“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, September 9, 2013
CRIME ALWAYS PAYS: The Novel
Rossi said he’d torque if he needed to torque, he’d just had his ear ripped off.
Sleeps allowed Rossi made a valid point, especially as the hound that tore off the ear was three parts Siberian wolf to one part furry Panzer, but that Rossi, with the gash in the side of his head flapping like a glove puppet every time he opened his mouth, was maybe mishearing.
‘What he said,’ Sleeps said, ‘was try not to talk.’
It was bad enough they were holed up in a vet’s surgery and down two hundred grand, Rossi minus an ear and raving about how genius isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s not that kind of gig. But then the vet had started threading catgut into what looked to Sleeps like a needle he’d last seen on the Discovery Channel stuck through a cannibal’s nose and sent Rossi thrashing around on the operating table, hauling on the restraints, Rossi with a terror of needles and ducking around like Sugar Ray in a bouncy castle.
The vet leaned in to squint at the raspberry jelly mess that was the side of Rossi’s head. It didn’t help there was no actual ear. It had been torn clean off, along with enough skin to top a sizeable tom-tom.
‘If he doesn’t lie still,’ he said, ‘he’s going to wind up with his brain on a skewer.’
Sleeps sighed and climbed aboard, making a virtue of his considerable bulk by sprawling across Rossi and pinning him to the steel-frame operating table. Rossi went cross-eyed, launched into a gasping stream of profanity that sounded like a leaky balloon with Tourette’s. Sleeps wriggled around, sealed Rossi’s mouth with a plump hand.
The vet knotted the catgut. ‘I’d appreciate it,’ he said, ‘if you’d point that somewhere else.’
Sleeps’ pride and joy, the .22, nickel-plated, pearl grip. Enough to stop a man and put him down but not necessarily lethal unless you were unlucky. The .22 being empty right now, at least Sleeps didn’t have to worry about getting any unluckier than chauffeuring Rossi around when the guy was down one ear and a fat bag of cash.
Sleeps slipped the .22 into his pocket. ‘Okay,’ the vet said, ‘hold him still. This’ll hurt.’
Sleeps, fascinated, watched him work. The vet with Roman senator hair that was turning grey, the eyes grey too, giving off this unflappable vibe that Sleeps presumed came from every day sticking your hand up a cow’s wazoo. Or maybe this was a regular thing for him, a couple of guys on the run stumbling out of the forest into the back yard of his veterinarian practice with wounds it might be tough to explain away at hospitals that weren’t built next door to zoos.
‘I’ll warn you now he’s going to need an anti-tetanus shot,’ he vet said. ‘Looks like this, ah, car door you’re saying somehow ripped off your friend’s ear had some serious teeth. We could be looking at rabies.’
‘That’s just his natural disposition,’ Sleeps said. Rossi throwing in muffled snarl or two as the vet tucked the stitches snug. ‘But okay, yeah. I think we both know it wasn’t a car door.’
‘What are we looking at? Doberman?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Sleeps said. ‘Some kind of Siberian wolf mix, there’s maybe some husky in there. Belongs to his ex, Karen, she took it on when he went back inside.’
‘I thought we said no names.’
‘Right, yeah.’ Sleeps, who was looking to go back inside, cop some soft time, figured it might be no harm to drop a few crumbs with the vet. ‘She’s a beast, though. The hound, not Karen. I mean, our friend here was driving a Transit van at the time and she shunted it off the track, came bombing through the windscreen and tried to chew his head off.’ Sleeps had seen it all happen, having little else to look at on account of being stuck behind a deflating airbag at the wheel of their getaway Merc, the Merc at the time wedged at an angle between a boulder and the bole of a fat pine near the bottom of a gully maybe half a mile from the lake where Rossi had just heisted a two hundred grand cash ransom from Karen and Ray.
Rossi had pulled up in the Transit, which he’d also swiped from Karen and Ray, and called down to Sleeps, told him to hold on. Then Sleeps heard a howl and the splintering crash of the hound going through the Transit’s window. Rossi’d floored it, aiming the van at the nearest tree, but the wolf had shoved the van off the muddy track and down into the gully, at which point the hound, wedged chest-deep into the crumpled window frame, had set about decapitating her former owner.
To be fair, Sleeps acknowledged, the girl had her reasons. She was very probably the only Siberian wolf-husky cross on the planet wearing a pirate patch, this because Rossi, trying to break her in, just before he went back inside for his third jolt, had gouged out her eye with the blunt end of a fork. And that wasn’t even her most recent provocation. Only twenty minutes previously Rossi had left her laid out on the lake shore, putting a .22 round in her face, point-blank.
If Karen and Ray hadn’t come riding over the hill like the cavalry, hauling the hound off along with the two hundred gees, Rossi would have been crushed, minced and spat out.
‘Listen, I don’t mind stitching him up,’ the vet said, ‘but I’d appreciate you leaving out any detail that’s not strictly relevant to his condition. You know I’ll have to ring the police, right? Because of the possible rabies. And the less I know …’
‘Sure,’ Sleeps said, ‘yeah. But if you could just give us, like, maybe an hour’s start? It’s been a bad enough day already.’
‘It’s tough all over,’ the vet agreed. Then Rossi gave a yelp as the needle slipped, tried to bite Sleeps’ hand.
In the end Sleeps jammed his thumb into the ragged hole where Rossi’s ear used to be, stirred it around. Rossi screeched once, high-pitched, then keeled over and passed out.
Sleeps slid down off the operating table, retrieved the .22 from his pocket. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll be needing a bag of horse tranks. And whatever gun you use for putting down the animals.’
The vet sewed on. ‘We don’t use those anymore, they’re not humane.’
‘Humane? You’re a vet, man.’
‘We treat them like children,’ the vet said, ‘not animals.’
‘Nice theory.’ Sleeps, who’d been hoping to bag himself a cattle-prod at the very least, gestured at Rossi with the .22. ‘But what if they’re a little of both?’