Friday, July 29, 2011

Your Friday Dose Of Pulp Fiction

This was originally published a few years ago in the webzine DEMOLITION run by Bryon Quertermous, which went away for a while before popping its head up again earlier this year.

It's weird looking back at this now and thinking, "Yeah, I coulda done this better." I don't think it's bad, it's just not necessarily what I would write today.

Enjoy.



BREAKING IN THE NEW GUY



Crazy Tommy's got that meth stink on him, where his sweat starts to smell like the shit he's been shoving up his nose. Twitches and shakes. Says he's been trying to quit, but he's not fooling anybody. I figure he's trying to get into Vito's good graces, coming out here tonight with Fat Louie and me to the El Rey Motor Lodge off Pico Boulevard to wait for a guy who owes Vito a couple hundred K. I guess I'm supposed to give the kid a chance, see if he can actually do a night's work without screwing it up. Fat Louie and me have a bet. His money's on the kid.

We're parked across the street in Vito's ten year old Le Baron we've been using for business since he shot Jimmy Callendar and stuck him in the trunk. He waited a couple days too long to ditch the body. The car's been cleaned, but when it gets warm outside it still smells.

"Jesus, can you crack open a window or something?" Fat Louie says. He's sitting in the back behind the kid. He's not fat. At least not anymore. He used to be 280. He got his stomach stapled a couple years ago and now and all he does is drink diet shakes and run in marathons. He's down to 160.

"Why?" I ask. "Need some air?" Fat Louie's never minded the Jimmy smell, but Crazy Tommy's stink must be getting to him. We've been stuck here waiting for the better part of two hours. I can feel Fat Louie glare at me. He's got that kind of glare.

"Fuck you," he says and opens the door. I've pulled the bulbs out from the interior lights so the car stays dark. Won't do to have somebody see us sitting over here behind a dumpster. We have a good view of the motel and we have a picture of the guy. Fat Louie even met him once when he was dropping off a bet at Vito's place.

I'm hoping I don't have to kill him. I don't really have anything against him. I'd rather just beat him up a little, maybe break his nose and have him fork over the cash. But we’ve got some plastic sheeting and a couple rolls of duct tape in the trunk just in case.

Crazy Tommy's tapping a drum roll on his thighs. It's bad enough he's strung out, but he's nervous too. A thought occurs to me and I turn to him. He stops the bass line the minute my eyes land on his. "What do you do for Vito, Crazy Tommy?"

"Why do you call me that, Frank?" he asks.

"It's your nickname. Everybody's got a nickname."

"You don't," he says.

"No, I don't." This crazy Jew, Levi Goldberg, tried to give me one once. Some bullshit thing like Rocky or something. Then one day he shows up at the morgue with a bullet in his head. Nobody tried to give me a nickname after that.

The kid stares at me for a second, wondering if he should press it. He doesn't. He gets a point. Too many more and I owe Fat Louie a couple hundred bucks.

"I sell some weed for him out in Hollywood."

Something doesn't click. "Been working it long?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Nah. Couple of months. But Vito says I should be doing more. I dunno man. Melissa believes in me, but I wonder some times."

Shit. It all falls into place now. Melissa. Vito's youngest daughter. She's nineteen and has the hormones to match. Vito's been trying to get her to calm down, but it hasn't taken yet. Crazy Tommy's just the latest pearl on a long necklace of slackers.

Melissa's eighteenth birthday Vito sits us all down at his Bel Air house. Daddy's baby all grown up, prancing around the pool in a blue two piece smaller than a goddamn Kleenex. "See that?" he says. Nobody looks. Everybody nods.

"She's precious. Sacred. Got that? Anybody screws with her answers to me." He's got this habit of slapping the back of one hand against the palm of the other to make a point. We get the point.

Vito gives us standing orders. He knows she's going to fuck around. It's natural. She's young. But Vito's still her Daddy. He has final say. These kids she sees, if they don't cut it, they go away. "Culling the herd," he calls it. We've culled the herd for him four times already.

Crazy Tommy says, "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Nothing. I just wouldn't get too attached to things is all."

He stares at me, energy buzzing off him like a high tension wire. Hurt, not sure what to say about it. I'm about to tell him not to worry, that I didn't mean nothing. Fat Louie's knock on the car window stops me. "We're on," he says, opening the back door and grabbing his leather case of knives.

I look up. There's the guy all right. Walking up the stairs to his room. Blond hair, scruffy in a beach bum kind of way, tattered Hawaiian shirt. There's a swagger to money that this guy's just not showing. No way he's got two hundred thousand bucks sitting on him. "Get the tape and plastic."

I pull on a pair of latex gloves and take out the Sig Sauer

We wait for the guy to go in and close the door before hurrying across the street. The parking lot's pretty empty, only a couple of Econoline vans and this beat up Cabriolet convertible our guy drove up in. Fortunately the motel office is around the side and the vans block the view. There's next to no cover and the streetlamps are bright enough they look like spotlights.

"Okay," I say to Crazy Tommy. "This one's easy. We go in and rough him up. Get the money and bail."

"What if he doesn't have the money?"

I just look at him.

Crazy Tommy turns a little green. I think he might be coming down from his high. I just hope he doesn't puke on his shoes like the last of Melissa's boyfriends we had out with us. I have him and Fat Louie hang back while I check the door. It's one of those hollow deals with a crappy Schlage lock on it. No reason to pick it. I'm a big guy. One kick and the lock snaps right out.

Our guy comes wide eyed out of the bathroom with his pants around his ankles, waddling like a penguin, toilet paper stuck to his shoes. Fat Louie comes in behind me, sees this and laughs his ass off. It's pretty funny. So funny, in fact, that neither one of us notices the Saturday Night Special he's got in his hand.

It's a dinky little .22, good for popping cans and pissing off squirrels, but he gets lucky. The shot tags Fat Louie square through the left eye. Those short barrels are louder than fuck and I can't even hear myself yelling. I squeeze off a couple of rounds from the Sig and tear two ragged holes in the guy's chest. He drops like someone's cut the strings on a puppet.

The kid stands in the doorway, mouth hanging wide, plastic sheets dangling in limp fingers. I grab him, pull him in, shut the door. "Turn off the lights," I tell him, smacking him in the right direction to get him moving. The lock on the door's too far gone so I shove one of the two Formica chairs up against it. It won't stop a cop, but if we're lucky, there won't be one. This neighborhood has gunshots like whores have the clap. "I said turn off the goddamn lights." He slaps at light switches, frantic.

The streetlamps outside cast dim shadows through the curtains making the room gray and yellow. The only sound is the radio tuned to some classic rock station. Crazy Tommy's crying in the corner, knees hitched up under his chin, rocking on his heels. I wait ten minutes ducked under the window, listening. Nothing.

Fat Louie and his killer are draining on the carpet. In this light blood's like oil, black and glistening. The puddles are turning into shallow pools. There's no way we're keeping this one clean. I grab some of the plastic sheets, flap them out next to Fat Louie. "Gimme a hand here," I say. The kid just stares at me. I walk over to where he's huddled whimpering and give him a kick to the shin. "I said gimme a hand. Are you deaf?"

"They're dead," he says.

"Help me load 'em up." We drag the bodies onto the tarps. I pull the edges up and over, roll them around and tape them tight. There's blood all over them.

The kid's starting to calm down. Quicker than I expected. Point in his favor. He gives me a hand pulling the bodies near the back window without me having to tell him. I'm planning on tossing them out the window down into the alley below. I can pull the car up and stick them into the trunk. I can get at least four bodies in it if I have to. Eight if I get creative.

The kid's gotten almost efficient, but he's still shaking. He's rinsed his hands and grabbed a towel. He's wiping stuff he might have left prints on. More points. He misses the doorknob of the bathroom. That'll cost him. He drops the towel a couple of times. Getting sloppy.

"This happen a lot?" he asks. This whole time he hasn't said a word, just hunkered down and done his job. I like that.

"Not usually. Guys like this they usually skip town. A couple times a year somebody gets brave." He nods like he expected this answer.

"You didn't answer me back in the car," he says. "Why you call me Crazy Tommy."

"Vito told me that was your name."

"But why? I thought he only gave people he trusted nicknames. I'm not sure he even likes me."

"Of course he doesn't like you," I say. "You're fucking his baby daughter. He probably just wanted to let you feel like you were one of us, or something. Get comfortable. Get your guard down. That way, after I've taken care of the job I can shoot you in the head and dump your body like I did the other four guys."

Crazy Tommy gets real still. He stops breathing. I bet if it weren't so dim I could see the color drain from his face. I chuckle and smile. Big joke. Ha ha.

He finally lets out his breath. "Shit man, you had me going there," he says. "For a second I thought you were ser-" Two shots from the Sig cut him off with a sound like hitting a car seat with a baseball bat.

"Sorry, kid. Just culling the herd."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

They Eat Babies Don't They?

Los Angeles, CA

The Homeless.

Packs of feral men and women running through the night, their screams echoing off Skid Row flophouses and million dollar lofts. Their flaking skin spores bursting from their bodies to settle into the soups of hipsters at some Downtown 5-star, roach-infested restaurant.

They are a reminder of your fears. They are buckets of Pruno, not premium vodka. Heroin between the toes, not cocaine from the breasts of high priced call girls. They are cigarette butts in the gutter, two dollar handjobs in porta-potties 'neath freeway overpasses, childhood dreams stuffed deep inside stinking grocery carts.

And they eat babies.

At least this one tried to. Back on the 21st, Natasha Hubbard, 36, attacked a 4-month-old infant in its stroller down in Skid Row. Before the mother could stop her she yanked the baby out, swung it by its legs and smacked it into a metal rail.

Seems she wanted to eat it.

Mom got the kid away from her after a bit of a fight. Ran into a local store to escape and, good Samaritan that he is, the store owner immediately pushed her back into the street.

Aw, the milk of human kindness.

Best thing about this?  The headline tag "LAPD detectives believe there may be more victims."

You mean the baby eating's a regular occurrence? The fuck is she, Baba Yaga? Trouncing around Skid Row in her chicken footed hut made of baby's bones?

Anyway, baby and mom are okay. For a given value of okay, of course. Scratches and bruises. Emotional trauma. No busted heads or anything, thank god.

Hubbard's been booked on aggravated assault and she's being held on $30K bail.

What's particularly fucked up about this is that she's clearly not in her right mind. Drugs, schizophrenia, too much Scientology. Doesn't matter what. She's not going to get the care she very clearly needs.

Besides, it's Skid Row. Who cares, right? Might as well say, "It's Chinatown, Jake," for all the good it'll do.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Rinse By Gary Phillips And Marc Laming

Part 1: The Review

A copy of the first issue of the new comic THE RINSE, by Gary Phillips and Marc Laming, out later this month through Boom Studios, recently landed in my inbox. (Hat tip to Brian Lindenmuth over at Snubnose Press for bouncing it to me)

A Rinse is another word for money laundering. It's a complicated affair. You have to take large chunks of cash and break it up, dole it out, make it smaller. Buy, sell, trade, invest. Done right, you pick it up on the other side squeaky clean, ready to go back into the pool and make more dirty money. Maybe even make a profit.

It's an art and a science. It's politics and math, sales pitches and sleight of hand. You have to keep meticulous records. You have to keep no records at all. You have to know your friends, keep track of your enemies, pay attention to when one turns into the other. It's the kind of plate spinning that makes Chinese acrobats break out in a cold sweat.

And it's Jeff Sinclair's life.

Sinclair is the protagonist of THE RINSE, a money launderer who's slick, smart and always ahead of the game. Until he's not, of course. And even then he's a consummate tap-dancer. If he's behind the game this move, he'll be ahead of it next. He's a ruthless guy, but likable. He kind of has to be. Schmoozing is half his business.

Phillips' dialog and pacing are, as always, razor sharp. As an intro this issue is quick, straightforward and a great read. You get everything you need to know about Sinclair and the business of money laundering in the first two pages as we watch a rinse in action. The rest of the time we get to watch how quickly things can go downhill.

Like Phillips' writing, Laming's artwork is crisp, clear and bullshit-free. Clean lines and bright colors fit the slick, big money tone of the story. This is noir in the sunlight, where the shady deals are done in bright rooms with suits and ties and the artwork gets that across nicely.

It's a great start to the series and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes. If you like crime comics I really recommend picking this up.

Part 2: The Shill

Now, as it so happens, I know Gary. And when I got the comic I bounced him an email asking if he wanted to talk a little bit about it, give a little glimpse behind the curtain.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, Gary Phillips.



***


Money laundering is the third largest enterprise in the world. In those ‘40s and ‘50s paperback crime story books and films he was the fence. He’d give you maybe forty cents on the dollar for the bank payroll you stole – given the bills’ serial numbers were listed -- or X amount for the hot ice, the diamonds you and your gang swiped.

These days it’s a massive underground undertaking where billions are washed worldwide each year. The laundry man’s job is to reduce the bulk – for instance a million in 100 dollar bills weights 22 pounds – therefore the form the money takes must be changed, the trail left by the process must be obscured, and more than anything else he must hide the source of the illicit cash. Laundering isn’t something confined to dingy back rooms where hard looking guys stand around with AKs. Large financial institutions (here’s a recent piece on Wacovia being busted for money laundering) are routinely fined for suspected money laundering, for participating in the rinse. The cost of the levy they pay is nothing to what they’ve made on such transactions so that’s just the cost of doing business.

The original pitch for The Rinse was about a crooked general retiring from active duty in Iraq making off with several millions in cash and he gets back to the states and needs our anti-hero, Jeff Sinclair, the launderer, to do a rinse.

The factual basis for this arose from the almost $12 billion in $100 bills we airlifted into Baghdad on shrink-wrapped pallets by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority a few years ago. The cash was distributed with no proper control over who was receiving it, and how it was being spent. The idea being we’d create friends and influence by spreading the "love." This was the biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve. Naturally, a whole lot of that cash went unaccounted for to this day.

The cats at Boom dug my idea but felt the Baghdad/armed forces connection was a bit too political so things were changed to make it more of a domestic story. But I’ve been quite pleased how it worked out and very happy with Marc Laming’s work. Definitely a different kind of story for me where it’s a collision between the sort of street level crime I often write about and this white collar arena of money laundering.

Big fun.

***

THE RINSE is out later this month from Boom directly (Cover A and Cover B) or at your local comic store.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. Chandler

Today is Raymond Chandler's 123rd birthday.

Last week a friend of mine said, "You're pretty hard on L.A."

"What do you mean? I love this town. It's so fucked up."

"That," he said. "That's what I'm talking about."

I look at Chandler the same way.

And so I can say, with great respect, Raymond Chandler was an asshole.

Before he created Philip Marlowe, penned the script for Strangers On A Train, or even had his first short story, Blackmailers Don't Shoot, published in Black Mask, he was an alcoholic executive for the Dabney Oil Company in Downtown L.A. getting shitfaced every day at lunch while playing gin at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

He was fired in 1932, a year before Prohibition was repealed. The reason? Excessive drinking.

Of course, Prohibition meant fuck all out here. The City of Los Angeles was running all the rackets out of Mayor Frank Shaw's office using city bureaucracy and infrastructure to coordinate it. It did it so well, in fact, that there wasn't anything for the mobsters to do.

We didn't have organized crime, we had city government.

Kind of like today. *rimshot*

Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939 when he was 50 years old. He got his first Hollywood gig in 1943 writing the script for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder. Just before the script was to be finished he threw a tantrum and made a bunch of stupid, whiny demands that would shame a five-year-old.

Seriously. It was shit like insisting that Wilder not wear his hat indoors, and to not ask Chandler to close the door while they were working on the script. Pissy, passive aggressive bullshit that, remarkably, was rewarded and not laughed at.

Three years later he had another hissy fit while finishing up The Blue Dahlia and for some bizarre, infantile reason, he demanded that he finish the last 22 pages of the script totally shitfaced with a secretary he could dictate to and a studio employed doctor on call to keep him loaded up on B-12 shots.

And yet.

Raymond Chandler was also a genius.

You can't watch The Blue Dahlia or read The Big Sleep or The Little Sister and not get that. He had an ear for dialog, a way with pacing and snappy one-liners that left other writers cold. He had the kind of writer's voice that swept over the inconsistencies, spackled the plot holes, kept you going at a breakneck pace and didn't let you stop to breathe.

Reading Chandler is like reading poetry. It's rhythm and flow. More to evoke mood than move plot it somehow manages to do both. He was a storyteller who could charm you with the music in his writing and you wouldn't care if he actually made sense.

I have a love / hate relationship with Chandler. I love his style and I hate his plots. They can be convoluted and confusing. But that's okay because I'm reading for the poetry, the sharp observations, the biting wit.

Here's one of my favorite openings of his. From the short story Red Wind.
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
If you've ever been here for the Santa Anas, you know what he's talking about.

He was a marvelous fuck up.  An alcoholic genius driven by his fears and insecurities. He was high-strung and demanding, self-righteous and whiny. He acted like a child and when he was treated like one in return he couldn't handle it. 

I think if I had known him I'd have wanted to punch him.

But I'd have bought his books, anyway.

So, happy birthday, Ray.  I'll drink a gimlet for ya.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Your Friday Dose Of Pulp Fiction

This one was originally in Shots Magazine. Since a redesign a while ago it looks like it's disappeared. So, what the hell. I'll put it here. Enjoy.



A FIRE IN HER EYES



I hear the devil likes jazz. When I see Anne-Marie listening to a saxophone solo in Harvelle’s in Santa Monica, wearing that slinky red dress and matching fuck-me pumps, I believe it. She's sipping a cosmo that goes with her nails, short blonde hair in a bob, diamonds around her throat. Green eyes half closed, drunk on the music. She's alone, but at least half the guys in this place wish they were with her. I'm not one of them.

I wade my way through the crowd and slide into the seat next to her, pushing her handbag out of the way. She turns toward me, smiles as if I had been there all evening, and then turns back to the music. I was her age, I was listening to the Stones, Bob Dylan. I don’t know what kids are into these days, but I’m sure it’s not this. We sit and listen together. It's enough that I'm here; I don't have to do anything.

The set ends and the musicians announce they're taking a short break. Out to the back for a smoke, or grab a drink from the bar. Anne-Marie orders me a Manhattan without even asking. She has a habit of giving people gifts they don't want.

As the waitress leaves she gives me a look over her shoulder. I’ve seen it before. What’s an old fart like you doing with a hot chick like her? And what in the hell does she see in you, anyway?

“Charlie,” Anne-Marie says. “I thought you didn't like jazz.”

“I don't,” I say.

“Ah,” she says. “Business, then?” I nod and she sighs theatrically. She knows why I'm here. She collects her purse. I settle up with the bar and make a path for her to the door. People instinctively get out of my way. I’m old, but I’m still big. I work out daily, eat right. Hell, if Jack LaLanne can tow a boat at seventy, I can at least keep from having a heart attack pushing sixty.

Outside, the fall air is cold and biting sharp, a slap in the face after the thick swell of people in the club. She shivers and I lay my overcoat across her bare shoulders. It swallows her up.

She's got her pouty face on. Same one she used to get a pony when she was eight. “Is daddy terribly upset?” she says in a mocking sing-song tone.

“He doesn't know you've gone out,” I say.

“Then we can go dancing,” she says. She starts hopping, she's so excited. “There's this club in Silverlake I've been dying to go to. What he doesn't know-”

“He'll find out,” I say. “I'm taking you back home, Anne-Marie.” She's back to pouting. Got it turned up to eleven. She'll start stamping her feet any minute and then I'll have to pick her up and carry her to the car. It's happened before.

“You're a real pain in the ass,” she says. “I'm an adult, you know.”

“In two days,” I say. Knowing her father, though, turning eighteen won’t change things. I've been working for Rick Patterson for over ten years now. I tie up loose ends, make things happen. No way is he going to let his one and only darling daughter loose into the world. He's afraid it will eat her. Me, it's the other way around.

“Are you going to tell him?” she says.

“Of course not,” I say. “You know the mantra.” I don’t tell him half the things she’s pulled. There are things he doesn’t need to know.

“You can do things right,” she says, “or you can do the right thing.” Sometimes what you’re supposed to do isn’t what you should do. She flashes a smile at me. It's the kind of smile that opens doors and breaks hearts. God knows it gets her into the clubs.

As kids go she's not that bad. She stays away from drugs, doesn't drink or party too much. Her grades aren't as good as I'd like, but hey, better than me at that age. She's sharp, takes advantage of her movie star looks, easy to underestimate. If anyone's taking over her father's business, it's her.

I unlock the Mercedes, open the door for her like a gentleman. “You know he wanted you to stay home tonight,” I say.

She rolls her eyes at me. “He'd like me to stay home every night,” she says.

“Yeah, but right now, things are kind of heavy. You really need to stay home.” She catches something in my tone. Gives me a look that disappears behind the tinted glass as I close the door for her.

We head up to Sunset, take Laurel Canyon up to Mulholland. She's quiet, subdued. Probably wondering what's going on. She knows the score. Her father let her in on the family business her sixteenth birthday. The empire’s huge. International. The man’s worth a billion easy. But it’s the shadier ventures that really bring in the cash. There are people who’d like to keep the details of how their cash comes and goes private. These days everything's outsourced, including money laundering. He's got so many clients from so many walks of life, he’s practically a public service.

It isn't until we're on the twists of Mulholland that she asks, “What's happening?”

Her father hasn't told her, hasn't had time, about the death threats. First it was email. Stupid stuff. Talking about how he was going down. Tough talk. Barely enough to think about. The addresses were all Hotmail accounts. None of his techs in the downtown office were able to trace them. That was a month ago.

“Stuff,” I say. “Your father should be telling you about it, not me.”

“But he's not here,” she says. “Like always.”

“The hell you mean, like always?”

Then it was the phone calls from blocked numbers bounced through too many phone exchanges for us to trace. That got people wondering. That takes skill. Got it on every phone that goes directly to him. House private line, work numbers, cell phones. The messages got nastier, too. Real poison pen letters. Threats against him and his family. That was two weeks ago.

And then there was the bomb. It didn't go off. Hugh, another of Mr. Patterson’s assistants, noticed it when he was tuning up the Rolls. I called up an old buddy from when I was in the Marines who does bomb disposal. I got lucky to find him stateside.

Turned out it was on a radio detonator. Guy who set it up could have blown it any time, but didn't. It was a warning. We can get to you whenever we want, it said. That was yesterday.

“Come on, Charlie. My father doesn't tell me anything, because he's got you to do it for him. He doesn’t have to be daddy with you around.”

I hear fire engines behind us, a pumper truck and a paramedic speeding by on these nightmare roads. I pull over as best I can to let them by.

“He loves you,” I say.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with this, does it? If I want to know what's going on I have to send him a memo. He spends all his time with Stacy.” Point. Between his new wife and work, he's never going to win the #1 Dad Award. Anne-Marie’s mother died when she was little, right before I came on board. I decide that it's time to tell her what's happening. Get her out of the dark so she understands.

But then I see where the fire engines are headed.

“Is that the house?” she says, leaning forward to see better. I can just make out its silhouette against a backdrop of flames. I'm hoping that it's another place on fire, but I know that it's not. I push the Mercedes harder, take the corners the way this car is meant to take them. We get there a minute after the fire department does.

The whole place is an inferno. The main house, a three-story Tudor, is down to one. Burning beams jut out from the wreckage like broken teeth, flames pile onto each other to see which can get the highest. The garage is mostly a crater and the guest quarters, mine and the servants' rooms, are almost completely to the ground. The air has the crisp smell of barbeque.

Anne-Marie is running toward the house before I can stop her. She body checks a cop, bowling him over to get past. Breaks a heel on the paving stones, keeps going. She stops at the front driveway, falls to her knees. I go to her, hold on to her tight. We watch the flames eat away at her home.

I lead her over to where a group of paramedics are tending some of the Pattersons' staff. Sit her down next to them. She's got that thousand yard stare when your world twists upside down.

“I'll find out what's happening,” I say, and move off to get some answers.

I see Hugh breathing from an oxygen mask, his bald head covered in soot and sweat. No sign of Anne-Marie's father or his wife. “What the hell happened?” I say.

He looks up at me, coughs. “I don't know, Charlie,” he says, his voice thick behind the mask. “There were-- ” The paramedic has moved on. Hugh lowers his voice. “There were some explosions. Small ones. Maybe a dozen,” he says.

“Shit. What about the Pattersons?”

He shakes his head, coughs, massive shoulders heaving from the smoke, takes another hit of clean air. “I don't know where they are. I was back in my room. I had just finished waxing the Rolls when I heard the explosions. By the time I got to the main house the whole first floor was on fire. I couldn’t get inside.” Hugh’s ex-Army, but he’s a good kid. If he says he couldn’t get inside, then he couldn’t get inside.

I look at the faces, coughing and dark with ash. Ilene, the cook. The gardener, George, and his wife. Francis and Gertrude, housekeepers. Somebody's missing. “Where's Ramon?”

Hugh shakes his head. “Haven't seen him.” Ramon does jobs for Mr. Patterson same as Hugh and I. We're drivers, or errand boys, or body guards, or whatever he needs of us. I hope Ramon’s all right, but the house is a massive wall of fire and smoke, and I can’t imagine how he could be.

The fire crew is having a hard time with the flames. The house is little more than a blazing shell, thick blankets of smoke fanning up and blotting out the moon. I look at Anne-Marie. She's staring at what's left, something I can't identify dancing in her eyes. Probably thinking the same thing I'm thinking.

She's not seeing her family again. Not tonight. Not ever.


***


With some well placed money the coroner releases the bodies of her father and his wife two days later. Anne-Marie’s eighteenth birthday. Instead of cake and a party she spends the day signing papers, paying morticians. She has her father cremated, leaves his wife at the morgue. Figures her family can deal with her. The cremation is fast and brutal. There’s not much left to burn. An extra couple thousand gets it done by the end of the day. That night she has me drive her to a beach in Malibu.

“How you holding up?” I ask. She’s staring out the passenger window, wrapped in a jacket of her father’s that we found in the Mercedes’ trunk. She doesn’t say anything, so I drop it.

When we get to the beach she takes her father’s urn, kicks her shoes off, and heads toward the waves. I’m right behind her. The water laps over her bare feet, moonlight painting the ocean with a thick, silver streak. She wraps the urn into the jacket, spins the whole thing around and launches it into the ocean like a hammer throw. We watch the waves swallow it up.

“Let’s go.” It’s the most she’s said to me all day.


***


Anne-Marie starts talking more, but she spends the next week dropping off in the middle of sentences to stare at nothing. These fugue states last a few minutes, then she picks up where she left off, as if nothing had happened.

But the next week, it’s a different Anne-Marie. Somebody’s replaced her with a woman made out of steel. She’s focused, attentive. The girl I pulled out of Harvelle’s burned away in the fire that killed her parents. I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

She hasn’t cried once since it happened.

Hugh and I have her holed up in a luxury suite in the Argyle on Sunset. Forties d├ęcor and a terrace that looks down on the craziness of the strip. Just another posh hotel on a street littered with them.

A lifetime of private school couldn’t have prepared her for what she has to deal with now. Every day she’s meeting with lawyers and board members, getting a crash course in the family business. The will’s still in probate, but they know which way the wind blows, and they’re puckering up to kiss their new queen’s ass.

She has me sit next to her during these meetings, at the head of the long conference table at her father’s downtown office. She reaches under the table sometimes, grasps my hand, squeezes tight. The only sign that she isn’t in complete control.

The police never find Ramon’s body and we aren’t mentioning him. If he gets into custody there’s no telling what he’ll say. It could ruin Anne-Marie before she even gets off the ground.

Besides, I want his head on a stick.

Hugh and I have taken to carrying guns, ugly automatics in shoulder rigs. It’s not a new thing, but it’s a rare thing. Neither of us likes it, but needs must when the devil drives.

There’s always at least one of us with Anne-Marie outside the suite. We get in her way, check rooms before she goes in, stick close enough to block a bullet. She puts up with it, but for how long I can’t tell. She’s either at the hotel or at the downtown office. Eventually, she’ll go stir crazy.

Hugh has just brought her home from another grueling day at the office. “That lawyer, what was his name, Wurther,” she says. We had given one of the board members a ride out to the Hilton across the street from our hotel. “He stank. Can you take the car to get it cleaned, Hugh?” Anne-Marie asks. Hugh gives me a questioning look. I nod.

“We’ll be fine,” I say.

“God, I am tired,” she says after the door closes. She tosses the jacket of her gray business suit onto an ottoman, throws herself onto the sofa. “Spreadsheets, invoices, personnel records. Jesus. How did he run such a huge company? And that’s just the legitimate stuff. Did you know that we’ve got offices in London and Berlin?” She spreads her arms out on the back of the sofa. Arches her back until it cracks. She’s tired and disheveled, but she’s beautiful. I have to remind myself that she’s forty years younger than I am, that I watched her grow up. She might as well be my own daughter.

She rolls her head, trying to crack her neck. I stand behind her, knead the muscles in her shoulders. She sighs, starts to relax. Her hand comes up, rests on mine. Slowly, she starts to caress my fingers.

I stop. There’s a long, torturous moment. Neither one of us breathing. I’ve got two halves of my brain screaming at each other. It’s wrong, but I can’t seem to help myself. I bend down, face near her neck, rationalizing that maybe I’m not that old.

“I need to get some rest,” she says, voice flat. “Goodnight, Charlie.” She stands, strides to her room. Doesn’t look at me. The door closes with a loud click of finality.

I sit on the sofa, put my head in my hands. Stupid, useless, old man. What the hell was I thinking? She trusts you. Besides, what would an eighteen year old girl see in a broken fifty-eight year old ex-Marine? You’re just the hired help. You’re a baby-sitter. Always have been.

The phone rings. “Hey, Charlie,” Hugh says. “I’m stuck at Hollywood and Highland. Some asshole sideswiped the car and took off.” Los Angeles is famous for hit and runs. Half the drivers in accidents are running without insurance. “I’m gonna be a while. Can you hang?”

“Yeah,” I say. “No worries. She’s sleeping. Take your time.”

The night stretches on. I’m chewing on what I should have done, what I didn’t do. It’s exhausting. Without realizing it I doze off and startle awake. I’ve been out almost an hour. Anne-Marie’s door is cracked open. I bolt off the sofa and run to her room. She’s gone.

I call Hugh, fill him in. He calls me an ass, and worse, an amateur. “You know her,” he says. “Where would she be?”

The only thing I can think of is music. With so many places on Sunset to catch a live band, I’m thinking she hasn’t gone far. Probably House of Blues down the street. She’s been there before. I throw on a coat to hide my gun and head downstairs.

The elevator doors open and I hear it. She hasn’t gone far at all. There’s a swing band, of all things, playing in the lounge. I stand at the top of the steps looking at dancers in costumes doing flips and spins. The singer is doing a passable Louis Prima.

There are spotlights on the stage, so the audience is dark. It takes me a minute, but then I see her. She’s over by the side, back in that slinky red dress she wore at Harvelle’s.

But this time she’s not alone.

The guy at her table is sitting with his back to me, wearing a baseball cap. My paranoia kicks in. He’s got Ramon’s build, but a flash of the spotlight shows a blonde mop under the hat, not Ramon’s black buzz-cut. He’s got his back to the audience. I can’t see his face. I start down the steps when the band kicks into something loud and fast and it seems the whole audience knows the cue. People stand up, start dancing at their tables, by the time the music settles down and I get to her, the guy’s gone. I have no idea where.

She looks up at me, sighs. I slide into a seat next to her, back to the wall.

“Who the hell was that?” I say.

She shrugs. “Just some guy. Asked me to dance. I don’t much feel like dancing.”

“You shouldn’t be down here,” I say. “You shouldn’t have snuck past me.”

“You shouldn’t have been asleep.” The words are ice, a slap in my face. Her highness scolding the maid. Her tone softens. “It doesn’t matter, Charlie,” she says.

“Yes, it does,” I say. “I’m sorry. We should go.”

“No,” she says. “I can’t be any safer than right here, right now. What are they gonna do? Burn down the hotel? I can’t stay cooped up in that room. You can’t protect me forever.”

I know that, but I want to lock her away, anyway. Keep her safe. “I’m sorry,” I say again. Not sure what I’m sorry for.

“Stop saying that,” she says. “Just stop talking.” The band starts playing something soft and languid that I don’t recognize. Couples slow dancing. We watch them, listen to the music. The song ends and she finishes up her cosmo. “Now we can leave,” she says and stands up. She puts her arm into mine and we exit the lounge.

She’s quiet as we make our way back to the suite. Leaning into me, holding tight. “Do you think I’m a bad person?” she says.

“Of course not,” I say. “You’ve got a lot on your mind. You’re under a lot of pressure.”

She chews the inside of her lip. “What if I do bad things?” she says.

“I’m not the one who’s gonna judge you for ‘em. This line of work, you’re gonna have to make some tough choices.”

She slides her keycard into the slot, turns the knob, stops. “What if I’d already done bad things?”

I put my hands on her shoulders. “I forgive you.”

She opens the door and there’s Ramon sitting in a club chair, a silenced pistol in his hand. Hugh’s lying on the floor in front of him, blood soaking into the carpet.

I shove Anne-Marie out of the way as Ramon pulls the trigger. The round goes high. The pain is a burning lance through my left shoulder. I fall to my knees, reaching for my gun. Ramon’s fast. He’s got the barrel pressed against my temple before I have the gun half out.

“Close the door,” he says. Anne-Marie stands, shuts the door.

“You sonofabitch,” I say. “Killing her parents wasn’t enough?”

Ramon steps away from me. “Don’t look at me. I just do what I’m told.” He sits back down. Anne-Marie sits beside him on the arm of the chair. That’s when I notice the baseball cap on the floor, the blonde wig.

I feel like I’ve been hit in the head with a two by four. How could I have been so stupid? “Couldn’t wait for the inheritance?”

“Stop it, Charlie,” she says. She walks to the bar, tosses me a towel. “That’s not what this is about. I’ve seen the financials. He was running things into the ground. I couldn’t let him do that.”

I’m hoping the look I give her tells her what I think of that plan. I press the towel to the wound. It’s not bad, a graze, but I haven’t been shot in twenty-five years, and I’ve forgotten how much it hurts. My gun’s right there inside my shoulder holster. But Ramon’s already got the drop on me. I can’t move fast enough.

Anne-Marie looks at Hugh’s body, gives Ramon an acid look. “Things weren’t supposed to go this way,” she says. “Nobody was supposed to get hurt. It was just going to scare him enough to get out of the business. Leave the country. I could convince him to let me run things from here.”

When Anne-Marie was six, she came to me with a dead frog she’d found and told me it needed new batteries. This is the same kind of thinking. Simple solutions, complex problems. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” I say, but I know it’s useless. She didn’t believe me then, she won’t believe me now.

“It would if you were here with me.” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “Now everything’s gone to shit,” she says, “and I have to clean up loose ends.” We look at each other a long time, and I don’t know what to make of her, anymore.

Ramon clears his throat, breaking the silence. “Now that you’ve shared your moment,” he says, “can I kill him?”

“No.” She puts her hand out, never taking her eyes off me. “Give me the gun.” Ramon looks impressed, hands it to her. She steps away from both of us. She raises the pistol in both hands, just the way I taught her to.

“Do you still forgive me?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. I should say yes, but even with a gun on me, I can’t lie to her. “What are you gonna do?”

“What should I do?” She’s changing faster than I can keep up with. One second, she’s an Amazon war goddess, little girl lost the next.

“I can’t make that decision for you,” I say. “You know that.” I’m signing my own death warrant, but I can’t seem to say anything else.

She nods. “I can do things right,” she says, “or I can do the right thing.” She turns the gun on Ramon and pulls the trigger. Double tap. Two rounds right in his head. He dies before he can even look surprised.

The pistol slips from her fingers. She falls to her knees, hands pressed to her face. I go to her, gather her into my arms as she starts to sob. For her family, for herself. For good plans gone bad. I can’t fix it. I can’t make it better. All I can do is hold her and let her cry.


END

Monday, July 18, 2011

Noir At The Bar L.A. - The Recap

So last night, Eric Beetner, Mystery Dawg and I hosted the first L.A. Noir At The Bar over at The Mandrake on La Cienega.

And it was one kick-ass evening.

The room was packed. I mean, sure it's not a huge place, but we had thirty or forty people crammed into it. I was astonished at how many showed up. Beetner ran a loop on the wall behind the readers of old film noir trailers that was really cool.

We kicked it off with Beetner reading scenes from his story SAFETY, about a gun lesson that goes horribly wrong, and from a work in progress about a guy getting the drop on his captors in a rather... imaginative way.

I followed up with a reading of my story LIKE THAT JAPANESE CHICK WHAT BROKE UP VAN HALEN from the anthology UNCAGE ME about a bassist in a garage band who's a little too naive, a little too stupid and a little too stoned for his own good.

Holly West read next from her unpublished historical mystery set in the 17th Century, DIARY OF BEDLAM that I can't wait to see on the shelves.

After Holly we had Josh Stallings who read a scene from his novel BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD about Moses McGuire, a suicidal strip club bouncer who's having some rough times.

And then we had the main event, Duane "Wishes He'd Learned To Chew Through That Ballgag" Swierczynski, who read from a work in progress about a guy standing outside a motel room door with a brick in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

I got a chance to meet some new people and hang out with some ones I haven't seen in a long time.

We're planning another one for October-ish. Details as soon as we can line them up.

Overall, the readings were fantastic, the crowd was nice and drunk and nobody threw a bottle at my head. If that's not the mark of a successful evening I don't know what is.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Night Pulp Fiction



I've been sitting on this one for a while.  It's a western...  sort of.  And seeing as how it's just collecting dust, I figure here's as good a place to put it as anywhere else.


Enjoy.
***

DARK AS A DUNGEON


"Gonna have to give up that hogleg, you wanna get into Dry Gulch, mister," the boy says. He waves a sawed off coach gun almost twice his size at Burdette for emphasis. He can't be more than ten. Brave face, but his wide eyes tell Burdette he's nervous as all get out.

The boy's filthy. Covered in streaks of sweat and dirt or something less savory. Jesus wept, but he stinks like he's wallowed in pig shit.

"Son," Burdette says. "You see this?" He hitches himself in the saddle, moving just so to catch the morning sunlight on the tin star pinned to his duster. "That there means I'm a Federal Marshal. Now, you don't want that scattergun shoved up your ass and pokin' out through your teeth, you'll put it down and let me be."

"Well, I—"

"Son, really. That thing ain't even cocked."

The boy looks down. Burdette kicks out with one foot, knocking the coach gun up where it blows a hole in the sky, draws his own piece. Has it pressed against the boy's forehead before he can so much as look surprised.

"I think you can keep your gun. Sir," the boy says, sighting cross-eyed down Burdette's barrel from the wrong end. He drops the coach gun, carefully, to the ground.

"That's mighty nice of you. You know what that is? That's simpatico. You and me. Seeing each other. You get my meaning?"

"I'm just here to take folks' guns, sir. Return 'em when they leave. Don't mean no harm."

"I'm sure you don't. You got a name?"

"Garry. That's with two R's"

"Well, Garry With Two R's, you tell me where the Sheriff for this shit hole's at?"

"There ain't none. He died. 'Bout a month back."

"Of course he did. How'd he kick?"

"Suicide."

Burdette looks past Garry at the boom town of Dry Gulch. Listens to the shudder of blasting rolling in from the mines. Even on the edge of the town he can feel the buzz of chaos. Tents, stacks of lumber, miners hoping to strike it rich on their own claims. Or hoping to steal from one of the larger ones.

Only a smattering of buildings. Saloon, of course. Whores strutting across the top balcony like rag dolls in a toy shop. Livery, general goods, assayer's office, handful of others. All sitting in mud and horse shit.

"In this paradise?" Burdette says, "I can't imagine why." He catches a whiff of bullshit that cuts through the stink of the town. More likely the man took a bullet in the back and anybody who could or would say anything decided the best course was to just keep their heads down.

"Well, then can you direct me to the jail? Man had to have some place to put all them miscreants what drove him to take his own life."

"End of town." Garry shrugs behind him. "I know the feller has the keys. Can get 'em for ya, if you like."

"There we are again," Burdette says. "Simpatico. I like you, Garry. Why don't you go get those keys for me. I'll be checkin' out the hotel. Think they might have rooms?"

"Oh, yes sir," Garry says. "My ma runs it. Best place in town." He doesn't move so much as an eyebrow. "Would ya mind, if it's not too much trouble, takin' your gun off me? Sir?"

"And such good manners, too." Burdette holsters the pistol, laughs to himself as Garry bolts into town.

"God, I hate this fuckin' job."


***


Burdette drops off his horse at the livery, heads to the hotel. Nicest building of the lot, and that's not saying much. The Edgewood Arms. Paint as fresh as you can keep it in a place like this, with the heavy rains one day, hot, scouring winds the next. Kind of place gets rode hard just by standing.

"Mornin'," he says to a plain faced woman behind the front desk. She's got that same dried out look he's seen in every mining town he's passed through. Tough the way a woman has to be tough out here.

"It is indeed, sir," she says. She smiles and Burdette realizes he's wrong. Tough she may be, but never plain. To see her smile, it's like watching the sun rise.

"You're new in town," she says after an awkward moment of Burdette's silence.

He shakes himself, says, "Yes, ma'am. Just in. Happened upon your son at the edge of town, as a matter of fact. Says you have the best rooms." He eyes the board with row upon row of keys.

She laughs. "Only rooms. So yes, I suppose he's right. You're in luck," she says. "We just happen to have a vacancy." She catches him looking at the key board. "Or two."

"Not much business?"

"It comes and goes. Miners get tents soon enough and as for visitors... Well, Dry Gulch isn’t exactly gay Paris." She sticks her hand out to him. "Abigail Kincaid. Owner and proprietor."

He shakes it. "What's the difference?"

"I have no idea."

"Well, Abigail, if I can call you that. I'm John Burdette. Passing through. Might be here a few days, though. You happen to have a room overlooking the street? I like to watch the traffic pass by."

"I have three." She tosses him a key. "Best room in the house. And no, you may not."

"I'm sorry?" John says, confused.

"Call me Abigail. Hate that name. You can call me Abby." That dazzling smile again, and he sees she has blue eyes that set off her dark features.

He returns it with one of his own. "Thank you, Abby. And you can call me John."

He leaves her to her work, glad for the first time in months that he came so far out west.


***


Burdette's thinking of a bath, maybe check out the whores in the saloon. Or just sleep. Long ride into town, weeks on the trail, he's tired and the room's bed is the first one he's seen in months.

There's a knock. Burdette opens the door to Garry, standing there in his shit covered dungarees, a short, gray haired man with a squint and a cigar alongside him.

"This here's Doc Haskell," Garry says. "He's the one what had the keys."

"You gonna invite us in, or you too good for common folk?" Haskell growls before Burdette can so much as say hello.

"You always this full of piss and vinegar?"

"Only when I can smell a gunfight on the wind. The boy here says you're a Marshal."

"I am. Just passing through."

Haskell pushes his way into the room. "Bullshit," he says, throwing a heavy ring of keys onto the bed. "Just passing through don't ask for the jailhouse keys."

"Obliged, Doctor," Burdette says. "But really, I am just passing through. If I can make a difference during my short stay here, though, I'd like to do what I can."

Haskell laughs. "Fine. Keep it to yourself. That's your business." He pulls a flask from his hip, takes a quick nip, tosses it to Burdette.

"Suppose you're going to want to know a little about this shithole?" Haskell says.

"I got a couple questions," Burdette says, taking a pull from the flask. He winces. Strong stuff.

"Don't drink too deep. Shit will make you go blind."

"I can believe that." His eyes water and he wipes the tears on the back of his hand.

"So, Dry Gulch. Mining town, as I'm sure you've guessed."

"That much I figured," Burdette says. "Heard the blasting all the way on the edge of town. You folks have somebody runs this place?"

"Oh, that'd be Mr. Dugan," Garry says. "He give me the job of collectin' guns. Don't want folks whoopin' it up and causin' trouble. More'n they do normal, at least."

"Dugan. Joey Dugan?"

"Yes, sir. You know him?"

Damn right he knows him. Only through the thick stack of charges against him, but it's just as good. Used to go by the name Joey Diablo, when he was out in Missouri. Dugan's the reason for this whole god-forsaken trip. At least he's finally caught up with the bastard.

"Only heard of him," he says. "In passing. But you say he's a big shot here?"

"He runs the saloon," Haskell says. "Owns the biggest silver stake in a hundred miles, too. Cavern with silver like it's plated on the walls, they're saying. Never seen it, though."

A wave of blasting tears across the town. "That would be them," Haskell says. "I hear they're breaking through into some new chamber today."

"Are they now?"

"Yes, sir," Garry says, clearly excited by the prospect. "Mr. Dugan done put Dry Gulch on the map. If you're gonna be stayin' long, you should check out his poker games and his girls. You a gambler, sir?"

Burdette thinks of the foolhardiness of being here. Of crossing hundreds of miles just for one man. How he could have died on the way. How he might die now.

Haskell gives him a look like he's reading his mind. "Yes, Garry" he says. "I'd say our friend here is quite the gambler."


***


The saloon has no name. No Golden Nugget. No Can Can Club. Just "Drink, Food - Cheap" painted on a slapped up chunk of board outside the door. In a place where the next closest whiskey is at least a hundred miles, Burdette figures that's the first of Dugan's lies he's seen today.

Burdette stands outside the swinging doors. Not sure how to proceed. Come this far, it's not like he's about to give up, but now that he's actually faced with action, he's not sure what that means. Aside from a bad sketch and a worse description, he doesn't even know what the man looks like. But he knows he's in there. Has to be. He owns the place.

The best course of action is to get the lay of the land, but not to tip his identity too soon. He pulls off his tin star, drops it in a pocket, steps through the doors.

Yellow light filters through bad glass. Makes the air look like smoke. He can smell morning coffee, sweat, dust. And cologne. By all accounts Dugan's a dandy, so that whiff's got to be coming off him.

Only a handful of folk, miners mostly. One at the piano plunking out a quiet tune, a couple hold overs from the night before, each with a bedraggled whore in bloomers and corset sitting in his lap.

The riffling of cards in the back and Burdette knows he's got him. Three men. Two hard and one so bright and clean and clever it can't be anyone but Dugan.

Burdette heads to the back, slides a chair near enough to watch, far enough to not join in.

"This here's a private game," the dandy says. Someone once described Dugan's voice as slick as wet ice on wet ice, and the flow of this man's words just adds confirmation. "But I'm sure if you wanted to place a wager, we could deal you in next hand."

"Obliged," Burdette says, pulling out a few coins. He waits for the game to finish. Five card stud. Pulls himself up to the table as Dugan deals with the smoothness of a machine.

Burdette's first hand is crap and he folds right away. His second is a pair of twos and he rides it out only to lose to a full boat of Aces and Sixes. He wins a hand here, loses a hand there. The whole time he's watching Dugan make small talk. Like he can't keep his mouth shut. A man talks like that, a dandy who keeps his shoes polished in a place like this, that's a man making up for something. He's got a weakness there, and if Burdette's going to bring him in without having to kill every goddamn jackass working for him, he's going to have to figure out what it is.

"You're a quiet one," Dugan says, six hands in. "And you have an interesting style of play."

"Do I now?" Burdette says.

"You do. I've been watching you watch me," he says. "Now that's unusual, don't you think?"

"Can't see why. Can't tell if a man's bluffing, you don't look at him."

"Oh, I agree," Dugan says. "One hundred percent. Only, you're not looking at anyone else."

That catches him. "That right?" Burdette's thrown a little, and he knows his pause telegraphs it louder than if he'd shouted it across town.

"It is. And you know what else?"

Burdette doesn't. He doesn't like where this is going, either.

Dugan shuffles, slides cards across the table. "You're playing less like you're looking to win, and more like you're looking to not lose. Which says to me that you're more interested in staying in the game as long as possible. And keep watching me."

Burdette shifts his weight a little to make his gun and Bowie knife a touch more accessible. He can see by Dugan's face that it hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I-" Burdette starts, but Dugan stops him with a raised finger.

"Gentlemen," he says. "I do believe I will fold. My cards are atrocious and as my father once said to me, don't go into a game if you haven't got shit to back you up." He places his cards on the table. "Sound advice, wouldn't you say, Marshal?"

Half a dozen pistols cock at Burdette's back.

"It is Marshal, isn't it?" Dugan says. "You've got the stink of the law on you."

"It is," Burdette says. "John Burdette. I ain't here for you."

"Oh, please," Dugan says. "You're very much here for me. I imagine it's the judge I shot in Missouri."

Burdette says nothing. Knows it's gone from bad to worse and can't see any way out of this that doesn't end with his being punched full of holes.

A gun pokes Burdette's back. He'd like to think he's had worse times, but can't come up with a one. He gets ready to kick the chair back, swing his arm over the gunman's and yank him down. Done right, he can have the man's pistol in a heartbeat.

He never gets the chance to make his move.

Another blast from the mine, louder and duller than the rest, rolls in like thunder. A low, threatening grumble he can feel in his feet.

And chaos blows across the room.

The ground lurches, throwing everyone to the floor. A gun goes off. Screams mix with the crashing and splintering of wood. Burdette hits the ground and rolls. Tries to stand, but the saloon's not cooperating. It bucks once, twice, a third time.

Then it all tilts like it's sliding down a hole.

Floors turn to walls. Chairs, tables, bottles all rain down around him, crashing with a sound like a train wreck. Burdette slides, scrabbling for a hand hold that isn't there, only to slam into the saloon's upended staircase.

The shock cracks the banister, but it holds. Barely. From the look of what's below him that's good enough.

Shattered furniture lies amid the pile of Dugan's men. A quivering hand peeks out from underneath the piano, blood mixing with dust and splinters. One man impaled on a table leg.

"The good lord himself must take a shine to you, Marshal," Dugan says above him. "Seein' as you're not dead and all." Dugan peers over the bar turned on its side, hair disheveled, a nasty bruise welling up on his cheek. Lucky for Burdette the bar was bolted to the floor or it would have flattened him sure. As it is, the wood's creaking like it could give at any moment.

Burdette coughs through the dust. "The Almighty lends us all a hand a time or two," he says. Though he's not sure this is necessarily one of them. He's got nowhere to go but down and it's a long drop.

"Be that as it may," Dugan says, "I don't think it would be prudent of me to let you simply hang out there all exposed as it were."

"If you got yourself a rope up there, I'd be mighty obliged."

"Not quite what I had in mind," Dugan says, producing a pistol and aiming it at the hapless Marshal.

Burdette goes for his own gun, but he's got to reach across with his left hand to do it and he knows he won't get to it in time.

It doesn't matter, anyway. The ground beneath the saloon gives one final, gut wrenching heave, throws the floor back from vertical to horizontal. Dugan's shot goes wild as he pitches into the air.

Burdette finds himself in flight, hurtling like he's been thrown from the mother of all broncos. Hits the fractured floorboards with a skull cracking thud, his vision spinning through all the colors before finally settling on black.


***


Burdette picks himself up from the warped floorboards, his bearings shifting this way and that. His head throbs, a large goose egg on the back of it. Cracked ribs burn in his chest when he breathes.

He looks around at the disaster. A dull, purple glow filters through the broken windows. But it's wrong for sunset. The color's too rich, too vibrant. And could he possibly have been out that long?

The saloon's ceiling, cocked at an angle that can't possibly hold it for long, creaks like a ship at sea. Reminds him of his danger.

He's never been in an earthquake before, and he'd like to not feel another one. He remembers hearing how they come in waves. One hits, then another and another. No time to dally.

He looks around for Dugan, finds him wrapped in the ropes of the wagon wheel chandelier, torn from its moorings and lying on its side. He's bruised and battered to hell, but breathing.

Pity. Dead would have been easier.

A quick look around and Burdette's not worried about Dugan's men. The smell of shit, blood and spilled hooch hangs heavy in the air. If they're not all dead, they're too broken to be a threat.

Burdette takes advantage of Dugan's unconsciousness and ties his hands together. Finds an unbroken bottle of something that smells like kerosene, takes a swig, pours the rest on Dugan's head. He comes to, sputtering.

"Joey Dugan," Burdette says. "You're under arrest for the murder of Judge Herbert Wilkins of Missouri, and I aim to bring you to justice."

Dugan looks around at the shattered remains of his saloon, the bodies of his men. "I was right," he says, spitting out a tooth. "The good Lord has taken a shine to you."


***


If this is the Almighty's idea of a shine, Burdette doesn't want to see Perdition.

It's not bad enough that the town is a wreck, buildings little more than sticks and rubble. No, it's the fact of where it is that has Burdette standing on the saloon's porch in shock.

The quake didn't just shake the town to pieces. It opened up the earth and sucked the whole place down.

Dry Gulch sits at the bottom of a cavern. The pit the town has fallen through only a thin line of sunlight too far above to reach.

Thick layers of moss line the walls and ceiling giving off the purple glow Burdette mistook for sunset.

"Like the walls were plated with silver," he says, remembering Garry's words.

Beside him Dugan stands equally awestruck. "Good lord," he says.

"Well, Mr. Dugan," Burdette says, "seems we have ourselves a bit of a pickle."

Dugan turns an incredulous look on him. "A pickle? Marshal, you certainly have a facility for understatement."

A cry for help reaches them. Burdette turns on Dugan, the tip of his Bowie knife at his throat.

"Would have been easier for me if you'd died. But since you ain't dead, you're gonna help me with these people. I've got no reason to kill you." He swipes at the ropes tying Dugan's hands, slicing clean through. "Don't give me one."

Dugan rubs his wrists, nods.

"All right, then," Burdette says. "Go do a good deed for once in your life."


***


Of the sixty or so people they find, less than two dozen still live. Abby, Garry and Doc Haskell among them, giving Burdette a bit of hope. Friends are few and far between in the world. Shame to lose them before they're made.

"We've got busted bones, a concussion or two," Haskell says. "Nothing too serious. Exceptin' the dead ones, of course."

"You're a bright ray of sunshine, Doc."

"Don't patronize me," Haskell says. He's sporting a goose egg of his own on his brow. "If these people can't move, they can't get out. No way we're going up the way we came down."

"My apologies, Doc. Like all of us, I'm feelin' a bit touchy."

Haskell waves it away, moves onto a woman nursing a broken arm.

"He's a good man," Abby says, coming up from behind Burdette. "Just a bit gruff."

"Good men often are."

"What now?"

He looks at the bodies dragged out and lined along the shattered street. Sheets, burlap, in some cases a broken board or two to cover them up. So many dead.

"We have to bury these folk."

Abby lays a gentle hand on his shoulder. "John," she says, looking toward the cavern walls. "They're already buried."

Her unspoken, "just like us," hangs in the air. She's right. There's nothing more they can do for them. They're gone.

"Then let's round everyone up," he says, "and figure out how to get out of this hole."


***


"I'm telling you, Marshal, your guess is as good as mine." Dugan sits on an upturned barrel, picking dirt from beneath his fingernails.

"You know these caverns better'n these folks," Burdette says. "This is part of your mine, ain't it? That cavern your boys were blasting into. Walls like they were plated with silver? That's this glowin' moss. It's your mine, you should know it."

"Do I honestly look like a miner? I've got foremen to do that. I've been underground a total of five times."

"Bullshit." Burdette's getting ready to beat some sense into him when one of the survivors limps up.

"He's tellin' the truth," the man says. "I used to work the mine, and Mr. Dugan ain't never stepped more'n a few feet inside." He cracks a toothless grin. "He got lost too."

"Then maybe you can help us. Know where the mine entrance is? If they blasted into this one, might be a hole we can get through."

He shakes his head. "I ain't never been this far in. I know it's roughly that way, though." He points into the distance.

"Well, let's get to walkin', then." Burdette pulls some rope. "Stick out your hands," he says to Dugan.

"I helped save these people."

"And they're mighty grateful, I'm sure. Now stick out your hands 'fore I cut 'em off."

Dugan does as he's told. "Best watch your back, Marshal. It gets awful dark down here."


***


Dugan isn't kidding. Burdette's tied everyone together to keep them from being separated, Dugan in front where he can keep an eye on him. They've got lanterns to supplement the glow, but when they hit a patch where the moss has disappeared the darkness swallows them up.

When they hit the cavern wall a half hour later, it doesn't take long to find a tunnel. Cramped, claustrophobic, but a path. Hopefully to freedom.

"Marshal?" comes a call from behind. "Marshal, I think I found somethin'." Burdette unties himself from the line, heads to the back.

The woman who called him points it out as he steps up. He doesn’t know how he missed it as he was walking past. A pickaxe head lies propped against the wall sitting in a pool of thick, black oil.

"This is a good sign, right?" the woman asks. "Miners been down this way."

He gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "It is. Means we're on the right path." He makes to pick up the axe head in hopes of returning it to the owner.

"No," the woman says. "Let me. You've got a lot to do up ahead, watchin' Mr. Dugan and all." Word has spread fast among the small group, and now everyone knows Dugan's crimes. Even should something happen to Burdette, they'll see he gets taken care of.

She picks up the pickaxe, Burdette thinking how kind, how nice a woman this is, to help out.

Just as everything explodes in a blur of motion. The black pool beneath the pickaxe rears itself up. A thick, viscous liquid reaching the cave roof. The woman screams, Burdette yells in surprise.

But it's nothing to the sound the oil makes. Like a baby shrieking, being torn apart and burned alive. It echoes off the walls.

Burdette goes for his pistol, but it's blindingly fast. It swoops down on the hapless woman, engulfs her face in its thick, black jets, muffles her screaming.

She tears at it. With every touch it sticks. And wherever it hits, her skin begins to melt. Fingers liquefy to bone. Muscles fray into bloody threads. Her bowels let go and the smell of shit, blood and a stink like kerosene flashes through the air.

She falls, thrashing like she's being struck by lightning over and over again. In the overturned lantern light, he can see blood running out from beneath the black goo on her face. He thinks it's his imagination. Hopes it is. As the woman's skull collapses on itself, the thing gets bigger.

All of this in the blink of an eye.

Burdette cuts the rope holding her to the rest of the group, slaps at the next man in line, screams at him to for god's sake run. Everything a blur, everything panic and pandemonium.

She whips back and forth, legs and arms flailing. He can hear her muffled screams through the black mass eating her face, her hands, crawling up her arms. He wants to help, but God help him, he's afraid to touch her.

He begs forgiveness, puts a bullet in her head. Runs like a coward.

The lantern lights ahead bounce and weave. He can hear the panicked screaming of the herd. No one sure what's happened, only knowing they have to run.

He slows as he catches up with them. The unearthly screeching behind them has faded.

"What in the hell was that?" Haskell says amid a din of questions. "And where the hell is Nancy?"

Now Burdette has a name to put to her. Wishes he didn't.

"She's dead. We’ve gotta keep—"

The creature's shriek cuts him off, ripping through the dark passageway.

Another joins it. And another. The sounds blurring into a mad melody. The keening echoes surround them.

Burdette catches a flash of glistening black in the light, draws and fires, his bullets ripping through it like it was nothing. His holes merely seal back up as it spreads across the ceiling at lightning speed, crawling and sliding like water.

A tendril shoots from the darkness. Knocks flat a man at the end of the rope, engulfs his chest. He screams, skin melting off his bones.

Another drops from the ceiling to cling to a woman next to him. But instead of simply feasting on her, it sends a tendril for the line, travels along like fire.

"Cut the rope," Burdette yells. He saws away at a length, jumps back as the oil comes too close, moves up the line. Everyone's trying to untie themselves, mad in their desperation to get away. Panic runs through the group faster than the killing oil.

The ones who cut loose bolt like spooked cattle. Each running off into god only knows what direction. Burdette runs, too. Grabbing whoever he can, herding them along past the screams.

There's nothing he can do for them but pray and run.


***


Five left. Burdette, Dugan, Haskell, Abby and a shaking and nearly comatose Garry. The boy who stood up to him earlier that morning is gone. Nothing but a shell rocking back and forth.

They ran. For how long Burdette couldn't say. Lost almost twenty people to those things. Didn't stop until they'd found a new cavern with more of that glowing moss on the walls.

"Any idea what those things were?" Dugan asks. Burdette's untied him. No one should have to go the way those people went. Not even Dugan.

"Ain't never seen anything like 'em," Burdette says. "Doc?"

Haskell glares at him. "The hell should I know? I saw less than you did."

"They're the devil," Garry says, his voice barely a whisper. "They're the devil and they come to kill us for our sins."

"Hush, boy," Abby says, smooths his hair, rocks him to and fro. "Ain't no devils here. We're gonna get ourselves to sunlight soon." She looks at Burdette, eyes pleading. "Ain't that right, Marshal?"

"We will," he says. "Promise." He puts a hand on Garry's shoulder who flinches at the touch.

"That's a fine sentiment, Marshal," Dugan says, "but that doesn't change the fact that we still don't know where we're going."

"We're headed the right path." He tells them about the pickaxe the woman found right before that creature jumped her.

"Anyone seen anything else like that? Signs of miners?" They shake their heads.

"I wasn't exactly looking," Haskell says. A long moment of silence follows.

"All right," Burdette says, finally. "We been here long enough. Need to get moving before those things catch our scent."

"Seems kind of odd they'd lose interest, doesn’t it, Marshal?" Dugan asks.

"That's 'cause they're enjoyin' their meals," says a voice from the darkness.

Burdette's gun is in his hand before the sentence is done.

"Come on out," he says. "I don't want to have to shoot ya." Only one bullet left after all.

A burly, soot covered man steps out, a pick gripped hard in his hand. A nasty gash runs across his forehead and his eyes have the lazy tilt of concussion. "You'd be doin' me a favor," he says. "Beat getting' et by them blob monsters."

"No doubt," Haskell says, hurrying over to look at the man and waving the Marshal back. "But seein' as you're still alive, it'd be a shame to waste the bullets." He leads the man to a wide rock to sit.

Haskell looks over the miner, raising his lantern to see better. He grunts at each laceration he finds. "What's your name, son?"

"Leon Franks. You're the doctor in town." His eyes seem to search for the name, as though he can pull it out of the air. "Haskell?"

"That's right. You got yourself a nasty bump here, Leon."

"I was runnin'. Those things they— They got everyone else. I think. Melted 'em. I was headin' back to the entrance." He stands abruptly, eyes wild. "The dynamite. We gotta set it off."

"Whoa there, son," Burdette says, his voice soothing, like he's talking down a frightened horse. "We're safe. For the moment. You want to tell us what happened?"

Leon calms a bit, panic still sitting in his eyes. "We blew into this cavern this mornin'," he says. "Went in to clear the rubble. Got in deep. Deeper than we've ever been. And then..."

"And then?" Burdette asks.

"Then them things came oozin' after us. Leapin' from the shadows. Hundreds of 'em. We panicked and ran, back the way we come. When we got back to the entrance there weren't much of the crew left. But the foreman, he made us come back. To set the charges. Gonna blow the mine closed. Seal it back up."

Burdette steals a glance back at Dugan, who seems to take the thought of his mine closed forever in stride.

"These charges already set?" he asks.

"Yes sir," Leon says. "On a rock bridge over the cavern. Was about to set it off when them things jumped us. I fell and hit my head."

"Think you could lead us back the way out?" Burdette says.

Leon shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. I'm a little turned around. But I can give it a shot."

A shrieking howl cuts through the cavern, echoes against the walls.

"Better than nothin'," Burdette says, pushing Leon ahead of him. "Best we get a move on."


***


An hour later they come to a chamber the size and shape of a roundhouse, the whole place lit from a thick covering of the glowing fungus. Tunnels stretch off from the room. So many directions, Burdette loses count.

Leon looks at each tunnel in turn, his brow furrowing deeper with every one.

"I don't know which to take" he says.

"That's all right," Burdette says. "Take your time. It'll come to ya." He steps away, gives Leon some room.

"This is a problem," Dugan says.

"That's awful helpful," Burdette says. "Got any other insights you'd like to share?"

"I mean it. He's our only hope out of this hole and he's more addled than my syphilitic grandmother."

"You got another idea?"

"As a matter of fact I do." He looks around, leans in. Says something Burdette can't hear.

Burdette moves in closer. "The hell you whisperin' for? Come again?"

"I said, 'I kill you and leave the lot of you to rot.'" Dugan's hands are fast. He snakes Burdette's pistol from his holster, whips it across the Marshal's face. The metal hits bone with a loud crack, knocking Burdette to the ground.

Burdette's vision swims. Wetness pools beneath his head where he's struck the hard stone floor. One knock too many. He sees Dugan standing blurrily over him. Aiming the pistol.

His vision goes dark and he fades into unconsciousness. But not before he hears the gun go off.


***


Burdette comes to with a hot pain in his skull. He remembers Dugan and the pistol, checks himself for holes.

"You're fine," Haskell says nearby. "Glass jawed sonofabitch." He gives a low groan. "Dammit, woman. I'm gutshot, not made out of goddamn china. Just prop me up, already."

Abby pulls Haskell up against a stalagmite, blood flowing from a wound in his stomach. She's desperately trying to staunch the flow. Not making much progress.

Burdette stands, dizzy. No idea Dugan packed such a punch. "What the hell happened?"

"The doctor fouled Dugan's aim," Abby says. "So he turned the pistol on him instead. You're lucky he didn't finish you up, too."

Luck indeed. His final bullet and Dugan used it on the doctor.

Haskell waves a hand. "Bastard went down one of them tunnels. I don't know which one. Took our guide, too."

The hole in Haskell's stomach is bad. He's pale and clammy. "Can you walk?" Burdette asks.

Haskell gives him a look that answers more than his question. Abby catches it, too.

"No," she says. "We are not leaving you down here. Not— not with those things crawling around."

An ear splitting shriek cuts through the cavern. At first Burdette thinks it's the black oil beasts again, reaches for his gun only to remember it's not there.

But it's not the monsters. It's Garry. Been staring at that pool of blood spreading out through Doc Haskell's waistcoat for too long and he's finally gone round the bend.

Abby runs to him, scoops him into her arms. Tells him to shush. But it's too late.

His cries are answered down one dark tunnel. The sound casting out like it's hunting for them. Then the others join in. Two, three, half a dozen tunnels resonate with the sound. The ungodly chorus of a thousand mad pipers.

"Looks like the decision's been made for us," Haskell says. He tries to pull himself up, but his legs barely twitch. The sweat breaking on his forehead shows the burden, though he gives no voice to the pain.

"I'll carry you," Burdette says, reaching for him.

Haskell waves him off. "You'll never make it with an old fart like me round your neck. Get them two out of here. Save them. And save yourself."

"I—"

"Go, goddammit. They're coming."

He's right. The cries are getting louder. And the floor is shaking like a dry creek before a flash flood.

Burdette pushes Abby toward an empty tunnel, Garry still shrieking in her arms.

"I'm sorry, Doc." He grabs one of the last two lanterns. Seems wrong somehow to leave the old man without a flame.

"You're wastin' breath, dammit," Haskell says. "Now git."

Burdette speeds after Abby, pauses inside the tunnel to give Haskell a final silent prayer.

And sees the walls across the cave burst in a wave of black oil. The individual slicks rear up, flow in and out of each other. They pool around the doctor, circling like a pack of coyotes at wounded cattle.

"Yeah?" Haskell shouts. "You want me? Well, I ain't so goddamn easy you rat whore cock holsters." He picks up his lantern and hurls it deep into the morass. The lantern shatters, throwing up flames. "Burn you sonsabitches. Burn."

They do. Flames spread through the black sea. Pieces break into individual pools, protecting the whole. But it's not enough. Where the flames lick at the glowing fungus it ignites like it's been soaked in kerosene.

Within moments the room is an inferno. Burdette runs from the flames, the sweet stink of burning flesh, enflamed oil, the monsters' dying shrieks.

But it's Haskell's screams that follow him.


***


They must be getting close. For a while the tunnels were full of smoke and the stink of burning oil, but now Burdette can smell fresh air wafting in from down the tunnel.

And none too soon. Any illusions he suffered that the monsters were killed by Haskell's last stand have been wiped clean. Echoes of their distant cries came down the tunnel not fifteen minutes ago.

"John," Abby says, stopping in front of him. She shifts Garry in her arms. He's worn himself out. Snoring on her shoulder.

Burdette follows her gaze. It's a positive sign to be sure, but a harrowing one nonetheless.

The tunnel widens into a larger chamber with a natural stone arch above it. In the middle, a pile of helmets, pick heads and lamps. On closer look Burdette sees that it's littered with belt buckles, hob nails, all of the metal a man might carry with him.

"Them things can't eat metal?" Abby asks.

Burdette picks up a discarded pistol, checks its chambers. Three bullets left. The wooden grips scoured clean from the frame. "I reckon not," he says, holsters the piece.

Burdette looks up at the stone arch in the middle of the room. In the distance he can see the mine proper. Crossbeams hold up the roof, tracks line the floor. "This must be where they got ambushed," he says.

"Them explosives up there, you think?"

"One way to find out," Burdette says. He climbs up a steep ramp of stone. The rock is slick and with the lantern he's only got the one hand to use. Takes him longer than he'd like, but he finally gets high enough to set the lantern atop the bridge. Hauls himself up.

And comes face to face with a gun barrel.

"Was wondering when you were going to make an appearance, Marshal," Dugan says. "Come on up." He stands aside to make room amid a pile of dynamite and wiring. Cans of kerosene litter the bridge. A reel of wire hooks the whole shebang to a plunger.

Burette can see that Dugan's found more ammunition. The bullets from his gun gleam in the lantern light.

"I was figurin' you'd be dead," Burdette says.

"Close to," Dugan says. "Them blob monsters came at Leon and I a ways back. Sad to say our poor guide didn't quite make it. They were just too fast for him."

"With a little help from your six gun, I take it."

"Well, you know how that old joke goes. I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."

"You're not stupid, Dugan. What are you waitin' here for? Why didn't you just blow this cave in and get gone?"

"Because I have faith in your tenacity. You're resourceful. And charmed. You'd get out of here, just come at me again. Figured I'd wait a spell in the dark, see if my faith in you is misplaced."

Burdette laughs. "Bullshit. You just want to gloat. Can't do that if'n I'm dead, can ya?"

"John?" Abby calls from below. "What's goin' on up there?"

"Why hello there, Miss Abby," Dugan says, flashing Burdette an ugly look. "The Marshal and I are just having a chat. Why don't you and your boy head on out the tunnel? Entrance is just up yonder. I've got no quarrel with you."

"Go on, Abby," Burdette says. "Dugan and I got some unfinished business."

A long silence from below then, "I'm sorry, John," she says, her voice quiet. Her footsteps fade as she runs to freedom.

So close only to be stopped by this ragweed sonofabitch. Burdette's held his rage in check, but the smirk on the bastard's face is too much. He steels himself to draw. Knows he'll be dead before he even clears leather.

Then he feels it. Barely. A low thrumming in the ground. That flash flood warning running oh so quietly up his legs.

"So what now?" he says. Stall for time. "This where we draw off paces and shoot each other down?" He edges a foot closer to the lantern flickering in the dark. The flames rattle just a bit

Now it's Dugan's turn to laugh. "Marshal, I've had the drop on you three times. And every time the good lord has seen fit to pull you from my grasp. So what makes you think I'm going to give you a fighting chance?"

"So it's just gloat and shoot, is it?"

"Seemed like the prudent course. Now if you'll stand still a moment we can—."

The trembling spikes, slamming the cavern with its force. And finally Burdette understands. There was never any earthquake. It was them. It had always been them.

And with that thought down the tunnel they come.

They dance in and out of each other, flow and ebb like the sea. The kerosene stink strong as they fill the tunnel. They search, sniff out their prey. And as they catch its scent they begin to wail.

The shaking throws Dugan to his knees and he fires. Though the shot goes wide it's not wide enough. Hot pain plows through Burdette's left shoulder, but he ignores it. He doesn't have the time.

With his good hand he scoops the lantern up, flings it dead center at Dugan's face. The glass shatters, dousing him in burning oil. He screams as he erupts into a brilliant torch.

Burdette kicks him over the side, his shrieks mixing with the seething morass below. A moment of silence, a pregnant pause.

The cave turns into hell.

The burning creatures flow back the way they came, desperate to get away from Dugan's flaming body. He flails, throws more fire onto them as he bobs and rolls across the wave. He's stopped screaming. Whether because he's dead or the black oil has just filled his lungs Burdette's not sure.

A clear spot opens up beneath the bridge. Burdette grabs the plunger, the reel of wire and leaps down into it, mere feet from the inferno. As if sensing their prey is escaping them, the creatures flow into the emptiness, chasing after him even as they burn.

Daylight ahead. The sound of his boots on hard rock, the keening of the creatures behind him. Twenty feet, thirty. Wire playing out behind him, the spool getting thinner.

How close is too close? How far is far enough?

He gives the reel another couple spins, says fuck it, pops the plunger.

The blast is a light so bright, it might as well be heaven.


***


"That's all the supplies," Abby says, hauling a tarp over the buckboard. "You sure you don't want to give it a few more days? This ain't gonna be a comfortable trip."

Burdette sits in the wagon, Garry pressed up against him for support. Abby's set his bones best she could, but he'll probably always have a limp, and it's debatable he'll ever regain use of his shoulder. The rest of his injuries will heal in time. He's had broken bones before. Nothing that time won't mend.

Except his left eye. Those don't grow back.

"Ain't gonna be any more comfortable a fortnight from now much less a day. I'd feel better gettin' as far as we can as soon as we can."

She nods. They've been camped out the better part of a week. Burdette's been mostly useless. Hobbling a bit here and there, getting yelled at when Abby sees him trying to lift supplies scavenged from the mine site.

Abby pulled him from the wreckage. Rock and dust, timber and rail. No sign of Dugan. Or of anyone else for that matter. From the look of things everyone came to help when Dugan's mine collapsed. And none of them made it back out.

"We'll go tomorrow," Abby says. "Rest up another day."

"No," Burdette says forcefully. He breathes deep for control. "No," he says again, more gentle this time. "We need to get on the road."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure."

She hitches herself into the wagon, cracks the reins to get the horses going. They'll be on the road for days. But at least they won't be here.

And maybe when he sleeps he'll stop hearing that mad shrieking coming for him under the ground.

-END-

Thursday, July 14, 2011

This Is What Happens When They Let Me Out Of My Cage

There's an interview with me over at Author, Pen Monkey, Registered Marsupial Sex Therapist Chuck Wendig's place, Terribleminds. I talk about writing, my books, and why I am probably not the person you want to have as a roommate.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Think This Fills My Yearly Quota For Tasteless Dick Jokes

Garden Grove, CA

So Mr. and Mrs. Becker have fallen on some rough times. It happens. The magic's gone. The spark has faded. And when that happens we all know what happens next.

Mrs. Becker's chopping off Mr. Becker's penis and tossing it down the garbage disposal.

Catherine Kieu Becker, 48, in the midst of a divorce, offered to go to her estranged husband's home and cook him dinner as part of a reconciliation. Instead, she appears to have drugged his food, tied him to his bed and lopped off his penis, which she then tossed into the garbage disposal, grinding it into kibble.

Henceforth the machine shall be known as The Becker Pecker Wrecker.

By Black And Decker. Naturally.

Now I don't know the dynamic between these two.  Maybe he's a psychotic wife beater.  Maybe she's just batshit crazy.  Doesn't really matter.  It's fucked up all around.

In this tragic tale there's only one thing I'm sure of.

The jokes just write themselves.

Another Reason To Keep Your Receipts

Long Beach, CA

Evidence comes in all shapes and sizes. Bullet casings, epithelial cells, fingerprints.

Little pieces of paper.

On March 24th Philip Victor Williamson, 29, a legal marijuana distributor selling to dispensaries, was shot in an alley off Pine Avenue in Long Beach. Later police found a receipt for a store in Beverly Hills in his apartment from earlier that day. When they checked it against surveillance footage from the store they found an interesting thing.

It wasn't his receipt.

No, it belongs to the husky gentleman wearing the black hoodie in the photo below.  He was also seen driving away in a 2002 black Toyota 4Runner.


Now, obviously, this doesn't mean that he's the killer. But the cops sure would like to talk to him.

So, if you know who this guy is, give the LBPD a jingle at 562-570-7244.  I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

UPDATED - Chandler Slept Here... And Drank There, And Banged His Mistress In There

**Update**

I have just been informed that the price is now $40.00 for anybody who wants to ride the tour with the MWA on Sunday.

Forty bucks to see where Chandler got shitfaced?  A bargain!

**

So this weekend, amidst Carmageddon and Noir At The Bar (featuring Duane "Get Over Here, Gimp Boy" Swierczynski), the good folks with the So Cal Mystery Writer's of America have worked their hoodoo magic on the equally fine folks at Esotouric Bus Tours to give their members a special deal on their very popular Raymond Chandler Tour (.PDF warning).

This Sunday you can ride in air conditioned comfort and see the places Chandler ate, drank, wrote, and stashed his mistress. Starting at Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway and hitting places like the L.A. Athletic Club, Musso & Frank's, The Barclay Building, The Mayfair Hotel, it's a 4 hour Chandlerian orgy.

And all for $40 bucks.  Members and non-members alike.

Here's the link.

Christa Faust, who's bailing on us to go to the UK for Harrogate, the strumpet, took the tour last year and you can see some of the places they'll hit on her Flickr page.

So come on down and learn a little bit about the guy who wrote Philip Marlowe.