Story by Bruce Harris
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Story begins with In The Newspaper (part 1)
J.C. Denton rushed across Madison Avenue flailing wildly for a cab. He cursed the three that zipped past without a hint of slowing down. He was nearly clipped by a fourth who had come barreling down 43rd Street before making an illegal left turn and screeching to a stop inches from Denton’s high cotton loafers. “Parkway Arena, and fast. I’m late.” The cabbie stomped hard on the accelerator before Denton had his door closed. Denton muttered, “Shit.” The driver took a hard left turn with one hand, the other hand busy with a sub sandwich. The oils and grease stunk up the car. The driver took a messy bite, wiped his mouth with a dirty sleeve. Denton watched buildings, pedestrians, and trucks pass by as quickly as subliminal messages. He tried to roll down a window to get some fresh air but was unable to. “Shit,” he said again. The sandwich smell was making him feel sick. The cab pulled up in front of the Parkway Arena, not before it hit the curb.
“Twelve fifty.” The driver played with the meter. Denton took a twenty from a new wallet worth more than the cab driver made in a week, threw it onto the front seat, and jumped out the cab. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough and into the city street.
J.C. Denton’s one-two punch was book and street smarts. His father died when Denton was still in diapers. His mother raised him to the best of her ability, but it was clear from an early age, J.C. Denton had brains and guts, but not in equal proportions. He had ambitions. High ones. One of his fortes was the ability to make connections, and Simon “Baldy” Baines fit the bill. He slid into the seat next to Baines, eyes fixated on the ring, said, “Sorry I’m late. Working on a case. How’s he doing?” nodding toward the blue corner.
Simon Baines took small bites of hot dog, licked fingers clean of mustard, and reached down between his legs for a paper cup three-quarters full of watered down beer. He took a couple of gulps and replaced the cup, the delay brief enough to show that although
Denton was respected, Baines was in charge here. “Two more rounds and he takes him out. Not to worry. Everything’s set.”
“Good,” said Denton. With that, the two men shook hands. J.C. Denton departed as the boxers walked toward each other to begin a new round. Denton took a look back. As he turned to move forward, he bumped into her. “Excuse me.” It sounded mechanical. Andrea Brown showed annoyance, smiled. J.C. Denton had deep brown eyes to go along with male model looks. She knew in an instant, even from this short collision, that 99% of the crowd at the Arena couldn’t afford Denton’s coat. She liked that. A lot. Denton tried to act normally, but the fact was he was taken aback by Brown’s beauty. It was totally unexpected. Like a pug getting up off the floor and onto his feet before the count of ten, Denton recovered. “I really am sorry. Next time I’ll watch where I’m going, Miss…”
With perfectly manicured fingers, Andrea Brown patted Denton’s coat. “It was nothing.”
“No, really, it was…” but Brown was on her way. Denton stood in the middle of the aisle, ignored several shouts from fans to move out of the way, and watched Brown sit down in his vacated seat next to Simon “Baldy” Baines.
— ♦♦♦ —
Simon Baines answered on the first ring. He recognized Denton’s voice. “How sweet was that? How’d you like the way he took out…”
J.C. Denton interrupted. “Who was the woman that sat next to you after I left?”
Baines had to think for a moment. “Andrea Brown?”
“What’d she want?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but she was trying to get some information from me for her boyfriend Mel Lewis, some newspaper guy.”
“Go on,” said Denton.
“Not much else to say. I told her to tell her curious boyfriend he’s barking up the wrong tree and if he isn’t careful he may be writing a story about a pair of his and hers broken noses. Cute, huh?”
“Not that I’d ever do anything so crude. That’s not my style. But, a little fear every now and then never hurt anyone.”
Denton shifted the phone. “Forget about Lewis. What do you know about this Brown?”
“Same as everyone else. She used to married to Joe Reardon. Funny you should ask. Reardon was big in wholesale and retail meats. I’m not sure how long he and Brown were married, but that shit didn’t last. Next thing anyone knows, Andrea Brown is glued to the side of Mel Lewis and Reardon’s life begins going into the shitter. He’s into me for plenty and then I hear the poor bastard got arrested for theft.”
J.C. Denton was taking it all in. “Slow down, Baines. Are you saying this Andrea Brown is married to a butcher, goes off with an insipid reporter, and then this meat guy goes to pieces and gets himself into some legal troubles?”
“In a nutshell, yup.”
“Wait, what’s his name?”
“No! Not the reporter, the other guy, the guy needing a mouthpiece.”
Thirty seconds of silence followed. “Holy shit!”
“I’ve got a case coming up within the next several days prosecuting one Mr. Joseph Reardon for burglary in the first degree. He’s facing prison time if I get a conviction, and I always get a conviction.”
Joe Reardon’s trial lasted a little over three weeks. J.C. Denton represented the state. Reardon, who once could have bought and sold a number of small law firms, had a public defender, Theresa Duncan. Print on her law degree was still wet. Mel Lewis covered the trial for The Globe. Day in and day out, from the Voir dire process through closing arguments and the jury’s final decision, Lewis sat in the back row of the courtroom. He’d complain to anyone that listened to him that he suffered from splinters in his ass from the wooden bench. Sitting next to him was Andrea Brown. Initially, she was there because she sort of pitied Reardon and felt her presence there showed a modicum of support. And, of course, she felt a little, but only a little guilty about her former lover’s fall from grace. Reardon never saw it that way. He refused to look at either Lewis or Brown. He’d purposefully turned his back on both his ex-friend and ex-wife. J.C. Denton was different. He spent most of the three-week trial staring at Andrea Brown and he liked what he saw. He had little trouble taking the young public defender Theresa Duncan to school. Denton joked with his colleague, Thomas Wellington III. Duncan received a first-class education in a criminal case taught by one of the masters. He didn’t have to work too hard. This was fortunate because half his energy was devoted toward Andrea Brown, how he’d approach her, formally introduce himself, and ultimately bed her. Turned out the latter wasn’t too difficult after all. Mel Lewis seemed oblivious to their frequent eye contacts, smiles, and school-kid flirtations. The two would meet in the lobby during recesses. Once, Brown followed Denton into the men’s room and behind a closed stall door. Denton’s star wasn’t the only thing on the rise. Denton, no stranger to a woman’s beauty, had never experienced anything like Andrea Brown. And, she was infatuated with this good-looking, smart, well-dressed attorney who was going places. She emerged from the men’s room, unseen, and resumed her position next to Mel Lewis in the courtroom as if she had done nothing more than powdered her nose. The case should have been open and shut and over within less than three days. Reardon was caught at the scene of the crime and he never denied the attempted theft. Theresa Duncan argued feebly for leniency in that it was Reardon’s first offense, and that the court needed to take into consideration Reardon’s prior exemplary and successful life. She had called not one, but two psychologists as witnesses. They both documented the stress Reardon was under and tried to paint him as an “everyman,” that under similar situations, the vast majority of people would have behaved in similar ways. The psychologists also pointed to the fact that Reardon, unlike many others never turned violent, a testament to his physical makeup, and another reason why leniency was called for in such a case. The case dragged on for two reasons. One, Duncan struggled with a lot of the protocol. The judge, a stately woman in her mid-fifties, who had a reputation for being extra demanding of female attorneys, constantly reprimanded her. J.C. Denton enjoyed the back and forth between Duncan and the judge. Secondly, Denton himself was in no rush for the trial to end. He knew the outcome was never in doubt. Like a clown pulling, twisting, and elongating balloons into animal shapes, Denton stretched things out, using the extra time to capture a minx. The prosecutor could have sworn that with each new day in court, Andrea Brown’s skirts got shorter and her legs longer. It didn’t take the jury too long to render its verdict, guilty. Denton shook hands with Wellington III then turned toward the back of the courtroom toward Andrea Brown. She winked. Brown had left Mel Lewis and was about to move in with J.C. Denton. As for Reardon, he put his head down. He didn’t feel Duncan’s hand on his shoulder, a poor attempt at consolation. She was badly outmatched. Reardon was headed for the next several years in jail.
Following the verdict, Mel Lewis was also sentenced to bars, in a way. After Brown left him for Denton, he followed a pattern and began drinking heavily. He was headed down the same nasty alleyway as Reardon, but after a couple of months of drunkenness, hangovers, and weight loss, Mel Lewis decided that he was going to get even. Although he lost his job at the newspaper, he read the rag daily. And, he followed closely the career of J.C. Denton. In fact, Mel Lewis began showing up at every case in which Denton was involved. Lewis became obsessed. He had a renewed reason to live. It was November when Lewis noticed the article entitled, “Nice Christmas Present Awaits Prosecutor J.C. Denton.” Lewis read the story and learned that Denton was to be appointed judge in the New Year. Mel Lewis poured himself a scotch, then a second, and thought about getting
even. It would take time, but Lewis knew that in some way J.C. Denton would pay for stealing Andrea Brown. Lewis realized what Brown was, but that didn’t change things for him. He was hurt, hell-bent on revenge no matter how long it took. He figured not to strike right away. The longer he waited, the less likely anyone would associate Denton’s undoing with him. Time was his ally. He knew he had the right man. He’d wait for the right time, the right place, and the right plan.
Mel Lewis’ sardonic humor came to the fore one morning at a luncheonette over eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and the newspaper’s morning edition. Buried within its pages he spotted a small paragraph about the release from prison of Joe Reardon. Lewis read, “Joe Reardon a Free Man”
Joe Reardon, one-time entrepreneur and owner of the defunct Empire Ribs and Steaks will be released from the city penitentiary Friday morning after paying his debt to society for robbery. Once, Reardon was one of the county’s most successful citizens, but a series of bad breaks and misfortunes caused him to close down a once profitable business that ultimately led to a life of crime. According to prison officials, Reardon was a model prisoner and they have high expectations that he will once again become a productive member of society. Sources wishing to remain anonymous say Reardon has plans to run a magazine stand at the corner of Madison and Jefferson in the city. It goes without saying, that once a man pays his debt to society, he deserves a second chance.
Lewis held up an empty coffee mug. “Fill it!” He reread the article about Reardon. Surely, there was some way he could involve Reardon in getting even with J.C. Denton. Hell, the circle would be complete, 360 degrees. He had stolen Andrea Brown from Reardon, and now the pompous Denton had taken Brown from him. Getting back at Denton through Reardon amused Mel Lewis. If nothing else, Mel Lewis was patient. He decided to savor every day while he thought about a plan, taking months to fine tune it, then waiting several more months before actually carrying anything out. Everything, especially the waiting, seemed morbidly delicious to Lewis. He felt as if he were overlooking and controlling, the way an air traffic controller oversees a runway, the lives of three people, Joe Reardon, J.C. Denton, and Andrea Brown. The feeling of power consumed him, warmed him like a thick blanket on a winter’s morning, and spread throughout his circulatory system like doctor-injected iodine. Denton was a powerful and influential man in the city. Knocking him off would be easy, but dealing with the fallout might prove difficult. Lewis didn’t need every cop in town after him. The cherry on the sundae was a pro-police article Lewis had researched and written and submitted for newspaper publication. Besides the irony, the piece provided Lewis with confidence that he was still one hell of a newspaperman.
Reardon, that was another story. Who the hell cared about an ex-con, even a formerly successful ex-con? No one. Lewis decided the most prudent approach was to go through Reardon in order to get to Denton, but how? It seemed hopeless, but then Lewis had the idea of watching Reardon. He figured he had nothing to lose. The first few days, he parked himself halfway up Jefferson, smoked one cigarette after another, and watched Reardon at his newsstand beginning at 8:00 am. He observed Reardon go through the motions of selling newspapers and magazines, chatting it up with customers, before sealing and locking up at closing at 3:00 pm. Nothing. It was a boring existence. How was he going to connect Reardon and Denton? Then, it hit him. Mel Lewis felt like an idiot. 8:00 am was too late, much too late to catch an early bird. By 8:00 am reasoned Lewis, J.C. Denton was already in his office acting high and mighty, thinking he was above everyone else, including the law. Lewis would have to get up pretty early in the morning if he was going to beat an early bird, so he set his alarm for 3:15am and perched himself at his Jefferson Street location shortly before 4:00am and watched. Sure enough, it paid off. He saw Reardon every morning opening up his newspaper stand. And, from his vantage point, watched as the daily customers, as regular as Geritol users, purchased the same newspaper every day at the same time. And, one of these regulars was J.C. Denton. Mel Lewis now had to figure out how to connect the two in his Andrea Brown revenge plan. Lewis observed Denton every morning, looking more dapper than the day prior, stop and buy a newspaper shortly after Reardon opened for business. This was good on a number of levels, thought Lewis. First, he could count on Denton at the newsstand each and every weekday morning at the same time. Second, because of the early hour, typically no one else was on the street. Even those workers who first opened offices or retail stores were either still sleeping, at home eating breakfast, or on their way to work. Not many got up at this ungodly hour, but Mel Lewis had no trouble, in fact, once he discovered Denton’s pattern, Lewis relished waking up well before dawn.
Lewis’ plan took shape one Sunday morning when he should have been at church, although he couldn’t remember the last time he’d attended, while viewing an old black and white gangster movie. In it, Lewis watched as a thug held a gun to the back of a banker’s head, handed him a type-written note with instructions to open the safe, pull out exactly $10,000 in crisp bundled bills, and hand the money back toward the perp without the poor bank teller turning his head. The note made it clear that the banker would be shot if he turned around or tried anything funny. The teller did as he was told, and the bad guy got away with the cash. The thug was so successful and his plan worked so well, that he repeated it across a number of small towns in a number of banks. His luck finally ran out when the police across the country got wind of the setup, pooled their resources and planted a number of plainclothes officers in banks. The robbery spree came to an end when one of the cops, instead of handing a fistful of cash back, pulled a small automatic from the front of his belt and without looking fired three shots. All three hit the mark. Game over. This enlightened Lewis. He knew how he’d get to Denton, get Reardon involved, and then get away without anyone noticing him or knowing that he pulled it off. That’s because the only person who would see him, Joe Reardon, wouldn’t have much to say to the police or anyone else, not with a bullet or two lodged in his forehead. His talking days were over. Reardon had said a number of unflattering things about Lewis during his robbery trial. Of course, Mel Lewis omitted these accusations from his daily reports, but Lewis was not the only reporter covering the case, and all of the other papers plastered Mel Lewis’ photo and name, some in bold type, across their pages. Lewis carefully planned out his message, typed and printed it. Now, it was just a matter of the exact day. He’d scoped out Reardon’s newsstand and Denton’s early morning routine enough times to feel confident about pulling it off.
As fate would have it, J.C. Denton was the young, promising prosecuting attorney who made an example out of Reardon after Joe hit the skids and was caught stealing from a liquor store. Reardon later discovered that J.C. Denton, who paved Reardon’s way into a narrow cell, was the same J.C. Denton who had worn a beaten path into Andrea Brown’s pants while she was Mel Lewis’s girl. None of that mattered any longer to Reardon. He did his time and had his life together now, a good business, a decent living, and he was clean. He never wanted to look back at what was. Andrea Brown was a toxic ruin. He was over her, but in Reardon’s mind, she’d never gotten what she had coming to her. Now, it was the daily grind, albeit a surprisingly pleasant and rewarding one, that motivated Reardon. He promised himself that he was done with women. One busted heart to go along with busted knuckles and walls was enough.
“Really.” It was a statement, not a question. Lewis admired the clear nail polish on his fingernails. “The guy had you locked up for what, stealing nickels and dimes? But, it’s okay if he steals? He thinks he can get away with shit because he’s now a big deal judge. Well, he can’t. He’ll pay.”
Joe looked at his watch. He continued flipping pages in his notepad, continued counting newspapers and writing notes. “The Marionette Murders” screamed across one of the magazine covers and caught Reardon’s eye. On it, a scar-faced man with an angry smile aimed a gun at the back of a scantily clad blonde. She dangled strings attached to
the head, shoulders, and arms of a man in a business suit. Reardon did some quick thinking – Brown, Denton, Lewis, then reordered the names – Lewis, Denton, Brown. He tore a scrap of notepaper, wrote quickly. His hand disappeared for a split second into a copy of the morning news. He turned back to Lewis. “Are you out of your mind? That’s old news. Mummy news. Denton did his job. I screwed up. I should never have let myself fall apart like that. Listen Mel, why don’t you forget this whole thing. You’re angry. I get it. Move on. She isn’t worth it. Hell, no one knows that more than me. Why screw things up for everyone now? He took Andrea from you? I feel for you, asshole. Walk away. There are hundreds of women worth a lot more than Andrea Brown. She’s not worth spit in a urinal. It’s just a matter of time before she screws around behind Denton’s back in that big mansion of his. Who cares?”
“Just shut up. This is the way it’s going to be. You’ll do exactly as I say, or I’ll put a bullet in your head.” Mel Lewis took a small revolver from his pocket. “I know every morning at five sharp, that no good bastard Denton is your first customer. He comes in and buys a newspaper and probably tells you what a good thing you’re doing with your life and what a fucking great productive member of society you are.”
“Mel, this is stupid. What the hell are you thinking? Go back to bed and think it over. As far as I’m concerned, you were never here this morning. Okay?”
“I said shut up! I’m calling the shots. When he comes in this morning, I’ll be right behind him pointing this gun at his back. This is going to be very easy.” With that, Lewis pulled a sheet of yellow-lined paper from his pocket and handed it to Reardon. “Read.”
DON’T LOOK BACK
THERE’S A MAN WITH A GUN POINTED AT YOUR BACK
IF YOU LOOK BACK OR DO ANYTHING STUPID, YOU’LL BE SHOT
GIVE THE GUY BEHIND YOU YOUR BRIEFCASE AND WALLET
WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LOOK BACK
“That’s the way it’s going to be. Say those six lines word for word. Nothing more. Nothing less. Got it?” Reardon nodded. “Good.” It was 4:55 am. “Five minutes. We’ve got five minutes. Don’t blow it, Reardon, or side-by-side your two foreheads will crap out like a pair of bullet-holed snake eyes. Just say the words on that notepaper when I’m positioned behind Denton. Don’t change anything. Speak naturally like it’s any other day of the week. This entire episode will take less than 30 seconds. I’m sure that pompous ass carries a wad with him.”
At precisely 5:00 am, J.C. Denton arrived to purchase a newspaper. “Any good news this morning, Joe?” Reardon momentarily fumbled with the newspaper, and then slowly and carefully handed it to Denton. J.C. Denton froze when he felt Lewis’ pistol in the small of his back. Reardon thought quickly. Just as Denton was about to turn around, Joe Reardon yelled:
“DON’T LOOK BACK”
“THERE’S SOMEONE WITH A GUN POINTED AT YOUR BACK”
Mel Lewis rubbed his chin. Something was off. He attributed it to Reardon’s nerves. Lewis’ finger twitched. He kept the gun pressed against J.C. Denton.
“IF YOU LOOK BACK OR DO ANYTHING STUPID, YOU’LL BE SHOT”
“GIVE THE PERSON BEHIND YOU YOUR BRIEFCASE AND WALLET”
“Damn him,” thought Lewis. Reardon was up to some kind of no good. He changed the script. Lewis couldn’t say anything lest he give himself away. No matter, Reardon would pay.
“WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LOOK BACK”
Denton did as he was asked, handed his exotic lizard-skinned wallet behind him. Lewis placed the briefcase at his loafers, pocketed the wallet, then raised the pistol over Denton’s shoulder and fired point blank at Reardon’s face. Denton went momentarily deaf. Joe saw only a flash before his skull was splattered across the day’s newspapers and Denton’s crisp white shirt. There were enough blood and guts splattered about the fine Egyptian cotton to make a bleach salesman exceed his annual sales goal. After firing, Lewis placed the gun against the back of Denton’s skull. Then, he walked backward, keeping the gun aimed at Denton. J.C. Denton was a statue. Lewis took off, unseen. Unheard. Joe Reardon was tomorrow’s headlines.
— ♦♦♦ —
END (Part 2 of 5)
The story continues in In The Newspaper (Part 3 of 5)
The story continues August 13th, 2017…
Next week we’ll feature “Cake of the Dead” by Justin Short. This one fall squarely into the “Weird Tales” category. Read the letter a man writes to his love. He assures her during the course of the letter that he is alive and “well”. What would make him need to assure her of this? He details a bizarre encounter and the events that unfolded after that. Did it really happen or was it all “in his head”? The ending will leave you guessing.