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Second Choice

Pat Lambe



“How old are you Kid”, I asked.

“Thirty one.”

“Not really a kid then.”

“Guess not.”

“How’d you like to die?”

“Old age home, senile.”

“Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”

His eyes were tearing up, but I thought it was from the smell of the gasoline.

I lit a match, held it out from my body. “Second choice.”

“Spitting in your face.”

I leaned in to accommodate him, threw the match, watching in fascination as the flames dance up and down his body as I wiped the spittle from my eye.


“It’s done then,” Tolland said. I saw the shield in his wallet as he paid for our drinks.

“It wasn’t pretty.”

“Neither was what he did to those girls.” He handed me the money in a brown envelope. “This your first time frying someone?”

I started counting the money. “First with fire. And last.”

“Affected you, huh?”

I stopped counting, my hands were shaking. I hoped he didn’t notice as I placed the envelope in my suit jacket.


The news was on as I was packing my bags. I’d just double checked my plane ticket back to Florida when the newscaster said that they’d found another burned up girl on the canal path. I poured myself a double Scotch and sat down on the motel bed, turned the volume up on the TV.

I called the airline after the news story, cancelled my flight, unpacked my bags.


I found Tolland seated at the bar, staring into a rocks glass. He drank the same brand of Scotch as me.

“I thought you’d be back in Florida by now,” he said. It’d taken him a little while to recognize me. The wet rings on the wood in front of him explained why.

“The jobs not done, you must have seen the news.”

He put his elbows on the bar, placed his head between his hands. “Probably a copycat. It happens all the time.”

I ordered a round for the both of us. “It wasn’t a copycat.”

“You can keep the money. You did what we paid you to do.”

“It’s not about the money.”

He took a long pull from the fresh Scotch. “You don’t have to run off to a shrink. Believe me when I tell you the guy you fried was a real lowlife. He liked to rape little girls.”

“But he didn’t set them on fire.”

He looked at me. He had a hard time focusing at first. “Who’d have thought, morals coming from you. Vincent ‘Dial Tone’ Bilancia. I know how you got your nick-name you know.”

I looked around, but we were pretty much alone at the bar, so I didn’t stop him.

“You made your bones in the late eighties, before cell phones got big, right. You did what, two or three big time hits. Had the marks call Mazzucco’s before you did the deed. Told the old man to call back in a few minutes. All he’d get was a dial tone signal.”

“You got the wrong guy, Tolland.” I pushed the chair away, left my untouched Scotch next to a twenty as I walked toward the bar’s front door.

“No I didn’t Bilancia. I got the right guy. Just not the one we were looking for.”


I found Reilly right where I expected, another bar, seedier than the one the cops hung out at. “Hear about the guy setting little girls on fire?” I asked.

“I heard they had to cool a suspect down with a fire extinguisher before they could check the dental records.”

“I need you to help me find the guy doing the deed.”

“I don’t do work for the mob anymore, didn’t anybody tell you?”

I ordered two scotches, unsure if Reilly drank it, but figuring he could use a bracer in case I had to get persuasive. I did, in the ally behind the bar. Knowing he was indirectly working for the police probably eased the pain caused by loose teeth.


Tolland stopped by the hotel room. I made a mental note to check into another place first thing in the morning. I hadn’t told him where I was staying.

“Heard you got that fuck up private investigator looking for the guy with the matches,” he said, sitting at the chair in front of the desk, uninvited.

“I’m not too good with investigating, but I’d probably be head of the detective bureau if I was wearing a badge in your department.”

“You’re wasting your money on him. What’s he gonna find that we can’t?”

“The killer.”

“We’ll get him alright. Don’t worry about that.”

“You gonna pour the gasoline, Tolland? I can’t recommend the experience.”

“I was against bringing you greaseballs in on this thing.”

“This guy deserves to be taken out. And I’m gonna do it. But no one should go out the way that poor guy I lit up.”

“He’s going up like a goddamned roman candle if anyone on the force gets a hold of him. One of the little girls was a retired lieutenant’s granddaughter.”

“You should probably just let it ride, Tolland. Let justice take its course.”

“You’re making me nervous, with all this talk about justice and crap; and you shouldn’t make a guy who you has shit on get in that state of mind. Especially when he’s a cop.”

I didn’t even bother checking out; I just packed my bags and went to another hotel. Tolland must have figured out the fake name I was using. The added expense of two hotel rooms was worth the cost of Tolland thinking he knew where I was.


I had a message on my cell phone from Reilly, I must have been out of range.

“Anything on the pyro?” I asked when he answered.

“I didn’t dig anything up myself, but I’ve got a police scanner in my office. Tolland’s getting pretty obtuse on the radio, but I think I figured through his verbal hieroglyphics he’s bringing the guy down to the canal where they found the last girl.”


I don’t know what kind of fire accelerator Tolland used on the guy, but whatever it was; it didn’t go out after he jumped into the canal. It kept incinerating him as he struggled in the water, trying to figure out if he was drowning or burning alive.

I’d gotten there in time to catch the last part of the show, but too late to do anything about it. I thought about pulling out my gun and putting the guy out of his misery. I saw a show on the Discovery channel where a bullet won’t penetrate into water more than a foot or so, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t give it a try. The look in Tolland’s eyes did it.


Against my better judgment, I agreed to have a drink with Tolland in a bar at Newark Airport. He’d left a message at the hotel he thought I was staying at. I chose the airport because it would be crowded and he couldn’t get a gun in while I waited for my flight to Florida.

They didn’t carry our brand so I ordered a couple of Johnny Walker Blacks on the rocks.

“You were wrong, Bilancia. I got a good eight solid hours of sleep after the fireworks display.”

He said something else but I wasn’t listening to him. Something caught my attention from the TV behind the bar. I asked the bartender to turn the sound up. They’d found another body of a burned girl, in a park a couple of miles from the canal.

“I don’t ever want to talk to you again, Tolland,” I said. This time I caught my flight.



The End


Copyright(c) 2006 by Pat Lambe

Pat Lambe has had short stories in various web sites and magazines, as well as short stories in the Plots with Guns anthology and the upcoming Dublin Noir anthology due out in March from Akashik Books. His short story 'Union Card' was listed as a distinguished mystery story in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2005. He's currently working on a novel and hopes to make enough money to invest in a compound in Montana and a harem or two.


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