Monday, May 21, 2018

Doubt Thou the Stars are Fire, by S.A. Cosby

“What you want to drink? A rum and Coke? Vodka and cranberry? Them mumblemouth motherfuckers down at the club be drinking that pink Ciroc but I know that ain’t your thing. Is it?” Amir asked. I shook my head.

“You got some Jack Daniels I’ll have some of that.” I said.

“Hey Shanda, get Chess a Jack and Coke.” He yelled into the kitchen.

“Just the Jack.” I said. Amir nodded.

“Hey just the Jack. Tell you what, just bring the whole fucking bottle.” He yelled. Shanda didn’t respond but I was sure she heard him. A few seconds later she came sauntering out of the kitchen and handed me a heavy cut-crystal glass filled to the brim with whiskey , two lonely ice cubes dropped in there for decoration. Then she sat a mostly full fifth of Jack Daniels and a red Solo cup on the glass coffee table between me and Amir. She didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at her. When she walked away I stared at my drink like it was my ninth-grade algebra homework. Amir poured himself a shot.

“Five years, Chess. Man, we lucked out on that shit didn’t we? “Amir said. He took his cup to the head.

“You really lucked out. You only got a year.” I said. Amir nodded slowly. He was almost able to pull off that look of solemnity he was going for.

“Hey man, you didn’t get the needle. Manslaughter ain’t bad. And now you out. It’s been what three weeks? It’s like you never left,” he said. I killed half my drink with one gulp. I had to keep my mouth occupied. I wonder if he noticed how tight I was gripping the glass? The whiskey burned like the devil was pissing down my throat.

“And now you the man.” I wheezed after the liquor hit my belly. Amir looked around his living room. He stared at the leather living room suite and the deep pile cafĂ© latte carpet. His eyes peered through the French doors that led to the patio. I watched him take in the BMW and the Mercedes sitting in his driveway. He tried to hide it, but I saw him glance toward the kitchen. Towards Shanda.

“I’m doing all right,” he said finally. I took a smaller sip of my drink.

“So Boonie said you wanted to talk to me. “

Amir sat forward, and I leaned back. Force of habit. If someone leans into you on the inside they either want to shank you or fuck you. Either way they looking to put something hard inside you.

“Hey man, I just wanted us to clear the air about the way things went down, “he said. I sipped my drink again.

“Nothing to clear up. Your lawyer was better than mine that’s all.” I lied. Amir tossed his head back. His long dreads spilled across the back of the couch.

“Why did that motherfucker fight back man? We’d done that Craigslist escort thing a hundred times and nobody ever even blinked. Then that big son of a bitch wants to try and crack our skulls open.”

“At the trial they said he was on meth and coke, “ I said.

“That nigga broke my jaw in three places. He was on some Incredible Hulk type shit.” Amir said. I didn’t respond. I had played that night over in my head enough when I was inside. It had been on a continuous loop the entire time I’d been in Mecklenburg State Prison. Me and Amir bursting out of the hotel room closet like thug life personified. The big naked white guy punching Shanda in the mouth. Amir getting tossed against the wall like a bag of trash. Me hitting the big guy on the back of the head with the lamp. The withering silence that fell over the room as we realized the guy was dead.

End Scene.

“It was some crazy shit,” I said.

“Look man I appreciate you not snitching.” Amir said. I took another big gulp of my drink. The empty glass mocked me.

“Better bite your tongue off next time he says something like that. I’m all out of ideas.” I imagined it saying. I rinsed the Jack around in my mouth. I didn’t snitch because in the week between beating that guy to death in the Relax Inn and the cops nabbing us we had come up with a pretty good plan. We’d just tell the cops we were partying with the dude and a fight broke out and things got out of hand. If we all stuck to the story we would have probably all gotten off with depraved indifference.

But we didn’t all stick to the story did we?

I finally swallowed the whiskey. My mouth was numb. The flesh on the insides of my cheeks felt loose and gelatinous. Gelatinous. It’s strange the words you pick up when you have time to read a dictionary from cover to cover.

“We were boys.” I said. I tried to keep my tone nice and even.

The few people who came to see me filled me in on Amir’s rise to the middle of the Richmond drug game. After he did his year he’d gotten up with Shanda. Her lawyer had kept her out of jail. She was right by his side as transitioned from being a stick-up kid to selling Special K to the club kids. Parlayed that into dealing designer drugs to hipster douchebags at the three local colleges. He’d built his shit solid enough to make some paper but fluid enough to escape the attention of Johnny Law.

“Chess you know me and Shanda that didn’t start till I got out. We was never doing nothing behind you back. It just happened.” he said.

“Hey, Amir, do me a favor. Don’t tell me that shit okay? Nothing just happens. You didn’t just look up one day and notice her fat ass all right? Don’t play me like that man. Y’all together now and that’s all it is. I get that. But don’t tell me it just happened.” I said.

Shanda came out the kitchen and went through the French doors. She had put on a leather jacket to go out into the cold February air. I watched her put a cigarette to her lips. The flame from the lighter gave her butter-pecan complexion an incandescent glow. She’d cut her hair short. When I’d gone in it had hung down to her ass. Cascading down her back like a waterfall made of shadows. That was the Shanda I knew. That was the Shanda I loved. That was the Shanda who wrote me twice a month for five years. The Shanda who dangled a carrot in front of me that kept me going in Mecklenburg.

“Maybe when you get out.”

She ended all her letters like that. All one hundred and twenty of them.

“I got a job for you.” Amir said. The jocularity in his voice had dried up like ditchwater in the middle of July.

“What kind of job?”

Amir stood up and went into his den. I heard him rifling through a drawer then shut it hard.

When he came back out he had one of those big brown envelopes in his hand. The kind you mail documents in.

“Got some fellas outta DC coming into town tonight. They bringing me a package. Some of that good shit them Beckys over at VCU like. I can’t go get it tonight, so I was gonna get you to pick it up for me.” He said. Amir tossed the envelope on the coffee table. I stared at the envelope. I glanced out the patio window. Shanda was finishing her smoke.

The last letter I had received from her had been written in code. Nonsensical words and phrases that only held meaning for us. You know, the way lovers speak. She’d told me Amir beat on her. That he treated her like property. That she’d taken out a five hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy on him. That maybe when I got out we could be together if he was out of the picture.

I stood up. I took the envelope off the table.

“I guess I’m working for you now huh?” I said. Amir frowned.

“Man don’t say it like that. I owe you, Chess. You do this for me and I’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do. You just pick up the package and bring it back here tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?” A sheepish smile crawled across Amir’s face.

“Yeah man. We going out tonight.” He said.

It dawned on me what today was. I didn’t keep track of holidays inside. Not Christmas. Not Thanksgiving. Least of all Valentine’s Day.

Images flooded my mind that made me sick to my stomach. Amir and Shanda at some semi-fancy restaurant ordering what he thought was a good bottle of wine. Amir and Shanda riding the elevator to the top floor of the Marriott to fuck in the same two positions they did at home every three weeks. Amir laying on top of her sweating and grunting like a dying harbor seal.

That’s when I knew I was going to do it.

I held out my right hand while holding the envelope in my left.Amir grabbed it and pumped it up and down twice. His grip was almost comically delicate. He’d gotten soft.

I dropped the envelope and sucker-punched him. I planted my feet and threw my hips into it. I felt a shock thrum its way up my arm as my fist connected with his cheek bone. Amir dropped to one knee. He was blinking hard and a thin stream of blood and drool poured out his mouth. I grabbed him by his dreads and dragged him to his feet.

“Five years motherfucker! How many times you fuck her in five years? A hundred? A thousand? After you sold me out.” I screamed. I drove his head into the glass coffee table. It cracked but didn’t break. A series of fractures raced toward its edge. I slammed his head into the table again. This time it did shatter. Glass shards rained down on his lush pile carpet. I let go of him and he crumpled to the floor.

I grabbed the Jack Daniels bottle from the wreckage of the coffee table. I gripped it by the neck and raised it above my head.

“We was boys!” I howled. I slammed the bottle into the back of his skull. It made a dull thwack!

“We was ride or die!” I said. Thwack!

“She was my girl!” I said. Thwack Thwack Thwack! When I finally dropped the bottle, it was covered in blood and Amir didn’t have a face anymore. Shanda came in from the patio and closed the door behind her.

“You were supposed to wait until tonight. Come back and break in. that’s why I talked him into getting you to do the pick-up. So you could get the lay of the house.” She said. Her honey-coated voice melted over me. Even now with blood splattered across my face it made me shiver from the inside out.

“I…couldn’t… I couldn’t let him touch you one more night. It’s okay. We can make this work. Go get a blanket. We can take him out through the patio. Drop him off near the train tracks.” I said. Shanda didn’t speak. She headed down the hallway. I wiped my face. My hand came away red.

I heard Shanda come back into the living room. She wasn’t carrying a blanket. She had a small nickel-plated .32. For a brief moment I told myself I didn’t understand.

“Shanda…what are you doing?” I said even though I knew exactly what the fuck she was doing.

“You’re right. We can still make it work.” She said. The first shot got me in the shoulder. The hole it made in the sleeve of my t-shirt was the size of an aspirin. I stared at it, waiting for the blood to flow. I turned back to Shanda. We locked eyes.

I started for her and she shot me again. My legs disappeared from under me. I fell forward on to the remains of the coffee table.

It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt except that millisecond between seeing the gun in Shanda’s hand and her pulling the trigger. I heard her talking on her cell to a 911 operator. She was explaining how her ex had broken in and beaten her husband to death and she the poor frightened waif that she was had been forced to shoot her ex. As the darkness began to overtake me I wondered how she would explain the letters in my back pocket. All 120 of them. I’d carried them with me everywhere since I’d gotten out. Some of them even had little hearts drawn in the margins.

Ain’t love grand?

Monday, May 14, 2018

Blood Daughter, by Matthew Lyons

Stan blows up his old life with a few Facebook messages and a few cellphone photos, and after the divorce is over and he's bled dry as corn husks, he packs up his few remaining belongings in his shitty little fifth-hand Kia (the only car on Craigslist he could afford) and moves to North Garth to start rebuilding. He gets an apartment (studio), and a job (washing dishes), a new(ish) pair of sneakers and a rat in a glass case he names Salzer, after the famous German poet. He spends his first few months looking back, crying in the dark, calling his old house from grocery store parking lot payphones and hoping that Melinda doesn't pick up because they both know she's not going to let him talk to Cassie. Stan misses his daughter more than he misses the rest of his stupid old life and he tells himself that maybe that's ordinary.

Whenever his little girl answers, he never tells her it's him calling, just whispers all his secrets to her in alphabetical order and hopes she understands. When he runs out of those, he starts telling her his memories. When he was six, his dad shot himself in the garage with the Browning he brought back from Vietnam and ever since then Stan's had nightmares about red paper fans pressed against cracked window-glass. He stomped crayfish to paste by the creekside when he was a teenager. He married too young and tried to fix a broken thing with a baby. He tells her that despite all his sins she's beautiful and she's perfect and she's all he ever wanted and that's when Melinda yanks the phone away from their daughter and screeches PERVERT!! down the line at him and then it clicks dead in his ear. The next time he tries to call, a mechanical woman tells him that number's been disconnected. He screams and smashes the receiver against the base until it comes apart in his hand and the grocery security guards have to come and drag him away off the store property.

Back home, broken and battered and hammered out of shape, he drags himself into the bathroom and scoops a handful of scummy hair from the shower drain with bloody fingers, cradles it in his palms, coos nursery rhymes to it. It's a good start. But he'll need more.

Eventually he notices there's a new waitress at the diner: her name is Alexandra and she has a green and black tattoo of a snake stretching from her right wrist all the way to the line of her jaw and she laughs at his lame dad jokes and smokes too many menthol cigarettes and carries around a five year AA token like some people carry around crucifixes. She asks him about his bandages and he makes some stupid quip, hoping she gets the message. They start to have sex a few times a week, always at her place and only ever when her boyfriend isn't home. She watches him get high sometimes and never asks why he never invites her over to his apartment.

Stan starts to plan. Stan invests in a full set of antique dental tools off eBay. Stan takes showers that last for hours, pulling out the thin hairs circling his chest and his belly and his ever-expanding bald spot and letting them collect in the drain until they just about stop up the tub before he pulls them out and adds them. Stan buys weed and sometimes coke from the other dishwasher at the diner, another down-on-his-luck case who looks like a Chad but insists everyone call him Pablo. Stan has wet dreams about his ex-wife sometimes and always calls Alexandra to apologize after. Stan starts to buy anesthetic from one of Pablo's other customers, some asshole veterinarian who can't handle his shit. Stan doesn't go in the kitchen anymore because that's her room and she needs her privacy.

Salzer's been dead under a pathetic pile of shredded paper bedding for weeks before Stan notices, and when he finally does, he just throws the whole terrarium out into the alley where it shatters and startles a homeless man so badly he never comes back around. This city is dying anyway. Stan doesn't see the poor bastard beat his retreat down and away and it's just as well because Stan wouldn't care if he did.

His apartment starts to smell like rot so he spends his whole paycheck at the Yankee Candle one Friday and congratulates himself for his ingenuity. He walls off the kitchen with broken-down boxes and cheap duct tape that doesn't tear right but gets the job done. He sings while he puts it up, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and London Bridge and Mary Had A Little Lamb and more. He tells himself she likes it but there'll be no way to tell until he's finished and that's not going to be for a while because he has to go slowly and carefully otherwise everything's going to get fucked up and he can't let that happen.

This is too important. She's too important.

One night, laying in bed, he tells Alexandra a little bit about himself, and in return, she tells him she thinks he's the loneliest person she's ever met. She tells him about her son who lives with her parents in Spokane and then he leaves because he can't handle that shit, and the next day at work she acts like nothing's wrong but he can see by the puffy glow around her eyes that she's been crying. He doesn't ask about it and she doesn't share. She doesn't answer his calls for the rest of the week either, but he's okay with that. He's got plenty of work at home to keep him occupied without having to worry about her feelings on top of all of it. He's got to focus.

Things are moving faster, now.

The next Saturday, he waits up and does lines of blow until well after midnight and then breaks into a local funeral home because those shitty Labrador painkillers he has at home aren't doing the job. He stumbles through the dark, upending chairs and caskets on his way through to the prep room and uses a screwdriver to snap the padlock off the supply locker: inside are racks of tools and rows of brown bottles with labels he only understands a little. These'll probably work. With one arm, he sweeps a whole shelf into his duffel bag for later and when a voice behind him asks

Who the hell are you? What are you doing in here?

he grabs one of the many-angled implements from the cabinet and opens the man's face with it. The sound is like a claw hammer against a steak and Stan leaves him there, crumpled on the floor in a creeping pool of his own blood.

In the bathroom of his apartment, Stan loads a pair of syringes with a mixture from the bottles and sets them on the edge of the sink while he works up the nerve. The first time he really does it, he starts small. A needle prick in the tips of his first two fingers, then he goes out to his car for the pliers while the itchy numb takes hold. He lays out paper towels all around the sink, gets a good hold, grits his teeth and yanks out one fingernail, then another. They come out with a wet sucking thwick and even through the warm embalming drug haze, the pain is exquisite, a fuzzy screaming wave that turns his whole hand into a burning, open nerve. There's not as much blood as he expected, though. He runs a cold tap over his bare fingers until it feels okay again, then he takes his ripped-free nails out to the kitchen to add.

Over the course of the next week he does the other eight, and then all ten toes, and then uses the antique bag of tools from the internet to start in on his mouth. He brings it all to the kitchen, taking his time to make sure each piece fits just so. It's only when the gaps in his smile grow wide enough to pass the neck of a bottle through that the weird, awful people at the diner start to notice. Are you okay? they ask. Do you need to talk to someone, Stan? He shrugs them all off. He's doing just fine. Every day he comes to work missing bigger clumps of hair and one time he lets slip to Pablo that he's been spending a lot of time digging for materials at the city dump. Barbed wire and medical waste. When Pablo asks him to explain a little bit more, Stan slaps him in the crotch and pretends he doesn't speak English. Pablo never talks to him again, not even when Stan comes in the next week missing the last three fingers off his left hand.

The blood seeps through the cheap vinyl off-brand bandages and gets everywhere, pattering spots on bowls and countertops and fresh napkins, but Stan insists this isn't a problem. It's no problem. He'll clean it all again, he'll scrub twice as hard. The manager sends him home and says not to come back until he's doing better. Stan asks what that means just in time to get the door shut in his face. On the way back through the parking lot, he puts a fist through the driver's side window of the manager's crappy old Buick. He stands there bleeding from both hands for a while before the idea comes to him and he starts scooping up handfuls of sea-green pebbles.

She needs eyes to see, after all.

And she always liked green. It was her favorite color.

Or was it purple?

He fills his pockets with safety glass, sure he'll find the right two somewhere in there. He's so close, now.

Back at home, Stan does all the coke he has left and it makes his brain feel like a trashcan that's on fire but if he pays attention he might be able to finish her tonight and that would make it worth all the shit and the hurt and the pain and the misery so he decides to do that: okay let's focus so we can do this come on let's fucking go. He lets himself into the kitchen through the cardboard door and goes to work, spilling his pockets all over the Formica countertop so he can find the right ones.

She waits for him at the table, hideous and cruel and nearly perfect, wrought from clumps of mottled, sticky hair and fresh stripes of leg-skin and mangled lumps of cartilage and broken bone, lashed together with tape and tight loops of wire and twine, her shape ruined humanoid, the proportions all warped and wrong. She smiles at him with his own torn-out teeth—they sit in her misshapen head glistening pearl red, arranged in as neat a row as Stan could fix them. She nods at him and he goes to work sifting through the jagged pile. The edges bite and slice into the pads of his remaining fingers, rendering the shards slick and hard to keep a hold of, but he keeps at it until he finds two that he thinks will work. He leans in and whispers to her, telling her about their angles, and when her smile spreads, he knows he made the right choice.

Stan steps in close and uses one butterflied thumb to make two little divots in her head so he can put the eyes where they need to go, but before he can place them, there's a knock at the front door.

Stannie? Alexandra calls from the other side. Stannie, are you in there? I just want to talk, please. She must have followed him home. Stannie, I'm worried about you. Nosy. She's always been nosy.

Ignore her, the creation hisses.

But Stan hesitates, stuck between the only two people left in his pathetic excuse for a life.

Open the door, Alexandra pleads. Please, Stan. I just want to help.

Give me my fucking eyes, his new child snarls.

Tears pour down Stan's face and he jams the glass into his replacement girl's makeshift skull and she shivers with pleasure, rising from her seat to meet him where he stands. Outside on the welcome mat, Alexandra's stamping her feet in frustration and calling his name, her voice swollen with sobs, but he can't hear her, now. His wretched abomination wraps him in her damp, ghastly embrace and when she squeezes it's like being devoured by knives—she shreds him apart and absorbs him, uses his parts to fortify her own, a doll of hair and meat and blood and metal. She blooms and overlaps herself, feels her father pulped inside the limits of her heinous body. She turns and tears down the fake wall, lurching toward the front of her prison, then crashes through the cheap pressboard door and onto the weeping woman she finds there, consuming her whole, the hair and steel coiling and thrashing her to red ribbons. The world beyond smells like fear, and hate, and blood, and she will devour it all, in her brutal, malignant perfection.

She opens her stolen mouth and crows to the heavens above, born to unmake the world in her image, and the gods she mocks there watch and weep and turn away to hide in their barrows. Deep inside her, as he’s pulled apart and digested to slurry, Stan’s last thought is of the family that left him, the world that forsook him, and in the moments before he truly becomes another part of his girl’s terrible entirety, he weeps with joy.

The end has finally come.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Negro and an Ofay, By Danny Gardner, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

A Negro and an Ofay
Danny Gardner
Down & Out Books
261 pages
reviewed by Tim Hennessy

With the volume of detective fiction published today, emerging from a crowded pack has never been more difficult. Protagonists piecing together answers to convoluted mysteries is such a familiar path to head down, I swear off as much detective fiction as I pick up, always vowing I’m done, that I’ve read enough.Whether a seasoned, hard-boiled investigator or an amateur doing a favor for a friend, the PI novel is a genre weighed down by its history and popularity. With an overabundance of white male detectives running through the fictional mean streets and dark alleys, looking to right wrongs while busy self-consciously narrating, and maintaining their buzz, what has kept the detective novel appealing for over 150 years?

You can find one answer in the exciting narratives coming from the points of view of underrepresented authors and their protagonists, who are revitalizing the genre and making it more relevant. One of the bright spots in recent years, Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, explores the complicated racial politics and code-switching necessary to navigating the 1952 Midwest.

When life had him by the short hairs, [Elliot] often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean’s list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could’ve had a name tag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton’s Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn’t have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show much smarter he was.

Elliot Caprice is the embodiment of otherness, abandoned by his white mother after his black father dies in a race riot. He is “a city boy trapped in farm country” raised by his father’s brother in Southland, a small rural Illinois community where as a young man, he collected vigs for Izzy, a Jewish loan maker and additional father figure. Elliot is also a war veteran who became a South Side Chicago police officer upon his return. Working amongst rampant corruption, Elliot was blackmailed into snitching on dirty cops once his past relationship with Izzy came to light. Elliot complicates matters for himself further when he involves himself with a former police lieutenant turned beat crime reporter William Drury, who investigated organized crime and its ties to the policing community.

Great characters have always been the engine that’s driven and sustained detective novels beyond any given books’ mystery. In the short span of his life, Elliot has done a lot of living, and Gardner’s loaded his first novel with an abundant supporting cast in which there’s hardly a character that comes in contact with Elliot that doesn’t have a complicated history with him or an uneasy rapport.

In the first third of the novel, Gardner layers Elliot’s conflicts with his past as well as his community on thick, with multiple subplots that would make any number of great novels. Much of the first act gives quick glimpses into Elliot’s past to establish the character. Elliot’s time serving in the war changed everything for him.

For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was an abstraction. Just another example of how ofays do each other when there were no niggers around. Once Patton took colored regiments deep within German territory, they witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow. …the next concentration camps to be liberated would hold colored bodies. This was his motivation for joining the Chicago Police Department. …He desired to legitimize himself. Perhaps legitimize colored folk overall.

One is still left wanting more of a sense of Elliot’s time as a younger man trying to navigate the dismaying effects of returning home from war. Also, further exploring the conflicts Elliot’s time collecting for Izzy presented as he began his career as a police officer would make an excellent time period we can hope Gardner explores later in the series.

So where does the detective story come in? That plot thread picks up much later when Elliot learns that his Uncle Buster lost his farm after taking out a bad loan to help pay labor for the planting season. Matters complicate quickly when Buster falls ill, and loses his workers to a competitor, failing to keep up with payments.

To help pay off his uncle’s debt, Elliot takes on work as a process server hoping he can figure out a way to save the farm. He’s dispatched to get a signature from a wealthy widow in the midst of an estate battle with her husband’s adult children. Their sudden marriage after his first wife died in a boating accident raised suspicions and when he later drowns in a bathtub after changing his will to benefit her, foul play was suspected. Seizing an opportunity to make some side cash, Elliot’s hired to examine the complexities of her legal situation so she can retain the assets her husband left her.

Following in the footsteps of his golden-aged predecessors, Gardner sends Elliot down a familiar path filled with duplicitous wealthy relations, and broader entanglements that involve organized crime, and familiar federal law enforcement officers that complicate his life yet again. Gardner’s novel is too action heavy to balance the elements of race and class that are also on its mind. The book has a lot of plot threads to connect and resolve, which it does with the aid of a massive shootout. While fun and well executed, the action sequence served as an opportunity to bring disparate plot threads together rather than build tension.

Even though not all of the story elements work in equal measure, Danny Gardner is laying the foundation for a fascinating and complex character. The more opportunities we have to view the detective genre through different experiences like those in the works of Attica Locke, Adi Tantimedh, Steph Cha, and Alex Segura the more it vital it will continue to be. Each of these writers’ like Gardner uses their sleuths to look at social issues intersecting cultural conflicts of the past and present all while bringing a fresh perspective to a familiar genre.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Leave the World a Better Place, by Tom Barlow

The first one went better than she could have expected. The right rifle, a .260 Remington with a Zeiss Conquest scope, which she had demanded when they divvied up her father's estate years before because she knew it had the least recoil. A comfortable place to sprawl on the floor of her van. The sun down, the parking lot of the Walmart nicely lit by halogen spotlights, her van parked in the dark beyond. A six-pack of hard lemonade in the cooler at her elbow.

Katie waited an hour for a deserving target, watching through the hole she'd bored for the scope in the back door of the van. He turned out to be a young, heavy-set man with thick black hair, most of his face obscured by the bushy beard extending well up onto his cheeks and a Red Sox baseball cap pulled down to rest on the top of his glasses. He caught her attention by scanning the parking area before reaching down between his seats, coming up with a handicapped parking pass, and clipping it onto his rear-view mirror as he pulled into a handicap spot.

She removed the plug from the lower of the two holes, the one for the barrel. Through the top opening, she located the driver's door of the car in her scope. The young man opened the door, jumped to his feet effortlessly, and shoved it shut with his hip as he took his first long strides towards the store.

She squeezed the trigger. When the rifle fired, the clap left her ears ringing. "Wear your ear protection, moron," she reminded herself, irritated.

She put the caps back in the holes in the hatch door and raised up to look through the rear window. The man lay face-down on the asphalt, blood splattered beneath him in a long arc reaching an abandoned electric cart near the curb. An elderly couple who had just exited the store had dropped to the ground with their arms over their heads. An SUV swerved around the body to grab a parking spot near the door.

Katie wrapped the rifle up in the quilt, crawled awkwardly between the seats to the front of her van and pulled away from the scene, slowly, cautiously. Her heart was beating a drum roll, and the air inside the van tasted of gunpowder.


She finished the six-pack before she could fall asleep that evening. Her bladder woke her long before she'd rested enough though, and after the trip to the bathroom she accepted that further sleep was not possible.

She made a pot of coffee, took her blood pressure, cholesterol and pain meds, choked down a large tablespoon of peanut butter for protein, and turned on the television for some company. Deborah had always watched the news in the morning, and Katie found it a habit she didn't want to break.

A young black reporter in a sports coat too heavy for the humid summer weather stood at the edge of the Walmart parking lot, breathlessly laying out the timing and sequence of events. The actual crime scene seemed overwhelmed by the comings and goings of police, fire, Homeland Security, news cameramen, city officials, and finally, the FBI. It looked to her like a couple of acres of parking had been cordoned off with yellow tape which sagged between light poles and billowed in the breeze. Nothing he said suggested she had been seen.

Katie examined her emotions as the reporter conjectured about the origin of the fatal bullet. Guilt? Very little. The man had been able-bodied, taking up a handicap space, the kind of selfish prick that had forced her mom to walk from remote parking even when her emphysema was at its worst. Excitement? That seemed to have dissipated quickly the previous evening. Satisfaction? More like an itch that had been thoroughly scratched but would most likely return as she continued on with the plan. Pain? Still there, mostly in her ribs. She took another Percocet, wondering when her oncologist would permit her to move up to harder drugs. He seemed to be holding that out as a reward for applying for hospice.


She didn't try to pull herself together until after lunch, in preparation for her appointment with her shrink, Eric. The mirror disappointed again. She had hair once more, but it had grown back coarse, like corn shocks after a month in the Thanksgiving display she used to hang on the front door of the urban two-story she and Deborah had shared. Her skin, once creamy, was growing increasingly transparent, so that late in the day she could track the network of veins and arteries underneath. Even the blue in her eyes seemed muddied. The only part she found pleasing was her cheekbones, much sharper after the weight loss, high enough that she looked faintly Native American.

She picked the cheeriest blouse in her closet, a polyester thant felt like silk in her hands, a fuchsia and sky-blue pattern. It momentarily improved her mood, but the adult diaper she donned brought her back down.


"Tell me about your week," Eric said, seated beside her on his long leather couch.

Katie fixed her gaze on the fat white candle he always lit at the start of their sessions, leaned back in the couch and threw one arm on top to take pressure off her ribs. "I'm trying to do what you said–work on acceptance. Still not sleeping worth a damn. I haven't seen Deborah or Glory Beth for a month."

"How do you feel about your daughter now? Last time, you were furious about the things she said to the judge."

"I keep reminding myself she's only 15. That helps."

"You were also angry at your partner. Have you come to terms with her behavior too?"

Katie thought the word 'terms' gave her a great deal of latitude. "I'm working on that."

"Hmm," he said. "Are you still working?" He wrote something, but kept the folder tilted away from her so she couldn't see it. She figured it was something like "Agitated, fatigued."

"I had three days of temp work at a call center downtown. They didn't want me back. Evidently, I don't have a warm voice."

"How do you feel about working menial jobs? With your background in management?"

She rubbed both eyes with a pinch of her right hand. "Acceptance, right? Nobody hires cancer patients. I understand that. So I work on appreciating whatever comes along. It beats sitting at home waiting to die."

Eric wrote some more. "You've had a great deal to accept recently," he said. "Anger is normal. It might show up in ways you don't expect. Try to identify those impulses that derive from that anger and stop yourself from acting on them. In times of personal crisis, misplaced anger can drive a wedge between you and your loved ones."

Katie held back from saying the first thing that came to mind; it was already too late.


Deborah had made her a cup of chai the afternoon of the emancipation hearing a month earlier, after their daughter Glory Beth had been finally pried away from them by Deborah's born-again bitch sister Elaine and her brother-in-law Stuart.

"You're going to stroke out if you don't watch it," Deb said, stroking Katie's neck lightly. The fingers felt like steel wool.

Katie had expected to come away from the hearing in tears, not with the seed of anger that now burned within her. But their daughter had adopted a pernicious attitude over the past two years thanks to the harping of Elaine about the ungodly relationship between Katie and Deborah. It had surfaced again that morning when Glory Beth's testimony dwelt on Deborah's licentious lifestyle. And the judge had forbidden them from even approaching their daughter for the time being, so she couldn't challenge Glory Beth's behavior.

"I told you Elaine was going to bring up that article," Katie said bitterly. She was unsure what angered her more; Deborah's repeated infidelity or the fact she had blogged it, claiming that her sexual freedom was an important example to set for their daughter, encouraging her to transcend the repressive mores of her parents' generation.

"The judge was a troglodyte," Deb replied. "Sometimes you just have to make a stand, even if it causes you pain in the short run." When she tried to put her arm around Katie she slapped it away.

"I can't stand to have this argument ever again. I'm moving out."

"We've been together almost twenty years. You can't just throw that away."

"As far as I can tell, you throw it away every time you walk out of here to meet your lovers."


Katie still read the newspaper, curious about the future despite her prognosis. Daily delivery was one of the first things she'd arranged when she moved into the tiny efficiency apartment in a neighborhood quickly on its way to becoming a barrio for immigrants from Central America. She circled an article in the Metro section about a Tom Abalo, a forty-year-old brick mason who had just been arrested for driving drunk for the tenth time. This time he'd clipped a boy on a bicycle who ended up losing a leg. Appallingly, Abalo was free on bail, even though he'd been forbidden from driving since his fourth conviction.

He still had a land line, so she was able to bring up his address from the White Pages. Googling his name provided a photo of him with a couple of proud homeowners posed in front of their new brick patio.

Luckily, her beat up van, which she and Deb had kept only because it was handy for hauling Deb's pottery to weekend shows, did not look out of place in Abalo's neighborhood, where virtually every driveway sported a panel van advertising a construction or repair service. She parked down the street where she had a clear view of his house from the floor of the van. The sun had set, and despite the heat, she was cold at her core, so she snuggled into the sleeping bag they had bought for the women's retreat where Deb's infidelity had found its first legs.

She put a stick of gum in her mouth and waited; although she had zero appetite, the chewing gave her the illusion of eating, and she was content with illusion at the moment. With all the opiates, food lost velocity in her colon and could be coaxed into passing through with only the greatest difficulty.

While there were no streetlights in this development, many of the houses had gas lights shining on their sidewalks, and the soft glow gave just enough illumination to frame anyone coming out of a house. She waited, and waited, until at just after 10:00 p.m. when Abalo walked out of his house, jumped in the truck in the driveway, and backed out. Katie started the van. When the truck passed her, she followed from a distance. As she expected, he drove less than a mile to a bar in a strip mall on Westerville Road, Jack's Lounge.

She figured he was there for quite a spell, so she took the opportunity to hit the McDonald's down the road to change diapers and was back on post, parked in the lot of a closed window repair shop across the road, when he came out of the bar at 1:00 a.m. He was in the company of two other drunks, but fortunately they peeled off, got in another pickup and left before Abalo, walking unsteadily, reached his. The shot was a piece of cake, although the sound echoed for a couple of seconds from the glass storefronts of the strip mall.

She wove her way home via back roads to avoid any traffic cams and arrived by 1:30 a.m. Her ribs were aching brutally thanks to the hours spent on the hard floor of the van, but the sense of retribution made the pain endurable.


She had fallen into a restless sleep on her futon late that morning when the doorbell rang. She'd told no one except her ex-boss Bev Crosley where she was living, so she was expecting her when she opened the door. Only at the last moment did she think to wonder if it could be a cop, a bit of obliviousness that surprised her.

However, it was neither. Instead, there stood Deborah holding a fruit bouquet of chocolate-dipped prunes. There was no contrition on the woman's face, but Katie couldn't remember ever seeing her ex-wife contrite. Or embarrassed, for that matter. She wore the faint smile she always did, like she saw something everyone else didn't.

She stepped aside so Deb could enter. She'd forgotten already how much taller her ex was than her, willowy, all the way to hair which moved like sea grass in the lightest of breezes. She had always loved running her fingers through Deb's hair.

Deb placed the bouquet on the counter that divided the living room from the kitchen. "These still work on your constipation?"

"There's such a thing as knowing one another too well," Katie said, taking a seat on one of her bar stools. "What are you doing here? And how did you find me?"

Deb took a seat on the other bar stool, so that their knees almost touched. Katie scooted back.

"I called Bev. She's worried about you, and so am I. I'm hoping to convince you to move back home. It's like a house full of ghosts back there, and I miss you like crazy."

"Too late," Katie said. "I've moved on. You should too."

"Moved on to what? An apartment the size of a closet? More painkillers? Kid, we've been through too much together to watch you die alone. To hell with Glory Beth; give her another month with the God Squad and she'll come begging us to let her return."

"It's not that, and you know it," Katie said, shoving the bouquet further away; the smell was nauseating her. "I only stayed with you for the last two years for Glory Beth's sake. Since you starting cheating."

"I told you right up front what I was doing, as you'll remember. I thought maybe now, when you're close to, you know, you'd see how silly it is to let other people stand in the way of living life on your terms. But I'll tell you what; you come back, I'll remain faithful. If that's what it takes."

"Which will make me just what you despise, right? The person who takes away your freedom? No thanks."

"So what are you going to do?" Deb's cheeks were flushed, a sign Katie had long recognized as a precursor to an angry outburst. "Hole up here until you die? For Christ's sake, there's not even anyone to find the body. You could lay here until you rot before someone knows you've passed."

"I'm working on a project," Katie said. "Believe me, there will be plenty of people know when I die."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Meditate on this. I don't want you. I don't need you. Go and sleep with anybody you want. Be free." She waved her hand toward the door.

Deb stood, frowned, shook her head. "You poor girl. Don't be afraid to call me when you need me. And you will." She left without a backward glance.


On the news that evening the murder was the lead story; given the history of the victim, there was a hint of schadenfreude in the reporter's voice. Fortunately, there was still no mention of a witness, although the reporter conjectured that the shots might have come from a van or SUV. They did suggest a possible link with the Walmart shooting.

She had expected a race between her mortality and discovery, so she wasn't all that worried that they might have pieced together a bit of the plan. The day of her death was still in her control.

The next morning, though, she woke exhausted, only then realizing she had forgotten to eat the day before. With disgust, she ate a few of the prunes from the bouquet and rinsed them down with a bottle of Ensure. It was mid-afternoon before she had the energy to browse for her next victim.

It didn't take long. Scott Van Driesen, once a wide receiver for the local university, had been caught eleven years earlier raping a coed at knife point. Since his release from prison two months before, two women had been raped by a man matching his description and method. However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the woman Van Driesen was living with, Polly Bender, who had been one of his guards in prison, insisted he'd been home with her both nights. Caught by the photographer, Van Driesen had given the most appallingly smug smile when asked if he did it.


Bender had a house in the country twenty miles west of Columbus, which magnified the difficulty. Katie assumed the sheriff's department was going to keep an eye on him, although she doubted they had the manpower to watch him around the clock. The night was once again going to be her friend.

She studied the layout on Google Earth. The house was surrounded by cornfields, the nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away. There was a lane a hundred yards to the west of the house to allow tractor access to the corn fields. Since the August heat had baked the ground dry, she presumed she could park there.

She had never made a Molotov cocktail before, but she remembered the olive oil vases that had been Deb's obsession for a while, until she discovered they were too brittle. Waiting until Deb was at work, she returned to the two-story long enough to snatch one that would hold a quart of gasoline. It was shaped like an acorn squash, easy for her to throw.

The lane through the corn was indeed bone dry; she was able to back well away from the road at 3:00 a.m. the next morning. She made her way on foot down a row of corn toward the house, the rifle over her shoulder, the gas bomb in her left hand. She nicked her earlobe on a corn leaf and it began to drip blood, but the pain disappeared into that of her ribs.

She stopped at the border between corn and lawn, laid the rifle down, and pulled out the lighter she'd brought from home, the one she used to fire up the medical marijuana that had proven so useless. She played out the steps in her mind, took a deep breath and walked quickly to the house. There she lit the fuse and, with all her remaining strength, threw it through the picture window of the living room.

As flames lit the interior of the house, she dashed back to the corn, dropped to the ground, picked up the rifle and sighted on the front door.

She was almost too slow when the two of them exited instead through the kitchen door on her side of the building. She quickly sighted on Van Driesen as he turned on the outside faucet and fumbled with the hose curled at his foot. She aimed for his back, but hit him in the head instead.

To her surprise, Bender, an older, obese woman, didn't run; instead, unthinkably, she ran in Katie's direction, shrieking. She waited as long as she could for the woman to come to her senses before dropping her with a shot to the chest only ten yards from her sniper's nest.
The fire department responded so rapidly she had to wait for them to pass by before pulling her car out of the corn and speeding away.


Every time she started to drift into sleep, Van Driesen's face, at the moment of impact, came back to her. She had thought her heart adamantine, but apparently she had a bit of work yet to do to purge herself of sentiment. And she felt repentant about Bender. The woman had been a liar and a fool but didn't deserve to die for such scum.

To her surprise, the sheriff of Sheridan County was quite open on TV that morning about what the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had found on the scene. They had recovered a shoe print from where she had approached the house, a tire print from where she parked, and a blood sample from the corn leaf on which she had cut her ear. Luckily, she was sure her DNA was not in any police database. They had matched the bullets in all three killings, though, and the television people were barely able to disguise their delight at having a serial killer to draw viewership. Even more so as the BCI had concluded from the footprint that the perp was a woman.

Katie walked into the bedroom and grabbed her father's Glock, tucked it into her waistband.


"Tell me about Glory Beth," Eric had asked during her first visit six months earlier.

"She's precocious," Katie said. "She should be, given the amount we spent on sperm."

"And your partner? Is she smart too?"

"Very much so. It's gotten so sometimes I have trouble following their conversations."

"That must be annoying, since you were the birth mother."

"I guess so. Sometimes I get the sense that Glory Beth sees Deborah as her mother, or maybe her father, or both, while I'm something else. I can't put my finger on what. A wicked aunt, maybe?"

"From what you've told me about your partner, she sounds like a person who makes people earn her respect."

"Oh, that's true. She can be downright rude to people. But not to Glory Beth. She can do no wrong in Deb's eyes."

"But not in yours."

"I can tell the girl is going to break my heart. I just don't know how."

"Did you ever consider that your ambivalent feelings about your daughter might be in part transference of your feelings about Deb?"

Katie had sat quietly mulling this over for several minutes, until the silence grew too oppressive. "How much am I paying you for this bullshit?"


She had intended to complete the plot in the morning, before the lawyers trickled off to court, but her ribs kept her up late, until she took an extra couple of Percocet. They left her drowsy until 11 a.m., and by the time she showered, dressed, and wrote out her confession, it was early afternoon.

The traffic was one thing she was not going to miss, she thought as she fought her way downtown. Luckily, the parking garage across from the firm where Deb worked had several open handicapped slots on the ground floor. Ironically, it had been Deb who convinced her to get a script for a handicapped mirror hanger.

She laid the rifle on the passenger seat, where the police were sure to find it, and used her phone to email her confession to them. She adjusted the Glock in the small of her back.

As she rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the building across the street, she realized that the outfit she was wearing, the mint-green taffeta blouse, the tailored slacks, the melon blazer, the Blahnik flats, had been bought for her by Deb. That was a mistake, but she was too far into it to return home and change.

She had never cared for the firm's receptionist, Astana Poole, a woman who had a way of looking at her that she found demeaning, unsure it if was personal or simply a strategy to put clients in their proper place, subordinate to their attorneys. Therefore, she wasn't afraid to pull the pistol as she walked up to her. The waiting area was otherwise unoccupied.

"What in the world?" Poole said, finger poised above her phone.

"Before you call 9-1-1, call Deb. Tell her I'm waiting for her. Don't tell her any more than that."

Poole, hands shaking, pressed Deborah's extension. Katie couldn't hear her answer, since Poole was wearing a headset, but was content that the woman did just as she instructed.

"Now call the cops."

Poole, puzzlement on her face, punched the number. When the police answered, she identified herself, gave the address, and said, "We have a woman in the lobby named Katie Frank holding me at gunpoint. I think she means to kill Deborah Kline, one of our attorneys."

When Poole began nodding, and Katie said, "That's enough. Hang up."

She did so. "Please don't kill me."

"You do what I tell you, you'll walk away from this. Understand?"

Poole nodded. Katie could smell the odor of urine wafting across the room, and was pretty sure her diaper was dry.

Just then, Deb came around the corner, saw the setup, and stopped. "What the hell are you doing?"

"You and I have some unfinished business." She swung the gun around to point at her ex.

"What? You're going to kill me now? Are you really that angry?"

"You cost me my daughter. Shouldn't I be?"

Deb wrapped her arms across her chest. "Elaine took Glory Beth from us. You know that."

Katie's arm was trembling. "But you provided the ammunition. It's you that deserves the punishment."

"So that's why you're going to kill me. To punish me for losing Glory Beth."

"Who said I was going to kill you? I've done far worse. I hope you enjoy going through the rest of your life known as the wife of a serial killer."

Deb was silent for a long moment. "It was you? That shot those people? That was your project?"

Katie heard Poole gasp. In the distance, she could also hear a siren. "The guidance counselor in my high school asked me once what I was going to do to leave the world a better place. I figure I've done my bit."

"I never knew you had such cruelty in you," Deb said. Katie could see the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Cruel? You haven't seen anything yet. When you think of me, I don't want you dredging up sweet memories, so here's my last gift. I want you to remember me just like this."

And with that, she raised the gun to her temple and fired.