Authors: Jan Strnad
short stories are copyright © 2010 by Jan S. Strnad. All rights reserved.
was previously published by Pinnacle Books, an imprint of Kensington Publishing Corp., under the pseudonym J. Knight. The novel and short stories have been revised for the current edition.
Web page: www.atombrain.com
Kindle Edition, License Notes
This digital edition of
is provided without copy protection (DRM) because DRM limits the buyer's ability to make back-up copies and to read the book on a variety of devices. The author does not believe in selling a book "crippled" by DRM. If you believe in supporting living authors, please do not give copies of this book away. If you have received this book for free, please consider purchasing more of the author's work. After all, he has a three-legged dog to feed.
has spent most of his life sitting in a small room writing stories. It's what he did in his home town of Wichita, Kansas, and it's what he did after he moved to Los Angeles with his wife Julie.
He's written comic books, cartoons, screenplays and teleplays. He's worked for Disney and Fox and MGM and Universal and a number of other studios.
is his second novel.
Here are answers to the questions everybody asks:
"Jan" as in "Jan and Dean" (not "Yahn"). His parents named him after the comedian Jan Murray.
The murdered man's body floated near the bottom of the Cooves County Reservoir.
A twelve-foot length of rusted chain pinned his arms to his sides, bound his wrists, ran down between his legs and looped twice around his ankles. From there it plunged straight down another four feet where the last link clung to a metal pole sunk ten inches into a ragged block of concrete.
The few hairs on his nearly bald head waved like seaweed on currents stirred up by lazy catfish. Mud swirled around his face. Turtles nibbled his fingertips.
The murdered man woke. His eyes flashed open, alive with comprehension and fear. He strained to free his arms, kicked and wiggled and squirmed. His body thrashed convulsively.
He wrenched at the chains around his ankles and wrists. He twisted his body one way and the other, fighting the impulse to scream. Panic rose in his throat.
When he could hold it no longer, the murdered man's breath exploded from his mouth. His terrified eyes followed the ascent of bubbles as they fled to the surface. His lungs drew in fish-soiled water. He gagged. His heaving chest pumped water with great spasmodic gulps.
He pulled at the chain, testing for the one weak link that would let his body follow his breath to freedom. The metal post rocked like a child's lead-bottomed toy, but the concrete block refused to budge from the lake floor. The chains held fast.
Bubbles exploded on the surface of the lake, shattering the sliver of crescent moon reflected on the surface. The water boiled for long moments. Ripples chased each other toward the shore.
Below, the murdered man's body went limp, its drama spent. It undulated in the dying eddies of his struggle. Mud began the tedious process of settling around the concrete block while agitated fish resumed their rounds.
Above, the last bubble broke on the surface. The ripples died, the moon assembled its scattered parts, and the water lay smooth as a sheet.
From his desk at the
Cooves County Times
, Brant Kettering could keep tabs on most of downtown Anderson.
The tiny office was one of two dozen storefronts located along Main Street. There was a hardware store, a movie house that charged two dollars a seat and was open only on Friday and Saturday nights, an insurance office, a grocery, the Sheriff's office...the usual assortment of Mom and Pop businesses that had served Anderson for the past fifty years. The only concession to modern times was the video rental store that had been opened by the owner of the movie house whose philosophy was, if television was going to drive him out of business, he'd as soon drive himself.
Parking was head-in and meterless. The streets were wide and lined with mature oaks. The tiny park that made up the town square boasted eight park benches, four trash cans, and a civil war cannon set in place by the local Optimists.
The cannon was aimed directly at Brant's head, a fact that seemed especially profound every Friday around noon when he knew he should have this week's
Cooves County Times
written and laid out on the Mac. Sloan Malone, the local printer, needed the layouts before lunch if Brant wanted his papers for Saturday distribution. The only way Brant could get a reasonable price on five thousand copies was if Sloan piggybacked Brant's print run with three other regional weeklies. Missing the deadline meant losing money on this week's edition rather than more or less breaking even after paying himself a modest salary as reporter, editor, photographer, typesetter, manager of distribution and executive in charge of advertising sales.
Brant sat and stared at eight empty column inches on the computer screen. He toyed with the idea of a humorous piece concerning the Optimists' cannon. What was so optimistic about setting a cannon in the middle of the town square? Wasn't that, in fact, a decidedly pessimistic act? From whom were the Optimists expecting an attack, the Rotarians?
Experience had taught him, however, that satire did not play well in Cooves County. Such a piece would surely inflame both the Optimists and the Rotarians, and the
paltry subscription list could hardly take a hit of that magnitude. After a few tentative opening sentences his finger mashed the "delete" button.
He'd planned to spend a few inches introducing the new preacher, Reverend Talbot Small, who'd joined the Anderson community two weeks before. But he'd put off the interview because preachers made him uncomfortable. They always wanted to know when they'd see Brant in church and Brant would stand there digging his finger in his ear while searching for a polite substitute for "when Hell freezes over." By now, word of mouth had spread whatever tales were worth telling about Reverend Small, which was typical of Anderson. What mere newspaperman could hope to keep up with the network of busy tongues that fueled the local rumor mill?
The tension was making itself felt in Brant's neck. He swiveled his head a few times, then he reached for the telephone to call his stringer at Anderson High School, a senior student named Tom Culler. The school secretary answered.
"Sorry, Brant. Tom's a no-show today," she said.
"Friday Flu. The usual gang's absent. Tom, Darren Coombs, Buzzy Hayes, Kent Fredericks. And the Ganger boy, of course."
Brant frowned. Tom had been a top student and a decent reporter. He'd written a column during his junior year, "My Town," that featured probing portraits of Anderson's notable citizens and their ancestors. Probing turned out to be even less popular than satire in Anderson. When Tom's research linked the current mayor's great-grandfather to deliberate attempts to spread smallpox among the local natives back in the 1850s, Brant had had to pull the plug on "My Town" or face the wrath of the entire Anderson political machine, such as it was. In a town this size, you either got along or you got out. Brant hadn't come to Anderson to make waves and "My Town," though cleverly written, was making new enemies for the paper with every edition.
He'd regretted that decision ever since. Yanking Tom's column was all the proof Tom needed that the entire adult world, and especially that of Anderson, was composed of crooks and hypocrites. Brant, an outsider, had been young Tom's lifeline out of cynicism, and Brant had cast him adrift.
In place of his final "My Town" column, Tom had submitted a poem by Emily Dickinson that began, "It fell so low in my regard/I heard it hit the ground." Brant printed the poem despite a prudent policy against verse of any kind. Since then he'd been flooded with unsolicited doggerel praising babies, pigs, springtime, summer, fall, winter and grandmother's old gnarled hands. As penance for what he'd done to Tom, Brant forced himself to read every one before rejecting it.
Tom's contributions to the
Cooves County Times
, which previously had included items on the new low-fat menu at the school cafeteria and the alarming rise in restroom vandalism, ceased abruptly. Brant was calling Tom now out of sheer desperation. Learning that Tom was hanging with the likes of the Ganger boy awakened a new guilt and Brant hung up the phone feeling like a hundred-seventy-five pounds of horse manure.
And he still had eight column inches to fill.
Bleakly he dialed the number for the parsonage and offered his belated welcome to the Reverend Small.
Brant finished modeming his layouts to Sloan Malone and locked up the office behind him. His neck was tight as a piano wire after the Reverend Small interview. Of course the Reverend had asked when he'd see Brant in church.
"I'm not much of a church-goer," he'd mumbled, meaning, "If you ask me, the church has been responsible for more misery in the form of guilt, shame, and outright bloody warfare than it could make up for with a thousand years of hospital visits and youth volleyball nights, so don't expect to see my hands passing around the collection plate this Sunday or any other."
Brant was swiveling his head and concentrating on the crunching, popping noises from his neck when he stepped into the path of the local mortician, an exuberant and smiling man named, inappropriately, Jedediah Grimm.
Brant was in his late thirties and Grimm was easily ten years his senior, but Grimm's vigor put Brant to shame. Grimm's barrel chest produced a loud, full voice that would have been at home behind Reverend Small's pulpit. Brant couldn't imagine Grimm speaking in the hushed tones of a mortician comforting the bereaved and, since Brant had no family within a five hundred mile radius, he didn't expect to see Jedediah Grimm at work until Brant's own interment, at which point he'd hardly be in any position to observe anything.
"Whoa!" Grimm said as if reining in a team of Clydesdales. His brawny hands caught Brant in the chest and Brant felt immediately puny and foolish. "That neck again?" Grimm asked.
"Nothing a potion of lime juice and tequila wouldn't cure."
"All it wants is a twist," Grimm offered. "Let me give it a try."
He spun Brant around but Brant ducked skillfully before Grimm could lay hold of his head.
"No offense, but I never take medical advice from a mortician," Brant said.
"Maybe you should have Doc Milford take a look at it. He'll tell you it only wants a twist."
"Maybe I will."
The two men waved their good-byes as Brant headed across Main Street toward Ma's Diner.
The bell on the door announced his arrival. The sole waitress, Peg Culler, turned and gave him a smile. "Hi, stranger," she said. It was their personal joke, a reference to Brant's lack of tenure in Anderson.
Peg remembered their first meeting clearly. She'd told him to sit anywhere and she'd be right with him. He'd said, "Great, but who's going to bring us our food?" Peg was busy juggling four lunch specials and two boats of gravy on the side and didn't realize for a couple of minutes that she'd just been flirted with, however clumsily, by an attractive out-of-towner. By the time it dawned on her, Brant was sitting at the counter and had already helped himself to a menu. He looked up sheepishly as she approached.
"Sorry about the wisecrack," he said.
"Oh, no. It was funny."
"You didn't laugh."
"Well, not funny exactly, but...." Words failed her.
"Droll? Witty? Clever? You can lie and say 'yes' at any time."
Peg laughed genuinely. The stranger had smiled an easy smile and asked what was good.
"The chicken fried steaks come frozen, so they're safe. There's not much damage you can do to mashed potatoes. The gravy's not bad...it's Heinz...and the green beans are straight from the can."