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The Burglar-Fiction by K. A. Williams
Bittersweet-Fiction by Jonathan Woods
Manny Dietrich's Adventure in the Blighted Kingdom-Fiction by Roger Johns
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Interviewing a New Employee-Fiction by Roy Dorman
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Impending Death-Daniel G. Snethen
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I Don't Want to Die, Ever, Then I'd Miss-Poem by Gale Acuff
Sometimes you die when it's really not your-Poem by Gale Acuff
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what is the cost-Poem by Judith Nielsen
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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Roger Johns—Manny Dietrich's Adventure in the Blighted Kingdom

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Art by Henry Stanton 2021

Manny Dietrich’s Adventure in the Blighted Kingdom

 

by Roger Johns

 

Christmas decorations during warm weather made Manny Dietrich feel blue, so he tried hard to avoid the Gulf Coast between Thanksgiving and New Year. But the bills didn’t pay themselves, so if the best loads took him south in the latter part of the year, that’s where he went.

          On the bright side, if he played his cards right, the high-value haul like the one he had just picked up from the electronics distributor near Corpus Christi could be the start of a nice book of profitable business––a very big deal for a chronically struggling, independent trucker. As he barreled down the ramp onto the Interstate, he was feeling pumped at the prospect of a steady stream of decent income. At last, he and Tina would be able to pay down some of their crushing debt, most of which could be chalked up to his penchant for sinking money into one can’t-miss scheme after another.

          Half an hour later, Manny checked his left-side mirror. Everything looked clear. He fingered his turn signal, counted off three blinks, then eased toward the passing lane to get away from the rocks blowing off the un-tarped gravel truck ahead of him. But, just as his front left wheel was crossing the line, a blue Challenger roared out of his blind spot, crowding him, forcing him to oversteer back into the slow lane. The abrupt change of direction made his trailer sway, causing the back of his cab to scuff sideways and lose traction for a second. Panic arced across his nerves as he struggled to stabilize the rig. After he got things under control, he drew in a deep breath then puffed it out, trying to tamp down the homicidal urges that inconsiderate drivers stirred inside him. As his calm returned, a stone from the gravel truck dinged high off the pavement and chipped a dime-sized star into his windshield, redlining his anger once again.

          Normally, he was keenly aware of when a tailgater was lurking in the long, wedge-shaped blind spot directly in back of his trailer, but he hadn’t seen the Challenger move in behind him because, for the last several minutes, his mind had been elsewhere. Specifically, it was throbbing in his pants, insisting he find a pay-to-play cutie to help him celebrate his newfound good fortune. He had promised himself, and Tina, that there’d be no more monkey business of that kind, but the pert looking female gate guard at the electronics company had vectored his thoughts off on one hell of a wicked tangent, and his filthy imagination had been hogging his attention ever since.

          “Satan, get thee behind me,” he muttered, over the wheedling voice of his domineering penis that never knew when to shut up.

          Forty-five minutes later, with the sun down and his better instincts still battling the forces in his nether regions, Manny found himself guiding his Freightliner onto an exit that would take him to a truck stop he had been to before. At the top of the ramp, he turned right, even as he told himself he shouldn’t. He finally had a good thing going, so why risk the prospect of lasting happiness for a few frenzied minutes of feeling good. Still pondering that question, he turned into the lot.

The asphalt was potholed and rutted, and some of the holes were full of rainwater, so Manny maneuvered carefully. Drifts of litter swirled and scudded through the beams of his headlights. As he continued forward, he noticed the limp strands of half-burned-out Christmas lights sagging from the canopy over the fuel pumps. The once tidy establishment had become a dismal, uninviting place since his last visit.

He wondered whether this decline was a danger signal from the universe, urging him to take back control from the smooth-talking demons that were goading him ever closer to the near occasion of sin. Excellent idea, he thought, then steered away from the shadowy perimeter and headed for the brightly lit parking lane closest to the restaurant. He’d just pop in for a quick bite, then get rolling again.

          About fifty yards out, the owner, who Manny recognized from other times he’d been here, came hustling over with an orange traffic cone, waving him toward the far side of the tarmac.

          “What the…” He took his hands off the wheel and shrugged.

          The man positioned the cone in the center of the lane, then ambled toward the cab, twirling a finger for Manny to roll down his window.

          Manny eased to a stop and lowered the glass.

          “The last two rigs through that lane picked up some metal in their tires,” the guy hollered, over the valve clatter of the big diesel. “Until I can run the sweeper-magnet over it, I don’t want anybody else going through there. The only pull-through left is on the outside of that dry bulk tanker.” The man pointed toward the edge of the lot.

          “Fair enough.” Manny nodded and snapped off a thank-you salute, then raised the window and leaned into the wheel to make the turn. “Do not go there,” he said out loud, as if hearing himself speak might prop up his fragile resolve. “Don’t even stop for dinner. Just loop your spineless, pathetic ass around the building and get back on the damn highway.”

          The murky fringes out beyond the tanker truck were a breeding ground for Manny’s darker desires––a blighted kingdom ruled by the lot lizards, those clever reptiles that slithered around in the oppressive gloom, preying on the weak and the lost. Tina would kill him and then divorce his dead body if she found out he was fooling around with truck stop hookers again. Tina was three inches taller than Manny, big-boned, and about as graceful on her feet as a clog dancer in scuba fins, but in bed she was lighter than air and, hands down, the most accomplished sexual athlete he had ever encountered. By comparison, sex with his first two wives had been about as much fun as jerking off with channel-lock pliers.

          Manny figured that after one night with Tina, any sane human would be forever blind to the charms of others, but when it came to his genitalia, Manny was nowhere close to being sane. He had tried more times than he could count to rid himself of his troublesome appetites, but nothing worked. Not prayer, not sex addiction therapy, not confession-and-remorse, not anything. He had sought salvation in all of them, and they had all let him down. His craving for the incandescent ecstasy of something really nasty and anonymous was hard-wired so deep into his nervous system that even the weeks of shame and self-loathing that always dogged him after he fell weren’t enough to keep him on the straight and narrow.

          Sometimes he could go for months without incident, but once his carnal appetites got inflamed nothing seemed too dumb or too desperate. And the trigger could be as innocent as a picture in a catalog––some high-class model in expensive clothes, with that pompous look that said ‘I know you want to take me down a peg or two, and you’re welcome to try, so why don’t you pull over at the next truck stop and find yourself a fuck-buddy and pretend it’s me when you’re rockin’ the cab, tryin’ to make me beg.’ Today, it had been that smokin’ hot rent-a-cop at the company gate, acting all tough and moving like a cat in that tailored uniform of hers. The only mercy in the whole business was that usually, when the fever was on him, his conscious mind wouldn’t even let him remember what Tina’s face looked like.

          Tonight, though, things would be different. With a renewed sense of determination, he aimed the truck toward the exit, but then he backed off the gas and coasted for a few seconds, thinking, reasoning that he shouldn’t just get back on the road. That would only be putting off the inevitable. He needed to drive a stake through the hunger that was dragging him toward the pit, so he turned toward the gloomy periphery and babied the accelerator until he was inching his way along the outside of the tanker. He would call Tina, and she would save him. On more than one occasion, the mere sound of her voice had hauled him back from the cliff.

          Manny brought the rig to a gentle stop. With the engine idling, he grabbed his phone and hovered his thumb over Tina’s number…then wondered. Was that a weary sadness he’d heard in her voice the last few times he made these calls? Surely, by now, she had wised up to the fact that ‘I just wanted to hear your voice,’ really meant ‘Talk to me or I might fork over a wad of cash to some tarted-up working girl so she’ll pretend to catch me acting sinful and then punish me in some mind-blowing taboo way.’ No, maybe these calls weren’t such a great idea after all.

Thinking about how often he had used her as crutch, and how she never complained, made Manny feel like shit. But when it dawned on him that, for the first time in a long time, he was judging his actions in terms of how they would affect his wife, he felt good again—like a decent guy, a real husband.

          He smiled and sat up straighter, deciding this wave of positive emotional energy was all he needed to win this one on his own. He dropped his phone into the cup holder, and was reaching for the gear shifter when he heard a knock and saw a woman’s smiling face in the narrow peek-a-boo window at the bottom of the passenger door. She cocked one eyebrow and tilted her head, causing the white pompom on her green velvet elf hat to dance a provocative little jig alongside her chin.

          Damn, this ain’t playin’ fair. He eyed his phone and thought about Tina, but when he reached for the phone, his hand just kept on going, all the way across the cab, until he popped the lock on the passenger door. Oh well, who ever said life was fair?

          The face disappeared and footsteps tapped along on the running board. Before Manny could rethink the situation, she was all the way in, leaning back against the door, her short skirt riding up as she pulled her knees to her chest. In the dim greenish light of the cab, Manny could see she wasn’t wearing panties. She lowered her oversized shoulder bag to the floor and watched him staring between her legs.

“You like my outfit?”

She snapped her head from side to side, whipping the pompom back and forth. Her eyes gleamed with a wild taunting look, then she stared down into her bag.

“Like the good little Santa’s elf that I am, I brought a bag full of toys.”

She pushed her mouth into an impish pout.

“You think I’ve got something you’d like to play with?”

          Manny glanced at the dash clock. He’d be cutting it close but, if he was back on the highway in under half an hour, he could still make his drop-off on time, and no one would ever know about this tiny indiscretion. What could possibly go wrong?

He smiled at the woman. “What kinda deal we talking?”

          “Depends on what you want to do.” She nibbled her lower lip, then looked away, a shy smile tugging at her mouth. “And where you want to do it.” She giggled and flashed a devilish grin. “For instance, my all-time favorite, involves this bad boy right here.”

Her gaze roamed across the ceiling of the cab. The plastic-on-plastic clatter, as she stirred her hand around inside her bag, sent visions of sex toys dancing in Manny’s head.

          “You think you can operate a power tool like this?” She laughed and leaned back so Manny could have a look.

As he bent over for a peek, her hand came out holding a pistol-grip stun gun. She pressed it into his left armpit and squeezed the trigger. As his limbs jittered and jerked, Manny caught sight of men’s faces just outside the little window at the bottom of the door. He heard the locks pop, then both doors came open. Cargo pirates.

Manny sensed someone step up behind him. A strip of duct tape was slapped across his mouth, a heavy cloth sack was dropped over his head, and strong arms bundled him into the sleeper cab. He heard the doors slam shut and the engine rumble, then felt his truck, with its big-dollar cargo, lurch into motion. Another jolt of current pushed Manny to the edge of awareness, where he finally realized how incredibly lucky he’d been to have Tina in his life. As a ligature was cinched tight around his neck, he wondered how she would remember him, and he wished he had been a better person.

END





Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is a 2018 Georgia Author of the Year, a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Award. His short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,  Mystery Weekly Magazine, and Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and Southern Writers Magazine. Along with several other crime fiction authors, he blogs at www.murder-books.com.




Henry Stanton's fiction, poetry and paintings appear in 2River, The A3 Review, Avatar, The Baltimore City Paper, The Baltimore Sun Magazine, High Shelf Press, Kestrel, North of Oxford, Outlaw Poetry, PCC Inscape, Pindeldyboz, Rusty Truck, Salt & Syntax, SmokeLong Quarterly, The William and Mary Review, Word Riot, The Write Launch, and Yellow Mama, among other publications. 

His poetry was selected for the A3 Review Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Eyewear 9th Fortnight Prize for Poetry.  His fiction received an Honorable Mention acceptance for the Salt & Syntax Fiction Contest and was selected as a finalist for the Pen 2 Paper Annual Writing Contest.

A selection of Henry Stanton's paintings are currently on show at Atwater's Catonsville and can be viewed at the following website www.brightportfal.com.  A selection of Henry Stanton’s published fiction and poetry can be located for reading in the library at www.brightportfal.com.

Henry Stanton is the Founding & Managing Editor of The Raw Art Reviewwww.therawartreview.com.





In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2021