Monday, February 12, 2018

Lavina, by Richard Prosch

Lavina was short, with a peaked face and a wild mane of salt and pepper hair best described as frizzy. The kind of woman Danny Parks never would’ve noticed even though she lived two doors down, sharing his townhouse building.

The place had four two-story units. Danny and his girlfriend Tammy lived on one end, Lavina and her whatever-he-was on the other.

Lavina’s live-in was too young to be her husband, said Tammy, picking at her cranberry salad, twirling the lettuce around on her fork.

I ‘m still not sure who you’re talking about,” said Danny, pouring another glass of Vignoles.

The woman in the end apartment. The one looks like Rhea Perlman.”


Rhea Perlman on Taxi.” Tammy giggled. “She sorta looks like Ronnie James Dio. You know, the heavy metal guy?”

Oh yeah,” Danny got the Dio reference. “I saw her at the mailboxes the other day.” He emptied half his glass. “Are you eating that salad or making and origami duck?”

So do you think the big guy is her son, or boyfriend, or what?

Danny threw back the rest of the wine and didn’t bother to wipe his lips. “Who cares?”

I think she’s a spook,” said Tammy.

Two days later Danny came home to one less neighbor. Before he’d even put his Ford Escort into park, he saw the open door on the unit next to Lavina’s.

Bob, the apartment manager, greeted him on the sidewalk. “Looks like you’re losing a neighbor,” he said.

Elderly couple wasn’t it? What’s going on?”

Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Apparently she up and walked away a couple nights back.”

I didn’t know she was having trouble. Dementia?”

Not that I knew about.”

Danny’s stomach tightened with the look on Bob’s face.

Oh, no.

Bob nodded as if he could read Danny’s mind. “They found her this morning up in the woods. Been dead a while too. Looks like some stray dogs got to her.”

I guess I could’ve gone without hearing that.”

Just saying.” Bob snuffed hard and spit into the parking lot. “The old man’s gone to stay with his kids. Wanted me to water the plants, keep an eye on things until they could make arrangements to move.”

By the time supper rolled around, Danny was starved, but Tammy wouldn’t eat.

I just keep thinking about that poor old woman. Laying up there. Dogs.”

It happens. Pass the ketchup, please?”

You know what? I wonder if that Lavina had anything to do with it.”

How could she?”

Bob told me that the Peterson’s had complained about her. About her arguing with her boyfriend. Or whoever he is.”

I saw the guy you mean. Big, bearded skinhead guy out polishing the wheels on his car.” Danny described the big man and his tattoo sleeve arms.

That’s him,” said Tammy.

If you’re worried about anybody,” said Danny, “worry about him. He’s a hell of a lot more scary than Lavina.”

I think they’re both scary.”

Have a glass of wine.”

Two weeks later, another neighbor was gone. Dan and Tammy had been on a weekend outing to the mountains. When they returned, Bob was sweeping the sidewalk outside of a yellow tape barrier. The tape read CRIME SCENE in big black letters.

Damnedest thing,” said Bob when Danny asked him about it. “Nobody heard a thing. I didn’t even know Jerry was home.”

Jerry drove a truck on long hauls up the coast. He was often gone for weeks at a time. Sharing the apartment wall with quiet, absent Jerry was one of the things Danny appreciated about his apartment.

Now Jerry was absent for good.

Bob jerked his thumb toward the sealed apartment. “Lot of blood in there.”

That night neither Danny nor Tammy ate supper.

A month later, after they’d answered a few routine questions for the cops and most of the excitement was over, Tammy mentioned seeing Lavina at the mailbox. “She was really shook up about something. Real jittery.” She could’ve been talking about herself. “Danny, I think her arms were bruised.”

An image of the skinhead in all his inked glory popped into Danny’s mind. “You think that bastard’s hitting her?”

Remember the Peterson’s complained about their arguing?”

That sonuvabitch,” said Danny. Compared to an unsolved murder next door, old-fashioned domestic violence seemed fairly routine. It seemed like something a neighbor could do something about.

Next time you see Lavina,” said Danny. “Invite her in for coffee.”

It happened sooner than Danny would’ve predicted.

Two nights later, when the knock came at the door, they both jumped.

Danny cracked open the door, keeping the security chain firmly in place. In the darkness outside, by the glow of the parking lot lights, Lavina stood, shrunken, sullen, blood on her sweatshirt. Blood on her face.

Can I use your phone?” Meek. Crying.

If the sight of blood trickling out of Lavin’s nose didn’t immediately jerk Danny’s insides into a knot, the shadow of the skinhead did. He stood back a ways, behind Lavina, close to Dan’s car. His legs shoulder-width apart, his arms loose by his sides.

Then Tammy was there at the door, unhooking the chain, swinging the door wide to let Lavina in.

The woman’s eyes were wide, begging for help. “Come in,” said Tammy. “I’ll get my phone.”

As Danny turned to close the door, the skinhead spoke to him.

What was that?” said Danny. He had to strain his ears to hear.

Send the bitch back out.”

Oh, yeah. Right.

So she can take another beating? Is that it? You haven’t had enough fun?”

Seeing Lavina the way she was had fired up something inside Danny. Two deaths in the same building. Now this creep working over a helpless woman.

Danny threw caution to the wind and stepped outside, closing the apartment door behind him.

By now, Tammy would be getting Lavina some help. Cleaning her up. Making some calls.

This has to stop, man,” said Danny, walking forward. “You can’t just—“

The skinhead staggered forward. There was blood on him too.

Send her out,” he said. “Or she’ll…she’ll hurt you too.”

The big guy fell over in a pile on the sidewalk.


Danny spun, rushed back to the door.

It was locked from inside.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Texas Hot Flash, by Michael Bracken

Sunshine McCall--Sunshine Petunia McCall--stared hard at 40, at the crow’s feet collecting in the corners of her weary blue eyes, at the strawberry blonde hair that was now more Clairol than natural, and at the dewlap that had begun to soften the once-firm line of her jaw. Forty looked exactly like 39, but felt a decade older.

She grabbed two tampons from the box under the sink and stuffed them in her pocket. Then she strapped on her holster, checked her weapon, and headed outside to her year-old Maxima.

The drive across town barely outlasted a Tuesday two-fer from Tommy James and the Shondells on her favorite oldies station, and McCall pulled into the employee parking lot just as the local weather report began. She listened to predictions of triple digit heat by mid-afternoon before climbing out of her car and walking inside.

She found a sign taped to her locker, a bad photocopy of her photograph from thirteen years earlier when she’d joined the force fresh from the police academy. Someone with a shaky hand had written “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” above the photograph. The sign looked like the work of the civilian receptionist, a blue-haired woman who had worked at the station since Heck was a pup. McCall tore the paper down, wadded it into a ball, and threw it toward the trashcan.

She missed.

After she clocked in and picked up the keys to her cruiser, McCall spent a moment chewing the fat with the patrol sergeant, a crew-cut Vietnam vet who had killed more men in the line of duty than he had killed during his brief tour in country.

“Any special plans for tonight?” he asked.

“I’m going to slap a T-bone on the grill, microwave a potato, and wash everything down with a six-pack of Lone Star,” McCall said.

“Beats the hell out of my fortieth,” the patrol sergeant said. “My old lady took me out for Mexican food. Over sopapillas, she said she was leaving me for my son’s third grade teacher. I haven’t looked at Mex food the same since.”

“Women,” McCall said. “Go figure.”

The patrol sergeant’s laugh let her know that he appreciated the sentiment, so she joined him.

Later, alone in her patrol car tagging motorists with her radar gun as they crested the hill near Wal-Mart, McCall glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror and pondered her need to denigrate other women when surrounded by police officers. She cut her thoughts short when a minivan crested the hill at seventeen miles over the posted speed limit. McCall pulled onto the road behind it and flipped on her lights.

Half a block later, in front of Lowe’s on the other side of the Franklin Avenue intersection, the driver pulled her vehicle to the shoulder. After McCall keyed the license plate into her computer and discovered the plate number was clean, she stepped out of her cruiser. As she approached the minivan, the driver’s door opened and a pudgy brunette swung her leg out.
Stay in the car, ma’am!” McCall instructed.

The driver hesitated, and then drew her leg back inside and pulled the door closed. She was rolling her window down when McCall reached the door.

“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “I didn’t realize--”

McCall cut her off. “License,” she said. “Proof of insurance.”

“Sure. Yes. I have those,” the woman said as she dug through a suitcase-sized purse. McCall watched the woman closely, her hand on the butt of her sidearm, prepared to draw if anything unexpected came out of the purse.

In the back seat, a baby of indeterminate gender began to fuss, sounding as if it was working itself up for a serious wail. The driver stopped fishing through her purse and handed a wad of things through the open window.

McCall took the woman’s driver’s license and proof of insurance, carried them to the cruiser, and keyed the information into her computer. The driver had no wants or warrants, so McCall wrote a ticket and carried it back to the driver. By then the backseat baby was at full volume and the woman was anxiously shaking a stuffed rabbit in its face.

“Sign here,” McCall said over the baby’s screams.

The woman turned, hastily scribbled her name at the bottom of the ticket, and took her copy from McCall’s hand a moment later.

McCall returned to her cruiser, drove to a small diner where she knew the restrooms were kept clean, and called in to say she would be out of pocket for a few minutes. Inside the restroom, a one-seater with a secure door, McCall stripped off her holster and used the facilities. Then she changed her tampon. Her flow had started the day before, six days later than usual, and she would have worried about pregnancy if there had been a man in her life. Instead, she attributed her increasingly erratic cycle to the same source as the midnight sweats and the mid-afternoon hot flashes.

As she pulled from the diner’s parking lot, McCall spotted a faculty parking sticker on the rear window of the Lexus in front of her and wondered what subject the driver taught at the local university.

Her brother Moonbeam Able McCall--M. Able McCall on his academic papers, Dr. McCall to his students, and Abe to his friends--taught medieval literature at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. They hadn’t spoken since their parents’ funeral following their death in an automobile accident. Their parents had been returning from a WTO protest in Seattle when an intoxicated high school student T-boned their Volkswagen Vanagon at a poorly lit intersection.

After the funeral, after everyone had returned home and she was left with her brother in the only building that remained at the commune where they had been raised, he called her a “sell-out.”

They had stood toe-to-toe while he accused her of perpetuating the growing police state, of violating the civil liberties of the innocent and underprivileged, and of betraying their parents’ ideals. After the first two minutes, McCall imagined seven different ways she could put her brother facedown on the floor without breaking a sweat. Then she smiled and walked to her room, packed her suitcase, and carried it to the rental car. Moonbeam followed her like a yapping Chihuahua until she opened the car door and turned to face him.

“Bite my ass,” she told her brother before climbing into the car and driving away.

The first time she’d left the commune--a patch of land on the northern California coast halfway between Mendocino and Ft. Bragg--McCall had been squeezed in the backseat of Ford Pinto, unaware of its flammability. A long, circuitous route took her from the commune, through the coffee shops of San Francisco, to performing as the lead singer in a Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead cover band that toured the U.S. for a year before collapsing under its own pretentiousness following a Saturday evening gig at a Holiday Inn just north of San Antonio.

She bounced from job to job until a one-night-stand’s off-hand comment about her conservative opinions led her to the police academy.

Since then, she’d spent more than her share of time in redneck bars where overly familiar men called her “Sunny” and invited her to ride their moustaches. Sunny? She’d never been Sunny, not even as a round-faced hippie child attending the small-town school where the commune sent its children in their peasant dresses and hemp sandals.

That life had been long ago and far away, a time when her parents’ generation believed they could change the world by wearing blue jeans and love beads. Except for a few holdouts, those same people were now worried about Social Security and Medicare Part B. Instead of protesting against the pigs, they were demanding better police protection from departments straining under the weight of increased need and decreased budgets.

Sweat rolled from McCall’s armpits and stained the elastic of her bra. Her hair clung to her forehead and she pushed it away before reaching for the controls on the cruiser’s air conditioning. She pushed the fan to its highest setting. The air conditioning in the car hadn’t been designed to combat central Texas’s triple digit summer heat, and the fan did little more than shift tepid air from one part of the cruiser to another.

An hour after leaving the diner, McCall responded to a domestic dispute and was the first officer on the scene. She pulled her cruiser to the curb and stepped out. As she pushed the door closed, a large man burst from the house. He had shoulder-length hair, glassy eyes, and a fat roll that obscured his belt. He stood on the porch waving an automatic nearly engulfed by his meaty fist.

McCall pulled her sidearm and dropped behind her cruiser. She rested her forearms on the fender as she drew down on the man. The metal seared her bare forearm but she didn’t flinch.

“Put the gun down!” she commanded. “Put the God-damned gun down!”

The man stared at her as if he didn’t understand what she was telling him.

A woman with a baby on her hip stepped onto the porch behind him. McCall no longer had a clean shot.

“Put the gun down, Harry,” the woman implored. Her voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

A second police cruiser slid to a halt behind McCall’s and the patrol sergeant slipped from it.

“Put the gun down!” McCall shouted again.

Harry raised his hand and the sergeant shot him in the forearm. When he dropped the gun and collapsed on the porch, his wife ran to him.

“Nice shot,” McCall told the sergeant.

He glared at her. “I missed. I was aiming at his chest.”

McCall radioed for an ambulance as the sergeant approached the wounded man, kicked away the automatic, and suffered the verbal abuse of the man’s wife.

After the ambulance had taken the fat man away and the scene had been secured, McCall returned to the station to prepare an incident report.

The bluehaired civilian receptionist gave her a chocolate cupcake with a single burning candle and sang “Happy Birthday” in a warbly voice.

McCall thanked her, blew out the candle without making a wish, ate the cupcake, and sat at her desk until she completed the paperwork required following any officer-involved shooting. She never mentioned the sergeant’s comment that he’d missed.

After she completed the paperwork, she stepped into the institutional gray women’s restroom, changed her tampon, and returned to the streets.

Nothing much happened the next few hours and McCall returned home after the end of her shift, slapped an inch-thick steak on the grill, and sat on the back porch killing her first Lone Star while the steak sizzled. She could hear children playing in the next yard, heavy metal music from down the street, and dogs barking somewhere in the distance. What she couldn’t hear were her own thoughts.

Forty was better that way.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Tough Goes Print!

The rumors you've heard are true, yes indeed. We'll continue to publish stories online every week from February 2018 on and under the aegis of Redneck Press, will collect those stories and reviews in attractive print issues at mid-year and year's end. Writers will continue to receive $25 per story or review published plus a copy of the print issue in which their work appears.

Tough aims to publish the best crime stories we can find, online, in electronic versions, and in attractive perfect-bound editions which will retail at reasonable prices for those who want to support our mission.

There are many crime venues vying for your attention. Tough intends to be among the most prominent. Thanks for your support.

You can direct questions and submissions to Rusty Barnes (toughcrime AT gmail DOT com), but please read a few stories first to familiarize yourself with the stories we publish. It's just good manners.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December Update

I hope you're all having a decent holiday season. I'm slowly making my way through sending out responses to stories received over the last few months. I hope you'll still bear with me as I do that.

I'm still actively looking for books to review, so if you have a forthcoming or recent book you'd like to have considered for review, please send it to me in .mobi or PDF at