L.A. noir-inspired drama hits Miami streets in Alex Segura’s mystery series. A peek into the world of a down-and-out journalist turned accidental PI, and a Q&A with the author, ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES comics creator by day, crime writer by night.
Pete Fernandez didn’t see the kick coming. The boot crashed into his jaw, sending him farther into the dank alley. The two men paused to see if Pete had any plans to fight back. He didn’t. He felt blood trickle down his face.
Pete tried to stand up. His feet gave way. He slipped and landed on his ass, slamming into the metal garbage cans that lined the alley. He wasn’t sure where the pain was coming from anymore. The Miami air felt thick and heavy around him. His breathing was fast. Short, quick gasps.
Bile rose in Pete’s throat. He could taste some of the Jim Beam shots he’d downed over the course of the evening. He tried to wipe some of the sweat—and whatever else—from his face, but stopped when he caught a glimpse of his hand. Shaking and bloody, gravel and dirt embedded in his left palm.
One of the guys laughed as the other walked up and grabbed Pete, lifting him up by his shirt. The guy reeked of cheap beer and cheaper aftershave. He spit a wad of mucus at Pete’s face, most of it splattering on his left cheek. The guy let Pete drop and turned toward his friend.
Pete watched the duo lumber away, their curses muffling the sound of their footsteps. He wiped the gunk off his face and let out a jagged breath.
It had been another Miami scorcher. One of those days where you don’t want to consider leaving the house, or wearing pants. Where you get sunburned taking out the garbage. Where your shirt sticks to your slick body before you even get to your car. Pete’s phone had said ninety degrees that morning but it felt closer to a hundred. The evening had only brought a small respite—dimmed lights in a sauna. The rare, tropical breeze a teasing gift—a sweet whisper in your ear. Miami. Even the brightest sun and neon lights couldn’t change it. The place was fucked. Dirty. Corrupt. A nightmare happening in broad daylight.
Pete was on all fours now. His head hung down. A quick cough turned into a dozen and soon he was lying on his side, spittle dripping out of his mouth, his eyes out of focus and his body writhing in the dirt.
He tried to get up, his vision blurring. He got his footing and paused to catch his breath, his body leaning on the grime-covered wall. He tried to concentrate. On his hand pushing himself off the wall and toward the end of the alley. On each foot—left, right, left—as he started to walk. On what had led him back here, outside the Gables Pub, bloodied, drunk, and alone.
The night had started off routine. Standard. Pete needed to get out. Do some reading. His friends weren’t around anymore. He didn’t care. Fuck ’em. He was fine sitting at his favorite bar, reading his dead father’s worn copy of Night Shift. Shuffling the pages back every few minutes, having forgotten what he’d read, too proud to give up. The pub was on the fringe of what people considered Coral Gables—meaning it wasn’t as nice as the mansions and high-rise buildings that meshed with the tiny city’s old Spanish décor. Just a few miles from Miracle Mile, the pedestrian-friendly heart of the Gables, the pub felt like another world: dark, dirty, and out of place. Time passed. He had a few whiskey shots to go with his seven or eight beers and felt rough. Not smooth, like he used to feel after a few rounds, when the buzz glowed around his face and made him smile without thinking about it. No, he felt rough and grimy, like bare feet on a dirty sidewalk.
The two guys were big, but not built. Ex-frat boys with nothing to do but get wasted on a Tuesday night. The television perched over the bar was playing Dolphins football highlights from the night before. Jets 35, Dolphins 7. The two guys and their girlfriends were a few seats away at the other end of the bar, cursing at the screen. Pete found what little concentration he had disrupted. He put his book down and scowled at the double date. They shrugged and kept yapping. Pete groaned and ordered another round. Beer and a shot. The whiskey went down warm. He could feel it coating his throat and stomach.
Next thing he knew, he was sitting next to one of the women, his hand on her leg. Where were the guys? He wasn’t sure. Whatever. The other girl—chunkier, louder, obnoxious—was yelling something. She seemed upset. Pete swayed. He tried to play off how drunk he was to the girl, tried to make it seem intentional. His hand went too far. She tossed it off. He tried to stand up, one hand on the bar, his other swinging a bottle of Heineken around. That’s when he felt a hand gripping his shoulder. He remembered being pushed out the front door and into the street. It was the two guys. He’d thought they had left. Wrong.
Pete remembered mumbling an apology, but that was lost. Lost in the noise of the two guys yelling and lost as he felt himself being shoved into the alley. It was narrow and wet, dark and empty. That’s when he felt the first kick to his midsection. He was splayed on the ground, and trying to get himself back to standing only resulted in a weird push-up. The second kick hit him in the face.
Pete now tried to will the memory away but failed. He wiped his wrist over his mouth and found more blood.
He inched down the alley, away from the pub, toward the backstreets that would allow him some semblance of cover from the shame he knew was starting to kick in. He moved his tongue around his mouth, checking for missing teeth. Relieved to find there were no unwanted gaps.
He reached the end of the alley. Pete had parked his banged up Toyota Celica on the street a few blocks north of the bar, past a small parking lot. It was dark enough outside—a few hours past sunset—that he could limp to his car and not make too much of a scene.
He didn’t see any people or cars. Pete let go of the alley wall and began to half walk, half hobble across the street that intersected with the end of the alley. He was out of breath by the time he crossed the street and stopped to lean against the short cement wall surrounding the parking lot.
The sound of an engine cut through the quiet evening.
Pete turned to meet the noise. A van was approaching from his left, the clank-and-growl sound coming from under its hood getting louder as it approached. He stepped back. His first thought was that the two guys were back, this time with wheels. The van was close enough to Pete that he wasn’t sure he could risk darting back across the street. He was also unsure he could “dart” anywhere. His head throbbed and the pain in his side had become sharper. He considered the hospital for a second but pushed the thought out of his mind. He just wanted to get home.
The van was now close enough for Pete to see inside. He let his eyes wander over it, his vision lazy and blurry. As the van came up beside him, the driver came into focus—a tall, thin white man with longish brown hair. Pete couldn’t tell much else about him in the darkness. The driver didn’t notice Pete, watching the road instead. But then the van stopped for a second. Pete and the driver looked at each other. The driver nodded his head. He thought Pete wanted to cross the small street—which he had, but the arrival of the van threw him off. Pete motioned for the van to continue. At first he’d only noticed the driver, but as the vehicle drove on past him, Pete realized there was another passenger—a teenager, curled up in the front seat. The girl was petite—couldn’t be over sixteen, Pete figured—and her hair looked rumpled and disheveled.
Pete stepped back. The evening’s silence was replaced by the sound of rubber tires on asphalt, as the van accelerated and was gone.
Excerpted from DOWN THE DARKEST STREET by Alex Segura (Polis Books, 2016)
* * *
AFLW: This excerpt comes from the second book in your new, ongoing noir series about Pete Fernandez, a down-and-out Miami journalist turned accidental PI. Although the series is set in your hometown of Miami, you have cited L.A. noir legends like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy as influences. What drew you to L.A. noir, and how does that translate into your own writing now?
Alex Segura: That’s a great question – and you’re right, L.A. noir is a big influence, particularly Chandler and Ellroy. Both are obviously masters of the craft, and I’m not unique in being inspired by them. Chandler was all about tone and feeling – setting the mood and creating a sense of being, less about plot and story mechanics. His L.A. is a living thing, and it’s not just sun and glitz, either. It can be dark and ominous and gray. Ellroy, to me, is just so good at word choice and rhythm – you feel like you’re in the story, hearing people talk and in their heads. His L.A. is seedy, corrupt and layered. I tried to accomplish something similar with Miami in my books. I feel like people have an idea of Miami as this tourist haven. Beaches, palm trees, oranges and sunshine. It is that, but also much more, and it was important to me to show it as a complex and contradictory place – there is a darkness that contrasts the light.
AFLW: You noted in an interview in The Guardian that Miami presents a complex milieu of the human experience, from the worst of the worst crime to the complicated relationship with Cuban immigrants to wanton, beautiful and touristy beaches. The full tapestry of life. How does your character reconcile the dichotomies of the city he’s in?
AS: Well, like his city, Pete is flawed – he drinks too much, he’s impulsive, he’s selfish and can be cruel. On the other end, he is brave, smart and caring. Like all of us, he isn’t one note. Miami isn’t either, and I think having a setting that isn’t just one-dimensional helps amplify the protagonist, who I hope isn’t one-dimensional either. Miami’s contradictions and flaws are front and center in the book, alongside the beauty and wonder that the city is known for. I really wanted Pete to be a native of the city, so people reading the books don’t just get the top-line, tourist-y view of Miami. They visit the suburbs, the city, the poorer parts of town. It’s not complete or comprehensive, nor does it aim to be. But I think the flavor you get is more real, which was the goal. Pete guides readers on that journey. Hopefully you get an engaging mystery out of it, too!
AFLW: Real artists have day jobs, as we know, although yours, working as an editor and writer for Archie Comics’ Dark Circle line is more creative than most. Have you found that the classic comic book structure helps you envision the layout of your novel writing?
AS: I think so. Comic book writing is much more like putting a puzzle together, in terms of creating a script and how you pace it. It’s also extremely collaborative, which is the opposite of writing novels. Most importantly, though, comics teach you to think visually, which is something I try to use a lot when writing prose. What’s the camera angle? What do people see first? You need to relay the visual without slowing down the story, which is challenging because I think all new writers tend to over-describe. Comics, because you’re limited in terms of space, words and panels, taught me to also manage my words – be compact, clear and effective. Every word counts.
AFLW: This year is the 75th anniversary of Archie Comics, which have changed with the times, from featuring Riverdale’s first gay character and tragic storyline to the zombie-filled AFTERLIFE series, created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, to your own writing of the political OCCUPY RIVERDALE and the upcoming ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES series. What was your experience of punk rock growing up? How much of the history of the band have you infused into the new series?
AS: ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES has been a really fun collaboration. Matt Rosenberg, who’s co-writing the book with me, is an old friend and we’ve been trying to make this happen for a long time. We’re both Ramones and Archie fans, so it’s been fun to see where these two things overlap and sync up. Our top priority, obviously, is to tell an engaging and funny story (beautifully illustrated by the amazing Gisele Lagace), but we also realize that it’s something fans from both sides are going to pore over. There’ll be plenty of little nods to the Ramones and hat tips to history. The goal is to make it something that anyone can dig, but with added bonuses if you’re a dedicated follower of either Archie or the Ramones. Or both!
* * *
Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novels featuring Pete Fernandez, SILENT CITY and DOWN THE DARKEST STREET (Polis Books). He has also written a number of comic books, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed ARCHIE MEETS KISS storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story and the upcoming ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES. He lives in New York with his wife and son. He is a Miami native.