Monday, March 18, 2024

NEGATIVE TILT, by Bobby Mathews, reviewed by Wes Browne

Bobby Mathews’s story collection NEGATIVE TILT is brimming full with bangers that run the gamut from literary to crime—the best of which straddle the line. Sentences hum, sharply-drawn and layered characters propel the action, and the pacing and plotting are right on point, luring us along as he pours out a trail of the good stuff.

Mathews is at his best when he treads the ground he knows well: the death throes of the newspaper industry. Several stories explore this territory, but none better harnesses that strength than the title story, NEGATIVE TILT, when a pragmatic lifer who has been cast out of his position as a writer continues his relationship with a former colleague from behind the wheel of a tow truck. The story is certainly a noir, but it hues more literary than crime, to grand effect.

The first purely crime story that grabs you by the shirt and gives you a shake is THE GHOST OF BUXAHATCHEE CREEK. As it turns out, even a righteous kill can haunt the doer, and in this story of seedy vengeance, what can’t be undone can still be doubled down.

Mathews proves himself adept and versatile, weaving lanes between lovers done wrong, to tales of double cross and vengeance. He flexes his hard-earned newspaperman chops time and again by sticking to what’s interesting and building suspense all while moving stories along on the way to a final payoff.

If I had one wish for the collection, it would be that it was a little bit tighter. At 263 pages and twenty-eight stories, NEGATIVE TILT feels more boxed set than greatest hits. There are just a few “B” stories included that that don’t quite measure up to the rest, and a couple other stories are similar in structure and theme. Hard choices could have been made. In the back half there are also several consecutive flash stories, all of them good. Interspersing them throughout would have provided a welcome change-of-pace.

NEGATIVE TILT has staked its claim as one of the standout noir collections of the year. Fans of the style will eat this one up and ask for more.

Wes Browne's new novel THEY ALL FALL THE SAME will be published January 7, 2025 by Crooked Lane Books. His 2020 book HILLBILLY HUSTLE was named one of Merriam-Webster's 17 recommended lockdown reads. He is the founder and host of Pages & Pints Reading Series at Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. He has practiced law as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, and public defender in Appalachia for over 24 years.

Monday, March 4, 2024

The 18th Hole, fiction by Stephen J. Golds

Like all bad ideas, it started out life as a simple one.

Richard was an awful golfer and a degenerate gambler with an ex-wife he despised. I was making moderate bank as his golfing coach-cum-therapist at the Cedar County Golf Club, while I built up my book.

Richard had a lot of cash and liked to spread it around. Making bets and losing them. He always paid out big. Put my eldest boy through his first year of college.

You could say he was my best customer and my best friend.

One afternoon, we were on the eleventh hole, and he started in on the ex again. It was routine, but I was disappointed as hell. While he was ranting, he wasn’t gambling. He’d be cussing her out for hours. No cash injection for me that week. I’d been counting on that money. Had alimony to pay for my second wife. The State had been on my back about it.

Richard tossed his club down on the green. Turned to fix those black eyes on me and put a manicured finger to his temple like a pistol. Told me he wanted to blow his brains out. Said he was passed depressed because he couldn’t protect his two little girls. Told me his ex-wife, Elizabeth was beating the kids. Ditto the piece of shit she’d taken up with. Some kind of doctor or pharmaceutical salesman or something or other.

I just nodded. Making the same sympathetic noises I’d been making for the last nine months since the pair of them had split. Taking a couple of steps back. Richard spat when he talked. He waved his skinny arms around in the air, raving he’d tried every kind of legal means to get her to stop the abuse. Nothing had worked, he said. The Justice system had failed him. He was at his wits end.

Divorced two times myself, I felt bad for the guy, but he’d brought i

t on himself. He’d fucked every waitress at the golf club. Got one of them pregnant even. Richard may have been a millionaire, but he wasn’t smart. Making stupid life decisions and stupid bets. Maybe having that kind of cash made a man foolish. I wouldn’t have known either way. I was smart and broke.

On the twelfth hole he suggested it. A beating. A beating would get her to stop, he said. I laughed at first of course, that kind of laugh you do when someone says something completely insane and you’re sure they’ve got to be yanking your chain. Richard wasn’t joking. He glared at me. I shook my head, told him that was only going to make things much worse. It was crazy talk, though I didn’t say that. He was my best customer and best friend.

I changed the topic. Talked about the weather and baseball for the last couple of holes and then gave up, fell into a sharp silence. Richard ruminated.

Driving back to the clubhouse, he told me to pull the golf cart over into the shade underneath an oak tree and said, “I'll give you thirty percent.”

“Thirty percent of what?” I said.

“You know I’m investing twenty million dollars into that new golf-course project, right? Well, I’ll give you thirty percent of that. If…”

“If what?” I said.

“If you handle the thing with Elizabeth. That thing we were talking about earlier.”

“Come on, man. I’d never slap around a woman. It just isn’t me.”

“You know people who would though. You’re a bookie for Christ’s sake.”

“Maybe, but I still wouldn’t feel right about it.”

“Thirty percent to help a friend in need. Seems pretty straightforward to me. Think about your son.”

“My son?”

“The one with the problem walking or whatever it is he’s got there.”

“Michael’s got Vestibular problems is all.”

Well, whatever. What I’m saying is, think about how life changing thirty percent of a golf course would be for him. I know he probably can’t play golf with the Testicular problems, but the money. Life. Fucking. Changing. Money.”

“If I get someone to slap Elizabeth around?”

“No, not that. That’s cola-lite. I want her crippled in a wheelchair, no offense to your boy. I want the tongue cut out of her head. She needs to pay for what she’s done.”

I didn’t laugh. I popped prickly heat and needed a drink from the clubhouse bar.

“Nah, man. That’s not going to fly. Not with anyone I know,” I stuttered.

“She’s abusing my kids, goddammit!”

Spittle flew and touched down on my left fist gripping the cart’s steering wheel.

“I don’t know, man. Maybe if it was just a few slaps and that was it. I really don’t know... I’d have to really give it some proper thought.”

“What’s to think about? Don’t be dumb, be smart. Look it, I can give you $14,000. In cash. As a down payment. Today. Today! It’s in the trunk of the car. You give it to whoever you want to do the job. I'll give you the rest after it’s been done. And then, you my friend, you become a partner in your own golf course. Just think about it. No more coaching. No more caddying. No more scrabbling around taking bets from lowlifes. No more of all the bullshit.”

I stared at a group of silver haired old aged pensioners practicing their swings over by the rough.

Richard put his hand on my shoulder. Squeezed. “But I want that bitch hurt. Badly. I want her to pay for what she’s done to me. To my kids, I mean.”

He’d been talking up the golf-course project for months. He was right too, with thirty percent of that, I’d never have to work another day in my life. My own kids’ futures would be set. Probably their kids too. Like a generational wealth kind of deal. Richard’d been talking about the abuse for months too. So there was that. I’d tell whoever did the job to go easy on Elizabeth, give her a black eye. Job done, Richard couldn’t refuse payment. Everyone would be a happy winner.

“What about the cops?” I said.

“What about them?” Richard said.

“The last thing I need is something like this leading back to me, if it all goes to shit.”

“The key word here is: compartmentalization, my nervous friend. Whoever you get to do the job, you tell them to get someone else to do it. Like a chain of command or whatever the fuck. I don’t want anyone knowing my name. Or yours. If no one knows who’s at the top of chain, and you choose someone smart, we’re all in clover. You know me, when have I not gambled smart?”

As soon as Richard said that, I should’ve walked. But I didn’t. I took the cash.

The wad so thick I couldn’t push it in the pocket of my slacks. It felt good in my hands. Goodbye alimony payments. He handed me a scrap of paper with his ex’s address on it and a recent photograph of her hugging one of the kids at what looked like a birthday party. She was pretty and had these kind, blue eyes. The picture gave me a shitty feeling in the guts, but I said I’d see what I could do. Reminding myself over and over, Elizabeth wasn’t a good person. She beat her kids and was a bad mother. It would only be a couple of slaps anyway. That number of thirty percent bouncing around in my skull like a deranged golf ball.

Even though I’d said I’d see what I could do, I already knew who I was going to get to do the job before Richard’s Mercedes Benz even sped out of the club’s parking lot.


Scotty was another caddy at the club. He helped me collect bets for my book on occasions when I needed to impress debtors. He was big. Scary big. But dumb as a mule. The kid did whatever I told him to do. Liked to tell people he was my bodyguard and he was connected. Not averse to a little violence or law-breaking and knew when to keep his mouth shut. He was ideal.

The next night I caught him leaving the club and told him to jump in the car. I needed to talk.

“Okay, Boss.” The poor schlub said.

When he got in the passenger side of my Cadillac, he almost flipped the damn thing over. Looking at me the same weirdly hopeful way he always did.

“Someone not paying what they owe?” He asked.

“Nah, it’s something just a little heavier than that this time, Scotty.”

“You need someone clipped?”

Clipped. The kid had been watching too many episodes of The Sopranos. I played along to the wannabe’s fantasy.

Nah, you’re not going to get your button as quick as that, Scotty. You gotta put more of the street work in. Show your down for the life. You get me?”

Sure, Boss. I’m down. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

All right, listen, there’s this guy. A rich guy. He’s having trouble with his ex-wife. She’s kidnapped his kids and is abusing them and all this kind of horrendous shit. The guy wants the woman hurt a little so he can regain custody of his kids.”

Scotty looked as though he was about to burst into tears.

The kid said, “No women, no children. That’s my code and I live and die by it.”

Don’t bullshit me, Scotty. Since when did you have any kind of code?”

He shrugged and wiped some yellow crud from the corner of his eye. Put his thick fingers on the door latch to get out. I placed my hand on his massive arm. Squeezed, “Scotty, its just a little slapping around, that’s all. A little slapping around. Nothing more. Besides, if you do this, I’ll talk to my boss. See what we can do about bumping you up. Getting you your stripes.”

Scotty wasn’t the only one with HBO. The kids face lit up. Elated.

Really? I could get made?”

Yeah, sure.” I looked away from his face and out of the window. Biting my tongue. “We need people like you in the… family… sure.”

I want to be a made man but still, I don’t know. I’ve never raised a hand to a girl in my life.”

The kid didn’t seem to know we weren’t Italian. Like I said, he was big and dumb.

You won’t have to hurt the girl yourself. You can get someone else to do it. But get someone smart, someone scary. You tell them to just give the ex-wife a fat lip and a swollen eye. That’s all. Like I said, nothing heavy.”

“How much would this guy pay anyhow? Twenty thousand dollars maybe?” Scotty licked his thick lips.

“Don’t be a dumbass, Scotty. No one’s paying that kind of money for a light sparring session.”

“So how much?”

I did profit calculations in microseconds.

“Five thousand. Two and a half before, two and a half after.”

“That’s for the guy that hurts the girl, right? So what do I get?”

“No, I give you the five; whatever you pass on to your guy is up to you.”

“What am I supposed to pay them?” He whined.

“Pay them a fucking nickel for all I care.”

He stared through the dusty windshield. Sweat glistened on his upper lip.

I needed to close the sale, “think about what you could do with five thousand bucks, brother. You could buy something pretty damn nice for your ma, I reckon. She just got out of the hospital, right?”

“Yeah, she busted her hip.” He looked as though he was going to cry again.

“You could take her on vacation with the cash. She’d love that.”

His face lit-up like a streetlight.

“Yeah, sure. That’s right, I could. Hawaii or somewhere nice like that,” he smiled, obviously imagining the old woman hobbling around on some sandy beach somewhere hot. “Okay, I’ll do it. I think I know a guy.”

I gave him the two and half and the photograph. He read the address on the scrap of paper aloud, like he was reading Spot the Dog and then pushed it into the half-torn breast pocket of his shirt. He got out the car and it fell back to horizontal.

He waved as I drove away. I didn’t wave back.

Not a week later, I start seeing the headlines:




Round the fucking clock news coverage — flashing up the image of the woman whose photograph I’d placed in the sweaty hand of an imbecile.

Cops had arrested some vagrant fucking meth head for the murder.

As soon as the crackhead gave up Scotty, I’d have, maybe an hour or two, before half the city’s police department came knocking on my door. I was going to rot in jail for the rest of my life.

Unless, I got to Scotty, before the cops did. Compartmentalization. Tie off lose ends. With the kid gone, there’d be nothing leading back to me. I’d be free and clear.

I ran round the house into the garage. There was an old refrigerator underneath a workbench I used for keeping beer. I reached behind it and retrieved the bundle of cloth wrapped around the .38. Checked the cylinder. Five bullets. One was all I’d need.

I took deep breaths, pulled the cellphone from the pocket of my slacks and dialed Scotty. The prick didn’t answer. I screamed at the lawn mower and dialed again.

Boss, is that you?” He sounded like he had shit his pants and was sitting in it.

Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?” I said, attempting to keep some thread of composure and sanity in my voice.

Did you see the news? He… he… he killed her. He killed the girl.” The kid started blubbering and drooling down the line. There was not a shred of doubt in my mind he was going to drop my name to the cops as soon as they flashed their badges at him. Scotty had to go.

Yeah, I saw. Where are you? We need to lam it, kid. I’ve got your money, too. Double what we agreed.” I said through gritted teeth.

Really? Double?” He stopped blubbering. I imagined him wiping his snotty nose on his shirtsleeve.

Yeah, sure.”

You’re not angry at me? For hiring that guy because I wanted to save money.”

Nah, Scotty. Look, you’re going to be a made man, but we need to meet somewhere out of the way, so I can pay you the cash and we can split to Mexico for a week or two.”

Okay, Boss, I suppose. Where should I meet you?”

Good. Good. You know the old dump, right? Just out of town.”

Sure, I do. The place where everyone throws away their old cars and refrigerators and stuff?”

Yeah, meet me there in twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes?” he whined.

You want to spend the rest of your life in jail?”

No, sir.”

Then leave now. I’m on my way.”

I hung up. Wiped the sweat from my eyes. Ran back round the house into the kitchen. Snatched up my car keys from the breakfast nook.

My cell rang.

Just get in the car and fucking go,” I screamed down the line.


My best customer and best friend. Richard’s voice.

Ah, Richard, I take it you’ve seen the news then.”

Yeah, a little more extreme than what I’d asked for, but I’m happy.”

He didn’t sound happy. Voice cold and monotonous, I could’ve been talking to someone at a call center.

We need to meet somewhere quiet,” he said.


You want to get paid don’t you? Plus, I’ve got a couple of contracts I want to go over with you.”


For the golf course. We’re partners now, brother.”

I see… When did you want to meet?”

Right now, of course,” he said.

A long void down the line.


You know the boathouse I’ve got out on the lake? Let’s meet there. It’s nice and relaxing.”

Okay,” I said and hung up.

One word bouncing around my brain like a deranged golfball:


Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He writes in the noir/crime genres, though is heavily influenced by transgressive fiction and dirty realism. He is also the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine