Writing Lesson: Levelling Up Short Stories 1/3

Welcome back. Coming to you live from a shabby Milanese apartment. Things on my desk: a Yamaha keyboard, sheet music to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ (which I can’t read), a deck of tarot cards, some lesson plans and didactic programs, assorted notebooks filled with arcane incantations in toddler scrawl, a USB cable, and a tissue with some chewing gum in it.

Today, I’ll be posting a crime story that I wrote for my MFA a couple of years ago. It is, admittedly, imperfect, and a creative failure — precisely because it is and always was intended to be… an homage. It might read well, it may well entertain you, but it is a failure because it’s a straight up pastiche of James Ellroy. It’s all too easy to become enamoured with writers like Ellroy, Nabokov, Highsmith, O’Connor, and the like, but never forget, there’s only one of each. You’re never going to fill those shoes.

The trouble with trying to write like someone else is that you’re not that other guy or gal. You’re you. Ding-ding, it’s a compelling match-up, but you’re fighting from somebody else’s corner. When you try to write like someone else, you’ve already failed. Imposter by default.

What then is the solution? There are several. Write like yourself. Make it new. Aim for succinctness, but not at the expense of depth and substance. Use genre tropes (if you’re writing genre fiction), but use them in a fresh way, do the unexpected, don’t be predictable.

In my defense, it is a step up in quality from my Bachelor days. Writers learn from other writers, so be sure to make friends who’ll take pity on you and give your work a gander.

Below is the story, ‘The Delivery Man’.

Have a read and consider how you might improve or have written it differently. There are no wrong answers. In the second post in this three-part series, I’ll be critiquing this story in great detail. Line by line. We’ll take a look at the tropes and traditions of the crime genre, how to use them effectively (e.g. red herrings, mystery, suspense) and how they make for interesting reading. I may even reach out to practicing crime writer friends for their input. And in the final post, I’ll present you all with a revised draft — hopefully one more original, challenging to write, and satisfying to read.

The Delivery Man

By Michael Conroy

The music drones and the lights are low. A film of smoke separates me from the girl dancing onstage, centre catwalk. She sways her hips, holds her hands over her breasts. Smoke obscures her figure. Half there, half not there. Faceless. Brunette? Can’t be sure. Need a drink. Dead certain.

     “Hey, handsome.” Up close, different stripper. Beauty spot on her cheek. Lipstick perfect, pink, too coquettish for someone her age. She shakes her platinum bob, smiles – her eyebrows jump.

     “Hi.”

     “Big night on the town?” She slides her arms round my neck, straddles me in the chair. Arches her spine and tilts her head back. Nice view. There’s a tattoo of a flying fish on her right shoulder. Multicoloured scales, looks Japanese. It winks at me.

     “Something like that.”

     Ashtrays for eyes – aglow with cigarette embers. Glitter draws attention to her crow’s feet. “What’s your name, hon?”

     Pause. “Bill.”

     Grin, nearly a grimace. “I’m Dalilah.”

     “Is that right?” She leans in close. Smells like vanilla and roses.

     She whispers in my ear. “How’s about a private dance? Anything you desire.” Wink. She gestures to the private room behind purple velvet drapes.

     Headshake. “No thanks, sugar.”

     She bolts upright, huffs, insulted. Sighs and loses interest. “Whatever. Your loss, hon.” She sashays off to the bar – I watch her go.

     Better luck with the yuppies. Drape suits and Swiss watches, all of it paid for with daddy’s money. Dalilah fawns over the pinstripes but her heart’s not in it.

     The barkeep, thinning hair, stony-faced, wipes down his pride and joy. Shakes his head at the rich kid smooth-talking. Dalilah acts interested, till the boy tries to cop a feel. SLAP. Barkeep keeps to his bar, pours Dalilah a drink.

     Look over at Frank, right-side catwalk – time of his life. He gives me the eyebrows. Makes it rain for the psychology major dancing in her underwear. Same age as his daughter. Frank leans forward, bald dome shining under the disco lights, as the girl crawls to the edge of her stage. She puts her hands on the bar and lets him stuff her brassiere with singles. She returns to her pole, blows a kiss.

     Frank looks over at the door in the corner. Employees Only. Two guards in front. Fedoras and peak lapels, facing barside. Wise guys. They reach inside their jackets when some bozo comes looking for the bathroom.

     On the wall by the bar hangs a picture of Linda Lovelace. Big lipstick kiss. Signed and framed. Ever heard the story about her grandmother? She went down on the Titanic.

     Flag down a waitress. She disappears, reappears with a fresh scotch. Single malt, top shelf stuff. Takes away the empties. Frank looks at me. Right back at him – shrug. Not paying for it – might as well indulge myself. Frank shakes his head.

     Eye the door. Guards talking. Nothing yet.

     Commotion. Baby-faced yuppie at the bar. Soaked through, shouting at Dalilah, her glass empty. Security guard in a tight-fitting suit gets between them. Big guy, taller than me – buzz cut, arms that could fell a tree. He takes the kid by the shoulders, escorts him towards the exit.

     Kid shakes free and takes a swing at him. SMACK. Buzz-security turns the other cheek. Kid’s yuppie friends cheer him on, wasted, high on Quaaludes. Kid mouths off again, gets a jab in the gut. His friends go quiet. Doubled over, he throws up his lunch on the big guy’s shoes.

     Fancy shoes. The kind you re-mortgage your house for.

     B-S grabs the kid, bear paw over the face, and drags him out into the corridor behind me. More commotion, wet thwacking sounds, muffled screams, a loud thump against the wall. Glasses shake, light fixtures rattle.

     Security re-emerges, straightens his tie, bloody knuckles. Back to work.

     The song changes, something tinkly and jazz-sounding. Too classy for a joint like this. Makes me laugh. Ha.

     Look round the room. The mayor in a booth along the back wall. Whisky in one hand, cigar in the other, motorboating the girl on his lap. Heard rumours he likes to dress up like a baby and be breastfed. Who am I to judge?

     The yuppies are gone.  Gángsteres now – cholos, mareros, pandilleros – tank tops, check shirts, gold chains, bandanas. Eyeing the Russian buttonmen – black turtlenecks and leather jackets. Both packing heat. Barkeep pours shots: Tequila vs vodka.

     Down my glass – through the crowd she stops me dead.

     Girl in heels and lace. Brown pigtails. She makes eye contact. Tries to smile. How old? Too young. Those eyes, pleading. Look over at Dalilah – leaning against a wall, staring off into space. She sighs, looks at the floor.

     Is that all the girl has to look forward to?

     She stares at me. I stare back. Rosy cheeks, sad eyes, thin lips.

     Everything falls away. The music fades, everyone else disappears. Just us two, in this moment. Imagine taking her away from this place. Taking her in as we try to piece her life back together. Did she run away from home? Does she have a home to run away from? Don’t worry – I’ll take care of you. She’ll tell me all her hopes and dreams. Smile. It’ll all be okay – I’ll always be there. She’ll tell me how she’d lost hope – wrap her arms around me and plant a kiss on my cheek. Tell me she loves me. Look into my eyes and tell me how grateful she is. I wonder. How grateful would she be?

     How old? Old enough.

     Back to planet Earth and she’s still staring. Look away – back again as some goon appears. She looks up at him and nods. Back at me one final time as she leads him through purple velvet drapes.

     Shake it off, have another drink.

     Look over at Frank. He’s eyeing the back door. Open.

     Our guy emerges, briefcase in hand. Scrawny, rodent features – buck teeth, whiskers, beady eyes. Bobby Van de Post. Drug pusher, parole skipper. We call him the Delivery Man. Here to see Fat Clancy, local kingpin.

     Two birds.

     Itching. Frank shakes his head. His eyes say, “No. Not yet.”

     Can’t help myself. Whisper into my chest, “Now.”

     CRASH! Boys in blue burst through the doors. “Police! Get down on the floor! On your fucking knees, Van de Post!” They charge the place, kick furniture over, duck down, take cover as the bullets start flying: BANG, BANG, BANG! Bar-patrons turn heads, duck as club enforcers open fire on the cops. Cholos join in, holding their heaters horizontal. Russians whip out their cannons and return the gesture.

     Me and Frank hit the carpet. Someone tosses me a revolver. Snatch it mid-air, use my table for cover.

     Everybody’s shooting at everybody. Blood flies about in ribbons. Lead ricochets off stripper poles – DING! – and tears through wood and plaster, blowing furniture apart – CRACK! – wood splinters everywhere. Glasses shatter like dropped ice – SMASH! Smoke fills the air like a burning building. Dalilah cowers, runs for it.

     A bullet rips through the table and zips past my ear. Duck down, peek out. Frank’s got a pump action. Flat on the floor, behind his girl’s catwalk. She’s sprawled on the floor now, a bloody hole where her face should be. Green bills make a halo. Just singles.

     My girl’s gone, too. Like she was never there at all.

     Girlish scream. Turn – the mayor throws his hands up and charges for the exit. He gets shot in the ass and eats carpet. Look back and Frank’s shouting.

     Frank: “We were supposed to wait till he got outside!”

     Me: “It don’t matter, let’s get this fucker!”

     Frank: “Where the hell is he?”

     Bobby V pops up, lets off a few rounds our way. Reciprocate, miss, hit Linda Lovelace right between the eyes. Frame drops, glass shatters. Sorry, Linda.

     Me: “Give yourself up, Bobby, and we’ll go easy on you!”

     Bobby V: “Go fuck yourself, pig!” He empties his clip in my direction. A bullet grazes my cheek, knocks me down. Searing pain. On the floor, watch as Bobby V makes a run for it, briefcase above his head. He slips – the briefcase flies. Bullets turn it into swiss cheese.

     It starts to snow.

     Someone shoots The Delivery Man down – Bobby V’s history. His gun goes flying, he falls against the bar – slides down next to a Russian with a gaping hole in his chest. Cholo goes down, point-blank, back of the head, lands face first in the comrade’s lap.

     Barkeep fixes himself a drink. A stray round explodes a whisky bottle. He lights a cigarette, leans back, blows smoke.

     Wipe my cheek – blood on my hand. Crawl over behind Frank’s stripper stage. Coke and broken glass covers the floor like Lapland. Look to my right, make eye contact with Dalilah on the floor. The sparks are gone.

     More officers pile into the joint as the fireworks die down. Minutes later, it’s all over. Gun-toting cops file out back after Fat Clancy. Two uniforms escort the limping mayor outside – he clutches his bleeding ass cheek all the way. The rest round up what’s left of the wise guys. Gángsteres all toast, one Russki remaining. Vodka won out. Frank slaps cuffs on Buzz-security – fellow officers take over. He goes peacefully.

     Limelighters part drapes, escort frightened girls outside for statements. Rookies wrestle unruly punks, make them taste wallpaper. Vet cops stand by, shaking their heads and making jokes. Barkeep fixes drinks. About to go over but Frank grabs my arm.

     “What the fuck was that, Johnny?” Eyes blazing, nosed hooked.

     Tug my arm free. “We couldn’t afford to let Bobby V skip town again.”

     He slaps my shoulder – hurts. “Bullshit, we’d have gotten him anyway. You jeopardised the whole fucking operation!”

     Throw my arms up. “Me? We got the guy, didn’t we? Nailed both those bastards.”

     Armed cop approaches, says Fat Clancy and his goons escaped out the back, killed a few boys on the way.

     Frank looks at me. I look at Frank. “Ah shit.”

     Bobby V jumps up, clutching his arm, revolver in hand. Frank spins, caught by surprise. Bobby V blows him away. Pops me one in the shoulder. The barrel explodes again and lead blows past my temple – blood spray – I go down.

     Curse, scream, make unintelligible noises. Temples throb, sea in my ears, heart beats like a drum. Shirt wet, warm, sticky. Colder by the second. Can’t see Frank. Can’t see anything. Like looking through ice. Thrashing about on the floor, trying to get up – hurts to move. Roll over – lead in my shoulder gives me a hard time. Wipe the blood from my eyes.

     Cops swarm Bobby V, wrestle him to the ground, cuff him. They haul him to his feet, give him a couple of one-twos in the gut. Struggle to my feet, wobble like a bowling pin. Lean forward on the stripper stage.

     I see him.

     There’s Frank. Arms spread-eagled. Half his face gone. Blood pooling round his head, meat and bits of bone scattered on the floor.

     Beeline for Bobby V, sock him across the jaw – teeth go flying. Blood down his chin – he spits in my face. Wrap my hands round his throat and squeeze. He chokes, coughs blood as I cave his nose in, but the other cops grab my arms, hold me back.

     Officer shouts: “Help me hold him back, for Christ’s sake!”

     Another: “Get Van de Post out of here now!”

     I shake loose, fists flying – aimless, at everyone. Kick Bobby V between the legs – he goes down clutching his balls.

     “For god’s sake, Johnny, calm down!” The officers hold my arms behind my back till it hurts. When they finally let me go, I drop to my knees.

     In my ear: “Leave it, Johnny, we got him – he’ll fry. There’s nothing you can do.”

     Nothing I can do. Pain – knuckles on fire as I pound broken glass – as they drag Bobby V, laughing, out the door. Gone.

     Frank’s gone, too.

     And all I can do is yell his name.

Sony Pictures

Copyright © ‘The Delivery Man’ Michael Conroy 2021

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