River of Salt

River of Salt

by Dave Warner

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Overview

In 1963, former hitman Blake Saunders flees the Philadelphia Mob for a quieter existence in a tiny coastal Australian town. Life in Coral Shoals is perfect and Blake is a new man – running a club called the Surf Shack, and playing nights there with his surf music band, The Twang.

But then a young woman’s body is found at a local motel, a matchbook from the Surf Shack on her bedside table. When Blake’s friend is arrested for her murder and the local sergeant doesn’t want to know, it becomes clear that it is up to Blake – a man who knows about cold-blooded killing – to protect his corner of paradise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925591569
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 06/15/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dave Warner is an author, musician and screenwriter. He originally came to national prominence with his gold album Mug’s Game, and his band Dave Warner’s from the Suburbs. In 2017
he released his tenth album When. He has been named a Western Australian State Living Treasure and has been inducted into the WAMi Rock’n’Roll of Renown.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

YURI

'It's a fucking disgrace. This country has gone down the shitter.'

Holding the offensive newspaper with his fat left hand, Little Joey backhanded it with his right, the same way he smacked around a numbers runner who hadn't made his quota. Al knew what was coming next. What had come next every morning since April, making breakfast even more stressful: Fucking Russians.

'Fuckin' Russians.'

There it was. Al nodded as if in sympathy but in truth he admired Yuri Gagarin, admired anybody who could sit in a fucking tin drum and be shot into outer space. How many Russian cosmonauts were up there just floating around? You'd never believe what the Russians told you. Could be dozens. Mind you, given the job these last few months, it might be relaxing. Every bodyguard he knew had an ulcer. So far Al seemed to have been spared but perhaps that was because he hardly felt like eating. You couldn't put two hands on a burger for fear of a bullet in the back of the head. Bodyguard used to be a good job, prestigious, but ever since Carmelo had gone on the warpath, it had turned to shit. Philly was a fucking slaughterhouse. Little Joey should have distanced himself from Carmelo but what Joey was thinking — erroneously in Al's considered opinion — was that if Carmelo won the struggle with the Don, then Carmelo would come gunning for those who had been his enemy. Joey wasn't dumb. Well, not that dumb. He knew he couldn't sit on the fence forever but he was holding out, hoping New York stepped in, said, enough is enough, you assholes can't sort out your problems, we're taking over — in which case he might be rewarded for keeping a cool head.

Al smuggled a look at the boss slurping his coffee. There was a difference between being cool and being negligent. Refusing to change your habits, that was negligent. And who were the suckers who would pay for such negligence?

Sam, sitting opposite, stopped scanning the doorway for a moment to meet his eye, thinking the same thing: We're the ones gonna take lead and all he wants to do is talk Russians.

'They got women astronauts too. Can you believe that?'

No point correcting the boss. He'd forget 'cosmonaut' by lunch. Stubborn little motherfucker. He ate breakfast here most every day. They'd made it as secure as possible: two guys at the back door, Caesar in the car out front, them in the booth so they only had to defend three sides maximum. Including staff, there were fifteen people besides them. The skinny guy at the stool in the cheap suit, some sort of insurance guy would be Al's guess, was there most days. Same for the college kid looked like Troy Donahue with the glasses. He was always reading a book or a magazine at a table by himself. Apart from them, couple of secretaries grabbing a bite to eat, a henpecked husband and his wife, the staff who were mainly Polacks. Day before yesterday had been a bit of a scare, that shiver you feel: two guys, heavy set in suits, walking in off the street. Al's hand had gone straight to his inside coat pocket. He'd felt Sam tense, the same. The guys had ordered ham and eggs and sat on the far side. In the end nothing ... but the tension, whew ...

'They'll have a woman in space before we've even got one of our guys up there.'

Joey was shaking his head. He didn't even look up at the tinkle of the front door bell but Al and Sam did. Couple of guys, looked like plumbers, no threat. Breathe out.

'You guys see Arnold Palmer on the TV?'

'No, boss.'

Al didn't own a TV. If he did, he would not be watching golf. Golf had become Little Joey's latest thing. The plumbers were getting coffee, Al watching just in case.

'The guy is amazing.'

The golf course was another place that was a pain-in-the-ass to watch over the boss. Little Joey was a terrible golfer. He swung like he was swatting flies. Al was sure his boss hated it but the New York guys had taken it up and the ripples had spread. Sam and Al spent half their time looking out for snipers and the rest of the time looking for Joey's ball.

'That's one thing the fucking Russians can't do. Play golf.'

Al's eyes followed the plumbers, backs to him now, sitting on their stools. The bell rang again. Al's eyes flicked quickly, like the tip of a whip: two guys, suits ... same guys as the day before. He watched, real careful now.

'I need gloves.'

Why wouldn't he just shut up?

'Ricki says ever since he bought gloves his game has improved. I have to stop slicing. Some guys hook. I slice.'

Al sensed somebody approaching, he tensed and swung ... relaxed, only Troy Dona —

If Al had had the time, he would have congratulated the kid on his demeanour, his whole technique, his patience, and of course his accuracy but he never got that far because suddenly there was an automatic in the kid's hand and Al knew he'd been bested and it was the end. He never even felt the sting of the twenty-two-calibre bullet, being already dead when the kid shot Sam through the throat. Acting on instinct, Little Joey picked up the newspaper to shield his head. The kid put two right through the photo of Yuri Gagarin — the one thing Little Joey might have approved of — into Little Joey's brain, then walked calmly towards the door.

Blake moved purposefully just like the old guy who'd once done jobs for Capone had told him.

'Never rush out. It invites the unwanted, accidents, problems. You get hit by a car, knock over a pram ... people remember that. I knew a guy: he fired, turned and ran straight through a glass door. He bled out on the pavement before the guy he shot. Wear glasses. All they remember: the guy wore glasses.'

By now the door was within reach. He was aware of the sense of disbelief around him. It was too immediate for the witnesses to be afraid. They were still processing, thinking it must be some stunt, thinking, what happened just then didn't actually happen. He pulled open the door. It felt light, like a cardboard prop. The bell jangled. They should invent a bell that doesn't jangle when you're leaving, he thought absently. All his thoughts were absent or, at the most, viewed through tracing paper. It was always that way in the zone and he'd been in the zone ever since he'd first entered the diner. Only when he stepped outside did he move into technicolour. Jimmy had a gun on Little Joey's driver, who was compliant, both hands on the steering wheel. Vince was covering the street. Right that second, Blake sensed the sedan approaching. It skidded to a halt: Marcello, always on time. Vince pulled the back door open for him and jumped in the front himself. Blake slid over. Jimmy piled in quick behind him and pulled the door. Marcello gunned the engine.

Nobody spoke.

No whoops, no shouts. It was business. Jimmy clapped him on the shoulder with that big hand of his that had always been there for him, the same right hand that had knocked their booze-hound father flat on his worthless ass and scared him out of their lives when Jimmy was just seventeen. When they still had a mother. All of this passed through Blake's brain before he heard the first siren heading back from where they'd left.

Marcello finally said, 'How many, kid?'

'All of them.'

Vincent sighed. 'I liked Al. It wasn't his fault he worked for that cocksucker.'

Winter was coming. Cold air seeped in through the car body and seemed to elevate the smell of stale tobacco. Nobody had lit up a cigarette yet, even though Jimmy and Marcello were inveterate smokers. It was as if all those parts of the world not directly to do with assassination and escape had been frozen.

After twenty minutes, Marcello pulled over two blocks north of their apartment block, popped the glove compartment, pulled out a lumpy envelope and passed it across to Jimmy, who opened it and quickly skimmed the notes.

'Three hundred bucks. For a triple? What the fuck!'

'The deal was only for Joey.'

'And how else is he supposed to get to Joey?'

'No one forced him to take the job.'

'The Don can't afford another three hundred?'

'You don't know who the client is. Don't suppose nuthin'. You're on thin ice, Jimmy.'

Vincent, who was Jimmy's friend, looked deep into his eyes.

'Take the money. You guys are building a reputation as reliable. That's money in the bank.'

Blake felt his brother was about to say something. This would not be advisable.

'It's okay,' Blake said, and stepped out of the car. The weight of the automatic in his bomber jacket made it sag to the right, and for the first time since he'd used it at the restaurant, Blake thought of it as a thing and not a limb, an extension of himself. That was his secret; when he was on a job, the gun was part of him, like a little kid playing bang-bang in a back lot pointing his finger. Jimmy snatched the money and slammed the door, a futile gesture, as Marcello had boosted the car earlier. What the fuck did he care if they took to it with an axe?

The brothers stood and watched the Electra rumble away under skies grey as an elephant's belly.

'It stinks,' said Jimmy but what went unsaid was he was the one who'd made the deal. He was the one who'd quoted too cheap, forgetting the bodyguards. Blake would never hold that against him though. They started along the sidewalk. The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man. It was a mixed neighbourhood but Blake felt more at home with the Polacks and Spades than the Italians from the old neighbourhood, a lot of who were now made guys with new allegiances. This was something he had grasped a long time ago but Jimmy still didn't get it. Vincent was one of his brother's oldest pals and Vincent loved Jimmy but even to Vincent they were outsiders now. That was never going to change but his brother still thought it was like when he was the bravest, toughest kid on the block leading the Italian kids, busting heads, boosting cars. The world had grown up around Jimmy without including him.

They lived in a plain red brick block. Blake hated it. He hated the cold of Philly. He especially hated the music Jimmy and his friends listened to: crooners who sang in neckties swaying with the mike, their eyes shut. The dark vestibule smelled of some kind of oily soup and yesterday's mutton fat. Blake tried the light switch but like always, nothing happened, the globe had been dead for a month. The bonus was he didn't have to look at the peeling wallpaper that had been there since the twenties and was even more depressing than this gloom. He gripped the bannister to begin hauling himself up the four floors.

His brother spoke softly in the dark. 'I'm sorry. It's my fault. I should have asked for triple or double at least. I'll make it up to you.'

'You don't have to.'

'I will. Trust me.'

Those were two words you never wanted to hear from Jimmy.

Later they were eating steaks at the small table in their apartment. This was the extent of their celebration for now. The irony of marking his kills by eating steak was not lost on Blake — dead meat buys dead meat — but he blocked the thought so it was no more than a soft footfall at the end of a dark hallway. Some men are born to write poetry or design frocks or hit a baseball out of the park. Everybody except Blake believed he'd been born to pull a trigger. This was the fourth time in a little over twelve months he and Jimmy had sat down to eat steak after a display of his prowess, and though he did not relish his calling, he still enjoyed the steak. Life dealt you a hand, you did your best with it. Or you tossed it in.

'You okay, champ?' Jimmy's eyebrows knitted as he leaned over, concerned. 'I didn't overcook it?'

'No, you cooked it fine.'

'So, what? You want to go dancing? I could scare up Trixie, she could find that friend of hers, the blonde ...'

'Mindy.'

'Yeah.'

Blake shrugged. Dancing didn't appeal. He didn't know what he wanted to do except maybe turn on the heater but the brothers were frugal and winter was coming when you'd need every cent to pay to be warm. Unless he chased another job. But no, he'd prefer to shiver than put a bullet in somebody's brain. The cash should last them a few months at least. His mind drifted back to the car, the parting argument about the money.

'You shouldn't have said that to Marcello, about the money.'

Jimmy nodded. 'I know. But it's okay. They need us. And the Don should have fucking paid more. And I know it's my fault, I made the deal but even so ... it had to be said.'

'You think he was the client?'

Marcello had never actually revealed who the hit was for.

'Of course he was the fucking client.'

'It could have been Carmelo.'

'No. Marcello and Vincent are the Don's guys. They wouldn't have anything to do with that psycho.'

'So why wouldn't the Don go after Carmelo? Why Little Joey?'

Jimmy pushed his plate away, shook his head like his kid brother had so much to learn. 'Carmelo is expecting that. He's strong. A lot of guys like Little Joey are sitting on the fence. You try to hit Carmelo and miss ... sends a bad message, rats start to leave the ship. So, you make an example of Little Joey. "You guys think you can sit on the bench, think again." Little Joey was a warning in lights from the Don: "I got teeth too."'

Three days later Blake was walking down the hallway to their apartment, his bones brittle. He'd had to force himself to leave the local diner. It was snug in there and he liked the sound of the cash register and plates and cutlery. Outside it was grey and too cold to shoot hoops. The weather had brewed up a chill all too quick. But he'd been there close on two hours and he couldn't stay forever. Jimmy was with Vincent scoping some job, so it was just him. As he passed number seventeen, he heard music like no music he'd ever heard before. It was all twang and thumping tomtoms. The guy in eighteen was a tall, skinny white guy and Blake knew him to nod to when they passed on the stairs but that was all. There was no sign of any woman living in the apartment. For a whole minute Blake stood outside the door listening to the music. It made him tingle all over. He realised the sound must have been a record, not radio, because when it finished he could hear the click of the needle. He was going to turn away but curiosity got the better of him and he knocked. A few seconds later the door opened and the guy stood there looking like he expected a complaint, defensive but more worried than angry.

'The music ...' Blake began.

'Was it too loud? I'm sorry.'

'No, no it was ... I'm Blake.'

'Pete Lanscombe.'

They shook hands awkwardly.

'I'm in ...' Blake pointed up the hall.

'Eighteen.'

'Yeah. I've never heard anything like that. It sounded ... wild.'

Lanscombe's face lit up. 'Isn't it! I picked it up in California. I just got back. This guy was playing ... Dick Dale. It's called surf music.'

Lots of times people say, 'That changed my life.' Sometimes they mean it, like the first time they spy their husband or wife. Or when they get shot in the knee because they skimmed or didn't pay on time. Of course that changes your life: you'll walk with a permanent limp and wake in the cold, dark hours with your bones throbbing. Lots of times though it's just a filler, one of those things said for effect. That's what Blake thought anyway, but when he heard that record with the twangy guitar he felt deep down inside that it really wasn't going to change anything, even though it should have changed everything.

Sometimes you can be wrong.

* * *

'You really want to go to California and play that thing?'

'That thing' was a Fender Stratocaster and it had cost Blake all his cut of the Little Joey job, apart from what they'd put aside for rent and food. It was his pride and joy but he didn't mind Jimmy speaking about it like it was a cheap ukulele. Jimmy didn't know any better and he was trying to look interested. Blake had been practising three hours straight. He figured it must have been driving his brother nuts. His fingers were blue with cold. He looked up from the guitar.

'I know it's just a dream.'

'No, no, don't say that.' Jimmy wagged a finger in his face. 'You want to do that, we'll do that.'

'Come on, Jim, all your friends are here.'

Jimmy's head was the size of a melon that could feed an Irish family. He shook it now. 'They're not my friends. You're my friend, the only one. I don't owe them nothing.'

What had transpired to alter Jimmy's opinion from three months earlier when the iceblock that was winter hadn't yet been dropped on their doorstep, was that the Don had forbidden Jimmy's planned robbery of a large craps game run by Carmelo. It seemed Carmelo was back at the heel with all the fight gone from him and the Don preferred that to crushing him as he might have and creating yet another power vacuum. At least that's what Blake had picked up from Jimmy. Blake didn't really care about or understand the deeper machinations of that crowd.

'I'm serious.' Jimmy was hunched in his big overcoat, hands jammed into the pockets. 'I'm sick of this. Let's get the fuck out of here, go live on Redondo Beach.'

'You don't swim.'

'Yet.'

'We need a car. They say in California you have to have a car.'

'We'll get one. Play me something.'

'The only thing I can play is "Silent Night".' s

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "River of Salt"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Dave Warner.
Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Yuri,
2. Twang,
3. Watusi Stomp,
4. Membership,
5. Cockeyed Optimist,
6. Aquarium,
7. Paradise Lost,
8. A Trip South,
9. Edward,
10. Death and Resurrection,
11. Forest For Trees,
12. A Shirt Returns,
13. Glow,
14. The Trouble with Secrets,
15. The First Stone,
16. Match,
17. I Wanna Hold Your Hand,
18. The Nineteenth Hole,
19. The Other Side Of Dallas,

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