Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Eighth Angel, Finale


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3 & 4



The Anderson Ranch, southeast of El Paso, near the Rio Grande


John Anderson spent the day pacing. Delivering Travis to Angel de Venganza had been as easy as John had feared. Cooped up on the ranch, never allowed to travel alone since members of the posse started turning up dead, Travis jumped at the chance to go to El Paso alone for a simple errand. John knew Travis would find justification to spend the night drinking, gambling, and whoring. John would never have minded if Travis had been able to confine himself to those activities. He’d been young once himself.

Travis in town on his own was what led to the current predicament. No whores caught his drunken fancy that night, so he forced himself on a young married woman named Rosalyn Bentley. Travis almost had to kill the husband when he came looking to avenge his wife’s honor. John never learned all the details, but some agreement assuaged Bentley’s grievance; a scapegoat was needed. Jaime Escalante had a reputation as a roughneck and Lothario. He had been known to flirt with Rosalyn Bentley and there were white men in El Paso who had suspicions about their women’s interactions with Escalante. Hanging the rape on him would only work if no one looked too closely, and there were people who mattered in El Paso who would not be inclined to look closely at all.

John Anderson knew none of this when he agreed to hire a posse to bring back the accused rapist. At the time he’d been proud to see Travis step forward to choose and organize the men, attributing it to a growth of civic responsibility. Only later did he realize the story Travis and Bentley cooked up would not hold water were the Mexican allowed to face charges.

Dark thoughts and recriminations occupied John’s mind all day until he noticed the shadows creep along the side of the main house. Travis had left not long after sunup. John had begun to worry the Mexican might have gone back on his word when he heard a horse approach at a full gallop. The hoofbeats stopped at the edge of the front porch and a voice he didn’t recognize at first began to scream.

“Daddy! Daddy! God damn it, Daddy. Come look what that son of a bitch half-breed beaner did to me!”

John ran to the front door. Travis sat his horse so close to the porch he could dismounted directly onto it. He was hatless with hair hanging over his face in long strands. Tears dripped form his jaw. Snot fouled his mustache.

“What is it boy? What happened?”

“What happened? What happened? This happened!”

Travis pulled the hair back from his face to look straight at his father. Branded into his forehead was the letter V, the lower point almost to the bridge of the nose, between the eyes.

John felt ill. Refused to look away. “Did they hurt you, boy?”

Travis’s face a mix of pain, rage, and confusion. “They? Weren’t no they. One man. Same one killed Red and Easy and the others. Picked me off on the way to town like he’d been waiting for me. First time in almost a year you let me go out alone and…” A flush of realization came to Travis’s face. “You knew.”

“It was the price of saving your life.”

“You worked it out? You talked to him? Knowing what he’d been doing, you met him and didn’t kill him?”

“We have to answer for what we did. To atone.”

“You got a brand on you I don’t know about? What the hell does V stand for, anyway? He said you’d know. Said it was appropriate.”

Tears clouded John’s vision. Travis had lived within a mile of the border all his life and knew no more than ten words of Spanish that weren’t insults or blasphemy. “Violador, I expect.”

“What’s that in English?”

“Rapist.” John was already recovering. “Get Esmeralda to put some of her salve on that burn. I’ll help you down.”

Travis reined his mount away from his father’s reaching hands. “I don’t need no more of your kind of help, you old bastard.” Walked his horse to the corner of the house. “I’m warning you, old man. You best sleep with one eye open form now on.”

John let him go. Much as he loved the boy and as much as his son was hurting, he knew the only way Travis would come at him was to hire it done. John stood alone and watched the sun begin to sink across the river. All the work he’d done. Buried a wife, a daughter, and a younger son, only to leave his life’s labor to such an heir.

He didn’t know how long the man had been sitting his horse at the crest of the ridge. Only after Joh focused on him did the rider tip his hat before walking his horse down the other side.



Southwestern United States and northern Mexico


Seven years later, it surprised no one when Travis Anderson hired six gunmen to bring Angel de Venganza back to the Anderson ranch, dirt still falling on his father’s casket. The men, renowned bounty hunters all, ranged as far as Yuma, Fort Smith, Denver, and Chihuahua. They examined hotels and saloons and brothels and stage lines and train depots for two years. Travis had no idea how much whisky or how many whores he paid for.

He recalled them when the expenses began to cut into his own habits. In all that time and distance they encountered no one who had seen or had knowledge of a man named Angel de Venganza. He had no family nor friends nor enemies. No birth or baptismal records. No headstone.

Men who knew Easy Book in Texas could not place the name. The men who’d been drinking with Red Durham in Bisbee never had a name for the young Mexican Red sat with that night. Never got a good look at his face. The livery owner was new in town, the previous proprietor having moved on. California, maybe. Or Oregon.

The only person to see Angel de Venganza after John Anderson watched him ride his horse into the setting sun was Travis Anderson, who saw him every night.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Eighth Angel, Chapters Three & Four


Chapter 1

Chapter 2



Northern Texas or southern Oklahoma Territory


Angel lay on his belly at the crest of a hog’s back as he looked across a small stream meandering through some bottom land. The sun rose behind him to reflect off the water. He’d been there for over an hour waiting for Kansas Jack Sloat to awaken.

Kansas Jack had not been easy to find. With warrants bearing his name from Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arkansas, he only remained available for Angel to track due to guile and cunning.

Angel pulled a Sharps rifle from the grass beside him as Kansas Jack shrugged off his bedroll. No more than 250 yards distant, in line with what little breeze there was. He rose and stretched. Started a fire for his coffee. Scanned the horizon 360 degrees. Angel remained motionless, knowing he was not visible, as flat to the ground as he was, buffalo grass around him and the sun rising behind.

Jack poked the fire to get it burning how he wanted. Walked away to a small stand of trees to do his morning business. He had returned to within thirty feet of the fire when Angel shot him low in the belly.

Angel walked down the reverse slope of the hill to retrieve his horse. Slid the rifle into a saddle scabbard and mounted. Allowed the horse to pick its own pace down the hill toward the stream. No need to hurry. Kansas Jack would wait.

 Jack had crawled to within a few feet of his kit when Angel’s roan splashed int the stream, the sound drawing the wounded man’s attention. He looked toward the water, a hand shielding his eyes from the morning glare. Lay motionless until his face showed recognition of his plight. Started crawling with increased vigor.

Angel let his horse amble through the water. Jack got within a foot or two of the pistol sticking out of his bedroll before Angel drew his Colt. Thumbed back the hammer. Jack froze at the click of the cocking mechanism. A quick calculation before he reached for the gun. Angel shot him through the hand.

Jack yelled. His other hand fluttered, unsure of which wound to cradle. “Son of a bitch! Who the hell are you?”

“That was a mistake. Walking away without your guns.”

“I checked. Everything was clear.”

“Not as clear as you thought.”

“I asked once already. Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Angel de Venganza.”

“That supposed to mean something to me?”

“Not yet.” Angel holstered his gun and sat his horse. “What about Jaime Escalante? Maria Rodriguez? Do those names mean anything to you?”

Realization crossed Kansas Jack’s face. “The pistolero in that canyon south of Juarez.”

“My friend in the canyon. My friends.”

Kansas Jack glanced again toward his pistol. Not three feet away. Resignation began to settle onto his features. “You the one killed Easy Book?”

“And Red Durham.”

“Red’s dead, too?” Angel nodded. “Pete Davis.”

“Not yet.”

“You will, though.” Not asking. Angel nodded. Kansas Jack grimaced. “What about that peckerwood Travis Anderson? It was him started all this.”

“His turn is last.”

“Why’s he get to live longest?”

“So he can know what is coming.”

“His old man?”

“He will have his own reckoning.”

Kansas Jack rolled from his side to his back. Looked into the sky. “Gonna be hot.”

“Not compared to where you are going.”

Kansas Jack said, “Kiss my ass” with no venom, almost like to felt obliged to say it. “How’s it gonna go? You leave me here to fight off the coyotes and buzzards till I bleed to death? Or do you got something clever in mind?”

“I am not a clever man.”

“You outsmarted me sure enough.”

Angel scanned the horizon. Jack was right. It would be a hot day. The morning sky was beautiful. “I am not here to make you suffer.”

“You’re doing a damn fine job of it, if it’s not your intent.”

“I only want you to understand why you are here. Dying by my hand like this.”

Kansas Jack closed his eyes. Shuddered. “I won’t beg, and I won’t apologize. Not asking no consideration, but I argued against killing the woman.” Wiped his brow with the sleeve of his union suit. “Would it be too much to ask for my hat?” Pointed. “Sun’s coming right in my eyes.”

Angel dismounted. Picked up the hat. Tossed it to Jack. Positioned his horse between the dying man and the sun.

Jack left the hat be, shaded now by the horse’s shadow. “I’m obliged to you.” Breathed like someone was sitting on his chest. “We took a job. For money. We did it. That’s how I earn my living. I never figured to die indoors but I damn sure never thought I’d go out like this, gut shot by a Mexican that’s keeping the sun off me while I die.”

Angel tapped his thumb on the butt of his pistol. “Why did you do it?”

“I told you. It was a job.”

“How much were you paid?”

“I don’t remember.”

“That much?” Angel shook his head. Put a foot into the stirrup. Gave Kansas Jack a long look before mounting.

Jack said, “So that’s it? You’re gonna leave me here to die after all?”

“No.” Angel turned the horse so it stood alongside the man on the ground. “They should not have died, but Jaime and Maria died well. I will give you the same opportunity.” Drew and cocked his pistol. Aimed so Jack could look into the barrel. “You can look away. You can close your eyes. Or you can watch the bullet come for you. It is your choice.”

Kansas Jack said, “I’ll see you in hell.” But he watched.



El Paso, Texas


Angel held the pistol along his leg as he opened the hotel room door. The man in the hallway was at least sixty years old. Tall with a bit of a stoop. Hair was white and wispy on top. He wore expensive clothes and boots and the hat in his hand cost more than a cowhand made in a month. “You the one goes by Angel?” Pronounced as Angel did.


“You know who I am?”


“You know why I’m here, then.”

Si. I did not think you would come alone.”

“Then you don’t know why I’m here. You mind if we sit?”

Angel stepped back. The man entered the room. Took the only chair. Angel leaned against the wall.

“You killed them all. Didn’t you?”

“Jaime killed one. In the canyon.”

“You killed the rest, though.”

“I did.”


“You went to the trouble to find me and you have to ask me that?”

“Are you finished?”


“Just my son left to kill. Is that it?”

Angel did not think that required an answer.

“What Travis did was wrong. What I did was worse.”

“I can forgive you protecting your son. Sending five men to kill two you knew were innocent is not so excusable.”

“That’s not why they were sent.”

“Think of who they were. What did you expect to happen?”

“I didn’t know the woman would be there. The man I wanted brought back to stand trial.”

Angel shook his head. “That might have exposed your son’s responsibility. You could not risk it.”

“I didn’t know at the time my son was responsible. I give you my word on that.”

Angel didn’t answer right away. “A trial would never have happened. Vigilantes would have taken a role.”

The older man lowered his head. Nodded. “I expect so, knowing what I know now.” The room remained silent but for the sound of the man’s breathing. It had an unhealthy rasp. “How can we make this right? Short of you killing us?”

“An act of contrition.”

“That some Catholic thing?” Angel nodded. “The way you mean, it stops short of killing Travis?”

“You are not concerned for your own life?”

“I got it coming.” The older man tapped the hat against his leg. “I lived my whole life trying to do right. Drove a hard bargain but I honestly don’t think I ever cheated a man or took unfair advantage. Maybe if I had more experience doing the wrong thing it wouldn’t have gone so bad this time, but, Lordy, I have left the path. So, yeah. You think I got it coming, I have no argument for you.”

“And your son? Travis? He does not have it coming?”

“I never taught Travis wrong from right. Not proper. You want to take this out on someone, take it out on me.”

“You do not think a grown man should be able to figure out for himself that rape and murder are wrong?” No answer.

Angel straightened himself from the wall. Sat on the corner of the bed closest to the older man. “You deserve to die for what you have done.”

Tears filled the man’s eyes. No fear on his face or in his voice. “I do.”

“I believe the penance you are putting yourself through is more righteous than a quick death. An act is still required.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Give your son to me.” Angel went on before the man could protest. “I swear to you on Jaime’s and Maria’s graves I will not kill him. I suspect he will not be as willing to make amends as are you, so it is likely I will have to impose his contrition upon him.”


“Not the way you mean. Any physical pain he endures will be far less than what you are putting yourself through.”

“You won’t kill him.” As if afraid to believe it.

“I will not kill him. I give you my word.”

“What’s my part?”

“It must be you who delivers him to me, and he must know it was you who betrayed him.”

“But you won’t kill him. Cripple nor blind him?”

“I will return him to you in perfect working order.”

The man showed his resignation. “When and where?”

“Send him to town one week from today. Alone.”

The man looked into Angel’s eyes. Either saw or didn’t see what he looked for. Whatever he saw, he stood. Slapped his expensive hat against a thigh. Halfway through the door he stopped and turned back toward Angel. “How do you know I won’t have a posse waiting for you?”

“You won’t.”

John Anderson settled his hat. “No, sir. God help me, I won’t.”


Friday, March 26, 2021

The Eighth Angel, Chapter Two


Chapter 1



Bisbee, Arizona Territory


The handsome roan was in good condition, though in need of grooming. The same applied to the rider. He dismounted in front of the livery and brushed dust from his clothing as Earl Hollowell came out wiping his hands on a rag.

The man handed Earl the reins. “He needs a good grooming and a better feeding. How much for you to treat him as if he were your own?”

“Same as for everyone else. That’s the only way I care for an animal, like he was mine.” Earl told him the price.

The man paid for three days. “I might not be here that long, but you’re welcome to it.”

Earl nodded his thanks. “What’s your name, son?”

“Call me Angel.” Pronounced it the Mexican way. Ahn-hell. “Angel de Venganza.:

“What brings you to town, Angel de Venganza?”

Angel spoke with not quite a Mexican accent, as if he grew up on this side of the border in a home where Spanish was the primary language. A not uncommon accent around here, though Angel sounded like he was from farther east. Texas, maybe. “Drifting west. I might stay a few days if I find work that agrees with me. Could be gone in the morning, too.”

“What kind of work agrees with you?”

“I’m not particular. Ranch work if I can get it, but I’ll hoe a line if someone is willing to pay. Did some hunting a while ago.”

“I’ll keep an ear out for you. Where can someone find you?”

“Don’t know yet. This is the first place I stopped here in town. How about I find you?” Earl could live with that. “Where can I get something to eat?”

“How much are you looking to spend?”

“I’m not broke. Yet.” A shy smile.

Earl pointed down the street. “Try the Desert Rose. There’s cheaper places, but when the Rose sells you a steak it’ll be from a steer. They might even be able to put you up. Assuming they have room, that is.”

“They won’t care I’m not white?”

Earl shook his head. “That’s why I didn’t suggest the hotel. Those rooms are nicer, but they won’t let you in unless you offer to sweep up and clean the spittoons. Then they’ll let you sleep in the tool shed.”

Angel tipped his hat. “Gracias. I guess everyone who comes through town sees you sooner or later.”

“Looking for someone? Or don’t want to be looked for yourself?”

“I’m not hiding. Just wondering if a man named Red Durham came through in the past few days. Wears a hat with an Indian-style band and rides a big chestnut gelding.”

“What do you want him for?”

“A mutual friend asked me to look Red up if we were ever in the same place. I heard he had come this way when I was in Las Barras.”

“Can’t say for a fact it’s his horse, but that chestnut gelding over there come in day before yesterday. Wasn’t me checked him in but I seen the owner leaving. He might could’ve had a hat like that.”

“Do you know where he can be found?”

Earl spit a healthy stream of tobacco juice away from Angel. “You could ask at the Rose. They ain’t seen him, try the Last Chance up the street on the way out of town. He’ll of been in one or the other, maybe both. One thing. You ask in the Last Chance, be discrete-like. Sabby?”

The Desert Rose was as Earl described. The steak was excellent and each beer come in a fresh, chilled mug. Not cheap, but not unaffordable. No one knew of Red Durham, though no one took it out of place for Angel to ask.

Earl hadn’t exaggerated about the Last Chance, either. Looked like it opened when Bisbee was new and it would have been the last—or first—opportunity for refreshment and recreation in a while. The kind of place where men coming out of or going into the desert for reasons they’d rather not disclose would stop before pushing on.

Angel stepped through the batwing doors. Put a dollar coin on the bar. Spoke when the barman passed by for the fifth time without acknowledgement. “Excuse me. I’d like a drink.”

The man looked at Angel as if he were a javalina pissing on the bar. “You’d be happier in Agua Prieta. Might even have some tizwin there. Mescal if you can pay.”

“I am not an Indian. And I can pay.”

“Maybe you ain’t an Indian, but you’re sure as hell a breed of some kind, which means you can’t pay in here. Head on down the road, Pancho.”

Angel retrieved his dollar. Flipped it in the air before replacing it in his pocket. Turned to face the room, resting his elbows on the bar. “Does anyone here know a man named Horace Book? His friends call him Easy.”

The barman was back. “I told you to get your half-breed ass out of here.”

A voice said, “Hold on there, Slick.” A man seated near the door where Angel had entered stood. He wore a hat with an Indian-style band. “How do you know Easy Book?”

“We did some work together in Texas.”

“Texas takes in a lot of territory. Whereabouts?”

“Odessa. Monahans. We were hunters, feeding the railroad workers.”

The man approached the bar. “When did you see him last?”

“A year or so ago. I think he had a woman in Arkansas.”

“I’m sure he did. And Texas. Oklahoma. New Mexico. Canada for all I know.” The man extended a hand. “Red Durham.”

“Angel de Venganza.”

“Well, Mr. Angel de Venganza, I’m pleased to meet you.” Said it Anglo style. Ane-jell. “Set us up, Slick.”

“He ain’t drinking in here.”

“That’s because you ain’t give him nothing yet. A friend of Easy Book can drink with me anywhere. We could either pay for it or let you clean up the mess after we’re done and you wake up. What’ll it be?”

Slick left the bottle. Angel and Red took a table in the corner. Red said, “What brings you to this piss pot?”

“Drifting west. I heard someone mention you in Las Barras and was curious to see if you were here. Easy gave me something for you.”

“Easy gave you something for me?”

Angel took a ten-dollar gold piece from a pocket. Placed it on the table. “Easy said I should give this to you if I came across you.”

“Ten dollars.”

“He mentioned some whores in Tucumcari.”

Red’s laughter shook dust from the timbers. “By God, that was a time. Are you telling me that crazy sumbitch is giving everyone he meets on their way west ten dollars to give me?”

“We got pretty close. And he knew the route I planned. And he was very drunk.”

“And you carried this how long? A year?”

“I take my promises seriously.”

“Even to a drunk?”

“Especially to drunks. They are the most easily betrayed.”

Red laughed again. “Well, then, Mr. Angel Dee Whatever, you and me’s gonna have to drink up this ten dollars Easy give you. I think it’s what he’d want.”

They spent Easy’s money and then some until Angel turned over his glass as Red went to pour. “No mas. It has been a long few days. I need a bath and some sleep. Enjoy your evening, mi amigo nuevo. I will see you maƱana.”

Angel got his bath and changed his clothes but did not send the dirty to the laundry. Found a comfortable place where he could see the front of the Last Chance and pretended to sleep.

Red left with another man after midnight, each of them drunk enough for half the town. Angel feigned sleep as they walked toward the hotel. The other man went in. Red continued on, stopping once to vomit next to a trough. Angel stood and took a route calculated to intercept Red at the next corner. He did not hurry. Red was in no condition to require chasing.

Angel pitched his voice so only Red would hear. “Red.”

“Huh? Who’s that?”

“Angel. From the Last Chance. I got some sleep and wonder if you would like a nightcap.”

Red spent several seconds pulling together the new opportunity. “Sure, I guess.” Turned back toward the Last Chance.

Angel took him by an arm. “Not that cesspool. I found a quieter place.” Led a compliant Red around the corner and down an alley.

“Where’s it at?”


No moonlight made walking treacherous once they left the graded street. A hundred yards from the nearest building Red had sobered up enough to ask where they were going.

Angel said, “We’re here,” and slid a knife six inches into Red below the breastbone, pulling down his belt buckle. Withdrew the knife to let Red fall. Knelt to wipe the blade on Red’s trousers. Stood without speaking until the dying man gave him what awareness he had left.

“Last year you and Easy and three others chased a man and a woman out of El Paso into the desert south of Juarez. Do you remember?” Red showed no recognition. “Do you remember this?” Still no sign. Angel pressed a boot into Red’s open wound.

“It was all legal. The Mex raped a white woman.”

“The posse was never deputized.”

“A man named Anderson paid us to get him. For Christ’s sake, get me a doctor.”

“This man Anderson was not the law.”

“He might as well be around those parts.”

“But he was not. He paid you to kill the man.”

“The Mex shot two of us. Killed one in the desert. Shot him right off his horse.”

“What would you have him do? A paid band of gunman chasing him.”

“It was self-defense. The Mex shot first.”

“Did the woman also shoot first?”

“What woman?”

“The young woman you also killed that day in the desert.”

“That was self-defense, too.”

“Only one gun was found.”

“How do you know?”

“It is enough that I do know. She picked up the gun after the man lay dead. Maybe there were bullets left. Maybe not. I know the man, so my guess is not. Yet you shot her seven times. With rifles. From well outside pistol range.”

Red grew paler in the weak light. “How do you think you know so much?”

“Every time you do not disagree confirms what I say.”

“Who were these people to you?”

“Friends. That is all you need to know.”

Red’s eyes fluttered. Opened again. “You kill Easy?” Angel nodded. “You gonna kill me now, too?”

“I have already killed you. I allow you to linger only so you can know the reason why.”

“You told me. Now get it over with, you half-breed bastard.”

Angel placed his feel either side of Red’s shoulders to stay clear of any spurting blood.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Eighth Angel


Well, Pilgrim, I finally finished a Western.


Not a novel, and therein lies the rub. It’s a short story, and markets for Western short stories are harder to find than nuns in Deadwood. Rather than continuing to frustrate myself, and knowing I have half a dozen short crime pieces saved up that might well have outlets, I decided to give it away here on the blog in serial form. (What the hell. It worked for Andy Wier.)


In the spirit of the recent craze for anthologies based on songs, “The Eighth Angel” is inspired by the song “Seven Spanish Angels.” In a perfect world, the opening chapter would have been the lyrics, but the rights owners never responded to my request, so I’ll just include a link to the song  for everyone who reads it here. (Sorry about the ad.)


Here’s the intro. The rest of the story will play out over the weekend and into Monday. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please feel free to forward the link.





The Mexican desert southwest of Juarez


The horse was done in. Maria was a small woman, but her horse fell lame miles ago. Asking Jaime’s to carry them both at speed proved too great a burden. Jaime looked over his shoulder toward Juarez. Saw the ball of dust that signified the approaching riders. A stand was possible if Jamie and Maria reached the small box canyon to the southwest before the riders overtook them.

The canyon was smaller than he’d hoped, with sides too steep to navigate on foot. He found the best spot he could, sacrificing what high ground he could obtain for a bit of cover. Not that it mattered much; the riders would see them wherever they were. Jaime walked the horse to a spot where it would be the first thing the riders saw in the hope of buying a few seconds of uncertainty. The spot he chose for them to stand would at least keep the sun in the riders’ eyes as much as possible in such a small, steep canyon.

Jaime checked the loads in his revolver. Spun the cylinder. Looked into Maria’s brown eyes. “Say a prayer for me, Maria.”

She threw her arms around him. Buried her face in his chest. “God will keep us free. The seven angels would not abandon us.”

They held each other a minute or two until Jaime heard the riders enter the canyon’s mouth. Held Maria at arm’s length to move her deeper into the shadow behind him. “Stay out of sight. They have no reason to harm you when it is over.”

Maria resisted. “We will leave together.”

Jaime shook his head. “This is my last fight. If they take me back to Texas it will not be alive.”

The riders paused when they noticed the horse. The leader saw Jaime first. He pointed and they all spurred their horses that direction. A hint of a smile touched Jaime’s lips. Arrogant gringos. They expected him to cower, approaching as they did. He took careful aim and shot the leader. The man lurched but maintained his mount.

The riders pull up to return fire. What tiny advantage Jaime had was due to the horsemen having to shoot from bright sunlight into the shadows where he stood in as much cover as was available. Lost even that when the riders took stock of the situation. They withdrew out of range to stand their horses and take aim. Four rifles against one pistol made for a short fight.

Maria counted each of Jaime’s shots. Waited for the smoke to clear and the riders to approach. When they were close enough she ran to Jaime took the pistol from his dead hand. She said a silent prayer for forgiveness as she aimed and cocked Jaime’s empty gun and let the rifles tear her to pieces.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

James D. F. Hannah, Shamus Award-Winning Author of Behind the Wall of Sleep


James D.F. Hannah and his protagonist , Henry Malone, knocked on the door of the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Awards last year when She Talks to Angels earned a nomination. This year Jimmy kicked it down and won the best Paperback Original category with Behind the Wall of Sleep, placing him at the front of the line of PI writers redefining the genre for the 21st Century.


Jimmy is in Amsterdam with the PWA-sponsored “Sexapalooza” tour, but he wanted to honor his acceptance of my interview request, so he sent his right-hand man, Chad Williamson, to handle the interview. Don’t feel slighted. I have it on good authority that Jimmy doesn’t do anything without Chad knows about it.


One Bite At A Time: Chad, thanks for making time for us today. The Henry Malone books cover some unusual ground for PIs, namely Appalachia. The books read as a bit of a cross between Robert B. Parker and Daniel Woodrell. Tell us a little about Jimmy’s background and how it played into Henry’s character and the series setting.


Chad Williamson: Well, Jimmy’s obviously an extremely troubled soul, and a childhood spent running his old man’s stills affected him deeply. But he managed to pull together a bit of a life in newspapers—mostly in delivery—and was a big fan of Banacek in his youth, so he thought writing PI novels seemed fun. He also occasionally plays in traffic, though, so he’s easily amused, one can tell, and perhaps doesn’t always think everything through. 

The Author.
(Image courtesy of U.S. Marshal's
Service, WITSEC Division


But in all seriousness, the Appalachian setting came about because it was just too damn hard to write about anywhere else. You grow up next to a one-lane holler road your entire life, and your first time in the big city all you want to do is ride an escalator, you come to realize you are not destined to write the next Bonfire of the Vanities. Crime novels, PI stories, felt like a natural fit, but to do them right, they needed a voice that felt comfortable, so setting them in West Virginia just happened.


OBAAT: The Malone books contain all the PI tropes people look for and love, but set on their sides a little due to the location, as Henry spends less time going down mean streets than mean two-lane roads. His clients live in doublewides rather than mansions. Is this freeing, limiting, or a little of both?


CW: Both. Entire communities in Appalachia would be considered “the bad part of town” anywhere else, but it would also imply there’s enough there to justify an entire town. Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia are made up of blink-and-you-miss-it communities that still offer plenty of work for an enterprising PI, except it’s hard to find anyone with enough money to pay the bills. That said, we’re talking about an area where, in two years, drug companies shipped nine million doses of opioid painkillers to a pharmacy in a town of less than 400 people, where unemployment rates are some of the highest in the nation and test scores are among the lowest. There’s a hunger and desperation prevalent within Appalachia that opens up opportunities for storytelling.


OBAAT: One of my takeaways from the series is something the TV show Justified hinted at but didn’t do a lot with: the hills have their share of criminals, but the same proportions of good people can be found there as anywhere else. What’s different from suburbia is the number of people forced into the gray areas of legality due to pressures they have no real control over. Did I come up with that on my own, or is that part of the intent?


CW: You’re spot on. I grew up in a holler in eastern Kentucky where gunfire was as common as sunrises, but you never saw a police car; things got settled in their own way, not in a way that could be confused with being legal, but may have resembled justice. The police were the providence of “town folk,” those who had such exotic providences as sidewalks and streetlights.


But much of this particular chunk of Appalachia is a land of absentee landlords, where for generations the money all left the area via coal trucks and barges, and your fortunes were based entirely on what coal was selling per ton. Coal has been dying a painful death for more than a generation, and fracking took its place but offers a fraction of the jobs, but you still have all these people who’ve been told there was no need for them to go anywhere else, or to push harder than they needed to, because coal would always be there for them. They went all-in on the bet and they’ve lost, and now the struggle becomes how to stand by the Appalachian principle of remaining headstrong and steadfast and not budging an inch when everything under your feet is crumbling. The options aren’t always pretty, but they’re people who’ll do what they think they have to do.


OBAAT: I’ve heard that Jimmy is functionally illiterate and that you actually read everything he “reads” to him. Who does he enjoy listening to most?


CW: Like everyone, Jimmy loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts. I also heard he’s looking forward to new Laura McHugh (What’s Done in Darkness) and Heather L. Levy (Walking Through Needles).


OBAAT: Illiterate as he is, I understand Jimmy also dictates the books to you for typing and editing. Given your intimate knowledge of his process, who would you say are his strongest influences?


CW: Robert B. Parker is the most obvious; he named the setting for the Malone books “Parker County,” after all, so he’s rather blatant. But he’s fond of folks like Loren Estleman and the Amos Walker novels, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless series, Dennis Lehane, Sara Paretsky, and of course the late Sue Grafton, who was from Louisville. But his biggest influence in a decision to tell stories is probably Ed McBain, who wrote the 87th Precinct novels so well for so long.


OBAAT: You and I met at Bouchercon in Dallas. I never did catch up with Jimmy, though I have it on good authority the hotel bartender had strict orders not to serve him. What’s it like playing Remington Steele for James D.F. Hannah?


CW: It’s like an especially awkward marriage where you become comfortable answering to another man’s name.


OBAAT: What are you and Jimmy working on now?


CW: We’re hoping to have the sixth Henry Malone book out early next year, and we’re also working on a stand-alone 70s crime novel set in Kentucky, because it’s always good to write what you know.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Clif Berry 1931 - 2020


The virus not only disrupted things we had scheduled; it caused the unexpected not to receive its due. Today I’ll try to make amends for one of these.


I was beyond fortunate to have Clif Berry as my friend. Clif missed being part of what Tom Brokaw named The Greatest Generation, but they would have been proud to have him. Born 11 May 1931, Clif joined the fledgling Air Force in 1948 and served as an air controller for the Berlin Airlift through 1949. He later attended the U.S. Military Academy, but withdrew in his third year. After a brief stint in civilian life, he enlisted in the Army and served in the 82nd Airborne Division, receiving recognition as the Army’s Paratrooper of the Year in 1955 before accepted a direct commission.


Clif went on to command airborne and infantry units in Korea and saw combat in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star for helping to evacuate wounded under fire. He later held staff positions in the Far East, Central America, and the Pentagon while earning a BA in Mathematics from George Washington University and an MA in Communications from Stanford.


After retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1975, Clif became co-editor of Armed Forces Journal. In 1980 he became editor-in-chief at Air Force Magazine before going on to editing positions at Interavia, Air Power History magazine, and National Defense. He authored or co-author eleven books and edited fourteen others; five of his books were in the Bantam Illustrated History of the Vietnam War. He also wrote “Milestones of the First Century of Flight.” My signed copy has been a cherished possession since he handed it to me.


Clif then started a public relations/media company, FCB Associates, and in later life worked in media outreach for the American Battle Monuments Commission. In his free time he earned land and seaplane ratings as a private pilot. Clif died 13 March 2020 and rests in Arlington National Cemetery.


The Clif Berry I knew was the consummate gentleman in the best sense of what too often seems an archaic term. I never heard him speak a cross word nor disparaging comment; his good humor was infectious. We met as members of a writing group where his comments were always on point and gently phrased. He was a master of stories fewer than one hundred words.


I’m sorry I didn’t find ways to spend more time with Clif even after my attendance at the group became a rarity. It will be an eternal disappointment never to have followed up on the idea of accompanying him on a tour of the Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport. It’s a shame he and the The Sole Son-in-Law never got together. They would have gotten along famously.


I never told Clif how much his friendship meant to me. This inadequate message will have to do, and I have only myself to blame. Clif lived as if he always had favoring winds, and anyone close to him shared the benefit.


(I extracted the details of Clif’s life beyond my acquaintance from an article in Air Force Magazine.)



Thursday, March 4, 2021

Recent Favorite Reads

 My reading life has been good of late. Not all winners, one massive disappointment from a top-flight author, but a lot of good stuff I’m happy to recommend. (The disappointment is all on the publisher, who advertised a Robert Crais book as an “Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel,” even though the only place either of their names appear is on the cover. The book was okay, but the bait and switch really put me off.)


Savage Night, Allan Guthrie. Guthrie takes a story I didn’t think I’d like, tells it in a manner that does not easily lend itself to the suspension of disbelief, and had me completely absorbed. There are multiple reveals, each well prepared, and the foreshadowing is so adept you don’t realize what he’s done until a couple of paragraphs before the reveal. Highest recommendation.


Imperial Valley, Johnny Shaw. Shaw is a master at combining suspense, violence, and humor. Imperial Valley is the third (and hopefully not final) Jimmy Veeder fiasco, and at least as good as its predecessors, which I also loved. Shaw is solidly on the list of authors I make sure don’t fall through the cracks.


The Killing of the Tinkers, Ken Bruen. No one can spend less time on the core story and engross you like Bruen in the Jack Taylor novels. I read a few at random; now I’m going through them in order. Wonderful writing, and Taylor is a fascinating character you root for despite his myriad of faults.


The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block. Finding the proper entry point into a writer’s oeuvre is important. My first exposure to Block came through an anthology of Keller stories. I’m not a fan of hit man tales, so I never followed up. (I made a similar mistake by introducing myself to Ellroy with The Cold Six Thousand.) People wore me down on Block, so I tried a Bernie Rhodenbarr novel and enjoyed it a lot, which led me to tackle the Scudder books in order. I’ll be kicking myself for a while about leaving Block for so late in my reading life. This book rules.


The Cold Cold Ground, Adrian McKinty. (Re-read.) Book One of the six-volume Sean Duffy Trilogy. (McKinty’s a writer, not a mathematician.) Duffy is a Catholic cop working in a Belfast suburb during the worst of The Troubles, which is where and when McKinty grew up. Rarely have I read anything that placed me in a foreign place and time so compellingly. Reading it again was timely, because it reminded me (as if I needed it) we can’t let this country go too far down that road.


Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman. Maybe the most entertaining book I have ever read. It’s a memoir of a Hollywood screenwriting legend (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, etc.) that also serves as a screenwriting class and cautionary tale of what to beware of in the business. Engrossing, enlightening, and laugh out loud funny, this second such book of Goldman’s is leading me back to the first, Adventures in the Screen Trade.


The Devil at Your Door, Eric Beetner. The finale to the Lars and Shaine trilogy. I know I said I don’t like hit man stories. I meant it. That doesn’t apply to Beetner. He gets the ball rolling and I’m willing to go wherever he wants me. Lars and Shaine are complex and complementary characters you’ll come to care about. There’s also a laugh out loud scene that follows the Elmore Leonard Rule of humor as well as I’ve seen. (The ELRoH: The people saying or doing funny things should not know they are funny.) Why none of Beetner’s books are movies or streaming series escapes me. Lars and Shaine are perfect for someone like Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Lawrence circa Winter’s Bone. (Hailee Steinfeld? I’m too old to keep tabs on actresses that young. Pick someone.)