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Montana noir, p.1
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       Montana Noir, p.1

           James Grady
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Montana Noir

  Table of Contents





  Red, White, and Butte

  by David Abrams



  by Caroline Patterson


  Ace in the Hole

  by Eric Heidle

  Great Falls



  by Janet Skeslien Charles

  Farm Country

  Dark Monument

  by Sidner Larson


  All the Damn Stars

  by Yvonne Seng


  The Road You Take

  by James Grady



  The Dive

  by Jamie Ford


  Bad Blood

  by Carrie La Seur

  Downtown Billings


  by Walter Kirn

  Billings Heights


  by Thomas McGuane



  Trailer Trash

  by Gwen Florio


  Custer’s Last Stand

  by Debra Magpie Earling


  Red Skies of Montana

  by Keir Graff


  About the Contributors

  Bonus Materials

  Excerpt from USA NOIR edited by Johnny Temple

  Also in Akashic Noir Series

  Akashic Noir Series Awards & Recognition

  About Akashic Books

  Copyrights & Credits


  Our posse of authors couldn’t have come together without dozens of helpful people, chief among them François Guérif, the French literary icon, and Kim Anderson, the former director of the Montana Festival of the Book (now the Montana Book Festival), without whom key contributors would not have signed on to this project.

  Early support from Barbara Theroux, Ariana Paliobagis, and Bob Harrison was instrumental in ensuring you could hold this book in your hands.

  Lisa Cordingley, Bill Johnston, Lois Welch, Amy Guthrie Sakariassen, Martha Elizabeth, Neil McMahon, and Deirdre McNamer deserve special mention for advice, encouragement, and behind-the-scenes assistance.

  Keir would like to thank Bill Ott, whose definition of noir is hard and true (if not always easy for authors to live up to).

  We’re indebted to Bonnie Goldstein and Marya Graff, our eternally patient better halves, for their support during this sometimes challenging journey.

  Especially deserving of our gratitude is Akashic’s brilliant publisher Johnny Temple, whose vision for a literary franchise of noir anthologies revolutionized publishing with nearly a hundred volumes and counting. We’re honored and proud to be part of that great cultural triumph.

  But mostly, thank you for coming on this ride with us.


  Noir’s Last Best Place

  When people learn we’re from Montana, we can almost predict what they’ll say: I’ve heard it’s so beautiful. Why would you ever want to leave?

  One stock reply, always good for a laugh at a party, is, You can’t eat the scenery. Which also saves us from having to admit that, as young men, neither of us could wait to get out.

  With some very notable exceptions, most of the Montana writers we’ve known came there from some other place. Those of us who were born there often leave. We leave for the same reasons people leave their hometowns all over the world—to see what else is out there. For both of us, leaving was the very thing that made it possible to have careers in writing and publishing.

  Of course, having left, all we ever do is think about going back. Editing this anthology has been a wonderful way to return to our home state, with everything that’s good and bad about it.

  Montana is indeed beautiful. It can be as picture-postcard perfect as you imagine, with the grandeur of legendary mountains rising in the famously clean and blue Big Sky, rivers crashing through piney canyons, and prairies rolling like a golden sea.

  It’s the kind of beauty that makes us think, when we’re visiting, like every other tourist: I should live here.

  But living in beautiful places can be just as hard as living in the most soul-crushing cities.

  Nobody—well, almost nobody—lives in Glacier Park. Or the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They live in the towns nearby, trying to figure out how to afford all that beauty. Even those who live to paddle, fish, and hunt spend far more hours at work, whether their incomes derive from seasonal trade, state jobs, the Internet-gig economy, or what remains of the extractive industries. Some of them are noble cowboys who’d give you the shirt off their backs. Others work and worry, scheme and dream, drink and take drugs, and sometimes lie, cheat, and steal. Or kill.

  Just like everywhere else.

  For those of us who have its soil in our blood and its sky in our soul, Montana is more than its clichés. For us, Montana is as real as our true loves, and under its sky are human sagas in a brutal noir world where easy choices are hard to come by.

  This has long been reflected in the fiction of Montana, which runs like a river through the culture of America.

  Dashiell Hammett, the global dark knight of noir, worked as a Pinkerton detective in Butte during the copper king and union wars that rocked the mining city with the “richest hill on earth,” and fictionalized it as “Personville” for his revolutionary first novel, Red Harvest.

  Feisty Montana newspaper reporter Dorothy Johnson channeled noir in her fiction to produce award-winning novels and stories whose Hollywood adaptations brought realism to the same screens that shaped our cowboys-and-Indians clichés: The Hanging Tree, A Man Called Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

  The great A.B. Guthrie, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter for Shane, captured Montana’s small-town, cowboy-era culture with a perfect noir lens in his classic novel These Thousand Hills.

  Starting in the early 1970s, the University of Montana in Missoula incubated a crew of noir prose-slingers, including internationally acclaimed authors James Lee Burke, a quiet and kind man who gave the world the introspective private eye Dave Robicheaux, and legendary wild man James Crumley, whose The Last Good Kiss boasts as fine an opening page for a novel as you’ll find. That landmark novel drew on the life and works of Crumley and Burke’s UM colleague, the wonderful poet Richard Hugo, for its title and central character. Hugo also wrote a crime novel, Death and the Good Life, and his poetry protégé, James Welch, who grew up in the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre Indian tribes’ cultures of his parents, let noir swirl through novels like Winter in the Blood and The Indian Lawyer.

  Norman Maclean, perhaps Montana’s most acclaimed twentieth-century author, used fine nonfiction prose to reveal the beauty and tragedy of Montana’s noir world with two unforgettable works: Young Men and Fire and A River Runs Through It.

  Now you hold this, the first-ever anthology of Montana noir short stories.


  This anthology is a road trip through the dreams and disasters of the true Montana, stories written by authors with Montana in their blood, tales that circle you around the state through its cities and small towns. These are twenty-first-century authors writing timeless sagas of choice, crime, and consequences. Besides traveling back in time to the birth of Montana’s modern era in 1972, your trip will include stops on the state’s concrete and forest floors. You’ll meet students and strippers, cops and cons, druggies and dreamers, cold-eyed killers and caught-in-their-gunsights screwed-up souls.

sp; But mostly, through all our fiction here, you’ll meet quiet heroes and see the noir side of life that makes our Montana as real as it is mythic.

  No doubt the state’s beauty will still make the very idea of Montana Noir seem incongruous to some. Noir is black-and-white. Streets and alleys. Flashing neon lighting a rain-streaked window. But while noir was definitely an urban invention, it knows no boundaries. Noir is struggle. It’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s being trapped. It’s hubris. It’s being defeated yet going on. Sometimes it’s being defeated and not going on.

  That’s life everywhere.

  This is our Montana.

  James Grady & Keir Graff

  June 2017


  Copper Power

  Red, White, and Butte

  by David Abrams


  Marlowe was dead and that was fine by me.

  The two of us had gone off to war together, but only one had returned with his jaw still attached to his face, able to describe what he’d seen. Which was also fine by me since I was the one telling the war stories.

  Marlowe lay in pieces in a coffin at Duggan-Dolan Mortuary in Butte, waiting for the official start of his hero’s welcome: a parade, lying in state for two days under the courthouse rotunda, and a picnic complete with a huckleberry pie bake-off, a three-legged race, and earnest old men in combat ball caps passing around a boot to raise money for a new veterans home. Next to Evel Knievel Days, everyone said it would be the highlight of Butte’s summer.

  The rest of us got a limp salute from our commander and a three-inch stack of discharge paperwork, but Marlowe would have a big to-do—the kind of fuss showered on the dead after they can no longer appreciate it: red-white-and-blue bunting along Granite Street, his widow the grand marshal of the parade, Republican senators inserting Marlowe into their campaign speeches, and Democrats a little more reservedly acknowledging the Butte native’s service and the terrible cost of war.

  Montanans love their hometown heroes. Dead or living, soldiers like Marlowe are praised with words that bloom like fireworks and boom like parade drums from their speakers’ throats.

  But I knew the truth: Private Chandler Marlowe had died a coward in Iraq. Just before the bomb did its work, Rayburn told me, he’d seen the damp piss stain on Marlowe’s BDUs and the terrified crumple on his face when he heard the click under the sole of his boot. Those are Rayburn’s words—terrified crumple—not mine.

  Rayburn and the rest of the squad were just back from Salman Pak, still juiced up by all they’d seen: the blood-scorched crater, the three Iraqis zip-tied and facedown on the sidewalk, Marlowe’s lone boot in the middle of the street. Rayburn and the others were upset. Where we came from, Marlowe had the reputation of being as tough as the hard rock walls of a mine. He’d quarterbacked Butte Central all the way to State, despite his daddy’s drinking and his uncle’s notorious stint at Deer Lodge that ended with the upthrust of a shiv.

  That afternoon in Iraq, Rayburn and company punched the marble walls in the old palace where we’d set up our barracks. “One more week!” they cried. “There’s one more week left on the clock and then we’re out of here. Why wasn’t the dumbass more careful and watching where he walked?”

  They paced and growled and yelled. “Stupid Marlowe! What was he doing out there anyway? Wasn’t this supposed to be his day off?”

  Me, I just lay on my cot with the latest issue of Maxim—I’d been fondling the Girl Next Door’s boobs with my thumb before the interruption—and let the news settle in. Marlowe dead. Me still alive. Funny how it all worked out.

  None of the others asked why I’d been back here while Marlowe had been out there on that street and I didn’t volunteer an explanation.

  After our National Guard unit got to Iraq eleven months earlier, we’d quickly learned that luck, not muscle or willpower, would be what got us through to the other side of the deployment. That “Butte Tough” mentality Marlowe and a few others from the Mining City carried around like a chip on their shoulders lasted two weeks, until the first car bomb took one of us—Noonan, I think it was. After that, none of us were tougher than any other.

  Jesus, the things we saw. Wounds the length of a body that blackened the skin. Children flung to the sky by bombs. Men turned inside out. Sights we couldn’t unsee. Blood pictures stuck in our heads. The things we’d carry forever.

  Now, two weeks after putting the war in my rearview mirror, I was still dealing with it, but at least I had a distraction, a new mission. I was returning to my hometown to get a woman.

  A decade before Iraq, I’d left Butte after saying good riddance to a needy, clingy girl who thought three fucks and a wake-up were grounds for marriage. For a few years, I drifted here and there around the state picking up odd jobs before deciding to join the Montana National Guard. I’d been putting it off since 9/11, but after I got fired from a hateful job I was about to quit anyway, I figured it was time to grab patriotism by the balls. I landed in a unit full of computer nerds, gun enthusiasts, overweight fathers too devoted to their daughters, and a boisterous cluster of Butte natives, Marlowe the loudest of them all.

  I didn’t recognize the younger ones—I was well out of high school before they got their first pimples—but Marlowe and I had some history. I had a year and thirty pounds on him, but that skinny little bitch had still managed to kick my ass on the football field. Every practice we came at each other like rutting bull elk. I hit hard and broke his nose—head-butting all the way through his helmet—but a month later, he dislocated my jaw. Ever since that day, when I’m really pissed off, I click when I talk, thanks to Marlowe.

  Our state championship year, when the whole city was painted Bulldog purple, Marlowe had his photo on the front of the sports section four times, while I only got two mentions on C3. Butte lifted Marlowe to its shoulders and carried him all the way to a banquet at the Civic Center—a softer prelude to what he was about to get this red-white-and-blue week in June. He was no genius, but he got a full-ride scholarship to Montana State, while I was voted Most Likely to Succeed.

  Success to me was getting the hell out of the Mining City three months after graduation. I left it and that whiny cheerleader behind me for good. Or so I thought. Butte, pitted and tunneled to within an inch of its life, was dead to me. But then I joined the Guard and had to deal with Butte Rats like Marlowe, Noonan, and Rayburn, and I realized, with a sinking heart, the gutted city would always be with me.

  I kept a low profile, did my work, and weaseled out of invitations for Sunday-night drinks with the other NCOs. I couldn’t give two shits about the boys from Butte.

  And then came the day in Baghdad when Marlowe got that letter from home and started passing around the photo of his wife.

  * * *

  As I drove down off Homestake Pass at sunset, Butte drowsed under a bloodpool sky. The uptown streets, soaked in red evening light, were empty. I was unsurprised to see little had changed. There were a few more casinos and a new Walgreens, but other than that it was still the same sleepy place. I’d lived here long enough to know that, apart from the nightly drunk-stumble and vomit-cough at the Party Palace, nothing much happened around the old mining town. It was always naptime in Butte.

  I came around a downhill bend in the interstate, the view of the city opened up, and there it was: the Berkeley Pit. The gouge of earth glowed orange in the late light. It was the oozing wound of the city, both its pride and shame. Work at the open-pit mine had stopped decades ago when the owners moved on to more mineral-rich pastures down in Chile. Once the underground pumps were shut off at the Butte mine, the pit began to fill with water laced with arsenic, sulfuric acid, and eleven other essential vitamins and minerals. One day, the water would reach the lip of the pit and breech the banks, flooding the downslope homes, drowning them in poison. Until then, the people of Butte went about their business, trying to pretend the pit wasn’t there—like a man with an eye patch insisting he could see just fin

  I was back in town for an undetermined amount of time. My job, if I could get it, was Widow Comforter. The usual: nods of sympathetic grief, hand pats, lies about the deceased, a suggestion of drinks at the Silver Dollar, a little snuggle later on. If I could get it.

  I planned to get it.

  * * *

  She sat on a rock beside Georgetown Lake: arms behind her, head tilted, breasts tickling the sky, sun washing all the color from her hair. Right away I could tell two things: she wasn’t wearing a bra, and it was cold outside when the photo was taken. At first I thought Marlowe had snipped a photo from a magazine and was trying to pass a supermodel off as his girlfriend—or wife, if he was to be believed.

  But then I recognized the waterline of the lake, just downslope from a tavern on the way to Phillipsburg where I’d had more than a few drinks on more than one occasion. I might have even sat on that same rock myself once, beer-stunned and singing ballads to the wheeling stars.

  I didn’t get a good look the first time Marlowe passed her around, but when the photo came to me again, I held it longer and gave it a good stare. She was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her until Marlowe said, “You don’t recognize her, Franklin?”

  “I do, but I don’t.”

  “That’s Chloe.”


  “Lockmer. Remember?”

  Now I did. I grinned and shook my head. Chloe Lockmer, the titless wisp of a girl who ghosted through the halls of Butte Central—a freshman when I was a senior. How had she turned into this? This was a grown woman full of sugar and spice and everything vice.

  The way she had her head tipped back, sitting on that rock, I took it as an invitation.

  * * *

  I pulled off the interstate at the first Butte exit, drove up Harrison Avenue, and headed straight for the Finlen where I booked a room for a week. I figured I’d get the job done in seven days. If God could do it, why couldn’t I? Then again, He never had to deal with zippers on grieving widows’ blue jeans.

  I needed a little alcohol to loosen the rust on my gears, so I asked the desk clerk for the best place.

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