Cracker by B.R. Stateham

He was nailed to the wall.

Literately.

Not a stitch of clothes on. Nailed to the white painted wall with arms and legs splayed out. Nails, about a dozen of them in each arm and leg, held him firmly on the wall about six feet off the dull colored gray cement floor. A dead carcass on a virgin white canvas-covered wall. Blood, dark . . . almost black . . . from the gapping hole in his neck ran down his chest and one leg, pooling on the floor beneath him in a grim lake of past deeds.

His name was Chubby James. A mean little bastard with a crime sheet as long as the stem pipe on an offshore deep water drilling platform. Some one apparently had decided to take him out. Enthusiastically. A dull blade of unknown origin had sliced his throat open from ear to ear. But it was the splayed portrait of the dead figure nailed to the white wall which caught our attention.

The white wall. The bleached shade of dead flesh. The gray floor. The blood.

Gruesome. Yet, somehow . . . artistic.

The two of us stood in front of Chubby, hands in our slacks pockets and frowns on our lips, and admired the grim work of a madman’s artistry. For a few moments neither of us said anything. I knew the silence wouldn’t last long. My partner–a gorilla lookalike with a droll sense of humor– stepped back, threw hands up in a half-box gesture old Hollywood directors used in framing a movie shot and in his best girly-boy slang, said;

“I call it ‘Just Deserts,’ Mr. DeMille. Or it could be called ‘A Discarded Cracker.’ Either way I’m sure you’ll agree it’s my best work!”

“Nice,” I said, grinning, glancing at Frank and shaking my head. “Wait until the papers get a hold of this image. I can see the headlines now.”

“Sonofabitch! Would you look at this!” Joe Wieser, our ace crime scene forensics expert blurted out, his eyes popping open as he stepped up to us with a big Canon 35 mm digital camera in his hands. “I gotta take a lot of pictures of this one! This is fraken great!”

Sick humor.

Really sick humor.

You get that way when you work homicide for any period of time. Or work in the labs and go out and do the crime scenes. Black humor. Droll. You have too. It’s a coping mechanism. The mind can take only so much blood. So many bodies. So many atrocities. As a cop, if you want to stay sane in an insane world, you have to develop a shell–a cocoon to insulate yourself from reality. Dark humor fits in nicely here.

“Well Mr. Demille, what’s our next move?”

Frank was staying with his girly-boy twang. Hand gestures and all. And very good at it I might add. Still grinning I turned around and looked at the vast empty floor space. The place was one gigantic empty hole with a thousand windows lighting the place up with early morning sunlight. The perfect place for an artist to use as his studio. Frank and I, along with a dozen or more forensic specialists, and four uniformed officers filled the emptiness with the living. Or dead friend nailed to the wall made up the entire ensemble.

“Did Chubby have any artist friends?” I said, lifting an eyebrow and looking at my partner. “This is presentation. Lay out. Art . . . if you will. Not the stuff you find in Chubby’s normal run of friends.”

Frank nodded and reached inside his sport coat for a cell phone.

Turns out Chubby had a lot of artistic friends. But one in particular drew our attention almost from the beginning. Albert Penn

“Did I know that piece of shit Chubby James? Hell yes! And that was the biggest fraken mistake I ever made in my life–letting a friend of mine introduce me to that low-life creep.”

Albert Penn was a tattooed, weight-lifting, shaved headed biker who liked to wear wife-beater t-shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He was as tall as Frank and I–and we both top the charts at around six feet four. Muscles rippled threateningly across his body every time he moved. But the most interesting thing about or Albert Penn was that he had a rap sheet. A rap sheet and a prison record. Ten years in the slammer for armed robbery. Numerous arrests for strong arm tactics. None every proven.

He stood glaring at us as we confronted him in his studio down on 115th Street in a loft of a warehouse with a palette full of paint in one hand and a brush in another. The loft had one wall that was nothing but giant plate glass windows overlooking the down town skyline. A rather impressive view.

And the man was an artist. He had hundreds of canvases littering the studio. Landscapes. Portraits. Fantastic compositions for book covers. It was obvious he loved painting covers for detective novels or science fiction. One glance at them made me think of the great covers from out of the 30’s and 40’s. I was impressed.

“But murder that sonofabitch? Murder him and go back to prison? Are you kidding me? I hated that rat faced little bastard. But he was worth about as much as the paint brush to me. When he came by the other day wanting me to hook up with bunch of other artists and throw in ten grand on some cockamamie scheme I laughed in his face and told him to get his ass out of my studio and never come back. I know a goddamn con when I hear one. And the bastard definitely was running a con!”

“Tell us about it,” Frank said, eyeing with interest one or two of the canvases himself.

“He said he had nine people willing to throw in ten grand apiece on a scheme of setting up a twelve city tour featuring our works. I would round it out by being the tenth guy. A cool 100 G’s. He said he had connections. Our work would be featured in at least twelve of the biggest art galleries across the country. There would be a TV and radio campaign thrown in to stir up interest in each of the cities. He guaranteed the return on our investment would double in a year’s time. Plus each of us would known for our work from sea to shining sea. His words. Sea to shining sea. The goofy bastard.”

“And you didn’t believe him?” I said, looking at the big man.

“Not for a fucking second,” Penn growled, half turning to look at the unfinished canvas he had been working on when we arrived. A big canvas of reds and golds, of lions and a half dressed, voluptuous nude running across a sand dune. “Any more stupid ass questions? If not, get the hell outta here. I’ve got to get this done by tonight and ship it off to the publisher house.”

“Yeah, just three more questions ” I said, grinning. “You got ten thousand in the bank? And if you didn’t ice our dead man, which of your artist friends did? Lastly, how much would it bite me if I bought that canvas over there?”

Albert Penn turned and looked at me, surprise written clearly on his face. Moving his head around he looked at the canvas I was interested in. It was a big thing featuring two dames holding guns in their hands standing over the body of a dead man. In the style of 1940’s noir. Beautiful.

“Huh, who would have figured . . .” Penn growled, half grinning and shaking his head in disbelief. “To answer your first question. Yes, I’ve got Ten G’s stashed in the bank. Just barely. Took me four years to save up that much. And that little thing over there’ll sit you your ass back Five G’s. And not one cent less. You got that much money, flat foot?”

“Yeah, he has that much,” Frank smirked, glancing at the canvas I was interested in and shrugging in a so-so gesture. “Got more money the Bill Gates. The fucker’s rich.”

“Reeaaaalllly . . . . .” Penn mused, eyes narrowing in interest, as he eyed me again. “A rich cop. Ain’t never met a rich cop. Well . . . not one who got his riches honestly.”

“I have a little money,” I conceded, shrugging. “But you forgot something. A name. Someone capable of penning Chubby James to a wall after cutting his throat open.”

“For Five G’s I’ll give you a hundred names. But if I were you I’d go talk to an acid head by the name of Otis Mann. I know your dead man talked to Mann and got him to thrown in ten grand. I also know Mann is about as bat-shit crazy as the come when he’s throwing down his LSD and whatever other shit he uses. Violent crazy, if you know what I mean.”

“Okay, we’ll check him out. I’ll be back tomorrow with cash in hand for the canvas . . . unless you accept debit cards. Agreed?”

“Cash is good. I like the color of green,” the shaven headed cue ball nodded, grinning. “And who knows? You might find a couple of other things I have that’ll catch your interest.”

Okay. I confess; I have money. Lots of it. Inherited wealth from a grandmother I had never met in my life. Inherited a grand father I had never met until then. Sudden wealth and a grand father dropping into my lap out of the sky blue. I know . . . I know. It sounds improbable; if not impossible. But it’s the truth.

But the money hasn’t changed me. I was a cop before the bank account expanded exponentially. I’m still that very same cop. The only thing that’s changed is now I have the greenbacks to throw around on those things that interest me.

Walking back to where we parked the ’67 Shelby GT 350 Mustang–another one of my hobbies–we slid into the bucket seats and fired up the engine. Sitting back I slipped the gearshift into second as Frank hung an elbow out the window and turned his head to look at me.

“You believe Penn?”

“Both of us do,” I said, smirking, as I rolled the car away from the curb and accelerated. “He didn’t do it.”

“Yeah, I think so too. So maybe this Otis Mann is our man. We should be so lucky.”

We were lucky. And almost dead at the same time.

It took a little while but we finally tracked down where Otis Mann lived. On a riverboat in the Brown river tied to a jetty that stuck out one hundred yards from the shore. Pulling the GT 350 beside a beat up looking panel truck we knew belonged to Mann we rolled out of the car together. Frank, eyes on the van, stepped around to the back of the van and opened one of the big doors.

“Turn, come take a look.”

I came up to stand beside Frank and looked inside the van. There was fresh lumber, a big roll of white canvas, a portable air compressor and an industrial-sized nail gun. Even more interesting there was a wooden handled, metal bladed paint scraper lying on the floor beside the nail gun. The scraper was covered in blood.

“Huh,” I grunted, reaching inside my sport coat and gripping the 9 mm semi-auto in its holster underneath my left armpit. “I think we’ve found our man, Watson.”

Frank nodded and slammed the door of the van close. The roar of the shotgun fifteen feet away from us almost blew our eardrums out–and Frank’s head off. Double-0 buckshot slammed into the side of the van not more than a foot away from Frank’s head. The old van rocked violently from the blow, creating a gapping hole in the metal. Big enough to stick your head in if you were so inclined.

“I’m not going to jail again, you fuckers! I’m not going to jail again!” Otis Mann screamed insanely.

We heard him pump another round of Double-0 buckshot in the firing chamber as we both turned and brought our weapons up at the same time. We both fired at the same time. The sharp bark of two 9 mm’s biting into the evening air –the guns bucking back fiercely in our hands–the blast of a second shotgun blast–all happened so quickly. Like a surreal painting. Vivid. Memorable. Deadly.

Otis Mann was a three time loser. An ex-con who had a long history of both drug addiction and violence. If he went to jail he would be in for life. Life with no hope of parole. He wasn’t going to go to jail. He made sure of that.

Art. Madness. Drugs. Murder.

Amazing how they can . . . and do . . . come together so often.

B.R. Stateham writes fantasy, noir, and hard boiled. His fantasy series, Roland of the High Crags has been re-issued by Trestle Press and is available as a download for any e-reader. Also from Trestle Press are his short story collections bundled together in a series called Call Me Smitty. If you like a steely-eyed, coldly efficient hit-man, you’ll love the Smitty stories.

You’ll find more about the author in his blog spot In The Dark Mind of B.R. Stateham at www.noirtaketurner-frank.blogspot.com

6 thoughts on “Cracker by B.R. Stateham”

  1. Terrific noir representation both in dialogue and description of the characters. Absolutely loved the painting, two dames and a dead man, what more can you ask for?

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