Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The problem with improvisation, fiction by Ed Brock

At 2:35 a.m., Morris Blackmon stared intently at the corrosion encrusting the gas line feeding the water heater in what had been his home. It was his former water heater, to be more accurate. He spun a hammer in his hand, then tapped it on his thigh while he stared at the pipe. After a few minutes, he bent down and began reading the instructions on the side of the tank, his lips moving just a little with each word. Finally, he turned the temperature knob to its lowest setting, and turned the gas cock knob to the “off” position.

He opened the panel to make sure the flames were out, then stood, took a deep breath, and brought the hammer down on the rusty gas pipe. Despite the green and white, coral-like corrosion, the pipe did not break completely, but gas immediately began hissing out, rippling like a heat wave as it streamed into the air. Morris’s eyes watered and he was feeling dizzy by the time he made it to the door that led back into the kitchen. He slammed the door shut behind him and promptly stuffed a towel, which he had prepared for this purpose, into the gap between door and floor.

In the kitchen, he gasped for air, surprised at how quickly the odor of gas was already beginning to leak through from the garage. Or, he thought, maybe it was just soaked into his clothes. He put the hammer back into the drawer where it lived and walked back into the living room, where he flopped down into what had been his favorite chair, an old school black faux leather recliner marbled with cracks in its upholstery.

Everything in the house had been “his,” even though most of it was crap that Christine had picked out at WalMart, Target and countless yard sales. Still, he was filled now with a strange sense of longing, a desire to stay here that he had not felt even in the two months since he had moved out, since Christine and he had separated.

It was, of course, too late now.

He wanted a cigarette. He had “quit” for the millionth time a week ago, but now he wanted a cigarette badly. He knew where he could get one, but wondered if his need for them was really that strong. They were upstairs, in the bedroom, on the nightstand. They were on the nightstand next to the bed, next to Christine. Next to Christine’s body, that is.
Morris exhaled, flapping his lips and rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. Goddamn that crazy bitch, any how, he thought. He was just glad they never had kids. Christ, what if this had happened one night with little Morris Jr. sleeping so innocently one room over. It would be hard to explain that Mommy died because she had asked Daddy to choke her during sex – again – and this time he had held on to the rope just a little too long.

It would be pretty hard to explain that to the cops, too.

“So, Mr. Blackmon,” they would say. “What you’re telling us is that you went over to your former residence at your ex-wife’s invitation …”

“She wasn’t my ex-wife yet,” he would point out.

“Very well, Mr. Blackmon, your estranged wife, then,” the cop would say in that testy little smartass way they have. “So you go over there at your estranged wife’s invitation, with the intent of … performing a sexual act with her? For old time’s sake?”


The imaginary officer nods, briefly covering his smirk with his hand.

“And then, the … encounter … just went a little too far, and you just happened to, accidentally, strangle the woman who had kicked you out of the house just two months prior, while performing this sex act. Well, I can certainly see how that could happen.

Oh, and I see here that you’re on probation. Well, I’m sure that’s just for parking tickets or something like that … oh, nope, it’s for assault and domestic violence. See, now, that last little part makes me think that the victim was the very same estranged wife who now lies choked to death upstairs. But, hey, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.”

Indeed, the police were not strangers at the Blackmon household. They had been fairly regular visitors in the two years and three months of Morris and Christine Blackmon’s pathetic excuse for a union.

Not that it was pathetic in the beginning. No, in the beginning it was beautiful. They had met in a bar, where so many other failed love stories begin, but they were so sure it would be different for them. After all, they developed respect for each other as throwers on rival darts teams. His friends called him “Bullseye,” and Christine’s called her “Sharpshooter.”

She had him on the ropes, but it was honestly close enough that he totally bought it when she let him win at the last round. Of course, he bought her a pitcher of Long Island Tea to “make it up to her,” so she definitely came out ahead. And then she gave him head in the car. How could they not fall in love?

On the other hand, she certainly seemed to take great relish in telling him the truth about that night six months later when they had their first real fight. It was a minor cut, but the first of thousands. That little memory brought him back to his current situation: how to ignite the big gas bubble in the basement.

In those panicky moments after he realized his sexcapade had ended in death, when he first conceived the “blow the house up with gas” plan, he contemplated leaving something metal in the microwave. Set the timer, open the basement door and head for the hills. 

Looking back now, however, he had his doubts. The police would surely notice a metal object in the microwave.

He also wasn’t sure that would trigger an explosion. Seemed like he had seen some episode on “Mythbusters” about that, but he couldn’t remember if they busted the myth or confirmed it. Unfortunately for Morris, he only had one chance to make it work.

He had known an arsonist when he was inside at Autrey, but the guy had been more of a firebug than a pro. They had worked in the boot plant together, talking shit while cobbling footwear for their fellow prisoners. So this arsonist, his name was Bud, one time fell smack in love with one of the prison bitches and decided to mnake him some custom boots. It did not end well.

The bitch, named Diamond, was very much in demand, seeing as he was as pretty as they come inside, a regular transsexual super model. Bud was not the only prisoner wanting to polish Diamond, and he was certainly not the biggest. So he gave the bitch the boots, and sure enough, he got a blow job out of it, but Bud wanted more. He wanted exclusive rights, but the very next day Diamond went off with some big Aryan stud, probably wearing Bud’s boots while getting banged.

Bud did not take this well at all, and he spent the next week or two muttering to himself and pilfering various items and chemicals from the boot plant. He showed Morris the finished product, a compact flamethrower, basically, and confided his plan to torch his old flame when he had the chance. The chance came, and Bud confronted the former love of his life, and his/her love of the moment, while they were going at it in a storage room. He pointed the little torch at the couple, said something like “This is what you get, you cheating bitch,” and pulled the trigger.

The device blow up in his hand, burning over sixty percent of his body. Diamond and her man escaped unscathed. So, yeah, there was nothing from his friendship with Bud that could help Morris with his current situation.

Maybe he could knock over a lamp. Wouldn’t the broken socket spark? No, no, it wouldn’t, not long enough to ignite the gas. He would have to find some way to knock one over after the gas had already filled the house, and he had no idea how that would work. God, he needed a cigarette!

Then it occurred to him. Maybe he could leave a cigarette burning in Christine’s dead hand, make sure that started a fire, then leave the basement door open and run for it? The idea of going back into the room with his dead ex-wife, much less touching her body, made Morris’ stomach contents knock on his mouth’s back door, but he realized this was probably his best bet. OK, so be it, he decided.

Then Morris started pondering another problem: could he really avoid being placed here at the scene of the crime. He had left his car in the parking lot of the little park behind the house and then crept up, with nary a witness, over the fence and to the back door. That had been in case Amy had woken up to find him missing and taken it upon herself to go looking for him here.

Christ, Amy. Christine had been crazy, but at least she wasn’t monkey-brained stupid like Amy. Morris had never met a blonder brunette. When he had first met her at a friend’s party, she at one point insisted that chickens are reptiles “because they’re cold blooded.” 

Fortunately for her, Amy had an ass that made it easy to forget the stunning emptiness on the top end of her body.

Thinking about the chicken comment made Morris chuckle. And, just at that moment, sitting in his rough-worn former black recliner, he was filled with the confidence that he was going to be all right, that he would succeed in covering his tracks. He just had to go upstairs and light a cigarette in his dead wife’s hand. Nothing to it.

And it was at that moment that the doorbell rang.

It was nearly three in the morning, and somebody was ringing the doorbell. And they were pretty insistent about it. Of course, Morris knew damn well who it was, and he also knew he had to answer it. It would be unwise to have a screaming woman at the front door, and while the screaming hadn’t started yet, it was coming, that he also knew.

Just in case, he went to the window, first. Sure enough, there stood Amy on the front stoop, smoking angrily and smoldering at the door, no idea she was being watched. Morris sighed, then sniffed, detecting just a hint of sulfur in the air, wondering for a second if it came from the basement or the front door. That was the moment he had an idea, the kind of idea that, at first, you shake off as clearly bad. But then it started to work on him, and for five or ten seconds before he opened the door, he let the idea ooze its way through his besotted mind until it somehow converted to good. Well, maybe not good, but doable.

Morris took a deep breath and opened the door. He had about three seconds to study Amy’s curious smirk before the sun ignited behind her head and blinded him. Just as he began to wonder what the sun was doing up at this time of night, a voice spoke with righteous belligerence from behind the glare. “Mr. Blackmon, could you tell us what you’re doing here?!” the voice brayed.

“Rusty?” Morris managed to croak.

Joshua “Rusty” Painter was Amy’s cousin, and suddenly Morris realized what was happening. Rusty worked as a cameraman for the local WGTI TV news station, but he had delusions of eventually being in front of the camera. He was also an asshole with a YouTube channel that nobody watched.

“Mr. Blackmon, why don’t you …” Rusty started before Amy realized she was the jilted lover here.

“Morris, what the fuck?!” she shouted.

Morris saw a light come on across the street, a warning of impending anger from the neighborhood, and since that could lead to police involvement he realized he had to move this show inside. He held up his hands in surrender.

“Amy, Amy, baby, calm down, it’s not what you think,” he said, realizing how very bad that was. Amy’s face tightened around a serious and explosive retort, and he seemed to feel some smug satisfaction from Rusty as he adjusted his camera for a better shot of the impending bloodbath. “I shit you not …” the woman scorned began.

Morris decided action was needed, so he quickly stepped up to his lady and put his finger on her mouth. “You really have to let me explain, baby,” he said. “Just come inside.”

For a second, he actually thought she might bite off his the offending digit. Then she seemed to grow calm, and that’s when he really grew afraid.

“That bitch in there?” she finally mumbled, her lips tickling his finger.

“Yeah, yeah, but she’s asleep, and we need to keep her that way, believe me, I’m so done with her,” Morris said, removing his finger and moving the entire hand and arm around Amy’s shoulders. She stayed stiff, but he felt her begin to relent and take a step toward the door.

“Amy, don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” Rusty said, just a hint of whine in his voice. The money shot was clearly getting ruined.

Morris glared at him. Amy waved him off and walked inside with the injured pride of a princess who had stepped out of the royal carriage into a pile of horse manure. Morris hurried in behind her, but wasn’t quite fast enough to keep Rusty from following. Oh, well, Morris thought, that might be all for the best.

The plan, such as it was, was to quickly move the unwanted guests back to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, Amy was not feeling cooperative, and as soon as the door closed she announced loudly “So, where is that bitch?!” Rusty, who had let the camera drop to his side, quickly hoisted it back up to his eye, sensing that the show was back on. Morris did not oblige him.

“She’s upstairs passed out, the drunk cunt,” he said, taking Amy’s arm and guiding her toward the kitchen. “Just come in here and I’ll explain, OK?”

Morris led his reluctant guests into the other room where Rusty immediately stopped and started sniffing the air. “Holy shit, is that gas?”

Turning only halfway around, Morris gave the answer he had planned on just five minutes before. “Yeah, yeah, the stove’s been acting funny, I had to turn it off. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry about it? It smells pretty strong, dude,” Rusty said, still standing in the kitchen doorway.

Amy spun around.

“Screw the gas. Morris, start explaining,” she said, arms crossed, eyebrows scrunched together.

What about this towel?” Rusty suddenly said, and Morris almost smiled.

Jesus, Rusty, what, what the fuck, what towel?” Amy stuttered. Morris turned to face the other man. “There’s a draft,” he said simply.

From the basement?” Rusty said.

Yeah, that’s right, from the basement,” Morris said, barely preventing a sneer.

Amy plopped down at the kitchen table and began shifting through her purse, finally coming up with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Morris quickly laid a gentle hand over the lighter as she raised the cigarette to her well lacquered red lips. “Come on, baby, hold off on that, you know I quit,” he said softly.

Yeah, and there’s all that gas we aren’t supposed to worry about,” Rusty stage whispered.

Amy’s face hardened a second before easing into resignation as she put the cancer stick down. After all, his quitting was her idea. They had started together, but she weakened first. He smiled at the little pink lighter and Marlboro menthol on the table, happy to see it there, and then moved on. “So, this is what’s up,” he began.

What followed was one of Morris’ longer and better lies, despite the fact that he made most of it up on the fly. Christine had called despondent and drunk, he said, because her oven was broken and needed to be fixed, as did the rest of her life, it seemed. There had been talk of suicide, pills already taken, stuff like that. All this had taken place when Amy was supposedly asleep, so Morris had simply left quietly, not wanting to disturb her, to try to save his ex-wife’s life.

Well, I wasn’t asleep, you know,” Amy interrupted. “I wasn’t asleep because I already suspected you were seeing her, and Rusty and I were just setting a trap to catch your sorry cheating ass! Like I buy this bullshit!”

It’s no bullshit baby, I swear, I know it sounds like it but it really, really isn’t!” Morris stammered out, just totally winging it.

Oh, right, so you’re telling me you haven’t been coming over here before now,” Amy said. “And, you better be real careful how you answer that.” The last line was delivered with a cautioning wag of Amy’s finger, and Morris felt a strong urge to break that finger. There’s nothing worse than a stupid person who starts to think they’re doing something smart.

On the other hand, in this case she was completely correct. He had been to raid the old henhouse many times before tonight.

Meanwhile, Rusty was lingering over the basement door, sniffing, his camera hanging limply at his side. “You know, I swear the smell is stronger over here,” he said.

Morris nodded.

Well, maybe you should check that out in a bit, but why don’t you do me a favor and get ready to film, because I’m going to prove what I’m saying is true,” Morris said. “I’m going to wake up Christine and tell her to tell you nothing happened.”

This was a lie, of course, but Rusty excitedly began checking his camera and moving into position. Perfect, Morris thought. He couldn’t be exactly certain of what would happen next, but all the pieces were in place and it was time for him to exit stage fucking right.

Now, you two just wait here and give me a few minutes to rouse her,” he said, rising from his chair. “And Amy, honey, why don’t you go ahead and smoke a ciggy while you wait?”

He headed for the door as Amy picked up the lighter and cigarette. Rusty had let the camera drop to his side again and was turning back toward the basement door. “This is it,” he thought. “I just have to get out the door.”

He was at the passage into the dining room when he saw shadows moving ahead of him. The shadows stepped into the light and became Christine, looking seriously disheveled and rubbing her bruised neck, but most certainly alive.

Morris, baby, what the fuck did you do to me, you crazy fucker?” she whined, and then looked past him, her face hardening into solid bitchiness. “And what the fuck is she doing here.”

The shock of seeing the supposed dead come back to life passed surprisingly quickly for Morris, and he spun around, scrambling in his head for a way to stop what he had begun. He opened his mouth at the exact same moment that Rusty kicked aside the towel and swung the basement door wide open, and at precisely the second that Amy, smugly eying her competition, flicked her lighter into life. As the sulfur smelling cloud that had been caged in the basement rushed into the room, racing toward the flare in Amy’s hand, he had just enough time to say “Sh…”. The “it” was cut off by fire and sound and an end to all the things that used to belong to Morris Blackmon.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, by Nick Kolakowski, review by John Stickney

Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps
By Nick Kolakowski
Shotgun Honey, an imprint of Down & Out Books

"Listen. At some point, a poor sap will look at you and say, “This is the worst day of my life.” But as long as you have breath in your lungs to say those words, you’re not having your worst day. You haven’t even hit rock bottom, much less started to dig. You can still come back from a car wreck, or that terrifying shadow on your lung X-ray, or finding your wife in bed with the well-hung quarterback from the local high school. Sometimes all you need to solve your supposedly world-ending problems is time and care, or some cash, or a shovel and a couple of garbage bags. If you see me coming, on the other hand, I guarantee you’re having your worst day. Not to mention your last. Let me show you how bad it can get…"

So begins the novella  “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps."  Author Nick Kolakowski, veteran flash and short fiction writer, fully displays what makes his short fiction such a joy to read: an ability to seduce the reader, strong and intriguing openings, followed by an equally well told story. The man can spin a yarn. The above quote is the start of half the story.  Our gunman asks - You think you’re having a bad day?  Take a gander at the introduction of his target, our ‘hero’ Bill –

"Bill awoke, as one sometimes does, dangling upside-down over a pit, ankles wrapped in heavy chains, sweat stinging his eyes, head throbbing like a dying tooth. He heard a dog bark in the night, and the muted roar of what he guessed was the Interstate, but the only light came from a bare yellow bulb bolted to a corrugated-metal shed far below…""

Even if Bill can somehow Houdini his way out of the handcuffs, he still is suspended by chain-bound legs over an abrupt and too permanent ending.  Some escapes are unwanted.

The story is told by alternating point of view, a bouncing tennis ball between these two, pursuer and pursued. Bill and the gunman are both misfits in their organization, well Bill’s former organization, the Rockaway Mob, and both are in the midst of their own personal existential crises. Bill, a con-man running insurance and identity theft scams for the Mob thought he’d solve his crisis by stealing three million dollars from his employer, pick-pocketing an unlimited balance credit card from one of the Mob bosses, and then make a break for the border. Ultimately he planned to live out the rest of his natural life on an Island with a life so exclusively sweet HGTV would be envious but barred from filming.

"When Bill stole those millions from the Rockaway Mob, he thought it would buy him liberation so complete, it would eliminate every concern from his mind, forever. Instead he found himself gripped by a fear so pure, it soaked his shirt with a constant ooze of sweat.  The only thing standing between him and a gruesome death was his spectacularly anal-retentive escape plan. Any enforcer who kicked in the door of his apartment, ready to yank Bill’s tongue through a new hole in his neck, would find empty rooms… Not even his girlfriend had any idea he left."

Of course Bill ends up getting his money-laundering partner killed, losing all the dough but for his initial escape money of $50,000 secure in the car trunk, and with not one, not two but three different Rockaway pursuers on the hunt for him including his abandoned girl friend and our gunmen.  Oh yeah, his car begins bucking like an untamed horse in the middle of nowhere.  We see where his narration begins, suspended over a yawning pit.  The best laid plans and all….

Back to the existential crisis.  Our gunman?  His crisis is brought on, well, let him explain:
"I've always hated the word “killer.” And don't get me started on “hitman.” A few months before we divorced, my now ex-wife asked how I could live with myself. How I could fire a bullet, or press a button, or toss a radio into a bathtub, and end somebody's existence.  If not me, I told her, then something else would have terminated those people: a heart attack, or cancer, or maybe a nice fiery car crash. I’m just the vessel, a way for the natural order of things to express itself. “I don’t worry whether I’m a bad man,” I added, “any more than a hurricane worries about the damage it causes.” I would have added a little something about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, except I noticed she’d already fallen asleep. The story of our marriage, in one priceless interaction." Our gunman is trying to work through things on a personal level and is given to bouts of weeping and gluttony.

Not to give too much away, but in this story there’s weaponized drones, crooked cops, a bedridden mob boss who blinks out commands in Morse code, love, death and something resembling noir-ish redemption. Oh, and a gun-toting Elvis impersonator, all the ingredients of a read that’s surprising, compelling and just plain fun.  Shotgun Honey has existed for years as a purveyor of flash fiction. Under the umbrella of Down & Books, they issue short story collections and novellas as well.  Shotgun Honey and Nick Kolakowski are to be congratulated, ‘A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps’  is an excellent beginning to their new publication venture.

John Stickney splits his time between Cleveland, Ohio and Wilmington, NC.  His fiction has appeared in ThugLit, Needle, and others.  His story ‘The Oldest Old Country’ was selected to appear in the 2017 Bouchercon Anthology.

Saving the House, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

    On a warm spring afternoon Maxine returned from school to find her mother dancing across the porch on calloused feet, humming a mindless tune as she strung clothesline between porch supports. The sight of wet laundry on the railing made Maxine’s stomach clench. Her mother only did chores during the manic times, when she also burned herself with cigarettes and spent their money on useless trinkets.
Maxine stopped at the bottom of the porch steps, far enough away to dodge anything thrown at her. “Hi,” she said, shifting her backpack from her shoulder to her left hand, in case she needed to use it as a shield.
“Why, hello,” her mother burbled, holding up a handful of bright plastic clothespins.
“You’re cheerful,” Maxine said, steeling herself for the next revelation: the last of the living-room furniture sold, or their state benefits spent on lottery tickets. Not that many benefits came in, these days.
“We are about to make a whole lot of money.” Her mother pinched clothespins onto the line. “Mama’s going to make everything good again, you’ll see.”
“That’ll be a first.” I just want to go upstairs and do my homework, Maxine thought, except now I have to deal with whatever sad crap you’ve just pulled. “How are we making money?”
“We’re selling the house!” Maxine’s mother exclaimed, grabbing two handfuls of wet clothes and swirling them in the air like a pair of pom-poms, water and soap spattering the porch. “For a lot of money! A lot!”
“That’s great,” Maxine said, suddenly exhausted. Of course it was a lie. Who would buy their shit-hole? There was no working plumbing most months, the heat barely managed to keep the bedrooms above freezing in the winter, and the first floor always stank like something had died under the floorboards. “I’m happy for us. So where are we going to live?”
Her mother caught the tone in her voice. The colors stopped spinning. She stood there with a sour frown, limp clothes dripping onto her rough feet. Maxine could feel the anger crackling the air, hard and nasty as ozone after a lightning strike. Before her mother could hurl something at her head, she ran up the porch steps, tore open the door, and slipped into the cool interior of the house.
In the kitchen, she found her younger brother Brad at the rickety table by the back windows, doing his best with his math homework. Brad had a buzzcut and a long, angry scar on his forehead, the latter courtesy of a schoolyard fight against a kid four years older and two feet taller.
“Hey,” Maxine said, dropping her backpack on the floor before opening the fridge in search of food. The otherwise empty shelves offered a single piece of fake cheese, its plastic wrapper smeared with some horrible super-mold capable of surviving extreme temperatures and zero oxygen. Ugh.
“Hey,” Brad said.
Refusing to give up her quest for calories, Maxine tried the freezer, finding a single can of energy drink half-buried in the icy wasteland. “Mom sold the house?” she asked, prying the can free and popping the ring-tab.
“Yeah, some guy showed up.” Brad shrugged. “Told Mom she wouldn’t have to pay no more bills or anything.”
“What did this guy look like?”
Brad shrugged again, staring at the problem sheet in front of him.
“Tell me,” Maxine said.
Brad kept his gaze fixed on the table. “He had a fancy suit on.”
“What else he say?”
“He told Mom he would get rid of the mort-i-gage.”
“Mortgage. I don’t even know if we got one.” She slugged the energy drink, hoping its caffeine would ramp her up, strangle the fear in her guts. “Remember what I told you?”
“‘Never trust anyone in a suit.’”
“That’s right. Did you see Mom sign anything?”
Eyes down, Brad nodded. In the gray light filtering through the dirty window, a tear glistened on his cheek. Despite his capacity for fury (Maxine had once seen him sink a wooden stick, sharpened into a spear, a full inch between another kid’s ribs), Brad had a heart too big for this crappy place.
The screen door crashed open behind them, their mother loud in the house. Clenching her hands into fists, gritting her teeth, Maxine picked up her backpack and marched into the front hallway. “Mom, what did you sign?” she nearly yelled.
The question slammed her mother to a cold stop beside the front door. “Nothing,” she said, sullen in an instant. “Besides, it’s my house.”
Without answering, Maxine veered left, through the doorway that led to the living room, kicking through the mountain of debris atop the couch and coffee table. She spied a bright red folder atop a dusty tower of unopened bills, opened it to find a thin stack of documents bound with an irritatingly cheerful yellow paperclip, its paragraphs sprinkled with legal-sounding terms that made zero sense to her. What the hell was ‘deed transferred to LLC’? The business card pinned under the paperclip had a phone number, an address, an email, and a name: Alex Smith.
Standing in the doorway, Maxine’s mother squawked like a startled bird. As Maxine brushed past her, folder in hand, she reached to grab her daughter’s shoulder—her fingers frozen, an inch away, by the fury in Maxine’s eyes. “I bet you screwed us,” Maxine said, before crashing through the screen door, her phone already in her hand.
She dialed the number on the business card, unsurprised when a robot directed her to voicemail. Standing in the yard with its yellowing weeds, the dead car engine on cinder-blocks sprouting red flowers from its popped piston-heads, she wondered: why would anyone want to buy any of this? Why would Mom let herself get hustled?
People want to hope, her uncle Preacher whispered in her head. And they’re willing to overlook anything, even things that’ll hurt them, if they can live in hope for just a second or two. That feeling, it’s better than weed, better than junk.
Maxine heard the screen door creak open behind her, quiet footsteps on the boards. “I’m sorry?” her Mom said, voice quavering on the edge of tears.
“Whatever,” Maxine said, stuffing the folder into her pack. “Now I got to put all my own crap aside, try and fix this.” She had parked her bike at the end of the driveway, behind the rotted frame of the garage, its rear wheel locked with a massive clamp scarred from more than one theft attempt. Unlocking and heaving the clamp aside, she straddled the bike, twisted the electric motor to life, and purred onto the main road, never looking back at her mother.
The bike’s old motor, capable of maybe twenty miles an hour on a steep downhill with a hard wind at your back, nonetheless carried her to town in a few minutes. When her mother was a child, you smelled the place before you reached it, courtesy of the working slaughterhouse on the outskirts. The killing floor had long closed, taking a hundred jobs with it, and the only thing she could smell was faint smoke from the forest fire troubling the western edge of the county, leaving hills of gray ash in its wake.  
By the time she reached the traffic light that marked the beginning of Main Street, her rage seethed on the edge of nuclear, and not just because jackasses in three separate cars had honked and yelled obscene things about her body on the way in. The slow putter into town gave her time to relieve every bad thing that had happened to her family over the past few years. Her father shanked in prison, his ashes sent home with a bill for the cremation. The interest on their bills multiplying, and multiplying, and multiplying like cancer cells. Preacher throughout it all promising to help, to give them cash, to make a phone call, and never seeming to come through when they needed him most.
Rocko’s Tacos at the south end of Main had a bike-charging station, three bucks for a full battery and a wheel-lock while you ran errands. She tapped her phone against the payment nub, deducting the funds from her tiny balance, and headed inside for food. The fish in the joint’s signature tacos probably came from a lab, but so what? Given her family history, she would probably be dead by forty.
Eating at the counter by the windows, Maxine checked out the office across the street, listed on the card in her backpack as belonging to ‘Alex Smith.’ No movement or lights inside. Might as well check it out.
On the way over, she stopped to pick up a fist-sized stone from the gutter, scanning first for any witnesses. The sidewalks stood empty.
The target building’s front door was unlocked, opening onto an antiseptic space with three almost-barren desks and fluorescent lights overhead. She heard a toilet flush, and a door open. A moment later, a man in shirtsleeves wandered into the room, zipping his fly. He was absurdly muscular but short, his hands thick with black hair. Not a local. Nobody around here dressed in tailored shirts made of shiny material, with buttons that looked like pearl.
“You Alex Smith?” she asked.
He looked up, startled. “How did you get in here?” He had a slight accent, hard to place, maybe Southern.
She nodded behind her. “Door’s unlocked.”
His eyes flicked to the stone in her hand. “What do you want?”
“Are you Alex Smith?”
“Who are you?”
“I need to find Alex Smith. He signed a document for our house.”
The man looked confused. “House?”
Maxine jutted her chin at the small stack of red folders on one of the desks. “Don’t give me that.”
The man took a step toward her, brown leather shoes whispering on the institutional carpet, and Maxine flexed her grip on the rock, raised her hand an inch. He saw it and retreated a few feet, smiling at her. “We cannot discuss client business.”
Maxine recited her address. “This is client business. You made a deal with my mother today? We’re canceling that deal.”
Alex Smith—or whatever his name was—made a great show of shrugging his overdeveloped shoulders. “How old are you, little girl?”
“None of your business, jackass.”
He shook his head. “I think you are a minor. Whether or not that’s true, you do not have the authority to go against your mother’s wishes. This transaction is complete, as of this afternoon.”
“No. I’ll call the cops.” That was an empty threat, of course, considering how the local police regarded Maxine’s family as one step below cockroaches. Not that Smith knew that.
“Go ahead.” Smith swept his arms wide, as if showing off a bustling office instead of a couple of desks in a blank space in a dying town. “Get your lawyers, too. I am sure you have a lot of them, no?”
Maxine turned on her heel and left. There was simply no point in trying to reason with this showy jackass. Whatever scam he was pulling, he knew he had the upper hand over a high-school girl. Back on the street, Maxine decided to ruin his day in the only way she knew how. Hefting the rock, she hurled it as hard as she could through the floor-to-ceiling window fronting the office, punching a jagged hole in the middle of it. Through the cracked glass she saw the man gawping at her like a startled fish.
Offering him a middle finger, she stomped across the street toward her bike, head down so nobody could see the frustrated tears brimming in her eyes. If she couldn’t call the cops, she would reach out to the other authority around these parts.


Maxine knew that once she dialed her uncle’s number, there was a high likelihood of corpses in unmarked graves. But what choice did she have? Her uncle’s droog who answered the phone told her the Big Guy was busy, and to show up in the parking lot of a local bar in ninety minutes. Someone would pick her up.
At exactly the promised moment, a familiar pickup skewed to a stop beside the bar’s front porch. She loaded the bike into the truck’s bed and hopped into the passenger seat. While Preacher’s droog steered them onto the narrow roads beyond town, she stared at her phone to discourage conversation.
The droog made a few sharp turns in the woods before pulling up in front of a tall iron gate. He tapped a number into his phone, and the gate opened onto a paved lane, tree branches scraping the truck’s flanks as it rumbled toward the biggest house Maxine had ever seen with her own eyes, an expensive pile of logs and glass perched beside a small lake.
“Who’d he whack for this place?” she asked the droog, who hopped out of the truck without answering.
The front door opened onto a great room surfaced in dark wood, the massive chandelier overhead dripping with bleached antlers, a stuffed grizzly in the corner looking surprised at the state of its afterlife. A small flat robot passed Maxine’s feet, humming as it sucked dust off the floorboards.  
Preacher entered the room, dressed in a scuffed leather jacket and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, a tumbler of whiskey in his hand. Small cuts on his forehead and cheeks, a thick bandage on his right hand. He looked a little stunned at his own surroundings, his expression reminding her a bit of the bear. “The Warhog has entered the chat-room,” he said. “What’s up, kid?”
Maxine blurted it out: “Mom sold the house.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Great. She get good money for it?”
“That’s not the point.” Her voice echoed off the high ceiling. “Some jackass in a suit came in and took it. That’s. Our. Home.”
“Well, as many a lovely song has sung, you are not alone.” He crashed into a stuffed red chair in the corner, beside the bear. Ice clinked as he swirled his glass like a refined gentleman. “There’s a lot of that lately: shady dudes coming in, convincing people to sign over the deeds to their houses. They got these front companies they set up, so it’s hard to figure out who’s really behind it all. This guy who made the deal? The guy who’s really behind it, he’s probably, like, five guys behind that guy. He might not even live in this country. He may be a little gremlin.”
“They want all the land around here for fracking,” Maxine said, wondering just how much the drugs had mulched her uncle’s brain over the years.
The ice in his glass went silent. “How did you find out?”
“I did some research while I was waiting for your guy to pick me up.” She pulled out her phone, thumbed it to life so he could see a video of monster machines shredding a craggy mountainside. “There’s some new tech, lets them go deeper than ever, work on areas they couldn’t have touched thirty years ago.”
Preacher squinted at the video. “I don’t remember really clear, but I think your dad had some prospectors on your land at one point, and they didn’t find anything. He wanted the cash, so it really crushed his spirit. Well, that and being married to my sister.”
She ignored the quip. “These seismic machines, they detect gas over long distances. They don’t need to put boots on your land until they buy it. The technology’s crazy.”
“Give it a couple years, we’re all gonna be a laptop’s lapdog,” Preacher said. “Skynet. Sorry, that’s a reference before your time.”
“Whatever. You got anything to drink? I’ve been on the road all day.”
“Kitchen,” Preacher said, pointing to a doorway to their right. “It’s about a mile that way.”
The kitchen featured everything-new appliances, its wide windows overlooking the silvery expanse of the lake, two of Preacher’s droogs perched on rocks along the shore. From the fridge she pulled the last can of Coke, the good kind from Mexico, made with real sugar. The appliance beeped as she closed the door, a small screen by the handle flashing: ‘Order More Soda Y/N?’ She tapped ‘Y,’ thinking: how cool. From behind her came Preacher’s heavy tread on the floorboards. “We’ll get you a new house,” he said. “I’ve wanted to move you out of that shit-hole for years, anyway.”
“And yet you didn’t,” she said, popping the tab on the soda.
Preacher coughed. “There’s been a lot of heat. Hard to make moves.”
“You have to help us,” she said, slamming her can on the marble. “We’re family.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“I found the guy who’s got the deed. Just come with me to talk to him.”
"Last time you called me for help, I had to dispose of a couple of bodies," Preacher laughed, his head swaying like a tired bull. "This gonna happen here, too? Should I grab some garbage bags and bleach?"
“As much as I hate the prick who did this," she replied, “I don’t want to deal with the mess of killing him, okay? It won’t help.”
His gaze on the marble, Preacher said: “Fine, we’ll go and talk to him. But I’m warning you now, it’s not going to change anything. Shell corporations, offshore accounts, hidden money. Untangling that stuff, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’m a local man.”
Maxine’s cheeks flared red. “When was the last time you brought my brother a present?”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Preacher sighed. “Let me down another beer, grab one of the guys, and we’ll go. I don’t want you getting whiny like your mom.”
As Preacher retrieved the brew from the fridge, Maxine opened a closet door she’d noticed earlier, in the short hallway that connected the kitchen to the front rooms. The coats inside had real fur, buttery-smooth leather she could pet all day, enough waterproof nylon to keep her family dry for years.
“Go on, take it,” said Preacher, now standing behind her. “These people can afford it.”
Fondling the dress, Maxine pictured her mother tricked into signing the papers in the red folder, taking away the roof over their heads. Once you started stealing, where did you stop? She wasn’t sure she had the strength—not yet, at least—to behave like Preacher, who only stole from corporations and outsiders. You need a code before you can become a righteous outlaw.
She closed the closet door. “Whoever owns this place, they gonna show up at some point?”
“The owners?” Preacher grinned. “I got them trapped in their own panic room upstairs. Don’t worry, they got plenty of food and water in there. And a bucket.”


For the ride back to town they chose a sleek vehicle from the garage, an electric-powered BMW with the latest silicon brain under the hood. Once they hit the two-lane, Preacher activated the self-driving feature and sat back, watching with drunk amusement as the wheel turned on its own. “What happens if I try to mess with it?” he asked.
Beside him, Maxine braced her hands against the dashboard. “Please don’t.”
“It’s okay, nobody’s coming,” Preacher said, and, gripping the wheel, spun it as hard as he could to the left. The BMW veered into the oncoming lane, tires screeching, before regaining its artificial wits and swerving back onto its original path.  
Maxine punched her laughing uncle in the shoulder, dismayed at his behavior. Whenever Preacher “borrowed” something, he usually did his best to return it in fine condition, whether or not he hated the owner. “Don’t,” she said.
“Oh, take a joke, kid.” Thunderclouds brewed around Preacher’s eyes as his high deflated. “I could have done worse.”
Maxine shook her head. Preacher in a mood was a four-alarm emergency, like your house on fire or someone beating your dog in the yard. So much like her mother, come to think of it.
“For example, I could have done this.” Preacher veered the wheel hard right, scraping the BMW against a line of concrete barriers along the shoulder, the squeal of tearing metal almost drowning out the sound of him asking: “Is this worse, dear?”
“Screw you.” She hit him again, full force, on the arm. He released the wheel, and the car dutifully corrected course, the dashboard screen beeping in alarm.  
    “Sorry, long week,” Preacher’s mouth set in a hard white line as he reached into his jacket pocket, extracting a handful of pills that he crunched down with a grimace. The dashboard screen flashed white as some worker-bee in a call center in Kabul or Kansas City tried to reach them, to figure out if they needed assistance.
    Maxine twisted around and flashed a thumbs-up at the pickup riding their bumper. The mohawked droog returned the sign and hit the brakes, falling back a little further. Worst-case scenario, Maxine figured, she could retrieve her bike from the back of the truck, return home, try to puzzle up another solution to her housing crisis.
    “Sorry,” Preacher said again.
    “It’s okay.” Anxious for a distraction, she punched open the glove-box and rooted through the rat’s nest of wrappers and random trash stuffed in there, her fingers scraping on something hard—a steel cylinder with a polymer bulbous tip, bile green.
The sight of it snapped Preacher from his funk. “Ho shit,” he said. “That’s a sick stick.”
“A what?”
“Ultimate in personal protection. Press the end against someone’s bare skin, and they barf everywhere, fever, chills.” He shuddered theatrically. “It’s like instant flu.”
“Why hadn’t I heard of it before?”
“Because they’re banned as lethal weapons. Use it too much on someone, their guts come out.” Preacher pounded the wheel, chuckling. “This is great. You never know what the day has in store for you.”
Pinching one end with two fingers, as if it were a dead rat, Maxine lifted the hardware from the glove box. The bottom half of the shaft had a slightly pebbled texture, presumably giving you a better grip in the event of your enemy upchucking their breakfast all over your hands.  
    Preacher glanced over. “Careful now,” he said. “Press and hold that big button on the bottom, the green one, and it activates. There’s no safety.”
“My thumb is my safety,” she said. The stick felt heavy yet comfortable in her hands, the checkered grip rough on her soft palm, that green tip begging for action.  
“Remind me to actually teach you some gun respect,” Preacher said. “In the meantime, get your new toy ready, because we’re here. Cover your eyes.”
Maxine glanced up, expecting to see the BMW politely easing its way into a parking space. Instead the bumper, already shredded by Preacher’s little adventure with the concrete divider, bumped over the curb, on a collision course for the cracked glass of Alex Smith’s front window. The dashboard screen beeping in fear, its reddening glow reflecting off Preacher’s teeth as he grinned wide and stood on the gas pedal, ass off the seat, buoyed by the colossal roar of six cylinders. Maxine threw her arms over her face.
In the last half-second before impact, Preacher removed his foot from the gas, and the BMW’s brain kicked into action to salvage the unsalvageable. The brakes screeched. The dashboard screamed. Maxine’s world went—


—white, as the mini-airbags in her door deployed.
Her skin stung. She clawed the deflating fabric out of her face in time to see Preacher pound the wheel, growling: “Whatever happened to the dream of full human control?” Through the miraculously intact windshield, she saw Smith peering at them from a few feet away, his mouth agape. The surprise was understandable. The BMW had come to a halt in the middle of the office, atop a desk smashed to kindling, the carpet littered with chunks of wood and broken glass.
“That’s him,” she said, pointing with the sick stick. Her hands tingled in a way that promised aching and bruises later.
“Oh yes,” Preacher replied, ripping away the sagging airbags and unbuckling himself, climbing from the vehicle with the wincing care of older men. “I know a hustler when I see one.”
Her own knees wobbled as she stepped into the office, adrenaline like a dead battery on her tongue. She had the sick stick raised, and Smith’s look of bloodcurdling fear said he knew what it could do. “Hey again,” Maxine said, her voice sharp with a sadistic cheer she didn’t feel. “I didn’t like how our last conversation ended, so I decided to swing back.” Focused on the little runt, she never saw Preacher dart in from the left, snatching the device out of her hand neat as you please.
“Tutorial,” her uncle said to her, lunging forward to grip Smith by his expensive collar. The sick stick hovering an inch from the man’s neck. “You know why we’re here?” Preacher asked him.
Maxine glanced over her shoulder, at the pickup pulling to the curb, the droog behind the wheel flashing her a thumbs-up with his eyebrows raised questioningly. She raised a thumb in return, and he put the vehicle in Park, wheels tilted toward the street for a fast getaway.  
    “Yes, I know why you’re here,” Smith said, lip quivering. “Even if you kill me, it won’t change anything.”
While Maxine didn’t consider herself a sadist, watching this bastard squirm made her feel warm and tingly inside. Walking over to the nearest intact desk, she flipped through red folders until she found the paperwork with her home address, signed with her mother’s shaky hand.
“Bullshit,” she said. “I got the contract right here.”
“She has the contract right there,” Preacher said. “So what’s this about not changing anything, huh?”
“That’s a copy,” Smith said. “We registered the transfer a couple hours ago. You know this is a good thing, right? You people are going to make some money off this.”
Preacher drove the sick stick into Smith’s neck, just below the jaw. The effect was immediate. Sweat bursting from his suddenly bloodless skin, Smith bent over and vomited on his expensive leather shoes.
“You want a little cotton ear swab?” Preacher asked him.
Something in Smith’s pained grimace suggested confusion.
“Because you must have some waxy build-up,” Preacher said, the sick stick hovering close again. “Hard of hearing and all that. We don’t want the money, we want the house. What’s your company’s name?”
Wiping his messy lips with the back of his hand, Smith husked: “Hot Properties, LLC.”
Preacher rolled his eyes. “No, the shell behind the shell. What is it?”
“Sunny Acres Properties, LLC.”
“Who owns them?”
Smith straightened, wiping the drool from his chin, a little more color in his cheeks. The sick stick wore off fast. Or maybe he had a bit of the strength that comes when you realize you have the upper hand. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he said. “Someone in Russia? Africa? We can form companies all over the place. For all I know, the deed’s held by a bunch of goat herders in Pakistan.”
“Is that right?” Maxine clenched her hands together in a white-knuckle ball. “Is he lying?”
“Maybe.” Preacher glanced at her, the tightness in his face imparting a whole conversation between the two of them. What was her uncle going to do, call the police? Walk into a government office and accuse a shell company of fraud?
“So you can kill me,” Smith said, voice stronger, “but you know it won’t change anything.”
“You’re right,” Preacher said. He stood there for a moment, contemplating the ceiling, before driving the sick stick hard into Smith’s ribs. Smith toppled to the glass-strewn carpet, dry-heaving and thrashing.
“But that sure felt good,” Preacher added, pocketing the sick stick as he opened the door of the BMW and climbed in, gesturing for Maxine to do the same.
Stepping forward, Maxine had every intention of delivering Smith some bonus pain, maybe a nice solid kick in the balls. Only as she neared, he glanced up, his eyes wide and human and full of agony. His look stopped her foot before it left the carpet.
Behind her, the BMW’s engine sputtered to life, the dashboard bursting into fresh damage-control screams before Preacher could smack it silent.
What good will hitting this chump do?
She had no good answer.
The BMW’s horn deafening in the enclosed space, snapping Maxine from her thoughts. Instead of kicking Smith, she spat on his hair—a weak gesture, but maybe enough to make her feel better, later, about today. Smith kept staring at her, eyes glassy as marbles. Offering the overdressed little bastard her second middle finger of the day, Maxine slipped into the battered car’s passenger seat and stared at her hands as Preacher eased them back onto the street. 

Preacher furious, cheeks red, teeth clenched, hands twisting the wheel. Maxine had never seen this many nukes going off in his head at once. The heat from that fury made her hunch against the passenger door, eyes averted, wondering whether she should have called him in the first place.
“You still want to be an outlaw?” Preacher’s voice high and tight. “You want to do criminal shit, just like your uncle? Let me tell you something: For all the money I’ve made—and I’ve made a lot—it’s nothing compared to what someone can make with a bunch of lawyers and a couple of forms. And you know the worst part of it, the thing that really gets me?”
“Just don’t swerve,” she said. “My stomach can’t take it.” Should have grabbed my bike from the pickup, she thought. You could’ve been home already, without this extra drama.
“That asshole back there, if he ever gets arrested for what he did?” Preacher laughed. “Probably won’t even go to jail. Or if he does, they’ll ship his ass to Camp Cupcake, somewhere they get to roast marshmallows around a campfire. White-collar crime is where it’s always been at: big profits, no blood on your hands, and if you get nailed, it’s just a slap on the wrist.”
“Okay. I get it.”
His gaze pierced her skull. “I’m taking you home. You’ll stay there until the moment those bastards try and shove you off it. I’m guessing they’ll wait a good long time, considering what we did to your little buddy back there. And when they come—because they will, the money coming out of the ground is too good—I’ll move you someplace new. That place was a piece of shit, anyway.”
Sure, she almost said, but at least it was home, and at least I saved it for the moment. But saying nothing seemed like the safer option at the moment.
When they pulled into her driveway, she saw Brad on the porch, waiting for them with a vacant look that promised supreme hardship in the days ahead. A heavyset man in a nylon jacket stood beside him, rubberized tablet in hand. The yellow letters on the jacket spelled ‘CORONER.’


    Two hours before, right around the moment Maxine and Preacher met in that expensive house to talk about settling scores, Maxine’s mother had loaded up a syringe too full and found a good vein in the moonscape of her left arm and pushed home the killer hit, blasting a hole in Maxine’s heart that never fully closed.