New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample from The Good Life by Frank Wheeler, Jr.

Harvest is about half finished now, and I can smell it in the parking lot. In the capital city, there’s a dozen places where the cornfields edge just inside the city limits. Here, you only have to look half a mile, past the two intersecting highways and the train yard, to see the dried gray-yellow rows. The sun is bright, but the sky is hazy. Air smells like chaff.

“We think he’s in there,” Eddie says, brushing sandwich crumbs off his light blue shirt and clip-on black tie with his thick fingers, when I walk up to the car. “Me and Mikey got here at four. He came home at five-thirty. We heard snoring on the long-mic we pointed at the window.”

“It’s almost one now,” I say. “Let’s hope he’s hung over.”

“You know whose building this is?” Mikey asks, fighting a yawn. He’s still in the same green and blue Nike tracksuit he had on last night. Thin gold chains around his neck. My little brother’s idea of blending in.

“Nope,” I say. “But we gotta figure how to get in quiet without being seen.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Mikey says. “It’s Wild Bill’s.”

“You mean your business partner?” I say.

“Uh-huh. This is his other club. Bro, I can totally just walk in and get the keys from the manager. Even call him and have him turn off the cameras before we walk in.”

I didn’t expect Mikey to tell us that.

Eddie looks at me. I nod to him.

“Okay, kid,” I say, “it’s your show.”

Eddie and I wait outside the club in Mikey’s car. I nod down at his new plastic and metal arm. Has clamps on the end so he can hold his coffee. That’s why he wears clip-on ties now.

“You’d better stay here. That arm’ll attract attention.”

“Fuck that,” he says. “Cornbread in there sent the guy that done this to me. So the motherfucker’s mine.”

“I’m saying folks’ll remember God-damn Captain Hook walking past the strippers and up the stairs.” My cousin Eddie’s a big man. Wide frame. Played defensive tackle in high school. Not like me, I disgraced the family and played midfielder in soccer.

“I’m wearing a jacket. I’ll put a glove over what shows. Nobody’ll know.” He’s in his early fifties, and I can tell it irks him a little to take orders from someone near twenty years younger. Especially about this.

“Make sure it don’t slip off,” I say. I light a cigarette and wait half a minute before I ask. “What’s your verdict on the kid?”

“He told me who owned the club right away.”

“So you read him as clean on this.”

“Didn’t say that,” Eddie says. “What would you do if you thought somebody was about to get clued in you bought a hit on him? Short of killing the guy outright, if you couldn’t for some reason, you’d help him every way you could.”

“Uh-huh. Sorta like, ‘Here, let me help you with that’,” I say. “That kinda thing. Sure, I see what you mean.”

“Which puts us right back in the blind spot,” Eddie says. “We walk into that apartment, could be we got Cornbread and Mikey both drawing on us.”

“Uh-huh. Could be. Where’s the bag I asked you to bring?”

“Under the seat. They’re cleaned, oiled, and re-bored. You sure you wanna go in there?”

“Not one bit.”

Mikey leads us up the back stairs. He walks too fast for this, but he’s always been wiry. They put him as second baseman in high school cause he was light and fast, and he’d always hustle to get the ball. The hallway is dark and the walls vibrate from the strip-show beat downstairs. Eddie and I both have our suppressed .45s. I watch Mikey pull on thin leather gloves to match ours. Then take a 9mm Beretta out of his jacket and screw a suppressor on the barrel. Unless he bought subsonic ammo like I told him, his’ll be a lot louder than ours, but with the music cranked up downstairs, it won’t matter for shit.

Mikey steps up to the doorway. I motion with my head for him to move aside. Stand back, watching Mikey while Eddie steps to the door. Tucks his .45 under his arm and reaches into his pocket. Takes out the two and a half inch long black cylinder eyepiece. One of his favorite toys. Puts it up to the peephole. Turns back to look at me and shakes his head. Slips the eyepiece back in his pocket and takes the .45 from under his arm. Nods to Mikey.

Mikey puts the key in the lock and turns it slow. Turns the knob gently enough there’s no sound. Pushes it in a few inches. Pulls out the keys.

He’s loud enough we can hear him snore from out in the hallway.

I throw a glass of water on Cornbread Johnson’s tattoo-covered back. He bolts up, shoves his hand under his pillow, but Eddie cracks him across the face with his mechanical arm. Cornbread, just in his black silk boxers, falls off the other side of his king-size bed. The boards creak from his two hundred ninety pounds of muscle in a six-two frame. Mikey steps up to him and puts the 9mm in his face. Cornbread rubs his eyes, tries to focus, looks over at me, then Mikey, then Eddie. Wipes at the blood dripping from his nose. Shakes his head.

“I know what this is about. Fuck. Shoulda seen it coming.” Laughs to himself. “Y’all want some coffee or something? Always try to be hospitable.”

“Stand him up,” I say to Mikey. Better if he does it for now. Keep the targets close together, just in case.

Mikey claps him on the ear, then grabs him by the studs in it. Pulls up, not fast, steady enough that he can get to his feet.

“After all them girls I sent you, motherfucker,” Cornbread says to Mikey.

“Just want you to know I enjoyed every last one.” Mikey grins, slaps Cornbread across the face. Brings his elbow in fast to the stomach. Knocks enough air from him to double him over.

“I said stand him up, kid.”

“Sorry, Bro,” Mikey says.

I turn to Eddie. “Help move him into the bathroom while I look around out here.”

“What are you doing then?” Mikey asks.

“He’s so fucking big, I’ll have to look out here for some towels or sheets to catch what spills over the side while we’re working on him in the tub.”

Cornbread Johnson, broad as refrigerator, black as chicory, stops breathing and falls on his knees.

“It ain’t gotta be like this,” he says. “I ain’t done nothing to y’all. No reason for y’all niggers to come in here today and shut me down. I just mind my own business and don’t bother none of you motherfuckers.”

I walk up to him and put my .45 right to his nose.

“Call me a nigger again,” I say. “See what happens.”

“You ain’t gotta do this, son,” he says. “I didn’t do nothing to you. Them stupid fuckers come after you didn’t get sent by me. Jesus’ tits, man, don’t you know that?”

“I know they both work for you,” I say. Then, to the others, “Take him on in there now.”

Mikey and Eddie grab him under the armpits and drag him on his knees. I walk behind with the .45 on him. Cornbread talks to God.

“Now I lay me down to sleep.”

They lift him and turn him around so he’s sitting on the edge of the tub. His back to the shower curtain and tile wall. I kick him in the chest so he falls back into the tub.

“Pray Lord my soul to keep.”

Watch the tears stream down his round brown cheeks. Turn on the cold faucet. Cornbread shivers a little when the water touches his right hand.

“If I gonna die before I wake.”

He closes his eyes. Blows snot and blood from his nose. Mikey and Eddie step back.

“Lord this poor nigger’s soul you gotta take.”

I put the end of the suppressor in the middle of his forehead.

“I’m sorry Jesus, I’m so fucking sorry for all this shit. I couldn’t done no better.”

I reach over and turn on the shower knob. He screams when the cold stream hits him.

“So who sent them if it wasn’t you?” I say.

He looks up at me. Blinks.

“Convince me,” I say, “and I’ll let you live.”

He looks around at the three of us. Shakes his head.

“Y’all nig—”

Looks at me and stops. “Y’all motherfuckers is crazy.”

“Sure,” I say. “So how about that coffee you mentioned. I do appreciate hospitality.”

Cornbread sits at his kitchen table across from me, wrapped in a towel, holding his mug of coffee. Mikey’s behind him. Eddie’s behind me. My .45 is on the table in front of me. It’s only a gesture, but it may help some. Cornbread’s still shaking a little.

“So you’re from Chicago, right?” I ask him. Sip my coffee.

“No,” he says. “Born and raised in St. Louis. But I worked in Chicago for a while. Came here from out there.”

“I like St. Louis,” I say. “Nice town.”

“Not where I’m from. Not East.”

“Cornbread, I’m interested in something you said. Your exact words were ‘don’t you know that?’ Why do you think I should know that?”

“I know better than to fuck with the law. Even y’all’s kinda law. I learnt that the hard way when I did my three years in Joliet. I learnt that if you work with the law, everybody gets rich, everybody gets happy. Folks don’t get dead so quick.”

“That’s mighty funny to hear from a triggerman,” I say.

“I don’t never clip nobody less I checked in with the proper authorities. That’s how come I ain’t never gone back inside, or got put in the ground. Slow to anger, son, that’s my policy. Jail’s made me one careful son of a bitch.”

“And that’s why you’re so valuable to Sal.”

“Partly, sure. But that crazy spic motherfucker’s always made me nervous.”


“Unpredictability. In my work, I need people to be predictable, and he just ain’t. Only reason that cucaracha’s still living is cause guys like me think for him. He ain’t smart of hisself, but he’s smart enough to know good counsel. Sometimes he ignores it, though, and that’s what makes me nervous. Fucking Latins using they balls to run they business.”

“Why’d you never take him out? Sounds like you could’ve done it easily.”

“No doubt, son,” Cornbread laughs. “But you know as well as I do the distribution in these parts is controlled by Mexicans. Shit, even MS-13’s showing up now’n then. Ain’t no way they gonna let no niggers run the show. Besides, that ain’t what I’m paid to do.”

“Of course he wouldn’t pay you for that,” I say.

“Not him. My other employers. My real paycheck.”

He blows on his coffee. Sips it. Watches me while I think about what he said.

“You’re talking about Chicago,” I say. “You mean the suppliers from Chicago. Where Sal gets all his shipments from. You mean you’re still working for them. Keeping an eye on Sal for them.”

“Man’s gotta earn a living,” he says.

“Why are you telling us this?” I ask.

“Cause Sal’s going down,” he laughs. “Adios, Salvador, sweetheart.”

“How do you know that?” I say.

“I can tell it just looking at your face, son,” he says. “You ain’t the type to suffer fools.”