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Excerpt from my novella Kiss the Ladies Goodnight

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He we are, Copperheads! Your chance to launch into the Jake Legato PI series has arrived! The adventure begins with this novella (only 99 cents on Amazon!). Look for Book Two in August!

Check out an excerpt:

After a quick stop in the men’s room, Legato found the office, knocked twice and heard an uneasy chirp. “Yes?”

“I’m here for the interview?”

“Come on in,” she said, voice relaxed now.

The detective in Legato had Cicely pegged seconds after strolling inside. She was the girl every guy sat next to in high school but never noticed. A sweetheart, eager to please. Always does her homework and yours too if you ask nicely. Yearbook committee, school dance planner, honor roll. But you forgot her name days after graduation.

He took a seat, gave her timid hand a shake. “Jake Legato, nice to meet you”

“I’m Cicely Russo, the manager here,” she answered, eyes aimed at the desk. She forced a grin and asked, “So, what do you think of Bootsie’s so far?”

“I could handle working here, if that’s what you mean. Don’t know much about it.”

“Not much to know, I suppose. It’s a… strip club,” she said, kind of embarrassed by it all. “I got in touch because Andy told me you needed a job.”

“Yeah, tells me he’s had enough of Minnesota weather and would love to get back to San Diego.”

With Cicely reaching into a stack of resumes, Legato stole a glance. Her thick, jet-black eyebrows reminded him of the olive-skinned Greek girls from Astoria he’d see working in diners and run-down family owned coffee houses.

But Cicely gave off a different vibe. Her Maria Callas eyebrows slashed against pale Minnesota skin like skid marks in the snow. And she seemed to be hiding behind somebody else’s face. A gawky introvert in disguise.

Legato. That’s a nice name,” she said. “Puerto Rican? Dominican?”

“Italian.”

She lifted her gaze from the papers, eyes narrow. Maybe aimed at his wide nose – or focused on his mocha-tinted skin. “Italian? Really?”

He choked back a groan and answered the question she was too polite to ask. “Half-Italian, half-black.”

Cicely grinned the awkwardness away. “Andy speaks highly of you. He says you’re a good friend. Somebody he could always trust.”

“I like to think so.”

But her face curled a little, signaling more awkwardness on the way. “He also says you left the police force under… complicated circumstances.”

“You could say that.”

“Could you tell me more?”

“I could. Or I could tell you about growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood with bars on the windows and a school with metal detectors at the door.”

“That’s nice, but what I wanted –“

Legato leaned forward, time for the sweet talk Big Trick recommended. “What you want is somebody who speaks the language your customers understand. Am I right? Somebody who can keep this place safe even if that means slapping around a little. I’m guessing that matters more in this place than a spotless record.” Playing the tough guy New Yorker role to a Minnesotan was always an option. Sometimes it even qualified as sweet talk.

The lady fought off a schoolgirl’s blush and said, “Can you start tomorrow?”

“What time do you need me?”

“Ten in the morning. We’ll train you for a while, start you as soon as you’re ready.”

Legato reached for a handshake, but three bangs at the door froze them both.

Cicely’s eyebrows lifted. “Yes?”

A woman’s voice aimed for a scream, but couldn’t get there. “The police need you! It’s… they need you.”

She gathered Legato’s papers. “Just a second, Tammy. Jake, I look forward to –“

Three more knocks, louder, almost angry. “Cicely, it’s… Please!” Now the voice was soaked in sobs. Cicely raced to the door, opened it to find somebody crouching there like her legs had given out. A stripper clad in a robe, crying.

Cicely kneeled, mouth open, gasping. “What is it, Tammy?”

Tammy sputtered words that almost made a sentence. “Cassandra. Because the… police and. They called and she’s…”

Cicely turned to Legato, her face now slack. “We’ll… talk tomorrow,” She gave him a flaccid handshake then repeated, “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Knowing a thing or two about the delivery of bad news, Legato recognized her shattered look. And he knew that too many words was always a bad idea at those moments. “Thank you,” he said, warm hand on her shoulder, another move he’d learned from his detective days. Contact always made the news less awful.

But Cicely pulled away from the contact, shuddering, eyes scanning the hallway for answers. And Tammy didn’t move at all.

So he slipped away, took a seat at the bar and nodded to Big Trick. “Whiskey, neat.”

And he drank. With every sip, the tortured squeals coming from Cicely’s office slowly faded into somebody else’s problem.

Legato tried to piece everything together. Was Cassandra a dancer? Was she dead now? And who killed her?

He was detecting again, a habit he needed to break. That’s why he had to take off, pull himself away from the bar – even if it meant leaving behind a half-full glass of whiskey on a night he really needed it.

***

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Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Oedipus Shrugged

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These kids scare me.

They scare me with those steely glances half-hidden under sideways slanted baseball caps. They scare me with those baggy pants, those cell phones seemingly taped to their ears as they crouch in corners, gather in cannabis-scented throngs, throw dice, trade whispers, flash wads of cash and swear.

But scariest of all are those t-shirts. No, not the ones that read ‘Don’t want no broke bitch’ loudly emblazoned in calligraphy – the ones that memorialize their dead homies, young bucks slapped down by a storm of gunfire before turning fifteen. Nothing scarier than a kid that knows how tragically short life can be, how the party can veer into a blood-soaked nightmare in seconds. A kid strapped with that knowledge doesn’t give a fuck. And a kid that doesn’t give a fuck will plant lead in your chest for bus fare home before you can beg for a running start.

I teach English to high school freshmen who stopped giving a fuck shortly after outgrowing their last pair of diapers. Today the class doesn’t give a fuck about Oedipus Rex. They tend to their hair, they text, they sleep, they send sneers my way and happily accept the lackluster grades I dish out.

And they watch Tyrus.

It took about twelve seconds for me to figure out that he was the focal point, this circus’s ringleader. A few tics later I came to understand something scarier: he was me thirty years ago – with an updated wardrobe and a prison-ready snarl a million times more lethal than any I would have dared sport.

With every badass antic, every alpha dog howl, Tyrus reminds me of who I was – and who I likely would have remained if I hadn’t seen the body.

The body was a ripe surprise waiting for me next to the dumpster at the end of our block. It was curled in the corner like an afterthought, swept to the side and forgotten like a bad high school haircut. With eyes alertly aimed at nothing and a grimace only grandma could love, this bullet-ridden object lesson told me everything I needed to know about the glamorous ride of gang life. I knew right then I didn’t want to be fitted for a double-breasted lead suit. And I didn’t have the stainless steel heart needed to play the role of the tailor. So I scrambled back home, vowing to shift directions to whatever street would keep that body from being my fate.

Maybe Tyrus will shift directions himself. Or maybe he’ll wind up becoming somebody else’s object lesson. Right now the only certainty is that he doesn’t know the answer to my question:

“Why did who do what now?”

“What was Oedipus hoping to escape when he entered the city of Thebes?” I repeat.

“Oedipus? Ya’ll heard a’ him?” He asks the class. “We got a Eddie here, that’s Edishia hidin’ under that weave. I got a cousin named Medius – but Oedipus? Never heard of the motherfucker.”

Accidental insight aside, he is out of his element in the classroom. He is a jungle cat perched atop a box of kitty litter. He peppers his speech with jokes and veiled threats, promising to erupt into something dangerous, something he needs to be to survive and prosper is his world.

Tonight at the school dance he’ll be right where he belongs. And I’ll be cowering in the corner, waiting for the storm to pass.

***

I’ve been drafted to serve as the chaperone of tonight’s school dance. It means Cassidy – the school security guard – and I are the lone grown-ups here, the only ones not seeking drugs, firearms or five minutes of semi-public dry humping.

The place looks and sounds like you’d expect – but louder and shinier. Between naps Cassidy makes rounds, generally eyeballing the kids and making it clear that she has a gun that she’s not afraid to use. She’s a small, pale woman with a freckled body that might as well read Made in Ireland on the small of her spine. She couldn’t get lost in this crowd if she wanted to, but tonight she flashes a scowl that is meant to create distance. And maybe a little fear.

“Keep your eyes locked on that one,” she says, nodding towards Tyrus. “I got a tip off that something’s coming his way tonight.”

I’m not sure what that means, but as Tyrus strolls inside it’s hard to aim your gaze anywhere else. He commands attention like light commands flies. He drifts in and out of conversations with one group then another, back and forth between real live talkers and bodiless barks from his cell phone. He’s multi-tasking. At work, at play, easing tensions with promises, raising tensions with threats. Bargaining, hustling, surviving. He’s exactly what I wanted to be at fourteen. And I can’t imagine anything scarier.

Cassidy and I are not especially close. We’ve known each other for four years now and I’m still not sure if Cassidy is her first or last name. But tonight we’re the best of buddies – or so it must seem to anyone foolish enough to believe their eyes. Our bodies are pressed uncomfortably close as we appear to slow dance and engage in intimate chitchat. But really Cassidy is giving me regular updates on the Tyrus-related activity. She starts with this:

“The tall skinny guy in the Bulls jacket – don’t look, don’t look – that’s Chi Slim, big supplier from Chicago.”

Then this:

“This Chi Slim guy? He’s known for playing hardball – just like Tyrus. Last time they did business, things almost came to an ugly conclusion. Guns drawn, threats, all that. Not this time.”

“Why not this time?” I ask.

“Cause this time I’m gonna’ step in and slam the door shut before they cross the finish line.”

“Shouldn’t you be calling … backup or something?”

“Why? Because this wispy little white girl can’t handle herself all alone? I’ll be fine.”

We break away from our staged embrace and she circles. I’m not sure who looks more excited, Tyrus or Cassidy.

I stride to the bathroom, not sure where things are headed and not sure if I want to stick around to find out. I’m washing my hands, lulled in by the placid rush of water, when I have a visitor: Tyrus.

He greets me with a grin he couldn’t fake if he had to on a witness stand. A grin that reminds me that he really is just a kid – waist-deep grownup drama aside.

“What’s the ups, Mr. Worthington?”

“Hello Tyrus,” I offer. I have nothing else.

Well, why not try this:

“Look… Tyrus,” I say to him on his way to the stall. “I know I’m just an English teacher, and I don’t know anything about what you’re doing or what you’re not doing and I suppose you don’t care about what I’m thinking or what I was thinking when I was your age or anything…”

He juts his head forward, eyebrows tilted.

“You been drinkin,’ Mr. Worthington?”

“I’m fine. Just…”

Another eyebrow tilt.

“Go home, Tyrus.”

“Go home?”

“Yeah, go home. Just… go. Get out of here, out of this mess. Out of this life.”

He bubbles into slow laughter. And he’s fourteen again. A kid, not a drug dealer or suspected felon, but a baby-faced high school freshman who might get in trouble for breaking curfew or not turning in his homework on time.

There’s something safe about the place he’s standing while frozen in mid-laughter. But it doesn’t last long. Three hooded thugs – Chi Slim among them – rush inside and blur past me like I was a lamppost. All four meet in the stall.

And I can’t move.

I can’t seem to lift my feet when the fragile silence in the stall shifts into awkward mumbles, then full-throated screams. There’s too much echo to know what’s being shouted but I know enough about this world to know that the words themselves matter little.

The chaos rises to a sharp crescendo and is only cut short when four – or maybe five – shots slap into the night. If I could move I’d be in the next time zone by now. But movement would be demanding too much of my body right now with the world exploding like this.

With a furious kick at the stall door, Tyrus emerges, stunned to see me planted at the sink. The fourteen-year-old is gone, felled, or maybe chased away by the gunshots of a few seconds ago.

At this point, everything happens in slow-motion streaks like a scene from an art-house film that’s trying to hard to be remembered.

The bathroom door opens with another bang – it’s Cassidy, gun drawn and face shriveled into a fist.

“Do not move, Henderson! Do you hear me?! Do not move!”

But it’s too late – he’s moved, and yanked me by the hair to his chest. His gun jabs into my face and his grip refuses to yield. There is more screaming, more trading of growls. But I can make nothing of it because I’m feeling too much of everything right now. Too much heat, too much anger.

“You’re not gonna’ win this one, Henderson!” Cassidy screeches.

He knows this already. He can hear the sirens closing in from the distance.

As his eyes narrow into something demonic I wonder if he really wants to win this one. Maybe he just wants a way out. His laser-like gaze meets mine and he seems to have found his exit strategy. I can feel his pistol’s snout creeping into my left nostril, but I can see nothing but the backs of my eyelids. This is happening too quickly, too quietly. This is not the way I always pictured the end.

Under my left foot is a hand sprawling from under the stall. It sputters around, teetering on the cusp of lifelessness. It reaches up and tags Tyrus’s ankle. Startled, he jerks back. That gives me a second. A second to spring free and fall to the floor.

And it gives Cassidy a second to fire seven shots at her target. She finds his chest, his belly, his neck and the side of the stall four times.

His body jerks and contorts, seeking to dance itself free, but never getting there. His eyelids peel back to reveal a sense of shock he has no right to feel. After all, it’s not like he didn’t know he could wind up here. He’s seen the t-shirts, he’s heard the warnings. I told him to go home. I told him to get the fuck out of Thebes. But he just had to dive into this unhappy fate, face first and eyes slammed blissfully shut.

As his legs become rubber and abandon him, his body slaps at the floor and his arm curls around my neck in a way that probably means nothing, but, for the moment, feels too goddamn much like my six-year-old hugging me goodnight to be an accident.

THE END

I originally had Oedipus Shrugged published on Beat to a Pulp. Check them out!

Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: The Sweetest Kind of Chaos Part Two

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Miss Part One? Click here to catch up!

San Matteo is a moneyed suburb just outside of LA, the kind that stays safely hidden away on the coast until something horrible or impossible happens there. This is where Alice’s lover resides. From the moving bus it blurs into a streak of broad strokes like a Monet. But when the bus stops the place unfolds itself more like a Norman Rockwell: idyllic, warm, oppressively charming.

As night falls I find a home in the bushes, with plenty of time to ponder nothing and everything. My head is mostly filled with images of Alice. That reluctant half-smile that precedes every kiss. The toss of her hair and the shake of her shoulders that somehow passes for dancing. That elusive step back she would take at the wrong time, every time. When I wanted to hold her, taste her, keep her to myself.

The machete isn’t a tool designed for precision. I wouldn’t recommend it for gall bladder surgery or peeling an avocado. But when you long for that sense of completion that comes from a lopped-off limb tumbling to the earth you can’t go wrong with eighteen inches of sharp Honduran steel. The machete gets things done. That’s why I’m fearless now, motionless, ready to spring from the shadows and do what needs to be done.

And the lovers seem ready as well. Ready to taunt me with the fragrance of clandestine romance. They traipse hand-in-hand from the garden to the small pond by the back door. I catch them in mid-conversation, wooing away:

“… I’m serious, Alice. I couldn’t imagine wanted anybody’s kisses but yours.”

“It’s just a game. A what-if, a hypothetical.”

“And I could choose anybody?”

“Anybody past or present. Dead or alive. Megan Fox, Marilyn Monroe. Anybody.”

“Anybody? And I get instant immunity?”

“No questions asked.”

“No thanks. I’ve got all I need in you.”

“Liar. But thanks.”

“And you?”

“A young Harrison Ford.”

“Like Star Wars young or American Graffiti young?”

“I’m joking! You know it’s all about you. Jesus Christ!”

A young Jesus Christ? Like carpenter days, before the crucifixion?”

“Will you just shut up and kiss me!”

He cradles her face and delivers this:

“Gladly. From now until the end of time. Every minute of every day.”

It would probably make me sick if I could feel anything right now.

They turn – wide-eyed with panic – upon hearing a stir in the bushes. Did I stumble unknowingly? Did I clumsily tap a branch or place a foot wrong?

Whatever the reason, the time to strike is now.

I charge, machete raised, and the nightmare is cranked into motion: screams, flailing arms, faces twisting into rubbery masks of horror. It is the sweetest kind of chaos. It is victory.

But the first swing sails over the intended target’s head and lands nowhere. I stumble, giving them a head start, a line to the back door. They dash inside with a speed they never before felt necessary.

But not speedy enough. They struggle to slam shut the door, and I beat it down, with purpose, with anger. They are mine.

First is the man – not planned that way, just his lousy luck. He catches a stab to his collarbone and meets the floor with a dull thud. I yank back my weapon and provide another slice to his abdomen, and why not. His reply: the longest, saddest squeal I’ve every heard. Then nothing.

And Alice has scrambled away.

The house couldn’t be quieter, placid even. Where could she be?

The kitchen pantry? I rip the door open: nope.

Bathroom closet? Empty.

Bedroom? Not a soul to be found.

There’s breathing down the hallway. One more closet to check. I kick it down:

“Hello, Alice.”

And she has a gun.

“Um… don’t come near me?”

The snub-nosed revolver flutters in her hand like it may as well be a remote control or a Rubik’s cube. She’s not ready to use it. Maybe she never will be.

“Don’t come near me?” She repeats, but it still sounds more like a question than a command.

“Do you love me, Alice?”

This shouldn’t be a tough question, even after all the lies and this explosion we’re in the middle of. But as she looks at me she seems to find the eyes of a stranger. This is bad. So I repeat: “Do you love me?”

No vocal reply, but she’s nodding now.

“If you love me, give me the gun.”

She shakes her head ‘no.’

She looks away for a second. That’s all I need.

The first swipe takes off her right hand and sends the gun spinning to the floor. If it ever landed I never heard it. All I can see and hear is that mouth melting into a horrified wail. She boasts the bulging eyes of comic strip character when meeting a second swing. Maybe I just imagined it but she seems liberated as she drops to the floor. Like a prisoner pardoned from a nightmare.

I almost want to join her. Almost.

But right now there’s a strange kind of beauty racing through my veins. Maybe it’s the rawness of it all. The carved up bodies of this love-hungry couple, their faces frozen in terror, their stillness. Nobody can tell me what I’m seeing and feeling and smelling isn’t real.

Not even those bastards at the clinic with their pseudo-psychological bullshit, calling me ‘delusional’ and telling me that Alice was just a voice on the radio, a pop singer residing a million miles away, not my life, my love, my reason for being.

But I know the truth. I heard those promises she floated my way with that lilting soprano. I heard those pledges of undying love.

And nobody can take that away from me.

THE END

I originally had The Sweetest Kind of Chaos published at Beat to a Pulp. Check them out if you love masterfully written tales of noir! 

Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Oedipus Shrugged.

Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: The Sweetest Kind of Chaos

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The love of my life – let’s call her Alice – is a liar. She tells me she loves me and only me. She doesn’t just say it, she sings it, she bellows it, filling the room with these lies like smoke from a spent cigarette.

“There is nobody else in the world for me. Nobody else,” she coos. But she is a liar. Because I know about her other love. I’ve seen them caress in the tall grass behind that mattress factory. I’ve seen the eyes they make at each other when they think no one is watching, when they think that all other beings have vanished into the backdrop. I’ve seen them share those conspiratorial whispers, those peeks into each other’s secrets.

This is no fling, no respite from the grind of their everyday lives. These two are in love. Truly, madly, irreversibly. And that’s why they will both die tonight.

***

I sell household appliances: ovens, refrigerators, blenders. I’m good at it but I don’t kid myself about what it means in the grand scheme of things. I know It doesn’t make sense that a guy like me, making just above minimum wage plus commission, would wind up with a siren like Alice, a long-limbed blond with a pout seemingly tattooed to her flawless face. But I just accept my impossible luck and make the most of it.

Mandy waves me over to her register. Maybe she needs change or permission to switch breaks with somebody. It’s always something. And it’s always awkward.

“What it is, Mandy?”

“Um… me and some friends are going to see that Atlantis sequel after work and I’m thinking if you’d want to join us that would be okay?”

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” I answer.

“Well, I mean as friends and what not. Nothing more. Unless…” Her gaze drops to the floor.

“Mandy, it’s over between us.”

“As friends even?”

“I’m sorry.”

I walk to the break room and I can hear Mandy breathe for the first time in several minutes. It’s sad. We had something of a ‘history,’ Mandy and I. But it’s over now. Alice made sure of that.

My heart was all Mandy’s before Alice slipped between us and yanked me away into something I never before thought plausible.

It wasn’t a fair fight, really: Alice is a statuesque blond, with a smoky eyes and a voice that invites you inside with every laugh, with every sigh. With everything. Mandy is short and stocky. She smokes too much and has the teeth to prove it.

Alice kisses in short stabs, always promising more. Always emptying her soul into yours. Always the prettiest grin in the room. Never lingering long enough to grow boring. Always leaving you longing for another caress, another brush of her hair on your shoulder.

Mandy tries too hard and has hair in places that make me uncomfortable. She wheezes in her sleep and she complains about specs of toast left in the butter.

Alice: “I am eternally yours. In spite of it all. Because of it all. I am yours.”

Mandy: “I need some tampons. Can you grab me some when you go out?”

It wasn’t a fair fight.

I’m poised to approach a tiny Asian woman who seems interested in a toaster oven when I’m interrupted by Brett: “Hey champ, I’m gonna’ need you to take a time-out after work for a little talk. No panic, just need a quick thirty, maybe thirty-five of your time for a huddle. That work?” He actually talks like that.

I nod to him then try to find out where the tiny Asian woman has wondered off to. I slump inside Brett’s office after work.

The walls in this small place are decorated with pictures of the vaguely famous (a local news anchor, a baseball announcer, a mascot from a fast food place) giving ‘thumbs up’ gestures with him. Brett is a ‘thumbs up’ kind of guy. He talks like an unemployable football coach and has the most aggressive facial hair I’ve ever seen.

He greets me with this: “How’s everything going on your side of the world? Good, bad? Let’s talk. Let’s talk about team. Let’s talk about teamwork.”

“Everything is fine,” I say when I have a chance.

“Fine, really? Good fine, or just okay fine? Because I’ll tell you what’s not fine:”

“Yes?”

“Sales. Sales are not fine. Your sales in particular. I tell you this as a friend. You’re slipping. You’re a home run hitter and you’re taking singles, doubles, walks occasionally. I need you to swing for the fences.”

“Swing for the fences. I got it. Anything else?”

He takes an exasperated breath, then finds my eyes and says this: “Seriously, you feeling okay? You seem distracted, preoccupied. Like your head’s not in the game.”

“I’m fine.”

More awkward eye contact, brought to a merciful close with the ringing of his cell phone. He lifts a finger to say stay there, I’m not done with you yet, and seconds later he’s counting down a till with his phone cupped to his ear.

I don’t move. Until I spy a trophy on his desk behind him. It’s bulky, solid, but with a base that can be gripped firmly.

He hangs up and doesn’t see where I was standing. He never hears the sharp whistle of the trophy swinging to the back of his skull.

With a loud clack he stumbles forward, drops to the hardwood floor, splayed like a snow angel. He belches out blood and something resembling a muffled hiccup and that’s the end of Brett.

After scooping the cash from the register, I toss around papers from his desk and leave the side door – leading to the parking lot – lazily half open on my way out. It will look random and money-driven, like a million other such incidents in this shitty neighborhood.

It’s nice to hear him quiet for the first time since I’ve known him but this isn’t a pleasure offing. This is more practical: I need the money to buy a new knife. Alice and her new lover are very much in my plans.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: The Sweetest Kind of Chaos Part 2

 

Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Liar’s Lemonade

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Parking a few blocks away seemed like a sensible move at the time. In theory Sarah would escape detection as she dipped through the shadows towards the house on foot.

Then she creeps past the bushes of a neighbor’s home and raising nary an eyebrow of suspicion – she’s good at this. Almost there now, nothing stopping her save for the dodgeball game next door. Damn kids, shouldn’t they be in bed or at school or something at this hour. She’ll have to wait in the shrubbery, head tucked to her chest, body impossibly still. She checks her purse – everything there. Soon it will be time to strike.

But for now all she can think about is the first lie she’d ever been told. It came from Fourteen-year-old Kevin Shears:

“Cynthia Germain and me broke up weeks ago.” A week later, Kevin would take Cynthia to the homecoming dance.

A year later, it was Trevor’s turn to become a liar:

“C’mon, honey! It’ll be fun – something for us to watch alone. I won’t let anyone else see the tape, I swear.”

This drunken college frat boy with a camcorder and an over-active libido could be very persuasive. So Sarah slipped into the Wonder Woman garb and believed him. The first surprise was that those Amazonium bracelets made her wrist chafe. The second surprise sent her down like a five-year-old tumbling from her tricycle.

And there would be more. More lies from boyfriends, college professors, bosses, neighbors, friends, enemies, strangers:

“No, I don’t have any kids.”

“Honey, you have to trust me. There’s no other woman in my life. Honest.”

“Um… those shoes are my sister’s – she visits from time to time.”

“No, I wasn’t looking at the waitress’s ass!”

“I’m self-employed right now.”

“I’ll call you.”

“She’s just a friend!”

“I love you too.”

And then there would be Daryl:

“There is nothing I want more in the world than to be with you and only you.”

By the time she got to Daryl, Sarah had had enough. Enough with lies, enough with liars, enough with waiting for men to stop being men and start being honest and forthright and true. She was known to be temperamental, a feisty little firecracker when crossed the wrong way. She had given Kevin a kick to the crotch when she learned about Cynthia, had set Trevor’s porn collection ablaze when the truth came crawling out, but this is miles beyond feisty. This is breaking and entering. And if all goes according to scheme, it will be murder too.

***

All is quiet now, so she dashes to a side window, opens her purse to find the wire cutters. She is stunned that it is so easy. She clips and claws her way inside in seconds. Greeted by the cool of a hardwood floor, she stays squatted for a while, collects her thoughts. This is not like the movies at all, she concludes. This is too easy, too comfortable. How do burglers ever get caught? she wonders.

She slinks into the kitchen with the strides of a stalking puma, opens the refrigerator, enjoys the rush of cool. After a look around, she grabs a container of lemonade. She glares at it, eyes narrowing, lips curling into a sinister grin. After a sip she decides it could use another ingredient.

She yanks the ziplock of strychnine from her purse, opens the lemonade container and empties the powder into it. With the aid of a nearby spoon she blends the powder into the innocuous sea of bright yellow. She takes a final gaze at her handiwork then returns it to the refrigerator, poised behind a can of beer and a half-finished piece of pizza, just waiting. With the flight attendant wifey crossing the Atlantic for the weekend and the kids safely away in summer camp, the extra-strength lemonade will wind up in nobody’s belly but Daryl’s.

And then comes a clack up the driveway, high heels – this is not Daryl. Sarah freezes.

More clacking, and a clumsy set of keys seeking the keyhole. She has to flee, has to find a way out. The window she slipped in through? Too risky – too easy to be spotted by this person coming in the front door.

The back door? Maybe, but what about the lemonade? She can’t just leave that and let anybody – like the lady now opening the front door – drink it. Or can she?

It’s too late, the choice has been made for her. The door is swung open, the footsteps muffled now by carpet. She’s inside. Nothing to do now but take cover.

Sarah scampers into the pantry, swinging the door shut quietly – or so she tries. It creaks. The footsteps halt as if panicked, alerted. Then they start again, into the kitchen. Sarah spies her through the keyhole of the pantry door. She’s sweeter, less hostile than the harpy-in-training Daryl had described, but then who knows what rage lurks behind that painted on stewardess smile that she seemingly sports even when alone.  She opens the refrigerator door, reaches for the lemonade. Bad move.

Now she needs a cup, and ice too. Sarah screams on the inside, ready to spring from the pantry, ready to stop this madness. But good luck explaining all this to the police.

Then the phone rings in the living room so the glass goes down before she can pour herself a death by poisoning. And Sarah can breath again. The harpy-in-training slumps out of the kitchen, answers the phone with an exhausted growl: “Yeah?”

Sarah could flee now, she could scramble to the back door and run free. But what about the lemonade?

She had to pour it out. No sense in killing this innocent woman for Daryl’s sins.

In the other room the phone conversation went on. “Yeah, I remember what you told me, that’s the problem –”

But saving her won’t be easy. First she has to open the pantry door – another squeak, this one not noticed in the midst of more heated words on the phone. “… and what, like my needs don’t mean a goddamn thing? Like my world could just explode and it’s my problem, huh?”

Then a few steps to the counter where the glass of lemonade sits. But she is no ninja. Her glides are more like stomps on the sticky linoleum. But they get lost in the rattle of a soliloquy:

“High maintenance! Because I need to feel loved and needed and wanted every once in a while? Because I need to be reminded of why I fell in love you? Because I need to feel like I mean something more to you than a… than a…”

Sarah becomes a statue, unable to take another step in this silence. Come on, lady! she thinks. A concubine! A whore! A domestic servant! Anything!

“But the thing of it is…”

Sarah halts again as the harpy-in-training is unable think of what the thing of it is. But soon enough she is onto something else:

“What I need from you is devotion. I need for you to be for me what you are to you poker buddies and your softball teammates and your…”

Another pause. Sarah scoops away the glass, reaches for the refrigerator door and grabs the container.

“Yes, I think so…”

And down the drain goes every drop of the toxic lemonade – but with an oceanic splash.

“And I also think –” She stops cold. “Can I call you right back?” She hangs up cautiously, quietly.

Sarah slinks back into the pantry, pulls the door shut – another squeak. Another suspicion-raising bump in the night.

Footsteps again, coming to the kitchen, slowly. One at a time. The harpy-in-training fumbles with something in her purse, then draws it: a gun.

“Hello?” she calls. She doesn’t want an answer. She wants to convince herself that she didn’t really hear anything, then she’ll go upstairs take a valium and a nap. She’ll laugh about it later with the hubby over a drink and Netflix. By then Sarah will have scurried off into the night. No need to panic, Sarah tells herself. She almost believes it.

Her gun is extended now and she circles around like somebody who’s seen too many damn cop movies. With the gun still extended she moves to the living room, then down the hallway.

Sarah spies the living room window, the one she came in through. Now! she tells herself. She’s a stewardess, for God’s sake. She can’t be a very good shot. Now!

Sarah sprints for the window, but stumbles. The harpy-in-training turns, aims, mistakes the sprint for an attack, takes two shots. Sarah leaps for the window – She’s a stewardess, for God’s sake. She can’t be a very good shot.

But these are not the frantic, random shots of a stewardess, his wife. These are the shots — one through Sarah’s abdomen, one through her chest – of a federal marshal, his other mistress.

And so it ends with another lie. How nice.

THE END

Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: The Sweetest Kind of Chaos

Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: We Can’t Dance Together

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We’ve got nothing in common. She’s young enough to be my daughter. The names that mean everything to me – Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Otis Redding – are, to her, ancient history, ghosts of hit parades past. And I call her Nineteen because I don’t even know her name.

Apart from that she’s perfect. Because she calls me every night at exactly three minutes to midnight – about an hour into my late night shift at WSOL – and we swap secrets in the dark like lonely co-conspirators.

I know about the kidney-shaped birthmark just above her ass.

She knows about how I always hated hunting with my dad but did it anyway, because that’s just what a man does.

I know about the crush she had on her physics teacher.

She knows about my delirious first night back from the army: the marriage proposal to Stephanie. Stephanie’s surprise for me (she was pregnant by another guy). The decision I made for us both (put it up for adoption). And the special place in hell that surely awaits me for casting that kid off to a life without a mother.

Tonight, she’s in a mischievous mood:

“What if you came home one night to find your beloved bride gone forever?”

“What do you mean ‘gone’?” I ask.

“I mean, whatever you want it to mean – packed her bags and left, missing, belly up on the living room carpet.”

“Some nights, I wouldn’t know whether to weep or celebrate.”

“I vote celebrate.”

“Really.”

“Really. We’d be free. Free to go off together and start a new life. Free to be what we were meant to be.”

“Spoken like a true nineteen year-old. Idealistic, naïve. Living in an opium world without side effects.”

“This is simple, trust me. I can make this happen.”

This is the way we talk. We talk this way because it’s reckless and fun. We talk this way because it stabs a gaping wound in the bellies of our mundane lives. This dangerous game give us something to cherish, a secret to keep. I tell myself it doesn’t really mean anything really.

Does it?

***

My wife Stephanie finds the note. It was nestled in the wedge of her car’s door but clearly meant for me. It puzzles her and I pretend to be in the dark as well:

The day is soon upon us

We will be free

Nineteen

I try to explain to Stephanie that radio DJs get all kinds of delusional fans and she nods her head like a kid being talked out of her milk money. There’s a distance at the dinner table tonight, a quiet that circles us like a vulture. The danger isn’t fun anymore.

***

The phone rings the same time it always rings, but I leap out of my body’s wrapping just the same, pick up the receiver – a child with something foreign and frightening in his hand – and answer:

“Nineteen?”

“What if I told you things will be happening tomorrow?”

“Stop this,” is all I can say.

“It’s too late. The wheels are in motion.”

“This is getting crazy.”

“No, it’s getting perfect.”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, come on! You know exactly what that means. You know that feeling of two people meant to be joined forever. That feeling that nothing else makes sense in the world without the other.”

“Yes, I feel that way about my wife.”

“Bullshit! Are you forgetting who you’re talking to? I know everything about you two: separate vacations; sex every eight weeks; arguments over everything and nothing; no kids, no passion, no hope of things getting better.”

“Just stop it!”

“There is no stopping it, Mike. It’s done.”

I slam down the phone and tell the invisible audience they’ve been listening to something from Etta James.

Once Wilson Pickett floods the airwaves, I vow to contact the police. Eventually. No sense setting another dust-up in motion over something that will probably turn to be a out to be a hoax, a cruelly unfunny joke. I skulk home chanting *there’s nothing to worry about* and almost believing it.

I don’t like guns. As a kid, I hated having those clunky hunting rifles shoved into my mitts and told I should love it. I hated that I hated it and I hated whatever that said about me. But I step inside Ray’s Firearms, endure the country music screeching from the speakers above and purchase a snub-nosed revolver because that’s just what a man does.

As far as the radio station knows, I’m at home fighting off the worst flu of my life. But really I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of Ray’s Firearms, motionless as The Delphonics wash over me and remind me what it was like when the world kind of made sense.

On the drive home, every hooded face becomes a menace, every unfriendly glance a reason to reach for the revolver in my glove compartment. I lurch into the driveway and just when breathing seems like a good idea again, I’m slapped into wide-eyed alertness by my screaming cell phone. This would be a wonderful time to have my evening interrupted by a telemarketer. But no.

“Nineteen?”

“Hello, Mike.”

Something in her voice sings with too much joy, too great a sense of achievement. So before stepping out of the car, I reach into my glove compartment…

“How are you?” I ask, hoping to stall her. Maybe fish out information.

“I’m wonderful. Just waiting for you.”

The revolver feels cold in my hand, like a dead thing awaiting a burial.

“Why are you waiting for me, Nineteen?”

“Don’t be silly. You know we can’t do this thing without you.”

I tuck the gun into my pants, clumsy like an unrehearsed actor on a cop show, step out, up the driveway…

To the door.

“What thing are we doing?”

She sighs, like we’ve been through this a million times. Maybe in her mind we have.

I open the door to a silence that bangs at my eardrums.

“Have you ever been lonely, Mike?”

But her voice isn’t only coming through the cell phone. She’s inside the house.

“Answer me, Goddamnit!”

I try to follow the voice but find only Stephanie tied to the living room chair. Her face is frozen in mid-scream. She breathes in panicked spasms.

Something happens to your insides when you see the face of a loved one twisting into something horrific, something unrecognizable. Everything ugly and unpleasant and annoying about them floats away and you’re left with an urgent need to act. A need to save that rare bird from being shot from the sky.

Nineteen charges in from the shadows, gun drawn, eyes enlarged with rage.

“Answer me,” she demands. “Have you ever known real loneliness? The feeling of being incomplete, unfinished?”

“I haven’t,” I reply. I have no tricks, no exit strategies.

“Well, I’ve never known anything else.”

She wraps an arm around my wife, draws her closer. Her hand dangles for a second. Not quite enough time for me to make a move.

So I wait. Because she has to drop her guard and make herself a target at some point.

“You have no idea what kind of emptiness I have inside.”

She’s crying now, unhinged, spiraling into madness. But make no mistake, she is going to shoot my wife. So I have to act.

Maybe she sees the bulge below my untucked shirt. Maybe she doesn’t.

“What I’m about to do is the best for all concerned,” she says.

She steps into a corner, slams a wall.

“I hate that this has to happen, but I just want to make myself whole. That’s all.”

My hand darts to my waist, into my pants. I’m pretty fast for a novice.

But she’s faster. She turns and sends a bullet to my ribcage before I get the damn thing settled into my hand.

I curl to the floor with a whimper and an angry thud.

She yanks Stephanie up by the hair, pulls her away, outside…

I can move only in the tiny steps of wounded pray. I crawl to the window to watch my wife’s body – drained of everything but a pulse – tossed into the backseat of her car.

As they motor into the horizon, I hear nothing but crying – I don’t know whose. Maybe my own.

I’ll live. But it looks like I’ll have to live alone – for a while at least.

The police are baffled. They don’t understand why this happened, why a middle-aged woman was kidnapped by a teenager she’s never met. But they don’t know what I know. They haven’t added up the clues: Nineteen’s obsession with my marriage; her longing for completion; Stephanie’s child given up for adoption nineteen years ago. They’ll be coming to my hospital room to question me in a matter of minutes. This is going to be awkward.

It already embarrasses me to consider how far off the mark I was about Nineteen. Here I was casting her as a femme fatale, a dark-souled siren, hell-bent on digging her claws into a smart, sophisticated older man and dragging him into her world of tumult.

Turns out she was just a lonely nineteen year-old who wanted her mom back.

THE END

Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Liar’s Lemonade

Today’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

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Old Time There Are Not Forgotten

Starville Texas wouldn’t normally be my first choice for a late July vacation spot. The whole place seems frozen in oppressive confederate charm. Overalls. Straw hats. Dirt roads littered with Nixon-era vehicles just sitting there, hoods up and tires long gone. Tumbleweed seems to be the town’s chief export.

And then there’s the sun, pressing down like a steam iron on a stubbornly wrinkled sweatshirt. But everybody just ambles along anyway. Like they can’t feel that angry blanket of heat punishing them for unpardonable sins of the past.

Stepping inside Valerie’s Diner for an iced tea should be a break from the sun’s unforgiving glare. But in this place, with these stares and this ocean of unwelcoming grimaces I get the feeling the heat wave has just begun. The place is a ‘whites only’ sign away from being a trip back to 1954. Save for my own, the only coffee-colored face I’ve spotted so far belongs to an ice delivery man who didn’t seem eager to stick around. But I’m not here to fall in love with a tiny hamlet just west of the middle of nowhere. I’m here to make July 23rd a very bad day for four unlucky Starville citizens.

Citizen number one goes by the name of Tommy Kane – Duck, to his friends. He’s left-handed and likes The Allman Brothers.

And there’s Donnie McCormic, an avid angler and father of four who was a bank teller for forty-seven years.

Wally Rivers is a retired security guard and amateur taxidermist.

Harmon Dainsworth speaks fluent Portuguese and doesn’t get around much since the accident.

You could say I’ve done my homework. I know where these men live, the names of their wives and kids. I know Wally suffered an undescended testicle until his early twenties. I also know these four life-long buddies meet every Friday evening at nine in the Hines street Baptist church basement for the “men’s Christian council meeting” – actually, a poker game. I know that forty years ago they orchestrated the lynching of my brother for the alleged raping of a white woman. I was five then. I haven’t forgotten a thing.

I step out of Valerie’s diner and back into the oven. But the sky is now cooling, and blurring into a bold shade of burgundy as night falls. Giving me just the cover I need to get down to business.

I slip away from the leery gaze of the town’s busybodies and into an alley. The gloves go on in spite of the heat and I check the Glock 17 at my hip, ninja- stepping my way towards the Hines Street Baptist church with nothing to stop me save for the untimely buzz of my cell phone.

This is strictly a solo mission, so the call can’t be related to the business at hand. But whoever the Hell it is demands to be swatted away with a third and fourth ring. With the fifth ring I surrender:

“Yeah?”

“Goddamn if you don’t look just like your big brother. All Grown up and handsome.” A woman’s voice, husky, older, weighted down by the lilt of a Texas drawl.

“Who is this?”

“Call me Shadow Lady.”

“Shadow Lady, I appreciate the warm welcome, but I’ve got no time for jokes.”

“This is no joke. I know who you are, and I know why you’re here.”

A chill washes over me, freezes me into a statue before I can step over to Hines street.

“How did you get this number?” I ask.

“Let’s just say I’ve been watching you. And I know exactly what you’ve been up to.”

“It’s too late to stop me, Shadow Lady.”

“Maybe,” she answers. “But you just think long and hard about what you’re fixin’ to do. That’s all I’m saying.”

With a CLICK she’s gone.

If I’m going to do this thing I have to shrug off Shadow Lady and move on.

And so I move on, first ducking into the bushes across the street from the church, then making a daring dash to the back door, with nothing for cover but a thicket of shade trees.

At the backdoor I reach into my sock for a door jimmy. I’m a little clumsy – I’ve been out of practice since my teens – but I’m safely inside a minute later.

I should be relieved to be in the door, but there’s a haunting quiet inside that churches are required by law to possess. It feels like somebody’s here. It feels like somebody’s always here.

According to my research, Wally typically arrives first with refreshments, sets up the chairs and helps himself to any leftovers of Mrs. Willis’s apple pie. Tonight he gets no pie.

I hear him fumble with his keys at the door. It takes him thirty-seven seconds to step inside, walk to the basement and drop the bags of refreshments on the floor at the sight of a black man shoving a Glock 17 in his face.

“Right on time, Wally.”

He can’t speak. I shoot him in the belly because a quicker death is too good for him. He curls to the floor, wheezing, reaching for something. Seeking answers with his cartoonishly bulged eyes.

I stoop to his face.

“Just so you know, this was for the 1970 lynching thing,” I whisper. “Wouldn’t want you to meet your maker without knowing why.”

His mouth snaps into a grimace and he pushes out everything he has left. He’s suffered enough. So I give him a shot to the forehead that sends him away. Seconds later he’s gone. Not just lifeless – soulless.

Next up is Tommy Kane. His steps to the basement are slow, cautious – maybe he’s heard something.

“Wally?” he calls. His answer: the scariest silence he’s ever heard.

I step up and imbibe his terrified look. He gets one to the head right away, because I have no time to play with him. I can hear his buddies at the front door, stepping inside at the same time. This will be tricky for a novice like me. But with this music racing through my veins, I’m determined to make this happen.

As Tommy obligingly drops to the floor below, I follow the shadows upstairs and greet Donnie and Harmon with the storm of bullets they asked for forty years ago. Their bodies dance for a while then stop. They land in a messy pile of each other, limbs entwined like lovers. How sweet.

Now it’s time for phase two. I take off my shirt and wrap my gun in it, moving to the back door. But I hear something. Another set of footsteps?

“Jesus H. Christ!” cries a horrified voice. But whose?

I try to unwrap my gun…

But I’m not fast enough. A uniformed cop charges in, pistol drawn.

“Do not move, boy!”

I’m frozen.

“I don’t know what you’re doing here, but you picked the wrong day to do it,” he growls. He steps back, steadies his gun.

I’m on my knees, eyes slammed shut. I hear a shot, but it’s all wrong. It’s a shotgun blast from down the hallway. He lurches forward, swept up by the blast and lands before me, a giant gap where his left shoulder once was.

A woman emerges from the shadows, pump-action shotgun at her hip. She’s not young, maybe sixty. And she’s stunned speechless by what she’s just done.

“Shadow Lady?” I ask.

Words are still a problem, so she nods.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“Your brother and me… we were just kids. Didn’t care what the world thought. Till we caught busted. Then… well, you know the rest.”

Now it’s my turn to struggle with words. I’ve got nothing.

“You weren’t the only one who lost somebody special that day,” she says.

“So you came here to… help me?”

“I was hoping to take care if it alone. That’s why I tried to scare you away. No sense in the both of us getting involved in… this.”

We both drink in the carnage, the landscape of ripped apart flesh.

“Yeah,” I answer. “No sense at all.”

We agree that it’d be a good idea to get out of there pretty quickly. And we will. But first we have to breathe again.

THE END

I originally had Old Times There Are Not Forgotten published on Spinetingler magazine.

Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: We Can’t Dance Together

Monday’s Writer Confession: I Don’t Like Research (Except When it Doesn’t Feel Like Research)

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I’ve written fiction and I’ve written non-fiction. And I prefer fiction. Why? Because non-fiction writing is so damned hemmed-in by reality. Simply put, you can’t just make stuff up.

Reality can have a similarly dampening effect on fiction. It can intrude on the storytelling process in a way that make your stories less compelling, less suspenseful and less entertainingly weird.

And so familiarizing yourself with reality is an unfortunate part of storytelling. For a crime fiction scribe that means spending valuable hours understanding things like how guns shoot, what happens when you get arrested and how long it takes for a corpse to rot.

And I don’t like it. Telling the story is my favorite part of the storytelling process. Research feels like homework. It’s tedious and a lot less fun than describing somebody getting shot in the abdomen.

But I’ve discovered a loophole, a way to get around spending hours reading about something you’re not interested in.

The secret: Write stories about things you are interested in. Take those hours you’ve spent knitting or skiing or reading Steven Pinker’s science or Doris Kerns-Goodwin’s history and turn them into stories.

And no, it’s not cheating. Everything you’ve read, everything you’ve consumed, every conversation you’ve eavesdropped on counts as research. As an armchair anthropologist, endlessly curious about how humanity works – and how it often doesn’t work, I’ve spent much of my life ‘researching’ things like shifts in social mores, moral philosophy, crime, the dark side of humanity and jazz.

Maybe that’s why I write noir-ish tales of shifty characters who privately seek redemption and not police procedurals loaded with details of forensics and investigations of DNA. The research is just more fun.