I turned in the final edits on the second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust, to my editor at St. Martin’s at the beginning of July, but I haven’t been idle since then. (Even though we’re having a summer-long drought and heat wave here in Kansas City that’s the worst since the Dust Bowl with some temperature highs even breaking those records.)
I’ve done a number of guest blogs and interviews—and next week I’m going to put up a page on this site with the links to all of those plus all the reviews of Every Last Secret. I’ve continued my regular blogging at the Writers Who Kill group blog and added a monthly post at The Stiletto Gang groupblog. I’ve finished the freelance jobs that always show up this time of year, including preliminary judging for several national book contests. I’ve set up the opening situation of my next Skeet Bannion novel and am letting it roll around in the back of my head while I work on other projects, like the final version of a new book of poetry that I really like. I’ve been sending out individual poems in that book, Dark Sister, to be published in journals and elsewhere. Now, it’s time to start the manuscript of the book on its way toward publication.
I’m working on a new novel, a Sekrit Project (to borrow the brilliant nomenclature of Lilith Saintcrow). That’s going well, and it’s exciting, but I can’t give any details yet on that. I’m also working on some short stories. Those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while know that short fiction is a stretch for me. I admire those who write lots of great short stories. I have friends who are very, very good at short fiction. I find the short form of fiction a real challenge—mostly because every promising character and background I come up with starts to open out into a narrative too complex and long for a story.
I have a good short story publishing soon in Kansas City Noir (Akashic Books), as I’ve mentioned before on this blog. That story offered no spreading complications, nor did the few other literary short stories I’ve had published in the past. Now, I’m working on a short story that may eventually turn into part of something larger, but this part of it has built-in limits to make it work very well as a short fiction. It came about in a peculiar manner.
A good Twitter friend of mine, another lupus sufferer, is facing major, expensive reconstructive surgery on her jaw. Until she gets it, she must mash anything she eats to pudding consistency. Not a very happy way to live. Unfortunately, her insurance company doesn’t want to pay for this surgery. For all the details behind this, checkher blog entry about it here. Sabrina has a lot of friends who are writers. Not surprising because she’s a huge supporter of writers on her blog, My Friends Call Me Kate, and on Twitter and Facebook. Much as we might want to hand over thousands of bucks to her for her surgery, as writers we don’t have it. Some of us came up with the obvious idea of writing stories about feeding, jaws, or with a character named Kate for a fundraising anthology that we’ve titled Feeding Kate. You can contribute to the effort here.
I originally planned to do an urban fantasy story with a vampire of sorts (no sparkles!) named Kate because I thought Sabrina would get a big kick out of it. Of course, as I set up my story world and Ekaterina/Kate’s character, it opened out into something that will be novel or novella length. Won’t work for this. So I noodled around with a feeding, nurturing character I’d long wanted to use (but that I knew wouldn’t carry a book) and up popped another character who cared about her. The story began to take shape. So here’s part one of my story for Feeding Kate. For the rest, you’ll have to get a copy of the anthology by contributing to this great cause.
Rivka’s place at 39th & Paseo is the only remnant of the postwar time when this stretch of Paseo Boulevard was prosperous—and white. As the area changed in color and class, the other shops and restaurants of its day moved or closed. Now this old Jewish lady’s bakery and deli huddles next to a tattoo shop, nail parlor, and liquor store, directly across the street from The Hot Jazz Lounge with its board-covered windows, live jazz, and occasional dead bodies late on weekend nights. Next block down squats Snake Eyes Music, best known for rap, porn, hookers, DEA shutdowns, and SWAT team visits. Rivka’s is the only survivor of better times.
I call myself CJ Nash. I work here behind the old-fashioned glass counters, making sandwiches, cooking, cleaning. Rivka Schinski’s my boss, and she’s about a hundred, a hunched old lady all twisted up by arthritis. She should have retired and sold or closed this place a long time ago. Her family sure wanted her to do that. Her grown kids and grandkids are rich, and they keep trying to get her to close this place and go someplace where they won’t have to worry about her getting knifed or shot. But Rivka’s tougher than gunmetal.
When they come around in their cashmere coats, driving their Lincolns and Lexuses, with their fears of crime and Blacks and bad publicity, she always says, “Hitler tried to kill me. The Nazis couldn’t kill me. Why should I be afraid of anyone else?” And she shakes her tiny wrinkled arm with its ugly tattooed numbers in their faces.
Truth of the matter is it hasn’t really been all that dangerous for her here. In its own way, the neighborhood looks out for its own. Rivka’s good to folks. She’s always got free treats for kids and food for the poor. She lets homeless street people, like Weedy, El, and The Rev, hang out inside the shop when it’s bitter cold or killer hot, along with the working girls. I’ve never known her to turn away anyone hungry who couldn’t pay. So, folks watch out for Rivka.
I know I do. I was homeless when I first met her, homeless, penniless, and on the run. Rivka’s been real good to me, gave me a job and a room in the back of the shop. Never asks awkward questions. I appreciate that.
My old man would hate to see me today, working for a Jew and hanging around with Blacks and Latinos. He thought he was the white man’s messiah, or that he’d raise my brothers and me for the job. We believed it, too, didn’t know any better. Back in those hills, I’d had no contact with anyone outside my family since I was six years old. My dad ran the world I grew up in, and his was the only truth I knew. It was a combination of boot camp and special forces training throughout my whole childhood.
But after the feds charged in, and we fought back, Dad looking like a pincushion for bullets, Mom and my brothers dead, too, I couldn’t keep them from taking me captive with two slugs in my gut. Once I healed and went to prison—I was barely eighteen, see, but I was eighteen—I got a whole new education.
Now, I just keep myself to myself, low profile. Don’t leave this building much, except to ride the bus once a month to the nearest used bookstore down in Westport. I stay in the front of Rivka’s, slicing meat, vegetables, and breads, or work the mixer and oven in the kitchen or just lie on my cot in the back and read at night instead of sleeping. I’d just as soon no one realized I was even around.
I live in a whole different world from the one my crazy old man preached with its brotherhood of the white man. Truth is, hardly anybody white ever helped me after the troubles, except for this crazy little twisted-up Jewish woman.
I knew we had a new kind of trouble the day Kev Mackey came around to flirt with pretty little Trini Hernandez, like he always does, and brought that new gangbanger with him. Trini’s tiny, half Mexican, half Dominican. She keeps her hair cut short and wears jeans and sloppy T-shirts all the time. Trying not to look sexy and available like her hooker sister. Trying to say she’s something different from what every man who sees her wants her to be. Sometimes I give her a book to try to read between her several jobs. She’s studying for her GED. Her secret hope is to go to school to become a nursing assistant and then maybe a nurse.
Kev’s a kid on the brink. He could come up with extraordinary guts and strength and go down the good road or do the easy thing and claim a gang and that short, brutal life. His new pal made that decision a long time ago. Big, tough, head shaved, pierced all over with silver knobs and rings, tats all over, especially on his fingers. Saw plenty of those in prison.
“They call me Dom, little girl. That’s short for Dominator ‘cause that’s what I do. No one disses me. No one refuses me. That’s the way it’s got to be, sis.” He went after Trini right away. “Now, you are fine, girl. Just as fine as my homes Kev told me. You and me going to be real close friends. Real close.”
A cloud of menace hung over him. He wasn’t from here, and it wouldn’t make any difference to him that Rivka was good to people or that Trini was working hard to get out of this neighborhood where her dad and brothers wound up in the joint and her big sis on the streets. It sure wasn’t going to make any difference to him that Trini was a good girl. He’d just break her. That’s the way those eaten-up, lost ones work. They don’t give a shit about anyone or anything.
Trini just ignored the punk, but Kev stood there with his mouth open like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “No way, Dom. Trini’s mine.” Brave words, but he sounded as scared as he looked, all skinny brown-skinned teen with acne and nappy hair, trying to look bad with his jeans hanging around his knees.
Dom twisted his mouth. “But you want to share, right, homes?” His voice cut the air, harsh and dangerous. He glared at Kev with real threat. Dom wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen, like me when I killed those feds. Like me, he’d been bred and trained to be dangerous. I knew his type. I’d been his type.
“There won’t be any sharing of me.” Trini looked across the glass counter at the two of them. She couldn’t help that her voice was small and soft, but she made it as firm and strong as she could. “I belong to no one but myself. Certainly not to you, Kevin.”
“Shit, Trini, you know you’re—“
“No bad language here, Kevin,” said Rivka, walking in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel at her waist. “You know the rules. You boys get something to eat and then leave Trini alone. She’s working.”
She came behind the shorter counter where Trini sat at the cash register. She reached over in the back of the high glass-front counters next to her and plucked up two doughnuts. “Here you go, boys. Nice and fresh and sweet.”
Dom glared at her and leaned over to get right in her face. “Listen, you old bitch! I—“
Rivka reached up and stuffed one of the doughnuts right in his open mouth as he was laying into her. His eyes flew open in shock and then panic as he started to choke.
“Chew,” Rivka said. “Chew and swallow. It’s good for you. Sweeten your temper. And no more bad language. You can’t frighten me.” She pointed to the tattoo on her wrist. “Scarier men than you will ever be have tried and failed.”
I moved out from the corner table behind the tall counter where I stayed most of the time, sharpening knives, making up bags of doughnut holes, whatever. I drifted over to stand next to Rivka. Mutt and Jeff. I’m almost tall enough to include two of her, one on top of the other. I still held the big butcher knife I’d been sharpening.
Dom was chewing as fast as he could and still choking some. Rivka waved him toward the door. “Go on home. Come back when you feel better.”
I started to move around the short counter behind Trini. I thought I’d whack him on the back since he was having such a hard time, but he turned and dashed for the door to the street before I could.
“Come on, Trini,” said Rivka, grabbing her purse. “I will drive you home.”
“But I’ve got two more hours to work.” Trini looked as if she might start crying. “I need the money.”
“Kevin can work your hours. I will still pay you.” Rivka turned toward Kev. “Why would you bring such a meshugganuh…?” Her hands tried to grab words from the air. “Such a crazy one. Why bring him here to torment Trini?”
Kev started to sputter in anger. I raised my eyebrows at him. I know the effect that can have on a kid, what with the scar that runs from one brow down to my jaw.
Trini whirled to face Kev. “You stupid! You better not bring that punk around me again, Kev, or I’ll never, never speak to you anymore.”
“Come, Trini, let me drive you home. I don’t want you to walk tonight.” Rivka pushed her toward the back door. “You keep your phone by you tonight. Call me if anyone comes bothering around your place.”
“Call 911,” I shouted after them. “They might not get there as fast as Rivka, but they’ll have more firepower.”
When I turned back to Kev, he was staring at the butcher knife in my hand. “What? This?” I shook it at him a little.
He pulled his head back as his eyes grew bigger.
“Kev, I was sharpening knives when your pal got so out of line. I just happened to have it in my hand.”
“You sharpen knives a lot of the time. I’ve noticed that.”
I shrugged. “I was taught to take good care of my tools. A dull knife is dangerous. You’re much more likely to cut yourself or someone else accidentally with a dull knife. And I never want to do something like that accidentally.” I walked back to my corner butcher block table and laid the knife on it.
I had the knives laid out in a line on the table, ordered by size. I put away my sharpening stone and its bench. I’d finished that part of the drill. Next, I’d take my butcher’s steel and hone the knives so it would take the barest touch of their edges to open the skin or surface of almost anything.
“You know, Kev, the time comes when you got to think for yourself and not just move in the direction everyone seems to be pushing you to move.” I looked at him directly, making direct eye contact though I usually avoided it. I wanted to make sure he was hearing and understanding. “This Dom guy may seem cool, but he’s not. He’s bad news for someone like you. Anything you do with him will bring him what he wants because you’ll be left to take the blame and punishment. Never let someone else control what you feel and do.”
I knew it was probably useless to talk this way, but I was talking to myself at his age more than anything, that kid who’d blown away two feds thinking he was protecting his family, thinking he was doing the righteous thing, only to learn after too many deaths that he’d been misled and would now have to pay forever for letting someone else control his emotions and actions. I was talking to the boy who’d set me on the course I’d been on ever since that day the feds showed at our home compound.
“Nah, Dom’s okay. He just doesn’t want anybody to feel like they can mess with him.” Kev’s face suddenly looked troubled. “I sure wish Miz Rivka hadn’t done that to him. You know, she dissed him bad. He’s going to have to come back on her hard.”
I nodded. I knew that the minute Rivka did it. I’m not sure she didn’t know it also. Rivka’s a lot smarter than people give her credit for. Dom was going to have to come back in and put the hurt on her big time. I didn’t want to see that. I hoped he’d get smart and go somewhere else.
I had to keep myself as low and out of sight as possible. Just because the search for me wasn’t active any longer didn’t mean it wasn’t ready to leap up any second the feds heard of a sighting or whenever my fingerprints showed up in some case or other. So I avoided trouble always. Now, Rivka had walked herself right into some really bad trouble. I didn’t see what I could do about it.
Coming up in the next week, a review of Kathleen George’s upcoming Simple, a political thriller, which is something new for her, with her trademark plotting, suspense, and beloved Pittsburg police officers, and another Books of Interest by Writers of Color post with Ruth Behar, Stanley Banks, and Xánath Caraza. Stay cool out there!