I recently entered the 2020 NYC Midnight short story competition after a friend recommended it. This contest takes place every year, and allows thousands of writers just 5 days to to craft a 2,500 word short story in a randomly-assigned genre, which must feature a randomly-assigned key character as well as a randomly-assigned story subject! The top 5 from each category progress to the next round, where the writers have an even shorter time to write a 2,000-word story, and so on until the final round where only 24 hours are granted to write a 1,250-word piece. Intense!!
For my own effort, I was asked to write a thriller about snooping that featured a drug smuggler... so I thought I’d attempt to go full-on Tarantino. The tale sadly didn’t make it into the top five, although it did receive an ‘honourable mention’. I’m not at all bitter about this of course (kicks bin across living room, empties ammo clip into TV).
For today’s blog post I thought I’d share it with you – I hope you enjoy it!
It’s been nearly forty years since McCann’s Mackerel Processing Plant shut down, but the stench of rotten fish guts is so strong I feel like I’m hunkered down inside the decaying carcass of a whale. I keep my hand clamped tightly over my nose, but the stink still finds its way into my nostrils like an exploring tentacle.
The whale analogy also extends to the physical state of the building. Sagging beams criss-cross above me like the exposed bones of an enormous ribcage, and the holes in the walls and the waterlogged roof put me in mind of blubbery flesh gouged away in great quivering chunks. The fading light spilling in through these orifices illuminates heaps of moulding debris scattered across the floor. I saw a documentary about whales once, how their dead bodies sustain hundreds of other animals on the sea bed, creating a whole ecosystem of smaller creatures that feast on the remains; I can’t help thinking about the insects, rats and other horrors that are probably scuttling around amongst the putrefying detritus in here.
And don’t forget the drug dealers, of course.
Alex’s message was very specific: mccanns factory, 8pm, large quantity, munson himself. The hasty, lower-case words suggested a text sent in haste, perhaps at great personal risk. I worry about Alex constantly, and I tell him that whenever we have a chance to talk. You appreciate those little things when you’re working undercover: your handler asking how you’re feeling, remembering to say thank you for your sacrifice. I’ve been working this operation with him for over a year now, and I still think given time we could have made it further up the hierarchy. But the pressure’s on, and we need an arrest to demonstrate progress.
So, much as I don’t like it, the new directive is to catch Stanley Munson red-handed, then offer him a deal in exchange for concrete information on his own supply chain. Which means we can’t just pile in, sirens blaring, until we’ve got confirmation that a drug deal is taking place. Hence I’m here, alone, holed up in a dark corner underneath a half-disintegrated staircase, up to my neck in rotting mackerel while the backup team sips coffee a couple of blocks away.
They don’t know about me and Alex, of course. Our relationship, I mean. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him after we get Munson, but truth be told I’m hoping the organisation folds without its leader, and I can bring Alex home from his assignment in a few days.
Home, intact, to me.
I almost don’t hear the knocking over the noise of the pumping gas. Switching the nozzle to my other hand, I bang casually on the trunk, as though I’m checking it’s shut properly.
“Keep it down in there,” I hiss. “I can’t let you out, there are other customers here. Just sit tight and keep your trigger finger twitchy – we’ll be there soon.”
Bringing Danny along was a last-minute masterstroke. I’d been planning to do the job myself, because I want to see the look in Humboldt’s eyes when I stick a gun down his throat; but this way, I get all of the benefit and none of the hassle. We meet, I smile, he gives me that smug ‘I’m the link between scum like you and a higher class of clientele’ grin, then I pop the trunk to show him the merchandise. Except instead of fifty kilos of ice, it’ll be my top lieutenant ready to perforate him.
I’ve even loaned Danny the Trejo Model One for the job – a bit of an antique, but who wouldn’t want to own the world’s smallest machine gun? No larger than a regular pistol, it splurges its entire eight-round magazine in under half a second. Compact, but powerful. Like me. Plus, the name reminds me of Danny Trejo, so you can feel like fucking Machete when you’re greasing someone, especially a blabbermouth yuppie upstart like Humboldt.
I finish topping up the gas, leaning on the roof of the Civic and enjoying the view of the sun melting slowly into the dusty earth, turning the sky bloody. I find myself whistling as I wander inside to pay the cashier, not letting the lethargic nosepicker behind the register dampen my mood. Even the prospect of the old fishery and its distinctive aroma doesn’t fill me with as much disgust as it usually does. I wish I could remember why I picked that place; maybe it’s just because it’s a long way outside the city. Don’t shit where you eat, as they say.
Or perhaps I still have a taste for the theatrical. My mother always told me I’d grow up to be a movie star.
‘Leave the thinking to me, Barney.’
‘Always remember, bro: I’m the brains, and you’re the muscle.’
Well who’s the brains now, big brother? You think you’ve kept me out of all your secrets, but you don’t realise how much you like to brag when you’ve sunk enough vodka. And I wrote it all down: what you said about Munson, about the burner phone, about how you message him and he replies with a date and time, and then you ditch the phone and his man gives you a new one when you meet up.
About the fishery.
The truck bumps over something and shudders like a sick dog. It’d be typical Barney Humboldt luck for it to fall apart on me right now. I hate driving this piece of garbage. It reminds me of who I am: a labourer, a handyman, a guy who mends leaking roofs and changes tyres and takes his brother’s dirty clothes to the laundromat, like a fucking personal assistant. But right now, I need this truck, just like I need the drugs; you can’t start your own business without some opening stock, can you?
That’s right, big brother: I’m on my way to meet your beloved Mr Munson. I read his message while you were out with one of your women, and instead of telling you about it when you got back, like a good little assistant, I deleted it. Now I’m heading out to buy the glass instead of you. Except I’m not going to buy it, because I don’t have any money; that’s your fault too, because you stash it all somewhere and pay me chicken feed. So instead I’m going to point my gun at Munson’s balls and tell him to get down on the floor or I’ll give him a cut-price sex change.
Except I’m not going to shoot him, because this gun isn’t real, because a real gun is another thing I can’t afford on your piss-poor wages. It’s one of my old replicas, but hopefully it’ll look real enough to have Munson pissing his pants. And if he’s feeling uncooperative, I’ve borrowed a backup option from my tool box. I had to tear the lining of my inside pocket to fit the hammer inside, and now the jacket hangs a little funny, but I don’t think he’ll be able to tell. Especially since it’s getting dark.
Anyway, hopefully it won’t come to that. Hopefully he’ll just do as he’s told and hand over the drugs. Hopefully he won’t have brought any other guys with him. Hopefully I’ll get there on time. I keep thinking of problems like these, like moles popping up in my head, but all I can do is whack them back down and keep on going, because there isn’t much else I can do about them.
Like you always said, big brother: I’m really not much of a schemer.
Something’s wrong. Munson’s here, all by himself, but the buyer hasn’t shown up. Munson drove his car right inside, crunching over the broken glass and fallen roof tiles, and parked facing the opposite wall. Thank God he didn’t aim his headlights this way.
This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on the little bald bastard in the flesh, and he’s even more loathsome than in the photographs. He looks right at home in a place like this: his oily, pallid skin reminds me of the underbelly of a fish, and his eyes are spaced too far apart, swivelling in their sockets as though scouring his surroundings for food. He shifts repeatedly from one position to another, obsessively checking his watch and glancing at the screen of his phone; the jerky, twitching movements remind me of a captured tuna flopping around on deck.
At one point he leans towards the rear window of his car and mutters something. Maybe he’s asking the drugs if they’re okay. But if the furtive, fidgeting old crook seems like the epitome of paranoia, why would he show up to something like this in person? Maybe the deal’s so big he wanted to count the money himself. Let’s hope so. Perhaps I should arrest him right now, before he gets completely spooked and bails; if Alex is right, the stash in Munson’s trunk will be more than big enough to get him on Intent To Distribute.
Then I hear the crunch of tyres on gravel outside, and a pair of headlights lights up the smashed and dust-streaked glass in the windows.
If I was pissed at Humboldt before, this has tipped me over the edge. How dare that arrogant little shit send his fucking stooge to deal with me? Especially an amateur like this, a hulking knuckle-scraper in grease-stained pants. He couldn’t be more like Humboldt’s opposite if he tried. Still, he says he’s got the money, and he’s smart enough to ask to see the merchandise first. So I guess I’m just going to have to stick to the plan. At least I’ll get the fifty grand and the satisfaction of ripping off that supercilious prick, even if I don’t get to watch Humboldt himself getting torn to shreds by the Trejo as the finale.
So I smile, and I usher the stooge over to the trunk, and I pop it open.
And I stare.
Danny doesn’t stare back. His eyes are closed, hands clutching at his throat and belly. His body is all contorted and angled towards me, mouth open in a twisted grimace like he’s just tasted something bad. It takes me a few seconds to realise he’s suffocated.
Luckily, the stooge doesn’t react. He just frowns, tilting his head as though he expects the corpse to metamorphosise into a stack of crystal if he looks at it from the right angle. While he’s busy gawping, I see the Trejo lying at Danny’s side, and reach down to grab it.
“Freeze!” shouts someone, right behind us.
I spin around, and the cop appears out of the shadows like a ghost. Her firearm is pointed at the stooge, but the part of my brain that’s always been good at split-second calculations tells me that it will still take her much less time to shift her aim to me than it will take me to raise the Trejo and spray her full of .22 hollow-point.
So I do what she says, and stay as still as a statue, not wanting to give her or any other trigger-happy pigs an excuse. Everything is suddenly silent, apart from the low breeze that wafts the odour of the rancid factory up my nose, and the creaking of the ancient building as it slowly falls apart, pieces flaking away year after year like desiccated fish scales.
Then I realise that the cop is staring, open-mouthed, at the body in the trunk. She looks too old and tough to be a green rookie, but she’s acting like this is the first stiff she’s ever laid eyes on, blinking and muttering as she gapes at it, transfixed.
Before the third, my internal calculator, my primordial brain, has concluded its reassessment of the situation.
I raise the Trejo and shoot the distracted cop in the chest.
Munson didn’t bring the glass. The realisation hit me right after my hammer hit his skull, which proved to be surprisingly soft. I swung it as soon as he’d emptied his clip into the cop, and his head just sort of crumpled inwards, like collapsing drywall. Anyway, he’s dead, is the point. He’s dead, and the guy in the trunk is dead, and the cop is dead, her body ripped nearly in half by the bullets from Munson’s machine pistol, which for some reason he’d stuffed in the trunk along with the dead guy. And what a gun: a tiny little thing, like a hooker might shove in her handbag before heading out to work, but it spurted bullets like it was blowing a raspberry.
So I suppose the pistol means I won’t be leaving completely empty-handed. And seeing my brother’s face when he finds out his revered supplier was planning to screw him over would make this even more worthwhile. But that would mean telling him I betrayed him, which would mean an end to our relationship; meth is thicker than blood, at least in our family. So maybe it’s better to just chalk this one up to experience, and hightail it back home before he realises I’m gone.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First I probably ought to do something about these bodies. Don’t want anyone finding them and asking questions. This festering dump isn’t exactly swarming with tourists, but it might be handy to at least stash them out of sight. Perhaps I could arrange them all in Munson’s vehicle, like a family out on a road trip. Better still if I cram them all in the trunk, and maybe even torch the car; with any luck that’ll set the whole reeking place alight and burn up all the evidence. That brings challenges of its own, of course: the Civic has a generous trunk space, but it’ll still be a real struggle to squeeze them all inside.
Then I remember the diamond-tipped hacksaw in the truck. Never scrimp on your tools, like our dad always said. Not necessarily what it was purchased for, but invention is the brother of resourcefulness, or whatever the saying is. Sometimes you’ve just got to amend your plans on the fly.
Like I said, I’m not much of a schemer.
Barney Humboldt was arrested when a police tactical unit descended upon the abandoned site of McCann’s Mackerel Processing Plant, where they found him trying to saw off the leg of the deceased Sergeant Gillian Payne, one of two dead police officers found at the scene. The other was Alex Seaworth, who had been operating undercover as part of the investigation into the activities of Stanley Munson.
After his arrest, Humboldt implicated his brother Timothy in a crystal methamphetamine racket, who in turn implicated various members of Munson’s organisation. This included Munson himself, whose dismembered body was the third found at the scene.
The fishery is scheduled for demolition later this year.
I hope you enjoyed the story! If you did, and you'd like to read more of my short dark fiction, you can find both volumes of my 'Disturbing Works' on Amazon in paperback or for your eReader device here.
Until next time,