I will admit that I am fond of the bad characters I create. Actually, I see them as flawed people who do reckless and sometimes hurtful things, and because of that they become major players in my books. That’s the case for Al Kitchen, one of the protagonists in my next book, The Sacred Dog, which is out Dec. 27.
The Sacred Dog takes place in my favorite go-to setting, that is, the hill towns of Western Massachusetts, where I’ve lived a good portion of my life, twice. It’s a thriller centered on bad blood between two men, Al Kitchen and Frank Hooker. Frank owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in this dinky town that caters to the locals. Frank blames Al for the death of his brother, Wes. Al was in the crash that killed his best buddy, but not at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept. Let me say nothing good is going to come from this feud.
Al didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost both parents when he was young and was brought up by his grandparents. Pops was a drunk and an abuser. The one good thing he did for Al was to teach him how to hit a baseball, but even that didn’t work out for him. His grandmother, who he calls Ma, is Al’s ally. When Pops got violent, she would give Al a look that would send him hiding in one of the junked cars his grandfather had stashed in their backyard.
Other than his grandmother, the only person who meant anything to Al was Wes. If there was trouble in town, the two of them were in it together. Now Al goes it alone.
Al’s not welcome at The Dog, as the locals call it, but after his grandmother interceded, he gets to have two beers. Frank figures it’s better to keep his eye on somebody he doesn’t trust or like. Al, of course, resents it.
The resentment builds, especially after the arrival of Frank’s ex-wife. There’s a dark secret between Al and Verona that has the potential to create a larger and perhaps a violent rift between the two men.
Is the character of Al Kitchen based on anyone real? No. Like all of the others, he came from somewhere in my brain. That’s true of the other so-called bad guys. Sometimes I let them redeem themselves like the Beaumont brothers in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. Other times I let them just go to hell. I’ll let you decide about Al Kitchen.
Here’s an excerpt from the book. In this scene, Al sits with a bottle of booze in the grandstand of a country fair to watch a truck pull. At this event, drivers try to see how much weight their trucks can pull.
The truck getting ready to roll was called Road Hog, the words stenciled in black on its red paint. The names of the guy’s sponsors were printed all over the vehicle. The face of a monstrous, angry pig was painted on its hood. The announcer, a woman with a smooth, round voice, called the driver’s name over the public address system, and he revved its engine in response, sending a fresh sample of exhaust through the stands. The grandstand’s metal roof above his head amplified the sound, overwhelming every other at the fair and cutting through Al’s ears like a chainsaw. He squeezed the bottle of Jim Beam between his legs as he covered his ears.
Al thought Road Hog looked promising, but it only dragged the sled a couple of yards before it conked out and smoke poured from beneath the hood. Road Hog’s fans gave up a collective moan in the rows below Al, and a sweet, young thing in tight, black jeans stood up while biting her red, painted nails. A couple of guys ran to the truck, but they were helpless to fix the engine’s problem, so they waved for a tow.
The woman’s voice came over the P.A. system. “Sorry, Lou. Looks like that’s all for tonight.”
Al laughed at the man’s failure.
The pull had a delay while Road Hog was towed from the track and another vehicle, a black Chevy named Fast Food, took its place. Two boys raked the track’s surface to rub out the tire tracks from Road Hog. If Al were to get into truck pulling, he’d fix up the Mustang in the junkyard behind Ma’s house. Hell, he could have his pick of the junks back there, but he favored the Mustang, which had been his first car. He’d call it Big Stud or something like that, so people would know right away it was his. He’d paint the Mustang black and purple. He’d put in the most powerful engine and rev it to get everybody’s attention.
Al surveyed the stands. He saw Frank and his buddies, all regulars at The Dog, below and to his left. One of the men yakked. A bottle was being passed. Al checked his own. It was getting low. He considered joining Frank’s group but thought better of it. Early was the only one worth talking to and that’s because he was nice to his grandmother. Sometimes when he delivered the mail to their house, Early stopped for a couple of minutes to make small talk with Ma. He complimented the new roof on the house and the gladiolas Ma grew this summer in the front yard. Early had good country manners. He was alright.
He checked the crowd, finding enough people in the stand who were on his shitlist at one time or the other. There were a couple of local cops, all part-timers, who went to school with him. He saw one guy he owed money from a bet. He snorted when he spotted a bald man, who used to be on the board of selectman in Holden. The incident happened over fifteen years ago. Pops accumulated so many junk cars in their backyard, the neighbors began complaining, so the board sent a registered letter saying he had to get a junkyard permit. At first, it set Pops off, but then he liked the idea. He could turn his collection of junkers into a legitimate business, stripping them and selling parts. He was slowing down and had only a couple of years left to go, they found out later.
Al drove his grandparents to Town Hall, and Pops made his case to the board of selectmen about why he should get a Class III, which was a fancy name for a junkyard license. Ma didn’t say a word as Pops talked about how he would fix the place up and string lights across the yard like a used car lot. Two selectmen seemed to listen carefully to what Pops had to say, but one of them, the bald man sitting below him in the grandstand, was a total ass about the whole thing. He was a native, but you wouldn’t presume it by the way he acted. He was the kind of guy who liked to drive around town looking for trouble to report, one of those stingy locals who welcomed all the rules the newcomers wanted.
Al recalled how that selectman leaned across the table and shook a finger toward Pops. “Mr. Kitchen, I just don’t believe you’ll keep your word. I’ve known you all my life, and I know the way you live.”
Pops, a man who had legendary drunken bouts that inspired him to outrageous antics in his youth, who could slap a hand against a body faster than the person expected it, who once killed a dog by slamming a shovel against its skull, stood silently. Al thought for the first time his grandfather looked defeated. There were many times he hated the old man for the way he treated him and Ma, but he hated this other man worse for what he did to his grandfather. He made Pops look weak.
Al rose, towering over his grandfather even though he was not fully grown, as the selectman continued to rant about Pops’ habits. Then Ma got up. The three of them stared down at the man until he stopped talking. Afterward, the vote was two-to-one in their favor for the Class III. Of course, Al fixed the man good a couple of months later. One night, Al shot his .22 through his living room window. The bullet ricocheted off the woodstove’s pipe into the wall above the man’s head. Al didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ran into the woods and rode his dirt bike home. He stashed it in the junkyard.
When the cops came to the house, Ma told them Al was in his room. Al went to the kitchen to meet them. He had made himself yawn. “You think I drove over to that guy’s house and tried to shoot him? I’ve been here all night, watchin’ TV and reading dirty magazines in my room. I was just getting ready to hit the sack,” he told the cops. “Feel the hood of my car, if you don’t believe me.”
It was a minor victory for the Kitchens although Pops never did much with his junkyard, except die there. He had a heart attack while shoveling during a heavy March snow and lay there on the ground until Ma found him, too late to save. Ma renewed the Class III every year out of spite, and the selectmen, a different board now, never contest it.
LINK TO THE SACRED DOG: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog