Dead Men's Money by Martin Grise

Friday, April 22, 2022
Hunter heads up a homicidal rock band existing on the edge of society and self-destruction in Martin Grise's dark tale.

Hunter stood at the right edge of the stage, where he could barely hear Pulse's drums over Vik's screaming amp, and danced in place as he viewed the scene. Vik and Ron traded fours, Ron slapping down thumping variations of the theme on his bass, Vik tearing them up like a chainsaw with his black Gibson Firebird. Pulse leaned back behind the drums, eyes half-closed, hitting hard but remaining relaxed with an air of authority. In the band's bus in the parking lot behind the club, Chad watched a video feed on his laptop from the night vision camera of a quiet, hovering drone, looking down on three young men in an empty lot a mile away. In front of the stage, the kids stomped and jumped and grooved in time with Pulse's hands and feet, the flashing lights and wailing music blowing the thoughts from their minds until, blessedly, they forgot themselves entirely.

Pulse looked over at Hunter, though Hunter didn't need this cue since he always kept count, and Hunter unslung the red Epiphone Wildkat from his back, walked to the microphone, and sang a Springsteenesque verse of sex and love and hope and fast cars and redemption. Then Hunter, Vik, and Ron gathered at the front of the stage, Vik with one bare foot on the floor monitor, and everything disappeared for Hunter as he played, even his bandmates and the audience, and there was nothing but music, and he forgot where he was until the song came to a long, crashing end, when he could barely hear the cheering over the ringing in his ears. The stage lights went down and the house lights came up, breaking the spell. They were back in the real world, although it was still the world of Saturday night.

Hunter placed his guitar in its stand and jumped into the crowd, high-fiving and clapping the kids on the back with a nod and grin. The rest of the band wandered into the crowd; Vik, naked except for black spandex running shorts, searched for the brunette he'd noticed from the stage. The kids were exuberantly exhausted, clothes sweat-soaked, hair matted, shirts peeled off in the heat and stuffed into back pockets, some of the girls topless but for their bras, clapping and howling and whistling, all signs of the catharsis of their Saturday night in the stench of beer and sweat, their talk all exultations, flirtations, and dares, everyone forgetting the crushing tedium and humiliating subservience to which they'd return Monday morning to recreate the boredom, anxiety, and hopelessness until the next weekend, when they would again numb their sadness with beer, music, and dancing in the endless seesaw cycle that is the life of the average person.

Hunter sat at the bar and ordered a beer, the only thing he could afford to put into his stomach right now, and only because the band drank for free. The small fee they'd receive from the club owner wouldn't get them far. He watched the crowd in the mirror behind the bar.

"That was some rockin' shit, man!" said a young man who lurched up behind Hunter and slapped him hard on the back.

"Thanks, bro!"

Hunter spotted Ron in the crowd and waved him over.

"Time for business," said Hunter, close to Ron's ear.

"How many we need?"


"You, me, and - who?" asked Ron.

"They're both pretty high."


"Yeah, well, good point."

"I'll try an' find Vik," said Ron.


Ron did find Vik in a circle of people, talking to his chosen brunette with her thick chestnut hair and green, catlike eyes, her face still flush and glistening from dancing in the heat. She wore black Capri yoga tights and a close-fitting black crop top, and she held her body proudly, hands on hips, breasts high and firm. She smiled at Vik confidently, and Ron could see that she was used to being in control. She wasn't scared of Vik or any other man, and Vik grinned at her, amused, just waiting.

Damn, that bitch is built, thought Ron.

Ron called to Vik but Vik ignored him, chatting up the girl. Finally, Vik put his arm around her and led her to the back door.

"Hey, Vik!" called Ron.

"Fuck off."

Ron looked around for Pulse, but couldn't find him.

"Looks like it's you, me, and Chad," Ron told Hunter.

"Good enough."

"Want me to call Pulse?"

"Fuck the muthafucka."

Hunter and Ron went out the back door to the parking lot behind the club, where the cool, relatively clean air was a relief, though punctuated with wafts of cannabis. Groups of kids chatted and laughed in pools of dim lamplight.

The two walked to the blue school bus parked in the corner. Hunter knocked, and Chad looked out before opening the door.

"They still there?" asked Hunter.

"Sure," said Chad.

They walked through the bus in the dark to the card table where Chad again sat in front of the laptop. Hunter and Ron gathered around the screen and watched.

"Three of them," said Chad, pointing.

"Whose guys are these?" asked Ron.

"Maliki's," said Chad. Actually, Maliki was their runner, finding customers in the usual unsavory places.

"Where is it?" asked Hunter.

"Shit's in the bag over the big guy's shoulder," said Chad. "Money's in his jacket pocket."

"Okay. It's the three of us," said Hunter.

"Where's Vik and Pulse?" asked Chad.

"Who knows?"

"Fuck," said Chad. He didn't like doing this.

"Just be cool and get it over with," said Hunter.

The three of them donned leather or denim jackets, locked up the bus, and walked to the town's main strip. Pubs lined the avenue, with people on the sidewalks and police cruisers on the street. Hunter took them to a small city park at the end of the strip, dark beyond the street lamps, and looked around. Noticing no onlookers, he led them through the park in near-darkness. He took out his phone and eyed the map, and periodically shone the light in front of them. They went down a narrow asphalt path between the trees until they saw a white T-shirt draped over a tree branch, then turned left and walked through the woods. Hunter's mind was now in an entirely different place, gritty and cold, businesslike and aggressive, with no sense of wonder or joy.

They stopped at the misshapen tree that Hunter remembered. The drone of cars was barely audible and the misty sky above the black branches was lit by the city's yellow glow. From under a pile of leaves and twigs, Hunter withdrew an aluminum box, closed with a small padlock. He unlocked it and lifted the lid while the others stood watch. In the box, set in contours in a foam liner, were four black Smith and Wesson Shield semiautomatic pistols, four loaded magazines, and four short Gemtech suppressors. He doled out the pistols and suppressors wordlessly, keeping a set for himself, closed the box, and hid it again. They each screwed the 3-inch suppressors onto the barrels, chambered a round with a click, and hid the small pistols in deep jacket pockets.

They returned to the trail and Hunter led them to a back street behind the park and into a neighborhood that was clearly in a different tax zone than the strip. Plastic bottles and milk crates, shopping carts and trash bags were scattered through the weeds along the edge of the broken sidewalk in front of dilapidated apartments. Working street lights were rare.

At the end of the street was an abandoned factory with graffitied walls. Hunter pointed to a narrow alleyway and looked questioningly at Chad.

"Right down there," whispered Chad.

"How ya wanna play it?" asked Ron.

"We're buyers," said Hunter.


They walked down the alley, Ron with his hands nonchalantly behind his back, Chad with his in his pockets. Chad did not look at all comfortable to Hunter.

They went around the corner and the three figures from the video feed were standing in a corner of the empty lot. They turned and looked hard at the approaching newcomers.

Hunter stopped. "Anything goin' on?" he asked.

"Who you?" demanded the largest of the dealers.

"Maliki sent us," said Hunter.

The three dealers relaxed at this, and the trio approached them, line abreast.

"How much you need?" the tall one asked.

Hunter put his hand in his pocket, which was the signal for the others to do the same, and three fingers were on cold triggers, and all three drew and leveled the pistols with small clicks of safeties and hammers. Hunter looked at the tallest dealer, into his shocked, gawking eyes, and aimed at his gaping mouth. One of the dealers was quick enough to reach for the gun in his belt with a stuttered curse. The suppressors muffled the reports somewhat, though they were still loud in the night air. The three dealers' heads jerked in quick nods from the impacts and all three crumpled straight down into the gravel as if their plugs had been pulled.

Ron and Chad automatically looked around for witnesses while Hunter stepped forward to take the heavy roll of cash from the pocket of man he had just murdered. Then he opened the shoulder bag and found, aside from a sweatshirt and a pair of sneakers, a plastic bag with only a dozen white pills - must be near the end of their night, he thought. He looked closely at the pills in the dim light. The others shifted nervously at the delay.

"Let's go," said Hunter, pocketing the money, pills, and his pistol.

The trio returned to their cache in the park, replacing the weapons and hiding the box again. On the main strip, which was now nearly abandoned, Hunter looked around to assure no one would overhear them, then asked Chad: "Remember those other guys Maliki was runnin' for?"


"What were they selling?"


"Fifteen milligrams, right?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"So were these guys."


Chad looked much more relaxed now, though not very happy. Hunter wondered if Chad's reticence about these jobs was from moral revulsion or just fear. Both were understandable to Hunter, though he wondered why he, too, still felt the disgust that he pushed aside. The men they'd just killed were much worse than him; or maybe that's just my bullshit excuse, he thought. But such questions didn't mean as much to him as one inescapable fact: he was broke and hungry. And no sensible man leaves dealers alive after a robbery.

They did not speak again as they returned to their bus behind the club. There, Chad and Ron slipped into their bunks and slept. Hunter crawled under the bus and, using the light on his phone, found the metal box with the sliding door that was welded to the transmission. The box looked very much like a part of the apparatus. He opened the box and drew out another metal box full of coffee beans. He slipped the bag of bennies into the beans and closed the box, placed that inside the larger box, and slid it shut. Then he inserted his earplugs and slept in his bunk. At four-thirty, Pulse knocked on the door until Chad got up and let him in.

Four hours later, Hunter rolled out of his bunk, went to the tiny galley, and boiled water on the propane stove for coffee. He took Pulse's drum stool outside and sat by the front passenger side tire, sipping coffee and staring at the unpainted concrete wall of the club across the small weedy parking lot. There was a blue sky overhead and he heard a little traffic on the strip this Sunday morning. Chad came out and walked to the strip, returning with egg sandwiches. He stood on the steps with the door open.

"How much we get last night?" he asked.

"Eleven forty-four," said Hunter.


Hunter's phone buzzed and he saw that it was Vik.

"What the fuck you doin' up this early?" asked Hunter.

"Bitch threw me out after."

"No shit."

"Yeah, I slept in somebody's backyard."

"Where you at?"

"I dunno."

"You got a GPS on that phone?"

"A what? Shit, I dunno. . ."

"Well, find some street signs or something."

"Yeah, hang on."

"He's still alive?" asked Chad.

"Okay, I'm at Atlantic and Winslow," said Vik.

"Stay there, and we'll come getcha," said Hunter.

"Yeah, hurry up."

Chad looked up the address on his phone while Hunter started the bus and, with a couple of K-turns, maneuvered it onto the strip.

"Turn right," said Chad, sitting on the drum stool to Hunter's right.

Pulse came up and watched out the windshield over Chad's head.

"We got any coffee?" he asked.

"Back there," said Chad, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder. "Food, too."

"I was out drinking with some crazy fuckers last night," Pulse called from the galley. "Went to some guy's place for a party."

"Get laid?" asked Chad. "Next left, by the way."

"I don't remember," said Pulse. "I tried. Shit, I'm still pretty fucked up. I need something. What's the plan?"

"Don't have one yet," said Hunter. "Let's get Vik, and we'll see."

"Well, I'm gonna need somethin' soon."

Hunter pulled up to the curb where Vik sat forlornly against a tree in a suburban neighborhood in his black spandex shorts and a Flogging Molly T-shirt. Hunter opened the door.

"The bus to Hell!" he called.

"Anybody got a cigarette?" asked Vik as he climbed aboard. Chad gave him one.

"Bitch was good but she threw me out around five," said Vik. "Shoulda kicked her ass."

"You were smart not to," said Hunter.

"I need a hit of somethin'. Anything."

"Nice T-shirt," said Chad. "Where'd you get it?"

"I dunno," said Vik.

"Is it hers?"

"I just said I don't fuckin' know."

"Where we goin'?" asked Pulse, chomping on an egg sandwich.

"We gotta be in Asbury Park Tuesday night," said Hunter. "Nothin' 'til then."

Vik sat behind Hunter and stretched his long legs out on the bench seat. "Someplace we can score."

"Was gonna head for a campground down in the Pines," said Hunter. "We can get a shower there. Get some sleep."

"Don't feel like bein' in the woods," said Vik. "Nothin' goin' on there."

"Up in Queens?"

"Yeah, alright. But let's hit the mailbox first." They mailed the drugs from one box to another to keep them off the bus.

"I'm for that," said Pulse.

"What about the guns?" asked Chad.

"Not gonna need 'em for a while," said Hunter. "Might as well leave them where they are."

The motion of the bus finally awakened Ron, who stumbled up front.

"Where we goin'?" he asked.

"Mailbox," said Hunter.


Hunter drove to a nearby office park with 24-hour access mailboxes. There was no one else in the place on a Sunday morning. While the others stood watch, Hunter retrieved the bennies from under the bus; then they went inside.

Hunter unlocked the mailbox and pulled out a cardboard shipping box. Everyone watched over his shoulders intently as he opened it.

"Whaddawe got?" asked Vik.

"Joints, some codeine, a big bagga coke, a little crank, the blue magic, and the bennies from last night."

"Gimme the blue," said Vik. Hunter handed it to him along with the plastic bag with his works, and Vik walked across the street to the Starbucks restroom to shoot up.

"Gimme a codeine," said Ron.

"Me too," said Chad.

"Want anything?" Hunter asked Pulse.

"Just a joint," said Pulse. "Shit, that means I gotta hurry up and smoke it now."

"No rush. Vik's gonna be a while. I'll smoke one with ya."

Hunter packed up the box and locked it back in the mailbox. Fifteen minutes later, Vik met them back at the bus, and Hunter steered for the interstate.

Hunter had started this band two years ago. He'd been playing the rock club scene in the Philly-Jersey-New York area since he was fifteen and was as familiar with it as anyone. He'd picked the best rockers he'd met at clubs and house parties. Vik, Pulse, and Ron were the best he knew, pure rock 'n' roll through to the marrow. The weakness in most bands, Hunter thought, was that the musicians were middle-class white boys pretending to be bad-asses on stage. They were visitors, poseurs, actors playing a role. Hunter's band was different, to say the least. They weren't acting; they really were aggressive, impulsive, hard-drinking, hard-fucking addicts with long rap sheets that would prevent them from getting normal jobs if they ever thought to find them. That was why they were so good, so uncontrived onstage. Rebellion? Hell, thought Hunter, they weren't rebelling against anything; they were just being themselves. Vik, thought Hunter as he pressed down on the pedal, heading for the Jersey Turnpike, is insane in the best possible way for a rock musician. He was surprised that Vik was such a good guitarist, since he had so little self-discipline, but Vik loved guitar almost as much as sex. It got him high, and it got him attention and girls and a little money. Hunter loved watching Vik, and watching the kids watching Vik. Vik ignored the crowd entirely. He would beat his chest and scream, wide-eyed, looking at nothing. He'd dance with his sweat-drenched hair down in his face, never smiling. The kids watched him in awe. They had never seen a madman like that before. Vik did not even look into their faces to see their reaction, so they knew he was real, a manifestation of the music. And Hunter noticed that some of the kids actually looked scared of Vik up there on stage, because they got a hint that he really was a madman, not an actor with a guitar, and they were maybe afraid of all that uncontrolled energy, like they'd seen a huge wave at the beach or the funnel of a tornado.

Pulse was a drunk who traded on skills he'd developed long ago. He was half Puerto Rican and half Irish, and grew up in a family where most of the men and boys were Latin jazz drummers. He played festivals as a boy, driving the hot Caribbean rhythms into the night on congas; in high school, he joined the marching band on snare, mastered the rudiments, and effortlessly kept a rock-solid meter. He got into rock after graduation because he was so much better than the other rock drummers and could always get a gig. He had a simple, solid Yamaha kit and sneered at the technical drummers who collected cymbals and tom-toms until they were invisible behind all the hardware that they were unable to play properly; they seemed to know more about the hardware than the beats. And Pulse loved the beats, the completely unintellectual grooves, and he loved the immediate feedback from the drum head, the physical impact as much as the sound. That impact could sound like a battery of artillery when he played the clubs. Sometimes he was so drunk that they had to carry him to the stool, but the large Latino with short black hair and Puerto Rican flag tattooed on his right shoulder could still play perfectly, because all that practice had soaked the beats into his body, deep where the booze couldn't go, down in his heart and lungs, so he figured he might as well stay drunk. It didn't change anything.

Ron was the one Hunter knew the least because Ron didn't say much about what was going on in his head. Hunter knew why. Ron came from a fanatical evangelical family and had been humiliated, starved, beaten, and god only knew what else as a child. Vik had scars from needles and fights; Ron had scars from his own mother. And he was angry. Hunter knew Ron was using to numb his anger and stay sane, but when Ron got angry, he would often go straight to violence with little or no warning. People thought he flew off the handle too easily at a verbal jab, but Hunter knew that Ron was mad at a lot more than the proximate insult and wanted to start swinging at all the people in his childhood, those ghosts he couldn't touch, so he let the person who had insulted him stand in and take it for them. It was never enough, though, so he stayed high to handle it. Heavy, floor-shaking bass matched what he felt, and he liked to belt out evil-sounding rhythms reminiscent of growls and snarls, basslines that sounded like death threats. Hunter loved watching Vik and Ron play together. The two didn't even really like each other, but they played perfectly together, and they met in the music, almost anonymously.

Chad was a stray Hunter had picked up. Chad was intelligent and learned quickly. He suffered from depression, the real, clinical variety. His parents didn't want to take him to a shrink, Chad had told Hunter, because they didn't want him telling anyone anything about the family. Hunter thought Chad and Ron must have a lot in common, except that Ron expressed his pain as anger and Chad withdrew and became sad. Chad didn't have any direction in life, so Hunter brought him on with the band as a roadie, guitar and drum technician, sometime sound technician, and backup bus driver. Chad was smart enough to learn anything but, lacking ambition and direction, needed orders from Hunter to do it.

Hunter was the band's rhythm guitarist, singer, and leader. He'd handpicked the musicians for their stage talent. He'd copyrighted all the band's original tunes. Hunter also knew more about the world than the others; in particular, he had a much finer sense of what a person could want from life. They could get an album contract and have a real shot at making something of themselves. They could turn all the world into a dream with themselves at the center. They would write the soundtrack for people's lives. Kids would save their money and wait months for the chance to see them for two hours. When the kids looked back on their lives in middle age, it would be Hunter's songs they'd remember, that would remind them of high school or college or a particular lover. Their music would live on, and that expression of Hunter's heart and soul would grant him immortality. The other guys couldn't dream like that, he thought. They had the talent, but no vision past the next high. They shared that in common with normal people, who had the strength to endure every nine-to-five irritation or injustice, but lacked the vision and will to pull themselves out of their situation, preferring instead to dull their pain in a thousand different ways and finally end their struggles in unvisited graves. But Hunter sold the band on his dream, because he was so compelling and confident that they just had to believe him.

Hunter made the rounds of the clubs to find gigs and did all the tedious legwork needed to keep the band going. His plan was to build up a regional following, then parley that into an album contract. Since the guys in the band didn't have the discipline to do the boring work, they just followed Hunter. Keeping it going wasn't the easiest, as Pulse was sometimes missing, and Vik arrested for drugs and Ron for fighting. Twice, they had to play without Vik, and Hunter played all the guitar. But, for the most part, Hunter managed to keep them on-stage and out of the local jails.

And then there was the little matter of murder.

They never set out to prey on dealers for their money; it was a practice they'd stumbled into by degrees. It started with another fight after a club show. Ron had words with a drunken punk whose friends weren't around to restrain him this time. The punk followed Ron when he left alone after the show and challenged him in a narrow alley. Ron beat the punk handsomely and left him in the blood where he lay. Two days later, Hunter noticed the police blotter in the town's online newspaper. The cops had found the body, and reported that the victim had died of blunt force trauma to the head.

"I didn't mean to kill the guy," said Ron. "He came at me and I just kept pounding him. Well, yeah, I stomped his head, too. Wanted to hurt him good, not kill him. How was I supposed to know he'd die? Anyway, nobody saw it." But a few days later, Ron stenciled "BLUNT FORCE" on his black Ibanez in white paint, which made Hunter fairly uncomfortable. Herding cats was one thing, but it occurred to Hunter for the first time that his band might be willing and able to kill him if he ran afoul of them. He kept his nerve, though.

Then there was the dealer behind a club who tried to beat Vik by selling him blow that was so cut with laundry detergent that Vik could actually smell the shit and just started laughing, throwing the stuff back in the dealer's face. The dealer got mad and threatened to kill Vik, who took such statements at face value and pulled his knife. The dealer drew his own blade, and they cut each other until the dealer got scared at the sight of blood, lost his nerve and tried to run, but Vik ran him down and stabbed him over and over until he stopped moving. Vik went back to the bus - they would ask questions at the hospital - and Hunter closed his wounds with dental floss for stitching, a small fishhook for a suture, and more morphine than paramedics could have provided. Luckily, none of his tendons had been cut, so he could still play with enough Oxy to dull the pain. Then Vik pulled out a wad of bloodstained bills. Turned out the dealer had a nice take from selling coke-laced detergent to middle-class kids at the club, and Vik had thought to search the guy before he left.

Five hundred bucks! He was amazed that there were five hundred dollars' worth of idiots in that club, but clearly there were. It gave Vik an even dimmer view of mankind.

Hunter suggested they leave town for a few days so, after washing the bloody fingerprints from the bills, they used the dead man's money to fill the tank and drove upstate. Then they got hotel rooms for themselves, with real showers and fresh towels and everything, and even went out for a big steak dinner at a good restaurant. It was the first steak any of them had tasted in years. Hunter reflected as he slowly, lovingly, chewed his tenderloin and washed it down with Malbec, that he didn't feel very guilty at all about the dealer's death or about spending his money while his mother, dressed in black, buried him back in Hackensack. He shouldn't have been trying to beat people and he sure as shit shouldn't have threatened Vik. Did Vik look like the kinda guy to fuck with? If that guy'd had any brains at all, he'd be alive right now, maybe eating steak and drinking Malbec. Hunter thought to propose a toast to the dead man who'd paid the tab, but there were other diners in the place, so he did it internally instead.

The return to poverty stung a bit, and they joked about it, but it made Hunter think as he lay on his back in an upper bunk in the bus, staring at the ceiling while Chad drove. Knocking over dealers might work. The cops wouldn't investigate too thoroughly. The dealers were dangerous, but carried cash, and Hunter thought they were easy prey if he and the boys played it smart. They could stave off hunger, and maybe even save a bit of money, so the next time a gig was canceled they'd have something to live on. Pulse had an associate who got them the guns and suppressors, and they shipped them around just like the drugs. Then Chad had the idea of locating dealers with the drone, flying it high enough that his quarry would not hear it, and convinced the guys to invest some of their stolen money. Chad would go online, check the local paper to see where the drug arrests tended to be, then just watch where the people went and what they were doing. Very easy. Once a month, they'd hit a group of dealers, or just a lone one if they were lucky.

Now, arriving in Queens, Hunter parked in a 24-hour Wal-Mart lot where the police would not bother them. He went inside bought a little food, and ate in the bus while the others slept.

The next morning, everyone went in different directions on foot to find whatever they wanted most at the time; they didn't have a mailbox in Queens. Hunter started a load at a nearby laundromat, then walked to the YMCA and showered. Then he ate a grilled egg sandwich at a local diner, dried his clothes, and returned to the bus. Only Chad was still there, sleeping soundly. Hunter then walked alone to the subway and took the F train to Roosevelt Island. He went south down the western edge of the island, under the Queensboro Bridge, to Southpoint Park. It was full of normal people, nine-to-fivers, with their children. They seemed to enjoy normal things like grilling hot dogs and throwing frisbees. To his surprise, Hunter found himself smiling at them. They were happy, and it seemed to rub off on him, although he kept it to himself. He sat with his back against a tree in the grass, barefoot, and watched the river roll by with Midtown East buzzing and humming across the water.

Hunter was twenty-four years old, at least a year older than anyone else in the band, and very aware of his age. Rock is a young man's game. The only way you could do it past thirty was if you had a reputation and a following. The band had to get a record contract soon, even a small one, and move up in the scene. At twenty-four, Hunter thought, he should already be known regionally. Despite the band's energetic act, it was very hard to get decent gigs; there were too many bands hustling for the same slot, and the pay-to-play New York club scene was far worse than Jersey. A recording contract with a reputable company was even harder to score than a serious gig, but it was the only way off the streets.

Hunter looked across the water in frustration and rising anger. He knew he was good enough for a decent record deal. The band deserved more than the shady dives they played. He dreamed of more than just breaking onto the scene, though. He would run the scene, steer it, guide it. The action would be wherever they went. They would live in a rarified world, like demigods, surrounded by celebrities, beautiful people in beautiful places. He would buy a Triumph convertible and find an Italian supermodel, and they'd tear through the switchbacks above Monte Carlo on their way to the casinos; afterward, they'd make love on a deserted Riviera beach. The press would constantly conjecture on his next move and the kids would pay almost any price to see him live. The music scene, worldwide, would go where he took it.

But after nine years of single-minded effort, he could get no further than the dirty clubs in the tristate area and was unable to break into the claustrophobic New York scene in any meaningful way. Most importantly, he hadn't been offered a real album contract. He'd been approached by amateurs and sharks, of course. There were so-called producers who offered contracts if you first paid them thousands of dollars to finance the recording; agents who promised insider contacts for two hundred dollars a week; producers who promised to work with you if you first hired a particular arranger who bore an inexplicable family resemblance to the producer. Add to that the wannabes trying to use you to add a new line to their CV, or the simply crazy dreamers with no experience at all. And the weirdos and sharks crowded for Hunter's time, attention, and money as he tried to focus on the real game, and that game wasn't going well. The city across the river had rejected him a thousand times.

Time was running out. He had to get the contract soon, but didn't know what else to try. He'd always thought that being the best writer and musician he could be was enough, but it seemed that you needed something more to get the companies' attention.

An odd thought occurred to Hunter, and he had the presence of mind to seriously consider it. Then he connected a few more ideas, turning them round and round in his head, filling in gaps until the ideas became a plan. It was a daring one and would take a real sonofabitch to pull off, but Hunter was living in a milieu where only a sonofabitch could get by.

He took the subway back to the bus and woke Chad, giving him a cup of coffee and a bennie. In the back of the bus, at the card table from which they ate, he outlined the entire plan to Chad in such detail as he could to get Chad's opinion. Chad smoked silently and listened, nodding now and then. When Hunter finished, Chad told him that the plan had merit, and might work if they survived it.

The band returned to Jersey the next week and played three shows in shore towns to raucous audiences. There were several arrests after the second concert three blocks from the boardwalk in Asbury Park. There was nothing like young guys on vacation for a great show, thought Hunter. The next day, after visiting their mail drop in Atlantic Highlands, Hunter insisted they bivouac on Staten Island next, claiming he had some business to attend. No one protested; it had been a taxing few days at the shore and they just wanted to sleep.

Their next trip was to the bucolic splendor of Sparta, New Jersey, where a biker bar had hired them for a loud, packed, sweaty summer night. They returned to Queens the next morning. Hunter asked everyone to meet in the bus late that night for a chat. There was a monsoon after sundown, blowing in sheets across the asphalt of the parking lot. Once Vik, Ron, and Pulse had gathered at the table, Chad pulled down the shades and lit a dozen votive candles, throwing deep flickering shadows around the inside of the bus. The rain was loud on the sheet metal roof.

"What the fuck is this?" snarled Vik.

"Hunter asked me to do this," said Chad. "He'll be here any second."

At first, the felonious musicians thought this setup was pretty cheesy, but shortly relaxed into the soft dancing light and the sound of the rain.

A yellow cab pulled up, and Hunter quickly stepped out and into the bus. The guys heard him come down the hallway, and when he pulled aside the curtain, they saw him wearing a sharp charcoal-gray pinstripe suit with a white silk shirt, a wine-red tie loosened around his neck.

"Where the hell you been?" asked Ron. "Church?"

"Maxwell's," said Hunter, joining them at the table. The rain beat against the windows in the gale. "Real swanky bar on the Upper East Side."

"What for?" asked Ron.

"Meeting a music supervisor from Geffen Records," said Hunter.

All eyes were on him, unblinking.

"I knew he'd be at the bar," Hunter continued, lighting a cigarette. "I told the guy that I had a great band - good, commercial originals, but not too commercial, and a great stage act. 'Yeah, yeah,' he said. 'Heard that a million times.' 'The band's good enough for an A-contract with Geffen,' I told him. 'Yeah, well, get in line,' he said. 'I got a better idea,' I said. I leaned close to him and said, 'If you sign us with Geffen, I'll give ya twenty grand in cash.' He looked at me. 'You serious?' he said. 'Serious as a heart attack,' I said. So he thinks it over. 'I won't do it if the band's no good.' You know, if he signs a shit band, maybe he'll lose his job, and that ain't worth twenty grand. So I took out Chad's iPad and played him that video that Jackie recorded for us. That screamer night we played in Philly. 'Well, the motherfuckers can rock,' he said. 'Even if we're never more than a regional act, no one could blame you for signing us,' I said. He thought it over some more, a long time. Then he said, 'When?' I told him to give me two weeks, and I'd be back with the money. I let it hang there."

The guys looked at him silently. Hunter thought that Vik looked like he already realized the rest of the plan.

"You got twenty grand?" asked Pulse.

"Not yet," said Hunter.

"Whadda we do? Rob twenty dealers?"

"Just one," said Hunter. "Remember all those guys Maliki was runnin' for? They were all selling nothin' but bennies, exact same stuff. They must all have the same boss. And he must be making twenty grand a week, or close to it. We gotta track down the boss, get his twenty grand, and waste the fucker."

Vik sat motionless but exhaled a long stream of cigarette smoke. There was a flash of lightning and an immediate thunderclap as Hunter looked into the guitarist's eyes, which were two humorless, cold black holes, looking at nothing.

"How'd you know 'bout the Geffen guy?" asked Pulse.

"Chad looked up a bunch of guys on the Geffen web site. Then he tracked down this guy's address, and used the drone to watch his movements until we noticed him going into that club every other day."

"Nice job," said Pulse.

Chad nodded. Hopefully, no one'll ask me to participate in this, he thought. But I'd better see a few bucks when this crazy shit's over.

The following night, Hunter and the band sat in the back of the bus, waiting. They were parked in a back alley next to a warehouse half a mile from where they had killed the last three dealers. Chad's drone sat atop a building above the yard where three new dealers now stood. Chad had placed a wireless surveillance microphone, purchased in New York before they'd left, close enough to listen.

At about 3:00am, a white Lincoln slowly pulled into the yard. Ron, watching the scene from outside one of the abandoned factories, called Hunter on his cell.

"Here they come," he said.

"Put up the drone," Hunter told Chad.

Chad turned on the drone and hovered it over the scene, watching. They listened to the conversation over the wireless mike.

"Mr. Williamson," said the dealers together, approaching the driver's side window.

"Whatcha got?" asked the driver.

"Thirteen-hundred, sir. A good night."

The dealers passed a gym bag through the car window. There was a pause, presumably due to the driver counting the money.

"Can't we trace his license plate and find his house?" asked Pulse.

"No," said Chad. "Only cops and private investigators have access to that."

The driver mumbled something and the lead dealer said, "Good night, sir. See you at the club."

The Lincoln pulled away.

"After him," Hunter told Chad, and started the bus.

"Head north," said Chad. Hunter pulled the bus onto the road and, eyeing the GPS, turned north. The drone had a range of two miles from the transmitter, so they'd decided to pursue their quarry with the drone while following in the bus at a distance. They all agreed that their quarry would notice a blue school bus following him at 3am.

"He's gettin' away from ya," Vik told Chad, watching over his shoulder.

"The drone can only do thirty," said Chad.

Before the Lincoln could outpace the drone, however, it came to a red light and stopped. The drone caught up.

"He actually stopped?" said Pulse.

"Must have shit in the car," said Vik. "Whatever they couldn't sell. Won't let 'em keep it overnight."

"He's bein' careful," Hunter called back. "We better be, too. If we get pulled over, we lose him."

They followed the Lincoln to a dive bar on Mercer Street. It pulled into the parking lot behind the bar and two men came out the back door although the bar was closed. The musicians couldn't hear the conversation without the microphone in place, but the driver took another bag from the two men. Chad marked the location on the GPS and followed the Lincoln when it moved on. Hunter followed Chad's calls.

The Lincoln led them next to the parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart, where it pulled up alongside a van.

"That's a good spot," said Pulse.

"Why didn't I think of that?" said Vik.

When the Lincoln pulled away after another exchange, Chad said, "That's it on the drone's battery."

"Okay, park it," said Hunter. "We'll pick it up and go get Ron. Then we pick up tomorrow night."

The next night, they parked in the Wal-Mart lot with the dealers' van and waited for the Lincoln. They again followed with the drone and the bus. The Lincoln led them around to two more bars for pick-ups, but then into Weehawken, where it pulled up to a riverfront condo, waited for the gate to slide open, and pulled into the parking garage.

"Guess that's home," said Chad.

"Good," said Hunter, who drove them to a nearby parking lot. "Got the tracer?" he asked Chad as he parked.


"What's that?" asked Pulse.

"Tracking device," said Hunter. "Sends its GPS coordinates to your laptop via cell link. We'll stick it on his car. Then we can track him everywhere he goes. Compliments of dead dealers."

"Where'd you get that?"

"New York," said Chad with a shrug. "Paid cash. No way to trace it back to us if someone finds it on the car."

"How ya gonna get into the garage to stick it on the car?" asked Vik.

"I'll hide behind a parked car tomorrow night and wait for him to stop at the gate," said Hunter. "I'll have a couple seconds to stick it on his muffler or someplace else he won't notice it."

"What's the point?" asked Ron. "Just shoot him when he stops at the gate and take the money."

"How much has he got right now?" asked Hunter.

"Maybe six thousand," said Chad, "assuming each group is selling about the same amount."

"Not enough."

"Who's he gettin' the bennies from?" asked Vik.

"Dunno yet," said Chad.

"That's who we need to nail."

"We'll track this guy wherever he goes," said Hunter. "We'll figure it out."

The next night, Chad and Hunter succeeded in planting the tracer on Williamson's Lincoln, and Hunter was confident that not even the cops could find it. The band had gigs in Margate the two subsequent evenings, so Hunter drove them down the Parkway while Chad watched the Lincoln's movements on the laptop for the next forty-eight hours. After the second night's show, Hunter met Chad at the bus.

"Whadda we got?" he asked.

"Same deal as yesterday. He stays home most of the day. Delivers the bennies to his troops at around seven, then hangs out at the Diamond Girls gentleman's club. He collects the money and unsold bennies each night, then goes home. Gets his groceries from Quickmart. But get this: on Wednesday, he went to CTGI Pharmaceuticals in Newark. Largest producer of dextroamphetamine on the East Coast."

"Bullseye," said Hunter. "He goes straight to the source."

"Who's selling it to him?"

"We'll go there next Wednesday and find out. What time did Williamson show up there?"

"8:40am," said Chad.

"Bet they don't open 'til nine."

"That's what their website says."

"Alright. Let's get there early Wednesday morning and watch. Hopefully, they do this once a week. We'll bring the cameras and guns with us."

The next Tuesday night, after a show, Hunter took a couple of black beauties to stay awake and drove through the night to Newark, his heart beating like the pistons in the engine. Everyone slept except Chad, who sat on Pulse's stool alongside Hunter and stared forlornly out the windshield. Hunter didn't bother to ask why.

Hunter and Chad had scoped out CTGI on Google Earth; it was located in a large industrial park. They found that, for surveillance, the situation couldn't have been better if they'd planned it. CTGI's parking lot was behind the plant, hidden from the road; it was surrounded by lush landscaping, thick bushes and hedges, with picnic tables scattered throughout. The industrial park abutted an empty wooded lot, such that Hunter might park the bus in the woods off a county road and walk a quarter-mile to the edge of the parking lot without being seen. This he and Chad proceeded to do at eight-thirty the next Wednesday morning.

"Williamson pulls his car up to the loading dock," said Chad.


At the edge of the woods, they set up a wireless camera, since it was too bright for a drone to go unnoticed, and the surveillance microphone. They returned to the bus where the others were now awake, eating cold pizza pilfered from the club the night before with a bottle of Cuervo.

Chad switched on the laptop to watch the camera feed and the others gathered around the table. The only car in the parking lot was a green BMW. Chad could see the Lincoln approaching on the tracer feed.

"OK, here he comes," he said.

They watched the video of the Lincoln pulling into the lot. The loading dock door started raising before the car came to a stop.

A middle-aged white man in a suit climbed down from the loading dock, the doors of the Lincoln opened, and Williamson stepped out with three large Latinos in grey suits and sunglasses.

"Well," said Pulse, "we're not jumping him with those guys around."

They listened to the conversation over the microphone.

"Mr. Williamson," said the man from the loading dock respectfully.

"Morning, Mr. Higgins," said Williamson, shaking the man's hand perfunctorily. The guards looked around, stony-faced.

Higgins handed Williamson a cardboard box. "Thirty-five hundred of them," he said.

Williams took the box and handed Higgins a manila envelope.

"Twenty-four five," he said.

"Same next week?" asked Higgins.

"Sure," said Williamson.

"Okay, see you then," said Higgins. Hunter could feel Higgins' nervousness, even through the electronics.

Williamson and his escort got back in the Lincoln and drove away as Higgins returned through the loading bay door.

"Williamson sure has enough protection," said Pulse.

"Some assholes bumped off his troops a few weeks back," said Hunter.

"Never mind that shit!" snapped Vik. "Twenty-four thousand. How do we get it?"

"Let's bust in there with the guns right now!" said Ron.

"The place is all locked up," said Hunter. "Heavy doors everywhere."

"I'll hotwire that Beemer and drive it right through the fuckin' front door," said Vik.

"Yeah, I'd like to see that!" said Ron enthusiastically.

"Wait until nine, when they open," said Pulse. "They'll unlock the doors."

"There's gotta be security cameras all over the place in there," said Chad.

"We can wear the ski masks," said Ron.

Hunter didn't like the sound of any of this.

Then Chad noticed small sounds in the microphone.

"What's that?"

Chad got on the keyboard and spun the remote camera around. On the screen, they saw three men in blue uniforms with a lot of equipment on their belts and binoculars in their hands leaving the bushes overlooking the parking lot.

"Cops!" said Hunter.

"Shit!" spat Ron.

"Kill 'em!" snarled Vik.

"Are they gonna bust him now?" asked Chad.

"Maybe that was just a stake-out," said Hunter. "Record him makin' the sale."

"They'll need time to get a warrant," said Vik.

"But if it wasn't a stake-out?" said Pulse. "Maybe they're just makin' sure he's in the office, and they'll bust him right now!"

"If that's true," said Ron, "we're fucked."

Hunter's mind whirled. His entire life's plan depended on getting to Higgins before the police did.

"Pulse and Ron," he said, "go back and get our surveillance gear and bring it back to the bus. Vik, gimme your drop phone." Vik carried a pre-paid disposable phone for contacting his dealers, since the number was not associated with his name in any way. He handed it over wordlessly.

"Chad," said Hunter, "get me that guy's number."

"Already on it. David Higgins, Senior Sales Representative for CTGI Pharmaceuticals." He wrote down the office phone number and gave it to Hunter.

"Ok, now get the drone up and watch around the building," said Hunter. "I need to know if the cops show up."


Pulse and Ron were on their way to retrieve the electronics - not that the gear was very valuable to Hunter, but they would be traces left behind, and he wanted none of that.

"Call me if you see anything," said Hunter, pulling on a ski mask and heading for the door.

"Where ya goin'?" asked Vik.

"To get Higgins."

"I'm comin' with ya," said Vik, stuffing a pistol into his jacket pocket and donning a ski mask.

The pair quickly crossed the wooded lot to the north end of the pharmaceutical plant, on the opposite side from the parking lot, and Hunter paused in the woods to call Higgins on the drop phone. It was 8:55 and staff were arriving. Hunter worried that the salesman would let his answering service take his calls, and was also concerned that the police might have the office phone tapped; in neither case did he have a choice in the matter. He was deeply relieved when he heard Higgins pick up.

"Good morning, this is David Higgins," he said cheerfully. "How may I be of service?"

"Mr. Higgins, Mr. Williamson asked me to contact you," said Hunter.

"Mr. who?"

"Mr. Williamson, sir."

"Who's Mr. Williamson?"

"The Mr. Williamson you just sold twenty-four thousand dollars' worth of dextroamphetamines to, sir."

There was a considerable pause.

"What? Who is this?"

"I'm Williamson's man," said Hunter. "He asked me to contact you because there's been a problem. The police just tried to arrest Mr. Williamson at his home."


"Luckily, Mr. Williamson wasn't there at the time. But he asked me to call you to warn you. He couldn't do it himself because his phone is probably tapped."


Hunter shook his head sadly.

"He's gettin' stupid with ya, isn't he," whispered Vik.

"Mr. Higgins," said Hunter calmly, "it is very likely that the police are going to arrest you soon. Certainly before you leave the office today."

"What? Jesus, I got a wife and kids -"

"I can get you out of this," said Hunter. "Mr. Williamson sent me to help you."

"Help me?"

"Yes. Mr. Williamson has an excellent lawyer. He thinks he can get the both of you off on a technicality. But the two of you have to work together. Can't have one of you selling out the other for a lighter sentence."

Vik looked at Hunter incredulously. Hunter knew it sounded weak, but he hoped that Higgins was not very well-versed in criminal law. Also, the man was scared and Hunter was telling him what he wanted to hear, and Hunter hoped that would trump the truth.

"What the hell am I supposed to do?" whined the salesman, the panic rising in his voice.

"I'm downstairs. I'm going to drive you to Mr. Williamson. Then the two of you can work with his attorney and negotiate your surrender to the police. It will be much better that way."

"There's no fuckin' way I'm doin' that!" cried Higgins. "I've got a wife and kids, do you understand? I am not gonna to surrender to the police!"

Hunter's cell phone buzzed and he saw that it was Chad. He held the phone to his other ear.

"Three police cruisers coming up the driveway," said Chad, watching the drone video.

"Mr. Higgins, can you see the parking lot from your window?" asked Hunter.


"Can... you... see... the parking lot... from your window?"


"Well, look out there now and tell me what you see."

"What? I don't see... oh, shit!"

"I can get you out of this, Mr. Higgins," said Hunter authoritatively.

"How? Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!"

"Here's what I need you to do. Leave your cell phone in the office so that they can't track you with it. Okay? Are you with me?"

"Yeah, okay, but now what?"

"Take the money that Mr. Williamson gave you and bring it with you. They might freeze your bank accounts."

"Okay. Good idea."

"Now: I want you to quickly go to the north side of the building, the opposite side from the parking lot. Lock the office door when you leave; that will stall them. Cross the building on the second floor so you don't bump into the cops."


"Then go downstairs and exit the building through a window. I'll meet you there. And don't forget the money!"

"Okay." Higgins hung up.

"Alright, we did what we could," said Hunter, handing the drop phone back to Vik.

"Cops are entering the front door," said Chad a few seconds later.

"Pull the drone in," said Hunter. "Shit, this is gonna be close! Did Ron and Pulse get the equipment back?"

"Just before the cops showed up."


The building's PA system had speakers outside as well as inside:

"Will Mr. David Higgins please report to the front desk immediately."

A few seconds later, Higgins lifted a window and awkwardly slipped through as Hunter and Vik ran to join him. Higgins looked alarmed to see that his saviors were two masked men in leather jackets; Hunter saw that the salesman was carrying the envelope of money. Hunter closed the window - one less trace.

"Follow us, quickly," he said. Higgins followed uncertainly, clutching the envelope to this chest tightly. Hunter led them through the woods until they had nearly reached the bus.

"We're almost there," said Hunter.

"I'm glad you came," said Higgins, puffing from the exertion. "I owe you guys."

Vik stopped, whirled, and blocked his path.

"You got that right!" he said with a wicked grin under the mask, reaching into his pocket.

Higgins looked into Vik's eyes and was speechless with fear.

Vik drew his pistol and leveled it at Higgins' forehead. The salesman's eyes and mouth gaped in horror.

"Don't kill him," Hunter suddenly ordered.


"We don't need to. We're wearing masks. He has no idea who we are."

"You wanna leave a witness? Fuck that!"

Vik cocked the hammer.

"We don't need to kill him. Just take his money, and we got what we want."

Vik didn't move.

"I need you to trust me on this one. It'll be better this way. Just trust me, alright?"

"Trust?" sneered Vik, bemused.

Six months later, Geffen and a New York radio station broadcast an album release party from a small Manhattan studio. Hunter's band played to a select group of VIPs, critics, and press in the studio as well as a huge radio audience. The first single from their album had done well, but the response to tonight's show was even more enthusiastic, just as Hunter predicted. Even the harshest critics were unanimous about the performance. You have to go see these wackos, they raved. They're what we've been waiting for, rock 'n' roll messiahs, putting sweat and blood back center-stage. Hunter sounded smooth and nonchalant at the press conference after the show, full of snappy one-liners, while the others provided a swaggering comic relief. The reporters were particularly intrigued with Vik, although Hunter noticed with a grin that they maintained a safe personal distance from him. Chad was also in the room, off to the side. Hunter had asked Geffen to bring Chad on as guitar and drum tech, and the company allowed it, if they paid him from their own money. It was not much to ask, given what they would soon be making. Chad was glad to be in the background where he could bask in the scene without the attention.

Hunter knew that the perfect crime is impossible, but also knew they'd come damn close to it. They'd taken Higgins' money and allowed him to run, and Vik had smashed his drop phone, the last of the evidence, to pieces. They'd pulled the bus onto the county highway without another car in sight and headed for New York City with Vik periodically tossing a few more pieces of the drop phone out a window. Hunter had watched the papers online over the next few days and saw that Higgins had actually taken his phony advice. It seemed that, rather than turn himself in to the police at the office, Higgins had instead retained a lawyer and negotiated his surrender. He certainly would have had his attorney present during the interrogation. He cooperated with the police in their efforts to convict Williamson, which were successful, although Williamson swore to the end that he had no idea who had robbed Higgins of his ill-gotten money. In exchange for his testimony, Higgins received only four years in prison, and Hunter knew he'd probably end up in minimum security and be out in two years for good behavior.

Hunter reflected on his impulse to spare the salesman's life. He remembered the normal people in the park the day he'd formulated his plan. Higgins was one of them, with his family and suburban home and evening dinners on the back deck, even though he was dealing on the side. And those normies, throwing frisbees on the grass, hadn't seemed so cowardly and stupid to Hunter after all. Maybe he'd even like them if he got to know them. Maybe Vik had felt the same way, though Hunter never asked the guitarist about it. It was too bad, he thought, that Higgins had to do time, but he'd taken that risk himself. At least he'd live to see his children grow up. The mental image of the salesman enjoying dinner with his wife and children somehow rubbed the shine off Hunter's Riviera fantasy; he didn't understand why. But soon enough he regained his natural haughtiness and forgot that moment of vulnerability, though there was no guarantee it wouldn't return in the future.

After the press conference, the band and their producer went to Nobu to celebrate.

"You blew 'em away, boys!" crowed the producer. "They were raving about that show!"

"How's the single doing?" asked Pulse.

"Pretty good now, but it'll explode when you start touring. The way the press was gushing, your tour'll sell out. And when people see you live, they'll buy the album."

"There should be three singles on that album," said Hunter.

"Probably," said the producer. "The problem will be the second album. Bands have years to write their first album. It's the next one that's the sophomore problem."

"No worries. We can keep writing stuff like this forever," said Hunter, and Vik nodded approvingly with a Billy Idol sneer.

And I'll secure the copyrights, thought Hunter as the warm saké quickly took hold of his brain. If these guys quit the band or kill themselves with smack, I can keep going without them. They're damn good, but not irreplaceable. Now that I'm on the inside, there's only one way to go. When the first tour was over, he would take a vacation and buy a Triumph, and hobnob with celebrities in Monte Carlo until he found his Italian supermodel. Then, he thought with a grin, he would improvise, and it would be nothing short of mythological. A rare, airy, preternatural confidence descended upon him. He was in control, and the world would bow to him because it wanted to.

The producer raised his drink in a toast.

"Congratulations, boys! We're gonna make a killing!"

"I like the way you think!" laughed Vik.


  1. The last one third of the story was very good: skillfully written, with good dialogue and excellent plot twists. The trouble was the first two thirds of the fiction, wherein the characters were written as so depraved and so mordantly unlikable that the story was difficult to continue reading. Skillful job, but it was too dark for me.

  2. I like how the story unfolded, albeit a little uneven. I enjoyed the read.

  3. Great premise and lots of action. The second half flowed much more readily and fluidly than the first. I liked this quite a bit but would suggest that it would better if about 20% shorter or so.