American Skin

American Skin

by Ken Bruen

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At the beginning of Bruen’s dark tribute to the Irish fascination with the American dream, Stephen Blake is on the run after a bank heist, hoping to disappear in the desert near Tucson. Blake has the money and his girlfriend, Siobhan, knows how to launder it. All he has to do is change his accent and his skin and pass as an American. But John A. Stapleton, contract killer for the IRA, wants more than his share of the swag—and the psychotic Dade, obsessively devoted to the music of Tammy Wynette, is wandering the Southwest like a slaughter wagon. Noir master Bruen (The Guards) effortlessly moves his storyline back and forth in time, all his trademark pop-culture references in place, the banshee of existential agony wailing loudly.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497665460
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 324,612
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ken Bruen (b. 1951) is one of the most prominent Irish crime writers of the last two decades. Born in Galway, he spent twenty-five years traveling the world before he began writing in the mid 1990s. As an English teacher, Bruen worked in South Africa, Japan, and South America, where he once spent a short time in a Brazilian jail. He has two long-running series: one starring a disgraced former policeman named Jack Taylor, the other a London police detective named Inspector Brant. Praised for their sharp insight into the darker side of today’s prosperous Ireland, Bruen’s novels are marked by grim atmosphere and clipped prose. Among the best known are his White Trilogy (1998–2000) and The Guards (2001), the Shamus award-winning first novel in the Jack Taylor series. Along with his wife and daughter, Bruen continues to live and work in Galway.

Ken Bruen (b. 1951) is one of the most prominent Irish crime writers of the last two decades. Born in Galway, he spent twenty-five years traveling the world before he began writing in the mid 1990s. As an English teacher, Bruen worked in South Africa, Japan, and South America, where he once spent a short time in a Brazilian jail. He has two long-running series: one starring a disgraced former policeman named Jack Taylor, the other a London police detective named Inspector Brant. Praised for their sharp insight into the darker side of today’s prosperous Ireland, Bruen’s novels are marked by grim atmosphere and clipped prose. Among the best known are his White Trilogy (1998–2000) and The Guards (2001), the Shamus award-winning first novel in the Jack Taylor series. Along with his wife and daughter, Bruen continues to live and work in Galway.

Read an Excerpt

American Skin

A Novel

By Ken Bruen


Copyright © 2006 Ken Bruen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-6546-0


THE TRIBES OF GALWAY were fourteen merchant families who settled in the town between the 1230s and the 1540s and who held power and prestige until the early decades of the twentieth century. They were not tribes in the usual sense. The term was apparently adopted by the townspeople themselves or used as a derisive term by Cromwellian soldiers.

Among the most ferocious of the tribes were the Blakes ... famed as soldiers.

The Browns — no mean fighters, either — are sometimes known as Bruen.

One of the first casualties at Gettysburg was a D. Bruen. A Richard Bruen is reputed to have skinned his enemies. Richard respected and feared a local warlord and eventually killed him. Donning the skin, he tried to literally become the man he'd admired.



GLEN TRIED to keep the SUV steady. It was the oldest model, lacked the safety features of the newer ones; not even the seat belts were secure and Karen had been on Glen's case about how unsafe it was, but with his drinking, he'd let it slide, like everything else.

He'd sworn to get it adjusted now he was sober but they had to run ... right now.

The needle was hitting 100 and Karen was screaming, "He's right on us."

Glen, sweat pouring into his eyes, shouted,

"Goddamn it, Kar, I can't risk going off the road."

The vehicle on their rear was blinding them with mega lights. Behind Karen, Rosie, their four-year-old daughter, was staring saucer eyed at her parents; she'd never heard them cuss each other. Beside her was Ben, ten years old, wearing a Jet shirt, his father's old catcher's mitt in his lap. He pulled at it, as if it might end the terror. Glen felt the chassis sway dangerously, — if a car came from the other direction, they were fucked. He was hogging the middle of the road as it was. Karen, near hysteria, howled,

"Glen ..."

Rosie tried to cover her ears; her mother's fear frightened her more than the bogey man behind. The man behind popped a Juicy Fruit, hit the volume on the stereo, The Clash with "London's Burning."

He was in his late forties, wearing tooled cowboy boots, faded 501s, and a Lakers shirt. A jagged scar on his left cheek resembled a lightning strike. A whore in Philly, whom he'd tried to cheat out of her fee, had come at him with a broken bottle, attempting to gouge his eye out. He'd beaten her to an inch of her life then fucked her again, all the time, the blood pouring from the slash she'd inflicted. He was proud of it now, told folk it happened in the First Desert Storm, a raghead had tried to take him out. On his left arm was a tattoo with the name "Dade" ... a souvenir of a time he'd been incarcerated down in Dade County, of all his jail time, it was the most fun, he got to kick the shit out of a drag queen and the food was fine, hash browns, gravy, grits, and mashed potatoes, with pecan pie to follow. On the seat was a Walther PPK. He fastened his foot on the accelerator, the grill on his truck jolting the tail of the SUV. He reached on the dash for his Kools, one fluid motion, working the cig into his mouth and flicking a Zippo, bearing the logo "1st Airborne."

He'd bought it off a guy in Tijuana.

He glanced at the weapon, the butt was custom fitted and he touched it, muttered, "Lock and load."

A snapshot of Tammy Wynette hung from the mirror, tied with an Indian braid. He grinned at her, pedal to the metal, having more fun than hunting bear in god's own country.

Karen, terror soaking her top, knew who was behind. When she first met him, he was the soul of charm. She and Glen were having a trial separation, see if the 12 Step program would work for him. Even now, she couldn't quite figure how the man had become so quickly part of their lives, as if he'd planned it. He was so good with her son, played ball with him, treated her like a princess, never raised his voice and, if anything, he was almost too good to be true.

He'd even offered to fix up the SUV, saying that old model was a real hazard.

As the pursuit intensified, she wished now she'd let him do that.

Then Glen returned, sober, quiet, and attentive, asking for one more chance. The kids were delighted and she'd agreed. Told Dade, and watched in astonishment as he said, "Ain't gonna happen, lady."

The change in his voice, the change in his face, like a demon had been revealed.

Unnerved, she'd said,

"I never promised you this was going to develop into something."

Keeping her voice reasonable, though a fierce sense of dread was building, she just wanted him to go away. They'd been sitting in her kitchen, coffee mugs on the table and without any warning, he'd lifted a mug, hurled it through the window. The effortless power he's summoned without exerting himself. Her little girl had come running in and he said,

"Nothing to worry about sweet thing, Mom and Dad just having a little disagreement."

The little girl, who'd never taken to him, near spat,

"You're not my Daddy."

He tut-tutted, Karen had never in her life heard anyone actually make that sound. Turning his eyes full on Karen, he said,

"You've turned our little girl against me, her own Dad."

He managed to sound hurt and lethal. She realised he was completely crazy, that brand of insanity that is so extreme that it almost passes for normal. She said, trying for a firm tone, "I think you better leave now."

He was on his feet, one fluid motion, towering over her, the Juicy Fruit's aroma all over her, asked,

"You're saying you want a divorce, that what you trying to tell me?" And she'd lost it, shouted,

"You maniac, we're not married, get out of my house or I'll call the cops."

He did the worst thing, he smiled at her, a smile of such malevolence that she shuddered. He strolled towards the door, said,

"You're a bad lady."

Glen came back and for a little while, it seemed okay. Till Dade appeared in the driveway, a gun in his hand, and began shooting. They'd done the only thing they could, they jumped in the SUV and fled. Karen could see his face as Dade strolled towards the door, the smile in place, and from his truck she could hear that damn Tammy Wynette singing. Glen had asked as they burned rubber out of there,

"What does he want?"

Karen had told the truth,

"To kill us all."

There was no doubt in her mind.

Rosie, unable to bear the tension, reached for the door handle. Mum had cautioned her not to touch it till Daddy fixed it and the seat belt didn't even lock.

The shock of wind rocked Glen and he went,

"What the fuck?"

The man in the truck saw what appeared to be a package hurled from the SUV, bounce against his grill, and disappear. He ducked reflexively, nearly losing control.

Karen twisted round in her seat, moaned,

"Oh sweet Jesus."

Ben let the mitt go, the wind tearing into the seat. Karen grabbed at the wheel, screaming,

"Stop ... stop ..."

And the vehicle went off the road.

Crashed into a tree at a speed upwards of 120 mph. Karen, her air cushion not working, shot through the windshield, hitting the tree with her head, crushing the neck down into the torso. Glen's air cushion kicked in and he sank into its folds. Ben, his belt tied, the only one still working, bounced against the upholstery. The truck ploughed into them, the grill preventing serious damage. Dade's head hit the dash, opening a three-inch cut above his right eye. Blood began to pour down his face. Took him a few minutes to focus, then he reached under his seat, saying,


Got a bandana, a souvenir from a Springsteen gig, wrapped it round his head, said,

"Sucker hurts."

The Clash had shut down with the collision, he said,

"Bummer Strummer."

A silence followed. He popped a couple reds, reached for the Walther, got out. His boots crunched on the asphalt as he sauntered towards the SUV. He surveyed the make of the thing, thinking it must have been the first off the line, how goddamn old was that? The lights from the ruined vehicle lit up the tree. He could see the remains of Karen, suspended on a branch, asked,

"Hanging out, babe?"

Glen pulled his head from the cushion, took in the carnage before him as the glass on his window shattered, a voice asking,

"Glen, how you doing there buddy, day at a time, that how it goes?"

Shot him twice in the upper chest, dragged him out, leaned over the seat, looked at Ben, took the mitt, and put a round in the child's face. Counted, said,

"Uh ... huh, one missing."

A Buick approached, slowed, catching him in the glare, he moved to the side as the car stopped. An elderly man behind the wheel, rolling down the window, going,

"What happened?"

Dade shrugged, said,

"Shit happened."

Shot him between the eyes, reached in, got the wallet, had a hundred bucks in there. He climbed into the truck, reversed, a grinding of metal as the grill came free, pulled out, moved off, began to sing,

"Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today, me and little J-o-e ..."

His voice was low, modulated, almost a hint of sweetness in the tone.

His lights braked on a hill, then disappeared in the direction of Tucson.

"It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green.
it's memories that I'm stealing,
But you're innocent when you dream."



Galway, Ireland

IT WAS TEN DAYS since the "heist." I'd been lying low, watching the news, wondering if I was about to be arrested. The smart thing would have been to stay put, let the heat fade.

But I was antsy, anxious to move. When you're sitting on more money than you could ever even count, you're not too laid back. That my oldest friend died in the robbery was a burden I couldn't shake, refused to dwell on it.

Siobhan, my girl for a long time, came out of the kitchen, asked,

"Can we switch to Sex and The City, it's the final series."

I was glad to move, three beers hadn't mellowed me. I'd some Vicodin, the ultimate painkiller, but was saving them for the flight, said,


Siobhan was so Irish, she might have come from central casting, red hair, snub nose, fine body, and that white skin the Americans call "Irish Colour."

They know about colour.

I grabbed another beer and she asked,

"Will you watch with me?"

I could have but was finding it difficult to be still, said,

"It's always about shoes."

She laughed, the way women do when men "don't get it."

Which is most of the time.

One line did make me laugh. Carrie had a boy toy and said, "I don't know if I should blow him or burp him."

A bottle of Black Bushmills on the sink. We'd been keeping it for a special occasion. I guess this would have to be it. I put the beer down, broke the seal, got some heavy tumblers from the press, poured freely, she said,

"Put lemonade in mine."

Christ, what a travesty. But it hardly seemed the time to mention that. I poured the lemonade, made a mental note to call it "pop," get into American mode. Every day, I adjusted my vocabulary, getting in gear.

The robbery flashed across my mind, Tommy's ruined face, the bullet hole where his nose had been, and gripped the counter, muttered,


Siobhan turned, asked,


"Nothing, caught my finger on the cap, no big thing."

I meant Stapleton, the coldest man I ever met. Our third member of the gang, he was the iceman, with eyes like the dead, according to rumour, and a long time with paramilitaries.

He'd supplied the weapons, most of the strategy.

He also shot Tommy.

In bed, Siobhan asked me if I loved her, I said I did.

Kept it casual, I loved her more than mere words could express, she was the beat of my heart.

She worked for an investment bank, was helping me off load, legitimise the mountain of cash. I already had American Express, Mastercard, Visa ... Gold.

And a healthy wedge of dollars. Siobhan had a banker's attitude toward money, not concerned where it came from but very anxious where it was going, I'd asked,

"Are you sure you won't get caught, this is a serious amount of cash you're channelling?"

Got the look, she said,

"The day a bank refuses money is the end of democracy as we know it."

It was in my interest to agree. I'd been worried about CAB, the Criminal Assets Bureau, who were highly effective in shutting down John Gilligan and a legion of others. She explained,

"They've been bringing down dopers, now they're after politicians."


She held my face, staring intently, asked,

"You're not political are you Steve?"

Like most Irish men I could talk it, give me a few pints, I might even mean it. I just rarely bothered to vote.

Our plan was to meet up in Tucson, picked the eighth day in the month as it was, she said, her lucky number. I'd given Siobhan a gold Miraculous Medal, with a long chain, seemed in keeping with our rendezvous, lucky numbers and religion, how could we lose?

Before I left the next morning, she'd suddenly taken it off, hung it round my neck, a serious expression clouding her face. I'd asked,


"I have a terrible feeling you're going to need it."

She was right.

It was Siobhan who'd chosen Tucson and naturally I asked why. First she said, "That dry heat, every day being warm."

It may seem to other nationalities that we're more than a little obsessed with the rain. We are.

If you spend a childhood getting drenched, soaked to the skin, wet to your very core, you'd be happy never to see a drop of it again. When we get, say, five, yeah, count 'em, five days of sunshine for a summer, we're near orgasmic. We must be one of the few nations who hope global warming is true if it means dry weather. Then she said,

"And you'll want to see where that gunfight took place."

Jesus, I hadn't the heart to tell her she'd got the wrong town. Loving someone does mean not correcting them. Shortly before I left, she discovered her error, asked me why I'd said nothing, and I did the one thing she respected most of all, I told the truth, said,

"I didn't want you to feel bad."

Her expression, of wonder, awe, then she said,

"So it's true, there are men who really love women."

To change the subject I asked,

"Are we going to Tombstone then?"

She shuddered, blessed herself then,

"Good god no ... we couldn't live in a place named after a graveyard."

The awful irony is that we may as well have chosen it: Graves were going to be the legacy of the whole enterprise in the fallout.


"Who by Fire"


DADE HAD DISCOVERED Tammy Wynette in prison, he'd done more time inside than he liked to remember. As a child, he'd been nourished, cared for, by parents who adored him. He was the exception to the rule that if a child is reared with love and warmth, he'll be a mature, compassionate adult. But then, Dade was a force of nature, as vicious, cold, and unconcerned as the storms that arise out of nowhere and drown the fishermen travelling on the currachs to the Aran Islands. The islanders are so fatalistic about this eventuality that they never learn to swim.

Meeting Dade, you were in a similiar position, any survival skills you'd attained weren't going to be much help. He was the Great White shark of urban malaise: random, ferocious, and struck from the depths of unfathomable darkness. His earliest memory was killing a goldfish; a birthday present, he snatched it from the bowl, threw it in the toilet, watched it swim for a bit, then poured bleach in.

The tiny creature writhing in agony exhilarated Dade and he took the plunger, poked the fish till it near disintegrated from the cleanser. His mother, discovering the performance, was horrified and gave him a serious talk. He learned to lie almost instantly, claiming he was trying to ... clean the little fishy.

Then he immediately learned another vital skill, weeping. As the tears flowed, he felt nothing, save a buzz from fucking with another person. His father was less gullible and Dade noticed him watching him from then on. Next birthday, he got a puppy, a beautiful collie that his Mom suggested they call Lassie. Dade torched Lassie; it took a time and he got bit twice but felt it was a fair tradeoff for the sheer elation. This time, he was taken to a doctor; alas it was too late to take Lassie anywhere save the trash.


Excerpted from American Skin by Ken Bruen. Copyright © 2006 Ken Bruen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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