Monday, April 30, 2018

Leave the World a Better Place, by Tom Barlow

The first one went better than she could have expected. The right rifle, a .260 Remington with a Zeiss Conquest scope, which she had demanded when they divvied up her father's estate years before because she knew it had the least recoil. A comfortable place to sprawl on the floor of her van. The sun down, the parking lot of the Walmart nicely lit by halogen spotlights, her van parked in the dark beyond. A six-pack of hard lemonade in the cooler at her elbow.

Katie waited an hour for a deserving target, watching through the hole she'd bored for the scope in the back door of the van. He turned out to be a young, heavy-set man with thick black hair, most of his face obscured by the bushy beard extending well up onto his cheeks and a Red Sox baseball cap pulled down to rest on the top of his glasses. He caught her attention by scanning the parking area before reaching down between his seats, coming up with a handicapped parking pass, and clipping it onto his rear-view mirror as he pulled into a handicap spot.

She removed the plug from the lower of the two holes, the one for the barrel. Through the top opening, she located the driver's door of the car in her scope. The young man opened the door, jumped to his feet effortlessly, and shoved it shut with his hip as he took his first long strides towards the store.

She squeezed the trigger. When the rifle fired, the clap left her ears ringing. "Wear your ear protection, moron," she reminded herself, irritated.

She put the caps back in the holes in the hatch door and raised up to look through the rear window. The man lay face-down on the asphalt, blood splattered beneath him in a long arc reaching an abandoned electric cart near the curb. An elderly couple who had just exited the store had dropped to the ground with their arms over their heads. An SUV swerved around the body to grab a parking spot near the door.

Katie wrapped the rifle up in the quilt, crawled awkwardly between the seats to the front of her van and pulled away from the scene, slowly, cautiously. Her heart was beating a drum roll, and the air inside the van tasted of gunpowder.


She finished the six-pack before she could fall asleep that evening. Her bladder woke her long before she'd rested enough though, and after the trip to the bathroom she accepted that further sleep was not possible.

She made a pot of coffee, took her blood pressure, cholesterol and pain meds, choked down a large tablespoon of peanut butter for protein, and turned on the television for some company. Deborah had always watched the news in the morning, and Katie found it a habit she didn't want to break.

A young black reporter in a sports coat too heavy for the humid summer weather stood at the edge of the Walmart parking lot, breathlessly laying out the timing and sequence of events. The actual crime scene seemed overwhelmed by the comings and goings of police, fire, Homeland Security, news cameramen, city officials, and finally, the FBI. It looked to her like a couple of acres of parking had been cordoned off with yellow tape which sagged between light poles and billowed in the breeze. Nothing he said suggested she had been seen.

Katie examined her emotions as the reporter conjectured about the origin of the fatal bullet. Guilt? Very little. The man had been able-bodied, taking up a handicap space, the kind of selfish prick that had forced her mom to walk from remote parking even when her emphysema was at its worst. Excitement? That seemed to have dissipated quickly the previous evening. Satisfaction? More like an itch that had been thoroughly scratched but would most likely return as she continued on with the plan. Pain? Still there, mostly in her ribs. She took another Percocet, wondering when her oncologist would permit her to move up to harder drugs. He seemed to be holding that out as a reward for applying for hospice.


She didn't try to pull herself together until after lunch, in preparation for her appointment with her shrink, Eric. The mirror disappointed again. She had hair once more, but it had grown back coarse, like corn shocks after a month in the Thanksgiving display she used to hang on the front door of the urban two-story she and Deborah had shared. Her skin, once creamy, was growing increasingly transparent, so that late in the day she could track the network of veins and arteries underneath. Even the blue in her eyes seemed muddied. The only part she found pleasing was her cheekbones, much sharper after the weight loss, high enough that she looked faintly Native American.

She picked the cheeriest blouse in her closet, a polyester thant felt like silk in her hands, a fuchsia and sky-blue pattern. It momentarily improved her mood, but the adult diaper she donned brought her back down.


"Tell me about your week," Eric said, seated beside her on his long leather couch.

Katie fixed her gaze on the fat white candle he always lit at the start of their sessions, leaned back in the couch and threw one arm on top to take pressure off her ribs. "I'm trying to do what you said–work on acceptance. Still not sleeping worth a damn. I haven't seen Deborah or Glory Beth for a month."

"How do you feel about your daughter now? Last time, you were furious about the things she said to the judge."

"I keep reminding myself she's only 15. That helps."

"You were also angry at your partner. Have you come to terms with her behavior too?"

Katie thought the word 'terms' gave her a great deal of latitude. "I'm working on that."

"Hmm," he said. "Are you still working?" He wrote something, but kept the folder tilted away from her so she couldn't see it. She figured it was something like "Agitated, fatigued."

"I had three days of temp work at a call center downtown. They didn't want me back. Evidently, I don't have a warm voice."

"How do you feel about working menial jobs? With your background in management?"

She rubbed both eyes with a pinch of her right hand. "Acceptance, right? Nobody hires cancer patients. I understand that. So I work on appreciating whatever comes along. It beats sitting at home waiting to die."

Eric wrote some more. "You've had a great deal to accept recently," he said. "Anger is normal. It might show up in ways you don't expect. Try to identify those impulses that derive from that anger and stop yourself from acting on them. In times of personal crisis, misplaced anger can drive a wedge between you and your loved ones."

Katie held back from saying the first thing that came to mind; it was already too late.


Deborah had made her a cup of chai the afternoon of the emancipation hearing a month earlier, after their daughter Glory Beth had been finally pried away from them by Deborah's born-again bitch sister Elaine and her brother-in-law Stuart.

"You're going to stroke out if you don't watch it," Deb said, stroking Katie's neck lightly. The fingers felt like steel wool.

Katie had expected to come away from the hearing in tears, not with the seed of anger that now burned within her. But their daughter had adopted a pernicious attitude over the past two years thanks to the harping of Elaine about the ungodly relationship between Katie and Deborah. It had surfaced again that morning when Glory Beth's testimony dwelt on Deborah's licentious lifestyle. And the judge had forbidden them from even approaching their daughter for the time being, so she couldn't challenge Glory Beth's behavior.

"I told you Elaine was going to bring up that article," Katie said bitterly. She was unsure what angered her more; Deborah's repeated infidelity or the fact she had blogged it, claiming that her sexual freedom was an important example to set for their daughter, encouraging her to transcend the repressive mores of her parents' generation.

"The judge was a troglodyte," Deb replied. "Sometimes you just have to make a stand, even if it causes you pain in the short run." When she tried to put her arm around Katie she slapped it away.

"I can't stand to have this argument ever again. I'm moving out."

"We've been together almost twenty years. You can't just throw that away."

"As far as I can tell, you throw it away every time you walk out of here to meet your lovers."


Katie still read the newspaper, curious about the future despite her prognosis. Daily delivery was one of the first things she'd arranged when she moved into the tiny efficiency apartment in a neighborhood quickly on its way to becoming a barrio for immigrants from Central America. She circled an article in the Metro section about a Tom Abalo, a forty-year-old brick mason who had just been arrested for driving drunk for the tenth time. This time he'd clipped a boy on a bicycle who ended up losing a leg. Appallingly, Abalo was free on bail, even though he'd been forbidden from driving since his fourth conviction.

He still had a land line, so she was able to bring up his address from the White Pages. Googling his name provided a photo of him with a couple of proud homeowners posed in front of their new brick patio.

Luckily, her beat up van, which she and Deb had kept only because it was handy for hauling Deb's pottery to weekend shows, did not look out of place in Abalo's neighborhood, where virtually every driveway sported a panel van advertising a construction or repair service. She parked down the street where she had a clear view of his house from the floor of the van. The sun had set, and despite the heat, she was cold at her core, so she snuggled into the sleeping bag they had bought for the women's retreat where Deb's infidelity had found its first legs.

She put a stick of gum in her mouth and waited; although she had zero appetite, the chewing gave her the illusion of eating, and she was content with illusion at the moment. With all the opiates, food lost velocity in her colon and could be coaxed into passing through with only the greatest difficulty.

While there were no streetlights in this development, many of the houses had gas lights shining on their sidewalks, and the soft glow gave just enough illumination to frame anyone coming out of a house. She waited, and waited, until at just after 10:00 p.m. when Abalo walked out of his house, jumped in the truck in the driveway, and backed out. Katie started the van. When the truck passed her, she followed from a distance. As she expected, he drove less than a mile to a bar in a strip mall on Westerville Road, Jack's Lounge.

She figured he was there for quite a spell, so she took the opportunity to hit the McDonald's down the road to change diapers and was back on post, parked in the lot of a closed window repair shop across the road, when he came out of the bar at 1:00 a.m. He was in the company of two other drunks, but fortunately they peeled off, got in another pickup and left before Abalo, walking unsteadily, reached his. The shot was a piece of cake, although the sound echoed for a couple of seconds from the glass storefronts of the strip mall.

She wove her way home via back roads to avoid any traffic cams and arrived by 1:30 a.m. Her ribs were aching brutally thanks to the hours spent on the hard floor of the van, but the sense of retribution made the pain endurable.


She had fallen into a restless sleep on her futon late that morning when the doorbell rang. She'd told no one except her ex-boss Bev Crosley where she was living, so she was expecting her when she opened the door. Only at the last moment did she think to wonder if it could be a cop, a bit of obliviousness that surprised her.

However, it was neither. Instead, there stood Deborah holding a fruit bouquet of chocolate-dipped prunes. There was no contrition on the woman's face, but Katie couldn't remember ever seeing her ex-wife contrite. Or embarrassed, for that matter. She wore the faint smile she always did, like she saw something everyone else didn't.

She stepped aside so Deb could enter. She'd forgotten already how much taller her ex was than her, willowy, all the way to hair which moved like sea grass in the lightest of breezes. She had always loved running her fingers through Deb's hair.

Deb placed the bouquet on the counter that divided the living room from the kitchen. "These still work on your constipation?"

"There's such a thing as knowing one another too well," Katie said, taking a seat on one of her bar stools. "What are you doing here? And how did you find me?"

Deb took a seat on the other bar stool, so that their knees almost touched. Katie scooted back.

"I called Bev. She's worried about you, and so am I. I'm hoping to convince you to move back home. It's like a house full of ghosts back there, and I miss you like crazy."

"Too late," Katie said. "I've moved on. You should too."

"Moved on to what? An apartment the size of a closet? More painkillers? Kid, we've been through too much together to watch you die alone. To hell with Glory Beth; give her another month with the God Squad and she'll come begging us to let her return."

"It's not that, and you know it," Katie said, shoving the bouquet further away; the smell was nauseating her. "I only stayed with you for the last two years for Glory Beth's sake. Since you starting cheating."

"I told you right up front what I was doing, as you'll remember. I thought maybe now, when you're close to, you know, you'd see how silly it is to let other people stand in the way of living life on your terms. But I'll tell you what; you come back, I'll remain faithful. If that's what it takes."

"Which will make me just what you despise, right? The person who takes away your freedom? No thanks."

"So what are you going to do?" Deb's cheeks were flushed, a sign Katie had long recognized as a precursor to an angry outburst. "Hole up here until you die? For Christ's sake, there's not even anyone to find the body. You could lay here until you rot before someone knows you've passed."

"I'm working on a project," Katie said. "Believe me, there will be plenty of people know when I die."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Meditate on this. I don't want you. I don't need you. Go and sleep with anybody you want. Be free." She waved her hand toward the door.

Deb stood, frowned, shook her head. "You poor girl. Don't be afraid to call me when you need me. And you will." She left without a backward glance.


On the news that evening the murder was the lead story; given the history of the victim, there was a hint of schadenfreude in the reporter's voice. Fortunately, there was still no mention of a witness, although the reporter conjectured that the shots might have come from a van or SUV. They did suggest a possible link with the Walmart shooting.

She had expected a race between her mortality and discovery, so she wasn't all that worried that they might have pieced together a bit of the plan. The day of her death was still in her control.

The next morning, though, she woke exhausted, only then realizing she had forgotten to eat the day before. With disgust, she ate a few of the prunes from the bouquet and rinsed them down with a bottle of Ensure. It was mid-afternoon before she had the energy to browse for her next victim.

It didn't take long. Scott Van Driesen, once a wide receiver for the local university, had been caught eleven years earlier raping a coed at knife point. Since his release from prison two months before, two women had been raped by a man matching his description and method. However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the woman Van Driesen was living with, Polly Bender, who had been one of his guards in prison, insisted he'd been home with her both nights. Caught by the photographer, Van Driesen had given the most appallingly smug smile when asked if he did it.


Bender had a house in the country twenty miles west of Columbus, which magnified the difficulty. Katie assumed the sheriff's department was going to keep an eye on him, although she doubted they had the manpower to watch him around the clock. The night was once again going to be her friend.

She studied the layout on Google Earth. The house was surrounded by cornfields, the nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away. There was a lane a hundred yards to the west of the house to allow tractor access to the corn fields. Since the August heat had baked the ground dry, she presumed she could park there.

She had never made a Molotov cocktail before, but she remembered the olive oil vases that had been Deb's obsession for a while, until she discovered they were too brittle. Waiting until Deb was at work, she returned to the two-story long enough to snatch one that would hold a quart of gasoline. It was shaped like an acorn squash, easy for her to throw.

The lane through the corn was indeed bone dry; she was able to back well away from the road at 3:00 a.m. the next morning. She made her way on foot down a row of corn toward the house, the rifle over her shoulder, the gas bomb in her left hand. She nicked her earlobe on a corn leaf and it began to drip blood, but the pain disappeared into that of her ribs.

She stopped at the border between corn and lawn, laid the rifle down, and pulled out the lighter she'd brought from home, the one she used to fire up the medical marijuana that had proven so useless. She played out the steps in her mind, took a deep breath and walked quickly to the house. There she lit the fuse and, with all her remaining strength, threw it through the picture window of the living room.

As flames lit the interior of the house, she dashed back to the corn, dropped to the ground, picked up the rifle and sighted on the front door.

She was almost too slow when the two of them exited instead through the kitchen door on her side of the building. She quickly sighted on Van Driesen as he turned on the outside faucet and fumbled with the hose curled at his foot. She aimed for his back, but hit him in the head instead.

To her surprise, Bender, an older, obese woman, didn't run; instead, unthinkably, she ran in Katie's direction, shrieking. She waited as long as she could for the woman to come to her senses before dropping her with a shot to the chest only ten yards from her sniper's nest.
The fire department responded so rapidly she had to wait for them to pass by before pulling her car out of the corn and speeding away.


Every time she started to drift into sleep, Van Driesen's face, at the moment of impact, came back to her. She had thought her heart adamantine, but apparently she had a bit of work yet to do to purge herself of sentiment. And she felt repentant about Bender. The woman had been a liar and a fool but didn't deserve to die for such scum.

To her surprise, the sheriff of Sheridan County was quite open on TV that morning about what the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had found on the scene. They had recovered a shoe print from where she had approached the house, a tire print from where she parked, and a blood sample from the corn leaf on which she had cut her ear. Luckily, she was sure her DNA was not in any police database. They had matched the bullets in all three killings, though, and the television people were barely able to disguise their delight at having a serial killer to draw viewership. Even more so as the BCI had concluded from the footprint that the perp was a woman.

Katie walked into the bedroom and grabbed her father's Glock, tucked it into her waistband.


"Tell me about Glory Beth," Eric had asked during her first visit six months earlier.

"She's precocious," Katie said. "She should be, given the amount we spent on sperm."

"And your partner? Is she smart too?"

"Very much so. It's gotten so sometimes I have trouble following their conversations."

"That must be annoying, since you were the birth mother."

"I guess so. Sometimes I get the sense that Glory Beth sees Deborah as her mother, or maybe her father, or both, while I'm something else. I can't put my finger on what. A wicked aunt, maybe?"

"From what you've told me about your partner, she sounds like a person who makes people earn her respect."

"Oh, that's true. She can be downright rude to people. But not to Glory Beth. She can do no wrong in Deb's eyes."

"But not in yours."

"I can tell the girl is going to break my heart. I just don't know how."

"Did you ever consider that your ambivalent feelings about your daughter might be in part transference of your feelings about Deb?"

Katie had sat quietly mulling this over for several minutes, until the silence grew too oppressive. "How much am I paying you for this bullshit?"


She had intended to complete the plot in the morning, before the lawyers trickled off to court, but her ribs kept her up late, until she took an extra couple of Percocet. They left her drowsy until 11 a.m., and by the time she showered, dressed, and wrote out her confession, it was early afternoon.

The traffic was one thing she was not going to miss, she thought as she fought her way downtown. Luckily, the parking garage across from the firm where Deb worked had several open handicapped slots on the ground floor. Ironically, it had been Deb who convinced her to get a script for a handicapped mirror hanger.

She laid the rifle on the passenger seat, where the police were sure to find it, and used her phone to email her confession to them. She adjusted the Glock in the small of her back.

As she rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the building across the street, she realized that the outfit she was wearing, the mint-green taffeta blouse, the tailored slacks, the melon blazer, the Blahnik flats, had been bought for her by Deb. That was a mistake, but she was too far into it to return home and change.

She had never cared for the firm's receptionist, Astana Poole, a woman who had a way of looking at her that she found demeaning, unsure it if was personal or simply a strategy to put clients in their proper place, subordinate to their attorneys. Therefore, she wasn't afraid to pull the pistol as she walked up to her. The waiting area was otherwise unoccupied.

"What in the world?" Poole said, finger poised above her phone.

"Before you call 9-1-1, call Deb. Tell her I'm waiting for her. Don't tell her any more than that."

Poole, hands shaking, pressed Deborah's extension. Katie couldn't hear her answer, since Poole was wearing a headset, but was content that the woman did just as she instructed.

"Now call the cops."

Poole, puzzlement on her face, punched the number. When the police answered, she identified herself, gave the address, and said, "We have a woman in the lobby named Katie Frank holding me at gunpoint. I think she means to kill Deborah Kline, one of our attorneys."

When Poole began nodding, and Katie said, "That's enough. Hang up."

She did so. "Please don't kill me."

"You do what I tell you, you'll walk away from this. Understand?"

Poole nodded. Katie could smell the odor of urine wafting across the room, and was pretty sure her diaper was dry.

Just then, Deb came around the corner, saw the setup, and stopped. "What the hell are you doing?"

"You and I have some unfinished business." She swung the gun around to point at her ex.

"What? You're going to kill me now? Are you really that angry?"

"You cost me my daughter. Shouldn't I be?"

Deb wrapped her arms across her chest. "Elaine took Glory Beth from us. You know that."

Katie's arm was trembling. "But you provided the ammunition. It's you that deserves the punishment."

"So that's why you're going to kill me. To punish me for losing Glory Beth."

"Who said I was going to kill you? I've done far worse. I hope you enjoy going through the rest of your life known as the wife of a serial killer."

Deb was silent for a long moment. "It was you? That shot those people? That was your project?"

Katie heard Poole gasp. In the distance, she could also hear a siren. "The guidance counselor in my high school asked me once what I was going to do to leave the world a better place. I figure I've done my bit."

"I never knew you had such cruelty in you," Deb said. Katie could see the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Cruel? You haven't seen anything yet. When you think of me, I don't want you dredging up sweet memories, so here's my last gift. I want you to remember me just like this."

And with that, she raised the gun to her temple and fired.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Itsy Bitsy Spider, by Michael Bracken

I recognized Millie’s work when I saw the tattooed spider web that radiated out from Mona’s quarter-sized areola and covered her entire left breast.

“Where’s the spider?” I asked.

A coy smile tugged at the corners of Mona Peterson’s lips.

I found the spider later, tattooed at the edge of her bikini line, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair. By then, I was trapped.

Before then, though, I could have walked away. I probably should have.


She first came to my office on a wet Tuesday afternoon, her college T-shirt glued to her like a second skin, and it was obvious she was both cold and braless. I tried not to stare at the dimpling of her thin gold T-shirt as she stood on the other side of my desk and dripped on my carpet.

Her hair hung in a sodden black mop and she tucked it behind her ears before she looked around my office. When she spied a stack of business cards on the corner of my desk, she pried one off the top. Neatly thermographed on the front of the card were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She held the card close to her face while she read. When she looked up, she asked, “This you?”

I’d just deposited a few thousand in my bank account—the final payment from a philandering spouse case I’d wrapped up less than a week earlier when I’d caught the husband on video sticking it to my client’s sister on top of a picnic table in Cameron Park—and I didn’t feel charitable. I said, “Yeah, it’s me.”

She dug into the front pocket of her tight-fitting jeans and dropped a wad of green on my blotter. I carefully peeled the wad apart, discovering five waterlogged Benjamin Franklins.

“I want to hire you.”


Millard Wayne Trout—Millie of Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings—listened to the story over tacos and beer after he closed his tattoo parlor that night.

“She walked all the way from the university in the rain?”

“That’s what she said,” I told him between bites.

“Did you carry her back?”

“I offered.”

Millie wore a gray sweatshirt, leaving only the tattoos covering his hands, fingers, and shaved head visible until he pushed the sleeves up to his elbows and exposed his thick arms. 


“She said no.”

“You see where she went?”

I shook my head. My office is a single room in the back of the building, behind Millie’s 
Tattoos and Piercings. The empty suite across the hall from my office had once been occupied by a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood and, in front of it, facing the street, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Without leaving the building, I could only see the alley behind the building and the empty lot to the side.

Millie drained his beer and opened another.

Someone tapped on the window and we both turned. Standing on the sidewalk outside were two young women—blond, bouncy, and probably wasted. Millie walked to the front, unlocked the door, and pulled it opened. He stood in the open doorway to prevent the women from entering.

“We’re closed.”

“No, please. Open up for us,” said the taller of the two. “My friend wants a tattoo.”

The shorter one reached in her pocket and pulled out a wad of money. “We can pay cash.”

“Come back when you’re sober, ladies,” Millie said.

“She won’t do it when she’s sober,” protested the taller one. She looked at her friend. “Show him where you want it.”

The shorter blonde pulled down her tube-top.

“She wants it to say ‘Got Milk?’”

“When you’re sober, ladies,” Millie repeated.

“We’ll just go somewhere else!”

Millie eased the door closed. The two young women looked at each other while the shorter one pulled up her top. They staggered away.

Millie returned to the counter where we’d been eating. “Sober clients don’t have regrets,” he said. He poked through the wrappers and found the last taco. “I hate it when they come back crying.”


The next morning, after a quick Internet search and a few phone calls, I drove to the university and parked in one of the visitor lots. I hadn’t been on campus in months and it took a while to wend my way through all the new construction. I finally found Mona’s English professor in his office, half-hidden behind a pile of books.

He looked up when I closed the door behind me. “May I help you?”

I settled into the only unoccupied seat, rested my elbows on the arms, and steepled my fingers in front of my chest. “That depends.”


“How well you know Mona Peterson.”

Color slowly drained from his face. “You related?”

I nodded. “We can trace our relationship back to Benjamin Franklin.” Quintuplet Benjamin Franklins.

His eyes narrowed. “What did she tell you?”

“What matters is what I tell you,” I said. “You don’t contact Mona again. She gets an A in your course. I hear different, I come back to visit you.”

He sat up a little straighter. “You can’t do anything to me,” he said. “I have tenure.”

“You might keep your tenure,” I explained, “but you won’t keep your balls.”

I let myself out of his office and returned to my Chevy.


Lester Beeson had taken over Big Mac’s Bail Bonds twenty-seven years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face. Lester was sitting behind his desk thumbing through a stack of file folders when I stepped into his office. He looked up, saw me, and pulled a folder from the middle of the stack. He tossed it across the desk.

“This guy’s become a pain in my ass.”

I flipped the folder open and looked at an average Joe, the kind of guy who worked every minute of overtime the company offered so he could pay for the bass boat he used as an excuse to get away from some shrew of a wife.

“His name’s Carl Weaver. He lives with his wife in Hubbard.” Lester gave me the address. 

“He don’t answer when I call, and the employer I have listed in his file says he ain’t shown up for work in a month.”


“I need to see him in my office. I want some reassurance that he hasn’t skipped.”


Millie left his shop in the capable hands of Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired a year earlier, and he rode with me to Hubbard, a small town about thirty miles northeast of Waco.

Weaver lived in a one-bedroom frame house near the cemetery, and only one car occupied the driveway. I dropped Millie in the alley where he could watch the back of the house, and I found a convenient place to watch the front.

Weaver arrived home nearly an hour later, parked his pickup truck next to the car, and went inside. Thirty minutes later, his wife exited the house, climbed into her car, and drove away.
I called Millie’s cellphone. When he answered, I said, “He’s alone in there. Let’s go get him.”

“About time,” Millie responded. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

I went through the front door and Millie came in through the back. We met in the living room and quickly realized we were alone in the house. We discovered why when we found the clothes Weaver had been wearing strewn across the bed, three wig stands—only two of which held wigs—on the dresser, and a selection of women’s clothes suitable for a large woman or a man of Weaver’s size.

“Think he’s really married?” Millie asked.

Although we found a lot of make-up, we found no feminine products. “If he ever was,” I said, “he isn’t now.”

Millie and I left things pretty much as we found them and walked out to my Chevy. We drove to a small cafe, ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee. While we ate, a young couple sat at a table near us. The woman wore low-slung jeans that exposed the T-bar of her thong and the tramp stamp above the crack of her ass.

Millie jerked his thumb at the woman’s tattoo. “Whoever did that should break all his needles and quit the business. I do better work when I’m blind drunk.”

“Why do they do it?”

“People get tattoos for all sorts of reasons,” Millie said. “I do a lot of ugly people who would be better off spending the money on dental work and plastic surgery. And I do eighteen-year-olds rebelling against their parents who will probably regret it when they grow up to be soccer moms and Boy Scout dads.”

I looked at Millie. Every part of his body that I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos. I wondered where he fit in.

After we finished dinner, Millie and I returned to Weaver’s house. We waited in my Chevy until Weaver’s return at half past midnight, and we were tired and not in the mood for subtlety.

For a second time, Millie went through the back door and I went through the front. We caught Weaver standing in his bedroom wearing only a bra and panties. He tried to resist until Millie planted a fist in his gut. We threw a blanket over him and grabbed some clothes. We walked him to my car, where he sat in back next to Millie and pulled on the clothes we’d grabbed for him.

On the return trip to Waco, I phoned Lester and told him we had Weaver. I said, “You could have told me he’s a cross-dresser.”

Lester laughed. “He must be one ugly woman.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

The bail bondsman met us at his office fifteen minutes later.

“How’m I going to get home?” Weaver asked.

“Not our problem,” I told him as I left with Lester. I knew the guy probably wasn’t going home, and where he was going his choice of underthings would not work in his favor.

After we left Lester’s office, Millie slipped into his car—a 1965 Mustang he’d rescued from a 
junkyard—and I went home.


Mona Peterson returned to my office at the beginning of the Christmas break. She carried a backpack and said she had no family with whom to spend the holidays. She said she wanted to thank me for taking care of her problem earlier in the semester.

I told her that the quintuplets had already shown their appreciation.

“The university won’t let students stay in the dorms during Christmas break.” I waited while Mona’s gaze traveled around my office before settling on my face. “I can’t go home and I can’t afford a motel. I gave you all the money I had.”

Clients always have sad stories or they wouldn’t need to hire guys like me. “I don’t give refunds.”

“No,” she said. “I suppose not. I wouldn’t ask for one.”

I waited.

“It’s just that—” She sucked her lower lip between her teeth and chewed on it.

I knew where Mona was headed, and I let her lead me there.

“Do you know any place I might stay?”

I did. I had a two-bedroom brick ranch just off of New Road and I took her there. The second bedroom had become a large walk-in closet filled with storage boxes and dust bunnies, so I prepared a place for her on the couch while she showered. I used floral print sheets and a pink blanket I hadn’t removed from the linen closet since my divorce.

After I finished preparing the couch, I retrieved a beer from the fridge, sat in my favorite chair in the living room, and nursed it.

When Mona stepped from the bathroom, she was wearing a white bath towel wrapped twice around her and was drying her hair with a second towel.

She looked at the makeshift bed and at me. “That’s not what I had in mind.”

Mona dropped one towel. Then she dropped the other. That’s when I saw the spider-web tattoo that covered her entire left breast. I gagged on my beer. When I recovered, I asked, “Where’s the spider?”

A coy smile tugged at the corners of my client’s lips as she crossed the room.

I shifted position but couldn’t hide my reaction to her nakedness. She straddled my lap and gyrated her hips ever so slowly.

One hand still held the beer. The other held tight to the arm of the chair. I said, “We 
shouldn’t do this.”

Mona continued gyrating her hips as she leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine. 

They were soft and parted easily to allow our tongues to meet.

I dropped my beer, wrapped my arms around her, and carried her into the bedroom.

When I buried my face between her thighs, I saw the spider, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair, so small I could only see it close up. Before I had a chance to react, Mona grabbed the back of my head and thrust her pubic bone against my nose.

I had not been with a woman her age since I had been a man her age. I had forgotten how energetic they could be, and we found several ways to pleasure one another. When we finished, Mona turned away, curled into a fetal ball, and fell asleep.

After I slid out of bed, I padded barefoot and naked into the living room, where I picked up the half-empty beer bottle I’d dropped before carrying Mona to bed. I used an old towel to soak up the spilled beer. Then I opened a fresh bottle and drank it while contemplating the meaning of Mona’s tattoo and the web she had spun for her English professor.


I returned to the office three days later, did nothing most of the morning, and accepted Millie’s invitation to lunch at the wing place down the street.

Millie stared hard at the blonde seated two tables away. “That’s the perfect canvas,” he said. “Smooth alabaster skin, nearly hairless.”

I told him about Mona’s spider web and that it seemed like his work.

“The spider web?” Millie said. “I’ve only done one like it, must have been a year ago, maybe two. The girl looked so young I made her show I.D. She came alone, paid cash before I started, and never once complained about the process. Some of those college girls can be real whiners.”

“Ever see her again?”

“She came back once, a few months after I did the work, said she needed a place to stay during Spring Break. I was shacked up with Bridget at the time or I might have offered her the couch at my place.”

“She’s not satisfied with the couch.”

“I wouldn’t think so, not a girl like her,” Millie said with a smile. Then the smile faded. “You 

I nodded. “I’ve seen the spider.”

“Moe Ron, Moe Ron, Moe Ron.” Only Millie called me that, and this time the nickname fit. “She’s not much older than your son. You should know better.”

“I should.”

“Where is she now?”

“I left her at the mall,” I said. “There’s no way I’m leaving her alone in my house.”

“At least you got that part right.”


I needn’t have bothered. Mona was waiting for me when I returned home that evening, sitting in my favorite chair with an open beer in her hand, wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. Only a single button kept the shirt closed.

“How many people did you rough up today?” she asked.

“None,” I said. I didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten in because the back door key lay on the coffee table next to the day’s mail, and I knew if I checked my key ring I would be short one key.

“Well, you did all right by me,” she said. “I checked my grades this afternoon. Straight A’s.”
Mona’s English professor had come through. How she’d earned her other high marks I hadn’t a clue until she undid the button and let the shirt fall open.

“I think we should celebrate.”


Lester Beeson caught me on my way to my office the next morning. “Weaver skipped again,” he said. “He’s in the wind.”

I walked up front to find Millie collecting payment from a biker with a face like a Shar-Pei and a fresh tattoo depicting a winged unicorn flying over a rainbow. After his customer walked out the door, Millie explained, “Said it was for his daughter.”

“Can you get free? Weaver’s on the loose again and Lester’s not happy.”

Millie called to Alice and told her to take care of things. We were walking around back of the building to our cars when Mona showed up. She said, “I’m lonely.”

“I have to go,” I told her. “We have a job.”

“I don’t like being left alone,” Mona said. “Let me go with you.”

“You’ll get in the way.”

As she sucked on her lower lip, I glanced at Millie. He shrugged.

I said, “Get in the back.”

She did, and soon we were headed north out of Waco. As we passed through Bellmead, I glanced at Mona in the rearview mirror. “Millie says he did your ink.”

“How do you think I found you?” Mona said. “I saw your sign that night.”


We followed Weaver’s trail until we found him sitting in a well-lit diner in Corsicana, dressed as the ugly broad he’d been when we first encountered him. When he saw us push through the diner’s front door, he dashed into the women’s restroom, a place Millie and I dared not go with so many people watching us.

“I’ll go out back,” Millie said, “make sure he doesn’t climb out a window.”

Mona didn’t say anything. She just pushed past us and marched directly into the women’s restroom. We heard a rather guttural scream of pain, and she came out a moment later with Weaver’s blond wig in one hand and his scrotum in the other. On his tiptoes, Weaver minced along behind her.

The other patrons of the diner stared at the four of us, but none of them interfered as Millie grabbed the back of Weaver’s neck and marched him out to my car. Mona followed. I grabbed Weaver’s purse from the booth where he’d been sitting, dug through it, and tossed some money on the table next to his half-eaten meal. Then I joined the other three outside.
Mona sat in the passenger seat and Millie sat in back with Weaver. After I slipped into the driver’s seat, I turned and looked at our collar. “You’re costing Lester a lot of money,” I said. “I won’t be surprised if he tries to revoke your bond this time.”

“He can’t do that.”

Weaver didn’t deserve a response, so I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, headed home to Waco. None of us spoke until we handed Weaver off to Lester Beeson, and we walked out of Beeson’s office as he began reading Weaver the riot act.
Millie returned to his tattoo parlor and Mona followed me into my office. As I settled behind my desk, she perched on the corner and did that thing with her bottom lip.

After a bit, she said, “Christmas is coming.”


“What are you getting me?”

“A place to stay isn’t enough?”

“You haven’t even put up a tree!”

“How about we pick one out tonight?”

She liked that idea. “Maybe I should go home and rearrange the living room so we have a place to put it,” she said. “Call me a cab, Moe Ron.”


Later, over beer, I told Millie I couldn’t stay long because I was going Christmas tree shopping. Then we talked about what had happened that afternoon, about how Mona had walked Carl Weaver out of the women’s restroom.

“She’s got hold of yours, too,” Millie said.

I had been about to take a drink, but I stopped. “How’s that?”

“What do you know about Mona?”

“She hired me to—”

“To scare off the previous man in her life.”

“You think I’m taking advantage of her?” I asked. “I’m not in any position of authority. I don’t have any impact on her grades.”

“You don’t? How’d she ace the English class?”

I lowered my beer.

“Maybe you aren’t taking advantage of her,” Millie said, “but she’s sure as hell taking advantage of you.”

I stared at him.

“Christmas tree shopping? Really?”

I glared at him for a moment before I pushed my chair back and stood. “I have to go.”
He waved me away. “Make like an angel and bend over,” he said, “’cause you know you’re gong to take it up the ass when this is all over.”


Mona had moved some of the living room furniture, opening up space by the front window. 

She said, “I think a tree will look nice right there.”

She was right, it did. That evening, after I had the tree secure in the stand, I dug through the closet in the second bedroom for ornaments I hadn’t used since my wife walked out. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my ex had taken all the good ones, and what remained was inadequate to the task of decoration. I said something to that effect.

“That’s all right,” Mona said. “I think the tree looks fine.”

I strung the only two strands of twinkling lights that still functioned, and we sat on the 
couch staring at them.

As she snuggled into the crook of my arm, I asked, “Why are you here? Why couldn’t you go home for the holidays?”

“My father doesn’t want me around. He says I get in the way.”

“What does your father do that you get in the way?”

Mona didn’t answer my question, but asked one of her own, “What about your son? Why isn’t he here for Christmas?”

I had told her about my divorce, but not about my son. His absence was not by my choice, and I had long since come to terms with our non-existent relationship. I didn’t let her question distract me from my questions. “And why couldn’t you afford to go somewhere else when the dorm closed for the holiday?”

“I don’t get my allowance until the first of the month.”


“I have a trust fund,” she said. “My expenses are paid directly by the trust, and once a month I get some walking-around money. This month, all of it walked around without me.”

“What about friends? Couldn’t you have spent the time with friends?”

Her hand slid up my thigh. “I thought you were my friend.”


Lester Beeson caught my attention as I entered the building two days before Christmas.
“Weaver hung himself.”

“I thought you had his bond revoked.”

“I did,” Beeson said. “Jailers found him in his cell this morning. He was scheduled for sentencing today. He was looking at three to five inside.”

“A man like him wouldn’t last long.”

“He must have known it.”

I had never bothered to ask what Weaver had done because I wasn’t paid to care. Even so, hearing of his suicide put a damper on my day, and my trip to the jewelry store later that day wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped.


The next afternoon, as I prepared to head home to spend Christmas Eve with Mona, a man built like a defensive lineman pushed into my office, interrupting my examination of the Christmas gift I planned to give her. When I saw the butt of a semi-automatic hanging in a shoulder holster beneath his unbuttoned jacket, I shoved the gift in my desk drawer.
He asked, “Do you know Mona Peterson?”

“That depends.”

“Humor me,” he said. He closed the door behind him. “Let’s say you do.”


“So now you forget her.”

“Why’s that?”

“Her father insists.”

“And who’s her father?”

He rested his knuckles on my desk and leaned in close enough that I could smell the onions on his breath.

“Mona likes to toy with stupid fucks like you,” he said. “You get a piece of that young stuff and you think you’re in love. She’ll chew you up, spit you out, and replace you with another stupid fuck. I’m saving you the grief by taking her off your hands now.”

I didn’t appreciate being told what to do, so I made a move. I thrust my hand under his jacket and grabbed the butt of his semi-automatic.

Before the pistol even cleared leather, my visitor drove a fist into the center of my face, smashing my nose and driving me backward. If my office hadn’t been so small, I might have crashed to the floor. As it was, the chair tipped backward and caught between the wall and the desk, leaving me waving my arms and legs in the air like an upended spider.

“I guess it’s already too late for you.” He peeled five Benjamins from his wallet and tossed them on my desk. “This oughtta cover your pain and suffering.”

He was gone before I could right myself, and by the time I reached the front of the building he was nowhere in sight.

Millie stepped out of his shop and joined me at the curb. He looked at the blood still streaming from my nose and put the pieces together. “Your visitor left in a stretch limo.”

“You catch the plate number?”

He shook his head. “No, but when the door opened I saw Mona sitting inside.”

“Anyone else?”

He named a state senator whose last name didn’t match Mona’s. Before I could grasp the implication, he added, “Come into the shop. I’ll get a wet towel and we can clean you up.”
When I returned home that afternoon, Mona’s backpack was gone. So were half the Christmas tree ornaments. I hung her gift from the tree—a ruby-eyed gold spider on a chain—and stared at it as the twinkling Christmas lights reflected eerily from its eyes. Then I drank myself to sleep.


The Friday after Christmas, Millie and I were discussing tattoos and sharing nachos at George’s, half-empty Big O’s in front of us, when Mona’s English professor stopped at our table. I said, “Yeah?”

“Was she worth it?”

I couldn’t answer his question, not then, so he turned and walked away. I watched him take the arm of a woman closer to his own age as they pushed through the door.
Millie and I resumed our conversation about tattoos, specifically about Mona’s.

I said, “That spider was pretty small.”

“I’ve done smaller.”


“The smallest tattoo I ever did was for a writer,” Millie said. “He had me tattoo a period on his ass.”

I didn’t want to know why.