About Me

My photo
I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, October 31, 2016

Just Desserts



Sometimes a Halloween Treat 
Can turn out to be nothing but a bit of 
trickery; Sometimes the finest meals
Can leave you wanting something that's
a little more . . . familiar . . .



 By William E. Wallace

 The ’99 Crown Victoria might as well have been a coroner’s wagon considering that its passengers were mostly dead or dying. Louis Padrano in the back seat hadn’t taken a breath in twenty minutes. Mickie "Click" Kelly was sprawled in front, the gurgling rasp in his lungs making it clear he’d soon join Padrano.
As for the driver, Sal Lunardi, a nine-millimeter slug was wedged in the meaty part of his bicep and his life’s blood was spilling out of it so fast that it made his head spin. If the slug had hit the big artery in his upper arm, he’d already be dead.

 Kelly struggled for air as life pumped from his chest.

"Sal," he croaked, "paper in my coat: my family's home address. Take me there, please, dead or alive. They'll know what to do."

"Sure, Click," Lunardi said, groping through his mortally wounded partner's jacket with one hand. He pulled out the wad of paper and glanced at it. The address was in Clifton, a town of about 30,000 people an hour south.

"Who do I talk to there?" Sal asked, stuffing the note in his own pocket.

"My ma," Kelly said. "Her name’s Bronagh. She knows what I do. Promise?"

Lunardi watched his partner tremble. Click's teeth clattered uncontrollably and his eyes were filmy with shock.

"You got it, man," Lunardi said. "But just hang in, okay? You're gonna be fine."

It was a lie and both of them knew it. Click would soon be as dead as St. Dominic Savio; a good deal less innocent, perhaps, but just as dead.

Despite the pain from his arm, Sal gritted his teeth and forced himself to watch the white line disappear under the Ford while he relived the evening's disaster in his mind.

The underboss Angelo Carlotti had sent him, Kelly and Padrano to crash a meeting with Ricardo Cortez, a Mexican Mafia soldado with control over the Tijuana Cartel’s assets in California.

The subject of the conference was control of Harbor City, the crown jewel of organized crime in the Golden State. The city’s merchants were openly extorted by gangsters and cops, drugs were sold everywhere and much of the town was a red light district catering to perversions the Marquis de Sade could only have imagined.

Cortez was already handling Harbor City’s Mexican brown, cocaine and crystal meth, but he wanted the rest of the action, too. The problem was, Carlotti had already glommed two-thirds of Harbor City, including all the whore houses. Carlotti called the sit-down to keep the territorial dispute from ending in open warfare but Lunardi and his compares were supposed to raid it and leave Cortez dead.

That was the plan Carlotti explained to Dom, anyway.

But both knew the only thing keeping Carlotti and Cortez from simply dividing the vice action in Harbor City was Alphonso Romano, the godfather in San Francisco. If Romano's people were out of the picture, Carlotti could do whatever he wanted.

And Romano’s people were Lunardi, Padrano and Kelly.

By the time he reached Clifton, Lunardi was certain that he and his crew had been set up by Carlotti to get them out of the way.



***



About fifteen miles from Clifton Lunardi heard a rattling wheeze he recognized as the sound of The Irishman taking his last breath.

Click’s death left Lunardi chauffeuring a pair of stiffs. Sal could dump the two dead men alongside the road, but he’d made a promise to Kelly and he intended to keep it. In addition, he was bleeding too much to make it to San Francisco and he damned sure couldn't go back to Harbor City. The only thing waiting for him there was a bullet.

The address Click gave him in Clifton was a three-story gingerbread Victorian that had probably been built in the nineteenth century when lumber was the main industry. He parked the Crown Victoria in front while he knocked on the door.

Sal had been expecting a square-jawed washer woman type, but Click's mother Bronagh was slim and petite with straight black hair that fell to her waist. Her blue eyes were so pale she looked blind from across the room. Her skin was like fine China, the kind you only break out for special guests.

"Mrs. Kelly?" Sal said uncertainly. "My name is Lunardi. I worked with your son and we ran into some bad luck. I'm afraid he's dead."

Her face registered anger, though she didn’t seem surprised at the news. "Shite!” she muttered, keeping her voice low. “So where’s his body, then?"

Sal motioned toward the car. "The passenger seat," he said. "You may not want to see him . . . like this," he added weakly.

She snorted, her delicate nostrils flaring. "Bollocks. Our family’s been at war since the 17th Century,” she said, the lilt of her words marking her as a Gael as surely as the pale green Celtic harp and wreath tattooed on her right arm. “We’ve stacked up corpses like firewood in our time. For the Kelly family, death holds neither mystery nor horror. As we are, they once were; as they are, we will be."

Crossing her arms under her small breasts, she moved to the car and opened the door. She put her hand on Click and said some quiet words in a language Sal guessed was Gaelic, since the Kellys had emigrated from Ireland when Mickey was three.

By the time she had finished, a heavy-set girl with matching black hair and a redheaded man who looked like an older, meaner version of Click appeared on the porch. Bronagh crossed herself and returned to Sal.

"We've a place for him in the cellar," she said. “The other fella, too.”

"Thanks, Mrs. Kelly," he said. "I appreciate it."

"You can call me Bronagh,” she said. “Most do. Click said your name is Salvatore. That’s ‘Savior’ in Italian innit? Are you a savior Mr. Salvatore?”

Sal winced. “I wasn’t able to save Click, I’m afraid.”

Bronagh’s eyes were frosty, her jaw as hard as alabaster. “He was a sweet lad, but he walked a narrow path,” she said. “Nevertheless, he thought very highly of you. I thank you kindly for bringing him home to his family."

Lunardi inclined his head. He felt a little faint.

She nodded at the girl. “Mr. Lunardi, this is my daughter, Caitriona, and my son over there is Seamus. You, Click and the other man seem to have been rather unlucky. I can see you've taken a bullet yourself. Give your keys to me. After the dearly departed have been taken from your car, Seamus will pull it 'round to the rear and hide it in the carriage house. We'll decide what to do with it later. As for you, you'd best come inside and sit down before you fall down."

She gave him a grim smile as she took his hand and led the way.

"We've no objection to assisting the dead," she said. "But we'd prefer the quick would make their own way."



***



Inside, Mrs. Kelly had Sal strip to the waist so she could examine his shoulder wound. “It’s nasty," she said, her lips pursed, “but I’ve seen worse. Cait, get my stitchery If you’d be so good.”

The girl disappeared momentarily. When she returned she carried a wicker basket. Sal was surprised to see it actually contained sewing supplies.

The black-haired woman held Sal’s arm up against the fading light from the window and as he grunted with agony she gingerly felt the flesh under the bullet hole. She picked up a small-bladed knife and twisted her head, signaling her daughter to pay heed.

“Get me the clear that Seamus stilled from the last of the single-row, Cait. Step lively, girl.”

The girl fetched a squarefaced bottle of liquor so pale that it looked like water. When Bronagh uncorked it, the pungent aroma of alcohol drifted through the room. Whatever was in the bottle was strong enough to make Lunardi’s eyes water.

She poured a little into the gaping hole in Sal’s arm, then dipped the knife blade into the liquor and made a little cut directly on the other side of his bicep.

“This will hurt, I’m afraid,” she said, dipping a long metal knitting needle into the bottle and shaking off the excess. “Can’t be helped, though.”

With a grunt she pushed the needle into the hole and put her weight into a downward thrust until it punched through, pushing the slug out the other side.

There was a thunk as it hit the floor.

It was the last thing Lunardi remembered before he blacked out completely.



* * *



The sky was foggy and tinged with chill when Lunardi woke up the next day. He stumbled downstairs feeling dull-witted and yawned his thanks as Click’s mother filled a mug with strong tea and set it in front of him.

“Hungry?” she asked.

He drank a slug of the brew and nodded. “Starving!” he said. “Last time I ate was breakfast yesterday.

She filled a bowl from a lidded saucepan on a back burner and put it in front of him with several slices of dark bread and a spoon. “Sláinte,” she said.

In the light of day, Lunardi could see the mixture was meat, carrots, potatoes and turnips that had been cooked for hours in a brown gravy.

“This is just delicious,” he said, wolfing down the spicy stew with a soup spoon. “What is it? Pork or something?”

She smiled and he noticed her teeth were small and even, but came to a slight point.

“Something,” she said. “It’s an old family recipe, though it’s probably too fatty to be popular in today's modern world. I’m glad you like it.”

Lunardi put two bowls of the delicious concoction away like a starving man, wiping up the last of the sauce with bread. The bread tasted particularly good to him, dark and nutty like pannetonne, the Christmas treat his nonna made every year, only without the dried fruit and not so sweet. He dipped chunks of it in his tea to finish his meal, thinking that the slurs he’d heard about Irish cooking seemed to be as wrongheaded as the American belief that every Italian was a Mafioso.

Just the ones he knew, he thought.

As she poured fresh tea, she sat down opposite him and slung her arm over the back of her chair. “If you don’t mind sharing, how did Mickey come to die?” she asked.

He took a breath and released it in a weary sigh. “Our immediate boss Mr. Carlotti sent us to settle up with a rival, but our target had been tipped off. We walked straight into a trap. The shooting started before we even got our guns out.”

“Sounds like your boss isn’t to be trusted,” she said.

“I’ll say,” Lunardi laughed grimly. “The sonofabitch set us up. Seems to me he planned to take the three of us out all along.”

“Why do you say that?”

He shrugged. “The set-up was all wrong. You want to kill one guy, you don’t send three people -- if your shooters are worth a good goddamn in the first place, one’s enough. And you don’t do it at a sit-down announced ahead of time. That gives the guy time to get his own crew together and shoot back. With one shooter? He sets the time and place where it happens.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like you have some experience at this sort of thing,” she said.

Lunardi shrugged again. “Been doing it for twenty seven years,” he said. “But I got sloppy this time, let somebody else set things up. Big mistake. Two men got dead behind it. Like I said, I never should have trusted Carlotti in the first place,” he added, his face grim.

She sipped tea thoughtfully. “So how do you mean to atone for your error?” she asked.

Lunardi smiled. “I’m going back to Harbor City and whack Ricardo Cortez. But this time I’m going to do the job right. And I’m also going to do Carlotti, the guy who set us up.”

“While you’re busy killin’ these folk, would you be willing to do a mother a favor?” she asked, looking up at him innocently through eyelashes so long they seemed to nestle on her cheeks.

“What’s that?”

“When you’ve settled with them, would you be so kind as to bring their bodies back here?”

Lunardi was surprised at the request.

“What are you going to do with them?” he asked.

 “I’m not able to avenge Mickey’s death myself,” she said. “But we have a tradition of disposing of our enemies in the Kelly clan that goes back to the Seventeenth Century. You bring me their corpses and I’ll do the rest.”

As she spoke, her voice was as cold as black ice on a country road and there was an inhuman gleam in her eye. Sal remembered reading somewhere that the Irish were descended from some of the most barbaric people in Europe – fierce nomads who were painting themselves blue and living in caves when his own forebears were building a global empire. Sal suppressed a shudder. At that moment Bronagh Kelly seemed a woman capable of almost any sort of cruelty. He hated to think what sort of 300-plus year old vengeance she might have in mind.

Instead, he mulled over her request. Carting a pair of bodies down the Northern California coastline didn’t appeal to Lunardi much. On the other hand, that was exactly what he had done less than 24-hours ago after the shootout in Harbor City.

“Do you think you can find a van for me to use?” he asked finally, pouring another cup of tea.



***



It took Lunardi three hours to find Carlotti in Harbor City but only 30 minutes to find out where Cortez was hiding: a box knife is good for extracting information. When he was done, Sal put Carlotti’s severed fingers and left eye in a zipper bag and tucked them under the underboss’s corpse in the back of the van; he didn’t know what sort of ritual Bronagh planned, but he wanted to make sure she had all the pieces she needed.

He located Cortez at the second place Carlotti had mentioned. The drug dealer  wasn’t expecting another attack so his five Mexican Mafia gunmen were playing cards on the ground floor of a warehouse near the waterfront when Sal caught up to them with a Colt M4 submachine gun. Two fifty-shot magazines left the gunmen strewn in steaming pools of their own blood and shit.

Afterward, Lunardi worked his way through the warehouse with a full magazine, clearing each room as he went, military-style.  When he finally located Cortez, the drug dealer was hiding under the sink in the bathroom, kneeling in a puddle of his own piss. Lunardi ripped him to pieces with two bursts of 5.56 millimeter slugs, then finished him with a shot through his forehead.

When he had shrouded Cortez’ body in a vinyl bag and nestled it into the rear of the van next to Carlotti’s, Sal used the phone in the warehouse to call Romano in San Francisco and tell him what had happened.

“Come back home then,” the elderly don said. “We’ll be taking down the rest of Carlotti’s outfit and I know you’ll want to have a hand in settling up for Louis and Click.”

“OK, but I can’t say exactly when I’ll get there,” Lunardi replied. “First I have an errand to take care of up here.”

“What’s that?” Romano asked.

“Click’s mom asked me to bring the bodies’ of Carlotti and Cortez to her on my way back,” he said.

“What does she want with those two assholes?” Romano asked. “I could see cutting or strangling them if they were still alive, but there doesn’t seem to be any point with them dead.”

“I dunno, boss,” Lunardi said. “All I know is, I promised her I would do it, just like I promised Click I would take his body to her. I owe her that much.”



Lunardi covered the bodies of Cortez and Carlotti with a tarp and used back roads to drive back to Clifton, staying well within the speed limit and keeping his eyes peeled for cops all the way. When he reached the Kelly house, he was exhausted and the pain in his arm was excruciating.

Bronagh had her son and daughter get the bodies out of the van while she led Sal up the stairs and helped him climb into the freshly made bed. He was asleep in seconds.

He didn’t even wake up when she stripped naked and climbed under the covers beside him. When she wrapped her lithe body around his and began to stroke him between the legs, he thought it was just a dream.





***



On waking, the Kelly house was full of the sweet, charcoal aroma of roasted meat. It reminded him of the spiedini that his family prepared when he was a kid – chunks of pork, spit roasted over an open fire until they glistened and sizzled with paralyzing goodness.

He glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was a little after noon. He’d slept nearly eighteen hours.

Yawning, he dragged himself out of the Kelly’s spare bed and splashed cold water in his face to wake up. Somewhat revived, he put on his shirt, shoes and socks and found his way down the stairs, still tying his necktie.

The table in the dining room groaned under the weight of food: whatever sort of ritual Bronagh was planning obviously involved a celebratory feast. There was more of the cake-like bread, carrots, peas, mashed potatoes and a gravy boat full of thick brown sauce so rich the fat was already starting to separate from the solids. Two large garlic-studded roasts were arranged in the middle of the table, glazed to a rich brown that charred their fat and rind of skin.

Salvatore’s mouth watered. He’d put nothing in his stomach since his “hunting” expedition in Harbor City. He was ravenous enough to eat room-temperature road kill.

“I imagine you’ll be getting’ back to San Francisco today,” Bronagh said, entering the room in a long-sleeved black crocheted dress that dusted the floor. “That’s a long drive on an empty stomach. It seemed you might like a decent meal before you leave.”

He inhaled deeply and his eyes rolled back in his head. “Christ that smells good!” he said. “I’m starved. But isn’t it a little early to eat the major meal of the day?”

 “When you work the land, you usually eat the main meal at lunchtime,” she said.

Almost as if they’d been called, Caitriona and Seamus entered from different parts of the house. Bronagh clasped their hands and Dominic found himself holding the girl’s in his left and her brother’s in his right.

Bronagh’s head inclined and she said a brief blessing in what sounded like the same language she had used at Click’s side two days before. She finished in English, though, and it sounded something like this:



Bless us, God,

Our food and our drink.

As you redeemed us

and delivered us from evil,

You let us share in this food,

So may you let us share in eternal life.



Bronagh seated Sal at the head of the table and asked him to carve and serve. They set to with enthusiasm, quickly making mounds of the food disappear. It was one of the best meals Sal had ever tasted.

“So what’s the occasion?” Sal asked as he took seconds and spooned gravy over the food on his plate.

“What do you mean?” Bronagh asked, cutting a small piece of meat and putting it into her mouth.

“You folks don’t have a meal like this at noon every day, do you? How the hell can you afford it?”

She smiled. “No, we only eat meals like this on special occasions, like the death of an enemy,” she said. “Doesn’t that seem like something worth commemorating?”

“You mean Cortez and Carlotti?” he asked, working his way through meat, potatoes and gravy. “I suppose so. So what’s the roast we’re enjoying here as we celebrate their deaths?”

Her smile widened. “Cortez and Carlotti,” she said brightly.

Sal, caught in mid-chew, stared at her.

She sipped water from a crystal goblet. “I told you we’d had this tradition since the 1600s,” she said. “We were Ulstermen and our lads fought on the side of Hugh O’Neill – may he sit at the Lord’s right hand – against the English.”

“The English wasted our homes, burned our fields and killed our cattle. But people have to eat, Mr. Lunardi, even in the midst of war. So we Kellys ate what we could forage.  When there was naught to forage, we ate the bodies of our fallen enemies -- and sometimes, each other.”

“The practice continued through the great famine of the 1800s, the An Gorta Mór, when more than a million people died of starvation,” she added. “And it continues right up until the present day.”

Sal put down his flatware, staring at his nearly empty plate. The color had drained from his face leaving it as pale as the mashed potatoes.

“Are you all right, Mr. Lunardi?” Bronagh asked with concern.

“I’d like to get back to the Bay Area while it’s still light out,” Sal mumbled as he pushed his chair back and stood unsteadily. Dropping his napkin on the table, he added, “Thanks for everything, ma’am. I hope you’ll excuse me.”

She shrugged and resumed eating. “Suit yourself, Mr. Lunardi. Suit yourself.”

As he reached the door, she called after him: “Are you certain you don’t want me to pack some of this roast to take with you?”

Lunardi ran for the Astra, barely able to hold back the bile rising in his throat.











End

Monday, October 24, 2016

This Chick is as Sharp as MacHeath’s Switchblade



Razor Girl
By Carl Hiaasen

(Knopf; 353 pages; Sept. 6, 2016)
ISBN: 0385349742

The lead-in to a lot of jokes these days consists of the words, “A Florida man. . .”

 It almost doesn’t matter what the knucklehead does in the rest of the anecdote, because Florida is so clogged with Darwin Prize-winners that the reader almost immediately starts to snort and chortle with open-mouthed delight at the stupid misfortune that lies ahead.

Sometimes the meme is altered slightly to make it “A Florida Woman,” and occasionally the actual town in Florida where the nincompoop performed his or her idiotic stunt is substituted for the more generic “Florida:”

* “A Florida man walks out of Walmart with $172 worth of of Steak and Lobster Stuffed Down His Pants.”

* “A Florida Man Faces Felony Charges for Wrestling, Taking Selfie With Baby Alligator.”

* “A Florida Man Arrested for Illegal Ride on Manatee.”

* “A Florida Woman Surprised to Learn Car She Set on Fire Doesn’t Belong to Her Ex-Boyfriend.”

We laugh hysterically because in every case, these bizarrely comedic deeds are factually true: A Florida man, did in fact take a selfie of himself struggling with a tiny gator – an animal which is protected by state law (http://myfwc.com/media/1515251/threatened-endangered-species.pdf).

A Florida woman really did torch her ex-lover’s car, only to find out that it was registered to a total stranger.

I, quite frankly, am sympathetic to the unfortunate Floridians who have become the butts of this massive Internet defamation. You see, until 2013, these stories about insipid people doing idiotic things almost always started, “A California man,” or “A California woman.”

As they say, been there, done that.

My point is, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Well, actually, you could.

Which brings me to the real subject of this little essay: Carl Hiaasen, a former Miami Herald writer who is the only person in the country that can make me laugh as long or as hard as Johnny Shaw.

Author Carl Hiaasen ( (Photo by Quinn Hiaasen)
Hiaasen has made a very fine living turning extended, shaggy dog versions of “A Florida man,” and “A Florida woman” stories into hilariously funny novels – 13 of them to date, with hopefully many more to come.

The Razor Girl of this Hiaasen offering is the curvaceously charming Merry Mansfield – “like the bombshell actress of the fifties” as she puts it. It is a handle that is clearly a pseudonym, just like all the other monikers in the thick deck of fake IDs she carries.

 Mansfield is as an insurance bump artist – a specialist in a scam in which she rear-end a mark’s car without causing any injuries, then files false insurance claims for the damage caused by the fender-bender. Her gimmick for getting the full cooperation of the squares she cons is, when she bumps the mark’s car, she is busy shaving her crotch hair for the “big date” she ostensibly is en route to meet.

Her victims rarely notice anything but the nick the razor has made on her untanned nether regions. They are so completely unhinged by this piece of prime Floridian real estate that they are perfect marks for the scam.

But early in her career Mansfield hooked up with crooks who use the bump-and-run to grab delinquent borrowers for Mafiosi.

After the abduction, these “guests” are “persuaded” to repay their loans (plus vigorish) through the judicious use of hand tools – pliers, hedge trimmers, what have you. Not surprisingly, most quickly come to terms with their captors.

The catch in this arrangement comes when Merry bumps the wrong guy. She was supposed to set up Martin Trebeaux, a crooked contractor who steals sand to repair beaches in tourist areas. Instead she bumped Lane Coolman, a Hollywood agent who represents Buck Nance, a fake hillbilly who is the star of a top-rated Duck Dynasty-style TV reality show, Bayou Brethern.

Without Coolman to babysit him, Buck drunkenly spurs a riot in a Florida Keys biker bar. Panicked, he goes underground, hiding from irate fans, eluding his ersatz redneck family and clipping his trademark Bayou Brethern beard, a Z.Z. Top monstrosity he leaves in the kitchen of a popular nightclub.

Enter Andrew Yancey, the hero of Hiaasen’s last novel, Bad Monkey. Yancey is a defrocked sheriff’s detective who has been demoted to restaurant inspector after attacking a romantic rival with a DustBuster ™, using the device as a makeshift proctological tool.

Because the heap of grizzled hair in the restaurant kitchen may have been left behind by some type of vermin (though it is doubtful any creature smaller than a woolly mammoth has ever shed that much fur in one place), Yancey is dispatched to investigate.

Meanwhile, a moronic Bayou Brethern wannabe, Blister, is stalking Buck since his biker bar meltdown for his own nefarious purposes.

Mind you that these are just key characters. And not all of them, either.

Yancey ends up looking for Nance and Coolman while the rest of this three-ring circus whirls out of control around him. Meanwhile he is trying to fend off a New York Mafioso, a lawyer who litigates bogus product liability claims, the lawyer’s acquisitive wife and various political hacks who want his head.

 The restaurant inspector is knifed by Blister, robbed by two mob button men, stalked by a pair of former football pros acting as the lawyer’s hired goons and double-teamed by a pair of giant Gambian pouched rats, the largest rodents found on the planet.

All while trying to get his detective’s badge back and deal with his current girlfriend, an emergency room doctor who is so fed up with the mayhem and violence in Miami that she has decamped for Scandinavia. 

Believe it or not, as set out by Hiaasen this mess makes perfect sense. Not only is the mare’s nest of a plot coherent and rational, but every scene, every encounter, regardless of its innate grimness, is hilariously funny.

Since I was diagnosed with cancer last year, I have decided to keep myself alive as long as possible by following the motto “laughter is the best medicine.” Every day I look for something that has me falling on the floor and rolling around helplessly with tears streaming down my cheeks: movies, television shows, books, short stories – even Facebook and Twitter posts.

It is excellent therapy and I always feel considerably better afterward.

Between the two of them, Carl Hiaasen and Johnny Shaw have become the main men I turn to for a sure-fire laughter fix. People with my disease supposedly lose their battle with the Reaper after only about four months, yet I have been hanging in there for a year so far and feel there is more where that came from. 

I am convinced that Hiaasen and Shaw are an important part of the reason.

I could survive indefinitely at this point. All I ask of either man is to keep the damn laughs coming.