A rich literary tradition sets the stage for this talented group of authors who take their inspiration from Virginia’s capital city. Edgar Allan Poe has left his mark on the atmospheric town, giving its residents a taste for walking on the dark side. It’s no wonder that three local writers took it upon themselves to curate this moody and menacing collection, featuring stories by Dean King, Laura Browder, Howard Owen, Yazmina Beverly, Tom De Haven, X.C. Atkins, Meagan J. Saunders, Anne Thomas Soffee, Clint McCown, Conrad Ashley Persons, Clay McLeod Chapman, Pir Rothenberg, David L. Robbins, Hermine Pinson, and Dennis Danvers.
“[Fifteen] gritty and ominous tales . . . The writing of Poe—who grew up and forged a literary reputation in Richmond, and is usually credited with inventing the detective story—may have set the stage for the town’s kiss-me-deadly tradition.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
About the Author
Brian Castleberry has worked as a cook, a dishwasher, a teacher, a carnie, a shoe salesman, a receptionist, and a waiter. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their two dogs.
Tom De Haven is the author of seventeen books, including Freaks? Amour, Sunburn Lake, It's Superman! and the Derby Dugan trilogy of novels.
Read an Excerpt
THE ROSE RED VIAL by Pir Rothenberg Museum District
When I got inside I called her name. My house was dark and quiet, and although nothing appeared altered I felt that something had happened since I'd left for the museum's summer gala. There was a note on the kitchen table. I scanned it and it made no sense. I stuffed it into my pocket, took back a shot of whiskey, and walked the narrow hallway into the living room. I thought of the note; the words were going to make sense in a moment. I was sure of it, and felt so much like a balloon steadily expanding that I held my breath and winced at the inevitable explosion.
One month prior, in a storage room below the Virginia Historical Society, I sat before an empty glass cabinet preparing the lamps I would mount on the shelves. There were to be six items of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia here, among them a lock of dark hair taken off the poet's head after his death; the key to the trunk that accompanied Poe to Baltimore, where he spent the final few days of his life; and a walking stick, which Poe left here in Richmond ten days before his death. The items were on loan from the Poe Museum across town for the city's celebration of the poet's bicentennial, as yet seven months away.
I took a pull from the small metal flask I kept in my utility belt. When I noticed I wasn't alone, it was too late to hide it. It was the new intern, a dark-haired girl with a small scar across her lower lip.
"Sorry," she said. "Didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't," I said, and took another swig before recapping the flask.
She'd started at the museum on Monday, but I'd seen her the weekend before in my neighbors' backyard. The Hamlins had installed a six-foot privacy fence years ago, but by the unobstructed view from an upstairs window I'd watched the young woman standing like the very portrait of boredom, hand on the flare of her hip, as Barb Hamlin pointed out the trained wisteria and the touch-me-nots in her garden. She'd had one leg stretched into a band of sunlight when she glanced up and noticed me.
I went back to work on the lamps. "They give you something to do in here?"
"Rebecca," she said, strolling through the makeshift aisles of cases and boxes. Her dark hair fell in angles around her face and she wore a white summer dress unsuitable for an intern's duties. "And I wish they would. This room is why I'm here."
"Poe fan, huh?"
"You too," she said. "Or so Uncle Lou tells me."
I chuckled softly but did not look up. I was well acquainted with "Uncle Lou," former captain of the Third Precinct, famous for his supposed paternal brand of policing. Really, he'd never been more than a squat old tyrant. We'd been neighbors for a decade and the only thing that kept our peace was that six-foot fence. Now I was humbled to learn that "Uncle" was not a total misnomer; Lou, who'd sired no offspring, had a pretty young niece from Cincinnati.
"Maybe you could ask them to give me an assignment back here," Rebecca said.
I told her I was just a lighting technician, contracted, not even staff.
"But you know John," she said. John was the head curator. "You two are friends."
I thought she ought to ask Lou, a patron of the museum whose connections had likely procured her the internship in the first place. But I agreed to put in a word, if only to end the conversation: nothing good could come from associating with Hamlin kin — much less from upsetting one with a refusal. Yet it excited me too, the thought of Lou's scowling displeasure were he to discover Rebecca and I chumming around at the museum. Displeasure was a euphemism; he'd put his wife's garden shears through my skull.
Still, when she asked for a drink, I handed her the flask.
At sunset she was at my front door. I glanced toward Lou and Barb's house. Rebecca told me not to worry, they'd gone to play bridge with friends.
"So," she said, wandering into my living room, "do you have any first editions?"
"Of Poe," she said.
"Did your uncle tell you that too?"
Glancing into corners, trailing her fingers along window-sills, she smiled. "I was hoping that a Poe aficionado — who works in a museum, no less — would have an artifact lying around."
"What," I said, "just lying around like junk mail?"
"Don't be nasty," she said, then picked up a green glass ashtray.
"Like this," she said, holding it to the light. "It'd be great if you could say,
'And this is Poe's ashtray, recovered from his writing desk at his last residence at Fordham.'"
"That was my grandfather's."
She set it down. "Lou would like that. History buff."
Yeah, I thought. He had a hard time letting go of it.
"All sorts of Civil War memorabilia everywhere. Ever been inside?"
This was beginning to feel like a game. "What do you think?"
"How should I know where you've been?"
I told her she'd better not let Lou see us together.
"Together?" she said, hiding a smile.
"You know what I mean."
"Why, doesn't he like you?"
Now I just sat back and looked at her
"Oh, I know," she said, grinning. "He told me to stay away from you."
Then she asked for a drink, even though, by the way she'd cringed earlier, I could tell she'd hated it. I was disappointed. She was only there with me for a little rebellion against the stuffy uncle and aunt.
So be it. I went to get the whiskey.
I spoke with John. I owed my job at the VHS — my very livelihood in this city — solely to him. By the end of the week Rebecca was putting in shifts assisting me in preparing the illumination of over 1,500 objects for the bicentennial exhibits. John and the staff unpacked items every day and created layout plans. It was my job to determine how best to light those books, paintings, and curios they wanted in cases, mounted upon walls, or perched on podiums. Rebecca was happy the hour or two a day she worked with me — rather, with the objects, to which her full attention was devoted. She was ecstatic watching the items emerge from their boxes, or gazing into the cases once the lighting was complete, all the pieces illuminated perfectly before they went back into their boxes for safekeeping. The lights from the displays would strike her face full on, or under her chin like a flashlight beam, or sidelong as in a Rembrandt painting. I wanted to pose her and arrange the light so as to expose every molecule of her simple beauty.
On my back, my head inside a case, I heard Rebecca gasp.
"Wow," she called, "have you seen this?"
When I stood up Rebecca was crouched by a case that John and I'd worked on that morning and had yet to finalize. She moved aside and looked at me, leaving one finger pressed to the glass.
"The perfume?" I said.
It was a small red vial, chipped along the lip — like Rebecca, with that nick running the width of her own. The original cork stopper, disintegrated long ago, had been replaced by a plastic facsimile.
Rebecca read from the placard: "The essence of rose, believed given by Poe to Virginia the year of their marriage, 1836." She looked to me again, this time with a lusty sort of gaze. "Can you open the case?"
Although I was technically disallowed, as I was not a member of staff, I did have a key. John gave it to me for the sake of convenience — and because he trusted me. But I couldn't shake her eyes and thought, What the hell, the museum had better let her touch anything she wanted if they liked her uncle's money. I opened the case, then cradled the vial in my palms.
"If this breaks," I told her solemnly, "that's it. The end of us both."
I felt her warm fingers coax the vial free from my hold, and noted the light that shone from the case upon her thin nose and lean cheeks, a cool, sterile light that was all wrong. Then, with a move of her thumb, off came the stopper and my heart kicked like a horse.
"Rose," she said ecstatically, the vial beneath her nose.
I took a whiff. "Yup — now be care —"
She flipped the vial over upon her finger, then dragged the scent across her neck desperately, back and forth. I paled, took the bottle as forcefully as I dared, replaced the stopper, and put it away. She was grinning, her fingers down her dress top.
"Emery," she said softly, almost pityingly, "you knew I was going to do that."
I heard her call me in the parking lot behind the Historical Society. I didn't stop, but slowed. We walked together into a long, thin park of magnolia trees that bordered Sheppard Street. The humidity was palpable and a damp wind was gathering strength. I turned into an alley and Rebecca followed, eyeing the flask when I took it from my belt.
"You don't even like it," I snapped.
The evening light on her face reminded me of the light that shines upon generals or angels in classic paintings: the exultant yellows and oranges bleeding through churning clouds. I reminded her how quickly I'd be fired if anyone discovered what had happened, then plopped the flask into her hand.
To avoid being seen together, we stuck to the alleys, hopping over streets — Stuart, Patterson, Park — and cutting through the neighborhood diagonally. Below our feet the cobblestones were mashed together like crooked teeth, and on either side crowded slim garages, wooden fences, bushes and woody shrubs, and walls of ancient brick. Green plumes of foliage, heavy with flowers and fruit, alive with the frenetic song of mockingbirds, spilled over everything like lush curtains; and the ivy-draped limbs of mammoth tulip trees wound intricately overhead like the soft arms of giants. It awed me how wild and vivacious the wilderness could be on these nameless roads. It was hard to imagine that a city existed beyond the houses we walked behind.
"Here once, through an alley Titanic," intoned Rebecca, "Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul — Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul."
She watched me for a reaction.
"That's Poe," she said, as if to a very slow child.
The trees were loud in the wind and I caught the distinct scent of rose.
"You've got to wash it off as soon as you get home."
"No one's going to know, Emery."
I glowered at her. A large, bulbous rain began to fall and rattle the magnolia leaves.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't think it was that big a deal. I'll wash it off tonight." Then she threw her arm around my neck and pulled me down to her. "But just smell. Isn't it nice?"
I tensed, restrained for a moment, then drew in the scents — the deep rose, the sticky warm skin of her neck, the rain — and shivered. She leapt away and screamed with delight at the storm, and ran the length of the alley for her house. I didn't hurry. When I reached my back gate, I saw the blurry shape of Lou in his kitchen window, looking out.
That night I dreamed Rebecca was breaking into my house through a loose window. It was dark but there was a spotlight on her and she was naked. I spent the following morning distracted, preparing for work and wanting to see Rebecca. Wanting to see her in a particular light.
On my way to the museum, I found Lou in the alley breaking fallen tree branches for the trash. He was a stout, wiry man, white-haired and mustachioed, with a thick, soggy cigar between his teeth and sweet blue smoke clinging to his face. He cracked a limb under his knee and I imagined my bones making a similar sound. I felt sure that he'd seen me in the alley the previous night, that he already suspected something. But he said nothing, and did nothing more than nod curtly.
At the museum Rebecca and another intern were sanding walls in an empty exhibit room. When our paths crossed — Rebecca sweaty, covered in white dust, looking unhappy — I smelled the rose perfume. I eyed her, but said nothing. Lou's lack of reaction had me on guard, probably more so than if he'd clocked me. That, at least, would've been in character.
Once alone, I asked if she'd showered, and caught the image of her slick body in steam.
She played indignant, then laughed. "Maybe it's my natural scent."
I smelled rose the next day too. It lingered in the replica wood cabin where she'd worked. I followed it through the Story of Virginia exhibit, down thousands of years of history, from the Early Hunters of 14,000 BC to the Powhatan Indians to the Belmont Street Car. Was it a game? Had she bought some cheap spray from the drugstore to irk me? But the odor of an imitation would be like a candy apple compared to the earthy fruit I'd smelled upon her in the rain. I went into the storage room. I found the box where the perfume had been repacked, but it wasn't inside. Even its placard had vanished. I took a swig from my flask and found that I wasn't much surprised.
On Saturday evening Rebecca knocked on my door. She'd told her uncle she would be at Trina's, an intern she ate lunch with sometimes.
"What will you and Trina do?"
"I don't know," she said, shrugging. "Paint our nails. Talk about boys."
"Try on perfume?"
She spun around, swore the stuff simply hadn't washed off, that she had on a different perfume, that I was imagining things. I hadn't alerted John about the theft because I needed to get the perfume back myself. As much as I wanted to know how she'd done it, I'd already decided confronting her would get me nowhere. But now she was blinking. Big-eyed, disarming blinks. It infuriated me, this show of innocence while the scent of rose was so potent my eyes were practically watering.
"Perfumed from an unseen censer," she said, raising a brow.
"Poe," I said. "I know." Then I took her arm and pulled her up the stairs. She played nonchalant but I could feel her legs resisting. I moved her into the bathroom and sat her on the edge of the bathtub.
"What the hell are you doing?" she said.
I turned on the hot water in the sink and lathered a washcloth with soap. If she was having so much trouble ridding her neck of the scent, I told her, I was going to help. Rebecca's angry eyes grew challenging, playful. I kneeled, brought the cloth to her skin, and started scrubbing.
"That's hot," she said, but she acquiesced, tilting her head.
I wrung the washcloth, soaped it again, and resumed on the other side, taking hold of the back of her neck to steady her. This was a task, this was work — or so I told myself as I watched the soapy rivulets streak her skin. I felt her gaze on me, cool and calm now, and I didn't look up before kissing her. I tasted rose and chalky soap, and saw red behind my eyelids, pulsing in time with my chest.
Rebecca was curled on one end of the couch and asleep. The whiskey had knocked her out. I put a blanket over her and sat on the opposite end, staring into shadows. A breeze moved my hair and disturbed Rebecca's purse. I saw her keys in the purse. I took them, went barefoot into the Hamlins' yard, and let myself in.
I did this all as though in one unthinking movement, and only when I heard snoring did I note my own thrashing heart. For Lou, shooting intruders was dinner conversation. I found Rebecca's bedroom. Clothing was scattered in piles, and the tangled covers upon her bed made a fossilized impression of her body. On a dresser I fingered through a few trinkets, some cash and letters, then opened the top drawer. Here I found the girl's undergarments, which, perhaps for posterity, were the only items she'd stowed out of sight. I ran my hands through the silky contents, inhaled the scent of fabric soap and rose. Feeling into the corners I came upon a small, smooth object: the red vial with the chipped lip. I crept out of the house, flooded with excitement and pleasure.
That was Saturday; I didn't see Rebecca again until Monday afternoon, when I came in for a half-day shift. She was reading a magazine in the break room, a mug of tea below her chin.
"Rose hips?" I said, a sparkle in my voice.
"Yeah," I said. "It doesn't smell like rose."
She gave a small smile but didn't look up. I left and headed toward the storage room. The glass vial bulged in my pocket. When I arrived, the door was already open and John was inside with several other staff members. They were unpacking boxes. The room was a disaster.
"Ah," John said. "Just the fellow I was waiting for."
My stomach dropped. John explained: he'd been working in storage with Rebecca that morning when she noticed a loose placard; when they tried to return it to the item it described — a red perfume bottle, of course — they discovered it missing. Did I remember it? Did I know anything about it? I made a series of noncommittal noises, difficult as it was to think straight, much less be clever. Rebecca's little smile danced vividly to mind.
"We're ass-deep in here the rest of the day making sure it's really missing, not just misplaced." I offered to help; I could produce the vial from the first box I unpacked and voila! Case closed. But John refused. Staff only for now. "You know," he said, "to avoid any confusion."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Richmond Noir"
Copyright © 2010 Akashic Books.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Tom Robbins,
PART I: NEVERMORE,
Pir Rothenberg Museum District The Rose Red Vial,
David L. Robbins East End Homework,
Mina Beverly Providence Park Gaia,
Dennis Danvers Texas Beach Texas Beach,
PART II: NUMBERS,
Clay McLeod Chapman Belle Isle The Battle of Belle Isle,
X.C. Atkins Oregon Hill A Late-Night Fishing Trip,
Laura Browder Church Hill The Heart Is a Strange Muscle,
Dean King Shockoe Slip The Fall Lines,
PART III: NEUROSIS,
Tom De Haven Manchester Playing with DaBlonde,
Anne Thomas Soffee Jefferson Davis Highway Midnight at the Oasis,
Meagan J. Saunders Jackson Ward Untitled,
Conrad Ashley Persons West End Marco's Broken English,
PART IV: NONSUCH,
Howard Owen Monroe Park The Thirteenth Floor,
Hermine Pinson Devil's Half Acre Mr. Not,
Clint McCown Hollywood Cemetery The Apprentice,
About the Contributors,