Happy New Year. I hope you enjoyed the holidays and have grand plans for the coming months. I know I do. I’m putting together a collection of Denny the Dent stories, and putting the finishing touches on the first Jay Desmarteaux novel.
Blade of Dishonor continues to find readers all over the world- I had misgivings about my first novel being an action-adventure story, when most of my fiction is sardonic humorous lit or gritty drama, but I loved writing it and I’m thrilled to find new readers who enjoy it. I cut my teeth writing crime stories, which I continue to believe are the modern “social novel,” to paraphrase Dennis Lehane, and I see the world through a lens polished by crime writers like Andrew Vachss, Lawrence Block, Dashiell Hammett, George Pelecanos, and James Lee Burke. So here’s a taste of how I write a pulp adventure novel- the first three chapters of Blade of Dishonor:
When the mother trucker blew him a kiss, Reeves had already hit the ground walking. He gave her a half-smile and hefted his pack. The big rig honked and rumbled across the tracks. Past the rusty railroad crossing, dirty buildings huddled against the cold and a bullet-pocked sign read:
WELCOME TO BUTTZVILLE
A MINNESOTA STAR CITY
The star burnt out long before he left town, and had fallen from there. Reeves pulled his fatigue jacket snug around his broad shoulders and pointed his boots into town.
The trucker said Ironsides Surplus & Pawn was still open last time she’d come through. She pulled down her shirt to show the shiny nickel revolver she’d purchased there and kept tucked in her bra. There hadn’t been much room in the bed in back of the cab, but it was warmer than the squats Reeves had holed up in on the way.
Big Chickie’s still manned the corner, sooty brick and plate glass covered with taped newspapers. The old man made a good pizza pie, and his wife made good sausage and pepper sandwiches. The locals called the sandwiches a ‘greasy dago,’ but Reeves didn’t. Mr. Ciccarone coached wrestling at Star City High, and took the team to the championships more than once.
Reeves had worked up an appetite paying for the ride. The memory of fried peppers and onions hung in the air.
He pulled the handle and the door rattled. He tried again.
Reeves had changed in the seven years he’d been gone, and the town had, too. The shop’s windows had been taped over with newspaper. Reeves leaned in to read a headline.
FORD PLANT ROLLS OUT FINAL MUSTANG
The photo showed smiling workers around a tricked-out GT convertible.
Reeves wondered what the hell the men in the picture were smiling about.
His stomach grumbled. All the trucker had was a Thermos of coffee, which sloshed in Reeves’ bladder while he walked. He eyed the alley next to Chickie’s and unzipped.
“Step away from the building,” a voice said.
Reeves turned, snapping his fists into guard.
The sheriff popped the thumb break on his holster. Red-faced and cornfed, his big sandy moustache covered the harelip Reeves remembered from high school.
“Easy now, Reeves,” the big man said. “Hate to splatter your brains all over the wall.”
It didn’t look like Tor Johansson would hate to do it. From the curl of his lip, it looked like he was doing it in his mind, over and over. Reeves had never poked fun at Johansson’s lip scar, but a lot of kids had. When Tor beefed up into a linebacker, he took it out on every one of them, and anyone else who gave him an ounce of shit.
“You weren’t gonna drain the snake, were you? That’s indecent exposure,” Johansson said. “Disorderly conduct. I’ll toss your ass back in jail. We got a turd in the drunk tank who’s either puking or crapping his pants all night. Sometimes both. I ought to stick you with him, down with the filth where you belong.”
“This town looks pissed-on enough,” Reeves said. He relaxed and lowered his hands.
“Did I say to put your hands down? I could shoot you right here,” Johansson said. “No one would give two shits.”
Reeves figured that was correct. He judged the distance versus how fast Tor’s reflexes had been back after graduation, when he’d busted a bottle of Hamm’s beer over Reeves’ head and left a shiny lightning-bolt scar down his sideburn.
“You robbed me of my one chance out of this town,” Johansson said. He’d taken the Iron Cats to the finals, then gone to State. Came home to brag the same weekend Reeves celebrated his trainer getting him a tryout with the UFC. “Concussion syndrome. Bullshit,” he spat. “I told ’em that’s what helmets are for.”
“Water under the bridge, Tor. You fouled up my exit, too.” Reeves rubbed his hand, where the bones had knitted stronger than before. Lumps showed through the skin. The judge might’ve been Lutheran, but performed his most fervent worship at the college gridiron. He’d sentenced Johansson to time served, but tossed Reeves a dime to polish off at the penitentiary. Reeves chose the Marines instead.
“You’re still a smart mouth,” Johansson said. “So it’s been ten years. All that gets you is no bullet in the back of the head.”
“I’m gonna go before you say something you regret,” Reeves said. “You wanna shoot me in the back, you go right ahead.” Reeves shifted his pack and headed up the street.
“No one would miss you,” Johansson said. “Not even your nasty old crippled grandfather.”
“You can shoot me, if it means not having to listen to your sad sack bullshit,” Reeves called.
Johansson followed him in a black Chevy Trailblazer SS and rolled down the window.
“I don’t have to shoot you, Reeves. You’ll trip on your own dick soon enough, and I’ll be there to slap the cuffs on.” The engine roared as he pulled away.
Reeves couldn’t deny that was probably how things would play out.
The town felt bigger on foot. He’d always had a bike as a kid, held together with JB weld and duct tape, and later a dirt bike pawned by some teenager who knocked up his girlfriend. Reeves had felt spoiled, despite living on the wrong side of the tracks and growing up in the back of an Army-Navy store. When he and his friends played War in the woods, they used real World War 2 helmets and bounced deactivated grenades off their heads.
It didn’t make up for losing his parents, but it wasn’t a bad childhood. Grandpa Butch expected a lot, and there wasn’t a day Reeves wasn’t told he needed a kick in the ass. Butch had never delivered it. Had never laid a hand on him.
The closest was when Reeves took a Savage .22 off the shelf and used it in a battle of GIs vs. Nazis. He unloaded it and removed the firing pin, but Butch caught him sneaking back with it, and dragged him by the ear to the back of the shop.
“Didn’t I teach you to treat every gun like it’s loaded, you dumb shitbird? This ain’t gonna hurt me more than it’ll hurt you,” Butch said from his wheelchair. “It ain’t gonna hurt me one bit, unless I miss your skinny ass and hit my leg with the gun belt. I never laid a hand on you. Never kicked you in the ass, even when you deserved it—and just ’cause I only got the one leg don’t mean I can’t kick you in the ass—but you don’t fool around with firearms, kid. I seen too many friends with their faces blown apart like a jack o’lantern thrown in the street to worry about you shooting your pecker off. Or shooting off one of your friends’ peckers, for that matter.”
He snapped the belt, and Reeves gripped the arm of the wheelchair.
“Boys are gonna play war. That’s just how boys are. But it ain’t no game. Looks like fun on the TV, but it’s the worst hell mankind’s ever come up with. It’ll make you do terrible things, things people will tell you to be proud of. And that just makes it worse. You think on that. Think of your friend, that chubby I-talian kid, with his jaw blown off. Imagine it sitting in the dirt, like you were playing horseshoes. Him crying for his mama, except he ain’t got no mouth.”
The belt cracked. Reeves winced, but felt no pain. He looked over his shoulder and the belt came down again. Grandpa Butch cracked his own hand, and broke the skin. His eyes didn’t even water.
Somehow that hurt Reeves worse than if he’d taken the whipping himself.
* * *
Reeves knew Butch would have choice words for him when they met. Maybe he’d plant his rock-strong hands on the arms of the wheelchair, and finally give him that kick in the ass.
Only one way to find out.
The Star Diner stood catty-corner to an abandoned Phillips gas station, its chrome liver-spotted with rust. The neon sign was out, and the waitress’s smile flickered no more. A few banged-up pickups and a gold flake Oldsmobile coupe parked in the lot. Reeves dug in his pocket and found a few crumpled bills.
Inside it looked the same as he remembered, the Formica yellowed with an extra layer of grease. Augie, a bald walrus with a gray moustache, flipped burgers behind the counter. His apron was singed under his beer belly from where it skirted the grill. Men in trucker caps at the counter. Old women in the booths, life hanging heavy from their wrinkled necks and hefty arms. A few stared, then looked away as the bell dingled on the door.
Reeves set his pack down on an empty stool and squeezed past a waitress’s round rump toward the restrooms.
“Bughouse is for customers only,” Augie snapped.
Reeves held out his dollar. “Coffee and a buttered roll, then.”
The cook scraped burger grease off the grill with his spatula. “With tax it’s a buck oh five.”
Reeves fished the pocket of his dungarees and found only a hole.
“Come on, Augie,” Reeves said. “No veteran’s discount?”
“You have my sincere thanks for your service,” Augie said. “Which is worth exactly squat. Sorry, Reeves. We all got to make a living.”
The waitress hustled back with her pot of coffee. Bright eyes and freckles on a young face creased early with well-practiced smirks. Fox red hair spiraled down her shoulders. She bumped past Reeves and slapped a nickel on top of the register.
“You can owe me,” she said.
The restroom was as cramped as the crapper on a submarine. Reeves straddled the toilet and sighed. He read the missives covering the walls.
A crudely drawn set of male genitals. Nobama. And scratched out, Tara is a dirty something or other. Someone had removed the paint with a car key to erase it. Reeves washed his big mitts. Considering the empty paper towel dispenser, he wiped his hands dry on the back of his pants.
The waitress flitted up and down the diner car with her coffee pot like a hummingbird in reverse, putting black nectar into patron’s cups.
Reeves ate his roll and ignored the folks mumbling in their booths.
“Not too popular around here, are ya?” the waitress asked, as she stopped by for a refill.
Reeves shrugged. “I busted the champ linebacker’s jaw, about ten years back. Grudges freeze up here and never go away.”
“You’re the one who popped Tor Johansson?”
“They call me Reeves.”
“Tara.” She picked his dollar out of her pocket and flattened it on the counter. “This one’s on me, Reeves. That creep likes to use my back pocket for a mitten.”
Reeves grinned as her shoes squeaked away on the linoleum floor. He rubbed his hands together. They didn’t feel cold, but her pockets sure looked nice and cozy.
The bell rang and a skinny old man stepped in and lingered by the door. The folks eating turned to look, then stared down at their plates.
The old man took two quarters from his pocket and pinched them together. Reeves caught the scent then. Not unlike his fatigues after a long day in the sandbox playing babysitter to Army convoys. A customer wrinkled his nose. Another made a loud gagging sound.
Reeves spun slowly on his stool. He hadn’t recognized the man shrouded in his shame. He’d been Big Chickie, once. Now he looked twisted and pale, like a gray dishrag life had wrung dry.
“Wait outside, you bum,” said the biggest of four young men squeezed in a booth. Roughnecks for the taconite mine in Hibbing, from the embroidered caps they wore. “Stinks worse than a stopped toilet.”
“Be right out with your coffee, Mr. Ciccarone,” the waitress said.
The bell tinkled and the old man slipped away. The waitress filled a to-go cup. “Quit bothering the other customers, fellas.”
“Or what, Tara? You gonna give us a tongue lashing?” Big Mouth said. His buddies snickered.
Tara bit her lip and packed the cup in a paper sack with a wad of napkins.
Reeves turned his head toward the table. He handed Tara back his dollar. “Bring him a bear claw, too.”
Tara took the buck and filled the sack with sweet rolls.
Reeves walked over to the booth. “Have some respect,” he said. “He’s a good man who fell on hard times.”
“I don’t care if he takes the Vikes to the Superbowl,” Big Mouth said. “That old dago stinks on ice.” His pals laughed louder. Two boys, hiding behind men’s scruffy moustaches. And a bald seatmate who tilted his bull neck, cracked a vertebra.
Reeves blocked Big Mouth in the booth with his hip and planted his boot on Baldy’s chest. He ground his thumb into the nerves at the back of Big Mouth’s jaw and prodded Baldy’s Adam’s apple with his steel-toe. Both men gagged and squirmed.
Tara grinned and took the sack outside.
“His name’s Mister Chickie from now on,” Reeves said. “Have some respect, or I’ll beat it into you.”
Augie rattled a rolling pin on the counter. “Settle down before I call the sheriff.”
Reeves slapped them on the backs of their heads, then threw his pack over his shoulder. He stopped at the door.
“This town used to be good people,” he said. “What happened?”
“We let in riffraff like you,” an old woman sneered.
* * *
Chickie sat on the guardrail, sipping the coffee. Reeves passed Tara on the steps. She gave him a smile and a pat on the behind. She slipped inside before he could respond.
“Grazie for the roll, Reeves,” Chickie said.
“Funny how quick people turn on you,” Reeves said, and sat beside his old coach, watching the failing sun paint the lake orange across the highway.
“Things go bad, people turn on each other,” Chickie said. “Too afraid to risk banding together.”
The bell rang and the four roughnecks piled out. Reeves set his camo ILBE pack by Chickie’s feet.
“You can run,” Chickie said.
“You know damn well I can’t,” Reeves replied.
The men rushed down the steps in a pack. Reeves raised his fists and smiled. He met their charge with a flying knee to Big Mouth’s chest. The big bearded man reminded Reeves of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, and he hit the ground hard. The two kids gaped, and Baldy clipped Reeves in the gut with a big elbow, sent him spinning.
“Legs, Reeves, legs!” Chickie hollered, rising to his feet.
Baldy had an easy fifty pounds on Reeves’ middleweight frame but nothing on his speed. The two moustaches swarmed on him, grabbing for his arms. Reeves chopped one’s thigh with his shin and sent him hopping. Baldy threw haymakers and clubbed Reeves on his arms. Reeves ducked and weaved. The other kid slashed with his wallet chain and caught Reeves on the ear. Baldy tackled him from behind. Reeves rolled with it. Baldy yelped as his scalp hit the pebbled asphalt.
“Good sweep, Reeves! Now finish him,” Chickie hooted.
Reeves smiled and they hit the ground. He spidered to side mount position, throwing a knee to Baldy’s ribs and an elbow to his skull. The wallet chain kid ran up with a kick and Reeves took it on the chest and hugged his boot. He fell back and twisted the kid’s ankle. The kid cried out and tumbled. His cap rolled away, and Reeves torqued his work boot and levered the kid’s outburst into a scream.
Baldy unclipped a razor knife from his belt and leaped on Reeves, his teeth gleaming red.
Reeves spun turtle on his back and pulled guard as the knife came down. He clamped both hands on the man’s forearm. Grunting as the point needled his chest. Baldy groaned and put his weight into the stab.
Reeves shot breath through his clenched teeth and curled on his side. The knife ripped a jagged hole through his coat. The slice burned across his chest like a hot shell casing.
Reeves scissored his legs around Baldy’s shoulders and hooked his leg over his head in an arm bar. He twisted the man’s arm and leaned back until the elbow popped.
He left Baldy whimpering and tossed the razor knife to the asphalt.
The other kid rubbed his leg and helped Big Mouth to his feet. The big man’s beard bubbled with vomit.
“Yeah, we’re done,” Reeves said, and checked his wound.
“Going to see Butch?” Chickie handed him a wad of napkins.
Reeves pressed them to his chest. “Yeah.”
“Get ready for worse,” Chickie said.
The diner crowd stared from the windows. Tara gaped from the doorway.
Reeves gave Chickie’s hand a hard squeeze and headed up the road.
Reeves pulled his coat closed against the wind, thinking of the cold desert nights. That’s the thing they didn’t tell you about Iraq and Stan-land, how cold the nights got. The crazy heat during the day drove everyone mad, like the fear banded tight around your chest. Every car a bomb, every kid waving for bottles of water or candy bars a lookout, a runner, a triggerman for an artillery shell buried beneath the road, ready to shred your legs to shawarma.
Reeves couldn’t help wanting to be a war hero like Butch, but the old man railed against it every chance he got. “It don’t make you a man,” he said, more times than Reeves could count. “It’ll show you if you are one, but so will a lifetime of hard work.” Reeves would sneak into the VFW bar to hear hard-eyed old men tell them the tales of blood and heroism that Butch never told.
So despite all the threats of a kick in the ass, when the judge told Reeves to sign up with the Marines or face ten years in Stillwater, he took the Corps. Reeves spent three months in County, on ten grand bail. Day he was booked, Butch rolled down the cell block with a bankroll in his lap that made the fat jailer whistle.
“This is for your lawyer, not you.” He shook his head. “You stupid jerk-off. You’re as hard-headed as your father was. You want to be dead like him?”
Reeves only remembered glimpses. A big man like a statue carved of sandstone, with a permanent grin. Reeves had been in the car when it had turned over. Racing a driver that had cut them off toward a one lane bridge, ignoring his mother’s protests. Reeves flew out the window and his parents went through the ice.
“You can cool that hot temper of yours here until trial,” Butch said. “I thought you training to fight would burn the fire out of you, but it’s made you dangerous.”
Reeves wanted to say that Tor and his two buddies had been hassling girls at the party. That he hadn’t thrown the first punch. It didn’t matter. He’d busted two jaws and cracked Tor’s skull on the concrete floor.
The jailer reached to help turn the chair around, and Butch shoved him away. He spun one wheel, then pulled himself down the hallway with the sole of one worn brogan. Reeves bloodied his fists on the pale green cinder blocks.
He felt the ache in his fists now, and rubbed his knuckles when he didn’t have his thumb out for a ride. The cars that didn’t fly past slowed to show him a different finger.
An hour into his hump, a gold Toronado roared past like a rocket from planet ’70s. It skidded to a stop in the gravel shoulder, brake lights aglow in the twilight. The car reversed toward him. Reeves skipped aside.
Tara leaned out the window. “Mr. Ciccarone said you might need a ride.”
“Thanks.” Reeves threw his pack on the floorboards.
Tara took off before he had the door closed. She’d changed into jeans, a Cheap Trick t-shirt with the neck cut out, and a hoodie with fake black fur around the neck like a shag carpet. The front seat was covered in a worn Winnie-the-Pooh quilt that she’d tucked under the head rests and cut holes in for the seat belts.
“You really tore those guys a new set of assholes,” she said. “About time someone did. They hassle me, and they hassle everybody, but Augie won’t toss out a paying customer even if the guy drops a steamer in the pie case, ya know?”
Reeves laughed. This gal was something.
“Chickie told me you’d be headed toward the pawn shop. Johansson came around looking for you.”
“Yeah,” she said. “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Typically it’s cash, grass or ass for a ride in my Golden Oldie,” Tara said. “Seeing that your ass is bruised and you’re unlikely to be carrying either kind of green, a little friendly conversation would cover the bill. If that’s not too much to ask.”
Reeves arched an eyebrow. She drove with one hand on the wheel, the other slapping time on the seat to “Barracuda” by Heart fuzzing out the speakers. He admired the defiant set to her jaw and the way she filled out the seat.
“I been away ten years,” he said. “Not much to talk about.”
“Where were you?”
“That in Wisconsin?”
“Iraq,” Reeves said. “Before that I was in Afghanistan for a stretch. Long enough to see we weren’t doing any good.”
“I don’t follow politics,” Tara said. “I support the troops, though.”
“What about you,” Reeves said. “I don’t remember you from high school.”
“I’m from Coon Rapids,” she said. “Went to St. Cloud to get away, you know? Can’t stand that town. Got my degree in design, that’s why I’m waiting tables.”
Reeves snorted, and noticed the cracked dash was sponge-painted in rainbow colors. He wondered what art lurked under the quilt.
“You’re stuck here now,” Reeves said. “This place is a black hole.”
“You’re a troop, right? I made decent tips today, if you want to crack a few Leinie’s and dance around Ole’s jukebox.”
Reeves could use a hot shower and a soft bed, and Butch wasn’t going anywhere.
Before he could answer, lights flooded the interior and a crash knocked them forward.
“What the hell?” Tara screamed, but took them out of the fishtail with ease.
A lifted Bronco with floodlights and a yellow snowplow filled the rear window, coming fast.
“Give it more pedal,” Reeves said.
Tara obliged. The engine roared and the Toronado hunkered low.
A shotgun blast rattled their lungs. The driver either fired in the air or was a lousy shot, but Reeves felt the familiar weight in his gut, like swallowing cold metal.
Tara took a curve at speed, tires spraying gravel.
“Put the brights on,” Reeves said, and slid up beside her and put an arm behind the head rest.
“I got this,” Tara said, eyes darting as she scanned the road. “I can’t choose men or careers worth a damn, but I can drive the shit out of my Olds.”
“If there’s buckshot flying, I’d rather it be in my arm than your brain pan.”
The Bronco cut across a field and ate up their lead. Tara worked the gas and the brake as the spinning Ironsides Pawn sign peeked through the trees.
“Hang on, soldier,” she hollered, and spun the wheel.
The tires squealed in protest as they executed a sharp drift. Tara toed the e-brake, then released it and gunned the pedal to launch them around the curve and into the strip mall’s empty parking lot. The Bronco blew past and bounced through the weeds.
The pawn shop’s lights were out. The Chinese place next door was open. “Go around back,” Reeves said. The rear of the pawn shop was empty except for Butch’s enormous maroon station wagon.
Reeves hopped out and tugged on the rear door. Locked solid.
The door to the Chinese kitchen was open and wafted the sweet smell of fry oil. Maybe Mr. Han would lend him a cleaver.
The Bronco bounced up the curb and blocked the exit. Four men limped out. Two brandished hockey sticks. Baldy swung an axe handle, and Big Mouth toted a Stevens twelve-gauge.
“Get in,” Tara said. “I can lose them!”
Reeves ducked in the window to plant a kiss on her ear. “Thanks for the ride, but this ain’t your fight.”
“Screw you, Reeves,” she said, and revved the engine. “I’ll run your asses over!”
Big Mouth racked the shotgun. The shell casing clattered across the pavement. He leveled the twelve-gauge at the windshield.
Reeves put himself between the car and the barrel. Tara leaned on the horn. The men stepped closer. Their wounds fresh, their anger raw. Behind them, the pale walking corpse of PFC Jenkins, his throat spraying blood.
Reeves flushed cold head to toe. The bitter Fallujah nights. His arm around Jenkins’ neck, clamping the wound shut with a compression hold. The young PFC’s heart pounding, fading, fluttering away against Reeves’ blood-slick biceps.
Jenkins mouthed silent accusations as the darkness took him whole.
Reeves stared dead-eyed toward the shooter. Could he break someone’s neck after taking a chest full of buckshot? Time to find out.
He took a step forward.
The night exploded with small arms fire. The reports crackled off the trees and across the lake.
Reeves looked down at his chest. When he looked back up, Big Mouth had his hands held over his head while hot piss spread over his jeans.
A worn sole scraped the pavement. Grandpa Butch dragged his squeaky wheelchair beside Reeves. A vintage M-3 “grease gun” smoked in his lap. One big mitt on the trigger, the other gripping the 30-round magazine.
Butch had a head like a dum-dum bullet with a sneer gouged in the lead. “If you shitbirds don’t wanna join the twenty Germans and eight Japs I got on my dance card, you’d better put your ugly faces in the dirt.”
He sprayed another burst over their heads into the woods. The four men hit the ground before the brass casings finished tinkling across the asphalt.
Tara covered her ears and stared.
“Thanks, Grandpa,” Reeves said.
Butch elbowed him in the jewels. “You’re still a dumb little shit.”
Reeves winced and rubbed himself.
“Quit playing with your nuts,” Butch said, and jerked the grease gun toward the open door. “Go get that jerk-off sheriff on the Ameche.”
for the rest of the story, read Blade of Dishonor Part 1: The War Comes Home (.99c on Kindle) or purchase the full novel, Blade of Dishonor, for Nook, Kindle, Kobo, or in trade paperback. The book page has more options including signed copies and ordering from local bookstores in paperback or for Kobo.