About the Author

C.S. O'Cinneide

C.S. O'Cinneide is a writer and a blogger on her website, She Kills Lit. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as untethered and Minola Review, as well as in Mantid Magazine and on the podcast No Extra Words. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Books by this Author
Petra's Ghost

Alto del Perdón

The sea is missing.

Daniel stands tall in the early morning on the soaring ridge of Alto del Perdón, searching for a phantom ocean. All he can make out are a patchwork of farmers’ fields. They hover in and out like a mirage beneath the thinning mist settled in the valley below. His navy nylon jacket snaps and billows in the stiff breeze of the exposed hillside. Half a dozen towering wind turbines emit low moans as their massive metal blades turn steadily behind him. At the base of one is a boldly coloured framed backpack, lying open where Daniel has left it at the side of the trail. In his hands he holds a small burlap bag, with Petra inside.

A long line of rusty cut-out men and women are positioned sentinel-like on the ridge, a flat metal monument to all those who, over the centuries, have walked the Camino de Santiago, the five-hundred-mile pilgrimage they call “the Way.” Daniel watches as the silhouettes of the heavy sculpture shudder with the force of the wind. He takes a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. The scent is all wrong to him. Unnatural, without a taste of seawater in it.

The rocky outcrops and high altitude, the mist below, they all trick him into thinking he is back in Ireland on the coast of Kerry, where he spent summers as a child by the sea. He and his sister had explored the rugged cliffs above the shoreline for hours, standing far out on the ledges, daring each other.

“Stop being eejits,” his father would bellow from the safety of a lawn chair under the awning of their parked caravan. And Daniel and Angela would trudge back from the sweet seduction of certain death, utterly defeated. Their two older brothers would have deserted them earlier, having the sense to commit their risk taking out of sight of a parent. Maybe he and Angela were idiots after all.

Ever since his first day walking the Camino, climbing through the pass of the French Pyrenees to the Spanish border, Daniel has expected to look down and see the swell of whitecaps, to drink in the tang of brine. The Pyrenees were almost fifty miles ago now, but he still feels the want of salt in the air. He switches the rough brown bag containing Petra to one hand and pulls a stash of sodium-laden beef jerky from his pocket. As if to compensate, he takes a furious bite.

He is less than a week into his pilgrimage through northern Spain, hiking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the border in France to the cathedral in Santiago that houses the shrine of Saint James. The full journey will take him over a month to complete. He travels alongside other pilgrims of varying nationalities and spiritual intent, mostly keeping to himself. Each night after a full day of walking, he checks in at a local albergue. These are modest pilgrim hostels, where five to fifteen euros will get you anything from the top bunk at a large modern municipal, to a hard stone floor of a thirteenth-century monastery. The austerity appeals to his sense of simplicity, or maybe he’s just cheap.

“Sure, no one really believes the bones of Saint James are buried there at Santiago,” his sister, Angela, had told him before he left. “Not even the Catholic Church.”

“Perhaps,” he said, as he looked down at the map of Spain on the coffee table of his living room. The laptop perched next to it on a stack of books as he Skyped his sister from his home in the States. Even so, he had traced one finger along the lonely red dotted line of the Camino, wondering what he might find at the end of it.

One of the turbines groans more loudly, hitting some temporary mechanical resistance. The laboured breath of the sound makes him uneasy. He stuffs the beef jerky back in his pocket. “Fifty percent of Spain’s energy comes from the wind,” he reminds himself. He’d read it in the guidebook. This is the kind of interesting but ultimately useless fact that seems to always lodge in his brain. Like a piece of popcorn caught in the teeth, and at times just as annoying. Mostly for other people.

“Guess what the longest street in the world is,” he had once asked his eldest brother as he sat with him on the tractor. Daniel had still been far too young to drive it.

“The one where I have to listen to your mouth yappin’ all day.”

The rough burlap bag has a drawstring at the top. Daniel rubs the little braided ropes with his thumb. There is a crinkle inside the coarse material. Plastic. He hadn’t wanted the ashes to get wet if it rained. His backpack was supposed to be waterproof, but he needed to be sure. Petra would have laughed at his practicality. “Always the engineer, planning for contingencies,” she would say. He cannot believe he has put his wife in a zip-lock bag, as if she were a ham sandwich or a dime of weed.

He glances over at the two-dimensional metal figures bent over with their walking staffs and donkeys, medieval pilgrims without the benefit of ergonomically correct backpacks and Thermolite hiking boots from the Outdoor Store. Daniel had bought an old-style pilgrim staff at one of the tourist shops back in France, before he started on the Camino. It had a carved wooden handle and made him look like a prat. He abandoned it in a coffee shop in Zubiri, deciding he could make it to the cathedral of Saint James in Santiago without something to lean on.

The heavy sculpture shudders again. The vibration makes a howling sound, and Daniel feels a tremor echo in his own body. If his granny were here, she’d say a goose just walked over his grave. The old woman had many sayings. Some were old Irish; some she just made up. “These are the words of your ancestors, Daniel,” she would intone, trying to make him pay mind. The land he grew up on had been farmed by Kennedys for almost five hundred years. He couldn’t have escaped his ancestors if he tried.

Trying to shake off the feeling, he shifts from one leg to the other. His new hiking boots feel strange without the steel toe that he normally wears at home when inspecting a job, the familiar density reassuring his foot. Not that he’s been on a job site in a while. As their construction business in New Jersey grew, Daniel and his partner, Gerald, found themselves tied more and more to the office. But of course, he’s all set to sell his half of the firm — or just about. They’d had an offer from a group in New York that would be hard to turn down. There are still papers to sign that Gerald keeps worrying him about. Once that’s done, Daniel’s expected to come back home to Ireland and take over the farm. His father is ready to retire to his lawn chair permanently.

Nothing is keeping Daniel in New Jersey anymore, now that Petra is gone. He’d gone to the States for her and never regretted it, even though he had always felt the pull of the land he grew up on. Those bloody ancestors again. Petra, a child of the North American melting pot, did not have the same ties. Her folks had died in a car crash during her senior year at college. She had no siblings. But her roots were in America just the same, and he had made a life with her there.

Daniel has come to the Camino to spread Petra’s ashes. This is what he needs to do before he can go back to Ireland. This is what he has told his sister, his parents. This is what he has told himself. So he can “move on,” as everyone keeps telling him he must do. He and Petra had always planned to walk the Camino together. Ever since they saw the golden scallop shells and arrows pointing toward the Spanish pilgrimage from France on their honeymoon. He feels that bringing her ashes here serves to keep a promise. Although so many promises remain unfulfilled when someone leaves before you’re ready, like a dinner guest who gets up and walks out during the main course. He could spend a lifetime trying to finish the meal that should have been a future shared with his wife, and the food would rot on the dishes anyway. Somehow, he just can’t bring himself to take away her plate. It’s been over a year now since Petra died and he hasn’t even put their house in Paterson on the market yet.

“When are you comin’ home, Daniel?” his sister, Angela, had asked during one of her weekly phone calls from her apartment in Dublin. His parents were still on the farm at Carn N’Athair in Kilmeedy, but she made the drive out every other weekend to check on them. They were all getting anxious. If Daniel didn’t come home, his father would have to sell out. All those ancestors to be owned by somebody else. His granny would reach out and cuff him from the grave at the sheer shame of it.

“I’ve got some things to do,” he said. He always had reasons. First it was the winding up of the business with his partner. Then it was critical home renovations he needed to make before he could sell. As those jobs dried up he created new ones, increasingly more futile.

“I’m after putting a bidet in the guest bathroom,” he told Angela.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but how many people when they come over for a cup o’ tea are looking to wash their genitals?” Of course, she had a point. He had ignored it though.

The Camino is his latest effort at procrastination, having run out of rooms to renovate in the house where he and Petra had lived since they were married over ten years ago. Happy years for the most part, until the cancer twisted her into someone he could barely recognize. As gnarled and rake thin as the carved wooden staff he had left behind in the coffee shop. Petra wouldn’t have liked that comparison. She hadn’t been a vain woman, but she’d had her pride. She said the worst part of cancer was turning into something alien, like the dwarfed extraterrestrial in the movie E.T. All she needed to do was hide in a closet full of pinch-faced stuffed animals, she teased the doctors, and they would never find her. Daniel had brought Reese’s Pieces for her the next day in the hospital to continue the joke. She had coughed — her version of laughing in those final weeks.

He should do it here. It makes sense to let the ashes float from the cradle of his hands down into the disappointingly landlocked valley below. An offering to everything he can’t accept. Like having an ultrasound diagnose uterine cancer instead of the baby he and Petra had hoped for. A ruthless surprise that had spread through her body like hot gossip. He’d be angry at God, but he has enough Irish Catholic superstition to believe it might land him in hell or on the receiving end of a lightning bolt. He looks with distrust at the metal pilgrims beside him then scans the sky for storm clouds, on the off chance.

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The Starr Sting Scale

The Starr Sting Scale

The Candace Starr Series
also available: Paperback
More Info

Chapter 1

“I’m not sure that I can help you.”

“On the contrary. I’m quite certain that you can.”

The well-kept blonde in her fifties bats her considerable lashes, quite a feat given the amount of Botox injected in her face. She sits opposite me, perched in a high bar stool at the back of the Algonquin, a dive we affectionately refer to as The Goon. Affection is perhaps too strong a word when talking about a dark, dank, seventies-wood-panelled hole that smells like stale beer and jism — the former odour compliments of the fulltime barmaid, Lovely Linda, and the latter a result of the brisk part-time business she transacts in the men’s toilet on request. I’m Candace Starr, a woman who gets paid for a different kind of service. I still fit in here. But the blonde is definitely out of place.

“A friend of mine sent me,” she says, flicking a strand of straightened hair off her polished forehead. “She told me you assist in these matters. That you helped her with a rather difficult husband.”

Difficult husbands are a specialty of mine. Rarely in my line of work do you run into a husband who isn’t difficult in some way. They cheat, they lie, and occasionally they smack their women around. It’s like the metal in a wedding ring creates a strange magnetic force within a guy’s body that sets off his asshole switch. Maybe wives should insist on a wooden band.

“I’m retired,” I tell her.

“You look a bit young for that.” “I’m older than you’d think.” I’ve managed to keep my looks over the years despite my lifestyle. It’s the Italian blood from my mother’s side. That olive skin covers up a lot of hard living. The woman abandoned me on a median strip when I was three, but at least she left me with a good complexion and a figure that holds up. Everyone thinks I’m in my early twenties, but I’ve been on the wrong side of thirty for a few years now. I’ve got legs that go all the way up to my armpits — at an age when most women are starting to gather ass up from around their ankles.

“I can make it worth your while,” she says, batting her eyes again. The Coach bag she’s clutching costs more than a month’s rent. I bet she can make it worth my while and then some. I’m impressed that she had the balls to come here. To track me down. Most society mavens like her would find a go-between to do this sort of dirty work. A gardener with connections, a boy toy with designs. This woman has made the effort herself to make sure the job gets done. I respect that.

“Stand up.”

“I beg your pardon?” She blinks repeatedly. The smooth paralysis of her face doesn’t allow for any other facial movement that denotes surprise. Or any other emotion.

“I said stand up.”

She tentatively gets to her feet. I drop down from my own bar stool and come up behind her. She’s tall in her Steve Madden boots, but I’m taller. At six foot three, there aren’t many people I don’t look down on. I pull back my curly mess of long, honey-brown hair and tie it up with a rubber band from my wrist. The blonde’s hair is cut short in the back, revealing a shapely neck. I could snap it if I wanted to. I’ve done it before. Instead I reach around and dart my right hand inside her cool silk blouse. She gasps, but I’m in and out in a flash. After all, this isn’t a cheap excuse to cop a feel. This is business.

“You can sit down now,” I say, returning to my own seat. “Just had to make sure you weren’t wearing a wire.” I take a pull off the draft she bought me, my first drink of the day. “Now, tell me about the job. I’m not saying that I’ll do it. I’m just letting you tell me about it.”

She looks like she’d like to raise one of her finely shaped eyebrows at me but manages only to achieve a slight twitch in the corner of her right temple. I wonder if she gets those brows waxed or threaded, making a mental note to ask her later, before I lift her wallet. I’m not much into the girlie stuff, but even a woman like me needs to landscape. When the blonde goes to sit on the bar stool again, her high-heeled boots peel away from the sticky linoleum floor, making a sound like someone pulling a band-aid off fast.

“The job, as you call it, is simple,” she says. “I want you to get rid of this young man.” She pulls out from her purse one of those strips of four photos you get from a booth. Shit, does anyone use those anymore in the era of selfies? A tousle-haired youth grins out from each rectangular square. He sits next to a pretty, plump teenage girl with doe eyes and big tits.

“He’s kinda young for you,” I say. I’ve probably insulted her, but it’s the truth. I know these middle-aged tantric-yoga girls can keep themselves up fairly well, but come on, she could be that kid’s mother. He didn’t even look old enough to be a difficult husband.

“Age is deceiving,” she says. And I suppose it is after your third butt tuck. “But this person is not an associate of mine. Rather, he is an associate of my daughter.”

I inspect the strip of photos again to get a better look at the teenage girl. The big hazel eyes, the slope of the neck. Definitely related.

“You want me to off your daughter’s boyfriend?” I ask, incredulous. Taking out a target who doesn’t even shave on a daily basis is pretty heartless, even for me.

“Boyfriend is not the right word for him,” she says, sipping on the Diet Coke that Lovely Linda delivered on her way to the men’s restroom with a friend. “He is a parasite. A barnacle affixed to the hull of society with no purpose or design. He smokes. He sells drugs. He sits in his basement and plays video games all day, and he fucks my daughter.” She adjusts her ass a bit in the chair, as if remembering her own days of being fucked in a boyfriend’s basement. “He’s got to go.”

“Maybe it’s a phase,” I say. “These things blow over.”

“It’s been two years,” she says. “Nothing is blowing over except my daughter’s chances of being accepted into a decent university.”

“But c’mon, a kid?”

“That kid gave her a disease,” she almost shouts, looking around the bar before she collects herself again. “He can’t keep it in his pants. He can’t keep down a job. He can’t even manage to graduate high school. He is so lazy that he has to set an alarm to get up and binge drink, and his conversational skills consist of grunting in response to any inquiry while he grabs at his genitals.” She takes a deep breath and continues. “He has no future and no prospects, and he clings to my daughter like a lemur on a high branch. I want him out of the picture.”

I look hard at this flushed, badass woman, and then I look at the boy in the picture. He smiles back at me with his goofy photo-booth face. I can see a vape kit tucked into the front pocket of his jean jacket, a zit about to erupt on his chin. He has his whole life ahead of him. A string of doe-eyed girls in his future. Years of parties to crash, millions of brain cells to damage, along with half the people around him, as he lives out his days in a rented room over a run-down convenience store, falling into a sour-smelling bed drunk each night, only getting up to go to the bar, or to meet with disgruntled women of a certain age who need difficult men disposed of. Like my old man — or like me for that matter. I look back at the woman, who begs me with the same wide hazel eyes as her daughter.

“Ten thousand,” I say, “delivered like I tell you.” So much for retirement. “And you have to do exactly what I say.” I finish off the beer in one go and motion Lovely Linda across the bar for another. She’s back from the men’s restroom.

“I’ll arrange for it today.” The mother opposite me blinks one last time from her glacial face, and the deal is sealed.


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