Mercenary

As I have said before, reading Murder-a-Go-Go’s indirectly led me to Spotify, which led me to rediscovering the magic of the Go-Go’s again after many years, and then led me on to rediscovering other 80’s music I loved, like the Cars and, just Friday, Josie Cotton. Josie Cotton is probably best known for her her cover of the Go-Go’s “Johnny Are You Queer?” (which could never be released or recorded today, but at the time was kind of in-your-face and cool) as well as fronting the band playing the prom at the end of the terrific teen movie Valley Girl (which also should have been a much bigger hit than it was; but calling it Valley Girl was an attempt to cash-in on Moon Zappa’s novelty hit “Valley Girl”, but the movie was actually so much better than that; it was one of my favorite teen movies of the 1980’s and also starred a very young and beautiful Nicolas Cage in what may have been his first starring role). I was listening to two of her albums Friday night and yesterday (Convertible Music and From the Hip) and marveling that she wasn’t a bigger star than she was; she certainly had fun, upbeat music with lyrics that bit down hard, and she also had a terrific sense of personal style that should have caught on in the age of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

Go figure.

Which leads me to the next story in Murder-a-Go-Go’s, Bryon Quertermous’ “Mercenary.”

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“They asked for my dental records,” Lodi Meyers said, “so they can identify my body if he kills me.”

Andre Taylor sat across from her at a diner on the outskirts of downtown Detroit. “You really want to talk about this now? With me?”

“I don’t have any other options,” she said, tears giving way to an angry flush across her cheeks. “They’re putting together this moronic safety plan for me while insisting there’s not enough evidence to keep him in prison.”

Andre flexed the fingers of his beefy, gnarled hands and picked up his coffee cup without taking a drink. The bleached white of the cup contrasted with the dark black skin of his hands, which were shaking enough to splash a bit of the freshly poured coffee onto the table.

“I’m really not the person you should be talking to about this.”

Lodi reached her hand across the table and clutched Andre’s wrist. “That’s exactly why we’re talking.”

Andre put his coffee cup down and stood up. “This was a mistake.”

Lodi grabbed his wrist again, this time more aggressively. “There’s a reason you showed up even though this is a terrible idea. You want to make sure I haven’t told any- one what you did.”

Bryon Quertermous has published two novels–Murder Boy and Riot Load–which are kind of hard to classify. They’re noir and hard-boiled, but there’s a twisted, slightly demented sense of humor about them that reminds me of Victor Gischler’s work (which you should also read).

“Mercenary” is a terrific tale, built around two people–a woman and a man–who are tied together by the weirdest connection (saying anything more would be spoilerish); she’s a former pain clinic manager and he’s a bail bondsman. Her husband is about to be released on bail–and plans to kill her. The rest of the tale, as she tries to convince the bail bondsman to help save her life, plays out as we find out more about their connection, why the husband is in jail, and see just how far Lodi is willing to go to protect herself and her daughter–who is in a coma. There’s a lot here, and Quertermous tells his story sparingly and carefully, with fewer words than most would have used, and yet I can’t help but feel there’s even more to be mined here; this easily could have been a novel. Instead, it’s an enormously satisfying dark tale with a sardonic sense of humor that was quite fun to read.

Breakdown Dead Ahead

Friday, and we made it through another week, Constant Reader–and a full week of work at that, on top of the Daylight Saving Change madness. This weekend is St. Patrick’s Day, which means the obligatory parade (and traffic congestion, complete with closed roads) in Uptown, which also means I need to get everything requiring driving finished and out of the way today. Fortunately, today is a half-day and I get off work at one, so I can cruise uptown and do all those errands and hopefully be safely inside my apartment by two-thirty.

My new MacBook Air arrived yesterday, and I’ve already gotten it all set up and taken care of so that it is usable, and I absolutely love it. I still have an issue with connecting it to the cloud, so this afternoon when I get home I’ll go on-line and talk to Apple Support and get that taken care of, after which it will be absolutely good to go. It’s very fast, has a lot more storage than my previous Air, and it’s rose gold–I didn’t specify a color so it defaulted to that, and it’s actually rather pretty.

I also intend to spend the rest of the day–after getting home–laundering the bed linens and devoting the day to finishing reading Alafair Burke’s superb The Better Sister, which hopefully will mean a review over the weekend. I’m also behind on reviewing the stories in Murder-a-Go-Go’s, so I need to get caught up on that as well.

As for my weekend plans, I need to get the Lost Apartment back into some sort of order. The house is being termite-tented later this month (scheduled while we’re staying at the Monteleone for the Festivals, and Scooter will be off to the Cat Practice for boarding and grooming and so forth), and I also intend to spend the weekend rereading the first ten chapters of the WIP and planning out the rest of the book. If the weather is nice–which it probably will be; the last few days have been spectacular–I may take a walk with my camera and take pictures of the Bead Trees of St. Charles. I think we’ll be getting a pizza from That’s Amore for dinner on Sunday as a treat for ourselves, and I do want to get a lot of cleaning and organizing and so forth taken care of this weekend.

And yes, I may start doing some research for the next Scotty book. I have an amorphous idea–I want to have the boys hired to investigate two different cases that end up being linked (the old Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew trick), but the trick is how to link the cases. I have a vague idea of how to do it, but am still not completely certain it’ll work, but the title will most likely be Hollywood South Hustle. I really like the idea of a local case juxtaposed against a case involving a film production scandal…

And on that note, ’tis back to the mines of spice before I head to the office. Happy Friday, Constant Reader!

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I Wanna Be Your Lover

So, Facebook was apparently wonky yesterday, and so was Instagram. I rarely go to Instagram–I’m not really sure what the point of it is, and I mostly follow male fitness models because I like to look at pictures of pretty men, feel free to judge me for this–but I did have some things I wanted to post on Facebook yesterday which kept failing on me. But the wonkiness kept me off of there for most of the day, and I have to say it was kind of lovely.

I am loving Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister, as I knew I would. This weekend I am going to have to spend most of my free time reading, because I still have two more books to read to prepare for my panel and time is running out.

Yesterday the box o’books for Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories arrived, and it looks fantastic. I can’t tell you, Constant Reader, how pleased I am with what Bold Strokes has been doing with the packaging of my books. Great covers, the interior with Janson (my favorite font); they look terrific, and I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s been a while since I got a box o’books; the last Todd Gregory novel came out in January of 2018, and this is the first fiction I’ve published since then (I don’t count anthologies, even though my name is on the spine). Yeah, I know that’s just over a year, but for me that’s a long time.

And no, the feeling of opening up a box o’books with my name on the cover still hasn’t gotten old.

I am really looking forward to getting the box o’books for Royal Street Reveillon.

I had hoped to have the first draft of the WIP finished by the end of this month, but I don’t really see how I can do that while getting the reading done that I need to do for my panel…which means, I suppose, that I’ll have to rejuggle my calendar for the year. Ha ha ha, like I actually have taken the time to make a to-do calendar for the year. I’ve not even been making to-do lists. Maybe this is why I’ve felt so at-sea this year; I should get back on that and get back to normal.

I started watching The Order on Netflix last night, per the recommendation of some of my co-workers, and I kind of enjoyed the first episode. It is a paranormal show of some sort, but it, like True Blood (and the grandmother of all these shows, Dark Shadows), doesn’t take itself seriously and there are some seriously funny moments on the show. I also watched the first episode of Gregg Araki’s new show on Starz, Now Apocalypse, and also am intrigued enough to watch more. American Gods is also apparently back for its second season, which is something else I can watch during these last few weeks pre-Festival while Paul is working around the clock.

My new computer was delivered yesterday–I did wind up ordering a new MacBook Air on-line on Monday (not that there’s anything wrong with the HP Stream; there’s not, but it’s a long story I won’t bore you with and it doesn’t hurt to use it as a back-up in case of other issues AND this way when we travel we won’t have to share a laptop which is always aggravating), and it did arrive and I am picking it up this morning on my way to the office. Today and tomorrow are, of course, my half-days, which is lovely, and so I can come home tonight and get things started on cleaning around here as well as reading, and then tomorrow I can make groceries on the way home and be in for the weekend. This weekend is St. Patrick’s Day, which means parades and day-drunks roaming around the neighborhood, so not leaving the house is optimal.

And on that note, I should return to the spice mines. Happy Thursday, Constant Reader,

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Refugee

Tuesday was yet another night of non-deep sleep; in which again I spent most of the night asleep than half-asleep then awake: lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m holding Daylight Saving Time solely responsible for this horror, I might add, because I was sleeping beautifully before this.

But last night was good; I slept through the night and feel very rested and very much better this morning. I made it through the rough part of my week and now have the easy, downhill path to my weekend. Being tired, I’ve accomplished little of note this week; I am not even keeping up with my emails…but now that I am past those two days and I’ve slept well, maybe now I can get caught up on everything I’ve tragically fallen behind on.

I do so hate when that happens.

But if I put my head down and just start ploughing through, I should tear through it all in no time. (Famous last works, no?)

But I sent the finished manuscript for Royal Street Reveillon in on Sunday, and I think part of the exhaustion (and not sleeping) comes from the inevitable relaxation and sudden drop of stress resultant from finishing a book. I always forget, from book to book, that there’s always about a week’s worth of resetting my brain that is required, and I rather stumble through that week, zombie-like, as my burnt out mind slowly resets and recovers. Bearing this in mind, I decided that it’s silly to beat myself up over not getting back into the current WIP immediately; I stopped that nonsense yesterday morning when the realization dawned, through my foggy, tired brain, that this is normal. So I’m going to instead spend this week getting focused on resetting everything, reevaluating where I’m at on things, and reading. The festivals are in two weeks, and I’ve got to finish my homework before the panel I’m moderating.

I’ve also got a diversity column to write for the next issue of the Sisters in Crime quarterly newsletter.

So, today I am going to focus simply on reading Alafair Burke’s fabulous The Better Sister, making a to-do list, organizing my bills, and figuring out what I need to get done by the end of the year; I also need to probably go back and figure out what projects I was planning on doing/working on this year.

It’s all about resetting.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Fading Fast

When I started looking over the lyrics to the three Go-Go’s songs I was given to choose from as my inspiration for a story–as you well know, I settled on “This Town”–I was amazed, as I have said before in previous entries about these stories in this anthology, at how dark the lyrics actually were when removed from the context of the upbeat music and the cheerful singing voice of Belinda Carlisle.

Needless to say, the songs definitely loaned themselves to serving as inspiration from crime stories.

And Sarah M. Chen wrote perhaps one of the darkest stories I’ve read in a long time, inspired by “Fading Fast.”

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The guttural meow of a feral cat pierced the still night, making Sherry yelp. She stumbled on the gravel road and smacked into Justin, who crept silently in front of her.

“Jesus, what’s with you?” Justin whispered, spinning around. He held a finger up to his lips as if she needed to be reminded that they were supposed to be “stealth-like.” Jus- tin’s exact words because this was all his plan. He didn’t even want her here, but no way was she letting him do this without her.

“Sorry. Damn cat.” She hated cats. Mostly because that’s how they sounded late at night outside her window. Howling in that creepy, blood-curdling way.

His stern look softened into concern. “It’s not too late to back out, babe. Let me handle it.” His eyes traveled down to her bulging belly.

Sherry instinctively put her hand on her round tummy. She shook her head. “No, this is my thing.”

Their eyes locked in the darkness, illuminated by the full moon and the flickering streetlight behind them.

“It’s our thing.” Justin smiled and grabbed her hand. Gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back, and he motioned to the trailer about twenty feet ahead of them. “Ready?”

She nodded. Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as they closed in on the gray aluminum mobile home with the sagging bottom frame. The chilly night seemed to penetrate her bones, as if she weren’t wearing two sweatshirts and a windbreaker. Or maybe it was her nerves. She shivered.

Justin climbed the creaky steps and tried the front door. It was locked, as Sherry knew it would be. Justin pulled out a flathead screwdriver and went to work. Ernie didn’t bother with the deadbolt. Figured the few neighbors around knew better than to screw with him. Tonight, he was wrong.

The story opens with Justin and Sherry breaking into the trailer of Ernie; she is heavily pregnant, so immediately the mind runs to why would a pregnant woman be doing this? But as the story progresses, Chen deftly shows us precisely why a pregnant woman would take such a monumental risk, and why she is so driven. A powerful story about abuse, the damage that results from it, and how that damage can carry on to another generation unless someone breaks the cycle is handled quite expertly here; and the way the story ends is quite a punch in the mouth. Chen is quite gifted, and this is my first experience with reading her work…and it won’t be the last.

Well done!

Blades

Reading these stories, and revisiting the music, has drawn me into something I rarely do: reminisce and think about the past. I generally try not to think too much about the past; it’s the past and there’s nothing to be done about it, after all. Sometimes, though, when writing, I try to draw on my past and my own experience.

The 1980’s were a difficult decade for me, but one of the things I remember fondly about that decade was always the music. I’ve always had a soft spot for 1980’s music, and it was a weird, transitory time for it. MTV changed everything; exposing Americans and young people to new music and bands and artists they might not have ever heard, and the visual medium of the new “music television” channel also allowed us all to experience music visually, and there’s no question that interesting video presentation helped artists like Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, and many others to an even greater success than might have otherwise been possible for them.

The Go-Go’s videos were almost always very simplistic; probably “Vacation” was the most complicated video they ever made. Rewatching their videos recently kind of made me laugh–“Head over Heels”, for example, looks like it cost $20 to produce–and I’m not certain if this was because they didn’t care, or the record company thought they were big enough to not need the push from a terrific video.

The next story up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is “Blades,” by Steve Weddle.

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He was on his fifth Tequila Sunrise when his head hit the table.

“Everything, guys. Everything.”

We’d talked Nick into coming for drinks because he hadn’t been out of his apartment since twenty-nine days back when he and Laura had called it off. We had to get him out. Even without the wedding, the three of us considered ourselves his groomsmen. Until death do us all part, it seemed. Though another few drinks might take care of that.

The Thursday night crowd at Wingin’ It was worried more about the Cowboys-Eagles game than about the four of us concussing ourselves on a table.

Raphael slid the emptied tumblers away from Nick’s head. “She didn’t take every- thing, man.” Raph was the jokester among us, the one we sent in to cause a scene if we needed it, the one thinking he was just one prank away from going viral. When we’d go to games, he was the one who would sneak us in a diaper bag full of White Russians in baby bottles “You’ve still got your health,” he told Nick, pulling a coaster from the side of Nick’s face. “And that nasty cold sore.”

Truth be told, Nick was a bit of a late bloomer. We were all in our late thirties, but he hadn’t even gotten through his first marriage, yet. And with Laura dumping him a month before the wedding, he was even further behind us.

“Look,” Sam said, “if it wasn’t meant to be, it’s best you know now. The two of you can move on, find new people. It’s good news to find out now.”

“We’re still registered,” he said.

Ralph, Sam, and I looked at each other, then back to Nick.

“Sure,” Sam said, “I’m sure she didn’t even think about it. Probably moved on. You should too, man.”

“At Target,” Nick continued, ignoring Sam. “I checked. Target still thinks the wedding is going to happen. On the nineteenth. That’s next weekend.” He’d raised his head, apparently just he could drop it, rattling on the table again. “Next weekend.”

Sam said he’d get the next round, then walked across the room to the bar.

This story is different from the preceding ones in that the crime committed during the course of this story isn’t a felony; and the crime itself, while the driving force behind the story, isn’t really the focus of the story. The story is about friendship, and the things guys do to help out their friends, whether it’s a smart thing or not, and the ending of the story might be a little dark–the story itself is dark, emotionally–but it also leaves the reader with a strong sense of satisfaction; justice, of a sort, has been done, and everyone feels better about things. It’s about male bonding and male friendship, and not done in a way that feels non-relatable to not-straight men.

Quite good, and I loved the change of pace.

And now back to the spice mines.

Song of the South

I am a son of the South; Alabama born and bred. Southerners like to think, or believe, that they are different from other Americans; they also believe they are the most patriotic Americans, despite the prevalence of Confederate flags and dedication to preserving memorials to traitors. I was born and grew up during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I remember the day Dr. King was murdered. I grew up amidst racism and segregation–there were no black children in my elementary school in Chicago, and the story was our principal would tell black families trying to enroll their children that the school was at capacity–but would then enroll the children of the next white family to come along. That racism at our school didn’t extend to Hispanics/Latinx; I shared classrooms with kids who were born in Mexico or Central America, whose families had come to the United States and Chicago–where my family moved when I was two–to escape war and poverty. Several of my teachers liked to call attention to the immigrant children in my classes, as examples of the American melting pot, how the country was a country of immigrants, and how our nation’s strength came from the combination of cultures and national identities.

Race has always been an issue in this country since the day the first slave ships arrived; the deadly seeds of poison and discord planted in a nation as yet unborn in the notion that some people are less than others, that owning human beings as though they were cattle was a legitimate enterprise. Slavery almost split the country in two; it took a rebellion and a bloody war to put an end to it…but that war didn’t solve the ultimate problem of slavery because it was never addressed: white supremacy and the belief that the US was a country of white people exclusively for white people. If you weren’t white, you could benefit from being an American but never as much as white Americans. I remember hearing, during the Civil Rights era, that Americans of color should be grateful they were Americans because they were better off as Americans than they would be anywhere else.

Even as a child, this begged the question, but isn’t the point of being American the idea that the next generation is better off than the previous? That the reason our country is great is because we all strive to do better than our parents? Isn’t that what people of color are trying to do?

Race issues in America has always been complex and complicated and nuanced.

I sometimes have wondered if I have failed as a writer by not dealing with issues of race in my books. I told a friend the other day that I will have to go back and reread all of my books to see if I allowed any racist ideas or sentiments to creep into it; even if it’s as little a thing as describing a person of color by their color, and if I fell into the horrific racist tropes of using food or drink to indicate the color of their skin–mocha, chocolate, cinnamon, etc.

Getting inside the head of racists…and people who are involved in the Klan…is something that is difficult for a lot of Americans. The rise of social media and the most recent elections have exposed a lot of people to shocking discoveries about relatives and friends, who harbor racist or at the very least, borderline racist ideologies. I’ve been pushing myself to deal with race and in particular how prevalent in can be in the rural south lately, so I am reading a lot more about it.

Lori Roy, on the other hand, decided to write a novel about it.

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The truck driving toward our house is black. Lots of cars drive past our house because there’s a good turnaround spot just down the road and the interstate is the other way. Most every car driving past wants to go the other way, and usually they’re in a hurry, but not this truck. It drives slow and it glitters when the sun hits it and the tailgate rattles like pennies in a mason jar. I hear it even though all the windows and doors are closed and locked, have to be. That’s the rule when Mama’s at work and I’m home alone.

The driver, he is a man. One of his arms hangs out the window, and something dangles from his hand. I don’t know what it is, but then he keeps slowing down, almost rolls to a stop, and as soon as he flings that something, I know. It has happened before. If Mama comes home and finds it, she’ll be angry and maybe even cancel her going-out plans for tonight. And if going-out plans are canceled, Julie Anna won’t come.

I wait until the truck rolls past before I slide off the sofa. Making sure no one will hear, I touch my feet down real soft, don’t jump like I sometimes do, and tiptoe to the front door. The lock is stiff and I have to use both hands to turn it. Mama’s big enough, it only takes her one hand to open the door, and someday, that’ll be me. The lock makes a loud click and I freeze. I tru to be quiet because I’m doing wrong and I know it. Someone is always watching, that’s what Mama likes to say, so I guess I’m sneaking so the someone, whoever that someone is, won’t see.

Lori Roy is one of our top crime writers publishing today–she has, over the course of four novels, won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and been nominated for a third. Gone Too Long is her fifth novel, and it, too, is an impressive achievement.

The book opens with the afore-mentioned first person characterization of a young girl named Beth, and the horrific thing that happens to her. She is kidnapped and held hostage in a basement somewhere, after witnessing the murder of her babysitter, Julie Anna. As if that isn’t horrific enough, we also know that it takes place seven years earlier, and that the action of the story is going to flash back and forth in time between the present and the recent past. The modern day character is a damaged young woman with red hair named Imogene, still recovering–through the use of alcohol and meaningless sexual experiences with men selected when she’s drunk–from the deaths of her husband and son in a car accident several years earlier.

Imogene just also happens to be the daughter of a recently deceased high-ranking member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the present day, her father has just been buried, and her mother has found a strange wire…and asks Imogene to follow where it leads from their house. She does, comes upon an older house on their property that has been abandoned for years, and finds, in a basement similar to the one where Beth was taken, a young boy who would be about the age her son would be had he not been killed. The discovery of this child–and the discovery that the new Klan leader’s son’s girlfriend has tried to sell two incredibly expensive watches–triggers a series of events and revelations that expose the ugliness of the Klan, the ugliness of human nature, and the ugliness of life in general when your family has been devoted to the Klan for generations.

Gone Too Long is a brilliant read, immense in its scope of human emotions and the nuances of how people can rationalize the irrational, and how that irrationality can lead to the self-justification  of doing the most horrible things to other human beings; yes I know it’s wrong but I didn’t have a choice.

This is an incredibly powerful novel, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, it won’t be available until its actual publication date on June 25th, but it can be pre-ordered, both on-line and from your local independent. Do so; pre-order it now so you can experience what is definitely going to be one of the top crime novels of 2019.

Stunning. Just stunning.