Excerpt

Starry, Starry Night

René Appel & Josh Pachter

The following short story is an exclusive excerpt from Amsterdam Noir, edited by René Appel & Josh Pachter, who also authored this story. In a tale of unintended consequences and spur-of-the-moment decisions, a young man happy to be on the straight and narrow finds his new path in life challenged by the badly behaved friends he tried to leave behind.

Museum District

Vincent slips his arm around Mila’s bare shoulder and pulls her close. “So many stars,” he whispers. “And so many more, so far away we can’t even see them. Thousands of planets, millions of light-years away. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?”

Mila doesn’t reply. Not with words, anyway. She leans into him, kisses his neck, brushes his cheek with her lips, moves on to his ear, her hot tongue exploring its contours.

He groans with pleasure.

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The two of them have been a couple for almost half a year. They met at the Escape, a nightclub on the Rembrandtplein, and their click was instant and overpowering. One of Vincent’s old buddies has a tattoo on his left bicep of a heart with an arrow through it, and that’s how Vincent feels, like there’s an arrow piercing his heart. Sometimes he has to stop himself from checking his chest to make sure he isn’t actually bleeding.

Everything changed for Vincent when he and Mila got together. For years, he’d been a hard-core party animal, and animal was the operative word: drunk with his pals every weekend, a steady diet of fights and vandalism and anonymous sex, anything for a laugh. His life was a carnival, illuminated by flashing neon, its soundtrack a pulsing heavy-metal beat. Hard to believe it was only last year that he, Roy, Marco, and Tommy had practically torn Greece apart during an alcohol- and drug-fueled summer trip to the islands. Jesus, you choked down the right cocktail of stimulants, you could party hearty for a week without sleep.

Now, tonight, Vincent gazes lovingly at his beautiful Mila. She looks awesome in a short leather skirt and low-cut tank top.

“Mmmm, don’t,” he murmurs. “You know that makes me crazy.”

There isn’t a hint of a breeze, nor a cloud in the sky, and he’s aware that the sultry summer evening only adds to the hunger he feels for her. He slides his left hand beneath Mila’s skirt and caresses the soft inside of her thigh, sneaking his fingers higher to brush the warm, moist cotton of her underwear. It’s absolutely silent in this dark corner of the Vondelpark. Now and then a bicycle whispers past in the distance, but this narrow side trail is completely deserted except for the two of them.

The very instant he has that thought, a runner in a fluorescent green shirt huffs by, but Mila doesn’t seem to notice the intrusion. Perhaps her eyes are closed. Here on this wooden bench . . . could they? No, you never knew who might appear out of nowhere, even at one a.m., like that jogger. The park used to be known as a meat market for gay guys on the make. Maybe it still is.

Mila licks his ear again. She sucks the lobe into her mouth and nibbles it gently. “You taste so good,” she breathes. He feels the faintest pressure of her teeth. “I could eat you up.”

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His fingertips slip inside the elastic of her panties, and just as she bites down on his earlobe his cell phone rings.

“Ow!” he cries.

“Oh no,” says Mila, “did I hurt you?”

Vincent fumbles for his phone. On its screen he sees the word Senior.

“Crap, it’s my dad, I better take it.”

Mila wriggles a few inches away on the bench and straightens her skirt, as if she’s concerned her boyfriend’s father might see her.

“What’s up?” Vincent says.

There is a moment of silence at the other end of the line. Then he hears his dad’s cigarette-hoarsened voice bark, “You make your deliveries?”

There is a moment of silence at the other end of the line. Then he hears his dad’s cigarette-hoarsened voice bark, “You make your deliveries?”

Always checking up on him, like he’s a little baby, has to be watched every minute. Doesn’t the old man trust him? And anyway, what’s he doing up at this hour? Once you turn fifty, you’re supposed to be in bed by midnight, for Christ’s sake.

“Muntplein and Koningsplein are done,” Vincent says. “I’ll do Museumplein in the morning.”

“You were supposed to hit all three of them tonight.”

“What difference does it make? I’ll be there before they open tomorrow.”

“That’s not our agreement,” his father says. “First you promise me you’ll do it tonight, now you say tomorrow morning. I don’t nag you, next thing I know it’s afternoon and it’s still not done. We’ve been through this before, son.”

“Not for six months, we haven’t!”

It’s true that Vincent has messed up in the past. Before Mila, he broke pretty much every promise he ever made to the old man. But that was then. He’s a different guy now. Responsible. No more crazy parties, no drunken orgies, no pills, he hardly even drinks booze anymore, just a few beers when they go out to dinner. Mila has shown him he can live a better life. He has to behave himself, if he doesn’t want to go back to being a total loser.

And his dad’s business is a gold mine: kiosks on three squares in the heart of Amsterdam, perfectly placed to serve drinks and snacks to the city’s hordes of tourists. Someday, when Daddy Dearest lies down for the big sleep—and given the two packs of Camels a day the old man inhales, it will probably come sooner than later—the whole enterprise will belong to him, and he’ll live off the proceeds for the rest of his life . . . if he doesn’t screw it all up.

“I want that last delivery made tonight,” Vincent Senior grumbles. “You hear me, boy?”

“I . . .” He sees that Mila is eying him with concern. He presses the phone to his chest and explains what’s going on.

“Do what he tells you,” she says. “I understand.”

She understands. For the first time in his life, Vincent has found someone who actually understands.

When he puts the phone back to his ear, his father is still talking. “Sure, Dad, whatever you say,” he interrupts. “I’m on my way to Museumplein right now.”

***

The Museum Square is a ghost town at this hour—all that’s missing is a lonely tumbleweed blowing across the broad grassy area bordered by the Rijksmuseum to the northeast, the van Gogh and Stedelijk museums to the north, and the Concertgebouw to the southwest. The tourists are tucked away in their hotels, or hunched over glasses of beer in the brown cafés on and around the Leidseplein, or roaming the Red-Light District in search of excitement, adventure, action. But there is nothing for them here. The museums and the city’s concert hall are all long shuttered for the night. The occasional car engine rumbles from the Paulus Potterstraat, a knot of locals chatters as they glide along the Hobbemastraat behind the Rijks on their black bicycles, homeward bound, and then silence again descends . . . before being irrevocably broken by the arrival of three boisterous young men, twentysomethings, dressed almost identically in T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. Two of the three sport shaggy haircuts, the third has shaved his head.

“Whaddaya wanna do, Tommy?” says the bald one, whose name is Roy. There is a tattoo of a heart and an arrow on his left arm.

“Marco,” says Tommy, “that cunt told you where the party is, right?”

“Yeah, lemme think. It’s around here somewhere.”

“Not in there.” Tommy waves at the looming bulk of the national museum, the Rijks. “You guys ever been inside that dump?”

“On a field trip once,” bald Roy shrugs. “I tried to ditch it, but they dragged me along. About a million stupid old paintings and whatever. Almost as boring as dinner with my folks.”

“That shit’s worth millions, though.”

“I wonder anybody ever broke in there? You got any idea, Marco?”

Marco shakes his head. He gazes thoughtfully at the gigantic building, scratches his armpit, and shrugs.

“Man,” says Roy, “I’m wasted. Let’s get a cab.”

“You see a cab around here?”

“Anyway, where we going? Why don’t you call her, Marco? You got her number back at the Jimmy Hoo, right?”

“Jimmy Woo.”

“Whatever. You call her, get the goddamn address. I’ma stretch out for a sec.”

Roy reaches halfway along the tall plastic letters that spell out I amsterdam—the I and the am in bright red, everything else a glossy white that almost glows beneath the starry sky—grabs the crossbar of the letter t, and hoists himself up to sit with his back against the t and his feet propped on the top of the s. The modern font of the letters clashes with the museum’s classical architecture, but who gives a shit, the tourist board put several of these fuckers up around the city for the American backpackers and middle-aged Germans and hordes of Japanese with their clicking camera shutters, and they lap it up like dogs attacking a bowl of kibble.

Marco reaches for his phone. “Shit, what was her name again?” He stares at the screen as if waiting for Siri to answer the question.

“I Amsterdam,” says Tommy, using the bottom curve of the s to boost himself up onto the big red m. “That doesn’t fucking mean anything.”

Roy laughs. “Look at the colors, asshole. Read the red letters twice—it says I am Amsterdam.”

“Bullshit,” Tommy responds. “Read the red letters twice, it says, I am I Amsterdam. Now who’s an asshole, asshole?” Then he shakes off the argument and says, “You got any left?”

“Any what? X?”

Tommy rolls his eyes. “No, any licorice. Asshole.”

Roy fishes a small metal box from the pocket of his jeans and shakes it, letting the others hear the rattle from within. He slides it open and sings, in off-key English, “The Candyman can, ’cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.” He takes out a little yellow pill with a smiley face stamped on one side, swallows it dry, and tosses the box to Tommy.

Marco is scrolling through his contacts. “That guy she was with,” he says, more to himself than his friends, “Raffie? Robbie? Ronnie?”

A white delivery van with Van Galen lettered on its side turns from the Honthorststraat onto the square and pulls up beside the shuttered snack kiosk. Its headlights go out, the purr of its engine dies, the driver’s door swings open, and a thin figure emerges.

“Hey, look who’s here,” says Roy, his face lighting up in a grin. “It’s Vinnie Van and his minivan! Good ol’ Vinnie—shit, what’s he doing here in the middle of the night? C’mon, boys, let’s check it out.”

Marco puts away his phone. Roy drops down from his perch atop the t, Tommy rolls off the m and lands on his feet like a cat. The three of them advance toward the delivery van.

***

Vincent swings the van’s rear door open. He’ll lug everything over to the kiosk before unlocking it and stacking the goods inside. It’s a ten-minute job, tops. But that doesn’t much matter anymore, since Mila’s already home, probably fast asleep by now. He pushes two crates of soda cans together and slides them out, and that’s when he sees them coming toward him. Roy, Marco, and Tommy, now that’s a fine how-do-you-don’t. What are those jerks doing out here in the middle of the night? It’s like they’ve been waiting for him, but of course their appearance has to be pure coincidence.

“Vinnie Van,” says Roy cheerfully, “you’re workin’ late.”

“Yeah, restocking.”

Roy swings around in front of him, blocking his way.

“Move, will ya? I gotta take this stuff to the—”

“You forgot the magic word, Vinnie, my brother.”

Vincent is tired, not in the mood to fool around. “Please,” he says, swallowing his irritation. “If you don’t mind.”

“You see, boys?” says Roy. “Look how polite he can be. Our Vinnie’s grown up into a good little soldier.”

What are those jerks doing out here in the middle of the night? It’s like they’ve been waiting for him, but of course their appearance has to be pure coincidence.

Vincent, burdened by the two heavy crates, heads for the kiosk’s back door. Roy takes a step closer, bumping into him, almost throwing him off balance.

“Watch where you’re going, Vinnie,” says Roy. “You clumsy piece of shit.”

Tommy and Marco stand there snickering stupidly, watching the comedy play out.

“We’re goin’ to a party,” says Marco. “You comin’ with, Vinnie? The more the merrier, right?”

Vincent holds his tongue. No matter what he says, they’ll take it the wrong way. He sets down his crates and returns to the van for two more.

“What’s the matter?” demands Tommy. “We ain’t good enough for you no more?”

“Maybe his fuckin’ girlfriend don’t like us,” Marco mutters. “Mila with the milky mammaries. You like to suck on those mammaries, Vinnie? She let you have a taste if you’re a good little boy?”

Vincent shakes off the insult and goes back to the van for two cardboard cartons of chips. He can feel his old gang fall into single file behind him, swinging their arms like apes in the zoo, their sneakers slapping on the pavement amid staccato bursts of laughter.

“You need some help handling those big boys, Vinnie?” says Roy, and Vincent isn’t sure if he means the boxes or Mila’s breasts.

“I bet he does,” says Tommy, going straight for the nastier of the two entendres. “I mean, anything more than a mouthful’s too much for one guy on his own, right, Vinnie?”

Vincent sets down the cartons by the kiosk’s back door, and when he straightens up and turns around, Roy is right there in his face, an evil gleam in his eyes. “I could use a snack and a Coke, Vinnie. What about you guys?”

“Sounds good,” Marco smirks, and Tommy nods eagerly.

“Whaddaya say, Vinnie? We’re still your buds, right?”

Vincent heads back to the van.

“Cat’s got his tongue,” says Roy.

“I want a snack and a Coke,” Tommy whines, imitating a child.

“You can spare a couple bags of chips and a couple Cokes for your best pals,” says Roy. “Remember that time in Crete when you puked all over your bed? Who cleaned that shit up for you, Vinnie? We did, remember? You were totally out of it.”

“Yeah,” says Marco, “and this is how you thank us?”

“Come on, man,” Tommy urges, “I’m thirrrrrsty.”

“We’ll help you unload the rest of this crap and then we’ll all head over to the party, have a couple real drinks, for old time’s sake,” Roy suggests.

Vincent shakes his head.

“We’ll catch a ride with you, Vinnie Van. Hey, check it out, I got some X for ya.” Roy holds out his metal pillbox, the yellow smiley faces glowing happily under the light of a billion stars, but Vincent turns away as if he hasn’t even noticed.

“Jesus, you got boring, Van Galen. This is all that fuckin’ Mila’s idea, right? You get high and the bitch won’t suck you off no more?”

Ignoring them, Vincent carries the last two boxes of snacks to the kiosk. Now there’s just a few crates of bottled beer left before he can move it all inside and then take off.

If these three clowns will let him. What did I ever see in these assholes? he wonders.

“How much you make doin’ deliveries, Vinnie?” says Marco. “Your daddy pay you decent, or you work for free ’cause you love him so much?”

Vincent doesn’t react.

“Remember when you used to bitch and moan about the old fucker?” says Tommy. “I never heard you say one nice word about him.” He reaches out and pushes Vincent’s shoulder, not hard, just enough to be annoying. “Now all of a sudden he’s your best friend?”

Roy moves to block Vincent’s access to the van’s back door. He’s gritting his teeth, his eyes are wide open and darting from side to side, the pupils huge and black and glittering.

Christ, Vincent thinks warily, he’s already tripping. He gestures at Roy to move, but the guy just stands there, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.

“Please,” sighs Vincent. “Would you please let me through?”

Roy grins and steps aside, motioning Vincent forward. “Glad to oblige, Mr. Van Galen,” he says with exaggerated politeness. “I wouldn’t want to hinder you in the swift completion of your appointed rounds.”

Vincent doesn’t trust this, but he leans into the van and slides out two stacked crates of Heineken, the tourists’ idea of Holland’s finest. As he turns to the kiosk, the three boys close in around him. With the van at his back, there’s nowhere for him to go. He doesn’t know what they’re planning—he doubts they’re clearheaded enough to even have a plan—but they’re obviously not going to let him through.

Roy suddenly takes a step back, opening a path. Vincent starts forward, and Roy sticks out a leg and trips him.

Vincent falls, and the two crates of beer go flying, crashing down on the asphalt. His palms sting, and there is shattered glass everywhere, though he doesn’t seem to be bleeding. He looks up into the grinning faces of Roy, Marco, and Tommy from his hands and knees.

He doesn’t know what they’re planning—he doubts they’re clearheaded enough to even have a plan—but they’re obviously not going to let him through.

“Vinnie fall down, go boom?” says Roy, the picture of innocence, while his droogs giggle idiotically.

“Fucking assholes,” Vincent mutters under his breath as he examines the smashed beer crates.

“You oughta be more careful, pal,” grins Marco. “I think your shoelace came untied. That’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous,” Tommy echoes. “You better tie your shoelace.”

Picking carefully though the beer-splattered mess, Vincent sees that most of the bottles have broken. Shit, shit, shit. He gets slowly to his feet. “You stupid bastards,” he says. “You’re gonna have to pay for all this—”

Roy’s hand whips around behind his back and snakes something out of his rear jeans pocket. There is a metallic snick, and Vincent sees a long blade glitter coldly in the starlight. “Your fuckin’ shoelaces trip you up,” he says slowly, “and you think we’re gonna pay for it?”

Vincent puts out a hand to keep his old friend at bay, seemingly unaware of the broken bottle he is holding.

But Roy sees the threat and lunges toward him. Vincent jerks to the side, his hand flashing forward defensively.

There is a sudden scream, and for just a moment it is unclear which of them has made the sound, but it is both of them who have cried out, both who have been wounded.

They stand there in the Museumplein beneath the blanket of stars, swaying from side to side, Marco and Tommy looking on in dumbfounded horror.

A spray of arterial blood gushes from Roy’s throat, and there is hot pain on the side of Vincent’s head.

Roy drops his switchblade and crumples to his knees, clutching his neck in both hands, before toppling over.

“Holy shit,” Marco breathes. “Come on, Tommy, let’s get out of here.”

As if by magic, the two of them disappear, leaving Roy and Vincent behind.

Vincent gingerly touches the left side of his head, where blood streams from a deep gash left behind by Roy’s knife.

“You cut me!” he whimpers. “You fucking cut me!”

He collapses to the pavement and lies there weeping as Roy’s body trembles violently for a long moment and then grows still.

The two of them remain there, side by side like a pair of lovers, until Vincent hears the wail of approaching sirens through the starry, starry night.

__________________________________

Excerpted from “Starry, Starry Night” by René Appel and Josh Pachter, included in the anthology Amsterdam Noir edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter. Used with permission of the authors and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).




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