Back in the day, Little Mo Connor was a hired gun for Slick Dickey Scalini, taking down opponents without discretion, always with the same signature kill: three shots to the head, one shot to the heart. Now he’s living out his last days hidden away in an anonymous facility, surrounded by other seniors. Haunted by his past, his dementia comes as something of a blessing . . . though he can’t always remember what it is he wants to forget—he’s always mixing up the memories from his own life with those from books he’s read and movies he’s seen. A lover of crime novels from the pulp paperback era, Little Mo relishes lurid tales—the more violent the better.
Take, for example, his most recent acquisition: a novel in which he and his trusty .38 snubnose are the stars. It tells the story of a former hit man in love with Varla, a geriatric serial killer who convinces him that murdering his grown daughter is the only way to escape the captivity of their nursing home. But as the plot of the novel begins to play out in Little Mo’s waking life, he must struggle to separate fact from fiction before they meet in a deadly conclusion.
Hailed a “master of suspense” by the New York Times Book Review, author of the Thorn Mysteries James W. Hall now presents one of the most unusual and enthralling novellas in the Bibliomystery series. The Haze is a treat for book lovers and mystery buffs alike.
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
About the Author
Though a native of Kentucky, James W. Hall (b. 1947) has lived most of his life in Florida, where he established himself as one of the foremost authors of crime in the Sunshine State. Originally a poet, he began writing crime fiction in the mid-1980s, publishing his first novel, Under Cover of Daylight, in 1986. A murder mystery starring a Key West fisherman named Thorn, it was a well-received beginning to a series that has, to date, yielded twelve books, most recently Dead Last. Besides the Thorn books, Hall has written stories and novels of life in South Florida, as well Hot Damn!, a collection of essays. He teaches writing at Florida International University, and lives with his wife Evelyn. They divide their time between the Florida Keys and the mountains of North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
By James W. Hall
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 James W. Hall
All rights reserved.
He killed for a living. Killed a lot of people a long way back. How far back he wasn't sure. Not sure of a lot these days. The days of haze.
Who he was now, a professional killer stuck in a nursing home. New Jersey, or maybe Florida. Not sure. But a home, the kind of place she promised she'd never take him. Lied to him. After all he'd done for her. Raised her, protected her, funded her hobbies, defended her against her mother. Her mother was the killer's wife. Where was she, that wife? What was her name? More things he didn't remember.
He went about his morning routine. Ate his two sunnyside eggs and toast and half a grapefruit, got a thrill levering the sections out with the pointy spoon. That's where his thrills came from these days.
He showered, doing it the same as always, start at the top. Shampoo his thick white hair, then his face, after that using his chest hair to lather up, with special attention to his armpits, ending with his ass. He valued a clean ass. Even now, even in his current state of disorder. He wasn't so far gone he'd put up with a dirty butt.
He knew he was confused. What he didn't know was exactly how much. In particular, he didn't know which stories from his past were his own actual personal history, or things he lifted from the stories of others. People he'd talked to or maybe books he'd read.
Books, it was mainly crime writers, that's who he'd been reading since he was a snotty kid growing up in West Virginia, or somewhere deprived like that, maybe Kentucky, Tennessee. He's reading crime novels while his wife, sitting on her side of the cold bed, read whatever it was she read. Women's books, how to fix a dying marriage, how to be happy, like that was in a book, like any of it was.
Crime writers, his specialty, was what his daughter did now. Worked in a store that sold the kind of books he used to read. Did he cause that? Did he drive his daughter, what was her name, did he drive her into crime? He'd ask her if she ever came back for a visit, built up her courage to face her father again after dumping him in this hellhole.
He had a mission. You had to have a mission. Something you thought about first thing in the morning when you woke up. His was to break out of this damn place. Kill anybody stood in his way. Especially the Puerto Rican who made him swallow the pills.
Force feeding dope pills was an old standby in the stories he read. Was it Chandler with the stocky guys in white uniforms? He thought he remembered a Travis book. Nightmare something. A guy being fed pills or maybe shots in the arm. A guy stuck in a perpetual nightmare. It was in Chandler too, he thought. Marlowe or Sam Spade. Maybe Archer, what was his name? Jake? No, no, it was Lew.
He'd known a Lew. He'd killed a Lew. A job, one of his last. Italian guy was boffing somebody's young wife. He couldn't recall whose. But a wife. He was sure of that. Or maybe a daughter. But he'd shot Lew. Three in the head, one in the heart. His signature. Four rounds. That way the dead stayed dead. He'd made a name for himself, thirty years in the business. Four slugs, three up, one down. His trademark. He remembered that very clearly. Not lost in the haze.
So there, that's what his mission was. Shoot his way out of this place.
First he needed to find his pistol. A .38, snubbie. Not a fancy gun. You get up close enough, you didn't need a top of the line gun to whack somebody. That was his approach, old school. Walk right up to the hit, breathe his air, nose to nose, then three up, one down.
He looked in the bureau for his gun. Dug under his socks and his Jockeys, looked in the closet, in the teeny kitchen, behind the dishes, the bowls, the glasses, everything on the shelves. He went in the bathroom, lifted the lid on the toilet. That's where they taped the guns sometime. Movies, books, that's where it was. Place nobody looked. The Godfather, that scene with whoever it was.
But here in the home, there was no gun. No gun anywhere.
Okay, fine. He'd find another way, maybe bribe somebody to unlock a door.
He needed to get on a schedule. He always had a schedule. It was another hallmark. A schedule: first this, then that, bing, bing, bing. In bed by eight, lights out at nine, up by four. Wake in the dark. An hour or two when nobody was up. He'd plan his day. Map out the hours ahead. Print it in a Month-in-a-Glance calendar. He'd never been good with dates and times and days of the week, had to see it written down for it to make sense. Maybe the haze had started early. Or was that some other guy, some guy from a book. Elmore whatever his name was.
So there you go. That was his problem. His big mountain to climb. Not sure if he was remembering shit he actually did or shit he read.
A plan. A sneaky plan, that's what he needed. He walked around the room. Trying to outwalk the haze, get some blood flowing into his skull. The room was tiny. He'd been in bigger jail cells. Spent years in a couple, one down in Florida, Raiford, he thought, counting the days, finding ways to cope.
That was all it was, all any of it was. Ways to cope. Doing things to fill up the hours, make them pass. That was the big secret. You climb a mountain, claw your way to the top, finally you're there at the summit, there's a wise man up there, you ask what's the secret and he says, hey, find something to fill up the hours. That's all there is. You can pay on your way down.
She came, his daughter. She smiled at him. Brought him some books. His weekly ration. Four hardbacks. His eyes weren't good enough for paperbacks.
"You'll like this one, Pop."
A red cover, the shadow of a man looking down an alley.
"Already read it."
"Just came out this week, Pop. No way you read it."
"I'm on top of things. I read it already. What else you got?"
She showed him the other three. Covers used to have dames on them. You could stare at the women, imagine sinking into them. You could fall in love. Stare for hours before you even started to read. Every time you closed the book, there she was and her cleavage, her legs and hips. All those curves.
Now it was all shadows and shit.
"That all you got? You work in a bookstore, you bring me this crap?"
She left. The books stayed behind.
There was one written by a woman author. A photo of her in the back. Blonde, nice rack, trying to hide them under all those fluffy clothes like she was embarrassed by them. But still you could catch the outline. Just barely. But worth looking at. Better than the other photos, guys trying to be tough, slouching against walls or against the hoods of old cars, wearing leather jackets, mean ass dogs with spiked collars. Big deal. They were writers for christsakes. How tough could they be, sitting in a room all day, writing down the shit in their heads, make-believe shit.
His pills came at six. Right on time. Javier, the Puerto Rican, shiny shaved head. Earrings.
Christ, he'd lived too long. Guys wore earrings now. Guys married guys. He'd lived a century too long.
He palmed the pills, faked slinging them into his mouth. Then talking to Javier, showing him the photo of the woman writer.
"How big you think her tits are?"
"I saw what you did with them pills, Mr. Connors. You need to take them. They're good for you."
"Better than vitamins."
"You live in the haze, Javier?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"The haze, this shit."
He swung his arm around through the air.
"Let's see the pills, Mr. Connors. I help you with them."
He swallowed the pills. The haze hung on.
In bed by eight, reading the book by the woman. About a serial killer. Like there weren't enough of those already. But this one was a woman. An old woman. She was about his age. Suffering from the haze like him, only not so dense yet. She goes out every night, finds somebody doing wrong, it could be a little thing, a little mean thing, somebody purse-snatching, shoplifting, whatever, not bad enough to kill somebody over, but she goes ahead and kills. That helps her sleep.
Something he should try.
He could use a good night's sleep.
He reads. Comes to a good part. The old woman bumps into a man her age. A retired killer. They talk, they have dinner, they walk on the city sidewalk, Manhattan maybe, they laugh about something. They look at the moon. They look at the stars. The two of them, they've got things in common. Killing is just one. They like pasta. They like to read. They got problems with their kids who want to stash them away somewhere, force feed them pills.
"I'm going to have to kill my daughter," he tells her.
"Your own daughter? That's extreme."
"Your own flesh and blood, hell yes, extremely extreme."
"If I'm going to escape the home, be with you, there's only one choice. She's got to go."
"Maybe you could sneak out of the home."
"I tried that. They're always watching."
"I could help you."
"You'd do that?"
"What else I have to do? I'm tired of killing. I'm ready to hang it up. I just been doing it to fill up the hours."
"Giving up killing isn't as easy as you think. Killing becomes a way of life."
They kissed. They went to bed. All of it described the way he liked it in books. None of this timid bullshit like they close the bedroom door and the reader is stuck out in the hallway, can't even hear them moaning. No, this woman writer showed everything. Not flinching at any of it, or being coy like how he hated some writers did it. That was one of his peeves. Not showing the real world. Like nobody ever took a dump in books. Dumps were important. You couldn't live without taking a dump. After the two old farts made love, both of them took dumps.
It was a good book.
He fell asleep.
Woke in the haze. Deep gray smog.
Javier was there with his sunnysides.
"You have a good night, Mr. Connors?"
"You ever screw an old lady, Javi?"
"Not that I recall."
"You having trouble with your memory, boy?"
Javier set the breakfast tray on his table. Little round thing by a window.
"Eat your eggs, Mr. Connors. Drink that coffee while it's hot."
"Who do I have to kill to get out of here?"
"You're being funny again, Mr. Connors."
"A regular Jack Benny," he said. "Know who that was?"
Javier was gone, leaving behind the eggs and coffee and unbuttered toast.
He spent the day with his book. The old lady serial killer and the retired hitman.
They caught a cab together, went downtown, way down to the bookstore where his daughter worked. They walked past the store, looked in the window, kept walking.
"Dark-haired like her mother."
"Only girl I saw was a blonde."
"Yeah, that's her."
"What's her name?"
"Like what, this is a test? I got to remember everybody's name?"
"Don't get huffy."
"That was huffy? You haven't seen huffy."
Their first big fight.
They walk for a while without talking. She's mad. He's mad too and hurt.
At a corner, it's down near Soho, she hails a cab, gets in, drives away. Doesn't look back.
"Shit," he said. "Left me standing in the cold, not sure where I am. Shit."
He threw the book at the door.
Javier is there to check on him. Wondering why there's noise. Why the book's sprawled on the floor.
"I'm fine. It's the book that's screwed up. I'm fine."
"You look pale."
"She left the guy, just walked away. Left him on the sidewalk, it's a part of town I don't know where I am. Way down there, it's cold, it's freezing and she's gone. I don't have my wallet. I can't get a cab. Nobody's stopping for me."
"It's summer, Mr. Connors. There's flowers blooming out your window."
"I'm talking about the book, you idiot. It's freezing on the streets. She dumped me, walked away. We had a little disagreement is all. A spat."
"You're in this book?"
Javier is holding the book he threw.
"I'm telling you, I'm lost, don't know which way is up, and she just walked away. Broke my heart. Broke it in half and pissed on the pieces."
Javier left. His daughter came.
"You keep throwing things, Pops. They don't allow that."
"What're they going to do, toss me out?"
"If you keep acting like a child, yeah, they might."
"It's these goddam books you bring. You're trying to drive me nuts. Breaking my heart. Making me climb up the mountain and I get up there and it's some asshole making fun of me. Pay on your way down he says. Like it's all some kind of joke and I'm not in on it."
"Pops, they won't let you stay, you keep throwing things."
"Don't bring any more of those goddam books. You hear me? I got better things to do with my time. I don't need books breaking my heart all day and night. Okay? We clear?"
It was another day or maybe it was the same one only later. Hazy day.
He picked up the book and found his place. It was easy enough. Let the book fall open, it's the place.
He's out on the freezing ass street and the cab is disappearing and his heart is aching like there's a slug in it. Three in the head, one in the heart. His motto. His calling card. He's out there looking around for a street sign, not sure which way is uptown where he wants to go, his hotel, or his apartment.
A cab pulls up, door comes open.
It's her. The serial killer who cracked his heart in half and drove off and left him.
"You still angry at me?"
"I was never angry. You haven't seen angry."
"You're a gruff old man."
"You going my way or you here to taunt me?"
They drive off. The cabbie is a black guy. He's checking them out in the mirror like they're the first two old fart killers he's ever seen.
"Your place or mine?"
"Do you even have a place?" She smiled like it was a joke.
"Your place," he said. "I bet your sheets are rose petals."
"Poetry all of a sudden. That's supposed to sweep me up?"
"Poetry? You haven't seen from poetry."
Javier was back with the pills.
"I've got a mission," he told Javier. "You want in?"
"In or out? Make up your mind and make it quick."
Was that from somewhere? Maybe that guy Higgins. There was a name he remembered. Guys talking, that's the whole story. Guys talking and talking, the back and forth, street shit. Getting it right, hitting the notes pure and simple.
"You want to break out of here, am I right?"
Sometimes it's better not to talk. Sometimes that's wiser.
Javier spoke into the silence. "You want, I could help you."
He let some more silence mount up and Javier said, "Okay, I got a price. Nothing's free in this world, you know that. I could help you. I like you, Mr. Connors, and I can see you're suffocating in this joint. I'll arrange an exit. It won't be easy. They's cameras, security stuff. People on duty around the clock. It's not easy, but I got a way to do it if you're interested."
He was interested, but the silence was working for him so it was hard to stop. Spent his life talking. Spent his life giving shit and taking it, messing with people, making them do what he wanted them to, setting them up with just the right words. Now he was seeing the beauty of stillness, the raw power of it.
"I can see you're not up to talking about it just now. But I'll be back at bedtime, if you want to discuss it, what I got in mind, we can do it then, or whenever you're ready, fine by me."
He climbed into bed and read the book. The story was waiting for him like stories do. Right where he left it. Christ it was hard to keep it all straight. You had a life, a long, complicated life full of a thousand things every day, you heard things, read things, lived things, how could you know which compartment anything was stored in, where it happened originally? Some people could do it, sure. People could say, yeah, that was from here and that was from there. And that meant they could stay in their own houses and not get shipped to the home. But what was that? Knowing where something was from, where it originated. Hey, who gives a shit? It was all knocking around inside him, equal parts this, and equal parts that.
The old lady serial killer was an experienced lover, a woman of the world who knew her business. She was beautiful in bed, perfect and beautiful. She reminded him of someonehe'd made love to a long time ago when he was a young man. A Mexican girl of nineteen or twenty named Linda Vargas, black shining hair, black shining eyes. Or was she a character in a book? It didn't matter. He loved that woman, Linda Vargas, just the same as he loved the lady serial killer, loved her up and down and inside and out, her skin like rose petals and silk, her skin as sleek and soft as summer moonlight filtering through a sweet midnight haze.
And he stopped reading.
You had to stop sometimes. Show a little discipline, leave some in the bottle for tomorrow. He pulled up the sheets. His hand sliding into his underpants. His old friend. Been through the wars together, sleeping now, taking a furlough, on the sidelines. But he gave it a few pulls for old times' sake, felt it come to life. Half life anyway. Half was all he could manage. This time of life half was plenty.
The important thing about missions is to keep them going. They can change, you had to adjust to circumstances, but you keep going forward, keep the goal in mind, otherwise, what've you got? You got that Greek guy pushing the boulder up the mountain and it sliding down the other side. You got one hazy day after another, the days stacking up without any progress, any hope.
Javier came with his sunnysides.
"You have a nice night sleeping?"
Excerpted from The Haze by James W. Hall. Copyright © 2016 James W. Hall. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- The Haze