Outside, the Santa Ana winds huff and puff, trying to knock every house in the Valley down.
I step inside the Penalty Box, on Van Nuys Boulevard. Box was a good word for it. A brick box with no windows.
At the end of the bar, Detective Joe Flynn is in his cups. It's all there in his eyes, the disappointment, the hurt, the woulda, the coulda, the shoulda – but didn't. Get close and you can smell it, a gang of missed chances, like curdled milk. All the Jim Beam in the world won't make it better.
His drunk eyes land on me.
“Gimme another. And one for my friend, Billy.” It's like the word friend tastes bad in his mouth. “Billy the kid.”
I step closer. Slow. Careful.
The bartender Chuck puts two glasses down on the bar.
“How long we known each other, Billy? Ten years? ”
Since I was a brand new detective. Joe, the cagey vet, took me under his wing. “Keep your heart out of it, kid,” he'd say. “All you got is your head and your gut,” then after a pause, “and that .38 under your jacket.”
“You remember our first case together?”
“I surely do.”
Our first case. We tracked this serial rapist scumbag to some fleabag motel room, tried to rattle his cage. It worked. Guy bolted out the window.
And we were in hot pursuit. Joe not quite as fleet of foot as me. The perp was fast, panicked jackrabbit fast. But I had an adrenaline buzz going. We blurred down some back alleys, crashed over and through fences until he hung a right into a rotted out crack shack.
I was supposed to wait. At least for my partner. Preferably for back up.
Joe likes to say, “If you were chasing a snake and it went down its hole, would you stick your hand in there?” That's exactly what I did.
I'd been in places like that before. Walk a beat downtown, it comes with the territory. Canvassing a neighborhood, looking for witnesses. But never alone.
You got a contact high just walking in there. Dusty light leaked through cracks in the blinds. It played tricks on you. Hallways looked longer than they were, rooms smaller. Everything crooked. Sideways.
Maybe it was the smell of decay, of lives shattered against the bare walls and crumbling streets of those neighborhoods. That stink made everything surreal. It was like reaching down a snake's hole. Or a rat's nest.
People didn't go in there looking to be found.
Took me all of a minute to realize I was fucked.
The house was littered with mattresses. In the feeble light it looked like scattered piles of human limbs, mostly bones. Bodies with no muscles, just skin and bad habits.
These were the sounds: coughing, crying, rasping breaths, creaking, more creaking. Felt like the house was twisting, trying to hide things.
Behind me. Sudden, crazy laughter. A hammer pulled back. I spun just as I heard a gunshot.
Joe was wheezing in a doorway, doubled over, pistol in hand.
The perp cradled what was left of his gun hand. Through the thick air of that evil slum I gulped the taste of relief.
“You saved my ass, partner.”
“And how did you thank me?”
I look at the dirty floor. Shame mixes with anger in my throat.
“It's a classic story really,” Joe says.
It is. A cliché. It started as concern, for Joe, his drinking, like he was trying to fill the bottomless pit of his depression. Our emotions spilled onto each other. Things got messy.
“You sleep with my wife. Ain't that right, partner?”
That's right, I think. I remember Sally, blonde hair, blue eyes, everything pale and perfect, long, supple legs you just wanted to get lost in.
“That doesn't justify what you did to her.” Memory's all I have left of her now.
Joe pulls his gun out. I go stiff but he hands the gun to Chuck. “Hang on to that.” Joe turns to me. “You want to talk about Justice, Billy? I just gave her what was coming to her. That's nothing compared to what you got coming to you.”
I put my piece on the bar. Our taste in guns is identical, just like our taste in women and whiskey.
Joe strikes first, sneaky fast, with a shot glass to my eye. That's his last advantage. He's drunk and I'm molten rage.
I know, in my head, in my gut, I'll regret this for the rest of my life. But my heart wants him dead. I picture Sally in the hospital. Gasping her last. Her face swollen shut, ribs shattered, autographed by a pair of fists. Her husband's fists. My partner's fists. I catch him, perfectly, with a haymaker to the jaw. The force of it sends a shock down my arm. Joe's feet leave the ground. His head is a bowling ball hitting concrete.
I sit. Order a drink. Wait. The only the sound the echo of a skull cracking, a man dying.
How did he know?
At the other end of the bar, a man looks at me with a weird grin. “Something funny, friend?”
“I ain't yer friend, pig. Too bad about Sally, though.”
I feel shaved ice down my back and notice the man's useless right hand. He's gained weight, grown out his hair.
“Joe slapped her around a little, but not nearly enough.”
I'm up, I lunge – then the cops are there.
A laugh I haven't heard in thirteen years rattles my spine.
They cuff me and Miranda me. That son of a bitch leans in close. He's been drinking Southern Comfort.
“Let me tell you a story, Billy. It's called the revenge game.”
By day, Mike Miner is a mild-mannered grocery clerk, husband and father of two. At night, he writes dark, violent fiction. Occasionally people are kind enough to publish and read his work. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey and Narrative. He received his MFA from the Solstice Program of Pine Manor College.