A Tale of Two Santas

This is the six-year-old me kickstarting my literary career with a heartwarming tale of yuletide joy, redemption and excessive eating. Fat shaming and typos aside (I had no editor or sensitivity reader in 1973) it’s fun for the whole family, a glimpse into the untarnished soul of a future spinner of yarns.

Decades later, I’d write another story with the same protagonist. This one was a little darker…

Stay tuned for Massacre on 34th Street!

Two Guns Against the Siren is now available for pre-order!

twogunsBook Three of the Jake Legato Series, Two Guns Against the Siren is available at Amazon! Here’s an excerpt:

Prologue

The tattoo shop fell silent when the guy stepped inside.

Clean cut with a shiny wool suit, his expression half-hidden by sunglasses, he didn’t look like a usual customer.

He stepped to the counter, no words. Only a stony gaze bouncing between the shop’s odd artifacts. The checkered floor, the WWII-era pin-up pics along the wall. The cheap plastic reclining chair in the center.

Mouths agape, everybody stared at him. Cheyenne, the spike-haired lesbian behind the counter. Heavy-lidded Evan awaiting a tattoo in the chair. Even Tweaky Jay woke up and found himself gawking.

“Anything I can help you with?” Cheyenne asked, eyes narrow, head tilted. Confused like a kid hearing her first curse word.

“Is Miciela here?” he asked, his voice a deep growl.

“Miciela?”

“You heard me the first time. Is she here?”

But Cheyenne just kept staring. Then she jabbed both shaky hands into her pockets, unsure what to do with them.

“Let me ask you the question again: Is Miciela here?”

“No? Not right now? I think. She’s usually here. But right now she’s not. I’m sorry. I’ll tell her somebody was looking for her.” Then she forced her lips into an uneasy smile.

But the man didn’t move. “I’ll wait.”

“It could take hours before –“

“I said, I’ll wait.”

Cheyenne stepped back slowly, sizing the stranger up. He was tall and solidly built. His head was all muscle, a fist with a snarl. He looked a like a brick wall in a bad mood.

She’d heard the stories of Miciela’s adventures. Depending on who you asked she’d been a drug runner, an assassin or a Hollywood stuntwoman. Nobody knew the truth exactly but they knew she’d had strange people asking about her. And they knew there were details she didn’t want to share.

The man’s attention drifted to a pair of old creaky doors at the shop’s side. “Where does she stay?”

“I’m sorry?”

He shoved his face forward, nearly touching foreheads. “Where does Miciela stay? Which room?”

“She’s not here,” Cheyenne said, bracing for a blow to the chest. “I swear.” she said, her voice now a reedy whimper.

“Where is she?”

“I don’t think she’s around right now –”

He backpedalled to the room’s center, pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his jacket’s inside pocket and spun in a slow circle, his gun’s barrel bouncing from face to terrified face. Without prompting, every hand went up. Gasps filled the room. With the jerk of his head he ordered Even out of the chair. With his foot he slid the chair to the front of the door. Then he addressed his captives.

“Here’s how this is going to work: Nobody is going to move and nobody is going to say a Goddamned thing unless they get asked a question. That way, I don’t have to shoot anybody in the face – which, by the way, I’d be more than happy to do if anybody gets cute.”

Cheyenne tried to still her shaking body. This was the time to be strong. Panic would be the enemy. She stood there watching the stranger, her hands up, knowing this guy would put a bullet into her head if he knew what she was doing.

She was trying to dial 9-1-1, trying to lightly brush the cell phone in her front pocket against the counter. There was no other hope. Miciela would be dead if he’d found out she was only a few feet away.

But dialing wasn’t easy. The man’s gaze crept from captive to captive. He told them not to move and he meant it. So she’d have to dial slowly and carefully. One number at a time.

With the man’s eyes somewhere else, she nudged her body forward, pressing the cell phone against the counter’s sharp wooden corner. She lowered her eyes and caught a glimpse of the phone, making sure she was hitting the nine. She bumped it a second time, hitting the one. Almost there.

But then the man turned. Did he hear that?

“What’s in your pocket?” he demanded.

“Huh?”

“What is in your pocket?” he repeated, face on fire and inches from hers. “Is that a cell phone?”

“I’m sorry.”

He reached over the counter, yanked her cell phone from her front pocket.

Cheyenne collapsed into a quivering knot, hands still up and elbows covering her face and chest, bracing for the gun shot she knew was coming. There was no way he wouldn’t see the nine and one on the screen. With her eyes slammed violently shut, she whimpered like a wounded rat.

Then she opened her eyes to see the cell phone in her face. The man said, “Call her!”

“Huh?”

“Call Miciela. Now.”

She gathered the strength to obey the man’s orders, shaky fingers finding Miciela’s number on her contacts screen. Seconds later, a ringtone rang out from one of the side doors. Pinhead by Micela’s favorite group, The Ramones.

The man smiled for the first time, baring teeth like a pissed-off grizzly. Then he walked to the closet door and swung it open.

He found all five feet and ninety pounds of Miciela curled into a trembling ball. She looked up with eyes that wordlessly begged for mercy. Her lips moved but nothing came out but panicked breath.

The man grabbed Miciela’s baggy shirt by the shoulder and gave her tiny body a yank. She landed on his shoulder, too stunned to fight back. Turning back to the room, he tucked his gun away. “I got what I need and I’m gone. But I’d be more than happy to make a return visit if anybody tries to call the cops.”

He strutted down the hallway, then kicked open the screen door. Everybody scrambled to their feet, racing to the back door while frantically dialing and hoping the worst hadn’t already happened.

Check out this month’s Short Blast of Pulp at Shotgun Honey!

 

As a longtime fan of Shotgun Honey’s hard-hitting fiction, I’m thrilled to have my own story join the ranks! Check out A Chance to Prove it!

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Most folks would have called the police when they came home and saw the door like that. All half-ass open, lock scuffed-up – from a crowbar maybe? A screwdriver?

Somebody wanted inside – might have still been there…

 

This Week’s Monologue of Menace: What a Real Punch Sounds like

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In this week’s monologue, Kimberly tells us what violence really sounds like.

Do you know what a punch sounds like? A real punch. Not that cartoony snap you hear in the movies. None of that Hollywood horseshit, John Wayne socking out an injun.’ I mean a real punch. A real fist meeting a real face. Or a jaw or a forehead. It’s kind of a dull thud, no snap to it. No echo. That was the first surprise.

I’d been working out at a boxing gym. Never cared for the sport — not like the old man — but hey, exercise, stress relief, why not?

Why stress relief? It started with this new girl at work. Julianne. Something about her, it was like she was born to be hated, made for that very purpose. Legs too long, hair too blonde. And the attitude. The way she skipped around my boyfriend like a kitten sizing up a bowl of milk. So sweet. So guileless. But not really. You could see the plans dancing around those Bambi eyes. I’d go to the gym and picture her face tattooed on the speed bag.

Alan would always say he didn’t notice her. And she wasn’t his type anyway. He knew how to say what I wanted to hear, I’ll give him that.

Problem was he knew how to say what everybody wanted to hear. Jodie in human resources, Kelly in shipping. He was good with the words, knew how to soothe, knew how to seduce, couldn’t clear his throat without it sounding like a come-on. It was just part of the package.

It took about a week before the grapevine started buzzing. I spent days with my ears slammed shut. Just didn’t want to know about what everybody else seemed to know. About Alan. About Julianne. I’d take my aggression to the gym after work and make that speed bag rattle like a snare drum. Till the Monday morning it happened…

Soon as they stepped into the conference room, I knew. I could smell her on him and him on her. Alan’s eyes darted from corner to corner, searching for a way out before the questions even began. I just knew.

“Morning!” Julianne whimpered, proud of it, unashamed. She had won. She leaned over for a glazed Krispy Kreme. Bad move.

Her face was right there, like a doe in the rifle scope. Not just ready for it, asking for it. The victorious smirk, the cinnamon-flavored lip gloss. Right. There.

But my aim was off. And my fist found the wrong face. Alan had lurched forward, a white knight coming to the damsel’s defense. But the white knight was clumsy and stepped into a hard right hook meant for somebody else.

Or maybe not. Maybe my aim was perfect. You see, Julianne just pissed me off. But Alan broke my heart.

So I broke his nose. With a hard and heavy right hook, I shattered everything. Everything he was, everything he thought he was, every God damned thing that made him the prize stallion of that place — his swagger, those fancy Italian shoes, that weekend of lies in San Diego — everything came crashing down to the conference room floor too fast and too loud.

And that’s what a real punch sounds like.

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