Short Stories

Melisende Dulac Stories

“Hey Nineteen”

During one of her first solo body removal jobs as an apprentice mortician, Melisende Dulac discovers an old man’s sad end may not have been all that natural. The story is inspired by Steely Dan’s song of the same name. It is followed by the novel, Crossroad. From Down and Out Books, October 28, 2019.

Skin Kadash Stories

In addition to the four novels in the series, the Portland homicide detective and irascible idealist with the unsettling birthmark on his neck has appeared in six short stories. Skin’s appearances and other milestones can be seen in the Kadash Chronology.

“Heat Death

In 1971, days before shipping out to Vietnam, a young Skin Kadash joins his best friend for a “so long to the world” blow-out at a cabin in the mountains, unaware they’re pawns in a murder plot. Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2015 issue.

The Missus

A brotherhood of cops, a boy accused of murder, and the detective who broke ranks to dig out the truth, no matter the cost. Free download to anyone who signs up for my newsletter.

Coffee, Black

Skin investigates vandalism at a Portland coffee shop and stumbles into more than he bargained for—saucy hipsters, coffee snots, petty crooks, and a conspiracy gone off the rails. Portlandia meets Dashiell Hammett. Originally published in Portland Noir, edited by Kevin Sampsell.

Sunlight Nocturne

On Halloween, as cops pursue a gang of violent home invaders, Skin and a neighbor build a bat house, unaware the chase is heading right for them. Originally published in Deadly Treats, edited by Anne Frasier. Read it at Kings River Life.

The Last Ship

Skin travels to the windswept Oregon Coast to recover from a gunshot wound and finds himself embroiled in land grab turned deadly. Originally published in West Coast Crime Wave, edited by Brian Thornton.

Daisy and the Desperado

With a discovery of a disembodied foot in an old lady’s back yard, Skin is dragged into a decades-long feud between irascible neighbors. Originally published in Murder at the Beach, edited by Dana Cameron.

Standalone Stories

Best Served Cold

A lifelong quest for revenge has unexpected consequences for a pair of friends who sacrificed everything over a girl. Available in Diaries of Misspent Youth.

Counterflow

Dreams of love live and die in an eddy under a bridge. Available in Puppy Love Noir.

Kept Woman

Sometimes what we see in other people is only a dark reflection of ourselves. Originally published in The Dunes Review Read it here.

On the Road to Find Out

Motion, moving, he was always moving. An environmental autobiography. Available in Puppy Love Noir. Read it here.

The Practical Christmas

When Mom takes up with a fixer-upper, two kids find out what life with an honest-to-goodness outlaw is really all about: the loot. Read it here.

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. Nominated for the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger. Learn more here.

Privacy Fence

In a darkly comic clash of neighbors over the height of a fence, the solution for one seems to be kidnapping…and murder. Read it here.

Slice of Pie

A cynical and overprotective son tries to save his mother from her own good nature, with violent results. Originally published in Killer Year, edited by Lee Child.

Soul of the Sea

During a hallucinatory trip to the beach a young man loses track of who he is. Available in Diaries of Misspent Youth.

A Tall House

Desperate to see his sick mother who is quarantined upstairs in her room, a boy rebels against the overbearing housekeeper who has been keeping them apart. In the process, he discovers the grim secret behind his mother’s illness. Winner of the Spinetingler Cozy Noir Award. Available in the Protectors anthology.

The Thunderhead and the Beast

He opens the door to what he thinks is every boy’s dream. It turns out to be a nightmare. Available in Puppy Love Noir.

Yo, Karl

A boy’s dark reputation, not all of it fairly earned, shapes his fate. Available in Diaries of Misspent Youth.

Upcoming Events

  1. Portland Crossroad Launch, with J.S. James

    January 14, 2020 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
  2. Reading at Third Place Books, with J.S. James

    January 21, 2020 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Story News and Posts

The Soul of the Sea

“The Soul of the Sea” is a short story I wrote back in the 80s. It came to mind this morning in a Twitversation about Nancy Reagan and the things she scolded us about back in the day. Given that I took anything Nancy Reagan said as emitted from an Opposite Day Vortex of some kind, I Just Said Yes to Drugs in my gloriously misspent youth. This story grew out of that.

Download EPUB or MOBI format files, or read the full story below.

“The Soul of the Sea” is also part of the short story collection, Diaries of Misspent Youth, available for Nook and Kindle.

read more…

The Last Ship

West Coast Crime Wave, edited by Brian Thornton, is an anthology of short mystery fiction featuring some of the best crime writers the U.S. west coast has to offer.

In “The Last Ship,” Skin travels to the Oregon Coast to recover from the events of Day One and finds himself embroiled in strange local doings.

▶ Amazon Kindle Edition

▶ Nook Edition

Now available from BSTSLLR

For this great collection of shorts, we’ve got a who’s who of great mystery writers from the all the major locations on the west coast, including numerous award winners as well as some exciting new names. The anthology will feature 18 great stories, set in numerous locales ranging from chilly Alaska to hot and steamy Los Angeles.

Sunlight Nocturne

Deadly Treats, edited by Anne Frasier, features witches, zombies, vampires, food critics, crazy writers, dumb criminals, interfering ghosts, ex-cops, suburban housewives, and aliens.

In “Sunlight Nocturne,” Skin spends the day with his neighbor and her little boy as police pursue home invaders in a dramatic citywide chase.

▶ Powell’s
▶ Barnes & Noble
▶ Amazon | Kindle

Available from Nodin Press

This delightful collection includes stories by Bill Cameron, David Housewright , Jason Evans, J.A. Konrath, Heather Dearly, Julia Buckley, Kelly Lynn Parra, Linda Rigel, Marilyn Victor, Mark Hull, Leandra Logan, Pat Dennis, Patricia Abbott, Paul Brazill, Michael Allan Mallory, Shirley Damsgaard, Stephen Blackmoore, Lance Zarimba, Paula Fleming, and Anne Frasier.

On the Road to Find Out

Part of Puppy Love Noir, a Triptych by Bill Cameron

 

I’d like to be from somewhere. Technically, I’m from Cincinnati, but that only means I was born there. We left, my mother and I, before I was old enough to know what a place was. Growing up, I never had the same bedroom for more than a year. My mother would meet “the nicest fellow” and we’d pack up and head for his hometown. From Ohio to Alabama to Kentucky to Georgia to Rhode Island back to Ohio, I took a round trip with layovers at 19 addresses in 17 years. For the longest time we owned this beat-up, tan ’63 Oldsmobile, same age as me. We might be just going to the grocery but it seemed strange to look out the back and not see a U-Haul.

I remember a day long ago, my first memory, from not long after we left Cincinnati. I don’t even know where it was. A white sky hung over flat, manicured lawns. Low, golden brick ranch houses slumped in the heat. The still air seemed to hum. Standing next to a neighbor’s car I was too short to look into the windows.

A woman called me—not my mother, but the neighbor woman. She pushed open the car door from inside, leaning across her child, who sat in the passenger seat and stared at me with dark, wet eyes. In my memory, the child’s other features were so indistinct I can’t even say if it was a boy or a girl. The woman told me to hurry up—we were late. As I began to climb in the child reached over and pulled the door shut on my hand. My thumb left a vivid dent in the metal frame of the car door. I remember laying on the flat grass, my hand held out above me, as blood dripped down my arm onto my chest. One part of the sky was whiter and harder than the rest. I heard the woman yell at her child, and from somewhere I could smell charcoal smoke. Afterwards, every time my mother and I set out on a long car trip I would remember the woman’s harsh voice and her car looming above me. The blue curve of the roof was so far away and it scared me, the car scared me.

Later, years later, there was a hotel room. My mother and I stayed there for three days finishing up school and work while our furniture traveled hundreds miles up the Atlantic coast from Savannah to Providence. I don’t remember the room much. Dark plastic furniture and a wide, open closet. We lived out of our suitcases. I remember thinking it was odd to have furniture and not use it. The dresser drawers were always empty. The television picked up stations we didn’t get at home. I didn’t like the unfamiliar newscasters and I didn’t like the way the closet was so exposed. My mother parked the car right outside the door.

I had this habit of converting my various bedroom closets into an office. I would put an old end table and chair and lamp inside. They were always the same—the chair from a cheap dinette set; the table with a shelf at the back. The lamp was a gift from my grandmother. It hung on the wall, the light fixture extending out from a wooden ship’s wheel. I would put pictures and posters up around the lamp. The pictures changed over the years, though their themes, like the lamp and the table and the chair, endured. Pictures of places. Lots of places. I’d gaze at the pictures and build them up in my mind. A Montana valley at dawn. Waves breaking against a rocky Patagonian shoreline. South African men dancing in long lines. An indistinct figure sitting alone on a bench at Devil’s Tower. The Scottish Highlands, the Black Forest, the steppes of Mongolia. All kinds of places. I really liked my offices. They were always the same, and somehow it never occurred to my mother they even existed. She never found me when I was cached away inside. No one found me.

There was one house in Pawtucket, at 21 Finch Street. I was in fourth grade. My closet was too small to make an office, and at night black dust settled through it and coated my clothes. My mother thought I was burning things but I thought the house was haunted. I could hear sounds at night which crept up from the basement. Skittering noises, moist noises. One night I woke up and I could hear my mom screaming. I ran to her door and in the dim light coming from a street lamp outside her window I saw the shadow of a man kneeling on her bed, hitting her. I turned on the light but no one was there. She woke up and told me she’d been having a bad dream.

But I like 21 Finch Street. I like the way it sounds, like an address out of an old British novel. I like to say I used to live there, and I like to tell people about the haunt. It’s thousands of miles and many years away now. Places once close transform when I look at them from them far away. That’s why I like 21 Finch Street. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to find out if what I was afraid of so many years ago is still there, creeping up from below. Or, worse yet, that it was never there in the first place.

– | – | –

 

Distance is magic—sometimes black, sometimes white. Sometimes a little of both. I see this place or that and I think, I could be from there. Lots of places. I build them up in my mind. Mountains. I like the sensation of driving through mountains late at night, light fog clinging to the bare rocks, patches of black ice on the road. And forests. I like the sun made green by fir needles in the afternoon. I walk through the trees and in the distance, through a break in the foliage, I can see grey-green mountains. And I like deserts, especially deserts with mountains. I see them far away when I think of how many different places I’ve lived.

I lived in Rhode Island for just under two years, part of third grade through part of fifth. When we moved there I was amazed at how little grass I saw. Back in Savannah there had been lots of huge yards and tall mossy trees, scent of red clay. In Pawtucket there were flat mortared surfaces. There was a harshness to it all, to the endless plains of asphalt, to the perpendicular brick buildings, to the telephone pole trees. But there was also a simplicity and an order which attracted me. Even when garbage blew across the street between the apartment buildings I found it clean and pure; the lines were clear. It reminded me of the hotel room. It would always be there, secure in its sameness. Though unaffected, perhaps, by my passing.

We lived at 81 Arthur Avenue before Finch Street. The day we moved in some boys came to the door and introduced themselves. I heard my mother’s shrill voice: “Sweetie! There are some little friends here!” I don’t remember their names, but I remember I was glad they came. Eric, maybe, one of them. Mom and I were a long way from home, wherever that was. I went outside with them, just to bum around. It was cold and dry and I could smell the power plant when the wind blew. We wandered around the apartment complex and they told me about their older brothers. The brothers were in a gang and they would protect me. We climbed around headstones in the old cemetery that bordered the complex—the only significant grass within the range of my Keds. Later that day I met the brothers and we gathered together a ton of kids and got up a huge game of team Hide-n-Seek. I can remember the smell of cold pavement from when I crawled under a parked car.

Days passed. I went to school, pretended I didn’t have homework, hung out with the other kids. The older brothers skipped school, drank out of paper bags, rolled their own. I heard there were lots of gangs; they fought a lot. Other gangs would sometimes attack little kids for fun unless the kids were under protection. I heard about a kid named Jimmy Booth who was a grade ahead of me. He got his cheek cut up by someone’s older brother. Later I found out the older brother was from my gang. He and others would walk me home from school, or watch a bunch of us play soccer in the parking lot outside my apartment building. Every so often my gang would find a fight. The other little kids and I watched.

I didn’t use my office much at first at 81 Arthur Avenue. I was satisfied with the pavement outside. One day me and the kids were playing street hockey when another gang came running toward us. My gang started rushing around, yelling at kids to get back. Someone handed me a long, heavy chain. I started to run but I tripped over the chain and by the time I scrambled back to my feet the fight was all around me. A strange older boy jumped in front of me. He had long black hair, and a knife in his hand. I started crying, and when he jabbed the knife at me I swung the chain around as hard as I could. It hit him on the side of the head and wrapped around his face a couple of times. For a long thin moment I thought I’d only made him angry, but then he collapsed on top of me; knife tip nicked my chin—two stitches. I remember screaming and trying to get away from him. One of my older brothers pulled me out from underneath him.

My gang won. The intruders fled into alleys and side streets and into the dark cemetery. I stood there letting my tears dry. Almost giddy, people were talking about how I’d whipped some serious ass. The boy still lay there. One of the older guys unwrapped the chain from around his head.

“Not dead,” he said.

“Too bad,” someone else said. Scattered laughter. They took his knife out of his hand and handed it to me. I didn’t want it, but they made me take it. They told me I had to cut his thumb off. At first I didn’t believe them, but they insisted I had to do it. We got attacked, they said. Penalty for violating our territory: loss of thumb. I had the boy’s knife—he was only a few years older than me—and it was very sharp. The gang started to grumble when I didn’t move. Someone grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed. It hurt, I think. Finally I bent down and grasped the boy’s thumb and sawed it off. He lurched up and screamed, but one of my older brothers hit him on the back of the head with a piece of wood so I could finish. I started shaking after, while the others stood around bragging, and then I ran away. I threw the thumb into the cemetery. My mom had a date after work, so I had plenty of time to get my clothes washed.

Afterward, I spent more time in my office. I didn’t play soccer so often, and before long I started hanging around with Jimmy Booth. No one bothered us too much. We cut through the sewers to get home from school.

Dry blood stained the pavement for a while. At first I thought it would never go away, but after a couple of rains it faded. I checked everyday. It wasn’t long before my mother decided she didn’t like the environment I was in and she moved us to 21 Finch Street. It was in a nicer, quieter, grassier neighborhood. In the end I still liked the order of 81 Arthur Avenue. I was glad of its ability to remain unchanged, and I almost wished I could be from there, to have a part of its resoluteness in me. I thought of the hotel room, and I knew if I ever went back to the scene of my crime I wouldn’t see my violent mark. It wasn’t there. It had faded with the rains and with the power of distance. I realized I would have to learn to use the magic of distance for myself.

Now, years and miles later, I kinda like 81 Arthur Avenue. It’s a good tale.

– | – | –

Motion, moving, we were always moving. I loved it, hated it. I screamed at my mother for it. She was a nomad. In my harsher, less understanding moments I think of her as a woman who did little more than follow her vagina. When I think about it more, I know her motives ran deeper. My grandmother was sick and dying when we left 21 Finch Street for our last big car trip, back to Ohio. Mom was willing to pack up and go be with her own mom. That may not be saying much for a woman who barely sat still long enough to glimpse a bit of scenery before she was off again, but it’s something I try to remember. Still, it’s hard to keep the motion out of my mind.

Over the years I developed a keen liking for houses. I lived in a few houses, here and there. I could tell they weren’t going anywhere, and I liked that. One place I lived in had been owned by the same family for more than a century before my mom and a step-dad bought it. Hundred Year House, we called it. I could tell people had been there for a long time from the worn spots on the doorjambs—all at the same height; from the smell of dusty lavender in my mother’s bathroom; from the rows of empty jam jars under the basement stairs. Apartments are different; people come and go. I don’t like that kind of motion—it’s too irregular, too unpredictable. Hundred Day Houses. Smell like grease fires or too few showers or a single recent coat of off-white latex. Carpet cleaning chemicals. Old cat spray. In the end, looking at 81 Arthur Avenue, or the hotel room, or Finch Street—or anywhere else—I find I have very ambiguous feelings about everywhere. I don’t know what I can claim or what can claim me. There’s someone out there who can look back at Hundred Year House and call it home, but what do I call home? That’s why I keep moving. That’s what I’m on the road to find out. I want to be from somewhere.

I remember things which are always there in the midst of all the motion. A dachshund named Gretchen who lived on pasta, or the ever-present ship’s wheel lamp. That lamp could never give me comfort. My office could never be my place of stillness and quiet. Ultimately it was my hiding place, first at Arthur Avenue; later from rampaging step-fathers. But there were other constants: a cheap nineteen-inch color television, a couple of chaise lounges my mother set up in our various spare bedrooms through the years for us to relax on in the evenings, and there were books. Those were the nice things, spun together in a thread winding around the eastern United States. Mom and I could never get lost; we always had that thread to follow, back through time.

As I grew older it got easier for me to use those items to work my magic. I build up from them. I can see a room with plants in the window—no curtains—and a small rack of books on one wall. The television has its own stand. Gretchen the Spaghetti Dog is curled up on one of the chaise lounges. It is 81 Arthur Avenue. In the distance, out the window, I can see mountains. If I follow the mountains with my eyes I see the light change. The plants are gone from the windows. My mother has a macramé thing hanging there now. The room is smaller. Gretchen is smaller. The television is still on its stand, but the books and chaises are gone, replaced by a battered couch and wall-hung, sepia-tinted photographs of people we never knew. This is Skidaway Road, Savannah. If I keep working I can find Abercorn Expressway and Hunter Air Base, or Covington, Kentucky, or 1634 Sundale Avenue in Dayton. One of the problems with distance is it blurs things together too much. The farther you get, the greater control you need to make it work. Gretchen the Spaghetti Dog often shows up in places she couldn’t have been. One thing I like though—if the magic doesn’t quite work, I can always make mountains.

One last thing I remember. It was in the hotel room. I was in third grade and we were leaving Savannah for Pawtucket. I had this tremendous crush on my teacher Miss Sikes. I was sad to be leaving her. I didn’t know how she would make out without me. I decided to leave her something to remember me by. In those last three days in the hotel room and at school I worked diligently on my gift: a tiny book with poems and drawings and a dedication to Miss Sikes on the front. Poems about Patagonia. Drawings of South African Dancers. And mountains. Always mountains. My mother didn’t know about it and Miss Sikes didn’t know. When I finished I put it on the bedside table in the hotel room so I wouldn’t forget it.

The last day my mother and I packed up before we left for school and work. We put things in the car, checked out of the hotel, then Mom drove me to school. Right after school she picked me up and we headed for Pawtucket. I left the gift sitting on the bedside table in the hotel room. On the last page, having steeled my nerve, I’d written, “I love you.”

Distance lets me see a maid who came into that hotel room and found the book, read the inscription as for herself. The same distance also tells me that despite what I thought at Arthur Avenue, you leave your mark. You always leave your mark, even in a sterile hotel room. Look for the doorjambs in Hundred Year House, look for a man’s thumbless hand in Pawtucket. I’ve always wanted to be from somewhere. I’ve wanted to point to a spot, put my finger on it and say it’s mine. But perhaps that’s asking for too little. Am I any less from Hundred Year House than the family which preceded me? In the end, if I grab a stranger on the street, tell my story, and ask where I’m from, what will he tell me?

From Cincinnati, most likely.

But that only means I was born there.

 

Read Motion, a poem based on the story.

Puppy Love Noir

Three stories about the dark side of young love… In “Counterflow,” young love blossoms in the trash-strewn shadow of an old bridge. Then, a boy is “On the Road to Find Out” where he belongs — on a journey filled with violence and longing. In “The Thunderhead and the Beast,” every boy’s dream comes knocking at the door, but this time it turns out to be a nightmare.

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Counterflow

Love lives and dies in an eddy under a bridge.

He would always remember the air under the bridge as ten degrees cooler than the air above—cool as her skin on that day they met, hands brushing as both reached for a handout during third period language arts. The creek there ran mostly shallow, water flowing over round stones like fossilized teeth, though an eddy had gouged a deep pool around the center pier. The counterflow trapped branches, beer cans, and plastic bags, all tangled in a slick of yellow foam. A bank of damp gravel and sand sloped below the span, too wet to sit on but open and flat: a fresh canvas.

On the Road to Find Out

Motion, moving, he was always moving.

I’d like to be from somewhere. Technically, I’m from Cincinnati, but that only means I was born there. We left, my mother and I, before I was old enough to know what a place was. Growing up, I never had the same bedroom for more than a year. My mother would meet “the nicest fellow” and we’d pack up and head for his hometown. From Ohio to Alabama to Kentucky to Georgia to Rhode Island back to Ohio, I took a round trip with layovers at 19 addresses in 17 years. For the longest time we owned this beat-up, tan ’63 Oldsmobile, same age as me. We might be just going to the grocery but it seemed strange to look out the back and not see a U-Haul…

For a taste of Puppy Love Noir, read this story for free.

The Thunderhead and the Beast

Every boy’s dream comes knocking at the door, and turns out to be a nightmare.

I recall the summer Jodi introduced me to the beast as a dry, thundery time. The smell of ozone filled the air and each day threatened to be the one when rain might come at last, yet didn’t. A thunderhead loomed over the Coast Range to the west like a sentinel, yet the atmosphere felt as still as stone. Grey-white day followed grey-white day, an unending march of expectation and anxiety. I lived in an apartment complex called Shiloh Glen, a yellow brick and plywood compound with little to offer but a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a pair of netless basketball hoops. Beyond Shiloh’s dusty boundaries, grass seed and hay fields stretched to infinity, or at least to the range of a boy’s bicycle.

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.

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.

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