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Battle Scars

Family ties bind.

Break them before they break you. 

Battle Scars by Cal Marcius




My grandfather treated his grandchildren the way he’d treated his own, quick with the back of his hand. Decades of practise had made him a great marksman.

At family get-togethers, while the women and girls prepared food, he would take all the boys to the barn and make them fight. There were promises of sitting at the head of the table for the winner.

Humiliation was the gift for the loser. A face smeared with blood and animal shit, and the laughter of the others following you while you made your way to the stream to wash off the hurt.

“This’s how men are made,” he’d say.

He’d spit in the straw and select his next fighter, the strong against the weak.

“Don’t cry. Don’t show fear. Don’t show rage. Most importantly, don’t give away what you’re thinking.”

He made us shout out the words. A mantra for hardened boys.

When he wasn’t around we would laugh at his accent, the drawl in his voice and the words no outsider could understand. Made up words that became part of his language. Part of us.

I rode my bike to the barn every day, and I was never alone. We were like moths to the flame. Desperate for his approval. Desperate to be crowned his favourite.

All but Tommy. My baby brother wanted none of that. He’d cry himself to sleep, hurting from the punches, praying he’d never have to go back again. His cousins would make fun of him. Call him Tamara, one of the girls. And I would join in, hoping to win points off the old man.

My grandfather prided himself on our reputation. It was well known you didn’t mess with the Harrison kids. Thugs, who’d end up in prison, or worse.

I would show my sisters the battle scars, the cuts and bruises and broken bones. I would listen to my mother, forbidding me to go back to him, but would rush back as soon as my injuries had healed, dragging Tommy with me. Telling him to man-up. Telling him to stop embarrassing me.

The old man was forging a breed of willing fighters, and we were blind to his true intentions. We were a means to money, and nothing else. This couldn’t have been more apparent than when he loaded us into his van and drove us to a warehouse two hours from home. At the centre was a makeshift ring of sandbags. Men stood, taking bets, pushing their fighters into the ring. Boys no older than my cousins and I. Teenagers with nothing to live for. What once was a game had become deadly survival, as we watched boys beaten into unconsciousness and dragged out of the ring by their feet.

***

Five years on, I stand over the old man, my knuckles dipped in his blood. The last of a dying breed.

We switched off Tommy’s life support in the morning. It took my mother eleven months to understand there was no coming back for him. Brain dead, they’d said. The machines just prolonging his suffering. But she had to try. I had to.

My grandfather knows it’s the end for him as I shout in his face, “Don’t cry. Don’t show fear. Don’t show rage. Don’t give away what you’re thinking.”

Each word is punctuated by another blow to his face. And with each blow I see Tommy, crying, wanting to go home.

***

My mother tells me to head to the mainland. Tells me that her brothers will be coming after me.

“I’m not afraid to die,” I say. “I don’t care.”

“I know,” she says. “But I do.”

She hands me an envelope filled with twenties and a bag packed with my clothes. 

And I leave, knowing I will never see her again.


Cal Marcius is a freelance writer who lives in the frozen wastes of of northern England. He has been published in Yellow Mama, Spelk, Shotgun Honey and Near to the Knuckle. He also has a story in Near to the Knuckle's "Rogue" anthology and Aidan Thorn's "Paladins" anthology. You can find Cal on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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 

It Must Be The Weather 

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” – Charlie Chaplin

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’” – Samuel Becket.

As Britain’s greatest comic showed, there has always been a dark aspect to British comedy and a shot of humour in its dark fiction. Tragi-comedy that erred on the side of the tragic.

Think of Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1955 film The Ladykillers where a group of gangster hole-up in a cute little old ladies house and take turns trying to kill her. Or the eponymous character created by comedian Tony Hancock in the 1950s who, on radio, on television and in film, tried his hand at so many different activities and failed. One episode –The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course. As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’

And more: Sixties sit-com The Worker had the perpetually unemployed Charlie Drake regularly
annoying Mr Pugh at the employment centre, trying lots of jobs and failing at all of them. One of the United Kingdom’s longest running television series, Only Fools and Horses, featured wheeling and dealing market stall traders whose scams always failed but who genuinely believed that ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’

Indeed, if the American comedy series Friends had been made in the UK it would probably have ended up more like Sartre’s No Exit since hell truly is THOSE people.

So, if crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, then perhaps British comedy is pure noir.

Or maybe, it’s just the weather.

(Part of this post first appeared at Sue Coletta's blog)


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

Paul D. Brazill is the author of books like The Last Laugh, Guns Of Brixton, Cold London Blues, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. He has even edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste. His blog is here.



I Know What You Did

You can't choose your parents.

Someday, you might have to choose them from a line-up.

I Know What You Did by Earl Javorsky




Yeah, you’re a cute little fucker, standing there in your sky-blue onesie. That’s pretty cool, the way you gripped the bars and dragged yourself up. But now you got to cool it, ’cause you’ll wake your mom and that’ll be fucked up.

What do you mean, “I know what you did?” Hey, you got to shut up now. No, don’t cry. And you don’t know shit.

Okay, what’s up with holding your breath like that, and the red face?

Oh great, I get it. That’s fucking gross, little man.

Why do you keep saying that? What do you think I did?

So you need to be cool now. I’m gonna fire up this little pipe and then maybe we’ll clean you up, yeah?

Don’t ever do this, little man.

And don’t tell your mom.

Okay, really, you got to shut the fuck up. The jumping up and down is funny, but the screaming’s got to stop.

Why do you keep saying that? What did I do? How are you even talking?

I’m gonna go check on your mom now.

Or not.

I think I know what I did.


Earl Javorsky is the black sheep of a family of artistic high achievers. After a long stint trying to make it as a musician in L.A. and clawing his way up to mid-level management in the chemical entertainment industry (just about killed him), Earl went back to his first love—writing. He has two very different novels out: Down Solo, an oddball noir tale of a dead junkie PI, and, Trust Me, a more mainstream psychological thriller. Both are described at www.earljavorsky.com. His last bit with FFO was called Cats-Eye. His website is at www.earljavorsky.com.

The Baker Brothers

Ryan Leone has the luck of the Irish.  

But only if the Irish have really bad luck. 

The Baker Brothers by Ryan Leone



JP was a senior when I was a freshman and he had all the attributes of a cool kid. He had movie-star looks, surfed crowded beaches, and drove a BMW. JP was also the biggest drug dealer at our school; legend had it that he sold pounds of weed to support his family, because his dad was a degenerate gambler who had run out on the family to chase cards.

JP wasn’t my friend but he was always nice to me. After high school, I had drifted into the throes of heroin addiction and was running any scam I could to get by. There’s a small college town outside of Santa Barbara called Isla Vista; it has beach front apartments stacked above the roaring Pacific. Kids move here from the East Coast and the first thing they buy is a surfboard that they’ll never use. The boards act as a prop that they leave on their front porches, as some sort of lame solidarity to Southern California culture.

My friend used to drive me around in his pick-up truck late at night and I’d go door to door and steal the surfboards. We‘d sell them at Pawn Shops, Play-It-Again Sports, or Craigslist. It was a good hustle—usually $75 a board, enough to sustain a modest smack habit.

One night, I hop out of the truck and go to retrieve a board. I’m grabbing it when I look to my right and see a guy at the next apartment over. He’s wearing a hood and creeping up to the porch to grab a surfboard. It becomes clear to me that this guy is doing the exact same thing that we are. I crouch down and wait for a moment, his face illuminated by the street lamp as he’s walking away. I realize it’s JP! I hurry out to the sidewalk with the surfboard tucked under my arm.

“Yo,” I whisper. “JP.”
He turns around. This is awkward. We both have stolen surfboards.
“Brian?” he says.
“It’s Ryan, man.”

It turns out that JP got the poker bug just like his dad. He’s become a full-blown criminal, committing burglaries, robbing people, even stealing fucking surfboards in the middle of the night. We become inseparable hustlers. I watch him blow thousands at the casino. He watches me shoot dope. And we steal every day.

JP ends up meeting a guy at a poker tournament at the Hustler Casino in Los Angeles. This guy starts flowing JP cocaine. Naturally I become the runner. It started out small. JP would get a quarter ounce and break it into gram baggies, bringing me with him to the night clubs in Santa Barbara and having me stay in bathroom stalls to sell it all night. We start making more money selling coke than we ever did boosting shit. 

 JP starts putting me up in motels around town. At this point we start selling ounces. He’d give me a quarter pound for $1,800. That’s $450 an ounce; I’d sell the ounces for $600 to the college coke dealers around town. In theory, I should have been making $600 off each quarter-pound that I sold. But I’m such a goddamn junkie, that I’d end up injecting too much of the coke and barley break even. The thing about shooting coke is that you have to do it every ten minutes. Your arms become spoiled looking, with blotches of blue and purple bruises. And you become intensely paranoid.

Although I usually only brokered a few ounces a day, I became fucking convinced that “they” were on to me. I don’t mean cops or feds; my fear was greater and more faceless than that. I would sit in my motel rooms and stare out peepholes. I would stand in the corner and peek out the blinds for hours at a time. Every couple of days I would call JP in the middle of the night in paranoiac fits, convinced people were after me, demanding that he switch me to a different motel.  In three weeks I had exhausted every motel option in town and JP wasn’t happy about it. The cocaine had altered my physical appearance drastically. I was pale, emaciated, and my arms were different colors. I looked like I had a low T-cell count. JP gave me a speech about how my using was unacceptable and that I was replaceable.

“I’ll put you in a sober living house,” he said. “I know you can’t just stop doing heroin but around those rehab people you’ll have to stop doing all that blow. You can’t work for me and be all geeked out anymore. I’m going to give you a full kilo this time for eighteen grand; you can sell it for 23. All in one shot, all you have to do is deliver it. I already got the dude lined up.”

I was pissed and I didn’t want to do it but there was no way I was going to pass up making five thousand bucks for one delivery. I wouldn’t even need JP after that. So I played along.

At the time, I was driving a shit-colored ’85 Volvo. I went to the sober living house for a couple of days, leaving the kilo out front, locked safely in my trunk. JP told me that I had to drive the coke out to Ventura, which was about thirty miles away from the sober living house.

As I was leaving, a black guy came up to me. “Ay man, where you off to right now?” 

“I’m already late, “ I said. “I’m headed all the way out to Ventura.”

“My moms lives out there. Can I catch a ride?’’

He was your cliché thug, walked with a limp, and wore baggy clothes. He looked like a composite sketch from FOX News. Basically the last person you want to have in your car when you’re driving around with a kilo of fucking cocaine.

But I said yes, a word that sort of sums up my entire twenties.

When we got in the car he said, “My name’s Black Chris.”

I nodded and turned up the radio and tried to drive as calmly as possible.

Of course when we got to Ventura my guy wouldn’t pick his phone up and Black Chris’ mom wasn’t home.

We waited for a couple of hours and decided to drive back.

I got a bad feeling and turned the radio down, “Hey, you got anything on you? I’m on probation and I have a little bit of dope in the trunk.”

“Shit, I on parole. All I got’s a piece.”

“You have a gun on you?”

He pulled a 9 mm out of his waistline and rested it on his lap.

It was the first time I had ever seen a gun in real life. I was petrified.

“Mind if I stash that in the trunk, man? I’m not trying to get searched.”

“Nah, I don’t mind one bit.”

I pulled off on the next exit. He handed me the gun, which felt way heavier than I would have expected. I took it to the trunk and hid it next to the brick of coke under the spare tire.

“We good?” he asked.

“Yeah, we’re good.”

As soon as we got off the freeway exit to go back to the sober living house, I saw the unmarked police car behind us. I made a left and they made a left. They were following us. I already knew it was the Baker Brothers, two of the most infamous narcotics cops in all of Santa Barbara County.

“The Baker Brothers are following us,” I said calmly.

“Who?”

“They’re cops.”

Black Chris started to panic; he actually started talking blacker. I felt like I was in a fucking Rush Hour sequel. And they were right behind us.

“I ain’t going back! I just got out that motherfucker!”

“Calm down,” I said. “I have a kilo of coke in the trunk.”

“Y’all got a motherfucking bird in yo’ trunk?!”

I made a right and they followed. We were in a residential neighborhood now, only a few blocks from the sober living house. I knew that I was busted. I was already on probation for a felony possession charge. If I got caught with that much coke and a firearm, I was going away for a very long time.
I pulled up to the sober living house and they parked behind us. We sat there as they approached the car. They had police badges dangling from silver chains.

“Santa Barbara Narcotics, how you doing?”

“Fine.”  I said.

“Either of you on probation, parole, anything like that?”

We both said that we were and they asked us to step out of the vehicle.

They made us sit on the curb with our legs crossed so that we couldn’t get up and dart away suddenly. And then they searched the car. They started with the front and made their way to the back, latex gloves on the entire time, ripping everything apart. Black Chris couldn’t even watch; he was just looking down, shaking his head.

They went for the trunk. My heart was thudding, my stomach was weightless. I saw him look through it and just as he was going for the tire his radio hissed with a static voice. He went to answer it and stopped looking at the tire. After he responded, he went to the duffel bag and removed a digital scale that was covered with white powder; it was over.

The cop came up to me and said, “What’s this for?

“I’m enrolled at the culinary school at the city college. I use that to cook.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, “Well, what’s the difference between baking and cooking then?”

“That’s easy. Baking is a science… and cooking is an art.”

He put the scale back in the trunk and handed me my keys.

And in my most triumphant moment, the cop actually said, “Have a nice day.”


Ryan Leone wrote the cult classic novel, Wasting Talent, while serving time in federal prison for his involvement with an international drug cartel. He has worked extensively in television and his essays, poetry, and short fiction have appeared both online and in print. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.

Review: Cleaning Up Finn, by Sarah M. Chen

I absolutely loved Cleaning Up Finn by Sarah M. Chen. I defy anyone who reads this tightly wound novella to find anything wrong with it. It has a classic noir main character, death, despair, and—best of all—a full-throttle plot that picks up more and more speed as the plot unfolds.

Phineas Roose (Finn) is a single man who, although he comes from a well to do family, makes his living managing a local restaurant. Although he is quick to point out it is one of the top grossing restaurants within the organization’s chain, he knows he hasn’t lived up to his father’s expectations. He spends his time at work trying to pick up well-to-d0 women and one night he succeeds when he picks up Ronnie, a kindred soul who shares with him the bond of not living up to their parent’s expectations. He takes Ronnie onto the boat of his uber-rich best friend (well actually his only friend) and they commence to have a party for two. When his overindulgence of wine leaves him unable to consummate their new relationship, he ends up leaving Ronnie face-down drunk near the boat dock. The next morning Ronnie has disappeared and the police, and ultimately a private eye hired by Ronnie’s parents, become involved and they all set their sights on Finn. As Finn tries his best to clear his name in Ronnie’s disappearance, he quickly learns that Ronnie is not the person who Finn, or anyone else, thought she was.

As the pressure starts to get to him, Finn is willing to do anything to extract himself from the noose tightening around his neck. Readers will be shocked to learn just how far he’s willing to go and who he’s willing to hurt to keep himself from going down. As things get worse for him, Finn becomes more desperate and his downward spiral brings him closer to his breaking point.

Chen has written some solid stories that were published in the All Due Respect anthologies, but this is the first longer piece I’ve read from her. She follows a classic noir formula in this offering, but she puts in her own little touches and keeps the story feeling fresh. This novella is a solid piece of writing and I am looking forward to her next foray into longer pieces of noir fiction.

Highly Recommended.

Reviewed by Derrick Horodyski.

Blockhead

Mistakes are why pencils have erasers.

In The Gutter, mistakes get you rubbed out quick.

Blockhead by B.D. Keefe




Brendan Block’s wife and kids picked him up on his return from a Vegas trip he had taken with some old Tau Kappa Epsilon brothers. One look at Jenna’s sweet face and the twins’ white-blonde heads sent a pang through his bowels. He had really screwed up this time. Having earned the nickname “Blockhead” during sophomore year due to his poor decision-making -- particularly with a few beers in him -- the mistake he made this trip really took the cake. It was worse than the night he broke in and placed a blow-up sex doll behind the college president’s desk. It was even more serious than the time he gave Jenna the clap after a business trip to New Orleans.

After three straight afternoons at titty bars followed by three all-nighters at The Sands, Blockhead had found himself fading in and out of a drunken blackout, in some kind of backroom card game with a group of guys who could have formed their own police line-up. One thing led to another, and he got into a business conversation with a person who may or may not have come directly from hell. By the next morning, Blockhead realized with horror that he had contracted a murder for hire. He couldn’t recall a single detail, but he knew every one of them was bad.

Sure, Jenna had packed on a few pounds over the years, but other than that she was practically as hot as the night they first did Jager shots at an under-aged joint off campus. Yes, he was being crushed by massive debt, but a half-million dollar insurance policy was nothing in the big picture; even his own policy of a million-point-five wasn’t worth murder. Maybe he could convince her to do one of those fitness boot camps to firm things up a little. He certainly didn’t want to see her dead.

At the baggage claim he handed the kids t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: It’s Only a Gambling Problem If I’m Losing, and tousled their hair in the way he thought a father should. Jenna kissed him lovingly. The knowledge that he had only the vaguest idea of what the scary bastard from the card game looked like gnawed at him. The fact that he had no way to call the monster off was a million times worse.

Starting that night, Blockhead gave up sleeping, close as he could manage. He’d start next to Jenna until her breathing slowed, then slip quietly downstairs to the den. There was a picture window there with a view on the driveway and cul-de-sac. He would sit with his Springfield .40 by his side, late game silently flickering across the room. His only souvenir of the abomination was a receipt from a Vegas ATM, time-stamped 5:40 a.m. with a withdrawal for $1,200. Blockhead couldn’t recall specifics, but he knew for sure it was a down payment on the hit that might come at any time.

He became a zombie at work, black rings under his eyes like an extra from a George Romero film. While once he was the hedge fund’s most dynamic trader, he now spent his work hours cruising the Internet for home defense tips. He even maxed out a credit card on an elaborate camera system.

In the small hours one Friday, three weeks after the night watch began -- just two days after Blockhead received a foreclosure notice on the house -- the man appeared. One second the killer was on CCTV, and the next he was in the den with something high-caliber in his hand. Blockhead fumbled for his Springfield but it was too late. There was the unmistakable sound of a round being chambered.

“I want to call it off!” said Blockhead.

“Too late,” said the man. “A deal’s a deal.”

“Just take the money in the safe.”

“I already got the money in the safe. Three grand, like you said.”

“But the combination…”

“You wrote it on a fuckin’ matchbook. Five-three-six-six-two.”

J-E-N-N-A. “Please. Just don’t hurt my wife or kids!”

“Who said anything about them? The contract is on you.”

“Whatever I said, cancel it.”

“You said you’d say that, Mr. Big Shot with the big insurance policy.”

“I’ll do whatever you say.”

“You said you’d say that, too.”

The man raised the gun and put a bullet into Blockhead’s chest, and another in his head. Then he let himself quietly out the back door. He was well on his way by the time the woman started screaming.


B.D. Keefe lives in Providence, RI with his wife and two young children. By day he works as an elementary school teacher. He publishes horror fiction under a top-secret pen name, and is currently at work on a crime novel under his real name. He enjoys loud music, violent sports, and Genesee beer.

The Place Before The Place

Sometimes all it takes is a quiet place for you to reflect.

That way you can feel the full weight of your regret.

The Place Before The Place by Beau Johnson



Wincing, you prepare, and as the car swerves hard onto the pavement your back is jabbed by the pointy end of the tire iron which is wedged and leaning at an improbable angle.  It’s not the first time this has happened.  Cursing, you can only hope the driver will ensure it is the last. 

In the dark you struggle to free your hands against the duct tape they've wrapped around your wrists behind your back.  It doesn't give, not an inch, but still you believe the strength will come.  Drenched, your hair falls into your eyes, lays matted to your forehead.  It’s hot in here, a furnace, but you know the majority of the heat is more from you and the situation you have gotten yourself into; that this, the trunk, is no more than the place before the place.

You swallow, spit, your breathing unlike anything you have experienced before.  Not from ball, from running, or even from sex. This is breathing scared. Or perhaps you’re hyperventilating and you just don’t know the difference.  Either way, it was stupid what you did, skimming.  Did you think they wouldn’t catch on?  Better yet, did you have to up the stakes?  In what world is an extra five grand a month considered chump change? 

You shake your head, unable to answer your own questions.  Instead you think of Luke, of how he will continue life without a father; that you will never get to teach him all the things never taught to you.  You well up at this, there in the dark, and just once you wish you were able to remember the face of your own father; a glimpse, a flash, a smile.  Next you envision Becka, she within your arms, and at one moment she is naked, in another she is not.   It will be the end of us, you hear her proclaim, and deep down you have always known her to be right.  The type of life you chose far from what your dreams had been.  However, there can be no blame, not upon anyone who is not you.  A man grown, choice becomes our own, each one dying and alive at the very same time--this very moment proving your entire point.  You didn’t have to get in Big Mike’s car that day. Nor did you have to agree with what he asked of you.  Opposing him would have provoked a beating, sure, and let’s face it, possibly cost your life for simply saying no.  But the choice would have been better than what you do years later, believing you deserved a little something more in addition to what the man was paying. 

There in the dark you think of these things, the story which has become your life.   You see things fast, a blur, but you also see them slow.  In one you are six and crying, fallen from your bike.  Suddenly your mother appears and like always the pain is run away.  She holds you and hugs you and whispers that things will be alright.  You believe her, hold her, and why the hell would you not?  She is your mother, your life, and not for the majority of your time together passed out on the floor.  She never hits you, not often, but when she does it’s accompanied by regret.  A chaser we’ll call it, and only after the bottle is done. 


Suddenly the car begins to slow.  You hear gravel and road and then gravel once more.  Slower now, you can make out the voices of the men inside the car but not the words they speak.  Do you really need to know what they are saying?  No, you don’t think you do.  The sudden warmth spreading about your groin tells you everything you need to know.   Stopped, all four doors open and gravel comes underfoot.   Like it’s nothing, you can hear them now, each of them shooting the shit like they don’t have a care in the world.  Benny and Bob are on about the Bucks, Carlos and Stacks smoking and nodding their heads in agreement.  Is this really happening, you think, and realize that you have been straining so hard that something lets go in your head, a pop.   It’s small, not painful, and somehow feels like the colour red.  You begin to scream and scream and thrash about the trunk.  You hear laughter, more, and then one of them kicks the side of the car and tells you to knock the shit off.  You fail to comply, which of course only speeds the process up.  They open the trunk, freedom, and you erupt upwards as the fresh air rocks you.  The taste is sweet, like butter, and oh so better than wine.  You fall forward, belched from the trunk, the dirtiest tongue
alive.  Halfway down, as your face and gravel meet, you, the middle of you, is caught by the hitch.  You groan, go fetal, and all you hear is laughter as you writhe and take the pain.  You squint, tell them to fuck right off, and then take notice of the stars, that there are none, that it is only the moon which lights the way.  One of them, Bob you think, pulls you up, throws you back down.  “Shunta did what ya done, Ricky.”  He says and then spits into your face.  The saliva is hot and gross and you picture rotting meat as it slides into your mouth.  Inside, it makes you want to run as far and fast as you possibly can.  Instead you scream and shake your head as violently as your neck allows.   A second later, before you see them, you feel the wood; all four, and then your screams begin anew.  They beat you, break you, crush you.  Swing after swing after swing.  Jagged and loose, your bones are transformed, like powder that has run to soup; all bones, to every appendage and extremity you own.  Skin is next, gone, removed and replaced by a pulp that now exists--and still you are aware!  How, you think, and understand the stupidity of your question the moment it is asked: to ensure every effort is taken in making you feel everything that comes before.  The choice is obvious, befitting your crime, as you know how the men above you work; have done the job yourself, in fact.  Bleeding, dying, you watch the end draw near.  Down, the bats obliterate your mouth, your nose and the top of your skull.  Last, they save your eyes and the truth each one has struggled to hide. Unrecognizable, you heave and spurt, your gurgling breath the only sound into the night.  You think of Luke and Becka and your mother during the times that she is real, her love sober.  As the final arc comes down and takes it all apart you can only wonder: Was this really all I am?

In Canada, with his wife and three boys, Beau Johnson lives, writes and breathes. He has been published before, on the darker side of town. Such places might include Underground Voices, the Molotov Cocktail, and Shotgun Honey. He would like it to be known that it is an honor to be here, down in the Gutter

Lizard Tongue

Forbidden fruit tastes sweeter.

Not when it's rotten from the inside. 

Lizard Tongue by Rosa Lee Delgado





Martina didn’t want to go. Everyone crowding around, asking stupid questions. But what would people think if she stayed away?

She was almost too late, thanks to her brother Manny who called just as she was leaving. He wanted to tell her about a woman he met who kept darting her tongue in and out like a lizard. When he looked at her, he said, all he could think about was this cop with a forked tongue in an old Cheech and Chong movie.

Manny was making her laugh like he always did, but she was running late, so she said she’d call back later.

By the time she found the place and went inside, they were already telling the guy if he had anything to say, he should say it now. She thought he’d say he was sorry, or maybe nothing, but no, he wanted to tell his side of the story again.

He said he’d been hired to paint the inside of a house overlooking the bay, a big split-level. At first, nothing seemed unusual, but then the wife, Martina, began following him around while he was working, wearing a little wrap-around robe, talking to him like they were old friends, bringing him sandwiches, things like that. After a couple of days, she started telling him about her personal life, like how her husband Victor was a mean bastard who was too busy making money to pay attention to her, and how she missed having a man who would treat her right.

When he finished the job and was about to leave, Martina asked him to come back later that night. He should park his truck up the street so the neighbors wouldn’t notice, then come in through the lower-level patio door, which would be unlocked. She said they wouldn’t have to worry about Victor because he was out of town.

She was too good-looking to resist, he said, so he came back, and then again the night after that. What happened was different from anything he’d ever experienced before, and it wasn’t just the sex either, he said. It was like they were made for each other. By the end of the second night, he’d fallen for her, hard. When she said Victor would be gone for only one more night and it might be their last chance to see each other for a while, he’d promised he’d be back.

When he came through the patio door the next night, he said, there was this man, who turned out to be Victor, lying in a pool of blood with a bullet hole in the back of his head. At first he froze, but then started running through the house, looking for Martina. When he couldn’t find her, he ran to his pickup and took off. This was his second mistake, he said. His first one was taking the bait to begin with.

He said it wasn’t two hours before the police showed up at his place with a search warrant. When they found Victor’s gun under a tarp in the back of his pickup, they zeroed in on him. Nothing complicated, they said, just a burglary that went wrong. The husband heard something and came downstairs with his .38, only to have it taken away and used on him. Finding the murder weapon in the pickup was all they needed, even if it didn’t have any fingerprints on it.

His third mistake, he said, was the one that really finished him. When they first questioned him, he denied being there that night. But when they found Victor’s blood on the bottom of his shoes, he had to admit he’d lied. After that, nobody believed a word he said, except maybe his mother.

What puzzled him for the longest time was how Victor’s gun turned up in the back of his pickup. Now he understands, he said. You see, Victor must have been downstairs that night, and while he was, Martina shot him with his own gun when his back was turned. Afterwards, she went upstairs with the gun and waited. As soon as she heard the lower patio door slide open, she slipped out the front door and ran to a neighbor’s house crying for help.

But here’s the clever part, he said. Before she banged on the neighbor’s door, she ran to his pickup and planted the gun, which she’d already wiped clean. In other words, he’s been framed, and the real killer is right here, watching.

That’s when the man who was in there with him said we’ve heard enough, and pulled the curtain closed. After a few minutes, someone came in and told Martina and the others that it was over.

Martina had heard the story before, and wondered why he bothered to keep telling it. Like he said, nobody believed him.

She remained seated for a while, thinking about the painter. She’d enjoyed having him around, letting him try to please her. Once he’d even called her a raven-haired beauty, which she’d liked. He didn’t know how to look out for himself, that was obvious, but he wasn’t a bad guy.  

You want a bad guy, she thought, take Victor. After using her for fifteen years, he tells her he wants out. So he can breathe, he said. What bullshit. He had a girlfriend, that’s all, probably someone younger.

She would have told him to go ahead and file, but she knew Victor was very good at hiding money. He’d make it look like they were almost broke, and then she’d be lucky to get anything.

She also knew something Victor didn’t know. Everything goes to her if he drops dead while they’re still married. That’s the way it works, if you don’t have a will or any children. Pretty careless of Victor, she thought, not to think of this.

Then she remembered Manny’s call, and reached for her phone. She needed to tell him to be careful with that lizard woman.


The author is a social psychologist living in the Pacific Northwest, now writing short fiction. Two of her stories (“Amber Learns to Drive” and “Like a Fox”) have appeared in Out of the Gutter. Rose Lee-Delgado is a pseudonym.

Sharp Focus

You don't have to go all the way down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil.

Stay here in the Gutter and he'll come to you.

Sharp Focus by Terri Lynn Coop



I spent the first minutes of the last day of my life blowing chunks in my mother’s rust-stained kitchen sink. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I cranked the faucet so the weak trickle could disperse the remnants of Mr. Cuervo’s gold. It was tequila that’d landed me in this mess. Twenty years ago today, at the joint where I played guitar for tips, a roll of the dice gave me the stars and cost me the sky.

The old guy was buying rounds off the top shelf when he asked if I was up for a wager. Since I’d recently pawned the pot I piss in, all I could do was laugh.

His voice, silky as sludge, said, “Seriously, what’s your heart’s desire? A record deal?”

“What are you, some kind of agent?” I have to confess, the words “record deal” got my attention.

“Not exactly, but I know people.”

“I’ll bite. What do you get if I lose?”

He tossed the dice and counted the exposed pips.

“Twenty.”

“Twenty what? Twenty bucks? Sorry, you’ve confused me with somebody else.”

“You’ll figure it out. When you barter as much as I do you become a good judge of character. Do we have a deal?”

That’s where the bottle got empty and the shit got fuzzy. I do remember the dice ending up on the floor, so I’m guessing I lost.

Or not. A month later I was sitting at an acre of desk signing a contract. Then a gold record and a concert tour. Within a year, I’d leveled up from truck stop blowjobs to fucking this year’s face of Sundew Cosmetics. 

The anniversary cards started at the two-year mark. Never a signature. The bar fog of beer, smoke, and despair radiating from the paper was a constant reminder of what “twenty” meant. I was riding a rocket, but what was going up was destined to come down. I decided I would auger it into the ground.

A three mil check got rid of Miss Sundew, her divorce lawyer, and her coke dealer. Knowing the game was rigged, I went all-in on every hand. The records, awards, women, and paydays all turned to twenty-four karat. Then the calendar page with today circled arrived inside a twentieth anniversary card.

Tonight I was going to toss back shots at the old bar and wait for whatever was going to happen. Right now, I needed food. Decades of practice blunted the hangover, but my fame-spawned ulcer had my belly blazing.

The menu hit the table and a voice from my past said, “Hey Sweetie, you slumming?”

In high school I’d dreamed of climbing into her cleavage and drowning. Even with the mileage she looked pretty damn tasty. It’d been a while since I’d seen button-straining tits that were original equipment.

“Local boy makes good and comes home on a vision quest. The usual shit.”

“Lemme know how that goes. Coffee?”

My abused gut clenched at the thought. “I’ll start with milk and toast.”

Her eyes flashed from amused to knowing. A factory town café serves a lot of milk.  

I was on my second glass when the woman opened the door and set the frog bell to tinkling. It was shift change. Drones trying to forget they packed plastic garden tools for eight bucks an hour filled the café. The chair opposite of mine was the only unoccupied real estate in the room.

Summoning up the smile I use to separate groupies from their panties, I caught her attention and waved.  

The tail of her braid brushed the top of her tall boots as she glided toward me, the light playing on hair the color of polished oak. The smell of her leather messenger bag alongside citrus and herbs cut through the greasy ambiance of the diner.

My waitress scurried over, curiosity bright in her face.

“I’ll have tea and toast, please.” Her voice vibrated with everything I treasured, but rarely heard. It was the difference between Top-40 pop and the blues.

“Put it on my tab.”

“Thank you, but I should be treating after you so kindly offered me a seat.”

“I won’t hear of it. What brings you to town? I have an excuse. I was born here.”

“I’m a photographer. It’s a contract job for a client.”

“Tell me more.” I wasn’t interested in shutter-bugging, but it let me listen to the song buried in her words.

By the time we were getting waitress side-eye for hogging a table, the café had emptied of breakfast loafers. I hadn’t learned anything about cameras, but I knew she had green eyes and that full-sleeve tattoos danced under the sheer fabric of her blouse. My heart was simultaneously full and broken. If someone had appeared with dice and a wager, I would’ve bet it all for one more day with her.

After tipping like a six-top who’d ordered the dinner special, I offered a tour of downtown. What I really wanted were those skeins of hair spread across my bed, but this felt like enough.

We stopped at the bridge spanning the sewer that masquerades as a river.

“May I take your photograph?”

Even though it’s a familiar request, excitement trilled through me. Usually, if the girl was hot, I’d throw an arm around her and cop some side boob while she fumbled her phone into selfie mode. This was different.

“I don’t know. Are you going to steal my soul?” I didn’t add, “like you’ve stolen my heart.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Just teasing. I was going to say you’ll have to find it first.”

“Just hold still.”

The hard veil of ice that fell over her eyes contrasted with her wistful smile. As she lifted the camera, it all came into sharp focus.   

She was here on a contract job. 


Terri Lynn Coop lives on the prairie with four small dogs and a roof that leaks when the wind blows hard enough (which is all the time.) Her flash fiction has appeared in Flashshots, Dream People, The Flash-Forty anthology, Battlespace, No Rest for the Wicked, and assorted and sundry other ezines living and dead. She has been known to blog at Readin', Ritin', & Rhetoric.  Her first legal thriller, “Devil’s Deal” is available at Amazon.