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Welcome to my blog for writing.

Here is where you will find an archive of short stories and essays I have written. Many of those stories were published at a blog I have since taken down called Clintonaut. Many of those same stories were cross-posted at a must-read blog for writers called Terribleminds, published by Chuck Wendig. Chuck hosts semi-regular flash fiction challenges, and I recommend them to you. In fact, I recommend the whole thing.

I anticipate updating this blog on an irregular basis. I have a job and two kids (you can read more about everything I’m doing here), and that keeps me from writing as much as I’d like. That said, I’ll try to keep the material fresh. I like to write fiction, but I reserve the right to talk about anything from fatherhood to the state of the world today. Thanks in advance for reading.

Finally, it is important for me to say that the things I write here are not the views of my employer, the City of St. Petersburg. This is a personal blog, written and published on personal time. If you have any questions about my work for the city, or anything we do there, please feel free to contact me at work.

Hope you enjoy your visit.

Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari

by Benjamin J. Kirby

When you get old like me, all you got is your routine and the same cafones I’ve been seeing for the last ten years.  Myra died seven years ago.  Two of my kids don’t even talk to me anymore, and the other two live out in L.A.  They call around the holidays, which is nice.  

So it’s just me.  I wake up early.  Get in the car and head over to Kay’s Diner for an early breakfast.  There’s a couple of old fellas spooning in runny egg and toast past their dentures, sipping weak coffee.  We’ll talk about the weather or maybe how the Yankees did.  An hour and a half there, buy a paper out front, then back to the apartment for some juice, the front section of the Times, and a good shit, which at my age can take a while.  

After lunch there’s a group of us guys who sit near the park and look out at the bay.  Most folks think we’re there because we’re old and it’s under an awning and it’s near the shuffleboard court nobody uses.  The truth is it’s right on the path where all the young stay-at-home moms bring their babies.  The best are the bouncy gals with those sporty strollers.  I don’t know who in the hell invented spandex and the sports bra, but God love ‘em.

The only night I do dinner at home is Sunday and it’s always spaghetti, meatballs the way Myra used to make ‘em, tomatoes, garlic, some fresh oregano I buy at the market, basil, onion, a little tomato paste, little water, and red wine.  Let it simmer most of the afternoon.  By five it’s ready.  

Other nights I go out, usually just down the strip.  There’s a seafood night at the Casino for retirees, I’ll hit that sometimes, see some of the boys from around.  I like the Mexican place.  Who woulda thought it?  Me, a good Italian boy, born in a little town you probably never heard of.  

Santeramo.  Not far from Bari.

I had always figured I’d worked my last job years ago.  It’s why I moved to Florida – done with work.  Of course, the kind of guys I worked for, you don’t exactly fill out retirement papers.  

I love my routine.  Eggs and old union retirees from Michigan in the morning.  Waterfront view and big tits at lunch.  Mexican food and waitresses that flirt with me at dinner.  

The outfit must be in deep shit to call me out of retirement.  The stugots on these guys.  

Of course, I have a special way of working.  No guns.  Don’t like the goddam things, and I like the kin d of people who use ‘em even less.  Noisy, messy.  Easy to trace, too.
I have a better way.  Cleaner.  Easier.

The job wasn’t going to be tough.  A woman in Tampa.  Same amount of money as always, which I kind of thought was bullshit given inflation, but I didn’t argue the point.

I know what you’re thinking.  How can he do this to a woman!  Listen, I started in this business with my father when I was thirteen years old.  I’ve seen a lot, okay?  My conscience has absorbed a lot.  I’ve seen women go down, men go down.  I’ve seen some young ones go down, too.  

Let me tell you something.  They were all bad.  All of them.  You think the people I work for are bastards?  Forget it.  These are liars.  Cheaters.  Thieves.  The scum of the earth.  They’d kill your mother for a quick buck.  The people I worked for?  They got nothing on some of these figli di puttana stronzo…

Sorry.  Sometimes the old Italian comes out when I get worked up.

My work takes two weeks, never longer.  Drive up to Tampa, find the woman.  Pretty easy to do, since the boys in the outfit have had one of their stooges drop of a little packet of information at the apartment on her.  Picture, address, where she goes, what she drives, what she likes to eat.  

This one won’t be hard.  I’ll watch her from a good distance, not too close, verify what the boys have told me.  Somewhere in this damn file is a list of the places she likes to go to eat.  Buy a gift card there for a meal on a Monday or Tuesday, when you know they have the slow staff working.  Just mail it with a letter I typed up before that says come in on Friday and bring a date and his is free, too.  

I always thought that was the weak link in the plan – what if the cops find the letter?  What if they asked about the gift card?  Still, the dumb bastards never put it together.

Works like magic.  The mark shows up on Friday, usually around seven.  You don’t want to go into the place until they’ve at least gotten their appetizers, so I usually just sit in the car, or find a place across the street to have coffee.  It should be the A-game staff on the clock.  

The bar is a good place to get situated, especially if you can get down towards the end where the waiters and waitresses come to get drinks.  You’re anonymous in the bar, a ghost.  Nobody sees you in the bar, especially an old Italiano like me.  

The woman and her man will have found a quiet corner, which is good.  If it’s near an exit, even better.  You got to wear your nice white shirt, your black tie, black blazer and pants.  Shine the shoes good, and when there’s a break in the action at the bar, just slip one of those towels into your lap.  A napkin will do in a pinch.  

This is the trickiest part of the operation.  I used to steal the pitcher of water from the bar when the bartender wasn’t looking, but that got too risky.  Especially now.  I’m not as fast as I used to be.  Too many close calls.  

Now I bring in my own pitcher, which works better.  It’s smaller and I can tuck it under the jacket, hide it behind the towel, nobody sees it.  

Poppa always said a few drops would work, but I never took a chance.  Quarter bottle.  They say it’s enough to kill a small army, but who knows.  

This is the best part.  Quarter of the bottle from the flask in my inside jacket pocket.  A little water from the glass of it I ordered with my Campari.  It’s the perfect amount.  And a little on the towel, facing out.  

There’s something about the stuff.  Something that just makes you… thirsty.  You even just get close to it, your mouth dries out, your lips are suddenly parched.  Nothing will do but water.  I got used to it a long time ago.  

The mark gets thirsty, every time.  Fill up his glass with the mostly empty pitcher, apologize to the date for not having more, and you’re done.

In more than seventy years of doing this, I’ve had one guy – one guy – not have water on the table when I walked up to him.  One guy.  And when he saw me, he asked for water, so I just found an empty glass, filled it, and it was done.

A few have been brim-full, or have been that sparkly shit.  When that happens, it’s easy.  Just pour into it, anyway, like an idiot.  Big grin, the works.  They’ll make a fuss and draw a little attention, but just apologize a whole lot in Italian and mop up what you can with the towel.  

I know what you’re thinking: it’d be easier to shoot ‘em.  But I already told you: I don’t work with guns.  

The stuff works slow.  Takes a full twelve hours.  But once you’ve taken even a sip, it’s done.  And there’s no going back.  There’s no antidote for what Poppa called “the manna”.  

She’ll see the towel on my arm, I’ll pour the water.  She’ll take a sip, not even look at me.  I’m in and out, all in less than thirty minutes.  

Whoever’s running the outfit now must know I’m down to my last bottle, that this is my last quarter I’m using on a bitch who slept with a married capo, stabbed him in the eye, fucked his friend, and – the worst part — ripped him off.  They don’t say it, but my guess is she’s got something on the capo, too.  Something the police would love to see.  

It’ll all be over soon.  I’ll be back in the car headed south to my eggs, mid-day tits, and Mexican food in no time.  I may even remind those guys that I used all the stuff – Poppa said it would probably happen in my lifetime.  No more manna.  

Well.  No more they know about.

© 2013 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.

Originally published at terribleminds for a flash fiction challenge.

The Extraordinary Rendition

by Benjamin J. Kirby

  1.       A Missing Corpse

How do you lose a body on a plane this small?

It was all he could think.  Not the time.  Not where they might be in the world.

How do you lose a body on a plane this small?

He’d heard her the first time.  And if he hadn’t, he could have read it on her face.  One of her best features: she couldn’t keep a secret.

“What?” he said again, anyway, the husky voice nearly lost to the heavy thrum of the Curtiss-Wrights roaring outside the fuselage.

“Gone!  It’s… he’s just… gone!” She threw her hands up into the air and tossed her lush, auburn hair from side to side, looking up and down the passenger cabin again.

She was panicking.  He would panic, too, in time.  For now, though, he could see: she was right.  The upper bunk, not five feet away, empty.  Missing was a large body wrapped in yards of industrial gauze, carefully placed inside a white pine box, sanded smooth like the water where they departed only a few hours earlier.

“Where in the hell is he?  Where’s Quintano?” Standing, the remnants of bourbon-induced sleep fading.

“I don’t know!” she said, her eyes going wide, palms up again. “How do you lose a body on a plane this small?”

  1.     A Half-Burned Notebook

“This is it?  This is your lead?” He held the half-burned notebook in his hand like a turd.

“I told you, Mr. Emerson, this job would not be easy.” The Man in the Crisp White Suit said, drawing deep on the Cuban, the smoke swirling up past his gray head like angels dancing away from a demon.

“It’s barely readable,” Emerson said, leafing gently through the charred pages and brushing back the black, flaking cover.  He examined each page carefully.

A map.  List of names.  Sketches.

“Barely readable,” Emerson muttered again. “I don’t know.”

But he knew.  He’d take the job.  Knew he would take it even before the Man in the Crisp White Suit mentioned the money, which was considerable.  He knew it.

The Man in the Crisp White Suit, leaning back in his chair, the smoke haloed around him, the slant of the late evening sun cutting through the dark wood shutters, said nothing, because he knew it, too.

III.    An Indestructible Tree

They had found him by what the notebook called the Indestructible Tree.  Upon first glance, Maddy thought it looked pretty well destroyed.  Then she peered closer, gingerly brushing a brown curl out of her face.  The tree – a gnarled tangle of ancient roots and knots plowing through surprisingly lush earth – was bent heavy to her left, still sprouting small green sprigs along tired branches.  It begged to be let to the ground.

“It’s real,” she said before she saw him, looking at the mound of stone and brick, hidden only a bit by the tree, water clear as spring air gurgling, soaking the lush, mossy grass around its base.

But when she saw him, she forgot – just for a fleeting moment – what J.B. Emerson looked like, and somewhere deep in her full, generous heart, something broke forever.

  1.    An Ancient Curse

The earthly delights of an ageless body.

The terrible supremacy of a timeless mind.

The power of sentience across endless millennia.

This is not the ancient curse to which the prophecy speaks.  Nor is it the unbearable loneliness, though straying too far from the wretched fountain brings years like the merciless waves of the angry Atlantic, ne’er to be undone.

I live now with this tortured tree.  And with this fountain, her cool, clear, awful water as clean, as blessed as the day it first touched my naïve tongue, the mouth of a young man.

I live here.  Until God, great in His Glory, sees fit to set upon me peculiar circumstances only which may free me from the curse.

For I live with that demon as well.

I live with that most horribly of all.

  1.     A Sudden Storm

Emerson sat on the floor of the small bodega, doors opened to the outside salt air, cradling Maddy in his arms.  He barely felt the burn of the bullet hole in his left shoulder, swallowed the salty blood in his mouth and worked for half a second on a loose molar.

Maddy was out, but he knew she wasn’t dead.  Could see her breathing, angelic wisps of flowing brown hair falling up and down around her open rose lips.  He gave her a quick pat-down, check for anything he missed.  A bullet hole could be smaller than you thought, and two minutes ago, there’d been plenty.

Long legs, fine.  Hips, fine, and he had enough discipline to keep his hands off her ass which seemed to look good in anything.  Pulled the fabric of her shirt against her abdomen – soft, so soft.  No blood dotted the fabric.

Each arm was limp, fallen to her sides, scratched but fine.  He took a moment to breathe her in, and as he brought his hand up — past her breasts — to touch her hair, it stopped, caught in the vice of her grip.

“Don’t you even think about it, you cad!” her eyes were puffy and dark, and there was a bruise forming on the side of her perfect temple.

“Just checking for any damage,” he smiled as innocently as his sinful thoughts would let him.

“We did it,” she breathed out. “We’re alive,’ she breathed again, letting him fall into her. “Kiss me.”

They sat there for hours in the open bodega, waiting on the next adventure, looking out past the body of the Man in the Crisp White Suit towards the sudden storm coming in off the bay.

  1.    An Unborn Child

The curse.

The curse not of untimely death.  The curse of eternal life… but not my life.

When I am born to them, the Curse of Man will only just begin.

© 2013 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.

Originally published at terribleminds for a flash fiction challenge.

Coyote

by Benjamin J. Kirby

On the porch.  With a drink and an Ybor City cigar.

You listen to me, now, you’ll be fine, just fine.  Listen here.

I know about him.  He come from out west, California.  Gonna make it.  Big time.  Could write.  Wrote all kinds of stories.  Sure was gonna make it.  

Things don’t always work the way we think they gonna work.  Things change, some for better.  Not always.

Now he live out what we used to call Osgood Point.  Call it Clam Bayou now.  

Like I say, things change.  

Folks’ll laugh when I tell ‘em that.  They say, who can live out that-a-way, ‘mongst the snakes an’ fire ants an’ spiders an’ fruit rats an’ Lord know what else.  He can.  He do.  Say it ain’t that big a place, an’ that’s true.  He can hide.  Go on out there, see yourself.  Get on your canoe.  Get on that brackish water, you tell me you can see ten feet past the tree line.

He’s there.  Somewhere.  Waiting.

‘Course he moves around at night.  That’s when he… well, does what it is he do.  Plenty of places to move at night in this place.  Slide through that water, not make a noise.   

More back alleys in this town we know what to do with.  He’ll scamper down one of those.  Jump a eight foot fence like nothin’.  Skip across a road faster than you can blink.

They say it’s coyotes eat those small dogs or your ol’ housecat that got out.  

Coyotes ain’t been down these parts in years an’ years, friend.  No, sir.  

Like I say, I know some about him, but it aint’ right to use his name, who… what he is now.  So I jus’ call him Coyote.  No kinda name for a man, but I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say it only seem proper.

‘Course, what happened to him in L.A., shouldn’t happen to no man.

A dark room in a dark house near Agoura Hills, off the Mulholland Highway.     

Two figures in the doorway, a broken figure behind them.  Smokey voices.

Throw him in the room with the others.  Shouldn’t take long.  He looks hungry.

The front porch.  The drink.  The burning cigar.

What they did to him was only the start.  It was what he had to do to get out made him different.  

He ain’t like us.  

What they say… irregular.

A cold shudder on a warm night.  Silence.

How he got from there to here is a story for another time.

Now he he keeps to himself, mostly.  Gets cold, he finds somewhere warm.  Gets hungry, he finds some food.  

See somethin’ he don’t like, though, well.  He gonna get something done about it.  Had this boy up the north part of town, speeding around, running drugs.  Damn near killled a little boy, left him crippled.  Police figure he skipped town, couldn’t find nothin’ but his car.  Call it a case of missing persons.

Ol’ boy older’n me down that apartment complex, hurt those little children?  Didn’t read about no police arrestin’ him, did you?  He’s what they call a ‘missing persons’, too.  Same with that ‘missing person’ lady who hit those two college lovebirds with her car, drove off.    
I expect someday they dredge up some old bones down there in the bayou.  But it’ll be long after we’re all passed.     

‘Course, for most folk, it’s all jus’ talk.

You all enjoy our fair little city.  You be safe.  You be good.  You do that.  You do right, an’ if you hear something rustle in the trees, well…

Drinks.

…least you don’t have to worry about no coyotes.

A car, nice.  Late, the smell of liquor, Marlboros, and awkwardness.      
 
Should I apologize again?

“I’m sorry, I am.  It’s just that I’m not feeling very good, and I really have a long week.”  

I’m not that sorry.  This guy is a douche and when I get to Kelly’s apartment, I’m going to call Abigail and ask her what the fuck is the deal with setting me up with this guy.  

I liked the car at least.  Mercedes, very nice.  Sporty.  But the minute I shook his hand I could smell the smoke.  I even asked him if he smoked in the email the other day, and he was, like, yeah, but only when I party.  I didn’t think this was a party.  I thought it was a blind date.  

Dinner was good, Italian at Pia’s.  He was pissed we didn’t go to La Fogata, but I really like Pia’s, and goddamit, he said I could choose anything.  

Actually, I think he was pissed about coming down from Old Northeast and not dragging me back that way, at least to downtown St. Pete.  I don’t care.  

No response.  Now he’s not even looking at me anymore.  We are in front of Kelly’s apartment, under the tree that hangs down, dark, in the corner of the lot.  I wasn’t keen on him picking me up in front of my house — just didn’t feel comfortable with him knowing exactly where I live, though I guess it wouldn’t have been too hard to figure out.  Besides, I want to dish with Kelly on how it went.  She practically insisted on it.  At least there’ll be plenty of material.

Really, I don’t feel very good.  In fact, I feel pretty sick.  

Wait… something is not right.  

My arms aren’t moving though I’m trying to reach for the door handle.  Shit.  

His look.  It’s off.  He’s saying something, but I don’t hear it.  Just ringing in my ears.  What does he think he’s doing?  He’s leaning over the seat, over the shifter.  I can feel his hot breath, a shitty combination of lasagna and cigarettes and too much wine.  He’s got his arm on my throat.  

Still, the only thing scaring me more than being crushed into my seat is the dark, heavy shadow I see pouring through his window.  Looks like a coyote.

© 2013 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.

Originally published at terribleminds for a flash fiction challenge.

Twilight & Brimstone

This story was one of ten selected by the readers and editors of Creative Loafing for their 2010 Fiction Contest.

by Benjamin J. Kirby

Like most everyone else in Florida, Twilight Janus Dawson had come to the Sunshine State for the conveniences but stayed for the complications.  These days, T.J., as he would have been known to his friends if he’d had any, just told folks he liked the warm weather.  In fact, he found the warmer temperatures preferable to the cold New York City winter nights he worked as a beat cop.

Today, though, was hot as hell. In a room with a bare light bulb humming.  Handcuffed around a chair bolted to the floor.  The windows covered with heavy dark cloth and duct tape, no air circulating.  Him and six guys in a room that comfortably held four.

The blue-orange flame of the acetylene torch popping to life, three feet from his face.

Yeah, this was a hot day, and a damn hard way to go.

# # # #

T.J. understood police work, understood everything about it.  He had been a police officer his entire working life, as had his father. As had his uncles, his now-dead brother.  Policing was less a career choice and more simply a part of who he was, grafted into his DNA.

But it wasn’t policing that wrenched him from a promising career with the NYPD and into the small-town Gulfport Police Department.

It was a woman. And when it came to women, he understood nothing at all.

He loved her, or thought he did.  She loved him, or he thought she did.  And when she took the job with the law firm in Tampa, it made all the sense in the world to pack up his small Brooklyn apartment and follow her down.  A guy with a bit more understanding might have seen the desperate, pleading look in her eyes when she broke the news about the job, her hands on his broad chest, pushing him away, really.  The turn of her cheek as he kissed her, the watery tears in her eyes begging him to stay in New York, or to at least not go.  Not go with her.

They lasted about three months before she said she needed her space. He left her with the new condo in Channelside, and he slept at the station for two weeks before crash-landing in the old Florida apartment off Boca Ciega Bay.

Six weeks later, her body would turn up near the net of a fisherman casting around in a back channel off Weedon Island.

# # # #

Dawson figured he was looking at three scenarios, none of them optimal.

Six guys in the room, three by the door.  Two of them had silver pistols stuffed in the front of their pants, handles out.  Probably nine millimeters, maybe .45s.  He could see the sheath for a knife peeking below the third guy’s leather jacket.  They were big and quiet, tattooed arms crossed, dead eyes hidden behind shimmering, mirrored sunglasses, filthy beards barely hiding rotten-tooth sneers.

A fourth guy was leaning in to Dawson.  He smelled like cigarettes and something chemical Dawson couldn’t place.  All he had on was a leather vest, no shirt, dirty jeans and heavy, black boots.  He had what Dawson figured to be a .45 strapped around his hairy barrel chest in a holster.

The fifth guy was leaning in with the acetylene torch, fiddling with the knobs.

“Fuckin’ thing,” he whispered, “left or fuckin’ right to amp up the goddam flame?”

He didn’t know how to use it.  The fourth guy just shrugged at him.  Apparently none of them did.  Dawson took silent note.  The torch didn’t belong to them.

This changed things. Or confirmed things.

She’d washed up in the Weedon Island back-channel, burns over most of her body, unrecognizable.  The coroner had never seen anything like it.

But the fifth guy was still fumbling his meaty paw around the handle of the torch, fairly worn green and red tubes coming down, twisting the knobs this way as the flame danced liquid orange, then a tight, hissing blue, then back to orange tongues dancing.

Then hot, high blue, the flame like a cat’s eye.  Like a knife.

Dawson took note of the sixth guy, leaning against the far corner, arms crossed, mirror sunglasses reflecting the blue flame dancing in the meaty hand of his friend, his beard in a braid, the rest of face, unreadable.

That guy, guy number six, was the one with Dawson’s custom .44 stuck in his belt.

All his life, T.J. Dawson had been big.  Big for his age in elementary school, big for his age in high school.  He’d have excelled at a career in high school and collegiate athletics if he’d cared at all about being around people.

By the time he was nineteen he was just four inches shy of seven feet tall, and more than two-hundred pounds, all of it muscle.  As a cop, the standard issue .9 millimeter pistol just didn’t work.  His thick fingers scraped through the trigger guards.  He got special dispensation from the NYPD to carry a custom-built .44.

He figured if they were going to build him a gun, he ought to get good at using it.  And he did.

The fifth guy was debating where to go to work on him.  It was looking like the face, which was fine with Dawson.  He wanted the guy’s hand up with the handle of the torch.  Now it was just a matter of deciding on which scenario.

First, he could burn the fourth guy as widely as possible – just set him aflame and let him run.

Take out guy number five, just because he would be closest, probably take at least one bullet, maybe a knife if the one by the door was any good with the blade.

The second scenario would be to just temporarily block the torch – knock it away – then go for the .45 belonging to the guy crowding his personal space.  It’d be easy to grab, but it would have to be a spot-on grab.  No mistakes.  Probably still have to take a bullet, and it was guaranteed he’d have to either mash his index finger through the trigger guard, or fire with his ring finger.

He’d done it before.  It was ugly, and it wasn’t very accurate, but it got the bullet out of the gun.

The third scenario involved keeping the torch.  Just grabbing it and using it as the primary weapon, at least until he could get to the .44.  It would involve cooking the fifth guy, but that was probably going to happen, anyway.

In no scenario did he imagine getting burned in any way.

His older brother had always been fascinated with magic.  Well, not so much magic as figuring out how the tricks were done.  On a summer afternoon, he had sat with T.J. and shown him how to take a thin wire, maybe it was a paperclip, and straighten it out, then insert it into the seam of your shirt cuff.  So hot in the summer, T.J. had said.  Don’t want to have my sleeves rolled down.

Okay, his brother had told him.  Maybe put it in your watch band.  His brother had a special ring he’d bought at the thrift store.  It had a small compartment to hid tiny treasures.  T.J. watched as his brother put the small spool of wire in the ring.

Hands behind your back has one advantage: no one can see what you’re doing.  T.J.’s brother showed him.  Work that little piece of wire out, pick that lock.

The two spent the summer picking locks with pieces of wire, then practicing it behind their backs.

As a cop, he’d always kept a string of wire in the seam of the Velcro band of his Timex.  It was a terrible digital watch, which is why the clowns in the room didn’t think to take it.  Had it been a Bulova or a Rolex, it’d be off his wrist in no time.  A bullshit Timex?  Let him die with it on.

The temperature in the room was already rising, and he could feel the sweat bead off his forehead and cheeks.  The air in the room felt stale and old and heavy.

Guy number five had made up his mind, had scrounged the balls, finally, and was making the move.  Dawson was out of time.

Fuck it, option three.

His right hand came around and snatched the handle of the torch straight out of the guy’s hand.

Dawson knew he’d only have about three seconds of surprise factor seconds before someone drew a gun or threw a knife.

Dawson pulled his right hand back quick and hard. He drew the sharp blue flame across the fifth guy’s face.  Fifth guy screamed immediately as his beard and hair singed, smoldered, and caught fire.  Dawson brought his arm back left and let the flame touch his shirt at his belly.

Dawson moved up quickly, noting the guys by the door were already starting to move – more like two seconds, damn – and slammed his shoulder into the fifth guy’s chest, sending him stumbling back towards the guy with his custom .44.

The fourth guy, the one who had been standing close to Dawson, was making the worst possible move for himself.  He was going to try and punch Dawson, drawing back a fist.  Big mistake.

Dawson thumbed the right valve, hoping it was oxygen to increase the size of the flame.

He wasn’t disappointed.

The flame met the guy’s face, melted his sunglasses and set his hair alight all before the guy could throw his punch.  Dawson thought he heard the guy’s eyeball pop.  Fourth guy opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.

With his left hand, Dawson grabbed the guy and pulled him close, turning him a sharp quarter turn and waiting for the report.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

Nine millimeters.  The guy with the melting face in front of him took four of the hits.  He could feel the impact of the bullets in the guy’s torso, his left arm grabbing the back of his jacket, bracing him upward.  The body instantly heavy, smoke billowing from the now lifeless head.

He felt the fifth bullet zip into the upper part of his shoulder.

Dawson held the torch to the body for a beat, ensuring it would burn, and shoved the dead man as hard as he could in the general direction of the guys by the door, causing them to jump back, if only for a moment. The smoking, flaming corpse landing just where he wanted him to.

The first guy he torched was still dancing around, screaming. Shirt now fully aflame, leather vest half-off, which only pinned his arms down at the elbows, making his dramatic motions look like a macabre dance of hot, painful suffering.

He was reaching to his friend – the one with Dawson’s .44 – reaching to him for help, for mercy.

But the guy with Dawson’s custom gun was having none of it.

“Get the fuck away, goddamit,” the thug with his .44 spat at his smoldering friend.  Dawson thought that was some cold shit, even for a biker motherfucker.

On his knees, now, pushed down by the guy against the wall, clawing at his face and hair, which occasionally sparked yellow.  He was making a gurgling noise.  He might live, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

Dawson flung the handle of the torch as hard as he could to the three against the wall, two with guns in their hands, one with a Bowie knife.

Pop! The trigger opened and cut off the oxygen as the handle flew through the air. It was loud, as loud as the blast of a gun, and Dawson got what he needed: all three men by the door jumped back, banging into the wall and the door.

Dawson was half a second behind the torch handle, flying for the door head-first. In another second and a half, he’d be ramming his right forearm across the neck of the guy with the Bowie knife, his left hand wrenching the heavy knife out of the guy’s hand and crashing through the door, the frame, and a good chunk of the wall.

His timing couldn’t have been better.

The guy he’d thrown at the door – the one who took the bullets – had continued to burn around his head and torso, the orange licks of flame consuming him. Dawson had figured – correctly – that it would only take a few seconds for the heat from the guy on fire to melt the torch tubes leading to the handle.

He was right. There was a hot hiss and an accelerating whine as the smallest hole melted the tube with the acetylene gas.

And then chaos. The tubes, spewing red-orange fire, flew around the room like a crazed hydra.

The whine had blossomed to a wet roar, and Dawson knew he’d have to get out, soon. Pulling himself off the guy with the knife, who was out cold, he found himself halfway out in the hallway. One of the guys with a gun had taken a shot of burning gas to the face, and was on his knees, screaming.

The guy with his custom .44 had it out in his hands and was running for the door, his hair on fire.

The deadly flame-hose whipped the guy with the .44, and he screamed as highly pressurized, superheated flames licked his face. He dropped the gun and it slid towards Dawson, who crouched to grab for it.

“Fuck you, asshole,” the other guy with the nine millimeter had the drop on him, gun barrel just

inches from the back of his head. He’d managed to avoid the hose, already starting to fizzle out, though the room was now nearly engulfed in flame.

“You’re done, pig,” the guy growled.

Dawson, eyes looking up, locked with the greasy biker, knew he’d have to time everything just right, again.

“Why’d he do it?” he said, not blinking.

The goon just stood there, looking down, deciding whether to answer Dawson or shoot him in the head.

What the hell, right? What could it hurt, just tell the guy.

“She was on to it. Money from the bosses in Mexico, Colombia, Peru. I don’t fuckin’ know how they did it. I look like I work at that fuckin’ law firm? Money comes in. They flip properties. Money goes out. It’s clean. She added it the fuck up, and that sick fucker torched her.,” the biker moved the barrel forward two inches. “Shoulda just popped her. Like I’m gonna pop you.”

Dawson was aware of everything in that moment. The hose, finally fizzling out, the orange flames climbing the walls, roaring in the background. The heat – the incredible, unbearable heat pushing him, wrapping around him like a blanket he couldn’t escape. He felt it in his breath, in his sweat-drenched pores.

The only place he didn’t feel it was his heart, still dead cold. From her. It would take more than a torch and five guys cooking in a room to warm it back up.

He glanced long at the hose which offered one last hiss and spout of flame. It was enough.

The biker followed his sideways glance into the inferno of a room and the remnants of his partners, the torch, the chair.

Dawson swung the knife up fast but smooth and easy, carrying the motion through. The blade went completely through the guy’s wrist, severing nerves, arteries, and most important, tendons.

His fingers sprung open off the gun and it clattered to the floor.

With a reflex, the guy pulled his arm up, grasping this left forearm with his right hand above where the blade entered, screaming. As his brain worked to process the knife in his arm, Dawson scooped up the big .44, and in one motion, brought himself to a knee, and leveled the barrel at the thug’s chest.

Fifteen seconds later, he was out in the front yard of the house in a neighborhood he didn’t know.

Smoke billowed from the back as the room cooked the six guys, one with three fresh holes the size of grapefruits in his chest.

# # # #

“You smell like smoke.” The guy was in an awfully compromising position to be commenting on appearances. On his knees, the floor of his office. Hands quivering behind his head. Dawson’s custom .44 two inches from the back of his skull.

“Just came from your friend’s place.” Dawson was steady. The shoulder wound was a little more than a scrape, but not much. Hurt like hell, but wasn’t going to stop him. After the house, nothing was going to stop him. The drive to the law firm in downtown Tampa. The security guards at the front who just watched Twilight Janus Dawson, his uniform filthy, bloody, reeking of smoke and seared flesh. They’d have just watched him, anyway. Guys like Dawson don’t stop for much.

“Yeah? How’s the gang?” Dawson had to give him credit: for a guy on his knees with a loaded .44 at his head, he was cool.

“Dead.”

This stopped the guy for a minute.

“So. What do you want. You want to know why I did it. Why her?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

Dawson had a choice. He could tell this guy, the guy that had taken a torch to her for God knew how long before she died, that he more than wanted her back. He wanted her to love him again, the way she had before. Bring her back to him. Bring back her love. Bring back what they had shared. Bring back that heat they when they first met, when he took her to dinner. Bring back that night, when they ended up at his place, rolling naked in the bedroom, sweating, kissing, clawing, squeezing each other with an animal hot passion he’d too rarely known.

Tell the guy he loved her. Or a bullet.

Twilight and Brimstone certificate.jpg

Boy

by Benjamin J. Kirby

She won’t be around much longer, pal, Ren’s father had told him earnestly. His Aunt Joan was dying.

Ren and his brother Bobby shared a room at the old hotel, his mother, father and little sister Elsie in the adjoining room. Bobby slept like the dead, but Ren had always been a light sleeper. Sometimes he stayed up all night, or most of it. His mother had worried about him.

It was the first night, Monday, when Ren knew something was wrong in the room of the old hotel. He didn’t see anything, but he could feel it. There are things that feel right and things that feel wrong. At that moment in the room, in the middle of the night, at two forty-six a.m., which he knew because the red light of the alarm was right next to his head, everything in the room felt wrong.

The next morning he was with his cousins. Ren had remembered them as kind of fun when they’d come down and had all met at the beach. Now their eyes registered recognition, understanding, but their spirit was gone, empty.

Tuesday night, Ren was sure he’d seen it – a ghost, a poltergeist, is what Bobby had called ghosts once. Ren wasn’t sure the difference. And when he woke up, cold, feeling out of place, disoriented, he could hear the word in his head, over and over.

Boy… boy… boy…

The next morning he asked his father if he could stay behind at the hotel. He had been very upset, he explained, at seeing his Aunt Joan the day before, which was only partly true.

He hated to lie to his father, and he hated more to lie to his mother, who, after a brief, quiet conference with his dad came over to him in the hotel lobby and gave him a silent, weepy kiss on the forehead. Of course, honey. Go back up to the room and wait for us there. Read some of your books.

Ren said he would.

He would not.

He waited for his family to drive off then walked out into the day. It was sunny but he heard a radio in a car parked nearby and the weatherman said storms were rolling in from the east. Ren walked down Main Street, hooked a left at Church Street, and went until he came to the library.

Ren spent the better part of the day there. He only left to walk back towards the hotel and eat at the bagel place across the street, using babysitting money to buy a bagel and a Coke.

He started with books on the history of Bethlehem, and worked his way to two on the hotel itself. It took more courage than he thought it might to begin to browse through the books that talked about the hotel being haunted.

A lot of it seemed pretty silly. Lady Hope, the singer. Daddy Thomas. Mrs. Landlord, the barefoot ghost. He breezed through much of it.

Then it got interesting. The hotel was built in 1922, before there were any significant child labor laws in the country. Turns out kids – kids Ren’s age – were pretty useful at building big buildings. They could squeeze into small spaces, do a lot of menial tasks… Get paid virtually nothing.

Ren left the library slightly horrified with his new knowledge of child labor, but with no more answers than he had before. One line he’d read in a book weirdly titled Understanding and Applications of Psychoanalytics of the Spiritual and Mystical had stuck with him: “In a preponderance of case studies, we note that apparitions who make themselves known or strive to ensure their presence is felt in this dimension in actuality do no more than simply declare their own embodiment as they were when they exited this world.”

Ren thought about that line a lot, what it might mean.

He beat his parents back to the hotel by around thirty minutes. They ate a quiet dinner in the room occupied by Ren’s parents, room service. Before he left his parent’s room for his own, he quietly asked his father about the line – recited it verbatim.

That was in a book you’re reading?

Yeah.

Okay, well. I think it means that most of the time, when there’s a ghost, all the ghost really does or wants to do is just tell you who the ghost was when the ghost was, you know, alive.

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Hey, you okay, pal?

Yeah. Good.

You know, you’re Aunt Jane isn’t doing real well. We may be here… longer. I’m sorry, pal.

That night, sleep came hard. Ren lay against the starch-white pillow, thinking until he finally drifted into a fitful sleep.

Two forty-six a.m. This time he saw it. Saw him. Ren sat up in his bed hard and fast. His breath was drawing in quick, but he felt like he couldn’t expel it. When he did, it came out in short, wheezy huffs. It was so cold he could see the white clouds of vapor.

The foot of his bed. A boy his age but with a blue tint, like out of an old movie, broadcast over sinister airwaves, or a sun-bleached picture. The boy flickered, was hard to focus on. He looked dirty, ragged – wore old coveralls, and his hair, falling in his face, seemed streaked with grease or oil. The boy had hollow eyes, just faded white light. Ren tried to breath slower. Couldn’t. Couldn’t move, though he was aware of every muscle. He ached from the tension.

The boy at the foot of the bed seemed to open his non-eyes wider. He raised his arm and pointed one finger at Ren.

Lightning flashed. Ren heard the thunder and the skies opened up above them.

The apparition at the foot of the bed spoke as he faded into the smell of the ozone, faded against the crashing flash of lightning outside.

Boy… boy… boy…

hotel bethlehem.jpg

 

© 2013 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.

Originally published at terribleminds for a flash fiction challenge.