Sunday, December 20, 2015


As 2015 drew to a close, Betimes Books released two new works: a Hector Lassiter novel I wrote informed by Ian Fleming's James Bond novels called DEATH IN THE FACE, and an anthology of fiction and nonfiction I edited called BORDERLAND NOIR. This never-before-seen short story bridges those two new books.

Craig McDonald

“To live in hearts
we leave behind
is not to die.”
—Thomas Campbell

Standing in a Mexico City bar, feeling the swooning pulse of a second, too-deep mescal Margarita roiling an otherwise empty stomach, Jenna Crockett runs painted fingers through glistening black hair, cursing her latest bad decision.
Yes, she rues, mistakes have been made.
Many, many mistakes.
She scoops an ice cube from her goblet, sliding it across the back of her painted neck, getting a little fleeting focus back and simultaneously cursing Addie Garner. Addie enticed Jenna and the others to Mexico City on this dubious, weekend whim.
Weeks back: Addie spots something on her Twitter feed about the next James Bond film staging a one-time only, off-season re-creation of the city’s annual Day of the Dead parade, an event being brought off exclusively for the next 007 outing.
Addie has a formidable bank of ricochet hotel and airline points via Daddy, a well-traveled, over-indulgent über executive with some multi-national. Addie also has this burning yen to escape the drudgery of their Texas campus for a long weekend. The trip, Addie makes clear, will be mostly on her.
The ensuing, remaining math quickly sorts itself out: Four girls—all theatre majors—one room, two beds and some of their various folks’ leftover gifted Christmas money pooled for drinks, inexpensive taco cart eats and maybe even a souvenir trinket or two.
In the abstract, it sounds like a crazy blast.
But Mexico City has so far proven a frustrating tumult with the film’s crew, thousands of extras and the world’s press sucking up all the decent hotel rooms and other amenities.
Somewhere, sometime, Jenna read this proverb, of sorts. She thinks of it, fingering her gifted, more-than-meets the eye necklace:
It is better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.
That little bit of would-be, received wisdom is proving all too accurate. She lets go of the medallion around her neck and sighs.
They’d flown down to Mexico City in a careless flurry of hopes and dreams.
(Maybe we’ll actually get to meet Daniel Craig! He’s old, sure, but still kinda hot, don’tcha think?).
They’d flung their unpacked bags on the hotel beds and immediately dashed downtown to try and ferret out the 007-production company.
The quartet of coeds, all attractive in their way, all attention-getters, actually ended up getting their faces painted by studio makeup artists to resemble ebony and ivory sugar skulls.
They’d been fitted with tight little black dresses illustrated with white paint to evoke skeletal rib cages and backbones. Their arms — from bared shoulders to bronzed fingertips — were covered with white paint to also resemble bones.
They’d been handed waivers for their signatures to clear the way for potential onscreen cameos come the film’s planned autumn release.
About that onscreen film potential: Addie is blond and very “California Girl” and so probably a definite dark horse in any stakes to escape the cutting room floor.
Bree is black and Talia is Asian: again, two extreme long-shots for on-screen face time in a vignette calculated to evoke spooky old superstitious Meh-hee-co and a decidedly Mexican take on death.
But Jenna—a Miami native, dark-haired, dark-eyed and decidedly cinnamon-skinned—is sufficiently latina-esque to maybe make the grade, particularly with all the skull face paint she still sports.
Normally, her crazy makeup would be an attention-getter in a club like this one, but the bar is close-by the filming site and so most of the other patrons are similarly painted-and tarted-up: a riot of dancing, top-hat wearing skeletons and their spooky bone brides.
Hell, a few Cosplay sorts actually arrived at the filming site in over-the-top costumes of their own design: highly-stylized Baron Samedis and pale-faced, hollow-eyed Emiliano Zapata zombies proliferate in the club. Some of their war paint is starting to streak with their trailing sweat as the club grows closer, muggier.
There are myriad T-shirts with slogans or maybe even proverbs if Addie’s Spanish is to be trusted on such things:

Hay más tiempo que vida
Se me subió el muerto


Te asustas del metro y te coijas con la mortaja.

Nearly given a migraine by the club’s flashing, strobing lights and a newish Selina Gomez song blasting in her ears, Jenna again rues agreeing to this crazy and impulsive road trip.
They’d never even gotten a glimpse of Daniel Craig.
Some crew member with a bullhorn had given the cluster of extras some down-and-dirty background on the Day of the Dead ceremony and its meaning, first in Spanish, then in English:
“Tradition says we all die three deaths,” he called out through the speakers. “One is the actual death of our body. The second death comes as we are lowered into the grave forever. The third and final death comes when there is nobody left alive who remembers us. In knowing that, and in understanding and embracing death in its three stages, we lose our fear of the darkness.”
And so on…
Jenna tells herself again she’d be far better served studying tonight for Monday’s math test.
Even with their painted faces — the four girls are dressed for a Day of the Dead parade after all, not clubbing and trawling for guys — they are still perceived targets of opportunity for local lotharios who are decidedly not as easy to shake off or brush aside as guys usually are back home.
The little black dresses hugging shapely thighs and the girls’ do-me heels aren’t helping matters. Yes, those spiked heels also make dancing a threat for serious ankle injury. There’s only one word for them:
And for too many of these guys in the bar, No, or non, seems to be misconstrued as a shorthand version of encouragement, ala:
Try harder, hot-stuff. Keep coming, hombre. Don’t stop just because I say I want you to. Because what I really want is to be taken. I want it and I want it hard.
Emphatically, Jenna does not want to be taken, or really even simply talked to by any strangers tonight.
She thinks again of her fiancé, Brandon; again fingers the strange, impractical but well-meaning medallion he bought her a year or so ago during a campus scare regarding a potential serial rapist.
Waves of guilt for rebelling against him about this trip freshly take hold.
Brandon had reminded her of the necklace that had spent the past several months dwelling in a drawer once the apparent rape threat at school subsided.
He begged Jenna to wear it on this trip when he grudgingly relented about her taking up Addie’s offer, at last realizing he couldn’t talk his prospective wife out of this whimsical and whim-driven, across-the-border run with her theater major girlfriends.
The piece of jewelry is rather clunky, bronze-hued medallion, shaped like an egg and about the same size. It's emblazoned with a stylized Chinese dragon with emerald eyes.
But the “egg” is fractured: a stylized crack defaces its lower third—a deep scar runs jaggedly along its width, edge-to-edge.
In truth, the medallion is a knife necklace: The bottom of the medallion pulls free at the crack, its base serving as the stingy “hilt” of a hidden, two-inch long, sharply pointed and stainless steel blade that might be driven into an eye or the forehead of an attacker at close range — maybe even into a major artery if a victim knows where to find one of those.
At best, it’s a last chance bid at escape, as the ads rather disarmingly and frighteningly acknowledged when she looked them up online after being gifted the ugly thing by Brandon all those months ago.
Lecturing against her Mexican trip, Brandon said, “I’ve got family in Texas and they don’t even cross the border anymore, Jen. Juarez is the murder capital of the world and Mexico City isn’t much better. The cartels or even just the wannabes kidnap any American they can lay hands on and ransom them for pennies on the dollar. Sometimes after cutting off fingers and sending bloody phone photos for proof of life. I’m not making this up, Jen. Are your parents really on board with this trip? I ask because I think it’s fucking crazy.”
Her parents were not on board; they didn’t even know she’d decided to go.
The trip was nearly free and her passport seemed so pathetically blank.
And it was a chance to maybe get a résumé point by making an appearance in a blockbuster film.
This was a great and harmless opportunity, or so she’d convinced herself.
How the hell could she say no?
And countering Brandon’s gloom and doom, Addie insisted to Jenna and the others that Mexico City was a kind of second home, one she visited three or four times a year, sometimes very much alone, courtesy of more of Daddy’s geometrically accruing airline points.
There’s nothing to be scared about, Addie had argued. Screw the newspapers and the cable news channels — especially FOX: They just stir shit up and stoke paranoia to drive ratings, that’s all.
But in deference to Brandon, Jenna slipped the knife necklace in her carry-on and crossed her fingers, banking the metal-on-metal construction would somehow succeed in obscuring its true nature from scans and wouldn’t get her in trouble with wage-slave TSA agents.
Indeed: Jenna sailed through airport inspection without a second glance.
In that moment of safe passage, she felt a mixture of relief and quiet terror at the thought of what other things the security agents might be letting slip through on the bodies or in the bags of other fellow travelers along with her absurd little knife that was significantly shorter than her pinky finger.
(Really, what could it really do in a pinch? Bringing it had surely been another stupid risk, another mistake in judgment.)
But Brandon had been so adamant: “Jenna, it’s fucking Mexico. It’s a bloodbath down there, now, but not like you’d know. Have you read how many dead women they’ve found in the deserts down there over the last few years? We’re talkin’ hundreds, at least.”
So now the silly necklace hangs around her dewy neck, its mystery metal clinging to the damp flesh between her full but pert breasts, its bulk somewhat obscured by its resting place under the little black dress and the center fastener of Jenna's redundant push-up bra.
Addie suddenly, drunkenly stumbles up to Jen. She drunkenly taps glasses. Addie’s been dancing with practically every guy who’s hit on her and she’s worked up quite the glistening lather. Her painted face is deeply streaked, looking like a luckless clown caught in a cloudburst.
She says tartly and loudly to Jenna, “So, everyone wants to head back to the hotel, like, pretty much, now! Don’t worry about wrecking it for me if you’re not on my side. Bitches have already pretty much decided and they somehow have more actual money than me, now!”
Addie hefts her glass. She practically yells, “Shouldn’t have ordered jumbo! Bitch who made my drink used too much ice and mixer and went light on the good stuff! That always sucks, right?” She sips, makes a face, laments, “It’s more like Gatorade or some lemon water than a Margarita!”
Jenna nods slowly, reading her friend’s lips more than really hearing her words: despite all the yelling, those are mostly buried under the deafening beat from the club’s speakers.
Right,” Jenna said. Expecting the usual fidgety line at the lady’s room, she says, “Gotta hit the restroom real fast, then we can go. Just give me, like, five minutes, yeah?” She spreads the fingers on her right hand to telegraph the time.
Dazedly, still working her unsatisfactory drink with hollowed cheeks as she sucks at the straw, Addie waves a hand and drifts off again, hand-in-hand with some scrawny dude with a tattooed neck.
Jenna isn’t sure her friend has heard or even grasped the message she’s shot her before she stumbles off with her repeat dance partner.
Oh well: Club mixes always tended to go on and on and then on some more, anyway, right?
There should be plenty of time, she figures.
Putting down her clunky goblet, Jenna weaves her way to the restroom. As she queasily makes that uneasy passage, she lashes at herself: That second one was definitely one too many: Idiot! You’re drunk!
She needs some comfort food.
And buckets of black coffee.
Oh, and water and some aspirin to stave off the surely looming hangover.
Even with all that, Jenna’s starting to envision this lousy evening likely ending in her hugging the stained plumbing in their dumpy hotel room.
That is if the other girls aren’t in line for the same, hogging the toilet bowl ahead of her.
Yes, visions of Technicolor yawns and racking dry heaves swarm Jenna’s mind, further unsettling her stomach.
She thinks again about how Brandon would be so disappointed if he was here to witness Jenna being wasted like this.


Jenna returns from the restroom to find the table her friends had staked out and taken turns holding onto is now occupied by a couple of couples.
Strangers, that is to say.
That’s a mild gut punch, of course.
But knowing they were soon leaving, and having lost their table’s trustiest anchor — that would be the never-dancing Jenna — perhaps her friends have simply surrendered the table to this new party.
Jenna shakily climbs up a flight of stairs to get a better look at the dance floor from above. Again, sees none of her friends down there, shaking it a last time.
This is precisely the point where Jenna begins to worry, just a little.
She heads back down to the lower level and quickly walks the club in the round; checks around the entrance. She doesn’t catch a glimpse of her three friends.
With a shaking hand, Jenna pulls out her smart phone for the first time since hitting Mexico and realizes it isn’t working south of the border.
A wicked epiphany: No international phone plan in place. Of course. God!
Jenna’s really sweating now; she feels the damp prickle under her arms and a tickle at the base of her spine. She takes a deep calming, cleansing breath, then orbits the club again.
But again, it is all for nada: that four-letter word pretty much constitutes Jenna’s only claim to any Spanish outside adios.
Addie has been their Spanish-speaking lifeline this trip—the only Spanish speaker in their sleek quartet.
Yes, no sign of a familiar face other than this dude who’s been eyeing Jenna all night. The stranger is latino, about six-feet tall. Slender, and sporting no visible tats.
He’s not unattractive. But so what?
She is so not in the market for anything like him, not at all.
That thought prompts another one: Jenna glances at the diamond on her left ring finger; realizes it’s a prime target for theft. She thinks about slipping it off and hiding it in her pocket but fears she’ll lose it, somehow.
As a compromise, she twists her engagement ring around, the stone cutting into her palm as she clenches fists.
Cursing again, she stalks back to the bar. She negotiates in pidgin Spanish-English for black coffee in a travel cup, fairly sure she’s being grossly over-charged—another result of suddenly being a stranger in a strange land with no command of the lingo; a target of opportunity…again.
Goddamn Addie and the other bitches for abandoning her, anyway.
How the hell could they do that?
Jenna takes a too deep drink of the near-scalding black coffee. She slightly burns the roof of her mouth in the process. Jenna consoles herself the resulting pain is a way to stoke badly needed focus.
She wanders out of the sweltering club into the chilly Mexico City night.
The crescent moon seems to sneer as she waves and calls for cabs, maddeningly watching them roll past or claimed by snickering native speakers who flip her the bird as they commandeer the latest taxi she’s stopped.
Two or three times, she hears a dude who’s stolen one of those cabs declare her a gringa puta.
Okay, so along with nada and adios, Jenna realizes she knows some Spanish profanity, too.
A male voice, slightly Latin-inflected, surprises her: “Hey, let me help!”
She knows who he will be before she turns to take him in. She’s right, of course: the dude from the club who’d given her the eye all night.
“You’re American,” he says. A smile and a little shrug. “The accent’s a giveaway. Let me do this?”
Not waiting for her approval, he whistles sharply, pointing at an approaching cab, then points at the exact spot on the curb where he expects the driver to stop.
Amazingly, the cab driver does that very thing.
Truly grateful, Jenna said, “Thanks so much!”
De nada. I mean, it’s nothing,” the stranger says, smiling.
He wears a sports coat over a black T-shirt. The latter is emblazoned with an illustration of Emiliano Zapata and reads, “It is better to live on your feet than to die on your knees!”
After the taxi driver lowers his front passenger’s side window, Jenna gives him her destination, trying to do so quietly so maybe the young guy by her side won’t hear. The driver nods.
She smiles and opens the rear curbside door, sliding in.
Too her horror, her benefactor squeezes in right behind her.
He grins, says, “Cabs aren’t that easy to get at this hour, and in this neighborhood? We can split the fare…okay?”
Jenna says unconvincingly, “Sure.


As they slide off the curb, the cab driver flicks at his armrest console and the doors lock. Almost in the same motion, her backseat companion scoops from the floor an aerosol can of engine starter.
Jenna was handed-down her dad’s beater car in the early going as a newbie driver.
Starter spray had been mission critical keeping the old car going in her high school driving months. Jenna also knows the stuff in the spray can is mostly ether, and she knows what else that substance can do if she breathes it in: knows it’s do-it-yourself anesthetic. Date-rape drug in a can.
Even as she grasps all that, the man sprays some of the stuff into a black handkerchief, then forces the rag over Jenna’s nose and mouth. He simultaneously pinches her arm, making her cry out, then suck air.
Her last thought as she convulsively takes the stuff into her lungs:
The bastards are in this together, this stranger and his driver.
They mean to rape me—probably for starters.
Of at least that much, Jenna is certain.
Given her solitude as a lone tourist, and their intended crime, she figures they also mean to kill her.
Those are Jenna’s last thoughts as the ether drags her under.


She comes to gagging, flat on her back on some piece of hard ground and pinned under the man with the Zapata T-shirt.
Her little black dress and bra have been forced up over her breasts. Her underwear's been stripped off, wadded up and jammed into her mouth as a DIY gag.
The stranger is trying to force his way into her, one hand down there to guide himself, his other holding her wrists together, just above her head.
Awake now, and terrified, Jenna’s wrists are quickly becoming slick with sweat.
From somewhere down there in the dark below their tangled feet, another man—the cab driver, she presumes—urges, “Desi, Cristo! You’re taking too goddamn long getting started! Puta’s coming around! Punch her! Knock her out, again!”
Before that can happen, snarling, Jenna wrenches a slippery hand free.
She wedges it between their necks. The smell of her attacker — his sweat comingling with the skunk scent of the beer he drank earlier while working up to her planned rape — is nauseating.
Jenna at lasts gets hold of the medallion still around her neck. She tugs at its end. The medallion’s chain breaks just as the tiny knife at last comes free.
She turns the little weapon in her hand, getting it right for her single, means-everything shot.

Jenna’s mother is a nurse, and she tried to interest young Jenna in the career before it became obvious her daughter was more focused on the arts.
Jenna desperately reaches for half-remembered images of nursing textbook illustrations.
Somewhere, roughly between her attacker’s chin and right ear lobe, is an embarrassment of riches of life-threatening targets: interior and exterior carotid arteries and jugular veins.
His knees now between hers, this stranger named Desi belligerently leverages Jenna’s trembling legs outward, spreading them farther apart.
Desperately, Jenna puts left shoulder to the thrust, driving the small blade into the right side of Desi’s throat.
She savagely twists and drags the stunted blade up and down, then she twists left and right, furiously working the steel around inside his neck, striving to do the utmost and bloodiest destruction before he can react.
She’s rewarded with a warm and pulsing spray against her cheek, then a desperate and gurgling plea: “Miguel, help me, por favor! Mia madre! Puta cut me! Puta cut me bad!”
The taxi driver curses and screams back. The bleeding man atop her cries out, “Shoot the bitch, just shoot her, Miguel!”
But Miguel curses and screams something in Spanish.
Somehow, Jenna grasps the gist: the driver’s gun is still back in the taxi.
The driver’s pants are already down around his ankles, anticipating his turn with Jenna. He quickly pulls them up, snaps his jeans closed, then runs to fetch his gun, holding up his unbelted jeans with one hand.
Jenna spits out her underwear. She struggles to push aside the half-naked man bleeding to death and still sprawled atop her.
There's so much blood sprayed over and pooled beneath them Jenna can only guess Desi is bleeding out fast.
As she forces her arms under his body to roll him off, Jenna feels something hard just under his left armpit. A holstered gun.
Jenna tugs it free, struggles to her feet, then begins to fire, not really aiming. She takes frantic shots at the open driver’s side door of the taxi cab and its windshield, concentrating fire in the vicinity of the steering wheel.
Maybe there's a soft cry of pain from the taxi driver between rapid-fire shots, but it could have been something else.
She keeps tugging on the trigger, finally dry firing until the mechanism seizes.
More time passes—much more than it reasonably should take a live, armed man to return fire or come to finish her off. 
So Jenna convinces herself the second man must also be dead or dying. His legs are visible behind the cab’s bullet-hole-riddled door. He looks a little like he might be praying.
Numbly, Jenna wipes blood from herself with her attacker’s discarded pants, then tugs down her bra and blood-stained dress. She shakily steps into and then pulls up her panties, still damp with her saliva.
Her ruined medallion lays on the floor of what she now sees is some underground parking garage. She kicks the chain and bloodstained knife necklace down a sewer grate.
Carefully, she approaches the cab.
Its driver is sprawled partly across the front seat, slumped over in another pool of blood. His cell phone lays on the dash. She could use that phone to call for police, or maybe just a taxi, but then Jenna realizes it might also be traced to its owner and linked back to his body at this bloody crime scene.
Crime scene.
Jenna looks around again.
There is no other word for her now than the obvious one:
Sliding into shock, yet somehow still coldly weighing options, Jenna checks herself out in the cab’s rearview mirror. She swipes a little spot of blood from her white face painted chin.
Other than looking a bit drunk or hung-over, there’s not much to show for what’s she been through. Blessedly, little black party dresses don’t show much or really any blood in low light.
Decided, she snatches up the dead driver’s phone. She fiddles around and gets a location for herself with its GPS. She uses the phone and the new knowledge of her location to call Addie’s cell. She’ll have the selfish, deserting bitch come in another cab to fetch Jenna—that's the start of her plan.
Thinking more of strange cab drivers, Jenna goes around to the other side of the cab and reaches through the open window, snatching up her purse and the driver’s gun.
The automatic goes into her purse for future protection. She’ll dump it somewhere in or nearby the hotel on their way to the airport, she decides.
Yes, that'll be the next step in her plan:
A cab, a quick and hot shower before the girls can see all the blood on her dress that she’ll also dump in some trashcan along the way, then a quick border crossing home before the Mexican cops can get their investigative shit together.
This garage was clearly chosen for weekend privacy, she reasons.
This seems to have been a kind of thing between the dead man in the Zapata T-shirt and the taxi driver.
Chances are, she tells herself, their bodies won’t be found before Monday morning.
This next thought, or memory, really, comes seemingly unbidden:
It is better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.
Another piece of travel wisdom, this one glimpsed on a T-shirt back home, next ambushes Jenna:
Mexico! Come on vacation, leave on probation!


Out on the street, the cooling night air swiftly begins to dry damp clothes and scanty underthings.
Jenna arranges her pick up with a drunken but apologetic Addie. After she breaks their connection, Jenna decimates the dead taxi driver’s phone with a spiked heel and deposits its remains down a storm water drain.
She thinks about how hard it’s going to be not to tear into Addie and the other two for abandoning her as they did.
Nothing will ever be the same between Jenna and her friends, not after the result of their callous carelessness in running off without her.
Certainly nothing is ever going to be the same for Jenna: not having to  shoulder the terrible, bloody secret she has already decided must remain forever her own.
Across the street there’s a billboard welcoming the James Bond film crew to Mexico City. A grinning sugar skull adorned with a glittering “007” across its gaudy forehead stares down at Jenna and the otherwise empty street.
Come November, Brandon’s going to insist on seeing that damned film, she knows, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of his life's love—sleek Jenna, pretty death personified.
Bond, James Bond. Professional assassin. Licensed to kill. Jenna glimpses herself in dusty storefront glass, part zombie, part hooker in her tight little barely-there dress and badly streaked skeleton face paint.
Another billboard, this one promoting tourism vows:
“Mexico: Beyond your dreams, but within your reach. Live it to believe it!"
We all die three deaths, the man with the bullhorn called out to a crowd of skeletons what seems a lifetime ago.
The memory of the men she's killed will stay with her always. And, so, always, there will linger the guilt of what she's done to them tonight—certainly that's so if all the ancient Mexican folklore is right.
Her victims’ ghosts will haunt her for all her life.
Legs trembling, stomach heaving, Jenna abruptly falls to her knees on the sidewalk and is violently ill.
A drunken vagrant sees the lone girl with her painted face there on knee.
The homeless man is uncertain whether the girl is also drunk or maybe instead praying. 
The stranger shrugs and stumbles on, for the first time realizing how both drink and prayer bring you to your knees.


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio