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David Cranmer
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Art by John and Flo Stanton

The Education of a Pulp Writer


David Cranmer




Kirby MacGregor

Apartment B04

Tuesday, 6:20 PM


Strangulation: Closure of blood vessels and air passages of the neck by external pressure. Loss of consciousness after 10 seconds of 11 pounds / bilateral compression. If released, consciousness can return in about 10–20 seconds. With 50 seconds of continued pressure, victim rarely recovers. Death occurs within 1–2 minutes. . . .


          I stare at my laptop, the cursor blinking in the last field of my database and I type, “To be satisfactorily determined . . .” How long does it take for a person to die as the lungs fill with water in a drowning? Or the bullet splays into little pieces piercing the tissues in a shooting? Or the knife slices deep into the belly? When do the fingers of death squeeze out the last breath, the final heartbeat, the terminal synapse in the brain? You name it and I will track it.


          I’m not some sicko. I’m a pulp writer who has to think, occasionally, like a sicko to grab the attention of readers who enjoy perusing pages dedicated to the warped souls who walk amongst us. 


          Raymond Chandler was a master of descriptive text in his hardboiled tales of fiction, and editors are always looking for finely wrought words. “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” from The Big Sleep. “I felt like an amputated leg,” from Trouble Is My Business. It’s my goal to take the sharp lyrical similes of yesteryear and blend them with cutting edge forensics because audiences today are looking for the most realistic scenes to feast their senses on . . . they want to experience all the seediness without getting their hands dirty. And if I am to live up to their expectations, like the method actor, I’ll need to get inside the part and experience it in order to write not just the pretty and gritty poetic prose, like Chandler, but also to give them deep realism. My database needs to be thorough, complete.


          Thanks to crime and medical television, the public fancies themselves experts in forensics, but in truth, these shows gloss over certain facts to make the show more entertaining or to speed the story along, leaving most people woefully misinformed about, oh say, the average decomposition of a body. The medical texts I’ve studied detail the various stages of rigor mortis as commencing approximately 3 hours after death, reaching maximum stiffness in 12 hours, which gradually dissipates until nearly 72 hours after death. My research has shown —




          An obnoxious knock on the door breaks my concentration.


          Peering through the peephole, I see Martina, the snippy trollop who lives in the apartment above my basement quarters.

          She’s standing with her arms folded over her ample breasts, annoyance clearly written on her face. I open the door a crack and lean against the jamb, holding the doorknob tight in my hand. Before I even get a chance to say hello, she spits out in a loud, nasally whine, "Kirby, sorry to bother you, but have you seen Tim?”

          Tim Pickering is the resident pity case in our quaint community of layered dwellings. Vanessa and Sadie feed him, Armando from upstairs drinks with him, and I play checkers with him.

          "No, I haven't seen him all day."

          "Well…” (that’s her go-to word, “well.” I’ve heard her use it a million times on the phone, in the halls, ringing through the floors and walls) “. . . he parked his car so that I can’t get in my space. I had to park on the street again because of him. If you see Tim, please tell him that I’d like to speak with him."

          "I'm sure he's just sleeping one off, but when I see him, I’ll let him know."


          I start to close the door but Martina steps forward and leans in close to me. She shifts her chunkiness from one leg to the other and as loud and nasally as before, she says, “Kirby, you know Vanessa in two-oh-seven? Well, she’s available, and she’s been asking about you.”


          I take too much time to answer and she goes on, “You know Vanessa . . . tall, leggy brunette . . . blue eyes . . . sensational smile.”


          Of course I know, but I don’t need Martina thinking that I’ve been eyeing Vanessa. “Yeah, I’ve seen her bringing in groceries.”


          “I could talk to her for you. Maybe even set you up on a date.”


          She has a sly grin that makes me want to punch her. And I certainly don’t want her help. “Uh, thanks, but I’ll talk to her the next time I see her.”


          That seems to satisfy her somewhat and I manage to close the door on her still-smiling face.


          Heading for the laptop to finish my typing, I look over my shoulder at the kitchen table. “That was Martina, looking for you. She’s upset over your bad parking.”


          Tim’s lifeless corpse sits slumped over the checkerboard.


          “Man, she’s such a nuisance. You wouldn’t happen to have your keys on you? She wants your car moved.”




Martina Knolls

Apartment 104

Wednesday, 3:22 AM


I never sleep the first night of my period, and with the noise outside my open window, it’s not like I’d get much anyway. I sit up in bed and pull the curtain back just a teensy bit to see what’s going on. Two large army duffle bags are on the ground near Kirby’s van, rear doors wide open. There’s no sign of him and I notice Tim’s car is gone. Well, that’s annoying. Why didn’t Kirby tell Tim to come see me? I guess it’s possible they didn’t run into each other, but I’d bet anything Kirby gave Tim a heads-up that I’m pissed off. Men always stick together.


          The front of the van is lit up by the street light, casting a shadow over the back end. Kirby emerges from the inside hunched over and squats at the edge of the open doors. He reaches down and, with both hands, lifts a bag with a strong jerk. He disappears as he drags the duffle in and then returns for the second. He tugs at the second bag a couple of times to hoist it up, must be even heavier than the first, when something shiny slips out, landing by the curb. Kirby finishes loading and jumps out, looking left, right and behind him. I quickly close the curtain. Well, what’s he so worried about?


          The van starts up and the motor fades into the distance. I peek out again to be sure he’s gone, then jump out of bed, throw on my robe and slippers, grab the keys, and dart outside. I know my neighbors call me nosy behind my back, but I don’t let it bother me. Being nosy is who I am and it comes in handy for my job as a pretrial services officer at the district courthouse.


          I scan the ground, and in seconds, I find the face of a watch staring up at me. I’m sure it belongs to Tim. The watch was given to Tim by his father before serving in the first gulf war where his dad died. He would never part with it. So, what was it doing in Kirby’s duffle bag and why was Kirby acting so squirrelly?


          I walk inside the building, fixed on the watch between my fingers, turning it over and over as if I’ll find some reasonable explanation etched there. In a daze, I find myself in front of Kirby’s apartment door, key in the lock, letting myself in. I have keys to all the apartments, though the tenants don’t know this little detail. Mrs. Meadows, the property manager and also my godmother, entrusted me with a set of keys. I was never to use them unless she was out of town and there was an absolute emergency. I guess she believed I’m the honorable sort, given my line of work, but that was a little bit of a misjudgment on her part. My curiosity has gotten the better of me on occasion and I’ve let myself into other apartments when I’ve had the chance. But I look at it this way: it has helped to keep out the trash. Like Dan, the drug and smut peddler who used to be in two-oh-two. Thanks to my proactive ways, he no longer lives in the building.


          I open up my cell phone for some light to check around the impeccable living room. Kirby is a neat freak for sure. Nothing seems unusual. A laptop is on the desk in the corner of the room, the screensaver alive with swirling shapes. I tiptoe over with the thought that if I get caught for breaking and entering, I will lose my job. A rush of adrenaline makes me dizzy as I imagine being interviewed by one of my peers.


          I tap the touchpad to wake up the laptop and scan the open file. “Method/ Mechanics/ Time Elapsed.” I click over to another open document and read more. “The experience of being able to choke him to death, to watch his eyes bulge and his neck muscles tighten, was very elucidating. His ‘No Fear’ T-shirt was a bad choice of attire for today. My heartbeat is thumping in my ears, my palms grow clammy. That was Tim’s favorite shirt . . . the duffle bags . . . and the watch . . .


          Kirby killed Tim.


          I hear the front door to the building open and footsteps descend to the basement. He’s back. I flip my phone shut and hide behind the apartment door. I grab my lipstick stun gun that I keep on my keychain from the pocket of my robe. With a few quick breaths, I wait for him to open the door.


          Kirby walks in and begins to shut the door when I jab him in the side. He stiffens, lets out a muffled shriek, and drops to the ground, hitting his head on the edge of the coffee table. I quietly close the door the rest of the way and realize I’ve lucked out. He knocked himself cold.




Kirby MacGregor

Apartment B04

Wednesday, 4:30 AM


Every nerve in my body is simultaneously on fire, and my head feels like it’s been cracked open. My eyes flutter as I fight to come to my senses. I vaguely see Martina standing over me in her robe, lipstick case in her right hand. My mouth is gagged, and my arms and legs are taped to a kitchen chair.


          “Are you familiar with Rudyard Kipling and his line, ‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’?” Her mosquito voice grates on my already-frayed nerves.


“I see you fancy yourself a writer . . . and a killer. What are the odds of two of us in the same apartment complex? Killers, that is. I’m no Agatha Christie. You look confused, Kirby. Well, let me help you out.”


          She brings my laptop over and speaks aloud as she types: “Women account for 16% of all serial killers, with only 62 cases recorded since 1800. Nearly all female serial killers fit in the ‘Black Widow’ or ‘Angel of Death’ categories; the most uncommon are those who kill for sport.


          She stops typing, looks over at me and shrills, “How did you get so lucky, Kirby, living next to such a rarity? And not just any Black Widow or Angel of Death. I’m a sworn officer of the law, so I’m more like an avenger.”


          She puts the laptop back and reads my opening paragraph out loud.


          Finished, she glares at me with dancing eyes and a wicked grin, “Fifty seconds of eleven pounds of pressure? Well, Kirby, what do you think? Should I help you with your education?” She stands up like a boa uncoiling for the kill. She wraps her cold, damp fingers around my neck and squeezes.





BIO: David Cranmer is from upstate New York. When he’s not working as a contractor for the government, he’s writing short stories or posting his thoughts on The Education of a Pulp Writer blog His fiction has appeared in Powder Burn Flash, A Twist of Noir, and Out of the Gutter.

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