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This is a preview of my upcoming book, Mark for Blood. The title and cover are still in-progress, as is the rest of the book, but I think you’ll get an idea of what “flavor” the book will be from this short preview.

Enjoy!


Mark for Blood: Preview Chapters: 

I knew I would kill him as soon as he walked in.

Not quite sure how, but I knew. That feeling was there. In all of my fifteen years behind the bar I don’t remember a time when it was wrong — off slightly perhaps, but never flat-out wrong. There was that time it told me it was the guy, instead of the girl, but we got that straightened out (or rather, it didn’t really matter much after I’d killed them both, as I found out later he was just as much a dirty schmuck as she was dirty all around).

There was also that time I went around a few times with a younger kid, a guy ten years my inferior, and I thought the whole time he was screwing with me. Took me until he had a knife at my throat, his huge bicep turning his faded Semper Fi tat into a bloated pig of a prior life’s memory. I used that kid’s own knife on him. ‘Once a marine, always a marine’ doesn’t hold a lot of weight when your side gig starts paying more than the US government, I guess.

But after a few times testing that feeling I started trusting that feeling. In my mind it’s more of a feeling anyway. It’s a knowledge — an instinct, really. I just know.

So he walked in, and I knew he was the mark.

He looked like he was in college — that shitty outfit, wearing pants that sagged to his asscrack, those shoes that said ‘I don’t give a shit but I care that you think I give a shit,’ and that hair.

My God, that hair.

His hair would’ve made me kill him even if I didn’t have another reason to. In some ways I think I even made his hair the main reason. It was poofed up, the pressed down to his ears, teased in a not-accidental kind of way the way they do it up in a salon that’s meant for men the same way a tampon’s meant for men. The kind of hair that says, ‘yeah, my dad’s got the money to bail me out.’

One of the reasons I’m the best at what I do is that I’m the best with details. I know what people are thinking even before they do sometimes. It’s not a superpower, but I guess it’s a gift. Haven’t met anyone else who’s able to do it quite like I can yet. That’s how I knew it about him. He was already shouting when he walked in, but of course he wasn’t walking in alone. These types always travel in groups — a posse. His was right behind him, stumbling in like they’d already been drinking for a few hours with those huge dumb smiles on their faces but waiting until their leader approved of some invisible thing before they spoke or walked toward the bar. Four of them, altogether, but the main one came right up toward me at the bar.

He did approve, I guess, because he started toward me and the others dispersed. I had the towel in my hand and I was moving it like I was supposed to, the universal sign of ‘I’m cleaning,’ even though we all know it takes more than a whitish towel and a Karate Kid motion to clean a bar top, when he gave me the nod.

‘The nod,’ meaning that half-assed head throwback that couldn’t possibly get any lazier. I’m a classier type, so I returned with a full, deep, frowned-faced forward nod.

“‘Sup,” he half-assed.

“How are you tonight?” I asked, raising my voice just a bit to carry to him over the low roar of the other patrons and the clinking of glassware. There weren’t many — the way I liked it — but there were enough engaged in a card game on one side and a few in a deep conversation on the other to create a steady din.

“Good, man. Scotch, on the rocks.”

“You got it. Weapon of choice?”

His micro expression clued me in, but to his credit he recovered quickly. “Uh, yeah, sorry. How about Macallan?”

The Macallan?”

He looked at me for a moment. I knew what he was thinking, too: It’s that important to you that you gotta give the weight of a ‘the?’

I shook my head. “No, it’s part of the name. It’s called ‘The — never mind.”

He laughed. “Good stuff, man. Yeah, I’ll take one of those, or whatever. On the rocks.”

“12? 18? 25?”

He frowned.

“Years…”

“Ah, right. Uh, 12? What’s the price on those?”

I shook my head. Imperceptibly to him, but it was for me. Bartenders — real ones — hate that. If you know what you want, it shouldn’t much matter how much it costs, right? This isn’t a ‘$2-you-call-it’ bar, anyway.

I raised my chin just a bit. “12 year is eight a glass. 18 year, thirteen. And the 25… not sure you can afford it.”

“Oh?”

“Oh.”

“Don’t think I have the money for it, champ?” he asked.

Champ? Okay, now I really was going to kill him.

“No, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who does.”

“How much it gonna set me back?”

“Well it’s been sitting on sherry-infused oak for twenty-five years, so, let’s make it an even $700.”

“A bottle?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Holy sh—“

“Yo, Dawson, this the place that dude was telling us about? Seems a little run down.”


One of ‘Dawson’s’ — the mark’s — lovely friends had decided that shouting from across the room was an ideal way to have a conversation. And ‘the room,’ in this case, was my bar. A single, small, one-facility building set back from the street a ways but still lit enough to see the front door. I had renovated it myself with the help of a contractor friend, splitting the empty building in half so I’d have a nice front chamber for the drinking and sitting, and a back half split in two again — one half for the office and kitchen and the other for the restrooms.

I fell in love with the place from the minute I saw the listing. A buddy dabbling in real estate set up the meeting, and I was his one and only client before he moved on to his true passion — marrying a rich lady from the bay area and moving in with her and her kids. Anyway, the contractor friend and I spent a few weeks gutting the old restaurant and cleaning out the fried food smell, then framing out and drywalling the separating wall, then I hired a team for the grunt work. Restroom, electrical, plumbing — no one wants to do those jobs.

It was a hit with the locals right away. Part of the appeal, I heard later, was that when it opened I had refused to talk to the town’s paper and the three idiot food bloggers who’d come by repeatedly that week. I didn’t like press, what they though they stood for, and anything related, and I certainly didn’t like the tight-jeaned hipsters who came in with their phone cameras clicking away, expecting me to give a shit about some-odd ‘thousands of followers.’

The older locals thought I was a hero, and the younger ones thought I was a legend. It was weird — I was certainly neither — but I accepted the attention in the form of greenbacks. They liked drinking in a place that was relaxed. A bit old-fashioned, but relaxed about it. I didn’t smack the youngsters upside the head when they would ask for an old fashioned and then frown at me when I wouldn’t squish a maraschino cherry into a red Solo cup before I poured the drink.

Likewise, I didn’t argue with any of the older ones. Twenty-five years ago I was twenty-five years younger, and there were plenty of folks twenty-five years my senior coming in. They all have their ways about them, like I do now. Some of them thought the only way to make a daiquiri was with daiquiri mix, and some of them thought ‘Scotch’ meant anything distilled last century.

Whatever. As long as they paid their tab and left a decent tip, I was happy. Doing what you love is only surpassed by doing two things you love at the same time.

And tonight I was going to do two things I loved.

I poured the kid’s Scotch, the cheapest of the options I’d given him, and thought about how I’d do it. Guns and knives were always traceable, and even though I wasn’t worried about local authorities much I had a business to run. Any questions I got meant downtime, and not-working time.

Poison, chemicals, and other exotic treatments were just that — exotic. That meant they were more difficult to exhume from the corpse, but once they were it was almost a sure thing that the higher-ups would get involved. Ditto about the downtime in that case.

Thankfully they leave it up to me to decide how it’s done. That was the deal, and that will always be the deal or I’m out.

I repeat methods, but not often. Usually there’s some story-building involved, as it makes for a more natural climax and a much smoother transition to normal life.

Dawson’s unenthused buddy walked over, hovering over the bar like I owed him something.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“What you make my friend here?” he asked.

“Scotch. On the rocks.”

“I’ll take one too.”

I poured it and then listened. They always start talking, when there are two guys at the bar next to each other. Even if they don’t know each other, they always do. Always. If it’s just one, they’re either silent or they try to bring me into whatever it is they’re dealing with. Women, it’s the opposite. They want you to draw it out of them, or if there’s more than one they’ll sit there and wait for the other one to talk. If they’re drunk — man or woman — all bets are off.

This time I couldn’t tell if they were drunk or not. They started yapping about ‘some chick’ one of them had seen and/or done some stuff with, but I wasn’t interested enough to know the details. I hadn’t thought they were drunk when they’d come in, but listening to their conversation really made me wonder.

Kids these days.

Wait. Did I really just think to myself the words, ‘kids these days?’

I felt immediately disgusted and simultaneously amused. I felt like I was turning into my old man, the curmudgeon of curmudgeons. Here I was pouring drinks for kids half my age, silently judging them behind a half-wall I’d built with my bare hands.

Probably while I had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get home at night.

I decided to take a bit more interest in their conversation.

“…Because they smoke the whiskey when it’s done,” Kid B — not the mark — said.

“How do you smoke liquid?” Kid A — the mark, or Dawson — asked.

“I, uh, I think it’s… they just add like that liquid smoke stuff I guess.”

I shook my head. Enough to give them a clue but not enough to give me a headache.

“What’s that?” the mark asked, turning his coiffure my direction.

I smiled. “Sorry — no, it’s — hate to interrupt, but it’s before the distillation process. They smoke peat and then add that to the fermentation. Then it’s distilled out, but that smokiness is still in there.”

Kid B had the look of ‘who the hell asked you?’ on his face, but the mark, to his credit, seemed enthused. So I kept going.

“They age it in charred oak barrels after that. That’s the number you see on these bottles — how many years it’s been resting on oak.”

“And the oak gets in there, and, like, flavors it?”

“Yeah, exactly,” I explained. “It enhances the flavors by —“ I stopped.

What am I doing? Am I really this bored?

One of the oldies came to the bar and asked for a couple margaritas. I recognized her, but didn’t know her name. I held up a finger at the boys and busied myself with the lady’s drinks while I checked that she was actually sitting with someone. She’d entered with a younger gal, perhaps my age, maybe a little younger, and they’d started talking deeply about some issue or another before they’d even started drinking.

I always like to make sure someone’s not drinking alone, and especially not ordering more than one drink at a time. I don’t really have a rule against it, necessarily, it just seems like anyone so excited to get going that they need to have two drinks for themselves on the table at once is a little too excited for me to not pay attention.

The lady who ordered asked if we kept tabs open. I made the universal sign of ‘yeah, sure,’ by tucking my open palm out to her and shaking side to side and she seemed to get it, leaving her credit card there on the counter for me.

I finished making the margaritas and came back to the boys.

“What brings you in here tonight?” I asked.

The first guy — the mark with the amazing hair — thought for a moment. Maybe hesitating just a bit. “Uh, yeah, we wanted to go out, you know? Hadn’t tried this place yet, but I got a tip from someone that it’s worth checking out.”

I nodded. “Seems like your buddy knows where the hot spots are.”

I waited to analyze his reaction. Both of them seemed to think I was joking, that drinking here was a bit of a step down from their typical haunts. I went with it, smiling.

“I know, kind of a dump, huh?”

“It’s — it’s not the worst I’ve —“

“Tell the owner it smells like catfish in here,” the mark said.

I sniffed, good and long and hard, just to show him I cared, then responded. “Yeah, we have a tiny grill back there. Catfish is our main dish, believe it or not, and Joey cooks the hell out of it.”

“Really? Way out here?” Kid B said.

“Really.” ‘Way out here’ in this case referred to the fact that we were nowhere near the coast, as long as you didn’t zoom out too far in Google Maps. Truth be told we were only a few blocks from the beach, but since there wasn’t a direct road to the coastline and the town sort of wound around a bit before meandering its way to the sand, it seemed like this was the last stop on the way to the inland areas, rather than the way I liked to think about it: a first stop on the way to the beach, if you were from out of town.

“Makes sense,” the mark said. “Hey, this isn’t half bad,” he said, rotating his drink around in the glass like a pro. His eyes flicked up at me, taking me in, calculating something, and it was the first moment I thought of him as anything more than an idiot frat boy between summer flings. There was depth there, something unspoken. Something he hadn’t even told his buddy.

It also irked me in that I didn’t know how to respond. “Yeah,” I said quickly. “Took me awhile, but I think I mixed it pretty well.”

We stared each other down for a few seconds until he burst out laughing. “Nice — good one, champ. Just pure Scotch and pure ice, can’t go wrong with that, right? Unless you’re mixing something else in there?”

He said it with just a bit of a lilt, just the slightest of questions. I of course didn’t think he was really asking me, since there was no way he could know I was the one who’d do it, but it took me a split-second to recover. “Not this time, champ. Just Scotch and frozen water.”


I did the Karate Kid thing with my towel all the way to the opposite end of the bar where a new couple had come to sit. I noticed them walk in a few minutes before the mark and take up a place at a table to my right, but I hadn’t gone over yet to check on them. Since they’d moved up to the bar instead of waiting for me to walk over, I decided to spice things up a bit.

“Howdy,” I said. I am neither from Texas nor like cowboys, but it seemed like a good fit in the moment.

Clearly I was wrong about the moment and I needed to step it down a notch, judging by the man’s wide-eyed expression. He had a ring on his left hand, so I assumed this was a husband-wife pair, in for an evening of drinking.

“Sorry,” I said, “just getting a little bored. Thought I’d try to have a little fun.”

He looked at me like I’d just insulted his mother in a language he didn’t understand, so I turned to the woman. I was about to ask what they wanted when I realized this was not just a typical Wednesday night visitor.

The girl in front of me was absolutely stunning. Her hair was light brown, woven around itself and gently perched on top of her head, streaks of even lighter blond interspersed through it all. Small diamond earrings brightened her face but took nothing away from it. She had a petite, youthful look in her eyes, yet she couldn’t have been more than ten years younger than me.

He, however, seemed just a bit older. Maybe there was something offset about him, or I was just imagining it, but he had a distant expression and stoic stance, even as he leaned — curled forward like an aging librarian — with both elbows on the bar top.

Finally I found the words. “What are you drinking?”

I directed the question at the space just between both of them, as I couldn’t look at him without asking what was wrong, and I couldn’t look at her because… well she just reminded me…

Stop it. 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down that train of thought, at least not yet. She had something about her that seemed familiar, and I didn’t think I liked that. Her beauty wasn’t the same as a supermodel’s or that of a Photoshopped actress on a magazine cover. It was simple, unassuming yet confident.

The man spoke first, while she just smiled. “Uh, yeah, I — give me a — or give her a martini… no, a cosmopolitan. I’ll have — I’ll have a water, for now.”

I hate ‘for now.’ ‘For now’ means they’re either afraid to drink in front of who they’re with or they just read too slow. If they just want a water, without the ‘for now,’ they’re probably a recovering alcoholic or they’re sick, or they’re just not wanting to drink that night. I can respect that, but ‘for now…’

I turned around to make the drinks, but the gal got in a quick order: “Make it up however you like it. I’m not picky.”

Her voice danced around in the air, and I immediately latched on to her words. I respected that. Every bar has their ‘own way’ of doing things, and most of them aren’t any good. I don’t like messing with classic drinks unless they need messing with. I’ll squirt a lime over the top of a whiskey smash just to bring some of the flavors out, and I’ll kindly redirect an unassuming victim asking for one of the ‘candy martinis’ to something a bit more respectable, but I’m not about to screw with a tried-and-true like a cosmo.

I made it up perfectly, using a jigger just to show her I cared, and brought that and the water back to them. They’d pulled up at the bar now, each taking a seat on an old wooden stool I’d salvaged from a liquidation a few months back, and started sipping.

I watched, waiting to see if the man was truly content with the lukewarm H2O-on-ice or he’d man up and get something harder, but he was still off in la-la-land. She, on the other hand, followed my eyes and finally caught up to them.

“This your place?” she asked.

It was almost like she already knew the answer to the question.

“Yeah,” I said. I flicked over to the frat boys to make sure the mark hadn’t taken off, then came back to her. “Been here ten years almost. Built it myself, trying to pay it off.”

She smiled. “We — we’re just traveling through.” She motioned to the guy next to her. “He’s my brother. We’re heading to a funeral.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Staying here in town?”

She laughed. “Is there anywhere to even stay here?”

I returned a smile, nodding. “It’s not big, but it’s got everything you need. Came here to settle down myself, but that sort of morphed into ‘making myself crazy trying to run a business.’”

She sipped the cosmopolitan. “This is really good. Thank you.”

I wasn’t sure if that was intended to be the end of our conversation or not, but as the man was still staring at the mirror along the back wall of my bar, I decided to see how the mark and his buddy were warming up to the night.

“…She wasn’t even part of the —“

He stopped talking when I came over, and Dawson turned to me. “‘Sup, champ.”

“‘Sup.” I gave a one-shot back nod, like I’d seen the kids do, and tried to feign nonchalance. “Ready for a second round?”

“Uh, yeah.” Dawson cleared his throat. “Probably need to be going after this,” he said.

“Yeah? Whereabouts you headed?”

As much as I’d tried not to, I had picked up some of the lazy small-town speak of the area when I’d moved in.

“We, uh — we’re going to —“

Kid B cut in. “Just around. We were told this place had a decent nightlife, but…”

I nodded, smirking. “I get it. Bunch of old folks clogging up the place. No music, no ladies. That about right?”

Kid B laughed. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, man. It’s a nice —“

I grabbed his drink — still half-full — and sloshed it up onto his shirt. On ‘accident.’ “My bad, bud, let me get a new one for you. On the house, of course.”

He seemed rightly perturbed, and not a little bit shocked, either with the speed with which I’d sloshed him or the fact that I had in the first place, but he did exactly what I’d expected.

“Let me — thanks, for that — let me hit the restroom. Back there?” he flicked his head sideways.

“Mm hmm, yeah. Back there. Drink’s waiting for you when you return.”

I turned my attention to the mark when he left.

“So, what else can I do for you this evening?” I asked. It was a long shot, that he’d just somehow and for some reason jump into a perfect explanation of why I should kill him. I knew it was vetted as well, by the boss, and that anyone coming in here as a mark was someone they deemed worthy to be offed, but I always got more proof. Just a little will do it, but I have to get it.

For me.

A lot of times it’s as simple as following them home. Sneaking in when they’re not around, checking message threads, emails, hell — one mark even left a sticky note on the fridge with the username and password of their online alter ego. An alter ego, I soon learned, that they used to lure adolescent children into scenarios that would allow this mark to ‘interact’ with them in person.

I didn’t need to know any more details than that — the boss had already done the research and given the orders, I just needed to know it was the right mark.

It’s a sick world out there, and the kinds of things that piss normal people off drive me to do things I’m really good at: the ‘sticky note’ mark, for example, ended up skewered inside the smashed, twisted metal of a terrible one-car accident. What can I say? He came in and ordered an Irish car bomb.

As I suspected, this particular mark wasn’t going to fall for any stupid tricks of mine. He looked at me with those big, dopey, frat-boy eyes and then smiled.

“Nah, man, you don’t mean what I think you mean, do you?”

I cocked my head sideways.

“Like ‘happy ending’ stuff?” He made the finger quotes when he said it.

I shook my head. “Sorry to disappoint. This is a respectable pub. I just meant food — you want any food?” At least pivoting to another topic didn’t sound awkward. We did serve food.

“You mentioned that catfish. Any good?”


I had Joey flip a few catfish fillets on the griddle, as the smell of a single one cooking usually earns us a few more orders. I have no idea what the man puts on those things, except butter — lots of butter — but they really are delicious. I keep getting the town’s ‘best catfish’ award, but in a town of 400 with about five other restaurants, I’m not sure it’s much of a compliment. I have a plan to one day pitch to the Chamber of Commerce expanding the award to ‘best grilled food’ or even just ‘best food,’ but for now, I’ll be the town’s official ‘catfish king.’

I came back out to the bar to find that the half-lovely couple had vanished. Weird. Her drink was still sitting there, a few drops of condensation finding their way down the spout and onto the bar top. His glass was completely empty, save for the ice cubes and straw.

I glanced around to see if they’d just moved somewhere else, hoping for a view of the beach — (there wasn’t one) or just better company (there wasn’t any). A group of older folks, regulars, sat at two of the five tables on one side of the place, talking amongst themselves. No one sat on the other side; the card sharks had taken off a while ago. The center of the larger room was empty and cleared, partly because I liked the idea that we might do some dancing in here at some point, but mostly because I liked the lack of clutter.

Joey knew the old folks’ orders well enough to handle them, so he usually took care of drink-running while I parked it behind the bar most nights. It had the best vantage point, and with the addition of a small three-camera closed-circuit system with a monitor just beneath the bar top, I could keep an eye on the entire facility with just an eye flick.

So it was pretty obvious the couple had left — ditched without paying, too. I thought about checking the restroom, but it seemed unlikely both would go at the same time. Their chairs were empty, too. No purses, sweaters, hats. They were gone.

What struck me as worse, however, was that my frat boy friends were gone. The two that had pulled up to a table in the corner near the door were gone, and my mark’s buddy was gone as well. The main man, too, was nowhere to be found.

Something bugged me in that instant. I felt the ‘it’ I talked about before. The sense I have about this stuff, it was suddenly there. I hollered back to Joey to watch the place, generating a positive-sounding grunt from the kitchen area, then booked it through the front door.

I dash out like this from time to time, so I didn’t need to stop and explain anything to the regular patrons. I recognized Jimmy and his wife, a starlet-turned-smoker who’d nabbed an old, rich, retired guy after her forty year-run in Hollywood. They were across a table from Roger Pennington and Jessup McNaab, another pair of fisherman who had nothing better to do when the sun went down than barhop. And being the only bar in town, they ‘hopped’ down here just about every night.

They barely gave me a glance as I got up to speed and nailed the front door. It flew open, and I had that silent freak out of wondering whether or not there might be a person trying to come in at that exact moment, but once again I lucked out. The street was dark, the single lamppost long since overdue for a bulb change and bug cleanout, and it took a second for my eyes to adjust.

When they did, it didn’t help. It was still nearly pitch-black outside, and there was no one around. No cars, no late-night walkers, not even a dog alerting my arrival.

I turned and jogged around the back of the building. A small alleyway for trash pickup and deliveries separated my building from the thick wooded area that ran to the beach. The alley ended at my building, but ran alongside the woods and a few other establishments before connecting to the main road once again. Which, in my initial scoping of the property fifteen years ago, I thought to myself would make a nice hideout for some bad guys.

I wasn’t too far off tonight. I saw the silhouette of the woman, only now noticing that she was decked out in a relatively formal-looking dress, standing with her back to me on her phone. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it sounded like she was arguing with the other person. Her voice was mostly a whisper, punctuated by a few gasps and surprised breaths. In my opinion, not a good phone call.

I slowed to a walk and cleared my throat, knowing that jogging or running up behind a person in a dark alley is never a good way to start a conversation. Still, she turned and looked for me in the darkness with a weirdly scared expression on her face.

“Hey,” I said, “it’s just me. Sorry, I —“

I saw movement off to the right, farther behind my own building, and assumed it was her brother. Maybe he’d gone to relieve himself, which was weird, but not the end of the world.

The guy started running, and from the tiny flickering of the small light I’d installed above my back door, I could see him reaching inside the back of his pants.

Now, there are really only three things you reach for in the back of your pants: the first is contraband, but we weren’t in an airport and if he’d shoved something up there was no way he’d be running so fast. The second is a wallet, and I had the feeling he wasn’t excited to show off his new ID picture.

The third is what I was preparing for. I wasn’t armed — my closest piece was still in a drawer in the tiny office inside — so I pulled out the next-best thing.

The white towel I’d been using to swab the bar.

I wasn’t sure if there would be any use for it, but it was better than nothing.

Maybe.

The pistol came out, smaller than a 9mm from what I could see, with a suppressor attached. Possibly a Glock 42. Not a ton of stopping power, altogether, but there was hardly any distance between us. Even a suppressed .380 from this distance would do some damage.

I started running, hoping I was still in the realm of ‘the element of surprise’ against the mark. I figured he’d come out after her, knowing she was alone outside and somehow sneaking out behind Joey.

This guy’s here for her, I knew. I no longer needed to do my due diligence. I knew the sort of asshole I was up against this time around — not a pedophile, but far from a stand-up citizen. Probably the type that preys on women only, assuming they were weaker and easier to nab.

I should introduce him to some of the ladies I know, I thought. I almost smiled, but knew I had to focus. I pushed the thought out of my mind and hauled it toward the attacker. His hair was floppier now, no match for a gentle breeze and running at full-tilt.

The weapon rose, and I jumped. He wouldn’t dodge out of the way because it might screw with his aim — an unfortunate truth I learned about long ago. Sure enough, he stood his ground and tried to recalculate his shot since I’d suddenly gained a few feet in the air.

My head landed on his chest, but my left arm was out, pushing his right arm up and away as best I could. I’d placed myself directly in the line of fire, hoping the girl wouldn’t move — or if she did, that she would move toward the building to our right and not out to the left where the bullet would go.

Crack! The gun fired — suppressed but still plenty loud — and we fell, tumbling end-over-end a couple times before stopping in a mud streak that cut across the alley’s asphalt. I was on top, thankfully, so I wrapped his legs into mine and sat high up on his stomach. I bounced as high as I dared a few times, hoping for a cracked or bruised rib, but unleashed with a couple hooks onto any open skin I could find.

Many times in this scenario my mark, not typically a fighter or scrapper, forgets where they are and simply tries to curl up and make it go away. Sometimes they have a little spice to them and they fight back, but they always seem to forget that their weapon is still in their hand.

This time my mark was not unaware. He flicked it sideways, pummeling me in the temple and effectively removing me from his chest. I rolled, in pain, but recovered and swept out with a leg.

He jumped but it caught his right foot and he started to fall sideways. I took the momentary advantage and ran at him again, tackling him into the picket fence at the back of the alley. His body cracked, or the wood cracked, but he sort of imploded into himself and ended up in a sitting position on the asphalt, his back to the fence.

I wasn’t done yet, though. I kneed him in the face, feeling more than seeing the blood spatter out everywhere, and laid in again with my fists. He groaned, but turned his head at the right moment and sent my left fist through a picket.

This hurt, and it severely pissed me off. But in that moment I realized I had underestimated my mark. Dawson rolled over and came up swinging, hitting me in the groin and stomach in two quick shots, then finishing with an uppercut that nearly connected. I stepped back just at the right time to dodge the punch, then fell forward onto him with a punch to his gut, simultaneously wrapping my leg around his.

This time I was able to get him falling backwards, so I pulled up on my leg, then jumped, aiming the point of my elbow at his sternum. I heard a pretty satisfying crack sound when we landed and felt something inside him give way, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.

I’d already underestimated him once, but I’m not one to enjoy making the same mistake twice. This was the mark, and this man would die. I wouldn’t get the luxury of deciding how it’d be done, but that didn’t matter now.

I wrestled the gun from his hand and saw his eyes bulge out, either from the surprise of it all or the pain that was no doubt sending scores of signals through his body. I lifted the tiny thing up the side of his head and didn’t hesitate.

Like I said, a .38 at close range — or no range, like in this case — will do some damage. He was lucky he died immediately, but I was still pissed he’d gotten the jump on me, and almost on the girl.

The girl.

I shuffled through his pockets as quickly as I dared, trying to feel for anything that might identify him. Trying to find the token…

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