Once above ground, he rents out a cheap apartment, previously occupied by an enigmatic artist named Max Leider who'd left most everything behind-books, clothes, personal letters. But most peculiar are a series of paintings, each one of a mysterious woman hidden behind a curtain.
Without an identity of his own, the man becomes fascinated with Leider. He begins wearing his clothes. He begins painting on his canvases. He begins taking on his obsessions. But as his persona fully transforms into Max Leider, he will find some horrifying truths about the artist...and himself.
Praise for THE BLADE THIS TIME:
"Jon Bassoff's The Blade This Time is a nightmarish descent into the underbelly of New York City and the darkest corners of the psyche. A gritty, disorienting ride." -Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts
"The Blade This Time a dark masterpiece of classic horror. Bassoff blends art, insanity, violence, and obsession into a haunting nightmare that you don't want to stop. Truly, Bassoff at his best." -C.J. Howell, author of The Last of the Smoking Bartenders
"Jon Bassoff's latest full-length piece of noir, The Blade This Time, transports you into the bowels of urban, subterranean, humankind. Literally. A riveting, tightly woven masterpiece of hard-boiled loneliness, I was held mesmerized by it. Part Charlie Huston, part Henry Miller with a sprinkling of Bukowski, this is a novel you will not want to miss." -Vincent Zandri, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Remains and Orchard Grove
"Dark and disturbing, a guided tour through one man's private hell. You can feel the pain, touch the grime, and smell the decay. I burned right through it, tripping on the feverish story arc, and came out the other side more than a little uneasy." -Tim Curran, author of Doll Face
"The Blade This Time is the book David Goodis would have written if he'd taken WAY too much mescaline one weekend and holed himself up in an abandoned Port Richmond movie theater and hallucinated straight into his typewriter. Brilliantly demented. -Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest
"Creepy, intriguing, compelling and well-crafted, Bassoff's novel is the kind of thing you didn't realize you were looking for until you're already up to your neck in it. And by then you're hooked." -Victor Gischler, author of The Deputy
|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Blade this Time
By Jon Bassoff
Dark FuseCopyright © 2017 Jon Bassoff
All rights reserved.
The world above was poisoned, maybe dead, and now I staggered through the abandoned tunnels, eyes adjusted to the darkness, ears pricked to the distant sound of a subway echoing against rubbled concrete. Rats scurried along the broken tracks, gnawing greedily at the scattered garbage and each other's tails. Occasionally I felt one crawl beneath my jeans, slender teeth pressing against my skin, and I cursed and slapped it away.
The back of my leg throbbed — had I sliced it on a piece of rusted metal? — and my skull was jammed full of fragmentary thoughts, none of them my own. How long had I been wandering through these blackened corridors, my mouth mumbling nonsense, my fingers numbed to the bones? Insanity was breeding like mosquitoes in a marsh, and now the clatter of the subway faded away, and the only sounds were the rats screeching and the water dripping and my breath heaving.
Through miles of abandoned tracks I travelled and there were corpses down in these catacombs, I was sure of it, eyes scratched out by rats, fleshless cheeks swarmed with maggots. Soldiers left for dead marched across the walls and the ceilings, vanishing when I spun to face them. My senses were coming apart at the seams and now I heard the muted sound of an applause track.
Time passed, or I imagined it passed, and then, off in the distance, I spotted the dim glow of a light bulb. A moth was I, and I quickened my pace, a familiar voice whispering threats into my ear canal. But it seemed no matter how long I walked, no matter how many pipes and catwalks I passed, the dull light remained in the distance. I began to worry that it was some type of subterranean mirage. I worried that I would walk until exhaustion and collapse on the rusted highway of steel, be obliterated by some ghost train with screaming faces muted behind blurred yellow windows.
But then the light was upon me and I reached toward it with my hand, a guttural noise escaping involuntarily from my throat. Moments later, as if in response to my voice, the light extinguished, and the air was once again blackened.
Faint whispers floated across the tracks and vanished into the rubble, and as I stared ahead I was sure I saw eyes glowing yellow in the darkness. A step forward and then another one, and my skull was suddenly filled with a thousand terrible shrieks. Blackened figures darted nearby and I spun around, terrified of a violent death. I felt a heavy object smash into the back of my head and I came crashing to the tracks, my body inches from the third rail. I tried shouting but only managed to spit out air. Muscular hands rolled me onto my back and pinned me down. I tried kicking and flailing, but I was too weak, too weary. More screeching, and I could sense a swarm of rats nearing, ready to gnaw off my flesh while I pleaded for a bleeding Christ.
* * *
Minutes or hours or years passed before I opened my eyes again. My vision was badly blurred, retinas scratched to shreds. At some point, I had been pulled off the tracks and now found myself on the manhole extension of an abandoned subway platform, my head propped up by a bundle of bloodstained towels. My scarred eyes darted around, trying to make sense of things. Plastic chairs were bolted into the platform — seats for long-ago commuters — and the walls were covered with graffiti, most of it indecipherable scrawl, but in a few cases breathtaking artwork. In the midst of the graffiti was a familiar subway mosaic with the words Worth Street centered on it. And not more than five yards away, like modern-day Morlocks, a group of tunnel dwellers all dressed in rags, faces blackened with soot.
Adrenaline flowed quickly, and I pulled myself up to a sitting position, tried backing up, but the end of the platform was inches away. "Don't you move there, boy," came a strangled voice, and then one of the creatures limped toward me, graveyard boots echoing against the cement. He hovered over me, eyes shining like a feral lunatic. He had a thick black beard and a mess of greasy hair that fell below his shoulders. His clothes were coated with subway filth. He wore a necklace of what looked to be small jagged rocks. My rescuer he was not. "The hell are you doing down here?" he said, throat damaged by cigarettes and whiskey. "You don't belong here. A fellow could get killed."
I tried speaking, but my vocal cords were suddenly paralyzed.
"Goddamn motherfucker. You gonna catch your death, hear me, boy? Come on, now. Watcha doing, huh? You come to ambush us? That what you're here for? You come to steal our land? Well, you got another thing coming, boy. Another dead punk and it won't even make the evening news."
But the threats seemed less frightening than my fears. "Lost," I finally managed to say. "I'm lost."
The bearded man grunted in disgust, then spat on the ground. He turned back toward the huddled group. "Another fucking junkie. They're like cockroaches."
"Goddamn de Blasio," piped up another one of the dwellers. "Soon they'll all be down here. Mark my words, mark my words."
The man got down on his haunches and stared into my eyes. "You a junkie? That why you down here?"
I shook my head. "I don't do drugs. Never have."
"Then you deal them. That right?"
"No. You've got it all wrong."
That's when he reached into the front of his overalls and pulled out a wad of cash. He waved it inches from my face. "Not a dealer, huh? Then where'd you get all the cash? Six hundred bucks in all."
"That's not mine. That's not —"
"It was in your pocket. That," and now he showed me a frayed little box, "and this deck of cards. Only the queen of hearts is missing, damn it, so we can't even play a hand."
"He's a junkie, a goddamn junkie!" another dweller called out.
I felt light-headed, and bile rose up my esophagus. Who were these people? Did they live down here, so many levels below the street? My eyes focused again on the man's neck, and I now saw that the necklace was not made of rocks. It was made of human teeth ...
"I suppose we'll have to call the mayor," he said. "Hate to bother him though. Sure hate to bother him." He turned back toward the group. "Slim, go fetch the mayor. Tell him we've got a visitor. And tell him to bring his axe."
* * *
I could have made a dash for it, but isolation seemed worse than torture. I waited and waited for the mayor, but he didn't come, not for a long time. The bearded man with the tooth necklace stood guard over me, his fist tightening whenever I moved even an inch. Meanwhile, the rest of the dwellers had built a fire inside a trash can and stood over it, warming their hands, shadows dancing wildly and mystically on the platform wall. A huddle of sunken faces peered at me, and now I studied them — one with a missing eye; one with a row of tattooed tears; one with skin peeled from fire or lye; all grotesque.
When the mayor finally did arrive, everybody stood at attention as if he were a war general. He wasn't dressed like the rest of them. He wore slacks and a sweater. While both were torn and filthy, his attire allowed him a certain elegance. His gray hair was cropped short and neatly combed, and his face was cleanly shaven. On the tip of his nose rested a pair of academic spectacles with one of the lenses missing and the other one cracked. In one of his hands was the aforementioned axe. And in the other was an old paperback: The Maltese Falcon. At his side was a woman. She was small — she couldn't have been more than four feet six inches — and one side of her face was sunken, as if she'd suffered a stroke. In addition to this indignity, her opposite arm was shrunken to the size of a baby's. The mayor gripped this miniature appendage as if he feared her escape.
"What you don't understand," he said, high voice quivering, "is that our community likes to be left alone. We are quite safe down here. You are not. We don't have use for the outside world. I could easily chop you to bits, toss you on the tracks and let the rats feed for a few days. Nobody would ever know, you see. Down here we have our own form of justice. And I'm the fellow who decides what it is."
"I'm lost," I said once again, this time more meekly than before.
His eyes narrowed and he regarded me with suspicion. "More lost than you know. But in my experience a fellow don't end up in these tunnels for no reason. You're running from something or somebody. I think it would be best if you tell me who or what that is."
"My woman," I said. "She broke my heart. I came down here to leave the world."
It was a good line, one that I'd been thinking about, but the mayor and his woman took another step forward, his axe dragging on the concrete. I feared that he would fulfill his threat, and I eyed the glint of the blade. But his hand remained still, and when he spoke again, his voice somehow seemed kinder. "Ain't that a shame? A life without love ain't no life at all. But it's a good thing you left that piss-pot of a world. The truth is, none of us dwellers have any use for civilization. And civilization has no use for us either. Down here, in hell, it all seems like a distant memory."
Now the woman began moaning, her blank eyes rolling into the back of her head. "There, there," he said, stroking her unruly hair. "It's all right, baby. Everything is all right. And how rude of me. I didn't introduce the two of you. That's the thing about living in the tunnels. You forget your manners. But my mama taught me some. When she wasn't sucking on some john's cock, that is. Well, anyway. This here is my wife. She's a mute, but we've taken to calling her Ethel. What'd you say your name was, mister?"
"Jack Tompkins," I answered too quickly.
"Jack Tompkins, Jack Tompkins," he said, as if deciding if the name fit me. "Nice to know you. Hey, Carl! Give Jack his cash and cards back. We're not thieves down here."
The bearded man grunted and then tossed the items at my feet. I whispered a thank you.
"Welcome to the darkness," the mayor said. "And don't you worry about a thing. We're not savages."
* * *
For the next several hours, I sat on the platform, the rumbling of a subway echoing faintly over my head. The man with the burned face and the one with the tattoo tears went hunting. They used rags covered with their own shit. "Bait," the mayor told me. As soon as a rat would come sniffing, one of them would grab it by the tail, and then, while the little beast bared its fangs, swing it around like a lasso before smashing it against the wall. Then he'd find the bleeding and dying rodent and stomp on it a few more times for good measure. They had pillowcases that they used to collect the dead rats, and with them slung over their shoulders they looked like subterranean Santas.
The mayor and Ethel sat at the far edge of the platform beneath an orange light bulb that they'd hooked up through some live wires. The mayor was sitting on the ground, cross-legged, reading his old paperback, and Ethel was sitting on his lap, just like a little child. The axe was on the ground next to him. At some point, he removed his broken spectacles from the tip of his nose, steamed them up with breath, and placed them back on his face. Then he grinned, but there was no kindness in that grin. I made eye contact with Ethel, but she showed no signs of recognition, mouth ajar, rat-eyes empty to the world.
"It's a shame you ended up down here," he said. "Bad luck, if you ask me."
"I don't think so," I said. "I like the darkness. Could be I'm a vampire maybe."
He laughed. "That would be a terrible life, don't you think? Living forever? Outlasting your friends? Doing the same things over and over and over again?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'd like to think I could redefine myself every so often ..."
He studied my face, his eyes narrowing to slits. "Yes. That would be nice to think, wouldn't it?"
And now Ethel started coughing, her face reddening, her eyes bulging. The mayor patted her on the back, said, "There, there. Easy, love, easy." A few more moments of hacking and then she stopped. She closed her eyes, and I swear to God she was asleep instantaneously. The mayor stroked her hair, and at that moment I longed so badly to be where he was sitting, to feel her flesh against mine.
The mayor looked back up at me and waved the paperback he was reading. On the cover was a little black bird with several hands grasping toward it.
"You ever read this book?" he asked.
I shook my head no.
"You should. You remind me a little of Charles Pierce."
That same cruel smile. I could see his nostrils flaring. "You're not going to stay in these tunnels," he said. "You don't have it in you. You're going to go back to living your old life, whatever that old life was."
"You don't know a thing about my old life."
"Maybe not. But you'll live it again. You're doomed to."
His countenance was evil, and I could feel my hand trembling.
* * *
They had a whole bunch of paring knives, the dwellers did, and they used them to skin the track rabbits, all the while singing songs, old Negro spirituals mainly, even though there wasn't a black man in the group. Then they skewered them and cooked them while the mayor and his woman sat in the plastic chairs watching, he with his heavy axe, she with her dwarf arm. And when the rats were all cooked, the two of them got fed first. I watched as the mayor closed his eyes and bit into the rodent, the juice trickling down his white chin.
He watched me and nodded his head thoughtfully, his slender fingers stroking his chin. "In France," he said, "they used to allow a little glass of rum to calm the nerves. But not in the States. No booze allowed. But still a final meal. Velma Barfield ate Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola. Timothy McVeigh two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. John Wayne Gacy a dozen deep-fried shrimps, a bucket of KFC chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries. What about you, Charles Pierce? Will your gut be full?"
And now the man with the burned face staggered toward me, a cooked rat dangling from his fingers. Before I could react, the dwellers had me pinned down and they were yanking my mouth open, trying to stuff the rat inside, forcing my jaws down. Panic and adrenaline. I kicked and thrashed, causing the man with the tattoo tears to slam backward into the wall.
But the man with a missing eye kept his grip, a paring knife near my throat, and now the mayor charged toward me, raising his fireman's axe. He swung down, but his hands were unsteady and the blade only glanced against my leg. Perhaps startled by the violence, One Eye relaxed his grip momentarily. With shrieks and screams echoing against the walls, I managed to pull away and then wrestle him to the ground. The tunnels had sapped his strength and I forced the paring knife from his hand. The mayor came at me again; I slashed against his wrist. He whimpered, and the axe clattered to the ground. While the mayor rolled on the ground in pain, squeezing his wounded wrist, I reached for Ethel's leg and started dragging her down the platform while she moaned and wailed. But we hadn't gone more than two feet before Carl, the bearded man, caught me from behind and started pounding on me with his meaty fist. Blow after blow, and the world was a terrible kaleidoscope. The burned man got in the act as well, biting and kicking and punching.
I let go of Ethel's leg — by this time she was pounding on the cement and yanking out her own hair — and tried defending myself by using the knife. I got the burned man across the chest, but then Carl pinned my arms behind my back and the weapon fell from my hand and harmlessly into the tunnel below.
"Gonna kill you!" he shouted. "Gonna kill you!"
A cornered animal, I got in a good kick to the groin, and he fell to his knees. I didn't want to leave Ethel behind, but I had no choice, and so I started running, and I could hear them behind me, their voices echoing wildly against the cement and metal.
"Get him, get him!" the burned man shouted.
Teardrops: "A gutless traitor is he!"
And finally the voice of the mayor: "Don't forget your name! I know your soul, Charles Pierce! Hear my words! The past awaits you!"
Two levels I climbed, one by ladder, the other by pipes. Behind me was darkness, darkness, madness. Ahead of me was lightness, lightness, madness.
Excerpted from The Blade this Time by Jon Bassoff. Copyright © 2017 Jon Bassoff. Excerpted by permission of Dark Fuse.
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