......

Woolworth's...
For All Your Defensive Needs
The New Jack Hagee Story

by C.J. Henderson


......"There he goes!"

......"Don't just talk about it--get him! Shoot him! Kill the bastard for Christ's sake."

......As distinctly as I could hear their voices echoing through the trees, I could hear the following shots even better. A lot better. That's when I started to move. Let me tell you, all pretenses of stealth disappear when people start aiming and pulling triggers. I could feel the wind from their bullets whipping past me. It gave me speed I didn't know I had. Thank God for small favors.

......I'm willing to admit things did not look good. I was being chased by four armed men over rocky, muddy, mostly unfamiliar terrain. They were burdened by trying to get their rifles and shotguns through the heavy foliage. I was burdened by trying to do the same with my own equipment without leaving a trail they could follow.

......Getting through tangle brush with a long bore weapon is always tricky. You either hold it barrel-to-face, trigger-to-groin, or you move real slow. You lose good shots or you lose ground or you end up getting your weapon knocked out of your hands or back into your eye--whatever. From what I could tell, two of the men following me were going for good shots, keeping their weapons to the ready and doing a slow stalk. The other two were crashing after me as fast as they could.

......I heard one of the ones who was going flat out with his weapon to the ready go down hard. I've seen it before--men running scared through the trees, ramming their own weapons into their chests, sides, faces because they were in a panic or sometimes just a stupid hurry. The one behind me had gone down screaming. The heights his choir tryout was reaching made me think he might have broken some ribs.

......Good, I thought. First goddamned smile I'd had all day.

......Never gloat, my old top kick, Major Rice, used to say. It's bad for character and it's bad for business.

......I should have listened. In the split second it took me to relish the thought of the guy rolling on the ground screaming like a stuck pig, I let my foot come down on a slopping wet piece of rock-top moss. Bad move. The moss tore away from the slick chunk of granite beneath it and sent me flying.

......My first instinct was to grab the camera bag hanging from my shoulder and curl myself around it. If anything happened to what was inside it, even if I did survive I would be back to square one with nothing to show for my troubles--an idea I didn't relish.

......So, instead I took the fall as best I could and prayed for some luck. Twigs tore into my face, snapping from the pressure. Blood flicked up into my eyes. My shoulder caught on another piece of granite sticking up out of the ground. It was solid enough to stop my progress which only meant that while my shoulder stayed where it was the rest of my body kept travelling.

......I hit the ground badly. My chin dug into the mud. My legs flipped up over me, crashing down through a thorn bush, one breaking a low hanging branch. The air rushed out of me with a whamming bang. I could hear the loud wooooofffff of air running out of me, could hear the gasps and coughs that followed. I prayed to God I was the only one who could hear them.

......My mind begged my body to shut up and control itself. It couldn't. Not immediately, anyway. All the thinking part of my brain could do was hope no one could hear me over the still screaming crybaby who'd wracked himself up a minute before I did. At least, I thought, as I shut my eyes against the automatic onrush of tears, he was making a hell of a lot more noise than I was. It was grim satisfaction, but as I lay on my back in the mud with the wind knocked out of me and the taste of blood in my mouth, it was the only kind I had.

***

......My name is Jack Hagee. I'm a private detective working out of New York City. The way things were looking then, I remember thinking maybe I should've stayed there.

......It all started the day I picked up Carmine Cecolini's VW bus from his widow, Marie. Before he'd shuffled off his mortal coil, Carmine had been one of the top freelance tails in the business. One of the reasons for his success had been the remarkable equipment center he'd put together. Carmine had been on the verge of joining up with my agency when an explosion killed both him and Francis Whiting, a young law student I'd used on occasion. I didn't feel anything back then. I'd been too mad, too set on finding Carmine's murderer to worry about anything else. Afterward, well ... afterward it was too late for emotion. I helped make sure Marie and the kids would have some money coming in. Then, I bought the van because I knew Marie had no use for it whereas I certainly did.

......Carmine had built a hell of a surveillance shop on wheels and I was happy to be the one who got it, if not happy about how it came on the market. He'd built a police scanner into the front dash along with CBs with upper and lower sidebands which the cops use for communication between units. A thousand other things were built in as well, all within intelligent reach--note pads, cameras, a cellular phone, handcuffs, metal detector, portable crime lab, camcorder, flashlights, binoculars, first aid kit, electronic tracking equipment and a ton of other stuff.

......He'd even put in a folding bed, a chemical toilet, and a mini-refrigerator. It was, without a doubt, the best piece of equipment like it in the business. I'd given Marie the $47,000 she asked for it without batting an eye. I knew it would be worth it in the long run.

......A few hours after handing her the check I felt for sure fate was agreeing with me. No sooner did I get back to the office than I found a message from Mike Ogden, a claims adjuster I know over at Bigelow Mutual. He had a surveillance assignment for me that promised to pay back a nice piece of my recent investment, a fact that made me very happy. He was sitting on an obvious case of compensation fraud. His only problem was he couldn't prove it.

......Bigelow had been disputing the workplace injuries claims of a Mr. Dennis Forenti for nearly three years. Forenti had been working as an asphalt spreader for an upstate construction company. He took a tumble off his machine--an action most of the witnesses swore was his own fault. That hadn't stopped him from suing his company for workman's compensation, however.

......When they went to court, his claim was that his injuries were of such a severe nature that he could no longer hold down his job, or any other job for that matter. He listed it all--the inability to lift over thirty pounds, constant migraines, blurred vision, back pain, neck pain, trauma, anguish ... I was surprised he hadn't tried to claim the fall had given him AIDS.

......The ultimate outcome was that Bigelow was down to its last appeal. If they didn't come into court with something better than they already had, they were looking at paying out six to nine hundred a week to Forenti until he hit retirement age. Or, as Ogden put it; "That's about forty-two years in the future, Jack. How's ten grand sound to rustle me up some proof that'll get us off clear?"

......"That's on top of expenses--right?"

......"Right. Your daily and expenses for taking the case ... I'll give you four days on salary ... you cop the ten if you can snag something that'll hold up in court."

......I told Ogden he was a gentleman and a scholar and that I'd like to spend some more time dishing up compliments to him, but that unfortunately I had to run out and spoil the opportunistic plans of one Dennis Forenti. I could feel Ogden's smile over the line. He faxed me a few pages of pertinent information to get me started, promising a messenger would arrive within the hour with everything else I would need, including a good faith retainer to get me motivated.

......I told him the chance to earn ten grand had me plenty motivated, but that I'd accept the retainer because I wouldn't want to insult any of my good friends at Bigelow. As soon as I hung up I got my partner on the phone, told him to plan on taking over the operation of both our offices for the next few days, then explained what had happened. I could just imagine his smile putting Ogden's to shame. After that I poured myself a cup of coffee, collected the pages I could hear rattling out of the fax machine, and sat down for a study session. It was, to say the least, illuminating.

......Dennis Forenti sounded as typical as they come. A high school drop out who could only get a job through friends and the upstate Democratic patronage machine, he had a sheet that made for interesting reading. His pre-adult list went from shop-lifting to school ground muggings. After eighteen, he turned to other creative activities, like cultivating marijuana as a cash crop, moving stolen car parts, skirting the law to bring cigarettes, guns and fireworks into the state for untaxed resale, and a host of others.

......Thanks to a half-brother in the local assembly, he hadn't served any time yet. As Bigelow had put it together, the only reason Forenti had taken the road job was that his half-brother had arranged it as a keep-your-nose-clean final favor. Forenti had managed to avoid the local law for the time he was on the job and ever since. Which meant he'd either actually wised up, or had at least decided to keep clean to avoid blowing his case. Studying the packet Ogden's messenger brought me didn't give me any indication that Forenti had brains enough to actually wise up. Which, of course, gave me hope he would be easy to put away.

......Or, as my mother used to say about hope, foolish boy.

......Forenti lived on his share of the family farm just outside of Dormansville. His parents were both dead and their property had been divided amongst three brothers and a sister two years earlier. The map Ogden sent me showed part of the problem with catching our boy doing anything he claimed he was physically incapable of. Forenti's property was in the middle of the family land. That meant he was surrounded by kin on all sides.

......With only one road leading into the area, it meant an investigator was going to have to cross a lot of private property to get to Forenti. Ogden's report admitted that several attempts had already been made and that all of the people sent in so far had been run off at gun point. There was also little doubt that the clan wouldn't be expecting another try in the last weeks before the final trial.

......Suddenly that bonus didn't seem so firmly in hand. But then, since nobody ever gives anybody something for nothing, I figured if I wanted it badly enough, I'd get my ass in gear and go out and earn it. So I changed the message on my answering machine, grabbed up Ogden's faxes and my new set of car keys, and headed for the door.

......My strategy was fairly simple. Since it was already late on a Friday afternoon, I decided to get out of town before rush hour. I headed home, threw a bag together, left word for my neighbor Elba to feed my dog Balto and then hit the road. From there I figured I'd get a two-night in a nearby motel, then see how close I could get during the weekend. What should have been a four hour drive was dragged out to almost seven thanks to a rain storm that started a half hour out of the city and dogged me the entire way.

......Drying out in my motel room, I balanced the idea that a weekday might be easier. If any of the family had jobs, that would be one less set of eyes to spot me. On the other hand, a stranger in the woods could explain himself away as a goofy lost city geek a lot easier on the weekend. Ogden's files didn't show the Forenti clan as one that much believed in working for other people--or at all, for that matter--so I decided to just jump in and see what happened.

......You'd think I'd learn.

......The next morning I had breakfast at a roadside diner where they almost knew how to give a person enough food, even if they didn't know how to prepare it very well, and then headed off to see what I could accomplish. I'd studied a map of the area the night before. My first couple of hours of driving around helped focus my alternatives. I finally decided to join a group of fishermen near the local lake.

......Parking seemed permissible in a field off the main road simply because there were twelve vehicles parked there already. My van wasn't going to draw any undue attention sitting there with the others--not until dark, anyway. That gave me a good ten, eleven hours of daylight to hike through to Forenti's property, get a better idea of what I was up against, and get back out.

......My best calculations made it look like a five mile trek. Having to move through mountainous woodland and open fields trying not to be spotted meant I would have to figure on about three hours each way. Undaunted, the sound of cash register bells still in my ears, I moved into the back of the van and grabbed up what equipment I figured to need.

......Luckily I'd brought hiking boots which would see me through whatever kind of mud might be waiting. Trying to go as light as possible, I kept things to a bare minimum--canteen, some jerky and a bag of unsalted nuts, the video duffle, a rain pauncho just in case the cloudless sky overhead was as big a lie as the day before's, and Carmine's Woolworth special.

......The last was a cheaply made survival knife modeled after the one carried by an adventure movie character back in the eighties. Carmine had bought it in a moment of weakness. It had a lousy blade on one side and an almost useless saw-ridge on the other, but it was filled with silly do-dads like a compass and other gimmicks which had made it irresistible to him.

......Knowing it was quite possible I might have to use whatever knife I took along for some real hack work, I figured it best to take the worst one I owned and just beat it into the ground. I also grabbed up a small box of Slim Jims Carmine had left in the van. I chuckled as I noted a Woolworth's sticker on the back of the Slim Jim package. It made me wonder if Carmine did all his shopping there.

......As I packed the bag, I thought back to eating Slim Jims as a kid. Back then they were a really good snack. Nowadays, though, they're made with so much grease they're hardly worth the eating. But, they're light and, I figured, if I got desperate they might not be tasty but they were still edible. Then, with that decided, I set off and made my way into the forest.

......The trip was worse than I thought. The day before's rain turned the ground into a humidity magnet calling every fly, mosquito and gnat out in force. Sure, the jungle tours I'd done had prepared me for such duty, but nothing ever makes it enjoyable. I slogged up and down the mud hills, slithered in and out of the trees, and basically had a miserable time trying to find my way to Forenti's property without being seen.

......Obviously I was looking for the most out-of-the-way route possible. The going was hellish until I stumbled on a thin shallow that bottomed out and circled the more treacherous terrain. I'd almost missed it due to a well-placed length of camouflage netting. Interestingly enough, it turned out my playmate and his family were still in the marijuana farming business. They'd planted the shallow because, as best I could tell, once they'd netted it over, it was impossible to see what was growing in it unless you were standing directly in it.

......It made me laugh. I'd figured from his rap sheet that he was probably still involved in something shady, no matter how clean an appearance he'd been keeping up. Finding a half acre of ganja on his property was no surprise. Stopping to take a good sniff told me it was fairly low grade weed. Then again, considering what a class act the Forenti clan seemed to be, that wasn't much of a surprise either.

......I videoed the whole set-up, figuring evidence of any kind of wrong-doing couldn't hurt. But I kept my guard up, even after I found my way out of the crop line and back into the forest, because the height and extreme dryness of the crop told me the harvesting could begin at any time.

......Later, by the time I finally traced the best route in, it was pretty much time to turn around and head back out. I spent more of that night scraping off mud and trying not to scratch bug bites than I care to remember. Being able to snicker at Forenti's low grade grass took some of the sting out of things.

......Sunday I simply repeated my Saturday itinerary without the mistakes. Getting an earlier start, I ate a larger breakfast faster, headed straight for the fisherman's parking lot, doused myself in insect repellant, grabbed the same supplies--including the untouched Slim Jims--and then dodged straight back to the trail I'd marked the day before. A lot less heat and humidity and far more cloud cover made for a much better day.

......I was moving along the boundary of Forenti's property by ten o'clock which had me feeling pretty smart--a feeling not destined to last long. I found what looked like a good scout hole--twenty feet of cliff wall to my back, thick ground scrub for camouflage, and a clear shot of the target's house and a good bit of his grounds. Unpacking the camcorder again, I checked the range and then sat back to wait for my target.

......He came into sight with two other men after about forty-five minutes. I took some tape of him standing around having a cigarette just to get warmed up. Ogden had said that anytime Forenti had been seen off his property he was the soul of pitifully slow movement--his every public action a thing of agony. I figured if nothing else the animated way he and his pals did even the simplest things might make good viewing for the new jury.

......Then came the moment I'd been waiting for, but couldn't believe had fallen into my lap so quickly. Slapping his pals on the back he moved them over toward an old Dodge flatbed parked next to his house. Before I knew it, the three of them were jacking up the front end and stripping off its tires. Forenti was changing the brake pads on his truck just for me.

......Within an hour, I had tape of him pumping a hand jack, wrenching off lug nuts, carrying truck tires and moving around underneath the truck on his back. The trio even obliged me by have a water fight with the hose, slipping in the wet grass and knocking each other around like school boys.

......When they stopped for their fifth cigarette break, I decided it was time to pack up. I figured I could always come back if Ogden needed more, but I didn't like pushing my luck anymore than I already had. Besides, I'd left my cigarettes and lighter in the van so I wouldn't be tempted to give myself away with a smoke trail. To be honest I was getting tired of watching them have all the fun. I'd just finished packing the camcorder away when all the good luck I'd been patting myself on the back over finally ran out.

......"And who might you be, asshole?"

......The voice came from above me, down from atop the cliff I'd been using to shield my back. Looking up, I saw a face I recognized from Ogden's files as one of Forenti's brothers--Thomas, I thought. Whether I had his name right or not, I knew the name of what he had in his hands. It was an M16 fitted with what looked like a twenty round magazine. From the way little Tommy was pointing it, I had a feeling he wasn't about to believe anything I had to say.

......How? my mind demanded. Unarmed, except for Carmine's Woolworth's special, caught in the crosshairs by an opponent with the high ground. How had he gotten up there without me hearing him? How did he know to get up there in the first place? With no better defense in sight, I screwed my friendliest "Oh, gosh" expression on my face and waved, saying--

......"Oh, hi."

......And then dove into the side brush as low and fast as I could. Shots tore into the ground where I'd been standing. If my opponent had been a professional I wouldn't have stood a chance. But, he was just a normal guy, not used to the idea of killing people without at least knowing he had some justification.

......I crawled as fast as I could, smashing my way through the underbrush. Heavy slugs blasted into the ground behind me, throwing clumps of soil and forest growth in every direction. Voices started shouting somewhere off in the distance. Not that I could understand anything they were saying--not that I cared. I was too busy elbowing my way through the bushes, crawling for my life with a camera bag bouncing against the small of my back with every move.

......The explosions stopped as suddenly as they started which I figured only meant my playmate had emptied his clip. I spit a prayer over my shoulder and risked rising up into a low crouch. Then I started running, heading for the deepest cover I could remember. As I moved, I started picking up snatches of what Tommy was yelling to the others.

......His shooting up the countryside had made all of us a little deaf, but I finally caught on to what had happened when he yelled, "The tracks in the back field--the ones we found yesterday. The motherfucker's back! We got him!"

......"Don't just talk about it! Get him! Go on! Get the som'bitch!"

......Moron, I told myself. Goddamned moron! No. These hicks won't check their crop. They won't notice anyone's been through. Of course not.

......I couldn't believe I'd been so stupid--couldn't believe I could start tripping up like an amateur just because there was more money to be made if I worked fast and careless. I'd known the second I'd stumbled onto the Forenti family's inflation hedge that I should have backed off and scrubbed the day's effort.

......Asshole, I cursed myself, pushing to move faster. That's what he called you. An asshole. Notice how well the word fits.

......I cursed myself a few more times, trying to get it out of my system so I could start figuring my way free of the mess I'd fallen into. A part of my brain started taking stock of the situation. The Magoo on top of the cliff face had tried twenty times to hit me, but hadn't. I've seen guys run out of a battle with an arm blown off they hadn't even realized was missing, but I was sure I hadn't taken any hits.

......Slowing a bit, I reeled my mind in, forcing it to assess the situation. Beating down the panic burst that had saved me, I looked for my best way out of my fix. Not knowing how Magoo had found me narrowed my options. It was certain he had stumbled across my tracks from yesterday. If he'd been able to retrace them to their point of origin, then he knew where I was parked. Heading back for the van could be a big mistake.

......That meant I had to strike out over unfamiliar territory in the hopes I could reach safe ground before the Forenti clan could catch up to me. I slowed down a bit more, trying to watch where I stepped. I had to avoid muddy areas, avoid breaking any stems or branches. With the ground so wet, I also had to be careful of leaving dull spots behind me. As Major Rice used to say, "Step in the dew, they see you."

......Moving uphill, trying to make only dry steps over a granite outcrop, I slowed to nothing more than a fast walk. I was moving carefully from piece to piece, trying to fade away into the forest. If the quartet behind me headed back to their precious crop, or even straight to the meadow parking lot, I had it made. All I needed was a bit of a head start and I could stay ahead of them all day. Sadly, I wasn't going to get it.

......Before I knew it, one of them was screaming, "There he goes!"

......"Don't just talk about it--get him! Shoot him! Kill the bastard for Christ's sake."

***

......That was when shots began ringing out from more than one source and I started running like a scared pig again. I heard their man go down, had my laugh at his expense, and then went down myself. Laying on the ground, more than slightly stunned, I fought with myself to get moving.

......Get up, Goddamnit! my brain screamed at me. Get up--get up! At least make it a little difficult for them to kill you.

......I forced myself up off the ground, testing my legs one at a time before I tried to start running. Bruised but not broken, I moved off again, forcing the best speed I could manage. Subtlety was out the window. What I needed was distance. I ran all out, pushing myself poundingly hard. I could feel my head cooling as the wind chilled the sweat building in my hair.

......Finally, after a solid five minutes, I began to feel myself growing light-headed. Spotting a small grouping of wide bottomed pines, I threw myself forward and slid underneath the largest one. I lay there for a moment, trying to get my breath back. I'd used up a vicious amount of energy by that point. I had no choice--I had to rest and take stock before I just ran in a circle, or worse, ran back into the Forenti boys. Glancing at my watch, I gave myself ninety seconds.

......First I checked the camera bag. The camcorder seemed in one piece. Pulling the canteen, I treated myself to a long drink and a short head dousing. Then, my hand closed around Carmine's Woolworth's special. In desperation I unscrewed the pommel and emptied out its cache of treasures. That turned out to be a good length of fishing line, two weights, several fish hooks, a bit of sandpaper and two water-proof matches. It wasn't much, but it did give me some ideas.

......My ninety seconds stretched out into several extra minutes but I felt it was worth it. When I was done tinkering with the stuff I'd gotten out of the handle I gathered up the camera bag and all my new toys. Then, after a careful inspection of the surrounding area, I moved out again.

......I had one advantage in that three of my pursuers were in their street clothes. None of them except Magoo was dressed for running around in the forest. It gave me colors to watch for. After a while I spotted a lone blur of white and blue moving off through the green. That was the bald one in the T-shirt and bib overalls, which meant a shotgun. Sliding carefully along an intercept angle, I kept one eye on the blur, one eye on every other direction.

......As we drew closer, I saw what I needed--a long, clear break in the trees. If I was going to have a chance at Baldy, that was going to be it. Picking up speed, I arrived at the stretch before he did. Unshouldering the camera bag, I pulled free my canteen. Back under the pines I'd packed it with dirt and then tied a three foot length of fishing line to it. Now I got it spinning over my head, waiting, watching for Baldy.

......He stuck the end of the shotgun out first, then his head. I let go my bomb a split-second before he showed himself. The canteen slammed into the side of his face, knocking him sideways. He went down screaming. He also went down hard. When he hit the ground his trigger finger tightened. Both barrels let loose, bringing me the unexpected bonus of more screams.

......Another brother staggered into sight, then flopped down next to Baldy, grabbing at his leg and his side. Since only his leg was bloody I thought maybe he was the one that had taken the bad spill just before I did. The pair of them were yelling so much I couldn't decide which of them was screaming louder. My mind spent a split-second debating trying for one of their weapons, but the sound of more rifle fire changed my mind. A quick scan showed me Forenti and Magoo as blurs of color coming through the trees.

......They had started shooting as soon as they had a hint of me, which meant their shots had been blocked by the forest. I started moving again before they could get to the clearing. I could hear them questioning the two on the ground--what happened, are you all right, can you move, and so forth. They didn't know, they weren't, they couldn't, et cetera. Eventually Dennis and Magoo just left them and moved on.

......In a way I was glad I'd seen Magoo again. It gave me an idea. He was the one that had trailed me from the marijuana field. Getting my bearings, I headed back there, figuring that if the Forenti clan were as worried about their crops as they seemed to be that might be the best place to finish things. It took a bit of crawling and a lot of dancing around the two brothers to make it back to the patch without being seen. Actually, I'd needed more patience than anything else--sitting on my hands, telling myself to keep still and wait more than once when I sensed one or the other of them nearby. Eventually I arrived back at the shallow where the crop was planted. Lifting the edge of the camouflage netting, I rolled under and moved to the middle of the patch.

......Some of the bushes had reached upward over six feet already. I smashed a number of them down and broke them up into campfire sized pieces. Once I had a three foot tall pile, I hollowed out a rough hearth center and prepared to start a fire. My hope was that if anything could make the last two lose their cool it would be their precious ganja burning down.

......Quickly I searched my person for every scrap of paper I had. It wasn't much. The Slim Jim box, the peanut bag, and a handful of dollar bills. Worse than that, I only had the two matches. They weren't going to be enough to light the entire pile. Although the marijuana had dried out enough to burn, everything close to the ground was still too wet from the day before to use as kindling. Then, desperation gave me a strange idea.

......Grabbing up the Slim Jims, I stuck them into the mud of the hearth one by one. Then, praying I was right, I used the sandpaper to strike the two matches together and tried to light the pyramid of greasy, processed meat. It worked, the Slim Jims sputtered like miniature Roman candles. In a minute they were sending flames several inches up into the pile.

......I shoved the paper I had into the marijuana in the path of the flames, shoved my money back in my pocket, and then got back out of the shallow. Hiding myself in between a thick pair of bushes, I sat back to wait once more. My last weapon in my hands, I watched the gray violet clouds climbing up through the netting, wondering how long it would take the smell to reach the brothers.

......Not long. After only a few minutes, I heard Magoo shouting.

......"Oh good fucking night--the bastard done set fire to the damn back field!"

......In seconds Forenti and his brother dodged out of the trees, heading for the shallow. As they moved past me, I stepped out from the bushes, twirling the last of the fishing line over me head. I'd tied the weights to it, as well as several small rocks and the three fishing hooks. Whipping it out, I got it around Magoo's chest.

......I gave it a sharp pull back as it began to wrap around him. The fish hooks dug into his chest and arm. He went down screaming. Before he could hit, before Dennis could turn, I charged forward. My target was so intent on trying to save his dope I was halfway to him before he realized anything had happened to his brother. By the time he began to turn I was only a yard away. He tried to raise his shotgun but I threw myself at him, putting a fist into the side of his head so hard I closed his left eye with the one punch. Spinning away from him, I turned on Magoo and kicked, snapping his chin back with my size twelves. His rifle spun out of his hands.

......Then, whipping around again I got my hands on Dennis. Knocking his shotgun out of his limp grasp, I doubled him over with a solid gut hit. He went down hacking and spitting. He didn't bother to get up, either. Actually, after that none of them were any trouble. I tramped out the grease fire in the shallow and then walked the two back to where their brothers were still laid up holding their own guns on them to keep them docile.

......After I got them back to Dennis' house I sat them all down on the same couch and called the state police, telling them to bring a couple of ambulances and plenty of handcuffs. The troopers didn't have any trouble finding the shallow--they just followed the smell of burnt dope back through the trees. Later, as I gave the officer in charge my statement, he got a good laugh out of the burning Slim Jims.

......I thought about that once I was finally on my way home. I'd laughed at them before, too. I'd laughed at Carmine's gimmick knife, as well, but it was the knife and the Slim Jims that had saved my life.

......Bored and tired, I decided enough was enough. As I continued to speed along the New York State thruway I fumbled underneath the dash for the flask of Jack Daniels I knew had to still be there. Sure enough, I found it taped in place right where I'd remembered Carmine always kept one. Breaking the seal, I threw back a healthy couple of inches. Then, I toasted Carmine and did it again. The JD rolled down my throat chasing away the taste of the fearful bile that had dried there earlier.

......Feeling the warmth roll around in my stomach, I smiled widely. And then suddenly, I was laughing, flashing on every silly thing Carmine had ever done or said, making me laugh all the harder. Finally, at the height of it all, I hoisted the flask upward and toasted;

......"To Woolworth's ... for all your defensive needs."

......Putting the flask to my mouth again, I just let the smooth sour mash keep flowing until it was three quarters empty. And then, my grief caught up to me and I was at last able to mourn my friend, barely able to keep the van on the road for the tears in my eyes and the pain I could finally feel.

Copyright (c) 2002 by C.J. Henderson.


C.J. Henderson is the author of the Jack Hagee, P.I. short stories and novels. Under the pseudonym of Robert Morgan, Henderson also writes about supernatural private eye Teddy London, and has worked in comics on such crime-related books as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight and Lady Justice. Recently, Moonstone Books has announced a string of graphic novels featuring Jack Hagee. The pulp energy and pure physical thrust of the character should translate well to the comics medium. The first issue should be on sale at better comic book stores everywhere by the time you read this.

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