Splinters of glass cascaded across the sidewalk, a bed of needles on which the squint-eyed thug went to sleep. Seconds ago he’d been jumping around, as hyper as a speed addict, spitting froth from the corners of his mouth in his agitation, until I’d delivered the sleeping pill by way of a straight right to his jaw.
So starts the punchy new action-packed thriller by Matt Hilton, Marked For Death, the latest in his Joe Hunter series. If you’ve not encountered him before, Hunter is a testosterone-fuelled vigilante who metes out justice on the backstreets of America. This time he should be on a routine assignment providing security for an elite event in Miami. But… heck, you guess it: things go wrong. Hunter is drawn into what appears to be a domestic altercation. When he crosses the mysterious Mikhail however, he soon finds something altogether more sinister…
We’re delighted to be able to give MMM readers exclusive access to the opening events in Marked For Death. Grab a cuppa coffee and settle down for 15 minutes of bad-ass action, as Joe gets to grips with a couple of low-lives. Oh, and come back later this week when we’ll be hosting a Joe Hunter giveaway – with a chance for you to win one of the earlier ebooks in the series. But right now – brace yourself!
I hadn’t planned on sending him through the window, but the subsequent explosion of glass, the slap of his body on the pavement, bought me a few seconds while his pals blinked in astonishment at his downfall. By the time their attention turned back to me, I was on the offensive. I upended a table, scattering food and condiments, and kicked it into the thighs of the two men nearest me. While they wasted time trying to clear the obstruction, I vaulted it and kicked the first of them over onto his back. While he was down I stamped on his groin. He jack-knifed at the waist, woofing in agony, and met my knee with his face. He sprawled out flat again.
The third guy should have hit me while I was still side-on to him, but he made the mistake of going for a two-hands grab, intending to yank me off his downed pal. He caught the collar of my jacket, began hauling, but that worked in my favour: I pivoted half-circle and rammed the tip of my left elbow into his liver. He lost all control of his grip, and likely his bowels, as his response was to squat and shudder out a deep groan. Reversing my pivot, I again employed an elbow, and this time his fat head made a perfect target. He crashed against the upturned table, his weight thrusting it back a few feet before he flattened out.
The violence had been shocking and sudden, and to the observers out on the sidewalks I might have looked as much like the instigator as I did the perpetrator of the brutal exchange, but I’d only gone there to enjoy a quiet lunch. I should have known better; I tend to attract trouble. If there’s an idiot in the room they always gravitate towards me, and sadly I’m not the type to suffer fools.
And the trio of punks lying around me in varying degrees of messed-up had been drunken fools.
They’d come off the beach overheated, but instead of lining their stomachs with food and maybe taking a soft drink they’d elected for pitchers of beer. Too much hot sun plus too much cold beer: not a good combination. The alcohol made them boisterous, rude and belligerent. Squint-eye didn’t understand that four-letter words were best kept between his own ignorant company, and he had no right to complain when asked by the manager to keep it down around the lunchtime diners. His way of dealing with the request was to get louder, and begin throwing his weight around, challenging anyone who thought himself man enough to shut him up. I told him to shut it.
Squint-eye – encouraged by his equally stupid friends – set his chin, then strolled over to my table with his fists clenched.
‘You goin’ to make me shut it, old man?’ he demanded, one eye watering, the other pinched almost shut. Dried spittle formed scummy patches at the corners of his mouth. More spit was ejected when he wiggled his fingers and beckoned me to try it. ‘C’mon, asshole, you want to have a go?’
‘Let’s take this out in the parking lot,’ I said as I stood.
‘Why not do things right here?’ To punctuate his point, he snatched up a ketchup bottle from my table and swung for my head. Before the bottle was halfway through its arc, my fist impacted his chin and things kicked off.
It’s one thing standing against bullies, but my problem was I didn’t have much balance when dealing with them: once tripped, my switch was prone to overkill. Surrounded by the recumbent trio, I took abashed glances around, observing the shocked expressions of my fellow diners. I felt bad that I’d helped ruin their day out.
A family of three sat at the nearest table, shocked into immobility, loaded forks still raised. I could see the partly masticated remains of a cheeseburger in the wide mouth of a sturdy, ginger-haired kid. His eyes were huge and glossy with excitement.
‘Sorry your boy had to witness that,’ I said to the kid’s parents.
The father, the progenitor of his son’s red hair and freckles, glimpsed at the kid, then shook his head, as if an apology was unnecessary. ‘Can’t get him off those online shoot-’em-up games, I’m betting he’s seen much worse.’
The mother, a frumpy blonde, and obviously the parent that’d determined the kid’s stocky figure, moistened her lips as she stared up at me. ‘They asked for what they got, mister,’ she announced.
Other diners were in agreement, some of them even offering a short round of applause. One old guy sitting close enough to spit on the thug I’d elbowed cackled softly in laughter. He used an immaculately white sneaker to prod the downed man. He spoke directly to him. ‘If you’re intent on throwing your weight around, you should expect a hard landing now and again.’
His words of wisdom rang as a personal warning to me. I looked for the manager, held up my hands in apology. ‘I’m sorry about the trouble; I only planned on getting them outside and on their way. Things rapidly got out of hand, though.’
‘This wasn’t on you, Joe,’ the manager said, his expression one of sombre reflection. I’d been visiting his beachside diner for years, and was on first name terms with Grant. ‘That punk would’ve smashed your head with that bottle if you hadn’t stopped him.’
‘I was more annoyed that he called me an old man.’ I smiled to show I was joking.
‘Yeah,’ said Grant, who was my senior by a couple of years, ‘he asked for it. I only wish I’d opened the window first.’
‘That wasn’t planned either,’ I assured him. ‘I’ll pay for the damages, Grant.’
He pointed down at Squint-eye, who was still dozing on the sidewalk. ‘He can pay for the damages.’ He checked out the overturned table, the spilled food and crockery. ‘The rest is salvageable.’
‘Maybe we should put them in the recovery position or something.’
‘Let’s drag ’em into the parking lot, let them sleep it off,’ Grant suggested. ‘It’s garbage collection day, maybe someone will do me a favour and throw them in the trash.’
He was jesting. Plus he had a duty of care, as did I. Between us we got the trio of young punks propped in the shade at the side of the diner, and slapped them into wakefulness. I didn’t hold a grudge. As long as they behaved – and shelled out ample reimbursement to Grant for the broken window – I’d allow our disagreement to end.
To be fair, when they did come to, they wore similar expressions of sombre reflection to Grant’s countenance earlier. They knew they’d been in the wrong, having had some sobriety knocked back into their foolish heads. Squint-eye paid up, and even offered me an apology and his hand. I didn’t believe for a second it was a trap to pull me into a headbutt, but call me cautious. I clapped him on the shoulder instead, directing him back to the beach.
As he had during previous visits to his diner, Grant again offered me a job, which I again declined. It had become a discussion point with us to a point where we sounded like a stuck record.
‘I’ve already got a job.’
‘You seem to have plenty downtime,’ Grant countered. ‘I sure could use you on the door over the summer break…’
‘I’d make a poor doorman,’ I said. ‘I can’t differentiate doors from windows.’
He shook his head at the lame joke.
‘Besides,’ I went on, ‘I enjoy eating here; it wouldn’t be the same if I worked here. I wouldn’t be able to relax.’
‘You never relax,’ he reminded me. ‘You should take up yoga or something, Joe, do some breathing exercises, or you’re going to burn yourself out. You’re not as young as you used to be.’
I blinked at him in mock surprise. ‘I just knocked a guy through a window for suggesting I was old.’
‘I didn’t say you were old, just…well, not young either.’
‘And you think me working a door, bouncing groups of drunken reprobates, is going to be good for my health? Thanks for the out, Grant.’
He extended his hand. ‘The offer’s always open.’
I had no reservations about taking his hand, and I winked my appreciation.
‘Can I get you a fresh plate?’ Grant offered. My lunch was currently being mopped off the floor by one of his serving staff.
‘Lost my appetite,’ I admitted. I squinted at my wristwatch for effect. ‘Besides, it’s time I was getting on…before age really does catch up to me.’
‘Got a lot on?’ His tone was doubtful.
‘I’m a busy man,’ I said.
I was lying. I was between jobs and was growing antsy. On another day I might have made do with slapping some sense into Squint-eye and his pals, not beating on them as vigorously as I did. Boredom had a detrimental effect on me, and a worse one on the fools that snapped me out of laconic mode.
The truth was, I was mildly embarrassed. Despite the show of appreciation from the diners, I was sorry that I’d acted so violently, especially in view of children, and was uncomfortable about returning inside. I couldn’t eat while being eyed openly – or surreptitiously – by the other diners. I especially didn’t want to field their questions or misguided accolades, let alone reproof once the adrenaline spike faded and they began thinking more clearly about the kind of person in their midst. I said goodbye to Grant and strolled through Mexico Beach towards my beach house, seriously ready for a change of scenery.
Loving it so far? Go grab a copy of Marked For Death at Amazon
Don’t forget to pop back on Friday for a chance to win a Joe Hunter thriller
Thanks to Canelo for the sneak preview
Find THE STONER STORIES at Amazon