Here’s an excerpt from a novel I completed last year titled “Voodoo Hideaway.” It’s a crime thriller with a sci-fi twist about a homeless guy mixed up in a deadly money scheme with a brilliant scientist, a couple of jazz musicians and a fairly sinister nightclub manager. This is actually Chapter 7 in its entirety. It’s a short chapter that’s set in the apartment of the scientist, Dr. Lionel Bunt, who hired a big dude named Bubba to take care of some dirty business. Bubba failed, and Lionel is not pleased.
An entertainment industry veteran who read my novel as part of the ScreenCraft Cinematic Manuscript contest called this chapter “wonderfully written and creepy as hell.” You can read about my writing/marketing process in a separate blog post here. The novel is still seeking a publisher.
Dr. Lionel Bunt lifted the tea bag from his porcelain teacup and set it on a matching saucer. He gently stirred the tea with a small antique spoon he’d inherited from a great aunt, along with countless other knickknacks and doodads he had little use for but couldn’t bear to part with. He was sentimental that way, Lionel. He kept things. Old postcards. Family photo albums of long dead relatives. Letters from home. Old science texts. Souvenirs from childhood trips to amusement parks, ball games, county fairs, vacations.
One of his most cherished possessions was a polished conch shell he got during a childhood trip to Miami. Lionel was 10 years old at the time. It was the first time he’d ever been east of Ohio or south of Missouri. It took his family two full days to drive from Chicago. He marveled at the white sand along the Florida beaches, the blue, crashing waves of the ocean, the warmth of the salt water as it massaged your feet. He looked in awe at the large and elegant homes that lined the beach. One day he would own one of those homes, he told himself.
Twenty-five years later, Lionel figured he was about halfway to that goal. The money from that Italian hippo, Sal Morino, was coming in on a regular basis, as promised. Lionel had no problem turning the 1949 bills into 1999 currency. All it took was connections – and money. It’s true what they said: it takes money to make money.
The plan was working to perfection.
Or had been, until today.
Today, Lionel’s well-oiled machine had finally coughed and wheezed a little. Today was supposed to be payday – about fifty thousand dollars’ worth of payday. Sometimes it was more, sometimes less. But always close. Always right in the ballpark of fifty thousand dollars. That was the arrangement Lionel made with Fat Sal and Douglas. Send around fifty thousand dollars from 1949 every couple of weeks.
Lionel was supposed to have that payment today. He was supposed to get the coat and the money sewed neatly inside. But there was a problem. The courier – this fellow named Elrod – still had the coat. And the money.
Why had this happened?
Simple, really. Lionel’s assistant had overslept and missed his appointment. He was supposed to arrive at the alley before Elrod slipped back through the portal, wait until Elrod left the alley, and then follow him somewhere he could grab the coat. But by the time Lionel’s assistant got to the alley, Elrod was already in the wind.
There was always a chance Elrod had never made it back from 1949, but Lionel didn’t think so. It had never happened to any of the previous couriers, and there was no reason to think it happened now.
No, the problem was Lionel’s assistant. He’d come up short. He’d failed. And now Lionel had to show him the penalty for failure.
The two men were sitting in Lionel’s apartment. Lionel sat in an antique parlor chair on one side of a small wooden coffee table. His assistant sat on the other side in a cheap metal chair that folded up when it wasn’t being used.
The assistant’s name was Bubba. Lionel had never known an actual Bubba until he met this one. He assumed Bubba was from the South, but he was actually from somewhere in Michigan. Where, Lionel didn’t know, and didn’t much care. All he knew was that Bubba looked big enough to handle himself around dark alleys in rough parts of town. He was well over 6 feet tall and somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. He was a nightclub bouncer by trade, one of those simians who spend a lot of time in the gym toning their muscles and softening their brains.
Lionel hired Bubba to do a simple job: stand near an alley in LoDown and keep an eye out for a homeless man. The homeless man would emerge from the alley sometime in the morning. Bubba was to follow the homeless man until he got somewhere quiet and alone. Once there, he was to sneak up behind the homeless man, disable him, and take the coat. Then he was to bring the coat to Lionel.
It wasn’t a difficult assignment. Most assistants were happy to get it, and none questioned why Lionel wanted it done. They heard how much he was willing to pay, and that’s all they needed to know. None except for Bubba had failed to come through.
So here Bubba was, taking up Lionel’s valuable time.
“So, you overslept,” Lionel said.
Bubba nodded. “Yep,” he said, yawning.
“I’m curious,” Lionel said. “How does someone oversleep when he has such an important job to do? A job that pays him handsomely, I might add?”
Bubba shrugged. “Just one of those things. I said I was sorry. Want me to say it again? I’m sorry. Shit happens, what can I tell you? I’ll find the dude and the coat. Relax.”
Lionel sighed. He shook his head the way a disappointed teacher shakes her head at an underachieving student.
Lionel was, in fact, disappointed. He was disappointed that Bubba had overslept and blown his assignment. He was disappointed that Bubba decided to give up the search for Elrod so soon. He was disappointed that his payday didn’t come in as scheduled. He was mostly disappointed in Bubba’s smug, cavalier attitude. Lionel had seen this attitude a lot in his life, especially from large men with meager minds. It was an attitude that said, “You’re just a little egghead nerd. What are you going to do about it?”
Lionel was self-aware enough to know he didn’t have the physical presence to command respect. He was a small man and an accomplished scientist – a combination that strikes fear in the hearts of exactly no one. He could hardly blame people for misjudging him, for not realizing how much damage Lionel could do, and would do, to those who crossed him.
But it pissed him off nonetheless.
“You realize the problem here, don’t you?” Lionel asked Bubba. “It’s not just that I don’t have the coat. It’s that this street bum, this Elrod, could be anywhere by now. You should have continued your search when he was still presumably close by.”
Bubba shrugged again.
“Where were you when you were supposed to be keeping an eye on Elrod?” Lionel asked.
“I told you, I overslept,” Bubba answered. “I…there was a woman I met last night. A guy has to have his fun, right? We had a drink after my shift, then went to my place and had a couple more. I fell out shortly after that and guess I slept through the alarm clock. Anyway, like I said, I’ll find the coat. Hell, it’s just a coat.”
He looked at Lionel and grinned. “You worry too much there, professor.”
Lionel sighed. He stirred his tea again. He lifted the cup and took a sip. He placed the cup back down and rose from his chair. He walked around the coffee table, stopped in front of Bubba for a moment, then walked behind Bubba toward a bookcase against the wall. Bubba didn’t bother turning around.
A wooden baseball bat was leaning against the bookcase. Lionel’s father had bought Lionel the bat when the two attended a White Sox game many years ago. It was a 34-inch Louisville Slugger autographed by Dick Allen, the former Phillies and ChiSox star. Lionel loved baseball as a kid. He was a pretty fair player himself. Good glove, decent spray hitter, average arm. He would spend hours at the park tossing a rubber ball against a wall, practicing his fielding, pretending to be Manny Trillo or Ozzie Smith. He had great range as an infielder and could scoop up anything that came his way. He got the ball out of his glove quickly and always made accurate throws. But he was usually the smallest player on the field, and coaches tended to look the other way whenever he tried out for the school teams.
Lionel’s size was a constant thorn in his side growing up. He never got picked for teams even though he was better than many of those who did. He always got stereotyped as a little half-Asian dork – meek, brainy, weak, a shrimp. He got picked on a lot. He got teased a lot. His parents told him to ignore it. They were no help. When you’re a kid you can’t just ignore it, not when it’s something that confronts you daily.
Every so often Lionel would go into a blind rage and strike back at his tormenters. He surprised both them and himself by the intensity of his anger, and by the effective blows he would occasionally land with his fists, elbows or knees. Lionel was not particularly skilled as a fighter, and almost always lost. But he caused enough discomfort to his opponents that they eventually stopped bullying him and moved on to someone else. Lionel fantasized about exacting his revenge on his tormenters. Instead, he went about his business, making straight A’s and not getting picked for sports teams and saving up all his anger and resentment for a rainy day.
Like right now.
“It’s not that I worry too much,” Lionel said to the back of Bubba’s head. “It’s just that I want to ensure an efficient operation. You can’t imagine how much I dislike inefficiency. I hate it worse than just about anything in the world.”
He picked the bat up and crouched into his stance. Elbows cocked, bat horizontal over his right shoulder, feet spread shoulder length, knees slightly bent. He waved the bat slightly, the way hitters do in the batter’s box. After a couple of practice swings he brought the bat around swiftly and cracked it against the side of Bubba’s head. It was a pretty good swing. In a game it might have gone for extra bases.
Bubba flailed his arms and tipped over sideways onto the floor. He landed with a thud, taking his chair down with him. He lay there on his side, not moving except for a twitching right hand. Blood had already begun to form on his head. Lionel walked to the kitchen and grabbed a towel. He walked back to Bubba and placed the towel against the wound to stanch the bleeding. He didn’t want blood getting on his floor or his rug. After a minute or so he returned to the kitchen and grabbed a spray bottle filled with water, the one he used to water his houseplants. He walked back to Bubba and sprayed water on his face.
Lionel was pretty sure he didn’t kill Bubba. He swung just hard enough to knock Bubba silly and give him a terrific headache, but not so hard that it would fracture his skull or cause massive hemorrhaging. A few sprays of water and Bubba would probably stumble back into consciousness.
Lionel sat back down in the parlor chair. He picked up the tea and sipped it. It was green tea with brown rice. He drank it for its health benefits – it was rich in antioxidants known as polyphenols – but also because he enjoyed the nutty aroma and flavor.
After a couple of minutes, Bubba’s body began to move on the floor. His eyelids flickered open, closed, then flickered back open. Low moans rippled up out of his mouth. Lionel rose from his chair and walked over. He sprayed some more water into Bubba’s face. Bubba opened his eyes and tried to raise his head off the floor. He groaned and laid his head back down again.
Lionel leaned down and spoke to Bubba.
“You look pretty bad right now, Bubba,” he said. “My guess is you suffered a concussion. The brain gets pushed against the inside of the skull, causing bruises in different points. You’ll need medical attention, but you probably won’t get it.”
Lionel picked Bubba’s chair up off the floor and sat in it.
“You won’t remember anything I’m telling you right now, but I’ll say it anyway,” Lionel continued. “The reason you’re lying there is because I bashed you against the side of your thick head with a baseball bat. If you want to know why, blame yourself. You had simple instructions, but you got sloppy and lazy and didn’t carry them out. When I asked you to explain yourself, you reacted with sarcasm and more than a touch of animus. You can see how that might make me angry. The truth is, I want to keep bashing your head until it splits open and your useless brains spill out. But then I’d have a corpse on my hands I’d need to dispose of, and that would create logistical problems. As it stands, I’ll put a bandage over your wound and a hat over your bandage. I’ll help you walk outside to the street. I’ll hail a cab and tell the cabbie you’re a little woozy from a recent work injury. I’ll give him a nice wad of cash to haul you across the river and drop you off where all types of sociopathic deviants hang out. In short order you’ll probably be surrounded by people who don’t like you. After that, it’s anybody’s guess what happens.”
That’s what Lionel did. He put the bandage on Bubba’s head and put a hat over the bandage. He gathered Bubba up off the floor and led him downstairs. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of effort and a lot of strength, because Bubba was a big man with a groggy head. Bubba kept listing to the side. Lionel had to hold him up and lead him in the right direction. It took time, but eventually they made it to the ground floor and out onto the sidewalk.
Once outside, Lionel hailed a cab. He deposited Bubba into the back seat. He handed the cabdriver a large wad of cash – triple the cost of the fare itself – and told him where to drop Bubba off. The cabbie didn’t ask why he was supposed to drive this large, drooling man to such a rough part of town. He took the money and nodded his head. Lionel watched the cab depart, then turned his focus to other matters.
He’d have to hire another assistant. This was no problem. He switched assistants pretty regularly.
The second task would be a little more complicated. He needed to find this homeless guy and deal with him.