March 17-23, 2005
Devil’s in the Details
Judging this competition has been all I know of heaven and hell. Heaven because the stories have been so wondrous, so full of energy, inventiveness, style and sheer compulsive reading. They have reaffirmed my faith in the future of mystery writing, and be in no doubt, these are the writers we are going to be hearing about.
How’d they get so good and so soon? Most writers have to labor for years to achieve such an assured poise and confidence.
Hell, because I had to choose the best
and it was among the most difficult choices of me life. So I read each story three times and that was a pleasure to do. Then, like a pint of Guinness, I let them sit, settle and literally, let the cream rise to the top. Which story haunted me, which one stayed with me the most, and finally, I selected “The Devil’s in the Details.” It’s an awesome story moving, sad, compelling, and I just know it’s gonna linger in me head. Hell of a last line, too.
Shamus Award-winning Ken Bruen’s latest mystery novel, The Magdalen Martyrs, is out this month from St. Martin’s/Minotaur. He lives in Galway, Ireland, with his wife and daughter.
Joey checks his watch: a bit past 10 a.m. just under two hours until the deadline. Their Protestant neighbors across the river near Cherry Hill are already in or headed to church.
Angello, Joey’s father, says: “Time is getting’ short. Strip the prick down. Let’s stop screwin’ around and get down to business.”
Joey’s grandfather, Carmine, grimaces, shakes his head and walks to the dark deep end of Angello’s bike shop’s rear garage. He winces and plants his arthritic ass on the hood of Angello’s black Lexus. Angello recently tacked the garage onto his South Broad Street motorcycle showroom to warehouse his own collection of vintage Harleys.
Angello Grapelli gestures as his stooges and steps back as they go to work on the boy’s bloodied, sweat-soaked jeans and T-shirt with scissors and a buck knife.
The boy, two years younger than Joey, is nearly comatose. His head lolls. Bloody rivulets from the corners of his mouth and both nostrils. Two black eyes, fractured teeth, a broken nose and probable concussion. The boy’s tied to a big old white-pine worktable.
The boy, Tommy Russo, is probably slipping into shock. His bare feet are swollen and purple-black bloodied and bent.
For God knows how long, Joey’s dad’s flunkies have been swinging a bat and a tire iron against the soles of Tommy’s feet, pulverizing his ankles.
Tommy lettered in track in high school.
If Eddie Russo’s eldest boy ever leaves this garage alive a pretty unlikely prospect, Joey thinks he’ll never walk normally again. May well lose both legs below the knees.
As the boy’s clothes are cut away, Tommy comes back around.
Joey’s father’s stooges shear away the boy’s underwear. Shivering, Tommy blinks a few times and then stares down at his bare body. His eyes widen when he gets a look at his naked crotch grow wider when Tommy sees what’s left of his legs.
Angello begins dropping tools between the bound remnants of Tommy’s feet. The boy goies crazy when he sees the tin snips, wrenches and blowtorch hit the table.
Joey’s father nods at thick-necked, 238-pound Dave James. “Dave, here.” Angello flips James his engraved Zippo lighter. He nods at Dave’s buck knife. “Start heating that sucker up, Davey. I’m going to take three of this little twirp’s fingers. Let’s make it the left hand. Need you to cauterize the stumps before he bleeds out.”
That’s it for Tommy.
“Aw man!” Joey’s father bellows. He swipes the tools off the table with an arm and jumps back as Tommy loses control of his kidneys and bowels.
Joey, in danger of vomiting, is just turning his head away as his father’s open palm strikes the side of his head. “Hey, dumbass! Go get the friggin’ hose, huh? And turn the sucker full up. Gotta wash this prick down before we really go to work on him.” Joey’s father laughs, says “Least he’s emptied out now, am I right Dave?”
Dazed, Joey walks crookedly to the side access door of the garage and hangs a sloppy right to the hose cart. Joey hears his grandfather spit and say, “Yer lucky this bitch has a pitched floor and center drain.”
Joey Grapelli can hear his father’s sneer in his old man’s voice: “Luck, Pop? Naw. That’s planning, attention to detail. Paid extra for those floors and drain, ya know. Cost of doin’ business. I spot the angles like you never did, old man.”
Joey tries to remember the last time when he, his father and his grandfather have shared a task probably 12 years ago, during a long-gone July weekend building a soap box racer together.
Now his father, in most respects, is in charge of the family enterprise not the motorcycle shop, which is a vanity project but the real family business.
His grandfather is frail and failing.
Joey well, he’s been called south from Temple University business courses to help recover Joey’s kid sister, an apparent hostage of Tommy Russo’s father.
She was snatched Friday night. It’s been a fever dream since no food, no sleep, no TV or radio.
Laura Grapelli is another innocent casualty of the long bloody siege between the Grapellis and the Russos.
He’s not sure of all the details, but based on what he’s heard, Joey is pretty sure that fat-assed “Davey” may be responsible for this shitstorm.
The two families have divvied up action on everything south of Cherry Hill, N.J., for more than 40 years. Drugs, prostitution and, as both families are well salted with thugs, protection.
An informal but inviolable arrangement has sorted itself out: The Russos control incorporated Westfalls, N.J., everything demonstrably “city.” The Grapellis get the unincorporated regions rural, township. The weight in the sticks falls less on the protection side can’t shake down struggling farmers. So for the Grapellis, it’s meth labs, shotgun shack bordellos and sparse protection money from too-few beer drive-throughs, roadhouses and machine shops.
Then, just two weeks ago, out there amidst the cornstalks and barley fields, an upscale restaurant launched. The joint is housed in some big old farmhouse converted into a tony gnoshery by some refugee Philly chef. It’s a tie-required restaurant, license to pour and four-star reviews from all the local papers. Davey rushed in to do the deal, but he didn’t research first. The Russo family tony restaurateurs had annexed the property cut a deal with the city to get city water and sewer services.
The Grapellis, in your person of Davey, had just shaken down a Russo holding for four grand.
The wrath and reaction came fast and hard.
Joey’s kid sister, Laurie snatched while clubbing on South Street. Held with a ransom and a deadline. Terms: kick back the cash and an extra $10,000 for the trouble. Otherwise, Laurie gets gang-raped at 11 a.m. Sunday.
If no deal is struck by noon? A single shot to the back of Laurie’s head.
Joey hands his father the garden hose, feeling his gorge rising again as he surveys the condition of Tommy Russo, a retaliatory snatch aimed at learning where Laurie is being held.
Davey and his fellow stooge, Richie, grabbed Tommy as he was stepping into Fluid, another South Street snatch. They’ve been working him over since 1 a.m. to no effect, the kid steadfastly claiming to know nothing well, when he was still lucid.
Joey believes him.
Joey thinks that his grandpa also doubts that young Russo knows anything. It’d be like snatching Joey to get details about Angello’s enterprises a tragic waste of time.
His father appraises Joey, turns down his mouth. “You’re too soft for this duty, just like yer mother’s always said. Go check the computer see what’s happening with yer sister while we do this thing.”
Grateful, Joey nods. He takes a last look at Tommy who’s slipping back into unconsciousness. The Russos, in their message left on the Grapelli’s answering machine, left a Web address they’d set up a Web camera focused on Laurie tied to a chair. It was impossible to deduce where she was being held from the grainy images on Joey’s laptop too dark, not enough background detail. The Russos had threatened to show Laurie’s rape online, just forty minutes from now if they follow through. And the Russos always follow through.
When confronted with the Russo threat, Angello Grapelli’s first words: “You tellin’ me the fuckin’ Russo’s are fucking online?”
Taken to task by the elder Grapelli, Joey’s father seemed sanguine about the threatened sexual assault. “Pop, I’ve paid for three abortions and she’s only 16. Payin’ for fucking Norplants, now. Last year it was implants. She ain’t a vestal virgin.”
Joey’s father is clearly exclusively focused on the noon deadline.
As he shuffles out the side door of the garage he hears his grandfather say, “Joey. Joey, hold up. I’ll come with ya.”
March left like a lion three days ago. Now it’s more like April weather, gusty winds and drizzling rain bordering on sleet thrash the display windows of his dad’s South Philly motorcycle shop. Once they’re out of earshot of the garage, Joey says, “Davey this is his fault. Idiot.”
“Maybe an idiot,” Carmine says. “Maybe he did it deliberately. Maybe wants to precipitate grief and then move in. He’s ambitious and not as dumb as he looks and acts. Been warning your father about him for two years.”
Carmine stumps alongside his grandson, leaning hard on his cane. He claps his grandson on the back with his free hand. “Joey. Joey ya shouldn’t be seeing this. Shouldn’t be a part of this.”
The boy smiles at his grandfather. “It’s what we do. That’s what dad says. It’s what he does.”
The old man shakes his head. “It isn’t what I did. Not like this. And you you’re different. Better than this, Joey. Above this wicked evil shit. I pay for your classes at Temple because I want you to take this family in a different direction. This is all winding down, ya know that, don’t ya? This latest thing with the friggin’ annexation back in Jersey? It’s gonna be that all the time now. Even stuff we your old man holds? It’s all gonna go city in time. It’s what they call the fuckin’ “urban sprawl.’ They’re gonna squeeze us out, just like the coyotes and the deer that still used to roam thick around there when I was your dad’s age.”
“I hear ya, Papa.”
“Good. Good Joey. Then hear this: I want you to take my car go back up the road to school. Try and come up with something that’ll make it clear you were nowhere near here last night and today. Something, anything.”
“But Laurie ”
Carmine takes a breath, lets it out slowly. “I don’t think we’re gonna get her back, Joey. That’s my honest instinct, may God forgive me. Your father refuses to pay Jonny Russo and I know he means it. Your old man is convinced he’s gonna sweat it out of this poor kid where they’re keeping your sister. Or so he thinks. This boy is like you, just like you. He’s outside the ring. He don’t know nothin’. I know it. Little Tommy back there, he’s no hardcase, Joey. If he knew anything, he’d have broken down before dumbass in there took the first swings at his feet. You would have, too. And I love you for it. This is not gonna be your life. I won’t let it.”
Joey says again, “But Laurie ”
Carmine says, “Joey, even if we get her back this time, there’s gonna be hell to pay. You’ve seen the Russo boy’s condition in there. Ya think your old man is gonna hand that broken bloody mess back to Jon Russo? Ever? Naw. They’ll gut him, pour in some of that Kwikcrete out back there and dump him into the Delaware. And Tommy’s in good condition now compared to what’s gonna be left in an hour. And if Laurie should come back intact first? You think Jon will let this disparity stand? Think he’ll ever forgive this thing that’s being done right now to his boy? Naw. There’s gonna be serious retaliation against your old man. Maybe against me. Even your mom maybe. You go get back up the road. I’ll see someone hooks up with you on the other end. Watch your back until we know what’s gonna happen here. Until we know who’s gonna be left standing.”
Joey chews his lip. His grandfather’s permission to run is like a gift. So, so tempting.
But leave this old man he loves? Leave his mom? Leave them to face the wrath of Jon Russo? He’s not sure he can.
And poor, slutty Laurie.
The computer has gone into a sleep cycle. Joey bumps the mouse and squints as the screen warms up, lightens up. The chair is empty, tipped over. Loose ropes strewn on the floor. He thinks he might see a shoe laying there just at the edge of the camera’s range of vision.
“This is not good.” Joey checks his watch: 10:50 a.m. The assault is supposed to happen online in 10 minutes. “We should tell dad.” He squints: “That look like blood to you?”
His grandfather leans in. “Hell, I can’t tell … I can barely make out the friggin’ chair.”
Carmine shakes his head. “No. Let’s wait the 10 minutes. See if anything happens. Your dad’ll only send you back here to do the same. If nothing changes at 11:01, we head back out. And, honestly, Joey ya want to go back out to that?”
“No, no I don’t.” Joey watches the screen for any change: nothing.
A second deadline, too: Joey’s mom has been out of state visiting a sister. She’s due back at noon, 12:30 at the latest. Before all hell broke loose, they’d all agreed to hook up at the shop and then do dinner at Pagliacci’s.
Angello Grapelli was adamant he’d have Laurie back before his wife Elizabeth returned.
Time passes. Carmine keeps working on grandson Joey: “When we get to say, 11:40, 11:45 a.m. and there’s no sign of that kid rolling over, I want you to leave.” He hands his grandson the keys to his car. “Just get rolling. The tank is full. Stay in the library until someone comes for you. We’ll need a password … in case the Russos get there first.”
Joey thinks about it. It’s all hypothetical and over the top and he doesn’t think it’ll ever come to this, so he says, “How about General Lee?”
Carmine frowns, his brow furrowing, then smiles. “That was the name of that car we built together, right?” Named after the Dukes of Hazzard’s sweet ride. “Haven’t thought about that in years,” his grandfather says. “OK, “General Lee’ it is.”
Still no motion on the camera. One minute to go until 11 a.m.
“The important thing,” Carmine says, “is for you to be gone before your father kills that boy. Before you can be dragged in to help dump him in the river.”
Joey balks. “What about you? If I take your car …?”
The old man shakes his head. “I’m too old and crippled to be lugging around a corpse. I won’t draw that duty.” Joey shudders at this this casual observation about a body dump coming from “Papa.” The old man catches it but moves on, pretending he didn’t. He holds up a cell phone. “I’ll call one of my guys from back in the day … catch a ride with him. Or I’ll catch a cab.”
It’s 11:02. No change. Then, just as they’re rising, the camera is jiggled and goes dark.
“Now,” Carmine says, “we’ll tell your old man. And then you hit the road. I’ll try and take care of things on this end. We agreed? Yeah?”
“Yes, Papa.” They hug, hard. The old man pats his grandson’s cheek. “I’m going to go to hell for ever exposing you to any of this. You, and that sister of yours.”
The carnage is appalling.
Angello and Davey are both wearing greasy and now bloodstained overalls. Their shoes are sprayed with blood. Music turned up loud to cover the sound of the screams. Davey’s pick: “Filipino Box Spring Hog.” His father jerks his head at the boombox and Davey turns it off.
Tommy is mumbling incoherently. His left hand is wrapped in a bloody towel. What looks like a severed something is sticking out from under Davey’s bloody, battered wingtip.
Tommy’s right ear-looks like it might be gone … but it’s hard to tell, to make out details, with all the blood.
Davey says, “Let’s go to work on his nutsack. That’ll do the trick.”
Tommy groans, mutters something.
Joey is just about to tell his father about Laurie and the Web camera when his father holds up a hand. “Shut up, all of yas.” He leans in close. “Tommy boy, what’s that you say?” Angello leans in closer, his head to one side, his ear almost to Tommy’s bloodied lips. He makes Tommy repeat it. He checks his watch: 11:12 a.m. “He said “Laurel.’ Isn’t that a court back home, over off High Meadows?”
Joey remembers a girl from school named Laurel … couple of years behind him, maybe. About Tommy’s age. A girlfriend, maybe? Maybe he was meeting her at Fluid when the goons fell on him.
Carmine shrugs. Davey winks and says, “I know it. Laurel Court. Fuckin’ cul-de-sac. Four, five houses tops. We’ll just take “em all, one at a time. We’ll call for reinforcements on the way. Need maybe four guys to handle the folks in the other houses. Ya know, in case the home they’re holding her in is the last one we pick … which is always the way, huh? Friggin’ Murphy’s Law.”
Gravel and broken pavement crunching a car coming up the alley.
Joey peers through one of the three small glass panels studding the closed garage door, says, “It’s mom.” The automatic door begins to open. Carmine checks his watch, curses. “Fuck, she’s early.”
Angello bolts to the wall and hits the button to stop the door. He presses a second time and when the door hits the ground again, he pulls the power cord from the wall, disabling the automatic garage-door opener.
Joey’s father surveys himself, then Davey. They look like butchers. Davey has blood in his hair, on his forehead.
Angello: “Take your grandfather here, and get out there now, Joey. Get her back in that car and get that car the fuck out of the way. Keep her gone at least three hours.”
“What do I tell her?”
“Fuck should I know? Jesus. Think on your feet, huh? Tell her your grandfather has a doctor’s appointment. Yeah. Tell her his car won’t start. Yeah, that’ll do it. Do it. Keep her gone till at least three or even four. Give us time to get Laurie back … dump old Tommy here. Now move your asses, both of yas.”
The boy jogs out to meet his mom. She’s cursing about the garage door not working. Carmine Grapelli stumps along behind … at least he’ll have a little more time with Joey … time to maybe get someone reliable to drive back to school with his grandson.
Joey pitches his lie, finishing up as Carmine steps up alongside.
Elizabeth Grapelli checks her watch and frowns. “What time was your appointment, Pop?”
Carmine bites his lips. “Noon, Liz. We should just make it, but we’ve gotta go, and I mean now.”
Elizabeth smiles and shakes her head. “You’re getting forgetful, Pop. And it must be catching.” She squeezes Joey’s arm, lifts it up, looks at the watch on his wrist: 11:16 a.m.
Elizabeth Grapelli splits a fond smile between the old man and her son. “You two! Man! You forgot to reset your watches. You know, two this morning? It was the spring time change. Time to set the clocks ahead an hour. Remember the saying: “Spring ahead; fall back’?”
She frowns as Carmine and Joey exchange horrified glances.
Elizabeth presses on: “Sorry, Pop, it’s already after noon. You’re too late now.”
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