Little Black Dress  

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Little Black Dress

From Publisher's Weekly, March 28, 2005:
The conflict at the heart of this intense, powerfully told story is almost Shakespearean...up until the final bittersweet twist.

What happens when a hit man meets his new mother-in-law?

Peter Macklin has left the mob in Detroit to begin a new life with his bride on a farm in Ohio. But when the beautiful, intelligent Laurie suspects her mother's boyfriend of something sinister, the ex-hit man investigates--and finds the lives of those close to him tangled in a murderous vendetta with the Ohio mob, a state police captain with a J. Edgar Hoover complex, and a violent gang of armed robbers. In order to preserve his family's future, Macklin must return to the methods of his dark past.

Chapter One

It was always a mistake to generalize; but, dear God, security guards were dumb.

Grinnell spotted him two steps inside the door, browsing the Japanese Animation racks in a Hawaiian shirt with the tail out over his sidearm, khaki slacks, and clod-buster black oxfords, the kind whose soles formed a lip all around with white stitching to make the feet that wore them look even bigger. He never stooped even once to look at the videos on the lower shelves, saving his energy to pretend to read the descriptions on the boxes he took off the top. He wore a bar of black moustache as thick as his thumb and his hair looked as if he cut it himself. He might as well have been wearing a uniform.

The layout was identical to all the other stores in the chain, a case man's dream. It had separate doors for entering and exiting, the latter charged with a magnetic field to set off an alarm when a customer tried to sneak Free Willy out unchecked, and a blind room in back where they displayed the porn. Two employees stood inside the hollow square of the counter while a third restocked the racks, carefully avoiding conversation with the security lunk. Midnight closing was ten minutes away and only a few customers prowled the store. The locustlike Saturday-night crowd had swept through more than two hours earlier, scooping up New Releases by the armload and cracking twenties and fifties into two cash registers. Now the gold dust had settled. Even the monitors narrowcasting annoying trailers for Adam Sandler and Austin Powers were switched off.


Grinnell made a little dumb show of exasperation at the shelves of empty boxes that had contained the latest hot-ticket title, then left, answering a curious glance from the clerk nearest the door with a rueful shake of his head.

The minivan was parked on the far edge of the lot, just outside the range of the near lamppost. The man in the passenger's seat in front rolled down his window as Grinnell approached. The man wore his sandy hair long but neat, with a drooping gunfighter's moustache stained yellow at the edges from nicotine. Grinnell supposed he dipped snuff, the most pointless abuse of tobacco he could imagine.

"Three clerks," Grinnell said. "One guard." He described the man in the Hawaiian shirt.

"Anything there?" The man in the van had a Kentucky accent that he could dial up or down according to mood. Grinnell couldn't tell if it was genuine. The other three men in the vehicle called him Wild Bill.

"not to look at, but you want to pin him down first. This is the fourth time for this chain." It was a warning, but he stopped short of making it a suggestion. He hadn't had any trouble with this crew, but it was never wise to underestimate the sensitivity of a wrecker, much less of one who allowed his team to address him by an Old West nickname.

"What else?"

"The clerk stocking the racks wears a nose ring; tattoos on both wrists. He might be a use."

"What else?" he asked again.

"That's it."

"Okay." The window slid back up.

The parking lot was common to eight shops assembled in a strip, occupying one long building with only drywall separating each establishment from its neighbor. Grinnell had parked a hundred yards away, near a number of vehicles in front of a twenty-four-hour drugstore. The car was a rental, not his usual choice of models when he wasn't working, a deliberate decision. He never used his personal car on a job and always took care to dress suitably for the community. The video store stood within easy walking distance of two trailer parks and a housing tract designed for families of modest means; he wore a plain pocket T-shirt, faded Lee jeans, and inexpensive track shoes worn round at the heels.

He drove a mile to the crowded motel lot where he'd left his Lexus, changed inside it into his comfortable heavy silk sport shirt, pleated slacks, and Belgian loafers, and drove the Lexus home. In the morning he'd return the rental. The agency was only twelve blocks away, comfortable walking for a fortyish man in excellent condition.


"What do we need him for, anyway? I guess I can count noses and spot a rent-a-cop."

Wild Bill glanced back at the speaker. His features were in shadow, but Carlos always sat in the same place, as if the seat were assigned to him, and if there was a complaint to be made he was always the one to make it. Then there was the bullshit macho border accent. Wild Bill was pretty sure he was East L.A. and had never spent any more time in Old Mexico than forty-five minutes in a cockshop in Tijuana.

"It ain't them he's watching," Wild Bill said. "Toledo protects its investments."

"What investment? Guns are cheap."

"Not these guns." The man in front lifted the shotgun from his lap and worked the pump. It slid noiselessly on graphite and chambered the round with a double clack he felt in his testicles. The weapon was less than twenty-two inches long, manufactured that way without recourse to a hacksaw, with a composition stock and a pistol grip. It was loaded alternately with twelve-gauge slugs and buckshot. He always used the same order so he knew what was coming out of the barrel when. He'd learned that hunting elk in Wyoming.

"Yeah." Carlos's grin reflected what light there was. He was looking down at the Sig Sauer in his hand, a cop gun he'd turned out to prefer to the Saturday night busters he'd used in his solo past. It took a little more persuasion each time to get him to part with the model between jobs.

"Then there's the credit-card slips," Wild Bill said. "Folks're using plastic more and more. We can't lay them off in a year."

"Fucking Visa's ruining the economy," Carlos said.

The other man shifted his line of vision. "Mark?"

The man seated next to Carlos in the rear passenger's seat waggled his own Sig Sauer to indicate he was ready. He was black, a Detroit native with back-to-back nickel bits in Michigan's two state penitentiaries on his record, whose given name--Wild Bill had seen his arrest sheet to confirm it--was Mark Twain. During one of his rare open moments (on parrot tranquilizers) he'd confided that his father was drunk when he'd named him, having smuggled a fifth of Ten High into a movie theater in suburban Redford to celebrate his son's birth. The feature happened to the Tom Sawyer. In the time he'd known him, Wild Bill had never heard Mark Twain say anything remotely clever, but he had eloquent instincts. When the time came to talk Carlos out of his weapon, it would be Mark Twain who did the talking.

"Take it slow," Wild Bill said.

The driver turned the key and rolled the van out of its space. Prematurely bald, he cropped the fringe to the length of his perennial three-day beard and answered to Donny. Wild Bill knew nothing about him except that he'd come with Mark Twain, who said he'd worked as an instructor with a driving school in Kentucky that taught evasive skills to chauffeurs of wealthy businessmen. So far he'd only been called upon to deliver his companions to and away from work, without having to demonstrate special abilities. He was always there when they came out, which made him worth his equal share if he never took another risk.

As they wheeled into the fire lane in front of the video store, Wild Bill leaned forward and spat the rest of his cud into the coffee can. He gave himself a moment to enjoy his personal vision of success. Bank robbers were lucky if they got away with a couple of thousand from a teller's drawer, for which they had the opportunity when caught to be tried twice, at the local and federal levels, and get themselves butt-fucked by an entirely different class of con. Meanwhile a place that rented out videotapes and DVDs in a greater metropolitan area pulled in eight to ten thousand on a Saturday night, most of it cash, with nothing to protect it but civilian security more interested in shoplifters than armed robbers. Hit them just before midnight, when the suburban cops were busy changing shifts, and you could take the rest of the month off. Hooray for Hollywood.


Emily Grass, checking the last of a thousand returned videos against the labels on the cases, suppressed a groan when the gong went off announcing the entrance of a new customer. It was three minutes to twelve, and you just knew this was some trailer-park 'tard who couldn't remember the title of the movie he'd come in for, or didn't know what he wanted, Cannonball Run or Faces of Death IV, and would wander the aisles for twenty minutes looking for inspiration. Worse, he might ask her to identify a movie based on a cast headed by Whatsername, that played the lady lawyer in Whateveritwascalled, breathing Old Milwaukee into her face the whole time and not budging from the counter even if you turned out all the lights. Which Cy would never let her do because he might squeeze three more bucks out of the night and put himself in solid with the corporate blanks that owned the chain. Come next term break, she'd find something in retail foods. Those supermarket managers shoved you out the door at closing and dropped a piano on overtime.

Then she saw the ski masks.

All three were dressed the same, in the navy masks and green polo shirts with an animal on the pocket, black jeans, and black Nikes; she saw the swoosh. The first one in the door, who did most of the yelling, made big circular gestures with a rifle kind of gun while the others separated, one pointing his handgun at the three customers lined up at the counter, the other pointing his at Andy the guard, who was caught looking at Inspector Gadget and dropped the box to put his hands up. The one with the rifle, or maybe it was a shotgun, hoisted it to his shoulder and shouted at Michael, coming back for more videos to return to the shelves, to join the others at the counter. He obeyed, hands lifted with the blue FOREVER DEAD and GARCIA LIVES tattoos showing on his wrists. Then the man stood back to cover--cover, she'd seen enough crime trailers to speak the language--cover them all while he screamed at Emily and Dylan to empty the registers into bags. Emily got her drawer open okay, but Dylan hit two keys at once, jamming the electronics, and got yelled at some more until he cleared it, sobbing, "Okayokayokayokay." and all the time there she was, stuffing stacks of bills and fistfuls of credit-card slips into a white plastic bag with the chain's logo printed on it, a cartoon squirrel rolling a reel of film like a hoop. It was a movie.

Then it wasn't at all.

Cy came charging out of the room where they stocked the dirty pictures, fat Cy in his black indestructible manager's suit and Tweety Bird tie, waving a gun. Cy with a gun; he couldn't reprogram the VCRs after a power failure put out the clocks. Cy with a gun, shouting at three men, also with guns, that they were under citizen's arrest, drop your weapons and stand back. He ran right past the man covering Andy, heading straight for the man with the shotgun, who just kind of turned half away from the counter and blew all the sound out of the room.

End of Chapter One

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