Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski: Kolakowski Gets His Crime Fiction Chocolate in this SF Peanut Butter

This is one of those books that I’m uber-excited about, yet I don’t think I do a good enough job at explaining why I am. It’s just good.

 Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

by Nick Kolakowski

eARC, 274 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2019

Read: October 29-31, 2019

“You know the trick to surviving? The one thing you got to do?”

“What’s that?” Maxine asked.

“You got to treat every day like an adventure. Like it’s fun, or a challenge, even when everything’s crappy. Especially when it’s crappy. Because otherwise, it’s all going to crush you.”

“I feel like I spent my whole life being crushed.”

“Well, that’s your fault. A normal job, trying to live a normal life, it’s just inviting people to stomp you. And they do.”

“Yeah.”

“But at least in my line of work, sometimes you get to stomp back…”

In case the author’s name looks familiar to you, yeah, you’ve seen me use it a few times this year—3 novellas, 1 short fiction collection, and now this novel, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday. It occurs to me now, that he was the first author I read this year, and he did a pretty good job setting the tone for 2019’s reading. This book is his first step out of Crime Fiction and into Science Fiction—dystopian SF, to be precise (that really should be obvious to anyone familiar with him, I don’t think he’s got a utopian novel in him).

That said, there’s enough of a Crime Fiction flavor to this SF novel, that fans of either genre will have enough of their drug of choice to be satisfied.

This is set in the near-future, at various points along the fall of the US/Western Civilization. While there are plenty of other characters to keep an eye on, our focus throughout is on Maxine. After a rocky start to life with a drug-addicted mother, and an unsuccessful academic career (although she tried for a little bit), she tries to follow her uncle’s example and become a criminal. She has some success in that, but a large failure resulted in life-threatening injuries to a friend and the loss of one of her arms. Following that, she tries to live a non-criminal life, she gets a job, settles down with a guy and has a kid. But her heart’s not in it, and she ends up dabbling in thievery. At some point, she abandons that life and sets her eyes on a criminal career.

Maxine is one of my favorite characters this year—she’s flawed (not as flawed as she thinks), she’s a fighter (not as good as she thinks), self-destructive, optimistic, and driven. She takes a lot of (metaphorical and literal) punches, and while she may not get up right away after them, she doesn’t stop moving forward. Ever. I love reading characters like that.

Her uncle, who goes by Preacher, is one of the most significant criminals in the New York area—and has some cops dedicated to taking him down, and any number of civilians supporting him. Off and on throughout her childhood, Preacher tried to get Maxine’s mother to leave her addictions behind to provide for and care for her kids. Between his power and influence on the one hand, and being just about the only adult to look out for her and her brother, it’s no wonder that Maxine will want to be part of his life. Readers of Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy will enjoy playing a compare/contrast game with Preacher and Walker.

There are a number of other characters that greatly influence Maxine’s life and desires, but none so much as her uncle. And to get into them would just push this post beyond the length I want (and would end up spoiling stuff to really talk about).

By and large, this is the story of Maxine’s journey from a struggling public school student to being a wanted criminal (and beyond). But that’s not everything that’s going on. For the first chapter, you get the impression you’ll be reading a book about rival groups fighting for supplies in mid-apocalyptic New York. But then you’ll realize that’s not it at all, it’s a story about how Maxine became the tenacious gun-fighter and would-be criminal mastermind that she is. Eventually you discover that yeah, both of those are true, but Kolakowski’s really writing a different story—and boy howdy, you feel pretty clever when you suss it out, and it’s such a brilliant way of telling this story that you don’t mind being wrong about what the book is trying to accomplish. But even then, you won’t really understand everything until the last line of the book (I’m not sure I actually pumped my fist when I read it, but I probably thought about it pretty hard).

Yes, it’s a pretty violent book (this too, should really be obvious to anyone familiar with Kolakowsi), but most of the truly horrible stuff happens “off-screen,” making it a lot easier to take. The prose moves quickly and assuredly, the writing is sone with a strong sense of style and savoir faire. Frankly, it’s too lively and enjoyable to keep the most readers who aren’t into gunfights, etc. from being turned off by the violence.

It’s a well-realized dystopia, one that’s easier to imagine happening than say, Panem. Kolakowski does a wonderful job of littering this book with little details that tell you so much about the world his characters live in and entertain the reader. Hitting both of those notes regularly is a difficult task. For example:

“Someday I want to go to California,” Michelle told Maxine. “Did you know it used to be a state?”

and

This far north, the concept of local government grew teeth and claws. If you stuck to the highway, you would cross into territory controlled largely by the New York Giants, which had expanded beyond its origin as one of the nation’s most consistently mediocre sports teams to control a big swath of towns northeast of Buffalo.

One of the conceits of the book is that the material is a result of an academic study about Maxine. It’s one of the best moves that Kolakowski makes in this book (and it’s full of great moves). Don’t skim over these notes, you’ll be rewarded for your attention.

Oh, I should warn you: This book might put you off popcorn for a while. I’m just saying…

Rob Hart wrote one of the endorsements for this: “Take one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and throw it in the blender with DVDs of Mad Max and The Warriors. Guess what? You just broke your blender. Find solace in this book, which is what you should have done in the first place.” I repeat that for a couple of reasons—1. I love the last two sentences. 2. He’s right, and says everything in 4 sentences that I tried to above. You should listen to one of us. Kolakowski has outdone himself with this one, it was a pleasure from end to end. You really need to read it.

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. My opinions are my own, and weren’t influenced by this.


4 1/2 Stars
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Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories by Nick Kolakowski: This collection of short fiction is a great display of Kolakowski’s strengths #IndieCrimeCrawl

I’m going to be kicking off my involvement in #IndieCrimeCrawl with the latest from Nick Kolakowski. About a year ago, he emailed me to take a peek at his novel Boise Longpig Hunting Club, a fast, energetic, visceral read. Then came his Love & Bullets Hookup Trilogy — which was as entertaining as you could want. Now it’s time for his new short fiction collection, which I pre-ordered the instant I heard about it. One of the best things about Indie Crime Fiction is the depth of strong voices with perspectives you don’t find every day. Nick Kolakowski is a prime example of this. Check out all of his work, you’ll be in for a treat.

 Finest Sh*t!Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: Loose Rounds, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 202 pg.
Final Round Press, 2019

Read: June 14 – July 3, 2019

           With a feral yelp, Raoul worked the dial until he landed on a station thundering drums and guitar, a solid backbeat for Luis and Jesus slicing and shoveling mounds of peppers and onions and pig. The music blasted the asphalt amphitheater of the parking lot, signaling that the truck was officially open for business.

The first customers drifted toward them. Give me your hungry, your nearly broke, your masses yearning for lunchtime deliciousness, Jesus thought as he wiped his hands on his apron and prepared to meet the first of the lunch rush. And I’ll give you two tacos for three dollars.

That’s from “Taco Truck,” one of the ten short stories that appear with a novella in Nick Kolakowski’s latest collection, Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories. There are tales of revenge, heroism, thwarted revenge, and people driven to extremes no one should be driven to — even some SF. Essentially, like with the best of Crime Fiction (no matter when it’s set) we have people in desperate situations (sometimes of their own making, sometimes out of their control) doing what they needed to.

As with every short story collection, there are some of these short stories that really, really worked for me, and others that didn’t do much for me at all — that’s just how it goes. But even the stories that I didn’t appreciate had that Kolakowski quality that I’ve really come to enjoy.

The novella, The Farm takes up about half of the book. It begins in 1931 and ends in 2008, following one farming family through the generations. This family goes through wars, violent crime, financial hardship, betrayal — and more than a few of the more positive parts of life, too. There’s some poetry, too. I guess that qualifies as one of the more positive aspects, but I’m not always sure. In the end, I really liked this novella — but it took some effort to get into it. That’s probably on me. Kolakowski fits a novel’s worth of a family saga into this roughly 100 pages — which is quite a feat. There’s part of me that would like to see it developed into a 350-400 page novel to flush out some of the details, but I think he’s right to keep it brief. It alone is well worth grabbing the collection.

This collection covers all sorts of tones, topics and perspectives. As I’ve come to expect from Kolakowski, I wouldn’t have predicted anything that I found in these pages. My rating may be on the low side, but that’s just because I couldn’t really sink my teeth into anything — I typically rate short story collections low. But there’s gold in here — a little dross (but what I think is dross will probably appeal to others). If you’re not familiar with Kolakowski, this is a great way to introduce yourself to one of the strongest voices in Crime Fiction today. If you are familiar with him, you don’t need me to tell you how good these stories can be.

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3.5 Stars

A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Nick Kolakowski

Nick Kolakowski’s back for another round of questions (feel free to check out the last round while you’re here), to commemorate the kick-off to Main Bad Guy (which I just posted about), the conclusion to his trilogy of Love & Bullets Hookups.

Since we covered a lot of the basics last year, I dove deeper into this trilogy than I usually do. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and that it spurs you to check these books out.

Was A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps always supposed to kick-off a series, or did that idea come during/after writing it? It’s not your everyday way to start a trilogy about a couple, why this approach?
“A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” was originally going to be a standalone. After it was finished (but before publication), I found myself still jotting down bits of Fiona and Bill—scraps of dialogue, the outline of an action scene, etc. So I realized I wasn’t done with either of them, at least on a subconscious level. But where to take the story next? I didn’t want it to become an open-ended series, so I needed to figure out a way to climax it, to resolve all the dangling plot threads I began weaving in “Brutal Bunch.” And that meant taking Fiona and Bill back to New York City, where everything began.
Why the Elvis suit? It was absolutely a great idea — but I’ve spent weeks coming back to this question, why did you pick that?
The suit is iconic and ludicrous, but it’s also (to me, at least) a symbol of courage. Can you imagine what it took for Elvis to suit up in that thing every night, step in front of hundreds of people, and belt out something like “Suspicious Minds”? In any case, the suit has so much power, it felt like the perfect thing for a character who’s emotionally wounded and more than a little insane to slip into—he draws enough from it to keep going.

I (very) briefly considered making it a John Wayne thing, and having him put on a vest and a cowboy hat, but that didn’t really work—as a costume, it didn’t pack the same ludicrous punch as a sparkly Elvis jumpsuit.

Two things in particular made me realize that Main Bad Guy was going to be the best of the trilogy early on — Fiona’s “origin story” and Walker. I love it when we get a mysterious figure like him and are given juuuuuuust enough information to buy into the character, but are left with a billion questions. Where did Walker come from, and have you considered doing more with him?
“Aging Badass” is a noir/thriller trope that I particularly love—the older guy who’s seen and done too much to get particularly bothered over anything that happens, even if what’s happening is really ludicrous and bloody and crazy (think James Caan in “Way of the Gun,” or Jonathan Banks in “Better Call Saul”). I’ve wanted to do my own variation on that type of character for years, but I needed him to be a bit more flawed and human. Walker is a badass but his skills are rusty; he’s a tactical genius but he has a certain impulsiveness—mirrored by his daughter—that leads him to do things that get him into trouble.

I do want to do more with Walker in the future. Writing him was an enormous amount of fun, especially the scene in “Main Bad Guy” where he walks into his favorite bar and finds it’s been converted into a hipster hellhole, complete with paintings of pugs on the walls. Maybe I’ll do a novella where he comes back and wrecks it.

There’s this great thread running throughout the trilogy, chronicling the rise and evolution of The Rockaway Mob. Some authors would devote a novel or three to this saga, you make it something that can be overlooked. How intentional was that, and what was your reasoning?
It was pretty intentional. I wanted the books to be as fast as possible, and as much as I loved (briefly) tracing out the rise and fall of this very weird gang (and its very weird leaders), I felt it would distract a bit from the core of the story, which is the incredible flight of Fiona and Bill.
Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write? Or are you primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader?
I’ve wanted to write a historical novel for years, but haven’t quite had the courage (or the time to plunge into extensive research). Maybe I’ll get to it—I just need to really commit myself to such a massive effort.
Thanks for your time — and thanks for these Hookups.

Main Bad Guy by Nick Kolakowski: A Blast of an Ending to this Trilogy

Yeah, weird day for me to post something like this, but it’s what Kolakowski asked for — and he wasn’t a jerk about it like the last guy who wanted a Saturday post.

Main Bad GuyMain Bad Guy

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: A Love & Bullets Hookup, #3

Kindle Edition, 152 pg.
Shotgun Honey, 2019
Read: January 28 – 29, 2019

           Bill could tell you all about things going haywire.

Like Fiona’s plan, for instance.

How the hell had he agreed to this insanity?

The answer was obvious: They had no choice.

It had to come down to this, didn’t it? After being on the run for a book to a book and a half (depending on the character), Bill and Fiona have to face off with the Dean, the Rockaway Mob leader who put out the hits on them both. They really don’t much choice, the whole starting over quietly thing didn’t work too well. Or at all.

This picks up right after Slaughterhouse Blues, the pair are having a difficult time getting out of New York, and ultimately find themselves locked in a panic room at the top of a skyscraper, surrounded by Crow Man — “a stellar chemist, and a better botanist” — his crew, and his product. Which is a pretty awkward place to be. Unsurprisingly, Crow Man works for the Dean (don’t you love these names?). The Dean had been having a pretty lousy day up until this point — and when the Dean has a bad day, a lot of people suffer. Then things start looking up, and the Dean is handed two of his most wanted on a silver platter.

Meanwhile, a mysterious figure named Walker is making his way from Canada to New York. He’s seen that the pair found some trouble in Oklahoma and assumed Fiona wold need help. By the time that word got out that they were in New York, he was already on the way, knowing that’d be the case. Walker is one of those classic aged “been there, done that” characters. The old pro who’s tried to retire and ends up having to get back into action one more time — which is good, because they really don’t do well with the quiet life anyway. I’d sign up for a series focusing on him in a heartbeat. I’d almost say this is worth reading just for Walker — even if you know nothing about Bill, Fiona, the Dean, etc. Eh, I’ll go ahead and say it, read this just for Walker. But you’ll like it more if you’ve read the others.

Walker’s travel is beset by trouble from uneasy allies, his age, and just how much the city has changed. One of the best scenes with him starts with Walker revisiting a favorite dive bar that had been “gentrified into a monstrosity” where he felt like he was “attending a wake for someone that nobody in the room had liked” in the middle of the velvet art, sky-blue walls and pop music. Kolakowski grounds this with reflections on September 11 and the effect it had on the City and its citizens — making it more than just a fun moment in the book. The intelligence he picks up in the bar justifies his brush with gentrification and enables him to come to Fiona’s aid. Hopefully in time.

Bill and Fiona are great together, their dialogue crackles. Watching these two try to get out of Dodge is so much fun, you find yourself wishing that Kolakowski had figured out way to stretch this into a quatrology. One of the problems I had, I now realize, with Slaughterhouse Blues was how little Bill and Fiona were together. They spent a lot of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps apart, too — but that was different. Bill’s a better character with her around, and Fiona works better too — if for no other reason than she has to be a bad-ass and watch out for him, instead of just being pure bad-ass all the time. I’m not sure that makes sense to anyone not living in my head. Hopefully it does.

There’s excitement, there’s gunplay, there are explosives, violence, witty dialogue and a whole lot of bad-ass characters facing off with each other (and Bill’s around, too). This is the literary equivalent of a Martin McDonagh film (when he’s in a more playful mood) — or, if that doesn’t work for you, think Fargo meets Tarantino, but not as long-winded. Kolakowski ties this to A Brutal Bunch so well (and in ways you won’t expect), providing a perfect ending to this saga. There are so many quote-worthy lines in this brief novella that it’s driving me crazy that I can’t work more of them into this.

A lot of novella-series can be read in a clump, like one big novel. This is not one of them. Each novella has its own feel, its own themes and structure — while being one story. Last year, Kolakowski impressed me with his novel, Boise Longpig Hunting Club, this series has shown me that wasn’t a fluke at all and that I need to read anything I can by him.

I can’t tell you what’s holding me back from making this a full 5 Star, but something is. It’s close enough, though (and on Amazon/Goodreads, I round up), so I don’t feel too bad about chopping off that half-star here. But focus on the important things here — it’s a great read, a great conclusion and about as much fun as you’ll have in a thriller this year. Bill and Fiona are a great couple (at least in fiction, they’d probably crash and burn in real life) — and a lot of fun to read about.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

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4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge
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Slaughterhouse Blues by Nick Kolakowski: Broken Antiheroes on a Last Chance Power Drive

Slaughterhouse BluesSlaughterhouse Blues

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: A Love & Bullets Hookup, #2

Kindle Edition, 172 pg.
Shotgun Honey, 2018
Read: January 21, 2018

“What’d you put in there?” Don said, nodding at the soiled duffel bag in the backseat.

“About twenty pounds of tobacco, but don’t worry, no leaves, just the little bits. I asked the sweepers to give me the scraps.”

Don laughed. “A couple years back, we tried taking those scraps, making cigarettes out of them. They sold, but not enough. You can’t fight Big Tobacco.”

“You know what’s a good rule for life?” Fiona said. “Don’t fight groups dedicated to killing millions of people.”

It didn’t take long for Bill and Fiona to realize that the business relationship they found themselves in at the end of the last novella to be just as unpleasant as the one they’d just left. They hadn’t jumped into the fire per se, more like they’d jumped from one frying pan into another. And their new associates took a similar approach to their older associates to their exit — they wanted them dead. So now the pair are trying to avoid two large-scale criminal enterprises bent on revenge, while trying to secure enough of a nest-egg to retire and disappear.

That doesn’t sound fun. At least not for them, for readers on the other hand…

Fiona is off doing a small — but hopefully profitable — job for a couple of brothers she’s worked for before. They’re cigar manufacturers in Nicaragua, where the competition might just be getting lethal. Bill, on the other hand, is in another country trying to hide out among the throngs of tourists. Let’s just say that neither of them meet with a lot of success — but Fiona does manage to get a lead on what should be an easy heist. The catch is, it’s in New York. Right in their old backyard.

So we have an easy heist, an uneasy alliance between the couple and a less-than-trustworthy man who can lead them to a big pay, assassins on their tail and some others who discovered that the couple has delivered themselves to their city. Chaos ensues.

It’s action-packed, but with a smaller body count than the previous novel. But at least one of the deaths happens in a way that will stay with you. Not in a haunting way — but in a “wow, what a cool visual” way (something you can appreciate in fiction — in real life, it’d be horrific and witnesses would likely need therapy).

There’s an interesting tie-in here to some things that happened at the end of World War II, reminding the reader just how much moral gray area existed for US troops in those last days of the War in Europe. Well, a lot of gray existed, and some of it might have been made. Either way, it was there.

At the end of the day, I didn’t enjoy Slaughterhouse Blues nearly as much as A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, but I think it says more about the latter than the former. It’s a solid piece of writing, expanding and deepening the universe of these characters a tad. It gives us another opportunity to see them in action while doing some important things for Fiona’s character. If nothing else, Slaughterhouse Blues sets up the third novella (which is better than either of the other two). But most importantly, it tells a good, entertaining story on its own. If I’d read this one not knowing who Bill, Fiona or Nick Kolakowski were — I’d have sought out more about them and by him. That’s good enough for me.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

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3 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski: A fast, fun, and bullet-ridden adventure

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken SapsA Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: A Love & Bullets Hookup, #1

Kindle Edition, 128 pg.
Shotgun Honey, 2017

Read: January 17, 2019


Bill is a con man, a hustler, a grifter with a gift — one that has been put to good use by the Rockaway Mob until the day that Bill has had enough. He just can’t keep going the way he’s been going. So he leaves New York and heads off on his secret plan to leave the country. Of course, before he left town, he helped himself to a large amount of the Mob’s money to fund his retirement. Which is as popular a choice as you can expect.

Only . . . his plan isn’t as secret as he thinks and people are on his tail immediately. A pair of employees are sent to take care of Bill and retrieve the cash. And then another is shooter is sent before those first two have even had a chance to fail. And it’s a good thing that happened.

Which is all I should probably say about the plot. Very little goes the way you think it’ll go once things get rolling. What follows is fast, fun and violent. It’s the least subtle critique of civil forfeiture possible — and a whole host of other things.

The backup assassin is our entry into this world, these characters — .he’s notorious, he’s infamous, he’s “that guy.” And . . . he’s kind of falling apart — his wife can’t handle his vocation any more and is divorcing him. His point of view chapters are a mix of attitude, a little snark, mayhem and despondency. Somehow, that mix is a blast.

On the other hand, we have Bill — who you somehow can’t believe was ever brought into the fold by the Rockaway Mob, but he’s clearly good at what he does. But little else, it seems. He has a real knack for moving from fire to fireplace to somewhere hotter yet. One of the other assassins sent after him was the one who brought him to the Rockaway Mob, who vouched for him. Her name is Fiona, and she’s one of the fiercest, deadly, aggressive characters you’ve met recently — and at least until recently, was in love with Bill (not that he treated her too well in his exit, and probably cooled her affections as a result).

This is a novella — and there’s not a lot of space for character development, for fully drawing out a character — and while these three aren’t as well drawn as Kolakowski has in other work, they’re good enough for what he’s wanting to accomplish here. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a slight — it’s not supposed to be). They may not be fully drawn, but they’re a lot of fun — and there’s some intriguing emotional beats between them and some of the other characters in these pages.

This book is primarily an exercise in violence — there’s a hint of torture, just a hint (but most of it happens off-screen). What’s not hinted at are explosions and gunfire. There’s a lot of it — the literary equivalent of so much of the stylized cinematic violence inspired by Tarantino in the 90’s. It’s adrenaline set to music — think Edgar Wright action scenes, but more lethal — to skip a couple of decades (actually, I bet this novella would pair well with much of the Baby Driver soundtrack).

I had a hard time accepting how the last few chapters went, because I had the wrong idea about what Kolakowski was up to with this book (and, I bet, the next two books that follow). But I had a blast with it — even the last chapters, once I gave up my preconceptions.

This is a fast, lean novella — there’s not an ounce of fat, not one unnecessary sentence to this. Kolakowski has a story to tell and he tells it. I knew going in that this was going to be a fast read, but I couldn’t believe how quickly I got through it — between the lean prose, the fast pace of the book and the action scenes, this was just a bullet train of a read (no pun intended).

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author. My opinions expressed above are my own. I appreciate the book, but I didn’t sell out my opinions because of that..

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3.5 Stars

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2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Opening Lines – A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author — but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. Would it make you commit? How can you not?

Listen.

At some point, a poor sap will look at you and say, “This is the worst day of my life.”

But as long as you have breath in your lungs to say those words, you’re not having your worst day. You haven’t even hit rock bottom, much less started to dig. You can still come back from a car wreck, or that terrifying shadow on your lung X-ray, or finding your wife in bed with the well-hung quarterback from the local high school. Sometimes all you need to solve your supposedly world-ending problems is time and care, or some cash, or a shovel and a couple of garbage bags.

If you see me coming, on the other hand, I guarantee you’re having your worst day. Not to mention your last.

Let me show you how bad it can get. How deep the hole goes. And the next time your idiot friend says something about worst days, as the two of you stand there watching his house burn down with his pets and one-of-a-kind porn collection inside, you can tell him this story. It might even shut him up.

Let me tell you about Bill, my last client.

from A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski