Other Fiction

County Line

County Line wins the 2012 Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery.

The discovery of a dead man in Ruby Jane Whittaker’s tub leads Skin Kadash on a frantic search through the haunted past of the woman he loves.

Published by F+W Crime / Tyrus Books

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County Line has been selected by Portland’s Murder by the Book as a Favorite of 2011. It also was on the MBTB 2011 Bestsellers List.

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The Practical Christmas

(Originally published in The Southeast Examiner, Portland, OR, 1997)

 

Growing up, my sister Vicki and I had a special name for every Christmas. There’s the Toy Sequence: Hot Wheels ChristmasStrange Change Christmas,Talking GI Joe Christmas (also known by Vicki as the Shut That Damned Thing Up Christmas). Then there’s the Big Bummer Sequence: Salmonella Eggnog Christmas, Emergency Appendectomy Christmas, and Multi-Color Underwear Christmas.

Of greater notoriety is the Oft-Retold-in-Horror Cycle: Electrical Fire ChristmasTurkey with Larvae Stuffing Christmas and Aunt Nell’s Affair Revealed Christmas (followed eleven months later by Aunt Nell’s Other Affair Revealed Thanksgiving.) Finally, there’s my mother’s Epoch of Let Us Never Speak of This Again, or what Vicki and I refer to simply as the Year of Danny Coots.

Danny was a fellow who drew a second glance. Long stringy hair, pointed chin, square gap where his four front teeth had once been. He claimed to have lost them in a bar brawl, and you shoulda seen the other guy blah blah blah. But Mom told us his face bounced off the steering wheel of his pickup when he rammed into a culvert. Seems he’d been paying more attention to his 8-track tape player than the gentle curve of the road ahead. Most of the time you couldn’t tell about the teeth though—he had a pretty good bridge, as well as a tendency to politely cut apples into bite-size chunks or slice his corn off the cob.

Mom had a thing for fixer-uppers. Vicki and I didn’t know it at the time, but she met Danny about a week after his release from county jail: six months for car theft. The cousin of our neighbor’s sister-in-law’s uncle, something like that, insisted Danny was all right, just a little wild around the edges. All he needed was the stabilizing influence of a settled woman. And besides, he hadn’t exactly stolen the car, just borrowed it without permission. The only reason he got caught at all was the cops happened to be there talking to the car’s owner when Danny tried to return it.

In spite of his history, that first Christmas with Danny was pretty quiet. Mom wanted to call it the Lookit the Pretty Kitty Christmas—her gift from Danny. But Vicki and I dubbed it the Aunt Nell Forgets Her Digestive Enzyme Christmas and that name stuck, despite the fact a pure-bred Persian kitten was a definite attention-getter. Mom didn’t want to accept such an extravagant gift,  but Danny insisted he got it for a pittance from some guy on second shift at the call center where he worked. Fellow’s wife was a breeder, allegedly—it would be a year before we’d come to suspect Tanya might be hot. So our new pretty kitty clawed her way onto the dinner table while Danny delighted and horrified us by popping the bridge out of his mouth onto his dinner plate. Both helped distract us all from the aromas Aunt Nell silently emitted.

Mom and Danny ran hot and cold throughout the next year. He didn’t take to the stabilizing influence of a settled woman nearly as well as advertised. He liked to stop for a beer or six on his way home from work, which didn’t bother Mom if it happened every so often. But if it was gonna be frequent and it was gonna be six, she’d just as soon he went to his own home afterwards. Vicki and I were impressionable children after all.

Yet Danny obviously liked us, and wanted to be around. When my bike frame snapped, he took me to a shop to get it welded. He would read aloud to Vicki while she painted her nails, and he even let her braid his hair. Most Friday nights he took Mom out for dinner and movies or dancing. Vicki and I were old enough by then that they could leave us for an evening without a baby-sitter, and Danny ordered us a pizza and pop. Who could beat that?

But then in May, on his way home from one of his after-work jaunts, Danny got stopped by the police and had more than a little trouble with the field sobriety test. Sentence: 90-days in the county workhouse and six month suspended license. He got out after 65 days for good behavior, and his first stop was our apartment. Mom didn’t bite. She was already in the hunt for other fixer-uppers. “Men with promise, Danny. Men without jail time in their futures.”

“That’s over,” he pleaded. “Think about the good behavior.”

“Let some other woman think about it. I got kids.”

September and October came and went with no sign of Danny, but then in November he showed up near Vicki’s birthday with a dozen bottles of nail polish and a boxed set of Nancy Drew mysteries, plus a grocery sack of gourmet cat food for Tanya. He tried to give me a pocket knife but Mom vetoed that. Still, it was a warmish reunion and Mom agreed to let Danny take her to dinner that Friday. Pizza night was back on.

Two weeks later, a few days after Aunt Nell Gets in to the Mulled Wine Thanksgiving, Danny arranged to pick Vicki and I up after school. His big plan was Christmas shopping at the mall, followed by Chinese take-out. He asked Mom to loan him her station wagon—didn’t want to haul a big load around in the back of his truck. “A big load of what?” Mom muttered, but she gave him her car.

Danny, as it turned out, wanted to shop alone. We agreed to meet him at the fountain in the center of the mall around six o’clock. Vicki and I didn’t have much money to spend, but we usually only bought gifts for Mom anyway and we took care of that in a matter of seconds at the Earring Hut. The two of us wandered around for a little while together until Vicki ran into a couple of her friends and abruptly remembered she was an only child. While looking for something to spend my last coupla quarters on, I saw Danny in the checkout line at Penney’s buying a vacuum cleaner. I prayed it wasn’t for me. Talk about an ignominious addition to the Big Bummer Sequence: the Hoover Upright Christmas.

Danny was in high spirits when Vicki and I finally caught up with him at six. He had a big sack of wrapped packages slung over his shoulder. He grinned at us and wiggled his bridge in and out. “Let’s go get dinner!” At the car, we saw that he’d already made one or two drop-offs. I looked at Vicki and I could see what she was thinking—Humongous Haul Christmas. The three of us barely fit in the car.

Back at the house, Mom showed less excitement. “How did you pay for all this, Danny?” she asked.

“Oh c’mon! Christmas bonus!”

“Yeah, right.”

The build-up to Christmas was almost unbearable. For the better part of a month, Vicki and I had to live with a mighty mountain of loot, none of which we could touch until the big day. Mom was tight-lipped. She implored Danny to return some of it, but he refused. It’s too much, she insisted. Nothing’s too much for my babies, Danny replied. Back and forth. Meanwhile, Vicki and I brainstormed on the perfect title for what was obviously going to be the best Christmas ever. Vicki advocated, simply, The Best Christmas Ever. “Bo-o-o-oring,” I said. I proposed Justice At Last Christmas. We argued for weeks, right up until Christmas Eve, when fate settled the debate for us.

Stolen Credit Card Christmas.

I have to admit, the police were pretty nice about it. They didn’t arrest us or anything. But they didn’t let us keep the loot either.

A cop came over and helped us load everything into Mom’s car, then followed us as we drove to the police station. When we carried the packages into the squad room we saw Danny sitting at a desk, his hands cuffed and hanging loosely between his knees. He looked up and tried a smile, but it came off sickly and hollow. They’d taken his teeth.

Christmas morning, Vicki and I opened packages of notebook paper and underwear. “It’s the Practical Christmas,” Mom declared. Vicki rolled her eyes in that Yeah, right way of hers, but neither of us said anything. If Mom wanted it to be the Practical Christmas, then that’s what it would be. So long as she was in earshot, anyway.

A couple days after Practical Christmas, Danny made bail and showed up at the door all weepy and begging forgiveness. Mom was having none of it. “I never should have let you come back, Danny,” she said. “We’re finished.”

“I just wanted you all to have a nice Christmas.”

She closed the door on him. We later read in the paper that this latest stunt netted Danny ten months in the state penitentiary. The only thing that kept it from being three years was he’d shopped for bargains.

Mom lost her interest in fixer-uppers after Danny. Her next beau was a solid citizen. Insurance agent. Decent enough fellow, I guess, but dull as dry toast. She ended up marrying him. Vicki and I found ourselves with a matter-of-fact step-dad who never understood our need to title the holidays. He thought we were being mean when we christened the Aunt Nell Thinks She Can Drive a Stick Shift Easter. “The poor woman did eighteen hundred dollars damage to your uncle’s Miata,” he said. Whatever.

A few years later (Aunt Nell Isn’t Taking Any More of Our Crap Festivus), I asked Mom if she ever missed Danny. “No!” she said, and turned away. But a little while later, over a glass of mulled wine, she murmured, “Danny did have spirit. And he sure loved you kids.”

“You too, Mom,” Vicki said.

“I suppose,” she said, scratching the now fat and sassy Tanya on her soft grey neck. “You gotta admit, Stolen Credit Card Christmas beat the hell out of Multicolor Underwear Christmas, didn’t it?”

First Thrills

New York Times bestselling author Lee Child has teamed up with the International Thriller Writers for First Thrills, a showcase of many of the organization’s bestselling authors as well as rising stars in the genre. In “The Princess of Felony Flats,” a mysterious dwarf makes a risky play for the statuesque consort of a drug kingpin in a hardboiled retelling of a classic fairy tale.

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In Association with International Thriller Writers

Introduced and edited by Lee Child with an afterword by Steve Berry, First Thrills features original, never-before-published short stories by some of the greatest thriller writers at work today.

“The Princess of Felony Flats” is nominated for the CWA Short Story Dagger 2011.

“The Princess of Felony Flats” is one of many fine stories in First Thrillsto get a nod from The Independent UK.

“The Princess of Felony Flats” appears in the eBook First Thrills, Volume 4. Order for Nook here, or for Kindle here.


First Thrills includes stories by New York Times bestselling authors Lee Child, Stephen Coonts, Jeffrey Deaver, Heather Graham, Gregg Hurwitz, John Lescroart, John Lutz (with Lise E. Baker), Alex Kava (with Deb Carlin), Michael Palmer (with Daniel James Palmer), Karin Slaughter, and Wendi Corsi Staub.

The collection also serves as an introduction to those ITW has christened its rising stars, including Sean Michael Bailey, Ken Bruen, Ryan Brown, Bill Cameron, Rebecca Cantrell, Karen Dionne, JT Ellison, Theo Gangi, Rip Gerber, CJ Lyons, Grant McKenzie, Marc Paoletti, Cynthia Robinson, and Kelli Stanley.

Coffee, Black

In a city full of police controversies, hippie artist punk houses, and overzealous liberals, Portland Noir, edited by Kevin Sampsell, is a place where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities. In “Coffee, Black,” Skin Kadash investigates vandalism at a Portland coffee shop with the help of Ruby Jane, and finds more than he bargained for.

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From Akashic Books

Publishers Weekly says, “The home of Chuck Palahniuk, Powell’s City of Books—and the place with more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America—gets its due in this splendid entry in Akashic’s noir series.”

The Stories:

  • KAREN KARBO The Clown and Bard
  • LUCIANA LOPEZ Julia Now
  • ARIEL GORE Water under the Bridge
  • FLOYD SKLOOT Alzheimer’s Noir
  • DAN DEWEESE The Sleeper
  • JONATHAN SELWOOD The Wrong House
  • MONICA DRAKE Baby, I’m Here
  • BILL CAMERON Coffee, Black
  • JAMIE S. RICH & JOËLLE JONES Gone Doggy Gone
  • JESS WALTER Virgo
  • CHRIS A. BOLTON The Red Room
  • JUSTIN HOCKING Burnside Forever
  • ZOE TROPE Hummingbird
  • GIGI LITTLE Shanghaied
  • MEGAN KRUSE Lila
  • KIMBERLY WARNER-COHEN People Are Strange

Editor Kevin Sampsell is a bookstore employee and writer. He is the author of a short story collection, Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus Press), and the upcoming memoir The Suitcase (HarperPerennial, summer 2009). He is also the editor of The Insomniac Reader (Manic D Press) and the publisher of the micropress Future Tense Books.

Chasing Smoke

Portland homicide detective Skin Kadash just wants to survive treatment for bladder cancer long enough to get back to work. But when his partner asks him to look into a series of deaths, he’s not interested — he’s sick and doesn’t need the grief — until she tells him the victims all suffered from cancer and all were being treated by the same doctor treating Skin.

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▶ The original Bleak House Books print edition is still available online or through bookstores.

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Kept Woman

(Originally published in The Dunes Review, 1999)

 

Couldn’t say exactly when he began to suspect she was a kept woman. He saw her from time to time, coming and going from her apartment across the breezeway. Second floor, toward the back. Potted fuschia next to her door. He’d stand at the kitchen window, big Tupperware bowl of rice puffs in his hand, and watch her. Sometimes the wind blew through the open breezeway. Every time he saw her she looked good.

He was trying to decide if he should even talk to her—invite her in for a drink, get to know her. Part of him said, No, no, what if she rejects me? It would be awkward if they happened to pass each other afterwards. Another part of him said, What if she doesn’t reject me? What if we hit it off but then it doesn’t work out? That would really be awkward, and his lease didn’t run up until September. But then another part of him said, What if it did work out? What if they really liked each other? What if they hit it off and it turned into something real? But then he thought, no, no, what is real? Did he know what real was? Could he really be sure? Besides, she was really beautiful. She always looked good.

She came and went at odd hours. Sometimes he would see her getting out of her car at seven o’clock in the morning as he pulled away in his. Dressed to the hilt — sleek pants, translucent blouse, tight, sorta sultry, edging toward trailer trash sexiness and yet, somehow, with an air of confidence and allure. He knew her clothes were expensive. Once he saw her with a Nordstrom shopping bag.

The apartment was, well, the apartment complex was out of the way. Nice enough, advertised as luxury apartments, but he knew better. Luxury if you were used to one bedroom next to the railroad tracks, soot on the walls, tattered carpet, rattlely pipes. But not nice if you were used to serious luxury. Granite countertops, inlaid floors, double-head showers. Hell, the kitchen sink didn’t even have a spray nozzle.

But that just contributed to his idea that maybe she was a kept woman. Because after all, you’re going to keep your woman out of the way if you’re some fat cat, got a wife, coupla kids, kids maybe getting close to college, or maybe one of them is in college, the other one in high school. You’ve got expensive dogs that you pay to have groomed four or five times a year. You make more money from dividends than you do from your salary. Your wife doesn’t know how you spend your evenings, but she feels pretty certain it’s not all board meetings and business dinners. On the other hand, she knows she’s got a good thing going. She can do her volunteer work, chair her committees, get together with her girlfriends for spa trips. Maybe she’s even got a little something going on the side herself. It’s all right. They don’t exactly dislike each other, fat cat and wifey, they’ve just moved on to other things. And for him, that other thing happens to live across the breezeway.

He kept her there because the place was nice, but not too expensive. She’s not likely to be seen by anyone important. The keeper, he’s not going to show up at her door. He’s got more sense than that. No, he’s going to put her on a plane when he’s got a trip to the Bay area for a investor meeting. They’ll have dinner together, spend the evening, see a show, do other things. Then she’ll come back to her little out of the way place. He works out of the city so she’s often elsewhere. He must have one of those corporate apartments, the kind of place where you put up guests from New York when they come into town. A little less public than a hotel, a little more personal. You can control the luxury. You can control the help.

He noticed that she warmed up as time passed. The first time he saw her he said, “Hello,” but she only made a soft sound that might have been “Hi,” or might have been something else. Wouldn’t make eye contact. Breezed past. Smell of perfume. He didn’t know perfumes. The only one he recognized was the one he bought for the woman who’d left him the year before. L’Eau D’Issey. He recognized that one even now, still smelled it sometimes even though he thought it was probably his imagination. Maybe that was another reason he didn’t approach her. There was part of him that wanted the old girlfriend back. Maybe he thought to himself that if he found someone new, he’d doom any chance of a reconciliation. Didn’t he want a reconciliation? Yeah. Yes. Did she? No. . . no, no. Or, who knows? Maybe he didn’t and she did. It was complicated. Or maybe it was the simplest story in the world and he oughta get the hell over it already.

Still, he knew he wasn’t the kind of guy that beautiful young women kept by wealthy old men went for. Because he wasn’t young enough or attractive enough to break past the fact that he also wasn’t wealthy enough. Not that he was bad looking guy. He looked all right. He wasn’t exactly in shape but he wasn’t unfit. Ran a mile or two a coupla times a week. But he also drank one too many microbrews on Wednesday nights after work. Hump Day. Looking at the bar women and wondering if they took Hump Day as literally as he did.

In any case, over time she got more and more friendly. Ran into her the other day and she actually seemed to smile at him. Paused for a moment. “How you doing?” . . . “Good. Nice to see you.” Then she glanced down at the sack of groceries in her arms in that way that said, Well, gotta go. . . got this sack. Went into her apartment.

He couldn’t really say for sure that she was a kept woman. He had to admit that he’d only encountered kept women in movies and novels. Maybe they didn’t exist. Oh, he supposed they did exist. But how did you find a woman like that? You know, when you’re a middle-aged wealthy guy how did you find that woman? Or did they find you, go trolling for you?

What kind of a woman becomes a kept woman? Pretty, that seems to go without saying at least. That’s how they always were in the movies and TV and in the tawdry mysteries that he occasionally read. But then the other thing that they were, based on this one across the hall, was maybe sometimes a little tired looking. Of course, if you come home at seven a.m. you’re going to be tired no matter where you’re coming from. Even if you got some sleep the night before, even if you just put yourself together after snoring the night away in a corporate apartment up in town.

Did she have a job? Did she have goals? Sometimes in the murder mysteries they were taking classes at the community college during the day, working on their art, learning modern dance. Maybe that was it, woman shows up at seven o’clock in the morning, maybe she’s not a kept woman at all, maybe she’s a dancer. Not in an off-Broadway play either. A dancer at one of those places where they stick dollar bills in your g-string. He thought about her, wondered if he could bring himself to stick dollar bills in her g-string, given the chance. Probably not, since he had better use for dollars than to go into a strip joint and throw money away just to watch an inaccessible woman dance without any clothes on. Maybe if someone else provided the cash.

Not that anybody had a clue how he felt. There he was, inside his own private space, go to work, joke innocuously, never make a serious connection with anyone, go home, fix his frozen dinner, watch The Daily Show on TiVO, smile at the woman across the breezeway, wonder if she was kept. A kept woman. Thinking maybe I should talk to her, but then thinking, no, no, I don’t think so, because, well, because it might not work out, and his lease didn’t run up until September.

Killer Year

9781250067326_p0_v1_s192x300An anthology of stories from the Killer Year authors, plus contributions from Ken Bruen, Allison Brennan, Duane Swierczynski, MJ Rose and Laura Lippman. Available from St. Martin’s Press. The Chicago Tribune said, “Bill Cameron’s ‘Slice of Pie’ is an irony-filled gem.”

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Edited by Lee Child with an Afterword by Laura Lippman

“Why writers who deal with the dark side of human nature are among the most collegial is a mystery in itself. What is not in doubt, though, is the quality of this collection resulting from that collegiality, with 13 of its 16 stories by writers who published their first novels in 2007 and were mentored by established authors under the auspices of the International Thriller Writers organization. Some of these stories—which, as editor Child notes, are ‘far, far harder to write than novels’—push the edge of the genre and snag the memory, among them Marcus Sakey’s exploration of love and the difference between wanting and needing in ‘Gravity and Need.’ Sean Chercover’s Chicago P.I. Ray Dudgeon keeps a case from going south, Gregg Olsen gives a final twist to his tale of a true crime writer, and Jason Pinter shows how things can go inexorably wrong in an instant. The mentors’ introductions to these stories, plus brief biographies at the end, should entice readers to longer works by these promising new authors. Even amid a recent rash of anthologies in the genre, this one is well worth a look.”

—LIBRARY JOURNAL

“Three of Child’s contributors—Ken Bruen, Allison Brennan and Duane Swierczynski—are seasoned pros, but the collection’s gems come from the 13 members of the younger set. Derek Nikitas’s ‘Runaway,’ for instance, is a superbly ambiguous chiller about an adolescent girl who may or may not be a real runaway, or for that matter real. In Toni McGee Causey’s artfully composed ‘A Failure to Communicate’ introduces the indomitable and irresistible Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a steel magnolia whose steel will cause three lowlifes to rue the day they took her hostage. ‘Perfect Gentleman’ by Brett Battles and ‘Bottom Deal’ by Robert Gregory Browne are both lean and taut, expertly crafted in the good old hard-boiled tradition. In Marc Lecard’s sly ‘Teardown,’ a hapless loser arrives in the wrong place at what turns out to be exactly the right time. Gregg Olsen’s autobiographical ‘Crime of My Life’ features a surprise ending that actually surprises. The quality is less consistent among the other entries, but, remarkably for a collection this ample, there’s no sign of a clinker.

“An anthology so worthwhile that it comes within an eyelash of deserving the hyperbole Child heaps on it in his introduction.”

—KIRKUS REVIEWS

“For this impressive crime anthology, bestseller Child (One Shot) has gathered 13 stories by newcomers and three by veterans. Such established writers as David Morrell, James Rollins, Gayle Lynds, Ken Bruen and Allison Brennan introduce tales by such rising stars as Marcus Sakey, Brett Battles, Robert Gregory Browne, Sean Chercover and Gregg Olsen. Some selections, like Olsen’s ‘The Crime of My Life,’ hit like a hard swung sap. Battles’s ‘Perfect Gentleman’ is more like a knife that slides in easily, then twists in the gut. Browne’s ‘Bottom Deal’ features a PI that would be at home in a lineup with Spade and Marlowe. Sakey’s ‘Gravity and Need’ lets the reader bleed out slowly, while Chercover’s ‘One Serving of Bad Luck’ earns a rueful smile. Not every entry is a winner, but the disturbingly good new talent showcased in this volume bodes well for the future of the genre.”

—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Lost Dog

Early on a sodden Portland, Oregon morning, Peter McKrall, unemployed smart-ass and kleptomaniac, goes to the park to find his niece’s lost toy dog. He doesn’t realize his search is being watched by the paranoid killer of the dead hooker he finds instead.

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Revisions are when you get to get to move the darts onto the bullseye while no one is looking.

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