Dornan showed up at the restaurant a half hour earlier than they'd agreed upon. He parked his 1983 Crown Victoria across the street in a parking lot behind a Burger King, killed the engine and rolled down the windows. He sat and watched the restaurant across the street, periodically lifting the Styrofoam cup he'd wedged between the car's dashboard and window and sipping from it. A string ran down its side, ending in a paper tag that read "Lipton."As I've recounted elsewhere, I grew up with crime fiction but fell away from the genre during college and didn't return to it for years. But when I eventually started reading it again, I found a stripe of crime story I'd never read before -- hardboiled. Tough guys facing tough odds while uttering laconic one-liners studded with outlandish metaphors. I loved it.
He didn't like the place.
I also discovered the writing of Richard Stark, the penname under which comic crime author Donald Westlake penned his hardboiled and noir-tinged Parker novels. For the uninitiated, Parker is a professional thief and Very Nasty Man, one who's pathologically self-centered, utterly amoral, and not the least bit squeamish about killing those who cross him with anything ranging from submachine guns to his bare hands. Parker first appears in The Hunter, and while I deeply enjoyed the grim little novel overall, I strongly disliked Parker's attitude toward women. He uses and abuses them, both emotionally and physically. Nasty stuff.
My revulsion got the wheels turning upstairs: Could I write a Parker pastiche where the protagonist treated women like a gentleman?
So began "Empty Hours," a stripped-back hardboiled story about a tea-drinking chap named Dornan who (in his own words) "makes things right for people." In this instance, he's trying to fix something -- or someone -- for Juli, an attractive woman with a nervous twitch whose professional façade stands always about three blinks away from crumbling in on itself. During its many revisions, the story became something more than an admiring imitation of Richard Stark, going deeper and darker into the evil lurking unseen all around us -- and the evil crouching in our own hearts.
Needless to say, this one ain't for the kiddos.
"Empty Hours" appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir. Get your copy here. Many thanks to B. Nagel for providing much-needed feedback on an early draft. The story is better for it.