What begins with a gruesome and impossible murder soon spirals into hallucinatory waking nightmares for hotel house detective Jojo in World War II Arkansas. Black magic and a terrifying Luciferian carnival boil up to a surreal finale for the town of Litchfield, and Jojo Walker is forced to face his own identity in ways he could never have imagined.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Ed Kurtz is the author of The Rib from Which I Remake the World, Nausea, Caliban, The Forty-Two, and Angel of the Abyss. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Needle, and numerous anthologies including Best Gay Stories 2014 and Best American Mystery Stories 2014. He lives in Texas, and can be found online at www.edkurtz.net.
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Jojo fished the matchbook out of his wallet, knocking his receipt tickets from the racetrack out on the floor. He tore one of the cardboard matches free and dragged the red bulb across the sandpaper strip. It crumbled without a spark. He sighed heavily, the exhalation making the Old Gold between his lips wobble. The matches were damp from the sweat seeping through the fabric of his trousers, his shirt, even his hat. It's gonna be a hot one, the day clerk had chirped when Jojo arrived for his shift. No shit, he'd fired back. But the kid was right — half past seven in the evening and there was nothing for the heat. Between jobs, after the force and just before the war, Jojo might have been tempted to take in a show at the Palace as he often did in those down-and-out days. The picture didn't matter (usually it was a woman's picture or some dopey monster show), but he'd take it all in, cartoons and all, just for the air-conditioning. He saw a lot of pictures over the course of that terrible year, all kinds, so that he got to where he could discuss them at great length with the girls who worked at the Starlight who dreamed, dumbly, of becoming starlets themselves. The only ones he ever made a point of skipping were the ones that starred Irene Dunne. She looked too much like Beth, and that only made him that much sorer at the lousy shape of things. He sat through the first fifteen minutes of Penny Serenade back in '41 before stamping out of the theatre in a huff. Couldn't help but feel like the screen was mocking him, daring him to do something about it. Then last year there was that girl from the drugstore who wanted him to take her to A Guy Named Joe. Jojo gave the broad an earful and never talked to her again.
Fucking Irene Dunne.
He bent over and picked the race tickets up off the soiled carpet. Oaklawn had been a bust: he'd gone safe and bet on Mar-Kell and Ocean Wave to show. Neither did, and now the two pasteboard tickets were just taking up space. Superficially, he went to Oaklawn for the corned beef sandwiches. Realistically, he was infuriated that a couple of so-called sure bets couldn't even show. For no reason at all, he slipped the tickets back into the wallet.
Tipping his hat back on the crown of his head, Jojo withdrew the handkerchief from his coat pocket and mopped his brow. The little metal fan beside his cluttered desk stopped working weeks ago, though Mr. Hibbs, the skinflint night manager, was in no great hurry to get it replaced for him. Said there was a decent breeze on the south side of the hotel at night if he'd only open a window. Jojo opened the window. No breeze.
He opened up a drawer in his desk, fumbled his calloused fingers past the Smith & Wesson and the faded receipts and paystubs and, yes, ticket stubs from the Palace Theater, looking for another book of matches. He found none, slammed the drawer shut. The crystal cigarette lighter on top of his desk just sat there, covered in dust and devoid of a single drop of fuel.
"Son of a bitch," he groused.
He swung his legs around and stood up, ignoring the audible creak of his knees and the twinge in the small of his back. Cop complaints. But he wasn't a cop anymore.
The night clerk was lounging in the cashier's cage when Jojo emerged from the stuffy office, his club foot propped up on the safe. He was reading a crumpled paperback that he held about four inches from the tip of his crooked nose. Jojo rattled the mesh wire of the cage with his knuckles.
"Hey, Jake — you got a match?"
"The hell I need a match for?" Jake snapped back, never taking his eyes from the book. "I don't smoke, Jojo. You know that."
Jojo finally took the Old Gold out of his mouth and propped it behind his ear.
"You ought to get some eyeglasses, Jake," he said. "You're like to go blind that way."
"Yeah, sure. I've heard every hard luck story. Even mine."
Jake turned the page and Jojo snickered, wandering off across the lobby to the cigarette machine. More often than not, there were spare matches in the cup on top. Tonight there were not.
His eyes wandered lazily, angrily, over the narrow lobby, landing first on the yellow square on the wall above the cigarette machine. The square was a lighter yellow than the rest of the wall that surrounded it, having been exposed to the elements — the funk of constant human traffic, smoking and breathing and stinking through the place like Grand Central Station, it sometimes seemed to him — for a far shorter time. Time was there hung a cheap reproduction of a Thomas Hart Benton painting where that square now yawned at the world — Study For a Slow Train Through Arkansas, it was called. It had never been there during Jojo's tenure, not for years before he got there, but the badly-framed piece remained in the janitor's closet where he'd seen it a few dozen times. The painting had been purchased with the expressed intent to add some class to the proceedings, but it didn't work. Folks around here didn't want class, not when it came in the form of namby-pamby modern art that didn't really look like anything, at least not like anything you'd ever actually see. The conductor didn't have a face, for one thing, and the smoke from the locomotive coming up the tracks was all wrong — angled, like. People cast odd, sidelong glances at the thing, and eventually they started to complain. So, down it went — Mr. Hibbs' orders. All of this from Jake, the de facto curator of the hotel lobby, who said he'd asked if he could take the Benton home with him if they weren't going to hang it, but no, Hibbs sternly denied him, it was hotel property and it was to remain in the closet indefinitely.
From the empty yellow square Jojo's eyes traced a line diagonally down to the long, narrow table shoved up against the wall, across the lobby from the cashier's cage. On top of it sat a dusty orange planter, inside of which was nothing but dirt. There might have been a plant in it once upon a time, but not now and not for the last year or so. For all intents and purposes, it was just a decorative bowl of hard, dry dirt, though unlike the Benton nobody ever complained about that.
The oppressive emptiness of the place struck Jojo, though this was nothing new. Empty walls and an empty planter and the empty match cup on the cigarette machine. Even the front desk was empty, unmanned as ever. Jake did all his business from his cage, taking leave of it only when he was presented with the need to use the toilet. Most of the rooms upstairs were similarly empty, as was the cramped sitting area between the stairs and the elevator with all the ragged and mismatched furniture that sat on top of each other there. The whole skinny expanse of the shotgun lobby, from the front doors to the back wall behind the faded green divan was empty of motion and interest and life and the world.
Jojo frowned. He tried to drag on his cigarette, his reverie having shunted off the match problem, then frowned deeper yet when all he inhaled was more of the humid lobby's air. It felt like even the air was unchanged, old and empty like everything else. His shoulders slumped and he let out a small groan.
Presently the doors clattered open and Charles, the coloured bellhop, came struggling in with two cardboard suitcases held precariously together with twine. A couple emerged in his wake, pointedly ignoring him as though their luggage was hauling itself into the lobby. The man was fortyish, mostly bald save for some greasy, overlong strands of black hair combed over his sweaty skull in a ludicrous attempt to mask his baldness. His bulbous nose was riddled with gin blossoms and his droopy eyelids looked almost as black as his hair. Accompanying the man was a girl of indeterminate age, though Jojo didn't figure her for much older than eighteen, if that. She giggled and hiccupped, her brown curls bouncing around her head like coiled snakes. Both of them were stone cold drunk.
Charles gestured with his chin to the cashier's cage, where Jake groaned and tossed his paperback to the side. The couple staggered that way. Charles looked to Jojo and shrugged.
"You got a match?" Jojo asked the bellhop.
Charles shook his head. Jojo extended his lower lip and sauntered over to the couple at the cage.
"Say, buddy," he said, tapping the man on the shoulder.
The man flinched, turned around. His eyelids lifted, but only barely.
"Do you smoke?"
The man tilted his head to the side. "Sure," he said.
"Gimme a match, will you?"
A grin stretched across the man's red face and he let out a noisy, foul-smelling breath. He shoved a hand into his trouser pocket and came back with a box of wooden matches. Jojo took the box, struck one to flame and ignited the end of the Old Gold. The cigarette bloomed bright red as he drew the smoke deep into his lungs.
"Thanks, pal," Jojo said, handing the matches back. "Checking in?"
The grin depleted some. "Yeah."
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I presume?"
Jojo exhaled a blue stream and smiled. The man smiled back, though his compatriot turned a nervous stare at him.
"How'd you guess?"
"I'm a good guesser," Jojo said. "You got a marriage certificate?"
"Marriage certificate? Say, what is this?"
"Maybe not such a respectable establishment, but respectable enough. We're not the Piedmont, but we ain't exactly a flophouse, either."
The girl squeezed the man's arm. Mr. Smith knitted his brow and sneered.
"I didn't reckon joints like this had house dicks," he said.
"I work cheap. Now how about that licence?"
"I don't got no licence and you know it."
"Hmn," Jojo grunted as he sucked another drag. "I expect you're familiar with the Mann Act, Mr. Smith?"
"I'm over twenty-one," the girl piped up.
"Cross any state lines on your way here?"
Across the lobby Charles set the suitcases down with a thump and leaned up against the wall for the long haul. Jake reached for his paperback and flipped to where he left off.
"You know, I don't have to take this," the man protested.
"You sure don't," Jojo agreed. "It's still a free country, after all. And I guess there's still rooms in town that don't care if she's twenty-one or seventeen, if you look hard enough. If you start now, you might still be tight when you finally get her between the sheets."
Mr. Smith yanked his arm from the girl's grasp and puffed up his chest. In the span of a second he'd gone from happy drunk to mean drunk. Jojo let the cigarette drop to the cracked tiled floor where he ground it out with the heel of his shoe.
"You got no right," Mr. Smith began, jabbing a finger into Jojo's chest.
Jojo seized the man's wrist and twisted it one hundred eighty degrees, debilitating the arm as he folded it in half and jerked it behind the man's back. The man cried out in pain. The girl threw her hands to her face and gasped.
"Now, I don't care what you do or where you do it," Jojo said low and evenly, "just so long as it's not in this hotel. Transporting a minor on the interstate for immoral purposes is against the law in this country, Mr. Smith, and it makes us look mighty bad when said immoral purposes are enacted on these grounds. So I suggest you take your little hussy to one of the rat holes on the east side with the hourly rates. I am quite certain they will be more than happy to accommodate you."
The girl squeaked. "Henry!"
Henry groaned and pitched forward, trying to ease up the pain in his arm.
"Awright, awright," he whimpered.
Jojo bent over and looked him straight in the eye. There was no anger there, no resentment. Only regret that he'd ever set foot in the Litchfield Valley Hotel.
So he released the guy, who stood up and backed quickly away, tenderly rubbing his aching wrist. The girl hurried to his side and he grumbled, "Come on, Bea."
Henry and Bea Smith, Jojo thought. Well, probably not.
The couple went awkwardly back to the bellhop, who tried and failed to conceal a knowing grin as he followed them back out to the curb with their suitcases.
Jojo said, "And there go the only matches in the house."
Jake closed his book using his finger for a bookmark and arched an eyebrow at the house detective.
"Some show," he said.
"No show. Just work."
Which was all it was to him. Jojo took no particular pleasure in ejecting people like Henry and Bea from the premises; he didn't even hold their minor transgressions against them. And the irony was far from lost on the man who owed his present circumstances to moral transgressions of his own — namely infidelity not only with another woman, but a coloured woman. Jojo thought about it every time he threw some hooker and her john out on the sidewalk, or sternly informed a Negro that his money was no good there. Shit, johns needed a place to rut and coloured folks needed beds to sleep in at night, but rules were rules and Jojo got paid to enforce them. Not well, God knew, but he was lucky to get what he got when no one else in town was willing to take the great social risk hiring an outcast like George Walker entailed. Hibbs was an ass, no one could question that, but he'd been the only one to shrug it off, to nod and smack his flabby lips the way he did when he came to a conclusion and say, "Why the hell not?"
There were plenty of reasons why not, but none of them legally binding, not since the judge ruled a lack of prima facie evidence of concubinage between Jojo and Sarah, the only actual crime pertaining to miscegenation on the books. Sure, it was more than enough to justify a divorce, the loss of a good job with the police force, the near total destruction of the life he'd built and loved and known. But Jojo Walker was a tough son of a bitch (as everyone well knew), and as long as Hibbs signed the cheques and the roof over his cramped corner office didn't leak, he survived and didn't complain too much. He did his job, didn't question authority much, and always slept alone on the little cot behind his desk. There were women — it was a hotel, after all — but Jojo avoided them like live grenades, no matter the circumstances. He'd had his fill of trouble with women, whatever colour they were.
Charles appeared at Jojo's elbow like a ghost and said, "Maybe they was married, Mr. Walker."
Jojo took his hat off and wiped his forehead. The damned sweating never stopped, not in summertime. Not even after sunset.
"Maybe they were, Charles. But I doubt it. That girl wasn't hardly more than a kid. Either way, I got to protect the hotel's interests, don't I?"
"You sure do, Mr. Walker."
Jojo crammed the hat back on his head. "Jojo, Charles. Everybody calls me Jojo."
Instinctively he stabbed another Old Gold in his mouth, then grunted as he remembered the total dearth of matches.
"Damn it," he said under his breath. Then, to Jake: "I'm going over to the Starlight. Call over there if you need me."
"On shift, Jojo?"
"There ain't anything going on, and if there is, I'm only two blocks away."
"Well, you'd best run back fast if Mr. Hibbs comes looking for you."
Jojo tipped his hand, cigarette still hanging between his lips, and went out through the door Charles held open for him.
"Be careful, Mr. ... uh, Jojo."
Jojo grinned. "Back in a jiffy, friend."
The Starlight Diner was situated on the corner of Denson and Main, its west side facing the Palace Theater across the street and its south side opposite to Wade McMahon's filling station. Jojo lumbered into the joint with an open, panting mouth, his suit hanging on him like a wet towel. The bottle blonde behind the counter smiled at him, scoring deep lines in her already deeply-lined face.
"Coffee on your table, Jojo?"
"Yeah, Betty," Jojo croaked. "Gotta hit the john first."
He made a beeline for the back while Betty poured thin, brown coffee into a mug.
Jojo locked the door and pissed in the toilet for what seemed like forever, then washed his hands and face and stared at himself in the smudged, cracked mirror. It was a completely ordinary face, he knew, just eyes and nose and mouth and ears, none of which stood out in any noticeable way if you ignored the multitude of white scars that turned it into a checkerboard. His eyes were brown and so was his hair, which hung flat in wet, ropy strands from all the sweating. In any other town, a mug like that would have warranted quick, furtive glances from startled onlookers who would look away the second they got caught. But here, in Litchfield, it was a face that got long stares. Mean ones, usually.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Rib From Which I Remake the World"
Copyright © 2016 Ed Kurtz.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
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