Thirteen beautifully wrought tales of crime, passion, and people on the brink of disaster
Marybeth met Jamie at the Horn & Whistle, a neighborhood pub warm enough to keep out the chill on a bleak January day. Over a pint of stout, he won her heart with bad jokes and cynical Irish charm. Two years later, she loves him more than ever, but she can see that he’s bracing for a fall. When everything collapses, when Jamie’s job disappears and the house is foreclosed on and Marybeth feels death creeping into her bones, it’s up to her to save them both—even if it means doing something that will tear them apart forever.
“Stray,” along with the twelve additional short stories in this exquisite collection, showcases author David Corbett’s unparalleled ability to build a life in just a few pages, and then shatter it in a single sentence. From the first confession to the thirteenth, these stories cut deep—and show no mercy.
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About the Author
Corbett’s second novel, Done for a Dime (2003), begins with the murder of a blues legend and turns into a battle for the soul of a small town. It was a New York Times Notable Book and was nominated for a Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International. Next came Blood of Paradise (2007), which was nominated for the Edgar and numerous other awards. It was named both a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post. Corbett’s fourth novel, the critically acclaimed Do They Know I’m Running? (2010), tells of a young Salvadoran-American’s harrowing journey to El Salvador to retrieve his deported uncle. It received the Spinetingler Award, Best Novel: Rising Star Category. Corbett’s fifth and most recent novel, The Mercy of the Night, appeared in 2015, along with a companion novella, The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell. He has also contributed chapters to the two Harry Middleton serial novels.
Corbett’s most recent book, a collection of short stories titled Thirteen Confessions (2016), is offered exclusively through Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.
Before becoming a novelist,David Corbett (b. 1953) spent fifteen years as an investigator for the San Francisco private detective agency Palladino & Sutherland, working on several high-profile cases. In 1995, he left to help his wife set up her own law firm, and in 2000 he sold his first novel, The Devil’s Redhead, a thriller about a reformed pot smuggler trying to save his ex-girlfriend from the deadly consequences of her own misguided sympathy. Corbett’s second novel, Done for a Dime (2003), begins with the murder of a blues legend and turns into a battle for the soul of a small town. It was a New York Times Notable Book and was nominated for a Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International. Next came Blood of Paradise (2007), which was nominated for the Edgar and numerous other awards. It was named both a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post. Corbett’s fourth novel, the critically acclaimed Do They Know I’m Running? (2010), tells of a young Salvadoran-American’s harrowing journey to El Salvador to retrieve his deported uncle. It received the Spinetingler Award, Best Novel: Rising Star Category. He has also contributed chapters to the two Harry Middleton serial novels. Corbett’s most recent book, a collection of short stories titled Killing Yourself to Survive (2012), is offered exclusively through Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.
Read an Excerpt
By David Corbett
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2016 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
Christmas patrons thronged the bank. Outside, rain fell, third day running.
All these bodies should warm things up, Marybeth thought, but no. Still, there were festive touches about — harp and dulcimer carols piping softly in the background, twirled bunting draping the walls, ribboned wreaths the size of tires. She caught a hint of pine, drifted into memory. Sacrament of childhood, she thought, this time of year.
She stood in the teller queue, trembling. Be calm, she told herself. Calm as a mutt by a midday fire — Jamie's turn of phrase. He had so many expressions, most of a darker sort: vivid as a cat's ass, face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle, cold as my dear mother's heart. That bitter turn of mind, so Celtic, but that was why she loved him.
From the very start the attraction lay precisely in what others might call his failures. Success held little appeal for her. Always something brittle about success, something garish, too lucky. She preferred her men wounded but resolved. Solemn determination had greater purchase in her heart than confidence. A man who knew the edge was only a footfall away and who was thinking of how to grab you back from it, protect you, not because he was scared but because he'd made that fall himself once or twice, loved you too much to wish it on you — that was the fella for her.
The queue advanced a step, everyone trudged forward, squeaky boots, soggy shoes. Not much in the way of merry in the faces, she thought, eyeing the others in line. Despite herself, she glanced over her shoulder at the guard near the door.
He was hardly more than a boy. His uniform draped on his bone- thin body like a hand-me-down on a rack — a Latino, face dotted with acne, hair gelled into a black shiny wave frozen in time, thumbs tucked in his belt — no gun, just pepper spray. Good, she supposed, feeling a bit less afraid.
Sensing her gaze, perhaps, he turned toward her and met her eyes. Unable to help herself, she smiled.
He returned a smile of his own, self-effacing and slack, then reconsidered, averting his face toward the door, but in that instant she detected not one of those sullen, antsy, me-first young men she so despised and feared. Instead she caught a little of the lonely, the lost.
What is it with me, she thought, and strays?
She looked down at the purse she'd brought, one of those shapeless sack-like vinyl things you could get so cheap along Market Street, the Salvation Army bells ringing all around you as you browsed the vendor racks and stalls. Would it be big enough, she wondered, was it too big? She nudged it with her foot along the floor as the line inched ahead.
She'd met Jamie two Januarys past, at the Horn & Whistle, her neighborhood pub, the holidays well behind them, just the bleak cold wind and metal-gray sky outside, the empty promise of a new year. But then there he was, and promise beckoned.
He was a charmer, yes, the sandy-colored hair, the milky Irish skin and rust-brown freckles, the chesty laugh and the endless string of slightly cruel jokes.
A pint of stout, that's what he ordered for her, like a black liquor soup, topped with creamy foam. She nursed it as they got acquainted, she a teacher at city college, remedial composition — a tragedy, how poorly most young people read and wrote these days — and he was in sales, something involving computers, she never did grasp it completely.
Ireland was the new promised land for the digerati then, and he'd worked in Dublin for a while, earned his degrees and certificates, then come over with a cousin, acquired one of those visas Silicon Valley was sponsoring right and left a decade back.
He soon tired of the whole mega-corporate slog, went off with a few cohorts to start their own venture, a freelance affair, striking that right balance, enough coin on hand to keep the wolves at bay, enough freedom in his heart to feel like a man.
There were setbacks, sure, and he told her about them and they broke her heart. He knew what it meant to fail, then pick himself up, have a pint, share a laugh, get on with it. Leave self-pity to the Russians and Mexicans, he said. Dreams get dashed so new dreams can take their place. They drank to dreams. And she knew in the pit of her heart they would marry.
A mere four weeks later, they did. Valentine's Day. The courthouse, two strangers for witnesses.
She suddenly found herself at the head of the queue, and a queasy lightheadedness came over her. She bit back the nausea, dabbed at her face with the back of her wool glove.
The house was Jamie's idea. No better investment than property, he'd said, San Francisco property in particular.
What about the recession, she'd said, and he'd answered that's why the timing's perfect. Buy low, sell dear.
There's still no way we can manage it, she'd told him, but he'd taken rein of the finances — a husband's mortal obligation, his words — and he knew a man who knew a man and said trust me and how could she not?
And then there they were, a two-bedroom bungalow bordering Noe Valley, a fixer-upper for sure, but home.
She left her job with its benefits to manage the most essential repairs, emptied her savings to pay for them — the kitchen and bath had to be gutted, rebuilt from the floor joists up, so much dry rot, and she blamed the ache in her joints on all the physical labor, pitching in with the workers — while Jamie, suit and tie and freshly shined shoes, went out each day to slay the beast. Solemn determination. Protecting her.
It took until Thanksgiving for him to confess the truth. There was no job, hadn't been for over a year. He just rode the bus from one end of the city to the other, or sometimes he'd get on the train, ride down to San Jose or out to Walnut Creek, the suburban outposts, all those majestic hills and bustling malls, all the traffic and the nouveau riche.
The mortgage lender, in truth a den of crooks Marybeth could hardly believe existed, filed their notices, moved to foreclose and evict — a scam from the start, and she wondered if Jamie had been duped or complicit.
Regardless, two days after the last papers were served, she had her consult, learned her joint aches were not arthritis but something much worse.
The teller near the end came free and beckoned Marybeth forward. She reached down, snatched up the giant floppy purse, trundled over.
The teller said something festive in greeting but Marybeth barely heard, it was like she was underwater, rustling around in the bag for the envelope and remembering what Jamie had said the day he'd left: You deserve someone better, I can only drag you down, I'm nothing, a wretch, a failure. I know, she'd thought, I'm a lover of failures, it's my curse, wanting to tell him — I have cancer, it's in my bone marrow — but the words wouldn't come.
Finally, she felt it, the card, brought it out and, hand shaking as though from palsy, slipped it across the counter to the teller.
A plump girl, heavy-lidded eyes, flat nose, chestnut hair. She lifted the flap on the envelope, withdrew the Christmas card, inside of which Marybeth had written: I have a gun. Do not trigger the alarm or make a sound. Give me all the money in your cashier tray or I will shoot, one-by-one, the customers standing in line behind me.
Her heart bucked inside her chest as she hefted the huge bag onto the counter for the teller to fill. A note job, they called it — in truth there was no gun, and she hoped she'd get consideration for that when they prosecuted her. Glancing about to see who was staring — no one, it turned out, not yet — she listened to the fluttery thump of the banded stacks of bills as the teller stuffed them inside the purse.
Then a sudden flare of pain shot through her, ripping through her bones like black fire. No, she thought, not now, and she steadied herself, grabbed the purse, then glanced at the teller whose eyes were scared and resentful.
"I'm sorry," Marybeth whispered as she turned away, shouldering the purse, surprised at its toppling weight, then staggered toward the young Latino guard.
A few of the other patrons finally seemed aware of what had happened, there were whispers and stares but Marybeth paid no heed. Her eyes remained fixed on the guard with his stiff wavelike hair, his expression first puzzled then alarmed as she plodded closer.
"I've just stolen this." Grimacing from the pain, she dropped the purse at his feet. They both stared at it. "You need to arrest me, or call the police, if that's how it's done."
Last week, in a magazine that someone had left behind in the bus shelter, she'd read that women could get chemotherapy in prison. And a bank robbery meant federal custody, better care. By no means good care, she thought, but a small hope is still hope, almost collapsing as the young guard glanced down into the bag, saw the money, then looked back at her, panic in his eyes. So young, she thought. Christmas is for the young.
"I'm not crazy." Her voice was clenched. "Sick, yes, you can probably tell. But not mad."
He still seemed paralyzed. Fearing she might faint before he understood, she took his hand, clutched it tight. So helpless, she thought, a stray. "Please," she said softly. "Help me."CHAPTER 2
— 1 —
Best as I can, I've told what I know. Told the police, in fact, which my lawyer no doubt finds inconvenient.
I murdered John McMahan, my friend, my neighbor. Killed him with my own bare hands, strangled him in his own living room, dug my thumbs deep into his windpipe, watched his eyes get cloudy, staring up into mine, then go blank.
He didn't fight, not much. Sure, he'd been drinking. So had I. Drink wasn't it.
He gave up.
The truth? He'd given up long before I got there.
This was New Year's Day two years ago, during the Rose Bowl.
So there's no question, not one, as to who, or how, or when, or what. Only question remaining: why?
Still can't answer that, exactly. Wish I could. God knows I've tried.
Spent hours and days and weeks scratching around in my head for the reason, the magic thing that explains it all. In the end, I keep coming back to this: I wanted to see justice done. For once.
Not justice for John, the man everybody now seems to prefer calling the Victim. There was nothing "just" in what I did to him. No one deserves to die, any more than he deserves to live.
I wanted to see justice done between me and anybody willing to step up and do the job. Wanted to see We-the-People carry out the demands of the law. Mostly because I doubted they were up to it. And so far they've bent over backwards to prove me right.
Christ, not even a confession matters. My lawyer won't let me plead guilty. That'll trigger some strange procedural square dance where I have to be found mentally competent by three independent shrinks who agree I'm not suffering from schizo-paranoia or suicidal mega-depression or whatever the hell. It'll just slow the whole thing down even worse, which is unimaginable. Damn thing's already at a standstill.
Lawyer said (he is so damn sick of me): "You really want to throw yourself in front of the train? Trust me, you've done enough already." Clicking his briefcase shut. "Sit tight, Mister Craig. One thing you can always bank on. You want to watch the ending, all you have to do is wait."
Not like he's the only irritation in this. Honestly? Just about everybody involved seems to be going through the motions — a shuffling herd of nobodies doing everything in their power to look away. Like I'm the sun, and they'll go blind or their eyes will melt in their heads if they so much as turn my direction too long.
John didn't have that luxury. Right up until those final seconds, he locked his eyes tight on mine. And strange as this may sound, the expression on his face was almost one of gratitude. Not that I'd killed him, or that he was dying. Something else, something he'd been waiting for, a sense of completion that'd been hanging around in the back of his mind, waiting to come out and stretch its legs.
Like some question that had puzzled him for a long time finally had an answer. Or some nagging fear dissolved, and he could feel peace.
Me? I woulda fought. I woulda kicked and bit and clawed at his eyes, reached for something close, a lamp, an ashtray, crashed it over his goddamn skull.
John didn't do that. He let me go ahead. Like I was scratching some itch that had been driving him crazy for ages. Thanks to me, his friend, it was gone.
Know what's scary? I mean, even to me, after all this time. The scary part is that I not only knew all that, I was part of it, if that makes sense. We were in it together. Because once it was done, once I knew he was dead, I leaned down, put my forehead against his, and whispered, "You're welcome." I mean, just like that. Out of the blue.
So come on, it's time. Somebody show me justice. I dare you.
— 2 —
I'd call it an ambush, sure.
One minute I'm folding laundry, TV on in the background, something to keep me company, the next the doorbell rings. I open up and there's, like, a throng, I'd guess you'd call it. Reporters pushing microphones toward the screen, shouting my name, cameramen behind them, TV vans at the curb.
Pushy one up front, enough hairspray on her head to wax a car, says, "You're Peter Craig's ex-wife, is that right?"
I hadn't heard yet, see? But right there, right then, I knew.
Thank God I was smart enough to close the door and hunker down, wait them out. Some went around the sides of the house, rapping on the windows. Another knocked on the back door, like that would make a difference. Took about a half an hour, but finally they packed up and left.
No way, no how, was I going to give those jackals the satisfaction. No secret what they wanted, and it sure as hell wasn't the truth. They wanted to show the world the awful look on my face when they gave me the lowdown. They wanted a reaction.
Well, that's funny, all things considered. They should try that with Pete.
You spend enough time with him — I spent two years, felt like two hundred — trust me, last thing you want is a reaction. Came to where my happiest days were when he was gone, out of the house, off at work or whatever, and it dawned on me finally: time to go.
Did I see this coming? That's the point of the exercise, I suppose. Did I know?
What kind of question is that?
Here's the thing. I saw Pete fly off the handle, sure, a thousand times. Pete always had the idea nobody was stepping up to the plate except him. I wouldn't call him violent, though. I'd call him stormy. Yeah, yeah, I know, storms can be violent, aren't you clever — hear me out, okay? Yes, Pete could blow his stack. Yes, it happened a lot. But once he finally got it out of his system, he settled back down and seemed normal. That was my experience anyway.
Model husband? No. Nice guy? Sure, at times. The "quiet type"? Don't make me laugh.
What he was, was a lot of work. And that can wear you down.
Did I love him? Yes, I did. Still do, in my way. But there comes a time in life, after the stars fall from your eyes, when you realize there are limits to things. Even love. Can't be helped. Just the way it is.
I still don't know the details of what happened, the man who died or any of that. Don't want to know — there, I said it.
And it'd hardly knock me down to find out Pete did this, killed the man, just to make a point. Like he was drawing a line in the dirt: prove me wrong. Man had a chip on his shoulder bigger than Jesus's cross.
But if you're trying to imply that I knew something I should've shared with the world, like I could gaze into the crystal ball and see all this coming, you're out of line. You can't lay this on me. That's just not fair.
— 3 —
Hard to believe I'm beginning a new journal, but all of this, every single bit of it, is hard to believe. What better excuse, though, to start up again, than what happened? What better time than now?
I've always been better at working things out when I can see the words in front of me, rather than having them stir around endlessly inside my head. Not because they become less abstract, quite the contrary. Abstraction has long been my element. It's the truest thing anyone can say about me.
I know what people will want me to say, that I abhor what happened to my father, his death — his murder — that my life has been changed forever. I wake in the night screaming at the new, shocking terror I feel, the sinister cruelty of this existence, the monster we must band together to fight.
They will want me to say my capacity to go about my daily business, to live and love, has been ruined forever, that I miss my father terribly and feel an aching emptiness in that territory of the heart where my fondness for him used to reside.
But I can say none of these things. To be honest, I'm not sure my father was ever really here.
That's not the philosophy professor talking. Don't look for footnotes referencing Aristotle's refutation of the Ghost in the Machine, or Hume's denial of the self, or its modern reformulation as Bundling Theory, or neuroscience's elimination of the mind.
Excerpted from Thirteen Confessions by David Corbett. Copyright © 2016 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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
It Can Happen,
What the Creature Hath Built,
A Boy and a Girl,
Are You With Me, Doctor Wu?,
The Ant Who Carried Stones,
The Axiom of Choice,
Pretty Little Parasite,
Returning to the Knife,
Dead By Christmas,
About the Author,