Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tango - Goldie Alexander


After killing Eddie Tolsen, I went back to my cabin on deck four and fell into a dreamless sleep. Murder had turned out to be astonishingly easy. I’d lured him to the tenth deck on the aft side of the “Clytemnestra” with a plea of something that could only be said in private. He turned up thirty minutes late saying ‘You better not make a scene, you know…’ his scowl confirming that he wouldn’t hang around if I did.

‘Course not…’ my tone mild. I slid the rope out of my pocket and fingered it saying ‘But you’re always so busy, I just wanted a quiet chat.’ I leaned over the handrail, looked into the ship’s wake and pointed below, ‘Flying fish. Down there!’

As he bent over, I got up close enough to loop the rope around his neck and tug. I hoped he’d fall forwards so I could heave him over the side. Instead he dropped to his knees with a soft gasp and turned - a flash of surprise, or was it respect? as I kept pulling. While I hung on tight praying for the rope to hold, he struggled and hit out, choked and fought back until finally, finally he lay still.

I crouched beside him, my heart thudding as if it would leap out of my chest. Had anyone seen this? I’d planned Eddie’s death for before first light when most crew and passengers were safely below. But our struggle had been noisy. I waited, blood still pounding in my ears. When no one appeared, my only witness a hazy three-quarter moon, I picked him up, his body unexpectedly heavy, and shoved him over the rail. Watching him slowly topple and fall, I felt no remorse, only relief that I managed his death so deftly.

For a long moment the sea seemed to rise and enfold him. Then there was only a frothing wake and the faint strains of a tango echoing into the dark.


Back when I was still sober sensible Lynda Gravitt whom everyone could rely on, Eddie Tolsen and I were both employed by Oriduct P/L. Back then we hardly knew each other and things might have stayed this way indefinitely if a large order hadn’t turned up from Argentina. The result was that closeted inside our separate cubicles, Eddie in marketing, myself in accountancy, independently we decided to learn the tango.

I’d already tackled salsa and rumba and knew I had a good sense of rhythm and was light on my feet. But with never enough men to go around, I always partnered another woman. Still, having too often experienced that male dismissive glance that can be so soul destroying, when I glimpsed Eddie stroll in I rather hoped he wouldn’t recognise me.

In a beginner’s class, two lines face each other. As expected, Eddie’s gaze slid past me; I suppose a tango lesson was the last place he expected to find someone he knew from work. Yet to my astonishment, when told to select a partner he headed my way. That first evening we hardly uttered a word. Rather we were too busy trying not to stumble and make utter fools of ourselves.

The first lesson is generally regarded as hardest. We began by moving in a circle, walking to the syncopated two/four rhythm. Only when asked to face our partner, both holding our arms slightly bent the same distance from the torso and touching hands, did our feet begin to move. The tango is intricate, all motion coming from the waist down, the upper part of the body remaining quite still. A slight pressure from the man guides the woman forwards, backwards, or from side to side. Ginger Rogers might have performed Fred Astaire’s complex choreography backwards, but it took us a long time to master those basic steps.

When the lesson was over, he wanted to know if I’d come again? ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Me too,’ he said before disappearing into the crowd. That was that. In high heels, his head fitted neatly under my chin. We must have looked a real sight. Next time he’d go for a younger prettier woman. I might have curly fair hair, healthy skin and clear blue eyes, but I was in my late forties and weighed one hundred and five kilo. Perhaps I should mention that back then Eddie was no Adonis either, with his sallow skin, eyes that always seemed slightly inflamed, a large nose and some significant hair loss. Nevertheless he had a subtle teasing smile that I found oddly seductive.

I spent the next few days wondering whether to return. But I’d paid up front for ten lessons and all I had to look forward to, was coming home to an empty flat. Though I expected to continue partnering other women, Eddie seemed happy to continue dancing with me.

I did manage a tentative, ‘Don’t feel you have to because we know each other.’

He considered this comment very seriously. ‘I’ve just had my fingers burnt,’ he finally said. ‘I don’t need another broken heart.’ By this I understood that he ran no such risk with me. Not with Lynda Gravitt.

The tango demands constant close contact. Thus five lessons later I invited him back to my place for a drink. One thing led to another and somehow I inveigled him into my bed. Soon every lesson was followed with a bout of steamy sex where he kneaded my breasts, pummelled my thighs, laid his fists into me and enslaved me entirely. Yet he never let me feel that we were a couple… rather that we were conducting a secret affair that no one else must know about. ‘Keep this between ourselves,’ he insisted. ‘More fun this way.’

I never queried his request. Instead those evenings I was alone I tried to remember everything he said and did. Besotted, I was stupid enough to confide that in my twenties I’d had a massive breakdown. I told him how easy it’d been back then to imagine insults even when they didn’t exist and what murderous thoughts I had when they did. Though he seemed sympathetic, looking back I realise that was when he first started drawing away.

The only person I could talk to was Maddie who worked in the next cubicle. ‘Lynda,’ she said after hearing me out, ‘when a guy won’t take you out in public, he’s probably got a wife and six kids back home. You’re getting terribly obsessed. If you don’t watch out you’ll get hurt.’

‘No way,’ I said trying not to let that old panic overwhelm me. ‘I’ve checked out his tax files and I know for sure he’s single.’ Nevertheless if Eddie met me in the lift by the drinking fountain or coffee bar, he kept to a brief nod and we only came together in our classes and then back to my flat for more sex. I should have suspected something was wrong as it always my place, never his. If I teased him saying ‘Must be because of your lousy housekeeping.’ Or ‘Must be because you never change your sheets.’ Or ‘Bet you’re storing stolen goods under your bed.’ Or ‘Reckon you’re hiding a mad wife like Mr Rochester…’ nothing I said could upset him. ‘Lynda…’ he’d reply with that seductive smile. ‘Let’s face it… given your unusual size, your bed’s more solid than mine.’

This was how things for a very short time, how they progressed between us.


Meanwhile I was learning more about the tango. This dance is a fusion of European, South American and African harmonies and rhythms which evolved in the late Nineteenth Century when young men fleeing their homelands ended up trapped in the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Charged with poverty, hopelessness, alcohol and cocaine, their city bordellos did a brisk trade. Though the dance is popular, not everyone can be a ‘tanguero’. For example, a woman never invites a man to dance, she must always wait for him to approach her, she must always act out the subservient prostitute-client relationship. Above all, she must stay submissive to the male. The dance evokes passion, yet behind its limpid harmonies and syncopated rhythm lives a dark seamy reality, the music evoking profound sadness and loss. Sometimes partnering Eddie, my mind felt bleached away to nothingness. Hadn’t I exchanged my mermaid’s tail for legs and smiled bravely at the pain?

Two tango lessons a week helped Eddie lose his little potbelly. Encouraged by this small improvement, he paid out for hair implants, better contact lenses and lost that rabitty red-eyed look. Other women started noticing him. I half expected his next move to be cosmetic surgery. But when I suggested this only half tongue in cheek, he took my comment very seriously. ‘Everyone knows big nose, big dick.’ He gave me his characteristic smile. ‘My way of advertising, you know.’


Once shopping in my local supermarket, I was searching through packets of chicken breasts when I heard a small commotion. I turned to see a middle aged woman with a small girl beside her. Tears were running down the child’s cheeks. The woman was walking fast, the girl desperate to keep up. The woman snapped, ‘I’ve told you never to touch anything on the shelves without asking, it’s your own fault you lost the money so stop carrying on…’ and the child sobbing as if her small heart might break…

I followed them to the check-out counter where the woman paid for her few groceries and then outside to where a man waited beside a dented station wagon. His hair was tied back in a wispy pigtail and as he chewed on a cigarette he took in the angry woman and the weeping child. The woman kept scolding the child, even while the three climbed into the car and drove away.
I knew that family. Hadn’t I once been this child, that woman my mother, that man my father, knew the hopelessness that dogged them? I have always known that if I wasn’t determined to free myself that I could end up like my mother, stuck in a home that smelt of piss and death, cancer eating away at my insides, my whole life a total waste.


Six months into our dancing classes, I came across an ad for a thirteen day ‘tango cruise’ to the South Pacific on the “Clytemnestra”. I had a fortnight’s leave up my sleeve and I knew Eddie had at least as much. I had to wait for him to get through his usual ‘Lynda, you know you mustn’t contact me at work…’ before saying ‘We can practice on board with a live band. We pay for everything up front, so won’t cost much.’

I pictured that teasing smile. ‘How much is much?’ Have I mentioned what a skinflint he was, never taking me out, only ever turning up to my place with a bottle of cheap wine. But what choice did I have? Though Maddie’s warnings echoed in my mind, so far I’d never attracted any Mr Rights, only one disastrous Mr Wrong.

I had a job convincing Eddie to take this cruise seriously. He said, ‘What about getting seasick?’

‘Well, I never have,’ I said firmly, not mentioning that I’d never been on any vessel more than an hour.

‘Isn’t February the cyclone season?’

‘A ship that size would know how to stay clear of cyclones.’ I crossed my fingers just in case.

‘How do you know we’ll get enough tango practice?’

‘Well,’ I said exasperated. ‘It wouldn’t be called a ‘tango cruise’ if we didn’t, would it?’

At least that shut him up.

The next few weeks nothing changed. We went on partnering each other on tango nights and then, though far less often, going back to my flat. I suppose I should have been more alert when during class breaks he spent too much time with other women. Even to my adoring eyes it seemed obvious that he was chatting them up.

One lunchbreak I made the mistake of mentioning my doubts to Maddie. Because she knew something of my history, she said carefully, ‘It’s like this Lynda…Your father was a drunk who used to belt into your mother. What’s more, you grew up in a small country town where everyone knew what was going on, but did nothing about it.’

What could I say? It was all true.

‘But you did manage to run away to the city and train as an accountant. Everything was fine until you had a massive breakdown over the first guy who took you seriously.’ Her smile turned anxious. ‘Didn’t you end up in court on a ‘stalker charge’ and spend six months in hospital? I’d just hate to see that happen to you again, so….’

‘So?’ I butted in. What would she know? Hadn’t she married her first boyfriend when she was barely twenty?

‘So…’ she continued as three suits swirling past just missed our table. ‘An only child with an alcoholic father. How much do you know about men?’

I thought about the man I called my father. I thought about what he did to my mother and how much I still hated him. ‘Don’t I work with them all day?’

‘Yes, but working is one thing. Bonking another.’

My eyes filled. ‘You telling me to give Eddie up?’

‘Well… not really.’ This was exactly what she meant. ‘Just warning you not to get emotionally involved. See it as a bit of fun. You don’t want anything bad to happen to you again…’

‘Course not… Anyway, that was twenty years ago. These days I’m just plain stolid Lynda who never gets carried away by anything much.’

‘Course.’ Her face said quite the opposite.

Yet for a short time I thought Eddie loved me. When you love someone with all your heart and he doesn’t love you back and you give up all hope that he ever, ever will, you think you might die. So the idea of death began to haunt me. And then I started to wonder; if I was the one who didn’t die, maybe the other person should? And how… how might this happen?


The “Clytemnestra” was sailing to the South Pacific. The night before we left, I packed my black bodice dress with its scarlet ruffled skirt, elbow length gloves and silver earrings, and black patent stilettos. If my original idea had been for us to share a cabin, Eddie quickly set me right. ‘Lynda, you know how much room you take up. Anyway…’ as if he wasn’t always a scrooge, ‘Seeing we’re getting such cheap rates, I don’t mind paying for a single cabin.’

Well, maybe he didn’t. I certainly did. And when I found myself in a tiny internal room just above the waterline with Bibi and Serena, I wished I’d been a little more extravagant. But by then I didn’t give a damn because the cruise was such a disaster.


The world’s most popular tango is ‘La Compasito’ written by seventeen year old Gerardo Mastos Rodriguez. He sold it to a music publishing house for twenty pesos. Over the next twenty years he launched at least as many lawsuits to try and claim back the royalties. I suppose he would have been doubly annoyed to learn that our ship’s band - four bored middle-aged Russians on violin, guitar, piano and drums- played ‘La Compasito’ at least three times every night.

Not that our surroundings would encourage anyone to spurts of creativity. The dance hall was a prehistoric cave with a dismally low ceiling and dim greenish lights that made everyone look like zombies. When not dancing, people sat gloomily around, sometimes throwing in a half-hearted clap, more often a disparaging comment. The tango stars, a couple in their mid-sixties, were frankly abysmal. I’d seen better in our class back home. They only taught ballroom tango where I expected to venture into the Argentinean style. In ballroom tango the steps stay close to the floor while Argentinean includes carrying one's leg into the air, or hooking a leg around a partner's leg or body.

The other passengers were mostly composed of elderly couples and single women. Of course Eddie went for any female who looked lonely or bored or was sending him languorous looks. A few were upfront enough to slip their cabin numbers into his pocket. Whatever. In those eleven nights of golden opportunity to become better tangueros, I think he only danced with me once. I went back to partnering other women.

Off the floor things were no better. Cousins Bibi and Serena had identical bleached hair, spade-nails, and an interchangeable wardrobe of bare midriffs, shoestring straps, mini skirts, and Jimmy Choos. Whenever I came into our cabin, they’d burst into loud giggles. Sometimes I thought I overheard ‘…old woman, what’s she doing here …looks more like man…isn’t there some way we could get rid of her… she’s always watching him…’ What made it worse was that these whispers also came from other passengers: ‘…you see the way she follows Eddie around… she’s mad you know… Eddie told me she’s already had one massive breakdown… bet she’s due for another…’ This last comment tilted me over the edge. What kind of a man repeated something told in total confidence? How could I ever have loved someone like that?

The ship had a fixed routine. Breakfast and lunch could either be eaten in the dining room or at an upstairs buffet. But dinner was formal and everyone was given a set place. Before sailing Eddie and I had arranged a late sitting at a table for ten. Our second night out, he moved to another table with nine single women. I could hear their laughter from the other end of the room. I imagined him saying, ‘She’s so large, we could only manage it on her bed, king size you know…’ And ‘Course I had to keep it a total secret, I really didn’t want anything to think I couldn’t find anything better to bonk…’

It didn’t help that the four elderly couples at my table kept saying, “What fun they’re having,” and “Isn’t Eddie Tolsen a charmer?” and “What a marvellous dancer,” and “How lucky you are to have such a popular male friend.”

I smiled and smiled and eventually stopped turning up for dinner. What I knew was insurmountable rage. Paul Gauguin is reported to have said, ‘Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.’ I dreamt of revenge all the time. As I watched Eddie partner other females, watched them buy him expensive cocktails and vie for his attention, I felt the world could only benefit from ridding it of this small town Casanova. I suppose I should have felt some remorse imagining an ex-lover’s execution. These last twenty years I’d been careful to pay any bill on time, never cheat on my tax, never drive over the speed limit, obey parking regulations, to always stick to the letter of the law. But now I’d reverted to that angry small child I thought I’d left so far behind.

I waited for the ship to call into Dravuni Island, this no more than a Fijian atoll with a hilly jungle in the centre. As the passengers poured onto the beach, I quietly followed; I knew Eddie would stay clear of the natives selling sarongs, wooden carvings and shells. He saw him walk to where a sign said ‘Fifteen minute crossing” and start along the trail. Keeping well behind, I scrambled up a steep muddy track. On the other side of the island I hoped to find some opportunity to dispose of him. Hamlet might have equivocated plotting his uncle’s death. I knew no such qualms. When you are dealt total treachery, there’s no room for remorse. What I needed to recover was a splinter, a shard of self-respect.

Sure enough Eddie wandered towards a rocky shelf on the left side of a pretty coral lined bay. I waited for him to disappear around a bend before following. I found him peering into the rock pools. There were too many loose stones for him not to hear me come up, so I called out, waved, made as much noise as possible. He turned annoyed, that typical teasing smile turning sour. I pretended to ignore it, calling, ‘Wait for me, wait for me…’

Reaching him, I smiled gaily and chatted away, commented on everything I saw. Soon Eddie was so angry he stalked off. I set off after him. When we were far enough away from where anyone could see us, I pulled a penknife out of my pocket and ran after him. Reaching my prey I plunged my dagger into his neck… plunged it so deep that blood spurted out like a geyser…

I expected him to fall forward, but he half turned and I saw a look on his face… maybe it was respect? before he gently collapsed sideways and lay in a twisted position across the rocks, his blood turning the seawater crimson. I removed his camera and wallet and flung them and the dagger far out to sea before taking off along the sandy headland that led to the other side of the island. I expected once his body was found that there would be some hue and cry, but also that his death would be blamed on local thieves.

Yet in the end imagining myself stabbing him did not give me nearly enough satisfaction. No, not nearly enough. I saw that I would have to picture myself doing it all over again.


In my pleasanter reveries I went back to our earliest days when we danced and melded as one. Then he might have loved me just a little. I recalled how I’d set my foolish hopes having some future together. But in the end I’d played the prostitute in the tango, that dance-macabre where the woman is wholly there for the man’s pleasure. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. My payback was to make his time on board as unpleasant as he made mine. Whenever he came off the dance floor, I would wait to catch his eye and signal a double ‘thumbs down’ to show him what I thought of his performance. When I ran into him in the corridors or lurk outside any room I knew he was in, I’d whisper ‘you’re such a failure’ and ‘you’re making a real fool of yourself.’ I slid notes under his door, did everything possible to make his days unbearable.

While other passengers lay around in the sun like beached whales, frolicked around the bars, gambled in the Casino, worked out in the gym and played bridge in the library, I followed Eddie everywhere. I stopped eating and sleeping. The days might be hot and clear, the nights fragrant with the scent of the sea, the elderly passengers playing at being children once again, but pacing the ship’s corridors, I prowled the hellish aisles of the damned. Mistaking my appearance for intense sea sickness, or thinking I must be drunk or drugged, passengers stopped me to ask if I was okay. The ship’s doctor called me into his office to ask if I needed any help. ‘No I’m fine,’ I replied. ‘Don’t worry about me.’ Obsessed with Eddie as if he was a cancer which no chemotherapy, radiotherapy or cutting edge stem-cell therapy could cure, I tracked him through the ship. I knew he couldn’t escape. Not that I always succeeded because he soon learnt ways to avoid me. Or if he couldn’t actually ignore my physical presence, he pretended to look right through me. He even sent one of the ship’s officers to warn me that if I continued following him, that I would once again be labelled a ‘stalker’ and collect all the nastiness this entailed. Last time I’d been let off with only a court order to seek psychiatric help. A second time I wouldn’t be let off as easily. Yet what else could I do? Cut off from everything familiar, no friend on board, sometimes I heard Maddie’s voice in a gust of wind or liquid in the waves calling ‘Lynda, give it up. The only one being hurt is yourself. It’s a no win situation.’

‘Murder is always a no win situation if the murderer is caught,’ I coldly replied.

‘How do you know you won’t be?’

I stayed quiet. Since Eddie decided he no longer needed me, my life was over. I suppose I should have felt some remorse at the thought of his death. But I’d been sane and respectable far too long. Hadn’t I been Oriduct’s most reliable employee, worked as a volunteer on Life-Line, made tax free contributions to support an African child, helped old ladies and the disabled find seats on the train, tried not to lose my temper when waiters or bank-tellers showed ignorance or persisted in ignoring me? Where did all that get me?

How was it that I could feel no remorse at killing a man I’d once adored? I tried to remind myself of how much I disliked his meanness, his inability to love anyone but himself, his obvious narcissism. I tried to pull him, flush him out of my mind. Nothing worked. I knew I must find other ways of killing him. It was only through his death that I could force him to understand how much pain he caused and in this way reduce my own.

Meanwhile other passengers continued to make merry, forcing as much food as they could into their distended stomachs and flopping onto the sunny decks like so much seal blubber. Some stayed up all night to drink until they could hardly stand upright. Others gambled or looked for new sexual adventures. Surely the ‘Clytemnestra’ should have changed her name to ‘Dionysus’ or ‘Bacchus’: the ancient gods of wine and revelry. The tango classes, supposedly so integral to this cruise, started tapering off. Only a few hard core dancers still turned up every night. As the weather grew worse, I heard voices in the wind and the sea urging me to stop vacillating, to exact my revenge. They confirmed that I was on a voyage to Hades, that I was sailing to the isle of the dead, that eventually I would reach the Styx River, that both passengers and crew were performing some devilish choreography over which I had no control.
Yet always at the back of my mind was the thought that if only Eddie could see the error of his ways… that maybe… maybe he’d come back to me.


Our final port of call was Noumea where most of our passengers took the ship’s organised guided tour. I knew Eddie would avoid this tour’s over-the-top price and make his own way around the island. I watched him step off the gangplank onto the docks. Keeping well behind, I saw him catch a bus that promised lots of stops along the way. The idea was to step off at any point and when ready to continue, to catch the next bus and so on until all points of interest had been explored. Though I caught the bus after his, I kept on missing him. And when I finally glimpsed him in Noumea’s tiny city museum that specialised in that island’s sad post-colonial history, too many other people were around.

I wasted an hour or so browsing shops and their French imports, even bought a silk scarf, admired the locals and their Gallic sophistication. Misery has strange effects on the body and I’d almost stopped eating and sleeping, subsisting instead on coffee, brandy and hate. Though other passengers were gorging themselves at every meal, sometimes returning for three, even four helpings, I’d hardly eaten. Suddenly ravenous, I stopped for two ham and cheese croissants and a milky cappuccino at a sidewalk café. Then I caught the tourist bus to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre located on the Tina Peninsula. It was late. Very soon the ‘Clytemnestra’ was due to sail out of port. I had only a couple of hours in which to dispose of him.

Apart from the bus driver who spoke no English I was the only tourist on board. He dropped me at the entrance and I headed for the complex. Inside I looked around very carefully. The interior is filled with modern sculpture and ancient Melanesian and Polynesian artefacts. One wall was lined with spears and axes. Though most were firmly fixed to the wall one axe sat on a table. With no one around to observe me, I fingered the edge. It was as sharp as if hewn only yesterday.

Praying no hidden camera was videoing my actions, I picked up the axe and strode up the Kanak path where I finally found Eddie.

My luck was in. He was alone. No one else was about. I knew a wave of exultation. I could do with him whatever I liked.

I weighed the axe carefully in my hand, felt the strength, symmetry and balance in the wooden handle. That ancient toolmaker certainly knew his craft. Though I tried to be quiet as possible, Eddie sensed my presence and turned. He must have seen something murderous in my face. I saw a flash of surprise, or was it fear? Maybe at long last it was respect.

I raised the axe and brought it down so hard I almost heard his skull crack open. I watched a well of blood spill over his face and hair.

But I stopped myself just in time. Surely there would be other far, far better opportunities to kill him once we were back at Oriduct P/L?

BIO: Goldie Alexander is an Australian author who has written for the adult and youth markets. Her latest books include "UnKind Cut" and "Shape-Shifters". Coming soon "Bridging the Snowy" and "Lame Duck Protest" She has an impressive website at

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Real Wild Child - Jochem Vandersteen

Real Wild Child
a Noah Milano short story

It was in the air. Like an entity, like a thing alive. It twisted and curled its way through the room like a venomous snake. It was the taste, the smell, the feel of violence.

I should’ve turned my back and walked out the moment I came in and felt it, but I’d come in Fat Hog’s Biker Bar because I had a job to do, not to act like a coward. Or like I had an inch of sanity.

The place was filled with overweight, tattooed bikers looking meaner than a switchblade. Their cigarette smoke fogged up the air, broken bottles crunching under my feet as I walked over to the bar. I recognized the wailing guitars and pounding drums of Kyuss coing from the speakers, doing their best to drown out the gravelly voices of the bikers, half-deaf from to many hours on their thundering machines.

I ordered a Corona from the hulking man behind the bar. He wore a nose ring the size of a lifesaver and a droopy moustache that made him look like Frito Bandito on steroids.
I took the picture I’d been showing around all over California for weeks now and put it on the bar. Frito did his best to ignore it, but a 16-year old looker like Amy has a way of getting your attention.

“She’s smiling at you,” I told him. “And so’s Benjamin.” I covered the picture with some green.

“What’s with the act?” Frito asked.

“I’m looking for this girl. Been looking for her long enough I’m getting tired of having to bribe every one from gas station attendants to cheap hookers. If you’ve seen her, tell me where and you get the money. If you haven’t I finish my beer and I’m out, okay?”

Frito smiled. A hyena has a more charming smile. “I seen her. I seen her wiggling her sweet ass on this damn very bar two days ago. Hot piece of work. Hornier then a bitch in heat.”

“Her mother wouldn’t exactly appreciate that kind of talk.” I sipped my Corona and put it down gently.

“Who’re you anyway? You’re too young to be her dad. You her brother?”

“The name’s Noah. Noah Milano. Her mother hired me to get the girl back.”

“She didn’t seem like she had any idea to,” Frito answered and cleaned a glass with a rag that seemed to have just been used to clean a tailpipe. I was glad I drank my beer straight from the bottle.

The booted whale on my right announced himself with a greeting of stale beer breath. He smacked his meaty paw down on the picture and put his red, bloated face in mine. “What the fuck you doing with that damn picture of Rags Turner’s girl?”

I kept my cool. I was tired and cranky, not stupid. I wasn’t in the mood for a barroom brawl with a dozen Tyrannosaurus Harleys. “I just want to ask her to come home to her mom. Amy’s a bright kid, just a little naive. She needs to finish school before she becomes a biker slut.” So maybe I was a little stupid.

“That some sort of smartass crack?” the whale said. His spittle felt sticky on my face.

“I don’t need any trouble.” I held up my hands to back up that statement. Then the venomous snake became a fire breathing dragon and the powderkeg of violence exploded.

I saw the fist coming a mile away, the whale’s movements slow and clumsy from too many beers. I swayed to the left, his fist swinging by my face like a piledriver. I stabbed four fingers in his throat, his face going white all of a sudden, his eyes bulging. He staggered back and went down.
His pals got up, calling each others attention, waking up their buddies from their alchohol induced comas. They were going to teach the pretty boy in the fancy leather jacket a lesson. The pretty boy had other plans however and drew his Glock from the holster at the small of his back.

“Any of you so much as gets his breath in my face I plug him,” I announced.

Some of them backed up. Others went for theirs knives, brass knuckles and blackjacks. Behind the bar it made Frito go for a sawed-off.

I swung my gun arm his way like saloon door. I was so close the pressure of the Glock’s barrel dented his meaty forehead.

“Drop it.” He did. I grabbed the shotgun from the bar and emptied it with one hand, jacking the pump like I was masturbating with a steel dildo. The shells dropped on the floor and rolled forward. “Get out from behind the bar.” I couldn’t keep my eyes on the thugs in the bar and on Frito at the same time.

A 9mm automatic can be an amazing persuader, as the bartender attested to, leaving his appointed spot to walk over to his beloved clientele.

“Now that I’ve got your attention you can help me answer this little question. Where can I find Amy Hardigan? My new buddy on the floor here just informed me she’s hanging around with Rags Turner, so if any of you knows where I can find him?”

“You want to try and grab Rags’ girl from under him? You be my fuckin’ guest. It’ll be a nice sight to see him drag your skinned carcass in here and piss on it. You may think you’re some badass motherfucker with that piece to back you up, but Rags backs down for no fuckin’ thing.” Mr. Eloquent was tall, wiry looking guy with a spider tattooed on his right cheek.

“Maybe if I ask him real nice he’ll cooperate,” I said. “But if you’re so eager to see how it works out, please go ahead and tell me where I can find him.”

“Fuck you! I ain’t telling you jackshit!”

“Listen, it’s been a really long day. I’m tired, dusty and cranky. Also, I’m holding a loaded gun. Do you really think being uncooperative is the smartest thing you could be doing?”

He just smiled. “You shoot me now, you’ll never make it out of here alive.”

He had a point there.

My threats didn’t help any, but my money did. After racking up another hundred on my expense account the wiry guy told me where to find Rags. His gang had a clubhouse near .

I shuddered when I thought about the clubhouse. In the past, when I was still a soldier for my dad, Robert Milano, L.A.’s very own modern day Al Capone, I did some dealings with a biker gang we used to supply some guns to every now and then. One of them described a party in their clubhouse where his gang got bored with splashing, the passing of women around in a group orgy, and started pouring wine in the women's vaginas, using them as wine glasses. The idea of young Amy in that position wasn’t one that appealed to me. I’d promised her mother I’d get her back home before something bad happened to her, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be on time.

I parked the Mazda as far away from the clubhouse as I could and still make out anything through my binoculars. The clubhouse was a downtrodden woody affair, decorated with flags bearing the colors of Rags’ gang, the Confederate Flag and Jack Daniels.

I counted the bikes parked in front of it. Six. Had I been the optimistic type maybe I’d have figured some of the bikers just owned more than one. Being a realist however, I decided to carry an extra clip with me when I when I was going to make my little housecall.

Maybe I should’ve thought up a brilliant plan, but I’d been a gangster or a security specialist for most of my life, not a general. No way I’d ever thought up a plan like the one with the Trojan Horse. So I just got out of the car, unholstered my Glock and started to run towards the clubhouse, trying to keep my head down a little and kick up as little dust as possible.

I made it to the door without getting shot. My guardian angel was with me on this one. I peered through the dirty grease stained windows. The heavy metal music from inside made them vibrate. It was hard to make out what was going inside throught the thick smoke. Whatever they were smoking it gave off more smoke than the exhaust pipes of their hogs. I thought I identified five guys and three women. One of them seemed younger than the rest. Amy? Only one way to find out.

I breathed in deeply, kicked in the door with my Glock out.

One of the women jumped off the lap of a guy with a red beard and a a "13" fuck the world badge. “What the fuck?” she yelled.

A muscular guy with a ZZ-top beard went for the gun on the crate of booze that doubled as their coffee table. I put a bullet in the crate and ZZ-top drew back his hand, startled.

“Everybody just relax and keep their hands away from anything that’ll get me nervous and we’ll all get out of this alive and well,” I said.

The biker’s eyes killed me several times.

Sitting on a ragged couch, next to a dark haired guy with a goatee and pierced lip was Amy. She wore denim hotpant, a pink top and stilletto heeled fuck-me shoes. She was smoking a joint the size of a Cuban sigar. Her mom wouldn’t be pleased.”You fucking crazy, man?”

I probably was. No sane person would barge into a biker gang’s clubhouse to take away one of their woman. “I’m here to take you home, Amy.”

“Fuck you, I ain’t coming home. Momma hired you?”

“Yes, she did. She’s very worried about you.”

“I’m getting all misty eyed here, Slick,” the biker next to Amy said. “Now fuck off.”

“Let me guess... Rags Turner,” I said.

“Good guess. And if you know who I am you also know you don’t want to fuck with me.”

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t even fuck the women you got here.”

ZZ-top took offense. “Anything wrong with our women?”

I glanced at the woman who’d been on his lap. She wore a denim skirt and a bra. They both made it painfully clear driving around on the back of a Harley didn’t do your body fat any good. I also noticed she was missing a tooth. Maybe she fell off the Harley every now and then.

“No comment,” I said. “Amy, get over here and come with me.”

She crossed her arms like an impetulant child. And here I was without any lollipops to bribe her. Time for another approach. “I’ll clock you one over the head and take you along over my shoulder if that’s what it takes.”

“Go ahead, baby,” said Rags. “We’ll get you back.”

Amy walked over to me. I grabbed her by the wrist and walked backwards and out the door, my gun still on the bikers. She spit me in the face. I didn’t like it, but I’ll take spit instead of a bullet any day of the week.

Rags stared after us, the hatred flickering in his eyes like a flame. I kicked the door closed to get him out of my sight. I shot out the tires of the bikes so I wouldn’t be followed.

“Now fucking run!” I told Amy and dragged her along with me. Behind me, through the dust we were kicking up I could make out the imposing sight of Rags and his buddy, staring after us like zombies. Rags pointed at Amy and yelled “I’ll get you back!”

I shoved Amy in the Mazda, got behind the wheel and floored it. Rags gave me the creeps.


I was filling the Mazda up at an almost deserted gas station when Amy banged me on the back of the head. I figured she used a shoe. Might’ve been a rock. Whatever it was, it hurt like hell and put out my lights faster than a power failure.

I felt something wet against my cheek. Slowly I opened up my eyes. My head felt worse than a tequila hangover. A German shepard was licking my face. An old guy in overalls stood next to him. “She sure did a number on you, didn’t she?”

He helped me up. It was like parting the dead sea.

“The girl. Where did she go?” I asked him.

“After she clocked you? She made a phone call and some biker dude picked her up some time afterwards,” he said.

Trying to get my neck in a position that felt a bit comfortable I asked. “Why didn’t you do anything?”

“Do?” he repeated. “Shit, I didn’t know what your beef with the chick was. Maybe you were some of them serial rapists and she put you down to save her cherry. Until I saw the biker, then I figured her cherry had been way beyond saving for quite some time. Lucky thing my doggie here started barking after the dude, he seemed to be ready to kick your lifeless body around some. Blitz here didn’t like him much. Damn near saved your ass. ” He patted the dog with his greasy palms. It had teeth the size of a sable tiger’s. I was going to buy that German shephard a shitload of dog biscuits.

I leaned back against my Mazda, the support was very welcome. Then I noticed the tires.
“Yeah, the biker dude shot them to pieces with a 12-gauge. Don’t worry though, I’ve got some spare ones. Gonna cost you, though.”

I sat down on the hood of my car. “How about you give me a bottle of Jack first?”


So that was it. I’m not a Mountie. I don’t always get my man. Shit, I don’t even always get my girl. The reaper does, however. Six months later the California Highway Patrol discovered the body of Amy Hardigan curled around the Harley she crashed into a ’65 pick up truck. Live fast, die young. Unfortunately, a real wild child rarely gets to grow up to become a real wild woman.


Jochem Vandersteen has been writing about Noah Milano for a couple of years now. The first full-length novel White Knight Syndrome is still on sale. He’s also the webmaster of the site that spotlights the fictional P.I.: and can be reached at

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Lucky Break Kid - Patrick Ryan

Patrick Ryan

I had to admit, the kid didn’t look good. But then again, it’s hard looking your best after twelve hours of rigor mortis.

Matthew Harty was the newest it-boy on the Hollywood chess board. Starting out as a pimply-faced pre-teen prima donna who made his early showbiz bucks flaunting an irresistible grin on cereal commercials, Harty worked his way up through a high school musical special and a primetime TV-G laffer. It wasn’t until he belted out “Kansas City” in a cable redo of Oklahoma!, that the world took notice. He was quickly becoming a national treasure with a manufactured pop hit in the works--not bad for twenty-one years to his name.

Needless to say, Matthew Harty was the last person you’d expect to find strangled and stiff in the underbrush of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Publicity queen Justine Swirler led me down the steep Bel Air slope to the kid’s body--a sight that never would’ve crossed my eyes had she not fished my digits off a previous client, Berna Hampshire--the divorcee of a wealthy lawyer, who cut me a check to justify a burning paranoia involving her ex attempting to lay her six feet in the ground. Naturally, I proved her paranoia true and my referral base extended.

Justine Swirler was a ferocious grizzly of the PR world--a woman who made sure her clients were as squeaky-clean as their silver screen personas could allow. Wild girls and
trash-talking lushes were off her roster. She held onto poster children sellable to lunch boxes and half-hour daytime spots. Justine had her niche and no other would fit the bill.
I watched her hold up a firm, unemotional stare at her dead client. I figured she could keep her eyes on a bus as it plowed into a group of nuns without twitching a muscle. But who knows? Maybe pitbulls cry in their sleep.

“It looks bad,” she said.

“Do you always shed a tear for your star clients?”

Her eyes turned jack frost.

“Are you always this good at talking yourself out of a job, Mr. Shaye?”

“Sometimes. Depends if I wanna handle the case.”

She seemed shocked by my response.

“Money’s not an issue, is it?”

“Nope. I know you’re good for it.”

“So is this your method of bargaining?”

“Listen, the fact is, you’ve got me down here in Bel Air Estates in broad daylight looking at a corpse that hasn’t been picked up by homicide. My guess is you haven’t called homicide for a reason. No offense to Berna, but you don’t know me from Adam, and that, quite frankly, makes this situation odd.”

“Can’t beat around the bush with you, can I?”

She walked away from the body and looked up at the afternoon sun beaming down through the canyon.

“I found him at one o’clock this morning,” she said. “He phoned me and told me to meet him on Fontenelle Way. He was in trouble... but he wouldn’t tell me what kind.”

“How’d you find him all the way down here at night?”

“I didn’t. The coyotes did. They made noise and I took notice.”

I looked up at the hills surrounding us.

“Dangerous climb down at night. One wrong step in the dark and--”

“I’d break my back for my clients,” she said with a hardened gaze.

I turned and looked closely at Harty’s closed eyelids. They flickered as if there was life still in him aching to get out. The canyon winds got cold. And so did I.

“There’s no such thing as an easy break in show business,” she said.

“I always thought rising stars were born, not made.”

She studied my face, trying to determine if it was humor or ignorance that predicated my remarks.

“Matthew had his hard luck. You need to understand that.”

“What are you driving at?”

“Matthew was strangled. Somebody wanted him dead.”

“You don’t need me to tell you that.”

“Mr. Shaye, there are things the public won’t understand about Matthew. Things that might be hard to swallow. Fact is, Matthew was a victim long before his life was taken.”

“Closed door incidents?”

“I’m in the PR business. Image is everything.”

“Even postmortem?”

“I have an indefinite contract with my clients.”

“Hey, Sam Cook died in the company of a hooker. People still listen to his music.”

She threw me a dirty face, but I acted like she never did. She needed the sarcasm.
I leaned in closer for another look at the kid. I was about to examine his bruised neckline, but she quickly grabbed my hand.

“Don’t touch him. You’re not LAPD.”

Her grip was firm, she could’ve drawn blood.

“Oh, I get it. I was never here.”

I took another lingering look at poor Harty.

“Kid had talent.”

She studied my face, then cracked a smile for the first time.

“You don’t have to fake it.”

“Fake what?”

“Being a fan.”

“I’m not.”

She wasn’t convinced.

“Mr. Shaye, I firmly believe that sympathy isn’t something you feign.”

“Hey, maybe my stomach just isn’t strong enough to handle a kid who had only a few good weeks to exercise his drinking privilege.”

“Then you’re in the wrong business.”

I pulled my Altoids tin from my hip pocket and popped a wafer in my mouth. I wanted her to hear the crunch.

“Let me make that call, Ms. Swirler.”

As I took one final look at America’s latest idol in a contorted fetal position, I suddenly realized there was more to this town than just the usual paycheck of snapping clicks of hitched starlets on a midnight tryst with agents who don’t know they’re abusing extra-hold hair gel.

I gave myself seventy-two hours to throw Justine something to chew on, but I knew I didn’t need it.


I started work that night at Dolce, a Hollywood haven flanked with wannabe starlets in over-sized Prada sunglasses and I-don’t-care-about-radiation cell phones. Pretty boy metros hung on their shoulders like a disease they couldn’t shake. These were the party kids who learned glamour school on their own. And I knew the scene--all sides of it.

Minus the bums and crazies that stood on Hollywood Boulevard, most of the ugliness was behind velvet ropes on the Strip and the iron gates of Holmby Hills. Now considering myself long retired, I was the coke pusher with the two thousand dollar Valentino jacket. My presence in a room was accompanied with promises of throwaway kicks and a hiked price for the boot.

But those days were over before I could really cash in. After pushing an undercover Narc and dodging a twelve-year sentence, I needed a different line of work. Investigations were my calling.

Tuesday night at Dolce belonged to Celia Turner--a go-to girl of mine--someone who knew Matthew Harty and a slew of others like him. Celia was on the outskirts of stardom, but always surrounded herself with the ones who made it. She was a girl who thirsted for the paparazzi bulbs and kept a childish ignorance of their dangers. But at twenty-six, I knew her angel days were over. Her sparkle was gone, dictated by hersmoke-weathered eyes and tiny cracks on the cheeks that L'Oreal couldn’t hide. And I felt partially responsible. I was the one who gave her the habit it took five years to break.

It was no surprise to find an unwelcoming grimace smudged on her face as I sat down next to her.

“Still think it’s easier to be seen at the corner table?” I asked.

“Who says I’m trying to be seen?”

“Last time we talked, you dropped your agent.”

“Agents procure work, don’t they?”

“No. Working actresses procure agents.”

She kicked back the rest of her mojito martini and angrily stood up. I grabbed her by the arm, forcing her to keep her seat and my attention.

“C’mon, you need money. Admit you’re out here looking for a sponsor.”

”New boyfriends aren’t hard to find.”

“But old ones are hard to keep, right?”

“Can’t a girl enjoy a drink without being on the prowl?”

“I know you, Celia.”

“Oh, yeah?”

I laid two hundred dollars on the table. I knew she needed the money and I had my seventy-two hour rule to keep.

“Matthew Harty,” I said.

“What about him?”

“He’s dead. And that means your access privileges to The Standard have been revoked.”

She laughed.

“I think I would’ve heard the bad news.”

“Well, you didn’t, and that makes this a pretty serious matter.”

“You’re being played.”

“No. I saw his body. It’s amazing how asphyxiation can wipe a million dollar smile right off your face.”

She read the seriousness in my eyes.

“I never liked The Standard.”

“Listen, I need something on the Kid-Wonder. His publicist’s got a lotta faith I can deliver.”

She discreetly pocketed the cash.

“Thought you’d have more than two hundred to your name. You know what rent’s like out here.”

“Yeah, but you never pay it. Somebody’ll put you up.”

She looked at me like she wouldn’t buy it.

“Nothing’s free, Shaye.”

“Sweetie, I blew all my bartering money on a good lawyer. That’s how I kept twelve years of my life, remember?”

Celia shook her head in disbelief, but I knew she wasn’t hearing this for the first time.

“Well... I don’t have much on Matthew,” she said.

“His PR gal said his big break didn’t come easy. What does that mean?”

She snarled at the idea.

“Lance Stromyer gave him the lead in Oklahoma!. And that’s about as easy as it comes.”

Stromyer was one of the heavies in film and television--a veteran producer with a twenty-five year track record in family entertainment. He knew the field, knew the market and knew talent. He wasn’t a household name, but the business bowed to him. At least, most of it.

“Was Harty a personal pick?” I asked.

She nodded. “He always bragged about how he got the golden tap.”

“Other than you, who was jealous?”

“Everyone who didn’t have a screen credit.”

“Anyone specific?”

“Maybe his girlfriend.”

She spoke with a subdued bitterness. I knew Celia wanted her share of Harty. That’s what made Celia Celia. She clung to branches too high to hold.

“What’s her name?”

“Lindsey Shines.”

“Brunette, right?”

“With blonde roots.”

I’d caught sight of Lindsey more than once. Relegating herself to the club circuit, she was on the same playing field as Celia--always looking for an audience. Besides a couple of guest spots on teen dramas, she was invisible on the Hollywood radar. I’d seen her in and out of the Martini Lounge on Melrose, but never glimpsed her locking arms with Harty.

“Did they keep their thing private?” I asked.



“Matthew was Matthew.”

True, Harty had his choice. He was at his prime. I didn’t blame the guy for shacking up with another starlet--if that in fact was the case.

“Good chance for you to step in, right?” I sneered.

“I’m not young enough for Matthew.”

“’Least you gave it a shot.”

“A girl’s gotta try.”

I knew my fishing well was running dry. I slid another hundred across the table as a “thank you” for playing nice and stood up.

“Not going to stay for one drink?” she asked.

“Don’t act like you want me to. Time’s flying. Harty’s parents might get worried if the kid’s death goes unjustified.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Stromyer was the closest thing to a father Matthew ever had.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Matthew never knew his biological father. His mother’s in rehab. Stromyer gave Matthew his break.”

“Doesn’t Stromyer have kids of his own?”

“None that I’ve heard of. Matthew spent a lot of time up in Stromyer’s hilltop flophouse.”

“More like an estate, right?”

“Could’ve been Matthew’s second home. Not to mention, Stromyer likes to keep him in safe reach because his next picture’s dependent on him. Guys and Dolls. Another cable musical--who would’ve figured?”

“Where’s Stromyer’s home base?”

“Bel Air Estates.”

I sat back down.

“Are you sure?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Got an address?”

“My list of walk-on roles wasn’t enough to get me through the iron gates. Kinda hard to know an address when you’ve never been invited.”

I studied Celia long and hard.

“How much is it gonna cost me?” I asked.

“Now you’ve got me labeled real dirty, Shaye.”

And with that she stood up from the table and made her way to the ladies room. I couldn’t convince myself to stop her.


I fetched Stromyer’s address off Trudy T., my favorite LA limo driver who knew every back alley, back road and backseat bribe in the city. Trudy was a player in the scene--a guy who made himself part of the social circuit, even though he kept his hands tied to a chauffeur’s wheel. He helped me round up clients in my pushing days, back when I could afford him. But now, his second-grade scribble on the flap of a matchbook was the only thing my wallet could buy. He handed me my last stop of the evening: 600 Vestone Way.

True, LA’s a small town, but I knew it wasn’t dumb luck that twelve hours earlier, I was face-to-face with Stromyer’s fallen prodigy just one street over from Vestone Way. Coincidence is a word I’m not that loose with. I knew the look in Stromyer’s eyes would tell me everything I needed to know as soon as I uttered: “Matthew’s dead.”

So I made the drive up Stone Canyon Road in my modest, mid-priced Volvo--suitable wheels for someone in my line of work--dark, quiet and reliable. It wasn’t long before Stromyer’s stucco wall floated by my driver side window--a monumental piece of work both dull and expensive, just like his flicks.

His security eye watched as I pressed my index to the ringer. It was eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night, and if he was still awake, I gave him three minutes to answer before I started to think about other options.

Two minutes passed before the strained, nicotine-scorched voice of Lance Stromyer emitted from the speaker box:

“Yeah? Who is it?”

“Devon Shaye. Private investigations.”

“Ever heard of a telephone?”

“I forgot to pay my phone bills this month, but I’d still like to have a word with you.”

“How about I forget you even came to my house.”

“Mr. Stromyer, this is a rather personal matter.”

“How personal?”

“Matthew Harty’s gone missing.”

There was a pause.

“What are you talking about?”

“People disappear. It’s been known to happen.”

Another pause. He cleared his throat.

“Is there a ransom involved?”

“No. Just questions.”

“It’s too late for questions. Or games.”

“I don’t think the future of Guys and Dolls is something worth risking.”

No response, I went on--

“How about asking yourself why a stranger would come to your house inquiring about a headline actor who could otherwise afford to live anywhere he wants?”

“Matthew Harty doesn’t live here.”

“But don’t you wanna know how someone could think he does?”

There was a pause. Part of me waited for the rebuttal and subsequent call to the police. But deep down, the stubborn part of me knew Stromyer was curious--my instincts paid off as the gate buzzed open.

I found Stromyer waiting for me at the front door. He was in his late-sixties and his artificial tan covered up all signs of aging and all remnants of his youth.

Stromyer looked at me inquisitively, trying to second-guess my persona as the Real McCoy. He asked for my state-issued investigative ID card and I flashed it without hesitation. He seemed satisfied by its appearance and suddenly turned more hospitable. His rigid shoulders loosened and he started to look more relaxed in his plaid Burberry loungewear.

“I should offer you something to drink, shouldn’t I?” he asked.

“I didn’t come here for the hospitality.”

“But you’re standing in my house and I insist... whatever your motives.”

“Purely professional.”

He opened his front door, and with a producer’s smile, motioned me inside.

Stromyer looked like a foreign dignitary as he led me through his Victorian foyer. His demeanor grew strangely calm-- I figured he either expected someone like me to walk through his door or grew too comfortable covering up his own messes.

When we got to his living room, Stromyer offered a glass of scotch, then had me sit a few feet across from him on his Gothic floral-patterned sofa. Between us, a mild blaze swelled in his white marble fireplace. Soot and wood ash fluttered around the room, even so far as to make its place on my two hundred dollar knock-off Versace jacket. I turned and looked at the compiled teepee between the flames. Whatever Stromyer had burning in there, it sure wasn’t firewood.

“How did you find my address?”

“I’m a private investigator. It’s what I do.”

He read into my lack of modesty--

“You know, your own confidence might put a thorn in your investigation.”

I smiled.

“Accurate with first impressions. Producer’s instinct, right?”

“Always dead on.”

I knew Stromyer was sweating on the inside or else he never would’ve let me in the door. I could tell by the steadiness of his eyes that he was a man who hid his fears with straight-faced precision--

“Let me be frank with you, Mr. Shaye--if for any reason, this is some backhanded publicity stunt, I’ll personally make sure that license of yours won’t even get you a job investigating rat trails at the city dump.”

He probably meant it, but I was far from being intimidated.

“As much as I enjoy being treated to good scotch, I’m not someone who likes wasting time.”

“Then spit out what you’ve got to say.”

“Well, first, I have a confession to make,” I said as I set down my glass. “Harty’s not missing.”

“Oh, he isn’t?”

“No. He’s dead.”

Stromyer didn’t flinch. He studied every square inch of my face. Some people have short, nervous ticks when they lie--

I don’t. But then again, I wasn’t lying.

“I like your poker face.”

“What makes you say that?”

“My own disbelief.”

I stayed serious--

“Listen, I can tell you that the red and blue markings on Matthew’s throat were a sure sign he had a hard night. I can tell you that his body contorted like a pretzel after the oxygen ran out of his lungs. His facial muscles were constricted so stiff, a four thousand volt shock couldn’t relax them. I think most people would agree that suffocation is agony. How’s that for a picture, Mr. Stromyer?”

His eyes welted up. And then, he started to break. Somebody putting me on would’ve acted like they didn’t care--but Stromyer’s tears were as real as you get.

And consequently, so were my doubts.

As Stromyer lowered his head and tried to cover his tears, I spotted a lingering figure in the hallway--his wife.

Loretta Stromyer was a woman dodging sixty, but trying to push twenty. It might’ve been pilates that kept her inside that slim white cocktail dress, but the flattened hair and
over-applied makeup didn’t do good to knock the idea that her age was a flexible number. Her hand gripped an empty wine glass like it was the only thing keeping her balance.

As soon as I thought she might make an entrance, she disappeared into the shadows of the hallway--indifferent to what knocked Stromyer off his wheels.

I turned back to the disheveled man, who took another drink and looked up at me with nostrils that wouldn’t stay still.

“I want photos,” he said.

“Could be a problem. The kid’s got an image. Say these photos get into the wrong hands.”

“Justine, right?”

“My job code requires things to stay on the down-low. Maybe for reasons you can help me pull the covers off.”

“Unless you want to continue to make this a game of bluff, I need pictures, Mr. Shaye.”

“Do games of bluff always make you breakdown?”

He grew stern--

“My trust runs thin.”

Fair enough, I thought. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for Justine to turn over pics, but somehow I got the feeling that Stromyer wouldn’t have a problem keeping them to himself.

“I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, how about shoveling some dirt off your memories of the kid--”

I laid my card on his coffee table and stood up. I took one last look at his blazing fire and noticed what appeared to be the charred remains of an endtable inside. He really must’ve hated the thing.


The next day, I arranged a meeting with Justine before having my morning red-eye and blackened wheat toast. Since Harty’s body hadn’t popped up on the front page of the LA Times, I figured she did a clean job of keeping him under wraps. But as I flipped further into the local news, I was reminded that LA was far from losing its identity--

There they stood, small bold letters: Girl, 22, found dead and abandoned in Echo Park. Lindsey Shines. No notes that she was a bit-part actress or Harty’s secret fling. Nobody cared.

Half an hour later, I took a drive to visit my only LAPD ally, Rich Forester--a midnight junkie who did well keeping a straight face and a medical examiner’s title by day.

Like most people, I never got used to the smell of the LA County Coroner’s office. Maybe Rich didn’t either, accounting for his drug use. I discreetly slipped Rich my usual one K and watched him pull out Lindsey’s body--a battered ingénue, marred by a blow to the head.

“Right frontal subdural hematoma. No prints, no foreign hair samples. Died of trauma,” he said.

“She was struck directly over the head?”

Rich’s mumbling always lacked adequate pauses--

“No. Thrown into something. Straight edge. Line injury above her left brow. Narrow, yeah. But deep--caused shut-eye.”

“Anything else?”

“Wood fragments, glittered around her incisions.”

“What kind of wood fragments?”

“Bolivian Cherry.”

Rich smiled his usual, half-crooked smirk and zipped up poor Lindsey. He took a strange, curious look at my jacket collar.

“Too cheap for dry-cleaning?” he asked, pointing to the soot and ash left on my blazer.

And then it hit me.

“The fire...”

“What fire?”

“Take a sample. Tell me if the wood ash isn’t Bolivian Cherry.”

I removed my jacket and handed it to Rich.

“Why?” he asked.

“Just promise me a call this afternoon.”


I made my way to Justine’s Avenue of the Stars roost--a sturdy twentieth floor east-view office that overlooked Hollywood’s cluttered, cross-town traffic.

She gave me an unsettled look when I told her of my predicament with Stromyer.

“Photos, huh?”

“He needs to know how legit I am. If he buys me as being solid, then it’s only a matter of time.”


“I can pin this thing.”

“On Stromyer?”

“I need his trust, first.”

“I need yours.”

Justine was the type of woman who immediately went with her instinct. And right then, she was telling herself “No”. So I got blunt--

“You were right about feigning interest. I don’t care about Matthew Harty and that means I don’t care about exploiting him for money after he’s dead.”

“But you like the sparkle of this town just as much as I do. That’s why you haven’t left.”

“No. I like secrets. I like finding them, not printing them on paper.”

She studied me, then turned and faced her window. She looked out over Hollywood like it was an unruly child. I knew she wanted control of the town, but by throwing me in the mix, she felt like she was losing a little bit of it.

“How do you know I have them?”

“You know where Harty’s body is... and that means you can find a way to get them made.”

“The answer’s ‘no’.”

She’d regret the decision. No more than fifteen minutes after stepping out of her office, I got Rich’s call. And as expected, the wood lined up. Whatever Stromyer threw Lindsey into was burning in that fire he had going. The man didn’t want any exhibits during his trial. Too bad he didn’t act fast enough. I would’ve upped my fee if I’d known I’d be working two cases. Unfortunately, I felt the two incidents were married.

A small piece of Bolivian Cherry was all it took to get Justine to change her mind. Surprisingly, she already had the pics secured in a safe behind her desk. Polaroids--shot minutes after I left the canyon. Harty’s most controversial role yet.

“Why didn’t you tell me you kept them standby?” I asked.

“Last resort.”

“For what?”

“Breaking a man down.”

I looked at her strangely.

“You were waiting for this all along, weren’t you?”

“Matthew got worried when she stopped calling.”


“Last week. She was at his house. Two days before he turned up dead.”

“Why haven’t I seen them together?”

“Maybe you went to the wrong clubs.”

“No. You kept them from being seen together. Why?”

She hesitated, but knew I had her cornered.

“Whether they realized it at the time or not, it was for their own protection.”

“No. It was for Harty’s protection. You couldn’t care less about the girl. But he did. And somehow, their lives got put into jeopardy because of it.”

She placed the photos in an envelope and sealed them up.

“You have your business, and I, mine.”

She was cocky, I’ll give her credit. She slid the envelope to me and I left with the smell of smoke under my nose--there was a fire brewing in Bel Air Estates.


I arrived at Stromyer’s house at eight that evening. I figured the man should’ve been tucked inside reading whatever scripts were thrown at him for the week.

But I came at the wrong hour. Loretta answered the speaker box, sans the pleasantries--

“This is about Matthew Harty, isn’t it?”

“It’s got something to do with him, yeah.”

She buzzed me in. I could feel the weight of the sealed envelope slowing my steps as I walked through the gates. In the guise of a pen in my shirt pocket, I kept a digital voice recorder running. I knew the Bolivian Cherry ash was enough for me to have speculation against Stromyer, but the police wouldn’t buy it. The only thing that could connect Stromyer with the murders was an audible confession.

Loretta didn’t wait for me at the entrance. The front door was open and it took twenty steps inside the foyer before I found her standing silently next to a grandfather clock. She looked as if she hadn’t left the house in days. Her once-flattened hair was frazzled, and the same cocktail dress she wore the night before showed evidence of wine stains. She held an empty glass--something that never seemed to leave her hand.

But I could tell she wanted to see me. She’d probably been kept up in that estate of his, forced to hold in whatever happened behind its walls. She wanted to get out. Maybe I was her only chance.

“He hasn’t cried in years. You made him do it...” she said. “That means you have something on him, don’t you?”

“Let’s not jump to any conclusions. I’m just the bearer of bad news, that’s all.”

She smiled at me like she knew better.

“I’m sure there’s something in this for you.”

“Some of us have a living to make.”

She grabbed the sealed envelope from my hand, but didn’t open it.

“Lance and I didn’t have children. My ability to give birth has never been, should I say, up to par.”

“Why was Lance so stuck on Harty?”

“He had the it factor. Lance loved him. Matthew was everything he wanted in a son.”

“So much to choke him to death?”

She laughed.

“You don’t understand.”

“Ms. Stromyer, there’s a lot I don’t understand, but I do know that two kids won’t be going to any more auditions. One of them killed in this very house.”

Suddenly, Loretta smashed her wine glass against the wall. She was coming loose at the hinges, so I gave her space.

“I wasn’t supposed to know,” she continued. “But when you find blood stains on your Peruvian endtable... it’s hard to cover-up a lie.”

“Is that all you found?”

Her eyes told me it wasn’t.

“I watched him carry her down the steps... even though I wasn’t supposed to. Lance put something in my drink... something to make me think that this was all a routine hallucination... due to my on-going alcoholism.”

“So Stromyer threw Lindsey Shines into an endtable while you played sleeping beauty, only you weren’t fully counting sheep?”

“Yes, but the truth sounds so grim when you repeat it face value.”

“What about Harty?”

“Ask my husband yourself...”

She pointed to the living room, where Stromyer was sitting comfortably on the couch, facing that raging inferno of his in the fireplace. I had a hard time believing he’d be forthright with a confession, but somehow I knew I was the person who’d bring his world crumbling down.

I slowly stepped inside the room while Loretta opened the sealed envelope and kept her distance. Stromyer was either in surrender or trying to ignore my footsteps. But my words should’ve been enough to turn his head--

“Leave out enough trash, Stromyer, and someone’s bound to pick it up.”

He didn’t respond. I really wanted to see him crack and pour out his guilt, but I never got the chance.
Stromyer sat motionless on his sofa. A tiny bullet hole originated in his chest and extended through the sofa cushion. I didn’t have to guess that the .38 Loretta held in her hand was responsible for Stromyer’s stiffened composure.

Loretta threw Harty’s photographs on Stromyer’s body.

“He kept this one hidden from me.”

“Why?” I asked as she waved the gun dangerously close to my chest.

“Lover’s quarrel.”

“Between you and him?”

“No. Lance and Matthew shared the same fixation for Lindsey... but Lance was the one who always had to have the power... always the upper hand and iron fist.”

As she lowered her .38 and stepped towards the fire, I knew it was only a matter of time before Stromyer’s body would make its way into the flames and Loretta would be busy conjuring up her own alibi.

I didn’t wait around to see if Loretta had it in her to turn the .38 on me. So I left. Luckily, she didn’t need to hear a “Goodnight” from my lips, and I from hers.


The next morning, I went to Justine’s ready to up my fee for my recent on-the-job danger. I found her smiling with a hint of satisfaction as I told her of Stromyer’s fate.

I laid my USB voice recorder pen on her desk. She played back the convo Loretta and shared.
“Saves me time and money,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Stromyer doesn’t need to be blackmailed. He’s dead.”

And it was then that I fully understood the ruthlessness of Justine’s nature. She pulled out her checkbook and, no sooner than she applied her Jane Hancock, the dead kid walked in the door.

Matthew Harty--alive, healthy, but somewhat glib.

“Loretta will back up what you recorded, right?” he asked me as if he’d been listening all along.

I acted like his performance didn’t stun me.

“If she hasn’t thrown herself into the fire,” I said.

“Odds are low, considering how much money she’s likely to inherit,” Justine said.

I looked at the kid from head to toe. I couldn’t put together why he wanted to play opossum.
But then I remembered what Justine told me about Harty being a victim before he was “killed”.

“On account of me brushing shoulders with a homicidal wife, I’d like to know what’s so hard to swallow about your Oklahoma! break.”

He was tight-lipped at first, but knew he owed it to me.

“When I got the role, there was this little unwritten contract attached. Something my agent never saw.”

“A non-verbal agreement?”

He nodded.

“I was supposed to be Lance Stromyer’s pick-up guy... bait and switch as some salesmen call it. All I had to do was pick-up the fans and show them his amazing house. He did the rest. It was what he called a ‘forever debt’. But then came the time he wanted his way with Lindsey because I owed it to him... and it happened more than once,” the kid said as he got choked up. “The one time she didn’t wanna do what he wanted her to do, things got rough... I know because I heard the screams from downstairs.”

“So it wasn’t that Lindsey stopped calling. You were there when she got killed. And you got rough with Stromyer, right?”

“Yeah, we had it out. Some of the scars on my throat are real. But when he brought a .38 into our ‘disagreement’ I gave myself a fifty percent chance of getting out of there alive.”

“But you did. And that’s when you called Justine to meet you at Fontenelle Way, only you didn’t end up at the bottom of the canyon. You made it out alive. Stromyer wanted it that way because he needed you attached to his next production. Only you returned the next morning because Justine had a game plan--she had you play dead, while she reeled in a PI who could pull up some dirt on Stromyer.”

“Guess that’s how it works,” he said.

“But why fake it?”

“You needed to know what was at risk,” Justine said.

I took another look at Harty. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad actor.

“Must be able to hold your breath a long time. But I’m not so sure about the dead skin tone.”

“Make-up and low light works wonders behind the camera. Sometimes off-screen, too.”

Justine finally tore the check from her book and slid it to me. Part of me wondered why I was even getting paid.

“What are you getting out of this?” I asked her.

“One of the rules of publicity is to have leverage. I needed a card to use against Stromyer,” she said while holding up my recorder pen. “Loretta’s voice is what your check is for--with a bonus on top for hazard pay.”

“But you hired me to find Harty’s killer.”

“There you go again, talking yourself out of a job.”

My hand couldn’t reach for the check. I didn’t wanna be known as a dope who got comfortable being fooled for good pay.

“Listen, if this is for Lindsey, I just wanna hear it from your lips.”

Justine didn’t say a word, but then the kid spoke up--

“This is for me,” he said, with a cold stare driven only by payback hunger pains.

“Saved you the cost of blackmail, didn’t I?”

Harty grabbed the check and waved it over my hands like I’d already dropped it.

“Honest pay. Can’t complain about that,” he said as he threw me his kid-smile.

I could see why the camera loved him.

BIO: Patrick splits his time between writing fiction and working in television. He is currently working in production onCSI: Miami. My first cold case novel is in seconddraft territory. He lives in the posh spectrum of lights known as sultry Los Angeles.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Evidence by A.M. Pearce


A shadowed figure slid across the dingy brick wall. Donna’s sharp blue eyes flicked quickly to the side of the building where she thought she’d seen the shape as her hand dug into her purse, closing around the can of mace she always carried.

As a successful criminal prosecution attorney, Donna had already had her fair share of stalkers, usually just young offenders trying to scare her. She knew how to defend herself and was prepared to use force when necessary.

Fear was never something that Donna had allowed herself to indulge in. Even as a child she had always preferred to face the dark and things that scared her rather than hide from them. Donna had never been easily scared. This latest case of hers, however, had her on guard and rather edgy.

No further shadows or any noise came from the dark alleyway. Relaxing her tensed shoulders, Donna decided quickly that it had been nothing more than a lengthened shadow cast from the footpath by the dim street lamps or simply the product of an overworked imagination.

It was late; the city streets were quiet and glistening with the moisture left from a brief shower causing curls of mist to rise from the pavement. A few cars slipped by slowly but other than that she appeared to be completely alone in the night.

Donna was eager to get home for some well earned sleep. All of the drama and the media circus that surrounded the case had her exhausted, physically and emotionally.

Turning to move off, she noticed a rivulet of liquid in the beam of the overhead lamps oozing from an alleyway out into the street. It seemed somehow thicker than the dew clinging to the walls and street lamps. With growing horror she recognized the viscous liquid for what it was. The sickly sweet smell of copper confirmed her suspicions.

Peering into the deeper shadows, Donna took a cautious step forward. Cardboard boxes and abandoned crates littered the area in a maze making it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away.

‘Hello?’ she called, ‘Does someone need help down there?’

As she searched around a precariously balanced stack of pallets, a motionless, familiar form lying on the ground materialised from the gloom. Abandoning caution, Donna raced toward the source of the stream of thick blood, a scream lodged at the back of her throat. Kneeling down by the prostrate figure Donna quickly felt for a pulse knowing that it was futile judging by the amount of blood lost. The rust coloured spattering all around her told the story of a vicious and brutal end to the young man’s life. She began to moan softly in grief.

‘Jack. Oh no, not you, Jack.’


With a coarse, grey blanket draped around her shoulders, Donna sat silently in the back of the unmarked police car, her trembling hands shaking the contents of the Styrofoam cup she held so much that it sloshed down over her trousers. Her shoulder length dark hair was damp and hung in limp waves around her drawn, pale face.

Rain had begun to fall again, heavier than it had earlier in the evening, before the police had arrived, washing away her tears and any evidence to be had. Trying to put her grief aside, Donna had tried to collect anything that looked worthwhile, but she was not a forensic scientist and all she’d picked up were useless pieces of junk that had clung to Jack’s bloodied body as he’d fallen during the attack.

The alleyway had been blocked off with blue and white crime scene tape for hours and a pale, rose dawn now began to wash over the grey buildings surrounding her. For no apparent reason, the words of a proverb Donna’s fisherman father had often recounted came to mind.

“Red twilight, sailors delight; red dawn, sailors mourn.”

It was an ironic thought considering that sailing had been one of Jack’s passions. Jack and his pretty wife, Sue, had even been married at sea. Donna wondered grimly how the young woman was coping with the news that the father of her two small children would never be coming home again.

The passenger door opened and the lead detective poked his head in, his broad features creased with concern, ‘Are you alright Miss Harding?’ she nodded numbly, ‘I’ll take you home now, we’ll get your statement from there.’

In her sparsely decorated living room, Donna once more went over the few details she had of discovering Jack’s lifeless body.

Detective Straughn looked thoughtful as he went over his notes, tapping his pen against his lower lip, ‘You and Jack Tomlinson have been working on the Stratton Strangler case, is that right?’

‘That’s correct. We are…were, two weeks into the trial of Dan Gold.’

‘Two of your witnesses have disappeared in that time,’ it was a statement, not a question, ‘and both under suspicious circumstances. Gold is being held on remand is he not?’

‘Yes, the witnesses had involvement in the disposal of the bodies, not the murders themselves you understand. It seems that Dan Gold claimed to them in separate incidents that it had been an accident and enlisted their help. The second witness was actually the one who blew the whistle. We got all we could out of them,’ Donna hesitated, choosing her next words carefully, ‘or at least, we thought we had. We always believed, Detective Straughn, that Gold had an accomplice although we couldn’t prove it and Gold himself denied it.’

‘Any idea who?’

‘No. That was always the problem. We had enough circumstantial evidence to suggest a second party, but no proof that would hold up in court,’ she paused once more and shuffled uncomfortably, ‘Jack never gave up on the theory though. He questioned a few people he considered likely co-conspirators just two days ago but came away empty handed. He was also pretty sure that he knew who was involved in the disappearances of the two witnesses.’

Straughn raised his eyes to hers, a questioning glance in them, ‘Who did he have in mind for that?’

‘Well, he had this idea, and it’s one that can’t be substantiated mind you,’ Donna added quickly, ‘that it was Martin Gold, the defendant’s brother.’

‘And do you think that it was possible that he may be doing away with witnesses to get his brother off the hook?’

‘It would seem to be a reasonable assumption under other circumstances, but there’s no chance of that happening.’


‘The forensic evidence against Dan Gold is irrefutable. He could kill us all and Dan would still be convicted. Besides, Martin was thoroughly investigated and cleared.’

‘But Jack still suspected his involvement?’

Donna sighed, ‘I’m sorry to say that Jack was simply fixated on the man. Martin is intelligent, well adjusted and much respected within the community. Plus he had alibis for each of the murders and the disappearances. Any involvement on his part is laughable, but I’ll admit, he is a cold customer. What it comes down to is that Jack just didn’t like the man. He felt he was hiding something, but then, Jack thought everyone was hiding something.’

‘Well,’ Detective Straughn said slowly, ‘obviously someone is.’


Martin signed his name on the visitor’s sheet and allowed the guard to search him. His bag contained nothing more sinister than a new set of toiletries and a couple of chocolate bars that he’d brought for his brother.

Straightening his jacket lapel and running a manicured hand through his thick, wavy hair, Martin Gold removed a handkerchief from his breast pocket. Meticulously, he wiped down the entire surface of the chair and the table top, tossing the monogrammed cloth in a rubbish bin before sitting down to wait.

When they finally led Dan out to the visitor’s room, Martin stood and smiled at him. His younger brother’s face was pale and drawn, a large purple bruise above his left eye. Dan sat down at the wobbling plastic table across from Martin, his drab grey jumpsuit in sharp contrast to Martin’s tailored Armani suit.

A few other prisoners sat at surrounding tables with the girlfriends or family members. All were in deep conversation, some weeping, others nagging, none paying attention to what anyone else from the cell block was doing.

‘What happened to you?’ Martin asked Dan softly.

‘Nuthin,’ Dan muttered, his eyes downcast, ‘I ain’t told them nuthin Marty. I promise.’

Martin cringed at Dan’s colloquial speech. He swallowed the contemptuous remark that rose immediately to his lips and smiled indulgently. How he had ended up with this imbecile for a brother was a mystery to Martin. Even compared to the rest of his uneducated, boorish family the boy was an embarrassment. But Dan had some uses at least. No imagination or initiative, but a willingness to do what he was told without question.

‘I know you haven’t. Here,’ Martin reached into his bag and pulled out the bag of toiletries and sweets, ‘I thought you might need some things, and a bit of chocolate for a treat. You’ve really been a good boy. How about a coffee?’

Without waiting for an answer he went over and poured them each a cup. As he stirred sugar into his own coffee, Martin carefully opened the catch on his bulky onyx ring and tipped the dried, crushed toxic leaves into Dan’s steaming cup.

A little inspiration from Lucretia Borgia, a little hint from Agatha Christie and his worries of his poor, half-witted brother spilling the beans would be over. Police, Martin had found, were not versed in the classics and by all accounts had little imagination. He was not worried that any one of them would make the connection. There’d be no way to prove he’d been involved without Dan’s testimony and anyone else that could link him to the killing spree was already taken care of.

‘Drink up,’ Martin encouraged Dan, who sat despondently looking down into the swirling black liquid, with a smile.

Dan looked up into Martin’s eyes and raised the cup to his lips. He’d always felt compelled to do whatever seemed to please his older, articulate and confident brother. The coffee was extraordinarily bitter, but he didn’t want to displease Martin.

Watching Dan gulp down the bitter brew, he shivered pleasurably at the tingle of familiar excitement he felt when he held someone’s life in his hands. That this person was his own flesh and blood made no difference. Power was power.

The taxine would work in a few hours and by then he’d be long gone and the evidence as well. The goods he’d brought with him would be checked of course, but there was nothing to find.

It was possible that an enterprising young medical examiner would recognize the effects of taxine poisoning, but Martin had covered that eventuality as well. Several weeks ago, he’d sent an arrangement of dried flowers to Dan through one of the boy’s young thug of a friend. Yew leaves and berries were prominent in the bouquet.

They could even dig deeper and all they’d discover was that Dan had an extensive knowledge of plants and knew of the poisonous quality of the plant having lost a sister who’d used it to make tea with when she was four. Of course, even thirty years later, no-one knew that it had been Martin who’d suggested the tea party to his tiny sister.

‘I have this for you too,’ he passed a thin, red journal and some pens over to his brother, ‘Thought it might help you while away the time.’

‘Thanks Marty,’ Dan’s eyes filled with tears at his usually cold brother’s thoughtfulness.

Martin smiled. For good measure he’d placed one of the old suicide notes that he’d kept from the last time Dan had bungled an attempt at his pathetic life in the pocket of the front cover.

Poor Dan. He could always be counted on to deflect suspicion from his more capable older brother. He watched as a guard led Dan back to his cell, shuffling alongside the big uniformed man dejectedly.

Martin left the prison with a spring in his step. His annoying little sister who had used his precious text books to draw in was gone, his violent, drunken parents had met an untimely death when their home had mysteriously burnt to the ground and in a few hours his last remaining member of Martin’s low brow family will have left this world too.

From as early as he could remember, Martin Gold had felt ashamed of his family. He’d lost himself in the gaining of knowledge and released his tension on neighbourhood pets. No one had ever suspected the bright, friendly young man and it had emboldened him to progress to manipulating other children into hurting and torturing their animals and friends while Martin watched from a safe distance.

The vicarious thrill of violent voyeurism and his ability to control those weaker than himself had ensured that he could never be tied to a crime, even when the violence escalated to kidnap and murder.

With honeyed words and an iron fist, Martin’s accomplices had soon found themselves totally loyal to their handsome friend. Though many of them had been caught, not one had smeared his name.

It was in the disposal of these allies that Martin found he could use his creative talents to their fullest potential. All of the deaths had been ruled suicides, proving him much more intelligent and adept than the glorified security guards sworn to protect the public.

Over the years he had studied many successful serial killers and Martin saw immediately the fatal flaw that had led to their capture. Most had foolishly involved themselves personally in all of the killings and then had taunted the police with their supposed cleverness. A mistake that Martin had never been tempted to make.

Kent opened the back door of the Mercedes Benz as Martin walked across the car park, ‘Everything go alright, sir?’ the young driver asked solicitously.

‘Fine thank you, Kent,’ Martin replied as he climbed into the back seat, ‘back to the office now please.’


Kent pulled onto the highway and leaned back in his seat casually. He liked his boss and had built up a real rapport with him. They talked about many things which had given Kent the confidence to speak frankly.

‘I hope you don’t mind my saying so, Mr. Gold,’ Kent began, looking in the rearview mirror at the older man’s aristocratic profile, ‘and I know the situation has caused you a lot of problems, but it seems to me that your brother went about his actions all wrong. I mean, I’m not saying I condone what he did or anything, but getting caught that way was avoidable. Even I could have done a better job of covering my tracks.’

Martin lowered the newspaper he held and stared back at his driver in the mirror with sudden interest, ‘Really? How would you have done it, Kent?’


© Alison Pearce 2007

BIO: A.M. Pearce is a former English and Math tutor living in Queensland with her husband and four children. She has had two short stories published this year with another two and one poem accepted for publication next year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

They’re All Mad - Jon Bassoff

They’re All Mad

My father lived in a ramshackle bungalow on the outskirts of town. Nobody lived within two miles of him except the cat lady, and she always left him alone. He always said that he liked people okay, but he didn’t have much use for them. And when Mom died, well, that was about it for him. His body was still there, but it was just a jalopy filled with broken parts.

I barely ever visited him, so it’s hard to say why I decided to on that particular night. Maybe I sensed that something was wrong, or maybe I just wanted someone to talk to. It doesn’t matter. In any case, I got into my car and drove, the lonely county line road surrounded by invisible cornfields, the radio playing nothing but ghostly static. The night was dark, and the moon was missing.

When I got to his house, all the lights were off, but the front door was open. That wasn’t terribly unusual. He often went to bed early, and he could have forgotten to close the door. Still, my throat tightened and dread oozed through my veins. I parked my car in the dirt driveway behind his ancient Ford truck. I turned off the engine and sat in the car, thinking. My head started aching. They’d prescribed medication, but I didn’t like taking it. It gave me the shakes. I pulled my greasy hair back with my hand and sighed. Misery was breathing down my neck.

I opened the car door and pulled my body outside. A soft breeze was blowing, and sleepy leaves were falling to the ground. They crunched beneath my feet as I made my way across the grass, stepping over rusted car parts and busted lawn chairs. As soon as I reached the front door, the wind stopped blowing and the whole world was quiet. Except my brain. It kept right on roaring.

I knocked on the door a few times and called out his name. There was no answer. I pushed open the screen door and let it slam shut behind me. I fumbled around for a few moments before I found a light switch. I turned it on and glanced around the living room. Everything looked okay, everything was in its place. His shoes were lined neatly against the wall, and his jacket was folded and lying on the couch. Today’s newspaper was open on the coffee table. In the corner of the room, a grandfather clock was ticking methodically, confidently. The windows were open, and the white curtains were swaying. I took a few steps, the hardwood floor groaning softly. I called out his name again and, upon hearing no response, laughed nervously to myself.

The door to his bedroom was closed. I knocked, waited a few moments, then knocked again. My goddamn head was killing me. I opened the door slowly. The room was dark. I turned on the light. I didn’t scream, but my legs gave way and I collapsed to the floor. My father was in the middle of the room, wearing only an A-frame undershirt and a pair of polka-dot boxers. His eyes were open. A rope was tied to the light fixture on one end and to his neck on the other end. His feet dangled six or seven inches above the floor. Everything smelled like death and despair. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The smoke filled up my lungs and burned like a son-of-a-bitch.

On the morning of the funeral, the clouds looked like they were ready to burst, but the rain never came. Instead, there was only thunder rolling across the plains, sounding like furniture being dragged across the sky. There weren’t many people there, and most of the people that were there I had never seen before. They shook their heads and said “It’s a real shame,” and asked me how I was doing, and it surprised them when I told them that I was doing just fine. People worry about me too much.

At the graveyard, the wind started blowing pretty hard, kicking up dust, and when the priest spoke his words were muffled and hard to hear. At one point he asked everybody to bow their heads and say a prayer for my father, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Then the priest gave me a shovel. I dug some dirt from the ground and tossed it into the hole. The moment the soil scattered across the coffin, somebody released a cry. Maybe it was me. My father was gone.

Everybody left, and I thought I was alone. I was sitting on the ground smoking a cigarette, thinking about everything and nothing at all. I heard somebody breathing. I turned around and saw a man that I had never seen before in my life. He was a burly fellow with a pockmarked face, a flattened nose, green eyes, and a cruel mouth. He wore a porkpie hat, a long leather jacket, and smelled like cheap aftershave. “They’re calling it a suicide, huh?” he said in a raspy voice.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He grinned revealing a set of rotting teeth. “I’m a friend,” he said. “That is, I was a friend of your father.”

“He didn’t have any friends.”

“Not many, no. But he had his share of enemies.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

He grunted and pulled out a crooked cigarette from his shirt pocket. He inhaled deeply, his humorless eyes narrowing into slits. “There’s a lot you don’t know about your father.”

I got to my feet. The man was an inch or two smaller than me, but probably outweighed me by a couple of quarters. “And I suppose you’re gonna tell me,” I said.

He grinned thinly. “You’re father was not what he appeared to be. He had a second life. He spent it stealing from other people.”

The blood rushed to my head, and I clenched my fists, feeling a sudden hatred for this porkpie-wearing stranger. “You’re a goddamn liar.”

“Believe what you want to believe, son. I speak the truth. He was two-bit crook, stealing from old ladies and senile men. But once upon a time he took too much money from the wrong people. They came after him, and your father split. Did you ever wonder why you ended up in this Podunk town?”

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” I said. “And so did my dad. And his dad. And—”

“He was sparing you from the truth. He spent his whole life glancing over his shoulder, looking in his rearview mirror, just waiting for the guillotine to drop. And it finally did.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Fair warning,” he said. “Because even after they killed him, those sons-of-bitches couldn’t find the money. They might think that you’ve got it. And that means that they’re gonna be coming for you next.”

“You’re crazy,” I said.

He dropped his cigarette to the grass and crushed it out with his foot. “Just do yourself a favor, son, and keep your eyes open,” he growled. “And best not open your front door for awhile.”

And then, two days later, the letter came, slipped under my door by a silent messenger while I sat on my couch drinking poison and staring at the wall. I took a chug of vodka and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. Then I got to my feet and walked toward the door. The manila envelope was blank, blank except for a scarlet substance near the corner that might have been blood or wine. With trembling hands, I opened up the envelope and stared at the letter inside. It was written in my father’s shaky handwriting. I felt my stomach tighten. I leaned against the wall and read, while off in the distance a train whistle blew, sounding like a foghorn calling the ships to shore.

“James,” the letter read. “Tell them I’m sorry, sorry for all I’ve done. I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. Tell them to stay away from you, that they got no business messing with you. I’m a bad person, but you ain’t. I hid the money, James. Mom’s keeping it safe. Get it from her.”

And that was all. The letter wasn’t signed. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Then I pictured my Dad’s face and grinned. A goddamn crook. I don’t know why it surprised me. We all spend our lives doing exactly what he did: imitating, imitating, acting like something we aren’t, striving to become a caricature of something others want us to be—the faithful husband, the caring father, the loving son. Meanwhile, when nobody is looking we’re smearing ourselves with deceit, violence, and ruthlessness and laughing all the while.

I read the letter a few more times. Mom was keeping it safe, he’d written. What did he mean by that? Mom was six feet under. Buried right next to the old man. I turned it over in my head a few times. Then it dawned on me. The old bastard had buried the blood money with his corpse bride. I refolded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. I grabbed an unread King James Bible off the bookshelf and stuck the envelope inside. Then I crushed out my cigarette and sucked down the last of the vodka.

Later that night they arrived. Faceless men, hiding in the shadows, lurking in the alleys, crawling through my brain. I turned out all the lights in the apartment so they wouldn’t be able to watch me. Every so often I would peak out the window, and I could see them, odd shapes floating through the darkness. As best as I could tell, there were two of them, although there might have been more. They weren’t trying very hard to keep hidden. They wanted me to know that they were out there, wanted me to feel the fear of their presence.

My head was throbbing and it was hard to focus. Still, with the help of a few more shots, I was able to think about the situation at hand with some semblance of rationality. The men were obviously scoping out my apartment, waiting for the right moment to enter and begin their interrogation. And even if I gave them the information they needed, these sadistic men wouldn’t leave any loose ends. They’d execute me just like they had my father. Waiting for the inevitable would do me no good. I needed to find a way to slip out of my apartment unseen. Then I could make my way to the graveyard where the blood money lay buried. But how? There was only one way out of the apartment building, and they certainly wouldn’t leave that door unguarded, even for a moment.

For several minutes I was paralyzed by this problem. I paced through the hallways, muttering to myself, biting down on my lower lip until it bled, cursing the devil-god, feeling like my head would explode at any moment. Then an idea flashed through my brain, a radical idea that had no chance of working. But desperation and prudence rarely mix, and I was desperate to live another day. I proceeded.

I ventured to the hall closet and located a shovel and a can of unopened lighter fluid. I dropped the shovel by the doorway. Then, heart pounding, I twisted off the cap and turned the can upside-down. While slowly backing through the apartment, I squirted the liquid in a zigzag pattern on the filthy gray carpet. I made it all the way to the middle of the living room before the can was emptied and my legs gave way from fear or excitement. I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a book of matches. I tried lighting several, but my hands were shaking too much and they wouldn’t take. Finally, down to my last two matches, one lit. Afraid that it would extinguish, I quickly tossed the match on the carpet. Instantaneously, the tiny flame exploded into a great fire, racing down the hallway in an uncontained rage. Within a minute, the fire devoured the hallway and began snaking its way throughout the apartment. The alarm rang, sounding like the devil screaming from his throne.

The adrenaline was shooting through my veins. I took a deep breath, covered my mouth with the crook of my arm, and dodged my way toward the front door. The flames had just reached the door, but they were still shallow enough that I was able to kick it open with my foot. Grabbing the shovel with one hand, I lowered my head and bulled through the door as the fiery arms flailed at my body.

In the vestibule, dazed looking tenants wearing bathrobes and nightgowns and boxers were moving toward the exit, unsure if they were awake or in the midst of a horrific nightmare. I too began to doubt my own wakefulness as I fought my way outside, stepping over an elderly Hispanic woman who had fallen to the ground and was praying in Spanish. Outside, the night was filled with screams and shouts and tears. A young woman grabbed my arm and said, “My dog’s still in there. I didn’t have time to grab her!” I just shook my head. I didn’t mean to hurt any dogs. Sometimes things just happen.

I didn’t watch the pyrotechnics for long. I knew my tormenters would soon be swimming through the smoke and chaos to locate me. I raised my collar, stuck the shovel beneath my arm, and started walking, a mean wind blowing in my face. As I crossed the railroad tracks, I stopped and looked back. The apartment building shone like a beacon, all jack-o-lantern orange and chimney red.

I made my way to Main Street. Nobody was out on the sidewalks tonight except for a couple of drunken factory workers. A day-old newspaper tiptoed down the gutter, and I kicked it on its way. Off in the distance ghostly sirens wailed. Every few seconds, I glanced behind me. As far as I could tell, nobody was following me. Still, an uneasy feeling was crawling through my intestines, and my head felt like it was about to explode. I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a couple of little white pills. I stared at them for a moment then threw them to the ground, crushed them with my boot. The last thing I needed right now was to get the shakes. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, but it did no good.

The cemetery was on the edge of town, surrounded by a bunch of spooky cottonwoods The steel gate was locked for the night. I threw the shovel over then began climbing. On the way down, my shirt caught on the edge of the fence, and I toppled clumsily to the ground. I got to my feet, dusted myself off, and looked around. Row upon row of gravestones glowed in the moonlight. I had a vague recollection of where my parents were buried, but in the darkness I felt disoriented. I started walking, the gravel crunching beneath my boots.

I had just finished circling the periphery when I heard a sound behind me, maybe a twig breaking. My body tensed and my heart rate quickened. I turned around, holding my breath without meaning to. For several moments I stood very still, my eyes darting across the grounds, looking for some movement. Nothing. Chalking it up to my frayed nerves, I continued walking through the labyrinth of death, searching desperately for my mother’s bones.

An hour passed, maybe more, before I found my parents’ twin plots, situated directly behind a giant statue of an angel. Exhausted, I sat down on the wet grass. I looked up at the sky. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud.

I thought about the task ahead of me and felt overwhelmed. Armed with only a single shovel, I needed to dig away six feet of earth before daylight or my killers arrived. Grinning bitterly, I bent my knees, jammed the shovel into the earth, and began digging away the dirt that encased my mother’s coffin.

I didn’t notice them until they were standing directly in front of me. Two pairs of identical black dress shoes. Slowly, I looked up. Standing before me were two men, the same men that had been skulking outside of my apartment. This was the first time that I’d seen them up close. One of them was an older man, probably in his seventies at least. He had a gaunt face, tight white skin, and thin lips. His eyes were grey, almost translucent. The other man was much younger, thirty five maybe. He was as ugly as an ape, with his protruding forehead, square jaw, and acne-scarred skin. His arms were folded over a barrel chest. I knew right away that he was the muscle of this operation, a goon who was ready to make me pay for my father’s transgressions.

“We finally get to meet,” the old man said, his lips stretching into a fearsome smile. “That was a nice touch back at the apartment.”

I didn’t say anything, just jerked my head in a dismissive nod.

“You’re father was a coward,” he said. “He pissed and shat his pants when we visited him.”

I cleared my throat and spoke, my own voice sounding strange and faraway. “He was no coward,” I said. “He never told you where he’d hidden the money.”

The old man laughed. “This is true. But he did tell us that you knew where it was. He ratted out his own son.”

I got to my feet. My head wasn’t aching anymore. They’d picked the wrong man to mess with. Don’t you know you can’t scare a ghost?

With only a moment’s hesitation, I spit in the old man’s face. I got him right below the eye, and the saliva oozed down his cheek. His left eye twitching, he wiped away the spit with the back of his hand. The goon took a step forward, but his boss stuck out his hand and stopped him. “Don’t make this unpleasant,” he said, his empty eyes glaring through my skull. “We could kill you right now. It would make it mighty easy on the undertaker.”

“So why don’t you?”

“Insurance policy. If the money’s not down there I’m confident that you’ll be able to assist us in our continued search.”

“And if the money is down there?”

He shrugged. “Then maybe I’ll be in a charitable mood. Maybe I’ll let you suck on your miserable life for a while longer.”

The goon bent down and picked up the shovel and shoved it against my chest. I grabbed it, eyeing the ugly ape warily. “Start digging boy,” he said in a surprisingly feminine voice.

They didn’t offer any assistance. Despite the cool weather, sweat was soon dripping from my forehead, stinging my eyes. An hour passed, maybe two, before I hit something solid. The two men, who had been sitting on the ground pulling grass and not talking to each other, both got up simultaneously and walked over to the gaping hole. I looked up and nodded.

“Open it up,” the old man said, a devilish gleam in his eye.

At this point, I was actually standing on top of the wooden casket. Playing the fool, I tried yanking open the wooden box, but physics would not permit such an endeavor. “I need your help,” I said.

“Stand behind the casket,” the old man said. “There’s some room there.”

I took a couple of steps before theatrically slipping. I fell to the side of the casket and pretended that I was trapped. “I sprained my fucking ankle,” I called out, grimacing in pretend pain.

The old man looked at his meathead assistant and pointed toward me. “Get him out of there,” he ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

Reluctantly, the thug walked to the edge of the hole and peered down. He steadied his legs and stuck out his beefy hand. Seeing my opportunity, I rose to my knees, grabbed his arm with both hands and pulled as hard as I could. Like a gymnast on balance beam, he waved his free arm trying to regain his balance, but it was no use. I released my grip, and he came crashing down, face first, on top of the coffin.

Quickly, I grabbed the shovel and raised it high over my head. In what seemed like an eternity, the metal blade descended toward the goon’s skull. It connected, and his body jerked. With the devil screaming in my ear, I came down again and again, battering his cranium. Pretty soon his nose was smashed inside his skull, and his face was so bloody it didn’t look like a face at all. I kept pounding and pounding until the son-of-a-bitch was nothing more than a gory mass of twitches. Then I pounded him some more.

I sat down on the coffin Indian-style and bit my nails. “Nicely done, Wyatt, nicely done.” I looked up and saw the old man sitting at the edge of the hole, his skinny legs dangling over the side. An evil grin was spread on his sallow face. In his right hand he held a snub-nose .38 special. “You killed him, a shame, a shame.”

“I had no choice.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right, Wyatt. We never have a choice, do we?”

“What are you gonna do?”

“The man you just killed was named Johnny, Johnny Bridges, and he was a mean, angry, son-of-a-bitch. Not a person in the world is going to miss him. Nobody but me. See, Johnny Bridges was my son.”

The old man cocked the gun and aimed it in my direction. My jaw tightened and my hands clenched into fists. So this was the end, and what did I have to show for it? A body that had been stomped and spit on. A soul that had been humiliated and brutalized. A heart that had been torn and devoured. I shook my head and smiled, not a bitter smile, but a genuine smile, the first genuine smile I’d had in years. Because it was funny, it really was funny, and I had never gotten the joke until now.

How long did the old man sit on that ledge with the gun pointed at my poor head? I don’t know. I just sat on my mother’s coffin laughing and laughing, immortal, finally immortal. But the old man didn’t get the joke. Or maybe he did and thought it was terribly sad. He turned the gun around and pressed it against his temple. Then he squeezed the trigger. There was a loud explosion, and I watched in awe as the primordial fiend came hurtling into the hole, crashing on top of his massacred son, both very much dead. I sat there for awhile, paralyzed. Eventually, I got to my knees, then my feet. My old man’s money was still in the coffin. All I had to do was shove their bodies away and open it up. I thought about it for a moment. Then I climbed out of the hole and collapsed on the wet grass. I slept like a dead man.
I heard voices. Faraway voices like I was still dreaming. I opened my eyes. They stung. Everything was blurry and white. White walls. White ceilings. White uniforms. I tried sitting up, but I couldn’t move. I blinked a few times. A woman’s face came into focus. She was a nurse. Where was I? A hospital? No, nothing hurt. Back in that house of mirrors? They couldn’t keep me here. They had no right to. Nobody owned me. Nobody…owned…me. “How are you feeling, Wyatt?” the nurse said. She had orange hair and a million freckles.

“I need to go,” I said. “I have some business, some very important business to attend to.”

The nurse smiled. Her teeth were as white as her freshly bleached uniform. “Dr. Thompson will see you momentarily.”

She disappeared out of a door that wasn’t there. Once again, I tried sitting up. It was no use. My legs were strapped down. So were my arms. I stared up at the florescent lights on the ceiling. I began humming a song that I had never heard. How did it go? “He’ll be waiting at the bottom of the hill. He’ll be waiting at the bottom of the hill. My dreams he’ll take, and my soul he’ll kill.”

A year passed, maybe more, before Dr. Thompson finally appeared. By this point, my muscles had deteriorated, and my heart was failing. He looked different from the last time I’d seen him. He’d had a beard before, that’s what it was. Now he was clean shaven. But his eyes were the same. Grey and deadly. “Do you remember me, Wyatt?” he said, his voice creeping through my ear canal like a spider.

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”

“You stopped taking your medication, didn’t you?”

“I did. It gave me the shakes.”

He shook his head. “And now look at what you’ve done. Just look at what you’ve done.”

I clenched my fists and sucked the tears back into my eyes. “They would have killed me doc, you’ve got to believe me.”

He took a couple of steps forward, his looming figure filling my line of sight. “Who would have killed you, Wyatt?”

“There were two of them. A father and a son. The younger one’s name was Johnny Bridges. I don’t know the father’s name.”

Dr. Thompson nodded. He didn’t seem angry. That was a good sign. “And why did they want to kill you?”

“For money,” I said. “My dad stole some money from them. They came looking. He didn’t tell them where it was hidden. They killed him. Made it look like suicide. Then they came for me.”

“You burned down your apartment complex,” he said. “Then you dug up your mother’s grave. The undertaker found you passed out next to the hole.”

“That’s where my old man hid the money,” I said. “Inside her casket. I had to kill them, don’t you see?”

Dr. Thompson placed his hand on my shoulder. I felt like screaming. “There was another man involved, wasn’t there?”

“No,” I said. “Just the two of them. Like I said before, a father and a son.”

“But somebody else told you about them. Somebody else told you about the stolen money. I’ve got the description right here.” He pulled out a piece of paper from behind his ear. “A burly fellow with a pockmarked face, a flattened nose, and a cruel mouth.”

“Yes,” I said. “But how did you—”

“A porkpie hat, right Wyatt? A long leather jacket. Cheap aftershave. Rotting teeth.”

“He was a friend of my dad’s,” I said. “He was trying to protect me.”

Dr. Thompson shook his head and frowned as if he were deeply disappointed. “It’s the same old story, Wyatt. Every single time. It’s the same old story.”

“Doc, please. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The man with the porkpie hat. The father and son. Each time a different variation, but always ending with you in the same place. You shouldn’t have stopped taking your medication.”

“It’s real,” I said. “I killed ‘em. I killed ‘em both.”

“No,” Dr. Thompson said. “You didn’t kill anybody.”

“Please,” I said. My voice was just a whisper.

Dr. Thompson took another step forward. He pulled something out of his white jacket pocket. A syringe needle. “Your father was lonely,” he said in a monotone voice. “He committed suicide. He hung himself. There’s no man in the porkpie hat. There’s no stolen money. There’s no crazed father and son duo. There’s only you. A very sick you.”

My mouth opened and I tried screaming, but there was no sound. The doctor reached his hand back and jammed the needle into my shoulder. I struggled for a moment, but it was no use. They’re all mad here, I thought. Then I closed my eyes.


Jon Bassoff lives in Colorado with his wife, two children, and a warped sense of reality. He teaches high school English, much to the chagrin of educators everywhere. He has had several short stories published in such crime magazines as Crime Spree, Thuglit, and Hardluck Stories. He recently completed a novel called The Disassembled Man which is being considered by various publishers. He can be reached at