An exclusive short story by Simon Kernick Part 1
On the tenth day of Christmas….
Here’s the tenth of our Dead Good Christmas shorts – exclusive free short stories, lovingly crafted by some of our best selling crime and thriller authors – and our December gift exclusively for Dead Good fans.
Simon Kernick has created a fantastic 2-part story called ‘Funeral for a Friend’ – here’s Part 1 and you can find Part 2 here.
‘Funeral for a Friend’ ©Simon Kernick
There’s always the low murmur of whispered conversation at a funeral. The men, unsmiling, acknowledge each other with terse nods and stiff handshakes; the women kiss and hold one another in tight embraces, as if somehow the strength of their emotion will protect them from a similar fate. It won’t. The end, I can tell you from experience, is lurking round every corner.
I’m pleased with the turnout today, though. I didn’t think that I was that popular. I am, or was, a pretty brutal man. But I was powerful, too, and power tends to attract followers, I suppose.
I’m looking for one man in particular, but so far he’s conspicuous by his absence. Most of the people have already taken their seats, and we’re only five minutes away from the 2.30pm start time. The door to the church opens, but it’s not him. It’s Arnold Vachs, my former accountant, here with his wife. Creeping unsteadily down the aisle, like the bride at an arranged marriage to King Kong, he’s small and potbellied with the furtive air of a crook, which is very apt, since that’s exactly what he is. His wife – who’s a good six inches taller and supposedly an ex-model – definitely never married him for his looks. But Arnold Vachs earns big money, and that makes him one hell of a lot more attractive.
Finally, with one minute to go, the man I’m waiting for steps inside. Tall, lean and tanned, with a fine head of silver hair, he looks like an aging surfer who’s suddenly discovered how to dress smart. It’s my old blood brother, Danny O’Neill, looking a lot younger than his sixty years, and as soon as I see him, I’m transported back four decades, right to the very beginning.
The year was 1967, and I’d just come back from a twelve month stint in Nam. I was still a kid, barely twenty, with the remnants of an unfinished High School education, and no job or prospects. The difference between me and every other Joe was that I was a killer. A few months earlier, our unit had been caught in an ambush in a jungle near the border with Laos, at a place called Khe Sanh. We were forced to pull back to a nearby hill and make a stand while we waited for the copters to come and pull us out. Nine hours we were on that hill, twenty-nine men against more than three hundred. But we stood our ground, took seven casualties – two dead, five wounded – and cut down more than forty Gooks. So, when I came back home, I’d lost any innocence I might have had, and pretty much all my fear, too. I was a new man. I was ready to embark on my destiny.
I teamed up with another vet called Tommy ‘Blue’ Marlin, and Tommy’s friend, Danny, who’d also served in Nam, in the 51st Airborne. The three of us went into business together. And our profession? I’d call us Financial Advisors. The cops, though, they preferred the more derogatory term of bank robbers.
We liked to hit small-town outlets. The money wasn’t as good as the Big City branches, but the security was minimal to the point of non-existent, and the staff tended to be too shocked to resist. We’d walk in, stockings over our heads, and I’d put a few rounds from my M16 into the ceiling, so everyone could tell we were serious, before pointing the smoking barrel at the employees. They always got the message, and filled up the bags we provided like they were OD’ing on amphetamines.
Sometimes we’d hit the same bank twice; sometimes we’d hit two places on the same day. But you know what? Nobody ever got hurt. In nineteen raids we never had a single casualty. It was an enviable success rate. Problem was, it all changed when the cops decided to poke their noses in.
The target was a branch of the Western Union in some nowheresville town in North Texas. We’d been scoping it on and off for a couple of weeks and knew that the security truck came to pick up the takings every second Wednesday, just before close of business. That meant hitting the place early Wednesday afternoon for the best return. Everything went like it always did. Blue waited outside in the Lincoln we were using as a getaway car, while Danny and me rushed inside, put the bullets in the ceiling, and started loading up with greenbacks. But while we’re doing all this, a cop car pulls up behind the Lincoln because it’s illegally parked. The cop comes to the window and tells Blue to move the car, but just as Blue – being a good, dutiful citizen – pulls away, the cop hears the gunshots, draws his own weapon and goes to radio for back-up. He’s still got the radio to his ear when Blue reverses the Lincoln straight into him, knocking him down. The cop’s hurt but still moving, so Blue jumps out of the Lincoln and puts three rounds in his back while he’s crawling along the tarmac towards his radio. Problem is, this is the middle of the day and there must be a dozen witnesses, all of whom get a good look at our man.
Two minutes later and we’re out of the bank with more than twenty grand in cash, only to see the corpse of a cop on the ground and no sign of the getaway car. Blue’s lost his nerve and left us there. Lesser men would have panicked but Danny and me weren’t lesser men. We run down the street to the nearest intersection and hijack a truck that’s sitting at a red light. The driver – a big, ugly redneck – gets argumentative but a round in his kneecap changes all that, and we turf him out and start driving.
We’re out of town and out of danger long before the cavalry arrive, but the heat’s on us now. A dead cop is a liability to any criminal. His buddies are going to stop at nothing to bring the perps to justice, but me and Danny figure if we give them the shooter then maybe we’ll be less of a target.
Two days later, we track down Blue to a motel on the New Mexico/Texas border. He’s in the shower when we kick down the door and, as I pull back the curtain, he begs for mercy. Just before I blow his head off, I repeat a phrase one of the officers in Nam used to say: To dishonour your comrades is to deserve their bullets. He deserves mine, and there are no regrets.
Danny and I both realize that with Blue’s death, the armed robbery game’s probably not one for the long term. We’ve made a lot of money out of it, getting on for half a million dollars, most of which we’ve still got. So, we do what all good capitalists do: we invest, and what better market to invest in than dope. This was the tail end of the Sixties, the permissive decade. The kids wanted drugs, and there weren’t many criminals supplying it, so Danny and I made some contacts over the border in Mexico, and started buying up serious quantities of marijuana which we sold on to one of our buddies from Nam – Rootie McGraw – who cut the stuff up into dealer-sized quantities and wholesaled it right across LA and southern California. One hell of a lot of kids had us to thank for the fact they were getting high as kites for only a couple of bucks a time. It was a perfect set-up and as more and more people turned on, tuned in and dropped the fuck out, so the money kept coming in. And Rootie had a lot of muscle. He was heavily involved in one of the street gangs out of Compton, so no one fucked with our shipments.
Rootie’s in the church now, dressed in black from head to toe, looking the height of funereal fashion, but he was always a snappy dresser. He might be pushing seventy with a curly mop of snow-white hair, and just the hint of a stoop, but the chick with him would have difficulty getting served in the local bar and you know what they say: You’re only as old as the woman you feel. This girl’s a beauty too, with a skirt so short she could hang herself with it. A couple of people give her dirty looks, including my long-term mistress, Trudy T. Trudy’s always been a good woman – we had something going on and off for years – but she’s turned a little bit conservative ever since she found the Lord a couple of years back, and I think she’s forgotten what a wild one she was in her day. Seeing that miserable look on her face now, I want to pipe up and remind her of that home-made porno movie we made on the 8 millimetre back in the mid-Seventies – the one in that hotel room in Tijuana where Trudy was on her hands and knees snorting lines of coke off the flat, golden belly of a nineteen year-old Mexican whore while I brought up the rear, so to speak. Religion, I conclude, has a lot to answer for, although I sympathize with Trudy for wanting to hedge her bets now that the end’s a lot nearer for her than the beginning.
Talking of coke, that’s what really made us. There was money in marijuana – no doubt about it – but it was nothing compared to what could be made trading in the white stuff. By the end of the Seventies, we were bringing close to a thousand kilos a year into the States, using Rootie’s distribution network to market it to the people, and clearing ten mil in straight profit. We could have got greedy but the thing about Danny and me was that, first and foremost, we were businessmen. We pumped our profits into legit businesses – construction, property and tourism, in the main – and eventually we were able to pull out of the smuggling game altogether.
Just in time, as it turned out. Within months Rootie got busted and, because he showed loyalty and refused to name the people he was involved with, he got shackled with a 15 to 25 sentence, and ended up serving 12.
It served as a good lesson to Danny and me. Always be careful. And we were. We built up an empire together – one that was turning over thirty million dollars a year – and we staffed it with men and women who showed us the same loyalty as Rootie had shown. We were a success story. I can look back and claim, with hand on heart, that I truly made it, and you can see that by the numbers of people in this church today. Three hundred at least. Friends, employees, lovers. Lots of lovers. Trudy T was one, but I’ve always been a man with appetites – they used to call me the Norse Horse, back in the day – and there were plenty of others. Row 6, to the left of the aisle sits one. Claire B was a movie star once upon a time, with the kind of perfect good looks made for the silver screen. She’s eighty years old now and used to call me her toyboy. We had a lot of fun together, and that’s why she’s weeping quietly into her white handkerchief now while an old geezer, who must be close to a hundred, puts a wizened arm round her shoulders.
I scan the room and see Mandy H – a former Vegas showgirl I had a fling with back in the summer of ’79 – beautiful once, now cracked and hardened with age, her face as impassive as an Easter Island statue as she stares straight ahead; then there’s Vera P who took up with me for a while in the late Eighties, after the death of her husband, a man who was one of my longest serving employees. She was lonely and I was horny, a combination that was never going to work, but I guess I must have had some effect on her because she’s sobbing so ferociously it’s making her hair stand on end. And the service still hasn’t even started yet. I should be impressed but I’m forgetting it already as I catch sight of Diana, as regal as an Ice Queen, sitting right down at the front.
Diana. My wife; my widow; my one true love – still as beautiful in her fifty-ninth year, as she was the day we met on a snowy New York afternoon, twenty-five years ago. I was in Central Park for a business meeting with one of our Manhattan-based partners that I didn’t want anyone snooping on. Not only because we were talking details that weren’t entirely legal, but also because we were giving the guy a bit of a beating on account of the fact that he’d been cheating the organization. I’d just broken a couple of his fingers and was leaving him to two of my most trusted men to finish off, when as I came out from behind some bushes, I saw her gliding along the path in my direction – this gorgeous willowy blonde with a fur hat perched jauntily on her head and a little dog on a lead – and this cool, languid look in her eye. Man, I knew straight off, I had to have her. Within an hour, we were sharing cocktails. Within three, we were sharing a bed. Inside a month, we were man and wife. I’m nothing if not a fast worker.
I always wanted kids, but Diana couldn’t have them. That’s why there are none here today. It doesn’t matter. We had each other, and for me, that was good enough. Everything had come up roses. The money was rolling in; the cops could never touch us; and I was married to the woman of my dreams.
Life was good. All the way up until last month it was good.
End of Part 1
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