CON ME ONCE BY J.L. DELOZIER
Three superhero wannabes. One femme fatale. Millions in mob
When Frank Lambda, a bumbling superhero wannabe, witnesses a mob hit gone wrong, he ends up running for his life.
Enter the mysterious Keira, whose secret academy claims to turn wannabes like Frank into real heroes. Frank knows a con when he sees one. But desperate for an escape, he joins three other recruits for training in Las Vegas. Against the backdrop of a thousand spandex-clad cosplayers Keira’s true agenda—a multimillion-dollar heist from her mobster brother—is exposed. With their lives and a fortune at stake, Frank and his team of misfits fight to become the heroes they always wanted to be.
Rauch sat on the edge of the pool with his foot on the drowning man’s back and wondered if he had time for a smoke. Turns out you really can drown someone in three feet of water—if you knock him out first.
He’d thought it would be more difficult. Not the physical punch—he was as tough as they came—but the emotional wallop. Despite an extensive criminal record for a variety of minor offenses, he’d never whacked anyone before, and he expected a rush of fear or horror or…something.
Instead, he felt numb. The way he saw it, if the mob wanted this poor guy dead, he wasn’t a stellar citizen to begin with, and when you’re hungry and months behind on the rent, well, the truth is, money makes a great anesthetic.
The neighbor’s hound dog howled a warning. Rauch jerked, splashing water over the top of his grungy canvas sneaker. He cursed under his breath and scrambled to his feet. The scraggly brown hedge separating the two suburban houses rustled. Darkness, interrupted only by the dim glow of a dozen solar lights tracing the kidney-shaped pool, obscured the source.
The rustling grew louder and more violent. Rauch tapped the cigarette back into its pack and pulled out his gun instead. Tonight had been easy so far—too easy. He should’ve known better.
Things were about to change
Lambda Man bobbed and weaved as he struggled to avoid the wooden cane of death. A teacup poodle attached itself to his ankle pads. He fought to shake free of the clinging beast but tripped on the hem of his flowing green cape and hit the ground instead. With a whimper, he curled into a fetal position and succumbed to the stinging blows.
“Ma’am, please. Ma’am, I was only trying to help.” Frank Lambda’s pleas fell on the deaf ears of a woman old enough to be his grandmother.
“You’re crazy, you hear me? Nutso.” The elderly woman took one final swing at the back of Frank’s head, breaking the cane over his shoulders. She snatched her purse off the sidewalk, gathered her snarling poodle, and hurried away, shrieking as if the devil himself was nipping at her orthotic heels.
Based on the glimmer of lights flickering in the previously dark upper story tenement windows, the whole neighborhood had heard her screams. With a groan, Frank staggered to his feet to make a quick getaway. Someone giggled from a shadowy corner.
“Julia, is that you?” Frank peered into the darkness and retrieved his fallen Taser.
A curvaceous figure detached itself from the crumbling storefront and sauntered into the light. “Bad day at the office, Lambda Man?”
He rubbed his sore neck. “You could say that. Third beating of the night and it’s barely past twelve. People don’t seem to understand I’m only trying to help.”
“It’s a rough neighborhood, sweetie. People are used to fending for themselves. But if it makes you feel any better, you’ll always be my hero.” She awarded him a bubble gum-scented peck on the cheek and strolled away.
Frank swiped the pink lipstick from his mask. Julia used to work for a ruthless pimp who’d aimed to transform their South Philly neighborhood into a prostitution mecca. Driving him out of town remained Frank’s greatest achievement. Julia was self-employed now and using the extra money to put herself through nursing school. Someday, they’d no longer meet on this corner.
He gimped back to his apartment, cranked up the tunes, and removed his ski mask before assessing the damage. The leather patches he’d sewn over the neckline protected him a little, but a quick glance in the mirror told him by morning the ugly red welts marking his shoulders were going to be pretty shades of purple and green.
His ceiling shook as old Mrs. Pagnotto, who lived directly above, thumped her walker on the floor of her apartment. Frank scowled. Deaf to normal conversation, she somehow never managed to miss a snippet of neighborhood gossip, and she never ever failed to object to his loud music.
With a resigned sigh, he lowered the volume. The thumping stopped. He could ill-afford to get evicted. His boss was great, but housing in Philadelphia was expensive, and working at a used book and comic swap was a minimum-wage endeavor. His roommate’s income was sporadic at best, so even with splitting the rent for their tiny apartment, Frank lived paycheck to paycheck—except for the months Rauch managed to cough up his fair share. If it’s true that crime doesn’t pay, crime fighting pays even less.
A cell phone buzzed on the plastic storage bin they used as a coffee table. The device vibrated wildly, boogying off the bin’s lid to land on the white shag carpet they’d scrounged from a pile of garbage outside the hipster apartment building on Walnut Street. Frank muttered under his breath as he stooped to retrieve it. Rauch routinely left his dirty socks and underwear scattered around the apartment, but he rarely forgot his phone.
A series of texts, sent from different numbers seconds apart, glowed on the screen. The first was a name, the second an address in Bryn Mawr, one of Philly’s priciest hoods, and the third a picture of a shady-looking dude in a fancy pinstriped suit. The final text listed a price.
Frank’s stomach dropped. Last night, over their customary dinner of ramen and beer, Rauch promised to give him three months of back rent by the end of the week. Frank didn’t ask how his best friend planned to get the money. Since they’d first met in juvie, he’d known Rauch ran “errands” for the mob, and that was all Frank cared to know. Avoiding grisly details became their own watered-down version of omertá, the mob’s sacred code of silence.
After a final glance at the address, Frank dropped the phone, donned his black face mask, and dashed out the door. Usually his nocturnal escapades involved herding drunks, chasing down purse snatchers, and attracting enough attention to make the drug dealers slither out of the street corners and into the shadows of a different neighborhood. But not tonight. Tonight, Lambda Man would devote his attention to saving his best friend’s soul.
Every hero needs a pal, even if he’s a delinquent like Rauch.
Rauch stretched both arms in front of his chest and tightened his shaky grip on the dinged-up revolver. The rustling stopped as quickly as it had begun, replaced by the soothing sound of water lapping the pool’s edge. His shoulders relaxed, but the barrel of his gun stayed trained on the hedge. He may be a newbie to murder, but he was nobody’s fool.
“Ouch.” The hedge’s brittle branches snapped as a spandex-clad arm and leg broke through the six-foot tall barrier. The flailing continued until, with a final heave, a masked man hurtled onto the manicured lawn and rolled to a rest on his back.
Rauch lowered his weapon. “Jesus Christ, Frank, you trying to wake up the whole neighborhood or what?”
He slipped the gun under his belt, covered it with the tail of his Phillies team jersey, and shook the water off his shoe. Dammit. He knew he should’ve worn boots. His sock was soaked, and his sneaker squished as he sauntered toward Frank, ruining his attempt to look casual—and innocent.
He leaned over his room-mate who lay motionless with his eyes closed. “Frank, buddy, you okay?”
Frank groaned and tried to roll on his side, but his long cape snagged on a spindly branch and pinned him to the ground. He engaged in a brief tug of war, wrenching on the cape with both hands until the fluorescent green fabric tore free. Exhausted from the effort and with his legs tangled in the tattered cape, he thrashed around like a bunny snared in a net until Rauch took pity on him and set him free.
“Frank, dude, you’re embarrassing. Good thing there’s no one around to witness how lame you are.” Rauch grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet.
Frank hunched over, gasping for breath. “I’m. Lambda. Man.” He lowered his voice, forcing Rauch to lean closer. “I told you not to use my real name when I’m on patrol.”
“Last I checked, ‘Lambda’ is your real name. Whatever. Are you okay, Lambda Man? Apparently, shrubbery’s your kryptonite.”
Frank straightened upright and gagged at the sight of the dead body bobbing in the shallow end of the pool. “My God, Rauch. What did you do?”
Rauch dropped his gaze to stare at his wet shoe. “Don’t ask, don’t tell, Frank.” He looked over his shoulder. “How’d you find me?”
“You forgot your phone. They texted the address. From a burner phone, I hope.”
Rauch nodded. “They’re pretty smart, these guys. They keep a whole bunch of them lined up, and—”
“Send the info from different numbers so each text taken by itself appears harmless. Yeah, I get it. Helps cover their asses, but it doesn’t do shit for you, Rauch.”
“I still think it’s pretty smart. Maybe not to you techie types—”
“I am not a techie. I’m a tech school dropout.”
“You know more than me.”
“The Dalai Lama handles tech better than you. He uses Twitter and Instagram.”
“Ain’t nothing in my life worth tweeting about, Frank. You know that.” He scuffed the toe of his soggy sneaker on the patio’s textured concrete.
They stood in the darkness next to an inflatable rubber ducky and a dead man wearing nothing but a pair of red silk boxers. A siren wailed, and the neighbor’s dog resumed barking. Next door, a porch light clicked on, casting a sickly yellow glow across the hedge.
Like a feral animal scenting trouble, Rauch raised his nose in the air. His eyes narrowed. “We need to go.”
“What about him?” Frank waved one arm toward the corpse, and the tattered cape fluttered in the thick air of a late Indian summer.
“Now, Frank. We’ll talk about him later.”
Rauch grabbed his best friend by the elbow and dragged him through the back yard and across the driveway to the front of the house. They hustled down the block to where a curvy black convertible, splattered mud obscuring its license plate, sat parked in the murkiness between two street lights. The door automatically unlocked as Rauch approached the driver’s side. He jerked it open and plopped behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
“Wow.” Frank ran a gloved hand over the sleek lines of the hood. “Tinted windows, retractable soft top, leather seats…how much do you think this baby runs?”
“A cool one-fifty. Get in. We gotta go.”
Rauch grinned. “I know. They lent it to me. Can you believe it? Little ol’ me, driving a ride like this, if only for tonight.”
“Just don’t look in the trunk.”
“Frank, it’s a roadster. It barely has a trunk.”
“That’s a good thing, considering what I saw floating in that pool. I’d hate to think there were more.”
With a push of a button, the engine roared to life. Rauch tapped the gear shift, and the car pounced forward like a panther released from its cage.
Frank grabbed the edge of his seat. “I didn’t know you had a driver’s license.”
The sirens grew louder. Rauch adjusted the rear view mirror. Several blocks back, flashing red lights illuminated the dark sky and were approaching fast. Were they coming for him? Rauch didn’t know, but he sure as hell wasn’t gonna sit around and find out. He revved the engine and took his foot off the brake.
“I don’t, so buckle up and hang on, Lambda Man. We’re going for a ride.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J.L. Delozier submitted her first story, handwritten in pencil on lined school paper, to Asimov’s magazine while still in junior high school. Several years later, she took a creative writing elective at Penn State University and was hooked. She received her BS and MD degrees in six years, which was followed by the blur of internship, residency, and the launch of her medical career. But she never forgot her first love.
From the deductive reasoning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the cutting-edge science of Michael Crichton, she remains inspired by facts that lie on the edge of reality: bizarre medical anomalies, new genetic discoveries and anything that seems too weird to be true.
Dr. Delozier’s first thriller, Type & Cross, debuted in April, 2016 and was nominated for a “Best First Novel” award by the International Thriller Writers organization, of which she’s a member. Storm Shelter followed in June, 2017. Blood Type X released April, 2019. Her short fiction has appeared in the British crime anthology, Noirville: Tales from the Dark Side, in NoirCon’s official journal, Retreats from Oblivion, and in Thriller Magazine. Her first sci-fi short story won the 2019 “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” prize of the Roswell Award and appeared in Artemis Journal.
She continues to practice medicine and lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three rescue cats. See more at www.jldelozier.com