Thomas Pluck Excerpt: Life During Wartime

Lifetime During Wartime collects the best stories of Thomas Pluck—a blackjack 21 of stories of people caught up in crime, facing bleak horrors, or spun in the whirlpool of human absurdity (available January 29, 2018).

Take a ride on the neuter scooter in “The Big Snip,” selected as one of the best crime stories of 2016. Follow a mountain man who’s not what he seems into a snowbound frontier town where evil has sunk its claws. Dine at the most exclusive restaurant in New York, where “Eat the Rich” takes on a whole new meaning. And meet Denny the Dent, a hulking 350 pounds of muscle who wouldn’t harm a fly … but who’ll glad crush a bully’s skull. And read the Jay Desmarteaux yarn that takes off where Bad Boy Boogie ends.

Read the stories readers call “hard-hitting bombs” full of “gut punches and belly laughs” … and be ready to get Plucked.

“Freedom Bird”

by Thomas Pluck

“Yard’s not gonna rake itself,” Marty’s old man announced from the recliner, Rheingold in hand. He watched the paneling like it was television, crumpled the steel can and tossed it into the trash to rattle among its brothers.

Marty shambled outside. The naked oak mocked him with its outstretched limbs. The yard was mounded in leaves. He dragged the rake from the garage, and paused to lust over his father’s Starlite Black ’77 Firebird Trans Am. A golden phoenix flared across the hood, angry and free.

One month until he turned sixteen. Driving to school in the T/A might take the sting off the boys who said they’d pissed on the floor of the john knowing Marty’s father had to clean it up.

 Marty gathered a pile of leaves and dumped them in a steel drum. When Mom got back from teaching shut-ins at the VA hospital how to paint watercolors, they’d burn the leaves. Cinders weaving through the air like drunken fireflies.

The screen door slapped shut and his father sauntered to the car, with a fistful of rags and a tub of Turtle Wax. Marty’s hands throbbed, spotted with puffy white blisters. He wanted a break, but knew Harve Chundak’s attitude when there was work left to be done.

Sympathy’s in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.

* * *

Lean and shirtless, his son looked like the scared Vietnamese boys lit up by the muzzle flash of rifles they could barely carry. Harve buffed the paint until his younger self stared back from the abyss of the ClearCoat, deep and dark as jungle night.

He’d signed up in ’67, ink on his degree still wet, his father’s Korean War medals bright in his mind. When he returned, he visited the family of PFC Oscar Martins before his own. Cried over photographs. Told lies. Then shuffled home to marry his girl, Andrea, who’d become theart teacher at their old school.

The principal said he’d love to take Harve on, but they already had a coach. What they did need was a maintenance man. That was okay with Harve. The young men on the football field looked like corn for the thresher.
            “I’m done,” Marty said.

Harve shook off the memory. He held up a beer. “Cool off those hands,” he said to his son’s back.

Marty was already through the door. “I’m going to the Cort’s,” he hollered.

* * *

The Cort boys sprawled on pillows covering the cellar floor. Sweet weed didn’t hide the dank smell. Jerry Cort was in Marty’s class. Rob, two years older, had dropped out.

Rob stretched a veiny arm toward the bong. “Give it.”

It was Marty’s turn, but he gave it up.Rob had newfound muscle from months of heaving crates of “cheap dago red for the spaghetti & meatball joints, and whiskey for the potato eater bars,” as he called his tenure at the liquor depot, before being fired for theft. Muscle he enjoyed using.

 “Your old man has a sweet ride for a janitor,” Rob croaked. He rested his chin on the glass bong. Smoke curled above the water inside. “You think he’s gonna let you drive it, the way he shits all over you? No fuckin’ way. You want that ride, you gotta take it. He’ll respect your ambition.”

Marty looked at his shoes. The purple blossoms down Jerry’s back seized his mouth like glue.


Harve fired up the Trans Am. Reached under the seat to release the gas cutoff switch.

Admired the lawn, not a leaf in sight.

The boy had finally begun living up to his namesake. Bitched a lot, but got it done. There wasn’t a leaf left in the grass. You just needed to ride him a bit hard.

 The engine rumbled and Harve thought about driving to Alaska with PFC Martins. A bullshit dream they used to keep sane on the endless jungle nights when fear gripped their balls like the icy hand of death.

They met in Basic on Parris Island. Nothing was easy for Martins, but he never quit and always had a wisecrack.

Harve flew up an obstacle ahead of him.

“Sarge is right, Chundak! The sun does shine out of your ass!”

Martins had missed the freedom bird by a cunt hair.

Can’t drive with no legs, Big O.

The boy would be driving soon. First he’d teach him to wax it, tame it, maintain it. Harve killed the engine, reset the switch. Snagged another Rheingold on the way to the La-Z-Boy.

* * *

“Your old man’ll be passed out drunk,” Jerry said, as they tiptoed onto the porch. “He’ll never even know.”

Marty walked heavy. His father could sense him goofing off three rooms away. Rob flicked his ear, hard. “Quiet, needle dick.”

Snores rattled off the living room walls.

“See? I told you. Dead drunk.”

Harve sprawled on the recliner like a sandstone Frankenstein’s monster on the slab. Man like that, who Marty had seen smash his thumb with a ball-peen hammer and not even curse, woke up crying at night. Mopped up piss for a living.

Marty wanted to tell Rob to go fuck himself, but every time he made to speak, cold skeletal fingers played up his ribs and seized his throat.

They found the car keys on the dresser, next to the box Marty wasn’t allowed to touch. Rob snagged the keys and flipped the box open.

A bronze star, purple heart.

Jerry plucked the Bronze Star from its case.

“Don’t touch that,” Marty mumbled.

“Or what?” Rob said. Yanked away the star, pinned it to his denim jacket. He swept the papers away, revealing the dull brown patina of worn gunmetal.

“Whoa,” Jerry said.

“Jackpot,” Rob said, and hefted the .45 Colt M1911. Holding it put a curl to his smile, spread wrinkles around his eyes.

 “C’mon, we’ll shoot some cans. Maybe a cat or a squirrel.”

“Awesome,” Jerry said, jaw open.

* * *

Harve felt the knot tighten from throat to asshole as his squad returned fire. Land mines in the road, ambush from the hooches. Some on fire, blown apart. Two VC took potshots and ran for the jungle. Corpsman tied off Martins’ stumps. Squad leader hollered in the radio for evac.

The mine took Martins apart like ripe fruit.

One untouched hooch, dead center. Muzzle flashes from the doorway. Rifle up. Sight acquire, fire. Short controlled burst. Harve popped a grenade off his flak jacket and underhanded it in.

Thatch flew apart. Last of the panic fire cooked off. The empty silence after battle.

 Inside the hut, a bloody octopus tangle of too-small limbs and a swollen belly. He drew the Colt and put a round into each howling face.

Andrea’s and Marty’s faces rose from the mess.

He woke up gasping to the exhaust note of the Trans Am. From too far off.

“Damn it, boy.”

* * *

Rob drove with the Colt stuck between his legs. Fishtailed up the two-lane highway, the boys hooting as the posi traction rear righted the car.

The thrill eased Marty’s fear. “You said you’d let me drive.”

“Quit whining,” Rob said. “This is awesome.”

“Let me up front,” Jerry said.

“Marty called shotgun, dickwad. Rules is rules. Next rule is cash, grass or ass. Nobody rides for free. I’m splitting this town in style.” Rob laughed. “You faggots wanna come along, you’d better grow some tits.”

“This is my father’s car, Rob.”

“Well it’s mine now, dickless.” Rob laughed, pumped a fist to Marty’s ribs. “This car’s too good for a fucking janitor.”

Marty fought back tears and the urge to puke.

“Move it, road hog,” Rob howled at a green wagon ahead, and veered into the oncoming lane to pass. A lumber truck leaned on the horn.

The car stalled out and the wheel went stiff.

Rob gaped at the oncoming truck. Stomped the useless pedal. Twisted the key, panicked at the starter’s fruitless groans. “No no no no!”

The ice in Marty’s belly turn to fire. He slammed into Rob and fought the wheel one-handed. The truck roared by as they rolled to a stop in the weeds of the shoulder.

“Shit, his father’s coming!” Jerry pointed.

“Get out of the car, Rob!” Marty raised his fist.

Rob sneered and ground the Colt’s cold muzzle into Marty’s throat.

* * *

Harve walked slow to let the boy stew over his foolishness. The dumb shit forgot about the gas cut-off switch.

He’d make the boy break the whole car down and put it back together, before he could even think of driving it. These kids didn’t know what they had. No draft card to give them cold sweats at night. No staring at missing chunks of yourself fit to wrap in butcher’s paper.

The boy got out of the car with the shitbird from next door.

“Hey,  janitor.” Rob jabbed the Colt into his son’s neck. “Fix this piece of shit.”

“Dad, I’m sorry—” A twist of the muzzle choked out the rest.

Harve raised his hands. “Aim it at me.”

“Fuck you, old man. Start the car.”

 “All right.” Harve slipped into the bucket seat and reached under to twist the valve blocking the gas line. Finessed the pedal and twisted the ignition until the Firebird coughed to life. Revved until she rumbled true.

“Now get the fuck out.” Rob laughed. Poked the weapon at Harve’s bullet head, peppered high and tight.

Harve saw himself twist the gun, snap the Cort boy’s finger, and chop his throat with the heel of his hand until thick dark blood poured from his mouth.

He also saw a half-inch of GI hardball punch a hole through Marty’s face.

Harve got out of the car, hands raised.

Rob smiled and slid into the doeskin vinyl seat. Pulled the door shut, gunned the engine. “Get in, little brother.”

Jerry crawled up front.

“Dad, no!” Marty lunged for Rob’s sneering face.

“Martin,” his father barked, and gripped his wrist.

“I used to shit in the tank of the teacher’s crapper,” Rob smiled. “Hope you liked cleaning it up, old man.”

Marty roared and swung. His father yanked him back and Marty’s fist whiffed whiffed past Rob’s face.

“You fuckin’ pussy,” Rob flipped them the finger and floored it, leaving them acrid smoke and twin black scars on the asphalt as he peeled away.

“Why, Dad, why?”

He squeezed the back of Marty’s neck. “It’s just a car, son.”

Marty’s lip quivered as the Firebird flew away.


Copyright © 2018 Thomas Pluck.

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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”