Best Laid Plans

She left me on a Tuesday. I stopped taking my pills the next Friday. By Sunday, I had decided to rob and steal until either a steady-armed cop or a jittery clerk had shot me dead. I started small, thinking small would be enough to get the job done. This is America. Every convenience store has a gun stashed behind the counter, right?

Apparently not, as the paunchy, middle-aged guy working the night shift at the first store reached not for a gun but for the floor as he begged me not to shoot him. I stuffed my unloaded pistol into my pants and fled with about eight hundred dollars. It was the same at the second store, and I even hit the third a little earlier – late evening as opposed to night – hoping that I’d double or triple my odds with some other customers present.

Nope. Two weeks past my lady dumping me, I’d hit five stores and the score was STOLEN CASH, seven thousand; LIFE-THREATENING INJURIES, zero.I needed to step up my game. I hit a bank. Not a big bank because I’d have to drive to the city for that and getting yourself killed shouldn’t be this much work. So I hit a small bank in town. I was in and out with thousands of dollars worth of teller cash in fifteen minutes. Like with the convenience store robberies, I wore a mask. I just wanted to die in a blaze of glory, not have my name and affairs spread across the evening news or have the cops busting down my door while I slept.

Four banks later and I was out of banks to hit within a reasonable driving distance. I spent one evening staring at a pile of cash eighty-thousand-dollars deep and wondering if I should just throw myself off a bridge. But nah … that’snot how Butch and Sundance would have done it. (Well, they did jump off that cliff, but, well, you know what I mean …) Anyway, it seemed like a waste if I didn’t get the thrill to go along with it.

Within the next week, I held up two jewelry stores, a pawnshop and, just for the hell of it, a car wash. The worst I faced was an angry pawnbroker too chicken-shit to throw anything more than an angry look at me.  At this point it seemed silly not to just walk up to a cop with my unloaded gun and point it at him until I was dead. But there was no sport in that, causing it to nag at my brain when I considered it.Like jumping off the bridge, it was just too easy. Nope, just had to find the right place to rob. It had to be out there somewhere.

Two months after she left me, I sat in my hotel room with roughly two-hundred-thousand dollars piled up on the bed. Still wasn’t taking my pills and, bizarrely, didn’t feel like I even needed them anymore. When my cell rang and it was her begging to take me back, saying she made a big mistake and couldn’t live without me, there wasn’t much I could do but laugh. I told her I’d think about it and call her back the next day, but two hours later the cops kicked in my hotel door. They had me on the ground and in cuffs before I could get to my gun and make things interesting. No idea how they found me. Maybe they tracked the car somehow, but I had just stolen it yesterday.

The jail cell they got me in sucks. I supposed I could hang myself with my bed sheet, but, again, there’s just no sport in that,you know? Maybe I’ll pick a fight with someone here during lunch. One of these guys must have a killer right hook in the literal sense. Then again, one of those stores should have had a damn gun behind the counter.


A Good Friday Miracle

“You checked out of your hotel?” asks his uncle, knowing Martin is unlucky.

“Yes.”

“Good. They’re looking for you.”

“Who?”

“Everyone.” Ian sounds scared. “Where are you?”

“Pub.” Martin reads the number on the call box phone.

“Stay there.” Uncle Ian hangs up.

Martin turns back to the smoky, windowless room. The young watch the football broadcast above the bar while the tradesmen and retirees shoot disapproving glances whenever the crowd erupts. In Belfast, even in April 1998, TV in a public house is still not entirely fine with those old enough to remember the times before.

Ghosts and memories, thy name is Ireland, thinks Martin, gesturing for another Guinness. He has ferried across from Cairnryan three times in the past five weeks to prepare for this day. And although Ian has complete confidence in him, Martin is still just a Canadian uni student without a work visa flogging used cars for his uncle’s business over spring break.

The call box rings at the same instant the door jangles. A man in a dark pea coat enters the pub as Martin reaches for the receiver. Probably some complication with import paperwork or my passport. His uncle would be calling back with an update, an angle, the next play. Ian wouldn’t leave him hanging.

“Okay, here’s what it is. I’ve got bad news. And even worse news.” Martin thinks he can hear Uncle Ian swallow. Probably a beer. “Customs held back the Yugo. They’re planning to arrest you when you show up to collect it. Customs enforcement and PSNI are looking for you. Your signature is the one on the customs declaration and manifest.”

“I know that.” The man in the pea coat is watching Martin, one hand in his jacket pocket. “So, what’s the mix-up?”

“They knocked out the side panels and found bricks of thermal plastique. Wire and detonators. Also a dozen Kalashnikov rifles hidden in the bodywork.”

Martin’s head is spinning. “But. The police! Ian. Surely!” Martin masters his dizziness. The man in the pea coat has collected a pint and moved to a table near the call box. “You’ll tell them. Right? You didn’t know anything about this.”

“That’s the problem, nephew …”

DID YOU?!?”

“Calm down. I’m in Calais. Look, there’s more.” Another swallow. “The Provisionals are looking for you too.”

“Jesus Christ. You knew about this!”

“Now, Martin. I won’t be talked to that way by my own nephew. I’ve been kind enough to –”

“You knew.”

There is a long silence during which Martin hangs up. He turns to see the man in the pea coat smile, hoist his beer and toast him.

The Provisionals are looking for you too.

There is a church next door. Martin resolves to head there. There is no way the police will track him down before then and perhaps this IRA gunny will be decent enough to allow him a few prayers before exacting the price of a lost weapons shipment. I should have listened to my gut, Martin thinks. Uncle Ian and that side of the family always seemed a little shady, but Martin wrote it off as just crooked deal making. But this? Perhaps this was par for the course. Or just an opportunity presenting itself in the form of an expendable outsider. Who knows? He downs his Guinness in three large gulps and orders another.

He has never once in his life been lucky. Even now, this simple errand intended to earn him some pocket money turns into a nightmare – one in which his family is happy to abandon him.

He realizes a weird silence has fallen.

“… reports coming in … Yes, multiple announcements now. Coming from the PM’s office, the Taoiseach. Sein Feinn is expected to …”

He looks up. All eyes are on the TV.

“Announcing the formal conclusion of Peace Accords on this day between Her Majesty’s government and the government of the Republic of Ireland, with security guarantees touching border and paramilitary issues. The IRA will immediately cease all operations …”

The man in the pea coat catches Martin’s eye. Martin remains perfectly still.

Then the man rises and leaves the pub and Martin breathes a little easier.


5 Questions with Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts is a longtime fixture of the hardboiled scene. His new book, “101,” is a ferocious journey through Northern California’s weed business, set on the cusp of legalization. Its central character, Vic, is a reclusive weed farmer and all-around badass who ends up tangled with some very bad folks. The bodies pile up, along with the double-crosses, as Vic finds himself running out of time and options.

To say anything else would spoil the book’s twists and turns, so we’ll just plunge into our five questions with Mr. Pitts:

101: A Novel by Tom Pitts

Q. It’s clear you did a ton of prep for this book—the detailing around weed, guns, biker gangs, etc. is really impressive. How did you research, and how did that vary (if it did) from your research routine in previous books?

Funny you should ask. I’ve known folks in the pot business a long time. It’s always been a big business in Northern California. Right before I wrote the book, my son started working at a grow in Humboldt County. I went up there to visit and get my hands dirty with the intent of filing away my observations for a book. I still don’t feel like I got it all in; I mean, how could I? But I will say that when my boy (and just to clarify, he’s 28) read the book, he said he got the “feels” ‘cause it made him miss the hills so much. As for the biker end, I interviewed another pal who’d prospected for the big club (the one you’re not allowed to mention), and he gave me a lot of details, like what kind of bikes outlaws prefer, that kind of thing. Texture mostly. But that stuff matters.

I guess technically I did more research than the previous books, although this didn’t feel like research, more like immersion. Yeah, let’s just say I was embedded for a while.

Q. Vic is quite an anti-hero. I don’t think I’ve ever read a ‘suiting up’ scene in a book where, in addition to loading up on a considerable amount of firepower, a character packs an equally considerable amount of alcohol. He’s scary, yet he seems to have a code, and people respect him. How’d you come up with this bad boy, and does he have any real-life inspirations?

He does, actually, but I can’t say who. That’d be “putting yer shit out on Front Street” as they say. But he’s an amalgamation of a couple of tough guys I’ve known. I wanted him to be the strong, silent type, you know? And I needed the reveal of Vic as a mentor to poor Jerry to be slow. It’s clear he’s the alpha dog, but the more delicate side of his nature had to come later.  The anti-hero in “American Static” [Pitt’s previous book—ed.] was such a smartass psychopath, I wanted Vic to be a little more down to earth. And just for the record, I think Vic’s the hero, not the anti-hero. He may get his hands dirty, but he’s always maintaining his code. It’s not the criminal code—God knows there ain’t one of those. It’s more like his own version of the cowboy code.  

Q. The weed business is undergoing some fundamental shifts right now. Some folks even think we’ll see some kind of nationalized legalization at some point (at least after Jeff Sessions stops being Attorney General). Are you ever concerned that something like that would “date” books that deal with weed-based crime? 

That’s the reason I set it “on the cusp of legalization.” I knew it was going to be an issue, but there has to be a line somewhere. Before Prohibition and after, WWI, the late Sixties—things are set in time, there’s no way around it. Good art captures eras; I hope this does the same. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years.

The characters in “101” are scrambling to grab what chips they can before recreational weed hits the market. Before 2016, the medicinal market was still plenty corrupt. Growers could walk into a dispensary and unload their harvest—if they knew somebody. Nowadays it’s done with licensed brokers only. It takes a lot of money to get one of those licenses, and you have to show it’s clean cash. Laws and bylaws are being created to bust out the Mom ‘n Pop outfits. In fact, they’re adding so many laws and rules, they’re going to kill the taxpaying goose and drive that stuff back underground. That’d be okay with me. And my pals in the hills.

Visit TomPittsAuthor.com

Q. What’s the crime-fiction scene like in the Bay Area right now?

You know, I think I’m plugged into the community, and then I find out something new is happening and I realize I don’t have my finger on the pulse like I thought I did. I’m kind of isolated. Not intentionally, just by work and the drudgery of life. I’m also stuck in San Francisco. Most everybody else in my social strata has been forced out of the City and into the East Bay. It’s a mere fluke I’m still here, hanging on.

Q. With this book out of the way, what’s your next project?  

My next release after “101” is called “Coldwater.” It’s my take on a suburban horror story. A nice couple moves to the ‘burbs and the empty house across the street is suddenly occupied by squatters—if that’s really what they are. The clash between the couple and the squatters and what’s really going on in that empty house is what drives the story forward.


It Otter Be Illegal

“We’re all dressing as Thanos,” he said. Like an idiot, I asked him to repeat the answer, just to be sure I’d heard right. Was he really talking about a villain from the Marvel Comics movies?

“Baby Thanos. Mama Thanos. And…”

I cut him off. “Papa Thanos. I got it. Just sounds stupid.  Keep paddling, man. I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

Ernesto cast me a dejected look. We were side by side in our two red kayaks off Moss Landing and we couldn’t see shit. I angled close to him to get a picture of the corpse on his bow, promising Ernesto I’d blur his face before texting it to Carlos. We paddled away from the beach, further into Monterey Bay, not that we could see it.

“You’re no fun, man. Don’t you like Halloween?”

The fog was thick as pea soup. Of course I wasn’t in a fun mood. I took pics like I was told, making sure Carlos would see the rope tied to the dead man’s ankles. We’d tied the other end to two cinder blocks at Ernesto’s feet. I understood the hit, sure, but Carlos and his flair for the dramatic made no sense to me.

“Why you suppose he wants us to sink the poor bastard?” I asked Ernesto. “We put a bullet in his head. Why couldn’t we just bury him in a field?”

Ernesto kept paddling. He sailed more weight than me, so it took him longer to get his glide on. It was like we were the only two people in the Bay. “He likes to send a message to his dealers, that’s why. You steal a cut from Carlos; you die in a bad way.”

“This is just stupid. Keep going, man. We need to be further out. Don’t want him washing up.”

Ernest lifted his paddle from the still sea, suddenly afraid. “Hold up. You see that?”

“See what?” But then I did see it. A black shape darted toward us. A second later it emerged. A damn sea otter. It shot itself out of the water and landed right onto Ernesto’s bow.

He nearly choked on his own spit. “Holy shit! Get it off!”

“Take it easy!” I reached behind me for my pistol and watched the otter settle right on top of the corpse near Ernesto’s boots, its big black eyes scanning the sea. It couldn’t care less about the kayak’s pilot. “It won’t hurt you,” I said. “I read about otters doing this sometimes when there’s danger in the water.”

“My heart is pounding!” Ernesto laid his paddle in his lap, sucked in a calming breath, and smiled nervously at his passenger. “Never seen one this close. It’s right on top of Manuel; like it doesn’t even care it’s on a dead dude. Quick! Take a picture for Carlos before it jumps off.”

I put my gun away and grabbed the phone again. The otter kept scanning the gray water, its whiskers twitched just inches above Manuel’s dead eyes.

Ernesto started to laugh. “Add this to the text. Tell him it otter be illegal. Get it? It otter be…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the rest. Next thing I knew the kayak flipped over. The man, the corpse, and the otter went into the drink at the same time. I saw what looked like a giant black fin dip beneath the craft in a fury of whitewash. Definitely wasn’t the otter. This was huge. The wake crashed against my kayak, making me drop the phone in my lap. Not a single thing surfaced, but I didn’t wait around long. I left Ernesto’s kayak to float upside down on its own and got a safe distance away. My body felt hot and flushed. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“Ernesto? Hey, you out there?” I got no answer.

Manuel had to have sunk like a two-ton anchor. Who knows about Ernesto? Could be his last words were a stupid otter joke. Could be he got ate by whatever that big dark fin belonged to. Could be he drowned.

One thing I knew for certain. There’d be one less Thanos on October 31st.


Storm Debris

I didn’t realize that cars bled. I guess it’s because we pay regularly to keep it from happening, and because even a paper-cut on a car can leave us holding plastic over our heads as we wait on the highway for AAA. But Division Street was a pool of carnage. True, it was mostly flood water, but there was a rainbow slick marking the waterline. Their husks were piled upon each other, their windshields shattered, their quarter-panels bashed in. I saw them mosh with each other when the rain popped the dam and realized a second thing; it only took a couple feet of water to make them dance.

I’m homeless now. But I’m not the kind of homeless you wouldn’t give change to. Maria and I are staying in the high school—the Red Cross set up a couple hundred cots. You’d think it was terrible, but it’s not. It’s like a town sleepover. Mr. Hurley is telling war stories to our kids like he does during the town picnic. That’s a good thing, too, because a huge chunk of the First Presbyterian Church collapsed under the pressure of the deluge, and the park is debris now.

The rain’s let up, and we’re getting out to look around. I listened on the radio last night—Morristown got wiped off the map. Don’t know if it’s true or not. The cell tower came down. We haven’t been able to call my parents in Binghamton, or Maria’s sister in Albany. The National Guard has the roads restricted to essential vehicles, and that’s good, seeing as how the highway is a dirt-bike track right now. I don’t even know if my car runs.

I can see Tommy down the street, pitting his chainsaw against a Poplar tree blocking his driveway. He’s wearing those wrap-around, doofy tactical sunglasses. Only tactical thing he ever did was launch an offensive against a fridge full of Thanksgiving leftovers. Except for last night. Maybe I’ll have to lay off the jokes. He spots me and flips me the finger. He’s a hundred yards away but I can think of nothing else it would be.

We got a sweet little town here. We go to church every Sunday, and I’m sure this Sunday, Minister Bailey will preach from the top of one of those wrecked cars, and we’ll be sitting on fold-out chairs in the middle of the road. We love the flag, mom and apple pie in that order, and even our bar brawlers make peace on Monday mornings at the bottling plant where we all work. When we got the notice from the Sheriff that Jay Matthews moved in above Marella’s Market, it was a dark spot on our sun.

Jay taught music at the elementary school. Given what we’d learned about him, you’d think there’d be a whole list of kids he’d abused, after all, he was legendary for taking his class on field trips. But it was only one; my little one, innocent and without shame, full of life—descriptions he stole from her behind the school stage. It was enough to get him arrested and penned for five years. By then, Donna had grown into a fiercely independent teenager with a death wish and a rap sheet. She’s in juvie right now, in fact. I poured every ounce of blame I had into my fist and slammed it into his gut when I saw him last Tuesday. Before the flood. Before all this.

I didn’t even realize that I was at the edge of the ravine that opened wide to drink the engorged river. It’d always been deep, but the instant erosion made the edges jagged. I could see sprigs of two-by-fours, aluminum siding fanned out, sheetrock powdered, staining the rocks, and, of course, husks of cars that fell off the edge. And the red ninety-six Dodge Neon with the mudded-out windows. It was almost submerged. Last night, I asked Tommy if we should go down and push it further. He said not to worry about it. It was supposed to rain again tomorrow, and even if they open the door, they wouldn’t think much past a drowning. He was just debris.


New Release: The Last Danger

Shotgun Honey, in association with Down & Out Books, is pleased to release The Last Danger by Rusty Barnes. This follows up the 2017 release Ridgerunner, and and concludes the harrowing tale of Matt Rider, one time wildlife conservation officer turned infamous “Killer Matt.”

Catch Up for Only 99 Cents

If you haven’t read Ridgerunner, now is the time to catch up for The Last Danger. For a limited time, you can get a digital copy of Ridgerunner for only 99 cents from your favorite e-book providers.


The Last Danger
Book 2 of a Killer in the Hills
Ridgerunner
Book 1 of a Killer in the Hills

Killer Matt Returns

Three months after a shootout with the renegade Pittman family robbed him of his brother, Matt Rider is trying to put his life back together. His wounds are many, his sworn enemy Soldier Pittman may wake up and begin to tell what he knows, his wife is on the knife edge of sanity, and his teen daughter has gone missing with the son of his sworn enemy.

In a whirlwind series of killings, thefts and rash decisions, Rider ends up muling drugs across the Canadian border for the Pittman family in order to save his daughter and wife from an even worse fate, even as he betrays them. Rider must choose between what is best for his conscience and what his sometimes murderous instincts tell him: kill them all.

About Rusty Barnes

Rusty Barnes is a 2018 Derringer finalist and author of the story collections Breaking it Down (Sunnyoutside Press 2007) and Mostly Redneck (Sunnyoutside Press 2011), as well as four novels, Reckoning (Sunnyoutside Press, 2014), Ridgerunner (Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books, 2017), Knuckledragger (Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books 2017) and The Last Danger (Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books 2018), His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies like Dirty Boulevard: Crime Stories Inspired by the Songs of Lou Reed (Down & Out Books 2018), Best Small Fictions 2015, Switchblade, Mystery Tribune, Goliad Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Red Rock Review, Porter Gulch Review and Post Road.


The Line

“Aim. Fire.”

The captain’s voice growls behind me, across the still air. I close my eyes and, along with the five men lined up beside me, squeeze the trigger. The rifle jumps back hard into my shoulder and I smell the powder that hangs like dust in the air.

I open my eyes, expecting to see the man who was standing against the wall slumped into a pile of blood-stained clothing, but he’s still standing there, untouched, unharmed. I feel my breath catch in my throat. The man, God knows his name, looks around in confusion, and I see out of my periphery that, along with me, the other five, all of us lined up in our crisp-pressed uniforms, are doing the same.

My first time on the line was two years ago. I walked out into the sun that morning and was handed a rifle and told where to stand with a nod from the captain. I took my stance, looking cautiously at the men beside me. I wondered then if the man standing in front of the wall trying to hide within himself, urine spilling down his leg and turning his tan trousers dark, I wondered if he could see my fear through his own, if he sensed my hesitation when I heard the command to fire. I wondered if he was looking at me during those few seconds before he felt the bullets rip into his chest. Wondered if he came to know me before the world disappeared from his sight.

Since that morning, I’ve been on the line twelve times. Though we’re never told their crimes, we create stories about them: rapists and murderers, monsters who hold their own children under the surface of the lake til the small legs stop kicking. These stories make it a little better.

I look over now and see the captain.

The man standing against the wall is weeping tears, of fear or joy, or both. I don’t know. I think of my own death. I imagine the captain walking over and choking the life out of me and then moving on to the man beside me. Accident or not, miracle or not, we’ve failed. Instead of choking us, though, the captain takes out his revolver and raises it so that it’s aimed at the man against the wall. I hear the revolver fire once and watch as the man falls to the ground, a hole blasted through his head. Blood mixing with dirt. Viscera on the wall behind him.

Then the captain walks away quietly, leaving each of us to exhale the breath we’ve been holding the whole time.


Penelope on the Job

It was the denim thigh high boots that made him stop.

Rising from stiletto heels, skin tight and showing off shapely calves, ending   just above the knees, drawing the eye to gorgeously muscular thighs, and an outrageously micro mini skirt.

A huge purse on a long strap led his eyes to her tube top, which was struggling with its responsibilities.

Dark curls cascaded over her shoulders, framing slightly parted lips, high cheekbones and, finally, ice-cold eyes flashing under long bangs.

“Get in.”

Kennon, who was about twice her age, paunchy, and gray at the temples, meant to sound commanding, but when she leaned those bombers down toward the window, his voice cracked.

She did, flashing the barest of G-strings. Didn’t say a word. That made Kennon nervous.

“If this is a set up, it’s entrapment.”

Her laugh was laced with utter dismissal as she reached for the door.

“Wait,” he pleaded.

She leveled those mesmerizing North Pole eyes at him and cocked an eyebrow, nodding toward the street.

Kennon lurched the car forward, got his driving under control, tried for a casual tone. “So, what do I call you?”

“Penelope.”

“I can work with that.” Kennon nodded his coolest nod, steering with his left hand, dropping his right onto her knee like a vulture onto road kill. “So, Penny—”

“Penelope.”

“We’ll go to the Winst—”

“The Bilson. Next right.”

He gave her thigh a squeeze to show he was the boss. “Look, hotness, I’m paying—”

“I was warned you’d be like this.”

“What?”

Lighting fast, she pulled his hand off her thigh, yanking him toward her as she drove her left elbow into his Adam’s apple.

Penelope took the wheel as Kennon clutched his throat. Easily kicking his foot off the gas, she eased down on the brake, made a right into an alley, coasted to a stop.  

Kennon sucked air, confused eyes bulging at her.

“Gotta know how business is done,” Penelope said, looking though her huge purse. She pulled out a little baggy containing an inhaler. “This is what you need.”

Penelope opened the bag. Kennon snatched the inhaler from it, wrapped his lips around it, inhaling deeply as he pressed down on the pump with his thumb.

The screech he emitted was barely human. Kennon’s breathing became desperate yawks and wheezes, arms flailing, legs pumping, seatbelt keeping him in place.

“Now your wife? That babe knows how to conduct business,” Penelope continued, removing colored contacts to reveal big brown eyes. She dropped the fakes in her large bag. “Made contact through a safe agent, showed pictures of you cheating on her repeatedly. She even filled your spare inhaler with chemicals you are so fatally allergic to.”

Penelope wiped off the make-up that created the high cheekbones.

“She knows you so well; the denim fetish, the thing for thigh highs and mini skirts, your obsession with big breasts — clear your search history, dude,” Penelope said, pulling large falsies out of her tube top and dropping them in that bag of hers, followed by the wig. “She even knew where you liked to pick up pros.”

Penelope was actually a petite brunette.

Kennon, throat swollen, suffocating now, could only look at Penelope with burning eyes.

“Smart woman, your wife,” she smiled. “Chemical engineer, right? Pretty cool. And she’ll win her impending lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that, evidence will suggest, produced your fatally bad batch of medicine. Your wrongful death will make her millions.”

Kennon lunged for her throat. Penelope easily slapped his weakening arms away.

“No time for foreplay,” she laughed, tossing the boots in the bag, pulling on loose-laced purple Cons, “I gotta get out of this alley before my friend turns the Bilson’s security cameras back on.”

She climbed out of the passenger side, pulled an oversized hoodie from her bag. It came down to her knees, covering everything, including the bag. Now she looked like a tiny college freshman. “Your wife says, “Die, you predatory bastard,” Penelope said, and then bopped on back to the street as Kennon’s death rattle escaped unheard.


Crimson and Clover

“Bedtime?”

The Han Solo action figure didn’t approve of early morning drunk driving. He sat on the dash and half-smiled.

Larry tried not to let the patternless whip of trees and mailboxes crash him out. Fourteen beers ago, he’d promised himself not to park on the lawn again.

He was about to go into his Sunday morning litany about the evils of sobriety, when he spotted Jake the Shake. Pale. Shirtless. Dancing.

Larry reached about forty an hour before he noticed his leg had gone limp. Jake dashed into the street, humping the air like a spastic Chippendale’s dancer, T-shirt tied around his waist.

“Tell me to run him over.”

Han said nothing.

“We can give him the finger.”

Nothing still.

“You’re a great listener, Han.”

Larry slowed, felt the tingle in his leg as his blood flowed, stopping an inch from Jake’s pelvis. Jake, sweating in the early morning sun, grinned like a refrigerator salesman.

“Party time,” Jake said. “You in?”

Larry unlocked the door.

Jake was in the seat like he’d already been there, the last tremors of bad techno bumping his hips. He sweat on the seat.

“If you don’t mind,” Larry said.

Jake untied the T-shirt and slipped it on. Peter Griffin, wrinkled and stained, locked eyes with Han Solo.

“Turn right up here, if you dare,” Jake said, scratching his arms.

“That where the party is?”

“Not yet. Real real soon, though. Almost now, but not now. Oh fuck, man. Turn around.”

“I can’t just turn around.”

“Why, you all fucked up?” Jake said, bouncing in the seat and waving his shoulders around. He murmured Flock of Seagulls through clenched teeth, making it sound punk. Then he reached into his pocket. There was a jangle, a click.

“I’ve had a few,” Larry said. “I was hoping to get some rest.”

“Man, I really think you need to talk to someone. You need help.”

He said it sincerely, like on talk shows. Then he cackled.

“Fuck that shit, right? I’m up. You’re up. Let’s get way up, man. Turn left up here, then another left. Back the other way.”

Larry drove as instructed. Jake jangled his pocket again.

“What you got in there?” Larry asked.

“Hey! Han Solo!”

Jake reached for the figure. Larry’s hand found its way to Jake’s wrist.

Jake stared, the last remnants of his smile almost fading before he brought his cheeks up again. He backed his hand away.

“It was my brother’s.”

“It’s cool. Most people put Jesus up there if they’ve been through shit. Everyone’s got their thing. I won’t judge.”

The butterfly knife was already in Jake’s hand, its blade wet with morning condensation. Jake locked the handle.

“Just got it,” Jake said, stabbing at the stop sign. “Turn one more time up here.”

“That’s three lefts. We’re going in circles.”

“You’re going in circles,” Jake said, then sang the opening lines to “The Passenger” as he edged closer. “Your brother did, too. Big score. Bummer he bailed. How long did it take him to go through it all?”

Larry expected the knife to be at his throat, only the blade keeping his last breath from escaping. Jake just twirled it like a drumstick.

“Look, like Tommy Lee,” Jake said, giggling. “I couldn’t find shit for weeks. Lotta sleepless nights. You owe me, Larry. So I figure, you take me where I need to go, I get what I need to get…”

Jake began to raise the knife.

“And maybe I won’t cut you to pieces and bury you in my backyard. Sound even?”

Larry hopped the curb, aiming for the stop sign, hitting the tree instead. The car groaned, then sighed. The searing, then dull pain of the knife entering his right quad sent his head back in spasms. He clenched his eyes shut, felt the tears cool his cheeks, then fell out of the car, the back of his head striking the door as he landed flat on his ass, legs splayed across the floorboard and seat. The knife handle danced. The owners of the house were already calling the police.

Jake the Shake was long gone.

So was Han Solo.


Luck of the Irish

It was Parade Day. Our local one, for St. Paddy’s, a week late.

Sunny and mild, it was. Like March had already gone out like a lamb. People drunk in the streets. Our mayor, Dino Rizzo, dressed as a leprechaun. A redheaded Sici. “God love the Irish!” he’d screamed, years back, when he drank with us. ‘Cos he looked the part.

It was me, and my pals: Eileen, her sister Kathy, and Kathy’s daughter, Carolyn, who’d grown up in bars. Sneaking drinks since she was ten.

Oh, and Kathy’s husband, Jimmy.

“Haven’t done it in like twenty years,” Kathy confessed, one night.Carolyn was twenty-one, so maybe Jimmy had that “Madonna complex,” like Elvis. When Jimmy was real bombed, he sang Elvis at karaoke. “He’s no good,” Kathy said, sullenly. But she didn’t mean just his sour notes.

Till Parade Day, I’d never drunk with Jimmy. I knew he never worked and gambled away every cent, even what Kathy “hid” in the coffee can under the sink. “I know he’ll steal that,” she told me, smiling.

A babysitter, she’d used him for, till Carolyn grew up. Even she had no respect for him. At the parade, she edged away from him, disgusted.

Maybe, I thought, he molested her. But I couldn’t ask.

 So far, we’d hit Noonan’s, and O’Boyle’s, who had the fattiest corned beef sandwiches, ever. Still, we scarfed them down.

Except Jimmy. “Nah,” he said. “I got too good a buzz.”

 “They’re free,” Kathy told him. He just shrugged.

Then we were outside, again. Confetti flying. Sidewalks mobbed with gym rats, junkies. Families with brats, in strollers. Wearing green beads and those goofy, oversized hats.

Like Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, I thought.

People sloshed beer all over. Falling-down drunk. It was a disaster, waiting to happen.

Jimmy’s own hat was green-and-white striped, pulled over his bleary eyes. He pulled on Carolyn’s beads, then grinned over at Kathy. She pulled Carolyn tightly to her.

Yeah, I thought. He fucked with her.

Lips pursed grotesquely, he leaned in for a kiss.

You could hear Kathy’s slap miles away. People stopped, and stared.

“Here!” She flung some bills at him. “Drink yourself to death!” She and Carolyn crossed the street.

“Hey!” Eileen said. Someone laughed, as we hurried after them.

“Did we lose him?” Kathy asked.

At Cassidy’s, we did shots of Jameson. That’s when I felt sick. When Kathy toasted, “To being single,” they laughed. But I couldn’t. Beads twirling, Carolyn spun around on her stool.

“Guys,” I said, “I’m done.”

But they kept drinking. “Tomorrow,” Kathy said, “I’m filing for divorce.” The others hooted. Another sloppy toast.

Whiskey was spilling all over. Kathy’s money on the bar was soaked.

How much, I wondered, had she thrown away?

Outside, the festivities were dying down. As we left Cassidy’s, we heard sirens in the distance.

Kathy’s keys jingled. “Can you drive?” Eileen said. But she was just as drunk.

We started walking back. “Are we . . .” I said. “Are we . . .”

Were we, what?

Going back for Jimmy? Or leaving him behind?

The crowd had dwindled. Blocks back, ambulance lights flashed. Cops and EMTs. A few drunks hovered over someone laying in the gutter.

We got closer. The ground was sticky with beer, and what looked like blood. In the confetti-littered street was a hat . . . green-and-white . . . but mostly red.

“Kath!” I said. I jumped, when she pinched me.

They’d beaten him, bad. Bruises and wounds . . . from God knows what. With all that blood, this wasn’t just fists. It was work boots. Rocks. This was vengeance. Whatever he’d said, or done . . .

From the gutter, his one visible eye met Kathy’s. She smirked.

I felt really sick, now.

“Anybody know him?” one cop asked.

“He’s her . . .” But somebody—maybe Carolyn—pinched me, this time. A vicious squeeze that shut me up.

“No,” Eileen said. “Poor guy.” Around us, people nodded.

“Me, either,” some guy said. “Shame.” He adjusted his shamrock cap. “Just having a few, like everyone else.”

 “Just getting his jollies,” Kathy said.

 Carolyn just toyed with her beads.


Deadlines: Remember William E. Wallace

DEADLINES:
A Tribute to William E. Wallace.

When I first got a chance to read Face Value by William E. Wallace, I immediately connected with Eddie Pax, a man that works within the gray areas of society tracking down properties owned by bad men. Eddie was a classic pulp protagonist, and in a different generation William would have been a classic pulp writer comparable to Donald Westlake’s alter ego, Richard Stark. When I accepted Face Value I asked if there were more. Eddie had appeared in a few short stories, but in William’s mind the stories and the novels were endless. Potential always there. He was constantly writing, and I believe it was in the words that William found the strength to fight cancer. Even a few weeks prior to his death he talked about that next Eddie Pax novel. It’s a shame that novel never found completion, Eddie Pax was my kind of character. I’d rather have William here, instead.

I only knew William through his writing, though I feel I should call him Bill. That’s what his friends called him, and at least to me he made it really easy see him as a friend. Bill had many friends from his journo days, and he collected many as a crime writer and a champion of small press publishing. Bill published a few collections on his own, such is the marvel of publishing today, and then a couple books with All Due Respects, then rival and now sister publishing company, and his final book Face Value with us, Shotgun Honey. When he wasn’t writing, he was reading and he was supporting writers who are not often heard, marginalized by the marketing of the New York publishing houses. He wrote about books and authors he liked on his blog, Pulp Hack Confessions.

Bill Wallace with Will Viharo and Joe Clifford

Today, I am honored, with the editorial guidance of Chris Rhatigan of All Due Respect, along with the support of Eric Campbell and Lance Wright of Down and Out Books, and the blessing of Margot Wallace, Bill’s wife, and Garth Wallace, Bill’s son, to release DEADLINES: A Tribute to William E. Wallace. This is a collection of stories — inspired by the career and stories of William E. Wallace — culled from writers and colleagues that Bill took time to champion. I thank these writers for their time, their stories, and their patience. 

Bill Wallace with Travis Richardson

The Contributors

  • Preston Lang
  • Jen Conley
  • Joe Clifford
  • Will Viharo
  • Paul D. Brazill
  • Patricia Abbott
  • Rob Pierce
  • Sean Craven
  • Eric Beetner
  • Sarah M. Chen
  • Nick Kolakowski
  • S.W. Lauden
  • Scott Adlerberg
  • Gary Phillips
  • Renee Asher Pickup
  • Eryk Pruitt
  • Todd Morr
  • Travis Richardson
  • Anonymous-9
  • Sean Lynch
  • Alec Cizak
  • Ryan Sayles
  • Greg Barth
  • C. Mack Lewis.
Bill Wallace and Anonymous-9

Memories

Sarah M. Chen

I knew Bill more from his online presence than in person. He was such a generous and ardent supporter of the crime fiction community and his humorous posts were something I always enjoyed reading. Before knowing him online, however, I did get the chance to briefly meet him at LCC Portland. I immediately liked him. He was intelligent, kind, and witty. 

Eryk Pruitt

When pitching my first novel DIRTBAGS to agents, I forever felt the sting from one particular rejection that said only, “I thought you said this was supposed to be funny.” That one hurt. All my lonely thoughts crashed and crumbled at the shores when I read my first-ever Pulphack Confessions review which Bill titled: “A Laugh-A-Minute With The Funniest Serial Killer Novel I’ve Ever Read.” For the first time since I’d started writing, I felt like I’d connected with a reader. It’s still my favorite review ever. 

Jen Conley

William Wallace was a fantastic champion of my work. He was one of the first to review my story collection and I will always be grateful. I never got to meet him in person, but I wish I could’ve have. Rest in peace, William.

Travis Richardson

I “met” Bill virtually on July 3, 2014, after reading his story “Working Stiff” in Flash Fiction Offensive. I friended him on Facebook and we wrote each other about the noir/crime fiction community and how supportive the writers are unlike other competitive areas. We emailed a few times and talked through Facebook. He promoted fellow authors’ works and I always looked forward to reading his stories. I got to meet him in person at Renee Asher Pickup’s Book and Booze podcast reading in San Francisco. And later at Left Coast Crime in Portland. We both sat at Holly West and Josh Stallings’ table at the banquet dinner in 2015.

Our final meeting was for breakfast in Berkeley on June 2016. I was in the Bay Area to watch an Oakland A’s game for Father’s Day. Bill’s diagnosis was grim and I wanted to see him again if he was up for it. We arranged to meet that Saturday for brunch. After being surprised to see him at a Joe Clifford book launch at Pegasus Books the night before, we met Saturday morning. We had brunch the following morning. Bill talked about some characters he met while reporting, authors he loved, concerns about the state of the publishing industry and the diminishing short story market and his health. He didn’t eat much as he had no appetite. While he had grown thin and looked tired, his eyes were alive. After our meal, we sat outside and talked a little longer before he needed to head home. He signed my copy of “Hangman’s Dozen” and I gave him a hug. A few days later he sent me the following message that broke my heart…

“You’ll be interested to know that you are the last person other than my docs and family I have seen since we had lunch. My son had tix for us to go to the MST3K reunion at a theater in Emeryville last night, but I couldn’t manage it. Looks like I am going to be spending most of the rest of my life shuffling around home and writing or down at Kaiser for treatment or labs. Of practically all the people I know who are writers, I am happiest you were one of the last I got to see in person. . .”

I am so glad he was wrong and had another seven more months to live. In those months he put his life out on Facebook for his friends to see. Writing, playing his guitar, reading stories and giving reviews, and still sending out words of encouragement to the crime writing community. Brave and generous to the end. When Bill passed, it still came as a shock. I miss Bill. A fantastic writer, advocate, and friend.

Will Viharo

Will contributed most of the photos, and those moments are captured memories that we are thankful for.

Will Viharo, Garth Wallace, Rob Pierce, Joe Clifford, Bill Wallace
Bill and “The Thrill”

Thank You, Bill

“Bill” William E. Wallace – Journalist – Friend 

William E. Wallace was an exceptional talent and a passionate man. This wonderful collection cannot begin to express his contribution to our community or the void left behind in his passing. Bill called himself a hack, but his talents extended beyond his own writings, elevating those around him.

Thank you for contributing to Shotgun Honey with your short stories and allowing me to give Eddie Pax one good story of his own.

Thank you to all the authors who contributors, to co-editor Chris Rhatigan, and our publisher Down & Out Books. And to Margot and Garth Wallace our condolences and gratitude for allowing us to celebrate Bill the only way we know how.

DEADLINES: A Tribute to William E. Wallace is a charitable anthology whose proceeds will be donated in Bill’s name to The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.


Familiar Procedure

I wasn’t speeding but as I pull over, so does the undercover squad car behind me.

Last time a cop’s lights appeared in my rearview, I was drinking. I’d gone to visit my father’s grave and snow began to fall. My pint was under the driver’s seat. As I reached down to get it, the steering wheel jumped like an electric eel. My right tire hit the curb, sent my jalopy spinning. I hit a parked Buick on the opposite side of the street. The windows shattered on impact. Cool air rushed in. Something under the hood hissed. I remember finding the pint. I remember the screaming in my head couldn’t be drowned. Soon those familiar lights appeared.

Running seemed like the right thing to do. I hopped a fence, fell, crawled through a darkened backyard like an infantry soldier. At the back of the yard, I hurled into a dog dish. The cops found me later, my head stuck inside the dog house. The judge didn’t have any sympathy. Community service.  Driver’s license revoked. Probation. None of it brought me closer to my dead father. 

The plainclothes cop now tapping at my window startles me from this reverie. My car window rolls down with the sluggish weight of a failing motor.

“Mr. Tanner?”

It’s the undercover cop who’d come by the Detox Center after Donnie died. In the rearview, I see his partner standing behind the passenger door, right arm hitched. They both look tired, bored.   

“Detective Barnes?”

“No, I’m Franzen.” The man yanks his head back. “That’s Barnes. Hey, what happened to your face?” The fumes of catalytic converters waft by as oncoming traffic slows to gawk.

I touch my forehead. The injuries are still raw, as if my face had been seared on a hot buttered griddle. “Fell off the ladder.”

“A knot like that?”

“Hit the floor face first. Put me out cold.”

“Looks like you got beat up.”

A cop’s scrutiny is always the same and never fun. Jumping procedure, I hand Franzen my license. “I didn’t think I was speeding, detective.”

Franzen waves away the license. “It’s nothing like that.” I think of the term ‘shit-eating grin.’ But why would you grin if you were eating shit? “We need you to come down to the station. Fill out a formal statement about Donnie Bencik.”

I tuck my license back into its plastic sheathing. “What about Donnie?”

Franzen nears with an uncomfortable crouch. “We found the body of a security guard floating in the Rouge near Zug Island yesterday.” This all seems obvious to Franzen, like I’m a child and it pains him to explain again the math problem I still don’t understand. “Donnie and this security guard were mixed up in a robbery before Donnie overdosed.”

I stall.

Franzen exhales. “You were the last person to see Donnie alive, right?”

“If you say so.”

“And he stayed at your rehab facility three months, right?”

“Seems right.”

“We need you to make that into a formal statement. Timelines. Details on Donnie’s state of mind, his life.” Franzen rises, drifts toward his vehicle. “Follow me.”  

The strike of paranoia is like a sharp stick to my intestinal tract. How did they know where I was? Do they know about Viktor & Mickey? The money in the trunk?

In one sprawling moment I see it unraveling in the interrogation room. If I go to the station, I won’t be able to get the money to Victor & Mickey and save Charlie. I imagine my friend’s hefty body beaten to a lifeless lump.

Both detectives ease gingerly into the squad car. I can almost smell the over-fried scent of fast food escaping their seats. I catch a glimpse of Barnes as they pass, the gaunt expression of a man nostalgic for car chases, erections without pills.

I pull into traffic, lagging behind by two car lengths. A mile down the road, they loop into a Michigan left to head north. I pass the turn-around, the detectives’ car. I change lanes, speed up into traffic, blend in. At the next intersection, I run the red. I do this with no ill intention. I do this because I have to.