Serial Killers: Valentine’s Night in the 70-Shot Club (Part 2) by Christian McCulloch

  1. Serial Killers: Valentine’s Night in the 70-Shot Club (Part 1) by Christian McCulloch
  2. Serial Killers: Valentine’s Night in the 70-Shot Club (Part 2) by Christian McCulloch
  3. Serial Killers: Valentine’s Night in the 70-Shot Club (Part 3) by Christian McCulloch

Serial Killers are part of our Trembling With Fear line and are serialized stories which we’ll be publishing on an ongoing basis.

Valentine’s Night in the 70-Shot Club

A Hangout for the Excessively Rich

Note: 1929. Members of Chicago’s North Side Gang were lined up against a wall and assassinated by unknown assailants, some dressed as police officers. Seventy shots in all were fired. Al Capone was suspected of having a significant role in the massacre, as were members of the Chicago Police Department. ‘Bugs’ Moran, Capon’s arch-enemy, either escaped or was absent.

Part Two

Each player shuffled in his seat to make himself comfortable. Uniformed staff, female I noticed, suitably non-she-wolf, closed in on the table with boxes and trays. They professionally emptied them onto the baize table. Two packs of cards were placed in the middle. I was given my stake.

‘Dog biscuits? You play for dog biscuits?’ I asked. Was this a passing nod to the Theatre of the Absurd, a piece of surrealism or simply a pantomime joke?

‘Why not?’ said Frankie. ‘Folks play for chips. If you’re playing for a dog, it makes sense to use doggie treats.’ Now, I wasn’t sure if I should take any of it seriously. Had I been thirty years younger I might have enjoyed chewing on such avant guard bones. At sixty-nine, life is absurd enough without adding existential meanings to such nonsense. I suppose the fact that the doggie-treats were hallmarked and monogrammed made some meaningful difference to someone.

Over the next five minutes, the players sorted out the rules of the game. Simply put, the object of the game was to get rid of your chips – your monogrammed dog-biscuits and collect as many of the others as possible. At the end of the game, individual players would barter their winnings or seek to off-load their losses with personal favours. The pastimes of the excessively rich had taken a decidedly Faustian turn since my grandfather had turned over his first million.

I turned to Dusty. ‘I thought you and I were going to gamble on…’ Dusty quickly halted me with his hand.

‘Every man here is playing for something. No one knows individual wagers. It may become clear, either by design or accident. In our particular case one of us will come out the winner and the other – well, you decide. There are no losers in this game except for the one who’s condemned to take charge of everyone else’s Black Dog.’

I could see on the faces of some of the other players that they weren’t sure if I understood the concept of the Black Dog. They’d not allow me to lose face. The player opposite me explained.

‘Winston Churchill, during the second world war suffered from depression and sleep deprivation. During such times of self-doubt, he referred to it as his Black Dog.’

I told them I’d heard the urban legends of long-distant truckers driving throughout too many nights and suffering from exhaustion and hallucinations. They shared a vision of being persued or confronted by a demonic hell-hound they called The Black Dog. A man could be elevated to local hero if he’d survived, if not it was an honourable excuse.

My new friends nodded. ‘He understands the stakes,’ someone said. I wasn’t so sure.

Again I leaned towards Dusty and whispered, ‘What’s the game? Poker? Rummy – Snap?’ He laughed. ‘You can play any game you want so long as you pick up a card when it’s your turn and throw something away to indicate you’ve finished. Nobody cares what you’re playing. The cards are props, use them as such. It’s important to pretend to play the game…’

I interrupted, ‘and if you don’t, they’ll elbow you out and call it early retirement, right?’ Dusty gave me a look that told me he knew exactly what I was talking about.

‘And our little wager?’ I persisted.

‘Let’s say if, after midnight, you can say you’ve had the most exciting night of your life then I win. If you can honestly say you’ve had better, you win, deal?’

‘But what’s to stop me lying to you?’

‘You won’t!’

 

The details and meanings of what went on between the players are now mostly hidden in a haze. Brief interactions between individuals stand out for reasons that made sense at the time, not now? Now, I picture ten white pins at the end of a bowling alley and a thunderous noise coming up behind me.

The game they told me was a free-flow of concepts, phrases, ideas and verbal images designed to trigger further concepts that can be applied in the world of business or a personal quest to be the top of the heap; your own personal god, if you like. ‘After all, Robbie,’ said Frankie, ‘All a person needs is one good idea to be a success, right?’

‘It depends on your definition of success,’ I replied.

 I was then handed a blank postcard and given time to write down in 100 words what my Black Dog was. For twelve months I’d have no nagging doubts nor any personal hang-ups. In essence, I could live the life of Ip-Piki-Okami, the Spirit of the Lone Wolf with impunity. It made me quiver with excitement. I could go back to work!

I wrote about the impotence and lack of direction in my life. I wrote about my frustrations. By the time I was finished naming names, I felt a great sense of freedom. I’d slipped the leash. I was reminded yet again of Shakespeare’s rousing speech.

Let slip the dogs of war! I almost shouted it.

I looked at the faces around me. I could see nostrils flair, lips pressed hard together, eyes pinched – the penetrating stare of a greater being inside each man as he prepared to go to war against some evil force within him.

We sat. The Black Dog Society was in session. It felt heady. Within me, Excitement was joined by Determination with Curiosity bringing up the rear.

The cards were dealt. The real game began.

The game to determine who’d take charge of removing the obstacles in the way of the members’ business plans was decided, not by what was said but what was left unsaid; the details they preferred to keep private or hidden from their shareholders and business regulators – illegal shit that money-men and Mafia bosses pass on to assasins. A necessary evil, you might say. The polite term is Spin Doctors.

It was Dusty’s party. He was the chairman. He began. He took his time. Whatever he had to say, he had to say in a single phrase. It made me consider the importance of words. Whatever could I say that would light the bonfire of imagination when it came to my turn, I wondered?

Dusty started. ‘A bored man receives an invitation,’ he said. I caught the meaning immediately.

The Black Dog I’d brought with me, the one lying at my feet sprang up. Ambush! It growled.

Wait! I snapped, then more gently, wait.

Dusty laid down a card to show it was the next player’s turn. Joey opposite picked a card from the pack. ‘A man waiting on a bench needs an attitude adjustment.’ He threw down his card like a gauntlet. It was a challenge between Joey and Dusty, Their eyes locked then softened.

Curiosity within me elbowed to the front. The Black Dog settled for the time being.

‘Are we showing or telling and whose story is it? Someone outside is grinding her axe – we don’t know why!’ The speaker threw his card to the table. The person next to him snatched up the top card from the pack. ‘Is it for love or money? Perhaps she wants to refocus his killer instincts!’ he said quickly and threw down his card.

The next player, Joey took his time. ‘When the party’s over, let’s see who’s still standing. Then decide.’ He said it clearly enough but I didn’t understand what it meant. Perhaps one of the others did. Joey placed the card carefully on the baize and looked up at me.

I felt the rush of wind in the London Underground. The air passed through me like the aftershock of an earthquake I’d felt during my time in Japan. Then I saw that it wasn’t the thick smell of strangers but the walls of a cave. I wasn’t being sucked forward, I was flying with my own wings, listening for something but I didn’t know what.

I don’t know if I called out to it or for it. Or if it came to me – whatever ‘it’ was. I remember telling myself that there was still a part of me waiting for the other shoe to drop… Then I realised that I’d said it and the round was complete,

I waited to see who’d throw in his Drabble and be free of his Black Dog for twelve glorious months. It was Joey to leave the pack first. He’d have been my choice too. I don’t remember giving my vote other than by a look. There again, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, wouldn’t you say?

We were down to six players, then five.

I was relieved to withdraw after the third round. I wouldn’t be required to do everyone’s dirty work – how dirty, I’d never know. Excessive wealth is not something I’d wish on anyone.

It came down to my wager with Dusty, a red Jag for a Lotus and a Porche. I could see this had been the carrot to get me there. It was my temptation after forty days and forty nights wandering in the wilderness. Would I be asked to cast myself down from some high cliff like the Nazarine? Would my faith in myself be …in the sure and certain hope of being lifted up again? That frightened me. I was sure I’d be like Icarus and suffer his fate, dashed upon the rocks with no angel to mourn my passing.

After the game we sat, relaxed and chatted. It felt like the end of a good working day, business had been completed, the work was done, The days to come looked bright and inviting. There was nothing to tax us. We were free to enjoy the rest of our evening at the 70-shot Club. I wondered how it had got the name. Perhaps, it referred to something during Prohibition in the ‘Twenties’, maybe some bootlegger came in and drank seventy shots. It would’ve killed him, surely.

***

Suddenly there was a silence. Not the kind that strikes like the sudden cessation of ticking from a grandfather clock, but the second after the countdown hits 000 and you’re waiting for the bomb to go off.

I watched it register on the others, a whitish pallor crept onto their faces. Their eyes, like mine, darted like frightened fish.

The double doors were flung open and the security guard on the street door fell unceremoniously into the club. The Molls and Dolls and Sugarbabes grabbed for the protection of their dates.

Two uniform policemen from the 1920s flanked three men in suits that I’d have placed as bit-characters from ‘The Great Gatsby’; Homburg hats, two-tone Oxford shoes, double-breasted mohair suits, each carrying a gabardine Trench coat.

The uniforms didn’t march like coppers but the suits strutted like James Cagney copycats. Instinct told me nothing was what it appeared to be. The suits and uniforms were marching purposely towards our table. We sat, stiff-armed, palms flat on the baize table, shallow breathing, if at all.

Tommy guns appeared like extra armoured legs on Deathwatch beetles.

One of the policemen stood over Dusty, the other circled the table. I followed him with my eyes.

Frankie went to lever himself out of his chair but was shoved back again. The man pushed his face close to Frankie’s ear, knowing he was still in his peripheral vision. I thought he was going to snarl something but the real menace was in his silence. Then he did something that no man would tolerate. He licked the side of Frankie’s face from jawline to hairline. We all felt the indignity and I heard the strain of sinews tighten in every man’s body. It was the sound of a hemp rope stretching under the weight of a hanged man.

‘You know the routine, Gentlemen – hands in the air – up against the wall.’ It was uttered slowly with the confidence of invincibility. The arrogance I associate with corrupt men meting out personal judgement under the patronage of law enforcement.

Where were my lofty thoughts of right and wrong, the indignance of unfair behaviour, the affrontery of misused power and office? The vexation? The anger? The rage?

Gone! My will deserted me. The walls closed in on me. What was being shouted sounded like garbled words strangled as the tape broke and spun on the wheel of a film projector.

I felt hands push into my back as I stumbled to face the bricks behind the card table. I sneaked a sideways look at Dusty beside me. His eyes were closed. His lips were moving silently as if saying a prayer.

I heard a series of mechanical clicks that I took to be the cocking of weapons. Then silence that could’ve lasted minutes more than seconds. My over-stretched nerves snapped when I heard the deafening sound of round after round being fired behind me.

I saw brick dust spitting from holes along the wall. I heard pleas, appeals and prayers. I saw holes rip open in the clothing of those lined up facing the wall with spurts of blood that splashed across the surface like a Jackson Pollock painting and ran down like thick silt thrown up against the windscreen of a high powered motorboat.

Dusty fell to his knees, his fingernails dragging down the brick face then falling away to join the crumpled heap that was his body. The blood pooled under him with a lazy persistence.

So much blood, I thought. I wondered if my body would have as much and would I have time to watch it leak away? I closed my eyes and waited my turn.

How long I had been on my knees, pressed against the wall I couldn’t tell. I felt two strong hands under my armpits, pulling and grabbing, trying to drag me away. I stumbled and lurched in no straight line. My leg muscles were screaming and a panic-voice within me cried out for mercy, begging me to stay still and allow some miraculous cure to heal my body before I could dare to see what damage the bullets might have done to me.

Whoever was pulling me wouldn’t stop. We must’ve looked like macabre dancing partners crashing through fire doors, bouncing and sliding along an endless half-lit corridor until we fell through one final set of doors that set off alarms and delivered us like a single piece of choking gristle into the cold February night.

The pressing claustrophobia was behind me and I felt new energy surge through my legs and spread like an electric charge into my brain. We were out but not away.

‘Get in the front! Get in the front!’ I heard.

Christian McCulloch

Christian McCulloch is a prolific British writer with a colourful background. He’s been an International teacher in British West Indies, Singapore (Principal), Japan and Hong Kong, also 10 years in Special Needs in UK. He now writes full time. He has written 10 novels, 12 novellas and many short stories.

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Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis is a member of the HWA and writes dark speculative prose and poetry which has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her work includes the novel, The Five Turns of the Wheel and the gothic novella, Bottled, both via Silver Shamrock Publishing.She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org/ and on twitter @el_Stevie.

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