“I had no idea there was so much blood in a head,” Deshawn said.
“When it’s blown up, it’s like a stopper going off a bottle,” Valerie said.
The ivory shag carpet was soaked, splatter covered the curtains, the ceiling, and the furniture. Crime scene techs left traces of their passage like punctuation marks. Valerie and Deshawn worked for the property management company. They were cleaners.
“If Rick thinks he can get a new renter in here by next week, he’s delusional,” Deshawn said. He raised his rubber-clad hands in a fair imitation of a surgeon about to approach the operating table. “It’ll take more than a few gallons of bleach.”
Valerie was bent over the carpet with her hands on her knees. “I told Rick shag was a bad idea. Throwback to the seventies is cool, he said.”
“More like throw up.”
They wore plastic booties and jumpsuits. Their ball caps said Stender Realty with a pink flamingo because this was Florida and their boss, Rick Stender, never saw a cliché that he didn’t like.
“You know the guy who lived here?” Deshawn said.
“He was in finance, that’s all I know. The cops think it’s drug-related.” Valerie pointed at the broken coffee table, upturned lamps, eviscerated credenza. “There was a fight and the guy was shot. The place has been ransacked. Can’t tell if they found what they were looking for.”
“At least the crud is only in this room. How do you want to tackle it? That carpet needs to be removed.”
“Let’s start with the walls. They shouldn’t need more than a paint-job.”
Valerie took pictures and sent them to the office while Deshawn started with the bucket.
“Rick?” Valerie was on the phone. “It’s Night of the Living Dead in here. You’ll have to spring for wall-to-wall carpeting.” She pulled the phone away from her ear. Rick was loud. “No, only in the sitting room.” She rolled her eyes at Deshawn. “Yes, we can fix the rest of the apartment.” She listened. “Uh-huh.” She hung up. “He said we could trash the carpet. He wants to try cleaning the curtains.”
They worked until late afternoon. The broken lamps and pieces of the coffee table were in a garbage bin. Curtains, throw pillows and other textiles Rick hoped to rescue were in plastic bags. They were focused on the task, trying to ignore the chunks of brain matter that the forensics team didn’t bother collecting. They must have had enough evidence with the crap they scooped from the carpet.
They removed their masks and gloves. Valerie raided the bar and Deshawn got glasses from the kitchen and ice from the fridge. They had a little pick-me-up.
Murders and suicides were not common. Mostly, they dealt with slobs and vandals. People who trashed the place they lived in for a few months, not caring about the security deposit because they had too much fun kicking holes in the walls.
“Do you want to haul off the shag now?” Deshawn said.
“The longer we wait, the smellier it’ll get.”
Deshawn unpacked the box-cutters and they set to work. They moved the furniture, pulled and tore up portions of the shag, piled up debris in a cleared corner.
They found the cache under the bar, a shallow cavity closed by a compressed-board lid. Deshawn inserted a sturdy kitchen knife in the groove and lifted the cover. They kneeled by the opening.
Valerie pulled out a black nylon bag. She lined up the neat stacks of fifty-dollar bills. Deshawn ran a finger through them, counted.
“Non-consecutive numbers,” he muttered. “Two million there about.”
“That’s why he was shot,” Valerie said. “Whose money is this?”
Deshawn tilted his head and grinned. “Ours, duh.”
“They’ll come back for it, Desh.”
“They looked everywhere and didn’t find anything. The dead dude didn’t tell where it was. Nobody knows about this. You want to give it to the cops? If they’re honest, it’ll be used to fix potholes.”
“We would get a reward,” Valerie said, her ethical resolve weakening. The cash in her bank account would fit in a piggy bank. A small one.
“Yeah, ten percent maybe, and taxable. Jeeze, Val! Don’t you want to tell Rick to go fuck himself?”
She did, oh how she did. She ground her teeth every time he copped a feel when she made the mistake of walking too close to his desk. “If we leave right after doing this job we’ll have a target the size of a Buick on our backs. Bad guys aren’t always stupid, Desh. The bigger the haul, the smarter they tend to be.”
The young man sat cross-legged by the hole in the floor. He hummed Bob Marley’s Jamming. “So we keep working for Rick for a while, then maybe you find a job somewhere and you move out of town. I work a few more months and I do the same.”
“That’s a lot of patience,” Valerie said. “A lot of pretending. A lot of time to sit on the money.”
“Worth it.” He smiled. “It’s what we would do anyway if we hadn’t found the cash, so, what’s the harm? It’s all good in my book.” He stared at the ceiling, eyes glossy with rapture. “We have the promise of good things to come. I can bear it, baby, can you?”
Valerie nodded with sudden resolve. “I’ll have to put it out of my mind if I want to be able to continue doing this shit.” She pointed at the hole in the floor. “The carpet people will talk.”
Deshawn jumped to his feet. “I know how to lay carpet. Rick won’t resist an opportunity to save some dough.” He held out his hand and pulled her up, close.
She smiled. Deshawn had grown a couple of inches, right in front of her. It was amazing what money from heaven could do to a man. To a girl too, come to think of it.
About the author:
M.E. Proctor is currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. The first book in the series will come from TouchPoint Press in January 2023. Her short stories have been published in Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern Flash, Bristol Noir, Fiction on the Web, The Bookends Review and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas.
Gunselle turned the key. Nothing. She turned it again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.
Kicking open the Studebaker’s door, she stepped into the lingering mist outside the garage. She looked at her wristwatch. The target would be stopping for his lunch in thirty minutes. No time for a cab. She looked across the street. A man weeded the garden above the sidewalk in front of his house. Shirley Temple peonies were in full bloom. Gunselle trotted toward him on sensible flat soles. She hadn’t primped for today’s job. It wasn’t a cocktail lounge pickup. And the pay was better.
“Hey, Frank,” she said, smiling up at the gardener from the sidewalk. He stood politely, brushing dirt from the knees of his soiled trousers.
“Mrs. Turner. How are you?” Though she wore sunglasses on a gloomy day, and hid her dark hair under a drab headscarf, he clearly remembered her from the time they spoke on the sidewalk when she was at her best in a tight summer dress, blazing like two sunny afternoons.
“Well, now that you mention it, Frank, I need to get to an appointment in half an hour and my car won’t start. I’d call a cab, but I really need to get going right this minute. May borrow your car?”
The man kicked at the dirt.
“I’d be happy to drive you, but my daughter’s birthday party starts right after lunch, and we’re taking the kids to the movies.”
“Just toss me the keys and I’ll have it back in an hour.”
“I don’t know. It’s a brand-new automobile.”
“Fuck you, Frank. I’m an excellent driver,” she said as she turned back toward her house.
Stepping off the curb, she noticed the old man on his corner porch. He was a mean bastard, always yelling at kids and dogs to stay off his half-dead lawn. He’d eyeball her from his rocking chair when she went out for walks in the evening. He lived alone. A rusted pickup waited at the bottom of his steps.
She turned down the middle of the street and headed up to his scruffy porch, watching his eyes grow wider as she approached.
“I need your truck, old man. Right now. What do I have to do?”
He stood with a comic leer, then opened the screen, motioning her into the house. Gunselle brushed past him into the living room.
After five infuriating minutes, she burst out the screen door and spit the mess in her mouth onto the weedy lawn. The old man had pulled off her scarf to run his fingers through her hair, so she grabbed his worn fedora off the knob of the rocking chair. Placing the hat on her head, she noticed Frank watching from across the street. Lifting the keys, she shook them, then raised her shoulders. It was his loss for having children and birthday parties.
At the bottom of the steps, she walked around the old man’s truck, stopping to brush the heavy grime off the license plate. When she was satisfied that the numbers could be read, she climbed in and started it up.
The truck sputtered and backfired all the way to the center of town. Gunselle felt like Ma Kettle bringing eggs to market as she rattled her way through the business district, eventually turning onto a side street. After a few blocks, she spotted the detective’s unmarked cruiser sitting at the curb. Pulling up beside him, she reached across the passenger seat to roll down the window. She made it just in time, as he crumpled the burger wrapper in his hands and tossed it out onto the street.
“Hey, mister. There’s a fine for littering,” she said as she removed the revolver from her bag and shot him in the face. He’d almost finished chewing. A car came to a screeching stop behind the truck as Gunselle squeezed two more rounds into the cruiser for effect. With the roomy hat down over her ears, she slowly puffed and clattered away from the scene.
Standing in the shadows of her open garage, Gunselle watched the activity on the corner while eating a bowl of canned peaches. Five police cruisers were parked at odd angles in front of the old man’s house, men with pistols and shotguns squatting behind open doors. A take-charge fellow with a bullhorn ordered the occupant of the house to step outside with his hands up. The fedora hung on the knob of the rocking chair where Gunselle left it after returning the keys and demanding her scarf. Eventually, the door opened and an angry old man stepped outside, waving a spatula at the line of cops. It wouldn’t have mattered if he raised his hands in surrender. The blood splattered against the front of the house after the smoke cleared explained why it was never a good idea to kill a police detective.
As officers raced to the porch, Gunselle strolled across the street, happily spooning at her peaches, then set the bowl on top of the concrete wall and pulled one of Frank’s peonies down toward her nose. The scent was elusive. Gunselle looked up to see Frank and his wife staring out a large picture window, the heads of five pretty little girls below them in a line, like tulips, taking in the carnage. One of the girls laughed as she silently clapped her hands together. That made Gunselle smile. Frank looked down at her after his wife herded the children away. He glanced at the old man’s house, then back at her.
She put her index finger to her lips, then pointed it at Frank like a pistol.
Frank nodded as Gunselle picked up the empty bowl and started back across the street. It was a pleasant neighborhood. She was finally getting to know her neighbors.
About the author:
Russell Thayer received his BA in English from the University of Washington and worked for decades at large printing companies. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana.
The television studio was bigger than I imagined, and busier than I expected. People scurried in all directions, each seemingly on a life or death mission. I didn’t know why I was there, only that I was looking for Marvin Stone, a producer for Foodie Television who asked the police commissioner for a favor.
A young woman with a clipboard stood by the doorway muttering.
“Excuse me…” She ignored me. I tried another tack. “Police,” I said, bringing up the badge hanging from my neck. She looked up, eyes wide.
“Are you crazy?” a voice asked.
A small, balding man in an immaculately cut suit appeared as if from thin air. His face wore a mixture of dismay and anger. “I asked Brampton to send someone with discretion!”
I cleared my throat. “Marvin Stone?”
“Yes. Detective Smulders?”
“I’m Mark Smulders.”
“Come with me.” He led me to another part of the building. This area was dominated by a raised platform on which there were enough shining chrome ranges and refrigerators for a small army of chefs. Painted on the rear wall of the set was a logo reading KITCHEN PUZZLES. Lying face-down on the floor in the middle of the “kitchen” was a body. It might have been a man who just stumbled and fell, but from long experience I knew it wasn’t.
To one side of the platform, two men and a woman were seated in canvas chairs, looking uncomfortable. Four beefy guys in security uniforms surrounded them, two behind and two in front, ensuring none of the three were going anywhere.
I opened my mouth, but Stone beat me to the punch. “I know, we should have gone through normal channels when we found Chef Roberto’s body, but we can’t afford bad press. I’ve known Commissioner Brampton for years and asked if we could handle this quietly. He said he’d send his best detective and that you’d find the culprit and take them away quietly. What do you need to get started?”
The commissioner was a flamboyant man who knew a lot of media folks and was always getting his face on TV or in magazines. More of a politician than a cop. I wondered what favor he owed Stone.
I mentally sighed. I didn’t like this off-books tit-for-tat stuff. I said, “Give me a rundown on the situation.”
Stone said they were supposed to film the pilot for a new reality-show this afternoon, in which three amateurs attempted to replicate celebrity chef Roberto Orsi’s recipes simply by tasting them. Orsi was well-known for his culinary skills, especially his off the cuff improvisations, and equally for his temper. The network hoped that people would tune in more to see how he dressed down the contestants than how they dressed up their dishes. The pilot’s three contestants were chosen from a cooking competition at a local mall: Michael Moulton, Raphael Flores, and Amelia Carter.
“There’s already been a lot of friction,” Stone admitted. “Roberto resented having anyone in his kitchen, even for the show. The practice runs we’ve done have been volatile, which is what we wanted, but we never thought it would come to this.”
“Anyone butt heads with Roberto more often than the others?”
Stone shook his head. “Unfortunately, Chef Roberto was pretty hard on all of them.”
I sighed aloud this time. “Let me look at the scene.”
The set was a functioning kitchen. The ranges and ovens worked, and the refrigerators were filled with ingredients. There was also a large pantry stocked with dry goods; the door stood open and white powder covered the floor between it and a paper bag clutched in the outstretched hand of Chef Roberto. Nearby was a frying pan, apparently the murder weapon from the dark stains on it.
I studied the tableau for a few minutes before I stepped down to the floor of the soundstage.
“Well?” Stone asked.
“Ask your security guys to hold Mr. Flores while I get a tech-team in to process the scene.” Before Stone could protest, I said, “They’ll be discreet, I promise, but to make this arrest stick, we’ll need evidence and when it comes to due process, there’s no such thing as too many chefs in the kitchen.”
“Wait,” Stone began. “How do you know it was Mr. Flores? I mean…” Words seemed to fail him. I had a feeling it was a new experience.
“I don’t remember much from high-school Spanish, but I do remember that ‘flores’ is flower.” Gesturing towards the sound-stage floor, I added, “Orsi made one last improvisation in the kitchen, trying to cook Mr. Flores’s goose.”
In his canvas chair, Flores squirmed uncomfortably, but he didn’t deny it.
About the author:
Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, most recently 3rd LAW: Mixed Magical Arts, a YA urban fantasy, as well as nearly one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He was a 2021 Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at http://www.brandonbarrowscomics.com & on Twitter @BrandonBarrows
He didn’t notice her until she got up to dance. She was big. You might say fat, if you were that kind of person. He wasn’t. Chalk it up to a lot of experience. And a disdain for cliché.
She wore ragged cutoff jeans and a t-shirt that said DANGEROUS in rhinestones. Cute. But she was more than cute, if a lot less than dangerous. She moved that big package like it was floating on the ocean, twerking it, rolling it. An unmistakable message. She wanted it. He wanted her.
It was what he did. Pick out a woman for the night. Take her back to whatever midrange Travelodge he was camping in. Screw her brains out. Then get a good night’s sleep—alone. Uber made the job a lot easier. Harder for them to cling and no excuse to hang around.
Sometimes they were up for it. Sometimes they needed persuasion, and he was always generous with the drinks. If they needed more coaxing, he kept a little bottle of persuader in his pocket.
This one would come easily. He knew it. Which was fine, because he wasn’t up to working hard for it tonight.
Dancing wasn’t his thing. He waited until she sat back down with her friends, two other women who were more attractive, if that was your thing. It wasn’t his. He liked them a little desperate. The wing-women would make it a bit harder to talk to her. But he was so good at this.
It worked like it always did. No illicit substances necessary, just three tequila sunrises. In his car on the way to the motel, he pushed up her skirt and pushed his hand between her legs. She spread, and her right hand found his hard-on. By the time they crashed through the door of his room, her panties were down around her ankles.
He traveled down this road so many times before that each move was instinctive. Right now, they were at a fork in it. If he didn’t manage expectations, there could be demands. He didn’t like demands. The thing was to maintain total control.
She broke away to slip her backpack off her shoulder, headed toward the dresser. He grabbed the pack, slung it to the floor and pushed her onto the bed.
The whole thing was a scramble. She seemed up for everything, so he kept pushing her. And she kept going there. In fact, she wasted him. So much that he had to take a minute, when it was all over, before he started the disengagement process.
She crawled to the foot of the bed and rummaged in her purse. Good. Maybe she was going to get out on her own. Then she climbed back on top of him. Again? She straddled him and he started to push her off, not too hard at first.
There was a knife. What the fuck? He thrashed, but the blade slashed. Blood spurted so fast his muscles turned to water.
He stared through dimming eyes, croaked out a word.
“Sorry,” she said, not sorry. “It’s what I do. Besides, it’s my birthday.”
About the author:
Susan Kuchinskas mixes genres with impunity from the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the author of the science fiction/detective novels Chimera Catalyst and Singularity Syndrome.
I feel bad so this must be a confession, except it’s not about me. It’s about Steve and his son. Steve and I went to school together. To the other kids, he was known as the boy whose dad was in prison. We never talked about his dad’s absence. Unrequited curiosity was a small price to pay for the friendship.
We went in different directions as adults without ever losing touch. Steve married, had a child they named Vincent, and became the manager of a grocery store, all before he was thirty years old. Meanwhile, I chased Chicago theater dreams and never really grew up. What I lacked in material success, I made up for with commitment. The bedroom in my apartment in Rogers Park was so stuffed with costumes and props I had to sleep on the sofa.
Steve’s son Vincent was a chip off his grandfather’s old block. The boy was always wild, but I didn’t know what I was seeing on my visits to their house when he was little. Steve told me once, “I’ve known how he was going to end up since he was four years old.” I thought he was kidding at the time, but then the years went by and the evidence began to speak for itself. Vincent went from vandalism to shoplifting to the family tradition of armed robbery by the time he was eighteen.
You could say he graduated last month. That was when shots rang out and a body fell down dead in the South Loop. Vincent made off with a black bag full of uncut gems, but not before a witness saw him at the scene. Vincent had enough bullets left over for her, but he didn’t have enough heart.
He ran straight to the grocery store in Portage Park where Steve worked. Knowing Steve, he behaved as he thought a father should. He listened to the boy without anger or judgment.
“I can’t do prison, Dad,” Vincent told him at the end.
Steve said he knew that. In that way, the boy was built like his grandfather. Hard time would have driven Vincent to suicide. Something had to be done about the witness if Steve was going to save him. It was either the life of his son or the life of some stranger he never met. No choice at all.
Steve tried to take Vincent’s gun away but Vincent wouldn’t give it up. He was too scared to be without it.
Steve left him in the storage room of the grocery store and drove his truck to where the shooting occurred. Sure enough, there was a CPD patrol car parked in the front of the witness’s basement apartment. Steve didn’t have to think long about what he needed to do next. He went looking for me.
I hadn’t heard the news about Vincent. I never paid attention to the news. It was always depressing so why bother?
I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend on a weekday.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” I said. “Playing hooky?”
Steve shook his head and my smile fell away. When we were young, Steve would get this expression on his face whenever the subject of his dad came up. He had the same expression now.
“What do you need?” I said.
He left my apartment wearing a Chicago policeman’s uniform we used for a production of Windy City Blue, a silver star with the rank of Officer on his chest and everything. The gun in the holster was a prop, of course.
He left at two o’clock. I estimate forty-five minutes for the commute so he must have spent another hour working up the nerve.
It was close to four when he talked to the cops in the patrol car as if he was one of them. They didn’t think twice as he went to check on the witness. She let him inside and he strangled her to death in her kitchen.
He went out the back way. His regular clothes were still at my place, but Steve wanted to tell his son the news first…
I think of Vincent, out of his mind with worry, a gun in his hand. He saw a cop coming through the door at him and he fired. The first bullet blew out his father’s spine, just above the belt. The other one caught him in the throat.
Eventually, Vincent must have looked beyond the uniform at the man who was wearing it. He had one bullet left in the gun.
Yesterday, the police had me identify the bloody shirt as my property. I thought I’d get treated like a criminal but the cops seemed glad to talk to somebody. Why not? All the other people involved were dead.
About the author:
Regan MacArthur is the author of a son and a daughter. They live in the Chicagoland area. His criminal background is mostly imaginary. Mostly.
“Bruno, you don’t have to kill him.” I was wasting my time. If Bruno wanted to kill someone, nobody could talk him out of it, least of all me.
“Shut the fuck up or I’ll start on you next.” Bruno was the enforcer in this part of town. He was somewhere around six-foot-five and built like a brick shithouse. He spent at least an hour a day in the gym, so one punch was usually all it took to put most men on the ground. They banned him from cage-fighting for being too violent.
My job was to drive him around. Bruno was in a constant state of road-rage, so the people who paid him paid me to drive instead. That was the closest thing to control anybody exercised over Bruno. He tolerated it because he got to sit in the back seat yelling and cursing at me while he worked his sports-book app. Saying “sorry” fifty times a day was the best way to stay on what passed for his good side.
Today, the guy on the ground was a new community organizer. He was a do-gooder, here to help clean up a neighborhood where rich suburbanites could buy drugs without getting out of their car. Everybody was happy with the arrangement except the people who lived here. They complained to the new organizer, so he promised to take on the dealers. He played football for some little division three college so he thought he knew rough stuff. He was finding out the hard way just how rough it can get on the street.
We saw the guy walking past some abandoned factories. I pulled into an alley and Bruno grabbed him as he passed. Soon, he was in the basement of an abandoned factory with a busted arm.
“Quit crying, you pussy.” Bruno kicked the guy in the kidney to emphasize his point.
I tried to distract him. “Bruno, you said to remind you we’re supposed to collect from the bakery guy next.” Bruno liked collecting from the bakery guy because he’d help himself to a box of donuts.
“Okay.” He looked at the guy on the ground. “Crawl back to your mommy, asshole.” He gave the guy a hard farewell kick right in the chest. The guy’s body jerked like he was hit with a live electric-line. He gave an agonizing gasp and went still.
I watched the guy for a few seconds. “I think he’s dead.”
Bruno was looking at his phone. “Tough shit for him.” He began walking away. I followed.
As we were ready to walk out, I heard crying. There was a kid, a young girl, hugging the dead guy on the floor. I was so startled that I stopped. It was a mistake, but too late to fix it. Bruno turned and saw where I was looking.
“Shit.” He turned and started towards the kid.
“No, you can’t kill a kid.” I wasn’t exactly a moral person, but killing kids was too much.
“No witnesses.” His hand went to his gun.
I saw an old four-by-four sitting in a trash pile. I knew what I was doing was stupid, but I grabbed it and went after Bruno. My problem is I’m old and I’m slow and my footsteps are loud. He heard me before I was close enough to take a swing, so he turned and put one in my stomach. As he turned back to the kid, I pulled my phone out to call nine-one-one, but I didn’t expect what came next.
The kid stood up so suddenly that even Bruno wasn’t ready for her move. She pulled a gun from behind the dead guy’s back and shot Bruno point-blank in the face.
It was a little revolver, maybe a twenty-five or thirty-two. Bruno looked like he was smacked with a Louisville Slugger. He staggered back, confused. He leaned against a pillar with his gun still pointed at the floor. The girl walked right up to him, as calm as if she were ordering an ice-cream cone. Bruno started to raise his gun but she stopped him with two shots in the neck and chest. He bled out fast.
I didn’t move. I just stared.
She took Bruno’s wallet and put it in her pocket. Next she took the cash out of the dead guy’s wallet, wiped the gun, and put it in his hand. Then she came over to me.
“Thank you for trying to save me. Give me your phone and I’ll call an ambulance.” She held her hand out.
I couldn’t understand how she could be so calm after killing the nastiest bastard I’ve ever known. Something seemed wrong, but my hand was shaking so bad I handed her my phone.
She looked at it and asked for my PIN. She typed it in and the screen lit up, but, instead of calling for help, she walked over to Bruno and took his picture. I yelled, “What are you doing?”
She looked at me with eyes that were flat and devoid of emotion, the kind of eyes Bruno had before she shot them out. “I need a picture and the wallet to collect the reward.”
This conversation seemed surreal. “Reward?”
“The people in the neighborhood set up a GoFundMe page for anyone who takes care of the ‘rat’ problem. I need proof to collect.”
I stared at her, speechless.
I guess she thought I needed more of an explanation. “It’s enough to get me and my mom out of the shelter.”
I looked down at my stomach. My shirt was soaked with blood. “Call me an ambulance, hurry.”
She looked at me for several seconds then put the phone in her pocket. “Sorry.”
She started to walk away but stopped and looked back. “No witnesses.”
About the author:
Al Kanach wasted many years building things like power and pharmaceutical plants – and sometimes knocking them down. Now he’s gotten down to some serious writing and has had stories appear in Yellow Mama, Close to the Bone, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Tribune and Pulp Modern. He’s sending out his first (crime) novel and finishing a political thriller.
To: Bernice Milic
From: Clevus Von Clevus
Date: Monday, January 17 09:15:33 CST
Subject: Acknowledgments for BODY IN THE CREEK
Please find the file for BITC acknowledgments attached.
Faithful Reader, BODY IN THE CREEK is book number twenty-two, and I can’t believe it. As a fresh widower, please indulge this old writer a set of acknowledgments as unique as these last trying months.
First, great thanks to Celine Stone, agent extraordinaire, for her patience, especially through this fraught time.
All praise to my editor, Bernice Milic, whose steady eye is not unlike that of an Olympic volleyball line judge, scrupulously discerning what to leave in, what to leave out.
A debt of gratitude to the anonymous Twitter author of the myriad ways to eliminate DNA evidence from dead bodies. Immersing in water, I knew, but the ingenious idea of dousing a dead body with a fire extinguisher is amusing to practice in one’s garage, or so I’m told.
To Coach Jim Green who once showed me how to properly bend at the knees when lifting something heavy. That advice has been useful as I age and ferry dead weight now and again.
And to my wife, Irene, my muse, my inspiration for BITC, a cautionary tale about wanting more. Darling, I should have sensed your wanderlust when I first met you, standing in line to catch that Greyhound. The back of your head dazzled with copper curls, so much that it took me a minute to realize you were carrying a brown paper bag with a live chicken inside. (Reader, the driver politely uttered, Ma’am, you may not board with a live chicken.) I beheld Irene in one of her rare moments as she wrung the chicken’s neck and exclaimed with no small amount of pride, He’s not alive anymore. I stared at a woman as I’ve never stared before.
Irene, that neck-twisting was a sign of adventure to come. We had an interesting union for many years until, buoyed by royalties, we moved to Creekside. We discovered a wonderful walking path, a place for Irene to remind yours truly that I gained weight equal to a six-bottle wine carrier. (Reader, I assure you; Irene knew this weight by heart.)
There was no voyage quite like strolling Creekside with Irene. She was the queen of the anti-praise. Insulting my magazine subscriptions was the most honest, if not banal, attempt to tell me her adoration had taken wing. That fateful conversation led to an announcement about her enrollment in an early morning pottery class. Reader, I shall miss the wondrous creations that I was expected to gush over as if they were portals to elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I thank my wife for relentlessly purchasing items in twos. Irene bought twin fitness tracker watches to “encourage our mutual health and become more attractive.” (Reader, I might have laughed at that once, for my bride and I do not resemble the glorious bodies we commingled onboard that Cleveland-bound Greyhound water-closet.)
The pottery may have been as fleeting as your love. Irene, as you found a new hobby to occupy your attention. (Reader, she synced our fitness trackers wherein I often witnessed her activity and heart rate spiking up around 5:45 a.m., her furious athleticism was made more curious by the absence of additional earthen pots.)
All credit to the designer and genius of said fitness tracker. I discovered that on the dates of the pre-dawn fitness, my wife entertained me with dinnertime bursts of compliments about a new neighbor, handsome John Horton. (Reader, any similarity with my villain, Don Morton, is pure coincidence.)
But, Irene, my lovely, Horton blinded you somehow with his charms and the copious amounts of designer drugs he may or may not have sold at the end of our cul-de-sac. (Reader, it’s a matter of record that a man fitting Horton’s description dropped my wife onto our porch and tore away with a mere, She’s batshit crazy. I told her not to take too much! in his wake.) I weep at the thought.
I put a coffee capsule into the espresso machine. As it swirled and produced miracle froth, I pondered what my fictional hero might do with an expired body. Probably most people consider this question from time to time.
Alas, there is no handbook about what must be done with the unfaithful dead, not that I, Clevus Von Clevus, would ever have a use for such a manuscript and completely disavow knowledge of anyone who may have tampered with a deceased body in or around my vicinity.
All gratitude to my attorney, Les Rosenblatt.
With great admiration to Luigi Tazzini, whose artistry first introduced the handle to the coffee cup. That fateful night’s handle-less cup spilled along the counter where we keep the mail. There I discovered a bill from the phone store disclosing the purchase of not one, but two cell phones. The paperwork revealed two wholly original phone numbers as well.
Thanks to Anne Hunter for the use of her baby stroller. Also, hat tip to P. H. Champ for her essential research in “Guide to Avoiding Doorbell Camera Detection”.
A hurrah to Officer Tatum for his expeditious journey to my doorstep, tenderly and sensitively imparting the news of my wife’s tragic post-death baptism. Officer Tatum, I’m indebted to you for indulging an old writer’s mind when I suggested one might discover a cell phone identical to the drenched one you found in the creek. Your swift decision to direct additional men in blue to the quasi-dubious Horton house, killing two birds with one phone, as it were, solved the sad end to Irene’s demise.
Finally, Reader, thanks to you for boundless support and outpouring of emails and letters about dear Irene, may she rest in pottery.
To: Clevus Von Clevus
From: Bernice Milic
Date: Tuesday, January 18 07:01:29 EST
Subject: Acknowledgments for BITC
Call me ASAP.
About the author:
Karen Harrington is a former corporate speechwriter turned young adult novelist. Her short story work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Shotgun Honey. Her novels, all set in her home state of Texas, were published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Find her at www.karenharringtonbooks.com and @KA_Harrington
Why don’t you hear about gay men in the Irish mob? Because the head guys kill ‘em off. Stay with me, this isn’t a bad joke. It isn’t a joke at all.
It’s the truth.
I saw it myself, when David Shaughnessey killed Tommy Finn.
The Irish mafia’s not subtle. There’s never any question about what someone did wrong, why they’re being punished. Same for Tommy. No matter that by age twenty-five he was already loyal for a decade, no matter that he never skimmed the takings, no matter that whatever he did with men in his private life never interfered with his job.
We were always careful, Tommy and me. Working together day after day, never one stolen look or touch. What we were existed purely on our own time. Which is why they didn’t suspect me.
Young and in love, but not 100% exclusive. Someone, somehow, got word and caught Tommy, jeans at his ankles, on the edge of bliss.
They dragged him in front of us, paraded him like some kind of pervert. Hell hath no fury like a man responsible for more drug deaths than hairs on his head lecturing on abominations of nature.
And Tommy being Tommy, even then he didn’t try to catch my eye. He protected me ‘til the end. And me, a couple years younger and scared shitless, didn’t do a damn thing in his defense.
Five years ago this very night.
I’ve kept my head down and myself safe ever since. Gone on dates with girls. Fucked ‘em, when I had to. No choice, really.
And I worked my way up. Bash in someone’s face, break some legs, amputate a finger or two? Must be Tuesday.
It’s all paid off. Because I am now David Shaughnessey’s head of security. The thuggest of his thugs. The muscle behind the brains, as he likes to say.
And tonight’s the night.
It’s a Monday in July and we’re all in the pub, watching Dublin beat Kerry on the telly mounted behind the long wooden bar. David’s at his usual table in front of the fireplace, counting out the weekend’s takings. I’m standing behind his right shoulder, legs spread, feet planted, hands loose. Prepared.
This pub is where he killed Tommy. Right there, at the bar - walnut because it’s the hardest wood. It doesn’t so much as crack when you smash someone’s head into it. Someone’s standing on the very spot Tommy fell when David finally let him die. We all stepped over his body that night. The next night, the mess was gone and we acted like he never existed.
But I remember.
David grunts, pleased by the take. He’s expanded into the new drugs, ketamine, DMT, flakka. The stacks of bills pay homage to his business sense. As much as he loathes homosexuality, he loves money.
Standing behind his shoulder, I can’t see his face, but his thumbs riffle the edges of the stacks and his fingers caress the bills. I know he’s got that faraway, lascivious look in his eyes. This is when he’s most vulnerable, and he knows it, which is why I’m on duty behind him.
On the telly, Dublin scores again and the men erupt into cheers. I’m the only one not lost in my own world so I hear the whomp whomp of the police chopper first. Just as promised. Adrenaline shoots through my body like the moment before orgasm.
“On it, sir,” I immediately say. “Hey, Mike!” I yell to my second in command. “Go check that out!”
Match forgotten, the lads snap to attention and the pub falls silent as the helicopter circles. David sweeps the cash into a duffel bag.
A second before Mike makes it to the door, it’s kicked in. The Gardaí pour in wearing full gear: helmets, riot shields, guns.
David’s already out of his seat. I grab his arm and we speed around the bar, where a door leads to a storeroom, where a trap door leads to a tunnel that leads to safety.
I slam and bolt the storeroom’s metal door behind us, bar the trap door from underneath.
“Right this way, sir. Come on,” I urge. David complies, his face purple with rage.
“Fucking Gardaí, how the hell did they know, who the fuck told them, those goddamn cunts.” He can’t stop talking as we run, spittle and vitriol equally mixed.
Then he turns on me.
“What kind of security chief are you, let something like this happen? You’re my bodyguard, I don’t pay you to twiddle your fucking thumbs!” he spits.
I turn and slam him against the wall of the narrow tunnel. The fury in his face turns to outrage. He struggles to free himself, but he can’t.
David’s a hard man, but by reputation, not physical strength. And he’s built his reputation on the strength of men like me.
“The fuck you doing?” he blusters. “Get off me!”
I whip out my knife, the one Danny gave me, and rasp it against the skin of his throat. The blade judders against his stubble.
“Stay still, or I’ll slice you up.”
My knife keeps him against the wall as I grab the syringe from the pocket of my coat. It’s loaded with a little bit of everything: PCP, flakka, meth. A cocktail for a painful and ugly death.
We’re as close as lovers, my thigh shoved between his legs.
“The fuck?” he breathes, barely moving his lips.
I stare deep into his eyes. Blue, like Tommy’s, but nothing here to love.
“There was only one body I ever wanted to guard,” I say. “Tommy Finn’s.” And I jam the needle into his neck.
About the author:
Janet Innes (@Janet_Innes_ ) is a member of Sisters in Crime and spent last summer living with hawks. Previous flash fiction has appeared in Lucent Dreaming.
The parties started up in April, regular as allergies. Thumping bass echoed across the cemetery that split my nook of the city from that one. The neighborhood chat page lit up with complaints and counter-complaints.
Is it ok to call the police?
Move to the suburbs.
Never call the police.
Not that I ever get involved, but it’s fun to see what sets off jangled nerves.
It’s city life, suck it up.
I called the police. It’s my right.
Rat. Now yr responsbile for the worst nite of someones life.
Like I said, regular as child-support for a kid you’re not allowed to see, and nothing getting done.
Me, I didn’t care, until a five-beat loop invaded a Monday morning dream. Rehearsal before a big audition? Maybe, but then it broke into the usual thud-thud-thud DJ Wa-Na-B favored.
I can see a weekend bash, even a Thursday get-together that rolls on into Friday. But who the hell is grinding minutes before rush hour?
Come Tuesday—Wednesday, I should say—the 3:30 pulse echoed like the plodding of an elephant. No melody, just that one reverberating note. At that volume, what is there to enjoy?
It wasn’t his taste in music that bothered me, but the lack of sleep the rest of the neighborhood suffered. Despite their whining, I’m good to them. I shovel the whole sidewalk in winter, not just that foot-wide path, and I don’t let my trash blow all over. I’ve had plenty of experience with community service.
Time to do something.
I zig-zagged deserted streets. A few lit windows told of working stiffs getting started on the day. The pounding grew louder. What passed for a melody wrapped around the beats like poison ivy. I circled a few more blocks until I found the epicenter.
Despite the nightly soirees, it was no Gatsby mansion. It might have been cozy once, but now the front steps were lopsided and severed porch columns hung like stalactites. It seemed the whole thing would shiver like matchsticks under the constant barrage. That sonic weapon in Cuba made everyone sick. What kind of damage was he doing here?
The derelict porch somehow supported a swaying crowd. In the shadows, people drank, smoked, made out. Suspicious eyes followed my car, so I rounded the block and parked on the opposite street. I carried nothing but keys and a pocket-knife jingling against loose change. The neighbors must’ve put up heavy drapes to cut the sound down, but I still felt every vibration deep in my gut.
I pressed on against the swelling sonic tide.
A basement window reflected a nearby streetlight, a winking invitation. Up close, the glass rattled in the frame. I jimmied the lock in about two beats.
I slid through, dropping to the floor. Picking my way around piled suitcases and other detritus, I found the master switch. I expected a big knife-switch, like for an electric chair, but it was just a cheap one-armed bandit. I guessed it might take the lord of the dance two minutes to arrive when his tunes went dead, so I unlatched a closer window for an escape hatch.
That done, I pulled the lever. The sudden silence felt like a giant’s grip relaxing. A collective groan rose up, and I got to work, unscrewing the fuses and putting my handful of pennies behind them. In my hurry I knocked a box of fuses to the floor.
Screwing in the last fuse, I heard clomping on the basement steps. A flashlight swept the area and I pressed against a pole, behind a file cabinet.
He had a clear path to the electric panel, and I realized he must’ve done this often enough, given the box of fuses. He was half again as big as me, weaving through the dark.
He shone the light on the fuse box, and poked at one or two gingerly. Nothing. He unscrewed one fuse and shook it next to his ear, then replaced it. Just a few more, and then he’d investigate the master switch.
I shrunk deeper into the shadows, realizing for the first time just how damned quiet it was down here. Not even the furnace was running. I shifted just enough to cause the remaining coins in my pocket to clink together.
“Gotcha,” he shouted, crossing the distance in two steps.
He grabbed me by the hair, yanking me forward. I got the knife in my hand, still opened to the screwdriver. It sliced him, and as he recoiled he slipped on one of the dropped fuses.
I dashed for the open window, scrabbling with my feet against the wall. I almost squeezed through, but then he dragged me back by the ankle.
By now, two others had come to check on him. The three of them rained fists and feet against me and I staggered to the wall. As it happened, I crouched below the master switch, and Gatsby flipped it on while his friends continued to turn my ribs to splinters.
“Now we get to call the police,” he sneered. He pulled out his phone, dialed 911, reported a break-in. The light from the screen revealed a sweaty, gloating face.
Meanwhile, the music started up again. The booms matched the throbbing in my head. They left me, secure in the belief I couldn’t escape through that window. They were right.
As I lay there, the pennies did their job. An arc flashed out of the box, illuminating the basement in blue light. At the same time, I heard sirens. Flames rippled out along the floor joists and up the walls. A second later, the party-goers stampeded into the night.
No one would think to rescue me.
The neighborhood page was right: this was the worst night of someone’s life.
I should have listened.
About the author:
J. M. Taylor has appeared in such mags as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat. His first novel, Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press, and Genretarium released his second, Dark Heat. He lives in Boston with his wife and son, and when he’s not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.
I want to be clear from the outset that everything contained herein is true. My name is Kenneth James Roland, Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Southern Michigan University and my actions lead to the death of Kelsey Davidson.
On the night--
He looks up at me. “What the hell is this?”
“You barge into my office, you shove this letter in my face, and you—”
I pull the gun out of my coat. “Read.”
His mouth fumbles for words. “L-L-Look, wh-whatever you…”
I cock the hammer. “I won’t tell you again.”
He pulls his eyes off me.
On the evening of December sixth, I had a formal meeting with Kelsey to discuss her final project, a short story entitled, “Man About Town.” We met in my office, I read through her story, gave her feedback, said she needed to work on her ending, and offered to continue the conversation at my house. I stated I hadn’t eaten all day and asked if she would like to join me. She accepted, thinking it was just about her assignment.
“Look, I don’t know what she told you, but—”
“She didn’t tell me anything. I had to read it in her suicide note.”
His lips tremble. “You—”
I pull the trigger.
The bullet flies past his ear and strikes the diploma hanging on the wall behind him. The glass spiderwebs. Shards erupt and fall. Roland screams, “Please! Stop!”
“She said the same thing to you, didn’t she?”
Tears flood the banks of his eyes.
I cock the hammer again. “Continue, Professor.”
His tongue runs over his quivering bottom lip, and he reads…
I made pasta and poured glasses of wine. Admittedly, we had more wine than pasta. Although Kelsey certainly had her share of wine before, something about the wine was unreasonably strong, she noticed, but couldn’t…
He takes a breath.
But couldn’t make out why exactly. She passed out soon after.
She awoke hours later in my bed and saw me beside her.
The tears spill over.
Kelsey Davidson didn’t tell anyone about what happened. She figured no one would believe a respected professor and bestselling author could do such a thing. She carried the shame with her until it crushed her.
On the morning of February fifth, Kelsey took the gun now pointed at me, stuck it in her mouth and pulled…
Pulled the trigger.
By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.
He starts to hyperventilate and says please as if the word itself would go rotten inside his mouth if he didn’t get it out into the open air as much as possible.
I grab the letter.
“The person who killed me is Joannie Davidson, Kelsey’s mother. On this desk, beside this letter you will find Kelsey’s suicide note and the .38 caliber handgun Kelsey bought at a sporting goods store a few days before she killed herself. Joannie will be at St. Paul’s Cemetery at Kelsey’s graveside waiting to be taken into custody. She will not fight. She will not argue. She will go peacefully, unlike Dr. Roland.”
I don’t give him a chance.
The second bullet hits him just below the left eye socket. Blood coats his diploma. I empty the cylinder into his chest.
I set the gun on the desk along with the letter. I pull Kelsey’s note out of my coat pocket and set it beside the gun.
I leave Roland’s office. A janitor shuffles around the corner and asks, “You hear a few pops, like some loud noises?”
“Yeah,” I say.
I walk out of the building to my car and drive to St. Paul’s. It’s after five. The sun is just about gone, and the horizon looks like spilt merlot dousing a burning ember.
I park and walk to Kelsey’s grave. I sit on the dead grass beside the stone, and I wait, reading the two dates over and over.
Sirens wail in the distance, the sun is almost gone, and I begin to put the finishing touches on my ending as well.
About the author:
Mike McHone was the 2020 recipient of the High Holton Award from the Mystery Writers of America's Midwest Chapter and was recently placed on Ellery Queen's Readers Poll in the same year for his short story "A Drive-by on Chalmers Road?" His work has appeared in Ellery Queen, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Playboy, the AV Club, and in the first issue of Guilty Crime Story Magazine. He lives in Detroit.