The Bodysnatcher: Hardboiled Short Fiction By Andrew Davie
Andrew Davie, author of Bodysnatcher, received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage.
It was an all-consuming fire sprung up from nothing; calm one moment and pandemonium the next. Gordon imagined Hell must have started the same way. The train compartment was now fully engulfed in flames. Smoke billowed off the roof into one giant cloud, which blocked out the sun and brought on premature darkness. The sight of dead bodies caused some of the hostages to retch. Some of them had to stop walking to steady themselves.
Gordon had endured worse.
The thieves had already been aboard the train, waited until it was half an hour out of the city, shot the brakeman, and had begun to loot the passengers before the train had screeched to a halt. The thieves had been upset by the revelation more of the passengers had been carrying travelers’ checks than they had anticipated. So, they took what valuables they could and figured they would increase the numbers for ransom.
Gordon had been on tour with King Copen, a jazz musician, and his band. Gordon had worked for the man since ’27. Copen would travel by car and meet them at the venue, but Gordon and the rest of the band would take the train along with all of the instruments and gear. Gordon worked as a technician, but mostly his job included escorting Copen to an opium den and taking care of him after he’d gotten righteous. The man was a hop head, but he was also a talented musician.
In most of the big cities they toured, Copen would have a regular place. Gordon didn’t have to protect the man as much as watch over him. For example, if there was a raid, Gordon would make sure to grease the lead officer. If there were cameras or newspapermen there, Gordon would escort Copen out the back. These occurrences were rare though they weren’t impossible.
In most of the big cities they toured, Copen would have a regular place. Gordon didn’t have to protect the man as much as watch over him.
The thieves approached the band and made their demands of any valuables. The band and technicians offered whatever they had on them. One of the thieves noticed the cases of instruments.
“That’s Bertha,” “Lip” McCutcheon said and pointed to his horn
“What?” The tone of the question was more confusion than anger.
“My horn, man,” McCutcheon said. There was anger in his tone. Gordon was about to suggest to Lip to let it go. The thief grabbed the case and yanked it onto the floor. Lip was out of his seat and already cursing the thief for disrespecting his horn. The thief shot Lip before Lip could finish his issuing his threat. When the sound returned, no one argued when they were ordered off the train and told to leave their belongings behind. They had gotten within one hundred feet of the train when there had been an explosion. Everyone turned to look. The coal car had ignited.
“Keep movin,” one of the thieves said.
He was a greasy looking kid, no more than twenty, with a tangle of strawberry blonde hair that peaked out from underneath his cap. They had all worn handkerchiefs over their mouths and nose, but most of them had lowered them. The kid tore off a plug of tobacco and chewed. The juice escaped through his bottom teeth and ran down his chin.
Everyone started walking again.
Gordon glanced over at the man behind them with the drum gun. He was barrel-chested but had a lean countenance, and he knew his way around the weapon. His handiwork lay sprawled behind them riddled with bullet holes. One of the hostages, not a member of the band, but someone who’d tried to hide in the restroom of their train car piped up. He wore a tailored suit and had a handlebar mustache.
“If you gentlemen let me go–.”
“Shut yer trap,” the kid said and hit the man with the butt of his firearm. The weapon met the skull which made a sound similar to a fresh watermelon being split. The man fell, and in doing so, took down the person who’d been walking next to him. The hostages stopped.
“Well, help him up,” The kid said to no one in particular.
Another man, a mousy looking fellow with knock-knees, helped the wounded man to his feet. The kid waved them on again. They continued for another half an hour or so until they reached the ridge-line of a forest. The man with the drum gun produced a corn cob pipe. He flicked the match head with his thumb and lit the bowl.
Another man, a mousy looking fellow with knock-knees, helped the wounded man to his feet.
“Uh, sir,” the mousy prisoner piped up. He was a docile fellow, and Gordon could tell it took all of his constitution to speak. He had also soiled himself.
“This man needs help.”
The prisoner with the head injury had begun frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog. The wound had turned sour. He was semi-conscious and started to convulse. The kid raised his weapon and fired. He was practically point-blank, and the impact sent the man airborne.
“He don’t need help no more,” the kid said and cackled.
The forest was a treacherous crossing of overgrown thickets and brambles. Sounds of insects resonated, and the stink of a swamp permeated the air. It was slow going with the men sinking up to their knees in the muck. An audible pop emanated every time they retracted their feet from the sediment. Eventually, the ground hardened, and the men found their rhythm again. In the distance, Gordon heard the faint vibration of conversation.
About fifty feet away, the trees had been felled to create an opening big enough to set up camp for about twenty men. A cast-iron pot hung from a makeshift spit over a flame. Gordon smelled the stewed meat, and his stomach growled. In the distance, Gordon saw the man with the drum gun talking to someone whom Gordon could only imagine had been their leader. The leader nodded as drum gun spoke and rubbed the tip of his van dyke. After they had finished with their conversation, the leader walked over to address the hostages.
“Gentlemen, my name is Clyde Beaumont,” he said.
“I promised my men something worthwhile today, and y’all have the chance to not make me out a liar,” Beaumont added. He folded his arms across his chest. He exuded an immortality Gordon had only seen a few times in his travels; people who’d stared death in the face and dodged the scythe. His men would suffer, and ultimately succumb to bullet wounds or worse, but Clyde Beaumont would live. The kid had wormed his way to the front, directly to the left of Beaumont, and he rubbed his hands together with delight.
“Now we gonna have some fun,” he said and bit his plug of tobacco. Drum gun stood off in the distance; the cherry ember of his pipe glowed at every inhalation.
Beaumont was joined by an enormous man who looked like a mountain come to life. He had mutton chop sideburns and wore army issue pants with suspenders and no shirt. His forearms were a latticework of veins and sinew.
“Gentlemen, this is Willis Dauterive. He went thirty-eight rounds with Seamus O’Connell and would have beaten that bastard if the referee hadn’t blundered it.” Dauterive spat on the ground as if to echo the sentiment. The hostages collectively groaned. Mousy relieved himself again.
“You will all be given the chance to challenge Mr. Dauterive. If you can remain standin after three rounds; well, you are then free to go.”
Beaumont’s men laughed. One of the hostages had realized their fates had been sealed attempted to flee.
“No,” Mousy repeated over again and tore off toward the tree line. He got about ten feet from the group when a pistol shot rang out. Beaumont lowered the weapon and placed it back in his waistline.
“It ain’t up for debate,” he said.
The first man was selected from the hostages. He was a young fellow who had maintained his composure throughout, even with a firearm in his face. He walked to meet Dauterive and rolled up the sleeves to his shirt. Both men lifted their hands, open-palmed, to show they weren’t holding anything and commenced.
Dauterive toyed with the man at first. He presented his chin while he kept his hands lowered. The man threw a reckless punch, and Dauterive kicked him in the seat of his pants. Two of the crew on the edge of the circle who had been attempting to get odds on the match stopped their attempts.
Drum Gun kept time and called out one minute left in the round. Dauterive threw a jab which stunned the man, then a right cross which separated the man from his senses. The man lay still with arms akimbo. Blood flowed freely from his now broken nose. Beaumont walked over to the man and put a bullet in his chest. They dragged the body away and flung it on a developing pile along with Mousy.
“Who’s next?” Beaumont said and kept his pistol drawn in case anyone thought to run.
“Him,” The kid said and pointed toward Gordon.
“Alright, git up there.”
Gordon unbuttoned his shirt and threw it to the ground. He was a foot shorter than Dauterive, and he gave up at least thirty pounds. Dauterive stank of body odor and seemed primordial.
They put their fists up, and Drum Gun called out to begin. They circled each other. Gordon threw a jab which Dauterive countered with an overhand right that snapped Gordon’s head back. Gordon saw stars for a moment but shook it off. The next few seconds stretched out in his imagination, and suddenly Gordon was back in Leavenworth on Thanksgiving watching the former heavyweight champion of the world box.
It had been eight years ago. The fights were scheduled to start right after the prisoners were issued Thanksgiving dinner. However, a few thousand people showed up early, including reporters and celebrities. The spectacle would take place in an outside boxing ring, and though Jack Johnson was past his prime, he was still a force. Gordon and his cell block had been escorted outside by armed guards and sat in a special section for prisoners.
All around them flashbulbs popped off as Johnson made his way to the ring. Reporters frantically jockeyed for better position among a sea of soldiers and notables. The prisoners had been told ahead of time there would also be snipers positioned around the yard. None of them had any thoughts on their mind other than watching the former champion. While Gordon had been a casual fan before that moment, he swore he would dedicate himself to boxing.
Most of the following blows thudded against his forearms. Dauterive hit like a mule. Gordon attempted to keep on the balls of his feet. He countered with a left-right combination, which Dauterive parried and put Gordon down with a left jab followed by a right uppercut. Gordon arose on unsure footing but adjusted quickly. He shook the cobwebs loose. He had Dauterive’s timing now.
Gordon sought out anyone who would help him. It didn’t take long to find a few candidates, but only one who was willing to teach him, and even then it cost Gordon his deserts for six months. That would be fine. Mordecai had worked in Solly Smith’s camp after he had won and lost the featherweight championship. Gordon soaked everything up like a sponge.
Dauterive and Gordon exchanged some glancing blows and circled each other. Many of Beaumont’s men, who’d offered bets were now readjusting the odds. Drum Gun called time and the two combatants stopped moving and put their hands down. Dauterive called for a drink and one of the men brought him a canteen. He took a gulp, swished the water in his mouth, and spat it out. Negotiations continued on the outskirts of the circle as more of the crew began to take bets. No one brought Gordon any water. Drum Gun called the time again, and both participants continued.
Mordecai desperately needed spectacles but it was going to take a while to go through the proper channels. It didn’t make a difference, except when he wielded the end of a pipe and used it when training Gordon. This particular exercise had Gordon working on his head movement.
Every so often, Mordecai would lash out with the pipe end, and Gordon would need to dodge and counter. Due to his advanced age, and curmudgeonly attitude, Gordon made certain to never make contact with Mordecai, though he came close a few times. However, Mordecai was not nearly as careful when swinging the pipe.
He had already hit Gordon twice; the second of which had opened a gash near Gordon’s hairline. The bleeding had stopped, but Gordon was worried he would have to explain the laceration to the duty officer. They still had another ten minutes of yard time. Both of them had found a place to work in a blindspot from the South guard tower. Jimmy Hooks, another of Mordecai’s protege’s kept watch at the corner.
Drum Gun called time again, and both Gordon and Dauterive rested. Dauterive was a skilled pugilist, but Gordon could tell he was used to winning most of his fights through intimidation and ending things within the first round. By now, he had begun to breathe heavily. The same man from earlier brought Dauterive the canteen again. This time he drank the water down. Drum Gun signaled it was time to begin again, and Gordon and Dauterive walked back to the center.
“This is the final round,” Beaumont said.
Upon his release, Gordon found work as a strikebreaker, but he didn’t have the fury required; no to mention, within a year or two saboteurs and spies had become more fashionable. By luck, soon after that, he was able to find work for Copen. He rarely needed to get physical anymore, though the training was always there.
Gordon waited for his moment, and when Dauterive threw a left hook, Gordon landed his own first. Dauterive fell to the ground and the onlookers were immediately silent.
Two of the men attended to Dauterive, who was still unconscious.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Beaumont who looked Gordon over like he’d discovered gold amongst dredged mud.
“I guess you’re free to go.”
Gordon picked up his shirt.
“Wait, you can’t,” The kid said
“You heard me say it; anyone goes three with Dauterive can walk.” Beaumont’s tone suggested the matter wasn’t up for discussion. The kid stared at Gordon with open hostility.
“But, Uncle Clyde!” the kid said. He hesitated for a moment, looked like he was going to reach for his firearm, but thought better of it. His face turned crimson, he let rip a series of expletives and walked away. Gordon finished buttoning his shirt and walked toward the edge of the woods. If he made good time, he might be able to make it back to the train tracks by sundown.
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