“Pillar Of Fire,” By Dan O’Shea

Greetings Terriblemindites. Or is it Terribleminders? Just Wendigos? I dunno. Chuck, you wanna help me out on the salutation here? No, huh? Own my own I guess.

Anyway, I got this book deal from Exhibit A. That’s the crime imprint at Angry Robot, the folks who delivered your pal Chucky’s Blackbirds and Mockingbirds bloody and screaming into an unsuspecting world, so you know they have impeccable taste. They’ll be publishing my first two novels, Penance and Mammon. Penance is set to hit in April of 2013, Mammon a year or so later.

Both thrillers are set in Chicago, and both draw on its politics, history and culture of corruption, but with a national, sometimes even international, flavor. You can learn more at the Penance page on my blog, or at my author or book page over at Exhibit A.

As devoted Terribleminds readers, you all know that writers have to do more than write. We have to be part storyteller, part carnival barker, part pimp, part shameless whore.  Books ain’t gonna sell themselves, and the halcyon days when publishers loaded authors onto chartered jets full of free booze and book groupies for well-oiled national tours, those days are deader than Strom Thurmond’s nutsack. (It’s a requirement for any Terribleminds guest blogger to use at least one previously unpublished profanity. Sorry, that’s the best I could do.)

So, to gin up a little interest in my forthcoming debut, I’ve written a series of short stories delving into the earlier lives of the characters from my novels. See, most of these guys, they ain’t kids. They’ve been around some funny-shaped blocks, most of them in questionable neighborhoods. Penance may be my first novel, but it’s not their first or only story. I figure I’ll salt the interwebs with these stories and, if folks like them, well then maybe they’ll pony up come book time. (There are a couple stories out there already – The Old Rules, in Shots Crime & Thriller e-zine over across the pond, and A Wonderful Country at Shotgun Honey, right here in the good old US of A.)

That’s the plan, anyway.

So here you go, your very own Penance preview story. Hope you like it. And if you have any questions, comments, whatever, I’ll be checking Chuckie’s comment box and I’ll be sure to chime in.

Thanks for reading.

* * *

Pillar of Fire

A Lynch family story from the world of Penance

By Dan O’Shea

 

April 5, 1968, The Austin neighborhood, Chicago, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Chicago was in flames.

“All this over some nigger trouble maker who got what he deserved,” eight-year-old John Lynch said at dinner, just him and his mother, his Dad out, Lynch trying to sound tough, trying to sound like the man of the house, the man his father had charged him to be.

Nigger trouble maker who got what he deserved. That’s what he’d heard from Mrs. Carney that afternoon when he’d gone across the hall to play with Mike, the Carney’s being the only place his mom would let him go right now, wouldn’t let him leave the building. Mr. Carney was a fireman. He was out, too. Something soothing in Mrs. Carney’s anger, in her dismissive contempt, a sense that the evil had been identified, contained, that everyone knew what had to be done.

Lynch’s father was a cop. He’d been out since the trouble began, home only once that morning for less than an hour, just time to shower and change, not even eating, just taking a sandwich with him. Lynch had run to hug him when he walked in the door. His father had smelled of smoke and his face and clothes were smudged with soot. He had blood on his shirt. He coughed, spit a blackened wad into the kitchen sink, ran the water, washed it down the drain, took Lynch by the shoulders.  “You take care of your mother, Johnny. I need a man in the house.” Then a weak smile as he stripped off his suit coat, the shirt almost black underneath. His father disappeared into the bathroom.

When John Lynch spoke, his mother’s head shuddered, she blinked, looked up from her plate, her eyes angry, then her right hand flashed out, slapping Lynch hard across the cheek.

“Do we say nigger in this house?”

“No,” Lynch said, rubbing his face, almost tearing up, holding that back. “But Mrs. Carney said – ”

“Is that who you want to be? A parrot for someone else’s tongue, somebody with no backbone, with no right or wrong in you?”

“No.”

“What about Lucy?  Are you going to call her a nigger?”

Lucy was the colored lady who helped with the cleaning once a week.  Miss Lucy to Lynch.  She always smiled, would sing sometimes while she scrubbed floors. But she always seemed sad somehow, sad and thin and tired.

“No.”  Lynch scared a little. His dad would go upside his head, but his mom never did.

She let out a long sigh, then she reached out, rubbed Lynch’s cheek where she had struck him.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.  I shouldn’t have done that.  But I can’t bear to hear my own son talk like that, not in my house, not right now, not with all this going on, with your father out there  because of it.”  She started to cry, stopped, standing, putting her hands to her face, her head shaking back and forth, and excused herself, locking the bathroom door.

Through the door, Lynch could hear her sobs.

 

*

 

Detective Sergeant Declan Lynch, wiped absently at his shirt, and then shook his head at the futility of it. What wasn’t black was gray, and none of it would ever be white again. The suit, too, he was sure, was ruined, soaked though with smoke and sweat and filth. Wondered about the chances he could put in for the cost of the suit.

Everybody was out, the uniforms with their usual teams, detectives getting assigned what was left. They’d given Lynch a mess of kids just out of the academy, half of them ready to piss themselves, the other half itching to shoot anything that moved. Heard more glass breaking from up around the corner.

“Anderson, Miller and O’Leary, head up around the corner. Got anybody up there, chase them into the alley. You other two, come with me, we’ll block the back. And Miller?”

Miller was holding his .38 along his leg.

“Yeah Sarge?”

“Keep your gun in your fuckin’ holster unless somebody starts shooting.”

“You want me to go easy on these niggers?”

Sure, Lynch thought to himself, that attitude, that’s going to help. “I don’t want you shooting down any alleys that I’m standing at the other end of, dickhead.”

Miller holstered the revolver.

Lynch and two of the newbies rounded the back of the building to where the alley let out just as the first of four Negro kids, this one running full tilt, approached, the kid juking right, then trying to cut left between Lynch and the wall. Lynch dropped his shoulder and drove off his toes, tackling the kid into the brick wall, the kid dropping, rolling on the ground, holding his left arm.

Two of the other kids pulled up, stopping, but the fourth kid shot past one of the rookies, fast little bastard, angling across the parking lot across the street. Miller stepped up next to Lynch, his gun out again, raising it to take a shot. Lynch jerked Miller’s arm down, yanked the .38 out of his hand, jabbed Miller hard in the guy with a finger.

“What I tell you about your damn gun?” Lynch growled.

“He’s getting away!”

“Yeah, and you’re gonna shoot him why exactly?”

“Fleeing, resisting –”

“What you see him doing that gave you cause to stop him, besides running down the alley?”

“We got looters all over the place out here.”

“You see him looting? See any of these guys carrying anything? That guy you’re gonna shoot, think he’s making that kind of time carrying a TV or something?”

“Hey, you heard the mayor. Shoot to kill, shoot to maim.”

Lynch shook his head. “I got news for you, Miller, big mess like this, once we get the genie back in the bottle, we’re gonna have lawyers crawling all over everything. Gonna have reporters looking for stories. And it won’t be Hurley’s slug they dig out of that kid’s back. Won’t be Hurley up on charges. It’ll be you. Every civil rights type on earth screaming for your neck. Riots’ll be all calmed down, Hurley not needing to be a hard ass anymore, so he’ll start in on how Chicago police are held to the highest standards. How, if there’s a bad apple, then we gotta have it out. And you’ll find your ass down in Joliet, doin’ a nice stretch with some of the same guys we’re locking up this week.”

“Hey,” Miller puffing up, “they’re breaking the curfew.”

Lynch grabbed the front of Miller’s uniform shirt, pulling him close. “Listen, asshole. You end up downstate showing your ass to every brother in the joint, I don’t give a shit. But you’re under my command right now, you little fuck. I tell you to do something, that’s a goddamn order. Disobey another one, I’m going to hurt you bad. We clear?”

Miller swallowed. “We’re clear Sarge.”

Another one of the rookies, kid named Starshak, was squatted down next to the kid Lynch had bounced off the wall, checking on him. Starshak helped the kid to his feet, the kid holding his left arm tight to his side. Shoulder probably, might have separated that.

“You make it home with the arm?” Lynch said to the kid. The kid nodded. Lynch turned to the other two. “You dumb fucks get your friend home. I see you hanging around again, I’ll shoot you myself.”  The three kids took off at a trot, best they could manage with the one guy holding is arm to his side.

Lynch felt a little burn on his left hand, looked down. He’d ripped the knuckles open on his left hand taking the kid into the wall. He wiped the hand absently across the front of his shirt, leaving a smear of blood in the ash and soot.

It was getting dark. The streetlights were out, all the power in the area out now, the only light coming from the fire gutting the building across Madison at the north end of the alley. The firelight guttered across the soot-streaked white faces of the five young cops, making them look like savages.

A gunshot to the east, maybe a block away.  Lynch handed the revolver back to Miller.

“I have to take that away from you again, I’m gonna crack your skull with it.”

Miller just nodded.

“OK, we’re heading up to the north end of the alley, gonna take a peek, see what the shooting is. Probably one of ours, so keep your pants zipped. Stick close to the walls, stay out of the light. I’ve got point.”

Lynch got in front, led the cops up the alley. Walking point, Jesus. Hadn’t walked point since he crossed the Rhine in ’45.

This was going to get worse before it got better.

 

*

 

He was not in danger. John Lynch clung to the thought like an article of faith as he peered out his bedroom window, looking east toward the lake.

The fires seemed to burn all the way to the horizon, the flames throbbing out of the shattered walls and broken windows of a hundred buildings, two hundred buildings, the fire lighting the bottoms of the low clouds, like both the earth and sky were on fire, like they would burn forever. Pulsing blue and red and white lights from fire trucks and police cars strobed in every street, sometimes bright and clear, sometimes flashing inside a bank of smoke like neon lightning inside a cloud. Even through the window, Lynch could smell soot, ash. Even through the window, he could hear the sirens, hundreds of sirens, could hear gunshots, even hear shouts sometimes. It was horror beyond young Lynch’s imagining.

Monsignor Connor, when he got worked up during a sermon, would warn about the lake of fire, and now it seemed like the lake of fire was lapping at Lynch’s doorstep, like hell had broken its bounds and flooded the earth and heaven had lost all dominion.

Lynch knew his father was out there. Out among the flames and the sirens and the gunshots.

Lynch was safe because his father was out there, that he could believe the way he believed that the dry wafer he received on his tongue every Sunday was truly the body of his savior. Believe because he was told to believe, had always been told to believe, and because he had never questioned.

But he could not believe his father was safe, no matter what his mother said. He knew the cost of the flesh in the wafer, knew that salvation was always paid for with innocent blood.

He heard voices from the living room of the apartment, heard a man’s voice, his father’s voice.

Lynch bolted from his bed, ran down the hall, stopped dead in the archway that lead into the living room. Not his father, his Uncle Rusty.

“There he is, the man of the house himself,” the big man said, brushing a wave of red hair from his forehead. “I was just telling your mother it’s been too long since we had a proper visit. So grab some things quick. I’m gonna take you up to my place for a couple days.”

Lynch looking to his mother, his mother nodding, smiling, her face different in a way Lynch had never seen. He had seen her worried, seen her angry. But never this. Never false and fragile and hollow.

“Mom, are you coming too?”

She smiled wider, but there was no smile wide enough to hide this lie. His mother didn’t even like Rusty, didn’t like his foul language, his drinking, his varied lady friends. “You men don’t need a woman around spoiling your fun.”

“But I have school.”

Rusty let out a low laugh. “The sisters can get by without you for a day or two.”

So they had closed the schools. No way his mother would let him skip school. That made the fires seem even more sinister, like they were a force of nature, like the blizzard last January that dumped two feet of snow on the city, the only other time the nuns had closed the school. First ice, now fire.

“Your father will need a good meal when he gets home,” his mother said. “You go on with Uncle Rusty. Have a holiday.”

A holiday.

“But I want to see Dad.”

Uncle Rusty rubbed his head roughly, taking his shoulder to turn him toward his room, to get his things.

“And you will soon enough boy. Soon enough.”

 

*

 

“I’m trying to scare you, Johnny, and I hope you’re old enough, but I want you to see this. I want you to remember this.”  Two days later,  Lynch’s father, driving a blue-and-white Chicago police cruiser east down Roosevelt, cutting over to Madison, driving away from their apartment and toward downtown, through the haze of smoke that was finally thinning after hanging black and angry on the horizon for the last three days.

Everything Lynch remembered about the neighborhood was gone. Building after building burned out, some scorched to empty shells, some just charred rubble. The signs were torn off most of the buildings, the windows where the names of each establishment had been carefully stenciled all broken out, but Lynch could tell where they were by looking at the stuff spilling out of the shattered doors. Where the cardboard box was broken open on the curb, the red and white cans of soup spilling out – that used to be Walt’s Grocery.  A plaid jacket, still on its hanger, dangling upside down, caught on a piece of metal jutting from a torn-out window frame – that was Schwartz’s Menswear, where his mother would take him every August to buy the navy pants he had to wear for school. The shell of a TV, shards of glass ringing the void of its ruined picture tube like the teeth of a hungry thing, smashed on the sidewalk outside Austin Electronics. Lynch and his friends used to stop there after school on May afternoons, September afternoons, stand on the sidewalk, watch through the window, watch the Cubs on WGN on the big console set that was always on display, see what the score was before they headed home. Two blocks ahead, a fire truck angled into the street, hoses out, the fireman pouring water onto a lot filled with smoldering rubble.

At every intersection, soldiers milled around Jeeps with machine guns mounted on the backs.  His Dad’s cruiser was the only car moving on Madison.  Besides cops and soldiers and fireman, there were hardly any people around.  Lynch saw a colored lady holding a small girl by the hand walking one way, and then stopping, and then walking the other, like she didn’t know where to go anymore.

“Seen some places looked like this in Europe, during the war,” his Dad said.  “Towns we’d go through where there’d been fighting.  I never thought I see it again.  Sure as hell never thought I see it here.”

His father seeming to talk to himself, his voice different, saying hell in front of his son, something he’d never done before.

“Are those soldiers?” Lynch asked, pointing toward one of the jeeps.

“National Guard,” said his Dad.  “They’re soldiers that can help us out sometimes.”

Lynch thought of his Dad, and the other cops he’d seen, all giants to him, unafraid, ready for anything. And he tried to imagine a world where they needed help.

“But it’s over, right?” Lynch said.

“Yeah, mostly over.”

“And they’ll fix everything?”

A pause from his father, Lynch hanging on it suspended. He knew his Dad talked different around Uncle Rusty, around the other cops, knew he watched his language around the house, around Lynch, around his mother. But he wasn’t a man to measure his words. What he had to say, he said. Finally this.

“I dunno, Johnny.  I really don’t.”

They drove another few blocks.

“But the people that did this, they were bad, right, right Dad?”

“Some of them were. Some of them were just angry. Some of them just got caught up in it. The race thing, it’s an old evil Johnny, coming to the end of its time. Evil never gives up easy. Evil always dies ugly.”

In June, they moved to the northwest side, as close to the edge of the city as they could get. It was fifteen years before Lynch set foot in the old neighborhood again. They hadn’t fixed everything. They’d barely fixed anything. The fires had long burned out, but heaven had not regained dominion.

Lynch seeing it the same way he had the last time, through the windows of a Chicago PD cruiser, his father long dead now, Lynch behind the wheel.

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