By Steve Weddle
First, Thea Harrison was kind enough to invite me over to her place to talk about the difference between a short story collection and a collection of linked stories. Here
Second, David Cranmer and a heaping handful of fine folks have put together another BEAT TO A PULP anthology. It's the Round Two edition and is available along the Amazon. More information on the book is available from Mr. Cranmer himself.
The book, with an introduction by Sophie Littlefield, contains stories by many of your favorites -- Charles Adai, Patti Abbott, Chris F. Holm, James Reasoner, Vicki Hendricks, Hilary Davidson, Bill Crider, and many more, including one of my Oscar Martello stories.
My story starts off in Pittsburg, Kansas, home of the national champion Gorillas. (Go, Gus!)
Here's how the story opens:
All I had to do before I left was close up some loose ends. Simple. Which is why the old man picked me. Simple. "So you found the boy and then what?" I asked Georgie Martin.
"I took him back to his mom and dad, like I was told to do."
Georgie was sitting across from me in a booth at Harry's restaurant in Pittsburg, Kansas. It was a straight-shot diner: booths down the left, tables in the middle, counter on the right. I took the last bite of my burger. Some coffee. "You didn't notice any marks on the boy? Cuts? Burns?"
Georgie was looking past me, to the big windows in the front, trying to keep his mind off things. "I dunno, Oscar. I just figured whatever had happened to the boy, you know, he'd gotten beaten up or something."
"And you handed him off?"
"That's what the old man told me to do. I swear. Find the boy. Bring him back to his parents. It took me three goddamned weeks, man. It wasn't easy."
"Sorry it was so difficult." I drank the last of my coffee, looked at the grounds in the bottom of the cup.
Tried to take a breath so I wouldn't kill him right there. "I'm sure if the boy was still alive he'd feel bad for you." I set the cup down on the table as carefully as I could, trying not to rattle anything.
Georgie flapped his mouth like he was letting air out of a balloon. "C'mon man, it ain't like that. I'm just saying I didn't know. Wasn't any way for me to know. I just did what I was told."
"The kid was twelve, Georgie. Didn't you even talk to him?"
He wiped some ketchup off of his mouth with the inside of his wrist. "Kid didn't talk. Just cried. All the way from Cassoday to Wichita."
"Tried, hell." Georgie was shifting around now, pulling at his collar. "He wouldn't talk. Just cried."
"You ever think why he might be crying?" The space behind my head was throbbing and I was trying to take another deep breath. Keep this all calm.
"Somebody had kidnapped him. Molested him. Whatever. If they'd have just gone to the cops." Georgie looked around the restaurant, maybe looking for support from people he didn't know. Maybe looking for a way out.
"You know they couldn't do that," I said, holding my empty coffee cup out for the waitress, a pleasant enough teenager without any apparent piercings or ink.
"I know the old man said that," he said. "Hell, even people like us can get help from the cops sometimes."
The waitress stopped moving when she heard the "people like us" and "cops."
"We're fine here," I said to her without looking. She reached down to take away my plate. I grabbed her wrist and moved it away from the table. "I'll let you know when we need you."
She left in short, skidding steps to the back of the place. I leaned forward. "Keep your voice down. This has to end here."
"Sorry," he said. "I'm just, it's just." He stopped for a second, took a deep breath. "I feel responsible."
"For turning the kid back over to his parents so they could continue to molest him? Yeah. I can see how you might."
Georgie put his chin in his hands and rubbed his eyes.
I leaned back into the bench. He wasn't a bad guy. We'd worked together before. He'd always done right before. He'd just made a mistake this time. That's what he'd tell you.
"I didn't know that. How could I know that?"
I leaned over the table and said in a harsh whisper, "You were with the kid. Did you even think to ask him why he was crying?"
"He wouldn't say nothing. Not one thing." His jaw was shaking. Caffeine. Fear. Realization.
"'OK?' That all you got? I take the kid back and he hangs himself because of that and all you got is 'OK'?"
"Geez, Oscar. I thought you were here to help me clean this thing up. I thought you were on my side. Isn't that what you do? Isn't that why the old man sent you?"
"That's right." I looked into my coffee cup, swirled it around like I was looking at tea leaves. Nothing. "So you didn't discuss this with anyone? No cops? No reporters? Not your barber?"
Georgie ran his fingers over his stubbled head. He smiled. "No, man. I do what I'm told. Me, you, the old man. That's it."
"And the parents?"
George screwed up his face. "Who?"
"The kid's parents. The congressman and his wife. You talked to them when you dropped off their son."
The life fell out of his face. He stared at me. "Oh, yeah. Geez. How are we gonna handle them? Think they'll talk?"
I signaled for the waitress to bring the check. "We'll have to think of something. They know who you are?" She put the check on the table next to ours and went away.
"No, man. I just dropped the kid off and said we'd be in touch. They grabbed the kid and carried him into the house. I never got out of the car."
I frowned at Georgie's word choice. "You said 'we'??" The question hung there for a second.
"Yeah. I didn't say who, though."
I took the check and Georgie made a show of searching his pockets for money.
"I got this, Georgie."
He dropped his shoulders and breathed out of his nose. "Thanks, man. I'll get the next one."
"It's OK. Don't worry about it."
"No, really. I'm good for it. Next meal is on me."
I threw an extra twenty on the table. "Fine." I stood. "Where'd you park?"
He scooted out from behind the booth and took a step towards the back. "I'm out behind the place. Where are you?"
"I'm out front. Lemme pull my car around back and we'll come up with something."
He walked towards the back door and I went out the front.
When I got out the door, I turned and headed behind the building, checking my pockets, feeling the weight.
Georgie was standing beside his car, smoking a cigar when I came around the corner. He jerked up. "Geez, man. You scared me." He looked past me. "Where's your car?"
He looked surprised and a little air came out of his mouth when I caught him in the temple with the brass knuckles. He dropped between his Taurus and a pick-up, so I was able to snap his neck without too much trouble. I pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, taking the credit cards and a couple hundred bucks in cash. Looks like the next meal was on him.
The story, along with many others, can be found in BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND TWO -- 386 pages of goodness.
Buy it here.
And if you want to talk about short stories -- chronological collections versus a linked collection -- I'm over at Thea Harrison's here talking about my newest collection, COUNTRY HARDBALL, a book currently in the hands of my agent, Stacia Decker (aka World's Best Agent).