Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Devil His Due. Chapter Five. Empire's End.

Barely five seconds had passed between Wheeler deciding to fight, and the end of it. He caught his breath. Nolan had dropped behind the counter. Wheeler called for him to get up and help him move Floyd. Wheeler was running on automatic. The soldier in him had the reigns, and he spoke with the authority needed for Nolan to get up and do as he was told.

Floyd’s corpse was dragged to the freezer. Wheeler turned the door sign to read ‘Closed’. There was a mop and bucket and Nolan made work on what had spilled on the floor. Wheeler helped Wally to his feet and then thrust Wally’s pistol into Wally’s armpit. He was pushed into the freezer. Nolan was called in too. The store front was left deserted.

Wally was bound at the wrists by his own tie and then thrust into the corner where his partner lay broken. Wheeler slapped him twice in the face, hard, and told him to pay attention. Pocketing the pistol, Wheeler turned to Nolan. “Earlier you were shocked to see me. Thought I was here for your money. With them, maybe.” Wheeler waved his hand at the corpse and the captive.
“No, no.” Nolan began.
“You did. You’re not in trouble for it. I know you thought I was here for your money. Why?”
“Because you’re still here. You survived.”
“Survived what?”
There was a cough from Wally that became a laugh and then stopped. “Survived what?” asked Wheeler again.
“I don’t know what to call it. You don’t know?”
“I’ve been out of town a few days,” Wheeler stated.
Nolan went out front again, and sorted through some papers under the counter. He had to wave away a customer looking through the window. When he found what he was after he went out back again and showed Wheeler the front page.

Gang violence claims 46 lives in one day.

Wheeler read on.

Wheeler worked for the Finns, a family with a lot of businesses to their name but very little prestige. They had money in some stores, a few garages, an undertakers and a hotel. Wheeler worked for them. He solved problems for them when someone slighted the family and their reputation was threatened. Like Jerry on the West Coast just now, who had taken photos of the daughter of a friend and then pimped her out to hop heads and junkies. They were a mob, sure. And when bootlegging was in full swing, the Finns did whiskey runs down from Canada for themselves and a few other families. Since the war, they’d diminished. Their name didn’t draw as many young bucks off the street any more, mainly because their name didn’t go with girls or drugs – only gambling and legitimate enterprises. There was some gun-running for a few years, which was how Wheeler came to know them, but that came to an end soon enough.
Nowadays there was little about them that bothered the law. However, there was a lot about them the other outfits didn’t like.

Now it seemed someone had made their move. In a single day the Finn’s and most of their associates had been rubbed out. Two machine-gun ambushes, one at the hotel and the other at Marshall’s had destroyed the three of the four Finn brothers, their sons, their wives and their guards. A further 16 murders, by rifle, knife, pistol, poison and a sabotaged elevator carriage took the death toll to 37. The evening was quiet from the sound of things, with the City’s police on high alert, now that they’d seen a pattern to the deaths, and the press waiting on tenterhooks. Two bombs killed eight more outside the DA’s office – only three of the people killed seemed to be affiliated with the Finns. Then finally, at 11.59pm, Joe Finn – who ran a cab company in Miami and was estranged from his brothers in New York – was thrown from a moving car and killed just outside the offices of the New York Times. Not since prohibition had the city been wracked by so many high-profile slayings.

The next day – nothing. There was no one left to retaliate. Anyone outraged stayed quiet, they didn’t want to get mixed up with whoever could operate on this scale. The press speculated a new outfit was in town, or perhaps a few families had joined forces and were flexing muscle against the rest. Join us or die, was the guess in the papers.

And now Wheeler was masterless.

Nolan filled in the rest.

Only yesterday did these two turn up demanding protection. It seemed the Cimo’s had either forfeited their hold over Nolan’s, or they had merged with whoever was making these power plays. That was all the butcher knew. So Wheeler thought to press Wally for a bigger picture.

Wally was already boasting he wouldn’t say a word when Wheeler folded the newspaper up and walked over to him. Wheeler sent Nolan out front. He didn’t have to see this. Wheeler followed, looking for a knife.

And then the guns went off.

The Devil His Due. Chapter Four. The Butcher.

Wheeler broke routine in New York and it saved his life.

What he should have done was reported to Marshall’s Auto Repair. He should have gone straight there and told them the job was done. People were counting on him doing that. Instead, Wheeler took himself to Nolan’s, a butcher, where he hoped to buy a sirloin. He knew he was doing things in the wrong order. He’d have a bloody wrap of paper sitting on the passenger seat when he went into Marshall’s, and when they were done counting out bills and joking about Jerry the hard way, and maybe handing him more work right there...when they were done he’d go back to his car and it would smell like copper and leather.

Wheeler took the kerb and then three long strides that took him under the bell of Nolan’s and one more that took him to the counter. Nolan watched all of this and did not move. Normally Nolan was happy and ready for custom, or if he was not, he was singing, his head down and pleased that he’s been caught hard at work. Now, Nolan was none of these things. He looked like he’d been waiting, and with Wheeler there he was terrified.

Wheeler backed away from the counter, his head tilted like a dog that doesn’t understand. They were friends of sorts, but Wheeler didn’t take to familiarity with Nolan. He simply asked. “There a problem?”
“You work for them, now? They send you?”
“I’m not here on work, if that’s what you mean. Why would we...?”
Wheeler was cut short. The bell behind him rang and Nolan’s expression changed to worse than before.

Two men snuck in. Wheeler, on instinct ducked his head to the side and balled up a little. He’d found he could pass off his bulk as fat if he just shrank into himself. Fat was never threatening to these men. He didn’t look at them directly, but he made sure he knew where they were and what they were doing. First through the door made straight to Nolan. Second through the door came and leant next to Wheeler. Were they here for him?

Wheeler recognised the voice of Wally Washington and got the gist. Wally was a mouth. “Okee. Nolan. Whaddaya got for me? Sing it.”
“Look fellas...”
“Sing it.”
“Mr. Washington. These new terms...this change-over...” Wheeler caught Nolan looking at him as he said this. Something accusatory in his eyes. “I’ve not had time for this.”
“Floyd? Do you hear singing?”
“If I do, aint much. Wouldn’t go to carny-gee hall to hear it,” said the man next to Wheeler. Wheeler afforded himself the opportunity to get a better look at the room. This Floyd guy he didn’t know, but he was muscle, and a danger. Wally he knew, and Wally should have recognised him if he’d known his job.

The thing Wheeler was struggling with was Wally didn’t have this job. He did not collect protection. He did not work rackets. He played cards and craps and ran up tabs. He was not a part of any firm. Why the sudden promotion? Wheeler left that thought turning as Wally spoke up again. Wally told Floyd to grab Nolan’s hand, which he did with incredible speed.

“Going to cut the one with your wedding band on it. How you like that? We sell the ring back to you. Then mebbe you’ve got the money after all?” Wally by now had hefted a cleaver off the counter. “Big thing, this. Big knife. Gonna be a trick getting just one finger out of five.”
Nolan was pulling at his hand. He wasn’t saying much, but his breath came out in long rasps. Floyd had him like a vice. His arms barely twisted to Nolan’s frenzied tugs. Floyd turned to Wheeler. “You might wanna bust out of here, fatso.” As he spoke he gave Wheeler a closer look. It was clear Wheeler was not fat. And his face betrayed none of the fear Floyd was used to seeing on these tours. Floyd took all his attention off the butcher. Stopped listening to Wally. He tilted his shoulders so he was as close to facing Wheeler as he could get.

Wheeler thought about moving out. He thought about what this trouble was worth to him. He could handle seeing Nolan get cut. He could just about handle having to find a new butcher. Wheeler couldn’t think enough moves into the future to see what fires he’d start by stopping these two. Wheeler didn’t like or need fire. But this Floyd guy was watching him now. Getting the measure of him.

Wally saw that Floyd was distracted and took his first real look at the other customer. The man he’d so wanted to impress with his intimidation of Nolan. Wally loved an audience. He’d thought some paper-reading sap was about to see something that scared him good. And years from now, when this sap is refusing a cut of ham at his father in-law’s retirement dinner, something like that, the sap will tell the story about the time he saw the real Wally Washington, the legendary New York City mobster. Only by then Wally hoped they’d be calling him Walter.

All of this came crashing down around Wally when he saw the steely eyes of Wheeler.

Wheeler saw the flash of recognition on Wally’s face and his mouth try and find an ‘O’ shape to yell out of. Floyd was a moment behind, but he knew enough was going on to warrant letting go of Nolan. He felt he’d need two hands free for this.

Two hands, three hands, four. Whatever Floyd was bringing to the fight had to be fast. Faster than Wheeler. Floyd threw one fist up for cover, and the other back to aim. He leant back on his right leg, pivoting at the hip. Wally had dipped behind Floyd, using him as a literal shield while he fished a snub-nosed automatic out of his pocket. As Floyd spun back to release the fist he’d stretched behind him, Wheeler’s leg flashed out. The very point of his shoe struck Floyd in the groin and seemed to bury itself deep into the joint of his right leg. Floyd bent. A sickness spread fast in his stomach and the punch he was now half-way through now just lent momentum to his sudden fall.

As Floyd collapsed in on himself, Wheeler turned his outstretched leg up, bending at the knee so it crashed into Floyd’s exposed face. Floyd rushed to meet it almost as fast as Wheeler brought it up. There was the report of broken bone. Behind his damaged opponent, Wheeler could see Wally and a flash of black in his hands. Wheeler pushed forwards, he tipped Floyd back, and the limp figure went over like a felled tree, flattening Wally. There was a single, haphazard shot from Wally’s pistol, that made crimson ruin of Floyd’s face, before Wheeler could stamp on the extortionist’s chest, blasting the air and fight out of him.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Devil His Due. Chapter Three: Hungry Ghosts.

Killing didn’t bother Wheeler. Not this late in the day. Maybe in the war he felt something; regret, shame, sadness, but he couldn’t be sure. He only remembered the fact of it; that he had picked up his rifle and kept himself alive at the expense of others.

His head was always clear. Clear before, clear after. It wasn’t coldness as such. Once a woman had called him a fatalist, and he clung onto that. He didn’t think they had a name for it, but sure, fatalist was just about a perfect way to say it. When they put names, addresses and money in an envelope for him, he pocketed it. So long as he could kill someone, then it was their time to die.

It fit how he saw the world, before the war even. He had seen that man, trapped at the road’s edge by the weight of an upturned car. The people who had given up hope for him and stayed hoping for themselves when fire started, running away while he called out and cried. There were minutes between them all knowing it was too late and them all actually seeing it. Wheeler had sat on his bike and heard that man ask ‘Why?’ with a despair he’d heard a hundred times since. Back then he knew there was no such question as why. Not for dying.

But his body was never as clear on these things as his mind. It seemed to burn up more of him that he liked when he killed and he always felt spent and a little sick afterwards. Even if he’d done as little as line up one shot, just as soon as the man at the other end expired, Wheeler’s insides would go to smoke. He felt like bottled vapour and he never got used to it. Other men he’d seen at work sometimes got shakes, and Wheeler knew he was lucky not to get those. They cost men dearly, he’d seen that much. But all the same, he would have done anything to turn to solid rock when he felt ghosts inside.

Which is why he was lucky to sit across from the runaway.

Wheeler had driven north for about an hour and then stopped at a place to eat. He knew he had to eat, but there was nothing inside him but sickness and smoke and finding an appetite for grease or meat or salt sweat tastes was a trick and a half. He sat at the counter with the menu propped in front of him, not really reading, just making busy until he’d talked himself into ordering. It was then he saw the boy. A scruffy, skinny kid who had the collar of a shirt and two jackets turned up. He came with a kit back and rolled up blankets and it was Wheeler’s guess that he had run away from home. Maybe he wanted to join the Army or maybe he didn’t. The kid looked healthy enough, he can’t have been on the road all that long. Wheeler watched him, but the boy never noticed. The boy was too confident to care and Wheeler was too good to be caught. Wheeler knew the boy wasn’t trouble, but he seized him up like he was. The kid probably carried a switchblade, had a good reach and was likely quick and fierce. He had been in fights before and might even have won some of them. He was too thin to take any long punishment, and he was handsome, which meant he would back away if he could. Wheeler had no intention to fight him, these were checks he ran on anyone, the same way he knew the waitress would kick better than most men, and if the short order chef had a knife, Wheeler had better have a gun.

If Wheeler did have to fight, if this kid wanted cash, or the cops drew up outside, Wheeler wouldn’t be fit. Not with the ghosts.

The runaway ordered a Chocolate Malt. Wheeler found himself talking. Just into open air at first.
“Chocolate Malt?”
“What’s that pops?” the kid came back. Something dry about his voice.
“Nah, nothing.” Wheeler said. “Just haven’t had one of them since I was in short pants.”
“You looking to have some of mine?”
“No, son. I’m not looking for trouble either. Just talking.”
“Talking a whole lot about Chocolate Malt.”
“Guess I am. That all you’re having?”
“I got a lot of walking.” By now the shake had been set in front of him, and he took a long, indulgent slug of it and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “And not much cash. These things put the hunger back, you know what I mean? Feels like a meal, and tastes a damn sight better than some slop and cheese.”
“Not enough not to be where I am. But maybe more than most.”
Something about it fit with Wheeler and he turned to the waitress, who was sizing them both up, and ordered. “I’ll have what the kids having.”
“You gonna pay for mine?”
“If I did, kid, you’d think something about me that just aint true.”
“Guess so.”
“And you’d do well do go without that kind of help, whether offered or asked for.”
The waitress smirked at this, which was something Wheeler didn’t like. The kid didn’t like it either and drank up in silence before leaving. Wheeler had wanted to say good luck, but whatever happened to the kid now was nothing to do with him. Instead he watched the waitress until she understood.

Wheeler took it all as an omen. The milkshake was his talisman. The thing had gone down thick and smooth and had dowsed fires and filled up everywhere he was empty. It was like a meal, and more. The ghosts disappeared and Wheeler was back on the road, repaired.

The Devil His Due. Chapter Two: The Borrowed Man

They had communicated with a man they thought was called John Teak. But he was not. He looked like John Teak in as much as he had a blank, flat face on a square head sat atop a slender body, with broad shoulders. John Teak was slightly taller, but that was fixed by lifts in the shoes. John Teak had smaller hands, but you could trust that very few would ever pick up on this. John Teak had short salt and pepper hair, and though this man was born blonde, he was salt and pepper today, and had been for four weeks, parted to the left, the same way John Teak did. This man had narrower eyes, and one of them did not contain the slight smudge of pigment in the right eye that made John Teak’s look like a drop of milk in black coffee. This was regrettable, but not problematic, as none of his employers had even met the real John Teak.

John Teak, the real John Teak was sunk somewhere in Florida. His head and his hands apart from the rest of him, but deep in the black stink of swamp all the same. This new John Teak had his wallet and his car, and four of his suits. He also had John Teak’s pipe, though he did not use it.

In New York they shook hands with him. They took him at his name because they lacked imagination. He felt a flicker of disgust at this, behind a door he seldom ever opened. Then the flicker was gone. It was fine, he reasoned. If these people had imagination, they would not need him. If people did not disgust him, he would have to think differently about his work.

John Teak, the new John Teak, cut a length of electrical cord from a lamp and curled either end around either fist. He curled the rest around the neck of Antonio Ceres.

When Mr. Ceres had stopped kicking, and his hands dropped, John Teak let go. Then he took from an envelope in his pocket $1,000 in $20 bills - the same sum Ceres had allegedly taken just to write down the address of the now late Archie Vander. The money was curled into a short pipe of paper and, as per New York’s orders, pushed into the open mouth of the dead man.

When the police later questioned the hotel staff on duty that day, they did not remember the man in the blue suit who had crossed the lobby in full view of most of them.

After this, the man pretending to be John Teak would have to pretend to be someone else. A routine precaution. At the airport he would watch for a man, a dull man of a similar build, hopefully alone and hopefully close to his looks. John Teak had lasted for three assignments and would have to retire. The man that travelled back to Geneva was yet to be found.

He called New York, and they made him hang up so they could call him back. He listened to what they had to say, which was panicked, excitable, noisy. They forgot to even thank him for the service he had just performed. Now they wanted to bully him into something else. He called Geneva, which was out of the ordinary, but New York had insisted he did. Geneva spoke coolly, without rushing into things, but the message was the same. His contract with New York was to carry over into this new item. They would pay him the same rate again, and then once more on top.

If he could kill a man called Wheeler.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Devil His Due. Chapter One: Entrances and Exits.

There was a girl on her back on a yellow towel a short distance from the pool. She had sunglasses on, big black things like Kennedy’s widow wore. As he crossed the lawn he tried to gauge from her breathing if she was asleep. He guessed not, but money said she had her eyes shut. Nobody watched an empty sky. If there were clouds he might have thought different. But if there were clouds she wouldn’t get much sunning done, would she?

And so what if she had her eyes open? She’d be curious about him, unsure at the very least. He’d still get close. If she was stupid and tried to scream, there was still a moment when the brain put that thought into action, still a moment when the lungs got ready for noise. He’d learned to do a lot in those moments.

But she had her eyes shut. And the grass softened his approach to the last. His shadow fell across her and he looked at it and thought of photos he’d seen of Central Park from the air. A big slab of one thing in the middle of something altogether different. Her skin goose-bumped where the sun was hidden. He waited for her to work it out.


She felt it, opened one eye. She knew he saw it. Bikinis might hide some things, she thought, but not this. He would have seen the second’s worth of tension, lines in the muscles, ligaments tightening, breath held for an instant too long. Any coolness after this would be for show. But she made with it anyway.
“I’m here to see the man of the house.”
“If you mean Jerry he’s in his theatre. Watching movies.”

He stood over her a bit longer. He let her work out his story while he did the same number back.

Accent wasn’t Angeles. Nor the complexion. Bit too pink and plump for the cameras but she hadn’t found that out till she got here. Yeah. Probably taught at a nursery in Grand Forks, North Dakota somewhere hokey like that. Don't even do postcards of the place because all anyone ever does is leave. She got taught a lesson out West and rather than drag herself back where she belonged she fell into all this. It’s neither a landing or a crash.


His tune had to be something like ex-cop. Jerry had enough of them stop by the house on one payroll or another. Harrys or Hanks. At least one Buzz. They called guns ‘Roscoes’ or ‘heaters’ or ‘pieces’ and were muscle that had turned to fat. Not much fat on this guy, though. Suit was somewhere between old and new. That set him aside as well. Ex-cops just wore old. Old hats and old shoes.

He waited. He wanted to see if she’d break sweat. She didn’t. She knew she would soon enough so she spoke.

“You shouldn’t come round the back like that. You’re lucky the dogs didn’t come at you.”
“Your dogs are dead.”


Jerry liked the Dutch girl best. He had cut the reel so that she came in as the third tease. The two before would be ok. But just when the fellas might switch off he would drop her like a bomb. Then they all watch the rest hoping there’d be another as good as her. There wasn’t. Not in this bunch anyway. But there’d be that hope and that’d be good for business. He would need to find out from Heshie who she was and get her to do more. He’d ask if Heshie could make her look a bit more willing next time.

The door broke at the lock, broke at the hinges. It came with a noise that hurt. The projector lit up cyclones of dust and splinters. Jerry tried to look past the patterns suspended in the air but found he couldn’t. His brain wouldn’t change up a gear. That’s why his hand was reaching under his jacket still for a gun he knew wasn’t there. It just pumped away, opening and closing on nothing.

Detached from his body, unable to get any kind of sensible response from it, Jerry watched his execution as a spectator.The man. Jerry knew him as Wheeler, but not if that was Wheeler Something, or Something Wheeler. He’d never thought to ask before.

Wheeler drew a long-barrelled revolver from a shoulder holster, and without fully extending his arm, shot once; level with Jerry’s gut.

Jerry was astonished. He swore he felt the round come out, but not go in. Fancy that. He was well past stopping this. Dying was going to be like a science for him. His hands went to his middle just to find where he’d opened. Under the ribs. It had torn his tie.

The next one he felt all the way through. He felt bones break. He felt stuff tear. He felt like he’d had enough. Might have been an idea to fall down at this point, but his legs weren’t listening.

Last one had purpose. Wheeler put it where he wanted to. Jerry stopped processing events. He’d got stuck on fear. That’s all he could feel now as one final, unwelcome question got answered. The Dutch girl kept dancing.


Wheeler reloaded. He knew there’d be trouble. He went back outside to wait for it.


Does the name Edmond Bayer ring a bell? Ellis Luther? How about Max Marshall Ford? Can you say you’ve ever heard of S.K. Constantine?

Probably not. But if you’d heard of one of them, you knew then of Lincoln Lee Varsey, for all of the above were pen-names used in his prolific career as a novelist and screen-writer. All of the above were the names on the covers of some of the most thrilling stories of the 20th Century
A versatile writer, he has been all but forgotten today. His books are out of print, and his name seldom mentioned in the company with which he belongs - Richard Matheson, Jim Thompson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, to name but a few.

Perhaps the breadth of fiction is to blame. For who would consider that vicious thug Wheeler, elegant secret agent John Harmsway, solemn warrior Aalaak: The Savage King, galactic champion Eli Echo, masked avenger The Dread Whisper and bickering gunmen Plomo and Plata were all creations of the same man? Different names on the spines – Edmond Bayer forever linked with Harmsway’s globe-trotting danger, Max Marshall Ford bound to the dust and treachery of his ‘pistoleros’ (even Emilio Bosso’s feature film trilogy ‘Lead and Silver’ ‘For the Bride and For the Husband’ and ‘Coins in the Sand’ (‘Kill Lead and Kill Silver’ in the US) have vanished into obscurity) – but all from the one mind.

And what of the man? I’d tell his history here, but so little of it is known. And it seems like few people can agree on what they do know. He was said to have served in WWII; there are accounts of him injuring his eye as a marine at Guadalcanal, but also stories of how he ruined his hand jumping from a plane above the English Channel (legend has it he typed all his work with the one hand. Quite an achievement when you consider a the height of his career he put out four novels a year.) His actual Military Record has never been revealed. Similarly details of his death are also contested, to the extent where fans aren’t even convinced he has died (The Washington Post published an obituary in 1980, which was little more than a list of work and a photograph believed to be Varsey, but later discovered to have been of Wayman Llewell, another author who had worked at Blue Label Mystery Magazine at the same time as Varsey)

What is known is his first writing job was for Top Notch Funnies in 1944 writing as Buzz Baker, and the first time he had his own creation published was at Blue Label, when the first 'Dread Whisper' strip ran, with art by Eli Biro (later the inspiration for the planet-hopping pilot first seen in 'Castles on Phobos') in 1946. His last published work was the crime novel ‘Never Too Deadly To Die’ in 1974. A masterwork that saw only one printing, in French. (Don't worry, I have the English manuscripts)

So far, with the help of other collectors and with access to the vaults at Callisto Publishing, I’ve been able to put together a formidable amount of Varsey’s work. The real treasures have been the unpublished material. Of which there is a considerable amount (an abandoned treatment for the last Lead and Silver film, which has a very, very different ending – I imagine there will be a lot of controversy over that.) with more and more gems uncovered each day.

I’ve been a fan since I picked up the first Edmond Bayer novel ‘The Tiger and Harmsway’ in Greenwich six years ago. I think I’ve held onto him as a secret joy for long enough. I’ve decided to go with 1964’s 'The Devil His Due' as the first reprint, not only because it’s the title of this blog, but also it’s the first thing published under his real name.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lincoln Lee Varsey.