Witness

Usually it’s the fiery women who drag you into trouble, but this one was round faced and small breasted and of that age where a woman must choose between a nice face and a nice ass.  She had a nice ass. The face was overfull and heart-shaped like a February candy box, only it was late March. She chewed gum ferociously and kept the beer and shots coming for the millworkers after their four to twelve shift.  She was the only woman in this strictly cash bar but despite the rough crowd, every man there treated her kindly.

I liked her.  I liked her clean white bar towel and the gold cross that now and then peeked through the gaps in her button front shirt. I liked how she poured generously when she made my 7&7 and how she sounded sincere when she said thanks for the loose change tips the workers left her. And when she bent to wash beer mugs, I liked the motion of her best feature in the mirror behind the bar and felt embarrassed for staring when she caught me and happy that there was enough self-respect left in me to feel ashamed.

The place was nearly empty by one-thirty when she said last call.  I asked for another 7&7 and ducked into the men’s room.  By the time I had put on exam gloves, checked my piece, and emerged, the place was empty and my final drink was waiting. I took a long sip then spilled the rest on the bar. She moved quick as a toddler’s mommy to mop it up with her towel. When she looked up, I had my pistol trained on her. I pulled a tote bag from my pocket.

“Robbery. Empty the register then come around the bar and sit down at a table.”

She didn’t look scared or angry.  She just looked like she didn’t believe it was happening. But she did what I asked, which is good because you don’t want to shoot them behind the bar.  There will be blood that you can’t help walking through and that means you are leaving behind a witness and taking one along with you as well.

There was a Radio Shack security camera setup that fed into an ancient VCR under the bar. I ejected the tape and put it in my coat pocket. There was a cheap Brazilian revolver next to it. I took it too.

“Stand up and go into the ladies’ room.  Count to 500 real slow before you come out.” I said.  I wanted her get through the doorway before I shot. Blood spatters more than you think.

She looked at me a little longer than I liked. She wanted to believe me, to think that in five minutes she would open the restroom door and find me gone with her payday take. She wanted her life to resume with an exciting story to tell her friends. She pulled herself together, stood, a little shakily, and walked into the restroom. I meant to shoot her before she could close and lock the door. Her white shirt filled the sight of my gun and my finger was on the trigger.  I can’t tell you why, but I didn’t.  I let the door close behind her then I hurried toward the front exit. The restroom door slammed open and I turned back just as she fired.  She was shaking like a leaf, but the Taurus she held didn’t require accuracy.  A .410 buckshot load fired from a pistol spreads wide even across a barroom.  Two of the three balls hit me and the pain was blinding. I struggled to raise my gun as she steadied her hand and fired again.


Smaller Fries

As I believed it would, Culver erupts in response to Levinson Ducard’s death.  At Jeramiah and I in particular.   However, as seen in the footage they release, nothing close to a positive ID could be made.  Two reasons for this.  One, we knew every angle of every camera in that high-rise going in.  The second being unchecked facial hair and a pair of ball caps pulled down tight.

Front page news for days, the Reverand and his wife are portrayed as victims.  Pillars of a community who ran a ministry which could do no wrong.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This man a predator and nothing more.  His wife something other than a conspirator.  More than an enabler.  A person lacking in legitimacy and soul.

Isn’t until what Jeramiah writes on their living room wall leaks to the public that the perspective shifts, shedding light onto what this has always been about.  FOLLOW THE CHILDREN is the message Jeramiah leaves, using the blood of a woman who no longer owned a mouth to do so.

This begins, we become more middle of the road in regards to persons of interest.  Not that it mattered.  In a city the size of Culver, if one were determined enough, it was easy to stay lost.

I needn’t had worried.

Not once they prove the link.

Corroborated, the public turns, the outrage they held for two unknown men now a raging march against law enforcement and the Free Dimensions ministry itself.  Free and clear, now back page instead of middle page, we focus on what I can only call an addendum to this whole Ducard thing; another piece of scum who knew no bounds.  Another man who would soon realize he was not long for this world.

Benjamin Mackay.

He comes to our attention by way of a phone belonging to one of five men in a basement which started this all.  The cell is in a baggie with all the others, between the front seats of the van, and goes off as we sit at a light.

Jeramiah doesn’t miss a beat.

“Go.”

“I’m told you do deliveries,” All business, like he’d done this a thousand times before, Jeramiah responds as only someone lacking a conscience can.

“Male or female?”

“Male.”

“Anything else you lookin’ for?”

“I was told this number would be pre-teen.”  Jeramiah bristles, his grip on the phone tightening, but he finds the stones to continue.  They go on about price.  Then location.  And then Jeramiah disconnects the call.

He looks ahead, out the windshield and beyond.  In a better world I might have said something comforting.  Something to relieve the edge.  This was not a better world, though.

Time to go to work.

• • •

“No.  P-please no.  I-I have kids!”  In socks and sandals, carrying a paunch and sheen of face grease I have seen before, Mackay backs away from me while holding the front of his neck.

Those words.  I have kids.  It changed things.  What I planned to do and how I planned on doing them.  Could have been that finger too, the one he continued to point at me as I fully entered the house, but no, it was the having kids thing.

I grab that finger.  Snap it clean back.  He screams and yelps.  His other hand doing its best to comfort the place on his throat I’d punched when he first opened the door.

We enter a living room, me moving forward, him backing up into a recliner.  I look to the walls, at pictures of a wife and kids which hung there.

I break more than a finger this time.

I break them all.

His left thumb being the moment I lose him to shock.  Doesn’t stop the train we were on.  Not as you’d think.  I double down.  Snap backwards and forward, to the left as well as the right.  Isn’t until I turn him over and step on an underdeveloped tricep that he begins to stir.  I pull up.  The sound the compound fracture makes smaller than what comes spewing from his mouth.

We go again, the other arm, and again he passes out.  Fine by me.

Made things easier for what came next.

• • •

He’s leaning forward and toward me when he wakes.  Under him rests his dining room table upon which I’d written the same declaration we warned about Ducard: FOLLOW THE CHILDREN.  Like any good knot, the noose around Mackay’s neck ran from ceiling fan to collarbone and back again.  Inside his mouth: a lime green kitchen rag.

Ultimately the choice—same as the choice which brought us together—would be his.  Short trip or long trip.  Darkness or explain.

Either way, he ends up in a box.

Either way, he never touches children again.


Dodging Bullets: Q&A with Nick Kolakowski

This week Shotgun Honey editor, contributor and author Nick Kolakowski stops by to talk about his new book release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, from Down & Out Books.


Nick, Nick, Nick… I thought I knew you as an author. Your latest release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, is out this week and it is fantastic. I’d like to think I’m familiar with your style and stories, we’ve been in a working relationship for… how long? Hint: Jules.

It’s been almost seven years! “How Jules Left Prison,” my first flash-fiction story for Shotgun Honey, came out in ye olden days of 2013, followed by “Special Delivery” and some other ones over the years. There’s a very special place in my heart for flash fiction; it’s a bite-sized bit of nastiness, a little snack of noir. But with Maxine, I wanted to try for something that covered a big chunk of time (the book takes place over decades) and geography (it also takes place in a ruined New York state).

It is more sprawling, obviously, a lot more words allowed than our little flash fiction venue here at Shotgun Honey Can you imagine trying to encapsulate Maxine in a 700 word short? Hey, let’s go shorter. You step into an elevator and a known movie director/producer is standing there alone. Give us the pitch. 

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is about a car-stealing teenager who eventually becomes the outlaw queen of post-apocalyptic America, but in the process of saving her own life she accidentally unleashes a massive evil that could doom what’s left of the human race.

Your books and stories make easy comparisons to movies, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is no  exception. I like Rob Hart’s mashup association of Mad Max and The Warriors. I see that almost right way. So, back in that elevator, who was the known movie director/producer?

Two directors pop to mind. First is Neill Blomkamp, because his vision of the future aligns with Maxine: the extremes of poverty despite futuristic technology, the angry protagonists trying to push back against some kind of massive societal bullshit, and so on. I dug Elysium in a serious way; I thought it deserved way more credit for the ideas it was pushing.

The second would be Lexi Alexander. She’s the best at combining messy, gritty action with this sort of screw-you humor. Punisher: War Zone is another underrated flick (and filled with visual jokes that folks just didn’t seem to get; for example, the ‘SAVES’ sign flickering behind Frank at the very end). What she could do with a character like Maxine would be incredible.

I wouldn’t have thought about Bomkamp because there is a somberness, slow deliberation about his movies. Between the Love & Bullets trilogy and Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, your storytelling always feels on the edge, frenetic and unexpected. Lexi Alexander would be perfect, and it would be nice to see her work in movies again. One thing I’ve always liked about your work is the dark humor. Where does that come from? Who are your influences? 

When it comes to that madcap momentum, my biggest influences don’t actually come from noir. When I was really young (maybe too young, but hey), I got my hands on 60s writers such as Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson; they had a lunatic energy that bled down into my own writing. That’s the literary/pretentious answer, at least. The truth might be that I’m just hyperactive and depressive; mush those two things together, and you tend to find everything bleakly hilarious. I need to weave lots of plot twists and weird deaths into my own work in order to stay interested throughout the months-long process it takes to write (and re-write) a book.

So you’re saying that you ascribe to a copious diet of alcohol and drugs? Kesey and Thompson do make great primers to the kind of kinetic storytelling you produce, so as an influence I can see how gonzo beats can manifest in the story. Are these the writers that made you want to become a writer? Professionally, you’ve been working as a freelance journalist, right?

Hahaha, I think all those writers succeeded despite the drugs; Thompson was a wreck at the end. Most of those live-hard, write-hard types managed to burn themselves to crispy cinders, which isn’t anything to lionize. But their writing was exquisite. Thompson certainly made me want to be a writer; so did Raymond Chandler, and so did Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club was a huge influence on my writing, although as a teenager I tried way too hard to emulate its poetic repetition (which Palahniuk freely admits he took from Joan Didion). 

I’m a tech journalist by day, which came in really handy for Maxine because I read lots of analyst reports and talk to people whose job is to predict what might happen 10, 20, 30 years out. We’re building some really powerful stuff with regard to A.I. and machine learning, for example, but as the novel delves into, there’s a very high risk that these systems are going to turn against us at some point. We’re in for a wild ride.

Do you think there was any A.I. that could have predicted you would write a book like Maxine Unleashed Doomsday, say almost 7 years ago when we first crossed the proverbial path? Where did Maxine come from?

Actually, Maxine began right around the time we crossed paths! She started out as a short story (which later became a chapter in the middle of the book) about convoy-runners in a ruined America circa 2030… an idea I’d been playing with for years. I’ve always had a deep love of dystopian fiction, and spent years trying out different plots and characters in that genre, but everything came off as a pastiche of The Road. Finally I focused on trying to portray a more realistic societal collapse, and having a character who lived through it. The key thing, of course, is that Maxine gets weirder and more damaged as the book goes on, reflecting the state of the world around her. 

I can understand not wanting to tread into Cormac McCarthy land, that is no country for young writers. I like that what I identify as a Nick Kolakowski story is very much at the heart of Maxine. But there is much more than violence, humor, and complicated relationships (as if that weren’t enough.) This isn’t linear crime/noir storytelling, it’s generational, an evolution of a character from beginning to end. Was this exploring your own style or was it necessitated by the scope of the story?

The scope of the story demanded it. I also wanted to take a character and change them radically in all ways over the course of the narrative: physically, mentally, emotionally. How far could I break Maxine down? How would she build herself back up? What would she look like after the fact? She ends up taking literally decades’ worth of damage, but it leaves her with a mentality that’ll overcome almost anything. My characters in my other books never underwent that kind of arc (usually because my other books take place over a few days at most; Main Bad Guy, the third book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy, is something like 48 hours in real time), so it was a good stretch for me to explore. 

You give readers a glimpse of Maxine’s damage early on, which only pulls the reader into your dystopian world. The scope of the story requires quite a bit of world building. What have you learned as a writer building Maxine’s world?

I’ve learned that you need to establish your world’s internal logic early on, and make sure you never stray from the “rules” you’ve established. This is especially true with speculative and future-focused fiction like Maxine, where you take jaunts into the fantastical. If the world makes sense, you can do anything within that framework, and the audience will stick with you. If you start to break the rules you’ve created because you need to slip through a plot hole or whatever, you’re going to shatter the illusion.

You’re not the first Shotgun Honey alum to release release a dystopian novel this year. Rob Hart who praised Maxine Unleashed Doomsday as mentioned earlier, released The Warehouse. Totally different beasts, but worth noting because dystopian fiction is a genre that cycles in popularity. What’s the appeal of reading and writing dystopian fiction?

The future is scary. We don’t have any control over it. I think the appeal of dystopian fiction is that it gives the writer and the readers the illusion of command — we can see a version of what might happen and, in many dystopian novels, the characters have some say over how that future comes about. I loved The Warehouse and I think Rob did a great job of making his future a believable one; it explores the consequences of capitalism (and e-commerce) in a way that’s frightening and believable. 

Plus, going back to the ancient Romans, every generation likes to think that it’s the climactic one, that we’re trembling on the very edge of the End Times. I feel like dystopian fiction helps scratch that weird, narcissistic itch.

I feel we’re coming full circle, so, let’s give a little more love to dystopian futures. This last weekend Terminator: Dark Fate (which is what the 100th movie of the franchise?) was released. Not doing well from what I read, but I loved the original. What are some of your favorite dystopian movies (or novels)?

I think the Aussies do it best, probably because they have a long history of living on civilization’s dry, rugged edge. The Road Warrior and Fury Road are at the top of my list, with The Rover, which is a really rough movie starring Guy Pierce, in close third. The Rover is a little bit like Maxine without any semblance of humor or hope whatsoever; for better or worse, I really think that’s what the world might end up looking like — plus it has one of the best cinematic “punch lines” I’ve ever witnessed. Totally nihilistic. 

I do think I saw that you were George Miller’s love child or something. While I enthusiastically encourage everyone to go out read Maxine Unleashes Doomsday right now, I do have to ask what’s next? What can I, your number one fan look forward to in our hopefully not so dystopian future?

If you’re my number-one fan, does that make you my Annie Wilkes? Will you lock me in a room and force me to write? Actually, that would help my writing process, which has been slow as proverbial molasses lately. Right now, I’m working on the sequel to Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which is slated to come out in September 2020; it folds in Bill & Fiona from the Love & Bullets trilogy, because Fiona is actually related to Frankie and Jake, the main characters of Longpig. I just have to finish the bugger… usually I’m a fast drafter but this one has been grinding along. Maybe I’m just getting old. 

If Eric gets worried on the deadline, I might just have to come up and hobble you. If not me, I know people. Hopefully, it won’t come to that because I love you like a brother who I really really envy. Despite your current slog, you write enjoyable fiction, you edit like demon, you run marathons and you have better hair. Right?  But, the cover for Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is a tipping point. I love that cover. Before I let you go, tell folks about the cover, the process and give some love the genius behind it.

Hahaha, hopefully nobody has to break my legs, but if someone had to, I wouldn’t mind if it was you? Is that weird? That’s pretty weird. Anyway, I love that cover: it’s stark. It was done by Zach McCain, who does a lot of horror covers. He’s big on skulls! But I’m big on skulls, too, so that works out. I was hoping for something post-apocalyptic that was distinctive, that stood out amidst other covers out there, and he outdid himself; when I first saw it I was a bit stunned.


I’m happy to report no harm was done to the author during this interview. I do recommend you go out and buy a copy of Maxine Unleashes Doomsday.


No Philosophy

I’m generally not a good person. Make no mistake about that because I’m very misunderstood that way. And I’m trying to set the record straight.

Here’s the way it went down.

US Arms Manufacturer A had the patent for a really nasty thing: a portable weapon that could really do some damage. They never quite told me what it was. And US Arms Manufacturer B was infringing on that patent by doing the manufacturing in an obscure country that didn’t exist twenty years ago. NBD ordinarily, but B was being unreasonable, and A didn’t want the expense of a long litigation. Not here in the US and especially not in some country the size of a postage stamp, run by gangsters who wore suits made in London that didn’t fit.

So the CEO of A paid me (through a proxy, which was appropriate for a CEO). And I aced the CEO of B over in the postage stamp, some of whose ill-fitting suits I had known back in the day. And B stopped infringing on A’s patent in the postage stamp. Which some people said was a good thing: stopping the infringement, I mean, not the ace.

I didn’t care about that. I would have aced the CEO of A if B had paid me. Hell, I would’ve aced both CEOS for that matter if anyone cared to pay me for it.

During the US’s part of the investigation of the murder, the US government discovered that A’s design was faulty, and that the actual weapon killed people who tried to use it. And the CEO of A knew about that. So the went to jail for life. And so Arms Manufacturer A collapsed and was bought by Arms Manufacturer B, whose new CEO wore an ill-fitted London suit, who I had known back in the day.   There’s no philosophy involved.


Release: Kraj the Enforcer: Stories

About the Book

Meet Kraj—pronounced krai—a low-level errand boy and hitman masquerading as a bouncer for Tricky Ricky Gutierrez, nefarious owner of the Twist, a club in upstate Elmira NY. A place that has both a LGBTQIA night and a cowboy country night, this cockeyed corner bar in northern Appalachia supports Ricky’s illegal schemes, and serves as a rural balm for Croatian-war refugee Kraj.

Kraj plies his trade over a short span, moving from petty theft to strong-arming tips from people at the door, breaking up redneck fights, protecting the club’s nubile female staff and collecting gambling debts owed Tricky Ricky. Kraj eventually gets sucked further and further into Ricky’s underworld plans, where he wants to be seen as a man on the come-up, but he has problems moving up in Ricky’s organization will never solve. His sister Ana, missing since the Croatian War for Independence, never strays far from his mind.

Kraj, together with his sometime girlfriend Cami, newly become manager of a franchisee McDonald’s, and his manager Mikael. negotiates his way through underground fight clubs, prostitution rings, drug deals, petty thievery, and of course, murder. Tricky Ricky gives Kraj a great deal of rope and autonomy to operate.

Will he hang himself with it or swing?

Praise

“Kraj is a human wrecking ball, hiding a tactical mindset, along with his sense of humor. Barnes’ Croat knockaroud guy is masterfully subtle, yet amplified by the colorful characters around him.”

— Scotch Rutherford, Switchblade Magazine

“Rusty Barnes leads us on a pulpy underworld adventure populated by toughs, scumbags, henchmen, double-crossers, pimps, and con men of the first water with his latest collection The Kraj Stories. Opening the book is stepping into the cage and each turn of the page is a quick jab to the face. You’ll close the book and find yourself with a bloody nose, a crushed larynx, and, if you’re really lucky, that you’ve been set on fire.”

— Eryk Pruitt, author What We Reckon

About the Author

Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely, with stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Toe Six.


Camping with Grandma

Grandma is knitting, happy to be out of the city, completely unaware that she is my accomplice and my alibi. We are lounging outside of the small RV, enjoying the fresh air breezing through the spruce trees. I watch the movements in the campground, waiting for him to arrive.

 “What are you looking for, dear?” Grandma seems to be reading me.

 “Nothing. I was just thinking this place has not changed since we used to come here when I was a kid.”

I know he will show up. Making my life miserable is his only reason for living. He has been stalking and harassing me for too many years, and now I am going to put the nightmare behind me. I paid cash for the crossbow, and I have been practicing for months.

“You seem anxious,” Grandma sounds concerned.

 “No, I am fine.” I smile at her.

 A car pulls into one of the campsites quite a distance away. I notice no one gets out of the car to pitch a tent or use the outhouse.

 “May I take Bonko for a walk?” I know Grandma will say yes.

 I walk Grandma’s little dog through the campground, watching the car from the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. No one gets out, yet when I walk by, the car appears to be empty. I figure he is hiding in the car. He has seen me and doesn’t want me to see him.

 I walk Bonko back to the RV. Grandma reminisces about her childhood while I nibble on raisins, peanuts, and pepper jack cheese. About an hour before sunset, I put on my coat and hide the pistol grip crossbow underneath. I tell Grandma that I am going to the lake to watch the sunset.

 Grandma gives me a questioning look and says, “Take the flashlight, so you can find your way back.”

 If ever questioned, Grandma will say I hiked to the lake, but I actually walk the trail by the ravine. I locate a good hiding place with a view of the trail. I cock the bow. I know he will follow me. He’s obsessed with knowing what I am doing every second. Grandma’s presence at the RV will deter him from pursuing his usual routine of vandalizing my property when I am not around.

 I sit and wait. I see hikers descending the trail. I hear a familiar voice as the hikers greet someone further down, and the hikers warn him that it will be dark soon. I fear he will turn around.

 I am shaking, but I drop a bolt unto the bow, release the safety, and take a deep breath. I raise the bow to aim.

 He walks slowly and leaves the trail to gain a vantage point to see further up the trail. He is looking for me. He returns to the trail, and I can tell he will turn back. He is not a brave man.

He is just out of range, but I refuse to let this opportunity get away. I take a shot at his back, hoping the altitude and thinner air will carry the bolt further. But the bolt drops quickly, skidding along the trail near his feet. He hears it, then sees it, and looks my direction as he walks over to pick it up. A scream freezes in my throat, and my heart groans.

 Suddenly he drops to the ground, and I hear a soft metallic plunk ripple through the woods. Grandma and Bonko walk up to him. Grandma kicks him and then waves me over as she casually opens her jacket and places the suppressed pistol into a specially made pocket. She points at the bolt and Bonko fetches it. We make sure he is dead, and then drag him over to the ravine, overgrown with scrubs. Grandma is a little short on breath, but we manage to roll him down.

 Back at the RV, Grandma brings out marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars. Grandma wants me to be happy, and I am.

 “How did you know?” I looked at my wonderful Grandma.  “You only call me when there is a problem.”


Release: Chasing China White

Chasing China White by Allan Leverone

About the Book

Derek Weaver’s a junkie.

He’s also homeless and jobless and into his dealer for way more cash than he can hope to repay. So when he’s given an ultimatum by the regional heroin supplier—commit a home invasion and steal enough jewelry to cover that man’s debt or take a one-way trip into the Atlantic on a lobster boat—he makes the only possible choice.

But things go sideways and Derek soon finds himself a multiple murderer on the run from both law enforcement and the mob. Trapped in a diner, using his own brother as a hostage to prevent police from storming the building, Derek begins to realize the only way out of a hopeless situation may come from facing down ancient demons he’s long ignored.

Praise

Chasing China White starts with a simple premise—a desperate junkie agrees to do a favor for his dealer—but with each page, Allan Leverone raises the stakes and turns the screws until you’re left holding your breath at the edge of your seat. This noir tale is impossible to set aside until you follow its spiral all the way down.”

Hilary Davidson, Anthony Award–winning author of One Small Sacrifice

“As dark as the bottom of a well, this story clips along from one calamity to another. The real suspense here is whether Derek will see redemption, but Leverone makes us question if anyone really does. This is a strong dose that gets your heart pumping and will make you sweat, but like an addict, you won’t want to quit.”

Eric Beetner, author of All the Way Down

“As poignant as it is bleak and violent, Allan Leverone’s Chasing China White is a powerful, expertly-written slice of gritty, bare-bones crime fiction, and just like the addiction it explores, once it has you in its grip, all you want is more. Highly recommended.”

Greg F. Gifune, author of Dangerous Boys

“Allan Leverone has a new one out— Chasing China White —a novel with a thrilling plot, evocative setting, deep characterization—suspenseful—you can’t put it down–this book has it all.”

Les Edgerton, author of Adrenaline Junkie, The Bitch, The Rapist and others

About the Author

Allan Leverone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty novels, four novellas and countless short stories. A former winner of the prestigious Derringer Award for excellence in short mystery fiction, he lives in Londonderry, New Hampshire with his wife of thirty-five years, three grown children and three beautiful grandchildren. He loves to hear from readers; connect on Facebook, Twitter @AllanLeverone, and at AllanLeverone.com.


Spelk

Oh, come on, you know Spelk. The transmission guy. Looks like a carrot.

Right. The skinny part of the carrot pointing down. So you know who I’m talking about. That’s why nobody took him seriously at first. Best mechanic in town though.

That’s right, he’s Scottish. So what? This is what happened. Spelk is sitting in the chair next to Albin Piekarski at Omni Cut and mentions he buried fifty grand in cash for safe keeping, that he doesn’t trust banks. Tells Piekarski this.

Exactly. You don’t tell Albin fucking Piekarski shit let alone that you buried money. And Spelk knows Piekarski. Spelk worked on Peikarski’s Vette.

How? Angela was cutting Spelk’s hair is how. So I heard the shit first.

You know something. Fuck off. But yeah, as a matter fact it did make me feel special. For fucking once I heard something first. Ange said Piekarski looked at Spelk in the mirror and said, “Oh, yeah.” Just like that. “Oh Yeah,” as if he wasn’t impressed. I don’t even know if she even told the cops that.

One week later, Piekarski’s body washes up under Boswell Marina’s gas pump, head looking like a pomegranate turned inside out. And not just strangled but strangled with fucking concertina. Sandy Kole was working EMS and said Peikarski’s head looked like somebody used a nut cracker.

Yeah, you dick, it would have to be a pretty big fucking nutcracker. Stop busting my chops. What? Well exactly, everybody was thinking that. More likely Spelk to have washed up than Piekarski. But carrot top is a suspect because everybody fucking heard what he said at Omni Cut.

Who do you think? Angela. Angie’s got a big fucking mouth. She’s my sister, right?

Tommy brings Spelk in but lets him go the next morning. Nobody believes Spelk did it. Albin fucking Piekarski? Fucking war criminal. We all know he slit that Halsey kids’ throat. Evil asshole.

That’s right, carrot top is Scottish. You already said that. He’s got that accent. Says to me, ‘Yer bum’s oot the windae,’ instead of, ‘You’re full of shit.’ Cracks me up. So ok. Spelk waltzes into Omni Cut a week later wanting a shave. Bernice gets him. Bernice is about to put on the Barbasol when Spelk says he fucked Piekarski up good. Tells her he got the whole thing on surveillance tape.

Exactly my thought: Fuck me. Spelk recorded it, from the time Piekarski knocks on his door, sticks a gun in his face to the point Spelk is slamming Piekarski’s head in that same door then wrapping his neck with fucking bob wire. Even has him dragging Piekarski’s dead ass across his front lawn down to the lake. Tells Bernice there was no buried money. He just said that. Tells her Piekarski never paid him for replacing his transmission. That was the whole goddamn issue. Piekarski stiffed Spelk.

Well, I didn’t know that Scottish people were cheap. Now I do ok? So fuck off and listen. Tommy brings Spelk back in and carrot top has his bail hearing, right? Half the town is there. We’re all glad what he did.

Spelk had to borrow a jacket and a pair of pants from Reggie. No, I’d say even smaller. Reggie is about half Spelk’s size so Spelk is looking like fucking Alfalfa. And he obviously couldn’t give a fuck. Spelk stood up when the judge comes in and says, ‘Guilty, yer majesty.’ Judge didn’t even ask people to be seated yet. He has to bang his gavel, so many people are cracking up.

“Piekarski wiz a fuckin scrote, yer Majesty. D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back, yer Majesty?”

The judge is looking at Spelk. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.

“No boggin eejit stiffs meh on work well doon thane stakes a goon in m’geggy, fookin; walloper.”

Judge sets bail at twenty grand. We all pitch in. Spelk is out the same day.

No. He’s pleading self-defense.

I know, right, self-defense with his barb wire noose. I still hope he gets the fuck off. Spelk, man. Fucking Scottish. But Piekarski had it coming. That’s what everybody thinks.


Author POV: The Void Kills

The void kills.

Insert ominous piano sounds here.

But really, minus the faux-drama, it does.

In my case, I mean the blank space of the empty page waiting just ahead of every word in every work-in-progress. Every flash fiction, short story, novella, novel. Even now, as I write this, the blankness, ever ravenous, is threatening to consume this entire article in reverse, word-by-word. Disappear them. Eat them. Erase them from existence. If an empty Word file gets deleted does it even make a sound?

See, every little word I send out there into the void could be the last one.

And the void’s a bit of a trash talker, too. Likes to taunt.

It says, “Why bother? Just stop and watch Netflix.”

It says, “Is that the best you can do? They’re really not very good words.”

It says, “Don’t tell me you think this will resonate with anyone — do you know how many words are being written by way more talented people right now?”

The void has an itchy trigger finger, dead-eye aim and a full clip.

And we wage battle every time I sit down to write, except those rare times when I’m on fire, shiny and chrome, a witty, wordy John Wick executing bad guys with speed and style, bam, bam, bam, head shots everywhere. Take that void.

I love when that happens. I celebrate when that happens.

I’m sure it’s the same for most writers. Any artist. Creating something that never existed before ain’ t the hardest thing in the world, by any stretch, but it ain’t the easiest either. Like anything, creating has its pitfalls, its downsides, its challenges.

Certainly, the reward of typing “END” or getting a short story acceptance or holding a book you wrote in your hands makes the void non-existent, a memory. That is, until the next time, of course.

40 Nickels by R. Daniel Lester. Buy Now!

Which brings me to 40 Nickels.

The void almost got this second entry in the Carnegie Fitch Mystery Fiasco series on a few occasions. There were some close calls and it was definitely touch-and-go for a while there, for those months between the initial burst of writing in March 2018, the next bit in June/July and the completion in November/December. Lots of staring into the void, unsure. Lots of creeping doubt. Even more so because a lot of the work was done. It was book #2 so I already had the character and the setting. I had the style, how the story would “feel.” And I knew the plot points, my middle and end. So I knew exactly where I wanted to get to, but all those damn tiny (mis)steps to get there. That damn blank page that can be so inspiring at times, for what it could be, but so scary because what if that’s all the story ever becomes?

Finally, though, the story made it to the end and was all that much better for the journey, for the stops and starts, the winding path.

So here we are, meeting Carnegie Fitch once again, after his misadventures in Dead Clown Blues, with his own void to battle. The void called “The Unknown.” And the unknown scares him. So he continues doing what he thinks he does best, stumbling over and through cases, from advance to advance, from feast to famine and back again.  And all with a sly grin on his face and a smart aleck wisecrack for every occasion.

Dead Clown Blues
Buy Now!

Readers may notice similarities to Dead Clown Blues, certain intentional repeats. I won’t mention them and take away the joy of discovery, if you’re so inclined, but they exist for a reason. Fitch is stuck in a loop but he’s not going to escape until he realizes and changes his tactics. Until he enters the unknown, takes the void head on and sees what’s on the other side.

I always wanted the books in this series to be an ode to detective/P.I. fiction, full of some of the classic tropes that make it a blast to read, but also a bit of a self-referential, “meta” journey for a character trying to be Marlowe, trying to be Spade.  And really not succeeding. Even when he wins, it’s more of a fail upwards than an outright victory.

Most of all, I wanted Dead Clown Blues and 40 Nickels to be good yarns and I battled the void each time to try and achieve that. For what it’s worth. For that moment, even if it’s just a brief blip on a crowded radar screen chock-a-block with all the entertainment at our fingertips these days, when the words I strung together on the page might mean something to a reader.

So if you pick up a copy, or download the ebook, I hope you enjoy it.

And keep an eye out for the final book in the trilogy, Shot to Nothing, in Summer 2021.

Now, where’s that damn void? It’s go time.


From the Ashes

Occasional whimpers, interrupting the rhythmic sway of windshield wipers flinging steady rain, finally ceased as Johnson’s jalopy kicked up gravel settling into the earth.  Mrs. Johnson clutched the urn with a dainty right arm as he shuffled her to the front door by her left.  A bullet to the leg placed by a startled burglar saw to the shuffle in good times and in bad. 

This was the third…the last, too old and tired to start again–the first two buried in the backyard by a younger man’s vigor.  With the recent pet clinic offering cremation, it only made sense.  The high-tech facility quickly put the smaller veterinarians out of business.  Even Johnson was forced into taking his beloved despite a devotion to small businesses.

“I need to lay down, Dear,” Mrs. Johnson said while removing rain boots and heading for the stairs.

“I understand, Faye.  I will be in the study.  Just yell if you need anything.”  Johnson always addressed his wife by first name.  She found it more endearing than a pet name.  The former private office remained on the first floor of the two story, humble home.  He placed the urn on a mantle above a frequently used fireplace and gazed.  The loss had hit him hard as well.  Now an aging man, he accepted not having children long ago.  This was his final baby, resting in a container.  He moved to a desk littered with word puzzles.  After minutes unable to concentrate, he poured a bourbon and procured a file folder from a bottom drawer.  While setting it atop the puzzles, a painting on the wall captured his attention.  At first glance, one would be absorbed in tranquil waters.  It was hung during his law days, a reminder that just beneath the peaceful surface, the unknown lurks. 

Removed as sheriff, Johnson transitioned quite nicely.  Never one to fall victim to boredom, he kept busy with hobbies.  Most of all, he took comfort in the knowledge that he did a damn fine job protecting the quaint town.  Ultimately, his body simply couldn’t take it anymore.  It seemed as if overnight, he turned into a tired old man.  Beneath self-assurance, one reservation did occasionally eat at the back of his mind–cocaine was on the rise during his final year as sheriff.  Just one year later, the town now seemed to be polluted with the narcotic. 

He skimmed through the file comprised of hand-written notes targeting entry points and nearby possible manufacturers, photographs of convicted drug offenders, and jotted down theories.  He exhaled, feeling the guilt of its secrecy.  “Give it up old man,” he said aloud.  It was settled; the file would be transferred to the station first thing in the morning.  Satisfied with the revelation, he closed the cover, pressing a photograph of a low-level gangster known by, Buster.  He looked up at the urn and said, “Come on old friend; let’s go for a walk.” 

After making sure Mrs. Johnson was sound asleep, he walked about a half mile to a little pond, a favorite place to share with his companion.  Endless hours once passed tossing a tennis ball into the shallow water.  Johnson decided this was a proper resting place.  After saying a prayer, he pried open the top.  As he sprinkled, a gust of wind kicked the white remains into his face.  A quick closing of the lid trapped what was left.  He lightly inhaled and licked his lips, feeling the numbness of the high-quality powder against his gums.  He dusted himself and closely examined the urn.  Running his fingers over the engraving of fancy script revealed the name, “B-u-s-t-e-r.”  A chuckle ensued, “Baxter, I apologize for the oversight in my time of distress.” 

The lawman was reborn.  A determined shuffle set in motion to acquire his rightful ashes while silencing a final question.  It needed to be done expeditiously…the missus would soon wake.  

“End”


Consequences

Some people look at the act of killing as something they could never do. Personally, I’ve always found killing to be fairly easy. You really don’t need much except the right tool and the opportunity. And, the willingness to live with the consequences. Consequences can be a bitch.

Most of the killing I’ve done was paid for by your tax dollars and took place while I was wearing desert camo. And, after I’d done eight years of that kind of killing, I did four more years of custom work sanctioned by people who paid me in cash and arranged free transportation to the job site on big green airplanes. 

My history and experience is why people like Eddie Bonnaire keep me on the payroll now. I’m able to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, without leaving a trace of my presence. I’ve developed my skills over the years and I’m proud of them. And, even though I don’t engage on a daily basis, I still like to keep my skills honed. That’s why I never hesitate when Eddie Bonnaire calls me.

I’ve never met Eddie face-to-face, it’s always by phone. The word on Eddie is that he’s an old-school organized crime guy—the kind that isn’t afraid to get a little dirty. He doesn’t overthink the consequences of getting personally involved. He always calls me directly to set something up, instead of having somebody else call. And, when Eddie calls, he always lays out the reasons for the job, like a prosecuting attorney in a capital murder case explaining the facts to the jury. At least he always did until he called about Tina Simmons.

It was the first time Eddie had ever asked me to kill a woman, but I still listened to his request. A target is a target. In the early years of my training I learned a tactic that made it easier to put my own opinions aside about whether or not a target should be eliminated. Once I knew who I was assigned to kill I just thought of them as “Target Alpha” instead of the multi-faceted human being they were.

After telling me that Tina Simmons was my target, instead of ticking off a list of what my assigned target had done wrong, Eddie just gave me her name and address and told me where she worked. Then, he said he wanted the work to be up close and personal.

“I want her to know what’s coming before it happens,” Eddie said. “Make it last long enough that she has plenty of time to understand that she’s dying.”

It wasn’t a big house, but it sat back off the road a bit, built on one of those bigger lots in an older section of the city. I watched it from some distance away and didn’t approach until it was completely dark and I knew it was safe. The backdoor lock was old and the door itself a thin veneer plywood thing that splintered without making too much noise.

At the top of the stairs I could already hear the deep, steady breathing of Target Alpha. I eased into the bedroom and stood over the bed a few seconds before kneeling and clamping a hand over my target’s mouth while pinching both nostrils tightly, cutting off any source of oxygen.

The bucking and kicking only lasted a few seconds before Target Alpha went limp. I removed my hand and turned on the bedside light, waiting for the fluttering eyes to open and focus on me. When they did, I waited until I saw the fear and the certainty of approaching death in them, then pulled my knife and drew it across Target Alpha’s throat. The cut wasn’t deep, but it opened the jugular and Target Alpha’s life drained quickly.

That was when the sound of footsteps running up the stairs told me that Eddie’s security man had returned from his smoke break much sooner than I anticipated. It was my time. Eddie Bonnaire had just faced his consequences, and now it was time for me to face mine.


Deep Woods Dispatched

Dean had been driving late into the afternoon when Billy finally woke up.

“Where are we?”

“Just drove into the park” Dean replied.

They had entered Algonquin Provincial Park a while back, a wide open space carved out of the Ontario wilderness bursting with lakes, rivers and wildlife.

Billy sat up straight and looked out the window. “Oh, good. Was I asleep long?”

They had left Ottawa a few hours back heading west to the Muskokas. The reds, oranges and yellows of the dying leaves blurred by in a brilliant blaze of amber.

The two often went hunting together throughout the season and although they normally stayed close to home, Dean wanted to shake things up and make a weekend out of it. They decided they would make the four hour trek west and rent a cabin for the night.

Billy switched on the radio, moving up and down the dial before settling on an old Metallica song. “We should have done this a long time ago. I needed a weekend away from the ol’ ball and chain.”

Dean nodded, “Yeah, it’s been a long time coming.”


The morning arrived quickly. The pair spent the night in a rustic cabin just off the highway in one of the lesser known campgrounds. The site was mostly empty; a few pickups in the parking lot, but the front desk clerk said it was mainly staff. Seeing as hunting season technically ended in two days, there weren’t many people around.

Last night, they’d made sure to take in only what was necessary leaving the remainder locked up tight in the cab of the truck for efficiency’s sake in the morning. Dean had installed one of those aluminum sliding hard tops hoping it would hold up and prevent theft.

A short drive later, they pulled into a gravel parking lot near a trail opening, the two exited the truck and prepared to enter into the bush.

Dean pulled out his rifle from behind his seat and began putting it together.

Billy went around back and opened the trunk. It was empty.

“Yo Dean,” Billy called out, “Where’s my stuff?”

Dean didn’t answer. He had his back to Billy, his head down.

Billy closed the trunk and walked up behind his friend. “Hey Dean-o, you deaf or what? I said where’s my stuff? I left it with you to pack.”

Dean was assembling his hunting rifle, sliding the scope into place, his head down. The soft clicks and soothing sounds of assembling weaponry never failed to put him at ease.

Dean turned his head to the left and spat on the ground. “It’s back at the house. You don’t need it, anyway.”

“What do you mean I don’t need it. What am I supposed to do this weekend? I didn’t come out to tag along with you like some bitch. I wanted to bag some game.”

Dean brought the rifle up to his shoulder and looked through the scope, testing out its range. “You don’t need it because you’re the game.”

Billy laughed. “Come on, man. Cut the shit.” He jerked his thumb back in the direction of the pick-up. “Is it under the seat or something?”

Dean lowered the gun and turned to face Billy, “I know you and Tammy were fucking behind my back. I know this, Billy, because she told me right before I put a bullet in her head two nights ago.”

The color drained from Billy’s face. “That ain’t funny, Dean. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Shut the fuck up, Billy. Don’t lie to me. It was hard enough to pry it out of her, I don’t need this from you too.”

Billy started to back up.

Dean shook out a cigarette, plugged it between his lips and sparked it to life. He took a long drag before exhaling. “Because I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give you a thirty second head start.”

“You’re making a mistake. It didn’t mean anything. You weren’t supposed to know!”

“One.”

“This is insane!”

“Two.”

Billy turned and ran into the bush pushing his way deep into the forest.

Twenty eight seconds later, Dean followed.