Having previously threatened to retire after his tenth movie, writer/director Quentin Tarantino further clarified his post-film plans a month ago by announcing the release of his first novel, a novelization of his ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s scheduled to hit books store in the summer of 2021.
Those of us who’ve spent much of our lives reading and writing crime fiction of the hard-hitting, pulp-ish variety might want to welcome this as good news. After all, Tarantino could well bring a barrage of new readers — lovers of gritty, tough crime thrillers who tend to get their pulp kicks in the film world while leaving the reading up to the more refined, effete fans of literary fiction.
More precisely, Tarantino could help usher in the re-birth of gritty crime fiction that focuses as much on the seedy world of the criminals as nerdy pathologists that populate much of today’s most popular crime fiction.
I’d say Quentin is as likely a candidate as any to trigger a renaissance in this sub-genre. After all, it’s not hard to imagine a fan of the novelized ‘Once Upon…’ becoming an avid reader of the works of Max Allan Collins, Eric Beetner or Christa Faust. Stay tuned…
I always answer: “He was a real gent, sweetest guy in the room, always smiling, a kind word for everybody. And in the end, he was awfully handy with a pump-action shotgun.”
It’s a long story.
I first met the big guy on a gloomy Monday morning, three days after my probation officer told me I’d been approved for a work-release program. I shuddered at the thought of what kind of work would be available for a four-foot-two convicted car thief, but when the words Santa’s helper hit me it seemed like I had just traded one nightmare for another. I mean, The Big House was no romp through a field of roses, but at least I had a trace of dignity in that place.
I scowled my way through a tour of the toy factory, got fitted for a red and green jumpsuit and just like that, I was ‘Skippy’ – a minimum wage-earning ‘seasonal recreation assistant’ with a facial scar I couldn’t wait to explain to the kiddies.
“Welcome aboard, son! Here’s hoping every day here is a merry day,” my new boss chuckled.
I was sick of him already. The laugh, the Grateful Dead t-shirt (he’d save the suit for delivery days) the bits of Cheez-whiz in his beard. Mostly I hated that joyful shine in his eyes. How could he be so goddamn cheery with my life spiraling down the toilet?
But it turned out not to be such a crappy job after all.
Nice benefits, decent hours and apart from the occasional dust-up with one of those pricks in packaging, I got along fine with my co-workers.
And when things did come to a boil, the big guy could always cool us down with a belly laugh and a sedative or two. He was good people, a gentle giant in our peaceful little valley.
But somehow I just knew things would come crashing down. And the first step in the demolition was a visit from the consulting firm of Henderson and Rawls.
They were a husband and wife team, Emily and Rob. A real couple of drips. They would’ve needed more charisma to be accountants. But they had come to save the day:
“We’re aware that you’ve been struggling lately,” Emily chirped. “Profits falling, clients lost, rising shipping costs. But we’ve done some research that can help.”
Then it was Rob’s turn behind the riflescope:
“According to our focus groups, your target market would respond more readily to a number of changes.”
Then they unleashed a parade of stupidity designed to reel in the fast departing youth market: rapping reindeers, eco-friendly presents, Mrs. Claus’s yuletide blog.
“This is bullshit,” Santa mumbled. But they were just getting started.
“And then there’s your Santa…” Rob said.
“Now don’t get us wrong. We’re all for traditional Santa Claus iconography: the red suit, the boots, the sleigh,” Emily said.
“But it seems your Santa is skewing a little… older than would be ideal.”
“The kids want a hipper, more vibrant, more… health conscious Santa.”
“You want to put me on a diet?” Santa yelled.
Rob’s eyes couldn’t lift from the table.
Emily gave it a try: “Not exactly…” But she was afraid of the truth.
The truth was that Santa was being fired.
Silence hung over the room like a fog. That joyful shine in Santa’s eyes had flickered out. And I could tell that Christmas would not be a silent night.
Six months later, five of us found ourselves in a van outside of FAO Schwarz. A wind whipped through the night like a samurai’s sword. But inside the van all was calm, all was bright. Mainly because we were packing some serious heat and had the plan down colder than a polar bear’s balls.
Santa loaded his shotgun, addressed the troops:
“Alright, fellas we know why we’re here. With old St Nick getting the sack we have to do some ad-libbing to get the kids their presents. I’ve made my list, checked it twice. Are we ready to do some shopping?”
Nods all around. But the boss wanted a precise breakdown. He aimed his chin at Fluffy, all scary four feet of him.
Fluffy answered without being asked:
“I get us through the security system at the back door, then I go to the doll department, make this a merry Christmas for some little girls.”
“I secure the east wing, then I take care of the action figures, costumes and toy helicopters.”
I grab what I can from the automated car section, then stand guard at the front door?”
“I stay in the van, keep my eyes open, honk the horn if we get company.”
With a final pump, Santa was ready. And so were his soldiers.
“Let’s get this done, boys.”
They slid on their masks, emptied the van, leaving me in the creepiest quiet I’d ever felt.
Within seconds, I heard glass shatter. The alarm whimpered out a warning, then died a fast death. I could hear the plan snapping into motion: the determined patter of feet, more shattered glass and whispers.
Then Gunfire. And screaming – a desperate wail from Gris-Gris.
Now the place was exploding with gunfire and loudly shouted regrets. There was no plan now, only survival. I raced from the van, maybe too quickly, but fuck it – better to spring into danger than to sit around waiting for it to find me.
I slipped into the back door and caught enough of the scene to know the next move: the security guard turned, stunned – a fifth intruder?
Fuck yes. He caught two in the chest before knowing what hit him.
Footsteps from the hallway, Santa turned, pumped, took off the second guard’s left shoulder, sent him to the floor with a wordless cry for help. He dropped next to Gris-Gris, just another casualty. Another tax on the price of admission.
“Let’s take care of business before we get more surprises,” Santa said.
Game on again, we scrambled back into motion, taking out bags and loading up. Toy cars, robots, dolls, action figures, shit that didn’t even exist when I was kid.
Then the siren crept up. We froze for a second, then gathered the bags in one spot, ready to scramble for the back door.
But good luck scrambling home with the cavalry charging in like that. There was a team of them rushing in, enough footsteps for an army.
“You guys make a run for it. I’ll hold them here!” Santa ordered.
“Are you crazy?” I yelled.
He wasn’t crazy. It made sense to scamper out with the toys because that was what this all about, wasn’t it? But this couldn’t be right, letting Santa go down alone like this.
He waved us off anyway.
As the footsteps closed in I pried myself away and out the back door. Santa found a nook in the hallway, settled there and took aim at the charging mass of blue.
Fluffy had pulled the van up and we loaded the bags, shut the door and hoped we’d have another passenger soon. But we could hear all we needed to hear from the back door: the profanity-laced demands for surrender, the hail of gunfire, Santa’s kamikaze scream – “and to all a good niiiiight!” – and we were off into the plan’s next phase: delivery.
We missed the boss, of course, but we had to go on because what would be the point if we didn’t? The kids, as always, were full of Christmas cheer. There was singing, snowball fights and good will toward all. So basically it was just like any other Christmas. Except that when we got to the Henderson-Rawls residence, we snatched a laptop on our way out.
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…
It was the weirdest job I’d ever taken. No double-crossed thugs, no unpaid loan sharks, nary a cheating spouse to be seen. Just a creepy loner who needed a bullet to the skull before he could push into motion a sick plan to make the world a lonelier place.
And damned if I’d ever had to do that much travel before. But they told me the payday would be worth my while so I sailed off strapped with a 9mm. and a head swimming with 80s nostalgia.
Fighting off a stiff December breeze I wove through the Manhattan streets, eager to find my mark and get the job over with – but good luck fending off the distractions of that gorgeously insane place. The sidewalks were a freak show, alive with coke-fueled craziness and the promise of dangerous sex.
I spent my first ninety minutes spinning deeper into that breathtaking web, absorbing everything.
The sights – even the subway graffiti was somehow beautiful.
The smells – real food, made by real first generation immigrants.
And the voices – Deborah Harry cooing, David Byrne hiccupping, Joey Ramone whimpering, Grandmaster Flash cutting, scratching, reinventing the beat.
How could I not lose track of time? Shit.
I raced from the subway, determined to get across town to The Dakota before it was too late.
It was too late. A cloaked figure – arms extended – closed in on his target rising from a limousine.
“Everybody get down!” I shouted, and both bodies dutifully dropped.
I waited for the gunfire. But it never came.
The autograph seeker turned, his face frozen. Unfamiliar. He wasn’t my mark.
I slipped into the shadows, chagrined.
Then I heard the steps and the gun being loaded. But saw nothing.
“Get down!” I wheezed, no voice left after the false alarm.
I still saw nothing, but tried again:
“Somebody’s got a gun!”
Smirks all around. Who’s the wiseguy? they had to wonder.
My head swiveled, swept the shadows, the alleys, behind the dumpster. Nothing.
Another click. A hammer yanked back. No more steps.
A silhouette emerged, stepped into the moonlight.
“Mr. Chapman?” I asked.
He turned. This was my mark. Sharing that demented grin, glassy eyes shinning on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun. I could see the marquee beaming in his head. He was there already, finished, famous, complete. Nothing left to do but add the exclamation point.
But I had to fuck things up by being a quicker draw.
“The dream is over, motherfucker,” I said.
And I shattered his face into a mess his mother wouldn’t recognize. Twice.
I dove back into the shadows and scampered away, the scene now bathing in stunned silence.
It was time to get back to where I once belonged, back to the winter of 2020, a world that could now watch Yoko grow old with her walrus.
Check out this new series of shorts: popular songs from the 70s and 80s (yeah, I’m old) re-invented as hard hitting tales of pulp.
Now let me channel my inner Casey Kasem:
Our number ten tale is How Long Can you Stand the Heat? is a story of betrayal, deceit and excessive gunplay. (Bonus points if you can guess the song that inspired it)
Steve never had a chance. From the second he got off that Greyhound straight from some Nebraska cornfield, it was clear that he’d get swallowed up by the game one way or the other. He was a boy getting mixed up with men and all the gangster movies in the world wouldn’t prepare him for us.
I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m guessing that when the others decided they’d rat me out and split the remaining take eight ways, it wasn’t Steve’s idea. He probably needed persuading, maybe even an easing of his conscience. But in the end, he must have said ‘yes,’ or at least ‘okay,’ so I didn’t waste an ounce of guilt over what happened next. Served his ass right for being so compliant.
For a job like this — late at night, public street — I’d usually go with something quiet and compact. A Sig Sauer maybe or a nine mm. Anything bigger might be a little loud, make too much of a mess.
But in this case, I wanted to make a mess.
I wanted the unlucky fucks who found Steve and the countless rubbernecking assholes who saw his shredded body on the pavement to know what happened when you crossed the wrong guy.
Anybody who mattered in that neighborhood had to know this wasn’t random. They all knew this was my turf, knew I must have had something to do with that misshapen collection of body parts they saw behind the police tape.
I was sending a message. Fuck with me, and you’ll wind up just like the rest. Another one gone. Hey! I was saying to anybody with ears to listen. I’m gonna get you too.
We waited there, crouched behind the door of JB’s, peeping through the mail slot as Steve crept down the street, body cloaked and head covered like he could hide those naive Nebraska eyes under his fedora’s brim.
Soon as he got close enough, the storm came, bullet after bullet finding him, shaking his body into something spastic and crazed. Knees buckling inward while his upper body jerked and twisted and splayed. Like Jerry Lewis making fun of a stroke victim.
The sirens rang out quickly and the rest of the guys took off, leapt into the van. But I had to stoop to his now-empty face to make sure it was over. In once sense it was. In another, it was just beginning.
Jerry was next, the kind of cat whose knife I’d always suspected would find my back. Tall, gawky, heroin-thin and East coast stupid, he looked like a Ramone who had somehow lived into his seventies and still couldn’t be trusted.
He made the mistake of checking his mailbox one morning, ignoring the ’67 Mustang driving past his home way too slowly. Once again, we used fully automatic subs. And once again, we sent just the message we needed to. Another one gone.
The others were trickier, harder to find because they’d gotten the message loud as a roman candle and decided this was a good time for a change of address. But I found them.
I found Gringo Cris at his boat, cramming his stuff into an Uber at nearly two am, hoping he could get to the airport before we got to him. Bad move, Gringo Cris.
I found Bradley at the East Side Market, thinking his six-foot-two Rastafarian ass could blend into a flood of Koreans.
I found Arthur at the train station, figuring it made more sense than the airport and forgetting who he was fucking with. I found Kyle, Orin and Ted on their way somewhere else. It wasn’t easy, but there’s something about getting fucked out of your money by a teammate that gets the gears shifting.
I got home after a busy Thursday, thinking good thing I don’t need to find Kiva. I sifted through our memories, good and bad, happy that she’d still be there. The last person on earth I could trust.
But then I opened the front door and stepped into a nightmare.
The furniture was gone. So was the plasma TV, the pictures, the clothes, the appliances. All Kiva’s now, wherever the fuck she was.
None of this made sense. I had taken her in when the rest of the world couldn’t take her shit anymore. I helped her see that somebody with her tits and her brains her conniving ways didn’t need to beg for anything anymore. I’d taught her to shoot, to sneak into homes, to send a forearm to somebody’s jaw. And this is what happens?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find Kiva. But the gears were shifting again.
In the end, it wasn’t that hard to find her. Her sister couldn’t keep a secret and it’s not like anybody who’d pissed off that many people would have tons of options.
“You know where Kiva is?” I asked her sister.
“Kiva?” Aura asked. Eyebrows up like a kid with her mitts in the cookie jar.
“Yes, your sister. You remember Kiva, don’t you?”
“Where is she?”
“Kiva?” Voice higher now. I can hear the secret itching to get out.
“She’s not at home?”
“She’s not at home and you know where she is, don’t you?”
“She’s my sister,” Aura said, her voice firm. But she added: “In spite of everything, I gave her my word.” Less firm now.
“You owe her nothing and you know it, Aura. She owes you though. Big time.”
“She’s my sister.” Wavering now, ready to break.
“Your sister who lied to you about your car?”
“She needed help and I gave her help.”
“And two days later, she gave you a Mazda with a dented hood and a bullshit story about how it got that way,” I said. “I repeat. You owe her nothing.”
Aura unloaded a long sigh. “She’s not here with me.”
“Remember what she told the police when they came over?” I asked. “She said, of course, ‘I wasn’t driving. It’s not my car.’” I paused, waited for the granite in Aura’s face to melt away. “She didn’t say in so many words ‘my sister was driving that car. The car that was used in the robbery.’ But she didn’t have to have to. Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.” As if my hint wasn’t clear enough, I repeated it: “Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.”
The corner of Aura’s mouth lifted a little. She liked my subtle nudge. “She’s not here. As for where she is now, I don’t know? Where would you go when you need protection? Back home maybe?”
I nodded. Aura told me what I needed to hear without saying the words. Her sister was back home in Indigo Valley, an eastern suburb she grew up in years earlier. I did Aura the favor of not telling her what was waiting for her sister, although honestly she may not have cared.
From there, finding Kiva’s place was easy. She was clever, but not clever enough to come up with an alias I wouldn’t recognize. She barely even tried. Gelli Bean? Her cat’s name completed with a stupid pun. Come on, Kiva.
Getting inside was a little tougher. I’d taught her breaking in, so she knew how to protect her place against people as skilled as us. She made good choices for locks, bars on the windows, all of that. But the choices weren’t good enough. I’d taught her everything she knew. But not everything I knew.
The place looked good. Like ours would have looked without my expensive bad taste and clumsy sense of design. A hardwood floor instead of my cigarette burned carpet. The walls cleaner, prettier. She’d covered the Playboy insignia on the coffee table and added a bar in the living room corner.
I sat there, waiting hours, steady hands, emotions on ice. Even her crazy cat’s occasional sprints from under the couch didn’t startle me.
This time I would use the Sig Sauer.
Less noise seemed a good idea. This wasn’t the hood. It was indigo Valley. A quiet place with neighbors who’d call the cops if the dog next door was shitting too loud. Plus there’d be no point in sending a message in the sunny suburbs. So I chose the Sig. And waited.
I kept my gun trained on the front door, ready for her to step inside. But she got me.
By the time I heard anything from behind it was her revolver’s hammer slipping into place.
I turned, but too late. A burn grazed my shoulder, another shot clipped my inner ankle.
Shit! But my arms were fine. I fired twice, missing both times. She jumped behind a couch that could hide her but not stop bullets. I shot twice, then a third time.
A long, soft whimper. I got something.
I stumbled to my legs, hoping to get her trapped there, but no. My ankle gave way and brought me down and she squirted from the couch’s other end, springing loose. She turned to fire again twice before racing to the corner behind the bar, leaving behind a trail a crimson from her ribcage, her arm tucked tight against the wound.
None of her shots connected this time. But the shoulder and ankle were enough to slow me down.
A few shots at the bar gave me nothing but loud clanks. A bulletproof bar. Of course.
She slipped from the side, took more shots.
Then nothing. I heard a metallic clank that told me she was re-loading.
Gun out, I raced to the bar, knowing that if I moved quickly —
But I wasn’t quick enough.
She’d slipped back by then, reappearing at the other end, giving me one to the belly that sent my gun crashing to the floor and turned my breath into incomplete stutters.
Reaching for my gun gave her a chance to spring out of the bar’s top and fire again. Maybe she connected again, maybe not. Everything was going numb now, pulling away from me like the past.
With a tuck and roll, I got the gun and stumbled to the coffee table, turning it on its side. We traded more shots, but when one broke through the table and buried itself in my left elbow, it was time for plan B.
More bullets, buzzing past like insects. Glass breaking, Gelli yowling to the ceiling, echoes of errant shots ending in thuds and thumps.
Silence. For a while. Was she waiting me out? Out of ammo?
Maybe I could get to the hallway, slip behind better cover. My only chance really.
I found my feet, then lost them, lifted myself up with the gun and a lame left arm. With a grunt, I was up, but not for long. She rose up and took more shots, mostly misses, but the one to my leg was all she needed.
Back to the wall, I flipped a chair to its side, fired away while slowly easing myself to unsteady feet. Then nothing. I stood there waiting to see where all this was going.
I guess I thought that after all we’d been through — three years, eleven jobs, trust, fights, intense makeup sex, gun lessons — she wouldn’t have the balls to finish the job.
But she proved me wrong. It only took one more shot.
She strolled out from the bar, arms crossed, back reclined, face split by a slanted grin. Like a painter gazing at the canvas in admiration of her masterpiece.
With the wall barely bracing me up, she must have figured I was done. But not quite. My eyes sparked to life, catching her off-guard. Her mouth swung open as she made a desperate scramble back to the bar. Hands and knees like an infant chasing daddy’s ankles.
I had a bullet left, maybe two. A well-timed shot could get her…
Gun weighing a ton, hand stiff with pain, I gave my trigger a final tug.
But I didn’t get a chance to see what damage I did. Or if my shot even landed.
Instead, my knees gave out and met the hardwood floor with a conclusive thud right as the world cut to black.