The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 29, 2010

Cool Katz!

Rex Stout fans must be over the moon, at least those who've read Dave Zeltserman's Derringer Award-winning novella, Julius Katz. In style, wit and charm, this story comes closer than anything I've read to capturing Stout's bloodless but entertaining riddles. Considering that Zeltserman is probably best known for his twisted noir and his New Age detective novels, this story ranks as one of the biggest surprises for me this year. This isn't a story you have to worry about your eight-year-old reading. No overt violence, no profanity, no abuse stronger than the occasional raised voice, this one can be read by the whole family.

Julius Katz is the requisite resident genius detective, which takes some doing, because Julius's sidekick, Archie - you can guess where the name derived - is no slouch in the smarts department. But this Archie... Well, let's just say that this Archie's physical characteristics are a shade closer to KITT than to Archie Goodwin.

In this original story, first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 2009, Julius and Archie must figure out who killed their client, a woman who just wanted Julius to help protect her aged mother's assets from a greedy sibling. Julius and Archie are so delightful, particularly Archie, with his whims and snits, that I hope this is only the first in a long series of escapades for them. Highly recommended, and available only at (unfortunately) amazon.com. On the plus side, you'll get your 99-cents worth, easy.

June 28, 2010

Still Missing The Last Good Kiss (Although) The Tears of Autumn (Bring a) Blood Harvest

I've just experienced one of those rare instances where every book I read turns out to be a winner. I started with Still Missing, the debut novel by Chevy Stevens. I shouldn't have to tell you anything about this book beyond the fact that it garnered starred reviews from each of the The Big Four: Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.

The story concerns the abduction and subsequent captivity of Annie O'Sullivan, a real estate agent, and is told through first-person accounts by the victim to her psychiatrist. And if from that one sentence you think you know how the story goes, you don't. The book is not designed to titillate and the author never lingers creepily over specific acts of rape and violence. Instead the reader bears witness to Annie's pain of remembering and attempts at recovery. There is no Fatal Instinct-like denouement with the kidnapper returning to have one last go at Annie. There. I destroyed what you thought would happen, didn't I? No, if anything, the revelations that come once Annie is safely home again, and she unravels the motivations behind it all are just as shocking and just as painful as anything she had already survived. Still Missing is a beautifully written story, both horrifying and poignant. Chevy Stevens has bestseller stamped all over her future.

I always get sucked into reading novels that propose a solution, if one is needed, to the JFK assassination. I am of an age where that event is one of my cultural touchstones. Most of those novels though, if I am being honest, are big let-downs, bringing nothing new to the table and often being only an excuse for an over-the-top action tale filled with cardboard characters. That is so not the case with Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn. To get much into the plot is to give away McCarry's theory regarding the motive for the assassination so I won't go there. I will say that the author has a gift for bringing his Cold War-era characters to life. As much as I enjoyed the character of Paul Christopher, the CIA agent at the heart of the story, I enjoyed the character of Sybille Webster, the wife of another CIA man, just as much, even though she's more of an incidental character, albeit one of charm and wit and with her soul intact. And although Christopher logs a lot of frequent-flyer miles in his search for the truth, McCarry never lets his story slip into travelogue mode, even while presenting aspects of Vietnamese and certain African cultures of which I was unaware. Tip of the hat to the good guys at The Rap Sheet for pointing me toward this author, who was himself a CIA agent at one time. And there is a brand spanking new interview with Charles McCarry at The Morning News that makes for interesting reading.

S.J. Bolton's new book, Blood Harvest, conjured up memories of reading Tom Tryon's Harvest Home and Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight, as all three books are gothic suspense with folklore playing a major role. Tryon's book is probably a more apt comparison as both Harvest Home and Blood Harvest involve rural farming communities and rituals regarding planting, harvesting, the seasons, etc. And, of course, murder.

When the Fletcher family, parents Gareth and Alice, sons Tom and Joe, and toddler Millie, build a new home in Heptonclough, odd things begin to happen. The children begin to hear voices, most unusual voices, and eventually ten-year-old Tom begins to believe his baby sister is in terrible danger. But his parents think he's becoming unhinged as does the psychiatrist they send him to. But when first Millie and then Joe are taken, a terrible history of children gone missing from the village begins to emerge and bodies literally come spilling out of their graves.

Tom and Joe are delightful but not overly precocious children, while a flirtation between the shy new vicar and the repressed psychiatrist permitted the author to move deftly between dry wit and heart-squeezing fear. While I thought the ending was a bit rushed and contrived, ultimately I found this eerie tale more satisfying and engaging, and rather less indulgent than the much hyped So Cold the River, by Michael Koryta.

Okay, I've saved the best for last, a crime classic called The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. I've been meaning to read this book for some time and naturally I'm now wondering why I always have to drag my feet. Crumley's prose is an engrossing melange of good-ol'-boy wisdom, gritty noir, and smart-ass erudition. When it comes to similes and alcohol consumption, this book out-Chandlers Chandler, and it's got a pretty nifty missing-person case wedged in there, too.

Crumley's private investigator, C.W. Sughrue, doesn't do mean streets. He does mean roads, miles of'em. And Sughrue, unlike Chandler's decree of what a PI must be, is not strictly "a man who is not himself mean." Sughrue has moments of knight errantry offset by days of screw-you meanness. C.W. is a funny, dark, and smart character, and Crumley knows just where and when to place the knife in the reader's heart.

Even before reading this book I was well aware of its famous opening line:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
As memorable as that sentence is, it's only the start of a book that surely ranks as one of the very finest PI novels ever.

June 21, 2010

Reminder: THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK by Dennis Tafoya

Just a reminder that this book will be released tomorrow, June 22, 2010. This is a book well worth your time and money.

SYNOPSIS: Two teens were shot in front of a dope house, though neither boy was known to be a user or dealer. One boy is dead, the other comatose. The surviving boy is the son of a beat cop; the dead boy is the only child of a successful businessman. Was it a case of wrong time, wrong place? What really happened, what chain of events brought these two boys out of their safe neighborhoods and to such a fate, is explored from four points of view: The two fathers, the detective who gets the case, and the heroine-addicted uncle of the comatose boy. Once the truth begins to spill out, none of these men will ever be the same.

REVIEW: To call Dennis Tafoya's new novel both powerful and moving is to use a cliché too frequently bestowed on undeserving novels. But The Wolves of Fairmount Park is deserving of all the praise readers can muster. This is a story dark and sweet, poignant and provocative, raw and real.

A truly great crime novel is about more than just whodunnit. It's about the characters, and how their lives are turned inside out by the crime. I had a professor once who told me that if you wanted to study crime, you must study two kinds of people: criminals and, well, there isn't a second kind, he admitted. Crime, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. In this book Tafoya has done a brilliant job of bringing his characters and criminals to painful life, and I can already say with great certainty that this is one of the best books I'll read this year.

The prose is dark and lyrical, but not florid, and the author has great insight into his characters. Orlando, the uncle/addict, is so very memorable. The reader is constantly torn between pity, revulsion, fear, and heartbreak for him, and yes, pride in him, too. Orlando may be the one character who doesn't deceive himself, even though he will deceive others or descend to petty crimes in order to get his fix. And Orlando knows the streets and the people of the streets as well as he knows himself. He can read intent and motive in every nuance and gesture. To get at the truth, he endures and he sacrifices in ways most people cannot imagine, even while he lies and steals and uses.

Orlando isn't seeking the truth out of some action-hero notion of vengeance either. Finding the truth may be his last opportunity to prove his value as a human being, a value that was dismissed long ago by his family and friends. He wants what, in the end, all of us want: redemption. All of the main characters have their reasons for seeking the truth: Orlando's brother, the beat cop, wants justice for his son. The businessman wants, too late, to get to know his son. The detective is looking to his career. The  beat cop, the businessman, and the detective all want Orlando to stay out of the way. His drug habit is perceived to be part of the problem that must have initiated the shootings in the first place. It is easier to point fingers at Orlando and other users than for these men to undergo the kind of self-examination that might result in personal culpability.

Here is an excerpt in which Orlando, shot by a psychotic PI working the case, is visited in the hospital -- the same hospital in which his nephew lies in a coma -- by the boy's father, Brendan. Orlando's girlfriend, Zoe, also an addict, is present.
He heard her breathing and looked over to see her head down, her hands over her eyes.

"What am I supposed to do, you get killed? Where do I go then?"

He breathed out, tried to think what to say. Then he saw a shadow in the door and it was Brendan. Shit.

"Orlando?"

He ducked his head, a reflex. Looked up at his brother as he resolved from a dark figure into someone recognizable. Saw for the first time the gray pasted into the hair at his temple, the deep cul-de-sacs under his eyes. Looked down again.

"You're out of bed? You're okay?"

Orlando couldn't think what to say, mumbled "sorry" under his breath, looked from Zoe's wary, foxlike eyes to Brendan's frantic ones.

"Jesus, Orlando. Jesus."

"I didn't do it. Didn't do anything. This crazy fuck tried to kill me."

"We don't have enough, me and Kath? Not enough to worry about? We have to hear this, too?"

"I swear to Christ, Bren." He held his hands up, empty palms catching the light, and the IV pole rattled. He felt like a ghost, a phantom festooned with chains. Not fully present in life, able only to horrify. Looking from one disappointed face to another. The fact of him an object lesson, a curse.

If you want to read a book that the critics are going to be falling over themselves to praise, read The Wolves of Fairmount Park. I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't make a whole bunch of "best of" lists this coming December. I know it will be on my list.

THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK
by Dennis Tafoya
Release date: June 22, 2010
Minotaur Books
Hardcover, 352 pp.
ISBN: 9780312531164


Available online from these independent booksellers:

Aunt Agatha's New & Used  Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Warwick's Books
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
The Poisoned Pen
Powell's Books
Skylight Books
Vroman's Books

June 20, 2010

WGI 3rd Place: GHOSTMAN ON THIRD by Chad Eagleton

It was raining the night Sheriff T. Joe Trumbo walked across the field to the far diamond behind McCreary High School where Wally Bass waited on deck.

“T. Joe,” Wally said from the bench.

“Figured you’d be here.”

“No where else to go.”

Trumbo sat down next to his friend. Wally looked at him. “I ever tell you I like the beard?”

“No, but thanks. Ellie fucking hates it.”

Wally laughed.

“Hides the scars though.”

“We all heard about that. Shrapnel they said.”

“It was.”

“It hurt?”

“At the time,” Trumbo said. “Not so much now.”

Lightning arced over the cornfield. “Burnham’s field catches fire you going to stay here with me or run back to the cruiser?”

Trumbo pulled Pall Malls from his coat. “We’ll both go back to the cruiser.”

Wally stood and pushed his face into the fence. “He’s not gonna make it, is he?”

Trumbo cupped his hands and lit a cigarette. He rose and handed it to Wally. “Graveyard dead before the ambulance even hit the highway.”

“Like to say it’s a shame—“

“But it’s not,” Trumbo said. “Everybody hated that sonofabitch.”

“Since middle school.” Wally lowered his head, blowing smoke toward the ground. The rain and the wind stole it, pushing it through the chain links.

Trumbo joined his friend. He wiped the rain from his face. “Kindergarten at least. Prick made me eat dirt every fucking day.”

“Don’t suppose that changes anything?” Wally watched the smoke fade across the diamond.

“Him making me eat dirt? ‘Fraid not. Prosecutor never went to school with him.”

“Where are the state boys?”

“Holding off.”

“You do that for me?”

Trumbo nodded.

“You wouldn’t think about walking back to the cruiser and taking about a ten minute nap, would you?”

“No.”
Wally grinned and smoke seeped through crooked, brown teeth. “Be plenty of time to make a run down to Daddy’s farm.”

“It’s not your daddy’s farm anymore.”

He looked back out over the diamond. “No, it’s not,” he said.

“You can finish your smoke though. Can’t smoke in the car.”

“County ordinance?”

Trumbo nodded.

“You can still smoke over at the County Line Bar.”

“Probably make a lot more business now.”

Wally shrugged. “Mostly the same crowd—steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes.” The rain slowed. Wally’s cigarette didn’t. His hands shook, but his face hid the panic. “You know it was just about money, right? Never would have gotten involved with that shit if it weren’t.”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me, Wally.”

“I do, though. I want you to know it was just about the money. We ain’t seen each other at all since you been back. But I want you to know.” He looked at his smoke. It had burned to the filter. Wally made a face, dragged and dropped it. He held his hands up.

“Put those down. You can walk.”

Wally nodded and followed Trumbo back across the tall, wet grass to the parking lot. “You like being Sheriff?”

Trumbo shrugged. “It’s alright. A job. Only reason I won is cause I’m a veteran. Folks in this county’d vote in your dog if they thought he’d been in the service.”

“My dog’s dead, but mostly, I think its cause no one knew you was a democrat.”

“That did help.”

Wally opened the back door. Trumbo touched his shoulder. “You can ride up front.”

“You’re not that interested in re-election are you?”

Trumbo laughed as they both climbed in the car. He started the engine and turned on the wipers.

“Maybe one last favor?” Wally asked.

Trumbo chewed on his moustache. “What’s that?”

“Hit a few balls?”

“In the rain?”

“It’s nothing now. Moving north. Couple a minutes it’ll be clear. Fuck, we played in the rain when we was kids. And in the dark too.”

“Tell you the truth?”

Wally waited.
 
“I fucking hate baseball.”

“What?”

“I do—I fucking hate baseball.”

“Why’d you play?”

“What the else was I gonna do? Not big enough for football. Not good enough for basketball.”

“Wrong color too.”

“No reason for that.”

“Its how I feel.”

“Don’t go saying how you feel when I get you back. Won’t do you any good considering who you shot.” Trumbo sighed. “We ain’t got a bat or balls.”

Wally pointed through the driver’s side window. Trumbo wiped it clear and Wally said, “Pole shed is right over there. You could fart and knock that lock off.”

“That’s illegal.”

“Tell ‘em I fucking did it. I don’t care. What’s five more years?”

They both sat back and listened to the wipers.

“Remember we’d call ghostman?” Wally asked finally. “When we couldn’t find anyone else but us to play?”

Trumbo looked down at the mud on the floorboard. His feet were wet and cold. “I fucking blame Nintendo,” he said. “Sam doesn’t ever want to go outside since I bought that Playstation.”

“And it’d be just you and me. And one of us would hit the ball and make our run to the base. And we’d say ghostman on first, ghostman on second, or ghostman on third.”

“Kinda creepy if you think about it.”

Wally picked at the cuts on his hands. “I don’t know. After you left for Afghanistan and Ford closed down, I’d come down here and hit balls around by myself. That’s about when Abby first got sick. Mom would come down and stay with her for an hour or two. Just had to get out of there for a bit. I had me a whole goddamn team of ghostmen.”

“I got some bolt cutters in the trunk,” Trumbo said.

“You’re up first.”
                                * * *
Trumbo handed Wally the bat.

“Hope you got more than one uniform,” Wally said.

Trumbo walked to the mound and wiped the ball against his trousers. “County pays for dry cleaning.”

Wally took a few practice swings. “If I had known about your leg, I might have just made a run for it.”

“No you wouldn’t,” Trumbo said, tossing the ball.

Wally bunted and ran to first. Trumbo hustled, snatched the ball and turned. “Ghostman on first,” Wally said.

Trumbo waited for Wally to return to the plate. He gripped the ball hard in his hand. He jabbed it at his friend’s chest. Wally froze. “Bunting’s for pussies,” he said and laughed.

Wally slapped his back. “Got me a run didn’t it?”

Trumbo headed back to the mound. “I’m a lousy pitcher and you chicken out with a bunt.”

Wally cleaned the bat on his coat. “It’s cause you’re a lousy pitcher I had no choice but bunt.”

Trumbo flung the ball hard. It sailed across the center of the plate, hit the fence and splashed in a puddle. “Strike,” he said.

Wally shook the ball dry and tossed it back. “I wasn’t ready.”

“Strike,” Trumbo said again.

Wally hefted the bat. Pointed at the Sheriff. “Fuck you, Trumbo. Let’s see your busted ass run after this one.”

Trumbo feinted a throw. Wally swung. “Strike two!”

“That’s fucking cheating!”

“This is prison rules!” Trumbo yelled and then quieted. Across the diamond their eyes locked and no one liked what they saw.

Wally tapped the bat against his boots. “Should get used to prison rules,” he said softly.

Trumbo pitched the ball slow and straight. Wally cracked it with his bat and Trumbo was off, stepping high through the mud and into the grass. He reached for the ball and slid, landing on his ass and coasting past the ball.

Wally scrambled toward second.

Trumbo grabbed the ball. “You better run your ass, Bass!”

Wally gave him the finger and rounded toward third. “Catch me, Copper!”

Trumbo hit the diamond full-tilt. Pain fired through his right leg with every soft, muddy thump of his boot.

Wally tagged third and stopped.

Breathing heavy, Trumbo slowed.

Wally darted off third.

“Fuck!”

“Stay on your toes!” Wally yelled and changed direction.

Trumbo turned back toward base, running harder.

Wally waited.

When he closed, Wally took off again.

Trumbo reached with the ball. Wally sidestepped and spun backward, hopping onto the base.

“You’re out of shape, Sheriff. You really aren’t hoping for re-election.”

Trumbo doubled over. He breathed heavy. “You’re a bastard, Bass.” Righting himself, he walked slowly back to the mound.

Wally called from behind him. “T. Joe? Thanks for this.”

Trumbo kept walking. Breathing kept him from talking. He waved the ball over his head.

“No, I mean it.”

Trumbo stepped on mound. Took one more deep breath, and managed, “It’s fine. Now get your ass back to home.”

Wally didn’t move.

Trumbo waited and breathed. “Wally?”

“Ghostman on third,” he said.

Trumbo waved toward home.

Wally stayed.

Trumbo turned third. “Ghostman on third, gotcha. Now—home plate.”

“No. Ghostman on third,” Wally said and reached into his coat.

Trumbo dropped the ball. “Wally? Don’t.”

“Ghostman on third,” he said again, pulling the hammer back.

Trumbo fired.

June 19, 2010

Reviews in brief.

THE DAMAGE DONE by Hilary Davidson. Travel writer Lily Moore has been called back to New York. By the police. Lily's sister, Claudia, has been found dead in Lily's apartment, drowned in the bath. Estranged from her sister, who is a heroine addict, Lily is yet devastated by the loss of her only family. Then Lily's rich ex-fiance starts trying worm his way back into Lily's affections. A mysterious man has been hanging around her apartment building. A pushy new neighbor seems to know a lot more about Lily's private life than any stranger should. Then Lily is attacked on two separate occasions. And if that's not mystery enough, Lily declares that the body in the bath wasn't Claudia, although the neighbors and police insist it was. Who was the dead woman? And if that wasn't her, just where is the unpredictable Claudia?

Fans of Hilary Davidson's short stories won't suffer a let down with her debut novel. Here is a crime novel not based on a serial killer nor containing unending pages of stomach-turning violence toward women. The author instead provides an intriguing, complex plot with a company of well-defined characters with dark and varying motives.(Release date is October, 2010.)

THE GOOD SON by Russel D. McLean.  PI J. McNee's life could be better. Having friends and family might help. Oh, wait, he does have friends, he just won't talk to them. He has family in the form of in-laws but he's a widower and he isn't talking to them either. Into McNee's life comes farmer Robertson, who recently found his brother hanged, a suicide. Robertson wants to know about his late brother's life, the two of them not having seen each other in 30 years. Shouldn't be a big deal. But the threats start coming, the body count rises, and innocent blood gets spilled in McNee's office. The cops really want to help but guess what? McNee isn't talking to them either, the laconic bastard.

McLean's debut novel, set in Dundee, Scotland, is everything a fan of PI novels most enjoys. It has an angst-ridden PI who can't help acting against his own best interests. There are plot twists and awesomely bad bad guys. One of the things I most like about this book is that the author doesn't get in the way of his story. He knows when to shut up. That means this story clocks in at a lean 200+ pages, but trust me, every word counts.

BUY BACK by Brian M. Wiprud. Insurance investigator Tom Davin is assigned to look into the theft of three paintings. Tom's very good at his job. Tom's also up to his eyeballs in hock to a loan shark, thanks to his inability to refuse to help a gorgeous woman who has since dumped him. Tom also arranged for the theft of those paintings in order to pay off his debt. The heist went down perfectly, nary a hitch. Except -- someone stole the paintings from Tom's crew. Now sniper bullets are flying, but the cops have this notion that Tom is the shooter. So does the mob. Not to mention someone has stolen Tom's four cats. How's a guy supposed to get through all this with only tantric yoga and a friendly masseuse on his side?

Wiprud has written an entertaining comic crime novel full of wisecrackery and positive energy. A fun read.

THINNING THE TURKEY HERD by Robert Campbell. Thanks to Joe Barone for prompting me to read a book in the Jimmy Flannery series by the late Robert Campbell. When Chicago alderman Janet Canarias asks Jimmy - who works in the city sewer department - to look into the whereabouts of her missing lesbian lover, it's because the case isn't a high priority with the cops, who have missing children to look for. As a political precinct captain, Jimmy has a reputation for getting things done, and finding things that need finding. Oh, sure, Jimmy finds the missing woman and predictably she is dead and it isn't too hard to guess who the killer is. What isn't predictable are the twists and turns -- including a raid on an animal shelter and a wonderful character named Willy Dink. Worth reading just for Willy who probably should have had his own series.

THE LION by Nelson DeMille. At last, the sequel to DeMille's The Lion's Game. Fans of DeMille's series featuring former NYPD homicide detective John Corey will be delighted to have Corey facing off once again against the notorious and elusive terrorist, Asad Khalil. The politically incorrect, obnoxious, and altogether hilarious Corey is in for the fight of his life, starting from the breathtaking skydiving sequence in which he and Khalil renew their acquaintance. John has always known this day would come, and that before it is over, one or both of them would die.

Fast-paced with some terrific action sequences. Terrorist Khalil has become a trifle predictable (Why would anyone work with this guy? It'd be safer to work with the ebola virus.), but the story works. Overall, the book lacks the emotion of DeMille's Night Fall, which I consider his best work, and the precision puzzle work of that book, but the bloody duel between Corey and Khalil is still enough to keep thrill-seekers reading. And that skydiving scene is a masterpiece of villainy and heroism that fans of James Bond films should love.

STRIP by Thomas Perry. Strip-club owner and mid-level money launderer Manco Kapak was robbed at a bank night-deposit. His search for the robber, spurred by the need to maintain his image by making an example of the robber, leads him to one Joe Carver. Joe, new to LA, has no idea why these people are trying to kill him, but he objects -- strenuously. In fact, he decides to make an example of Kapak. Meanwhile the robber decides that robbing Kapak was so lucrative that he needs to do it again. And again. Meanwhile, the bigamous LAPD detective assigned to investigate the robberies clearly has his own issues, as offspring from two marriages are about to require funds for college.

The comic aspect of Strip harkens back to, but isn't as lively or as ingenious as some of Perry's earlier books, notably the classic and incomparable Metzger's Dog and the con caper Island. While this is a fun read, the story takes some turns that don't necessarily fulfill the initial promise of the Joe Carver character, so that while I enjoyed the book I wasn't entirely satisfied by it. In fact, this book with its wild intersections of characters and coincidences compares closely, but unfavorably, to the hilarious and ultimately very satisfying mix of caper and characters in Declan Burke's The Big O. Strip is a certainly a fun read, but The Big O is belly laughs.

June 18, 2010

WGI 2nd Place: WHEN YOU'RE A JET by Joe Hartlaub

Bill was out of cigarettes. He listened to the whisper of Vicki’s sleep-breathing next to him as he slowly sat up from her twin bed. He considered either leaving now, making a clean getaway while she slept and using a trip to the no-name market on West State to buy some loosies as an excuse to go, or bumming one out of her purse, smoking it and staying awhile.

He slowly rolled off her bed; Vicki stirred and hmmmed for a few seconds and then got quiet and still again. Bill walked quietly over to Vicki’s purse on top of the chest of drawers against the opposite wall of her bedroom. He unzipped the purse flap and looked inside. It was dark but he could make out the logo on the front of the box even in the darkness: American Spirits in an orange pack. Ultra light filters. That settled it, as sure as if his guardian angel had opened the bedroom door for him and beckoned him out. When he smoked, he wanted tobacco that didn’t taste as if it had stepped on twenty times. He quietly zipped her purse back up and found his clothes in a heap on the floor, tee shirt, pants, socks, and shoes on the bottom. Even in the heat of passion he made sure that his clothes were laid out fireman-style.

He got dressed and had just started to turn the doorknob when Vicki sat up in bed, wide-awake, like she had been lying there watching him the whole time.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m out of cigarettes.”

“I have some.”

“American Spirit, right. Not my thing.”

“You looked in my purse?”

“No. I noticed last night.”

“Wow. You noticed! That’s different.” Vicki swept her black hair off of her neck as she lay back down on the bed. Bill could see her green eyes, even in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. “Are you coming back?”

He hesitated just a beat too long before answering. “I’ve got some things I need to clear up. Maybe we can get together later this week?”

Vicki didn’t say anything. She wasn’t crying but Bill could see her chin quiver for just a second.

“VVVVVVVmmmmmmmmmmm…” she said.

“What’s that?” Bill asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just the sound of Bill Plant, taking off after a pit stop.” She rolled over and faced the wall. “I thought it might be nice if we went over to Tommy’s Diner this morning,” she said, “had some breakfast for a change, you know, actually do something together other than fuck and suck. Never mind. Go.”

“Vicki, I ---”

“Just go,” she said, rolling out of bed, standing naked in front of him.

He looked at her. Two years and she still looked good to him, great breasts, kept herself trimmed up the way he liked it. The thought crossed his mind for just a second that he wasn’t being fair to her, not wanting to close the deal, classifying her as the latest of one of a long line of women that he would fuck but not eat with. He sure wasn’t going to do any better, not on the wrong side of 50.

He had seven different things to say to her and they all got stuck in his throat as he turned away and walked out of her bedroom and through her small living room and out of her front door. He braced himself, anticipating a vase or a book flying through the air and hitting him in the head or back. It had happened before. Instead, all he heard was what might have been a sob as he closed her door and walked down the hall. He would have preferred being hit by a book.

* * *

Bill walked over to the mart on West State Street, the only place around that was open, catering to the Mount Carmel West workers who could sneak out of the hospital for a quick break. Chui Tren, Vietnamese guy who ran the place always had a small box of loosies on the counter, even if forty cents for a cigarette was a ripoff. Bill sometimes thought that maybe Tren just liked fooling with the people in the neighborhood, maybe driving in from Upper Arlington or Hilliard every morning to sell overpriced stuff to the white trash and colored folk and the Mexes who were all one big unhappy family down in the Bottoms. Bill bought three to get him through the rest of the night then walked back to West Broad and down a block to his room at the Econo Inn.

His room wasn’t a shithole, but it was depressing just to walk into the place. He never really noticed it until he had been somewhere else, like Vicki’s apartment. It wasn’t like she lived in Dublin --- she had a one bedroom in a small building across from the hospital --- but she at least had curtains, a couple of plants, refrigerator magnets with pictures of cute animals, that type of thing. And she more or less kept things picked up. She was fairly neat, for a woman.

Bill didn’t even have a refrigerator, and had three pairs of clothes to his name. He did try to keep himself clean, though. It was a warm night, not unusual for May in Columbus, and he was funky from the night‘s activities, so he stripped and took a quick shower to wash Vicki and the street off of him. There wasn’t much call in the building for hot water at 2 AM, not that most of the other residents, guests and whatnots-by-the-hour bothered much with soap and water at any time day or night.

He was toweling off when his phone buzzed. He was afraid it was Vicki, with more guilt to lay on him, but the caller ID said “Roger.” He took the call. Roger wanted him, right away, at the one place in the entire world Bill did not want to be.

* * *

Roger, who had been banging a puta on Central Avenue for a couple of weeks, had stumbled out of her crib around 11:00 PM in a kind of half-assed post-coital bliss --- no problemo, the puta had other things to do --- and had headed up Mound on an aimless walkabout when he saw three of the F-Boys making a dash across the street by the abandoned Cooper Stadium about two blocks ahead of him. Roger had ducked into the shadow of a shuttered restaurant when he heard their rapid-fire español, anger and laughter alternating in their voices.

Foreign language classes hadn’t been part of Roger’s trade school curriculum so he had no idea what they were saying as he shadowed them, keeping a block or two behind them, motivated as much by idle curiosity as much as anything else. They had run up Cypress, Roger dogging them in the shadows, and had just turned on Campbell when Five-O rolled up from different directions, three cars worth, with their light bars flashing. The law had the gang members trussed and bussed in less time than it took to talk about it.

Roger had waited until the cops had left and then wandered up onto the scene, just as sweet as a little school kid, like he happened to have just missed all of the action. A guy who had been sitting on his front porch with a dog and a forty-ouncer told him that the mess had been connected with the robbery of a check-cashing store an hour before up on Sullivant. A trio of F-Boys had walked in and robbed the place, leaving behind nothing but their three-amigo digital images on the store’s security camera. The hombres were not strangers to the police, who had been on them like white on rice. The money, however, was missing. Roger thought about where he had seen them coming from and guessed that maybe, just maybe, that money was sitting in Cooper Stadium somewhere, stashed until they could get word out to their bros through one of the “se habla Espanol” storefront lawyers up and down West Broad Street.

Roger knew only one guy who was familiar with the Coop, and that was Bill, even if he hated the place, refusing to call it anything but “Jet Stadium” when he called it anything at all. So Roger had called Bill. They needed to get in there quick, before some other F-Boys checked it out first. Which was why Roger had told Bill to come quick. And to come heavy.

Bill had not been inside Jet Stadium in years, not since his dad had played there in 1970. It had been a magic year for his whole family, actually. His dad, known as Bud to everyone --- even Bill --- had bounced around the minor leagues for a couple of years before signing in 1970 with the Columbus Jets, a Triple – A team that was the farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The family had rented a house on South Grubb Street on the western edge of the Bottoms. The neighborhood was not much different from their old one, the hard end of Greenup Street in Covington, Kentucky, where they would watch the Ohio River roll by from their small back yard. Neighbors around them on Grubb were northern Kentucky transplants, too, and on his first day of school Bill had heard jokes about “reading, writing and Route 23” from teachers and students alike. Bill had acquired some reflected glory from his dad’s status as starting shortstop for the Jets: the .360 batting average, better than most of the players for the Pirates, didn‘t hurt things either. Bud quickly became a neighborhood, and then a hometown, hero.

On those rare occasions when Bud had the money he would take Bill and his mom out for Sunday dinner at Patton’s, a neighborhood bar and grill that sat down and across the street from Jet Stadium. When Bud and his family would walk in a stir would run through the after church crowd, waiting for tables with their backs pressed up against the knotty pine paneling. People would call Bud’s name, come up and shake his hand, wish him a good luck, send drinks over to the family’s table from the square bar in the middle of the place.

Everyone wanted to soak up Bud’s sunshine while they could; a sports reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal had noted the presence of a scout from Pittsburgh on two successive nights during a home stand against Richmond, taking notes whenever Bud came to bat, and it was all but a certainty that he would be wearing a Pirates uniform before the season was done. Bill became a de facto mascot for the concession employees, who showed him every nook and cranny of the place in the warm-up hours before each game.

But the dream summer ended abruptly on a warm night in August 1970.

Storm clouds had been rolling in from the west all afternoon like a bad omen, settling over the stadium and the cemetery that sat to the east of it, turning the sky dark as pitch and causing the management to turn the stadium lights on early. Still, the rain held off and the Jets, by the top of the ninth, hung onto a one run lead against the hated Rochester Red Wings. The Wings managed to load the bases with two out, and the stadium got quiet as a cocky twenty-two year old named Charlie Baker stepped up to the plate, grinning like a raccoon eating shit in the moonlight, his teeth visible all the way up to the nosebleed seats in center field.

Scott Denis, a Jets pitcher who had shown some great stuff in Pittsburgh two years before but who was on his way downhill, wound up and released the ball just a second earlier than he should have, giving it to Baker big and fat, down the center and across the letters right where Baker wanted it. He swung the bat around hard and confident, drilling a hard line drive to left center field that looked like it was gone until Bud Plant made an impossible, perfectly timed jump and catch that stopped the forward progress of the ball and ended not only the game but also his career. Fans at the game thought that the ball had taken Bud’s hand off, and it might as well have; the compound fracture of his right wrist finished him for the season.

Bud was still in physical therapy at the end of the season, when the team owners made the surprise announcement that they were moving the Jets to Charleston, West Virginia. Bud, for his part, never came. His injury broke his spirit as well as his bones. Phantom pains plagued his wrist and fingers, keeping him up at night and listless during the day. Dinners at Patton’s were few and far between and when the family did walk in, people turned sideways and the room got perceptibly quieter. Their neighborhood offered plenty of opportunities for bottled self-medication, and Bud started to stay away from home more and more, unable to face his wife and son and himself.

When Bill’s mom died of a silent heart attack in 1976, what little air had been left in Bud’s sails collapsed. Bud didn’t answer Bill’s knock on his bedroom door one morning in April 1977, the day that the newly returned and renamed Columbus Clippers were to play their first game as a team in the renamed Franklin County Stadium. Bill walked in and found his dad hanging from his belt, a last will and testament pinned to his shirt and consisting of a piece of lined notebook paper with the word “TIRED” penciled in block letters across it.

Bill had never gone back to the ballpark again, had in fact tried to avoid walking past it, even though he had never lived more than a few blocks away from it since he was nine years old. If he talked about it at all, he called it Jet Stadium, refusing to acknowledge the name changes over the years, a habit that made him the butt of jokes from his dwindling set of friends as his life moved on in an ever downward trajectory of unskilled and part-time jobs, legal and otherwise. A part of him rejoiced when the Clippers left the stadium in 2009 to play at the tony new facility on the edge of downtown. Even now, however, he would not have been making the long trek down Glenwood Avenue to Mound Street, toward what he still called Jet Stadium, but for Roger.

He and Roger Widmeyer had been friends since grade school, eating their poor kid bread and butter lunches together at recess, cutting phys ed classes together at Starling Junior High, dropping out from West High, standing back to back in the inmate cage on Jackson Pike at different times over the years when they would get collared over a minor beef, finding jobs for each other that required strong backs and weak minds, each of them the brother the other never had. When one called, the other answered, even when the call came from Jet Stadium.

Most of the street lights were out on Glenwood but Bill kept to the shadows anyway, as much to duck the occasional patrol car as to avoid the roving gangbangers, blasting heavy drums and bass under an aggressive ghetto or Hispanic rap, depending on who was at the wheel, followed by police cars which tracked them slowly up and down the cross streets as if they were playing some R-rated variation of Pac-Man on the Bottoms’ side streets, no doubt made more intense by the robbery and subsequent arrest.

Roger had told Bill to meet him inside Gate C, where the general admission parking had been. There was a chain pulled across the driveway that kept cars out but little else. The county’s grand plans for the old stadium as a racetrack hadn’t come together, and it didn’t bother with the cost of patrolling it to keep vandals from doing damage. Bill could see that the stands, open to the lot from its northeastern exposure, were missing a few seats here and there to enterprising fans who wanted a piece of local history. Roger, for all his hurry hurry, wasn’t there, however.

Bill flipped his phone open and hit the speed dial. After a couple of seconds he heard Roger’s ringtone --- “Sorry You Asked” by Dwight Yoakam --- playing somewhere nearby. No answer from Roger though. When Bill’s call kicked into voicemail he hung up and redialed, then tried to follow the sound of Dwight singing about why his girlfriend wasn’t with him tonight. He followed the music around the outside curve of the stadium and saw a porta-potty, probably left from the ground crew, just a few feet ahead. Probably caught him with his pants down, Bill thought. I’ll help him squeeze it out a little faster.

Bill sidled up to the unlocked door of the porta-potty, paused, then threw open the door.

Roger was on the commode, and his business was done. He was sitting on the commode, pants down around his ankles, throat cut open and decorated with a garland of twenty-dollar bills soaked in his own red.

Bill felt the ground open up underneath him like he had fallen down a well. He had just talked to Roger not more than twenty minutes beforehand. Now this. Bill felt a bubble form and then break inside of his chest as a sob rose up deep inside him. This was Roger, who had stood up with him, backed him up. He stood there waiting for Roger to jump up, laughing, rubbing off the greasepaint or whatever it was that was caked around his throat and shirt, laughing at his joke. But it wasn’t going to happen.

“You gonna cry for him, maricon?”

Bill whirled around to find two guys behind him, F-Boy gang tats running up their necks, wearing snazzy patterned fedoras and dressed in wife beaters, snow white except for a splash of red dots across them.

“You look like you gonna give your buddy a hummer, man. Wassup wit you guys, anyhow? Nobody don’ steal from the F, stupido.”

The gangbangers were both short and squat, which pissed Bill off even more for some reason, and without saying another word he pulled the .38 Special out of his right pocket and shot the guy on the left where he stood, boom boom boom, three bullets in him before he fell down. Bill turned and aimed at the second guy, never hesitating, but was too slow anyway as the hombre moved in and punched him, hard, in the gut, even as Bill stuck his gun under the fucker’s chin and fired two times, the bullets traveling up and out the top of the F-Boy’s head, blowing his head and hat to hell and back. Come heavy, Roger had said. His last favor to Bill.

The guy went limp and Bill let him fall, a Swinguard blade falling out of the guy’s hand and out of Bill at the same time. Bill looked down at himself, wondering how he could be bleeding so much, so quickly, without hurting. He dropped the gun and put his hand against his stomach, trying to hold his bleeding stomach in as he stumbled away from the bodies, almost tripping over a black tote bag that was sitting behind the gangbangers. He picked it up; it was heavy, so heavy that he felt his insides shift inside of him and almost spill out. Bill hefted the bag over to the side of the Gate C drive and leaned against a cement riser while he opened it. It was full of cash, tens and fives and twenties and fifties.

He looked at it for a moment --- so much money! --- then zipped the bag up and started walking slowly away toward the lights of Broad Street, eight long blocks away, the bag causing him to list to one side as he held his other hand, slippery, to the wound. He heard cheers erupt behind him from dark and empty Jet Stadium. He thought about calling Vicki, maybe ask her out to breakfast now that he had the money to do it. He fumbled for his phone with his bloody hand. It slipped away from him and he almost tripped over it but kept walking. No breakfast after all, he thought. The cheers faded and the night air, so warm before, suddenly turned colder, as his feet got heavier with each wet step.

WGI 1st Place: BEAT ON THE BRAT by Nigel Bird

He makes us anything we want, the clown on the stilts. Hearts or dogs or swords. Whatever we can think of.

“What’ll it be, bud?” He looks down from his great height and smiles. I don’t know why he puts on the lipstick - he doesn’t need it. Grin’s as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge and I should know - I seen it once.

“Giraffe,” I tell him.

“Speak up son,” he says. “It’s a long way for sound to travel.”

“The magic word?”

“Sorry, son. What’ya say?”

“Giraffe, please.” It wasn’t any louder, but he reaches into his apron pocket.

“Colours?”

I tell him blue and yellow and this time remember the magic. He messes with the tangle of rubber worms and picks the ones he needs.

Starts with the blue, gives it a stretch. As far as his arms will go. Takes one up to his lips and fills it with an enormous breath till it looks like a huge salami.

“How d’you do that, Stevie?” Joey, my little brother, always asks the same things. Stevie never seems to mind.

“Did martial arts and yoga when I was a kid,” he says and turns and twists his balloons. “Get fit now and you’ll be fit for life.”

It looks like the neck and head, a long snout with two sausage ears.

“You always been a clown, Stevie?”

He takes his time to answer and his eyes go misty. Maybe it’s all the puffing and blowing.

The yellow balloon fills with air. He ties a knot in the end. Looks at it for a moment and smiles again.

“Just the way it turned out.” The yellow balloon squeaks as he works it.

“Tell us, Stevie,” Joey says. “Tell us the story.”

We know he will. He tells it the same every Sunday when we stop on the way home from practice.

This time I don’t even listen. Don’t have to. I look down at Joey and see the wonder in his eyes. It’s like Stevie’s Christ and we’re his disciples.

Story goes he was signed up for the Yankees on account of him being a big hitter at college. Nobody had seen anyone like him since ‘Babe’ the way he tells it.

First time at the Yankee Stadium he scored two home runs. lew right over the fence. Guy called Bill Addler dislocated his shoulder trying to catch him. Shouldn’t have bothered according to Stevie.

Asked Pops about Addler. Remembers it 'cause he was there. Fine player, pop says. A real terrier.

So was Stevie. Real potential. Shame the way it happened to him.

After the game, Stevie’s the hero. They go celebrate even though they’ve told the coach they’re heading home. Ends up in a bar at the end of the earth and takes a lift home with some old lush.

Lush runs a light. Gets himself killed.

Gets Stevie a glass eye and a bit of brain damage.

Stevie always takes his eye out when it gets to that part. Let’s us have a play so long as our hands are clean.

Feels warm like it’s alive.

He hands over the giraffe to me and leans down to Joey.

“What’ll it be today?”

One of the geeks walks right between us, almost knocks Stevie over. Brushes the giraffe from my hands.

He never looks where he’s going. Always dress the same, him and his mates. Ripped jeans, leather jackets and hair like girls. Not a spare ounce on their bodies.
Spend half their time hopped up on glue – I seen ‘em with their bags out on the stoop. The other half they’re making tunes. Don’t pay no attention to us, normally.
Pop says that guys like them should be drafted into the army. They’d learn ‘em a thing or two.

I don’t know about that.

I’ve heard ‘em play down in the garage. Make me feel good, their songs. Like they wanna be somewhere else or somebody else or something. I think I understand.

Stevie shouts over.

“Careful where you go, son,” he says, in a nice voice, like he’s trying to be kind.

The boy looks up. Can’t see his eyes cos of his shades and the flop of hair.

“Sorry,” he says and takes his hands out of his pockets. Comes back and picks up the giraffe and gives it to me.

“Sorry kid.”

He puts his hands back in his pockets and gets on his way again. I wonder where he’s headed. Then he looks 'round. Speaks.

“How you doin’, Stevie?” He says it like they know each other, but not well.

“Same old things, Little Man. Same old things.”

Stevie leans down to Joey.

“A dog in a heart, please.”

He picks out two pink balloons, same as always, one dark one light.

* * *

She’s so fucking hot, man. Melting.

Debbie. Hell rhymes with that? Heavy?

Debbie / she’s so heavy / ba ba ba ba, ba ba.

Makes her sound fat. Definitely not the way into her skirt.

That skirt. Shit. It’s like she’s tellin’ us to come and get it. Gotta get me a piece of the action or I’ll die a fucking monk.

What about that place in sunny Afrique?

Entebbe. With the hijack. Could work.

Like the folk on the planes down in Entebbe / I’m a hostage to love with a girl called Debbie / ba ba ba ba, ba ba.

Hotdog! A million fucking dollars.

Better get me a pen.

And glue. My head feels tight. Need to loosen things up in there.

Fuck was that?

“Careful where you go, son.”

I ain't nobody’s son. Not any more. If I ever see that bastard, I’ll suck his lungs out through a straw and spit them right back in his face.

“Sorry,” I tell them. McKendrick’s kids. Hang round on Lex. Seen the big one by the garage. He’s OK. Shame they still got a father. Poor sods.

“Sorry kid.” I really am.

Christ, he’s got the giraffe. Always my favorite.

Wonder if Stevie’s still telling the way it used to be. Wouldn’t mind seeing him pop his eye.

“How you doin’, Stevie?”

He’s looking good. Hair’s a bit longer. Maybe not so orange. Teeth busted up. But good. Maybe I should ask him to see his eye.

“Same old things, Little Man. Same old things.”

Little Man. Fucker’s going make me cry. I’d better move. Always used to call me Little Man. Made me feel special. Like I had a friend, you know?

Hope the guys are ready. I need to blow off some shit. Rip into the bag and get me singing.

My turn to get pizza. Two extra large.

Christ. McKendrick’s steaming again. Slumped in the street with his bottle in a bag.

Wouldn’t swap places with those kids. Better not to have a dad than to get stuck with one like that.

“Arsehole,” he shouts. “Come here, arsehole.”

Don’t look like he can walk. Think I’m going over there to get myself a kicking? No way, man.

“You chicken, boy?”

Get called a lot worse than that. Chicken. I eat fucking chicken.

“Come over, you streak of piss. Come an' I’ll shave your hair, you hippie freak.”

“So long sir,” I tell him. “Have a nice day.” Then I whisper, “Prick.”

You know, one day he’s gonna be asking for my fucking autograph. And you know what I’m gonna say when he does?

Well, nor do I, not yet. But it’s gonna be good, I tell ya. It’s gonna be a peach.

* * *

Boys like that, Joey and Ray and Little Man, they’re the future. The way it’s going to be.

I’m glad I know them. Means I’ll be around even when I’m gone, wrapped up in their heads like precious stones.

That’s what I don’t tell them, see. That I’m happy doing what I do. Seems more important to them that I was a hotshot with a bat many moons ago.

Their papa, now he remembers the way it was. Caught those pitches like they were sent down by first-graders. First-grade girls at that. I’ll never forget the balls, way they flew like they were going into orbit. That was some day.

Nowadays I got me an art form to keep me occupied.

Yankees still look after me, even now. Thirteen years on. Check’s in the post first of the month, regular as a vegetarian.

This just gets me out. Meeting the future. Looking after it. Keeping it safe. Place like this, somebody has to. Somebody needs to be their catcher in the rye.

* * *

“Dunno where he is,” I tell Joey. Down at the bar, I guess. Prick.

Ain’t got no money left now we bought our balloons.

Joey’s not feeling so good. Maybe it was the ice-creams that did it.

“When can we go in, Ray?”

Wish I knew. “In a few minutes. Mom’ll be back from work soon. Or Dad’ll come.”

“I wanna go to Pop’s,” he says. It’s a good idea, only we haven’t got the fare.

“What about your dog?” I ask. “What does he want to do?”

“He wants to go to Pop’s, too.”

Even the balloon dog knows where we should head.

The geeks come out from their session. Sounded good, what I heard. Got a new song about Debbie. Something about love and planes.

“Your old man’s down at Blake’s,” Little Man shouts over. Funny, he looks like he’s smiling. “Wanna hang out for a while? Get some pizza?”

I look down at Joey. He nods and looks at the dog in the heart. The dog nods too.

“If you like,” I tell him.

“Don’t be doing me any favors, now,” he says.

They walk along the street, heads down and nodding like their necks are busted.

Joey puts his hat on and picks up his dog and his bat. Maybe he smells a game. I get the ball and the mitt to keep him happy. No point telling him these boys don’t play. Reckon the last time they got any exercise they were running from the cops.

Little Man stops and turns towards us. Looks down at the balloon dog. “Cool,” he says, then he turns round quick. Starts walking away before we get there.

“Ray.” Sounds like Dad. “Ray, you keep away from those layabouts, understand.”

“Least those layabouts are here for us.”

I shouldn’t have said it. I know better. Keep quiet when he’s drinking, Mom says, and I try. Only the words are out and it’s too late.

He storms over like he’s defending the Alamo. Bright red cheeks, wheezing, a cigarette stuck to his lips.

“What you say?”

I see Little Man turn to look at me. He doesn’t speak, but I know what he’s thinking. ‘Keep your mouth shut, boy. Don’t say a word.’ I get it. I say nothing.

“He said they were here for us.”

Joey doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t mean to make it worse, only I know he’s just thrown me into a bucketful of shit.

Little Man’s still watching. Like he’s thinking what to do. He looks real pale in the sunlight.

“Gimme the bat,” Dad says to Joey.

Joey slips it behind his back. He’s a good boy.

“Give it to me.” Joey holds still.

Dad reaches over. Grabs the handle. Lifts it into the air. Joey holds on tight, his legs dangling and kicking the air. Dad shakes the stick, pulls at his fingers, lets Joey fall to the ground.

Before I can move, I see him swing.

It’s coming right for me. I look at Little Man.

It hits. I know it hits. Only there’s no pain. Just a massive crunch. Like nutting a wall when you’re angry. Doesn’t feel right.

I’m on the floor. I feel it now. A dark wave of icy water running through my body.

I look for Little Man. Try to hear what’s going on. My eyes won’t see. My ears won’t hear. I think of hitting a homer at the stadium, see the ball curve. I think of Stevie smiling. I think of my giraffe, of yellow and blue.

* * *

Bastard McKendrick. Same as all the grown-ups round here, a useless fucking slob.

I ever end up like him, I’ll give Dee Dee a gun. Get him to pull the trigger.

Stupid brat. Why’d he have to open his mouth.

“You got no right to beat on the brat, asshole,” I tell him. “Not with a fucking baseball bat.”

I’ll write a song about it one day. Tell the world.

I run to catch up with the guys. No way I’m staying around to find out what he thinks. No way he’s coming after me. Besides, somebody needs to call an ambulance.

* * *

I don’t have to think.

Before I know it, I’m home, opening the display cabinet in the bedroom.

First time it’s been out in thirteen years. Unlucky for some.

I don’t need to read the inscription underneath. I know that off by heart.

“To Stevie Boyle. In honor of what might have been.”

Felt good to have a bat in my hand again. I gave it a quick look, the autographs as vivid as they were the day they were written.

I almost trip over the stilts on the way out. Kick them against the wall and start to run. Without them my trousers are three feet too long, but what the hell. Doesn’t stop me taking the stairs two at a time.

He’s still there, standing over the kid and shouting at Joey. People like him, they need a lesson.

There are men that share their sperm and there are fathers. I think about that when I get to them.

I don’t imagine I ever swung as good, even at college.

The back-lift, the arc of the bat, the sound of the air being sliced all just as I remember.

Then there’s the contact. Sweet as a nut. Crisp and mighty.

Easy as taking the top off a boiled egg.

I look down and see what I’ve done. Look carefully in there for precious stones.

Nothing sparkles. Nothing shines. All I see is grey mess, spreading over the sidewalk like the arms of an octopus.

Joey steps over. Holds tight onto my leg. Buries his head into my trousers. Looks up. I rub his hair. Feel nine foot tall.

June 17, 2010

Watery Grave Winners!

I've taken so long to announce the winners of the Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest that some of you may have given up hope. I apologize for the delay -- the heat does crazy things to us here in Ohio. The amazing mix of stories resulted in almost every story receiving points from the judges and made consensus virtually impossible. I eventually resorted to putting the matter before members of my writing group to determine tie-breakers. The first-place story will be posted later today, while the second and third place stories will be posted later this week if the authors permit.

And the winners are:
  1. Beat on the Brat by Nigel Bird.($25)
  2. When You're a Jet by Joe Hartlaub ($15)
  3. Ghostman on Third by Chad Eagleton ($10)
  4. Hanging Curve by Dan Ames (a bye into the next WGI)
  5. The Big Fuzz by Liam Jose (a bye into the next WGI)
I'd like to thank all of the authors for their talent, their diligence and their patience. You made the whole process a joy.

My thanks also to the judges: God love Aldo Calcagno, the well-known and greatly respected maestro of Powder Burn Flash and Darkest Before the Dawn webzines. I pestered the poor man to death, but he remained calm and patient with me through it all. And if you don't know Elyse Dinh, you've missed meeting one of the brightest, funniest people in the cyberworld. Elyse is a voracious reader of crime fiction, blogger (Pop Culture Nerd) and freelance editor. She's also a former news reporter who occasionally had contact with lowlife, but is 90% sure it didn't rub off on her. The rest of us put that percentage a bit lower. My thanks also to a subsection of the Franklinton Writers Group for breaking ties and adding insight.

June 7, 2010

THE TILTING HOUSE by Tom LLewellyn

Today's review comes from a young friend, Marie S., a middle-schooler who agreed to read The Tilting House, by Tom Llewellyn, and report on it.
This story is about two kids named Josh and Aaron Peshik, who live in a house with tilting floors. They have many exciting adventures in this house after they find the diary of the mad scientist who built the house.

This book was so good because it has a lot of adventure, and I love adventure. The ending was my favorite part of the book. It was so detailed and made perfect sense. All of the characters in the book are believable.

My favorite characters are Josh and his neighbor, Lola. What I like about Lola and Josh is that they are not afraid of anything and love to be adventurous.

I would recommend this book to all teenagers and younger kids who can read alone. My brother, Richard, is almost sixteen, and he really liked this book, too. I would love to read another book by this author.

A word of caution (or encouragement, depending on whether you like adventure as much as Marie): this book contains talking rats, growth potion, and buried treasure. Who, at any age, can resist all of that? In case you think you are capable of resistance, I dare you to check out the brilliantly designed official website for The Tilting House. Watch the video (there or below), play with the growth powder, and listen to the old man muttering to himself.

I gave this book to Marie to review so that I could weasel out of writing a review, but now I'm sorry that I did that without reading it first because she doesn't want to give the book back.