|WANTED: DEAD or ALIVE|
NY Author Bruce Harris
My flight out of Phoenix to smog-filled Los Angles left me tense and stiff. I rolled my neck and shoulders while flagging down a cab. “The Gutter,” I told the driver.
The cabbie sneered in distaste. “That dive bar over on—”
I shot him a look that quickly cut him off. “Yeah, that’s the place.”
A decade of writing crime was starting to take its toll—though I’d enjoyed a helluva ride. My first story got published at The Flash Fiction Offensive back in 2010, when hard-drinking southern writer Rey A. Gonzalez first ran FFO’s dubious operations. Business still gets done on bar stools. But a lot of things have changed. We used to talk on pay phones. Now we got encrypted cell phones—though most of them are burners.
One of my burners had chirped two hours earlier at my safehouse in Arizona. Instant Private Message from Jesse “Heels” Rawlins, the first Gutter Gal in history to take the reins at FFO: “East Coast varmint Bruce Harris is drinking at The Gutter—which just happens to be FFO’s new HQ. The man’s a wall of secrecy. Practically untouchable. And that makes me antsy, Bill. Care to run out to L.A. and ply him with some drinks? Your dime of course.”
Right. My dime of course. Disorganized crime at its finest. No one wants to pay, everyone wants to score.
Damn. Bruce Harris. An old school criminal miscreant with a touch of class. Not an easy mark. We’ve done a few gigs together over the past half-a-dozen years. We rarely talk much. But he’s got a reputation. One that I respect—and respect is everything in this business.
I don’t work for Heels. So I didn’t PM her back. Though I immediately booked a flight.
I had my own reasons for wanting to talk to Mr. Harris. Clear out of the blue, my Muse had deserted me …. Maybe picking Bruce’s brain—at least figuratively for starters—would get my mojo back.
Soon as my foot hits the grungy curb, the cabbie stomps the gas—and happily hauls ass. In this neighborhood? Can’t say that I blame him. The Gutter’s dark like always. Takes a minute to spot my man … he’s writing in a notebook, not on a laptop. But I slip onto a barstool before he knows I’m there—
“What are you drinking, Bruce?”
His flinch is barely perceptible. Though he deftly closes the notebook. Shit. Was hoping to snatch a peek. Always good to know what the competition is up to.
“Vodka, Mr. Baber. R6, on the rocks, with olives. I like supporting local distillers. This joint still looks like a shit hole, but they only serve top shelf. I imagine Rawlins sent you. Now are you done asking questions?”
I laugh. And let him stew.
But once we get our drinks? I hit him hard and fast. “How’d you get started in this racket? Where and when did your first story appear?”
“In 2009, a few of my mystery short stories got published in the now defunct online journal, Pine Tree Mysteries. But that wasn’t my first publishing rodeo.”
Interesting. But I want him off-balance, and let the obvious question slide. “I imagine you did a lot of reading long before then. What’s your favorite book?
“Snubnose .38 to my head? Though I’m glad you ain’t got one pointed: one book—I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane. I enjoyed everything about it: the era, the urban setting, Mike Hammer, the dialogue—and of course the memorable ending. I met Spillane years ago at his South Carolina home. We drank Miller Lites in his backyard. Nicest guy in the world.”
Miller Lites? Obviously Mr. Harris’s tastes had grown more expensive.
“I know what you’re thinking. Forget it. Spillane had cases of the stuff, gratis, from Miller. He did commercials for them.”
“Gratis, huh? Beats robbing a beer truck. What other writers influenced you?”
“Ever since grade school I’ve been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and an admirer of Arthur Conan Doyle. My Holmes fascination continues to this day. As far as classic whodunit mysteries? Hard to top Ellery Queen. Other old-time favorites include David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of what’s written today, but I’ve got a soft spot for the old stuff.
“I’ve also got a soft spot for R6, Bill—
“Another vodka, please.” Christ, the guy was putting a dent in my drinking budget. I would either have to nurse the Bookers in front of me or switch to something cheap like Beam.
The bartender overheard. I nodded, he poured. “You tend to write in a variety of genres—pulp, straight crime, mysteries. But lately you’ve been writing a lot of Westerns. Was that a deliberate shift?”
“I like to mix it up. For some reason, crime’s the toughest genre for me. I struggle with it … and admire guys like you who consistently pull it off. Westerns are fun for me and provide the opportunity for interesting characters and settings—as well as lots of action.”
Damn. A compliment from him felt good. “To me, no matter what you write, your style is instantly recognizable, Bruce. Is that by design?”
“You flatter me, Bill. Honestly? I couldn’t describe my style. Unless maybe I’ve had three or four more vodkas.”
I show him my poker face, but buy him another R6 before pressing on.
“You recently retired from your ‘day job.’ Is writing going to be a full time thing now? I have to admit I’m envious of how prolific you’ve been lately.”
“Besides being thirsty, Bill, I’m also very lucky. Yes, I retired after 30 years at UPS. I’ve been writing about 4-5 hours a day on average, mostly mornings and some afternoons. As you well know, some days the words flow and sometimes they sadly don’t.”
“You’ve got that right, Sherlock. So what’s in your writing future?”
“My ultimate writing goal is to appear in either Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. If I happen to appear in both? I will be ecstatic.
Both good choices for a mystery writer. “What’s your proudest moment as a writer, Bruce? Favorite thing you’ve written?”
“I’ll cheat and pick more than one. Proudest moment was the publication of my first book, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type. It’s a monograph comparing Holmes, the Type A personality with Watson, the Type B. The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box published the book in 2006. And it’s still available at www.batteredbox.com.”
Ah, that explained his cryptic rodeo reference. The book came three years prior to his first published story.
“I’m also thrilled to have won the September/October 2017 Mysterious Photograph Contest in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And one of my favorite short stories, “Pothole,” appeared at FFO back in 2012 when San Francisco crime authors Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts were at The Gutter’s helm—”
He fishes his shirt pocket. Smirks. Hands me a scrap of paper: “Here, I brought you the link. Read it, crumble it, and swallow it.” http://theflashfictionoffensive.blogspot.com/2012/05/pothole-by-bruce-harris.html
“Gee thanks.” Now that I have that link? I’ll easily forge his signature. Sell the bootleg versions on eBay. Maybe even recoup the cost of his drinks. “The first story of yours that I read was at Slow Trains, a great piece of satire about what sports talk radio would have been like at the start of the 1927 Major League Baseball season. It remains one of my favorites of yours. To me, it’s just another example of what a versatile a writer you are.”
“Thanks, Bill. I’m a big baseball fan. But not a Giants fan—and I enjoy writing humor so that story was a perfect marriage. Oh, and Mantle was better than Mays.”
Consummate wise guy. Diehard Cubbie and Yankee fan. Had to dog my Giants.
“Did you spot those fresh bloodstains by the door on your way in here, Bruce?”
Soon as he turns around? I swipe his lousy olives.
“Slick move, Mr. Baber. But not that slick. I caught your cotton-pickin’ fingers in the mirrored glass out front.”
I shrug, fight a smirk. “You’ve set many of your crime stories in that thirties and forties era. I’m guessing you’re a big fan of old movies. You have a favorite? Any particular reason you like writing about that period?”
“The Maltese Falcon. I’ve seen it 100 times: but still can’t get enough. Since I enjoy reading the old pulp magazines, detectives, and westerns, I tend to feel most comfortable trying to imitate the classics from that period.
“Of course, there’s plenty of quality crime and mystery offerings around for today’s modern writers and readers alike. Besides venerable Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, Canada’s Mystery Weekly Magazine is another worthy publication. And good online journals? Wow, there’s so many. Shotgun Honey, Crimson Streets. Tough, Yellow Mama, Flash Bang Mysteries. Over My Dead Body! and Flash Fiction Offensive, just to name a few.”
“How about that? We’re on the same page here. Anything else I should ask—or that you’d like to add?”
He crudely taps his empty glass. “Yup. ‘Can I buy you another drink, Bruce—and add it to my tab?’”
I buy us both a double.
The jukebox switches from Springsteen to Sinatra. Our thoughts drift with the music, the bar’s darkness an old friend. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.
Provided Rawlins doesn’t turn up like a bad penny ….