Thursday, August 16, 2018

News You Can Use

Some minor changes and news at Tough.

  • We now require submissions in rich text format. This preserves formatting across multiple word-processing platforms and makes editing much easier. Thank you in advance.
  • We now require a Google account in order to leave comments. Anonymous comments should no longer be possible, but in any case will no longer be approved.

Our last story of the year will be published on 10/1/18. This preserves October and November for print anthology II out in time for prize anthology nomination season in December. If print anthology I has taught us anything, it's that we need more time for production. During October and November, Tough will run reviews and interviews and probably take a few Mondays off, too. We will resume regular online publication on 1/7/19. We remain open for submissions as normal throughout 2018 in the hopes we can work ahead a little more in 2019. Also on the horizon,Tough readings in Boston and possibly New York. Watch this space, and thank you for supporting us. Print anthology one coming very soon!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Once Upon A Time in Chicago, by Tia Ja'nae

A dead silence serenaded Carla’s nerves, under the streetlights.
  
That had never happened before during one of their backseat romps.  Arron laughed at her jumpiness, playfully teasing her insecurities to being afraid of the black snake between his legs that couldn’t wait to ravage her.
   
His mischievous smile gave her little comfort. 

Carla knew the dank Chicago streets well enough to instinctually sense danger lurking in the shadows.  The asphalt and grime were quiet enough to notice; her intuition wouldn’t let go the ominous warnings waiting to make their acquaintance without a proper invitation.  Ignoring her survival instincts, she compromised the gnawing feeling in her stomach to flee; instead she indulged Arron’s insatiable desires.

She knew better than to ignore the voices in her head, but it was a small price to pay for ensuring Arron would spring for the Coach purse she had her eye on at Marshall Fields.  Ordinarily, quick blow-jobs spread over a couple of weeks would be all the inspiration he needed for a shopping trip.  But Carla wanted it tomorrow, before any other boss bitch on the block could get their boosters to lift it for them when it debuted the next day.  

He had to pay to play; she’d have to indulge his fantasies to get him to ante up.

As Carla allowed him to twist her limbs into pretzel positions and hump away, she reveled in the satisfaction of earning the man despite the odds.  They’d grown up together, surviving a gang war that robbed them both of their siblings.  Hustling was second nature where they were from; the boxing career Arron stumbled upon was supposed to be his ticket out but he never made enough to keep him out of the street life.

Juggling the two kept her man in the spotlight, for better or worse.  Carla had no qualms about being his trophy piece, enjoying the spoils of his wars.  They both played their position well; marrying his high school sweetheart on her was a shock but not a big deal in her long-term plans.  His wife could keep the papers on him as long as she got all the extra cash and incentives of having the man.  

Arron aggressively took her, grunting in carnal pleasures as he punished every available hole at his mercy.  Silently, she took the punishment being at his complete disposal, knowing she had to do what the other women in his life would not.  Fabricated lust coming from her lips resided in the comforting thought of enjoying his paycheck while his wife was left behind to cope with their trough of kids.

With each rough stroke she imagined the travels he afforded her.  Arron flew her into every city he fought in, relishing their open secret within the confines of his coach and trainers on the road.  Only girlfriends were allowed in the gym during training, and Carla whispered all the things in his ear he might have wanted to hear as his personal cheerleader.  Their understanding became a thing that went beyond even their comprehension, and she went along eager for the ride.

Thinking about the pill breaking on her last month threw her concentration off.  

Arron was thrilled like a kid in a candy store at the news of having a baby.  Carla didn’t want the crumb-snatcher cramping her style, but Arron could afford to make the experience lucrative.  The thought of permanent paychecks covering child support and living expenses for the next twenty years helped her regain the swing in her hips he barely noticed had left.

Carla took a breath when Arron’s body finally shook on top of hers and collapsed in defeat.  Try as she might to get him up off of her, Arron took his time getting out of her honey-pot.  He wriggled in subjugated bliss against her while she adjusted to the creeping feeling in her gut she had before lust sidetracked her.  She felt vulnerable in the chaos of his playfulness, and her attention focused to the nickel-plated pistol tucked between the seat.

Streets were talking.  Rumor mills gossiped about Arron’s vices.  Everybody on the block knew cats were looking for him over unpaid debts.  Gambling with high rollers in back alley establishments had caught up to him.  The arrogance flaunting his purse money around in the faces of people that could barely hold water to snitch on his good fortune was careless to her.  The stone cold killers around the way were nothing to take lightly.  

Playing the tough guy role, Arron laughed in the face of danger like the king of cool.  Carla fed into his ego, telling him he was invincible even though she could see the hint of worry in his eyes he refused to admit to.  Nor did she want him to; they would both have targets on their backs if he showed any weakness like that in the street.  For both their sakes she fed into the lie to get her through the insecure seconds.

Much to Carla’s relief, Arron got it together before the relaxation he felt from his release left him succumbing to a cat-nap.  She hated being in the open with eyes watching in normal circumstances for this very reason, but Arron didn’t believe in paying for motels.  Backseats or the bathroom at hole-in-the-wall they frequently partied in were their only two options for their encounters, and neither afforded her the privacy she liked.

Her worrying eased as he hurried to get dressed and back to their reality.  They were behind schedule consummating their sin; his wife would be on the prowl for his whereabouts if he ran late far beyond a reasonable hour after the gym closed.  Arron was in good spirits.  He joked about baby names; Carla dropped hints on the colors for the purse.  Like he always did after he got a piece he put some bread in her hand. 

She counted it as he grinned; everything was everything.

Neither of them saw the old school roller with no lights on creeping up the block.  Or the staccato fire bursts coming from its shadowed interior once it symmetrically aligned next to theirs.  Carla heard sporadic shots shattering their windows before the pain registered she’d been hit.  Joints between her shoulder blade ached something terrible within the seconds the roller screeched down the block and out of her focal point.  But she was alive.

It never dawned on her, calling out to Arron, that he wouldn’t be.

She spoke his name softly; he didn’t respond, slumped over the steering wheel.  Panic set in her spirit; ferociously, she shook him thinking he’d fainted.  Sticky, wet liquids gushing from his wounds coated her hands like honey, dripping from her fingertips.  A mass of splintered muscle, bone fragments, and clotting blood bubbled from the remnants of his face and neck.  Carla checked his heartbeat; a shallow thump abruptly ceased.

Just like that, Carla knew Arron was gone.

For a brief moment she was paralyzed in shock at his passing; she’d seen dead bodies before in worse shape than his, just not as intimately.  Deep breaths did little to calm her adrenaline but did control the hyperventilating.  Nervously grabbing her phone, her first mind led her to call for help as if he could be saved.  However, the consequences of being found in his company as a witness to murder in his wife’s car kept her from connecting the call.  

Instead, she called Merc, a trained field medic in Vietnam known for patching up the gunshot victims around the way who didn’t have the luxury of hospital visits.  He was quick and didn’t ask any questions but was expensive and sewed up wounds without the benefit of anesthesia.  Carla knew her pain tolerance was low, but a bottle of vodka and a blunt would be all she needed to cope with the pain when he stitched her up in the kitchen.

And it would cost Arron dearly as a parting gift for leaving her behind.

Carla picked through Arron’s pockets like a common criminal, retrieving whatever remaining cash he had on him.  The two grand she retrieved plus what he had already given her would be enough for her to make major moves later.  Sirens began echoing from a couple blocks away, and Carla ditched her dead lover before she could be identified at the scene of the crime.  Keeping off the sidewalks she detoured down uninviting alleys, forging through what lay ahead.

Calmly, she told herself she’d be cool; the unfortunate hard luck was just a temporary setback.  All she needed to do was fight the feeling of passing out from blood loss and get home.  Everything would be right as rain once she got the bullet out of her shoulder and figured out what her next move should be.  Calls would have to be made to make sure she wasn’t on anyone’s list; once she was in the clear she could resume her hustle anew.  The cash would last long enough to get a come up with heavy pockets.  But first she had to make it to the sunrise.  

And if she hurried in the morning, she could make it to Marshall Fields and get her purse with enough time and cash left over for an abortion. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Masonry, by Rob McClure Smith

The late afternoon sky was that blue  called sky-blue. A sky so clear and true you could  put your fist through it. A plane cut a diagonal swath across it. Cowan wanted to be up there, oblivious to harm.

It was 2.30.

Near the turnstiles at King Street slouched a young man. His hair cut in a fade and topped with a purple do-rag knotted in front, wide-legged Rocawears bunched on a pair of reverse-laced red K-Swiss. He had the look, right down to the old RG3 sweatshirt over  a snow-white tee, and he was trying way too hard not to check out the arrivals. A blue knapsack nestled between his feet. It was the knapsack was off.

Cowan took the other exit. He crossed by the Amtrak depot and climbed Shooter's Hill to the Masonic Memorial. Crossing Callahan, he looked back to see a blue bag slung over a shoulder and a phone clamped to an ear.

The Memorial was fashioned after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But no Egyptian would have concocted nine floors of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian into this stone tier cake monstrosity. The information board was a dark solemn black. Open daily. No dogs. No filming. Proper attire required. This fucking donkey jacket would be the death of him. On top of the board a golden crest, sun at the top, moon at the bottom, columns at upper left and right surmounted with globes, sheaves of wheat, tools and pomegranates. In the center a "G" surrounded by a square and a compass and '1910.'  In crimson three stars and two horizontal stripes. In Memoriam Perpetuam.

He chose the curving path on the left, scaling another step tier, then another. Up and up. The embankments framing the steps stippled brown. Landscaping minimal, sparse bushes ranged symmetrically. No cover, a blank and deserted place. One tier from the top, a glass case with reproduction of Brady's 1864 panoramic view. The city of Robert E. Lee was gray and smoky, a military tent village erected where the train station now was, a row of arches, like on a rich man'ss croquet lawn. Cowan read about the Ellsworth Avengers on a sepia daguerreotype, located landmarks then and now, contemplated the hidden meanings of architecture. Sloping downhill, another stone G in the square and compass. To his right the young man from the Metro. He had followed him and it wasn't for his autograph.

"Aight." The kid tapped a finger on his do-rag, blue-black tat of a spider-web like a bruise on the side of his neck.

They stared at a distant horizon, low rooftops, distant snaking blue, a far away Ferris wheel, unturned. A flag flapped on a flagpole causing it to creak. Cowan saw the butt of a pistol protruding from the waistband of the kid's boxers. He was supposed to.

"What you suppose the big G stands for?" he asked.

The kid stared at Cowan like his question was mined.

"Big G on the stone there?"

"George."

"You think?"

"Uh-huh. George Washington, man, founding father freed the slaves and shit."

"Not God?"

The kid considered this. "Nah."

"Geometry then?"

"Don't give a shit, cuz. Whatev."

"You should," Cowan said, angrily. "Big difference between God and George.  God doesn't have a name, so the theologians say. But if he did it wouldn't be George.  Who'd take a God called George seriously?  'Come out the burning bush, George, you're scaring the kids!' George doesn't have the right ring to it. Doesn't that bother you any?"

The kid gave Cowan the heavy-lidded look he likely reserved for homeless D.C. crazies. "I ain't got to bother about nuthin' but be black and die, slim."

"What you think his name would be then?"

"God."

"Besides that."

"Fuck is with you man?"

"Seriously.  If God had a name what'd it be?"

"Sumthin like. . . " The kid pondered his knuckles. "Fuck I know."

"You're not even trying." The silence lasted about seven years.

"Sumthin like Mahabone maybe," the kid spat, finally.

"What?"

"Mahabone. I made it up. Got some serious ji voodoo vibe to it. See, I was God I'd want a serious motherfuckin name scare the shit out folks got me bent." He tilted his chin at the declining sun, content. "Mahabone, hell. I'm a liking that. They be shittin' their pants old Mahabone come round."

"You got a name?"

"You hear me ask yours?" He held Cowan's gaze. Finally, "Yeah. I got a name."

"That's good," Cowan said. "A name's useful. That's how come my cat is called Susan."

The kid unzipped the knapsack. Cowan watched. Instead was extracted a two-thirds full 40-ounce of Country Club. A cap unscrewed. Amber fluid sloshed.

"I see you brought your own urine sample."

"You ever shut the fuck up, man?  I'm here appreciatin’the nature and shit."

The kid took a deep swig of the malt and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He had to hold the bottle with both hands to tip it, like he was playing a brass instrument.

"Did you know beer is made from barley?" Cowan asked. "That gut rot is derived from corn."

The kid screwed the cap back on and adjusted the bottle on the parapet. "Do I look like I give a fuck?"

"That's the only Country Club you'll ever see the inside of." Cowan gestured at the Memorial. "Ever gone inside?"

"I ain't ever been in that joint." The kid grimaced. "Fuck is these creepy pillars and shit?"

A couple, in prosperous middle age, climbed the steps. The kid observed their approach, eyes flitting, evaluating terrain. They passed, on to the entrance, where they paused in an attitude of worship.

"I do like them boxers," Cowan said. "Very pretty. I knew a girl had panties the exact same shade of blue and red and white. I think her name was Wonder Woman. Is that the new concealed-carry underwear I've read about? What you plan to do with the gun? Shoot your balls off?"

The kid tilted his chin at him. "Kill your ass. Do the world a favor."

"Not here though." Cowan said. "All these sightseers. Look, here's Tiger Woods."
Prince Hall came down the steps backward, snapping a photograph on his phone.  He wore a green jacket.

"Tourists don't give no shit. You know how they do. They from Minnesota and such." The young man waxed philosophical. "See no evil, know what I'm sayin'?"

"You all getting acquainted?" Hall joined them. He wore a pair of too-large Locs sunglasses, a Redskins snapback high on his brow. "What's good cuz?" He offered his fist to the kid for a pound and they performed an elaborate ritual handshake.

"Man, I'mma keep it a hunnit, don't like this shit. Naw. Way in the open, know what I'm sayin'? Like the Kennedy Center. Should be in the cut for a deal like this."

"What you got there?" said Hall, gesturing at the bottle. "You can't be doing that here. What the matter with you, Jalil? Get a grip."

"Listen to this motherfucker talk for five and you be drinkin too."
Prince walked behind Cowan to fingerwalk his jacket pockets, hunkering to track with his palms the inside seam of his jeans, socks. He removed his wallet.

"I appreciate you hooking up with us, Mr. Cowan."

"If you're feeling frisky shouldn't you ask me out for a drink first?"
Prince palmed his chest pocket for a cigarette. "Smoke?"

"I'm looking after my health." Cowan grinned. "I'm figuring to live a long time."

Hall laughed, tossing the wallet to Jalil who rifled it.

"Next you'll be asking if I want a blindfold."

Hall lit with the flick of a Bic, inhaled deeply.  "I'm not with you."

"Before the execution. Like the last cigarette."

Hall blew a streamer of smoke. "That's a morbid thought. I'm going to finish this jack," he said. "Then we're going to stroll back around there admire the fine architecture."

"I'm not going anywhere," Cowan said, reasonably. "Sorry. I like it here. I can appreciate the nature and shit, that right?"

Jalil sniffed. "I think we got a crazy. Talkin' to me about the name of God and some shit." He finished with the wallet, finding nothing of interest, stuffing two twenty dollar bills in his pocket. "We bout done here?"

"This one says the G in the block there is for George," Cowan said. "I say God. Want to be the casting vote, Prince?" Cowan blinked a few times at him. "Prince. What a silly name."

"Giblum." Hall examined the tip of his cigarette like it was a Rorschach, flicked dead ash. "It means stone squarer."

"I'm surprised."

"You get a free education when you serve. You be all you can be, no one tell you that?" He looked in Cowan's eyes. "You'd have been better never come to this city."

The tourists returned and the men exchanged a glance. Hall made a delicate gesture with his hands, an oblique sign.

Cowan looked at the sprawl of city. "You get a good view up here. Where was it you served? Afghanistan? Iraq?"

"You don't want to know where I've been or the things I done."

"Prince," said Cowan, thoughtfully. "Say, you weren't named after the midget in the purple suit? The one sang Darling Nikki?"

Hall narrowed his eyes slightly. "Great song that," was all he said.

The tourists stopped by the emblem. Hall drummed his fingers on the railing.

The sun hung lower in the sky, an invitation to night. They moved away.

"I'm not coming with you," Cowan said, quietly.

"I think it's in your best interest."

"I'm finished either way." Cowan shrugged. "I'm just not up for making it convenient. You'll have to do for me here, like this."

Hall flinched. "It's a hard world. You know that."

Cowan needed to think carefully and act quickly. For now, jabbering like an idiot would have to do.

"Must be hard for you being a professional and here you have to work with amateurs like Lil' Wayne here."

Hall ashed his cigarette on the railing and a slow rain of orange flecks descended.  "You have to use what's at hand when you're building," he said, turning a complete 360, seeing no one for miles. "Different tools for different purposes." He flicked his butt on the grass, reached into his jacket pocket, made more significant eye contact with Jalil.

They wouldn't shoot him. They had something else in mind. Something quieter.

"What about this tool?" Cowan asked, edging closer to Jalil.  "When this is done, you going to do for him too?"

"What the fuck this crazy rambling ‘bout?" Jalil asked.

"Forget to tell you about that?" Cowan tut-tutted. "You didn't tell him how royalty cleans up after itself. That's a sin of omission."

"I hate to be rude, but you're starting to bore me."  Hall nodded at Jamil, who didn't move. Just stared blankly.

Cowan toe-shuffled closer, within arm's length of the bottle now.

"You need to kill here, cuz," Prince said, discomfited. "This one just trying to syce the situation."

"I been thinking about how that shit went down my own self."

"We talk about this later, aight?"

"Hold up, but way Carlton was buggin’. . ."

Jalil didn't finish because Cowan scooped up the liquor bottle with both hands and brought it down hard as he could on the purple do-rag. There was a dull hollow glassy thud and the cap popped. Blood and liquor sprayed on the stonework. Jalil staggered sideways like a stunned cow and Cowan smacked him on the cheekbone with the bottle so hard it shattered. He was left holding the wide jagged neck. Jalil's knees buckled and his eyes rolled back white, like a man far gone in drink. He toppled onto the embankment, thrashing, his legs kicking as though pedaling an invisible bicycle.

The gun spun between the railings and onto the emblem, clattering on the stone.  Cowan was trying to gauge where it went when Prince's body flew into his, a linebacker's hit. The momentum sent them off the parapet and onto the carved square. It was a four foot drop, but they landed hard and awkward on the stone G. Cowan's back spat rapid sparks of pain. Only a tsunami of adrenalin and terror got him upright.

Hall was hurt too, his right shoulder dislocated. His arm hung limp by his side and he had the look of a man who had failed to accomplish a basic task, targeting fury like a laser at his own ineptitude. He eyed Cowan through a mist of hurt and rage.

Cowan scrambled across the stone searching for the missing gun.

With the subtlest flick of his wrist a small ivory knife appeared between Hall's fingers. Cowan backed up across the G as Hall  advanced, dabbing the knife at his chest.  He felt the indent of the stone letter under his feet. The man was trained to kill hand-to-hand. But he was injured, switching the blade to his left hand. His semi-crippled status evened things up. The third time Hall thrust, wincing as he did so, Cowan skewered his wrist with the bottleneck.

"I'm going to kill you," Hall bared his teeth. He looked at the glass embedded in his wrist, blood spurting around it. He took a step, his face crumpled with pain. "I'm going to kill your ass. Kill your ass," he chanted. But the knife hung limp.

They circled one another on the emblem,in the attitude of dancers. Hall on the compass:  Cowan on the square. He expected to be numbed by panic, but this close to death he felt untroubled. How few thousand years ago it was other dancers had stood here, plodding slowly in a darkness of fetid caves, befouling themselves in ceremonies of fear with gestures bloody and offerings bloody given up with knives bloody to some impassive stone idols.He tasted swamp history in his mouth and scented in the wind an ancient, reeking odor and wanted very much to live and was no longer afraid.

When Hall made another lunge, Cowan  tugged on the elastic in his sleeve and the plywood with the razor blade embedded in it snapped into his fingers. He jinked and stroked the blade across the exposed cheek. It slit Hall temple to chin. The skin tore like paper. Hall gave a cry and fell to one knee. Cowan kicked him in the jaw.

The spurting made a red tributary across the indentation of the square and compass. Cowan crept to where Hall lay splayed on the stone. He wasn't moving.

"Prince,"he said, holding the razor's edge in front of him.

More red pooled now and the handle protruding from Hall's neck quivered each time a jet squirted under it.

"Isn't nobody killed me yet,"Cowan whispered.

The slab was veined with blood.



Cowan found the gun in a bush. He knew fuck-all about guns. He didn't even know how to take the safety off.

Jalil sat up, feeling at his face with his hands. One cheek was badly swollen and an eye closing fast. Cowan jammed the gun in his ear. "I told you drinking was bad for you," he said.

"What the fuck you do?" moaned Jalil, blood seeping between his fingers.

"You've heard the expression 'hitting the bottle'? This time the bottle hit you. I think you might be concussed. That'd be hard to tell with you, son.” Cowan tracked the cut on the kid's head with his palm. “You're going to need a doctor but--"

"I don't believe in them," Jalil groaned. "Fucks stick you with needles and shit."

"You need stitches. It won't hurt."

"'It won't hurt' always does," Jalil said, despondent.

Cowan hauled him to his feet and, shoving the gun in his back, forced him to look at the body on the emblem, arms forming a 90 degree angle, like a final signal of distress.

"Head hurts like a motherfucker," Jalil observed.

"That could be you," Cowan said. "Lying there. Just saying."

"Could be. But ain't." Jalil shrugged. "I didn't like him anyways. He had a bad attitude."

The blood made the stone slippery. Cowan had never once considered the slipperiness of blood. 

"Take off your jacket," he ordered.

"Nah."

"Give us the fucking jacket."

Jalil handed it to him. Cowan took off his own. "Here," he said, handing it over. "Wipe that stone off with this."

"You serious?"

"Do I look serious?"

"I dunno what you look like."

Jalil scrubbed. The declining sun freakishly seemed to dart its rays to the center.  Both of them looked up, disturbed. Then returned to the task at hand.

"Move the body off first," Cowan said. "And be careful you don't slip and fall.  That would be embarrassing." He pulled on the sweatshirt. "It's important not to embarrass yourself." He flipped the hood and sat hunched like a monk with the gun still leveled at Jalil. The hoodie made him self-conscious. His back hurt and his legs were shaking again. He wondered if he was going into shock. "Now how's about you drag it under that bush, see it?"

"You goin to shoot me or what?"

"Depends."

Jalil kicked the body into concealment, wiped his hands clean on the grass.

"You know how to make this all go away?" Cowan asked.

"How you mean?"

"I mean can you make a call to your people and make this go away? Like it never happened. You connected? Or is that what Prince did before he abdicated?"

"Maybe."

"Do it. Then go get some stitches."

"I think I got a number some place. You not goin’to shoot me?"

"I want to, but I need the bullets where I'm going."

"The safety is on."

"Yeah, I figured."

"Can't shoot nobody with the safety on. You retarded?"

"You going to make that call or not?"

"What I say?"

"Tell them you fucked up. Tell them the guy you meant to waste got away. Say he ran towards the Metro. Tell them you need a body disposed of."

Jalil's eyes never left the gun as he spoke. Cowan took his phone and threw it against the stone.

"The fuck?"

"The cell phone is destroying the art of conversation."

"That a new iPhone!"

Cowan took off the safety. "Go find my wallet."

Jalil came back with it. "You take bad photos, man. They do the license over you ask. Don't nobody have to go through life looking that ugly-ass."

"Keep the 40 and put it toward a new coat." Cowan stuffed the wallet in his pocket. "Then get yourself a new line of work. You're not cut out for this. Be an exotic male dancer or a postman or something."

"You not goin to shoot me?"

"You keep bringing it up I'm liable to."

Cowan lowered the gun and took off down the steps.

"You really goin to the Metro?" Jalil called after him.

Cowan turned and aimed the gun. "It matter?"

"I ain't say shit."  Jalil's lip was in a full pout. "You sure you need to be keeping that jacket?"

"Uh-huh."

He walked along King, glancing nervously at traffic headed east. The street whirled like the blades of a fan. He went into the Austin Grill, famished. Maybe that's what killing someone did. Gave you an appetite. He asked to be sat at a window table, one overlooking the main drag.

4:03, night fast falling, headlights on. He settled back, looked at the rack of glasses by the bar, the longhorns above the kitchen, the array of weird masks on the brick walls. Even that scary-ass Frida Kahlo looked seductive tonight.

The waitress was checking him out. She was young, a leggy sloe-eyed blonde in too-tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. He didn't attract that kind of attention from this young a woman anymore. In his early thirties, a cloak of invisibility had descended on him. Perhaps he had the look of a stone-cold killer tonight:  maybe the danger he exuded made him more attractive. Something evolutionary.

She returned with his Pepsi, big-eyeing him. She was staring so blatantly that he felt obligated to stare back. She was pretty as all get-out. When she brought his order, she put on the tray a glass of water without ice and a pile of napkins. She leaned her breasts across him and he deep-whiffed her perfume as she whispered in his ear. "Sir, there's blood. It's on your face." He looked at her. "It's, like, all over your cheeks."

He dipped the napkin and wiped the blood away. There was a lot of it, and it wasn't even his. He depleted the pile.

"I think I must have cut myself," he said.

Her look of concern was tinctured, Cowan realized, with horror.

"There's blood on your hands too," she said.

There was.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Texas Two-Step by Michael Pool, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Texas Two-Step
Michael Pool
Down and Out Books
April 2018
280 pages
$7.99/$16.95

Reviewed with a pre-release eARC provided by the publisher

Texas Two-Step, the debut novel from Texas native Michael Pool, is a slow-burn heady bong hit of a novel that builds on the initial promise of Pool’s first novella, Debt Crusher, but uses its expanded length to find its own odd tune. As rich with characterization as it is with drugs and violence, it could be tempting to compare Pool to Texas crime writing legend Joe Lansdale, whose east-Texas-set capers also involve larger-than-life characters working through their various deadly plots and plans, but Pool’s tone and tune are different from our traditional understanding of Texas-set crime fiction, and Texas Two-Step will ultimately be embraced by readers who find themselves willing to step in line with the book’s unique music.

The story revolves around a last-minute deal set up by two small-time marijuana growers from Denver, Cooper and Davis. These dealers, who came up in the weed game by growing their own crop and selling it in parking lots outside jam- band shows across the country, are expert cultivators, but the definition of amateurish criminals, and while that in some ways provides them an advantage--their method for transporting the weed from Colorado to Texas is ingenious, and an example of the kind of creative problem- solving more crime writers should include in their work--they’re also in way over their heads, and their amateurishness causes them to miss every chance to identify the shit they’re swimming in until it’s too late (and there are several). This becomes especially clear when their Texas-based broker, a coked-out party boy from Austin named Sancho, is introduced, and turns out to be even sloppier than Cooper and Davis feared.  Throw in a Johnny Manziel-style professional football burnout named Bobby Burnell, a Texas Ranger, Kirkpatrick, working a borderline unethical case he really doesn't want to be associated with at the insistent prodding of a state senator, a corrupt county sheriff, and Bobby’s uncle Troy, a hormone-infused MMA meathead with absolutely no compunction about killing, and you have all the ingredients for a violent, double-crossing ride through the piney woods of East Texas, even before Cooper’s personal stake in this one last job is raised considerably by the news that he’s about to be a father.

It would be normal, I think, for someone to read the above description and imagine a novel in which the stakes are continually raised, in which characters are betrayed not just once, but several times throughout the course of the novel, but Texas Two-Step’s unique tune becomes apparent in the way it pulls these characters together then pulls them apart again, hinting at what is to come but consistently slowing things down once the inevitable appears just over the horizon. There’s a conscious delay in the novel that begins to evidence itself starting even in the first third of the book, and while I think some readers will see the delay as too long or too protracted (there’s a part of the book where, in the course of four chapters, there are three separate scenes of characters playing pool), it’s undeniable that this continual delay is something that Pool is doing on purpose, structuring Texas Two-Step not as a traditional crime thriller, but instead like a song from one of the jam bands Cooper and Davis are always name-dropping, laying the groundwork and letting the middle parts play out before a big finish. Whether or not that works for some readers may very well depend on their familiarity with jam bands and their willingness to indulge texture and character over straight-ahead plot, but by the start of the last third of the novel, after another delay, it’s become obvious that Pool  is more interested in exploring the areas between crime fiction and the drug-addled anti-narrative of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than anything more straightforward or conventional.

Speaking of one of the great American drug books, another area exhibiting Texas Two-Step’s unique tone is in its depiction of drugs and drug users, particularly the slang used to capture the ins and outs of the most dedicated marijuananauts: Too many novels toss off slang or suggest methods of ingestion that are clearly more influenced by television than any particular kind of experience, but Pool has filled his novel with the kinds of details that only come through lived immersion or heavy research, and the novel is better for it, especially as the drug use and the accompanying mental toll that use creates crescendoes at the climax of the novel. The prose around the characters and their smoky interactions are a little less colorful, however, with most of the book presented in a workmanlike simplicity that goes out of its way to remain unobtrusive, instead focused on clarity of action and character.
Kirkpatrick crossed the street and went into the bar. The place was dark inside, with original brick walls down one side and stained concrete floors. A long wooden bar ran across the left side of the place, then beyond that a hallway to the bathrooms, and across from the bar a door out onto the porch, which occupied a space between buildings that had to have been a building itself at one time or another. 
The above is from a section in the middle third of the book. The writing is fine, perfectly clear and readable, but it is odd that, in such a musical novel, the prose doesn’t quite sing. In the scene above, where a cop is tailing a group of suspects into a darkened bar, the language used doesn’t work to add any additional tension or ambiance to the scene. For some readers, this won’t be a big deal, but Pool is clearly a talented enough writer that, while I appreciated the clarity, I missed what he could have done to wring more tension out of the novel, especially as its elongated delay pulled these characters closer and closer together.

If there are disappointing elements to Texas Two-Step, they’re only evident because so much else is done so well. Throughout, the main characters, Cooper, Kirkpatrick, and Burnell show unique, oddly-faceted sides to themselves that make them seem like real people, but in every instance they’re paired up with other characters whose flatness is especially obvious when compared to the roundness of the leads. Most of the time a supporting character like Davis wouldn’t be a disappointment --ultimately, he does what he needs to do --but compared to how fleshed out Cooper is, Davis is barely able to hold his presence on the page.  Most of that can probably be attributed to the third-person-limited structure of the chapters, but there are other characters like Troy who rise above that limitation without issue. Also somewhat disappointing is a particular plot thread involving the corrupt sheriff that  ends without resolution; once someone that ruthless is introduced, we expect them to either be brought low or, in a noir, grimly triumph. In Texas Two-Step, neither really happens, which mars an otherwise damned solid ending.

One of the biggest themes in Texas Two-Step is how terrifying it can be to go straight, to give up the road life and the smoke in your eyes in favor of something more conventional. Ultimately, it’s not just a theme, but the basis for the whole plot; Cooper has lived his own odd life, and while it doesn’t seem like a life many of us would be particularly interested in living, Cooper doesn’t think he can settle down with something more ordinary. There’s a lot of honesty in that, and an acknowledgement that staying true to yourself requires a willingness to risk it all.

Texas Two-Step grows out of that exact sentiment. It’s unique and unwavering in its commitment to being different. To offering something unique. Texas Two-Step is not a book you’ve seen before. It’s a book that doesn’t care about crime fiction convention, but instead wants to get stoned and dance in the parking lot. It’s not a book trying too hard to give you a downer ending or thrill you with ultraviolence, it’s a book made up of those moments in long songs when you feel like the ending is just around the corner and god damn is it going to feel good when it gets there. It’s not a book interested in the philosophies of criminals or the thin line between cops and robbers, it’s a book that’s asking if you want a puff, and if not, no big deal, but it’d be a lot more fun if you came along for the ride.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Boise Longpig Hunting Club by Nick Kolakowski reviewed by E.F. Sweetman


Boise Longpig Hunting Club
Nick Kolakowski
Down & Out Books
ISBN-10: 1948235137
ISBN-13: 978-1948235136
320 pages
August 2018
$3.99/$14.95

In his May 2017 interview with Writer's Bone, Nick Kolakowski states, “I feel that crime fiction is a real exploration of the human animal. . . you want a peek at the beast that lives within us, crack open a crime novel.”

Kolakowski gets right down to that brutal beast within us in Boise Longpig Hunting Club. This relentless, fast-paced novel expands his sharp and gritty short story that first appeared in Thuglit Issue 21 titled “A Nice Pair of Guns.”

Rough guy and Iraq War Vet Jake Halligan is an Idaho bounty hunter who encounters every breed of low-life on a daily basis. He is a straightforward man with simple desires: work hard and enjoy life in rural southern Idaho, his space apart from the rest of the human race. He likes to spend time fishing after a rough week of rounding up criminal degenerates, bail-jumpers, and wacked-out drug addicts, and he is not averse to ending his day with few beers while he appreciates “the moments of order and justice that life can bring with hard work.”

But Jake’s life is anything but simple. He is a bounty hunter, and disliked by both the bail jumpers he chases, and the local cops. He is working hard on a second attempt at marriage with his ex-wife Janine, a worthy endeavor, but fraught with obstacles. And then there is his little sister Frankie, an illegal arms dealer, and a bad-ass crime queen who likes to solve problems with heavy artillery and explosions.

On a larger scale, Jake witnesses the vanishing and reshaping of the beautiful rugged southern Idaho countryside under an invasion of rich Californian and Texans, “potato kings, microchip executives, fast-food chain owners famous for tits labor laws violations, and other captains of industry, grabbing up the open land.” Giant McMansions and ugly malls with chain stores and Olive Gardens sprout upon formerly rugged, remote countryside. Kolakowski provides a brief but insightful passage of Jake and Janine are reluctantly about to meet their rich new neighbors.

We pulled into the long driveway of a two story McMansion with a commanding view of the river, its windows ablaze with light. These houses had sprung up across southern Idaho in recent years, bought by rich Californians or Texans in the market for a second or third home. They might have enjoyed the state’s low taxes and stunning landscape, but I often wondered what they thought about living next door to folks who barely scraped by?


The action intensifies when a body shows up in Jake’s gun safe. Jake can’t figure out if it is a warning, because the list of people who might want to send him a message is long: street level thugs, meth-heads, Aryan Nation, even local law enforcement. They all carry some level of grudge against him or his family. The mystery of who is behind the killings deepens until Jake, Janine and Frankie finds themselves in a survival death-match reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game.

Kolakowski writes in an unswerving and straightforward style reminiscent of old school crime writers Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain with this fast-paced, dark storyline and sharp dialogue. His dry humor shines in brief descriptions such as “a guy so muscular that. . . he looked like a half pound of rocks squeezed into a condom.” Despite the complex themes that mirror the difficulties prodding America today, Kolakowski is neither preachy nor heavy handed. He skillfully tackles the vast divide between those who have, and those who have-not, then dives deep into what could happen when money is plentiful, and the value of life is nonexistent. The bad guys may not look like bad guys at first “they look like a bunch of fat white men, but trust me when I tell you they can fuck up your shit better than anyone, because they can do it in broad daylight without worrying about any consequences.”

Jake and Frankie Halligan are the antidote to entitlement. Their banter is sharp, quick and funny, particularly during the moments of intense action where Frankie reminds Jake, “Our family, we don’t fold under pressure, we die with our teeth in our last enemy’s throat.” Which is not meant to imply that they are as cold-hearted and ruthless as their enemies. To the contrary, when Jake overhears a conversation by his captors, he responds in a real and gut-wrenching way.

Over the roaring river I caught the words “welfare” and “deadbeat,” followed by “drinking problem.” When he turned and pointed in my direction, and the men around him laughed, I knew he was talking about me. “I got a job,” I muttered. “I’m not a deadbeat.” A small, wounded part of me needed to voice that. Out of all the things that had happened to me over the past day or so—wounded, kidnapped, placed at the center of this sick little game—somehow this hurt the worst. I had done my best to make something of myself in this world, whatever my mistakes.


Boise Longpig Hunting Club combines the best of both crime and thriller. The body count goes high, and the gun count goes even higher. It is filled with chaos, suffering, and memorable characters with awesome names like Zombie Bill, Monkey Man, the Viking, Fred the Nazi Marlboro Man. It is a fast-paced story that gets right to the point and holds the reader captive until its explosive finish.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Long Drive Home, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Shayne made him pick up the tab at the diner they stopped at south of Charlotte, which was when Marty finally realized how much trouble he was in. Normally, Shayne fronted everything with a roll of cash as thick as the business end of a baseball bat, handing it to Marty with a wink right before Marty headed out, which was Shayne’s way of letting him know he had him covered, but also that he was good at counting bills. Marty always nodded and said thanks and made a production of pocketing the money with the care of someone in an old war movie receiving orders before heading across enemy lines. Because Shayne had it figured down to the dime—besides the cost of the product, how much Marty and them would need for gas, food and tolls from Columbus to West Palm Beach and back, plus two nights in the Oceanside at $49.99 a night, including cable. Forget about a hotel on the road. That wasn’t happening. There were three of them. They could just switch drivers.

Only not this time. This trip it was just Shayne and Marty. Marty didn’t know a thing about it until he showed up that night, sitting in the parking lot outside Shayne’s apartment, engine running, staying inside the van to keep warm because at thirty degrees the temperature was below normal for November. He didn’t want to make the trip—he never really wanted to go—but at least it would be warmer down south. He worried about his sister when he was away. Her and the twins. He worried about them all the time, to be truthful. But especially when he was gone.

“Let’s do this,” Shayne said, climbing into the van, Mountain Dew in hand. He tossed a backpack in the rear.

“Where’s Frankie? And Mike?”

“They’re not coming.”

“They’re not?”

“What I said. Just you and me, partner.”

“Why aren’t they coming?”

“I told ‘em not to.”

“Why?”

“Figured just you and me this time. Road trip buddies. Plus I need a vacation. Get some Florida titty for a change. Pinch me some southern fruit.” He opened and closed his thumbs and pointer fingers like crab claws. “This Ohio titty’s starting to suck. Ha—you get that?”

“But Frankie and Mike always—”

“Frankie and Mike always come because I tell ‘em to. This time I’m telling ‘em not to. Simple as that. Let’s go. One stop and we’re outta here.”

“What stop?”

“Enough with the questions. Just drive where I tell you.”

Marty followed Shayne’s instructions, not that he couldn’t guess where they were going. What was more important was figuring out was why it was just him and Shayne. Shayne never went with. Shayne gave him the cash and then him and Frankie and Mike spent a day driving and two days buying pills and another day driving back. He handed Shayne the pills and Shayne handed him his cut, and Marty handed half to Janney. His sister needed it a hell of a lot more than he did. And he wasn’t going to see her back . . . where she’d been. He promised himself that. Except—

Except the half just wasn’t enough.

They found the girl sitting on a porch a block off Sullivant. Thin as a discount store rake with torn jeans and a hoodie the color of winter mud. Her flat eyes said old woman; her face and body said late teens, tops. Shayne opened the back door and she got in and Shayne told Marty to drive around the corner and down an alley.

“You mind?” Shayne said when they stopped.

“Mind?”

“Little privacy?”

So Marty hopped out and stood a discrete distance away and smoked and tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the van. He winced when he heard the girl cry out in pain. He stood another minute and then the door opened and Shayne called him back. He stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the driver’s side and drove back around the corner and dropped the girl off.

“Pinched her titties,” Shayne said, taking a swig of soda. “Makes ‘em yell. They like it, you know?”

Marty didn’t respond. He drove up the street and found the entrance ramp to I-70 and got them on the road. He was thinking the girls Shayne got with didn’t like their titties pinched. He thought of Janney and the twins, and his shock learning she’d been working some of these same streets to make ends meet. Never again, he told her. So far, he’d kept his promise.

Most of all he wondered why Frankie and Mike weren’t coming. He had his suspicions, all right. But it wasn’t until they pulled into the all-night diner around 4 a.m. and Shayne ordered them plates of eggs and home fries and sausage and pancakes and toast and then when they were done told Marty to pay up while he went to the can, that he allowed himself to acknowledge the truth.

Shayne knew what Marty had been doing. And he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. And if it didn’t happen again and Marty didn’t get the extra cash, Janney and the twins were up a creek.

***


Alex stared at the knife, not sure she was seeing right.

Black handle. Six inches of gleaming blade. Tip as sharp as a gator’s tooth. Lying next to the chopping block where Auntie Jodie left it after cutting up all those ribs last night. She was always slicing ribs, the meat thick and fat, and slow cooking them, and sitting at the picnic table outside tearing the flesh off the bones and wiping the sauce off her lips. Never asking Alex if she wanted any. Because Auntie Jodie only ever asked her two questions.

The first: “You ready?” The second: “How much you get?”

The knife. Just sitting there. Not like Auntie Jodie to leave it out.

Alex had grown accustomed to the questions. She’d grown accustomed to a lot of things. The slaps to her face and the cuffs to her ears. The pills she needed to keep her skin from itching and burning. Always feeling hungry. Yeah, a real routine.

What Alex wasn’t used to was being alone this long in the trailer’s tiny kitchen that smelled of cooked meat and spilled beer with Auntie Jodie gone and a knife sitting by itself next to the chopping block.

She reached out and touched the handle, half expecting it to disappear, like something with a spell on it. Like in a cartoon movie, one with princesses. With a good princess and a bad witch. But nothing happened. Outside Alex heard gulls crying as they circled the Dumpster and the sound of traffic on the highway headed for the Magic Kingdom and someone yelling to someone else to shut the hell up. But inside the trailer it was quiet. Alex hesitated only a moment. She reached out and wrapped her fingers around the knife handle. It felt cool to the touch. She drew it close, lifting the blade to her face and turning it flat until she could see her eyes reflected in the metal. Weary red eyes, smeared with mascara she never seemed able to wash off. She looked at herself for a whole minute. She realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gazed in a mirror. She lowered her hand and moved back to the table and slipped the knife into the drawstring bag where she kept the power bars and the make-up and the condoms Auntie Jodie gave her each morning.

“You ready?”

Auntie Jodie, barging through the door. Publix bags hanging from each enormous hand. She dropped them on the table in front of Alex and tried to catch her breath.

Alex said, “You talk to the guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy. About the job.”

“Job?”

Anna. You said you’d talk to him.”

“Right. The job.” Auntie Jodie pulled ribs and jars of barbecue sauce from the bags. “Yeah, I did, as a matter of fact.”

“Really?”

“He’s interested. He just needs a little more. It’s a finder’s fee thing.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred.”

Alex’s heart sank. “Five hundred?”

“Not that much. Two, three days tops, right? No big deal.”

“The thing is, I was hoping—”

“Hoping what?”

“Hoping maybe I could take a day off.”

Alex’s head pitched backwards at the impact of the slap.

“A day off?” A wheeze separating each word. “How you gonna get the five hundred if you don’t work?”

“Dunno,” Alex said, rubbing her face where it stung the most.

Auntie Jodie dropped her off an hour later. The motel set back from the busy four-lane road. A single palm tree with brown-tinged leaves outside the office, like it survived a brushfire, but just barely.

“Got ‘em stacked up for you, so don’t be dilly-dallying,” Auntie Jodie said, tapping at her phone with fingers like sausages. “I’ll be around the corner, you need me.”

“Five hundred, and I’ve got the job?”

“Five hundred and you’ve got the interview. One thing at a time, all right?”

Alex nodded. She stepped back, drawstring bag in hand, watching Auntie Jodie pull away. When she was gone she walked across the parking lot and used the key to let herself into No. 43. She sat on the bed and waited for the first knock of the day.

She looked at her phone.

It was nine o’clock in the morning.

***


Shayne finally took the wheel on the other side of Savannah when Marty told him he couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer and was afraid they’d have an accident. Even then Shayne wouldn’t do it until they found a Parkers where Marty could buy Shayne more Mountain Dew. One of the twenty-ounce jobbers Shayne liked to guzzle in a single go. As if he had no regard for what he was drinking, or how it tasted . . .

How it tasted. The idea came to Marty as he drifted off to sleep. Because Shayne sure loved his Mountain Dew. It could work, he thought. It just might work . . .

“Let’s go.”

Marty jerked awake, staring wildly. They were parked at a rest stop. He looked at his phone. He’d slept only an hour, dead to the world the entire time.

“Wha—?”

“C’mon. My turn to sleep.”

Marty rubbed his face, cleared his throat, switched places with Shayne and pulled back on the highway.

Six hours later they were in West Palm Beach. The air was hot and heavy and smelled of salt and diesel and fish left in paper bags overnight. They piled into the room at the Oceanside off U.S. 1 and Marty collapsed onto the bed, face down.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said. “Want anything?”

“I’m good,” Marty said. In a minute he’d call Janney. He knew he should call someone else, but he couldn’t risk it, with Shayne around. “Grab some chow” Shayne’s way of saying, “I’ll be right back—don’t even think about going anywhere.”

Marty could think of nothing else.

Well, that and the Mountain Dew.

***


I want 2 b Anna.

The first thing of substance Alex texted to Auntie Jodie after they traded cell phone numbers. Feeling shy as she did. Because she’d never told her dream to anyone, even her sister. She couldn’t say for sure how many times she’d watched Frozen, but a fair estimate might be two hundred viewings. There’d been that stretch over the summer when the temperature in Jacksonville peaked at ninety-five plus for two or three weeks running, and all she’d done was sit next to the window air conditioner and watch the movie over and over until it cooled down just enough to flop on the couch and fall asleep.

Anybody else?

She decided Pocahontas was an OK second choice, especially considering her Gramma was supposed to be one sixteenth or something Seminole. Ariel or Jasmine would be all right too, but not Belle. No way. How could you fall in love with a monster, no matter how nice he was? She explained all this in a flurry of texts to the lady who called herself Auntie Jodie, making sure she understood Anna was her first choice by a long shot. She said she understood. She said her brother knew a guy at Disney who did the casting for the park princesses, and it wouldn’t be a problem. That made sense, Alex thought, since Auntie Jodie was the one who’d placed the online ad for “Disney Princess Models” that she answered on one of those hot July days right after her eighteenth birthday. And sent her money for bus fare and new clothes within two days, no questions asked.

Alex thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she saw the hotel room Auntie Jodie put her up in the first couple of days and the meals she treated her to, in restaurants with actual cloth on the tables. Alex was so happy she didn’t mind when Auntie Jodie said she had to leave the hotel for a couple of days and stay with her while she scheduled the interviews with the guy. And she felt truly sorry for Auntie Jodie when she arrived home one night and explained, shamefacedly, that the guy was willing to meet with her, but she might have to “play along a little” depending on what happened, because that’s how these guys work.

Alex played along, though she hadn’t wanted to.

She played along with the next guy, too.

And the next one, and he hurt her badly enough that once she’d stopped crying she accepted the pill to help with the pain that Auntie Jodie offered apologetically as she wiped her own eyes, like marbles pressed into the dough of her face, and put her arm around Alex’s shoulder.

And then cuffed her, telling her to be more careful next time.

And then gave her another pill.

That was in September. Now it was November. And she still needed another five hundred before she could get the interview.

“So talk to the guy tomorrow?” Alex said that afternoon.

“He had to cancel,” Auntie Jodie said. “Probably Thursday.”

“Thursday for sure?”

“Fingers crossed,” she wheezed.

Alex tried to zone out when they got back to the trailer, but it was hard to relax with Auntie Jodie stomping around the kitchen, yelling that she couldn’t find her knife. Alex just stared at the TV, thinking about Anna and crinkly dresses with puffy sleeves and five hundred dollars.

And the knife. And what she might do with it if Auntie Jodie didn’t stop hitting her.

***


Even with Shayne along the routine was the same. They started at EveryMed Rx Pharmacy, where Marty presented the forged prescription for Oxycodone and turned over a hundred dollars and received two full bottles and a form to sign saying they were for personal medicinal use only. They went to Family Ready Pharmacy next, repeating the drill, and BetterMed Rx after that. They drove past Walgreens and CVS and Walmart. It wasn’t worth the risk. Those places had computer systems now and you had to show your license.

It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at Chronic Care Management Clinic on an access street off the airport road. When it came their turn they presented themselves, explaining they’d hurt their backs at a construction site in Pompano Beach. Marty went in first. The doctor who saw him was pear-shaped, pale-skinned and had thick, brushed-back hair the color of crow feathers shed in a downpour.

“Show me where it hurts.” The doctor’s eyes soft and sympathetic.

“I think it’s my L5, S1,” Marty said by rote, reaching around to his lower back. “It’s popped before.”

“I would concur,” the doctor said, not moving from his chair. He wrote a prescription and handed it to Marty and told him he hoped he felt better and said the dispensary was down the hall. Marty nodded, not bothering to explain he knew that already. He handed over the cash and received four bottles in return and went outside and waited for Shayne.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said, looking at his watch. “Want anything?”

They ate pizza in the motel room, curtains open so they could watch the sunset over the ocean, even being the ocean was almost a mile away. Finished, Marty leaned back on his pillow, fighting sleep, and also a feeling of hopelessness. It was around this time, the work for Shayne done, that normally he was accustomed to saying so long to Frankie and Mike and taking a side trip down the road. To a house that wasn’t much more than a shack with a sign outside advertising herbal drugs and ozone therapy. A place where he could get double the pills for the price at the clinic. It had been so easy. On his return, present Shayne with exactly the number of pills he’d budgeted for. Then, afterward, take the extra pills he’d bought, yeah, technically with Shayne’s money, and distribute them on the sly through his buddy, and take the money from those sales and give it all to Janney. Between Marty’s cut from Shayne and the side dough she could make rent and buy diapers and food and not ever go back to the streets. Back to the pimp and his helper girl who treated Janney so bad.

But not tonight. Tonight Marty lay on the bed in the motel room while Shayne watched a Survivor show and drank his Dew and worked his phone. Marty drifted off, only to awake with a start hours later. He’d heard a shout—a high-pitched feminine yell. He looked at the other bed and saw a girl on top of Shayne trying to keep his hands off her breasts as Shayne said, “You like that, don’t you?”

In the morning Marty woke up and then Shayne woke up and they did it all over again.

***


“I got to $500 yesterday,” Alex said. “I counted it. So how come—”

“How come is the guy’s not feeling well and asked if we could meet Monday instead,” Auntie Jodie said. “And I told him yeah, because he’s being nice enough to meet with me.”

“With us.”

“What?”

“You said meet with you. But he’s meeting with us, right? Because this is for the Anna job I want.”

“Right,” Auntie Jodie said, hand planted on her sofa-cushion sized chest as she tried to catch her breath. Better on her chest than Alex’s face. “Meet with us. That’s what I meant. Here’s a chance to get a little ahead, is all I’m thinking. Maybe just half a day. Whaddaya think?”

“I think I’d rather meet the guy.”

“I’d rather meet the guy too. Monday’s only three days.”

So Auntie Jodie dropped Alex back at the motel. And noon came, and she stopped by to check on her, and brought her a sandwich and a water bottle, and cuffed her, and apologized between shallow breaths as she explained there was just one more, some tourist, and then they could go home.

“How long,” Alex said, resting her hand on the drawstring bag. Feeling the outline of the knife under the material. Sneaking a glance at Auntie Jodie, guessing where the breastbone might be underneath all that fat.

“He’s on his way now.”

“Then we see the guy Monday?”

“Then we see how the guy’s feeling Monday.”

“Hope he’s feeling better,” Alex said.

“On his way,” Auntie Jodie said.

***


Friday morning they hit EveryMed a second time because Marty knew a different pharmacist came on duty to work a three-day long weekend shift. They planned to visit two other clinics afterward, but the line was so long at the first they lost an hour. Even so, Shayne seemed content when they walked out.

“We got exactly what I counted on. What I calculated. You’ve got the routine down, partner. Have to hand it to you. Not a pill more or less. Glad I came along, see how it’s done. See where you go. I’m feeling good about this. I may make it a regular thing. I like being on the road. Different sights. Different fruit.” He did that crab claw thing again with his fingers.

“So we’re heading home?”

“Just one stop on the way. Little east of Orlando. Then it’s back to O-HI-O. You homesick already?”

Marty thought about Janney. The panic in her voice when he’d snuck the call to her that morning, while Shayne was in the bathroom. The sound of the twins’ crying in the background.

“Just a homebody, I guess.”

“Not me. I like to get out and go.”

“I’ll pack the van.”

They drove until Cocoa West and then Shayne told him to exit and read him directions and they drove a few miles more until they came to a light. Marty turned right, and then left, and then into the parking lot of a motel with a single palm tree by the business office with brown-tinged leaves.

“Wait here,” Shayne said. “I won’t be long.”

“OK,” Marty said. Trying to keep his voice natural. Waiting until the van door slammed shut and Shayne was walking away to reach down and grab Shayne’s soda bottle.

***


“Ow!”

“You like that, huh?”

“No—stop it,” Alex said.

“How about like this?”

Ow! That really hurts.”

“I like it too,” the man said.

Alex arched back, trying to keep him inside her but also lean far enough away that his hands couldn’t reach her breasts. When his fingers first touched them she recoiled inside, as she always did, but figured it wouldn’t last long because this guy looked and acted like he needed it bad and was in a hurry. Creepy looking, eyes the color of a palmetto bug’s back. The sooner he was gone the better. Then he pinched her and she jerked back, yelling at the pain, and instead of apologizing he laughed and did it again.

She couldn’t lean back far enough.

“Ow!”

She rolled off him and scooted to the end of the bed.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“I told you that hurts.”

“And I told you I like it. Get back up here.”

“Not if you’re going to do that. That’s not the deal.”

“The deal?” The guy laughed. “The deal’s what I say it is.”

“No it ain’t,” Alex said, fumbling for her panties. “You need to leave.”

“I’m not leaving until I get what I paid for.”

“I didn’t say you could pinch—”

“Listen, bitch—” he said, slithering down the bed.

“No!” she said as he grabbed her left arm. She pulled free and fell to the floor, landing on top of the drawstring bag.

“No?” he said, laughing again as he reached for her.

***


It was a bit of an operation, it turned out, chewing the pills to a pulp, then carefully drooling them into the bottle of Mountain Dew, one dollop of spit at a time, mouth getting dryer and dryer at each go. Marty had done ten so far, which he figured was enough, but who really knew? Pure speculation that Shayne wouldn’t taste the pills as he drank the soda, though one thing in Marty’s favor was how thirsty Shayne always was after a girl. What he would do with Shayne later on, if it worked, he hadn’t thought about. He’d get to that. Janney might—

He stopped. He stared as a large woman—a very large woman—limped toward the room Shayne disappeared into a few minutes earlier. She walked with difficulty, legs like pile drivers and arms like sofa cushions. Flesh straining to burst from her black t-shirt and sweatpants. She knocked at the door, waited, knocked again, and went inside.

Shit. This wasn’t good. Shayne had the keys with him, like he always did. If that woman—

He had to do something. Shayne had the keys. And Shayne had to climb safely back in the van so he could drink his Mountain Dew.

Marty glanced around the parking lot, looked again, got out of the van and walked fast toward the room.

***


“You stupid, stupid girl,” Auntie Jodie said. Wheezing so badly she had to lean against the wall as she took in the scene before her.

“I didn’t mean to,” Alex said, head ringing from the blow from Auntie Jodie’s fist. She used a fist this time. “He wouldn’t stop pinching me.”

“Like that matters.”

“He hurt me.”

“Who cares—”

They both turned at the sound of the room door opening. A man stood in the doorway and stared.

“Holy crap,” he said.

***


It took a moment for Marty to process everything. Shayne on the bed on his back, a knife jutting from his left eye, blood pooling around him. A half-naked girl crouched at the end of the bed, a welt rising on her left cheek. The enormous woman glaring at him as she took deep, gasping breaths.

“Who—?” he started to ask.

Before he could finish she was coming for him, arms outstretched like giant rolling pins as she lurched in Marty’s direction. He braced himself and at the last second punched her soft chest with the palms of both hands and to his surprise she staggered backwards and fell over, the floor shaking a little, and just lay there, struggling for breath. Wheeze. Pause. Wheeze. Pause.

“Who are you?” the girl said.

“Who’s that?” Marty replied, pointing at the woman.

“She’s—”

“She needs help,” Marty said.

“Like him?” the girl said, gesturing at Shayne.

Marty stood there, head spinning. He glanced down and realized he was still holding the bottle of Mountain Dew. He looked at the girl and then at Shayne and then the lady on the floor and then back to the girl. He saw how the girl stared at the lady. He thought of Janney and the twins and the streets he’d pulled his sister off. Away from the girl working for the pimp—not quite as fat as this lady, but getting there—the girl who kept hitting Janney for no reason . . .

“Sure,” Marty said. “Like him.”

He kneeled, twisted the top off the soda, and used his left hand to gently raise the woman’s head. She blinked, confused, but even in her state gratefully took a drink. And another. And another. When the bottle was mostly empty Marty lowered her head just as gently. After a couple of moments she snorted and gasped and her chest rose and fell three times like a hill riding an earthquake. After a couple more moments her head fell to the side and she wasn’t wheezing anymore.

Marty said, “Are you all right?”

The girl glanced at Shayne, naked and spread-eagled on the bed with a knife in his eye.

“I guess. Are you?”

Marty looked at the woman on the floor, bubbles of spit on her lips.

“Yeah.”

Marty turned his back while the girl gathered her clothes and went into the bathroom. When he heard the door shut and water running he went through Shayne’s clothes. He found the keys easily enough. Next he found Shayne’s wallet. It held all of eleven dollars. Disgusted, he threw the wallet and Shayne’s pants on the floor. The pants landed with an odd thud. Marty picked them up and felt around and reached inside the right pants leg.

The girl came out of the bathroom. She was wearing sneakers and jeans shorts and a t-shirt with a princess and some kind of snowman on it.

“What is that?” she said.

“It’s money.”

“I can see that. How much?”

“A lot.”

“A lot lot?”

He told her that it was.

The wad of cash Marty found in the sewn-in pocket down the leg of Shayne’s pants was as thick as the business end of a baseball bat. But unlike the wad Shayne always gave Marty, this wasn’t just twenties. These were hundreds. And there was another wad just like it in the other pants leg.

“We should go,” Marty said.

“We?”

“You can come if you want.”

“Where?”

“I’m from out-of-state. Columbus, Ohio.”

“I’m from here. Jacksonville, actually.”

Neither of them spoke for a second.

“Could I have some money?” the girl said.

“Money?”

“You said it’s a lot.”

“How much?”

“I’m not sure.” She pulled a pile of greasy bills from a drawstring bag. “I don’t have quite enough.”

“For what?”

She told him.

Then she said, “Where’s that money from?”

He told her.

“So how about it?”

He thought about the twins and Janney and the streets she’d been on.

“It’s OK with me as long as we leave right now.”

He dropped her off at the Magic Kingdom entrance an hour later. Gave her four bottles of pills and half of Shayne’s cash. The remainder was still three times what he normally earned after a trip. More than enough for his sister and the twins. He watched the girl march toward the entrance gates, head held high and drawstring bag over her shoulder like a royal satchel or something, until he couldn’t see her anymore. Then he turned around and headed for the highway. He needed to be on his way. It was a long drive home, and it was just him behind the wheel.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Viking Funeral, by Nick Kolakowski

When they reached Piosa’s old property it was nine-fifteen and the sun burned down hard from a crystal-sharp winter sky. Their two cars turned onto a dirt track marked by a thick oak with a sun-bleached yellow ribbon garroting its trunk, and they bumped along until they reached a thinning patch of trees with a white doublewide in the middle of it. The trailer roof sprouted satellite dishes like alien mushrooms. From a window dangled a fading black flag with the skull-and-crossbones above the words ‘Sic Semper Deadbeats’ in gothic script.

In the lead car, Miller honked. The trailer door creaked open to reveal a teenager long and pale as a remora. He stood blinking in the sunlight and scratched a pimply shoulder and said, “Right-O.”

The cars stopped. Alex emerged from the rear one, squinting. Before climbing out, Miller yelled through his open window: “We’re here for your brother.”

The kid nodded and disappeared inside the trailer. Through the open door they could hear nervous-quick guitar and a gravelly voice singing about hell and damnation. The song reminding Miller of his childhood in Tennessee, the clapboard walls of those backwoods churches quivering as the Sunday congregation inside burst with the love and fury they kept bottled for the week’s other six days and twenty-three hours. His brother in the pew next to him, mouthing profane variations on the hymns as he made playing cards appear, disappear, appear from his lapels, sleeves, ears, mouth. As if from a distance he heard Alex say, “What’s with the country crap?”

Miller snorted. “That’s not country. That’s Johnny Cash.”

“Cash is country.”

“Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash.” Miller forced a cheerful note into his voice. “Accept no substitutes.” Opening the trunk of his car he set the sloshing gas-cans onto the ground, then opened the emergency kit beside the spare wheel. Stuffed three roadway flares into the back pocket of his jeans.

“Country,” Alex said, leaning forward to spit, and nearly tumbled to the frozen ground. He was still drunk from last night. Miller struggled to find a little pity.

The kid reappeared, holding aloft a cardboard box in the manner of a holy offering. For a delirious moment it seemed like he might yodel forth some Latin. Arms raised, Miller stepped forward to receive the relic, concentrating on holding it perfectly level as he moved away. He feared letting the box shift to one side, and hearing the dusty slither from within.

“Oh man,” Alex moaned. “You put him in that?”

“Sold the urn online,” the kid said. “Paid part of the rent. Not like he’d care.”

“We care.” Miller wondered what sort of human being would buy a used urn. “That’s sort of the point. Alex, grab the gas.”

“The Beast’s around the back,” the kid said. “Don’t take this as an insult? But I’ll be inside. I deal with grief my own way.” He disappeared into the cool dark of the trailer, and Johnny Cash switched to Axl Rose wailing about Chinese Democracy.

Alex hoisted the two gas cans, groaning like it was an epic feat. They circled around the trailer and as their feet crushed the brown grass it shimmered, alive with panicked insects fleeing their advance. The land behind the trailer rose into a low hill dotted with bare elms, and there they found the Mustang.

The car gleamed like a work of art. They had seen it before; Piosa, now residing in the box in Miller’s hands, had photographed every stage of its rebirth from rust-heap to cherry. Piosa, who had taken a sniper’s bullet above the left eye in the Korengal Valley, dead before the rest of them even heard the shot, dead two years ago today.

Miller set the cremains on the ground and stood. A fast wind rose and rattled the trees. Snow’s coming, Miller thought as took one of the cans from Alex’s hand, twisted off the cap and doused the Mustang’s hood. The gas flowed across the metal and rained softly on the grass. Alex took his cue and used the other can to soak the roof and trunk. Miller opened the passenger-side door and splashed the vintage leather and dashboard with the last of his can and went to retrieve the box.

Alex spun and tossed his cans away, reeled back, almost fell. “Not the best idea, drinking before something like this,” Miller told him.

“Don’t blame me,” Alex said. “The only kid on the block whose daddy got him a case of Bud for Christmas.”

“Funny.” Miller slid the box onto the driver’s seat of the Mustang, noting the keys in the ignition. As if waiting for Piosa to clamber inside, loose one of his patented war-whoops and punch the gas. The smell of fuel in the enclosed space wrung tears from his eyes. “Anything to say for the dear departed?”

Alex clasped his hands and bowed his head. “Piosa. Good man, good operator. Went from us too soon. That’s it.”

Miller pulled one of the road flares from his cargo pants and took five steps backward from the open car door. “Fire in the hole.” The flare burst sparkly-red, reminding Miller of the ones they used to let the Chinooks overhead know the landing-zone was hot. He tossed it in.

The seats caught fire. The flames leapt. They danced. They strutted their stuff across the seats. The windows and dashboard dials burst in applause. The paint crackled in laughter. In seconds a plume of greasy smoke billowed out the open door, scrambling for the sky. The box in the driver’s seat blackened and folded in upon itself and its lid curled open and white ash swirled into the hot slipstream and disappeared forever.

Miller and Alex knew the physics of the situation. They retreated twenty yards and hit the dirt and covered their heads in their hands.

With an eardrum-shattering boom the gas tank exploded and a lovingly restored chunk of engine howled into the sky. Heat crisped the hairs on their forearms. After that the Mustang settled into a more peaceful burning.

They stood, Alex saying, “Tell me: Why did Viking funerals ever go out of style?”

From down the hill, the trailer’s screen door banged open. The kid on the lawn yelling words lost in the roar of flames. Then he raised a middle finger high and stomped back inside.

Miller felt his mind slip into war mode. He walked toward the burning Mustang, Alex shouting behind him, the questioning sounds of a dog left alone in an unfamiliar place. Miller stopped behind the car and slammed his heel into the rear bumper as hard as he could. The Mustang began to almost imperceptibly creep forward, and gravity saw its chance. Standing on a thrumming left leg Miller offered the whole scene a proper military salute as the car bounced and jostled its way downhill, trailing a party of flames.

Piosa’s pride and joy collided with the trailer dead center and the impact knocked the windows out of their frames and the satellite dishes from the roof. The fire spied new territory to conquer and leapt shimmering to the cheap white siding. The whole structure was half aflame before the kid ran out squawking and stood in the yard with his fingers clenched in his hair. Alex and Miller watched everything burn with clinicians’ eyes.

“You’re losing it,” Alex told him, almost as an aside. “Really, truly losing it.”

Miller had nothing to say to that. The fire burst from the trailer roof and flapped its orange hands in the sunlight.

“You believe in the concept of blowback?” Alex said. “After everything that happened over there. Ever think someone will come at you for the shit you did?”

Hours later, Miller would blame what happened next on his mind in war-mode, where everything was a threat, and no insult too small for repayment. Quick as a rattler he slammed his right foot into the back of Alex’s left kneecap, sending him to the grass. Before the man could suck in more than half a breath Miller had dropped a knee onto his sternum. “Shut up,” Miller said.

“You’re a total wacko.” Alex wheezed, hissing steam. “It’s being noticed. Not in a friendly way. People ready to do something about it.”

“People got nothing to worry about,” Miller said.

Alex rocketed a sloppy fist at Miller’s head. Miller slap-pushed his arm aside and followed through with two hits to Alex’s jaw and left eye-socket. The violence had been automatic as a sneeze but in its wake Miller felt a little sick. He stared at the bright blood bubbling along the crest of Alex’s eye and thought: This is what I do.

“Like they’ll take your word,” Alex coughed bloody.

“They’ll have to. I’m done with this crap.” Miller eased upright. The cans had tumbled on their sides, leaking pungent gas. Miller retrieved them and followed the swath of scorched grass to the bottom of the hill, where Piosa’s brother knelt at the edge of the burning trailer, warbling into a phone. For an instant Miller considered snatching the device away and tossing it underhand into the fire. Instead he hurled the gas cans into the back of his car and drove away. The pillar of smoke stained his rear-view mirror for two miles before it was lost in hills and distance.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Beach Body, by C.A. Rowland

The seagulls. They landed near the surf every morning and evening. Anne had thought it was to feed, but they sat so still, as if watching, waiting for some signal, when they were to all take off again. As if they knew when it was the right time to leave the sandy area behind.

If not disturbed, the birds sat for at least thirty minutes. Anne wondered if they were just tired of flying and this was a moment of quiet for them. Or perhaps, they too were calmed by the crashing waves of blue-capped in white that raced to meet the light tan sand on Amelia Island, Florida. She hated raw fish and the slimy taste on her tongue but giggled at the thought of birds gathered to have sushi for breakfast.

She breathed in the salty air, feeling it fill her with the lightness of something so fresh and untouched.

She and James walked almost every morning since they’d moved here two years ago. Rain. Sleet. Sunshine. Only the outer coverings changed. This morning was clear and sunny for late December. A light windbreaker and sweatshirt underneath. Together with thick jogging pants, socks, and tennis shoes, the ensemble was more than enough to protect Anne against the elements.

A heavy rain with thunder and lightning, coupled with wind, had hit with a vengeance in the late-night hours the evening before. The sand was littered with bits of shells, seaweed and other debris brought in by the wind and surge of the tides.

James had worn his regular blue jeans, tennis shoes and a flannel shirt. The man never seemed to get cold. They could be in two feet of snow in Chicago, Illinois, as they had been last year, and he’d have on the same outfit. She wondered how it was men could dress in the same thing every day and be happy, when women constantly needed something new or different.

Anne looked down as James squeezed her hand, the cool breeze slipping between them, almost as if he knew she was thinking about him.

They were a picture of contrasts she knew. She, just over five feet tall, slender, fair with blond hair and freckles. James, with dark hair, eyes and broad shoulders that marked him as a man of strength that worked out regularly. His hand, tanned and leathered one from skiing, hiking and running their construction company. Her hand, a few shades of tan paler and softer, encased in light gloves.

Nearing the birds, Anne angled up the beach onto the rougher, drier area. It was this way each morning, her trying to leave the birds in peace. James walking, unaware he might be disturbing any other creature. She’d pointed it out a few times. James had simply said, “That’s the nature of their lives. If not us, something else will send them soaring.”

Secretly, Anne thought he just liked watching the birds take off. Or dive for fish. James loved hunting and fishing, although it was the hunt and skill rather than the killing of anything. He rarely came home with anything to show for his day in the wild. But always with stories of what he’d seen, or caught and released.

As Anne searched the beach for signs of overnight changes, she focused on a lump of sand ahead. Or at least that was what it looked like until she got a bit closer.

Black peeked through, like a rock or a tarp. Maybe hiding something underneath. “That’s new,” Anne said, pointing ahead. “Want to see what it is?”

James turned towards the mound. These side excursions were frequent, and he seemed happy enough to follow Anne’s lead on these daily walks.

However, as they got closer, he halted and pulled her back. “Let me check this out first. I don’t like the looks of this.”

Anne turned to face him. “Do you think something’s hurt or died? Like a seal?”

“I don’t know. Let me check it out first.”

Anne watched James looked around and picked up a twelve-inch-long piece of driftwood. He approached the lump, covered by what appeared to be a black tarp and sand. Using the stick, he pulled back a small part, exposing a shoe . . . connected to a leg with what looked like a butterfly tattoo.

Anne sucked in her breath, having moved closer but behind him.

“I told you to stay back.” James turned to look up at her with such anger that she took a step back. He pulled his ever-ready cellphone out of his pocket and dialed 911.

***


Anne was still shivering when the police arrived. Not that she was cold, but from the body and James’ attitude. She focused on what the officer was asking. The two cops were from the local town, one tall and blond, looking like he should be a lifeguard with trendy sunglasses, and the other almost as tall but thin, wiry with brown hair and a perpetual frown.

“No, we just happened to be walking by,” she said in answer to the black-haired cop’s question as to how they had discovered the body. “We go one way or the other every morning. Usually starting at the same spot.”

“We may have a few more questions,” the cop said as he moved off.

Anne turned her head, searching for James, only to find him staring at her. She shivered as it hit her.

James knew the dead woman. At least she assumed it was a dead woman from the shape of her slender calf and the pink and white tennis shoe-- too big for a child or even most teenagers.

She knew she was right. Another of his dalliances. Except this one was now dead. And from what she knew of his latest affair, this was not her.

The police had uncovered the body enough for her to see that this one had blonde hair. James’ latest was a brunette.

How long would it take the police to connect the woman to him? Another scandal. No matter if he did anything wrong or not. The shame of another humiliation had landed at her feet. And with that, they’d learn about the current affair. Double the trouble this time.

Anne wasn’t sure if her marriage with him or her reputation could survive another Chicago. Sure, he’d retired from his prestigious job with plans for them to travel and live for years.

But the truth was he was forced out–sexual harassment at the office with a subordinate little tramp who was hurt when he moved on. A minor blip in the news but one that all her friends and societal connections had heard and no doubt continued to laugh and gossip about behind her back. These events happened in the best of families, but most had the decency and ability to do it without getting caught or shamed in public. Or there being evidence shoved in the face of their friends and colleagues.

Not to mention their family. Her mother had lived through her father’s womanizing and survived without a blemish on the family. Anne had realized that she might have to do the same when she married James but had thought he could be discreet. She’d been wrong.

Mortified in Chicago. Leaving and starting a new life further south had seemed the sensible solution. She still wondered how the young woman had not seen that James would never abandon his wife. It was beyond Anne. James loved the prestige of his job, but he loved the money Anne had inherited more. It gave him a lifestyle he craved and Anne the husband that lent her a different kind of respectability, at least in her circles.

His little escapades? A rebellion that left him feeling in charge with the balance of power in his court.

A dead mistress though was quite another thing.

“You can go,” Anne heard the officer say to James.

James caught her hand in his and pulled her back down the beach, toward where they had parked their car. Neither of them saying a word.

***


The knock Anne had been expecting came two days later. Anne had found the cottage. Located a bit back from the beach so they didn’t have to deal with the summer crowds but close enough to a parking area so that they had access within five minutes of their house.

The cottage had three small bedrooms, one with blue walls and nautical figures, one with a green underwater theme, and one with muted yellow sunny tones. A living room with flowery upholstered furniture against the sandy walls and a kitchen overlooking the tiny backyard. All came with the house, which was fine with Anne.

Windows in every room let in lots of light, and breezy curtains floated in the wind. Anne had opted for what her friends would call a beach rental, leaving her furniture and memories in storage in Chicago, just in case they ever decided to return to the north.

This new place was easy to care for and meant their financial needs were smaller. While Anne had a trust fund, she wanted those funds for travel and vacations. They used James’ retirement package for everyday costs. The downsizing allowed them to eat out often although James hated the loss of the two-story walk up they had shared in their toney Chicago neighborhood. While the new start wasn’t exactly how either of them had planned to live out their days, it was a beginning.

Answering the door, Anne found the same officers were back, asking for James. Invited in, they sat drinking a cup of coffee, the aroma melding with the fresh sea air that wandered inland, while they peppered him with new questions.

“Mr. Rochester, we’ve identified the body you found as Charlotte Davis.” The blond officer that had taken the lead paused and getting no response, continued. “You told us you didn’t know the deceased, but that’s not quite true, is it?”

“Officers, I saw the bottom of a leg with a tennis shoe on it. That’s not enough to identify anyone,” James said.

“But you recognized the tattoo, right?”

“I didn’t want to guess. That tattoo seems very common and likely on any number of women’s ankles, here and everywhere. But to answer you, yes, I knew Charlotte.”

“And what was your relationship to her?” the blond cop asked.

“Anne, why don’t I handle these questions alone,” James said.

Both officers’ eyes turned to Anne. She sat for a moment and then said, “I think I’d rather stay.”

James hung his head for a few seconds and then raised it to face the blond officer. “We had a sexual relationship for two months.” Turning to Anne, he said, “But it’s been over for months.”

“And did the sex between you and Miss Davis ever involve erotic asphyxiation?”

“What? No. What are you talking about?”

“Ms. Davis was strangled.”

Anne watched James turn pale.

The bond officer turned to Anne. “And did you know about the affair?”

Anne stared at him. “My husband’s sexual needs are, shall we say, more than I care to provide. I am aware that he has had a number of affairs over the years. We have no secrets. And when we moved here, I assumed that would continue.”

“And what exactly are those needs as you understand them?” the officer asked.

“My husband has a high sex drive. He’d have sex six times a day if I were willing. I’m not. However, if you are asking me if he’s ever indicated he would like to try the erotic act–my answer is no.”

“So, Mr. Rochester, where were you the night before you and your wife discovered the body on the beach?”

“I was home, here with my wife. Tell them, Anne.”

“Is that true, Mrs. Rochester?”

Anne reddened. “As far as I know. Our sleeping preferences over the years have left us sleeping in different rooms. Snoring, his needs. I’d rather not elaborate if you don’t mind. And it is personal and would be embarrassing if this was made public.”

The officer nodded. “So Mr. Rochester could have slipped out while you were sleeping.”

“I don’t know about that. I am a very light sleeper and almost always wake up when James is stirring around the house. I feel certain I would have heard him leave … if he did.”

“And what about you, Mrs. Rochester? Where were you?”

“I was here with my husband, but as I said, I was in my bedroom from about ten o’clock until we got up to walk. There were some heavy storms that woke me about one or so, but I got up for a drink of water, then back to bed.”

“And did you know Miss Davis?”

“How would I know her? She was not in my social circle,” Anne said.

“Okay. I’ll ask that neither of you leaves town. We may need to ask you a few more questions.”

***


James was still not speaking to Anne two days later when the police arrived. Why hadn’t she simply said he was home with her all night? Didn’t she know that it made him a suspect? Or worse, was this her payback for Chicago? And why hadn’t they asked if he had heard her leave? Surely they could see she had a motive as well?

James didn’t seem to understand that the police were going to discover his history in Chicago. And they would then know that she was already the humiliated wife. If they talked to any of her friends, they’d gleefully report on their bedroom situation. Just as she would on them. Right or wrong, it was just the reality of how things worked in her world.

James had stormed out, only to return later in the day. Angry and unwilling to speak to her, just as she’d done when he’d betrayed her. All would blow over. Always did. In many ways, they were the perfect symbiotic pair.

The knock at the door was not unexpected.

This time the cops arrested James on the spot. Anne tried to ask what had changed, but they simply said they were taking him in and something about new evidence. James demanded she called a lawyer. She said she would.

***


Two days later, Anne sat in the office of Peter Keppler, a local attorney, with graying hair, an easy smile and a laid-back attitude that included leaving his plaid shirt unbuttoned. His office was modest as lawyers go. Comfortable chairs and a secretary/receptionist behind a pony wall. Located in an area of town outside of the tourist district, inside an older home, converted into offices.

Peter shared the house with three other lawyers. A large wood desk sat in the middle of the room, and two bookshelves filled with files of what she guessed were open cases dominated one wall. Pictures of old Myrtle Beach clustered on another. She expected a lawyer’s office to reek of old wood and law books, but here, it was a mix of lemon Pledge and seawater.

She’d turned to someone who knew everyone in town rather than a big city lawyer. Her reasoning was that a local might have better access and ability within the system. She still wasn’t sure if that was the right decision but it had made sense.

Anne listened as Peter outlined the case against James.

“It seems they have found some hairs on the victim that match your husband’s. DNA is allowable in court, and they seem to have a very strong case.” Peter had paused and Anne had let that sink in. “How long ago did James stop seeing the victim? Do you know?”

“I have no idea. I knew James had moved on to someone new. But the timing is not something I try to watch for. We have an arrangement. He doesn’t embarrass me, and I don’t ask,” Anne said.

“Got it. And about Chicago. Were they any threats of blackmail or anything like that?”

“No. Only the discrimination charge that we’ve already talked about.”

“And here? Did anyone threaten James that you know of?”

“I don’t know of anything like that, but you’d have to ask him. He and I never discussed his sexual partners and what they said. Can you tell me if that ever happened? Or could it have happened with the young woman who died?”

“All I can say is that he doesn’t understand what is happening or why. I may be able to argue that the hair was on her clothing due to the fact that James had been with her a few months before but that’s not a lot. It would help him if you could confirm that he was home that night.”

“I’m sorry, but as you know, we sleep in separate beds. With the storm, it took me a while to get to sleep, and I’m sure I slept soundly because I was tired. I know he was there when I went to bed and when I woke up.”

Peter sighed and laid his pen down on the yellow pad he’d taken notes on. “All right. That’s it for now. I’ll need to talk to you again but for now, let’s leave it at that.”

***


Anne straightened and laid a hand on her back to massage the ache from lifting boxes and packing. She grabbed the tape and closed the lid, securing it before she marked it for contents.

“This is the last one,” she said to the strapping young man with the muscular arms.

“Yes, ma’am. We’ll lock up the truck and be on our way. I just need you to sign here and initial in three places,” he said as Anne wielded the pen.

After the truck left, Anne locked the door, leaving the key under the mat for her real estate broker, Sherry. The closing would be finalized in the morning, and Anne had already signed the papers in escrow. What she wanted now was one last walk on the beach before she headed back to Chicago.

At the parking lot, she parked and locked the car. Then ventured down to the sand, turning in the same direction she and James had turned that fateful morning.

Everything was really as it should be. Charlotte the tramp was dead. Anne still didn’t understand how Charlotte could have thought she’d leave James for her. Anne had only wanted to experience what James had, maybe come to comprehend what the draw was. It wasn’t like Anne was a lesbian or anything, just curious.

But Charlotte had wanted more. And had threatened to tell James. Most likely she had threatened James too, but James would have told her Anne knew and it didn’t matter.

Telling James about Anne was another matter altogether. Anne could never let him have that kind of power over her, especially after Chicago.

Anne stared down at the area where she’d dropped the body. Really, the storm had been a godsend. Washing away the tracks of the wheelbarrow she’d used after she’d strangled Charlotte.

Anne had stayed for the trial as the dutiful wife, as she was expected to be, just as she’d given their marriage a new start here. Her Chicago friends were sympathetic and supportive. They encouraged her to return when James was sentenced after two years of waiting for a trial date.

She’s argued that she needed to stay while his case was appealed but they’d argued that she could do that from Illinois. And after just the right number of months of discussion, she’d agreed.

Smiling, Anne watched the birds flying, headed off in a new direction. She’d been discreet where James hadn’t, both in Chicago and at the beach.

That was really the issue.

The birds certainly understood there was a time for standing still, waiting, and a time to leave. So did she.

Anne turned and walked back to the car.