Written by Steven Max Russo — It’s taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson in this new crime thriller by Steven Max Russo.
Back in the late 1960s, when Frank was an American soldier in Vietnam, he was part of an elite and secretive group that found and eliminated Viet Cong operatives. It was silent, deadly work. On a jungle trail one night, he successfully killed a VC courier and when the elderly man was followed a moment later by his young granddaughter, Frank’s partner slit her throat too. ‘This is not war, it’s murder,’ Frank told himself, and with the picture of the dead child in his mind, he shot his partner. After that, getting out of the military was easy.
That was then.
Today, Frank is a recent widower who lives in rural Maine near the Canadian border, and he doesn’t relish talking about the war. Some things have to stay secret. He’s driven south to New Jersey to visit his nephew Bill and his family. Bill takes him to a trap-shooting range and they enjoy their day until a stranger approaches. ‘Don’t I know you?’ he asks Frank.
Although Bill senses something threatening about the encounter, it isn’t nearly as threatening as what happens around four the next morning when the windows of his house are shattered by some sort of projectiles. The police agree it wasn’t gunfire, more like a powerful ‘wrist rocket’ – a jumped-up slingshot. Someone is making a point. Since windows on three sides of the house were blasted out simultaneously, three someones.
Frank is eager to get back to Maine, fearful of putting Bill, his wife and two sons in danger. He believes the middle-of-the-night message was for him and has a very good idea who sent it. The buddies of the American he shot in Vietnam so many years ago have found him.
He’s right of course. These three men are full of plans for how to track Frank, thanks to the Maine license plate on the truck in Bill’s driveway, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower they need to take with them. And they’re fuelling their revenge with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
The three are all about Frank’s age, which is a bit of a stretch. I can imagine guys in their 20s and even 30s launching such a ‘righteous mission’, however misguided. I find it harder to believe such behaviour among men near 70. Yet the author makes clear that the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies. All three have had a wife, girlfriend or loathed boss who has mysteriously and permanently disappeared. Lest you assume they must have mellowed, what with smoking all that dope, on their road trip north, they casually murder a convenience store clerk. His crime is refusing to sell obviously intoxicated men a bottle of Jim Beam. They are the living embodiment of the phrase ‘itching for a fight’.
Uncle Frank receives a mysterious phone message warning him that these dangerous and unstable vigilantes are on their way. Not that he needs it. He isn’t under any illusions about their intentions. In fact, he’s every bit as dangerous as they are, without the crazy. Smarter too. He’s taking steps to protect himself against their arrival, relocating to a remote hunting camp in the woods. From the time the three amigos hit the road, the inevitability of the confrontation looms over the narrative and makes the pages fly by.
Back in New Jersey, Bill has second thoughts about letting Frank go back to Maine alone. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d probably be more hindrance than help in any kind of showdown. ‘Stay home!’ I kept telling Bill telepathically, but despite my fervent wishing he gets on the highway and heads north.
In this way, author Russo sets up not just a confrontation involving multiple parties of varying level of skill and sobriety, he also establishes a way for Frank and Bill, especially, to test themselves.
This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life in the Garden State.
Down & Out Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars