Monday, March 18, 2024

NEGATIVE TILT, by Bobby Mathews, reviewed by Wes Browne

Bobby Mathews’s story collection NEGATIVE TILT is brimming full with bangers that run the gamut from literary to crime—the best of which straddle the line. Sentences hum, sharply-drawn and layered characters propel the action, and the pacing and plotting are right on point, luring us along as he pours out a trail of the good stuff.

Mathews is at his best when he treads the ground he knows well: the death throes of the newspaper industry. Several stories explore this territory, but none better harnesses that strength than the title story, NEGATIVE TILT, when a pragmatic lifer who has been cast out of his position as a writer continues his relationship with a former colleague from behind the wheel of a tow truck. The story is certainly a noir, but it hues more literary than crime, to grand effect.

The first purely crime story that grabs you by the shirt and gives you a shake is THE GHOST OF BUXAHATCHEE CREEK. As it turns out, even a righteous kill can haunt the doer, and in this story of seedy vengeance, what can’t be undone can still be doubled down.

Mathews proves himself adept and versatile, weaving lanes between lovers done wrong, to tales of double cross and vengeance. He flexes his hard-earned newspaperman chops time and again by sticking to what’s interesting and building suspense all while moving stories along on the way to a final payoff.

If I had one wish for the collection, it would be that it was a little bit tighter. At 263 pages and twenty-eight stories, NEGATIVE TILT feels more boxed set than greatest hits. There are just a few “B” stories included that that don’t quite measure up to the rest, and a couple other stories are similar in structure and theme. Hard choices could have been made. In the back half there are also several consecutive flash stories, all of them good. Interspersing them throughout would have provided a welcome change-of-pace.

NEGATIVE TILT has staked its claim as one of the standout noir collections of the year. Fans of the style will eat this one up and ask for more.

Wes Browne's new novel THEY ALL FALL THE SAME will be published January 7, 2025 by Crooked Lane Books. His 2020 book HILLBILLY HUSTLE was named one of Merriam-Webster's 17 recommended lockdown reads. He is the founder and host of Pages & Pints Reading Series at Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. He has practiced law as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, and public defender in Appalachia for over 24 years.

Monday, March 4, 2024

The 18th Hole, fiction by Stephen J. Golds

Like all bad ideas, it started out life as a simple one.

Richard was an awful golfer and a degenerate gambler with an ex-wife he despised. I was making moderate bank as his golfing coach-cum-therapist at the Cedar County Golf Club, while I built up my book.

Richard had a lot of cash and liked to spread it around. Making bets and losing them. He always paid out big. Put my eldest boy through his first year of college.

You could say he was my best customer and my best friend.

One afternoon, we were on the eleventh hole, and he started in on the ex again. It was routine, but I was disappointed as hell. While he was ranting, he wasn’t gambling. He’d be cussing her out for hours. No cash injection for me that week. I’d been counting on that money. Had alimony to pay for my second wife. The State had been on my back about it.

Richard tossed his club down on the green. Turned to fix those black eyes on me and put a manicured finger to his temple like a pistol. Told me he wanted to blow his brains out. Said he was passed depressed because he couldn’t protect his two little girls. Told me his ex-wife, Elizabeth was beating the kids. Ditto the piece of shit she’d taken up with. Some kind of doctor or pharmaceutical salesman or something or other.

I just nodded. Making the same sympathetic noises I’d been making for the last nine months since the pair of them had split. Taking a couple of steps back. Richard spat when he talked. He waved his skinny arms around in the air, raving he’d tried every kind of legal means to get her to stop the abuse. Nothing had worked, he said. The Justice system had failed him. He was at his wits end.

Divorced two times myself, I felt bad for the guy, but he’d brought i

t on himself. He’d fucked every waitress at the golf club. Got one of them pregnant even. Richard may have been a millionaire, but he wasn’t smart. Making stupid life decisions and stupid bets. Maybe having that kind of cash made a man foolish. I wouldn’t have known either way. I was smart and broke.

On the twelfth hole he suggested it. A beating. A beating would get her to stop, he said. I laughed at first of course, that kind of laugh you do when someone says something completely insane and you’re sure they’ve got to be yanking your chain. Richard wasn’t joking. He glared at me. I shook my head, told him that was only going to make things much worse. It was crazy talk, though I didn’t say that. He was my best customer and best friend.

I changed the topic. Talked about the weather and baseball for the last couple of holes and then gave up, fell into a sharp silence. Richard ruminated.

Driving back to the clubhouse, he told me to pull the golf cart over into the shade underneath an oak tree and said, “I'll give you thirty percent.”

“Thirty percent of what?” I said.

“You know I’m investing twenty million dollars into that new golf-course project, right? Well, I’ll give you thirty percent of that. If…”

“If what?” I said.

“If you handle the thing with Elizabeth. That thing we were talking about earlier.”

“Come on, man. I’d never slap around a woman. It just isn’t me.”

“You know people who would though. You’re a bookie for Christ’s sake.”

“Maybe, but I still wouldn’t feel right about it.”

“Thirty percent to help a friend in need. Seems pretty straightforward to me. Think about your son.”

“My son?”

“The one with the problem walking or whatever it is he’s got there.”

“Michael’s got Vestibular problems is all.”

Well, whatever. What I’m saying is, think about how life changing thirty percent of a golf course would be for him. I know he probably can’t play golf with the Testicular problems, but the money. Life. Fucking. Changing. Money.”

“If I get someone to slap Elizabeth around?”

“No, not that. That’s cola-lite. I want her crippled in a wheelchair, no offense to your boy. I want the tongue cut out of her head. She needs to pay for what she’s done.”

I didn’t laugh. I popped prickly heat and needed a drink from the clubhouse bar.

“Nah, man. That’s not going to fly. Not with anyone I know,” I stuttered.

“She’s abusing my kids, goddammit!”

Spittle flew and touched down on my left fist gripping the cart’s steering wheel.

“I don’t know, man. Maybe if it was just a few slaps and that was it. I really don’t know... I’d have to really give it some proper thought.”

“What’s to think about? Don’t be dumb, be smart. Look it, I can give you $14,000. In cash. As a down payment. Today. Today! It’s in the trunk of the car. You give it to whoever you want to do the job. I'll give you the rest after it’s been done. And then, you my friend, you become a partner in your own golf course. Just think about it. No more coaching. No more caddying. No more scrabbling around taking bets from lowlifes. No more of all the bullshit.”

I stared at a group of silver haired old aged pensioners practicing their swings over by the rough.

Richard put his hand on my shoulder. Squeezed. “But I want that bitch hurt. Badly. I want her to pay for what she’s done to me. To my kids, I mean.”

He’d been talking up the golf-course project for months. He was right too, with thirty percent of that, I’d never have to work another day in my life. My own kids’ futures would be set. Probably their kids too. Like a generational wealth kind of deal. Richard’d been talking about the abuse for months too. So there was that. I’d tell whoever did the job to go easy on Elizabeth, give her a black eye. Job done, Richard couldn’t refuse payment. Everyone would be a happy winner.

“What about the cops?” I said.

“What about them?” Richard said.

“The last thing I need is something like this leading back to me, if it all goes to shit.”

“The key word here is: compartmentalization, my nervous friend. Whoever you get to do the job, you tell them to get someone else to do it. Like a chain of command or whatever the fuck. I don’t want anyone knowing my name. Or yours. If no one knows who’s at the top of chain, and you choose someone smart, we’re all in clover. You know me, when have I not gambled smart?”

As soon as Richard said that, I should’ve walked. But I didn’t. I took the cash.

The wad so thick I couldn’t push it in the pocket of my slacks. It felt good in my hands. Goodbye alimony payments. He handed me a scrap of paper with his ex’s address on it and a recent photograph of her hugging one of the kids at what looked like a birthday party. She was pretty and had these kind, blue eyes. The picture gave me a shitty feeling in the guts, but I said I’d see what I could do. Reminding myself over and over, Elizabeth wasn’t a good person. She beat her kids and was a bad mother. It would only be a couple of slaps anyway. That number of thirty percent bouncing around in my skull like a deranged golf ball.

Even though I’d said I’d see what I could do, I already knew who I was going to get to do the job before Richard’s Mercedes Benz even sped out of the club’s parking lot.


Scotty was another caddy at the club. He helped me collect bets for my book on occasions when I needed to impress debtors. He was big. Scary big. But dumb as a mule. The kid did whatever I told him to do. Liked to tell people he was my bodyguard and he was connected. Not averse to a little violence or law-breaking and knew when to keep his mouth shut. He was ideal.

The next night I caught him leaving the club and told him to jump in the car. I needed to talk.

“Okay, Boss.” The poor schlub said.

When he got in the passenger side of my Cadillac, he almost flipped the damn thing over. Looking at me the same weirdly hopeful way he always did.

“Someone not paying what they owe?” He asked.

“Nah, it’s something just a little heavier than that this time, Scotty.”

“You need someone clipped?”

Clipped. The kid had been watching too many episodes of The Sopranos. I played along to the wannabe’s fantasy.

Nah, you’re not going to get your button as quick as that, Scotty. You gotta put more of the street work in. Show your down for the life. You get me?”

Sure, Boss. I’m down. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

All right, listen, there’s this guy. A rich guy. He’s having trouble with his ex-wife. She’s kidnapped his kids and is abusing them and all this kind of horrendous shit. The guy wants the woman hurt a little so he can regain custody of his kids.”

Scotty looked as though he was about to burst into tears.

The kid said, “No women, no children. That’s my code and I live and die by it.”

Don’t bullshit me, Scotty. Since when did you have any kind of code?”

He shrugged and wiped some yellow crud from the corner of his eye. Put his thick fingers on the door latch to get out. I placed my hand on his massive arm. Squeezed, “Scotty, its just a little slapping around, that’s all. A little slapping around. Nothing more. Besides, if you do this, I’ll talk to my boss. See what we can do about bumping you up. Getting you your stripes.”

Scotty wasn’t the only one with HBO. The kids face lit up. Elated.

Really? I could get made?”

Yeah, sure.” I looked away from his face and out of the window. Biting my tongue. “We need people like you in the… family… sure.”

I want to be a made man but still, I don’t know. I’ve never raised a hand to a girl in my life.”

The kid didn’t seem to know we weren’t Italian. Like I said, he was big and dumb.

You won’t have to hurt the girl yourself. You can get someone else to do it. But get someone smart, someone scary. You tell them to just give the ex-wife a fat lip and a swollen eye. That’s all. Like I said, nothing heavy.”

“How much would this guy pay anyhow? Twenty thousand dollars maybe?” Scotty licked his thick lips.

“Don’t be a dumbass, Scotty. No one’s paying that kind of money for a light sparring session.”

“So how much?”

I did profit calculations in microseconds.

“Five thousand. Two and a half before, two and a half after.”

“That’s for the guy that hurts the girl, right? So what do I get?”

“No, I give you the five; whatever you pass on to your guy is up to you.”

“What am I supposed to pay them?” He whined.

“Pay them a fucking nickel for all I care.”

He stared through the dusty windshield. Sweat glistened on his upper lip.

I needed to close the sale, “think about what you could do with five thousand bucks, brother. You could buy something pretty damn nice for your ma, I reckon. She just got out of the hospital, right?”

“Yeah, she busted her hip.” He looked as though he was going to cry again.

“You could take her on vacation with the cash. She’d love that.”

His face lit-up like a streetlight.

“Yeah, sure. That’s right, I could. Hawaii or somewhere nice like that,” he smiled, obviously imagining the old woman hobbling around on some sandy beach somewhere hot. “Okay, I’ll do it. I think I know a guy.”

I gave him the two and half and the photograph. He read the address on the scrap of paper aloud, like he was reading Spot the Dog and then pushed it into the half-torn breast pocket of his shirt. He got out the car and it fell back to horizontal.

He waved as I drove away. I didn’t wave back.

Not a week later, I start seeing the headlines:




Round the fucking clock news coverage — flashing up the image of the woman whose photograph I’d placed in the sweaty hand of an imbecile.

Cops had arrested some vagrant fucking meth head for the murder.

As soon as the crackhead gave up Scotty, I’d have, maybe an hour or two, before half the city’s police department came knocking on my door. I was going to rot in jail for the rest of my life.

Unless, I got to Scotty, before the cops did. Compartmentalization. Tie off lose ends. With the kid gone, there’d be nothing leading back to me. I’d be free and clear.

I ran round the house into the garage. There was an old refrigerator underneath a workbench I used for keeping beer. I reached behind it and retrieved the bundle of cloth wrapped around the .38. Checked the cylinder. Five bullets. One was all I’d need.

I took deep breaths, pulled the cellphone from the pocket of my slacks and dialed Scotty. The prick didn’t answer. I screamed at the lawn mower and dialed again.

Boss, is that you?” He sounded like he had shit his pants and was sitting in it.

Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?” I said, attempting to keep some thread of composure and sanity in my voice.

Did you see the news? He… he… he killed her. He killed the girl.” The kid started blubbering and drooling down the line. There was not a shred of doubt in my mind he was going to drop my name to the cops as soon as they flashed their badges at him. Scotty had to go.

Yeah, I saw. Where are you? We need to lam it, kid. I’ve got your money, too. Double what we agreed.” I said through gritted teeth.

Really? Double?” He stopped blubbering. I imagined him wiping his snotty nose on his shirtsleeve.

Yeah, sure.”

You’re not angry at me? For hiring that guy because I wanted to save money.”

Nah, Scotty. Look, you’re going to be a made man, but we need to meet somewhere out of the way, so I can pay you the cash and we can split to Mexico for a week or two.”

Okay, Boss, I suppose. Where should I meet you?”

Good. Good. You know the old dump, right? Just out of town.”

Sure, I do. The place where everyone throws away their old cars and refrigerators and stuff?”

Yeah, meet me there in twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes?” he whined.

You want to spend the rest of your life in jail?”

No, sir.”

Then leave now. I’m on my way.”

I hung up. Wiped the sweat from my eyes. Ran back round the house into the kitchen. Snatched up my car keys from the breakfast nook.

My cell rang.

Just get in the car and fucking go,” I screamed down the line.


My best customer and best friend. Richard’s voice.

Ah, Richard, I take it you’ve seen the news then.”

Yeah, a little more extreme than what I’d asked for, but I’m happy.”

He didn’t sound happy. Voice cold and monotonous, I could’ve been talking to someone at a call center.

We need to meet somewhere quiet,” he said.


You want to get paid don’t you? Plus, I’ve got a couple of contracts I want to go over with you.”


For the golf course. We’re partners now, brother.”

I see… When did you want to meet?”

Right now, of course,” he said.

A long void down the line.


You know the boathouse I’ve got out on the lake? Let’s meet there. It’s nice and relaxing.”

Okay,” I said and hung up.

One word bouncing around my brain like a deranged golfball:


Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He writes in the noir/crime genres, though is heavily influenced by transgressive fiction and dirty realism. He is also the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine

Monday, February 26, 2024

More Darkness, fiction by John Jeffire


"…for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light."

2 Corinthians 11-14

Wasn’t any different from most any other night. This our park. We got a place we jungle up, about twenty us, got most everything you need. Plastic crates or shopping carts or backpacks to put your things in, the winter coat, the boots, change a clothes, a toothbrush, a comb, me, I got my Bible too. Most here respect that. We all know each other and we all on the same raft. If someone steal from you then you gonna steal from them so it ain’t worth it to take nothing. We look out for each other. Most here not bad people, just lost. Lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their families, lost their minds. It’s one or the other or more. Some’s all them. But you always got to remember, Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.

Me, my husband died. Bad heart. My children all move off. Got no one. No one call on me, no one visit, no one really care. I hurt my back real bad, couldn’t work, got hooked on the oxy. Old story. You bust that rail you in trouble. I learn that too late. Some of the folks in the park, they like their beer or wine, some go for rock or weed or needles, whatever, everybody got something so I don’t judge. Me, if you have some wine I’ll take a sip but that’s all. I learned too much to do more than that. Church wine, that’s the best wine. But I will be delivered. One day, yes, I will be delivered.

And money ain’t the problem. That what everybody think. Naw, we all got Bridge cards to get food, most everybody here on SS, we can get food at the shelter, if I need something I can go to the Church on Jefferson. Good people there. Give me food or a coat if I need one, when it’s cold I can go inside. Naw, it’s the things money can’t buy that got us. You can trade that Bridge card for anything, drugs, anything, and don’t think I ain’t been asked. Just I never been that desperate. Others has. They can’t shake that darkness inside them.

That night, though, it was warm, a nice breeze off the river, a good night to just be with yourself and look up at the sky and think about what tomorrow might bring, who be at the shelter, what they fix for breakfast, how hot the coffee be. Same old stuff. We protect ourselves, sure, chair legs, some baseball bats, some blades, things like that, simple things, but mainly for the dogs, not for people. Damn wild dogs everywhere. Somebody got a gun I don’t know nothing about that.

When she come over, we all a bit edgy. Nobody know her. She say she want some food. Ain’t no problem, Zeke get her some leftover from the shelter, he say, “Here you go, sweetheart.” And she look at him. I never forget that look. Evil. Just the picture of evil come over her face. He do something nice for her and she give him that look. And she take the food, look at us all one last time, and then she leave. Even though she gone, I had me a bad feeling about it. I knew we see her again.

That night when I closed my eyes, I swear I could feel that woman in the air.

* * * * *

Jug is a demon on the scanner and the word was, with The Burner, call, no matter what, call if it’s The Burner.

Dude, got a hot one. She’s back.”


Wake up, sunshine. The Burner strikes again.”

Shit, it’s 3 a.m.”

Correction, it’s 3:03 and you’re losing time. Rise and shine, up and at ‘em, sugar tits.”

I was already putting my pants on. Cindy was still asleep. She’s used to this.

Where’m I headed?”

Riverside. Not far from the band shell.”

“I know the place. I’m on it.”

“I guess you could say you’re ‘hot’ on the trail.”

“C’mon, man.”

“Hey, you better ‘fire’ up the Oldsmobile or you’re gonna get scooped.”

“Christ, Jug, you’re gonna burn for those jokes, lemme tell you.”

Neither of us laughed. I wheeled over to the park and there’s Lieutenant Drumford and Sergeant Decatur and the whole homicide crew. They know me and how I operate and I slipped under the yellow tape with my phone recorder.

“Morning, Chuckie,” Drumford said, not looking at me.

“Heard we got another crispy. Number four.”

“Affirmative. Black male, approximately 55 to 60. We got him ID’d but let’s keep that off the record until we can notify family.”

Drumford pointed over at the body, which was being processed for clues. Even in the morning darkness it looked like something out of a cheap horror flick.

“You got it. I can find his name on my own. What about The Burner? Still no definite POI?”

“Same old, same old. White woman, about same age as the victim. That narrows it down to a thousand housing-challenged bitties in the city. Some witnesses. She’s on the scoot but we’ll get her.”

“Same MO?”

“Yeah, but we finally caught a break. Found the can back behind those trees. Of all things, Aquanet. Yeah, hairspray. Got to run it for prints and DNA. MO the same, spray can and a lighter, the usual. Mini torch. But keep that on the downlow, will you?”

C’mon, Drum, everybody knows how she does it.”

That don’t mean you got to keep repeating it. Specially the Aquanet part. Kid last week set his sister’s hair on fire with a can a spray paint and a match. We got enough misery to deal with.”

“See what I can do. You know the deal, once it reaches the honchos it ain’t my baby.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, Chuckie. Just like everything I tell you to lay easy on.”

“Just business. I don’t like it any more than you do, Drum. Mind if I chat some of the witnesses?”

“All yours. Go easy, huh? Some pretty shook.”

“You know me. Call me Mr. Feelings.”

Drumford gave a small smile and nodded toward a group of campers. They were still, glassy eyed, some crying. One woman stood to the side, arms folded across her chest, her mouth slightly open, staring at the burned body on the ground. She was feeling it. She was the one to question first.

“Hey ma’am, so very sorry for your loss, it’s just horrible. I’m Chuck McCluff, ma’am, with the Daily. Would it be okay if I asked you some questions?”

The woman was shaken out of her trance. In an earlier life she was probably very attractive, someone you’d cozy up to at a bar, buy a drink for.

“Chuck who?”

“McCluff. Chuck McCluff, I’m a reporter.”

“You that guy on the TV.”

“That’s me. Do some reporting for WDTR, but I write for the Daily, too. Now, I’m trying to help the police and the city, you people in the park here, with the person who’s doing this. We gotta put an end to this. First, I was wondering if you might be able to tell us about the victim. Did you know him?”

“Sure, I knowed Zeke. Good man. Didn’t never hurt nobody.”

“Everyone I talked to said the same. Very solid man. Ma’am, do you know Zeke’s last name?”

“Hollingshed. Ezekial Hollingshed.”

“And your name, ma’am?”

“I’m Sarah Janes.”


“Janes. Yeah, not James. And Sarah, with a H.”

“No, ma’am. Janes and with an H. So how long did you know Zeke?”

“Oh, we been knowing each other at least five year. We part of the community here, you know? We all move in and out. In the park here, we finally set up. Close to the shelter, by the water, nice enough.”

“Sure is. Love Riverside. Bring my daughter here to play. Love it. Now, did you see who did this to him?”

She looked at me for the first time. Her eyes widened.

“I seen her. Oh, I seen her. She come round about four or five hour before this happen. Asked for food. Zeke give her some. That the kind of man he is…was. Big heart.”

“What can you tell me about her? What did she look like. We hear all kind of stories, but you’ve seen her up close and we need, the police need, some facts.”

“White lady.”

“Yeah? About how old?”

“Bout same as me.”

“And that would be? If you don’t mind my asking, of course. I know you should never ask a lady her age or her weight and I promise I won’t ask your weight.”

“Go ahead ask my weight but I ain’t seen a scale in how long. Don’t go to the doctor no more. Can’t tell you my weight.”

“Was she tiny like you?”

“Awe naw, she got some meat to her. She look like she could fight a man and come out okay with it. I could tell she fend for herself. Got a big scar over the one eye, the, let’s see, would be her left eye. Missing some teeth up top on that side too. She been in some tangles.”

“And her age, if you had to guess?”

“She about 45, maybe 55. Hard to tell. Hell, maybe she 30.”


“This living hard on a person. Age you double for some.”

“No doubt, has to be tough, Sarah. In fact, I got a few bucks here, to help you out, get some food, blankets, whatever you need. You’ve been real helpful.”

She looked at me hard, but I pulled out my wallet and scraped out a couple tens. I held them out and she slowly reached out her tiny hand to take them.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you. We get a straight description of this lady out and the police can bring her in and nobody else get hurt. One way or another we’ll get justice for Zeke, Ezekial, and things will calm down around here. Just a few more questions, you’ve been the best, I really mean that. Do you remember her hair color? Clothing? Shoes? Tattoos?”

“Her hair kinda black but got some gray in it, through here, kinda streaked through. She wearing a old Tigers jacket, one sleeve tore up, like she been fighting one a them dogs. Tattoo on side a her neck, flowers or something on one side, never forget it, on the other a angel with wings but it got horns like the devil.”

“Wow, angel with horns like the devil, scary stuff. This will help a lot, Sarah. Anything else you can tell me, Sarah? You’ve been a rock star, so very helpful.”

She looked off again.

“Them eyes. Let me tell you, she got some eyes. Them eyes stuck on crazy. The devil hisself done set’m there.”

* * * * *

You got the world backwards till it get explained to you. That’s when I got right. The Lord say Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness. You see? Everything was backwards and the opposite a what you been told. See, I thought I was evil. What I did, what I thought, but I had it backwards till I go in the Second Baptist. I really just wanted to get warm and maybe get some food, but then the preacher started talking to everyone and I got the Bible and started following what he says. That’s when everything turned round.

You want evil, I got evil, but only what you call evil. But see, you ain’t read the book. You got it all backwards but you don’t know it.  My life was just misery since I could remember. A lot of it, sure, I made some shit decisions, but not all. You get made how I was, that’s what I learned. You ain’t born that way, ain’t nobody born that way, but when you been done like I been done that’s what happen. People get made nasty. My whole life been a lesson in how you get nasty and I ain't gonna apologize for nothing I done or become. Why? Cause that’s part a how you find you got the light.

Where to start. Everywhere. Anywhere.  Being born.  Shit, I wasn't even born.  I was shoved in it. Got learned early by my own mother. You let Uncle Stevie touch you and I’ll get you a treat. After, she’d get me McDonald’s. It took the taste out of my mouth. And she done it more. I had all kind a uncles. Until it get to Uncle Donnie. I didn’t mind sucking his thing, but he wanted to unload in my mouth. Done that before and I didn’t like it and I decided I wasn’t gonna do it. I didn’t want that taste but he grabbed my hair and was gonna make me. So I bit him. I mean I bit him good. Blood and everything, and even his blood taste sour. And the beating he give me was nothing compared to the beating my mom give me.

And that’s when I got the darkness. I would hide in my closet, shut the door, just sit in there with the shoe boxes, the vacuum, and bins filled with whatever. I wanted that darkness. But the door would always open and it opened onto what I didn’t want to happen to me. You see? The darkness just made everything worse.

So I left. I was old enough I could pretty much get what I needed by myself. I stayed at the next park over with my friend Joanie. We were in school before I quit going. Her trailer was good. Warm, smelled good, like vanilla. No men. Just me, her, her mom, who was a normal mom, and her older sister who worked. I was too young to get a job but I knew how to make money from what my momma taught me. Plenty of work in the park. Retired old geezers. Their money was green like anyone else’s. But I got enough money I could take Joanie to Wendy’s or Burger King (anywhere but McDonald’s) or wherever and buy myself new pants and tops. It was a good life.

But Joanie’s mother one day said she had to have a talk with me. She was religious. She said she knowed what I was doing and I had to stop. That God had something better for me in life but I had to shed my old life like a snake shed its skin and walk to the light. She said she would make sure I got fed and had clothes but I had to stop what I was doing. She said God wanted this. But I didn’t like rules. Anybody telling me what was what. Didn’t matter if it was God or somebody else. I made my own rules. So I left there too.

Started my wandering years. Finally, hooked up with Shep and it was a roof over my head, food in the frig, money for cigarettes, the basics. But then he got stuck on the pipe. And he got me on it too. And let me tell you, when that gets hold you, it’s all you think about. Pretty soon he done to me what my momma did. Freaks coming over, go on, take her in the back room, we got a deal. And I had all my teeth then, my figure was still fine and it was gonna get us whatever we needed. In my head I thought it was good. Then Shep got crazy. Got hisself a gun and he quit going to work at McCabe Corp and he start running the street. Then one day a posse a rock heads come to the trailer looking for him, said he fleeced them on a deal, they had that look, you know, they tried beating on me but I had a knife I got from the drawer soon as I seen who was at the door. Man, I sliced them. Three of them. Blood everywhere. I swing that knife and I swing and I swing and I swing. They leave yelling and hooting but the fuck I care.

Shep didn’t never come back. I couldn’t just stay there. Somebody would come back looking for him and take it out on me. That’s how the world works. So I left.

So that’s how I ended up in the church. Heard it was warm and they had food. They set up a winter shelter where all us could lay on the floor in sleeping bags with blankets, serve us a big dinner every night. I didn’t like being crowded in with everyone else, I knowed some of them from the street and done favors for them, but didn’t want to see them no more. But this guy spoke to us every night. The head preacher or whatever. Always talking, always saying things, the Lord this and the Lord that. I was like, just go away, shut up and go away. But then one night he says, and I don’t know why I remember this, but I do, he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”

And that’s when things got clear. The darkness went away and light was everywhere, even in the night. Like nothing can stop it. My mind started thinking. All kinds of things. Things I knowed most would say was crazy but they still made sense to me. I can’t explain it. The person, this voice in my head, it was my voice but it wasn’t my voice, it had to be God—who else could it be—it talk to me. It says, to get out the darkness, you need to make light. What’s that suppose to mean? What darkness? What light? What I suppose to do?

Then I understood. What the preacher said. I been walking in darkness. My whole life I been walking in darkness. But now a light was showing on me. Shining right down on me. And I felt that light. I had to carry that light. Out into the darkness, and believe me the darkness was everywhere, so I had to bring that light. Next thing you know the moon is in your head and then, bang, it just blows up. Anything you were thinking or was going to think, it’s just gone. Don’t know where it goes. Someplace, but you don’t know the place. It ain’t nowhere. Somewhere that’s nowhere, know what I mean? But the light stays inside you. I took one of them Bibles before I left the shelter. I could read good enough. That voice, though, it come with me, and it stays there in my head—here, right here—still till this day. And the voice, it says, if there is darkness, make light. That’s really what it says. And the more you listen, the more it makes sense. And the more you listen and know, you got to do what it says. You go where the light tell you.

* * * * *

What ain’t we seen? We seen everything. All of it. A circuit court judge fucking a lawyer who kill his own wife to be with her honor. Little kid kill his own sister with their daddy’s gun they find in the closet. Boyfriend babysitting baby mama’s toddler and swing him by his feet and bash his head against the wall to get him to stop crying. Smash and grab at a stoplight turn carjacking turn kidnapping turn bullet in the head out in some abandoned lot. Bangers offing bangers over turf, cappin’ at a gas station in broad daylight. Kids from the burbs trying to play gangsta and score some weed and end up in the trunk of a car. Hell, fourth of July, forget it, man, ain’t worried about no fireworks in the sky—the whole city gone crazy shooting itself up.

But then we get this. The Burner. Lighting homeless people on fire. Just flick her Bic in front of some Aquanet, instant flamethrower. Shit, I was in the Gulf, seen burnt up bodies in Iraq, cooked right in their tanks and APCs and bunkers. That was war, though. This? I can’t explain this. No real way to explain this.

We got prints and DNA off the spray can she left at the last scene. AFIS give us a name: Lucinda Dunkel. Priors for vagrancy, larceny, receipt of stolen property, solicitation, drug possession, a long-timer but a small-timer. The name seemed familiar but no one could place her for sure, even with the file photo. Hair was different. Early on, everybody in the city seen her everywhere. Like Bigfoot or Elvis. She was on the Ambassador Bridge, on top the Penobscot Building, dancing on the steps of City Hall, you name it, the usual crazy shit. After the third incident, though, enough credible people had seen her and we had a clearer idea who we looking for. Description matched the photo on file. White woman, about 50, around 160 pounds, tattoos on her neck, scar over her eye, old army boots, baggy clothes, and eyes you wouldn’t ever forget. Crazy. Crazy devil eyes.

We tracked her down on Jefferson. She only come out at night, sleep and hide in the day, made it tougher to find her. But she was on the prowl carrying a plastic grocery bag and the plainclothes stop her and bring her in. She knew it was up. They found Aquanet in the bag, some lighters, lighter fluid, some food and other small things. Took her up to the interview room and that’s when I went in with Crooks to put her under the lights and see what we could get out of her.

The cameras in interview were all down but we both had recorders. We go in and she’s sitting there and, man, she lock them eyes on me. Eyes like a hyena. Some kind of scared, nasty animal. I look over at Crooks but he just stared at her, like the eyes had locked him in.

“Mrs. Dunkel, I’m officer Fellows, this is officer Crooks. Do you have any idea why we’re here?”

“I know why I’m here. I got no idea why you here though.”

“Well, we’re here because we’re homicide detectives and we’re investigating a series of murders.”

“I know that. Still don’t explain why you here or anybody else for that matter.”

Her hair was all over, her clothes too big. She didn’t smile but when she talked you could see where she was missing teeth.

“Personally, I’m here because I got a job to do, Mrs. Dunkel.”

“Call me Lu.”

Lu. Okay, Lu it is. But we want to try to understand what happened, Lu, get your side a things. And you understand you don’t have to talk to us, that you can have a lawyer pre…”

I heard all that shit before. Lawyers never done me no good.”

Those your rights, though, and we have to tell you that.”

You ain’t gotta do nothing. You, me, anybody. Nobody got to do nothing. All I got to do is bring the light.”

Bring the light?”

What I said, wasn’t it?”

Yes, but I’m not quite sure I understand. Can you explain that?”

You read the Bible?”

I got to church.”

Ain’t what I asked.”

I glanced over at Crooks, who was taking notes. She was smart in her own way, street smart, predator smart. She was in the net and wasn’t gonna fight us but she wasn’t gonna roll over neither. She was gonna get her say and on her own terms.

I do read the Bible.”

Then you know it says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.’ You know that, right?”

I’m not familiar with that verse.”

Isaiah 5:20. If you knowed it then you’d already understand what I done and why I done it. I’m thirsty. And I need a smoke.”

Crooks put down his pen and took out his pack, tapped it, and offered her one. She took it, put it to her lips, and leaned in for his light. When he clicked the lighter, her eyes widened. She settled back and took a long drag. The smoke flowed from her nose like a dragon.

We can get you a pop or a water or coffee.”



Don’t like Coke. I like Mountain Dew.”

We can swing that.”

Crooks pushed away from the table, nodded at me, said he’d be right back. Lucinda Dunkel was now looking at me. When she pulled on her cigarette, the tip burned bright orange. She seemed to like that. I pretended to look at Crooks’ notes until he returned with the Mountain Dew. She took the can and tilted her head back, chugged hard.

Okay, Lu, we need to get to the heart of why you’re here. Before Officer Crooks left, you mentioned ‘what you done.’ What were you talking about, ‘what you done’?”

I done what you think I done.”

What exactly do we think you did?”

Lit them people on fire.”

Crooks shot me a look. There it was—what she did, confessed, no hardball needed. Not a bit of fight, no playing, no pressing. We had her. It was a relief but it wasn’t enough.

Which people?”

You dumb? The people who got lit on fire.”

Temikah Hall?”

Don’t know that name.”

Homeless woman found in a vacant lot on Trumball in late April.”

Okay, yeah, I done that.”

Samuel Jenkins, homeless man found in an alley off Lafayette in May.”

Yours truly.”

Laila Woodson, homeless woman found in an abandoned house off Selden in late May.”


Ezekial Hollingshed, homeless man found in Riverside Park last week.”

Yep. Him too. I done all’m.”

Crooks scribbled away in his notebook. Everything was on tape. Now there was just the why, which wasn’t really needed, but now I was curious. I seen all type a killer, stone hardcore to jealousy to accidental. Lucinda Dunkel was different.

Now, Lu, we got a clear idea what you did. That ain’t in dispute. But why, that’s what we don’t understand. Wasn’t robbery, none the victims was missing any belongings. None the victims had any connection to another except they all homeless, but there thousands of homeless people all over the city. Why these four? What they done to you?”

Lucinda let out a dry cackle.

What they done? Why they have to done something?”

They don’t, but there has to be some reason to do what you done to them.”

I already told you.”

Which was?”

I bring light to the darkness.”

What do you mean, ‘light to the darkness’? What light? How you bring light to any of these people?”

Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

What’s that?” asked Crooks. He was getting impatient.

More of the Bible,” I said.

More of the Bible, that’s true,” said Lucinda Dunkel. “The Bible also say, ‘if anyone walk in the night, he gonna stumble, because the light is not in him.’ You see? If you out walking in darkness, you gonna stumble. You gonna go down a bad path. That was me. I was on that path till I found the light. And when I found the light, God told me, you got to share it, Lu, you got to get out there and bring the light to people most in need of it.”

Crooks had stopped scribbling notes.

So, in your mind, you thought you were helping these people?”

Thought? I knowed I help them. It was dark. Darkness everywhere. More darkness than you could ever believe was there. Bible say, ‘The light shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Simple, huh? Darkness can’t win if you got the light. And I got the light. I got so much light I can walk in the darkness, the pitch black darkness, and not need no flashlight or nothing. Hell, I could walk through that darkness with my eyes closed. When you got the light, officers, you don’t need nothing else.”

She closed her eyes and held out her hands from her side, then turned her face up to the ceiling. She appeared to be shaking. For some reason, I was sweating. It was hot in the room. Crooks even loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button on his shirt.

I need another cigarette,” Lu mumbled. Her arms returned to her side and her eyes opened.

Crooks put down his pen and took out his cigarettes again. He tapped the pack lightly and a single butt slid forward. He held out the pack and Lu took the cigarette, lifted it to her lips. Crooks held the lighter out to her but she didn’t lean forward. She leaned back into her chair and smiled. Now, I swear, you gonna say I’m crazy, I know, but I swear she looking right at Crooks but, I’m telling you, she looking right at me at the same time. Then, I swear—I know most ain’t gonna believe me—something flare in her eyes. And God and Crooks as my witness, before Crooks could even flick the lighter to light that cigarette, Lucinda took a big ass drag, and, I swear on my dead mother’s grave—if tape was rolling in interview I could prove it—the tip a that cigarette blaze up the brightest orange I ever seen.

John Jeffire was born in Detroit.His novel Motown Burningwon the 2005 Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition and the 2007 Independent Publishing Awards Gold Medal for Regional Fiction.Detroiter and former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine called his first poetry collection, Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, “a terrific one for our city.” In 2022, his novel River Rouge won the American Writing Award for Legacy Fiction.