Paul Vance read every book written by Jim Thompson while he was in prison for murder. He was getting out today, and he feared life out there would be how Thompson thought of it. A world reflecting most of Thompson’s hard, deplorable life; banal squalor, talent trapped inside a dehumanizing system, dead ends at every turn, no one worth trusting, and in the end madness waited with a coy smile. In other words, Paul was scared that life outside would be like prison. He thought this way because after reading Jim Thompson’s oeuvre, Paul realized he saw life the same way. Jim Thompson was his favorite author for the same reasons Bible-thumpers adore the Book of Revelations. Thompson confirmed Paul’s own belief about reality.
Jim Thompson died the day Paul got on the southbound bus to Los Angeles, April 7, 1977. Alcoholism, starvation, and a series of past strokes offed the unsung master of the psychotic thriller. Thompson never answered Paul’s fan mail. All Paul wanted was the guy’s own word that life wasn’t that awful, that things had changed.
Paul had his old clothes from 1952 in a plastic bag. He wore his dead watch, winding it up proved useless. His wallet held nothing. He gawked at the new cars. Cars without fins, cars that looked like sci-fi rockets. He had watched cars change over the years from seeing the hacks park in the lot from the prison’s windows, but to see so much new technology huddled on the freeway was worrisome. He wouldn’t dare say terrifying, yet he saw his reflection in the window and for the first time he saw that he had gotten old. He went inside December 2nd, 1952. Now is when I pay for my crime, he thought. He had no idea what the world was about anymore.
He only knew that Jim Thompson had died because Thompson’s daughter inherited the estate and called the prison to formally request Paul stop sending letters. Paul asked her if Jim had any last words. His daughter hung up on him and the hacks came to escort him out of the prison.
Now he was on a bus headed to the city in which Jim Thompson had died. Twenty-five years ago Paul had been driving for Jack Dragna and married to a woman who most likely forgot him. The last he heard before going to prison was that Dragna might get deported back to Sicily and Paul’s wife, Ellen, was horrorstruck Paul was going away for murder one. She hadn’t believed it, she had no idea where the money was coming from and up until the feds came knocking she thought he was winning races. At the time Paul’s son had no idea invisible powers were changing his future. Michael had only been six-months-old when the FBI trampled through their Beverly Hills pad.
Paul couldn’t tell Ellen the truth back then because it’d kill her and their kid. Better that she forget he ever existed. The feds locked him up, kept him isolated. He hadn’t read a newspaper in twenty-five years and did not believe word of mouth thinking that the gumshoes were feeding him disinformation. JFK? Communists? Korea? Nixon? Vietnam? Goodness, he went to prison for a lie, how could he believe anything filtering through the system?
When Paul was arrested he was a big deal, above the fold big. The papers said he painted houses for Dragna. He was a hitman, they believed. Paul was placed in solitary and questioned everyday about La Cosa Nostra. He said nothing in order to save his wife and child. Values did not exist, honor was a dead catchword like chivalry. The Mob started as a way of survival for Italian immigrants who couldn’t mix with White Culture and everything that came after was greed. He got more respect in prison than he did in Dragna’s presence. Over the years, however, Paul’s infamy transformed to disinterest. The FBI stopped questioning him altogether at one point and he heard that they were gonna let him go after he served his time rather than waste money on death penalty proceedings and appeals. Besides, didn’t he know the Mob was on its way out? Didn’t he see that he had gotten old and the info he once had was only good for historians? Didn’t he realize the threat of Communism was too important? Paul believed none of it until he got outside.
It felt like a trap. The bus parked at Union Station and Paul knew that Dragna was waiting for him with a bunch of guys to make sure he didn’t say a word. He froze under the hot sun, squinting at the glare coming off the brilliant bird of paradise flowers and rose bushes. The colors were intense. People shoved and shouldered around him using language he knew was English but he couldn’t decipher the slang. He saw a metal box that blasted guttural, whiny guitars. What’s this noise? Music? Paul liked it. He didn’t like the hair, however, the guys looked like scum. Unkempt hair and beards, soiled clothes betrayed an unwillingness to grow up rather than a . The women, well, he hadn’t seen the opposite sex in a long time. They could do as they pleased as long as they were pleased to do so. However, he could sense this new female freedom was more guerrilla tactic than actual freedom, a renegade behavior evolved to push back against invisible boundaries like he had learned to do in prison. Paul and his fellow inmates did little things that almost broke the rules just to show that even in prison some things could not be bought, stolen, or governed.
“Creep.” A lady said to him in passing. Paul was gawking and he snapped his mouth shut. His face burned red. He moved on stiff legs, ready for a bullet that never came. He didn’t want to believe it, but maybe Jim Thompson had been wrong about life. Maybe things were better now, and would continue getting better. The only thing he had to do was go to Dragna’s goons and make sure he was as square with them as he was now with the federal government. Paul took a bus to Chinatown.
“We’re square.” The guy said. Paul didn’t recognize the outfit anymore, or the men running the show. The message came down from the new leader of this broken pack of outlaws. He also did not expect such a terse answer. They didn’t want one last job and they weren’t scared of him. They didn’t care about him. While they didn’t want anything from Paul they weren’t going to give him anything, either. He had done them a great service and he was expected to just move on
“What about Jimmy?” Paul said the name he hadn’t uttered since he went inside. The rage he used to feel was muffled now, almost drowned beneath his new life as a nobody.
“DeNicio. Jimmy DeNicio. I went inside for him, he–” The guy hushed Paul with a dismissive wave that was almost desperate, as if Paul were about utter a curse.
“He don’t work for us no more and he don’t wanna see you. Leave it.” Paul did without another word. He was free as long as he didn’t dig up the past. He suspected that meant he shouldn’t try to find his wife and son. With time and occupation Paul knew he could start fresh and forget about everything. He found a job at the library’s main branch, janitorial work, but it got him off the street right away. No one noticed that the fiction and literature floor was dirtier compared to other floors that were spotless. He spent the time on this floor catching up on his reading.
On days off he went to the movies and explored the city he had abandoned. It had grown, the populations had migrated. Once wealthy areas were now rundown, and once unpopular or unpopulated areas had changed into havens for the rich and famous. Driving around he found himself going to his familiar haunts. The only one remaining was Cole’s downtown and he went everyday for lunch. Beef dip with a manhattan.
She was waiting for him at the bar in Cole’s one afternoon. She was drinking bourbon neat and beside her was his signature manhattan. Paul’s first thought was why did Mickey Cohen send a woman to kill me? Cole’s was a hangout for the rival boss and another reason why Paul felt safer there. No one knew him in Mickey Cohen’s territory. But she knew him and she had been watching him. Routine kills more people than anything else in the world.
She looked at him in the mirror that stretched the back of the bar and he saw the white streak in her hair. The rest of her long hair was going gray, too, so the lighting strike wasn’t so bright these days, but he knew her. He blushed because he still loved her. He hadn’t gone looking for his family because he didn’t want to get hurt. It would have been better to hold memories and start over than to reconnect where his life had been severed.
“You’re so delicate for a killer.” She turned to face him and he locked with her eyes, waiting for her to pass judgement. Her lips jerked, wanting to be friendly but she was hurt by what she saw. “They did a number on you.” She slid off the stool and went to him, arms held up and he froze. She hugged him, wrapping her arms around him and Paul felt her hands join at the small of his back, which was something she had never been able to do before. He had lost at least sixty pounds without realizing. She was the same, just more signs of life and stress pressing in on her like the ocean’s depths on a submarine’s hull.
Ellen smelled the same and he inhaled the happiest moments of his past from her scents of crisp earth, cabernet, and smoke. There was something else there, too, a new stench of electric ozone and stress sweat. Nerves jangled beneath a calm sheen of icy, tense muscle. He wrapped his arms around her, his hands fell to the familiar points and he found them harder than ever before. She was never one to be so tense, but given the circumstances he didn’t hold it against her.
Paul expected her to pull away, but she hung on, unlike the rest of his world that had vanished. He felt stupid for not going to her now that she was here hugging him.
“You never visited. You never called.” He whispered, the words sneaking out before he could censor himself and save the moment.
“I’m sorry. The feds wouldn’t let me the first two years and after that…” Ellen said, her voice vibrating in his vacant chest. Paul steered her back to the bar and they sat down. He gulped manhattan and savored the syrupy burn. He waited for the story of her life. He knew what had happened, she had been heartbroken and desperate at first and then the love had died and she moved on. He wanted to hear it from her so he could move on, too.
“Michael is engaged.” She said. Paul had a hard time picturing his son being old enough to marry, mature enough to have picked from the world’s population someone worth his time. All he remembered was Michael’s tiny pink face in a lumpy baby blue towel, playing on the living room floor, taking Michael from Ellen’s arms so he could go to sleep in his.
“What about you?” Paul asked, wishing she’d just say who she was now and what she wanted so he could know where he belonged.
“I’m here.” Paul wasn’t expecting that. He found himself scared and anxious, like the times he was naked in the prison showers, fearing the far corner but at the same time knowing that was the safest place just so he could see who was coming. “We need you.” She said and Paul hoped Ellen couldn’t see the dread that made him kill his drink. She blushed hard and quaffed the bourbon. “Anything you want, just come home right now.”
“I can’t just tell you. You need to come home first. Give us some time. Give it a week and talk to me, tell me straight what you think of everything.”
“What’re you saying? You want me to tell you if everything’s all right?”
“Yeah.” Paul laughed so hard he ended up coughing on lungs that had lost weight like his body. Prison was reading, exercise, and smoking while waiting to stop a rape at his back or a sharpened spoon to his gut. He was the last person anyone should ask for advice unless they were going to the can.
Dear Jim Thompson, Paul heard one of his dozens of letters to his favorite author and life coach, I’m a convicted contract killer and I just got out of prison. I have no need to go back to the life and it doesn’t want me back, either. My wife came for me, what’s the twist? Paul hoped he wasn’t headed for one of Thompson’s unique existential hells, like the criminal utopia from The Getaway, or the madness of The Killer Inside Me. If Jim were writing Paul’s life he’d be stabbing at a typewriter from some septic tank in the plumbing that ran between heaven and hell. I’ll get everything I want and be too paranoid to enjoy it, Paul concluded. That would be the sick sort of justice that only nature or a downtrodden author could come up with.
They finished their drinks and her hand trembled in his as she walked Paul to her car. It was new, a custom black Dodge Challenger, black leather interior, chrome moulding and rims. Down the center was a white streak, like Ellen’s hair.
“You wanna drive?” She asked, the keys dangled from a pale wrist. With a glance Paul saw the large car key and the house keys; garage, front and back doors and they were shiny. New car, new house. Where’d she get the money? Paul left them with nothing, all the more reason not to get back with his family. He read her fast and subtle, a habit he picked up in prison. Everyone learned to hide their tells and to read everyone else, everyone learned to read upside down and backwards from twenty paces so they could see what was laying on desks during parole hearings or janitor duty. Ellen read like a woman in a Jim Thompson novel, oozing sex and mystery and dreadful consequence, which was so unlike Ellen. The Ellen from twenty-five years ago was alluring, clever, and alive. She wasn’t missing any of that, but she was using her charm to hide motive when she used to be open to him.
Paul let the offer to drive hang between them. This was how he got into the mob. Fast cars bombing down Mulholland Drive. He had transformed a 1940 Studebaker to take the curves. He got into drag racing as a kid, moving for harder and deadlier roads in L.A. and that meant Mulholland Drive. They raced at night to avoid the law, headlights on until you knew the track and then you went dark to feel the car and the road. Squares used drugs to get the same release. He met James Dean before he was James Dean and they agreed it was the meanest and most gratifying road in all the world. Paul didn’t know it, but Dragna had goons placing bets on the races and scooping the losers into drug-running operations, the losers that the road didn’t kill. Paul was one such loser. Dragna kept the winners for his races where they lived lucrative and crime free lives. Paul drove for bank heists and heroin all in the dead of night in matte black and no lights. They called him The Shadow until he took the multiple murder conviction.
Is she appealing to my new freedom or is this a setup? Ah, hell. Paul took the keys and got behind the wheel. Car designs changed in a big way, the engines under the hood, the brakes and wheels and transmission, but the basics remained the same. He knew this car before he turned the ignition. He looked into the empty back seat. He popped the trunk and Ellen frowned as he got out and inspected. He wondered if the drugs were hidden in the car’s frame. Every time someone went to the slammer for drugs Paul overheard some new way to hide drugs. One day a car would be made of drugs through some chemical magic. Paul got back behind the wheel, took a breath, and left his shitty third-hand lemon where he had been parking it for the past three months. The Challenger was impatient to move, getting grumpy with anything less than fifty mph. Red lights turned it into a shaking, volatile devil. It put the “imp” in “impatient.” It was a glorious machine to behold, but it wanted to be free, it wanted to be a blurry streak in the vision of anyone unlucky enough to not be inside it.
“It’s Michael’s,” Ellen said, “mine’s in the shop.” She had her eyes closed, her hands white-knuckled on the seat edges. Paul was driving from muscle memory, easing past slower cars, feeling comfortable at top speed. He slowed down to the lawful speed limit. That life was over, he could not take it back.
“Is Michael in the life?” He asked, ignoring the Challenger’s call for speed as it idled at a red light.
“Where’s the money come from?”
“Nothing illegal. But you’ll see.” Ellen said.
“Sounds like you two did better without me.”
“We need you.”
“You’ll see.” Ellen ended the conversation. Their house was located on the west edge of Larchmont Village. A nice place for families, an ideal location for upper middle class. His family hadn’t fallen too far down the class ladder. They had been secret royalty with Dragna’s payoffs for the drugs and bank heists. Paul put Ellen and little Michael in a Beverly Hills address, but his conviction reduced them to paupers and after that he had no idea what had become of them.
“Don’t let it fool you, we’d be better off dirt poor and without Stacey.”
“Stacey is Michael’s wife?”
“Wife… soonish?” Ellen pointed at a driveway. She desperately wanted help but was reluctant to give Paul the details, as if telling him would increase his skepticism. What’s so bad about her life? It was all so alien to him after twenty-five years of being a serial number. This was what the American Dream was; nice house, safe neighborhood, cool car, a kid on the right track, and stories to tell at cocktail parties to show how far you’ve come.
There was a young woman blocking the garage. From Ellen’s shudder Paul guessed this woman must be Stacey, his future daughter-in-law. This is too fast, I have so many questions that should’ve been answered before this. Paul realized this was another reason why he hadn’t returned to his former life. There was too much to learn before he could even know if he had a chance of fitting in, let alone actually going about the hard work of fitting in.
“Is this your house?” Paul asked, but Ellen got out of the car as it was crawling to a stop. Paul looked in the side view mirror back down the short driveway, the name on the mailbox was M. Vance. Michael Vance. Paul’s son. Paul couldn’t help but smile despite the forbidding doom Ellen had cast. Paul climbed out of the car.
“Hello, Ryan, we finally meet you!” Stacey said, her hands outstretched and for a moment Paul couldn’t decide which one to shake but she came in for a bear hug. She was rail thin and had no strength so the embrace was like jellyfish, thin strands enfolding around him just before a shock of poison. Paul blamed his edginess on the past twenty-five years and Ellen’s ominous punctuation. Ellen spoke before Paul could ask who’s Ryan?
“He just flew in from selling the land.” Ellen said, her two-inch wedge heel smashing into Paul’s instep right through the prison leather. Stacey stepped back and took them in, she smiled, they must look cute. Then Stacey’s smile wavered as she studied Paul. He still looked like he had just got out of prison. No money, no connections, what fashion sense he owned had been exchanged for bland prison uniform. Button down, jeans, brown boots. It just made things easier not having to worry about daily attire, and Paul had never expected anything more from life, again. “He’s exhausted, mind if I show him to our room.” Paul bristled. His anxiety hadn’t been this high since he had been trapped in a cell with a guy armed with a sharpened spoon. The guy had been drunk on fermented apricots, and luckily whoever made the hooch forgot to remove the pits. The cyanide from the pits wasn’t enough to kill, but combined with the moonshine level of ethanol Paul’s would-be-killer ended up dropping the spoon and puking for the rest of the week. Paul had worn telephone books under his shirt, front and back, for the rest of his prison days just in case some other punk got the bright idea to kill a mob all-star hitman. Now Paul was going to be locked in a room with a woman who should want him dead. All because he couldn’t resist the Challenger.
I can walk away any time, I’m free. Paul followed the women into Michael’s house.
Once inside their room Ellen pressed her ear to the shut door.
“What’s going on? Who’s Ryan?” Ellen ran at him and he backed up, checking his peripheral vision for a phone book. She slapped a hand over his mouth and pressed her lips to his ear.
“Ryan’s my boyfriend. They don’t know about you.”
“So you have someone else?”
“Ryan isn’t real. You’re playing a part. Michael doesn’t know about you and if you don’t tell them then they’ll act normal and you’ll see how bad things are here.”
“What?” Paul said, hearing everything and understanding nothing because it was a complex plot being told by a woman who had gotten more beautiful with age. She was pressed against him and he was sent back to high school when all the men were getting shipped out for the war, and he was feeling shitty for being too young to follow. Then he met Ellen and the decades flew by until prison.
There was a knock at the door.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Stacey said and the door swung open, “but I’ve got ribs in the oven and I was wondering if you’d love a drink. Chianti? Bourbon? Once Michael gets home he can whip up a cocktail, I’m the foodie and he’s the alcoholic.” Stacey said with a titter and a wink as if she were on the set of one of those stupid family comedies Paul was catching during the last few years of prison. Nothing made him want to risk the sniper towers and electric fence more than the fucking transformation of television programming.
Paul had turned beet red the moment he was alone with Ellen, now he was going to ash being caught holding his wife. He realized she had never filed for divorce. For the past twenty-five years Paul had fought tooth and nail to never be touched or turned punk and now he was here pretending to be the boyfriend.
“Could we have some privacy?” Ellen said.
“Ellen, I meant to discuss this with you… when you’re under my roof I’d like you to respect my family’s values. Privacy is the devil’s playground. Would you care for a drink?”
“You’re not family.”
“Bourbon, please.” Paul croaked. Stacey left them with the door open.
“See?” Ellen studied Paul’s face. “She’s a damn psycho.”
“Well… well, I don’t know. She’s weird, I guess, but… nice?” Paul said, risking diplomacy because he had been in too many close calls not to give it a shot every time. He talked his way out of a guard baton beating once.
“Don’t you remember what we were like?”
“I see no comparison.” Ellen left Paul slumped on the bed. He had forgotten what it was like to be winded by women.
At the dinner table Paul sipped chianti to be polite. I asked for a bourbon. He could see the bottle of Pappy Van Winkle on the shelf with the the other rare bottles of hooch. He thought about apricots and cyanide.
“So, Ryan, we heard so much about you.” Stacey said even though Michael had not arrived yet.
“Oh. Far out?” Paul said. He smiled, unsure of where the break in the silence was going. He smelled the ribs and all he wanted was to run back to his ugly car and Cole’s. He had just started building a manageable life without complications and he could go back to it at any time, but he wanted to know about his son and he loved sharing in this rich lifestyle after failing so hard and paying for it with time off his life. But was it worth the apprehension that hovered over them like Communism? Was it worth the prison-like conditions Stacey was imposing? Was Michael happy?
A car parked outside. Michael came through the door with flowers. He wore a suit and glasses, but Paul saw his son in the sharp cheeks and cleft chin. The eyes had gone pale, but the warmth was the same. Michael walked like Paul with a suave assurance in his stride as if his every move were choreographed. Stacey didn’t rise to greet him, didn’t bother to introduce Paul. Ellen cleared her throat and stood, holding a hand out to Paul and he took it and rose to his unsteady feet.
“Michael, this is Ryan, my…”
“Cut the shit, Ellen. I’m Paul Vance, your father. I just got outta prison, five counts murder one.” Paul said before he could think and hesitate any longer. If there was mob trouble here Paul had to clear the air to clean it all up. Ellen dropped to her chair, shaking with anger. Stacey was the only one unaffected. Paul focused on Michael, who wore a half grin and looked around for the joke that he missed catching. Michael looked at Paul and saw the resemblance. His smile shrank and one side of his jaw poked out, the tell that told the world he was grinding his teeth. Paul had the same tick.
“Your mother thinks your lady is a bad choice. That you’re in the mob.” Paul said, pushing everyone towards resolution.
“Huh?” Michael said. I used to be this dense, too Paul thought and watched his son slowly turn to Stacey. She wore a look of nonchalance, sipping chianti. A kitchen timer far away rattled.
“When I went to prison I left you with nothing, now you got all this. How?”
“What’s this about mobsters? Are we in danger?” Michael crossed the room to stand behind Stacey, placing a protective hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on, Mom? You say you want to get together, have a family weekend to get to know your boyfriend, by the way that’s weird enough you’re pushing fifty! And now… this?”
“Holy shit, Ellen. Say something.” Paul said.
“I will not have this language in my house.” Stacey said. Michael’s eyes flicked to the floor in shame. She’s got him wrapped around her fingers with a noose, Paul thought.
“If you had just played along you’d see no one’s happy. Now we’re all focused on you and that… crap.” Ellen leaned over the table, menacing her son. “Tell Dad what you told me last week.”
Stacey raised an eyebrow and Michael avoided her eyes. He looked like a puppy who got caught after a furniture-shredding tantrum.
“Oh, get off it, Mom, I was just blowing off steam!”
“What did you say?” Stacey said, drooping her shoulders so Michael’s hand slid off.
“Nothing.” Michael said.
“He told me that you don’t care unless money gets tight, he goes for more credit or a loan from another bank and suddenly everything’s fine. He said he was going to dump you and I think it’s a swell idea!” Ellen said. Paul felt pieces of himself die inside. There was no emergency other than this domestic travesty, nothing illegal but certainly horrible.
Stacey switched gears, her face warmed with robotic precision, “This is how people get along these days. Michael is a very good businessman. Michael, baby, don’t worry. You’re doing it right. But did you really say that? Are you done with me?”
“No, I just… things would be so much easier if we moved out of the city. Like the desert. And all these rules, what’s the point of your rules, babe?”
“There are no babes in this household. Not yet, anyway. Michael, we’ve had this discussion and I will not have it again, especially not in front of your tyrant mother or her killer husband. I wasn’t going to say anything, but your mother has been trying to split us up for a long time, so I had to enforce rules in my house so that she couldn’t hurt you.”
Ellen jumped in, “You’re living on debt and one day all this comes crashing down. Your father and I were there. We followed rules, too. Rules are fine, it’s the blind following that ruined everything.” Ellen said and Paul marched to the bottle of Pappy and ripped the seal, popped the cork, and gulped straight from the bottle. She was trying to setup a breakup. This was the style of twist Thompson was famous for, the out of the blue plot change. Paul didn’t understand how he was essential to this plan of Ellen’s. It wasn’t likely that the sudden appearance of an unknown family member would change anything.
White smoke crawled from the kitchen and spread across the ceiling.
Stacey stood up slow like a silent movie vampire. Her eyes were intense and cold as she commanded them to “Get out. Please.”
Michael was speechless. Paul felt a twinge in his chest.
“Son, I know this is a shock, but I’m not gonna invade your life. Just answer one question… are you happy?” Paul said. Ellen was so shaken by Stacey that she was getting her coat just so she wouldn’t have to look at her. Paul knew how to make a standoff last. He wasn’t leaving until Michael answered him.
Stacey elbowed Michael, “Yeah. I’m happy.” Paul felt the air in his lungs turn to mud. He had been the same way in prison, a mask, a shell, and in return he was able to believe he was happy because truth is easy to ignore in isolation.
“Good.” Paul said and took Ellen’s limp arm and helped her into her coat. He lead her out and held her steady when the front door slammed behind them and Ellen shook so hard she would have fallen if not for him.
On the ride back to his car Ellen told Paul about Michael’s life.
Michael was in debt. Every business transaction he made stopped one collector and grafted a new one to his back. The horrifying part was that the only difference between Paul’s former life and Michael’s present hell was that this was all legal. The system had adapted to incarcerate people without sending them to prison. Stacey had Michael locked in a cycle, dangling the carrots of future peace and prosperity by way of hard work right now.
“He said he’s happy. If people live on debt these days who’re we to tell him to live different? Or love different?”
“He has no idea what he’s in for.”
“You don’t, either. I think you’re projecting.” Paul said, his voice trailing off on the psychological term. He wasn’t sure he was using it right. His head spun.
“Last week he was ready to break it off.”
“How close are you to him?”
“We were close, but she’s been keeping him isolated.”
“Because she knows you hate her.”
“Because she knows that I know she’s a gold digger.”
Paul slowed down the Challenger and parked behind his beat-up junker outside Cole’s. The restaurant was closed and he could use a drink and a French Dip. He killed the engine and they sat in silence for several seconds. Ellen gripped his arm.
“You don’t remember what it was like, do you?” Ellen said with venom steaming in the back her throat. Paul had no idea what she was talking about. “Living in debt, goaded on by the woman you love. Getting deeper and deeper and then you just forget where legal crossed to illegal and getting out meant digging more.”
“He’s not like me, and she’s not you. In fact, their lives are fine.”
“Michael is following in your shoes. The only difference is that when it ends she’ll make off with the money. Michael’s gonna end up just like you, broke and alone.”
“It’s his life.” Paul said, hoping Ellen would hold on to him and at the same time wishing she’d let go. Hold me different, kid, please.
“You can’t want this for him. You don’t want him to make a mistake he can’t fix.”
“And you think breaking them up will fix his life?”
“She’ll never let him go. You saw it, tell me you saw that much.”
“Yeah, I did.” Paul didn’t want to admit that, but he could tell that Michael wasn’t happy. Paul thought back on his mafia days. Michael was held captive by Stacey the same way Dragna had trapped over Paul decades ago. “Ellen. I can’t do what you want.”
“What’s one more?”
“Why?” Ellen was not going to let him go without the secret he’d been keeping for twenty-five-years. He looked her dead in the eye.
“I never killed any one. I took the rap for Dragna’s killer. But you’re right about living in debt. Dragna cashed in when I thought I was invulnerable.” Paul said and the truth came easy. He’d had twenty-five years to think of the truth.
“You never killed anyone?”
“Not a one, kid. I’ve never even shot a gun before. I was a driver, not a killer.”
“But why’d you do it?”
“It was either go to prison in his place or get you two killed by the real hitman.”
“But why you?”
“Because Dragna needed killers to duke it out with Cohen’s killers. Because I’d do anything for you.” Ellen took a breath. She had hoped for a killer. Would she need me otherwise?
“Michael will do anything for Stacey. She’ll bleed him dry.”
“I’m not killing her.”
“You must think I’m some kind of monster.”
“You wanna save your kid. I did twenty-five terrible years for you both. I’d do it, again. But no one is putting a gun to Michael’s head. Who’re we to judge?” Ellen nodded and smiled. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She looked sad and beautiful in the pale blue glow of the street lamps.
“I’ve been going crazy. I tried to split them up I don’t know how many times. I lost my friends, you… and I couldn’t fathom losing him. For some reason I thought he’d end up like you when really it can only get as bad as divorce and bankruptcy.” Ellen chuckled and wiped eyes that shimmered with tears borne from relief.
“There are worse things.” Paul said and not even a heartbeat later she was on him, her lipstick and tears painted his face. Her hands held him as if he were falling. “I’m sorry.” She said and when he opened his eyes she was so close he saw one large eye staring back. “I’m sorry.” Paul kissed her. She tasted the same, her face and body had aged but that kiss had not.
“I’m sorry, too.” He gasped.
“What do you want?” She asked. She had asked him that question so many times before and he never had an answer until now. His stone facade crumbled. He had fought for years to never show emotion.
“I want to start over with you. I want to make sure Michael and Stacey are happy. We can be a family if we just talk everything out and be patient, get to know each other without ambition and money gettin’ in the way. I think Stacey is stricken with worry for the future, that kinda dread makes people do weird things.” Paul said, thinking of sleepless nights and phone books stuffed in his pants.
“Take me home.” Paul revved the engine and left his junker to rust in downtown Los Angeles.
Ellen lived in a quiet neighborhood far away from the spread out sprawl of L.A. Her house was the size of a two bedroom apartment with a tiny yard and driveway without garage.
“It’s not what we used to have, but it works.” Ellen said. They both took their time to trek to the front door. They were nervous. Paul wondered if bra hooks had changed.
“It’s great. It’s home.” He said. The backs of their hands brushed together. His fingers found her palm and he held her hand tight. She squeezed back. She unlocked the door and he went inside. He smelled lavender and laundry detergent. In the shadows he saw a clean living room and a full coat rack with a hat on top in the far corner. Paul shut his eyes and breathed. Things were going to start over and he would get that rare Jim Thompson happy ending like in his later books that were awful. Awful for for an audience, not the characters. But this was his story, their story, and they were going to be happy for the rest of their lives. Whether or not they deserved to be happy was another story Paul was not even going to consider.
Ellen slid a hand over his shoulders as she passed him to a light switch across the room. A question came to Paul, “If you thought Michael was doing ok would you have come for me?” Ellen answered by ignoring him. She reached for the light and Paul felt the ruin he thought he had left behind coming back.
“No. Leave it. Come here.” Paul said and held out his arms. She turned and he saw her white teeth appear in the dark.
The coat rack and hat moved, and Paul’s open arms filled with the bright flash of a gunshot. The silenced weapon snapped sharply and Ellen toppled to the floor. Paul’s lungs filled with ice as did his limbs.
The lights turned on. The coat rack and hat was a thick guy wearing a fedora. He was the man Paul went to jail for a lifetime ago. The hitman held a .22 caliber revolver with a thick tube screwed tight to the snub barrel. The small caliber was a good choice. Ellen’s head was intact, a neat hole the size of a pencil’s eraser leaked a polite stream of blood. A small bullet had enough gas to punch through bone, but not enough to exit, which meant a cleaner getaway. This was strictly business.
Ellen’s face was still smiling, frozen in the moment she heard Paul call to her in the dark. She’d be there forever, now. A limbo where she would always go to him and he would always wait for her.
“Get it over with, Jimmy.” Paul said and straightened up for the bullet like a nervous groom waiting for holy permission to kiss his bride. Jimmy used the gun’s barrel to tip his hat up above his brow. Those smart brown eyes twinkled, the smirk made Paul want to knock his head off just as he had wanted to twenty-five years ago. Jimmy had gotten fat.
“Don’t you wanna talk first?” Jimmy said, sharp gravel voice from smoking.
“No.” Paul said, unmoving. Jimmy stepped over Ellen and got closer to Paul to inspect him.
“You can walk. I know you won’t say nothin’.”
“You mean…?” Jimmy shrugged an answer.
“I’m freelance and I ain’t paid for two bodies. Besides, I never thanked you for taking my jail time.” Jimmy tucked the gun in one of his jacket pockets, from another he brought out a roll of twenties. Paul took it on instinct just as he had learned to do in the mob and inside prison; you took what was yours. But this money was not his, or rather, it was not payment enough for what he had lost.
“You wanna drive me to the safe house like old times?” Jimmy said, as if it were the bad old days.
Paul was too busy trying to understand all that had happened.
“I’m sorry, Paul. But you gotta understand this life with her was over the minute you went to prison. Don’t kid yourself, you woulda had a good night but not an ever after.” Jimmy lay a hand on Paul’s shoulder, heavy and firm, pushing him to the front door.
“Who hired you?”
“Some twist, get over it. Cocaine is cheap these days and women’s cheaper. We’ll get stinko and forget this. No one’s too old for disco. You know disco, right?” Jimmy was betting that Paul hadn’t changed, that Paul was still a guy who’d paint a town any color just for kicks. What had Ellen ever seen in me? Paul wondered, and thought of Jim Thompson on reflex. By reading Thompson’s collection Paul had read about himself, from seedy youth to mob hotshot, and decided he either needed to change or end up loathing who he saw in the mirror. He had chosen Thompson because the guy wrote pulp, but that was a disguise. Thompson was a gateway into real literature and afterwards Paul saw through other lenses such as Dickens, Maupassant, and Salinger.
It was too late to get Jimmy into reading and seeing himself. Sometimes violence was a good answer. Paul swung his right open palm against the side of Jimmy’s head. His hat flew off and before Jimmy could turn around Paul hit him with his left, inches lower, and one more time with the right. The three off-center hits in quick succession broke Jimmy’s neck. At one time towards the end of his sentence Paul had shared a cell with a former football star who used to do this trick when the ball snapped into play. Thanks to him the NFL was changing its rulebook. Thanks to Paul a professional killer was removed from society, but ironically Paul had committed murder after serving twenty-five years for not doing so.
“What’s one more?” Paul heard Ellen say in the eery hollow that followed death.
Paul knew Stacey hired Jimmy to kill Ellen.
Jimmy admitted he had gone freelance, Jimmy wasn’t hired to kill Paul, Ellen had said she had lost everyone but Michael, and Michael was chained to Stacey. Stacey didn’t know about Paul until tonight. Ellen wanted Stacey gone. Ellen had been right all along. Stacey was no good.
Paul took the gun from Jimmy’s pocket and shot Jimmy in the side of the head. He shot two more times into the wall and door. The last shot boomed, the silencer was spent.
Paul made it to the Challenger before he broke down. Thick sobs wracked his chest. He felt guilty, he had made it possible for Jimmy to stay in his line of work, but another voice whispered to him. A voice in the back of his head as tiny as the bullet that killed Ellen. Stacey would’ve found someone else to kill Ellen. This was true. Ellen had been trying to split Stacey and Michael up for who knows how long. Stacey had planned the hit long ago, it wasn’t like ordering a pizza. Paul was cleaning up someone else’s mess, again. The first time was twenty-five-years ago when Jimmy was Dragna’s top button man and Paul took Jimmy’s murder charges to save his family. Now, Paul was cleaning up another mess to save what remained of his family.
He sped back to Michael’s house. He pounded on the door. Stacey answered, wide awake and Michael followed, half-asleep. Paul smirked, he could guess why Stacey couldn’t sleep.
There was no point in asking questions. Stacey would dodge and run away, Michael wouldn’t believe any of it at first and then years would be spent correcting and managing the damage if she were caught. If Stacey got away she would have no choice but to continue the life of a parasite and she had violent motivation to preserve such a lifestyle. Either way Michael would spend the rest of his life dealing with a truth that would define his existence. Paul had to create a new lie so Michael could move on faster and live a full life sooner.
Paul took a step back, raised the gun and shot Stacey in the face. The tip of her nose flattened and her life snuffed before she hit the floor. Paul leaned forward and put the final bullet through her left eye. The two shots cracked and echoed up and down the street.
Father and son looked at each other.
“Don’t let assholes drive you around.” Paul said. It was all he could think of to pinpoint what he had learned over the course of his life. He was hoping for poetry after reading classics for twenty-five-years, but not everything could be poetry. Not everything had to be, or should be.
Michael did not see that it took far too long for Paul to point the gun at him, or that the gun was spent. Michael’s legs gained strength and took him to the telephone where he called the police.
Paul went back to prison for life this time. His only respite from the dangers and doldrums of prison life was reading pulp and thinking of Michael, hoping his son was using his past to make a better future.
Michael visited for a time. Paul answered questions about his life and his mother’s. Michael did not seem disturbed by Stacey’s death, which made Paul wonder if his son knew the truth, after all. Then, his son stopped visiting.
One day years later there was a package waiting for Paul without a return address. Inside lay a hardcover book. A book written by Michael Vance, the true story of a hitman’s son. Paul didn’t read the book, he knew how it went from reading Jim Thompson. Instead, Paul flipped to the front of the book and read the dedication.
To those who lie to heal those they love.
And then Paul got it. After so many years he finally understood why he loved Jim Thompson. Hidden under all the inflammatory sexism, depraved crime and haunting lunacy, there was a love for humanity burning so furiously it could only be recognized in rebellion. Thompson went further than showing how crime did not pay, what the Pulp King was after was showing the darkest humanity so that the only takeaway for the reader was rebellion against Jim’s dreary pessimism. To trigger humanitarian action in the most nihilistic individual. To make his readers want to build an existence that proved such a dark world view is a lie. To do what he was unable to do in his own life because he had driven too long in the dark, thinking he knew the way when it was just by chance he never crashed until old age. Jim Thompson’s only luck was the curse of a long life of hardships and he wanted desperately for everyone to not share his misery.
Paul flipped to the back of the book, where the author’s short bio was printed.
Michael Vance lives in the desert where he is happy.
Paul smiled and put the book under his pillow. He went to sleep that night dreaming of Michael behind the wheel of the Challenger with the rising sun guiding his way on dark desert roads he knew by heart.