Monday, March 2, 2020

The BIg Ticket, fiction by Stefen Styrsky

Later, driving away in his brother’s vintage `72 Lincoln, Frank thought maybe he was wrong. He tried catching his face in the door mirror to make sure the bandage across his nose hadn’t blown away, but he couldn’t get the angle right.

He asked Martin how he looked.

“Like someone punched you in the nose,” Martin said and pushed in the cigarette lighter.

“I mean the swelling,” Frank said. “Is it worse?”

“About the same.”

The lighter popped up, ready. Martin pulled it out and rolled the handle in his fingers.

“I need a cigarette,” he said.

“Don’t start,” Frank said.


Frank hadn’t seen Dean up close for at least ten years, but there was no mistaking his brother on TV, on News Channel 4, a bad dream suddenly real. He swallowed hard the coffee he’d meant only to sip and felt it scald his throat, the pain made worse by the contrary impulses to get it down or bellow in agony.

Like all security footage, the shot was at an angle from above, God’s-eye view of the clerk and the register. Grainy black-and-white, faces muddy. The guy in the video resembled any millions of guys out there. A bald, middle-aged white guy, face a wad of dough with raisin eyes. Windbreaker that did nothing to hide his gut.

But Frank knew. Knew it the way you hear a person say, “Hey” on the phone, and catch right away who they are, the mood they’re in, whether they’re sad or angry, sick or hungover.

The guy comes into frame, takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and compares whatever’s on the slip to the winning Powerball numbers posted next to the cigarette case. He gestures to the clerk. He thrusts the ticket at the man, points at it. When the clerk reaches for the paper, the guy jerks it against his chest. Then both his hands go up into the air.


That was how he always celebrated the winning shot whenever they played one-on-one in the driveway. Raised hands like a ref signaling touchdown. The pumping fists with a shout of “Loser!” came a second later. And then the side-to-side bobbing of the head. That’s what nailed it for Frank. The tick-tock of the guy’s skull in the video was unmistakable. His brother had won the Powerball.

“Martin.” Frank sat forward on the recliner. “You’ve got to see this.”

By the time Martin came in from the kitchen, the segment had ended and a commercial was on. Because a single winning ticket – one that nobody had claimed yet – had been sold in the area and the footage was from a convenience store a county over it ran again, the newscasters speculating maybe this guy was the winner.

“That’s Dean,” Frank said.

“Your brother?”

“My brother has won three-hundred-million dollars.”

Frank pushed himself out of the recliner. The move shot a fiery spike through his left knee but he ignored it, reminding himself not to stand so fast. Facing Martin, he said, “Some of that money is mine.”

Martin peered at him as he took a drag on his e-cigarette. The tip burned like a real one. “Guy always had a talent for luck,” Martin said.

Frank limped towards the bedroom. The plastic runner laid over the carpet stuck to the soles of his feet. Cheaper than replacing the worn shag. The strip was like a conveyer belt, ushering him forward.

“Assholes prosper,” he yelled over his shoulder as he dug through the mason jar on the bureau where they kept the car keys, also filled with greened pennies and Martin’s AA chips. In his rush, Frank knocked the jar over and watched Martin’s bronze six-month chip clatter down into the floor register.

“Shit,” Frank said. “Your chip fell into the heater.”

He put on his shoes while thinking of various negotiating tactics. There was always the tire iron in the car.

Martin was at his shoulder. “You don’t even know where he lives.”

“Oh, hell, of course I do.” With a foot he swept the mess of coins underneath the bureau. “I just hated him too much to ever go see him.”

“Slow down,” Martin said.

“I’ve been living in his shadow since we were kids.”

His knee buckled and he braced himself in the doorframe. Back when he boxed, Frank loved the morning after a fight, when his face felt like a wet sponge and it hurt to smile, even blink.  There was nothing like a little pain to let you know you were alive. A little pain you knew would go away. But his knee was damaged beyond a little pain. A doctor said it was permanent. And was he glad he was alive? All he could say was a share of the jackpot would help that book balance.

“My bum knee is his fault,” Frank kept on after recovering. “He put us on the outs with Angeline.”

“Don’t do something stupid.”

Frank shrugged him off. As if he needed a warning, as if he didn’t know how stupid his whole crappy life was already.

The car engine hacked through a couple turns before it jumped to life. Frank gave the gas a gentle press, allowing the engine to limber up before he put it in gear. Just as he was about to take a slug from his flask, Martin came down the driveway, stirring the insides of his shoulder pack as he trotted to the car.

“This is between me and Dean,” Frank said.

“I have a meeting in twenty minutes. How else am I getting there?”

“I’m not picking you up after,” Frank said, working the stick. “I might be a while.”

Martin got in.  “Jeanne will give me a ride home.”

They bounced onto the street.

“I know I had it,” Martin muttered, still pawing through his bag. “Have you seen my

“What chip?”

“The six-months one.”


“I thought I heard you mention it.”

“Must’ve been something else,” Frank said.

Martin looked him full on. “I heard you.”

“I didn’t say anything. Why would I care about your chip?”

“That’s right, it’s just a goddamn chip.” Martin dumped the bag into his lap. Keys jangled, an Altoids tin, pens, comb.

“I just had it,” Martin said. He flicked through loose change, tissue, single chalky mints speckled with lint and dirt. He searched the pockets, turned the bag over again and gave it a solid shake. Out plopped a Smirnoff vodka mini.

“I guess that chip doesn’t matter anyway,” Frank said.

“It’s old. Something I’d forgotten about. Look, it’s not even open.”  Martin dropped the glove box and moved to store the bottle.

Frank snatched it from him and tossed it out the window. “Are you crazy?” One hand on the wheel, still watching the road, he leaned down as far as he could and groped beneath his seat.

“What?” Martin said.

“Looking for the rest.” The only thing he felt was his own flask.

“There isn’t any.”

“I don’t want you hurt,” Frank said. “You’re miserable on booze.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“Doing just that.”

“Dick,” Martin said. He clicked on his e-cigarette and drew at it while staring out of the window.


Frank swung the car into the lot of the shopping plaza and backed into a space near the road, eager to drop Martin off and be on this way. His anger had slipped a few notches, replaced with more urgent thoughts of a bathroom. He’d used the can before they’d left, but already he had to pee. Morning coffee always ran through him that way.

Martin looked up from his phone. “I’ll be damned. He’s still using that alias?”

“No reason not to. He was the wonderkid. The money maker. Angeline loved him.”

His knee really hurt when he got out. Martin watched as he made a few limping circles around the car, hoping that would loosen it up. He caught his reflection in a side window and quickly turned away. Something about how the light bounced off the glass so that all his bumps and cracks sprung into high relief. Pouches beneath the eyes. Two lines that carved along both sides of his mouth; he looked like a ventriloquist dummy. He was punching towards fifty, but still.

“You going to be okay?” Martin asked.

“After I take a whiz in the alley. Now come on. I’ll call you when I know something.”

An orange Mustang roared into the lot and skidded nose-to-nose with the Taurus.

Frank couldn’t make out who was behind the tinted windows, who might be gunning for him. About a dozen people came to mind. He glanced around the parking lot, the Dollar Store, Subway, Costume Canyon. It was the kind of place cops came through now and then. He hoped that would keep the upcoming shenanigans to a minimum.
Two men stepped out. The blond driver looked like someone Frank knew, only a lot younger. The passenger was so tall his waist was nearly even with the rooftop. And not just tall, but big. Shoulders the size of bowling balls, fingers as thick as baby arms.

“Been a while,” the giant said.

“Georgie,” Frank said. “What gives?”

“You know.”

Frank heard Martin slip out of the car, quick, not letting the door catch when it closed. “Know what?” Frank asked, stepping towards Georgie, talking more. “How’s Angeline doing?”

Up came a hand that could’ve high-fived a stop sign. “Far enough, Frank.”

Now the driver spoke. “Give us the ticket and this will work out for everyone.”

Where did Frank know him? He was really good looking. The loose way he carried himself, the tight shirt, and the half-smirk on his face showed he knew it too.

“Is your dad Ed Grayson?”

The dude closed his door. “Fuck the chitchat. We want that ticket.”

Ed Grayson had certainly been politer. Frank sensed Martin sliding along the hood of their car, stepping slowly while Frank kept everyone talking.

“He was a good man, Ed Grayson,” Frank said. “Treated me right.”

“I’m not going to ask again.”

If the kid wasn’t carrying, something was wrong with the world. Frank knew the gun was bound to come out and then he and Martin would be in the back of the Mustang going somewhere they definitely didn’t want to go. If Angeline was involved that might mean their last car ride anywhere.

He looked at Georgie. “Talk to me.”

Georgie’s hand came down heavy on the car roof.

“Not so hard,” Grayson said.

Georgie’s throat bobbed. “We saw you on tv.”

His feet stopped moving. “What?”

“Not a smart thing, getting caught on tv,” Georgie said.

“Lucky for us you’re out from under your rock,” the other guy said.

“That was my brother,” Frank said.

“Wait, wait,” Martin said. “How’d you know we’d be here?”

A voice behind them. “Somebody in group recognized you. Word travels.”

Frank spun around.

Dean. Smiling his asshole grin that hadn’t dimmed one watt, hands on hips, logo on his t-shirt Stop Plate Tectonics. Frank’s eyes whipped up and down. His brother looked good, well-rested. Trim. The paunch he’d seen in the video was gone. And he was wearing sandals as if he was on some sort of beach vacation.

Then the shock wore off and Frank’s anger dialed all the way up. He made a fist and lowered his chin.

“Peace, brother,” Dean said, hands empty, palms open.

“The ticket,” Grayson said

Frank pulled his attention back around. He had to focus. Things were moving too fast. Georgie and Grayson were the problem. Dean could wait.

“I don’t have the ticket,” Frank said, holding the man’s gaze.

Grayson said, “Don’t screw with us.” The anger in his voice meant the gun was coming out. Frank sprang at Georgie. Georgie caught him with a stiff-arm in the chest. The other hand chopped Frank on the clavicle. He fell across the hood and swallowed a scream as pain lanced his knee.

There was a meaty smack and when Frank looked up Grayson was leaning against the car, a hand to his cheek and blood trickling through fingers from where Martin had landed his forehead. Martin stood a couple feet back, contemplating a long-barreled, chrome-plated .357 in his hand almost as if he wasn’t sure what it was.

Frank did a pushup and stood. He shook out his leg.

“You said there’d be no trouble,” Georgie said, talking over Frank at Dean.

“Keys,” Frank said.

With the gun, Martin waved Grayson aside and reached for the steering column.
But the deep rumble-purr of the idling V-8 gave Frank an idea. “No. We’re taking the car.”

“Nope,” Grayson said.

The magnum’s hammer clicked. Grayson ducked his head and moved around to Georgie.

“How about we trade?” Dean said. “Don’t want to leave these poor guys stranded.”

Frank got behind the wheel of the Mustang, turned off the radio, and backed out so Martin had a clear way to the passenger door. He waved at Grayson and Georgie standing long-faced and angry. Grayson’s eyes radiated thoughts of murder.

Dean called out. “What about your brother?”

Frank flipped him the bird. He’d tipped off Georgie and Grayson about where Martin
would be. He deserved whatever they paid out.

“He has the ticket,” Martin said.

“Get in,” Frank said.

He punched the gas and felt the yank of speed. The rear of the Mustang popped over the curb and snapped a small tree in half. He kept in reverse. At the street he stomped the brakes, skidding into a half turn that put them facing the right way and then slapped the engine into drive. It’d been forever since he’d driven a car that did what you told it to and it was so good.

Martin tossed the gun into the first storm drain they passed. Frank wished he’d remembered to grab his booze.


His brother’s Chevy gave a nice chug when you applied the gas.

Martin opened the glove compartment and turned towards Frank, smiling. He held up a pack of unopened Camels.

“Jackpot,” Martin said. His smiled turned into a wince.

He lit one, cupping the electric lighter, pulling hard to beat the wind slapping around
their heads.

Frank watched him. He watched Martin lean back and sigh and let out smoke.

“What?” Martin coughed and wiped his lips. “In the grand scheme, it hardly matters.”

Frank took out a flask from the leg pocket of his shorts. He unscrewed the cap with thumb and finger; a move perfected over years while drinking on the road.

“That’ll make the bleeding worse,” Martin said.

“As you said, it hardly matters.”


Frank pushed the gas to make the light crossing Georgia Avenue. His stomach fluttered as the car rose on its shocks going over that hump at the center of every intersection, the sudden lightness that only comes with speed. It was embarrassing the way it sent nice, cozy ripples down into his balls. My god, I’m pathetic, he thought, glancing over at Martin and realizing it had been a while. Just as embarrassed thinking about it with Dean hunched in the back smirking at him in the rearview.

They turned into a residential neighborhood. He had no idea where they were going, or where they were.

“Do I really look that bad?” Frank asked. “The guy in that video was one ugly mother.”

 “Security footage,” Martin said. “No one looks good.”

“Yeah, but everyone thinks it was me, not Dean.” He spoke to Dean through the mirror. “I was always the better-looking brother.”

Martin massaged Frank’s bad knee. “It’s why I married you.”

“You guys are married?” Dean asked. “Congratulations.”

“Figure of speech,” Martin said. “Frank here isn’t the romantic type.”

Frank glanced down at himself: the lip of fat frowning over his belt, legs a bit thick. “I watch too much tv. Maybe I should go for walks after dinner.”

“We’ll go together,” Martin said.

“That’d be nice.” He didn’t want to think about the bags under his eyes or that one time he’d laid a hand mirror on the bathroom counter and glimpsed his downturned face, the sagging jowls, his chin looking ready to slop away, his face not a face but a rumpled bedsheet.

“Speaking of,” Dean said from the back. “I’m starving. Let’s hit the drive-thru. Then you can get me to my car.”

Frank pulled into a McDonald’s, and catching Martin’s disapproving look, said, “I’m getting a salad.”

Martin yelled across Frank for a cheeseburger and fries. Dean said he’d have the same thing. He passed Frank a twenty.

“You could at least support me in my decision,” Frank said.

“I am,” Martin said. “It’s good you’ve decided to eat better.”

“With that calorie bomb you ordered? How would you feel if I still drank?”

Dean uttered a quiet “Not good, Frank,” and then shrank out of sight.

Martin settled his hands on the dashboard and stared at the car in front of them. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Not like you are.”

“Try losing some weight,” Martin said.

Frank was good with pain. He could take it. But the comment left him weakened and empty. His shoulders dropped and he slumped forward and clung to the wheel.

Now it was Dean’s turn. “Boys, no lover’s quarrel in front of the brother.”

“I was only asking for support,” Frank said.

“And I support you,” Martin said. “I can do that with a cheeseburger.”

Frank paid and squealed off without thanking the young woman at window. The meaty, salty smell of the burgers and fries made his mouth water. It also made him mumble angry inanities, none of which roused Martin to the bait.

Dean directed him to a park where there was a picnic shack. Afternoon on a weekday and no one was there. “I stashed my car nearby. Wait for me.” He walked off, eating the burger as he went.

Frank watched Martin flatten the burger’s paper wrapper, dump the fries on it, and squeeze ketchup over them.

“Fry?” Martin offered.

Frank gave him a nasty look and stabbed a wad of oily lettuce into his mouth, large enough the juices slipped out between his lips while he chewed.

Martin shrugged and bit the fry in half.

Frank sighed through his nose. He looked at Martin, jaw happily rolling. He studied
the age-broadened face, the wrinkles around his eyes, the ladder of lines ascending his forehead. Frank didn’t think any of it was ugly. As a map of their shared history, he found it familiar, tough, and handsome. Underneath he could still see the young guy he first met when they were skip-tracers.

He swallowed and took Martin’s hand. “He’s toying with us. We should take off.”

“I thought you wanted some of that money.”

“Can I confess something?”

Martin was quiet so Frank continued. “I’ve been drinking in secret. I couldn’t give it up but I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t committed to you.”

“I know,” Martin said. “You’re good at acting sober but I could tell.”

“It’s that I feel really bad about it. You deserve better.”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress. Living with me hasn’t been easy.”

“When we get home, I’ll pour out everything,” Frank said. I’ll go to meetings. Not yours, other ones.”

“You’re not an alcoholic, Frank.”

“But a break can’t hurt. I think it might help with my moods.”

A car drove past and then turned around. It was the Taurus.

“Get in the car,” Frank said. Martin jammed the burger in his mouth and balled the
paper around the fries. Frank left his salad.

The other car was behind the Mustang before they reached it. Georgie hopped out, pointing a .38. The pistol was a squirt gun in his hand. The bullets were big enough though.

“A LoJack,” Frank said, really only talking to himself.

“Dumbass,” Grayson said. A square of white gauze was taped below his left eye and he glared daggers at Frank.

“Let’s start again.” Georgie resettled his grip on the gun. “We want the ticket.”

“I don’t have it. Dean won the lottery.”

That made Georgie waver, the pistol coming down before he thought better and put it up again. He handed the gun to Grayson and then closed the distance. He caught Frank in the jaw with a meaty palm. Frank saw a black starburst and stumbled into the grass. Georgie’s fingers rifled through his pockets, turning out keys, phone, wallet. He picked out driver’s license, Metro card, money, and let them fall to the ground.

Holding his jaw, Frank said, “I don’t have it.” His mouth had trouble working. Martin came over and helped him stand. Georgie gave him a look that threatened another slap.

“He doesn’t have it,” Martin said. “Do you think we’d be fooling around like this if we’d hit the jackpot?”

“It’s Dean you want.” Frank was angry, but also annoyed he had to keep repeating himself.

Georgie knuckled Frank in the mouth and put him down again.

A car engine growled, tires screeched and when Frank looked up he saw his brother Dean in his convertible Lincoln cross-T with the Taurus and the Mustang.

Dean stood on the bench seat, a shotgun pointed at Georgie and Grayson.

“Frank. Martin. Get your asses in the car,” Dean said.

Frank rose to his knees, and then climbed Martin the rest of the way upright. His tongue was sloshy with blood. He cupped his mouth and felt blood drool down his wrist. He stiff-legged it over to the Lincoln, hopped butt first over the rear door and fell onto the back seat.

Dean kept the gun trained. “Drive,” he told Martin.


From the back of Dean’s bald head Frank saw a crease of skin broaden into a smile and he thought it the most logical thing that at any moment it would call him a loser.  He must’ve gotten hit pretty hard.

He turned his hand over, afraid of what he’d see. Smeared red, blood also tendrilled down his wrist and forearm. He felt more blood drying sticky on his face in the speeding wind.

“I knew you’d show up,” Frank said.

Dean looked at him. The sun shone on his smooth and buffed scalp. His eyes were alert and moving across Frank, taking in details and making judgements.

“You were fat,” Frank said. “How’d you lose weight so fast.?”


“Makes sense. You didn’t want to be recognized.”

Martin cut in. “Frank, he wanted to be recognized as you.”

The car turned and Frank sank against the door. He righted himself. Dean’s expression was blank. But Frank knew him, they were brothers after all. Where Dean might fool a poker table, the tell glowed as brightly as the sun on his burnished dome.

“You wanted them to come for me.”

“The sea might look calm,” Dean said. “I had to chum the water and watch what sharks surfaced.”

“Where am I driving?” Martin asked.

Dean turned on his phone and let the GPS lady talk to Martin.

“Why?” Frank said.

“You’re the only person who looks like me,” Dean said. “I’d have much preferred a resemblance to Tom Cruise.”


They went north on the Beltway and then west to a house lost out past Rockville. Yellow stucco, set back from the road. Trees blocked the view on the other three sides. Hidden, but no so well it looked conspicuous.

Empty beer cans dotted the lawn and a car door leaned against the front porch. Martin followed the dirt stripes of tire tracks to the detached garage.

The front was set up to make the place look like a dump. Dean led them around the back where there was a pool, blue and edged in smooth marble. Slate steps followed the rise to the patio with a built-in grill and a hot tub.

Frank kneeled over the pool and splashed his face and hands clean of blood. The water felt good and he lay down on a deck chair catching a nice shade.

“Come inside,” Dean said.

Frank closed his eyes. Nope. The pool and hot tub were enough. He wasn’t letting Dean show him how well he’d done, a house full of new furniture and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and he bet, a full bar with installed beer taps, and a mini-fridge underneath. Probably a big screen LCD tv in the bedroom, floor safe, panic room. Nope, he wasn’t letting Dean rub it in or grinding his teeth while Martin cooed fawning compliments.

“Bring me a beer when you come back,” Frank said.

“Can’t, brother. I’m sober.”

“Not you too,” Frank said.

“You’re such an asshole,” Martin said.

Frank put his arms behind his head. “What? I meant that I didn’t know he had a problem.”

“No. What you meant was, ‘Shit, another person I can’t let me see get soused.’ You’re so selfish. All you think about is how my sobriety affects your drinking.”

Frank poked an eye open. The pair hovered over him the way the nuns did in grade school. Heads trembling on goose necks, all serious faces and forced concern. He laughed and shook his head and went back to darkness.

Martin talked again. “Have a drink Frank. We’ll manage just fine. You okay with that, Dean?”

“Yep,” Dean said. “Drink up, Frank.”

“I know you have a flask,” Martin said.

What was worse? The smug tone in Martin’s voice or the fact he was taking Dean’s side? After the things he’d done for Martin during those years when his drinking had put him in the hospital over and over. The weeks and months Martin couldn’t work because he was either too drunk or too crazy with the DTs.  God, he hated the way Martin’s problems ran his life, had been running his life for forever. And now he was siding with his asshole of a brother. What happened to love? Where was loyalty?

He sat up. He took out a flask and made a show of slowly unscrewing the cap. He tilted it to his lips, didn’t swallow but held the bourbon on his tongue and let the fumes burn his nose before taking it down with a wide-mouthed “ahhh.”

A leaf spiraled into the pool. It floated on the still surface, not a ripple.

Martin hauled on his e-cigarette. The smoke evaporated after it rolled over his head. Real smoke would have hung longer in the air.

“These days I’m doing the vape,” Dean said.

“Still hooked on the glowing tip,” Martin said, tilting the e-cigarette in scissored fingers. “I tried the vape but ended up smoking anyway.”

“Come on,” Dean slapped Martin on the shoulder. “Let’s leave Frank to his nap. There’s juice and sparkling water in the fridge.”

Frank watched them walk toward the house, the two so close their shoulders bumped. Martin said something he couldn’t hear and Dean laughed and did that rocking motion with his head. Frank was on his feet and hopping after them like a man in three-legged race.

“That’s enough,” he said, rounding on them. “I’m tired of you making fun of me.”

“What did I do?” Dean asked.

“I’m talking to Martin. After everything. Blackouts and hospitals and me working so you could take the time off to dry out.”

“Some other time, Frank,” Martin said and tried to push past him.

Frank pushed him backwards. The downward slope at his back, he sat heavily, his e-cigarette jumping out of his hand and disappearing into the grass.

Dean came at him and Frank felt his boxer’s reflexes – almost as if they’d been waiting for an excuse -- snap in gear. He faked left and landed a right hook to Dean’s gut, heard him grunt and then slapped Dean’s bald head the way Georgie had slapped him earlier. He followed Dean as he rolled down the slope and hoped his brother stood up so he could hit him again.

“Frank,” Martin said.

He turned and Martin punched him in the nose. The tag watered his eyes. Frank jabbed right and again sat Martin on his ass.

Dean stood and pulled out a .38 snub-nose. “Brother, you’re such a loser,” he said. Frank grabbed his wrist and punched with the other hand. Dean’s head jerked backed once, twice -- the gun went off but Frank didn’t feel anything -- third punch teeth cut Frank’s knuckles. A second shot tore into his side. He punched Dean again and let go.

Dean fell to his knees and dropped the gun. Panting, exhausted, Frank sank to his haunches. The pistol lay between them. They stared at each other. Frank picked up the .38. He pointed it at Dean and shot him in the chest. Dean lay back like a man going to sleep.

“I win,” Frank said.

While they were looking for towels to stop Frank’s bleeding, they found the lottery ticket right there on the kitchen counter.


“Mind taking the wheel a second?” Frank asked.

Martin held the car steady while Frank adjusted the roll of paper towels pressed to his side, a sloppy red mass soaked through to the cardboard tube. At least he’d only taken one. But that first bullet hadn’t gone wild. It bounced off Martin’s hip and lodged below his bottom rib. Luckily he wasn’t bleeding as much as Frank.

Frank dug out the other flask he carried and had a swig. “Give me a cigarette,” he said.

Martin lit one and stuck it between Frank’s lips. Frank handed him the flask. Martin drained it and tossed it into the back seat.

Shut tight in the unused and perfectly clean ashtray was the ticket. It bore a bloody thumbprint but the numbers remained clear.

Frank leaned onto the steering wheel. He was having trouble staying awake. “How much farther?”

Martin drew on his cigarette. He went to answer and instead coughed. Blood speckled the windshield.

“Not too far,” he said.

The hospital. It wasn’t far.

Stefen Styrsky's criminally minded fiction has also appeared in Switchblade Magazine, Orca, and The Offing. His essays on film noir sometimes appear on the website Vague Visages. He lives in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Wind of Knives, by Ed Kurtz, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Ed Kurtz
A Wind of Knives
74 pages
independently published

Ed Kurtz's A Wind of Knives, in many ways, a traditional revenge story,. Daniel Hays awakens one day to the horrifying sight of his hired man, Steven, body bloody and mutilated, hanged by the neck and dead. He vows revenge, but not only for the reasons you might think. Steven had been his hired man, yes, but also his lover. The novella that follows is Daniel's long journey to vengeance and a muted, odd sort of peace.

Kurtz is a fine and sensitive writer, first. His words, even as a horror writer primarily, and perhaps more accustomed to showing all the gore that comes with death and dismemberment, never seem to outstrip what they're saying. "Steven's left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open." The language is always in service to the story, almost invisible, guiding us along through the grim events with a firm hand and steady influence, even as his strict attention to rich and specific detail reveals horrifying sights, from the dead man's eyes refusing to close to a man rising from his gravedirt with a burst of ghoulish energy and a worm in his pocket.

The plot of the book is pretty straightforward. Daniel follows what clues he has--not many--to a group of men who are responsible for something evil. Daniel's unsure if that something includes Steven's death, though, and he follows some leads and gets off-track. He meets an array of characters, along the way, men and women who love him. They help him and thwart him to varying degrees, their actions always reflecting Daniel and Steven's relationship, giving us more insight into why Steven's death is so traumatic. That death never leaves Daniel's mind, and when finally confronted with the most monstrous of evils, Steven's killer, finds resolution only in a muted way. the ending resonating in true noir fashion: there's a way for the losers in the world. They rarely see victory in the ways they'd like.

What drives me to read is discovering writers like Kurtz, in whose hands we're capably guided through places we'd rather not go to ends we don't expect. I imagine this was even rarer when the novella first came out. I can't think of many--any?--bisexual characters in the western genre, or very often in genres beyond, and the re-release of this book proves even more fully that we need writers like Kurtz to show us the way. Writers like him are in short supply, good,indelible writers especially and this book is a trailbreaker in all the best ways.

I took this review and cashed in on an opportunity to ask Kurtz a few questions which shed some late on the genesis of A Wind of Knives, which I trust will be as interesting to you as they were to me.

What were your influences in writing A Wind of Knives?

I’m a tremendous fan of Western fiction from Louis L’Amour to Larry McMurtry, and I read scads of Western novels every year, but with extremely few exceptions one doesn’t see much in the way of marginalized and underrepresented protagonists. It’s a straight, white, cis-male world for the large part, with a handful of token Native and African-American characters along the way, but LGBTQ? Forget it! So in that sense, I didn’t really have an influence, apart from wanting to write a sort of anti-heroic, anti-revenge, anti-Western that is, at its core and heart, a love story.

What attracted you to the western to tell this particular story? Were you put off at all by the limited readership?

I wasn’t at all put off by the limited readership because the moment I conceptualized the story, I knew that would be the case. Readers interested in Westerns overwhelmingly aren’t going to be interested in queer content, and vice versa. It’s an uninspiring Venn diagram for a writer like me! But I’m a bisexual Western fan hailing from Arkansas with a particular kind of experience and particular stories I wanted to tell, so it had to be this one, whether it got read or not.

I'm trying to imagine the writing and original publication arc for this book and it seems as if it would have been a daunting process. Can you talk a little about the writing process for it and then how you managed to find a publisher for something seemingly so niche-oriented?

Originally, I wanted to write a full-length novel that charts the course of the two men’s relationship over multiple lifetimes, but as I closed in on the end of A Wind of Knives, I decided this was the story, full stop. What I ended up with was almost impossible to sell – a 20,000 word queer Western. No one wanted it, under a very small publisher, Snubnose Press, took it on. It was well-reviewed, but barely sold. Then the press went out of business and the book remained out of print for years. I tried again and again to interest agents, publishers, etc. in what I deem my very best work, but it was just too hard a sell for all of them. Ultimately, I reissued it myself. It still barely sells, and I’m still unsurprised. But it’s still my very favorite thing I have ever written, and certainly the closest to my heart. I no longer write or publish (though there’s at least one more novel yet to release on the horizon), so in retrospect, A Wind of Knives is what I’m most proud of.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith, reviewed by J.B. Stevens

Slow Bear
Anthony Neil Smith
Fahrenheit 13
140 pages
Price $12.99/3.99
January 2020
reviewed by J.B. Stevens

Novellas do not receive enough attention. The shorter-form, if well-done, is immensely satisfying. A novella’s limited time commitment allows a reader to sample authors, genres, and publishers they might otherwise avoid. Anthony Neil Smith also does not receive enough attention.

As a crime-fiction fan I’d heard of Smith, but never read any of his work. I’m glad I finally made the time. Smith’s writing style is tight and unpretentious. He has the delightful ability to fade into the background. Slow Bear becomes an experience you feel--more than words on a page.

Micah “Slow Bear” Cross, is a former reservation Police Officer in North Dakota, and was medically retired from the force. This is Smith’s description: “Slow Bear used to be a rez cop. He wasn’t good at it, not really, but he was good at being bad at it. The one time he tried to be good at it, he got his whole fucking left arm shot off by an ex-soldier over something that happened in a war Slow Bear didn’t know much about. That was a year ago.”

Smith doesn’t cover the referenced war’s specific conflict or theater. Slow Bear is detached from the rest of the world. Smith consistently presents characters in a way that is concrete, but allows the reader to fill in the blanks. Here is the portrayal of the casino’s bartender, Lady: “She was cute. She dyed her hair red then blue and sometimes it was just dark brown, like now, and one side of her head was shaved. Her glasses were thick and she tried to distract from them with too many earrings and a nose ring. Chubby cheeks, baby fat all over. Why not, Slow Bear? Why not?”

In the present Slow Bear hangs around the bar and works as a fixer for whomever is willing to pay. In reality, he spends most of his time chatting up Lady and sipping beer. However, Slow Bear isn’t a boozehound, he prefers heroin, but does his best to avoid chasing the dragon.

This passage is a good example of the tight writing style and Slow Bear’s heroin avoidance:
“I thought you didn’t drink coffee,” Lady said. She’d already gotten her pie. Slow Bear hadn’t noticed the guy bring it.
“I tried to give it up. But I need the caffeine.”
“Then why did you try—”
“Heroin. I gave it up because of heroin.”
Her eyes widened, her lips got tight. “You do heroin?”
A deep breath and sigh and fuck fuck fuck. “I used to. Once I lost my arm, they put me on some pretty lame pain pills, but I didn’t like them. I got OxyContin instead. I liked those. And next, someone offered heroin, and I tried it, and I really liked that. But shit, heroin, girl, that’s a lifestyle choice. That’s a commitment. So I kicked it cold-turkey twice. Three times. And that got me onto coffee, which was a much better replacement than I expected. So I was making six, seven pots of coffee a day. But then I ran out of money. Coffee is expensive.”
“So is heroin.”
“So is orange juice. But I like orange juice. I like coffee. I’ll just drink cheaper coffee.”
“It’s free at the casino.”
He grinned. “I’ll remember that. Is that pie good?”
“Shit yeah,” with her mouth full. She cut off a bite with the fork and handed it over.
He ate the bite and agreed, that was some good fucking pie.”
As the story progresses, Slow Bear becomes involved in a marital disagreement between a cheating wife, a boyfriend, and the husband. Soon three people are dead--one by Slow Bear’s hand. These deaths lead to a violent chain of events in which Slow Bear deals with reservation police, tribal leadership, oil-industry executives, government agents, and mafia power players. Eventually, Lady is kidnapped by sex-traffickers. A hefty dose of violence follows. Slow Bear fights hard, but doesn’t always win.

In a few places Smith’s academic background pokes through, most notably with a Don Quixote parallel. This did not come across as abrasive or pretentious, but it is fun for the aware reader.

Regarding less enjoyable aspects of the book, they were limited. I didn’t like that all cops were willing to break the law, even the “good” ones. Here is Smith discussing Trevor, the chief of police:

"Slow Bear smiled. Yeah, a downright honest smile for once. “Why the fuck would he believe something like that?” “Because that’s the truth.” Trevor grabbed Slow Bear’s beer bottle and slammed it onto Slow Beer’s forehead once, twice, three times before it shattered, and Slow Bear felt pulverized, then there was ringing in his ears and blood leaking into his eyes. He fell off the stool onto his bad shoulder and got his feet tangled in the stool legs, twisted his ankle and the damned stool fell on top of him. He shoved it out of the way. He’d bruised himself all over and was still blinking blood and glass away. That’s when Trevor kicked him in the gut.”

Overall this story is fast and engaging. This scene, where Lady and Slow Bear discuss spying, shows the pace well:
“Pretty stupid,” Lady said with her mouth full. “I dream of jobs like that.”
“He wasn’t offering dental.”
“Who cares? You could buy your own insurance with that kind of money. Can you imagine? It would be like, like, like writing for TV. You make it up. You tell the Hat about it once a week, and you’re done. Cha-ching.”
Cute. He grinned. “Let’s go home. If I’m quiet, if I behave, maybe Trevor will leave me alone. I really want to be left alone.”
“What did you do in the first place?”
“Let’s not go there.”
The book is non-commercial noir in the best way. The main characters are unlikeable (with the exception of Lady). The whole production is violent. The locations are hardscrabble and rural, but not the lush Southern rural that is popular. The drug use is unglamorous and redemption never comes. The story wraps up in a satisfying, but open-ended, manner. In the new decade let us all resolve to pay more attention to both novellas and Anthony Neil Smith.

J.B. Stevens lives in the Southeastern United States with his wife and daughter. His writing has been featured in Mystery Tribune, Out of the Gutter, Close To The Bone, Thriller Magazine, Punk Noir Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Criminal Element, and other publications.

He can be found online at and

Monday, February 3, 2020

King of the Blue Rose, fiction by William R. Soldan

Elvis McCullers aimed his stick and struck the cue, scattering balls across the felt. It was a Wednesday night at The Blue Rose, slow, the half dozen cars and trucks in the gravel lot belonging to Ray the bartender and a small group of men and women posted up at the hightops along the back wall. The men all dressed in work wear, the women in high heels, jeans, and low-cut tops. Cigarette smoke hazed the low neon glow and gathered in a swirling cloud above the pool table.

One of the men crossed the room and stacked his quarters on the rail. “We got next game,” he said.

Elvis was playing alone, just shooting around, but took his time. Pool had never been his game, but he enjoyed the meditative quality of it. It placed him in the present moment, with nothing else on his mind except the balls in front of him. And tonight he was on his way to starting over, wanted to forget what was behind him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. He was still a little hung up about his old man.

As he worked his way around the table, the men grew irritated waiting for him to finish. They’d already been talking loudly, but increased their volume even more, competing with the jukebox, which currently played some indistinct pop-country garbage one of the women had put on.

“Hey, Slick,” he said, “how’s about you wrap it up, huh?”

Elvis was bent over, lining up a shot. He didn’t move but raised his eyes to the man. A single curl of Elvis’s greased back hair hung like an apostrophe down his forehead, and he blew it from his eyes with a puff of his lower lip. He didn’t respond to the man.

Elvis hadn’t come to the tavern with the mind to socialize. He’d come to make a delivery to Ray, who was now at the far end of the long bar wiping out an ashtray with a wet rag.

Ray dealt pills and the occasional teener of crank between schlepping drinks. Though the place was dead tonight, Fridays and Saturdays drew every kind of degenerate one could imagine from around the county to see the live bands that played out back when the weather was nice, and crowded the bar like a feed lot when it wasn’t. Ray was their solitary supplier at The Blue Rose, but he got his goods from Elvis, who’d not long ago expanded his inventory. The supply of meth had begun to exceed the demand in his little pocket of Ohio. Everyone seemed to be on pain pills now, and Elvis could accommodate. Oxy. Vicodin. Fentanyl patches. Morphine lollipops. It all sold like water to a man dying of thirst. Elvis was a businessman and prided himself in his entrepreneurial initiative. He knew only fools were rigid and tried to control the market. A wise man remained flexible, bent whichever way the market moved.

He’d had a damn good thing going with a doctor across the state line in West Virginia, who ran a pill mill outside of Wheeling. The man was a back specialist, and he had some rather hefty debts he wouldn’t disclose when he and Elvis had set up their first deal. He only said he needed a lot of money fast. And again, Elvis could accommodate. But after only a few lucrative months working with the man, he and a dozen other doctors on either side of the Ohio River had gone down in a DEA sting and now resided in the federal pen in Morgantown. This left Elvis in the lurch, between the proverbial rock and the wall.

The way it was now, wholesale acquisition of pharmaceuticals had become near impossible. When suburban white kids started dying, the government put the kibosh on willy-nilly dispensing of pretty much anything stronger than Tylenol. And certain doctors got hot. The best Elvis could hope for now would be buying scripts from folks who hadn’t yet been cut off by their physicians or their insurance companies. And that felt a little too much like moving backward. No, he figured it was time to take his stash of cash—in the neighborhood of a hundred grand after tonight’s last delivery—and hit the road. He’d always planned to go places, and though he’d never given much thought to where, he knew the time had come.

He really had nothing keeping him in Shale Run anymore. His mama had spent the better part of the last decade strapped to a bed up in Locust Grove with what was left of her mind blowing around her skull like autumn leaves. His baby brother, Seth, had ended an eight day meth bender by eating a bullet. That had only left his old man, all rods and pins from the waist down after a mine collapsed on him. Now he spent his days idling away in front of the television and berating Elvis at every turn, even though Henry McCullers relied on his son for the dope that kept him comfortable. Nothing and no one else remained. So Elvis had decided only a few hours ago to start a new chapter—no, a new story altogether.

By now, the fire department would have found his father melted to the La-Z-Boy in what had been the living room. He’d been a lifelong smoker. The only time he didn’t have a coffin nail clamped between his wrinkled lips was when he was sucking off the oxygen tank beside his chair. It was only a matter of time before the poor old bastard burned the place to the ground, they’d say. But despite the ill will he’d harbored for his father most of his life, now that it was done, Elvis felt a nagging remorse that was hard to reconcile.

He’d parted with the last hundred Oxys he had to his name, with no more on the horizon, and tossed the bag of cash Ray had handed over into the trunk of his Caddy before returning to the bar to down a few drinks and shoot around for a while. He still didn’t know where to go from here, so he had nothing but time. But the whiskey hadn’t had the desired effect. Instead of brightening his outlook, it had left Elvis stuck in a brooding mood, reflecting on things he’d rather leave behind.

“Hey, I’m talking to you, Slick,” the man said.

Elvis sunk the 8 ball and stood up straight. He stared at the man.

“It’s all yours, partner,” he said, tossing the pool cue onto the mottled green.

The four men, gathered around the table to play doubles while the women remained where they were. One of them, a redhead with tight, high-waisted jeans and a sleeveless blouse, kept sending glances and grins in his direction as Elvis stood with his elbows on the bar. The men horsed around and grab-assed one another like high school kids, though Elvis suspected they were in their thirties like he was.

Ray shook his head and poured Elvis another shot of whiskey. “They been coming in a few times a week,” he said. Ever since the fracking started, seems like these dipshits been showing up by the busload. They’re working the fields over in Cedarville. Buncha loudmouths, but their money spends the same as the rest, so . . .” Ray shrugged.

Elvis went over to the internet juke and put on a trio of gospel tunes. He loved himself some gospel. He began singing along with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the redhead who’d been eyeing him off and on fixed her gaze and tilted her head, as if she were trying to decipher something. The other women snickered and whispered behind their hands.

“What the good goddamn is this shit?” one of the men said, looking around and then over at Ray, who just shrugged again and went back to wiping down the bar. The man turned toward Elvis, who was still singing along.

Elvis walked past him and back over to the bar. Already the gospel had done what the liquor had not, and he grinned at the redhead, staring right past the man, who just looked at Elvis with a disgusted expression.

“What are we in fucking Sunday school all the sudden?” the man said. He snapped his fingers in Elvis’s face to get his attention, but Ray spoke up.

“When it’s done, you can play whatever the hell you like, buddy, so calm yourself down.”

The man grunted and went back to the game. The four of them grumbled and glared at Elvis between shots.

When “Peace in the Valley” came on next, the man started up again. “Are you fucking serious?” he said. “Huh-uh, no goddamn way, not gonna happen. This shit is killing my fucking buzz.” He stomped over to the juke box with a hand thrust into his pocket. He came out with a handful of change, and plunked in some quarters. These types of jukes had a feature that allowed you to skip songs for a price, and Elvis knew that was what this man was aiming to do.

“My songs ain’t over, partner,” Elvis said without turning away from the bar.

The man acted as if he hadn’t heard and punched in some numbers. The gospel was cut short and replaced by the opening bars of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.”

“Now that’s more fucking like it,” the man said, doing a little shuffling dance back toward the pool table. They all laughed and began woo-hooing as they high-fived.

“Elvis,” Ray said, “don’t go making a mess of the place, all right?” He poured Elvis another shooter. “Here, this one’s on the house.”

But Elvis no longer had the taste for whiskey.

He approached the men. “I said the song weren’t over.”

The man snickered, his patchy beard clinging to his face like a fungus. “What you plan to do about it, Slick?”

“Name’s Elvis.”

The man slapped his thigh and laughed. “Of course it is. Nice hair, by the way.” He turned toward his friends and gained approval for the slight with more laughs. The only one who wasn’t laughing was the redhead, who looked a little irritated but interested in what might happen.

Elvis returned to the jukebox and put in four more quarters.

“You better think twice there, Hound Dog,” the man said.

Elvis cut off the music with the same gospel tune that had been on before the man had hijacked it. He started singing along. “There will be / peace in the valley . . .

“You believe this asshole?” the guy said, turning to his buddies again. When he turned back, Elvis brought the pool cue he’d plucked from the wall rack beside the juke down across the man’s face, opening his cheek like a soft potato.

The man dropped to one knee, and Elvis whirled the toe of his cowboy boot in a roundhouse that caved in the man’s temple as it snapped his head to the side and laid him flat on the wooden planks of the floor.

The redhead just watched while the other three women gasped. Two of the other three men closed in on him from either side, and Elvis helicoptered the pool cue, missing one man as he ducked but catching the other across the jaw. The man stumbled back as his buddy came in low. Elvis grabbed the back of the man’s head and brought his face down into his knee with a dull crunch. The man he’d caught with the cue held a hand over his bleeding mouth. Now he and the last man moved in.

The gospel music came through the bar’s sound system like a choir of angels, and Elvis pulled the gold-plated Walther PPK with mother of pearl inlays from the small of his back. One man stopped short while his buddy was almost on Elvis, who aimed and took out the man’s left knee in a spray of blood and bone.

Now three of the women were screaming. The man who’d been shot let loose a high-pitched string of motherfuckers toward Elvis. The redhead looked surprised but cocked a half smile. Ray just shook his head with a hand over his eyes. The last man stood there with his hands raised looking unsure.

Elvis gestured the man to his knees and stuck the barrel of the pistol between his teeth. He began to sing again while the man emptied his bladder and tears cascaded down his cheeks.

When the song ended, Elvis removed the gun from the man’s mouth, slapped him across the face with it, and went to the bar. While he downed the shot Ray had poured him, the man scrambled to his feet and fled the bar, leaving the women and his buddies behind. A moment later, a truck engine roared to life and there was the sound of rubber biting gravel as he tore out of the parking lot.

Three of the women remained crouched and crying over the men’s bodies, one of them fumbling with her cell phone. It fell from her shaking hands before she could dial the police and skittered across the floor. Elvis eyed her and she made no move to retrieve it.

The redhead walked over. “Buy a lady a drink?” she said.

He grinned and nodded to Ray, who looked frustrated but resigned. He poured them each a shot. They clinked the glasses together and tossed them back.

“What’s say you and me take a drive?” he said.

She smiled and hooked her arm through his. The other three women stared in disbelief through teary red eyes.

Elvis laid two twenties on the bar. “Nice knowing you, Ray,” he said. “You take care now.”

Outside, Elvis opened the door of his restored, pink ’55 Fleetwood and helped her into the passenger seat. On his way around the car, he spotted a set of fuzzy white dice slung over a pickup truck’s rearview mirror. He reached through the open window and took them, then climbed behind the wheel of his Caddy and draped the dice over his own rearview.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Bobbie Anne,” she said.

“You sure it ain’t Priscilla? ‘Cause you sure look like a Priscilla.”

She only smiled.

He turned the key and the V8 awoke with a growl. He rolled to the edge of the lot to where it met the asphalt of Highway 52.

“Where we driving to?”

Elvis adjusted the radio dial. Another gospel song, “Lead Me, Guide Me,” filled the air and washed over them.

“Wherever we want in the whole wide world, darlin’.”

He winked at her, and the tires spit gravel as he cut the wheel onto the road, no past behind them, just dust.

William R. Soldan is the author of the story collection In Just the Right Light and the collection Houses Burning and Other Ruins,forthcoming from Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books in September 2020. He's got some degrees and a few nominations but knows that doesn't impress anyone. His work has appeared in Thuglit, EconoClash Review, Switchblade Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Tough, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and others. You can find him at