Dead Blow Hammer: First Chapters

Dead Blow Hammer by Steve George

Chapter 1

I was ready when Angie Stinson walked out her front door.

Four minutes earlier, a dazzling white SUV had stopped at the end of her driveway. It was out of place. I’d never seen it in our neighborhood before, and I had absolutely never seen it stop at the Stinson’s house. I work at home—work being a loose term for what I do, trading grain commodities—at a narrow desk I built into a massive bay window I constructed for my office. It faces tree-lined Barbosa Street and, across the street, the red-brick two-story house of Angie and Bo Stinson.

The SUV’s tinted windows concealed the driver. I grabbed my Leica monocular to see if it could help me see inside the vehicle. I call this “keeping an eye on the neighborhood.” Angie calls it “myrting,” which she named after Myrt, a snoop and gossip who used to live next to me and knew everything her neighbors were up to. When Myrt died last year, I took over her job of watching the neighborhood.

A 30-ish man in a gray suit—a man in a suit being another oddity for the neighborhood in the middle of a Monday morning—emerged from the SUV and strode to the Stinson’s door. I zeroed in on the back of his head—not a jet-black hair out of place—but he never turned, not even when he punched the doorbell. Not when he rapped on the door. Not when Angie opened it a crack or when he leaned his shoulder into it to force his way into the house.

I was ready when Angie appeared because, two minutes earlier, while the suit was tapping her door, she had pressed the alarm button next to her kitchen sink. Her alarm makes my cell phone ring because that’s the way I installed it. Bo thinks the call goes directly to the police station. Angie knows it summons me. For the past month it’s been her signal that the coast is clear. I grab my tool box and stroll over to her house, ring her doorbell, wipe my shoes on the doormat, and smile and nod in case anyone is watching. And someone is always watching, I’ve learned.

Angie Stinson has golden eyes the color of her hair, a soft hourglass figure, and a playful sense of humor. I’ve known the Stinsons since I moved into the neighborhood five years ago. I play tennis with Bo and even though, at 35, I’m five years older than he is, we match up pretty well. He’s the Federer to my Nadal. He’s a serve-and-smash guy and I play deep and return every ball I can reach. He plays offense. I prefer defense. It evens out.

I call Bo, who’s an accountant, when I need money invested or my taxes done and he calls me when he needs something fixed in his house. Angie was just another neighbor, easily the best looking of the bunch, until she called a month ago to ask if I knew how to install a security system.

I do.

It took the better part of two days. I was finishing up, attaching all the wires from the window and door sensors to the sounder, when I realized she was leaning against the railing of their grand staircase, watching me. She had on a dark lavender skirt and a light lavender blouse and when she twirled her long blonde hair into a ball and clamped it at the back of her head, it was the sexiest thing I’d seen since she watered her rose bushes in a bikini.

“I forgot to ask if this has a panic button,” she said.

“Only if you open a window or door when the alarm is on. Then it makes a god-awful racket. Why? Did you want a panic button?”

“I thought that was the whole point.”

“Not really. You asked for an alarm system,” I said. “That helps keep people out. If you’re worried about people once they get in, I can put panic buttons wherever you want them.”

She thought about that for a moment. “The kitchen would be good,” she said. “Our bedroom. The garage. And the great room, I suppose. Is that a lot of work?”

“It’s a different system. I can rig it to set off this sounder but it will also ring the local police.”

“That sounds like a lot of work. We can get somebody to do that, Jim. You’ve done enough.”

Angie is the only person in our neighborhood who uses my given name. Everybody else calls me Handy, in part because I’ve earned a reputation by helping everybody with their do-it-yourself projects, and in part because my last name is Mann. Jim Mann. Handy Mann. They never seem to tire of their cleverness.

But not Angie.

“Do you know why I call you Jim?” she asked, as if reading my mind.

“Well, it is my name.”

“Not around here. I call you Jim because of that Red Green thing you like to quote.”

On cue, I quoted the phrase Red uses to close his TV show: “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” I smiled and looked up from the wires in my hands. Angie was staring at me. She wasn’t smiling.

“You…um…I…um. Huh.” I fumbled with the wires. I thought about my friendship with Bo and figured I must have misunderstood.

“Well, this is awkward. Are you saying you think I’m handsome?” I said.

She smiled.

“Well, thanks. That’s very flattering coming from a beautiful woman.”

She held out her hand. “Let me show you where I want the button in my bedroom,” she said.

I thought about Bo for the millisecond it took the testosterone surge to reach my brain, and then I unlatched my tool belt and set it on the floor and took her hand. It was warm and soft and very inviting. I knew the moment I took her hand that it was wrong, not because I was betraying Bo, which was definitely wrong but, sadly, didn’t seem to factor into my decision, but because I was tampering with neighborhood karma.

A neighborhood has a personality. Most are cold and impersonal, especially in the city, and especially over a Minnesota winter. For half the year, the only time you see your neighbors is after a snowfall when people bundle up to shovel or blow snow, and then you don’t stand around and chat. You’ve got work to do and a warm house to get back to. It’s “Hi” and “Winter sucks” and that’s about all you can hear before the roar of the snow blowers takes over.

But that’s not my neighborhood. Once a month most of us gather at someone’s house for snacks and chatter. Not everyone attends but enough do to keep it going. It’s a small-town social event in the big city, neighbors catching up, sharing stories, offering support. It’s how I became Handy Mann, listening to the nagging household problems people had and offering to help. And they accepted my offers, which is pretty amazing considering that these are self-sufficient Minnesotans who typically go out of their way not to impose.

I got to know Bo and Angie at our monthly neighborhood gatherings, which led to regular tennis matches and DIY projects and Bo helping with my finances, but we had a typical guy relationship: We talked about sports and the weather and little else. I felt like an ass following Angie to her bedroom, right up to the moment she slipped out of that lavender skirt, and then I felt like a young stud again. There are few things better than feeling like a young stud when you are 35.

Angie is voluptuous, not Minnesota State Fair round, where there can be more meat on the hoof outside the livestock barns than inside them, but soft and curvy. Rubinesque. She took off her clothes and stretched out on the bed, hands behind her head, legs together and bent. All of my fantasies from the ages of 12 to that moment coalesced. I did not move for a few seconds as I burned the image into my brain.

She watched me hurry out of my clothes. I was relieved to be in decent shape. Between the do-it-yourself projects I’m always working on and the weightlifting I do and the relatively healthy food I eat, I look and feel strong. I suddenly wished I had shaved, something I forget to do regularly because I don’t have to commute to a cubicle for work. The stubble on my face was almost as long as the stubble on my head, which I keep short because it’s easy to take care of and because it makes my receding hairline less obvious.

Angie didn’t seem to mind my whiskers.

I used the excuse of installing panic buttons to visit Angie two or three times a week, even though I finished the job in a few hours. I programmed my cell to play Elton John’s “You Can Make History (Young Again)” when she pressed the button. She never told me why she wanted the panic buttons or me and I never asked.

Now I wish I had.

When the suit disappeared through her front door I raced from my office through the kitchen to the attached garage. Half of the garage holds a Ford pickup and the other half is my shop. The pickup is cleaner than my kitchen and my shop is lined with almost every tool known to man, each spotless in its assigned space. I keep my truck clean because I don’t want my tools to get dirty.

I debated calling the police but I didn’t know if Angie was actually in trouble. Probably, I thought, but I wanted to make sure so I strapped on my tool belt, grabbed my tool box, both of which I keep ready to go, and stabbed the garage door opener. I figured the handyman look would get me close enough to evaluate the situation.

I walked out of the garage at the same time the suit exited the Stinsons. Angie marched in front of him. She saw me coming and stopped. The suit pushed her out of the way and reached into his jacket.

As usual, I had grabbed the wrong tools for the job.

Chapter 2

I dropped the box and ran for my garage. I almost made it. A shot knocked me forward, my hands and knees scraping along the cement driveway. I tried to figure out where I had been hit as I crawled into the garage. I ducked behind the wall and pressed the button to close the garage door, glancing out as the door descended to see the suit standing next to the SUV, gun in hand, scanning the area. He took two steps toward me and then he stopped, shaking his head in frustration. He tucked the gun back under his coat, grabbing Angie’s arm and depositing her in the SUV. He climbed behind the wheel and took off.

I had never been shot at, much less shot, but I figured I should be in pain. The only parts of me that hurt were my hands and knees from the driveway. I opened the garage door and ran down the driveway to see which way the SUV went, realizing as I did it that it didn’t matter. My legs felt weak and I sat on the curb, the hammer in my belt poking my side. I slid it out of its leather holster. The good news was that I didn’t see any blood. The bad news was that the suit had wrecked my favorite hammer.

The bullet had struck the hammer’s head, peeling off an edge, making the hammer good for prying up nails and little else. That really pissed me off. Estwing hammers are not cheap, and this was a Hammertooth smooth-face 22-ounce model with the shock-reduction grip. When I used it, it felt like an extension of my hand. In fact, I had been using it the night before, building a new stud wall to separate my bedroom from my bigger, cooler master bathroom. It was almost as bad as losing the family pet.

I make it a point to have a least one home improvement project going at all times for the same reason that a lawyer paints or a doctor writes: It taps into a different part of the brain. I relax. Time becomes irrelevant. Only it’s better than painting or writing because I get to destroy things.

This year I decided to gut my bedroom and install skylights and a true master bathroom. I moved my bed and dressers to another bedroom on the second floor and stripped the master down to the stud walls. Demolition is the first fun factor in the DIY equation.

Next, I measured and noodled and scribbled a detailed plan. I had a mental image of what I wanted to do before I started, but there’s nothing like a completely empty space to generate the energy to finish. I paged through two of the notebooks I keep, the ones labeled “Bedrooms” and “Bathrooms,” for ideas about fixtures and colors that I’ve gleaned from surfing the Internet and spending countless hours wandering through home improvement stores and visiting model houses and watching HGTV and the DIY Network.

Planning is the second fun factor in the equation. The third factor is usually as scary as it is fun: the actual renovation. It’s scary because my knowledge of how to do these things is a mile wide and an inch deep. I kind of know what I’m doing. To the untrained eye, the new bedroom will look great. To Mike Holmes, my HGTV guru, my work would draw more sneers than smiles.

My bedroom was bare. My plans were solid. The renovation has just begun and I had lost my beloved hammer.

I stood and wiped the dirt off my shirt and slid my cell from my pocket. If that panic button had been connected to the police station they would have arrived by now, too late to help Angie but close enough to maybe chase down the suit. I had no time for regrets. I dialed “9-1-…” and stopped. Maybe Bo knew what was going on. I called him.

“Bo Stinson,” he said, almost before the phone rang.

“Hey, Bo. It’s Handy. Something’s happened to Angie.”

“What does that mean?”

“Some guy in a white SUV just pulled up, pushed his way into your house, and took her.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And then he tried to shoot me. Why would somebody do that?”

“What? She’s been kidnapped?”

“That’s what it looks like. And I was almost killed, by the way.” I realized that calling Bo was not going to help.

“Did you call the police?” he asked.

“I called you first.”

“Maybe she pushed the panic button.”

“I don’t see any cops yet.”

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

I backed into the garage, keeping an eye on the road in case the suit returned, and dropped my tool belt on the workbench. I retrieved my tool box from the driveway and set it by my workbench, grabbing a shop rag to wipe off my scraped hands.

My phone rang and I figured a bunch of questions had finally elbowed their way into Bo’s head.

“Shit, you’re alive. Don’t call the cops,” a voice much deeper than Bo’s said.

“What?”

“Just let it go, dickhead,” he said. “How did I fucking miss you? Are you even hurt? Mrs. Stinson is fine, by the way, but you know she’s fine, don’t you, Jim, you home wrecker?”

“I-”

“No cops. I’m calling her husband next. He ain’t calling the cops either. Did I even hit you? Un-fucking-believable. Only consolation is that hubby is probably going to finish the job for me soon as I tell him you been porkin’ his wife.”

“Why did you take Angie?”

“You and Angie are done. The question you should be asking is, ‘Do I want to keep breathing?’ Because if you do, you’ll keep your mouth shut.”

“What’s the matter with you? You can’t just grab people and expect everything to be normal. Bring her back and I won’t call the cops.”

As soon as I stopped talking I realized that he had hung up on me. I checked the phone for the last call but the number was blocked. Squealing tires told me Bo had made record time. I hurried to the end of the driveway as he popped out of his car.

“What’s going on?” he yelled.

Before I could answer his phone rang. I knew it was the suit. Bo fished it out of his trouser pocket but before he could hit a button I grabbed the phone from his hand.

“What’re you doing? Give that to me!”

He lunged for the phone but I stiff-armed him away.

“What’s the matter with you?” he screamed. “That could be Angie!”

He charged but I stuck my arm out and stopped him. Bo’s in good shape but he’s an average guy—a little under six feet tall, maybe 190 pounds—and I’m six-foot-five, 230 pounds, and I don’t sit at a desk all day. Bo does. I sit at mine for a half-hour in the morning and, when I’m feeling guilty or the commodity markets are bouncing around, another half-hour at night. Otherwise, I’m working on my projects or working out. I have no life, which is probably why Angie got me in the sack just by holding out her hand.

I looked at the phone’s screen and it said, “Private Number.” The suit doing what he said he was going to do. While I was reading the phone Bo decided to hit me. I saw the punch at the last moment and turned my head and he smashed my ear. My knees buckled and I dropped the phone. Before he could reach it I caught my balance and stomped it with my heel.

He pressed his hands to the sides of his face, which was something I thought people only did in movies. “Are you crazy?” he shouted.

“That was the guy who took Angie,” I said.

“How do you know that?”

“Because he called me right before you got here.”

“So what? He wanted to talk to me! To her husband! Why’d you take my phone?”

“He told me not to go to the cops or he’d kill me.”

“WHY DID YOU TAKE MY PHONE?”

“He made this my problem, Bo. He shot at me when I tried to stop him and then he threatened me on the phone. I didn’t want you to say or do anything that could get me killed.”

“Right now I want to kill you. How am I going to find out what he wants?”

“He’ll call me. He knows my number. He knows I’m involved. We’ll work together to get Angie back.”

Bo hesitated. I thought my explanation sounded as thin as Sarah Palin’s résumé but it seemed to be holding up, so I stayed on the offensive.

“Who would do this, Bo?”

He glared at me while he picked up the pieces of his phone. “How would I know? It’s gotta be a random thing.”

“The guy pulled up to your house, knocked on your door, and forced his way in when Angie answered. Doesn’t sound random.”

The adrenaline must have waned because Bo suddenly looked very tired. I tugged on his arm and we sat down on the curb facing his house.

“Ah, shit,” he said. He folded his arms across his knees and rested his forehead on his arms. “That woman will be the death of me. You know what I mean?”

His head popped up and turned and he stared at me. I didn’t know how to respond to I kept my mouth shut. If he knew about Angie and me, our friendship was over. Of course, if our friendship was solid, I wouldn’t have been sleeping with his wife.

Chapter 3

“She’s always spending money,” he said, staring at his house. “She’s got more clothes than one woman could wear in a lifetime. We’ve gotta have the newest furniture, the latest appliances, the best technology. She likes to travel, stay in the fanciest places. She’s never happy with what she has. I’m surprised she’s still happy with me.”

I glanced over to see if he was calling me out but he remained focused on the house. The silence unnerved me.

“Doesn’t she make enough selling real estate to at least offset it?”

He smirked and rolled his eyes.

“If she worked as hard at making money as she does at spending it, we’d be on easy street. And now this.” He shook his head.

“What? Do you think she owes the guy money?” I asked.

“Not that I know of.”

He stood suddenly, took a step toward his house, changed his mind, and started pacing along the street. At one point, facing west, he stopped and sighed and shook his head, as if wrestling with a decision. He walked back and slumped beside me on the curb.

“Maybe if I describe the guy you’ll recognize him.” Bo glared at his house. “He was maybe six-foot tall. Thick but not fat. Black hair. Wore a suit. Sound like anyone you know?”

“Sounds like a lot of people I know. This is a waste of time. Why hasn’t that guy called you back?

“No idea, but he will.”

We didn’t talk for a minute, waiting for my phone to ring.

“I can’t believe you smashed my phone,” Bo said. “I could have made some calls, asked around, seen what I could find out.”

“But you don’t know the guy? Where would you start?”

“I don’t know. Friends. Coworkers.”

“How about Lou? Maybe she knows something.”

Lou Anderson and her husband, Mack, live next door to the Stinsons. Lou and Angie are friends.

“Yeah, I’d give her a call—if I had a phone!” He studied the Anderson house as if willing Lou or Mack to walk out. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he said, more sadly than surprised. I thought about offering to give him my phone to call Lou but I didn’t want my phone in his hand if the suit called.

“So you think it really was a kidnapping?” I asked.

“What else would it be? It sounds like the guy led Angie out of the house and he shot at you. That doesn’t usually happen if people are going out for coffee.”

He checked his watch.

“What time did you call me?”

“Ten? What time is it now?”

“Almost 10:30. Shit.”

Bo stared at his house and shook his head while he sighed. He opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, then said softly, “Maybe the guy left a note.”

“You want me to check?”

He glanced at his watch and sighed again. He took a deep breath. “Yeah.” His eyes never left his house.

I crossed Barbosa and was about to step onto his driveway when I smelled something. I sniffed the air and turned to Bo.

“You smell that?”

“What?”

“Smells like ammonia.”

“I don’t smell anything,” he said.

“Rotten eggs,” I thought to myself. Maybe it was the fact that my ear was still ringing from Bo’s roundhouse punch or my nerves were still jangled from being shot at but it took me an extra second to make the connection: Utilities add a rotten-egg odor to natural gas to make it detectable.

I pivoted to shout at Bo when the house exploded, slapping me to the pavement. This time I remembered to roll so I skinned my shoulder instead of my hands. Chunks of the house fell past and around me. I scrambled to my feet.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” I yelled, but Bo didn’t hear me: He was flat on his back wearing a brick on his face. And he wasn’t moving.

 

Find out what happens to Handy, Bo, Angie, and “the suit.” Order Dead Blow Hammer on Amazon today!

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