The Case of the Disappearance of Jean Spangler and Always the Dead by Stephen J. Golds @RedDogTweets

Punk Noir Magazine
Glamour Girl Gone Jean Spangler

Besides all the romance and glamour Hollywood has long been a honey-trap for wannabe actresses, hustlers, runaways, chancers, and mobsters. There’s a heart of darkness pumping poisoned blood underneath the glitzy nine white letters spelling out the district’s name.

A place forever haunted by those used, abused and murdered behind its silken, maroon curtains. Haunted by those who have faded away and disappeared without a trace from its sunshine bronzed pavements. A locale pregnant with an unholy trinity of the unexplained, the unsolved and the unspeakable. Many are aware of the stone-cold case of The Black Dahlia. Elizabeth Short, a wannabe actress and party girl discovered posed naked, drained of blood and severed in two in a vacant lot on the west side of South Norton.

Few are aware of the real case that embodies all that is beautiful and rotten about those star-paved streets, the mysterious disappearance of glamour girl Jean Spangler. It’s a case that reads like a story ripped straight from the pages of a David Goodis novel. A stunning starlet, a messy divorce, clubs, movie stars, gangsters, Palm Springs, and a violent ex-lover known to cops simply as ‘Scotty’.

Jean Spangler on set

A cool Friday evening. October 7th, 1949. Dressed to the nines, the stunning 26 year old, dancer and bit-time actress Jean Spangler left home telling her sister-in-law she was going to see her ex-husband, Dexter Benner, about child-support payments for their daughter and after would be going to a studio for a night shoot on the new movie she was working on. She kissed her young daughter goodbye, walked down the avenue and was never seen by her family again.

Dexter Benner – the ex-husband

The next morning, October 8th, Jean’s sister-in-law, worried by the doting mother’s non-communication and strange absence, went to the LAPD and filed a missing person’s report.

The cops checked with the studios and the Screen Extras Guild. There were no records of Jean having worked anywhere that night. To make matters more confounding Dexter Benner, the disgruntled ex-husband, stated he hadn’t seen or even spoken to Jean in over a month. His new wife gave him an air-tight alibi and vouched for his claims.

Jean had lied. But why?

A clerk at a Farmers Market, a grocery store a few blocks from Spangler’s home stated to authorities she’d seen the beautiful young starlet browsing shelves and seemingly waiting for someone.

October 9th, a purse with a torn handle was discovered in Griffith Park.
Jean’s purse.

The contents – a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a hairbrush, some lipstick and a letter.

Kirk,
Can’t wait any longer,
Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while
mother is away,

The original letter

Over sixty police officers scoured the park. No other clues were found. Persons of interest named Dr. Scott or Kirk created no fresh leads except for the whispers on the L.A. club scene that there was an illegal abortionist to the stars nicknamed ‘Doc’. The shadowy ‘Doc’ proved allusive and the LAPD were left scratching their heads again.

The newspapers and scandal rags ran amok on theories, rumors and speculation. The Black Dahlia murder was dragged back out into the cold spotlight causing panic and fear of the Los Angeles Werewolf Killer.

Actor Kirk Douglas nervous and publicity conscious contacted the LAPD Chief through his lawyer to state though he did work with Spangler on his newest movie, Young Man with a Horn, the relationship never went further than small talk on set. She was just an extra, Douglas was the star, the lawyer argued.

The cops agreed and focused on two new leads instead. A violent ex-boyfriend of Jean’s nicknamed Scotty. A war veteran who abused Spangler when she tried to leave him previously and Davy Ogul, a mob heavy for Mickey Cohen, currently under indictment and spotted together with Jean in Palm Springs prior to her disappearance.

L.A. Mob Boss Mickey Cohen

These two leads like all the others ended point blank at the bottom of one-way streets and empty alleyways.

Nah King Cole played at The Chi Chi Bar and Grill
Original matchbook

The cops, under pressure from the press and the public, hit the clubs Spangler was known to frequent, The Florentine Gardens, a notorious mob hang-out and The Chi-Chi Bar and Grill in Palm Springs. They turned up nothing but bar gossip and scandalized embellishments. Casting couch skin flicks. Affairs. Murders for hire. Heroin. Unwanted pregnancies.

Desperate for information detectives on the case brought in Hollywood insider and good friend of Jean’s, Robert Cummings. He told the LAPD Jean confided in him “I have a new romance.” Asked by Cummings if the romance was serious, Jean simply smiled and said, “Not really, but I’m having the time of my life.”

Robert Cummings – actor and friend of Jean

Eye-witness accounts continued to flood in. Jean had been spotted in Palm Springs, San Francisco, and Mexico. 

All roads lead nowhere.

Jean was never seen again.

Detectives never found Davy Ogul. He went missing the day before Jean and was probably buried out in the desert somewhere, killed by his cohorts to stop him making a deal with the DA. The ex-lover, Scotty, never appeared. Ditto ‘The Doc’.

The case went cold. Then colder, and then it was dead.

Dexter Benner was awarded custody of his and Jean’s daughter.
The LAPD continued circulating Spangler’s photograph years after but it was no use. The case was dead. It had always been dead. Los Angeles, The City of Angels and the city of Always the Dead.

A week before the 72nd anniversary of Jean Spangler’s disappearance, on the 1st of October, 2021, Red Dog Press will release my semi-fictional noir novel based on her disappearance. A sequel to I’ll Pray When I’m Dying and the prequel to Say Goodbye When I’m Gone. The case has been an obsession of mine for over 16 years and I hope that is evident within the pages of ALWAYS THE DEAD.

Los Angeles, California. 1949.

Scott Kelly is a World War Two Marine veteran and mob hitman confined to a Tuberculosis sanatorium suffering from consumption, flashbacks and nightmares from his experiences of The Battle of Okinawa and a botched hit for Bugsy Siegel.

When his movie actress girlfriend disappears, he bribes his way out of the sanatorium to search for her.
What follows is a frantic search, a manic murder spree, stolen contraband, and a briefcase full of cash.

A story that stretches from the war torn beaches of Okinawa, all the way to the playground of the rich and famous, Palm Springs, California.

An exploration into the depths of L.A crime, PTSD and twisted love.
A semi-fictional novel based around the disappearance of Jean Spangler.

Available for preorder now or from all good booksellers October 1st. 

https://www.reddogpress.co.uk/product-page/always-the-dead

“Steeped in the grandest of noir traditions while evoking the finest examples of the genre, Always the Dead is an astonishing novel and simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.

The story of Scott Kelly is as emotionally wrought and riveting as you could ask for, and is told with such a lyrical flair and story-telling skill that it renders the novel utterly compulsive – and announces Stephen J. Golds as one of the most exciting and talented new voices in literature, anywhere.”

Rob Parker ~ Author of Far from the Tree

“Following war-haunted, tubercular Scott Kelly as he searches for his missing lover, Always the Dead is a hard-boiled crime novel with a soft heart. It crackles with ugliness and despair, absolutely refusing to flinch as it looks into the darkest parts of 1940s L.A. and the human soul.”

Joey R. Poole ~ author of I Have Always Been Here Before

“Always the Dead by Stephen J. Golds is a powerful, gripping and lyrical noir drama”

Paul D. Brazill ~ author of Small Time Crimes

“A traumatized war veteran with nothing left to lose tangles with the mob in a search for his missing lover. Always the Dead is a gripping and compelling read with all the seedy atmosphere of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.”

Seth Lynch ~ Author of Veronique

“With Always the Dead, Stephen J. Golds has created a world in which I was immersed from the first page to the last. It reads like an instant classic. The horrors of war are painted with such delicate strokes and the painful existence post-war is handled with delicacy. There is plenty of action in it, but what I loved was the exquisite way in which the main character, Scott Kelly, was built. An incredible story from a very talented writer who is going to be massive. 5 stars.

Chris McDonald ~ author of A Wash of Black

Always the Dead is the tale of a bad man trying to put things right, and reeks of the kind of authenticity you find in an Ellroy novel. Stephen J. Golds is a new writer to keep an eye on.’

Paul Heatley ~ Author of Just Like Jesus

“A hard-nosed, hard-boiled story you won’t soon forget”

Steve Weddle, author of COUNTRY HARDBALL

“An uber-stylish, original and very bloody take on the soldier’s return. Always the Dead is as noir as it gets – gore-filled and fantastic. Tough guys, break-your-heart dames and a shedload of guilt. Stephen J Golds has created one of the most memorable anti-heroes of recent times – a serious new talent has come to town.”

Judith O’Reilly ~ Author of Curse The Day

“Powerful and visceral, Always the Dead left me reeling. It had me at the edge of my seat as I devoured it through the night. Populated with a host of unforgettable characters, this crime thriller is full of action, dark emotion and redemption. Stephen J. Golds is a promising new talent that the world should be reading!”

Awais Khan ~ author of In the Company of Strangers

“Stephen J. Golds has written one helluva noir novel taking us back to the years following World War 2. We follow the Marine Scott Kelly, haunted by his past, on an odyssey across Los Angeles, looking for his missing lover. This book burns. It goes down hard. Golds is one to watch.”

Anthony Neil Smith ~ Author of Slow Bear

“ALWAYS THE DEAD is noir, TRUE noir the way it was meant to be in the Goodis/Thompson tradition. Bold, bloody, and dark as an unlit corner in Hell.”

Todd Robinson ~ author of ROUGH TRADE

“Dare you read ‘Always the Dead’?
“I dared and I’ve been left reeling.
“This is the noirest of noirs. Truly shocking. Almost a horror novel as much as a thriller.
“Old school. Non PC. Violent. Vicious.
“From the gut-wrenching prologue, through the pornography of war, and the cracked psyche of PTSD, author Stephen Golds never pulls a punch. Neither does his black-hearted protagonist, Scott Kelly. Yet, amidst all the blood and guts and shit and vileness, is a dream-like use of imagery and language rare in stories like this.
“And the search for the woman he loves is as brutal as the language. Tainted love!
“Now I need a lie down!”

Tina Baker, author of Call Me Mummy.

Available for preorder now or from all good booksellers October 1st.

https://www.reddogpress.co.uk/product-page/always-the-dead

Stephen J. Golds

Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life.

He writes primarily in the noir and dirty realism genres and is the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine.

He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once, Cut-throat & Tongue-tied, Bullet Riddled & Gun Shy and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.

Voices by Laura Stamps

Punk Noir Magazine

BIO: Laura Stamps is the author of several novels, short story collections, and poetry books, most recently IT’S ALL ABOUT THE RIDE: CAT MANIA (Alien Buddha Press). Winner of the Muses Prize. Recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination and 7 Pushcart Prize nominations. Mom of 5 cats. Twitter: @LauraStamps16. Website: www.laurastampspoetry.blogspot.com

An Interview with a Hard Case — Jason Starr by Stephen J. Golds @JasonStarrBooks

Punk Noir Magazine

I first discovered the talent of Jason Starr when I was belly-laughing, cringing and sweating my way through the absolutely stellar ‘Max and Angela’ Series. Starr and Ken Bruen double-teaming the noir genre with hilarious and pulse-pounding results. BUST. SLIDE. THE MAX. PIMP. If you haven’t made it to that series from Hard Case Crime yet, go and make those the next four books you read. The main protagonist Max is probably my favorite character in crime fiction period. Maybe that doesn’t quite reflect me in the best light as Max is a completely deluded piece of shit who calls himself ‘The M.A.X’ in the third person.

The highly prolific Starr has a wide array of novels and comics to his name. My favorite being Fake ID, the raw story of a psychotic bouncer and bit-time actor, Tommy Russo, in Manhattan who needs big money for the chance to buy in on a race horse. Deciding how exactly to get that cash and the fact Tommy has a serious gambling addiction is really what starts the shit (and blood) hitting the fan. It gets real messy. Another classic Hard Case Crime release – it’s completely different to Starr’s other ‘lighter’ works. Fake ID is a perfect example of pitch black, bleak noir with a hopeless, questionable protagonist doing very questionable things as a means to a blood splattered end.

If you haven’t read Fake ID – go check it out ASAP!

As you can tell I’m a big fan of Starr, so without further ado, here’s the interview with the man himself.

Hi Jason, really appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions for Punk Noir Mag. Kicking off, can you tell our readers a little bit about how you got started in the Literature scene?


In college, I wrote short stories, and after college I wrote plays and screenplays. Later, in my mid 20’s, I started writing novels, specifically crime fiction.

You’re possibly best known for (for me anyway it seems) your Hard Case Crime novel Fake ID. How did that novel come into fruition and what were your inspirations for that bleak as hell story?


Though Fake ID is probably the most “noir” novel I’ve written, it’s definitely not my most known. Cold Caller, Twisted City, The Follower, Panic Attack and Fugitive Red and my graphic novels are probably my most known. Fake I.D. was actually published originally in the U.K., mainly because my agent at the time feared that it was “too dark.” It was published 8 years later by Hard Case Crime. My goal was to write a psychologically honest, relentless story that is purely about a guy who wants something very badly, and the extents he will go to get it. The novel has a horse racing theme and the protagonist, Tommy Russo, is like a horse with blinders.


What advice would you give to up and coming indie authors?


Aside from writing great books, to make sure you’re really good at marketing and are willing to spend the time and energy on marketing. If you’re an indie author writing a great book is only the first step. The real work starts after you type “the end.” Also, publishing short fiction online will help, especially if you don’t already have a platform.

What are your plans for the future?


My thriller graphic novel Casual Fling from AWA is on-sale in October, 2021 at bookstores everywhere. My new novel, The Next Time I Die, will be published in 2022 by Hard Case Crime.


What is an issue you care about deeply?


Climate change.

What novel are you reading now?


Forward by Andrew Yang.

What music are you listening to now?


Donda, Kanye West.

What did you last eat?


Seriously?

I guess I’ll let that last question ‘slide’…

If you could go on a drinking binge with 5 writers alive or dead who would you choose?


Hemingway, Jim Thompson, Albert Camus, Ken Bruen…and William Shakespeare.

What would you like written on your gravestone?


I guess something related to my family. I doubt Fake ID will be mentioned.

Jason Starr

Jason Starr

Biography

Jason Starr was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up, he enjoyed sports such as baseball, tennis, and horse racing, but didn’t have much interest in literature. He began writing plays and fiction in college at Binghamton University. Starr is known for his satirical urban crime novels, set mainly in the New York City area. When asked why (until The Pack) he wrote standalone novels and didn’t rely on a series character he said, “New York City is my series character.”

In the 1990s, Starr had several plays performed at Off-Off Broadway theater companies in New York. In 1997, Starr’s first crime novel, Cold Caller, was published by No Exit Press in the U.K. In 1998, upon its American publication by W.W. Norton, Cold Caller was selected as a Publisher’s Weekly First Fiction pick and was hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “just the thing for fans who miss the acid noir that Jim Thompson dispensed in The Grifters.” The French edition of Cold Caller was selected as the official gift of the prestigious 813 book group. In the critical work Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, (Oxford University Press, 2005), author Lee Horsley selected Cold Caller as one of the basic texts for discussion.

Starr’s second novel, Nothing Personal, about a compulsive gambler who hatches a sick kidnapping plot to pay off debts, was hailed as the best novel of the year by Bookends. Starr’s third novel, Fake I.D., concerns a bouncer’s desperate attempts to join a horse-owning syndicate. His fourth novel, Hard Feelings, about a computer networking salesman, trying to do deal with a horror from his past, was a “Penzler Pick” and the first ever original novel published by the prestigious American publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

Tough Luck, Starr’s fifth novel, about a young guy in Brooklyn who gets in deep with a mob figure, was an Anthony Award finalist and won the Barry Award for best paperback. Starr’s sixth novel, Twisted City, about the devastating consequences a financial journalist faces when he attempts to recover a stolen wallet, was a Barry Award finalist and an Anthony Award winner. In 2006, Starr’s novel Lights Out, a tale of jealousy and murder set in Brooklyn, was first published by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Orion in the U.K. It was hailed as one of the best crime novels of the year by Barnes and Noble.com and Bookreporter.com. Also in 2006, the heralded American pulp publisher Hard Case Crime, published Bust, a crime novel that Starr wrote with Irish novelist Ken Bruen (BUST was an IMBA bestseller). That same year, Vintage Books published a collection of stories and essays on horse racing called Bloodlines: A Horse Racing Anthology, which Starr co-edited with Maggie Estep.

In 2007, Starr’s thriller The Follower, called “this generation’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar” by the New York Post, was first published by St. Martin’s Press and Orion Books. TV/Film rights for The Follower were purchased by Lionsgate with Bret Easton Ells attached as writer/creator. Also in 2007, Hard Case Crime publishedSlide, a second novel co-authored by Starr and Ken Bruen. In 2008, Starr and Bruen’s third novel, The Max was published in what became known as “The Bust Trilogy.”

Panic Attack, Starr’s thriller about the aftermath of a shooting in suburban New York City, was published in 2009 by St. Martin’s Press. The German/ Diogenes Verlag edition (Panik) was a major bestseller in Austria. It was optioned by David Fincher‘s production company Panic Pictures with Ocean’s Eleven scribe Ted Griffin adapting.

In 2010, Starr’s first graphic novel, The Chill, was published by Vertigo Crime, with art by Mick Bertilorenzi. Starr also wrote many comics for DC Comics (Justice, Inc.). In 2011, The Chill won the Anthony Award for Best Graphic Novel, making Starr one of only nine writers who have won multiple Anthony Awards.

In 2011, Penguin/Ace published Starr’s The Pack, the first book in a new modern day werewolf series set mainly in the New York City area. The second book in the series, The Craving, was published by Penguin in June 2012.

Starr’s prose novel Ant-Man: Natural Enemy was published by Marvel in July 2015, to coincide with the blockbuster Ant-Man feature film. In October 2015, Starr’s novel Savage Lane was published by Polis Books. Polis has also re-issued many of Starr’s novels in new editions.

Starr has also become a prolific writers of comics and graphic novels, writing original works such as The Chill, as well as working on iconic characters such as Batman, Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Sandman for DC Comics and The Punisher and Wolverine Marvel Comics. The Chill won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best Graphic Novel. In October, 2012 Marvel launched its new ongoing series Wolverine Max, written by Starr with art by Roland Boschi. Starr’s original comic The Returning launches from BOOM Studios! in March, 2014, with art by Andrea Mutti (The Executor, Star Wars, Noir).

Starr’s work has been published in nine languages, including in Germany by Diogenes Verlag. Top Job (the German edition of Cold Caller) was adapted as an hour-long radio drama by Deutschland Radio, and was recently chosen as one of the top 50 novels of the past 60 years by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. As a result, in 2006 a new hardcover edition of Top Job was published as part of a popular series of crime novels (SZ Krimibibliothek) by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Stephen J. Golds

Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life.

He writes primarily in the noir and dirty realism genres and is the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine.

He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once, Cut-throat & Tongue-tied, Bullet Riddled & Gun Shy and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.

A Short Prose Piece by Alan ten-Hoeve

Punk Noir Magazine

Heirlooms

I had to go number two, but on my way to the bathroom, Opa called me to his den. I didn’t want to go in. It smelled like pipe tobacco and dying in there.

“C’mon, ” he said.

I took a few steps. Stopped just inside the doorway. The only light in the room came from a single lamp with a base in the shape of an anchor and chain. All carved from a single piece of wood. The dirty shade cast a weak, jaundiced glow over his collection of model ships, and the black and white photos from his time in the Pacific. He’d been stationed in New Guinea where he said the natives were half the size of a normal man and wore only a single leaf, pinned to their abdomen, to cover their privates. He liked to tell me stories about how they would appear out of nowhere and try to shoot him with poison-dipped blow darts and spears.

“Closer, I ain’t gonna bite’cha.” Opa gestured to the floor beside him. “I don’t even have my teeth in.”

I walked around his desk. Stood by his chair where the smells were strongest. If I breathed through my mouth it wasn’t as bad.

The pictures displayed were of him and his platoon. Camouflaged men mugging for the camera over a card game, or marching through the jungle. But there were other pictures too. Pictures Opa didn’t frame and hang on the wall. He kept those in the bottom drawer of his desk. Inside a metal box with a lock that could be picked with a bobby pin.

“Here.” He pulled something from another drawer and held it out to me with a quivering hand. It was a knife in a discolored leather sheath. 

I swallowed and stared at him. 

He stared back.

“Go ahead, it’s yours,” he said and jabbed me in the shoulder with the handle.

I took the knife in both hands. Surprised at how heavy it was. Unsure what I was supposed to do next.

“That got me outta some tight situations,” he said. “I think there’s still some blood on it.”

Opa had been a big, strong man. Bronzed from decades spent outside building skyscrapers. He didn’t go out anymore unless it was to the doctor. Now he looked shrunken. Frail. Half-swallowed up by his chair. His mottled skin hung in pale, papery sheets lined with blue veins. A surgeon had tried removing parts of his colon. It didn’t work. The disease spread too quickly, eating him from the inside. But his eyes. They were as cold as ever.

I slid the blade out. Carefully. It was so long it looked and felt more like a sword in my little hand.

“Ten inches,” Opa’s deep voice had become hollow and brittle. “One for each year of your life.” 

“I’m nine.”

Opa didn’t seem to hear me.

The knife had an S-shaped crossguard and a scarred wooden handle that curved.

“It’s curved for a better grip.” Opa said. “Makes it easier to pull it out of someone when your hand is slick with blood.”

On the edge of the blade, caked inside the engraved name and service number, I saw dark spots that looked like rust. Part of me wanted to drop the knife and run out of there and never come back.

Part of me didn’t.

“Keep this between us,” Opa said. “Your mom’s always looking for a reason to shit on me. And Grooty, she thinks the knife is haunted.”

I turned the blade. Nicks and scratches caught in the sickly light. “Is it? Haunted, I mean?” 

Opa’s hard, watery eyes pinned my feet to the floor. The crusty corners of his mouth lifted, just a little. 

“What isn’t?” he said, then winced and fumbled for his collection of prescription bottles. Pills ticked across his cluttered desk. Disappeared among the mess of hobby paint, reference books, and model parts.

I tried to help him but he pushed me away and spat some garbled words I couldn’t make out. His shaking fingers struggled to pinch up the medication.

I slid the knife into its sheath and backed out of his den. I didn’t have to go to the bathroom anymore.

***

Alan ten-Hoeve wrote NOTES FROM A WOOD-PANELED BASEMENT, available Fall 2021 from Gob Pile Press. He grew up in North Jersey and now lives in the woods of southern New England. Twitter @alantenhoeve

A Short Prose Piece by Alan ten-Hoeve

Punk Noir Magazine

Heirlooms

I had to go number two, but on my way to the bathroom, Opa called me to his den. I didn’t want to go in. It smelled like pipe tobacco and dying in there.

“C’mon, ” he said.

I took a few steps. Stopped just inside the doorway. The only light in the room came from a single lamp with a base in the shape of an anchor and chain. All carved from a single piece of wood. The dirty shade cast a weak, jaundiced glow over his collection of model ships, and the black and white photos from his time in the Pacific. He’d been stationed in New Guinea where he said the natives were half the size of a normal man and wore only a single leaf, pinned to their abdomen, to cover their privates. He liked to tell me stories about how they would appear out of nowhere and try to shoot him with poison-dipped blow darts and spears.

“Closer, I ain’t gonna bite’cha.” Opa gestured to the floor beside him. “I don’t even have my teeth in.”

I walked around his desk. Stood by his chair where the smells were strongest. If I breathed through my mouth it wasn’t as bad.

The pictures displayed were of him and his platoon. Camouflaged men mugging for the camera over a card game, or marching through the jungle. But there were other pictures too. Pictures Opa didn’t frame and hang on the wall. He kept those in the bottom drawer of his desk. Inside a metal box with a lock that could be picked with a bobby pin.

“Here.” He pulled something from another drawer and held it out to me with a quivering hand. It was a knife in a discolored leather sheath. 

I swallowed and stared at him. 

He stared back.

“Go ahead, it’s yours,” he said and jabbed me in the shoulder with the handle.

I took the knife in both hands. Surprised at how heavy it was. Unsure what I was supposed to do next.

“That got me outta some tight situations,” he said. “I think there’s still some blood on it.”

Opa had been a big, strong man. Bronzed from decades spent outside building skyscrapers. He didn’t go out anymore unless it was to the doctor. Now he looked shrunken. Frail. Half-swallowed up by his chair. His mottled skin hung in pale, papery sheets lined with blue veins. A surgeon had tried removing parts of his colon. It didn’t work. The disease spread too quickly, eating him from the inside. But his eyes. They were as cold as ever.

I slid the blade out. Carefully. It was so long it looked and felt more like a sword in my little hand.

“Ten inches,” Opa’s deep voice had become hollow and brittle. “One for each year of your life.” 

“I’m nine.”

Opa didn’t seem to hear me.

The knife had an S-shaped crossguard and a scarred wooden handle that curved.

“It’s curved for a better grip.” Opa said. “Makes it easier to pull it out of someone when your hand is slick with blood.”

On the edge of the blade, caked inside the engraved name and service number, I saw dark spots that looked like rust. Part of me wanted to drop the knife and run out of there and never come back.

Part of me didn’t.

“Keep this between us,” Opa said. “Your mom’s always looking for a reason to shit on me. And Grooty, she thinks the knife is haunted.”

I turned the blade. Nicks and scratches caught in the sickly light. “Is it? Haunted, I mean?” 

Opa’s hard, watery eyes pinned my feet to the floor. The crusty corners of his mouth lifted, just a little. 

“What isn’t?” he said, then winced and fumbled for his collection of prescription bottles. Pills ticked across his cluttered desk. Disappeared among the mess of hobby paint, reference books, and model parts.

I tried to help him but he pushed me away and spat some garbled words I couldn’t make out. His shaking fingers struggled to pinch up the medication.

I slid the knife into its sheath and backed out of his den. I didn’t have to go to the bathroom anymore.

***

Alan ten-Hoeve wrote NOTES FROM A WOOD-PANELED BASEMENT, available Fall 2021 from Gob Pile Press. He grew up in North Jersey and now lives in the woods of southern New England. Twitter @alantenhoeve

4 Poems by Scott Cumming

Punk Noir Magazine

1. Tapped Out

I’m tapped out

and strapped down

Searching for a noun

some fuckin’ sound

I can utter

spit

to dig myself from this shit

one more time

The clue I won’t make it

is propped by the door

the industrial sized

bag of lime

Point spreads too thin

It’s all rigged

and I never twigged

Sunk deeper

‘til they were sick

of chasing me

breaking me

Knowing my sorry ass

will never have a dime

No Garnett magic

not even that tragic

They quit

yet I forfeit.

2. Mirror Kissers

Our eyes meet

in the mirror

Gazes caught

between the lines

wondering

who’ll go first

which of us

will lift our curse

They see another

filthy hanger-on

Don’t notice you

barely holding on

These elephant legs

tying the room together

centrepiece

borne of

your latest masterpiece

more essential

than breathing

more revitalising

than any sleep

no words

worth speaking

this straw

now part of our being.

3. Stab Wound Tattoo

Though glass separates us

still I feel your finger running

along the scar you gave me

the stab wound tattoo

announcing I belong to nobody but you.

4. Reminiscing

You never forget the first person

to give a fuck about you

The fact he was a mafia don

leaves me trying to figure out

if it was a blessing or a curse.

4 Poems by Scott Cumming

Punk Noir Magazine

1. Tapped Out

I’m tapped out

and strapped down

Searching for a noun

some fuckin’ sound

I can utter

spit

to dig myself from this shit

one more time

The clue I won’t make it

is propped by the door

the industrial sized

bag of lime

Point spreads too thin

It’s all rigged

and I never twigged

Sunk deeper

‘til they were sick

of chasing me

breaking me

Knowing my sorry ass

will never have a dime

No Garnett magic

not even that tragic

They quit

yet I forfeit.

2. Mirror Kissers

Our eyes meet

in the mirror

Gazes caught

between the lines

wondering

who’ll go first

which of us

will lift our curse

They see another

filthy hanger-on

Don’t notice you

barely holding on

These elephant legs

tying the room together

centrepiece

borne of

your latest masterpiece

more essential

than breathing

more revitalising

than any sleep

no words

worth speaking

this straw

now part of our being.

3. Stab Wound Tattoo

Though glass separates us

still I feel your finger running

along the scar you gave me

the stab wound tattoo

announcing I belong to nobody but you.

4. Reminiscing

You never forget the first person

to give a fuck about you

The fact he was a mafia don

leaves me trying to figure out

if it was a blessing or a curse.

‘til Death by HLR

Punk Noir Magazine

1.

The problem with a blood pact
is that you can’t take it back.

2.

It looked like the scene of a crime & I suppose it was:
manufactured by a fucked-up mentality,
fuelled by charlie & whisky & pity,
it was a crime against sanity,
a crime of stupidity

& now I’m gonna have to serve my time until one of us dies.

3.

I’m stuck to you with claret glue
but you are badbadbad news. I’m bad
news too, but you think I’m the best
thing that’s ever happened to you.
That’s just one of the reasons why
it was a fucking stupid thing to do.

4.

Your dark red dabs remain
underneath the fresh magnolia paint
& I had to throw your Adidas jumper
& my favourite Cobain t-shirt away.

It was a good idea at the time:
the unification of two bedlamites,
the formation of an everlasting alliance
between the perpetually misunderstood,
but the knife in the drawer & the scar across my palm
remind me that you do me far more harm than good.

With blood smeared on our faces like war-paint
& Eminem elected as our patron saint,
how we laughed & thought we’d finally
found our place in the world:

together, against it.

5.

“Dream Team, baby.”

“Nightmare Pair, baby.”

6.

Now that we are family,
bound by loyalty, I can’t
get rid of you. (Well, I can).

We always said we’d go out
on the blaze of glory & this
is definitely gonna end badly.

(You think you’re Sid but, trust me,
it’s more likely you’ll end up like Nancy.
Ah, God. It would be way too fucking easy…)

7.

The problem with a blood pact
is that you can’t take it back:
you’ve got me as a friend
’til the bitter, twisted end
& believe me, I’m just as
angry about this as you
(we’re such
fucking foolish
fucking fools).

HLR (she/her) is a poet, writer and editor from north London. She is the author of prosetry collection History of Present Complaint (Close to the Bone) and micro-chap Portrait of the Poet as a Hot Mess (Ghost City Press). Twitter: @HLRwriter /www.treacleheart.com

The Closest Thing to Hell by Chandler Morrison

Punk Noir Magazine

Ryland trekked into the burning desert after finally answering one of Penny’s calls, and because of this he fancied himself a decent person. To make the drive on a rare Saturday when he wasn’t at the office made him even better. He hadn’t seen her in over a year, and the way he saw things, he bore no moral obligation to even take her call, much less drive out to Riverside—a city that was dangerously close to the fires, no less—on one of his few days off. He was doing this, he reasoned, because he was a decent person. Maybe not a good one—he wasn’t delusional—but a decent one.

He frowned when his GPS signaled him to turn into the parking lot of dilapidated, four-story apartment building across the street from a 7-Eleven. He parked and got out, dropping his cigarette to the shimmering blacktop and crushing it beneath the toe of his Tom Ford loafer. A sickened sense of dread filled his stomach as he looked up at the crumbling stucco building etched against the smoldering red sky. Bars lined the first-floor windows. An overflowing Dumpster sat askance alongside its west wall. A pair of mangy dogs fought over something on the far side of the parking lot. Sighing, Ryland took his phone from the pocket of his suit pants and texted Penny, I’m here.

Inside, the halls were pasted with peeling wallpaper, the carpeted floors reeking and spotted. He didn’t trust the elevator, so he took the stairs to the fourth floor, stepping over a filthy litterbox on the third-floor landing. A few moments after knocking on the door to 404, he heard five locks unlatch before it swung open.

Ryland stared at Penny for a few terrible moments before looking away. Her blonde hair was greasy and unwashed, hanging in tangled clumps around her gaunt, oily face. She couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds, and her tattered, oversized tank top draped over her skeletal frame like a dress. Her lips were chapped and burnt. There were open sores up and down her bony arms. The vacancy in her eyes was the closest thing to hell Ryland had ever seen.

“Jesus, Pen,” he breathed.

“Get in, get in, don’t just stand there.” She grabbed his arm and yanked him inside with surprising strength. Her head poked into the hallway, darting left and right before she slammed the door shut and refastened the locks.

Ryland looked around at the scattered clothes, the ratty furniture, the ancient takeout boxes with their gatherings of flies. The burnt pipe on the table. The blackened sheet of tin foil. The syringe in a jar of bleach. Penny caught his eyes lingering on the needle in the jar and said, “I don’t know why I bother anymore. Old habits, I guess.”

“Huh?” said Ryland, feeling lightheaded.

“Sit down, sit down, please.” She scurried to the armchair and unloaded a pile of crumpled laundry from its seat. Gesturing at it, she flashed a feeble attempt at a smile.

“I’ll, um…I think I’ll stand,” Ryland said weakly.

Penny’s eyes narrowed. “Why’s that? Is my furniture not good enough for your Armani-clad ass?”

“Hey, whoa,” said Ryland, holding up his hands. “I mean, Christ, Penny. It’s Valentino.”

“Valentino,” she repeated. “Right. Of course. How silly of me.” She looked like she might cry. “Anyway, whatever, do what you want.”

Sighing, gritting his teeth, Ryland went to the chair and sat in it.

“Let me get you something to drink,” Penny said, hurrying toward the kitchen.

“No, please, nothing,” Ryland said too quickly. “I’m…not thirsty.”

Penny stopped, looking at him with swimming eyes. She nodded in a way that made her bear more than passing resemblance to a rodent. That, Ryland decided—the erosion of her beauty—was the most tragic part of all this. She had once been ravishing.

“I’m glad you came,” Penny said, sitting on the couch and folding her legs beneath her. She fidgeted with her fingers. “I didn’t think you would.”

Ryland didn’t know how to respond to that, so after a short pause he said dully, “It’s…been a long time.” He took his cigarettes from inside his blazer and lit one, then offered the pack to Penny. She took three, tucking one behind each ear and lighting the third with a torch lighter on the coffee table.

“You look good,” Penny said. “Glad to see you’re still doing well for yourself.”

“I do okay.”

Her grin was bitter. “You do okay,” she said back, sucking hard on the cigarette.

“Why did you call me out here, Penny,” said Ryland. He was startled by the flat, hollow weariness he heard in his voice. He’d intended to sound concerned, sympathetic. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What is it you need?” A little better. Not much.

Penny chewed the nail on her left ring finger. “I have to tell you something. I wanted to do it in person.”

“Well, I’m here.”

She drew in a haggard breath that rasped in her throat. Ashing the cigarette in a can of Diet Pepsi beside the pipe on the coffee table, she briefly looked into Ryland’s eyes before dropping them, shutting them. A tear streaked through the sheen of sweat and unwashed grime on her face, then another. “I’m sick,” she said. “I’m going to die.”

Ryland’s cigarette hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He lowered it slowly. “I don’t understand. Sick how? With what?”

Penny held out her arms. “What do you think.”

Ryland looked over at the window. The curtains were closed. A sliver of scarlet sunlight sliced through the small opening between them. “I don’t understand,” he said quietly. “I didn’t think people even got that shit anymore.”

“Well, they do.” She sniffed, wiped her face. More tears came. “I wouldn’t have even known. It’s a long story, but basically I ended up in the hospital—someone took me, I wouldn’t have gone myself—and it was for something else, something unrelated, but they tested me, and voila.”

Ryland glanced back at her. He tried to see the girl he’d once loved, but there was no trace of her in the apparition sitting across from him. He felt nothing, and this absence of feeling stirred only a small, obscure pang deep within him, buried so deep it hardly even registered. “Isn’t there something they can do?” he asked mechanically. “Some sort of…treatment?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s too late. Too advanced. There’s no hope for me.”

“There’s no hope for anyone,” Ryland muttered.

“Anyway, I thought you should know. I’m not sure what I expected. I know you don’t care about me anymore. There are lots of days when I’m not totally sure you ever really did.”

“I did. I…do.”

She glared at him with her big, washed-out eyes, murky with toxic tears. “It’s because of you I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.” She hit the cigarette, moving her head to the side but keeping her eyes on him. “You know that, don’t you? Do you ever think about that?”

“Come on, Pen. That isn’t fair.”

“Really. Tell me why it isn’t fair.”

Ryland suddenly felt exhausted. This had been a mistake. There was nothing for him here. “I should be going,” he said, starting to stand.

“ANSWER THE QUESTION.”

Flinching, Ryland lowered himself back into the chair. He held his cigarette up to his face, watching it burn. His hand was steady. “I didn’t make you follow me out here to California. I didn’t even ask you to. And I certainly didn’t make you get mixed up with those deadbeat thugs. The smack, the crank—all that shit was all you. You did this to yourself.”

Penny put her face in her hands, her shoulders hitching with silent sobs. Ryland watched her for a long time, feeling almost nothing. When at last she looked back up, she said, “You were so different back in Pennsylvania. I don’t know who you are anymore. I don’t know what happened to you.” She wiped mucus from her nose with the back of her hand. “You used to be a nice person. You were happy. We were happy.”

Ryland’s eyes went back to the bar of light between the cheap curtains. He could see himself with Penny, years ago. He could see himself holding her hand as they walked among fallen leaves on a brisk autumnal afternoon. He could see them together at the county fair, her upturned face illuminated by the flashing lights of the Ferris wheel, and he could see himself as he took her chin in his hand and pulled her mouth to his. He could see her in the passenger seat of his ancient Crown Victoria, his hand on her thigh as she sang along to the radio. He could see her as she had once been, and himself as he had once been, but they might as well have been strangers. He felt nothing for either of those people, not anymore. In any event, they were gone. Both of them.

“You should have never taken that promotion,” Penny whispered. “You should have never moved to Los Angeles.”

“You told me to take it.”

“I know. I was wrong.”

Ryland leaned forward and dropped his cigarette into the can of Diet Pepsi. He rose to his feet. “I’m going to use your bathroom,” he said.

“Down the hall,” Penny said, not looking at him. “First door on the left.”

He went into the bathroom and wiped down the sink with a wet bundle of toilet paper before doing a line off its edge. After a moment of consideration, he did another. Feeling uplifted, he flushed the toilet, ran the sink for a few moments, and then stepped back out. He stopped in the hallway when he noticed the dog watching him from Penny’s bedroom. It was small—some kind of chihuahua/terrier mix, by the looks of it—and it was curled up in a pink dog bed on the floor, trembling violently.  He walked slowly into the bedroom and knelt down in front of it. It didn’t move, but its ears dropped back, and it whined softly. Its tremors grew more intense as he drew closer. Ryland carefully extended his hand and placed it atop the dog’s head, gently stroking it. Its high-pitched whine increased in pitch, and Ryland realized a puddle of runny shit was spreading beneath it. He withdrew his hand and looked at the dog for what might have been a long time. After a while, its trembling subsided somewhat, and it put its head down and shut its eyes, briefly opening them every few moments to see if he was still there.

When Ryland stood back up, he was startled to find his eyes had become damp. He hastily wiped them with perturbed agitation and took his Gucci sunglasses out of his jacket pocket, putting them on and going back into the living room. “I have to get going,” he told Penny.

“Of course. You’re a busy guy.” She didn’t look at him, didn’t stand. “This is the last time we’ll see each other. The next time you see me, I’ll be dead.”

“I really hope that isn’t the case,” said Ryland. His voice again sounded distant, empty. He glanced back down the hall. The dog had peeked its head out of the bedroom and was staring at him. Its ears were perked up. He felt something foreign and uncomfortable in his chest, and he swallowed and turned toward the door. “Good luck, Penny,” he said. He went to the door and set about unlatching the five locks.

“Everything is your fault,” Penny called after him as he was shutting the door behind him. He didn’t look back, didn’t stop. He did a couple bumps off his keys when he was back in his car, but they didn’t help. The image of the dog, scared and shivering, was burned into his brain. He peeled out of the parking lot and drove too fast. He didn’t start to feel better until the hazy outline of the city became visible in the distance, and he knew he was almost home.

Chandler Morrison is the author of Human-Shaped Fiends, Along the Path of Torment, Dead Inside, Until the Sun, Hate to Feel, and Just to See Hell. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.

The Recidivist by Laura Mauro and Chris Kelso

Punk Noir Magazine

Victor Eloqua had given up all hope. 

Dr Kalahari aimed one turret of the scanning device at Victor while two armed guards secured the prisoner’s wrists to the gurney. The guards handled him with harshness, but they needn’t have. Perfectly resigned to his fate, Victor had no fighting spirit left in him. He might have been a selfish and remorseless criminal, but he was now burnt out. Sick and tired. Sick of running. Fed up with unpalatable prison food and crooked wardens. His adult life had been a miasma of narcs, nickels, and bad brake fluid. Better this agony than being stuck in the ding wing of some psychiatric institution or suffer the long haul of backdoor parole. 

In spite of Victor’s acquiescence, the doctor monologued like an arch-supervillain who had finally managed to ensnare his oldest nemesis. Kalahari revelled in the role of merciless superior.

“Not long now, Mr. Eloqua.” The good doctor grinned through a gumshield of immaculate dentures. “You’ll cease to be a threat to yourself and others very soon.”  

Kalahari manoeuvred the second turret to the Columbia pygmy rabbit innocently munching on a stock of carrots. Occasionally, the animal made a small hop to the edge of the gurney, but for the most part it sat docile and obedient as the nanotech machine fired up with sheer atomic force. Victor craned his neck to get one last look at his connectome – the visual map of his brain – and marvelled at the three-pound lump of tissue in his head as it throbbed with heat and exhausted life. He’d miss this body more than the brain, though. For all intents and purposes, the body had served him well. Victor had sculpted his musculature in prison yards across the Pacific North West and was now of formidable size. It took three guards to escort him to the meat wagon and an additional five to chaperon him to the projection facility. Before his resistance died out, that is, and resignation kicked in.

On the other hand, the consciousness he’d nurtured, that’s what got him into all this trouble in the first place. Plagued by voices and unsupressable urges towards young women; that’s to say nothing of his pyromania or the catalogue of deranged psycho-sexual impulses that scuttled around his rotten mind. It was that busted lump of tissue in his head that they should’ve incinerated, not his perfectly good body. But then such was the purpose of Victor’s punishment: to live the rest of his days as a dumb, defenceless creature constantly on the run from much bigger prey. It was ironic. The sweetest kind of punishment, in the eyes of Dr Kalahari. Still, Victor’s patience was spent. He was dog-tired of it all. 

“Just push the damn button and get this over with.”

Kalahari smirked, buoyed by Victor Eloqua’s dejection, and pulled a lever. A beam of blue energy shot from the spout of the scanning device right into the centre of Victor’s forehead. The energy beat at the captive’s mind with great fists of electricity until he relinquished ownership of his consciousness. But it would not come unstuck without resistance. This was Victor’s primal survival instinct – even if he had been process compliant, his unconscious defence mechanisms were not. Eventually the pop came. Victor’s sight narrowed to a capsule of light, and then came the final tug as his mind left the muscle-stuffed human vessel behind.

“Projection is complete!” declared the doctor, pumping a fist upward. At Kalahari’s request, one of the guards knelt to the rabbit’s eye level and took a transducer image. A billfold-sized polaroid emerged. Kalahari snatched the image from the guard, looked at the close-up ultrasound of the lab animal’s eyes and remarked upon the azure blue shimmer in the left cornea with deep satisfaction – 

“That’s Eloqua all right. Projection successful. Ok, let’s get some lunch, people.”

Corporal punishment had been outlawed, but the state got around this by projecting the souls of Death Row inmates into seemingly harmless entities, or, on certain occasions, inorganic objects like broom handles. This was all deemed ethically sound and wholly constitutional by the Department of State and Penal Reform Trust. And Victor knew he was lucky to have scored the host body he did: the cute little Columbia pigmy rabbit was better than the specimens some were served. His old buddy, Joe, from San Quentin had been projected into a dung beetle. Poor Joe. You finally kill your wife and still wind up eating shit. 

Of course, this meant Victor would be engaged in a turf war for dominant sentience with the furry creature in question. And, really, who knew how ferociously stubborn these creatures would attempt to hold on to their sentience? 

Victor Eloqua was the intruder.

***

A sweet carrot savour filled the back of his mouth. Elongated incisors eager to chew and enhanced auditory capacity, vibrating at the tiniest sound, gave Victor an irresistible drive towards foraging and locomotion. In the moment, a new vigour shot through his body. 

This excitement, however, dwindled, a feeling of profound insignificance flooding him as he watched the limp, lifeless body of the Mexican gang leader he once inhabited being carted away to the care of scalpel jockeys and government eggheads. A deep sorrow engulfed Victor Eloqua’s essence. Then a voice, gruff and familiar emerged from the ether. . .

“Victor?”

“Uh, hello?”

“Victor, that you?”

“So, who wants to know?”

“It’s me, Hugo”

“Hugo?”

“Montoya! From Marin County.”

“Hugo, what the hell are you doing here? I thought you got your dues months back.”

“I did, man. They projected me into this dumb rabbit! Turns out the overcrowded cells aren’t the only thing the state is struggling to fund. The cheap bastards only have licence to a certain number of vessels since they passed the Animal Cruelty Act, 2035.”

“So, they cram in as many Death Row saps as they can into one unfortunate fuckin’ beast?”

“Well, ‘each animal vessel can have no greater than fifteen projections imposed upon their sentience at one time’

“Fifteen!”

“Hey, man…”

“Uh?”

“El Conejo, he’s one mean motherfucker. He owns this turf and he doesn’t take kindly to sharing it with the projected consciousness of ex-cons. I keep out of his way. I suggest you do the same. When I feel him in the area, I run to the back of the head somewhere. We don’t get eye-space.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a dumb rabbit. We should be seizing this patch for ourselves, hombre.”

Hugo’s voice softened to a cautious whisper.

“No, Victor, you don’t understand. We’re bottom of the food chain here. We don’t get a say. Before you arrived, there was Billy Wójcik, the ‘Butcher of Cobble Hill’. He tried to out-muscle  El Conejo. The thing just devoured his consciousness the instant he got mouthy. You wanna survive, you keep your mouth shut and stay near the back of the head.”

Victor took this as sound advice — he knew Hugo was a seasoned yardbird who could handle himself — but Victor would be damned if he was going to skulk around his new home in reverence of some dumb woodland creature. Red blotches exploded behind his eyelids. Ancient rage fired up his soul. Chinga El Conejo y su madre! He’d put up a hell of a fight. 

The rabbit that chomps last chomps longest.

***

In the murky soup of lapine consciousness there came a sound. Low and thrumming, like the vibration of a plucked string; no way to divine the words, the syllables, but it was speech, he was certain. Everything was noise down here, but he’d come to recognise the nuances. The electric hum of faraway voices, floating; the cut-wire spark of conversation, back and forth, dissipating like waves on sand, but he felt it still. It was how he knew there were others in here with him, though they were a long way away; they still occupied the prime real estate, and it made him sick to think of it. The way they bowed and scraped, the epithets: El Conejo, as though the beast were a fucking god. Scurrying away into the dark corners of consciousness whenever the beast drew near. When he’d stood to fight, the rest of them had fled like rabbits in the path of a wolf.

And now he was here. This nether-space; the edgelandsof consciousness, so dark and murky that even the fucking rabbit scarcely seemed aware of it. Out here, a man could survive, but he did not merely want to survive. He wanted to claw his way back. To sluice through the dark and the cold, this lonely place where the only sounds were the distant whisper of voices, the low thunder of blood pulsing in nearby vessels. He wanted to get back to the light; to look through the eyes of this dumb and trembling animal and direct its teeth into the bulging jugular of the man who’d trapped him in here.

He’d read books, once. God forbid a murderer should be educated. There was one he remembered from his first few years behind bars, back when they actually let them read books; before they took everything away and let them vegetate day in, day out. Some of them shut down; staring at the walls in mute torpor and praying they would die. And he remembered that the word for it was tharn. The book had been about rabbits, and sometimes the rabbits would go tharn. Billy had refused to go tharn. That was why they’d shoved him in here. That was why they’d left him to rot inside of some shit-stinking animal.

He knew he could do it. He’d been defeated once; the fucking rabbit had taken him by surprise, and that’d been his mistake. Never underestimate a creature’s will to survive. But he’d spent enough time licking his metaphorical wounds in the dark; he’d spent enough time listening to the formless murmuring of those chickenshit assholes milling around in the bone-prison of the rabbit’s skull. If they’d just band together. If they’d just form a team, an army…

But they were cowards, all of them, and for all his many sins Billy Wójcik was not a coward. He knew now what he had to do. He knew that it could be done. Ejfucking Conejo. He’d tear the whole thing down. He’d send the bastard tharn.

Howling into the void with all the strength his diminished consciousness could muster. He had no idea if it would ever reach them. He hoped it would.

I’m still here.

I’m still here and I’m coming for you.

***

The hierarchy of the head was simple. There was El Conejo, and then there were the interlopers.

Those who revered the rabbit’s glowering, primal consciousness took great pains to avoid it; its whims were unpredictable, in service of some base instinct that neither Victor nor his cellmates could decipher. El Conejo came and went, they said, and you’d best step aside unless you wanted to end up like Billy.

“What exactly happened to Billy?” Victor had asked. 

“Nobody really knows.” Nicky Mulhall, a small-time thug out of Bellevue; could’ve stayed off the radar his whole life if they hadn’t caught him dumping some teenage drug-dealer’s body in Puget Sound. “Strangest fucking thing I ever experienced. You ever get that feeling right before a lightning storm? The way the hairs on the back of your neck all stand up? It was like that. And Billy, well, he didn’t back down, the dumb fuck. Said the eyes weren’t nobody’s real estate and he could go where he liked.”

“What did the rabbit do?” He refused to call it El Conejo; affording it a degree of respect it hadn’t earned. Sowhat if this was its body? Maybe Billy Wójcik had been onto something after all.

“It just kinda…exploded. Like a firebomb. We all felt it, even those who’d already run to the back. It’s like I said. You could feel your skin burning, even though none of us got skin anymore. You could smell it. I guess that was old Billy going up in smoke.” Victor could almost feel Nicky shudder; a rippling outwards, like disturbed water. “I’m serious, man. I know you think you’re hot shit. We all do when we first get here. But you don’t wanna mess with El Conejo. He’ll snuff you out so fast you’ll never see it coming.”

“Yeah, sure.” It was maddening, this life; cowed into the corners, subsisting off scraps of olfactory input, of life glimpsed through the rabbit’s eyes like a far-off window. The rabbit surged forward when it was time to eat; the scent of bitter greens drifted up and they’d lap ineffectually at it, desperate for a taste. Attempts to control the view would bring the rabbit screaming, barging those smaller consciousnesses back into the far reaches. The rabbit was no god, but it was a tyrant, and Victor swallowed down his rage, stored it inside of himself. Like powder in a keg, waiting for the kiss of flame.“Did Billy die, then?”

“No idea, man. All I know is, he ain’t around no more.” A glimpse of sterile laboratory walls, white and gleaming; the stutter-stop motion of men moving out there, in the world. The rabbit was awake. “I guess the only person who’d know for sure is that Kalahari prick. Ain’t like you can just up and ask him though.”

“Guess so.” But Victor gazed sidelong at the narrow sliver of world, at the motion just beyond the rabbit’s pen; the scent of shit and antiseptic drifting up through the rabbit’s nose, and it occurred to him that there were a lot of things he’d like to ask Dr. Kalahari. How dead Billy Wójcik really was. Whether they’d die too, when the rabbit’s body shut down for good.

Whether the car would crash if they killed the driver.

Victor Eloqua had nothing to lose.

photoChris Kelso
W http://www.chris-kelso.com/