Drag Noir #FreeRead: Smallbany by Graham Wynd

Cover by S. L. Johnson

Cover by S. L. Johnson

In the run up to the release of Drag Noir, we’re featuring a few spots to drum up the excitement because, well — we’re so excited! Here’s a story from skulk member Graham Wynd to give you a sense of the flavour of the collection. Consider it a “bonus track” for the anthology.

SMALLBANY
by Graham Wynd
Content alerts: salty language, guns, drugs, sexual shenanigans

I desperately turned every door handle along the corridor while swearing a blue streak, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. The image of Bomber’s face covered with blood still haunted my vision though I tried to push it aside long enough to think straight.

“We have to seize the means of production,” Bomber had said. I laughed at the memory of his words and gripped the handle of the French horn case even tighter. There had to be a way out of here.

At last a handle moved under my sweaty grip. I pushed through the door. A supply closet: stacks of cocktail napkins, swizzle sticks and whatnot filled the shelves. Dead end, I knew. But maybe I could hide out here while things calmed down.

I threw the case in the corner and shoved a few bigger boxes together to make a leaning tower of booze boxes, then ducked down behind it. I willed my breath to slow down, but the ragged rasp of it continued. The bellows of my lung threatened to give me away if anybody tried the door behind me.

Maybe no one had followed me down the corridor.

Bomber’s gory face swam into view again and I cursed his name. ‘Means of production,’ my aunt Fanny.

Both of them.

“What do you mean, ‘means of production’?” Moaning Murdoch had asked him. He’d had that unfortunate moniker since back in the kiddie days when we were wet enough to let girls drag us to Harry Potter films. No matter that he outgrew the round face, that the big specs were replaced by contacts and Murdoch himself landed a scholarship playing for the Danes as a fullback. He was still Moaning Murdoch.

Bomber smiled in that way he had that suggested he knew the inside track. His smugness had only grown since he switched his major to business. The original plan to be a rapper had been scuppered due to his inherent lack of talent (which we all could have told him before but never mind that, he wasn’t listening).

“Business is the way of the world,” Bomber told me on average three days a week. “You gotta be in it to win it.”

“Yeah, I seen the lottery commercials too.” You couldn’t walk down the streets of Albany without seeing those words shrieking from every newspaper box or billboard. My dad always said that lotteries were a tax on the hopeless but he still played them now and then.

“Your problem is you’re unworldly, Raph,” Bomber said. We were all at Bomber’s house that he shared with some other business majors who had all gone off to some conference. Bomber hadn’t gone because he didn’t want to fly to Toledo.

He claimed it wasn’t fear of flying. “But I never flown before and I don’t want my first flight to be to Toledo.” Besides, he went on to say, the Bomber man had ideas.

It was usually a bad idea when he spoke of himself in the third person. I couldn’t say things like that because he would invariably use the opportunity to sneer at my selection of majors. But he always sounded like a crap gangster film when he started in with the patter.

“I thought the idea was to drink a lot of beers and watch football,” I said with some irritation.

“Yeah, I can’t drink too much or I’ll catch hell from coach on Monday,” Murdoch said, popping open another brew. “Just enough for a buzz. And I’m going running in the morning, too.”

“Like I give a hairy rat’s ass what you do in the morning,” Bomber said without any real rancour. “You’re rivals with us, you know. We’re not on the same side, yo.”

Murdoch snorted. “Your nuns ain’t even got a football team.”

“Football’s a losing proposition,” Bomber said, opening another can himself. “Doesn’t make good fiscal sense.” I’d lay even money he couldn’t define the word ‘fiscal’, but never mind.

Murdoch laughed. “You just jealous.”

“No, straight up. There’s a lot of money in college ball, but none of it goes to the players or the college. Coaches now, that’s a gig worth getting.”

“Word.”

“Go for the big money or you might as well become an English major like Raphael here.”

“Shut the fuck up.” I said it out of habit, but I didn’t really take it personal.

“You better start practicing now,” Murdoch said, hee hawing like a donkey as he clapped a large hand on my knee. “You want fries with that?”

“Yeah, never heard that one before,” I said sucking on my own brew and hoping the subject would change soon.

Fortunately it did because Bomber had himself a grand idea, or so he described it. In short it was going to be a smash and grab, but a little different from some of the Lark Street shenanigans we’d used to finance a wild weekend or two.

See, when I said Bomber was interested in business, I meant after a fashion. The fashion being transactions that weren’t exactly legit.

“We’ve been going about it the wrong way,” Bomber said, throwing a bag of pretzels at me. “The big money isn’t in those piddly little bourgie shops, now is it? Where’s the big money?” He looked at us expectantly.

“Banks,” said Murdoch without hesitation.

“Yeah, but banks are a pain in the ass.” Bomber looked incredibly smug. “There’s loads of money out there that doesn’t have a safe around it here in the capital region.”

“Politicians?”

Bomber looked at me thoughtfully. “You do have a point there, but like the banks, also too well protected. No, my friends, I’m talking about drugs.” His smile was nigh on seraphic.

Murdoch began to moan. “No way, man, nuh uh. I may not have a shot at the Heisman, but if I have even the slightest chance of getting to the big guys I do not want to fuck it up with a dealing charge.”

“Ain’t talking about dealing,” Bomber said with insufferable smugness. “I repeat: smash and grab.”

We both stared at him. “You know some dealer who’s got a shop front?” I asked.

“No wonder you’re an English major. No, man, I’m talking about heading down to the ghetto.”

For the suburban white kids at my college, ‘the ghetto’ referred to any street where they saw black people. Coming from Jersey I found it endearingly quaint. “I hate to break it to you, Bomber, but not every person of colour is a drug dealer. You been watching too much Fox News.”

“Shut the fuck up. I have a solid gold tip from Wee Stevie. A woman who runs a small time racket, nothing hard, but she sells a shitload of herb mostly to Danes.”

“We’re number one,” Murdoch chanted, flexing to show off his gold jersey with pride.

“Yeah, well done, meathead. So we go there, undercover so to speak, smash and grab–it’s a small operation after all–and we’re rolling in it. It’s practically vigilante justice.”

I raised my hand. “Can I go on record as saying I have a bad feeling about this?”

Bomber looked at me with disdain. “You don’t think we can handle one woman and a couple of kids? Man up.”

“Yeah, we let you handle one of the kids,” Murdoch said with a guffaw. “You can hold their toys out of reach until they cry.”

We put on moustaches. Bomber thought at least a little disguise might help. We all wore Danes baseball caps, too, which rubbed against the grain, but I could see the use of it. We took Bomber’s mother’s Honda but first he added some reflective tape to the plate to make the F look like an E and the 3 into an 8.

“Clever.” I had to admit.

“I am the man with the plan.”

It didn’t feel real though until Bomber handed us the guns. “Whoa, dude.”

“My uncle Nathan’s. Don’t lose ’em. I have to get them sneaked back in tomorrow at Sunday dinner.”

“I never shot a gun in my life.”

“Ain’t you from Jersey?” Bomber shook his head. “You don’t need to shoot nothing. They’re just persuaders.”

We drove to the place Wee Stevie had told him about, one of those old brownstones off Second Avenue. The street was quiet and mostly empty. Some gangsta type on the corner on his phone, but otherwise not much doing.

We parked the Honda and left the doors unlocked for the quick getaway. Bomber gave me the keys. “You drive like a madman anyway.”

A boy who looked no more than twelve answered the door. “A friend sent us. We’re looking to buy a little agricultural product.” Bomber gave me a wink.

“You here to buy apples?” The boy asked.

Bomber gaped. “No, man. Some grass!”

The boy smiled. “I know what you college boys want. I’m just funnin’ ya.” He turned and led the way up the stairs. Bomber looked like a stormcloud and I had to resist the urge to snicker. We came out in a sort of living room, cheaply but neatly furnished. The television in the corner had some sports on but I didn’t know what it was. Something like jai alai but more vicious as they seemed to be wailing on each other with their sticks.

“Can I help you lads with something?” Her face said Jamaica but her voice was pure blarney. It was an incongruous mix. She sat on a green easy chair that looked ready to burst at the seams.

“They want some agricultural produce,” her son said, giggling as he collapsed in another chair.

“Don’t be bold,” she scolded him, trying to hide a smile.

“We need some party supplies for the frat house this weekend,” Bomber said. “Quantities in bulk.”

“How much bulk?”

“How about…all you’ve got?”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “That’s going to run you a pretty penny.”

“We got it,” Bomber said with a smile pulling a wad of bills out of his pocket that was just a trio of Jacksons wrapped around some paper.

The woman looked very pleased. “Go Danes.”

We all laughed.

“Seamus, get the case.” The boy heaved himself out of the chair with reluctance and brought back a French horn case. He set it on his mother’s lap.

“Musician, eh?” I couldn’t help myself.

She smiled. “Used to be. Had to hock the horn to pay tuition.”

“You a Dane?” Murdoch asked.

“Saint Rose,” she said shaking her head. “Doing a masters part time in the evening. Good program. But expensive.”

“I’d love to chitchat about higher education,” Bomber broke in, “but I think we’ll be taking your stash.” He pulled that big ass Glock out of his jacket pocket and levelled it at her.

It felt as if all the air left the room.

“Mom?”

“Just sit there quiet, son.” Her eyes burned a curse through Bomber’s face as he reached down to close the case and latch it. He threw it at me. I could feel my face flush and the fake moustache itched like the devil.

“It’s a trickle down economy,” Bomber said almost apologetically as we backed toward the stair.

Her words began as a mutter. “God damn Americans and your trickle down economy.” The bitterness rose like a tide. “Seamus, get down!” Quick as a snake her hand slipped down between the cushions and brought up a gun with duct tape around its barrel. Didn’t seem to be anything wrong with its aim as she hit poor Bomber right in the eye and down he went on top of Murdoch who wailed and shoved me down the stairs.

“Run, motherfucker!” He screamed.

Adrenaline exploded in my brain. I hugged the case to me and we ran for the car. My hands were shaking so hard I couldn’t get the key in at first. Murdoch unnerved me by sobbing, “His brains on me, got his brains on me, oh fuck me fuck me.”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Police!” The gangster guy on the corner ran toward the car, brandishing a badge and a gun.

“Oh fuck, get moving!” Murdoch shrieked.

The Honda roared and I slammed it in gear and we squealed away from the curb as the cop fired. Glass shattered but we were away. I hit the first corner and then turned again screaming down First and blinking the sweat out of my eyes. I took a turn onto Henry Johnson, trying desperately to think.

“They following us?” I looked over at Murdoch who was sobbing and gibbering like a lunatic. “Murdoch! You hear me? They following us?”

“She killed Bomber!”

“Don’t think about that right now. They gonna kill us next.”

“Bomber’s dead!”

Well, fuck yeah. I turned onto Central and saw a spot to park and took it. “I got an idea, Murdoch. Take off your moustache. And wipe that blood off your face.”

“With what?” He sniffed.

I reached in the back seat and grabbed Bomber’s gym bag. The clothes reeked, but that didn’t matter. We did our best to wipe his face clean. I stuffed our hats into the bag, then grabbed the French horn case. “We’re going to hide.” I grabbed a handful of bills from the case, closed it back up and we went up to the door.

The bouncer stopped us. “We have a dress code.”

“Musicians,” I said brandishing the case at the bouncer. I flashed some green and he took it.

“Enjoy your night,” he said with a smirk.

We stepped inside the crowded pub. I could hear the thrum of a dance beat above us. “You get us some brews, I’ll reconnoiter to find a place to hide.”

I turned but Murdoch grabbed my shirt. “This is a fucking gay bar.”

“Chill. Who’s going to look for us here?” He glared but let go of my shirt. “Don’t worry. We’re not dressed well enough to get a second glance.” That seemed to reassure him, and he went off to get the beers. I was glad he hadn’t asked why I knew the place so well. I headed upstairs where the music pounded and the drag hostess shouted encouragement to the floor.

I sidled around until I found a corridor that had the toilets and a couple of other doors that looked likely. It ought to do. I turned to go back down when a huge Latino queen blocked my way.

“Musician, eh? Wanna play your horn for me?” She was the real works, towering well over six feet with that bouffant.

“Sorry, gotta motor. Meeting a friend,” I muttered as I pushed past.

“You’re going to sashay away without telling me your name, hermano?”

I couldn’t help grinning as I pattered down the stairs, but the scene wiped the smile right off my face. People screaming parted like the Red Sea as Murdoch turned his gun toward the pair of cops shouting at him to lay it down. He shot and it clicked, doing nothing and one shot in his shoulder brought him down.

I turned and fled back through the crowd whooping it up on the dance floor. It seemed to take forever until I made my way back to the little corridor. I slipped past the knot of people yammering in the door to the men’s room, by-passing the door marked ‘office’ and trying the unmarked doors beyond it.

At last a handle moved under my sweaty grip. I pushed through the door. A supply closet: stacks of cocktail napkins, swizzle sticks and whatnot filled the shelves. Dead end, I knew. But maybe I could hide out here while things calmed down.

I was almost regretting leaving the gun back at Bomber’s but I knew even then that if things went south not having a gun was going to be the only point in my favour since I didn’t have the squeaky clean suburbanite families my pals did.

I threw the case in the corner and shoved a few bigger boxes together to make a leaning tower of booze boxes, then ducked down behind it. I willed my breath to slow down, but the ragged rasp of it continued. The bellows of my lung threatened to give me away.

The door handle turned. I crouched down behind the boxes and tried to make myself small. The muted sound of the pulsing dance music suddenly grew loud. Silhouetted in the door was an unmistakable confection of big hair.

Hermano…” The husky whisper sought me out. The door closed again and her heels clicked forward. “I think the cops are looking for you.”

I wondered if I should try tackling her, but for all her glitz and snap there was no mistaking the muscles in those broad shoulders. “Hey, give a guy a break,” I whispered back.

Even in the semi-darkness I could see her white teeth gleam. “Whatcha going to give me?”

“I..I got some money.”

“Honey, I don’t need money.” The heels clicked closer. I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.

“I…got drugs.”

She laughed and crooned, “Don’t give me no dealing, I want sexual healing.”

I swallowed. “I think I might better take my chances with the cops.”

“But you can’t talk to the cops if your mouth’s full.”

The door wrenched open and the music blared loudly. “Luna, you gotta get out here, the cops wanna question everyone.”

“Coming!” Luna called over her shoulder, then looked down at me with a grin. There was laughter as the door closed, returning us to darkness.

“Open your mouth and close your eyes and you will get a big surprise,” Luna chanted.

I thought of the hike in tuition this year, the whiteness of Albany juries and god help me, my writing professors. After all, it’s not like I hadn’t done it before with guys I knew even less. So I closed my eyes.

Who knows? Maybe it would make a good story.

Extricate Throw the Bones Dual Cover

Graham Wynd

Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Wynd’s novella of murder and obsessive love, Extricate, is available from Fox Spirit Books in an ebook or collected with Throw the Bones and a dozen short capers in paperback.

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About K. A. Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, Fulbrighter, uberskiver, medievalist, humourist, flâneuse, techno-shamanka, social media wrangler for Broad Universe and Mavens of Mayhem, as well as Pirate Pub Captain, currently anchored in Dundee, Scotland. Her novels include WHITE RABBIT, OWL STRETCHING, PELZMANTEL, THE MANGROVE LEGACY and the CHASTITY FLAME thriller series. Visit her website to view her voluminous bibliography: http://www.kalaity.com/

K.A Laity is editing the ‘Noir’ anthology series for Fox Spirit

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