s going to get his money back is stupid. I took the money. Your boss weaseled out on paying me for my last job, so I decided to pay myself. Got that? Yes? Make sure you tell your boss when you see him.”
Just to make sure the wounded gorilla did remember Smitty slammed a foot hard into the side of the man’s face again.
Be ruthless. Never look back.
BIO: B.R. Stateham writes hard-boiled noir. He’s almost as old as dirt, but it doesn't stop him from thinking up dark, mean stories to entertain the little kiddies in the dead of night.
It's been quite a long time since the Challenge has made an appearance and, finally, we're getting ready to wrap it up.
I want to thank everyone that is in this last group of writers (B.R. Stateham, Col Bury, Des Nnochiri, Jarrett Rush, Chad Eagleton, Phil Beloin Jr., Cameron Ashley, Ian Ayris, Eric Beetner and Jimmy Callaway) for their patience in bearing with me in the process of getting their stories onto the site.
Starting today, and going through the week at the pace of two stories per day, the 600 To 700 Challenge makes its return to A Twist Of Noir. All the way until the bloody end.