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Toxic Soul

A couple weeks ago, I think we led with a God laughs at you when you make plans tagline. Which is true.

But sometimes the Big Man also kicks you in the balls and steals your sandwich. Then laughs at you. Subtle but important distinction.

Toxic Soul by Matt Mattila




Her presence was a gift. It didn’t matter that I had an office job that paid a quarter million a year at the largest investment firm in the country. It didn’t matter that I had money, a decent house, a nice car. You can have everything and still not be whole unless you’ve got a good-looking girl in your bed. That’s what I thought anyway.

Gabriella was perfect. She knew it. Beautiful girls always do. That’s the problem with them. The entire reason I worked all those hours to afford the house and the car was so I could have a girl like her. I was out of the house too much. She knew I wouldn’t dare cheat. I knew even with the house and the money I would never have a girl like her again—beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent. 

Gabriella could have any man she wanted. She didn’t want me anymore. It didn’t matter that she lived in my house, wore the clothes I bought her, slept in my bed. Any man would be willing to do it just to have her.

Maybe that was why she cheated.

I didn’t follow her in the car to her lover’s house. I didn’t hire a private investigator, however much I thought about it. I didn’t raise a fuss when I heard her talking dirty into the phone at three in the morning, under the cover of the bathroom fan. I didn’t say anything when she sent me an accidental text saying she was glad I hadn’t found out about them, and would “I” like to meet her at the Pier at four in the afternoon for early dinner.

I said goodbye to her, said I’d see her in a bit, hoped she’d have fun out with the girls. I didn’t leave fifteen minutes later to follow her. I went out to buy a gun.

I knew I’d get away with killing her. I had enough to buy a juror off. Enough to make someone silent. Only one person out of twelve, and I’d be free. Got to love the American system.

I could always save my money (market had been bad. Maybe that was why she cheated. She knew I couldn’t afford her anymore) and ask my father to pull strings, pollute the jury pool, get me a good lawyer, rub elbows with my judge. I could always say I was half-asleep and thought she was a burglar. Getting a gun was easy. Getting off would be easier. The hard part was doing it. I procrastinated. I waited nine days before I finally got the courage. I wouldn’t regret it. I decided night was better than daytime (“I thought she was burglar,” I would say. “I panicked”). The night would be perfect. I could tell them I was sleeping, woke up, thought I saw/heard an intruder, picked my gun up, and fired.

I went to bed first that Thursday. She didn’t come in till midnight. She lay next to me without a word, in the millimeter-thin nightgown I’d bought her last week. She stayed silent. She did nothing. She drifted off to sleep. She wheezed out her nose. Maybe she had a cold.

I lay there with my eyes open, stabbing daggers at the soft skin on the back of her neck, the bulges of her vertebrae. I took a finger and poked her. She didn’t budge. I swiveled my head around to look at the bedside table. The gun wasn’t behind the tissue box. It wasn’t under the lamp. It wasn’t near my glass of water on the edge, on the floor, under my pillow. She must’ve popped one of the sleeping pills I didn’t take tonight. She was passed out.

The gun wasn’t on my side. I peeked my head over her shoulder. 

It sat on top of her metal change basket. She might’ve been so fucked up she didn’t see the metal glint off the nightlight she insisted on having. Maybe she knew I was going to kill her. Maybe the snore was fake and she was waiting for me to reach for it.

What if she heard me as I got up and walked around? I had one chance at this. My arm trembled when I leaned over her, half my body twisting in something unhuman, my heart beating an inch from her warm skin. My shoulder almost scraped against her. My breath made her hair dance.

She might’ve been dead already. I couldn’t hear her breathe. My heart was beating too fast. 

I had summoned the resolve to reach an arm out. My hand landed on a pocket mirror. Her white teeth glistened in the darkness. She didn’t flinch when she slipped the gun from under her pillow and put cold metal on warm flesh.


Matt Mattila was published in Yellow Mama, Near to the Knuckle and Shotgun Honey before he turned 19. Moonlighting as a food runner, busboy and restaurant host, he spends his free time wishing he could come up with a pen name weirder than his real one. He lives on the wrong side of a Connecticut city. Find him on Facebook.

Teach a Man to Fish

You can build a man a  fire and keep him warm for a night, 

or you can set a man on fire, and keep him warm for the rest of his life ...

Teach a Man to Fish by James Queally



The slithering translucent mass kept on writhing in the bucket, quivering tails splashing water all over the floor and onto one another. A set of eyes peeked out from the collective every now and occasionally, so you were never quite sure if you were looking at one beast or one hundred.
               
It reminded Ren of the Ouroboros symbol. The snake eating its own tail. The cycle of destruction and reincarnation.
               

He looked down at his phone, which confirmed that it was 20 degrees out and he was standing in the shadow of a shack masquerading as a fishery in Portland, Maine. The same phone that knew he was about 18 hours and more than a half-dozen time zones from Kyoto.
               

Well, he’d certainly been destroyed, but the reincarnation part was taking its time.
               
Ren pounded on the steel door of Lenny Olsen’s building, the dank home of a man who spent most mornings wrist deep in river water, trapping glass eels in dragnets. The seafood scent had soaked into his skin, and the odor had made a home in his walls.
               
The target, the situation, they were both beneath Ren. But he’d fallen far below the rung where you get options.
               
Lenny answered with a half smile, chewing on his lower lip like a hungry dog, wearing the same dumb stare he’d sported during their first two encounters. Ren stepped inside, trading the cold for the stink.
               
“Bitter out there,” Lenny said.

Small talk about the weather in Podunk, USA. Fucking simple people, Ren thought.
               
“Is everything ready?” Ren asked.
               
Lenny pulled a draw string, turning on a row of lamp lights, the kind that swayed overhead and showed the world from an epileptic’s point of view.
               
“Fifty pounds, just like you asked,” he said. “You damn near wiped me out sir.”
               
“You told me you kept up to five hundred pounds on hand at any given time,” Ren replied. “Is there a problem?”
               
Lenny cocked his head to the side. Ren did some calculations. The going rate for glass eels was about $800 per pound, meaning Ren owed the man roughly forty grand. Lenny was supposed to stock nearly $400,000 worth of the minnow sized creatures. That was the only reason Ren had allowed himself to wind up in Maine anyway.

The Chinese made a killing off the eels. Buying them, raising them and then selling them in Japan at a markup. About a year ago, Ren would have never concerned himself with this knowledge. But a year ago, Ren had been a relevant man in the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s most powerful Yakuza set.
               
He’d gotten old, and to most people, that meant he’d gotten weak. Now he needed capital to rebuild, and Lenny couldn’t tell the difference between a Chinese businessman and a Japanese con.
               
“Why you so interested in my stock?” Lenny asked, turning his back to Ren and leaning towards one of the shivering eel containers. “You wanted fifty. I got you fifty.”
               
“Just curious,” Ren replied.
               
“I’d be careful talking like that,” Lenny said. “Whole hauls tend to disappear around here. I got taken twice last year. Lost more money then I’d care to remember.”
               
Last year, Ren wouldn’t have cared to make him remember.
               
He drew the sword, a practiced and fluid move, but Lenny spun around in the same instant, his hands leaping up from his side.
               
Ren stepped out of the way, catching Lenny in the mouth with the hilt of his sword as Lenny’s gun took aim at the place where he was standing a second earlier. Lenny stumbled back and Ren turned the business end of the blade toward him, kicking the fisherman’s gun to the ground at the same time.
               
“You sure you wanna do this son?” Lenny asked. “Nasty business, armed robbery.”
               
“I’m sure I don’t want to do this,” Ren replied. “But I need too.”
               
 Ren nudged the blade forward, the tip of the sword edging dangerously close to Lenny’s throat. The old man complied, and started moving the buckets from their homes, the quivering slipknots of glass eels writhing and threatening to escape as he struggled with the weight.
               
“I know it’s hard out there right now, but trust me, you’re too old for stunts like this,” Lenny said. “Things get worse before they get better, right?”
               
Ren looked down at the eels. Snakes eating their own tails. Destruction. No reincarnation.
               
“Mine didn’t get better,” he replied. “And I didn’t ask for your advice. Just keep loading them up.”
               
Lenny bent over again, arms shaking as he lifted another one of the mobile eel pools, barely able to drag the container from its home to its place at Ren’s feet.
               
Old. Weak.
               
This is what Ren had lowered himself to. Stealing from prey too frail to play defense. He was better than this. Or he used to be.
               
Ren stepped forward, lowering the blade to hip level, feeling some kind of obligation to aid his hapless victim. They locked eyes when Lenny noticed Ren’s hand on the bucket.

The old man’s gaze quickly turned to the sword, him seeming to realize it was out of killing range a half-second before Ren did.

The bucket jumped out of Ren’s hands, Lenny lifting it with strength he’d pretended he didn’t possess, a swarm of eels and stale water driving Ren to the floor.

So much for old and weak.

Ren scrambled to his feet, furious at himself for getting duped, when he saw Lenny racing to pull another one of the lamp strings.

Ren charged forward with the sword, but a thunderclap erupted in the room. He saw the hilt of the blade in his hand but couldn’t feel it, and realized a mess of buckshot had rendered his right arm useless. A shotgun barrel sat at the end of the smoke cloud, its trigger easing back, a string wrapped around the end of it.

“Told you I’d been robbed before,” Lenny said. “Didn't plan on letting it happen again.

Ren slumped to the ground, blood leaking out of his shoulder meat and staining the countless eels splashing in puddles on the ground. Lenny fetched his handgun, drew down as Ren closed his eyes, preparing for his insignificant, humiliating end.

“Just finish it,” Ren said.

“And what the hell would I do that for?” Lenny asked.

“I tried to rob you, put a blade to your neck.”

“You’re not the first person in history to fuck up, wouldn’t be the last either,” Lenny said. “And what the hell good does it do me punishing you anyway? Don’t stop the next shitkicker from coming through here trying to steal my wares.”

Lenny pulled the gun back.

“Way I see it, you don’t wanna be robbing people and I don’t wanna get robbed,” he said. “And besides, this here’s a lucrative business. Whatever you needed that cash for, it won’t take you long to earn it.”

“And you just what? Hope I don’t try and rob you a second time?” Ren asked.

“Never seen a man try so hard to talk himself into getting shot,” Lenny replied. “But I got plenty more of those guns rigged up if you must know. Now whaddaya say? You wanna be friends? Or you wanna be enemies?”

Ren looked to the ground. The displaced eels still coiling together, sliding over each other’s backs. Snakes eating their own tails. Destruction, then reincarnation.


Maybe his cycle had finally come around.

James Queally is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and former crime reporter for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He writes crime fiction because sometimes, facts and attribution just aren't any damn fun. His profile of Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug lord who inspired the film "American Gangster," can be found in the 2013 Issue of Inside Jersey Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey and Out Of The Gutter Online. Find him on Twitter @JamesQueallyLAT

Brit Grit Alley

Brit Grit Alley features interviews, news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.

By Paul D. Brazill 

This week down Brit Grit Alley, I have a guest column from Chris Black of hot new Brit Grit publisher Number Thirteen Press.

Why Number Thirteen Press?

The idea was simple. Number Thirteen Press – 13 pulp crime novellas, publishing on the 13th of each month for 13 consecutive months. This brings up a number of questions, of course. Principally, why the hell am I doing this?

Why pulp? Look back at original pulp culture and it included a huge diversity of styles and genres. And with the rise of e-publishing – cheap production to a mass market – pulp fiction is back with a bang. Pulp doesn’t just mean that anything is possible in fiction but that nothing is impossible. No restrictions. It doesn’t have to include anything, it’s just that it could include anything. Basically, pulp is as much about the publishing as the story, and it means nothing is forbidden.

Why crime? My definition of crime is pretty loose: crossing lines. I have a theory about noir, that it is not a genre of crime but a wider genre of transgression. It might be moral or ethical, personal or social, but it is the transgression that gets to the core of the story. On the other hand, crime also includes legal transgressions: heist stories, straight thrillers, pulp thrillers, gangster stories, Brit grit and a ton of other styles. All are welcome at Number Thirteen. The net of crime fiction is very, very broad, and as crime readers have always known and the rest of the world is just catching up on: it’s the genre that most often (sorry sci-fi fans) mixes high literature with entertainment. Even when it’s pulpy.

And why novellas? This is where we get to the meat of the matter. The novella (or short novel: the boundary between the two is rather blurry) was essential in the development of noir and crime fiction. Think Chandler’s novellas, combined to novel length. Or They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity; all essential early noir texts and all novellas (around 45,000 words or less). It’s such a perfect length; a novelette is like a long short story, but a novella is a novel stripped to the essentials, focused entirely on the core of the narrative.

As publishing developed, novellas became un-economical. Paperback original hacks (and I use the term lovingly) trained themselves to write dead on 60,000 words every time, but these days some legacy publishers will reject a 60,000 word novel on length. Since the 1970s it just isn't economical and it takes a ballsy press (or someone who isn't in it for the money) to publish anything under 60k – more common from small literary presses than genre publishers. At the same time I read books – good books by authors I really respect – of around 65,000 to 75,000 words, and I think: It’s good. It’s really good. But it could stand to lose 10%-20%. Novels have been fattened up (beyond the natural fit for an author’s style) and too many seem excessively bloated as a result. As Ian McEwan noted recently, few novels earn their length these days. You couldn’t say that about Gold Medal.
With the rise of e-publishing length becomes no issue. It’s no longer a choice between short stories and doorstoppers. Publishers like Blasted Heath, Snubnose Press and New Pulp Press (and plenty more) are doing great things at shorter lengths, and it’s about time. The novella and short novels (NTP considers submissions from about 18k to 60k words) have been neglected for too long.

So I looked around at the new publishing landscape, and I liked it. Lots of great writing, lots of great writers and stories getting a chance that they wouldn't have got 20 years ago.

Still.

Nobody was doing exactly what I would do, given the chance.

I waited until everything was exactly right and that didn’t happen so I went ahead anyway.

And why 13?  Well, I wanted one book per month. To keep the press ticking over constantly, but without being overwhelmed. To keep readers interested and hopefully coming back regularly. And what date is convenient each month? Avoiding major holidays like Christmas, New Year and the 4th of July, in the middle of the month we have the magic number 13. Memorable, significant. And I remembered David Goodis’s Black Friday, about Friday the 13th and how some people carry that kind of luck with them all the time (as quoted on the Press homepage) and that seemed to be a good summation of some kinds of noir, my favourite crime genre.

It also gives a cut-off point. After 13 months I may be losing money, or too busy to continue. I may take a break, or finish, or press right on with a second list of 13. It gives me the freedom to quit or continue without pressure. But it also gives me the impetus to see it through to the end and not fade away as can happen with small internet-based companies.


So, 13 it is. And starting with Michael Young’s Of Blondes and Bullets, a really nice Goodis-like British novella. The second book will be the rather unique Down Among the Dead, a short novella of trouble and the Troubles by the fantastically talented Steve Finbow. Coming up are books in the Nordic noir style and some pure American pulp. I believe in the quality and worthiness of all these pieces, yet twenty years ago nobody would have seen them. If they would have been published at all it would be by a small press in a limited run and they would most likely remain largely unknown. Today, instead, they are available to everybody. That’s really the point and why I’m doing this: because in eighty years’ time, people might just look back on a novella by a Number Thirteen Press author and say, ‘It was like They Shoot Horses...? for a new century.’

Or maybe not. Either way, at least the authors and I can say we gave it a shot. Hopefully, along the way, people will read and be entertained by short, punchy, powerful crime fiction. And that’s worth something.

Many thanks to Paul for allowing me to share and thanks to everybody who has supported the Press in its long journey to the beginning.

Chris Black


Down Among the Dead is due out on 13th of December.

  There'll be more carryings on down Brit Grit Alley very soon, sorta kinda thing, like.

Paul D. Brazill is the author of A Case Of Noir,Guns Of Brixton and The Neon Boneyard. He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime 8,10 and 11, alongside the likes of Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman and Lee Child. He has edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste. His blog is here.



459

“Just because because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.” Mike Ehrmantraut

Hey, a junkie will steal whatever isn’t bolted firmly to the floor, including infamy.

459 by William E. Wallace




George Adams leaned against the kitchen counter. A trickle of snot dripped from his nose to the floor and he trembled as his arms and legs began to cramp.

He stared at his reflection in the mirror next to the refrigerator. The pasty, skinny bastard that peered back at him looked like an extra from a George Romero movie.

Junkie motherfucker, he thought, staring at the sweat beads dotting his forehead. You look like shit.

It was the smack he’d shot up the day before: the damned dope was real but it had been stepped on as many times as a Macy’s escalator, until it was more horse shit than horse.

He’d felt fine for the first couple of hours after banging, but the high was gone before midnight, leaving him in the first stage of withdrawal: watery eyes; muscle and joint aches; chills and fever; nausea that would soon have him puking up his guts.

He needed to get well but he was dead-ass broke. That’s why he was ransacking the house in Diamond Heights, looking for something—anything—he could hock to feed his jones.

Big screen TVs and stereo gear were out. He’d have to cart what he stole down the hill to his 1989 Cougar, so he needed small, valuable items that would fit into pockets: silverware, jewelry, antique coins.

Plus he had to find them before he started seriously kicking: it is bad form for a thief to pass out on the floor of the house he’s burglarizing. People go to prison for that shit.

He pushed himself away from the counter and rummaged through the kitchen without success. The silverware in the dining room armoire was plate, not worth hauling to his car. There was some good crystal, but it was too bulky.

He did better in the master bedroom upstairs where he found an unlocked jewelry case. As he stuffed gold chains and rings into the pockets of his army surplus field jacket, he felt his gorge rise. He barely made it to the shitter in time to blow chunks.

The nightstand next to the bed was fat city: more than $200 wrapped with a rubber band, probably a secret stash set aside to purchase a gift.

“That’s more like it,” he muttered, dropping the bills into his jacket next to the jewelry.

The real show-stopper, though, was in the nightstand on the other side of the bed: a big semiautomatic pistol with two full magazines.

He scooped the extra clips into his coat pocket, then hefted the weapon and sighted down the barrel. The name “Beretta” was stamped on its side. Its solid feel and weight were seductive: despite twenty years as a junkie and a thief, he had never held a gun.

Still, he’d seen them in movies and TV shows. It took him only a few minutes to figure out how to remove and replace the magazine, load a round into the receiver by pulling back the slide, lower the hammer and toggle the safety. He could do it even though his hands shook so badly he could barely control them.

When he was satisfied he could fire the Beretta without shooting himself, he stuck it in his waistband. He liked the feel of the metal wedged against his sweat-slick belly.

Adams was no expert on guns, but the pistol seemed valuable: Beretta was a famous brand. The gun would probably sell for at least $500, even without the spare magazines or ammo. That was a lot of money to a junkie.

Still, he felt like holding onto the gun for a while. The pistol seemed to graduate him from pissant addict to honest-to-God outlaw, like Jessie James or John Dillinger. It made him dangerous.

Besides, the gold jewelry had to be worth quite a bit, maybe thousands. The cash alone would buy enough skag to last a few days. He could always fence the gun later if he needed dough.

*

He was halfway down the stairs when he heard someone unlock the front door and saw a man standing in the open entrance, just a shadow against the hazy morning sun.

“Hey!” the man said with surprise. “Who the hell are you?”

He wanted to answer, “the guy robbing your house, of course,” but he said nothing.

With an angry look on his face, the man started up the stairs. He probably had forty pounds on Adams and looked trim and fit.

The Beretta found its way into Adams’ hand, and without thinking he pointed it at the stranger, releasing the safety.

Maybe the guy didn’t see the pistol; maybe he was so mad he didn’t care about it. With a yell he rushed Adams.

He pulled the trigger, twice.

The automatic’s shots were louder and flatter than guns in movies Adams had seen. He’d expected them to throw the man backward and send him cartwheeling down the stairs like a stunt double in an action movie. The homeowner simply sat down, leaning against the wall with blood bubbling out of his chest and air hissing back in to take its place.

Adams jammed the gun under his belt and stared at the homeowner’s slack face as he stepped over his legs. The man’s eyes were empty and dead, like the junkie Adams once found OD’d in his hallway with the BD sharp still sticking out of his biceps. It wasn’t until he was sitting in the Mercury and had its engine running that Adams realized he was shaking with excitement.

He had started the morning as a heroin addict and petty thief. Now he really was an outlaw, a real killer, just like Jessie James.

But he’d think about that later. Outlaw or not, he was still an addict.

He still needed to score.


William E. Wallace has been a cook, dishwasher, journalism professor, private investigator and military intelligence specialist. He received his bachelor's in political science at U.C. Berkeley and for 26 years he was an award-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since taking early retirement in 2006 he has written two detective novels, The Jade Bone Jar and The Judas Hunter; a novella, I Wait to Die!; a western, Tamer; and a collection of horror and fantasy stories, Little Nightmares. He lives with his wife and son in Berkeley, California. See more at Pulp Hack Confessions.