Friday, May 7, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 444 - Eric Beetner


An entry in Jason Duke’s RED HOT Writing Contest

I’d never done anything bad. My brother – he’s the asshole.

Living in his shadow all through high school was torture. Every teacher and principal and guidance counselor looked at me like I was hiding something. A volcano about to blow. My straight A’s were a fluke or evidence of stolen tests.

“Colin,” they’d say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I tried to explain that was an expression about Fathers and Sons and didn’t apply to brothers but all I got were crooked looks.

Luckily, Dave never went to college so I could breathe a little easier all through undergrad and then I really came into my own during my Masters. Ask me anything in the world about Russian Literature. Anything, and I know it. Small problem: no one’s asking.

So I moved back home. Back in with Mom and Dave. All of Dad’s life insurance money went to my schooling and now I’m working part time at a library and sleeping in the same room I used to share with Dave. He took the basement like a true deadbeat pothead slacker. Bed sheets for curtains, futon with cigarette burns, three foot tall bong – oh yeah, Dave was going places.

And yet he always had money. I knew it had to be from something bad. Selling pot, buying beer for teenagers – I wasn’t sure what but I figured it for something illegal. My brother. How the hell did that happen? I knew enough to know he wasn’t any kind of kingpin or anything. Dave wouldn’t make it as captain of a bowling team.

But there was that cash. And my part time job. And his complete lack of contribution to society. And the money again. And then Karma on top of everything.

He’d stolen shit before. I knew it. Even if he didn’t steal the Blu-Ray player and plasma TV in the basement, he bought it with ill-gotten money. To Dave, what was fifty bucks?

So I took it. One bill off a pile of who knows how many. Quite a lot actually. It was the first time I became concerned about what exactly he was up to. I didn’t have time to over-think it though, since I was in the midst of my first criminal heist. It wasn’t exactly the great train robbery but I will admit my pulse quickened.

Ulysses S. Grant. Oh, how I hate him now.


I went back three days later for another fifty, swearing it would be my last one, but the money was gone. Good, I thought. Remove the temptation. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” That one always makes me chuckle.

It was that afternoon I incurred a little Karmic wrath myself.

The guy wouldn’t stop knocking. I was trying to grab a nap, or rather one was set upon me after attempting to re-read some Alexander Pushkin, the Nabokov translation this time instead of the original Russian. I like to mix it up.

I came to the door with bed head. Mom must have gone out and Dave must not have come home the night before. Not unusual.

“Can I help you?”

“Dave here?” The man at the door was curt and meant to be intimidating. He wore a dark suit jacket over a black t-shirt. His hair was close cropped and his skin was olive. His nose had been broken, probably more than once, and he spoke in a muted stuffy-nose mumble.

“I don’t think so.”

“Can I check?”

“Um, I can check I guess. Who should I say is here to see him?” For some reason the screen door between us allowed me to be slightly bolder than I would have been meeting this guy on the street. I don’t know if I would feel safe having only a thin mesh screen on a half-inch thick pine frame between me and a seething tiger but for the moment it provided a certain placebo effect.

“Just tell him to get his ass out here.”

“Well, that you can tell him yourself. Why don’t you call his cell?”

The Tiger pounced. When his fist came through the screen I noticed it was wrapped in a black leather glove. He grabbed me by my belt and pulled me forward, tugging me through the screen door and tearing the fabric out of the frame. It wrapped around my face, a rusty spider web. Then he pushed forward and walked us both into the house. I barely kept my footing as he shoved me backward into the living room, the shredded scraps of screen and frame trailing off of me like a torn prom dress.

“You tell him to get his ass out here with my money.”

I had about as much of an idea what he was talking about as when I tried to explain Pushkin to people. I could tell he was serious though. As serious as Tolstoy. (Most people know that one.)

“I...I don’t even think he’s home.”

“He better be.”

He gave me a shove and I led the way down the basement steps. Dave might not be good for much but I knew he could handle this situation better than I could. This was his wheelhouse.

Going back to high school I’d seen Dave beat other men savagely. It gave me pause whenever he would switch the channel away from Nova and to a show he liked. He got no argument from me. But Christ, what was he into now?

The basement was empty. Piles of laundry grew like stalagmites. The sweet decaying smell of marijuana was trapped in every fiber of the room.

The Tiger wasn’t happy. “So, who are you?”

“His brother. I’ll tell him you came by.”

“Come with me.”

“Wait, what?”

And that’s how I ended up tied to a chair in a boarded up machine shop.


The abandoned and rusty equipment was more sculpture than machinery to me; I hadn’t a clue what any of them did. In their way they were quite beautiful. Graceful curving lines surrounding violent drilling spikes. If you were to put one in a museum all the art snobs would go on and on about how sexual they were. The one machine, a drill press of some sort, I was seated next to had a large curve to it like fallopian tubes or even the scoop of a woman’s spine where it meets her buttocks. Then the sharp drill bit like a penis at the center, set to ram up and down, repeated mindless action its only purpose.

Y’know, if you ask an art snob.

I had plenty of time to stare and come up with theories in the hour since I was dropped off there. How I managed not to urinate on myself is a mystery. Scared doesn’t quite describe how I was feeling. The Russian word is better: вспугнуто. Maybe it loses something in translation.

At least the Tiger who abducted me – still sounds strange to say it – didn’t seem interested in hurting me. He wanted Dave. I was worried he would decide he could see Dave quicker if he tortured me. I felt confident he would be expert at it.

The Tiger returned with another man in tow. An older gentleman with mad professor hair and thick glasses.

“Look, I have no idea where my brother is. He doesn’t exactly keep to a regular schedule –”

“Relax,” said the Professor. “He’s on his way and we’ll get this whole mess straightened out.”

I exhaled and my shoulders loosened a bit. At last, a man in charge.

Dave came in two minutes later. He was short of breath and there was a mixture of fury and fear in his eyes. I was slightly flattered that he seemed so out of sorts with my abduction.

“What the fuck, Lewis? My brother? What the fuck?”

Erudite as usual.

“Your payment was short,” said the Professor, Lewis. The Tiger stood a respectable distance back, flexing his fingers inside his leather gloves.


“It was. I was just as shocked as you, David. Three years and you’re never a penny off.”

“And I wasn’t this time. Is this a frame up?”

“Certainly not.” As Dave became more heated the Professor matched him in calm.

“How much?”


“There was only seventeen grand in there. How could I be fifty grand off?”

“Fifty dollars.”

I swallowed hard. Dave laughed.

“Fifty bucks? Are you serious? Jesus Christ Lewis. I’ll give you the fifty. Why go through all this shit?”

“It’s not the amount, David.” He removed his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt tail, pausing to hold them up to the light to check his work, squinting hard at the effort.

Dave crossed over to me and began to rip at the duct tape that held me to the chair.

“You understand, David, that I need to send a message. I can’t just have my employees thinking it’s okay to come up short. Even by fifty dollars.”

Dave stopped his work. Message sent. His eyes went not back to the Professor but forward to the Tiger.

“You’ve done good work, David. I’m grateful.”

The Professor turned to leave, pausing to admire the exquisite lines of a large machine with a belt mechanism that looked like it pulled along large sheets of metal into a series of rollers. No doubt the innards were for stamping uniform shapes out of the sheet metal. All this was merely inference, of course.

Then the Professor switched the machine on.

I was shocked to see anything still worked. I was doubly shocked at the noise it made. Like a garbage truck mating with a street sweeper on a bed of blenders.

The Professor left the building. My guess was he didn’t want to see what came next. Who would?

The Tiger. He came forward and did his same grab-the-belt trick on Dave that he did on me. He spun Dave around to face away and Dave’s swinging punches flailed in the air churning up dust from the tops of machines but doing little to slow the Tiger’s march toward the machine.

As many times as I’d imagined pushing Dave’s face into a fan, now the prospect of him being fed into the whirring blades of a sheet metal press wasn’t something I wanted to see. I kicked and bucked in my chair trying to make the most of the small start Dave made with the duct tape.

Dave always was a scrappy fighter. He had no qualms about taking cheap shots, ground fighting, crotch kicking. Anything goes. It made moving him against his will extremely hard. The way he thrashed in the Tiger’s arms he was like a shark trying to get back to water.

The Tiger slipped and Dave dropped. He was immediately scrambling sidewinder-style across the grease slicked floor. The Tiger swiped at him but he slithered and kicked, every inch of his body moving and twisting so no appendage was available for grabbing.

I got one arm free and clawed at the other so fiercely I broke two nails.

By the time I looked up the Tiger was again lifting Dave, this time carrying him high above the ground. Dave kicked back with his feet and I could see the Tiger take several shots to the gut but he kept walking toward the machine.

The sound was thick in the room. There was no escape from it. My ears started to ache. I tore at the tape and freed my second hand. I had no time for my feet. I stood and walked with the chair still taped to my legs like trying to quickly cross a room with your pants around your ankles.

I was almost too late. I body checked the Tiger from behind. The sound of my approach was masked by the machine which was even louder, if that’s possible, now that I was up close to it.

He dropped Dave and banged against the machine, knocking the wind out of himself for a second. Dave hit hard but at least he was free. I spun my body and the chair pounded the Tiger in the chest. He pitched back and landed on the belt feeding the machine. The rubber gripped his jacket and pulled him along quickly.

I think it says something good about me that without thinking I reached out and grabbed his hand. Seeing another man in jeopardy, even one intent on killing my brother and – I assume – me, jump-started my instincts into an attempt to save him.

His body rotated on the belt until his feet were facing into the grinding gears. The rubber of the belt pulled at his jacket and fought my effort to pull him back. He looked up at me not sure of my intentions. The machine decided for me. His foot caught and he was yanked in to the twirling blades. In a second-long wood chipper grind of sound he was gone and I was left holding a severed arm in a dark suit sleeve and a single leather glove.


Dave was watching. After the shock settled a grin broke out on his face. It pissed me off. Dave punched the red button on the side of the machine and the infernal noise finally stopped. It still rang like a ghost in my ears.

“Holy shit. Nice work, bro.”

I looked from him to the arm. The spinning wheels in my mind caught pavement and I realized what I held. I tossed the arm to the ground and wiped my hand on my jeans.

“Dude, you gotta do me a favor,” said Dave.

My brain was still behind in processing the situation so I couldn’t argue with him. I sat down on the chair still strapped to my legs and set to work on the tape.

“You know that guy who was here before? The one with the hair? I need you to take this to him.”

I looked up. “Take what?”

“This arm.” He held it out to me. The sleeve dripped blood lost on its way back to a heart that no longer existed.

I opened my mouth to tell him he was crazy but nothing came out. My brain refused to say something so obvious. I got back to work on my feet.

“You take it to him along with fifty bucks and tell him to stop fucking with me. We’re square. He’ll respect that.”

I stood, free from my trap. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“No, it’s perfect.”

“Then you go.”

“I can’t. If I walk in there I’ll be shot on sight. You can get in.” He held out the arm to me as if I was meeting it for the first time. “With this.”

“What the fuck are you mixed up in?”

“Nothing, nothing. Jesus. This will work itself out. And hey, bro, thanks. You saved my life.”

“Yes, I did.” My anger gave way to a certain amount of pride in what I’d done. Not killing a man, that didn’t sit well with me at all. Especially now that the machine was stopped and blood leaked from every joint and a red pool spread from underneath. I had done something heroic. Slightly. It didn’t help that it was in the service of my brother but that’s only because I know him so well. And I knew for myself that I tried to save the Tiger. Bet he wished I’d have pulled a little harder.

But, still, I’d imagined myself inside the pages of Dostoevsky before – The Double and The Gambler, for example, there is life beyond Crime and Punishment, you know – and this was as close as I’d come in real life.


Despite myself I arrived at an address Dave gave me with a severed arm as a peace offering, like the store was out of red wine and this was all I could get on short notice.

Dave was right. It got me in to see the Professor.

Two other Tigers were in the office with him. One of them took the arm from me and brought it to the Professor. I was glad to be rid of it.

“Who are you again?”

“Dave’s brother.”

“Right. And where is he?”

“Waiting for me. He said you would understand. You’d respect it is what he said.”

The Professor swung out and slapped me in the face with the arm. The leather glove stung against my cheek. I felt like an idiot.

He turned to his associate on the right. “We know where this clown lives?”

The man nodded.

“Let’s go.” The Professor was looking at me.


One thing I never knew about myself is that I’m easily led around. This was three times today I went places I didn’t want to go. Once by force, once by brotherly influence and now at gunpoint.

We pulled up in front of the house and I never wanted my own apartment more. I let everyone in like a bunch of pals stopping by for lemonade after the softball game. With guns instead of bats.

Dave wasn’t home. Nothing shocking there. He was waiting for me to give him the high sign that the deal went well. He’d have to keep waiting.

Mom was home. Too bad for her.

Ten minutes later Mom is tied to a chair and I’m having flashbacks of my own strapped-to-a-chair nightmare. I’m calling Dave on the phone but he’s not picking up.

The third try and the third voicemail the Professor grabs the phone out of my hand. He has lost his calm.

“Listen up, asshole. Fifty bucks maybe I can let slide but you kill one of my best men and then don’t even have the decency to show up yourself?”

I secretly wanted to take my full credit for both the theft and the death of the Tiger.

“This brother of yours is fucking useless but we’ve got someone else here you might be interested in.”

He held out the phone and nodded to his associate who brought a hacksaw out of nowhere. Had he brought it with him or did he get it out of our garage?

He put it to Mom’s shoulder and pushed it forward once tearing along her thin flesh and making her scream the way she always described childbirth but could never fully articulate.

I tensed. My stomach roiled. The second associate put a gloved hand on my chest to hold me in place and gave me a stern stare.

The Professor held the phone until Mom’s scream subsided. “I got another arm for you. See if you like it. See if it makes you want to put water under the bridge.”

He snapped the phone shut and nodded to continue. The hacksaw bit again and the screaming started over.

Maybe it’s something about being in a loud room. My ears hadn’t fully recovered from the machine shop and there I was in an abattoir hearing my dear Mother screech for her life, or maybe for the swift end of it. Whatever it is, you know that unreal feeling you get when you’re reading one of the Soviet-era avant-garde like Nikolay Zabolotsky? Well, anyway, the feeling let me step out of myself and do things I otherwise wouldn’t.

Like reach out and snatch a gun from the Tiger in front of me. And shoot him in the chest. My second kill and it was getting slightly easier.

I aimed at the man hacksawing my Mom and shot him in the forehead. Easier still.

I turned to the Professor. Mom’s screaming had stopped. All of her had stopped. She slumped forward in her chair. Passed out maybe but, at the rate she was spilling blood onto the carpet, it was only a matter of time.

The sound was gone but in my head the high tinnitus ring from the gunshots kept me in my fog of unreality. The Professor was shouting angrily at me, spit flying from his lips, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not until my third shot cut through the ringing in a muted cotton ball bang. That time pulling the trigger was really quite easy to do.

Four kills since the morning and I wasn’t done yet. One more and my career as a killer was over. One more bullet saved special for my asshole brother.

He got me into all this. Well, Dave and U.S. Grant but not much I can do about that guy.

BIO: ERIC BEETNER is the co-author of the novel One Too Many Blows To The Head, along with JB Kohl. The select few who have read it say it is really good. His short stories are all over the web in various crime fiction zines. More novels have been completed and are searching for a home like a three-legged dog on the side of the highway at rush hour. He could never write anything as twisted as Jason Duke but he welcomes the opportunity.


Michael Solender said...

whoa, that is one mofo of a wild story. subtle it ain't, boffo it is.

Jake Hinkson said...

Great job, as usual. This one moves like a bullet.