"So," he began, tapping manicured fingers on my freshly polished desk. "I hope I'm in the right place. I need some help."
I went through the motions and pulled out a pen and memo pad, keeping a close eye on him. I've been in this business over ten years and never yet made a bad judgment call. He looked genuine enough; the balding pate, tanned face and flashy tie, probably from his latest gal. All my business was word of mouth. He was referred by a satisfied former client.
I pointed to the sign, scripted in small brass letters, on the wall above my head: Discreet Services, Ltd. "That's what I'm here for."
"She does a lot of volunteer work. She plans charity balls and the like. The hospital benefit is coming up this weekend. I was thinking maybe a robbery when we get home. There's a struggle, I get hurt somewhat but she, uh..." His voice faltered for the first time, "She passes away."
“Passes away”! I resisted the urge to snicker--not good for client relations--but the way men reached for euphemisms in my office never ceased to amaze me. I shook my head. "Won't work."
His broad shoulders sagged slightly. “Why not?”
I sat straight in my leather chair, ticking off reasons on my fingers. "Husband's always the first suspect; you must know that. That's why you came to me. Besides, a robber isn’t going to brutally attack the weaker target and leave the stronger one alone. Any criminal in his right mind would go after you first and hardest. In any real robbery, the odds are you'd be the one to go. Cops would see through it in a minute."
"Oh, but I thought if I could describe the thief..."
"A Black man in his thirties wearing a knit cap?" I couldn't keep the sarcasm completely out of my voice.
"Something like that."
"That card's been played out," I said.
"So what's left?" he asked, a little hostile now. I probably pushed him far enough. I couldn't help it; it was one of the few non-monetary perks of the job.
"I'll take care of it. That's why you're here."
"How much?" He pulled out his checkbook.
I put up one hand like a stop sign. Some men were brain-dead when it came to murder. No wonder business was booming. "My bank account's on Grand Cayman. When I get confirmation of the wire, I get cracking."
He blanched when I named my price. I shrugged my shoulders.
"I never said altering your marital status would be cheap."
"I guess it's cheaper than divorce," he grumbled, tucking his checkbook back in his suit jacket. "What's next?"
"The day the money's wired, spend the night in the city. You have a corporate condo there, don't you?" He nodded. "Schedule an early breakfast meeting the next day. Go out that night to dinner, to a ballgame, something with a friend, not a girlfriend," I warned. His eyes flickered but he kept quiet. "Make yourself visible and then change your mind about staying overnight. Tell your friend, the bartender, whoever, and come home at midnight. Not a minute before and not a minute after."
"Aren't you going to tell me more?" He was the typical client: a man used to being in control.
"The less you know, the better. You don't want any details."
"You're the boss." It probably was the first time he ever uttered those words.
The money came through a few days later. At precisely midnight my client cautiously opened the front door of his house and stepped into the darkened marble foyer.
His wife shot him right through the heart.
I flicked on the chandelier with gloved fingers, and gave her an approving nod. "When the cops come, you tell them the story we went over. You were sleeping, your husband was spending the night in the city, you heard someone downstairs. You thought he was a burglar."
She dropped the gun and clasped my hands. "I can't thank you enough."
I gently freed myself. "Call the police. Don't waste any more time."
I slipped out through the solarium as she picked up the phone. She'd do fine; she was a smart woman. Smart enough to offer double my fee when I called her. They don't all do that. Most of them don't believe me. But that was their problem, not mine. This job would finance some serious R & R for a good, long while. I've heard the Dutch West Indies are lovely this time of year.
About the author:
Christine Eskilson received honorable mentions in the 2012 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Contest and the 2012 Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Annual Writing Contest, third place in the 2017 WNBA Annual Writing Contest, and first place in the 2018 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies.
The body lay in the trash-strewn alley as if it was just another broken thing someone tossed away. Like a shroud, my shadow fell across the man’s face, cast by the forensic techs’ floodlights. I knelt on the cracked blacktop to get a better look. He was about my age, pushing fifty, but more powerfully built and wearing a suit that probably cost what I made in a month – at least before the blood ruined it. ID gave him the name Ken Wallace and his expression was strangely composed, as if death brought some peace he always longed for. I hoped that was true, because two bullets to the chest was a high price to pay for it.
I turned at my name and struggled back to my feet, knees popping and protesting. The job got harder every year, but not in the ways I imagined when I was a rookie.
A uniformed officer named Kemp, about the same age as my son, pushed a medium-sized, nervous-looking man towards me. His hairline was in full retreat and sweat sheened the bare skin. Like Wallace, his suit was also better than mine. “Sergeant Malone, this guy was with the vic when he was shot.”
“He tell you that?” I asked Kemp, intentionally ignoring the third man.
“Yessir. Folks in the bar pointed him out and he told me himself afterwards. Says his name’s Bryce Heisner.”
I looked at Heisner. His gaze shifted downward.
“Okay, Kemp,” I told the uni. “Leave Mr. Heisner with me, but don’t go too far.” Kemp nodded and backed off several paces, keeping his eye on the two of us.
I said, “You seem awfully nervous, Mr. Heisner.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” he snapped. “I witnessed a murder, for God’s sake.”
“Did you?” One of my eyebrows rose with the question.
“What are you implying? You think that I'd lie about-" He broke off and looked me directly in the eye. “Ken and I have been friends since college, officer. Believe me, I want the animal that did this caught." He made a noise in his throat. "Shot down in a filthy alley. It's horrible. Disgusting. I can't stand guns. They terrify me – and with good reason. To think I was so close to... My God, you can’t go anywhere in this city anymore.”
Heisner was talking a lot, but not really saying anything.
“Let’s hear what happened then.”
“Like I said,” Heisner began, “Ken and I have known each other since college. He went into law, I went into finance. I’ve been his broker for years, but aside from business now and then, we hardly see each other anymore. He suggested we get a drink.”
“He pick this place?” I asked, thinking that Marky’s Bar wasn’t exactly where you’d expect a lawyer and his broker to meet. It wasn’t quite a dive, but it was about as far from class as you could get without being one.
Heisner nodded. “We used to drink here when we were in school. It’s… changed more than we realized.”
“Sure. Go on.”
“Well, we had our drink, caught each other up, and talked a little business. About nine, I guess it was, I said I better call it a night. Ken offered to share a cab uptown. We left through the bar’s side-door, out into the alley here. A man down at the far end stepped out of the shadows, pointing a gun at us. It was one of those cheap little Freedom .380s, the kind you can get used for fifty or sixty dollars. He demanded we toss him our wallets and Ken just sort of…” He shrugged and shook his head. “Lost it, I guess. He charged right at the mugger, making for the gun, I suppose. The man fired twice, watched Ken fall, and then turned and ran. It all happened so fast, I could hardly take it in.” He shook his head again. “You know the rest. A crowd of people came out of the bar and I guess someone called 911.”
“Uh huh,” I said, noncommittally. “Anything else you can tell me?”
Heisner squared his jaw and clenched his fist. “Just that I’ll never forget the face of that… that murderer. It’s burned into my memory. I’d recognize him anywhere.”
“Sure,” I told Heisner. “Most people can recognize their own reflections in a mirror.” I gestured towards Kemp. “Cuff Mr. Heisner, will you?”
“Wha, wha, what?” Heisner stammered. He tried to shake Kemp’s hands off, but the young officer had no problem controlling him. “What’s the meaning of this? You think I killed Ken?”
I nodded. “I’m all but sure of it. We’ll get the rest of it later, motive and so forth, once you feel like telling the whole story, but you’ve practically already confessed.”
“How?” Heisner demanded, his voice shrill. “What do you mean? What makes you think I killed Ken? We were friends for God’s sake! Why would I kill him?”
“You’re his broker, so I’m guessing it’s about money,” I ventured. “As for the how, you know an awful lot about what kind of gun this supposed mugger used for a man who says he hates guns and wants nothing to do with ‘em. You identified the make from a glance, in a dark alley, something even an expert might not have been able to do, and knew how much a used one runs. You stashed that gun around here someplace, and once we locate it, I’m sure forensics will find your prints on it. Even if you wiped the outside or wore gloves, you probably forgot the cartridges.”
I looked at Kemp over Heisner’s head. “They always forget the magazine and the cartridges. We get a lot of good thumb-prints off them.” I took a last look at Heisner. “I hope Ken Wallace wasn’t your lawyer. You’re gonna need a good one.
“Read him his rights and get him out of here,” I told Kemp.
Looking back at Wallace, I sighed. Some days, the job was rough, but it’s not actually the work. Not usually. It’s the people. Even when they make it this easy, it’s always hard to take.
About the author:
Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels STRANGERS' KINGDOM, BURN ME OUT and THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD. He has published over seventy stories, selected of which are collected in the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers and lives in Vermont by a big lake with a patient wife and two impatient cats. http://www.brandonbarrowscomics.com
Jack Becker, owner and CEO of PESTS IN PERIL, learned he was allergic to bee stings the hard way. He did an overnight hospital stay after being thrice stung at age six. Since then, his hatred wasn’t limited to flying creatures. He despised all insects, butterflies, moths, rodents, caterpillars, you name it.
Founding his own exterminating business gave him great pleasure on a professional and personal basis. He struggled in the beginning, but after five years, managed to keep the business afloat. Things went smoothly enough, until two big, national extermination companies nearly put him out of business.
That’s when Becker decided he needed to do something different.
Inspiration finally slapped his face in the form of one Mrs. Ellsworth, the elderly widow on Wilderness Circle. She came from money, old money. Becker just landed her as a customer. Her basement was huge, smelly, damp, and unused. Becker found no evidence of infestation of any kind, but Mrs. Ellsworth didn’t have to know that. He brought a dead mouse with him, came up the stairs to confront the homeowner.
“I’m afraid you have a problem, ma’am,” he said in his professional voice.
“Oh?” she responded, coughing into a frilly handkerchief.
“Mice. Plenty of them.” He produced the dead rodent.
“Oh my! Please, get that creature out of my sight. Do what you have to do, but please dispose of them. Quickly!”
That’s all Becker had to hear. He spent every week in the Wilderness Circle basement, hanging out for at least an hour, emerging with a report. Each time, he told Mrs. Ellsworth he was making progress, but the problem was a serious one, and that with continued, regular visits, he would be able to eradicate her problem. Becker billed her monthly at exorbitant rates. She didn’t seem to care as long as the mice were taken care of. Over time, Becker raised her rates, sucking more money from her.
“They’re raising the price of the really good chemicals,” he’d tell her. “I hate to pass the cost on to you, but I have no choice,” he’d say.
“That’s quite all right,” came the reply. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Becker’s only concern at this point was Mrs. Ellsworth’s health. It seemed to deteriorate each time he saw her. The coughing became worse. Week after week she looked paler.
“Maybe you should see a doctor,” Becker said, a year after first concocting the scam. Not that he had any feelings one way or the other for the old woman, but he feared if she died, that would be the end of his meal ticket. She helped keep PESTS IN PERIL in the black.
“Nonsense,” she’d snap back. “What do doctors know? They only take your money. They string you along. I don’t trust the best of them,” she said. “My money isn’t going to be spent on tomfoolery. Not at my age.”
“Still, Mrs. Ellsworth, it might be wise if you at least–”
“I’ll hear nothing more about it,” she said between hacks.
A week later, Becker’s gravy train ended. Mrs. Ellsworth died. He coughed when he heard the news.
The heavy construction equipment assembled on Wilderness Circle. Becker pulled his car over and got out.
“What’s going on?” he asked what appeared to be the crew chief.
The man pushed back his hard hat. “We’re razing the house. Place is condemned.”
“Why?” asked Becker, coughing.
“Some sort of black mold. I can’t pronounce what it is. Starts with an ess. Started in the basement and extended all over the house. Shame. It’s a beautiful place.”
Becker whipped a handkerchief out of his pocket and coughed up blood.
“Hey, you might want to see a doctor about that,” the construction worker said.
About the author:
Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (2006) and Anticipations in D. Martin Dakin's A Sherlock Holmes Commentary (2021).
When the spotlight illuminates the stage for Act 3, Scene 1, I am in the front row, ready. My coat is in my lap, and my gun is underneath.
These are the Fairfield Community Players, and Fairfield’s finest actor, the program tells me, is Dr. Jerry Whitesides, an orthodontist, who is playing the role of Claudius. His wife and receptionist, Betty, is playing Ophelia. They are exactly as good in their roles as you would expect.
Not many community theatres have the guts to try Hamlet. Some plays are beyond what a bunch of amateurs can attempt without seeming ridiculous. It always comes down to this: Is the lead role beyond the abilities of their best actor? This is why community theatres never do Death of a Salesman. They don’t have anybody who can handle Willy Loman, so they do The Crucible instead.
Bottom line: put Dr. Jerry on stage as Hamlet, and summer stock becomes laughing stock. So the guy playing Hamlet is a ringer. His name is Blanford Plantain, and he is a theatre professor at the state college twenty miles down the road. While his performance for the first two acts has been merely adequate, he has nevertheless made this production possible. Upside: the Fairfield Community Players have someone who can (barely) pull off the role of Hamlet. Small downside: the Fairfield Community Players have an actual actor performing next to Dr. Jerry, and the contrast hurts to see. Huge downside: while my fellow American playwrights and I continue to produce quality new work every year, the Fairfield Community Players have gone out of their way to produce a British play that is more than four-hundred years old.
This is why Blanford Plantain must die. He has made this possible. I have no idea how much the Fairfield Community Players are paying him, but he should have said no. He should have said, “The world doesn’t need another production of Hamlet! People are still writing plays, you know.” But he didn’t say that, so it has fallen to me to bring this message to the people.
Professor Plantain steps into the spotlight. “To be . . .” His voice trails away, an overly long dramatic pause teasing the soliloquy to come. Very amateurish of him. He knows better. A few audience members giggle. Maybe Professor Plantain is mocking them? “. . . or not to be, that is the question.”
And that’s also my cue. I stand up, point my gun at Hamlet, and put six bullets into the goddamn Prince of Denmark. I didn’t plan it, but I jump onto the stage and shout, “Sic semper Shakespeare!” Later, some news reports will mock my Latin, but just like they say, there really is no bad publicity in this business.
I run for the exit, stage right. One of the stagehands tries to stab me with a plastic sword as I go by. Other than this, I meet no resistance. I’m out the door and into the night.
The next day, television news shows are blaring about the SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY, but none of the talking heads have any clue about my motivation. Most of these people, of course, couldn’t name a playwright other than Shakespeare. For now they are just wondering why someone would want to kill poor Blanford Plantain, who, according to his colleagues, students, and nextdoor neighbors, was such a nice guy.
That night, two states away from the Fairfield Community Players, the Elderwood College Department of Theatre is staging its own production of Hamlet, and I am not surprised when they dedicate the show to the memory of Blanford Plantain. When Act 3, Scene 1, begins, I can feel everyone get tense, which is why I wait until the end of the play to kill Hamlet. When he says, “O, I die, Horatio,” I hit him with a rifle shot from the balcony, and he does, in fact, die. Commotion ensues, and once again my escape is easy.
Now I am ready to declare my motives. I send my manifesto—“Declaration of the Liberation of the American Theatre”—to the New York Times, along with my credentials for being the killer: original programs from both productions of Hamlet.
The next day, well before my manifesto reaches the Times, theatres all over the country announce they are cancelling productions of Hamlet. The problem, it turns out, is even worse than I supposed. There are more Hamlets in production in the United States than I would have imagined possible.
Then, after the Times publishes my manifesto, hundreds of theatres across the country either close or bring in metal detectors and armed guards. I know that I may have to lay low for a long time, but only two weeks after the death of Blanford Plantain, a miracle happens. In London, someone murders a Hamlet! And then it happens in Bulgaria! And Ukraine! Now productions of Hamlet are being cancelled all over the world. One month after the death of Blanford Plantain, the Times reports that there are currently no productions of Hamlet taking place anywhere in the world!
I’m leading a movement now, which is wonderful, but all these dead Hamlets suggest that my acolytes are missing the point. Do they read the Times in Bulgaria and Ukraine? My manifesto makes clear that Hamlet is merely a symbol of the disease that infects American theatre — and, as I am now learning, world theatre. We will never win this war if we kill only Hamlets.
Clearly, we must take the battle to new fronts, and my path ahead is clear. Tomorrow, I will kill my first Lear. Next week, I will machine-gun my first production of Our Town.
About the author:
David Rachels is co-editor of the publishing imprint Staccato Crime, which resurrects forgotten noir and true crime classics from 1899-1939. As well, he has edited four volumes of short stories by the classic noir writer Gil Brewer.
Carmen flicked the lighter and waited impatiently for the lying magician’s time to run out. His pounding on the lid of the air-tight trunk grew less forceful, less frequent, but he was hanging on.
Where was all this stamina and longevity before, she wondered with a smirk. Then her face darkened as she realized he probably saved it for her.
With a growl, she threw the lighter down on the dressing table, among the fire-breathing equipment and shards of mirror. “The Great Patricio” specialized in escapology–hence the practice session with the metal trunk before the show–but he liked to give the crowd variety. And most crowds liked fire. The Great Patricio liked fire. So long as he could control it.
Carmen was fire of a different variety.
She stormed over to the trunk and opened the small hatch on top. “Tell me where it is,” she began, ignoring his desperate gasps. “And I may let you out in time for the show.”
The cacophony of the crowd out front of the theatre floated in through the open windows. But she already warned the manager not to interrupt The Great Patricio before curtain-up. She gave him that look her mother used to call her “stone-cold bitch face”.
“I can’t,” he panted, still sucking down lungfuls of sweet oxygen. “I don’t know where she hid it.”
Carmen slammed a fist into the grate of the hatch, mashing the pink flesh of his lips in the metal grid, producing a pathetic yelp from within. “You son of a bitch!” The noise from outside seemed to quieten. She lowered her voice. “You may have started this con with her, but she is out and I am your partner now. You owe me.”
“It’s not that simple,” he whined. “If you let me out...”
“I will let you out when I get my share, Patrick.” She stomped back to the dressing table and snatched up the lighter, grabbed her cigarettes.
“Betty needs the money...”
Carmen immediately regretted kicking the trunk but it was the closest she could get to kicking the lying, cheating toad. She hopped over to the couch, put her cigarette in the ashtray and rubbed at her swollen toes. Then stopped.
He was laughing.
“What’s so funny, shithead?”
“I can’t believe you thought this would work,” he said. “It isn’t your best idea ever.”
“Well, it sure as shit ain’t my worst, either,” she fired back. “That’s still answering your ad.”
His laughter ceased, but another’s laughter took its place.
Her mother laughed in her face when Carmen brought home the ad from the supermarket noticeboard. A week later, she watched her only daughter get into the motor-home of The Great Patricio, waving with one hand, a vodka in the other, still laughing.
Carmen was under no illusions; she knew if she stuck around, she’d only end up a lush like her mother, lucky if she made it to checkout supervisor, end up married to the manager and with a couple of brats of her own. Not yet twenty-one, but she already knew a dead end when she saw one.
She also knew being assistant to a travelling stage magician wouldn’t lead to happiness either. Patrick Mullane was just her way out of a bad situation.
That he was wanted for burglary in Boston and Raleigh had come as a surprise.
Those escapology skills helped him get out of the homes of old, rich, white people. The money he made from years of fencing their stolen jewelry would be her way out of a dead end life with Patrick. A fresh start. Alone.
“So, you’re telling me Betty has it?” She sat on the edge of the couch, toying with the lighter again.
“Yeah,” came Patrick’s quiet reply. “If you let me out, I’ll take you to her. Get your share.”
He couldn’t see her, but she grinned anyway, shook her head at the trunk. “You stupid son of a bitch. I already went to see her. Yesterday. When you thought I was visiting momma. She told me everything. She told me you had it squirrelled away somewhere.”
The cheap, plastic clock hanging on the wall ticked audibly. Seconds became minutes.
“Look, Carmen.” She couldn’t believe he was still arguing the point. But his tone was more serious, more pleading. He wasn’t laughing now. “I didn’t mean for you to find out this way. I’m sorry.”
It was her turn to laugh. “You think I give a shit that you’ve been fucking your ex?” She tried to keep the tremor out of her voice; if she really didn’t care, she wouldn’t have done what she did to Betty. She took an unsteady drag of her cigarette. “I just want my money.”
“Well, obviously there’s more to it than that.” The magician sighed. “I never meant to get her pregnant. But I’ve been wanting a kid. Well, you know. And I can’t let her get rid of it. So, she needs the money. I really think I’ll be a good dad, you know?”
Carmen tuned out. Everything after “pregnant” was like white noise, static playing over the nightmare film rolling in her mind. Radiant Betty, all sunshine and light, the smug expression on her face when she opened her front door. Offering Carmen a drink, but opting for water herself. She wasn’t even showing. Then the film in Carmen’s head cut to the end - so much blood. Carmen didn’t know Betty was bleeding for two.
“Come on, Carmen,” he chuckled. “I know we could never have any. But ain’t you gonna let me out? Congratulate me?”
She came out of her daze, standing next to the trunk, holding the kerosene in one hand, lighter in the other. The Great Patricio screamed when he recognized the smell of the liquid pouring through the hatch, covering him.
Carmen flicked the lighter and waited patiently for the lying magician’s screams to die out.
About the author:
Thomas Joyce lives in his hometown near Glasgow, Scotland with his wife and daughter, and is a reviewer for thisishorror.co.uk. His short stories have appeared at thehorrorzine.com, in Unnerving Magazine, and Lost Films, an anthology published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing in 2018. When not writing, he stalks the passenger trains of Scotland, demanding payment for safe passage.