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Spook on Rye-Fiction by Will Bernardara, Jr.
A Study in Loss and Hunger-Fiction by T. N. Allan
Tepid Strawberries-Fiction by Preston Lang
The Ice Tombs-Fiction by j. brooke
Uncle Harry-Fiction by Michael S. Stewart
Run, Robby, Run, Part 3-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Hunting Ghosts-Fiction by J.M.Taylor
SkitzoFreniC-Fiction by Michael Bauman
Candy Man-Fiction by Frank Quinn
A Dog of War-Fiction by Robb T. White
The Retiree's Epiphany-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Reckoning-Fiction by Edward Francisco
Sarcasm's Dream-Fiction by Erin J, Jones
Dishes, Dishes, Dishes-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Angels in Vegas-Flash Fiction by Tom Darin Liskey
An Alto for the Choir-Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
A Splash of Red-Flash Fiction by Daniel Clausen
A Slight Disposition-Flash Fiction by James Coffey
Together Forever-Flash Fiction by Bill Baber
Talky Tina-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Play Dead-Poem by Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal
Boycott This Poem-Poem by Michael Marrotti
Monaco-Poem by John Doyle
He Dubbed Himself General Custer-Poem by David Spicer
Moment of Madness-Poem by Meg Baird
A Beautiful Chaos-Poem by Dr. Mel Waldman
Phantom Voices Floating...Poem by Dr. Mel Waldman
Dirty White Girl-Poem by Ian Mullins
Don't Do It, It Ain't Worth It-Poem by Ian Mullins
Cursed-Poem by John Grey
Regarding the Coming of Man-Poem by John Grey
Threshold-Poem by Kenneth P. Gurney
Word Salad With Ranch-Poem by Kenneth P. Gurney
Turnabout-Poem by Kenneth P. Gurney
Cartoons by Cartwright
Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
The Gazing Ball
Strange Gardens
Gutter Balls
Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Art by Bryan Cicalese © 2017

A Dog of War


Robb T. White


When he closed the deal on the house on South Bay, Jack Gilles made the decision via satellite phone from his base camp near Kabul.  He told his fiancé he’d had his belly full of sand and dark looks from the locals by then and wanted to come home, settle down with her in their new house.  At 27, he wasn’t even close to a burn-out, didn’t believe he’d have any PTSD to deal with from his tours in the Combat Engineers, the mine-sweepers and house-demolishers of the Third Cavalry.  She told him the Islip PD was hiring again, according to the Networking Newspaper for Women published out of Westhampton.  He had already breezed through the academy before his last tour along with some personality-deficient types and a few who struck him as likely to be more comfortable working the other side of the law.


But weeks later, the woman he’d expected to share that house with had other plans. She liked the Manhattan club scene and found a guy who owned a condo in Florida and leased Infinitis for a big Long Island dealership.  He wasn’t broken up over it.  If it had to happen, it was the perfect time for it before she wound up with half of it.  But the house—yeah, he realized he was stuck with the mortgage on his own.  Fate stepped in a month later, while he was home enjoying the unfettered life of a civilian and preparing for an interview with the Islip PD.  Estelle was from the Bronx and he fell for her.  He knew they were good together and the fact she had a teenaged daughter didn’t change his feelings.  He was hired on and family was proving to be good.  Until Marissa, her pretty daughter, turned 14 and had to change schools in the fall.


She transferred to the new high school in East Islip; it started off well. She liked her classmates and her teachers.  Ten days into the school year, things fell apart suddenly as they always do.  Marissa was confronted by some boys at her bus stop. When she came home, she told her step-father about it in passing, not unduly concerned.  Being a brand-new cop, he tended to assume the role easily, which occasionally put Estelle and Marissa on edge.


“How old, honey?”


“How old—who?”

She was already into her after-school facebooking and tuned him out fast.


“The boys, sweetie, who—hassled you,” Jack said.


Hassled—who says that?  That’s so sixties.”


“What did they look like, Marissa?”


“Oh my God! I can see you’re going to make a big deal of it.” 


She gave him a look—a carbon copy of her mother’s.


“No, Marissa, I promise I won’t,” he lied.


She told him they were all 15, 16.  Not kids from her school, she thought, although she didn’t know everybody yet.  Hispanic-looking features, she said. 


“How would you know that, hon?”


“Two of them had these big tattoos across their foreheads.  Duh.”


His stomach dropped.  MS-13. The desk sergeant was dinning in their ears every morning at roll call over Long Island’s nightmare invasion and handing out bulletins.


From that day on, he drove her or Estelle would drive Marissa to and from school.  They didn’t feel it was safe to let her walk or ride the bus, even though she saw those boys just that one time.  Marissa, pressed by her mother for more details, admitted the incident amounted to little besides some lewd comments.  Being stared at by horny males is every girl’s life nowadays and something to be endured in silence.  But Marissa was like her mother and not one to let anybody get away with crap.  She didn’t remember what she said back but one kid, tattooed with a shaven skull, was the only one who hadn’t made any comments, just stared, but he pointed a finger-gun at her and said, “Gonna get you for that, bitch.”


Marissa was upset her mom and step-dad were “escorting” her to school, but Jack had seen enough of dangerous young men as a soldier and a cop on the night shift to know they were capable of rape, torture, and murder.  One of the city council members was quoted in the paper as saying it was like having a sizeable chunk of Juarez cut out and transported through the air and lowered onto “peaceful, middle-class Islip.”  Jack had checked out the photos the Zetas and other cartel killers posted online of mass executions, not just the handcuffed bodies hanging from overpasses, but severed heads lined up on street sidewalks.  One of the young cops at the station had an unhealthy interest in gore and showed a video on his cell phone of one victim’s head attached to a sea turtle.  The beast lumbered along, its dragon head bobbing with effort, claws pushing sand aside, while the victim’s detached head rode along staring from half-slit eyes. 


A couple nights ago, Jack’s veteran partner got a call to a house where a party was getting too loud.  The parents of the teenager throwing the party for his homies had been forced to adopt the boy under duress; a dangerous man, they said, let them know this was only going to happen one way—they adopted that kid or else. It was like a new disease’s progress from one infection to several and then dozens as couples all over L.I. “decided” to adopt unsponsored teenaged boys from El Salvador and Honduras. 


The sergeant in the muster room explained how the kid integrated into Mara Salvatrucha a willing soldier, or else he needed some persuasion to be “converted,” but either way, the repercussions were bad and the outcomes assumed one of two directions:  drug-dealing or murder, often both.  America’s long tradition of sentimentality about immigrants was being abused and perverted for evil ends, and it took a series of vicious murders of innocent teens to wake the community up to this “nefarious practice,” the sergeant called it, one that created a self-perpetuating birthing room for growing MS-13’s membership.  The gang’s level of indiscriminate violence was breath-taking—unless, he said, you can justify young people hacked to ribbons by machete-wielding MS-13 members because they might have “mean-mugged” some crazy, tattooed sonofabitch while strolling around downtown Islip.  Jack’s sergeant, a tough veteran of twenty-three years, could switch vocabularies from bureaucratic to convict slang with ease.


Over there, Jack remembered, you got used to mindless cruelty.  Women and young girls were on a par with goats and donkeys, war widows were held in contempt by the men of their village, spat upon and forced to beg in those body-length netted burqas that make them look like blue Halloween ghosts looming out of the early-morning fog. He had seen one ignite herself with kerosene when she couldn’t tolerate the abuse she received living with her dead husband’s family.  He couldn’t tell Marissa any of that, how dangerous the world could be for women.  An American teenager with a room gussied up in pink with posters of Justin Bieber on the walls and her own cell phone didn’t see the world his way. Besides, it made Estelle anxious if he tried to play Marissa’s real father with the heavy-handed Army discipline. Teenaged girls were complicated, she told him, which he believed; he didn’t say he found nothing complicated about teenaged males when it comes to girls and sex.


After a couple weeks of chauffeuring, Marissa’s complaints about being “embarrassed” had an effect on Estelle, who started to badger Jack into letting Marissa ride with a friend from school. He and Estelle were having to scramble their schedules or switch shifts to ensure one or the other was available to drive, and both their jobs were suffering. Working nights, forced to get up in mid-afternoon to drive, Jack would be so tired from the interrupted sleep he botched a couple field reports and got reamed by the sergeant and then the lieutenant. His last one, a DUI stop that turned into a seizure of meth and bags of Oxycontin, was composed half-asleep.  The L.T. was pissed:  “You get called to the witness stand six months from now, Gilles, by that prick’s country-club lawyer and he’ll take you apart.  Do it over.”


“Yes, sir.”


It was that kind of pressure he let override the instincts he’d honed on those mountain trails and desert roads that kept all his limbs attached unlike some guys he served with who wound up at Walter Reed trying on prosthetic limbs.


“I’ll go with the friend,” he reluctantly told Estelle, “if we can meet her first.”


“It’s a guy, I think,” she said.


“No way.”


That led to their first real husband-wife fight. He got the silent treatment from the one and the constant sarcasm at the dinner table from the other. Finally, he agreed to let the friend from school drive her, on the condition he and Estelle could meet him first and approve.


They met him the next day after school.  Marissa said he was in a couple of her classes.  Rick Beausoleil was a well-dressed, nice-looking boy with a mop of black hair he grew long on top and shaved at the sides.  He wore slacks with a crease, his Madras shirt had ironed collars, and his high-tops were so shiny and new they squeaked and, Jack suspected, probably cost more than he made that week. He gave Estelle one of those Fidget hand spinners and made her smile. He was polite to Jack and called him “sir.”  Jack had already reconned his house at the other end of South Bay, a remodeled Tudor—noted the yellow Humvee and the Lexus in his driveby. Rick told them it would be no trouble to pick Marissa up on his way to school in the morning. His parents had bought him a new Saab when he got his license.  He and Marissa had the same seventh-period Geography class so she wouldn’t have to wait around for him after the dismissal bell. Estelle gave him her pouty look. Another kind of bell, however, the warning one in his head was going off but it wasn’t shrill.  He sighed and gave his consent.  


Jimmy Freele and Jack were having beers at Jimmy’s place while he grilled hot dogs for the family. Freele had a manual for the sergeant’s exam Jack wanted to borrow to get started on, and it seemed rude to grab it and go so he stayed for a beer, which turned into a meal of “beans and dicks.” He was enjoying Jimmy’s war stories, telling a few of his own, when his cell buzzed.


“Uh-oh,” he said to Jimmy, “Estelle calling.  I said I’d be twenty minutes, tops.  You can hear the ass-chewing I’m in for now.”  He put the phone on speaker.


“Marissa’s been hurt! Oh God, where are you, Jack?”


He didn’t say goodbye to Freele and his drive to the hospital was a blur of barreling through intersections and swerving around slow drivers, his stomach churning with acid but his mind quiet and clear as if a gear had been shifted without him having to think about it.  Estelle didn’t say what happened; he thought car accident.  He cursed himself for letting her go with that kid in his shiny new car.


He found out from a patrolman and a detective at the hospital it was something else. 


The car Ricky drove was rear-ended at an intersection a block from the house.  Rick got out to check the damage and exchange insurance cards.  Three or four young males—witness versions differed as they do—got out of the car and sucker-punched Rick. He lay cold-cocked on the sidewalk while the three others pulled Marissa out of the Saab.  One eyewitness, the neighbor nearest to the fake accident, looking out her front window, said Marissa was kicking and screaming.  They carried her into the trunk and tossed her inside and drove off squealing rubber. Altogether, it took less than a minute.  People rushed out to help Rick; he came to, bruised but unhurt.


The cop said, “We got a good description of the perps and the car’s make and model.  We’ll pick it up in no time. Don’t worry.”


The BOLO’s description was out a half-hour by then and he was right:  the car was located at a Walmart parking lot.  The trunk was empty. It was stolen on Grand Avenue in Queens. Marissa could have gotten out of a late-model car, but that vehicle was an ‘01 Dodge and the trunk didn’t have the interior trunk release.  She’d have tried to brace herself against the trunk and push it open because Jack had talked to her about ways not to be a victim.  Estelle would get mad at him for doing it, claiming his “mini-lectures” to her daughter about “situational awareness” or “noticing baseline normal” were going to make her paranoid. 


“She’ll wind up as paranoid as you, Jack,” Estelle would say, half-angry.


“Then she’ll have a better-than-even chance at surviving a crisis,” he responded.


Privately, he could not console himself. He was the know-it-all combat veteran, the cop his neighbors called when a dog barked too loud in the morning.  He had failed as a father. He’d opted for a little more sleep over his child’s safety, and the stain of that dyed his darkest thoughts in the evening when he was most tired. But all that mattered in those first moments was to do everything possible for Marissa.  He had no doubt who had done it or why.


While he was jaw-boning with Freele, Marissa had staggered into a Dunkin’ Donuts and asked for a glass of water.  Her clothes were torn and her left eye was swollen shut; her lip was split and required three stitches to close.  She had been gang-raped and pushed out onto the shoulder of a moving car on the L.I.E.  But she was alive—and Estelle’s little girl was safe in her mother’s arms again. Their daughter back.  She was traumatized and had to endure the awful indignity of the rape test at the hospital, but she was brave and had survived. They talked about killing her, she said.  She convinced them not to.  One brave, plucky girl. 


The captain and the lieutenant did everything possible to find them.  This was a priority and guys were called back from vacation to help a fellow officer.  No one protested at the extra duty and not one of Jack’s friends at the precinct who helped out in those weeks afterward put in for overtime.  Even though Det. Sgt. John Andolsek, the precinct bulldog for working cases, kept him informed of his progress, there was no progress.  Four vicious scum appeared out of nowhere one day and disappeared back into it after turning three lives upside-down.


Jack called Neal Ducent in Metaire, Louisiana, and Chae Dombroff in Syracuse from the same pay phone in Canarsie.  Guys from his unit, they’d made a commitment after one prolonged firefight in Ghazni Province while sweeping for roadside bombs for the 101st Airborne.  One of us calls for help, Neal said later, the others come running, no questions asked.


Neal had done four deployments already by the time he joined him in Second Squadron. Chae was so calm under enemy fire or defusing IEDs Jack accused him of making a pact with the devil. The three ex-servicemen met two days later at a coffee shop on Coney Island Avenue.  The reunion produced a few snide comments about the pounds they’d packed on since they weren’t lugging around seventy pounds of dead weight every day.  Jack told them what happened to his step-daughter.


Chae, ever the practical one, suggested Ricky Lomax would be the best place to start. Neal nodded.  Jack agreed.  Andolsek had told him the boy was forthcoming in his two interviews at the station, both parents accompanied him for the second one.  A third would ensure a lawyer would be in attendance so there was reluctance to call him back.  


“He’s a good kid, Jack,” Andolsek insisted; “clean-cut, nice family, a victim, too, remember.” 


Jack wasn’t buying it.  The animals who attacked Marissa had punched Rick just that one time and that bruised face gave him a pass if not an alibi.  Neal and Chae agreed. The young Saab driver had some further explaining to do. 


“And there ain’t gonna be no fuckin’ lawyer present,” Neal said. Jack noted his Cajun patois had thickened back home.


* * *


Ricky worked the confection counter at a West Islip Cineplex on weekends. They staked out his Saab in the parking lot.  Jack picked up a rental van, replaced the plates with some he’d taken from a Ford delivery van in the impound lot that had been quietly sinking into the ground for the five months it sat there.  Neal bought some thick eye bolts and planking from Lowe’s and nylon ties from a Walmart.  Chae didn’t want to use the nylon masks he’d brought along because he said they’d looked like TV idiots, but Jack argued face paint would take too much time to remove and leave evidence if they got stopped driving off. 


“The kid has to be scared enough to talk,” he told Chae and Neal.


“He’ll fuckin’ talk,” Neal said.


“Fucking-A, he’ll talk,” Chae agreed.


Ricky talked.  But he wet himself first.


Neal slipped up on him tapped him on the shoulder while he was unlocking the Saab; when he turned to see who it was, Jack had him around the neck in a chokehold that put him out before he could start waving his arms or thrashing his legs. Jack peeled off his mask as soon as Neal and Chae had Rick under the arms and hustled into the back of the van. Jack drove while they secured Rick’s arms and legs to the eye bolts with strong tent cord.


Rick wasn’t out long.


“Hello there, space monkey, welcome back,” Neal said as soon as Rick’s eyes started to focus.


After the initial spluttering and acting as if “this was all a mistake,” and saying they “had the wrong guy” subsided, Chae began to question him in his calm way. 


At first, the boy tried excused himself from any wrong-doing.  Chae gripped him hard by the jaw in his big hand and squeezed; his face close to Rick’s, he told him what was going to happen to him if he told another bullshit lie like that. Neal appeared on Rick’s blind side and traced a line down his Rick’s face with the blunt side of a surgical scalpel just to let him feel the blade.


“I was afraid, man!  They said they’d fuck me up!  They said they’d kill me with a machete and chop off my fucking head—”


“Shhh, there, there,” Chae crooned in his ear, soothingly, as to a frightened child. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you, son, unless you don’t tell us everything that happened from the first moment they contacted you about hurting Marissa. Then: the soft voice a lion growl:  And I mean by fucking God Almighty every-fucking-thing you know, you dirtbag piece of shit.


It turned out Rick had a cousin.  This cousin, James, was a royal fuckup.  He had a long juvie record.  He wasn’t in a gang but he was known to some MS-13 members and liked to hang out and do drugs with them.  They got to him and he told them about Rick.  They gave Rick the message he was to get Marissa in his car—and soon.  That led to the ruse about driving her to school. When Jack thought of the boy’s schmoozing act, he wanted to smash the cartilage in his nose until every breath he took thereafter would sound like a wounded animal’s honk of distress.


Neal recorded as Rick talked. Jack held his silence but they all had prepared the questions in advance. “It’s our only chance to get a lead,” Jack told them; he thought of Marissa in her room, her teenaged confidence in life demolished, her dreams haunted by night terrors, too afraid to leave her room or her mother’s side for long. Her therapist was trying to prepare her for the stares and hurtful gossip she’d face once she was well enough to go back to school. 


Neal, at one point, grew impatient with Chae’s methodical interrogation.


“Stop thinking about your answers, you lying cocksucker!  Tell him what he asked or I’ll put this right through your brain.”

He touched the point of the scalpel under Rick’s jaw and drew blood; Rick scrunched backwards like a turtle trying to fold in his head, his eyes wild with terror.


In twenty minutes of aimless driving around an area Jack knew would be safe from cruising patrols, they had all the information Rick was capable of giving.


Masked up again, they dropped him off at his car and drove off.  Chae had Rick’s cell phone and Neal had his notes. They were ready for phase two of the battle plan.


“Think he’ll talk?” Neal asked Jack.  “Kid’s gotta know it’s you, man.”


“It doesn’t matter,” Chae said for him.


He’d said something like that when Neal had asked him about Taliban snipers waiting for them in the Korengal Valley.  


* * *

You catch one rat and he’ll lead you to the others. They had Rick’s cousin by the balls—literally.


Chae and Jack had him pinned to the dirty cement floor of an abandoned warehouse in South Ozone Park where they’d tricked him into coming for sex.  The girl who called him up for them knew what a horny little weasel he was, and for two hundred, she made the call that brought him to the factory.


“That tickle, you little fuck?”  Neal asked, as he traced the kid’s scrotum with his scalpel. “Better not fucking move an inch or you’ll lose them.”


A ring of red around his sac trailed behind Neal’s moving blade and bright drops of blood oozed from the boy’s sac. It looked worse than it was, but cousin James was frozen to the floor, writhing beneath the powerful hands of the men who pinned him.  Eyes bugged, he stared upward at the filthy, cracked ceiling as if an angel would drop through to save him.  Neal scooped some of the blood with the blunt edge and smeared them across James’ lips.


“Taste good, fucker?”


Jack pushed Neal aside and straddled James’ chest.


“Your cousin was scared of your slimy homies. But you set up Marissa for them, you pigfucking—”

Chae removed Jack from the boy’s chest as easily as he’d do a deadlift in the gym.


“I’ll take over,” he said.


In his usual calm way, he did just that.  They had the names, relatives’ names, addresses and locales where they hung out or did their drug business, and the names of everyone else who knew them or was victimized by them.


It took an hour to get it all, and by then, James was a whimpering, sobbing wreck begging for his life. The tattooed wannabe gangster with the foul mouth and colorful gang slang couldn’t have written his own name in block letters with a piece of chalk on the floor by the time their session with him ended. But they had it all.


Neal drove this time.  Jack was about to get into the passenger side when Chae got in his face.


“Check yourself, Jack, that shit you pulled back there,” he said.


“Sorry, man. I’m sorry.  I lost it for a moment,” he said. He’d been thinking of the horror Marissa was put through because James wanted to impress his MS-13 friends.  Marissa, curled up in her blankets, afraid to sleep without a night light.


“OK,” Chae said and stepped back.  It was over but Jack was warned.  He had their freedom to think of, not just his grief. If he couldn’t bury the father as he’d done the cop in him that said good men don’t do what I’m doing, Chae and Neal would continue without him.


Training goes so far in war.  If you get into enough shootouts, you’ll be killed.  It’s simple math.  They were poking a stick in a hornet’s nest, and it was inevitable those punks were going to get word soon and just as one rat calls to another, they might have to deal with more rats than they could handle if they didn’t get them all in a blitz. James had been warned not to talk, like Rick, but that fear lasts only so long. 


The plan now demanded they get them in order, fast, without mistakes or alerting other MS-13 their members were going to be snatched off the street.


Chae and Neal argued about where they’d start the plan’s third phase.


“Nobody escapes,” Jack said.  “We don’t get them all, it’s a no-go.”


“Relax, brother,” Neal said. “We’ll do this right.”


* * *


The house was set up for the next night.  They’d learned from James that the youngest of the four gang members had been adopted by a Puerto Rican couple in Wood Haven.  The man was selling his house, taking his pension from the Transit Authority and he and his wife were moving back to the island.  One interview—Jack in cop mode again—and they’d learned the couple like so many others had been forced to take in the boy three years earlier under a similar threat. 


When Jack paid a solo visit to their home, he saw no pictures of the boy around; the wife, however, dug around in an album for a class photo, the last one taken before he dropped out, and a month before they discovered their new son was an out-and-out criminal. Jack took in the smooth young face and the bright eyes and big smile with perfect teeth.  The kid looked like every teenaged girl’s dreamboat.  He was older now but likely the one Marissa told Jack had no tattoos and the only one who didn’t punch her and call her vile names while he raped her.


The couple had tried their best to reform him but it was hopeless.  He ran with MS-13 as soon as the older male who’d first contacted them came calling for him. No coercion involved, the husband said.  “It was like he was chosen for an honor or something,” he told Jack.  The boy, whose name was Mauricio, nowadays came home infrequently, never spoke about his doings, and used the place for eating and sleeping purposes. Lately, the wife said, he was demanding money from them.  That was one more reason they were eager to leave the borough.  Jack noted the SOLD sign out front.


What worked on James should work on Mauricio.


Chae, however, took some persuading; his plan was a frontal assault on their hangout in Queens but Neal and Jack finally convinced him the driving distance was too big a risk.


“Let’s bait the trap,” Neal said.  “Have her make the call.”


Jack told the couple he was assigned to a “new task force” along with his two “intervention specialist” colleagues, all of them working for New York’s Gang Unit out of Manhattan.  They were experts at deprogramming young men from gang influences, he said.


The husband was skeptical but Jack’s cop credentials impressed him, and he despised Mauricio for all he’d learned about MS-13’s criminal activities on Long Island.  Neal gave them two thousand dollars, the last of Jack’s cash supply for the operation, and told them they’d need the house for two days, three at most.


She made the call.  At Jack’s instructions, she told Mauricio they were leaving for P.R. in the morning and they wanted to give him a parting gift of cash—“for college,” she said.


When Mauricio demanded to know the amount, Jack held up his hand.


Cinquo mille—Five thousand,” she said. 


He wanted her to drop it off.  Jack shook his head.


“No, Mauricio, you must come by the house for it.  We are leaving tomorrow very early.”


Chae and Neal helped them pack.  Jack called them a cab.


“Why can’t we drive?” the husband asked Jack with a shoulder shrug at the car sitting in his driveway.


“We need Mauricio to see your car out there,” he said.  “We need to surprise him.”  The last part was true anyway.


“Think they’ll call the cops?” Neal asked him, watching them get into a cab that just pulled to the curb.


“I don’t know,” he said.  “We’ll see.  But we’d better set up. He might be on his way now.”


When you plan on something good, Jack mused, it seemed life threw obstacles in your path.  Plan something evil, however, and the forces of darkness often eased them out of your way. He expected Mauricio, spurred by simple greed, to come alone. It never occurred to him he’d bring his three compadres with him.  They’d outlined a scheme involving varying degrees of pain to get Mauricio to lure his buddies to the house. Now they didn’t need to.  Four swaggering young men piled out of a cranberry Malibu spotted and patched with Bondo in the driveway of Mauricio’s adopted parents’ home, laughing and cursing one another.  The two bald ones with tattooed foreheads and arm sleeves blued with glyphs and soldierly phrases attesting to the wearer’s Valor and penchant for Vengaza, revenge, competed for the eye’s attention in that helter-skelter pattern of tattooed psychotics and criminals everywhere.  Of the two without any tatts, the baby-faced Mauricio was the easier to distinguish from his companion Hector, whose mug wore a surly twist to his face and was taller and heavier by twenty pounds. 


The porch door was left open and a TV blared from the living room.  Chae and Neal took up positions on either side of the main door. They assumed any one or all would be strapped. Mauricio’s parents had tried for the last year to get Mauricio to take his GED and go on to college.  “The boy is smart,” the father said.  Jack nodded.  He could have told them he wished he’d had a dollar for every smart scumbag he’d thrown over a hood while I frisked for weapons not to mention the black-eyed youth of Afghanistan, including half the soldiers they were supposed to fighting alongside. You did missions with Afghani soldiers, but you never forgot to designate one man in the team to be the armed “guardian angel” if you were bivouacking in the brush.


Jack was in the kitchen, his Sig at the ready.


They came inside the porch, still talking, and banged hard on the front door.


He couldn’t make out all the words, but it seemed they were deciding what to do. 


Muévete, cabrón!” one of them shouted.


Jack came around from the kitchen, gun out, just as Chae and Neal had their Glocks sticking into the sides of the two Tattoo Heads.


The moment to act passed. They put them on the floor and cuffed them up in seconds.


Neal thumped a Tattoo Head.  “You really think cursing at me will help, asshole?”


They dragged them by the feet through the kitchen down the basement steps, heads knocking on risers and more cursing. The camera was set up in the corner of the small unfinished basement. 


Chae threatened them into silence with a boot on each neck to get their attention.


“This is what will happen,” Jack began.


“Fuck you, maricón motherfucker!” the closest Tattoo Head screamed.


Jack nodded to Chae, who expertly gagged each one with a bandanna across the mouth except for Mauricio.


“Your guapo boyfriend gets to watch,” Jack said.


Neal unbound Mauricio and hauled him over to Jack; he was limp as a rag doll.


Jack handed him a plastic mug from the kitchen. 


“Take this,” he commanded.


“Wh—what is it?”

“Coca-Cola,” he said.  “Thirsty work for you ahead.  Drink, drink, amigo.” 


The soft drink was mixed with crushed Viagra tablets.  He’d need help, they reasoned, even if he was young.


As soon as he’d gulped the drink, Neal gripped him by the triceps and slammed him against a basement support pole; then he cuffed Mauricio’s hands behind the pole. 


“Watch and don’t say a word,” Jack ordered Mauricio. 


Chae and Neal fixed Hector into place.  By silent assent, they figured the tattooed ones would need more convincing.


The same board used in the van leaned upright in a far corner. Chae dragged Hector to it and kicked the planking board flat to the ground. Hector struggled but Chae’s strength was too much to overcome by a lightweight kid. Jack brought the nail gun out of hiding behind some boxes and used his free hand to help Chae extend Hector’s arm to one side of the board.


Hector resisted with a wiry strength until the nail gun pumped a bullet through his wrist into the board. The thwack silenced all sound in the tiny room. The single basement window had been blackened with their unused Army face-paint. Hector’s other arm was limp and easily moved into position.  A second thwack followed and rattled its way through the other wrist deep into the board beneath. Dust motes mixed with the earthen smell.  Soon, the odor of feces would add a pungency that the men would have to ignore to finish what they started.



With his arms pinned, the rest was easy.  Chae lifted him up on his haunches; despite the gag, his scream pierced the thickening air and he bucked in agony until the pain brought him back to his senses.  One leg tucked, then the other—a sheep to slaughter.  Only the intent was never to kill. Jack insisted strongly on that.  “I believe in an eye for an eye,” he told them.


The Tattoo Heads, Enrique Tomàs Ramírez and Felipe Acevedo-González, by name, were seventeen and eighteen. Chae wanted them, whereas Neal was indifferent. “Hector’s mine then.”


Both men wrapped their hands in duct-tape because the human mouth is a putrid reservoir of bacteria. At a nod from Jack, they each dished out a punch to the three on the floor. The two shaved heads were hit in rapid succession.  Chae worked a speedbag and heavy bag as well as lifted serious weights.  Jack didn’t say it but he suspected his former comrade-in-arms of cycling ‘roids. He had all the signs of a gym rat.  The skin around Ramírez’s and Acevedo-González’s eyes swelled immediately as if a tire pump had injected air over the left eye of each boy.


Mauricio, watching it, became weak-kneed and sagged against the pole. 


Jack nodded again.  The gags all removed, two more punches—short, hard strikes to split lips.  Neal’s blows were perfect but Chae’s carried too much power and split skin; gobs of blood and chips of tooth were spat out by the tattooed twins.  The howls and curses were stifled by the gags put back on.  The upstairs TV covered the noise.


The final part of the plan, the one all of them, not just Jack as the aggrieved step-father, had to deal with psychologically first before they could engage it was about to happen.  Jack omitted this part in his instructions to the four because it wouldn’t have calmed them to know it beforehand.  Going to war helped because it allowed the men to see and do things they didn’t expect.  It unleashed the dogs in their heads before most civilians knew how to react, much less handle what they had accomplished; even Jack’s fellow cops, the men and women of the precinct, who saw the worst in human beings, could have handled the violence these men imagined and then carried out so precisely. The unconditioned mind rebels. 


They had all three lined up, side by side, on their knees, asses up, hands and ankles bolted to the floor with 3-inch pneumatic framing nails. Neal manned the hand-held camera and adjusted the lens and fretted over the uneven lighting. They’d tested it beforehand and brought some bedsheets downstairs to act as reflectors, which Neal put up to assist the angles he needed. 


Jack told Mauricio what he had to do in a basic Anglo-Saxon English. 


Mauricio shook his head, nervous perspiration hitting Jack, which he calmly wiped away.


He kept shaking his head, begging God and His saints, pleading, whispering then shouting No! no! no! until it came out a long keening wail. Jack grabbed him by the hair, slapped his face hard to snap him out of it, and pulled him up straight against the pole; he leaned into Mauricio’s face.


“You will do it, you little fuck.  Just like you did to Marissa.”


Jack left him slumped there, whining, pissing himself like the other heroes of his pack, and fetched his “convincer,” the chain saw from his garage.  He walked it over to him, held close like a baby in his arms, and pressed the flat shiny blade against the skin of Mauricio’s face.


“You will do it or I’ll cut your head off right here.”


Jack started it with a pull; its whine throttled up to maximum 9,000 revolutions and drowned out every sound in the basement—the cries, screams from the boys on the floor, the moans.  He brought the whirring, vibrating blade close enough to Mauricio’s cheek to whip a burn scorch into the flesh of his neck.  The boy screamed and leaned back as the saw followed the arc of his body lower.


One word above the saw’s roar:  “Yes?”

Jack kept repeating the word until Mauricio answered with a single, quick nod of his head; his eyes were glued to the fury of the chain.


Chae stood guard on the others, ready to slam his boot onto the back of anyone who moved.  Fear laced adrenalin into their muscles; they didn’t want the three on the floor to make a superhuman effort to disengage from their restraints.  None could see Mauricio clinging like a limpet to his pole.


Jack glanced at Neal and without a word, he pulled out a curved Kay Dee knife from an ankle holster and with a couple strokes removed Mauricio’s pants from his body like the sloughed skin of a snake.


“Massage it,” Jack said. “Get ready.”


Jack assigned himself the distasteful chore of applying lubrication from a can of Crisco also hidden in the abasement; he donned a latex glove and worked a chunk around the anus of each male hunched on the floor.  The feel of the grease being applied made them writhe and squirm, knowing now what was coming. Less cursing, more prayers to God and La Virgen of Guadeloupe to save them.  Only the fiercer of the two tattoo heads remained full of rage.  The others wept.


“She won’t help you sorry motherfuckers,” Jack growled at them.  He twisted the lubricant in good to help Mauricio.


When Mauricio was semi-erect, Jack grabbed him by his throat and led him to Hector.  Jack ordered him to get started or he’d start cutting pieces off him beginning with that thing in his hand.


Jack placed the chainsaw on Mauricio’s shoulder as if he were knighting him. 


“Get going!”


Dios mío, I can’t— I can’t!” he bawled.


Jack started the chainsaw. 


Mauricio began masturbating in a frenzy until he had his erection back.


Neal filmed it all.  Each one violated anally. None expected Mauricio to climax but they needed the penetration on camera regardless.


“Now their mouths,” Chae said.


Mauricio had the glazed eyes of a dead bird by this time.  A dull acceptance had settled into his brain. That and the Viagra were all that maintained his erection.


Jack told the three on the floor he would remove the gags one at a time.  He told them what was going to happen and what the consequences were if they refused.  


He forced Mauricio to lower himself, starting at Hector. Hector’s gag was sliced from his face by the Kay Dee.  A thin streak of blood appeared where the blade had cut.  


“Deeper!” he ordered Mauricio.  “Get it all the way in.”


Hector’s cheeks bulged with the invading meat and his eyes widened to quarter-size.  


When Chae pulled Mauricio off Hector, Jack shoved him to the next one.  Hector, violated both ways, sobbed; no need for the gag to be replaced.


Tattoo Number One clenched his lips, refused to take the offering. Jack replaced his sopping gag and brought the nail gun back into play.  Two quick shots into each hamstring.  Then he set the gun at the back of his head.  The boy, weeping, crying for his mother, changed his mind and Jack removed the gag again.


The second Tattoo Head, the toughest of them, the one Jack was sure had said those words to Marissa about “getting her,” cursed, strained against the nails, and cried out in a rage he would find and kill them all.  It took Chae and Neal a long time to pry his jaw open before Mauricio could enter him that way too. Tattoo Head clamped down on Mauricio’s penis.


His scream could not be stifled. Jack exchanged looks with the others:  Think it’ll bring the cops? 


They didn’t know but it didn’t matter because they had all they needed.  Neal and Chae packed up everything they brought except the board the boys were nailed to.  Neal used a claw hammer to remove the nail from Hector’s right hand.  He was conscious but in a such a delirium of pain he wasn’t aware of anything happening to him. Neal did the same to the other two; the blood had pooled beneath their arms; in a few hours in the stifling heat of the basement, it would turn a rusty brown.  Neal dropped the hammer beside the first Tattoo Head’s right hand.  The second was staring ahead, bloody teeth grit around the member, a pit bull with Mauricio attached. 


“I’d let him go and get out of here if I were you,” Chae said in the biter’s ear.  His eyes were feverish and blood leaked between his teeth in a Halloween rictus of crazed animal rage.


“We have the film,” Jack said.  “You, any of you, try to do anything, say anything, and we’ll make sure a DVD gets to every MS-13 member in Long Island.  We’ll mail copies to your shit-sucking cousins back in L.A. and El Salvador. Remember what I said.” 




When Jack looked back from the cellar steps at the hideous tableau on the basement floor, Mauricio had fainted and fallen across the tattooed boy who still held him in his teeth. An image like so many others from over there he would never get out of his neocortex.


Three days passed.  Then a week.  Nothing in the papers. The couple had returned, finished selling their house, hauled their furniture off to a storage facility and gone back to Puerto Rico.  Jack did welfare checks every night until they were gone. The house remained dark, empty, with a tilted For Sale sign out front. The magma glow of televisions sets in the nearby houses attested to normalcy on the street.  


Chae and Neal met Jack at the same bar on Coney Island for drinks and a farewell.  They drank beer in silence while they waited for the Uber to take them to JFK.  No one spoke about the basement.  No one said anything that a person who overheard them would have suspected was anything but guy talk in a bar, although this trio differed in a couple ways, one being the lack of laughter or snide comments to one another about girls, personal short-comings, or sports.    


Jack wanted to ask them if they felt any different now but that would have been wrong, like saying My pussy hurts, so he kept his mouth shut and drank alongside his two friends.  No one seemed inclined to talk.


Soldiers who’ve been close to death in wartime know what these three friends knew because it was obvious to them and they had the scars to prove it.  Jack, the most intelligent of the three, never considered himself a philosopher and didn’t read the dull, highbrow books Estelle kept on their night stand. But war was all around; it was in their neighborhoods and found them in their homes, too.  It didn’t follow them; it was always there. Just a boot scuff in the dirt and you’d see the worms crawling.  Some men who’d seen too much combat got PTSD, and none of the three would have judged them.  Neal, Chae and Jack went into war and came out the same way.  Life is war.  Justice did not exist. Bad people hurt good people and need to be hurt right back.  That’s all these three knew.



Robb T. White was born, raised, and still lives in Northeastern Ohio—although he did get to China for two weeks once. He writes, noir, crime, and hardboiled stories featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A pair of noir/crime novels are When You Run with Wolves and Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots (2015). An ebook crime novel, Special Collections, won the New Rivers Electronic Book Competition in 2014. His latest Haftmann works are Nocturne for Madness (2016) and a short story collection, Thomas Haftmann, Private Eye (2017).

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