The Easy Way Out: Hard-boiled Noir Short Fiction By Paul Gadsby
Paul Gadsby, author of The Easy Way Out, has recently published the noir thriller ‘Back Door to Hell’ (Fahrenheit Press, 2019). He has published short stories in Fahrenheit’s ‘Noirville’ collection, Beat to a Pulp, Close to the Bone, and Rock and a Hard Place among others.
“I’d normally say I’m sorry to see a group of correctional officers go,” said the warden, sitting back in his high leather chair. “But clearly, given the circumstances in this case, I’m anything but sorry.”
The four of us standing on the other side of his desk didn’t say a word. Didn’t as much as flinch. Even Sparky, the fidgety livewire among us, remained bolt upright with his hands behind his back, matching the pose of the rest of us. It felt weird thinking we were wearing these blue uniforms for the final time.
“Anything you’d like to say?” snapped the warden, his bald head gleaming in the sunlight seeping through the large window behind him.
The four of us standing on the other side of his desk didn’t say a word. Didn’t as much as flinch.
We all shook our heads. I felt like saying a few things, like if he thought it was just the four of us then he had more than a fucking screw loose. His prison, his sham of an institution, was rotten to the core and ridding us four of the place wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.
But it just wasn’t worth it.
“Needless to say I won’t be providing any of you with glowing references after this,” continued the warden. Something then caught in his throat, he paused and lowered his eyes. “However, the authorities have deemed it appropriate to issue you each with a severance package. A wholly undeserved package, I might add.”
Barney, stood to my right, inched forward. “In return for what?”
The warden’s shoulders dropped. He took a few seconds to meet Barney’s eyes. “Your discretion. We can’t have the public knowing what’s been going on in here – what you four have allowed to go on in here – over the last few years. Unlike you fools, we have to think of the bigger picture.”
He flicked a hand towards the door that led to his secretary’s office. “Jeanette has the paperwork. If you want that leaving package, you’ll sign a form that we’ve prepared. If you breathe a word to anyone about the protocols you’ve all breached in here, you’ll be liable to hefty financial reprisal.”
He wafted a finger at us. “But make no mistake, your careers in the penitentiary sector are most definitely over.”
He motioned for us to get out.
An hour later we were in a bar in town. The place was one of Barney’s favorites, dimmed lighting and wood-paneling. After a couple of shots to calm ourselves, we settled on beers in a corner booth. I took it slower than the others.
“Hey, Selby, chin up, bro,” Barney said, giving me a stern look.
I nodded at him, took a swig from my bottle.
“We’ve all got a nice bit of dough to see us through for a while,” Barney added. “I told you about my cousin, right? Owns that big tile factory out near Philly? I mean it’ll only be yard work to start with, but it’s something to get us started.”
“Too far for me,” Sparky said. I noticed he was shaking. “I might just hang around here for a while.”
Mark told Barney he’d think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark joined him in the city. Mark loved following Barney’s lead. It was their actions that had an effect on me, at the start. I’d joined the penitentiary twelve years ago, and within six weeks I’d seen the way Barney, and Mark in unison, acted in front of the prisoners with clout – the high-powered drug kings who still ran their empires from behind bars.
Barney and Mark would turn a blind eye to them using their cellphones, would ignore their visitors smuggling in drugs, more phones, even weapons. One time I walked past Leon Clarke’s cell and smelt fried chicken. Put my head in the door and saw him and his select buddies tucking into an array of red and white KFC cartons, Barney and Mark stood in the corner chomping on a wing each.
Mark loved following Barney’s lead. It was their actions that had an effect on me, at the start.
“These guys have powerful people doing things for them on the outside,” Barney told me when we walked to our cars at the end of a shift one time. “You think it’s a good idea to get on the wrong side of ‘em? For what we get paid?”
With Mark doing the same, and sometimes Sparky, along with many other officers who I didn’t know so well, it felt harder to look down on it. Who was I to regard them as wrong, or misguided? I was a nobody.
And I certainly wasn’t a grass.
Turning a blind eye was easier than I thought, but it ran to deeper things once Barney knew I was on board. Delivering small items from one cell to another (I daren’t look in the packages, didn’t want to know what was in them), arranging for Clarke and his lieutenants to get cushy jobs, more outdoor time, or to jump to the front of the line at mealtimes. None of the other inmates kicked up a fuss – of course they didn’t, they valued their organs and limbs staying in the right places – but it got me down. When I got home and showered after each shift I felt like shit, like no matter how hard I scrubbed I wouldn’t get clean. This is what you get for being weak, I kept telling myself, knowing there was nothing I was going to do about it.
A few times I came close. Close to going up to the warden’s office and laying out what was happening in all corners of his facility. Or even just having a sly conversation with a colleague who wasn’t in on it. Trouble was, I couldn’t tell if anyone definitely wasn’t in on it, and even if I had a good inkling I just didn’t know how to bring it up. I’d always had woeful social skills, didn’t have the wordplay to have the conversation without coming across like a Goddamn idiot or, even worse, putting them in danger of something.
All it took was a few months and suddenly I was in too deep. I’d succumbed to Barney’s ways of doing things, and from then on there was no switching lanes.
The day-to-day mechanics of the job were okay, it was just getting trapped into conversations with Barney or the likes of Clarke that clenched me up and turned my stomach. Most days were fine and incident-free, but some weren’t. There were gang fights, impossible to break up until you had reinforcements in high numbers. Quite a few serious injuries, most carried out as a warning, but a few deaths. Marvin Keys getting clubbed by a homemade mace was a memory I’d rather forget, as was Dean Stanton getting sliced in the gut with a blade that had been smuggled in (during my shift on the metal detectors) and sharpened in the workshop.
But I kept my head down, didn’t upset Barney or Clarke or any other dominant figures, and got through it. When the warden had called us upstairs today and told us we were being dismissed, I’d felt a little relief sweeping through my insides.
I got up from my seat in the bar, Barney looked at me. “Come on, we’ll make a night of it,” he said.
“Sorry guys, not feeling up to it.”
“It’s just a job, Selby,” Mark said.
I nodded and walked out, ignoring their collective groans behind me.
Back in my one-bedroom flat, I sat in my recliner lounge chair with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Tried not to look at the photograph of my late father on the shelf. A man who’d spent his entire career on the local police force, serving with distinction. He’d never talked much about his job, had gone about his business with a quiet dignity, according to all sources. But what if some of those sources were wrong, I thought, chugging down more whiskey. Had dad been dragged down by a murky, contaminated culture and taken the easy way out, too? Had he followed the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, mantra? Had he just wanted his pay check and his safety?
I winced as I thought about it. My instincts said no. He was a big law and order man. I’d never had it in me to be a cop like him, but when I saw the advert for the opening at the penitentiary, dad told me to go for it. He looked me in the eye and talked about how working the cells, ensuring that justice was being done, that convicted felons were getting their just desserts, their comeuppance, was a worthy living.
Nah, he was no coward.
I ignored further pushes from Barney about going to Philly. I wanted a fresh start, a cleansing. I moved a few miles east for some sea air.
I rented a small condo in a rundown building out near Long Branch. Despite the grubby condition of the place and the dated furniture, it was still pretty expensive but the ocean view from the balcony was worth it. Besides, I had the money from the severance package to get rid of.
The fresh, salty air felt glorious on my skin. I’d spent many a vacation with my ex-wife on this stretch of coastline, but this time it felt different. I wasn’t passing through, it didn’t feel like borrowed or temporary sea air. It felt like mine for keeps, and mine alone.
I spent my days sitting on the balcony reading paperback novels and local newspapers. I looked at the job adverts but nothing took my fancy. I thought I’d bide my time. Some afternoons I went for a swim in the ocean. The water was cold but invigorating.
I was a few weeks into my new life when bad thoughts from my old one began to circulate in my mind. Barney, Mark and Leon Clarke cropped up in my dreams, their voices, their mannerisms such as Barney placing a hand on my shoulder as he spoke to me, crystallized in my brain. I woke sheened in sweat, the sound of the waves the only thing convincing me I’d left that life behind.
There was a restaurant adjoined to my apartment building that served a good breakfast. One morning, dining on my eggs and bacon, ignoring the chatter of drowsy young couples and harassed families around me, a woman in her early twenties walked in and sat a couple of tables away from me. It was a large table, designed for four, but she didn’t look like she was expecting to be joined by anyone, no glances at her watch or the entrance. She quickly grabbed the attention of a waiter and ordered the pancakes. Her shoulder-length dark hair was freshly styled with an inward curve at the bottom. By far the best-dressed person in the place, she wore a cream top that deftly emphasized the clear line of her jaw. There was an aura about her that I couldn’t put my finger on, a certain self-containment in her manner and posture. I thought about it while I finished by breakfast. When I looked up again, she’d gone. Nothing on her plate but the streaked remains of maple syrup.
As I stumbled breathlessly out of the sea after a long swim, wishing my late-thirties body was ten years younger, Sparky stepped in front of me.
For a second, I thought it was a ghost. He hadn’t changed a bit. Not that he should have done, but still, time had passed and distance had grown. That crew cut was still as sharp as ever, those furtive eyes still glimmering. Suddenly it felt like I’d left him and the others sitting in that bar just a few hours ago.
I reached down for my towel and started drying myself.
“How did you find me?”
He shrugged as if it was nothing. “Got a little proposition for you,” he said.
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Where are the others?”
“Barney’s in Philly. The thing with his cousin worked out.”
“What about Mark?”
“Not sure. I know he didn’t go with Barney.”
I sat down on the sand, taking my time drying my face. Sparky sat next to me.
“Remember Jackie Larson?”
“Fuck, Sparky. What are you doing hanging with him?”
He gave another of his shrugs. “He’s alright.”
“He’s a thief, bud. And not a good one. He wouldn’t have been doing that stretch otherwise.”
“There’s a job going down.”
“Stop talking, Sparky.”
“You’ll just need to be a lookout. Easy money.”
“We’ve got money, remember? You haven’t spent yours already, have you?”
“Man, I’m talking about the future. We’ll have to work again. I’m trying to put us back on the wheel.”
“Jackie fucking Larson isn’t the wheel to hitch a ride on.”
“He’s got good connections these days. Things have changed. The police haven’t got the resources to catch him. Again.”
“You’ve wasted a journey, bud. Sorry, but I can’t do it.”
He looked out to sea, took a deep breath. “So, what, you’re just gonna hang on the beach until your money runs out?”
I got up, folded my towel and tucked it under my arm, stepped into my flip-flops.
“See ya, Sparky,” I said, without meeting his gaze, and strode off.
I walked in the direction away from my condo, took in more of the beach, a slumber in my step. After a while I came across a cluster of small huts selling various beachwear and consumables. A figure, half turned away from me, in a large white sunhat browsing a tall rack of sunglasses caught my eye. Despite being unsure about what type of shades she wanted, her poised stance gave her an air of authority. I stepped a little closer. It was the woman I’d seen at breakfast a couple of days ago.
My eyes squinted from the glare of the sun as I appraised her. Was there something about her that was more familiar than just seeing her in the restaurant? Did I know her from anywhere? The sudden appearance of Sparky had already shaken me, and I wasn’t a big believer in coincidences. Was I being followed, tracked? My hot skin itched all over.
I walked over to the rack, approached it from the other side to her, and perused the options. It didn’t take me long to realize that none of the designs took my fancy.
“What were the odds? Dozens of choices but none of them any good,” I said.
She slowly craned her neck to look at me, then carried on studying the rack.
“I’m just looking for a bargain,” she said.
Her voice was as soft as her face, a silky lilt that I didn’t recognize.
“This is a nice part of the coast,” I said.
“I wouldn’t really know. Just arrived.”
I felt awkward about continuing the conversation, just gave a polite nod and walked back to the condo.
I kept looking out for Sparky, or for anyone that might be following me, but nothing materialized. With boredom setting in, I began to spend less time on the balcony and more time in the local bars and restaurants, talking to bartenders and waiters. Most of them were personable and happy to pass the time chatting to a paunchy guy in a cheap Hawaiian shirt. A slick young man working the bar at a Mexican restaurant, once he’d learned I was out of work, put me on to Karl Parsons, a local businessman whose security company was looking for nightshift staff.
“What will you need me to do?” I said as we sat in the bar one evening for an informal interview.
“You know the Sketchley Industrial Estate?” he said, guzzling a Corona in between scoffing mouthfuls of tortilla chips.
“No, but I can find it.”
“A few of the buildings down there have had break-ins recently. Nothing too serious, but they’re beefing up the security and my firm’s just won the contract. We’re talking night patrols, 7pm to 7am. Walking around with a torch looking and listening for anything.”
The idea of 12-hour shifts didn’t appeal massively, but my chunk of cash was dwindling.
“Most of the places have hard, concrete floors, so sturdy footwear’s a must,” he added, checking out my sandals. “You interested?”
It could lead to something, I surmised. And it was better than working at McDonald’s or in a bar – there was no way I’d do anything customer facing.
“Give me your number. I’ll give you a call over the next few days.”
I went home and had another vivid dream, Leon Clarke standing in his cell tossing a flick knife up and down in his hand, giving me a steely glance. Barney was at my side, just out of view, talking in a muffled voice, his breath hot in my ear.
A couple of days passed and there was no call from Parsons. The following afternoon I took a long drive to clear my head. Ditched the air-con in favor of all the windows wound down, drove at speed, hardly slowing for curves and blind bends, the wind rushing through my hair and whipping my face. The sun was setting as I parked in the underground lot beneath the condo building and headed straight onto the beach. I took a long walk to the south, rolling my neck muscles and shoulders, sticking to the damp parts of the sand.
It was fully dark on the walk back. I spent most of it looking out to sea, the churning low waves glinting in the moonlight. Groups of teenagers huddled around small bonfires, passing around their chunky spliffs. As I got nearer to home I saw someone sat alone a little distance from one of these fires. As I veered closer I recognized her and my heartrate accelerated. Her legs were stretched out on the sand, her straight arms placed behind her and propping up her top half. Her relaxed pose looked perfectly in keeping with the scene, like she’d been sat there forever. But of course she hadn’t.
“Did you find any decent sunglasses?” she said without looking at me, engrossed with the waves.
“I’ve been thinking about where I may know you from,” I said. My voice sounded strange. Was this another dream? I assessed she wasn’t with the group hanging around the nearest bonfire and sat next to her.
“We all know each other from somewhere, I once heard,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
She shook her head. “No, not yet.”
I looked out at the darkness. Closed my eyes and listened to the crashing of the waves.
“I’ve never been on the beach this late since moving here,” I said after a while.
“It’s underrated. Too busy during the day.”
“Where were you living before? You mentioned the other day that you haven’t been out here long?”
She tilted her head from side to side, the light from the fire flickering across her soft and even facial features. “Here and there.”
I was stuck for a response. She took another long, gazing look out to sea. “You ever wonder what’s down there, on the seabed? Apart from all the plastic, of course.”
“Way more artefacts than in all the museums over the world. I read about that when I was a kid. There are a thousand shipwrecks off the Florida Keys alone.”
She turned and looked at me properly for perhaps the first time. “What are you doing here?”
“Working things out, I guess. Trying to get back on my feet.”
“What knocked you off your feet?”
I shrugged. “If you won’t even give me your name, I don’t feel the need to get into all that.”
“Very fair. It’s important to be fair.”
“I’ve seen you.”
“Walking around during the day, swimming in the sea, sitting in the bars.”
“Okay, enough. How do we know each other?”
She was up in an instant and walking away, her stride smooth and confident. The sand didn’t even appear to shift at her movements.
“So did you hear from Parsons?” asked the barman.
“Nope. He never called.”
“Shit, sorry man. That’s bad form.”
I made a gesture as if to say ‘easy come, easy go’.
“Hey, I can give him a call. Ask him why he’s not been in touch.”
“Nah, forget about it, kid.”
I drained my beer and walked out into the broiling mid-afternoon sun. It was the hottest day since I’d moved out here. I headed towards the beach, took off my Hawaii shirt and bundled it in with my rolled-up towel. Left that with my flip-flops on the sand and went into the sea. Embraced the instant chill that hit my chest and swim shorts. I swam further out than I ever had before, leaving the distant shouts of playing children and pumping music behind me. Closed my eyes and lay back with my arms and legs outstretched and let the waves take me. When I next opened my eyes I saw I’d drifted some way to the west. There was a light splashing sound behind me. I swung round, circling my arms to stay afloat.
She was lying on an inflatable lounger, head back, facing the sun.
I swam closer to her. “Looks comfortable on that thing.”
“What’s going on?”
She peered down at me, nudged her sunglasses down her nose. “What do you mean?”
“Well, this. And last night.”
“On the beach.”
She looked even more confused.
“Last night, we talked on the beach,” I said, my voice sounding more desperate than intended.
She shook her head, ran a hand through her dark hair that was impeccably dry.
“I stayed in last night,” she said, an offended look on her face. Lowering an arm into the water, she paddled away.
I rubbed the tips of my fingers into my eyes, wondering if I’d imagined her. Looked out again and saw her drifting further away on the blue inflatable lounger. Hadn’t it been pink before?
I swam back and returned to the condo. On the steps up to my apartment on the sixth floor, I passed a man trotting downwards. A man with a familiar looking sharp crew cut. I gave him a second glance.
The man turned back to face me. It wasn’t Sparky. He was about the same height but his eyes were darker, his face more chiseled. He looked pissed at me for stopping him.
“Sorry, you look like an old friend,” I said.
The man tutted loudly and turned back around.
I went inside my apartment, bolted the door. Wished I could call my dad. Wished I could listen to his clear, certain voice.
I spent the next day in the apartment with the blinds closed. Ate a few snacks from the small fridge, didn’t have any beers. Wanted my mind clear. Several times I thought about going downstairs and out for a meal somewhere, but I resisted. Couldn’t trust anything or anyone I saw out there.
Dusk was swiftly drawing in when I heard a knock on the door. I gulped, felt a sharp twisting in my gut. I switched the TV off and crept to the door. Looked through the peephole.
There she was, standing with her arms crossed.
I backed away slowly, settled again on the sofa. She knocked a second time. I ignored it. She continued knocking.
“I’m not going away,” I heard her say, her voice muffled through the door.
I got up and let her in. Feeling heavy and exhausted, I sat on the sofa. She took the armchair opposite.
“Nice place,” she said. “Cozy.”
“I’m done trying to talk to you,” I said. “Unless you’ve got something useful to say.”
She looked down at the laminated oak flooring, lifted her eyes back to me.
“You’re Jake Selby.”
“What of it?”
“It took a while. I had to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“Do you mind if we open that door behind the blinds? It’s really hot in here.”
“I’ve cracked a window open.”
“There’s not enough air in here. It’s stifling.”
I got up and yanked the chord to pull the blinds back. Then opened the sliding door that led to the balcony.
“So, you gonna tell me how we know each other?”
“We don’t. Until the other day we’d never met.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“My name’s Heather Stanton.”
I pulled a stumped expression. She rose slightly to reach into the back pocket of her jeans. Came out with an old newspaper clipping. She unfolded it, taking her time, then held it out in front of me. I hitched myself up to read it. It was from the local paper back home, I recognized the font style. The clipping was from ten years ago. A report on the brutal death of convict Dean Stanton, stabbed fatally in the canteen of the local prison by another inmate. The reporter wrote that an investigation was underway to discover how the assailant got hold of the weapon.
“I was eleven,” Heather said, and pulled the clipping away. She folded it back up, her fingers working slowly. I noticed her hands weren’t shivering at all. She returned the paper to her back pocket.
“Old enough to look into what happened to my dad. To carry out a more thorough investigation than the authorities were prepared to do.”
I leaned back, an odd sound escaping my mouth.
“I’ve spent the last ten years speaking to lots of people,” she said. “I’ve developed a strong impression of what life was like in that prison.”
I nodded, sank my head. The night air coming into the room felt colder than usual. My throat was dry but I knew I had to say something. “I started off . . . it worked out differently to what I thought it would. It was a horrible job.”
“Even worse being a prisoner.”
A dampness came to my eyes, stinging them. “I had ideals of justice, I really did.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said calmly.
“It was just impossible to . . . guys higher than me dictated how things worked there.”
“Don’t worry about other guys. I’ll be getting to everyone in due course.”
“What are you going to do?” I looked at her, tried to assess what kind of weapon she could be carrying.
She stared at me, her face taking on a hardened tone. “You helped them smuggle in the knife. The knife that killed my dad.”
“I didn’t help as such . . . more I didn’t stop them.”
“Just as bad,” she said.
“I’ve been living with it ever since. The guilt. It all got on top of me. It made me miserable, got me divorced.”
“I’m not going to give you any sympathy.”
“I’m just telling you how it is. I mean, you’ve seen me the last few days. What kind of life I have now. I should be enjoying myself in a place like this. But I’m lost, broken.”
She nodded. “I thought about letting you continue to live like this. Torturing yourself with your dreams and my presence, getting you sacked from any possible job or opportunity you hook yourself into.”
Something clicked. “You spoke to Parsons?”
“Told him anything I wanted to about you. My favorite part was a long history of substance abuse.”
She stood up, loomed over me. “I was beginning to think it might be more constructive seeing you slowly wilt into nothing, but then I thought, no, fuck constructive, you need to go.”
I held up a hand as if she was shining a bright lamp into my eyes. “No, you can’t do this.”
“The world needs you to go. If the world can’t have my dad, it can’t have you.”
“Listen, Heather, there’s no need –”
“Get up,” she spat.
I rose from the sofa, my whole body trembling. She pointed out to the balcony.
“Walk out there and jump off.”
“Do it. Now. Then we’ll both have our justice.”
I looked at her and shook my head in despair.
“We’re high enough,” she said. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be right.”
She nudged me towards the open sliding door. Then shoved me more forcibly. I couldn’t get my arms working to resist. “Those guys inside, I had no idea they’d use weapons to kill. Most of the time it was just warnings.”
“You didn’t care. This is what you get for not giving a shit.”
“I did care.”
“Nowhere near enough.”
I was out on the balcony. It was cold, a bite to the wind I’d never experienced around here before.
“Up you go,” she said, bending down and gripping my right leg, raising it. Shaking, I hoisted myself up and leveraged my right leg over the top of the railing.
You don’t have to do this, I tried telling myself. But my brain wasn’t listening. It was just flashing me visions of my empty life, of swimming aimlessly in the ocean, of hiding in the condo with the blinds drawn, of thinking about Barney, Mark, Sparky. And of Heather, prepared to destroy anything I’d ever make of myself. But that would always have been nothing, wouldn’t it?
Shivering hard now, I slid my left leg slowly over the railing, my body teetering on the edge. My fingers clung desperately to the top rail.
“Let go,” Heather ordered.
I let go, felt myself tipping over. Dropping.
The night air hit my face in a huge gush. It felt refreshing. As I gained momentum and neared the floor, I imagined Heather sitting in that armchair waiting to hear the sound of my body hitting the ground.
If you’ve enjoyed The Easy Way Out, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.