His sister's life, a potential newfound love, and his own freedom are all on the line as he tangles with a redneck gangster intent on becoming the state's next governor.
Will Scotland make the right choice or the one that keeps him alive?
Beachhead is dark noir set in the state of sunshine. A story of crime and loyalty, love and hate, and choices made when everything you care about is on the line.
|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Tampa, Florida, August 13, 1980
Scotland Ross heard a noise he didn't immediately recognize as the sound of a boot heel on the living room tile. He stood barefoot in boxer shorts; elbows propped on the pedestal sink in his bathroom, his index fingers strangled red by the tension of waxed, white dental floss. The better part of the day had been spent sautéing his brain in vodka, but he never missed a night, no matter how late he worked, or, since losing his job, how much he drank, or how tired he was, or how long it took. It was three o'clock in the morning. Since he'd been on parole, he no longer had to face the painful memories sober in that dead time before unconsciousness. The noise had made him lose track of where he left off. He paused the taut string in front of his open mouth — anticipated the next footstep, but heard only the hiss of florescent bulbs that attached yellowness to everything in the room.
He dug the floss in the tight space between his bottom front teeth, and tugged back and forth. Most likely it was Dana in the other room. She had a key and was the only reason he'd moved to St. Pete. Being his sister meant she could come and go as she pleased. No questions asked. Being a booze whore meant periodically she got too drunk to go home and in too bad of shape for any man with a roof over his head to take her in and do what he wanted. She'd crashed at Scotland's a few times in the year he'd been a free man and a civilian. She probably kept the lights off in an effort not to wake him this time.
"Hello?" he called, walking into the hall, untwining his index fingers, looking both ways.
It could be that red-head from the Publix on Gulf Boulevard desperate for another overnight trip to tingle town. Or it could be some coked-up loon out to score enough cash for more drugs or maybe some psychopath jonesing for the thrill of homicide. The only thing of value in the place was a few bucks stashed in a shoebox beneath the old Webley .32 he'd bought from a carny behind the Tilt-A-Whirl at the State Fair back in February.
Chilled air from the living room moved across his bare skin, while sweat beaded on his forehead. The bathroom light went dark behind him. His vision became orange and brown spots, like soup stains. "What the fuck?" he called into the darkness as he dropped his floss. He had no proof that the Webley shot straight, but even if he could get to it quick enough, he wouldn't know where to fire. He crouched and swung wide at the soup stains in front of him, trying to protect himself. The last time his heart raced this fast had been with a skinny kindergarten teacher with disco hair. His adrenaline spiked differently now — a fight of some sort was unavoidable. He felt it in his stiff fingers, which throbbed with his pulse. His eyes hadn't adjusted yet and he felt naked despite his boxer shorts. He groped his way back toward his bed hoping to get to his revolver and use the mattress as cover if shots were fired, but stumbled over the corner of the bed opposite the door and smacked his head on the nightstand. His fingers came back dry after he searched his skull for blood, but his ears rang with a high frequency hum that sounded like the flush of a public toilet. His breath cycled fast and shallow, filling just the top portion of his lungs. He needed to deepen his breathing, slow his heart rate, and calm his mind so he could think rationally — just as he'd learned in Leavenworth.
With the room lost in flashes of orange and brown, he focused on his breathing. He stood, shook his head to clear his vision, but failed. He reached and felt the rough-hewn paneling as he groped his way toward the door. With his other hand, he threw blind jabs. The rattle and hum of the wall unit air conditioner in the living room filled the quiet. Cold air carried the smell of cologne. Scotland never wore cologne. He jabbed and listened for footsteps.
Without a sound, someone grabbed Scotland's wrist in mid-air, twisted it behind him, and crimped his windpipe in a headlock, all in one fluid motion. As a bouncer, Scotland had earned a living using his muscle and practiced moves. Now he found himself the disgruntled drunk on the wrong end of a choke hold, his right arm pinned behind his back and his lungs demanding oxygen in a new way. He hoped the elastic in his boxers held.
Even with his breath shallow, Scotland got a nose-full of the cologne the guy wore. It was a strange thought to register in his brain, but he guessed dime-store Brut. It made him cough, and he took advantage of that moment to try and push back with his legs, but he was barefoot and his calloused heels provided no traction. He dug in on the balls of his feet but he was anchored. Locked in the choke hold. The arm twisted behind his back had somehow become part of the hold. Any struggling to break free only deepened the grip around his throat.
The guy with the death grip pushed against the back of Scotland's skull and kicked his bare ankles to get him moving. An awkward march forced him out of the bedroom into the area between the living room and the kitchen that was meant to hold a small dining table. Scotland never had what Floridians called a dinette, but rather a few square feet of open floor space where he did push-ups and sit-ups every morning, right on the Mexican tile.
Scotland's cinder block duplex sat in a line of eight rented units on each side of the street, all with matching lawns in need of mowing and driveways with oil stains. It was late. The neighbors worked during the day and would be asleep now, but maybe if gunshots woke them, they'd report them so he wouldn't fester on the floor for the critters and insects.
Beams of light shone from the bedroom and from the streetlight outside the kitchen window, casting the living area in shadows. The muted TV glowed white and gray with the snow of an off-air station. His vision adjusted, but he still couldn't get a full breath.
"What the fuck is going on?" he tried to say, but couldn't manage more than a gurgle.
He made out the shadows of three men, counting himself. They were all silent. The faucet leaked into the kitchen sink with patient drips while Scotland's heartbeat thundered. He pawed at the forearm around his throat. Swung back with his left fist, but hit nothing. The guy holding him had the speed to evade and the grip to hold onto all two hundred fifteen pounds of Scotland. He had to give the fucker credit, he'd never been this immobilized. Not even as a twelve-year-old, when the Casta brothers jumped him outside the Stop & Shop on their way home from school.
Between shallow breaths, he heard the same boot heel as earlier as it clicked across the kitchen floor. With the sound came the smell of cigars.
"You have no idea how disappointed I am."
The first syllable chilled through Scotland. He always had a talent for recognizing voices he'd heard even once. He could name the celebrity selling floor polish or dog food on the radio, or when facing away from the television.
"Kinsey?" he mumbled through a jaw locked by the other guy's grip.
"Don't act like this is a surprise, son," Kinsey said.
Scotland should never have gotten mixed up in that card game a couple weeks ago. The stakes got way over his head, but he couldn't leave a loser. In moments like that, he never thought about repercussions, only rewards. This is what it got him, this time. "Who's the asshole you brought with you?" he asked.
The guy who held him applied more pressure, doubling Scotland over until he felt pain sear his armpit and his ribs. It felt like muscle ripping off of bone. From his hunched over position, Scotland's face was roughly waist-high to the two guys. The one holding him down wore tan, bell-bottom polyester pants that crested over the tops of black platform shoes. Kinsey wore brown pants with starched creases down each leg that pointed to the toes of leather cowboy boots. They looked like burgundy mirrors, hand-shined and stitched with gold thread.
Scotland struggled for a little room under his chin, just long enough to take a clean breath. He tried to pry some slack around his neck, but the grip wouldn't budge. He tried to turn his head — he wanted to see how far he was from the kitchen counter, where he'd left a knife with a wood handle next to a block of sweating government cheddar before he'd collapsed in bed. He needed that knife, now. He mumbled, "This is bullshit, Kinsey."
Kinsey snapped his fingers and the guy released Scotland and backed away.
Scotland rested with his hands on his knees, sucking in good air. His throat felt like a garden hose kinked by a shovel, but he wouldn't show Kinsey and his thug that it bothered him.
His buddies would never believe this story, and they believed everything Scotland said. His closest friends were three guys he'd worked with at Sharky's, two line cooks and a waiter. They ate up every story Scotland told about his Navy days in Pusan, Subic Bay, and Hong Kong with laughter, "Hell yeah!" and "Tell another one!" but they'd never believe this.
As he stood, Scotland moved his head side-to-side and stretched his jaw. He rolled his shoulders forward and back and flexed his major muscles as a way of taking inventory. His sight had adjusted enough to see the other guy stood a head taller than Kinsey, but still a good couple inches shorter than Scotland. He guessed the guy topped out at one hundred sixty pounds. No more imposing than any other swinging dick you'd see in line at the bank, except for the ridiculously blond hair hanging down to his neck.
Kinsey looked exactly as he had the night Scotland had met him at the card game. Waves of dark hair covered his ears, the front slung low diagonally. His beard was the same dark shade as his hair. Scotland had guessed mid-thirties that night at the card game. Like then, Kinsey wore a short-sleeved white dress shirt with the collar open, as if he'd just taken off his tie. All business despite the Purina Feed & Grain ball cap he wore.
"If it's all the same to you," Kinsey said, hands on his hips, "I'd rather dispense with the small talk and get right to business this fine evening. Okay there, son?" He moved assuredly, his posture perfect, but not stiff. Scotland imagined a young Kinsey training with his mother by walking with a book on his head. The only posture training Scotland got was at boot camp, where his Company Commander barked, "Stand up straight, you big, dumb redneck." Yelling never bothered Scotland, but the "dumb redneck" stuff had raised anger in his veins. Despite that, he'd kept secret his three years of college.
This conversation with Kinsey felt like the same thing. Scotland crossed his arms over his bare chest. Hugged his forearm to his heart. Pretended to scratch his shoulder. "Look," he said. His mouth ran dry before he finished the word. He didn't know what to say next, but figured it better be something this asshole wanted to hear if there was any chance of keeping things friendly. "I got laid off. I'm none too happy about it myself."
"You must've played football in high school," Kinsey said.
The comment washed over Scotland like cool air from the wall unit AC. Instead of sports, Scotland had started bagging groceries when he was fourteen. He mowed lawns for five dollars apiece before that. Did both all through high school. During his time at college he augmented his student loans by tutoring algebra. "Nope."
"What a waste," Kinsey said. "You'd've made a hell of a linebacker, son."
"If I had a dime for every time I heard that ..." Scotland shrugged. "I wouldn't owe you any money."
Kinsey reached up and grabbed Scotland's hand, pulled his arm straight, stared at Scotland's forearm. The tattoo had the distinct shape of a football with a triangle at the end near his wrist. He'd gotten the tattoo in the time between being released from The Castle and getting the fuck away from the Navy and Kansas for good. The tattoo had taken less than an hour and only cost him sixty bucks, but he forever had a reminder to be a better man.
"I bet there's a fascinating story behind this tattoo."
Scotland pulled his arm free. He didn't like to talk about it. It was not meant to be a conversation starter.
Kinsey toed one of the empty vodka bottles on the tiled floor and it rolled in a trail of glass-on-glass noise.
Scotland never drank at home before he lost his job.
Kinsey's boot heels clicked to the kitchen, where he fingered a full-page ad for Daytona that Scotland had tacked on the fridge with a magnet shaped like an alligator. In the ad was the most perfect beach-front cottage Scotland had ever seen. He imagined cooling off in the blue pool as muscle cars drove on the beach, pictured himself behind the wheel of a '67 'Cuda and becoming the guy in his bathing suit standing with his gorgeous wife by the pool surrounded by a white picket fence. Atop the scene was DAYTONA in yellow script. At the bottom, blue text read "Sun, Surf, and Muscle Cars." Scotland wanted to live in that place. Wanted that life. His classmates from college used to brag of spring breaks there, about the parties and the bikinis. Nothing had worked out for him in Tampa like he thought it would.
"You didn't bust into my place to hear a sob story," Scotland said. "You want your money. I don't have it."
"The fishing ban cost you your job, if I recall correctly." Kinsey said.
Scotland may have mentioned this the night they met. He could have talked about it now. Could have told him about getting the job almost a year ago and how happy his parole officer had been about the steady employment. Could have showed him the scars and improperly healed knuckles from keeping the peace at Sharky's most nights. None of that was Kinsey's business. Instead, Scotland offered the briefest summary he could think of. "Yeah."
Kinsey's features contracted with a flash of recognition followed by a smile. "You don't say?" He looked over to the other guy, who also smiled.
Scotland stood on the balls of his feet, ready to spring if provoked.
"Relax, son," Kinsey said. "If I was so inclined, you'd be dead as a doorknob by now."
Scotland shook his head and felt the kink in his throat slowly returning to normal. In a different situation, like when they'd played cards, the way that guy butchered the English language made him laugh. Instead, he ignored the malapropism because this twisted bastard insinuated death like it was nothing more than discussing the weather.
"Isn't that right, Platinum?" Kinsey asked his buddy.
The guy nodded and clapped his hands twice. "Yes, sir, Mr. K."
Scotland turned his head to see the man standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his fists leveraged to make his biceps look bigger. It made Scotland laugh. "Platinum?" He turned back to Kinsey. "Is he some kind a rump ranger?"
Platinum grunted and took a step with his arms still crossed. "Did that feel like a hug to you, smartass?" he said.
"All right," Scotland said, trying to slow things down as he did anytime he found himself outnumbered. "This will be easier for all of us if we remain friends."
That line had often kept things from getting physical at Sharky's. Sometimes, those same words only escalated the violence. He still hadn't figured out any pattern when he'd lost the job.
"That's a fine idea, son. I am happy to receive your long-overdue offer of friendship."
"Well then, Kinsey," Scotland said as he worked his jaw up and to the left to stretch out the remaining stiffness, "between friends, I gotta tell you, your poker game was rigged. Way I figure it, I don't owe you shit. So let's wrap up this little visit so I can get some sleep."
Kinsey looked at Platinum and then to Scotland. "Rigged?"
"Marked cards. Inside dealer." Scotland should never have played on house credit, but every time he wanted out he'd win a hand, and a pile of chips. Bet bigger. Lose bigger.
"Ah." Kinsey took a few steps in his direction. "We have no way to prove it was or it wasn't. So that is a mute point, son."
Scotland ignored Kinsey's mispronunciation again.
Kinsey patted the back of his hat before continuing. "But let's be perfectly honest with one another, son. You would've gladly taken my money if you'd've won." He paced a bit then came to rest with an elbow propped on the back of the stool near the counter.
Scotland stood tall, his shoulders wide, arms out. "Ten grand is pocket change to a heavy hitter like you." Scotland wasn't sure if he'd been able to hide the contempt in his voice long enough to sell the false compliment.
Kinsey slapped his hand on the counter. "The value of my pocket change is greater than any man's life if he's on my shit list, son."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beach Head"
Copyright © 2018 Jeffery Hess.
Excerpted by permission of Down & Out Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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