Urban Life

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River of Lies

February 1

Tasha looked at the toes of her new boots and worried. Her workday was done. She had pushed open the school’s service door, checked outside, and shut it again with a shiver. Indoors was all brightness and warmth, but outside ’twas definitely a dark and stormy night.

Shouldn’t have changed from her grubby work shoes into these beauties till she got to Shaun’s apartment. The school’s parking lot would be riddled with puddles, and the boots were special; over-the-knee burnished-gold faux suede. The fabric wouldn’t take mud well.

She had chosen to wear the new boots for Shaun, along with her favourite slinky dress. She wanted to show up at his doorstep looking like a princess, not an off-duty janitor. Because it was February, the month of romance, and he was going out of his way to make her feel special. Only the first of the month and he’d already dropped off a sparkly, heart-smothered Hallmark card. No, appearing at his doorstep in sloppy work clothes was not an option.

She blew out a breath. Tonight would be their fourth date, and she expected there would be sex involved. Like last time, what he had called dynamite, and what she called painful. Shaun was a tad too big for her, when it came to sex.

She thought about the card he’d given her. Her friends said it was charming, and she supposed it was. She wondered if he would carry out his threat of delivering a pre–Valentine’s Day card every day till the fourteenth, a sort of twelve-days-of-Christmas shtick.


They were both in their midthirties, hardly kids anymore. She hoped that in the long run she would get used to his charm and that their relationship would build into something solid. Her parents were looking at her with that loud, unspoken question, Why are you still single? Same question from her friends. Same question from herself, really, because she wanted a husband and lots of kids, and none of that would drop out of the blue if she didn’t do her bit.

She pushed the service door open farther and took another peek at the sky. The rain had stopped, and she decided that instead of changing back to her runners, she would simply avoid the puddles, walk with care. She left the warmth and safety of the school and took her first tentative steps across the asphalt. So far so good — the basketball courtyard was fairly smooth and puddle-free. But ahead stretched the chain-link fence that separated finished ground from unfinished, and that’s where it was going to get gross.

Under lamplight a new worry sprang on her, more serious than the fear of muddy boots — the sense that she was being followed.

Tasha wasn’t easily frightened. Always aware, always prepared, that was the key to survival. She glanced over her shoulder, then did an about-face and stopped. Over by the school’s main entrance, had something just moved, sliding behind one of the support posts? She sniffed, wrinkled her nose, caught the faintest whiff of burning marijuana.

Just some kids. They hung out under the shelter there, sneaking smokes, craving danger, as kids will do. Even at this time of night and in this horrible weather.

She went on her way, thinking she actually wouldn’t mind a bit of danger herself. Not a huge amount, just enough to give her something to tell Shaun, ’cause sex and food, that’s all he seemed to care about, and not necessarily in that order. Spin up a tale, start a conversation, mix it up a bit. She was already framing the narrative as she reached the gate to the gravel parking lot. She saw it was polka-dotted with puddles, worse than she expected. It wasn’t a big school, not a huge parking area, space enough for maybe fifty cars. Of course there weren’t fifty cars here at this time of night. Just two.


Hers and who else’s?

A long black sedan. Unoccupied. It was parked near the rear entrance that led to the school’s lower level. She had been the only one on the premises, she was quite sure. No office lights burned, no late meetings underway. But a staff member might have left their car, got a ride with somebody. Teachers drank a lot, she’d been told. Maybe someone had decided they’d pick up their wheels in the morning. She gave one more look around before setting foot on the gravel. At the far end of the lot and all along one side was a smudge of forest. A little scary.

Careful what you wish for.

She had her keys in hand, in readiness to beep open the doors, and thought about her best friend’s self-defence tip. Hold your keys like this, pointy ends out, not a bad set of brass knuckles in a pinch. Second line of defence of course was the Toyota’s alarm button, which she sometimes set off by mistake, making herself and everyone around her jump.

This creepy guy was following me, her exciting story would go. I had to outrun him. Barely made it to my car. Luckily I set my key alarm going and he ran off.

Silly to spook herself like this. She was now moving forward, stop and go, tippy-toeing around bodies of mud-grey water. Heavy winter rains had flooded the lot and the puddles spread out, broad and gleaming. Behind her the chain-link gave a metallic shiver. She could hear traffic. She could see the lights of houses in the distance. A far cry from solitude, but in a way she might as well be on Mars.

The school entranceway looked so distant now. Nobody creeping or crawling about. She laughed aloud at her own tall tale of danger, faced her car once more and stopped. She peered through the darkness, not believing her eyes. Only a stone’s throw away now she saw the front right tire was flat. Flat as a pancake.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she cried.

“Hey, what’s up?” somebody called out.

She whirled. A twitch of her fingers set off the fob alarm and the car’s horn went mad, onn-onn-onn. She yanked the keys from her pocket and pressed the red button. Silence, except the soft whish of the wind playing around her ears.

“Sorry,” she said. The pounding of her heart slowed, and she smiled at the man. He hadn’t been inside the black car, so must have come up from behind her. If he’d been a stranger she’d be busy forming her brass knuckles. But she recognized him. He was a nice guy. They had exchanged friendly hellos in the halls.

She snugged her coat around her tighter, hugged her handbag. The wind was awful, trying to knock her sideways. Her neck felt cold and vulnerable. She beeped open her car to grab a scarf off the passenger seat. Slammed the door shut and said,“Whatcha doing here this time of night?”

“Had to pick up something. Papers. You know.”

He must have arrived as she left, dashed in, grabbed the docket he held under his arm.

He wasn’t as tall as Shaun. Older than Shaun, more serious. Not bad looking. She’d seen him in the halls. What did he teach? Something interesting, like science or social studies, she’d bet. Was he single?

She focused on the flat tire. He followed the direction of her stare and pulled a clownish face of horror. Just being funny. Kind of corny, but it made her laugh.

Laughing felt good. She always laughed at Shaun’s jokes, but sometimes it took effort.

She wondered if this teacher’s life was as humdrum as hers, that a flat tire late at night was the most excitement he’d had in a while. Maybe this chance encounter would lead to a conversation, then to friendship, then to something valuable.

Unlikely, but things like that did happen, didn’t they?

“So,” he said, done being funny.“Sabotage, or bad luck?”

“I’m guessing sabotage. I know who did it, too. And I bet I know why.”

He raised his brows at that.“No kidding? Tell me all about it. But first let’s get going on this flat of yours. Got a spare?”

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Carve the Heart

Carve the Heart

The Jack Palace Series
also available: eBook
tagged : crime, noir, urban life
More Info

Chapter 1

Real crime isn’t like it is in the movies. It’s not that glamorous. No one’s zipping around the Italian countryside in a little sports car loaded with gold. Real crime is stupid, ugly, and violent.

The man in the alley had a woman pinned against a jet-black Cadillac Escalade. There was another man in the driver’s seat. Both of the men had slicked-back dark hair that was shaved on the sides. The man pinning the woman was wearing a dark-blue track suit with white piping along the legs. He had a shitty goatee sprouting from his chin like moss. The woman was taller than the man. She was wearing a black leather skirt and a white jacket. Her brown hair was pulled back in a sleek, long ponytail. Her eyes were red like she’d been crying. The man was muttering something and she was shaking her head “no.” I saw the man’s face curdle. He raised his hand to slap her.

“Let her go.”

Startled, the man turned toward me. Then he turned back to the woman. “Denise, I’m sorry. Baby, come on. I’m sorry.”

Denise shook off the man and stepped away from the car. Her heels click-clacked on the concrete. She muttered, “Call the police,” as she walked away.

I kept my eyes on the man. I could see his buddy peering at me in the driver’s side mirror. The man with the mossy goatee tilted his chin at me. “You gonna call the cops?”

I nodded. “That’s what she asked me to do, so I’ll do it. But not just yet.”

The man smirked. I hit him so hard his head snapped back and cracked against the car window.

The guy in the driver’s seat fumbled with the door. I let him open it, then slammed it on him, hard. He yowled. I threw the door open and yanked the guy out. He blinked when he saw his buddy stretched out on the concrete. I hit him in the stomach and he doubled over, gasping.

“You watch for the cops while your buddy beats up women, is that it?”

The driver groaned, still doubled up. I could see a bald patch under his gel-slick hair. These guys were both wearing enough aftershave to start a small fire.

“Give me your wallet.”

“Come on, man.”


Coughing, the driver slapped his wallet into my hand. There was probably about three hundred bucks in crisp green twenties inside. I ignored the money and pulled out his driver’s licence. I made sure he saw me staring at his name, then I stuffed the licence back in the wallet and dropped it at his feet. “Well, Dimitri, now I know where you live. If you and Captain Asshole here” — I gave the man on the ground a nudge with the steel toe of my boot, making him grunt — “if you guys ever bother anyone else, I’ll come looking for you.” I reached into my jacket and pulled out a knife. I held it to Dimitri’s throat, the blade glittering in the light. “Understand?”


I pointed to the man on the ground. “Go on, get your garbage and get the fuck out of here.”

I tucked the knife back into its sheath beneath my jacket and strode down the alley. I stood watching as the driver stuffed the short man with the mossy goatee into the back seat of the Escalade. Then the driver pulled himself back into the driver’s seat and the vehicle peeled out of the alley. All aboard the Douche Express, last stop: who the fuck cares?

A rusty door opened into the alley. My buddy Eddie Yao stood there in his charcoal-grey pinstripe suit, a chrome .45 in his hand. “All good?”

I shook my head. “Assholes like that don’t learn. Do me a favour, will ya? Give the cops a call.” Eddie blinked. “What?”

“She asked me to call.” I shrugged. “You still have a guy at the precinct, right?” Eddie nodded. “I’ll take care of it.” His eyes scanned the alley and then he beckoned me closer. “Come on down.”

“Another time. I got Melody upstairs.” Melody and I had been drinking and getting frisky when the Escalade bros started roughing up the woman. You never treat a woman like that, especially not in the alley behind my office.

Eddie tucked his .45 back into the shoulder holster beneath his suit jacket. He didn’t smile, but his eyes twinkled. “Trust me, Jack. You’re going to want to see this.”

I stepped through the doorway, and the heavy steel door slammed closed.

I followed Eddie down a set of dingy stairs. It looked like the beginning of every horror movie ever. All it needed was a few bloody handprints on the wall. At the bottom was another door. Standing in front of the door was Eddie’s guy Josh, wearing a black suit that seemed to blend into the shadows. Josh nodded his head and opened the door.

Once we passed through, the whole horror-show vibe disappeared. This was Eddie’s basement casino, and it was classy, man, classy. Deep-maroon walls and polished oak chairs. Croupiers and dealers in maroon vests and black bowties. The gamblers were a different story. Eddie’s place attracted them all: the whales, the sharks, the donkeys, and the grinders. Everyone was trying to turn cards into money. An acne-scarred man with mirrored sunglasses and a straw cowboy hat tapped the felt at one of the blackjack tables, calling for one more card. As Eddie and I walked past the tables, no one looked up.

Eddie opened the door to his office and grinned. “After you.”

“I hate it when you’re all mysterious and shit.”

Eddie’s eyes twinkled again. He gestured toward the open door.

I stepped inside and froze. There was a beautiful woman sitting behind Eddie’s desk. She had pale skin, almond eyes, and jet-black hair. She was wearing a black turtleneck and a light-grey blazer. Her silver earrings caught the light as she turned toward the door. We made eye contact. She didn’t smile.



I hadn’t seen her in years — ten, to be exact. We dated, I loved her, she left me. It wasn’t quite that simple, but that was the gist of it.

Eddie gave the red leather chair in front of his desk a tug and a pat. “Have a seat, Jack. Can I get you guys anything? Cassie, another Scotch?”

She nodded. I sat down in the chair. The cushion deflated under my weight. “I’ll have a Scotch, too.” I stared at Eddie, trying to beam thoughts into his brain. Goddamn, Eddie. Warn a fella, would ya? Eddie just smiled and walked out the door.

Cassandra stared at me from across Eddie’s desk. I stared back. The clock on the wall tick-tocked. Finally, she sighed. “I’ll get right to it. Jack, I need your help.”

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