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INTERNATIONAL THRILLER WRITERS AWARD FINALIST • For readers of Harlan Coben and Robert Crais, Robert McClure’s rollicking crime novel of family and felony takes readers on a relentless thrill ride through the L.A. underworld. Fresh off a nine-year stint in San Quentin, career hitman Babe Crucci plans to finally go straight and enjoy all life has to offer—after he pulls one or two more jobs to shore up his retirement fund. More than anything, Babe is dead set on making up for lost time with his estranged son, Leo, who just so happens to be a rising star in the LAPD.
The road to reconciliation starts with tickets to a Dodgers game. But first, Leo needs a little help settling a beef over some gambling debts owed to a local mobster. This kind of thing is child’s play for Babe–until a sudden twist in the negotiations leads to a string of corpses and a titanic power shift in gangland politics. With the sins of his father piling up and dragging him down, Leo throws himself into the investigation of a young prostitute’s murder, a case that makes him some unlikely friends—and some brutally unpredictable enemies.
Caught up in a clash of crime lords, weaving past thugs with flamethrowers who expend lives like pocket change, Babe and Leo have one last chance to face the ghosts of their past—if they want to live long enough to see their future.
Praise for Deadly Lullaby “Robert McClure is the real deal, an author who produces pulp fiction the way Chandler and Hammett did—with depth and heart.”—Otto Penzler, editor, The Best American Mystery Stories
“Too compelling to put down.”—Roger Hobbs, bestselling author of Ghostman
“Deadly Lullaby is, at heart, a father-son story, but one in which the father is a ruthless gangster and the son a cynical cop. I loved both of these flawed characters. Robert McClure has written a rousing debut, elevated by pitch-perfect dialogue and a whiplash pace.”—Peter Swanson, author of The Kind Worth Killing
“The writing is excellent, and the family relationship offers an interesting angle.”—I Heart Reading
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Deadly Lullaby
John Leonardo “Babe” Crucci
I am a week out of San Quentin when my son pulls to the curb in his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, an unmarked one that reeks of weed. The odor tickles my nose when I lean into the passenger window and say, “Hey, want to come inside, maybe have a drink?”
“At ten in the morning?” he says, and the way my son looks at me makes him a kid again in my mind: He is ignoring my question about a book he thinks I’d never understand, or he is behind the glass wall of a prison visitation cubicle gawking like I am a snake on display at the zoo.
What I sorely want to say to him is, What, you would rather us cruise around and get stoned in your pig rig? but I know that would ignite the tension hanging in the air with the pot fumes. So instead I say, “After paying my eight-year debt to society, I am entitled to twenty-four happy hours per day. C’mon, let’s get reacquainted before we get going.”
His bloodshot eyes burn holes through the windshield.
No, it would take a logging chain and two-ton truck to drag him inside my house. I realize at this moment that my son has a bad feeling about the shitty little bungalow he grew up in, this nostalgic juju that has his head spinning with thoughts of where we started and where we are now, of where we are going to end up.
I toss my car keys in his lap and I am thinking, Son, please, do not make our journey more complicated than it is. He exits his car and flops behind the wheel of my new Caddy. I tell him to skip the expressway and take the scenic route through the heart of Boyle Heights, Cesar Chavez Avenue, a street called Brooklyn Avenue when I grew up there. I say I want to enjoy the sights—the crazy murals painted on buildings, the street vendors, the new businesses that have sprung up here and there, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
He does what I say but does not like it.
I do not care what he likes.
Even after enjoying a week of it at full throttle, freedom still makes me so giddy that nothing much bothers me, not even a mute son I have not seen in nine years. The things I notice out the window are a punk boutique, a tattoo joint, and two chink babes I know are streetwalkers, and I savor the fact that I can patronize any of these conveniences at my whim, permission needed from no one.
My son ignores my comments to that effect, seems somehow put off by them, so in a further effort to break the ice I say, “Well, uh, you look great, kid, really great.”
This is a true statement.
He says nothing, though, and here I sit, vainly expecting a return compliment.
For laughs, I slap his thigh, and he jerks as if I had spanked his dick.
My son, you see, never adjusted to the touch of other human beings. Even fought his mother when she fed him, and would let her hold him just long enough to suck his bottle dry. I picture her in the rocking chair by his crib with her arms crossed, returning my son’s stare and saying, “It’s unnatural for him to cry every time I hold him. It’s too f***ing strange to contemplate.”
“Well, look at that,” I say to him, pointing to my left, “La Parrilla is still open after all these years. Say, how ’bout we pull in and order up some burritos for a late breakfast? You still like steak burritos for breakfast, right?”
He looks at his watch, maintaining his usual hard exterior, but the nerve endings popping and crackling just underneath his skin. “We don’t have time. Macky’ll get pissed if we’re late.”
I smile. “I will handle Macky. How many times do I have to tell you I will handle him, huh? How many?” I have repeated this fact to him often over the last two days, probably more often than I have ever said any one thing to him.
He looks relieved in a hesitant way; like the only time I ever took him to the doctor, the time I told him the penicillin shot would hurt just a second, then make him feel brand new.
“I really want to get this over with,” he says. “Let’s eat after we meet with Macky.”
For an instant I forget all about that lump of shit, Macky, am jubilant to the point of almost wetting my shorts. It is shameful, I know, to get so excited just because my son agreed to eat a simple meal with me. It is nonetheless a heartfelt reaction that, in fact, makes my heart race, and I actually feel it pound against the tickets tucked in my breast pocket. I almost ask if he wants to catch the Dodgers game this afternoon, then decide to save the invitation for breakfast.
My smile gets bigger. After all these years, sometimes I actually know when not to push my f***ing luck.
Not that my so-called Life of Crime has been an unfortunate one, at least when viewed in strict economic terms. I have hijacked semitrailers chock-full of electronics and cigarettes, burgled mansions and jewelry stores, smuggled drugs . . . and took only two falls in the process. The falls were hard ones, I admit, that consumed almost a third of my fifty-two years. To me, though, living The Life has always been about taking big risks to achieve big rewards. I got caught two times. So what? I say think positive, consider I got a free pass on the thousand other times I did not get caught. Seventeen years, two months, and thirteen days served for 1002 criminal acts, all profitable. Not bad, especially when you further consider prison was not totally unbearable for a connected guy like me, and though never what most people would call rich, I always had enough money tucked away to provide for the wife and kid in absentia.
Some say that was my big mistake, throwing away so many hard-earned shekels on people who turned out to be ingrates—a sex-oholic wife and self-oholic son, two slightly different animals of the same species. They are right about the wife, to my eternal embarrassment, but women who forget their marriage vows are easily disposed of (to say nothing—repeat, nothing—of the so-called friend who induces her to break said vows while you are incarcerated). Sons are different. Whatever indignity he suffers at the hand of his son, a father cannot beat him to within an inch of death, finish him off with a bullet to the head, then reduce his body to sludge in a barrel of nitric acid. A son is the product of his father’s labors—or the lack thereof—and for that reason a father’s love for his son depends on nothing except that his son is his son.
Believe me when I say these things. These are things I know above all else.
We leave Boyle Heights when we merge onto 60 East toward Pomona; we are on 605 a few minutes, then take I-10 toward San Bernardino. We are at the West Covina ramp before you know it.
We drive side roads for about fifteen minutes, then pull in to the parking lot.
My son says, “It’s a setup. I can feel it.”
He parks at the end of a row of luxury cars. I say, “Nah, this old warehouse has just got you spooked, that’s all.” I look it over and make some professional observations: “We are, what, over four miles outside the nearest town? Christ, you could fight a war out here and never upset a civilian ear. It is a perfect place for a hit.”
This is not what he wants to hear.
I recognize this and say right away, “But Macky would’ve already whacked you if that’s what he wanted to do. Relax.”
He asks me a question that comes from nowhere, as if it is something that has occupied his mind all along: “Why are you doing this for me? Why?”
My son and I are communicating here, making progress, and a small lump rises in my throat. I think a few beats and almost come clean with him, almost reveal all there is to know about the meeting with Macky. I change my mind when I realize I cannot predict his reaction, that he might spoil the dynamics of it all.
“Why else?” I say, and change the subject. “A condition of the sit-down is that we be unarmed. Hand over your weapons.”
He unholsters his department-issued Sig Sauer from under his jean jacket, hands it over with no complaints—something of a surprise to me.
I tuck the pistol under the seat, then look him in the eye. “Your throw-down, too. I know you have one.”
He pouts and I hold out my hand and wiggle my fingers. “C’mon, c’mon . . .”
He sighs and reaches for his right ankle, unsnaps the peashooter he has strapped there and palms it to me while looking the other way.
“You got a knife on you, can of mace, stun gun, any other weapon at all?”
“All I have now is you,” he says to the window, and turns to give me that hesitant look of semiconfidence again. We no sooner set foot on the pavement when a guy walks onto the loading dock wearing a beat-up black suit, white shirt, and black tie. I recognize him as Jack Barzi, a mass of muscle with hippy-long, graying hair; everybody called him “Chief” in the old days because he resembled that big Injun in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He has not changed much.
I stroll up to Chief like I am here to buy the place. He is standing a good four feet above me on the dock and looks twenty feet tall. I remove my Ray-Ban Aviators. “Chief? You work for Macky now?”
He nods and twists his mouth around to make it resemble a smile. “Long time, Babe. You ain’t changed a bit.” I give him a smile that is genuine. Finally someone recognizes Babe Crucci for the grade-A physical specimen he is, living proof of the adage that age is only a number. My youthful appearance is mostly genetic; the rest of it is attributable to the weights I humped religiously in prison and the food in there I could barely eat enough of to stay alive.
I say to Chief, “Except for the hair, you’re hanging in there pretty good yourself.” I take out my wallet, dig inside it. “Look, here’s my hairdresser’s card. Call her and she’ll get rid of that gray for you. My treat.”
“You get your hair dyed?” he says, then takes the card and says, “I be damned,” while squinting to examine my hair. He fingers the locks on his shoulder, inspecting them like they are someone else’s, and laughs that grunty laugh of his. “Macky says you only been outta the Q a week?”
“Macky speaks truth.”
He digs in his wallet and hands me a card. “This’ll connect you to the best call-girl service in LA. First pop’s on me. Just tell ’em I sent ya.”
“Good deal,” I say, though I am certain I have already found the best call girl in LA. Best in the world, even. Chief looks satisfied before he looks at my son, then his lips snap back to their natural snarl. After a few seconds of this, he squats, motions me over with a tug of his head. In a low voice, he says, “Babe, listen, between you and me. I don’t know everything going on here, but I’ve heard bits and pieces that worry me. Macky pays me—all right?—and I gotta do my job—okay?—so, you know, be careful. Don’t do nothin’ loopy.”
“Hey,” I say, “you know I do not do loopy things.”
“Maybe,” he says with the slightest twinkle in his eye, “but you never been convicted of bein’ careful neither.”
Chief frisks us, then leads us inside. Through an area big enough to store the cargo off an ocean liner, which now contains nothing but hundreds of wooden pallets stacked against support beams and concrete walls. Into a maze consisting of two stairwells and three hallways, all of it dark and dusty and in need of pest extermination and paint, then into an elevator. We exit the elevator and are walloped with blasts of cleanliness and fluorescent light, walk down a blue-carpeted hallway.
We stop before a metal door and Chief raises an eyebrow at me, no doubt a reminder of the friendly advice he rendered outside. “See ya later,” he says. “I hav’ta go back downstairs.”
“Hold down the fort,” I say, and give him a wink that I can tell makes him uncomfortable.
I open the door.
Three goons are in the reception area, Macky’s A-Team. They are polluting the atmosphere with wiseguy talk until they see me, then silence grows so thick in the air you can hear the humidity rise.
They sneer and shrug and straighten their jackets and ties.
Before I can say Where’s Macky? the fat hump appears at his office door.
“Babe Crucci!” he says with outstretched arms, “Paisan!”
Paisan, shit. Macky is no more Italian than Sammy Davis Jr. was. He is a f***ing mick with a Godfather complex, a punk paddy with Pacino pretensions. He has the kind of Irish face Mama always warned you about—dirty-red hair, rheumy eyes, a bloated face, and a splotchy complexion that reminds me of a diseased lung.
I do not usually allow men to hug me—call me homophobic, go ahead; it is still behavior that sends confusing signals on the old cellblock—but circumstances dictate I let Macky do so today.
The hug is over with and Macky turns to my son. “So, you’re Leo.”
“Wow,” he says, “you figured that out all by yourself?” and starts to light a smoke.
At which point Macky slaps him in the mouth so hard the cigarette ricochets off the wall a good twenty feet away. My son lunges and I step between the two of them like a bolt of lightning just shot up my ass, grabbing his hands inches from Macky’s throat. Pushing him back and motioning with my head at the bodyguards, who have all pulled their weapons by now, I pull my boy close to whisper in his ear. “Look around you. You want to commit suicide, do it outside my presence. Understand?”
My son looks as pissed off as a gang-raped Viking. His eyes are on fire and his lips are pressed together so hard they have turned white; he has pulled himself together enough to check out the bodyguards, though, and my belief is he now realizes the score.
Macky steps back, first smiling at his bodyguards, then turning to me. “Sorry you had to see that, Babe.”
I step away from Leo and hold out both hands in a conciliatory manner. “You had the right,” I say, and part of me is in total agreement, that part of me that wishes I had been around more to properly discipline my son.
The rest of me wants to rip out Macky’s heart and gnaw a chunk from it before his horror-stricken eyes. It will be that kind of meeting.
Robert McClure read pulp fiction as a kid when he should have been studying, but ultimately cracked down enough to obtain a bachelor’s in criminology from Murray State University and a law degree from the University of Louisville. He is now an attorney and crime fiction writer who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. His story “My Son” appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, and he has had other works published in MudRock: Stories & Tales, Hardboiled, Thug Lit, and Plots with Guns.