In a small Pa. town, an unwelcome guest

In this economy, even an assassin needs an agent.

Sued by his publisher for libel, Brinker is reduced to promoting trolley tours of crime scenes. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd.

A good serial killer would help.

That’s the premise of my new thriller, Mr. Mayhem, a book my fellow writers have alternately called clever and demented. Here’s the first chapter. I’ll let you decide.

1.

Brinker stood beside the body with its red flannel shirt and black ski pants and two-tone duck boots and smiled. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

From the end of the road, police lights flashed as two cops directed traffic. At this hour, there was next to none.

“I’d be careful,” the Colonel said. “People might think you had a hand in this.”

“You should talk,” Brinker said. “Word is, our pal Red diddles with the bodies.”

The eyes of Col. Frank Mabry, U.S. Air Force retired, darkened to the color of his three-piece suit. “No wonder you got fired for libel.” He motioned for the redheaded intern in black to help hoist the body onto the gurney. Red was nineteen going on twelve. He had more acne than a porn star’s ass.

Mr Mayhem 3d_coverThey shoved the gurney into the back of the hearse and slammed the door with the little white curtain and Red drove the hearse into the night, its tailfins glowing like hot coals from hell, which was where the publisher of the Free Press was headed . . . after a brief layover at Mabry & Sons Funeral Home.

Brinker’s feet stuck to the ground. If he stayed here much longer he’d be next in the meat wagon. He looked around the yard. The porch lamp lit an axe, a pile of split wood, a felt Stetson and a dent in the snow bank where the publisher had fallen headfirst.

Brinker asked, “What killed him?”

“Heart attack, most likely.”

“How do you know?”

“What do you mean, how do I know? I’m the coroner. If I say he died of mustard gas poisoning, that’s what killed him.”

The Colonel usually showed more patience. Maybe he needed a drink. Brinker did, and his meds. He lit an unfiltered Camel and let the warm smoke trickle through his nose.

“Those things will kill you.” The Colonel had the spine of a floorboard. He’d retired from some base in the South and returned to Pennsylvania to manage the family business and had gotten trapped here like everybody else. Coroner and undertaker. Add animal-control officer and you’d have a trifecta.

“You should know,” Brinker said and coughed up half a lung. He’d have to see Dr. Jolley tomorrow. The doc had reduced his prescription of Vicodin and Percocet for lower back pain but he’d pony up a month’s worth of Xanax or Ativan, since the meds he prescribed didn’t seem to work anymore. It didn’t matter that benzos were addictive. The doc didn’t like to see people suffer. Neither did Brinker.

The Colonel stared into the dark, as if it would part like a curtain to reveal the secret of the afterlife. The dark stared back. “I don’t need to tell you, business is bad.”

“Then don’t,” Brinker said.

“Traffic’s down at the museum and most of the seats on the ghost tour are empty.”

“Murder tour,” Brinker corrected. The cigarette bobbed in his mouth. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Did you talk to your mother that way?”

Brinker smiled. “Why do you think she kicked me out?”

MM1 cover 1The Colonel pointed to the dent in the snowbank. In this cold, it wouldn’t lose its shape until July. “What can we do with this?”

Brinker looked at the yard. The snow sparkled like broken glass. The axe hadn’t moved. Neither had the hat. “You said he died of natural causes. No one’s flying up from Florida in the dead of winter to watch this guy make snow angels.”

In the brittle light, Mabry’s nose looked like it could hook rugs.

“Unless,” Brinker said, “you tell the cops you have doubts.”

“That would be official misconduct.”

“It’s a living,” Brinker said.

“You’re supposed to be the PR guy. What are you going to do about this?”

Going to, not gonna. As an elected official, the Colonel took care with his speech. Brinker picked a piece of tobacco from his tongue. “I’ll think of something.”

“You had better think fast. Get on the radio. Send out a release.”

“The paper won’t print our shit anymore.”

“Why is that?” Mabry asked in his I’m-struggling-for-patience voice.

“Too self-promotional.”

“For God’s sake.” Mabry abandoning the pretense. “Then get us on social media—or didn’t they teach you that before they canned your ass?”

Brinker tried to blow a smoke ring but the wind took it. “The murder tour’s getting old.”

“Of course it’s old. The crimes are old. History’s old. That’s pretty much the definition.”

Brinker stamped his feet to drive out the cold. The cold didn’t budge. “The tourists are looking for sensation, the big hit. They want blood, guts, scandal, like they get from TV, or Congress.”

“They want their heads examined,” the Colonel said. “We offer them something they can’t get anywhere else.”

“Time travel?”

“Yes,” the Colonel said, “it is like time travel. They can relive history. They can stand in the exact spot where the murder took place and use their imaginations for a change.”

“Soak up the vibes.” Brinker dropped the butt and listened to it hiss. “So what do we do?”

“Drum up business, fill the trolley. That’s why I hired you.”

“We’re fresh out of stiffs.” Brinker nodded toward the road. “Not counting this one.”

The Colonel turned on a polished boot and waded through a foot of new snow. He popped open the door to a black Escalade the size of a dinosaur and said, “I don’t care how you do it . . . just make it happen.”

Brinker watched the car fade to black. He hated winter almost as much as he hated the job.

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