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

December 31, 2011

Fourth Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

As I've been off my reading feed for the past couple of months, I gave serious thought to skipping the awards this year. But I decided that would be grossly unfair to those wonderful titles I did read, never mind that I've spent the last eight weeks re-reading mostly old favorites that would demand nothing of me. My memory is faulty, yes, but here are the works I read this year that, for good or ill, are unforgettable.

The Give a Dam Award, intended for a classic published at least 30 years ago, goes unclaimed this year. I read plenty of books this year that were published more than three decades back, but none of them were new to me. So, moving on...

The Water Over the Dam Award honors both a book and the person who recommended it. Well, my favorite influence peddlar, Ken Bruen, cops a share of this award for making me aware of THE WOMAN WHO MARRIED A BEAR, by John Straley. This book won the Shamus Award in 1993 for Best First Novel, and deservedly so. The series deserves more attention than it ever got.

John Hart, a rare double Edgar winner, also takes a pair of Lowheads this year for IRON HOUSE. This book rakes in the Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award, for the most overrated work of crime fiction, as well as the Dam Your Eyes Award, for the book most anticipated and least enjoyed. Don't bother looking for my review of this one, because I didn't bother writing one.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked - underhyped, if you will - work of crime fiction goes to a book that caught me off guard: TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS, by Gianrico Carofiglio, is a philosophical, introspective tale about a lawyer searching for a missing woman, and finding out more about himself than he bargained for.

And now for a trio of short-story awards. I fell way, way behind on my short-story reading once autumn arrived but still managed close to 200 stories this year, so I had a wonderful array from which to choose these excellent stories:

     The Dam Skippy Award (Online) goes to Patricia Abbott for THE PERFECT DAY, published at All Due Respect. This story about a day at the beach for a dysfunctional family hints at Flannery O'Connor-like clouds on their horizon. 

     The Dam Skippy Award (Print) goes to HAIRCUT, a classic story by Ring Lardner. Lardner may be better known for his writing about baseball, but this tale of murder, narrated by an unwitting small-town barber, is chilling.

     The Dam Skippy Award (Digital) goes to Eric Beetner for his story included in the PULP INK anthology,  ZED'S DEAD, BABY. The story is about a persistent enforcer who always, always gets his man. Dead or otherwise. A darkly funny tale, far and away my favorite in an anthology that includes stories from such talents as Reed Farrel Coleman, Allan Guthrie, and Hilary Davidson.

Oddly enough, not one of the winning stories came from the best overall anthology or collection I read this year, which was DISCOUNT NOIR, edited by Patricia Abbott and Steve Weddle. Hm, I may need to add another award for next year for the best anthology or collection.


And at last, the award for the best novel I read this year, the Hot Dam Award. Well, there's a long list of the possibles. In the order I read them, first to last:
The single book that was, for me, the best read in 2011 came down to a choice between Roger Smith's DUST DEVILS - a stellar book: graphic, moving, and meaningful - and the book on which I bestow the Hot Dam Award: Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING. Abbott steps away from classic noir to display an evocative, lyrical talent that captures all that is wonderful and frightening to an adolescent narrator caught up in the dark natures of the adults in her world. If you ignore everything else I recommend this year, don't miss this book.


As always, I owe a debt of endless gratitude to the authors, for their work and for their patience with this reader, who doesn't always "get it." I'll try to do better in 2012.

Happy New Year!

December 26, 2011

A VINE IN THE BLOOD by Leighton Gage

In the wake of the recent kidnapping of a major-league baseball player in Colombia, comes this timely mystery -- only I read the ebook last spring, so maybe 'timely' is the wrong word; perhaps I should have said 'prescient.'

Brazil's (and the world's) finest football player loves his mother very much. When she's kidnapped, he's more than ready to pay the ransom. Problem is, the kidnapping occurs just prior to the beginning of World Cup play. Could this be the work of rival countries hoping to destroy Brazil's chances of winning? Could the mind behind it be the player's own fiancee, a beauty with grasping hands and a heart of "cold"? Could the mastermind be the team owner, who desperately needs money? Or the mobster who wants to crush the team owner? The servants? The imprisoned criminologist who moonlighted as a kidnapper? The kidnap and ransom plans were designed by someone who has carefully planned each step, every tiny detail. Except one, and that single misstep leads to double murder.

It's always a treat when Mario Silva's team of federal investigators work a case. The characters are defined mostly by their dialogue, something that was more common among mystery writers of old (Erle Stanley Gardner, for example, and the great Dashiell Hammett), and author Gage makes that dialogue sparkle. While the repartee among the investigators, or between the investigators and the witnesses/suspects entertains the reader and furthers the story, it also does much to reveal the characters' underlying natures. From 'Baby Face' Goncalves to (my favorite) Silva's aide, Arnaldo Nunes, from incidental characters like shop clerks and park rangers to major players like the football star's fiancee and the criminologist, each character is so well-defined by his dialogue that physical descriptions are rendered almost unnecessary.

The story, as with all of the books in this series, moves along at gallop. I love that the author, while allowing his team to make use of forensics, never lets the story's pace or tension droop due to technical or scientific explanations. Forensics support the story; forensics are NOT the story, praise be! And Mario Silva and his team don't let any grass grow under their feet, but at the same time, each of them seems very human. No superheroes here, just cops getting the job done, cops with wit and personality.

With each book I also have the pleasure of learning more about Brazil. Gage does a great job of weaving this information so tightly into the threads of the story that it never feels pedantic or confusing, but is a fascinating and fundamental part of the story. If you haven't tried this series yet, it's okay to start here, with this book, because these books are easily read out of order. But read them, yes, I urge you. Read them now; thank me later.

On sale: 12/27/2011

December 25, 2011

HEADSTONE by Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor gets a small headstone in the mail. Well, he's the kind of guy that would happen to, isn't he? But when his friends -- he still has one or two -- receive similar items and then are subject to brutal assaults, Jack has to start sitting up, drinking down, and paying attention.

Is there any encomium I have not yet bestowed on Ken Bruen? If so, it's been a drastic oversight on my part. Bruen's writing goes from strength to strength. His ability to twist a plot is masterful; his pacing is precise; and his characters fairly leap from the page in all their rage.

Rebounding from his recent encounter with one kind of devil, Jack finds himself in the position of making deals with another. Body and soul, Jack will not come away from this case unscathed, nor will his friends, and even some of his enemies will be affected by the fallout. HEADSTONE may well be the most surprising -- shocking is not too strong a word --  story in the Jack Taylor series since THE DRAMATIST, and I think it is one that reveals Jack's conflicted soul better than any other.

As with virtually every book by Ken Bruen, HEADSTONE is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

December 22, 2011

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS by Gianrico Carofiglio

Guido Guerrieri is hired to look into a missing person case. Not to investigate it, he's a lawyer after all, not a detective, but the parents of the missing young woman are afraid the police are about to close the case, so they ask Guerrieri to go over the details to see what the police might have missed. But he doesn't think they missed anything and he dreads having to tell his clients that he can offer them no hope. Instead he begins to interview the woman's friends and the few witnesses available, and slowly the imaginative Guido begins to unravel a tale of dark deceit.

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS is not only the title of the book, it is the theme of the book, those moments of perfect happiness that we cling to as we live them but can barely recall as little as 24 hours later. But Guido remembers them in vivid detail, and author Carofiglio fills the story with Guido's reminiscences, temporary perfections (for only what is temporary, says Guido, can be perfect), each of which not only fulfills the theme but shines a brief light on the way Guido puts together the puzzle of the missing woman.

As a result of Guido's pauses to remember, the pace of the book is easy, as the lawyer gently teases out the facts of the case, but not dragging. Every moment spent in Guido's company is fascinating because he is a fascinating character. He's a successful attorney, a failure at relationships, and those two attributes should make this character just another of the same in a long line of such in contemporary crime fiction. Guido is different because he is literate, insecure, compassionate; in short, he's the kind of man most women would love to get to know but never will because he thinks of himself as Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character. When Guido makes a misstep it isn't because he is stupid or careless. He is not a stupid or careless man. His missteps occur because he is lonely and fallible. But those same two characteristics also provoke rewards that he sometimes sees and appreciates, and sometimes does not.

Carofiglio has crafted a poignant, witty, and literate mystery in this his fourth book in the Guerrieri series. The complexities and quirks of the Italian criminal justice system are made readily comprehensible, with no strain on the reader. The emphasis is on reasoning and the understanding of the human condition, so don't expect Guido to suddenly imitate Jack Reacher -- Guido is a warmer personality, and although he is a creditable boxer, the author does not use that skill as a device to put Guido in the position of being a physical hero. Instead, Guido's punching bag acts as a friend to him, a sounding board for his emotions and ideas. Credit translator Antony Shugaar for keeping the translation smooth, never using a misplaced idiom or a word that jars the reader into a state of disbelief. I'm looking forward to finding the earlier books in this series and spending more quality time with Guido.

Here's an excerpt that may help you understand why I find the introspective and well-read Guido so engaging:

It was just then that I realized something. A couple of hours earlier, I had assumed that when I read the file, I wouldn't find any new clues. And in fact, reading the file had only confirmed my suspicions. But I also assumed that I would then report my findings to Fornelli and the Ferraros, return their check, and get myself out of an assignment that I had neither the skills nor the resources to take on. It would be the only right and reasonable course of action. But in that two-hour period, for reasons I could only vaguely guess at and that I didn't want to examine too closely, I had changed my mind.

I told myself I'd give it a try. Nothing more. And the first thing I'd do would be to talk to the non-commissioned officer who had supervised the investigation, Inspector Navarra. I knew him. We were friends, and he would certainly be willing to tell me what he thought of the case, aside from what he'd written in his reports. Then I'd decide what to do next, what else to try.

As I walked out onto the street, with a studied gesture I pulled up the collar of my raincoat, even though there was no reason to do so.

People who read too much often do things that are completely unnecessary.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

November 28, 2011

EL GAVILAN by Craig McDonald

EL GAVILAN is a fascinating thriller about three law enforcement officers who collide over the issues stemming from illegal immigration: Tell Lyon, a former border-patrol officer, whose tragic past follows him from the border to central Ohio, as he takes up the job of police chief in a small town with limited resources; Able Hawk, the title character, is the unorthodox county sheriff Tell must rely on for additional resources; and Walt Pierce, a neighboring-county sheriff with a screw-the-world, by-the-book-and-by-the-balls mentality. The sadistic rape and murder of a young Latina sets these characters, and others, in explosive motion, sliding and caroming off each other as the facts surrounding the murder come to light. Adding to the fireworks are gangbangers and a reporter who at best can be described as weasely and egocentric. If it's true that the main character in a good novel will always be a changed character by the end of the book, then EL GAVILAN is a great novel, because every character in this book is forever changed by the events that unfold.

It's no secret that I'm an unabashed admirer of author Craig McDonald's Hector Lassiter series. What he's done with his first standalone novel is something very different from his Lassiter series. EL GAVILAN is more mainstream contemporary fare than the Lassiter books, but no less intriguing. Where the Lassiter books are full of both overt and sly historical references, and pop-culture head games (ahem), EL GAVILAN requires the reader to fully engage with characters whose diverse opinions on controversial topics such as illegal immigration sometimes contradict their actions, and yet when examined in depth seem not to be contradictory at all, or not entirely. What this book has in common with the Lassiter series, aside from stellar writing and storytelling, is the author's finely drawn separation of what is legal, what is just, and what is right -- those three things are seldom one and the same -- and depicting the differences with all-too human characters, both admirable and despicable, as well as those who occupy the middle ground.

In this standalone, McDonald deftly handles the twin reins of pace and tension, moving the story toward a dynamic confrontation, yet creating circumstances that complicate any possible result of that confrontation. This is must reading for anyone who thinks the topic of illegal immigration begins and ends somewhere other than his own backyard. The author's small town setting is fictional, but there are recognizable places and incidents from my own city. And central Ohio isn't usually the first place people think of when the topic of illegal immigration arises.Without preaching or pandering to the extremists on either side of this divisive issue, McDonald makes the reader intimately aware of the causes and effects, and manages to tell a damn fine story at the same time.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Note: B&N and amazon both list this book with a release date of 12/18, but B&N is shipping already.

November 3, 2011

Review: A KILLER'S ESSENCE by Dave Zeltserman

NYPD Detective Stan Green's life is spiraling out of control. His devotion to the job has cost him his marriage; his failures as a parent have made his children despise him; he's in a financial sinkhole, his partner is in the hospital, and the new woman -- young and beautiful -- in his life wants more time and money than he'll ever have. He's getting pressure to lend his authority to a shady nightclub owner, to shade his testimony in favor of a pair of Russian thugs, and he's got a murder case that promises to turn into a string of murders, with no clues to help find the killer. Stan does  have one eyewitness, a man who suffered a head trauma that left him unable to bear looking at other people. But that man, Zachary Lynch, sees so much more than anyone suspects.

One of author Dave Zeltserman's great gifts is taking a trope and turning it on its head. Here he takes the police procedural/serial killer tale and spins it into a poignant, psychological study of a man whose impulses and decisions are isolating him from humanity. The author also shoots a pair of small, well-aimed darts at egotistical writers and merciless reviewers, and calls to this reader's mind a line penned by the immortal Robbie Burns:
"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!" 

It's enough for me that Zeltserman sees his characters as they are, warts and all, for he enables the reader to blush for, cringe from, pity, and ultimately root for Stan Green.

September 22, 2011

SLAMMER Redux

I'll try to make up for a shocking oversight on my part earlier this month, when Allan Guthrie's SLAMMER was issued for Kindle, by reviving Corey's review of same. I could never improve on Corey's take of this terrific twisty and psychological tale, but I will add that the character of Nick Glass is worth examining in fine detail. Nick is one of those guys that people later say, "He always seemed like such a nice guy." 



SYNOPSIS: Prison guard Nick Glass is new to the job, and he's completely unsuited to it. He's an obvious mark for both the hardened cons and the veteran guards alike. When his wife and child are threatened, Nick agrees to do one favor for the cons. Of course, one favor turns into many and soon the pressure of trying to hold together and protect his family, as well as do his job, pushes Nick closer to his breaking point and a chain of events that no one, least of all Nick Glass, could have predicted.

REVIEW: After reading the synopsis, you may think you know what this book is about and you may even think you have some idea of how it will progress. You'd be dead wrong. In fact, this isn't even a prison story in the usual sense of that term. 'Slammer' isn't just about a physical prison; it's about all the prisons, external and internal, that confine a young man who suffers bullying and abuse and extortion. While some events occur within the prison where Nick works, Nick himself becomes the figurative prisoner of more forceful characters, and he's also a prisoner to those he loves. This is a dark jigsaw-puzzle of a book where mirrors and memories are not to be trusted anymore than Nick can trust the prisoners out to take advantage of his weaknesses.

Author Allan Guthrie does a staggering job of creating a Nick Glass who is irritating in his weakness but is also pitiable and likeable, a man as fragile as his name. Nick has murky depths beyond his primary character flaw, and Guthrie irrevocably adjusts, sometimes violently and sometimes indirectly, the lights and mirrors to reveal what's swimming in those depths. To say more would be to give away important elements of the story, and this book is too good to mistreat.

Adding to the vise-like pressure of Nick's situation are the claustrophobic scenes occurring either within the confines of the prison or the small house Nick shares with his wife and child. Nick becomes a black hole of pressure, where tension goes in but cannot be released. The author doesn't so much raise the level of tension as he compresses it around and into Nick personally, and the scenes begin to feel more and more confined until it's as if everything that is happening is entirely internal to Nick.

Readers should be prepared to give Nick's story full time and attention because events move quickly and there are time shifts. Casual references made early assume greater significance as the book progresses. Even so, expect moments of 'oh, I see!' mingled with sharp sadness. Nick Glass is an unforgettable protagonist and Guthrie has placed him in a darkly tragic, poignant, and ultimately satisfying psychological thriller.
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Available on Kindle and Nook.

September 9, 2011

REFLECTIONS IN A GLASS OF MARYLAND RYE by Edward A. Grainger

In general, The Drowning Machine publishes only winning fiction resulting from our annual Watery Grave contest. But some little while back, David Cranmer (aka Edward A. Grainger) promised me an original story to be published here first. Who would say 'no' to that offer? Like his fictional heroes, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, David is an honorable man, and his word is his bond. He is also the author of the bestselling Kindle collection, The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. I am extremely proud to present here his excellent new Cash Laramie story, a tale about blind justice, Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye.

Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye

Edward A. Grainger

“Marshal, you want more?” the pockmarked lad asked.
Through glazed eyes, Cash Laramie tried to remember the waiter’s name. Was it Jim—or Jerry? He wasn’t going to recollect, and he didn’t really care. He settled on nodding then watched the kid pour whiskey in his glass and set the bottle down next to it. Jim, or Jerry, moved to a nearby table where two cowboys sat.
Cash looked in the jewel-toned liquid and saw distorted burned-out cinders in blue orbs staring vacantly back at him. Startled, he looked up at the mirror behind the bar where he met his likeness: tired eyes, week-old stubble on a square jaw, a dusty black Stetson tilted high on his head, and an Arapaho arrowhead dangling on a leather thong around his neck. He swirled the drink and then took a swig, wondering how long he would continue to recall that man—another name he couldn't remember—and that day.
He watched the waiter pouring ale into a mug as one cowboy tossed some coins on the table.
Silver. That was the man's name. How could he have forgotten? Wanted for horse thieving.
A full year had passed since he tracked Silver to a cabin in Upton, Wyoming. As Cash rode up on Paint, the man stood at the cabin door aiming a Henry rifle at him. “I ain’t going back. They mean to hang me, but I’m innocent.”
“You have no choice, Silver.”
Cash slid off his mount on the left, stepped away and pulled a Winchester rifle from the scabbard in one sleek movement.
Silver raised the barrel, firing lead over Cash’s head, and then retreated inside, slamming the wooden door closed. The gun barrel reappeared through a slot centered in the door.
Cash slapped Paint away with a stern “git” and then, ripping off rifle slugs at the house, he darted behind a wagon next to the well. He flinched as potshots rained down from his right, splintering the wagon inches above his head. A puff of gray smoke drifted from the barn loft about two hundred yards away.
He targeted the bushwhacker’s outline in the shadows and triggered his weapon. The slim figure in over-sized dungarees dropped in an ungainly heap to the ground.
A shout rang out from the cabin as the door flung open again, Silver charging hell-for-leather toward the barn, yelling, “Jamie!
Cash drew a bead on the running mark, and Silver stumbled as the bullets punched him to the ground. He slipped cartridges in his Winchester when abruptly Silver sat bolt upright, firing shots that split the air beside the marshal’s ear. Cash palmed the rifle in his left hand while yanking the Colt holstered on his right hip free and blasted the horse thief, hitting him in the gut.
Silver gasped, dropped the Henry, and kissed the earth again.
Cash pouched his iron and sprinted to the barn. He hadn’t come with the intent to kill.
He slowed as he approached the body and then stopped and angrily kicked the dirt. A young woman lay contorted on the ground with an arm stretched out, blood trickling in parallel. Could have been the man’s daughter. Could have been a much-younger wife. Didn’t matter. She nearly killed him.
He found a shovel and buried the woman in the field behind the barn, marking the shallow grave with a wooden cross.
Paint stood several hundred feet away at the edge of the clearing. He walked over, replaced the Winchester and then led the pinto back to the homestead.
Cash went in the cabin, scouring the rooms for any sign of next of kin. All he turned up was several letters from Arden V.S. Thompson, Esq. from Boston stacked on the table. He pocketed them and left for the barn.
As Cash stood in front of a stall gate, two horses whinnied and stomped their hooves. He identified the chestnut-colored horse as the stolen mare and the other as Silver’s. He bridled each and led both out to the yard where Silver still lay. Cash draped the body over Silver’s horse, binding the man’s wrists and ankles underneath, and then tethered the two horses together behind Paint. He mounted up and they ambled off.
Several miles into the hard trail to Casper, he dug into his vest pocket and pulled out a black cheroot. He scratched a Lucifer to life off his leather belt and fired up the end of his cigar.
A muffled noise came from behind. Cash dropped the match as he swiveled around in the saddle.
Silver’s left eye looked wearily at the ground and his shoulder squirmed under taut ropes. Cash slid off his mount, and strode back to the corpse that seemed to have come back to life.
He bent down and listened as the man sputtered, “Ja…mie.”
“She’s alive,” Cash lied. How in hell this owlhoot was still breathing baffled him.
A faint smile lifted the corner of Silver’s mouth as he spotted Cash’s arrowhead. “You must be the outlaw marshal. Thought you were a bounty hunter. After twenty pieces of silver, eh?” He cackled. “Am … I … gonna … make it?”
They were about fifteen miles from Narrow Creek, where Cash knew a sawbones who might patch up Silver, but that was fifteen miles out of his way and he had no desire to waste the time on a no-good horse thief who would be hanged anyway.
“Wouldn’t you like to think so?” Cash’s teeth clamped down on the cheroot. He grabbed the man by the head and twisted with force, snapping Silver’s neck.
#

As Cash swished the liquid back and forth in the glass, he knocked over the whiskey bottle the waiter had set on the table.
“Disgrace,” the curly-haired cowboy said.
“Sure is,” the pointy-nosed amigo agreed.
Eyes red-veined with anger, Cash surged out of his chair, smashing his glass across Pointy’s head and throwing Curly a quick hard left that landed on the cowboy’s chin, knocking him sideways to the floor. Curly came up to brawl but was held back by Pointy, his head shaking. “Don’t do it.” Curly hunkered on his heels next to his partner with a sour, pinched look.
Cash removed his badge, sliding it into his shirt pocket. “Got some grit in ‘ya now?”
Both men looked at each other and held their heads low as Cash staggered between them.
“Fuckers,” Cash muttered, tossing a half dollar on the table. He looked to the startled waiter. “I’m paying for these yellow-bellied shits, too.”
The wide-eyed lad nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Cash snagged the whiskey bottle as he angled past his table and out the saloon’s batwings. His boots thudded with a hollow resonance as he walked down the uneven boardwalk. He stepped into the street and untied the pinto’s reins from the hitching post. Placing a shaky boot into the stirrup, he paused as he spotted a smiling couple leaving the Mercantile General. His mind jumped back to a meeting with Chief Marshal Devon Penn not long after he brought Silver’s corpse in.
Cash, remember the Upton man wanted for horse thieving?”
Yeah.”
Turns out he was innocent.”
What? He and that woman tried to cut me down.”
That woman was his wife, and her grandfather is Arden Thompson, a big shot lawyer from Boston. He came to Wyoming to clear their names of theft. What had happened was another fellow stole Silver’s mare, stamped his brand on it. When Silver went back for it, he got accused of stealing his own horse. Certainly, drawing on you warranted the action you took. Odd that Silver didn’t take his chances in a court of law, huh?
Yeah, odd,” Cash said.
He swung up into the saddle and watched the couple move hand in hand to the next store. Cash glared at the trifling amount of whiskey remaining and then nudged his horse across to the mercantile where he’d buy more rye. A lot more.

**END**

 Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye will be published in the forthcoming ebook, The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, Vol. II. Watch for it at amazon.com.


August 19, 2011

The 411 on PULP INK

Okay, full disclosure: I have a story in the PULP INK anthology. Presumably this creates a conflict of interest in any attempt on my part to review it. Well, hah! I say, and hah, again! (I'd say something stronger, but I save those words for my stories and close friends. And politicians.)

Sure, this means I'm not likely to say bad things about the anthology. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the good things I'm about to say regarding PULP INK are thereby false. In fact, you can strap me to a lie detector and test my veracity: There are some exceptionally fine stories in this collection. Were that not the case, I would go to some lengths to pretend I had no part in this whole scheme, instead of parading the fact that I got a story placed in the same book as -- ahem! -- Allan Guthrie. As Reed Farrel Coleman. As Hilary Davidson. As Gary Phillips. Not to mention a host of other excellent writers whose names are not (yet) so well-known.

I'm not going to beat you over the head with details on each and every story. There are 24 of them, for crying out loud, and I can't sit here holding your hand all day long. So these are my very most ultra-favorites in this collection. Each of them alone, I promise you, is worth the $2.99 USD price of admission:

  • ZED'S DEAD, BABY by Eric Beetner. I've already said it in other places around the 'Net, and it bears repeating: This is a terrific story: fast-paced, tightly written, sharply focused. The protagonist, an enforcer type, is on the hunt for Zed, to do a little, uh, enforcing. But everyone says Zed is dead. Everyone has a reason to lie, too. But it isn't really enforcement until someone loses a finger, is it? This one will have you grinning wickedly and will make your thumbs ache. And not because you're using an e-reader with poor page-turning features.
  • YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW by Allan Guthrie. Oh, the lengths little Masie will go to prove to her love for young Billy. May lightning strike her down if she's lying. Nobody does personality disorders quite like Guthrie. Scary good with that, he is.
  • YOU NEVER CAN TELL by Matthew C. Funk. Nina's baby is near to saying his first word. Nina's husband is near to killing his fourth man in this perfect tale of revenge and genetic redemption. Possibly my favorite of all of Matthew's stories, and that's saying something: This guy has a Spinetingler win under his blotter.
  • A WHOLE LOTTA ROSIE by Nigel Bird. You can have a good laugh with Rosie. You just can't laugh at her. This one has a sad, skewed feel, and is written in Bird's signature style of short, brisk strokes that imply more than they say.
  • CLOUDS IN A BUNKER by David Cranmer. A hostage stand-off in which a WWI bomb expert threatens to take out himself and the missus. What kind of killer puts the police negotiator on hold while he sees to the teakettle? For anyone who thought Cranmer's best work was the Western tales done under his Edward A. Grainger pseudonym, have another think while I just go and check that bloody teakettle.
  • THE WIFE OF GREGORY BELL by Patricia Abbott. Here's a story Rod Serling would have jumped all over for his Twilight Zone series. Every time Gregory's beautiful and beloved wife goes on a business trip, Greg indulges in a little criminal activity. And each time he does, his wife comes home with a new and bigger flaw in her looks. But that can't have anything to do with his bad behavior. Can it?
  • THE OCTOBER 17 ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE MEETING by Chris Rhatigan. A reporter writes himself into a corner. Then illustrates his stories with a shotgun. This may be the one time he doesn't really want to make headlines, but it's a little too late to do the 'write' thing now. 
  • THIS LITTLE PIGGY by Hilary Davidson. A foot massage can go too far. Especially when it doesn't go far enough.
  • THE ONLY ONE WHO COULD EVER REACH ME by Matt Lavin. Willie has the world's worst job, with the worst co-worker. And the most dangerous of employers. After all these years, why would he risk their wrath now.? A poignant take on the old story of, the old glory of love.

 And if you go so far as to read all of those, you might as well spend a couple of minutes and read my story, too. Triple-dog dare ya!

      August 16, 2011

      REVIEW: TWO-WAY SPLIT by Allan Guthrie

      Ex-concert pianist Robin Greaves has been off his meds for sometime when he discovers his wife, Carol, is cheating on him with friend Eddie. Except cheating doesn't include actual sex. Robin wants Eddie dead, but first this eccentric trio has to pull off a robbery. They get the money all right, but in the process Robin kills a woman whose son, a vengeful ex-con named Pearce, is not content to sit and grieve. So Pearce is after Robin, who has the money, is after Eddie, who is after the money. What Carol wants, who knows? But there's one more character, the wildly unpredictable Don, who may be the most dangerous of them all and who personifies the book's title. Turns out splitting the money is the least of anyone's worries. Coming out alive will be a winner-takes-all game.

      Author Allan Guthrie is a successful writer, agent, and editor. What he doesn't know about crime fiction as an art and as a business probably isn't worth knowing. Too often that kind of intimate knowledge about writing and the business of writing can make for somewhat sterile reading as a kind of "checklist for a successful story" comes into play. Not so with this canny Scotsman. TWO-WAY SPLIT has the snappy, hardboiled feel of having come straight from the old pulp publishers' boiler rooms, but with time enough for a few laughs along the way. Dark laughter.

      This is a fast-moving, blackly comic action tale, occurring over less than 48 hours, with character scene-splits occurring sometimes only moments apart. As with Guthrie's other works, this one left me wishing he were more prolific. TWO-WAY SPLIT was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger award and went on to win the Theakston's Crime Novel Of The Year in 2007 (besting books by the likes of Stuart MacBride, Michael Jecks, and Christopher Brookmyre).

      Amazon Kindle: $0.99

      Amazon, Paperback



      August 15, 2011

      Pulp Ink will tattoo YOU.


      PULP INK has arrived. Twenty-four stories of highly diversified pulp from authors as well known as Reed Farrel Coleman, Allan Guthrie, and Hilary Davidson; and as unknown as, well, yours truly. I'm thrilled to have a story resting cheek by jowl with theirs. (Okay, really, my story is sandwiched between Richard Godwin's and Jimmy Callaway's, and what's that say about me, I'd like (or not) to know?)

      And because I worked hard on this story and someone damned well ought to read it, I'm giving away THREE copies (from amazon Kindle or from Smashwords). And even if you don't like my writing, you must read Eric Beetner's story, Zed's Dead, Baby. If you don't like that one, better check your own pulse to see if it's any stronger than Zed's.

      The first three people to email me at beauvallet@aol.com mentioning PULP INK will win these freebies! Good luck! 
      John Kenyon, Brian Lindenmuth, and Brad Green have each won a free copy of PULP INK. Congratulations, guys, and thanks for playing!

      July 24, 2011

      KATJA FROM THE PUNK BAND by Simon Logan

      Katja wants to get off the island much more than she wants the vial of chemical. So much so that she shot her boyfriend, Januscz, when she found out he was planning to take the vial and leave her on the island. But Katja must have that vial to even stand a chance of getting off the island, and she recruits a useless junkie named Nicolai to help her. Katja also needs to avoid her parole officer, Anatoli. Nicolai needs to avoid a thug named Kohl, to whom he owes money. Kohl's boss, Szerynski, has designated Kohl to get that vial. Kohl designates Nicolai. Anatoli needs to sell the vial for the money that will allow him and his lover to flee the island. Anatoli's lover is the wife of one of a drug lord named Dracyev. Dracyev is Szerynski's competitor. The precious vial belongs to Dracyev.

      Are we all clear on that? Don't worry, author Simon Logan has constructed his novel so that you'll never be confused about who's doing what and why. And yet the infrastructure of this novel is anything but simple. Sliding time-shifts, back and forward; alternating points of view; and an alt-world brushed in the broadest of strokes. The alt-world could be now, could have been the 80s, could be in the future, could be on another planet. Doesn't matter when or where, only the moment matters in this book. Logan makes it all work.

      Stylistically, the book evokes early William Gibson, but instead of Gibson's Sprawl of neon and chrome, Logan provides a rusting industrial set-piece: dark, dirty, and restrictive. Those who prefer character-driven pieces, as opposed to atmospheric tales of action (imagine if Gibson and Swierczynski co-authored a book) might not take to Katja and her foes; but even those readers will want to know, at book's end, what happens next for Katja. Fortunately for Katja's fans, and I include myself in their number, the author will soon bring a sequel.

      KATJA FROM THE PUNK BAND is a welcome break from the usual round of serial killers and angst-ridden, alcoholic-loner protagonists. And you won't believe what all she can do with a guitar.

      Order from ChiZine Publications for 30% off the cover price. Also Available in eBook From:

      Or in Trade Paperback From:

      July 9, 2011

      SPEEDLOADER


      It's no secret that Spinetingler has joined the e-publishing world under the Snubnose Press moniker and with an aggressive publishing schedule of a book a month. Their first offering: Speedloader, six stories of murder and mayhem that also are of the usual high caliber (see what I did there?) presented by the good folks at Spinetingler.

      • You Dirty Rat by Nigel Bird
      • Plastic Soldiers by W.D. County
      • Cuffs by Matthew C. Funk
      • Mori Obscura by Nik Korpon
      • Herniated Roots by Richard Thomas
      • Crash & Burn by Jonathan Woods
      These stories are well worth the time and money, but I don't really need to say that. The Spinetingler affiliation speaks to the quality without any added endorsement. And some of these writers will be familiar to many readers of online crime fic already.  But I do want to take the time to highlight one of these stories by a writer whose output has not been so prolific that he's become a familiar name -- yet.

      I first noticed W.D. County's name when I read a story of his at Spinetingler called My Name Is Priscilla. The quality and originality of that story, with its special brand of heartbreak, made me keep County's name in mind but I just wasn't finding his (I know the correct personal pronoun now) work anywhere. And then here comes the debut publication called Speedloader. And right there on the cover, under the names of Nigel Bird and Nik Korpon (who also turned in fine stories) and above Matthew Funk's name (ditto on the fineness), is the name of W.D. County.

      County's story, Plastic Soldiers, is a tale of stark courage about a boy who receives inspiration and guidance from the toy soldiers in his pocket, even under the most horrific circumstances. County's middle initial should be H, for Heartbreak, instead of D. It's a brilliant story.

      And at only 99 cents, from Smashwords and amazon, this is the most affordable Speedloader on the market.

      June 27, 2011

      REVIEW: THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott

      Thirteen-year-olds Lizzie and Evie are neighbors and best friends in the 1980s. They look like sisters, they dress alike, but they are closer than that superficiality implies. They share everything: hopes, dreams, emotions, as well as clothing, books, toys. They do everything together, from school to sports to vacations. Only one day after school, Evie disappears. Convinced that her heart would tell her if Evie were dead, Lizzie starts to live in the lap of Evie's family, begins exploring the yards and houses of her neighbors, looking for clues to Evie's whereabouts, why she left, and who she might have gone with. Lizzie is convinced that if she can bring Evie home, everything will be just as it had been.

      Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING is bound to draw comparisons with Alice Sebold's LOVELY BONES, but the basic premise of these stories -- the disappearance of a young girl -- is the only thing that ties them together. Rather than relying on narration from a dead-and-gone-to-heaven victim, Abbott's Lizzie narrates a tale of wonderment, joy, dread, and dark revelations, sometimes all within the same paragraph. Young Lizzie is perspicacious and naive at once, as only girls-on-the-verge-of-becoming-women can be. Wisely innocent.

      Lizzie is a magnificent narrator, wanting to be the center of attention and wanting not to be, deriving clues and evidence surrounding Evie's disappearance as much or more from how she reads a glance and interprets a sentences, as she does from facts and logic. Lizzie is imbued with a voice that mimics the child-adult so very accurately that one is left wondering how did so much about those emotions, that youthful worldview , that sexual innocence dawning on yearning, how is it that it was all forgotten? And how is it that Megan Abbott remembers it all with such perfect clarity?

      The characters of Evie's family, her parents and magically beautiful sister, Dusty, are all explored by Lizzie in the manner of an Impressionist painter: from a distance they make a pretty, well-defined picture; close-up, as Lizzie longs to be to them, they seem all blurred edges and colors without definition.

      The author has penned a delicious psychological thriller that never gets it wrong by going for the cheap thrill or easy answer. The reader may feel bruised but never slapped, and Lizzie is always there to offer solace to the reader as well as to Evie's family. Evie's disappearance and the events surrounding it all work to lay bare the relationships and conflicts not just within Evie's family but within Lizzie herself. As much as Lizzie is able to read emotion and motive in others, she is almost blind to what drives her from her own family's side to spend evenings with Evie's anguished father, beautiful sister, and nearly invisible mother. The one thing Lizzie is certain of is that when Evie vanished, it was indeed the end of everything -- if 'everything' is Lizzie's innocence.

      The author does a stellar job of foreshadowing without being obvious, of misdirecting without misleading, of instilling dread without removing hope, and revealing without judging. Readers of Abbott's more traditional novels of noir should find this newest work fascinating, as her considerable talents tackle more mainstream subject matter here without sacrificing one jot of the style and insight that has garnered her previous books so much praise. THE END OF EVERYTHING is a haunting and moving story about losing and finding and losing again those intangibles, those nearly inexpressible things we most treasure.

      HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


      The first three chapters of THE END OF EVERYTHING are available for reading at Facebook, and I recommend you go read them right now. Following is just a brief excerpt from chapter two, for those too lazy to click a mouse button:

      The next day, Evie and I are standing in front of the school, tapping our sticks against each other in time. The dream from last night is hovering in my head, and I think I might tell Evie about it, but I keep stopping myself. No one ever really wants to hear your dreams.

      Anyway, we are having a day of no talking, just being, walking together, tapping our new hockey sticks and yanking our sweaty shirts from our chests.

      Still, I can't keep my eyes off the violet stain flaring over Evie's temple. It looks like it could move without you, get up and go. It's like a purple butterfly, I tell her, flitting from her face.

      She puts her fingers on it and I can almost feel it pulsing on my own face, a gentle throb.

      "What did your dad say?" I ask, and I imagine Mr. Verver's wrinkled brow, like when I slipped on their stairs, running way too fast in my stocking feet, skidding down three steps, and making brush burns all up my calves.

      "He bought me a raw steak at Ketchums to put on it," she says. "Mom said it cost more than their anniversary dinner."

      It sounds like Mrs. Verver, who says everything with a yawn.

      "All night," Evie says, a grin creeping, "he kept calling me Rocky."

      We both roll our eyes, but we love it. When the boys tease, you don't want it to be you, but with Mr. Verver, his teases are like warm hands lifting you.

      Evie thrusts her hockey stick out in front of her like Zorro. "Dusty said I looked more like a battered wife on a TV show," she says.

      Then she tells me how, after dinner, her dad took her for pecan pie at Reynold's, the good kind, gritty-sweet on your teeth. The waitresses felt sorry for her and gave her an extra scoop of ice cream.

      I think of sitting with Mr. Verver, gooey pie plates between us, and how the waitresses probably always give him extra scoops. Waitresses were always doing that with Mr. Verver, just like the mothers who buzzed around him at the PTA meetings, filling his plate with sugared cookies and inviting him to their book clubs.

      I wish Evie would have invited me to Reynold's. Like other times, with Mr. Verver dabbing Cool Whip on my nose.

      Out of the blue, my ankles feel itchy and I wish I could take off my gym socks.

      I look down the street, which has that four thirty hush. The summer heat seems early, hovering above the asphalt.

      "Where's your mom taking you?" Evie asks, watching a car flutter upward at the speed bump in front of the school.

      "The mall," I say. "Are you going to wear your sister's old dress?" I remember the lavender Laura Ashley with the gored skirt that Dusty wore to her own middle school graduation. All those ringlets dangling down her back and her face bright with achievement—it wasn't something you forgot.

      A maroon car shimmers out of nowhere and glides past us quickly.

      "I don't know," Evie says, kicking her shoe toe into the pavement.

      Squinting, she looks down the street. "I think I see her."

      We both watch as my mom's tan Tempo floats before us on the horizon.

      "We'll give you a ride," I say.

      "That's okay," she says, twirling her hockey stick over her shoulder. I hear the stutter in my mom's car as she pulls up.

      The moment stretches out, I'm not sure why.

      Evie is looking past my mother's car, down the street.

      "Someone's lost," she says.

      "What—" I start, but then we both watch as the same maroon car drifts past us again soundlessly. Something in my head flickers, but I can't place it.

      I turn back around and there's that Evie face, cool and orderly, the line for a mouth and her smooth, artless expression, like a soft sheet pulled fast, hiding every corner.

      I twirl my stick around and clatter it against hers.

      "Call me," I say, turning toward the idling car. My mother is looking at us from behind big sunglasses, smiling absently.

      I open the door and lean in. "Mom, can Evie come with us?"

      But when I turn around, Evie's gone, slipped behind the tall hedgerow, behind the stone columns of the old school.

      Do I see it in her expression, as she looks at me, as she pulls her face into blankness? Do I hear her say, in some low register, a creeping knowingness always between us? Do I hear her say, This is the last time, this is the last time?

      This face, my face, gone forever.

         Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, Little, Brown
         Publication Date: Available now.
         ISBN-10: 0316097799
         ISBN-13: 978-0316097796
         Order on Indiebound or Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and lots of other places.

      June 23, 2011

      REVIEW: DUST DEVILS by Roger Smith

      South African journalist Robert Dell, his wife and two children are all headed off on a holiday, when a black pickup truck runs them off the road. Dell's family is killed and he is framed for their murders.

      If that sounds anything like a typical thriller, please, just hold the phone a sec. Because you haven't read anything like this book. No, you haven't. No, it's not like that book or that one or any of the thrillers you'll recall right offhand, and that's because Roger Smith isn't just any writer. In the span of just three books, his prose has gone from spare and evocative to darkly lyrical. His characterizations are masterful, his POV treatment is impeccable. And thematically, where once he was just pretty damned good, he now soars.

      DUST DEVILS is a brilliant work, revolving around five major characters: Dell, a pacifist wrought by his grief and also by his sense of justice in a world that has none, into waging personal war on the men who killed his family; Inja, a corrupt, murderous cop and Zulu chief, a man dying of AIDS and looking to superstition instead of science for help, he will kill anyone who gets between him and his 16-year-old bride-to-be, Sunday, because he believes that sex with her will cure him. Sunday wants only not to have to marry Inja. She, as much as anyone, knows him for the cold killer he is. And then there is Disaster Zondi, an ex-cop as a result of having principals in a time and place where those things have no cash value. The author spins these characters and more through a space-time continuum where personal interactions go repeatedly nuclear. Oops, I said five characters, didn't I? South Africa is the fifth one. The varying cultures, the extremes of power and wealth matched again helplessness and poverty, places where AIDS harvests one out of three people thanks to neglect, superstition, and ignorance. Where news events don't begin to tell the depth of the stories.

      Along the way, the reader gets a mini-education in the behind-the-scenes politics of South Africa as that country moved from apartheid to... whatever one calls it today, because freedom hardly seems the right word. Unless one is remembering the old song lyric from Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

      Thematically, where other authors would simply push the characters examining their past sins toward a search for redemption or atonement, Smith takes his characters beyond and into a stark cultural landscape where the wages of sin don't include the possibility of redemption, and where careful preservation of innocence is futile because innocence was long ago the first victim of sin. Harshly violent, the book is a broken window onto the cultural indifference to massive suffering, but more pointedly -- and poignantly -- Smith highlights the effect of the neglect by those powerful enough to relieve such suffering, who make such suffering more intense and widespread through corruption and indifference. The story's end is a sorrowful angel, breathtakingly cinematic on one level, and on another so personal that the reader's heart bleeds. A brilliant work.


      HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

      June 20, 2011

      WGI: More stories

      The fourth-place story in this year's WGI is Ian Ayris's HARD TIMES, which has now been posted to Ian's blog.

      As other entries appear around the web, I'll be happy to post those links. If I don't post promptly, give me a kick in the shin and I'll remedy that.

      Also, when I get a longer break today, I'll add a widget to the sidebar to maintain all of the links to the stories throughout the year.

      June 19, 2011

      WGI 3rd Place: A POCKET FULL OF HORSES by Chad Eagleton

      Jack Freese turned off the highway. No Trespassing signs led him down Fairfax and onto a narrow dirt road. When the single lane dead ended, he kept driving. The truck muscled through the tall grass to the sparse wood sloping up to Empire Mill Quarry.

      He parked as far away from the road as he could—close to the trees, under a weave of low branches. He was surprised to see no other vehicles. It was a summer’s Saturday, barely past midnight and still warm enough to feel uncomfortable. If nothing else, his brother’s car should be there — Scott called twenty minutes ago, told him to meet at the quarry and hung up.

      Jack killed the engine and raised the windows. He let the lights linger. The beams showed nothing but dark wood.

      A tangle of memories.

      “Fuck.” Jack hit the lights and grabbed the cigarette pack from the dash. He hadn’t smoked in years, but there was something about tonight. Something he didn’t like.

      He lit a cigarette and the cab filled with smoke and the smoke filled with ghosts.

      #

      Jack knew how to swim, he just never liked it. The only reason he went that first time was because Scott asked him and Scott never asked him to do anything — ever. He left the house at all hours and Jack imagined what sort of adventures he had during all those comings and goings. So many people. So many friends. So many girls.

      Jack didn’t understand girls, but he knew from all the different pretty faces that came and went with Scott that even the girls must have been exciting.

      He had to say yes. Had to.

      Of course, this was before he knew Scott, before he knew to be afraid. Eleven years separated the two of them. A large enough span to mask Scott’s failings in Jack’s childhood inexperience and push his adoration into complete acceptance.

      Once down the road, Scott warned him that it would be dangerous, he could never tell Mom anything about it. Jack nodded as Scott pushed the rear window open.

      He climbed in the truck bed and bounced, rocked, slid and grinned down the back roads. During the march through the woods, he smiled and blabbered. He didn’t cry when he felt something crawling on him and Scott pulled it off, showed him the tick and burned it. He never complained climbing the discarded limestone blocks piled with all the care of spilled toys. When they reached the top and he dove in the water and climbed back out again, his teeth chattering, he didn’t whine about being cold even though he was.

      The Strunk Brothers didn’t even bother him and Jack hated the Strunk brothers.

      Adam was Scott’s friend. Tall and wide, thick boned and weak chinned, he was even weaker willed. Rumor was he got the name Adam not out of Biblical reverence, but because when he was born, his father, surprised at the resemblance, said, “Huh, he’s a damn Strunk.”

      Jack didn’t get the story then. What he got was that when Scott got in trouble, Adam was there. So, he blamed Adam. He had to — Adam was nothing. Scott was his brother.

      And Benny was Adam’s.

      Adam was thoughtless and mean, but Benny was purposely and deliberately cruel. His age masked a growing penchant for terror. Benny would never do that, everyone said. He’s just a boy. Sure, Benny may eat snot and burp in your face, he is a Strunk, what do you expect? And isn’t that what boys do? He’ll grow out of it. He’d never break windows or shoot the neighbor’s cat in the face with a pellet gun.

      No one could admit that Benny was a force of unstoppable fuckery birthed from a cocktail of poverty and ignorance, then garnished with a lack of oversight. No one, Jack thought, seemed to give a fuck.

      That day even Jack didn’t give a fuck.

      That changed when they took him up to the Rooftop with its wide cliff face looming 65 feet above the blue-green water, a legendary drop that even Jack had heard the stories about: wrists broken, legs shattered, concussions, two boys dead. He ledged it for a glance, saw the sheered rock going down, down, straight down, and he knew he couldn’t.

      “Jump, Jackie boy,” Scott coaxed. “Let’s do this shit, buddy. You can rock this fucker. Kids at school will think you’re badass.”

      “You’ll get lots a pussy.”

      “He doesn’t know what pussy is, Adam.”

      “Benny does.”

      Benny, the little idiot, nodded.

      No.

      Scott switched tactics. “Come on, Jack, jump. We’ll go get some ice cream when we’re done if you jump.”

      Nope.

      “I’ll get you one of those army men you like. The whatchacallit—The GI Joe dudes.”

      Nada.

      “Fucking Benny will do it,” Adam said and Benny the little idiot nodded and took off running and leapt.

      Splash.

      “See,” Scott said.

      Jack shrugged violently and sat down hard enough on his tail bone he almost cried. Only fear kept tears away. They’re gonna push me off. Gonna toss me.

      Scott snatched Jack’s arm and jerked him to his feet.

      Jack howled. Oh, god, he’s gonna do it.

      But, he didn’t.

      What he did was worse — he turned. “Pussy,” he said.

      It marked him. “Bawl Baby.”

      He was fair game. “Fucking fag.”

      “Shoulda left your ass at home. Every time, man, every fucking time. Just fucking piss all over my good time.

      #

      Jack followed the old railroad grade for a half mile through the woods. Old bottles and cans littered the dirt path. Impaled on thorn bushes, hamburger wrappers shook in the wind like pithed insects as ratty shoes swung like charms from old laces on high branches.

      Jack tossed cigarette butts like breadcrumbs until the woods broke into a rocky clearing with slabs of weathered limestone. By then his head buzzed with nicotine and his lungs ached. He closed his eyes. Tried listening to the quiet. Why did I ever come back here? I should have stayed away. Should have looked for another job in Indianapolis. Should have fucking left Indiana.

      His thoughts would not still. He opened his eyes, breathed heavy and sat against a pitted block. He plucked at a patch of grass. The green blades were sharp. He didn’t care. This was his fault. He knew better than to come here. He could have ignored the call.

      Ignoring was easier when Scott was in jail. Jack wished his brother was still in jail, an awful thought, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t understand why they never kept him. No matter what he did, they never kept him.

      Someone yelled — Jack couldn’t make out the words. The echo bounced them around the quarry. Trees stripped consonants. Rocks dropped vowels. It was all just gibberish.

      But the voice? That he knew. The tone he recognized — Scott.

      Jack looked up at the quarry. Shadows moved. His mind gave in to their suggestions. Carried by fear, snatches of memories came back — a rib breaking, yelling in the night, gunshots, desperate women, Coke-can bongs — things his brother had done. Fear stole years. He felt six again, and the grip kept tightening on his arm.

      Another voice yelled, pulling him to the present. He caught his name in Benny’s nasal lilt.

      Jack looked back at his trail of Camels. They were lost in thorn and brush, hidden in grass and weed, swallowed by darkness. No choice. He stood, patted his pocket and began to climb.

      #

      “You should wear your shoes,” a girl’s voice said. “Keep your feet from bruising.”

      Jack at 16 looked behind him at a girl with cutoffs over narrow hips and a faded STP shirt over a flat chest. “Don’t know if you’ve jumped before,” she said, “but if it’s your first time—shoes, definitely shoes.”

      Jack hoped it would be his first time. He had not been back to the quarry since he was six. He thought if he didn’t acknowledge it that would be enough.

      It worked for Scott.

      Every time Scott was arrested, Jack sacrificed a memory. Every time he stole from them, he erased a feature. Every time he made the paper, his last name shortened. Jack Freese became Jack. Just Jack. Nothing else. Jack with no brother. No ties. No family. Scott? Scott who? He didn’t know a Scott. Couldn’t place a face.

      The quarry was just as easy until he made the mistake of walking the vocational hall where Benny Strunk loitered and flunked. Jack spotted him first, thought about turning back, heading down one floor and then over but there wasn’t time—he’d be late.

      He tried moving quickly. He knew if Benny saw him, he’d be — “Holy hell, it’s Bawl Baby” — fucked.

      The girl looked down at the water. “What do you think?” She asked.

      Jack blanked.

      “What do you think?”

      He looked at her. He knew her — of her. Her name was Annalee. Her last name began with an R. Something short and not very pretty like Ruf or Rupp or Rudd — Rudd, her last name was Rudd.

      Rudd? Ah Fuck!

      The Rudds lived in a rusty trailer down the same overgrown back road as the Strunks, only further out. Out where the poor people said the poor people lived.

      “Whaddya think?”

      “Huh?”

      “What do you think? Not about my face,” she said. “The jump?”

      “I don’t know,” he said, still looking at her face. She had impossibly long and delicate eye lashes.

      She laughed. “I’ve done this a bunch. Million times. Know what? It still scares me.”

      Jack thought, Say something—something witty and insightful. His mind blanked. I need to say something. It doesn’t matter. Anything. By then it had been too long since she had spoken. So, he said nothing. Said nothing and shrugged.

      “Well,” she said, “I have done this a lot. But I’ve never jumped with anyone. We could jump together. My brothers would never do it.” She held out her hand. “Unless you think I’d fuck you up? On the way down? Like your landing or whatever.”

      “No,” he said.

      Her hand was small. All bones.

      “Ready?”

      Jack nodded.

      They leapt and he spent years trying to remember exactly how it felt. The drop. Cliff just inches from his back. Her hand. The water’s sting. Gravity pulling them apart. Sudden temperature change.

      He never could. Never could remember it all in a way that felt right. When he reached out for that day, the only thing he remembered was her face. Her small round face when they came up for air and she said, “You didn’t cry.”

      #

      Benny pulled him up to The Rooftop.

      “Wondering when the fuck you was gonna get here,” Scott said.

      Benny belched in Jack’s face. “Hey, man.”

      Jack wiped his hands on his jeans. “I didn’t see your car.”

      “We parked at the church.”

      “You’ll get towed,” he said.

      “Fuck it.” Scott chucked a beer can over the edge “Behind on payments anyway. Let the fucking bank take it. They will eventually, one way or the other.”

      Of course, loan wasn’t in your name.

      “He’ll just buy a new fucking car,” Benny said. “No problem. Tell him, Scotty.”

      “Shut the fuck up, Benny.”

      Benny shut the fuck up and handed each of them a beer.

      “So,” Scott said, “got some news for ya.”

      Jack sipped.

      “Benny and I were at the gas station — .“

      “The one on 37 south.”

      “With the stupid fifties theme and the dumb name spelled funny.”

      Jack nodded.

      “We saw your woman.”

      “What?”

      “You know,” Scott said.

      “Annalee, dumbass,” Benny said. “What other woman you ever had?”

      “She works there, man. I know you still think about her.”

      “I don’t get it, Bawl Baby,” Benny said. “I mean, I’ve had her, everybody has.” Benny curled his lip. “Wasn’t nothing to write home about.”

      Jack threw his can. Benny batted it and laughed. “What the fuck you gonna do?”

      Jack thought for a moment, stood up and swung.

      #

      They were drinking then too.

      Scott had been out for four days. All but one, he spent with Adam on the front porch drinking. For that one, they traded beer for roach clips of Indiana ditch weed.

      “Where ya heading?” Scott asked.

      “Out,” Jack said.

      Scott emptied his can and passed it to his brother. “Throw that away first. Mom was bitching about the porch.”

      Jack stacked the beer can on the wicker table with the others.

      Scott smirked. “Got a date, huh?”

      “No shit?” Adam asked.

      “Yeah,” Scott said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

      “Shut up,” Jack said.

      “Rosie Palmer and her five sisters?” Adam asked.

      “Oh, better’n that.”

      “Who?” Adam held up his other hand. “Her friend Jill?”

      Jack didn’t know why he didn’t get in the car and leave. Even as Scott laughed and said, “Nope — Annalee Rudd,” he still didn’t know.

      “No shit?”

      “No shit.”

      “You had that yet? Of course you’ve had that. Everybody’s had that. ‘Cept for me. I can’t believe I ain’t had that yet. You’ve had it and I ain’t.” Adam looked at Scott. “Can you believe it?”

      Scott shook his head and belched.

      “Damn, son. I heard she’s still real tight. Is she tight?”

      Jack wanted to hit him.

      “Take some condoms,” Adam said.

      Scott laughed. “He don’t need any. She’s got a pocket full of horses.”

      “Fuck, that’s right. That’s her. Who told us that?”

      “Her brother.”

      “Shit, yeah. Damn! You know he’s had that too.”

      Scott nodded. “He’d put his dick in anything.”

      Jack felt sick.

      “You okay there, Jackie?” Adam stood and slapped him on the back. “Huh? You thinking about that little pussy? Huh? Maybe if you’re real nice,” he said, wrapping his arm around Jack and mock humping his thigh, “she’ll leave the horses in her pocket and let you do her bareback.”

      A week later Scott and Adam were both in jail, again. It didn’t make him feel any better.

      #

      Jack knew it was wrong.

      He could feel it as soon as he let his fist fly. His feet were flat. Shoulders too tense. Wrist bent. Swing too wide. It wasn’t going to land right. It wasn’t going to do anything. It wasn’t even going to hurt.

      But it did.

      Jack’s wrist buckled on Benny’s sharp cheekbone. Two of his knuckles popped. He staggered at the sudden stop of momentum.

      Benny was fine.

      His narrow, hooded eyes were clear as he stood. He snatched the collar of Jack’s shirt and slammed an uppercut under the arch of his ribs. Jack doubled over.

      Benny punched him again. The blow cut gag reflex as Jack’s muscles seized. Lungs froze. Stomach locked tight and tense. He felt like he was choking. Choking on nothing.

      “That’s enough,” Scott said.

      Benny punched him again.

      Jack thought he must have hit something. Something inside. An organ. Jack didn’t know. He had never felt anything like this. He dropped to his knees and rock shards slit jeans.

      “Fucking stop.” Scott grabbed Benny, spun him and punched in the face.

      Jack watched from the rocks. His vision rimmed and awkward angled like one of those frustrating movie fights—Scott’s fist, Benny’s stringy hair, pushing face into the punch, wet sound, somebody crying.

      Was it Benny?

      Or was it him? Jack didn’t know.

      Scott pulled him to his feet. “Damn, brother, you need to learn to punch.”

      Jack nodded. Scott sat him down on Benny’s rock. The six-pack fell over. A can popped and hissed. Beer shot out and pooled on the limestone, clear and yellow and cheap as piss.

      Scott grabbed the sixer, tore the punctured can free, wiped it off and sucked it dry.

      Somewhere below, Benny yelled for them to go fuck themselves.

      Scott wiped his mouth, crushed the can and offered Jack another. “He’ll be back,” he said. “He’s fine.”

      “No thanks.”

      Scott sat next to Jack. “More for me.”

      Neither of them spoke for a long time. They sat there in silence, for a moment or two like brothers.

      “You know, man, she looks good.”

      “Who?”

      Scott elbowed him. “You’re fucking stupid for a college kid, you know it?”

      Jack didn’t laugh. He looked at the spot where he stood the day she showed him the VW bug rusting at the quarry bottom. You could only see it from a certain angle, at a certain time, in a certain light.

      Not tonight.

      “She wasn’t wearing a ring or nothing,” Scott offered. “And she does look good. Still thin. Fit. I don’t think she’s shat out any kids or nothing. Her hair looks really nice too. Still dark.”

      “What do you want?”

      “Huh?”

      “What do you want from me, Scott?”

      “Nothing, man. I wanted to tell you about seeing her. I know you’re still sweet on her.” Scott stood and walked to the ledge. “Never understood why you quit seeing her.”

      “That’s fine and you wouldn’t, but whatever.” Jack breathed deep. His gut ached. He spat and said, “But what do you want—from me?”

      Scott up at the sky. Jack didn’t think it was the moon. “Why do you do that?” Scott asked.

      “What?”

      “Assume I want something?”

      Because there’s always a return, he thought, but instead, quietly, “What do you want?”

      Scott toed the edge.

      “She works at a gas station,” Jack said.

      “Yeah, the one —.“

      “I know which one you said. Are you planning on robbing it?”

      “A gas station? For what? A hundred bucks and some cigs?”

      “There’s an angle somewhere.”

      “Maybe,” he said. “You’ll see.”

      Jack shook his head.

      “Better you don’t know. You will, but for now —,” Scott tossed the can. “‘Sides, I’m trying to help you.”

      “No, you’re not.” Jack stood and faced Scott’s back. “Do you remember what you told me that day?”

      “Which day?” Scott turned. The night ate his face.

      “The thing about a pocket full of horses?”

      Silence from the black hood.

      “You know where that came from? Where it really came from?”

      “Heard it somewhere. Someone told me.”

      “No. I’m not talking about the line from the fucking Prince song. Or some shit Adam told you. Or some shit you think her brother said or maybe he did say. He was always a cock too. Fuck him. What I mean is where it started. Where it really started.”

      Jack stepped closer. The moonlight shifted. Cut shadows. He still couldn’t see Scott’s face. Only small, uneven teeth.

      “Her father died. You know that, right?”

      Something hit the water. A faint splash. From Scott—nothing.

      “Her father died and one of the last things he gave her, he bought at the dollar store. A plastic bag about like this. It was full of little horses. This big or so. Little plastic horses. All different colors.”

      Jack closed. He could see the graying stubble on his brother’s muscular neck. Sharp like the thorns below. “She carried them around in her pocket after he was gone. All bunched up. Big bulge. Some of them broke. Their heads. Their tails. She just kept refilling them. Shoving more in. And she’d tell everyone where she went, she was still real little then, that she had a pocket full of horses. What else could it mean? A pocket full of horses.”

      Jack faced his brother—Scott was empty. “I know she works at the gas station. I found her on Facebook. Her name’s not Rudd anymore.”

      Jack reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and held it tight in his hand. He talked to his fist, “I drove down there. She smiled when she saw me and for a moment —.” Jack shrugged. “We went around back on her break. You know that back parking lot where no one ever parks except during the car shows, the cruise-ins? We went back there and we talked and she told me about her life and she’s good. Real good and happy.”

      Jack raised his fist to dead eyes. “Before I left, she gave me something.” He opened his hand. A little, plastic gray horse rested on his palm.

      Scott worked his jaw. Muscles bunched at the hinge.

      The horse toppled. “Her pockets are empty now,” Jack said. “Empty just like mine.”

      Scott took it and watched his brother leave.

      Once alone, he looked at the horse. It was sculpted mid-gallop—frozen. He held it with two fingers and examined it closer. Plastic. He took the lighter from his front pocket and burned it. He watched it melt until the heat stung his thumb, then he flicked it over the side. When it hit the water, it didn’t splash.

      It sank without a sound.

      WGI 2nd Place: FINGERPRINTS by Eric Beetner


      The doorknob turned an inch to the right, then slipped back in place. The thin metal scraping of keys around, above and against the lock ended with the sound of a key ring falling to the floor, then muffled voices in the hall.

      “Can you hurry the fuck up? I’m dying here.”

      “Sorry.”

      The door opened. Darren led the way in, rubbing his hands and moving fast with nervous energy, the keys left dangling in the front door lock. Brian followed, his right hand clutching his left and squeezing hard as he tried to stop the bleeding. He angled against the wall and flicked a light switch with his elbow, grimacing in pain as he did.

      “Seriously,” Brian said. “Were you trying to kill me?”

      “I said I was sorry.” Darren paced. His lips moved quickly as he dictated the visions in his head back to himself, trying to make sense of what he’d just been through.

      “You gonna fucking help me or what?” Brian held up his left hand, palm out like he was waving to a neighbor – after his hand had been caught in a lawnmower. Blood stained his palm an even red with streaks running down into his sleeve and under his jacket as if they were hiding from the light that shone through a conspicuous gap where his ring finger should have been.

      Darren rocked back and forth on his heels, staring at the wound on his partner and friend, confused and slightly nauseous.

      “What am I . . . what do you want me to do?”

      Brian clenched his teeth, biting back another wave of pain like a woman in labor. Each pump of his heart sent new messages of pain in morse code, blasting tiny electric shocks to the open nerves in his hand. The wave crested and he spat out his words, “I don’t fucking know!”

      Brian turned his hand gently to examine the damage. Darren watched as the ruined digit swung from a thin strip of skin, dangling down the back of Brian’s hand like a broken antenna on an old TV set. The bone had been obliterated by the bullet. The skin that held the finger on was no wider or sturdier than a strip of scotch tape.

      The idea of reattaching the finger was long gone. Neither Brian nor Darren held any illusions about that.

      “Should I . . . ?” Darren pointed at the swinging finger.

      Brian forced himself to look at it, but quickly shut his eyes and turned away, choking down a heave in his gut.

      “Yeah. Do it. Just do it.”

      Darren reached out, but drew his hand back, reached again, drew back again, acting like he was being asked to grab a tarantula bare-handed.

      “You shot me, man. Now fucking help me!”

      Darren pinched the finger between his index and thumb and, same as drawing a cigarette out of the pack, pulled on it until it came off in his hand.

      Brian screamed through his closed mouth. Darren dropped the completely severed finger to the carpet and started shaking out his hands trying to get the tarantula feeling off of them.

      Brian dropped to his knees and screamed until his lungs were empty. As if that were all the indulgence he was going to give himself, he stood again and went to the kitchen of their two bedroom flat and picked a dishtowel off the counter.

      A few new bloodstains on the carpet would go largely unnoticed. Screams in this building, especially muffled screams, would go unreported.

      Brian wrapped the dishtowel around the open wound and the bacteria immediately settled on the warm gore, exchanging microbes with Brian’s bloodstream. He leaned over the sink and closed his eyes, questioning whether he needed to throw up.

      “I can’t believe you fucking shot me, man.”

      “You know I didn’t mean it. The whole thing went to shit.”

      “You don’t have to tell me that. I just can’t believe you hit that small of a target. You couldn’t do that again if you tried a hundred times.”

      “I wasn’t trying to do it.”

      “Great. I get the fruits of your one-in-a-million shot.”

      “I hit, like, three guys in there.”

      Brian slitted his eyes and gave Darren a menacing look. “I shot four guys in there. You shot my hand, that’s it.”

      “Okay, whatever you say.”

      Brian exhaled, closed his eyes again. “God damn, I wish we’d taken some of that heroin and not just the money. I could use a little numbing up about now.”

      “I didn’t think you used.”

      “I don’t, I’m just saying. Jesus Christ, Darren. Give me a minute here, I’m in a lot of pain. Why don’t you start counting the money?”

      Darren stopped his shuffling. He looked around the kitchen.

      Brian noticed the blankness on his face. He watched Darren’s eyes scanning the room, busy, but not focusing on anything as if trying to recall a lost phone number.

      “You have the money, right?”

      Darren’s stillness said it all.

      ---------------

      “This partnership is over, man.”

      “Brian, come on. It was really confusing in there.”

      “I’ve had it. We’ve had a good run. Not great, but decent. But now? Fuck it. I’m out.”

      Brian fumbled in his pocket for car keys with his right hand, the bloody dish rag clinging to his left only by the viscosity of the half-coagulated blood.

      Darren held up the keys. “You can’t drive like that.”

      Brian stared down his friend, his thick eyebrows lifting and betraying the soft spot inside. Plus, he really couldn’t drive in his condition.

      “It better still fucking be there.”

      Darren retraced the escape route, wishing he’d replaced that burned out headlight. Twice he had to pull a U-turn to get back in the right direction. Nothing looked familiar, but then again he hadn’t been paying close attention the first time through. On their flight from the mayhem of Queen Lupe’s pad self-preservation took precedence over lefts or rights.

      “It’s a minor set back, that’s all,” Darren said.

      “Minor for you. You can still count to ten.”

      Brian’s pain had leveled off to a dull throb. He had the odd sensation of the finger still being attached. He felt the wet of the dishtowel on the skin, felt shocks of pain run up the length to the tip of a finger that was no longer there.

      “You know what they say, man. You fall off that horse you gotta get right back on.”

      “Yeah? Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on, okay?”

      ----------------

      The cops weren’t there yet. A good sign.

      The door stood open and the porch light still burned but no light penetrated beyond the threshold. Darren parked his mid-90s Impala across the street and reached under the seat for the pistol he’d stashed there as they left this exact spot less than a half hour ago.

      Queen Lupe’s house was unassuming to look at but had a reputation in the neighborhood like any good haunted house. It’s where the Heroin Queen did her business. A distribution center, shooting gallery and manufacturing plant all framed by a brown lawn on a generic slice of urban sprawl.

      Rusty chain link did little to keep anyone out. Rumors of what happened inside kept everyone well away, unless the pull of a needle full of H brought you bravely to the door.

      “Get in and get out. That’s it,” Brian said.

      “What’s that they say? Second time’s a charmer.”

      “Third time, jackass. And if I have to come back here a third time, one of us is leaving in a body bag.”

      Brian leveled a serious eye at Darren and held it as the engine knocked and clicked on the otherwise soundless street.

      “Yeah well, finger’s crossed anyway.”

      Darren shrank as soon as he realized what he said. Brian tried to ignore him.

      Robbing the Queen had been an act of pure brass balls. Brian and Darren had planned for the worst, but their imagination hadn’t been up to the reality of what lay inside. Escaping minus only one finger? A miracle.

      Brian gripped his gun with his right hand, keeping his left elevated so it looked like he was waving a red flag overhead.

      The house still smelled of spent shells and broken butane lighters. Darren spotted a short blue flame from a torch lighter on a low coffee table as it overcooked a spoon of heroin. The flame had been charring the spoon since the boys had been there last and all that remained was a black stain that smelled like an open grave. Mix that with the smell of fresh blood strong enough to make a vampire weak in the knees.

      The two moved slowly, imitating extras in a horror film waiting for the boogeyman to leap from a dark corner. Two crumpled bodies lay to the left of the couch, empty sawed-off shotguns by their sides. Brian felt a touch of pride at having taken out such formidable foes. He hadn’t been able to appreciate it during the gunfight.

      Darren’s eyes followed a blood trail out the door. The junkie squatter who’d been waiting for his spoon to cook. Guess he got away, although he left missing more than just a place to put a wedding ring.

      Brian whispered, “Where’d you leave the bag?”

      “I’m not sure. I guess I must have left it in the back.”

      The Queen’s lair. A master bedroom to you and me. It’s where Darren was when the shooting started.

      Two more bodies blocked the hallway in frozen face-down contortions like a break dancing accident caught in a photographer’s flash. Brian led the way and stepped over the crumpled men listening for movement in the far away rooms but hearing only the soft squish of his All Stars on the bloodstained carpet.

      How had he escaped this and the only bullet he took was from his partner?

      The Queen was still in her bed. All three hundred and eighty pounds of her resting comfortably while her brain was allowed to air out through the two holes in her skull.

      Darren had shot someone. The main one. He remained a little too preoccupied to take credit for it at the moment. Brian regarded the twin head shots and nodded his approval.

      And then, among the thick death, was life.

      Brian jolted and raised his gun. He hadn’t seen the person at first since the man was sitting so still. He sat perched atop an olive green army duffle bag and slumped down so his chin nearly touched his chest. A duffle bag lumpy and bulging with the hard fought earnings of the night, though the junkie didn’t seem to know that.

      When the junkie looked up, Darren raised his gun too. Like an old pro, the man continued the action he was engaged in before he nodded out. He removed the empty syringe and needle from the back of his hand.

      “Get up partner,” Brian said.

      The junkie tilted his head up but the gears only lifted him so far. A fog hung thick between him and understanding.

      “I said get up.”

      “Free hits, man. Free junk.” A sleepy smile played over his chapped lips. Must have needed a fix pretty bad to wander through the battlefield to make it this far. When he realized no one was around to take his payment, or to stop him filling as many needles as he could, it must have been like watching Christmas morning fucking the lottery while a unicorn craps a rainbow in your skull.

      “That’s the bag,” Darren said.

      “I know that,” Brian said. “Move him.”

      Darren stepped around Brian and tucked his pistol in the waistband of his pants. He put his hand under the armpits of the junkie and lifted. The guy was light. A longtime user. He moved with Darren easily, a marionette being put away after a performance.

      Darren guided the smack-head onto the bed and lay him next to the Queen and her open skull. The junkie’s long stringy hair soaked up some of the blood and gray matter. The smile never left his lips.

      Darren lifted the bag and hefted the weight. If that smack-head had any idea what he was sitting on it could have kept him on the horse for years. They still had to count it, but over a million was the best guess from the pre-score planning.

      “Okay let’s–”

      The cheap bed frame gave way and the two legs at the foot of the bed collapsed. The junkie slid off the bed like butter off a hot roll and the Queen came rolling after like a bowling ball off a rooftop. The dead weight of the Queen flattened out on top of the junkie until he was obliterated from sight. The dark plum color of the exit wounds in the back of the Queen’s head stared out the same as two sunken eyes on a scared child.

      Darren looked at Brian. Brian stared back. It would take both of them to lift her off and even then it was no guarantee. The junkie must have been passed out under there. From the angle and spread of her body he most likely had a mouth full of her neck fat and undoubtedly a few cracked ribs and some seriously flattened lungs that were incapable of refilling.

      “Go. Just go,” Brian said.

      ------------------

      Brian shut off the porch light and they waited in the shadows for a minute while they scanned the street outside. After dark, life stopped around Queen Lupe’s house so she could open up for business. No children playing, no dogs barking. The house was a meeting place for the walking dead and, now, the laying-on-the-floor type.

      Back at the Impala Darren took three attempts to fit the key into the trunk lock. He swung the duffle bag inside and let loose a smile of relief.

      Brian leaned against the car, putting a hand down on the open trunk to brace himself from a lightheaded feeling. Blood loss. He needed to lie down, stop his heart pumping so damn fast. Maybe eat a steak. Something to fortify his iron.

      “There you go, man. No worse for the wear,” Darren said.

      Brian gave him a tired look from between severely pinched eyebrows.

      Darren tossed the keys on top of the duffle bag and went for the zipper.

      “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

      “What the fuck are you doing?” Brian’s words came out slightly slurred like a teenage girl after a beer and two shots of peach schnapps.

      “Counting the money.” Darren seemed to think it was quite obvious and didn’t know what the problem was.

      “Not here you jackass.”

      “Oh.”

      “God, you really are the fucking stupidest, aren’t you?”

      Darren couldn’t help but show his feelings had been hurt. He pouted worse than a kid picked last for dodgeball. Brian was too busy slowing his heart rate to notice. Plus, he didn’t care.

      “We got the money anyway,” Darren said, making the best of it, and pushed hard on the trunk lid.

      Brian bit down on his teeth so hard he cracked a molar with a filling he’d had since he was sixteen. The trunk latch caught, but Brian’s formerly good hand was pinched between the frame and the lid, his index and middle finger caught between sheets of metal.

      Darren backed up a few steps when he realized what he had done.

      “Jesus, Brian, I’m sorry.”

      “Unlock the fucking lid!”

      Darren froze again. The same lost phone number look from the kitchen. The keys were inside the trunk.

      Brian watched his partner’s eyes and did the math. “You idiot.”

      Darren faced his fight or flight moment. He was an animal of prey on the Serengeti facing down a hungry mother lion.

      “Help me, you bitch,” growled Brian.

      Darren turned and ran.

      “You fuck!”

      For the first time, a dog barked in the distance.

      Brian remembered stories of coyotes in traps chewing off their own legs. He tried to shut it out of his mind but every thought that replaced it was equally as bloody.

      He pulled on his hand. He could feel blood ooze between his fingers and he knew there wasn’t much more he could spare. The trunk lid had a grip on the flesh of his fingers, but they weren’t severed. He could even wiggle them a tiny bit.

      He tugged. Nothing. He pulled with a slow and sustained pressure. Yelling through gritted teeth wasn’t cutting it anymore. He put a foot on the bumper and pulled back, howling at the moon loud as a mid-transformation werewolf.

      Brian remembered his gun. He slid the dishrag off his four-fingered left hand and let it flop on the trunk with the wet smack of a used beach towel on a hot summer’s day. It took considerable effort to lift the gun from his waistband and not continually violate the open wound.

      The gun felt awkward in his left hand. He couldn’t fully wrap his palm around the grip without sending alarm calls of pain running up his arm to an already fatigued brain stem.

      Shaky and slippery from the plasma, he slid his finger into the trigger and fired at the lock. A neat hole opened up an inch to the left of the mechanism.

      Brian adjusted his aim, squinted one eye and squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. Out of bullets. The melee from earlier had left him spent.

      A long way away came a sound. Like an alarm clock when you’re still asleep.

      A siren.

      He didn’t have much time.

      He took three deep breaths, braced his foot on the bumper again and pulled. He pulled down sharply and felt something give.

      His hand tore free, a light splash of blood greased the Impala nameplate. His index finger was nearly stripped of skin, a shredded fleshy mess. His middle finger was gone.

      Brian stood and stared down at his hand in disbelief. He’d torn off his own finger. No geysers of blood spat to the pavement. There wasn’t that much blood pressure left in his body.

      His slowing brain skidded over the facts. The money was inside the trunk. So was his finger. The police were on the way. As vaguely satisfying as it would have been to have him be long gone and only his middle finger left as a souvenir for the cops, that finger carried his ID attached to it. One dip in the inkwell and they’d have him.

      Two busted paws and no way out.

      He could run like that pussy Darren. He’d have to run regardless, but his mind struggled to come up with some solution. Some way to keep the cops at bay so he could run far enough and hope that he didn’t bleed out in the process.

      Brian hit on an idea and didn’t have time for plan B.

      ----------------

      Getting the gas cap off was hard enough. Packing the dishrag into the hole wasn’t easy either. Flicking the wheel on a Bic he’d rescued from the Queen house was hardest of all. Tiny sparks flew in the dark and reminded him of fireflies when he was a kid. Always right there when they blink, teasing, but by the time you close your hand around the spot, the little fuckers have already moved on.

      Sirens grew louder, undeniable now that they were headed for him.

      A tiny flame. The same fire that burned a hundred heroin highs. Brian held the orange glow against the rag but nothing caught. Too wet. Too bloody.

      He could hear the diverging sounds of two separate sirens coming.

      He tore the wet rag out of the gas line. He pinched the tail of his shirt with his left index and thumb and brought it to his mouth. He bit down and tore at the fabric, ripping a strip below the last button all the way to the seam. He pulled hard and swooned from the pain in his hand.

      He leaned against the car and took three deep breaths.

      He forced the cloth down as deep as he could push into the pipe that ran to the gas tank. He sparked the lighter again and this time the cotton caught fire.

      Brian began backing away, watching the flame, seeing it grow.

      As he turned and started running across dead lawns and past rusty fences he didn’t even think of the money. All he could think of was that finger. At least it was his middle. It said it all for him.
      Fuck you, world. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.