Monday, July 11, 2022

A Burning Man, fiction by Susan Kuchinskas

Dust hung in the stifling night air, blurring the outlines of illuminated sculptures hulking on the horizon. Pete lurked out on the perimeter, taking take a break from the relentless thumping of dance music and the sensory overload that was Burning Man. 

It was his first time, and he was finding it … difficult. When Serena and Matt, his coworkers at, had invited him to join Brainville, their camp, he thought, why not? By now, he knew plenty of reasons why not: the grit that insinuated itself everywhere, the unending noise, the filthy Port-a-Potties. But the biggest one: He wasn't cool enough. 

A couple rode by on bikes festooned with fake fur and fiberoptic wire. Her long purple dreadlocks were twined with beads; her curvy body was almost entirely exposed by an iridescent vinyl bikini. Her companion sported a towering top hat glittering with LEDs. His hipster beard was coated with something that made it glow in the dark.

The cyclists paused to hand him something.

"Hey, thanks. Oh, and here." Pete gave them each a good blast from his mister.

"Oooh," she purred, making Pete feel good about his offering. But the good feeling dissipated as the fabulous pair rode off, leaving him lonely and envious. He stared bemused at the packet of vitamins they'd gifted him with.

Further on, a moving shape loomed out of the gritty night, outlined by winking pink and orange lights. Idly curious, he walked toward it. watching it resolve into a person with a complex art bike. The figure crouching beside it was a woman.

She was fiddling with the bike chain, and let out a frustrated "fuck!"

He was a bicyclist himself. "Trouble with the chain?" he said neutrally. He was schooled by bitter experience not to assume a woman needed help.

She looked up at him. 

She was the kind of woman he'd never get in real life. Artsy, green-haired, tattooed. He and his friends called them the alterna-babes. She would be sexy and snarky, and absolutely unapproachable. And yet, here he was.


"Want me to have a look?" 

She shrugged and rose, displaying a lanky and delicious body clad in what looked like chain mail made out of tin can lids. "You don't by any chance have an adjustable wrench, do you?"

He sheepishly pulled out his Swiss Army knife. "I've got this."

She laughed, and his balls shriveled. But the laugh wasn't derisive, it was something simpler and less intimidating. "Always prepared, huh? Don't tell me you were an Eagle Scout." Before he could answer—of course, he'd been—she added, "Have at it."

The problem was simple but not easy to fix: The chain had come loose because a couple of the cogs on the sprocket were bent. He opened the knife and exposed the pliers. They were tiny but mighty, and did the job with a bit of muscle. He levered the chain back on.

He was pleased enough with himself to say boldly, "And you laughed at the Swiss Army knife."

She laughed with him. "Never again."

In the gloom, her eyes looked bright. He sucked more courage up from the depths. "So, what are you doing?"

"Just cruising, you know?" At that point, he had no nerve left. But she saved him. "Want to ride along?"

Seconds later, he was ensconced behind her on the bike's long banana seat. After squelching a moment of embarrassment at taking the inferior position, he began to enjoy the hot, salty effusion radiating off her. He chastely gripped the side of the seat with his hands until she said, "Hold onto me. I don't want you eating any more dirt than you have to."

He slid his hands, tentatively and then firmly, onto her slim waist, resting them just above the swell of her beautiful hips.

And just like that, he was one of the cool people. Unbelievable.

"Hey, what's your name?" he said into her ear.

"Jasmine." He caught of whiff of her breath as she called back to him, melon and musk.

She rode them in toward the center, lighted pavilions emerging and dissolving like dreams. A horned metal fish drifted by, carrying a dozen or so people on its back, all of them moving to music that throbbed out of its bowels, music so loud it shook Pete's teeth. The dancing crowd waved; Jasmine waved back and, a second later, so did Pete.

It was a different perspective, whizzing along, kicking up a wake of silky dust. Pete loved it. He grinned, letting the sand infiltrate his mouth, no longer resisting the powdery coating accumulating all over him. 

One pulsating beat gradually dominated all the threads of dance music pounding through the dark. Jasmine was heading them right toward it, long legs pumping now. A disco in the dirt, adorned with red and purple neon. Inside, half-naked bodies writhing in rhythm. 

Jasmine stopped the bike. "Wanna dance?"

Oh, how he wanted to dance with this gorgeous woman who'd magically taken him in hand. He followed her into the middle of the scrum and let her lead, trying to match her style, which involved an undulating pelvis and gracefully waving arms. He settled for gentle hip thrusts—not wanting to seem aggressively sexual—and shoulder shrugs. He didn't think he could pull off full-on arm waving. Body smells mingled with the scent of herbs, marijuana, spilled beer and the pervasive tang of burning fuel. 

Jasmine half-fell toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself. She didn't let go. He felt her groin bumping against his instant erection and tried to pull away. But she held tighter, rubbing her breasts against his chest, gently circling her stomach against his cock.

Pete had a moment of panic. This couldn't be real. It was too good to be true. There was no way a beautiful woman like Jasmine would be interested in him. 

But this wasn't real life, he reminded himself gleefully. This was Burning Man—and anything was possible. Even that an alterna-babe like her might be momentarily dazzled by the playa-wear sheen of his carefully curated clothing.

He relaxed into her, still trying to keep it respectful while his entire body burned for her. This was a dream come true.

An hour later, Pete was panting—overcome by desire and the simple exertion of dancing in the hellish heat. 

Jasmine looked up into his face. "Tired, baby?"

His heart jumped. She'd called him baby. "Yeah, I'm beat."

"You are so adorable," she said, taking his face in her hands. She was peering up at him with affection, but she made him feel like a puppy—not a man.

He mustered his pride and kissed her. Her lips were dry and chapped; so were his. But it was a firm, good kiss, and after a moment, she opened her mouth to him. He fell in. 

"Whoah, cowboy," she said after a minute, but she was smiling. "You're a good kisser. Let's get you home."

He felt a second of terror. Where were they? He had no idea how to get back to his camp. But he remembered the landmark. "We're next to 3SP. Unless … you want to go back to your camp?"

She grinned. "You are adorable. But no. Hop on."

He mounted behind her, and she quickly navigated them back to his pathetic camp—three adjoining pop-up shade tents and a small RV with a bathroom they all got to use. She put her feet down, didn't get off the bike. Oh, well. He slid off, stood for a moment, uncertain. 

"Come here, you." She put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him over for a kiss. A quick one this time. 

He twitched on his air mattress for hours.

The sun broke over the hazy horizon, and Pete's mind broke with it. He struggled out of his tent, ass first, and stood blinking in the glare. Jasmine was out there somewhere. In the seven square miles of Burning Man, some 70,000 people milled around. How would he ever find her again? 

He staggered over to the kitchen area, bleary from the restless night. Matt was sprawled in the hammock outside the RV, eyes heavy-lidded but awake.

"Dude," Matt croaked. 

"Fun night?"

"Epic. You?"

"Oh, yeah."

Matt's eyes opened. "Dude! I knew you had some party in you."

"Whatever." Pete fished in a cooler and brought out an iced Starbucks latte. He chugged it and reached for another. "Guess I'll head over to Playa Central." He was thinking about the message boards there. Would that be too pathetic? Or would it be romantic? Either way, it seemed like the only possibility for finding Jasmine again. Why oh why hadn't he asked her where her camp was?

"Take a bike," Matt said, drifting off again. "The green one."

The camp's bikes weren't particularly cool, but they were functional—beater fixies, spray-painted in fluorescent colors. Pete's playa-wear for the day was purple-and-white-flowered board shorts and a vintage Billy Idol t-shirt. 

Now, he was seeing everything though her eyes. What had she seen in him? Probably nothing much. Just an aimless Burning Man flirtation. But he couldn't let it go. She'd said he was adorable. That had to mean something.

Pete returned to Brainville two hours later, as the heat turned from broiling to murderous.

It was quiet, although he heard snoring from one of the tents. He checked the chalkboard they used for messages. Nothing beyond the usual gripes about trash and food. He grabbed a beer and fell onto the battered couch they'd hauled in. Was he going to spend the rest of his time at Burning Man sitting in camp, hoping Jasmine would return? That would be ridiculous. He sank into the couch, fanning himself.

An hour later, he was dozing. Serena skidded her bike to a stop, dropped it and walked over. "Hey, Pete. Some girl was here looking for you."

Joy steamed his veins. "Jasmine?"

Serena wrinkled her sunburned forehead. "I think so. Yeah."

"What did she say?"

"Uh oh. Someone's crushing."

"Cut it out. What'd she say?"

"Hmmm … " She made an exaggerated thinking-face.

"Serena. Please!"

"Aw, I'm just fucking with ya. She said to meet her at the Black Rock Roller Disco tonight."

"What time?"

"Jeez, Pete. Burning Man time." 

It was unbelievable. Jasmine wanted to see him again. He spent the early evening riding around, jacked up, sampling the festival's gifting economy. He stood in line for forty-five minutes to get a grilled cheese sandwich, lucked into a mint julip, and gave away a couple of the beeswax lip balms he'd brought along. He saved the nicest flavor, pomegranate mint, for Jasmine. Maybe he could tell her he wanted to taste it on her lips. Oh, god. Was he a fool, or what?

What is the cool time to arrive at a roller disco in the desert? He didn't want to miss her. The first time Pete rode by, it was dusk. A few people skated around, hanging onto each other and laughing. He made another tour of the camps, forcing himself to stop, look and talk to people.

He watched a woman flogging a man tied to a wooden cross. He saw a circle of men, each stroking the genitals of a woman lying next to him. He took a turn riding a Ferris wheel made from oil drums. 

When he arrived back at the roller disco, it was full dark. Blinking lights and corny Seventies music—it looked like fun. And there she was, pulling off a passable dance step, right in the middle of the crowd.

Jasmine was wearing tie-dyed short shorts and a silver lame halter top. She'd put her green hair into tiny braids, each tipped with a piece of glowing plastic. She was amazing.

He grabbed a pair of skates and clunked his way out to her. When she saw him, her face lit up. He couldn't believe it. He could feel his own face grinning wildly.

"It's my cowboy. Hey, handsome."

"Jasmine," was all he could say.

"Come on, baby." She took his hand and began to roll, adding a funky wiggle to her skating.

Pete skated as a kid on the frozen lakes of Minnesota, and once he got used to the four wheels, he wasn't bad—although he didn't dare attempt any dance moves. He was maybe the happiest he'd ever been in his life.

They stopped for tequila shots at the bar, attended by a beautiful being, six feet tall and covered with glitter. Jasmine slung her arm around Pete's neck, downed her tequila and said, "Hey. Want to have an adventure?"

As the kaleidoscope of flame and light whipped past them on the bike, it filled Pete's head with fantasies. The two of them together in San Francisco, living in a warehouse co-op. He wouldn’t quite fit in, but her artist friends would be kind to him, because he was with Jasmine. He'd make his own art bike, and they'd cruise to the dive bars he'd never dared enter. He'd fund her elaborate art projects, and she'd love him all the more.

Jasmine slowed the bike in front of a nondescript enclave. Instead of the glitter and glamour that advertised most Burning Man camps, with their ragtag assortments of RVs, tents and shade structures, this one was closed in by a stretch of identical canvas tents, each big enough to sleep ten people, each turning a blank face to the public.

"What do you think?" Jasmine asked.

"I dunno. It's kind of … dull."

"Not inside, I bet. This is Camp Beau Soleil. It's a private camp. No proles allowed. Let's check it out."

They dropped the bikes and walked around to the side of the camp where a dim orange light shone. A tented tunnel, floored with Oriental rugs, led to a desk staffed by a dead ringer for Fidel Castro. Cool air and the scent of weed wafted out. 

Jasmine swaggered ahead. "Hey, dude."

The guy nodded but didn't crack a smile. Jasmine leaned toward him. "Can we check it out?"

"Sorry. Registered guests only."

"I'm a friend of Austin Broca."

"Are you on his list?"

Jasmine shrugged, giving it up. "Probably not."


"No worries."

Jasmine dragged Pete back around the tents, clinging to him and giggling.

"What was that all about?"

"I just felt like seeing some real assholes."

"You know them?"

"Austin is one of those tech billionaires. Sold his company to Uber a few months ago."

Jealousy flashed him. He couldn’t help himself.

“How do you know Austin?”

“I kind of started the company with him.”


“Yeah, then he stole it. Come on.”

They walked the perimeter of the camp, Jasmine shining a tiny flashlight along the unbroken expanse of canvas. "That is completely contrary to the spirit of Burning Man. It's supposed to be an open, equal society. But it's like everything else. The rich are more equal than us commoners." She played the flashlight up and down one of the tents. "And yet, anyone could get in there with a box cutter."

Pete dug in his feet. "You're not some kind of Burning Man terrorist, are you?"

"Oh, baby. You're so funny. Let's find someplace to dance."

They danced for hours, Pete absorbing the heat of her body like a sun-worshipping lizard, his reptile brain awash in love and lust chemicals. A pattern to their dancing emerged. Jasmine would get more and more sexual, inviting him with every movement. He'd draw closer and closer until there was a glorious moment when they were skin to skin. Then Jasmine would slither out of his grasp. Pete was beside himself with longing and pleasure. When he was completely rung out, she again delivered him to his camp.

This time, he was more together. "Where's your camp? How can I find you?"

She put her arms around his waist, looking into his eyes. Behind her, dawn was breaking. "I'll find you. I promise."

Pete thought of himself as a pragmatic, down-to-earth guy. So he was trying really hard not to get carried away. Jasmine was incredible—and way too hip for him. How could he believe she wanted him? But the way she looked at him … 

"Petey, why are you dressed like that?" It was Serena, decked out in a white-lace steampunk outfit. "Aren't you coming to the Temple Burn?"

Pete groaned. All he wanted to do was mope around camp, hoping Jasmine would turn up. But the Temple Burn was the second-biggest event, and everyone would be there. Blind hope fought with reality, and reality won. "Sure, I'm coming."

"But don't wear that. Wear that cape thing you bought."

The cape had seemed perfect at the bazaar where he'd bought it, but now it seemed ridiculous. "I'm just going to wear the black shirt."

"But Peter—"

"Serena. It will be fine."

Minutes later, they were in a bike procession toward the temple, a vast wooden construction of swooping spires, Pete's heart sinking. Without Jasmine, everything seemed garish and annoying.

Then, above the hubbub of music, laughing and shouts, he heard the ougha-ougha of a bike horn. It was Jasmine's elaborate bike, emerging from the haze like a fabulous beast. He was dazed with joy.

"I'm stealing your friend," she called out to his group, eliciting a knowing smirk from Serena. "Come on, boyfriend."

Boyfriend! She was more dazzling than ever in some kind of sparkly temple-dancer outfit, her face frosted with shimmering powder. Pete felt stupid for wearing his plain black shirt, but Jasmine looked him up and down and said, "You look perfect. Let's go."

She veered away from the main road leading to the temple. Pete didn't care; he'd follow her anywhere.

They ended up back at Camp Beau Soleil, but at one of the rear corners. Jasmine's eyes glittered brighter than her outfit as she pulled something out of the pouch at her waist. "Look. This time I've got a box cutter." She put her ear to the tent and listened, then sank the blade into the canvas and slashed. The blade was so sharp it barely made a noise.

"Let’s go."

Pete balked. "Jasmine. What are you doing?"

“I’m going to get what’s mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Call it collecting a debt. Call it payback.” She stepped close to him, put one hand on his heart and the other at the back of his neck. Her kiss made him weak. "Don't be a pussy. I need you."

Those were the magic words that got him through the slit and into one of the forbidden tents.

The room was lit by a dim yellow bulb. Jasmine stood listening, and Pete looked around at the thick rugs, brocade pillows and wooden four-poster bed. Opulent. Even the ever-present dust was at a minimum. She peeked out through the tent's entrance flap.

"Almost everyone will be at the Temple Burn. Anyone still here will be out of it."


"Come on."

She took his hand and led him outside. The central yard was deserted except for a couple sprawled on a pile of pillows, halfheartedly making out.

Jasmine crept from tent to tent, peeking into each. Every time Pete protested, she shushed him. Once, a guy in a black t-shirt saying "SECURITY" came out of a tent. Jasmine threw herself onto Pete and sagged against him, head lolling. Her other hand grabbed his crotch as she gave the security guard a sloppy smile. He nodded curtly and walked on, evidently mistaking Pete's expression of wide-eyed terror for a drugged-out, glassy stare.

Even through his fear, Jasmine's touch stirred him. He followed her helplessly as she peered into the tents until, halfway around, she paused, pulled the flap wider and motioned Pete in with a jerk of her head.

The tent was furnished just like the one they'd broken in through, but there was a lot more personal stuff thrown around: expensive cameras, a bank of battery chargers, a plastic bin holding top-shelf liquor, and men's clothing strewn on the bed and rugs. Jasmine knelt by a large backpack on the floor and rummaged through it.

She pulled out a laptop, razor-thin and glistening. She opened it and began tapping keys, muttering to herself. "Shit."

Pete's ardor for Jasmine winked out. "I'm not—" 

Just then, the tent flap opened. He heard a scuffle, a gasp, and the tent was illuminated by a flashlight. A man, lean, attractive face under a thatch of bedroom hair, shining the light into Jasmine's eyes. Pete watched his face go from confusion to recognition to anger in an instant.


Jasmine looked up at him from where she crouched like a panther over her kill. "Austin. Brilliant as ever."

Pete reeled as reality shifted. Austin looked Jasmine—Irene?—up and down. "You've changed," he said.

She stood up, proudly displaying her gorgeous body to Austin's gaze. "Getting dumped by you was good for me." Then she flashed the box cutter.

Austin sneered and moved toward the bed. "Come on, Irene, don't be dramatic."

Pete wanted to smack that superior expression off his face. But he just stood there.

"I see you have my laptop," Austin went on. "Were you planning to hack into my crypto wallet?"

"I'm taking what's mine." 

Austin gave her a sly smile. "All you had to do was ask." He smoothly fished into a pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out a small pistol, aiming it at the middle of Jasmine's chest. "Of course," he smirked, "I would have said no."

"You bastard." 

Jasmine lunged at Austin, brandishing the box cutter, knocking him back onto the bed. The gun went flying toward Pete. Pete flinched away from it. Jasmine, pressing the cutter against Austin’s neck, hissed, “Get the gun.”

He reluctantly picked it up, holding it loosely at half-mast. Jasmine jumped up, wrapped her hand around his and pulled his arm upward until the gun was pointed at Austin's chest. 

"If he moves, shoot him."

"I'm not going to—"

"Alright, then just hold it.” 

She picked up the laptop, hit a couple of keys and turned to Austin. "What's the password?"

"No way."

"I'm getting into it one way or another."

"Over my dead body."

"Fine." In a single fluid motion, Jasmine grabbed Pete's gun hand, slid her finger in and pulled the trigger. A black hole gaped in Austin's chest as he sprawled back, then it flowed red. She jumped to the bed, took the corpse's right index finger and pressed it against the laptop's fingerprint reader. The screen lit up.

Already, footsteps were running toward the tent. As Pete stood stupefied, Jasmine began to scream. 

"He shot him. He shot him. Someone! Help!"

The three burly men who rushed into the tent didn't hesitate. They piled onto Pete, taking him down. Jasmine's screams rang in his ears as the guards wrestled him into submission. As one of them socked him in the jaw, Pete had time for one final thought before he blacked out.


Susan Kuchinskas likes to smash genres. She's the author of the science fiction/detective novel Chimera Catalyst.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Ghosts, fiction by Jessica Hwang

I leaned against the door, scraping the blade of a pocketknife beneath my thumbnail to dislodge a wedge of dirt. “This is just a bit of routine questioning, Mr. Wyle.” The room smelled of stale sweat.

Miller said, “You want an attorney present?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary.” Wyle wore a nubby tweed jacket over a button-down shirt, steel-framed eyeglasses. He looked like someone who’d gotten into the habit of assuming he was the smartest person in the room. “Can I smoke?” 

Miller slapped a photograph onto the scarred tabletop. “Sure. You ain’t under arrest.” He swung a wooden chair around and straddled it. “What do you think about that there girl in the picture, Wyle?”

Wyle blew smoke toward the ceiling. “I think she looks like a nice girl.”

“She was a nice girl, until some sick fuck killed her.”

“Well, that’s a shame. What a waste.” 

Miller twisted the cap off a tin of chew. “You recognize her?”

“No.” Wyle pressed one finger against the image; traced the curve of a cheek, stroked the length of shimmering hair. “She looks like the type to cry, not scream.” He looked up, stared into Miller’s eyes. “She looks like the type to beg, and bargain, and piss herself. She looks like the type to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some girls are like that, you know.”

Miller lifted Wyle out of his chair with an uppercut beneath the chin that tossed the smaller man halfway across the room. I stayed leaned up against the door, moving one foot to step on Wyle’s dropped cigarette. All of a sudden, Wyle had a lawyer. 

The lawyer came down to the station, demanding to speak to whoever was in charge and throwing around words like lawsuit and harassment. 

The Captain pulled us both into his office and told us off. He looked at me. “Keep Miller on his leash from now on, you hear?”


I took a swig of beer. “He’s fucking with us, Miller. Wyle’s a wannabe, a time-waster. Being an asshole doesn’t make him a killer.” A shit-faced blond was making out with some dork who looked like an accountant on the dance floor. 

“Knocked that snide look off his face for a minute, didn’t I?”

 “How’s Cathy?”

   “She took the kids to her mother’s. Says I’m a workaholic. And that I have a temper. She says a lot of things.” He drained his mug. “Shit Boyd, I don’t want to be one of them losers only sees his kids on weekends and school holidays.”

A brunette with blue eyeshadow and a sassy dress slid onto the next barstool. She said to Miller, “I like vodka.”

He waggled his ring hand at her. He said to the bartender, “Add hers to my tab.”

The brunette and her drink drifted away. Miller tossed a peanut into his mouth. “How’d you do at the races Saturday?”


“Wyle’s our guy, Boyd. You mark my words. I can see it in his eyes. I can smell it on him.”

I dug in my pocket for a quarter for the jukebox. “He’s alibied.”

“We won’t break that shit. And Captain Dahl ain’t gonna let us haul Wyle in again ‘til we got the goods. That little turd Wyle thinks he’s slick.”

“Maybe he is. Too slick for us.”


Miller strode into the precinct. I read his intent in the set of his shoulders and the color staining his cheekbones. I stood. He put one big hand on my left arm and the other around the back of my neck and manhandled me through the station doors. He tossed me into the parking lot. I collided with the bumper of a squad car. 

The viney arms of wild honeysuckle climbed the rear fence. A quarter-mile to the east, a freight train carrying corn and soybeans clattered along steel tracks. The dark lenses of Miller’s sunglasses reflected back the thrust of my chin, the defiant angle of my mouth. He spat a stream of chew. “What do you gotta say for yourself, Boyd?”

“I say: If you and I were better cops I wouldn’t have had to do it.”

He wound up a haymaker I didn’t bother to dodge. I figured he owed me one. I licked my split lip, tasted copper. Wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and flung drops of blood onto the gravel. The gallop of the train fell into a canter and faded to a two-beat trot: clop-clop, clop-clop.

Miller paced a tight circle, hands gripping the top of his head like he was trying to keep the thoughts from floating out. “Boyd, you put shit in motion you got about as much chance of controlling as you would standing on them tracks to stop that there train. The hell got into you?”

My left eyelid twitched. “Are you asking me why? Sally Monroe and Brenda Janowski and Rosemary Black. That’s why.” My voice caught and I untangled it with effort. “You going to tell Dahl?”

“Goddamn you, Boyd.” He strode back toward the station, kicking a stone out of his path. It bounced off the rim of a parked cruiser. He turned back when he reached the door. “Hell no, I ain’t.”


A month goes by, then a year, then two. Five, ten, twenty. Thirty-one years pass. One-hundred and twenty-four seasons, three-hundred and seventy-two months, more than eleven thousand days. Nearly three-hundred thousand hours.  

I rarely think of the day I first saw Wyle. Or of the exact moment I realized he was the one but that we’d never get him for it. I don’t think of Miller quitting the force six months after Wyle’s trial.

What I think of are the movie posters taped to the walls of Brenda Janowski’s pink bedroom; of Sally Monroe’s little brother sitting on the front step, waiting for her to come home. I think of Rosemary Black’s mother, Dee, pressing individual photographs into my hands. This is Rosie when she was in kindergarten. Oh, this one was taken up north, at the state park. She always loved Halloween; here she is in her vampire costume—that was 1980. This is her with her cat, Whiskers. Here she is as a baby.

Dee Black dies. Captain Dahl does, too. Miller dies in hospice, of pancreatic cancer, surrounded by a second wife and three sons and a bunch of grandkids. Only Wyle lives on.

And then, in July of 2017, he dies, too. 

A few weeks after I read about Wyle’s death online, I’m on my way to the courthouse to meet a friend for lunch. Warning alarms clang and flash at the light rail station. The crosswalk signal blinks and I’m swept along a narrow river of pedestrians; people in business suits and teenagers with ear buds and joggers in expensive sneakers. My eyes skim over the window of a bookstore, where glossy magazines and various newspapers are displayed. A headline drags my eyes back. New information revealed in decades-old murder case, weeks after convicted man dies in prison.

My heart kicks up like hooves at the racetrack after the starter throws open the gates. Somebody else has confessed. Or newly discovered DNA evidence exonerates him. 

I push into the chilled hum of air conditioning, drop a bill on the counter. I slide the folded newspaper under one arm and make myself walk eight blocks without looking at it.

Sitting on a stone bench in the courtyard of the courthouse, with the sound of men issuing instructions into cell phones and women’s high heels tap-tapping along the brick walkway and songbirds twittering from tree branches, I unfold the paper across my knees. 

Woman key to The Northgate Woods Killer’s 1987 defense has recanted her testimony. Viola Manfred, 67, who provided accused serial killer Edwin Wyle with an alibi for two murders committed in the mid-1980s, told this reporter (at Manfred’s home in Silver Bay on Friday) she lied to investigators in 1986 and under oath on the witness stand during Wyle’s sensational 1987 trial for the murder of sixteen-year-old Rosemary Black. 

“I was in love with him and I knew he never killed those girls,” Manfred said last week. “I wanted to help him so I lied.” She said she wanted to confess, now that Wyle is deceased. Wyle died in prison nearly two months ago of a heart attack, at age 69. The two had maintained a friendship during Wyle’s incarceration. When asked if she was concerned authorities might charge her with accessory to murder, Viola Manfred said, “Let them. I got a tumor growing in my liver and eight weeks to live.”

Despite Manfred’s 1987 testimony, Wyle was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Rosemary Black. The case hinged on evidence found in his East Bryerly home in 1986…

“Boyd,” says a voice. I look up, staring blankly into the face of a man near my own age. I clear my throat. I stand. “Hey, Ted.”

“You okay there, buddy? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

I slap my friend on the shoulder. I leave the newspaper lying on the bench. “Nope. No ghosts. Not anymore.”

Jessica Hwang lives in Minnesota with her husband and dogs. You can find her fiction in Uncharted and Moss Puppy. Her short story A Place like You was a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction in 2022.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Watchkeeper, fiction by Mike McHone

 I stop the boat seven or eight miles out into Lake Erie, hoist him off the deck, toss him over the side and watch him sink by the moon’s light . His face stares at me from behind my eyes. 

     I shove my hand into my pocket and bring out the watch. The engraving on the back is impossible to see, but I trace it with my thumb, feel it in my blood, and know what it says. 

     Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.


    My cellphone rang. I looked at the caller ID. It was Gina, and I knew it was bad news but didn’t know just how bad. “Hello?” 



     “It’s your father. He’s…” She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to.

     I swallowed through the knot in my throat. “What happened?”     

     “Someone broke into his house and shot him. His neighbor, a Mr. Hungerford found him.”

     A vision came to me of Earl Hungerford’s jowly face. The man always looked old, even when I was young.  Like my father, he was a strong man, born in the 40s and put together different than the men that came after.

     “He saw the backdoor to your dad’s place had been kicked in. He went in, and he… found him in the living room.”

     I stood on the patio and watched my son and his friends splash in the pool. Strung up on the privacy fence along the rear side of our property at the other end of the pool was the bright red and silver banner, HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN!

     “Bill? You still there?”

     “Yeah, I’ll…” I looked at my watch. It was five pm. The party just started. Parents of my son’s friends milled about, sipped beer, ate hot dogs. Dad told me—not but a day ago, for Christ’s sake—he’d be there between five and six. I looked at my wife on the other side of the pool, standing at the grill cooking hot dogs and hamburgers, sipping a Pepsi. “I’ll head over,” I told Gina. “You still at the house?”

     “Yes,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”

     “Give me twenty minutes.” HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN! 

     “Take as long as you need,” she said.

     I hung up and carried myself over to Darlene. It was more of a reflex than anything. She pulled the Pepsi away from her lips. “What?” 


     I changed into a pair of dress slacks and a polo. I was at Dad’s house in less than ten minutes. 

     Gina stood on the porch. I passed her and went inside. Two faceless deputies stood in the foyer and offered condolences I don’t remember. 

     I entered the living room. You’re a cop. Not a son. This isn’t your dad’s house —it’s a scene. This is work. Do your job.

     He was in his chair with the Detroit Free Press open in his lap to the sports section. The TV was on and playing at full volume, and his hearing aids were on the side table next to him. I looked at the entry wound at the side of his head, just above his temple. Small. Not much bigger than the width of my pinky. Low caliber. A .22, probably. A small rivulet of brownish-red ran down the other side of his face. It wasn’t gory. It wasn’t sickening. It was just… simple. Ordinary, I guess. Sad, even. It was—

     The watch.

     The watch his parents gave him when he graduated basic back in ‘61. 

     It was gone. 

     “Bill?” Gina called over the wail of the TV. “You okay?”

     I grabbed the remote from the table and turned off the TV. I set the remote back beside the hearing aids and looked at her, her brown eyes, full lips, smooth features. “You check upstairs?” I asked.

     “The dresser drawers were turned out, and the medicine cabinet’s been picked through,” she said.

     Junkies. “They wouldn’t find any cash,” I said. “Dad never kept cash in the house. Wouldn’t have found anything in the medicine cabinet either. Unless someone’s figured out a way to get high on Lipitor.” I looked back at the wrist. “The watch was all they got. We should maybe start…” I stopped. I was doing her job for her, but she was good enough to let it happen. “Is Hungerford next door?” I asked.

     “He is,” she said. 

     “You interview him?”

     “I did, but I told him you’d probably want to talk to him.” The sympathy in her eyes was a scalpel, and I felt like something you dissect in a biology class. I cleared my throat. “Talk to anyone else in the neighborhood?” 

     “I spoke to the couple across the street and the woman next to them. They didn’t see anything,” she said. “I called Ramirez and Morrison to help with interviews. They should be out here within the hour.”

     I walked past her for the second time that day.


     Earl Hungerford dabbed his eyes with a tissue. It was a cold, he said. He always caught a cold during the summer with all the pollen and cottonwood floating in the air. The shitty thing about summer colds is they linger around longer than a normal one, he said. “Can’t believe something like this happened on this block. I hope to hell you catch the son of a bitch that did it,” he told me. “And I hope they don’t go quietly, if you know what I mean.”

     His living room looked like my dad’s, old furniture, old carpet. Earl’s Purple Heart hung in a hand-crafted shadow box on the wall next to his cuckoo clock. He got it in Vietnam. My dad never had one. He saw action, of course, right off the coast of the Quang Tri Provence, but he was never wounded. 

     “I used to bust your old man’s balls all the time, you know that?” Earl told me from his couch. “Said, ‘You Navy boys were real nice to give us Army fellas a lift over there so we could do the fightin’ for you.’ Ha! He’d always tell me to go screw myself. ‘If I wanted, I coulda launched a missile at your fat ass while you’d try to hit me with that peashooter of yours,’ he’d say.” He smiled. “He didn’t take any shit. He was a good man. One of the best.”

     “You see anyone go over there today?”

     “Not today. Like I told the girl—what’s it, Troyer?” 

     “Moyer. Gina Moyer.”

     “Like I said to her, I didn’t see nothing.”

     “What about yesterday, any time throughout the week?”

     “No one,” he said. “Did the sons of bitches lift anything from your old man?” 

     “His watch.”

     He dabbed his eyes again and coughed into the tissue. “Aw, goddamn it. Bad enough to shoot the man, but to take his watch? Christ, you better find them, Billy. I mean it.” 

     “I know.”


     Gina, Ramirez, Morrison, and I interviewed people up and down the block. No one saw anything. I drove over to Kelley’s Bar, my dad’s usual hangout. I walked in, waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. An old woman with a shock of white hair and a face that looked like a thousand miles of bad road sat at the end of the bar with a glass of beer in her trembling hands.  

     Mick Bryant came out of the back with a case of Bud Light. He smiled when he saw me. “Bill!” He set the case on the bar. “What brings you by?”

     “My dad, Mick.”

     He must’ve seen it in my face. “What happened?”

     “Someone broke into his place, shot him.”

     He was as pale as an Irish Michigander could get. The only color about him was the yellowish tint in the whites of his eyes and a headful of black hair courtesy of Just For Men. When I told him the news, what little blood he had in his face vanished. “Jeez, that’s awful news. I’m sorry, bud. Anything you need, you let me know.”

     “Did you see or talk to him recently?”

     “Day… Let me think. Day before yesterday. He came in around noon, watched the Tigers game.”

     “Anyone with him?”

     “He didn’t have any company, but you know him, he talked to everybody that’d listen.”

     True. He never met a stranger. Sounded like a perfect line for an obituary.

     “You see him hang around anyone out of the ordinary?”

     “There was… Well, I mean, it’s…Well, shit, Bill. It’s kind of embarrassing.”


     “Ah, hell. He told me a couple months back that he… met a woman. Online.”

     He might as well had said the old man took a trip to Mars. “Like a dating site?”

     “No,” he said. “Not dating.”

     I started to ask, but then… “Oh.”


     “He say the woman’s name, what site it was?”

     “He didn’t tell me her name, but the website was”—he leaned over the bar and whispered the site name to me.

     “You got a pen?”

     He fished one out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. I grabbed it and a cocktail napkin off the bar and wrote it down. “You sure that’s the website?”

     “Yeah, I’m the one who…” He cast a glance at the haggard woman sipping her drink, then back to me. “Look, I know that stuff ain’t exactly legal.” 

     “Don’t worry about it. You’re not in trouble.” I almost said a man has urges but didn’t. “You sure he never said the woman’s name?”

     “No. He just described her. Young, blonde, stacked. Guy had a type.”

     He did. I remembered the blonde in the Black Velvet poster that hung in our garage for years. Eventually, the sun faded the picture, and Dad swapped it out with a poster of Jayne Mansfield. I’m not sure when, but Jayne was eventually traded in for Kate Upton. At least Kate stayed with him until his death unlike my mother who divorced him in the mid-80s and passed away herself in the late-90s. But Mom was a redhead, so their time together was probably doomed from the start anyway.

     The weird thing was my father wasn’t a technical person. He used the laptop I bought him three years back to check baseball scores, email the VFW hall, and that was about it. He wouldn’t shop on Amazon or get groceries delivered because it was all “a bunch of gobbledygook technical bullshit” that he couldn’t figure out, so I asked Mick, “You help him set up his profile on this site?”

     “I did,” he said and gave me his username and password. I wrote them down and handed the pen back to him. My cellphone buzzed in my pocket. “Thanks for everything, Mick. I’ll call if I need anything else.” I headed for the door and pulled the phone out of my pocket. It was Darlene. “Hello?”

     “Are you okay?”


     “I just wanted to check.”

     I opened my car door. “The party still going on?”

     “Yeah, people are still here. We’re going to open the presents and have cake soon.”

     “I don’t know when I’ll be home.” And here’s where an argument would normally begin.

     “I figured,” she said. “I’ll put some hot dogs in the fridge for you. I’ll set some cake aside too.” It was the nicest she’d been to me in two years. I guess a murder can bring out the best in some people. 

     “You didn’t tell Stephen, did you?”

     “Of course not.”

     “Dumb question. I shouldn’t have—”

     “No, it’s—”

     “With everything going on…”

     “I didn’t tell him.”

     “He doesn’t need to know about it. Not now anyway… Let him have his day.” 

     And that was it. That’s what did it; thinking of my son at his birthday party, him oblivious to everything, having no clue what happened, brought out the tears. I guess I’d been flying on autopilot since Gina’s phone call, and I guess I finally crashed. Everything that’d built up over the past two hours (years?) boiled over.

     Darlene and I agreed we wouldn’t split up until a month or two after the party. We’d play it cool and bide our time until the divorce. My son’s life was about to change, even if his grandfather wasn’t dead. The guilt ate at me, but I deserved it. It was my fault. I was the one who chose to upend everything.

     I swallowed. “I gotta go,” I told Darlene. “I gotta get back to it.”

     I ended the call and threw the phone down onto the center console. I turned up the AC, fumbled with the radio, and tried to find a tolerable song  that wasn’t rap or top 40, but couldn’t find anything. I switched it off and swiped my palm over my face. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. I told myself to knock it off.  

     I peered through the windshield and out the passenger and driver’s side windows, saw no one,  pulled out of the parking lot, and headed back across town to my dad’s house.


     MistyDDD was her name. There were six pictures total, each  showcasing Misty in various states of undress. There was Misty on her knees atop a bed, naked save for a pair of lace stockings. Misty in the bathtub, Misty at a beach, Misty bent over, bent forward, bent sideways. I guess you have to showcase the goods  from all possible angles if you want to make a sale. No different than a car or pair of shoes.  

     I looked through Dad’s messaging history and found more than a few emails between them. There were thirty-six, in fact. About a third of the messages were receipt confirmations for “Services Rendered.” They totaled just under ten grand. The messages from Misty were from a woman laying it on thick. oh baby i had such a wonderful time!!! love you sweetie!!! youre the best!!! 

     The messages sent to her from my father’s end were like preparations for a business meeting. Would Monday at seven pm work? Let me know by five today, otherwise I’ll have to reschedule. 

    of course baby!!! seven works 4 me!!! xoxoxox

    Sounds good. 

    It seemed as if the Holiday Inn near I-75 was their usual meeting place over the past year or so. The last time he and Ms. Triple D corresponded was two weeks prior. There was nothing recent.

     I hit the Compose Message button.

     I’d like to meet up ASAP at the usual place. When can we make that happen?

     I hit Send and closed the laptop. I sat on the couch and spied the rest of the living room, the old Quasar TV, the grandfather clock that had been in the same spot since 1972, the same end table, and the same carpet. The laptop seemed out of place. Then again, so did the splotches of blood on the recliner.

     An oil painting of General MacArthur’s return hung in the spot above the fireplace where the family portrait used to be. He bought that not long after my mother—


     Somebody came in through the backdoor. 

     I shot off the couch and walked to the kitchen. 

     A haggard figure stood there. A long beard hung down over a gray flannel. His filthy jeans were held up by what looked like a piece of rope. His face looked like a mixture of grease and liver spots. It was hard to tell where a liver spot ended and a smatter of grease began. I didn’t know who he was, but I’d seen him around town over the past couple years. He was just some bum I’d seen rooting through various trashcans throughout the city. 

     “What’s your business?” I demanded. 


     “I’m with the Sheriff’s Department, and this is a crime scene. What are you doing here?”

     He looked like a pile of rock dust in shoddy clothes, nothing more than a collection of grays, with his gray beard, grayish skin, dark gray flannel, and jeans so faded they looked like slate. 

     But there was one bit of color on him, the one thing that drew my eyes away from his gravel face. 

     The gold watch on his wrist. 

     He stammered. “I wuh-was just…”

     I pulled my sidearm and closed the distance between us in a little over a second. “Get your hands up! Now! Get them up!”

     His hands went up and he backed up to the wall like a frightened puppy, his face chiseled with fear.

     I pressed the gun barrel  against his forehead and grabbed his arm with my free hand. I brought his wrist within inches of my face and saw the Navy logo beneath the hands of the watch. “Where did you get that?” I screamed.

     He didn’t answer. 

     “Tell me!”


     “What were you doing here, huh? Trying to pick through more of my old man’s shit?”  

     “I just needed some money.”

     I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a hot coal burned in the center of my chest.  

     “I just came here cuz I need some money.”

     I heard Earl Hungerford’s voice in my head. 

     “That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”

     I heard my blood. I heard it speak to me in tongues. 

     “I wasn’t hurtin’ nothin’,”

     I felt every nerve, every inch of my skin, every hair on my head, every cell, every…  

     “I wasn’t—”

     “You son of a bitch.”

     “I swear… Just a little bit…”

     “Son of a bitch!”


     The gun went off. 

     His legs went out from under him. He slid down the kitchen wall, a smear of red left in his wake. I watched the hole in the center of his forehead ooze a thin red line down his face, between his eyes, over his nose, his lips, his beard, the front of his flannel, into his lap, and I felt nothing. What had just happened meant nothing more to me than watching a strong breeze carry a dry leaf down an empty road.

     I breathed easy. A thin layer of frost coated my heart.

     I stood overtop him  looked down on him, and waited for my own body to move again, and after a moment, I bent down and slid the watch off his wrist.

     I looked once more at the logo of the U.S. Navy, at the hands under that glass, that watch face I’d seen countless times throughout my life. I clutched the watch and stared at it as if I were trying to hypnotize myself with it. 

     My fingertip brushed against… something… on the back of the watch. It felt like scratches, gouges, scrapes. 

     I turned it over.

     I looked.


     A name. 

     A name etched into the gold. 

     Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.

     Everything collapsed in the amount of time it took for the second hand to move one tick.

     The watch was not my father’s.


     I paced. 

     My legs ushered me from one end of the kitchen to the other.

     Say he attacked you. Yes, you came back here to check out a lead, you heard a noise, and… No… Damn it! Gina will know. She’ll be able to tell you’re lying. And if she can’t… The department could bring someone else in to investigate it… Yeah, you know all the tricks, all the traps, you’ve interrogated hundreds of people… But you make one mistake, one little screw-up, and they’re on you like a dog. You say one wrong word… Everything is over. Think! Come on! Think! You…

     I looked at the line of red, at the wall behind it, at the man, at the wrist, at the watch.

     You know what you have to do. Take care of it. Man up and get it done.

     I holstered my sidearm and shoved the watch into my pocket. I fetched some bleach, a rag, and some Lysol wipes from beneath the sink and went to work cleaning up all traces of him. I found some old bedsheets and blankets in the hall closet and rolled him up in them.  

     I went outside to see if he had a bicycle, moped, or, Christ forbid, a car. Nothing. I looked over at Earl’s property and saw his old Bonneville wasn’t parked in its usual spot in front of his garage. I got my car from out front, reversed it up the drive, and went back in the house. 

     I waited for night. It was eight o’clock. I opened the laptop and checked to see if Misty had responded to the message. She had not. I shut off the computer, turned on the television, grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge, and tried to act normal. 


     I peeked out the front window. The people across the street pulled into the driveway. They were a young couplewho looked to be in their 20s, and drove a Prius. “Oversize Matchbox car,” is what my dad called it. Earl’s Bonneville still wasn’t in his driveway. He…

     It was bingo night at the Knights of Columbus hall. I’d just remembered. He never missed a Saturday.

     I sat back down on the couch and watched a few minutes of some cop show. I looked at the recliner, at the blood, and smelled the faint scent of bleach in the air.

     Nine o’clock. The sun was down.    

     I lifted him off the floor, felt a muscle pull in my back, dragged him outside, opened my trunk, and put him in. I went to the basement, grabbed a few twenty-pounders from a weight set my dad owned along with some electrical wire and rope. There was a stack of boards on the floor and a half-built work bench that dad was in the middle of putting together. I fetched a hammer, three nails, and a small 2x4 and nailed the backdoor shut. It was a piss poor job that would’ve irritated the old man, but it was enough to keep it closed until I could get the doorframe fixed.

    I turned off the TV, shut off the lights, and went out front. I threw the weights, rope, and wire into the trunk, got into the driver’s seat, and headed to the harbor.


     One am. 

     I walk in and warm up a hot dog in the microwave and eat it over the sink, no mustard, no ketchup, and wash it down with a Coke. I don’t taste anything. I look out the window at the same moon that sat above me over the lake. 

     I see the watch face, the eagle, and the shield, in the circle of the moon. I tossed it after its owner before returning to the harbor. I see the water splash in my mind. I see the ripples spread and fade into the darkness.

     My cellphone vibrates. I look. It’s Gina again. “Hey.”

     “Sorry to call you so late,” she says, “but I wanted you to know we got a hit on your dad’s watch.”


     “I put a call earlier today to pawn shops in the area, told them to keep an eye out for it. The owner of Midport Pawn and Consignment called thirty minutes ago, said a guy and a young woman came in and tried to sell it.”


     “He told them he was going to draw up some paperwork in the back, he called the station, and officers were there in five minutes. The couple’s here at the station right now.”

     A thin line of red.

     “Do you want to come down?”


     “Would…” I clear my throat. “Would you mind taking this one?”

     “No,” she says, “of course, I don’t mind. You’ve had a day.”

     “Let him have his day.”  

     “You get some rest,” she says. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

     …at the man, at the wrist, at the watch…

     “Thank you, Gina. For everything. Good night.”


     I hang up and pass the master bedroom on the way to the room down the hall.


     The next morning, Gina calls and tells me MistyDDD, real name Lori Anne Diamond, and her boyfriend Jason Corman confessed to killing my father. Lori worked as an escort for a number of years and Corman acted as her security, the guy who’d wait outside the hotel room until her services were rendered. Corman also copped to being a heroin addict whose addiction has spiraled out of control as of late. He saw my old man as an easy hit and thought that because Dad had spent so much money on his meet-ups with Lori, there must’ve been some extra money or valuables lying around Dad’s place. Lori stated she didn’t want  my dad to get hurt (of course) and said she had nothing to do with killing him (of course), and it was all Corman’s doing.

     “Sorry to tell you this, Bill,” Gina says. “I know it’s heavy.”

     “At least they’re caught.”

     “Yeah,” she says. “Thank God.”


     Three days later, there’s a memorial service at the VFW hall for my father. Earl put it together. About a hundred people are there, some I recognize, some I don’t. After an hour, bottles of Guinness are handed out. “I want to make a toast,” Earl says. “Everybody, get your drinks up.”

     We raise our bottles.

     “To Noland Wilson, the kind of friend everyone deserves, the kind of man we all should hope to be.” 

     People shake their heads or utter a soft “Amen,” and take a sip.

     “And to all the departed soldiers. Let no one be forgotten. Salud!”

     I take a sip and choke it down. I never liked Guinness or beer at all, but it was my dad’s favorite.

     Chatter rises. People mingle. Stories are exchanged. I walk over to an easel by the entrance. On it is a piece of posterboard with photographs of my father taped to it. He’d spent many years volunteering through the VFW, and many of the pics are him helping out at events over the years. I look closely at a picture of him and some of the men he’d served with at the Vietnam memorial wall in D.C. There’s another of him at Arlington National Cemetery.

     Earl shuffles over to me. “Bill.”

     “Hi, Earl.”

     He nods at the board. “Jack put this together. Nice, eh?”

     “It is.”

     “Ever meet Jack Dorsey? He’s been with the VFW for years.”


     “He was a friend of your dad’s. Served in ‘Nam. Infantry. Hard as nails, that son of a bitch is.”

     Another photo of my dad at Arlington, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

     “Where’s the little lady?”

     Another photo of my dad standing in front of the Capitol building.

     Probably with the guy she’s been fucking for the past two years. The reason I asked for the divorce. “She had to work,” I lie. “Parent-teacher conferences at school.”

     “Too bad she couldn’t make it.”


     Another of him and…

     Oh God.

     Another of him standing next to the gray man.

     The waves.

     I look closer at the photo. Both of them, outside the VFW building, shoulder to shoulder, smiling.

     “That’s Bradley,” Earl tells me, obviously seeing I’m interested in the photo.

     I pull myself away. I step back. I feel my blood move like wet concrete.

     “Good guy, Bradley is,” he says. “Homeless, like a number of vets. Your dad helped him out over the years, paid him to do odd jobs around his place, mow the lawn things like that.”

     “That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”

     “Good guy,” Earl says. “Has his problems, PTSD and all that, but a good guy. I wish I knew where he was. I would’ve invited him to come down here. I think he would’ve like to come, maybe would’ve volunteered to say a few words, or… Bill…? Are you…?”

     I wipe the tears off my cheeks. 

     He leans close to me and whispers, “It’s okay. He was your old man.”

     That face, that stone face…

     “Sometimes, it’s… Well, it’s not easy, I guess…”

     I can’t stop seeing his face. 

     “Are you going to…?”

     Those eyes! God, those eyes!

     I can feel everyone stare at me, feel him stare at me, and I tell myself to stop crying, to pull it together for my father, to keep it together for my son, but I think of the house, my house, and the darkness, and the oil painting above the fireplace and I can’t. 

     I can’t.   

Mike McHone's work has appeared in Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Guilty, Shotgun Honey, the AV Club, the Detroit News, and is forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can visit him online at


Thursday, June 9, 2022

JACKED, a review, by Rusty Barnes


Jacked: a crime fiction anthology

Editor: Vern Smith

Run Amok Books



Jacked is an anthology edited by Vern Smith,packed with the good stuff. It proves that crime fiction is in fine shape with these writers, as many of them have not published widely and are not on the same list of eight or ten writers who normally inhabit crime fiction anthologies. Two names leap out at me because I know their work: Eric Beetner, who's everywhere, and Meagan Lucas.

Beetner is in fine form here, with an entry titled First Timers, a story that turns on its ear the typical car theft story. Ashton and Clark steal a car, sure, take it for a joyride, sure, but find out too late Gene''s locked in the trunk. They let him out, and the stakes get higher.

A gunshot cut through the room. Gene yelped and went down clutching his leg. I looked around the room and saw a smoking gun in the hands of one of the men. Ashton and I froze. I dropped the blood-stained screwdriver. Two men rushed Gene, disarmed him, and put their feet down on his back, pinning him in place.


"Who the fuck are you two?" the gunman asked.

Beetner's plot is a nifty and simple one. Pile the trouble on and turn the tables at least twice. It's a good strong story, the prose effortless and punchy, like the best pulp stories.

Meagan Lucas, author of Songbirds and Stray Dogs, a fine novel from Main Street Rag, weighs in with a story of a poor woman and her children,  Picking the Carcass, in which the woman is given a last chance to move up in the world via an extremely unlikely source. The beginning heralds a writer with a gimlet eye, right down to the shows the children watch and the diet of a family used to SNAP benefits without much fresh food. It's a quiet story that maxes out in details that a more flamboyant writer would overshoot, in this case quite literally. "She picked up the shotgun and held it against the skin of the dog's belly, whispered "I'm so sorry, BIg Guy," and pulled the trigger. Droplets peppered her face, but she didn't care. It hadn't sounded right." Quiet yet apt.

These stories are the highlights for me in an anthology packed to the gills with good stuff. Vern Smith harvested a handy crop of writers in this one, with barely an unworthy story. Other excellent pieces from Zephaniah Sole and Andrew Miller round out this anthology, the first, I believe, from Run Amok Books. I hope to hear more from them in the near future, and thank them for gathering a crime fiction anthology that doesn't rest on contributions from the usual suspects.