Nothing Lasts: A Noir Mandala

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Nothing lasts. There is no permanent v. impermanent, only varying degrees of impermanence. An apple breaks down faster than a planet. This is why Tibetan Buddhist monks will spend days or weeks making a painting in sand of a mandala, an intricate symbol representing the universe—and, when it’s complete, they erase it.

This is neither vandalism nor nihilism, but an expression of the Buddhist understanding that creation contains destruction, and birth contains death. As the poet Jane Hirschfield said when asked to explain her Zen understanding: “Everything is connected. Everything changes. Pay attention.”

I had to pay particular attention while writing this. It’s my final column for The Big Click, because it’s the final issue of the magazine. My attention was sharpened because, as I was writing it, my beloved cat Maggie, constant companion for the last 19 years, suddenly became distressed and had to be euthanized. She died peacefully as she lay on a pad on the wood floor of my apartment. I was stroking her head, and I felt the life dissipate. Afterward, the kind vet who tended to her hugged me. When the vet left, I began to shiver, though it was a warm day. I felt so cold that I got in bed fully-clothed and stayed there until I got so warm I was drenched in sweat. I don’t know what caused the coldness—I’ve watched humans and animals die before—and I suppose it was grief.

But it wasn’t sadness. I’ve shed no tears today, though I suspect they’ll come. But if they do they’ll be tears for myself, not for Maggie. Since her death nine hours ago, every time I’ve thought of her, or looked at a picture of her, I’ve smiled in sheer joy that she lived, that she had a long and happy life, and that I got to be with her for all of it.

The first thing I wrote for The Big Click, four years ago, is a work of crime fiction set in Scotland, titled “Big Davey Joins the Majority.” The “majority” referred to is all the people who have ever died.

I wasn’t aware of the The Big Click’s existence until Nick Mamatas invited me to write that story. After reading it, I loved the magazine so much that I asked Mamatas if I could submit more stories. He responded that, as it was published every other month, and each issue contained two stories, publishing fiction by the same writer frequently wasn’t feasible. But, he added, the magazine’s founding columnist, the great crime and horror novelist Tom Piccirilli, was taking a break while undergoing treatment for cancer, and I could fill in for him if I wanted to. I said I would, as long as Piccirilli understood that he wasn’t being replaced and that I was just keeping his seat warm until he was well enough to return. After a couple columns, I was told they wanted to keep us both. Although it briefly looked as though Piccirilli was going to recover, he never fully did, though he continued to write whatever he could until his death last year. Since early 2013, I’ve written the column, and it has brought out some of the best nonfiction I’ve written in the almost 30 years I’ve been in the business.

I don’t know how many magazines I’ve had my work published in. Some, like Harper’s, have been around for more than a century… but that’s unusual. The majority of magazines have a lifespan of years, not decades or centuries.

And The Big Click, in my opinion the best magazine I have ever published in, is now about to join the majority.

And, though I’m grieving, I’m not sad. And, though it’s a loss, it’s not a tragedy. The magazine is a triumph. And, like the completion and destruction of a sand mandala, or the quick and peaceful death of a magnificent cat, the time between its beginning and end, the fact that it existed, that it lived and died, is cause for celebration.

What made The Big Click so great? Its editors, Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer, are both brilliant authors who have equal respect for the writer and the reader. Read their books and you’ll see they understand that you don’t have to be glib or shallow to be interesting. From the start, they have been supportive of everything I’ve written, every chance I have taken, every seemingly weird connection I’ve made, and have never expected me to dumb it down. In the world of publishing, this is about as common as substantive discourse at a US candidates’ debate.

I tend to be a fast writer, but the freedom to think in public provided by The Big Click slowed me down. I would write and rewrite my columns, usually filing them at the last minute (the editors showed saintly patience). All that work was the opposite of drudgery; my obsessive revision came from an exuberance and excitement, a knowing that I was free to do great work, and the challenge that’s intrinsic so such freedom. And, with each issue, I saw how great the fiction published was, so I was driven to write columns worthy of being published alongside it.

Another thing—and it’s not a small thing: although it never made any money, but ran at a loss, The Big Click paid its writers. Not vast amounts, but more than many magazines that actually have deep pockets. And payment came when you expected it. If you think that’s common, you’re not a writer. This is not separate from the magazine’s artistic ethos, its seriousness and refusal to cop out.

So why is this issue the last? The mandala is finished. The last breath is exhaled. Tom Piccirilli, the magazine’s inspiration, has joined the majority. The editors aren’t feeling it anymore. Jacques Brel declared that he “would not become an industrialist of song,” and my sense is that the editors have arrived at a similar place.

And I’m glad.

A friend asked me if I was going to move my column to another magazine. I laughed. Sure, I’ll continue to publish wherever, but how could the column inspired by The Big Click possibly be published anywhere else? 

Maggie didn’t become a decrepit, suffering shell of the cat she had been. The Big Click isn’t going to become a sad relic like Harper’s or The New Yorker. It dealt with real things—life, death, fear, anger, poverty, greed, social class, desperation, love—and, like the beautiful, doomed protagonist of a noir story, it has arrived at its end. 

Stroking her head, I feel the life dissipate.

Any tears I shed will be of gratitude.

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Q&A with Libby Cudmore

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If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’ll tell you that all of us here at The Big Click are secretly in love with Libby Cudmore, which is why our final issue is dedicated to her. We were very keen to chat with her via email about her debut novel the hipster noir The Big Rewind, MFA programs, NYC, and other things. Check ‘er out, then check out her book!

So, why crime fiction? Given your age and geeky interests, one would think that science fiction/fantasy would be a demographical inevitability. What turned you on to crime fiction, as a reader and a writer?

My earliest stories were fantasy stories and X‑Files fan-fiction, and pretty terrible ones at that. But when I was in college, I took Arthurian Lit with an amazing professor, who had us read Lancelot and The Long Goodbye. I liked Lancelot, but The Long Goodbye really landed with me—like, “miss dinner to keep reading” kind of obsession. I read the whole in one sitting. It had everything I loved about writing fantasy; chivalry and an otherwordliness and romance, but it was gritty and dark and lonely. Raymond Chandler, along with Tom Waits and Sin City, which came out in theaters that year, changed my life.

And looking back, a lot of the stories I’d written as a teenager had elements of crime to them—assassins, The FBI, etc. My fantasy stories were about lawless pirates and rogue swordswomen. It wasn’t a difficult conversion.

But but… Sin City was awful! Defend it!

Sin City is awesome and amazing and, at one point, between my friend Jason and I, we could recite the entire thing. Also, Clive Owen is mad hot.

You’re also a reporter for a newspaper. Are you on the crime beat? Does reportage scratch the same itch as fiction-writing? I suppose I’d wondered if you were a Lois Lane fan as a kid!

I fell into newspaper reporting completely by accident. My editor hired my husband as a photographer after he saw him taking pictures downtown. And when he needed a reporter, Ian recommended me, and I’ve been there ever since. My dad was a newspaper man, so I guess it’s in the blood.

Because we’re a small office, both my editor and I cover every story that comes our way, and there isn’t a ton of crime in our county (other than the occasional drug bust or DWI). But I did get the nickname “Blood & Gore Cudmore” for the coverage of the few major crimes we did have, including a guy shooting his dad six times in the back and a couple of extremely grim murder-suicides.

I wouldn’t say it scratches the same itch, but it definitely helped me become a better writer because I was constantly exploring my world. I meet fascinating people, all with their own stories. One week it’s someone with a bubblegum collection, the next, it’s whether or not Common Council should allow chickens in the city. You really get to see all sides of people, and that taught me to really develop my characters into complex people, not just cliches on a page.

You’ve published a number of short stories—we’ve published a few of them ourselves! Are you done now that you have a novel? What do you think of short fiction as a form?

I will never be done with short stories! I love the form because I feel like it gives me a chance to play with a voice that might be tedious over the course of a novel. I don’t think I could write a whole novel about the events around, say, “Rough Night in Little Toke,” [from the anthology Hanzai Japan] no more than I could shorten The Big Rewind into 7,000 words.

Short stories also give me a chance to experiment with genres—scifi, some rural gothic fantasy, I’ve even written a goofy romance or two.

Does short fiction feel like your day job writing—find the character, find the telling detail—or is something else going on entirely?

Wow, you’re really making me think here! Short fiction, for me, is more like a bolt of lightning. A novel is planned out, but a short story will come to me out of nowhere—a character’s voice, a scene, a small object. Then I just have to sit down and write it!

The Big Rewind is your first novel…or is it? Any practice novels before this one?

Several! I had written a pulpy crime novel in short stories before I started grad school, which was rejected by every agent in the business and rightfully so, although several of the stories were published on their own. A second novel got a few full manuscript requests from agents, but nothing came of that one. I sent a third one out to a few agents, but by that time, had moved on to other projects.

But it’s funny; I was going back through notebooks of unfinished novels I had written while I was living in NYC, and I could see the threads of characters that would become Jett, Catch and others. Totally unintentional.

I thought Jett was great. I was impressed by how contemporary she was, like when she thinks she’s being propositioned by her boss, she considers it because he’s not so bad-looking and money is tight. Of course, she’s also a romantic, with her Boyfriend Box and crush on Sid. Where did she come from? SHE’S YOU, ISN’T SHE?!?

I wish! No, Jett is much cooler than I am. I did instill her with my love of Warren Zevon and the fact that I worked second shift at a temp agency in New York City, as well as our deep crushes on Adam Scott from Parks & Recreation. 

How about poor lost KitKat, or the other characters? Drawn from life? 

There’s one I’ll admit to and that’s Jett’s friend Natalie. I went to college with a girl just like her, and she would say very deep things like, “I’m telling you, Libby, the whole world comes down to Dantes and Randals” and then take a drag off her Marlboro & flip another page of Nylon. She was so cool.

What about Cinderella, who is sure to be a controversial figure in more politically uh annoying circles? What was the inspiration behind her?

Cinderella could very easily be a character in a fourth verse of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers Guns & Money.” It would have been very easy to make her “boo-hoo, poor girl has to be a stripper,” but I realized that was patronizing and cliched. I wanted to give her agency, but I also wanted to give her a real—however misguided—reason for doing what she does. My goal has always been to make my characters multi-faceted and complicated, so she, like all good villains, thinks her actions are justified.

As for who she was inspired by, I guess she’s as much my own contradictory feminism as she is a model of an extremely privileged sort of empowerment. “Oh, I’m not a real stripper like those other sluts, I’m doing it for grad work, so it’s different and better.” That’s why it was so important for me to write Gloria as someone who likes her job and her customers, rather than just being some unlucky dame who has to take her clothes off for money.

What came first, the hipster or the bloodspray? The Big Rewind could have been an ultracontemporary slice of life novel that kids in the midwest would hug to themselves (on their phablets, natch) as they dream of moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn—a neighborhood that was Cracktown USA when I was a kid in Brooklyn, by the way. And then poor KitKat had to be beaten to death with her own marble rolling pin, and now we’re in a crime novel. How was the book initially conceptualized?

I have written nasty, brutal stories since I graduated college, so naturally, there had to be a murder and quick. But the hipster stuff did come first; I wrote the scene as it came to me and then it occurred to me “what if I put a murder in there…?” Then I thought of using a mix tape as a clue, and it went from there.

Across the course of your average day of commuting to work, having lunch, Netflix ‘n chillin’ with your husband, etc. how many times do you think “What if I put a murder in there…?”

At least once a day is a safe bet.

What was the route to publication for The Big Rewind? These days the story often goes “short stories, then small press, then a big book” or “lauded as genius in MFA, given giant advance.” What did you do?

Despite my best efforts of being lauded as a genius in my MFA program, I was not.

My road to publication was a very traditional one. I wrote the book, queried an agent (Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich) signed with him, he sent it to Chelsey Emmelhainz at William Morrow, she signed me. I had about ten years of publishing short fiction and essays behind me, which helped too.

Did your MFA program help at all, either in the sense of making connections or improving your writing to the point that The Big Rewind, as opposed to your other books, was the one to be published?

I met my best friend/writing partner Matthew in my MFA program, as well as a bunch of really wonderful friends who I still treasure, but writing-wise, I don’t think that my program had any positive impact.

That’s a fairly diplomatic answer. So, in the MFA vc NYC turf rumble, you’re NYC?

Oh heck yes.

Other than gaining the attention of The Big Click, what’s your strategy for becoming a rich and famous crime writer?

Really, just keep writing kick-ass novels. I’m never content to just sit back. I’ve got a couple new projects in the works, and I’m anxious to get back to them!!!

And they are…?

A lady never writes and tells… they’re both mysteries, but I’m actually toying around with a southern gothic ghost story. Completely off-genre for me, but it sort of just came to me over a binge-read of Eric Powell’s The Goon and some Tom Waits records. I love crumbling old cemeteries and crow mythology and the veil between the worlds. I’d love to write something like that.

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The Hero of East Vale

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A half-hour after the news van had finally departed from the front of my house it was back and the vapid reporter was knocking at my front door sans camera and microphone. They had been driving in circles and needed directions out of the neighborhood. It was that kind of community, a labyrinth of soft bends, hills, leafless trees and identical raised-ranch houses all built by the same developer and mirror images of each other. Nothing stood out. The landmarks were lost in the singularity.

I had already been dubbed “The Hero of East Vale,” which was ridiculous. I was in the bathroom when Toby Meyers started shooting. The alarms went off and the “lockdown” alert sounded and, as I tried to get out of the bathroom, I lost my footing and fell through the door and sprawled out into the hallway with my pants around my ankles, right in front of Toby. He was done up like a commando – some kid playing Rambo for Halloween. He had already killed six students “in cold blood” as they like to say, but he stared at me for a moment, my bare-ass in the air, tie flung over my head like a drunken car salesman, and he began to laugh. It was a strange, lunatic laugh for sure, and then he put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. I guess the sight of a middle-aged English teacher’s white, pasty ass is just absurd and surreal enough to warrant suicide.

The thing was, when it happened, I wasn’t afraid. It all just seemed, so normal.

That same day three other schools had gone on “lockdown” for a variety of reasons; in Pomperaug a student brought in spent ammunition casings from he and his dad’s time at the indoor shooting range, which prompted a minor panic; in Brookfield, an image of a gun was spray-painted on a large rock near the middle school, and in Bristol there was a report with a “man with a gun” within three miles of the elementary school. All of them went on lockdown, prompting alerts to all the other schools when they did, so every teacher’s cell-phone was lighting up in class with public school Twitter feeds every five minutes to both announce the lockdown of whatever school wherever in the state and then to announce the lockdown had been lifted. All in all, it made it difficult to get any work done. The classroom seemed more like holding pen for calves waiting to become the next veal steak.

Anyway, NBC had reported that I had “confronted” the student and that he then shot himself. ABC reported that I had actually been “armed” and was in the process of defending the other students, and CNN reported that Toby and I had been “fast-friends” and that he couldn’t bring himself to kill me and thus turned the gun on himself. I had Toby in a class last year. He was a C student and considering the grading system that really isn’t saying much.

But since then, I had the news vans parked outside my house and news anchors play acting a shitty drama in my front yard. I stayed inside till they left. The neighbors shunned them, thank God. I even saw them try to run down Charlie Atkins on his daily seven-mile run. But the news team couldn’t keep up and Charlie just waved them off and continued in the cold morning air in his neoprene jogging tights. Sixty-five years old and running every day like something was chasing him.

It was February, which meant it was Black History month, American Heart month, and Teen Dating-Violence Awareness month. I knew because there were posters plastered all over the school reminding us and teachers had to attend “raising awareness” workshops for Black History month and Teenage Dating Violence. Toby shot up the school on February 6, which is the International Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Day (another workshop—you understand) and, to me, that just seemed kind of strange or ironic or uncanny or sacrilegious—even I can’t think of the right word for it—and also possibly racist. You never can tell. It was also cold as shit outside.

And there was intrepid female reporter, Monica Daniels, on my front porch shivering and asking for directions out of our little enclave of normality and there was Charlie Atkins running in a neoprene winter track suit, and it all just seemed to hit home for me. I almost lost it right there in front of her. I’m not the weepy poetic type, but, at the moment everything seemed overwhelming and I developed a deep, deep paranoia—a fear that began swirling in my mind and made me want to do something—anything—to relieve it.

You go to the end of the street, here,” I said to her. “Take a left, and then take your third left after that. Get to the stop sign make a right and continue through two stops and that will bring you to the main road.”

Thanks,” she bounced. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk to me?” She was pretty, with big brown intrepid-reporter eyes.

Maybe come back on Mother’s International Language day or, at the very least, Thinking Day. This day isn’t anything so I can’t help you right now.”

That should keep her mind working for a little while, anyway.

Charlie was pounding pavement up the street like his goddamned life depended on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow half the neighborhood was out there running laps in the labyrinth, all running away from something, all running in fear. I didn’t believe in running away, at least I didn’t think I did. No. I wasn’t the weepy poet cowering in the corner of a high school bathroom stall. I was the bare-assed poet who saved the day. I was the Hero of East Vale.

I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to face it. I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I wanted to run over Charlie Atkins with my mini-van and face-fuck every loud-mouthed, lipsticked reporter on television. It was all spinning out of control. The center cannot hold, as Yeats said.

Sometimes it seemed like grabbing a gun and shooting everything you saw, that insanity itself, was the sanest thing a person could do.


Two days later there were police at my front door, two eager young law-keepers with guns on their hips and even bigger guns in their vehicles.

Sorry to bother you, Mr. Teller,” the first one said. “But we are searching for someone in this area who is running a pirate radio station from either his residence or possibly a van with some kind of antenna system mounted on it? Would you happen to know anything or have seen such a vehicle?”

Pirate radio?” I said.

Yes, sir. It’s an illegal radio broadcast that operates without approval from the FCC. The broadcaster has been disseminating false information and his signal is possibly interfering with commercial aircraft frequencies in the area.”

It was right then that I decided I would try to find and listen to this station.

Have you seen any vehicles matching that description?” he said.

When does it broadcast? On what station?”

We can’t be sure of that information,” he said. “Have you seen any vehicles matching that description or know of anyone with broadcasting equipment in their homes?”

What is he saying that is so bad?”

It is illegal to disseminate knowingly false and damaging information and pass it off as fact.”

How do you know it’s wrong?” I asked.

Have you seen or heard anything that we should know about?” He was getting inpatient.

No,” I said.

Sorry to bother you, sir,” he said and then they both returned to their cruiser and crept slowly like a circling shark down the road. I watched them go and walked out of my front door into the cold air. I walked up to the street to watch the officers stop at another house and approach the door. Charlie Atkins went bounding by followed by his daughter Dana—young, firm and fit and apparently intending to stay that way. It was like being passed by deer in the middle of the night, they are suddenly there, out of nothingness, bounding away to the depths.

Across the street, my neighbor Mark was in his garage but also watching the police go door to door. He was a mechanic in his sixties that would sneak bottles of vodka when his wife wasn’t looking. I would see him, every now and then, across the street in his garage, slipping a glassy bottle out from some top secret location, putting it to his lips and taking a pull that would make a fraternity kid dead. He walked out to the road, his face grizzled and deeply lined from years of hard living. He had a camouflage jacket and hat and I could see that it was hunting gear because the fluorescent orange peaked out at the stitch lines.

What’d they want?” he said.

They said they’re looking for some kind of pirate radio station that is giving out bad information and interfering with airline signals.”

Fuck-ups have no idea what they’re talking about.”

I guess not.”

He seemed to consider me for a moment, look me up and down like I had just entered an Old West saloon and was getting ready for a barroom brawl. We had lived across from each other for five years but he had never looked at me like that before, he had said barely four words to me that entire time, but now I was the Hero of East Vale and I deserved at least a passing comment.

I respect what you did,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.”

Who would have?” I said.

Well, there’s a lot of men who would have put two bullets between that kid’s eyes before he even got a shot off, but usually high schools are filled with women and cowards.”

If you can’t do, teach, right?”

That’s right. You’re a bit of an odd guy,” he said. “I never knew quite what to make of you. You keep your yard all right but sometimes you leave those garbage cans on the side of the road for days….”

Sorry about that,” I interjected but he merely held up a hand to silence me like a king.

But as I was saying… You drive a mini-van but don’t have a family and live here. You just waiting for the right girl or what? (rhetorical question). But anyway, I just wanted to shake your hand, though, cause of what you done at that school. You’re a true neighbor, watching out for your fellow man and not just saving your own ass.”

I blushed.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that,” he said. “And, if you’re ever interested, I’m sure the boys down at the gun club would love to meet you.”

Thank you,” I said. I had never been offered inclusion into anything so masculine as a gun club but I suddenly found myself wanting to accept the offer. “Do you know anything about that radio station?” I said.

He took another look down the road. The police cruiser had already passed over the hill and was out of sight. “Why do you ask?” he said.

I don’t know. I just thought since they’re so hard up about it, I wanted to see what it was all about.”

Another street-sweep with his eyes. “Nah,” he said. “I don’t know nothing about that.”


I bought a gun. It just seemed like the right thing to do. It occurred to me that Toby probably thought the same thing. It was a double-barrel shotgun like out of the Wild West. Mark took me to the Rod & Gun Club and he showed me how to shoot it and it kicked like a mule in my shoulder. The boys at the club shook my hand and said it was a shame that this tragedy would be used to push more gun control. I agreed with them. Already MAGNUM (Mothers Against Guns and Unregulated Munitions) had organized and was protesting outside the state capitol building. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they said. Now I’m the good guy, I figured.

I bought an AM radio, a nice one that was recommended by survivalists across the fruited Internet plains. I got rid of television and spent my nights surfing through AM channels and reading Baudrillard and Zizek. I took leave from the school while I “recovered.” I became a one-man neighborhood watch; scanning channels, shotgun at my side, watching day and night out the window, monitoring the comings and goings of my neighbors.

The police seemed to increase their patrols. They bought an unmarked silver sports car and it cruised the lanes slow and menacing and I wondered what a small town needed an unmarked car for.

The town was planning to raze Toby’s old house where he had killed his mother and begun his spree. I drove out to look at it. It was a large Victorian with a wrap around porch that sat on a small, sloping grassy hill. It was still cordoned off with police tape. Sitting there, sagging under the weight of small-town outrage, it looked like a whale carcass dropped in the middle of a forest, its flesh unable to support it tonnage on land and its innards spilled all over the scenery.

Then one night my radio tuned in on a signal—a voice in the darkness that raged like a bonfire; Tyranny will not—can not—stand! This is the land of the free but it has become the land of the weak and the afraid. Our government lies to us and we put on our blinders and just turn on another American Idol. We have to wake up! They are right now trying to shut me down, searching for the source of my transmission but they will not find me, no they will not! They’re trying to find me because they don’t want me telling the truth! They don’t want me interrupting their disinformation campaign designed to fool the American people, designed to lull us into complaisance, to take over our very lives! They are working toward our destruction! They are feeding the flames and fires of those who would kill us. They’re making us afraid so that we turn to them and say ‘take everything from me, every freedom and use it to protect me, to make me feel safe.’ But it’s all lies!

He spared no one. He marched through the culture with a rhetorical machine gun. He found his enemies, took aim and fired away. He left nothing unturned.

Read the report from the East Vale shooting! Read it! This boy suddenly becomes a mass murderer? I don’t think so! What they don’t want to tell you, what they don’t want you to realize is that concerned citizens in Toby Meyers’ town, right in his very neighborhood had been urging authorities to examine the gas pipeline running beneath the houses and homes there for leaks! What about the power lines that run right through that town? What about the vapor trails from the airport just around the corner? Where is the autopsy report? Why have they not yet released it? Ladies and gentlemen we can’t even get the basic information about what happened that day. The news reports were wildly inaccurate! Where’s the second shooter they reported? Where’s the assault rifle they said he used? What are any of the weapons that he used? Now the gun control nuts are lining up to take away our Second Amendment rights? You’re telling me that this doesn’t play right into the government narrative? You’re lying to yourselves! Every incident, every school shooting, every terrorist act is being used to further crush the American people, to further control. They let these things happen so they can control us. They let the chaos in so that we ask to be imprisoned in our own country!

I listened to him in the darkness of my own insane yearnings. I fantasized scenes in my mind that had never crossed my thoughts before; lighting fire to the gas pipelines; aiming a rocket launcher at a jetliner as it descended to land at Dulles, pulling the trigger and the laser-guided missile streaking through the blue to find its target, lighting up with oranges and red and blacks. I pictured strolling through a picture-postcard Main Street and opening fire with a machine gun, ratatatating and watching people shriek and fall and glass break and the sound… Oh, the sound! Echoing off the brick facades, ringing in my ear, empty and hollow; there and then gone again.

All of it swirled through my mind in the night, alone in my house with nothing but my books and my shotgun and his voice piercing the silence, rabid and lonely.


I listened to the voice in the darkness every night, scanning on AM radio till I found that familiar and righteous anger. The station changed every night. Police increased patrols. He raged into the microphone: They indoctrinate our children through subversion and distraction! Have you seen this Angry Birds game they all play? What is it, really? The birds are suicide bombers flying into buildings to knock them down and kill the pigs that have stolen their eggs—their birthright! Can you think of a more disgusting game? Is it surprising this game came out after 9/11? No it is not!

I believe I spotted his pirate radio van one night rolling slowly through the neighborhood, no windows and a creeping presence that worked its way under my skin. I watched its taillights disappear around the corner and then stared for a long time. He was broadcasting at the time. The signal was strong. He must have an accomplice, a driver or a partner of some kind.

The truth IS out there, ladies and gentlemen! You just have to open your eyes and ears.

I had seen the truth. I had seen it right when Toby put that nine-millimeter Glock to the side of his head and pulled the trigger while I cowered bare-assed in the middle of the East Vale High School hallway. I saw it in the sagging edifice of Toby’s former home. I heard it in the snapping shut of my double-barreled shotgun and the report of its shells discharging in the broad daylight.


Mark and I took a couple shots of vodka at the Rod & Gun Club bar and then set out onto the skeet shooting range. He yelled, “Pull!” and flying saucers launched into the deep blue spring sky and I sighted them down and shattered them mid-flight.

Why does NASA shut down the Space Station feed every time something they can’t quite explain appears on screen? Why are they trying to tell us that there is no such thing as UFOs and flying saucers when we can see them plainly for ourselves?

My brother called from South Carolina while a bleach blonde bubble-head on television cringed at images of ISIS beheading infidels in a strange desert somewhere. “We’re worried about you,” he said. “Have you gone back to work yet?”

No, I’m on extended leave. I have tenure. They can’t let me go.”

That’s not the point,” he said.

During the Civil War it was brother against brother and that is what they are doing to us again! The NSA surveillance state is omnipresent! Every phone call, every email, every picture! It’s all Big Brother watching!

I pushed a shopping cart through the boxed shelves of a discount grocery while middle-class housewives returned cans, feeding them into the mouths of machines. I bought everything organic. I scanned bar codes across automatic scanners while a teenaged girl sat idly by making sure I didn’t steal anything. I fed the machine a debit card and it spit back three feet of printed receipt. I loaded my groceries in the mini-van and bought a bottle of vodka at the package store.

Every bar code scanned! Every license plate that passes by a State Trooper! Every time a machine takes the job of a working person! Every gene-altered food they feed you. They are all steps leading to a heaven of government bureaucracy and a citizen’s private hell!

Mark was drinking in his garage again, listening to the radio. I dragged the bottle of vodka across the street like a prisoner’s ball and chain. I sat down with him and we each poured a shot.

Who is he?” I asked.

Mark lightly tapped the side of his nose with his index finger and smiled at me wide and knowing.


The voice’s name was Terry Shaker and he lived in trailer park that sat like a fat tick on a dog’s hide just outside East Vale. He owned a double wide that blended in like a single domino in a row about to fall. There was a black van, the one I had spotted prowling the neighborhood with a long antenna, in the driveway. Terry was somewhat small, fey even, with a thin beard and coke-bottle glasses. I remembered him from the Rod & Gun club; always in the background, quiet, almost demure in any response to the boisterous, sometimes rowdy, men in the club barroom. His voice was gentle, quiet, nothing like the raging animal cry that I heard in the darkness. He lived with Brandon Tomalsky, an ex-Marine bruiser with a shaved head and tattoos spread across his back. The other men at the club had their suspicions about their relationship but nobody said anything overt. Indeed, Terry and Brandon were the top dogs in the pound; “The work they do is essential,” Mark told me. “They speak for us. They’re under the radar. The police are looking for them all right, but they stay on the move. Those guys tell the truth.”

But I knew it wasn’t real. It wasn’t the desert stretched out to infinity dotted with bare rocks, the staging for the temptation of Christ. I knew the truth. I had seen it. I had heard it. I had smelled it sprayed all over a high school hallway.

I had been to the desert.

I was going back.


Tonight was a big night for Terry and Brandon. Terry was interviewing a professor from Florida State who had been writing extensively that the East Vale high school shooting, along with multiple others, were hoaxes perpetrated by the CIA and NSA in order to push gun control and disarm the civilian population. The illustrious professor had made headlines with his Internet claims and crying parents were crying harder on television screens and into microphones across the country. The professor was in the area this week and Terry had landed an interview.

It was nearly 11PM—Showtime. The black van pulled out of the short driveway, Brandon driving and Terry in the rear setting up the broadcast feed. I followed the van and scanned on my AM Radio. They stopped at a ratty motel and the professor, an older gentleman with a crazed look in his eyes and a tremor in his hand from too many anti-psychotic meds made a beleaguered step up into the belly of the beast.

They cruised neighborhood streets slowly, turning into my labyrinthine enclave of middle class starvation. My shotgun was in the back seat of my mini-van, my AM radio in the passenger side tuned in perfectly to Terry’s broadcast. His voice broke the silence and static, he started in with his introduction: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very special guest tonight…

Brandon turned the van around a corner heavily laden with trees, killed the lights and backed down a narrow dirt and gravel drive that led to an abandoned house that had been foreclosed a year ago. It was impossible to see in the darkness with its lights extinguished. I killed the lights as well and stopped my mini-van next to the trees. I listened to Terry and the professor on air; there’s only one way to interpret these events that doesn’t fit with the government narrative that we are force fed by the state media machine…

I strolled down the driveway and approached the black van on the driver’s side. Brandon seemed to have a moment of recognition when he discerned my face in the darkness, but he didn’t see the shotgun in my hand until it was too late. The explosion tore through the glass of the driver’s side window and battered his face into a dark mist.

I pulled the sliding door open on the van and Terry sat there wide-eyed, enraged, microphone falling on the floor in a heap of wires and the professor trembling in the back trying to cover his face. Terry took out a pistol and I let loose with the second blast. It cut him nearly in half and I thought about the schizophrenic symbolism of it. The radio was sparking, buckshot knocking around its innards like pin-balls in an arcade. I was covered in blood from the back-spray. The professor was trembling and crying. I broke open the shotgun breach and pulled out the two spent shells and loaded two more and snapped it back shut.

I was Toby Meyers.

I was the bare-assed Hero of East Vale.

I was anarchy, shooting surreality with double-aught destruction.

I crouched got into the van and crouched in front of the professor. He pissed himself and kept crying, “please,” and cowering at the furthest reaches of that rolling tin can. All around him was the truth but still he hid his eyes and did not want to see.


Mark and I sat on lawn chairs in his garage with the door open, looking out at our street. We sipped vodka. I said to him, “Today is international Jazz day.”

Mark said, “this is a sad day,” and I nodded with him. An unmarked police car slowed as it passed by, the officers in the front seats eyeing us, assessing us for any number of puny laws that we might be breaking in that instant.

You know what happened, don’t you?” Mark said.

No,” I said.

It was the CIA that took him out. That’s the truth. Plain as the nose on your face.”

Posted in Fiction | Comments Off on The Hero of East Vale

Barbie Girl

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Another D. Britt sighed. Math was never going to be her strongest subject, but college wasn’t going to pass her along the way her shitty high school had. And it wasn’t going to get easier the deeper into the semester she got.

She packed up her books in her beat-up Jansport. Some hipster with a leather messenger bag and a vape pen like a duck call around his neck winked at her. “Love it. Did you get that at The Attic?”

The Attic was a local vintage boutique that charged insane prices for ugly old shit. She shook her head and he shortened his grin only long enough to vape. “Still cool. See you around.”

She thought about asking him what he got on the test, if he would tutor her, but he was already on to the next girl, complimenting her on a necklace she wore. She was taking the bait. Britt imagined he played the guitar too, sitting in the quad waiting to get noticed before he busted out a song he “just wrote on the spot, for you, beautiful” that he had sung for another girl just three days before. Never mind. Fuck that guy.

The billboard by her lecture hall was littered with fliers. Textbooks for sale, ride shares back to NYC and Long Island, apartments for rent, tutors. She looked for someone teaching math. The cheapest was $50 an hour. Way out of her price range. She tore off the tag and stuck it in her pocket. Maybe she could get a few more hours at the bakery to pay for it.

She pulled out her phone to call her mom to come pick her up. There were six missed calls from a number she didn’t recognize, and three messages.

Its dennis. rait’s in trouble

            think he ODd

Thing he’s dead. Shit. SHIT!!!! Call me BACK BITCH!!!!

She meant to hit delete. Meant to ignore them. Probably a stupid joke from Fat Dennis and Rait, hoping she’d call back in a panic and they would laugh hysterically. And even if it wasn’t a joke, fuck Rait and fuck Fat Dennis sideways. She hadn’t seen either of them in six months, not since she moved back home after rehab. She was in school now, had a job baking sugar cookies at the grocery store, had dinner with her mom every night like a normal girl instead of the drugged-out junkie skank she was when Rait was her boyfriend. And she wasn’t going to be that girl again.

She’d offered to get him help when she went to rehab, but he refused. Said she didn’t love him. Said she was turning him over to the cops. Beat her up, but no worse than usual. She arrived at the Hope Center with a black eye and a fat lip, but she wasn’t the only one. Her roommate’s wrist was in a cast. One afternoon after group therapy, they both flushed all their makeup down the toilet, a sign that they were stronger than a life that forced them to cover up bruises. She wondered briefly how Amethyst was holding up.

But instead of delete, she accidentally hit call. The phone barely rang before Fat Dennis picked up. He was hysterical. “He’s dead, Britt,” he said. “He fucking OD’d. Shit, Britt, what do I do? You gotta get over here!”

Call an ambulance,” she said, picking up her pace across the quad. Vape was talking to yet another girl, touching her floppy hat. “Cops won’t pick you up on a good Samaritan call.”

You don’t get it, you stupid bitch,” Fat Dennis snapped. “He’s dead, don’t you even care?”

She figured she might later, but right now, adrenaline was her drug, her only focus. But Fat Dennis kept rambling. “There’s a huge stash here. He tapped in. I told him not to, but fucker doesn’t listen.”

What do you want me to do?” she said.

We gotta bury him,” he said. “Or burn his body. Or something. Cops can’t find him, not like this. They’ll come looking for me next.”

She hung up. Fuck that noise. No way she was helping Fat Dennis, not after what he’d done to her. She wasn’t getting back into that life. One look at that huge stash of heroin and she’d have a needle in her arm in no time. She knew her limitations, her own fragility. Avoid temptation. Better to block that shitbag’s number, call her mom, maybe go straight to a meeting.

She reached into her pocket for a tissue and the tutor’s number fluttered out. She didn’t call her mom, didn’t call her sponsor.

She called Fat Dennis.


Britt had forgotten that smell. The smell of unwashed bodies and dirty laundry, of piss and caked shit, of rot and vomit. And it was even worse with Rait’s dead body, bladder and bowels evacuated all of the sheetless mattress he died on. She thought she might throw up. That smell alone was enough to keep her from grabbing a needle and spoon. No way she was going back to this hell.

Fat Dennis was coming down hard. The whole left side of his chapped mouth was rotted out, he’d lost all the weight that earned him his nickname, hands now looking too big for his skinny arms, eyes permanently at half-mast. “Whadda we do?” he asked, leaving his mouth open even though he was done talking.

I don’t know,” she said. There was a more important question at hand. “Where did you assholes get this kind of weight?”

New guy, calls it ‘StormTrooper’ to cash in on that new Star Wars movie. Me and Rait were going to be kingpins.”

She wished he’d stop grinning. His teeth were freaking her out. She looked at the box filled with those little glassine bags. All stamped, all perfect, all ready to go. She didn’t see beautiful oblivion when she looked into that box. She saw an A plus, a framed diploma, her mom proud of how hard she had worked. No more 8 to 2 a.m. shifts at the bakery getting sex-looks from the gross janitors and the weirdo bagboys. She saw a future in the exact same place she once saw nothing.

She took out a handful of baggies. “We gotta test this shit,” she said. “Got a needle?”

He grinned, his mouth a black, ugly hole. “Guess what Rait doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right?”

Right,” she said. “C’mon, let’s go to the living room. We’ll watch The Wire, just like old times.”


Fat Dennis went out quick. Strong stuff, maybe laced with Fentinol. Good to know. Britt let him go first, second even. She said she’d watch him, get him on his side before she shot herself up. But she didn’t shoot up. Instead, she transferred all the baggies to an old Count Chocula box and stashed it in her backpack. No way she was letting him be her business partner. To hell with Fat Dennis. She’d woken up to him fucking her once, screamed for him to stop, but he didn’t. She thought about shooting him up a third time, but decided against it. She didn’t want to waste her stash, didn’t want him to die happy.

She found a pack of cigarettes and fired one up, watching it burn between her fingertips. She missed smoking almost as much as she missed heroin. No one shot smack in old movies, but dames in furs were always lighting up a cigarette, always looked beautiful doing so. She felt beautiful with a cigarette. But not today. This cigarette had more important places to be than between her lips.

She went into Rait’s room again and dropped the cigarette into a pile of porn mags beneath his fingertips. A Viking funeral. He’d have loved that. She felt like she should say a prayer, to remember the good times they had together. But she couldn’t think of anything. He’d always been a shitbag, and he’d died a shitbag too. Him and Fat Dennis.

Paper tits and glossy snatch went up fast. Britt put her t‑shirt up over her mouth and backed out of the room. It was a long walk back to the bus stop by the Dollar General; but halfway home, she heard sirens.


Her mom made spaghetti, but all Britt could think about was Count Chocula. She missed her NA meeting, lied about having homework, went to her room right after dinner.

When she got back from rehab, her present to herself was a bedroom makeover. Gone were the torn-out magazine ads, the mismatched sheets burned through with roach holes, the graffiti on the walls. Her and her mom painted the walls lavender and bought matching bedding, throw pillows, a faux-fur rug. She hung record covers and typography prints from Etsy. It was her sanctuary, her safe place.

Sitting on her bed, she stared at the box. She’d dealt before, just enough to cover her habit, but never anything like this. This was weight. There had to be 200 bags in there. How the hell did Rait get 200 bags? He could barely afford to keep his own habit fed; no dealer would trust him with this kind of weight. She remembered what Fat Dennis had said, about him tapping in. Had he stolen this, or had some new city kingpin come in, thinking he could muscle in as the cops cracked down. She rolled her eyes. Fucking newbies thinking they can sling weight, that a scale and a hook-up and a couple of needy junkies will make them Heisenberg. She didn’t recognize the Stormtrooper stamp, but that wasn’t a surprise.

She didn’t need to shoot up. She felt remarkably calm for having murdered Fat Dennis and burned down a building. Carefree, even. She was more worried about her math homework than the cops catching up with her. She could have left signed confession and they wouldn’t have cared enough to stop by the house.

Her mom knocked. Britt stashed the box under the bed just as her mom opened the door and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I just saw on the news that your old apartment burned down,” she said, rubbing her back. “They found two bodies. I think it was probably Rait. I’m sorry honey.”

Don’t be,” said Britt. “That guy was an asshole.”

Do you need to go to a meeting?” she offered. “I’m sure this must be stressful for you.”

I think I’m okay,” she said. “I mean, I’m a little sad because I hate to think that he was still living like that, but I guess I’m just relieved that it wasn’t me in there too.”

Her mom hugged her, rocking her back and forth. “Me too,” she said, tears choking her voice. “Me too, baby.”


The papers declared the fire accidental. The bodies were too charred for an autopsy. Rait had no family here, and Fat Dennis’ own dad was in prison. Britt could hardly believe her luck. Whoever had the heroin probably thought it was lost in the fire. All she had to do was re-tag it and sell it off as quickly as possible. In and out before temptation got hold.

Her favorite had always been one marked BARBIE GIRL. With its pink tag and 80s Barbie stamp, it always gave her a good high and was cheap enough to score but not so cheap that it was cut with baby laxatives to the point of barely giving her a nod.

She got on Craigslist under the “Casual Encounters” section. She put up four words with a fake email.



After her classes were done for the day. Britt caught the bus downtown. There were nicer craft stores near the mall, but she needed the right kind of craft store. The one that would have what she needed.

Benny’s had probably been a nice model and RC store back in the heyday, but as downtown went to shit, the owner realized that he could stay in business by selling more glue than airplanes. He kept a wide selection of aerosol paints too, and, when dealers started needing brand identification, he brought in the biggest selection of rubber stamps in town. It was a good living, and the cops could never catch him on anything. Still legal to sell stamp kits, after all.

She found a Barbie stamp and a pink stamp pad. She brought them up to the counter. “Barbie girl, huh?” the cashier said. “I heard of you.”

She didn’t like the look he was giving her, so she stared him down hard. “Spread the word. Limited engagement. They know where to look.”


Social media made dealing drugs easy. She made a short, stupid movie with a couple of her old Barbies and posted the Youtube link on Craigslist. She bought a burner phone. She posted the number. And within days, she had sold a third of the box. And the orders kept coming. She liked the feeling of selling almost as much as she’d ever liked getting high.

She counted up the money. This would buy her at least enough tutoring to get her through midterms. She felt higher than she ever had in her life as she dialed his number and set up an appointment. His name was Brian. They’d meet in the library that night, before she had to go to work.

Her burner phone buzzed with the text. Another order. She told him to meet her at the bakery at 1:30 that night. The store was always empty, and it gave her perfect cover if she smelled cop.


Brian was a skinny kid with big lips and flat hair and glasses. She thought he was cute. The way he explained the math made sense, the sound of his voice made her feel warm inside. She made a mental note to bring him some cookies at her next appointment and asked if they could meet Thursday. She had the cash—might as well spend it on something useful.

They worked for well over the hour that she’d paid him for. “You’re really smart,” he said. “I know this isn’t easy, but you seem like you actually want to get it. I’ve got a couple other clients who just spend our sessions texting. You haven’t even taken your phone out once.”

That warm feeling returned. No one had ever called her smart before. Her mom said she was “bright,” but they both knew she was never going to be a Rhodes Scholar. “This is important to me,” she said.

He closed his book and stood up, smiling. “Then I’ll see you Thursday. Looking forward to it.”


She was just pulling a batch of fresh chocolate chip cookies out of the oven when Vape walked in. She rolled her eyes. Of fucking course he’d be buying the trendiest shit on the market. If this was his first score she wouldn’t have been surprised. His eyes lit up when he saw her.

Jansport, right?” he said. “From Stat?”

We don’t know each other,” she said. “Now buy a cake or beat it.”

He leaned on the counter. “Do you have a… Barbie cake?” he asked.

What a fucking toolbox. “Look through the book,” she said. “But I can’t make anything custom unless my manager’s here.”

He leaned on the counter. “You know I don’t mean cake,” he said. “C’mon, I’ve been wanting to try this shit for months and I trust you not to give me a garbage hit. I’ll pay you $100. That’s double your asking price”

How do I know you’re not a cop?”

He laughed. “I guess you don’t,” he said. “But you met with Brian earlier, right? Math nerd? He’s my roommate. I’ll put in a good word for you. Maybe he’ll give you a discount on his services.”

She glanced around. The store was completely empty. “Put the money in the cake binder,” she said. “Take a walk and check back in five.”


There was a weird aura around campus. Silence. And a lot of cops. Britt’s first instinct was to run, but she knew how suspicious that would make her look. Besides, the cops all knew her. She’d been busted enough times where most of them knew her by her first name.

Officer Gretchen Malloy accidentally caught her eye and started towards her. Britt slowed her pace, trying to calm herself as she approached. “Hi Britt,” she said. “Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

Went to rehab,” she said. “Just got my six-month chip.” She always liked Malloy, as much as any junkie could like a cop. She would get you a cookie and some juice if you were detoxing hard, and she didn’t fuck with you, like most of the other cops did. Wouldn’t hesitate to throw your ass in jail if she had to make her monthly quota, but there were worse cops to get busted by. Britt knew. She’d been busted by all of them.

That’s great,” Malloy said. “Proud of you.”

Everything okay here?” Britt asked. “It’s not some guy with a gun, is it?”

Drug overdose,” she said. “Heroin. We’ve pulled in a bunch of them lately, but this is the first fatality. Won’t be the last, though. You still talk to anyone on the street?”

Not really,” she said. “I cut all ties when I went into rehab. Too easy to relapse that way.”

Good girl,” she said. “But if you do know any users, tell them not to buy Barbie Girl. Every OD we’ve found in the last three weeks has been with that shit. This guy, this was probably his first time using, didn’t know his limits. But this.…” She shook her head. “This is the worst we’ve ever seen.”

She spotted Brian talking with a cop. She caught his eye and he didn’t smile. Why were they talking to him? He had an alibi for most of the evening; he was with her. She wondered if she should say something and thought better of it for the moment.

She slid into her history class, but she could barely pay attention. She was worried about Brian, worried about the box sitting in her closet. Barbie Girl was bad for business. What was this stuff laced with? Fentanyl? She had to dump it. Couldn’t risk the cops tracing it back to her.

Her burner phone buzzed. She ignored it. It kept buzzing. She turned it off. But when she got out of class, she had five messages. Four of them wanted to buy Barbie Girl.

One of them wanted it back.


She locked herself in the gender-neutral bathroom as she listened to the message over and over, trying to figure out if she knew the voice. “I know you have my stash,” he said. “I don’t know who you are, but I am going to cut through every junkie in this city until I find it. You owe me big, bitch. Nobody steals my shit.” Then an ominous minute of silence, then the hang-up.

What the hell was she going to do? Selling was now out of the question—too much chance the junkies would ID her to whoever this guy was. She could dump it, sure, but then she’d be right back where she started, broke and without Brian’s help. But Brian was dealing with a dead roommate, he probably wouldn’t be keeping appointments this week. She wanted to call him, go to him, hug him. She imagined he was pretty freaked out.


After two days, she called back the dealer. “I have your heroin,” she said. “You can have it back, brand and all. You just have to pay me for what’s left.”

Fuck you,” he said. “You stole that shit from me.”

I got it from Raitt,” she replied. “He didn’t tell me it was yours.”

What, you think that junkie scumbag had enough cash on hand to buy that kind of party? And anyway, Raitt’s dead.”

Yeah he’s dead,” she said. “And Fat Dennis too. House burned down. Who do you think set that fire five feet from his dead body?”

The line went silent for a minute. She let him stew before she started up again. “So as I see it, you have two choices—pay up, or I flush the whole load down the toilet. I don’t need this shit. You do. I haven’t fucked with the purity, and you know people are clamoring for a kick.”

How much is left?”

Five grand worth.”

You’ve got to be shitting me.”

She was. But she couldn’t back down, not now. She flushed the toilet. “There goes one pack,” she said. “You want to keep fucking with me?”

More silence. “Benny’s.” He said. “One hour.”

Make it two,” she said. “I’ve got a previous engagement.”


Brian wasn’t any less fidgety than she was as they tried to work through their math lesson. The deal was weighing hard on her mind, but she wasn’t about to cancel her tutoring. Midterms were coming up and she hadn’t seen him in almost a week. If she was going to give up her livelihood, she’d better at least have good grades to fall back on.

How are you holding up?” she asked when it became apparent that they weren’t getting a single problem done.

He sighed and closed the book. “All right,” she said. “I’m the one who found him, so that still has me a little creeped out, but it’s not like I knew him that well. We were roommates, but we weren’t friends.”

Yeah, I know that feeling,” she said. “I had some friends overdose a little while ago.” She wasn’t ready to tell him, not yet. Get clear of Barbie Girl, get her year sobriety chip, then she could share. But this was too early. She wasn’t ready to admit that she was more of monster than she’d ever thought she could be. Murder, arson, dealing, all for a few hours a week with a skinny math nerd. But it was worth it. She’d do it all again if she had to.


Kingpins are always intimidating. A junkie can look twitchy and violent, but a kingpin who knows what he’s doing is a hundred times more terrifying. A good kingpin knows when to be cool and when to be your best friend. She suspected this guy, calling himself Sharp, never warmed up.

She put the backpack on Benny’s counter. She set the stamp and pad down between them. She even handed over her phone. “Every number in there is a client,” she said. “They’re all yours. For five grand.”

You don’t think I have my own clients?” he said.

If you did, you wouldn’t have needed Raitt and Fat Dennis,” she said. “I don’t mind that you’re new in town, but don’t you come in here with your rubber muscles and flex. You’re getting a good deal. Take it and move on.”

He eyed her in a way that made her feel like he was stripping the flesh from her bones. But he slowly pulled out a stack of bills and set them on the counter. Benny watched with flickering eyes. “You walk out first,” she said, pushing the backpack closer. “Good luck around town.”


She took the bus to Burger King and waited an hour, eating fries and drinking a shake until she was sure she wasn’t being followed. She took three buses to the mall and bought another burner phone. Officer Malloy was her first call. “I got some word on your heroin,” she said. “One of my old buddies tipped me off. The guy’s calling himself Sharp, says he just got a shipment of Barbie Girl, although he may change the name with all the bad press.”

Britt, thank you,” Malloy said. “I’ll pass this up the chain and keep your name out of it. You be good, okay?”

Can do,” she said. She looked at the clock on her phone. She had ten minutes to get to the registrar before they closed. She picked up the pace and got in with five minutes to spare. “I’m ready to declare my major,” she said. “I want to major in business.”

Posted in Fiction | Comments Off on Barbie Girl

Play Dead

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It had been years since I’d seen Cal; probably not since he married Miranda two years ago. I gave a toast at the wedding and we danced, but after that, life got busy and now it was the occasional text or email, a card at Christmas. Probably for the best. Cal and I were fire and gasoline, like putting a bottle of whiskey in front of a drunk. We were never a good idea.

But here he was, standing in my doorway with a leather weekend bag and no smile. “Everything all right?” I asked. “Are things okay with you and Miranda?”

Things are fine,” he said, coming inside “It’s Rex I’m worried about.”


Back in college, Rex, Cal and I were inseparable. I missed those nights; late-night diner runs and movie marathons, lazy afternoons on the couch with a bottle of wine where nothing was said because nothing needed to be said. Rex would smoke, me and Cal would swap stares blurred with aching desire. But college was a long way gone. Cal was a middle-school math teacher and although Rex was my date to Cal’s wedding, I’d lost track of him since, except for the occasional Facebook rant about the Boston Red Sox or the GOP or whatever hyperbole-laden tantrum was on his mind. Still, it was more interesting than reading the results of the “What Condiment Are You” quizzes other college friends posted.

He wants to see us,” said Cal, accepting the beer I offered him. “Tomorrow. Said it was important.”

So let’s go see him,” I said, sitting in the chair across from Cal. I didn’t want to get to close. There were boundaries now, invisible walls between us, and I wasn’t ready to even attempt to scale one. He might cut my rope, and I wasn’t in the mood for rejection. Not when Dashiell was no longer returning my calls.

Cal took a drink and set the bottle on the table and clasped his hands between his knees. “He deleted his Facebook page,” he said. “The message arrived in an email I never check anymore. He sent it weeks ago, but I just got it. I tried to call him, but the line was disconnected. He said if we didn’t show tonight, the next time we saw him would be on TV, and I don’t think he’s a contestant on The Price is Right.”

I pulled up my phone and logged into my own old email. Sure enough, there was the same ominous message. “Shit,” I muttered. “You don’t think.…”

Cal nodded. “He’s planning something and it’s not a surprise party. Whatever it is, we might be able to talk him out of it.”

Shouldn’t we just call the police?” I asked. “Send them over for a wellness check?”

Cal took another drink. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Not until we know what’s going on. Besides.” He stared at me with a firm smile in the corner of his lips. “Despite the fact that he’s an idiot, Rex is our friend. He needs us.”


After college, Cal moved to Richmond, Virginia and I went back to Upstate New York, but Rex stayed in our college town, working for a local newspaper. He was quite successful for awhile; working his way up from obituaries to the editor of the metro section. But print is dead, and he lost his job. He got by on freelance gigs, but even those, according to his rants, were drying up.

It was a four hour drive and we took Cal’s car. “What did you tell Miranda?” I asked.

Told her it was a my old roommate’s bachelor party,” he said. “Not a full lie. It is Rex’s ‘Last night as a free man’, as he put it.”

A classic Cal half-truth,” I mused.

You should know,” he said. “You were the subject and the recipient of many.”

I had no one but my boss to lie to about my whereabouts. “What happened to that theater director?” asked Cal. “You liked him.”

Dashiell? His wife got wise.” Dashiell had been charming, with a needle-sharp smile and the wild wantonness men get when they marry boring women, but I knew it wasn’t going to last. They never do. That’s why I sought them out.

You always did have a type,” Cal said.

You fit that category now too,” I replied.

I suppose so,” he said, putting his hand on my knee. “But I’d hate to think of myself as just another one of your affairs. We have something special, you and I. We always have.”

There was a charge between us, an electricity amplified by red wine and late nights and young angst. We’d try to resist it, made pacts and promises that it was always the last time, but we always wound up back in bed, limbs tangled, mouths wet with wanting. Even six years apart couldn’t dull that hunger.

At the halfway point we stopped to gas up. I went in for coffee and when I got back in the car Cal grabbed my jacket collar and pulled me in to kiss me. His mouth tasted exactly as I remembered it. “God I’ve missed you,” he whispered.

I didn’t want to quit kissing him long enough to speak. “I’ve missed you too,” I said against his mouth.

I sat back in my seat. He gunned the engine and we pulled down the first dirt road we saw. I straddled him in the front seat, not even wanting to waste time getting into the back. We had years to make up for, a hundred night to live again. It felt like the end of the world. For all we knew, it could have been.


I don’t think Rex had cleaned since the last time we were here. Piles of books, an overflowing ashtray, empty cans of energy drinks crushed under the couch. Even the light filtering through the half-busted blinds looked dirty. Everything had the sour air of decay, as though we’d stepped into an alternate universe, a decrepit flipside of the life we all once shared. Were we looking at a cautionary tale, a reminder that what we had was all borne out of good fortune.

But despite the mess, his apartment still had that same perfect scent; Axe body spray and old tobacco and Diet Coke and mint gum, notes layered and blended to smell like happiness. The sting brought tears to my eyes. Nostalgia was a killer.

Rex looked the same except for the weight gain. Where Cal had sculpted himself and I had traded punk for some semblance of sophistication, Rex had frozen himself in a time when life had promise. His dark puff of hair, his agate eyes, that pretty snarl of a mouth. Only his teeth aged, yellow from a decade of heavy smoking.

But he was happy to see us, his face lighting up as he opened the door. “Just like old times,” he said, hugging us both. “It’s good to see you again. Come in. You want something to drink? I stocked up.”

A beer would be great,” said Cal.

Molly? You want a beer?” he offered.

I’ll take a bottle of water, if you have it.” No way I was drinking anything that came out of that tap. I didn’t trust the cleanliness of his dishes or that the pipes of his ancient apartment building were anything but lead and asbestos.

Only what comes out of the tap,” he said. “I’ve got a couple sodas. I remembered that you liked Jones Cream Soda.”

I had given up drinking soda after college, but I was touched he had recalled such an insignificant detail. “Sure,” I said. “One for old time’s sake.”

Cal took a sip of his beer and leaned against one of the few clean spots on the counter. “Let me just tell Miranda I got here safely,” he said, pulling out his phone. He massaged the screen, but didn’t look happy. “Jesus, Rex, are you living in the Forbidden Zone? No reception.”

Oh, I should have mentioned that. I set up a signal blocker. Your cell phones won’t work.” A slow smile spread across his face. “I wanted us to have a night all to ourselves. Just like back in college.”

Are you holding us hostage?” I joked.

You could say that,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot to talk about and not a lot of time. Wouldn’t want you getting distracted. So get comfortable. I ordered us some Chinese food, should be here any minute.”


The food arrived, but I wasn’t hungry enough to eat it. Cal and I sat on the couch, Rex facing us from a busted easy chair. I wanted to hold Cal’s hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach for it. Rex didn’t know about our extra-curriculars; I suspected he had harbored a crush on me and finding out that I had been banging Cal on the side the whole time might piss him off. There was a black bag in the corner by the door that kept drawing my eye, as though I could use X‑ray vision to see what was inside. We made small talk like diffusing a bomb.

Rex dug into his food. “Last supper,” he joked. “Come on, aren’t you hungry? Eat up, there’s plenty.”

Cal and I both made plates. “You write anything lately?” I asked. “Last time we chatted, you were working on a novel.”

He grinned like that was the question he was waiting for. “Funny you should ask,” he said. He set down his plate and retrieved his laptop, opening it and setting it on the coffee table before us.

We both leaned forward and read. I remembered Rex’s prose being unwieldy, with the loft and heft of every twenty-something Foster-Wallace wannabe, but these sentences were clear and sharp. And there were a lot of them. I looked at the black bag again. I knew what was inside.

Rex,” Cal said, looking up. “This is a manifesto.”


Rex lit a cigarette and blew smoke past the chapped corner of his mouth. “I’ve watched it all burn,” he said. “All the promises we were given, the lies we were entitled to. All of it. We were promised jobs, happy lives, all if we just followed our dreams. That’s bullshit. All of us, a whole generation, just scraping by while some Startup asshole drives by in a Porsche because he’s got daddy’s money to spend on it.”

So how does killing a bunch of people solve that?” I asked.

It sends a message,” he said. “I should not have been able to stockpile an arsenal. I shouldn’t have the ability to walk onto campus and start shooting. The Republicans and those Tea Party nazis will have to defend me. They’ll talk about mental health, but the docs will give me a clean bill of health. It’s a statement against the establishment.”

Cal rolled his eyes, his mouth taking on a nasty curl. “That is the dumbest fucking thing I have ever heard,” he said. “This isn’t Fight Club, you are not Tyler Durden.”

If you want to make a statement, why not attack a Tea Party fundraiser?” I said. “These are just students going about their day. They aren’t harming you.”

Rex seemed to be reveling in this. He always loved an argument; would waste hours on message boards explaining why his baseball team was better than yours before ending with and your mother should have aborted you. Cal and I learned long ago how to tune him out, but it was a skill we were rusty on. We never thought it would have life or death consequences.

But something else landed, some piece of information I’d stored in the back of my mind like bar trivia. “Isn’t that where Kelly teaches?” I asked.

His eyes got dark and mean. “Yes,” he said. “9:30 Physics class, Lecture Hall J.”

This much Cal understood. “Rex,” he said. “Let her go. This isn’t worth doing over a girl.”

It’s not about Kelly,” Rex said, although I was pretty sure Cal didn’t believe him either.


It was crawling on towards midnight. I excused myself to the bathroom and checked my phone, hoping that maybe I could get a signal out his skylight. No such luck.

I allowed myself a few minutes to panic. I tried not to throw up, tried to calm my heart rate, tried to figure out how the hell we were going to stop this. If we tried to walk out, would he shoot us too?

I leaned my head against the hollow door, listening to him and Cal. “I saw her a few weeks ago,” Rex was saying. “Getting into some jackoff’s sports car. I wasn’t good enough for her. Gold-digging bitch.”

You don’t know that,” said Cal.

Yeah, I do,” he insisted. “That’s what she said when she left. I had no ambition. I spent more time playing video games than with her. Girls just don’t get it.”

Rex,” Cal said sourly. “You’re a grown-ass man. Enough with the video games. You don’t get to act like a dickweed and then blame her for not putting up with your shit.”

Ambition!” Rex said. “She equated ambition with money, and I didn’t have enough money for her. But now I have a goal. Now I have a plan.”


The first question anyone ever asks domestic violence victims is why didn’t you leave. It’s a stupid question, but sitting there in Rex’s living room, I suddenly understood what that terror felt like. I couldn’t go. He needed me. He might try to kill me. No one in the world got him the way Cal and I did, and we might be able to talk him out of this.

We talked in circles for an hour. Cal brought more beers to the table, but soon he was the only one drinking them. When Rex went to the bathroom, I checked the cabinets for something to slip in his drink. Nothing that wouldn’t kill him. Cal checked the bag. Guns. Lots of guns.


Don’t worry, I’ll spare you,” Rex said. “I’ll need someone to talk to the cameras after I’m done.”

How fucking generous of you,” Cal spat.

I won’t say a goddamn word,” I added. “I’m not going to help spread your bullshit.”

Rex held up a USB drive shaped like a chibi Darth Vader. “That’s a shame. I was going to exchange your testimony for what’s on here, but if you’d rather the cops take it off me…”

What’s on the drive, Rex?” Cal demanded.

Memorabilia,” he said. “Photos, good times, plus some boring medical records.…”

Medical records?” I asked. “What kind of—” Then it hit me like a kick to the throat. “Rex, you asshole. How did you…?”

My dad’s a doctor,” he said. “I pretended to be him, got these sent right over.”

So everyone knows we had mono, who cares?” said Cal. “How does that advance your case?”

Not mono,” Rex said, swinging the USB drive by the keyring. “You don’t go to the women’s clinic on Southside for mono. February 2006, Cal. Do the math.”

It took him a minute. It was late, after all, and then he turned to look at me, slack-jawed. “You were…”

I didn’t want him to say it, as though that would make it true. For all these years I’d compartmentalized and rationalized so that I didn’t have to face the lies I’d told him. “Yes,” I whispered. “Eleven weeks.”

Cal sank back in his chair like someone had stuck a knife between his ribs. I waited with my guts in my throat and Rex smiled like he’d just finished banging a roomful of supermodels. “I’m sorry,” I said, reaching for his hand, limp and cold like a wet dishrag.

His fingers curled into mine and he wrapped his other arm around my shoulders, pulling me in close. “Don’t be,” he said. “You made the right call. I’m just sorry I didn’t know to go with you. It must have been scary going all alone.”

I glared art Rex. “I wasn’t alone,” I said. “I had an escort.”

Isn’t this great!” Rex said, clapping his hands together. “Honesty! This is what we’re all lacking. Why couldn’t you have had this conversation nine years ago? We’re all better for it.”

Says the guy who’s blackmailing us before he commits mass murder,” I said.

He shrugged. “At least I’m being honest.”

You son of a bitch,” Cal spat. “You don’t get to make these decisions for us.”

I did you a favor, going with her,” Rex said. “What would you have told Miranda? She wouldn’t have married you, that’s for sure. Not in that big Catholic church of hers. And Molly, if this gets out, everyone will wonder if I was the father. You’ll get to explain that to Fox News when they’re banging down your door, asking what you knew about me. They’ll crucify you. Of course, this is after they tear apart your lives trying to figure out of you had anything to do with this brutal massacre.” He held up the USB drive again. “And there’s plenty more on here. Police reports, for example. But it can all go in the river if you two will just play along.”

Police reports,” I scoffed. “You’re the only one who’s going to have one of those.” But Cal was pale next to me.

Police reports,” Rex began. “Are public information. A few bucks for photocopies, a FOIL request—God Bless America—and I have the rape claim that Nancy Leonard filed against you.”

Nancy,” Cal through said clenched teeth. “You know that’s bullshit. The cops cleared me. She dropped the charges.”

I know it’s bullshit, but does Miranda? Or will she wonder, every time you get a little rough, if you’re thinking about sweet little Nancy, passed out underneath you from all those Long Island Ice Teas you poured into her. Is that a strain your perfect marriage can handle, Cal?”

Ha,” I said, puffing up my bravado. “Nancy was a penis fly-trap. She’d dump a couple drinks down her throat and spread her legs for anyone. Hardly a credible witness—and anyways, Cal was with me that night. I told the cops that when they asked me.”

Nice try,” said Rex. “But you and I both know you were at the movies with me. What did we see again? The 300? You know I saved all my ticket stubs, it wasn’t difficult to go back and find one for that night. So what’ll it be? Does this go to the cops or into the river?”

I looked at Cal. He looked at me. I held out my hand. “We’ll talk,” I said. “And we’ll tell them what an asshole you were.”

He handed me the USB drive. “That’s fine,” he said. “I just want them all to know I wasn’t a desperate loner. That I had friends, real friends, right up to the end.”


It was 2 a.m. My eyes were getting heavy, but I knew I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again. I leaned my head against Cal’s shoulder and he put his arm around me.

I got you each something,” he said, getting up and rifling through a shopping bag. “To remember the good times by.”

Good times?” I snorted. “Like the time you held us hostage before launching a full-scale attack on a campus full of innocent people?”

He smiled at me in a way I hadn’t seen since college—lonesome and wistful and genuine. “The good times,” he repeated. “Before the world got ugly.”

He handed me a record. The Garden State soundtrack, special edition. And despite myself, I actually smiled. “Our first time hanging out,” I said. “After the movie, you bought the soundtrack at Coconuts and we played it in the car on our way home.” I was touched and confused. How could it be that someone once so sweet, so generous be so ready to commit an act driven solely by bitterness? What had the world done to him to destroy the funny, charming Rex I once knew?

To Cal, he gave the deluxe edition of Cards Against Humanity. I rolled my eyes, but Cal seemed genuinely touched. “Thanks man,” he said.

Sorry we can’t play together,” he said. “I bet you’d be pretty badass at the table.”

Cal cracked open the box. “We’ve got a few hours,” he said. “Let’s play.”

So we played. And for a moment, everything felt like old times. Maybe this was just what Rex needed, some friends to remind him that life was pretty great in these quiet, simple moments. We had neglected him as our lives got busy, but we were all together again, playing cards and laughing as though no time had passed at all. I felt an old familiar happiness creep up inside me. I smiled at Rex. “I’ve missed you,” I said. “I’ve missed this,”

Me too,” he said, laying down his card. “I’ll think about this night for the rest of my life. Maybe you can come visit me in prison.”


Dawn began filtering in dirty through the broken blinds, lighting the room like a 70s home movie. “I’ll make some coffee,” I volunteered.

None for me, thanks,” said Rex. “I’m pretty amped as it is. Don’t need jittery hands. Someone could get hurt.” He grinned.

I measured enough for a full pot anyways. Each scoop weighed a hundred pounds in my hand. This single act, repetitive, almost automatic, became deliberate and precious. I would make coffee every day for the rest of my life, using these same motions as I had since I graduated college, but the process would carry with it the weight of today. I would probably never enjoy a cup of coffee again.

Cal glanced at me with only the slightest movement of his eyes. The black bag by the door, then to Rex, who was making one final post to whatever trolls den he frequented. We had always joked about our ability to communicate without words; even Miranda had remarked about our seeming ability to read each other’s minds.

Rex finished his post and shut his laptop. “I’m going to grab a shower,” he said. “Want to look clean when those cameras catch my smiling face. You two can wash up after I leave. You’ll have about an hour before things get fun.”

When I heard the shower turn on I got up and retrieved a pistol from the bag. It was loaded. “I’ll do it, if you want,” Cal murmured.

I ignored him. I crept up the hallway, my heart pounding in my chest. I swore Rex could hear it over the running water. For all I knew, he had a gun in there with him, but that was a risk I was going to have to take.

I threw open the door. Rex slid back the shower curtain and said part of my name before I fired two rounds into his chest. His eyes went wide as he slammed against the wall, the water running blood in thin streams down his chest. His lips kept forming words, but his throat didn’t cooperate.

I hated seeing him suffer. Always had. Poor lug never stood a chance, never developed the tactics to survive and thrive in this world, just inflated his ego higher and higher like a life raft. But I wasn’t about to let him take other people out with him. There were tears in my eyes. I turned and left the room, passing the gun to Cal. “Finish the job,” I said. “Make it quick.”

Cal took the pistol and retrieved a stack of paper from the printer. He took the USB drive off the coffee table. I heard the second shot, to the head, I presume. The misery shot, like a rabid dog. The water turned off and then there was the flutter of papers.

Cal came back, wiping the fingerprints off the gun with a dirty towel. “What was that?” I asked. “The papers?”

His manifesto,” he said. “Figured the cops deserved to see what we stopped him from doing.” He looked out the window down into the parking lot. “The coast looks clear,” he said. “Let’s go before someone sees us.”


We drove halfway home before we stopped at a motel. Cal paid for the room in cash. But we didn’t fuck. We didn’t even get undressed to shower. We lay on the bed, curled into each other, not saying a word.

I thought about the night before graduation. We’d come from one last night at Rex’s and lay just like this, streetlights filtering through the cheap curtains of my basement apartment. I struggled against sleep because I knew it would be the last time we would hold each other like that. And now, at 10 a.m., I did the same thing. This secret would bind us more than a marriage would, but it would be an unspoken union, one that might come with the price of never seeing each other again. We would slowly fall back into our old lives, burying this deeper and deeper until it seemed like an old nightmare.

We slept for three hours. I was home by dinner. I said my goodbyes to Cal, knowing they were probably permanent. He said his goodbyes in a way that I knew he understood. Fire and gasoline. A bad cocktail.

I wondered if anyone had found Rex’s body yet. Who was there to realize he was gone? Was there a neighbor to call the cops at the sound of gunshots, or would someone investigate only when the stench of his rotting body got too much to bear? I hated the thought of him being alone even one more hour.

I found the number for the police in Rex’s neighborhood. I called and gave his address, said I needed a welfare check and hung up.

On my desk was a picture of Rex and Cal and I on graduation day. We’ve got our arms around each other’s waists and we’re smiling because we’ve our whole lives ahead of us, because we believe that we’re going to be friends just like this through every minute of it. That was the promise we had broken. That was the biggest lie we had told.

Posted in Fiction | Comments Off on Play Dead


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Birthdays get harder as you get older. Not the birthday itself; I hate when people complain about their birthday, like it’s such a drag to celebrate living another damn year, but trying to buy a birthday present for a grown man? You might as well be trying to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Just get me a nice bottle of scotch,” Miles insisted as I brooded at my desk. “It’s really not that big of a deal.”

Your girlfriend can get you a bottle of scotch,” I said. “I’ve known you for fifteen years, it has to be more personal than that.”

Stella, I have everything I need,” he said. “I’ve got a nice watch, a tablet and a smartphone, a leather weekend bag, cologne and aftershave, a wallet that isn’t made out of duct tape and more cufflinks than I have shirts to wear them with.”

Maybe I’ll buy you some dress shirts,” I said sourly. “Fix that problem.”

His phone began to ring. “You’re impossible,” he muttered as he picked up the call.

He turned away and hunched over after he said “Hello.” That couldn’t be good. I heard him say his brother’s name. That was even worse. I pretended to look through some files while he talked. He caught onto my ruse pretty quickly and went into the hallway. I waited for him to return with a knot like a fist in my gut.

That was Glen,” he said when he came back in about ten minutes later. “My mom OD’d. She’s okay, he got the Narcan shot into her, but she’s in the hospital.”

Miles, I’m sorry,” I said. “You want to go see her? I can drive if you don’t think you’re up for it.”

He shook his head, probably hoping I wouldn’t notice the tears in his eyes. “No time,” he said. “This means I’ve got to go over her insurance paperwork, call around, see if I can’t get her into rehab. The pills had a script, of course, so she can’t even detox in jail. That’s what the Good Doc does. That’s how he gets away with it.”


Here’s the thing about revenge. Revenge, like buttercream and sesame noodles, is best served cold. And by cold, I mean left-in-the-back-of-the-freezer chilled. Too soon and the cops trace back a motive right back to your door. No, you have to let it rest until it looks like bad luck. Wait it out, keep your cool and then call in someone like me and Miles.

We shared a cheap brick storefront on Court Street with a guy who made his rent sticking test-strips into cups of urine and testing kids’ hairbrushes to prove which lowlife was the daddy. I liked Rob well enough when I saw him out in the hallway even if I found what he did pretty sleazy. If he knew our business, he probably would have thought the same thing.

We’d set up shop about a year ago under the vague-enough title of “consulting services” and let word get around. This city’s got a good underground and vengeance thrives between the haves and the have-nots. But we kept things quiet, kept things clean, take clients by referral only. No hits taken out on cheating spouses, no company embezzlement because some middle-manager didn’t feel like he was getting his fair share. If a case didn’t feel right, we didn’t take it on, even if that meant missing out on a good-sized payday.

Miles left early and without saying much else. I closed up at the usual time and chewed my lip the whole way home. I was worried about him, about his mom, about whether this stress would make poor Glen hit the pipe again. And with all this weighing on him, that made a happy birthday that much more crucial. Miles wouldn’t want a fuss made, sure, but he needed something to look forward to, some bright spot in the darkness that kept yanking him back to Novak and the life he’d walked away from a decade ago.

I had a headache coming on, so when I got inside my apartment I went straight for the kitchen cabinet and pulled down an oversized bottle of generic aspirin. I kicked the two tablets back with a swig of seltzer water straight from the bottle. Such was the glamorous life of the single broad.

I probably had a thousand pills in various sized containers stashed throughout my life—my car, the office, my purse, every room in the house—like some sort of aspirin junkie. I get bad headaches. Really bad. Like the kind where you give serious thought to cutting off your own head because it’s the only thing you know for certain will stop the pain.

I looked at the bottle on the counter. I suddenly knew what to get Miles.


Hector was a friend of Miles’ going back to his childhood. His dad was a pediatrician, so he took care of Miles’ and his brother Glen whenever they got earaches or strep throat. Miles’ own dad was a half-absent gambler and his mom was a pill-popping suburbanite, so when the doc was called in, it was usually so she could get her fix. Hector, like his dad, had gone into medicine and ran a high-end practice on the nice part of Riverside Drive, where he kept Pinterest-moms jacked up on legal speed and made sure the husbands had plenty of little blues for when they picked up their mistresses from community college play practice.

To atone for his own sins, Hector quietly got his Suboxone license and offered the taper under a separate clinic name. He couldn’t well have a jonesing junkie throwing up on the carpet next to Mrs. Jones while she flipped through a Martha Stewart Living.

He wrote me the prescriptions I asked for. He didn’t even ask questions. He knew that if I was asking, I needed it bad. I took the slip first to the closest drugstore, agreed to the 24 hour waiting period, then took a second script to the pharmacy across town. Miles had long-ago perfected the art of the forgery, so the IDs I presented looked so real that they barely warranted a first glance, let alone a second. I made one more drugstore stop, then, just for fun, I stopped by the craft store and bought some little bead bags, a stamp that read “Relax” and a rainbow pad of ink.

Back at the office, I was surprised to see Miles. I’d taken the morning off with the confidence that he wouldn’t be in. “How’s your mom?” I asked.

She’s a mess,” he said, throwing down a pen into a stack of paperwork piled on his desk. “Her finances are a mess, her insurance is a mess, the whole thing is one giant mess. I’m sick of even thinking about it.”

So I changed the subject. “You got plans for the big day tomorrow?”

Kik’s making dinner,” he said. “I didn’t tell her about my mom; it’s better that she doesn’t know this stuff. You’re welcome to come.”

Your secret’s safe with me,” I said. “Sure, I’ll come by. Kik’s a good cook. What’s she making?”

I told her I wanted a nice malbec and a porterhouse that would choke a prizefighter, but I have a feeling it’ll be something slightly less than that,” he said. “Last time I sent her to get steaks, she came back with eggplant to grill. Said it was just as good as meat and so much healthier. I almost broke up with her right there.”

And if you had, I would have taken you out for break-up steaks,” I said. “You want me to bring anything?”

He grinned. “Tell you what,” he said. “You get the porterhouse and the wine, and you and I will make a real birthday dinner at your place some other time. Solves your problem of what to get me, and solves my problem of not getting what I want.”

Sounds perfect,” I said. But that stupid grin of his wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all me.


I spent the night on arts and crafts and called in sick with a headache, adding that I wouldn’t be able to make it to dinner. The drive to our old hometown was one long stretch of Route 17, so I listened to a book on tape and tried to keep to the speed limit. Couldn’t risk the cops pulling me over with the cargo I had in my trunk. I had to make it to Novak quickly, quietly and without being detected.

Neither Miles or I went home very often. After the accident, where a set of bleachers collapsed during halftime and crushed the four burnouts toking up underneath, we didn’t feel safe. We had been careful, leaving no fingerprints as we loosened the screws, spending the Homecoming Game at the movies and feigning shock when we heard the news. The school put their names on a plaque when they rebuilt the bleachers. We wouldn’t let Mallory pay us even though she offered. We were happy to help. No one should have to endure what she went through under those same bleachers.

I found the Good Doc’s car easily enough, a shiny black SVU parked so close to the front door he was already practically inside. Nice ride for a humble, small-town doctor. Everyone knew that he doled the good stuff out easy, but whenever anyone got picked up, it always got blamed on the poor junkie with the pills in his pocket. He’d wring his hands for the cops and say that his signature must have been forged, his prescription pad stolen, another case of doctor-shopping that addicts were known to do.

The high ride of the SUV gave me plenty of room to wiggle underneath. I’d never had the chance to cut anybody’s brakes, but one afternoon me and Miles got bored and we jacked up each other’s cars and took a peek, just so that we’d know what to do if such a call came in.

When I was sure the coast was clear, I wriggled underneath and taped the package just below the back bumper. I hung around, out of sight, and made a few more calls on a burner phone I had purchased just for the occasion. Once more to Hector, and one to the cops.


Miles was all smiles when he came into work the next day. “Guess you got your porterhouse after all,” I said.

A couple of slightly-overcooked rib-eyes, but it was sweet that she tried,” he said, perching on the edge of his desk. “Funny story, though. Last night I got a call from my mom. Thought it was just to check in, wish me happy birthday, follow up on the insurance, apologize for worrying me or maybe make some excuses. You know how she is.” He was grinning now. “But it seems someone picked up the Good Doc at with 30 bagged and tagged Oxy taped under his car. Hauled him away from his kid’s tennis game, busted him for child endangerment on top of intent to distribute. Looking at 30 in state.”

Wow,” I said. “How’s your mom holding up?”

That’s the best part,” he said. “The rehab Glen and I have been trying to get her into, the one that did such good work for him a few years back? Well, they had a spot open up just last night. Convenient, huh?”

Guess someone must have heard your birthday wish,” I said.

Guess so,” he said, sliding off the desk. He passed behind my chair and kissed my head. “Thank you.”

No need to thank me,” I said. “It’s what we do.”

Posted in Fiction | Comments Off on Narc

Final Editorial

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Welcome to the latest and indeed, the last issue of The Big Click. We’ve brought you many excellent stories and provocative essays over the past few years, but truth be told things have not been the same for us since the passing of Tom Piccirilli last year. He was more than our occasional columnist, or even our friend—he was our inspiration for exploring the world of contemporary crime and noir fiction in the first place. Without him, the magazine became more of a burden than a joy.

Also, there are technical and economic issues. allows us to sell individual issues of the magazine, but no longer allows readers to subscribe via their Kindles. Weightless Books did yeoman’s work in bridging the gap, but there’s a big difference between selling subscriptions via a great website and selling them via the hegemonic retail space of our time. So The Big Click never really clicked (yeah yeah, sue us) with an audience of the size we need to be profitable.

The good news is that we succeeded in our goal of finding new voices in crime fiction, and to celebrate, this issue is the Libby Cudmore special! We have three stories by her in this issue, and a Q/A, and we can only beg you—well, we can possibly try threats—to check out her first novel The Big Rewind. We also have a new story by Click favorite Marc Fitch, a writer whose fiction we published more often than anyone else over the past few years.

All is not lost. Though the Click is clicked, two of our editorial team are launching a new project—Molly Tanzer will edit and Jeremy Tolbert will publish Congress, an online magazine of thoughtful erotica, which launches in June 2016.

And The Big Click? We’ve always been open to guest editors, with themes ranging from professional wrestling to comic book noir, so of course we’re open to new ownership. Want to buy an acclaimed, slightly used, magazine? Make us an offer we can’t refuse.

Capsule Reviews

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The Poison Artist, Jonathan Moore
ISBN 978–0‑544–52056‑1, 288pp, $24.00
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
January 2016

The Poison Artist is an only occasionally compelling composite of two of the most compelling forms of crime novel: the police procedural and the noir. We have the femme fatale and the chemistry lab full of mass spectrometers and supercomputers, tons of alcohol and a mysterious computer virus, some spiffy infodumps about how the human body processes pain and a painfully awkward sex scene that ends with the phrase “and then, finally, she burst into flames beneath him.”
Protagonist Caleb Maddox has a dark past, but not one that kept him out of Stanford. He’s a leading toxicologist and a friend to a police coroner who is dealing with a mysterious rash of bodies being fished out of San Francisco Bay. Caleb himself is obsessed with finding a striking young woman who once poured him an absinthe in a fancy bar. The narrative universe of the novel is so small that of course these two plots collide, pushing the novel into a third subgenre: psycho-thriller, but the results are more in line with the parodic script-within-a-script of The Orchid Thief than anything truly thrilling. But, for all our griping, The Poison Artist has break-out best-seller and movie deal written all over it. Just try to act surprised when your friend who doesn’t read all that much spills the beans about the twist ending. —NM

JEWISH NOIR, ed. Kenneth Wishnia
ISBN 978–1629631110, 448 pages, $17.95
PM Press
November 2015

There’s been a glut of Jewish-themed books lately, especially in YA, ones that seem to wear Jewish-ness as a trapping, as much an accessory as the novel having the love interest be a vampire, neither conscious of nor caring for the very real and living culture and traditions. So when I saw Jewish Noir,my first thought was all right, what the hell have I got to complain about now?

As it turns out, nothing. It’s a solid collection from a wide range of writers, most more-or-less writing from a uniquely Jewish perspective. Crime? Yeah, there’s a lot of crime, a lot of hard time and short luck all thematically enmeshed into Jewish roots. The particular focus of the collection, which despite my initial skepticism, I enjoyed, never felt unnecessary, but provided a commonality between the wildly different voices that flowed well throughout. Like most anthologies, a couple of the stories towards the middle felt like filler, but several — perhaps most notably in the first story in the collection, R.S. Brenner’s “Devil for a Witch”— ended on neatly executed little screwturn gut-punches, which is the kind of feeling I look for in a noir. Like the editor says, if you’re looking for the hardboiled, the rootless, the persecuted and the cornered, you don’t have to look much further than the Jews, so what better thematic match could there be? —RRS

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My Mother’s Keeper

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The light danced along her cold black skin illuminating cuts and cigarette burns—some fresh, others thick keloids. Her body was a husk now and looked more like a wax figure than once living matter.

The Reverend stood over her. He was tall and thin with a light brown complexion. He wore a crisp, white collar around his neck that stood out against his otherwise black attire. In the doorway was Sheriff Eleazar Beard—a hog of a man—greasy and pale.

You’ve seen her. Now it’s best you go back from where you came. We’ll take care of this—no need for you to get involved.”

The Reverend touched the body, running his fingers across the fresh track marks down her arm.

You shouldn’t be touching her.”

She was my mother.”

You shown up and that’s real good. She would have appreciated that. But I can’t have you bringing all kinds of hell to this town—I can’t have you going after nobody.”

The Reverend moved away from the body and bowed his head.

You going to pray now?” asked Sheriff Beard. “You expect me to pray with you?” He laughed. “I don’t know what you call yourself doing or where the hell you got that get-up, but I know as well as you that you ain’t no real preacher—you far from it.”

Have a little respect,” the Reverend said.

Respect?” Beard snickered, “Boy, you just as nutty as a fruitcake. If you think for one minute I’m going to treat you like you a man of God, you’ve got another think coming.”

He works in mysterious ways,” the Reverend said. “It’s not anyone’s place to question.”

What a crock of shit,” Beard said.

The Reverend began to whisper a prayer—Beard continued to air his disdain. The Reverend ended his prayer and turned to face the fat Sheriff, who seemed to cower under his stare.

Now don’t make me ask,” the Reverend said.

It wouldn’t make a difference no way. I ain’t got no answers for you.”

Who was with her last?”

People say they saw her at The Shack. But that ain’t no surprise—she practically lived there.”

The Reverend placed his hand on Beard’s shoulder. “Don’t follow me,” he said.

I can’t have you killing folks,” Beard said.

The Reverend pressed two fingers to Beard’s mouth—the nail beds filthy with dirt and dried blood. “It’s our secret,” he said. “Come morning I’ll be gone and you’ll have your town back.”

Beard snapped away and wiped where the Reverend’s fingers had been. “And the bodies?” he asked, brushing his arm sleeve over his mouth.

I promise you won’t miss who I take.”

Goddamnit. You can’t just come here doing this,” Beard said. “We’ve got laws—and for the most part people follow them.”

They summoned me back when they choked her to death and I’ll leave when it’s done—just stay off my heels.”

The Reverend left the dusty room and passed through the lobby into the warm evening. His mother’s body had been kept in the cold room at the Coroner’s office but would later be properly processed. She was as he remembered—broken.

The town was quiet. He looked back at the small station, as the Sheriff and his two deputies watched him from the window. The Reverend walked down the dirt road with nothing more than a wooden briefcase. He moved with a natural authority—if not given by God, some other force potent enough to have the Sheriff and his men shaken. Each step was soft but deliberate—his body was erect, his shoulders darted outward. He was made up of sharp edges and points. From a distance, one could believe he was divine. But on closer inspection, they’d be met with his foul odor and unshaven skin—chaos in a collar.

The Shack was a trailer near the railroad tracks. It was home to a meth dealer named Gipple Lyle and had become a haven for addicts and runaways. Some camped in tents and hollowed out cars—draping sheets and curtains over rusted metal or sleeping in truck beds. Stray dogs wandered about looking for scraps and stayed within earshot in case Gipple decided to fire his shotgun at buzzards flying above. As the birds fell, the dogs would gather them for feasting and carry them off. Whatever was left would be consumed by the inhabitants after roasting the birds over a fire pit.

The Reverend remembered the Shack as a dreadful place where his mother got high and wasted, dwindling almost to nothing. He’d watch she and Gipple argue over who took the last hit of shit, often culminating in his mother being beaten. There wasn’t much to occupy his time aside from what he called his experiments. He enjoyed dissecting the dead birds that littered the property courtesy of Gipple’s shotgun. Sometimes he’d find a dead dog or cat, and decide to open the animal up to see what was inside. He recounted the joy he felt when he had cut open a pregnant cat to find a litter of kittens. He gathered them up in a shoebox and carried them with him for a week, believing if he prayed hard enough that God would restore them to living. The odor was strong and the humidity only brought the rot on faster. When Gipple got word of what he had done, he burned the dead kittens and beat him bloody. His mother watched, never once speaking out in protest.

So tragic, he thought—so easy it would be to blame what he became on his upbringing, but he knew better. Sometimes when God’s putting people together, he shuffles the pieces wrong—he puts one piece where another should have gone. The Reverend’s mother, when she was in her right mind, would always say God didn’t make mistakes. However, she could never account for why her son did the things he did. Of course that was all in the past, the Reverend had been made anew; he was born again, baptized in an eternal fire.

When he arrived at the Shack there were a few junkies outside, watching aimlessly as he approached. A thin man dressed in tatters hurried inside the trailer and after a moment, came out with a burly man wearing an apron, gloves and work boots. The burly man began to make his way toward the Reverend who didn’t break his stride. When the Reverend got close enough for the burly man to hear him, he said: “Where’s Gipple?”

Before the man could answer, he struck him with the briefcase. The man tried to gather himself up, but each time he was struck down with the briefcase.

Who are you?” the burly man asked.

Gipple. Where is he?”

I don’t know. I just cook for him.”

Call him.”

On what? We ain’t got no phone out here.”

When did you see him last?”

I don’t know.”

Think,” the Reverend said holding the briefcase above the man, ready to strike.

Okay. Okay. Maybe two days ago. He came by for his shit and carried it on to Butler County.”

He still in Butler?”

Hell if I know.”

Was he with a woman named Seacord?”


Brandy Seacord.”

Brandy? You talking about Ace? They always together.”

Were always together. She’s dead.”

Bitch bit the dust?”

He kill her?”

Knowing that crazy bitch, she probably did herself in. What did you want with Ace, anyhow?”

Her name was Brandy.”

The burly man glared against the sun at the Reverend’s face. He brought his hand to his brow like a salute, and kept the sun back so he could get a better look at his attacker.

It can’t be,” he said, “Tully—is that you, man?”

The Reverend took a deep breath as if he was breathing in twice the amount of oxygen needed for his blood to pump. Then, he raised the briefcase high above his head and struck the burly man repeatedly until his face knuckled like kneaded biscuit dough.

The junkies circled the Reverend, lamenting over the dead man. He was their savior—he kept them fed. The Reverend understood the relationship as cyclical. Like his mother, the junkies craved, hustled for money, bought the drugs, and then got stoned, and it would carry on for years.

He dragged the body to the door of the trailer and then went inside. It resembled his high school chemistry class. There were beakers, bowls and burners. Chemicals were stored in metal caldrons and vats. He was overwhelmed by the toxic fumes but before leaving, he pulled a sheet of newspaper from a window that served as covering, and worked it into a ball. He set the paper next to the burner’s flame and left. He could hear crackling inside the trailer as the fire spread. As he walked, the junkies rushed toward the trailer the way moths are drawn to candles. Even though it was sure to be the end of them, they couldn’t help but embrace the light.

What you do that for?” the thin man cried, “you don’t know what you’ve done!”

The thin man had escaped into the woods after the Reverend had set upon the burly man. The fire had called him back but he kept his distance from the Reverend, who stood as the trailer burned behind him, holding his red stained briefcase. He ran after the thin man, who didn’t get far before the Reverend took him by the neck.

What’s your name?” he asked.

Please, don’t hurt me,” the thin man said.

Answer me.”

Hyland Dix.”

How long have you been out here?”

The Shack is my home—been here most my life.”

You know Gipple Lyle?”

Yes. Just like everybody else out here.”

You know where he lives?”

You going to kill me if I say ‘no’?”

Take me to him.”

I think he stays east of here—a lake house.”

Come on.”

The Reverend pushed Hyland along the dirt road. Hyland looked back at the junkies wailing over the dead cook and the meth kitchen.

I ain’t never seen no Reverend like you before,” Hyland said, “Your name is Tully, ain’t it?”

You don’t know me.”

I heard the cook call you that. It’s your name, isn’t it?”

Keep your mouth shut and walk.”


It was dark when they arrived at the lake house. The Reverend didn’t have a watch, but he estimated they had walked for an hour. The route Hyland took him was remote. They had walked across a covered bridge that hadn’t been crossed by many cars in decades—it was an abandoned road, likely used for Gipple to transport his drugs across county.

So what did Gipple do to you, man?” Hyland asked.

How close are we?”

We about half a mile, I guess.”

He didn’t do anything to me except what was in his nature.”

His nature?”


But you’re a holy man, ain’t you? I mean, aren’t you supposed to forgive trespassers and all that?”

I’m a work in progress.”

You going to kill Gipple once I take you to him?”


But that’s a sin.”


But you’re going to do it anyway?”


In the distance the Reverend could see a small house behind a lake. Moonlight reflected against the water. As they moved closer, Hyland came to a stop.

I don’t go any farther.”


If you’re going to kill me, then you’re going to have to do it right now.”

I said walk.”

Gipple will kill us both—just the fact I know where his hideout is means I’m good as dead.”

I don’t want to kill you.”

Look, how about I stay here and wait for you? You’re going to need to know you’re way out of here aren’t you? I can just hang here and skip stones until you’re done with your business in there,” he said, picking up a rock and skimming it across the lake.

The Reverend hesitated.

I’ll keep skipping until you’re back—you’ve got my word.”

Your word doesn’t mean anything.”

It’s all I’ve got.”

Be here when I get back,” the Reverend said.

The Reverend approached the lake house with caution. He could hear the murmur of a television. The windows were covered in foil. He saw no point of entry, aside from the front door. The house looked as if it were asking to be torn down—even by moonlight, the Reverend could see the damaged wood.

He turned the handle but it was locked.

He knocked; then, moved to the rear of the house.

He heard the chambering of a shotgun—that distinct sound echoed in the night.

The door opened slowly and the barrel appeared, cradled by Gipple. The Reverend hadn’t considered how old the man would be. In his mind, he still saw him as a vital bastard who could lay him out with one punch. But the man before him was nothing more than a sketch of what he once had been. His hair had turned gray and his skin sagged. Though he had decent muscle tone, he was skinny and shifted his weight off his left hip, making him step uneasy.

Who’s there?” Gipple said. “Come on out or I’ll start shooting.”

The Reverend watched the man squirm—he appreciated the fear on Gipple’s face. He had never seen the man afraid before and it brought him more joy than he could have imagined. He stepped out from around the house and seized the barrel of the shotgun. He wrestled it from the old man and then kicked him into the house.

Fucker,” Gipple said.

The Reverend let the old man get up. He unloaded the shotgun and placed the shells into his suit pocket.

A preacher?” Gipple asked, “What the hell you want with me?”

I’m not a preacher,” the Reverend said, “They’d never let me be a preacher.”

Then who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?”

I went to the Shack today. I met your cook. I saw the junkies and burned it all down.”

You did what?”

I burned it.”

I’m gonna kill you.”

The Reverend reached outside the door and picked up his briefcase. He sat it on a table, amongst beer cans and empty cigarette cartons. The house was small with leaks and exposed wiring that hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a large safe.

You going to tell me why you’re here?” Gipple asked.

You don’t recognize me?”

Should I?”

I suppose you wouldn’t. It’s been a long time.”

Who sent you?”

I’m here on account of Brandy Seacord.”

Ace? She’s dead.”

Yes. You killed her.”

You’ve got it wrong. She doubled her hit and it was no coming back,” Gipple said. “You want money to do her funeral or something? You some charity preacher?”

I’m no preacher.”

Then who the hell are you?” Gipple demanded.

The Reverend removed his collar and unbuttoned his shirt. On his chest was a cluster of cigarette burns. Gipple moved closer to get a better look. He looked into the Reverend’s eyes and was taken aback.

Give me a fucking break,” Gipple said, “Tully? I always knew you’d be back.”

Why did you kill her?”

Your mother was a junkie. She killed herself and did it real slow over twenty years.”

You’re lying.”

That right?”

She was choked to death.”

Who told you that?”

I saw the body.”

You didn’t see no damn choke marks then because she overdosed—plain and simple. Someone is playing you boy.”

I don’t believe you.”

They’ve got you all twisted up.”

The Reverend began rubbing his head with his palm.

Who told you she was dead?” Gipple asked.

I got word.”

Yeah? From who?”

I don’t know—a voice on the other end.”

How did they get your number?”

I don’t know.”

I do,” Gipple said, “Someone’s been keeping tabs on you. There’s only one person in this town who can do that.”

Shut up! You’re trying to confuse me.”

The Reverend removed a hammer and long carpenter’s nail from his briefcase.

What you think you going to do with that?” Gipple asked.

The Reverend approached the old man slowly, gripping the hammer tightly in his right hand, and clinching the nail in the left.

I’d never kill her—she was all I had.”

Shut up. Just shut up and it’ll be over.”

The Reverend placed the tip of the nail against the old man’s temple and then swiftly drove it into his head, repeatedly striking it until the metal vanished into skull.

When the Reverend walked out of the house, Sheriff Beard and his two deputies were waiting with guns drawn.

You’ve been a busy man,” Beard said.

It’s over now,” the Reverend said.

Good. I want you out of my town.”

He didn’t do it.”

What?” Beard asked.

He didn’t kill my mother—she overdosed.”

But you killed him.”

Yes, because he deserved it. Not because he killed her.”


You used me to get rid of him. Why?”

I don’t know what that old man told you but…”

Motor oil and baby powder. That’s what you put on her neck for choke marks? I thought I smelled it.”

Not baby powder—baking soda.”

Why couldn’t you have done it yourself?” the Reverend asked. “You could have arrested him.”

Sheriff Beard smiled crookedly as the two deputies entered the house and made a B‑line toward the safe. They entered a combination on the keypad and then opened it. Inside were stacks of money.

It was complicated. When Ace turned up dead, I saw it as an opportunity,” he said as he placed his weapon into the holster.

To get Gipple’s money?”

That’s right—don’t think for a minute you can pass judgment here. I know you killed somebody for that collar. You were always a sick puppy but a damn priest?”

You won’t find me again.”

Won’t be any need too—you only had one mother.”

Spare me the sermon, Sheriff.”

The Reverend walked into the darkness with briefcase in hand.

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All the Meth That’s Fit to Print

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He said the voices on the radio told him to do it. “Cammy and Gary in the Morning” convinced him to break into the sheriff deputy’s house. They told him to go inside and bump into walls and mutter to himself about the heavenly voices on the airwaves. What they didn’t tell him was the deputy was already up and dressed for work. It never came over the FM frequency that the deputy would draw his gun, then handcuff him and take him to jail. Cammy and Gary in the Morning never said he might almost get his head blown off.


When the story came in that day the Cops and Courts reporter chuckled a little. Someone joked about meth being a helluva drug. The court documents used a name I didn’t know. It wasn’t until I saw the mug shot—bugged out eyes, hair frazzled out in a broken afro, James Brown’s crackhead nephew—that I recognized the face.

A guy I was friends with in high school.


He told the cops he found the baggie on the ground in the Dollar General parking lot. But when they searched him he also had a pipe with meth residue in his pocket, and weed. He was already on parole for selling to an undercover cop. He had been living in the trailer behind his parents’ farmhouse, out about nine miles from town in a weedy lot full of the kind of broken-down cars and equipment that could only be sold for scrap metal. If they could find someone to buy it. He was in his 50s and the only thing he knew how to do was drugs.

When the story came in that day the Cops and Courts reporter asked me if we were related.

There are a lot of Schanemans out there,” she said.

When I saw the mug shot I didn’t recognize the man—gray faced, folds in his skin that he’d paid to earn, Charles Manson without the forehead swastika—and he’d never know me from anyone else.

A guy that started bad and never got any better.


We ran both stories on the front page. My choice. You can’t hide from that kind of stuff out here. People need to know what’s going on in their rural community. And just because I know them, or am related to them, doesn’t mean I can treat their stories any different. If we wanted, we could put a meth arrest story on the front page every day. Just a few weeks ago the Cops and Courts reporter said she wasn’t even sure the meth busts were worth doing stories on anymore. “It’s almost like a misdemeanor now,” she said.


I had no idea when I went in to look at the house. It was the right neighborhood, selling pretty cheap for the square footage, and had enough space for my wife and me. My real estate agent uncle took me down into the basement.

Looks like this guy likes his baseball,” he said.

Framed, autographed jerseys hung on the wood-panel walls. Philadelphia Phillies players Mike Schmidt and Lenny Dykstra. On another wall was a plaque with four white wooden baseball cutouts. A mom’s name. Two kids. And the father. We both kind of snorted and looked at each other.

I don’t think you want this place,” he said. “You might get some strange visitors. Some strange knocks on the door in the middle of the night.”

We walked up the stairs and out of a house owned by the town’s most famous meth dealer. The guy had made my town infamous when he was caught selling meth to customers by way of his parents’ Mexican food restaurant. If you knew the right words at the drive-thru you could get a taco and a baggie that would keep you up for three days straight, picking at your skin. The joke wrote itself for The Colbert Report.

Another guy I knew growing up. He had had a golden arm, but it failed him in college and he didn’t do well with living back home. All that anger and arrogance he used to fuel his pitching, the pitching he thought would take him far from here, it must’ve come back and pushed him beyond anything he thought he could be.

That one happened before I took the editor job at the paper. I heard he had come into the paper and threatened our Cops and Courts reporter when he first got busted. He told her to stop writing stories about him, but they were all anyone wanted to read.


About a month back, we ran a story about a guy who fell asleep in his truck with the stereo on an hour before noon, drunk, with a load of drugs and multiple guns under the seat. It wasn’t that exciting at first. Reporting on someone caught with meth, weed, prescription pills, and two AR-15s wasn’t enough to get us in trouble, but mentioning the guy was the son of a police officer? That did it. Cops protect their own. Dad came in wearing his badge, furious, confrontational. The sheriff’s department went after us on Facebook. Cops’ wives called in. We heard about it for a week.

Until the next meth story broke.

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