Stars & Stripes by Jed Power

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Sometimes with a shakedown you get more bang for your buck than expected.

I’d been lucky for a change; I’d opened my little fireworks shop just at the right time—about three weeks after New Hampshire legalized the things. I was right in on the ground floor. Perfect location too—within spitting distance of the beach and right smack dab on Route 1A. All the crazy Massachusetts kids and the vacationers (who couldn’t even buy a sparkler in their own state) had to pass right by my place to get to party city—Hampton Beach.

And man, was it a sweet operation at first. I had a ten-year lease and I was making money hand over fist. It was pouring in and it was legit. I hadn’t had to do anything with the .38 revolver I kept under the counter, except clean it, since I’d given up my old ways and opened this place. I was selling anything and everything, I didn’t give a crap. I had all the old standards: M-80’s, Cherry Bombs, Roman Candles and 80 pack bricks of fire crackers. Yeah, all that old stuff, but new things too. Like Saturn Battery Missiles, Sonic Jacks, Whistling Jupiters and little tanks that moved around on the ground and shot out fire balls as they went.

And the amount of product I was moving? It was unbelievable. Each year, for about a month before the 4th of July, I’d get a tractor trailer load delivered every other night. And believe me, that’s a lot of stuff.

Of course, I had my problems too. Like the time some tough guys (or at least they thought they were tough guys) came around to have a little talk with me. Seemed they didn’t like the idea I was buying my fireworks direct from an out of state source. They wanted to set up their own wholesale operation and sell to all the dealers on the seacoast, if not the whole state. I told them that was a nice idea, but if they came back to see me again I’d shove a Blockbuster down their throats. Oh yeah, I forgot—I had used the .38 once—when I flashed it at those punks. They left; they didn’t come back. And it probably wasn’t just the sight of the gun either. Christ, if you saw me you’d probably wonder why they tried to muscle me in the first place. Plus that, I’ve been around. Man, through the years I’ve been involved in everything from…well, maybe I’d better get back on track. I don’t really know you too good, after all, and I don’t want to get into more trouble than I’ve already got.

And what trouble’s that, you want to know? The trouble that started the day that little squirt walked into my store. He was a nervy little bastard and I knew right away something was up as I watched him paw through my merchandise like it was the contents of someone’s trash bag. He poked around through everything, as if he could tell the difference between Black Cat firecrackers (yeah, they still make them) and Wolf Packs. Right.

I kept an eye on him while I rang up an Iwo Jima Assortment box for some kids from Boston. The factory stamps a $179.00 on it, so I let the kids think they’re getting over on me by giving it to them for a hundred bucks. Course I only pay thirty-five for them. On the other hand, they’re probably doubling their money on them down in Beantown. Nice business, huh?

Soon as the kids are out the door, the squirt walks up to me, bouncing a little bit as he comes, like some short guys do, trying to look taller, I guess. It didn’t work. Besides being a peanut, he had a bald head, a round face and nerd type clothes. A real dink. And his voiced sounded just like he looked.

“Business is good,” he said. A statement, not a question.

“It’s all right,” I said, holding my hand up and making it shimmy. Even if I wasn’t a little leery of this character I still wouldn’t have gotten too chatty. I don’t like getting to friendly with my customers. After all, selling fireworks is like selling cars—they all want to dicker with you on the price. So it doesn’t pay to get too chummy with someone who in five minutes might be trying to gaff you on the price of a Toot and Twirl.

“Nice location too,” said the squirt, “right on 1A here.” He waved his soft hand in the direction of the road in front of my store. It was a nice Saturday afternoon and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper trying to get over the bridge to the beach. “Matter of fact, this is the only fireworks joint on 1A. Isn’t it?”

For some reason, I didn’t like the way the conversation was going one bit, so I stood up from my stool behind the register. That’s usually enough to shut up most pests. But not this one; he didn’t even blink. And that worried me. Like I said, I been around and I can smell trouble as fast as a strong fart.

“You ever think of selling this place?” he asked. He looked into my eyes like maybe he thought he could kick my ass. I didn’t sense crazy; so I wondered what he knew that I didn’t.

“Never,” I said, real hard-like, even for me.

“Maybe you oughta consider it,” he said, with a little smirk on his face like a real punk. “I’ll make you a nice offer.”

“Not interested, pal.” And I wasn’t. Why the hell should I have been? This was my little gold mine. After all the dues I’d paid through the years I damn well deserved it. And I sure wasn’t about to sell while it was still paying off like it was.

“You better get interested,” he shot back.

Now talk like that really threw me. I had to shake my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and that the little twit actually said what I thought he’d said. Him threatening me? What’s wrong with this picture? I was debating in my head whether the jerk had a magnum tucked under that stupid flowered shirt he was wearing when I was distracted by Iver coming out of the back room carrying a box of Jumping Jacks.

Iver’s my helper and he’s an old townie. Lived his whole life here and he knows if someone blows their nose the wrong way around town. He’s retired, except for the part-time work he does for me stocking the merchandise, cleaning up, and helping the customers. He does everything except the register. No one touches the register but me. Like I said, I been around.

Well anyhow, Iver comes out of the back with the case of Jacks and I see him take one look at the squirt, his eyes bug, and he does a complete 180 and disappears back into the storage room.

I don’t like the look of that one little bit; maybe the squirt is packing. Still, I got my pride. “Hit the road, fruitcake,” I growled down at him. “I ain’t sellin’ nothin’ to you.”

“You’ll change your mind,” he said with that smug punk look still plastered on his face. “I’ll give you a week to come around. No more.” With that he pulls a piece of paper out of the pocket of that god-awful shirt he’s wearing and drops it on the counter.

By now I’m ready to come around the counter and drill him into the floor, but in the back of my mind I could still see Iver’s pop-eyes, so I stifled myself and instead just said, “Beat it,” and showed him how a thumb looks pointing at a door.

He made a little snorting noise, turned and headed for the door. Just before he reached it he shifted his face back toward me, pulled some kind of rolled up poster out of his pants back pocket and said, “You don’t mind if I put this in your window, do ya?” He didn’t wait for an answer, which I was too stunned to give anyway. He even had the nerve to pick up a roll of my tape from one of the tables and use it to stick his poster to the inside of my front window facing out.

He’s no sooner gone then I drag old Iver out of the back room. “Who the hell’s that?” I asked.

“Rymer Swanson,” Iver answered, and I noticed his voice was actually shaking.


“He’s a big politician in town.”

“So again. What’s that make him, a tough guy or something?”

“I guess it does,” Iver answered, his voice still shaking. “His family is one of the oldest in town. They been here longer than the sand.”

“And what the hell does that mean, exactly?” After all, I was from Boston. What’s the big deal with a local-yokel politician?

“That means that his family and a few others been involved in business and politics since way back when. Now they run just about everything in town that’s worth running.” Iver lowered his voice and leaned in a little closer to me. I could smell his breath; it wasn’t good. “They’re all related. They intermarried. And some look a little odd. What’d he want with you, anyway.” His voice was still shaky.

“He wants to buy the store,” I answered. “He left his number; gave me a week.” I picked up the piece of paper he’d dropped on the counter and looked at the phone number.

“That’s bad,” Iver said gravely, shaking his head. “You better sell.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I said, really pissed now. “Why should I? I’m not lettin’ some local yokel muscle me. Especially with July four comin’ up.”

“He can cause you a lot of trouble,” Iver said ominously.

“Like what?”

“I dunno, but if you don’t call him in a week, you’ll probably find out.”

And man, was old Iver right. As soon as that week was up trouble started marching in the door like it was on parade.

The first to drop by for a visit was the fire inspector. And damn, if he didn’t look an awful lot like the squirt. “Ya ain’t got enough extinguishers,” he said.

“I got the legal amount,” I said, knowing I did.

“Not for a fire hazard area like this,” he shot back, letting his hand flutter around in front of his face. “Get two more or I’ll shut ya down.”

Next up was the building inspector. He appeared the next day. He could have been the fire inspector’s brother; they looked that much alike. “Your storeroom’s too small for all these explosives,” he said. “Get half of them outta here.”

“Where the hell am I gonna put ‘em?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.

But I got one. “Anywhere but in this town, pal,” he said before leaving.

Next on the roster was…guess who? That’s close, but no. It was the plumbing inspector. And you’re bright enough so I know I don’t have to tell you who he looked like. “This toilet’s outdated,” he said. “You’re using too much water. Get a new one in here fast.”

I thought I had him. “Hey, that toilet’s grandfathered in,” I said.

But like Iver said, these characters have been doing this for a long time. “Maybe,” he said, jiggling the toilet handle, “but it ain’t flushing right. So it still gotta go. If it isn’t replaced, I’ll have to let the department know.”

I was afraid to ask, but I did. “What department?” I asked warily.

He gave me one of those punk smirks that I already told you I hate and said, “Water Department.”

I won’t tell you about the rest of them; my blood pressure’s spiking already.

My first step was a meet with my Boston lawyer and he was a big help like they always are. “Look,” he said, rubbing his face hard up and down, from forehead to chin. “I can come up there, we can fight it, take ‘em to court. But I’m tellin’ you, a city like that, they got it sewed up. They’ll just nickel and dime you to death. Plus my bill won’t be small. You want my advice? Seriously? Hey, you made some good money. Had a good run. Sell to the drip. Take what you can get and bail out. You aren’t going to beat them; it’s their playground.”

“Thanks much,” I shouted, as I slammed his door on my way out. I was hot and I pushed a couple of suits out of my way as I headed down the hall to the elevator. Man, I hate lawyers.

Anyway, when I got back to the store I was still steaming. I knew that wouldn’t do me any good; still, it was a struggle to calm down. Eventually I did though, as I leaned on the counter, beside the register, staring out the window, trying to come up with an angle. Just thinking, coming up with nothing. Until…my gaze dropped down to the poster the ballsy, little bastard had taped to my window when he’d been here with his ultimatum. The sun was shining on it and I could see the letters clearly, but they were backwards and all scrambled up and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. But some part of my brain must have been able to decipher it because even as I ran around the counter and out the door I knew what it was and what it meant. And man, was I right. That red, white, and blue poster read:


Plus a bunch of other stuff about when and where, that I didn’t care about right then because I was running with the idea. A good one too; I could feel it. I remembered hearing something once, so I checked with Iver in the back. And sure enough—the display wasn’t only sponsored by the city council, but the fireworks were actually set off individually by the council members running up and down the line and igniting them with small flares. And best of all, the head of the council always set off the finale. And that was my buddy, the little squirt—Rymer Swanson. So that was it; it fell together real nice like. Screw around with me will you, you little bastard. Like I said, I been around.

Now don’t get the idea it was a breeze after that; it wasn’t. I worked on the damn thing for an easy week. Down in the store’s cellar, alone, at night. The powder was easy; I had plenty of that upstairs. I just emptied more M-80’s than even I knew I had.

The rocket though was tougher. I got hold of a bunch of aerial rockets (the kind they use in commercial fireworks displays) from my supplier and started playing around with them real careful like because I didn’t want to get hurt. That’s all I would have needed. And it didn’t take me long to figure out what made them tick either. But still, trying to make one do what I wanted, that was a different story. I tinkered with the shape of the thing, the amount of powder it’d need, and the weight of the contraption. I tried everything. I even went down the dunes late at night a few times and fired off a few of them as trials. But no luck; they wouldn’t do what I wanted. I felt like giving up, but I didn’t. Instead, I kept fooling around with the damn things until I almost drove myself crazy. Then, suddenly—Yes!—I had it. I took one without a charge in it down the dunes, and baby, it did just what I told it to. Looking back now I don’t know why I had so much trouble trying to figure it out because it was easy. All it took was a…well, I can’t tell you that right now. But don’t worry; I’ll tell you later.

Anyway, all this time the squirt and his buddies were still trying to get me to sell, but I had my lawyer stalling them; at least the shyster was good for something.

I knew the squirt’d be back sooner or later to see if I was ready to yell uncle, so I wasn’t surprised when he waltzed in a few days before the 4th. He walked right up to the counter, put his pudgy hands on it, looked up at me and said, “How much you want?”

And man, he had that smug, punk look that I hate on his face again. I could have gone over the counter and killed him right then, but that would have spoiled everything. “$100,000,” I said, my voice shaking with rage I hoped he’d think was fear. “And I’ll throw in all the fireworks you want for your 4th of July display.”

“50,000,” he shot back. “And we got all the fireworks we need.”

“Not like that,” I said, holding my breath.

The squirt glanced at what I was pointing at and then walked over to it. It stood taller than his waist and was half as round, with red, white and blue stripes and the words Stars & Stripes painted in Day-Glo letters down its side. It was a unique looking rocket.

“What the hell’s that?” he said, as he sidestepped around it checking it out. He had his hands on his hips, below the white, patent leather belt he wore high on his protruding belly.

“Something new,” I said, not lying. “Supposed to go up right after the finale rockets; fills the sky with a big American flag.”

“No way,” he said, bobbing his bald, glistening head. “That might be nice. Real patriotic-like. I’ll send a couple of guys around later to pick it up.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said meekly, like I was intimidated.

The squirt was still talking as he headed for the door. “Oh, kid,” he said, “my lawyer’ll get all the papers drawn up for us to sign. And it’ll be for 50, like I said. Any problem?”

“No,” I answered, hanging my head like I was beat, but inside, man, I was anything but. And imagine that punk calling me kid. Well my turn was coming and it was going to be fun. I was going to enjoy it a lot. A real lot.

But he still wasn’t finished. Just as he was ready to close the door behind him he turned, and said real sarcastic like, “Oh yeah. I forgot. You don’t have to throw that big rocket in for free; I’ll pay ya for it.” With that he took a coin from his pocket, and with his thumb flipped it across the room just missing my head. I almost snapped right then and there. But again, I just grinned and held my fury in. He gave me that smug, punk look again and walked out slamming the door behind him.

Well, of course, I wasn’t there the big night (I’ve always thought fireworks are dangerous in the hands of amateurs), but I heard the Stars & Stripes rocket went up and out and curved around over the water before it came right back and slammed into the ground not more than five feet from where the little squirt launched it. Not bad, huh? I guess the explosion was pretty deafening. Believe it or not, some people actually thought the nuclear power plant blew up. Ha! They had to call in emergency equipment from as far away as Portsmouth and Salisbury. It was that bad. But I won’t make you sick with all the gory details; let’s just say he got what he deserved.

Since then the state’s made a lot of the good fireworks illegal again, but it doesn’t matter to me. How the hell could I make any dough on them anyhow, sitting here in the county jail? My lawyer says it doesn’t look too good (ain’t he a big help again); still, they have to prove intent. Which they’ll try to do. On the other hand, all their physical evidence went poof. That’s good. No matter how it turns out, it’s going to cost me every dime I made these past years hustling those crackers, plus more, all for the shyster.

And by the way, that brings us back to why I didn’t want to tell you right up front the little secret to my invention. How I fixed the rocket to come right back on top of him like that. You see, I’m gonna need dough, and lots of it. So if you know anybody who’s getting their toes stepped on, and they need a little help…well, I’m open to offers on how to make your own Stars & Stripes. It’s a sweet little invention and worth every dime someone would pay for it. Just imagine what you could do!

Hey, don’t look at me like that. After all, what choice did I have? It’s a tough world out there and you got to do what you got to do. Take my word on it; I been around.

Jed Power is a Hampton Beach, NH based writer and an “Active” member of Mystery Writers of America. His two novels in the Dan Marlowe crime series, The Boss of Hampton Beach and Hampton Beach Homicide, are now out in both e-versions and trade paper. The third novel in the series, Blood on Hampton Beach, is coming soon.

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