BY: HOWARD LEVINE
Frank Tedeschi’s niece is dead, one of thousands of victims of a terrorist attack, which has been laid at the feet of “Islamic radicals” by a right-wing US government. Frank—based on a chance encounter—is one of the very few people who question the government’s explanation. He’s a Vietnam veteran who wants nothing more than to live without further controversy or conflict. Can he and his grieving brother Rob, a detective with the NYPD, obtain the necessary evidence to uncover the truth in the face of scorn and incredulity? Can they overcome their long-term estrangement to work together, given that they are putting their lives in danger?
In Last Gasp—a novel that resonates with today’s politics—the answers to these questions unfold in a way that mingles personal and societal issues and intertwines the past and present while moving relentlessly forward.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Last Gasp by Howard Levine, Frank Tedeschi and his estranged brother Rob are forced to work together to solve a mass murder at a heavy metal concert, which killed Rob’s daughter Laureen, Frank’s favorite niece. Rob, an NYPD detective, enlists Frank’s help when he discovers that Frank’s employee had bragged to Frank a few days before that he was going to gas the concert and kill a bunch of “anti-Christs.” They don’t know if he was really involved or was just blowing off steam, but he has disappeared, and the brothers believe he knows something, at the very least. But the government has blamed it on terrorists, and if the employee did have a hand in it, he was probably set up. But can Rob and Frank find him before the people trying to kill him do?
Both a family drama and a page-turning mystery/thriller, the story will grab you by the throat and keep you enthralled all the way through.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Last Gasp by Howard Levine is the story of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who just wants to live a quiet life running the family hardware store. Frank Tedeschi is tired of controversy and conflict, including the differences he has with his brother, Rob, an NYPD detective. But when Rob calls, sobbing, and tells Frank that Rob’s daughter, Laureen, has been killed in a terrorist attack at a local concert, Frank is devastated. Laureen was Frank’s favorite niece, and Frank and his brother have been estranged for some time, so Frank doesn’t know how to comfort him. Then Frank remembers a comment one of his part-time employees at the hardware store made, about killing a bunch of people at the concert, a few days before it happened. At the time, Frank thought the man, a “Jesus freak,” was just spouting off, but now he is not so sure. Was it really terrorists as the government claims, or was it something much more sinister?
With marvelous, believable, and well-rounded characters; fast-paced action; intense, hard-hitting suspense; and plenty of plot surprises, Last Gasp will keep you on the edge of your seat, turning pages as fast as you can all the way through. A really great read.
The Bronx, 2010:
Billy Patterson hesitated only briefly. If the guy was that much wasted flesh—packaged in a uniform—that he could sleep even through the “music” of Shove it Up, sleep on the job, when the whole job was to stay awake, to guard two-thousand square feet and one miserable door, then he probably deserved to die, with thanks for making Patterson’s job that much easier. Besides, it wasn’t really Patterson’s decision. It was God’s. He was just the instrument. A silent one, the antithesis of a screaming guitar, and the more deadly for it.
Not surprisingly, everything was proceeding without glitches. The canister had been just where he’d left it in the wee hours of the previous day. Ditto for the compressible gas mask. His pre-Jesus skills at breaking and entering had not eroded with time. And in the rush of fans to get situated before the “concert” began, to find seats, to load up on beer—as if the vile, mega-amped material flying off the stage would not leave them shit-faced enough—no one had noticed him picking the lock on the custodial closet to one side of the men’s room on level one. Dressed in the garb of the maintenance crew, including work gloves, he’d slipped back into the onrushing throng with the mask and canister in hand. The latter resembled a large thermos, silver and innocuous looking. Its gas was highly concentrated, invisible and lethal, divine wrath made manifest.
The intake unit of First Union Arena’s central air conditioning/heating was in the basement, along with various circuit breakers, power generators, and the lockers of the unfortunate Event Staff members. The Shove It Up concert would be their last event. This was unavoidable, and Patterson had no real qualms about it. They were not-quite-innocent bystanders, however badly they might have needed the money. Still, those most deserving of a luxury suite in hell, the promoters, were likely nowhere near. The world was large, there was a lot of filth to spread, and only so much could be done via the Internet.
The corners of Patterson’s tight lips twitched with unbidden mirth at the thought that the concert would indeed be a gas. But not for the sleeping guard, who would die via a bullet from the plastic gun Patterson had carried in with him. A few simple pieces of equipment—a forged ticket and the gun—and all of the “security” measures in place within the arena, starting with the metal detectors, were worthless. Security, anti-terrorism, kill the Jihadist before he kills you, but let the more insidious terrorists—the ones who poison souls—waltz right into the arena and set up on stage. Provide them with a devil-worshipping audience. Sold out.
When Patterson shot the guard in his temple, the gun’s report was like a punctuation mark to amazingly loud snoring. The phlegmy exhalations had shaken the guard’s body, much as the bombast of Shove It Up caused the arena to physically throb, even down in the basement. The concert would likely end in a slightly more piecemeal fashion, one or two band members dropping their instruments first, perhaps with a final screech, and keeling over a second or so before the other idiots noticed, before they came crashing down themselves.
Blood poured from the side of the guard’s head. Its sudden red brightness was the more striking in contrast with his dark skin, with the dusty dullness of his close-cropped salt and pepper hair. Patterson froze, or the moment did. In his former career as a thief, he’d never killed or even shot anyone, although he employed the threat often enough. Now he’d moved on to bigger and better things.
It couldn’t have taken nearly as long as it seemed for the guard, whose head had already been drooping halfway down to his knees, a line of saliva dangling from his open mouth, to collapse over his own fat stomach, to roll off the metal folding chair and onto the concrete floor like some viscous, jellied mass. Fortunately for Patterson, he was the only witness to this implosion of a life. He’d come prepared to shoot his way out of the arena if need be, or to die trying. Neither seemed a likely scenario now. The dimly lit, cavernous basement was largely deserted. Its gloomy expanse formed an echo chamber for death metal, or whatever it was that the mohawked, leather-and-stud clad members of Shove It Up blasted out of their instruments, converting the basement into a metaphor for hell, a harbinger of things to come.
“Bless me, Father Boyfucker, for I have sinned
Stuck a needle into my skin—”
The lyrics—non-melodic ranting superimposed upon instrumentation that evoked a screeching train wreck replayed again and again—impelled Patterson out of his temporary paralysis. He was not a Catholic. But Shove It Up had blasphemed Jesus repeatedly in its so-called music. The idea was to profane everything holy as loudly as you could, and to do it repeatedly, taking advantage of Christian forgiveness and giving a new meaning to the term filthy rich in the process. Patterson was sure that neither the band members nor their fans, as they breathed their last, would appreciate the irony that they were following in the footsteps of Christ, who had died for their sins.
Locating the security camera—they were never that hard to find, it was like he could feel their subtle heat on his skin—he faced it and defiantly bellowed what he considered some blasphemy of his own. If they couldn’t pick it up over that amplified trash, well then, they could read his lips. Patterson stuck the gun under his belt and laid the canister and gas mask at his feet, a safe distance from the spreading pool of the guard’s blood. Then he removed the gloves. Ordinarily, picking the lock on the door of the room housing the intake unit would have been a piece of cake, only slightly more difficult than shifting gears on a manual transmission, if there were any of those left around. But he was a bit shaky, more with excitement than fear. He rarely used two hands as he did now, one to steady the other. Still, the job was done in no more than a minute. He stepped into the room, into the destiny that had been awaiting him his entire life. Of that, he had no doubts.
During his run-through the previous night, Patterson had discovered that the intake unit itself was unprotected. It stood in front of him now like a monolithic oracle of destruction, insatiable, its nonstop inhalation producing a powerful, keening roar which, fittingly enough, all but obliterated Shove It Up’s musical mayhem, along with the screaming and stomping of the fans. The roar intensified as he slid the filter out from the unit. Unleashed, it blasted through the vacated slot, evoking the sonic emissions of a turbojet engine at close range.
Patterson would have instinctively fallen back, were he not already staggering beneath the weight of the unwieldy filter. It finally crashed to the floor. A cloud of dust and grit arose from its corrugated surface. He covered his face with both hands and coughed, turning away, nearly gagging. Nonetheless, a smile briefly played at his lips. He was receiving a diluted dose of his own medicine, a humbling reminder of his own mortality, and of the salvation that had been his since he’d accepted the ever-patient Jesus into his heart.
Half a minute late, he donned the gas mask. He’d paid cash for it at a Ranger Surplus store in White Plains. To his surprise, some of the same punk types who’d probably camped overnight to get Shove It Up tickets were clustered around the locked display cases, ogling hunting knives, guns, even grenades. Once home, Patterson modeled the mask in front of a mirror. He was astonished. It was as if he’d been transformed once again by God, his countenance becoming the impartial, featureless face of justice, of a righteous avenger whose eyes were naked windows, a seer, a search-and-destroyer of sin—although he knew that, in fact, there’d been no searching involved.
Lewd posters for the Shove It Up concert, featuring the frenzied, howling faces of band members, had been plastered all over downtown White Plains. The Hot Beef Injection tour, named for their latest CD. No, there was no searching involved. His mission had found him, announced by the lurid posters for a show in the Bronx, Sin City sending its tentacles north. Hot Beef Injection. Well, he had an injection of his own to administer now. And the boys wouldn’t feel a thing, at least until they arrived in hell. They worshipped the devil? They deserved a little home cooking.
Still, given his past history of mistakes, and the humbleness that came with the gift of salvation, not to mention the enormity of the act to which he’d been called, Patterson had felt the need to consult with the Reverend Tate beforehand. Maximilian Tate, founder and spiritual leader of the Christian Crusade, had so named the organization with apologies to no one, Muslim or otherwise. After all, Christ had been unequivocal: “He who is not with Me is against Me.” And individuals who were not saved were damned. Especially those who defiled His name.
Not surprisingly, the reverend was a powerful man. Even “mainstream” Christian leaders, while publicly painting him as a “fringe” Christian—if a Christian at all—were still obliged to pay attention to his words. He was a self-described Christian Militant. Some called that a contradiction in terms. But it was also an identity that was being adopted by more and more individuals, who were fed up with the flouting of Jesus’s teachings in America, a country founded, as the reverend liked to point out, by Christian Militants.
Much to the chagrin of the mainstream—read that “televised from a mega-church”—leaders, Tate’s influence was growing. It was only because of Patterson’s part-time employment with the maintenance staff at the Holy Church of Christ that he was able to obtain an audience with the reverend, and even then it wasn’t easy. But Billy Patterson, especially since his rebirth, was nothing if not persistent.
After finally being summoned, he hustled upstairs straight from one of the fields behind the church. He could barely keep himself still as he was patted down outside the reverend’s office by security, on the off-chance that he was wearing a recording device. Patterson was sure that he himself would be recorded, by the reverend’s own equipment, but he saw no inequity in this. A man of Maximilian Tate’s status needed to exercise all due caution. He was an easy target for the vultures from the liberal media. Their attention was not entirely unwelcome. Still, private audiences with him were intended to be just that. Patterson, champing at the bit, quickly gave his word and scribbled his signature on the form.
The reverend had listened intently as Patterson laid out his idea, its ramifications, and his own qualifications. The words came out non-stop, spring-released, having been stored and suppressed—mostly—for about as long as Patterson could stand it. The path for the second coming was waiting to be cleared. The world needed to see what became of those who blasphemed the name of Jesus. He, Patterson, had picked up some experience with AC units, he’d tried his hand at a lot of things, legal and otherwise, scrounging for that paycheck, hoping for a big haul. Now it was time to render service unto the Lord. And the rewards would be eternal, a limitless paycheck redeemable in heaven, signed by Christ himself.
At this, the reverend’s elfin face had creased into a smile. His own words were being offered back up to him, demonstrating again his ability to reach those who before had likely been hopeless, helpless. Clearly, Patterson had been so inspired that he was willing to lay down his life, if necessary—Jesus-like—even if the plan bordered on insanity. Or crossed over the line.
This was not surprising, coming from the wild-eyed Patterson, whose tawny hair was flecked with bits of grass, some protruding as if they had taken root. Still, Reverend Tate’s response had been that he’d have to think it over, maybe consult some higher-ups. Patterson’s yellowed teeth flashed in a quick smile of his own. He knew that the reverend would pray for guidance, punch in the number of the Lord, to whom he had a direct line.
When he finally heard back from Tate—it only took a few days, but it seemed like forever—Patterson was stunned to hear that the plan had received divine approval. A day or two removed from his initial meeting with the reverend, he’d expected just the opposite. He needed to learn to trust his instincts, to trust himself, now that he was walking in the light of Jesus. And Jesus would surely understand it if he told the reverend a little white lie, in the name of setting his mind at ease.
“No problem, no problem at all,” he’d replied, lips set in a thin, grim line, after Tate had warned him to tell no one about the little surprise that awaited Shove It Up and its fans at the concert in the Bronx. But Patterson had, in fact, already run the idea past Frank Tedeschi, his employer and buddy-of-sorts at Tedeschi’s Hardware. Patterson worked there part-time, to augment the pitiful salary he received as an assistant groundskeeper at Reverend Tate’s church.
If calling Frank Tedeschi his “buddy” was an overstatement, it was still true that Frank was more willing than most to listen to Patterson’s critiques of American popular culture.
“Don’t take it personally, man,” was his stock response when Patterson started getting exercised, and the color began rising in his face.
If Frank was ever really a Christian, he was a lapsed one now, the kind who might make it to church only if it were unavoidable, say for a nephew’s communion. Live and let live was his creed. Thy will be done, on the off-chance that You exist. And that quick laugh, cut short by a customer’s approach before its wing-flapping cadence could really get rolling, had been his predictable reaction to the notion of Patterson fumigating the Shove It Up concert. A few minutes later, still assuming that Patterson was joking, Frank had suggested that he “find a gentle woman to curl up in bed with, preferably one with large breasts.”
Now, his face inside the gas mask—a fitting metaphor for his separation from other people, even though the only one currently nearby was dead—Patterson approached the AC intake unit with the canister in hand. The gas it contained, highly concentrated and highly poisonous, state-of-the-art, had actually been recommended to him by Reverend Tate. “A maximum cleansing agent,” Tate had called it. Patterson mirrored the smile that briefly danced at the corners of the reverend’s lips. It seemed that Tate possessed the capability and connections to obtain any information, pertaining to heaven or earth.
Surprised to find himself trembling ever so slightly, Patterson had pocketed the sheet of paper that Tate extended to him over the polished teak desk.
“Two birds with one righteous stone,” the reverend declared.
Typed on the plain sheet was contact information for the gas. The contact, Bryan Norton—or whatever his real name was—turned out to be a fortyish Caucasian in a sweat suit that hung loosely on his tall, thin frame. “Patterson?” he said, making a very educated guess as he stepped out of his Ford Escort. His headlights had been extinguished before he drove into the parking lot, this little piece of stealth often being an indication of criminal activity. As it surely was in this case, Patterson knew, at least according to society’s laws. But, ultimately, there was only one judge of what was a crime and what was not. Still, crime or otherwise, Patterson was beginning to have second thoughts. He had no desire to fry on a terrorism rap or to go through the attendant vilification and infamy beforehand. Gamely, he tried to remind himself that he was acting in the name of Jesus, who had suffered much worse, and in whose presence he would spend eternity.
Patterson struggled to keep his hand steady as he took a gym bag from Norton. “The canister can only be opened once, and then it’s curtains,” Norton matter-of-factly informed him. It went without saying, but he said it anyway: “Have a gas mask on beforehand. You don’t wanna breathe in the tiniest leak of this stuff—unless you have a death wish.”
Norton, his face overlain by the brim of a baseball cap, took a last look around, quickly scanning the parking lot, although he’d have needed a search beam to see much. He wordlessly ducked into the Escort and drove off. Patterson was left holding the bag. Or so he’d told himself, in a joking attempt to calm his rampaging nerves as he slid back into his own car.
This was for real now. And it was a whole different ball game from petty thievery. The simple transaction he’d just engaged in was the beginning of an upheaval that would radically alter the world. On a more visceral level, what he was really holding in his hands was the extermination of maybe seventeen thousand people. Possibly his own as well. They deserved it, but still…
Patterson just did it. He watched himself unscrew the top of the canister, a job made slightly more cumbersome by the work gloves, which would leave only the invisible fingerprints of the Lord. The gas was barely visible as it seeped out like an exhalation on a borderline January day. It was that innocent looking—mass death in a breath. All of it, maybe twenty seconds worth, disappeared into the intake unit’s powerful suction, virtually ripped from Patterson’s hands. The poison would now diffuse throughout the system, exit through all of its vents.
As he ran toward the nearest door, which opened onto a loading dock, Patterson felt as if his own body was diffusing, expanding, as if his soul were leaping upward, a process seemingly augmented by the still-blasting music. The giddy rush that he felt was jarred loose from him as he smashed into the door, harder than he intended to, or would’ve, had he been calculating, and had the gas mask not compromised his vision. The bar latch along the width of the door depressed beneath the force of his body. Patterson burst out onto the loading dock platform. The act of yanking off the gas mask blinded him for a couple of seconds, long enough so that he didn’t see his assailants until they’d already gotten the jump on him. But it was his dumb luck—for however long it lasted—that the first blow of a club was absorbed by the gas mask and his upraised left forearm, rather than his head. In recoiling from the sudden impact, he unintentionally ducked a second club, coming from the other side. It ripped the air above him.
A few moments’ worth of action, but they seemed to unfold in slow motion. Patterson elbowed the second guy in the stomach. Then he reached inside his pants pocket. Before he could extract the plastic gun, the first attacker landed another blow, this time to Patterson’s left shoulder. That side of his body went numb. But this hardly mattered. He’d been supercharged with adrenaline, to begin with. Now he was a wounded tiger.
Patterson slammed a knee into the first guy’s crotch. As he reached for the gun again, he was tackled by a third man, who slammed him up against a van that was backed up to the dock. Thug number three ripped the gun away. As Patterson lunged for it, the second guy’s club landed against his skull. He went limp, collapsing into the tangle of bodies. Two of the assailants heaved Patterson into the rear of the van. They quickly slammed the doors.
© 2018 by Howard Levine
“Howard Levine’s Last Gasp is a page-turning thriller—one that is very topical, given the current political situation in America. It’s also a family drama. Levine’s characters are rounded and believable, and my sympathy for them, and for the daunting mission they undertake, made it even harder to put the book down. I recommend Last Gasp highly. It’s a great read.” ~ Bill Stixrud, author (with Ned Johnson) of the national bestseller, The Self-Driven Child
“Last Gasp by Howard Levine is a fast-paced thriller, filled with unexpected twists and turns in the action and deep insights into the hearts and motivations of its characters—a highly original and skilled blend of literary depth and compelling suspense.” ~ Carol Goodman, Hammett Award winning author of The Lake of Dead Languages and The Other Mother
“For those readers who find today’s political headlines as fascinating as they are disturbing (and even for those who don’t), fasten your seat belts for a roller coaster suspense plot ride that will compel, inform, and unnerve you. Frank and Rob Tedeschi are unlikely but superbly drawn blue-collar heroes who, in Last Gasp, find themselves unexpectedly at war with the highest levels of the US government. Levine, a brilliant creator of character, setting, and plot, masterfully draws on his expertise in areas as diverse as the history of the Vietnam War protest movement and the geography of New York’s Hudson Valley to concoct a narrative and perspective that the reader will be drawn deeply into, and never forget—a thought-provoking and spellbinding masterpiece.” ~ Lee Slonimsky, author of Bermuda Gold and co-author of the Lee Carroll Black Swan Rising trilogy