Archive for August, 2008

(Conclusion: “Something About Their Smiles.” “Some Velvet Morning” begins here.)

“Jesus Christ in heaven,” Bill gasped, his eyes gone wide. “That’s it. That was her name. Phedra.”

But something in me knew that before Bill even said it aloud.

“Goddamn it Davey!” I barked across the room, angry for reasons I didn’t quite know. “What’s that shit you’re singing?”

Davey looked down at the guitar like he was surprised to find it there. “…What? I don’t…shit, I dunno, Joe, I just started playin’…it just came out.”

That was enough. I looked to Bill. He was white as a ghost. “Bill, listen good: What you need is some rest. You go up to one of the rooms with Margie there, she’ll get you set with whatever you need. Come morning, we’ll sort this out together.”

Bill just stared at his reflection again. Like it scared him. And I wondered just what he was really seeing in that mirror.

“You hear me, Bill?”

He turned to me, understood my tone. Not his friend, right then. I was the owner of this place, laying down the law. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll do,” he answered. He waved a hand at Margie. “C’mon then, girl. I need some rest, I think.”

They trudged up the stairs. All eyes were on them. Margie looked nothin’ but uneasy. Bill just looked like he didn’t know where he was. Or maybe where he was supposed to be.

The room cleared out after that with nary a word.

Bill was gone the next morning. Real gone.

There was no trace of him, save for his watch, sitting on the nightstand. Margie swore up and down she never heard him leave.

She told me she had a dream of a strangely-colored field. Davey’s song was playing. When she woke from it she said it was like Bill had never been in that room with her. But she confided that when she drifted off to sleep, she heard him mumbling, “Phedra” as he tossed and turned in bed.
I asked around after that. Hell, everybody did. But no one’s laid eyes on Bill Larkin since that night.

We all took to my explanation – some asshole with a grudge. And like it or not, we moved on.

But every now and again, Davey will play that song without meaning to.

And sometimes I’ll see some folks in my bar. Strangers. They seem pleasant enough, but something about their smiles haunts me. Too many teeth, feels like. Their eyes are just too dark. And they always leave before I get to talk to them. But nobody ever remembers ‘em walkin’ out the door.

It’s been a couple years now since Bill Larkin started raving like a lunatic in my bar. And I shook it off as long as I could, but all I can think of anymore is what he told me she said.

“We’re coming soon, Bill.”

God help me, I believe it now. I just got plenty of questions. “Who’s coming?” “From where?”

But the only one that matters to me is, “What happens then?”

The End.

(Part 4: “We’ll Be Coming Soon.” “Some Velvet Morning” begins here.)

“This thing, whatever she was…She smiled at me. And I knew then, weren’t the Devil come after me, it was maybe some kinda angel. But angels are supposed to be a comfort. Whatever this was…well, my horse was dead and I didn’t know where or when I was supposed to be, so how is that a comfort?

“And then she stared at me, with these big black eyes, pitch black, but shining somehow. And she asked, ‘What’s your name?’ And I felt like I shouldn’t tell her. Don’t know why. Just make something up, I thought. But I told her anyway, I couldn’t stop myself. And her smile grew. I asked, ‘Well, what’s your name?’ And she told me. But I can’t recall it no matter how I try. All I know is hearing made me wanna eat my gun.”

I found myself glancing down at his hip. Wherever his gun was, it weren’t on him, and I took that as a relief.

He kept on, not telling the story to me no more, nor anyone in the place. He was looking at himself in the mirror again. Telling himself the story, trying to get it right in his own mind.

“She put her hand on my face, stroked my cheek, and said, “We’ll be coming soon, Bill.’

And I asked her, ‘Comin’ from where?’ She waved a hand behind her, at the fields, and I could see more eyes like hers, big and black like birds, peaking from the green. And she said, ‘From here, Bill. From right here. Don’t you want to be here with us?’ And the way she asked it, I knew it weren’t really a question, I knew whatever I said, she already knew what was coming.

“And part of me wanted to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll stay.’ It was so beautiful I could barely breathe, and I wanted to…shit, just have her in that field. But that feeling. I don’t know, it just sent me back to my senses, and I yelled ‘Put me back!’ Like I was a kid who wanted his mama. I started crying, I wanted back to the range so bad.

“And she just gave me this look, like I answered wrong. Like I’d pissed her off. And then it was like the world just sucked into itself. I looked up, and the blackest clouds I ever seen covered the sky. Opened up and rained down. Soaked me good, and then…it just stopped. And I turned around. And I was back where I was. The sky was normal. Clear.

“So I just started walkin’. Till I got here.”

And then he looked around the room like he’d never seen it before. And he looked at me like he ain’t seen me in forever. “Shit, how long I been here, Joe?”

The question pointed at me shook me out of a stupor. It took me a lot longer than it should’ve to tell him, “Couple hours.”

“Shit,” he said quietly. “That don’t feel right at all. Nothin’ feels right no more, truth to tell. Like I’m in the wrong place or somethin’.”

He looked at me, grabbed me by the arms, hard. There were tears in his eyes. “I think I gave her the wrong answer, Joe. An’ I don’t know how to make that right.”

All I could think to do was pull him close, hug him like he was my own son. I told him, “Hey, come on, now. Wherever you went, you’re back home now, among friends. You didn’t call nothin’ wrong.”

His muscles tightened, and I knew the hug had been the wrong move. He pulled out of it quickly. “Come on now, Joe,” he muttered. There was a little humor in his tone.

I don’t believe in no Devil. But at that moment, I believed in God, and I thanked him for that bit of lightness in Bill.

“There you are,” I grinned, giving him a punch on the arm. “Shit, son. Had me worried there.”

He looked down at the floor, shook his head. Even smiled a bit. My friend had come back to himself.

And then a flick of guitar strings ruined it all.

“Some velvet morning when I’m straight…I’m gonna open up your gate…and maybe tell you ‘bout Phedra…” Davey Keen sang in a deep lilt to himself in the corner, idly strumming a dark tune.

“And how she gave me life…and how she made it in…”

Singing in a voice that didn’t quite sound like his.

(To Be Concluded.)

(Part 3: “The Metal Scrape Gentle Across the Wood.” “Some Velvet Morning” begins here.)

I gave it some thought, then answered him honestly. “No. I don’t. Do you?”

“Let me put it like this: You believe there’s something out there that means to eat you alive, body and soul?”

I sat silent for a while, trying to figure out just what the hell he was getting at. Before I could answer, he leaned in close, and said, too calm for my liking, “I think I saw Hell out there. But…I’m not sure it was Hell. Don’t know what it was, or where, but…”

He didn’t add anything to that thought for a while.

So finally I asked him, “Bill…what the fuck are you going on about?”

He must not have caught my tone, because he just started his story. “I was riding for days, Joe. Felt like days, anyway. Somewhere along the way, I started losing time,” he told me.

I looked in his eyes. Sure enough, he looked like he hadn’t slept in a dog’s age.

“Shit, Bill, that’s not crazy,” I let him know, since he seemed to need hearing it. “You ran yourself too hard, that’s all. Ain’t so young as you used to be. None of us are. Maybe you just need to learn to set up camp a little more often when you’re out on the range.”

“That ain’t…shit. I weren’t riding more’n a few hours. I checked my watch. I knew for truth, it was only a few hours. But this feeling just crept in on me like I couldn’t remember when I left or where I was goin’.”

He reached into his pocket, took his watch out. Then, in a quick, angry pull, he ripped it off the chain and slammed it down on the bar. “The time was just…gone!” he barked.

I won’t lie, I jumped when he said it. Can’t blame me. I’d never heard the man yell, long as I’ve known him. I think he knew that, too. I think that’s why he did it, so I’d understand he was serious.

But I didn’t. Not even when, silent as a church, he slid that watch over. And as I heard the metal scrape gentle against the wood, I cottoned to the fact that everyone in the bar was quiet, too. Bill had gotten the whole room’s attention. And I didn’t like that one bit.

If this was a private confab between the two of us, that was fine. But something was wrong with my friend, and I didn’t need other folks listening in.

Bill didn’t seem to notice. Or at least, he didn’t seem to care. He just tapped the counter next to the watch. I opened the face. It was stopped at 12:00 sharp. I looked up from the watch and met Bill’s glance. He tipped his head at it. His eyes signaling at me like I was supposed to twig onto a bigger meaning. But damned if I could see it.

“Looks like you need to wind it, Bill,” I said lightly. He nodded at it again. I caught the meaning that time – I thought, at least. I started winding it. But the hands stood dead still, no matter how much I twisted.

“So maybe you need a new watch. Richie Noonan, he can help you out, order you somethin’ from his store….”

“The sun was settin’ when it stopped,” he whispered. “Stopped at midnight. And this weren’t no sane sunset, Joe. There was green in it. Green as fresh grass. The sun set green, and brown and black and red. I never seen anything so…hell, Joe, only word for it’s ‘unnatural..’” His hand shook as he poured a shot.

This was getting outta hand. Whatever he’d been through, I had to bring him back to the real world. “Bill, listen to me. I understand you’re spooked. But there’s plenty a’ reasons for what you saw, and it’s like you ain’t thought of any of ‘em. ‘Fore you left town, anyone get ahold of your canteen? Someone with a grudge, and maybe some peyote?”

Without taking his eyes off the drink, he coolly answered, “Anyone with a grudge against me would wanna face me head-on. And I’ve taken peyote. This…heh. This weren’t that.”

He took a shot, then a deep breath. After a long moment, his shoulders untensed. I felt mine loosen up, too.

Staring at himself in the mirror behind the bar, he spoke with a calm that, after all the yelling and slamming of things, put me back on edge.

“Joe, just listen. I’m gonna tell you what I saw, best as I can. And I just want you to do me the kindness of keeping quiet till I’m done. Can you do that?”

I nodded and didn’t bother making another noise. If I had, it would’ve been the only other sound in the room. All attention was on Bill. So he went on ahead:

“The watch stopped at midnight. And then the sky went wrong. And my guts were just screaming at me, ‘Run. Get on your horse and ride fast as you can, because the Devil himself’s come for you. Mount and ride.’ So I turned to go. But my horse was dead. Real dead. Flies nippin’ at him. Buzzards circling. Like he’d been dead at least a day.

“And I turned away – couldn’t bare to look at him. But what I turned to, it weren’t…

“It was, I was looking at this field of…it was beautiful, really. I weren’t on the range no more, I was…somewhere green, verdant. Flowers everywhere. Red, purple…green. That same green again. But there were some, I never seen colors like ‘em. I don’t mean a different kinda red. Or like leaves in autumn. I mean I never. Seen. Anything. Like ‘em. There ain’t names for these colors.”

I never heard a man sound so terrified talking about flowers before.

“And standing among ‘em was…well, she was more beautiful than her surroundings, even. That kinda dead gorgeous that…like, it hurt, to look at her too long. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t take it all in at once and every time I tried, it was tearing me up. But looking back, I ain’t sure it was a woman I was lookin’ at. I ain’t sure it was a person I was lookin’ at. There was something…not wrong, about her, just…like those colors.

“She was something this world’s never seen.”

(To Be Continued.)

(Part 2: “That Mean Kind of Quiet.” “Some Velvet Morning” begins here.)

“Gimme a whiskey,” he rasped to the gal behind the counter, pointing behind her. “The bottle.”

Like I say, I never saw the man anything less than calm before. But here he was, agitated as all hell, needing a few drinks to calm his nerves.

“You okay, Bill?” Dolly, my bartender, asked him. “You don’t look so good.”

“Just pour,” he said quietly. That mean kinda quiet, tells you if you don’t do it, there’ll be consequences.

She poured him a shot and left the bottle like he asked, when a young punk name of Silas Champ sat down beside him. Silas fancied himself a gunslinger, but fact is, outside of his shootin’ a drunkard in the leg one night on a dare, nobody’d ever seen him do anything all that impressive with his guns.

I was on the stairs, checking out the room, and I saw where this was going before Silas did. Maybe even before Bill did.

“You see this?” Silas asked, putting his Colt on the bar, then spinning it around a few times before stopping it hard, the barrel pointing at Bill. “I killed me a lotta men with this piece. How many men you killed, Mister Larkin?”

“Piss off, boy,” Bill muttered between shots.

“Come on now, just curious,” Silas kept on. “Lotta guys round here think you’re a pretty tough hombre, so I’m just askin’: you kill anybody since last time you was here?”

Bill slammed down his glass, turned his head slowly towards Silas. “Have you?”

The slamming of the glass made Silas jump. He covered, asking, “Now whaddaya mean by that?”

Turning his whole body to face the boy, Bill asked, “I mean you ain’t killed nothin’ since your mama died shittin’ you out.”

That was all Silas needed, and Bill knew it. I figured the boy’d just take a swing at Bill, but Silas took up his Colt, tried to smack Bill in the head with the butt. Bill’s a fast son of a bitch, though, and a couple of swift gut punches put Silas down.

The dumb bastard was gasping on the floor when Bill started kicking him in the ribs and shouting. “Fuck you! Fuck you!”

Over and over, he kept kicking the kid. And then he pulled a knife off his belt.

That’s when I ran down, put my hands to Bill’s chest. “Enough, Bill! He’s done!”

For a second, Bill didn’t even seem to know me. I think he woulda started in on me if I hadn’t yelled, “BILL!”

After that, he cooled, just a little. Turned back to the bar. Back to the bottle he’d asked for.

“What the hell was that, man? Pullin’ a knife in my bar? Where you think you are?!” I was mad, yeah. This weren’t the Bill Larkin I was used to dealing with, so why should I be the barkeep he was used to?

His mood being what it was, I half expected him to turn the knife on me. But he just tossed it onto the floor, turned back to the whiskey. “Sorry, Joe. I’m sorry.” Then he threw in, “But you ain’t been where I been.”

Seemed like such a silly thing to hear, coming from a guy like Bill Larkin. Figured he was pulling a fast one on me. “What the hell’s that mean?” I asked, grinning. “I been here this whole time.”

“Forget it.” No jokes in his tone.

So I matched it. “You damn near killed that boy,” I told him. Scolding him like a child. My second mistake. The man had earned his say, and I weren’t in my rights to ignore that.

“Told you I was sorry. Back off, Joe.”

“The fuck I back off. What the hell’s gotten into you?”

He breathed deep, then let it out, calming himself down. “I don’t even know. Wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he muttered. Angry and sad all at once.

I didn’t understand the tone one bit. And I was still angry at the ruckus he’d caused, so I poked at him some more. “You tell me what’s stuck in your craw, or you’re outta this place faster than you even know which way’s up.”

He poured himself a drink, then sat staring it for a few moments before picking it up and swallowing it down. “You believe in the Devil, Joe?”

(To Be Continued.)

(Part One: “Rolled In Like a Monster”)

It’s been over two years since I seen Bill Larkin last. And I been terrified, ever since.

Bill weren’t the kinda guy you’d mess around with. Big fella, but he carried himself like he didn’t know how big he was. Didn’t talk much – and never talked poorly on anyone else. That can tell you a lot.

Some boys show up around here, and come payday, they’d get drunk and wanna prove themselves. Pick fights with guys twice their size just to show what kind of man they are.

Bill weren’t like that, and I appreciated it.

There were a couple times when one of those boys’d step up to him, mistake his quiet for softness. They’d try picking fights, one way or another. Some would invite him to a crooked card game, with the idea of suckerin’ him. Some would just get in his face, call his ma a dirty name or some such, try to rile him up. When he didn’t budge, they’d just pull out a knife and call him out.

Bill didn’t really react to this kinda threat. Not much, anyway.

If they tried double-dealing, he’d call ‘em out and win every time just the same. If they pointed a knife at them, he’d grab them by the throat, knock them around some.

Whether he broke ‘em down or beat ‘em up, Larkin had the same routine: when he knew they weren’t getting up too soon, he’d sit back at his bar stool, ask for a drink, and wait for it, real polite.

Meantime some kid was bleeding on the floor.

I gotta admit, I liked Bill Larkin. Kinda wished there were more like him who showed up at my place. Always treated me with respect, too.

That said, I didn’t know too much about him, really, other than what I’d seen. Pleasant enough – even funny, sometimes. Knew the range real well. Never kept a job, but always had money, which told you something right there. Nobody asked any questions.

Though he did show up in my bar on occasion back then, I couldn’t really count him as a regular. A regular lives in town. Bill would just stop in every now and again, on his way from somewhere or another. I got a good bar for that. In the middle of goddamn nowhere, surrounded on either side by a livery and a whorehouse, and further out by a whole not of nothin’.

When he would show up, every couple of months, he’d buy a round for the house, play a couple of hands, but mostly kept to himself. So, yeah. I liked him. Maybe even call him a friend. I don’t have too many, so I take what I can get.

The last time I saw him, the Bill Larkin I’d call friend weren’t on display.

That last night…shit. The man rolled in like a monster.

He looked normal enough. Looked like usual – hair in need of a trim, beard in need of a shave, and covered head to foot in dirt from his ride.

Thing is, he was damp. But it hadn’t rained in these parts for weeks.

And there was something new to him. Bill Larkin had been coming into my place for maybe ten years. And never once had I seen him so wild-eyed as I did the last time he set foot in my bar. I saw the intent behind those eyes. Anyone else, I’d have tossed him out before anything started. But it was Bill Larkin, and it didn’t look like he was gonna start anything. So I gave him some leeway.

My first mistake.

(To Be Continued.)

Chris and I often go back and forth on new ways to get more people reading Threat Quality, and we take the usual routes – shoving the link onto every board and Digg and Twitter and what have you. Scrawling it on bathroom walls whenever possible. Using the phrase, “and if you liked that, you really should go to” to end every conversation.
But we always come back to the idea of getting the site more reader-friendly. By which we mean easier to handle (which may necessitate a switch to WordPress shortly) and also, by making it clear we love hearing from anyone who reads this. Friends, regular viewers, casual checkers-in, accidental clicks.
So if you read this, tell us about yourselves. Where are you right now? What devious schemes are you concocting? Where do you make your home on the web? What’s honking you off? What’s the last good movie you saw? What’s the last terrible movie you saw? Do you have the “standard” number of toes, or has evolution made you a bit quirkier?
I’m Jeff Holland, co-founder on the site. I spend my days writing, so I can come home and have my fingers limber for more writing at night, both here and at I Speak TV. What’s honking me off tonight is I’m on my porch instead of at the movies. But the last good movie I saw was “Revolver,” a much stranger flick than I knew Guy Ritchie was capable of. But I’ve basically been dared to watch “Grandma’s Boy,” so I figure I can preemptively call that the last terrible movie I saw. So far, I’m stuck with ten toes, but willpower is an amazing thing.
Sometimes I look like this:

Your turn, my lovelies. Shout out for me.
Writing content for the web is trickier than you might think. See, what might read great on a two- or three-page Word document comes off as interminably long when it comes to a web post. Just a formatting issue, but an important one.
We here at Threat Quality Press cope with this as best we can, given that we are Writers, and the words we type out are All Very Important. To keep things down to a managable level, sometimes we have to kill our babies. Sentences that are absolutely lovely and interesting have to get cut out if they don’t serve the immediate needs of the essay we’re writing.
(Yeah, yeah. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. Moving on.)
This is a fine policy for our (more or less) daily columns, but we’re also long-form writers. Which means Fiction Friday can be a bit of a hassle. Try writing a worthwhile short story in one page or less. It’s not easy. It can be done, but it’s a difficult form to do well, and frankly…we like words.
So we’re splitting the difference, starting next week.
“Some Velvet Morning” is a fairly short story – five pages on Word. And I’d like to think it reads fairly quickly – in print. But on our site, it’d be long as all hell, comparatively speaking. Even with elegant pictures provided by Google Image Search to break it up a bit.
But “Some Velvet Morning” is a good story, worth reading. And, as luck (or possibly cunning writing skills) would have it, there are decent cliffhangers at the end of each page. So these five pages are going to be serialized, a page a day, next week. And I urge you to read, because it’s a story I’m quite proud of, mixing two of my favorite themes: Fear of the unknown, and desolate western isolation.
It’s a western horror yarn told by a lone man in a saloon, who’s trying to make sense of what he saw out on the range, and terrified of the moment he understands what happened to him. It’s a warning of things to come. Things we don’t have names for yet.
And it will be available, Monday to Friday, right here.
Stop by on Monday, and check in throughout the week. You’ll like it.
(This story has its roots in a psychedelic song by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. It’s a magic song. There are signs and signals in it. Hear it at your own risk. You can listen to it here. )