Table of Contents

Fall 2007

Short Stories

Bus Stop

Deep Freeze

In the Ditch

Missed Connections

My Bedtime Buddy

On Silent Feet

Out of Service

Ric With No K

The Rorschach Affair

The Years of the Wicked

Under the Blanket of the Sun

Upon A New Road

Reviews

Ammunition

Bad Thoughts

Beating the Babushka

Bloodthirsty

Hidden Depths

Pay Here

Play Dead

Poison Pen

Silence

Who Is Conrad Hirst

Profiles/Features

Bronx Noir

In For Questioning

Together We Write

Profile: Derek Nikitas

Pelecanos Country

Interviews

George Pelecanos

Robert Fate

Rick Mofina

Kevin Wignall

Short Story:

OUT OF SERVICE

by Mark Troy

Texas basically sucks in summer. Two weeks into June the trees were wilting like my grades in the community college classes that were supposed to get me into UT. Dad still hadn't gotten over UT turning me down. Someone at the university told him that if I take some basic courses at the CC and smoke them, they'd let me in. Getting into UT looked like the only way out of this sucky town and that looked more remote with each day of class.

My best friend Ross counted on the army to get him out. He worked at his uncle's salvage yard, taking apart the farm equipment his uncle trucked in from all the boring no-name towns around the state. Mostly, though, we hung out in the air-conditioned shed at the salvage yard. Uncle Jess had stocked the shed with a refrigerator, an X-box and a satellite dish for all the porn we could watch. He even had a computer. Jess liked his toys and let Ross use them.

We were drinking his uncle Jess's beer in the shed. Jess was gone on one of his frequent forays around the region. I was sitting on a five wheel office chair with one arm missing and Ross sat on a padded truck seat. Ross had gotten the results from one of the tests he'd taken to find out what kind of job the army wanted him for.

"Got an aptitude for killing," he said. "I'm gonna be an infantry soldier."

"Jeez, man. What happened to computers?"

"Didn't score high enough. I don't know that stuff the way you do."

"But infantry means Iraq. You don't wanna go there. That's a hell hole."

"And this isn't?" He pointed outside the dusty windows where tractor and combine parts rusted in huge post-apocalyptic scrap piles. "At least I'll be gone from this cow crap town."

We heard tires crunch on the gravel outside. Ross looked out and said, "Damn! It's Hoser. Keep quiet and maybe he'll think we're not here."

But Hoser knew we were there. Where else would we be? He came though the door with a "How they hangin', guys?" and made straight for the refrigerator.

"Don't touch the beer," Ross said. "It's my uncle's."

"You got one."

"Yeah, cause he's my uncle."

"Brent's got one."

"You want a beer, it'll cost you five bucks."

"Just to look," I said.

"Yeah," Ross said. "Ten to touch it."

"Screw you guys," Hoser said. "Next time you want to look at somebody, forget it."

Hoser's real name was Newton, but we called him Hoser because he worked at his Dad's funeral home washing down the stiffs before his Dad worked on them. According to Hoser, the human asshole goes loosey-goosey at the moment of death, so we all go out shitting ourselves. Hoser gets the clean-up.

*****

When Gloria Saldano went through the windshield of her Trans Am in the spring, he let us look at her. Gloria was the school hottie. She had perfect, bouncy, Hooter-girl tits and an ass you wanted to wear like a catcher's mask. Rumor had it that quite a few guys, mostly jocks, did get to see those tits and ass up close. The rest of us only imagined it. Hoser said Gloria had a tattoo. He wanted five bucks to look at her corpse, ten bucks to touch.

I gave Hoser five bucks and Ross gave him ten. He led us into the room where his Dad prepared the bodies. I expected the room to smell like a biology lab, but an abundance of plug-in air fresheners gave it a sickly sweet odor like a supermarket flower cooler. Hoser flipped on the lights and revealed Gloria in her naked glory on a stainless steel table. A cloth covered her head. Hoser explained her face was totally ruined.

The rest of her was perfect.

Her body glowed white as angel-food cake. Puffy nipples topped her marvelously smooth and round tits like little mushroom caps. They'd lost much of their pinkness. My eyes went to her triangle of pubic thatch. It was thick and dark, not shaved and trimmed like the models in the stroke mags. The tattoo decorated her lower belly right above her bush--a big-eyed Tweety Bird.

Ross stepped up to the body and tentatively touched one breast.

"Don't be a fag," Hoser said.

Ross squeezed the breast, then the other. He pinched her nipples and looked surprised that nothing happened.

"She's dead, you dick," Hoser said. "Want to pet da puddy? Twenty-five bucks you can put your finger in her hole."

Until then, I'd been fascinated, but the idea of touching a dead vagina totally disgusted me.

"I'm outta here," I said.

"Me, too," Ross said.

"Chickens," Hoser said.

I stopped at the door and looked back at Hoser. He had his hand between her legs and was working his fingers inside her.

*****

"We got old man Shugrue this morning," Hoser said.

"He have a Tweety Bird?" I asked.

Ross laughed. "Like Gloria? How dumb is that? A chick with a hot bod, should have a hot tat, like a weave of thorns or something."

"Or maybe a Celtic symbol," I said.

Hoser said, "No tattoo, but he's missing part of his foot, where maybe he shot himself."

"Or somebody else shot him," Ross said. "He was a mean sonofabitch."

"His widow didn't think so. She's all broken up like she's really going to miss his dick. She about collapsed a couple times and her grandson had to hold her up."

"Lonnie Shugrue?" Ross asked. "You met him?"

"He came in with his grandmother."

"Lonnie's meaner than his grandfather, he'll kick your ass and then hide the pieces."

"Gangsta man" I said. Shugrue ran a crop-dusting operation. Ross's uncle, who knew all the farmers and their equipment, said some of the planes that stopped at his hangar were fitted for carrying crops, not spraying them.

"So what'd Lonnie do, Hose?" Ross asked.

"He paid for the casket, the bronze, top-of-the-line. He wanted make sure it was big enough that we didn't chop the old man's legs off 'cause he'd heard mortuaries do that sometimes."

"No shit, you do that?" I asked. I'd never thought about it, but caskets did always seem to be one size and people aren't.

"Old man Shugrue's a little short guy and he doesn't have much meat on him and this casket's big. Plenty of room in there, so Lonnie's okay with it. But here's the thing. The widow wants him buried with his cell phone."

"A cell phone?" I asked. "Why?"

Hoser was grinning, hopping from one foot to the other in his excitement.

"In case he wakes up," he said. "Back in her day it happened sometimes. She thinks he might wake up and have to call somebody to get him out."

"No way," I said.

"Could that really happen?" Ross asked.

"You kidding? Not after all the pickle juice Dad pumps in him."

"But man," Ross said. "You wake up in a coffin, you want to call somebody."

"And when you do," I said, "that 'Out of service area' message is really gonna suck."

*****

I didn't go to the shed for two days because I had a test in history and one in calculus. The history test flat out kicked my ass. I figured I pulled a 'C' in calculus, but, for getting into UT, a 'C' was as good as an ass-kicking.

Hoser and Ross had a shooting game going on the X-box when I got there.

"'Sup, dude?" Hoser said. He wore black shoes and black slacks, a white shirt with a black tie loosened at his neck.

"Nothing. 'Sup with you? Had a funeral?"

"Old man Shugrue. Lot of people there."

I got myself a beer. "So your dad had you work it?"

"I drove the car with the old lady. You ever been to a country funeral where they take the body by the house?"

I'd been to only one funeral, period, and it wasn't country. It was Mom's aunt. "Hunh uh."

"Well, we drove to the Shugrue place, but we didn't just slow down, we stopped and they took the casket inside so the old guy could get his last look at the house. Is that creepy? First the cell phone and then the house tour. The guy's dead, for chrissake."

"So who went in?"

"Just the six pall bearers with the stiff. The old lady wouldn't go in. She sat in the car holding onto her cell like she expected it to ring any minute." Hoser's screen turned red--his character died. He put down the controller "There were feds at the funeral," he said.

Ross perked up. "Yeah, how do you know?"

"Two unmarked cars at the end of the procession, two guys in each. Crew cuts, cheap suits, the whole bit, just like the movies."

"Could've been anybody," I said.

"No way, dude. These were fed cars. Who else drives Crown Vics with those little pork-pie hubcaps?"

Ross said, "They're tailing Lonnie Shugrue, bet on that. But forget them. Look what I got."

He held up a piece of paper that I recognized as a phone bill.

"Old man Shugrue's" he said. "Everybody in town was at the funeral so I went through their trash. This is the dead guy's phone number. Now we can call him."

"And what, get a dead number? He can't answer."

"What if he does?"

"You're whacked in the head." I said.

"Yeah," Hoser said. "All that pickle juice, he ain't answering a thing."

"You guys are chicken. I'm calling," Ross said.

Ross doesn't have much imagination, but sometimes he gets the germ of an idea. I admit I was intrigued with this one.

The phone bill listed two numbers.

"Fifty-fifty. Pick one," I said.

Ross dialed the first number. The three of us huddled around the phone. Four rings and then a woman answered.

"That's the old lady," Hoser said.

Ross broke the connection.

"Here we go." He dialed the other number.

My heart pounded as I leaned closer. What we heard was a recorded, female voice saying we'd reached the voice mail of Walter Shugrue.

"Leave him a message," Hoser said.

Ross said into the phone, "Worms go in and worms go out and worms play pinochle on your snout."

Ross didn't have much imagination.

Hoser said, "That was lame."

"You got a better idea?" Ross asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Caller ID spoofing."

Neither Hoser nor Ross had heard of caller ID spoofing, so I explained it. "It's when you make a call but somebody else's number appears in the caller ID window. People do it when they don't want the other person to know who's calling. Cops and feds spoof caller ID a lot to set up stings."

"I don't get it," Hoser said. "Who we gonna call?"

"The old lady," I said.

"Yeah," Ross said. "But she'll think it's coming from the phone in the grave."

Ross didn't completely lack imagination, he just needed help jump starting it.

I booted up Uncle Jess's computer and opened a web browser with the URL of a caller ID spoofing site I'd discovered while hacking around one day. The site immediately prompted me for the phone number of my target. I entered the old lady's. Next it asked for my number. I entered the number of the salvage office. At the third prompt, I entered the number of the phone in the casket.

I pressed "submit." We waited while the program patched the connection together.

Three rings and then we heard the old lady's tremulous voice say, "Hello? Walter?"

I hung up.

"Fucking great," Ross said. "I wish I could've seen her face."

"Do it again," Hoser said. "She thinks it's the dead guy."

I went through the steps again. This time, she answered on the first ring. "Walter, is this you?"

Ross pounded the side of the metal desk like somebody knocking to get out.

On the third call, Ross cupped his hands over his mouth and moaned into the phone. We heard a shriek and the connection went dead.

Nobody answered the fourth call.

The success of the prank had all of us so wired, we stayed up drinking beer until the sky grayed with dawn. I crawled home and slept through the day and my classes.

The next evening I met Ross and Hoser at the shack.

"That was radical," Ross said. "We gotta do it again."

"Naw, once was enough," I said.

"What're you, a jerk-off? We're just getting started," Ross said.

I wondered if we hadn't carried it too far. What if the old lady got really spooked?

"One more," Hoser said. "What can that hurt?"

"I'll do it," Ross said. "I know the website."

He logged in and entered the numbers. I suppose I could have left, but I wanted to see what would happen. Ross might be pushing too far, but it was his show now. No reason for me to feel guilty if it went bad.

On the fourth ring, a male voice said, "You're a fucking dead man."

Ross slammed the phone onto the cradle.

"I'm out of here," I said.

Hoser said, "Me, too," at the same time the front and back doors of the shack flew open and a man with a pistol came through the front door while a man with a shotgun came through the back. Lonnie Shugrue followed the man through the front door. He carried a cell phone in his hand.

"You the pissants making these calls?" he said.

"What calls?" Ross asked.

The front-door man, a tall, pock-faced cowboy, balled his free hand into a fist and hit Ross in the face. Blood and spit flew out of Ross's mouth and he fell across the desk, scattering papers and supplies.

Lonnie said, "You stupid shits think we couldn't figure out where the calls came from? No more lies out of any of you. What were you trying to pull?"

"It was a joke," I said.

"A joke?" Lonnie screamed. "That was my grandmother. An old lady. She gets a call from a grave and nearly has a heart attack."

"We thought it would be funny."

"Funny? Then how come nobody's laughing?"

The back door man pulled Ross to his feet and pushed him into the desk chair. I recognized back door man as Hector Saldano, Gloria's brother.

Saldano wore a sleeveless shirt revealing tattoo-covered arms. One tattoo in particular, on his shoulder, caught my eye. It looked like Sylvester the cat on acid. Hoser spotted it, too. I hoped for once in his stupid life Hoser would keep his mouth shut.

He didn't. "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

Saldano wheeled on him. What'd you say, hombre?"

"Nothing."

"Naw, I didn't hear no nothing."

"Hector, cool it," Lonnie said. "You'll get your turn." He turned to Ross. "Who do you work for?"

Ross's lips oozed blood. Behind them, one tooth was clearly broken. "My uncle," he said. "Uncle Jess."

"What do you do for Uncle Jess?"

"Take stuff apart."

"Liar," Lonnie said.

"Truth," Ross pleaded.

Lonnie said to me, "You work for Uncle Jess?"

I shook my head. "I'm a college student."

"How'd you punks made the calls?"

"We used the computer."

"Show me."

Lonnie stood behind me while I showed him the website and entered the numbers.

"Feds," Pock-face said. "They like pulling this kind of crap."

"Feds teach you this?" Lonnie asked me.

"Hunh uh. I learned it in school. It was all a joke."

"We got nothing to do with feds," Ross said.

"You stupid morons have no idea what you stepped into. Except for maybe nephew here."

"We didn't mean to hurt anybody," I said.

"Hurt? My grandmother, a fine old lady, is so distressed, she wants to dig up the body. That what you peckerheads aiming for?"

I had a clutching sensation in my nuts as the realization hit me that we were in deep shit. "You don't want it exhumed," I said. "There's something in there you don't want people to find."

"Check the brains on college boy," Pock-face said.

Hoser said, "What, you stashed drugs in the coffin?"

Lonnie said, "Now why do you mention drugs?"

Hoser recognized his error. "I didn't mean anything. Why would anybody stash drugs in a coffin? That's stupid, right?"

"I was starting to believe you dumb asses were just playing games, but now I'm not so sure."

Saldano said, "Let me have a go, boss. I want to try this one." He put down the shotgun. Then he grabbed Hoser by the left wrist and bent Hoser's little finger back. Hoser bleated in pain.

"What was that about a puddy tat?"

Hoser shook his head and Saldano applied more pressure.

"Your tattoo. It's like your sister's."

Saldano bent Hoser's finger until the bone snapped like a string bean.

Hoser screamed.

"How you know my sister?"

"This kid works at the mortuary," Lonnie said.

"That right, hombre?"

"Yes," Hoser said between choking sobs.

"You looked at her? You saw her naked?"

Hoser kept quiet.

Saldano took the pinky on Hoser's opposite hand and applied backward pressure. "I asked you a question. You looked at my sister?"

Pain and fear made a potent cocktail. I doubted Hoser could take much. Finally he screamed, "Yes, I looked at her, dammit."

"You touch her?"

"Ahh, Christ. Yes, I touched her. It's my job."

Saldano kept up the pressure. "Where'd you touch her?"

Hoser was blubbering through his pain, saying anything to make it stop. "I washed the shit out of her ass, okay? I wasn't the only one. We all touched her. Ross and Brent, too."

"No," I said. "He's lying."

"We touched her. We did her. That what you want to hear?"

Saldano broke the finger. He drove his fist into Hoser's stomach and Hoser collapsed on the floor, curled into a ball. Saldano delivered a kick to Hoser's ribs.

"I'm gonna kill you mother fucker."

"Stop it," I screamed. "Killing him doesn't solve anything. You still have a problem. You kill him, you only make it worse."

Lonnie nodded. "College boy's right, we gotta deal with this other problem. Get 'em outside, all of 'em, into the truck."

"Before we're done, I'm going to kill you good," Saldano said to Hoser.

The three of them marched the three of us outside. Ross and I had to support Hoser between us, though I did most of the supporting as Ross was still a little woozy from the punch he took. The truck had a full size king cab. They put me and Ross in back with Saldano, while Hoser sat up front between Pock-face and Lonnie.

We went to the cemetery.

The dirt over Shugrue's grave hadn't settled yet. Lonnie pulled shovels from the back of the truck for the three of us and told us to dig. The fingernail moon gave minimal light so mostly we dug by feel and the occasional play of Lonnie's flashlight across the area. Hoser didn't help much. Saldano and Pock-face stood guard with their guns.

"What do you think?" Ross asked. "Money?"

"No. Something they don't want anybody to know about."

"We'll know about it."

"That's what scares me."

"Shut up," Lonnie said.

The moon had moved halfway across the sky by the time our shovels scraped the top of the vault. We dug another half hour before exposing the vault completely.

Lonnie went to the truck and returned with crowbars.

"Open it," he said.

Getting the top off the vault required almost as much effort as digging down to it. Using crowbars and shovels, we finally leveraged it up and leaned the heavy lid precariously on its side against the wall of the pit. No way we could lift it out. Ross clambered out with the tools while Hoser steadied the vault top from above so it wouldn't fall on me.

With the vault open, the bronze casket inside gleamed in the beams of the flashlights. The task of opening the coffin fell to me. What would we find inside? I unlatched the lid and lifted it. There was enough room on both sides of the vault for the coffin lid to swing open easily.

The coffin held a body that filled the whole space. A big man. Lonnie's flashlight hit his face, revealing a small, dark hole in his forehead. His features were so battered I didn't immediately recognize him.

Ross gave an anguished cry. "Uncle Jesse."

"That's what we do to drug agents," Saldano said.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Jess's long absences, ostensibly salvaging farm equipment, gave him the cover to scout the drug growers and shippers. The high-tech toys were tools of the trade.

Ross lunged at Lonnie, but Pock-face slapped him in the side of the head with his pistol. Ross went down on his knees.

"Get that body out," Lonnie said.

While Ross and Hoser reached into the pit from above, I got down into the casket behind Jesse's head and lifted his shoulders. Burns, welts and bruises covered Jesse's shirtless torso. He didn't go easily.

I strained to lift Jesse's heavy body. The old man's body lay underneath. At first, I carefully avoid stepping on the old man. Finally, my concern for the dead gave way to a need for leverage. I planted one foot on his face and heaved the dead agent up. Ross and Hoser weren't much help, but at last we managed his body out of the pit.

As I stretched out a hand for help out of the grave, we were hit by a bank of bright floodlights. An amplified voice boomed, "Federal agents. Throw down your weapons."

Hoser screamed, "They want to kill us."

Saldano spun and fired the shotgun. Hoser's head disappeared in a pink cloud. Pock-face opened up on the lights. Immediately, the surrounding darkness exploded in gunfire. Blood geysered from Lonnie's back. I dove for the only cover, the casket. Amid the gunfire I heard Ross scream and then darkness.

*****

It's still dark, so dark I don't know if my eyes are open or closed, and I've got a bitch of a headache. It's quiet, too, except for a soft, measured thumping of blood pounding through my temples. My face is pressed against another face, lips touching cold, unyielding lips, and now I know I'm in the coffin on top of the old man.

In that first realization of being inside the closed coffin, my bowels let loose and the stink fills the coffin. The coffin lid is pressing down on me. It must have fallen shut and knocked me out.

There's not much room in here. I push my body up to raise the lid, but it doesn't budge, so now, I'm trying to control my panic while I roll over in the tight space.

Keep calm. The feds are right out there. They'll have me out in a minute. I push the old man against the side of the coffin and free enough space to lie next to him. I pound on the lid as hard as I can, with hardly any leverage. I'm expecting a hollow sound like when you beat on a metal drum, but the fabric lining the casket muffles it.

If that vault lid fell closed with the casket lid, they'll never hear me.

Stupid, Brent. The dead guy has a cell phone.

I feel through the guy's pockets, for that goddamn lifeline to the outside. What if Hoser was wrong?

Hoser wasn't wrong.

I fumble with the buttons and the screen lights up. In this total darkness, the light is as bright as a reading lamp, but the sudden view of old man Shugrue's face so close with all the weird shadows is so scary I'd shit myself if I had anymore in me.

The stench is crawling up my nose like worms while the slow-ass phone goes through its start-up routine.

The clock! It can't be right. 5:47 a.m. They've left me in this shithole two hours while they've been walking all over the crime scene up there. Didn't anybody think to look in the hole? When they get me out somebody's ass is getting sued, damn feds, sued so hard, I'll be set for life, leaving me here.

Now I'm screaming, "Nooo!" Screaming not at the feds now, but the goddamn phone that's flashing. "Out of service area."

About the Author:
Mark Troy is the author of the Shamus-nominated "Pilikia Is My Business" and of seven short stories in the Val Lyon, private eye series. The most recent story can be found in the forthcoming anthology, "Sex, Lies and Private Eyes." He is at work on another detective novel. Born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., Mark lived in Thailand and Hawaii with his wife and two sons before moving to Texas. He is on the staff at Texas A&M University where he evaluates academic programs. Mark has run fourteen marathons and has a goal of completing one in each state.