Author POV: The Void Kills

The void kills.

Insert ominous piano sounds here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40 Nickels by R. Daniel Lester. Buy Now!

Which brings me to 40 Nickels.

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

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

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

Dead Clown Blues
Buy Now!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lady Death and the Three Riders

When she saw the campfire, she knew it was them. The three riders. Men traveling side-by-side for seven days on horses plenty fed and watered, holding the reins with hands plenty drenched in gunpowder and death. Now they were down for the night, warming those filthy hands at the edge of the flames’ glow, cooking baked beans in a pot and roasting a black-tailed jackrabbit on a makeshift spit.

She sat in the dark, watching, waiting. Waking nightmares about all the bullet-ridden bodies kept her alert. Still, she must’ve dozed off for a few minutes because by the time she heard the footsteps the tall one was on top of her. He rolled her over, digging his knees into her thighs and pinning her arms to the ground. He had dark hair, several weeks’ worth of beard on his cheeks, teeth like rotten fence posts sunk into dead earth, sour breath and a nose bent clear over to the left, set where it lay after a bad break. She hoped it’d hurt.

“Well, well,” he said when she stopped struggling. “What have we here. Mangled as this sniffer of mine may be, it can still smell a stranger lurking in the shadows. And wouldn’t you know it: went for a midnight stroll and caught me another nice little rabbit.”

“Fuck you,” she said, spitting up at him.

He licked her spit from the corner of his lip. “Got a mouth, little rabbit, don’t ya? Well, maybe we should see what else that mouth can do.” Grinning, he pressed her harder into the ground.

Batting her eyelashes, she said, “Wait a minute, you ain’t one of them gunslingers I heard about, are you? Shot up that town a week back?”

He narrowed his eyes and brought his face closer to hers. “What if I am? What’s this little rabbit gonna say about it?”

“Been lookin’ for you, mister. You’re famous.”

“That right?” He looked around. “Only you doin’ the lookin’?”

“Only me.”

“Hmm. How’d you find us?”

“Mister, it’s in my blood, coming as I do from a long line of hunters, trackers and all-around keen-eyed, sharp-witted, stubborn sons-a-bitches.”

He thought about this for a moment. Then he said, “So what makes a pretty thing like you want to come out to this godforsaken place for the likes of me?”

“Why, this little rabbit only wanted to make your acquaintance and wrap its itty bitty legs around a man that knows when there’s killin’ to be done and doesn’t shy away from the deed.”

Confused, he eased up the pressure on her legs and she worked them out from under his knees and curled her legs around the small of his back. Then she ripped her shirt open and bared herself and his eyes went wide and dumb like he’d seen the Lord Above float down from the sky with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a bag full of gold coins in the other.

“Holy shit, yeah,” he said, sitting up to take his shirt off. When he did so, in that split-second when the blood-splattered garment was over his head, she swung the rock in her hand and aimed for the soft spot at the man’s temple. Say goodnight.

Later, when he regained his wits, she was lying on his back, stealing his warmth. For the night was cold.

“Rabbit, you fight dirty,” he said, groggy, words slurred, as lifted his head out of the sand.

“And you’re gullible,” she said.

“What did you do to me?”

“Well, I stripped you down and tied you up good with a length of rope all ‘round your ankles and arms. You can try and move if you want but I’m real good with rope. My daddy taught me.”

The man nodded. “And that?”

She put the blade of the knife flat to his cheek. “Won’t do nothin’ with this if you don’t make me.”

“So you’re gonna let me live?”

“Figure I’ll tie you to your stallion and whip him on the hindquarters and what hide of yours the sand doesn’t scrape away you might just be able to save if he gallops the right way. Pretty sure there’s a town not far from here. My daddy took me to it once. For a carnival. I saw a bearded lady and a feral boy raised by wolves. And I ate cotton candy until my stomach hurt.”

His voice went small and hard like a diamond. “What do you want to know?”

“I want to know why you murdered my daddy and the whole town and also everything about those other two men sitting by the fire over there.”

The man laughed and spit out desert sand from his mouth. “Girl, you don’t even know the half of it.”

“So tell me.”

“I could yell for help.”

“It’d be the last thing you did.”

“And if I–you’ll really let me go?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said as she flicked him across the nose with her thumb.

“Ouch, shit, okay. It was a job. Cash money on the barrelhead. ‘Wipe ‘em out,’ the man said. I told him there are a lot of ways to do that, but that one, he’s the serious kind, and he already had it all planned out. Told us exactly what to do.”

“Your one, he’s big and wears all black? Always polishing his boots? The right-hand of that railroad man?”

“That’s him.”

“But we were going to sign that paper.”

“Maybe the railroad man thought he shouldn’t pay so much for that signature and told his toady to take care of it. Maybe he didn’t want to pay anything to run his tracks through your town except what he paid us.”

“Everyone thought you were bringing the money. The whole town was there.”

“And so were you, weren’t you? Had to be, you know so much.”

“William and me, we were up in the alcove. It was the only place we could ever be alone. But by the time we remembered about the town meeting it was too late and people were coming in. So we stayed hid up there.”

“Ooh, I knew you were a naughty girl.”

She punched him in the ear. “Billy was a nice boy. We were just kissin’ is all. So, yes, we saw you murder all those people. Our kin and the others. Like lambs for the slaughter.”

“I guess Billy’s the one that charged us with that hunting knife, outside, as we were fixin’ to leave. Sorry he had to die like that. I told Earl not to leave the boy with his guts hangin’ out in the dirt but there’s just no reasoning with him most times.”

Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “I tried to stop Billy but I couldn’t. After you rode off and Billy was gone, I ran home to get my horse, my daddy’s guns and the six bullets I planned on killing you all with.”

“Six bullets, huh?”

“No more, no less. My daddy would’ve wanted it that way.”

“Well, you found us, girl. And no one deserves to die more than those two, I can tell you that. I do the jobs but they really enjoy them. But get this: that’s a man and wife warming themselves by that fire. Sure, she cuts her hair close to the scalp and swears like a man but she ain’t one. And don’t let her feminine disposition fool you. That one, she’s rotten to the core. Both of them are. And they rut like dogs in heat every time I go for a walk, so I bet they’re sleeping pretty deep by now. Shouldn’t be so hard to sneak up on ‘em. Not for a resourceful animal like you.” He turned his head to her, a knowing grin on his face. “Just don’t think you’ll be coming back from this.”

“Mister, I intend to return. Count on that.”

“But who will you be? This kind of thing will turn a heart black from the inside out.”

She stared at the light of the campfire in the near distance and let that sink in. Spun it around in her mind. Looked at it all from all the angles. Decided to ignore it. “You won’t yell if I get off you and go over to them?”

“Won’t hear a peep,” he said. “Quiet like a mouse.”

And he kept his word as she stood up and bent down over her pack, removing a mound of animal hide. Wrapped well, safe from the sand’s insatiable appetite, were her daddy’s six-shooters. Oiled and pure, the guns gleamed in the moonlight.

rdaniellesterR. Daniel Lester lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, aka Terminal City, the Big Smoke. He has thirteen years in the writing game with the battle scars and rejection letters to back it up. Most recently, his writing has been seen online in Shotgun Honey, Bareknuckles Pulp and The Flash Fiction Offensive. You can find more of his work, including ebooks for sale, here: http://rdaniellester.com

She went slow, took her time. Patience always being one of her virtues. She crept steady and with purpose. The tall man was right. The couple had recently lain with each other. She could smell it in the air and by the slack jaws on their faces and in the contented, heavy way they slept. So they didn’t stir at all as she stood over them, a six-shooter in each hand. She shot them both through the heart. They gasped. They gurgled. They died. Then she put a bullet in each eye for what they did and saw and how they grimaced in delight that day in the town hall, lips pulled back over their gums.

When she found the tall man again, in the meek light of sunrise, damned if he hadn’t managed to squirm his way a distance. “What,” she said, as she straddled his back again, “don’t you trust me?”

He lifted his head. He spit sand. He said, “Nothin’ personal now.”

“Speaking of personal, there’s one more thing I need to know. The name of the greedy traitor that barred the town hall doors from the outside.”

He grinned. “You are a smart one.” Then he told her the name and she knew it well and burned the face into her memory, along with that of the railroad magnate and his right-hand man. They were next. “But I heard six shots,” he said, “so now you got to let me go. Wouldn’t want to disappoint you’re daddy now, would ya?”

“No, I would not,” she whispered softly in his ear. Then she took the knife blade across his throat and pulled his head up and back to bring Lady Death closer to him.


Year of the Frog

Close the door behind me. Remove suit jacket. Loosen collar. Roll up shirt sleeves. Hands on the bathroom counter. Head down. Wipe sweat. Okay. Okay.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Rinse my hands in the sink. The water runs crimson then clear. My knuckles, his blood. Sounds echo in my ears. Thud of fists against flesh. Crack of breaking bones, arms and legs, like branches becoming kindling. His screams filled my ears until there was no space left and they spilled on the floor, pooling at my feet. Had to get away. Said I needed air. Let Chuck and Liam mop up.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

First, dry swallow a few pills. Always pills. For the panic and the pain. Headaches, knee aches, soul aches.

Second, remember what the doctor said: know you, your history.

Third, stare into a mirror and speak story.

Exist.

They call me The Frog. Always have, ever since a fat kid from Quebec laced up his skates in rural Saskatchewan. My great great grandfather on my dad’s side was Métis, born to a French fur trader and his Cree bride. Dad’s story was less history textbook, more shitheel. Determined to hit the west coast, he dumped his pregnant teenage girlfriend in Moose Jaw and drove away in a two-seater MG. Three’s a crowd. I was too young to remember but what you don’t know still hurts you.

Mom did her best but I was lost until I was found.

The ice rink is a temple: pray, young man, pray.

Hockey saved me. Every team was a puzzle and I was a piece. I fit in. Hockey provided purpose, a part to play. And the role of enforcer was built into my DNA. Nature grew me big. Weights grew me bigger. Practice taught the bulk what to do, how to move. Training camp perfected it. The season destroyed it. Off-season rebuilt it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Went from Juniors to Major Juniors to the AHL. Then, one day, got the call: The League, the NHL. Second week in, this young buck messed with me in practice. He had a lot to prove. I had more. We threw gloves. He was pretty, always styling his hair in the locker room. He wasn’t pretty when I was done. Broke his nose, jaw, cheekbone, left eye socket. Blood and teeth on the ice.

So, back to the AHL. Buses. Motels. Rinks. Stitches. Bandages. Surgery. A few years passed. Too much ice time. Too many grudges, fights, concussions. Bad mojo.

Retirement chose me. Life was drawn curtains and infomercials. TV dinners. Boredom. Silence. Depression. Pills for the panic and the pain. Six months in the phone rang and this time it wasn’t the creditors. Instead, a voice from the past, an introduction at a party. Once upon a time, once upon a city.

Come work for me, said the voice.

Doing what?

Like a brand manager. You know, you’re out there in the world making sure people respect the brand.

I mumbled a yes. Respect is everything.

A year ago that call saved me. Two more months of retirement and I would’ve ate the end of a shotgun for dinner. But it damned me too. Blood and teeth on concrete look different than on ice but the meaning is the same. Like this guy tonight, pissing himself, sweating bullets. He didn’t respect the brand so he’ll be in the hospital for months. Tube feeds. Bedpans. Casts. Rehab. Learn to walk, how to wipe his ass. I didn’t ask the boss why. I do what I’m told. The team is a puzzle. I am a piece. I fit in. There is a place for me.

Inhale. Exhale. Can’t.

Heart beating too fast. Walls closing in. Remember what the doctor said. Strategies. Mechanisms. Mantras. Okay. Okay. Fill sink with cold water. Plunge my face in. Scream. Nobody hears but me. Repeat. Repeat. Lift head out. Slick hair back. Dry face. Put jacket back on. The suit is custom, wrapping around me like a blanket. Smooth out wrinkles. Brush away warehouse dust. One last look in the mirror. Know you. Exist. I’m the Frog. I’m the Frog. Okay. Okay. Leave the bathroom. Close the door behind me.


22-Day Rabbit

In the parking lot, Stanton Ross stepped out of the Mercedes surrounded by 250-pound bookends. Goons. Hired muscle. Twenty-five inch biceps and IQs to match.

Bucky leaned back against his car. His 22-day rabbit was cooked. No more checking the rearview mirror every two minutes. No more dimly lit motel rooms and greasy take-out with the curtains drawn and only the ghosts he saw in wafts of cigarette smoke for company. He sniffed at the air. “I don’t know fellas,” he said. “Drakkar Noir is pretty 1990.”

The shorter goon to his left grunted. The tall one to his right glared little daggers into Bucky’s frontal lobe. Stanton Ross, a cigar jammed between stubby fingers, just stood there in the middle, looking smug and satisfied.

“Bucky, we finally tracked you down.”

“I guess you were looking under the wrong rocks.”

Stanton grinned and ate another inch of Cohiba. “Too bad your little investment deal went south.”

“Yeah, too bad,” Bucky said.

“Expensive mistake.”

“Is there any other kind?”

Stanton shrugged. “Boys,” he said.

The goons rushed like linebackers at the whistle. A fair game was too much to expect at this point. The goons were hard men with hard jaws and Bucky was raw meat from the start. He got a few good ones in but took more than he gave. Life was like that.

Stanton waited until Bucky was splayed out on the pavement like a wet dishcloth. He kneeled down and blew cigar smoke in Bucky’s face. Bucky coughed. Then Stanton took a picture with his iPhone. After that, he made a call.

“Hello, Mr. Ross,” said a voice on speakerphone.

“I’m here with Mr. Mills, Joey.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s looked better.”

Joey laughed.

“Tell us what you’re looking at.”

“I’m looking at a safe, Mr. Ross. A very expensive safe built into the floor of a bedroom closet.”

Stanton nudged Bucky. “Sound familiar? I know it does, so tell Joey the combination. Or this gets a lot more complicated. And painful.”

Bucky mumbled the combination.

“You get that, Joey?”

“Yeah, Mr. Ross. Trying it now.”

“And?”

“And it opened.”

“So what’s the score? Tell me everything you see.”

“Looks like about eight grand in cash. And a…oh…”

“What, Joey.”

“Nothing, Mr. Ross.”

“Joey…”

Joey coughed. “It’s a picture, Mr. Ross.”

“Jesus, kid, it’s like pullin’ teeth with you. A picture of what?”

“Well, it’s your wife, Mr. Ross.”

“Let me guess: she ain’t got no clothes on.”

“No, actually,” Joey said, sounding relieved. “She’s fully dressed. Sitting on the beach. At sunset.”

“A sunset, huh?” Stanton blew another puff of cigar smoke. “Okay, grab the photo and the cash and get out of there. Anything else you like, feel free. We’ll call it interest on Mr. Mills’s loan.”

Stanton ended the call and took a deep breath. Then he bent down again, leaning in close to Bucky so the goons couldn’t hear.

“I thought I had this one figured out,” Stanton said. “See, my wife sport fucks like most housewives binge on chocolate bonbons–can’t help herself. So we have an agreement: I let her do her thing and she lets me watch grainy sex footage shot in room 312 of the Bay Motel. We all have our twists, Bucky. I have mine. And we know you have yours.” Stanton placed his heel on top of Bucky’s hand. “But me, I’m the only one that gets to love her.”

Stanton ground his heel down.

Bone met concrete.

Bucky screamed and went to the beach the day he shot the photo. She looked good. They shared a bottle of red wine. But he never should’ve asked her there. And she never should’ve agreed.

*

When Stanton and his goons were gone, Bucky sat up against the wheel of his car. He inhaled fire into his punching bag gut. He exhaled through a broken nose. Four mangled fingers hung limply on his left hand. He dripped blood on the pockmarked concrete of the motel parking lot. He nudged a tooth with his shoe and smiled. The tooth wasn’t his.