The man in the black baseball hat nodded. “Sam.”
The man in the green flannel and gray Dockers nodded back. “Sam.”
Brief and weird, their mid-morning salutations ended. Sam walked into the Halloween shop and out of the sun.
The other Sam, eyes probing his surroundings from under the shadow of his baseball cap, sauntered into the sporting goods store.
The cell in Sam’s Dockers buzzed as he entered. Spider-webs and ghouls hung from the ceiling tiles. Haunting music full of groans and terrified screams gurgled out of the store’s shitty sound system. It wasn’t often he ran into other thugs. Occasionally sure. One of the top Yakuza guys had a thing for City Lights. He saw the guy there a few times.
This was the first time he saw Sam Hamilton. Both worked the streets: hired muscle, theft, you name it. Hamilton, the other Sam, worked mostly for the Gianni family now, but still did odd jobs when the bills got too high. In San Francisco, everything was too high.
He answered the call as he passed a vampire display. Thing had everything from graveyard cookie-jars and fang mugs to Bela Lugosi tank tops and plastic capes. A pair of shadows followed him. Two big guys with slicked black hair, black polo shirts, and gold chains.
Sam turned his attention to his call. “Think I’m in the right row. Which is it?” He examined one of the costumes on the display wall. Sexy nurse? “Hell, no.” Sam dropped the sultry costume as if it were on fire. “No daughter of mine is going out dressed like this. It’s fucking Halloween, not Las Vegas. Pick something else.”
He listened. Nearby, the goons in polo shirts tried on various rubber masks. Full of Covid, Sam figured. Shots or no shots, they had to be breathing that shit in. They settled on poop emoji masks. Whimsical, cute in its grossness, and not a bad choice. Had a bit of character, these guys, if not a lot of brains.
“Not discussing this. Why not a zombie?” he asked. “Because I said so. Not old enough.”
The lights went out. Sam tensed. A woman’s scream erupted from the opposite side of the store. Much louder than the canned screams in the speakers. Must have been a third goon he didn’t see. One to hit the lights.
Place still had power. Animatronic displays kept moving, casting red and blue lights over his face. Strobe-lights flashed from robotic monsters to his right. Sam whispered into his phone. “Not even when you’re sixteen. Not having this conversation. Listen, gotta call you back. Love you.”
The masked thugs were like oncoming mountains.
“You’re Sam, right?” one asked.
They’d get him long before the virus got them.
Sam threw himself toward the strobing lights just as one produced a firearm. By the time the guy popped off the first shot, Sam was gone. The bullet exploded into a ceramic haunted house, raining jagged bits of October fun onto the floor. The goons ambled forward as the store erupted into pandemonium.
Sam heard screams, desperate calls for calm, but focused on his own safety. A fire exit glowed against the far wall. He doubted he’d get there before the poop emojis got another bead on him. The hell did he do to these guys?
A strobe light nearby provided brief flashes of visibility. They didn’t appear around the corner. Probably thought he had a gun of his own.
Sam heard a cannon blast and felt the divider burst behind him. They blasted through the display. One shot, two shots, three. Rubber masks and twisted metal filled the air. He dropped to his knees, adrenaline thudding in his veins. Halloween debris fell around him. He’d have to bolt for the exit.
Sam was guilty of a lot of things, but nothing he could think of brought hired killers into the equation. He beat up a lawyer. Nearly drowned on a job, but that guy died. Sure, he was guilty of a lot, but…
His cell buzzed in his Dockers. He ignored it and started army-crawling for the exit. Sweat dripped from his forehead. Fucking Halloween. Wasn’t what it used to be.
The shooters weren’t looking for him. Thought they hit him square in the throat. Gold chains, brawn, and hip-rockets?
These were Mafia men.
“Christ, idiots followed the wrong Sam.” He said it louder so they could hear. “You got the wrong fucking Sam!”
Shitheads emerged from either end of the aisle. Sam knew he was done. He flopped over on his back and propped himself on his elbows. Both carried gats, he saw.
“You expect us to believe that, buddy?”
“Know the cameras got you? Should have worn the masks when you came in.”
The poop to his right took aim.
“Look, there’s another Sam around. Works for the Giannis. Bet you want that guy. I’m small potatoes.”
The hitman’s chest blew out before he could fire. The force threw him against a mannequin dolled up in a unicorn jumper. A red mist choked the air over his shoulder. The second emoji turned just in time to take a hit in the arm. Bullet chewed a bite off his elbow. He backed off and found cover. Looking up, Sam saw the other Sam step around an animatronic version of the Exorcist girl.
The newcomer walked past him, gun raised. “Sam.”
Sam nodded and started getting to his feet. “Mr. Hamilton.”
“Better get out of here. I’ll handle this guy. Family business.”
Sam made his way to the exit. “They got a guy at the lights, too. Suppose you knew that.”
“Already got him.”
Sam hit the street without hearing another shot. His pants buzzed again. This time he answered.
“Gotta find another store. This one’s closed. While I look for another place, you look up something PG-rated. Why did I say I love you? I’m your father. Not having this conversation…”
About the author:
Patrick Whitehurst writes from Tucson, Arizona, usually with a chihuahua in his lap. He's the author of five nonfiction books for Arcadia Publishing and the novellas “Monterey Noir” and “Monterey Pulp”. His short stories have appeared on the Punk Noir website, in the anthology “Shotgun Honey Presents: Recoil,” in Pulp Modern magazine, and elsewhere.
“There’s an English lady on the phone for you,” Marisol told me. “She says her name is Betty Butterberg.” Marisol spoke loudly, as people do when addressing someone my age, which happens to be one-hundred and five. Marisol is an aide at Ivy Bridges Care Center in Westport, Connecticut. I was there because I’ve lived too long and my body has failed me.
My brain, however, is as keen as ever. It is a machine that runs on facts, sifting through data and unerringly reaching conclusions. A man called Alan, with whom I once worked, compared my brain to a computer. Coming from him, it was the highest compliment he could have paid.
Alan is dead. He was hounded to death for being who he was. Almost all my Bletchley Park chums are dead. Some days it seems like everyone I knew back then is dead. At least the English lady who was currently on the phone was still alive.
Her name wasn’t Betty Butterberg. Marisol misheard her. The English lady sometimes calls herself Betty Battenberg. It’s a joke. The English lady likes jokes, particularly bawdy ones, surprisingly to those who think of her as a prim little figure dressed in pastels with an enormous, matching hat, like a human tea-cozy.
The English lady is Queen Elizabeth II. Battenberg was her family’s surname, before they changed it to Mountbatten.
I took the phone from Marisol. Gingerly wrapping my arthritic fingers around it, I said, “Hello, ma’am.”
“Hello, Sarah. We are pleased to have found you in,” she said.
“I’m always in. I’m bedbound. I’m ancient,” I told her.
“Nonsense. You’re not much older than we are. We don’t languish in bed all day. We rise in the morning, have some toast and marmalade, and then we get to work.” I could hear an echo of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in her self-congratulatory tone. I made no comment, and she continued, “Sarah, we are facing an international crisis. We need your help.”
That piqued my interest. “Not a family problem, then?”
“Good gracious, no. Those are horrid. This is about that Egyptian woman who’s gone missing.”
“Do you mean Behati Gamal?”
“Yes. She vanished from an airplane.”
I heard about it on the news. Behati Gamal was a singer and an actress of the splashy sort: tall, willowy, with a haystack of blonde hair. She disappeared on a charter flight to London from Lydd Airport, in Kent.
“The Egyptian ambassador is furious. He’s saying she was done away with because she was seeing a man who is related to us. It has no basis in truth, and yet there are insinuations.” Her voice thickened. “It’s like the bad time, all over again,” she said, referring to the death of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana.
“I shall look into it, ma’am,” I promised.
“Thank you, Sarah,” she said.
I looked into it. The internet makes it possible to do that while lying in bed, propped up on pillows and being turned every couple of hours, to make sure I didn’t develop bed sores.
The facts were straightforward. At 7 a.m., four days previously, a mechanic at Lydd Airport saw Behati Gamal board the small plane she chartered to take her to London. Despite the early hour she wore a short, silver dress, her blonde hair done up in her signature beehive. The mechanic was busy that morning, but he took a moment to appreciate the sight of the glamorous celebrity as she walked towards the aircraft, her back to the hangar where he worked.
Hovering over her was her bodyguard, a former boxer named Eric Parker. Her assistant, Rose Chatham, was late. The mechanic saw her scurrying from the car park, mousy in a tan raincoat, about ten minutes after her boss arrived.
There was a row the night before. Behati’s neighbours reported they heard the star shouting at her assistant. It appeared they made up. There was a wait for the pilot, who was filing the flight plan. When he arrived, carrying a cup of coffee, the plane took off.
Ten minutes into the flight, Behati got up to use the restroom. When she didn’t return, Rose Chatham told the police she knocked on the door. Getting no response, Rose opened the door. The tiny room was empty. Behati was gone.
“Flushed herself down the toilet?” Marisol suggested.
“She’s slender, but she’s not that slender,” I said.
“Could she have been hiding somewhere?”
“The police searched the plane. There was nowhere to hide.”
“Jumped, then,” Marisol said.
“There was only one door. Everyone would have seen her if she jumped.”
“Maybe she did it when they weren’t looking.”
“If the door opened while the plane was in flight, there would have been a gust of wind. The pilot surely would have noticed. The door was only a few feet from where he sat.”
Marisol was quiet, mulling it over. Finally, she said, “I don’t see how she could have disappeared from the plane.”
“She didn’t; she never got on.”
“But the mechanic saw her.”
“He saw Rose Chatham. She wore a blonde wig and a dress belonging to her employer. She got on the plane, changed clothes, and got off as herself when he wasn’t looking, pretending to be arriving late.”
“Then where’s Behati Gamal?”
“Dead,” I said shortly. “She fought with Rose the night before. It wasn’t the first time, from what the gossip columns say. Rose killed her, then she got the bodyguard to help get rid of the corpse. Behati’s house in Kent has a large garden. There are pictures of it online. They should start looking for her there.”
A day later, I had another phone call. I was sleeping at the time. Marisol took a message.
“It was Betty Butterberg again. She said you were right. She said she’s giving you an MBE. What’s that?”
“It’s an honour, and it’s high time I got one,” I said.
About the author:
Jill Hand is a member of International Thriller Writers. She is the author of the Southern Gothic novels, White Oaks and Black Willows.