Monday, 2 April 2012

DEAD MAN'S SWITCH by Liam Sweeny

TKnC welcomes New Yorker, Liam with this hardboiled offering... 

Dead Man’s Switch

Darius grew up on the wrong side of the tracks his father rode tirelessly as a train conductor. Long hours; he'd come home soot-coated and sweaty, those few times he could be home. He had forearms as big as the thighs of a lesser man, six-foot-four, with dark eyes framed with darker, bushy brows. Darius rarely saw him, but his father was a good man; worked so hard to get food on the table, get his mom the microwave ovens and him the latest toys - saved enough to put him through college, state college anyway. One day, when he was seven, Darius asked his dad about the trains.

"Papa, what if you get thrown off the train?" he asked, "Does it keep goin'?"

His father laughed. "Boy, that thing's got a dead man's switch."

"There's a dead man on the train?" Darius's eyes opened wide.

"No, no... it's called a 'dead man's switch'. It's in case..." He paused, "in case I get thrown off the train, or I hit my head."

"Oh." Darius said, scratching his head, "but why do they call it a 'dead man's switch'?"

"That's just what they call it." His father said. He put his arm around Darius. Their house overlooked the train-yard
"Those trains can be so heavy, and go so fast that if ya' can’t stop 'em, they can hurt a whole lot of folk." His father punched straight into the air. "So they have a switch, the dead man's switch that shuts them down if we can’t do what we're supposed to do."

"But you won't fail, will ya', papa?"

"No siree’…" He said. "Not on my watch."


Years later, Darius got a phone call in his dorm at SUNY Oneonta, drunk as dirt, stoned to shit. State Police. His mother and father were gunned down in that same house across from the train-yard. They caught the guy pawning his mother's gold bracelets, an anniversary gift he himself bought her with his work-study money. He had to have his room-mate drive him home to identify the bracelets. They never let him see them; it was best that he not, they said. The funeral consisted of two closed caskets.

Friends and family surrounded him during the funeral, but he was numb. He was surprised how many people came to the funeral. He expected family and a few of his friends, but the priest had a packed house as he walked the mourners through the valley of the shadow of death. It was the guys from the railroads that came, by the droves. Such a tight bunch, each having a story about how his dad saved their skin when this piece shit the bed or that train pulled into the rail-yard at the wrong time, how his granite grip pulled many a hapless soul from being crushed between a hundred tons of coal on each end. But it was the other stuff; the times that he was there for his guys during the trying times, times like that funeral. And they were all there for Darius, offering him so many phone numbers and twenties, fifties and hundreds “just to help get him by.” It was moving, and touching but Darius couldn’t feel touch, or be moved by anything through the image of mom’s anniversary bracelets.

Every primal, inconceivable nightmarish creature his mind could ever conceive held him captive once the blind shock wore off. He didn’t measure out his life with coffee-spoons like Prufrock, but with emaciated bottles of rotgut. Then came the trial of the man who murdered his parents.

He went to court every day of the trial sober, watched the testimony, the experts, claiming insanity, and Darius just wanted to give the court a real example of insanity, psychotic rage aimed at the defendant. The defendant had a name; he refused to recognize it. The man's first name was murder. His middle name was convict and his last name was lifer.

Until a technicality excluded enough evidence to hang the jury and a mistrial renamed him 'out on bail.'

Darius saw the man again... through the scope of a high-powered rifle. He had enough money from his inheritance to rent an office space in the building opposite the courthouse for one month, with enough left over to buy the rifle and join a gun club where an old hick taught him how to shoot a quarter at two-hundred and fifty yards.

He opened the window, backing up enough to keep the barrel inside, sighted in to dead center of the chest of the murderer, waiting patiently. The dirtbag stopped to light up a cigarette before going in to start another mistrial. Darius remembered his father punching straight into the air, could hear him say the words.. "...if ya can’t stop 'em, they can hurt a whole lot of folk..." The justice system got thrown off the train, hit its head, failed to do what it was supposed to do.

Darius looped his finger into the trigger guard, felt the cold steel of the hair-pin. He took a breath, let it out and pulled the dead man's switch.

Bio: Liam Sweeny was born and raised in upstate New York. His writing career began as a result of working in Louisiana with Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2006. His crime and noir fiction has appeared in various sites, such as Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine, Powder Burn Flash, A Twist of Noir, Shotgun Honey and others. He has published three novels and an anthology of flash fiction. In his free time, he is heavily involved in disaster relief.


  1. Hi Liam,

    Loved the way you came full circle with this, not only cleverly linking his dad's words of wisdom, but also using the title to great effect.

    Really enjoyed this one, feller, so it's a hat tip from me.


  2. I like the internal choices you made to keep the subtle beat of the story going, Ben. Almost like the clickety-clack of train wheels moving the reader along. I agree with Col, the last line is a (pun pardon please) killer. Perfect all by itself, yet harkening symetrically back to the title and the first lines of the tale.Almost like a train releasing steam as it pulls into the station at the end of its journey. Cool.

  3. Great symmetry as the guys said, but for me calling him Murder Convict Lifer was a stroke of genius. Not giving a proper name to the killer was very clever indeed.

  4. Liam-well done! Really excellent work with the characters and the overall story. This line was just awesome!

    "He didn’t measure out his life with coffee-spoons like Prufrock, but with emaciated bottles of rotgut."

  5. Not a story for train-spotters. Enjoyed this very much, Liam.

  6. Thanks, everyone. I appreciate the comments and support!