With the fourth Cole Wright novel, Slow Burn, coming out on July 20th, we’re once again putting up a Cole Wright short story, free to read here on the website for a week or so. It will be available from the usual locations as both an ebook and in print.
The Handler – blurb
The mugging happens so fast that Marc barely has time to react.
For Marc and Sonia, a trip to Spokane means visiting family, a little shopping and some eating out. Not having someone accost them in the street.
When Cole Wright happens by, things might just take a different turn.
Marc adjusted the time on his watch. It was an old Asterion, and amazingly still fairly reliable after all these years. He pulled the winder out two notches, enjoying the little clicks it made as the gears inside moved from the date setting to the hands setting.
So much more satisfying than those electronic things that barely made a sound and never lost a moment.
He wound it back, from 11.07 to 10.06. It was kind of satisfying. That sense of gaining a whole hour in the day. Plus the minute which the Asterion had gained over the last week or so.
Marc double-checked the time against the clock just inside the store, and clicked the winder back into place.
He was standing outdoors, at a window, looking into the store. They sold all kinds of sharp-looking clothing, men’s on the left and women’s on the right. Nothing tailored, probably all shipped from sweatshops in Asia, but it was crisp and tidy, with interesting trim.
Exercise leggings with panels down the legs, almost like marching band trousers. Tops with straps that looked as if they could barely hold the rest up. The mannikins seemed as if they had originally been made at regular human size, but then ground and shaved back until the waists were somewhere under ten inches. Perhaps that helped to sell clothing.
Sonia was in there somewhere. Looking for something comfortable. Good luck, frankly. While, at forty, she was still slim and fit, it didn’t look like anything in there would be comfortable.
She’d left him in charge of getting lunch while she shopped. Sending him to the hole-in-the wall burger joint three stores on from the store.
Behind him, traffic moved. Easing through the lights, engines humming and tires hissing against the damp pavement. They’d just missed a shower when they’d gotten parked and ready for the expedition.
So here he was, with the two most delicious smelling burgers ever, waiting for her. The burgers were fat and stuffed, held inside cardboard boxes that boasted “Best Burgers in Spokane”, and “Recycled Card. Please dispose of with care.” Clutched in a tough brown paper bag with a smaller bag with fries and sachets.
He peered into the store again. No sign of her.
Spokane wasn’t that big of a place. Not really. It was Washington’s state capital, but Seattle was much bigger. But when you were out of Slickton, Wyoming, everywhere seemed big. Caspar seemed big.
They’d flown from Caspar to Seattle, via San Francisco. Stayed at an airport hotel and bundled themselves on this morning to Spokane.
Thankfully, their daughter Millie wasn’t going to get herself married too often. This was the first, and hopefully the last. But who knew in times like this.
One of Millie’s bridesmaids was on husband three already, and, from what Millie had mentioned, it wasn’t going well.
A bus chugged by and came to a stop thirty yards away. A couple got off and strolled away. An older gentleman climbed aboard.
Across the next intersection, a huge, old stone edifice stood. Bank of America. Beside it, a newer, glassy building with banners announcing “Sale Prices” and “Bargains” and “Permanently Reduced”.
Could he live here?
Millie could, that was clear. She’d studied well and landed herself a job as a designer with Cobbert Ross, which was apparently one of the bigger interior decorating firms in Washington.
The dollar amount they were paying her made Marc’s eyes water. Fresh out of college and they’re just handing her cash in wheelbarrows.
Pleased for her of course.
Pleased about Davin, her fiancé. A few years older, but then who was Marc to point that out?
The bus pulled away, puffing out a cloud of thick black smoke. Spokane’s plans for becoming a green city apparently were still underway.
Another vehicle pulled up. A low-slung black Cadillac. Paint buffed to a brilliant shine. Chrome just about everywhere. Windows tinted.
The engine sounded like a straight eight, as if in the customizing they’d dropped something else in there. Something a little souped-up to give the vehicle a little extra oomph.
Marc smiled to himself. Cities, huh.
The Cadillac’s back door opened and a slim man got out. He wore jeans, a leather vest over a black tee shirt and black cowboy boots. Kind of thing they sold down at Lee Taubert’s in Caspar.
Marc had a pair himself.
Marc stepped aside. There were few people on the sidewalk. A businesswoman striding along. A mom and dad with a kid swinging between them. A single man with thick hair and big shoulders.
But the guy from the Cadillac headed for Marc.
Marc took another step back.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“In the car,” the guy said.
Marc frowned. Big city or not, people still had manners.
He glanced into the store. Sonia was at the register. Just taking a bag from the counter.
So she’d made some purchases.
The mom and dad with the kid sidled around Marc and the guy from the Cadillac. The businesswoman was well gone.
“In the car?” Marc said. Surely he’d heard wrong.
“That’s what I said. Quit stalling. Get in.”
“But why?” His voice must have gone up a few tones. Nervous.
“You know why. Get in now. Or I will put you in.”
Marc bent a little to see inside.
A woman sitting across the other side of the back seat. Burlier than the guy.
A driver. Staring back at him. Maybe someone else in the front passenger seat.
Marc looked at the store again. Sonia was heading for the door.
“I’m not getting in there with you,” Marc said. He might be a naive bumpkin, but he wasn’t an idiot.
“The hard way, then,” the guy said, and grabbed Marc’s elbow.
The burgers splattered on the pavement.
Cole Wright watched along the sidewalk as he walked. People out and about. The air was crisp and the traffic was light.
It was good to be back in Spokane. Starting to feel like this might just be a good fit for him.
Like a pair of old shoes you found in the back of your closet. You put them on and they felt just right.
Little stores and coffee carts. Old sidewalks and plenty of trees. The river, the power plant, the bridges.
Right at home.
Or maybe it was just that he couldn’t really leave Washington behind. You can take the cop out of the state, but you can’t take the state out of the cop?
Nah. That was terrible.
But maybe there was a security in staying closer to Seattle. Easy to talk with Turzin and some of the other guys.
And then, there was Ione Anders.
Based right here in Spokane.
That was better than half the attraction of the place right there. Maybe even well into the nineties in terms of percentage.
Just ahead of him a mother and father had their daughter between them. Somewhere between two and three. Running along on little legs and swinging up.
Wright admired parents, that was for sure. Endlessly patient.
Wright sidestepped, balancing his takeout coffee, as a woman in a business suit strode near him. Hair tied up and manner completely oblivious to the world.
A bus had pulled away, and traffic was coming through from the cross street.
A guy holding a paper sack peered into the window of a women’s clothing store. Seer and Lane. Nice how the stores in the city, at the edges of downtown, could still compete, what with Target and Wal-Mart and online shopping seemingly corralling every dollar.
A black Caddy pulled up and a guy got out of the back door. Jeans, leather vest and a black shirt. Black boots on his feet. He went to the man who’d just been looking in the window.
Spoke to him.
The man seemed startled.
Wright kept walking. Ten yards off.
The startled man was wearing black chinos and black dress shoes. A tan jacket on top. He seemed even more startled.
The mom and dad and kid went by. The kid stared at the guy in the vest.
He was talking. The man in the tan jacket said something. The guy in the vest gestured at the Caddy.
It was shiny. Black, with plenty of trim. Modified. Riding low.
Wright was used to that kind of thing from back in Seattle, but here in Spokane, it seemed out of place. Too flashy.
He was just five yards off now.
The man looked back into the store.
The guy in the vest grabbed his elbow.
The paper sack fell to the sidewalk. Landed with a splat.
The guy hustled the man into the Caddy’s back seat.
Wright sped up.
As the guy shoved him into the car, Marc put his hands on the roof edge. Right at the door frame.
Braced himself there.
Feet on the sidewalk. Hands on the lip. Body forming an arch. Hard to move.
He’d put on a few pounds over recent years. He and Sonia shared the cooking, which was something that might have riled up both of their fathers, but it was good. Except that Sonia was pretty smart with balancing meals. Plenty of fresh vegetables and the best lean meat.
Marc, on the other hand, tended toward making pizza and burgers and thick, well-done steaks. Buttery mashed potatoes. They were fun and easy to make. Tasty when you sat down at the table. Weren’t doing anything for his waistline.
And at his age, his doctor would say, it was better to be lighter. Better to watch what he ate.
Right now, those few pounds might be handy. It made him a little harder to move.
Now, arched in the doorway of this car, with some random guy trying to shove him in.
“What do you want?” Marc said.
Inside the car, the driver and other back seat passenger were staring at him. They were dressed like the first guy. Black clothes. Leather vests.
“We want,” the back seat passenger said, “for you to get into the car.”
“Not that hard, really,” the driver said.
There was another passenger, in the front seat. Not looking around.
The interior reeked of smoke and burgers. Out of keeping, really, with the pristine exterior.
“I’m not getting in there,” Marc said.
He pushed back from the roof. Stood upright again.
He saw the burger bag lying on the sidewalk. Smooshed from the landing. Sauce splashes around on the concrete.
The guy who’d hauled him toward the car stared at him. Dumbfounded.
“You were expecting me to be compliant?” Marc said.
“Absolutely.” The guy smiled. Put his hand on Marc’s sternum. Almost gently.
“Take your hand off me,” Marc said.
“You really don’t understand what’s going on, do you?”
Marc looked left and right. Only a few pedestrians around. The young family with their backs to him. The businesswoman striding away, phone to her ear.
Sonia standing in the store’s doorway. Looking back in. Having a conversation with the assistant.
There was a guy walking slow toward them.
He had a takeout coffee. He was watching closely.
“Get in,” said the guy with his hand on Marc’s chest. “Or I will put you in.”
Marc pushed against the hand.
“No,” he said. He had a good forty pounds on the guy, but he wasn’t making any headway.
The guy pushed back.
That was when the other guy, the one with the coffee, spoke.
One thing about being a cop that had been real useful, had been the uniform. Even just the badge, if you were off-duty. In a way, Wright missed that.
On his last day back in Seattle, among the sodas and cake and little speeches, with the cards and the hugs and back-claps, had been that he’d had to turn in his badge and weapon.
He’d left the building a civilian.
Dressed pretty much how he was now. Boots, jeans, tee shirt and good jacket. Nothing fancy about it at all.
But with a little altercation like the one he was facing right now, the uniform could ease things down real fast.
Sometimes, the opposite, but mostly people didn’t want the cops involved.
Even off-duty cops.
But now, he was a non-cop. Just a regular man.
Albeit a man with an eye for confrontation.
“Trouble here?” he said.
He was just a few yards from the guys.
The younger, thinner one was pushing the older one back toward the car.
Pretty obvious that the older guy didn’t want to get in there.
“No trouble,” the young guy said. He glanced Wright’s way and focused back on the older guy.
“You sure now?” Wright said. “Some kind of family reunion here?”
“No trouble at all.” Another quick glance. Sizing Wright up. “Why don’t you mind your business.”
The younger guy stared at the older guy. As if daring him to say anything.
“I’m meeting my wife,” the older guy said.
“And we’re your car service, right?” the younger one said.
“Yes.” Barely a squeak.
Someone stepped from the store. A woman. About the older guy’s age. Dark hair and the beginnings of bags under her eyes. She was wearing a dark floral dress, with a long coat. In her hands, she had lemon-yellow paper bags marked with the store’s logo. Seer and Lane in a circle.
She stared across at the three of them standing by the car. Wright, and the younger guy, and the older guy.
“Marc?” the woman said.
“It’s all right, Sonia,” the guy said. Marc. “Just going for a quick ride with these guys. I’ll be right back.”
“Smart,” the younger guy said. And gave another push on Marc’s chest.
Marc was bleeding, and boy did it hurt.
The guy had a blade. Something small. Concealed in his palm.
Cutting through Marc’s shirt.
Cutting his skin.
There wasn’t a lot of thickness there. Maybe an eighth of an inch of skin. It felt like he’d been cut to the bone.
The blood was icky. Dribbling down across his belly. Matting his hair. Matting his shirt.
He’d had to lie. Right then. To the guy with the takeout coffee.
Good Samaritan. Checking that everything was all right.
It wasn’t. Marc wanted to scream.
But he’d seen Sonia coming through the door. Out to the street.
If these guys were willing to cut him over nothing, what would they do to her? What would they do to the good Samaritan.
So Marc stepped back. Bent to get into the car.
“Marc?” Sonia said again. Her voice had a lovely sing-song to it. He’d been enjoying that sound just about every day for close to thirty-five years.
Thirty-five really good years. The occasional bad day, and even one or two bad months, but mostly really good.
Now they were here to see Millie get married. It should have been a good day. Should have been a nice trip out here to Washington.
Instead he was getting into a black-out car with a guy who’d cut him, and the guy’s friends.
Best thing for it.
Best to keep everyone else out of it. Whatever it was.
He crouched into the car. Got his butt on the slick leather seat. Slid in.
The guy with the blade followed.
“Time to go,” he said.
He took the door handle to pull it closed, but the door didn’t budge.
The guy with the coffee was standing there. Holding the door open.
It didn’t take much effort to hold the door open really. It was all a matter of angles, really, and physics.
In New York, people have steel poles by their doors to prevent home invasion. The pole supplements the latch and the locks, by providing a physical wedge against the door opening.
The pole leans into the door at a forty-five degree angle, with notches in both the floor and the door where the pole’s tips rest.
A strong man might throw his weight through his shoulder, right into the door. He might break the latch. Might break the lock. Would easily snap one of those little security chains. Maybe even one of the professionally-fitted, hardened steel kinds. The ones that wound right back into the door frame.
But a straight pole, angled at forty-five degrees, well, you’d just about need a bulldozer to break through that.
And the thin guy was no bulldozer.
Wright kept his big mitt right on corner of the door. Just above the window. He kept his arm straight.
Trouble for the guy was that he was pulling. He had no leverage.
Wright had his left hand on the car’s roof. Just where his left hand would arrive if the door somehow closed.
His takeout coffee stood on the curb. Right where he’d set it before grabbing the door.
Wright bent into the car get a look.
Four guys, as well as the older man. Three with dark hair, one blonde. The driver.
The driver was staring at him. So were the two in the back seat. The one in the front passenger seat was craning around to look at him.
“I saw blood,” Wright said. “Thought you friend might be hurt.”
The guy let go of the door.
Swiped at Wright.
“Watch out,” Marc said. “He’s got a razor!”
Wright saw the flash of metal.
The guy’s arm. Heading straight for Wright’s arm.
Wright was holding the door open. Cut the arm and Wright would have to let go.
Except that the guy had let go of the door himself. Which meant that he would have to grab again. Take the handle. Before he could close the door.
Wright let go.
Jerked his arm around.
But not out of the way. Moved to grab the guy’s wrist.
It was scrawny. Boney. As if he’d never once worked out. As if he had some congenital disease.
Wright jerked the hand forward. Just using the momentum of the guy’s swipe. Against him.
The guy’s fingers smacked into the door’s window. With a terrible squishy, cracking sound. Bones and flesh.
The guy screamed.
The razor fell to the curb with a tinkle.
“Your friend’s had an accident,” Wright said, twisting and pulling. “Let me help him out.”
Wright jerked again. Tossed the guy onto the sidewalk. He landed in with a clatter of twisting limbs. Sprawling and tangling as if a deadweight.
“Go!” the passenger in the front seat said.
The engine revved.
Wright yanked himself forward.
Tumbled into the back footwell.
The door swung closed on his legs.
Wright sucked air through his teeth.
He way lying against the drive shaft. Looking up at Marc’s knees.
“Relax,” Wright said. “We’re halfway there.”
“You can shoot him now,” the front passenger said.
The other back passenger had bright blue eyes. The shone down at Wright in the Caddy’s dark interior. The engine thrummed. Accelerating in second. Foot down.
The carpeting over the drive shaft tickled at Wright’s neck.
“You want me to shoot Marc?” the rear passenger said.
The front passenger sighed.
Wright tried to wriggle around. He was cast. Stuck in the footwell. He’d drawn his feet up and the door had clunked closed. Rattling. Only half on its latch.
“Shoot,” the front passenger said, “that guy who ripped Case out of the car.”
A gun appeared.
A little black Smith and Wesson. Snub, short barrel. Kind of thing that only worked on real short range.
Well, Wright, lying in the footwell, was well within short range.
The gun moved around.
In the guy’s left hand. He had his right arm across the older guy’s bleeding chest.
“Hurt bad?” Wright said, catching the older guy’s eye.
The car slowed. Accelerated again.
The guy with the gun was working to keep his aim. It was as if he couldn’t decide where to shoot. Forehead? Chest? Which would make less mess in the car?
He held the gun awkwardly. Almost between Marc’s
“Top of the head,” Wright said, and shifted his left arm around. Patted his crown.
He grabbed the old guy’s left ankle.
Jerked it up.
Simple physics again. The guy’s ankle was connected to his knee. Jerk up the ankle, and the knee would also be jerked up.
The knee hit the gun hand.
The gun spun away.
Wright twisted. Scrambled forward. Pushed across against Marc’s knees.
Wright got himself halfway across. Into the left hand footwell.
He pushed up. Shoved against the driver’s door.
The guy in the backseat brought up a fist.
Wright batted it away. Drove his elbow into the guy’s nose.
The guy’s head jumped back. Bounced off the headrest.
His face met Wright’s elbow again.
The guy slumped to the side. His head banged on the window.
The car slowed again.
Wright spun around.
“Get down,” he told Marc.
Turning to the front, Wright found himself facing another gun.
Same kind. Snub, short-barreled Smith and Wesson.
In the hand of the passenger. He had a busted nose himself, though this was decades old. Badly set and left that way.
“I’m losing patience,” the passenger said.
“Likewise,” Wright said.
He ducked and darted into the footwell again.
Scrabbling for the gun the other guy had dropped.
The car accelerated again. The driver seemed unfamiliar with the task. Or just nerves.
Wright stretched. Reaching for the back seat passenger’s gun. It had fallen into narrow gap between the seat upholstery and the door.
The front passenger’s gun followed him.
Wright jerked forward. Into the back of his seat. Shook the passenger’s balance up.
“He’s got a bodyguard,” the driver said. “We should have known that. She didn’t say a thing, but we should have known.”
“Shut up,” the driver said. “Sit up. Or I will shoot you now.”
Wright had his hand on the other gun.
“He’s got Benny’s piece,” the driver said.
Wright was in an awkward position.
Marc lurched forward. Around him. Punched the driver’s gun. A right hook.
The passenger kept hold of it. But the punch drove his hand aside. Smacked the gun into the driver’s head.
Wright got back level. Nestled in between Marc and the unconscious back seat passenger.
“Nice punch,” Wright said.
The driver was shaking his head. The car was accelerating.
The passenger brought the gun back toward Wright.
Marc punched again.
The gun bounced from the driver’s headrest.
Wright grabbed the gun. Twisted it up.
The passenger yelped.
“Just let it go,” Wright said. “It’s all good.”
“My finger’s jammed.”
“Fine with me.”
Wright peered through the windshield. It looked as if they’d only come a couple of blocks.
“Make a U-turn here,” Wright said.
“I can’t. We have to take him to Sasha before the wedding.”
“She used to be Clem’s boss’s boss,” Marc said.
Wright looked around. Marc was wide-eyed.
“Clem? You do know these people?” All along Wright assumed it was one of those mistaken identity things.
“My daughter’s marrying Clem. He, well, he has an unsavory background. Told us it was well behind him. He was straight up about it.”
“Got it,” Wright said. He twisted the passenger’s hand some more, making him yelp. Wright pressed the gun’s muzzle into the driver’s upper arm.
“Hey!” the driver said.
“U-turn,” Wright said. “Right here. Try not to make it too sudden. Wouldn’t want this to go off.”
The driver nodded. There was blood running from his temple, the gun had hit him the first time.
He eased the Caddy around and headed back toward the clothing store.
“Did you hear that?” Wright said to the passenger as they drove. “It’s well behind Clem. You have no business with Marc.”
“Sasha will decide that,” the passenger said.
“Fine. But not by grabbing someone off the street. She’s got a problem, she can come talk with me.” Wright gave him the address of the little two bedroom bungalow he was leasing.
“What?” the passenger said.
“She can come talk to me. Or write me a letter.”
The driver had gone past the clothing store and was slowing to make another U-turn.
Two people at the curb there. Sonia, who’d called to Marc. He’d called back.
Smart. Kept her out of it.
The other person was the thin guy. He was clutching his left arm. Might have hurt it when he’d fallen from the car.
The driver found a gap in traffic and pulled them around to the curb.
“Just here,” Wright said. “This will do nicely.”
Wright’s coffee stood right where he’d set it there on the curb. There was a trash can on the corner and he strode down and dumped the cup.
Almost like a chain of evidence thing. It had been out of his possession. Just for a couple of minutes, but it was enough. Enough to be off-putting.
A couple of bucks would get him a fresh one.
Marc and Sonia stood at the curb, talking fast. Almost an argument. Almost heated.
Wright stood a few yards back.
The Caddy had driven off. Fast. After recovering the thin guy.
Wright had kept both guns. He’d dropped them into the pockets of his jacket. There were probably more guns in the car, but that didn’t matter. Guys like that could always access guns.
“Thank you,” Sonia said to Wright. “Let me pay for your fresh coffee.”
Smart woman. Straight away knew why he’d disposed of the cup.
“It was Marc,” Wright said. “He saved my neck in there.”
Marc flushed a little. Looked kind of sheepish.
“We’ll have to go to the police,” Wright said. “Report this. I have to hand in their guns anyway.” He patted the pocket holding one of the guns.
Sonia went wide-eyed, as if just realizing.
“No police,” Marc said. “We’ll go talk with Millie and Clem. Get them to clear this up.”
“We just decided,” Sonia said. “This is Clem’s responsibility. If he’s marrying into our family, this needs to be behind him. Can’t have my husband accosted in broad daylight.”
“Clem will know what to do,” Marc said.
Wright nodded. He looked back along the street. A city bus was coming along on the far side. The Caddy was long gone.
Lieutenant Ione Anders would know what to do too. And Wright had given them his address. That would be interesting, if they did show up.
“Still,” he said. “I can’t walk around with their guns. I’ll have to hand them in. I’ll make a statement.”
“Of course,” Sonia said.
“I have a friend on the force,” Wright said. “Maybe she can look into this a little more?”
“Really?” Marc said.
“We’d appreciate that,” Sonia said. “I know we must seem like country hicks to you, but–“
“No one seems like hicks,” Wright said. “Not to me. You’re just good people going about your business.”
“We are,” Marc said. “Just up here from Wyoming for our daughter’s wedding.”
“My best wishes to the couple,” Wright said.
“I’ll pass that on, for sure.” Marc held out his right hand to shake.
Wright took it, and Marc’s grip was firm and his skin was rough. Used to real work.
“Come on you two,” Sonia said. “Stop gazing into each other’s eyes. I’ll get you that coffee.”
Marc let go, and smiled.
“Thank you,” Marc said, and his smile broadened.
Sonia took his hand, and they started walking. Heading back toward the coffee cart where Wright had gotten his coffee.
“If you ever get out of town,” Marc said, “you’d be welcome to come visit. We have a little spread. You might like the country air. Wyoming.”
Wright nodded. “You know,” he said. “I do kind of have itchy feet, so I get out of town plenty. And Wyoming sounds pretty nice.”
“Well,” Sonia said. “We’ll be mighty glad to have you.”
Wright smiled to himself. It had been a while since he’d been on the road.
Perhaps it was time for another trip.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed “The Handler”. Check out the other Cole Wright novels and stories on the webpage here, and come back another time for more free fiction.
Check out Slow Burn, the next Cole Wright thriller – out on July 20th
Cole Wright heads for Spokane. A simple trip. Back roads. Quiet towns.
But when one of those quiet towns proves to be anything but, Wright finds himself unable to stand aside.