Monday, March 12, 2018

Detour, by Tom Andes

As the plane circled New Orleans, Kachenko looked at his watch. They’d left Dallas an hour and twenty minutes late. He sipped the last of his bloody mary mix, rattling the cubes in the plastic cup.

He saw Jonas at baggage claim. At least he felt reasonably certain it was Jonas; years had passed since he’d seen the other man, and then Kachenko had encountered Jonas in a professional setting, also. Kachenko’s garment bag depending from one shoulder, the small attaché case with his personal effects dangling at his side, he brushed past a person who strongly resembled Jonas, at any rate, and who broke a grin and raised his white hat as he passed Kachenko and hurried outside. Waiting for the shuttle to the rental car center, Kachenko saw Jonas—or the man he took to be Jonas—at the cab stand a few hundred yards down the curb. With a hissing of air brakes, the shuttle arrived; at almost exactly the same instant, the white hat disappeared inside a yellow cab, and the race was on.

On the shuttle, Kachenko opened his flip phone. His contacts were empty. He dialed the number from memory.

“Yes?” the voice answered, with a touch of the familiar impatience.

“He’s here.” Kachenko’s voice betrayed only a trace of an accent.

“Who’s there?”

“Jonas,” Kachenko said.

“Are you sure of it?” the voice asked him, after a silence.

Kachenko considered the question. Was he certain? He thought of the white hat, the broad grin, the clear expression of recognition…“Yes,” he said.

“Very well,” the voice said, and the person on the other end of the phone sighed. “You know what this means, and you know what you have to do.”

Kachenko closed the phone. He held it in his fist for the duration of the ride, watching the lights on the runway in the distance as the shuttle trundled along the access road.

The kid behind the Hertz desk told him he’d been upgraded, free of charge, and led Kachenko across the lot to a gray Suburban. Kachenko tossed his garment bag in back; he set the attaché case on the passenger’s seat. He found the pistol attached to the underside of the dashboard with packing tape, just as his instructions had promised it would be, along with a silencer and two extra magazines, and he screwed the silencer onto the pistol and checked to be sure the pistol was loaded before he started the vehicle. Opening his notebook, he punched the second of the two sets of coordinates he’d written down before he left Los Angeles into the GPS; he’d already determined he would have no time to go to his hotel.

On the highway, halfway between Kenner, the suburb where the airport was located, and the city itself, there’d been an accident. All five lanes on the interstate had backed up, and red brake lights irradiated the night, filling the windshield with a spectral glow. Gripping the wheel, Kachenko scanned the backs of the cars in front of him until he thought he saw that familiar white hat through the rear window of a yellow cab several car lengths ahead of him in one of the passing lanes, though he couldn’t be certain, as the cab’s window was filthy.

Traffic progressed at something less than a crawl. Like the spine of some antediluvian creature raising itself from the primordial muck, the highway stretched ahead of him, eastbound traffic retarded to a trickle while oncoming traffic streamed past, headlights glaring in the darkness. Kachenko consulted his GPS. Alongside the highway, the flashing red and yellow lights on the rescue vehicles played across the surface of a canal.

At the next exit, Kachenko signaled, and he nosed across two lanes and turned onto Veteran’s Boulevard. Driving through the suburbs, he observed the speed limit. Box stores, plaza malls, and family restaurant chains flanked the dual carriageway; cross streets disappeared into darkness. Traversing another canal, he entered New Orleans: on his right was the Office of Motor Vehicles, a gray monstrosity of a building rising like a tombstone into the night.

Here, his GPS seemed to have abandoned him. He found himself navigating a subdivision, crooked paving blocks jutting from the roadway. The SUV bounced over the seams between the blocks; twice, the Suburban bottomed out, its brakes grating as they locked.

“Son of a bitch.” Kachenko smacked the wheel.

He’d come to a dead end. On the other side of a cyclone fence, a railroad trestle drew a faint charcoal line through the darkness; behind him, the residential homes with their pristine lawns and carefully tended hedges seemed to have been dropped into that devastated landscape from some other part of the world, perhaps from someplace where disaster didn’t seem quite so imminent. Kachenko threw the truck into reverse, and he nearly backed into a garbage can as the Suburban bounced in and out of a massive pothole, or maybe it was a sinkhole, Christ, Kachenko wondering he hadn’t snapped an axle.

As he turned, his headlights swept a DETOUR sign with an arrow pointing to the left.

Kachenko signaled—one had to retain some sense of order in the midst of so much chaos, after all—and he piloted the SUV onto an empty boulevard named for some dead French king (one of the Louies, he would remember later). After he’d gone three blocks, he understood this detour would be interminable: though he scanned the near distance for another orange sign that would point him back to the path he’d been on, setting him on the way to downtown New Orleans, he knew he would never find it.

He pulled to the curb, and he punched the same set of coordinates into the GPS. Orange barrels marked the periphery of the construction zone; he had to drive the wrong way down a one-way street to escape the subdivision. Recalibrating, the GPS repeated in a bland voice that nevertheless seemed to excoriate him for having failed to obey its directive. Signaling, he turned, and he drove toward the center of the city at exactly five miles per hour over the speed limit; under the streetlights, he glanced at the gun on the seat beside him.

He parked several blocks down the street from the hotel and convention center on Poydras, which was clogged with yellow cabs. Stuffing the gun in his trousers, he adjusted his suit coat to cover it, and he locked the Suburban, which chirped, flashing its lights. The Wyndham rose from Poydras in a pillar of light. Approaching on foot, Kachenko thought he saw that familiar white hat enter the hotel between the marble columns, though he couldn't be certain.

Inside, the concierge, a bald-headed man of about fifty, asked if he could take Kachenko’s bags.

“I don’t have any bags,” Kachenko said, his eyes scanning the crowd over the other man’s shoulder for that white hat, trying to glimpse the banquet hall through the massive doorway at the other end of the lobby.

“Perhaps I can help you in some other way, sir?” The concierge leaned closer, trying to catch Kachenko’s eye, barring his passage. “You are staying at this hotel, I presume?”

Kachenko fixed on the man’s small black eyes. A hooked nose protruded from the concierge’s face like a beak; he’d already reached the age where his ears and his nose had begun to outgrow the rest of his face. Though he stood several inches taller than Kachenko, they had roughly the same build.

“Yes, please,” Kachenko said, wringing his hands. “I only meant I needed your help. Come this way, please…”

Stooped, bent—in spite of himself, intrigued—the concierge followed. In the hallway outside the men’s room, with the other man close on his heels, Kachenko stopped, turned, and drove his elbow into the concierge’s windpipe. The concierge’s larynx cracked; staggering, he grabbed his neck, his face purpling as he drew a wheezing breath. Before he could fall to the floor, Kachenko caught the concierge around the waist, and Kachenko dragged the concierge into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

In the handicapped stall, Kachenko snapped the other man’s neck, and he propped the concierge up on the seat, removing his suit coat and his shirt. Where the clothing had fit the concierge loosely, hanging from his frame, it fit Kachenko snugly. Yet it fit, Kachenko thought, shooting his wrists through the sleeves. Beneath his undershirt, the concierge’s white skin looked like a turkey buzzard’s, and Kachenko thought of his own childhood, that distant village: he experienced a patchwork recollection of children with tear-stained faces (had he been one of them?) kicking a soccer ball in the dirt and making way for the military vehicles rolling through. He didn’t know where he’d come from, didn’t know whether the memories were his or something he’d invented after seeing the evening news. Regardless, the years between then and now seemed a blank.

The concierge gave a last tremor of life, and his foot shot out, catching Kachenko’s shin. Out of reflex, Kachenko punched the dead man in the face. He stared at the other man as though he’d come back to life; then, kneeling in front of the toilet, he began to remove the concierge’s trousers.

“That son of a bitch isn’t getting my money,” he said. “He’s not getting there first.”

The words echoed in the empty bathroom.

His nose curled. The concierge had already voided his bowels.

He left the concierge on the toilet seat with a copy of the Baton Rouge Advocate he’d found on the tile in front of the baby changing station unfolded on his lap. He looked at himself in the mirror, squeezing a blackhead and splashing some water on his face before he left the room. Dressed in the top half of the concierge’s uniform, Kachenko crossed the lobby at a brisk pace, whistling to himself as he walked. Chandeliers glittered beneath the ribbed vault of the ceiling. The room seemed to hold the voices of everyone in it, echoing, with an air of hushed expectation, like a concert hall before the symphony starts. In the dining room, Kachenko stood next to a tray of bread puddings, scanning the rows of pillars along the perimeter of the room for that white hat.

The candidate occupied a position of honor at the center of the room. Six foot one, hair graying at the temples, scion of some local political dynasty, he projected the kind of benevolent grandfatherly charm that might have appealed to a populist reformer at either end of the political spectrum, though whether he was running for president, councilman, alderman, city coroner, or for the school board, much less what his politics were, Kachenko didn’t know; he only knew that in order to get paid, he had to finish the job, and he had to do it before Jonas did it. The white hat appeared on the other side of a pillar at the end of the banquet hall; then it disappeared again.

His hand on the butt of the pistol, which he’d stuffed in the pocket of his trousers, Kachenko crossed the room, weaving between a pair of waiters who followed him with their eyes. At the far end of the dining room, that white hat appeared between the pillars—and there, closer at hand, he thought he saw that same white hat on the other side of the room, and he didn’t know how Jonas had moved so quickly. Blinking sweat from his eyes, teeth gritted, as he approached the candidate’s table, he withdrew the pistol from his pocket, and he fired three shots at point-blank range into the candidate’s heart. Muffled by the silencer, the pistol’s reports sounded like a set of flapping wings. Kachenko knocked over the headwaiter, upsetting a dessert cart, scattering silverware across the floor. The candidate had risen halfway from his chair, as though he meant to shake Kachenko’s hand; he pitched over backwards, blood spreading across the white ruffles of his shirt beneath the tuxedo jacket, blue eyes glazing as they rolled upward in his skull, as though he were gazing at the bandstand.

Silence fell over the room. Kachenko kept walking. He dropped the pistol in a tureen of crab and corn bisque on a buffet cart and proceeded at a calm but steadily accelerating pace toward the doors.

As he pushed the doors open, a woman—the candidate’s wife—shrieked.

Kachenko emerged into a long hall decorated with Chinese lanterns. At the end of the hall, a doorway opened onto the street. As Kachenko walked the length of the hall, he brushed past a man in a white linen suit wearing a hat similar or perhaps identical to the hat Kachenko had seen Jonas wearing in the airport; he saw several other similarly attired men lurking along the periphery of the hall, but none of their faces cracked open in recognition; none of them seemed to notice him.

He stripped off the concierge’s jacket as he descended the marble steps in front of the hotel and stuffed it in a garbage can by the curb.

Wearing his undershirt, he crossed the street, digging in his pockets for the keys to the Suburban. In the distance, a siren shrilled. Kachenko kept walking, and he didn’t look back; he didn’t want to know what was happening behind him.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Switchblade III, a review by Rusty Barnes

Switchblade Issue III boasts a number of contributors familiar to anyone who follows the small press crime scene, writers like Eric Beetner, Morgan Boyd and Preston Lang. As well, there are a number of writers I know mostly from their Twitter feeds and the occasional scuttlebutt. I realize it's still early on in Switchblade's career, but it's safe to say they've become prominent in a short time. All told, editor Scotch Rutherford has put together a well-done and entertaining issue here.

Some highlights include the aforementioned Preston Lang, who gives us "Press it Down," a story about a former musician turned mayhem artist, a granny who turns out to be skilled in the use of a golf club. I've found his stories always deserve more love than they receive: he's well-published, but merits further recognition, and kudos to Rutherford for recognizing that and giving him a spot in multiple issues.

In "Burning Snow," Morgan Boyd writes about how even a simple job like shoveling snow can become a criminal web of intrigue and violence. Told by our narrator Max, who's got a secret or two himself, the story ranges across the snowy landscape, artfully and simply revealed, to an unforgettable description of a fat man in flagrante delicto. The ending is a punch in the gut that  tells us what some of us could still stand to learn: some people never have the luck.

Eric Beetner's piece, "Family Secrets," about a child who witnesses a gruesome crime and is forced into a criminal act himself, is something I've found typical of Beetner, in novel or short story mode. His work is well-paced and  deftly written, always in service to the narrative, not flashy. It's solid prose exemplified by lines like "I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my Dad would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever come to be shot."

Other stories are largely successful but not necessarily my bag.  I recognize the effort each of the writers here, though, and I appreciate too the effort it takes to put out a quality journal several times a year. It's an often Herculean effort sustained only by the love you get from writers and occasionally from readers, and certainly not in monetary rewards. The kinks in the production process notwithstanding, I expect Switchblade to have a long successful career highlighting the best the small press crime scene has to offer for as long as Rutherford can keep the magic going on the back end.

The stories are out there waiting, and I see the job of small press crime journals like Switchblade, Pulp Modern and Tough to bring them to the forefront and provide an alternative--however the individual journals define that-- to the larger venue/larger payday every writer generally shoots for. Our job is to get large in vision, but stay small in practice, to highlight writers before they reach mainstream success, and to bring attention to those mainstream writers who still need the boost. Their success is our success. Every Switchblade issue, every Pulp Modern issue, every story, every time we get our names out there in the small press crime scene, is a success for all of us.