Shorts & Excerpts

Blog, Shorts & Excerpts

Ghost in the Parka

October 31, 2014 by

    Let me share with you a Halloween haunting back when I lived in one of the little Yup’ik villages on the tundra of southwest Alaska. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, my sisters and the other little kids were back from trick-or-treating, and it was our turn, the teenagers, to race down the narrow dark boardwalks between houses to fill our own plastic grocery sacks with candy. I don’t even remember if we had costumes, but I do remember that it was a fall like this one, with no snow, and tall grass lined the boardwalk like two moving walls that whispered in the winds. We grabbed candy inside the first house and when we came out and started to the next, someone spotted something strange emerging from the tall grass. A traditional Yupik parka, with the hood up, no hands or feet visible, the thick fur ruff obscuring the face, appeared on the boardwalk behind us. We sprinted to the next house, not sure what to make of the parka, but not quite willing to admit to the adults inside what we’d just seen. Back outside the little parka appeared again and again between each candy stop, each time giving us a good scare. We’d all grown up hearing the traditional stories of such haunting and we had a sense that we were being played with, but none of us were brave enough to approach the little figure or to question who or what was toying with us. The last batch of houses sat on the far north side of the village, a walk that would require us to travel down a considerable span of darkness, right past the abandoned (and haunted) teachers’ quarters that everyone in the village avoided and didn’t even like to speak about. As we made our way down the boardwalk towards the last cluster of houses the little parka appeared behind us, and when we entered the arctic entry to the house, I remember looking back and seeing it standing there mid-way beside the teachers’ quarters, blocking our passage home. When we came out, the parka was gone. As we passed the building, we expected the parka to jump out in front of us or behind us, but it didn’t. Someone gasped and pointed, and there in the darkness beneath the building, near one of the steel posts that held it above the permafrost, the parka sat upright, waiting. It sprang towards us with a cackle. We screamed and ran for our lives, and behind us the parka followed, growling and roaring. We fled in terror, but the scary sounds in our wake turned to laughter — and legs and arms popped out from the squirrel and moose skin covered coat and soon a face emerged from beneath the parka’s hood. My good friend. Ever the prankster. A boy with a contagious giggle and a hyena-like laugh. Loved by everyone. Afraid of nothing and afraid of no one. Not a soul in the village would have gone to those lengths for an all-night prank like that. Not only was he foregoing his sack of free candy, but he spent that spooky black night alone, hiding in the grass; even hiding beneath the haunted school buildings despite all the traditional Yup’ik monsters and spirits also lurking in the same shadows, just to hear our terrified squeals. A few years later we lost our prankster friend. I heard he managed to climb out from the black scar his snowmachine left through the river ice, but in the cold and wind he couldn’t escape death’s icy grip. I try to comfort myself with the notion that he feared nothing. That even in the face of death, alone and cold in the howling tundra winds, he could find a way to giggle and that he wasn’t scared. And while his death still haunts me, over twenty years later, I am comforted by the fact that his trickster spirit survives. Each Halloween I think of him and imagine if I stare hard enough into the shadows I just might catch a glimpse of the ghostly fur parka waiting to jump out and chase me.   * This story first appeared on the 49 Writers Blog.   [Bio: Don Rearden lived in haunted school buildings on the tundra. He never actually saw a ghost, but heard them playing basketball, and once watched as one of those heavy grey filing cabinets clicked and rolled open in front of him. Apparently ghosts enjoy a good game of one-on-one, but still even in death must deal with paperwork.]


Blog, Craft, Shorts & Excerpts

Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan

April 2, 2014 by

In 2010 my first published novel, Yin Yang Tattoo, was launched in paperback by Sandstone Press in the UK. I sat around for a few weeks waiting for reviewers to beat a path to my door, a path that never saw a single footfall. With the awareness slowly dawning that this was going to be a lot more difficult than I had ever imagined, I started pitching the book as aggressively as I could, searching out potential print media review sources. I quickly found out how near-impossible the new task was. Thankless? You bet your ass it was thankless.

Document 1

I succeeded in securing reviews at a handful of websites. The highly-regarded Scottish Review of Books called it a ‘superior thriller’; a blogsite devoted to all things Korean kicked me square between the legs with the aside that it wasn’t in the same league as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And a sweet review in the online crime fiction website Shots Magazine deemed it ‘lean and pacy, just what you want a thriller to be’.

Much later, two other online reviews, one at Asia Times Online, the other at the Asian travel blog site Wowasis, were more than generous with their praise, but long before they arrived I found myself in classic published author limbo. Few reviews, nobody discussing the book, zero market awareness. Even worse, I suffered the ignominy of securing an invite to the Hongkong International Literary Festival, only for the invitation to be rescinded after the festival chairman read the book and deemed it  ‘altogether too highly coloured for our kind of festival – pretty strong meat.’ I can now laugh at it – wear it as a badge of honour, even – but at the time it hurt.

I decided it was time to do something different. I searched YouTube for inspired book promotions, and found none. Authors standing at a lectern reading out chunks of their novels didn’t strike me as particularly ground-breaking. And so I set about making my own clip. I asked around and found a young illustrator who was a devotee of the graphic novel. Azlan Ahmad McKechnie agreed to do the artwork for the clip, and a musician friend in Bangkok, Keith Nolan, composed the backing track as a favour that, over the years since, has seen me purchase coffees too many to count.

I’d love to say the clip created an avalanche of sales, but that, sadly was not the case. Nevertheless, I think it stands up as a clever piece of online promotion.

[Note: URLs for Azlan Mckechnie and Keith Nolan embedded in the clip are no longer current. My website URL remains alive and well.]

The text for the narration follows.
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Shorts & Excerpts

the king of south philly Part V: King RALPHIE and the turk

May 11, 2013 by

By MARK T CONARD

Ralphie rode in the back of Pete’s Chevy Impala, while Pete steered, and Quentin sat in the front seat next to him. They drove up and down the streets of South Philly, slow, keeping an eye on things.

The sun sat on the horizon, below the row homes, casting deep shadows in the neighborhood.

“I need a refill,” said Ralphie, handing his empty glass to Quentin.

Quentin grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the footwell and poured a double into Ralphie’s glass, and handed it back to him.

“I’m hungry,” said Pete. “You want to get a cheesesteak, Ralphie?”

“Not now,” said Ralphie.

“What kind of cheese do you like on your steak?” said Pete, looking at Ralphie in the rearview mirror. “Whiz, or provolone, or something else?”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Ralphie.

“Me, I love Whiz,” said Pete. “I won’t eat a steak any other way.”

“You know why they call it Whiz, don’t you?” said Ralphie.

Pete shook his head. “No, why?”

“’Cause it’s got piss in it.”

Quentin looked back at Ralphie over his shoulder, and Ralphie winked at him.

“What?” said Pete.

“Yeah,” said Ralphie. “You know when you want to take a piss, sometimes you say, I got to take a whiz? Well, that’s where they get the name from.”

“No, shit?” said Pete.

“Yeah, why do you think it’s so yellow?” said Quentin.

“Oh, man,” said Pete. “Well, I ain’t going to eat that no more!”

Ralphie and Quentin broke out laughing.

Pete started laughing with them.

“Goddamn,” said Quentin. “That’s the funniest thing I ever heard.”

“Yeah!” said Pete. “I ain’t going to eat it no more!”

Ralphie frowned. He reached forward and slapped Pete on the back of the head.

“You dimwit,” he said. “That’s not why we’re laughing.”

“It ain’t?” said Pete.

“No, you idiot,” said Ralphie. “We’re laughing ‘cause there ain’t no piss in Cheez Whiz.”

“I don’t get it,” said Pete.

Ralphie let out a sigh. “Just drive, will you?”

The car hit a bump, and whiskey splashed out of Ralphie’s glass and onto his pants.

“Jesus, Pete,” he said. “Watch where the fuck you’re going.”

“Sorry, Ralphie. I was just trying to avoid hitting a kid on a bike.”

“Well, fuck him,” said Ralphie. “You made me spill good whiskey.”

“Right,” said Pete. “Good whiskey.”

At the next corner on SouthFourth Street, a young guy in jeans and a black t-shirt flagged down the car. Pete pulled over.

“See what he wants,” said Ralphie.

Quentin rolled down his window.

“What do you want?” he said to the guy.

“I want to talk to Ralphie about a problem I got,” he said.

“Who is he?” said Ralphie.

“Tom from the neighborhood,” said Quentin. “I know him.”

Ralphie took a sip of Jack Daniel’s and rolled down his window. He waved to Tom, and Tom approached the rear door.

“What’s the problem?” said Ralphie.

“I got robbed,” said Tom. “Somebody broke into my house and stole all my money.”

“Why don’t you call the cops?”

“’Cause I stole it from somebody else,” said Tom.

Ralphie nodded. “So what do you want me to do about it?”

“Well, I know who done it,” said Tom. “Can you get the money back for me, and maybe, you know, beat the guy up some?”

Ralphie let out a sigh, thinking about it.

“You’d have to pay me in advance,” he said.

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Shorts & Excerpts

the king of south philly Part IV: Sheri-Lynn Hudley

May 10, 2013 by

BY MARK T CONARD

 

Waking across the airport motel parking lot, Sheri-Lynn spotted two girls. She recognized them as Chrystal and Champagne, regulars at the motel. They both seemed like nice girls, Sheri-Lynn thought, even though Champagne was black.

Sheri-Lynn originally hailed from North Carolina, but she’d come up north six years ago. At the time, she thought it would be nice to have a change of scenery.

“Hi, Sheri-Lynn,” said the two girls.

They leaned up against an old Ford Escort, underneath a streetlamp. They looked sexy in their cut-off jeans and halter tops.

Sheri-Lynn said hi to them.

Chrystal said, “Where you been?”

“Oh, I had an office call,” said Sheri-Lynn. “You know that insurance salesman, the one with the funny hair, calls himself Snarky?”

“Ooh,” said Champagne, crinkling her nose. “He’s gross.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” said Sheri-Lynn.

“We were just going to have a little smoke,” said Chrystal, holding up a joint. “Care to join us?”

“Sure,” said Sheri-Lynn.

Champagne held out the lighter and lit the joint for Chrystal. She took a hit, and passed it to Champagne.

“How’ve things been around here?” said Sheri-Lynn.

“Slow,” said Chrystal, letting out the smoke. “Real slow. Some college boys wanted to pull a train, and then Mr. Allen, works for the Eagles—you know him?”

Sheri-Lynn nodded, taking the joint from Champagne.

“He had me come to his office once, after hours,” said Sheri-Lynn. “It was pretty neat being there, but the place was kind of spooky when it was deserted, and he wanted to do it on the desk. That was uncomfortable. His stapler kept poking me in the butt.”

“You have such a cute accent—‘it was pretty neat being there,” Chrystal said, trying to imitate Sheri-Lynn.

She and Champagne laughed.

Sheri-Lynn shrugged. “I guess. I know I don’t talk like you city girls.”

“Anyways, that’s all we seen tonight,” said Chrystal. “Hardly worth leaving the house for. Might as well have stayed home and watched the Home Shopping Network.”

“Me, I like game shows,” said Sheri-Lynn.

She took a hit of the reefer, then passed it back to Chrystal.

Breathing out the smoke, Sheri-Lynn said, “WheelOfFortune!

Champagne laughed and said, “We were talking earlier about how we got started in this business. How’d you get into it, Sheri-Lynn?”

Sheri-Lynn shrugged again. “Oh, I don’t know. I guess I was just born for it.”

“Why don’t you quit and do something else?” said Chrystal.

“I guess I just don’t know what else to do with myself. I don’t really have no ambitions to do anything in particular, so I might as well do this. Better than nothing, I guess.”

“You could be a waitress, or maybe even a hostess at a restaurant,” said Chrystal.

“Oh, shoot, I don’t think I could do anything like that,” said Sheri-Lynn.

“Maybe you could get Vanna White’s job turning letters.”

The three of them started laughing, and Sheri-Lynn blushed.

Champagne said, “Did your father love you?”

“He sure did,” said Sheri-Lynn. “He was a good Christian and tried to make me into a good Christian, so he beat me something awful, on account of my bad disposition. He beat me, and I pretended like I didn’t care any when I was younger, but I really hated it. He even broke my arm this one time. I understand now why he did it. He loved me, and there was just nothing else he could do with me. I mean, what do you do with a girl with a naturally bad disposition? You got to at least try to set her right. But, unfortunately, it didn’t take. I’ll never be a good Christian. I know that.”

“My father used to rape me,” said Champagne. “Then he’d give me presents afterwards, so I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“What kind of presents?”

“Oh, different things,” she said. “Cute little jewelry, or bags of candy. But one time he bought me a new bike.”

“Wow,” said Chrystal. “That must’ve been nice.”

“It was,” said Champagne. “It was really nice, but it turned out to be stolen, so the cops came and took it away.”

“Shoot!” said Sheri-Lynn. “Did your daddy get in trouble?”

“Oh, no. He just told the cops that I stole it. That was the first time I got arrested.”

“Too bad about the bike,” said Chrystal.

Champagne nodded.

A car pulled into the parking lot, and its headlights lit up the three girls and the Escort. It was a newish-looking Buick with out of state license plates. It parked two spaces away from the Ford.

“I guess I’m up,” said Chrystal, and she walked over to the driver’s side of the car and bent down to talk to the man.

“Neat car,” said Sheri-Lynn. “I like the color—green.”

“Yeah, and from Jersey,” said Champagne.

They watched Chrystal nod, as the man pointed towards Sheri-Lynn. Chrystal walked back to them.

“He wants you,” she said to Sheri-Lynn. “Partial to blonds, I guess.”

Sheri-Lynn walked to the car and bent down to get a look at the guy. She took him for a businessman on a trip. In his thirties, he wore glasses, had a round face, and looked nervous, like this might’ve been his first time.

“Hi, honey,” said Sheri-Lynn. “What’s your name?”

“John,” he said.

She snickered. “Well, that works out, now, don’t it?”

“No, it really is my name,” he said, trying to smile.

“Well, relax. You don’t need to be scared. What can I do for you tonight?”

“Well,” he said, lowering his voice. “I…”

“C’mon, now, don’t be shy,” she said. “You want the whole works? You want something fancy? You just want a header?”

He started nodding. “Yeah…Yeah, that’s what I want!”

“Okay, no problem at all,” she said. “That’ll cost you twenty—that okay with you?”

Normally, she’d only charge ten, but since he was out of state and probably didn’t know any better, she thought she’d see if he’d go for more.

“Oh, yeah, that’s…that’s terrific,” he said, hunching up to pull out his wallet. He handed her a twenty-dollar bill.

She put it into the little black purse she carried.

“Now scoot on over,” she said, opening the car door.

“No!” he said, pulling the door closed again. “Not here! Not out here! I paid for a room!”

She frowned. “Well, you didn’t have to go and do that. I could’ve taken care of you right here and saved you the money.”

“Well, it’s already paid for,” he said, showing her the key with the green plastic diamond attached to it. The plastic diamond read ‘10’ in white numerals.

“Ten’s right over here,” said Sheri-Lynn, pointing over her shoulder. “So just shut off your car and come with me.”

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Shorts & Excerpts

the king of south philly, Part III: Sister Rachel Armageddon

May 9, 2013 by

By Mark T Conard

Late on a Saturday afternoon, Ralphie and Quentin sat in a back booth at Johnny’s Place in South Philly, drinking whiskey out of straight glasses. They’d had to move to the back, since more and more the boozehounds who always hung around the bar had started to bug Ralphie and ask him for favors.

For a few minutes, Quentin had been trying to convince Ralphie of the superiority of the Beatles over the Rolling Stones.

“I really don’t give a shit,” said Ralphie.

“Both Lennon and McCartney were great songwriters,” said Quentin. “Either one of them could write a great tune, a great lyric, and it would be a hit song.”

“So the fuck what?”

“So what? So, I’ll tell you so what—the Stones are a one note band. All their songs sound the same—it’s fucking Mick Jagger prancing around, pretending like he’s some nigger, pouting his huge ugly lips, and whining.”

Ralphie sighed and took another drink of straight whiskey.

“I keep telling you,” he said, “I don’t give a fuck. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the fucking Beach Boys, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass for any of them. They all mean shit to me.”

Quentin winced like he’d tasted something terrible. “The Beach Boys? Are you kidding me? We’re talking about the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. The Beach Boys don’t even enter the picture.”

“Let me make it plain,” said Ralphie. “I don’t give a shit.”

Quentin frowned and took a drink of whiskey. “You’re funny, Ralphie, you know it? You don’t like any of the things everybody else likes. You know what I was thinking? That you’re sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only without the Dr. Jekyll part.”

“You say some stupid shit sometimes,” said Ralphie. “We’ve been friends a long time, but once in a while I just want to beat your fucking head in with a baseball bat.”

Quentin nodded. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I was talking about just now.”

Ralphie looked over to see a blond girl with whorish make up staring at him from across the room. She wore a jean skirt and a black tube top. Ralphie frowned.

“Who’s that?” he said to Quentin.

Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Why’s she staring at me?”

“I don’t know that either,” said Quentin.

Ralphie waved to her to come over to the table. The girl looked around, then pointed to herself. Ralphie nodded, and the girl started across the room.

“What’s your name?” said Ralphie, as she stepped up to them.

“Sheri-Lynn,” she said, and she had a cute Southern accent.

“Where you from?” said Quentin. “Delaware?”

She shook her head. “I was born and raised in North Carolina,” she said. “I been here a few years now.”

“What do you want?” said Ralphie.

“Well,” she said. “I heard you’re the guy to come to around here, you know, when you can’t go to the cops.”

Ralphie grinned and nodded and leaned back in the seat. “What if I am?” he said.

“I was kind of wondering,” she said, looking at the floor.

“Wondering what?” said Ralphie. “Spit it out.”

“I was wondering if you wanted to be my manager.”

“Manager?”

“You know, my pimp,” she said, glancing around.

“Shit,” said Ralphie, grinning wider. He looked at Quentin. “You imagine that? Me, a pimp?”

Quentin laughed. “Hell, yeah, you’d make a great pimp! Why don’t you do it, Ralphie?”

Ralphie looked back at the girl. “I don’t know anything about pimping.”

“There really ain’t nothing to it,” said the girl. “You just got to look out for me and make sure nobody takes advantage of me or hurts me, that kind of thing, and I give you a cut of my earnings.”

“Yeah?” said Ralphie. “How much?”

“That’d be up to you, but it’s usually about half.”

“Hey, that ain’t bad,” said Quentin.

“Plus, you get to fuck me whenever you want,” said the girl.

Ralphie looked her up and down. “Yeah, I don’t know.”

“And you can beat me if I get out of line,” she said.

“Yeah?” said Ralphie. “That’s part of the arrangement?”

She nodded. “Sure is. It’s part of the pimp/whore relationship. Has been for ages.”

“That sounds pretty good,” said Quentin.

“It’s tempting,” said Ralphie. “But I don’t think so. I got too much other shit to do right now.”

“Okay,” said the girl, hanging her head.

Ralphie let out a sigh, looking at her. “Tell you what.”

“Yeah?” she said, looking up at him.

“If anybody bothers you, just let me know. Maybe I’ll run them off for you.”

“Oh, thanks, Ralphie. Thanks.”

She hurried back to the front bar.

“I really think you ought to go into pimping,” said Quentin. “I’d give you a hand with it. I know Pete would love to help out, too.”

“Nah,” said Ralphie, waving his hand. “Too much trouble.”

“Uh-oh,” said Quentin, looking across the room. “Look who’s here.”

Ralphie glanced over to see a guy they grew up with, Sam, standing in the same spot the prostitute had been standing in, scanning the room. As soon as he spotted Ralphie, he came hurrying over.

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Shorts & Excerpts

the king of south philly Part II: RALPHIE KILLS HIS FATHER

May 8, 2013 by

On Friday night at Johnny’s Place, the usual drunks stood at the bar, both the after work part-timers, and the career boozehounds—the used up whores begging for somebody to buy them a shot, and the old guys with the yellowed skin and the rotten livers who’d sell their kids’ toys for a pint of whiskey. Sister Rachel Armageddon, a young nun from the local parish, made the rounds and gave them sermons about Jesus and God and why it’s a sin to masturbate and use contraception.

Ralphie and Marcie walked into the bar and looked around, surprised at the crowd. Ralphie spotted Quentin and Pete in a corner booth and nodded to them. He didn’t want to sit with them because he noticed that they acted stupid around Marcie. Pete always acted stupid, that’s the way he was. Ralphie figured his parents must have dropped him on his head when he was a kid, or maybe his mother had smoked a lot of crack when she was pregnant. But for some reason Quentin also acted funny whenever Marcie was around.

Ralphie directed Marcie to the end of the bar, as far away from Sister Rachel as he could manage, so that he wouldn’t have to listen to her Catholic bullshit. He called to Charlie the bartender to bring them some drinks.

Marcie wore a black skirt, black stockings, and a white shirt that was open a few buttons, so that it showed off her tits. She’d just had her hair dyed a deep red color like cooked cherries, and that pissed off Ralphie when he first saw it. She had naturally pretty chestnut brown hair, so he didn’t understand why she’d want to go and ruin it like that.

Charlie the bartender sat the drinks in front of them, and they clinked glasses like they wanted to toast something.

“Why’s she do that?” said Marcie, raising her voice, so she could be heard over the crowd.

“Who?” said Ralphie.

“The nun,” she said, nodding at Sister Rachel.

“Fuck if I know.”

“Doesn’t she know those people? Pat and Al, and Dickie—they’ll never change.”

“Wouldn’t if they could,” Ralphie said.

“That’s what I mean,” she said, almost yelling. “I’m not sure anybody can change what they really are, you know, deep inside. Those three sure can’t, so she’s wasting her time.”

“Just makes the situation worse,” said Ralphie.

“You’re right! If they can’t help being who they are, then she’s just making them feel bad by harping at them.”

Ralphie felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see Quentin grinning like an idiot. Ralphie and Quentin had been friends since grade school, when Ralphie beat the hell out of him in a schoolyard fight and knocked out three of his teeth.

“I was hoping you guys would show up,” Quentin said.

Ralphie rolled his eyes. Quentin would never say stupid shit like that when Marcie wasn’t around.

“Hi Quentin,” said Marcie, turning to him.

“Hi Marcie. Where’d you guys eat?”

“We ate at the Oregon Diner. Ralphie got mustard on his shirt.”

She reached over and scratched at the yellow stain.

“Have anything good?” Quentin asked.

“Vichyssoise and pâté,” Ralphie said, feeling himself getting angry. “What the fuck does it matter?”

“Don’t be so grumpy,” said Marcie. “I had chicken pot pie, and it wasn’t bad. Ralphie had the chopped steak.”

Ralphie glanced at his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar and straightened his tie. The mirror was cracked and cloudy, and it distorted his reflection. He felt vaguely sick looking at himself.

“You guys want to come over and sit with us?” said Quentin, motioning towards the table.

“Maybe later,” Ralphie said.

Quentin shrugged, and turned like he was going back to the booth, but stopped. “I forgot—your father was in here earlier.”

“What?” said Ralphie.

He hadn’t seen his father in three years. He couldn’t believe that the old man would just show up like that, just appear in the neighborhood, without warning.

“Yeah,” said Quentin. “He was in here with some woman, and he asked about you.”

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Shorts & Excerpts

the king of south philly, Part I: “RALPHIE, THE GOODS, AND THE CONSTRUCTION WORKER”

May 6, 2013 by

BY MARK T CONARD

I.

Annie walked into the saloon called Johnny’s Place, where everybody in South Philly hung out. Coming out of the bright afternoon sun, she had to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She hated the sunlight. It hurt her eyes, gave her a headache, and made her freckle, and she fucking hated freckles. She wore her good denim skirt, a tank top, and a pair of sandals. She thought now maybe she should’ve dressed up a little more, but her black skirt, the one she wore to her mother’s funeral, was the only dressier thing she had, and that wouldn’t have looked right, not in the middle of the afternoon.

When her eyes adjusted she looked around and spotted Ralphie sitting with his friends at a table. She walked over to them, trying not to hurry, trying not to look like she was in a hurry. They laughed and joked, and she knew they’d been drinking. They didn’t even seem to notice her standing there.

Ralphie’s friend Quentin told a story about his little brother. His little brother was a retard, and Quentin told a funny story about how the kid stuck a knife in a light socket, how he shocked himself and yelled out in this funny retard way.

“You should’ve heard him!” said Quentin, and he imitated his brother yelling.

Everyone laughed hard.

“When he stuck the knife in the socket,” said Pete, “did he have smoke coming out of his hair, the way they do in cartoons?”

Quentin stared at him a moment. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.

Annie spoke up, saying, “Ralphie? Ralphie, can I talk to you?” and her voice sounded too eager. She fucking hated her voice when it sounded like that.

The guys went on drinking and joking, and Ralphie seemed to ignore her. She walked over to his side of the table and put a hand on his shoulder. “Ralphie? Can I talk to you a minute?”

Ralphie drank the whiskey in his glass and belched.

Pete nodded at her and said, “Ralphie, Annie wants to talk to you.”

Ralphie looked over at him like he’d said something stupid.

“No kidding?” he said. “How’d you fucking figure that one out?”

Quentin laughed out loud, and spit flew from his mouth.

Annie bent down close to his ear. “Ralphie, can I talk to you?” she said, this time in a warm voice, making sure he could feel her breath on his ear and neck. She fucking loved her voice when it sounded like that.

He looked up at her. “What about?”

She looked at Quentin and Pete. “It’s kind of private,” she said, using that same voice again.

He kept looking up at her, and their eyes met, and she felt his hand touch her leg. His hand slid up the inside of her leg, under the denim skirt, and she didn’t move and didn’t let her eyes move away from his. When his hand slid all the way up between her legs, he realized she wasn’t wearing any underpants and he grinned.

“Okay,” he said, taking back his hand, and he scooted away from the table.

They walked together across the room, to a table away from the others. He held onto her arm, leading her as they walked. They sat down across from each other. Annie looked over at Ralphie. He was thirty or so, with red hair, redder than hers, buzzed short, and he had pale blue eyes and a full mouth. She found him very handsome. The only thing that detracted from his looks was a thick scar over his left eye, and that made him look rugged more than ugly.

“Carol beat up Cathy again,” she said, referring to her husband and her oldest daughter. “He beats me up all the time, and I don’t really give a shit anymore, but I just can’t stand it when he hits the kids.”

“Does he hit Linda too?”

Linda was her other daughter, the younger one.

“Yeah, he beats them both.”

Carol hardly ever hit Linda, but she wanted Ralphie to think he did.

“Why don’t you stop him?” he said.

“I try, but he’s so much bigger than me, Ralphie.”

She felt herself starting to cry, and she was glad that she was. She hadn’t even tried, it just sort of happened.

“Why don’t you leave him?” Ralphie said to her.

“I would,” she said, sniffling. “Only he said he’d kill me, he’d kill all three of us, if I did.”

Ralphie sat back in the chair with his hands behind his neck. “You think he’s serious?”

She nodded and wiped away a tear. “I know he is. He told me he knows a guy, and this guy drives a tow truck. What he does is, he follows you around, and when he gets you some place kind of isolated, he shoots you in your car, then takes your car to the pound and they crush it all up, and you’re never found.”

“I never heard of that,” said Ralphie, sounding impressed. “I wonder who it is.”

“I don’t know, but I know he’s serious—Carol, I mean.”

Ralphie nodded, still with his hands behind his neck. “So, what do you want me to do?”

Annie looked around, and in a low voice said, “I want you to kill him for me.”

Ralphie stared at her and leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “What makes you think I’d do something like that?”

“Oh, Ralphie, everybody knows about you,” she said. “I mean, you got a reputation. People in South Philly know how bad you are.”

Ralphie nodded. He seemed pleased with what she’d said. “All right. I’ll kill him, but I’m doing it for the girls.”

She smiled at him. “Thanks, Ralphie. Thanks a bunch.”

“It’s going to cost you, though.”

She nodded. “I figured that.”

“Can you get out tonight?”

She frowned, thinking about it. “I don’t know. Maybe. I might be able to use my neighbor as an excuse.”

“Well, see if you can. Get out tonight and come over to my place, and we’ll start working on that payment.”

She smiled and felt herself getting moist and warm. She would’ve fucked Ralphie for fun or for no reason at all. Making like it was a payment for services made it seem dirty, and that excited her even more.

“If you can’t get a sitter, bring the girls,” Ralphie said. “We can find something for them to do.”

Annie nodded. She liked the fact that Ralphie liked her kids. She didn’t care anything about his reputation. So long as he liked her kids, he was all right with her.

She pushed away from the table, stood up, and walked across the floor. She hoped he was watching her, but when she reached the door she turned back to look at him, and he was already sitting at the other table with his friends again and wasn’t paying any attention to her.

Quentin and Pete had ordered more whiskey and had drunk theirs but left Ralphie’s sitting by his empty chair. Ralphie sat down at the table and took a drink.

“What’d she want?” said Quentin.

“She wants me to kill Carol,” said Ralphie.

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Shorts & Excerpts

“calling the shots” by Karen Dionne

January 16, 2013 by

This month, The Rogue Reader introduced Edward Weinman, whose Icelandic crime novel The Ring Road is a Nook First pick for January. We thought Karen Dionne, author of bestselling eco-thrillers, would pair nicely with Weinman’s novel, which features a down-and-out ex-cop forced to solve a series of murders after a volcanic eruption strands him in the unforgiving Icelandic landscape.

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of the science thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point (Berkley). Her next novel, an original story based on the Fox/AMC television series “The Killing,” is forthcoming in 2013.  Karen is also co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology. Here’s her chilling short, “Calling the Shots,” originally published in FIRST THRILLS: High-Octane Stories by the Hottest Thriller Authors, ed. by Lee Child, and it’s our feature story in the latest Weekly Rogue.

“CALLING THE SHOTS”

He shouldn’t be working in the woods alone. Jason knew better, running pole for his dad summers and weekends since he was ten; managing his own firewood business since he was thirteen. Jenny’d asked him not to come. Begged him, really. Claimed he’d promised to take her to the movies, though Jason couldn’t remember any such thing. He suspected he was being played—it wouldn’t be the first time Jenny manipulated him into doing what she wanted. Still, a movie about a woman who hooks the man of her dreams by cooking all of his favorite recipes wasn’t such a bad idea when you thought about it.

He’d been about to give in, but then Jenny’d poked out her bottom lip like her mom always did when she didn’t get her way and started blinking real fast, faking like she was going to cry, and he lost it. Told her he couldn’t go through with it—not the movie, but the whole getting-married-before-the-baby-was-born thing—and bailed. Got in his truck, and she started crying for real.

Driving out, he felt bad at first. But then he got one of those out-of-body flash-forwards and saw Jenny twenty years from now, a clone of her mother: overweight, domineering, an unhappy woman whose only pleasure seemed to be making sure everyone else felt the same, and knew he’d done the right thing. Yeah, he shouldn’t have gotten her pregnant in the first place; he could admit his share of the blame. But adding to that mistake by making another was beyond stupid.

He stripped off his jacket and hung it over a bush. Reveled in the warmth and solitude of a sunny November Sunday, then started up the saw. Took out his frustrations on a skinny jack pine and smiled as the tree went down easily, branches snapping like toothpicks, the top landing exactly where Jason wanted it in the middle of the brush pile.

He eyed the stand of mixed beech and maple that bordered his strip. The serious money was in hardwoods, but he wasn’t about to cut a single stick. Jenny’s father marked out the strips the way a dog marked its territory, making sure Jason always got the worst wood, as if Jason needed reminding who was boss. Man couldn’t wear the pants in his own family, so naturally, he took it out on him. Jason would’ve rather hired on with any other jobber, but woods work was suffering along with the rest of the country, and Olaf Anderson would do anything for his daughter, so here he was. Lucky him.

Until an hour ago, all Jason wanted was to earn enough to set him and Jenny up in an apartment before they broke the news about the baby, or maybe someone’s empty cabin. No way could they live in his parents’ basement. The Finns and the Swedes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had hated each other for generations. Jason’s parents hadn’t even met Jenny. Said they didn’t need to; all they needed to know was her last name. A saw that cut both ways, judging by the way Jenny’s parents treated Jason. Anyone who thought Romeo and Juliet would’ve had an easier time in the twenty-first century had never met the Andersons and Niemis.

He bent to make another notch. A breeze kicked up, an early winter wind that swirled wood chips and sawdust in his face. He blinked—

—and came to with an elephant on his chest.

Not an elephant, a log—a big one. Nothing like the puny scrub he’d been cutting—a massive, long-dead maple—a widow-maker hung up for God knew how long in a nearby tree, just waiting for someone like him to come along.

He lay still and waited for his brain to come back to full power. The saw was running, so he couldn’t have been out long. His hard hat was gone. No doubt it was the hard hat that saved him. They didn’t call them widow-makers for nothing.

He pushed against the trunk with both hands, then twisted sideways and shoved with his shoulder, feeling like the beetles he used to pin inside a shoe box when he was little. The tree shifted. He shoved again, letting the trunk rock and settle. Each time it rolled back, it knocked the wind out of him like a sucker punch, but at last he built up enough momentum to carry it past the tipping point. The log rolled down his shins and over his ankles.

Breathing heavily, he sat up.

Bright, arterial blood spurted from his right leg like a fountain.

Holy—The saw must’ve caught him on the way down. He pressed down hard with both hands. Blood gushed between his fingers. Fumbling one-handed with his belt buckle, he stripped off the belt and cinched it around his leg up high near his groin. The bleeding slowed.

He sat back. Wiped his hands on his jeans. Tried not to panic.

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Shorts & Excerpts

The St Bart’s of Cuzon’s Carib Sun

November 8, 2012 by

When Laura Lippman is asked about Ro Cuzon’s crime novel Under the Carib Sun, she immediately compares it to the DC-based crime fiction of George Pelecanos: “It tells the story of the people who choose to work and live in a place we think we know, with only glancing interest in the rich and powerful who make it their playground.” If Ro’s portrait of the underbelly of the island is accurate, it’s because he knows it as well as he knows the New Orleans of his first novel, Under the Dixie Moon. Because he lived there, walking the beaches and drinking with the locals. Here’s Ro on the St Bart’s he knows, followed by an excerpt from his novel. Dig it:

“I moved to St.-Barts from San Francisco in April 1996, six months before Adel does in Under the Carib Sun. Like Adel, it was a rather sudden decision (although I wasn’t running from anyone, except maybe myself). I arrived there at the end of the tourist season with very little money saved, no job prospect, and no place to stay.

“My first year there is unfortunately reduced to foggy memories of parties, beach lounging, and countless hours of snorkeling, but there are two things that I still remember vividly. One is my first job there: digging a 20x5x7ft ditch on a steep, insect-infested hill, ten hours a day under the broiling for what amounted to slave wages. The other, which I will never forget as long as I live, is the landing on one of shortest commercial runway in the world on a very windy day. It became the first scene I wrote when I started work on Under the Carib Sun. Maybe because nothing says Welcome to Paradise like one’s near-death experience.”

An Excerpt from Under the Carib Sun (An Adel Destin Novel) by Ro Cuzon:

“Gonna be okay, folks,” he nodded fervently, “we’ll be touching down real soon now.”

Adel noted the beads of sweat on the pilot’s forehead, the tension in his face. He could smell the man’s perspiration fogging the cockpit and regretted taking the first seat in the cabin. He turned to his window and glanced at the symphony of blues outside, bright azure meeting deep ultra-marine on the lazy curve of the horizon. A band of indolent white clouds throwing their distended shadows on the water’s surface below. No land in sight.

We’ll be touching down real soon.

One way or another.

The nineteen-seater lurched wildly to one side, then dropped again.

Oh, mon Dieu!” gasped the woman.

Adel noticed his own white-knuckled grip on both armrests and wondered if he was about to die. Here. Now. A few days shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, on his way to tiny tropical St.-Barts, French West Indies. Ironically because he thought Marseille had become too dangerous for him.

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Shorts & Excerpts

Last Saturday at Blake’s: A Short Story by Ro Cuzon

October 11, 2012 by

Red fastened the strings of a clean apron behind his back and shot the clock on the wall a small weary smile. 8:20 am. He looked around the now spotless kitchen. Shit, he even had time for a cigarette. About ten minutes to spare, really, before Blake and the rest of his motley crew arrived. All Red would have to do then was let himself get swept up in the kitchen’s frenetic activity.

Still, it was going be a long day.

Red wiped his drenched forehead with his sleeve and went to empty the mop bucket into the floor drain. He slid behind the hot line, firing up the stove’s burners under his stew. Guzzling what was left in the half-liter of Evian he’d stolen from the fridge at the bread station, he headed down the cement hallway leading to the employee entrance.

Time to take out the garbage and have that smoke.

A heavy duty black plastic bag lay against the wall by the door and Red picked it up, swinging his hip, using his ass to push through the fire exit, finding himself outside on 13th Street’s sidewalk in Manhattan, steps away from Third Avenue. A heavy snow continued to swirl down from somewhere above the gray buildings, piling on cars, blanketing the ground, softening the city’s babbling voice into a stunned icy hush. Shivering in the biting cold, Red glanced at his rental van parked across the street and nodded to himself. Not a whole lot of meter maids would be out in such shitty weather. He flipped open the lid of the restaurant’s rusty dumpster and heaved the garbage bag over its top before hurrying back inside, rubbing his hands together for warmth, wishing he still lived in the Caribbean. The door slammed shut and Red sat down on his haunches against the hallway wall, reaching under his apron for his Camels. He fired one up, exhaled a messy cloud of smoke. Felt himself beginning to drift.

Stay focused, man.

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