Simon Wood’s Short Story MY FATHER’S SECRET

This ran in our Bouchercon Special Edition last year and has been nominated for an Anthony Award

MY FATHER’S SECRET

By Simon Wood

My old man didn’t really keep secrets. He just never said anything. Mom was always saying, “Don’t ask your father questions. He won’t appreciate it.” And he wasn’t the kind of man you coerced into revealing something he didn’t want to reveal. His construction background made him mountainous. He had the kind of handshake that came from cutting rebar with hand shears and a backhand to match.
People were always saying I was like him. True, I had his height and build. They also said we sounded alike, although I never heard the likeness. But, I did lack one attribute that no one denied–his coldness. Thank God.
I got to study my pop a lot, seeing as we worked together in his hardware store with my two younger brothers. I watched him deal with customers with the same lack of affection that he reserved for his family. It was amazing how he exuded
caution. Customers knew better than to haggle over returns like they would with me, Tommy or Art.
And I came to realize that I only knew my father through observation. I was twenty-two and knew nothing about him. I didn’t know if he’d played high school football, gone to college, or how he’d even met my mom. I wondered how much she
really knew about her husband. None of us were allowed into his hermit world–until last year.
It was February and Minneapolis was struggling to throw off winter when dad’s phone rang in his office. We were forbidden from answering that phone. It was a private line–for his use only. Dad’s instructions were clear. “Don’t touch that phone. Don’t take a message. If I’m not here, let it ring. And, don’t come in when I’m on a call.”
We always knew when the phone rang. Dad had bells hooked up throughout the store and warehouse, even in the john, so he could hear it anywhere. Everyone froze when it rang and waited for him to lock himself in his office before answering the call. No one ever said anything during his calls, customers included. I don’t know why. It wasn’t like we were going to hear anything. But that was the kind of respect Dad commanded.
Dad emerged from his office ten minutes later. “Vincent.”
I looked up.
“Here.” Dad held the office door open and closed it behind me. “Sit down.”
Dad was grim-faced.
“Anything wrong?”
Dad shook his head and sat at his desk.
“I’ve got to go to California and you’re coming, too.”
I perked up. After every closed door call came a business trip. My father never divulged any details about the trips other than they were for business. For me to be included was an honor indeed.
“You’ve grown into a sensible young man and an asset to me.” These were hard words for my father to say. Affection, like the dead, was kept six feet under. “It’s about time you got involved in another side of our business.”
“Thanks, dad.” My mouth was arid and the words struggled to come out. “When do we leave?”
“Now.”

Leaving Sacramento International, I peeled off my coat. California’s warmth was a vast difference from the frozen gray of Minneapolis.
Dad led me to our rental car. Except, we hadn’t rented a car. Our car was in the short-term parking lot. Dad knew exactly which was ours and unlocked the trunk on a four-year-old Taurus with Nevada plates.
I went to put my bag in. Dad blocked my view into the trunk with his body. “On the back seat,” he barked.
More secrets. I frowned. He was giving me nothing, as usual. Nothing was ever a picnic with dad. It was better to sit back and just enjoy the ride.
I dumped my bag on the back seat and slipped into the passenger seat while Dad fiddled with something in the trunk. The Ford rocked with his efforts. I stared at his form in the vanity mirror on the back of my sunshade. The open trunk
shielded his body. I caught flashes of movement in the gap created by the trunk’s door hinges. When he was finished, he joined me in the car.
“Where did the car come from?”
“Business contacts.” He gunned the engine.
Dad didn’t use a map. He knew where he was going, which was more than I could say. We ended up in Mid-town, close to the rail lines. I was getting used to the unusual. I wasn’t surprised to find we weren’t holed up in a Radisson. Dad parked behind a three-story Victorian.
We unloaded the car. I grabbed my bag off the back seat and dad retrieved his overnight and duffel from the trunk. He hadn’t checked in a duffel at the airport.
“Don’t forget the groceries.”
I gathered up the box. We’d trawled the aisles of a local Raley’s, dad singling out the damnedest things. He picked up coffee, a coffee pot, caffeine pills, a can opener, canned goods, energy bars, camp chairs, a camp stove and other
assorted oddities. I examined our eclectic buys as I followed him to the back steps.
Dad opened the door, using a key he’d removed from a manila envelope marked, “Keys.” We let ourselves in. The place was empty and smelled musty. I went to put the groceries in the kitchen, but dad stopped me.
“Not there.”
“Where then?”
“Upstairs. We won’t be out of our room much.” Dad picked the mail up off the doormat. “This way.”
We settled into a third-floor bedroom facing the street with no bathroom…and no bed. I dumped the groceries on the floor, glad to be relieved of the weight, and let my bag slip off my shoulder.
Dad put down the mail and descended on the groceries, taking what he wanted. I noticed the letters weren’t addressed to him. I’d never heard of Alfred Taylor.
“We’ve got power, so get some coffee going.”
I did as I was told.
While I made coffee, dad positioned the camp in the front window. He adjusted the Venetian blinds to slits and dropped into one of the chairs. From the duffel, he pulled out two pairs of binoculars. One pair he put on the other chair for
me. The last of his preparations was to place a notebook and pen in the chair’s side pocket.
“Dad, what are we doing here?”
He didn’t reply. Instead, he focused the binoculars on a house outside. Some might have thought my father hadn’t heard me over the brewing coffee pot, but I knew better. The whitening of his knuckles was all the acknowledgement I needed.
He’d answer when he was ready.
“Coffee, dad.” I took my seat next to my father and placed a mug on the floor, next to his chair.
Dad kept the binoculars trained. “See that battleship-gray, two-story across the street?”
The house directly opposite ours was of the same era as the Victorian we’d taken up residence in, but was in better condition. Mature eucalyptus trees, shedding their bark, marked the corners of the lot.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“I want you to watch it. Don’t take your eyes off it.”
“What am I watching it for?”
“We’re looking for a man.”
“Who?”
“I’ll tell you when we see him. Now, just watch.”
Obviously, our business in Sacramento had nothing to do with a trade show, a client, or the hardware industry in general. “Are we on a stakeout?”
Dad exhaled and a growl crept out with it. “Just shut up and do as I tell you. Use your ears and your eyes and maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn something. Okay?”
“Okay.”
My question had been redundant. Of course we were on a stakeout. I’d seen enough cop films to know, but that was where my dilemma lay. Why were we staking out some stranger’s house? Was Dad a cop or a fed? Was that why he kept his life
so secret? But my gut told me otherwise. With paralyzing, arthritic fear, I guessed we weren’t on the side of the angels. My father, and now I, was playing for the black hats. I picked up the binoculars and studied the house across
the street.

Twenty minutes ticked by. Nothing happened. People passed. Vehicles passed. But no one stopped at the gray house across the street. I checked my watch. It was twenty after four. If our guy was a regular working stiff, then I reckoned he wasn’t going to be home for another hour. I put the binoculars on the windowsill and stood and stretched, moaning as I did so.
“Did I say you could get up?” dad growled from behind the binoculars.
“No, but nothing’s happening and nothing’s gonna for an hour or so.”
“Sit down.”
“Dad, come on.”
“Sit the fuck down. You’re killing my concentration.”
There was no point in arguing. I retook my seat.
“You can have a two minute break every hour.”
Just before five, the mailman came. Dad noted the time in the notebook. Six o’clock came and went, but dad got excited at seven-oh-two.
“This is him.”
I stiffened in my seat.
“Look at him. Study him. Be sure you’d recognize him in a crowd.”
I snatched my binoculars and trained them on the man heading for the gray house. The sun had gone down but there was good street lighting. He was around forty, soft looking with a paunch and spectacles. He was nothing spectacular and I couldn’t understand why he deserved all the attention.
Dad didn’t speak until the man went inside the house. “Right, this is what we’ve been waiting for. We watch Spectacles. If you want a piss, do it now. I need both our eyes on him. We can’t make a move until we know exactly when he comes and goes. Understand?”
I nodded.
Spectacles didn’t act like he was expecting a stakeout. He was far too relaxed. He entered his house and put the lights on. One by one the rooms lit up. He didn’t even bother to pull the drapes. For two hours we watched him go about his business, watching TV with his feet up, eating dinner and drinking juice straight from the bottle. At nine-fifteen, he left the house.
“Do we follow?”
Dad shook his head.
“Don’t we want to know where he’s going?”
“He can fuck alley cats for all I care; I just want to know his habits while he’s here.”
“Shall I get some food on?”
“No. I need you to keep watch.” He handed me the notebook. “I’m going out.”
Dad slipped his jacket on.
“Where you going?”
Dad frowned and left.
The door slammed and I returned to my task. My jaw dropped. Dad was walking south on Spectacles’ side of the street.
When he came to Spectacles’ house, he ducked inside the side alley and disappeared into the backyard. Five minutes later, he rejoined the street and continued walking south. I waited for his return.
Retaking his seat, dad said, “You can get that food going.”
“Why’d you go to his house?”
“Food,” dad insisted.
“Dad, I can’t learn by just watching. I need some explanation.”
Dad mulled the idea over. “Okay. When the time comes, we can’t let him get away. If he bolts, I need to know if he has an escape route. He doesn’t. He’s boxed in by six-foot fences. Now, food.”
Dad didn’t want people thinking anyone was living in the Victorian, so I had to make the food in the rear of the house.
I heated two cans of pork and beans on the camper stove and brewed more coffee. We ate our food in silence and in the dark, watching an empty house do nothing. Regardless of our cause, glamour wasn’t part of the job description.
“Take these,” dad said, tapping my arm.
He gave me four caffeine tablets. I took them with the coffee, hoping to wash away the artificial, canned flavor of my dinner.
“We’re gonna have to stay awake all night and all of tomorrow.”
I frowned.
“But seeing as there’s two of us, we can afford to take shifts. As long as you don’t fuck up.”
Just like dad. No concession came without a price.
“Remember, if you did this alone, you wouldn’t get the luxury of sleep or toilet facilities. You’d eat, piss and shit where you sat. You’re getting off easy.”
Lesson over, we settled back into the routine of window gazing. However, I found I wasn’t glazing over so much. I kept sharp by not simply staring at the house but examining the environment. I catalogued the image outside the window, reading the outside world the same way I would read a line of text. And with stunning admiration, I came to realize how my dad could just sit for hours on end.
Time passed as swiftly as molasses on a blanket. As weekday nightlife drew to a close, traffic dried to a trickle. By one-thirty, street activity had been reduced to black and whites on routine patrols.
I checked my watch. It was nearly four and still no sign of Spectacles. Apparently, he was a night owl.
“What if he doesn’t come home?” I asked.
“He will.”
“But what if he doesn’t?”
“He has no reason not to. He didn’t leave with anything, so it’s unlikely he’s done a runner. So, he’ll come home and we’ll wait.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Dad examined me up and down. “Take a break. Get some sleep.”
“What if he comes?”
Dad’s face creased–his closest impression to a smile. “A second ago you were wondering if he wouldn’t return.”
“Yeah, well…”
“If you’re going to be any good at this game, you’ve got to learn patience and how to roll with the punches. If he comes, I’ll call ya.”
“Okay.” I bunked down on the floor, thinking I was too full of caffeine to sleep, but I was dead to the world within minutes.
Dad woke me at seven-fifteen. It seemed as if I’d been asleep for minutes rather than hours and I felt the worse for it. I collapsed into my seat.
“He’s back,” he said.
Spectacles let himself into his house. He didn’t bother with breakfast. He went straight to bed.
“I hope this is the start of a pattern,” dad said.
And it was. For the next three days, Spectacles was as regular as oat bran. He left at nine in the evening and returned around seven a.m. He slept in, went for a late breakfast and ran errands. We did indeed have ourselves a pattern.
Spectacles had just left for his fourth night when dad said, “We’re doing this thing in the morning.”
“What thing?”
“Get our shit together and pack up the car. When it’s done, get your head down. We’ve got an early start. You’ll know all you need to know in the morning.”
I didn’t argue and did as I was told. I packed our junk in the car. The duffel was the last thing left and I got as far as grabbing the handles when Dad’s pipe wrench grip crushed my wrist.
“Leave it,” he growled. “This one stays.”
I left it.
We slept. It was the first time in days. So far, I’d snatched the odd hour here and there, relying on caffeine and adrenaline to keep me going. My heart had been redlining since the second day and a caffeine headache slammed me every three or four hours. I felt as though someone had crapped in my head and forgotten to flush.
But not dad. I don’t know how he did it. Like me, he could have won Sacramento’s Mr. Hobo pageant, but his focus was still razor-keen. Just looking at him drained me.
Dad woke me with a tap and a “Hey!”
He wasn’t tapping me with his hand but the butt of an automatic. I recoiled from the weapon, sleep confusing the situation.
“Take it.” Dad thrust the pistol at me.
I took it, sliding my index finger over the trigger. Dad released his hold and I took the weight of the gun unassisted.

“You’ve fired a .45 before, haven’t you?”
A few years back, my brothers and I had spent a year in the reserves at dad’s request, where we’d been taught how to use firearms. He said it was our duty–but our duty to whom?
“I’ve fired a Colt before,” I replied.
Which was true, but nothing like the Colt I held. Our drill sergeants would not have been impressed with the piece of hardware I was examining. The .45 was old and worn. The oil-black grip showed bare metal and covered in scuffs and scratches. It looked like it had been used as a makeshift hammer.
“Don’t worry about its condition. It’s been cleaned and checked out.”
“What do I need a gun for, dad?”
“Come here.”
I stood next to my father at the window.
“We’re going to park in front of Spectacles’ house and wait for him. When he goes for his keys, we’ll shoot him.”
“Shoot him?”
“Put at least four or five shots in him. Don’t rely on one. Put the shots in the back of his head. If you think you’ll miss–put ‘em in his back.”
“Dad!”
“Ditch the guns there. We don’t keep mementos.”
“Mementos? Christ, dad, you’re talking about murder.”
Dad’s hand shot out and snatched my throat. His momentum slammed me against the wall and he stuck his automatic against my temple.
“We’re not talking about murder. We’re talking about a professional hit. I’m a shooter–that’s what I do. I kill who I’ve been told to kill. You can be a shooter, too–if you’ve got the guts for it? If you don’t, I’ll put a bullet in you now.” Dad snapped off the safety. “So, what’s it to be?”
I’d already given him his answer. He looked down and smiled. My Colt was jammed in his guts. His gun slipped to his side and his throttling grasp changed into a pat on the cheek.
“You’ll do. You’re ready. Let’s go.”
If I followed I would be crossing a line, one from which I couldn’t return. I went without trepidation. Why, I don’t know, but I did, without a second thought. I was going to kill a man I didn’t know. And I wasn’t bothered.
***
We waited in the car for Spectacles, outside his home. We had the windows open. It was a pleasure to breathe air instead of the stench of our own breath, sweat and gas.
Ten to seven. He’d be along any minute.
“Why aren’t we wearing gloves?”
“No need. We don’t have rap sheets. The cops only have DMV records to fall back on, then they’ve only got a thumbprint and we’re out of state. Essentially, we’re foreigners.”
“What about the guns?”
“Don’t sweat it. These guns have had so many owners that the poor bastards who legally owned them won’t remember when they were stolen.”
I didn’t have to ask who our employer was. These weren’t the tactics of the law enforcement agencies. Organized crime operated this way.
“He’s here.”
Spectacles walked straight towards us. He didn’t notice us and reached inside his pants for his keys.
“We go when he’s got his back to us. Don’t chase him. We do this on the porch.”
I couldn’t speak. My brain blistered with adrenaline. I was tense and my finger tightened on the trigger. My gaze followed Spectacles up the path to his front door.
“Go.”
We slipped out of the car. Stray vehicles sped by. The sidewalks were clear. We strode with conviction, power and pace. We knew our job and we were going to do it.
Spectacles stuck his keys in the lock. We were ten feet behind, at the base of the porch. We didn’t give him a warning. We just opened fire.
My dad and I, for once not father and son or boss and employee, but partners, pumped bullet after bullet into Spectacles. I didn’t falter. I went for the head, like my father. Spectacles’ skull disintegrated. Globs of brain and bone splattered the front door.
Ten shots had made oatmeal of his head and we dropped the automatics before Spectacles hit the ground. Our job was done.
We raced back to the car. A dumbstruck woman walking her dog was rooted to the spot. She stared directly at us, but I saw a blank sheet behind her eyes. She wouldn’t remember a thing when the cops got to her. Dad gunned the engine and floored it.
We went straight to the airport and left the car exactly where we’d found it. Dad told me we didn’t have to worry about the car or our camp gear. The car and contents would be disposed of and the Victorian would be sanitized. He would pay me out of his share. None of that information was important. What counted was what he said last.
“You did good, Vincent, real good. I’m proud of you.”

Seven months later, summer ran off overnight and fall stood in. It wasn’t snowing but it wasn’t far away. I’d already joined dad on another hit. It went more smoothly than the first and I learned even more. Dad’s phone had been ringing a lot lately. But he hadn’t gone on any business trips and neither had I. He took the
calls in his usual manner and I, like everyone else, was locked out. I knew there was a problem and I wasn’t happy to sit back.
Thursday afternoons dad always went to the bank, so I followed. He took care of business inside while I parked in a red zone across the street and waited. Normally, he returned to the store, but this time, he didn’t. He took the highway
out of town. Twenty miles out, he pulled into a rest stop.
I don’t know if he knew I was shadowing him but it seemed like it. I followed him into the rest stop and parked as far back as I could. I watched him. He did nothing. He sat and gazed at a bleak sky rolling by. I got out.
The F-150’s passenger window was open and I leaned through. “Dad?”
He turned and I pumped three rounds into his face, blowing out the driver’s side window. I left the .357 on the bench seat next to him and raced back to my car.
Dad had slipped up in Vegas the year before. The Feds had made indictments. They had a blood trail and eventually it would lead back to him. The trail had to stop.
I knew this from the call. I’d answered dad’s phone. He’d been out and the damn thing had rung for ten minutes straight. They’d thought I was him. Maybe our voices did sound alike. When they’d realized who I was, they offered me a promotion and I accepted.
Now, when the phone rings in the store, it’s me they wait for. No one answers Vincent’s phone.

The End

Bio: Simon Wood (www.simonwood.net) is a California transplant from England. In the last six years, he’s had three books, and over 130 stories and articles published. A number of his stories have appeared in “Best of” anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in Writer’s Digest. His next book is the thriller, Accidents Waiting To Happen, from Dorchester/Leisure coming out March ’07.