Monday, January 27, 2020

Infinity Sky, fiction by Kristen Lepionka

They were called the Speed Dragons. Jeramey first laid eyes on them in the lobby of the Columbus Hotel, four smug guys in nearly identical Affliction t-shirts dragging their gear across the polished floor. They made a beeline for Chess, her boyfriend, who lounged with Jeramey's guitars on a leatherette ottoman, and the band members engaged him in conversation for several minutes before Chess finally shook his head and pointed to Jeramey standing in line at the front desk, like it was just then occurring to him that they were looking for her. Jeramey felt a stab of irrational hatred for the Speed Dragons as they gazed at her, blank. But she was forced to turn away, her attention pulled into this new indignity.

"No, there's been a mistake. I'm supposed to be in the penthouse suite, with the view of the river," she said, shaking her head at the room keys in their little paper sleeve. The wedding planner told her it had all been arranged. "It was all supposed to be arranged."

The desk clerk nodded. "We've had the tiniest change of plans," she said, then dropped her voice to an unapologetic whisper. "We have some very high profile guests in the hotel this weekend."

Jeramey considered. So no one recognized her here--fine, even though she still looked as good as the girl in that white miniskirt on the cover of Touch and Go. Or, at least, that girl's slightly older sister. More or less. But that was beside the point. She could feel her personal equity receding, like soil erosion of the spirit. As it was, she'd already compromised by flying coach. There isn't a first class on a Chautauqua Airlines regional commuter flight, the wedding planner had told her, getting a little snippy. It's only for two hours. Is it that big of a deal? But Jeramey was the one who had to buy Chess three bloody marys on the plane just to make him shut up about it. Nine dollars each, and she could smell the cheap vodka from two seats away. It was getting to be a bit much to endure, even for ten grand.

Now the Speed Dragons were heading her way. Jeramey didn't need to meet them in order to distill this band down into their essence: there would be a Brad among them, and a Wesley or a Corbin, a weekday-afternoon radio DJ and an ad agency project manager. The quiet-looking one in the fedora would be the only real musician of the group but he would avoid any kind of direct attention, terrified that someone would discover his terrible secret--bald at age twenty-eight. The wedding planner had passed along their LP so that Jeramey could learn the songs in preparation, but she hadn't. "Listen," she said to the hotel clerk, wanting to be done with it before the Speed Dragons knew all about her business. "Forget it. The seventeenth is fine."

"It's a lovely room," the clerk said. "Great views of the insurance building!"


After the wedding, Doug Beavers rode the sad little shuttle back to the hotel and fumed. It was almost funny, how some smug assholes just think they're the center of the universe, but others, even though it hurts to admit it, actually are--they somehow know everyone that you know, they've already been anywhere you could hope to go, they even turn up at your cousin's stepdaughter's wedding and charm the pantyhose off every woman there. Bennett Langdon was one of those assholes. It transcended coincidence. It was just the way things were. Beavers bet Langdon had a private driver to take him to the reception. No way a guy with that much cash would ride on a shuttle bus, with its stained grey-brown seats and sticky floor and vague chemical blueberry deodorizer in the air which gave the impression that someone had, recently, peed inside the vehicle.

At least Langdon had come to the wedding alone. "I bet he didn't give get an and guest," his cousin murmured sympathetically when they both discovered the horror, that Langdon was some peripheral friend of the groom's family. It would have been undeniably worse if he'd turned up at Beavers' cousin's stepdaughter's wedding with Celia Beavers on his arm. This was not out of the question--it had only been a year earlier that the whole affair went down, his plain, good-hearted wife and the cap-toothed charmer who taught the six-session self-actualization seminar that Beavers himself had paid for Celia to attend. It was hardly a fair fight; Langdon, silver-tongued devil of the self-help aisle, versus Doug Beavers, Weeble-shaped middle manager. The affair was long over by now, but the divorce was forever and Beavers was the type to hold a grudge.

"I really wish you could just relax and have a good time," his cousin said when he stalked back to the table with a plate piled high with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

"Oh, I'm having a great time," Beavers said. Langdon was currently holding court near the wedding cake with two of the bridesmaids, who were giggling behind their wrist corsages. "I just want to keep my eye on him. No surprises.”

"But Dougie, he probably doesn't even know you're here."

"Then it's even more important to know where he is," Beavers said. He set down the hors d'oeuvres plate and headed in the direction of the bar.

"....penthouse," he heard Langdon say to the women. "It's got an incredible view."


So it was not the worst performance of her career. No, that honor would have to go to the gig in Berlin when her bass player puked on one of the tube amps and shorted out the entire sound system. But it was, quite frankly, a close call. The Speed Dragons played angsty garage-rock versions of "The Electric Slide" and "Butterfly Kisses" while Jeramey faked along. If not for the weed that Chess had procured from a bellhop, she would have been in tears. As it was, she wondered how many more times she'd be able to play "Infinity" without her head exploding. "Sweet forever sugar," she sang as the newly-wedded couple swirled around the ballroom during their first dance, "infinity sky." This was the whole reason she was here--the rich, dim, Midwestern bride having always dreamed of dancing to the tune played live, by Jeramey Jones herself, at her wedding. It was a wildly inappropriate choice, nothing but a heroin-soaked ballad about, well, heroin, but the masses, with their endless capability to misunderstand, had turned it into a mainstream love song, rocketing Jeramey out of the indie punk world and into the spotlight for a moment in time. The moment had since passed--long since passed--but the song endured.

"I just can't even tell you," the bride gushed at her afterwards. "Having you here, omigod! I want you to stay all night!"

"Totally!" Jeramey said, accepting a clammy hug before departing immediately.

She sought refuge in the lobby bar, where two bourbons filled in the cracks left by the mediocre weed. She sat against the wall and half watched a silent baseball game on a television mounted to the wall and willed no one to speak to her, but she was only midway through the second drink when a large, oniony presence appeared to her right.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" the guy asked with a blast of gimlet breath.

Jeramey looked at him. He was fat and fiftyish, sloppily buttoned into an odd grey tux, the bow tie of which dangled from one shoulder like it was trying to get away from him. He had hair the color of nothing and pale grey eyes that seemed to have trouble focusing.

"You're not famous or something, are you?"

"No, I was just at that wedding," Jeramey said.

"Which side," her new friend said. "Bride or groom?"


"Yeah? Me too. My cousin's--"

"Can I just watch the ball game, please?"

At this, the guy laughed way too hard. "The ball game?"

"Yeah," Jeramey said. "I want to watch the ball game."

"You're interested."

"I am."

"Okay, Abner Doubleday, who's playing?"

"For the love of God," Jeramey muttered. She slid off the bar stool and tossed a crumpled tip next to her half-empty glass.

"For such a baseball fan, you're a pretty poor sport," the guy said. He spun around on his stool and grabbed her ass.

Jeramey bristled but walked away without looking back. "Ohio fucking sucks," she announced as she exited the bar, to a few mutters of agreement and one whooping cheer.


Chess was sitting on the bed with the bellhop when she walked into the room. "Wow, are you her?" the bellhop said.

"Yup, this is Jeramey Jones, 1997's Best New Artist nominee," Chess said in a fake-announcer voice. He held a smoldering joint with one hand and sifted through a pile of minibar snacks with the other.

"1998," Jeramey said, shooting him the finger. "If you set the sprinklers off, I'll kill you."

"Don't worry," the bellhop said. He was a lanky kid with reddish hair buzzed into a fade. "We got it covered." He pointed up at the smoke detector, which was shrouded with a dripping wet washcloth. He offered her the weed, but Jeramey shook her head.

"I'm exhausted," she said. "Can we wrap up this party?"

"It's only nine-thirty," Chess said.

"Seriously?" She flopped onto the edge of the bed. The room was beige and claustrophobic. It had an anonymous quality to it, like a shared cubicle at the phone company. "I think time is messed up in Ohio. It's stuck or something."

"Tell me about it," the bellhop said. He unscrewed the cap on a tiny bottle of Bailey's and chugged it.

Jeramey lay down on the edge of the bed and selected a whiskey bottle from the pile, drinking it without sitting up. Then she rolled off the bed and went to the window. "Great views of the insurance building!" she muttered. The building in question was a concrete void with a blinking radio antenna on the top. "Hey," she said finally. "You don't have keys to the penthouse suite, do you?"


"This has to be the worst idea ever," the bellhop whispered as they padded single-file off the eighteenth-floor elevator. "But I'm just high enough to go along with it."

"I just want to see the view," Jeramey whispered back. She steadied herself on the wall with one palm. The night was getting silvery, like she was viewing herself through a window streaked with liquid diamonds.

"Do you think the mini bar has better shit up here?" Chess asked.

"What, like tiny bottles of Cristal?"

"That would be awesome," the bellhop said. "Okay, this is it."

They stood in front of the door. It looked pretty ordinary. The bellhop rapped sharply on it with a knuckle and called out, "Room service!"

No response.

"Room service," the bellhop said again, knocking louder this time.


He turned to Jeramey and gave her an impish smile. She decided that she'd sleep with him, if it came up.

"Let's do it," she said.

The bellhop inserted a plastic key card into the slot and pushed the door open slowly. Jeramey  practically heard angels singing. The room was at least twice the size of hers, decorated in plush navy blue instead of beige, with a whole separate living room area and kitchenette. Chess made a beeline for the mini bar. "Shit, there's macadamia nuts in this one," he said.

Jeramey headed for the window but froze just after she crossed into the bedroom. The room was not, as it turned out, empty.

"Fuck," Jeramey said.

A dark, lumpy shape was snoring quietly from the bed.

"Fuck, fuck."

"Oh, man, we need to get out of here," the bellhop said from behind her.

But the window, with its view of the river, was right there, just a few feet away. Jeramey darted 
towards it and parted the curtains, but it was too dark to see anything other than the ghost of her own reflection.

"Okay," Jeramey whispered. "We can go."

As she crept back past the snoring lump, it stirred and emitted an oniony belch. "Wait a minute," she said, turning back. She squinted in the thick darkness at the man's face. "No fucking way," she said. Of all the high profile guests in the hotel, this asshole from the bar was the one who took her room?

"Come on, let's go," the bellhop whined.

Jeramey held up a hand. She wished she had a Sharpie--the man's dumb, doughy face was just begging for a freehanded mustache. He twitched and rolled to the side, his jacket flopping open. Jeramey saw the bulky square of a wallet peeking out of the pocket.
Even better.


Doug Beavers had a problem. More accurately, he had several problems, but with varying degrees of urgency.

One: his head felt like a malfunctioning tilt-a-whirl

Two: his mouth tasted like onions

Three: his pants were spattered with Bennett Langdon's blood

Things had gone bad pretty fast. He'd sat in the bar for a long time, drinking overpriced gimlets and working up a stormy rage over Langdon and the bridesmaids. Somewhere in there he decided that it was his moral obligation to intervene--those nubile, satin-sheathed maidens needed protection! Langdon was a predator. But when Beavers got up to the top floor of the hotel, Langdon had opened the door with a quizzical smile and it was clear he was still alone. It was also clear that he had no idea who Beavers was, which somehow made it all worse.

"I, uh," Beavers stammered, losing his nerve within two seconds, "I went to one of your seminars. Last year."

Langdon had just loved the sound of that and invited Beavers in for a drink.

Which was more or less the last thing Doug Beavers needed.

But halfway into that drink, Langdon disappeared into the bedroom and reported that he had to get ready to meet up with a young lady he'd met at the wedding. "Women at weddings are just so game," he called. "Are you getting lucky tonight, my man?"

That was enough for Beavers. A tingling in his chest traveled down his arm and into his fist. 

Reactivated, he was on his feet in a second, aimed like a surface to air missile towards his enemy. He threw the punch before he even realized he was in the bedroom, and what a punch it was: a glorious right hook that connected with Langdon's jaw just as he turned away from the bathroom mirror, looking alarmed. Airborne for a second, Langdon tumbled backwards into the shower, sputtering blood. Beavers moved in for the coup de grace with a primal yell: a kick to the chin. It sounded awful, an unnatural wrenching of bone and skin. Langdon went instantly slack-eyed and still.

Wigging out, Beavers backed out of the bathroom and sat on the bed. But there was blood on the mirror, on the sink, and it turned his stomach. Did that really happen? He peered back into the bathroom--yes, it had. He pulled the door closed. Now he did need that drink. He went for the liquor bottle with both hands.

A few hours later, he'd came to on the bed, a sharp line of sunlight from the windows across his torso. He sat up halfway and rubbed his face. A plastic room key was stuck to his cheekbone in a slick of gummy dried drool. At first it felt like a dream, until he realized that dreams, no matter how vivid, don't actually bleed on you. A glance at the clock revealed that it was ten in the morning. He had to piss, but there was no way he was opening that bathroom door. He looked through the peephole into the hallway and saw a housekeeping cart three doors down. "Motherfucker," he said
He flung open the closet and flipped through the items hanging there, settling on a pair of flat-front khakis. He dropped his own bloody pants and pulled Langdon's on--or tried to, a plan that might have worked eighty pounds ago, but not now. Beavers clutched his infuriatingly large belly and kicked the pants back into the closet.

The housekeeping cart was now two doors away.

He had no choice but to pull on the fluffy terrycloth bathrobe hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. It smelled like hotel and Langdon's obnoxious Old Spice, but it did, at least, fit. 
Beavers grabbed his room key off the bed and darted out into the hallway, his bloody pants tucked under his arm like a football.

But down on the tenth floor, he inserted the room key into the slot and was met with a blinking red light. He inserted the key again and again, not understanding. The key on the bed must have been Langdon's, he realized--his own key was in his wallet, which was--

Which was--

Which had formerly been in his jacket pocket, but was no more. The wallet, he concluded, had to be back in Langdon's room. Beavers banged his head on his own locked room door, cursing the day he ever filled out the little RSVP card for his cousin's stepdaughter's wedding in the first place. He tried shouldering the door open, the way you see hero spies do it in the movies. He tried jamming Langdon's key in and out of the lock in the hopes of confusing the electronic gatekeeper into submission. Eventually he just headed back to the elevator and hit the UP arrow, but when the doors slid open, two uniformed cops blinked out at him.

"I, uh," he mumbled. There was no way he could go back up to the room now. "Sorry, I was going down."


Jeramey woke up devastatingly hungover. The inside of her mouth tasted like campfire and Cheetos. She was fully clothed, her head resting on the bellhop's stomach. Chess was spread-eagled on the floor, the bedspread tangled around him. She had a vague memory of buying round after round of drinks for everyone in the lobby bar, using Abner Doubleday's American Express. This explained the hangover, but not the Cheetos. She closed her eyes again.
When she woke the second time, it was afternoon. She moved to the floor and smoked half a joint with Chess while the bellhop took a shower. "What the hell should we do here all day?" she said. "Our flight isn't until five."

Chess waggled the joint at her. "Isn't this entertainment enough?"

Jeramey took a drag. Back in the Touch and Go days, the morning after a gig had held a wild, raw 
magic, her fingers sore, her voice hoarse. Champagne for breakfast. Although she knew it was impossible, she couldn't remember ever being hungover on that tour. "Yeah, I guess," she said.

The bathroom door slammed open then. "You guys," the bellboy said.

Jeramey turned. He was brandishing his cell phone.

"There's a dead guy upstairs."

Jeramey didn't understand at first. "What?"

"In the penthouse! There's cops everywhere."

"What?" Jeramey repeated, then it hit her. "Wait, no, that guy was passed out, not dead. What the fuck happened?"

"My friend says there's homicide detectives and everything," the bellhop said. "They're talking to everyone who tries to leave the hotel."

Jeramey dropped her head to her hands. It was certainly going to be hard to explain how she happened to be in possession of that American Express card last night. "Fucking Ohio," she said.


Still clutching his bloody pants football, Beavers lurked around the second floor mezzanine and watched from behind a pillar as a coroner's stretcher arrived and then departed with Langdon inside a rubber sack. When the lobby seemed to reach a momentary lull, he descended the stairs and tried to cross the polished floor with confidence. He imagined he was Bennett Langdon--look at me, I'm an asshole millionaire, I'm walking around a hotel in a bathrobe but it's okay because I fucked your wife. The effect of this was more unnerving than empowering. By the time he made it to the front desk, Beavers was shaking.

"Um, excuse me," he said timidly.

The clerk turned to him, wiping her eyes. She was clutching a balled-up tissue. She did not appear to notice his robe. "Sir?"

"I, uh," Beavers said, "I seem to have misplaced my room key. Can I get a new one? It's Douglas Beavers, room ten-sixteen."

The clerk nodded. "I just need to see your ID, Mr. Beavers." She wiped her nose. "We've had an incident in the hotel this morning, so we've been asked to be extra cautious."

"Cautious," Beavers repeated. "Well," he added, improvising, "as it turns out, my ID is in my room. 
Which I cannot access."

The clerk considered this. Beavers smoothed the lapel of his bathrobe meaningfully.

"Of course, sir," the clerk said finally. She gave him a small smile. "You probably want to get out of that bathrobe," she added.

"Oh, yes," Beavers said.

Safely inside his own room, Beavers took a shower and contemplated his next move. The wallet must have been stuck between the cushions of the leatherette sofa or under the bed or somewhere else out of sight, since he hadn't seen it when he had been up there. And reason had it that the police hadn't seen it yet either, since their first stop after finding it would have no doubt been his room. He developed a new set of plans.

Plan A: Wait until the police were gone, and go back into Langdon's room for the wallet. They had to leave eventually, he figured, and it had been a couple hours already. He couldn't get very far without the wallet, given that he had an hour-long drive to get home to Springfield and his car was hovering on E.

Plan B: Live forever in room ten-sixteen.

He figured that he had a few dozen hotel nights' worth of available credit on the American Express he used to book the room. Well, maybe not quite that many, he realized as he ordered two twenty-dollar cheeseburgers and a beer from room service. He needed sustenance if he was going to stay sharp for his mission.


At some point during the day, it became imperative to Jeramey that they return the wallet. Though getting high in the middle of a crisis had never had any other effect on her, she started to get panicky and decided it was the fault of the wallet and not the weed.

"Look," she explained to Chess and the bellhop. They'd already missed their flight due to being too freaked out leave the hotel. There were cops talking to everyone in the lobby. "I used his card to buy I don't even know how much liquor last night. I need to get rid of it. What if they come here and do a search?"

"I think it was something like eighteen hundred dollars," the bellhop said, unhelpfully. Jeramey regretted that she ever considered sleeping with him.

Chess, suffering from sympathy paranoia, nodded along. "But we can't just dump it somewhere," he said. "Because as soon as they find it, they'll start trying to trace who dumped it, which makes the whole thing worse. Maybe we could destroy it."

"Like how?"

Chess flicked the lighter.

Jeramey pointed at the smoke detector. "I don't think the washcloth trick will work if we set a wallet on fire."

"Maybe we could cut it apart," the bellhop suggested, "and flush it down the toilet."

After sending the bellhop out into the hotel for a pair of scissors, the three of them stood around the low-flow toilet as Jeramey cut an experimental corner off Doug Beavers' driver's license and let it fall into the bowl. She pressed the flusher and held her breath.

But the low water pressure wasn't even enough to make the plastic triangle flutter.

"Fucking conservation," she muttered.

She cut off a larger chunk and dropped that into the toilet too, but no dice. Finally she reached into the water and retrieved the driver's license pieces, shoving all of them back into the little plastic compartment.

"The police have to leave eventually, right?"

Chess nodded. "They do."

"No," the bellhop said. "No. That's an even worse idea than going in there in the first place."

Jeramey shrugged. There was no other way. The weed made her feel certain of this. "We're going to have to put it back in the room," she said.

Beavers conducted some light recon. First, he waited until evening fell, then crept down to the lobby to look for cops. Everything appeared normal again, though.

Phase one, check.

Then Beavers sat down on a leatherette ottoman and faced away from the desk as he dialed the hotel's main phone number from his cell.

"Good evening, Columbus Hotel, how can I help you?"

"Yes, uh, I'm in room, um, sixteen-ten," he said quietly, "and I've been burgled."

"You've been what?"



"I think I might have seen someone going into that poor man's room last night," he tried next. "Can you send the police down to talk to me? Ten--I mean, sixteen-ten."

There was a muffled pause. Beavers resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at the desk to see what was happening. "Sir, if you have information about the incident in the hotel, you should contact the police immediately. They're no longer in the hotel, but I can give you the investigator's phone number if you have a pen?"

"I'll call back when I can find a pen," Beavers said.

Phase two, check.

He rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, alone this time. Once the doors slid open, he cautiously stepped out and looked around. The hallway was deserted, and the only indicator that anything unusual had happened was a neon green seal over the frame of Langdon's door. These premises have been sealed by the Columbus Police Department. All persons are forbidden to enter unless authorized by the police or a public administrator. Beavers let out a short sigh and slit the seal with his Swiss army knife.

The room had a garbagey smell, but there was no time to contemplate it. He searched the sofa first--no wallet. Then he looked under the bed--no wallet there either. He went back to the door and retraced his steps: doorway, kitchenette, sofa, bedroom, bathroom. He retreated quickly from the bathroom after seeing all that blood again. Langdon's head, Beavers could practically swear, contained more blood than a normal head, Jesus Christ. He closed the bathroom door again and looked out at the room. He couldn't remember being in any of the other areas, but then again, he had quite a few unaccounted-for hours. He crossed to the window and drew open the curtains, and it was then that he heard the unmistakable click of a key being inserted into the door.


Jeramey screamed. "Oh my god, I thought you were dead."

Beavers screamed too. He got a little worried. Was he dead?

The bellhop screamed and ran out of the room.

Jeramey threw the wallet at the guy. "I don't know what is going on here, but I don't want anything to do with it."

"Where did you get this?" Beavers said.

"So no one died?" Jeramey said. She looked over her shoulder for explanation but the bellhop was gone.

"Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly," Beavers said.

They both spun around as the door opened again.

"There he is! The ghost!" the bellhop said.

Two cops followed him into the room. "Okay," one of them said. "Which one of you would like to explain?"

Beavers folded immediately. "It was an accident," he blubbered. "He fucked my wife and I just, I don't know, I went crazy for a second. And I thought I left my wallet in here, so I came back in to get it, but it turns out she had it, and I don't even know--"

"Who are you?" the cop said to Jeramey.

"Hey," the other cop said. "You're Jeramey Jones, right? Touch and Go?" He strummed a few notes on an air guitar. "That album defined my twenties."

"Wait, what?" Beavers said.

"Yeah, that's me," Jeramey said. She cocked her head at him and smiled. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the river beyond the window.

That view, just, wow.

Kristen Lepionka is the Shamus and Goldie Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her debut, THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK, was also nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. Kristen grew up inside a public library and now lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner and two cats.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pulling, fiction by R.D. Sullivan

It was a day where Cal could smell the heat coming before the sun even rose, the promise of temperatures high enough to kill a person just a scent now on the pre-dawn breeze. Never one to sleep late to begin with, the first whiff had driven him from bed early enough that he had to light a lamp to dress by. Sheep out in the west lands needed moving closer to the home place, harried as they had been by some unknown predator. From the smell of the air, they were like as not to drop dead on the trail if he dallied.

Besides, he stood a chance of making it out early enough to catch sight of whatever had been picking off the lambs and blowing it straight to hell.

He drank yesterday’s coffee and chewed a strip of dried beef. The dark felt right for fresh, hot coffee and porridge, taken on the front porch to watch the sun rise, but with the air the way it was, he figured he could settle for less today. Even his big palomino stallion Branson thought it was too early, and he wondered if the horse would have found it a coffee and porch sort of hour as well. As it was the beast nickered softly and shook off whatever passes for sleep in a horse, one long shiver from snout to tail.

He fed the horse well before saddling it. Branson would be doing all the hard work after all and it’d be cruel to ask it from a beast with an empty stomach.

Washington would have to fend for himself. There weren’t much to spare and that dog would eat anything, so he didn’t figure he owed it more than a soup bone now and again.

Together the trio rode into the hills just as sunlight broke over the valley and drove what little existed of the cool morning breeze into its grave. All around them swelled the kind of loud silence that he loved. The pleasure of it wasn’t lost on him, despite the first beads of sweat down his spine. Above Branson’s breathing, above the clip of hooves on the buried rocks, the crisp snap of pine needles and twigs underfoot and the creak of saddle leather, lay the rest of the world. The birds chattered in the trees and the air seemed to rustle as the deer fled between the towering, pockmarked sandstone pillars which filled the hills.

Washington trotted ahead and Cal paid him no mind, up until the dog stopped suddenly and growled. Branson hesitated, and Cal felt as though all his blood drained into his boots.

It was likely nothing--the dog growled at the damn trees anytime they dared move--but he pulled the rifle free anyway. He slid from Branson’s back,stepping quietly onto the soft, dry dirt. The dog continued to growl as the man made his way in a big arch around the trees that blocked his view, hoping to spot whatever had Washington on edge before it caught scent of him.

The dog stepped forward, growls falling away to occasional chesty rumbles, twitchy black nose pushed as far forward as possible to safely sniff whatever it was.

A pair of well-worn and dusty leather boots came into view about the time Washington’s body relaxed, comfortable enough with whomever to step towards them.

“Morning, friend,” Cal called. He kept the rifle up and pointed to the side, ready to bring to bear if this stranger meant him harm, but the boots didn’t move. Then they did, one toe wiggling back and forth erratically as Washington began rolling in the person’s lap, neck pressed against the legs as he wiggled back and forth.

“Well, hell.”

Washington looked up at his voice, full of the pleasure dogs experience from meaty bones and rotten smells. His dog, who hated other people enough that the man had taken to locking him in the stables on the rare occasion he had company, was happily rolling in this person’s lap.

“Git,” he said to the dog, who ignored him for the glorious bounty of scent he’d found, until Cal added more gravel and meanness to his voice. “Washington, git!” Head hung, the dog slunk away, staying well out of striking range, and put his nose to finding something else to roll in.

He didn’t know if it would have been better or worse to find a stranger out here, but it wasn’t a stranger he’d found, it was a neighbor. This was Teddy Williams, a cattle rancher and sometimes late-night card companion that Cal had found the bottom of a bottle with more than once.

“Well, hell,” he said again, crouched in front of the body. The flannel shirt had long ago dried stiff, the brown of old blood like a bib down its front. It hadn’t all been spilled here, for trails of it ran from the two holes—one through Teddy’s neck, one through his cheekbone—down and under his head. He bore a halo of pine needles, sticks and blood-muddied dirt.

The body was in too good of shape to have been dragged a long ways, but Teddy hadn’t been shot here. Somebody had pulled him to this rock and propped him up, which seemed as odd a thing to do as murdering somebody in the first place.

The right side of the body had been gone at by something, likely the same thing that had been helping itself to his lambs. Unbidden, the thought came that this body, this murdered man, like as not had kept a few of his sheep alive, giving the predator something else to fill its belly with at night, and he shooed the notion away as quick as it’d come. It was unkind and cruel, even for the note of truth it rang.

The sun threatened to simmer him in his own clothes and he wished he could smell the sweetness of the grasses and slow creek around the home place, instead of the body’s putrefaction. To the west, farther in the hills, were his sheep, badly in need of better grazing and better protection. Town was a good few hours ride south then back again with Sheriff Gardner, a ride that would leave both him and Branson close to heat stroke.

And to the north a solid forty-five minutes lived this man’s wife, forevermore the Widow Williams.

With a foot in the stirrup he whistled for Washington, and the three turned north.


Annie Williams didn’t answer the door of she and Teddy’s house when Cal knocked, and the garden was likewise empty and quiet. He could have been hustling his sheep towards the lowlands and the time lost was lamentable if he couldn’t find her. He felt he’d at least done the right thing in coming to tell her first. Tomorrow he’d fetch the sheriff from town and together they’d stop by again.

The dark thought occurred to him that it was possible Annie had yet to be discovered amongst the sandstone too, body gone at by scavengers after falling victim to whatever hell Teddy had called down upon them both. It wouldn’t do to dwell on such a thing. Dead or alive, it wasn’t his concern until it was.

He had Branson half-pulled around to climb into the saddle when he heard a cow lowing in distress, and a woman’s sweet, soothing voice. He hadn’t thought to check the barn but when he moved around the house there she was, standing behind a fat black heifer trapped in the chute. Her auburn hair was sweat-matted to her face and she wore Teddy’s leather apron over her pale blue skirt, the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up and her round face red with exertion.

Cal quickly tossed Branson’s reins over the top rail and climbed in to help. He took one end of the rope from Annie’s hands and together they pulled, the coarse fibers biting into their palms. Two tiny hooves appeared from inside the cow, held taut by the pull of the rope.

“On three,” Annie said, and counted. Cal pointedly kept his eyes on the calf, instead of on the mottled green and purple bruise that painted her cheek and the two black eyes that winced as she wound the rope against a likewise bruised wrist.

They used the chute posts for leverage and yanked together, rewarded with the slime-covered calf head, all the way up to the ears. It slowly slid out until it snagged again.

“We’re to the hips,” he said.

Sweat dripped from her face as she nodded. “Again on three.” With a sucking sound the calf fell to the straw below the cow. Both he and Annie dropped with it, her pulling the sac from its head while he shook its legs, prompting the blood to flow and the lungs to take over. When it started pulling air they moved it to the corral on more fresh straw, tossed some hay in next to it, and let the cow free of the chute.

“Late for calving,” he said as they watched the heifer nuzzle and lick her new calf in between bites of alfalfa.

“Anderson’s bull got into my heifers. I’ve got a whole dozen ready to drop now.”

“That big brahma he’s got? Cream-colored with the black nose?”

“That’s the one.”

“Maybe you’ll get your own nice bull out of the lot, then.”

“That’s the hope. If they’re going to calve in July I might as well get something useful from it. Breakfast?”

“I’ve got sheep to move. I just came by to talk with you about Teddy.”

Her jaw flexed at the name, making the bruises on her face ripple. “It’s too hot to move sheep and I owe you for the help. You can put your horse in the next paddock, or in the barn. I’ll get washed up and get to frying.”

She didn’t make eye contact as she said it, just watched the heifer a moment, and swung towards the house.

Cal started unsaddling Branson but guilt made him pause and drop his forehead against the pommel. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Annie roughed up, but that didn’t change the fact that there was a murdered man up in the hills. To sit at her table and bring up such a dark matter over a shared meal seemed beyond the pale. But she wasn’t wrong—it was too hot to move the sheep by now and with her already disappeared into the house, he’d missed his chance to protest.

So he finished loosening the saddle. After throwing it over the fence and turning Branson out, he washed blood from his arms and hands as best he could, though his shirt had to be what it was. She had bacon going inside and fresh coffee heating. Or old coffee. Didn’t matter much to him if it was just reheated, hot would be nice.

“There hasn’t been time to make bread, with the calving.”

“All right.”

“Go out to the coop and grab some eggs, would you?”

He came back with eight and she threw all but two on the griddle just as the bacon came off.

“Something still pestering your sheep?” she asked when they finally sat down.

“Lost two lambs just last week.”

“We ought to organize a party to hunt down whatever’s out there. It won’t stop with your lambs.”

“We ought to,” he agreed. “About Teddy…” he started, but she cut him off before he could say more.

“You moving them out through the old Kendell place, by the sandstone?” she asked.

He noticed she didn’t look up when she asked. He also noticed how tenderly she chewed with her bruised jaw, and the dark lines encircling both wrists. When he didn’t answer she glanced up, caught him looking, and looked back just as hard with both black-and-green-rimmed eyes.

Cal was starting to get the impression she knew exactly why he was there, though he himself was starting to have doubts.

If it had been him, the law would have considered it self-defense. The sheriff would see it differently when it came to a wife.

Cal made a decision.

“Ayup,” he said. “Though I might bring them down through Reynold’s canyon now. More water. If this heat holds, they’ll need it on the way.”

She held his eye another moment and he could see her thinking on what he’d just said, what he’d really said, hiding behind the words he’d used. Satisfied, she went back to her breakfast.

She came out drying dishwater from her hands on a towel as he threw the saddle back on Branson, Washington busy licking at the birthing mess in the chute.

“Big calf,” he said. “No wonder you had to pull it.”

“Came from a big bull. Might be more like that.”

He nodded and slipped the bit between Branson’s teeth. “Once my sheep are settled by the creek I’ll come stay in the barn, if you think you might have to pull more.”

“I’d be awful indebted.” She opened the gate as he mounted and walked the horse out. “What…” She took a moment, swallowing as she refastened the gate. “What was it you wanted to see Teddy about?”

“Oh not much. Got a bit of woodwork I need done but it’s more for pastime than necessity. I reckon it’ll wait.”

She nodded, one hand patting Branson’s neck.

“You mind if I cut through your south lands? I can’t move them ewes but I should at least get an eye on the flock, see how they’re faring.”

“Of course,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you for calving then.”

“I guess you will.”


After a time Cal stopped yelling at Washington and let the dog have its fun. The way he leapt and bit and barked at the body of Teddy Williams made Cal sick to think about, so he decided not to think about it. Occasionally the dog would stop and roll in whatever scent Teddy left in the dirt and rocks and though Washington didn’t know it yet, he was getting thrown into the creek later, which was as close to washing the beast as the man could stomach, considering.

Branson was sweaty long before the rope around the body’s feet had been tied to the saddle horn but he didn’t hesitate or slow, just leaned into the hill and pulled steadily onward. The man walked in front, loose hold on the reins, not looking back. It reminded him of pulling the calf, that rope tied around its feet as well, pulling a life into this world by force much the same as this one had been forced out of it by two well-placed bullets.

At the top of the ridge he looped Branson’s reins over a low pine branch and aimed enough of a boot at Washington that the dog took off without needing to be struck, happier to find a new stink to roll in than to tempt the anger of its master. Once the rope was off Teddy’s legs, he pulled him the rest of the way to the rim and rolled him off the side. He wished he could have missed hearing the body strike first the cliff face, then the rock-strewn forest floor below, but he couldn’t change the fact that he did.

Branson shied from him and he knew then he didn’t smell much better than Washington did, and that he’d be in the creek along with the dog and a bar of hard soap. Despite the messy business of the day he looked forward to the bath, given how his shirt had soaked through and the brim of his hat long since stopped absorbing sweat. He’d like as not coax the horse into the water as well to get the foam and sweat from its hide.

Then a full dinner, for all three of them. Tomorrow they’d start early again, get the sheep settled, and settle in themselves for a hot July of calving at the Widow Williams’ place.

R.D. Sullivan is a writer of fiction, comedy and letters to the editor. She lives in Northern California with her family and two solidly mediocre dogs, where she runs a subcontracting business. Her work has been featured at Fireside Fiction Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Killing Malmon and the Murder-A-Go-Go’s anthology. She is also proud and ashamed of her novella, Hotties and Bazingas and the Murder Cult Murders. You can track her down on twitter @RDSullyWrites or over at

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dirty Old Town, by Gabriel Valjan, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Dirty Old Town
Gabriel Valjan
Level Best Books
172 pages
reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Dirty Old Town, a short novel by Gabriel Valjan, is a slick tribute to a bygone time as well as being a cracking good detective story. It's 1975, and private detective Shane Cleary's life in Boston's South End is grim. Besides his cat Delilah, there's little companionship, and not a lot going on. In the hardboiled tradition, Cleary's wallet is thin and his prospects few, but a late night phone call from rich old chum Brayton Braddock serves to get Cleary's engines firing. And to complicate matters, Shane and Brayton Braddock's wife Cat have a complicated history.

It turns out that Braddock is getting blackmailed, and he wants Cleary to find out who's doing it. The problem centers around real estate dealings that, while not quite illegal, could serve to complicate matters for the development of downtown Boston and the suits on Beacon Hill, and indeed involve shadow groups of people--largely rich, largely insulated--who come from the upper crust of Boston's social scene and depend on those shadows to hide their complicity in all manner of things, as Cleary discovers.

Thus are we thrust into a ripped-from-the-screens '70s cinema feel novel, without a touch of nostalgic haze. From the CITGO sign to the Wonderland dog track ,, you can feel the wind in your face as Valjan's prose takes Cleary down Tremont Street toward the Little Building. This is a book with an uncommon feel for and love of the city, and it's a damned fun time. All the Boston trappings are there, from the battles between the Irish and the Italians for control of the underground to the omnipresent roots of the project that would become the Big Dig, transforming Boston's downtown in an emblem of greed and green alike.

Cleary is a worthy character indeed, with his own colorful history and a life he brings to bear on the complicated messes he finds himself in. Like Spenser and Patrick Kenzie before him, he brings a mordant humor and not-quite-a-tough-guy ease to his role. He's completely credible as someone with enough brawn and streetsmarts to make his way through Boston in pursuit of the bad ones, mobsters and police alike ticking at his heels looking for him to slip up just once.

Secondary characters reveal themselves well, like former professor Delano Lindsey, stolid-but-gay police officer Bill and his closeted partner, as well as Mr. Butch, street performer in Kenmore Square, all are lovingly and aptly detailed in prose that never goes off-track and always serves the story. Describing a ride from the South End to Beacon Hill in the dead of night:

Minimal traffic. Not a word from him or me during the ride. Boston goes to sleep at 12:30 a.m. Public transit does its last call at that hour. Checkered hacks scavenge the streets for fares in those small hour hours before sunrise. The other side of the city comes alive then, before the rest of the town awakes, before whatever time Mr. Coffee hits the filters and grounds. While men and women who slept until an alarm clock sprung them forward into another day, another repeat of their daily routine, the sitcom of their lives, all for the hallelujah of a paycheck, another set of people moved, with their ties yanked down, shirts and skirts unbuttoned, and tails pulled up and out. The night life, the good life, was on.

Valjan is a man who you can trust to take you for a ride with the smooth forward propulsion of his prose. He fits in well with the city's rich literary array of crime writers, and stakes his claim among them. One of the abiding pleasures of the reading life is coming across characters so well-written, so well-worn in their own bodies it seems as if they've always existed. Shane Cleary is one of them, and if we're lucky, we'll hear much more from him in the future, and perhaps in other projects from Gabriel Valjan, who proves with this book that there is much more life to the PI novel in Boston than might have been imagined.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lightwood, by Steph Post, reviewed by Jay Gertzman

By Steph Post
Polis Books
302 pp.
Reviewed by Jay A Gertzman

Steph Post is a prime candidate for renown in her genre. The comparison that comes to mind is with David Joy. His Where All Light Tends to Go (Putnam’s, 2015) is similar to Post’s Lightwood in precisely reported setting, tough but conflicted characters, dead mothers, sustaining and/or hindering loved ones, help from unexpected places, injured self-respect, a need for adventure, and bloodletting reaching toward Grand Guignol depths. In addition to all these rudiments of 20th-century pulp noir, both writers give their protagonists’ struggles for independence from community and family ties an almost biblical intensity. Maybe that helps explain the similarity in their names, Judah and Jacob.
Judah Cannon’s surname reflects Genesis 29:35. Judah (“praise”), was a founder of a new family line; his father was Jacob; King David and Christ were descendants. Post’s Judah—when we first meet him—is in no such position, because he is too loyal to the values he has received growing up in Silas, a hardscrabble Florida town that has been stagnant for a generation. Empty storefronts, weekend assignations, and weaponry stockpiled for the End of Days reflect resignation to a moral code that, in its strictly enforced absolutism, has become shabby. For example, Judah has stayed helpful to his estranged, contemptuous wife, and to his bullying father, because he has been taught men do not abandon family. Unlike his girlfriend Ramey, he has not learned to prioritize self-respect over self-defeating obligation. Thus, he accepts his wife’s demand that he not see their child.
Post’s themes preclude backgrounding the dignity of rural Americans’ creative perseverance, as do not only Breece Pancake, Chris Offutt (Kentucky Straight), Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage), and Carolyn Chute, but also Martin McDonagh in his film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In contrast, Ramey and Judah make a stark contrast to their fellow citizens in Silas, whose beaten-down resignation is evident in their TV binging, their heavy drinking, and their need for firearms to protect their property.
Judah had just finished a 3-year prison sentence, taking the rap for a Cannon family theft from the Scorpions, a slap-dash and vicious gang of bikers dealing in cocaine. His father, Sherwood, has told him, “without family, you got nothing. But with family, you got everything. . . .” He said this “with a dangerous scowl,” one people have learned is a dire warning.
Judah’s younger brother, Benji, has not become embittered or resentful. He has an easy-going friendliness. He takes after his mother. (Her death, like that of Joy’s protagonist’s, produced a grief both men must bury; the pain still eats at them and possibly is a factor in their fathers’ cruelty.) Benji is dragged to the point of death by the Scorpions to scare Sherwood into giving back the drug money (which of course does not happen). At this point Judah confesses his guilt for Benji’s near-fatal torture. “I went along with it, again.” He states this in a public place. Why would he do that? To survive any crisis takes self-respect. That comes as a result of confidence, which in turn comes with experience. Where do you learn those traits, in an isolated small town, where your own father and brother stop you from doing so, and beat the crap out of you if you start to? “Stupid, cowardly worm, who can’t even think for himself.” Now he starts to.
Judah’s unaccustomed outburst endangers Sherwood’s plans. He’s growing up, and Sherwood and his brother Levi pound him bloody for it. Ramey, who Sherwood admits “has some balls” (interesting but unlikely observation), helps by pulling a gun to stop the beating. One trait of noir literature is trust and courage emerging from unlikely places.
Ramey and Judah not only sleep together; they dream together, of an independent future, one where the strengths of rural life can revive out of the coffin of obedience to authorities like Sherwood. Judah must find the clue to how to channel his ability to think for himself into independence of heart and soul. Ramey has already done so. “She was … desperately trying to be the woman her own mother never had the courage to be.” “I’ve always been my own. But I think,” she tells Judah, “we carry a part of each other. Always have. Always will.” What she will never do is become a brittle, disposable object such as lightwood.
A prime noir characteristic is extreme violence. That is provided not only by what happens to Benji, but by a Grand Guignol all by herself, Sister Tulah, fire and brimstone preacher with a captive congregation she terrifies with starvation, sensory overload, and demands for tithes they dare not withhold. It’s as if she has emerged as the ultimate monster that Sherwood and the bikers had unwittingly conjured up from hell. Her weird pale eyes hide an essential emptiness of the least drop of humanity. She fears only snakes, I suppose in deference to her boss, Satan. He is the only one, she might think, powerful enough to make her suffer as she has done to her own acolytes.
I don’t know of many similar characters in contemporary rural noir. I think of Jim Thompson’s deformed Ruthie in Savage Night, who leads Little Bigger, hit man extraordinaire, to a death that “tastes good.” The shack where it all goes down, way down, has a sign in the yard: “The way of the transgressor is hard.”
Sherwood and Tula have to work together to find the stolen money. It is needed by a phosphate corporation to bribe local politicians. In a powerful denouement, securing that money becomes Sherwood’s baptism of fire. Tulah remains. Judah and Ramey wind up with the filthy lucre his father has accumulated. On to Walk in the Fire. Obviously, fire has many implications, both hellish and cleansing.
Post’s novel exemplifies a fascinating contrast between classic and contemporary noir. In the former, those who, like Bigger in Savage Night, or Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, embrace absolute megalomaniacal control end in literal fire. It tastes good, or they laugh. (For another scary example, see Charles Williams’ The Hot Spot). Protagonists in Woolrich, Goodis, Gil Brewer, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Hughes, and Charles Williford bind themselves to a malevolent fate they can only stoically accept. While the difficulties of forging satisfying human connections are clear in rural noir, the possibilities of securing mutuality can be realized, and enjoyed. Perseverance is fulfilling, not simply the mark of a noble loser. So it is in Woodrell, Bonnie Campbell, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, and Steph Post. Its radical nature has everything to do with cleansing.

Jay Gertzman is the author of Pulp, According to David Goodis, which was nominated for best non-fiction study of the mystery genre for 2019. A Prof Emeritus at Mansfield University, his specialties are literary censorship, the publisher Samuel Roth, and 20th century  mass market pulp crime fiction.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Vin Scully Eyes, fiction by Nolan Knight

If the Torrance Costco would’ve just had the right damn pickles, Montrose Laughlin III wouldn’t have had to stifle his day, driving mother’s beloved Jag twenty minutes outside his comfort zone to visit the Long Beach Costco. Although, it wasn’t as if he had any real plans—like most days. The inconvenience was what irked. Surely, the Torrance store’s employees had taken notice every time he trudged inside (first day of every month) to re-stock his cabinets for another thirty days. And he always bought multiple four-packs of monster hot and sour dills—couldn’t live without them—and now, today of all days, they hadn’t the foresight to replenish their goddamn load. For certain, the world was playing a fine cruel joke.

The San Diego Freeway was crammed, inching along, bumper to bumper—no longer functional in its design for modern vehicles. Mother’s Jaguar hadn’t been on any freeway in over two decades, a garaged beauty fit for coastal cruises or a night on the town. She’d be inflamed at the thought of her only son cruising her “baby” into the bowels of Los Angeles on such a laughable task. But she couldn’t react one bit, not from the mantel she was perched back home—her gold urn, cold and unamused as her lifelong gaze. The Jag’s engine revved in-place. Monte huffed in defeat, searching the radio for any sign of sports talk, it being mid-season when baseball trades shook the world.

He arrived at the Costco thirty minutes later than it should’ve taken, exiting the car and charging a bay of carts. By the clothes on his mousy frame, one never would’ve pegged him as an heir to a real estate fortune. When mother passed, he gave up on appearances, one thing she had an iron-grip throughout his youth. Private school uniforms. Apparel for every season in matching hues. The last time he’d purchased sneakers was in 1997: Air Jordans (black/red/white), an entire crate, size nine. Same with baggy denim and loud T-shirts. Mass quantities of comfort that he didn’t care looked dated nowadays.

Mother’s ghost just grabbed her chest.

For a Tuesday afternoon, the store seemed tranquil. Layout looked to be nearly identical to Torrance, so he headed through stacks of processed foods, towards giant canisters and condiment buckets. Eight pallets ahead, on the left, sat the pickled goods. The sight of that pink pig on every jar nearly sparked flatulence. He loaded up the cart, buying triple his usual, just in case Torrance couldn’t get their shit together. After free samples of sausage and a long line at the register, he was back on the road for home.


With the 405 still a mess, Monty navigated streets, hoping to open the Jag’s engine down Willow till it morphed into Sepulveda. Hadn’t been outside the South Bay in so long, almost forgot what the real world looked like. Everything was in decline: roads, buildings. The violet pedals on jacarandas even appeared to be weeping. He revved to a stop at Long Beach Boulevard; the looks on other drivers’ faces had him wishing he’d raised the convertible’s roof. A hearty voice called to him from the center median. He craned to see a large black gentleman holding a sign with a picture of a teen flashing his gold teeth. The poster blared, FUNERAL DONATIONS 4 ’LIL MEEZY.

“Anythin’ will help us, sir. My son. Firstborn—only twenty-three an’ taken back to God’s glory.” The man pointed across to the far median. “Two young girls ova dere his keeds. Four an’ nine.”

Monty scanned the intersection, watching other poster clad family members walk up and down car lanes, pleading for compassion, scooping an occasional dollar. The light flashed green. Monty returned to the man, meeting his crystal gaze. “Sorry. No cash.”

Before, “God bless,” could leave the poor man’s lips, Monty’s engine charged west.


Lamont Craig II decided he’d had enough for today, soon as that pricey foreign roadster left him penniless, flying down Willow—its driver a disheveled, shell of a man. He guzzled a large Gatorade from out a cooler in the rear of his “work truck”— a ’92 Suburban with magnets across its body that read:

You’ve been Had by The Rest. Now try The Best!

His wife, Eloise, was fanning off his granddaughters with a newspaper beside him, misting water above their beaded braids. Their faces were painful to take in, two pairs of his dead son’s eyes beaming back. He handed the bottle to his remaining son (Trey, eighteen), busy counting donations they’d gathered before the heat beat them down. “What it do?”

“Made like two hunny.”

Lamont reflected, adding the total for the past two days in his mind: $520. A drop in the bucket—the urn for what they needed to send his boy to heaven right. There was no savings to dip, no retirement plan to plunder. This was all a bad dream, aftershocks in play for the rest of his days.

How could his boy be gone in a whisper?

Eloise loaded the girls into the car, its insides finally cool enough to buckle them. The men climbed inside. As Lamont drove home, the blank looks off every person he approached in that intersection churned the brain. Nevermind what they thought: another dead thug on the ghetto streets. To them his boy was probably just some hood that deserved what he got. But he didn’t. No one earned the right to be on the wrong side of a bullet—no matter who they were. And Lamont Craig III—Meezy to the homies—was his son. His blood…taken out like a rabid dog for wearing the wrong color shoes. He sparked a Marlboro 100 to vanquish them all, those dumb stares, ghosts out his lungs into a blistering sun.


Eloise and the girls gently wept in the backseat; Trey handed over fresh Kleenex as the Suburban pulled into the driveway of their weathered abode. Couldn’t remember the lawn ever being green or window bars not rusted. His brother would often joke about the place, calling it The Kennel, often met by father’s sneer; Pop’s knees had been obliterated by years spent crawling floors, wiring nicer homes in better neighborhoods so his family could eek out this life. One thing was certain: There was no way he’d be another stooge on his knees when he grew up. Life was one big hustle, either the moon or the gutter, and Trey wasn’t going to gamble on something better—he would achieve it—become a professional in this world. He’d already killed the SATs and been accepted to two private colleges. Wasn’t like he was in line for any grants or scholarships though. The plan was to hit Long Beach Community for his undergrad; hopefully by then, he could save enough working for Pops and take out a loan to help make that dream a reality. But there was one major caveat: He wouldn’t be taking over the family business, like his brother was supposed to—and that wouldn’t be tolerated by Pops. Shit, just going to community college got met with a chuckle by the old man. With this sudden death in the family, that dream would have to be a secret from now on.

The room he shared with Junior had cracks in the walls covered by pictures of Gang Starr and Tribe. (He never called him Meezy. He was Junior since day one—no matter what the streets claimed.) Band posters were all that Momma would allow, never tolerating big titties or butt cracks inside her home. He opened the closet, staring at Junior’s blue wardrobe, taking out a puffy Dodgers jacket and sniffing it, burying emotion deep inside. He slid it on in front of the mirrored door. His hands dug into the pockets, right one hit something cold, hard. Instantly, he knew what it was, slowly pulling out the revolver, noticing it was loaded.

The fuck, Junior?

When did it all go south?

He opened a high drawer, one used for socks and undies, burying the Smith & Wesson deep inside. He wondered how much it’d fetch on the street. Could buy a haul of textbooks. Knew exactly who to approach: Kermit. Tomorrow they were going down to the funeral home too—same one Kermit’s dad owned. He’d probably be there, working. Kermit ran with a questionable crew, like most boys out here. Surely, he’d know someone that needed a piece—hell, maybe even himself. Trey took another glance in the mirror before tearing off the jacket and kicking it into the closet.


A brisk, salty breeze welcomed Monty back to Manhattan Beach, ocean a snoring beast in the distance. To think his great grandfather had the foresight to purchase large swaths of acreage up this coast many years ago; Monty still held title to several homes and businesses throughout the community. Would’ve had more if mother hadn’t began selling off parcels to eager socialites and celebrities throughout the ’70’s. Didn’t really matter though—not like he had any children or other family to pass the fortune. If he ever got short of money, he’d just sell a home for five to ten million and go on with his humdrum ways. There were no worries in store for Monty, so when the issue of a potential new neighbor moving in next door became a possibility, it tilted his barge.

ESPN radio had no reports of any Dodger players being traded yet. Monty felt a short relief wash over as the Jag climbed up his narrow driveway, then descended into a subterranean garage. The home was originally built as a two-story, back when his father still controlled the acreage between it and the coast. Upon his passing, after mother’s selling spree to uphold her gilded existence, the home was demolished and re-built to accommodate four-stories, cementing a panoramic view above all who’d built downhill. Monty rarely even visited the first two stories, now converted into storage, filled with mother’s artifacts from her global escapades and priceless paintings sheathed in plastic. He rode the elevator up, arms heavy with pickle jars. Approaching the kitchen, a sound of the television brought concern. In the living room sat his best and only friend, his neighbor—a relief pitcher for the “Boys in Blue” named Robbie Slate.

“Elle’s having another one of her Real Housewife parties. Had to bail, man. You don’t mind, right?”

Monty tossed him a beer can from out the fridge.

Robbie caught it with his right arm—the left shackled in an intricate brace from a recent labral tear repair.

“My place is your place—why I gave you that emergency key. You didn’t have a problem with the new security system, right? Same code.”

“Nah, it was cool. What’d you do to it?”

Upgraded the surveillance—smaller cameras. Guess I just got bored with the old one. They’re coming out next week to set-up the exterior."

You don’t have outdoor cameras?”

I do, but the monitor’s busted. Wear and tear.”

Robbie popped the can with his teeth and sniffed its contents. “This a new South Bay brew or what?”

“Nah, they’ve been ’round a few years. Harbortown Ales. Specialize in Belgians but this is their unfiltered Citra DIPA. Drink it.”

Robbie swilled. “Tastes like oranges…grapefruit even.”

“People are going ape shit for it—camping out along Western.”

“Fuckin’ delicious. You buying in?”

“I’ve made it known that I’m willing to invest. They’re all young though. Kids. The brew master ain’t out his twenties. See what happens, but yeah…I want in.” He cracked his own can. “Heard you haven’t been placed on the chopping block yet.”

“Who told you that?”

“Radio. If you get traded, wanna sell your house back to me?”

“Fuck no. We’ll rent in whatever shit city they send me.”

If you get traded.”


“Think it’ll happen?”

“Fuck if I know. My numbers were solid, before…” He raised his broken wing.

“What the doc say?”

“I’m on ice for at least ten months—best case scenario. Anyway, if I don’t hear from my agent by midnight tomorrow, I’m good for another season.”

He plopped on the couch, admiring a yacht in the bay.

Lemme ask you something, Monty.”


Beer, you serious? Why don’t you put money in real estate—I mean, it’s in your blood, bro?”

Golden Road just sold to Budweiser for nearly a billion. How’s beer not lucrative these days? I own enough property as it is."

I’m talking new developments. Have you been in downtown lately?”

He laughed. “No."

Elle and I were at this charity function the other night—”

What charity?”

Some foundation for the blind—or maybe it was prostate cancer. Shit, I’m at so many of these things, I lose track.”

Monty reflected on the last time he ever did anything nice for anyone other than himself. Charity? He should try it one of these days.

What was I saying?”


Yeah, so, we’re at this dinner at the Ritz—I’m gazing out the windows, taking in the view. Fuckin’ cranes galore, man. Every corner has something new going up—and I mean up—high in the sky. Most of the designs are bat-shit too. Everyone’s got a boner for Frank Gehry, right? So, then it hits me. The Future.”

Future smacked you in the face?”

Kinda. Marvels are being built, man. Mini metropolises. Giant works of art! Live/Work/Play. Condo owners never have to venture out their building’s grounds. That’s when it hits me—this is the future of Los Angeles. Build some giant campus—a contained city within the City, make it shaped like something weird—a legion of colliding locomotives or some shit. Next door, a developer builds another, even more outlandish—the view out every unit window framing another 3-D Dali built across the way. That’s the future. Build ’em high and keep folks dumb—drunk on steel. I’ve already got my accountant reaching out to developers, ones moving into South Central. Never been done before in the history of L.A. The future is now, and if you don’t buy in, you’re gonna miss out, man.”

Monty snickered into his beer.

That funny to you? Think I’m crazy, right? I’m not.”

No, I feel you. It’s just—”

Just what?”

My father used to always say the future depended on investing in children—their livelihood…education.”

Whose children? You an’ I don’t have any dogs in that race.”

I know but kids own the future—can’t argue with that—even ones that brew beer.” By the twist on Robbie’s face, the concept was lost, so Monty refrained. “Forget it. That’s a good idea though—yours. I’m sure you’ll make a killing."

Damn right.”

“’Nother beer?”

Please. Hey, you should come with Elle and me to the next event. She thinks you look generous. Always says you got them Vin Scully eyes. Very kind.”

Monty headed for the kitchen, smiling. “Don’t know about that, but Elle’s an angel for thinking.” The word charity flashed like neon in his brain.

Why hadn’t he entertained it earlier?

He knew the answer, it reflected back at him, eye to eye in the sleek refrigerator door. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer. Come here, check this out.”

Robbie rose from the couch and joined Monty before a ceramic nude bust of a female torso, hanging at the hallway entrance. “That’s cool, man. Erotica. New?"

Yeah. See anything weird about it?”

Robbie analyzed the bust. “Nah.”

Monty switched off the hall lights. Inside the ivory nipples were pinpoint red dots.

No way. New security cameras?”

Monty nodded. “These spy minis are all over. Pretty cool, right?”

Shit, yeah. Maybe the home security market is where to invest?”

Possibly…or else we just keep on living our dang lives.

Monty smiled as Robbie mimed slurping an areola.


Next morning, the Jag pulled into an industrial corridor just north of Old Town Torrance. The Strand Brewing Co. was located inside a large warehouse where craft beer was brewed and bottled on a daily basis. Monty retrieved two amber growlers from out his trunk and walked inside to have them filled. The tasting room staff didn’t know him very well, but they knew of him—word through the beer community about some stiff with deep pockets, hoping to pay to play in their business. He sipped a pint of pale while his bottles were filled, sitting at a picnic bench, scrolling through his cell to see Robbie’s trade status. Looked like his neighbor was safe for now, their conversation yesterday keeping Monty awake for part of the night. He should do something positive with his inheritance. An act that would cost little to him but change someone’s life for the better. Fuck real estate, that empty void often displaced those truly in need. A random monetary donation would be like tossing a stone into a lake, watching the ripples, knowing that he made the impact. He’d start off small, maybe pay for someone’s groceries or write a check to a soup kitchen or. . .

What would Vin do?

The beerback called his name; he approached for both growlers. The moment his fingers touched that icy brew, it hit him like a crisp jab.

Yesterday: that family with the funeral!

A grin climbed his face as he rushed to the Jag and peeled out the lot.


The intersection mirrored the day before, family members at every median in the ninety-degree heat. Monty spotted the father at the southerly light; he hooked a right down Long Beach and cut a quick U, heading back to Willow. The father looked in his direction, but upon seeing him, turned and headed back to a foldout chair set-up with an umbrella. Monty honked to get the man’s attention. Soon as he craned, Monty waved him over.


Lamont leaned Meezy’s poster to his chair and approached the foreign roadster, thinking, Fuck this white fool want? Grin on the dudes’ face was waxy—kind he’d seen in a hundred horror movies. Before he could open his mouth, the man spoke.

“I’d like to have a word with you.”

“’Bout what?”

“This whole production you got here.”

Production?” Lamont sneered. “Get the hell on witchoo.”

“I mean no disrespect—that came out wrong.”

“Ya think?”

“I wanna help. Can we talk somewhere?”

Lamont scanned the intersection; Trey was giving him a look, wondering what was going on. He waved him over. The light turned green. “Meet me in the parking lot—over there,” he pointed, “beside that Suburban.”


Trey’s face remained blank, wondering who this white man was in the vintage Air Jordans, along with his agenda. By the frozen look on Pop’s face, figured the old man held the same thought.

Monty stood silent for a beat, wondering if they’d misheard him. “Said I’d like to cover the costs…for the funeral—all of ’em.”

Lamont: “May I ask why? I mean yesterday you—”

“That’s just it. Yesterday got me thinking. Seeing your family out here, that picture of your son—couldn’t recall the last time I ever helped anyone beside myself. Look Laah…what was it again?”

“Lamont. This here is my son, Trey.”

“Lamont. Trey. Nice to meet you. I know this may sound bizarre, and I understand your tentative reaction, but hear me out. My name is Monty Laughlin. I’m a lifelong Angeleno from Manhattan Beach who is capable of erasing the financial burden of your tragedy. That’s all there is to it. There are no hidden fees with this offer or monetary gain seen on my behalf—only the satisfaction of knowing that I did something positive today—helping ’Lil Meezy get a proper burial. Now…all you gotta do is say yes, and we can get started.”

“I’ll need to speak with my wife first.”

“Sure thing. I’ll wait.” He watched as Lamont walked to the rear of the Suburban, tractor beamed by his spouse’s hungry eyes.

Trey stayed put. “You serious about all this, Monty?”

“Cross my heart. Can I ask what happened to your brother?”

“Got shot outside a strip club—Fantasy Castle—over in Signal Hill.”

Jesus. I saw that in the Times. They catch the bastard responsible?”

“Nope. Never do. Say, what you do for a living?”

“I’m in between things at the moment. Guess you could call me a…Beer Man.”

“Beer? What, like Bud Ice or something?”

“Craft beer—West Coast IPAs mostly. I’m trying to invest in local breweries.” The kid looked at him as if he were speaking French.

Lamont returned with his wife and grandkids.

Monty said, “Well?”

The woman let go of the children’s hands and walked up to him, a glimmer in both eyes. For some reason, Monty had the feeling she was about to slap him. Before he could flinch, the woman wrapped both arms around his ribs and began to sob.


They insisted Monty come to their home for lunch; after all, they needed to discuss moving forward with his help. Trey asked to ride along with him in the Jag, helping guide the way. Monty couldn’t believe this turn of events, a simple decision having him feeling completely alive.

“You’re going to have to park this car in our driveway. Believe me. You don’t want it out on the street.”

Monty surveyed the neighborhood, his jovial feeling subsiding with every awkward glance by young men draped in blue, loitering on corners or smoking on front porches. The sight of their home struck him oddly, its deferred state. To Monty, the place was condemnable. He parked where Trey recommended, not having the gumption to tell the boy that this car meant as much to him as finding a heads-up penny.

He humored his way through a lunch of leftover soul food, the dish both warm and comforting. A Black Jesus cast judgement upon him, crucified to a far wall. A matching Last Supper hung near the dining table. He grubbed as the couple let on. Lamont and Eloise had already picked out a funeral home they would use, a friends’ business. Still up for discussion was the proper urn for their child’s ashes. Lamont slid him a brochure with some modest looking urns, nothing close to the grandeur of mother’s golden vessel.

Monty slid back the brochure. “Why don’t we head on down there and see what else they have. I want everyone to be satisfied.”

Lamont smiled at Eloise, taking off her apron. “Well, they were expecting us to swing by today.

Monty wiped off with a napkin. “Great. What’s the address?”

“I’ll roll with you. Lemme just grab my phone and meet you out front.” He sprinted into the bedroom, opening the closet and retrieving the pistol from Junior’s jacket.


The crematorium was located amongst a stretch of dilapidated commercial and industrial buildings, the last functioning business on the whole damn block. Monty counted liquor stores and USMC billboards the whole way there. Once he parked the car in the lot, Trey began to giggle.

“What is it?”

“Nothin’. Just your getup is all? You realize what kinda shoes you’re wearing, right?”

“Jordans, man—come on. I love these shoes. Now you’re gonna goof on me?”

“Goof? Nah. Them kicks be worth a lot a cash, dog. Jordan eights. Saw a pair online go for over five 

“No shit?”


“Well, then I guess I made a smart investment, huh? What size you wear?”

Trey perked. “Twelve.”

“These are size nine. Bummer.”

Trey squinted, contemplating a biblical gesture. “Were you just about to give me the shoes off your 

Monty killed the engine. “What? No. Just asked ’cause I have about twenty pair in their original 
boxes, back home. Bought them in bulk in ’97. Would’ve given you a pair, if they fit. Bummer, right?”

“Damn straight.”

They exited, Suburban pulling into a slot beside them. Trey watched the interaction between Monty and his parents; the man was some kind of genie, one they never summoned.


Monty chummed it up with the head of the mortuary, a skeletal black fellow named Isaiah. They exchanged pleasantries, ones appropriate for such a setting. Upon closer inspection of the grounds, the funeral home didn’t look to be financially solvent: ceiling water damage, torn carpeting—not even a secretary to answer the bereaved. Place didn’t do custom urns either, like mother’s. Lamont and Eloise were stuck surveying a shelf of copper urns till Monty pointed at some featuring higher end precious metals. Isaiah jumped in to describe each of their fine attributes. There being only two variants meant this place hardly sold them. A young man came in from the back room. Monty watched as Trey slapped hands with the kid—a deep scar on his chin like one found on a flawed pumpkin. The boys headed outside. Focusing back on the task at hand, it was easy to see which urn Eloise wanted for her son—she just wouldn’t say it, caressing cold silver like a newborn. Monty tapped Isaiah’s shoulder: “We’ll take it. I’d like to cut a check for the total sum as well, including cremation, et cetera. Do you accept checks?”

The man’s eyes turned devilish, his broken smile could’ve split the world.


The boys took cover behind a tall dumpster at the rear of the building. As Kermit perused the weapon, Trey kept his eye on the parking lot in case his parents and Monty came strolling out. Kermit snapped the cylinder, sniping down the barrel as if he’d ever shot one of these before. Maybe he’d had; Trey didn’t care to ask, only thing on his mind being book money.

“So, what you think?”

The scar on Kermit’s chin frowned. “Got bullets?”

Trey dug out the original six from his pocket. “Jus’ a starter kit. They sell ’em at Big Five.”

“I know that.” Kermit handled the ammo. “How much you say again?”

“Got wax in them ears, nigga? Four hunny.” Trey had done his research online and knew the gun was, at best, a two Benjamin steal. Now he sat back to see if Kermit had done his own homework, banking the kid hadn’t when it came to high school. “Hey, you guys toss body parts in here?” His knuckle knocked the dumpster.

“What? No.” Kermit flinched at Trey, jutting his arms out like a zombie. “Quit playin’.”

Trey smirked.

Listen, this piece ain’t for me, okay? It’s for my boy—”

“Don’t tell me his name! I don’t wanna know nothin’ ’bout ’nothin.”

“Well, he ain’t gonna pay you four hunny—I can tell ya that.”

“So what then?”




Trey stuck out his hand. Kermit shook it, removing a wad of twenties from out a hip pocket slouched beside his kneecap. He counted the bills. “Who dat white fool witchoo?”

“Jus’ some dude. He’s paying for Junior’s funeral.”



“Fool’s Richie Rich then?”

I dunno. Enough bread to bury the dead.”

His Jordans are tight as fuck.” Kermit handed over the cash.

Trey shoved it into his jeans. “Dude’s got a bunch at his house, he said.”

“For real?”

“O.G.’s, brand new—from ninety-seven. Not sure if I believe him though—” Trey heard the Suburban roar to life on the other side of the building. “Shit. Gotta roll.”

“Nice doin’ binness, cuz.”

“First and last time, son. First an’ last.” Trey sprinted through the parking lot, hollering for everyone to wait up.

Kermit’s father could be heard, yelling for him outside the funeral home. He quickly opened the dumpster, slid the Smith & Wesson inside a sweaty McDonald’s bag and stashed it before rushing back.


Isaiah was in his office, massaging the knot of his paisley tie back to its pristine form when his son rushed through the door.

What is it, dad?”

“Where were you?”

“Took out some garbage.”

His stern look pierced the boy. “Need your help with deposits again.”

“You know I can make them on your phone these days? I told you that, right?”

Boy, you don’t tell me shit. Why do I need to use a phone when I have you?”

Before Kermit could answer, the man brought up a fist. He winced.

Such a weak, weak boy. Take after your bitch mother. But you already knew that—can feel the weakness coursing your veins, can’t you?” He approached his desk and handed over Monty’s check. “Take this to the bank now. The sum is too great to have lying around. They close soon."

Kermit’s eyes bulged at the amount, just under eighteen thousand. Images conjured of a procession for ’Lil Meezy featuring a glittering hearse with twenty-four-inch spinning rims—or maybe Snoop playing the wake…. His eyes fell on the check’s signature. He scoped the top corner for the dude’s details: Montrose Laughlin III, 210 16th Street, Manhattan Beach—” A palm struck the back of his head. “Fuh!”

Isaiah paused before a second blow. “Run along, boy.”

Kermit pocketed the check and sped for his bicycle.


No shit! You just…what—got a feather in your ass and decided to fly, huh?” Robbie reclined on Monty’s couch, sipping White Sand IPA straight from a growler Monty had filled. “Paid for just the urn or the whole shebang?”

Monty leered out the windows, sunlight dancing about the tide. He licked froth from his upper lip, beer tasting better than any he’d ever had. Could feel mother’s disdain from the mantle, bellyaching his deed. “I ponied up for the whole tamale. Even tossed them a grand to handle the reception—food, booze, whatnot. They want me to go, but…I dunno.”

“That’s great, man. You should go. When Elle and I attend to these charity events, we don’t ever get to see how much the donated funds accomplish firsthand—just read about it on a printout the following year—at the next event. You marched into ground zero and came out a hero. Better man, I can say that.”

“Wanna come with? It’d blow their minds—a real Dodger in their midst.”

Robbie paused to gulp. “When is it?”

Tomorrow night."

I’ll see if I can move some stuff around."

Prolly busy sitting on my other sofa, I suppose.”

What can I say? I’m a man of leisure these days. Plus, I hate the public seeing me in a sling like this—some fucking gimp.”

No one respects a gimp."

So, tell me more about this family, man? The Craigs.”

Good people. Hard working. Father is an electrician—son, Trey, works for him.”

Hey, you should get them to finish wiring the outdoor security cameras. Might hook you up with a deal.”

Monty thought about it, not caring about expense. He did enjoy talking with the man and his son. Could be another chance to get to know them, outside of their family tragedy. After all, they were the first real folks he’d encountered in some time. “I should do that,” escaped his lips, even though he knew deep down he probably wouldn’t. After all, he’d just stepped out of his cocoon for a day, wasn’t quite ready to welcome others inside just yet.


Kermit leaned his bicycle against a picnic table in Veteran’s park, placing the McDonald’s bag beside him as he sat atop warm wood. His stomach growled, having no time to grab a quick bite. A Rally’s burger sounded nice. They told him to be here now but, obviously, the gun buyers weren’t present. He hated having to deal with such thugs, but one had to do what they could to survive in these parts. His cousin, Young Mel, ran with this crew and vouched for Kermit. When Trey phoned with his proposition, Kermit dialed Mel soon as he clicked off the call. His stomach roared. As he doubled over, he locked onto his left hand, scribbled across the back of it in blue ink was the name and address on that check. Montrose Laughlin III. An Idea had struck him as he waited inside the Wells Fargo, completing father’s errand. Maybe he could squeeze a few more bucks out of Mel’s boys with it. Sell them the pistol, along with some information—the whereabouts of a rich fool giving away his wealth.

A dense mass of four bodies entered at the park’s rear. As the blob came closer, its color set Kermit at ease, a legion of blue, puffing blunts, acting belligerent. He waved them over, as if he wasn’t sticking out like a wart on a nose.

Mel came up close before smacking him upside the head. “The fuck you thinking, Kerm, carrying that piece in a goddam baggy. Hide the pistol on your person, fool. Don’t be slippin’."

The other boys laughed, chiming in with their own taunts until Mel shushed them with the back of his palm. Kermit wanted to hand over the gun and run away that second, not being cut out for this type of thing. But then he’d be out all the money he’d saved working the past three months. And what the hell would he do with a gun? It’d be all for nothing. He humored the crew, acting as if he were just like them, swiping a hit from a blunt while one of the older boys inspected the merchandise. He’d have to act the part to get paid; couldn’t let these jerks know how soft he actually was. An attack of coughs overcame him soon as he exhaled the plume. More laughter ensued. Someone called him a little bitch.

So much for saving face.


The older guy named Smoke purchased the pistol for three hundred, biting Kermit’s profit to negative twenty-five dollars. He lied and said he turned a dollar. For three hundred, the crew wanted to buy more, if he had any. Kermit poo-pooed the notion, claiming (like Trey had told him) that this was a one-time deal. He then proceeded to disclose his other item for sale.

Hey, lookie here…”

He’d anticipated some interest when he told the crew about this rich dude in the South Bay, but their exuberant reactions took him by surprise, the boys all high as fuck, jonesing for a lick. When he said they could have the dude’s address for another hundred, everyone roared in laughter. He pretended like he was playing too, nearly on his bicycle to head for a cheeseburger.

Mel pushed Kermit off the bike and forced him to come along, clawing the back of his neck, shoving him in the direction of a parked sedan. “You talk a big game, Kerm. Now take us to where this moneybags lives.”

Without hesitation, Kermit surrendered the scribbles on his left hand.


The sun dipped its final brilliance through the living room windows as Monty and Robbie watched an Angels’ game snoozer, tearing into the team’s coach for not believing in sabermetrics, oblivious to the perfect L.A. sunset. A tirade out Robbie came to an unexpected halt.

Knocks at the door.

Monty glanced down at his phone before remembering the security monitor on the entrance wasn’t hooked-up; it had fed through his cell with a view of guests. Usually it was either Robbie or UPS. He placed his pint down and went to a wall mount to buzz the person up. If it was UPS, they always left the parcel behind a front post. Could be a neighbor signed for the package. Monty craned to Robbie, now busy inspecting the nipples on the hallway bust; looked as if the growler was mixing perfectly with his pain meds. The elevator shaft began to whine. Robbie accompanied Monty in seeing who was here.

The doors began to part.

Elle Slate walked in wearing a soft red sun dress, slightly buzzed enough to come over barefooted.

“Another cocktail party, Elle?”

She gave Monty a friendly embrace. “Got the gals headed over in a few.”

Robbie: “What’s up, babe?”

The audio is messed up, a button got hit—haven’t a clue.”

Monty: “Real Housewives again?”

Bachelorette in Paradise.”

Monty’s eyebrows became enlightened.

Robbie pointed to the second growler on the counter. “I’m coming back, so don’t kill that.”

Monty opened the refrigerator for some pickles as the couple headed to the elevator.


Mel’s Monte Carlo made it to Manhattan Beach just as the sun was gulped by the Pacific. He parked the sedan a few blocks from their target, having circled the block three times to scope the setting. Smoke loaded the pistol with six bullets from out Kermit’s pocket. The crew got out, eyeing a sidewalk lined with manicured roses, cement clean enough to slurp spilled ice cream. They lit Newports in unison to brace nerves. Kermit pretended to smoke one, never inhaling, a trick he’d learned in middle school to avoid getting bullied. The five boys sat at a lone bus bench, trying not to turn heads. They tranced on the open ocean, its normal dark blue bleeding oranges and pinks. Was as if they’d only seen this type of thing in drug store picture frames or a textbook from long ago. They waited for darkness to seep up the hill, bringing them back into their comfort zone. The moon sparked howls from backyard dogs. Mel punched Kermit’s arm, signaling him to lead the way.


Monty had a clean buzz off his growler, closing one eye to focus on landing another pickle, spearing it with a knife. There were only a few left in this jar, all scurrying from his blade with each thrust as if they were alive, fish in a barrel, all smarter than him. He reclined on the sofa, exhausted from concentrating, belly full of red pepper, vinegar and dill. He checked the wall clock; there was no way he’d be able to stay awake if Robbie came back. These craft beers wore heavy on the brain. He’d had a full day too—one he was glad to have had, but would most likely relive only once a year. Next time he’d do something nice on Christmas. He clicked off the television, steadying himself on seafaring legs. Approaching the counter, he emptied his pockets into a crystal candy dish, one mother used for her beloved butterscotch. The checkbook sat prominent before a bowl of apples, stoic almost, as if it’d known what it accomplished today. Monty opened it to a carbon copy of the check, grin climbing his drunken face.

A stone tossed in a lake.

Ripples…all because of him.

He turned to mother’s urn, raised his fist and exploded the middle finger. This is what I think about what you think, mother. He returned to the check, contemplating removing it from the pack to frame or laminate, maybe put above his toilet: a daily reminder of how great he could be…you know, when he felt like it. On second glance of the copy, a slight panic took hold.

The billing address.

He’d forgotten to buy new checks once moving into mother’s old house—this house. After years of extensive remodeling, he’d finally shifted all his things from next door, barely two years ago. Robbie became a Dodger around then, his people making an offer on the “Bastard Home” (mother’s words) that he couldn’t refuse. How could he say no to a Big Leaguer…a potential celebrity friend? Oh, how embarrassing it would be if that check were to bounce. Did things like billing address even matter these days? He’d call the bank first thing tomorrow. No need to worry the Craigs about it—not during this horrible time in their lives. Everything would be fine. He’d make sure of it. And order new checks. For next time.


What. A. Doll. He did that?” Elle sipped Shiraz at the breakfast nook, watching Robbie eye the stereo system as if it were from Mars.

“Paid for everything. Cremation, urn. See, that’s rewarding. No banquet. No autographs or selfies. Straight to the source.” He punched the a remote to zero response.

“It’s them Vin Scully eyes, I tell ya. What a kind-hearted man.”

“Don’t remember what you pressed here, huh?”

“I didn’t touch anything. Think Priscilla might’ve used it as a chew toy.”

Robbie sent a dirty look at Elle’s Yorkie, snoozing on the couch. “When’s everyone supposed to be here again?”

“Soon. Like ten minutes.”

“Fuck.” He adjusted his sling, techno stress killing his buzz. A strange button at the top corner of the remote caught his eye. Auto Vol? He punched it and sound came blaring out the speakers. As he scrambled to save the subwoofer, Elle approached and draped an arm around him, planting a wet kiss, careful not to disturb his shoulder. Her breath was sour, pungent as bile. She began to undo his belt. 

“We have ten minutes...”

He slid his good hand up into her sun dress, caressing the fold of her ass.

She went in for another hard kiss, but the doorbell stifled the moment.

Robbie cursed, re-doing his belt. Elle went to freshen up for her guests. The second Robbie cracked 
the doors’ frame, he was met by a revolver pointed at his nose.


The computer screen lit-up Trey’s face in purple hues, his eyes scanning pages and pages of textbook sales, titles dancing in the glint of his eyeballs. Pops was asleep on his recliner; Mom busy putting the girls to bed. He scrolled a new page, eyeing a piece of paper with his undergrad curriculum requirements, then back at book titles. It was all happening, the future coming at him in spectral bursts. And all he had to do, so far, was numb his conscience. He sold a gun, so what? Who cared what others did with their own wretched lives? Not like he was pulling the trigger. He added another text to his online cart and thought, I’d do plenty worse to this world just to be done with the neighborhood forever.


Smoke held the gun steady as Young Mel had Kermit and the others use duct tape to bind the couple together on the floor. Hoods helped conceal all their faces. Kermit immediately knew something was wrong, too frightened to mention that he’d never seen this man (or woman) in the funeral home earlier. Didn’t matter now. The act was in progress.

He was a full-blown criminal.

A safe in the bedroom had been opened by the husband; a quick smash to the face with Smoke’s pistol helped speed the process. Dude’s nose was gushing for days. Mascara exploded about the wife’s eyes, her sobbing turned to gentle weeps. There weren’t any Air Jordans like Kermit had promised; however, the guy had an unhealthy amount of Dodger gear. The three stacks out the safe softened that blow, just over thirty grand. Their shit dog began to yap at the door. Mel turned to see four older women, faces pumped to the max with Botox, all fisted with wine or champagne. The sight of Smoke’s weapon sparked banshee screams, the ladies trembling in horror.

A bottle crashed to the ground.

Smoke jumped, accidentally firing a round.

Kermit ate the bullet, directly in the chest.

The boys scurried out a side door and sprinted up the block.

Kermit collapsed to the tile floor, eye to eye with the yapping dog, warm blood pooling beneath him until a coldness came over, one he’d only feel for the first time. Such a weak, weak boy.

Monty stirred from his drunken slumber, a pop followed by screams in the night disturbing sweet dreams. He got up to close the sliding glass door, gazing out at adjacent homes, not seeing anything alarming. A car must’ve backfired, sparking someone’s night terrors. He climbed back into bed, feeling sorry for whoever was that frightened this time of night. He thought about his deed again and smiled, closing his eyes, licking his teeth. He’d place mother’s urn in a closet or drawer tomorrow. No need to have her so prominent within his house. A truly great day, today. The ocean purred him back to dreamland, an angel’s sleep for the angel he was.

Nolan Knight is a fourth generation Angeleno. His short fiction has appeared in various journals including Akashic Books, Thuglit, Needle, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel THE NEON LIGHTS ARE VEINS was released by 280 Steps Press. "Vin Scully Eyes" is featured in his short story collection BENEATH THE BLACK PALMS, represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates. Find out more at / Insta: @Nolan_Knight_