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Verst 7156

Soldiers and train - WW1To kick off the week in style, we have the below historical short story from the author of the acclaimed thriller Clawback, whichalso appears as this week’s offering from Popcorn Fiction. Enjoy!

He arrived late afternoon, trudging up from the railbed over cracked ice and snow, his Enfield banging against a metal canteen frozen solid. Khaki ammunition pouches were harnessed neatly through his epaulets. Right then, long before he started in about the ghost train, we knew he was trouble. Dead of winter and supposedly he’d been in Siberia as long as us, but he was still wearing puttees and a canvas cap. He came to attention when I stepped out of the wagon and I had to wave him down.

“Relax, I’m no ranker,” I said. I noticed that he was wearing his Colt in a polished holster tied down to his thigh, and I suddenly missed Birney all the more.

“Private First Class Woodell.” His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. “My orders -”

“Never mind that. Did you bring any newspapers?”

But he was staring at our camp, and didn’t answer. I thought we’d done a good job: two rattletrap wooden boxcars with the bogeys pulled, bermed up a good four feet for insulation. Jackson had showed us how to chink them airtight with river clay. He’d also built a half-closed firepit outside, by fitting together unmortared rock – someone had to stand sentry, since the partisans were all around, and it was bitter cold. A pile of broken crates and beef tins was accumulating to one side, and because the ground was too frozen to dig latrine pits, we generally just crouched behind them.

Maybe Woodell was expecting campaign tents and a parade square.

Our corporal had emerged from the other boxcar and was greedily flipping through the few tattered papers Woodell dug from his pack. He was wrapped in a torn wool cloak, a muskrat hat low over his ears.

“December 1919?” He shoved back the folded broadsheets and glared at Woodell with red, sunken eyes. “That’s two months ago!”

“I’m sorry, sir. I brought them for, ah, not for reading but for, well, you know how the toilets are . . .” His voice trailed away.

“Toilets? Toilets? Think I saw one the last time I was in Khabarovsk.” He relented. “Look, private, you’re freezing. Bring your kit inside.”

With a woodstove at either end, the ventilation louvers generally iced over, and Sutter smoking all the time, the fug inside the boxcar was blindingly thick. Not to mention none of us had had a bath since we arrived, three months back. It was hard to tell in the dim light but I’m sure Woodell went green.

“I’m sorry to see you,” said Sutter, from a heap of blankets on the floorboards where he’d been dozing. Like me, he hadn’t tried to shave since the last time we went into Lenyarsk, and his face was black with grime and gun oil. “Replacing Birney must mean they’re planning to leave us out here indefinitely.” Continue reading “Verst 7156”

Amateurs: A Short Story from The First Shift

Train Yard - BWWe’re thrilled to present to you today a story from the new Crime Factory anthology  The First Shift: 27 tales of revulsion, heartbreak, and violence. 

They were two days into the trip when the train shuddered and the hiss of steam, fighting the brakes applied, caused his bowels to revolt. Through the window, Tip caught a glimpse of a hooded figure standing beside the tracks with a torch. He fought the urge to throw up on his own feet. The Pinkerton across the seat from him chuckled, casually thumbing the cylinder of his Colt and easing back the hammer.

Beside him, Charlie Holland squinted at the night through the glass. “What’s going on?” he asked. Tip dreaded hearing the answer.

The Pinkerton winked at them. “Looks like an unscheduled stop.”

Tip sat up and pressed his face to the cool window and spied more torches among the trees. Beside him, Charlie said, “Sonsabitches.”

The Pinkerton nodded. “Reckon they gonna wanna talk to you two.

The train came to a full stop and Tip heard loud voices saying his and Charlie’s names, but not talking to them. He fought the futile urge to try slipping his manacles and duck beneath his chair. Instead he sent up a silent prayer for quickness, if not justice. Charlie attacked his bonds with admirable verve as he levelled a steady stream of curses under his breath. “Motherfuckers. Sonsa-chink-whore-bitches. Cock-suckin-Lincoln-lovin-rot-ass-mongrels.”

Continue reading “Amateurs: A Short Story from The First Shift”

The Other Man

Bar 10This short story was originally published on Beat to a Pulp and is re-printed here with permission.

I knew I was a dead man when the cop walked into my bar. It was the way the cocksure bastard sauntered over the threshold, sniffed the moldiness of the stained oak panels, and smiled. Some little joke there, formulating in his bowling ball of a head. He drew his gun, checked the safety, and stuck it back in its holster. Oh, he was going to have a good time at my expense, and he was going to take his time about it.

I’d been banging his wife the past six months. Should have seen this coming, instead of listening to Lori. He doesn’t give a damn what I do, she’d told me. I knew no man could be cool with what we were up to. Hell, if she’d been my wife, I’d have strangled her for stepping out on me. But I was just her Monday and Wednesday midday screw.

The cop took his time checking out the barflies already perched on stools at eleven-fifteen in the morning. I had a good three inches on him, but I was lean, if you wanted to be nice about it. He looked like a rough bastard, one with bulging biceps and no neck. Harry, that was his name. Harry Harrison, like his parents hated him at birth and gave him a crappy name. Hey, Harry, I wanted to say, get your ass out of my bar. But I had to pretend I didn’t know who he was, and hope he’d figure me for a punk who couldn’t possibly be shtupping his old lady.

Continue reading “The Other Man”

Last Dance

disco ball 1“I’d love to take you away from all this.”

Rachel turned. The man wore a white suit, azure shadows cast against its fabric from the reflection of the disco ball against her too-blue evening gown. She’d been on her way to the front to cash out with the night manager, the strap around her thigh bulging with singles. She regarded him with “stripper’s interest”— half lidded eyes and a forced, fixed smile that kept her from laughing.

The mark wasn’t terrible to look at— far from it. Jet black hair covering a rugged Marlboro face, surveying her from his chair with casual confidence. His suit clashed with red shoes that looked Italian and suggested excess and his fingers, thin and tapered, lightly stroked the rim of his glass, almost as if their tips had been fixed to it with a rime of glue. Rachel cocked her hips to the left, the mark cocked his head to the right and the two of them faced off, there on the main floor, inches from the south stage. Continue reading “Last Dance”

The Walls: An Original Short Story (Part II)

HypoNeedleWe are thrilled to present Part II of an original short story written by BLOODLINE author Mark Billingham titled “The Walls.” (Missed Part I? Start reading here.) To double the fun, we’ve also created an audio version of the story, read by Brad Negbaur (see below). BLOODLINE is also available as a downloadable audiobook read by Paul Thornley.

She and her mother were sharing a room, so we went to mine. There was not a great deal of choice in the mini-bar, but she didn’t seem too picky, so I told her to help herself. She took a beer and a bag of chips and we sat together on the bed with our feet on the quilt and our backs against the headboard.
The window was open a few inches and the traffic from I-45 was just a hum, like an insect coming close to the glass every so often and retreating again.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” she said.
“Afterwards?”
She nodded.
I remembered her face when she’d been talking in the bar. The way she’d talked about wanting it to hurt. “Pretty good, by the sound of it,” I said.
“Yeah, I’ll feel good…and relieved. I mean how I’m going to feel when I’m watching it happen, though. It’s not something everyone gets to see, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Probably something you never forget, right?”
She made it sound like she was going whale-watching. She slid down the bed a little and kept on closing her eyes for a few seconds at a time.
“You think you might feel guilty after?” I asked.
Her eyes stayed closed as she shook her head. “Not a chance.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Why the hell should I feel guilty when he never did?”
“You know that for sure?”
She opened her eyes. “Well it wasn’t like I was visiting him every week or nothing, but I don’t think a man like that has any normal human feelings.” She took a swig of beer, ignored the dribble that ran down her neck. “He wrote us a letter a month or so back and he said he was sorry, all that shit, but it’s easy to come out with that stuff when you know the needle’s just around the corner, right? Probably told to do it by his lawyer. So they’ve got something to show when they’re pushing for a stay, you know?” She tried to brush away the remains of the chips from her shirt. “Said he’d found God as well.”
“I think that happens a lot.”
“Yeah, well tomorrow he’ll get a lot closer to Him, right?”
“You religious?”
“Sure,” she said.
“So this isn’t a problem for you?”
“Why should it be?”
“What happened to ‘thou shalt not kill’?”
“Shame he never thought about that.”
“He obviously didn’t believe in anything back then,” I said.
She shook her head again and screwed her face up like she was getting irritated. “Look, it isn’t me that’s going to be doing the killing, is it?” She raised the bottle, then thought of something. “Okay, smart-ass, what about, ‘as you reap, you shall sow’? It’s something like that, right?”
I nodded. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Right.” She turned on to her side suddenly and leaned up on one elbow. She slid a leg across the bed and lifted it over mine. “Anyway, what the hell are we talking about this stuff for?”
“You were the one started talking about God,” I said.
“Yeah well there’s other things I’d rather be talking about.” She blinked slowly which she probably thought was sexy, but which made her seem even drunker, you know? “Other things I’d rather be doing.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Come on,” she said. “I know that’s what you want. I saw you looking in the restaurant.”
“Yeah, I was looking.”
“So?”
“You’ve had too much to drink.”
“I’ve had just enough.”
I smiled. “You won’t feel good about yourself tomorrow.”
“I’ve got more important things to worry about tomorrow,” she said. She put a hand between my legs. “Now are you going to get about your business, or what?”
I did what she was asking. It didn’t take long and it was pretty clear that she needed it a damn sight more than I did. She cried a little afterwards, but I just let her and I’m not sure which of us got to sleep first.

I left early without making any noise, and when I turned at the door to look at her wrapped up in the thin hotel sheet, I was thinking that, aside from the fact that I am crazy about nachos and salsa, almost everything I’d told her about myself had been a lie.

God only knows why they call it “The Walls”. They’re thick enough and tall enough for sure, but the men behind them have got a damn sight more to worry about than what’s keeping them inside.
The Huntsville Unit in particular.
One of the deputy wardens led me across the compound from the Visitor’s Waiting Area and in through a grey, metal door. They try to keep the families separate until the last possible moment, which is understandable I suppose and even though there was only me and some crazy woman who’d been writing to Anthony for the last few years, we had our own escort. The prison chaplain would be a ‘witness’ too of course, but I guessed he had no choice but to be kind of neutral about what was happening, so he didn’t really count.
The deputy warden’s highly polished shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as we walked towards the room next to the execution chamber. Then he opened the door and politely stood aside as I walked in.
The place was pretty crowded.
I knew there would be a few State officials as well as representatives from the media, but I hadn’t figured on there being that many people and it took me a few seconds before I spotted her. She was sitting on the front row of plastic chairs, her mother on one side of her, the other older woman and her psycho brother on the other side. Like everyone else, she’d turned to look when the door opened and I saw the color drain from her face when I nodded to her. Her mother leaned close to whisper something, but she just shook her head and turned round again.
I walked towards the front of the room and took a seat on the end of the second row. We sat in silence for a few minutes, save for some coughing and the scrape of metal as chairs got shifted, then one of the officers ran through the procedure and raised the blind at the window.
Tony was already strapped to the gurney.
There were three men inside the chamber with him and one of them, who I figured was the Warden, asked Tony if he wanted to say anything. Tony nodded and one of the other men lowered a microphone in front of his face.
Tony turned his head as far as he was able and said how sorry he was. For what he’d done, and for all the shit he’d laid at his own family’s door down the years. He finished up by saying that he wasn’t afraid and that everyone on the other side of the glass should take a good look at his life and try to learn something. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that and, things being how they were, it wasn’t like I had the chance to ask him.
He closed his eyes, then the Warden gave the signal and everything went quiet.
Three drugs, one after the other: the sedative, the paralytic and the poison.
It took five minutes or so and Tony didn’t really react a great deal. I saw his lips start to go blue and from then until it was finished, I paid as much attention to her face as his. She knew I was watching her, I could tell that. That I was thinking about all the things she’d said, and the things she’d asked me to do to her the night before at the Huntsville Palms Hotel.
Wanting to see just how good she felt about herself the next day.
I left the room before she did, but I waited around just long enough to get one last look at her. Her face was the color of oatmeal and I couldn’t tell if her mother was holding on to her or if it was the other way around. I guessed she was right about one thing; that it would not be something she would forget.
I had to shield my eyes against the glare when I stepped back out into the courtyard and walked towards my car. I drove out through the gates and past a small group of protesters with placards and candles. A few of them were singing some hymn I couldn’t place and others were holding up Tony’s picture. Later on, I would be coming back to collect my brother’s body and make the arrangements, but until I did, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Right then, all I wanted was to get away from “The Walls” and drive south-west on I-45.
To get another look at that big beautiful lake in the daylight.

Mark Billingham worked as an actor, a TV writer and a stand-up comedian before becoming one of the most critically acclaimed crime novelists in the world. He lives in North London with his wife and two children. Learn more at http://www.markbillingham.com.

The Walls: An Original Short Story (Part I)

Mt Washington HotelWe are thrilled to present Part I of an original short story written by BLOODLINE author Mark Billingham titled “The Walls.” We will be running the printed version of the story in two parts, as well as an audio version, read by Brad Negbaur (see below). BLOODLINE is also available as a downloadable audiobook read by Paul Thornley.

It was probably not the nicest hotel in Huntsville, but I had a good idea that it wasn’t the worst either, so I didn’t have a lot to complain about. Truth was, I’d booked the Palms over the Internet, so I didn’t know too much about anything until I checked in. Besides which, I’d stayed in places that made this one seem like the damn Ritz, so I was happy enough with a bed I could sleep in and food that didn’t come back to haunt me.

That was when I first saw her – in the restaurant at the Huntsville Palms Hotel.

It was seven o’clock or somewhere around there and the place was pretty packed and she was sitting at a big table just across from my small one. She and everyone else at the table with her were talking in hushed voices, which made a nice change from the loudmouth pair behind me who talked about the cost of bedroom furniture for an hour or more, like they were saving the planet or some shit. I turned around to stare at one point. I was hoping they’d see that they were putting me right off my chicken-fried steak, but it didn’t do any good. I really don’t know how either of them had the time to eat anything with all that jabbering, but they clearly did because they both looked like Mack trucks with heads.

I’d seen a lot of people that size since I’d arrived in Texas.

From where I was sitting I didn’t have a great view of her, but what I could see looked pretty good, so I kept glancing over and eventually she turned to try and catch the eye of the waitress. There wasn’t really a moment between us, nothing like that. But there was maybe a half-smile or something before she got the waitress’s attention and turned away. I just kept on eating and flicking through the local paper, happy enough to make up the rest of it in my head, the way men do sometimes.

She presses something into my hand when I run into her on the way out of the men’s room. Her room number scrawled on a napkin.

She says, “Let’s not bother with names,” when we get together later on, while she’s looking me straight in the eye and taking off her shirt. “Let’s just enjoy each other”, she whispers. “Get out of our heads and go crazy for one night…”

Continue reading “The Walls: An Original Short Story (Part I)”

At Her Feet He Fell

Bank HeistA Popcorn Fiction Selection. Three lives intersect during a bank heist. Then proceed to betray each other.

Let the bank rob the bank. That was the plan. Arbogast had come up with it all, but that only made sense. He was the thinker, the planner. “Einstein” they used to call him back in the neighborhood. You had a problem? You needed a solution? You went to see Arbogast. Not that he wanted to help. Not a chance in hell of that. It was just he was so damn proud of his own thought process. He’d help you out just to show he could. Just to rub your face in your own stupidity. Be a thinker not a stinker. He never got tired of saying that. Whether it was to a kid on the corner or to himself while picking up spent shell casings, it always applied. That’s not to say thinking didn’t have a downside. Sometimes the facts you turned up weren’t so great. And as Valentine’s Day approached, Arbogast had been considering two things. One? All the red is to hide the fact that love is really blue. And two? The muse is, was, and always would be a slut.

Janey was what the arsonists like to call ‘an accelerant.’ She didn’t necessarily start the fire, but she sure as shooting made it burn a whole lot brighter, faster and hotter. She was so far from home when Arbogast found her, that she couldn’t remember where home was. About the only thing she could remember was she was never going back. Somewhere along the way she had rejected a literal suicide for a philosophical one. She had fooled herself into thinking it was possible to escape. And the Route 66 to follow always seemed to involve a guy. She’d ridden mean guys, tough guys, and plenty that couldn’t get out of their own dumb dead-end way guys. At first the trick was knowing when to get off, but she quickly learned that they always let you know way ahead of time. Arbogast was different. Arbogast was a genius. This ride had been longer and truer than all the others combined. Scarier, too. But Janey meant to ride it as long as it didn’t kill her. She just hoped she’d know when that was.

Continue reading “At Her Feet He Fell”

Veronica Majeure

Show me the way to the next Whisky BarA Popcorn Fiction Selection. A contract killer gets stuck in Dublin after a job in this crime piece from screenwriter Brian Helgeland.

The first round hits the guy higher than I thought I was aiming. In the chin to be precise. I want to blame it on him swiveling over in his chair as he clocks me coming through the door, but the truth is, this one’s on the Jameson. It took three shots of it to get me up here. Guts bolstered at the expense of accuracy. Irish whiskey for Dutch courage here in the heart of Dublin. But don’t mistake me for a mick. Nothing against them, I just happen to be Polish German. Except for maybe my liver; that’s Irish all the way. As far as the Irishman I’m shooting at, his now missing chin is an unfortunate marring of an otherwise remarkable face. It’s also a violation of my contract, an express point of which was I kill him from the neck down. In other words, no head shots, leave him looking whole and pretty for an open casket funeral. So that part of the deal is a wash. And now he’s getting up from that chair, but the Jameson courage is still coursing through me and the stirring words in Latin found on every label: Sine Metu. Without fear. Although fear is about the only thing I feel as I pull the trigger again and the man goes down. Shot through the heart. Ceased to be. Sounds so much better than deceased. Like there’s a difference, huh?

I’m supposed to turn around and walk out the door, but I step to the desk instead. He was writing something when I walked in and that messed up little part of me needs to know. There are notes everywhere. Scribbles over type. But there by his fallen pen, the last words he would ever commit to paper are these: “I have a theory about love and it goes something like this—” As I stare down at the unfinished sentence, I suddenly wish I’d come in twenty seconds later.

Continue reading “Veronica Majeure”

You and Hank

Hot Rails to HellA Popcorn Fiction selection. Two salesmen see the dark side of Bangkok in this short story from screenwriter Darby Kealey. Oh yeah, and one of the salesmen is: you.

The first thing you notice as you step out of the airport is the heat. It’s hot in Bangkok. Not like LA heat, either. It’s thicker, almost soupy. You feel like you’re walking through the head of steam that affronts you when you open your dishwasher just after the Super-Clean cycle — but this place doesn’t smell like detergent. They probably don’t even have dishwashers here.

Your associate — he’d probably call you a ‘buddy’ — gets right to it: “Whores, buddy.” He’s a simple guy, Hank, which you envy at times; you can see him eternally happy with a bottomless case of lite beer and a ball of twine. That’s why he’s in sales. But right now, all Hank wants to do is buy. He’s heard Thailand is the place to come for prostitutes, the Mecca (your cultural reference, of course). He told you about it the whole damn flight. You would’ve preferred a crying baby.

“So this is Bonehenge, huh?”

“Huh?” Hank says. You catch the glimmer off a string of drool issuing from his mouth; Pavlov would’ve had a field day with Hank. “Whores,” he says again, trailing off at the end of what for him amounts to a sentence. He’s staring through the welter of buses, taxis, cars, and rickshaws clogging the airport entrance, to a back-alley in the distance, which he must think leads to the section of town where all the hookers are hooking. Or maybe there is no Red Light District here. Maybe it’s the whole city — the whole country, even. A Red Light Country. The thought makes you sad for a moment, but you don’t really have time to ponder it, as Hank is ambling off into almost certain death down the random back-alley. It’ll be a miracle if he survives this trip.

“Easy, Hank,” you say, grabbing him by the collar of his Lacoste shirt, which is already drenched in boozy sweat. “Hotel first, man. We gotta drop off our stuff.” Though clearly irked, Hank accedes. Despite the fact that you’re in the Far East now, the fundamentals of civilization still apply: you’re his boss. Well, not his boss, exactly, but his superior. And while you don’t like to assert your authority over anyone, particularly not a guy two years your senior, you believe that a strict adherence to hierarchy, to discipline, is the only thing that keeps foreigners alive in these inscrutable lands. You hail a taxi from the taxi stand, as the almighty Travel Guide told you to do.

Walking AlongDriving in Bangkok isn’t like driving in The States. It’s not even like driving in LA. It’s not even like driving, really. It’s more of an all out Battle of Wills. Right now, you’re sitting at a stoplight, but the semiotics of traffic signals has been diluted to the point of utter meaninglessness. Your driver blares his horn, screams something, then attempts — really tries, you can tell — to bash another taxi next to him. You think of cheap Chinese cars with no airbags and human crumple-zones; of substandard hospitals and poorly trained shamans; of some rich Frenchman with a penchant for champagne and a need for your liver. You know it’s cliché, but at this moment you hate the French.

The light remains red, but you’re off again, swooping through traffic like a bat into hell. A rickshaw sidles up next to you, making you flashback to the chariot-racing scene in Ben Hur; you slide toward the center of the backseat, half expecting a spike to pierce through your door at any moment. You finally understand what Hobbes meant by the State of Nature. And you’re plodding straight through the heart of it now: The Jungle. The thought makes you cringe.

“You seem a little jumpy, dude. You cool?”

“Fine, Hank. Just a little crazy, driving here.”

“Yeah,” Hank says, chuckling with an insouciance that, given the circumstances, indicates one of two things: A profound, Zen-monk acceptance of the comic-tragedy that is life — or mild retardation. And you’re pretty sure Hank doesn’t meditate. “Way I see it, I’m the type of guy who doesn’t worry too much about this kinda stuff, ya know? Fuck it, man.” You hate people who use phrases like ‘I’m the type of guy who…’ It seems so affected, so ersatz heroic, like Hank pictures himself standing atop some jagged cliff, sunset glowing behind him, every time he’s describing himself and his preferences, even if it’s just whether he likes chunky or smooth peanut butter better. Hank probably eats a lot of peanut butter.

Continue reading “You and Hank”

Not a Poe Fan

Edgar Allan Poe

A Popcorn Fiction selection. A bookmaker’s heavy haggles with a degenerate sucker who can’t make his payments in this crime story from top screenwriter Brian Koppelman.

“…No shit!  Really?  You’re saying they put this cafe on the very spot Edgar Allan Poe used to live?  Well.  Well!  If I were the sort of guy who gave a fucking shit about Edgar Allan Poe, I guess I’d give a fucking shit that he fucking lived here. But since I am the opposite of the kind of motherfucker who gives a fucking shit about where Edgar Allan Poe dined, shat and slept, excuse me if I do not strike an impressed pose.  Instead, why don’t you impress me.  Go into your pocket and take out the money you owe.  And then, why don’t you put it on the table where I can proceed to pick it up and move towards the door in one fluid and easy motion, leaving you here to appreciate the ambiance and heavy portents of the illustrious haunting author’s former haunt.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has either done way too much coke, seen way too many Tarantino movies or done a whole lot of coke while watching Tarantino movies. But he was the guy Block sent to collect.  So he was the guy I was going to have to deal with. I forced a smile and dove in.

“Mr…Mr…You never told me your name–” Continue reading “Not a Poe Fan”