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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
by M. B. Wood
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
This novel – Superheat – is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Malcolm B. Wood.
Las Vegas, August 9, 1969.
A fist pounded deep into O’Brien’s guts and drove the air from his lungs. Gasping, he staggered into the wall of the office. A blue mist filled his vision. The vertical stripes on the silk wallpaper seemed to sway like tall grass in the wind.
The man with arms bigger than most people’s thighs picked him up off his feet by his coat lapels with no apparent effort and slammed him against the wall. “Don’t ever be late with your vig.” The man’s raspy voice was flavored with garlic, whiskey and cigarette smoke. The man relaxed his grip.
As O’Brien sagged, the man’s knee slammed into O’Brien’s groin. A bright flash of pain dimmed his world. He collapsed to the floor, all strength gone from his legs. He tried to catch his breath as he rolled onto his side. The carpeting felt rough against his face as his chin slid on its pile.
The man’s foot slammed into O’Brien’s stomach.
He gasped. The man kicked him, higher, in the ribs. O’Brien’s vision faded as the blue mist intensified.
Someone grabbed him by his hair and dragged him to his feet.
“You fuckin’ chump,” a voice said. “Don’t ever say you can’t pay. This is nothing to what you’ll get if you don’t cough up. Understand?”
O’Brien tried to nod as the world spun about him. For the first time in a long, long time, he was afraid, very afraid.
“I can’t hear you!”
A fist slammed into his ribs again. These people were doing to him what he’d done to others. He’d always assumed his size and strength made him immune to this type of treatment. At six feet and two hundred twenty pounds of lean muscle, it’d been true once. “Yes,” he gasped.
“Yes, what, asshole?”
The man grabbed his shirt under his throat and twisted, lifting him upwards. He couldn’t breathe. The world began to spin and fade.
“Joey, let him go. He can’t talk like that.” It was the smaller man who spoke in a quiet voice filled with East Coast precision, hard and polished, steely and without mercy.
“I oughta kick the shit outa this asshole for sayin’ he might pay us back. Who the fuck he think he is?”
The quiet voice spoke again. “If he doesn’t pay, then you take care of him, capisce?” His words tapped out like a delicate hammer on hot steel. “Mr. O’Brien, I can reach out and touch you, anywhere. Every Friday you will give two hundred dollars to my man in Akron until you repay the entire two grand, capisce?”
O’Brien looked up at the withered, almost scrawny man in the gray silk suit who had spoken. His mouth was thin, without lips, snake-like. His pallor was pasty, lifeless. The man leaned forward in the over-stuffed burgundy leather chair, his manicured hands white on the wide mahogany desk.
O’Brien caught a breath. “Who’s that?”
“He’ll contact you next week, at your home.” The man in the silk suit tossed O’Brien’s wallet toward him. It landed at his feet. “If you run, we’ll find you. We know enough about you to get you, no matter where you go.” He nodded toward the big man. “Get him out of here.” He waved his hand as though he were shooing a fly.
Joey grabbed O’Brien by the arm and twisted it into a lock that would have been a credit to any police officer. He pushed O’Brien out into the hallway and marched him down to the end of a corridor. Joey kicked open a heavy metal door with a loud bang. They entered a trash-strewn alleyway between towering walls of pink stucco lined with large blue rubbish containers. It was the service road behind the casino.
“The boss didn’t say it, but I will,” Joey said. “You don’t pay, I put your pieces in one of those.” He jerked his thumb toward a dumpster overflowing with trash. “Understand?”
O’Brien winced from the movement. “I got you.”
“Now get the fuck out of here.” Joey threw O’Brien to the ground. The door shut with a loud metallic clang that echoed off the tall walls. He was alone.
O’Brien crawled onto his knees and vomited until nothing more came up. He staggered toward the street, every step an effort. He hurt all over. He had no money, only an airline ticket to get home.
At forty-four years of age, Patrick O’Brien, chief of security at Schirmerling Tire & Rubber in Akron, Ohio, found his luck had finally run out in Las Vegas. He’d lost all of his money at the casino’s tables. He wished he’d quit last month, when he got cleaned out. But no, he’d felt sure he could win back his losses. As a regular, he borrowed two grand worth of chips from the casino.
Maybe it was having the blonde babe on his arm, the one who kept whispering things she’d do to him later; maybe it distracted him. It was all gone, including the hooker.
After the casino cut him off, men escorted him to a back office to “solve his credit problem.” The man who bought his casino debt was small and was immaculately dressed. He acted as though it was a regular business transaction. The other man was very large, bulging out of his blue pinstriped polyester suit.
It was almost like being in a bank, providing information for a loan application, including lots of details about his home, job, and relatives. Even the office, with its silk wallpaper and mahogany furniture, reminded O’Brien of the offices at the bank he used in Akron.
As soon as he signed the “loan document,” the smaller man’s attitude changed. “You gotta stay current with the interest, the vigorish, or we call the loan. The vig’s two hundred bucks every Friday, capisce?”
“That’s a lot of interest,” O’Brien said. “I might have trouble paying that amount. Can’t you do better than that?”
“Joey,” said the smaller man, “straighten him out.”
That’s when the pain began.
After O’Brien landed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, he called Blodgett, one of his security staff at Schirmerling, to come and pick him up. The drive to Akron seemed long.
The next day, after a soak in a bathtub with Epsom salts, he went over his finances. Between alimony payments and the vig, he had very little money left. He was in deep shit. He needed to make a score, a big one, to get this monkey off his back. He had to find a way to get some dough, and quick.
August 11, 1969.
A staccato bang shook the dusty red brick walls of the power plant. The banshee scream of superheated steam followed, drowning the rumble of machinery. Overhead pipes rattled, releasing a cloud of gray dust. Brown dust billowed up from the turbines.
Daniel Serrano Robles ran toward the sound of the wild steam, climbing the steel-grate steps two at a time to reach the mezzanine. Steam billowed out of the door to the manifold room, turning the glare of the mercury vapor lamps into rainbow-colored halos.
Daniel slid to a stop, looking for the main shut-off valve, searching his memory. Nothing in this damn plant is logical. It’s cobbled together with junk and cheap substitutions.
This assignment in Monterrey, Mexico, had come about because he was an engineer who spoke Spanish. The owners needed a certified engineer’s report verifying the plant’s capacity and operational safety to support its sale price. Luck had run out on the plant’s owners, or perhaps it was too much neglect over too much time. After a week, Daniel came to the conclusion that the plant needed a major rebuild or abandonment.
Ah, got it, Daniel thought. As he cranked the main steam line’s valve shut, rust splintered off its stem, a testimony to its infrequent use. The high-pitched scream of steam moving at near supersonic speed sighed into silence, yielding to the animal-like whimpers of human suffering.
Oh, God, no, Daniel thought. Someone’s in there. As the fog thinned, he entered the manifold room. A thin jet of steam still whispered from a rusty rosette of jagged metal, the remnants of the burst pipe. A clump lay on the floor, unmoving, mewling like an exhausted cat. It was the floor sweeper, the old man with an ever-present smile and cheerful greetings.
Daniel gently touched the man on his shoulder. “Por favor, digame.” Please, speak to me.
The man’s moans faded. He whispered, “Ayudame, señor.”
Help you? Daniel thought. How? The man’s face had the red flush of a boiled lobster, and his bare feet under the ragged leather sandals were the same brilliant hue. You poor soul, you’ve been cooked. With care, he picked up the man and staggered down the stairs into cooler air. The distance to the infirmary was twice, no, ten times the distance he remembered, and the man’s weight seemed to grow steadily. Silent staring faces watched his progress.
Daniel backed through swinging double doors and placed the man on a table. “¡Auxilio!” he called for help.
A heavy-set woman, bulging bosom tightly restrained by a stained white uniform, plodded into the room, her jaw methodically chewing. As her eyes caught the injured man, they dilated like those of a frightened cat, and her mouth froze. She leaned over the man’s motionless body and touched his wrist, checking his pulse. “No puedo ayudarlo,” she said. I can’t help him.
“Por qué no?” Daniel asked. Why not?
“Murió,” she said. He’s dead.
Daniel lugged his suitcase through the door to his apartment, his left hand full of mail. He’d just finished two back-to-back foreign assignments, and upon his return to the home office of Matlock Engineering in Chicago, his manager had picked a fight with him. The manager had insisted Daniel write his report about the steam line break as if it were an unavoidable accident. The manager made it clear consulting engineers did nothing to “damage” their clients. The manager insisted Daniel not write reports that implied negligence had caused the death of an unimportant worker.
Daniel’s personal code of ethics, as well as being a registered professional engineer, conflicted with that order. When he tried to explain his views, his manager shouted him down. That incident, and the manager’s comment about Hispanics not understanding good business practices, confirmed to Daniel his days with Matlock were numbered.
The apartment smelled musty from being closed up during his absence of almost two months. After opening the windows, he turned to the mail he’d picked up at the post office and started sorting it. He had to get his overdue bills paid prior to calling Lisa.
She’d come into his life about six months earlier, lighting up his lonely existence. She’d introduced him to nightclubs, fine restaurants and places to go, something he’d been too insecure previously to do on his own. She’d made him realize there was nothing wrong with being thin and having a long face dominated by a big nose. And she didn’t care that he was born in Mexico City. He started to think of her as “The One” with whom he would settle down.
He shuffled through the letters, flicking most into the waste paper basket. A mauve envelope froze his hand. He recognized it as one from Lisa, like those intimate notes she sent. His heart beat faster. How sweet of her, a little something to welcome me home. He sniffed the envelope, but her personal scent was absent. The image of her presence filled his mind. The memory of her musky perfume, the warmth of her touch, and the way she aroused him, all came surging back.
He sliced open the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of mauve paper. He unfolded it and began to read.
Daniel, I’ve met someone else who can be with me and doesn’t run off to distant places doing who knows what. You didn’t even call or write me while you were gone, leaving me by myself, all alone. I’ve found that someone who cares about me, who makes me happy. I know you’ll try to call me. Don’t bother, it won’t work. Lisa.
He’d tried a dozen times to call her from Mexico, but the combination of a third world telephone system and timing had frustrated his efforts. He also knew better than to mail letters in Mexico. He’d hoped she’d understand.
Daniel’s guts lurched. Oh, no, Lisa, please don’t. He grabbed the phone and dialed her number. After several rings, a voice answered. For an instant his heart soared.
“The number you have reached is not a working number. Please try again, or dial an operator.”
Daniel called an operator and learned Lisa had changed her number to one that was unlisted. A wave of anger and fear swept over him. First Matlock, and now Lisa. He opened a Stroh’s beer and eased into the armchair and reread her letter several times. The words tattooed an indelible image in his mind. His heart grew heavier. Has my life hit a new low? How can things get any worse?
The next day, Daniel dialed her office, only to have the PBX operator say, “Miss Lisa Kozlowski gave express instructions that calls from you will not be accepted.”
“But, she’s my.” He heard the phone click and the line go dead. “Damn it!” He slammed the phone back onto its receiver. The weight in his chest grew larger, and the lump in his throat threatened to choke him. She’s my love, my everything. The image of her filled his mind–her long blond hair, the smoothness of her pale skin, her voluptuous shape, and her quick wit.
He’d met Lisa while at a downtown hotel for a legal seminar. They had literally bumped into each other. After mutual apologies, she’d asked him if he would keep her company while at the seminar’s lunch. He’d hesitated for a moment, then agreed.
He now remembered she dumped her boyfriend for him. It had seemed unimportant at the time, for Lisa introduced him to a life he had never before experienced. They became lovers, and that’s when he realized she was quite sophisticated. She taught him how to make love to a woman, how to use his hands and tongue in places that brought her to a moaning ecstasy. She also showed him how to extend the length of their lovemaking, opening new vistas of pleasure he had never before experienced.
Now she’s gone. He stared at the work lying in front of him, not seeing it. No, she doesn’t want me anymore, because she’s found someone new. It’s not the first time she’s done this. Dear God, let it not be this way. Please! I want her. I need her.
It’s this stupid job, here at Matlock that kept me away from her. Yet he knew if she really were the “One,” a couple of months apart would not have made her love die so quickly. If she would only give me another chance . . .
Daniel pushed away the bowl of cereal. He couldn’t eat. He felt as though he’d been in a battle and lost. Yesterday, he tried to get into Lisa’s high-rise apartment building. The burly doorkeeper threatened to call the police, saying he’d been warned to watch for him. It was as though she had developed a system to keep him at bay.
His manager at Matlock had grown increasingly hostile. Daniel looked up at the clock. I should go, or I’ll be late. He hated the thought of going to work. He felt drained, defeated.
He slipped on a coat and headed for the bus stop. Maybe it’s time to call that headhunter. He says there’s a position at Schirmerling Tire & Rubber in Akron, Ohio, a nice, respectable company. It’s time for a change, a time for something better. And Akron is near Kent, where Hector, my brother lives. Yes, it’s time.
August 18, 1969.
O’Brien forced a smile. “Where d’you keep your inventory of chemicals and the record of those who used them?” He sniffed. The chemical storeroom of STR’s Research Center had an acrid aroma, but not as strong as the harsh stink of the tire curing room. Over the weekend, he’d read a police bulletin that listed the chemicals used to make illegal drugs. It’d given him an idea.
Beckham, the stockroom clerk, cigarette dangling from his lip, glanced up over his black-rimmed glasses. “Who’re you?”
“Captain O’Brien. Chief of STR security. I need to check your records.” He showed his I.D. “It’s a security issue.”
Beckham looked back and forth between the I.D. tag and O’Brien. “Everything’s in those files.” He pointed at a filing cabinet squeezed into a gap between the shelves that ran from floor to ceiling filled with amber jars of many different sizes. Next to it was a battered gray metal desk with an in basket overflowing with paper. The yellow linoleum tiles on the floor had begun to curl, and the faded green walls had a pale brown pallor from a long history with nicotine.
“Every Friday, I go to the computer center. I put the transactions onto punch cards so I can enter them into the IBM 360. That’s STR’s main computer.” He enunciated every word clearly, implying it was a special skill and a real privilege to use the computer. “I keep a temporary running record in the card file over there.” He pointed to three card file boxes. “They’re listed by chemical name, manufacturer, and user.”
“Show me.” O’Brien forced another smile.
After Beckham showed him how the system worked, O’Brien asked, “So, how d’you know when to reorder?”
Beckham explained in detail how he reordered the logged-in chemicals once a week. “It’s verified once a year with an audit,” he said. “’Cept every year, some chemicals come up short. There’re people who come in when I’m gone and don’t bother to sign out what they took. Lazy bastards!” He lit another cigarette and walked O’Brien through the system.
O’Brien settled down at the battered desk and began to look through the files. He waited for Beckham to get busy. C’mon, hurry up, he thought. Once Beckham was occupied, O’Brien pulled out the list of chemicals from the advisory and began checking in the card files. It didn’t take long to locate them.
He saw a Zach Rogan had taken out three kilograms of phenyl acetone over the last three months, which was listed in the police bulletin as one of many precursors for making methamphetamine. Maybe, he thought, the problem of how to make real money has just solved itself.
Zach Rogan hurried down to the company parking lot. He was ready for a beer or two and to put his feet up. Flags hung limply from the poles lining the front of the sprawling three-story tan brick building that was STR’s Research center. The concrete walkway leading to the asphalt parking lot, amid neat landscaping, was deserted. Heat from a late August sun shimmered off the blacktop parking lot. He wondered if the latest issue of Playboy had arrived.
“Yo, Rogan.” A gruff voice shook him from his fantasy of what the new issue might contain. A big hand clamped on his arm and squeezed hard.
“Hey, man, that hurts.” Rogan saw a tough-looking man dressed in a white shirt with a black tie, and tan slacks. He had the tall, blocky build that shouted muscles. His face was thin with a well-etched frown, and he had a shock of blond hair shot with gray. Rogan had seem him somewhere before.
Rogan tried to pull loose, but the grip tightened. “Like, what d’you want, man?”
“Zach Rogan, right?” The man’s eyebrows rose.
Rogan glance around quickly. If this was trouble, no one was nearby. “Yeah, that’s me. Who’re you?”
“Good, let’s get something cold to drink. I’ve been waiting for you.” He released Rogan’s arm. “We’ve got some business to discuss. The business of you using phenyl acetone to make speed.” The man nodded toward Rogan’s shiny new black ’69 Chevy Impala hardtop. “We’ll take your car.”
Is he a cop? Rogan felt a chill of fear. “I don’t know anything about speed.” The man’s size made him nervous. “I use that chemical to make blocked curing agents for polyurethanes–”
“Yeah, yeah, right. Open the passenger’s side first, then get in and drive. Go to Big Boy Drive-In, in Goodyear Heights. Y’know the place?” The man had maneuvered himself between Rogan and his car.
“I ain’t going anywhere with you–”
“Don’t be a dumb ass. I’ve got enough evidence to put you in the slammer for twenty years for making illegal drugs. I’m giving you a choice of jail or working with me.” The man’s voice was louder, harder. His eyes narrowed, and his jaw protruded. “Get moving. And turn on the damn AC.”
Rogan eyed the man and decided that running probably wouldn’t work. There was something menacing about him. “Okay, I’ll talk to you, but I don’t know shit about any drugs. You got the wrong dude, man.”
The man smiled.
A tremor of fear rippled through Rogan. The man’s smile made him think of a cat about to pounce on a mouse.
“You took three kilos of phenyl acetone over the past three months. If you don’t cooperate, I’ll make sure the cops know everything about what you’ve taken–stuff you used to make drugs, got it?” The man smiled again with even more menace as he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “You use all of this to make your blocked whatever? Three kilos’ worth? I don’t think so.”
Oh, shit, thought Rogan, it does look like a receipt from the chemical stockroom. “Er, I guess we can talk.”
“Good. Get in and drive.” The man got into the front passenger seat. “Don’t try anything stupid, either.”
Over the next hour, Rogan learned O’Brien was the head of STR’s security, and he did have copies of the chemical records. However, it soon became obvious O’Brien wanted to move in on his drug making rather than put him in jail. “So, why should I cut you in?”
“I can get the chemicals without leaving a trail,” O’Brien said. “I have access to STR facilities at any hour of the day, which brings up another thing. I can set you up in a lab that no one will ever find. No sense in getting caught.”
Rogan had lived in constant fear someone who really knew chemical synthesis would quickly realize his story about making blocked curing agents for urethane polymers was bullshit. “You have some other place in mind?”
O’Brien nodded. “There’s a room in the boiler house. A long time ago the security department used it. I can make it empty and secure. It has a bathroom and no windows.”
“For real?” Rogan needed running water to cool the condenser and to run the vacuum evaporator. He thought about where it was located and shook his head. “I’d stand out like a sore thumb going in and out of the boiler house.”
“Not if you wear company overalls. They make you invisible, especially evenings and weekends,” O’Brien said.
“Yeah? Tell me how you think this is gonna work.”
October 12, 1969
“So, the ether rinse is the last step?” O’Brien asked.
Two folding tables covered with lab glassware crowded the bathroom of the former boiler house security office. Water rushed continually down the drain of the sink, barely audible against the constant rumble of the boiler house machinery. Rubber hoses ran from an aspirator in the sink to a glass-fronted vacuum box. The shelves in the vacuum box held Petri dishes heaped high with a white powder.
“The last step is vacuum drying. The rinse is the last operation with a chemical.” Rogan’s tone of voice implied it was a question only a dense student would ask.
“That gets it clean?” O’Brien made his eyebrows rise. The kid’s attitude made him want to punch his lights out.
“Right.” Rogan nodded. “That’s the final step to making pure white crystal meth. This is the real deal-Neal. Kick-ass speed.” Rogan had said several times how proud he was of the one-step hydrogenation process he’d perfected. “You gotta try this. It’s really boss. You’ll be up doin’ it all night long.”
“Yeah, right.” O’Brien ran his eyes over the lab setup. He was confident his notes fully covered the process. “Maybe later. Look, we’ve got to move this batch. I need to see some bread, understand? Like this is for real, get me?”
“I can dig it. This’ll be dry by tomorrow. Then we can package it up and ship it out. I’ll call my contacts in San Francisco to let them know I’ve got more ready.”
“Why don’t we get some chow while you explain how it works?” O’Brien pointed toward the door.
“Sure. Let’s grab some Chinese and go to my place.” Rogan licked his lips as though he could already taste it.
“Okay.” O’Brien didn’t care much for Chinese food, but because Rogan loved it, he went along with his wishes. He had to convince the kid they were partners. He needed money. The damn vig was eating him alive.
The idea that any of the money went to Rogan, a longhaired asshole, was driving O’Brien crazy. In the last month Rogan had shipped out six one-pound lots and received six thousand dollars, of which, O’Brien got one half. With the debt gone, the extra thousand bucks were burning a hole in his pocket. He dropped in on Rogan at his apartment. It was time.
“So, Rogan, d’you have any customers other than this Fats guy in San Francisco?”
A small mirror with a trace of white powder sat in front of Rogan. From the stereo came Jim Morrison’s mournful voice singing, “The Summer’s Almost Gone.” The shades were closed and the lights turned down low. Rogan belched and shook his head. “Naw, it’s just Fats. I don’t want a buncha speed freaks bugging me all the time. He knows the scene.” His face lit up like a little kid with a new toy. “Hey, I’ve been talking to a travel agent about going to Club Med in Jamaica. It’s where all the chicks go.”
“When d’you plan to go?”
“Mebbe in December. I figure that’s the best time to go and score some pussy.”
“I see.” O’Brien nodded his head. Dumb shit, he thought, who’d want to get it on with a scrawny, pimple-faced, dumb ass like him? “Say, when you go on vacation, I can keep making meth. That way you’ll have money waiting when you get back.”
“Playboy says a lot of women go to Club Med just dying to get laid.” Rogan’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, and with a little helper,” he nodded towards the mirror with the white powder, “I can ball all night long. Maybe even make it with two chicks in the same night.”
O’Brien glanced at his watch. “Okay, cock hound, time to go to work. I got another batch of chemicals at the lab. Let’s go.” He forced his voice to remain low and calm. He rose and headed toward the door.
“Aw, man, do we hafta go now? It’s like, late, man.”
O’Brien nodded. I have to stay on track, he thought. No screw-ups. “Less chance of anyone seeing us. If you want to go to Club Med and get laid, you’re gonna need money. Let’s go.” As usual, they put on the blue overalls like those used by maintenance workers.
O’Brien steered his company car, a Ford Fairlane sedan, through the gate to STR’s plant on Schirmerling Avenue. He parked in the shadows behind the boiler house. He waited five minutes without seeing anyone. “Okay, let’s do it.” They walked into the boiler house to the laboratory. He unlocked the door, and they went in.
Rogan leaned over the lab table and frowned. “Like, where’s the phenyl acetone, man?” He picked through the amber colored jars, examining each label. “I don’t see any here . . .”
O’Brien slipped the garrote out of his back pocket, stepped behind Rogan and raised the garrote. He looped the cord around Rogan’s neck, crossed it and pulled hard.
Rogan jerked and struggled, fingers clawing at his neck.
O’Brien pulled the garrote tighter. He leaned backwards, lifting Rogan off his feet. He maintained tension on the garrote until Rogan went limp and slumped to the floor.
O’Brien put on an old baseball cap and jammed it low over his eyes. He stepped out into the hallway and got the dolly with the steel drum, which he’d put at the end of the corridor. Once back inside the lab, he put Rogan’s body into the drum and slipped its lid back on. He checked the corridor. No one. He wheeled the drum out of the lab and locked the door.
O’Brien took the drum down to the furnace room. He opened the inspection gate into the bowels of the combustion chamber. The fresh influx of air caused the flames to roar forth from the bed of red-hot coals. It was like a glimpse of hell. After checking to make sure no one was within sight, he raised the barrel and slid Rogan’s body into the furnace. He watched the flames for a few seconds before tossing in the garrote and slamming the gate shut. In the distance, a steam whistle blew, marking the midnight shift change. Right on time, he thought.
If anyone had been watching outside, they might have noticed a flurry of black smoke emerging from the chimney of number three boiler.
No one did.
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