Monday, September 2, 2019

The Tavern Brawler, by Robb T. White

First Dallas, then at the canning plant in Bryan. Now here . . . Fuck me and fuck a duck.

Beaumont was hotter than Dallas and muggier than Houston. Ten in the morning, Shane Laurie’s shirt was plastered to his back. He hadn’t planned to work his way down to southeastern Texas, the asshole of the state. It just happened that way. You go to a bar, a guy says they’re hiring here or there. You go.

He didn’t find work here, it was off to Louisiana again for another goddamned bayou job on a shrimp boat or mucking around with crab traps, and he’d had enough of that. He didn’t know what it was about shellfish. He didn’t eat them—they looked like big bugs to him. He’d worked in Baltimore shucking oysters, fished for blue crab in Louisiana swamps and worked as a deckhand on a shrimp boat in Galveston Bay. Yet that cunt of a receptionist made him check the box “Unskilled Labor” on his application.

Fuck her. He had half a mind to head that her off tonight on her way home, her and her ugly face, homelier than a slit-faced bat, and see just how she likes his unskilled labor after she gargles his jizz. He’d make her check the “unskilled” box she didn’t do it right. Write an F on her fat ass with a Magic Marker.

Shane took a city cab to a roadhouse tavern off the highway near the Neches River. The dumbass driver turned around to look at him, waiting for a tip. Shane told him to get a real job and that was the best tip he’d get today.

Lordy, another redneck dump—his kind of place.

His eyes boxed the room on the lookout for three things: women, women with men (he’d separated his share of them from the girls in bar fights), and three, men who had “that look.”

The look was important. Size didn’t mean shit. Everybody carried down here. A bowie in the boot was as common as a hooker with a grudge. A pipsqueak with a gun was more dangerous than a man his size because a man his size expected Shane to fight fair. Shane didn’t fight fair. A man only had to tangle assholes with him one time to learn that. He’d use his boots as well as his fists, kick balls, gouge eyes, bite anything his teeth could get close to if it came to a ground-and-pound contest. He didn’t believe in stopping once you had your opponent down, neither, and punching the guy after he was out cold or done quit was enough to make him hard. Shane had grown up in a raucous household in Baton Rouge but he didn’t blame his upbringing for his love of violence. Some men like him, it just stuck to. You knew it when you threw that first punch. It wasn’t enough to beat a man half to death, he wanted to make him suffer. He wanted that man to carry scars and think of Shane Laurie from Louisiana for the rest of his sorry-assed life.

This place looked OK so far. The men looked like nobodies, drugstore cowboys, all hat and no cattle, and a couple women looked like they could use a ride on Jumbo. First, he had to find some guy drinking alone at the bar, make friends with him, be a good ol’ boy for a while, so he could get the sucker to buy the drinks. Shane believed his stories of sleeping rough, traveling all over and “doing dirt,” as he liked to call it, made up for his alligator arms when it came to buying rounds. Then he’d eye one of the babes and make a move. Get laid, get a place to sleep. Shane could write a book on hustling by now—that is, if he could write anything longer than a sentence with more than six words in it. Writing was for homos anyway, so fuck that shit.

The bartender was tall, lanky dude in a black leather vest, arms all inked up in a scattershot of tattoos blending into each other, a sure sign of a man who’d done time in a big house somewhere. Shane knew some of that kind, too. Mostly crazies looking for a reason to go back. He’d joined up with a few in his thirty-six years, made some money with some, and figured he knew the difference between the psychos and the hard boys. He couldn’t read the patch from where he sat at the bar and some ex-bikers were pussies, but still, best to be a little careful until he knew for sure. A few minutes of small talk and Shane was being called “brother” by this loser, so he knew he had all the time he needed to plan his next move.

And there she was, hot damn . . . a tricked-out blonde, yee-haw!

Walking past on her way to the can. Big, sassy-looking dyed blonde with a big rack. A little long in the tooth—past 40, he reckoned—but he couldn’t be choosy tonight. On her way back, she cut her eyes to him and she got that teensy smile in return. An hour later, he separated her from her skank girlfriends and the two of them were rubbing thighs and feeling each other out from a back table. His “buddy” at the bar was still sending over drinks, too, so things were working out well for later.

Later was after the bar closed at two-thirty. She drove him in her pickup to a lover’s lane. Somewhere close to the river, he guessed, because the smell of swamp muck was thick in the humid air. His idea of foreplay was to push her head into his lap. He had to give this one credit, though. She knew how to play a decent tune on a man’s flute, did her best not to gag when he made her take it all the way in so her cheeks bulged. He liked that look on a woman’s face.

Back in her double-wide—a “present” from a dead husband who got hisself blown up in a factory explosion—he gave the old girl her money’s worth in bed. He slapped her hands away from her bouncing tits when he plowed into her. He liked to watch them jiggle. She was shaved down there and a natural squirter. Shane finished up, rolled over, and silently complimented himself on a job well done. This old gal should be good for a couple days, maybe a week. Who could say? She played her cards right, Shane would consider letting her keep him around while he looked for work.

Shane snored like a buzz saw out of kilter. He never dreamed, or told all the women he slept with that. He figured that meant he would never get ass cancer or heart attacks like men who tossed and turned all night, worrying about shit.

In the morning, he thought about giving her another ride with some morning wood. But he couldn’t get out of bed.

Maybe I’m still asleep and this is one of them dreams. What the fuck—

When he shook off the booze fog, he saw it was no dream at all. He was roped hands and feet to the bed railing. He was about to bellow something, figured the crazy old bitch was into kinky sex when she came out of the bathroom. Her heavy funbags swayed from side to side. She avoided looking at him. When she did, the look on her face, however, was not one he expected to see. He expected to see gratitude. . . what was all this shit?

“George was hopin’ he’d live long enough to see this,” she said.

“Who the fuck is George, why you got me tied up?”

“George was my husband, remember? I told you about him last night at the bar.”

“Got kilt in a factory explosion, you said.”

“I lied,” she said. “He got pancreatic cancer.”

She stretched out the word, as if she was proud of herself for saying it right.

“So fuckin’ what? Untie me right now, God damn it!”

She sat at the end of the bed and stroked his leg.

“Honey, you got a big whang on you but George, he was much better in the sack than you.”

“Take these ropes offen me, and I’ll change your mind about that.”

Shane began to worry. She was too calm—way too calm.

She lit up, inhaled deep, and blew out the smoke. She stretched over him her cigarette extended to give him a puff, her fat titties rolling over his chest.

“Naw, he didn’t work in no factory,” she resumed, as if they were having a normal conversation. “He worked at the alligator processing farm yonder by the river over to Benson Road—you know, skins for fashion, the meat for agricultural animals, that sort of thing.”

“So fuckin’ what? What’s that got to do with me?”

“Nothing—to me, but that’s how I met him. He come lookin’ around the bar before you showed up, askin’ questions, spreadin’ his money around.”

Shane’s heartbeat rose a notch. Woman’s plumb fuckin’ crazy . . .

He squirmed but the ropes bit into his wrists and ankles. He twisted his head. She had him tied off with an anchor hitch or a bowline, some kind of good knot he wouldn’t pull out of.

“Bitch, you best untie me right now and I’ll forget all about this—this whatever the fuck it is.”

“Oh no,” she said, testing the knots securing his legs, “”can’t do that, sweetie pie. My instructions was simple. First, I’m gonna get me some clothes on and make a phone call.”

Instructions? What instructions? What was this goofy old broad talking about?

“You behave yourself now.” She gave his thigh a gentle pat.

Shane’s heart thumped in his chest now. He stopped twisting; it wasted strength and moving against the ropes burned as well as cut off circulation. His hands and legs were going numb. He had to plan his own attack . . . rip this bitch’s head off just as soon as he could get free . . .

The buzzer rang. He heard her greet someone at the door. He heard talking in low voices. Hers wasn’t like the night before, all flirty. Maybe she spiked his beer when he went off to piss. He recalled feeling a little dizzy when they left the bar. Trouble was, he was thinking with his dick and didn’t pay it no mind—just the miserable heat, he thought. Besides, his sights were set on pussy. The man’s voice sounded younger. Someone his age.

Then, whoever the guy was, he was standing right above him looking down at Shane. His face blank, no expression. Just a man, a nobody. Average size—Shane could bust him up in a minute. Thinning brown hair parted on one side, brown eyes, a face you wouldn’t remember in a crowd.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked him.

“No., motherfucker,” Shane said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’ve been following you all over Southeastern Texas,” he said. “I’m surprised you never saw me. I remember once time you were coming out of a bar in Crockett—no, hold up a sec. It was Lovelady. I remember you looked right across the street at me standing there.”

The man smiled down at him but it wasn’t a friendly smile.

“I don’t remember you,” Shane replied.

“I’ll take it from here,” the man said, suddenly turning to face the woman, who stood at the foot of the bed watching them both.

“Where’s my money?”

The man reached inside his jeans pocket and handed her an envelope.

“It’s all there,” he told her.

“I’m gonna count it anyway,” she said and left the room. “I don’t want this comin’ back on me. Y’all promised that.”

The man was looking at Shane again. His brown eyes stared into Shane’s eyes, unblinking, as if he saw something remarkable in Shane’s irises.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Who the fuck are you people!” Spittle flecked Shane’s chest from the outburst. His voice cracked.

The man said, “Shane Laurie, bar brawler. . . . Shane, you by any chance recall a man you fought outside a tavern in Dallas about eight, nine weeks ago?”

Shane remembered a couple bar fights up that way. He was doing a lot of meth at the time, ornery as a wasp.

“No, I fuckin’ don’t, motherfucker.”

“Well,” the man said, “it was you up in Dallas. You beat up a man in a parking lot outside a bar called Shenanigan’s. That man later died from a brain hemorrhage two days later. You started the fight with another man, but the man who came outside to protect his friend, he was the one you beat up.”

“I don’t remember no fuckin’ bar in Dallas nor no fight, neither, motherfucker,” Shane said.

He did, though. It wasn’t much of a fight. Dim images of his triumph behind that bar filtered back, like water seeking its equilibrium, tickling the memory cells.

“That was a fair fight—”

“No, it wasn’t,” the man interjected. “No . . . no, it wasn’t a fair fight. You stomped his head when he went down.”

“I tole you, I don’t remember no fight up in Dallas,” Shane said. “I wasn’t even in Dallas eight weeks ago. What the hell is this?”

“This is Texas justice,” the man said and brought the fish billy down on Shane’s head with a loud crack that Shane never heard but it sent him plummeting into a black void.


Shane woke to the sound of crickets chirping, the smell of swamp muck deep in his nostrils. He lay on his back. He was still nude, his ass itched from chigger bites or something, his head weighed a ton. He sat up and almost vomited.

Nothing to see swamp, cypress trees, and lily pads.

Better’n being shot, he thought, but Gawd damn, my head hurts. I’ll find that motherfucker and kill him, Shane thought.

Shane started to get up and fell over at once. What the fuck now, for Christ’s sweet sake?

Shane’s leg was attached to a thick nylon rope that was attached to a limb hanging out over the waterline. It was tied with a fancy knot he did recognize because he’d tied it on the decks of bayou trawlers often enough: a rat-tail stopper.

He shouted. Nothing. His voice echoed across the murky water. His throat was parched but the water looked too putrid to drink. Swamp birds cried out, insects made a variety of buzzing, whirring sounds all around.

If this don’t beat fuckin’ all, he thought. The whole episode from trailer to swamp was so bizarre he almost laughed. A good story to tell the next sucker in a bar to spring for drinks. But, first, he was gonna find that rat-fucking , no-good, brown-eyed son of a whore and choke the life out of him—after he stomped every drop of yellow shit out of him.

Then a thought crept in. Maybe he was dragged out here so far no one ever came by, not even swamp people or fishermen.

Then he spied something behind him. A damned wooden sign. Maybe a jogger’s trail sign or a park sign. It was just a few feet beyond the limit of his rope. His anxiety subsided. That sign meant civilization. He wasn’t going to die out here in some shithole swamp.

Worth a look to read what it said, he thought, since I ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.

Shane found a crooked stick near the waterline and used it to hook the sign post. He jerked and pulled until the letters started to reflect the light. He could make out a few letters. B-E-A-U.

Well, hell’s bells, I know I’m in Beaumont.

He was never much for reading in school before he dropped out of tenth grade but the rest of the sign’s message eluded him.

“Fuck it,” he said.

Shane sat down and slapped the stick at the ground in frustration: sandy soil, not overgrown but graded, someone had cleared this patch of ground into a rough semicircle stretching thirty yards across and sanded it down with a grader. Shane let his mind drift, listening to the insect and bird calls. Eight caws of a crow somewhere above in the branches. Eight, a warning to the other crows, four would be a call to dinner.

He got up stretched, scratched his belly. He was being feasted upon by bugs and flying insects while he sat. He slapped at a tiny red spider crawling up his forearm. “Lucky I don’t get bugs in my asshole,” he muttered. Somebody’s got to find me soon . . .

He grabbed his stick and made another effort to twist the sign around to read it. The light had shifted, dappled the leaves of the cypress and probed the tufts of hanging moss, giving the entire swamp a lime-green phosphorescence.

There, by God, got you.

The sign reflected the afternoon light, filled out the missing letters after BEAUMONT and each one etched itself into Shane’s brain as comprehension completed the neocortex’s circuit.


Oh fuck, no—

Beneath it, in smaller letters:

Danger !!! Do NOT Feed the Alligators!!

Oh my fucking God Almighty—

When he turned back around to look out over the water, he saw them gathering in the dusky light: hundreds of pairs of eyes like cat’s-eye marbles spread out just beneath the surface. Eyes as far as he could see.

Then the massive snouts, the ancient dragon spikes breaking the surface here and there. They moved en masse toward the shoreline. Ripples fanned outward from their massive tails moving side to side like a metronome set to larghissimo. Some bulls weighed a thousand pounds. Like dragons from mythology, they rolled in, ever closer, no hurry, but steadfast on the mark. Each moved in a motion like one pack. They were crueler than any man, indifferent to all pain or remorse, underwater brawlers, oblivious to everything in the universe but mating and eating.

‘Texas justice’, the brown-eyed man had said, the words tolling like a bell of doom in Shane Laurie’s head.

Robb White lives in Ashtabula, Ohio. He writes, noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. Crowood Press published White’s Perfect Killer in 2018. Fahrenheit Press, another U.K. publisher, released Northtown Eclipse that year. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is

Monday, August 19, 2019

One Spent Shell, fiction by Dan J. Fiore

A knot in Skid’s chest. Blood on the floor. One spent shell falls from his gun and Vaughn, Skid’s cousin, his best damned friend, stares up at him. One eye a pulpy exit wound. The other frozen in surprise.

A teller’s phone rings.

“What’s going on in there, Henry?”

A boy cowers in the corner. Just a kid. He stares at the woman he walked in with. Dead now like the rest. All but the two of them.

“I want a truck,” Skid murmurs.

“What were the shots we just heard, Henry?” The voice reminds Skid of his Uncle Simon. “Everyone okay?”

“Stop calling me that,” Skid says. “Nobody calls me that. Just get me a truck. Or a van. A fucking way out of here.”

The voice asks for a hostage. An exchange.

“Transportation might take a while,” it says. “Anyone in there need anything else in the meantime?”

Skid looks around at all the bodies.

“More hostages.”


Heartbeat racing, but downshifting. Flak jacket heavy.

Lights flicker and cattle stampede across the roof. Just a chopper passing low overhead.

That cocktail Vaughn cooked up. . . those two thick sky-blue lines. That’s why he went all ate up. Why they’re here now, half dead and trapped. But what Skid would give for just one more bump.

Drive on, he tells himself. Go through with it. Set up all those card decks of C4 along the deposit boxes and at least nab what they’d came for. Just in case he makes it out. Somehow.

The weight aching him settles in his eyelids. He wonders about things Vaughn missed. About unknown doors. Tunnels and secret passages. Like bookshelves that spin. Places to hide. A flashlight through the flesh of his fingers. Dark closets. The dark. Heavy hands on his chest, and the way his uncle would—

The phones ring. Skid sniffs alert again.

Simon says.

He rips the phone cords from the wall.

The boy still sits in the corner, chin between his knees. Shallow, sharp breaths. Eyes wide. Panicked and afraid.

Then, a muffled rattle. Somewhere not far outside. So out of place. It shakes something loose in Skid. Before the burst even ends, he recognizes it:

An AK-47.


Two exits. One leading west to the parking lot. The other downstairs, spilling eastward onto Main Street. Skid follows the gunshots to the west. A long, wood-paneled hallway. Double panels of shatterproof glass.

Knots unravel in his back. The one in his gut doesn’t.

All the armored cars, gone. The cops littering the sidewalks, gone. The lot past the entryway, now vacant. Just a hot slab of concrete stretching toward a scattered hillside of rundown houses.

A scream.

Not from outside, but within.

The kid.


An empty corner. The lobby, quiet. Air still thick with copper and gunpowder. The kid isn’t there.

And neither is Vaughn’s body.


Skid finds the kid in a back office. Balled up under a desk. A black burn mark on his forearm, the shape of a hand.

“What happened?” he asks.

A long moment of silence. The kid won’t talk. The rattle of the AC. Then, nothing. The lights die along with the electric hum.

“Shit,” Skid mutters. He waves a hand under the desk. “It’s all right,” he says. “I won’t hurt ya. I promise.”

Too quick for Skid to avoid, the kid snatches Skid’s wrist.

Skid whimpers and wrestles free. “Don’t,” he says, stumbling back. He can’t breathe right. “Don’t touch me.”

Shame melts the kid’s pale face. Like he did something wrong.

Skid tries to explain. “I don’t like being—” But a voice cuts him off. It comes from the other entrance downstairs.

“Henry,” it booms. “Henry, come to the door, sweetie.”

It’s familiar. Unmistakable. But it can’t be.

“It’s Momma.”


Skid can’t believe it. Won’t. Vaughn’s cocktail. That’s all this is. But he can tell from the look in the kid’s eyes beside him that he sees her too.

She stands in the middle of the street. Tight, ripped jeans. A low-cut top. Clothes too young for her age. The age she seems. A bullhorn in her hand held to her bright red lips. “Henry?” she says, and she smiles.

He pulls a trophy case away from the hallway wall.

His head’s fucking with him. He could’ve sworn there were more buildings beyond the street before. Now it’s mostly empty land. Just a handful of structures. Barely noon, but getting darker.

“Let us in, sweetie,” the woman outside says. “Let them have a hostage and they’ll let you go.”

Filled with banking awards and old photos, the case topples. All the items inside fall through the glass, shattering and scattering across the linoleum. He shoves the wooden structure toward the entrance.

An eruption. A crunching boom. He looks up, and his mother is just beyond the doorway. The glass is splintered where the palm of her hand bloodies against it. Red trickles along the cracks. Track marks oozing pink pepper the bruises in the nook of her elbow. “Listen to your Momma, you little shithead.”

One last push. The trophy case blocks out the daylight. The hall goes dark.

Red in the exit sign’s light, the kid stands at the foot of the stairs.

Next to him, a door. A sign.

Do Not Enter.


It’s a room of pipes. One looks about the width of Skid’s shoulders.

Blow through, Skid thinks. He could follow it through the drainage system.

The creek was only a half-mile away.

Home free.

He could get stuck. Trapped. He could suffocate.

But maybe he’d rather die in a sewer than live in a cell.


Upstairs. Vaughn’s body is still gone.

Skid slings the bag of C4 onto his back and heads toward the steps.

A phone rings.

Skid finds it under a stack of paperwork along the teller counter.

“Your bus is here, Henry,” the voice says. The voice that sounds like Uncle Simon.


“Best we could do. Just give us the kid and it’s all yours.”

“How do—who says I ain’t giving you some other hostage in here?”

“All we want’s the kid, Henry.”

Skid’s eyes trace the wire coming out of the phone down to the frayed end at his feet. “I—I say who goes.”

“The kid, Henry.” That voice. So clear, so close. Skid can feel on his neck its beer-sticky breath. “Simon says.”


A few strides from the western entrance is a yellow bus.

Beyond it: only rough, rolling hills.

A desert at dusk.

Skid shakes his head. Where did the buildings go? The town? Confusion makes him want to collapse. Give up before even taking a single step. Quit being such a pussy, Henry.

He takes out his .40 and shows the kid the empty holes inside. “No bullets,” he says. “Yeah?”

The kid says nothing as the barrel meets his temple.

They push outside.

Quiet settles over Skid like a wet, wool blanket.

In the time it takes to reach blacktop, the sunlight dies until beyond the lot’s nothing but night. Just a vague line of the horizon splitting two warring depths of black.

They near the bus. A murmur rises. Tinny and distant.

Skid enters first, walking the kid backward until they’re both inside. That strange sound detonates. It comes alive in complete clarity. Dozens of children. Maybe hundreds. Laughing. Screaming. Speaking in a language Skid doesn’t want to recognize, but does.



Three small, staggering steps up into the bus.

The horde of children turn toward Skid with blank, cloudy eyes that seem impossibly white against their black, charred skin.

A choked sob. It reminds Skid he isn’t breathing.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know. I didn’t fucking know.”

The patter of footfalls behind him makes him turn. He catches the last glimpse of the kid before he disappears back into the building.

Something tugs at his flak jacket.

A hip-high girl, barely more than a skeleton. From wrinkled, crisp lips, her hesitant voice speaks. “M—mikham beram…khoo—khooneh.”

Through the windows: shifts in the darkness. A deep shadow buries the edge of the lot. Like black sand pushed by the wind one gust at a time. Swallowing the world. All of it except the street leading out of town. Skid notices a key in the bus ignition.

Someone says, “A hostage for a way out.”

Skid glances over his shoulder. Where the charred girl just was sits Vaughn. Thirteen years old now. A bloody crater in his face. “I saved you, Skid.”

“I didn’t make no deal with you.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. Why shoot me after all I done for you?”

“You ain’t that kid no more, Vaughn.”

“Neither are you.” He nods to Skid’s forearm. Where the kid grabbed him earlier. A black hand mark taints the skin.

Skid looks back at the lot exit. Narrow eyes. Cupped hands at his temples. He leans toward the windshield, and his breath leaves frost on the glass. He can’t tell where the road might end. He asks Vaughn, “What’s the first thing you remember?”


“From ever.”

Vaughn seems to think as the wind outside picks up. Black sand pelts the driver-side of the bus.

“Smoke,” he finally answers. “Way it looks against a clear sky.”

Skid nods.

Vaughn asks, “That prove I’m real?”

“Proves you know what I already know about you.”

“Never told you that.”

“You did.” Skid takes a step down toward the bus door. “Was probably just too fucked up to remember.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn says. “Sounds about right.”

Skid risks one last look back toward the bus. He expects to find Vaugn’s smug, grinning face behind him. But only the little burnt girl is there.

“Mikham beram khooneh.”


Skid guides the kid into the vault. Back with all the locked deposit boxes. Out at the lot and at the bottom entrance, heavy blows bash against the doorways.

“Stay in here,” he tells the kid.

The dead phones keep ringing.

Eyes growing wet, the kid shakes his head hard.

“Nobody can get to you in here,” Skid says, and his voice cracks. “Nobody.”

The metal door closes with a gut-quaking thud.

Above, skylights break. Glass falls to the tile and on top of the bodies. Faint light from the front hallway flickers with approaching shadows. Skid clutches his .40 tighter. With it, he smashes the keypad on the wall beside the vault.

“Missed your bus, Henry.”

A warped chill stabs Skid between his shoulder blades. He turns to find him standing there over the smear of his son’s blood. Shoulders back. The big gut he always hauled around like a loaded wheelbarrow now spills intestines from a shotgun wound.

It’s weird, Skid realizes, being as tall as him.

“I ain’t going nowhere,” Skid says.

Behind Uncle Simon, black sand takes over the walls, floors, and ceilings. Like blood through a glass of light beer. “Why you being such a pussy, Henry?” Uncle Simon says. “We just want the kid.”

“All this shit today,” Skid says, “made me remember something.”

The dark spreads thick. So deep and carried so easily by the whirlwind around them, it leaves just Skid, Uncle Simon, and the vault. Its speed rises to a solid blur. Like helicopter blades. Its noise implodes under its own weight.

Suddenly: No sound. No movement.

Just them.

“Know what my first memory is?” Skid asks.

Uncle Simon steps toward Skid. “Don’t know that I care.”

“It ain’t an image. Nothing I saw. It ain’t some. . . like, some scene, ya know?”

“Henry,” Uncle Simon says, and keeps moving forward, “you really think that’ll stop me?” He lifts an eyebrow at Skid’s gun.

“It’s a feeling,” Skid says. So close now. The smell of stale cigar smoke in the man’s clothes. Skid almost gags. “A feeling. Like being scared. Or being loved, I guess. But sharper. Deeper.” He drops the gun. “Harder to let go of.”

He stares into that face—a face he realizes now looks a lot like his own. He doesn’t let himself look away. Instead, he wraps his arms tight around those broad shoulders.

He triggers the detonator on the C4 strapped to his back, and that feeling returns. He’s felt it many times before, but never so strong or heavy or rooted in his core. Like a hand tugging at a ball of string in his chest, unraveling it into a loose mess at his feet.

He isn’t sure if he could’ve put words to it that first time he felt it. Maybe the words came later to describe something so overwhelming. But the words come now. Like always he hasn’t a clue what they really mean. What bond the words have to the real, waking world he’s known and survived in for so long.

He tries to say them. Tries to push them from his throat with breath he isn’t even sure he’s still got. He can’t. But they’re there. In his mind they’re loud. So loud they blot out everything like all that night sand.

Until they’re the only thing left in the bottomless, lonely dark.

I want to go home.

Dan J. Fiore has been published by Thuglit, Mystery Tribune, and Hot Metal Bridge, among others. His fiction won grand prize in both the 82nd annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition and LitReactor’s Arrest Us Crime Writing Challenge, and his screenwriting was awarded a First Works Grant by Pittsburgh Filmmakers. He currently works as a creative strategist in Pittsburgh and teaches at Seton Hill University, where he also earned his MFA. For more, visit

Monday, August 12, 2019

HELLBENDERS: Jordan Farmer's The Pallbearer

art by Patrick Weck
Welcome to the first installment of an ongoing series of reviews, written by Gonzalo Baeza: HELLBENDERS. Hellbenders are the unloved stepchildren of the salamander world, native to Pennsylvania and West Virginia and other places, squat-faced and dirty-looking and ugly-beautiful. If you've ever had the chance to see one up close, chances are you haven't forgotten it. They are rare. So too, are the books on which Tough was predicated: rural noir and crime, often ugly, often beautiful, in such settings as various as Maine and New Hampshire, Appalachia and many parts of the rural South and West.

While hellbenders in the wild are much more difficult to find than a quality rural noir--though still a rare beast--we aim to help out the cause. HELLBENDERS will review books new and old, stories that got missed by the major book review venues or were otherwise overlooked as untimely and/or unappreciated. We'll take a look at the past, watch out for the future, and poke through the rocks and silt in search of the good stuff, the rare stuff, the HELLBENDERS.

The Pallbearer
Jordan Farmer 
Reviewed by Gonzalo Baeza

Given the number of new titles released each week and the little to no promotion most new books get these days, especially when they are not issued by a big publisher, it is no wonder that a remarkable novel like Jordan Farmer’s The Pallbearer has not gotten the attention it deserves. A darkly poetic rural noir set in the dying coal town of Lynch, West Virginia, this first novel may appear to tread familiar territory explored by writers like Breece D’J Pancake and Ron Rash, but it does so with its own mix of lyrical and propulsive prose and an unorthodox cast of compelling characters. 

The pallbearer in question is Jason Felts, who used to work in his family’s mortuary in downtown Lynch. He still lives in an apartment above the old family business but it’s not just physical proximity to the funeral home that cements his ties to death and tragedy: Felts is a counsellor at the violent Shelby Youth Correctional Facility –known as “The Shell”– where many of Lynch’s and the region’s young men end up as coal prospects dwindle, businesses close, and opioids abound. 

As seen through Felts’ eyes, “There was no opportunity left in the hills. With the mines shutting down there wouldn’t be much left of Lynch in ten years anyway. Just empty storefronts and the few families left behind without jobs, becoming more isolated as the economy collapsed. Jason guessed everyone would pull up stakes eventually or be forced into the regression of a frontier barter system and poaching.” 

Counsellors have a hard time getting through to the troubled inmates, including one minor called Malcolm, whose constant outbursts of rage maintain the staff on edge, ready to restrain him as they wait for the boy to be transferred to a more adequate psychiatric facility in Ohio. Work is even more difficult for Felts considering he is a dwarf and his appearance is derided by both inmates and prison guards. 

Two new arrivals to The Shell upend Felts’ life and unleash a series of ever more gruesome events. One is Huddles, the younger brother of local crime boss Ferris Gilbert. Huddles is incarcerated after a nocturnal drug run goes wrong and a state trooper confiscates Ziploc bags of pills and guns from his vehicle. The local sheriff, who is trying to get to Ferris, makes it clear to Huddles that he can either inform on his brother or he’ll make sure that the younger Gilbert remains detained until trial. He should then expect to be transferred to an even more violent jail where his family name carries no weight and he’ll be easy prey for the older inmates. 

Huddles spends the days either meditating to mentally escape his surroundings or reading a novel he finds in The Shell’s library, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. A recurring theme in West’s novel from the 1930s is the disappointment of those who live in the fringes of Hollywood, unable to accomplish their dreams, “the people who come to California to die” and whose eyes are “filled with hatred.” Huddles’ fascination with the book is likely explained by the despair he sees in his surroundings but also by the unfulfilled potential of his own life.    

The other arrival is Terry Blankenship, a strung-out teenager who is arrested for breaking into one of Lynch’s many dilapidated houses to steal pills. He lives in a rundown hunting cabin with his boyfriend after being kicked out of his home by his homophobic father. Blankenship also owes money to Ferris Gilbert who, seizing upon the young man’s despair, offered him an out: kill the sheriff and all debts will be forgiven. 

Both Terry and Huddles look at Ferris with suspicion. Huddles cannot imagine a relationship that is not transactional and in his particularly laconic and defensive way he questions the counsellor’s offer of help: “You know, everyone I’ve talked to, they want to carve their slice.” 

Terry is even more mistrustful, being marginalized in Lynch both because of his addiction and his sexuality: “Terry didn’t confide in anyone, (…) but as much as he wanted free of these secrets, he understood burdens were a way of life and no venting, whether to holy idols or equally broken men could lift them from your back. Why this universal need for communion anyway? Seeking solace in another only created a false hope that you’d be understood. People pretended because it was too hard to admit we’re each trapped in our own shell, using imprecise words to try to express something unsayable.” 

A counsellor whose appearance has made him an outcast, an addict who hides too many secrets, a reluctant member of a crime family who feels the need to prove his toughness both to the inmates and to his brother. Their respective baggage enhances their outsider nature but never in a truculent manner. Farmer is a skilled writer who carefully builds each character so that their struggles –and their pain– feel real and more than a collection of misfortunes and arbitrary psychological traits. All three of them fight to survive under the shadow of the looming, almost feral presence of Ferris Gilbert, but also amid a ravaged landscape with its striated mountains stripped of their last ounce of coal. 

The Pallbearer is an accomplished and emotive first novel that reads like the work of an experienced author, its well-worn characters, evocative prose, and sustained tension creating a pungent mix of pure West Virginia rawness.

Gonzalo Baeza is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His books have been published in the U.S., Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, Estados Hispanos de América, Tintas, and The Texas Review, among others.