Brian Townsley, author of The Consortium, has a Master of Professional Writing (MPW) degree from USC, and has published work in many journals, including Black Mask, Connecticut Review, Danse Macabre, Quarterly West, Frontier Tales, and Mystery Tribune, to name a few. He was a recipient of the AWP Intro Award, and had a short story make the ‘distinguished stories’ list in the Best American Mystery Stories, 2019.
Palm Springs, 1951
Sonny Haynes, House Dick for the Starlight Hotel & Resort, was throwing crumpled pieces of paper into the corner trash can of his office when he picked up the ringing telephone. Janice from the front desk said, “Mr. Haynes, there’s an English gentleman here to see you.”
“How do you know he’s English?” Sonny asked.
“His accent,” Janice answered. It was a good answer.
A few moments later, a man walked in. Thin mustache, expensive gray suit, derby hat. He and Sonny exchanged a glance and he sat in the chair opposite. Placed his hat on the desk. Sonny, generally distrustful of the human race besides a handful of people, had his .45 aimed at the man’s balls under the desk. His left hand smoked a Chesterfield, and it looked, and felt, awkward.
“Mr. Haynes,” the man began, “I’ll get right to the point. A man from our company came here a while back. His name was Schneider. He came here to collect some winnings from, well, I believe, your daughter.” He said this last bit as if it were incomprehensible.
Sonny continued smoking awkwardly with his left hand. He exhaled across the desk, hoping it reached the man. “Yup. I remember him. He was a kraut. I was sitting here thinking, why the hell is a kraut collecting for some wops. It made no sense.” He smashed the fallen soldier into the ashtray and made a mess of it.
The man across from him smiled then, but it was a smile saved for children in a dean’s office. “You see, I represent a consortium,” he said, and actually brought his fingertips together in an A frame. “We, shall you say, collect on money lost that should not have been, and/or games that were not properly represented.”
Sonny stuck his lips out and did not answer. He had no idea what consortium meant, but he was good with context, and had this fucker actually used and/or in a sentence? He itched the inked teardrop under his right eye, then gave a grimace. “No,” he said. “You represent people who are pissed they lost money. That’s it. Poker has no house. There is a room, a table and a dealer. You play the other players.”
The man across from him smiled then, but it was a smile saved for children in a dean’s office. “You see, I represent a consortium,”
“And you, I understand, have quite a good one here,” the man said, and smiled. Sonny smrked at the man, not because he was correct, and he was, but because he had just writ his own death warrant in bringing up his adopted daughter.
Sonny lit another cigarette. The palm trees outside his window swayed slightly in the dusk. Schneider came here. I told him to fuck off. He left, and I think you need to do the same. If you don’t,” and he winked here, “I’ll be happy to show you out.” This was untrue, of course, Sonny had shot Schneider once in the knee and then again in the chest and rolled him into a desert ravine, but, he figured, details.
Sonny didn’t know much about life. He had loved once, deeply. She was dead. Had been a homicide roach in LA. That was long gone. But what he did know, and of this he was certain, was that when faced with a threat, you never retreated. You hit first, and you did it with such force that a response was unnecessary.
Sonny tailed the English guy and his driver, who happened to run about 275—Sonny was excited about that—to a bar in Cathedral City as the night blackened down. Sonny had only been to this spot once, but knew the owner—Ralph, he thought—fronted poker games a couple times a month. It was a crappy joint off an alley, but the parking was solid, and nearly empty. The English guy and the driver parked and walked in, Sonny backed into a spot mostly covered by foliage and watched. And watched. And then watched some more. Stakeouts were a blast.
At some point, he took a switchblade he had in the glove box and punctured the two front tires of the Cadillac, then pissed in the bushes.
He walked back to the Merc and watched some more. He awoke when the back door to the bar slammed. The bar owner—Ralph, he was sure now—trailed the men but he was in bad shape. He had obviously been knocked around some and was bleeding from the mouth, Sonny could see. The English guy and the mammoth driver stopped at one point, and Sonny furiously rolled his window down to see if he could catch any of the conversation.
“You can’t just come in and—”, the man probably named Ralph said, and he fell to his knees.
The Englishman walked towards him in the way that Brits have when they see they have been given the upper hand, spinning an umbrella—Sonny figured it couldn’t possibly be an actual umbrella, who the fuck carries an umbrella in Palm Springs, for chrissakes—with a slow, heel-first confidence. He had a briefcase in the other hand. Sonny already knew he was going to kill the English guy, but now he knew he was going to enjoy it.
The Englishman, had he given a name? Sonny couldn’t remember. He didn’t think so. It was probably something like Henry or Richard or Jonathan. No nicknames for those fuckers. The Englishman walked up to probably Ralph and bent down and said something to the man. Sonny couldn’t hear it, though he bent his ear in hopes. He opened the Merc’s door then, and walked behind the trunk and kept in the shadow of the foliage and made his way to the rear of the Cadillac.
The owner was still on his knees in the middle of the parking lot as the Englishman and his large driving monkey got into their Cadillac. Sonny stayed in the shadows. The car chortled to life, and they pulled out, turning right in the lot. Sonny followed. It was perhaps 15 feet before they realized something was wrong with the tires, and Sonny then stepped forward and shot the driver twice with the .45 through the window. No use in wasting any time on a guy that size.
The Englishman opened the passenger door and began running. Sonny let him run. He had learned that long ago, on the force. Let them run. They are only hoping to outrun the legs of consequence, and they have neither the stamina or ability to do it.
He ran out of the lot. He ran up the next block. Sonny walked behind him, hoping he had taken his umbrella. He had not, Sonny saw. What the man did not realize, of course, and that Sonny did, is that he was running into the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains, and that the residential streets were behind him. Beyond that were prickly succulents and rocks and rattlesnakes. He almost wanted to leave him. But he didn’t.
Sonny found the man sitting on a curb, blocks past any houses, the last curb before the foothills, wiping his brow with his handkerchief and breathing hard. His derby was lost to the night. He looked up at Sonny in an attempt to maintain his dignity.
“The Consortium—” he began.
“Fuck your boy scout troop, King Henry the 5th,” Sonny said. The man looked confused.
Sonny pointed the .45 at him and the man put his hands up immediately.
“Jesus,” Sonny said, “do you have no respect at all? You go around taking people’s hard earned fucking money in the name of some bullshit organization and don’t even have the decency to die right?”
The man wonced then, and his mustache twitched. Sonny bent his knees at that point, hopeful that he could raise them again, and whispered, “You don’t deserve a head shot.” He stood then, both knees popping audibly, and shot the man twice in the belly and left him to die.
When he got back to the parking lot, Sonny took some effort in moving the monolith in the driver’s seat over and then backed the Cadillac into a spot. The briefcase was in the backseat, and he grabbed that.
He banged his fist loudly on the back door of the establishment. The door opened and the man he had seen on his knees was there, eyes wide.
“Here’s your cash, bud,” Sonny said. “I didn’t open it, didn’t take any, don’t want any.” The man took the briefcase. Sonny lit a Chesterfield and peered down at him, exhaling into the night sky.
The man was a small guy, maybe Russian. Mostly bald.
“Ralph?” Sonny asked.
The man looked at him, confused.
“What’s your name?” Sonny asked.
“Alexei,” the man answered.
“Got it,” Sonny said. “I was close. I mean, Ralph, and Alexei, practically the same.” He shrugged, then turned and walked to the Merc.
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