One: The gun just went off.
People can say what they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to believe them.
This is just what people say when they don’t know what they’re doing, or they know damn well what they’ve done and they’re trying to cover their ass.
It turns out the same either way.
This one time, I have to help haul in a distributor whose receipts had gone a little light for a while. A real putz, you know the kind. He thinks he’s smarter than he is, and he calls people by their first names right away, like a doctor or a nurse. Same kind that wears and drives his net worth.
So, it’s about one a.m. and I’m bringing in Mr. Shortchange with Eddie. Eddie’s a big, beefy guy—well, not so much these days—and probably not much smarter than our guest, but he moved fast and he got things done. I’m there so he can teach me how it’s done.
We’re working him over pretty good for an hour or so, and we even get creative with stuff like emptying a squirt gun of Tabasco into his face, but he’s not saying much besides a lot of moaning and now and then like, “I’m not stealing. Honest.”
Of course he is—stealing, not honest—and he must love his money a whole lot more than he loved his looks. Or maybe he’s more afraid of somebody else than us. Like I said, not the smartest guy.
So, at this point, I’m getting out the pliers for Eddie, since he says it’s time for some dental work, but when I start to hand them over, he waves me off.
“This bastard looks like he could hold out all night, but I don’t want to be up that long. I’ve got a ten o’clock tee time, and I ain’t as young as I used to be.”
Coming from him that sounds kind of deep.
“So, what are we going to do?”
“Well, let’s see how he feels about never feeling any pain ever again. Or anything else.
“Watch and learn.”
So I do.
Eddie pulls out his piece—I don’t know why he wanted to keep it on during our little interview-slash-workout, but it’s gotten him this far—grabs a chair a few feet from the putz and aims right between his eyes.
“Your ears still working?” Eddie asks.
“Yeah,” the putz says, and he flinches a little, and with the word spits out a tooth we didn’t need the pliers for. “So, you heard what I told our friend here.”
Our guest nods and cringes a little.
“So, I want you to think. Not long, because you don’t have long, but real hard and—”
The sneeze shakes Eddie like a rag doll. Outside it could have changed the weather. That sneeze, and the gunshot it set off, echo through the warehouse.
I know what to do at a time like this. I hand a tissue to Eddie, who says thanks and wipes his nose before getting a look around.
It isn’t pretty. The subject of our interview is still sitting taped to the chair just like he started, except for large portions of his skull.
He’d never shortchange us again, but now we’ve got other problems. Eddie is leaving messages with his golf buddies to let them know they’ll be down to a threesome.
Our supervisor comes in looking like he doesn’t want to make the night any longer than it’s already been. He sees what’s left of the skimmer, and we bring him up to speed.
“Eddie,” he says like a father to a child who’s about to get grounded. “I’m not angry, just very, very disappointed.”
Eddie relaxes and his big shoulders loosen, like the grounding will be only a week, and he might still get to watch TV in his room.
The chief keeps his eyes on us so we know he’s thinking and he leans forward to talk again.
“Oh, who the hell am I kidding? How could you screw this up, Eddie? Don’t answer that, just think about it. You’re sweating a guy who isn’t exactly going anywhere soon, and you still pull out your steel prick like you don’t already have a dozen ways to take him out.
“Then you apparently forgot to check that crazy little thing called a safety. Safety first, Eddie, just like the signs say.
“If you can’t handle a gun I’ll just have to take it from you.”
Before Eddie can say anything, the chief yanks the piece away and slams the barrel into Eddie’s temple. Dropped to the floor, Eddie just sits there kind of stunned and tries to smooth out a sticky patch of blood in his hair.
He finally arrives at a statement.
The chief hands me the piece.
“You know something about these things, don’t you? Maybe you can tell if I broke anything.”
I look over the parts and tell him I don’t find anything out of line.
“Now, test it.”
He points at Eddie’s forehead.
Eddie’s been pretty good to me and all—but it’s too late to help him.
I swallow hard and try hard not to look like the first-timer I am. I release the safety.
Then the gun goes off, because I’ve exerted pressure on the trigger.
Two: Bigger Is Better
I don’t want to be one of those barstool psychiatrists who says that men want big things—a gun, a car, a boat, whatever—because they don’t measure up south of the beltline. Hell, Mike the Camel wouldn’t even look at anything smaller than a .357, but let’s just say he didn’t get his name for having a hump on his back. I saw the evidence at a meeting in a steam bath.
But people who mostly live in front of their TVs and computers and their damn phones start thinking they should pack the most gigantic hand cannon they can find. Take that far enough and you end up with a bazooka, or a bulge in your jacket that people can see from a block away. There’s only so much a custom tailor can do.
That misses a point. A gun is a tool, and like any tool it has to fit the job. You don’t bring a flat-tip screwdriver to a Phillips head. Or something like that.
As it is, people underestimate the damage any piece can do. A derringer, one of those cute-looking toy things you could swallow on a dare if you were drunk enough, can turn the lights out if it hits the right spot. I saw it once when the action had to take place in a restaurant basement without too much smoke or noise. Silencers are mostly bullshit, so I don’t even want to go into that.
But let’s take a more normal example of a gun. It turns out that Mike the Camel was having some meetings that didn’t involve us, and at meetings that weren’t in a steam bath it turns out he was wearing a wire, or whatever the latest spyware gadget is. Nobody yanked it off of him or anything, but a source on the other side told us about some recordings, and it lately it had seemed like he’d been asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening.
Mike got away with a lot, though, because he had charisma. Us younger guys would run his errands without too much grumbling about how they’d be happy to have that kind of thing behind them when they moved up. Four and five times a day it was sandwiches, dry cleaning, you name it.
One Thursday, in the middle of the afternoon he gets a craving for doughnuts, and a bear claw. I took orders from Mike and everybody else in the room, and I had orders from people who hadn’t gotten there yet.
The whole thing took a while. I had to run an errand of my own on the way, and wait for the Indian behind the counter to bake fresh Bismarcks and long johns. But eventually I manage to get the pastries and coffee and hump them back.
Once I set everything on the table, Mike doesn’t even look up from his phone. He just says, “I want something iced.”
“I think I can do that.” When I open the box he gets gripped hard by the arms, and nobody was going to let him get up.
My orders weren’t just doughnuts.
From between the chocolate frosted and the coconut glazed I bring out a .22 hardly any bigger than they were, but a whole lot more useful at the moment.
Still holding the box, I back up a few steps because I don’t feel like getting splattered, and I say, “Die. You’re on Candid Camera.”
There’s no camera—we’d swept the place for eyes and bugs that morning—and I hadn’t been told to say anything. But nobody had told me to say nothing, either, so I figured it would give us something to laugh about later on. Besides, personality can help you get ahead.
Squeezing off the rounds is kind of a letdown after that: not that much noise and even less recoil. A couple between his eyes, one in the heart, and one in each lung. Not my best work—one goes through him and cracks the drywall—but the rest stop close to where I put them, so we’ve got a neat enough rat package to dispose of.
It turns out that the box shields my clothes pretty well. Once I wash the powdered sugar and glaze off the trigger hand we get through the whole baker’s dozen before cleaning up.
What kind of dumbass wants a bear claw in the afternoon?
Three: They’re light.
You see somebody on a screen holding up a piece for five minutes and they can still whip that thing around like it was just a pen or a bag of pretzels.
I don’t think so.
It’s basic physics. Any gun worth packing is a hunk of metal designed and manufactured so as not to blow up during use. Safety first, you know.
A piece is usually going to weigh at least as much as a 50-foot tape measure, and maybe a couple of them. Imagine holding that up for any length of time, or having that strapped to your side without throwing off your balance.
You can’t do much about physics—let me know if you find out anything different—but you can change how you can deal with it. You can go as light as you can when you’re going heavy, stay within your abilities, but that limits your options.
Or you can change your abilities—up to a point, of course. This isn’t like some con man wanting you to walk on coals or something.
All I mean is that you can work out, train for when things break off. Me, I hit the gym a few times a week. Two days it’s weights, and not the real heavy ones. Getting muscle-bound just slows down your draw. For me it’s more light reps, some for speed, and I try to keep the motion fluid instead of stiff or jerky. Sometimes I’ll finish up with a few minutes on the speed bag. The other workouts are spinning, and a Pilates class. If that sounds soft and girly, I invite you to try it and tell me how you how you feel the next day.
Being in shape is like a gun. It can come in handy. This one time I’m making a delivery of some heavier iron to some potential customers who’ve checked out so far. But I guess we didn’t check enough.
I’m popping the trunk and starting to lift a blanket off the goods when I hear a couple pops and smell the gunpowder. My backup, Sammie, is down and moaning, and I stop, drop and roll like an on-fire son of a bitch.
A voice comes from the other car.
“All right, you’re over there somewhere. You can get off a little easier than your friend if you bring over the product.”
I make a counter-offer.
If I come back robbed and in one piece the management might start wondering about me. I’ll take my chances.
Car doors open and slam shut, and now two dishonest customers are stomping the gravel like a couple of elephants with arthritis. Maybe they lift, but they sure as hell aren’t doing anything for their footwork or their core conditioning.
These deadbeats with attitude are breaking every stick in their path and crunching all the leaves, and at this point I can hear them breathing hard and gagging a little.
Stepping light, because I can, I pivot into a little bit of a clearing and take up a spot behind some rocks and brush. They need a minute to catch their breath, and once they get going they run right by me.
I aim at the sound, and the muzzle flash shows me I’m lucky. One takes it twice in the left lung and faceplants in a bush, groaning like something in a real sick porno, and the other wheels around so I can see his pale slab of a face and take the next shots: gut, chest, head, the way a boxer lines up the chin for an uppercut. He can’t bring up his piece fast enough to stop me.
The groaner, who’s starting to get on his hands and knees, needs one more in the back of the head. I picked up their guns—you don’t want little kids finding them and getting hurt—and those things are a pound a half each, easy. Try holding that up for a while and then quick-drawing it when you’re out of shape.
Four: The barrel stays pressed against the ribs.
In a word, bullshit.
Just ask yourself—what is the advantage of a gun compared to a knife or a chain or a piece of pipe? You don’t have to be right next to your mark, and you don’t need a lot of skill unless you’re doing some sniper shit. This means you can do the work without getting too close to some tae kwan dude who’s spent the last year practicing how to knock the iron out of your hand and snap your neck in one fluid motion—or getting bear-hugged by some roid monkey who won’t feel the round or two you squeeze out before he squeezes the life out of you.
Okay, so now and then—or more like once in a great while—you have to get right in there like when you’re bracing a guy on the street and need to take him away quick and quiet. In thirty to ninety seconds that should all end with restraints and maybe a knock-out.
Like this one time me and Skitch have to, shall we say, intercept this jagoff, Murphy, who thinks he can just pack a bag and take off with some trade secrets that could be used by more than a few hostile parties.
We have to work in Union Station, nobody’s first choice for that kind of thing. Big, cavernous motherfucker of a place. A lot of exits and a lot of corners to duck behind, and a lot of civilians in the line of fire. Even grazing one would put us in a world of shit with the world at large and with upper management in particular for attracting that kind of attention. If you live to learn about it. Just one round goes off in a big echo chamber like that and, in these days of people thinking there’s a terrorist under every bed, you’re gonna get a bored nineteen-year-old in the National Guard with an assault rifle, and there’s gonna be a few more just like him walking around.
We get around him and slam in hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Since Skitch is stronger he does most of the gripping, and I very discreetly slide a heavy hand under our friend’s jacket.
The barrel does not touch the ribs. Shooting there would just make a big mess with soft tissue and risk an exit wound, not to mention collateral damage.
Instead, the business end noses the middle of his back, just above the kidneys. The recoil and blowback could sprain my wrist for a couple of weeks, but his problems will be a lot bigger. The round enters, maybe spreads and lodges between vertebrae, maybe bounces around the chest and only exits once it can’t do much more harm. That meat and bone is tough up in there.
The recipient has a good chance of living, but he’ll wish he hadn’t. They do guys in Colombia like this sometimes—somebody you see all the time is a longer-lasting message than a tombstone at the edge of town. The bastard’s in a wheelchair once the lead severs his spinal cord—full Ironsides if he’s lucky, and if he’s not so lucky he doesn’t get to use his arms either. Either way, his dick’s out of commission, and he just might end up shitting in a bag for the rest of his life. One of the old-timers used called it the Brown Badge of Courage.
So, this guy is smart enough to go along. In about seventy seconds we have him in the back of a car with a driver up front to get the mark all bound up.
In another thirty seconds he can’t move his arms or legs and he can’t flap his jaws to complain.
At that point I can put my little steel friend away.
You don’t even have to tie them up if you have them across a room that’s too big for them to rush you and too small for them to make a run for a door that’s most likely locked anyway. Fear and smarts can keep somebody in place as good as any piece of rope. If you grab the wrong guy, and it’s gonna happen if you do this long enough, you can buy some good will by letting him stretch his legs, maybe have a cup of coffee or a smoke at his own pace and send him off on his own way with a little hush money. Once in a while, you can even acquire a new associate that way.
Not everybody gets the fear or smarts part, though. This guy has about two inches and thirty pounds on me, but I’ve got my piece drawn and my gun hand settled in on the armrest. To anyone smart, advantage me.
Turns out I’ve overestimated him. As the conversation moves along he starts to get tense and hunched over, and you can see him start to sweat, and smell him sweat, and it’s not like somebody at the gym. He was stinking with fear. There’s something about the hormones, I’ve heard.
So, I’m getting a little more, shall we way, pointed in my questions as I start to run out of ways for him to make the best of a bad situation. I need answers and, like some of the touchy-feely type people might say, I want closure. I have people to answer to myself.
Finally, I just have to take what some folks might call the nuclear option. I look him in the eye and ask “Were you going to sell us out to—”
At which point I am very rudely interrupted by this guy springing to his feet and lunging for my piece.
The first round just hits him in the gut—I’m getting a little tired, and I’m a little off my game. The second finishes the job.
Five: First the shots, then the siren.
Again, TV and movies get it wrong. The last shot is fired and, after a couple of seconds, the sirens begin.
Again, bullshit. First, because the canned siren sound is from cop cars in the thirties or forties. You don’t hear anything like that on the street.
Second, and a lot more important, the sirens almost never start. Nine times out of ten nobody hears you fire. And if they do, it might not be such a big deal.
You can see this from the law enforcement point of view. In town dumb bastards pop off rounds in the air for New Year’s or when they’re favorite overpaid jocks get a win, like they don’t expect any of those rounds to come back down.
Most of the time, though, the sound effects come from the hoodrats who can empty a fifteen-round magazine and hit everything but their targets. Somebody gets served big time now and then—you can tell from the teddy bears and liquor bottles piled up where it happens—but the police have to play the odds like everybody else. With a whole district to cover and only so many bodies and cars, they can’t go full-on 1-Adam-12 or Hill Street Blues every time there’s a pop-pop-pop in the customary zip code. Little Boy Who Cried Wolf and all that.
The wolves depend on that.
In a warehouse or a shut-down factory you can just drop the piece like a dirty napkin and walk away like nothing happened.
And don’t even get me started talking about the country. Yee-haw, pally! Pick your ordnance right and you’re just background noise. Rednecks are shooting meat in and out of season, and the rest of the time they’re plinking bottles and plugging rusty oil drums. Some fat sheriff isn’t about to put down his pulled-pork sandwich every time something goes bang half a county away.
This doesn’t always work in your favor. A couple years ago we left Skitch and Marty to take delivery of a shipment out in Upper Dipshit County, where the biggest town has five thousand people. We were shorthanded, but we’d done business with the other party before and hadn’t hit any snags.
We didn’t this time either. But, somewhere in the two hours between when we got the call to help break down the packages and when we hit the driveway, something had gone belly-up. The front door was busted in and every room was tossed. The goods, of course, were gone.
So were Skitch and Marty. Skitch’s neck was twisted at an angle that somebody on the Discovery Channel might call incompatible with life, and he had two ears less than the last time we’d seen him. Marty’s head, seasoned with two different gauges of buckshot, was spread along the kitchen’s floor and walls. The clothes and the fist tattoo proved it was him.
Some amateurs—and there are a shitload of them who think they’re professionals and don’t even come close—might go off half-cocked and declare war on our sellers, because who else could have known what we were up to?
Us, in situations like this, we do like on ESPN. We go to tape.
Almost nobody puts security cameras in a cabin in the middle of the greater Bumfuck Forest, but everybody should. Erase that shit every day like they do at the 7-11 and you’re good—no evidence. You have to hide them like you’re in some James Bond kind of deal, but every now and then the results come in handy.
This was now and then. The replay showed that once the vendors left they didn’t come back. Later, though, our boys get their last-ever visit from a litter of meth heads with less teeth than fingers and toes. Killing must have been their tweak, because you could hear the shots before they got into the picture. Our guys got off a couple rounds apiece, but then they were outnumbered three to one, coming at them from all sides.
The meth-heads didn’t even bother to cover their faces. Because they didn’t expect anybody to live to tell, and because they were amateurs they didn’t even consider the possibility of surveillance. Stupid pricks chattered like a bunch of old broads while they hauled out the product. Jared—and there’s always a Jared in a clutch of fucks like that—wasn’t getting any from Star, and Tanya had found out Billy had been stepping out on her. Nash was having to pay for it for a couple of weeks while Jenna Greyhounded around to visit her brother in one prison and her daddy in another. One of them talked about the rust on his pickup truck and where he had to Bondo and staple over the cancer.
We’d have them sooner or later, but they made it a lot sooner by handing their heads to us on a platter. A couple of our colleagues started hanging around the bars that had beer signs but no names, and the parking lot of the Super Wal-Mart because even methy inbreds have to buy stuff besides their stash, and that was the only place they could go for twenty-five miles in any direction.
Besides, people like that aren’t exactly your international jet-setters. They don’t own the money to live in some gated community. Hell, they’re the reason those gates go up.
So, one by one, or two at a time with Jared and Jimmy Joe Bob or whatever the fuck his name was, we take them back to the scene of their crime for old times’ sake. They get to hear about our boys’ families, how Skitch’s retarded brother wouldn’t understand why he was gone or why he’d have to go to a crappier facility now that the money wasn’t coming in, and how Marty’s kid had just started to walk and would never get to know his father. We pushed their faces in the blood stains and made them lick the splintered floorboards. A couple of them had some dim bulb light up over their heads and they understood what they had coming to them. They got popped quick.
The rest bitched and whined and tried to get out of it. Never thought I’d have some redneck go all Deliverance in reverse and say he’d suck my dick or let me fuck him up the ass to let him go, but there we were.
Offer declined. First with a bitch-slap, then with the better part of a day having him cuffed to a bathroom sink and jonesing. Once I got tired of listening to him bang around and yell I quieted him down in a big way.
No sirens came after those shots either.
Six: First there’s a conversation.
This might be my favorite. Somebody writing a script wants to fill up some time, so the guy with the iron makes some of speech, or puts the object under some kind of interrogation before the lead-spit. People get some tension, they feel a little thrill wondering for a minute how things turn out until they end up with a bang, more likely several bangs. So some big speech punctuated by a muzzle flash sells tickets and all that stupid shit on commercials. Good for the people that make a living off of that, I guess. But nobody gets to beg for his life for five minutes.
Here’s how it actually works. Any time you’ve got the drop on somebody you take advantage of it exactly now, if not sooner. You walk up close enough to get a clear shot and you do the thing without a word if you can help it. If somebody even looks like they’re drawing you don’t let yourself think about reasoning with them. The cops call it lag time, that little gap between when you need to draw and when you actually do it, and you don’t want to spread that out thinking about a peaceful solution.
Unless you’ve got orders to the contrary, you just take out the gun like this.
J.D. Smith’s books include the poetry collections The Killing Tree, Settling for Beauty, The Hypothetical Landscape, and the edited anthology Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould, and the children’s book, The Best Mariachi in the World. His poems have received three Pushcart nominations, and his essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Grist and Pleiades. His crime fiction has appeared in publications including Close 2 to the Bone, Demolition, Out of the Gutter, Pulp Pusher and Thug Lit. His poems have been anthologized in the collections In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare, Poetic Voices without Borders, and Illuminations: Expressions of the Personal Spiritual Experience.