Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Interlude: R.I.P. Ann Savage

I just popped in over at Nathan Cain's Independent Crime and read some sad news.

Ann Savage, one of the quintessential femme fatales of film noir, passed away over the Christmas holiday.

I've been trying to find just the right picture of Ann to place on the site since I started and everytime it looks like I've found one, something or other winds up happening with that picture so that it doesn't work out.

I would second Nathan's lament that you check out Detour, Ann's most famous noir flick, if you've never seen it before.

Ann Savage will be sorely missed.

Update: The picture at the header is Ann Savage in Detour. Strangely, I didn't have any problems finding this one and being able to post it.

Interlude #3

The editor speaks again.

First of all, I want to thank everyone that has contributed to A Twist Of Noir over the last month and a half. This place has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and it's because of every writer that's seen fit to send along messages from the Dark Cities of their minds.

So thank you, everyone.

Second, I'd like to ask everyone to go check out Eastern Standard Crime. Geoff Eighinger has been kind enough to review a good bit of what you've all been writing and, while there have been a couple stories that he hasn't taken to, he is always honest in his estimations.

In addition to checking out Eastern Standard Crime, you might think about sending something for Geoff's Crooked E-Zine. The January issue looks to be chock full of material but the February issue is a little sparse and the whole reason that I even started A Twist Of Noir was because of the closing of both DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash and Demolition Mag, which severely limited our outlets as crime writers. Let's not let Crooked fall before it's even off the ground.

Third, note The Lineup alongside the stories here at A Twist Of Noir. This makes it easier to search the archives.

Fourth, we're just a couple days or is it a couple of weeks...we're just a bit away from the relaunch of Bad Things, Christopher Pimental's crime E-Zine. Head over, check it out, read the guidelines and shoot.

Finally, in 2009, there will be a few contests here at A Twist Of Noir. While I can't say much about these contests at the moment (though I will over the course of the next week or so), I will say this: they will be noir/crime-themed contests and there will be money at stake for the top three stories.

Yes, you read that right.

In 2009, crime will pay!

A Twist Of Noir 030 - Naomi Johnson


I felt an electric shock along my left forearm when I saw him. I had not seen him in many years but I knew him immediately. Age had not much changed him. His handsome face had haunted me, along with so many others. I never expected to see him again, had hoped he was long since dead, but here he was in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, browsing before the jeweler's display on High Street, on a suffocating August day in 1973.

The shock of seeing him, well-dressed and clearly well-fed, spun me back to the day I met him. I was an unmarried woman of 20, shy, thin, plain, with a dark cloud of hair, and I was both hungry and terrified. He spoke to me quite gently at first as he took my arm, then less kindly when I tried to pull away. And he flew into a rage when, as he was working on my arm, a little of my blood smeared across his knuckles. He was afraid, I think, that's what made him so angry. He was afraid that my blood would contaminate him somehow. I made a sign with my fingers to ward off evil. I learned it from a gypsy woman in my village and I made the sign often in those days. And he reached out, took my fingers as they made the sign and, quick as you please, he broke them. I fainted and when I came to, I was in another place altogether. I never saw him again until that summer afternoon in Columbus. I compared my memory to what I saw now and I was not mistaken. It was he.

For a minute, I could not think what to do but then he moved away from the window and crossed north of Broad Street and I found myself following him. I was afraid that he would hail a cab or get into a car and I would have no way to find him again. His name would be different now, of course. He might not even live in Columbus, he might just be here on some business. But I was lucky and he continued to walk and walk and, finally, we were out of the downtown rush and he turned left at a medical supply store onto the street leading to Goodale Park and a residential area made up of beautiful if slightly dilapidated Victorian homes.

My thoughts were still spinning as he approached one of the brick homes, mounted the steps and let himself in. He never looked back. You would think that with his past, he would always think to look behind him, something must be chasing him, but he never did. Such confidence, such arrogance! I felt a spurt of anger and it calmed my thoughts. Amazing. Here he was, after all this time, and he was living only blocks from my modest house near St. Francis Cathedral and the elementary school. Suddenly, without planning, without consciously deciding, I knew what I was going to do. I went to his door and knocked.

When he opened the door, I told him a story about my car breaking down and asked if I might use his telephone to call my nephew. He did not recognize me. I knew he wouldn’t and yet, I was a little disappointed. He glanced at the street but the lack of a stalled car didn’t seem to worry him. The sight of a small, work-worn fifty year old woman held no fear for him, I am sure. I was still dressed in the uniform required at the cafeteria where I worked, and the stains, the ill-fitting apron, the once white, now dirty nursing shoes, all must have been reassuringly lower working-class to him.

He waved me in impatiently, pointed at the telephone on a small table. I listened but heard no sound that might indicate anyone else was in the house with him. And what a beautiful home he had. Polished wainscoting in the parlor that set off lovely old wingback chairs, barrister cases filled with neatly arranged books, a small painting in the entryway that looked very much like the work of Cezanne. Other paintings, expensively framed, adorned the walls of the parlor. I shivered with controlled rage. How was it possible after what he had done that he should enjoy such beauty, such tranquility, in his home? He had done nothing to deserve any of it.

I dialed my own number and my nephew answered. Daniel was my only surviving family and was good enough to visit his old maid aunt on his vacation, bringing me gifts from the Holy Land and stories of life in his country.

“Daniel,” I said, “this is Anna. I am having problems with the car. Would you be good enough to come and get me? I am at -- .” I paused to get the address from my host and relayed it to Daniel, along with directions. Daniel had not spoken beyond saying hello. When he did speak he said, “Aunt Anna, you are somewhere you cannot talk freely?”

“Yes. Please hurry. You must think me very tiresome, but I wish you will come right away, yes? Mr. Gillespie in the yellow house will let you borrow his car if you tell him it is a favor to me.”

When I hung up the telephone, I turned to my host. He was seated in one of the wingback chairs and I said to him, “Thank you for letting me use your telephone. You have a lovely home. May I ask, what do you do?”

“I’m a professor at the university. I teach art history.”

“Yes? And you are an artist as well? Are some of these paintings your work?”

He was so proud of his possessions, and he began telling me about the various pictures. More about what other people said of his work than about the pictures themselves but I did not care. I was lost in memory, seeing again the revulsion on his face when he saw my blood on his knuckles, feeling the sharp pain of my bones snap under the pressure of his heavy hands. I shook off the memories when I heard a car pull up out front. I interrupted him and said, “Here is my nephew now.” I hurried to let Daniel in and quickly closed the door behind him. With a look, I warned him to be quiet, then took his hand and pulled him into the parlor where my host was now standing, looking concerned, perhaps even a little worried at this unexpected stranger in his house. Daniel has that effect on people.

Before he could raise a protest, I spoke. “Thank you for telling me about your paintings. I know you are an artist. I knew it before you opened the door to me. You see, I own one of your works. You might call it an ink drawing, yes? You gave it to me right before you broke my fingers.” I extended my left forearm, turning the inside up to show him the blue number he had etched into my arm in 1943. I felt Daniel go rigid next to me. “Forgive my bad manners. Please allow me to introduce my nephew, Daniel Aron. He is visiting me, you know, on his vacation. He lives in Israel now and has a very important job. He is with Mossad, you know this word, yes?”

Yes, I could see by how pale his face had become, by the sudden tic under his left eye, by the way he collapsed into his chair that he knew the word.

“Daniel,” I said, “this man is Franz Gerhardt, who gave me this wonderful work of art all those years ago. It has lasted the test of time as so many did not. How can we ever thank him?”

BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her friends deny all responsibilty.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 029 - Mark Joseph Kiewlak


Originally published in Mysterical-E #35 (Summer 2006)

"Take the phone," she said. "Take it."

I had the accelerator to the floor. The rural landscape blurred past. We were approaching the city fast. But not fast enough. She was near hysterical, blubbering and waving her arms frantically.

"Take it," she said. "He has a gun and he's going to hurt her."

She shoved the phone again into my line of vision and I slapped it away. She kept on bawling and curled herself further into the corner away from me. The phone was dangling in her hand over the edge of the seat.

"Please," she said. "Help her. Help my baby girl."

I took the phone from her and lifted it to my ear.

"Kranson," I said. "Are you there?"

"Who the fuck is this?"

"Nobody," I said. "Put the girl on the line."

"Fuck you," he said. "Put my mother-in-law back on."

"I can't."

"Why the fuck not?"

"She's too upset," I said. "You've upset her badly."

"Good," he said, and I could hear the smirk on the other end. "That's fuckin' good."

I changed my grip on the wheel. "Why is it good?" I said.

"Because she upset me," Kranson said. "She always upset me with all of her fucking nonsense."

Outside, the snow was just beginning to fall. But a major storm was coming. In five minutes, the road would be covered.

"What sort of nonsense?" I said. There was no answer on the other end. "Kranson?" I heard a woman crying in the background. Kranson was shouting. Then he came back on the line.

"Fuckin' whiners," he said. "The whole family is a bunch of fuckin' whiners."

On the seat next to me, Olivia had grown still. She was sniffling a little and staring out the window as if in some faraway place.

"Don't appreciate nothin'," Kranson said.

"Who doesn't?" I said.

"None of 'em." He coughed once. A smoker's cough. "I gave 'em a home. Did the best I could. But they don't appreciate it."

"Kranson," I said. "Let me talk to the girl. Let me talk to Alice."

"Fuck Alice," he said. "I never had the things she had. The things she grew up with. Nice home. Nice family. I never had it. My mother's dead. My father's in prison. Think she cares? She don't give a fuck about one fucking thing except herself and her mother. Fuckin' windbag. Fuckin' busybody always nosin' in. Put her on the fucking phone."

"I can't," I said. "She's cried herself into a fit worrying about Alice."

He laughed a harsh laugh and I heard a gunshot. The wheel jumped in my hand and I had to swerve away from some farmhouse mailboxes.

"Kranson?" I said. "What the hell is going on?"

"Fuck you, Mr. Nobody," he said. "I'm not tellin'."

And then he hung up.

On the seat beside me, Olivia had no reaction.

"You've got to call him back," I said. "Get him back on the line."

She stared out at the snow, falling rapidly now, and it was dark enough so that I could see her reflection in the passenger window.

"She's lost to me," Olivia said. "My baby is lost to me."

Now I was the one shoving the phone in her face.

"Call him back," I said. "I don't know the number."

"He's going to kill her," she said. "We'll never get there in time. I knew this was a bad idea."

With my free hand, I reached over and slapped her hard across the face.

"This isn't about you," I said. "It's about your daughter and the rest of her family."

She was crying again, working back up to hysterical. "She shouldn't have married him," Olivia said.

I slapped her again, just as an oncoming tractor-trailer blinded us with its lights. "Call him back, you stupid selfish bitch," I said. "Before it's too late."

She wasn't scared of me. She was resigned now to whatever her fate. But she took the phone and dialed. After a moment she said, "Jackie, let me speak to my daughter, please. If you haven't killed her, that is."

I felt my stomach tighten at the wrongness of the situation. She was reacting like the lady of the manor dealing with some hired hand. She seesawed between fits of emotion and statements of cold calculation. I couldn't be sure that she understood the reality of anything anymore. If she ever had.

"Jackie, I'm trying to be reasonable," she said. I heard more cursing on the other end. "Give me back my daughter, you son of a bitch. You white trash gutter filth. Don't you dare hurt her, you hear me? Don't you dare."

I tore the phone away from her just as the city came into view over the rise.

"Kranson," I said. "What was that gunshot? Is Alice okay?"

"She's fine," he said. "But that damn ugly table lamp is history." He laughed to himself.

"What about the kids?" I said.

He laughed harder, then coughed for a moment. "Locked in their rooms," he said. "Tucked up in their beds waiting for Santa to come."

The son of a bitch.

"Is that what this is about?" I said. "Christmas? Olivia told me about the argument you had earlier."

"Goddamn kids want their goddamn Christmas at home," he said. "Not at that goddamn mansion in the woods. Fuckin' sleigh rides. She's got them spoiled rotten."

I let him talk for a moment. We were into the outskirts now and I had to slow down. The roads were covered but there wasn't much traffic yet. Everyone had listened to the advisory. The car was skidding a bit but I kept urging it forward, as if I could keep it on the road through concentration alone. The towers of the city were lost in the swirling white.

"I do the best I can," Kranson was saying. "I give those kids every penny I can. But what the fuck good is it when my fuckin' mother-in-law builds them a carousel on the South lawn? I can't compete with that shit. I'm losing them all. But I won't let 'em go. I won't let them turn into that. No fucking way."

I could hear Alice crying again in the background and Kranson's attention turn away. "Shut the fuck up, I said. Your mother's coming to rescue you. Just like she always says. Like I'm some loser. Some maniac who brainwashed her daughter."

There was a scuffle and the sound of more things breaking. I took the exit ramp into downtown.

"Kranson," I said.

"Yeah, I'm still here."

"You've made your point," I said. "Olivia realizes she was wrong. She's sorry for the way she's treated you."

On the seat beside me, Olivia frowned her disapproval.

"Goddamn witch thinks she can control the weather," Kranson said. "I told her they said a foot of snow's coming on Christmas Eve. I told her that maybe this year the kids should stay here in the city. We decorated the apartment nice. We gave them all tons of presents. The best I could, you know. But no, she says. Come out tonight. The roads'll be fine. 'That's what we pay these people for.' Fuckin' snob-ass snoot-nose bitch."

The street lamps were decorated with wreaths and candy canes and giant bells.

I ran two lights before I came upon an accident scene. The intersection was jammed with cars in every direction.

I fishtailed to a stop and tried to back up but I was already blocked in by cars behind me.

"We're gonna have our Christmas right here," Kranson said. "And fuck anybody who tries to get in the way."

Olivia was up and alert now and she leaned over and honked the horn.

"Do something," she said. "That's what I hired you for."

With the phone still in my hand, I bailed out of the car and ran through the intersection to the far sidewalk.

Here in the city it had been snowing a while longer and there was already four or five inches on the ground. I felt like I was on the moon trying to run through peanut butter.

"Kranson," I said. "It's Christmas Eve. Remember your kids. Remember all the good things. You don't want to mess that up forever."

There was no answer on the line. The air felt like icicles going into my lungs.

The streets were mostly empty and silent this deep into the city and I started to feel truly isolated, as if I was moving through my own world filled only with wind and snow and one foot in front of the other.

"Jackie, no, Jackie..."

I held the receiver back up to my ear. There was screaming and scuffling and another gunshot and more screaming. Then Kranson came back on the line, crying. "Mr. Nobody, you there?"

My voice was barely a rasp as I trudged forward.

"I'm here," I said.

"All I wanted was a simple Christmas," he said. "A simple happy Christmas with the family I love. Why couldn't she let me have that? Was that so much to ask?"

I was coming up on a church now and there was a glow from within. The window panes were frosted over and I heard singing. I kept going.

"You know," Kranson said, "this is really the most depressing night of the year. Everyone gathered together, spreading love and affection. I never had that when I was a kid. But Alice here, she gave it to me. She really tried. And every year, off we'd go to that ice palace and that cold witch and Alice just couldn't make it right. She really tried, though."

I was coming up on his block, a neighborhood of upscale brownstones that he could never in a million years afford on his own.

"She and the kids are better off this way," Kranson said. "I'm saving us all from a life of misery with that hen."

My legs were giving out and I was falling forward with each step. I could taste the blood in my throat.

At the brownstone's entrance, an elderly well-to-do couple was just moving inside out of the cold. I pushed past them and hit the stairs almost on my stomach and scrambled and clattered and kept the phone pasted to my ear as I reached with my other hand for my gun.

"I'm sorry, Alice, baby," Kranson said. "I'm sorry I let you down so badly. I'm sorry for all of it."

I hit the landing and barreled toward the apartment door and tripped and got up and dropped the phone and crashed into the door with my shoulder and the lock gave and I stumbled into the living room and saw Alice on her knees before him, the gun to her head.

I fired three times at Kranson and hit him in the chest, just as he turned, with all three and he spun around and crashed facefirst into the elegant Christmas tree and he went down and the tree went down and both stayed there and neither moved.

I collapsed to my knees and crawled toward Alice and kept my gun trained on Kranson, who was splayed among the branches and bloody and still not moving.

His eyes were open and looking up at the star, which was still in place atop the downed tree.
Alice was in shock and incoherent.

I shook her, but there was nothing going on inside at the moment.

I got to my feet and dragged her up and pulled her out of the room, down the hall to the other bedrooms.

I kicked in the first door and a little boy jumped off his bed and came running toward her. She hugged him without even realizing it and we moved on to the next door and I mustered the strength and kicked it in and a little girl came out of the shadows and wrapped herself around Alice's other leg.

The final door gave way to my shoulder and no one was inside.

I heard crying from the closet and the group of us moved toward it and found the last child huddled within, her nightgown pulled down over her knees, her face covered with tears.

I directed Alice to the tiny child's bed, where she sat down and embraced all three. Their affection and their need for comfort were bringing her back around. Her black velour evening gown had splatters of Kranson's blood all over the front of it.

I slid down with my back to the far wall and kept my gun on the doorway just in case.

Alice lifted her head over the kids' shoulders and nodded her thanks and held my eyes for a moment. "I know you won't believe me," she said, "but I really did love him."

I nodded slowly and listened to the snow blowing against the window pane and closed my eyes and dreamed of far better things.

BIO: In 2008, Mark Joseph Kiewlak's work appeared in more than two dozen magazines, including Hardboiled, Plots With Guns, Pulp Pusher, Thug Lit, Muzzle Flash, Powder Burn Flash, Clean Sheets, and many others. He was privileged to have served as judge of the 2007 Wild Violet Fiction Contest. He has also written for DC Comics (FLASH 80-PAGE GIANT #2).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 028 - Cormac Brown


Originally published on Powder BurnFlash and then on Cormac Writes.

The "City of Angels"? They have all the letters right, but their order all wrong. It's the "City of Angles". As in everyone there has an angle, is hiding behind one or they will come at you from a funny angle. Because people down there just don't deal with anyone straight on.

I don't like coming down here; it's way too bright and that's just the light coming off of all of the bleached smiles. Don't get me started on the sun. But I am here on business, on behalf of a fine piece of pleasure.

She's battier than a cave full of guano, which is good for the bedroom and bad for everywhere else. Even when she comes up for the occasional recreational tryst, this gets to be too much. So I know all too well as to just why her husband wants to divorce her, since he has to deal with her every single day.

The problem, as far as she is concerned, is that she is a movie star who has amassed millions over the life of her career, and before they were married he was a boom-mike operator with bad shoulders. When she finally cuts him loose, he won't be able to work for long and though I don't know all of the details, the only thing that both of their lawyers can agree on is that he has a fairly good chance of overturning their prenuptial agreement.

My plan is pretty simple: I've already driven down here and stolen a car. I'll kick it off with a squat-and-stop right in front of her husband's car.

It's six P.M. on an overcast December 15th and it's nice and dark. He turns off of Franklin Boulevard and I follow. I pull ahead of him and I look for witnesses...that's right, I look for witnesses.

If you ask them what happened next, they would tell you that he rear-ended me, even though I was the one that stopped short in front of him. They would tell you that a Mexican gang-banger got out and cursed at him in Spanish for being crazy and for hitting his car.

Then they would tell you that the Mexican shot the husband point-blank in the head...even though I am about as Mexican as Charlton Heston in "A Touch of Evil," and that my clothes and car are authentic, only in the borrowed sense.

I drive off of Whitley Avenue, where I torch the car and the disguise. I get the rental car I drove down here out of the garage and I'm home free, because L.A.'s finest won't be looking for "Joe Tourist" as the World's Best "Accidental" Post-Nuptial Agreement.

Just south of Lompoc, I have to get gas for the car and caffeine for myself, as we are both running on fumes...twenty hours on the road will do that to you. I nod at the cashier, a nice East Indian who will go far, judging by all the books he studies in between transactions. Then, in my sleep-deprived stupor, I make a mistake...I pay for the sale with my credit card. If a detective gets lucky and makes it up to Pacifica, this will put a huge hole in my "all alone at my cabin up in Tahoe" alibi.

I space out until the cashier and a Highway Patrol officer waiting behind me, bring me back. I sign the receipt and thank the kid.

Three miles later and I hear the distinct horn of a police car. I mull pulling over for about thirty seconds, then the car flashes the red and blue lights, and I panic. I get the first shot off, but I should've just shot myself instead, as it's real hard to hit anything with a patrol car spotlight in your face.

I slip in and out...

...I see the Highway Patrol officer who was at the gas station.

...I hear him tell another officer that the station cashier said I forgot my credit card, and that he just wanted to give it back to me. I take it back...that cashier won't go far; he'll make a bad American, because he's too damn honest.

...I just hope they can't connect me to her.

...Yes, I contradicted myself by what I've done, but I'll still talk shit about "The City of Angles". I never said I wasn't a hypocrite and the most comforting fact to me as I depart this world, is that at least I won't die in L.A.

BIO: "Cormac Brown" is a pen name. He's an up-and-slumming writer in the city of Saint Francis, and he is following in the footsteps of Hammett...minus the TB and working for the Pinkerton Agency. A couple of stories that he's stapled and stitched together can be found at Cormac Writes.

Interlude...With Gerard Brennan

Over the last couple of weeks, more like three now, I sat down and fired e-mail questions off in the direction of Gerard Brennan. Not only was he gracious enough to answer them in a candid fashion, he was eager to do so. You can check out out Gerard's blog, Crime Scene NI.

Christopher Grant: The first question is about your process of writing. What's your's like?

Gerard Brennan: I have a wife and two kids (who thankfully still chose to live with me), a full-time job, and a desire to socialise when I get the chance. And I used to run a Wing Tsun kung fu club, but had to give it up due to time constraints. I'm not complaining one bit about any of this. I'm blessed to have a happy family, a steady job and a wee bit of a social life. But, God! All that stuff really gets in the way of writing. So my writing process consists of me stealing time anywhere I can find it and stuffing as many words as I can into that small window. Sometimes I'll decide to get out of bed an hour earlier than the kids, or I'll stay awake an hour or three after my wife goes to bed. It's impossible to find a pattern that's unmovable and that keeps everybody happy. Life happens, so I try to work around it.

I tend to edit as I go along, which makes me a slow writer, but a fast editor. In November, I tried to do it the other way and signed up to National Novel Writing Month. But I just couldn't sustain it. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in one month, without allowing self-editing to slow you down. I'm not that kind of writer. Some are, I'm not. I did manage 25,000 words though. And they were pretty good ones. But now I'm back to my usual process. Write a bit, read a bit, edit a bit, write a bit... you get the picture.

I generally don't outline. Instead, I might have an image of where I want a character to be, and I do my best to get there. Sometimes another character gets in the way and the original character's final destination changes, but that's where most of the joy I get out of writing comes from. Not quite knowing how it's all going to end.

CG: You sound a bit like me (minus the kids and wife on my end). When I can find the time to write, I do it as quickly as possible, having one thing or another pop up. I can't think of the last time I had the time to actually devote more than a couple hours in the morning to writing.

Editing, you're right, is far easier, a lot less time consuming, even when it's someone else's stories (reading and enjoying other people's stories is what makes editing A Twist Of Noir so much fun).

Taking off from the process question, is writer's block even a possibility in Gerard Brennan's world and, if so, how do you deal with it?

GB: I don't believe I've ever had writer's block. But at times, I suffer from writer's laziness. It seems to come in cycles. The ideas are all there, the computer is waiting patiently and the distraction level is as low as it gets. Then I close the laptop and have a cup of tea, or a beer, depending on what night of the week it is. How do I cope? I try not to get too stressed about it. There are so many great books out there, so I take that downtime to increase my input.

Eventually, it becomes output again -- not plagiarism, you understand... inspiration. But writer's laziness on not, I still try to write in some shape or form every day. The CSNI blog is a part of that.

CG: Again, I'm just like you where it concerns the writer's laziness, rather than writer's block. Distractions are the bane of every writer's existence and writing in the morning or late at night are really the only times that I can squeeze some writing in.

The really strange/funny thing is that I don't have any problem writing while outside of the house and at the mall or somewhere similar. I guess because the noise/distractions in the background isn't/aren't directed at me.

GB: It's weird, the distraction thing, isn't it? I've written in cafe's and in the canteen at work without a problem. Put me at home during the day and I'm running to the door to snatch my bills out of the postman's hands or anything else that takes me away from the laptop.

CG: Last question about process. (Editor's note: It, of course, isn't actually isn't the last question on process, as you'll see.)

Some writers swear that they absolutely must have a title before they can even come close to writing a story. Others have no such problems. Do you have to have a title before you start a story or does the story come before you title it?

GB: Titles. Hmmmm, come to think of it, it's happened both ways. The novel I'm shopping around right now is titled Piranhas, and I've had that title in my head for about five years, but never really tackled the story that went with it. Who knew it'd turn out to be a novel? Not me, until I got about 15,000 words in.

But my first novel attempt, Fireproof, started with a scene that played funny in my head. Didn't get the title until I was almost finished the first draft.

And the current WIP is titled Shot, which took me about 20,000 words to decide on, and I'm not sure I like it.

Maybe it alternates novel-wise. With my short stories, I don't really know what the pattern is, but usually if I don't come up with one before I finish writing, I'm not happy with the one I eventually settle on. Is that weird? Probably.

So, I guess titles are important to me, but they occur when they're meant to. And, you know,I like the title Piranhas, but I've a feeling publishers won't. Is it important enough that I'd refuse to change it? Not at all. It's just part of the packaging.

CG: For me, titles used to be paramount. It was very much the oxygen that the story needed to survive or it wouldn't go any further than the first sentence or paragraph (if I was lucky).
At some point, it stopped being of any importance.

In fact, one of the stories on Powder Burn Flash, Heroes Get Dead Quick, comes from what the narrator of the story says to one of the security guards. I didn't have the title until that line came out of his mouth and onto the computer screen and after that, it just made sense for that to be the title.

Sometimes I go through a story and just go looking for something that sounds like it will grab a reader and that's the title. Other times, I have the title before the story and I start shaping the story around that title. That seems to only happen in flash fiction, though.

Let's talk about what got you into writing and what kind of influences have bearing on your writing (and that can be anything or anyone).

GB: From an early age, I was influenced by the likes of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons... a whole host of horror writers really. This would probably explain why most of my early stories are closer to that genre than the crime or noir flavour that my more recent work has developed. And that change in direction came quite naturally. As I found my voice, I realised I had more interest in gritty reality than the scary supernatural. This isn't to say I'll never write another supernatural story again. In fact, I wrote two of them in the last few months, and both of them were quite good (in my opinion, anyway). They should be available to read in the near future through Morrigan Books. One in their Three Crow Press Ezine and another in a future title from their Gilgamesh imprint. I say 'should' because in publishing, I try not to count my chickens before they hatch. Things can change in even the most professionally run houses (and Morrigan Books continues to display thorough professionalism), so I'll count those as publishing credits as soon as I read 'em!

I published a chapbook last year through Baysgarth Publications title Possession, Obsession and a Diesel Compression Engine. It's a collection of six short stories that are probably best described as horror-comedy. Not sure what this was influenced by, but if you fancy a chuckle, hopefully for the right reasons, you can check it out at a discounted price for the near future.

Usually a writer's biggest influences can be drawn from reading, and if you visit CSNI you can see exactly what I'm reading right now. Writers like Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty, Ken Bruen, Colin Bateman, Garbhan Downey... the list goes on. Just go to the site for the rest. All these top notch Irish crime writers inspire me greatly, and it's a joy to read their work. But influence can be drawn from anywhere. A conversation, something I spot on the road, a lingering scene in a movie, a night on the beer, a smile from my wife...it all contributes.

CG: What's crime/noir fiction's appeal for you?

I can say for me that it's an unlimited canvas on which to paint. I mean, you can have bank robberies or you can have some guy that kills his wife by accident (both of which I've written, for the record). The broad base is what just makes me love this stuff.

GB: Like you said, Christopher, crime fiction is incredibly flexible. A dream come true for a writer and a reader. How could you ever get bored of a genre that offers such diversity? Also, I subscribe to Declan Burke's school of thought. In one of his many excellent posts on Crime Always Pays he described crime fiction as history's second draft (newspapers being the first). When done well, the writer can reflect the social climate of a setting, or catch the mood of an entire generation. Powerful stuff, right? I've encountered too many examples this year for me to even attempt listing without fear of missing some great ones, but Irish crime writers seem to be particularly good at reflecting society through powerful prose.

CG: Let's talk about King Edward for a bit and probably this question will also go into process, so this could be a question about any of your fiction, really.

Which came first in King Edward, the plot or the characters or was it one of those times when you just sit down and write and it all comes pouring out through your fingers?

GB: King Edward was definitely one of those stories that came easy. Some do, some don't and I'm not sure why. I used to think that if I had enough sleep the night before my brain worked more efficiently and the words came easier. However, the day I decided to write King Edward I was sleep-deprived, distracted and a little hungover. It could nearly be an argument to increase my drinking, but I know that's not a healthy way to look at it. I've done more writing with a clear head than otherwise. And writing when I'm a bit tipsy? A waste of time.

Anyway, back to the question, I guess the concept, or the situation, came first. The missing cigar was Marty's distraction and the hangover... well, his was more extreme than mine, but I was trying to put some of what I was feeling into him. And from that situation, which really only accounts for the opening paragraphs, the two characters came into their own. Neither Marty nor Vinto were particularly nice guys, but then I'm not a particularly nice person when I'm stressed and hungover. My main objective wasn't to make them likeable, but to make them convincing humans in a messed up situation.

The short stories that I have the easiest time writing tend to be my favourites, and King Edward is one of those. But I'm kind of glad they don't all come easy. Some of them are real struggles to write, but if I don't lose patience, ask a friend for advice (mostly Mike Stone -- Hi Mike) and keep on trying, I can usually produce a labour of love. I might not want to look at it again for a few months, but it's another story wrote.

CG: Finally, I'll give you the opportunity to pimp your work.

GB: What's out there - My Favourites

Chapbook Collection - Possession Obsession and a Diesel Compression Engine

Various Author Anthology - Badass Horror

Internet Reading

King Edward

Piranhas - First Chapter

(Editor's Note: After the interview had been conducted, Gerard Brennan announced that he will be featured in the February issue of Thuglit with a story titled Hard Rock. Check it out when it hits.)

CG: Thank you for the interview, Gerard.

GB: You're welcome.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 027 - Sandra Seamans


Marcy dropped her quarters in the slot and dialed the old familiar number, bouncing from foot to foot in an effort to stay warm as the phone rang through to the other end.

"Merry Kissmus!"

Marcy frowned. That wasn't her mother's voice.

"Give Mommy the phone, sweetie." Marcy winced as the phone thumped on the floor then, "Hello? Hello?...Is that you, Marcy? Please, honey, talk to me, tell me where you are."

Marcy set the phone back in its cradle, tears spilling down her cheeks. Her mother had replaced her already, how could she ever go home now? She patted her jacket pocket to reassure herself that the gun was still there, then slid along the icy sidewalk to old man Kruger's drug store. Except for Father Jack’s, it was the only place open on the street tonight and she needed a warm place to think about what she was going to do and she most definitely didn’t want to be thinking about killing herself with Father Jack watching her.

Rachael Reilly glanced toward the door as Marcy pushed through. She closed her cell phone after telling the caller to meet her at Father Jack's Shack for the midnight mass. Her eyes widened a notch when she noticed the bulge in Marcy’s jacket pocket. Just what I need in here on Christmas Eve, she thought, a merry little suicide idiot. Stupid kids.

"Little cold to be hustling the streets tonight, isn't it?" she asked, sliding a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of fresh made donuts in front of Marcy as she sat down at the lunch counter.

Marcy wrapped her hands around the cup, trying to warm them. "I was using the pay phone outside. I wanted to call home and wish my Mom a Merry Christmas."

"And how'd that work out for you?"

"She's replaced me with another kid, probably doesn't even miss me anymore."

"How long ago did you run away from home?"

"How'd you know I ran away?"

"Because I did the same thing about a hundred years ago. So, how long has it been since you left?"

"Nearly four years. I just couldn't take her crap anymore. All those stupid rules about school nights and dating...thing is, I figured out too late that she was right."

"They usually are, but when you're what...twelve or thirteen, Moms seem like the stupidest people on earth."

"Did you work the streets?" asked Marcy.

"Oh, yeah. Ain't much else a kid can do if they want to eat. You can't get a decent job, hell, you can't get any kind of job."

"You must've done pretty well for yourself since you're part owner of this drug store."

"I didn't do well at all, kid. I got lucky after I made my phone call home. I came in here, just like you, and Mr. Kruger took pity on me, helped me through a bad patch, then I met a cop who got me off the street and back in school. Became a cop myself, believe it or not. Now, I'm retired and working here and doing a little PI business on the side."

"Sounds like you had it pretty easy."

"What it sounds like and what it was, well, it wasn't pretty and the truth is, the street damned near killed me. If it weren’t for Mr. Kruger, I would've shoved a gun in my mouth and been done with my life." Rachael paused and glanced at her watch. "Look, I'm about ready to close up for the night. I promised to meet someone over at Father Jack's, why don't you come along? Sit through the service, have some Christmas cookies and eggnog, maybe spend the night in the upstairs suite."

"The suite?" Marcy giggled. "More like a dormitory for every misfit on Mulberry."

"Yeah, but at least Father Jack makes sure everyone knows they're loved, at least by him and God."

The snow was starting to fall as they made their way to Father Jack’s, spreading a blanket of virgin white flakes over Mulberry Street.

"The snow sure is beautiful, ain’t it?" said Marcy.

"It does a helluva job covering up the truth about this street, but when you’ve lived here long enough, you never forget what’s underneath."

"If you hate Mulberry so much, why don’t you leave?"

"I guess I’m like Father Jack. I keep thinking somebody’s got to give a damn about the people who earn their supper walking the street and living in cardboard boxes."

"Do you wish that you’d talked to your Mom back then, when you called home, instead of hanging up?"

"Back then, I wished it more than anything in the world, but my life’s turned out okay for me. It’s put me here on Mulberry so I can help the folks who can’t help themselves. And maybe at the end of the day, that’s what life intended for me. One thing’s for sure, I can’t go back now, but you still can."

"What do you mean?"

A car was pulling up to the curb in front of Father Jack’s and a woman got out before the driver got the car completely stopped. They watched as she ran through the doorway of the building that housed Father Jack’s Shack.

"That was my Mom," said Marcy, grabbing Rachael's sleeve to stop her.

"Yeah, she’s been looking for you. The cops put her in touch with me after you called her tonight. She wants you to come home, Marcy."

"She can’t want me, I’m a whore. She won’t want my dirt rubbing off on her new kid."

"You’re her kid, too. Believe me, she wants you. Why do you think she drove all the way here on Christmas Eve? You’re the best Christmas present she’ll ever get, sweetie."

"Are you sure? Would you have gone home if your Mom had shown up?"

"In a heartbeat, kid, in a heartbeat. Now, give me that gun you’re lugging around and go hug your Mom and tell her you love her. Then go back home and try to forget about Mulberry Street."

Rachael slipped the gun into her pocket as Father Jack stepped outside with Marcy’s mother. Rachael watched as the girl was swept up in a ferocious hug, a quiver of wishful thinking racing through her own wounded heart.

"You stepping on my toes again, Rachael?" asked Father Jack as the car pulled away.

"Somebody’s got to pick up the stragglers," said Rachael slipping an arm around Father Jack’s shoulder. "You about ready to start the service?"

"Of course, I was just waiting for you. Couldn’t start without looking to see what kind of Christmas miracle our Rachael was pulling out of her magician's cap tonight."

"There’s no miracles or magic on Mulberry, Father, just people surviving whatever life throws at them."

"Well, if getting that family together wasn’t a miracle, darling, I don’t know what is."

"If you want to know the truth, Father, I’ll be surprised if that girl isn’t dead or back on the street within three months. Her mother wants to forgive and forget, but the truth of Marcy’s life will always be there, waiting for a spark of anger to toss it like a grenade into the room between them."

Rachael pulled the gun from her pocket, slapping it into the priest’s hand. "And if she found a gun once, she’ll find one again. Next time, I won’t be there to stop her from using it. No, Father, miracles don’t live on Mulberry, only slim chances if you’re strong enough to grab one."

BIO: You can find Sandra's stories scattered around the internet in places like Spinetingler, PulpPusher, and The Thrilling Detective. Her scattered thoughts about writing can be found at My Little Corner.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 026 - Naomi Johnson


“Tiffany, where is your daughter?”

“I told you, I left her with the sitter.” Her eyes shifted away and down.


”I told you.”

“Tell me again.” For the tenth time, I thought. Because I just love it when killers lie to me.

“On Thursday. No. Friday. No, Thursday. Thursday. It was a Thursday.”

Christ, it was like pulling teeth but I knew she couldn't hold out much longer. We'd been at it for hours now. I'd done this before; she never had. I stood up, stretched, walked around behind her and leaned in close.

“Help me out here, Tiffany. Which Thursday? What sitter? Where does she live?”

“I told you already. I told you and told you!” Her voice took on a high pitch. “I'm so tired, I need to sleep. I can't--”

“Stop whining!” I shouted, and slammed my fist on the table. “Your daughter, your beautiful Karla is missing. She's been gone eight fucking days. I don't want to hear how tired you are, I want to know what you've done with Karla!”

I dropped to a squat next to her, looked up, let my anger drain away. You have to balance the anger and intimidation with a little empathy. Timing it right is hard, though.

“She's so little, Tiffany, so helpless. And we're all tired and we could all go home if we only knew where she was. If we could only be sure that she wasn't frightened.” She lied, I could lie, too, right?

I saw her mouth tremble, her eyes fill with tears. Close, I was close. I took her hands, held them between mine.

“See, Tiffany, here's what I think happened. You tell me if I'm wrong. I think you were tired. And Karla, well, she's only three but she's a handful, isn't she? Maybe you spoiled her a little, huh? You were too good to her.”

Abusers loved to think that about themselves.

“And she wanted something she couldn't have, a toy maybe or a piece of candy?” A picture snapped into my mind of a toddler's tantrum. Tiffany's hands trembled ever-so-slightly. Or maybe it was me.

“Or maybe she didn't want something. Didn't want to take a nap, didn't want to pick up her toys. Started that bawling, hollering and screaming maybe, but not really crying. You know how kids carry on when they aren't hurt but they aren't getting their way? And you were tired, you didn't mean to do it, you would never hurt her, not Ka -- not Karla. No one could love their little girl more than you love her. But she just wouldn't shut up and you couldn't help it, could you? Nobody could blame you, it wasn't your fault. But she wouldn't stop and you had to make her stop, didn't you? You had to make her be quiet. She needed to know who was the boss. You couldn't help it, you put the pillow over her and held her down until she stopped. You weren't hurting her, you just wanted her to be quiet.” It all rolled through my mind like a silent movie, but I could feel her parental rage, out of control; the child shrieking, thrashing. Her silence.

The tears rolled down Tiffany's cheeks and she drew a breath that rattled in her throat, like she was having trouble breathing. “Yes,” was all she said.


“Yes, Tiffany? You'll help us take care of her now, won't you?” Images of a little girl wrapped in her favorite blanket, face covered, fogged my vision.. “Help us bring her home.”

She nodded and drew herself up, as if collecting her thoughts. And the whole story poured out between mounting sobs and hiccups. Fourteen hours of badgering, coaxing, pressuring and pleading, and finally she told it all. Especially the excuses, there were a lot of those. There were always plenty of those. Tiffany was going to feel a lot better in a few minutes, very peaceful and calm, when she got it all out. Maybe even sleepy, I'd seen that happen.

I was exhausted, too, but I wasn't going to feel better. Fact was, I felt worse already, really wobbly, and I left Patterson and Seaver to nail down the details of her confession. Uniforms would get the call shortly to start the search for a body. I headed for the restroom but I'd left it a little too long. I felt my legs go all rubbery and I sagged, shoulder to the wall. Breathing took an effort.

The pictures were in my head now, clicking past like a rapid-fire slide show, Youtube on acid, one after another after another: Newborn Karla, toddler Karla, then Karen, my Karen; Karla crying, then Karen in chorus and the pillow over her face, her short, round legs kicking and then limp, not kicking anymore. And putting the little body into the trunk. No, in a box, then in a trunk. DNA, you know? Tiffany should have thought of that. I did. Opening the trunk again, under a half moon amid the whine of mosquitoes and the distant splash of a 'gator. The Everglades, the best place. She'll never be found there. Never. The little bundle had slipped into the water so quietly, sank gently. Wish I'd put her favorite doll with her, but that wouldn't be right. She'd had so many dolls, but that one always made Karen laugh. A kidnapper wouldn't know about that funny little doll. Only a mother would know that, right? But Karen was a long time ago. A lifetime ago. Think about Karla instead. Karen was gone forever. Karla would come home again even if it was only for her funeral.

From around the corner I heard one of the county cops say, “That was really something, the way she got in that woman's head. Kind of creepy. I've never seen anything like it.”

“You never will, God willing.” That was my boss, Captain Delancey. ”How many cops do you know who've had their own baby girl disappear?”

I held my breath, pushed hard against the wall like I could just slide through it and vanish.

Don't. Think. About. Karen.

I started, jumped, as a heavy hand landed on my shoulder, spun me around. Captain Delancey. His expression was grim but he had the light of victory in his eyes. I shuddered, guilt sweating from my pores.

“Good work, Angie. I know this was a bitch for you. Square away your paperwork and take some time off, okay? You did a helluva job, you're a shoe-in for a commendation.”

I nodded, pulled away. Delancey was a good guy, and he cared about his people. But maybe some night I'd take the commendation out and throw it in the 'Glades. I knew just the spot for it.

BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her friends deny all responsibilty.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 025 - Jake Hinkson


Alyssa and I used to meet at the Metro station every Tuesday night when my wife was at her real estate certification class. I was always a little nervous, but as we walked back to her place, I would settle down. Guilt gave way to a kind of calm expectation. We would talk about this and that, but we never talked about what was going to happen. We wouldn't even flirt. We'd talk like friends, or maybe even a brother and a sister. There was no outward tension, no hint of anticipation on our faces or in our voices. Someone passing us on the street would never have suspected what was about to happen just up the narrow flight of stairs to her room.

She had a little apartment on the top floor of a big house in a nice part of town. The people who owned the house lived in Bangladesh, and the bottom floor of the house was occupied by a cute Bangladeshi girl who was taking classes at George Mason. One warm summer evening, she was sitting on the porch swing smoking a cigarette as we walked up.

The Bangladeshi girl waved and said, "Hey."

"Hey," Alyssa replied. She had never used the Bangladeshi girl's name, so I didn't know it. I just waved at her. She smiled back at me like the floors in the house were thin.

We walked around the house to the stairs, and I told Alyssa, "She's always out there."

"I know," she said. "She likes to smoke, I guess."

"She have a boyfriend or anything?"

Alyssa turned around on the first step. She looked pretty that night, with her long black hair down around her shoulders. Even on the step, she was shorter than me. "Why," she asked, poking me in the chest, "you wondering if she's free?"

I smiled and shook my head. It was odd that she had said that. It was the closest she had ever come to flirting with me. Made me think. Maybe she was beginning to like me.

She led me up the stairs, unlocked her back door and went inside. I followed her inside and felt soothed. I loved being there. The place smelled like a twenty-one year-old woman. A laptop sat opened on the kitchen table next to a pile of books. Some dishes sat drying in a green wire strainer by the sink. She must have done them just before she walked down to the Metro station to meet me.

I took out my wallet and placed my money on the counter. I hated handing her the money. It broke the mood. "How are your studies?" I said.

She had gone into the next room, maybe to slip into something more comfortable, maybe to sprawl out on the bed. I could never be sure.

I called out to her, "I said, how are your studies?"

I heard floorboards creaking in the bedroom.

I loosened my tie and followed the sound to the bedroom, but I was surprised to find Alyssa standing in the doorway with her back to me.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

She backed out of the doorway, and I saw a man sitting in the upholstered chair by the bed.
I stopped.

He stared at me. He was a tall guy with long, thick arms sleeved with tattoos. His hair was a military cut, and he wore a black T-shirt with some kind of military insignia over the right pectoral.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Nick."

I looked at Alyssa. Her brown eyes widened, and she held her stomach like she might be sick.
The man in the chair said, "You're the new one, I guess."

I shook my head. "I'm just a friend," I said.

"Are you?"


"How old are you?"


"I said 'how old are you?'"

"Thirty-seven," I said.

"Really? Little old to be friends with a twenty-one year-old girl."

She stepped toward him and said, "He's telling the truth, Nick." Her voice cracked a little. It was the first time she'd spoken. I wanted her to say more. There was nothing I was going to say to this man to convince him of anything. I felt my hands moisten. I'm not a brave man. Never have been. I did not want this guy to kick the hell out of me, and I really wanted Alyssa to talk him out of it.

"He and I are just friends," she told Nick. "He's a grad student at George Mason. He's going to help me write my applications to grad school."

"What's your name, dude?" Nick asked me.

I looked at Alyssa.

"Why are you looking at her? Don't you know your own name?"

"Nick, stop it," Alyssa demanded. "Just stop it. Leave him alone."

Nick smiled, made a fist with his left hand and cupped it in his right. "Okay, he said. "Let me ask this another way. What's her name?"


Staring me in the eye, he pointed at her. "What's her name?"

She said, "Nick, look—"

"Shut your fucking mouth," he snapped at her. "Don't you say another fucking word." The way he said it, and the way she flinched at it, told me that there was history to it. He pointed at me. "You, what is her name?"

"Alyssa," I said.

Alyssa seemed to deflate at the sound of her name. She groaned a little.

Nick turned to her. He turned up his palms. "Alyssa, huh?"

She shook her head, and leaned against her doorframe.

Nick said, "Well, buddy, if her name is Alyssa, then I know for a fact you ain't just friends. Her real name is Sherry Friedman. You see? She's only Alyssa to clients. That makes you a client, her new one."

I looked at Alyssa. She stared down at the floor and pulled on her bottom lip. She wasn't going to help me.

I said, "Look…"

"You married?"

I looked at Alyssa again. I felt like a kid looking to his mother to help him out of a jam with a bigger kid. "Look," I said again. "I don't know what's going on between you and…between you and her, but it's got nothing to do with me."

He nodded. "Yeah, it does. If you fuck her, then it has something to do with you."

"I think I should go," I said.

He shook his head. "It has everything to do with you, man. Every thing."

"No," I said. "I just want to go."

"You're married," he said. "Your name is Brian Gilstein. You live in Georgetown. You're not thirty-seven or whatever you just said. You're forty-two. And you're not a grad student; you're a project manager. You make pretty good money, and your wife's name is Lia, spelled L-I-A."
Alyssa shook her head. She looked close to tears.

I asked Nick, "How do you know all that?"

"Cause Sherry's the kind who does research on the internet."

"Research for what?"

"For a shakedown. She also makes footage, digital footage, of you in positions your wife would probably not like to see."


Nick looked at her. "Sherry?"

Alyssa crossed her arms, walked into the room, took the digital camera off the dresser, and turned it on. Shaking a little, she held the camera out to me. I looked at the display screen and saw us on the bed, Alyssa on her knees, her face in a pillow, me behind her. It was footage from the last time we were together.

"Jesus," I said. "How do I erase this?" I demanded. I shook my head. "No, this is mine now. Buy yourself a new camera."

She didn't look at me. With her fist pressed to her mouth, she seemed to stare at the air between the three of us.

I said, "I can't believe you were going to do this to me."

She bumped her fist against her lips but didn't look up at me.

I looked at Nick. "What now?"

Nick stood up. "I guess you leave."

Alyssa, or Sherry, straightened up. "Brian, wait."

"What?" I said.

She turned to me, her hands at her sides. "Please don't go."

"Fuck you," I said.

"Please, I'm scared."

"Sherry," Nick said, "shut up." He crossed in front of her, and she disappeared behind him.

"You don't know him," her voice said. "He's going to hurt me bad once you leave."

He turned around and pointed at her. For a moment, I saw her as she slunk back deeper into the shadows of her bedroom. He turned back to me and waved me on. "Get out of here. You're getting off lucky."

I wanted to run, but my feet felt like concrete."You're not going to hurt her, right?"

"It's time for you to leave," he said. He crossed the floor between us, seemingly growing larger as he did. He stood six or seven inches taller than me, and his bicep was the size of my arm.

"I want to go," I said. "I just…"

Sherry's voice choked a little when she said, "Please, Brian. I know what I did was terrible, but please don't leave."

Nick's face was locked on mine. His jaw sat forward on his face. He needed a shave. "I saved you some trouble," he said. "Now, you turn around and go home."

I backed up to the door leading to the stairs. Once I opened that door, I could be gone, down the street.

"I just…"

"You got one minute," he said.

"Look," I said. "I want to go, I just want to know that you're not going to hurt her."


"Because," I said. I could barely speak. "Just because."

"Because why?" Nick said. "So, later on, you can tell yourself you're a good guy?" He shook his head. "No. You don't get that easy out. You go out that door, and you can get off the hook for what you've done. Stay here another minute and you're going to have to deal with it. I'm not going to give you reassurances of jack shit. You can leave now and live with being an adulterer and a spineless coward, or you can stay and get the shit beat out of you. Maybe get killed. Maybe just get the cops called and have your wife find out."

He stepped toward me, and, to his right, I could see Sherry still in her room. She stared at me.
Her eyes were huge. Even from a distance, I could see her mouth tremble.

I grabbed at the doorknob, but my sweaty hand slipped off.

I grabbed at it again, got it, and turned it.

I hurried down the steps so quickly I nearly fell. I told myself I was just trying to get away from a bad situation. I had done something stupid, something horrible, and now I was paying for it. I told myself that I needed to get back to Lia and the baby.

But I knew I was running away. I was running away from the sound of something I did not want to hear.

I hurried around the front of the house.

The Bangladeshi girl was still sitting on her swing. She looked surprised to see me.

I slowed down for just a second. "Bye," I said.

"See ya," she said.

I hurried down the street, leaving her sitting on the porch, hoping she might hear something from upstairs and call the police, hoping maybe there was nothing to hear after all.

BIO: Jake Hinkson is currently at work on a book on film noir. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 024 - Albert Tucher


“You’re in for a treat,” said the client. “This is the hottest thing ever.”

Diana looked up at him from the bathtub. Long experience kept her smile bright, even as she groaned inwardly. This situation was her own fault. She had told him a thousand dollars, five times her hourly rate. but he had agreed to it without blinking.

He tipped the plastic bottle, and the stream of baby oil started toward her. It landed on her chest just below her throat and trickled between her breasts, down her abdomen, and into her landing strip. At least the oil was warm. It reminded her of a massage that she had once bought in Atlantic City.

She told herself to hold that thought, and worry about the mess later.

“Now for the piece de resistance,” he said.

She wasn’t sure of the correct pronunciation, but he didn’t have it.

The client reached down for the Shop Rite bag next to his feet. He held it open with left hand, while his right rummaged inside and came out with a handful of rose petals. He started sprinkling them over her.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “Do it! Do it!”

She writhed in simulated ecstasy. Some of the oil had spread under her ass, which made it easier for her to slide around. Most of the petals pasted themselves to her skin. Those that stuck to the tub or the floor would make a nasty job for the maid.

He went into the bag for another handful. This time some of the petals landed on her head. She wondered how to get rid of them without rubbing oil into her hair.

But soon she had another problem. She could feel it building like a rumbling oil gusher in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. A moment later she wanted nothing more than to claw her skin off. Nothing in her experience had ever itched like this combination of baby oil and rose petals.

Who knew?

The client stopped to admire his work.

“If you want to come, that would be fantastic,” he said.

“Yes! Yes!” she moaned as she pretended to masturbate.

What was so arousing about this scenario? In her line of work she often had to play along without getting the idea, but the clients never seemed to notice.

Soon he would want her to stand up and bend over while he entered her from behind. She wondered how to brace herself and avoid slipping in the oil.

The phone rang.

“Fuck,” he said. “I have to take this.”

She kept an agreeable expression on her face. After ten years of hooking it no longer surprised her when a man turned away from her to handle business. Money beat sex every time.

She kept squirming. It helped distract her from the itching.

He went through the door to the living room of the suite, where she could see the phone on the desk. A few petals came loose from his hands and fluttered their way to the floor.

“You’re early,” he said, “Yeah, I’m here, but I’m busy.”


“What can’t wait a few fucking minutes?”

More listening.

“Okay, okay. You stay there, and I’ll bring it. Just be ready with the money. The meter is running up here.”

It wasn’t running fast enough for Diana. Not only was the itch becoming unbearable, but her muscles were screaming for relief. She was supporting herself on her elbows to avoid lying flat in the puddle of baby oil. Her back would be especially hard to wash off .

He came back into the bathroom wearing the dark gray trousers to his suit and his white shirt, unbuttoned.

“Hold that thought,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

“We did say an hour,” she reminded him.

He had forty-two minutes left. It wasn’t her style to watch the clock that strictly, but she didn’t usually want to gouge her skin off, either.

He left the bathroom again, and she heard his feet swishing on the carpet. The bed creaked slightly as he sat to tie his shoes. Then the door to the hall opened and closed, leaving her in silence.

Her bag sat on the lid of the toilet tank, where she could keep an eye on it. It held the white envelope with her money. She looked again at her watch, and told herself to stop checking the time so often. She started to clench and unclench her fists to distract her fingers from what they wanted to do to her skin. Her next client wouldn’t appreciate it if she showed up looking as if she had crawled through a sticker bush.

But it was impossible to keep her eyes off her watch, as the hands crept around. Finally she was counting the last seconds until four. By four o’clock and eight seconds she had stood upright, which nearly made her feet shoot out from under her.

Careful, she thought. It’s slippery down there.

Diana didn’t like to shower on the client’s premises, but this time she couldn’t dress until she had scrubbed herself. It would be awkward if the client came back right now, but she knew how to be blunt. This date was over.

It took her ten minutes and three soap and rinse cycles to feel ready to dry off and dress. Once she had her stilettos on, she felt almost human.

She made sure she had everything and left the room. The door closed behind her, and the lock clicked.

The twin elevators were at the other end of the hall. In a recess to the right of them was the door to the stairwell. Diana looked both ways but saw no one. She went down the hall and pressed the call button, but as the bell signaled the arrival of the car, she changed her mind and made for the stairs. It would be awkward if the elevator doors opened on the client.

When she reached the ground floor, she pushed the door open a crack and looked around. She saw quite a few people, but no one she wanted to avoid.

Something was happening. Tension jangled in the air, as Diana crossed the lobby and left the hotel through the revolving front door.

The commotion outside confused her for a moment. An ambulance and several police cars had parked at various angles. All of the vehicles flashed their lights for maximum drama. Uniformed police officers waited for orders or strode around looking important.

Two men formed the centerpiece of the action. One wore a suit. He stood as if he had done a lot of standing and waiting. The other man lay flat on the pavement of the curved driveway.

The man on the ground was Diana’s client. He didn’t look good. In fact, he looked dead. A body with life in it couldn’t surrender so completely to gravity.

The man in the suit her spotted her. She looked back. They had never met, but they needed no introduction. She recognized him as a cop, and he took in her business attire and oversized bag and knew what she did in hotels.

At the moment Diana didn’t care. He had more important things to worry about than her. But as she turned right and headed for the parking deck, something tickled the back of her neck. Absentmindedly she inserted her hand under her hair and flicked the annoyance away. It fluttered to the ground.

“Hold it,” said the detective.

At first she didn’t realize he meant her.

“I said, stop.”

She stopped. He pointed at the ground. A rose petal that she had missed in the shower had chosen this moment to complicate her life.

“ID,” said the detective.

“In my bag.”

He nodded. She dug for her wallet and extracted her license.

“How many arrests?”


“Sure about that?”

“I think I’d remember.”

“What's in New Brunswick that you couldn't get in Sussex County? It must be eighty miles.”

“A big payday.”

“What do you drive?”

“Ninety-seven Maxima. Here’s the reg.”

He read it pocketed both documents. “Stay there. And I mean right there.”

She waited, and waited some more. He gave instructions to the uniformed officers, who started canvassing onlookers and hotel employees who might have witnessed something. A van arrived, carrying a man and a woman in identical white coveralls. The detective conferred with the newcomers.

Finally an aging Camry brought a middle-aged man, who crouched over the body, looked up, and said, “He’s dead.”

“Okay,” said the detective, “let’s go see if that Maxima is what you’re driving today.”

Full cooperation was the only way to get her license and registration back. She led him to the parking deck and up the stairs to the second level. She had backed into the space, in case she needed to make a quick getaway.

The detective examined her front bumper and fenders, which were still showroom-perfect.

“Wish I could afford a Maxima,” he said.

“A client brought it for me. He gets three years of free dates.”

She hadn’t told him anything that he couldn’t find out.

“Does it look like I ran anybody over?” she said.

He didn’t seem ready to give up on such a convenient suspect. She decided to nudge him a little.

“So I guess I drove across half the state, got hold of another car, waited for an opportunity that might or not come, and then just hung around?”

“That rose petal places you with him.”

“I take it he had some on him?”

The detective said nothing.

“I was with him, but I got paid, and I left,” she said.

“What’s with the flower show?”

She shrugged and explained the client’s fetish. The detective grinned suddenly.

“Shit. That’s hot.”

“What, you too?”

She shook her head.

“Every time I think I understand the male of the species, something like this comes up.”

“Anything else happen up there? What room, by the way?”

“Six-thirteen. He got a phone call and left in the middle.”

“What was it about?”

“Some kind of deal. I guess the other guy didn’t like the way it went.”

“You sure it was a man he was talking to?”

“Definitely. I know guys like him. They only do business with men. Other than my kind of business, that is.”

The detective took her through it several times and then seemed to lose interest.

“You can go. If you think of anything, call me.”

He handed her his card with her documents. She noted his name, Paulsen, and stowed the card in her suit coat pocket.

Now Diana wondered what to do with the rest of her day. She put off the decision by going back to the hotel and using the restroom in the lobby. As she washed her hands, she decided on a modest splurge in the hotel bar. Closer to home she wouldn’t have risked encountering a man she had just been naked with, but her entire New Brunswick client list had just been hit by a car.

In the bar the single woman’s dilemma confronted her. She almost turned around and left, because only two adjacent stools were free. She could sit next to a forty-something blonde, leaving her left flank exposed to any man who was feeling lucky, or she could move one place to the left and tempt a thirty-ish man in a Brooks Brothers suit. She chose the woman.

The bar had Newcastle Brown ale on tap. It made her glad she had stayed, but only for a moment.

“What do you charge for the rose petal thing?” said the woman on her right.

“That’s it,” Diana said. “I quit. I hope I remember how to wait tables, because that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

The bartender looked at her the way he would eye two men in an escalating argument.

“I’m supposed to be the pro here, and I’m the last person on earth to hear about this thing. And I still don’t get it.”

“I don’t get it either,” said the woman. “I just know he wanted it.”

Diana turned and looked. The woman had a few extra pounds, but all in the right places. She would turn her share of heads.

“You’re his wife,” said Diana. “You knew about that little kink of his.”

“I would have done it for him, but he wasn’t interested.”

“You know,” said Diana, “I used to worry that wives could put me out of business. Just play along and do the stuff I do. But I found out that it doesn’t work that way.”

The woman nodded. “It doesn’t count if it’s your wife.”

“I could have sworn he was talking to a man up there,” Diana said.

“He was. I paid a bellhop to make the call.”

“What was your husband up to?”

“Corporate espionage, I guess you’d call it. He was selling his company out.”

“How do you know that?”

“Please. What kind of wife doesn’t know her husband’s passwords?”

“Were you planning to run him over?”

“I didn’t know what I was going to do. It came as kind of a surprise.”

Diana almost said that a cheater and thief didn’t sound like much of a bargain, but she stopped herself. Some women stood by their men no matter what.

Until one day they didn’t anymore.

“I’ve just been sitting here waiting for the police,” said the wife. “I guess they can’t believe whoever hit him didn’t try to get away.”

“They’re not the only ones.”

The woman shrugged.

“So what’s the plan?” said Diana.

“Finish my drink. Then I’ll go home and wait for them there.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of (now) nineteen published stories and four unpublished novels about prostitute Diana Andrews. Like most authors of hardboiled crime fiction, he is a librarian in his day job.

A Twist Of Noir 023 - Naomi Johnson


Ma had to pick the coldest day of the year for us to leave. Icicles hung like giant spears from the eaves and the mercury hovered at the zero mark that morning. And with the promise of a blizzard yet, according to the radio. Still, her mind was made up and she packed what clothes would fit in a cracked-vinyl two-suiter.

“Your pa won't be home until late,” she promised. “We'll be long gone by then. We'll catch the bus down at Mahoney's store. I got enough money to get us at least to Beckley, and Aunt Roxie will help us from there.”

Whatever had final broke loose in Ma, after what was for me a lifetime of witnessing her take Pa's beatings and abuse, was a mystery. Yes, he had slapped her around the night before but it wasn't no worse and some easier than it had been a hundred times before. All I know is that they had fought like they always did, the two of 'em hitting and screaming at each other, and her threatening to leave like she always did, and at some point he said something about me. I didn't catch anything but my name and he didn't say anymore, but she stopped fighting and was real quiet for the rest of the evening. Pa was most quiet, too, keeping his bleary gaze fixed on the bottle and its vanishing contents. I wish I could recall what he said but a long time ago I learned how to keep my head down in a book and drown out their voices when they carried on like that.

But her being silent, that was different. That caught my attention.

Reckon it caught his, too, because there we were the next morning, just out the door and here he came back up the dirt drive, walking fast, eyes up and head down to dodge the wind and the snow that was just beginning to fall. His breath was blowing all steamy-like, quick and puffy like the C&O.

“Where the hell you think you're going, Mavis? You think you're leaving me? Goddammit!”

And that quick he knocked the little suitcase out of Ma's hand, yanked hard on her other arm and she cried out. Then it was like an episode of 'Cops.' One-Baker-One, domestic disturbance, see the woman. She started to scream and claw at him. He pushed back, cussing a blue streak, and before I could get myself at a safe distance I found myself pressed tight between her and the door, eye-level with her shoulder blades. He whopped her with his fist and her head snapped back but Ma being Ma, she was flailing right back at him. I was trying to squeeze out from behind her and get away. It was stupid to stand too close when they were like this.

Then I saw him reach a big old paw up and wrench off one of those icicles hanging there. Thirty inches long, if I had to guess, and ice thick as Pa's wrist at the place where he broke it from the eave. He two-handed it, for a better grip I suppose, and whaled at her, catching her across the head above her ear. I heard a wet smack and she stopped yelling. She slumped away from me, dropping right at his feet. He let go the icicle, kicking and cussing at her. She didn't move and neither did I, her all pressed to the cold ground and me feeling more pinned to the door than when she had pinned me there. He didn't move no more, either, frozen as that icicle.

Nothing moved, except for tiny pellets of frozen white being whipped by a razor-sharp wind as it rode down the holler.

“You killed her,” I said. My mouth felt all cottony, but the words came out okay.

Now how could I know that? She laid face down, and hadn't I seen her like that at least once a month, every month, as far back as I could recall? But I knew she was dead. I had felt her spirit fly away from me, from him, scissoring away on the wind. I did. I don't know how else to explain it, but I knew she'd final cut free of him for good and all. I also knew it wasn't any use doing what he was doing then: Turning her over and crying and begging and praying to God to bring her back, wake her up, he'd be different, he would.

Sure he would.

“She ain't coming back,” I said, louder so he could hear me over his moaning and grieving. “You killed her.”

Like he needed to be told twice, I guess, 'cause he stopped the noise, straightened up, dragged out a dirty hanky from his back pocket and said, 'Get your ass back in the house, boy.' His eyes were red, not just from crying but from drink, too. The tears had frozen that quick on his cheeks and somehow he didn't look like he'd real wept real tears at all but kind of phony, like movie makeup or something. Somehow that seemed right to me. Real tears would have been all wrong on him.

I went back inside and took off my coat. Went to the sink, rinsed a cup and drank some water. I noticed my hands shook but I do think that was from the cold. Then I went to the front window and pulled back the blanket so I could see what he was up to.

He walked back down the packed-dirt drive toward the hard road. I guessed he'd hid the truck when he left that morning and sat there just waiting for Ma to come outside. In a few minutes, he drove the truck right up to the front of the house. He sat behind the wheel for a long time. I couldn't see his face. Maybe he was trying to find the nerve to do whatever he was going to do.
Maybe he was just taking time to get warm again. But final he climbed out, opened the passenger side door, picked up Ma and hefted her in the cab. It was an awkward business, and that's all I have to say about that. Then he grabbed up the two-suiter that had skittered away when he struck her. I wondered how that crappy little case had kept from flying open and strewing clothes everywhere. He tossed the case on top of her, took his own place at the wheel, and slow pulled up the hill behind the house, going towards the ridge. I had a pretty good idea where he was taking her and how long it was gonna take him.

I went back to the sink and got some more water and I noticed my hands weren't shaking no more. That pleased me. I thought about calling the sheriff, thought about how that would go and how it might end. Then I picked up the phone and called my best friend, Brett. Brett's parents were way cool, they let him do just about anything he pleased. I counted on that more than once.

“Hey, dude,” I said, “what are you doing?” Be casual. There is nothing wrong.

“Oh, dude, you gotta come over! My dad and I are playing Guitar Hero and he is so lame!” Everything excited Brett, but nothing excited him like Guitar Hero.

Play it cool. No, no, play it cold. Like an icicle. “Man, I'd love to, 'cause, you know my folks are fighting again. But they said on the radio that we'd have a blizzard starting this evening and Ma doesn't want me to be out in that. Two feet of snow by morning they're saying.” I paused, waited.

“I know, I heard, but -- well, you can spend the night, can't you? Why not? And if it gets real bad you could spend the whole weekend because you know there isn't going to be any school tomorrow. Ask your Mom, dude, we could have a great time!”

“Okay, I will, but she's in a pretty bad mood. Hold on a minute.”

I put the phone down and walked around the room, tried to talk in a normal tone then alternate with some mumbling like a real conversation might sound. Banged some pots around and yelled once then picked up the phone again.

“Brett? She said okay, but I gotta take my homework with me. And plus, there's some stuff she wants me to do here first and Dad's too drunk to drive this morning so it'll take me a while, okay?”

“See ya when I see ya. But hurry, man, Dad is making Weezer sound good.”

I hung up and went into my room. From the window in there, I could look up the hill but I didn't see the truck, so I went into their bedroom and started looking. Found a bottle of Mad Dog almost right off, hid in an old support stocking that had belonged to Grandma. The stocking was in a small wood casket that had once had fancy chocolates in it. Ma won it in a raffle over at the Jesus First Church. She loved that little box, don't ask me why. It had a picture painted on it, she said it was the Road to Emmaus.

But Mad Dog wasn't what I was after. I found it under a floor register, disguised by a big clump of dirty socks. Everclear. “High test,” Pa called it. I sampled it once, and once was enough for me. I heard his drinking buddy, Travis Marcum, say that a man could drink less and get drunk faster on that stuff than anything that had ever been put in a bottle. Illegal in about a dozen states, too, so it must be potent. Whatever worked fast, that's all I cared about. I'd've used Drano if I thought Dad would drink it.

I heard the truck coming back down the hill -- too soon! -- and I scrambled toward the kitchen. He came in, the cold air haloing him, and did what he almost always did, went straight to the fridge and looked for a beer. We were out, so he closed the fridge and sat down at the table. And there was the Everclear, smack in the middle of the table. He gave me a weird look.

“I thought -- it's cold out. I thought you'd want something to warm you up.” And damned if I didn't duck my head, just like she always did, always half-expecting him to throw a glass or a bottle or a fist. And then he looked away from me and sat and stared. Practically stared a hole in that bottle. He was silent so long that I jumped when he finally spoke. I was afraid he would want to know how I came to find the stuff.

“Are you fucking stupid?” I held my breath, let it out quick when he added, “Get me a goddamn glass.”

And for the next two hours he drank steady. Guess he wanted to be drunk enough to forget what he'd just done. I just wanted him to be drunk enough to forget where he was.

When I left home around two o'clock that afternoon, I carried a plastic shopping bag with my geography book and my notebook in it, along with a change of clothes and my toothbrush. I was bundled up warm enough to please even Ma. It was three and a half miles to Brett's house and I had to walk bent over against the wind. The blizzard was moving in faster than the weatherman had predicted and I don't mind saying it was a rough walk. There was already five inches on the ground and it was full dark when I rang the doorbell with a hand that had gone numb.

Brett's mom took one look at me, did the 'you poor boy, what were you thinking' routine that all moms do, all the while she bustled around chafing my hands, making hot chocolate and telling Brett to get me some dry clothes to put on. She fed us all some vegetable soup, made from stuff she'd canned last fall. Brett and his dad had tired of Guitar Hero so we ended up playing board games to please Brett's mom. She loved Clue so we played that and Scene It. They have a big old-fashioned fireplace, and Mr. Chambers made a fire while Brett and I made popcorn. Then we all laid around in front of the fire and swapped ghost stories. It was probably the best night of my life.

I guess it was around midnight when Brett and I climbed into the sack. Mr. Chambers went upstairs with us, and he said the temperature had dropped to 14 below. We could hear the wind, a high-pitched squeal rounding the corners of the house, but when we looked outside there was nothing to see but snow being blown in all directions. Brett and I decided to just sleep in the sweats we were wearing, and I had turned onto my side and closed my eyes when I felt a tug at my shoulder.

“Hey, dude, was everything okay with your folks when you left?” Brett knew all about my mom and dad. Like I said, we were best friends. I'd have been embarrassed for anyone else to know, but Brett is totally cool.

I rolled over to face him in the dark. Brett was cool all right, but he was not ready for all this. Maybe someday, but not today. But I hated lying to him all the same.

“I think my mom is leaving. She had her little suitcase packed.” I picked at the hem of the pillow case. It smelled so clean.

“Oh, man. That's bad. You -- are you going to stay with your dad? I thought you hated him?”

“Mom wants to take me, but I think -- things just ain't working out that way. I'll meet up with her sometime, though.” Time to change the subject. “How much snow you think we got so far?” I murmured.

Brett pulled himself up on his elbows and peered out the window. “Hard to see anything. But the way it's been coming down there's gotta be at least a foot already.” He settled back down again.
“So what did your dad say about her leaving? Didn't he try to stop her or nothing?”

My last memory of Pa was the way I stretched him out in the driveway. Out, period. He had give a little drunken snore, like a sleeping hog, as the snow began to erase his outline. I felt sleepy now, too, and yawned, a real jawbreaker. I couldn't resist a smile though.

“He didn't say a word, dude. How could he? When I left he was out cold.”

BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, and this is her first crime story.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 022 - Andy Henion


Hollins masturbated on the bed next to his third wife. He was careful not to shake the mattress, for such undulation, no matter how slight, would wake her without fail. “What are you doing?” she would say, and Hollins, unfailingly close to orgasm, would slap the pillow and respond through his teeth, “Rolling over. Do you mind?”

But this one went off without episode, Hollins ejaculating from a half-limp penis onto a dirty work sock as Marcia purred away. He dropped the sock to the floor and rolled to his side, ready for sleep to take him…and heard the pug dog lapping at his paws. “Stop it,” he hissed, and Ollie, camped on the floor, put his head on his paws and stared up with buggy cataract eyes. Hollins drew a batch of air into his lungs, released it slowly…and heard the ceiling fan ticking away, once every eight seconds, meaning it wasn’t the rotation of the blades but the pull-chains clicking together, something he’d meant to correct for weeks...

He gave up and looked at the green digits: 1:36. Five hours and he was up for work, five and a half if he pushed it. Hollins rose gently as to not wake Marcia, and stepped on the gooey sock.

“Fuck,” he said, aloud this time, and her eyes opened.

“What is it?”

“Twisted my ankle.”

“Where are you going?”

“Heartburn. Need to sit up for a while.”

“Need to quit the popcorn,” she said, and Hollins frowned at her tight little figure under the covers.

“I didn’t eat any popcorn,” he said, but her breathing had turned heavy. “And I don’t have heartburn. But I am rotting inside.”

He made his way downstairs and into the kitchen. On his counter was the remainder of his birthday cake: marble with cream cheese frosting, his favorite. He removed the aluminum foil, which brought the dog hobbling down, and scooped a massive piece onto a dinner plate. Licking his fingers, he carried it to the easy chair and settled in. Flicked on the big screen and in the corresponding glow saw the man sitting on his couch. He started, making a small noise in his throat as the plate fell to the floor.

The man’s face was his face, thirty years younger. Hollins put his palm on his chest as if to contain his hammering heart while Ollie went about the business of cleaning cake from the carpet.

“Nice watchdog,” the man said. “Big house like this, nobody for miles, you might consider an upgrade.”

Hollins nodded absently.

“So,” the man said, “how’s the plastic surgery racket these days?”

“It’s. I. Just.” Hollins exhaled and forced himself to focus. “It’s been better.”

The intruder sniffed as if he didn’t believe the older man. He wore neatly pressed fatigues and spit-shined combat boots: a common sight with the military base outside the city. His chin was squared and his hair dark, like Hollins’, but bristly. The insignia on his collar meant nothing to Hollins. The nametag on his chest read Steinman.

“A little background is in order,” the man said. “Thirty years ago a medical student passing through Cherry Hill, New Jersey, stops at an all-night diner. It’s two in the morning, he can barely keep his eyes open, but still he chats up the waitress. See, the young stud can’t turn it off. Next thing you know he’s got her knees pinned back at the roach motel next door.”

“Hey there—”

“Oh, I forgot to mention that he was a newly married man, a fact he conveniently chose to keep from his conquest.”

Of course Hollins remembered. When he masturbated next to his latest wife, that long ago night, with its grappling and shrieking, was a frequent vision. Her name was Devora, a nineteen-year-old ivory-skinned beauty with dreams of writing Broadway plays. Hollins had been an English minor himself, yet they didn’t leave themselves much time to discuss literature. It was, for him at least, the night of a lifetime.

When Hollins had finally managed to return to the diner, three years later during a training conference in Philly, he learned from another waitress that Devora had married and moved south with her traveling salesman husband. There was no mention of a child.

“How is she?” Hollins asked.

“No,” Steinman barked, jabbing a finger. “Not something you get to know.”

Hollins held up his hands. “Fine. Tell me about you then. Army, is it?”

Steinman simply looked at him. Ollie had given up on the cake and wandered over to sniff at the visitor’s boots. Hollins raised an eyebrow. The dog, rescued years before from an abusive environment, rarely went to strangers. Steinman picked him up and stroked his sagging jowl.

“Losing your muscle,” he said. Then, to Hollins: “You know, we shoot ’em over there. Mercy killings, mostly.”

Mostly? thought Hollins. He took in the crude skulls and blazing cannons on the soldier’s muscular forearms; the thick scar below his temple. Hollins shifted in the easy chair. Ollie looked at him expectedly.

“He’s twelve,” Hollins said. “Pretty fragile. You have dogs growing up?”

“Old man didn’t allow animals.”

“No? What’s he do?”

“Lies in a grave,” Steinman said.

Hollins was careful with his expression. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” Steinman said. “He was not what you would call a pleasant man.”

Ollie was squirming. Steinman had stopped petting and was staring down at the dog, eyes wide and unblinking.

“Better let him out for his last potty,” Hollins said, rising.

“Sit down.”

Hollins hesitated, considering the order, and his options, and did what he was told. Keep it civil, he thought. No need to burden Marcia with this.

Ollie was released and jumped down, whimpering from the blow to his arthritic limbs. Steinman watched the dog limp away without seeing, back in his trance. Hollins decided it was time to address it.

“When were you over there?”

“Half my adult life and counting.”

“They’re sending you back?”

“Isn’t that what you and your country club buddies want?”

Hollins held the conservative leanings of his father, an obstetrician, and his father before him, family practice. He felt no need to apologize. “I don’t play golf,” he said, “and I don’t wish for anyone to die.”

“You don’t wish for anyone to die?” Steinman said. “That’s rich.” He reached into the rucksack and withdrew a snub-nosed pistol. Held it up for display, turning it over and again as if it were up for auction.

“The shrink told me I may never feel safe again. In my own fucking country.”

Hollins had never served, but he was pretty sure the military didn’t issue silver thirty-eights.

“Maybe he’s wrong,” he said. “They say time heals all.”

“Is that all you have? Clichés?”

“I’m not a therapist,” Hollins said. “I’m doing the best I can here.”

He waited—hoped—for the gun to disappear back into the rucksack, but Steinman lowered it and held it against his thigh, loosely aimed at his host. Hollins’ face tightened.

“So you break into my house in the middle of the night and now you’re holding a gun on me?"

A bed groaned upstairs: Marcia rolling over, maybe going to the bathroom. Hollins held his breath. Steinman glanced at her picture on the wall and gave him a smart-assed look.

“She’s a looker,” he said. “So, what, keep ’em in sports cars and Louis Vuitton and they forget about the age difference?”

Was that the size of it? His business partner had once said boob jobs would make them kings and Hollins had lived the life for decades, snorting, drinking and fucking at will. Marcia was simply the latest silicone trophy, an aspiring actress without a sliver of irony. He had augmented her body but couldn’t do the same for her mind. What she didn’t know was that the money was gone, he was emotionally spent and all he desired at this point was a stimulating companion to spend Saturday nights sipping Sangiovese and discussing Proust in front of the fireplace.

“Why don’t we get to the heart of it?” Hollins said. “How long have you known about me?”

“Since I was old enough to hate,” Steinman said.

Then why now? Hollins wondered. And then he understood: Steinman was being sent back, only he wasn’t going. Instead he was taking care of business before...before what? Before taking himself out? Before fleeing the country? He thought suddenly of the stepfather lying in his grave.

Steinman grinned. “You’d make a shitty poker player,” he said. “The answer is yes. I smoked that chump and dumped his ass in a swamp.”

He didn’t blink, and Hollins knew it was true. “When was this?”

Steinman looked at his watch. “Twelve hours ago.”

The young man was homicidal, possibly psychotic, but Hollins clung to his one advantage: the same blood flowed through their veins.

“You know, my own father could be a real bastard,” he said. “But he—”

“Don’t give a rat’s ass about your old man.”

“No, I can’t imagine you would,” Hollins said. He leaned forward and opened his hands. “Listen. Your mother. Devora. What we shared—”

“I told you,” Steinman cried, dropping to his knees. “Off. Fucking. Limits.” The gun came up in both hands, a marksman’s move, but behind it the eyes bulged and the jaw quivered. It was a mask of both rage and anguish, as if he dreaded the very killing for which he hungered.

“Son.” Hollins said it, for there was nothing left to say. “Son, please.”

“I’m not your goddamn son!”

Marcia came then, approaching the soldier from behind with such purpose that Hollins checked her for weaponry. Steinman took the unintended cue and swung around on his knees, gun leading the way. Hollins emitted a breathless no, squinting his eyes in anticipation of the blast that would surely come.

There were no shots, though, just an unarmed Marcia placing a hand on the soldier’s head.

“That’s not the way, Michael.”

Steinman wrapped his arms around her waist. She moved her fingers through his short hair and looked at Hollins. After a moment the soldier hoisted her teddy to nothing underneath, pushed her legs apart and buried his face there. Marcia was lifted off the floor awkwardly and when she closed her eyes and bit her lip, Hollins thought, Another shitty performance.

It was time to move, yet he was melded to the chair putting it all together. Steinman had mentioned Louis Vuitton, a common enough brand but also Marcia’s favorite. Then there was the dog, clearly familiar with the soldier. How long have they been at it? He wondered. And what’s their plan for me?

Hollins lunged from the chair as the soldier ate his wife. Marcia tapped her lover on the head and he came up cat-quick, clocking Hollins above the eyebrow with the thirty-eight before he could even extend his fist. Hollins fell on his ass already closing his right eye against the blood. It ran down his cheek and pooled on the carpet between his legs.

Marcia threw up her hands. “Goddamnit, Michael. No blood in the house, remember?”

Steinman said, “Let’s go to Plan B then,” and shot her through the left breast. Marcia looked down at the wound, then up at the men in succession. Her venom was reserved for Hollins. “Rotting inside?” she rasped. “Asshole.”

Steinman shot her twice more and she toppled back onto the recliner and convulsed a bit before lying still.

“Fuckin’ nag, anyway,” he said, and took a seat on the floor, Indian style, directly in front of Hollins, who had rolled his shirt up on his head to soak the blood.

“Nice turban.” He placed the thirty-eight on the floor like a peace offering. Clapped his hands together and made a face of surprise.

“You know, in all the hubbub I forgot it was your birthday. The big six-oh. Sixty years young. How does it feel?”

“Hurts like a cocksucker,” said Hollins, fingering the bloody shirt, and Steinman put his head back and laughed, ignoring the weapon between them. Hollins smiled despite himself. Kid’s got an infectious way about him, he thought with an odd rush of pride. Then he snatched the thirty-eight, took aim at the cackling lunatic and pulled the trigger. There was a metallic click. And another. And another.

“Just enough bullets to do the job,” Hollins said. He set the gun back down and nodded, as if he had been simply testing the younger man. “Efficient. Just like your father. Just like me.”

Steinman lost it at this point, rolling to his side and pounding the floor. It was a deep laugh, a familiar laugh, and soon Hollins joined in, laughing until the tears streamed down his cheeks and pooled with his blood on the carpet, a pinkish smear.

BIO: Andy lives somewhere cold but beautiful with three females, eight legs between them. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including Plots with Guns, Thieves Jargon, Hobart, Spork and Hardluck Stories.