Featured Excerpt: Hell of a Mess by Nick Kolakowski
By Crime HQSeptember 7, 2022
I was loading a week’s worth of water, energy bars, and fatty snacks into the trunk of my car when Battlin’ Bob Blazinsky, a small-time thug with a plus-sized appetite, phoned me with a last-minute request to break someone’s legs. I still wasn’t used to taking requests from a tiny fish like Bob, whose criminal “empire” extended for two whole blocks of St. Mark’s Place and 2nd Avenue. Every time he sent me to break someone’s legs, I wanted to inform him in my snootiest possible voice that I had once done more—so much more.
But even if I told Bob about the time I killed three Sicilian elders with a popsicle stick at an outdoor café in Capri, I doubt he’d have the mental capacity to be impressed. Bob probably couldn’t find Italy on a map—or the Empire State Building, for that matter. So I kept my mouth shut and broke the occasional limb and tried to keep my mouth shut while he handed me a greasy wad of twenties like he was a king conferring the greatest of gifts upon a humble subject. The fucker.
“Yeah, need those skills of yours,” Bob grunted over the phone. In the background, I could hear the faint buzz of tattoo guns, which meant he was sitting in his makeshift “office” in the rear of Tat Cat.
I slammed my trunk closed and swiveled for a panoramic look at the street. It was, as you might expect in the hours before a major hurricane made landfall, an incredible shitshow. Whereas in other states, you might expect panicking citizens to stuff their cars with all manner of survival gear, such as tents and nonperishable supplies, the happy folk of New York City seemed intent on cramming their vehicles full of liquor, cigarettes, books, and their finest clothes. Maybe, like me, they all had well-stocked cabins in the woods, and they only needed to bring whatever they needed to get smashed for the duration of the storm.
In any case, I knew the bridges would be crammed with all manner of refugees on their way inland. I should have fled for the hills a few days ago, but scheduling was no longer my strong suit. “You take a look outside?” I asked him.
“It’s a hurricane, man.”
“Oh, come on.” Bob could adopt a whining tone that absolutely did not suit someone who stylized himself as Al Capone’s successor. “The guy’s close, I swear. You can do this, get my money, then take cover or whatever.”
A distant crunch of metal. I looked over my car roof in time to see two sedans spinning apart at the intersection, their crumpled bumpers dropping to the pavement.
“How much we talking?” I asked.
“Guy owes me two.”
“And you’re paying me what?”
“No.” I glanced at the sky thick with scuttling clouds. “Three hundred this time, man. That’s crunch rates.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.” A note of anger in his voice now. He probably thought it made him sound intimidating, but I had to bite my lip to stop from snorting. Maybe I should’ve told him about the time I took on an entire Oklahoma town with a pair of AK-47s and lived to tell the tale.
“I kid you not,” I said. “You don’t like it, find someone who’ll do it cheaper. Who you got there in the tattoo parlor? Goth Queen and the Lube King? They’ll do it if you teach them how to use a bat.”
By the way Bob sucked air between his teeth, I knew he had nobody right now.
I waited. At the intersection, the drivers of those crunched cars now stood on the sidewalk, where they pointed fingers and screamed. More cars tried to squeeze past the wrecks, backing up traffic down the avenue.
“Fine,” Bob said. “Three hundred, but you make sure that leg is good and broken, you understand? I want that kid to limp for the rest of his natural life.”
“I’ll bend it around like a swizzle stick,” I said. “What are his details?”
“Guy’s name is Alec,” Bob said. “Young guy, blonde, looks like a real frat boy. He’s drinking over at the Shrunken Head right now.”
“How do you know that?”
“The bartender.” Bob sounded almost insulted. “The bartender owes me.”
“Fine. You better stick around in the tattoo parlor,” I said. “I’ll be around shortly for the money.”
“Wait.” Panic in his voice now. “How’d you know I was at—”
I ended the call. The Shrunken Head was only two blocks away. I could head over there, teach this kid a lesson he’d never forget, pick up my cash from Bob, and lock myself in my apartment well before the storm hit. I’d already abandoned the idea of driving up to the shack. Maybe it hadn’t been a great idea anyway, given how storms could wipe out the little gravel road connecting it with the highway.
Of course, there was always the option of not breaking a stranger’s leg, especially for the less-than-princely sum of three hundred dollars. But I needed to pay the rent, and hurting people was my only marketable skill, aside from bad jokes and mixing a halfway decent drink. I didn’t feel terrible about it. It wasn’t like I was killing anybody.
The Shrunken Head was packed with drunken lunatics in the middle of the day. Never mind an oncoming storm or yet another fast-spreading virus—they were going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, sweating in the windowless murk, and pound down shot after shot. The speakers bolted above the liquor shelves blasted a droning, repetitive beat that might have technically qualified as music, but sounded more like a factory machine on the verge of blowing a gasket. Give me Elvis any day, or any of those great musicians who poured their heart and soul into the strings.
I elbowed my way to the bar—some little punk tried giving me the mother of all shit-glares, and I just offered him my sweetest smile—and caught the bartender’s eye. He had the wrinkled face and wary gaze of someone who had survived the Village in all of its permutations over the decades, from the tragically hip warzones of the Reagan era to the weird silence of the Pandemic.
When he approached, cocking his head, I leaned across the bar and said, “Bob sent me.”
The bartender placed his forearms on the bar and entered my airspace until we were almost nose-to-nose. “Men’s room,” he said, his voice low enough so only I could hear over the crowd and the pounding music. “White t-shirt with a green face on it. Do me a favor? You got to tune the guy up, don’t do it in there.”
I nodded and slapped a twenty on the bar, then cleared a space so a frat boy with a pimply face could order another round of engine-cleaner shots. I surfed upstream through the crowd and into the short hallway in the back that led to the restrooms. No line back there, thankfully, although it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I knocked on the door of the men’s room.
“Out in a minute,” someone yelled back.
“Hurry up,” I said, loud and desperate as if I needed to piss.
Ten seconds later, the door lock thumped. I took a half-step back, my right hand balled into a fist. When the door opened a crack, I rammed my elbow into it, slamming it open. A skinny blonde kid stumbled back, his eyes wide in surprise, his arms windmilling as he tried to regain his balance. Quick as a snake, I slipped through the door and slammed it behind me with a back-kick, then reached behind me to throw the lock while keeping my eyes on the kid.
“What the fuck?” the kid yelled, recovering his balance. He hopped onto his toes like a boxer warming up, his hands in front of his chest. “What the fuck, man?”
“We have to talk,” I said, glancing around the bathroom. It was one of those single-toilet jobs, barely larger than a closet, its black walls plastered with dozens of faded, tattered stickers. The faucet dripped water into a cracked sink. Spending too long in here would expose you to far worse things than COVID.
Before I could ponder the health ramifications of staying in here for longer than a few seconds, the kid swung at me. It was a loose punch that I saw coming from a mile away, and it was easy enough to deflect it with my forearm before rabbit-punching him in the nose, a quick tap that snapped his head back. I was interested in what would happen after that. A tough person, upon receiving a rapid blow to the face, will snort back or spit out the inevitable blood before proceeding to launch a counterstrike. A weakling will snivel and cry and generally attempt to surrender, the better to avoid future damage.
Ever since I had given up killing for injuring folks, I’d paid far more attention to things like that. It kept me interested.
The kid clapped his hands over his nose and howled, loud and wordless. Now I was actually thankful for the annoying music shaking the walls, because it lessened the chances of the drunk crowd hearing his screams. I stood there and waited to see if he would lunge at me.
The scream quieted to a gurgle, followed by a sniff. The kid lowered his hands from his bloody nose and said, in a quieter tone than the first two times, “What the fuck?”
His voice sounded remarkably clear. My fist must not have broken anything.
“Bob sent me,” I said. “You owe him two large.”
He sniffed again and shook his head, studying me. I have to admit, the sight of me probably wasn’t very impressive: I had regained some of my old weight over the past few months, and I badly needed a shave and a haircut. I looked like I would have trouble killing a sandwich, much less a human being.
“I don’t have it,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be boring.”
He squinted. “What?”
“They all say that. ‘I don’t have it.’ But you knew this was coming, right? That someone like me would show up?”
“I guess.” He shrugged. “I mean, getting beaten up, that’s just in those old mob movies, right?”
I looked at him again—really looked at him, from the faint spray of acne across his forehead to the black curve of the new tattoo poking from the left sleeve of his ridiculous t-shirt. He was barely old enough to drink. “Kid,” I said. “Is this your first time borrowing money from a guy like Bob?”
“Okay.” God, this was so distasteful. “Okay, listen up. It’s not like borrowing from a bank or one of those stupid apps. It’s not like you rack up interest payments or something like that. Wait,” I squinted at him, “didn’t Bob explain any of this to you?”
The kid shook his head. Whatever allowed him to maintain his composure up to this point was starting to break down. His lower lip quivered, and his hands fell to his sides. He looked more than ever like a scared little child.
Someone knocked on the door behind me. The knob rattled.
“Still in here,” I called.
“I used one of those apps,” the kid said, haltingly, but then the words came in a rush: “I needed the money and the app would only give me five hundred bucks so I asked my friend Jeremy, I said, hey, where can I get some cash, and he said, ‘Dude, there’s this scary guy over on St. Mark’s, I used him when I had to get some cash for weed but you got to pay him back, dude,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, okay, I’ll pay him back, don’t worry,’ and so I went and borrowed two grand for the ring and…”
The kid dug something out of his hip pocket. Showed to me in his open palm, his arm tucked tightly against his body as if I’d reach out and snatch it. It was a diamond ring on a gold band. “Engagement ring,” he said. “Melanie wants to get married, and so…”
More banging on the door, louder, like someone was driving their foot against it. I tried to ignore it. “You borrowed from a shark for an engagement ring?”
A tear trickled down the kid’s face. “Yeah, listen, I know it wasn’t smart, okay, but we’re in love. She’s right out there. She’ll tell you…”
I’d been doing it all wrong, I realized. For all these months since I’d returned from Oklahoma, I’d told myself that giving up killing for breaking folks’ bones was a good thing. Except that wasn’t true, was it? However you feel about the act of murder, the fact is that all of my ‘clients’ had it coming, one way or another. And death itself is nothing to be afraid of—trust me on that one.
But this? Tracking down deadbeats who were dumb or desperate enough to borrow a little bit of cash at an absurd interest rate from a dude who looked and acted like a reject from a bottom-rate reality show, and then crippling them? That was undignified—for them, and for me. We could all do better.
“Shut up,” I told the kid, holding up my hand. “Just shut up.”
The kid looked up from the ring, his eyes brimming with tears and idiotic hope.
“Your girl’s out there?” I said.
“Okay, I’m going to spare you, but you have to promise me something.”
He nodded harder. “Anything.”
“You go out there and propose to her right now.”
He winced, I could understand why: A bar like this one, with its strung-out Aerosmith cover band and worn-out booths and blood-soaked boards, was no place to propose to a lady of any caliber. But the wince smoothed out, driven by a dozen other emotions I couldn’t even begin to track. The kid was going through a lot at that moment, and oddly enough, I almost envied him: I wished I could still feel things that intensely.
“And that’ll… clear the debt?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Why not?”
He laughed and wiped his mouth again. “Oh dude, I don’t know how to thank…”
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Trust me on that one.” Reaching behind me, I unlocked the door. “Let’s do this before they kick the door in.”
I opened the door, and the dude on the other side of it—a hipster with a wisp of a goatee and a pageboy cap—backed up and hissed, “Get a room.”
I smiled at him. My appetite for violence was at an all-time low right now. The kid moved ahead of me, the ring clutched tight in his fist, practically crowd-surfing through the scrum of drunkards toward a petite redhead sitting in the far corner by the windows. I guessed that was the girl, but my attention was pulled to the room’s upper-right, where I saw a flatscreen television I’d missed the first time I entered. The screen displayed a map of the Eastern Seaboard, overlaid with a giant red blotch churning offshore of Maryland. The hurricane bearing down on us, soon to arrive, soon to bring its destruction and flooding and the potential for unimaginable horror—
Screaming from the far corner. I flicked my eyes there. The redhead was screaming through hands clapped over her mouth, the boy kneeling in front of her with the ring held high, its diamond gleaming in the multicolored Christmas lights strung along the ceiling, and her joy triggered a chain reaction throughout the bar, a hundred drunks and lunatics all roaring in harmony that would have done a choir director proud. I shifted positions for another look at the boy’s face suffused with the kind of pure bliss you capture maybe once or twice in your life, his life climaxing as this young focus of his adoration screamed again and fell to her knees on the grimy floor and embraced him, and sudden and sharp as a knife to the gut I felt an almost explosive longing for something like that to happen to me, a transcendence that would blast away all the grime and nastiness of my life, and—
I couldn’t take it anymore. I shoved my way through the crowd, sticking close to the bar so I was as far as possible from those happy, crazy kids as I exited through the front door. As I passed him, the bartender mouthed: What the fuck? I responded with a slight shrug. Just another crazy day in the Village, huh?
On the street again, I found my thoughts returning to Oklahoma. My new friends Bill and Fiona in a barn full of old guns, helping me choose exactly the right weapons to vaporize the crowd of evil rednecks swarming our position. Us three, we’re a brutal bunch of heartbroken saps, I told them. And we need all the help we can get. Bill and Fiona had found a happy ending, but what did I get? What do you do after you’ve freed yourself from your old life?
At the intersection, someone had shoved the wrecked cars into the bike lanes, leaving just enough road free for other cars and trucks to pass through with a little honking and worrying. The tide of people heading out of the city was endless. I should have joined them. But suddenly I had another idiotic quest to embark on.
It took five minutes to walk to the Tat Cat, Bob Blazinsky’s rundown castle. If you wanted a cheap tattoo needled by an artist with questionable drawing skills, you couldn’t do much better than the Tat Cat, which competed on price rather than quality. If you wanted a Mickey Mouse tramp stamp that looked like it had been drawn during an earthquake, you could slide onto one of its slippery chairs and have that done.
St. Mark’s, never calm, was the site of total chaos. Drinkers spilled out of every building, and the street was covered with bottles, greasy paper plates, and assorted other debris of merriment. There was a desperate tinge to the party, like everyone was trying to cram every sensation into their brains before things went black for good, and not a lot of joy. After everything we’d endured over the past few years—the pandemics, the hurricanes, the boneheaded leadership—folks were fatalistic.
The Tat Cat was in a basement, accessible via a set of metal stairs descending from the sidewalk. The three plush chairs were empty, but Goth Queen and the Lube King were still there, sitting at the long counter piled high with tools of their trade and bottles of liquor. I had always liked the décor, the dozens of framed paintings and drawings lining the pale blue walls, including the row of skateboard decks with anime characters painted on them.
The Goth Queen was everything you would expect from that moniker: a short woman in a black dress right out of a Victorian funeral, her black haircut like a helmet framing her small, white face. She was a good artist and a better hustler. The Lube King, meanwhile, was huge and bald and given to wearing shirts that exposed as much of his skin as possible, the better to show off the elaborate tattoos covering every inch; why they called him the Lube King, I had no idea and absolutely no urge to find out.
They stared at me impassively as I stood in the doorway. “Where is he?” I asked.
“I’m right here, buddy,” Bob said as he stepped from the doorway leading to the back offices, wiping his broad hands on his cargo pants. With his gut straining against a garish yellow polo shirt, and his hair swept back so tightly against his skull it pulled the skin of his face taut, he resembled a used-car salesman.
“I didn’t do it,” I told him.
“What?” Bob snapped. He marched forward, offering his best attempt at a hard glare.
“You got to forgive the kid’s debt, too,” I said. “I don’t know what might have gone on, but he didn’t know what he was getting into.”
“The fuck do I care?” he growled, except the last syllable rose in a way that was almost a whine.
“You don’t have to care,” I said, stepping out of the doorway, walking as nonchalantly as I could toward the long counter with the tools. Bob was closing the space between us at a rapid clip, but I had plenty of time to scan the bottles and boxes for exactly what I might need if this all went to shit in the next minute or two. Yes, that pair of barber’s scissors over there would do nicely.
The Lube King stood, his hands loose at his sides, ready to back Bob’s play. I had no idea if he did anything criminal for Bob, and frankly, I didn’t care. Unless he was a serial killer with a serious body count and a mastery of a chainsaw, chances were pretty good I could match him in a fight, even in my current state.
“The kid used the money to buy an engagement ring,” I continued. “I think that’s worth taking into consideration.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Bob said, almost close enough to grab me, his face a fetching shade of heart-attack red beginning to edge into purple. Spittle flew from his lips and speckled my cheek.
“Okay,” I said. And as he approached, his hand rising, I snatched his thumb and twisted it as hard as I could, his arm twisting with it, followed by his whole body. Hardly did he manage to squawk before he was facing away from me with his radius a fraction of an inch away from fracture.
The Lube King stepped forward.
“Don’t,” I told him, pumping as much menace as I could into it.
“Get him,” Bob husked, still trying to ease his way out of my grip, but the fight had already drained from him. Through the back of my hand pressed against his shirt, I could feel him struggling to catch a breath.
“I’ve killed around two hundred people,” I said, my voice conversational. “I’ve killed them around the world. I’ve killed folks who begged for their lives and folks who took it like a champ. I’ve killed folks with pretty much every single kind of tool and gun you can imagine, including a stuffed teddy bear, which, believe me, is just as messy and annoying as you’d think.”
The Lube King looked in my eyes and knew I was telling the truth. He backed up a step. Behind him, the Goth Queen had already grabbed her black shoulder-bag from below the counter and slung it around her shoulders.
“Throw me that duct tape,” I told her, jutting my chin toward the roll of it on the counter. I raised my free hand, and she tossed it to me.
“Now leave,” I told them. “Lock the door behind you.”
“Look,” Bob said. “We can talk about this.”
“I’m done talking,” I said.
The Lube King and Goth Queen left, never looking back. When the lock clicked in the front door, I shoved Bob onto the nearest tattooing chair. He flopped onto the plush surface like a fish ready for gutting. He tried to raise a hand, maybe to fight, but I was already on him again, duct-taping his wrists to the chair’s arms. He tried to kick, and I mummified his lower body with the rest of the role.
“I’m sorry,” he wheezed. “I’m sorry, okay? You should have let me know.”
“Nah,” I said evenly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I was trying to turn a new leaf, but I didn’t think inventively enough in terms of career choices.”
He squinted in confusion. “Huh?”
I picked up the nearest tattoo gun. I had spent enough time in the Tat Cat to have a general idea of how these things worked, but I wasn’t exactly about to do any fine work.
Bob’s eyes widened. “We can negotiate, okay?” he said. “You want that kid’s debt forgiven? Fine. You want more money next time? We can do that, too.”
“I want you to stop being an asshole,” I said, sorting through the boxes along the counter until I found a small canister of black pigment. “But I realize that’s hard to do, since being an asshole gets baked into your personality from a young age. So, I’m going to give you something that’ll help.”
Bob screamed and thrashed, and in the end I had to stand behind the chair and put him in a headlock in order to keep him still long enough to do my work. His wide forehead made for a nice canvas, and the tattoo gun was well-maintained, but I must admit that trying to write upside-down made for some shaky lettering.
I left Bob duct-taped to the seat, screaming himself hoarse, with a bandage over the new tattoo above his eyes. The Lube King and Goth Queen would probably never return, but whoever finally descended into the depths of Tat Cat would probably help Bob peel away that bandage to reveal the giant ‘LOZER’ tattooed in enormous black letters that probably wouldn’t fade no matter how much he tried to laser it off. Imagine trying to engage in any kind of criminal activity with that kind of badge.
Copyright © 2022 by Nick Kolakowski. All rights reserved.
About Hell of a Mess by Nick Kolakowski:
The heist should have been a simple one: infiltrate the top floor of a luxury New York City penthouse, steal a server with compromising data from under the noses of the unsuspecting guards, and slip back out. Fiona, master thief and occasional assassin, has pulled off similar jobs dozens of times. But with a massive hurricane bearing down on the East Coast, the timing is tight and the escape routes are limited—and that’s before she discovers something horrific in the penthouse’s master bedroom.
Now Fiona’s on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of rising floodwaters and an army of hired assassins. Her husband Bill, the finest hustler between Florida and Maine, can’t help her: he’s been kidnapped by a group of dirty cops who want the secret millions left by his former employer. The night will take the two of them from the heights of money and power in Lower Manhattan to a haunted island in the East River where no secrets stay buried forever.
It’s going to be one hell of a night… and one hell of a mess.