Thank you to the fine folks at The Horror Tree for publishing my story “Bar Fight” in Trembling with Fear. I am happy to be included!
I was tailing the unfaithful husband of a neurotic client down a dark alley on the outskirts of Rush City when someone slipped behind me and put a gun to my neck. I heard Bugsy’s voice and knew I had a problem.
“Frank Danger, P.I.!” he said with a delighted baritone that rumbled like a dump truck.
He laid a heavy mitt on my back and sent me staggering. Bugsy was a great guy. I thought the world of him. “Hands up!” he said, “Turn around slow.”
I came around to the barrel of a pistol pointed at my chest. I tried not to look at it. “Bugs!” I said. “Long time no see.”
He told me to shut it and waggled the gun around in a careless way I wasn’t thrilled with. “Eight years, Frankie,” he said. “Eight! Do you have any idea how long that is in the joint?”
“Well,” I said. “If I had to guess, I’d say eight years.”
He didn’t think I was cute. His meaty hand brought the gun up to my face and thumbed back the hammer.
“Easy, Bugs,” I said. “I’m not the guy who sold you out.”
He growled and his gold tooth glinted in the electroliers. He said: “I know it was you, Danger. Know why? ‘Cause I paid good money to find out, that’s why.” He puffed his chest, smiled, and showed the gold tooth. “Some of those cops you run with are dirty as me.”
I shook my head. “Bugsy my friend, you’ve been had. However, as luck would have it, I may know a way I can help you recoup some of your losses.”
“Losses?” He laughed. “You gonna give me back eight years of my life? Nah, we’re gonna make this right another way, Frankie. We’re gonna square things right here.”
“Thirty grand!” I said. A drop of sweat slid cold down my back.
Doubt flickered in his eyes. He tilted his head, tried to think. It looked painful.
“Mind if I smoke?” I asked, going inside my jacket. He frowned but didn’t stop me. I opened a cigarette case and took one, tapped it on my lighter and lit it.
Bugsy was skeptical. “What are you talking about?”
“Just a courtesy, Bugs, some people don’t care for smoke.”
“Before that,” he snarled. “The part about thirty grand.”
I snapped the case shut and blew smoke into the fog. “Thirty grand,” I said. “I have a line on it. We could take it, you and me. It’s just sitting there but I can’t do the job alone. Look Bugs, you mind lowering the gun? You make me nervous.”
He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and eyeballed me suspiciously. The gun came down slowly and hung by his side but his finger stayed on the trigger. “Let’s have it,” he said.
I jammed a thumb over my shoulder. “That shop back there, the one with all the lights.”
He looked past me. “Do-jo?”
He looked like I told him I could fly. “That’s one of them karate outfits!”
I shook my head. “Do you see the word ‘Karate’ anywhere?”
He gawked over my shoulder. “What’s J-Jiyoo…”
“Jiu Jitsu,” I said. “It’s a Japanese dance. You’ve seen it. The guys tiptoe around barefoot in silk pajamas and wave their arms just so. They all wear ponytails. It’s a lost art. Monks invented it three thousand years ago.”
Bugsy stared over my shoulder. He really wanted that thirty grand. He looked back to me and asked: “What’s the play?”
“Simple,” I said. “We go in the front. You handle the Japanese guy while I go back and get the loot. It’s in an office safe but he never locks it.”
“How did this guy come by that much money?”
I winked. “Opium den.”
“Bugsy’s eyes narrowed. “How come you know so much?”
“I’ve been on this one a long time, Bugsy,” I told him. “Just waiting for the right opportunity.”
He suddenly shook his head. “I never knew you to pull no heists. You’re supposed to be a good guy.”
I shrugged. “Good guys gotta eat.”
Bugsy pondered that and asked: “What about masks?”
I waved it off. “Cops won’t put resources on this. That guy probably can’t even ID us in English.”
Bugsy nodded as though he found that reasonable. “Okay,” he said. “But don’t get cute or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”
“Understood,” I said, and we walked over. Once inside the dojo, I nodded to the instructor and spoke Japanese. “Evening, Phil. This guy’s got me hostage. He thinks we’re going to rob you.”
Phil’s eyes twinkled. He put his arms straight up, turned a frightened face to Bugsy.
“What did you say?” Bugsy demanded. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him this was a holdup. I said you were dangerous and you’d shoot him dead if he did anything stupid.”
Bugsy waggled the gun. “I will, old man. I’ll shoot you dead.” He looked at me. “Don’t just stand there. Get the money!”
The phone was on a desk. I had an operator send an ambulance and clattered out the back into the alley. I heard Bugsy say: “I mean it old man, not another step!” Then there was a scuffle. The gun went off and there came a dry, snapping sound. Bugsy began to scream.
“Danger!” he wailed from the floor. “Danger!”
I went down the alley and around the side of the dojo to the sidewalk. A lone set of headlights bounced towards me through the fog. I held up a hand on a hunch and the lights bounced over and stopped at the curb. “Riverside Casino, my good man,” I told the cabbie. “I’m feeling lucky tonight.”
A white ball streaked across green felt and snapped into a triangle of colorful balls. The formation exploded and the balls thumped off rails, clicked off one another, came to rolling stops. Two stripes fell into pockets.
Billy Miller removed a greasy baseball cap, ran a hand through greasy hair, returned the cap to his head, and said: “I hate you.”
Stephen Zander smiled and chalked his cue with a big fist. He was tall and rangy, twenty-seven, with broad, stooped shoulders and fried golden hair. He looked like a weathered Brit-rocker from the Seventies.
“Thirteen over there,” he said and gestured at a pocket with his cue stick. He laid out flat over the stick and his arm made a fluid motion at the elbow. The white ball rolled slowly across the felt, clicked off the Thirteen and the Thirteen inched along – nearly stopped -before dropping with a click into a side pocket.
Zander indicated another pocket and grinned at Miller. “You’re going to school today, son. Eleven off the Fourt-”
A phone buzzed and Zander frowned. He leaned his stick against the table, and dug the phone from a pocket.
Zander stabbed the screen with his finger and an agitated female voice chittered. Zander winced, pulled the phone away, held it out to Miller, and mouthed: “Talk to her!”
Miller frowned and shook his head.
Zander’s smile went away and a scowl took its place. He barked at the phone. “I told you I was stopping after work!”
The phone chirped higher and Zander stormed around the pool table and out the screen door to the parking lot. The door clattered shut behind him.
Miller watched the door and peeled the soggy label from a bottle of beer. He was alone in the small room now and, after waiting a while for the door to reopen, he ambled to the right side of the bar and called: “Becky!”
“Grab what you want, Love!” a woman said from a back room. “I’m cleanin’ the fryer.”
“Taking another bottle of Snakes!”
Miller walked around behind the bar and took out a bottle of beer. He tossed the bottle cap in the trash and laid four dollars on the register, then came back around to the front of the bar and studied the pool table. Fifteen minutes passed before Miller said out loud: “Forfeit,” and chalked Zander’s stick. He took painstaking care aligning each shot and cursed the ones he missed.
With the table clear, Miller leaned the stick against the table, walked around, clattered out the screen door into the parking lot, and was blinded. His eyes snapped shut as hot, orange light warmed them through his eyelids like midday summer sun. He put up a hand and squinted.
Overhead, a circular craft whirled and whirred and filled the night sky. It bathed the world, as far as Miller could see, with orange light so that everything was the color of marmalade. Wind from the saucer swept grit into Miller’s face and he turned his head and closed his eyes. When he did so, the light winked out and the wind stopped and the night air was cool again. It was silent. Miller stood blinking, then saw a crumpled heap across the lot by his car. He sprinted over and knelt down and took Zander by the shoulders. “Stephen?” he yelled. “Stephen!”
Zander’s mouth twitched. His eyes fluttered open, green and clear and intense, and Miller gawked into them.
“Dude,” Zander whispered. “Wait ‘til you see all the shit I can do now!”
The woman sat at the bar and stared into her drink and Harvey stood behind her. He laid a hand on her back and leaned in so his mouth was in her ear. “Did you get it?”
She nodded at her drink.
Harvey sat down. “Beautiful.”
The bartender walked over. “What can I get you?”
“Whiskey,” Harvey said. “Neat.”
“How about you, ma’am? Ready for a refill?”
The woman covered her glass with her palm. The bartender left and came back with a whiskey.
“You don’t seem too enthused,” Harvey said.
The woman didn’t say anything. She pushed an ice cube down into her drink with a straw. It bobbed back to the surface.
“You got the signature,” Harvey said. “The hard part is over. Here, let’s see.”
The woman turned and dug in her purse and handed him a piece of paper. He looked at it and gave it back to her. She put it in her purse.
“Don’t lose that,” he said. “How did you manage it?”
“Just slipped it in the stack. He never reads anything.”
“They won’t suspect a thing,” Harvey said. “That explains everything nice and clean. There won’t be a reason for anyone to poke around.”
“He’s not the type. Everyone knows it.”
“Wasn’t,” Harvey said. “He wasn’t the type. He’s been down since he retired. You said so yourself.”
“Not that down.”
Harvey pointed at her purse. “That letter says otherwise.” He brought out a pack of Camels, shook two out, and offered one to the woman.
“No, thank you.”
He lit one. “What do you want to do?”
“I just wish there was some way to know for sure that we will get away clean. I wish there was some guarantee.”
“Life isn’t like that.”
“No,” she said. “On second thought, I guess I do want one.”
Harvey fished out a Camel and lit it for her.
She exhaled. “But you think it’s safe?”
“I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t.”
“What do I tell them, you know, if they do poke around?”
Harvey shrugged. “The truth. He seemed a little down but you didn’t think he was the type. They’ll believe you. Melancholy makes people do crazy things.”
“How long until we can be together?”
“After? I’d say a year just to be safe.”
The woman nodded. “Okay.”
“You’re sure? We shouldn’t go through with it if you’re not sure.”
“I’m tired of waiting,” she said. “I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Me neither,” Harvey said.
“He’s not a monster you know. He doesn’t treat me poorly.”
“I wish there was some other way.”
“I know but there isn’t. This is the only way to swing the money side of it.” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Everything will go off without a hitch, you’ll see. We just need a little faith and before you know it, we’ll be together. Did you buy the sleeping pills?”
“Good. Have you eaten yet?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“No? I’m starving,” Harvey said. “Lucky for me, they have great food here.” He stubbed out his cigarette and waved to the bartender. “Can I get a menu when you get a second?”
It was the fire that taught Jeff about miracles. After all, he shouldn’t have been there – Jeff never visited on Wednesdays. “Maybe I’ll see what the old man’s doing,” he’d said and when he pulled into the drive, the house was engulfed.
Reflecting, Jeff doesn’t know if his father would have escaped – so frail was he when Jeff found him, barely visible through the smoke. Jeff’s eyes shimmer. He smiles, grateful. He sees again his hands gripping the skinny ankles, hears anew the screams as he drags his father back into the flames. “Better safe than sorry,” Jeff whispers aloud.
He stood in a large hole, perhaps four feet deep and five or six in diameter. The digging was strenuous, the ground comprised of gravel and sand. With each thrust, the shovel stopped dead, sending a jolt through his arms, his shoulders, his back. Every few minutes, he dropped to his hands and knees to dig by hand. With his fingers, he unearthed heavy rocks, straining to wrestle them from the hole and heave them aside. The rocks dented and dulled his shovel, slowing his progress.
The air was crisp and the moon full; his body steamed through his shirt. He lifted the shovel from the hole, flat to the ground and perhaps a quarter full, and tossed its contents over his right shoulder. The sand made a brushing sound as it fell on dry leaves. He plunged the shovel into the earth again.
She stood behind him and said, “Why are you doing this?”
He stopped and let the shovel stand by its blade as he removed his cap and drew his arm across his forehead. The shovel stood upright for a moment then fell. “I have to find it,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t need it.”
Bending over, he grasped the shovel. “If I don’t find it now, We’ll have to wait until Spring.” He shook his head. “I can’t dig through the frost.”
She wrinkled her forehead and said, “Leonard, you’ve been out here for days! Weeks!” She moved close and he pulled away. She stopped and said softly, “Perhaps it’s not God’s will that it be found.”
“I don’t believe that. If He wants me to leave it out here in the wild, He needs to tell me plain. I ain’t interested in deciphering hints from The Almighty.”
She raised her eyebrows. “He is telling you. I’m telling you. Take the shovel home and draw yourself a warm bath. Put on dry clothes. Make a fire! Do the things you need to do to move on.”
He shook his head.
She smiled with sad eyes and said, “The landslide was not your fault. You don’t need to find my body.” She smiled. “It’s already buried.”
He fell to his knees in the dirt and covered his face with his hands. “No, no, no…” he cried.
“I have to go now, Leonard,” she said softly. “It’s time for us both to go home.”
She drifted away into the trees…
Leonard awoke with a start, his eyes wet and the television still on. Beside him, she lay sleeping, breathing deeply. He spooned her, and buried his face between her shoulder blades, pulling her close.
She faced the wall, smiling. “These dream pills were worth every penny,” she thought. “I am SO going shopping today.”
Now try this: The Predator
Miles Vandelay stood at the head of the table and hoisted his wine glass with his left hand. With his right, he pinged the glass repeatedly with a spoon. His eyes glittered with booze and triumph.
“Real quick,” he said. “I don’t want to hold up the party – ”
“Get off the stage!” said his VP of Operations, Todd Alton. He grabbed a bread roll from a basket on the table and tossed it at him. Soon, rolls were coming in from all over the room. They bounced off his chest and sailed past his head as he bobbed and ducked. “You’ll make me spill my wine!” he protested.
“There’s plenty more where that came from!” yelled Ezra from another table and the room erupted into applause and whistles.
Vandelay laughed and held up a palm. “All right, all right, you animals, but you know I’m cheap. I want to enjoy every. last. drop.” He upended the glass and held it up as a gladiator might hold the decapitated skull of a defeated enemy. The employees roared and upended their glasses, holding their empties high.
“They say,” said Vandelay, “All’s fair in love and war and I suppose that’s true. I’ve been through enough wives to know the love part is anyway.”
The room hooted and whistled.
“I’d like to add,” Vandelay continued, “that all’s fair in business too. To those of you who are here tonight, I salute you. This evening, we celebrate the culmination of our efforts. Our moment of glory is at hand!”
The room exploded into cheers. Rolls flew from table to table and Alton popped a fresh bottle, champagne spraying everyone at the table.
“Now I know this merger wasn’t easy,” Vandelay said after the cacophony had died. “We had to let some good people go and that can be difficult,” he said in a somber tone. “The good news is…we’re drinking their cut!”
The employees roared and pinged their glasses with their silverware.
“Some will say that life is more than money. They’ll tell you horror stories of deathbed regrets and spiritual reckonings. I would point out that every person who talks like that is broke and a loser! You don’t hear that garbage from successful people!”
“Amen!” said Ezra and the room laughed.
“I would submit to you that there are two types of people in this world: the hunters and the hunted. Looking around this room, I see victorious hunters and, to the victors go the spoils!”
The employees cheered and stomped their feet.
“The bonus checks that you received today were the largest Vandelay Industries has ever paid.”
He raised his hand as the decibel levels went to their highest point of the night. The employees stood as one to chant, “Van-de-lay! Van-de-lay!”
He smiled and waited for calm. “All right. All right. Now listen. It would be easy for us to rest on our laurels but life is about the survival of the fittest. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there is no coasting. So I raise my glass…wait…somebody give me a full one,” he said, tossing the empty over his shoulder.
The employees laughed and someone handed him a full glass of champagne. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” he said. “For tomorrow we…have to get up early and do it again!”
As he drank, he heard the laughter. In his peripheral, he saw glasses lifted to faces.
Then it went black.
He awoke with a start to find himself lying in an alley. It was cold and he was wearing only a t-shirt. “What the hell?” he asked, looking at the gravel. Pieces of broken glass glinted in the rocks. “I must’ve…blacked out…got robbed,” he muttered.
A voice startled him. “No,” it said. “You weren’t robbed.”
He turned to see a homeless man, long-haired and filthy, seated beside him. He wore ripped corduroy pants and torn shoes with duct tape holding them together. He smelled of smoke and rotten teeth and body odor. He wore an army jacket but Vandelay doubted very much that a man like that had served in the armed forces.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Ah…” the man said, smiling. “That’s not the question. The question is, who are you?” The homeless man put a bottle wrapped in a paper bag to his lips and drank. Then he set it down and laughed heartily as red wine trickled from his lower lip down into his beard.
“Yeeeaaah…okaaay,” said Vandelay. “That’s great, Crazy. I’ll be on my way now. Good talk.”
Vandelay stood but something was wrong. He was too close to the ground. He was too small. Too light.
He was a child.
“What is this?!” he demanded. “This can’t be…this isn’t real!”
The homeless man turned and winked, his eyes remarkably clear. “Oh, it’s real. You see, Miles, you didn’t do so hot in your last life. In fact, you made a real mess of it. This is your do-over. A mulligan. Another chance to live it right.”
Vandelay’s face was horrified. “How do you know my name?…No! No, this isn’t right! I’m asleep or…on something…Todd dosed me with something or…this isn’t how this is supposed to work!”
The homeless man smiled. “Well…maybe you should sleep it off.”
Miles nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I just need a little sleep. I just need to sleep it off.” He sat down and wrapped his arms around his chest; the wind was icy. He closed his eyes and drifted…
He opened his eyes. “Yes, Mama?”
“Kevin, come back to the box where it’s warm; I got a fire going. Who were you talking to, son?”
Kevin’s eyes were confused as if a dream had just ended he couldn’t quite remember. He looked up and down the empty alley. After a moment he said, “No one, Mama.”
Now try this: