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A novel about repo men, hack writers, and financial ruin.

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Installment 1: The Taste of Death and Rumple Minze

OAKLAND — Police arrested three reporters from The Independent, a free weekly "alternative" newspaper, and charged them with kidnapping and assault yesterday. Police Sgt. Leon Whitbrow described the case as "seriously weird" and indicated additional charges related to the possession of stolen medical cadavers and auto theft might be handed down later today. (AP)

Frankie didn't see the gun right away.

Instead, the sound of the rickety screen door flying open and slapping against the weathered bungalow got his attention. The big white dude wasn't wearing a shirt as he jumped off the porch, flew over four steps, and headed toward them in the early morning darkness. Just tan Carhartt pants with a brown work boot on one foot and a white sweat sock on the other. This disparity in footwear made him run like one of the gorillas in Planet of the Apes. It would have been funny if it weren't for the Glock 17 — Frankie finally noticed! — raised awkwardly into firing position as he hustled primate-style across the yard and into the street.

It's strange, Frankie thought, what you fixate on when you might die.

But that makes it seem like he was familiar with such moments. He was not.

The man with the Glock skidded to a stop five feet in front of Frankie, his sock slipping on the damp street, causing him to jerk the gun upward as he fought to regain his balance. The Glock mimicked the motion Uncle Ted's rifle had made when he took Frankie deer hunting years ago back in Michigan, one of his mom's well-intentioned attempts to provide a positive male role model after his dad took off. The image of the doe shuddering — almost dancing — and falling flashed in Frankie's head. Involuntarily, he mimicked that shudder. He just shot me, he thought, but there was no sound. After a few seconds of not feeling the pain he was sure he would feel, Frankie actually held his arms out to the side and looked down at his torso to survey the damage. He expected blood. Vietnam War footage. A clear view of his vital organs, like the plastic display models in anatomy class. Hell, he wouldn't have been surprised to see cartoon holes with light shining through from the streetlight behind him. But there was nothing. Relief flooded him, but he managed to feel ashamed at the same time as he looked back up at shoeless Joe. The guy was skinny and muscle-bound at the same time, like a well-groomed version of Iggy Pop.

"I ain't shot nobody yet," Iggy said, his chest rising and falling with each breath. "But we're just gettin' started."

He swung the Glock toward Mateo, who was behind the wheel of the tow truck ten yards to Frankie's right, looking back at them with one arm hanging loosely out the window. His blank expression didn't change when he became the primary target. Frankie half expected him to light up a cigarette.

"Lower the car, repo man!"

Mateo just stared at the guy. There was nothing but silence and moonlight now. Frankie was close enough to the shirtless one to see white foam drying at the corners of his mouth. Had he been brushing his teeth when he heard them taking his Mustang? His hair was damp, carefully parted, and shaving cream smudged one ear. Without thinking, Frankie lifted his notebook to record these vital grooming details.

"What are you doin'?" the guy yelled as he trained the gun on Frankie again. He seemed more exasperated than angry. No one was acting the way they were supposed to when he had a Glock and they didn't. "Writin' your will?"

Frankie tried to answer, but the words wouldn't come.

"Alright now, son," Clay said to the gunman, a big smile on his face. Clay was between Frankie and the truck, standing in the shadows where the tow arm was attached to the front of the Mustang. Frankie had forgotten he was even there. "The bank's gonna get the car eventually. Let's just take it easy and get it over with tonight. No sense dragging this out. And there's no need to shoot anybody. That's just making a bad situation worse."

The man turned the gun on Clay and started walking toward him, his awkward gait giving him more menace, Frankie imagined, than your average pissed-off, Glock-wielding bad ass from El Sobrante who's six months behind on his car payment. Clay kept smiling as the debtor walked right up to him and gently touched the barrel of the gun to his forehead.

"Put the car down, motherfucker" he said again.

Frankie had a strange taste in his mouth. Like nails. Maybe this is the taste of death, he thought before almost instantly convincing himself he was being melodramatic. It was just the fear of death. Metallic, like the stainless steel autopsy tables at the morgue. Or maybe something far more prosaic — stomach acid.

"This ain't no big deal," Clay said, the sweat dripping unconvincingly off his face, his eyes turned upward toward the barrel, like he was making his claim to the heavens.

"It is to me, goddamnit," the gunman said. "Put the car down."

"Okay, now, you got it," Mateo said as he leaned out the truck window. He had a look in his eyes that Frankie hadn't seen before, a look that he'd never want leveled at him. Frankie hoped Mateo didn't carry a gun in the truck, or things could get worse. "I'm going to put her down, but it's going to lurch a little. I don't want any accidents. Why don't you put the gun down first?"

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