About the Author

Dietrich Kalteis

Dietrich Kalteis’s short stories have been published widely, and his screenplay Between Jobs was a finalist in the 2003 Los Angeles Screenplay Festival. Kalteis lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia. This is his first novel.

Books by this Author
Call Down the Thunder
Excerpt

Sonny Myers narrowed his eyes against the gust, felt the rush of cold, the air crackling: static electricity churning and hellfire flashing inside the mass of black looming high over the flat land. The yard turning to a frenzy of whipping sand and debris. Felt like the end of times coming. Through the boiling wall of sand Sonny made out two sets of headlights coming on the county road. Could be coming for shelter from the duster, but something told him no. Reaching inside the door, he took for the shotgun and stepped off the porch.

Coming to the door, Clara asked what was going on.

“Just a blow.” He told her to get inside.

“What you gonna do, shoot it?”

His eyes slits, Sonny stepped into the yard, forcing his steps, having to lean into it, going toward the headlights.

Looked like two pick-ups stopped down by the mailbox, lights dim against the blasting sand. Doors opened and men got out. Nobody he knew. Best he could tell there were six of them, pulling hoods on. Two going to the bed of the first truck, pulling out a long cross wrapped in burlap. It had been soaked in kerosene and oil, Sonny smelling it from where he stood, halfway to the house. A couple of them moved to his left, heading for the side of the house, flanking him.

Sonny fired in the air, the only warning they’d get, popping in another shell. Leaving the two with the cross and the others by the trucks, Sonny went after the pair going wide around the house. Couldn’t see twenty feet ahead as the duster bore down. Hurrying around the side, his eyes searched for them somewhere ahead of him. One hand against the boards, he made his way around the back, staying low. Expecting an ambush. Ready to shoot if he had to. Getting to the far side before he smelled the smoke. Thinking it was the cross. Then he caught figures moving ahead of him.

“Halt,” he called, wondering what kind of thing was that to yell. Couldn’t shoot, knowing Clara wouldn’t stay inside like he told her. No point in shooting his wife. Catching sight of the flames, the cross burning down by the mailbox, the sound of car doors shutting, taillights pulling away.

Then Clara screamed from the porch, stumbling down the steps, hand on the porch rail, she moved along and found him, pointing to the barn. Sonny catching the flicker, another man running from it and crossing the open ground, heading for the trucks. Putting the stock to his shoulder, Sonny fired, pretty sure he winged the son of a bitch, reaching in his pocket for another shell that wasn’t there. The man chased after trucks and disappeared.

The dry boards caught fast, flames flicked to the roof beams and spread, the straw floor alight and swirling around. Bats flew around the rafters, chickens getting out of there. The mule screaming.

Handing Clara the shotgun, Sonny jumped down along the west side, swatting and kicking at the burning straw with his shoe. The heat like a wall, pushing him back. Slapping at the cuff of his overalls as it caught. No way to get to the back. The heat was too much. Couldn’t get to the screaming mule, and pull her from the stall. The inferno pushing him back. Taking Clara, he turned her for the door.

Driven out, both of them choking from the smoke, blinded by the sand. The flames shooting from the roof, long fingers reaching across to the house. The triangle clanging like mad from the porch post. Wrapping his arms around her, Sonny got her across the yard. A picket struck his back and knocked him down. Clara tugged him to his feet. Getting to the porch. The sand blasting so hard, they could barely see the barn, both getting inside the house. Praying it wouldn’t catch fire too.

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House of Blazes

House of Blazes

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Excerpt

. . . TRIAL BY FIRE

 

Somewhere a siren wailed. Pressing along Market, Quinn figured to head up Stockton, guessing it would be less crowded. Wait for Levi Hayes, knowing the man would be lured by his own greed.

Fires bloomed at his back, his shirt and jacket wet with sweat. The people in the street packed tight, pressing for the waterfront, the whole godless city burning to the ground. Some looked resigned, some spooked like livestock in a storm.

Florence would be alone in that big house up on Nob Hill, her servants around her. As far as he could tell, there was no smoke over that part of town. He would deal with Hayes and Lewis, get the gold and the cockfight money, then go to her and tell how he set things right. Let the woman be grateful, hoping to pick up where they left off, Quinn remembering the feel of her, the smell of her hair. He hoped Levi Hayes had got killing Marvin right.

Stepping around a corpse skewered on an iron rod, pinned between sections of sidewalk, Quinn didn’t give the man a second look, breaking from the crowd then, climbing a piano school’s fire escape, stopping on the iron landing, seeing what lay ahead, the mass moving steadily, but slow. A billboard topping the hotel advertised Knox Hats.

A couple of men climbed into a storefront, where the front window had been, looked to be looting jewelry. A couple called up to him, pointing, wanting the copper to do something about it. Climbing down, Quinn advised he was on an errand of the highest order, suggesting if they wanted something done, they could go about it themselves, that or mind their own business and just keep moving. Turning from them, he had second thoughts on heading to Stockton, guessing Mission might be a better bet. From the glow and smoke over the rooftops, there were more fires in that direction, meaning fewer people in the street.

 

. . . OUTFLOWING

 

Trudging past Church and Fourteenth, then Dolores, the women showed exhaustion, the rubble in the street made the going slow. Hadn’t made much more than a mile in the past hour, twice detoured by fire and wreckage blocking the streets. The air was hot and thick with smoke. Mounds of bricks lay scattered ahead, blocking a Peerless auto from going forward, water pooling around its wheels.

Splashing in the knee-deep water seeping and swirling from a fractured hydrant, turning the street into a river, Levi sloshed his way, grabbing the wheel of an overturned hansom cab. A chunk of brick cut into his bare sole, Verna catching his arm as he stumbled, forgiving him for his cursing.

Agnes slipped in the water, too, garments clinging to her skin. Reaching an arm, Mack helped her along, guiding Mabel with her baby, careful she didn’t take a tumble, offering again to take the child. Mabel insisting she was alright.

They were moving too slow for Levi’s liking. The heat felt stronger at their backs. The roaring and crackling making it sound alive.

A man in a drooping sombrero led his daughter, calling the name of a lost loved one. Wading through the water, not heeding a merchant on horseback. The man coming at a gallop, saddle bags slapping the chestnut’s flanks, the man’s long coat flapping behind him. Slowing through the water, he yelled warning about the curtain of fire coming, wanting the crowd to clear a path. Knocking the man with the sombrero, the rider reined the horse, Mack towing Mabel out of its path. The rider clipped Verna, the woman reeling headlong, her hat knocked into the swirl.

Cursing, the rider slapped and urged his mount over a mound of bricks damming the street, his horse’s hooves slipping, man and rider tumbling against the Peerless, the rider pitched into the stream.

Towing Verna to her feet, Agnes handed her the shapeless hat, Verna coughing, clutching her birdcage. The rider splashed before her, full of fight, the horse unable to rise. Spitting a mouthful of water, the rider yanked a pistol from his belt, aiming it wildly about, yelling for the horse to get up.

Jerking Agnes and Verna by their collars, Levi pulled them clear, the rider turning on the Peerless, shooting out a headlight, then aiming at the driver, the driver and passenger raising their hands. The crowd parted around the pool, the rider turning around and challenging any man.

Climbing past the windscreen and onto the hood, the driver dove at him from behind, knocking away the pistol, then throwing punches. The passenger, being an ample woman, struggled out her door, waded in and laid fists into the rider, punching like she was John L. Sullivan. Flanked, the rider fought back, swinging at one, then the other, before buckling under the blows. Other men waded in and tried to break it up, ended up throwing punches of their own. Most of the crowd kept moving.

Nudging Verna and Agnes through the water, Levi felt around, hoping to bump the rider’s pistol with his foot. The suffering horse jerked to keep its head above the rising water, eyes wide with panic. Nothing anyone could do.

 

At Dolores and Market, two brothers grappled an upright Bechstein, the name on the piano’s fallboard. Both with rolled shirtsleeves, they lifted it across the broken ground, getting as far the middle of the intersection. Setting it down, they mopped at their foreheads, muscles aching, looking at each other, knowing they’d gone as far as they could, the citizens passing on all sides. The brothers laid hands on the top, said some words, then left it and joined the movement for the waterfront. Leaving it to burn.

“Think Quinn had a hope?” Mack asked Levi.

“With the roof coming down?” Levi shrugged, shoving at a man cutting in front of him. The man turned and sized him up, saw Mack and thought better of starting anything. Keeping on his way.

“Think we used up whatever luck we had getting busted out,” Mack said, looking at Mabel, realizing his mistake.

“Busted out?” She looked at him.

“Just a way of talking, ma’am.”

“You men busted . . . saying you’re convicts?” She stopped and drew back.

“More of a slight mix-up, ma’am,” Levi said, looking at Mack.

“He said they got busted out.” Mabel turned to Agnes and Verna, saying, “We’re walking with convicts.”

Taking her flask from a pocket, Verna uncapped it, saying to Mabel, “You got something they can steal?”

“Think our intent’s plain, ma’am,” Mack said. “At the Mission, not two days back. That drunk tugging on your arm . . .”

Her look said he was no different from the men along that wall.

“You ladies will do just fine on your own,” Levi said, telling them to just keep moving for the ferry building.

“Come on, child,” Agnes said to Mabel, dropping her ironing board, saying to Mack, “We do thank you, gents, and Verna and I will see them the rest of the way.”

“They’ll be fine,” Levi said to Mack. “You forgetting we got business of our own?”

Mack looked at woman and child. Agnes and Verna helping her to the abandoned upright, middle of the street, water washing in from the broken main. The glow showing brighter over the rooftops from the south and east, smoke heaviest over the Mission. Windows that still had panes reflected the coming blaze. Air was getting hotter and harder to breathe. Ahead of them, the dome of the City Hall stuck up through the smoke, looked like it was sitting on a burned-out skeleton.

Half a block back, the motorist couple were back to beating on the rider, the woman holding him, her man punching away, the horse struggling to keep its head above rising water.

Another rumble, the ground shaking — this time from a dozen steers stampeding from the south. Faces turned and the crowd split, some jumping clear, one man knocked aside. Eyes wide and white with terror, the steers stampeded through, a young man swept under the hooves.

The motorists clambered for the hood of their auto, leaving the thrashing rider in the water. Agnes and Verna yanked Mabel and child up onto the upright.

A captain led his mismatched squad of Guardsmen in wake of the steers; one of the men stopped to put a bullet in the drowning horse, his corporal kneeling and firing his rifle up the street, into the steers.

Watching the craziness unfold, Mack left Levi standing there and dodged his way to the piano, grabbing Mabel down by the arm, saying, “You want to bury your child, that it?”

“Get your hands from me.” She slapped and fought him.

Guardsmen ran by, ignoring them.

Nothing nice or gentle about it, Mack wrested the baby from her and sloshed through the water, Mabel hurrying in her slippers behind him, yelling for help, Mack telling her, “Be a hard-head all you want, but one way or another this child’s going to safety.”

She slapped and grabbed, but it was doing no good. The two women took hold of her, helped her past a longhorn lying in the street, a bloody hole in its throat. The crowd moved around it.

Levi waited on the steps of the church, its spire knocked out of plumb, the cross at the top gone. Cracks running through the word Adventvs chiseled into the stonework above the entrance. The quake had spared them from the rope, but out in the open, they were fine targets, Mack tempting fate, playing the hero with a child in his hands.

Soon as the Guardsmen had gone pursuing the steers, two men stepped from the wrecked Bank of California across the street, holding rifles and sacks, walking south, the opposite direction of the crowd.

Watching the world go crazy, Levi told the women, “You want to get to safety, then you keep close. That or you get left behind, that simple.”

Between Agnes and Verna, Mabel stood and nodded, looking down at her ruined slippers, her feet hurting.

“Got no time for the stubbornness of women.” If Quinn was alive, he’d get to the money first; it was that simple.

Agnes and Mabel looked at each other and shrugged.

“All right then,” Levi said. He looked ahead of them, hadn’t taken a step when he heard faint pounding from inside the church, a voice calling from behind the heavy door. Levi turning to Mack, his look saying, what the hell next?

Agnes Maier went and banged on the door, a voice calling from inside. Kicking away at the junk in front, she yanked on the handle but couldn’t budge it. Verna joined, sweeping with her foot, trying to free the base of the door.

Cursing, Levi grabbed the end of a board, Mack passing the child to Mabel, catching hold of the other end.

The door was of thick oak; the quake had fractured the framework, jamming the door. Mack bucked his shoulder against it, Levi joining, the two of them doing it in tandem, the cracked frame giving way. A couple more tries and the door caved inward, Levi catching hold of the frame, Mack tumbling into the darkness, Agnes and Verna rushing in after him.

 

. . . CLOSING THE GAP

 

Looked like froth seeping from the breached hydrant, wreckage floating in a whirling pool. Dipping his hat, Quinn drank without thinking about how dirty the water was, then tipped the hatful over his head. Shoving a fellow out of his path, he kept vigil, no time for the pain in his arm, holding the arm tight to his chest. Sharp-eyed, searching every face. His convicts were out here.

Out front of a store called the Emporium, four men rummaged like wild dogs through boxes of shoes scattered around the street. The blond one in a jacket of army blue was no more than eighteen. Full of drink, him and another man were holding bottles and shoes, one grabbing an armful of boxes, another trying on women’s shoes, all of them laughing like fools, Enfields at their feet. The blond one stiffened at sight of the copper, tossing away a pair of lace-ups, bending for his rifle, clucking to the others.

Cocking his pistol, Quinn told him, “Touch it and you can forget about puberty.”

Hands went wide in the air.

“Getting a jump on your holiday shopping, are you, boys?”

Holding his wine bottle, the blond one pointed to the Emporium’s broken front window, saying, “Chased away a pack of looters, think it was my jacket that done it. Just putting all this back, Officer. Doing the same job as you.”

All of them nodding, the one in women’s footwear teetering.

“Looking for two men,” Quinn said. “Grey-haired fellow, the other one younger, about my height. Both looking pretty beat up.”

“That could be just about anybody,” the one with the boxes said.

Belongings wrapped in a bed sheet, a heavyset man tripped into Quinn, sending a knifing pain. Quinn cuffed the man, knocking him to the ground, a rider on a bicycle swerving to avoid them, cursing Quinn, pedaling on.

The man on the ground squinted up, noting the number on Quinn’s hat. Quinn pulling the pinned badge from his jacket, holding the seven-sided star in the man’s face, letting him see the number real close, saying, “You got it?”

“Want no trouble,” the heavy man said, getting to his feet, brushing himself off and moving on.

Holstering the pistol, Quinn stepped past the four men loading the shoes back through the broken window and pinned the badge back on.

 

. . . SAMARITANS

 

Weak on his legs, the reverend stepped through the door, blinked at the daylight, caked head to foot in plaster dust fine as flour, looking like the statue of a man chiseled from limestone. Dried blood lined the creases of his forehead, more dried blood in his hair. Looking up and down the street, then at the tilted spire above him, the old reverend disbelieved the destruction. About to speak when his legs gave out.

Catching him and easing him onto the fragment of a parapet, Levi looked for help. Lots of people in the street, but none of them stopping. One couple dragged an overstuffed suitcase, the man on the bicycle shouting at them to clear the way.

Squatting and cupping the reverend’s head, Agnes brushed the dust from his hair, seeing to his wounds saying, “Verna, your flask,” snapping her fingers.

“Water would do him better,” Verna said.

“You got any water?” Agnes asked, holding out her hand. Snapping. “The flask, Verna.”

Looking at the flooded street, Verna pulled it from her skirt, handed it over, Agnes splashing whiskey on a fold of her skirt and dabbing at his gash.

Flinching at the sting, the reverend came awake and pushed the hand away. Caught the smell and took the flask from her and tipped a good swig; it set him coughing. Taking another swallow to ease the cough, he said, “Ah, God bless you, child.”

“Easy there, Reverend, that’s not milk.” Verna reached the flask.

“Amen to that.” His smile feeble, he let go of the flask.

Swishing the flask, Verna took a swallow herself, then tucked it away.

A couple, barely past their adolescence, pushed a baby buggy filled high with worldly goods. No baby, their faces hollow, their eyes vacant.

“Firestorm south of the Slot,” one fireman called from the street, a rolled hose on his shoulder, hurrying against the flow of the crowd, saying to them the fire was racing up Tenth to beat the band, guessing they didn’t have much time. Then he was heading for the worst of it.

Flames were higher now above the building tops, angry and dancing, the grey swirling above it. Levi helped the reverend to his feet, the man wobbling.

But his voice boomed: “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone, and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

People looked from the street.

“Walking would do you better than preaching right now, Reverend.” Levi got the old man stepping, not liking the attention.

Being led along, looking to Verna Culp, the reverend said, “I’d say amen to another dram of that heavenly milk, child. Lends strength to the limbs.”

Obliging, Verna asked his name as she watched him swig, more than half of it gone.

“Reverend Thadeus, ma’am. At your service.” Recharged, he told Levi he could manage on his own now.

“Reverend, my Milton needs words said over him, if you’re able.” Mabel started to say how he met his end.

“Fire’s not waiting on any last words,” Levi said, pointing at the flames. “No offense, ma’am, but your man would surely want you and the baby to safety.” Looking to Mack for help.

“That’s so, ma’am,” Mack said.

Assessing the flames, Thadeus said he’d keep it short, prayer knowing no distance or bounds. Being pointed in the direction of the fallen man, he took Mabel by the hand, Mack holding the child like she might break, having never held an infant. Levi scanning the crowd.

Smoke choked and stung their eyes, Mabel helped steady Thadeus, his words washing away sins and forgiving trespasses and temptations, ending with thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

“Right, then,” Levi said, turning the old man to get them all moving, thinking he could be holding up the very reverend who’d be saying those same words over him and Mack if Quinn came along.

“You want, you go tend to business,” Mack told Levi. “I’ll see these folk to the Depot, then meet up later.” The baby crying, tiny and pink, Mack bouncing her, his face grimy and unshaven, cooing and going, shh, shh.

A steam pumper was shoved past them, its five-man fire squad heading south to do battle. A banker dragged a laden trunk on a cart, his pistol tucked in his waistband, moving north with the crowd. Looking at the man, Levi judged his chances of wresting the weapon from him without getting shot.

 

More flare-ups showed along Tenth, Levi getting the group as far as Market Square, the reverend barely on his feet. Flames in the upper windows of the Johnstone tower. A breeze was pushing in from the Bay, cool and holding the danger back, allowing rest for all those filling the Square.

The Victory Playhouse stood cracked open like an egg on the east side, its iron staircase spiraling at a strange angle, the roof crumbled, the upper floor exposed to the sky. A section of brick hung from an iron bar above the staircase, its fractured pillars rising to the roof beams. Bricks, plaster and shingles lay in mounds.

Perched on a marble step next to Mabel, Mack looked out at the milling folk, feeling his own weariness. Leaning against a pillar, Levi inspected his torn foot, looking back the way they had come, the spire of Reverend Thadeus’s church gone from view now, smoke hugging at street-level. He couldn’t see back as far as Van Ness.

The lodging house had been claimed, its sign declaring it the Fremont; a lumber store next door had caught fire and was belching smoke from its smashed-out windows. Smythe Bros. Wreckers stood next door; a billboard on the roof advertised building lots at Salada Beach for under three hundred bucks.

They had barely made more than a mile in the past hour. Mack getting all noble over the woman holding the baby. Levi not happy about it, pacing between busted pillars, leaving a bloody track in the ash and stone. If Quinn was alive, and if the Blazes was still standing, he’d beat them there and be waiting, wanting the gold, believing Levi and Mack had killed his brother.

Levi needed a gun.

Fixing Milton’s frock around baby Emma, Mabel took her from Mack, the child all that was holding her together. Unfastening a button, she said to Mack, “I’ll thank you to turn your head.”

Flushing, understanding what she was doing, Mack said, “Gonna do that in the open?” Turning away.

“Rather she go hungry?” she said. First time Mabel smiled, allowing Emma to nurse. Mother, her little one — all there was in the moment.

Reverend Thadeus handed Verna the flask, with his compliments, saying, “Next one’s on me.” Confessing he was partial to gin and vermouth.

Shaking the empty flask, Verna said, “Gin and vermouth’ll do fine.” Smiling at this reverend imbibing the spirits. She started to toss the flask into the wrecked Playhouse, then stopped, realizing it was about the only possession she had left. She watched Levi go down the littered steps, pushing through the throng, heading for the opposite side of the Square. Worried he was leaving them.

Miller’s Lodging House stood across and at an angle from the Playhouse. Most of its brick facade lay in the street, the interior exposed like a doll’s house, half its framework in peril. A mother and her girls gathering their possessions in what had been their second-story flat.

More folks funneled in, the Square starting to look like a cattle drive. Bodies merged, some standing, some sitting, some trying to move along Market. Two boys pushed a bed tied atop a pair of bicycles, asking folks to make way. On top lay their invalid mother, calling over to the reverend, “We’re blowing out of this town, right as rain, Reverend.” Adding they wouldn’t be at service Sunday.

Thadeus gave a wave, one of the boys saying it was too damn hard to eke a living with the good Lord causing such a thing.

“Wasn’t by the hand of the good Lord, son,” the reverend called back, thinking all these folks would be in need of church service come Sunday. And he would be there to give it, even if he had to stand in a field or on the end of a pier to do so.

Verna hadn’t noticed it past all the heads till then. The Dubloon Saloon on the northwest corner was doing a rushing business, men going in, men coming out, resembling an ant colony. Drunken men thinking if they were doomed, they’d toast the devil and be in fine form. Looking at the flask, she told Agnes she’d be right back and went down the steps and swam into the stream of people, setting course for the saloon. Agnes calling after her, wondering if she’d plumb lost her mind.

Levi stepped into Miller & Franklin’s Dry Goods, a single-story wood structure next door to the Dubloon. Otis Franklin clutched his double-barreled twelve-gauge, keeping vigil, nerves raw on account of the disorder next door: laughing and whooping men acting like it was any Saturday night.

Miller & Franklin’s had survived the depression of the nineties, got past Franklin’s wife dying of the influenza, and the earthquake shaking the whole city. Now it would face the fires, raging just a few blocks away, the Pacific breeze all that was holding it back. Otis Franklin hadn’t seen a fire squad in the past hour.

Stepping on the plank step, Levi kept his hands wide, showing the man he was unarmed, asking if he was Miller or Franklin.

Leveling the barrel, not exactly aiming it, Otis said, “Either way, we’re closed.”

“See, the hubbub took my boots.” Levi looked at his bare foot. “One of them, leastways.”

“Suppose it got your billfold, too?”

“Didn’t exactly allow for grabbing much of anything.”

“And how do I know you’re not one of these Barbary scum?” Otis nicked his head to the saloon, saying, “Drinking, likely to turn to looting.”

“I look like I’m drinking or looting?”

Otis shrugged. “Look at these crazies.”

Two juiced men do-see-doed, others clapping and stomping their feet, caroling the lyrics to “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.”

“You come along, expecting me to just hand over footwear.”

“That, and I could use a pistol.”

Otis huffed.

“You know, mister,” Levi said, “the fire finds this place, won’t make much difference, will it?”

“Wind’ll hold, and the fire brigade’s on the way.” Otis wagged the shotgun. “Now, get on with you, I got nothing for you.”

“Best of luck to you, then,” Levi said. Too tired to fight with assholes, he pushed his way back toward the Playhouse.

The baby was asleep, Mabel rocking and humming to her, Mack saying he’d be happy to hold Emma again for a while, let Mabel gain her strength. Looking at him, then letting him have the child, Mabel found humor in the way he held her, cradling Emma like she were the most unwieldy thing.

Coming up the steps, Levi looked doubtful at man and child, thinking this woman was working some mojo, having no problem with this jailbreaker now.

“Told you, go get on your way,” Mack said, feeling his uncle’s mood. “I’ll meet up at the Depot or anyplace you say.”

“Know you’re sitting out in the open, right?” Levi said, looking into the Square, leaning against the column and yanking off his one boot, flinging it into the wreckage.

“Yeah, I know it, and my money says that son got flattened by the roof beam. So go on, go and get what’s ours.”

Mabel reached for Emma, telling Mack she wouldn’t burden them any longer.

Swinging the baby from her reach, Mack said, “Don’t you start up again. Nobody said nothing about you being a burden.”

The baby began to fuss, Mack saying, “See what you done now,” bouncing and cooing to her.

Levi turned to go, looking into the crowd again, a bad feeling staying with him.

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Poughkeepsie Shuffle

Poughkeepsie Shuffle

A Crime Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Giving the Finger

 

Robbie Boyd stepped from the showroom doors, locking up Bracey’s AutoPark, catching the stockyard air coming from a block away. Feeling as rumpled as his suit, Robbie ran a hand through his thinning hair, looking to the street. Going to the Toronto Sun box at the curb, he dropped in a quarter and took a look at the front page. The Big Board doing a nosedive, the Jays winning one at home, and a couple of gangbangers gunned down in another Rexdale drive-by, the northwest of the city turning into a war zone. Flipping the page, Robbie gave the sunshine girl a seven and rolled up the paper.

Starting work at nine in the a.m., he’d sold a Monte Carlo to the first guy through the door, some hick who drove down from Stouffville, believed every word Robbie told him about the turbo model with the strato buckets and the previous owner who only put ten thousand true klicks on the odometer. The rest of day, Robbie drank too much Nescafé and passed cards and smiles to a bunch of tire kickers, pretty sure two would come back. Minus the pack, he’d clear nearly enough on the Monte Carlo to meet next month’s rent.

The Canuck buck was making a slow crawl from the toilet, and Ted Bracey, the guy who owned the AutoPark, was buying cars at auctions in upstate New York, detailing them and sending them north. Promised to raise the sliding scale if the buck crept higher. Ted had hired an ex-con named Vick DuMont, fresh out of the Don, and mentioned over lunch at the deli he was thinking about appointing Robbie to sales manager.

Long on promises, Ted Bracey had been paying Robbie the mini since the place opened. Robbie living on those promises and skinny commissions since the spring.

Looking in the direction of Gunns Loop, Robbie mulled jumping on the one-eyed streetcar, betting it would be packed armpit to armpit. Better to just walk the dozen blocks to home, stop for a cold one at Captain Jack’s, two bucks for a pint of Molson’s till seven. Twice in the last week, some afterwork babes had drifted in for the happy hour, and one of them, tall with thick-framed glasses, had been looking down the bar, glancing Robbie’s way. But Robbie would end up alone, nuking himself a Stouffer’s and thumbing the remote, nodding off to Johnny and Ed, same as always. But still, it was something, maybe it was hope.

The old Booker Jones number was rolling through his head again, been stuck there all day. The one about being down since he began to crawl. A grey Ford Econoline pulled to the curb just before he got to Old Weston, exhaust note like a cry for help, a Maltese cross dangling from its rearview. Twenty years since the heap rolled off some Detroit assembly line. One of the double doors on the side creaked open. A guy with a thick neck and dirty, blond hair squatted inside, a bent Rand McNally in his hand, giving the smile of the lost tourist. The guy behind the wheel turned his head and smiled, too.

“Where you boys want to be?” Robbie said, taking them for out-of-towners in for the Jays game, second in the series.

“Got messed around.” Flapping open the map book, the blond guy said, “Man, this city’s something, huh? Nothing runs the way you think.”

“Ought to try the Gardiner after a doubleheader, same time as the Ex. Want to talk about gridlock.” Cocking his head, Robbie tried making sense of the guy’s map, asking again where they wanted to be.

Climbing out, the driver came around the back, hands in his pockets, leaning in close like he wanted to see the map, nudging something into Robbie’s ribs, something sharp.

The blond guy saying, “Get in.”

“Hey, easy, come on . . . got hardly any cash on me.” Robbie dropped the book, looking around for help, the guy inside catching his wrist. The one behind him shoving, kicking the paper under the van.

The blond guy hit Robbie in the gut. The driver slammed the door, looking casual as he went around back and got behind the wheel, working the Ford-O-Matic, coaxing the eighty-five horses to life.

Rolling his tongue around his mouth, Robbie checked for teeth, struggling to say, “You got the wrong —”

Blond guy swung the fist, putting Robbie flat, saying, “Man talks when he should be listening, huh, Egg?”

Grunting about not calling him by name, Egg kept his eyes on the road, dealing with the traffic, crossing Dufferin.

Pulling out a roll of strapping tape, blond guy said nicknames meant shit and swung a leg across Robbie, zipping off about a foot and clapping it over his mouth. “Fact, I go by Bundy. Never gonna say it to nobody, I right, Robbie?” His knees pressed into Robbie’s shoulders.

Robbie nodded his head.

“Good boy.” Patting Robbie down, Bundy took the wallet from the windbreaker pocket, checking his id, the new photo license, holding the likeness close to Robbie’s face. “Yeah, we got the right guy.”

Robbie thinking maybe he sold these guys a lemon one time. Maybe the one he was lying in. Robbie finding it hard to breathe just through his nose. Unable to talk through the tape, his lips stuck together, pressing at the tape with his tongue.

“Do me a favor, think you can do that, Robbie?” Bundy asked.

Robbie gave another nod, like sure, sure.

“Want you to pass on a message. Think you can do that?”

Robbie kept nodding.

“Tell your boss, here’s what happens when you don’t pay what you owe. You with me?”

Robbie stopped nodding, looking doubtful.

Pulling a pair of garden pruners from a pocket, Bundy flipped off the safety catch and snapped its parrot jaws, saying, “You tell that son of a bitch, he’s got till end of next week. Next finger’s gonna be his. You got it?”

Fuck!

The scream into the tape came out like a long moan, Robbie trying to buck Bundy off.

Landing a slap, Bundy told him to hold the fuck still. “These things are fuckin’ sharp.”

Robbie couldn’t breathe, panicking, trying to jerk his hand away from the blades.

Locking hold of the wrist, Bundy said, “How about a tune there, Egg?”

Lifting a boom box off the passenger floor, Egg faced it to the back and wedged it between the buckets. Egg twisted the volume knob and pressed play. “Addicted to Love” pumped through the speakers, Egg driving on, tapping his fat fingers on the wheel.

Robbie bucked and writhed, Bundy forcing his finger between the jaws.

Snip.

“There we go, nothing to it.” Bundy rode the convulsing Robbie, the man’s eyes bugging. Holding up the digit, Bundy showed it to him, saying except for the fingernail, it looked like one of the sausage links he’d downed for breakfast.

Fighting the spin down the black hole, Robbie kept from passing out. Egg turned right past the old Joy Oil station, checked his mirrors, stopped on the side street and switched off the boom box. Reaching a tub of Wet-Naps, he passed them back.

Propping Robbie up, Bundy pulled a few tissues, clapping the man on the back like he’d been a good sport, warning him about going to the cops. He took a couple more tissues and wrapped the pinkie, handing it to Robbie. “There’s a clinic a couple doors up. Hurry, maybe they can, you know, reattach it.” Bundy pointed past the station. Yanking the handle, he pushed the side door open with a foot, zipping the tape from Robbie’s mouth, helping him out, Bundy saying, “Watch your step there, and Robbie . . .”

Robbie turned, clamping his jaws, the pain sharp and shooting through him.

“Remember the part about no cops, huh? Coulda been worse, huh? Coulda been your pecker. Just so we understand each other.”

Nodding, tears starting. Clutching the injured hand with the other, Robbie didn’t take a step until the Econoline turned on St. Clair and pulled away. He stumbled past the station, dripping blood down his sleeve. In shock. The pain becoming more intense.

It was a vet clinic called Paws ’N Claws. Robbie stood there rapping with his elbow, then he kicked at the wood door a couple of times, yelling, looking in the window for anybody moving around inside. He couldn’t get himself to look down at the hand and the wrapped finger.

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Excerpt

. . . FALCO’S NEST

 

She walked in, Falco’s Nest open to the indie music scene. Johnny Falco being the second club owner with the balls to do it. Most venues around town treated punk like taboo: pogo dancing leading to underaged drinking, leading to drunken fist fights, leading to police raids and shutdowns.

Johnny moved here from back east, got to know the punk scene in Toronto, told her about living in the Lawrence Hotel, rooms like two bucks and change a night, a Sabbath cover band called Never Say Die stayed down the hall, the band living on potatoes and soup packets. Getting to know them while bowling with empty ketchup and beer bottles in the hall, driving the landlord crazy.

She loved hearing Johnny tell about the Toronto scene: the Viletones, the Demics. Bands like the Diodes, Cardboard Brains and Teenage Head out of Hamilton, venues like Larry’s Hideaway on Carlton. Johnny saying he wished he’d been on the coast to catch the Furies before they split up, loved their sound, getting out here a couple years too late.

Photos were tacked up behind the bar: him standing arm in arm with Frankie Venom, another one of him and Daniel Rey, producer for the Ramones, one with Carole Pope out front of the Concert Hall.

Lachman over at the Buddha was first to do it in Vancouver, bringing the sound to town. The Young Canadians, still called the K-Tels back then, put on a hell of a show, followed by the Subhumans. The Buddha had been packed ever since, Lachman still trying to live down the night he kicked out Hendrix, back in the club’s R&B days a decade earlier, Lachman telling anybody who’d listen the guy just played too loud.

Falco’s Nest had been catching the Buddha’s overflow since opening its doors eight months back. Johnny usually short on cash, but long on ideas, showcasing new talent, giving bands a chance to jump off the hamster wheel of shit gigs available to them. The local papers called both clubs a spawning ground for a new terrorism on the sensibilities, but Vancouver’s punk scene didn’t read the dailies — fans flocking from as far as Mission, giving the “No Fun City” image a good shake.

Not sure who Johnny had booked in tonight, she walked by the posters plastered across the storefront window. Hoping to duck Marty till later, she’d come to hear some music, have a beer with Johnny then drop in at the Buddha, catch some of D.O.A.’s second set. The guys sometimes letting her sit in. Her Flying V locked in the trunk, just in case.

She stepped into the warmth and the smoke. The biker blocking the door was Stain, big as a bear, tattooed arms hanging from under the Hellrazors MC vest. Fingerless gloves and fingers thick as brats. Never charged her the cover. Everybody else paid two bucks to get in, half a buck less than the Buddha. The way it went at Falco’s, if Stain didn’t like your looks, it cost you three bucks to get back out. The two bucks went to Johnny, the three going to Stain.

She gave Stain a hug, kissing his cheek, then scanned the room. Black walls, exposed ceiling, graffiti and more band posters plastered on every wall. Johnny’s idea of decorating. The floods shone on four skinny guys setting up on the crappy stage of nailed crates. Lead, rhythm, bass and a guy keeping the beat.

“Marty here?”

Stain shrugged like he hadn’t noticed, no love lost between him and anybody else dealing dope in here. Johnny’s rule: Stain broke up the fights, warned him when the cops or anybody looking like an inspector walked in the door, but he didn’t make trouble with Marty Sayles, the drug-dealing landlord. For that, Stain got free beer and nine bucks an hour, triple the minimum wage.

A decent mid-week crowd tonight. A couple of guys from the Braineaters, Zippy Pinhead over talking with Monk, another Hellrazor. Frankie thinking Zippy was one of the hottest drummers around, right up there with Robert Bruce, not something she’d admit to her own drummer, Joey Thunder.

Underage kids in torn denim and leather milled around the stage, sucking on beer bottles, set to pogo. An old rummy stood propped against the far wall by the co-ed can, getting out of the cold long enough to stop the shakes, Stain giving the guy a pass, sometimes slipping him a couple of bucks, showing he had a heart. Once the old guy warmed up, he’d move on.

“Hey ya.” Folding her hands on the bar, Frankie smiled at Johnny Falco, the Carling O’Keefe neon flickering behind him like it might go out.

“Hey yourself.” Smiling back, he reached in the cooler, drew out a dripping stubbie, knowing her brand. Sliding the OV across.

“Who we got tonight?” Frankie nodded at the stage.

“Middle Finger — drove in from Calgary, their van conked out front, out of gas.”

The one with the bumper sticker and freaky dog. Frankie saying, “They any good?”

“Real good, yeah. Here the rest of the week.”

She slapped a buck on the bar, Johnny sliding it back. Bands, bikers and friends drank for free. Johnny’s rule.

Pocketing the buck, she thanked him and tipped the bottle up, her eyes on his.

Johnny asking how she was doing.

“Getting by, you know. Working on some new tunes.” Telling him the Waves were putting some original stuff down, tight on a half dozen covers now. Johnny asking what she was doing for rehearsal space. Frankie telling him about the barn out on Zero Avenue, Marty Sayles owning it like he owned this three-storey shithole, letting the Waves practice out in the boonies. One of the perks for running his dope and going out with the guy.

Her bass player, Arnie Binz, edged his way through the crowd, coming from the back room with a couple cases of beer, Arnie working here three nights a week. His flop up on the top floor, with a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. Worked here since getting canned from the 7-Eleven night shift — caught stuffing comics into his guitar case — the job he landed after he got busted driving the gypsy cab.

Arnie set the cases on the bar, gave her a smile. Told Johnny he ought to switch to cans, easier to carry. Johnny said he’d think about it, sending him back for more.

Middle Finger kicked it off. Johnny passed beers to hands reaching across the bar, stuffing dollar bills into his old-style National register, brass with a crank on the side. The dollar and cents flags popped up every time he hit the lever, opening the drawer. Frankie bopped her head, the guitar player slaying some licks, shrieking into the mic about confused teens. The crowd was getting into it, pogoing, screaming and drinking.

Three tunes in, she felt the need to pee; Frankie sipped her way to the co-ed can, knowing better than leaving a beer unattended.

Slapping Monk’s outstretched hand, she made her way across the floor, said hey to Pinhead, weaving past jumping bodies, shoving open the door, the filthiest can this side of CBGB. Fifty bands had passed through Falco’s Nest since Johnny lifted a toilet brush. Anytime somebody complained, he’d say, “That’s punk for ya.”

Johnny took the bottles from the case, putting them in the big cooler. Realized he forgot to tell her Marty Sayles had been in, not sure if he’d gone, the guy pissed off on account of the back rent. Johnny telling him he’d have it in a day or so, same thing he always told him.

Sucking a breath, Frankie stepped in. Freaky loo sprayed in hot pink over the mirror, paint that had dripped down the wall and over the glass. Get Modern or Get Fucked scrawled across the ceiling.

A lone bulb hung from the center of the room, a dead fluorescent tube horizontal over the sink, two toilets, only one with an enclosed stall, a urinal and a plugged-up sink, soapy brown scum floating in it. Toilet paper unfurled like crime scene tape across the floor. Graffiti all over — the voice of the people.

Frankie’s eyes adjusted to the dim, a guy in a sport jacket stood pressed against the wall, his head tipped back, Adam’s apple bobbing, the guy groaning over the pounding music. A girl on her knees, giving him the business. Frankie thinking ewww, people having sex in this place, worse than joining the mile-high club.

Halfway through saying “Get a room,” Frankie recognized him, turning it into “Jesus, Marty?”

Hearing his name, Marty Sayles focused his eyes, his hands on the girl’s head like he was holding himself steady. The blonde craned her neck, her lipstick smeared, eyes of someone on opioids.

There it was, her way out. Frankie put her free hand on her hip, acting pissed, saying, “What happened to having dinner?”

Marty pushed the head away, fumbling at his pants, saying that was later.

“How about take a fucking number.” The blonde made the mistake of getting up, putting her hands on her own hips.

Frankie threw the bottle and missed. An explosion of beer and glass against the tiles. Setting the blonde off, shrieking and rushing at Frankie, her fingers up like claws.

Growing up on the Eastside, Frankie knew how to scrap, put some hip into it and threw a fist. Caught the blonde on the beak, but didn’t stop her. The claws coming again. Hit her again and snatched a fistful of blonde, twisting her head around. Getting her shoe up, Frankie sent her sprawling to the wet floor, the blonde smacking her head on the scummy toilet, the girl sagging down, legs flopping on the floor.

Stuffing his shirt in his pants, dress shoes slipping on beer suds, Marty caught himself against the wall, yelling, “What the fuck, Frankie!” High on coke and the poppers he took off some pusher Zeke beat up, Marty pulled himself together, wondering where the fuck was Zeke. The blonde was useless to him now, lying flopped across the toilet, her hair in the bowl, streaks of blood showing like dark roots. “Look what the fuck you did.”

“You know what, Marty, pretty much lost my appetite,” she said. “And this you and me thing, it ain’t working out.” Stepping to the toilet, Frankie raised her Converse and pressed the lever, flushing, the blonde hair swirling, getting sucked down the bowl.

Turning for the door, she said, “She comes around, tell her to get her head examined while they’re stitching it up.”

“What you and me thing?” Marty called as she walked out the door. Too high for this. Using the toe of his dress shoe, Marty eased the blonde’s head from the toilet to the wet floor. Still putting together what just happened, he tried to recall the girl’s name. Sally or something. Wondering again where the fuck Zeke was.

The band was kicking it, covering one by the Hot Nasties, the bass player screaming and spitting into the mic about Barney Rubble being his double.

The rest of the band backing the vocals with their yabba dabba dos.

The crowd loving it.

Shaken, but relieved the thing with Marty was over, Frankie was thinking in Georgia Straight headlines: Drug Kingpin Fellated in Filthiest Can This Side of CBGB. Angling past the people crowding the bar, she caught Johnny’s eye.

“Something wrong, no TP?” Snapping off beer caps, Johnny caught her mood, practically shouting to be heard.

“Your toilets, Johnny . . .” Frankie leaned across the bar, putting a hand on his, saying, “enough to make Mr. Clean hurl.” She walked for the door.

Yabba dabba fucking do.

A group of boppers pushed their way in, their arms around Jughead, drummer for the Modernettes, holding up his drunken ass. Stain collecting the cover, telling Jug he better learn to hold his fucking liquor.

Jug saying the lickers were doing just fine, reaching in a pocket, tossing up a bunch of bills, enough for everybody’s cover, saying, “Hey ya, Frankie.”

Stepping into the rain, she went around the lineup out front, like a party in the street, didn’t matter it was raining. Miss Lovely, the Eastside’s preaching ex-hooker stood talking to some young chick with braces on her teeth. Sixty years old and wobbling on her heels, Miss Lovely wore fishnets that bunched at her ankles. Reaching in a pocket, Frankie pressed the buck she didn’t pay Johnny for the beer into the old woman’s hand, Lovely thanking her.

From behind the wheel of the Toronado, Zeke Chamas watched Frankie. She looked pissed, walking and yelling at some geezer who was yanking open her car door. The geezer looked up from the Ghia, starting toward her past the mural van. The Doberman jumped against the passenger window, teeth smacking the glass, freaking out Frankie and the geezer, Frankie yelling at it, inches from the glass. Zeke watching and laughing.

The crowd outside Johnny’s egged her on, hoping for a fight: punk chick versus attack dog.

Coming out the door, Stain told everybody to shut the fuck up. Last thing Falco’s needed was the cops pulling up again — the boys in blue dying to close this place down, the Main Street station only about a block away. Stain told the geezer to keep moving, then threw a look Zeke’s way, the Toronado at the curb, the two of them eyeing each other, nothing friendly about it.

 

. . . SHOOT THE MOON

 

The fog settled low over the cornfield. Arnie Binz snapped off branches, grabbing weed by the handful, tossing it in the bag, stripping the lower branches, working fast like that, thinking there had to be at least a hundred plants between the rows of corn, the corn standing over his head. Somebody had been through ahead of him, taking mostly the tops. Arnie knowing it was Johnny. Footprints all over the soft earth. Thought he’d get his share before Marty’s guys realized somebody had been through, picking their weed.

Moving along the row, Arnie broke off more and tossed handfuls in the sack. Hearing crows squawking nearby. Angling and working along, Arnie kept a sense of direction. Couldn’t chance losing the way back to his Pinto, left it along the ditch, Arnie planning to fill the hatch and backseat of the Cruising Wagon, the one with the bubble windows and rainbow stripes.

One bag full, Arnie dropped it and worked along the row, stripping and tossing, when he heard it. Rustling, thinking it was the crows, he kept working, then came the voices. Dropping down, he shoved the sack behind the row, moved back and tucked the other one under a plant.

Two guys talking, coming his way through the corn. Leaving the sacks, Arnie ducked low and angled through the rows, moving away, stopping and waiting, keeping track which way the car was. He’d get back out to the road, take off and come back later for the sacks. Feeling in his pocket for his keys. Not in his pocket. Arnie feeling the panic rise, then remembering he left them in the ignition to keep from losing them.

The voices were closer, Arnie stayed crouched down, keeping quiet. Could be Tucker and Sticky, the guys who worked the farm, guys he knew from the practice sessions, the two of them always standing around, listening, their eyes on Frankie. Moving between the rows, not wanting to explain what he was doing here. The practice not till tonight.

Arnie had overheard Monk talking to Johnny, saw him drawing the map. The field Arnie had told Monk about, half hoping Johnny would ask him to help him rip it off. Would have told Johnny where it was for free, Arnie knowing about Johnny’s money troubles, guessing he came and ripped off Marty Sayles to save his club, pay the rent he owed the man.

Scrambling along the rows, he kept moving away from the voices, away from his car, too. Nearing the end of the corn, Arnie started to angle between the rows, moving back toward the road. He’d get out of there and walk back to the car, make like he was going for a walk in the fog, enjoying some autumn air. If they caught up with him, he’d say Frankie left a message, something about a practice, Arnie getting his a.m. mixed up with his p.m. Blame it on being high on the bhang these guys had been making.

The corn ended at a fallow field. Arnie able to see the townline from there.

“This way,” a voice called, somebody crashing through the corn, getting close.

Moving along the edge of the field, Arnie kept low and threw a look over his shoulder, his foot hooking a dirt clod. Down he went, the wind knocked out of him. He started to push up.

Sticky, real name Lenny Lowe, stepped from the rows ahead of him, cutting him off. Looking surprised to see him.

“Scared the shit out me, man,” Arnie said, thinking this guy wasn’t much. Scrawny and unshaven and no gun in his belt. Sticky calling out, “Got him. Over here, Tuck.”

“Hey, hey, no need for that. Just got myself turned around, man,” Arnie said, walking up to the guy. “You know me.” Swinging a fist, he put Sticky down, the smaller man clutching hold of Arnie’s leg, yelling, “Tucker, get here!”

Couldn’t walk with Sticky hanging on, Arnie punched down at him, trying to shake him off, Sticky ducked his head, refusing to let go.

Tucker Balco shoved his way through the stalks, the shotgun up like an oar, the big man swinging the butt.

An explosion against Arnie’s skull, Arnie spinning into a dark hole.

Not sure if he blacked out. Aware of the two standing over him. Felt the pain in his head, blood trickling down his face, along his neck. Keeping his eyes closed.

“Momma teach you to fight like that?” Tucker said to Sticky.

“Fucking hung on, didn’t I?”

“How about you just go make the call.”

“What’re we gonna do?”

“You’re going to make the call.”

“Why not you?”

Arnie heard the slap, opening his eyes, his right eye nearly swollen shut.

Tucker saying to Sticky, “On your way back, bring some rope.”

Sticky going off, grumbling, doing like he was told, disappearing into the corn.

“Looks like you already been through once, huh?” Tucker asked, squatting next to Arnie, seeing he was awake now, standing the butt of the twelve gauge on the ground. “Golden rule, never go back.” He bent and pulled a lace from his Nike.

“Got it wrong, man,” Arnie said, looking through his one eye. “Was just cutting across, walking around. Know we got a jam tonight, right?”

The big man leaned the shotgun against a stalk, then flipped Arnie over on his stomach. Dropping a knee against his spine, he tied his hands with the lace. “Who’s with you, Arnie?”

“Nobody, man.”

Tucker tightened the lace, cinching it and grabbing some hair and tipping Arnie’s head back, saying, “Guy that’ll be coming, his name’s Zeke. You know him?”

Arnie tried to nod.

“Guy driving Marty around, just got kicked up to hardass. Got something to prove.” Tucker taking the lace from his other shoe, tying Arnie’s ankles together. “Don’t know why the fuck Marty keeps the guy around, but, the point is, he’s gonna be asking you the same questions.”

“Like I told you —”

Tucker swept his hand, slapping Arnie quiet, a welt that would show opposite the swollen eye. Tucker talking, “Heard he caught some guy at Lubik’s, the guy being where he shouldn’t be. Anyway, my point is, Zeke’s someplace between attack dog and psycho, putting on a show for Marty to see.” Tucker sat him up, saying, “So, you wanna do yourself a favor, talk to me while we’re waiting. Go easier if you do.” Tucker waited, but Arnie just sat looking at him through the one eye, Tucker saying, “Suit yourself.” Pushing him back down.

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