One day straight as an arrow, loud enough to wake the neighbors, the next day a halting stream, one pitiful drop at a time. When he was eighteen, he could hit a silver dollar from six feet away and hold a case of beer in his bladder for hours. Now he had to piss every ten minutes, and half the time it was a false alarm.

A doctor told him it was normal for a man’s prostate to enlarge as he got older, making the simple act of urination challenging at times. He said it just like that, challenging at times, while twisting his finger around inside Walter’s ass. As if there was some double meaning there, like getting Walter to change sides and turn homo was going to be a challenge. That was the last time Walter visited that particular doctor, pretty sure the guy was a fag. Not that Walter had anything against gays, mind you. Lots of them worked in the movie business, and on the whole they seemed to work as hard, if not harder, than the straight guys. And Walter definitely didn’t have anything against lesbians, based on a couple of videos he rented last year which clearly demonstrated that lesbians not only enjoy having sex with other women but also men at the same time, especially if the guy happens to be a repairman of some sort, like a plumber.

But Walter’s plumbing was shot. He realized that every time he took a piss, but he would wait until his prostate exploded before going back to that doctor. It was one thing to work with gays on a job, but it was another thing entirely to pay somebody to stick his finger up your ass. That was crossing a line Walter was not prepared to cross.

He gave himself a shake and turned sideways to check himself out in the mirror. His gut had kept him from seeing his cock for some time, so every once in a while he made it a point to look in the mirror, make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. And there they were, two plums and a banana. Or maybe two raisins and a carrot that sat in the sun for too long, on the dashboard of a car in the middle of August.

Fuck, he was getting old fast.

Walter zipped up and wandered back to his living room. The drapes were open, revealing a remarkable view of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the water. A huge container ship was moving slowly under the bridge, a wide strip of shadow throwing the forward cabin into darkness and revealing the true size of the vessel. Must be longer than a football field, end to end. Walter sat down heavily on his couch and watched until the ship emerged into the light on the other side, wondering briefly what was in the containers, and how something that big could float.

It made Walter think about his bowel movements.

That was another bit of medical advice Walter had received recently. Your stool should float. Walter was struck dumb when he heard it, since he’d gone to see a specialist about a ruptured disk in his back, not his shit. He’d pinched a nerve in his back, which sent electric jabs of pain down his left arm and side every time he carried something heavier than a milk carton. He figured a back surgeon would want to do back surgery, so he decided to try some alternative medicine instead. Normally not his style, but friends who had undergone back surgery always seemed to end up in more agony than before they went under the knife. So Walter asked around and got a referral for some Asian dude named Master Ling.

Ling’s office was really the back of his house, a small clapboard up in the Sunset district. He treats four or five people there at once, laid out on massage tables, all of them looking about as out-of-shape and miserable as Walter.

Master Ling starts off with a back massage, which was OK. Actually it was better than OK – it seemed to be helping, but then Ling rolls Walter over and starts poking him in the stomach. Hard. Tells Walter he’s constipated – that’s where all his trouble started. The belly and the back are two sides of the same coin, says Ling, and Walter needs to respect his stomach. Walter almost bust out laughing but caught himself, seeing the serious look in Master Ling’s eyes. But when Ling asks, when was the last time Walter ate steamed vegetables, fasted for a day, or eliminated meat from his diet, Walter told him the truth.


That did it for Master Ling. No more back massages for Walter. Instead the guy sits down and writes out a grocery list, tells Walter to change his diet and then return after four months, once his stool starts to float. Show me you want to change, Walter.

No meat. No booze. Nothing fried. Ling pretty much put X’s through everything Walter normally consumed in a twenty-four hour period. You will know you are reaching inner balance when your stool softens. Only then could Master Ling work on his back.

Make me proud, Walter, and I will make you whole.

Walter crumpled the shopping list on his way back to the car, threw it in the back seat and drove away, realizing Master Ling was a whacko and the only solution was to avoid any heavy lifting. Put it in perspective. He’d rather have back surgery than eat nothing but steamed vegetables the rest of his life.

Now he had groceries delivered to his apartment once a week. Problem solved. Get someone else to do the work for you. Exactly like he was doing now, with those two clowns down the hall. Larry and Jerome, the Sandwich Brothers. It made him laugh to think about it, those two schmucks moving pot all over the city for the Mexican mob. And now Walter could sit back and watch them do it, take his twenty percent without any exposure, any risk, or any effort. Like winning the lottery.


Larry was wondering if he could stab his brother under the table without anyone noticing.

It was only a passing thought, a spur-of-the-moment plan, abandoned as soon as the waitress brought their food, but it kept him calm just thinking about it. Larry’s brother, Jerome, was beaming across the table, his features obscured by the steam coming off his plate.

Fajitas,” sighed Jerome, looking like he’d just won the lottery. The plate set before him was iron, heated close to its melting point before a cornucopia of shrimp, chicken, and vegetables was dumped onto its surface. The iron plate was set in the middle of a black plastic tray divided into three sections. On the left was the guacamole and sour cream, on the right black beans and rice. There was no room for the flour tortillas, which were stuffed in a wax paper bag and dropped unceremoniously onto their basket of chips.

“What did you say?” asked Larry testily.

Jerome spread his hands like Moses, inviting his brother to gaze in wonder upon the awesome power of the mix-and-match combo.

“Fajitas!” he cried. “Fah – HEEE – Ta’s!

A couple sitting at the table to their left glanced over. Larry scowled at the woman before turning the look on his brother. He leaned across the table, getting close enough to feel the steam on his face. He wanted to get a good look at Jerome’s pupils.

“I know they’re fucking fajitas,” he growled. “Now the whole restaurant knows it, too. What’s the big deal? You order them every time we come here.”

“Lighten up, man,” said Jerome, grabbing the bag and yanking a tortilla free of its waxy embrace. “You want some?”

Larry didn’t say anything, just scanned the restaurant.

Jerome kept talking, oblivious. “I just like the sound of the word, is all.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Makes you happy just saying it.”

Larry did not look happy. “Are you stoned?”

“Just say it,” insisted Jerome. “Fuh – HEAT - aaaahs.”


“C’mon, it’ll cheer you up.”

“I asked you a question.”


“I said, I asked you a question.”

“Right, what’s the question?”


Jerome ignored the question, instead concentrating on getting some black beans onto the surface of his tortilla without spilling them. Another plate would help. Maybe he should flag the waitress. She was cute. A little wide in the hips, and a little too gringo for a Mexican restaurant, but nice. Maybe he’d ask her out, right after dessert. He jerked his head towards his brother but didn’t look him in the eye. “You want a marguerita?”

Larry shook his head and grabbed his beer, a Dos Equis. He looked at the marguerita glass sitting in front of his brother, big as a fish bowl, the ice melted, the green liquid swirling around in the colored glass. It had to be ten inches in diameter.

“I’m not drinking margueritas,” he said evenly. “And you’re stoned.”

Jerome looked up defensively and then shrugged, his pupils like two solar eclipses. “A little.”

Larry nodded, his jaw set. “You realize every ounce you smoke is one less ounce we sell?”

“Math’s not my thing, Larry.” Jerome ladled some guacamole on top of the beans, then jammed the wrapped tortilla into his mouth. “That’s why you handle the books.”

Larry shook his head in disgust. Then why do we split the profits fifty-fifty? He kept the thought to himself as he sipped his beer. Jerome leaned forward and slurped loudly from his marguerita bowl. Larry just kept shaking his head, the throbbing in his temples a metronome of budding rage.

Larry and Jerome Siegel were known around town as The Sandwich Brothers, an entrepreneurial venture started in their kitchen almost four years ago. The concept was simple enough, an inspiration born of having been fired from perfectly respectable jobs in several small to mid-sized companies.

Part of the reason they got fired was because they were both fuck-ups. Larry realized that now. He’d matured.

But he also realized a big part of their ineptitude came from being constantly malnourished. He and Jerome didn’t eat lunch, so they were lightheaded, so they fucked up. When you work in an office in San Francisco, you basically have two options for lunch. You can go to a nearby restaurant, which costs you half your weekly paycheck – unless you order a salad, in which case you won’t go broke until the middle of the month. Only top executives, overpaid financial types, and tourists ate at swanky cafes lining the downtown sidewalks.

The other option was bring your lunch, but who wants to walk to the fucking grocery store, make a sandwich, wake up early to pack your bag for work, and then eat at your desk? OK, so women in the office did it all the time, no big deal. But that’s what chicks do, isn’t it? Go on stupid diets, make their own food, and starve themselves during the day so they can eat like pigs when their sap boyfriends take them out to dinner. Larry didn’t have a girlfriend and hadn’t in quite some time, but he was pretty sure that’s what chicks did.

So you’ve got all these half-starving, half-broke guys moping around cubicles all over San Francisco, looking for something to eat. Why not make them lunch?

It was a brilliantly simple way to make a living. Sleep until ten, then go to the grocery store, make a bunch of sandwiches that cost maybe a buck each, stuff them into a cooler, and sell them to the rubes in the cubes for five bucks each, unless they want to spring for chips, in which case you charge them another dollar.

Word spread, and within a few months Larry and Jerome were delivering sandwiches to offices all over the city. They even had t-shirts with The Sandwich Brothers logo emblazoned on them. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it paid the rent.

Then one night Larry was struck by a bolt of inspiration.

He was trying to do the books while Jerome sat on the couch watching reruns of Scooby Doo, smoking a blunt the size of Montana, ash falling on the carpet while smoke curled in the air and stained the ceiling yellow. It drove Larry crazy when his brother smoked in the living room, so he started to say something when he was struck by an idea that seemed so obvious, he wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier.

Larry had stopped smoking pot years ago because it made him nauseous. Jerome always said that was because Larry was too tightly wound. (Larry always told Jerome to go fuck himself, to which Jerome said, see what I mean?) But looking at his brother sprawled on the couch – a slack, doe-eyed expression on his face – Larry realized that most people their age were more like Jerome. Though he hated to admit his brother was right, most of their friends would say Larry was too uptight. Most of their friends smoked pot. As a general rule of thumb, young people would rather get stoned than balance their checkbooks.

Therein lay the opportunity.

They were visiting offices all over the city, staffed by young men and women in their twenties, most of whom liked to party. Many of whom smoked pot, based not only on Larry’s personal experience with his brother but also national statistics. The Sandwich Brothers already had a distribution network which made them invisible, so why not sell weed along with cold cuts and chips? Slip a joint next to the ham-on-rye and take a twenty off the guy instead of a five. For bigger sales paper bags worked just fine, and soon Larry was setting up regular accounts with lines of credit.

Within two months The Sandwich Brothers had quintupled their income, and their reputation spread through underground channels across the city. Inter-office e-mail was fueling their fame and paving the way for new sales.

And Larry would be the first to say that he needed Jerome --- at first. The key to the whole operation was spotting the person in the office cool enough to approach for the first sale. Jerome could spot a fellow pot-smoker a mile away. They could be across the room and Jerome would say, yeah, that’s our guy, and ten times out of ten he’d be right. Jerome would ask the guy where he could buy some weed, just to see if he was using, then turn it around and offer him a regular supply.

Yes, Jerome had a gift, but of late he’d become a liability. Buying clothes. Leaving big tips at restaurants. Bragging to girls in bars, hitting on waitresses, telling them he was a player. Fortunately he didn’t look the part, so most advances were rebuffed with a snort of laughter, but the key to long-term success in this game was anonymity. The Sandwich Brothers had to keep up impressions, two hard-working boys feeding the future managers of corporate America. The cover was good, but it would crumble if you looked too closely.

If they started acting like drug dealers, they’d get busted so fast they wouldn’t have time to shit before they were suddenly behind bars getting ass-fucked by some Aryan monster named Bruno.

Larry didn’t want that to happen.

“So what happens now?” asked Jerome, talking around a mouthful of chips.

Larry shifted in his chair. “What do you mean?”

“Our landlord’s dead.”

Larry looked at the couple next to them to make sure they weren’t listening. The woman was laughing at something the guy had said. Larry thought it looked like a forced laugh, but she was hot, and Larry was sitting over here with his dumbass brother, so what did he know? Maybe the guy was funny.

Larry leaned over the table. “I know he’s dead. What’s your point?”

“So who do we pay?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the dude was blackmailing us, right?”

Larry frowned. “We had an arrangement with Ed,” he said impatiently.

The arrangement started like this: one day about six months ago, Ed the landlord let himself into their apartment to check on a water leak that was called in by a tenant downstairs. The brothers were out, but their month’s supply of pot was laid in neat packages on top of their kitchen table. Ed threatened to turn them in, but Larry figured Ed would have already called the cops if he didn’t have something else in mind. Ten minutes later they had a deal, Ed had supplemental income, and The Sandwich Brothers had a silent partner they were paying every month to stay silent.

“Right,” said Jerome. “An arrangement. So who’s our partner now?”

Larry’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he could get the words out. “Nobody. How much did you smoke, anyway?”

“You changing the subject?”

“We only paid that asshole because he threatened to call the cops. Now he’s dead, so we keep all the money ourselves, just like before.”

Jerome blinked for a minute, thinking about that one.

Swweeeeet!” he said, a little too loudly. The couple next to them glanced over before turning back to their conversation. Then Jerome added in a not-so-low voice, “Did you kill him?”

Larry clenched the dinner knife in his right hand and almost went for it right then and there, a quick jab across the table, a mad dash out of the restaurant, a plane ride to The Bahamas, and home free. Jerome face-down in his fajitas. Larry would have to tell their Mom eventually, and she usually took Jerome’s side, but Larry knew in his heart that she’d forgive him if she only knew what he’d put up with.

A voice from above changed Larry’s mind. It changed a lot of things.

“Hi guys.”

Larry turned in his seat, the knife still clenched awkwardly in his hand. Jerome looked up from his marguerita. It took them both a second to place the guy.

Mid-fifties, bald with black sidewalls, tan face and a paunch that looked like it had been there a while. Deep lines around his eyes and nose, a wry smile beneath a shiny black mustache. He lived two doors down from them, one of the one-bedroom apartments on the twentieth floor. Larry squinted as he tried to remember the guy’s name. Willy. Wally. Wilson. Something like that.

“Walter,” the guy said.

“What?” both brothers said at once.

“That’s my name,” the guy said. “You were trying to remember my name.”

Larry tried a recovery, took the surprise out of his voice.

“We were?”

“Sure,” the guy said. “My name’s Walter. I live down the hall.”

Jerome played it wrong, the vestiges of his high mixed with tequila giving him false confidence.

“Good for you, Walter,” he said. “What’s that got to do with us?”

Walter shrugged, the smile still there. “I was sitting at the bar over there.” He gestured over his shoulder. “And I thought I should come by and say hello. You know, get started on the right foot.”

Larry got a sick feeling in his gut, but Jerome jumped in before he could say anything.

“Right foot, left foot,” sang Jerome. “No offense, Walter, but what the fuck are you talking about?”

Larry closed his eyes, waiting for the answer.

Walter’s smile got bigger. “I’m talking about our business arrangement, Jerome. You are Jerome, right?” He switched his gaze. “And you’re Larry.”

Jerome shook his head and turned to his brother, irritated. This guy was ruining a perfectly good buzz.

“Larry, who is this fuckin’ guy?”

Larry studied Walter, now leaning in close, crowding the back of his chair but still smiling. Now we’re fucked. Larry sighed, answering his brother’s question but still looking at Walter, his gut hanging over the edge of the chair.

“Jerome, meet our new silent partner.”


Walter knew he had the world by the short hairs when that sap landlord had started spilling his guts at the bar. For some reason Walter still didn’t understand, Ed sat down next to him and started jabbering away. As if something had happened to him, some personal revelation, like the Virgin Mary appeared in his bathroom mirror and called him a cocksucker. Happened all the time in Latin America.

Walter didn’t care about Ed one way or the other, and he was already half in the bag himself when the guy sat down next to him, ordered drinks for both of them and started whining.

Nobody likes me. That’s because you’re an asshole, Ed. It’s a thankless job, being a landlord. Try not being a prick, and maybe some of the tenants would say thank you.

Walter gave it to him straight. He never claimed to be Doctor Phil.

It went on like that for an hour before Ed just blurts it out, how he caught the brothers moving grass, and now he’s on easy street. Walter sobered up real fast, started thinking of angles. If Ed could get a cut, why not Walter? Besides, he needed the money more than Ed. Satellite and digital cable were killing the direct-to-video movie business.

It used to be easy. Think of a few name actors who haven’t had a hit movie in a couple of years, then add an actress in the same situation, preferably one with big tits. Casting was everything. Then pick a city to destroy, someplace with some local color. The Southwest was good, because nobody really lived there, but everyone knew where it was. For all the general public knew, the U.S. military was finding aliens and setting off nuclear bombs there all the time. The final step was to run through the list of possible mutations from a nuclear accident, like a house spider becoming a ten-story tarantula, or a garden snake growing as long as a sewer pipe. Then you rip-off the plot from the last movie you made, bring in the production for less than you told the investors it would cost, pocket the rest, and clean up at the rental counter.

But now anyone could download a recent movie – a hit movie –right from their cable company, and watch it whenever they wanted. And the glut of movies from Hollywood made it next to impossible to get any deals with the second tier cable channels. There were too many movies, plain and simple. So the B-movie business was dying, and Walter was feeling the pinch. He was desperate.

But that was two weeks ago, before Ed took a header off the roof and Walter took control of his destiny. Who knew he could turn things around so soon?


The Sandwich Brothers considered adding murder to their menu. One minute they were back in business, able to profit from the addictive properties of cannabis in the spirit of a free-market economy, and the next minute they’ve got some fat fuck breathing down their necks for his share of the spoils.

“His share?” yelled Jerome from the couch. They were back in their apartment, Larry pacing furiously in the kitchen, Jerome slouched on the couch, his face and half the room obscured by great halos of smoke. “His fucking share of what? He didn’t do any of the work.”

Larry stopped pacing and caught a glimpse of himself in the chrome on the refrigerator. His face was distorted by the curve of the handle, his features twisted and angry. Then he saw himself across the room, in the mirror over the couch, and realized he really looked like that. He was stressed beyond belief, struggling with a sudden, overwhelming urge to get stoned with his brother. He knew it would make him sick, but it might be worth it. Sit down next to Jerome and smoke all his troubles away.

But they weren’t going away. Walter was real, and he had them by the short hairs. Larry had felt the guy’s belly brush up against his back as he leaned over their table. He shivered at the memory. The guy was a pig.

“What did he say he did for a living?” called Jerome from the cloud of forgetfulness. “Besides ripping us off?”

“He’s a producer,” said Larry. “He makes movies.”

“Like what?”

“B-movies,” said Larry dismissively. “Like Revenge of the Scorpions.”

Jerome sat up straighter on the couch. “Scorpions was a cool movie. This giant scorpion, well, it starts out small, but then a nuclear bomb goes off in the desert? Well, this fuckin’ scorpion gets big, and I mean really big --- and then it gets loose and, well, it pretty much eats Scottsdale, Arizona.”

Larry shook his head impatiently. “That was Scorpions. Walter didn’t make that one. He made the sequel, Revenge of the Scorpions.”

Jerome shrugged. “I don’t think I saw that one.”

“Neither did anyone else,” snapped Larry. “He made some other movies, too, all direct-to-video shit. That’s why Walter needs to supplement his income by blackmailing us.”

“Oh.” Jerome nodded sagely. “Still, Scorpions was a fuckin’ good movie, bro. Maybe this guy isn’t so bad.”

Larry squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten. Jerome kept talking.

“I’m just saying, maybe we could work out a deal.”

Larry’s eyes snapped open. “Walter’s already worked out the deal for us, you moron.”

“He did?” said Jerome. “That was nice of him.”

Now counting down from ten, backwards.

“No, it wasn’t nice,” replied Larry. “Apparently he went drinking one night with Ed, our recently deceased landlord and former business partner, and dumbass Ed spilled his guts to his new drinking buddy.” Larry visualized Ed’s big toothy smile. It reminded him of Walter’s smug grin, back at the Mexican restaurant. Smiles of victory. We’ll see, you fat son of a bitch.

“And he wants two percent?” asked Jerome.

Twenty percent,” corrected Larry. He watched Jerome from across the room, waiting for it to sink in. He counted. Jerome’s eyes bugged out after eight seconds.

“Twenty?” said Jerome, on his feet now. “Twenty fucking percent?”

“Twenty.” Larry nodded. “Or he goes to the cops.”

Jerome blew out his cheeks. “Maybe we could run over him with our truck.”

Larry enjoyed the visual for a moment, Walter’s big gut dragged under the grill, his eyes wide as they disappeared under the hood. The SUV lurching as four-wheel drive kicked in and they ran over him, a minor speed bump on the road to success.

Larry blinked away the image and shook his head. “Too messy. Might be witnesses.”

“Baseball bat to the head?” asked Jerome, trying to be helpful.

Larry was suddenly back in little league, squinting under the brim of his cap, his arms cocked, his hands tight around the bat. Stepping forward on his left leg, he realized that the pitcher had not thrown a baseball after all, instead substituting Walter’s head, shrunken down to ball-size, tiny seams stitched across his forehead.

A home run!

Larry reluctantly let go of the image. “No, even worse than the car. We’d be behind bars by the end of the day.”

Jerome frowned and returned to the couch, this time lying down. His cheeks sucked inward as he took a deep hit on the joint. “So we’re just going to pay him?” he asked in a strangled voice.

Larry shook his head, his jaw set. “Who do we buy our pot from, Jerome?”

Jerome responded immediately, proud to know the answer to something. He slapped his hand repeatedly in the air against an imaginary buzzer, like a Jeopardy contestant having a seizure.

“Buster!” cried Jerome.

“Buster is the middle man,” said Larry softly, not wanting to dampen his brother’s constructive energy. “The go-between. Where does Buster get the pot?”

Jerome nodded, ready for the challenge. A two-part question. No problem. It took him a few seconds, but his hand shot up again, slapping wildly in the air.

“Zorro!” he shouted. “Fuckin’ Zorro, man.”

“That’s right,” said Larry, as much to himself as his half-baked brother. “Zorro.”

Zorro. The Spanish word for fox, an apt name for a predator. Larry smiled, feeling in control of the situation again. He walked over to the couch and sat down next to his brother, moving Jerome’s feet with surprising gentleness.

“Jerome, one more question,” said Larry. “This time for double points.”

Jerome sat up, his bloodshot eyes bright with excitement. “Shoot.”“Who’s more scary, that fat bastard down the hall…or the guys who work for Zorro?”

Jerome’s hand shot into the air like a rocket and slapped the imaginary buzzer again and again. But he didn’t need to say anything. He just looked at his brother with a big, lopsided grin.

The Sandwich Brothers both knew the answer to that one.


Walter needed to do some homework. Figure how much weed Jerome and Larry were really moving around town. Call around the major office buildings, ask if they use The Sandwich Brothers. Get a head count, make some assumptions. Because Walter had no doubt the brothers would try to cheat him out of his share. He could tell by the look in Larry’s eyes. Jerome’s were so bloodshot, Walter couldn’t tell what was going on upstairs. Jerome he wasn’t so worried about. But Larry was going to be a problem.

What was he saying? Walter wasn’t worried about either one of them. He had them scared shitless, because he could drop a dime on them at any sign of trouble. It was just like in the movies. Casting was everything. They were punks, and he was a player.

What were they going to do about it?


Carlos decided to shoot Walter in the head.

After Zorro ordered the hit, Carlos considered using the plastic explosive C-4, which was easy enough to obtain, but Zorro said no collateral damage. Innocent bystanders getting hurt would bring too much heat. A murder investigation he could handle, but the FBI analyzing bomb fragments was not a good idea. This homeland security thing had made his job challenging, but Carlos still loved his work.

He offered to get his hands dirty, kill Walter with a knife or an axe. Make it bloody, send a signal to anyone thinking about stealing from Zorro, but again the boss said no. The apartment complex was too small, the people too gentile. The brutality would overwhelm the message. That sort of killing was fine among the gangs or their families – for those who knew of Zorro – when cutting a man’s heart out or taking his eyes sent a warning in a common language of violence. But in downtown San Francisco the murder should be sudden, dramatic. Like something out of movie.

An assassination.

Carlos knew all about assassinations. He wasn’t Mexican like the others but hailed from the Basque region of Spain, an area known for its beautiful landscapes, unique culture and a rich history of terrorism. Carlos’ father had been a member of the ETA, a separatist group committed to forming an autonomous Basque state. Over long nights at the kitchen table, he taught Carlos how to mold plastic explosive into a shaped charge that could adhere to the underside of a man’s car. After they had finished, his father would look at him with unvarnished pride, tousle his hair. Then he would throw his hands in the air and shout Boom! – they would both laugh till they cried.

Carlos blinked and ran a finger under his eyes. He was getting sentimental.

Carefully, he opened the long box before him, scooting forward in his seat to set the styrofoam packing materials on the back half of the kitchen table. He smiled as the gun was revealed.

It was a Browning hunting rifle with a magazine capable of holding five 7mm bullets, though Carlos only needed one. He was going to use 175-grain cartridges, standard for hunting elk or deer. One of Zorro’s young recruits without a criminal record named Alberto had purchased the gun at an outdoor supply store in San Leandro, so the gun was clean. For now.

After the killing, the gun would be destroyed. If something went wrong and the gun was captured by the police, Alberto would say that it had been stolen. If that didn’t work, then young Alberto would be on his way to having a criminal record like everyone else, his first step towards becoming a man.

The rifle could be fitted with one of the Leupold scopes that Carlos owned and was accurate to well over 300 yards, but Carlos had decided to go with the fixed sights, use the gun right out of the box. Based on the layout of the kill zone, he would be close to the target. So close he couldn’t miss.

One shot to the head in broad daylight.

Simple. Bold. Daring. A message no one could ignore.

There would be no eyeballs taken this time. Carlos regretted the missed opportunity but he admired Zorro’s restraint. Maybe they would steal the eyeballs from the morgue.

Carlos checked the action on the gun, savoring the sound as the bolt slid into place. He felt himself stir, aroused by the sensuality of the metal, the deadly precision of the rifle. Taking a deep breath, he carefully set the gun back in the box and checked his watch.

It was almost time.


Walter awoke to find a hand on his crotch.

It took a moment to realize the hand was his, shoved down the front of his pants while he slept. Lord knows what it had accomplished while he lay snoring on the couch. No matter how or where he fell asleep, he always woke up in this position. He’d considered setting a video camera on a tripod to record himself, see what the Hell was going on, but decided that would be too kinky. Besides, these days his right hand was the only action he was likely to get.

Morning already. He stood and made his way to the kitchen, scratching himself every step of the way. Checked the clock on the stove. Rush hour, people headed to work. Walter sighed, relieved he didn’t have a nine-to-five job, almost felt sorry for the dumb saps who did.

He yawned, tasted beer on his breath as he surveyed the wreckage of his living room. Empty bags of chips, crumbs on the couch. Twelve beer bottles lined up like toy soldiers. He felt famished and constipated at the same time, a push-pull on his stomach that felt like he might explode at any minute. Walter hated to admit it, but that Chinese bastard had been right, his stool was hardening like petrified tree sap. He wondered if next time he took a shit, maple syrup would come out. Maybe that would impress Master Ling.

Not likely.

So much for doing some homework into the drug trade. He’d managed to pass out on the couch while watching last night’s baseball game, which he’d recorded on his Tivo. It would have held his attention if some asshole in the elevator hadn’t blurted out the final score before Walter could tell him to shut the fuck up. And of course Walter had been drinking, because everybody knew you couldn’t watch baseball without drinking beer, especially when you knew your team had already lost.

Opening the refrigerator, Walter saw a barren wasteland of half-eaten Chinese and stale milk. Not breakfast material, even with his stomach. And no grocery delivery scheduled until Monday. Walter scratched his gut and wondered where all the food had gone.

He could feel the hangover headache working its way across the front of his skull. Patted his pockets, found his wallet still in place. Much as he hated to do his own shopping, Walter had to get some food and coffee into his gut before he did anything else. Brushing his teeth and taking a shower could wait – it’s not like he had a date.

The elevator ride was mildly suspenseful, his stomach rolling with the motion. His legs buckled slightly as he stepped from the lobby, the fresh air a slap across his face. Good thing the grocery store was just on the other side of the courtyard. He walked with his head down, unsteady on his feet, watching the cobblestones warily.

He didn’t notice the Dodge wagon parked at the far end of the courtyard, its rear hatch ajar.


There were always cars parked there – people visiting the rental office, guests of other tenants. But in this town most of those cars were Japanese or German sedans, SUVs or roadsters. Wagons were a rarity, and American wagons several years old even more uncommon.

But Hernando had stolen the car from a parking lot on 25th street the night before, following Carlos’ instructions very carefully. They needed a car with a long cargo area in which Carlos could spread out, pointing the rifle through the rear hatch, which Hernando would raise at the last minute. That way someone would have to be directly in the line of fire to see Carlos or the gun, and by then it would be too late.

Todavía no.” Carlos spoke in a raspy whisper, his face barely visible over the edge of the rear window. “Wait until he returns from the grocery store.”

“How do you know he’s going to the grocery store?” asked Hernando, tracking Walter’s progress in the rear view mirror.

“Look at the belly on that guy,” replied Carlos. “A man like that, he only walks somewhere if there is food at the other end of his journey.”

Hernando shrugged – he would’ve shot the guy. Get it over with. But he kept his mouth shut, even though he couldn’t stand Carlos. Fucking Basque. Hernando thought Carlos was a fucking terrorist asshole. A sociopath. Shitheads like Carlos gave professionals like Hernando a bad rap.

But today Hernando was just the driver, so he kept his mouth shut and the motor running.


Walter typed his PIN into the keypad and waited for his groceries to be bagged. The young Asian woman at the checkout smiled so brightly he wished he’d worn his sunglasses.

“You got miles!” she exclaimed happily.

Walter frowned. “Miles?”

“Frequent flier miles,” she said. “From your club card.” She beamed proudly.

“Hoop-de-do,” said Walter acidly, grabbing the bag.

“You want your receipt?”


The enthusiastic checker didn’t have a ready answer, and Walter showed her his back before she could reply. She showed his back her middle finger as he left, then turned and beamed at the next customer.


As Walter stepped onto the first cobblestone, Carlos licked his lips and pressed his cheek against the stock of the rifle.

“Open the hatch, amigo.”

I’m not you’re fucking amigo, thought Hernando as he pushed the button. The hatch opened silently on pneumatic hinges. Carlos worked the action and slid the bolt into place, ramming a 7mm cartridge into the chamber and cocking the gun. He sighted along the barrel, keeping both eyes open and fixed on Walter.


Walter eyed his groceries as he made his way back from the store. Bagels, orange juice, a box of powdered donuts, and a six-pack of beer, just in case he didn’t make it out again for a few hours. He’d stop at the coffee shop in the ground floor of his building, then take the elevator upstairs and crank up his blood sugar, start the day off on the right foot.

But Walter’s right foot turned out to be the wrong foot as he took his eye off the cobblestones and twisted his ankle, falling to the pavement at the precise moment Carlos pulled the trigger.

Before the sonic boom reached anyone’s ears, the bullet had scorched a path through the air, speeding over Walter’s head and ricocheting off the stone pillar supporting the corner of the building. The angle of deflection caused the bullet to bounce against the cobblestones and rocket back the way it had come at an oblique angle.

By the time the bullet hit the underside of the Dodge wagon, it was moving close to the speed of sound and had achieved a surface temperature as hot as the sun. The crack of the rifle finally caught up with the bullet, but nobody heard it – the sharp sound was muffled by the whump of the gas tank exploding. The Dodge leapt three feet into the air.

It landed in a heap of twisted metal, shattered glass, and melting Mexican mobsters.


Walter lay sprawled on the cobblestones, his head twisted towards the burning car. An orchestra of car alarms was serenading a crowd of screaming fans. His first instinct was that some dipshit drove a Pinto into the lot, backed into a fire hydrant. He’d used plenty of Pintos in his B-movies, always good for a cheap explosion.

But as he raised up on one knee, Walter glanced at the pillar to his left and saw the deep gouge at eye level, a scar in the stone. He followed an invisible line from the indentation to the melting car, and suddenly Walter connected the dots. He felt a chill run down his spine. He felt his stool soften.

Master Ling would be proud.


Tim Maleeny is the award-winning author of Stealing the Dragon, a novel that Lee Child called “a perfect thriller debut” that was named a “Killer Book” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers.

Publishers Weekly said his most recent novel, Beating the Babushka, “engages the reader without insisting that it be taken too seriously and will resonate with Elmore Leonard fans.”

Maleeny’s short fiction won the 2007 Macavity Award and appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Death Do Us Part, an anthology edited by Harlan Coben for the Mystery Writers of America.

He currently lives in San Francisco near Chinatown.