About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scratchers

(Author Jeff Hankins was having a little trouble wrapping up his latest book, so he decided he needed a change.  But the change he got wasn't exactly what he had in mind. . . )





Scratchers
(A Hallowe'en/Day of the Dead Offering)

 by William E. Wallace



     Jeff Hankins sat in the living room of the Jenkins’ family farmhouse two hours after the sun set, staring through the big window at the obsidian darkness outside. Since he came indoors, the mud he’d wallowed in had hardened on his trouser legs while the shadows outside had swallowed the last of the light.
     Not that there had been much light to begin with: thunderheads that seemed to fill the sky above without interruption had made each hour that passed gloomier than the last. The calendar on the kitchen wall said moonrise wouldn’t be for another hour or more, but even when the moon reached its zenith, the clouds would insure that Hankins remained surrounded by sooty blackness as fine and deep as the inside of a velvet bag.
     The power had gone earlier in the day, a victim of the storm. All the batteries for his flashlights were dead, and the hurricane lamps on the kitchen counter were useless because he had no fuel for them.  The charge on his laptop computer had long ago faded to nothing.
     The only source of light left in the house was the single stubby votive candle that sputtered on the saucer before him, right next to the yellow legal pad he had almost filled with his last, desperate words. At best the candle would continue to burn another hour or two.
     Perfect that it’s a votive candle, he thought, absently. At this point, there’s really nothing left to do but pray.
     The thought of spending his final hours alone in the inky farmhouse sent a chill through him. Long before the first rays of dawn became visible, the scratchers would be back, the sound of their needle-pointed legs faint at first, but growing louder as they gathered in the corners, watching and waiting. Then they would start singing their hideous song, that high-pitched chittering that set Hankins’s teeth on edge. He knew they would return; there was no question of it. After all, they had done so every night for the last three weeks.
     The light had been his only salvation. Without it, there was nothing standing between Hankins and the damned scratchers. Nothing at all.
     This time, Hankins would face them in the darkness, alone; this time, they would be coming for him.
    
 ***

     If it hadn’t been for his writer’s block, Hankins would never have temporarily moved to the old Jenkins place. And if he’d never moved there, he never would have known about the scratchers.
     The block had occurred while he was finishing his most recent novel. He thought the problem was that the city held too many distractions that kept him from thinking about his work. Maybe getting away for a while would help.
     He broached the idea to his agent, Rebecca Goldner, and she had been more enthusiastic than he had expected.
     “That’s a marvelous suggestion,” she’d told him over a cocktail. “Frankly, honey, I think you’re in a rut here in the city. The other seven books you’ve done in the last five years were all ground out like you were working on an assembly line. You get up each day, write for four hours before lunch, then do another three afterward. Day after day, seven days a week. It’s a surefire recipe for burn-out.”
     Hankins laughed.  She made him sound like some slave chained to the gunwales of a galley, pulling away at massive oars to the beat of a huge drum. “Well, it’s work, so I treat it like a job,” he said.
     She smiled. “It’s not a job, though, honey.  It’s a profession,” she said gently, as if talking to a slightly retarded child. “Your first book was a must-read. I couldn’t put it down myself, and that was just the manuscript. The next two?  Not so much.”
     Hankins sipped at his cocktail. “Your summaries sound like paperbound blurbs,” he said with a nervous laugh.
     She patted his hand and gave him a patronizing smile. “There’s already interest from Hollywood in your latest book, based strictly on a 100-word pitch,” she said. “It could be a big breakthrough, leading to movie or TV options. And there could be another sequel. That’s every film executive’s wet dream these days: a series of pictures with the same cast in each one.”
     He started to speak but she held up a hand, signaling him to silence.
     “But – and believe me, this is a big ‘but’ – you really need to string together two successes in a row to show you have consistency as a writer. Nobody is going to commit to a flash in the pan that can’t put out a bestseller regularly. That’s the sort of thing you need to get in solid with Hollywood.”
            
     He mulled over what she said. It was true that he hadn’t been able to break into the major leagues so far. Local renown didn’t make a writer a candidate for the big time. The real money wasn’t in book sales; you had to have your stuff optioned for TV or movies to pull down a six-figure annual income.  And Hollywood wanted sales numbers that were high, time after time.
     “Thanks for not adding to the pressure I’m already under, Becks,” he said sarcastically, finishing his own drink and signaling the waiter for refills. “OK, then: I am going to take a trip up the country.  Maybe it will help me end my dry spell.  It can’t hurt, anyway.  Things can’t get worse than they already are.”
     But of course, they could; and they did, soon after he took up residence in the Jenkins place.

  ***

      A real estate broker friend had helped him line up the old mansion and negotiate a reasonable price for a three-month lease. Hankins figured if he couldn’t finish the book in 90 days, he might as well scrap it, anyway, and return the advance to the publishing house just so they could see he wasn’t trying to chisel them.
     He had driven up to the foothills from the Bay Area to take a look at the place in July, when the Central Valley bakes and the rivers and creeks go dry.  He was never more grateful for auto air conditioning in his life: the outside temperature made it difficult to breathe.
     “It’s a three-story redwood Victorian, in good repair,” the local agent, Lance Cartwright, told him as they drove out for a viewing in Cartwright’s Lexis.  “Most of the family furniture is still in place, so it’s basically move-in ready.”
      “Does it have an Internet hookup or cable?” Hankins asked.
     “No,” Cartwright said. “It’s too far out in the sparsely populated part of the county for cable or high-speed.”
     “Good on both counts,” Hankins said with satisfaction. “Back in San Francisco when I can’t write I surf the ‘Net or watch TV.”
     They drove on and Hankins wondered aloud how far out in the boondocks the place actually was.
     “It’s nearly thirty miles to the nearest town, Cavenaugh, which consists of a one-pump gas station next to a diner that went out of business a year and a half ago. The county seat, Copley, is a real town, but it’s even further away: 74 miles, to and from,” Cartwright said. “If you’re looking for a quiet, isolated private place to do some writing, the Judson place is perfect.”
     “No neighbors?” Hankins asked.
     Cartwright shook his head.  “Nothing but deer, raccoons, possums and the occasional cougar,” he said.
     Hankins smiled. “Sounds like I won’t have to suffer any nosy visitors, then,” he said. “Better and better.”
  
  ***

     He spent enough time at the old house during that first visit to insure there were plenty of electrical outlets where he could plug in his computer and the small table lamps he liked to use where he was working.  The kitchen was more than adequate for his purposes and the master bedroom had a nearly new queen-sized box spring and mattress that had been left behind by the last tenants.  There was no garage, but at home plenty of room for his Toyota in the driveway.
     Best of all, behind the house was a three-mile trail that ran alongside the creek up a granite ridge, through scrub wood, thicket and patches of Manzanita.  Hankins could take a two-hour break each day to clear his mind and fill his lungs with fresh air.
     Cartwright told him the monthly rent the owners were asking and Hankins accepted without haggling, pledging to take occupancy in two weeks.  It wasn’t like he was buying the place; he was just working there for a few months.
    
  
  ***

     The first day had been encouraging.  He arrived just after noon and took a half hour to bring in two large suitcases of clothing, a sleeping bag and a box of groceries – mostly heat-and-eat stuff. 
     Last of all, he carted Princess, his cat, into the house inside her travel cage as she looked warily through the grates on each side at her temporary new home, making fussy little growling noises in the back of her throat. Placing the cage in the center of the living room, he opened the door and left her to get acquainted with her surroundings while he heated a can of condensed soup for lunch and arranged a work area before a living room window that overlooked the creek. 
     As he was finishing his lunch, Princess rubbed his leg and meowed.  He opened a tiny can of cat food for her in the kitchen, dumped part of it in a bowl and put it on the floor.  She had her afternoon meal while he unpacked his suitcases, stowed their contents in a closet and a wardrobe in the master bedroom, then changed into hiking boots and tried out his hiking trail. 
     By the time he returned, he was feeling recharged and ready to go to work.  He sat down behind his laptop, fired it up and spent the next four hours banging away, revising the last chapter he had written nearly a month before and putting a rough draft of the next down, getting up only to go to the bathroom and fix two cups of tea.
     Princess, who had found a perch on the mantle over the fireplace, watched over him for the first twenty minutes he spent writing, then curled up and took a nap when she was convinced this would be his routine for the near future.
     He saved his work, backing it up on a USB drive so he could transfer it over to the computer on his desk in San Francisco, and powered down his laptop a little after ten. Yawning, he trudged up the stairs to the master bedroom with the machine under his arm, planning to do some revisions while he sat in bed, but first he decided to call Rebecca and let her know that the change of scenery seemed to be doing some good.
     “Yes?” she answered, sounding a little miffed at being bothered so late at night.
     “Becks? It’s Jeff,” he said cheerfully.  “Sorry to bug you after nine, but I wanted to let you know that moving out of San Francisco seems to be working:  I managed to get nearly 4,000 words of fresh stuff down this evening, and that was after I finished revising the last chapter I’d written. That’s a total of more than seven thousand words altogether.  I think I am back on track, and I’ll bet it isn’t going to take me more than the next three weeks to finish up.”
     Princess, who had roused herself to follow him upstairs after he left his work area, jumped onto the bed with an inquisitive “meow?” then moved to a spot between his thighs, circled twice and settled down to sleep, her loud purr announcing that she was happy anyplace, so long as Hankins was there.
     “Sensational, honey,” Rebecca said, sounding less irritable. “I assume you’re happy with the copy?”
     “Absolutely.  It seems to be flowing well.  All I have to do is keep up this pace.”
     “Fabulous,” she said. “Say, why don’t I come up for a face-to-face progress report in three weeks?  Sounds like you could be done with the first draft by then.  I’ll bring a couple of T-bones and a bottle of Bordeaux and we can have dinner and take a look at what you’ve done.”
     “Sounds like a plan to me, Beck.  Got a pencil?  I’ll give you the details on how to get here.”
     After he hung up the phone, Hankins had gone back to work on his novel, wrote another 2,500 words and then drifted off for a moment or two before jerking back awake. The alarm clock on the side table said it was a few minutes after 11 p.m.  He suddenly realized he was extremely tired, what with the long drive, the hike to the top of the mountain and his work on the book. He saved his copy and dumped it onto the USB drive before shutting down again, switching off the light and giving Princess a good-night stroke before going to sleep.
     Almost as soon as he put his head on the pillow he was smothered in a deep, total unconsciousness impervious to dreams. As he slept, he smiled with contentment.

  
  ***

     The second day went almost as well.  Looking out the living room window as he sipped a cup of coffee, he spotted a large red squirrel sitting upright on the fence and gnawing at hips it had pulled from the rose bush that grew beside the front gate.  The animal seemed fat and happy, twitching its tail spastically as it worked on each morsel, the ground beneath its haunches covered with chaff from its snack.  Hankins had read someplace that rose hips were rich in Vitamin C, so he assumed the squirrel was healthy.
     A good omen, he thought to himself.
     Princess spent much of the morning exploring her new temporary digs while Hankins pecked away at his manuscript.   He took his hike at midday after lunching on some canned stew, then went back to work with a smile, pleased at the progress he was making.
     At one point in the afternoon, he paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and looked up at the mantle over the fireplace in the living room. Princess had chosen the spot as a place to snooze the previous day, but she was nowhere to be seen today.  Instead, Hankins saw a large spider sitting on it, its front legs raised like antennae its two sharply pointed front legs seeming to sniff the air in front of it. At least, Hankins thought it was a spider; it looked like a black widow, but he seemed to remember reading someplace that black widows were about the length of a paper clip. This one was at least two and a half inches long, which made it far too big to be the arachnid world’s femme fatale
     Someplace he’d learned that spiders had compound eyes like a fly -- eight of them that worked together.  He wondered what the spider saw when it looked at him.  Were there eight separate images?  Did they overlap somehow? How did it manage to focus all of them at the same time?
     If he’d seen eight of the spider on the mantle, it would have spooked him pretty badly; he wondered if the spider was spooked when it looked at him with its eight eyes.
     He got up slowly and started toward the mantle for a closer look.  One thing he was sure about:  he didn’t intend to get too close to it while he was investigating. He seemed to remember that the bite of a black widow was quite toxic.
     As it turned out, he didn’t have to worry: by the time he got within three steps of the mantle, the spider had disappeared.  He looked around nervously, uncertain how something that large could have vanished so completely, but couldn’t even find a crack in the wall big enough for a much smaller creature.
     “Maybe I just thought I saw it,” he thought as he went to the kitchen to make more coffee. Returning to his laptop to resume work on his manuscript with a steaming mug in his hand, he quickly put the creature out of his mind.
     The country air and exercise of his hikes to the mountaintop seemed to invigorate Hankins and he completed nearly 5,000 more words the second day.  He worked later that night than he had his first and found himself jerking awake with a start while still sitting behind his laptop. A glance at his watch showed it was well after one a.m., and he realized that he had been out cold for at least five minutes. 
     “Time for bed, girlfriend,” he murmured to Princess, who was napping on the coat he’d left on the sofa when he returned from his afternoon hike. Yawning, he rose, gathered the cat and climbed to the sleeping bag he had spread on the master bed upstairs. In minutes he was unconscious, his eyes moving arrhythmically in his sleep.


  ***


     He was dreaming: Hankins was running from something that made a scratching noise as it scuttled along in the darkness behind him. The scratching sounded like claws rubbing on a hard surface, but he was afraid to turn around and see what was making it for fear the delay would let it catch up.
     It seemed to be getting closer anyway, and as he increased his speed in an effort to escape, he caught his foot on something and fell down with a cry.
     When he woke it was pitch black in his bedroom, the kind of velvety darkness you find only on moonless nights deep in the country, miles from urban glare or streetlamps.  For a moment he had no idea where he was. When he sat up and switched on the bedside lamp, he was surprised to find himself covered with sweat and panting, as if he had really been running.
     Princess, who had nestled between his thighs as soon as he climbed into bed, was wide awake, staring into the darkness beyond the foot of the bed with her back toward him. Her tail bristled and flicked in an agitated way, and her fur stood on end like it had the time she saw a rat trying to climb through Hankin’s apartment window in San Francisco. She made a strange noise, a cross between a growl and a hiss, somewhere deep in her throat.  To Hankins, it was a frightening sound.
     He struggled to focus. Something had made him wake up, and he didn’t think it was the nightmare.  He’d had bad dreams since he was a teenager, and he couldn’t remember the last time one had actually roused him from sleep. No, it had been something else.
      He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs, and swung his legs down to the floor to sit up. His alarm clock said it was almost three. He didn’t need to go to the bathroom and wasn’t thirsty, the two primary things that woke him at home. What had roused him?  He rubbed his eyes.
     Then he heard it: scritch, scritch, scritch, somewhere in the darkness. Not close, but not far away, either.
     The sound was faint but quite clear.  He tried to determine where it was coming from but couldn’t pin it down.
     Scritch, scritch, scritch, it continued, somewhere in the dark.
     The noise was what had Princess in a panic. He could see her tail rise slowly to vertical as she peered into the darkness just outside the bedroom door. Her fur standing on end made her look nearly twice her normal size. She made that noise again, then jumped off his bed and ran into the inky corridor outside.
     “Damnation,” he thought as he stood up shakily, finding his flip-flops with his feet.          The noise stopped.
     Hankins listened carefully, peering around the room to see if he could identify its source.  He yawned, scratching his side absent-mindedly as he listened, then decided he might as well use the toilet.
     He was sitting on the commode, waiting for his bladder to empty, when the noise began again.
     Scritch, scritch, scriiiiitch.
     The last scratching sound was drawn out, almost as if to insure he could hear it.
     “What in hell is that?” he muttered as he finished with the toilet and stood, pulling up his pajama bottoms.
     He reached for the lever and was almost ready to flush when he heard Princess yowl again in the darkness someplace outside the room.  The sound, low and insistent, made his blood stop in his veins.
     Hankins flushed and then went searching for his cat, tripping breathlessly down the stairway, listening intently for any sound of her in the darkness of the house.
     He heard none.
     She wasn’t in the kitchen, nor was she in the living room where Hankins had set up his basic workplace.  He looked under chairs and inside closets, checked in the study, the foyer, and in the storage rooms to either side of the main entry, even though their doors were closed.
     If he hadn’t made sure all the doors and windows were closed and locked before he had gone to bed, he would have sworn Princess had dashed outside.
     Annoyed and vaguely concerned, he stumped back into his bedroom, sitting on the mattress to kick off his flip-flops. The silence continued. He sighed and stretched out.
     A few minutes later, his cat came through the door, her gait unsteady, as if she had been drugged. She stopped, turned to look back and made an angry mewing sound before jumping on the bed and circling its end, settling down so she could watch the door, her ears back.
     He reached down to give her a pat. She started at his touch and as he gently stroked her, he could feel that her fur was still bristling and she was trembling slightly with fear.
     “It spooked you too, eh, girl?” he said to her as he turned off the light and pulled up his sleeping bag.  There was no sound except the wind rustling the leaves in the oak trees outside.  Despite this, he found himself lying on edge in the dark, eyes wide open, anxiously anticipating the return of the scratching.
     Then, just as he was beginning to relax, it started again: Scritch, scritch, scriiiiitch.
     Only this time it either caused an echo or came from two different places behind the walls.  One set of sounds seemed to be to the left, quite close by, possibly from someplace in the wall behind the headboard of his bed.  The other was on the opposite end of the room, also on the left side.
     Scritch, scritch, scriiiiitch, went one sound.
     Scritch, scritch, scriiiiitch, came the response.
     Hankins sat up again, listening to the scrabbling sound in the darkness.  Now he would almost swear there was a third source, someplace to the right.  The sound seemed organized, somehow, like creatures signaling each other.
     Then he heard a fourth source; and a fifth.
     Princess was as tense as a trap at the foot of the bed. She made a strangled growling sound in the back of her throat.
     “Stop it!” Hankins shouted at his unseen antagonists. “Stop, that damned noise!” he said, covering his ears.
     As if in response, the house went silent again. The only thing Hankins could hear was the breeze outside.
     It took him more than an hour to get back to sleep, stretched rigidly on the bed, waiting for the sound to begin again.  When sleep finally came, it was fitful and filled with unpleasant dreams.


  ***


     The next morning, as soon after nine a.m. as seemed reasonable, Hankins had called Cartwright, the real estate agent. Whatever had been making the noise continued to disturb his sleep all night long. 
     “Lance?” he said shortly, after the agent came on the line. “When you mentioned the wildlife in the area, you didn’t bother to tell me that some of it was right inside the damned house!”
     Cartwright was speechless for a moment, uncertain what Hankins was getting at, but certain from his tone that he was angry about something.
     “What wildlife is in the house?” he replied, finally.
     “The damned animals that are scratching and fighting and fucking in the walls!” Hankins responded, raising his voice.
     “Whoa! What animals in the walls?”
     Cartwright’s seeming surprise and uncertainty convinced Hankins he needed to pull in his horns.
     “There are some sort of animals in the walls of the Jenkins place,” he said, lowering his voice and trying to hold back some of the snarkiness he had exhibited at the beginning of the conversation. “They kept me awake all last night.  They frightened my cat, for God’s sake.  There’s no way I can work when animals are digging in the walls around me.”
     “What did it sound like?” Cartwright said, utterly uncertain what Hankins meant. “The place was checked by exterminators three months ago. They didn’t find any kind of vermin infesting the place.”
     “All I can tell you is that I heard them,” Hankins said in an exasperated voice. “They seem to be scraping away inside the wall panels.  I heard the sound in one place at first, but soon afterward, it was clear there must have been more than one of the animals because they were digging inside all four walls of the bedroom.”
     “Did you see them?” Cartwright asked.
     “No, but I could sure as hell hear them,” Hankins responded. “It started just after midnight, when I was first trying to get to sleep.”           
     “And you saw nothing, right?”
     “Nothing.  I could hear the sound they were making, though,” he insisted. “It was hard to ignore. Check that: it was impossible to ignore.”
     Cartwright was silent for a moment.
     Hankings interrupted his contemplation.  “Well, what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
     Cartwright cleared his throat. “Are you going to be around for awhile? Say, until around eleven p.m.?”
     “Yes, why?”
     “I’ll come out and bring an exterminator,” Cartwright said. “He’ll find whatever is making the noise, absolutely."
     Somewhat mollified but still skeptical, Hankins agreed. “Okay,” he told the phone. “See you then. “Ciao!”

  
  ***

     Cartwright was as good as his word. He showed up at a quarter to eleven in his Lexis, followed close behind by the exterminator, Pete Danvers of Ready Pest Control, in a small white van that had a cartoon rendering of a rat’s face on its sides, surrounded by a red ring that had a diagonal red slash mark that crossed the leering rodent from two o’clock to eight.  Cartwright remained just long enough to make introductions before excusing himself.  Danvers went to work straightaway.
     Ninety minutes later he reappeared, stripping off a pair of transparent greenish blue nitrile gloves, a puzzled look on his face.  
     “Not a blessed thing, Mr. Hankins,” he said. “I’ve been through the attic completely, checked the airspaces around the foundation, gone through the basement. I’ve checked the baseboard in every room in the house and the spaces underneath the sinks both upstairs and down.”
     He gave Hankins a sympathetic smile. “I can’t find any pests at all,” he said. “Not rodents, not insects. There’s really nothing here in the house to worry about.”
     Hankins looked at him skeptically. “Nothing at all?” 
     “No, sir,” the exterminator said. “There’re fresh spider webs in the attic and the basement, but from what you say, spiders aren’t what’s making your noise. If there’d been rodents, they should have left some traces – droppings of some sort, or an indication of a nest. And I don’t get any signs of spoor when I use the black light.”
     “There just isn’t anything there. Not so much as a loose bit of straw or a little chunk of nut shell. I’m willing to certify this place as vermin--free. I’d stake my license on it, not to mention my 27 years of experience in the field.”
     “But I can hear the damned scratching inside the walls,” Hankins said helplessly. “It drove my cat crazy, too. Something has to be making the noise.”
     The exterminator was starting to think maybe this writer who had leased the place for the fall had a screw loose somewhere.
     “Well, sir,” he said, trying not to sound like he was talking to a child, “this house is more than 150 years old. Old places make strange noises sometimes. You’ve got settling timbers, loose shakes on the roof. They can make some peculiar sorts of sounds. Sometimes the wind pushes bare tree branches up against the windows; you’d swear it was a rodent squeaking. If you aren’t used to them, these things might seem like mice, squirrels or rats.”
     Hankins was a half step away from anger and Doherty could see it on his face, which waswas tight as a man’s fist.
     “Thanks, but I think I know the difference between a tree branch rubbing against a window and the sound of something scraping away inside the damned wall,” he said coldly. “Anyway, if you say you can’t find anything, there’s really nothing more to discuss. Please send me the bill.”
     Danvers held up his hands.  He didn’t want to get Hankins riled.  A service call was a $200 billing, and if Hankins got angry enough, he might call in Ace Pest Control, the company in the county seat. If that happened, Ace would end up picking up the $200 and expenses, not Danvers.
     “Tell you what I’ll do, sir,” he said. “I’ll set some traps – for insects and rodents, both.  Then I will come back next Tuesday and we can check them together.  I’m not saying I’m perfect, Mr. Hankins: maybe I missed something today.  But if there’s bug or beasts here, we’ll certainly have some trace of them in the traps a week from now and we can figure out what to do about ‘em then.”
     “You’ve got a deal,” Hankins said offering Danvers his hand. They shook on it and the pest management  technician climbed back into his van and left.
     When the exterminator was gone, Hankins sighed and walked out onto the porch, taking a seat on the swinging bench and putting his feet up on the balustrade.  He dug a cigarette out of the package in his breast pocket, lit it and breathed a long, ragged stream of smoke.
     In the willow thicket down by the creek, a blue jay squawked irritably.  He could smell moldering leaves from the line of live oaks to the south, along the country road.  The sunlight hit at an angle that told him it was fall, usually his most productive time of year; but not this year. Considering how little he had accomplished in the last few weeks, he might as well have had his hands cut off.
     Or his head.
     This scratching stuff, he thought. What if it’s just psychological? Maybe these animals I think I’m hearing, digging around inside the walls, are just a fantasy – something my subconscious has me thinking about instead of focusing on my fiction?
     He sighed, finished his cigarette and went back inside.
     Regardless of Danvers’ findings, the scratching sound resumed that night. Almost immediately after midnight, the scraping would begin deep inside the walls of the Jenkins place. Hankins turned the house inside out looking for its cause but finding no trace of animals or insects. 
     The scritch, scritch soon was augmented by a weird skittering noise that sounded as if it might be made by small animals chasing each other on a bare wooden floor. At nights, in the dark, this new sound was utterly unnerving.  Hankins feared closing his eyes lest some small animal might run across face when the noise was loudest and most insistent.
     As the week dragged along, there seemed to be a steady increase in the number of scratchers scraping away inside the walls.  Hankins tossed, turned and tried little wads of toilet paper to plug his ears but the sound continued to keep him awake. 
The noise got to Princess, too, though it didn’t seem to be keeping her awake.  She had always insisted on getting a full eighteen hours of sleep each day, but since her second night at the Jenkins place, she slept even more, though fitfully. She was seriously off her feed, leaving wet food in her bowl until it was so dried out Hankins had to discard it. And she spent the first part of each night at the foot of Hankins’ bed, staring into the darkness, and growling and hissing at the scrabbling sound inside the walls.
Then, suddenly, his cat simply disappeared.


  ***

Hankins fell asleep on the couch, dreaming fitfully of rats and spiders. When he awoke, he wasn’t sure where he was.
     Princess, who had been next to him on the sofa when he dropped off, was nowhere in sight. Wet food and a small amount of kibble were waiting for her in the kitchen, but when he checked it, it hadn’t been touched. 
     He tried sitting down behind the laptop to work, but found himself worrying about his cat. He couldn’t stop wondering where she had gone. 
     Finally, upset and restless, he made another unsuccessful circuit through the old house , wandering from room to room calling her name and making the little smooching sounds that he normally used to summon her for meals. He got no response at all. He seemed to be utterly alone in the old Victorian farmhouse.
     He sat down behind the computer and turned it on but found himself listening intently for Princess’s meow instead of working. With his mind wandering aimlessly, it took him more than an hour to re-read what he had already written but he was unable to focus sufficiently to add anything to it.
     The rest of the night he napped intermittently at the table in the living room as the storm raged outside. He struggled to work during his periods of wakefulness but no sooner dropped off than he would wake up worrying about Princess. Between dwelling on his nocturnal visitors, his missing cat and his idiotic writer’s block, he simply could not keep his eyes closed.
     He looked down at his laptop and saw the cursor was on page two hundred and twenty three; he had managed to write six pages in the three weeks since he first called Rebecca.
      “Shit,” he said irritably.
     He wished he knew where his cat was.

  
  ***

     When the exterminator returned, the traps he’d set were empty.
     “That’s so hard to believe,” Hankins said, his bloodshot eyes bearing witness to the fact he hadn’t had more than a few hours of sleep since the last time Danvers had been there. “The noise not only continues but actually gets worse each night. You didn’t by any chance see my cat while you were checking the traps, did you?”
     Danvers frowned. “No, why do you ask?”
     “She’s turned up missing,” Hankins replied. “Actually, she disappeared the last day you were here.”
     “You don’t suppose she got in my truck or something, do you?”
     Hankins shook his head. “No. She was sleeping beside me on the couch after you left.  When I woke up, she was gone. I haven’t seen here since then, even though I’ve gone through the house a half dozen times looking.”
     Danvers shrugged. “Sorry I can’t help,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for anything as big as a cat when I was checking things out today, but I am pretty sure I would have noticed her, even if she had been hiding behind the ductwork for the furnace or something.  I didn’t see so much as a whisker.  Nothing down there but spider webs and dust.”
     Hankins wasn’t sure that made him feel better.
     “If you couldn’t find any signs of vermin, I can’t understand what’s making this noise at nights, then,” he said.     Suddenly he remembered the large spider he had seen on top of the fireplace.
      “Wait a minute: you said there were cobwebs in the basement and attic,” he said, rubbing his forehead in an effort to recall his earlier conversation with the pest man. “I saw a really big spider on the fireplace the second day we were here.  Looked like a black widow. Is there any chance these noises are being made by spiders?”
     Danvers shook his head. “There are definitely lots of fresh spider webs in both places, nut spiders don’t have the bulk to make the kind of sound you say your critters are making.”
     “This one was really big – nearly three inches long.”
     “Probably wasn’t a widow, then. They are pretty small, generally not more than an inch and a half.”
     “Are they dangerous?” Hankins asked.
     “Hell, yeah, if they bite you,” Danvers said with a smile. “But they don’t often bite people.  I understand about 2,500 black widow bites are reported in this country – one for every 120,000 people, give or take. And of those, only around four bites a year are fatal.
     Hankins’ face showed surprise.
     “Mostly black widows bite bugs,” Danvers explained. “That’s what they eat. That’s why those webs I found are actually a good thing – they mean some kind of web-spinning spiders are eating bugs here.  I doubt that they are making any noise you would be able to hear, though.”
     “I recall hearing that black widows have a more powerful poison than rattlesnakes,” Hankins said.
     “So I understand,” Danvers said. “But most bitings are accidental – somebody sticks a finger into a web and the spider thinks that it’s prey.  Or somebody sits on a spider they didn’t see.  Even then, the bites are only considered dangerous to little kids, really old folks or people who are already in poor health. Most people get over black widow bites.”
     “Besides,” Danvers said, “to make the kind of noise you say you been hearing every night, you would have to have black widows the size of mice – something that weighed close to an ounce, maybe more.”
     Hankins shuddered at the thought of a black widow that big.
     Danvers pushed back his cap. “And to create a tussle where they were making noise on all sides of you, you would have to have a big goddamn bunch of them. They’ve starve off before you got that many because you couldn’t possibly have enough insects to feed them all. Even if you did, you’d sure have more black widows living here than I’ve ever heard of living in one place.”
     The thought that the Jenkins’ farm could be teeming with poisonous spiders the size of rodents inside its walls made Hankins’s flesh creep.  Danvers was probably right: whatever was making those sounds probably had nothing to do with the spider he had seen.
     And so far, the noise, though exasperating and irritating, seemed basically benign. The scratching sound was keeping him from sleeping -- and playing hell with his ability to work -- but whatever was making it hadn’t caused any harm.
     At least, not so far.

  ***


     Danvers agreed to return and check the traps again the following Tuesday and Hankins returned to his daily ritual of writing a few hundred words while nodding off behind his laptop, then deleting them all as unsatisfactory before shutting down for the night. Somehow he had gone from writing more than 10,000 words in his first two days at the Jenkins place to grinding out less than 2,000 total in the three weeks that followed.  At that pace, he might die of old age before he finished his book.
     He had called Rebecca and told her he was running into difficulty with the book and was trying to work through it, primarily to postpone the celebratory steak dinner she had offered to prepare when he seemed to be making rapid progress.  He didn’t mention the scratching sound, or that sleep deprivation was his real problem. It was clear the exterminator and the real estate agent both thought he was crazy; the last thing he needed was for his agent to come to the same conclusion.
     In recent days, he had started setting his laptop up in front of the big picture window in the Jenkins’ living room and spending most of the day staring out at the sun-baked yard. His output had fallen off to nothing; he barely looked at his computer as he sat there, watching the birds and insects outside and trying to stay awake. He even had tried napping in the daytime – he never heard the scratching noise when the sun was shining -- but he found it difficult to get comfortable and spent most of his naptime peering at the ceiling above his bed and thinking about the invisible noisemakers someplace behind the walls that were keeping him awake at night.
     Two days after Danvers’ second visit, Hankins stood by the window, yawning and drinking a cup of tea, watching thunderheads move in from the West until the sky was so full of water he thought it would gush down and flood the entire valley. Suddenly he saw movement in the yard near a clump of brush close to the scrub oak tree.  It seemed to be a small brown animal waddling laboriously alongside the hard-pan surface of the driveway, lurching really, as if it was barely able to move. The creature, whatever it was, was moving away from the house.
     Hankins put his cup down and went outdoors.
     The air smelled like rain and the wind was so cold that he was sorry he hadn’t fetched his jacket before stepping outside.  He figured that the animal would be difficult to locate because it would hear him coming and hide, but it was actually easy to find: the beast was apparently moving in such a strange way because it was very sick, and when he came alongside it, it was lying on its side, trembling violently, its tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth.  It was a red squirrel, about ten inches long from nose to rump, a lot like the one he’d seen on his second day in the Jenkins place.
     Only this one wasn’t fat and healthy looking. There were large patches of fur missing from its pelt and its eyes were covered with a dull gray film.  Its tail looked ratty and full of grit and little bits of lint and straw. 
     There was brown goo dried in scabrous layers around the animal’s mouth that looked like coagulated blood. It seemed to be in its final death throes, still clawing at the earth in its effort to move further away from the house.  Hankins wondered if the animal had found its way inside somehow, but immediately dismissed the idea; if the creature was dying and could get into the mansion, it would probably stay there where it had shelter rather than return to the wild, particularly with a storm coming on. 
     For a moment, he thought the squirrel might have consumed some poison left behind by the exterminator, but he realized that Danvers hadn’t used any poisons – only traps.
     The creature had stopped, apparently too weak to move any further. It seemed to hear Hankin’s footfalls, because it raised its head with a jerky, palsied motion, trying to see him with eyes that looked like cooked egg whites. Hankins was overcome with feelings of pity and helplessness: he had never seen an animal that looked that sick.  If he’d had a gun, he would have shot it just to end its obvious misery.
     As he watched, the squirrel slowly laid its head on the ground. It trembled for a moment then convulsed in one final massive twitch.  Hankins guessed it had succumbed to its illness and he stooped down and used a short piece of tree limb to poke at the animal.  To his surprise, its sides quivered, even though the rest of the squirrel’s body remained still.
     “So maybe you aren’t dead after all,” he murmured as he prodded the beast again.
     The rodent seemed to cough and its jaws opened in a hideous gape.   Hankins gave it a final poke and to his disgust, it seemed to spasmodically vomit a mass of tiny, crawling creatures coated with rusty-colored mucous from its insides.  At first Hankins thought the beast was ejecting parasites but as he watched the series of seizures, he realized that the squirrel was actually quite dead; the thousands of tiny animals were actually causing the paroxysms by pushing themselves up out of their host’s throat in a series of wavelike gushes.
     The sea of tiny reddish creatures swarmed out of the rodent’s mouth, leaving the carcass of the animal flat behind them like week-old road kill.  They had apparently been consuming the squirrel while hiding inside its body, sustaining themselves by draining its life. They turned, en masse, toward the Jenkins mansion, moving like a small, rust-colored river.
     Hankins, shaking with disgust, dropped the stick and ran to the house without looking back. The creatures that gushed out of the dead rat’s mouth weren’t parasites, at least not any kind that Hankins had ever seen.
     They were tiny spiders.


  ***


     The storm began in earnest about an hour later, sending sheets of rain pounding against the windows so hard that Hankins feared they would shatter. Outside, the wind howled, bending the scrub oak and the other trees in the yard at extreme angles.  Rainwater welled in the front yard faster than it could drain away, and quickly reached the top of the first stair at the entryway, lapping up over the wood like tiny waves against a breakwater.  If the Jenkins mansion had leaks in its roof, Hankins would find out about them soon.
     He was still shaking from his gruesome experience with the squirrel in the front yard. He had never seen anything like it before and the memory kept him shivering long after he was out of the chill wind. 
     At first he couldn’t conceive how all those little creatures had got inside the rodent. He wondered if it had been stung into submission by an adult spider that then laid eggs inside it and left it to nurture its offspring and serve as a temporary home for them until they were big enough to fend for themselves.
     Since the squirrel was still moving when he first spotted it, he assumed that the initial poison must have worn off eventually, leaving the animal alive and conscious – at least as conscious as a squirrel can be.  Eventually the eggs hatched and the little spiderlings -- was that a legitimate word? – began to consume the rodent’s internal organs.
     His writer’s imagination found it easy to conjure what the poor animal’s last hours had been like, with thousands of baby spiders gorging inside him, storing up the energy to burst forth when the squirrel collapsed, unable to go on. 
     For a moment he wondered if the animal in the front yard was the same squirrel he had seen eating rose hips when he first arrived.  Finally he decided it wasn’t possible: the creature under the rose bush had intelligent looking brown eyes so dark and shiny they seemed like lumps of glossy coal.  In addition, it had to weigh three times as much as the one he had just watched die.
     The dead animal’s pelt looked moth-eaten, dull and thin. It was so skinny it looked like a moderately strong breeze would blow it into the middle of Nevada.  And its opaque eyes did not look as if they had ever been capable of vision.
     He shuddered as he thought of how the animal had died. 
     What worried him most was the way in which the river of tiny spiders had made directly for the mansion.   He hadn’t waited to see whether they continued moving that way because he was too anxious to get away from the desiccated carcass. The notion that those nasty little parasites could end up inside, where he was living, chilled him to the bone.
     Reluctantly, Hankins wondered if they had something to do with the scratching sound in the mansion’s walls.
     He looked out the window. The cloud cover had blotted out the sunshine that had been baking the valley since he first arrived, and it was almost as dark outside as it got at night. He decided he’d had enough. Tomorrow morning he would go through the house again from top to bottom until he found his kitty. When he found her, he and Princess were packing up and heading back to the city.


  ***


      A flash of lightning that filled the room with light awakened him with a start and as he rubbed his eyes open, a crack and rumble of thunder shook the house.  He realized that he had dropped off in the late afternoon gloom, napping fitfully for the first time in days. He stood up and stretched, then moved to the front window as another flash occurred.  His wrist watch told him it was a little after 2 p.m.
     The rain was torrential, and the yard looked like a lake with various trees and bushes growing from it.  Hankins could see that flooding had pushed the water over the second riser on the front steps. Suddenly it occurred to him that the windows in the foundation at the front of the house were probably partially submerged by the rainwater.  He strode quickly to the cellar door and flipped the switch for the light downstairs. There was a crack, the smell of ozone and a flash before the other lights in the house went black.
     Feeling his way around the countertops, Hankins managed to find the flashlight he had left next to the range in case of emergencies.   Fortunately, it had plenty of battery power and he went back to the cellar door with the beam trained into the darkness at the bottom of the steps.
     There was at least a foot of water in the basement and the light from the torch showed more gushing around the bottom of the three windows high on the cellar wall.  The cascade had poured down the electrical conduit next to the window into the circuit breaker, which was blackened and smoking. Apparently, turning on the basement light had short-circuited the power to the entire house.
     “Shit,” Hankins muttered as he flicked the switch off and then back on. A shower of sparks sprayed from the circuit breaker the second time but after that it was completely dead. There would be no electricity until the storm had passed and the water had been pumped out of the basement; He feared that if he stepped into the water at the bottom of the stairs, he might be electrocuted.
     Hankins closed the cellar door and patrolled the house quickly. He still saw no sign of Princess but his investigation confirmed that the entire house was without power.
     Returning to the living room window he watched lightning strike, bolt after bolt, as the storm shrieked on. Most of it landed in the trees and rocky outcroppings that circled the Jenkins farm but some hit much closer.  He could see that one strike had split a power pole on the opposite side of the road from the house, shearing off the crossbars on which its wires were suspended.  As he stared at the smoking pole, he realized the power lines that were now lying in the mud below it probably were telephone cables.
     He lifted the receiver on the extension next to the mantle and listened.  Sure enough, silence greeted him.
     “Double shit,” Hankins said as he flopped down on the sofa and stared bleakly out the window. No electricity, no telephone, no cat. How could things get any worse?
     Almost as if in answer, a twisting snake of lightning sank its fangs into the top of the huge live oak tree that overhung the driveway, sending a shower of blazing wood into the boggy swamp that had been created by the rain. The tree gave a moan and seemed to move in slow motion as it fell across the roof of Hankins’ old Toyota sedan, crushing the vehicle’s rear end to the ground and pinning it under a smoking mass of hundred-year-old firewood.
     Hankins flopped down on the sofa with a groan, overcome by dark feelings of helplessness as he realized he was completely trapped. It would take most of a day to reach Copley on a sunny day, walking on dry ground; he had no idea how long the hike would take in a driving rain, tramping through ankle-deep mud. He had no phone and no electrical power. A mail carrier drove by once a day to stuff advertisements and other junk mail into the box near the county road, but he – or she -- showed up at such irregular hours that Hankins had never seen the delivery. Keeping an eye open for a visit from the U.S. Mail would be an all-day job.
     In fact, the only guaranteed contact the writer would have with another human being would be Danvers’ next pest control call in four days.
     The wind whipped sheets of hard rain against the living room window with a rattle.  Hankins shivered.
     To make things worse, as soon as midnight rolled around, the damned scratchers would be back.
     Princess finally showed up a few minutes after seven, when whatever sun there was behind the clouds that choked the sky had finally dropped so low that it seemed like the middle of the night, anyway.  When she did, Hankins was sorry she had.
     Hankins had spent the rest of the afternoon out in the storm with a rusty cross cut saw he’d found on the back porch, struggling to cut enough branches off the oak tree to move it off the car.  The effort had been a waste of time: the tool was far too dull to shred its way through the tough green wood and all he got for three hours of back-breaking labor were blistered hands, aching arm muscles and a thick, stiff coating of mud from the soles of his shoes to the belt loops of his trousers.
     He finally threw the saw down in the mud in disgust and climbed up the stairs to the house, bent like an 80-year-old from the strain of his exertions. Flopping on the couch, he was overcome by lassitude, staring out the window without actually seeing anything outside.
     A strange noise in the kitchen -- a repetitive, mechanical wheeze, like some living creature struggling to breathe -- drew the writer’s attention. For a moment, the sound shook him out of his melancholy. Grabbing the flashlight, he made his way into the pitch-black room and looked for its source.
     During his earlier searches for Princess, Hankins’ visits to the kitchen had been limited to opening the deeper drawers and cupboards against the possibility that she had crawled into one and had it close behind her inadvertently. But this time he trained his light in all the nooks and  found his cat on the floor with her head and forepaws sticking out from behind the gas range he used to warm canned soup and other quick food items for his meals.
     He knew immediately that she was very sick:  the wheezing sound he’d heard came from her throat as she struggled to breathe, barely getting enough air into her lungs to raise her flanks.   She had lost an amazing amount of weight in the last few days, and clumps of her fur had fallen away, exposing patches of rashy sores underneath. Worst of all, as he spoke to her quietly, comforting her, she raised her head slightly toward the sound of his voice, but could obviously see nothing. Her eyes had the same milky dullness as those of the squirrel Hankins had found in the front yard.  Hankins could tell that Princess was on the verge of dying exactly as the squirrel had.
     The flashlight, an old-fashioned variety that drained power from D-cell batteries like an electric vampire, had been growing dimmer for the last hour.  As Hankins tried to ease his beloved pet’s suffering, the torch flickered twice and went out.  Swearing quietly, he went to the living room and brought the last of the votive candles back to the stove before lighting it.
     Prinny made a dry rasping sound. He gently stroked her forehead where her fur was marked with a little blaze of white.  She felt sticky and deathly cold, like a piece of raw meat freshly unwrapped from the butcher shop.  She opened her jaws to meow in response to his touch, but her squeak was barely audible. Then she wheezed again and began to hack, spasmodically, as if she was trying to pass a hairball too large for her throat.
     The cat’s entire body gave a shake and she closed her eyes, squeezing out a viscous yellow fluid as she did.  She shuddered and her jaws gaped in what appeared to be her final agony. Afterward she laid still as a statue.
     As Hankins stared in speechless horror, waves of tiny baby spiders gushed forth from her mouth, spewing out in such large numbers that they seemed to animate her lifeless head. 
     He grabbed the frying pan he’d left on top of the range, swinging it down on the river of tiny arachnids time and time again, until the flow from his cat’s mouth had ended and the creatures who had been hatching, feeding and growing inside her for the last week were a paste of reddish goo smeared across the kitchen linoleum.
     He screamed the whole time he was smashing the spiders. And he continued to scream as he crept back into the living room and sat on the couch, rocking back and forth, his arms folded around his knees as if he was trying to fold himself into a fetal position.

  
  ***

     At a little before midnight, he was still sitting there, keening to himself and staring out the window without comprehension.  His eyes were swollen and red.  He wasn’t sure if his tears were for his poor dead cat or for himself; in a way, it hardly seemed to matter: he was quite certain they’d be together soon, anyhow, one way or another. As soon as the river of tiny spiders had gushed from Prinnie’s mouth, he knew sooner or later he would face the same fate.
     He looked away from the window, into the darkness that seemed to seethe like a tide around him. For a moment he thought he’d heard something, but now he wasn’t sure. The glowing hands of his wristwatch were barely visible but he could see them well enough to tell they were almost perfectly aligned on the twelve.
     It won’t be long now, he thought.
     Almost as if on cue, a tiny rasping sound that was barely audible came from the kitchen, answered a moment later by one from the bedroom upstairs.
     Hankins listened, numbly.
     The scratchers were back, right on time.

 End

(This story is one of a collection that appears in my anthology, Little Nightmares. The entire anthology is for sale at $2.99 and can be found at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Diesel Books and other eBook merchants. ) 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Several Hits, No Misses in New Block "Novel" About Assassin John Keller

By Lawrence Block
352 pages
(Mulholland Books; Oct. 8, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0316127345
ISBN-13: 978-0316127349

Nicholas Edwards lives in New Orleans with his wife and young daughter, renovates houses for a living and collects international stamps in his spare time.

But in his former home town of New York, Edwards is better known as John Keller, a veteran killer who murders people for money.

Keller is the creation of Edgar-winning crime author Lawrence Block, the author of more than fifty novels in a career that dates back to 1958 when Block got his start by grinding out porno tales, some of them in collaboration with the late Donald E. Westlake. Rated as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, Block is one of America's best-known practitioners of the crime novel and has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards for his stories about cops, private eyes and criminals.

Lawrence Block: The author worked with Donald E. Westlake when he was starting out and has created a couple of profession criminal protagonists similar to Westlake's robber, Parker.

Like Parker, the professional thief created by his former partner Westlake, Block's Keller and his fictional burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr are criminals, though Keller is the more successful of the two.

Hit Me, Block's latest Keller offering, is an episodic work, less a novel than a group of novella-length stories loosely related to each other. Each features Keller receiving an assignment from his "agent," a woman named Dot, and all but one of his contracts is concluded within the pages of the book.

The novel is well-structured, humorous and fast-paced. It is the first Block I have read, but it is one of the best-crafted books I have enjoyed recently and it has me looking forward to reading a lot more of his stuff.

Keller's obsessive search for rare and not-so-rare postage stamps (his collection is limited to non-U.S. stamps issued prior to 1940) figures in all but one of the murders in this novel, usually as a pretext for traveling to the region where the victim is to be killed.

I know what you are probably thinking: "A stamp collecting hit-man? Really?"

It's true. And while philately may sound like a dull element to include in a crime story, Block writes about the subject with a light touch that informs the reader about the subject in a surprisingly painless way. The stamp-collecting back story not only helps drive each tale's narrative, but does so without gumming it up.

Trust me -- it works.

The challenge in each of Keller's assignments in Hit Me is finding a way to eliminate the victim without being caught or leaving clues that investigators can use to track him down. In some cases, that involves penetrating a tough security system or getting around bodyguards; in others, the trick is to mislead the police about who committed the crime -- and to obscure the identity of the people who actually hired Keller to commit it.

Unlike "tea cozy" mysteries in which rare poisons, toxic vermin or ingenious death traps dispatch the victims, Keller uses whatever makeshift weapon is at hand to commit his crimes.  In only one of the tales that make up Hit Me is the mechanism of the assassination more exotic than a kitchen knife.

Books based on the activities of anti-heroes like Keller, Westlake's Parker or Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley can be problematic: when the protagonist is a crook, particularly one who doesn't blanch at murder, it is frequently difficult to make him or her sympathetic to the reader. But Block has come up with a formula that works nicely in this book by making sure that each person Keller rubs out has convincingly earned his or her death, with the result that the killer -- even though a criminal --  actually appears to be functioning as an agent of rough justice.

This means that the reader feels no remorse while cheering Keller on. As a result, what suspense is generated by the book stems from the reader's concern whether Keller, an affable and dryly witty fellow who follows a strict albeit somewhat twisted ethical code, somehow will slip up and be captured, not whether the victim survives.

Block also manages to make the murders themselves remarkably bloodless: the greater part of each segment of Hit Me involves Keller's work in setting up the assignment, locating the target and preparing for the kill.  

The actual execution generally takes place off-camera and is briefly described after the fact, either in Keller's conversations with Dot or with his wife, Julia.

Because he wastes almost no time recreating the crime, Block not only spares the reader from blood and gore but also is able to concentrate his considerable story-telling talents on the personalities of the people his killer deals with. He manages to capture his characters through brief, vivid descriptions that sometimes involve only a word or two, and by putting tightly written  dialog in their mouths that drives the story forward in a dry and amusing fashion.

For example, in one of the stories, Keller is discussing
a Catholic monastery abbot who has become involved in a variety of criminal activities including money laundering for organized crime and the sale of stolen human organs on the international medical black market. At one point in the conversation, Dot asks rhetorically what Monks normally do.

"Pray," Keller guessed. "Bake bread. Make cordials."
"Cordials?"
"Benedictine? Chartreuse?"
"Monks make those? I thought that was Seagram's."
"Monks started it. Maybe they sold the business. I think basically they pray and maybe work in the garden."
"The garden variety monks work in the garden," she suggested. "The laundry variety monks keep themselves occupied with money and kidneys. See, the abbot was in cahoots with all the politicians."
"Felonious Monks," Keller said. "Dot, don't you don't think that was funny?"
"I chuckled a little," she said.

In another segment, he is chatting with his wife Julia, a former Catholic church member, about his little daughter, Jenny.

"I never asked you if you wanted Jenny baptized," he remarks.

"Don't you think I'd have said something? Do you even know what baptism is for?"
"Isn't it to make you a Catholic?"
"No, darling, guilt is what makes you a Catholic."

It isn't often that I laugh out loud when reading about the exploits of a paid killer; while enjoying Hit Me, however, I did exactly that -- frequently. I ended up reading several sections to my wife, who doesn't even like this type of story; as it turned out, she laughed, too, so I guess  the book is genuinely funny.

In a couple of the stories that comprise Block's loose novel, sheer happenstance plays a role: Keller actually murders the wrong person in one of the segments. The satisfyingly ironic way in which that  seemingly intractable error works itself out simply has to be read to be believed.

Though Hit Me lacks the coherence -- and in some ways, the catharsis -- of a more traditionally constructed novel, its episodic structure actually has its advantages in our busy age when finding the time to read a 300-plus page book can be a challenge: each of the stories that comprise the total are long enough for a single sit-down. This means that, while the book holds the reader's attention, it is broken up into small enough portions that it can be enjoyed over the course of several evenings.

According to Block's website, his other professional criminal, second-story man Bernie Rhodenbarr (Burglars Can't Be Choosers, 1977; The Burglar on the Prowl, 2004), is scheduled to make a new appearance this Christmas. The gentleman thief will be the protagonist in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, available both as a trade paperbook or an eBook through Amazon on Dec. 25.

My advice? Check it out. The author has earned his many honors and I am looking forward to his next offering.