Saturday, January 31, 2009


The older I get, the stronger the words of Woody Guthrie become:
words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Pretty Boy Floyd
by Woody Guthrie
If you'll gather 'round me children
A story I will tell
Of Pretty Boy Floyd an outlaw
Oklahoma knew him well.
It was in the town of Shawnee
It was Saturday afternoon
His wife beside him in his wagon
As into town they rode.

There a deputy sheriff approached him
In a manner rather rude
Using vulgar words of language
And his wife she overheard.
Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain
And the deputy grabbed a gun
And in the fight that followed
He laid that deputy down.

He took to the trees and timbers
And he lived a life of shame
Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name
Yes, he took to the trees and timbers
On that Canadian River's shore
And Pretty Boy found a welcome
At a many a farmer's door.

There's a many a starving farmer
The same old story told
How this outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little home.
Others tell you 'bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal
And underneath his napkin
Left a thousand dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City
It was on a Christmas Day
There come a whole car load of groceries
With a letter that did say:
You say that I'm an outlaw
You say that I'm a thief
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.

Now as through this world I ramble
I see lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a Six gun
And some with a fountain pen.
But as through your life you travel
As through your life you roam
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

Woody Guthrie

Friday, January 30, 2009

Summit Off Limits

One type of mountain here in the eastern USA that I quite enjoy looking at and hiking are monadnocks. Simply, a monadnock is an isolated area of relatively high terrain surrounded by a larger area of relatively low terrain. Generally, this type of mountain is formed when tough caprock resists erosion in a limited area while the lands around it are worn down and the softer material is sent toward the coastal plains. Almost all of the monadnocks here in the southern USA were formed this way.

And of the southern monadnocks, one of my favorites is Pilot Mountain. In a bit of trivia, Andy Griffith used the name by switching the words and transforming it to the town, "Mount Pilot" in the old TV series from the early 60s.

Quartzite tough stuff, resisting the call of gravity for millions of years.

The caprock that caused this mountain to be left behind while the Piedmont around it was washed down to the Atlantic is quartzite. It's really tough material that overlies softer sediments. Pilot Mountain is one of a series of similar such formations in the area that form a separate and isolated range called the Sauratown Mountains. But Pilot Mountain stands apart even from the other Sauratown peaks. It rises an impressive 1,400 feet above the surrounding plains and stands as a remarkable and instantly recognizable mountain for many miles in every direction. It's even visible and instantly identified from the high Blue Ridge far to the west.

The last time I visted the mountain, the trail around the summit was closed for upfitting. I'm hoping to return there very soon so that I can check out that trail and snap the views I was denied on that trip. A climb to the very summit would be good, but that part of the mountain is permanently closed to human access because of rare plants and birds that exist there. Pilot Mountain is one of only a few peaks in the eastern USA whose summit cannot be accessed by walking. The walls that surround the top are sheer and present Class III and Class IV climbing.

The summit of Pilot Mountain, taken in the height of summer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Some time back I wrote a novel called THE CRAG. My first agent came very close to selling it to a couple of major publishers. But, in the end, it was a lost cause. After I left that agency I dug the novel out of storage, rewrote it and gave it a new title: HISSMELINA. My new agency has been shopping it around, trying to find the new version a home.

Here's a chapter from that novel.




By James Robert Smith

Allegra watched the cat-thing bound across the swatch of grass that cut them off from the forest. It pounced, weasel fashion, eating up the space in a series of bounds. At the edge, it paused, and then slithered into the shadows, away from the sunlight. It was gone.

“Where is she going?” Allegra turned to the old woman, the question etching her face. Hester had commanded Hissmelina to go, taking control of the demon.

“I have sent her to kill. She must kill if we are to succeed. The last time that I sent her to do it, she failed. We must have blood. You know that.” Although Hissmelina was no longer in view, the matriarch continued to strain in the direction she had last seen her.

“Who will she kill?” The girl clasped her hands beneath her throat, held them close to her chest.

“Someone. It doesn’t matter.” She paused, breathing the good, clean air. “A child, probably.”

“Are Cousin James’ children safe?”

There was a spark of anger in Hester’s eyes. They snapped wide at the suggestion. “Of course they’re safe!” Her old hand lashed out, striking home in a fierce cuff upon Allegra’s skull. “No Keener blood will be shed. Why do you even ask such a foolish question?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. I was only worried about the children.” She wanted to rub the place where her grandmother had slapped her, but she knew better.

“Don’t be crazy. I’d sooner kill myself. Or you.” Her twig-tough hand reached out to stroke the smooth flesh of Allegra’s fingers.

“What will the killing achieve? What is the purpose?”

“You’ll see.”


She slid from one tree to the next, never leaving the cover of each shadow, never allowing herself to be seen. The sun did not touch her. She laughed. The command to kill had come again, at last, and she was hungry for it. Long weeks had passed since her claws had pierced flesh. Hissmelina had studied these humans, knowing that she could open them up like bags of blood. Anxiety hummed through her like a current, nervous energy firing her every movement.

Scents came to her from down the mountain, away from the clan that was Hester’s. Those she must not touch, must not harm. Indeed, she felt a kinship to them, a maternal stirring that she must even take them under her wing and protect them. But not the others. Not the untold numbers who dwelled past the outskirts of Hester’s range. Those were fair game; they were fuel to fire the magic.

A small bird flicked its wings where it perched on a limb six feet from the forest floor. It flashed brown feathers, preening. Hissmelina saw it, leaped. In the span of a thought, she touched lightly down, spitting out the fleshy lump of bird meat. All the way down the mountain she went, practicing. A junco, a crow, a grouse, a fox. Practicing, she left a dozen twitching corpses in her wake.

The little deaths did not satisfy. They did not fulfill her hunger nor serve much of a purpose. Only the killing of a sentient would suffice to stifle the need that gnawed, and to spark the reaction the old woman sought.

Hissmelina darted past a narrow stream that bubbled up from beneath a scattering of moss-grown rocks. She crossed it, knowing that she had reached the limits of the Crag’s boundaries. No longer did she feel the buzz of weird power. Hester’s presence, too, was gone. She was on her own.

The stream widened as it trickled downslope, growing till it began to speak and tumble on its way to the lowlands. It seemed a good idea to follow it, so she did. The uncut stands of old timber were left behind, on Keener-protected land. Here, the forest thinned, was merely scrubby expanses of anemic poplar and young, green pines that pushed up from amidst tangles of blackberry thickets.

Hissmelina chose to ignore the rabbits that she surprised in her slithering tour through the underbrush. Ahead, the sun grew broth; she reached the edge of the woods, peering from beneath cover at a stretch of pasture that opened for her. She crouched, sniffing. Within easy reach, a heavy cow stood chewing, oblivious. It raised its tail to allow a prodigious stream of urine to arc away, striking the grassy turf in a frothy fountain.

Remaining under cover of the matted weeds, Hissmelina gave the big animal a wide berth. On the other side of the pasture, she had spotted a house.


Kathleen Day was busy, as usual. For fifteen years—since she had married Venson—they had lived in a deteriorating house that had been little more than a shack. In the winter, the cold had seeped up through the cracks in the floor and in the walls. You could stand in the kitchen, if you knew just where, and could see outside through a bit of a gap near one corner. In the summer, the place had sweltered beneath layers of tarpaper that did little to hold out the rain. During frequent showers, they were hard pressed to find enough pots to collect the water that dripped through the roof. It had been an uncomfortable existence that she had stomached with single-minded resolve. They had saved their dollars well.

As she had known he would, Venson had (finally) built her fine house. Patiently, she had waited as the new place sprang up, slowly growing till the last brick had been planted. She had cried, briefly, before packing up for the move across the pasture.

Kathleen loved her new home. She loved it almost as much as she loved her husband. Cleaning it, and decorating it during her every waking hour. She loved it almost as much as she loved her children, vacuuming up the dust and dirt that her family tracked in over the wall-to-wall carpet that she’d picked out in Asheville. In the morning, she stood at the stove with a towel to catch errant spatters of grease that sought to stain her shiny range. In the afternoons, she dusted, swept and scrubbed, eager to keep the house as spotless as it had been the day they had moved in. The evening found her busy with mop, brush and bucket, going over each inch she may have missed ruing the day. Her friends thought that she was obsessed. But she knew that they were all just jealous.

Now she finished up her daily chores in her kitchen. Breakfast had been made—under her watchful eye—and Venson had gone off to work, pausing only long enough to complain about how she had placed newspaper under little Pat’s high chair. After all, her husband had complained, he wasn’t an animal. She shrugged him off, wondering how he could think to risk the shiny green tile to bits of food that might stain it. Men knew nothing. Vicki, their fourteen-year-old, and Ben, their fifth grader, had been shooed out the door to await the bus. Then, at least, she and little Pat were alone. Then, she was ready for some serious cleaning.

In the kitchen, at the door that led to the utility room and then to the back yard, Kathleen knelt to draw Pat’s hood tightly about his little face. “Are you ready to go outside?” She buttoned the hood with an efficient snap.

“Out!” His little mouth enthusiastically shouted the word. “Out! Play!” He flapped his encumbered arms.

Kathleen lifted her boy, patting his bottom with her free hand. “It’s a little chilly out today. Don’t unbutton. Don’t!” She pointed to his hood.

“Out!” His pink fingers flexed. His mother took him out, placing him in the fenced yard. Her husband’s redbone hound uncoiled from where he lay for a quick look before tucking his nose back between his paws. Kathleen eyed the big dog, made sure that the gate of the chain link fence was latched, and retreated to her house. There was ironing to do while her son played under dog’s watchful eye—it was all a routine that allowed her a little bit of free time to get some work completed.

Eyes very like those of a cat peered out from cover at the clumsy tyke. They watched the dog, who was ignorant of the menacing presence. There was very little between Hissmelina and the child--only the low fence and a line of newly planted shrubs lay as obstacle. One could easily be leaped, and the other was possible camouflage. The child’s mother, she sensed, was out of the way, not watching. Only the dog was a danger.

Hissmelina plotted the course she would take in her attack, making room for options should the dog prove to be more than a hindrance. She doubted that there would be any trouble, but it was good to plan for the unexpected. Her perceptions told her that the dog was a borderline sentient, levels below her or the humans.

Her claws drew up as she sheathed them. Head low, she inched forward on quiet pads, moving carefully. The wind blew from the direction of her prey, and she kept it between her and dog. If possible, she wanted to take the big animal out of the picture before she turned to the child.

The fence caused her to reveal herself as she dashed form cover so that she could leap it. Only Pat saw the elongated shape flash over before it concealed itself behind a row of azaleas. “Kitty cat,” he said, pointing. The hound sighed and twitched.

Hissmelina glared out at the boy, then at the dog. She listened for thoughts, found the child’s mother concerned in some task within the house. The child was curious, the dog barely conscious. Like a shadow, she glided across the yard, covering the distance in the blinking of an eye. One claw pushed out of its den inside her paw. She drove it into the hound’s skull. Later, not even the veterinarian would notice the tiny entry hole. The hound was dead. Her wide, fleshy lips peeled away in a smile that freed her pointed teeth. She aimed herself at the child.

“Kitty cat.” Little Pat watched the thing fly at him, its bulk streaking past. As if an afterthought, tentacles wrapped about the boy’s torso, lifting him up like a bit of chaff, dragging him along. His breath whooshed out and he could not form the sound that would have brought his mother. With the load, Hissmelina was over the fence, running toward the woods.

It was ten minutes later when Kathleen paused from her ironing to check on her youngest. She was alarmed, but not to the point of panic, when she noticed that he could not be seen form the window of the utility room. Donning the slippers that she kept by the door, Japanese style, she descended the back stoop, casting about for some sign of the boy. Still, she did not become hysterical. There was a small gap in the fence where Pat could slip out, and she went toward it to see if that had been the case. She yet remained cool. She passed by Venson’s hound to get there, noticing, in passing, the creeping tendril of red that snaked away from its snout.

Only when she saw that the dog was dead did she begin to scream.


The thing that Hester had called did the work that it what been called for. The child died easily, quickly. The spilling of the blood, the cessation of the life, the presence of Hissmelina as she completed the ritual: all of that caused a spontaneous reaction, a kind of combustion.

Allegra gasped, nearly collapsed at the shock. Hester was there to steady her. The two stood on the lawn where they had remained since their servant had been sent.

“Heh, heh.” Hester chuckled. “You feel it, too.”

“The Crag. I can feel it.”

“Yes. Now it reaches as far as the place where she killed the child. I can see. I can see it all through her eyes.” It was true.

The girl smiled, understanding.

“Ours. All ours.” They watched the black edge of the forest and waited for Hissmelina to return. All three were happy.


Chief Wepner arrived on the scene a long half-hour before Venson Day had a chance to speed the distance between Elijah and the job he was working in Japser. He was happy for that fact on one had, but it caused him a bit of a problem on the other. From the instant he arrived, it was a full ten minutes before he could calm the hysterical Mrs. Day enough to get the story out of her.

Finally, with much difficulty and a complete taxing of his bullish patience, he got her to sit still long enough to give him an idea of what was going on. Between sharp gaps, she told him that her baby was missing—gone!

Wepner took Kathleen’s damp hand in his plump, rough ones, then patted her kerchief-tied head. “You just sit tight Miz Day. Sit tight right here. Venson’ll be here soon and I’m gone have a quick look around th’ place an’ see if I can find Pat.”

“But I already looked everywhere,” she gasped, eyes held wide. “I even checked th’ hay loft! Little Pat cain’t climb no hay loft!” She began, again, to hyperventilate.

“Miz Day! Kathleen!” Her eyes locked on his. “Now you calm down some. He cain’t have got far. I’m gone go out an’ look around right quick an’ see what I can see. Okay?” He took her silence as an affirmation and lifted his bulk up from where he knelt. Kathleen said nothing as he went out, not even when a small clod of dried clay dislodged from his boot to fall upon the carpet.

Outside, Wepner gazed about the empty back yard. Not quite empty. He went over the to hound and looked down at it. There was a little pool of gelid blood in font of its snout. He toed the animal with the hard tip of his right shoe. It was most certainly dead. He bent closer, hands on his knees for a better look. It was a good-looking hound; if he knew Venson Day, the man owned only the best dogs. Puzzling that such a stout, young animal would just up and die like that. With his right hand, he nudged it a bit, looking for some mark or wound. There was nothing. No wonder Kathleen had flown off the handle.

Straightening, he looked about. There was a small gap in the fence, but it didn’t look wide enough for even a small child to have squeezed through. Beyond that there was only more lawn that gave way to pasture. Surely the mother would have been able to spot the youngster if he had toddled out that way. He turned around. The forest seemed dark, vaguely menacing. Leaning in the direction of the woods, the thought of poking about in there suddenly seemed not so wise. There was a dense tangle of brittle blackberry bushes, thorny and dry in their pre-winter death. Pines grew thickly, making deep shadows. Better to just go back into the house and wait for Venson to get there.

Wepner took a step toward the house, ready to go back inside the warm walls and sit with the frightened woman. He thought of Kathleen cringing in the chair in which he’d left her and realized that he was somehow frightened of the woods. Frightened! Of what? Again, he turned for the line of trees that lay beyond the fence. His steps were heavy and ponderous; his keys jangled metallically at every step. Putting his hand to his holster, he unbuttoned the stiff flap that held down the .357 magnum. He had it loaded with 158-grain semi-jacketed hard point; the ammo could pierce just about anything and made a nasty wound. Thinking of that, he felt better.

At the fence, he placed his hands upon the nearest support and hefted his leg. With a grunt, he braced his weight and stepped up. The fence bent beneath his two hundred and seventy pounds, but it did not buckle. After a clumsy pirouette, he was over, landing solidly on the other side. He squinted, peering suspiciously into the shadows. Nothing stirred.

Moving up to the thicket, he pushed forward, picking his way through the thorny stuff. If it had been summer time, he would not have dared tramping through. But it was nearing cold weather and the blackberry bushes were all dead, snapping off where before they would have bent resiliently and snagged at his flesh. Too, they would have been full of snakes. Warily, he picked his way through the mess.

Beyond the thicket and its barrier of thorns, the forest was clearer, easier to walk through. It had been twenty or thirty years since the timber had been felled, and new trees had grown up everywhere—pines where they had been planted, oaks and poplar where they had sprung up, mongrel-wise. He reached out with his left hand and pushed aside needle-y branches that blocked his view. Carefully, he stalked through the rows of pines, trying to avoid treading on dry limbs that would snap and give him away. His eyes swept about, searching for some sign, some movement. There was nothing.

The land swept up from the fence, climbing in a slope that became steeper as it approached the flanks of the nearby mountains. Wepner moved up the incline, treading slowly, searching. At his feet, he saw where the carpeting of pine needles had been disturbed as if something had been dragged. The trail went in a straight line, farther up the hill. He followed it till it met with a wide expanse of worn granite. Continuing, he went across the twenty feet of pocked stone, crunching dry lichen beneath his shoes.

He looked down. There, in the forest floor of dead and gray-hued needles of former seasons, was a flattened space of perhaps five feet square, where something had lain. In the center of the spot were several tiny drops of crimson. Blood. The trail halted there. Nothing led away.

Wepner’s head jerked up, scanning the nearby area. He stared into the dappled forest that seemed to close in all around him. Squinting, he tried to see into the shadows beneath the trees. The forest looked back. He felt it.

Again, he gazed down at the spots of blood. There was no doubt that it was blood. Four or five little dollops of red shone back. The wind blew, sighing through the pines that surrounded him. Straining, he listened for the sound of something that might be watching, ready to pounce. Afraid, his hand went for the .357, feeling the hard lines of it against his waist.

He thought. Nothing had dragged the child into the woods to this place. This was nothing more than the spot where Venson’s hound had brought a rabbit and killed and eaten it, leaving a tiny sign of its meal. Or the animal had been stricken with some brain seizure and bled a few drops before staggering back to the yard. That was all that had happened. No need to stir up a panic over nothing. Eagerly, he left the place and went back to the house to await the arrival of Mrs. Day’s husband.

But before he did, he made sure to scuff his big feet about in the pine straw until there was no sign that something had lain there. Until the little drops of blood were gone, as if they had never been.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Weird Trip

Just driving around the area is a weird experience these days. Just strange.

I like to pay cash for things when I can. Even the expensive things like new trucks and accessories for them. After we bought the truck we knew that we'd need a camper shell for it, since we travel a great deal with our trailer and we store (valuable) things in the bed when we're on the road. I don't want people reaching into the storage of my truck and walking off with my Honda generator, for instance.

So I sold a few collectibles so that I wouldn't have to dip into the savings to buy the camper shell. Then I phoned the company where I'd bought the shell for my old truck. I waited a week to drive over and when I got to the place to order my camper shell, the business was gone. Where there had been a thriving business in the same place for at least the past twenty years, there was only a scrubbed and empty lot.

I'll now have to drive farther to buy the camper shell--likely a well established dealership near the South Carolina border. It's not that huge a deal, and only a minor inconvenience. But it brought to the fore the things I'm seeing more and more. I drove around a lot today and just observed as I went along, running errands. On the way to the Asian restaurant where I went to have lunch I saw that several more storefronts had gone vacant since last week. One huge clothing outlet was no more--the trucks were lined up to empty the contents of the place and to remove the signs. Another big, empty box to sit vacant and gather moisture on its way to ruin.

I count myself very lucky right now that I'm employed as a Fed. I don't have to worry about my job, since I have a strong union contract and the government, at least, is not going to close down. My wife, too, is a surgical tech, and there's no fear for us of the hospitals all closing their doors and surgeons ceasing to operate. We both have good jobs with decent incomes.

But in the past few years I've made rather a lot of money from my writing. It's been great to salt away that cash; we mean to build a dream home in a few years. But with the way things are going I've begun to wonder about the probabilities of continuing to earn extra money through the creative process. I keep seeing publishers shutting down imprints, and editors being laid off, and writers being set adrift by the houses where their work had seen print for years. I have friends and acquaintances who are in even more tenuous positions--artists and writers who don't have a day job to shore up their finances. And the folk who, through their disposable incomes, were buying their work are finding it difficult to continue to do so.


I hope that things turn around soon. I have my doubts, but we'll see what happens. In the meantime, even a brief drive through my section of town can be pretty darned depressing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bush Bounce

This is currently a very cool website.

You can left click on him and smash him to and fro. And you can squeeze him like toothpaste through the globes.

Novel Formerly Known As...

For years I've been working periodically on a novel that I was calling BEAUTIFUL BOY. On the surface, it's a classic supernatural/monster tale. But it's also about racism. The whole book has given me fits over the time that I've worked on it, and when it became too difficult I would set it aside and work on something else. When I finished my latest book and delivered it to my agent, I decided that enough was enough and I was going to complete this book once and for all.

Currently, I feel that I'm over the halfway mark. As I've plotted the novel, it should come in at around 90,000 words and I'm well past the midpoint of that. So I feel that I'm in the home stretch. It will be something to finally complete this book and have it done. It will be an accomplishment for me on many levels.

However, I'll have to change the title. Last year there was a non-fiction book with the same title. While you can't generally copyright a title, I've felt that I should come up with a different name for my novel based on the simple fact that the non-fiction book was so recently published and is foremost in the minds of readers. For that simple reason I'm casting about for a new title. My problem is that I've thought of my book as BEAUTIFUL BOY for so long that I'm having a truly difficult time in coming up with a different take.

I'll just have to keep thinking about it.

In the meantime, here's the first chapter:

The Novel Formerly Known as BEAUTIFUL BOY
James Robert Smith


Wiley McCoy sipped the cold Pepsi, wishing that it were a Coke; but nauseous cops couldn’t be too choosy at times like this. It was late——past one, he figured——and while he had earlier been able to drag himself out of the beery stupor in which he’d placed himself, his stomach was still crying out for horizontal. That’s why he had taken his cruiser off the road and himself there, to Benjy Whitaker’s Sand Ridge Grocery. Usually, he made these pit stops to grab a cup of bad coffee on third shift, but coffee wasn’t what he needed. Sipping, he let out a long, silent belch that hinted of Guinness Extra Stout. Better. Much better. Foreign beers were a weakness, and he was regretting his earlier indulgences.

Wiping his lips with the back of his arm, Wiley looked up to see Benjy himself appear from the storage room behind the drink and milk coolers. The big, fat man pulled the door to with a solid thump and winked at the young officer. Wiley squinted into the fluorescent lights above Whitaker’s head and nodded back to him, acknowledging as he always did the free handout. Most of the cops expected the freebies, but Wiley remained mildly awed by the no-cost beverages and food he and the other officers were welcome to at the shops and greasy spoons in town.

Whitaker was working a thick white towel in his thick black hands, and Wiley assumed that the proprietor must have been working in the back room. Pausing long enough to toss the towel at the doorknob he had just released, Benjy came over to where the young policeman leaned, hip against the drink machine: one of the old fashioned top-loading kinds. He clapped his huge paw on the kid’s shoulder and squeezed——there was nothing phony about the mild display of affection.

“You don’t look so good, kid. You okay?” The shopkeeper still called Wiley “kid” after the youth’s first three years on Jasperton’s tiny force. And he would probably continue to do so for the next twenty years or more.

“Yeah,” he lied, “I’m fine.” His face was pale to the point of bloodlessness, and the lack of color was further enhanced in contrast to Whitaker’s blackblack skin. “I was just feeling a little queasy and thought I’d have a coke to settle my stomach. That’s all.” He raised the Pepsi can as if to prove his point.

“Well, you don’t look so good, Wiley. You look pretty sick, if you want to know.” Whitaker worked his hands as if still drying them with the lush towel that now dangled from a brassy doorknob. He thought for just a moment before continuing.

“That accident wasn’t your fault, son. You know that. Them Rickley boys was askin’ for it; been askin’ for it a real long time an’ their number was just up. That’s all.” He patted Wiley again with his crowbar fingers.

Wiley stared into the soda can, seeing carbon bubbles floating to the brown surface. “I know. But...” He clenched his left fist, recalling the moment, the screaming tires, the Trans Am vaulting the road in a weird acrobatic display. “It’s jus’ that I went to school with Sam. He wasn’t such a bad guy. A bit wild, but not bad. Not like Phil.” The can clicked lightly atop the drink case as the cop set it down.

“That Phil. Man, he was some bad news.” Whitaker remembered staring down the barrel of a .38 that Phil Rickley had waved in his face two years before. He shivered, thinking of it, still hearing the thug screaming at him: Nigger, you open that safe you got in the back you open it right now or I’ll blow yore nigger brains out you hear me nigger! Just like that. The narrow .38 caliber bore had looked like the open end of a tin can that night.

Ben had felt his hand itching to touch the old silver amulet he wore around his neck on a simple leather string, but he knew if his fingers had twitched Rickley would have shot him dead. It was blind luck that he had survived the robbery, and Benjy liked to say that the only reason the Rickley boy had not killed him was that the little redneck had been so wound up he’d just forgotten to pull the trigger. Once more he patted McCoy on his young shoulder. “Don’t you worry none about them boys. I tell you it was bound to happen sooner or later. Bad news come to a bad end. You listen to old Benjy. I seen ‘em come and I seen ‘em go. Those Rickleys...” He shook his head. There was no way he could tell the young officer, but there was far more to the perniciousness of some of the Rickley clan than Whitaker could ever say.

“Well, listen, Ben, I gotta go. Gotta head on up the road and make sure everything’s sittin' right this evenin’.” He grabbed up the Pepsi and saluted Whitaker with it. “Thanks for the fizz.” With that, he was headed for the door.

“You jus’ take it easy, boy. Take it easy tonight.”

The older man’s voice faded behind bright glass as Wiley strode out to his black-and-white. Wiley paused for a second in the cold, and then he climbed in. He sat there for a moment, smelling the residue of the Sonofagun someone at the garage had applied to the vinyl that day. Normally, he didn’t mind the faintly oily scent, but tonight it bothered his stomach and he would rather have had dingy seats than something more to aggravate the remnants of the day’s drunk. Despite what Ben said, despite that he knew it was true (that the Rickleys were bound for a bad end); he couldn’t get the image of the accident out of his mind. Phil’s Trans Am had turned so purty as it flew through the cold night air: a delicate pirouette, all shiny and yellow--spinning, spinning. Crash.

Worst of all had been the blood. Jesus what a load of blood. You wouldn’t think two bodies could hold so much blood.

Wiley opened the door, leaned out, and he vomited up what remained of the eight stouts he had poured down his throat that afternoon, making a mess of the asphalt right in front of the entrance to Sand Ridge Grocery.

Before Whitaker could dislodge himself from the seat behind the counter, Wiley had started up the sedan and was pulling out of the parking lot. Rolling down his window, the young officer spat a few times and resumed sipping at the cola, feeling the cold December air knifing at his face. He burped again, felt better for it. Better than them Rickley boys, that’s for sure.

For the best part of an hour Wiley tooled in and out of the edge of town, cruising slowly down Main Street, then creeping through narrow alleys behind shadowed buildings. He was delaying the inevitable. He had to make the circuit down 158, past the old warehouses that were often broken into if smalltime thieves and bored vandals didn’t see a spotlight at least once a night. Past the old warehouses and past Waker’s Salvage Yard.

Someone had dropped what was left of Rickley’s goddamned Trans Am right inside the front gate, where McCoy would have to see it whenever he drove by Ronald Waker’s junkyard. Shit and fuck.

Leaving the wide parking lots between the warehouses, Wiley returned to 158. There had been no one poking about the long, low buildings. Hell, it was too damned cold out there to do more than huddle in one spot and pray for sunlight. So he had made quick work of his tour through that place, and now it was time to suck it up and get on with it. Wiley left a sliver of a crack in his window and smelled the sterile winter air that sliced into the sedan’s interior and kept him alert. Time to take a ride by Waker's.

158 slid beneath as Wiley gunned the motor and took the car up to eighty. It was so late that he didn’t fear encountering anyone on the lonely highway, and he was The Law, so what did it matter? Pin oaks and tall pines hissed as he sped past them, his high beams searing the dark for an instant before it all closed back in behind him. There was no moon and the stars were clear and bright above the strip of road between the forests. Nearby, the hills loomed blackly up toward mountains that peaked beyond the town. McCoy was getting closer and closer to the salvage yard. It was his job to stop there and check the front gate and make certain that no one had forced the chain and broken in. Just that had happened in the past, and Mr. Waker swung heavy clout in these parts: there was a lot of money in that junkyard business of his. Tonight, just get it the heck over with.

Ahead, the eight-foot chain link came eerily into view, like some ghostly wall in the lazy curve of the highway. Behind that, there were the beginnings of the acres of rows of ruined cars and trucks. The main building was invisible in the black of the night, but Wiley knew it was there. He would have to go right to the front gate. He would have to look at Phil Rickley’s car.

Please, God. Please let them have moved it.

As he pulled into the wide graveled way that led into the junkyard, his gaze was pulled toward the spot where he knew the broken Trans Am would be. And there it yet remained. Oh, the blood. Phil had still been kicking when Wiley had raced down to the car, his denimed legs shattered, sporting a dozen knees. And a man’s guts really were blue. Trying not to look at the car (failing miserably), he pulled up to the gate and pointed his spotlight at the big chrome chains that snaked around the posts, holding the gate shut. They were secure. Quickly, he gunned the motor and wheeled about. The light speared the Trans Am, and for a long, frozen second Wiley could see someone sitting behind the crumpled steering wheel. There was a slice of an instant in which he saw Phil Rickley grinning at him, his face the slick and bloody mask it had been that last time he’d seen it. Wiley sucked in enough air to choke a Great White before he realized that he was seeing the headrest on the driver’s side; it had been shoved high in the accident and had remained thus.

“Jesus. Shit.” Wiley rested his head on his wrists, his fingers locked on the steering wheel, and he took four long, even breaths. “I gotta get over this,” he told himself.

In a little while he shut his motor down and extinguished the lights. Then he climbed out of the car and walked slowly over to the fence that separated him from Phil’s fragmented wheels. In the starlight his breath was pale and bright, pretty plumes in the tar. He faced off with the wreck, thinking of it as some kind of temple to his misdeed. Eventually, somehow, he had to rid himself of the guilt. “I gotta get over it. I gotta get over it.” This was therapy, he kept telling himself; it was just good therapy.

There was no moon to mark time, but after a while the cold got to him and he went back to the black-and-white and started her up. He pulled back onto 158, made his way down to the little picnic area that marked the terminus of his rounds, and there he turned about.

As he made his second pass of Waker’s yard, he saw the gates standing wide.

“Shit!” He jammed his brakepedal to the floor and the air around the sedan was full of the acrid fumes of frictioned rubber. His first thought was that someone had watched him drive away and had decided that he was done for the night. But as that idea was still a spark making its way logically through the corridors of his brain, he saw the headlights on Phil Rickley’s Trans Am come to yellow life. And as he was frozen by the sheer impossible horror of that sight, rear wheels that should not have been able to turn suddenly spun, kicking up gravel and granite dust. The crumpled vehicle shuddered, as if in delight: then it was turning wide, scattering broken rock as it made for the opened gate.

There was somebody at the wheel, and this time Wiley knew he was not imagining things. Screaming, Wiley almost drowned out the bark of his own tires atop the worn surface of 158, his car rocketing forward.

The Trans Am was right behind.

McCoy did not stop in his panic to wonder who that might be bearing down on him. He did not pause to reason that it was merely someone playing quite the joke on him, that it could not possibly be the dead Rickley brothers come back from the other side to take their vengeance on him. No. He had gotten a good look at the shattered car that now dogged his tail, and he was quite sure that it was the same one he had inadvertently chased off the tight curve just beyond Seven-Mile Creek. And that was precisely where 158 would take him if he did not veer off and change course within the next four miles.

The ghostly car advanced to ass-kissing proximity before the black-and-white found enough juice in the pit where Wiley’s right foot was jammed. He pulled away, making a small distance between them.

The city fathers of Jasperton were well aware of the love many of its less well-heeled citizens had for fast cars, and so they had provided their officers with vehicles that could deal with four barrels and spoilers. The sedan that the young officer now sent whirring down the way was as fast as any on the local roads. It could make one-thirty, one-forty if the driver knew what he was doing. And Wiley was good——hadn’t he proven that he was better at it than Phil Rickley had been?

McCoy’s eyes darted here and there. A fraction of a glance told him that he was doing a hundred and ten miles per hour. A look ahead told him that the road was clear until the next curve, that the night was as dark as the mayor’s heart, that he was alone with what followed hot on his tail. The squint he braved in the rear view mirror sent a chunk of ice through his guts.

The dome light was on in the Trans Am and Phil was there, laughing through red, shredded lips. There was someone sitting in the front seat beside Phil Rickley, but the light did not show much there. Wiley knew it was the younger brother, Sam. Phil’s car eased forward and the cop felt a tiny vibration as the smaller car tap-tapped, bumpers meeting impossibly.

“Nnnoooooo!” Wiley screamed again and took the next curve much too fast, somehow kept the road and found a tad more speed on the incline. One-twenty. He could see Phil laughing at him as he edged away. There was blood oozing out of Rickley’s torn throat; McCoy could see it clearly and was so engrossed by the wet creep of it that he almost did not remember the slight dip in the road just ahead. His car actually left the blacktop: freeflight.

When the sedan came jarringly down, he lost a step and had to watch as the once-glittering Trans Am hugged the smooth surface of 158 and came back to butthole-sniffing distance: one cur checking out the other. There was about to be some fucking done. McCoy made his car find its second wind so that he could take back his lebensraum. One-thirty. Behind him, what-was-left-of-Phil merely grinned. He couldn’t hear anything but the whine of the motors, but he was certain the ghost was laughing at him. Almost, he could make out the awful bellowing. He had the gas pedal kissing floorboard so hard he expected to feel blacktop scraping his toes.

Seeing the speedometer, he read the gauge. One-thirty-five.

That’s how fast he’d been doing when.

The sedan exited, barely, stage right. McCoy’s fingers locked around the wheel as tight as a tick on a pup’s ear. That effort was not enough and he could merely hold on as the front end nosed eastward, to the soft shoulder and the closely packed woods beyond. There was a mellow thud of turf against undercarriage, the hood came unhinged and bounced skyward down skyward down right the fuck off and into the cold, night breeze look at it sail. The black-and-white’s rear end decided to get in on the act and began to skew toward the Atlantic three hundred miles eastward and now the whole car was looking to go flip.

But Wiley McCoy knew how to drive before he knew how to read proper and he turned into the slide. The weight of the big car helped out and he brought the front end forward and the trunk pointed where it was supposed to be. That was why he did not flip the car.

That was why he merely impacted on the big red maple that had stood for a hundred years where 158 crossed Seven-Mile Creek. He was only doing fifty.

When he woke up, the first thing he did was bring his hand to his face. There was a throbbing right in the middle of his forehead and he was afraid there might be blood. A visual examination of the eight fingers of his left hand showed him there was not. Then he recalled what was going on and where he was.

The front of the squad car was a crumpled wad. The main bulk of the engine had been forced up like a heavy pimple and it steamed there in the chilly dark. McCoy blinked, then looked in his rear view mirror, which was miraculously aimed precisely at the straightaway of 158. Phil Rickley’s Trans Am still sat up there, idling away in a manner that was impossible for a car as chewed up and spit out as that one currently was. Its headlights shone sick and yellow in the night. Wiley groaned and reached for the release of his shoulder harness. At least he was down here and Rickley was still up there.

“Cold ain’t it? But not as cold as it is in hell. Hiya, Pard.” It was Rickley, that same high voice. Right at his ear. Wiley turned in his seat, realizing that he was not seriously injured but that he was terribly bruised at many a point on his body. The window on his side of the car was gone, shattered out. In the window was Phil Rickley, leaning almost in and looking no better than he had the last time McCoy had seen him. Rickley’s jaw appeared to have been broken, which made his smile seem more awful than it might otherwise. Teeth were gone; blood leaked out of the gaps. Phil blinked and Wiley noticed that the other’s eyes bulged slightly, for they had been almost forced out of his head the night he had been killed. The young cop found the release on the shoulder harness and pressed it down, liberating himself from its lifesaving grip.

“Bet you never thought you’d see me again, did ya?”

“Aaaaaagh! Aaaaagh!”

Rickley rolled his eyes and the effect of the action shut McCoy up. Jasperton’s finest recoiled in his seat and waited.

“That’s better, boy. I come back from hell for this, an’ I ain’t a-wastin’ time jus’ to hear you holler.” Rickley’s white hands gripped the side of the sedan but made no attempt to come inside.

“You gonna kill m-me?” Wiley stared and waited.

“No, I ain’t gonna kill you.” Rickley seemed to strain then, as if fighting against some pain. His head twisted sidewise, then skyward, then back to Wiley. His dead breath blew into McCoy’ s face. “I come back to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Not jus’ you. All of you’ns. The whole town.”

Wiley swallowed. “What is it?” He still thought Rickley was there to take him down.

“Somethin’ bad. Somethin’ really bad.”

“Worse than you?”

“Oh, a hell of a lot worse than me. You just don’t know.” A thin crimson string crept out of Rickley’s right nostril.

“What is it?”

“It won’t look like much when it gets here, McCoy. A little boy who ain’t from around these parts.” Rickley lifted his hands away from the wrecked car and leaned back.

“A little boy? What…?”

The dead man was already walking away. He turned his head on its broken neck enough to let McCoy know he’d heard. “Just a strange little boy, McCoy. You better watch for him and you better watch out when he gets here.

“And you better do somethin’ about ‘im, too. You know what I mean.” His dead, frigid voice began to fade.

Wiley scrambled to the door and tried to open it and could not. He thrust his arms through the windowless socket and poked his head out. “Where you goin’, Phil?”

The Trans Am glittered in spots, where the body had not been bent and crimped. The Rickley brothers were side by side in there as it turned about on the narrow lanes of 158. There was an icy breeze coming down to where Wiley McCoy strained and stared. “Back to hell, Officer.”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” Wiley screamed. But his exclamation had been drowned out by the peal of ghost tires against roadtop and he knew it. He leaned out of the window, feeling the cold, knowing hell was like this. He cried and thought of dead men and strange little boys.

Sliding away, the Rickleys aimed for the roar of the furnace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snow Day

Well, we had snow today. Not a lot. Just a few inches. This is becoming more and more rare here in the South as the years pass. If you look at old records, it used to snow often in the Charlotte area. Now, we get a measurable snowfall about once every two or three years.

Today's snow was pretty, while it lasted. But it didn't hang around long. It started falling around midnight and by noon it had stopped. By late this afternoon most of it had melted off.

This was my first day back to carrying mail after over a week of suffering with pneumonia. In typical USPS fashion, I was forced to work overtime. So much for managerial compassion. That's the thing about the USPS--they will not hesitate to work you to death. There are plenty more humans where you came from.

I'm pretty tired and shagged out. Still short of breath. I reckon it'll take a while before my lungs are back to normal.
In front the house around 6:00 am today.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On a Cold Winter Day

Carole and I went for a drive today. I had to buy a gift at a hobby shop for a friend who did me a favor earlier this year. We drove to a part of town where we lived for a very long time, but hadn't visited in...well, about five or six years.

When we were younger and our son was a small child and not a twenty-one year old man, we spent a lot of our free time at Reedy Creek Park. It's a great park--it has hundreds of acres of forest cover, three lakes, creeks, trails for hiking and mountain biking, lawns for lying on, picnic shelters, tables, grills, a nature center, wildlife, historic ruins, and more. In the days before I began working for the US Postal Service, I would drive to the park every morning for a long walk or jog. Generally, I'd share the park with only a few people, which was nice considering it's a big place.

One of the lakes at Reedy Creek Park. Andy and Carole and I used to wander the trails around it. We'd fish there. We sit on benches beneath the trees on a summer afternoon or a fall evening. We'd picnic when it was arm. Grill burgers and hot dogs. Andy had two birthday parties here, when he was small and blond and running helter-skelter across the lawn. I couldn't keep up.

The drive to the park was a bit discordant. There's been a lot of construction and urban sprawl to the borders of it, but I expected that. The park itself hasn't changed much at all. There have been some improvements. But one thing that I quickly noticed was that they had removed the huge parachute webbing that my son used to love crawling on when he was very little.

And that's what it was.

I got hit suddenly with a feeling of deep sadness as I was standing there beside the playground. I remembered pushing my little boy on the swing sets. Running with him through the sand traps. Fishing with him on the lake. Walking with him on the trails. Yeah, he's still here. But I miss the little boy that he was. I always liked being the father of a small child. It's a wonderful feeling to hold your child and cradle him in your arms and protect him and hug him.

That's what I miss.

Those years are brief. They blaze by so fast that you're suddenly stunned that they're gone.

The place where we played, when Andy was a boy and Carole and I were young parents. Jove, I never thought that looking upon it would make me sad.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What We Deserve

Well, the illegitimate Bush administration is about to come to an end. Our nation is in hideous shape because that mentally retarded asswipe was allowed to sit in the White House for eight years. Our economy is on the brink of collapse. The rest of the Earth looks upon us with hatred and disfavor. We have been, since 2003, engaged in mass murder and crimes against humanity. We have allowed corporate pigs to dictate governmental and environmental policy to the detriment of both.

But you know what?

It's our own fault. Yours, mine, ours. When the election of 2000 was so obviously and blatantly rigged, and then that of 2004, we did nothing. In contrast to the citizens of so many nations over the past couple of decades, the people of the USA did absolutely nothing while the retarded son of a billionaire spymaster was plugged into the highest seat of power on Earth.

We did not complain.

We did not revolt.

We did not protest.

We did not fill the streets with a show of force and righteous indignation.

We have gotten bloody well what we all deserve.

W. Moron Bush, inbred mental retard

Cartoon by Ted Rall

Saturday, January 17, 2009


For the first morning in well over a week, I did not awaken to coughing fits as I expelled the mucus contents from my infected lungs. In fact, I'm suffering only from a light wheezing and a little shortness of breath. I reckon I'm over the worst of this stuff.

Looking across toward Middle Prong Wilderness, 2005.

And to think that I was seriously considering a two-day backpack either into the Middle Prong Wilderness or the Linville Gorge Wilderness the day before I got sick. That would have been something--to get hit with pneumonia in the middle of the night on a six-thousand foot peak or two thousand feet down in the bottom of the wildest gorge in the eastern USA.

Linville Gorge, 2008.

Thank goodness we decided to buy the truck last weekend. This year is so far panning out not so good for hiking. I've now missed out on two three-day weekends that would normally have been packed with mountain exploring. I think I'll have to take some extra time to make sure that my lungs have recovered before I start climbing the slopes again.

I did manage to finish one of my novel projects while I've been cooped up here in the house. I wrapped up that project and sent it on to my agent. Now the long waiting game begins. But I have another novel that's past the halfway mark, so I'll be very busy finishing that one up. Then I'll have to decide which plot to tackle next for a novel-length manuscript.

For the past few years I've pretty much abandoned the short story form. It used to be my primary focus and was the lion's share of my output. But I've only written a couple of short stories in the previous twenty-four months. I just don't encounter short story markets the way I used to, and the urge to complete works in that format seems to have faded.

Ah, well.

The ideas are percolating. They always do. The images never stop.

My world.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stir Crazy

Good grief!

More than a week of being cooped up in this house. I was thinking of going in to work, but I'm still too sick. To hell with being stuck in here. I've labored like crazy on my latest novel. I finished it yesterday and emailed it to my agent. I've read science articles on the Internet until my brain feels overloaded with statistics. I've picked up books from my to-read stack and gone through them like popcorn.

I've got to get out from under the roof!

I know that I'm in no condition to go hiking, but I can walk and breathe some fresh air. And dream about warm ocean beaches.

Bahia Honda Key, Florida.

Yeah, the water was fine: April, 2007.

Pneumonia? What's pneumonia?

Me and a kapok tree, Key West.

Come on, let's go!