Hop Alley by Scott Phillips – review

Hop-Alley-225x300Scott Phillips returns to the saga of the Ogden family with Hop Alley, a novel that covers some of the time glossed over in his excellent “Mid-Western” Cottonwood.  It’s the late 1870′s and Bill Ogden, living as “Bill Sadlaw” ever since a killing he did back in Cottonwood, is living in Denver and running a photo studio.

Aside from running around with his landlord’s laudanum-addicted mistress, Sadlaw’s living a fairly peaceful, scam-free life when we catch up with him.  Hell, his landlord is actually cool with Sadlaw’s dalliances, seeing how he wants to move onto a younger model of side-piece and hopes Sadlaw will cover her rent in his stead.

But when Sadlaw’s idiot assistant’s father (and his old biddy housekeeper’s brother-in-law) is murdered it sets off a series of events that could lead to Sadlaw having put another man in the ground at worst and settle somewhere else with yet another false identity at best.

The story is related in the first person by Sadlaw with a droll sense of humor with an emphasis on Sadlaw’s balancing of his humors, especially the white ones.  There are wonderful turns of phrase on every page and scuzzy old-timey assholes around every corner, each one more hilariously rendered than the last by Phillips.

A slim volume, Hop Alley reads fast but feels expansive and hearty, with Phillips late in the novel even getting down to some of the closely guarded pain within the normally prickly Sadlaw.  It’s a hilarious tale that never reads like a “comic novel,” a piece of historical fiction that never feels distant- it’s a fucking Scott Phillips novel and that’s all I should have to say.

 

FICTION: Short Change Heroes (Part Two) by Terrence P. McCauley

In Part One, spy James Hicks recruited an old co-worker, Michael Rivas, for a contract job in La Antigua, Guatemala.

CHAPTER 4

Michael Rivas’ device buzzed as soon as he left the club, signaling that the target package Hicks had promised had been downloaded. It had been a long time since he’d gotten anything sent to his phone and the buzz felt good. Like he was part of something again, even if that something was rotten.

He waited until he was back in his car to check his phone. Like many cars in Guatemala, the windows were heavily tinted to discourage car-jackers and other thieves from stealing their cellphones at red lights. But Michael had never been afraid of robbers. He had tinted windows for privacy.

Once inside, the standard Enter Passcode screen came up on his phone. His normal code would open the features common to any smartphone. But the code he entered now led him to a secondary screen that activated his phone’s camera to scan his facial features. Once verified, a second prompt appeared for a longer ten digit code that was unique to him. He entered it and waited.

A second later, Hicks’s target package downloaded. A picture of his target’s face filled the phone’s screen; a doughy, tired looking man in his mid-fifties. Thinning black hair clearly swept back to hide the bald spot at the back of his head. Sad brown eyes set deep and wide apart on a fleshy face. He looked like any other mid-level bureaucrat in any other part of the world.

Except this man wasn’t in any other part of the world. He was right here in Antigua. And tonight would be his last night on earth.

Michael thumbed the picture up to reveal the rest of the target package the University had prepared on the next screen. The information was bare-bones. No fancy logos or official-looking interface. Just everything he’d need to know about how to kill the man.

Name: Antonio Marquez.

Age: 54. Height: 5’7

Weight: 210lbs.

Habits: Smoker; excessive drinker and eater; gambling; philanderer.

Sexual Preference: Hetero.

Female preference: Prostitutes; casual encounters. Prefers: Brunettes (petite).

The report contained other information that could’ve helped set up Marquez for an elaborate kill, but Michael didn’t have time. He had an address, which he found by thumbing the next page into view.

In English, the place Marquez was staying at was called the Bougainvillea Town Houses, a new development on the western edge of Antigua’s historic district. It was like similar housing developments that had sprung up in town over the past decade: high walls, big gates, guards armed with shotguns and nine millimeters. It was in the part of town that was home to the domestics who worked in the hotels and shops of the city. It was only a matter of time before the developers bought up their buildings and pushed them out, too.

Since it was far from the main tourist district, the cobblestones there were paved, which Michael liked. Cobblestones were a bitch to drive over when you were in a hurry and he’d be in one hell of a hurry after killing Marquez.

He had his target’s face and where he lived. All he needed was a means to kill him. Hicks had taken his gun, so now he needed another.

And he had a good idea about where he’d find one.

****

Michael leaned against the courtyard gate of La Compania de Jesus over on Sexta Avenida and lit a cigarette. La Compania was one of several church ruins that tourists loved to visit, making it one of the best places in the city to score marijuana. Street punks of all ages browsed the crowd, quietly asking wide-eyed gringos if they wanted weed as they passed by on the narrow sidewalk.

But Michael wasn’t there to score weed. He needed to convince a pusher to take him to his source. Because sources had guns. Most street-level pushers didn’t have guns because cops frisked them all the time. Low amounts of weed cost them their stash and got them a night in jail. Finding a gun on them came with a severe beating followed by a long prison sentence.

There were other places in Antigua to find guns, of course. Guards at the hotels and nightclubs all had them, but Michael didn’t want to hurt some poor bastard trying to make a buck. He could always take one off a cop, but didn’t want to risk the dragnet they’d throw over the city afterwards.

No, the best place to find a gun fast was by taking it off a source.

Michael knew he if he ghosted some drug buys, he might turn up a gun but that would take time. Neither time nor luck was on his side. He’d need a gun to kill Marquez and he needed it soon.

He was half way through his second cigarette when a pusher ambled over to him. He was a boy not much older than the one he’d killed that morning in the market. He nodded at Michael’s cigarette. “That shit’ll kill you, friend. I got stuff that’ll make you feel real good.”

Michael took a drag. “That so?”

The boy leaned against the gate, casually eyeing the street for the police who watched over the tourists. “I’ve got some real prime stuff, jefe, especially for a big spender like you.”

How quickly these kids could size a man up never ceased to amaze him. “What makes you think I’m a big spender?”

“Gringos come over here looking to score weed, but locals like us can get that shit anywhere. I can tell you’re not a cop, which makes you a local, which means you’re looking for something more. Lucky for you, I got friends.”

Michael made it look like he was thinking it over. He wouldn’t need a cannon to kill Marquez, but he’d want something dependable. A nine-millimeter at least. A weed peddler like this kid probably only had a knife on him, but if his source carried cocaine or heroin, he’d have some good firepower to protect it.

“You got friends that deal in powder?”

“Now you’re talking, jefe. I knew you were a player.” The punk seemed more pleased with his perception of Michael than he was with the money he’d make on the sale. “How much you got on you?”

“Enough. How much you got?”

“As much as you need. Let’s see your money and I’ll go get it for you.”

Michael eased the wad of kill money he’d earned that morning out of his pocket just enough for the punk to get a look at it. His eyes went wide with greed.

But Michael said, “You’re not getting me anything. I buy from your man directly.”

“Nah, jefe. You know it don’t work that way. You give me the money…”

“And I never see you again. What do I look like? Some drunk gringo looking to give away my money? Take me to your source or your source comes here.” He stuffed the money back in his pocket. “Otherwise, I buy from someone else.”

The kid snickered. “That ain’t gonna happen, jefe. He won’t come here.”

Michael shrugged and turned away; scanning for other sellers.

He heard the kid tapping his sneaker nervously against the gate while he thought it over. Michael didn’t blame him. Taking a new buyer to his source was risky, but then there was all that cash Michael had shown him. Was it too much to walk away from?

Michael got his answer when the kid said, “You gonna be here a minute?”

Michael nodded. “Not too long. I get a better offer, I’m gone.”

The kid was already on his way. “If I’m not back in five minutes, I’m not coming back at all.”

Michael watched him head up Sixth, disappearing in the flow of tourists browsing the menus of restaurants across the street. Trying to see where the kid went would be pointless. Many of these old buildings were connected by back doors, so he could be going anywhere.

By the time Michael had almost finished his third cigarette, the kid was back. He noticed the kid was a little out of breath, so he must’ve traveled a few blocks in a short amount of time.

“He said he’ll see you,” the kid told him. “He’s not happy about it, so you better be for real, jefe, or it’ll be both our asses.”

Michael flicked his cigarette into the street. “Lead the way.”

 

CHAPTER 5

 

He followed the kid back up the street about two blocks before they ducked into a dingy farmacia just off Sixth. It was like every other farmacia in Antigua, lined with all the things you’d expect to see in a drug store back in the states, except in a much smaller space. A large bulletproof cage dominated the back wall where the counter was. All of the expensive, easy-to-steal items were behind the glass. A big, handwritten sign above the counter said in English: Smile, You’re On Camera, though Michael figured the camera had probably been turned off for this particular transaction.

The kid hovered off to the side as the man behind the glass beckoned him further into the store. Michael had hoped there’d be more people than just him and the counterman. Even if the counterman had a gun, he’d never get it away from him behind the thick glass. Michael thought about walking away, but decided to let it play out a bit longer.

Then two other men walked into the store behind him. Michael caught their reflection in the bulletproof glass and saw they were squat broad men with big bellies. They looked like they’d been tough once, but those days were long gone. One of them eyed the street while the other stood facing Michael; holding a nine millimeter flat against his right leg. He stood close, but not close enough for Michael to make a grab for the gun. Not yet, anyway.

The counterman said, “What do you want and how much do you want?”

“Depends on what you’re selling.”

The counterman scowled at the boy, who’d begun to shrink against the corner. “Come on, jefe. Quit playing games. You know why you’re here.”

“Who’s playing games?” Michael asked. “I asked him a simple question and he …”

He saw the counterman signal the gunman, who went to grab him.

Michael drove an elbow into his throat and snatched the gun from his right hand. He got behind the gunman and wrapped his arm around the gagging man’s throat; pulling him back against the wall with him as cover.

He had the gun on the man eyeing the street before the man had even turned around. The kid who’d brought him here was too paralyzed to move and the counterman was behind half an inch of bulletproof glass. He couldn’t do shit even if he’d wanted to.

With the gun, Michael beckoned the man watching the street inside the farmacia . “Nice and easy. No need for anyone to get hurt. You got a gun?”

The man did as he was told and stood next to the cringing boy. He raised his hands and turned around slowly. Michael saw a lot of flab, but no gun. Michael told him to raise both pants legs and he did. No gun on his ankle either.

The counterman glared at him, angry and impotent from behind the scratched glass. “What the hell do you want?”

Michael didn’t want conversation. He just wanted to get as far away from there as possible. He aimed the nine at the kid. “Open the door or I shoot the kid. Do it now and do it real slow.”

The counterman quickly reached over and slid the bolt open. Michael motioned for the boy and the other man to go inside and they did. He pushed the gunman against the glass and frisked him. “Any more bullets?”

“No. That’s all I have.”

The pat down proved him right. Michael swore under his breath. Fucking peasants never thought ahead.

“Get in there with the rest of them, then lock the door behind you.”

The man did as he was told. The counterman came back around to the slot near the cash register and yelled: “What the hell are you doing?”

“Stay in there for exactly thirty seconds. After that, you can do whatever the hell you want. But if I see anyone stick their head out that door, I’ll come back here and kill all of you. Understand?”

Everyone nodded except the counterman. “You mean all you wanted was the gun? Hell, I could’ve sold you a goddamned gun!”

But Michael didn’t stop to answer.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Dawn was still more than an hour away when Michael parked his car alongside the wall of the Bougainvillea Town Houses.

Like most developments in Antigua, the wall had been built fifteen feet high with broken glass set into the concrete atop the wall. Three strands of barbed wire strung along the top drove the message home: stay out.

Even though Michael had walked away from the Life the year before, his training had never left him. That was why he always kept an extra thick, heavy blanket in his trunk for just such occasions.

He lugged the heavy blanket down the dark alley and tossed one end high over the wall. The blanket covered the barbed wire and broken glass; snagging on the sharp edges. He tugged on the blanket and knew it would hold his weight just long enough for him to get over the wall.

He took as much of a running start as he could in the narrow street and ran at the wall; digging the sole of his sneaker against the painted cinderblocks and propelled himself upward.

He grabbed the blanket high, close to the top of the wall and pulled himself up. He carefully straddled the top of the wall, knowing he was silhouetting himself against the brightening sky, but he was more fearful of a guard or a passing cop spotting the blanket hanging over the wall.

Careful not to slip, he pulled the other side of the blanket up with him as he dropped inside the compound. The blanket snagged on the wire and broken glass, but tore clean and fell with him.

Michael quickly draped the blanket over his head and shoulders to confuse his outline in the weak pre-dawn light. If this had been a normal operation, he would’ve been provided with the times when the guards went on patrols. Or he would’ve had time to observe them long enough to figure it out for himself. But this wasn’t an operation. This was a quick and dirty op for an asset looking to get back in. He’d been trained to make due.

The townhouses were like the other, newer development projects in Antigua: built to look older than they really were. Cracked facades with faded paint and windows with Spaniard-styled cages bolted over them. While ornamental, they were also effective at keeping people out. People like Michael.

He’d thought of other ways of killing Marquez. Taking a shot at him on the street or in his car was risky and civilians could get hurt. Michael didn’t particularly care if innocents got hurt – collateral damage was part of the job – but a bunch of frightened people calling cops and taking pictures with their cellphones made a clean getaway much more difficult.

That’s why he’d decided to hit Marquez so early; well before the noon deadline. More people asleep meant fewer witnesses.

But he had to find a way inside first.

The antiqued bars on the windows made climbing in a window impossible, so he moved around to the front of the house. The front door was locked and solid. But the twin doors on the side looked like they led to a garden or patio area. That was good news. The high walls and armed guards in housing developments often gave residents a false sense of security. They often forgot to lock the garden doors properly.

He pushed the doors slightly and saw they were locked, but not bolted to the ground. There was just enough give to open them with just enough force.

Once inside the garden, he closed the doors behind him and tossed the blanket aside. He’d come back for it after the job was finished. He would need it to get back over the wall.

The area wasn’t really a garden. It was a cracked concrete slab with a patch of green and a gurgling fountain against the far wall.

Michael saw two empty bottles of wine on the metal table on the patio. Even in the twilight of the coming dawn, he could see the remnants of red wine caked in the bottom of two glasses.

Two glasses meant Marquez might have company. If that was the case, he’d deal with it. Collateral damage.

Michael tried the glass door leading from the patio into the house. People were often more careless with interior doors than they were with outside doors. Luckily for him, the door was unlocked and he went inside.

He quietly closed the door behind him and pulled the nine millimeter from his belt. He checked the living room, the dining area and the kitchen. He expected all of them to be empty and they were. That meant the bedrooms must be upstairs.

Marquez clearly liked big leather furniture and modern art because the living room was filled with both. Michael didn’t know what Marquez did for a living, but somewhere along the way he’d acquired expensive tastes. Too expensive for an honest bureaucrat’s salary. Michael wondered if that’s why the Dean wanted Marquez dead. He quickly remembered that ‘why’ didn’t matter in this business.

Michael took an overstuffed pillow from the couch and headed upstairs. The pillow was thick enough to muffle the sound when he shot Marquez and whoever else was with him. True, there’d be pillows in the bedrooms, but since he didn’t know what he’d be walking in on, it was best to come prepared.

The stairs popped under his feet, but not loud enough to wake anyone. The floors at the top of the stairs were stone tiled. No creaking floorboards to give him away.

A door on the left at the top of the stairs was open. He checked it. An empty guest bedroom.

Another door across the hall was also open Marquez’s home office. Also empty.

One door left. And it was closed.

It was the kind of door developers put in places like this. New, but weathered to look old. Instead of a doorknob, there was a Spaniard style metal latch that was more for decoration than security. But latches like that were noisy as hell. They often stuck, only to pop and jangle when opened. If Marquez was a light sleeper, the rattle might wake him. He might go for a gun in the nightstand or try to run. Things could get loud and loud attracted attention this early in the morning. He couldn’t let that happen.

Michael tucked the pillow under his arm and slowly pulled the door closer; easing pressure on the latch as he pushed down on the lock. It rose with a click instead of a rattle.

Knowing the hinges would creak anyway, Michael opened the door quickly and stepped into the bedroom.

He found Marquez alone in bed – on his back – snoring loudly amid a sea of pillows. Glass doors leading out to a balcony facing west were wide open. That would’ve been a much easier way inside than creeping through the entire goddamned house. He cursed Hicks for not giving him that information and for not giving him enough time to set the hit up properly.

He also cursed himself for being in the position where he was forced to take such a rotten assignment.

He set aside that nonsense and brought up his stolen automatic as he approached the bed.

Just as he’d gotten close enough to press the pillow on Marquez’ face to muffle the shot, he heard the front door crash open downstairs. He didn’t know who it was or why they’d just kicked in the door.

It didn’t change anything, either. The crash woke Marquez just as Michael pushed the pillow over his face, jammed the gun into the center of the pillow and fired twice. He didn’t have to lift the pillow to know Marquez was dead.

Whoever had just kicked in the door was already bounding up the stairs in one hell of a hurry. Sounded like two, maybe three men. Michael had no intention of hanging around to find out.

He ran for the balcony and looked over the railing. Nothing was in jumping distance without risking a busted ankle or worse. Dropping to the courtyard below was the safest bet.

He threw one leg, then another over the railing and began to ease himself down just as bullets began pelting the balcony and the railing. He held on for just a second longer before dropping to the ground.

The wall between Marquez’s house and the one next door was too high for him to climb. He was trapped. All the dogs in the development, spooked by the shots, began to bark and yip. He heard the men who’d shot at him running into the bedroom. Time to get the hell out of there.

The right side of the narrow alley was blocked by a tall gate with climbing vines, so he ran to his left, between the rear wall and the house. He’d just about turned the corner when a bullet chipped the concrete façade only inches from his head.

Michael didn’t try returning fire. A gun battle with little ammunition wouldn’t solve anything. Getting away was his only option.

He rounded the far corner and ran back toward the front of the house. The silhouette of a man blocked his path. Even in the weak light of the coming dawn, Michael could see the man had a gun in his hand. Without breaking stride, Michael fired three times, hitting the man in the center of the chest. The man slumped back against the wall separating the properties.

Michael checked the front of the house for the other gunmen, but didn’t see them.

He knew he had only a few seconds before they came after him. But he was low on ammo, so he searched the man he’d just shot for clips. He found three clips on his belt and quickly pocketed them.

He also found something else: a badge from the Guatemalan National Police.

Michael Rivas had just killed a federal cop in a very small town.

He was already running toward the main gate when the other cops began firing at him from the doorway.

 

CHAPTER 7

 

At that same moment about a mile away, James Hicks had just finished packing when his cell phone began to buzz. This was odd because no one should’ve needed to speak to him this early in the day. He didn’t have any active ops going on, except for the Marquez job halfway across town. Despite the tough time he’d given Michael in the bar, he knew Rivas wouldn’t have a problem dusting some potbellied bureaucrat.

He saw the call was from an international cover used by The University, so he answered using University protocol. “This is Andersson.” That specific alias meant he was alone and he was clear to speak freely. The phone didn’t operate on a standard cellular network, so concerns about eavesdroppers was negligible.

“Professor Anderson, please hold for the Dean.”

Hicks froze. The Dean never spoke directly to personnel – even Faculty like him – unless someone had done an exemplary job or something had gone terribly wrong. Given the hour, Hicks’ gut told him this call was the latter, not the former.

The Dean’s clear voice came on the line a moment later. “You’ve got one hell of a problem on your hands, son.”

Hicks knew there was only one answer the Dean ever wanted to hear in situations like this. “Whatever it is, sir, I’ll handle it.”

“You’d better. Because we’ve picked up chatter from the Guatemalan national police that says Antonio Marquez just got hit.”

Hicks relaxed a little, but wondered if the Dean was slipping. “Yes sir. You told me to assign that to Mike Rivas yesterday afternoon. But why would the national police care about Marquez?”

“Because they had him under surveillance and we didn’t know about it. They detected Rivas in Marquez’s house and tried to protect Marquez. Fortunately, Marquez was already dead by the time the team got to the room.”

Hicks cringed. This was what happened when an op got rushed. He kept the anger out of his voice. “Did Rivas get away, sir?”

“Yes, but he shot one of the detectives who cornered him. Hit him three times in the chest, but the cop had a vest on. He’ll probably live, but the federals are still out for blood.”

Hicks knew what he had to do next, but he also knew the Dean would have to give him permission first. The Dean was a firm believer in The Book and enforced protocol above all. He always said that moving too fast killed more people than moving slow in this business. And, as usual, The Dean was right. “What do you want me to do, sir?”

“How solid is Rivas, James. Don’t sugar coat it. I need to know in case they catch him.”

“He’s a rock, sir. A little rusty, maybe, but he’s still Mike Rivas.”

“This coming from the same man who didn’t know Marquez was under surveillance by the feds,” the Dean said.

Hicks wanted to remind the smug bastard that he was the one who ordered the rush job in the first place. But arguing with the Dean was a good way to end your career, so once again, he held his tongue. “What do you want me to do, sir?”

“I know you think he’s solid, but he’s been out of the fridge too long to know for sure. If he’s been arrested, eliminate him. If he’s alive, bring him in. We owe him at least that much. A helicopter is en route as we speak. I’ll have the coordinates sent to you in a few minutes.”

Hicks breathed again. “Thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you, sir.”

“I hate obvious extractions like this, but given the circumstances, I don’t see as we have any choice.”

Hicks already had his bag in hand and was on his way out the door. “I’m on it, sir.”

“And Hicks? No more screw ups.” And with that, the line went dead.

Hicks pocketed the phone and opened the door. Speak for yourself you old bastard.

 

Next Monday in Part Three: Can Michael Rivas escape the Federales? Will Hicks let him?

* * *

Terrence McCauley is a multi-award winning writer of crime and pulp fiction. His short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT, SHOTGUN HONEY, BIG PULP and several other publications. He recently signed a three book deal with Polis Books to relaunch two previous novels and publish a brand new work: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, featuring protagonist James Hicks. Terrence is represented by Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency. Terrence’s website is www.terrencepmccauley.com

 

The PITCH, the PUBLISHER and the CASH

by Anonymous-9

Spinetingler: So you smoked a bowl of ice, got higher than a hipster in Colorado, and SOLD all the rights to your characters and storyline from DREAMING DEEP to Uncanny Books?

Anonymous-9: It wasn’t like that. I was stone-cold sober. Honest.

Let me get this straight. You wrote a short story called DREAMING DEEP a couple years ago for Horror Factory.

Right. They called it a Crime Factory Special Edition and dedicated it to Tom Piccirilli.

The story was a 2,100-word updated tribute to horror master H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos?

Right. A ship captain appears to lose his sanity after his teenaged son disappears off a dock in Long Beach, California.

And then you did a little recycling and self-published the story again in a collection of three shorts called JUST SO YOU KNOW I’M NOT DEAD.

Correct. I gave it away for free on Amazon. Twice. Over 600 people downloaded it which is not bad for a little short story collection.

And then you woke up one morning, smoked some crack—

No, I woke up to find I had fifty dollars toward my rent for the month and I was going to have to raid my savings again. Not because I can’t get work, but because I turn work down to write. And I said, “I need one of my stories to take care of me for a little bit here. What can I do right now to make some money?” I remembered working with Andrew Byers in 2012 when he reviewed HARD BITE for Hellnotes and he’d said he was going to set up a publishing company and he actually had a budget. I got online and sure enough he’d founded Uncanny Books and was looking for fantasy, horror, etc etc. So I looked through my stuff for something that might fit the imprint. But how could I induce him to part with cash, because small presses mostly go on a generous royalty split and it’s great but it takes a while to pay off. I didn’t just want money now, I wanted it in advance! So I had to think up something different. I came up with something so new, Andrew said it was actually old, like they used to do in the 40s.

Opium was what they smoked in those days.

I would love to try some but no, what I actually did is look at these DREAMING DEEP characters that had so much potential—the tugboat crew and this poor captain that everyone thinks has gone off the deep end and he’s rotting up in Atascadero, an asylum for the criminally insane—and I knew that much as I loved the characters and the story, I’d never write them into a novel. Too many other stories are crowding my head and competing for writing time. So I said to myself, “What if I offer everything to Andrew? What if I offer to expand DREAMING DEEP into a 15,000-word novelette that can be used as the launch for a series? And what if Andrew could bring in his own writers and get them to expand and further the adventures of this tragic action-hero Captain Ed Angelus?

You thought all this up with fifty dollars in the bank toward your rent?

The thought of living on the street focused my mind considerably. I emailed Andrew, asked him if he was interested in a pitch, and we set a time to talk on the phone. I made sure he had a copy of the story and I noticed that a few copies sold on Amazon (“Free” was over and the price was back up to 99cents) so I suppose he’d had a few trusted friends look the piece over as well. I practiced my pitch on how I thought the story could be expanded and how it could launch a series and he said “yes.”

So he offered you fifty bucks and some roofies—

No, I asked for a four-figure amount with half in advance before writing got started.

And like most publishers he pitched the phone across the room and cursed like Joan Rivers with a snootful of bath salts—

No! We agreed on a figure and Andrew went away and drew up a contract and we went back and forth on a few terms but it was quite smooth. We did it all electronically by each printing out the contract, signing, scanning and sending the digital files back and forth until we made a pdf of the contract with both our signatures on it and that was that. I asked him to mail a check cause I didn’t want to lose any money on PayPal fees and he did.

Why are you telling me this? Most story deals are so secretive…

Exactly! In my opinion the more writers talk about deals and share information the more empowered we are. When you have a bit of a name and a platform, it’s time to apply some creativity and initiative to bringing in moola. Rules? There are no rules. Just like a story, dream it up and see if it flies.

I understand you have a one-year deadline.

Yes, but I hope to deliver it as soon as possible. I want the rest of my money!

www.uncannybooks.com
www.anonymous-9.com

##

Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer – review

9781476734354_b0410Patterson Wells has been carrying his dead son in his heart for years and the load hasn’t gotten any lighter.

He travels most of the year from one disaster area to the next clearing trees and observing human misery, but now it’s time for him to return to his cabin in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.  Though his dog might like the break from the road, Patterson finds that being so close to his old domesticated life just makes him tip more back and look for more trouble.

The real trouble arrives in the form of Junior, a young drug runner living in Denver who has beef with Henry, Junior’s reformed father and Patterson’s friendly neighbor.  At first Patterson thinks they’re gonna have words, but soon finds himself hanging out and boozing with the shit-starting young gun.  As their misanthropic relationship grows and their tumultuous baggage intertwines, the bodies start piling up around them and their respective heartaches only throb harder.

Cry Father is Benjamin Whitmer’s follow-up to his blistering debut Pike.

It is fucking excellent.

Whitmer’s prose is balanced beautifully between dark poetry and Leonardian terseness, a landscape never lingered on for too long nor rendered any way but perfectly, his dialogue neither too smart or “writerly” yet often hilarious or gnarly.  These hard and often cruel characters are never apologized for nor are they ever out of reach of our empathy.

The bleak world of Cry Father is filled with the guns, booze, cigarettes, and pick-ups fans of rural noir have come to love but such elements never approach cliche in their handling.  Whitmer is trying to say something about loss and fathers and sons yet offers no answers, just human truths and timeless questions.  The novel reads faster than the most structurally precise thrillers yet no genre scaffolding is ever glimpsed.

To boil it down for you: Cry Father is the front runner for best book of 2014.

FICTION: Short Change Heroes by Terrence P. McCauley

CHAPTER 1

La Terminal, Guatemala City

Present Day

 

The guardian who called himself Jose spotted the boy walking into the market.

Jose was paid to spot thieves. He was paid even more to kill them.

He watched the young man push his way through the jostling crowd of shoppers and sellers; every one of them too busy haggling for a deal to notice the young man.

Jose figured the young man was in his late teens, maybe twenty. He looked like any of the other countless boys who roamed the streets of Guatemala City, or Central America in general. Dark wavy hair; a round face with a wide, curved nose that betrayed his Mayan ancestry. He was shorter than Jose had been at that age, but height wasn’t as important in Guatemala like it was back in the States. If anything, height was a bad thing because height made you stand out and standing out was never a good idea. In Guatemala, anonymity was sometimes the only asset you had.

The boy’s black jacket made it easy for Jose to track him in the crowd. Even though it was just past eight in the morning, it was already stifling hot outside. The tin roof above made it even worse inside the market. The jacket meant the young man was either a thief or a gunman. And judging the way the boy’s eyes furtively looked at random people, Jose pegged him for a thief. Assassins were usually focused on the man they’d come to kill.

And Jose knew all about assassins.

Thieves wore jackets because jackets made it easier for them to quickly hide whatever they stole if they were lucky enough to get away unseen. Then, they could ditch the jacket and easily blend into a crowd. And of all the things Guatemala City lacked, crowds was not one of them.

A policeman in any other big city in the world might’ve just kicked the young man in the ass and told him to get the hell out of there.

But Guatemala City wasn’t like any other big city and Jose was a guardian, not a policeman. He and the other guardians were paid by the merchants to do what the police said they were too busy to do: protect them from thieves and other crooks. The merchants paid the guardians to be invisible; to be a threat implied until someone stole something. Then they were expected to stop the thief, preferably by putting a bullet between the thief’s eyes. Because a dead man can only steal from you once. The management even paid a nice kill bonus to any guardian who nailed a thief in the act. A thousand Quetzales on the spot. Blood money on demand.

Since guardians were technically outside the law, the killing was technically murder. That’s why killing a thief came with an added bonus besides the money: a couple of days off until the police lost interest. With all of the gang and drug and gun activity in the capital city, police interest in avenging dead thieves didn’t last long.

Sometimes the vendors got to the thief first and beat him to death. Since this cost a guardian his kill bonus – not to mention his time off – Jose made sure he shot a thief first.

After all, even trained killers had to eat.

Jose realized that another guardian on the other side of the market had also spotted the young man, but was still too far away to get a clean shot. Jose was the only one in position.

His training kicked in and he moved fast and smooth; going down an aisle parallel to the young man; tracking him step for step though the organized chaos of the market. Cuts of meat and fresh-killed poultry swayed on hooks above bundles of roses and fresh fruits and vegetables and cheese. Crates overflowing with oranges and pineapples and large canvas sacks of coffee from every region of the country were piled on the floor beside the various stalls. Vendors hawked their wares over the din of the crowd; announcing good prices while prospective customers barked back counter offers.

On such a humid morning, the only thing worse than the close heat of the market was the thick smell of meat, ripening fruit and sweating humanity coming together in a putrid stench. Jose half hoped the little bastard stole something just so he could shoot him and get the hell out of there.

He could tell that the thief was new to his craft. He did a lousy job of blending in as he bumped and pushed his way through the crowd. He didn’t even to pretend to browse merchandise; looking only at the vendors instead. He checked their hands and craned his neck to see the areas behind the stalls where bags and bankrolls were kept. Seasoned vendors were very careful with their goods, but newer vendors were often more careless. They were too eager to pick up new customers and didn’t pay enough attention to their money. They made easy prey for sharp-eyed thieves like the young man now among them. Jose was paid to hunt the hunters.

The young man stopped at the stall of a new coffee wholesaler from Coban. The vendor was young, only a few years older than the thief and his competitive prices had drawn a lot of attention. A thick knot of potential buyers crowded around the front of his stall. Lots of pockets to pick. Maybe some loose cash the overwhelmed vendor might lay down.

Easy pickings for a careful thief.

Jose knew that this was where the thief would strike if he struck at all. He slid the Glock from his waistband; holding it flat against his leg so as not to scare the vendors or their customers too soon. Or the thief.

Jose had plans. He needed that bonus money.

The coffee vendor had a thin stack of Quetzales in his hand, offering and counter-offering the customers who bid for his goods. Yet another customer butted in and made the bidding even worse. The vendor was distracted and leaned just a bit too forward and only for a second. But a second was all the young man needed. He lunged between the customers, snatched the money from the vendor’s hand and began running toward the loading bay at the other side of the market.

He crouched low amid the crowd as he ran; obviously hoping to blend in as he made his mistake.

Cries of ‘ladron!’ – thief! – immediately went up from buyers and vendors alike as they dropped as low to the ground as they could. They knew bullets could start flying at any moment from any direction.

The young man kept running, but looked around – wild-eyed – as he tried to find a path through all the crouching people. But everyone near him was lying flat and no one would move.

No one except Jose.

The boy looked at Jose just as Jose fired twice; catching him once in the upper chest and once in the forehead.

As soon as the firing stopped, vendors dashed back to their tables while customers scrambled to get as far away from the thief as possible. Dead bodies were bad news anywhere, especially in Guatemala where the police weren’t too picky about who they convicted for a crime. Jose tucked his Glock back into his waistband as he ran to where the thief had fallen. He wanted to claim his prize before any of the other guardians tried.

As he looked down at the young man, he tried to feel something. Anything. Less than sixty seconds before, the boy had been alive. He’d been just another hungry young man among the millions of other hungry young men roaming the streets of Guatemala City. Alive, he’d been worth nothing. But dead, he was worth a thousand Quetzal bonus and a few days off. The thief was worth more now that he was dead than when he was alive.

It was an irony that was not lost on Jose. In fact, that same irony had been eating away at him for some time now. He didn’t feel an ounce of remorse over killing the thief. He only felt sorry for himself because gunning down desperate young men in markets was the only kind of job he’d been trained to do.

The young man’s left leg was still twitching as Jose took the money from his outstretched hand. The din of the market quickly rose back to its normal level as the business of buying and selling resumed. Death was common in the Central Market of the capital city and quickly forgotten. Most of the merchants were too poor to afford feelings, especially for thieves.

The coffee merchant showered Jose with praise as he gave the man his money, but gratitude died easy in Guatemala. Words were cheap. The kill bonus was the only thing that mattered to Jose. And he hated himself for it.

He spotted Manuel Luis, the market’s head guardian, marching down the aisle toward him. Wearing a black flak jacket, pants and polished black combat boots, Manuel was one of the few guardians who didn’t try to blend in with the crowd. He was ex-Kaibil out of Poptun and had spilled more than his share of blood, both on the market floor and up in the mountains.

“Good work,” Manuel said in Spanish as he pressed the money into Jose’s hand. Killing was so commonplace in the market, Manuel always carried bonus money for his guardians. “Now get the hell out of here. One of these fucking peasants has probably already called the police so they’ll be here any second. Be sure you disappear for a couple of days and don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Call me in a couple of days and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back.”

Jose had been through this drill before. He figured he had about fifteen minutes before the police got there. The farther away he was from the market, the better.

The only people who looked at him as he left the market were the guardians, who were annoyed he’d gotten a kill so early in the day. Thieves would be wary of the market for a couple of days at least, until their greed and hunger pushed some poor bastard to try his luck at stealing something. Until then, their kill bonuses would have to wait and, with the weekend right around the corner, that money would come in handy.

Jose heard some of the vendors whisper to each other as he headed for the side exit. They whispered the name they’d pinned on him after his first kill three months before. El Jaguar, they said. El Jaguar.

Some of the guardians loved their nicknames. They thought it made them sound badass. But Jose knew nicknames got you a reputation and reputations could get you killed. That’s was why he’d chosen the name ‘Jose’; the most common name he could think of. Nicknames got you remembered and getting remembered got you killed.

And few people had worked as hard as Jose to be forgotten. And to forget.

 

CHAPTER 2

La Antigua Guatemala

(Approximately 45 km west of Guatemala City)

 

By the time the sun began to set behind the western mountains, Jose had already been in Antigua since lunchtime. The old colonial city was only about an hour and a half from the capital, but felt like a world and a half away. Antigua was good for a man long on funds and even longer on time.

He’d spent most of the day in the shaded courtyard of an old church on Alemeda Santa Lucia; drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes. He liked the Coke bottled in Guatemala because it was made with real sugar, not the fake stuff they used back home in the states.

Jose had spent a good part of the afternoon thinking about that word: home. The very concept of home was as foreign to him since as the idea of living in Guatemala had once been. Sure, his parents had been Guatemalan, but he had been born and raised in New York. Jose’s parents told his brothers and sisters stories and legends of their homeland, while telling them how lucky they were to live in America.

But life had a way of pulling a man in directions he didn’t expect. And when Jose had volunteered to serve America, he never thought it would bring him back to the same country his parents had worked so hard to leave. And he never thought he’d be away from his country for so long.

He crushed his cigarette beneath his sneaker and took another swig of Coke. Dwelling on the past was a waste of time and counter to all his training, so he stopped it. It was times like these when the words of his mentor from The University came back to him:

One foot in the past. One foot in the future. Pissing on today. Work the mission. Let the past go. Dead men can’t hurt you.

If only that was true.

Jose decided to focus on the casual pageantry along Alemeda Santa Lucia. The scene reminded him of Times Square, only busier. Taxis and cars and small motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks rumbled over the cobblestones; jockeying for position. Brightly colored buses added to the confusion by stopping and pulling out into traffic whenever they pleased. Los ayudares – the helpers on the buses– announced each bus’s destination in a sing-song way Jose found almost endearing. “Guate, Guate, Guate!” was the most common call, shuffling people onto the buses bound for the capital city.

Every once in a while, a horse drawn cart aimed at the tourist trade ambled into the mix just to make it interesting. A tired traffic cop waved at the stalled mess in vain like a busted windmill. It was a chaotic mess, but somehow, it worked.

The cobblestone streets made the traffic worse, but Jose knew the city would never pave over them. La Antigua was the old capital of the country and rejected modernity at every turn. New buildings were built to look like the haciendas that the dons had built centuries before. The narrow, uneven sidewalks looked like they’d been added as an afterthought, probably because they had been. There were no traffic lights or crosswalks in the old town, so everyone took their life into their own hands whenever they crossed the street.

Tourists usually stayed well north of this part of town, preferring the charm of the restaurants and church ruins and the yellow arch of the old convent just north of Parque Central. Antigua’s open air Municipal Market was just up the road on Santa Lucia, but most gringos never needed to come this far south.

Jose didn’t blame the tourists for staying where they were. He figured everyone who came to the old town fit into one of three categories: people who were there to learn; people who were there to earn or people who were there to escape, if even only for a little while. Escape sounded like a damned good idea to Jose.

He knew most of the other guardians at the market would’ve blown their kill bonus in a whorehouse; drowning themselves in cheap beer and cheaper company for a few days, waiting for the police to forget about the kid he’d killed.

But Jose wasn’t just another guardian. He’d been trained to bank the money he made. He’d been trained to plan ahead and execute. That’s why he’d come to Antigua in the first place: to clear his head and figure out what his next move would be. He knew he’d stayed in Guatemala too long. He knew he didn’t want to go back to the market. And he didn’t want to go back to being the man he’d been before the market.

Because killing was a rotten way to make a living; even if killing was the only thing he knew how to do. All of the killing was killing his soul and he’d reached a point in his life when things like that mattered to him.

He’d made a life out of death. And, goddamn him, he didn’t know any other way. What’s worse, he’d grown to like it. And miss it.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Later that night, Jose traded the street chaos of Santa Lucia for the dancing chaos of a nightclub closer to El Parque called Mono Loco – The Crazy Monkey. It was exactly the scene he needed to clear his mind.

From his spot at the bar, Jose watched the local boys eyeing the drunk gringas gyrating to thumping music. The boys acted like they didn’t speak English. The girls acted drunker than they were. All of them waived around brightly colored glow sticks in the thudding darkness.

Most young Americans came to Antigua for the Spanish schools. Half were missionaries who needed to learn Spanish for a two-year hitch to help peasants dig for water in the hills. The other half were aspiring doctors who hadn’t gotten into med school in the states, so they opted for schools in Costa Rica. Hence the need for Spanish. Jose figured they hadn’t gotten into medical school because of partying too much back. Old habits die hard.

Watching the kids dancing made him remember the young thief he’d killed in the market that day. He’d been about their age, maybe a bit older. He…

Jose felt his mind beginning to drift again and he stopped it.

He didn’t regret killing the boy. He only regretted working in the market in the first place. Despite all his training, he knew that was wrong, but his training was all he had left. Conscience was a luxury he couldn’t afford any more.

The dance music thudded as he took another pull on his beer, a Gallo. He wanted the music and the alcohol to block out his thoughts. It was only his second beer of the night and he had decided to order a third when he sensed someone standing close to him at the bar. Too close.

As he turned to see who it was, something hard pressed into the left side of his rib cage. He didn’t have to see it to know it was a gun.

“Easy, Michael,” the man said in English. “No need to get jumpy.”

It had been almost a year since Jose had heard English and even longer since anyone had called him by his real name: Michael Rivas. He recognized the voice of the man who’d said it, but didn’t look at him. He looked at his beer instead. “James Hicks.”

“And here I was thinking you forgot your friends.” The pressure against his side let up, but not much. “Been almost a year.”

Michael knew how long it had been, but didn’t care. “How the hell did you find me?”

“Jesus, Michael,” Hicks laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten who you’re dealing with here.”

Michael had always hated and admired Hicks at the same time. Hicks was the kind of man who was difficult to describe, which made him perfect for his chosen profession. He was neither tall nor short, heavy nor thin, handsome nor ugly. He had brown hair and brown eyes and fair skin that tanned easily, so he could blend in damned near anywhere in the world. His most remarkable trait was that he wasn’t remarkable and was often forgotten within minutes.

Hicks was also the deadliest man Michael Rivas had ever known.

But that didn’t mean Michael could afford to act scared. “How about a different question: Why are you looking for me in the first place?”

Hicks shrugged as he casually looked around the nightclub. “Nobody’s seen you around campus lately. The Dean’s been worried about you. We all are. He wanted to give you some time to clear your head, but…”

Michael laughed. “Campus. The Dean. Christ, you guys make me sick with your goddamned lingo, you know that? You make it sound so…collegiate…when all we are is a bunch of…”

He felt Hicks press the gun against his left side again. It came from under the ledge of the bar so no one else in the club could see it. He knew Hicks favored a .22 for field work. Not the most powerful gun in the world, but easy to conceal. And deadly at this distance. “Careful, Michael. Loose talk can still get you killed.”

“In here?” Michael thumbed back to the speakers. “I can barely hear you over this shit and you’re standing right next to me.”

“What about that security camera over my left shoulder?” Hicks said. ”The one aimed down at the bar to keep an eye on the bartender. Think they could read your lips if they wanted to?”

Michael glanced up and saw the camera. He lowered his head in defeat. He should’ve noticed it when he sat down. He should have scoped out every camera in the place before he sat down out of force of habit. But he hadn’t and Hicks knew it.

“That’s why I’m on this side,” Hicks said, “so they can’t read my lips. The other cameras are too far away and…”

“You made your point, damn it, but you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.” Michael swiped his Gallo off the bar and finished it in one pull. He put the bottle back on the bar and signaled the bartender for another. “I thought you were in New York these days.”

“I took a few days off.” Hicks eased up on the pressure against Michael’s ribs and seemed to relax a bit, though Michael knew Hicks never relaxed. He looked out at the crowd of dancing gringas with the dancing glow sticks and the local boys on the edge of the dance floor. “Just taking in the sights. Soaking up some local flavor. I wanted to give you something, too, if you’re interested.”

Michael accepted his new beer from the bartender and pushed the rest of the money he had on the bar her way. This would be his last beer of the night because it was never a good idea to be drunk around a man like Hicks. “Tell me what it is and maybe I’ll be interested.”

“A chance to get your old job back.”

Michael thought that’s what it might be. Part of him had hoped that’s what it was. “What if I don’t want it back? I’m the one who walked away, remember?”

“Then I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending the rest of your life as a guardian at the Central Market,” Hicks said. “Shooting fifteen year old kids is a great way for a man with your skills to make a living.”

It was Michael’s turn to laugh. “So you heard about that, too, huh?”

But Hicks didn’t laugh. “We hear about everything, ace. You know that.”

“Well your intel is off for once. That punk was at least eighteen, closer to twenty.”

“He just turned fifteen last week.”

“Bullshit.”

Hicks looked back at the dance floor, the lights flashing red and green and blue on his face. “Why would I lie?”

But Michael knew he wasn’t lying. He also knew that finding out the thief was just a kid should’ve bothered him, but it didn’t. He didn’t feel anything anymore and that’s what stung. “You know all the right buttons to push, don’t you? You son of a…”

Hicks jabbed him in the side again, harder than before. “Calm down.” He motioned back to the camera. “We don’t need you to come back, Michael. As far as The Dean is concerned, you’re already out free and clear. He knows things went sideways your last time out and he considers your freedom as his way of saying no hard feelings.”

“Mighty generous, considering.”

Hicks shrugged. “You don’t know anything that could really hurt us, so he let you go. But he knows where you’ve been working and, quite frankly, he’s disappointed which is why he sent me to remind you that you still have a place at the University. A place that could give you a chance to have a life again.”

“A life.” Michael slowly turned his bottle of beer, watching the sweat pool on scarred wooden bar top. “I remember that kind of life.”

“So you remember what it felt like to do some good.”

“I don’t remember there being much good about it.”

“Fair enough. Let’s call it something else. Let’s say you at least felt useful when you worked for us. But, if you call killing starving children a good use of your training, then you might as well just go back to the capital when Manny gives you the okay.”

Michael looked away. Not at anything in particular. Just at anything but Hicks. Going back to the market had sounded like a rotten choice when he’d thought about it. It sounded ridiculous now that Hicks had actually said it. He took another pull on his beer. “Maybe I’ve got other options?”

“Like what?”

“Maybe sign up with a contractor.”

Hicks shook his head. “You don’t have the attitude for merc work, ace. You’re a man who needs parameters. Definable goals with visible horizons and measurable results. You’re not the kind of guy who can sit around for months waiting for the phone to ring with a job offer.”

Michael put his beer back on the bar. “I could drop the Life all together.”

“Turn the other cheek? Renounce your sins and give yourself to Jesus?” Hicks smiled. “It’s been tried before and it never takes. People like us are too far down the road to turn away from what we are. Salvation works for some people but not us. We are exactly who we’re supposed to be because we’re not fit to do anything else. That’s why the training took in the first place.” He jabbed the gun into Michael’s ribs again. “And that’s why we both know you’re going to take this job.”

Michael looked at his beer. He thought about breaking his rule; about downing it and ordering another. Maybe switching to straight tequila instead. That way, he’d be too drunk to make a decision like this.

But getting drunk would lead to a rotten hangover and the same problem staring at him in the face the next morning.

He didn’t want to go back to the market. He also wasn’t fit for anything else. He was trained to do one thing and one thing only: to kill. He’d been doing it for fruit sellers and coffee growers and butchers for too long. Might as well go back to doing it where it made a difference.

And, of course, the money was better.

He pushed the beer bottle aside. “So what’s the job?”

Hicks shook his head. “You know how this works, Michael. You have to say you’re in first, then we talk.”

Michael shut his eyes and said it fast before he changed his mind. “Yeah. I’m in.”

Hicks took the gun away from his ribs. “Good boy. It’s a real simple job. We have reason to believe someone is about to testify against an asset who The University wants to protect. We have to get to the snitch before he talks to the cops. And, if it’s any consolation, this snitch is also a Grade-A piece of shit.”

Michael never cared about the reason why someone had been selected as a mark. The only details he had ever really cared about were: Who? Where? When? Never why. But this time, he wouldn’t ask ‘how much’ because he knew this one would be free. This was his ticket back into the University. He was mindful of the camera above the bar and lowered his head when he asked, “Where is he?”

“He happens to be right here in Antigua as we speak. A few blocks away.”

Michael should’ve known. “What a coincidence.”

Hicks laughed again. “You know there are no coincidences in our world. This clown’s been on our wish list for a while, but we’ve never had a reason to rush anything. Figured we’d take care of him when we got around to it. Now that you’re back on board, we can cross him off the list.”

Michael didn’t like it, but he wasn’t in a position to be particular. “What kind of protection does he have?”

“None. No body guards, no weapons either. He’s just another skel who knows too much for his own good.”

“Address?”

“Sure. Your device is still active, isn’t it?”

Michael knew he was talking about the phone the University had issued him when he was ‘On Staff’, as they called it. It looked like any other smartphone and appeared to work the same way, except it didn’t. It operated on an entirely separate system than any cellular or satellite network in the world and it only worked for people who had been given specific devices and specific permission to use them. People like Michael Rivas and James Hicks.

“You know it is. Hell, I’ll bet that’s how you found me.”

Hicks ignored that question. “You’ll be able to download the target package as soon as you get outside. Everything you need to know about the mark will be in there.”

Michael knew the package would have pictures and an address, but it wouldn’t answer one question. Again, he was mindful of the camera. “What’s the deadline?”

“By noon tomorrow.”

Michael should’ve been surprised, but he wasn’t. “That’s not a lot of time.”

“A man with your skills doesn’t need a lot of time for an op like this. The punk is exposed. No protection at all. This is a strictly tap-and-go task. Hit him in public, private, we don’t care; so long as it’s done by noon tomorrow and you get away clean.”

“What about after? Will you be there to get me out?”

Hicks looked at him as though he was speaking in tongues. “Hell no. I’m heading back to New York first thing in the morning. This is your chance to play your way back on to the team. Do the job, then get yourself back to the States. You come back alive, you’re back On Staff.”

Michael didn’t like it, but he didn’t have to. “Anything else I should know?”

“There is. I’ll be taking your gun with me when I leave.”

“What?” Michael remembered the goddamned camera again and looked away from it. “How the hell am I supposed to…do this without a gun?”

“I trained you to be resourceful. Time to put that training to work. I don’t want the cops matching the bullet you put into that kid in the market with the one you put into the mark. They might not be big on running water or feeding their people down here, but Guatemalan cops love forensics. Linking those two shootings would raise a hell of a lot of eyebrows and we can’t have that right now. Understand?”

Michael understood, but he didn’t like it. Especially because he knew Hicks was right. “Fine, but the next gig I pull better be worth something and pay accordingly.”

Hicks laughed once more and made like he was hugging him. Just two drinking buddies saying goodbye at the end of the night. “You’ll get better assignments when you can tell the difference between a .22 and a fucking glow stick.”

Hicks slapped him on the back as he tossed an unlit glow stick up on the bar. The same glow stick the kids were dancing with on the floor. “See you soon, ace.”

Michael slapped the glow stick off the bar as Hicks disappeared into the crowd. He didn’t bother checking for his gun in his waist band. He knew Hicks had already lifted it when he’d hugged him.

Now he needed to find another gun.

He knew it wouldn’t be too hard. Because in Guatemala, anything was possible.

 

Next Monday in Part Two: Weapons don’t come easy for gringos, Michael Rivas.

 

                                                            *   *   *

 

Terrence McCauley is a multi-award winning writer of crime and pulp fiction. His short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT, SHOTGUN HONEY, BIG PULP and several other publications. He recently signed a three book deal with Polis Books to relaunch two previous novels and publish a brand new work: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, featuring protagonist James Hicks. Terrence is represented by Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency. Terrence’s website is www.terrencepmccauley.com

 

 

CHAPTER 8

Michael sprinted toward the main gate of the development. Stealth be damned. He just had to get the hell out of there.
He knew there’d be at least one armed guard at the gate, maybe two. Those boys usually had shotguns bigger than they were and weren’t afraid to use them. They weren’t as well trained as cops, but a shotgun didn’t need a lot of training.
Michael slowed when he heard someone running toward him from the gate. The jangle of keys told him it was a guard. Rivas threw himself against the wall and a moment later, a short, lean man in a starched uniform came around the corner. Shotgun in hand.
In one swift motion, Michael came from around the corner, grabbed the shotgun and elbowed the guard in the jaw.
As the guard staggered back, Michael yanked the shotgun from him and jerked the guard to his feet. He shoved the guard back toward the gate and yelled, “Is anyone else in the guard booth?”
The guard shook his head too quickly and Michael jammed the barrel of the shotgun into the back of his neck as he pushed him back to the gate. “Don’t lie to me.”
“He just showed up for his shift,” the guard cried. “He’s on the phone now, calling the police.”
Michael shoved him along faster; keeping him between him and the gate. “He got a shotgun in there?”
“Yes and a .9 millimeter, same as me.”
At least he knew what was ahead of him. And the cops from the house would be on him any second. “Will your friend open the gate?”
“Probably. He’s new.”
Michael hoped he was right, for both their sakes.
****
The second guard was crouched in the gatehouse, aiming a shotgun at Michael and the guard. Even from that distance, Michael could see the barrel shaking.
The guard didn’t need any prompting from Michael to say, “Joel, open the gate. This bastard will kill us if we don’t.”
But Joel didn’t move. “The police are on their way.”
“Damn it! Open the goddamned gate before this bastard shoots me!”
The guard swatted at the buzzer and the gates swung open. Michael kept the guard as cover as they passed through the gate and into the street.
Although the sun hadn’t risen yet, the street was already full of trucks, cars and buses. They leaned on their horns as Michael pulled the guard with him into traffic until they saw the shotgun. He could hear the police shouting as they ran toward the gate.
Michael had to put as far away from them as possible, but a car was useless in this mess.
“Please,” the guard said, “don’t kill me. I…”
Michael drove the butt of the shotgun down into the side of his neck and let him fall to the cobblestones. By the time drivers got out of their vehicles to aid the guard, Michael was already running down the narrow street across from the development. Since the shotgun would only slow him down, he tossed it in an old alley.
When he reached the corner, he saw the two detectives who’d chased him trying to thread their way through the tangle of cars and busses and people in the middle of the street.
He started running again.

CHAPTER 9

Hicks cruised; waiting for his handheld to get a fix on Michael’s phone. As advanced as the University’s technology was, it still took a minute or two to locate a signal, especially in places like Guatemala. Normally, that wasn’t much time, but with Guatemalan federal cops on his ass, he knew Michael Rivas didn’t have a minute or two.
He wondered where he should start looking for Michael. Was he in a car on his way out of town? Had the police killed or wounded him? Any of the above was possible. Most Americans bought the notion of the lazy, crooked South American cop they saw in the movies. Hicks knew Guatemalan cops were probably the toughest and most capable cops in the Americas. And they’d caught Michael by surprise.
Hicks knew looking for Michael at the Marquez house would be a waste of time. He’d be long gone by now and the place would be swarming with cops.
He’d personally trained Michael to avoid capture. But he’d also trained him to plan out several escape routes in advance. The Dean’s tight timeframe hadn’t allowed time for that level of planning. And any escape route would’ve been compromised the second the cops started shooting at him anyway.
That meant Michael would do the next best thing: find some place crowded. Blend in. Unfortunately, Antigua wasn’t London or Paris or New York. It was tough to find crowds so early in the morning. It would be a good hour or more before the crowds that filed the tiny city from dawn until dusk grew large enough for Michael to disappear. There were no shortage of places to hide in the old city, but the police knew every one of them. And they’d search every one of them until they found the man who’d killed their informant and shot one of their own.
Even with all that against him, Hicks was still betting on Michael. He’d find somewhere to hide. Somewhere…
His handheld beeped and a detailed satellite image of Antigua opened. It looked like any other GPS application on any other phone, only this was designed to track specific targets, not just find gas stations or Starbucks. The blue dot showed Hicks’ position.
The red dot showed Michael’s. He was moving north away from Marquez’s house; through the haphazard network of back yards and alleys that ran parallel to Alameda Santa Lucia.
Back into the heart of the city; away from the closest ways out of town.
Why? It didn’t make sense.
Hicks thumbed the map down to see where Michael might be headed. When he saw it, Hicks smiled and meant it. The irony was that rich.
He tucked the phone in his jacket pocket and put the car in gear. He was on his way to pick up his man.
****

Michael ran faster when he hit the corner of Alemeda Santa Lucia and bolted straight into heavy traffic. He wasn’t worried about raising attention because running was the only way to cross Santa Luce.
Foot traffic on the street was already thick with workers getting off buses from nearby towns. Most of them were heading to work at hotels and stores and the open-aired Municipal Market that catered to the gringo trade.
The same market where Michael planned to hide.
He slowed down within the crowd and controlled his breathing. His adrenaline was high and he needed to calm down. He didn’t want any locals remembering him and pointing him out once the police began canvassing the area.
He made sure his gray t-shirt was loose and the shirt he had over it was un-tucked and unbuttoned; hiding the pistol and the three magazines tucked in his belt.
He heard the wail of sirens approaching fast, so he followed a crowd down a side street. He spotted a large grocery store that he’d shopped at a couple of times before. He knew it stretched from the south side of the street all the way to the north. He’d be able to blend in much easier in the store on his way to the Municipal Market. There, maybe he’d steal a car or get hired on a work crew that would take him out of Antigua before the roadblocks went up – if they weren’t up already.
Michael went unnoticed through the grocery and came out the north entrance. Grocery workers had already piled up bags of garbage on the street to be hauled away.
He made sure no one was paying much attention before quickly dumping the gun and magazines in one of the bags. He stripped to the waist and put the shirts in the bag, too, then hoisted the bag onto his shoulder. He walked toward back to Santa Lucia; looking like any other poor bastard trudging off to the market to make a buck.
Back on Santa Luce, he moved the bag to his left shoulder; making it harder for the police to see his face. He didn’t think the detectives who’d shot at him had gotten a good look at him, but the guards at the gate sure as hell did. He didn’t know how reliable their description would be, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
With the bulging bag of guns and garbage on his back, Michael slogged his way across the street, through traffic toward the market. Police cars with full lights and sirens sped by in both directions. None of them slowed down and he didn’t bother looking at them, either.
He was careful to avoid the stares he drew from the Policia Tourista – Tourist Police – who watched everyone entering the Market. They weren’t state or federal cops, but they still had guns and – even worse – radios. The market was a good place to blend in, but a bad place to get trapped if they spotted him.
The market where he worked in Guatemala City was used only by merchants and vendors. This market drew tourists looking for good deals on everything from bags to clothes and other things. Tourists meant a heavy police presence.
He’d just passed through the main entrance when he heard the police radios squwak his description and what he’d been wearing. He was glad he’d stripped down to the waist, since that was the only accurate part of their description. Another bare-chested peasant carrying a garbage bag is the last person they were looking for in a cop shooting.
He also heard they were immediately setting up roadblocks at all the exits to the city. He knew that gave him about fifteen minutes to half an hour to find a way out of town.
Tough, but not impossible. Not for him.
Michael limped along with his bundle; past the stalls that were slowly opening up for the day’s business. They sold trinkets and clothes and CDs and food and traditional Guatemalan clothing to the hundreds of gringos who strolled through each day.
The locals always went to the back of the market, where the fruits and vegetables and other items were sold wholesale and cheaper than in other parts of the market. That’s where Michael would look for a way to get out of town. Now that they were looking for him, stealing a car would be risky. His best bet was hiring on a work crew heading out of town.
Michael heard a car horn honk close by and saw Hicks sitting behind the wheel of a rented Ford parked a few feet away. His white skin and gray suit, he would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb in the market at that time of the morning. He was smart to stay in the car.
Michael slowly took the bag off his shoulder as he ambled over to the car, careful not draw attention.
“Get in,” Hicks said, “and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Michael slid his hand into the bag and grabbed hold of the gun. “I ought to kill you for setting me up like that.”
“If I’d set you up, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here now. The op went sideways as ops will sometimes do. We didn’t know that asshole was being watched by the feds. The Dean fouled up and he knows it, so he’s sending a chopper to get us out here.”
Michael knew the Dean didn’t apologize. This was just Hicks’s way of getting him into the car. “Bullshit.”
“If I’d wanted you dead, I would’ve shot you instead of honking the goddamned horn.” Hicks held up his phone so he could see the map application on the screen. It showed where the helicopter would land and its estimated time of arrival. “The bird lands in twenty minutes and takes us to Belize. You can either be on that helicopter with me or you can stick here and slug it out with the federals on your own. Your choice.”
Michael saw the map, saw the approaching black dot that was the helicopter. And saw that it headed toward a landing site at a new resort being built on top of a large hill about ten minutes away. Everything about Hicks’ story checked out.
“Looks like we don’t have much time,” he said.
Hicks tucked the phone back into the pocket of his jacket. “You know where it is?”
“Yeah.” Michael dug his buttoned shirt out of the bag and shrugged it on. “Get in the back like you’re a passenger. I’ll drive.”

CHAPTER 10

Michael eased the Ford through the growing crowd of merchants and locals entering the market. They looked like any other cab heading into traffic. There were more police at the entrance now than there had been when Michael had walked in. They didn’t pay the car much mind, but he heard their radios crackling with details about the roadblocks going up all around the small city.
Hicks spoke Spanish fluently and heard it too. “Sounds like we’re in deep shit, ace.”
Michael saw a rare gap in traffic along Santa Lucia and hit the gas.
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Hicks being Hicks: alert, but calm. Michael hated to admit it, but he felt rusty. Having a man like Hicks along made him feel better. The movies and books always got it wrong. Killing a mark was easy. Training and skill made all the difference in getting away alive when time got tight.
The Ford rumbled along the cobblestones, making the ride not only bumpy, but slow. “Any other way to get up to the helipad?” Hicks asked.
“We could hike it up there if we had a day and a half. Other than that, only way we’ll up get there in time is the main road out of town.”
Hicks rolled down his window in the back. “Roll up your window and I’ll roll down mine. That way, any cops will focus more on me than you.”
Michael did it. He also took his gun from his belt and tucked it in between the seat next to him.
Hicks caught the motion. “Only if we have to, Michael. The Dean doesn’t want bloodshed, especially dead cops. It won’t take long for the federals to blame us for Marquez. No need to make it worse by killing one of them in the bargain. You got lucky that cop was wearing a vest. Let’s not push our luck.”
Michael knew he should’ve felt something at hearing that the cop had been wearing a vest. Happiness. Relief. Something. But at that moment, all he cared about was reaching the helicopter.
****
Michael and Hicks tensed as they rumbled toward Parque Central and the municipal buildings that surrounded it, including police headquarters. The park was deserted at that time of the morning, save for the federal, state and local police that usually mustered there before heading out on patrol.
Michael didn’t know if there were more or less cops than usual in the park on that particular morning, but there were a lot of them. About thirty.
And every one of them eyeballed the Ford as it rumbled past.
Hicks saw one of them – a sergeant – take special interest; breaking off from the group and approach them.
“Keep looking straight ahead and keep going like you don’t see him,” Hicks said. “You’re a taxi taking another gringo to the airport.”
Michael slowly fed it some gas as the sergeant began waving at them to stop. It was a minor defiance that obviously annoyed the sergeant, but not enough for him to go for his weapon. But from the side view mirror, Michael saw him reach for the walkie mic clipped to his shirt pocket.
“Shit. He’s calling us in.”
“Nothing we can do about that,” Hicks said. “Just concentrate on getting us to that helipad and we’re home free.”
As soon as Michael swung the Ford onto Calle de Capuchinas – the main road out of town, he saw two state squad cars were setting up a roadblock for outbound traffic. Four cops were dropping orange cones to narrow traffic down to one lane so cops could inspect each vehicle. Another state car had just pulled up behind that. Traffic was starting to pile up and showed no signs of letting up.
“How’re we doing on time?” Michael asked.
Hicks was already sitting forward on the seat. “Not good enough to be able to ride this out.”
Michael hadn’t thought so. “Can contact the pilot to tell him to back off?”
Hicks shook his head. “The Dean didn’t exactly send me the pilot’s cell phone number. That bird lands in ten minutes. Takes off in eleven with or without us.”
Michael was more worried about the roadblock. Even if they missed the chopper, they could find another way out of the country. After all, Hicks was a valuable Faculty member of the University. He’d get Hicks got out of the country. And Michael knew Hicks would take him with him.
And then Michael saw the doors of the third police car open. And he saw the guards from Marquez’s housing development step outside. The one he’d knocked out was woozy, but the other one was fine. He’d gotten a good look at Michael and wouldn’t hesitate to point him out at the checkpoint.
Michael threw the Ford into gear. “You might want to buckle up, boss. Shit’s about to get heavy.”

CHAPTER 11

Michael nosed the Ford out of his line in traffic and drove over an orange cone. The cops had been too busy beginning to inspect cars to notice he’d broken out of the line until the cars behind him began honking.
The second they looked up, Michael floored it, glad to finally be on asphalt instead of the damned cobblestones of Antigua. The Ford bolted forward like a dog suddenly off its leash, unsure of its freedom. He shot between a policemen and a squad car blocking the roadway. It was a sloppy roadblock, but Michael didn’t blame them. No one ran roadblocks in Guatemala unless they had a death wish.
Michael didn’t have a death wish. He just didn’t have a lot of time.
Hicks kept an eye out the back window as Michael floored it up the hill. “I’ll keep an eye on them. Just drive.”
Neither of them needed to state the obvious. The cops drove supped up Suburbans that handled these roads faster than their sedan.
The road out of town gradually inclined, curving upward around the mountains that surrounded the ancient city. The view was breathtaking that time of the morning, but neither Michael nor Hicks had time for sightseeing.
****
Hicks heard the siren before he saw the police SUV coming up behind them. It was still a good distance away, but growing louder by the second.
“How far now?” Hicks asked.
Michael spotted the dirt road turnoff up to the construction site just around the next bend. “Five minutes. Plenty of time.”
The Ford darted around the bend just as the police Suburban sped around the distant corner. Michael sank the gas pedal to the floor and took the dirt road turnoff leading to the development. “We’re kicking up a hell of a lot of dust. They’ll see where we went, but hopefully we can stay ahead of them.”
Hicks hoped so, too.
The dirt road was steeper and narrower than the main road had been. It was little more than a construction path for equipment and crews who were building the resort on top of the mountain. When finished, it would offer an incredible view of Antigua and the three volcanoes around it. But for Michael and Hicks, it was their ticket out of the country.
Michael pushed the Ford as hard as he could, the engine whining as the sedan sped up the mountain. The hazy sunlight of dawn made it difficult for him to see, so he stayed to his right. He’d rather smack off the rock face than tumble off the mountain.
Hicks didn’t like what he saw from the rear window. “They’ve just cleared the switchback at the base of the mountain.”
Michael swung the Ford around the numerous hairpin turns of the road that snaked up the mountain until the road leveled off. They came to a chain-link fence that spanned across the roadway. Now level, the Ford lurched forward and rammed through the fence. The gate fell easily, but got caught under the vehicle, shredding one of the tires.
Neither Michael nor Hicks hesitated. Michael threw the gear in park before he followed Hicks as he bolted from the car.
Hicks looked at his handheld. “We’re in good shape. The bird is just over that ridge.”
They could hear the siren grow louder as the police Suburban tore up the mountain. Michael knew they’d make better time than he had.
Michael and Hicks ran toward the LZ. “I don’t see it or hear it, Hicks.”
“It’s a small chopper, not a Huey, for Christ’s sake,” Hicks said; running at a better clip than Michael. “It’ll probably …” He pointed up at a small speck in the distance, just over the ridge. “There it is! Heading straight for us.”
But Michael looked back and saw the police Suburban had just rattled over the busted fence; heading their way.
Both men took cover behind shrubbery on either side of the road. “Aim for their tires!” Hicks yelled as the sound of the helicopter’s rotor grew louder. “Don’t kill them unless necessary.”
“I’m not dying on this goddamned hilltop.” Michael pulled his gun and aimed at the approaching Suburban. He realized he didn’t know if Hicks had a gun until his boss opened fire on the SUV. Rounds struck the Suburban dead center in the engine block as Michael fired at the tires. He squeezed off only three shots, preferring to save his ammo for the cops if necessary.
The Suburban skidded to a crooked stop as Hicks’ rounds caused the hood to fly open; smacking off the windshield. Now both cops would have to get out on the driver’s side if they wanted to use the Suburban for cover.
Michael felt the dust and gravel kick up behind him as the helicopter came in for its landing. He saw the cop on the driver’s side lean across the ruined hood as he fired. Hicks shot close, but well over their heads. Michael’s shots hit the hood and sent the cops scrambling.
Hicks yelled over the rotor noise. “Ride’s here! Come on!”
The helicopter had no sooner touched down when the two men ran toward it at a crouch. Michael went for the near door while Hicks ran around to the other side.
Bullets began pelting the helicopter as Hicks climbed in the back. Michael was halfway in as the helicopter lifted off the ground. The glass in Michael’s open door began to web from the impact of the rounds.
Hicks grabbed Michael by the collar and pulled him inside as the pilot pulled back on the stick; taking to the air. He banked left, the motion shutting Michael’s door as Hicks tried to get a better look at his man.
He saw the blood spreading out on Michael’s shirt and knew it was a chest wound. A bad one. The rattling helicopter made it difficult to get a pulse, but with that wound, Michael was either dead or damned close to it. At least he he’d been a man of his word. He hadn’t died on that goddamned mountain.
And if he was dying, he died well. Doing what he’d been trained to do the best way he’d known how.
Then Hicks remembered what he’d taught Michael. Don’t panic. Don’t guess. Work the situation until you’re sure. He took a bandage from the first-aid pack above the back seat and held it on Michael’s chest wound. He pulled his agent to him, facing east so he – or maybe his soul – could see the rising sun.
Hicks had been in the Life too long to believe in romantic notions like souls, but he knew Michael did. And right then and there, Hicks wanted to believe in them too.
“Your friend ok?” the pilot shouted over the sound of the spinning rotors.
Hicks watched the edge of the sun rising over the mountains and volcanoes, burning off the haze; bathing his friend’s face in light. Yes, Hicks desperately wanted to believe in a soul. Not for his sake. But for Michael’s.
“Better off than either of us.”
Or, at least, he hoped so.

# END #

mike monson new scent of death

The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson – review

mike monson new scent of deathFast, nasty, kinky, violent pulp. Too many authors try to deliver it unsuccessfully. Crafting something that deserves to be called all those things is no easy task, so when I find a novel or novella that has all of it, I’m really happy for a few hours. In The Scent of New Death, speed, kinkiness, and viciousness is exactly what author Mike Monson delivers, and he also throws in sharp dialogue and very likeable main character as a bonus.

Phil Gaines has been making a living as a bank robber for more than decade. He’s fast, sharp, and always focused. Instead of crazy parties and tons of drugs and booze, Phil spends his time practicing  meditation in his nondescript apartment in Modesto, California. Unfortunately, his lifestyle changes when he meets Paige, a gorgeous young redhead that his opposite in every way: she’s loud, wild, kinky, and hyperactive. The whirlwind relationship quickly leads to marriage, but the discrepancies in their tastes soon bore Paige. When Jeff, Phil’s bank robbing partner, meets Paige, they hit it off because they like the same things and understand each other. When Paige convinces Phil to let her come along during a job, she abandons him, takes his cut, and flees with Jeff. To make matters worse, she also cleaned out his apartment and bank account before the job. What follows is a fast, ultraviolent story about vengeance and justice that’s packed with bad intentions, brutal murders, and violent sex.

The Scent of New Death is a hell of a fun read. Coming in at 130 pages and with a prose driven forward at top speed by sex and violence, this is the kind of novella you can devour in one sitting, and it’s hard not to. For starters, Phil is the kind of “good” bad guy that’s hard not to root for. Sure, he’s a career criminal with a shady past whose mellow demeanor doesn’t quite make up for the fact that he’s a killer with a temper that shouldn’t be put to the test, but he’s also quiet, humble, and very smart. Also, what Paige and Jeff do to him, not to mention what they plan on doing to him next, turns him into a victim instead of a criminal, and that makes the reader thirst for revenge even more.

Back in 1999, I had no idea who Donald E. Westlake was, but I knew I really dug the movie Payback (back then, Mel Gibson was cool). After the first few chapters of The Scent of New Death, I felt like I was reading something new that me feel like I was in familiar territory, and then I remembered Payback and its source/inspiration. It would’ve been easy for Monson to repeat that, but he opted for something different. Granted, he’s not inventing the wheel here when it comes to the basic plot elements, but what he does with that frame is truly unique and definitely worth a read. For example, Paige is one of the kinkiest, sexiest villains I’ve encountered in a while. There are plenty of crazy women in crime fiction, but this one likes to have sex on the side of the road while staring at the dying homeless man bleeding to death on the ground a few feet from her. Also, the brutal and absolutely senseless carnage in the last third of the novel is something that pushes the narrative’s level of viciousness into one even fans of hardcore horror can enjoy. Yeah, Monson probably didn’t intend this one to be very popular with the YA market.

The Scent of New Death is a superb offering of bloody, sexy pulp. If Mike Monson is not yet on your radar, read this and put him there.

 

 

 

 

 

FICTION: A Family’s Day by Scott Adlerberg

At two-eighteen p.m. on the fourteenth of that month, Eva Barlow fell dead of a heart attack. Aged forty-three, she’d been ignoring her high cholesterol count for too long, and that disregard along with a heavy smoking habit must have contributed to her sudden death. She pitched face forward in her living room and on the way down bumped her head against a wooden coffee table. The impact of her skull against the oak created bleeding, but make no mistake, the heart attack itself was a massive one and this alone took her life. The wound in her forehead looked serious, but it had no bearing on her final condition.

Sean, her two year old, playing in his bedroom, heard the crashing sound in the living room. Startled by the noise, he jumped up from his blocks to see what had happened. He came running with short, rapid steps and nearly tripped over his mother, catching himself by grabbing one leg of the coffee table. What he saw was his mother lying face down, immobile, a crimson wetness under her face. At this point, whether from shock or utter bafflement, pudgy, dark-haired Sean sat down, or plopped down to be more precise; he bent at the waist and tipped backwards and landed smack on his rear end. With all the baby fat there he felt nothing when he hit, and there for at least two hours he sat, his legs extended on the hardwood floor, his eyes on his mother, his face a blank.

Around four, using his keys, Leo let himself into the apartment. In his high singsong voice he announced to his mother that he was home. He wriggled his shoulders and dumped his school backpack on the floor. Without unzipping his coat, he stepped from the entrance hall into the bathroom and relieved himself as he needed to. Strange that his mother had not said hello to him in return, and after he flushed, he stepped across the hall and through the archway into the living room. That’s when he saw his mother on her face and his brother on his backside, each of them completely still.

Leo somehow knew at once that to call for an ambulance or the police would accomplish nothing. He didn’t know exactly what had occurred, but whatever it was, however it had come to pass, he blamed his brother. He blamed Sean just as he held Sean accountable for everything that annoyed him in the house. To cite one example, he hated how his brother got to watch kiddie shows on the big TV in the living room, limiting his access to flat screen viewing. And what about all the toys his parents would bring home for Sean, toys bought with money that could have been spent on him? While he had his homework and house chores to do, his brother played and ate all day, and most of all he resented the attention his parents gave his brother. His parents loved him – he knew that – or at least his mother did, but he couldn’t stand sharing things with Sean; for eleven years he’d had his mother and her attention to himself.

Enraged at the scene, Leo presumed that Sean must have caused the accident. Because what else could have happened here? Sean had done something to distract his mother, to make her get her feet all tangled. Perhaps she’d been chasing him for something, and then she’d fallen and hit her head on the coffee table. Why did he have to be born, Leo thought, and still with his jacket zipped-up to his neck, he dashed across the length of the room and plucked Sean up by his arms. Before his brother could make much noise, Leo established a grip on his legs and slammed his head against the floor, and hardly had Sean uttered a cry before he pile drove him again. Sean became limp in his hands, but Leo didn’t stop smashing him down until his brother had to be dead, to judge from the blood and his glazed open eyes.

Leo dropped Sean and stepped away. In this case, the blunt force trauma to the skull, repeated of course, was the cause of death.

So now two bodies lay in a sticky red pool on the floor, and call it shock or lack of affect, but Leo finally unzipped his jacket and went to play his Xbox. Seated on his rug, the controller in his hands, he lost himself in his FIFA 2013 soccer game, the most realistic soccer video game on the market.

It was here, at his Xbox, that Leo’s stepfather found Leo when he arrived home from work. Carl, a city employee with a manager’s title, who supervised a staff of twelve, had endured a frustrating day at the office. Meeting had followed meeting, and at none of these meetings had anything been achieved or solved, only words exchanged, verbiage spouted. Then the subway ride home had been miserable, with three long halts between stations. One of those days he wanted to forget, an evening in which he felt relief the second he entered his own house and put the outside world behind him, and what did he find but his wife and boy lying dead on the living room floor, both pale-white from blood loss.

Across the living room, through the doorway to Leo’s room, he could see his stepson on the floor playing Xbox. He could hear the soccer game’s sound effects, the announcer and the cheering all quite realistic. To see this skinny kid looking so loose and free, so unconcerned, so caught up with the damned game system he regretted having bought him in the first place (nearly every spare moment the kid now got he played Xbox; he never read a book and had no other hobbies; even when he was supposed to be doing homework, he would sneak in as much time as he could playing a game on his Xbox), pushed Carl over the edge. He didn’t conclude from the bloody sight before him that Leo had killed his brother and mother, but in Carl’s mind Leo somehow was at fault for this catastrophe. Five years earlier, before marrying Eva, Carl had thought that he and Eva’s son could become close. The kid was eight when they wed and Leo’s real father had taken off a long time ago. He could help mold him, he’d thought, and if they couldn’t be as close as a natural father and son, they could at least bond.

Wrong on all counts, he discovered, and the dawning of Leo’s adolescence only increased the difficulties. Leo resisted almost everything he said and went out of his way to antagonize him by frequently teasing his real son, the little brother Leo resented. It seemed to Carl that in a household of three, life would be so much more pleasant. Stress in the house would drop without Leo to deal with: his poor grades, his wise-ass attitude, the lip he gave his mother when she told him to wash the dishes or clean his room. Sometimes Leo’s stubbornness, the arguments it provoked in the house, dominated their life. Whether a night proved calm or explosive hinged too often on Leo’s mood, and Carl found this infuriating.

The result: that evening, his self-control gone, Carl took a softball bat from his closet and marched into Leo’s room swinging. Leo was concentrating on his game and never bothered to glance up. Though he’d heard Carl enter the apartment, he hadn’t let that distract him from his playing. Soccer on his mind, he didn’t see the first blow coming, and by the time he was trying to protect himself by raising his arms and ducking away, another blow had landed and consciousness was fading. He wilted to the floor. Blackness descended over the teenager and the soccer figures on his TV screen were the last images he ever saw.

***

Later, after Carl had regained his composure, after he’d turned himself in, saying what he’d done and what he thought had transpired before he came home, the string of questions began, the reporters asking why, why, why, what had caused it, what was going on in that house.

Carl couldn’t bear to hear it.

“There’s no huge mystery to this,” he said, when brought into court for a hearing on his mental state.

“Yes, there is,” somebody shouted. “It’s inexplicable.”

“Cut a fucking family some slack, people. What happened with us could happen anywhere.”

“No, it couldn’t.”

“It’s not like I’m proud,” Carl said. “Our family just had a really bad day.”

***

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He is the author of the Martinique-set crime novel SPIDERS AND FLIES, and his short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT. He contributes pieces regularly for the Criminal Element website and blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island (http://scottadlerberg.blogspot.com/). Each summer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan.

In The Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty – review

12book "In the Morning I'll be Gone" by Adrian McKinty.“The Troubles Trilogy” by Adrian McKinty, the detective series set in Northern Ireland during the early 80′s featuring RUC Inspector Sean Duffy, comes to a close with In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, and you better believe the Nerd is in mourning.  McKinty has long been one of crime’s strongest voices and this is his most ambitious project to date, with Morning being a particularly strong finish, but goddamn am I gonna miss Duffy.  If you’re not similarly saddened, let me hip you to what this shit is all about.

The beginning of the novel finds Duffy being pushed off the force for some trumped up bullshit, the higher-ups who’ve long hated him finally finding an excuse to axe him and taking it.  After stumbling around stoned and drunk for awhile, Duffy gets called upon by MI5 to look for an IRA operative he went to school with who has escaped from the Maze and is planning a major terrorist attack.  Should Duffy be successful he’ll get his old job back no questions asked.  Duffy does his best but Dermot McCann is too smart to tip his hand, all his friends and relatives too distrusting of the police (especially a traitorous Catholic cop like Duffy) to give him an inch.

All except for the McCann’s ex-mother-in-law, that is.  If Duffy can solve the “locked room mystery” of the murder of her other daughter, she’ll tell Duffy where he can find McCann.  But after looking at the files, Duffy finds that it may not even be a murder at all, leaving Duffy with two seemingly impossible cases ahead of him and the ticking clock of an eminent terrorist task hanging over his head.

There is a lot going on in In The Morning I’ll Be Gone.  McKinty is once again expertly and assuredly bringing us into this bleak time in recent history, making us feel the paranoia and despair on every page.  He’s also paying a weird homage to the way back days of crime fiction with the locked room case at the novel’s center, reminding us of Agatha Christie novels while still somehow making the mystery work in this very gritty, grounded series.  “He’s also blistering us with punishing, jaded real world politics and social commentary while still managing to entertain us with classic cop book tropes throughout the ride.  Basically, this book informs, challenges and fucks with the reader’s head while delivering a fun read throughout.

So grab a pint of the black and maybe a spot of Jame-o (I’m embarrassing myself right now with my “Oirish” references but they’re being written down all the same) then crack open In the Morning I’ll Be Gone.  The next day you’ll be thankful for the read if not necessarily the hangover.

A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride – review

81bh69JHleL._SL1500_The basic plot summary of A Swollen Red Sun, Matthew McBride’s follow-up to Frank Sinatra in a Blender, sounds promising enough.  It purports to be the story of Gasconade County, Missouri Sheriff Deputy Dale Banks, decent cop and family man, deciding to rip off a redneck meth cook for over fifty grand in cash and then being up to his neck in shit for that decision.  While that sounds like a good enough novel, it is decidedly not really what A Swollen Red Sun is about.

This is not some tight, out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire white-knuckler about dead-eyed backwoods mobsters going after a cop and his family over a bag of cash (though, you know, it *kinda* is).  Instead it is a loose, ambitious, violent, and evocative crime novel along the lines of something by Daniel Woodrell, another Missouri boy with some chops as well.  The novel lets us into the minds of local losers, meth-crazed murderers, and decent folks in a tight spot alike, the book taking the time to really set up this fascinating world before tipping its hand and finally showing us how all these people are connected.

But this is not to say that the book is somehow slow in any way, seeing how all these characters have equally enough compelling shit going on with them to hold your interest.  There’s an old widower looking for a reason to keep on going, a meth addict finding excuses not to kick, a hustler afraid of retribution from the insane cook he owes money to- and a helluva lot more.  A Swollen Red Sun is another fine entry into the rich modern sub-genre of rural noir and a mature leap forward for a writer whose debut was pretty insanely rad to begin with.

FICTION: Mop Up Afterwards By Michael McGlade

Matt dashed past the thatch-faced doorman, bounded up the spiral staircase and came to another door. Late again. Sweat in his eyes. He struck the door buzzer, angled his face toward the surveillance camera and waited. He tucked in his shirt, which was wrinkled and too large, like it belonged to someone else. The door opened.

Quinn stood behind the reception counter, eyes the color of faded denim. “I don’t wanna hear it.”

“It’s been the cruddiest day,” Matt said. “Spent last night on a friend’s couch. Ava kicked me out. I think we’re through.”

Quinn exhaled long and slow. “Not my problem,” he said.

“Don’t do this.”

“You’ve had your chances, kid. Two weeks’ worth but you don’t catch on.”

“I’m a quick learner. You said so yourself.”

“Even if I overlooked you bein’ late… There’s things about this job you just can’t learn. You either know them or you don’t. Can’t be taught.”

“Quinn, please, don’t do this to me. Not now.”

“Don’t take it so hard, kid. I went through three other just like you, all thought they could breeze through it, but not a-one lasted the week.” Quinn straightened the clutter on the desk as he spoke, squared everything to the edges, and angled the aluminum baseball bat beneath the high ridge of the counter so only those behind the desk could see it. “You’ve had almost three weeks, kid,” Quinn said. “Done well as could be expected. I’ll pay you up to the end of the week. No need for you to work tonight.”

“No,” Matt said and stepped closer to Quinn. “One more chance,” he said. “I can do this.”

“No more chances,” Quinn said. “End of conversation.”

Quinn moved to the counter hatch. Matt stayed put and would not let him pass.

“What all is there to this job?” Matt said. “You make it out to be something other than it is. I’ve done everything you asked. I don’t complain. What else is there to it?”

“You ain’t got it.”

“Got what?”

“It – whatever it is.”

Matt glanced at the aluminum bat. “I got it. What else is there?”

“The job is what it is,” Quinn said. He outweighed Matt by a hundred pounds and stood six inches taller. “You collect the fare, make sure the girls ain’t in trouble, and you mop up afterwards – that’s the easy part. You ain’t come across the hard part, yet.” He placed a hand as large as a trashcan lid on the kid’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have let you into this to start with. This work ain’t for you. No hard feelings, ok?”

“I need this,” Matt said. “I’d quit, you know I would, if I for one second didn’t think I was right for this.”

Quinn thought for a moment, shifted Matt out of his path like the wind can bully a discarded napkin, and climbed the spiral staircase that connected to the bar. Matt moved through the hatch and behind the reception counter. He balled a fist and sucked in a deep breath and hung his head in his hands.

***

Chet pinned the brunette down with his full weight. The knot of muscles on his leathery back twitched and tensed as he pushed inside. He caught her throat with a liver-spotted hand and squeezed and the woman swatted it away. The cot creaked and shunted against the gold-painted wall. The old man wheezed and jerked and pinched her neck with his hand. She gasped, pried at his fingers. He held tight, squeezed harder, thrust faster.

The thick crimson crushed velvet drapes trembled in the breeze from the balcony and the hum of Manhattan traffic hissed like waves come ashore. The teenage brunette struggled and gasped and tore at Chet’s hands clamped around her neck.

The door opened and Quinn entered. The sight of the old man and the girl stopped Quinn mid-stride. The girl angled her head toward him and mouthed words. Quinn traversed the room in ten large strides, took hold of Chet and yanked him off the girl. He dragged Chet into the hallway and threw him against the wall.

“Hey, I’ve got a half-hour left,” Chet said. “You can’t do this.”

The girl rushed out of the room and threw wild fists at the old man and Quinn, who still had Chet pressed against the wall, let a few blows land before he pushed the girl back into the room. She got Chet’s clothes and tossed them into the hallway.

Quinn socked the old man in the gut and watched him slump to the floor. “You don’t tell me what I can do,” he said. “This is my place.” He threw his leg out at the man and caught him two, three times with his jackboot and knelt next to the man’s face and said, “Don’t ever come back.”

Chet’s sallow cheeks flushed crimson. “Please,” he blubbered, “I won’t cause any more problems. I got carried away. It won’t happen again.”

“I won’t repeat myself,” Quinn said. “And make sure you leave the girl a sizeable tip on the way out.” Quinn clamped a hand around Chet’s neck and squeezed until the man’s eyes became glassy and swollen. “You’re a pussy.” Quinn released Chet and entered the girl’s room.

“Please,” Chet said, “this is all I’ve got.”

“Not my problem.” Quinn shut the door.

The hallway stank of cologne, ammonia and dead cigars. Chet stood and listened. Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” groaned from the radio inside the room. Laughter. Bedsprings tooted.

***

Matt did the same thing he did every night: he killed time. He began with a fresh puzzle in his book of Sudoku and got most of the ones filled in before he put his pen down and hung his head in his hands. He again took hold of the pen and used it to write in the Sudoku squares: this is an easy job so why can’t I do it right? He crumpled the book into a ball and deposited it in the trash can and leaned back in the chair to stare at the ceiling. White, the color of a vanilla milkshake. His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday. No money. The main reason Ava had kicked him out of their apartment. Homeless, penniless, and workless.

Matt glanced at the aluminum baseball bat on the counter. Drummed his fingers on the blackened oak desktop. Whistled tunelessly. But his mind continued to churn the conversation with Quinn. What had he done wrong? How could he put it right?

Surveillance cameras located in the upstairs bar fed images into a bank of monitors set into the counter. No one except dancers. Trade was always patchy until after midnight. Only a handful of regulars came early. Most customers were out-of-towners and blow-ins, who wanted ceaseless liquor and an endless party. Drunk as those guys would get, it was never a problem to handle them. Drunks were easy. You can baffle a drunk with simple logic and eject them from the premises without violence, so long as they knew what the rules were. Matt wasn’t at all worried about the customers. He knew how to talk them round, get them to do what he wanted, to pay up and leave quietly. Matt’s chosen way had been preferable to the alternative, until Quinn had said otherwise in their conversation earlier.

The old man he knew as Mr Miller came down the spiral staircase in a bundle and buttoned the jacket of his three-piece as he limped toward the exit. Chet took hold of the door latch and turned it and jiggled it and rattled the locked door in its metal casing.

“The door’s locked, Mr Miller,” Matt said. “It’s always locked. You know that. It doesn’t ever open till you pay what’s owed.”

“I owe nothing,” Chet said and flecks of spittle sprayed as he snarled the words and he shook the locked door again. “Open it up.”

Matt stood. “I can’t do that. Now, what’s the matter, Mr Miller? Whatever it is I can take care of it for you.”

Chet approached the counter and came alongside it to the open hatch. Matt witnessed the distillation of anger and fear on those brown eyes of his. “You tell me what’s going on, Mr Miller,” Matt said. “There’s no need to get up all fixed up in a heap of trouble.”

“I want to leave,” Chet said sharp enough to score glass. “I’m not paying for something I never got.”

“Just ‘cause the plumbing don’t work, doesn’t mean you can dodge the service charge,” Matt joked. He cut his laugh short when Chet did not join in.

“That’s not what this is about.”

“Not my problem.”

“What’d you say?”

“Not my problem,” Matt said. “You pay no matter what. It’s always been that way.”

“You’re all the same, ain’t you?”

“I’m actually quite reasonable. If this was Quinn—”

“Well, now, Quinn ain’t here, so you better think smart, boy, and open that door.” Chet moved a step closer to the kid.

“Pay me what you owe, first.”

“You’re a honey badger.”

“I’m a … what?”

“A pusssssssssssy.”

“You called me a pussy?”

“Either a pussy or a Baptist.”

Matt glanced at the aluminum baseball bat on the desk. “What’s got into you?” he said. “I’ve been here near three weeks and you’ve been here every other night, and now you’re like this…?” Matt placed his finger on the emergency call button on the desk. “You understand what will happen if I push this?”

Chet thought for a moment and slapped Matt on the cheek. Matt’s eyes watered and he stumbled back a step.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Matt pressed the emergency call button and glanced at the aluminum baseball bat.

They both grabbed the bat. Matt shoved forward and they crashed against a wall. Chet struck the kid with a fist and winded him and twisted the bat free. He raised it in a swift arc. Matt threw himself at the old man, grabbed his waist and slammed him into the counter. Chet’s spine cracked like popcorn. Matt wrenched the bat free and took several steps back and raised the bat.

“Don’t you come another step,” Matt said.

There was movement on the spiral staircase. Chet snarled and ran at Matt. The bat crunched into Chet’s shoulder and Chet fell backwards, struck his head on the corner of the counter hatch. He slumped to the tiled floor. His legs twitched and juddered and became still. He had ceased breathing. What pooled beneath the old man’s head looked like strawberry syrup.

Quinn came down the stairs with a SIG pistol and noticed the body. He lowered the pistol and with his free hand scratched at the side of his head and tucked the pistol in the waistband at the back. He went to the counter and picked up the telephone. “We got a situation,” he said. “No one gets into the lobby.” He replaced the receiver in the cradle and watched the empty space to the right of the desk for a long time. He came out of reception, stood next to the old man and studied the body’s position.

“Look at that,” Quinn said “Awful lot of prune juice.”

Matt’s legs gave way, the bat dropped to the ground, and he lurched toward the counter, leaned on it to keep from falling over.

“Finally popped your cherry,” Quinn said in a strained tone.

“I need to go.”

“If you think that’s best.”

Matt stared at Quinn, who hadn’t yet glanced away from the corpse. “What do you mean?”

“Where are you gonna go?”

“I’ll go…” Matt wanted to say home, but he had no home.

“Got some place you need to be?” Quinn pointed his eyes toward the door. “Be my guest.”

Matt bit his lip. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it? This,” he said with his eyes on the corpse.

“You’re blooded, now, kid,” he said. “What’s it matter what I want?”

“I have to go,” Matt said. “This isn’t the job I want.” He stumbled toward the door.

“What do you think the cops will do when they find out about this?”

The kid stopped walking and scratched the hot wetness from his eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Do your job.”

“You mean, call the cops?”

“Maybe your arrest jacket ain’t thick as a redneck’s son,” Quinn said. “Take your chances with them if you want. That’s not down to me.”

Matt turned to face Quinn. Their eyes met.

“What do I do?”

“Take this turtleback into some alley a couple of blocks over and dump him,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna miss him,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna come lookin’ for him.”

“I can’t,” Matt said.

“It’s your job.” Quinn moved next to Matt and took him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. “You still want to keep it, don’t you?”

Matt swallowed.

“Can I trust you to make this right?” Quinn said.

Matt heard movement on the spiral staircase that led to the bar and also from outside the door that led to the ground floor. There was nowhere he could go, nowhere to hide.

“I can handle it,” Matt said.

“Did he pay what was owed?”

“No.”

Quinn maintained unwavering eye contact until Matt nodded his head. Quinn stepped back and Matt fell to his knees next to the corpse and searched inside Chet’s jacket. He removed the wallet and stood, the iron-smell of the dead man’s blood on him.

“What happens now?” Matt asked.

“You collected the fare,” Quinn said. “Now, mop up afterwards.”

#

BIO: Michael McGlade holds a master’s degree in English from Queen’s University in Ireland. He is an Arts Council award recipient. His competition-winning fiction appears in the book Powers Irish Short Story Collection (2012) and in publications such as Green Door, Calliope, OMDB Mystery Magazine, and Grain. He is editor-in-chief of music publication GigApe.com. mcgladewriting.com

The Fever by Megan Abbott – review

downloadSomething mysterious is possessing the girls of a small town high school, in particular the peer group of young Deenie Nash.  After her best friend has an odd seizure in class and eventually slips into a coma, soon other friends of Deenie are having symptoms of their own.  Is it the HPV vaccine that the school strongly encouraged all the girls get?  Does it have something to do with the polluted lake in town that no one’s allowed to swim in?  The weird orange muck that gets on your shoes on the school football field?  Hopefully somebody figures out what is causing this epidemic before it overtakes Deenie herself…

Megan Abbott’s The Fever leaves all these possibilities and many more hanging thick in the air up until the bitter, shocking end of the novel.  The story is told through three points of view: Deenie’s, her hockey star older brother Eli, and her teacher dad Tom.  Through these characters we get all kinds of insight and information snarls into the mystery and the  hysteria gripping the tight-knit community.  Though such a premise could be taken to some outlandish places, Abbott firmly grounds this story and makes us believe it could happen to us while still leaving the door open that it could all be something supernatural.

Abbott, at one point a writer of historical, more “straight-up” noir novels, has lately been mining the inner lives of young girls for all their darkness and horror with this book, The End of Everything and Dare Me.  It’s a change of pace that sounds like it wouldn’t be a noir junkie like myself’s cup o’ tea, but somehow she brilliantly manages to absolutely just fucking grip me every time.  The Fever is her most ambitious of these novels to date (which is really saying something) and you should make it a priority read toot-sweet.

The Bitch by Les Edgerton – review

THE BITCH COVER NPPLes Edgerton’s The Bitch is a straight-up old-school noir novel that will pin your ass to the break table at lunch at make you late for work.

It’s a story told by ex-con, now-hairdresser Jake Bishop, a guy on the verge of living the American Dream.  He’s got a beautiful wife, his own house and he’s about to open his own salon in South Bend, Indiana.  But then Walker Joy, his old cellmate from Pendleton, comes asking for a favor: help him rip off a jeweler at the request of another jeweler who has some shit over Walker Joy’s head.  At first Jake begs off but then Walker ‘fesses up that this jeweler has shit on Jake as well.  Now Jake has to risk losing everything in order to get out of this jam alive or worse: catching “the bitch” of the title, the life long prison stretch that inevitably happens following a criminal’s third felony.

Edgerton sets all this up masterfully and then brings the hurt down on Bishop one catastrophe after another.  If you’re worried in the early stretches of The Bitch that Edgerton won’t go “full-dark” (as the Nerd admittedly was) let me put your fears to rest: this shit gets truly fucked up in act two and beyond fucked up in act three.  So if your idea of a good time with a book involves stomach problems (which we all know is the only type of reader who would look to the opinion of some asshole calling himself the Nerd of Noir), then The Bitch should be the next beast perched atop your TBR pile.

Plaster City by Johnny Shaw – review

9781477817582_p0_v2_s260x420Jimmy Veeder, the hapless hero of Johnny Shaw’s Dove Season, returns in Plaster City, another hugely hilarious, equisitely profane and wonderfully human entry in a series I hope we get to keep reading until Jimmy’s well into his nineties.  This time out Jimmy is trying to save his wild card best friend Bobby Maves’ daughter from the seedy world of underground (and underage) girl fighting, but for Jimmy Veeder, a farmer living in the Imperial Valley of California with his girlfriend and his late father’s bastard son, no such adventure is gonna go down without some truly heavy hiccups.

It’s a helluva tale, filled with coked up porn producers, dumb-ass teenage cholos and baby-faced bikers, but Shaw is all about the journey not the destination.  There is no great mystery to be solved or clock to be raced, just a golden opportunity to be told a funny story filled with beautiful losers (people you’d actually *want* as your drinking buddies), the tale being related by the most charismatic dude at the bar.  And for a comic novel to have such deeply earned emotional content as well?  That shit’s more than just gravy- it’s a fucking miracle.

I’m sure I’m not the first to have said that Johnny Shaw is as close to an heir to the throne of Joe R. Lansdale as we have in modern crime fiction, but if I am you better believe I want credit for it.  Plaster City is such a good read that the Nerd *almost* recommends you read it straight through instead of meeting up with the boys Friday night at your local.  Almost.

thefixlowe

The Fix by Steve Lowe – review

thefixloweI’ve seen many horror authors transition into crime with varying degrees of success. In a way, their move makes sense; both genres can be dark, scary, and gory. However, author Steve Lowe was coming from a very different place. Lowe is one of the funniest, most unique voices in bizarro fiction. The author of novels like You Are Sloth!, King of the Perverts, and Samurai vs. Robo-Dick, Lowe is a smart writer with a knack for hilarity-infused weirdness. That makes him an outstanding purveyor of wild, entertaining tales, but none of it sounds like he could give crime a shot and pull it off with flying colors. Surprisingly, with The Fix, released as part of the last batch of Broken River Books goodness, Lowe does exactly that, and spills a lot of blood in the process.

Buster Grant is an up-and-coming fighter with a ridiculously powerful right hand. Everyone knows he has the talent to make it big. Unfortunately, Buster also has a heroin addiction that has kept his potential at bay.  One night Buster fights Ronnie Piccolo, a guy with more rep than skills. He’s supposed to throw the fight in the fourth round, but he can’t bring himself to go along with the fix. The money is calling to him and anger makes him ignore the repercussions. He cracks Piccolo with a right and the man goes down for the count. The win puts a notch on the W column and some really bad guys on Buster’s tail.

Buster’s story is about to mirror that of Jimmy “Two Tickets To” Paradise. Jimmy also had a promising career ahead of him, but dreams of the big time where cut short in a very painful way when his best friend Sully tried the same scam on the very same bookie. It cost Jimmy the use of his right hand. Now he’s working in a machine shop and trying to save enough money so his pregnant girlfriend can quit her shitty waitressing gig. Things are tough but moving forward, until Sully shows up on his doorstep, dying of ALS, begging to make amends, and asking for a ride. Jimmy knows no good will come of it, but he always had a soft spot for Sully and agrees to take him to Chicago to see his dying mother. The story, as with everything that comes out of Sully’s mouth, is a lie, and the duo end up in a dark alley in a bad part town trying to collect some money Sully things will square things between him and Jimmy. Sadly, they aren’t the only ones with their sights on the cash. In a short encounter full of blood, Jimmy, Sully, Buster, and every bad guy who knows the bag full of money exists will clash in a very violent mix of death, vengeance, greed, and something akin to closure.

Readers may know Lowe as a funny man, but Lowe knows two unfunny things very well: sports and violence. The first one is obvious because his career as a sports journalist informs this novel and the sweet science is treated with appreciation and respect. The violence, on the other hand, is what pushes The Fix into must-read territory. While many authors would pussyfoot around the ultraviolet scenes, Lowe tackles them with an almost palpable relish. In fact, I think he crosses the line that’s supposed to divide crime and horror. I love both genres, so I can’t say enough good things about this. With incredible nonchalance and the same quick-paced prose that he uses throughout the narrative, the author delivers truly vicious/brutal/gory scenes that will make many readers cringe. In a world too full of bland noir, Lowe’s unflinching brutality is a very good thing.

The best noir is about bad people going through bad circumstances, and Lowe knows this. The man has studied the genre and knows how to make it exciting without trying to reinvent the wheel. The Fix is about lowlifes who think they can get a big payday and cross the wrong guys. They end up paying for it, and so does everyone around them. Most of Lowe’s work has been hilarious up until now, but this novel is the literary equivalent of a psycho in clown makeup walking into a school with a shotgun and wasting a dozen kids before pulling a Kurt Cobain.

The Fix is yet another outstanding release by Broken River Books. It’s short, wonderfully gritty, fast, and hard. It’s also packed with sharp dialogue and populated by believable characters. Lowe is proof that writing chops are writing chops regardless of genre.

black ock john mcfetridge

John McFetridge – interview

black ock john mcfetridgeBy Dana King

John McFetridge has been an underappreciated gem in the world of crime fiction since his first book in the genre, Dirty Sweet, was published in 2006. (An earlier novel, Below the Line, was co-authored with Scott Albert and deals with the movie-making process, which can also be a crime, but not of the type under discussion today.) Dirty Sweet earned McFetridge comparisons to Elmore Leonard, though Linda Richards, writing in January Magazine, noted his voice is “colder and starker” than Leonard’s; others have cited a resemblance to the work of George V. Higgins. Three more novels of his “Toronto Series” followed: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (2008), Swap (Let it Ride in the US – 2009), and Tumblin’ Dice (2012) all followed to some extent the story of the Saints of Hell, a biker gang moving into more mainstream avenues of organized crime.

McFetridge’s newest novel is a departure. Black Rock is set in Montreal in 1970, during the Quebecois separatist movement. Bombs are going off all around the city, kidnappings are taking place, and Constable Eddie Dougherty is sent running everywhere as the police try to plug holes and keep the city under control. Dougherty would rather work with the Francophone detective in charge of the investigation into the murders of three young women, but finds himself stealing time to help there from his more official duties.

Dana King: Tell us about Black Rock.

John McFetridge: On the cover it says, “Montreal 1970. Not everyone wanted to give peace a chance.” In 1969 John and Yoko had their bed-in for peace in Montreal and recorded, “Give Peace a Chance,” but at the same time bombs were going off all over Montreal and three women were killed by the same man. In 1970 two men were kidnapped; a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte and a British trade commissioner, James Cross, and after Mr. LaPorte was murdered the army was called in. So it was a busy and conflicted place.

Black Rock follows a young, almost-rookie cop named Eddie Dougherty as he runs down the few leads on the serial killer. He’s involved because most of the police department is busy with the terrorism and one of the murder victims is the younger sister of someone Dougherty knew growing up in the mostly Irish working-class neighbourhood of Point St. Charles.

Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

I was ten years old when the events in the book took place and I’d always felt they’d passed me by and I was unaffected. I delivered the newspaper that had the huge headline, “LaPorte Killed,” and a picture of his body in the trunk of a car but I didn’t think it had made much of an impact. Mr. LaPorte was kidnapped a couple miles from my house and his body was also found a few miles away. I remember being in a department store (Miracle Mart) with my mother and having to go out into the parking lot and waiting while the bomb squad searched the place but still, I didn’t feel these events had any lasting effect.

But now my kids have ‘lock-down’ drills in school just like fire drills and bombs go off at the Boston Marathon and I realized I was affected and I wanted to look into it more and explore those feelings.

Still, I didn’t see a novel in these events until I found an obscure article about the serial killing that said young women were so afraid to go out the nightclubs were deserted. I spoke to my sister about that because she was twenty-one at the time and going to those clubs and she had no memory at all about a serial killer or the fear or any warnings or anything like that. The nightclubs were, as they always were in Montreal, hopping.

Then I became interested in the way the entire city, the province, the whole country had been riveted by the kidnappings and the murder of Mr. LaPorte; the army was called in, a special task force was formed of police departments made up all their “best men,” and it still dominates a lot of our politics today and yet the murders of these young women went by almost unnoticed.

So, there’s nothing too original about the idea of, “what is the value of a life,” but that’s where the idea really started to form and these historical events make a pretty good back-drop, I think.

How long did it take to write Black Rock, start to finish?

Two years. There was a little bit before that where I was reading books about the era its set (Mark Kurlansky’s, 1968: the year that rocked the world, David Browne’s, Fire and Rain: the lost story of 1970 and Jefferson R. Cowie’s, Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the death of the working class are particularly good non-fiction) but I wasn’t sure I could write a period piece.

Then I had to fit the fictional story into these events and that took a while. The book was then edited by some excellent people at ECW Press and fact-checked, even though it is a novel.

What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

Some of the characters in the book are real – three victims of the serial killer known as the “Vampire Killer” at the time, the politicians and other world figures who get a mention and so on but the main character, Eddie Dougherty, is based on my older brother. As I said, I was intimidated to be writing a period novel and I was doing a lot of research so I figured I would stay a little closer to home with the main character and his family. My brother joined the police force (the Mounties, not the city police) in 1968, the same year as Dougherty and I used some of his experiences as a rookie cop. In the novel the Dougherty family moved from a very urban environment to a suburban neighbourhood which follows my family moving from Ville Emard in Montreal to Greenfield Park in the suburbs. My father served in the navy from 1938 to 45 and so did Hugh Dougherty. The biggest difference is that my mother is from Nova Scotia, not New Brunswick, and doesn’t speak French. Dougherty’s mother is based on my Aunt Rolande, whose first language was French.

In his “Troubles Trilogy” Adrian McKinty has his main character, Sean Duffy, live in the house Adrian lived in growing up and I thought that was genius so I stole it and put Dougherty’s family in the house where I grew up.

In what time and place is Black Rock set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

Montreal in 1970. It’s very important. There are two storylines in the book: terrorism and serial killings. Both were—well, I don’t want to say, “becoming popular” at the time in North America, but that’s what was going on. Some of it is demographics, the baby boom generation entering adulthood, and some of it seems to just have been in the air.

How did Black Rock come to be published?

Black Rock is my fifth novel with ECW Press. I’m not sure what their problem is, but they keep coming back for more so I keep giving it to them. The Kirkus review of Black Rock said maybe this one would be the break-out book, so I guess we’re all still hoping.

Recent historical crime fiction has seen a decided uptick in recent years. James Ellroy, of course, has famously written of LA in the 40s and 50s, then the country as a whole in the 60s and 70s. For a while he was pretty much it. Now we have James Benn and his Billy Boyle series (set in World War II), Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope (also World War II), Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy books (Northern Ireland in the early 80s), Stuart Neville’s Ratlines (1960s Ireland). Reed Farrel Coleman takes Moe Prager back to 1967 in Onion Street. Black Rock takes place in Montreal in 1970. (This does not pretend to be a comprehensive list.) Why do you think this has become such a pronounced trend?

And the one that really got me thinking about writing a period piece, Charlie Stella’s, Johnny Porno. I think as we get older we realize how important an understanding of the past is in order to have any kind of understanding of the present.

You grew up as an Anglophone in Montreal. How did that affect the creation and development of Eddie Dougherty?

There is a bit of a trend in books about divided cultures to write from the POV of the “other.” McKinty’s main character in the Troubles Trilogy is a Catholic; Louise Penny’s, Inspector Gamache is French-Canadian; in Trevanian’s The Main, set in Montreal, it’s LaPointe (Trevanian is actually the American Rodney Whitaker).

But one of the things I found most interesting growing up in Montreal was the fact that so many families weren’t a single culture (the estimate is that 40% of Quebecois have Irish in their family tree). Sure, a famous book about Quebec is called Two Solitudes, but the truth is while there were two solitudes in Canada, Montreal was always very multi-cultural with people moving between the ‘solitudes.’ When I was a teenager in the 70s a lot of people singing along at the Bob Dylan concert had strong French accents and the opening act was Beau Dommage who had a lot of people singing along to the French lyrics with English accents.

I did want Dougherty to have an English name (and one that’s tough to pronounce in French, like mine is) because in the late 60s and early 70s was when the division was really starting to show and people were being asked to choose a single culture, something Dougherty (and many Montrealers) refuse to do—which I think is great.

What were some of the challenges and satisfactions in researching Black Rock?

One of the real satisfactions was going back and reading the newspapers I had delivered as a kid. At the time I read the sports sections, so that brought back a lot of memories—the early days of the Expos especially. What an exciting time. Now, I was reading the whole paper and seeing the time in quite a different light. One of the challenges in the book, I think, is making the attitude people had towards the bombings and riots believable to people today. I had to remind myself that someone who was the age I am now (early 50s) had at that time lived through (and likely served in) WWII.

The challenges were mostly in researching the serial killer. The more challenging it became the more I knew I should keep going.

Your books aren’t just set in Canada, they’re about Canada in many ways. Why have you chosen to keep your stories at home, so to speak, when so many of your compatriots set their books elsewhere?

One reason is that cliche line about the setting being a character, which I think is true, and I couldn’t have a main character I didn’t really know. I think it would jump out as an undeveloped character. And thank you for saying my books are about Canada, that’s really what I’m after.

On the surface Canada looks a lot like the USA but it’s really quite different. I think we make terrific neighbours but we always run the risk in Canada of being culturally overrun by America – not in any intentional way, just because America is so much bigger. We watch American movies and TV shows, we read American books and magazines, we follow American news and sports. So I think it’s important for Canadians to tell Canadian stories.

What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

I do like all of the writers you’ve mentioned: James Ellroy, Reed Farrel Coleman, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Charlie Stella. I’ve only read one James Benn and I haven’t read any any Susan Elia MacNeal but now I’m going to look her up. Right now I’m reading Robert Edric’s The Monster’s Lament, set in London just as World War Two is ending, which involves organized crime and also Aleister Crowley. But I also like what I guess is kind of the ‘classic rock’ version of literature, the whole John Cheever, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro school of 20th century realism. I always prefer reading stories that I believe could actually happen. And I like stories with insight into the characters.

Who are your greatest influences?

Reading Elmore Leonard gave me the confidence to think that the characters I knew something about could carry a novel – everyday guys, really. And then every other writer in the world…

Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

For my previous novels I was a pantser but for this one I made a detailed timeline of the historical events I wanted to include. Not just the bombs and October Crisis stuff in Montreal, but Black September, Kent State, the Manson Family trial, the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrone in Uruguay, and even things like Woodstock and the Festival Express in Canada. And, of course, the actual murders of the Vampire Killer. I wanted all of those events to take place on the correct dates to really get across a feeling for the time.

Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

Five novels in I’m a little more inclined to throw things into a first draft knowing there will be revisions – and I’ll get help from people on those revisions. Also, I’m now a little more prepared for that period about two thirds of the way through when I think it’s falling apart and can’t be saved. I still feel that way but because it happens with every novel I’m a little more confident I can work through it.

If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

I really like the standard, “Write the book you want to read.” That’s all I ever do. Of course, if you want to have a big hit and make a lot of money, then I haven’t got a clue.

Why don’t Canadian teams win the Stanley Cup anymore?

This requires a long and complicated answer but I’m just going to say up until now it was because of socialized medicine so you better watch out as the playing field is being leveled.

What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

That’s a good question. I’m always so happy that anyone is taking the time to talk to me about my book I never really think about the details of the conversation. So I’ll have to think about it now… Okay, here’s one: You went to university part-time for ten years and studied creative writing, you were writing for over twenty years before you were published and you still don’t make enough money at it to call it a job but you keep doing it – is it worth it?

What’s the answer?

Yes.

What are you working on now?

The continuing adventures of Constable Eddie Dougherty. Montreal 1972 and an American draft dodger is found murdered…

FICTION: The Bridge by J.S. Breukelaar

You haven’t heard this one? says Cousin Fie. It happened years back at the college. True story. This girl, a freshman, was rooming with another girl over at Old Dorm Hall. Well the girls in those days were from all over, rich girls from Rhode Island in their Calvin Klein cutoffs and their yoga bodies.

Yoga bodies, one of my Dutch uncles says, licking his lips. I like a bit of that.

How come only girls? someone says.

In those days the college wasn’t co-ed, says Fie. Just chicks. And these girls, four or six of them all used to gather together in their various rooms in ODH, the building that overlooked the Quad, to talk about hair and term papers and clothes and shit, and there was one of them, blond chick, not exactly pretty but confident as hell because she was old money—not like the other girls with their CEOs and TV exec parents. This one, she was some shipbuilders’ child. Blond and big but not fat because she was a swimmer, a state champion—

What stroke? cousin Piet says jerking his hand back and forth in front of his groin. Piet and Fie are brothers, there are six boys in all, always competing for attention.

Stroke? Backstroke I think. Maybe butterfly. No joke. So she came from this old-school family and was a state swimming champion and broad and blond and tough as nails. And there was this scholarship chick in the dorm building, too, lived on her own in a single room on the second floor, a hillbilly chick from West Virginia or some such. She had stories of her own , but none she wanted to share if you know what I’m saying. She wasn’t no swimming champion, her clothes weren’t from Saks or Bloomingdales, she’d had boyfriends like anyone but all that rich bitch sex talk shamed her. Only thing she had to bring to these dorm room get togethers was ghost stories. Hillbilly stories. Hauntings and witches and such, so she told one of those one night in the blond chick’s room. It was up in the corner of the building, on the third floor—those two giant maples in the quad tapping their branches on the windows. The girls passing around beer and weed and doing each others hair and whatnot. Well it was a solid story this mountain chick told and damn scary to boot—

Which one?

Which one? Fie says.

Something about rattlers and coon turds? Piet says. Those mountain stories always got rattlers in them. Or coons.

Or hitchhikers, someone says.

Okay, says Fie. The one about rattlers and coon turds and hitchers. That one. And so from then on they included her in everything and made sure she was always there whenever they got together in the dorm for their panty parties what have you. And soon others joined in. Rich girls from all over the country—Wisconsin, and New Hampshire and North Carolina—put in with their own ghost stories and to be truthful some of them were okay. Not as good as the mountain chick’s, but just the telling of them kind of drew everyone together, and their eyes gleamed and they smiled and chugged beer together in that room and squealed when the chestnut branches scratched at the window and gave each other horse bites. Like the whole world come to them in that moonlit room, in those stories. But the big blond chick. She never scared.

What was her name? says Piet.

What? Her name. Shit man I don’t know. Give her a name.

You give her a name.

Alva, says Fie. Call her Alva.

Everyone roars and and Uncle Pim says if the story has a girl called Alva in it, which is his sister’s name in Vasservelde, they aren’t interested.

Maya, says Piet. Call her Maya. That’s a good rich girl name. Or Alex.

Okay. Maya. So Maya never scared. No matter how scary the stories were, she just sat there and smoked or sipped on her wine—she drank white wine is how sophisticated she was—and didn’t shiver or scream or yell like the rest of them that’s how scary some of those stories were. Especially the mountain girl. She told them about ghosts in the woods, witches in the attic, babies who suckled your soul, dogs with no anuses and cats with tumors, quicksand, slime, flickering candles, leeches, broken birds, girls with no mouths, dismemberments, deboweling, abortions, two-headed owls, eyes that bled… nothing fazed her. Some of the girls got so scared they threw up or fainted. Some didn’t come back. The parents found out and the parents told the Dean and little group was disbanded. But it always reformed. Vows of secrecy were sworn and the stories would continue. Every Sunday night in the corner room of ODH, the maple leaves bouncing moonlight into the open windows, the air thick with weed and fear, the girl’s Sunday-washed hair stiff with static. And there she’d sit—Maya—calm as Buddha. Not a blond hair out of place. Or maybe she’d roll her eyes or laugh at the scariest part, drop her roach in someone’s Coke. And after the party was over and the girls’d lie there in their dorm rooms looking into the darkness and seeing their own deaths, Maya’d be snoring, her roommate said. That gentle peaceful rich-girl snore.

Well the mountain girl. Candy. Candy okay with you? She tried to break through Maya’s defenses. Rich girl knows no fear, thought Candy, who’d known nothing but. She told stories so scary that they gave some of the girls rashes, migraines, ammenorrhia—that’s when you lose your period. Grades dropped all around and one of the girls had to be pulled down off the bell tower. When Candy ran out of stories of her own, she’d get on the phone to her gran for some more and when her gran ran out Candy hired all these Japanese videos—this was before You Tube and DVDs—and watched them, put her own spin on them. Nuns with gills, moths with hoofs, infants whose bones were broken at birth and who grew to hop like frogs, a priest who shat feathers, a fog of blood, a tree of limbs, a demon-dwarf with an exploding scrotum—

What the—

It exploded. Pus everywhere.

Oh shit. Where the hell you get this guy? Are we related?

She had the girls screaming, scratching welts down their faces. Candy would tell stories at those pajama parties that plumbed the very depths of hell and brought up the devil’s own toilet water, and floaters to boot. Nothing seemed to make an impression on Maya. She’d sit there like a stone. Finish a term paper. Make her shopping list. The more outlandish Candy’s stories, the more chance her eyes would roll. Or else she’d just yawn and go to sleep. Once she piped up and asked if anyone had anything better than a ghost story. A real story. And before Candy could say, well if a flayed civil war veteran who haunts a Carls Jr. isn’t a real story then what is, someone asked Maya why she came if she was so bored, and she just shrugged.

It’s somewhere to go, she said.

Another time, someone asked her if nothing scared her, but she just smiled that almost but not quite pitying smile she had, Reality, facts and figures. Murder statistics and mid terms. she said. What more do you need?

Candy was getting so pissed her own grades began to fall, and her grandparents who raised her were called before the scholarship board. The Board would pull Candy out of school if she didn’t improve and her gran pressed her lips together but Candy didn’t care any more. She’d become obsessed with Maya. She blamed Maya for stealing her thunder. Instead of listening to Candy, it had become a game between some of the other girls to watch Maya’s face for any sign of terror, a flicker of fear. Or discomfort. Discomfort would do and they began making book on Maya’s facial expressions instead of hanging on Candy’s every word. It became a thing to ‘do a Maya’ as they called it—they practiced their expressions of perfect calm verging on bitchy boredom. Or they’d just follow her example and catch up on their email, or their toenails, or whisper together about school work or boys. Candy’s freaky climaxes fell on deaf ears—the headphones were haunted, the hatbox was empty, the cave walls were bleeding, the devil wore Prada. No one cared anymore. She just looked around at all the shiny heads bent together, textbooks rustling and hairdryers starting up, and felt alone. Just like she used to. Many stopped coming, not out of fear, but just because it was less interesting watching Maya than it was listening to Candy— and the regular crowd shrunk. Candy felt lost. She didn’t care about the stories themselves. They didn’t belong to her, so she had nothing invested in them. Mountain people—they tell stories in their sleep, stories are in the air, they circulate and change depending on the teller. They make shit up easy as breathing.

Cousin Fie looks around the room at the men, uncles and cousins, gathered as usual at our place, the oilcloth covered table a crazy skyline of gin and beer bottles and wooden bowls of chips, white flecks of grease on a plate of uneaten meatballs, each with their own toothpick in it because Pim has a tendency to double-dip.

Says Fie, So it wasn’t what the stories were. It was what they did. They gave her a family. The girls were what she really cared about. Because for the first time in her life she had kin besides her gran and a few inbred cousins—

My Dutch uncles laugh louder than they need to.

For Candy it was more than just somewhere to go. It was where she belonged. Well those girls, that room with its stories had become home for Candy, more real than the mountains and more necessary. As the group got smaller and the girls lost interest she could feel something in her dying, like a part of her was being slowly ripped away and she didn’t know how she’d survive without it. But—

There’s always a but, says Piet.

—mountain folk are all about survival and Candy figured out a plan. She got some of the girls together, some of them who had been getting more mad at Maya than the others, either because they were somewhat outliers themselves, or because they’d been made to feel foolish for their screaming and soiling their nightgowns by her smiling moon-face and eyes as indifferent as the lake on a summers day, serene behind its cloud of menthol smoke. They were the weaker girls, and Candy wasn’t weak but when you’re desperate, you work with what you’ve got. So one day when they were bitching about Maya and how she thought she was better than everybody else and someone should teach her a lesson, and they were wondering what to do, Candy said, I think we should play a trick on her. I heard about it from my Gran (which was a lie, she read about it on the internet). It’ll scare the crap out of her if anything will and if it doesn’t—

Someone said. What if it doesn’t?

Candy said, sticking out her jaw in that way she did, Then, Maya’s won fair and square. And I think we should call it a day. No more stories.

Well the girls, the ones who’d been looking for an excuse to do just that, agreed. Candy told them her plan and they giggled, shivered, but said it didn’t seem too bad to them and they agreed to do what Candy said. Maya’s room mate, Sasha, who worked in the bookstore, agreed to steal an arm off one of the female mannikins used to model college merchandise. The three girls met in the dorm room late one afternoon while Maya was in class. Sasha pulled out the arm, a long smooth white girl’s arm. They planted the arm under the bedspread with just the tips of the fingers sticking out.

That’s messed up, says Piet.

The light was running thin by now, Fie says, the last of the golden rays filtering through the maples and falling on the tips of the dummy’s fingers, giving them a warm and lifelike glow.

Candy said, You think she’ll buy it?

A kiss of the fading light made one of the fake fingers seem to twitch. Just a little.

I’d shit my pants, said Sasha.

Candy had her doubts. Maya was tough. If the arm didn’t work, then Maya would win and Candy was okay with that. So they left it there. Went their separate ways to class, which for Candy was History, her best subject and for the first time in weeks she found herself able to concentrate fully on the lecture and even to raise her hand a few times and the professor smiled across the sea of heads and said he was glad to have her back.

That evening at supper, Maya’s seat was empty. Her roommate Sasha exchanged glances with Candy, and the other girls ate quietly. A few other people noticed and said where was Maya, but most attributed it to mid-terms or the fact that Maya had her period, which Sasha confirmed because she had hers too and pretty much all the roommates’ cycles were synchronized like that.

Happens in women’s prisons too, says Pim. They call it the Red Tide.

Maybe she’s calling her family, Candy wondered. Wednesday was a big day for calling families, the middle of the week, when all the girls felt loneliest, and someone said that, what family? Maya didn’t have a family to speak of, they said. Her old man, the shipping guy, well he was on his boats mostly, his yachts and such, trying to find Maya a new mommy. She’d already had three. And Candy thought how little she really knew about Maya and vice versa. But no one thought much of it, not even Candy, because after dinner Gene Harding, some celebrity academic—

In my time, says one of the Uncles. You didn’t have celebrity academics.

No kidding, sneers Piet. At the University of Vassername?

How old is Harding, anyway? says Uncle Pim. Thirty? What do you know from philosophy at thirty?

—was reading down at the amphitheater so a few of them went to that.

Strange that Maya’s not here, said one of the girls.

Why? said Candy.

She’s writing a paper on Harding, said the girl. For her philosophy major.

I forgot to mention that Sasha and Maya were juniors, so Maya was a couple years older than the others. It was the first week in October and the evenings were getting cool. After the reading they all went to a reception at Brig, and the bar opened and still there was no sign of Maya. This was before mobile phones and one of the girls told Sasha maybe she should call from the free phone or go over, but Sasha said did you ever try and talk to Maya when she had her period, and they all groaned and laughed and continued to flirt with the young professors and some PhD students from Cornell who’d come to the Harding reading. And then they all bought his book, and Sasha said how pissed Maya was going to be so Candy had a thought. She bought another book from out of her savings account and got the professor to sign it:

To Maya, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth…’ G. Harding.

And they all laughed and then the professor left and some of the girls went off with the PhD students.

Candy said that she would take the book over to Maya, and the girls said they’d go along.

But no ghost stories tonight, they said. Which was alright with Candy. She thought maybe the whole thing was past its Use-By date anyway. She didn’t think she had another bad story in her, that maybe over the last few months she’d gone into a dark place, and she, they, were all lucky to get out together. It was a beautiful night. The stars clung onto the sky like icicles from a vast tree, close enough to taste on your tongue, to touch with your heart. They crossed the river along the bridge, blue-lit like something from Tron, giggling. They stopped to look at the swollen river and someone made the usual beaver joke, and someone said it was too cold for beavers and they all laughed freely, like kids. Some even burped and they had their arms around each other, swinging six packs. Candy thought of her own creek back home in the mountains, emptying its icy waters into the sluggish, churning Ohio, and she hadn’t felt this light in years, this free. If she never got or gave another scare as long as she lived that was all right with her. Life was frightening enough without having to make it up.

They got to the dorm and clomped still chatty up the three flights to Sasha and Maya’s room but by the time they got to the door most of them were quiet. Sasha knocked but there was no answer.

She’s probably asleep, she said. Girl sleeps like the dead.

She fumbled with the card and slid it down the lock until they all heard the click because everyone—there were five or six of them—had gone silent. Sasha pushed the door open and darkness washed out into the glare of the hallway. Candy stepped in and groped along the wall for the light switch. But the dimmer must have been turned down because the light didn’t make any difference to what they were seeing in the moonlight-dappled room, or hearing. Candy’s senses seemed to have gotten muddled up, tangled together and continuous so that she could not tell where one left off and the other began. She couldn’t understand. Couldn’t feel her feet. Someone started sobbing and that could have been Sasha but beneath that there was something else. The sound of chewing. Or was it a feeling? To Candy it was more a sense of teeth and saliva on something that squeaked rather than squelched. And something else. But what she was looking at was Maya in a tube of moonlight at her desk chair—it was one of those old wooden ones—turned around so that she was angled toward the door and Maya held the mannikin’s arm and she was chewing on the plastic fingers, drool running down her chin and onto her lap. Because all she’d had was what she thought she knew, and when that failed her she had nothing. So she clung to that arm, lost in the dark. Candy took a step into the room and stopped. Maya’s blond shiny hair all damp with sweat and all stuck to her head and she was rocking back and forth against the back of the chair. That was the other sound. The sound of Maya’s broad swimmer’s shoulders cracking against the back of the chair. Crack, crack, crack.

#

JS Breukelaar’s first novel, American Monster was published in February by Lazy Fascist Books. Her work has been nominated for the David O Campbell Award, the Storysouth Million Writers Award and others, and has appeared in Juked, Prick of the Spindle, Fantasy, Go(b)bet Magazine New Dead Families, Opium and others, including anthologies like Women Writing the Weird (Dog Horn Press). She writes for the Nervous Breakdown and blogs irregularly at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto – review

download (1)Having really enjoyed the first season of True Detective on HBO, the Nerd decided to look into the previous work of the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto.  Turned out dude had written a book so, you know, I did it up.  And here’s the review (such an artful way to get into this piece!).

Galveston is about Roy Cady, a New Orleans mob strong arm who is betrayed by his boss on the very day he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer.  After defeating the thugs sent to kill him he hits the road with a teenaged hooker who was at the site of the botched hit, the two of them eventually ending up in motel in Galveston, Texas along with the hooker’s baby sister.  While in town Cady looks back on his rough life and forward to his short future while awaiting his boss’ second hit attempt.

Fans of True Detective will recognize numerous similarities between Galveston and that show’s first season.  The setting of Lousiana/East Texas is the same, with lots of attention paid to the motels, truck stops and shit kicker bars that can be found there.  When the violence comes around it is intense and gloriously descriptive, much like the brutally rendered blown apart heads and vicious beatings in True Detective.  There is also some flashback/structural fuckery like on the show, with the story going back and forth occasionally from 1988 to twenty years later.  It’s also a bleak and despairing story that ends on a sweet, damn near sentimental note (though the end of Galveston annoyed me far less than that of TD, admittedly).  And, of course, there’s lots of booze, cigarettes and even some little soldiers made of tall boy cans (this time out they’re constructed from Miller tins and not my beloved Lone Star).

But the main thing that bridges the two works for the Nerd is Pizzolatto’s interest in character over the beats and tropes of the type of story he is telling.  Where the actual mystery and investigation of the serial murders in True Detective were the show’s least successful or interesting aspects, same goes for the more obvious genre moments of Galveston.  Pizzolatto would rather get at the tortured souls of his heroes than deal with making sure there’s a battalion of guys coming after Cady every other chapter in Galveston or whether everything lines up in the conspiracy perfectly at the end of True Detective.  And if you go in knowing that this is a dark, thoughtful study of a troubled and violent man more than it is a twist-a-minute, murder-per-chapter crime thriller, your expectations will be greatly fucking exceeded.

Because there are some truly show-stopping moments of pain and beauty in Galveston, dear reader, like the part where an ex-lover Cady has pined over for years meets with him and gives us the far less booze-colored version of those days.  Or when Cady picks up a budding lot lizard in Amarillo while on a bender, his run of description of the town and the situation some of the most excitingly vivid prose I’ve read in a long while.  So if you’re up for those types of more (excuse my word choice) “literary” pleasures mixed with some occasionally nasty-as-fuck violence, give Galveston a try toot-sweet.

FICTION: Sea of Razorblades by Robert Acosta

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Clara asked.

The full moon shimmered in her eyes as she looked out over the dark water. On the top deck at two in the morning, they had the ocean to themselves.

“It is,” was all Sam could come up with. The rough pitch and yaw of the cruise liner made his stomach do flips. But, it was his honeymoon. He would endure. Out in the middle of the Caribbean, the alternatives were few.

“Oh, you poor baby,” Clara caressed his cheek. “Your stomach again?”

Sam shrugged. “It isn’t so bad,” he lied. Before the honeymoon was a seven day cruise, it was to be an African safari. Sam thought a safari too dangerous. At least then, his stomach would have stayed still.

Clara kissed him on the lips. “I’m going to buy you something to settle your stomach.”

“That isn’t necessary.” The patches and pills never worked before. There was no use believing they would do better this time.

Clara placed a forefinger on his lips. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Then we can both enjoy the view.”

Sam nodded. He watched her walk toward the door. She swayed her hips in that cute way, added a quick look over her shoulder, and winked.

Before Sam could find it sexy, his stomach bolted for the door soon after. He bent at the waste and sprayed the deck with dinner’s buttered lobster tail, trying to make it back to the rail. The boat rocked, his foot shifted, and set in vomit. He slipped, cracked forehead against the metal rail, mind spinning, his body followed.

***

Sam jolted back to consciousness by the brisk splash of water over his entire body. He choked, then coughed. His arms and legs struggled against something thick and resistant. Water! He was in the water.

Sam opened his eyes. He thrashed in the moon’s bright reflection. Despite the added illumination, there were no calls of a man over board. The ship itself grew smaller in the distance at least a mile away.

First, realization struck. He was in the middle of the Caribbean. No islands, no countries to find refuge. No small boats ventured out this way in the save for the occasional cruise ships. He was alone.

“Help!” He screamed. His voice fell flat on the ocean surface.

No one answered.

How long would it be until someone figured out he went into the water? Clara would spend ten minutes buying medicine from the desk. When she returned, he would be gone. What would she think? Would she suspect the worst?

No.

She would see the vomit on the deck and know he’d been sick. She would think he ran for one of the bathrooms, maybe their private cabin on the lower deck. There were twelve decks on the cruise liner. How long before she assumed he wasn’t on board anymore. Oh, God. It would be hours before anyone knew. If he was lucky. And with currents, would they be able to turn around and find him?

Sam looked around. Black covered everything. Only cold–not quite freezing–water and the moon’s comforting reflection.

“Think it through, Sam,” he said aloud. The sound of his own voice soothed. Nevertheless, he whispered the words. A voice inside told him there might be something listening. “What first?”

His legs were getting tired keeping him afloat. His shoes dragged against the water. He kicked them off. They floated to the surface, and the current carried them away.

“Now what?”

His pockets were empty, except for his cruise credit card and a handful of soggy receipts. That would do little good.

There was nothing. Nothing to do, but watch his ship get smaller until the dark swallowed it.

***

The moon continued its arc across the starlit sky. Its reflection moved with it, leaving Sam alone in the night.

As the first signs of sunlight poked over the horizon, Sam estimated those few hours had passed. Those few hours where Clara would look around the ship for him, growing worried with each passing minute. It was only a matter of time now. He had only to wait.

“This isn’t so bad,” Sam said. He even believed it. When his legs got tired of treading water, he floated on his back. There would be a search and he would be found. “This isn’t so bad.”

As if to encourage that opinion, a bird flew above. It squawked a warning, then landed in the water somewhere behind him. The sun showed itself now, creeping over the horizon.

Time lost any real significance. The sun rolled through the sky. Cold water lapped against his face, mitigating the sun’s heat. Somehow, the bird lessened his loneliness.

“It’s just the two of us, buddy,” he called to the bird.

It let out an odd squawk in return, followed by a splash.

Did it fly away?

Sam craned his head. The bird was gone. He looked up to find nothing overhead. Past his face, a feather floated in the water with the current. Its white and grey veins had spots of red. His heart picked up its pace. He looked in every direction, his movements frantic until they locked onto one image.

A fin poked out of the water. It sailed by at a carefree pace, turned, and weaved.

***

Sam let out a pathetic whimper. Never before had he felt this vulnerable.

What was he supposed to do? The program he’d seen on the nature channel said to stay perfectly still when confronted with a shark. Then again, Sam remembered another show on the same station where a large group of sharks fed on the carcass of a dead whale. It was still, and yet, they ate. The image of that fleshy mountain poking out of the water was still fresh in his mind. Missing chunks the size of Sam’s chest riddled the dead beast every few inches. A camera shot under water showed more sharks than he could count, writhing about the area like a nest of worms.

Sam couldn’t decide. Move, or, be still. Thanks to his fear, the decision was made for him. He froze. The fear locked every muscle. All he could do was float and watch the fin slice water.

Its movements reminded Sam of a dog sniffing out a scent. First left, then right until it picked up the trail, his trail.

“Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God,” Sam repeated the mantra under his breath. The fin didn’t dart right for him as he had feared, but another fin breached the surface from the opposite direction. The two fins carved a circle around his floating body at ten feet to either side.

A third fin joined the hunt, then a fourth.

It took Sam awhile to figure out it was the kill of his friend, the bird, that was drawing them all. That same nature show said certain sharks could smell a drop of blood in the ocean from miles away. The bird’s blood must still be close by, drawing more and more predators into the area. Sam spotted another bloody feather floating by a few feet away to confirm his theory.

One of the fins broke off and headed for Sam. The water was clear enough to see a shadow forming under the fin as it drew close. Sam wanted to swim away, but his limbs refused to obey. At a few feet, the fin lifted. A head rose, water rolling off rubbery-grey skin. Two cold eyes looked right at him. Sam sucked in air for a scream as the beast opened its mouth. Rows of pointy teeth jutted up from pink gums around a mouth big enough to swallow Sam’s head in a single bite. The jaw snapped shut before Sam could howl.

***

The beast devoured the bloody bird feather that had floated a few feet away, then dove, fin and all. Sam felt its boney blade brush his lower back.

Sam floated, unable to think. The creature had looked right at him. Could it be that it didn’t recognize him as food? Could it be as simple as blood or no blood, movement or no movement? Sam prayed that was the case.

With the sun high in the sky, there were many fins in the area. For a reason Sam couldn’t explain, he needed to look down. The water was clear for at least ten feet.

He looked and immediately wished he hadn’t. There were many more than a lot. Large ominous shapes swam beneath him. There were enough that they had to squirm around each other. A thick sinewy mass of writhing bodies. Sam snapped his gaze back up to the sky and tried to forget what he’d seen.

All it took was a drop of blood and thousands of razorblades would tear into him. Death paled in comparison to the unimaginable pain that came before it. Even if it lasted no more than a couple of seconds, the thought of being torn to shreds was enough to force a shiver from Sam’s frozen body.

One of the fins turned toward him. It grazed his elbow. Sam whimpered again, but the beast paid no attention. More of the fins did the same. Instead of his elbow, it was a leg, a foot, a shoulder, or his back. After a while Sam started to believe they were playing with him, like a cat with a lizard in its paws. Every few minutes, an eye would break the water’s surface and measure him. Mouths sometimes cracked open, exposing teeth.

Two of them, collided, then clashed. A tail lashed and struck Sam in the hand. He yelped, hand recoiling. A single red drop flung from his thumb and touched the water several feet away.

***

It didn’t take a second before they detected his blood. Every fin dashed to the spot. Bodies rammed. Teeth gnashed. They fought over nothing, mistaking each other for prey.

Sam held his thumb high above the water. A thin red line snaked from a small gash. The blood trail was at his wrist before he licked it up. He stuck the thumb in his mouth and sucked like a scared infant, feeling easily as vulnerable. He didn’t dare take it out again.

When the mound of angry teeth concluded, there was nothing to eat, and the circle resumed. The sun touched the horizon on the other side. Sam watched it melt into the water.

Sam’s eyelids were heavy. Hours of sustained fear wore on him. He hadn’t slept for two days, one of which he spent in the ocean. If he fell asleep now, he would drown. Or worse, his bloodied finger would capture the attention of his hungry friends, waking him with a horrible surprise.

“I’m sorry, Clara,” he whispered.

Some honeymoon he gave her. Who falls over the edge of a cruise ship, anyway? He chuckled. An African Safari didn’t seem that dangerous anymore. If he hadn’t chickened out, he may not be faced with a few dozen man-eaters.

As the sun dipped halfway out of sight, Sam saw a dark speck. He figured it was another bird in the distance, flying close to the water. Then it grew.

***

In an hour, the speck transformed into a blob, then a hulking mass. It was a ship, not a cruise ship, but a big one.

Sam didn’t know what to do. Did he wave? The ship might not be the only attention he drew. If he stayed still, what then? He drowned, or worse.

Against every instinct, Sam gathered every ounce of remaining courage, and waved with his uninjured hand. He didn’t dare take that finger from his mouth. He couldn’t yell with the finger there, either.

A loud horn sounded from the ship.

Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. Sam repeated the mantra in his head.

The ship appeared to hear his pleas as it closed the distance. When the cruiser towered above, the horn sounded again. A guttural rumble signaled the propellers changing direction. The ship stopped.

A crewman looked over the rail at Sam. “Holy shit!” he yelled, eyes tracing the dozens of fins. “Throw down a rope, now!”

A rope with an orange floating ring splashed down a few feet from Sam. The sharks paid little attention.

“Swim to it,” the same crewman said.

Easy for you to say, Sam thought.

Ignoring the order, Sam waited for the current to bring the ring to him. He hooked it under his armpits. A foot at a time, he lifted out of the water. As his toes left, he sighed.

He looked down again, safe from whatever he might see. There were even more than he’d seen before. They swam under the water all about the large cruiser, maybe a hundred. Sam laughed and cried, a torrent of emotion.

The crew pulled him aboard, and he kissed the deck, but settled for lying limp against its safety.

“Your wife Clara is one tough lady,” a crewman said.

“Huh?” Sam replied.

“Normally, the search parties don’t go out until the ship has been searched from top till bottom, but your wife insisted you weren’t there. It might have been hours more if she hadn’t. From the looks of those sharks, you didn’t have hours.”

“Is she here?”

“No, we’ll rendezvous with your cruise ship, you’ll see her then. Here, let’s get you up and dry.”

Sam shook his head, hugging his knees. “I’ll wait.”

Blood dripped from his finger, striking the deck. In his mind, he saw imaginary sharks racing toward it. An image he would never forget.

#

Robert Acosta is a Floridian living abroad in Canada with his wife Andrea. Robert, a former civil engineer and police officer, has turned in his badge to write under the umbrella of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. He is currently working on a series of short stories.

Dust Devils by Roger Smith – review

DUST_DEVILS_cover2Goddamn do I ever love Roger Smith.

I finally got around to his Dust Devils, using the book being recently picked up by the wonderful New Pulp Press as my excuse for covering it, and I hate myself even more for sleeping on it the last three years.  This is Smith at his most epic and, thankfully for sick bastards like myself, his most pitiless.  Where most thrillers tease you with a dark premise only to in the end give you consequences along the lines of our hero being shot in the shoulder or losing his partner at the end of act two, Smith starts out pitch black and shit only gets more fucked up from there.

And, shit, it’d take some real effort for a book to begin more grimly than Dust Devils.

The novel kicks off with former apartheid activist and reporter Robert Dell’s family (wife and two five-year-old twins) being murdered by the ruthless South African government killer Inja Mazibuko.  While Dell is still in shock from grief, Inja, having botched the job by not having killed Dell as well, uses his influence to have Dell charged with his family’s murder.  Before he can be transported to the infamous Pollsmoor Penitentiary and his almost certain death, Dell is rescued by the man he hates the most: his career mercenary father Bobby Dell.  The entire country out for his head and with justice seemingly not even remotely achievable in such a corrupt nation, father and son go deep into the Zululand on a suicide mission of revenge against the powerful warlord Mazibuko.

There are more major characters in this story that I didn’t even mention in that brief synopsis but I’ll let you discover them for yourself because believe me, dear reader, you’re gonna wanna read this beast toot-sweet.  Smith’s bleak vision of South Africa is one of my favorite places to trek through in literature and Dust Devils, with much of its action taking place well outside of his usual, urban Cape Town and Cape Flats locales, is bold new territory for him.

But it’s not just the rural locations that make this different from Smith’s other work, it’s also the scope of the story, the players here not just the rich of Cape Town being fucked with by the poor of the Cape Flats, but the hugely corrupt government fucking with the life of an ordinary man.  But instead of your usual conspiracy thriller where our man wants to expose the faceless demons in power as the crooks they really are, Dell is just looking to get some payback on a tangible evil in Inja Mazibuko.

So don’t be like the Nerd and skip over Dust Devils for a moment longer, dear reader- go and get yourself some of this oil-black nasty in front of your eyes immediately.  When it’s all over you’ll be screaming your thanks at an invisible me through tears of blood.