Roadbeds

For L.B.

Maury was taking a smoke break when the two thugs showed up. They arrived in a black Lincoln and summoned the crew boss from the dusty light of the car’s headlamps. Lucky was bawling out a digger at the time, a Puerto Rican backhoe operator, and Lucky didn’t quit bawling a guy out for anything. But he quit it for them.

The P.R. stared and Maury figured he was probably the only guy on site who didn’t grasp the situation. He’d never seen Cuco Minchillo’s guys come around a worksite in the dead of night, didn’t even know they worked for the guy whose name was on all the equipment. Minchillo & Sons. Both his sons were dead.

Lucky snatched the hardhat off his skull in a show of submission that made Maury wince. The boss listened while the thugs told him what was happening. They didn’t have to. It was always the same.

“All right, you pricks,” Lucky bellowed to the crew after that. “Pack it up and sit a spell at Sugar’s. But be back on site in two hours, hear?”

Maury flicked his cigarette half smoked into the gaping hole in the pavement. There hadn’t been anything wrong with the road when they started digging it up at the start of the night. Now it looked like the fastest way to China.

A couple of guys groaned but nobody made too much of a production out of it. The P.R. sidled up to Maury and said, “What’s Sugar’s?”

“Tits and ass,” Maury said. “Ten bucks a head, five for a beer. Hell of a way to make a living.”

He wasn’t sure who he meant, them or the strippers.

“Come on,” Lucky said, popping up with an apologetic smile on his macadam-blackened face. “First round’s on me.”

“Forget it. I’m going to catch a quick nap.”

Lucky eyed him cagily. Maury could see the thugs over the crew boss’s shoulder, peering down into the Lincoln’s trunk.

“Two hours,” Lucky reminded him.

“I know.”

“Not earlier.”

Maury broke away, climbed into his Buick and rumbled off into the night. He imagined that he was driving over a long stretch of secret graves, because he was. It was a quarter past one in the morning.

* * *

At 3:15 Maury pulled up to the barrier of orange cones and killed the engine. He finished the dregs of gas station coffee in his cup and switched off his headlamps. The heavy duty tower lights lit the worksite up like a baseball field, but the air was clear of dust and Maury didn’t see a soul. He lit a cigarette and got out of the Buick. In the dead center of the site loomed the hole they’d carved out of the road. He went to it, glanced down at the two bodies crumpled there, their yellow vests reflecting the glare of the work lights.

Lucky’s vest was perforated in the middle of his back, a splash of red smeared up to his shoulder. The Puerto Rican kid got it in the head. His jet black hair was wet with blood. Maury realized he never knew the P.R.’s name. He supposed it didn’t much matter now.

Footsteps scuffed the pavement behind him and a voice said, “He ran. You believe that shit? The dumb bastard actually ran.”

Hence the hole in the back, Maury thought. Poor Lucky. Not so lucky after all, not in the long run. Or the short run, as it happened.

Maury grinned, let out a snort.

In the distance a pair of headlights glowed.

“Crew’s coming back,” the thug said. “Cuco’s got a job lined up to fill potholes on University tomorrow night. Remember to tell ‘em.”

“Fill them with what?” Maury asked.

“Hell, I don’t know—oh. I get it.”

“I got it from here.”

“Sure. You’re crew boss now, Maury.”

The thugs sauntered back to their Lincoln while Maury grabbed a shovel to dump dirt and smashed chunks of low-grade asphalt on the corpses. Two cars, a Plymouth and a Chrysler, pulled up to the cones just as he covered up the last visible bit of yellow.

A car door slammed and a fat slob named Dane wobbled over to him.

“Say, where’s Lucky?”

Maury said, “I’m Lucky, now.”


Night People

From my bedroom window, on the second floor of a three story building I own at a busy city intersection, I can see the diner. Across the intersection from the diner is a bar that stays open late and across from the bar is a hotel. It is midnight and steady rain is falling. When I see the police car pull up to the diner and see Gloria get out I take the freight elevator down to the alley and cross the wet dreary street.

I recognize those in the diner: Rose, a plump waitress, Marty the cook, a cab driver, a red haired transvestite hooker called Cherrybomb, a young female prostitute, a pair of nameless black drug dealers, and Hargrove, a tough looking white guy who did time for robbery and assault.

I wave to Gloria who gets up from a stool at the counter and hugs me. Her blond hair is wet and the damp smell is intoxicating. I step back. She is my height and weight, 5’10”, 150 pounds. She looks beautiful in her blue police uniform. I like the way her lips curve under her straight nose and the sparkle in her blue eyes makes me smile.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Gloria says. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“It’s been a year hasn’t it?” Her tongue flicks out and she licks her full lips. “Since your wife left you?”

“I’m over it.” I squeeze her hands with tenderness and she leans into me. I can feel the press of her breasts against my chest.  “I’ve been building the courage to ask you to go out with me. Will you?”

Gloria kisses me on the cheek. “I’ve been hoping you’d ask.”

I catch Hargrove watching us. “He scares me.”

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t give you any trouble.”

I order an egg salad sandwich, French fries, and a pint of milk. When the order comes I leave the diner with Hargrove following.

“Some lousy fucking night, isn’t it pal?” He has a rough voice.

I don’t answer him. I glance back and see Gloria in the doorway of the diner, hands on shapely hips. I always worry that Hargrove, or someone like him, will break into the building some night while I am asleep and rob me and kill me. People have to believe that I have money, lots of it, stashed there. I think of my gun resting on a stand by my bed.

Crossing the street in the rain I peer into the showroom window of my army-navy surplus store, left to me, along with the building, by my father.

I take the freight elevator to the third floor and switch on a light. A naked woman I am holding captive is asleep on a bed in a cage. I keep her drugged to almost unconsciousness. She stirs.

“When will you let me go?” She is sobbing. Her arms encircle her bare chest in a tight grip.

I feel the frown lines in my face harden like cement. “Soon it will be over for you.”

I pass four wooden coffins that are lined along the wall. Three of the coffins hold the gutted and preserved bodies of women I have murdered. There is the faint scent of formaldehyde. In the first coffin is the body of my wife. She never really left me. I grew tired of her and strangled her. The other two bodies were women I attracted and then grew tired of also. I have recently grown tired of the woman in the cage and soon she will occupy the fourth coffin. I plan on constructing a fifth coffin for Gloria, for when the time comes when I no longer find her desirable.

Noise from the door being pried open in the alley entrance of the building startles me. Hargrove, it has to be Hargrove, breaking into the building to rob me.

“Please Gloria, stop him,” I pray, “before he reaches the third floor.” I hold my breath and wait for a gunshot.

The woman on the bed sits up. She is trembling. She seems to be praying too, praying obviously for the intruder to reach her and save her.


Map of Scars

It started when I found Tyrell on the steps of Carver Desire Baptist.

Tyrell was a gangly sixteen.

Bookworm mind. Groundhog smile. Proud of nothing but the case of Star Wars figures he used to carry everywhere. He even showed me, his friendly neighborhood Narco detective, a few times.

Sad kid. Gang kid. Went by “Tusken,” after the Tatooine raider. Got by however he could and yeah, I put a few free meals in his belly while his mother went broke putting crack in her lungs.

His belly had been just about cut out when I found him on those steps. His skull was stove in three places. The scars on his chest were like a map of Hell’s highway.

He lived.

He had no insurance. No prescriptions for the lasting pain. No mother worth calling that. But he lived.

The others didn’t.

 

Chantay was found by a pastor two years later.

She was a precocious, pigtailed thirteen.

Kept her Little Pony’s tail brushed. Kept a ticket stub to every movie she’d seen. Escaped the treats from the pimps and the pushers.

Sweet kid. Chatty kid. Asked to ride in my police cruiser, even after I told her most kids don’t ask—they get told to.

There wasn’t much left inside Chantay to stitch back up. Her hair had been cut and taken. The scars on her chest were a familiar map.

She was DOA.

“Can’t imagine another like her,” Homicide Detective Andel said for weeks after, his mantra.

There were others.

 

Lashondra was found by her brothers with teardrops tattoos.

She was a thoughtful, righteous fifteen.

Stayed on the Honor Roll. Stayed off the corners. Came from a ganged-up family of twelve that fought and died for the Dirty-30, but Lashondra dressed and walked like she was on the way to the White House.

Classy kid. Caring kid. Always shook my hand when we met, fingers smoothed and scented sharp from doing others’ laundry.

Her hands were stolen. Her head turned up in the Industrial Canal a week later. The scarring on her, I’d about memorized.

She wasn’t going to rest easy with her brothers out to avenge her.

“We’ve got an animal on the loose,” Andel said, sounding scared for once.

Andel was wrong. Not just an animal. A pack.

 

DeeDee was found at the sewer by Humanity Street.

Eleven. Drew imaginary lands in Crayola. Lived in a house with no roof.

Connie was found at the warehouse off Law.

Seventeen. Liked dogs but not people. Died in the basement.

Then Rhoda. Then Georgette. Then Laurie.

So many different names, always the same scars.

And boys’ names too: Melvin. Harper. LeShawn.

No scars in them. Just steel-jacketed ammunition, sent by the Dirty-30 prowling for vengeance over Lashondra.

Same result—more torn-up bodies attached to kids’ faces frozen in fright.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Andel admitted after spending a night at Vaughan’s with me and Jack Daniels.

He took more. Desire lost more. It didn’t end.

 

It ended by accident when it finally did.

I’d been moonlighting a missing girl case:

Bella. Eight. Math star. Rocky road fan. Crackhead parents.

Tyrell’s parents.

His old hangout had been torn down by the city and eaten by the storm. There were only scars of brick left, not Projects. I went there anyway.

I found Bella with her brother. I can’t say there was a part of her “Tusken” didn’t hurt.

I won’t say what I did to hurt him back.

After, I called Andel in for the bust.

The details came after Tusken healed enough in the mental hospital to talk. The PCP he’d taken for his pain. The years squatting in broken houses, eating discarded things. The nights when the voices came.

I figured as much. I still wanted to know one thing.

“Who cut you?” I pointed to his scarred chest. “Who hurt you?”

“You did,” Tusken told me. “You all did. Desire did.”

Andel wanted to burn his file on the murders. He couldn’t.

“We won’t see his like again.” He couldn’t even look at me when he said it.

I look at my cruiser window, at the children and the ruins and the wild yards. The poverty, the pills, the heat. And I see.

I see, clear as map in skin, where it all is heading.

I see there’s no end.


In The Usual Sterile Fashion

Dennis settled in his chair, the scent of cauterized tissue lingering in his nostrils. Stacks of medical texts loomed on the wood desk. One of the texts, a neurosurgical tome, was splayed open at his chest. Beside that, a dictaphone with mini-cassette.

He lifted the handset, began dictating the operative report.

Surgeon: Dennis Falconcliff, MD

First Assistant: None

Preoperative Diagnosis: Large left sided post-traumatic subdural hematoma

Postoperative Diagnosis: Left subdural hematoma

Procedure: Left fronto-parietal craniotomy, evacuation of subdural hematoma, hemostasis, placement of subdural drain, duraplasty, cranioplasty, closure.

Surgical Procedure:  The patient was taken to the operating room and placed in supine position. Anesthesia was administered. The patient’s head was bent to the right, exposing the left fronto-parietal region. The hair was clipped and removed. Using anatomical landmarks, a straight incision was marked on the left fronto-parietal scalp from front to back.  The area was prepped and draped in the usual sterile fashion. A mixture of 0.25% marcaine and 1% lidocaine with epinephrine was used as local anesthetic. A 10 mm scalpel was used to make the skin incision down to the galea and periosteum. Hemostasis was obtained using bipolar electrocautery as well as Raney clips. Retraction system was applied. The periosteum was lifted from the skull using a periosteal elevator. Good exposure was achieved and the area was irrigated. Two burr holes were placed on the anterior and posterior aspect of the incision using Midas Rex perforator. The dura was separated from bone. The craniotomy bone flap was elevated between the two burr holes.  The dura was well visualized and appeared blue and taut, under significant pressure. Hemostasis was achieved using gelfoam in thrombin and electrocautery….

Dennis shifted in his seat, leaned a bit, recalling each detail. The next part brought great satisfaction, reinforcing his decision to pursue medicine.

…….A #15 blade scalpel was used to make the initial incision on the dura. As soon as the dura was opened, a large amount of subdural fluid rushed out of the subdural space under pressure. The remaining dura was opened using Metzenbaum scissors in cruciate fashion. A large amount of semi-clotted subdural fluid was released. The dural leaflets were secured to the surrounding tissues using 4-0 nylon stitches in order to achieve adequate exposure. The area was irrigated copiously. There was a subdural membrane along the cortex which was opened. The brain was visualized and appeared healthy and expanding appropriately. The entire subdural membrane was evacuated using suction and irrigation. There was some bridge vein oozing in the subdural space. This was cauterized. Surgiflo and thrombin was used for further hemostasis.  After evacuation there was clear irrigating fluid. A #7 JP drain was placed in the subdural space. The dura was approximated. A piece of Duragen was applied to the surface as duraplasty…..

“Dennnnnnnyyyy!!”

Dennis set the microphone on his desk alongside the open surgical text. Shook his head in disgust. Squinted to keep his cool.

“Whaaaaaat?” He had to yell. She was upstairs. In a wheelchair. A blessing for him. It sucked living with your elderly mom. But heck, she made dinner every night.

“What’re ya doin?!”

“Studying to be a doooooctooor, Maaaa! You know it!”

“Ahhh! You ain’t never gonna be no doctor, Denny! You lucky you take care a yur own flesh and bones decent!”

“You’ll see!”

“That feller still there? Yur friend? He eatin too?”

Dennis looked over at the feller. Still paralyzed. Coming around. Hanging IV bag. Endotracheal tube jutting from lips like a fat stogie. The secondhand respirator whooshing and wheezing. Blood streaked face, liquid pooling on the table, dripping. A dark puddle on concrete. Half head shaved. Eyes darting. That made Denny laugh. It reminded him of a goldfish.

“Naaaaaah!!!” Dennis yelled. “Had to go!!”  Yup. Nice cranioplasty. He was proud of the job, no mind what Ma says. Evacuating the hematoma, getting it all back together like a top neurosurgeon.

“Then get on up heres!”

Dennis could hear Ma’s wheelchair creaking on wood planks. A clanking dish.

“Don’t worry, feller.” Basement doctor voice now. “After supper, I’ll be back. We’ll try something else.” Dennis flipped pages in the surgery text. “How about a nephrectomy? Ain’t done one a those yet.”


Happy Hour at the Schoolfield Diner

A GED, a bastard daughter and an unemployment check from Southern Textiles was all Elias Denton had to show for his 23 years of life. The century old mill shuttered in April, the machinery sold overseas.

The laid off weavers and machinists now fought over the same crap jobs at Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie.  Furniture and tobacco workers fired the year before already had dibs on the rest. The one horse town had three legs in the air.

Eli sat in the Schoolfield Diner drinking a Budweiser, eating fried eggs, bacon and toast. It was 8:15am. Before the mill closed, he’d worked the graveyard shift. He and his buddies would get off work around eight and cross the street to the greasy spoon for “happy hour.” Beers and breakfast. No point giving up the daily ritual, just because the mill gave up on him.

Jolene, the nineteen-year old pregnant waitress who looked twice her age, and not in a good way, put Eli’s check down beside his near empty plate. Yes, her mama named her after the Dolly Parton song and no, she doesn’t want to hear you sing it, thank you.

An older man Eli didn’t recognize approached and stood beside the empty stool next to Eli’s. Rare to see a non-regular. Not exactly a “word of mouth” kind of place.

“Seat taken?” He asked.

“Yeah, the Pope’s just powdering his nose,” Eli mumbled, barely raising his head as he sopped egg juice up with a triangle of Wonder bread.

“Name’s Delbert Franklin,” the man offered. Eli declined.

“What’ll it be?” Jolene smacked.

“2 eggs, scrambled. Sausage and hash browns. Cup o’coffee, black.” Delbert instructed.

Jolene waddled away. Eli had stopped bothering to stare at her ass long ago.

“Now friend, you don’t know me, but I’d like to know you.”

“All my friends are dead or in jail. Don’t need any more. Just as soon eat my breakfast in peace.”

“No job. Child support piling up. Mother dying of lung cancer. I’d say you could use a friend, Eli.”

That got Eli’s full attention.

“Who the hell are you?”

“I’m a business man, Eli. And I have a job for you.”

“Not interested.” Eli said, leaning forward to pull his beat up leather wallet out of the back pocket of his faded Levi’s. He opened it to pay his bill, but Delbert quickly produced a ten-spot.

“Please, allow me.”

“Whatever.”

“Eli, do you know the name Jack Littleton?”

“Sure. He’s the sum bitch who sold his soul and the mill to the Pakistanis.”

“I represent individuals, who, much like yourself, are not shall we say, fans of Mr. Littleton.”

“I ain’t a hit man, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“You’ve already done the job, Eli.”

“Can’t say I follow you.”

“Sometime around noon, Littleton’s corpse will be discovered.”

Again, that got Eli’s attention.

“Like, I said. Not following.”

“Jack Littleton’s been murdered. You’ve been framed for it. I’m simply offering payment for a job well done,” he said, sliding a thick crumpled manila envelope across the counter.

Eli cracked it open. At least twenty grand stared back at him.

“There’s a small plane at the municipal airport waiting to take you wherever you tell the pilot. Your mother’s medical bills have been squared. There’ll be another 40 grand for you when you land.”

“Sounds like a swell offer, but no thanks.”

“I don’t think you understand, Eli. The wheels have already been set in motion. The evidence has been planted. The police, anxious to solve the case, will chalk it up as a disgruntled former employee who snapped out of frustration. Take the money, or spend the rest of your days rotting in a cell.”

“Why Littelton?”

“Let’s just say, putting this town out of work was the least of his transgressions.”

Eli slowly stood up, stuck the envelope in the back of his jeans and covered it with the tail of his flannel shirt.

“One last question,” Eli said as he turned to leave, “Why me?”

With a sly grin, Delbert replied, ”Everyone else was dead or in jail.”

 

 


A Man Full Of Stones

-Hey, Morgan.

-Well, well.  Look at what the tide dragged in.  S’up, Mikey?

-That him?

-Who?

-The guy in the corner.  Watching Vlatka on stage.  Bony-looking dude with the glasses.

-Yeah.  That’s him. Guess who gets to take that creep to the airport in an hour?

-You?

-Yup.

-Atlantic City?

-Nope.  Philly.  God, I’m looking forward to that like a punch in the nuts.

-So….

-So what?

-Is it true?  I mean, what they say about him?

-Believe it or not it’s true.

-That’s hilarious.

-But hey, he’s good at what he does and Mr. Donofrio likes him so what do we care if he’s a freak?  To each his own, that’s my motto these days. To each his fuckin’ own.  Throwing some deadbeat clown a beating is one thing but that other nasty stuff?  Do me a favor and leave me the hell out of it.  If Mr. Donofrio wants to contract those grisly details out to some Rain Man-talking sideshow from Boston, he can be my guest.

-Providence.

-Whatever.

-I’m going to go talk to him.

-I wouldn’t do that if I was you, Mikey.

-Why not?  What’s the worst that could happen?

-Come on.  I just want to see what he’s like.  Where’s the harm?

-You’ve been warned.

*

-Hey, how y’doin’, man.  I’m Michael.

-One of Mr. Donofrio’s guys.

– Just talking with my buddy Morgan over there at the bar and he says he’s taking you to the airport this afternoon.  Back up to Patriots country.  Providence, right?

Travelin’ Man.

-What?

Travelin’ Man.  Thru and Thru.  I’m Moving On.

-Oh, right.

Take It or Leave It. Gotta Get Away.

-Everything go all right during your time here in A.C.?

It’s All Over Now.

-Yeah, I guess that’s a good thing.

If You Need Me…Hand of Fate.

-From what I understand fate had very little to do with our problem down here.  Anyways, I’m sure Mr. Donofrio appreciates your work.

Happy. Fool to Cry.

-How about this weather, huh?  Can’t remember a June on the Jersey shore this nice in a long time.  Hope you got to take in some of the sights.  What do you think of our fair city by the sea?

Pretty Beat Up. Mixed Emotions.

-I hear that. Get any action?

Casino Boogie. Tumblin’ Dice. Winning Ugly.

-Oh a craps man, huh?  I hear that.  I kind of suck at math so I could never really follow that stuff.   Me, I like a little blackjack, the trotters.  “Wild Horses”, know what I’m sayin’?

-I see you dig Vlatka.

-She’s something else, isn’t she?

Dancing in the Light.

-Ain’t that the truth?  That, my good friend, is one hundred percent, flawless Croatian prime.  No additives or fillers.  See, Mr. Donofrio likes to keep the girls clean here at Cherry Bombs.  Not even an ankle tattoo.

Two Thousand Light Years From Home?

-Guess so.  Some place called Zagreb I think.

-Grown Up Wrong? Backstreet Girl?

-Who’s to say?  A real beauty though.  I’m mean, look at that.  Your eyes can run out of breath just roaming up and down those legs.

Rocks Off?

-Excuse me?

Rocks Off?

-Oh.  I get you.  Um, if you’re interested I’m sure something can be arranged before you leave with Morgan for your flight out of Philly.  Probably run you a Benji for starters though.

Leave Me Alone.

-Okay.  But you let me know if I can help you out with Vlatka, okay?

-Be my personal pleasure.

Bitch….

 

###


Interview: John Rector

Last May we published John Rector’s Folded Blue, an unassuming story that turned dark and gruesome in the last passage. It created a buzz and is, to date, one of our most read stories. John is used to creating a little buzz, having released his first novel, THE GROVE, on the Kindle platform and creating sales that caught even Amazon’s attention.

Since then THE GROVE has been published by AmazonEncore, with print edition releasing from a Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt imprint, along with THE COLD KISS released under MacMillan’s Forge imprint and the upcoming release of ALREADY GONE from Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Folded Blue was the first John’s first published short story since 2005 and it was our pleasure to be its host.

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I’m not sure I was ever drawn to crime fiction.  If anything, it was my writing style that pushed me in that direction more than a conscious decision on my part.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of crime fiction, especially the old pulp stories and the classics – James M Cain is a huge influence- but I don’t see myself as a full blown crime writer.  Dark suspense seems to fit me better, but it’s a thin line separating the two.

Crime lends itself to a lot of genres, if only ancillary. In Folded Blue the crime isn’t revealed until the very end and with some controversy. What was your thought behind Folded Blue?

Folded Blue started out as a simple conversation between two characters (almost a writing exercise in dialog), and I had no idea where it was going until the last couple paragraphs. When the ending presented itself, I knew there was no other way it could go. The characters came to life in two or three sentences, and I was able to go back in and tweak what was essentially a very flat scene and make it into something vivid and real.

I was a little surprised to hear people were talking about that particular story, just because I’ve written a hell of a lot worse. There are scenes in  THE GROVE that make Folded Blue seem tame, at least to me. But I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. What I see as a fun little masturbation story, someone else sees as glorifying violence against women.

I suppose like beauty, the reader sees only what they want to see for good or bad. And I don’t see controversy as a bad thing. Folded Blue is one of our most read stories.

You mentioned THE GROVE, a book that created a bit of buzz last year as one of a handful books picked up by Amazon Encore, Amazon’s first initiative into publishing. How did that come about?

It started in the spring of 2009. THE GROVE had made the rounds through all the NYC publishers, and nobody wanted to buy it, so I put it in the trunk and moved on. I’d written another novel called THE COLD KISS, and my agent had been focused on sending that one around to publishers. One publisher, Tor/Forge, had been sitting on the manuscript for about eight months. Anyone who has played the waiting game with publishers knows how stressful it can be. So, instead of sitting there making myself crazy, I started thinking about something I could do on my own.

I’d recently read an interview with a writer named Boyd Morrison who had signed a three book deal with a big publisher after selling several thousand copies of his three novels as ebooks, so I looked into it and decided to make THE GROVE available as an ebook on Amazon. At the time, no one was self publishing ebooks, and everyone I talked to about my plan thought I was crazy and told me it was a terrible idea. But I did it anyway. I thought if I could sell a few hundred copies and start building an audience then maybe the big NYC publishers would take a chance on The Cold kiss. So, I uploaded THE GROVE to Amazon’s website and waited.

As it turned out, Tor/Forge had wanted to buy THE COLD KISS all along, and they made an offer about 48 hours after I’d uploaded THE GROVE as an ebook. The timing was perfect. If I had waited two more days, things would’ve been completely different. With a contract from a major publisher, I never would’ve released THE GROVE on my own, but since it was already up and selling, I decided to leave it there. I figured every sale I made could translate into another sale for THE COLD KISS once it was released. Plus, it was really selling well, and I wanted to see what would happen.

Because THE GROVE was doing so well, it caught the eye of an editor at AmazonEncore, and he called me at home one night and asked if they could publish the book themselves. They would redesign the cover, market the eboko, and release a print version in stores nationwide. I was hesitant at first, but I’d just signed a three book deal with Simon and Schuster in the UK that included THE GROVE, and I really wanted to see the book published in the US, too, so I said yes. As it turned out, signing up with Amazon was the best decision I’ve made.

They say that timing is everything, don’t they? A little luck too, I suppose. Can you share the pitch for THE GROVE? Sell it to our readers.

Here’s the pitch my agent, Allan Guthrie, wrote when he was shopping the book.  It’s always been my favorite.

The last time farmer Dexter McCray went off his medication, someone wound up dead. So, after waking from an alcoholic blackout to discover his tractor stuck in a ditch and the body of a teenage girl in the cottonwood grove bordering his cornfield, things look worryingly familiar.

With no alibi and a creeping suspicion that he might indeed be guilty, Dexter decides to investigate the crime himself. He can’t tell anybody. Not his friend, the sheriff, who keeps offering to help him winch his tractor out of the ditch. Nor his estranged wife, whose love he’s desperate to win back. And certainly not the Tollivers, his redneck neighbors.

Fortunately, Dexter’s not entirely alone. He has some help.

In the shape of the dead girl herself.

That was a pretty sharp, intriguing pitch. You would have thought at least one editor would have shown interest. Their loss.

E-publishing, Amazon and the Kindle have changed publishing dramatically in the last year. Did you have any apprehensions jumping into the muddied waters of self-publishing?

A lot of editors showed interest, a few sent it around their offices and pitched it in meetings, but it seemed to always come down to marketing. No one wanted to take a chance on an unproven new novelist with a book that didn’t fit perfectly into one genre. It wasn’t quite mystery, and it wasn’t quite horror, so they all passed on the challenge.

When I released THE GROVE myself, I didn’t consider it self publishing. There was no ISBN number attached, so bookscan couldn’t track the sales, and that was important to me because I wanted to eventually publish with a major publisher. If it would’ve felt like true self publishing, I never would’ve done it.

Also, when I released THE GROVE on my own, there weren’t many people putting out ebooks. This was pre-Konrath, and if the waters were muddied back then it was because no one knew what the hell they were doing or what to expect. I still remember my agent’s stunned reaction the first time I showed him my sales figures, and that was back when ebooks were less than 2% of the market. The big sellers out there now put my old numbers to shame, but at the time it was all new for everyone.

THE COLD KISS — having read the book — is more focus in respects to genre, was that a deliberate choice because of the initial reluctance towards THE GROVE? Or were the wheels already in motion?

Both. I was already writing THE COLD KISS while THE GROVE was making the rounds, but once I started getting feedback from editors telling me it was too in between genres, I made an effort to stay in one particular genre.

THE COLD KISS is described as The Getaway meets A Simple Plan, making it sound marketable and mainstream. Do you regret not writing it as a genre blender?

Not at all. THE COLD KISS is a tight, streamlined little book that works just fine the way it is. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and I can’t picture it any other way.

Having had the unique opportunity to test the publishing waters on both sides of the e-divide, what have you learned as a writer?

I’ve learned the same thing all traditionally published writers are now learning. Things are changing fast. As recently as two years ago, I never would’ve turned down an offer from a major publisher, but that’s exactly what I did with my most recent book, ALREADY GONE. The reason was because I saw first hand what Amazon Publishing can do to sell books, so I took their offer instead.

While traditional authors and major publishers are fighting each other for severly limited shelf space in indie stores or in Barnes and Noble, Amazon Publishing can take their books directly to the reader. They have an enormous customer database, and can directly market their books to the exact audience.

I’m not overly familiar with the current state of self publishing, but as everyone who is paying attention knows, you now have a lot of writers who are able to make a very good living by selling their unpublished manuscripts as ebooks. The publishing shift that represents cannot be overstated. It is a different world out there, it’s never going back.

ALREADY GONE is part of a strong launch of Amazon’s imprint Thomas & Mercer, which includes Barry Eisler and Kyle Mills, and early next year J A Konrath. You must be a mix of pressure and pride to be part of that launch?

I’m definitely proud to be part of the new imprint, and it’s funny, but I’m not feeling a lot of pressure. I have complete faith in the people at Thomas & Mercer, and I know they’re going to do whatever they can to get the book out to as many readers as possible. That’s a rare and wonderful feeling to have about your publisher.

Do you have any parting shots, pearls of wisdom, for our readers?

All I can say is be flexible, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Publishing has changed, and it’s still changing. If you’re not open to doing things in new ways, you’re going to have a hard time finding your place. Things are never going to go back to the way they were, and as a result, this is the best time to be a writer, especially if you’re willing to take chances.


The Hole

Only a pin prick of light makes it this far into the hole. It’s calm and quiet this deep. I like it here. But then the whole world jumps into my hole. All of it. It comes rushing past my head, all in my face and my eyes and then it’s everywhere around me and the hole is gone, the calmness torn away.

Where the hell am I? What’s that goddamn noise? It sounds like meteors are raining down nearby. Sickening crashes shake the ground and send waves of fire through my head. There’s burning light, dazzling even when my eyes are closed. I shield my face with my hand. Lifting my arm causes more flames to lick at me, across my flank now. I know those flames, I’ve faced them before. They’re the flames of cracked ribs. Another crash rings out, then another, and I can’t help but cringe. It sounds like a giant stamping in fury. Crushing buildings underfoot.

Tiny peeks through my fingers, a little at a time, and eventually my sight starts to come back. I’m slumped in the corner of some kind of metal cell, maybe a storage tanker. There’s nothing else in here except for the light, which is ridiculously bright and fastened inside a cage on the ceiling. I try to stand, with a notion of smashing the light bulb but before I can straighten up my knees give way. I’m face down on the metal and I’m falling back into the hole.

***

I was chasing the bastard. Robert goddamn Hoover. He killed Carol, all because she just happened to walk around the corner at the moment he chose to slap a hooker across the face. Carol being Carol, no way could she leave it, not even when the whore was clearly his own. She marched on over and slapped him right back.

From across the street I watched from my car as that worthless pimp punched my wife in the jaw. Froze in horror as she fell and split her head on the curb like a piece of fruit. Stared numbly as he ran, dragging the hooker behind him like a doll.

She’d just finished work. I’d recently gotten a raise and we were going to a restaurant to celebrate. Instead all I could do was watch her die.

A policeman told me Hoover’s name. He said they were looking but admitted that had it been his wife he’d want a different kind of vengeance. He winked, told me the name of a bar.

I went with a crowbar. Found him right away. He saw me coming though, did a runner. The chased lasted ten minutes, through one dingy alleyway after another. He ducked in the side door of an abandoned warehouse. I followed but it was dark and the floor was slippery. Maybe I fell and knocked my head or maybe somebody hit me. Either way I ended up in the hole.

***

The world jumps in the hole again. It hurts even more than last time.

Another crash then a voice. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Hoover?” The word feels like rust on my tongue. Tastes like it too.

“How do you know my name?” Another crash booms around me. It’s no giant, no meteors. It’s him hitting the side of the tanker with my crowbar.

“You killed my wife you spineless prick.”

“Oh. Ah, yeah.” Another crash. “I see.”

“Let me out of here. What are you afraid of? You’ll fight with women, so why not have a go with me?”

“Talk all you want, man, it ain’t gonna help.” Another crash. “You’re going to die in there you know that?”

“Fuck you. I’ll kill you.” I pound my fist against the metal, over and over. I scream and swear about all the things I’m going to do to him. My head is wrapped in fire again and my ribs are singing but I don’t care. I hammer on the metal and scream until I’m hoarse and my fist is bloody and tears stream down my cheeks.

There are no more crashes, no voice, no matter how much I scream and pound.

I didn’t even hear him leave.


Skinny Latte

Lucy teased Andrew for weeks. When he followed her through the halls, she would drop her Trapper Keeper, let him race over to pick up her papers. One night when he was lurking outside her house, she took off her tank top and – oops! – forgot to pull down the blinds.

A phone call on a Saturday morning – she was all by her lonesome and sooo bored – and he was on his bike, racing over.

When she was fat, Andrew and all the other boys stayed away from her. That was before her mom found her stashes of Mallomars and Cheetos.

She’d made Lucy eat them all until she vomited. Then put her on a strict diet of flavorless salads and whole body cleanses. That was Mom – controlling every moment of her life.

A knock at the door. Lucy put her wet hair up, slipped on a bathrobe and went downstairs.

“Took you long enough,” she said.

“Got here as fast as I could.”

She went inside and he followed. Like a good puppy. “I made espresso.”

“Oh, I don’t drink that stuff.”

She smiled, displaying her adorable dimples. “You do now.”

She poured the espresso into two mugs, added the skim milk that was simmering in a saucepan. She thought about the way Mom would look if she found out Lucy had a boy over. How her facial muscles would want to move but couldn’t – thanks botox! – how that vein in her neck would get taut like a piano string. Delicious.

Andrew’s eyes followed a single drop of water rolling toward her cleavage.

She said, “You know how I got like this?”

“What do you mean?”

She caressed his forearm with electric blue fingernails. He trembled. “Don’t be so polite. You know what I mean. How I lost weight. How I got hot. You remember those nicknames they called me, right? Lard Ass and Rosie O and The Beached Whale –”

“They shouldn’t have –”

“Done that. I know, but I don’t care. It’s all in the past cause of Mom. The workout regimen she put me on – well, let’s just say none of the boys on the football team could have survived. Of course, I could never be as fit as her.”

“You’re way hotter than her. You’re a goddess.”

“That’s sweet of you,” she said. “You know, I think she’s jealous.”

“What do you mean?”

She leaned in, whispered, “Last week, when you walked me home from school, she said I had to stay away from you, from all boys, until I was eighteen.”

“That’s insane. What are you, Mormon?”

She laughed without feeling, then kissed him once, for a long time. No tongue. Not yet. She took his hands, gave them a squeeze.

They hadn’t touched the mugs. “Fuck this,” she said. “Let’s go down to the basement.”

He stammered and she pressed a finger against his lips. “But I have one condition.”

“Anything. Name it.”

“Come with me.”

She led him down to the basement and flipped the light switch.

“I told you a teensie weensie lie. I don’t really have the house to myself. Dad and Nick are at the basketball tournament.” She pointed at the body splayed out on the blood-stained berber. “But Mom’s still here.”

His eyes bugged. “What did you do?”

“Don’t be scared, Andrew.” She ran a hand through his curly hair, rubbed the back of his neck. “I could take never having cake on my birthday and the thousands of sit-ups. But when she wouldn’t let me use what I worked so hard for – that was too much.”

He slipped from her grasp. “I gotta go.”

She pulled the tie on her bathrobe and it fell to the floor. Damn, she loved being naked. “Really? Cause I think you’re going to stay.” She stepped over her mother, lay down on a worn leather sofa. “You know this is your only chance, right?”

He stammered and an erection pressed against his shorts.

“On one condition, of course.”

“Fine. What is it?”

“I’ve been good for a long time.” She pulled out a package from under the sofa. “So you’re going to feed me Mallomars.


The Traffic Stop

Ronnie Chalmers had a mouth full of pecans when the Caprice passed her at twenty over. The deputy hit the lights and wheeled her patrol car out onto SR-14, the only traffic on the highway tractor trailers freighted with beer, on their way from the bottling plant to places like Tallahassee or Tuscaloosa. She sighted the Caprice, getting an eyeful from the rear view before the driver signaled, pulled into a breakdown lane and cut the engine.

Chalmers cantered her cruiser, shielding herself from the front and behind. Some dirt road deputies were lazier than an uncooked hamburger patty but not Ronnie. She worked out, ate right, didn’t smoke and stayed sharp even on the most boring days in the pothole they called a town.

Her only flaw, at least according to her mother, was that she wasn’t married.

And Ronnie always had to remind momma the state didn’t let her kind marry yet.

 

(Besides, what she really wanted was a hobby, no a vocation, not a wife.)

 

Law enforcement paid the bills, sure, and she’d seen it all patrolling the county’s main thoroughfare. Man cooking meth in the console of his Honda. Propane tanks falling from the bed of a pickup like runaway rolling pins. Mexicans stacked like saltines in the back of a U-Haul. Even a car seat riding on the roof of a sport utility…with the baby still strapped to it.

 

(Everything changed after today.)

 

The plates on the Caprice came back clean.

She adjusted her campaign hat, aware of the eyes watching her in the side view mirror. Chalmers approached the driver’s seven o’clock, her duty pistol half-way out its holster. Closing the distance she bladed herself, stopping about where the back seat of the Caprice began.

The man was huge. Must’ve weighed three-hundred pounds.

And he was naked.

And scratched.

Everywhere. His chest and arms and legs scissored with cuts, like he’d spent the morning dry humping a briar patch.

“You’re not having a very good day, are you, sir?” Chalmers said, watching the driver closely, then adding, “Got a license on you?”

The man obliged, offering an insurance card and license with a deliberate turn of his hand.

“Know why I pulled you over?”

The man pursed his lips and nodded.

“Do you need an ambulance?”

He shook his head.

Chalmers studied the ID, then spoke into her rover, leading with the license number and issue date. She glanced at the back seat. Couldn’t smell alcohol or any other controlled substance but assumed he was on something. PCP or hallucinogens the deputy’s first guess. Gnats were collecting on his arms, the man just a blob of abrasions and stretch marks. He smelled gamey, too. Probably fit to grow grass on.

That’s when she noticed the paperback on the passenger seat.

 

(Raymond Chandler. The Simple Art of Murder.)

 

Her radio crackled.

“Go ahead, dispatch.”

“Valid, no wants,” came the reply.

Ninety degrees by nine-thirty and she had a naked man the size of a fork lift in her presence.

And he technically hadn’t done anything wrong besides speeding. Cleaner than a baby in a baptismal font. Figuratively speaking.

Reminded her of something the Sheriff would say. About those calls straight from The Outer Limits.

You can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride.

Chalmers was gonna have to get creative. Mister Nude & Wounded was going to jail.

 

(She just loved to read.)

 

“Mind telling me what happened to your clothes?” she said, her attention drifting to that paperback again.

The driver cocked an eye but said nothing. A tractor trailer whizzed by, the trucker sitting high on his throne inside the cab, a wave for ol’ Smokey and her customer.

It gave Chalmers an idea.

 

(Always getting ideas. Always making up stuff.)

 

Backup arrived.

“What we got?” the other deputy asked.

“A big bad bio risk with a taste for the classics,” Chalmers said.

“What’s the charge?”

They looked up as a church van crested the hill.

“Public nudity. Let’s hurry now.”

They gloved up. The naked man didn’t need to be told. He swung his bulk out of the Caprice and put his hands behind his back.

But it was too late.

The man’s pecker swelled and saluted the church van as it passed.

Chalmers counted eight female passengers. Seven shocked faces.

 

(One old lady had smiled.)

 

And all of ‘em got their money’s worth.

 

(You got a book in you an ex-girlfriend once told her.)

 

After a full search and inventory the wrecker arrived.

Chalmers pocketed the Chandler, certain of one thing after the traffic stop.

She wanted to be a writer.


The Boiler Room

“Hello is that Mr. Fife?”

“Urm, yeah.” He sounded apprehensive.

“Mr. Fife, this is Cal from Global Opportunities. We’re holding a very small amount of a great stock. It’s tipped for high gains. I know you’re a man who wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity like this.” I didn’t take a breath, been saying it all day. After a few hours it really does roll off the tongue.

“Urm, who is this? How did you get my mobile number?”

“I’m Cal, Mr. Fife, Cal from Global Opportunities. Your lawyer Mr. Gringault passed your number to us. He said you’d be interested. We’re an international firm of share brokers and we’ve got a great pharmaceutical start up that’s almost guaranteed to treble your money in weeks.”

“I’m not really into stocks.”

I laughed. “Your lawyer said you’d say that. Look, Mr Fife, I’ll let you into a little secret. You don’t need to know anything about stocks to make money. You see, this company just needs to raise start up capital. Once it’s floated and people realise what the product is, all the big players will want it. Every one of them. That’s when you sell. Just a few weeks to more than treble your money.”

He paused. He was thinking, definitely thinking. Strike while the iron’s hot.

“I’ll level with you Mr. Fife. I’ve got a list of a hundred more investors here and the stock’s running out. I could sell it ten times over. If you get in now, and quick, I might be able to let you have more than the normal allotment.”

“Who, what’s the company?”

“Copharm Industries, Mr. Fife. It’s a medical research company based in Oxford and, well, let’s just say the cure they’ve researched is going to change the world.” I held the phone away from my head. “What’s that Jeff, you just sold two thousand? How many’s left?” I put the phone back to my head. “Mr. Fife, this is going faster than I thought. I can’t guarantee I can hold these much longer. I’m gonna have to rush you for a decision now.”

“What, what, who…”

He was rattled. Pound signs were flickering in front of his eyes.

“Mr. Fife I can do you five thousand shares for fifty pence each, that’s only two thousand five hundred. Within a month you’ll be looking at ten grand. Ten grand?”

I waited. It didn’t take long.

“Okay.”

I confirmed his full name, address and said I’d send over the documents. Told him we don’t take payments over the phone, we’re not that sort of company. We’re respectable, there’s all sort of sharks and dodgy brokers out there. We make our money from repeat business, not one trade. He thanked me and put the phone down. I guess he was already working out what to spend the money on.

I threw down the phone and looked at Steph. My beautiful daughter, sleeping. Just like when she was a baby. Her face was still pale though. The pain still there despite all the drugs. Her lifeless body lay in the wheelchair as it had ever since the accident. Except it weren’t an accident. That bastard Fife had been drinking. I know it was him driving, not his wife. I know it was him. Fancy pants lawyer persuaded the court she was driving and got her off. Six month suspended for careless driving. Six months? Six months for killing my wife and doing that to my daughter. Suspended too? No one’s paid for it. No one.

Of course he moved, went into hiding. Changed his mobile, too. Took me months to get it. Got a friend, works for a phone network, he did some overtime at the weekend and traced the calls he’d made to his lawyer. Address he gave the phone company was false though.

I packed the cable ties, pliers and knife in my bag, next to my lunch box. Maria, the care worker, will be here soon for her ten hour shift while I go to work. Except today, I’m not going to work. Today, I got other business.


Parnell

I brought Parnell Urquhart in once; the time he ate the teacher.

New Orleans put the sun right on us that day. Even the tar sweat. The SWAT guys stacked outside Parnell’s shotgun house were floating behind their goggles.

Narco served the warrant. Me and my partner, Hakk. We knocked with five M4 carbine barrels aiming through our backs at the royal court of crack distribution in Desire.

An eight-year-old girl opened the door. The smell of 409 and vacuuming was taller than she was in the doorway.

“Is your father in?” I asked.

“One moment, ma’am,” she says, proper as a Garden District receptionist.

A minute later, out comes the king himself—Parnell, skinny and scarred, smiling under those thick glasses like a Buddy Holly album cover.

His hands knit on his flat-top. Mine went for handcuffs. The smile stretched into something animal.

“Not in front of my girl, huh?” He said.

I put on the cuffs and a smile of my own.

“Laugh it up while you can, bitch,” Parnell said. I heard the crazy starting to rise in his voice; that little hiss you hear before coffee boils over hot metal.

I decided I’d tell him at the station.

We tossed the shotgun house later. Clean rooms. Empty crawlspaces. Ashtrays with only Lysol scent in them. I could smell it on Parnell’s hands. He’d cleaned the whole place himself before we showed.

He still had blood under his nails.

 

Parnell bit his nails in the interrogation room. He squirmed like his tats. He sweat through the air-conditioning.

“You want a deal?” Parnell said, “I got a deal for you. Save the taxpayers six weeks’ room and board and let me strut right now.”

“Pass.” Detective Andel said.

“We got a witness this time.” I told him.

Parnell leered, leaned in. “How’re your witnesses holding up?”

Between us and him was a whole scrapbook of body dumps: Parnell’s greatest hits. Most aren’t even whole bodies anymore.

“Our girl’s untouchable this time.” Andel said.

I looked at the photos and wasn’t so sure: Luke Bender, blown into chunks with imported ordnance. Clementine, gnawed by dogs and human bites. Countless others shredded to pulled pork in baggy pants by Grub gang choppers.

Parnell looked at them too. It calmed him.

“I touched Ms. Marjeta just fine,” he said.

“You think this is about the teacher you ate?”

“Bit. I just ate a piece of her.”

“Think more local, fucko,” I told him. “We got Sky. Your daughter flipped on you.”

Finally, Parnell stopped smiling. Squirming became shaking. And I smiled, seeing that I’d broken something in him more precious and more fragile than any bone.

I hoped it never healed. Just like the people in those photos.

 

For two weeks, I had cause to hope.

The image of Parnell, fractured, made me able to look in the bathroom mirror. I bothered with toothpaste and conditioner. I even made sure the badge was on straight.

Then I come in one Tuesday morning and hear he’s getting out.

I banged the steering wheel the whole way to his shotgun house, cursing the universe for letting me believe good things can happen, just long enough that it hurt worse when the rug got pulled.

Parnell was hugging Sky on the porch when I pulled up.

Neither of them looked at me. They were shiny as a magazine cover—Better Homes & Crack Dens.

Sky looked stern. Parnell was all smiles, stroking her head and patting her stuffed bunny.

“Who got you this, baby?”

“Ms. Marjeta, when she made me promise to let you go.” Sky still sounded wary. Maybe she wondered how his Grubs convinced Marjeta, like I did.

“She’s a nice lady.”

“Yes.” Sky glanced at me and nodded. “And you only hurt bad people. That’s the rule, you said.”

“Word up,” Parnell said, looking right at me through those smudged lens. “That’s the rule.”

They went inside, hand in hand. I couldn’t tell who was leading who. Their fragile little peace was whole again.

But Parnell’s world was full of bad people.

I floored it to Fifth District to tell Andel his workload was going up.