Monday, January 27, 2020

Infinity Sky, fiction by Kristen Lepionka

They were called the Speed Dragons. Jeramey first laid eyes on them in the lobby of the Columbus Hotel, four smug guys in nearly identical Affliction t-shirts dragging their gear across the polished floor. They made a beeline for Chess, her boyfriend, who lounged with Jeramey's guitars on a leatherette ottoman, and the band members engaged him in conversation for several minutes before Chess finally shook his head and pointed to Jeramey standing in line at the front desk, like it was just then occurring to him that they were looking for her. Jeramey felt a stab of irrational hatred for the Speed Dragons as they gazed at her, blank. But she was forced to turn away, her attention pulled into this new indignity.

"No, there's been a mistake. I'm supposed to be in the penthouse suite, with the view of the river," she said, shaking her head at the room keys in their little paper sleeve. The wedding planner told her it had all been arranged. "It was all supposed to be arranged."

The desk clerk nodded. "We've had the tiniest change of plans," she said, then dropped her voice to an unapologetic whisper. "We have some very high profile guests in the hotel this weekend."

Jeramey considered. So no one recognized her here--fine, even though she still looked as good as the girl in that white miniskirt on the cover of Touch and Go. Or, at least, that girl's slightly older sister. More or less. But that was beside the point. She could feel her personal equity receding, like soil erosion of the spirit. As it was, she'd already compromised by flying coach. There isn't a first class on a Chautauqua Airlines regional commuter flight, the wedding planner had told her, getting a little snippy. It's only for two hours. Is it that big of a deal? But Jeramey was the one who had to buy Chess three bloody marys on the plane just to make him shut up about it. Nine dollars each, and she could smell the cheap vodka from two seats away. It was getting to be a bit much to endure, even for ten grand.

Now the Speed Dragons were heading her way. Jeramey didn't need to meet them in order to distill this band down into their essence: there would be a Brad among them, and a Wesley or a Corbin, a weekday-afternoon radio DJ and an ad agency project manager. The quiet-looking one in the fedora would be the only real musician of the group but he would avoid any kind of direct attention, terrified that someone would discover his terrible secret--bald at age twenty-eight. The wedding planner had passed along their LP so that Jeramey could learn the songs in preparation, but she hadn't. "Listen," she said to the hotel clerk, wanting to be done with it before the Speed Dragons knew all about her business. "Forget it. The seventeenth is fine."

"It's a lovely room," the clerk said. "Great views of the insurance building!"


After the wedding, Doug Beavers rode the sad little shuttle back to the hotel and fumed. It was almost funny, how some smug assholes just think they're the center of the universe, but others, even though it hurts to admit it, actually are--they somehow know everyone that you know, they've already been anywhere you could hope to go, they even turn up at your cousin's stepdaughter's wedding and charm the pantyhose off every woman there. Bennett Langdon was one of those assholes. It transcended coincidence. It was just the way things were. Beavers bet Langdon had a private driver to take him to the reception. No way a guy with that much cash would ride on a shuttle bus, with its stained grey-brown seats and sticky floor and vague chemical blueberry deodorizer in the air which gave the impression that someone had, recently, peed inside the vehicle.

At least Langdon had come to the wedding alone. "I bet he didn't give get an and guest," his cousin murmured sympathetically when they both discovered the horror, that Langdon was some peripheral friend of the groom's family. It would have been undeniably worse if he'd turned up at Beavers' cousin's stepdaughter's wedding with Celia Beavers on his arm. This was not out of the question--it had only been a year earlier that the whole affair went down, his plain, good-hearted wife and the cap-toothed charmer who taught the six-session self-actualization seminar that Beavers himself had paid for Celia to attend. It was hardly a fair fight; Langdon, silver-tongued devil of the self-help aisle, versus Doug Beavers, Weeble-shaped middle manager. The affair was long over by now, but the divorce was forever and Beavers was the type to hold a grudge.

"I really wish you could just relax and have a good time," his cousin said when he stalked back to the table with a plate piled high with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

"Oh, I'm having a great time," Beavers said. Langdon was currently holding court near the wedding cake with two of the bridesmaids, who were giggling behind their wrist corsages. "I just want to keep my eye on him. No surprises.”

"But Dougie, he probably doesn't even know you're here."

"Then it's even more important to know where he is," Beavers said. He set down the hors d'oeuvres plate and headed in the direction of the bar.

"....penthouse," he heard Langdon say to the women. "It's got an incredible view."


So it was not the worst performance of her career. No, that honor would have to go to the gig in Berlin when her bass player puked on one of the tube amps and shorted out the entire sound system. But it was, quite frankly, a close call. The Speed Dragons played angsty garage-rock versions of "The Electric Slide" and "Butterfly Kisses" while Jeramey faked along. If not for the weed that Chess had procured from a bellhop, she would have been in tears. As it was, she wondered how many more times she'd be able to play "Infinity" without her head exploding. "Sweet forever sugar," she sang as the newly-wedded couple swirled around the ballroom during their first dance, "infinity sky." This was the whole reason she was here--the rich, dim, Midwestern bride having always dreamed of dancing to the tune played live, by Jeramey Jones herself, at her wedding. It was a wildly inappropriate choice, nothing but a heroin-soaked ballad about, well, heroin, but the masses, with their endless capability to misunderstand, had turned it into a mainstream love song, rocketing Jeramey out of the indie punk world and into the spotlight for a moment in time. The moment had since passed--long since passed--but the song endured.

"I just can't even tell you," the bride gushed at her afterwards. "Having you here, omigod! I want you to stay all night!"

"Totally!" Jeramey said, accepting a clammy hug before departing immediately.

She sought refuge in the lobby bar, where two bourbons filled in the cracks left by the mediocre weed. She sat against the wall and half watched a silent baseball game on a television mounted to the wall and willed no one to speak to her, but she was only midway through the second drink when a large, oniony presence appeared to her right.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" the guy asked with a blast of gimlet breath.

Jeramey looked at him. He was fat and fiftyish, sloppily buttoned into an odd grey tux, the bow tie of which dangled from one shoulder like it was trying to get away from him. He had hair the color of nothing and pale grey eyes that seemed to have trouble focusing.

"You're not famous or something, are you?"

"No, I was just at that wedding," Jeramey said.

"Which side," her new friend said. "Bride or groom?"


"Yeah? Me too. My cousin's--"

"Can I just watch the ball game, please?"

At this, the guy laughed way too hard. "The ball game?"

"Yeah," Jeramey said. "I want to watch the ball game."

"You're interested."

"I am."

"Okay, Abner Doubleday, who's playing?"

"For the love of God," Jeramey muttered. She slid off the bar stool and tossed a crumpled tip next to her half-empty glass.

"For such a baseball fan, you're a pretty poor sport," the guy said. He spun around on his stool and grabbed her ass.

Jeramey bristled but walked away without looking back. "Ohio fucking sucks," she announced as she exited the bar, to a few mutters of agreement and one whooping cheer.


Chess was sitting on the bed with the bellhop when she walked into the room. "Wow, are you her?" the bellhop said.

"Yup, this is Jeramey Jones, 1997's Best New Artist nominee," Chess said in a fake-announcer voice. He held a smoldering joint with one hand and sifted through a pile of minibar snacks with the other.

"1998," Jeramey said, shooting him the finger. "If you set the sprinklers off, I'll kill you."

"Don't worry," the bellhop said. He was a lanky kid with reddish hair buzzed into a fade. "We got it covered." He pointed up at the smoke detector, which was shrouded with a dripping wet washcloth. He offered her the weed, but Jeramey shook her head.

"I'm exhausted," she said. "Can we wrap up this party?"

"It's only nine-thirty," Chess said.

"Seriously?" She flopped onto the edge of the bed. The room was beige and claustrophobic. It had an anonymous quality to it, like a shared cubicle at the phone company. "I think time is messed up in Ohio. It's stuck or something."

"Tell me about it," the bellhop said. He unscrewed the cap on a tiny bottle of Bailey's and chugged it.

Jeramey lay down on the edge of the bed and selected a whiskey bottle from the pile, drinking it without sitting up. Then she rolled off the bed and went to the window. "Great views of the insurance building!" she muttered. The building in question was a concrete void with a blinking radio antenna on the top. "Hey," she said finally. "You don't have keys to the penthouse suite, do you?"


"This has to be the worst idea ever," the bellhop whispered as they padded single-file off the eighteenth-floor elevator. "But I'm just high enough to go along with it."

"I just want to see the view," Jeramey whispered back. She steadied herself on the wall with one palm. The night was getting silvery, like she was viewing herself through a window streaked with liquid diamonds.

"Do you think the mini bar has better shit up here?" Chess asked.

"What, like tiny bottles of Cristal?"

"That would be awesome," the bellhop said. "Okay, this is it."

They stood in front of the door. It looked pretty ordinary. The bellhop rapped sharply on it with a knuckle and called out, "Room service!"

No response.

"Room service," the bellhop said again, knocking louder this time.


He turned to Jeramey and gave her an impish smile. She decided that she'd sleep with him, if it came up.

"Let's do it," she said.

The bellhop inserted a plastic key card into the slot and pushed the door open slowly. Jeramey  practically heard angels singing. The room was at least twice the size of hers, decorated in plush navy blue instead of beige, with a whole separate living room area and kitchenette. Chess made a beeline for the mini bar. "Shit, there's macadamia nuts in this one," he said.

Jeramey headed for the window but froze just after she crossed into the bedroom. The room was not, as it turned out, empty.

"Fuck," Jeramey said.

A dark, lumpy shape was snoring quietly from the bed.

"Fuck, fuck."

"Oh, man, we need to get out of here," the bellhop said from behind her.

But the window, with its view of the river, was right there, just a few feet away. Jeramey darted 
towards it and parted the curtains, but it was too dark to see anything other than the ghost of her own reflection.

"Okay," Jeramey whispered. "We can go."

As she crept back past the snoring lump, it stirred and emitted an oniony belch. "Wait a minute," she said, turning back. She squinted in the thick darkness at the man's face. "No fucking way," she said. Of all the high profile guests in the hotel, this asshole from the bar was the one who took her room?

"Come on, let's go," the bellhop whined.

Jeramey held up a hand. She wished she had a Sharpie--the man's dumb, doughy face was just begging for a freehanded mustache. He twitched and rolled to the side, his jacket flopping open. Jeramey saw the bulky square of a wallet peeking out of the pocket.
Even better.


Doug Beavers had a problem. More accurately, he had several problems, but with varying degrees of urgency.

One: his head felt like a malfunctioning tilt-a-whirl

Two: his mouth tasted like onions

Three: his pants were spattered with Bennett Langdon's blood

Things had gone bad pretty fast. He'd sat in the bar for a long time, drinking overpriced gimlets and working up a stormy rage over Langdon and the bridesmaids. Somewhere in there he decided that it was his moral obligation to intervene--those nubile, satin-sheathed maidens needed protection! Langdon was a predator. But when Beavers got up to the top floor of the hotel, Langdon had opened the door with a quizzical smile and it was clear he was still alone. It was also clear that he had no idea who Beavers was, which somehow made it all worse.

"I, uh," Beavers stammered, losing his nerve within two seconds, "I went to one of your seminars. Last year."

Langdon had just loved the sound of that and invited Beavers in for a drink.

Which was more or less the last thing Doug Beavers needed.

But halfway into that drink, Langdon disappeared into the bedroom and reported that he had to get ready to meet up with a young lady he'd met at the wedding. "Women at weddings are just so game," he called. "Are you getting lucky tonight, my man?"

That was enough for Beavers. A tingling in his chest traveled down his arm and into his fist. 

Reactivated, he was on his feet in a second, aimed like a surface to air missile towards his enemy. He threw the punch before he even realized he was in the bedroom, and what a punch it was: a glorious right hook that connected with Langdon's jaw just as he turned away from the bathroom mirror, looking alarmed. Airborne for a second, Langdon tumbled backwards into the shower, sputtering blood. Beavers moved in for the coup de grace with a primal yell: a kick to the chin. It sounded awful, an unnatural wrenching of bone and skin. Langdon went instantly slack-eyed and still.

Wigging out, Beavers backed out of the bathroom and sat on the bed. But there was blood on the mirror, on the sink, and it turned his stomach. Did that really happen? He peered back into the bathroom--yes, it had. He pulled the door closed. Now he did need that drink. He went for the liquor bottle with both hands.

A few hours later, he'd came to on the bed, a sharp line of sunlight from the windows across his torso. He sat up halfway and rubbed his face. A plastic room key was stuck to his cheekbone in a slick of gummy dried drool. At first it felt like a dream, until he realized that dreams, no matter how vivid, don't actually bleed on you. A glance at the clock revealed that it was ten in the morning. He had to piss, but there was no way he was opening that bathroom door. He looked through the peephole into the hallway and saw a housekeeping cart three doors down. "Motherfucker," he said
He flung open the closet and flipped through the items hanging there, settling on a pair of flat-front khakis. He dropped his own bloody pants and pulled Langdon's on--or tried to, a plan that might have worked eighty pounds ago, but not now. Beavers clutched his infuriatingly large belly and kicked the pants back into the closet.

The housekeeping cart was now two doors away.

He had no choice but to pull on the fluffy terrycloth bathrobe hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. It smelled like hotel and Langdon's obnoxious Old Spice, but it did, at least, fit. 
Beavers grabbed his room key off the bed and darted out into the hallway, his bloody pants tucked under his arm like a football.

But down on the tenth floor, he inserted the room key into the slot and was met with a blinking red light. He inserted the key again and again, not understanding. The key on the bed must have been Langdon's, he realized--his own key was in his wallet, which was--

Which was--

Which had formerly been in his jacket pocket, but was no more. The wallet, he concluded, had to be back in Langdon's room. Beavers banged his head on his own locked room door, cursing the day he ever filled out the little RSVP card for his cousin's stepdaughter's wedding in the first place. He tried shouldering the door open, the way you see hero spies do it in the movies. He tried jamming Langdon's key in and out of the lock in the hopes of confusing the electronic gatekeeper into submission. Eventually he just headed back to the elevator and hit the UP arrow, but when the doors slid open, two uniformed cops blinked out at him.

"I, uh," he mumbled. There was no way he could go back up to the room now. "Sorry, I was going down."


Jeramey woke up devastatingly hungover. The inside of her mouth tasted like campfire and Cheetos. She was fully clothed, her head resting on the bellhop's stomach. Chess was spread-eagled on the floor, the bedspread tangled around him. She had a vague memory of buying round after round of drinks for everyone in the lobby bar, using Abner Doubleday's American Express. This explained the hangover, but not the Cheetos. She closed her eyes again.
When she woke the second time, it was afternoon. She moved to the floor and smoked half a joint with Chess while the bellhop took a shower. "What the hell should we do here all day?" she said. "Our flight isn't until five."

Chess waggled the joint at her. "Isn't this entertainment enough?"

Jeramey took a drag. Back in the Touch and Go days, the morning after a gig had held a wild, raw 
magic, her fingers sore, her voice hoarse. Champagne for breakfast. Although she knew it was impossible, she couldn't remember ever being hungover on that tour. "Yeah, I guess," she said.

The bathroom door slammed open then. "You guys," the bellboy said.

Jeramey turned. He was brandishing his cell phone.

"There's a dead guy upstairs."

Jeramey didn't understand at first. "What?"

"In the penthouse! There's cops everywhere."

"What?" Jeramey repeated, then it hit her. "Wait, no, that guy was passed out, not dead. What the fuck happened?"

"My friend says there's homicide detectives and everything," the bellhop said. "They're talking to everyone who tries to leave the hotel."

Jeramey dropped her head to her hands. It was certainly going to be hard to explain how she happened to be in possession of that American Express card last night. "Fucking Ohio," she said.


Still clutching his bloody pants football, Beavers lurked around the second floor mezzanine and watched from behind a pillar as a coroner's stretcher arrived and then departed with Langdon inside a rubber sack. When the lobby seemed to reach a momentary lull, he descended the stairs and tried to cross the polished floor with confidence. He imagined he was Bennett Langdon--look at me, I'm an asshole millionaire, I'm walking around a hotel in a bathrobe but it's okay because I fucked your wife. The effect of this was more unnerving than empowering. By the time he made it to the front desk, Beavers was shaking.

"Um, excuse me," he said timidly.

The clerk turned to him, wiping her eyes. She was clutching a balled-up tissue. She did not appear to notice his robe. "Sir?"

"I, uh," Beavers said, "I seem to have misplaced my room key. Can I get a new one? It's Douglas Beavers, room ten-sixteen."

The clerk nodded. "I just need to see your ID, Mr. Beavers." She wiped her nose. "We've had an incident in the hotel this morning, so we've been asked to be extra cautious."

"Cautious," Beavers repeated. "Well," he added, improvising, "as it turns out, my ID is in my room. 
Which I cannot access."

The clerk considered this. Beavers smoothed the lapel of his bathrobe meaningfully.

"Of course, sir," the clerk said finally. She gave him a small smile. "You probably want to get out of that bathrobe," she added.

"Oh, yes," Beavers said.

Safely inside his own room, Beavers took a shower and contemplated his next move. The wallet must have been stuck between the cushions of the leatherette sofa or under the bed or somewhere else out of sight, since he hadn't seen it when he had been up there. And reason had it that the police hadn't seen it yet either, since their first stop after finding it would have no doubt been his room. He developed a new set of plans.

Plan A: Wait until the police were gone, and go back into Langdon's room for the wallet. They had to leave eventually, he figured, and it had been a couple hours already. He couldn't get very far without the wallet, given that he had an hour-long drive to get home to Springfield and his car was hovering on E.

Plan B: Live forever in room ten-sixteen.

He figured that he had a few dozen hotel nights' worth of available credit on the American Express he used to book the room. Well, maybe not quite that many, he realized as he ordered two twenty-dollar cheeseburgers and a beer from room service. He needed sustenance if he was going to stay sharp for his mission.


At some point during the day, it became imperative to Jeramey that they return the wallet. Though getting high in the middle of a crisis had never had any other effect on her, she started to get panicky and decided it was the fault of the wallet and not the weed.

"Look," she explained to Chess and the bellhop. They'd already missed their flight due to being too freaked out leave the hotel. There were cops talking to everyone in the lobby. "I used his card to buy I don't even know how much liquor last night. I need to get rid of it. What if they come here and do a search?"

"I think it was something like eighteen hundred dollars," the bellhop said, unhelpfully. Jeramey regretted that she ever considered sleeping with him.

Chess, suffering from sympathy paranoia, nodded along. "But we can't just dump it somewhere," he said. "Because as soon as they find it, they'll start trying to trace who dumped it, which makes the whole thing worse. Maybe we could destroy it."

"Like how?"

Chess flicked the lighter.

Jeramey pointed at the smoke detector. "I don't think the washcloth trick will work if we set a wallet on fire."

"Maybe we could cut it apart," the bellhop suggested, "and flush it down the toilet."

After sending the bellhop out into the hotel for a pair of scissors, the three of them stood around the low-flow toilet as Jeramey cut an experimental corner off Doug Beavers' driver's license and let it fall into the bowl. She pressed the flusher and held her breath.

But the low water pressure wasn't even enough to make the plastic triangle flutter.

"Fucking conservation," she muttered.

She cut off a larger chunk and dropped that into the toilet too, but no dice. Finally she reached into the water and retrieved the driver's license pieces, shoving all of them back into the little plastic compartment.

"The police have to leave eventually, right?"

Chess nodded. "They do."

"No," the bellhop said. "No. That's an even worse idea than going in there in the first place."

Jeramey shrugged. There was no other way. The weed made her feel certain of this. "We're going to have to put it back in the room," she said.

Beavers conducted some light recon. First, he waited until evening fell, then crept down to the lobby to look for cops. Everything appeared normal again, though.

Phase one, check.

Then Beavers sat down on a leatherette ottoman and faced away from the desk as he dialed the hotel's main phone number from his cell.

"Good evening, Columbus Hotel, how can I help you?"

"Yes, uh, I'm in room, um, sixteen-ten," he said quietly, "and I've been burgled."

"You've been what?"



"I think I might have seen someone going into that poor man's room last night," he tried next. "Can you send the police down to talk to me? Ten--I mean, sixteen-ten."

There was a muffled pause. Beavers resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at the desk to see what was happening. "Sir, if you have information about the incident in the hotel, you should contact the police immediately. They're no longer in the hotel, but I can give you the investigator's phone number if you have a pen?"

"I'll call back when I can find a pen," Beavers said.

Phase two, check.

He rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, alone this time. Once the doors slid open, he cautiously stepped out and looked around. The hallway was deserted, and the only indicator that anything unusual had happened was a neon green seal over the frame of Langdon's door. These premises have been sealed by the Columbus Police Department. All persons are forbidden to enter unless authorized by the police or a public administrator. Beavers let out a short sigh and slit the seal with his Swiss army knife.

The room had a garbagey smell, but there was no time to contemplate it. He searched the sofa first--no wallet. Then he looked under the bed--no wallet there either. He went back to the door and retraced his steps: doorway, kitchenette, sofa, bedroom, bathroom. He retreated quickly from the bathroom after seeing all that blood again. Langdon's head, Beavers could practically swear, contained more blood than a normal head, Jesus Christ. He closed the bathroom door again and looked out at the room. He couldn't remember being in any of the other areas, but then again, he had quite a few unaccounted-for hours. He crossed to the window and drew open the curtains, and it was then that he heard the unmistakable click of a key being inserted into the door.


Jeramey screamed. "Oh my god, I thought you were dead."

Beavers screamed too. He got a little worried. Was he dead?

The bellhop screamed and ran out of the room.

Jeramey threw the wallet at the guy. "I don't know what is going on here, but I don't want anything to do with it."

"Where did you get this?" Beavers said.

"So no one died?" Jeramey said. She looked over her shoulder for explanation but the bellhop was gone.

"Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly," Beavers said.

They both spun around as the door opened again.

"There he is! The ghost!" the bellhop said.

Two cops followed him into the room. "Okay," one of them said. "Which one of you would like to explain?"

Beavers folded immediately. "It was an accident," he blubbered. "He fucked my wife and I just, I don't know, I went crazy for a second. And I thought I left my wallet in here, so I came back in to get it, but it turns out she had it, and I don't even know--"

"Who are you?" the cop said to Jeramey.

"Hey," the other cop said. "You're Jeramey Jones, right? Touch and Go?" He strummed a few notes on an air guitar. "That album defined my twenties."

"Wait, what?" Beavers said.

"Yeah, that's me," Jeramey said. She cocked her head at him and smiled. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the river beyond the window.

That view, just, wow.

Kristen Lepionka is the Shamus and Goldie Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her debut, THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK, was also nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. Kristen grew up inside a public library and now lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner and two cats.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pulling, fiction by R.D. Sullivan

It was a day where Cal could smell the heat coming before the sun even rose, the promise of temperatures high enough to kill a person just a scent now on the pre-dawn breeze. Never one to sleep late to begin with, the first whiff had driven him from bed early enough that he had to light a lamp to dress by. Sheep out in the west lands needed moving closer to the home place, harried as they had been by some unknown predator. From the smell of the air, they were like as not to drop dead on the trail if he dallied.

Besides, he stood a chance of making it out early enough to catch sight of whatever had been picking off the lambs and blowing it straight to hell.

He drank yesterday’s coffee and chewed a strip of dried beef. The dark felt right for fresh, hot coffee and porridge, taken on the front porch to watch the sun rise, but with the air the way it was, he figured he could settle for less today. Even his big palomino stallion Branson thought it was too early, and he wondered if the horse would have found it a coffee and porch sort of hour as well. As it was the beast nickered softly and shook off whatever passes for sleep in a horse, one long shiver from snout to tail.

He fed the horse well before saddling it. Branson would be doing all the hard work after all and it’d be cruel to ask it from a beast with an empty stomach.

Washington would have to fend for himself. There weren’t much to spare and that dog would eat anything, so he didn’t figure he owed it more than a soup bone now and again.

Together the trio rode into the hills just as sunlight broke over the valley and drove what little existed of the cool morning breeze into its grave. All around them swelled the kind of loud silence that he loved. The pleasure of it wasn’t lost on him, despite the first beads of sweat down his spine. Above Branson’s breathing, above the clip of hooves on the buried rocks, the crisp snap of pine needles and twigs underfoot and the creak of saddle leather, lay the rest of the world. The birds chattered in the trees and the air seemed to rustle as the deer fled between the towering, pockmarked sandstone pillars which filled the hills.

Washington trotted ahead and Cal paid him no mind, up until the dog stopped suddenly and growled. Branson hesitated, and Cal felt as though all his blood drained into his boots.

It was likely nothing--the dog growled at the damn trees anytime they dared move--but he pulled the rifle free anyway. He slid from Branson’s back,stepping quietly onto the soft, dry dirt. The dog continued to growl as the man made his way in a big arch around the trees that blocked his view, hoping to spot whatever had Washington on edge before it caught scent of him.

The dog stepped forward, growls falling away to occasional chesty rumbles, twitchy black nose pushed as far forward as possible to safely sniff whatever it was.

A pair of well-worn and dusty leather boots came into view about the time Washington’s body relaxed, comfortable enough with whomever to step towards them.

“Morning, friend,” Cal called. He kept the rifle up and pointed to the side, ready to bring to bear if this stranger meant him harm, but the boots didn’t move. Then they did, one toe wiggling back and forth erratically as Washington began rolling in the person’s lap, neck pressed against the legs as he wiggled back and forth.

“Well, hell.”

Washington looked up at his voice, full of the pleasure dogs experience from meaty bones and rotten smells. His dog, who hated other people enough that the man had taken to locking him in the stables on the rare occasion he had company, was happily rolling in this person’s lap.

“Git,” he said to the dog, who ignored him for the glorious bounty of scent he’d found, until Cal added more gravel and meanness to his voice. “Washington, git!” Head hung, the dog slunk away, staying well out of striking range, and put his nose to finding something else to roll in.

He didn’t know if it would have been better or worse to find a stranger out here, but it wasn’t a stranger he’d found, it was a neighbor. This was Teddy Williams, a cattle rancher and sometimes late-night card companion that Cal had found the bottom of a bottle with more than once.

“Well, hell,” he said again, crouched in front of the body. The flannel shirt had long ago dried stiff, the brown of old blood like a bib down its front. It hadn’t all been spilled here, for trails of it ran from the two holes—one through Teddy’s neck, one through his cheekbone—down and under his head. He bore a halo of pine needles, sticks and blood-muddied dirt.

The body was in too good of shape to have been dragged a long ways, but Teddy hadn’t been shot here. Somebody had pulled him to this rock and propped him up, which seemed as odd a thing to do as murdering somebody in the first place.

The right side of the body had been gone at by something, likely the same thing that had been helping itself to his lambs. Unbidden, the thought came that this body, this murdered man, like as not had kept a few of his sheep alive, giving the predator something else to fill its belly with at night, and he shooed the notion away as quick as it’d come. It was unkind and cruel, even for the note of truth it rang.

The sun threatened to simmer him in his own clothes and he wished he could smell the sweetness of the grasses and slow creek around the home place, instead of the body’s putrefaction. To the west, farther in the hills, were his sheep, badly in need of better grazing and better protection. Town was a good few hours ride south then back again with Sheriff Gardner, a ride that would leave both him and Branson close to heat stroke.

And to the north a solid forty-five minutes lived this man’s wife, forevermore the Widow Williams.

With a foot in the stirrup he whistled for Washington, and the three turned north.


Annie Williams didn’t answer the door of she and Teddy’s house when Cal knocked, and the garden was likewise empty and quiet. He could have been hustling his sheep towards the lowlands and the time lost was lamentable if he couldn’t find her. He felt he’d at least done the right thing in coming to tell her first. Tomorrow he’d fetch the sheriff from town and together they’d stop by again.

The dark thought occurred to him that it was possible Annie had yet to be discovered amongst the sandstone too, body gone at by scavengers after falling victim to whatever hell Teddy had called down upon them both. It wouldn’t do to dwell on such a thing. Dead or alive, it wasn’t his concern until it was.

He had Branson half-pulled around to climb into the saddle when he heard a cow lowing in distress, and a woman’s sweet, soothing voice. He hadn’t thought to check the barn but when he moved around the house there she was, standing behind a fat black heifer trapped in the chute. Her auburn hair was sweat-matted to her face and she wore Teddy’s leather apron over her pale blue skirt, the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up and her round face red with exertion.

Cal quickly tossed Branson’s reins over the top rail and climbed in to help. He took one end of the rope from Annie’s hands and together they pulled, the coarse fibers biting into their palms. Two tiny hooves appeared from inside the cow, held taut by the pull of the rope.

“On three,” Annie said, and counted. Cal pointedly kept his eyes on the calf, instead of on the mottled green and purple bruise that painted her cheek and the two black eyes that winced as she wound the rope against a likewise bruised wrist.

They used the chute posts for leverage and yanked together, rewarded with the slime-covered calf head, all the way up to the ears. It slowly slid out until it snagged again.

“We’re to the hips,” he said.

Sweat dripped from her face as she nodded. “Again on three.” With a sucking sound the calf fell to the straw below the cow. Both he and Annie dropped with it, her pulling the sac from its head while he shook its legs, prompting the blood to flow and the lungs to take over. When it started pulling air they moved it to the corral on more fresh straw, tossed some hay in next to it, and let the cow free of the chute.

“Late for calving,” he said as they watched the heifer nuzzle and lick her new calf in between bites of alfalfa.

“Anderson’s bull got into my heifers. I’ve got a whole dozen ready to drop now.”

“That big brahma he’s got? Cream-colored with the black nose?”

“That’s the one.”

“Maybe you’ll get your own nice bull out of the lot, then.”

“That’s the hope. If they’re going to calve in July I might as well get something useful from it. Breakfast?”

“I’ve got sheep to move. I just came by to talk with you about Teddy.”

Her jaw flexed at the name, making the bruises on her face ripple. “It’s too hot to move sheep and I owe you for the help. You can put your horse in the next paddock, or in the barn. I’ll get washed up and get to frying.”

She didn’t make eye contact as she said it, just watched the heifer a moment, and swung towards the house.

Cal started unsaddling Branson but guilt made him pause and drop his forehead against the pommel. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Annie roughed up, but that didn’t change the fact that there was a murdered man up in the hills. To sit at her table and bring up such a dark matter over a shared meal seemed beyond the pale. But she wasn’t wrong—it was too hot to move the sheep by now and with her already disappeared into the house, he’d missed his chance to protest.

So he finished loosening the saddle. After throwing it over the fence and turning Branson out, he washed blood from his arms and hands as best he could, though his shirt had to be what it was. She had bacon going inside and fresh coffee heating. Or old coffee. Didn’t matter much to him if it was just reheated, hot would be nice.

“There hasn’t been time to make bread, with the calving.”

“All right.”

“Go out to the coop and grab some eggs, would you?”

He came back with eight and she threw all but two on the griddle just as the bacon came off.

“Something still pestering your sheep?” she asked when they finally sat down.

“Lost two lambs just last week.”

“We ought to organize a party to hunt down whatever’s out there. It won’t stop with your lambs.”

“We ought to,” he agreed. “About Teddy…” he started, but she cut him off before he could say more.

“You moving them out through the old Kendell place, by the sandstone?” she asked.

He noticed she didn’t look up when she asked. He also noticed how tenderly she chewed with her bruised jaw, and the dark lines encircling both wrists. When he didn’t answer she glanced up, caught him looking, and looked back just as hard with both black-and-green-rimmed eyes.

Cal was starting to get the impression she knew exactly why he was there, though he himself was starting to have doubts.

If it had been him, the law would have considered it self-defense. The sheriff would see it differently when it came to a wife.

Cal made a decision.

“Ayup,” he said. “Though I might bring them down through Reynold’s canyon now. More water. If this heat holds, they’ll need it on the way.”

She held his eye another moment and he could see her thinking on what he’d just said, what he’d really said, hiding behind the words he’d used. Satisfied, she went back to her breakfast.

She came out drying dishwater from her hands on a towel as he threw the saddle back on Branson, Washington busy licking at the birthing mess in the chute.

“Big calf,” he said. “No wonder you had to pull it.”

“Came from a big bull. Might be more like that.”

He nodded and slipped the bit between Branson’s teeth. “Once my sheep are settled by the creek I’ll come stay in the barn, if you think you might have to pull more.”

“I’d be awful indebted.” She opened the gate as he mounted and walked the horse out. “What…” She took a moment, swallowing as she refastened the gate. “What was it you wanted to see Teddy about?”

“Oh not much. Got a bit of woodwork I need done but it’s more for pastime than necessity. I reckon it’ll wait.”

She nodded, one hand patting Branson’s neck.

“You mind if I cut through your south lands? I can’t move them ewes but I should at least get an eye on the flock, see how they’re faring.”

“Of course,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you for calving then.”

“I guess you will.”


After a time Cal stopped yelling at Washington and let the dog have its fun. The way he leapt and bit and barked at the body of Teddy Williams made Cal sick to think about, so he decided not to think about it. Occasionally the dog would stop and roll in whatever scent Teddy left in the dirt and rocks and though Washington didn’t know it yet, he was getting thrown into the creek later, which was as close to washing the beast as the man could stomach, considering.

Branson was sweaty long before the rope around the body’s feet had been tied to the saddle horn but he didn’t hesitate or slow, just leaned into the hill and pulled steadily onward. The man walked in front, loose hold on the reins, not looking back. It reminded him of pulling the calf, that rope tied around its feet as well, pulling a life into this world by force much the same as this one had been forced out of it by two well-placed bullets.

At the top of the ridge he looped Branson’s reins over a low pine branch and aimed enough of a boot at Washington that the dog took off without needing to be struck, happier to find a new stink to roll in than to tempt the anger of its master. Once the rope was off Teddy’s legs, he pulled him the rest of the way to the rim and rolled him off the side. He wished he could have missed hearing the body strike first the cliff face, then the rock-strewn forest floor below, but he couldn’t change the fact that he did.

Branson shied from him and he knew then he didn’t smell much better than Washington did, and that he’d be in the creek along with the dog and a bar of hard soap. Despite the messy business of the day he looked forward to the bath, given how his shirt had soaked through and the brim of his hat long since stopped absorbing sweat. He’d like as not coax the horse into the water as well to get the foam and sweat from its hide.

Then a full dinner, for all three of them. Tomorrow they’d start early again, get the sheep settled, and settle in themselves for a hot July of calving at the Widow Williams’ place.

R.D. Sullivan is a writer of fiction, comedy and letters to the editor. She lives in Northern California with her family and two solidly mediocre dogs, where she runs a subcontracting business. Her work has been featured at Fireside Fiction Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Killing Malmon and the Murder-A-Go-Go’s anthology. She is also proud and ashamed of her novella, Hotties and Bazingas and the Murder Cult Murders. You can track her down on twitter @RDSullyWrites or over at

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dirty Old Town, by Gabriel Valjan, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Dirty Old Town
Gabriel Valjan
Level Best Books
172 pages
reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Dirty Old Town, a short novel by Gabriel Valjan, is a slick tribute to a bygone time as well as being a cracking good detective story. It's 1975, and private detective Shane Cleary's life in Boston's South End is grim. Besides his cat Delilah, there's little companionship, and not a lot going on. In the hardboiled tradition, Cleary's wallet is thin and his prospects few, but a late night phone call from rich old chum Brayton Braddock serves to get Cleary's engines firing. And to complicate matters, Shane and Brayton Braddock's wife Cat have a complicated history.

It turns out that Braddock is getting blackmailed, and he wants Cleary to find out who's doing it. The problem centers around real estate dealings that, while not quite illegal, could serve to complicate matters for the development of downtown Boston and the suits on Beacon Hill, and indeed involve shadow groups of people--largely rich, largely insulated--who come from the upper crust of Boston's social scene and depend on those shadows to hide their complicity in all manner of things, as Cleary discovers.

Thus are we thrust into a ripped-from-the-screens '70s cinema feel novel, without a touch of nostalgic haze. From the CITGO sign to the Wonderland dog track ,, you can feel the wind in your face as Valjan's prose takes Cleary down Tremont Street toward the Little Building. This is a book with an uncommon feel for and love of the city, and it's a damned fun time. All the Boston trappings are there, from the battles between the Irish and the Italians for control of the underground to the omnipresent roots of the project that would become the Big Dig, transforming Boston's downtown in an emblem of greed and green alike.

Cleary is a worthy character indeed, with his own colorful history and a life he brings to bear on the complicated messes he finds himself in. Like Spenser and Patrick Kenzie before him, he brings a mordant humor and not-quite-a-tough-guy ease to his role. He's completely credible as someone with enough brawn and streetsmarts to make his way through Boston in pursuit of the bad ones, mobsters and police alike ticking at his heels looking for him to slip up just once.

Secondary characters reveal themselves well, like former professor Delano Lindsey, stolid-but-gay police officer Bill and his closeted partner, as well as Mr. Butch, street performer in Kenmore Square, all are lovingly and aptly detailed in prose that never goes off-track and always serves the story. Describing a ride from the South End to Beacon Hill in the dead of night:

Minimal traffic. Not a word from him or me during the ride. Boston goes to sleep at 12:30 a.m. Public transit does its last call at that hour. Checkered hacks scavenge the streets for fares in those small hour hours before sunrise. The other side of the city comes alive then, before the rest of the town awakes, before whatever time Mr. Coffee hits the filters and grounds. While men and women who slept until an alarm clock sprung them forward into another day, another repeat of their daily routine, the sitcom of their lives, all for the hallelujah of a paycheck, another set of people moved, with their ties yanked down, shirts and skirts unbuttoned, and tails pulled up and out. The night life, the good life, was on.

Valjan is a man who you can trust to take you for a ride with the smooth forward propulsion of his prose. He fits in well with the city's rich literary array of crime writers, and stakes his claim among them. One of the abiding pleasures of the reading life is coming across characters so well-written, so well-worn in their own bodies it seems as if they've always existed. Shane Cleary is one of them, and if we're lucky, we'll hear much more from him in the future, and perhaps in other projects from Gabriel Valjan, who proves with this book that there is much more life to the PI novel in Boston than might have been imagined.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lightwood, by Steph Post, reviewed by Jay Gertzman

By Steph Post
Polis Books
302 pp.
Reviewed by Jay A Gertzman

Steph Post is a prime candidate for renown in her genre. The comparison that comes to mind is with David Joy. His Where All Light Tends to Go (Putnam’s, 2015) is similar to Post’s Lightwood in precisely reported setting, tough but conflicted characters, dead mothers, sustaining and/or hindering loved ones, help from unexpected places, injured self-respect, a need for adventure, and bloodletting reaching toward Grand Guignol depths. In addition to all these rudiments of 20th-century pulp noir, both writers give their protagonists’ struggles for independence from community and family ties an almost biblical intensity. Maybe that helps explain the similarity in their names, Judah and Jacob.
Judah Cannon’s surname reflects Genesis 29:35. Judah (“praise”), was a founder of a new family line; his father was Jacob; King David and Christ were descendants. Post’s Judah—when we first meet him—is in no such position, because he is too loyal to the values he has received growing up in Silas, a hardscrabble Florida town that has been stagnant for a generation. Empty storefronts, weekend assignations, and weaponry stockpiled for the End of Days reflect resignation to a moral code that, in its strictly enforced absolutism, has become shabby. For example, Judah has stayed helpful to his estranged, contemptuous wife, and to his bullying father, because he has been taught men do not abandon family. Unlike his girlfriend Ramey, he has not learned to prioritize self-respect over self-defeating obligation. Thus, he accepts his wife’s demand that he not see their child.
Post’s themes preclude backgrounding the dignity of rural Americans’ creative perseverance, as do not only Breece Pancake, Chris Offutt (Kentucky Straight), Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage), and Carolyn Chute, but also Martin McDonagh in his film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In contrast, Ramey and Judah make a stark contrast to their fellow citizens in Silas, whose beaten-down resignation is evident in their TV binging, their heavy drinking, and their need for firearms to protect their property.
Judah had just finished a 3-year prison sentence, taking the rap for a Cannon family theft from the Scorpions, a slap-dash and vicious gang of bikers dealing in cocaine. His father, Sherwood, has told him, “without family, you got nothing. But with family, you got everything. . . .” He said this “with a dangerous scowl,” one people have learned is a dire warning.
Judah’s younger brother, Benji, has not become embittered or resentful. He has an easy-going friendliness. He takes after his mother. (Her death, like that of Joy’s protagonist’s, produced a grief both men must bury; the pain still eats at them and possibly is a factor in their fathers’ cruelty.) Benji is dragged to the point of death by the Scorpions to scare Sherwood into giving back the drug money (which of course does not happen). At this point Judah confesses his guilt for Benji’s near-fatal torture. “I went along with it, again.” He states this in a public place. Why would he do that? To survive any crisis takes self-respect. That comes as a result of confidence, which in turn comes with experience. Where do you learn those traits, in an isolated small town, where your own father and brother stop you from doing so, and beat the crap out of you if you start to? “Stupid, cowardly worm, who can’t even think for himself.” Now he starts to.
Judah’s unaccustomed outburst endangers Sherwood’s plans. He’s growing up, and Sherwood and his brother Levi pound him bloody for it. Ramey, who Sherwood admits “has some balls” (interesting but unlikely observation), helps by pulling a gun to stop the beating. One trait of noir literature is trust and courage emerging from unlikely places.
Ramey and Judah not only sleep together; they dream together, of an independent future, one where the strengths of rural life can revive out of the coffin of obedience to authorities like Sherwood. Judah must find the clue to how to channel his ability to think for himself into independence of heart and soul. Ramey has already done so. “She was … desperately trying to be the woman her own mother never had the courage to be.” “I’ve always been my own. But I think,” she tells Judah, “we carry a part of each other. Always have. Always will.” What she will never do is become a brittle, disposable object such as lightwood.
A prime noir characteristic is extreme violence. That is provided not only by what happens to Benji, but by a Grand Guignol all by herself, Sister Tulah, fire and brimstone preacher with a captive congregation she terrifies with starvation, sensory overload, and demands for tithes they dare not withhold. It’s as if she has emerged as the ultimate monster that Sherwood and the bikers had unwittingly conjured up from hell. Her weird pale eyes hide an essential emptiness of the least drop of humanity. She fears only snakes, I suppose in deference to her boss, Satan. He is the only one, she might think, powerful enough to make her suffer as she has done to her own acolytes.
I don’t know of many similar characters in contemporary rural noir. I think of Jim Thompson’s deformed Ruthie in Savage Night, who leads Little Bigger, hit man extraordinaire, to a death that “tastes good.” The shack where it all goes down, way down, has a sign in the yard: “The way of the transgressor is hard.”
Sherwood and Tula have to work together to find the stolen money. It is needed by a phosphate corporation to bribe local politicians. In a powerful denouement, securing that money becomes Sherwood’s baptism of fire. Tulah remains. Judah and Ramey wind up with the filthy lucre his father has accumulated. On to Walk in the Fire. Obviously, fire has many implications, both hellish and cleansing.
Post’s novel exemplifies a fascinating contrast between classic and contemporary noir. In the former, those who, like Bigger in Savage Night, or Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, embrace absolute megalomaniacal control end in literal fire. It tastes good, or they laugh. (For another scary example, see Charles Williams’ The Hot Spot). Protagonists in Woolrich, Goodis, Gil Brewer, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Hughes, and Charles Williford bind themselves to a malevolent fate they can only stoically accept. While the difficulties of forging satisfying human connections are clear in rural noir, the possibilities of securing mutuality can be realized, and enjoyed. Perseverance is fulfilling, not simply the mark of a noble loser. So it is in Woodrell, Bonnie Campbell, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, and Steph Post. Its radical nature has everything to do with cleansing.

Jay Gertzman is the author of Pulp, According to David Goodis, which was nominated for best non-fiction study of the mystery genre for 2019. A Prof Emeritus at Mansfield University, his specialties are literary censorship, the publisher Samuel Roth, and 20th century  mass market pulp crime fiction.