The Recluse

God erased the last of my known enemies today. I stood at the edge of the dark slash cut by a mindless digging machine to a depth of six feet, and rolled a handful of the clay like soil on my palm. Waiting for the rote preacher to signal with his mumbled words the act of finality that even he seemed to question the validity of, temptation made me want to cast the dirt prematurely, turn away, and leave.

Slowly, I lifted my head and looked at him. He reacted as if the slight movement might’ve been an awaited sign. His pale, age-thinned eyelids lowered briefly over his, equally lifeless blue eyes. Curtly, he nodded, hurriedly spoke the final sentence, and waved his hand over the corpse, fingers poised on eternity’s promise of resurrection.

Halle-fucking-lujah and be done with it, I thought grimly. Resurrection my ass. If it exists, neither of us deserves the reward after the life we’ve lived.

A feeling of relief washed through me as the wet cloying black earth I tossed thumped the polished steel casket with resounding note of completion. After vigorously brushing dirt off my palm with the edge of the plastic card that held prayers I knew I would never recite, I strolled to the preacher.

We stood alone, he an old friend from my days in the military, had come to the secluded location each time I had buried one of them, my enemies that is. I stopped counting the numbers years ago since it seemed two new ones appeared for each one that I executed.

“Thank you, Charles,” I said with as much enthusiasm as possible, which proved to be very little. The air was cold and wet. A normal state for the world I owned, a weather condition I relished in my role as a recluse.

His thin lips parted into a lackluster smile. “I do hope this is the last of them. The voyage has become rather taxing at my age.” He did not speak my name.

Neither of us knew who if anyone, watched, if the Joint Worlds Confederacy’s agents had been able to follow us or find the location of my cemetery and therefore my home.

Some might call it a planetoid. It orbits a moon, which in turn orbits a gas giant that circles a star twice the size of Earth’s sun. The entire circus orbited within the biosphere habitable but desperately isolated.

I wanted to reassure Charles, but knew better than to try. My profession created enemies. Although none of the poor souls really knew me, or why I performed the acts I so enjoyed. For me it was societal cleansing, to the Joint Worlds Confederacy’s lower government, it was illegal. Yet, they often looked the other way when one of their enemies disappeared.

In the end, honestly prevailed and I answered truthfully. “For now, Charles. I think they are beginning to understand my message, however I will not relent until they all comply.”

“You are the only person who does this work now.” He released my hand, turned and began walking away. His robe swished the uncut yellow prickly lawn, sparkling dew as it scattered behind his passage. But he stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “Do be careful. I may not agree with your tactics or reasoning, but I do not want to lose a dear friend. You might be the last one of us alive.”

My nod was all the response he would receive. Once given, I studied his gait as he left me in the valley of the dead. Even after sixty-eight years, Charles moved like a man thirty years younger. The enhancement I had convinced him to accept gave him the same gifts it had me.

His personal flyer rose into the cloudy sky as I watched. Looking into the valley, the unspoiled view was like a feast. Nothing created by humanity marred its surface. Not even a single headstone. The men and women buried there were lost to history. No one knew how or why they disappeared. Despite weeks or even months of searching, none had been found, nor would they be.

Not even Charles knew their names for he did not see their faces, or hear me speak their titles. Although he would recognize each individual as would anyone living these day in the realms of the Joint Worlds Confederacy.

Once I coerced them to join me they and their history were erased.

That was my story, not a record of accomplishments, not an attempt to make amends for what I did, not an apology to anyone for anything. I used the name Henry le Noir, but it was fictitious. For if you heard my birth name, you would know of me too. As you would know of those who occupied my unmarked Potter’s Field.

Copyright 2018 Gabriel F W Koch All Rights Reserved

The Solstice Horse

I wondered for the snow last night, Solstice Eve, and considered that it might not arrive before the colt was born. For days, my heart had filled with sadness and loss, and somehow the idea of a white Solstice encouraged me believe everything would, after that, be fine. It had been a year, this millennial cusp, when more friends passed on than I recalled having.

The sun set faster as it always does during the year’s final season, when night seems to embrace the Earth as if never planning to release it again and the past morning feels like a distant memory. Then one by one, the stars twinkled through a pale layer of night-shadowed clouds that reminded me of my breath on cold winter air earlier in that day.

Behind me, my grandfather’s handcrafted sleigh sat where it had been parked after I repaired it, adding new leather to the harness, replacing a split board in the yoke, polishing the runners with wax and the brass with oils. We rarely use it now, but its upkeep seems important, a continuity with the past. The barn, now a looming dark shadow amongst the trees, housed our animals, the horses that would pull the sleigh, the chickens, pigs, and cows.

Listening carefully, I heard a horse neigh, chickens clucking, welcoming nightfall, knowing their day’s work completed. I looked up, leaned slightly to see directly overhead.

A light went on in our small house. Just a candle’s flicker, a wavering illumination beckoning me to return to the warmth of the hearth, the embrace of her arms as she waited for me. I studied her silhouette in the window for a moment, then looked distantly into the forest that surrounded the land I call my own.

The years had been good here, although I’d piled up six decades faster than drifting snow.

The horse neighed again, drawing me to wonder if she too felt the loss such a quick passage of time brings. I smiled wryly knowing it could not, but wishing that it did so I could finally share the pain of regret after all these long years.

But do I myself understand it even now when I feel so certain I do? I questioned myself.

Yes, I knew, or thought I did. Do we ever really know anything? Did something really happen to make Solstice Eve so terribly important to so many people? And if not, is that as important as is how this night makes most of us feel and act regardless?

If only it would snow, I thought, then being a doubtful irascible, old man wouldn’t be half as bad. Snow would bury the lethargic decline of life, everything would be all right, and I just know it.

I looked at the sky again. Thin lines of clouds wavered past the face of the waning moon, as its radiance danced across the limbs of trees undulating, swaying to a stronger breeze. A chilled zephyr that pressed against my exposed flesh, my face and hands, those parts of me that wore the age I carry, the character that defines who I have become, molded by myself, I suppose but more by circumstances and the outside influences of others.

I wish it would snow, I mused, that might freeze these thoughts, and when spring arrives to renew life one more time thaw my fears and send them to the ocean with the snow-melt.

The back door of the house opened. I heard it but did not turn. Out the corner of my eye, I peered and saw her as she watched me with, I imagined, the same questions in her mind, or ones so similar that they might be mine. Will this be our last Solstice?

That’s my fear revealed at last and if so, do I understand its, meaning its purpose well enough to accept what I’ll have lost?

I let my eyes travel away, and heard the door snick shut as if she too knew I was not ready to return and get warm.

The mare neighed softly, alerting all that her time was drawing near, as she moved closer, I knew, to the edge of the stall like she does at night. I watched once and saw that she and her stallion seemed to like to nuzzle some before sleep arrived.

Turning to the barn, I decided I’d like to see that one more time too, but did not move except from the waist up.

The breeze pushed itself into a light wind that carried the odors of autumn’s end. The snow did not fall, but the clouds charged my heart when they thickened briefly and blotted out the stars overhead, shivered the moon’s pale light enough to obscure the trees and the roof line of the barn.

I felt something new in the air. “Would it be enough? Am I ready this time? Will I miss it again, as I have so many times before? Is the wonderment in my heart real? Will it suffice if this is our last Solstice?”

I was not sure, but I needed to find out. The days leading me to this moment had been fraught with doubt, and worry.

A drop of rain fell on my hand. My heart knew before I realized it wasn’t rain. The breeze that had started several minutes ago, or perhaps an hour or more, swirled something that was halfway between rain and snow. I wanted to cheer, shout don’t let me down!

I smiled and turned my face up, studied the clouds and heard the horse neigh, a sound more restless.

“She knows,” I told the moisture collecting on my brow, dripping from my cheek. “She knows.”

The rear door of the house opened briefly. I heard it, saw the flicker of candlelight dance across the thin coating of snow clinging precariously to each blade of grass like tiny cattails, or Solstice candles carried by the multitudes that once, a very long time ago, marched across the lands to rejoice the celebration.

Footsteps shushed through the wet lawn, and a moment later the irregular circle of radiance from the candle reached out to wrap its illusion of warmth around first my feet then up the length of my bent body to illuminate my face.

I was happy, but I couldn’t smile. I smelled the wood smoke in her hair, the light scent of lilies from her soap.

“It’s time,” she said speaking softly a whispered tenderness, the same tone I heard the first time she told me she loved me.

Her hand settled dove-like on my arm, and I nodded, and turned to the barn.

“Yes,” I replied after some hesitation.

The falling snow thickened, coated everything with a, sugar whiteness as if now in a hurry, as if it too knew time ran out.

Our mare Sparks neighed again, and as I pushed open the barn door; she whinnied a welcome. We walked carefully through the straw covering, until we stood at the entrance to her stall. She was struggling gallantly and her newborn was beginning to show. I stood to the side and wrapped my arms around her muzzle — careful to avoid pressuring her spiraled horn so sensitive after the fall growth — stroking the long soft face with my gnarled hands and knew without knowing why, that everything, for me, was about to change forever. I inhaled the smell of her hair sweat the wet straw underfoot.

She quieted. Then her body convulsed again, and again. With a deep-throated sound almost like a human groan, the colt was born.

I released the mare’s head and Sparks turned to the little spotted horse and began licking its face, clearing its nose and mouth as we pulled away the sac. I saw it draw its first independent breath and felt an old man’s tear roll down my cheek, and my wife’s arm encircle my waist. The little one had the horn, tiny now but in several years, it would reach a length of several feet. He was the first one born to us in two generations, a sign of promise and hope for the future.

We stood still, holding each other, watched life unfold, and marveled at our good fortune, that we were here to participate, here to witness the promised gift of life renewed, the breath of God passed onto yet another generation. We walked outside.

The snow was a curtain, the sleigh, the house and forest obscured. A chill that started somewhere deep inside, rolled slowly up my spine and along both arms until it tingled my fingertips. I imagined I could look across the gulf of ten thousand years, felt a peace I never knew as it filled me and made me want to cry out in joy.

With my arm around her waist, I squeezed her, my wife I’d known for so long but never long enough. We returned, bedded the mare and her newborn, covered both, with blankets, and hay. Then we waded through the fresh snow.

I thought, perhaps this is not the last Solstice after all. Maybe there are still enough souls listening to carry the hope of the season.

Then I listened to the snow’s blanketing stillness, in the far distant mountains to bells from McIan’s Tower greeting The Solstice God’s arrival.

Finally, the New Year held promise.

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch all rights reserved

About Noir Fiction

Noir writers wrote with a detachment most of the world felt during the years after World War 2 when a sullen hush washed across battered nations numbed by the task of recovery. Many of those writers were themselves combat veterans, and, I suspect, used writing as a means of recuperation from what we now understand as PTSD. It was as if they pictured their story plots, like men standing in the shadows of alleys while out on Main Street life progressed through the struggles writers used to convey their protagonist’s adventures but did not necessarily partake in.

Although, I believe noir fiction began under the ink stained fingers of John Carroll Daley while he wrote for the Dime Detective Magazine in the 1930s. His protagonist Race Williams was as brutal as life in the Great Depression, used violence to uphold the law as he, Race Williams, interpreted it. Readers enthralled by Daley’s writing, let each story’s darkness shed the light of hope into lives lived hand to mouth, which helped create the genre.

Mickey Spillane, who I was fortunate to spend time with during the last years of his life, as a young boy read Daley’s stories and later used what he’d learned when he walked Mike Hammer off the pages of comic books and into one of the most successful mysteries ever written, I, The Jury.

While I was a young boy, I read Mickey’s books. The pacing, tension and almost machine gun style of writing turned the pages for me. I believe that noir fiction is similar to modern Jazz as introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a free form style of writing, which at times drags the reader along, coddles the senses with imagery, and at other times jerks him up in his chair as if daring him to relax and read. The characters are in your face people, with each other, and a film of tension dangles between them like spider web filament.

When I created Marlowe Black and his illegitimate son Michael Hacker McKaybees, I wanted the tension between them to navigate plots. Marlowe Black whose pregnant fiancée was murdered in the early 1950s (the plot for Marlowe Black mystery) refused to ever again consider marriage. He avoided intimate relationships, staying around until emotions grew thick, and he began glancing over his shoulder should his new love face the retribution his first one had due to the nature of his profession.

When the woman who would become McKaybees mother, announced her pregnancy, Marlowe immediately decided that he would not be seen with his new son therefore giving the boy the opportunity to live. Marlowe knew he had dragged some of his enemies through the previous decades and felt their hypothetical hot deadly breaths on the back of his neck.

Now, in the twenty-first century, Marlowe, although a man nearing eighty, continues to work as a PI. He had kept an eye on his son, and provided for him and his mother. He felt pride as the boy grew into a man, but stayed away.

Until the day when an old army buddy’s son a New York City cop, was brutally murdered and he and Michael were considered prime suspects. Then all the rules changed, and Marlowe Black knew it was time to educate his son about dealing with criminals the old way, using fists and guns. Shoot first and ask questions should one of the, enemy be lucky, or unlucky enough to remain standing.

This then is the plot for the first Michael McKaybees novel And Come Day’s End to be published this year by Outskirts Press.

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch All Rights Reserved

Writing Noir Mysteries Part 5

When it’s time to focus on pacing.

For me when I’m locked into a story, I must stop periodically and reread what’s been written. Normally, I do this daily. Write a few pages, and the next morning while having breakfast or coffee, read the previous day’s work. This does at least two things.

One: I can edit, add or delete. Two: I can fill in or flesh out, whichever terms suits places where I rushed when writing because some thoughts demand to be written quickly. Three: I also start writing what comes next. I do this on paper with a pen or pencil. For me the words seem pulled out by the physical act of handwriting them.

* * *

You’re staring at the water ring on the coaster when you hear the waitress returning. You don’t want to seem too interested, so you act like you don’t know it’s her.

She sits across from you. You look up and realize she has beautiful blue eyes, that she’s again studying you as if she feels uncertain of your intentions. Her long wavy blonde hair is loose around her shoulders.

You smile. “I was thinking we might try the diner around on fifth and forty-third.”

“She seems to relax some and nods. “I’ve been there once or twice and the food was good. Music too if you might want to dance.”

You know dancing is not your favorite activity, but the ladies enjoy it so you agree. “Sounds like a nice night.” You stand and extend you hand. When she accepts your invitation, you help her to her feet. Her hand feels warm and right as you hold it.

When she steps alongside, you hold out your arm and feel her hand move around your elbow. Briefly, she leans her head against your shoulder, which gets you wondering if she’s more interested than she led you to believe earlier in the evening.

As you reach the table were the mob boys sat, you slow slightly, carefully give the table a once over. Nothing remains to show you who sat at the table, but you grow weary as you near the exit to the street.

A quick look tells you it’s nearly midnight and you think maybe the diner is closed.

Just as you reach it the front door swings inward. A young couple, bundled up against the cold outside, hugging each other the way youngsters do, laugh at a joke only they might understand and press their way inside.

Their opening the door gives you a look outside where you spot a car parked across the street with the motor running judging by the exhaust coming from the tailpipe. The driver pulls on his cigarette. The glowing ember illuminates his face enough so you identify him as the thug who accompanied the bastard you knocked around.

Carefully, so you don’t frighten your date, you reach under your suit coat and slip the .45 out. With your thumb, you flip the safety off.

As you step outside, the car’s door opens. The spent cigarette hits the pavement sending out sparks in a small burst of orange. The driver stares at you with his right hand in his jacket pocket. You can hear the rumble of his car’s engine.

You step in front of your companion to shield her and let the driver see your .45. His head goes back as he grins to let you know he’s not afraid.

Knowing hesitation would prove deadly, you lift the .45 higher and walk around the corner of the building into an alley you hope leads to the next street. You don’t want a gunfight while you’re with new lady friend.

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch All Rights Reserved

Writing Noir Mysteries Part 4

Building tension, and a possible love interest too.

Noir mysteries need a mystery of course, and the possibility for a relationship, a short time relationship. The protagonist, whether he is a cop or a private detective, can never commit to anything permanent. Part of the mystery must delve into his damaged personality. What makes him who he is? Why does he react the way he reacts? Why doesn’t he or she just settle down and raise a family?

* * *

Carefully, you turn in the chair then stand keeping you back to him. As you rise, you lift your elbow fast, and hard, hitting the end of his nose, which gives off a satisfying crack, blood runs down into his mouth. As your arm drops to your side, you grab his wrist and twist until you feel the bones grinding, hear his gasp in pain. The gun that a moment earlier threatened to end your life, drops to the floor.

Suddenly the piano stops, the dame singing is as silent as everyone else in the tavern. Without acknowledging the quiet or what caused it, you release him, sit, collect the gun off the floor, and drop it into the pocket of your suit coat.

The gunman groans, holding one hand covering his broken nose and the other hanging uselessly by his side.

“You just made things worse wise guy.” His voice sounds muffled as if he spoke through pain as well as a smashed nose, a mouthful of blood.

You don’t respond or even acknowledge him. Instead you lift your glass drain it and hold it up. “How about a refill?”

The waitress, Susan Pamela Johnson, you remember, smiles, but her eyes show something else, like she’s wary, not quite certain if approaching you is the best idea.

“Come on, doll, you don’t want to see an old friend die of thirst, do you?” You smile your New York’s finest grin. It’s a bit lopsided and doesn’t really reach your eyes, but you know the ladies go for it.

She shakes her head, smiles as if she’s unable to not, returns, and collects your glass. “Not on your life,” she says and walks to the bar.

Now, you turn to the piano player. “I’d like to hear that last song again.” You get up, dig a dollar from your pocket and stuff it in the glass on top of the piano.

Susan returns with a fresh cold beer, the head of foam runs down the side in a narrow stream. She wipes the frosted mug and places it before you. As she does, her eyes lift and seems to examine yours. You watch them moving slightly, and smile wide so she sees your pleasure.

Her face is about a foot from yours when she whispers, “I’m off in about an hour if you’d care to buy a girl a drink.”  She places her hand on the back of yours, squeezes lightly, and then straightens, starts to turn away.

“I’ll be right here waiting,” you tell her and watch her walk away.

To be continued

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch All Rights Reserved

Writing Noir Mysteries Part 3

One nearly perfect example of setting the mood can be seen in the movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. While the movie is dated, the technique is wonderful and what any writer of historical fiction needs to apply to their story from beginning to end.  You cannot have your protagonist using anything, seeing or saying anything “out of time.” Many modern words and phrases were not used in earlier times.

Do your research. Immerse yourself put objects from the time where you see them, listen to the music, read magazines, and books printed then. Try to understand their world, their concerns, their daily lives.

After that word from our sponsor now, back to our story.

Outside flashes of lightning backlight the window’s signs. It steals a second of your attention, and you turn away from the men by the jukebox when you hear the waitress approaching. Your hand drops from the .38. You allow your suit coat to cover it as you look up, smile, and say, “Don’t I know you?”

She places your glass of beer, with a two-inch foam head on a cardboard Reingold coaster, a glass bowl filled with peanuts on the center of the table before answering. “You know that’s a pretty weak line.”

You smile and nod. “You must hear it a dozen times a night.” The beer tastes just right, nice, and cold as it slides down your throat.

“Not from a guy like you.” Her smile seems to warm as she examines your face. She nods slowly. “Yeah, I think so.”

Now you’re wondering what she is agreeing to, so wait to give her a chance to tell you.

“I think we went to school together, but then you disappeared right?”

You point at the empty chair. “Why don’t you sit for a second or two if the boss will let you.”

She looks over at the bar, and then shrugs, sits and reaches for a peanut, cracks the shell using both hands.

“What happened to you back then?” she asks without looking up.

“Dropped out to enlist, fighting seemed more important to me.”

“You look like you made it through okay.” She leaves the cracked peanut shell in the bowl, lifts a second one.

“I got lucky.” You wish you had not started talking about the war.

The sound of a chair scrapping the floor from across the room seems louder than the piano as the player begins “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” One of the women standing near the piano starts singing with a million dollar voice.

A quick glance at the two men you hoped to avoid shows you one walking in your direction. He doesn’t act as if he sees you, passes by heading to the restrooms.

The waitress, you see when you turn back to her, looks confused as if your sudden lack of interest causes her concern.

What is her name?

“Sorry,” you tell her. “I’m too easily distracted tonight, been a tough day.”

“What do you do these days?” She sounds like she thinks your answer might be important to her.

“I’m a private cop,” you start to explain and stop abruptly when you feel the barrel of a gun pressed hard into the middle of your back.

The waitress’s eyes widen. She looks over your head and nods as if she received a silent message. “Stop by again next time you’re in our neighborhood.” She leaves before you can respond.

“Let’s go pal,” the guy behind you speaks close to your ear. His beer and cigar breath, combs you neck. “We need to speak with you outside.”

To be continued

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch All Rights Reserved